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That night was the Halloween Ball. The first-years didn’t get to stay beyond the first hour, but that was enough time to get in a little dancing.

“You dance divinely,” Angelica said to Rachel.

“Oh, you too, deah,” said Rachel. Neither of them had a date. Angelica couldn’t help noticing several of the Maroon girls dancing laughingly with Andrew. “It almost looks like Ahir has taught Arnulf to dance.”

“No,” said Angelica, “she’s just given him reason to learn.”

“Natalie’s dancing with Pindar,” said Rachel. “Anything serious there?”

“No, it’s just a friend date.”

“I love your dad, by the way,” said Rachel. “He’s quite the dancer.”

Vladimir and Audrey were dancing all around the floor, and both KC and Marga Shaheen were in line for a turn with him. Nearby, Daphne and Spiny were dancing some sort of Amazon tango even to the strains of K. C. and the Sunshine Band.

The song ended and Ash and White started rounding up the first-years. “That couldn’t have ended fast enough,” Cloud was saying.

“Aw, poor boy,” said Angelica, “did you get forced to dance?”

“No,” said Cloudius, “I managed to escape that, but if it had gone on much longer my luck would’ve run out for sure.”

 

The next morning, of course, Vladimir took everyone he could get his hands on out to breakfast, including Ash and the house ghost. This place was different: they had it to themselves, except for spirit helpers doing the cooking and serving. There were no windows, and when, eventually, the doors opened to admit other customers, a chill stale wind blew in. The customers were a male and a female, both dressed in chain mail and carrying swords that they did not sheathe until the door closed behind them.

“It’s Valen,” Angelica explained in a low voice.

“Hey Daph,” said Spiny, “want to sneak down to the level below? I heard a legend—!”

“Hey, yeah,” said Daphne. “I’ll go if Arn—!”

“Forget it,” said Arnulf.

Audrey looked over at them. Vladimir was holding forth, but Angelica could feel her mom’s glare. She looked up and Audrey said, quietly, glancing across Daphne, Arnulf and Spiny and catching all their eyes as well, “Don’t even think it.”

“Darn right,” said Arnulf. “We need Daph for the playoffs.”

 

The families went home, the hubbub died down, and Sunday evening looked like a night full of studying. But Arnulf looked up in the library at about 4 pm, and Ahir was looking at him from across the table. It looked like they were going to waste the next three hours, yet again, walking through the neighborhood.

This was exciting only to them for the first two hours, mostly spent strolling about a cemetery a few blocks from the lyceum campus.

“Scary when they talk about Clerica,” said Ahir.

“Yeah,” said Arnulf, “there’s plenty of stuff to be scared about. The Most Powerful Wizard, the segments, the Maroons, all those Indian tunnels, what’s under the field museum—!”

“Take it from me,” said Ahir, “the clerics can be worse than any of those, if they get together. And it can be bad to be in the room with them when they fight each other.”

“Ha, Jerry Falwell, Tammy Faye Bakker,” said Arnulf.

“Don’t jest! The Church. All the Churches. Thousands of true believers, all trained to fight to the death.” They stopped while she said this. She looked up at him. “And so on, you know.”

“You’re so cute when you’re into it,” said Arnulf, who couldn’t believe he was hearing his own voice.

“Oh, you’re cute too, Arnulf,” Ahir started to say, but she was drowned out by sudden grumbling.

Three figures were forming out of the shadows around them. They seemed like real people, if very shabby ones, and they carried blunt weapons: a club, a night stick, a set of numchaku. Their faces were hard to see.

“What the heck are you?” asked Arnulf. They didn’t answer.

“Spirit punks,” whispered Ahir. “Someone must have sent them. It’s an MCV thing.”

A moment later sparks of magic force crisscrossed the stretch of sidewalk. One of the punks punctured and deflated like a balloon made of rags. Arnulf went “Oof!” and fell down onto his butt, and then toppled backward. The one that knocked him out turned and was caught by Ahir’s look, and found itself blasted from the universe.

Ahir turned to check the third spirit punk, just in time to see it blast toward her, disintegrating. Where it was, she could see the outline of a fat cat—and a boy of twelve.

“No alarms,” said Tom Hexane. “Do you need help?”

“No, thanks,” said Ahir. “I’ll get him back to the house.”

“Okay,” said Tom, “it was a good time for a minute there, huh?” He and the cat hurried on toward the school building.

Ahir bent down to Arnulf. “Are you okay? Should I call him back to help?”

“No, no,” said Arnulf, “I’ll be fine. Just let me catch my breath a moment.”

“Oh, sure,” said Ahir, sitting on the ground next to him. “I can catch my breath too.” She smiled down at him. She bent toward him, still smiling, looking down. She bent down further, her big brown eyes wide open, the smile fading: closer, closer, as if she was inspecting his nose. Her lips reached out to his. She kissed him, once, too quick, and then again, more slowly and thoughtfully. She sat up, beside him where he lay on his back, his arms and legs splayed as if he had fallen from the sky.

“That’s not helping me catch my breath,” he said.

“It’s not helping?”

“But I think it was helping.”

“Mmm,” she said after another kiss.

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