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Rituals (Feathers and Flames)

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Gillian perches like a bird with her angel wings. She's a breath from leaping into the air, fingers and toes barely touching the surface of the table, her red-gold hair a spill of color along her shoulders.

Sally wears wings too, but she sits properly in her chair and her feet press against the floor, solid, rooted in this home and this moment, her magic warm across her lips.

When Gillian turns to watch the aunts leave the room, answering the call for their magic, a white feather twists free and drifts on a current of air Sally cannot feel. It spins and circles and lands, lighter than imaginable, on the windowsill.

*

A bird, gray-white like dirty snow, lands on the windowsill.

The candles flicker as Sally turns to look, her hair swinging across her back, dark as the shadows in the corners of the room. She never binds it back now, not with the magic flowing through her. Braids and ribbons and ties, those are means of control, and she needs nothing of the sort.

"Shoo it away," Aunt Jet says, her dress floating around her, skimming the top of her bare feet, her wavy hair settling over her shoulders.

"Why?" Kylie asks and fingers the beads circling her throat, lines of dark colors and a tigers eye charm resting right in the center of her collar bone.

"Bad luck." Aunt Jet smooths her hands across their magic book. The pages are worn and yellowed with age and her fingers are wrinkled. For all that the aunts never seem to age, it has caught up with them in tiny moments.

Antonia rushes to the window and flaps her hands at the bird. It takes wing but, impossibly, incredulously, hovers for a moment, staring at them, its wings buffeting the closed window. Antonia stares back at it, her dark eyes wide.

"What kind of bad luck does it bring?" Kylie asks.

Aunt Jet looks to Sally, who shrugs and rubs the palm of her hand. Her scar itches.

"Just bad luck, my dear." Aunt Jet gathers Kylie to her and motions Antonia over. "Practice with your candles, darling girls." Her voice is sweet, soothing, but her gaze sharp when she looks to Sally.

"I'm going to call Gillian," Sally says, though it is unnecessary. Aunt Jet will have guessed or, perhaps, had the same thought, because where Gillian is so is Aunt Frances. They're okay, they are. Nothing is wrong. She'd know, otherwise. They're sisters, and sisters just know, at least the sisters in this family.

Gillian is fine. Still, Sally has to check.

*

Gillian sucks white chocolate from her fingers. "Needs more peppermint." She grins at Sally and dips her fingers into the gooey melted mix again. "And maybe some bits of dark chocolate?"

Sally whacks her wrist with the ancient wooden spoon she wields. "Stop that! And no dark chocolate. Go make your own treats if you want that."

She laughs. "Fine, fine, how about a chocolate martini?"

"Sounds good." Sally tastes it for herself. Gillian's right. She carefully measures out more peppermint and stirs it into the mix. Bowls of pretzels and candies are lined up, waiting to be dipped.

Gillian sets a gorgeous, gigantic chocolate martini on the table near the bowl. "Drink up," she orders and tilts back her own glass. "It's no midnight margarita, but it's tasty fun."

Sally sips hers. It is delicious, even though the kick of the alcohol makes her throat burn.

"It's almost sunset. When are the aunts supposed to be back with the girls?" Gillian perches on the end of the table, momentarily still. Even when she sits, her body looks ready to spring into motion again.

"Soon. Before sunset." Sally spoons some of the white chocolate peppermint mix into a bowl and hands it to Gillian along with a fresh metal spoon, not that she'll use it. "We'll get to do our ritual."

"Well of course we will." Gillian laughs and sticks her fingers into the bowl. "Just hope the girls do too. It's not every day their mean old mommy lets them participate."

"Shut up." Sally flings a pretzel at her, but can't stop the smile. "Just because I want them to do their homework and brush their teeth and at least sometimes eat something healthy doesn't make me a mean mommy."

"It absolutely does." Gillian alternates white chocolate from her fingers and big sips of her drink. Sally watches her a second and decides that's a great idea. She turns the burner on low so the white chocolate will stay melty and spoons some out into a bowl for herself.

The front door slams open. "We're home," Aunt Jet trills and the four of them sweep into the kitchen, bringing a burst of cold fresh air and bright excitement.

Kylie rubs the corner of her mouth. "My lips itch," she says, and scratches again. "Mom, I need some of your special chapstick."

"I've got some," Gillian points her foot at her bag hanging over the back of the chair. "Help yourself."

"Your lips itch?" Aunt Frances's grin is wicked. "Soon you'll be kissing someone."

"Eww, no!" Antonia cries and grabs her sister's arm. "Don't do it!"

"Listen to her," Sally advises. "You're too young to be kissing."

"Oh, Sally, no she's not." Gillian beams. "I loved kissing at your age, Kylie."

"You love kissing now," Aunt Frances laughs and snatches a bite of Gillian's snack.

"True."

Aunt Jet flutters her hands at them all. "Grab your candles, girls, it's time to get started."

Gillian leaps off the table, light as a bird, light as a feather on the wind, and the girls bounce around her, giddy and laughing and beautiful.

Sally knows how lucky she is, caught in this whirl of family, aunts and daughters and, bright as a flame, her sister true.

They take their candles out into the yard where the sun is setting and shadows climb from the water. Night comes, the coldest of the year, and the stand and face it, blowing magic fire onto their candles. They will burn all night, an offering of magic and of self, and they will hope all night long that the sun will rise.

It will, of course, but the joy of the ritual isn't in whether they bring back the sun, it's in these moments together, magic on their tongues, fire growing between their hands, melting wax that will, if they let it, drip onto their fingers but not burn their skin.

*

Gary carries Antonia up to bed, Kylie at his heels, yawning big and wide. The aunts sit together, drinking wine and eating fresh chocolates. Gillian perches on the end of the table near them, her feet swinging free, hair bouncy and shiny in the light. She has chocolate smeared on her lips.

"Come sit, Sally," Aunt Jet says and holds out her hand. "Relax."

Magic buzzes between them, warming her skin, and Sally goes to join her family, the girls upstairs like her past, the aunts her future, vibrant and smart, and smiling at her, walking the path by her side always, Gillian.

Her blood pumps through her veins and for a heartbeat, Sally imagines she can feel it pulse beneath Gillian's skin and the warmth of the scar that binds them the way they're already bound by magic and by blood.

She takes her glass of wine and settles into the chair, warmed by all they are and all they will be.