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Dance Macabre

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1: A Family Discussion

All was not well in the Piper household.

Gwen folded her arms, glaring at her eldest daughter. Marnie mirrored the gesture as she glared back. Marnie had grown several inches over the course of the year and was now capable of looking her mother squarely in the eye -- an ability she was taking full advantage of, now that she felt she was being unfairly denied. Unfortunately for her, Gwen had spent her own teenage years glaring at her mother, and there’s nothing that teaches you to withstand disapproval like the glare of a full-fledged Cromwell witch.

 

Of course, thought Gwen wryly, technically Marnie could say the same thing about growing up with her.

“I said you’re going and that means that you’re going. Period, end of discussion, this conversation is over.”

“I don’t want to go to some stupid dance!” Marnie snapped, cool fury dissolving in the face of her teenage temper. Gwen relaxed slightly. She was better at dealing with her eldest daughter when Marnie was acting like a normal human kid -- something she didn’t do nearly enough anymore.

Marnie wasn’t finished: “Why do I have to do this?”

“Firstly, because it isn’t just ‘some stupid dance’’; this is your Senior Prom, something that’s only going to happen once in your lifetime, and--”

“Susie Lynch went to the Senior Prom twice.”

“Susie Lynch repeated twelfth grade, and the last time I checked, you were still intending to graduate on time so that you could enroll in Witch U., get your magical degree, and go to study with your grandmother in Halloweentown. Unless you’ve changed your mind?” Gwen smiled thinly. She was fully aware that Marnie had no intention of staying in high school, or the mortal world, for one minute longer than she had to.

When her attempts to keep her children restricted to the mortal world and a normal human life failed, Gwen Piper found herself with a whole new set of problems. Raising three children alone after the death of her husband had been hard enough: raising two budding witches and an unwilling warlock was even worse.

Of course, there were also a few advantages to the situation. Although she remained largely unwilling to use magic in her daily life, having a daughter who could fly made sweeping the ceiling a lot easier--and threatening to withhold Marnie’s magic lessons usually ended even the most drawn-out household fights. It was a low tactic, but sometimes you had to stoop to low tactics if you wanted to stay on top of things.

Of her three children, only Dylan understood that she was trying to give them the one thing she’d never been allowed to have: a normal childhood in a normal world, without creatures and magic and madness to confuse them. They deserved the chance to live like real people, not pages out of a storybook, before they decided which of the worlds they wanted to live in. She’d been forced to admit that they had a choice, especially after Marnie and Sophie changed the way the world worked, propping the door to Halloweentown open all year long...but that didn’t mean she was giving up on them.

They were going to get the chance to be normal, whether they wanted it or not.

“I don’t understand why this is so important to you,” Marnie muttered, anger subsiding.

“Look, Marnie. I let you run that exchange program to bring Halloweentown students into the mortal world, didn’t I? I even let them stay here with us.”

And you used magic, and it all turned out for the best.”

“Whether that’s true or not, we had a deal. You got what you wanted; now it’s my turn to get what I want. And what I want is for you to go to the Senior Prom.”

“It’s still not fair.”

“Yet--surprise--you’re still going. You’ll have a great time, I promise. We’ll get you a nice new dress, something that’s not black, and rent a limousine and everything. It’ll be just like it is in all the movies, you’ll see.”

Carrie was a movie.”

Gwen sighed. “Just once, please, can’t you act like a normal teenage girl? You should be excited about prom, not looking at it like it’s a chore. You’re going. Be happy about it.”

There were no proms in Halloweentown. Silently, Marnie cursed John Hughes for giving her mother such stupidly romantic expectations. “Great, Mom. And while you’re out here enjoying your...your sick fairy godmother kick, I’ll be in my room. Alone.”

“Marnie, don’t be silly. How can I be a fairy godmother? I don’t even have wings.”

“Whatever.” Marnie turned on her heel and flounced away.

Gwen waited until she heard Marnie’s bedroom door slam, then collapsed backward onto the couch. “Oh, Mother,” she said, staring at the ceiling. “I know you’re only trying to make sure the Cromwell line continues to protect your world, but there are times when I wish my family was still normal, like we were before you fell back into our lives. That’s all I wanted us to be.

“Just normal.”

#

Interlude: Making Wishes.

The crystal flared, glittering with a soft white glow that filled the black quartz spire from within. The light pulled back into itself almost as fast as it had come, casting the room back into darkness--and yet, at the heart of the crystal, the faintest of sparks remained.

“That’s one.” The voice was a soft, languid hiss, more a whisper than anything real or solid.

The woman who sat in front of the crystal, watching it intently, raised her head and directed a warm smile into the darkness. “That means we only have three to go, my love.”

“And we only require two of them...”

The woman’s smile brightened further. “This may not take as long as we thought.” She turned her attention back toward the crystal, falling silent as she settled in to wait. Something rustled in the darkness, and she smiled again, saying only, “Have patience. It won’t be long.

“Not long at all.”

#

2: Looks Aren’t Everything.

“I hate this!” Marnie threw her hat toward the rack on the wall as she flopped onto her bed, landing facedown in the pillow. The hat fell short, and one of the rack’s narrow wooden arms extended, twisting around to seize the hat and pull it back into place before it could touch the ground. Marnie didn’t even notice. “I’d rather face the Council again, on trial for treason, than go through with this stupid farce. It’s a travesty of justice! Why do I have to go to some stupid senior prom, anyway? It’s just going to be like every other awful dance at that awful school. Paper flowers all over the gym, and the same stupid people that I see every single stupid day of my stupid normal stupid life.”

“Mom says you have to go because it’s a vital part of the normal human high school experience. She says she’s going to make me go, too, when I’m old enough.” Sophie perched on Marnie’s desk chair, watching her sister warily. Marnie’s mood swings had always been impressive, and they’d only gotten worse over the past few years, since her witchy nature was revealed to the school and her social life--what little social life she’d bothered to maintain in the mortal world, which, well, had never been all that interesting to her--went through the floor. Losing her mortal boyfriend had been just about the last straw, but Cody didn’t have much of a choice; when his parents put their feet down about him dating a witch, the relationship was over before it could really begin.

Sophie knew that she was treading on dangerous ground, and she didn’t relish the thought of being in the room if the focus of Marnie’s anger shifted from Mom’s unreasonableness and onto her little sister. Still, she loved Marnie, for all that she was a stupid teenage know-it-all, and she wanted the best for her. And for her to stop shouting.

To Sophie’s surprise and mild dismay, Marnie didn’t yell. She just lifted her head, expression tired, and said, “News flash, Sophie: none of us are exactly having the ‘normal human high school experience’ as it is. Our grandmother’s a witch and is on-again, off-again dating the principal, which is probably the only reason the PTA hasn’t demanded we be thrown out of the school; I’m the current heir to the Cromwell family name, which, gee, that makes me real popular, both with the cheerleading squad and the forces of darkness, and I spend half my time in a place called Halloweentown that most people don’t even believe exists. How is a single prom suddenly going to turn me normal?”

“All that, and you don’t have a date.”

“No, I don’t have a date, thank you so much for reminding me,” Marnie snapped. “No one in my school would be caught dead at the prom with ‘Marnie the witch’, even if their parents would let them take me. Which, golly gee, they wouldn’t. The kids in my class are probably already taking bets on whether or not I’m going to show up on my broomstick.”

“It would be cheaper than a limousine,” Sophie said, and shrugged. “Anyway, you can find a date if you really want one. I know somebody that would be glad to go with you.”

“What? Who?” Marnie pushed herself up onto her elbows, staring at her little sister. Cody had dumped her for being a witch, and her only real “date” before him had been with Kal, the next door neighbor who turned out to be the son of Kalabar, sworn enemy of the entire Cromwell clan. Those experiences had combined to leave her more than a little wary, and when you combined “once bitten, twice shy” with the suspicion of the other students, her somewhat unusual field of interests and her extended after-school studies, well...

Marnie didn’t get out much anymore.

“He’s funny and smart, he does the right thing in a pinch, and he really, really likes you a lot...” This was the part Sophie was worried about: the sales pitch. She was also so tired of listening to Marnie whine that she was ready to try just about anything to make it stop. Near as she could tell, the worst thing about being a teenager was the willingness to wallow in your own angst for weeks at a time, and she was sick of it.

Marnie’s expression hardened as she listened to Sophie listing the virtues of this unnamed paragon. Finally, she broke in, demanding, “Sophie, who?”

“Luke.” Sophie looked her sister squarely in the face, her own expression grave. “I think you should take Luke to the prom.”

“You can’t be serious!” said Marnie, staring at her. “He’s--”

“Your friend.”

“But he--”

“Luke’s had a crush on you since the first time we went to Halloweentown. Remember, back when he was working for Kalabar and pretending to be human?”

“Yeah. I also remember that as soon as he stopped trying to look human, he turned right back into a goblin.”

“So after all that talk about equality and coming out of the shadows and us being just like everybody else, you’re telling me that looks are all that matters?”

Marnie stared at her for a moment. “That’s not what I meant!”

“But it’s what you said.”

“I...” Marnie paused. It was true that Luke was a goblin. His skin was lumpy and distinctly greenish, and his hair was a shade of orange that wasn’t normally found in nature. By strictly human standards, he wasn’t very attractive. Of course, she couldn’t really judge him by strictly human standards, and by goblin standards, he was pretty much a hottie.

And it was also true that he’d helped her every time she needed him, even when helping her was dangerous for both of them. He’d even crossed into the human world, something that terrified him, and he’d done it for her.

He was kind and smart and funny, and...

“He really likes me?” she asked, plaintively.

Sophie nodded. “He really likes you. Everyone knows. Even Grandma knows.”

“Grandma?!” Marnie’s eyes went wide. Maybe that was why Agatha had been so against her getting friendly with Cody, back when it was an option. It wasn’t like she was a racist--her own boyfriend was human. It was just that she’d been rooting for Luke all along.

“Yeah. She wasn’t going to tell you, because she said these things always work out better when people figure it out themselves.” A roll of her eyes stated exactly what Sophie thought of that idea. “But you need a date or Mom’s gonna flip out. So I thought I’d go ahead and tell you anyway.”

Marnie sagged, suddenly remembering her mother’s involvement in the situation. “And taking a goblin to the Senior Prom is going to go over much better than not having a date at all?”

“Duh, no one has to know that he’s a goblin if you don’t want them to,” said Sophie, smiling smugly. “Remember the ‘Canadian exchange students’? One little spell and poof! No goblin. Just a guy from another high school who doesn’t know that you’re a witch.”

Marnie gave her a measuring look. “Have you always been this sneaky?”

“I learned from the best.”

“Thanks, Sophie,” said Marnie, sliding off the bed and snagging her hat off the rack. Holding out one hand, she added loudly, “Broom!” The closet door swung open on its own, and the broom flew out, handle smacking into her palm.

“Where are you going?”

“Halloweentown.” Marnie grinned. “I need to go get myself a date for the prom.” She turned and flounced out of the room, slamming the door behind herself.

Slowly, Sophie smiled.

“Took you long enough,” she said.

#

3: Ordinary Day.

Dylan Piper looked at the clock on the wall and sighed. Then he looked at the time on his phone and sighed again. School had already been out for more than two hours and the computer club meeting was almost over, but he was pretty sure that Mom and Marnie hadn’t finished yelling at each other yet. Sometimes being the only guy living in a household full of women made it vitally important to know when to duck and cover. Especially when they could start slinging fireballs if they really wanted to.

He’d have had to be stupid not to realize that Marnie and his mother held opposing viewpoints on Grandma Agatha’s return to the family and all the chaos that followed it. Marnie thought it was the best thing ever, but Mom bemoaned the loss of their normal existence. Whatever the Piper family was these days, it wasn’t normal.

“If you’ll all start saving your work and shutting down your computers, we have to clear out of the lab in fifteen minutes,” announced Mr. Fuller, walking down the narrow aisle between the banks of workstations. “Our next meeting will be after school on Wednesday; we have the lab until five...”

Dylan obligingly started shutting down the programs he’d been running, glancing around at the other students as he did. He was willing to bet that none of them needed to worry about their kid sister turning dinner into a frog because she didn’t feel like having meatloaf again, and that their grandmothers didn’t bring live bats to the Halloween party. He was tired of bats. Even if they were sort of cute.

Sometimes being the weird one in the family was absolutely exhausting. If Marilyn Munster weren’t a television character, he’d probably have proposed, just out of solidarity.

“Hey, Piper, you write a spell for getting out of gym class?” called a voice behind him. Dylan didn’t even bother to turn; he just stared at his computer screen, feeling the flush creep up the back of his neck. It wasn’t his fault that his family was different, but he still took the brunt of it. Marnie had her magic, and Sophie didn’t really care what people thought of her. But he...

He just wanted to be normal. Like they were before all the strangeness started, before Marnie and her “exchange students” decided they had the right to out the entire family as freaks and monsters. Maybe he had magic powers and maybe he didn’t, and he really didn’t care either way, because even if he had them, he’d never use them.

He just wanted to be normal.

Snapping his computer hastily off, Dylan ejected the disk that he’d been working on and shoved it into his backpack as he stood.

“See you on Wednesday, Dylan?” called Mr. Fuller.

“Yes, sir,” Dylan said, and rushed for the door. He head the derisive snickering started up behind him, until the door mercifully swung shut and cut it off. He’d always been a geek, and he was okay with that, really; he knew how to deal with being a geek. But after Grandma Agatha came back, he wasn’t just another geek: he was that Piper kid, the one with the weirdo big sister who thought she was--or maybe really was--a witch and the little sister who saw things.

And then the truth about Marnie’s magic came out, and suddenly...yeah. He’d achieved a level of notoriety he never wanted, all by having the bad taste to be related to the Cromwells. If Marnie’s Halloween revelation sophomore year had included the fact that he was technically a warlock, he’d have been dead meat.

He’d endured teasing, having his books stolen and his locker tagged, and for what? So his big sister could prance around pretending that it was cool to be a witch. He was tired of it.

“I just want to be normal again,” he muttered, stalking toward the parking lot. “That’s all. Just normal.”

#

Interlude: Making Wishes, Part II.

The crystal flashed again, more brightly this time; when the light faded, it left more of a spark buried in the stone, dancing like a tiny, captive fire. The woman sitting behind the crystal straightened, eyes going wide. “That was the boy. We’ve caught two of them--and in the same day!”

“Don’t get too excited yet. We need them to bring this down on themselves, and that means we need three of them. And the girls...”

“Won’t make that wish as easily as their brother and mother did. I know. They have too much to lose...but still, something will motivate them before the full moon comes. They’re teenagers. They’re bound to wish for an ordinary life at some point; that’s what teenagers do, no matter what world they live in.”

“I hope you’re right. If you’re wrong, all this planning is for nothing.”

“Don’t talk that way,” she snapped, abruptly standing, hands flat against the table. “It will work. We’ll take out all the heirs to the Cromwell line with one simple spell. We’ll turn their own power against them, and you, my love, will be free, and restored to me.”

“Free.” The whispering voice tested the word, turning it over and finding it good. “I’ll be free at last.”

“You’ll be free, and we’ll have our vengeance on that clan of fools.” Smiling, she sat, turning her attention back to the crystal. Two down.

One to go.

#

4: Halloweentown.

Marnie slammed the backdoor behind her and jumped off the porch, avoiding the steps completely. Gwen looked out the kitchen window, and sighed. Witch’s hat, red velvet robes, broom--she knew where this was leading.

Once again, her eldest daughter was responding to a problem by taking off for Halloweentown.

“Oh, Marnie,” she said, shaking her head. “Aren’t you going to learn that sometimes magic doesn’t have all the answers?”

Unfortunately, Gwen already knew the answer to that one. She’d grown up in Halloweentown, after all; she didn’t learn that lesson until the night she met a human man who showed her just how magical a life without magic could be. Marnie was young. It would take time for her to choose a mortal life...if she ever did. Slowly, Gwen was coming to accept that maybe that time would never come. Maybe there would always be Cromwells in Halloweentown.

Outside, the summer air was hot and humid, and the sun was bright enough to make Marnie’s “professional” attire more than a little bit uncomfortable. She cursed the weather, hurrying toward the far corner of the yard. It was always a crisp, comfortable autumn in Halloweentown. The wind never got truly cutting, and the sun never got to be too hot to bear. There were inconveniences, sure, but the weather wasn’t one of them. Even the rain was timed to be soothing and pleasant--there were no unplanned storms in Halloweentown, thanks in part to the efforts of the Cromwells and other witches like them.

Sometimes she honestly didn’t understand how her mother had been able to leave all that behind for the mess and unpredictability of the mortal world.

Leaning her broom against the fence, she gestured imperiously with both hands and started to chant. “I call on the power of creature and mortal to grant the wish that I implore. Though summer is high, now you must grant a portal; do as I ask you, and open the door.” The air shimmered like a heat mirage as a wide archway appeared, revealing the passageway to Halloweentown.

Sure, it was bad poetry, but whatever got the job done.

Grinning to herself, Marnie grabbed her broom and straddled it, kicking off from the ground. The broom rose roughly a foot and half into the air, then hovered in place, waiting for her to guide. Leaning forward, Marnie took hold of the handlebars, and flew through the portal into Halloweentown.

The transition took less than a second, and suddenly the countryside of that eternal October Country--a term she’d filched from the class reading on Ray Bradbury, but it was accurate, it fit--spooled out underneath her in a patchwork pattern of red, gold and brown. Laughing out loud, she executed a perfect barrel roll in midair.

She wasn’t far outside the town; the houses belonging to Halloweentown’s less social inhabitants were already in view. She could have opened her portal in the town square, but she preferred a little distance, to give herself a few minutes in which to fly. Flight was another thing she was denied in the mortal world, except for a few late-night excursions that she was fairly sure her mother didn’t know about. Fairly. Anyway, if she knew, she hadn’t said anything, and that was good enough for Marnie.

The restrictions might have made sense before people knew she was a witch, but now she knew them for what they were: just another way to make mortality more attractive. As if that could happen. Besides, with all Mom’s rules, how would she ever teach Sophie to fly if they didn’t do it in the mortal world? Sophie was a Cromwell, just like she was. And Cromwells had to fly.

The giant jack-o-lantern that marked the Halloweentown town square was almost directly beneath her now. Swinging her flight pattern around into a descending spiral, Marnie began to descend, dipping lower and lower as she dropped toward the city. The square was as crowded as ever, filled with a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar faces. The familiar outweighed the unfamiliar these days: she’d been spending a lot more time in Halloweentown as the end of the school year got closer.

“Hey, Marnie!” called a trio of ghosts. Grinning, Marnie waved, and dodged to avoid hitting a lumbering forest giant as she made her last loop around the pumpkin.

“Hello, Mister Bonneville! How’s the bone business?” she called, waving to a skeleton in a top hat and tails. He waved back with a sound like castanets rattling. “Hey, Alice!” A teenage yeti flashed a thumbs-up in her direction, and then went back to chatting with a vampire wearing sunglasses and SPF-700.

This was where she belonged; this was Halloweentown. Where the strangest of the strange and the wildest of the weird came to mix and mingle.

Marnie felt right at home.

She landed daintily, hopping off her broom just as it coasted to a stop. She’d been working on her landings lately, and was smugly secure in the knowledge that not even her grandmother could have done it better. “Take that, Mom,” she said, picking up her broom, and started across the square.

Over the last several years she’d come to know the shortcuts and back routes through Halloweentown as well as she knew the ones back in the mortal world. Cutting through the Spooking Goods Store to Lost Lover’s Lane, she hopped over Old Missus Slothwell’s fence and crossed her yard to reach the creek. Sliding down the bank allowed her to use the stepping stones--and one slow turtle--to hop across to the other side.

The rock troll that lived under the All Hallows Bridge raised one stone-colored hand in a slow wave as Marnie passed it, scrambling up the bank to the yard on the other side. Once she had solid ground underneath her, Marnie grinned and waved back. Then she turned to face the house she was standing in front of, and her grin faded as quickly as it had come.

Kalabar’s mansion loomed in front of her like a dark paper cutout against the sky. Even though she knew it was empty, and had been since she discovered her heritage and helped the other Cromwells banish Kalabar from Halloweentown, the house still sent shivers down her spine. Very little in Halloweentown was actually scary. The ghosts and goblins were the kind sort, like humans, only different. But Kalabar had been evil, and it sometimes seemed to Marnie that his house remembered its master.

She started to step out into the open, but stopped, frowning as she turned to study the house more carefully. “Something’s not right here,” she said, only half-aware that she was whispering. The shape of the house hadn’t changed. It was still stark, closed and austere, almost a parody of the way the mortal world thought of Halloweentown homes. But something was wrong. The shape of the house had shifted somehow, becoming almost menacing without doing anything to betray exactly what the shift had been.

A raven flashed through the trees above her, croaking raucously. Marnie jumped, unconsciously raising her hands as if facing down a threat. When she saw that it was just a bird--doubtless someone’s familiar, gone off for a little private time--she relaxed, letting her hands drop again.

“Mom’s got me all jumpy,” she said, mostly to herself. The sound of her own voice was soothing, reminding her why she’d come to Halloweentown in the first place. She cast one last, sidelong glance at the house, and then turned, making her way into the trees.

Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go.

#

5: Family Ties.

“Grandma?” Marnie pushed open the back door to her grandmother’s house, leaning her broom up against the coat rack. The hallway was dark, dusty and choked with cobwebs. This was nothing new: Grandma Aggie prized herself on cultivation of the thickest, healthiest cobwebs in town, spun by some of the largest, sassiest spiders around. She’d even won an award at the previous year’s Halloweentown Fair.

One of the top arms of the coat rack reached down and removed the hat from Marnie’s head, pulling it neatly up to join the others. She grinned, patting the rack reassuringly. Her own hat rack had been enchanted with a variation of the spell Grandma used, and the two were basically family.

“In here, my darling!” called a familiar, half-dotty voice from the kitchen. “I’m just finishing these pumpkin cakes for the elementary school bake sale. Come in, come in!”

“Grandma!” Grinning, Marnie hurried down the hall and into the kitchen, where Agatha was in the process of moving a hot cupcake pan from the oven to the counter with small, unhurried motions of her wand. Knowing better than to interrupt even a small domestic spell in the middle, Marnie hung back until the pan had settled safely on the counter.

“There; all done,” said Agatha, lowering her wand.

“Grandma,” said Marnie, and stepped forward to embrace her.

“Hello, Marnie,” Agatha said warmly, returning the gesture. “You’re here early--I wasn’t expecting you until tomorrow.”

“No, Grandma. I’m not here for my lessons.”

“Well, then, to what do I owe the honor of this visit? You’re not in trouble at school again, are you?” Marnie had developed a mild tendency to cast small charms and hexes when she got bored during class. Agatha found it hysterically funny, and a sign of strong magical creativity; Gwen, and the confused teachers who didn’t always understand--or appreciate--a genuine spell when they saw one, found it somewhat less amusing. If it hadn’t been for Agatha’s relationship with the principal, Marnie would probably have been expelled by now.

“No, Grandma, school’s fine, and Mr. Flanagan sends his love,” Marnie said, smiling wryly. “Mom says that I have to go to the Senior Prom.”

“You’re not here to ask me to help you make a duplicate to go in your place, are you? Well, I’m sorry Marnie, but you know I can’t help you deceive your mother while you’re still living at home. What kind of grandmother would I be if I--”

“It’s not that, Grandma.”

“Well, what is it, then?”

“I need a date.” Marnie hurriedly raised her hands. “And I’m not asking you to enchant a frog or anything, Mom already went through that, and I believe in learning from the yucky mistakes of others. I just stopped off to say ‘hey’ before I went off to ask him.”

Agatha was quiet for a moment before she slowly began to smile. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, I see. Do you have any particular strapping young Halloweentown lad in mind? Young Ethan, perhaps? He’s very blond, and a little, well, undistinguished, but I understand he’s a ‘hunk’, in mortal terms...”

“Grandma!” Marnie protested.

“What, darling?” asked Agatha, radiating wounded innocence. “It’s an honest question. Ethan’s a fine young warlock, if a trifle shallow, and as your grandmother, I’d just like to know whether you have someone you’re planning to ask, or if you’re going to be setting up an audition booth in the middle of the square.”

Marnie paused before nodding and offering her grandmother an almost shy little smile. “Yeah. I do sort of have somebody in mind.”

“Mmmm-hmm. And are we planning on dating outside of our species?” Agatha raised a hand at Marnie’s shocked expression, saying, “I have no problems with it at all, Marnie, believe me. It’s just that I’m probably going to have your mother accusing me of subverting you again, and I’d like to have a little warning to prepare my own defense.”

“Right.” Marnie said, looking down. “I guess I am. Planning on dating outside the species, I mean.”

“Luke’s a good boy,” Agatha said, turning to start popping the pumpkin cakes free of their pan. She did this by hand, arranging them artfully on a platter patterned with dancing bats. “Did you figure it out on your own, or did Sophie have to tell you?”

“Tell me what?”

“That he likes you, dear. He’s liked you for ages, really--ever since the first time you came to Halloweentown.” Once the pumpkin cakes were all free of the pan, Agatha waved her hands over them, frosting them in strips of orange and black butter-creme. “I was starting to wonder if you’d ever figure it out. He was depressed for ages over that whole Cody business. Barely tolerable.”

“Sophie told me,” Marnie admitted. “So it’s true? He...he really likes me?” She felt her cheeks reddening for no apparent reason, and shook her head, looking away before her grandmother could see them and make some sly little comment.

Agatha smiled to herself, letting Marnie believe that she’d hidden her blush, and nodded. “Oh, yes, dear. I wish she’d let you figure it out for yourself, but I suppose it’s true that desperate times call for desperate measures--and I’d certainly call a dance at a mortal high school a ‘desperate time’.”

“Do you really think Mom’s going to be mad?” Marnie asked, unable to quite tell whether or not her grandmother was making fun of her. Sometimes it was hard to be sure with Agatha; she was several centuries old, after all, and her sense of humour wasn’t quite in line with the norm.

This time Agatha wore her smile openly, shaking her head. “Marnie, my love, my darling...your mother is going to be so angry you could fry eggs on her forehead. But that’s all right. If she really starts to shout, just remind her of one tiny fact and you can shut her down before she even begins.”

“What’s that?”

“She’s not human either.” Agatha grinned, indicating the cluttered, sweet-smelling kitchen with both hands. “My darling daughter is a Cromwell witch, however much she might like to deny it at times, and--as such--when she fell in love with your father, she was technically dating outside her species. She can’t condemn you for doing the same thing.”

“You’re right.” Marnie beamed, hurrying to throw her arms around her grandmother’s shoulders before running toward the hall. “Thanks Grandma!” she called, as she snagged her hat and broom and hurtled out the back door.

Agatha listened to her footsteps as they faded away, and allowed herself another small smile, shaking her head. “Like mother, like daughter,” she said, and turned back to her baking. “Now where was I...”

#

6: Invitations.

Marnie brought her broom to a hasty, somewhat inelegant landing in front of Luke’s house. It was a twisty, knotted little place mostly hidden under the roots of one of Halloweentown’s vast and ancient oak trees, with only the windows and the doorway peeking out. The tree talked, she knew, when given something to talk about, and as she hurried up the path, she thought she head the branches creaking out, ‘Hello, Marnie Cromwell.’

“Hello, Mister Oak!” she called upward, just in case, and knocked briskly on the door. The sound echoed, betraying how much space was actually on the other side. Goblins apparently didn’t have to obey the laws of physics in their house design. Marnie stepped back, waiting.

It wasn’t a long wait. A crashing sound from inside was accompanied by Luke’s voice saying, “Just a second!” a moment before a familiar gray-green hand pulled the door open. He paused, blinking. “Uh. Hey.”

“Hello, Luke,” Marnie said, and flashed him her best five-dollar smile.

If there was any question about whether or not Luke actually liked her the way Grandma and Sophie seemed to think he did, that smile answered it. His ears and cheeks darkened as he stopped for a moment, apparently struck silent by her expression, before he smiled back and stammered, “Mar...Marnie! I wasn’t expecting you.”

“That would be because I kinda didn’t tell you I was coming,” she replied. “Can I come in?”

“Well, it’s sort of...I mean, the house is a...sure.” He stepped out of the way, letting her pass.

Inside, the small house was a cluttered welter of boxes, papers and unrecognizable debris. It was nowhere near as bad as Gort’s place, which was intentionally disgusting; it was just messy, like Luke didn’t take the time to clean up very often. It smelled of old papers, and freshly fallen leaves.

Marnie looked around, saying, “Wow, Luke...you’ve had an avalanche.” She indicated a pile of fallen papers.

“Yeah. I was trying to clean the bookshelf, and things slipped.” He shrugged, closing the door, and asked, “What brings you by? Some great evil brewing? All the life being sucked out of Halloweentown? Need to fly through a hole in time and make me seasick?” He sounded almost hopeful.

“It’s nothing like that,” Marnie said, turning to study a vast, dust-encrusted china cabinet. “I just needed to ask you for a teeny-tiny little favor, that’s all.”

“Favor?” Luke asked, more warily. “What kind of favor?” If there was one thing he’d learned from regular exposure to the Cromwells, it was that ‘teeny-tiny little favors’ generally weren’t. In fact, they were usually just the opposite. “Is it the kind of favor that gets me dead?”

“Well, there’s this--hey, have you washed this?”

“Yes, I scrubbed it last week. There’s this what, exactly? Dragon? Evil warlock? Perilous quest that doesn’t match your dress? What do you need me to do?”

“There’s this dance at my school,” Marnie said, forcing the words out in a rush. If she hesitated, she knew she’d never finish.

Luke froze. “A...dance.”

“Yes.”

“At your school.”

“Yeah.” Marnie kept her eyes on the china cabinet, seemingly enthralled the contents of its topmost shelf. “It’s my Senior Prom, and Mom says I have to go. It’s sort of a rite of passage for mortal girls, I guess. They made a lot of movies about it. Pretty lousy ones, mostly, but she has a thing.”

“What does that have to do with me?”

“I need a date.”

“You want me to help you find a date?” Luke couldn’t quite keep the hurt out of his voice, no matter how hard as he tried. “I don’t know, Marnie, I don’t really know how to shop for human guys. Or where to find them. Maybe if you asked Natalie...”

“I don’t want you to find me a date. I want you to be my date.” She could practically hear Luke stiffening behind her. Keeping her eyes turned resolutely forward, she continued, “If you won’t go with me, I’ll just have to take whatever guy in my school is willing to go with me. And by now it’s all tweaks, geeks and Chess Club members. That whole ‘witch’ thing is sort of social suicide in the mortal world.”

Slowly, Luke said, “I’ve never even been to your school, Marnie.”

“I know.” She looked back over her shoulder at him, frowning a little. “I was actually really surprised when you didn’t come with the others. I sort of expected you to be there.”

“I didn’t get my papers turned in on time,” said Luke, looking up toward the rafters so that he wouldn’t accidentally glance toward his bed. The enrollment papers for the exchange program were there, stuffed into a shoebox and shoved under the mattress, along with the drop form he’d filled out when he finally lost his nerve. He couldn’t face Marnie’s world, and her, knowing he could never have her. Not with that many of his peers around. Because they’d have caught him, without a doubt; caught him, and told Marnie how he felt.

And look what holding back had done: it got Marnie a human boyfriend, and now she’d never look at him twice. Humans stuck to their own kind, and Marnie, for all that she was half-witch, looked like a human. Natalie had told him all about the Cromwell preferences after her own disastrous flirtation with Dylan.

“Oh,” said Marnie, looking disappointed. She turned back toward the china cabinet.

“Besides, what about Cody? Isn’t he supposed to take you to these things?”

“We broke up,” Marnie said, with a small shake of her head. “A while ago, actually. His parents didn’t approve of him dating a freak.”

“Oh,” said Luke, trying to keep the pleasure out of his voice. Friends shouldn’t be happy when their friends get dumped, right? Then: “So you need a date. Are you sure you mean me?”

“Well, yeah,” Marnie said, peering into one of the jars on the shelf. Something in the murk inside wriggled, and she backed away. “You’re my friend, and you’re a boy. That means you fit all the essential requirements for a prom date.”

What little hope Luke had been starting to muster came crashing down. “Yeah. I’m your friend. But I’m also a goblin, Marnie.”

“One little spell and we won’t have to worry about it--you can look human for the night,” said Marnie, turning to face him. She felt oddly bad saying that out loud; the memory of Sophie saying “So you’re telling me that looks are all that matters?” suddenly seemed unaccountably immediate.

Luke stared at her. “Let me get this straight. You want me to pretend to be your boyfriend for the night, so that you can get out of dating some stupid human boy?” He sounded oddly frustrated, and almost angry.

“Yes. I mean, no. I mean...” Marnie sighed as she turned to face him. “I mean, Luke, that I’d really appreciate it if you’d come to the prom and be my date.”

“Because you can’t get a human boy,” he countered.

Marnie paused for a moment, surprised by the depth of her own hurt at his words. Then she shook her head, starting to storm toward the door. “Whatever. Never mind, it was a bad idea. I should never have bothered--”

“Wait!” Luke said, holding up his hand. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t go.”

“You didn’t?” she asked, stopping where she was.

“No. I was just...surprised. You’re sure you can keep an illusion spell on me all night?” Luke twisted his hands together, watching her carefully. Are you sure you want to do this, Marnie? If you want to back out, do it now.

“Yeah. I’m sure.” Marnie smiled, half-shyly. “I’ve gotten lots better in the last few years. I can get you to the mortal world, dress you up, and get you home afterward without anyone being the wiser.”

Luke took a deep breath, and nodded. “All right. I’ll go, because it’s a favor for you. But you make one goblin joke--just one--and the deal’s off. You got it?”

“I got it!” Darting forward, Marnie kissed him on the cheek and ran for the door. “I’ve got to go start getting things ready--I’ll call you on the head phone just as soon as I know what time I’ll be picking you up. And thank you!”

“Marnie--” She was out the door and back on her broom before he could do more than say her name. Luke watched her go, raising one hand to touch the place where she had kissed him, then walked forward to close the door that she’d left so carelessly ajar.

“High school dance,” he said to himself. “Human world.” Then he grinned. “I’m better than the mortal boys. Go, me.”

Outside, heading back toward the portal to the mortal world, Marnie executed a perfect aerial barrel roll and flew, laughing, homeward.

#

8: Revelations.

The portal to Halloweentown was swirling closed as Marnie touched down lightly in the backyard, sliding off of her broom. Gwen watched through the kitchen window, putting down her coffee and sitting up straighter in her chair as she prepared herself for the projection of parental authority.

“You’re the mother here, Gwen,” she said. “You can do this.”

The screen door slammed open less than a minute later, and Marnie came racing into the kitchen, cheeks bright with excited color.

“We need to talk,” they said, in unison. There was a brief pause, and then Gwen smiled, shaking her head. “Come on, kiddo. Sit down. We need to have a little chat.”

“Is it about the prom?” Marnie asked, as she dropped herself onto one of the kitchen chairs and waved a hand toward the cookie jar. It opened, and a fresh gingersnap floated out. “Now what? Do I have to wear pink taffeta? Because I can handle the ‘no black’ clause, but I draw the line at taffeta.”

Gwen waved her own hand, and the cookie floated back into the jar. “Actually, Marnie, that’s part of what I wanted to talk to you about. You can’t be so negative about the whole idea, sweetie. It’s something you should want to do.”

“And if I won’t ‘want’ to do it all on my own, you’ll find a way to make me ‘want’ to do it, right?” Marnie asked, as she stood and walked over to the cookie jar, taking out the gingersnap again, this time in a more mundane fashion. “I know the game. Mother knows best.”

“Marnie--”

“It’s cool, it’s cool.” Marnie held up her hands, turning toward the fridge. “I need milk. Look, I know I have to go to the dance, okay? I am resigned. And serene. Resigned and serene, that’s me. I was thinking blue for my dress, maybe? Or burgundy? I refuse to be seen in public wearing pastels. Not even for a ‘normal human high school experience’.”

“Fair enough,” Gwen allowed, and smiled. “I think we can compromise on dark purple?”

“Red.”

“Blue.”

“Fine, purple.” They smiled at each other, both aware that it was a purely symbolic victory on Gwen’s part. One tiny spell after the dress was paid for and Marnie would be dressed to kill in whatever color she chose.

“You’ll need a date, of course. Have you thought about asking Jonathan from down the street? I ran into his mother at the grocery store the other day, and she said he hadn’t asked anyone yet.”

“Mother, please. He breathes through his mouth. I may be a social outcast, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to go to the prom with a mouth-breather. There are some depths to which even I refuse to sink.”

“How about Mike, then?”

“He has a date. Has had a date since we were sophomores. He and Janice are joined at the hip, and you’d need a hacksaw to get them apart. Plus, his parents are very anti-witchcraft. They’d send a priest instead of a limo, and I’m anti-exorcism.”

“You could ask Thomas.”

“He’s skipping the prom as a form of political protest.”

“Well, then, you could ask Bobby--don’t you like Bobby? I thought you had a crush on him.”

“Firstly, that was in the third grade, when my taste in men ran toward those individuals capable of eating Sophie’s bodyweight in paste. Secondly, he’s gay. He’s taking Peter from bio.”

“Oh.” Gwen paused, baffled by Marnie’s casual dismissal of half the boys in her class. For a moment, she wondered if maybe her daughter’s refusal to just live her life like a normal person had infected her entire generation. “Well, what about John? The one from your algebra class?”

“John’s nice, sure, but, um. Actually, Mom, I already have a date.” Marnie straightened in her seat, trying to project an air of studious innocence. It wasn’t working. She knew it wasn’t working.

And yet Gwen seemed to be buying at anyway. “You already have a date? With a boy?” When Marnie nodded a cautious affirmation, she broke into a wide grin. “Why didn’t you say so, sweetie? Who is it? Timothy? Oh, I know--Chris, from your drama class?”

“Um, well. He doesn’t exactly go to my school.”

“Hang on a second. Do I know this boy?” Gwen frowned. “He isn’t a college boy, is he? Because you know how I feel about girls your age dating college boys...”

“No, he’s, um, actually not enrolled in any school right now.” Before her mother could protest, she hurriedly added, “He’s my age, he’s just not exactly the scholastic type.”

“Marnie Piper...” Gwen said, standing and fixing her eldest daughter with an unwavering eye. “What aren’t you telling me? I know this boy, don’t I?”

“You’ve met him.”

“What’s his name?”

Sighing under her breath, Marnie replied, “Luke.” Then she braced herself, waiting for the inevitable parental explosion.

She didn’t have very long to wait. “What?” Gwen demanded, eyes widening. “Marnie, you can’t--you can not be serious! Luke isn’t even human! Do you not understand that? He’s a goblin! A Halloweentown goblin, and I somehow don’t think I really need to remind you that he isn’t going to be exactly a normal sight at a high school prom! Maybe--maybe--at a Halloween party, but--”

“You’re not human either, Mom. And neither am I. And the whole school knows that, so I don’t know why you’re freaking out about it.” Now that the words were out, Marnie found herself strangely calm--almost serene. “I’m taking Luke to the prom.”

Gwen rocked back on her heels, stunned. “Marnie, how can you even say such a thing?”

“Because it’s true. I’m half-human, because of who Daddy was, but the other half of me is pure Cromwell witch--like you. I know you want me to be normal. I know you just want us to have the chance at having real human lives. But I don’t want a real human life, Mom. I want to inherit the Cromwell family powers, and live in Halloweentown, and be happy.”

“And take Luke to the prom,” Gwen said, flatly.

Marnie nodded. “And take Luke to the prom. Yes. Because unlike the boys at my high school, who treat me like a total freak, he actually acts like I’m already a real person. Broomstick and all.”

“I...” Gwen paused. “If I finish that statement, I’ll have officially turned into my mother.”

“Huh?”

“What, you think your grandmother approved when I told her that I wasn’t coming back to Halloweentown because I was going to stay here on earth and marry a mortal?” Gwen’s smile was wry. “Please. She was livid. Said that it would never come to any good, and I’d be crawling back as soon as it was Halloween again.”

“But she was wrong,” Marnie said. “You and Daddy loved each other.”

“Yes, we did,” Gwen said, and sighed. “You’ve made your point, Marnie. You can take Luke to the prom if you really want to -- but he’s going to wear a disguise spell the whole time, and there will be no funny business. Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal,” said Marnie, beaming. “Thanks, Mom. You’re the best.” She bounced to her feet, wrapping her arms around her mother, and hugged her tightly. After a moment’s startled pause, Gwen hugged her back.

“Go on, you. I’m sure you have homework.”

For once, Marnie didn’t argue: she just grinned. “Okay!” she called, and bounded off toward her room, snagging her broom from its place against the counter as she pelted up the stairs.

Gwen watched her go, feeling somewhat like she had just been hit by a very clever, extremely teenaged freight train. “Oh, Mom,” she said. “If I’d been half that good at playing you, I’d have left Halloweentown years before I did.”

Then she laughed, and got up to lock the back door.

#

8: Dress-Up Games.

The weeks before the prom passed quickly for Marnie, although not as quickly for Dylan and Sophie, who had to endure her endless complaints about finding a dress and fixing her hair.

“I don’t understand why you can’t use magic,” Dylan said, for the tenth time. Marnie had drafted him to hold her makeup kit while she tried design after design with her eyeliner. As far as he was concerned, they all looked absolutely ridiculous. Not that he could tell her that: she’d stopped listening.

“Mom wants me to do this like a normal human girl,” Marnie said, scrubbing at a streak of green eyeliner that was refusing to come off her cheek. “I’m just trying to do what she wants.”

“You’re taking a goblin to the prom,” Dylan pointed out. “That’s not exactly part of the ‘normal human girl’ package.”

“And that’s why I’m not pushing it. Do you think I should try the purple eyeliner again?”

“I think you should let me go and do my geology homework, if you’re actually asking for my opinion.”

“Don’t worry,” Marnie said, smiling at him as she dug her hand into the makeup kit. “I’m not.”

Dylan groaned. “Marnie...”

“It’s just three more days, Dylan,” Marnie said, suddenly serious. “Mom really wants me to do this. I’m starting to really want to do this. Can you just put up with me for a little bit longer? Please? You won’t ever have to help me get ready for the prom again.”

He looked at her for a moment before he sighed, nodding. “All right. Don’t sulk, I’ll help.” He paused. “I think you should try the darker purple. That color doesn’t go with your dress.”

“You’re my best brother,” Marnie said, kissing him on the cheek, and resumed her rummaging through the box.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, and smiled.

Sometimes being part of the weirdest family on the block wasn’t so bad after all.

#

Interlude: Making Wishes, Part III.

“He can’t take it back, can he?” asked the voice from the shadows, turning cold.

“No, my lord,” replied the woman, her eyes not leaving the crystal. “Not unless he says it aloud--and he won’t. He’s too proud of being the white sheep in their little flock of nightmares. Even if he fell in love with what he is, he’d never say it.”

“So we wait?”

“We wait. It won’t be long now. We only need one more--and this dance may well provide the chance that we’ve been waiting for. After all, what teenage girl wants to be ‘the strange one’ on a night when everyone she’s ever met is watching?” Something twitched in the darkness behind her, making a sound like the rustling of dead or dying leaves. “It won’t be long now at all. Just wait, and be patient.”

“I’m tired of patience.”

“Just wait.”

#

9: The Big Night.

“Stop pacing, you’ll mess up your hair,” Sophie commanded. She was perched on the edge of the bed, staying well out of range of any fits Marnie might happen to throw.

“That’s easy for you to say--you don’t have to go to this thing!” Marnie shook her head. Contrary to Sophie’s dire predictions, her hair remained sleek and perfectly groomed, tamed by a combination of the crown braid that held it back from her face and a very careful, very subtle stasis spell. For all that she had tried to avoid using magic to get herself ready, she was still going to have to go to Halloweentown to pick up Luke, and crossing dimensional barriers could really mess with your hair.

“Oh, please. Mom’s going to make me go too, when it’s time for my senior year. I think it’ll be kind of fun!”

“Let me cast a disguise spell on you. You can go now!”

Sophie shook her head. “No, thanks. Luke’s your date, and you can keep him.”

“Who thinks looks are all that matter now?” Marnie asked, amused enough to stop pacing and start tightening the laces that ran down the bodice of her dress. The prom gown she and her mother had compromised on was sleeveless, with laced closures on both the back and front, made from wine colored satin that seemed to be either red or purple, depending on the light. The skirts brushed the ground when she moved, covering her plain black shoes.

She had to admit, for a woman completely fixated on raising three half-witch children like they were exactly the same as everybody else, her mom had pretty good taste in prom dresses.

“I didn’t say that,” Sophie said, wrinkling her nose. “I just said I didn’t want Luke. He’s too old. And he likes you too much. I don’t want to go to my prom with someone who’s just going to spend all his time wishing that I was you.”

Marnie paused, looking at Sophie. Sophie looked back, offering her older sister a small, wry smile. Finally, Marnie asked, “When did you start paying so much attention to everything that happened around this place?”

“I always have,” Sophie said, smile becoming an open grin. “You’re the one that doesn’t pay attention. Maybe I’ll find a goblin of my own someday, or a nice warlock or something. But I don’t want yours.”

“You know, you’re pretty cool, for a little sister.”

“I try,” Sophie replied.

Marnie tied the last of her laces and picked up the spider-web patterned shawl that she’d bought to go with the dress, draping it over her shoulders. It had almost been too ‘witchy’ for Gwen to approve of it, but even she’d had to admit that the darker burgundy of the spider-web lace was a perfect contrast to the rest of Marnie’s gown. A normal girl would have worn it because it was lovely. In the end, she’d agreed to let Marnie wear it for the same reason.

“How do I look?” she asked, spreading her arms.

Sophie studied her for a moment, speculatively, and then smiled. “I think Luke’s going to think he’s the luckiest goblin ever,” she said.

“Do you really think so?” Marnie picked up a narrow burgundy choker with strings of silver chain looped around the bottom, fastening it behind her neck, and gave herself an anxious look in the mirror. “Does this color make me look too pale? He’s going to think I look dead. Do I look dead?”

“He’s a goblin. He’d like you even if you looked dead. Zombie girls get dates too.”

“Do I not look dead enough? Maybe he’ll think I look too alive!”

“He’s Luke. He’ll like you because you’re you. Does being a teenager melt your brain?” Sophie hopped off the bed, crossing the room to grab Marnie’s wrist and usher her toward the door. “Come on. You need to go show Mom your dress, or she’s going to come up here looking for us.”

As if on cue, Gwen’s voice called up from below, “Marnie?”

“Coming, Mom!” Marnie shouted, automatically. She gave Sophie a dirty look. “I’m telling Mom you’re using suggestion spells on her again.”

“Can’t prove it,” Sophie said, smugly unrepentant. “Besides. You’re gonna be late if you don’t head for Halloweentown soon.”

Groaning, Marnie allowed herself to be led down the stairs to where Gwen waited with her camera. After the sixth picture, she put her hands up, trying to ward the flash away. “Enough! Jeez, Mom, you’d think I’d never worn a dress before.”

“You look wonderful.” Gwen paused, frowning slightly. “Is that a stasis spell in your hair?”

“Just until I pick Luke up. I’ll take it off for the dance.” Catching Gwen’s warning look, Marnie held up a finger. “I wouldn’t need a stasis spell if I didn’t need to go to Halloweentown to get my date. So it’s still normal as long as it’s gone before we get to the prom.”

Gwen subsided, smiling. “All right, you win. Now, you’ll be back by midnight, right?”

“Yes, Mom. We’ll come here before I take Luke home, so you can see that we made curfew. All right?”

“All right.” Gwen smiled again. “You really do look beautiful.”

“Thanks, Mom. Bye, brat.” She stuck her tongue out at Sophie, who returned the gesture in kind, and grabbed her broom from the umbrella stand as she headed for the back door.

It really was a beautiful night.

And it was just getting started.

#

10: Limo Service.

Luke was already waiting outside when Marnie glided to a stop and landed in front of his house. The dress she was wearing necessitated a somewhat awkward sidesaddle method of riding, but it wasn’t so bad once she got airborne--and it definitely allowed for making a dramatic entrance.

She slid easily off the broom, catching her skirt on one heel and stumbling as her feet hit the ground. Sensibly writing off her entrance as a loss, she traded drama for a casual wave, calling, “Hey, Luke!”

He didn’t reply; in a very real sense, he didn’t even hear her. He was too busy staring.

The moonlight painted her burgundy dress a simple, rich shade of red, and her shoulders were covered by a slightly darker panel of spider-web lace that lead naturally upward to the night-bleached white of her face and neck. The pinned and stasis-locked coils of her hair gleamed like polished wood, catching small sparks in the darkness. Even stumbling and clutching her broom with one hand as she waved, he’d never seen anything so beautiful in his life.

“Hey?” she repeated, waving a little harder. “Earth to Luke, come in Luke. You okay?”

“Y-yeah,” he stammered. She’s here to tell me that it was all a mistake, he thought, helplessly. There is absolutely no way she’s going to stand there, looking like that, and tell me that she actually wants me to go to this dance with her. No way. I’m doomed.

“You ready to go?”

“What?”

Marnie eyed him, half-smiling to hide her own sudden and undeniable anxiety. He wasn’t acting like he was very glad to see her. “Are you okay? You’re acting weird.” Oh, jeez, I was right; he wants a zombie girl or something, and I look too stupid and too mortal in this dress, he’s trying to get out of it...

“I’m...”

“Look, if you don’t want to go, that’s okay,” she said, cringing inwardly. “I mean, I know you probably have better things to do than go to some stupid dance in the mortal world. So you don’t have to. If you really don’t want to, I mean.”

Luke couldn’t help himself. “If I don’t want to?” he exclaimed. “I mean, you’re--you look--I mean, wow. How could I not want to go? I thought you weren’t going to want to go with me.”

“Of course I want to go with you,” Marnie said. Luke brightened, until she continued, “It’s way too late to get another date.” Not that I want another date, she thought. But I can’t say that...

“Oh,” he said. “Guess we should get me ready, huh?”

“Yeah. We need to get going.” Marnie studied the jeans and somewhat tattered flannel shirt that he was wearing. She knew him well enough to see that he was clearly making an effort: Luke had never really cared all that much about his clothing. Normally, neither did she--magic took care of keeping her in clean robes and interesting jewelry. The day-to-day stuff just didn’t matter.

Maybe they had even more in common than she’d originally thought.

“Is this okay?” Luke asked, unaccountably nervous. It was just a dance. That was all. It didn’t mean anything...

And she was still the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Maybe he was weird for liking a witch better than any of the goblin girls he knew, but Marnie was different. Sure, she had that weird pale skin, but so did a lot of zombie girls, and her hair was no straighter or browner than a dryad’s. Most importantly, Marnie was herself, and that was what really made it so impossible for him to tell her “no.”

“It won’t work for the prom,” Marnie said, critically, “but it’s a good place to start. Close your eyes.”

Luke obeyed. Raising her hands, Marnie gave him another contemplative look.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

Luke opened his eyes. “What?” he asked, sounding almost panicky.

“Be...not you. Are you sure?”

“Yes.” Luke nodded, firmly. “If I’m a goblin, I can’t go to your dance.”

But I like the way you really are... “All right. Close your eyes again.”

Luke did just that.

“Now hang on,” she said, “this may feel a little funny. Keep your eyes closed.”

Clothes-changing magic was usually practiced on the self, but in theory, it could work on anyone. She’d done it often enough to get ready for school on days when she was running late; this was just applying what she already knew to an outside subject.

Suddenly, she wished she’d asked Dylan to help with more than just applying her makeup. It would have been nice to know that what she was attempting was actually going to work.

“Atole!” she said, sharply. The air around Luke glimmered, but his clothes remained the same. Frowning, she repeated, “Atole!”

This time the spell was answered by a bright spray of red and silver sparks, and Luke was abruptly dressed for the occasion in an obviously rented tuxedo, complete with cummerbund and slightly off-kilter bow tie. Marnie grinned. The sight of a goblin in full formal wear--even rumpled high school-standard formal wear--wasn’t one that she was going to forget any time soon.

“Did it work?” Luke asked.

“Don’t open your eyes yet.” It was almost a pity he’d have to seem to be a human for the dance; she liked the way he looked in that tuxedo, even with his fluffy orange hair ratted out goblin-style in all directions. Looks definitely weren’t everything--but oddly, she was starting to realize that his looks weren’t all that bad. Not human...but not bad.

“Okay,” Luke said, and was still.

Raising her hands, Marnie said, more softly, “Atole var.”

The glitter was silver and green this time, and hung in the air for a longer while, working at the seemingly impossible task of making a human teenager from a Halloweentown goblin. But when it was done, Luke had been replaced by the seemingly human boy that Marnie remembered from her visit to Grandma Aggie’s house. Nothing remained to reveal him for what he really was. He was just normal.

Oddly, Marnie found that a little bit depressing. Maybe because it also brought back memories of the first time Luke had seen the mortal world, when a cruel spell had turned all of Halloweentown’s creatures human--for real. By destroying what made them special and unique, that spell had nearly stolen them from her forever. “You can open your eyes now. It’s done.”

“Really?” Luke opened his eyes and looked down, studying his suddenly pink-skinned hands. “Wicked. How long will this last?”

“Until midnight--the whole ‘Cinderella clause’ is standard operating procedure,” Marnie said. “The clock strikes twelve, you’re a goblin again. Which is fine, because we should be back at my place by then anyway. I have a curfew.”

Luke grinned. “A Cromwell witch with a curfew. Who’d have thought?”

“My mother, for one. Come on.” Marnie turned before he could see her smile, heading back to her broom. “We need to get to the dance before it’s time to bring you home.”

“Right. The broom thing. Goodie.” Luke followed, watching somewhat dubiously as she slid into a sidesaddle position at the front of the broom. “Are you sure you won’t fall off riding like that?”

“I fell off once, and that was a year ago. You’ll be fine. Now get on the broom.”

Luke slid gingerly onto the broom behind her, clenching his knees together and locking his arms around her waist. He liked witches. He liked Marnie.

He hated flying.

“Not so tight, Luke, unless you want to show up for the dance with a dead date.” When his grip relaxed--only marginally--Marnie grinned and pushed them off the ground. “Come on, don’t be so nervous. It’s gonna be a great night.”

As they rose into the Halloweentown sky, Luke’s arms still locked unbudging around her waist, she realized that she actually meant it. It was going to be a great night. She had a date, she had a dress, and somewhere along the line, she’d started looking forward to the prom.

The portal back to the mortal world blossomed in front of them, and grinning, she dove through.

#

11: Lose Your Own Head.

They drifted to a gentle landing behind the trees that flanked the school, Marnie sliding off the broom and gripping the handle loosely in one hand as she waited for Luke to dismount. He did so hurriedly, almost staggering as he got his feet back underneath himself.

Marnie grinned. “You’re lucky you’re not a witch,” she said, teasing. “You’d fail all your flying lessons.”

“Yeah, well, see how you do underground,” Luke muttered. “Claustrophobic witches don’t get along with our tunnels.”

“I’m not claustrophobic, but you have a point there.” She leaned her broom against the nearest tree, muttering a disguise spell under her breath and giving a dismissive wave of one hand. The air around the broom shimmered, and then solidified, leaving nothing visible but the tree itself. The broom was still there; they’d have a way to get home. It was just conveniently invisible.

“Nice trick.”

“Saves on parking. Also on awkward explanations and people playing keep-away.”

“Oh, right. Witches aren’t standard here.” Luke shook his head. “That’s just so weird.”

“Tell me about it. I keep having to remember that things work differently here, which is why I’m a freak, instead of being the natural heir to a powerful magical heritage.” Marnie turned back toward him, smiling a small, oddly shy smile. Luke found himself blushing as he smiled back at her, once more aware of just how pretty she was in the moonlight.

That’s right, he thought. I have now managed to look more clueless than ever before. Go me. “So.”

“So.”

“Now what?”

“We could go to the dance...?” That’s supposedly why we’re here...

“Oh. Uh, yeah.” Luke hesitated, then, slowly, offered her his arm. “I think I’m supposed to be your escort, right?”

Marnie felt herself blushing in return as she slid her arm through his, but nodded, answering, “That’s the usual way we do this sort of thing, yeah.”

“Okay.”

“Okay?”

“Okay.” He paused. “Which way?”

“I’ll lead,” Marnie said, and grinned. After a moment, Luke grinned back, the tension broken as he let her guide him onto the school grounds and into the brightly lit and decorated gym. Then he stopped, staring.

The one time he’d visited the mortal world before, it had been Halloween night, and a costume party had been in full swing; he remembered looking out on the laughing, costumed crowd and wondering what all the fuss was about. They didn’t seem all that different from the people he knew back in Halloweentown. A little less used to ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties and things that went bump in the night, sure, but basically still the same sort of people.

This, though...this was very, very different. And for a moment, he wasn’t sure how well he was going to deal.

A sign by the door said that the theme of the prom was ‘Some Enchanted Evening’. If this was an enchantment, it wasn’t like one that he’d ever seen before. White crepe and strings of silver foil ran down the walls in glittery waterfalls, and white-branched trees were everywhere, creating a maze that lead out to the dance floor and buffet table.

Small, twinkling white lights were strung along the walls and through the branches of the trees, providing the room’s only real illumination. He squinted, trying to figure out what they were. Maybe they’d trapped pixies inside the glass...? Only he was pretty sure they didn’t actually have pixies here, in this world without magic. He’d have to ask Marnie when he was sure that no one else was listening. He didn’t want to embarrass her--or himself.

There were mortals everywhere, the girls wearing dresses like Marnie’s--although most of them were in pinks or yellows, not her reassuringly dark burgundy--and the guys wearing rented tuxedos much like the one that she’d conjured up for him. This was what they looked like without magic. They looked like her.

He stole a glance back at Marnie, who was passing two rectangular pieces of paper to the woman sitting behind the desk by the door. The woman glanced at them, then Marnie, asking, “Your date is Luke Smith? Is he a senior?”

“He goes to Hillside,” Marnie said. “I filed the permission slips to bring a date from another school.”

“Did you?” The woman frowned, starting to ruffle through the papers in front of her. “I thought I’d already passed out all the visitor’s tickets...”

“Uh-huh.” Marnie made a small gesture with one hand, and Luke saw a sheet of paper materialize to by the woman’s left elbow. No one else seemed to have noticed the trick; in a world where magic isn’t standard, people just seemed to stop watching for it, even when they knew that there was a witch in their midst. Marnie pointed. “Isn’t that it right over there?”

“What--oh, yes. There it is.” The woman picked up the paper, squinting at it, then accepted Marnie’s tickets with a rueful smile. “I’d probably leave my head lying on the corner somewhere, if it wasn’t sewn on.”

“Actually, that doesn’t happen as often as you’d think,” Marnie said offhandedly, not thinking about it.

“What?”

Marnie winced. “Nothing. Thanks, Ms. Miller.” She accepted their checked-off tickets, grabbed Luke’s hand, and hauled him into the maze of white-lighted trees.

“Does her head come off?” Luke asked, bemused.

“No, that’s just a turn of phrase,” Marnie replied. “I took her too literally.”

“Oh.” He thought about that for a moment, then added, “Too bad. I mean, I could understand if her head came off. But it doesn’t make sense if it doesn’t.”

Marnie stopped, squinting at him. “Are you making fun of me?” she demanded.

“What?” Luke felt himself rapidly losing his place in the conversation. Marnie didn’t look happy. He wanted Marnie to stay happy, and now she didn’t look happy, and that meant he’d said something wrong. The only thing more confusing than girls, he thought, somewhat sourly, is girl witches.

“I said, ‘are you making fun of me?’”

Luke stared at her for a moment. Then finally, desperately, he ventured, “No?”

“Oh,” Marnie said. Then, more slowly, she asked, “Do you want to dance?”

Luke smiled brightly, and followed her out onto the dance floor. Marnie wasn’t mad at him. Everything was going to be okay.

He just hoped that she knew how to dance.

#

12: Some Enchanted Evening.

Once the dance had actually started, it was surprisingly painless. Marnie kept expecting something to go wrong--that Luke would say something in the hearing of her classmates and they’d somehow realize he was the goblin they’d seen at that traumatic, transformational Halloween party, or that she’d make another careless comment and set him off, or that evil wizards would attack--but after a while, she just started to relax. It was a beautiful night. The decorations committee hadn’t quite been able to hide the fact that they were all gathered in the school gym, but they’d done an excellent job of faking it. The other kids were whispering behind their hands, but she’d learned to mostly ignore them, and she wasn’t about to let them ruin her prom.

It was a beautiful night.

Luke wasn’t entirely surprised to discover that Marnie didn’t know how to dance either; after all, there was little call for two-stepping in Halloweentown. On the other hand, most of the prom seemed to be in the same boat. When fast songs came on they stood there and thrashed rhythmically, and during the slow songs, they held each other and swayed. So far, they’d only done the fast dances together--every time the music slowed, Marnie grabbed his hand and dragged him toward the buffet, or over to examine some small point of the decorations.

He was oddly reassured to see that she was still paying that much attention to him, although he was starting to wish that they could do one of those slow dances. Just for a little while.

Marnie’s classmates had been a bit of a surprise. He’d always known that Marnie and her family were, well, different by human standards; after all, they were the newest generation of Cromwell witches, a fact that made them just short of royalty in some circles of the Halloween world. In a way, he’d always assumed that would just...spill over to their lives in the mortal world. Maybe they wouldn’t be completely normal there, but of course they’d be well liked and respected.

Instead, he saw the looks on people’s faces as Marnie walked past with him, and look on hers as she tried devotedly not to meet their eyes. They looked at her--and by association, him--like they were waiting for something to happen that they could laugh at. He was starting to get the idea that maybe Marnie had reasons for not wanting to stay among the humans any longer than she had to.

Maybe it was possible for a Cromwell witch to know what it felt like to be a freak.

He considered this idea as they found a table in a secluded corner of the gym and Marnie went to get them each a glass of punch. He’d been regarding this “date” as a combination of pity and necessity; she needed someone to go with her, and he was the first one she’d thought of. It hadn’t bothered him all that much--after all, no matter why she was doing it, being her date had still allowed him to pretend he was there because she really liked him. She was pretty and smart and powerful and a Cromwell witch, and he was just, well, Luke.

Only with the way her classmates looked at her, and the way she looked at him, maybe it was something more. Maybe she was actually here with him because she wanted to be, not because he was the easiest option. He turned to watch her pouring punch into paper cups, and frowned, speculatively.

If Marnie knew what it was like to be a freak, and had asked him anyway, what did that mean?

Holding a glass of punch in each hand, Marnie walked back across the gym floor toward Luke. He was watching her, a pensive expression on his face and his weight mostly resting on one elbow. She wondered what he was thinking about. He’d probably rather be here with a zombie girl, she thought again, anxiously. Or a goblin, or something that didn’t look so dull and boring and...and human. This was a stupid idea.

She was so wrapped up in her own thoughts that she didn’t see the boys closing in around her until her route to the table was completely blocked off. She stopped, blinking, as she looked around herself.

“Excuse me, please, I was trying to get by,” she said, automatically.

“If it isn’t little Marnie Piper, all dressed up like a normal girl,” said the tallest of them--Mike, one of her mother’s suggested dates. She wondered dimly where Janice was, and then decided that he’d probably left her giggling with the other girls when he went off to harass the class weirdo.

Lucky me, she thought, dismally. I’m a party game.

“Leave your broomstick at home, Marnie?” jeered another--Paul, from her math class.

“Get out of my way, you guys. This isn’t funny.”

“I disagree. Seeing you all dressed up like a real girl is pretty funny from where I’m sitting.” Mike grinned as his companions started to laugh. Marnie looked from face to face, hands starting to shake despite the punch she was holding. One spell and they’d be out of her way. Just one spell--

Which she’d promised her mother she wouldn’t cast. She was supposed to be a normal girl for just one night. Only if she’d ever been a normal girl in the first place, she wouldn’t have been in that situation. A normal girl wouldn’t get surrounded and mocked at her prom for being a witch.

She was still trying to figure out what to do when one of them shoved her from behind. She stumbled and the punch went everywhere, splashing the front of her dress with vast, spreading streaks of red. The boys around her laughed, their bodies shielding her from the sight of the chaperones.

Marnie stared at them in wide-eyed shock, the unspoken words of a transformation spell rising in her mind. Toads, she thought, a word and they’re all toads, and they’ll never do this to me again...

“Awww, did the little witch get punch on her pretty party dress? Just magic it away, Marnie! We want to watch!”

“Careful, Paul, she’ll go all Carrie on you!”

“It’s punch, not pig’s blood, you idiot.”

Marnie looked down at the half-empty cups in her hands, cheeks burning, and fought to swallow the spell that was trying to force its way out of her. They deserved it, she knew they deserved it, but she’d promised...

“What are you guys doing to my date?” Luke spoke from a point just behind Mike’s head. His voice was calm enough, but Marnie recognized the anger lurking just underneath his words; she’d heard it before, when he challenged her over the salvation of Halloweentown.

“What’s it to you? She get you of the science lab, frog-boy?”

Marnie looked up, suddenly afraid that her disguise spell was failing, but no, it was Luke; just Luke, still looking like another human boy. A distinctly displeased human boy, with his arms folded across his chest, glaring at the guys surrounding her.

“No. I’ve known Marnie for years.”

“Oh. A pity date.”

“A what?” Luke frowned, looking honestly confused.

“Come on, Luke, we’re leaving,” Marnie said hurriedly, dropping her half-empty cups and slipping through the gap created by his arrival to grab his hand and haul him away. She didn’t want them to explain the concept. There was too much of a chance that Luke would take it the wrong way and think that they were talking about him.

“But those guys--” he protested.

“They suck. Come on.”

She hauled him toward the exit. Luke glared back over his shoulder at the ring of laughing boys still standing on the dance floor, now cat-calling rude comments about “the witching hour” and how she was “going off to kiss her frog.”

He was going to remember their faces.

#

13: Bored Games.

“Do you think Marnie’s having a good time at the prom? Is she going to hate me when she gets home? She is. She’s going to hate me. I should mentally prepare myself for my daughter hating me.” Gwen twitched the curtains aside, once again staring out into the moonlit front yard. There was no sign yet of Marnie or her date, but the evening was young; they had hours left before curfew.

Sophie looked up from the Trivial Pursuit game, and frowned. “Mom? Pacing until you wear a hole in the carpet isn’t going to make the night happen faster. Come play. It’s your turn.”

“I should never have let her take Luke to the prom. I should’ve put my foot down. No goblin boys. Only human boys, normal boys...”

“Normal is overrated, Mom,” Dylan said, looking up. “Come on, or we’ll move without you.”

Sophia waggled a finger in the air, causing the dice to roll themselves, and said, “If my prom was tomorrow, I think I’d probably take Danny.”

“Danny?” Gwen asked, turning. “Who’s Danny?”

“You mean the one who lives down the street from Grandma?” Dylan asked. “The one with the glasses?”

“Yup,” Sophie said, waggling her fingers again. The dice stopped rolling and fell to the board, showing snake eyes. “The werewolf.”

“Doesn’t he have fleas?”

“He takes eucalyptus baths and wears a flea collar in the summer. He’s nice, and he’s funny and smart. And he likes to play Frisbee, and says I howl at the moon better than any other witch he knows.”

Gwen stared for a moment, and then started to laugh, shaking her head. “Nothing I can do is going to make you kids grow up normal, is it?”

“Nope. We’re a lost cause,” Sophie said, serenely. “Now come on.”

“Yeah,” said Dylan. “It’s still your turn.”

#

14: Out of the Bearded Barley.

“What was that all about?” Luke demanded, as he and Marnie came to a stop outside the gym. “Why were those boys bothering you? Why did we run? You could’ve--”

“No,” Marnie said, letting go of his hand and turning to face him. “I couldn’t.”

“Why not? They’re just humans!”

“They may be ‘just humans’, Luke, but they’re humans like my father was. I can’t just go around just--just zapping them into frogs or whatever because they’re rude to me. No matter how much I may want to.”

Luke paused, looking at her expression. “But they upset you. They made you sad.” I didn’t want to see that look on your face; not tonight, Marnie, not here...

“I’ll get over it.” She shook her head, smiling wryly and blinking back tears as she looked down at her dress. “I mean, look at me. The stains won’t even show.”

“Marnie...”

“It’s dangerous to be different. You should know that. Isn’t that why you were afraid to come here with me?” She looked up again, unshed tears glinting in her eyes.

No, he thought, I was afraid to go because I thought that you might look at me that way. “I got over being scared. I’m glad I’m here with you.”

“Even after what just happened?”

“Of course. Are they like that all the time?”

“Sometimes. Usually they ignore me. Sometimes they’re worse.” She’d always thought that someday she’d reach the point where jeers and teasing couldn’t touch her. And every time she thought she’d managed it, something like this would happen, and she’d wind up right back where she’d started from. “Being a witch who never actually turns anyone into a frog doesn’t protect you. It just makes you a target.”

Luke’s expression hardened, and he offered her his hand. “Come on.”

“What?”

“Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

“Back inside.” He jerked his head toward the gym. “You asked me to be your prom date. So I’m going to do what you asked me to. We’re going to drink punch and talk to the stupid humans and dance until curfew.”

Marnie stared at him. “Why?”

“Because you asked me to.” Luke shrugged. “Because it would be the normal thing to do. And that’s what your mom wants you to have tonight, right?”

“I guess so,” Marnie said, and smiled shyly, sliding her hand into his. She couldn’t help feeling like something was going on; something a little bit bigger and more important than just a dance. And again, she found herself wishing that she hadn’t had to wrap Luke in that disguise spell. She wanted to see his eyes.

Luke smiled back, trying to look encouraging. I must look like such a fool, he thought. And then he saw the growing hope in her eyes, and pushed the thought away. So what if he looked like a fool for a little while? It made her happy, and that was what really mattered. He was there to make her happy, for just as long as he could manage it.

“Come on, you,” he said, leading her toward the gym. “You still owe me a slow dance.”

#

15: Reception Difficulties.

“Oh, good move, dear,” Agatha Cromwell said, picking up another pumpkin cake and taking a bite as she watched the scene unfolding in her crystal ball. “That’s right, lead her back inside--good boy. She’ll dance with you. You know she wants to.”

Finally seeing Marnie realizing what she wanted and stepping out with Luke had been the high point of Aggie’s summer. It wasn’t that she didn’t understand Gwen’s urge to have her children settle down and be happy in the mortal world; after all, she’d very much wanted to see her only daughter settled in Halloweentown and carrying on the Cromwell legacy, once upon a time. But since that hadn’t happened, she’d transferred her hopes for the future to the next generation...and to Marnie.

Marnie was a good witch. Maybe her powers were still a little wobbly from her late start, but she studied hard and caught on quickly, more than making up for her mortal blood. As she’d gotten older, Aggie had been half-afraid that she’d lose her granddaughter the same way she’d lost Gwen--that some strapping mortal lad would come along and sweep her off her feet, and it would all be over. At that point, it would just be her and maybe Sophie left to carry on the Cromwell line, and she wasn’t young anymore. Eventually, she needed to know that she had a successor. Cody had been the realization of all her worst fears, at least until that relationship met its inevitably messy end, unable to bridge the barrier between the worlds.

If Marnie stayed with Luke, on the other hand...there were worse things in the Cromwell family tree than a good, honorable goblin boy who honestly wanted what was best for the girl he cared about. Much worse things.

The reception on her crystal ball started to get fuzzy, and she smacked it with the heel of her hand, a technique she’d learned from watching Marnie deal with the family’s old upstairs television. “Oh, come on, you. Don’t you cut out just as we’re getting to the good part.”

The picture just got fuzzier, and she smacked it again, saying, “Work!”

The crystal ball went black. Then, slowly, a face appeared; a face she almost recognized, pale-skinned and green-haired, with ears that tapered to delicate points. “Hello, Agatha,” she said, sweetly.

The voice was the last key to recognition. Agatha’s eyes widened, pumpkin cake falling out of her hand. “You!”

“Me,” the face in the glass replied, and smiled. “Miss me?”

“What are you doing in my crystal? How dare you!”

“How dare I, Agatha? How dare you. Sitting there and playing with your little crystal while my unfair banishment from Halloweentown continues? Did you ever even think to speak on my behalf? To ask them to reconsider? They took my wings, Agatha.”

“Perryn, we were friends once, but no more,” Agatha said, expression hardening. “They took your wings because there’s no other way to trap a fairy godmother on the mortal plane. I was the one that told them they had to do it. I would’ve taken your wand too, if that wouldn’t have killed you.”

“And so the lofty Agatha Cromwell sits in judgement over those of us that have made a few mistakes, is that it? Lofty and untouchable? Think again, old friend. Things are changing.”

“What are you talking about, Perryn?”

“You’ve gotten old and lazy while the rest of us lingered in filth. Your time will come.” Perryn smiled, showing sharp white teeth, and the image in the crystal blanked out.

Agatha spent several minutes trying to get the picture to return, to no avail. It was gone.

Standing, she summoned her broom and cloak to her hands, and walked out into the night. There was work to be done.

If Perryn had found a way back into Halloweentown, the city needed to be warned.

#

16: Be Careful What You Wish For.

“Luke, I’m still not sure this is a good idea...”

“Hush, for once in your life. I know what I’m doing,” Luke said, and led Marnie back into the gym.

The mess on the floor had been cleaned up, and the boys responsible for it had long since returned to their dates and corners. A few heads turned toward them as they entered, curious, and Luke felt Marnie start to pull away.

“Stop that,” he said. “You’re not the freak here, they are. They’re the ones who can’t see how wonderful it is to have a real Cromwell witch even deigning to associate with them.”

Marnie blinked. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. They’re all fools. Come on.” He led her out to the center of the dance floor, ignoring the stares of Marnie’s classmates, and said, “All right. Now what do we do?”

“What? This was your idea!”

“Yeah, but it’s not my dance.” Luke grinned disarmingly, and again, Marnie found herself picturing what that expression would look like on his undisguised face. It wasn’t an unwelcome image. “The music’s too slow. Tell me what to do.”

“Tell you what to do?”

“You’re a Cromwell. You know how to be bossy. You’ve bossed me around since the day that we met.” Luke shrugged, still grinning. “So come on, Marnie. Boss me around some more.” Boss me around forever. I don’t mind.

Marnie studied him for a moment, and then, slowly, smiled. “All right. First, you put one hand here.” She reached for his free hand, moving it around to place on her hip. While he was still blinking at her in surprise, she did the same with his other hand, saying, “Now, put this hand here. And slide them together, and rest them on my back.”

“I...but...”

“You asked me how to slow dance.” Keeping her eyes on his, Marnie linked her hands behind his neck and stepped closer, saying, “Now you tighten your arms, so that I can’t fall.”

Luke did as he was told, silently hoping that the disguise spell he was wearing wouldn’t show the way he was blushing. “And, uh, now what do we do?”

“Now we dance.” All around them, couples in similar positions--some even closer together -- were swaying back and forth, eyes closed. Luke started to emulate them, trying not to think too hard about how close Marnie was to him, or the fact that he had his arms around her--from the front this time, rather than from the back, the way that he normally rode when he joined her on the broomstick.

Marnie rested her head against his shoulder, closing her eyes, and swayed in time with the music. The punch on her dress was drying, and not even going to stain...and frankly, if that was what it took to get Luke to pull her out onto the floor, maybe she didn’t really want to complain all that much. This was...nice. This was more than nice.

This was what she’d been wanting all night.

Mom was right, she thought. Going to the prom was a good idea. And I was right, too--taking Luke was the right thing to do. She opened one eye, looking up at him. He was watching the couples around them, apparently trying to make sure he didn’t do anything wrong. She closed her eye again, smiling against his shoulder.

I like him, she thought. I really, really like him. I don’t care if he’s a human or a goblin or whatever. He’s just...he’s Luke. That’s all I want him to be. Just Luke.

The song ended and the next began, and they kept on dancing. Everything would be all right, just as long as they kept dancing.

“Marnie?”

“Yeah?”

“You okay?”

“Yeah.” She leaned back, smiling up at him. “I was just thinking that Mom was right. Sometimes...I guess sometimes it really is nice to be normal.”

#

Interlude: Making Wishes, Part IV.

The crystal flashed a third time, almost drowning the room in brilliant white light. The woman sitting in front of it jerked back, grinning slowly as the black quartz turned a dull purple, lit from within.

“Does that count?” demanded the voice from the shadows. “Is that enough?”

“Enough and more! She asked for ‘some time’, and that’s what she shall have. Three wishes is enough for me to pull them into what we need,” she said, unable to keep the delight out of her voice. “Three requests...”

“And the third time’s the charm,” came the hissing reply. “Time to give them what they asked for.”

Smiling thinly, she turned back to the crystal and spread her hands above it. One by one, the faces of the Piper family swam into view: Gwen, Dylan, Marnie. Sophie’s face appeared at the center, more dimly, like she was being viewed through a tunnel. “Let’s begin.”

“Will it work on the little brat?” the voice asked.

“Not as well as on her family,” admitted the woman. “She never placed the wish herself, and that means it can’t bind her as quickly. But she’s young, and what changes for them will change for her as well. She’ll just see the changes for what they are for longer than the rest will.”

“Good enough,” the voice said. “You may begin.”

“Thank you so kindly,” she said, the mockery in her voice impossible to miss. Hands still raised, she chanted:

“Half the choices each man sees
Are founded in the fading past:
We place our faith in destinies,
Believing history will last.
Each of you has made a choice,
Called for something you were not.
‘Normal’ you have given voice...
Now leave your stranger dreams...forgot.”

The crystal flared with sickly purple light this time, brightening until the faces of the Pipers had vanished underneath the glow. Perryn let her hands drop, staring off into the darkness, and said, “It is done, my lord.”

From out of the shadows drifted a faded, scarecrow-tattered figure, wrapped in the remains of what had once been an elegant black velvet cloak. When the purple light hit him directly, he became all but transparent, fading into the shadows. He was only a ghost of himself, but still, she knew him; he was her husband, her lord and master, and the reason for her exile from Halloweentown.

“No, my dear,” Kalabar replied. “It’s only beginning.”