Charles Meade is an obvious choice to speak at Career Day. In a small town like Chance Harbor, all most kids aspire to is getting the hell out of it: even if they have to swim. They need a reason to stay, and something to strive for.
He's visibly surprised when she approaches him, sidling up at the bar of the Boathouse. He's grown into a successful man; not entirely unattractive, and hard to pin down. They're a careful sort of friends, past and parenthood drawing them together, but they move in very different kinds of circles, these days.
He buys her a drink, makes practised small talk, but is otherwise reluctant to cooperate. He shrugs off her invitation as if he can't possibly be worthy of it. Or maybe it's just her: the proximity summoning too many painful memories. Some ghosts are best left sleeping, their graves undisturbed.
He points out other options. Her, for starters. Jane Blake, a registered nurse. Proprietors of all kinds of local establishments—
“Tourist traps and fishermen,” she counters, case already prepared. Dawn Chamberlain is never lost for words, and she's not easily deterred. She glances over at Ethan, gazing glassy-eyed at a beer keg. Her voice drops to a whisper, as if it's a secret only the two of them share, not a commonly-held fact. “Alcoholic bartenders...”
Charles can't say no to her. But then, she's never let him get near enough to have the chance.
He's predictably good at public speaking. Inspirational, even. He talks at length, without notes, about what attracted him to the law; bats back impertinent questions about money, the cut of his suit answering for him. He speaks with fire and passion about balance, and justice, and the need to right wrongs.
Their eyes meet across a sea of students. A world of possibilities opens up, and swallows both of them whole.
Diana shares Charles's height and hair colour, but her character—that kind sincerity, and perky efficiency—is all Elizabeth. They've been fake-dating all of five minutes before she's arranging dinners and colour-coding her diary for a trip to the fair, the next time it comes to town. Her mom was exactly the same. She'd named each of her future children by the time she was twelve, a story Dawn shares while they're slicing carrots.
Faye, distinctly unenthused by the invitation, found an excuse to avoid it. She doesn't know what it's really in honour of, and seems not to suspect. It's hard to imagine, at sixteen: your mother having red blood in her veins, instead of ice. She'll have to fill her in on the fiction eventually, but the time has never been right. More and more they're so much like ships, passing in the night, and once again in the morning.
This night, then, Dawn is all Diana's. She soaks up the attention, looking over with her face aglow. There's pain there, a sharp sense of loss, and something else; something Dawn can't quite put her finger on.
She likes Diana. Cares about her, in appropriately distant fashion: she's Faye's friend, a child of their Circle, one of her most promising students. But what she really needs is a mother. She deserves better than this sick little charade, one that Charles, in his infinite stupidity, has inflicted on them all.
She keeps up appearances until the end of the evening, kissing him on the cheek through gritted teeth. Diana lingers in the doorway even longer than Charles does, beaming brightly as she waves goodnight, her eyes shining in the light. She's probably already organising the wedding, painting pretty pictures in her head of what she and Faye will wear.
Dawn can rationalise anything in the pursuit of her power. The feelings of a naïve, motherless teenager are the very least of her concerns.
But when she pictures Diana's face, later, and finally identifies the look on it—hope—it almost makes her feel guilty, all the same.
Nick's death is a necessary evil. Dawn blames Jane—they might have stood a chance of reviving him, if she hadn't shown up—and even knowing it's a fallacy, finds it persuasive enough to share with Charles. He's falling apart, threatening all their plans. She despises his weakness; recoils from it out of instinct, and some distant, whispering fear. She needs a strong kind of partner, one less thing to have to worry about. And he needs something else to focus on: something to hold on to that's not the tidal wave of grief, or the fading hope of power.
Cracks are starting to appear in their partnership, too. She suspects their increasingly frequent disagreements owe less to differing opinion than to Charles, finally asserting himself. True to form, he slaps down Jane's guilt the second she suggests it, preferring to wallow in his own. She resorts to Plan B, one carefully considered and prepped for, and launches herself at him like a heat-seeking missile, silencing his whining with a perfectly-timed kiss.
She's well aware of the effect she has on him. Part of her is still waiting for him to push her off, twist away in disgust at this time-old bid for control. But he pulls her against him and kisses her back, clinging to her like she's the only thing in his world that still makes sense. She cradles his skull, fingers tangling through his hair. She tells herself it's out of necessity, out of pity; not prepared for the fire that surges through her, as unexpected as it is enticing.
She wonders, fleetingly, if it's been simmering beneath her skin all along.
Months of foreplay—if that's really what they were—don't translate to great sex. She's out of practice, and a little to her surprise, so is he. They spend too long tussling for position to find one that works for them both. And she has no intention of letting down her guard, mistaking this for something it's not. They're both starved of touch, heartsick over Nick, hungry for what they can't have. There's only so much power she's prepared to give him.
In the morning he's gone, cool and composed the next time she sees him, instead of a quivering wreck. She's gotten what she wanted, but it's less of a triumph than she thought it would be. It feels more like his victory than hers; like he's won a battle that she wasn't aware they were fighting.
For the first time, she starts to wonder if she's a little less in control of this arrangement than she's always been content to believe.
She overplays her hand with Kate, pushing her luck with the kiss. Diana remains oblivious, chatting happily over coffee about plans for the school fundraiser, and the party she wants to throw for her father’s next birthday. Dawn is struck by the disconnect. That, and how young she still is: not much younger than she and Elizabeth were, when Faye and Diana were born.
They were just babies, really, having babies. It's no wonder Faye has no respect for her, laughing off every attempt to make her toe the line.
Diana puts on almost as good a show as Dawn does. She never comes close to mentioning the Circle, believing Dawn and Charles to be as unaware of that as the kids are of them. But her heartbreak over Adam is clear. She doesn't pour out her heart—there are things you don't share with your high school principal—but she does let slip how it started, or rather, ended: when Ethan told her she was no more destined to be with his son than her next-door neighbour's cat.
Ethan is a callous, snivelling ass. Dawn would like to make him pay for it. But it's not her job, and there's always a chance she'll need him, with Charles no longer playing ball.
She pats Diana's hand consolingly, dispenses some motherly pearls of wisdom about someone else being out there for her, maybe closer than she knows. It's a hollow comfort, coming from a single mom who was a widow before she turned twenty, and has been alone ever since. But Diana is too polite to question it. And she has her entire life ahead of her; cliché that it is, there are plenty more fish in the sea.
They live in a harbour, after all. You never know who might be next to drop anchor.
Back at home, she orders—asks—Faye to keep a closer eye on Diana. Charles clearly isn't up to the task, and she's worried about what might be brewing beneath his daughter's pasted-on smile, the overly-pleasant way she talks about Cassie. Emotional turmoil will threaten the Circle's stability, risk all the progress they've made.
Two days later, she steps out of her car, and watches from the shadows as Faye comforts a sobbing Diana. Adam has been wise enough to stay away; Cassie and Melissa are nowhere to be seen. Faye leans in, as if to hug Diana—and then their mouths slot together. It's not an accident. The light from the porch makes that much plain: Faye knows precisely what she's doing. She's kissing Diana, square on the lips, sweet and slow and tender.
Dawn stands there, frozen; her world wobbling and shifting on its axis.
She blinks once, twice, and tears her eyes from the scene, before she can witness Diana's reaction. She stares down at the sidewalk instead, registering nothing greater than the feel of it, firm beneath her feet. The astounding fact that Faye, for once in her headstrong life, has not only listened to her mother—but done exactly as she was told.
Charles is less concerned than she is, when she finally, grudgingly, decides to tell him. She'd forgotten it was possible: the two of them having a civilised conversation, instead of bickering over crystals. He pours her a large glass of red wine and proves maddeningly reasonable, pointing out that these things don't have to mean anything—a subtext she hears loud and clear—that kids experiment all the time, that theirs are especially vulnerable, after everything that's happened. He adds that he'd be more than happy to welcome Faye into his family, should none of the above be the case.
He's making fun of her. Well, the mask had to slip sooner or later. She refuses to give him the satisfaction of acknowledging it.
“I'm a terrible mother,” she says, since she doesn't feel like lying, either. She knocks back her wine, moving on to seconds. It's a decent vintage, one Charles reserves for guests and fake girlfriends, but it feels more like battery acid, burning a stripe down her throat.
“I'm sure Faye will confide in you eventually, if she feels the need.”
She shouldn't goad him, especially while they're not on the best of terms, and he's standing over her with a glass bottle. She does it anyway. “The way Diana confided in you, about breaking up with Adam?”
His jaw tightens. He places the bottle on the coffee table and sits on the couch, a safe distance away from her.
“We've just become so separate,” she says. “And sure, it makes things easier. For us, I mean. But that's the only good thing about it.”
Her thoughts return to Faye and Diana, and the wine loosens her tongue enough to share them. No crystal is needed for a truth spell; alcohol works a magic all its own.
“And they're practically sisters...”
There it is: the part that bothers her most. Probably. Maybe. Though she doesn't know why, and she can't think straight enough to figure it out, not with Charles across the room, plying her with high-percentage Merlot. This is all just pretend: a means to an end, and one she detests. They go their separate ways once they get their power back; three problems solved, in one fell swoop. Faye and Diana will be free to do whatever they want, and so will they. And at least Faye won't get pregnant, if she starts dating girls. Dawn is really much too young to be a grandmother.
She glares over at Charles. “Or so you want them to believe. Still think that was a good idea, Charles? Still enjoying living out your twisted little fantasy?..”
He picks up the bottle and carries it back into the kitchen, not deigning to give an answer.
Things return to normal. As normal as they can be, when John Blackwell has risen from the grave and is prowling around town like he'd never left. Rumours reach her about Diana, and a boy from a boat. Faye has a new crush too, some kid called Leo, or Leon, or maybe Lee. She hears her, giggling on the phone to Melissa, describing his attributes in eye-popping detail, but it's never clear what his name is. Faye slams shut the door the second she hears Dawn's footsteps, lowering her voice to a whisper. It's as unanswered a question as Faye and Diana, and whether they really are just friends, or something more.
Something more like John: lying hidden, and in wait.
He still has power. She can see it, more than sense it: it's in the way he carries himself, smug and whole and oh-so fucking special. It clings to him like a crown of thorns. She feels the echo of her own, long-gone power, a witch's phantom limb, and aches with envy, wishing she at least had the crystal. If she could only hold it, just for a moment—she's sure John's brush-off wouldn't sting so much. The crystal brought her back from the brink of death. It's more than capable of healing injured pride, and erasing broken dreams.
Charles isn't the only one who's been holding on to a fantasy, unwilling to abandon it even when reality comes crashing in.
Faye has never been interested in helping with the prom committee. She leaves them to it, mulling over her own options. Charles would perceive another request for the crystal as weakness: and she is not weak. He'd want to hear her beg, and she doesn't beg. She doesn't regret double-crossing him—he'd have done the same, in her position—but the repercussions are another matter. Everything is laced with bitterness now, hanging between them like a veil. Everything is a struggle. It's so much more complicated than she ever intended it to be.
She avoids him for a while after he saves her life. He expects gratitude; deference, most likely, since this is the second time around. But she doesn't do that, either. It's awkward, going crawling back, twisting what is really a cry for help to her own advantage. But when she blackmails him into quizzing Jane, it feels like nothing more than business as usual. The pair of them, slipping back into a well-worn groove, full of snide remarks and mutual suspicion.
They might as well be married, she thinks bitterly, picking through Diana's sketches for the prom queen's tiara. They're stuck with each other, for better or worse, just the same.
Her source at the clinic thinks Jane might have had another visitor, out of hours. Nothing is certain, with John back in town, and the hunters on his heels: but Charles is still Dawn's number one suspect. She seethes with anger—how dare he go behind her back, plotting things that don't involve her—and makes a terse request for a meeting, someplace quiet and out of the way, where the kids won't have to watch her kill him. She wants it over with, wants him gone. Wants him out of her life, a place she should have let him stay.
The deck creaks as she steps onto the boat. The sky is devoid of stars, everything cast in blue-black shadow; she can't even see her watch. Feeling her way to the cabin, she tests the door, and goes inside. She squints around, and reaches for her cell phone with a sigh—swallows back a scream instead as something brushes her arm, a hand encircling her wrist. Heart pounding, she whirls around and holds up the phone. Charles's face, ghostly in its glow, hovers before her.
She drops the phone to her feet, red mist lighting her way, and thumps him. He grunts, staggers back. She shakes her hand, knuckles raw and split—when did he get so solid?—and opens her mouth to continue the assault. The cheating, conniving bastard, sneaking around in the dark when there are witch hunters on the loose—
He grabs her arm and hauls her forward, nails digging moons in her skin. Adrenaline shivers through her. For one thrilling, drawn-out moment, she thinks he's going to hit her back.
And then his hand is on her neck, mouth a heavy stamp on hers. The words, trapped in her throat, fall away. The best she can manage is a strangled gasp. She bites down on his lip to punish him, remind him which of them is really in charge here. But her hands are clawing past his shirt, scratching for skin, and it's suddenly, painfully clear to her that it's a delusion; just like all the other things she's taken for granted and then had stripped from her, one by one—Tom, John, her power. Faye, who she loves more than anything else in the world and is growing ever more apart from, a gulf she has no idea how to bridge.
How could she ever have thought herself in charge of him? She's not even in charge of herself, anymore.
Dawn has always liked leather. It's one of the few things in life that grows more appealing with age, wears its wounds well—creases and bends, but never breaks. Charles's jacket, sprawled beneath her head, is a very fine example. It makes as comfortable a pillow as he does a backrest. He's toying with her fingers, with her hand; tracing the scars on her palm. It feels more tender than exploratory, border lines a dangerous blur. The anger has burned itself out, turned to ash. It's all just shades of grey, now.
She can't remember how to care.
She turns to him eventually, checking his face, or the outline of it. “You'd better get some ice on that. It'll bruise.”
“I doubt it,” Charles says. "You got more of that bulkhead than me." His hand stills on hers. “And you're not nearly as strong as you think you are.”
There's wry amusement in his voice. And a hint of something else. The crackle of tension replaced with something careless, and soft. Pity, or concern, or, or, or— It's too close for comfort, and suddenly so is he. She tugs her hand away, the warmth seeping from it, and sits up. Back into the cold.
“I asked you to meet me here so we could talk,” she says curtly, groping around for her clothes. The dress is one of her favourites: expensive, black and white, and ill-designed for impromptu sex. She thinks he might have ripped it, and is strangely pleased about it. Something else to add to his rap sheet. Another compelling reason not to like him.
“And there I was, thinking you were trying to kill me...”
She smirks, twanging a bra strap. “I believe I succeeded.”
“Practice makes perfect,” Charles allows lazily, sounding far too pleased with himself. It makes her blush, and her hackles rise.
“Did you go visit Jane Blake? Again? Without me?”
She halts her hand, reaching back to seek her zipper. “Why?”
“I was looking for something,” Charles says, voice nearing her ear. She closes her eyes as he fastens the seam, fingers ghosting up her spine, something warm curling down it.
It's a lie. Of course it's a lie. But concealed within it is the truth. He's been searching for it since they were in high school: the part of her that isn't frost-edged steel, willing to do anything, use anyone—even her own daughter—to get what she wants.
He wants their power back as badly as she does. It's why they've gone to such extreme lengths to get it; why they teamed up in the first place. When you're born into a circle, where the whole is always greater than its parts, there'll always be a piece of you that believes it.
But he also wants her heart. And she can't—won't—let him have it.
She spins a story about the last time she lost her credit card, to save him having to strain himself. Charles plays along. Whatever he's up to with Jane, she knows she'll find out, one way or another. And this is business: purely business. She'll let him keep his secret, for now, as a professional courtesy. The return of the witch hunters—in the interests of balance—will be hers.
“This is never going to happen again,” she says, since they're on a roll, and she needs to claw back some authority.
“I'd sooner fuck John Blackwell,” Charles says obligingly. He adds, turning nasty, “And so would you.”
It hangs in the shadows, and settles there: half a statement, half a question. One she's still not ready to answer. She slips on her shoes and turns to leave, feeling his eyes on her back every step of the way, watching the distance grow between them.
The air is bracing and cool, down by the Boathouse. Sea air: which, she remembers vaguely, makes this place a tiny bit warmer than it should be, at certain times of year. Water moderates land, setting the coast apart from the rest, as if it exists in a bubble. She blows on the plastic circle of her coffee, skin raised in gooseflesh. The sensation is more reassuring than unpleasant. There's nothing quite like fresh air when you want to clear your head, and need to blow away the cobwebs.
A curtain of dark hair, the painted slash of a mouth, hover into view. Faye rattles a takeout bag, says something spiky about breakfast, and Dawn doing disappearing acts instead of burning her toast. She steals her coffee, grimacing at the lack of sugar, and starts to pick at her food. It feels like the longest they've spent together, sharing the same space, for weeks.
She spends more time with Charles than anyone else, now. Her teenage self would be horrified; have had Amelia check her straight in to the psych ward. Maybe that's the real reason she always kept him at arm's length, all those years ago. Maybe she knew, all along: that he'd manage to crawl beneath her skin, if she allowed him any closer.
“How's Leo?” she asks, making conversation.
“It's Lee,” Faye growls, rolling her eyes. Her face falls, just a little. “Or it was.”
Sympathy, hardwired inside her, clutches at Dawn's heart. Breakups are painful—but the news interests her less than the way Faye is still standing there, eyes lowered, twirling the edges of the bag around her fingers. She seizes the opportunity, voice guileless and neutral. “And Diana?”
Faye's face doesn't fall. It collapses. She loses half an inch in height, as if her knees have buckled. She recovers quickly, applying a smile that doesn't reach her eyes—but that fleeting moment of misery tells Dawn all she needs to know. How Diana is now—moving on from Adam, as the gossip suggests—and what her reaction was, back then.
Faye's smile is hauntingly reminiscent of Diana's own. Kind, efficient Diana, writhing in silent agony over her lack of a mother; a sweetheart fate has already assigned to another.
And she's not the only member of the Circle who wants something—someone—that is tantalisingly close to her, but still out of reach.
“Fine,” Faye says tightly.
There are things Dawn wants to say. I really don't care who you date, as long as they make you happy. Fight for what you want, because that's the only way you'll win. Be strong, even when it seems impossible. Never let anyone take your power from you, and make you something less than you are—
But the window is already closing, Faye shuffling her feet, battling the itch to escape. And she no longer knows how to say them.
“Good,” she says, instead.
She reaches out and captures Faye's chin with her hand, wiping crumbs from her lip with the tip of a thumb. Faye's face contorts in horror. She wriggles free, says she'll be late for school—and by the way, she's getting a lift with Melissa so there's no need to start bitching about her getting abducted by passing sex offenders with a thing for hot girls in short skirts, and she has pepper spray in her purse anyways, so there's no need to nag her about that, either—and takes one last gulp of the coffee before darting off, and drifting away.
Dawn stares out at the sea, rolling gently in the breeze, and considers what lies beyond it. The horizon peeps out behind the mountains: so near, and yet so far. She could leave Chance Harbor, the way anyone with any sense does, as soon as they graduate. See what else is out there. Faye can come with her, finish up high school someplace else; the Circle will just have to conjure themselves a cousin, to fill the slot. Tom is buried here, but she doesn't need a grave to visit: she carries him with her, wherever she goes.
She could drive, charter a nice big boat, swim. Stop fighting, start running. Get as far away from the memories, and from Charles, as she can.
She indulges the fantasy for as long as possible. But the clock is ticking, the cold starting to bite. All bubbles have to burst in the end. And she wants her power back, more than any of it.
She has groceries to buy, a high school to run, a status to preserve. Another encounter with Charles to anticipate: in which she will stand at a careful distance, ask him nicely what he's plotting behind her back, if he'd be kind enough to drop off her cell phone when he gets the chance, and absolutely, definitely, not remove her clothes, however good an idea it might seem at the time.
They're on the edge. Power is so close now she can taste it: feel it rushing to her head, speeding her heart, and making every cell in her body tingle. It's a long way down, and she can't afford to fall.
There's nowhere else to go, at the end.
Nowhere to go but back.