"I just can't help myself …"

Fanfiction by: A J

(Standard Disclaimer Applies)

Chapter 1

"Kinda I want to"

Their day started out as normal as possible; that is, as normal as a day for the Guardians could. By second period, Will and the others were standing under their favorite tree in the courtyard between classes, calling out their Astral Drops and folding to Candracar. Matt stood just inside the door of Sheffield Institute with Elyon, the pair tagging the 'Drops with glamours to enhance their resemblance of the five girls. The light mystic touch also ensured that if any of the 'Drops were messed with magically, as Nerissa had with Will's, the pair would be the first to know, and could head off any impending disasters.

Throughout the day, they worried, they fretted, and eventually, they headed over to the Silver Dragon, resignedly leading the Astral Drops along like so many ducklings. As fate would have it, the other boyfriends of the girls had joined up in the procession. Matt kept trading scared looks with Elyon as he and 'Mina (Will's awakened Altermere, who now appeared instead of a normal Astral Drop) led the other Guardians' 'Drops, arm in arm.

Astral Irma was creeping Elyon and Matt out the most, since she'd decided that the ever-pining Martin Tubbs was okay. The two were next-to last in the line, holding hands and blushing whenever their eyes met.

Taranee's 'Drop was acting the closest to normal, in that she'd apparently channeled all of the original's phobias at once. She looked like Adrian Monk from television, constantly shying away from everything, and only letting Nigel hold her gloved hand so nothing else could touch it

Caleb was carrying the Astral Cornelia piggyback, something all the others were finding absolutely hilarious, since the real Earth Guardian would have never done something like that. Her 'Drop had found Cornelia's silly side, and was alternately pretending to be an airplane, arms spread wide and raspberried engine sounds included, and teasing Caleb mercilessly, mostly with kisses, but at least once (to his embarrassment and Elyon's outright shock) with a wet willie.

Trailing behind by an increasing margin were Eric Lyndon and Hay Lin. The two kept stopping to make out, mostly at intersections, which is how they'd ended up at the back to begin with. They had started kissing while the group waited for a light to change at Four Street, and had still been liplocked when the gang had crossed without them, and the light had changed again before they'd come up for air. Fortunately, 'Mina had missed them on the other side, and had gotten the others to wait.

"Evidently, she's found Hay's missing inner hormonal teenager," Matt observed worriedly. "Hopefully the real Hay Lin comes back before he gets past second base." Nigel, Elyon and 'Mina started laughing, but each stopped as the full thought-train made it through their brains.

"Oh my gosh," Elyon answered. "Do you think one of us ought to go to Candracar to find out what's taking them so long?"

"Wait 'til we get to the restaurant," Caleb answered her, slowly doing a large circle around the others with the giggling Cornelia sputtering over his shoulders. Elyon was glad she had volunteered to hang on to the blonde 'Drop's purse; she'd have dropped it before they'd gotten out of the school yard, at this rate. "We can ride herd on these four better there, and whoever goes can duck out under cover of a run to the privy."

"What if they can't come back right away?" 'fraidy-Taranee' asked, wringing her hands. Nigel winced; she hadn't let his go first. Elyon looked up at Matt with a sick feeling. The weekend was still a day away, and they could cover the more obvious character-misprints of the Astral Drops okay at school, but once they all went home, all bets were off.

Taranee and Irma's family's weren't likely to notice anything amiss, but Cornelia's silliness was evidently escalating as she grabbed the hats off of Irma and 'Mina's heads. And if they didn't get Hay Lin and Eric separated soon, the young Asian girl was fast becoming a candidate for one of those after-school specials about teen promiscuity, not to mention public indecency.

The pair was 'Dirty Dancing' to the random hip-hop tune that was playing from the nearby record store. If they hadn't been making slow but steady progress forward still, Matt was ready to hoist Astral Hay over his shoulder and carry her home. As was, he was sure Yan Lin was going to give Matt, Elyon, Nigel, and 'Mina an earful at the earliest opportunity. The three-and-a-half of them finally led the rest to the Silver Dragon, where Astral Taranee started to hyperventilate over 'public air-conditioning germs' out of the blue.

"Tell you what," Nigel said, inhumanly patient at this point. Elyon knew it was out of devotion to the real Taranee. "Why don't we go wait in the park, while the others find out what's what, okay?" The poor 'Drop, overcome with the kindness of the suggestion, threw her arms around his neck with a sobbing "Yes!"

Matt and the others watched the pair walk off bemusedly for a moment, then 'Mina opened the door of the best Chinese restaurant in town and the group filtered in. As Hay and Eric straggled past her, 'Mina grabbed her hand for a second, and waved Eric on with a murmured "Girl Talk."

Hay Lin's 'Drop pouted for a moment when he released her hand, then turned to Will's Altermere with her original's usual peppy grin. "'sup, Will?" she giggled.

"Let's talk downstairs, okay?" Before waiting for an answer, she just led the 'Drop to the basement in the back of the Silver Dragon. As soon as she had set foot on the staircase however, Astral Hay dug her heels in.

"I can't see Eric from therrrre," she whined. 'Mina screwed her brain up for a second, trying to see the situation from the 'Drop's perspective, then just gave it up as a bad idea.

"Look, Hay-hay, I just don't want to freak the poor guy out, okay? I need to go to Candracar for a second, and I want you to come with me. You know I hate going there alone." It wasn't quite a lie; Will was never comfortable in the Heart of Infinity without having at least one of the other Guardians along anymore, ever since Nerissa's prolonged impersonation of the Mage of Meridian. The former Heartwielder had proven that even the Congregation of Candracar could be fooled. Besides that, taking along the Astral Drop would serve to keep her separated from Eric for at least a few minutes, and that meant a few minutes they weren't having to watch the pair like mother bears.

"Oh, okay!" Hay Lin's Astral Drop agreed and danced down the stairs, now dragging 'Mina in her wake. As soon as they were at the bottom she twirled around, her pigtails fluttering up and around her head until she looked like a helicopter about to take off. "Dum-de-dum-de-dee, you're off to Candracar with me," Astral Hay sing-songed, and 'Mina smiled despite herself. This is what she missed the most about not being 'alive' all the time, the little moments with the girls just being girls, instead of having to be 'The Guardians'. She had a sudden thought, but kept it to herself for the next time she talked to Will. For now, they had a mission. Well, she had a mission, anyway. Two missions, if you counted keeping Hay Lin amongst the virginal. "Hey, are we gonna get changed before we go?" Hay 'Drop asked suddenly, waving a hand up and down her lanky frame. Then she grinned. "Ooooh! And can I stay 'Guardianed up' when we get back? I wanna surprise Eric!"

"Aaaahhhh, no. We're not gonna be there long, and I don't want to give the Oracle any more reasons to take my Heart from me." 'Mina knew she was pushing her luck just making a fold, since Yan and Mira had both told her that Altermeres were closely monitored by some of Candracar's more conservative Congregation members, and severely punished for the slightest infractions.

Drawing her duplicate of the Heart of Candracar out, she waved it in the air between the two girls, creating a fold. "Come on: just there, ask our question, and back. Easy-peasy." With a gulp, she grabbed Astral Hay's hand and stepped through the fold, which closed behind them.

w.i.t.c.h.

Back upstairs in the restaurant, Elyon sat upright. It was a marked change from where she had been, slumped over in the booth she was sharing with Caleb (also laying his head on the table in abject humiliation), Astral Cornelia (who was currently 'racing' two sugar packets around a hastily-assembled obstacle course on the tabletop - complete with sound effects), Martin and Irma 'Drop (who had progressed to sharing a soda and making sappy google-eyes at each other over the table. Reaching over and tapping Caleb on the shoulder, Elyon told him quietly that 'Mina had gone to Candracar for everybody, and had taken Astral Hay with her – for safety's sake.

At his miserable nod, she smiled back reassuringly. "Don't worry. You know she won't want to stay there long, and she'll get the answers before she's back, same as Will would." His answering smirk was quavering, at best. Then he just lowered his head back to the table with a 'thwok'.

Turning and delivering the same messages to Matt, she couldn't help but notice his distracted air. "What's wrong, Matt?"

"Just trying to fight the weirdness, Elyon. Have you noticed how clingy they all are? Even 'Mina?" Matt shook his head. "Usually, this kind of thing only crops up if the girls have something strongly on their minds before they create a 'Drop. This … this looks like they had either their boys on their minds before they left, which – hey, I can't say I mind, or considering Taranee's panic mode, their own survivability for this mission was in question."

"Then how do you explain …" Elyon nodded in Astral Cornelia's direction, and raised her brows questioningly.

Matt grinned. "Oh, that one's too easy. Irma probably said something crazy like normal, Cornelia called her on it, and Irma told her she was being too serious again. And we all know how Corny responds to criticism." The two looked back at the 'Drop, who had progressed to a 'crash-up derby' involving all the sugar packets she could reach, still with sound effects, and shook their heads sadly.

Astral Cornelia interrupted her next packet-smashing long enough to raspberry the two of them. "Don't call me Corny," she whispered, giggled, and continued her planned demolition with a great "BOOM!" Irma and Martin both jerked away from their drink, spraying the table with cola.

"I am SO glad we're the only ones here right now," Caleb said into the tabletop, and started banging his head on it quietly. Ravening hordes of enemies he could handle. This … not so much.

Elyon looked at Matt with a wicked grin. "You know, we could always send her home as-is anyway; Lillian wouldn't know what hit her."

"It'd be the most fun she'd ever have with her sister, that's for sure." He laughed quietly for a moment, then straightened up with a scared look on his face. "Crap, quick, glamour a page from T for me, will ya? Her 'panic meter' just shot through the ceiling, and I want a realistic reason for having to 'run' to the park."

Nodding worriedly, Elyon glanced around, and noticed that 'Mina had left Will's phone on her backpack, which Matt was still carrying for her. 'Perfect,' she thought, pointing at it and making it ring once, then glamouring Taranee's number on the front screen. Matt jumped when he heard the opening bars of 'The Will to Love', and Elyon grinned, despite the situation. Apparently, he hadn't heard Will's new ringtone before now.

Glancing down at the screen and seeing Taranee's number displayed, Matt tried to answer the phone. Since it wasn't a real call though, there wasn't anything to answer. Closing Will's phone, he stood up with a muttered curse. With a wink of thanks in Elyon's direction, he turned to the others and said he was going to check on the pair at the park, just in case. Caleb gave him a captive, panicked look, which Matt had to hide his smile after, and Eric just gave him a distracted wave, wondering how much longer Will's 'girl talk' was going to keep Hay Lin away. Looking down at the phone to check the time, Matt wondered the same thing for a second, then handing the device to Elyon, he said "Be right back. With any luck, it's just a dead cell battery on T's end." With that he hurried out the door and over to the park.

w.i.t.c.h.

'Mina and Astral Hay hurried in to the Chamber of the Congregation from the balcony they'd arrived on. For some unknown reason, the Heart brought them somewhere different each time they arrived in Candracar. Once, it had even put them in the basement of the Library tower, amongst the gathered refuse of centuries of research by the inhabitants. Today's jog was only a matter of minutes, as opposed to the hour that day had led to.

The Oracle looked up from the viewing pool as the pair of girls entered. "Ah! Our prodigal daughter returns. But why did you bring an As …" 'Mina's hurried waving interrupted him just in time.

"Something's gone weird with the others, Oracle, and we wanted to know how much longer the Guardians were gonna be away." She gave a motion with her eyes, so he would know the problem involved Hay Lin's double, as well.

"Hmmmm, I see." He looked back down at the viewing pool for a moment, and waved his hand before him, changing the view he was presented with. 'Mina peeked over the edge, to see the Silver Dragon's main dining room. Martin, Irma, and Cornelia were cornered behind Caleb and Elyon in a booth. Irma and her mortal frienemy were sipping on straws from the same glass, and Cornelia, having 'wrecked' all the sugar packets in one huge pile, was now slowly emptying them one by one into a teacup in front of Caleb, while reciting the poem "How do I love thee? Let me count the ways …" Eric was sitting in the next booth by himself, slowly stirring the fizz out of his orange soda.

"Where's Matt?" 'Mina asked, then blushed before looking at the Oracle. He smiled understandingly, though, and with another wave, the three saw Matt arrive at the park, panting out "What's wrong?" to a flustered Nigel, who was collapsed on a park bench with a crying Taranee 'Drop in his lap.

"Awwww, no more Eric," Astral Hay pouted.

"A squirrel, man. Just a squirrel. Darn thing bounced an acorn off the top of her head while we were walking under that tree over there." Nigel indicated with a toss of his head one of the oaks nearby. "She panicked and jumped into my arms, crying her eyes out. I just got us over to this bench, and waited it out." He lowered his voice unnecessarily. "Please tell me the others are back, man. The sooner we put all our Humpty Dumpties together again, the better." He looked down at Astral Taranee tenderly. "I will miss this though. She won't even let me hug her yet, normally."

Matt crouched down to Taranee's eye level. "Hey, champ. You up to walking back to the restaurant? I'll bring you guys out a couple of chairs," he said, raising the last word so she'd look at him. She gave a great sniffle and nodded, still clinging to Nigel. The two guys both grinned, and Matt held out both hands. "C'mon, Nigel'll need the circulation in his legs for the walk. Up you get." At her worried look at his hands, he wriggled his fingers slowly. "You can feel yourself riiiisiiiing," he chanted, like a stage magician.

Astral Taranee laughed in spite of her overwhelming fears, and slowly took his hands. Pulling her gently to her feet, he gave her a reassuring smile. "Attagirl." He looked over at Nigel. "Any time now, man." Nigel just flipped him off where she couldn't see it, and Matt chuckled.

"Gods, no wonder Will loves him," 'Mina sighed. "Are you sure we can't make an Altermere of him, too?" she wheedled, giving the Oracle puppy dog eyes. He laughed.

"For your sake, my poor daughter, I would be tempted, but I think one Altermere with the powers of a Heart is already a strain on the Congregations' good will. Perhaps, when Lillian has finally claimed her own, and if – IF – Mister Olsen feels as strongly for both of you, we'll have this conversation again." He gave her an understanding smile as she pretended to pout, but she couldn't keep up the act for long. That didn't stop her from giving the picture of Matt leading a tearful Taranee 'Drop and a limping Nigel out of the park one more longing look.

Astral Hay Lin said "Awwww," at the look on her face. "I guess I'm not the only one missing her man. So let's get back already!" She grabbed 'Mina's hand and started for the door again, only to be brought up short by the larger girl's mass. "Man, I hate being the skinny one," she muttered, as 'Mina turned back to the Oracle.

"How long before the others get back?" she repeated, with a roll of her eyes.

"Let's find out," he replied, but instead of waving his hand over the viewing pool, he bustled around towards the door himself and motioned for them to follow. Mystified, the pair trailed behind him down the hall and across the chamber of the Aurameres to another corridor, to see a series of doors with the elemental symbols on them.

"We've never been here before," 'Mina blurted. "Come to think of it, I don't remember ever seeing these doors before, either."

"These rooms only appear when a Guardian is injured too badly to just change back to her regular body and go home. They are extensions of the Aurameres, which utilize the connections the individual Guardians share with their elements to heal them." The Oracle led the two to the third door, where the glyph of Fire seemed to be perpetually burning into the panel as it pulsed with an inner light. "Perhaps Taranee's fears for this particular task were not entirely unfounded. The others are in here with her, waiting for Fire to finish its work."

Knocking thrice, he entered the room, with 'Mina and Astral Hay following hesitantly behind. "Guardians? You have visitors," the Oracle announced, motioning the two forward.

"'Mina? What're you doing here? And why'd you bring Hay's …" Will only just caught herself in time.

"Long story short, the usual problem of 'missing files' is corrupting her hard drive, Will," 'Mina started. "And it's not just her. Irma's splitting drinks with Martin, Cornelia's regressed to Lillian's age, Taranee's so afraid of everything she can barely function, and this one, well, let's just say boy crazy. At least it's all aimed at Eric, for the moment." She gave an exasperated sigh when Astral Hay gave a happy giggle at the mention of Eric.

Guardian Hay Lin came forward and gave her Astral Drop a hard once-over. "Well, you've got her here now, and Taranee's been griping about getting out of her 'hothouse' there" and she pointed at a large structure that looked like Darth Vader's air-chamber in Star Wars V, "for the past ten minutes, so I guess there's no point in two of me going back, huh guys?" Hay gave a wave in her doppleganger's direction, and her Astral Drop, thinking she wanted to high-five her, slapped her hand before anyone could do anything. Instead of the expected clap of skin on skin, to everyone's horror the 'Drop kind of flowed into Hay Lin, who only had time to give a startled "Eeeep!"

The other three Guardians rushed forward, catching her as she fainted, and Will and 'Mina looked at each other, scared. 'Mina cleared her throat. "Usually, you guys just make us, well, them, pop by saying A D, right? I'm the exception 'cause I'm an Altermere, and you have to do that to 'keep' me instead. So what does that mean?"

Will gave her 'sister' a thoughtful look. "When we combine, I tend to get your memories of when we're separated. You get mine too, right?" 'Mina nodded. "So I am, in effect, really keeping you."

"The same would be true with an Astral Drop, Guardians," the Oracle said. "I thought you had had occasion before now to witness that phenomena." When they all just looked at him blankly, he gave a knowing nod. "Ah. It may explain the many problems you keep encountering when calling on them. The missing things you have noticed tend to be filled in over time as they gain experience of their own, and that you keep calling up new ones instead of being able to retrieve the older ones, well …" and he waved a hand at Hay Lin, who was just coming to.

"Whoozat? Eric? Where's your hair?" she said as she sat up. As her eyes focused, Hay saw the Oracle, looking down at her with his usual kind grin. Unfortunately, her eyes came back to work before her brain could stop her mouth. "Oh! Not Eric. Still cute enough to date, though. Whaddiyou say, Cornelia?" The Oracle's grin faltered as he looked at the rest of the girls. Cornelia started waving her hands in front of her, clearly saying 'Don't look at me!'

"Yep, sounds like she's stuck on 'boy crazy', all right," Irma laughed.

"Oh, that can't be a good sign," 'Mina said, facepalming.

w.i.t.c.h.

Twenty minutes later, they had Taranee out of her Fire chamber, and though still tender, she said she was more than ready to go back, especially after she heard about the problems with the other 'Drops.

Hay Lin's behavior had the others even more worried, if possible. She'd continued to pay compliments to the Oracle, including wheedling his name out of him by starting a round of 'the Name Game' song, and asking him to fill in the blank, because it 'just never worked right with a vowel'.

"Himerish, huh? That's such a great name for an Oracle. Hey Taranee, doesn't Himerish mean 'he who is wise about girls' in Sanskrit?" she asked, batting her eyes at him. By now, he was totally flustered, but she was refusing to let go of his arm short of personal violence. The other girls just groaned, and 'Mina started for her again. Cornelia let her get almost within arms' reach, then lifted her telekinetically.

"Believe me, it's tempting, but we kinda need her alive, 'Mina." The blonde Guardian swept her hair back, debating on whether it would be worth letting Hay get mangled a little or not, then just sighed. It probably wouldn't snap her out of it, and it'd mean she actually saw more of Eric, since he'd no doubt visit her in the hospital daily. He did live on the same street.

"How are we gonna get her out of here?" Irma muttered.

"Leave it to me," Will responded. "Come on Hay-hay, if we hurry home, Eric'll probably still be at the Silver Dragon." At the mention of her waiting boyfriend, who she suddenly remembered was a great kisser, Hay let go of the Oracle's sleeve.

"Well, what're we waiting for?" She ran a hand down her pigtails and tested her breath, straightening her shirt with a vengeance. (Will had changed them back at Taranee's request, in her hopes that it would a: finish healing the last sore spots like always, and b: bring Hay Lin back to sanity. So far, only the first one had come true.) At the sight of the large mud stain on one side, she gasped. "How am I gonna explain that? Ooooh, those Lurden-a-likes are so getting my laundry bill!" The other girls all exchanged glances.

"Do you think it just woke up her 'girl' side?" Taranee asked the others telepathically. "She sounds an awful lot like Cornelia. Sorry," she added, as the Earth Guardian's brow dropped.

"I'll forgive you. This time. You aren't among the fashion-challenged," she retorted, with a glance at Will and 'Mina in their usual hoodie and jeans.

"Hey!" they both started. "Not about us right now, 'sis'," Will added. "Hay's having a serious emergency here. Focus, gang."

"Let's just make sure the others haven't gotten us in just as much trouble, first," Irma said out loud. She linked arms with Hay and beckoned the rest of W.i.t.c.h. closer. "Thanks for the hospitality, Himerish. We'll try to keep her at home 'til this blows over, but hey, with our job? No guarantees."

'Mina opened up a new fold back to the basement of the Silver Dragon, and the girls all stepped through.

w.i.t.c.h.

Hay Lin was the first up the stairs as soon as they were back, 'Mina a close second, to see for herself the damage the other 'Drops had wreaked in her absence. If W.i.t.c.h. was her 'sister's responsibility, she had to accept that the Astral Drops were her own. Fortunately, Cornelia's was already down in the basement.

Apparently, Caleb had carried her down there after her full cup of sugar had ended up down the back of his shirt. He'd been laying in his bunk, just holding her and rocking back and forth, singing what sounded like old Meridian nursery rhymes to her. She'd zonked out within ten minutes.

Careful not to touch her duplicate, Cornelia knelt down in front of the two. "I am so sorry. I never realized what kind of torture I was capable of. Will you ever forgive me?"

"Fromise do neber do it again, and we're good," he replied, his voice muffled by Astral Cornelia's hair.

Holding her hair back with one hand, Cornelia used the other one against the wall and leaned over the 'Drop's ear. "Sweet dreams, Astral Drop." When the last flickering light from her double's vanishing act had gone out, (Cornelia wasn't taking any chances!) she closed the distance and kissed Caleb. "Thank you for taking such good care of her for me." She smiled sweetly. "You know, if I'd known how good a 'daddy' you were gonna prove to be, I'd have never even been tempted to break up with you. A girl's gotta be crazy to let a catch like you get away." She kissed him again, and he growled and grabbed her, swinging her under his muscular frame on the cot.

"You're trying to drive me crazy, aren't you?" He gave her a weird look, stood up, and yanked his shirt off in one smooth motion, spraying sugar granules everywhere.

"Hey! Not that I mind the free show, but warn us we'll need eye protection first," Irma sputtered. Will grinned at her, shaking the sugar out of her hair.

Taranee just murmured "Hurry up, 'Mina," from her seat on the stairs while she dusted herself off. As if her voice had been a stage cue, the Altermere popped her head back into the basement doorway and hissed to them.

"Will! Taranee! Come up and meet Nigel and her 'Drop out back. Irma, yours is headed down right after she gets out of the bathroom. She's had a LOT of soda." Irma clenched her fists, muttering horrible fates for Martin Tubbs. Taranee and Will headed up the stairs.

When she got to the top, Will asked 'Mina, "So, you ready to kick back and let me drive again?" She held her hand out, and was surprised when her Altermere shrank back, like it was a hissing cobra instead.

"Not yet, okay 'sis'? I gotta keep an eye on Hay still, and I want to talk to you out front after Taranee's back in one piece and can take over. Irma's still not out of the can, either."

"What's Irma got to do with this?"

"I told her 'Drop to meet me in the basement. More girl talk. And Martin heard me. So if I, that is to say, you, walk out there now, he'll wonder where she went after all … Shoot! Here comes Irma Two! Okay, go, hurry, I'll see you out front in a minute!" She started waving the two of them on while holding the basement door open so no one would see them going outside from the restaurant's front room.

"Wow, she's gotten this down to a science, huh?" Taranee asked as the two Guardians hurried outside and around to the alley towards the front. When she spotted Nigel just coming around the corner at the other end, she got the hugest grin … which slowly fell away as she spotted her Astral self next to him. The poor girl was wrapped up in her coat so much she looked like she was wearing a straitjacket, and she had the collar pulled up to just below her eyes. As she got closer, The Guardians both noticed that she was shivering, like something had scared her right out of her skin. With a pang Taranee realized that's exactly what had happened, in a certain sense. "Will?" Taranee started to ask.

"Way ahead of you," her leader answered to her relief. Stepping forward, Will held her arms open. "Hey, T. You okay? You look like you need a hug in the worst way." She motioned towards herself with her hands.

"Will?" Astral Taranee uttered in uncanny echo of her 'parent'. The redhead before her just nodded, as did the other Taranee, and Nigel as well, when she dared to glance his way. He gave her a gentle smile, too, and a gentle hug of his own, then nudged her towards Will. She went, grinning back at him. She loved that smile.

Will enveloped the nervous girl slowly, giving her a sympathetic pat on the back. "You've had a bad day, haven't you, T?" When the 'Drop nodded miserably against her shoulder, Will gave her an extra squeeze. "That's too bad. But we can make it all better now. How's that sound?"

"Yes. Oh, please and thank you, yes!" the poor overwhelmed Astral Taranee cried into Will's jacket.

"It's okay, T. It'll all be okay. Just hold on to me." She waited until the duplicate had finally relaxed again against her, and was simply holding on because she'd said to. "Astral Drop." The trio waited through the sparkling aftereffects to fade, then Will and Nigel both gave the real Taranee hugs to rival what her 'Drop had gotten.

"Man, I never dreamt you girls had this many problems. I always thought you five were just sneaking off to goof off."

Just as Nigel was letting go of the two girls, they distinctly heard Irma screaming "Astral Drop! Astral Drop! ASTRAL DROP!" from the basement.

"Is it safe to go back?" they heard from the back alley. Turning, Will, Nigel and Taranee started laughing when they saw Cornelia and a shivering, still-shirtless Caleb.

"Yeah, I think she got rid of her 'Drop," Nigel snorted, still laughing, "and got in a preemptive strike against the next two, as well."

"Go on back in, guys, I'll be there in a minute," Will said to Nigel and Taranee. At the Bassist's quizzical look, she just added, "'Mina wants to talk to me first." She shood them back towards the front, following more slowly behind. Spotting her Altermere waiting on one of the two chairs Matt had brought outside for Nigel and Taranee, Will plopped down in the other one with a sigh. After the day they all had had, (and she included 'Mina, if even a quarter of what she'd heard was accurate,) she deserved a couple of quiet minutes just sitting.

Still, after a while, her curiosity was stronger than her exhaustion. "Soooo … what's up, 'sis'?"

"Nu-uh, you first. What happened to Taranee?"

"You'll just know about it anyway, once we meld again," Will said, confused.

"Yeah, but it's not the same as having you tell me about it." They sat for a second in silence, then 'Mina continued. "Think of me as your own personal sounding board. I'd say shrink, but we both know how we feel about that, especially after Mrs. Irving back in Fadden Hills." The two looked at each other, and then burst out laughing.

When 'their' parents had gotten divorced, the school counselor had called Will in to 'discuss her feelings'. It wasn't anything strenuous, but Will had gotten the impression that Mrs. Irving, school counselor, was the most anti-divorce individual on the face of the planet. The woman's parents were divorced, she was divorced, (twice) and her oldest daughter from her first marriage was divorced. (None of them amicably, either.) She was hardly an unbiased listener. The girls did not have fond memories of her, or the hours that Will had spent in her office.

When they had finally settled down and could breathe again, Will gave her sister a punch to the shoulder. "You're so bad for me."

"But I'm your best friend." They sat there for another few minutes, watching the traffic start to pick up. (It still wasn't quite Five o'clock yet, despite the hectic day they'd both had.) "So?"

"One word." Will let out a sigh, dropping her head in her hands as she leaned forward. "Frost." She heard 'Mina gasp through her own covered mouth.

"Seriously? He broke out?" The two just sat there for several seconds, Will in exhaustion, 'Mina in anticipation.

"Yeah, released Crimson, recruited some of those lizard-men from the third continent, and went on a rampage in the Southern Province. Taranee was pulling one of the villagers out of a collapsed hut when Crimson caught her with a charge. Broke a couple ribs." 'Mina winced in sympathy.

"So is he still running loose out there?"

"Not anymore. We finally put him down hard. It'll be a long time before he's healed enough to even think of trying to escape again. And this time, he went to Torus Filney. The high-risk level. Which reminds me, I gotta have Elyon go back to Meridian long enough to find Crimson a good home, far away from that lunatic. I hope the Browns don't mind her getting home a little late."

"Hey, in the name of a good cause, I think they may be able to make an exception on her curfew. Especially if we have Cornelia spin it." The two grinned at each other, and sat in companionable silence for another minute.

"So, what did you want to talk to me about?" Will asked again.

"Ah, fuhgedaboutit," 'Mina said, in her now scarily-accurate fake Bronx accent, which she practiced whenever she was 'out'. (Her sole defense was that 'everybody needed a hobby', and to help, Will broke down and watched the Sopranos for her.) "Maybe next time. Just … remember to clear your heads, next time, and this might not be that big a deal, huh?"

"But then what'll you do with your time?"

"Are you kidding? I'm gonna sit at home, watch all the movies you keep renting and returning without ever looking at, and pig out on the jar of Nutella mom keeps thinking she's hiding from us!" The two laughed themselves silly, and when Will caught her breath, she sat back, gave her 'sister' a warm smile, and winked.

"Sounds like a plan, 'sis', sounds like a plan." She held out a hand, and 'Mina grasped it, grinning back. With a sigh, her Altermere just … stopped being there, and Will felt her head fill with an extra day's worth of memories. Deep breathing like she would at the pool before a meet, she let it all filter and sort until it made sense, then stood up and walked back into the Silver Dragon. A day this bad called for something deep-fried and covered in gravy, summer swimsuit nightmares be damned.

As she slid into the booth across from Matt, she leaned over and gave him a quick peck on one cheek. "That's from 'Mina. Thanks for being so cool today." She leaned back in and kissed his other cheek. "And that one's from me. Thanks for still being here now that all the madness is over with." At his pained look, she sat back and asked, "What?"

He nodded over his shoulder. "It's not quite over."

Irma and Martin were still sitting in the other booth, and though they weren't sharing a glass anymore, they were drinking together, leaned over, and earnestly talking … and Irma wasn't swearing or screaming at him. Will felt a shiver go up her spine. Then something else registered. Or failed to, at any rate.

"Hey, 'Mina said Elyon was here, too. And where are Caleb, Cornelia, Eric, and Hay?" She looked around again. "And Taranee and Nigel?"

"Elyon went home already, babe. She left when Caleb got a shirt full of sugar, and carried Cornelia downstairs swearing he was gonna tie her up till you five got back. I thought they were still down there." He looked around. "I could have sworn Eric would stay, but I guess he went home too, 'cause he was here when I went to the bathroom, but he was gone when I came back, and Irma was just headed that way. Then I saw 'Mina by the door of the basement, and Irma came back and went downstairs with her, and then Nigel and Taranee came in, and I knew you guys were back, because her 'Drop wouldn't even look in the door." He chuckled for a minute, but then got serious, and a little sad.

"Now that was probably the saddest part of the day. She just kept getting more and more scared, and you know what finally did her in? An acorn," he said, and heard her echoing it. He looked up at her big brown eyes, just a shade away from his own, and couldn't help but fall for her all over again. "How'd you know?"

"'Mina was in Candracar, and had the Oracle check on you guys." She pursed her lips, hearing the echo of her 'sister's thoughts. "She thinks that since I'm the leader of W.i.t.c.h., it's her job to make sure the A D's are all okay. It's sweet. But that still doesn't answer where the rest of my team went …"

"Taranee and Nigel are in the kitchen," Irma supplied. "Yan came out here to bring us our refills, and mentioned the strange delivery of a single catfish filet with their seafood shipment. Yan Lin doesn't like catfish, it's not on the menu, and she didn't want to leave it in the cooler going bad or throw it out, so T said she'd cook it up for Nigel. After their day, I think he's earned it, and she deserves the alone-time with him, so don't bug 'em, W."

Will just gawped at her Water Guardian for a minute, then snapped her mouth shut. "Ooookay. I'll take your word for it." A heartbeat later, she said, "Wait a minute. How do you know …" she clammed up again, blushing and looking away. As far as Martin knew, they'd all had the same day, and the girls hadn't been off saving another planet while their psychic doppelgangers hung out with him and the other guys. "I hate leading a double life. The conversations alone make it a pain in the ..'

"Hey, Will, CHILL! You're gonna pop a vein or something." Irma's unmistakable voice sounded clearly in her head. But how ..? She made a surreptitious flick of her eyes toward the kitchen, and raised an eyebrow. Irma just shook her head.

"Nope, all me, babe. Did ya forget I got p-si-onics too?" she waggled her eyebrows, so Will knew she was mispronouncing on purpose for the fun of it. "If I'm not actually TELLING someone what to do, I can just 'talk' to anyone. And the whole 'day they've had' thing?" Irma hung her head for a minute. "Totally my fault. AND an accident. Or both. I got 'Mina to send my Drop downstairs, and I wanted to read her the riot act before I made her go away, because, c'mon, Martin. Anyway, I was ranting pretty bad, and I turned around so I didn't have to see her face anymore, 'cause she already looked pretty upset, but I still thought I needed to yell.

"Caleb and Corny went upstairs to clean the sugar out of his cloths - they're probably still there, actually – and she came the rest of the way down, crying, and she … Will, she hit me." Irma's eyes looked haunted. Will could relate, after the death-duel she'd gotten into with 'Mina originally. Before she ended up down her worst memory lane, Irma continued. "Now I've got this jumbled up mess in my head of us fighting Frost and his new lizard-lurdens, a full day of school that I actually did all the work in already, and a weird pseudo-date with Martin, and then another fight, with myself. And I won. But I lost. And now I'm mad at myself for yelling at me about dating a guy I just had a great day with, and I'm sorry I kicked my ass about it ... That's when I started screaming A D."

Just then, Martin hit bottom on his soda, and Will got an idea. Or 'Mina did. Even she wasn't sure sometimes, now. "Hey, Martin. How was your day?"

"Huh? Oh, hi Will! Just super! I've been here all afternoon, with my best gal, and all her friends, and 'BUUUURRRRP!"

Matt whirled completely around in his side of their booth, Irma fell out of hers, Nigel, Taranee and Yan all popped out of the kitchen, and Caleb and Cornelia poked their heads over the railing upstairs. "What in the name of Candracar was THAT?" Cornelia squeaked.

"Sounded like Aldarn after a binge," Caleb added.

"'Scuse me," Martin said quietly. At least he tried to. The 'E' at the end of his 'me' got stretched out for almost seven seconds, and ranged up and down almost a whole musical octave.

"Damn," Nigel uttered, awestruck. Then he looked over at Matt. "Did you get that? Tell me you got that, Matt!" When his lead guitarist just hung his head, shaking in silent laughter, Nigel almost fell down. "Aw, man! The perfect sound byte! Never mind our songs, man. With that one, we'd have hit Youtube GOLD!" Taranee just gave him a look, and went back to her cooking.

"What's Youtube?" Caleb asked, baffled.

Cornelia lost it. "I'll … show … you … later!" she managed to tell him between gales of laughter and gasps for air. Will started laughing, too

"Don't leave yet, I don't think he's finished," Irma said, reaching up and poking Martin quickly in the stomach. He let out a small burp that sounded like a steam whistle, because he tried to keep his teeth clenched in front of it. Will giggled, still gasping for air, and rooted around on her backpack until she found her phone.

"Knock yourself out," she said to Matt, slapping it into his hand, then running for the bathroom. She had laughed so hard she had to pee.

By the time she came out, Martin was headed in. He'd drank so much soda, his 'eyes were floating', as he put it. The boys had recorded seven burps, but none were as spectacular as those first two, and now Nigel was back in the kitchen, playing them back for Taranee, just to hear her laugh. She failed to disappoint, and when Irma got up the courage to ask her why she wasn't disgusted, Taranee tattled that her brother Peter and her dad had contests every Thanksgiving. She giggled as she added that none of theirs beat those first two from Martin, either.

"Catfish in Creamy Teriyaki?" Nigel asked, after he got the first bite. "Interesting, T." He leaned over and gave her a sticky kiss on the cheek in thanks.

"It was the closest I could get to a Remoulade," she said, blushing. At everybody else's confused looks, she added. "My dad's a big Creole fan."

Will looked around again. "Where's Hay Lin?" It kept coming up to bother her. Or 'Mina. Right after a rejoining, her brain was still a little separated, and the occasional floating thought from one would interrupt the other. Matt hadn't known, Irma hadn't known, Nigel and Taranee and Cornelia and Caleb had all been outside when Hay had disappeared … that left Yan Lin.

"Yan? Where's Hay-hay?" Will asked, walking into the kitchen.

"She took off right after you five got back, the little rapscallion, and lifted my pineapple glaze on her way. When I catch her … that stuff takes a half hour to blend just right, and then has to chill overnight to set. I was setting it aside for tonight's party."

"What's the party for?" Will had a sudden sinking feeling.

"Believe it or not the senior board of trustees for Sheffield Institute, after finding out about my 'celebrity chef-for-a-day' stint in the cafeteria, has decided they want to come here for their annual board members' banquet." Yan beamed proudly at the four kids she could see. "I wanted to give them the whole shebang, the full menu choice, Dim Sum style. But my three best recipes all call for that glaze, and now I'm out."

"You know, I bet if you put some more together, we can get it to set for you, Guardian-style," Taranee said, with a sparkle of fire in her eye. "But for that, we'll need her anyway, so I'll see if I can find … oh my." The Fire-mistress turned and glared at Will and Irma. "You both know what kind of state she was in when we got back, right?" At their miserable nods, she said, "She didn't go far with that glaze, and Eric didn't go home."

Yan Lin dropped the whisk she was pulling out of a drawer, and the kitchen had gone so quiet that the resounding 'clang!' was audible out in the dining area. Martin and Matt burst in, both crying "What's wrong?"

"Hay Lin," Will began, the nameless worry that 'Mina had been screaming from the back of her skull finally, terribly making sense, "is upstairs with Eric."

"Well yeah," said Martin. "She came back in from the basement, showed him a jar of yellow stuff, whispered something in his ear, and they went up then." When everyone else glared at him, he stepped back quickly. "I thought everybody knew."

There was a mad scramble as Will, Irma, Taranee, and their boyfriends raced for the stairs, Yan close behind.