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Chapter 14 Finding Family

  For the next few days after the craziness at the bar, Hailey did everything she could to keep herself busy. During the day, they spent their time in Seattle, reveling in Hailey's old favorites of shopping, eating and people-watching. Hailey lead Jessica to even more of her old hang-outs, exploits of an adventurous teenager in the city with an unlimited bus-pass and a gaggle of followers to explore with. They visited buildings almost at random, Jessica still awed by the sights and sounds of the city after living so much of her life in a quiet secluded town.

  With Jessica's newfound lack of embarrassment or shame, they had a blast visiting clubs in the evening hours. They danced and reveled in the thick pulsing atmosphere, where Hailey could lose her mind for a few hours at a time and not think about anything other than her best friend and the cute guys watching Hailey from the bar… right up until Rupert re-appeared with drinks, to their abject disappointment.

  As soon as night fell completely and the club atmosphere began to drag, Hailey and Jessica took to the skies, bidding Rupert farewell. They made trips out to the Greycloaks every single night. Hailey couldn't bear a single moment feeling unoccupied. She needed to be doing something, no matter how repetitive.

  Hailey still hadn't figured out how to tell her what had happened the night she went out alone, but since that night, they hadn't spent more than a few minutes apart at most. If Jessica noticed the abrupt shift in their activity, she made no sign of it. She looked happy, and that was enough for Hailey for the time being.

  Cinza and her people had nothing for them. After the disastrous trip out to poor Harold, they'd completely cut off contact with the newer Awakened. Despite Cinza's protests, Ruby had agreed with Hailey and Josh that it was too much of a risk. They couldn't afford to be caught, particularly when they still had no idea how Brian's men had found them.

  "Assuming they are Brian's," Cinza pointed out, at their latest meeting in her cabin. The rest of the impromptu Council was present, including Josh, Ruby, and Hailey. Thanks to a sudden downpour, Jessica had chosen to take cover inside as well along with Scrappy the mountain lion, and the two of them were sitting by a crackling fire in the stone fireplace against the wall. "I feel like we're giving up ground here when we needn't be."

  "Come on." Josh rolled his eyes. "How the hell d'you think anyone else is gonna summon golems like that? It's gotta be him."

  "We know Jackson imbued objects with the ability to create them. It's possible that someone else may be calling the shots, with Brian or someone else directing the golems." Cinza frowned. "I want to be sure we consider every possible option." She glanced at Hailey. "We still have no clues as to their identities?"

  "None," Hailey sighed. "I was hoping there might've been police footage or something, but they didn't release a thing."

  "Don't they have body cameras and dashcams?" Ruby asked. "They've gotta have something, don't they?"

  "Apparently not," said Cinza. "All they've released are vague descriptions and a request for public support. Nothing more."

  "What are my taxes going towards?"

  "You've never paid taxes," Josh pointed out.

  Ruby shrugged. "I'm still gonna complain about it."

  A mixture of complaints and speculation was all they could accomplish in those meetings. Of their other projects, Cinza reported little success. Nikki couldn't locate Brian for them since she had no sense of his essence—and with no one else particularly important to find, she'd returned to her old pet project of drawing energy from sources other than gemstones.

  Hailey wasn't sure if she was relieved or unsettled by her lack of progress. On the one hand, she still found it abhorrent, the idea of using up living things selfishly just to get another boost of energy. They'd got into a shouting match over it, with Nikki pointing out that Hailey didn't understand how hard it was for the rest of them to cast spells. The argument might have gotten far worse if Josh hadn't intervened. He'd proposed a compromise: that Nikki would only use plants, and if possible, eggs for her tests. Nothing aware.

  Hailey wasn't happy about it, but the other half of her mind crept in. Even with all her strength, she couldn't beat Jackson's golems. The guy wasn't even alive to sustain them or produce more, but still Hailey could only drive them back. She needed something stronger, and Nikki's ideas might be the way.

  Only two people had ever managed to actually destroy a golem completely. Aaron had pummeled one to a cloud of dust with enhanced strength, but according to Ruby, it was possible that Jackson had simply let it disintegrate as a distraction. Given what happened to Aaron only moments later, Hailey could believe that.

  Natalie was the other. Hailey hadn't ever seen her do it, but Yusuf and Rufus had described her power with awestruck hushed voices: beams of crackling pink lightning that simply annihilated huge portions of the golems. The ability to manipulate lightning and electricity was a rare skill, and Natalie had learned it at some point in Rallsburg.

  Hailey had sent her a dozen messages since that night in Tacoma, but Natalie hadn't answered a single one. Her last message, asking for help, hung ominously at the end of their chat log. The website reported she was still logging in, but no response. She asked around, and no one else had heard from her either. Lily informed her in a curt reply that Natalie was attending school as normal, but Hailey still felt something was off. Natalie usually welcomed any contact eagerly. Something had changed.

  If it was personal, Hailey didn't want to intrude. So she continued to leave messages, a couple each day, trying to be encouraging. If Natalie wanted to talk, she'd answer. She was a teenager; Hailey definitely remembered getting into moods where she just wanted to shut out the world for a bit when she was that age.

  So Hailey kept herself busy. She went out with Jessica. She spent time with Rupert, and with his friends Trevor and Elissa, secretly taking bets on how long it would take for the two of them to finally start dating. And she kept up flying around Seattle at night, watching everything she could.

  Between her flight and brief muttered spells to enhance her sight, Hailey could see for miles with ease and pinpoint accuracy. She and Jessica would dive between nooks and crannies up on the sides of buildings, never staying in one spot for too long, keeping an eye on the city. More than once, they stopped a mugging or a robbery in progress from afar, spooking or intimidating would-be crooks from above with a few easy spells. It was so simple, but every single one gave Hailey a little burst of pride. She was making a difference.

  To her surprise, when Hailey had proposed the idea to Jessica, she'd accepted without much debate. After their near-miss in the burning building, Hailey had assumed she'd be going it alone, but Jessica had agreed they should be helping people if they could. She'd gotten a promise from Hailey that they'd never actually show themselves though, if possible. Luckily for her, Hailey had no intention of being seen, particularly by the one person she was actually trying to find in the city.

  
  
  


  
  

  Hailey picked up the iced coffees and brought them to a table, where Jessica was waiting patiently. She was examining the painting above their table with interest. Hailey gestured at it quizzically.

  Jessica shrugged. She mimed drawing something on the table, then looked at her invisible pencil with forlorn eyes, opening and closing her hand as if she'd lost it.

  Hailey nodded, pulling out her wallet from her bag and tapping it a few times. They'd go by the store on the way back and buy some more art supplies. Jessica had been practicing drawing things in an attempt to help make her actual illusions more realistic. At the present without a good model, they resembled children's artwork at best, since Jessica had never been much for art.

  Hailey leaned back and started reading a book on her phone while sipping her coffee, while Jessica kept looking around the store, but a snatch of conversation nearby caught her ears. More specifically, her own name.

  "You really think it was faked?"

  "Of course it was. Hailey Winscombe's dead like the rest of them."

  "So what d'you think happened to that poor town?"

  Hailey leaned forward surreptitiously, turning off her phone and tilting the screen to get a look at the trio of voices. No one she recognized, just a few college-aged kids with laptops and textbooks. She propped up her phone against the fixture on the table, so that she could keep an eye on them.

  "Beats me."

  "I think she's gotta still be alive."

  "So why not show her face?"

  "Well she's in hiding, right? From whatever blew up the town."

  "Yeah, us."

  "Us as in—"

  "America, duh."

  "Come on, why the hell would we blow up a place like that?"

  "Think about it. Everyone's saying how weird Rallsburg was in the first place. Why was a college ever built there anyway?"

  "Because the land was cheap and it already had trains running through?"

  "Lots of places have that. It was a glorified logging camp."

  "I dunno, I kinda wanted to go there."

  "For what?"

  "The business and economics programs was supposed to be really good." Hailey smiled to herself. That was the reason she'd gone there, after all. Or at least, the way she'd justified going there. Even this far removed from town, she still felt a twinge of protective loyalty toward her school… not that she could leap up and defend it without causing quite a lot of chaos.

  "Oh come on, that was just because they had a big name professor."

  "Better than some of the places I've looked at."

  "What's your point? That the school was so bad it had to be what—a front for something?"

  "Yeah, exactly. Secret corporate projects."

  "Not secret government projects?"

  "From our government?"

  "Fair point."

  "What kind of projects?"

  "Weapons, probably. Or something else crazy. Hey, maybe this is how the zombie plague starts."

  "How does zombies lead to all the buildings exploding or collapsing?"

  "...So it's aliens or something."

  "Right."

  "I'm just saying, there's something weird about it. It all looks like a coverup."

  "I don't disagree with you there."

  "So if it's a coverup, but we know there were two survivors…"

  "The guys up in Canada."

  "Right. Why is it so implausible that Hailey Winscombe could be alive too?"

  "You just want her to be alive because you think she's hot." Hailey, not immune to a bit of vanity, rolled her eyes in a self-satisfying way towards the reflection of the guy who looked a little embarrassed at the accusation.

  "I don't think he's totally crazy."

  "You think?"

  "Look at how many times they've dragged her mom back into the conversation. They gotta know something we don't."

  They did what to Mom? Hailey wondered. She hadn't been watching or reading the news as much lately, a little worried about what she might find. She trusted Cinza or someone else would let her know if anything really important showed up.

  "But the FBI said it was fake."

  "You believed 'em?"

  "I mean, they work for us, don't they?"

  "Sure they do."

  With that, the conversation devolved from a discussion of Rallsburg into an argument about the state of the government. Hailey had gotten enough out of it and picked her phone back up, scrolling through the news quickly. With tense fingers, she typed in her name into a search.

  She'd been avoiding her long enough.

  She was still as avid on social media as Hailey had ever been, and had just checked in at a restaurant only three blocks down the street. Hailey stared at the tiny message on her phone for several minutes, debating, but she couldn't resist the temptation. She stood up suddenly, and Jessica quickly moved to follow. They finished off their drinks and headed outside into the sunset.

  The city was bustling and packed as ever on a Monday evening. Jessica clung to Hailey's arm as they weaved through the sidewalk traffic. Hailey navigated it with ease, slipping through the gaps in the slower walkers even with Jessica at her side. They made swift progress without anyone batting an eye. After all, Hailey didn't look anything like her photos online, or even like the brief and blurry snippet of video from the night of the fire. No one was going to recognize her.

  The restaurant was part of a larger mall complex, which meant Hailey found an easy spot to spy from. They headed up for the second floor, taking an empty table with a perfect view of the restaurant and the street beyond through the huge glass windows. Jessica was awed by the fountains and glass elevators in the center of the place, paying no mind to the restaurant. Dozens of white tables were scattered around a black carpeted dining area, which gave the whole place a vague aesthetic like a chessboard.

  There she was.

  Stephanie Winscombe sat at a far table near the windows with a man Hailey assumed was a work colleague. With a quick murmur, their voices were carried across the wide expanse to her ears.

  "...will bounce back. You really think Thomas Laushire is going to take this lying down?"

  Hailey had a brief thrill of shock hearing the name out of her mother's mouth, but she reminded herself that the Laushires were a huge name in business. It had nothing to do with Kendra, or Rallsburg.

  "I think he's overstepped. He accused Malton of corporate espionage."

  "'Corporate espionage'," her mom mocked. "Laushire got taken for a fool, he knows it, and he's fanning the flames a bit for cover. He just needs to blow the story up enough to flip the tables."

  "So all that about Laushire's overseas dealings…"

  She shook her head dismissively. "It means nothing."

  "You really think so?"

  "Honey, we're in a post-scandal world." Honey? Hailey wondered. Was that endearing or sarcastic? She couldn't tell. "There's not a whole lot of corporate crime you can't get away with anymore, now that the world's gone to hell. Worst case in the short run, Laushire can deflect a lot by claiming grief over his daughter. Fill up the news cycle until they find some other bone to chew on."

  "But he didn't even like her."

  Stephanie nodded. "Not at all. I heard he exiled her from the company."

  "That's just cold. Why, though?"

  "I'm supposed to know that?"

  "I've decided to assume you know everything now, ma'am."

  "I told you to stop calling me that."

  "Yes, ma'am, but your boss doesn't like it when I do. Please don't make me break the habit."

  She sighed. "As far as I know, Laushire booted his daughter over a family matter. That's all I heard."

  "Not for incompetence?"

  Stephanie snorted, nearly spitting out a sip of her coffee. "Hell no. Half of the best deals they made during that period were hers. She was a killer at the table. You should have seen her talk her way around a boardroom, it was brilliant. She could out-talk the lawyers."

  "Overshadowing her dad, then?"

  "Maybe." She shrugged.

  "Miss Winscombe!" A man called out, and Hailey realized with a start that he was actually directly beneath her, not in the restaurant. He was loud enough she'd assumed he was standing right next to her mother. A cameraman from a local station was just a few steps behind him. He practically leapt over the low ornamental fence surrounding the restaurant area, making his way over to their table.

  "Goddammit…" Stephanie murmured as they approached. She turned in her seat to face him, looking distinctly annoyed. Her assistant looked just as bothered. "No," she called back.

  Several other patrons of the restaurant were now looking up with interest. The noise had cut through the usual buzz of the mall and the sounds of the kitchen behind the restaurant wall. The reporter and his cameraman got right up in her mom's face at the table.

  "Is-it-true-that-your-daughter-was-sighted-in-Tacoma?" he said breathlessly.

  Was I? Hailey wondered. She doubted it. Cinza would have told her.

  "I don't know."

  "Have you heard from her?"

  "No."

  "Do you think she's still alive?"

  "That'd be nice." She said it so dryly that Hailey was torn between laughing and crying.

  "Can you tell us anything about what happened in Rallsburg?"

  Stephanie frowned. "Look, is this live?" she asked, pointing at the man's camera.

  He hesitated, then shook his head.

  "Good." She stood up, glass in hand, and chucked it at the camera lens. It shattered. Liquid sprayed all over the shocked cameraman's face. Hailey did a little fist-pump of satisfaction from her perch above the restaurant.

  "What the fu—"

  "Coming, Daniel?" Stephanie asked, striding from the restaurant at a brisk pace. Her assistant, dumbstruck, rushed to follow her out.

  
  


  
  

  Hailey followed her. She and Jessica stayed a block away at all times, and she had trouble keeping the spell going to be able to hear her mother speak, but every word counted. It was a huge comfort just to hear her voice again, even if it had to be from so far away and totally unaware.

  Most of their conversation wasn't of much interest to Hailey. She'd never really shared her mother's interest in business or economics, so the finer details simply buzzed through her brain without really sticking. She did learn that her mother actually worked for Kendra's dad, although not directly in any sense. Stephanie worked for a company (Wensley Group), which was owned by another company (Metcon Capital), which was a founding member of the Laushire Enterprises international conglomerate. She looked it up on her phone while they walked, trying to trace the lines of business back to her mom somehow.

  Hailey was surprised to see how much information was available online. Her mom even had a web presence besides social media. Apparently she was a much more important woman than Hailey had ever realized. Yes, she'd known they were well-off, but she'd never paid much attention to what her mom actually did to provide for them.

  Of course, her presence these days was as much about her connection to 'the Rallsburg Incident' as it was her business acumen and connections. From the sound of it, that annoyed her mother as much as it made Hailey feel cool and mysterious.

  "...and after the Dawkins meeting, remind me to check in with Legal and see if we can get some restraining orders on all these reporters. This is getting old."

  "Uhh, ma'am…"

  She sighed. "Look, call me ma'am if you really have to, but speak your mind. I promise, I won't ever fire you for something you say in private. I'll put it in writing if you like. I hired you for your opinions."

  He nodded. "The press doesn't really respond well to restraining orders or hostility in general. The more you resist, the greater their curiosity."

  "So I should just sit here and take harassment?"

  "It'll pass with time. Most stories fade after a week or two. Rallsburg has sticking power as an unsolved crime at such a scale, but sooner or later everyone will move on. The news survives on keeping things interesting. If you react to them, ma'am, you keep it interesting."

  Hailey had to dodge out of the way to avoid getting run over by a particularly aggressive biker, and missed half of her mother's reply. "...keep thinking they've seen her."

  "Well, you watched the video. What do you think, ma'am?"

  "...I don't know." Hailey nearly stopped walking. She'd never heard her mother sound uncertain about anything. Her voice wasn't supposed to make sounds like that.

  "Have you spoken with her father about it?"

  "You can say his name, Daniel. We're getting divorced, we're not mortal enemies."

  They're getting divorced? Hailey's heart sank. What happened?

  "Mr. Partel—"

  "Chris, Daniel. Chris."

  "I wouldn't presume to be so familiar with him."

  "Chris and I talked about it. We watched it together after they sent us the original copy. Neither of us thought it looked like her, but it's a terrible video. Besides, that agent on TV said it was fake."

  "True."

  "It's been six months. They did everything I asked, I did everything they asked. Neither of us came up with squat." Stephanie's voice sounded calm and confident, despite what she was saying. "I have to assume the worst."

  "I'm sorry, ma'am."

  "I am too." Another shout sounded from across the street. A man with a phone held up, camera pointed their way. "Oh, not again."

  Stephanie quickly turned down a side street, Daniel hurrying to keep up. Hailey, one block behind them with Jessica at her side, had to rush just to keep her in sight. They weaved through several city blocks before they managed to lose the guy. Her mom was great at ducking out of sight, which was both a note of pride and a major inconvenience. At one point, Hailey lost her entirely, and had to have Jessica boost them up into the air and fly over the crowd invisibly to spot her distinct wavy blonde hair, the exact same as Hailey's had once been.

  In a small corner coffee shop, they took another short break, while Hailey hung around just outside. Every time the door opened, she had to adjust her spell to hear them as it rose and shrunk in volume.

  "They really are quite persistent," Daniel huffed, drinking down a cup of water.

  "I swear, everything is all about that stupid town," Stephanie grumbled. "She just had to go to that school."

  "Hailey chose it?"

  "You think I'd send my daughter to a tiny school like that?" Stephanie shook her head. "Hailey wanted to go. I think she wanted to prove herself. I would have let her go anywhere, but she picked the smallest, most out of the way school she could find that still had a good business program. She liked the challenge." Was that why I picked it? Hailey mused. I thought it was 'cause I wanted to get away, and because of Weston…

  "She sounds like she was quite the young woman."

  Stephanie shrugged. "Chris insisted she made the right choice, but look where she ended up."

  "That's hardly her fault."

  She finished off her own drink and stood up again. "Come on, let's get back to the office."

  
  


  
  

  For the next two days, Hailey followed her mother around the city, watching everything she did, listening to every conversation she could. She couldn't hear her in her office, too deep into the building even from a ledge outside, but whenever she stepped out for lunch (as Stephanie Winscombe would never bring her own lunch, or deign to eat in a corporate office in any regard if she could help it), Hailey was only a couple dozen steps behind.

  An utterly bewildered Jessica had long-since caught on to the woman Hailey was following, but if she had any idea of their relationship, she made no sign. They kept up the rest of their routine, leaving Stephanie in her condo at night and going out to patrol the alleys and streets of Seattle. Hailey threw herself into it wholesale, trying to cover as much ground as possible even with just the two of them. She sped along the streets like a crazed eagle, swooping and diving around corners, always on the hunt.

  She wondered if she was putting her mother in danger somehow. Nonsense, she decided. She was far more likely to protect her from something than actually cause her harm in some way. Besides, Hailey needed to keep hearing her voice. It was the only thing keeping her sane.

  At one point, she heard her father as well, briefly and through a tinny phone speaker. He'd called to check in, asking if she needed anything, and then asking when they needed to meet for the divorce proceedings. All polite and cordial, but every word grated on Hailey's ears. If they had such a polite and friendly relationship, why did it have to end? She didn't understand, and she couldn't just come out and ask her mother about it.

  After all, Hailey was still supposed to be dead.

  On the third day, early in the morning, they arrived at her condo. Jessica was lounging back on a window ledge, watching a cloud float by, while Hailey dangled her legs off the side and watched the glass doors at the front lobby, waiting for her to come out. They were one block down and three stories up on the corner of the next building, with only a small alley between them and her mother's home.

  Jessica tapped her on the shoulder, and Hailey looked around. She pointed at the door, then drew a circle around them, tilting her head slightly to indicate a question.

  Hailey shook her head.

  Jessica frowned, then pointed at the door again. She made a flat palm, and walked her fingers across, then indicated them both again and made a floating person following the walking one, before asking the question again.

  Hailey sighed. It's about time I was embarrassed in front of her. She shook her head again, unwilling to explain why it was so important they follow this woman around Seattle. Not that Hailey had any sort of endgame in mind here.

  Stephanie walked out onto the street, bag over her shoulder, sunglasses on and phone pressed to her ear. She was headed to her morning workout. Hailey and Jessica glanced around, and there wasn't anyone in sight of them. They could drop to the street and start following her again without much effort. As Hailey reached out to hold her so they could start flying, Jessica shook her head.

  Letting out a sudden whooping noise that could be heard halfway down the street, Jessica turned and leapt off the building into the alley below, forty feet down.

  Without thinking, Hailey dove off the building after her. She caught up quickly, wrapping her arms around her best friend and flaring out her wings at the same time. Even so, it was only barely enough room until the ground to slow down. She sent a burst of wind out to slow them even faster, sending bits of paper and old coffee cups spinning out into the street.

  They collapsed in a heap on the ground. Hailey groaned and rolled off of Jessica, who was grinning mischievously. She giggled, a bit winded from the excitement. As Hailey picked herself up, she heard a slight cough from behind her.

  Very slowly, Hailey turned around to face the entrance to the alleyway. Stephanie was standing there, holding the phone to her ear with her mouth slightly open. Her eyes were hidden by her sunglasses.

  "...Hi," Hailey said finally.

  Stephanie slowly reached up and tapped the phone, hanging up on whoever she was talking to.

  A second later, her phone clattered to the street.

  "What on earth have you done to your hair?"

  Hailey gaped at her. Of all the things she'd imagined her mom might say first, that wasn't one of them.

  "It looks atrocious."

  "Nice to see you too," Hailey mumbled, looking down at the street.

  "Hailey Aurora Elizabeth Winscombe, look at me when you're speaking," she snapped, purely out of instinct. Hailey's eyes instantly jumped back up to hers.

  A second later, Stephanie was sprinting at her. Hailey had a split-second of madness where she thought her mother was about to attack her. Instead, she found herself choked in a tight bear-hug. Out of the corner of her eye, Hailey saw Jessica smiling broadly at the pair of them, thoroughly pleased with herself.

  "Mom, I can't breathe," she gasped after a full minute.

  "Good," said Stephanie, her voice thick.

  "Good?"

  "I'm making sure you're still alive. If you know you can't breathe, that means you still need to."

  "What?"

  Stephanie finally loosened her grip, though she still held Hailey tight. "I assume there's a reasonable explanation for all of this?"

  "...Kinda?"

  She let go in a huff. "Well, come on then. Let's get inside."

  Hailey glanced at the building uneasily. "Does this place have security? Cameras and such?"

  "Only in the lobby. Why?"

  "Let's… uhh," Hailey glanced around. "Oh, to hell with it. Can you go back and open your office window? The one that goes over the alley."

  "What, are you going to climb in?"

  She shrugged. "Sure, let's go with that."

  "Oh, Hailey, this is ridiculous."

  Hailey rolled her eyes. "Mom, you don't know the half of it."

  Stephanie glanced over at Jessica, who was leaning against the wall watching them both with a far-too-satisfied smirk. "Who's this, then?"

  "Can we save it for when we're inside? If one of those guys with the cameras comes around…"

  Stephanie's eyes narrowed. "...Hailey, what are you caught up in?"

  "Just go open your window? Please?"

  Her mom hugged her again, squeezing just as tight as the first time. "You promise you won't leave?"

  "—promise—"

  With a half-laugh, half-sob, Stephanie let go. Straightening her jacket and picking up her phone, she headed back inside.

  Hailey glared at Jessica. "Happy now?" she muttered, not bothering to sign it. Jessica would know what she meant.

  Jessica just beamed at her. Hailey wasn't sure if she was mad or relieved at her friend. For the moment, she left it undecided. As the window above them slid open, Hailey gathered Jessica up, against the girl's protesting hands, and leapt into the air, spreading her wings wide.

  
  


  
  

  To say Stephanie was shocked upon seeing her daughter fly in through the office window was an dramatic understatement. Her mother didn't speak for a solid five minutes, during which Hailey and Jessica set about cleaning up the mess they'd made blowing papers and small objects around the room. Once they'd finished, Hailey finally sat down in one of the guest chairs. Jessica, not knowing the rules of the house, crossed the line and sat down in Stephanie's expensive office chair on the other side of the desk.

  This, finally, prompted Stephanie to open her mouth—but only a second later, she'd closed it again, as Jessica floated a glass ornament off of a side table through the air and into her hands, examining it with interest.

  Hailey looked up at her mother sheepishly. "So… yeah."

  Stephanie fell back against the windowsill and nearly fell out of the open window. With a wince, Jessica murmured and flicked her finger up, sliding the window shut. Stephanie watched it close, her mouth opening and closing several more times in shock, before she finally croaked out a sentence.

  "Hailey, who is that?"

  Something about the uncertainty and fear in her voice made Hailey feel awful. Her mom was always the smartest and most confident person in any given room, but for once, she was speechless and hopelessly outclassed.

  "This is Jess."

  "Just Jess?"

  "Jessica Silverdale. She's my… well she was my best friend until a few minutes ago," she added, shooting a dark look at Jessica, who was now examining the nameplate on her mother's desk, trying desperately to read the name Stephanie Claire Beatrice Winscombe engraved in shiny gold letters on black. She'd never manage it, of course, but she never stopped trying.

  "How can she do those things?"

  "Huh?"

  "She can fly, Hailey!"

  "Oh… that was me, actually."

  Stephanie was struck dumb again for a full minute. Hailey wasn't sure what to say, since her mother usually dominated conversations. Hailey's job was to respond, not to drive the topic. If it had been her dad, maybe she'd be having an easier time, but this was awkward on too many levels.

  "...You can fly?" Stephanie whispered.

  "Yes. I can do a lot of other things too." Hailey summoned up a flicker of candlelight in her palm with a word, letting it dance for a few seconds before snuffing it out. "It's been a really long year."

  "What… How…"

  "I missed you, Mom," she whispered.

  This, finally, prompted Stephanie to cry, which was a sight Hailey had never witnessed and never expected. Her mom rushed to hug her once again, while Jessica watched with a vague interest. As Hailey glanced over, Jessica pointed at Hailey, then pointed at her mother with her other hand. She kept pointing at Hailey, while her other hand drew a line horizontally, waited, then drew a line vertically from Hailey. She tilted her head questioningly.

  Hailey rolled her eyes. "My mother, thanks," she replied, drawing a vertical line. Jessica smirked.

  "What?"

  "Oh, sorry." Hailey broke the hug. "Jess thought you might be my older sister."

  Stephanie choked out a laugh. She looked over her shoulder at Jessica. "That's very sweet of you. I had her young, but I'm definitely her mother."

  "She…" Hailey paused. No matter how many times she had to explain it, it never got easier. "Jessica can't understand anything we're saying. Or anything written down. Ever."

  "She… what?"

  "Mom, you might want to sit down. Or have a drink. Or both. Want me to get you something?"

  Stephanie sighed. "Well, I wasn't getting into the office today anyway. It's a bit early for anything heavy though."

  "Okay." Hailey took a deep breath while Stephanie took a seat in the other guest chair—yet another way the entire scene felt wrong. She never sat in the guest chairs.

  Stephanie shivered. "Where's that breeze coming from?" she asked, glancing over at the closed window.

  "That's… that's me, actually. Sorry."

  "What?"

  "Everywhere I go, I kinda mess with the air currents without meaning to. 'Cause of my wings."

  "You have wings?" She leaned forward, craning her neck to look behind Hailey.

  Hailey rolled her eyes. "Not real ones."

  Stephanie fell back into her chair, rubbing her temples. "Would you just start at the beginning? I'm starting to feel like this is going to take days to explain, and I have meetings tomorrow."

  "You believe me though, right?"

  "Well, my supposedly dead daughter just flew in through my office window. I'm willing to bet there's things I don't know about the world."

  "I didn't die," Hailey said, almost indignantly.

  "I think we established that," her mom said, rolling her eyes in the same way Hailey always did.

  Jessica chirped, drawing their attention. She gestured toward the kitchen, then at her own stomach. Hailey shrugged, glancing at her mother.

  "What?"

  "She wants to know if she can have some breakfast."

  "Oh!" Stephanie nodded, gesturing emphatically toward the kitchen with wildly exaggerated movements. Jessica rolled her eyes, but walked out all the same.

  "She can see just fine, Mom."

  "But she really can't understand a word?"

  Hailey winced. "…No."

  "Has she always been—"

  "Since last September," Hailey murmured, looking down at the floor. "And it's my fault."

  "How so?"

  "It's… kind of hard to explain."

  Stephanie huffed again, a derisive noise of dismissal. "So get to it!"

  "Well, we can do magic."

  "Magic?" Her mom looked skeptical, despite everything she'd just seen.

  "Yeah. Real magic. All sorts of things. I can fly, Jessica can make things invisible, we can both make fire and move things with our heads, change things about ourselves—"

  "Is that what you did to your hair?"

  "It's not that bad, Mom!"

  Stephanie reached out and brushed back a few strands. "It's just so plain. You were born lucky enough to have perfect natural hair. It runs in our family. Why on earth did you change it to this?"

  "We're in hiding."

  "Well, stop that. Hiding never did anyone any good."

  "Showing ourselves hasn't done much good either…"

  "What do you mean?"

  "Did you hear about that standoff in Tacoma? The bar where they took people hostage?"

  Stephanie shrugged. "Bunch of political crazies, I heard."

  "They weren't crazy, and it wasn't politics. They were looking for us."

  "Who's us?"

  "People with magic."

  "So there's more of you?"

  "Of course there are, Mom."

  "I'm catching up as fast as I can, Hailey." Stephanie frowned. The concern on her face was so unlike the mother Hailey was used to. Her mom didn't get nervous or worried. "Some people died in that bar…"

  "No one I know. I managed to get us out."

  "You were there?"

  Maybe I shouldn't have told her that… "Yes."

  "And… all those people in Rallsburg… oh my god," she murmured. "This… all of this was because of magic? Because of you?"

  "Not because of me!"

  "I didn't mean you specifically. But…" She still looked worried beyond her years. "You're in danger."

  "I know that," Hailey said dismissively. "I can handle it."

  "But people are trying to kill you! We should go to the police. Or that FBI agent. Jeremy-something."

  "Ashe."

  "Yeah, him! Wait, you aren't already working with them, are you?"

  "No."

  "Well, why not? He seems on top of things. He knows how to handle the press, at least."

  Hailey shook her head. "Mom, we can't answer their questions."

  "Just tell them someone's trying to kill you, that's simple enough."

  "But what about when they ask why? Or what happened to Rallsburg? Or where I've been for the last six months?"

  "Well…" She frowned. "No, you can't tell them, I suppose. Unless you're willing to show magic to the whole world."

  "Which we aren't."

  She paused to consider, while Hailey waited in uncomfortable silence. Finally, Stephanie walked around and sat behind her desk, opening her laptop. "If you're in hiding, and you have to stay in hiding, how are you getting by?"

  "We have… a friend, who gave us some money."

  "A friend? And does that friend have a limitless pool to draw from?"

  "Probably not. No such thing as a free lunch, right?"

  "Exactly. You could always do with more liquid assets." Her mother sounded much more in her element, back to her usual confident—and impatient—self. She started typing, and Hailey walked around the desk for the first time in her life to join her. Stephanie paid her no mind, pulling up accounts and emails in a flurry. "They've been asking me what to do about your trust fund, since you aren't around to cash it anymore. Between that and quite a few accounts I can draw from, I believe I could scrape together a respectable budget. How many people are you?" Before Hailey could answer, Stephanie shook her head. "If you think it's important, of course. Plausible deniability. Only tell me what I need to know."

  "...Four in my house, four up north, ten… somewhere else." Hailey didn't bother to count the Laushires, since they were the original source of funding, and Rachel was totally incommunicado so she had no idea how to get money to her anyway.

  "...So few," Stephanie murmured. "Well, I can make your lives a bit easier. It'll be virtually untraceable, off the books."

  "Isn't that risky?"

  "Off the books doesn't actually mean off the books anymore. It's still accounted for, but just labeled as a consumable budget item that no one will ever look into. Even if they do, it's already been consumed." Stephanie shrugged. "It's way smaller than our slush fund."

  Hailey hugged her. It wasn't anywhere near the top of her list of problems, but even something as simple as a bit more money would ease a lot of tensions. Cinza's group could order more gemstones and tools, and Jessica's parents wouldn't worry quite so much. Hailey didn't know how the B.C. group was doing, but she assumed that the Bowmans, Hector, and Julian would all appreciate the extra allowance.

  "Thanks, Mom."

  "Thank me by keeping your end of the deal."

  "Huh?"

  "Stay out of trouble." Stephanie closed the laptop and gave her a stern look. "You were in that bar, weren't you?"

  "...Yes."

  "Those men had guns. They shot people. They would have shot you!"

  "Yes."

  Her eyes widened, and her voice trembled. "How can you be so calm about that?"

  "Because I beat them, Mom."

  "I thought they ran away after the gas explosion."

  "There wasn't a gas explosion. I made all the smoke, then something else tore the front of the building off." She decided it wasn't the right time to explain to her mom about Brian Hendricks and the monsters that had tried to rip her head off. "They ran because I beat them."

  "You—"

  "I've kept two different known muggers away from you on the streets too. Jess and I patrol the whole city at night and keep people safe. This is what we do."

  "Hailey, you make it sound like you're some kind of superhero."

  Hailey shrugged. "Sure, why not?"

  "You aren't though!"

  "Why not?" Hailey repeated. "I can do it. They need help. Why not step in?"

  "Because it's illegal, it's crazy, and you're putting yourself in an insane amount of danger."

  "Someone has to do it."

  "No, someone does not have to do it. You're choosing to do it. If you aren't going to listen to me, at least remember that." Stephanie shook her head. "You're an adult. I can't stop you. But I'm begging you. Stay safe."

  "...I will, Mom." It wasn't going to stop her from fighting Brian's men if they came, or continuing to patrol the city, or any of the other things she'd been doing, but she'd try to be more cautious. For her mother's sake.

  
  


  
  

  Jessica had eggs in a pan when they walked in. She waved at them as Hailey took a seat and Stephanie instinctively went to pour a glass of orange juice for the both of them. Only a moment's hesitation, and she poured a third glass for Jessica.

  The rest of the morning was spent in a much happier state. To Hailey's relief, her mother took to communicating with Jessica with ease, and within minutes they were signing whole conversations back and forth. Jessica served up the eggs a minute later, scrambled, soft, salted and peppered just as Hailey loved them.

  "Delicious," Stephanie said approvingly, giving Jessica a thumbs-up. "I'd swear I made these. You gave her my recipe, didn't you?"

  "It's not exactly hard to make scrambled eggs, Mom."

  "It is to do it right."

  "Well, to be fair, Jess cheats a little."

  "Hm?"

  "She doesn't use the stove. She heats them using magic. Always the right temperature, perfectly even."

  "That's a neat trick." Stephanie grinned. "So, you didn't mention before. How did this all happen? Or were you always magical and I was too clueless to notice?"

  "No. It happened in Rallsburg."

  "I assumed so. There's no way you could keep a secret from me under my own roof."

  "Don't bet on it," Hailey grumbled.

  Before Hailey could start to explain, there was a knock at the door. Stephanie stood up very suddenly, pressing a finger to her lips. Hailey glanced over at Jessica and pressed a hand to her ear. Jessica nodded, then went back to her eggs.

  "Mom, no one can hear us outside of this room, no matter how loud."

  "Magic?"

  "Yes. Jess cast it as soon as we got here."

  "Okay." Stephanie glanced at the door again. "I was supposed to meet my assistant here this morning."

  "Daniel?"

  "How did you… nevermind. He's not going to go away, he's too good of an assistant for that." Stephanie shook her head. "You have to leave."

  Hailey glanced at Jessica, then ran her flat hand down across her face. Jessica grinned.

  In the blink of an eye, they vanished.

  "...Hailey?" Stephanie whispered, glancing around nervously.

  "Still here, Mom. Just invisible." Hailey tapped her mother on the shoulder, making her jump from fright.

  "God, Hailey. That was unnecessary," she muttered.

  "Sorry." They faded back in again, to a relieved sigh from Stephanie—and another insistent knock at the door.

  "Miss Winscombe?" he called through the solid wood.

  "I'm so sorr—" she started, but Hailey cut her off.

  "I'll see you later tonight, okay?" Stephanie nodded, and tears were starting to form in her eyes. Hailey shook her head. "No crying, Mom. It's a totally normal day, remember? You went for your workout and nothing else happened."

  "Right." Stephanie took a deep breath, dabbing at her eyes with a napkin. "Well, go on. Get out of here. I'll be home by eight."

  With one last, quick look around the place, Hailey and Jessica went back into the office, slid the window open, and left the way they'd come in. Jessica kept shooting the occasional knowing grin toward Hailey, and after the third or fourth time, Hailey finally returned it. She hugged her best friend tight, trying to express the sheer gratitude she felt. So much of her stress and fear had evaporated, simply by being able to talk to her mother again, tell her everything and get some of the weight off her chest.

  Despite not understanding a single word of their conversation, or even knowing who they were following around, Jessica had known exactly what Hailey needed, and done it without a second thought. She couldn't ask for a better best friend.

  As they flew back through the alleyways of Seattle, the rain started to pick up again. Hailey swooped up to a rooftop with a fair-sized cover and set down. She didn't really mind flying in the rain, since it didn't affect her wings in the slightest, but it was already a cold day and neither of them really felt like swooping around town totally drenched. From the shape of the clouds, it was probably going to pass in only a few minutes anyway.

  Hailey sat down against the wall, and in an instant Jessica had taken a spot right up next to her.Soon their little corner of the roof was warm and comfortable, while the rain poured down all around them.

  "Jess," Hailey said suddenly. Her friend looked up expectantly.

  She hesitated, taking a moment to compose her thoughts. Signing things to Jessica got easier over time, but anything complex was still a real process. She wished she could just make images in midair like Jess could, but it was a skill forever beyond her, due to her diffinity.

  With a sigh, she resorted to using fire. Even water would have been better, but Makoto still hadn't worked out how to actually explain the method to her, and his Scrap was long since destroyed. Tiny licks of flame appeared in midair, hissing and spluttering steam from the raindrops passing through them. Painstakingly, she drew out a shape of a man and a girl, in bland stick figures. The man's arm was upright, holding a gun to her head.

  Hailey pulled out her phone and brought up the news story about the hostage crisis. The photo of the bar would be enough for her to connect it to the news story they'd watched. She pointed at the phone, then at the two steaming outlines floating in front of them.

  Jess frowned, tilting her head to the side. "Hmm?"

  Hailey pointed at the girl, then at herself.

  Her eyes widened. "Mmm!"

  Hailey nodded, a tear dropping out of her eye. "I'm so sorry," she muttered. "I shouldn't have left you."

  Jessica hugged her tight, but her eyes were still locked on the two outlines. She nudged Hailey, pointing at the man and asking again.

  Hailey pointed, far away, in the general direction of Rallsburg. She changed the shape of the man to remove his head and make him significantly larger—the image of the golems they'd fought in that town.

  Jessica's mouth fell open slightly. She conjured up a picture of Omega, which actually made Hailey flinch for a moment. She hadn't seen him since the ritual in the woods when they'd attempted to kill him—when they'd had to fight him off while Cinza barely clung to life, Kendra and Hector crouching over her unconscious body as Hailey and Jessica desperately drove him away.

  She shook her head, and quickly drew an X over the picture. "Not him."

  Jessica frowned. The image shifted, becoming a picture of Brian Hendricks as she remembered him. Short brown hair, a bit of stubble, middle-aged. In her picture, he didn't look anything like the insane, hate-fuelled man who'd tried to kill them all. This was a picture of Natalie's father, not their would-be murderer.

  Hailey nodded slowly. As she did, she dissipated her own flames and created a new image. A few small golems in front of Brian, and two stick-figure girls alone facing them. Hailey pointed at the two, then at herself and Jessica. She made the golems swarm and overwhelm them, becoming one large hissing flame.

  Jessica frowned. Hailey hoped she'd come up with something, because she had no idea how she was going to win against Brian on her own. Maybe if she hadn't been caught off guard in the bar, but there had been so many people around. She couldn't fight without getting them hurt.

  Even if she could, she'd have to find him. He was around, bringing the golems to bear, but she hadn't even seen him. Only his men, and she'd barely won against them. A bullet would kill her, just as surely as it killed Omega.

  "Mmm!" Hailey felt her pushing at the flames she'd left floating before them, and let them vanish. Instantly, Jessica renewed them, with the wall of golems in front of Brian, and the two of them facing against impossible odds.

  Then a third small figure appeared next to them. Then a fourth.

  Hailey frowned, but before she could ask, Jessica waved away everything and produced two images.

  Two people Hailey hadn't spoken in well over a year.

  She looked at Jessica, uncertain, but Jessica nodded emphatically. In a moment, their two images shifted to a rough outline of Ohio and California—where the two had gone home, long before the destruction of Rallsburg.

  Not a soul beyond Alden and Beverly knew they even existed. Hailey had thought about contacting them so many times, both before and after Rallsburg, but she could never bring herself to do it. They'd split on too many harsh words—words she felt she couldn't take back.

  Seeing her continued hesitation, Jessica grabbed her hands, nodding again. She smiled, but it was a sad smile. Once again, she conjured the image of Brian, and pointed at it. She shook her arm, emphasizing the point.

  Hailey nodded, her mind made up. It wasn't about their friendship. It was about survival. It was war; a secret, vicious and bloody war. They needed the best fighters they could find, and in terms of raw potential, there wasn't a single soul on the planet who could match them. As reluctant as Hailey might feel, she couldn't come up with a good reason not to try to reconnect with them.

  Ian Wong and Weston Davis. The other two natural awakened, to use Cinza's term. Her old best friends.

  She still had a few things left to resolve, and she wanted to check in on Alden before they set out. She'd need to make sure that Cinza's group didn't need anything, and Rupert deserved some explanation for why she was suddenly flying across the country. Hailey tapped on her watch once, then pointed at the sun. She repeated the cycle twice more, and Jessica nodded. Three days.

  In three days, they'd start building their army.

 

 

 

 

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Etzoli

  • Oregon
  • Professional Technological Thaumaturge
  • https://etzo.li

Bio: Sysadmin, wordsmith, TV obsessive, pretzel addict.
Many keyboards have perished in my pursuit of wordcounts.

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