Chapter 18 — Old Friends, Forgotten Friends
Every time Hailey flew, she felt like her mind was wiped clean. She could just bask in the sunlight, never too hot with the wind rushing across her entire body and keeping her cool. Over time, she'd learned how to shape the incoming air so it didn't blast her face so painfully, which included the side effect of reducing drag and helping her fly faster and with less effort. With massive, puffy white clouds forming breathtaking landscapes for her to dive and roll around, she enjoyed a never-ending expanse (mostly) to herself and her best friend.
She'd long since stopped diving into clouds though, after spending a whole afternoon uncomfortably drenched. If she'd had Jessica with her, they could have dried off quickly enough with magic, but instead she had to keep above the rain clouds, feeding herself a supply of oxygen while slowly drying out in the sunlight and hoping her sunscreen hadn't worn off. She felt like she might freeze, but she got through it.
Today, Hailey couldn't clear her mind. Flying fast only had the effect of making their destination that much closer, building up stronger emotions with every unsuspecting human town they swept past. Did she dread reuniting with her old friends? Was she excited? She wanted to just take it stoically, as a mission to recruit for the army she'd suddenly decided to build.
"Nah, not an army," she mused aloud, while Jessica slept bundled up against her. "More like a team. Just enough people to find him, stop whatever he tries, and take him down. No one else has to get hurt."
They were flying through the night sky, which they both felt was dark and quiet enough to not need her invisibility. Jessica was getting sleep wherever she could, since they still had a long trip ahead of them. Hailey couldn't see how she managed to sleep strapped into the harness, but Jessica's breathing was quiet and steady and she hadn't moved in hours. Either she was asleep or way better at meditation than Hailey knew.
She wished she could get some sleep, but after a whole night tossing and turning, Hailey resigned herself to quick catnaps whenever they took a break. It got so bad that Jessica gave up too and stayed awake with her, watching TV while they waited for nightfall. As soon as it was dark, they were up and in the air again, leaving the cheap motel they'd rented a single night at. Hailey didn't expect they'd even bother for night two.
As they cruised south, passing over cities with familiar landmarks, Hailey pulled out her phone. She occasionally got coverage at their flight level, depending on what towers were nearby, but it was spotty at best. Still, the GPS function gave her enough to keep them on track as they flew, and she could always use the highways or the coastline as a guide.
Her real fear was planes. With exhaustion really setting in, Hailey kept seeing phantom planes popping into the corner of her peripheral vision. Even though she could consciously tell herself that commercial planes stayed miles above her, she couldn't shake the vision of herself splattered across the front windows of an airliner, or sucked into a jet engine, or worse.
She did spot the occasional small plane and the odd helicopter, but they were easy enough to dodge. One close call in a low fog bank with a buzzing prop plane, though, and Hailey's worst fears were almost realized. Jessica woke with a start to a hard roll as Hailey dove out of the way, almost clipping the plane's tail.
Maybe I should get a radio and listen to air traffic…
As it turned out, they didn't need to stop for a second night. They arrived in Norwalk just as the sun began to set. Hesitantly, Hailey pulled out her phone and—for the first time since May—logged into her old social accounts. Cinza insisted that the phone's location could not be traced under any circumstances, but Hailey didn't know enough about the internet to ever be sure. She stayed far up in the sky, gliding on thermals rising up from the streets. She could see the L.A. sprawl stretching in every direction.
On her phone, she double-checked the address, then began a slow wide spiral while she held the map out for Jessica to see. They both scanned the area, looking for a grid of streets that looked about right. Hailey turned them around to face north so that the map lined up with what they could see.
Jessica squeaked and pointed. She'd spotted it. A house that looked right. Simultaneously, they both muttered the spell to enhance their eyes, spying through the windows.
Ian Wong was home. He grabbed a drink from the refrigerator before rushing back out of sight.
Hailey didn't hesitate. She knew that if she did, she'd never work up the nerve again. They dove, hard and fast toward the house, while Jessica shielded them from the view of the setting sun. As the house rushed up to meet them, Hailey flared a wing and practically skidded through the air, banking to the side to come to a soft, running landing in the small empty backyard.
She was getting really good at landing. Her legs barely felt it anymore.
As Jessica unstrapped and took a few steps to steady herself, Hailey walked right up to the sliding rear door. She muttered another quick spell, and suddenly she could hear everything in the house. Every tiny sound, from the padded footfalls of a cat wandering the upstairs, to the rapid clicks of Ian's keyboard, the churning dryer, the hum of the refrigerator, the fans. It was So-Cal, so even in November it was still plenty warm out. Hailey already felt the heat settling in, clad in her flight outfit.
No one else seemed to be home, just the rapid clicking of the keyboard and Ian's voice as he chatted with someone online. Hailey glanced at Jessica, suddenly at a loss. Do we just break in…? She gestured at the glass, making a punching motion with a questioning look.
Jessica rolled her eyes. She pointed at the door and flicked her finger upward. The lock clicked—so loud that Hailey winced. She'd forgotten to let go of her own spell.
They crept inside, sliding the door closed behind them. Almost immediately, they heard the cat bounding across the upper floor and reaching the stairs. It peeked its head around the corner, eyed them both suspiciously, then backed away again.
Wish we could've called him first… Hailey hadn't kept his number when she'd had to ditch her old phone, and he didn't list it on his profile anywhere. She thought about calling out, but she didn't want to alert anyone she might have missed, or scare Ian into doing something impulsive and drastic. He's got the same kind of power I've got. Be careful, Hales.
Jessica latched onto her hand. Hailey glanced around, but she just nodded, indicating forward. Hailey nodded back, and together they started walking toward Ian's voice, issuing from the office on the other side of the small house.
Everything's always sneaking, or keeping secret, or just hiding. I'm so sick of this. He's my friend! Or… he was my friend. But come on!
Hailey shook her head vehemently. She'd had enough. With a squeak of surprise from Jessica, she gave up on the slow creep forward and simply walked right into Ian's room, opening the door as if it were a totally normal thing.
"Did you see that new build I ma…"
Ian didn't notice right away, his eyes locked on his computer screen. But, as the door swung wide in the corner of his eye, he glanced over briefly. His eyes slid back immediately to the screen, as if he hadn't even seen her.
Hailey just stared at him, mouth open slightly. Hello, Ian? Your dead friend is back. Say hi, at least? She was suddenly too nervous to make a single move. Now that she was finally in the room, face to (side) face with one of her old friends, she had no idea what to say.
Suddenly she realized: he hadn't pressed a single key since she walked in. He kept staring at the screen, but he'd completely frozen up. She could barely hear Hugo's voice from his headset speakers, asking something she couldn't make out.
Jessica finally broke the silence. She 'hmm'ed excitedly, and finally, Ian slowly rotated in his chair to face him. She gave him a little wave, still clutching Hailey's hand with the other. He slowly lifted a hand and waved back.
"Hi Ian," whispered Hailey.
Ian reached over to his keyboard and held down a key. "Uhh, Hugo? You should come over here."
"Yeah, right now. Just trust me, man."
"See you in a bit." He took off his headset and set it on the desk, and shut off the monitor, before swivelling back to Hailey again. "...So."
His face lit up in a smile. "Holy shit, you're alive!"
Hailey grinned. Without warning, Ian leapt to his feet and rushed them. Hailey only had an instant to react before he'd buried them both in a hug.
"Yeah, we're alive," she choked out, patting him on the back. "Wanna get off me now?"
"No," he shot back, but he relented, retreating to his chair again. "When I saw the news… I figured, you know, they finally did it. They blew the place up."
"Not exactly," she sighed.
"I can't believe you're really alive." Ian looked practically giddy. "Where have you been this whole time?"
"Hiding out, duh."
"Yeah, but where?"
"Here and there," she shrugged.
Ian frowned. "...Hales? What's up?"
She shook her head. "Come on, let's just enjoy this a minute, all right? I haven't seen you in forever."
"Yeah, no kidding." He turned slightly. "Hey, Jess." He grinned, nodding at their clasped hands, since Jessica still hadn't let go. "Nice to see you two finally hooked up."
Hailey shook her head quickly. "We didn't."
"You… oh, shit, sorry." Ian's face got red. "I just thought, you know—"
"Yeah, I know." She smiled. "There was actually this one girl, back in Seattle, that Jess… Err…" Hailey trailed off, remembering how that story ended.
"...You guys want anything to drink?"
"Oh god, yes please. We've been flying nonstop for hours."
Ian stopped halfway out of his chair. "You figured it out?"
She felt like she couldn't possibly smile any wider. "Oh yeah. Big time."
Hailey shook her head. "Not unless you want your room to look like a tornado blew in. Later, okay?"
"Fine." He headed to the kitchen. "Beer alright? I'm sure I've got something stronger if you want."
"Nah, beer's good."
"Jess, what about you?" He grinned. "I think we've got some vodka, actually. I'd love to hear some more improv from the best drunk rapper in Rallsburg."
Hailey's heart sank. She knew it was coming, but she'd still hoped they could somehow avoid the topic. She tried to put it off, though she knew it wouldn't last. "Beer for both of us."
He glanced at her funny, since Jessica (of course) hadn't reacted in the slightest to his question. "Alright."
Hailey wandered back into the living room and plopped down on the couch. Jessica laid down next to her, grabbing a few pillows and closing her eyes. Ian returned in just a few moments with the bottles, and Hailey had to nudge Jessica to get her attention. She looked around, saw the drink and floated it to herself right out of Ian's hand.
"Nice," he added, taking the opposite chair. "Still got it, huh?"
"You wouldn't believe some of the stuff we've seen." Hailey popped the beer open with a spell and drained half of it with a satisfied sigh. "It's been a crazy year."
"I'd believe anything. If you told me you could turn into a pink giraffe, I'd just wonder how tall you could get," he grinned. His face fell though as he remembered why he'd left. "I still had nightmares after I got home. Didn't go outside after dark for weeks."
Hailey shook her head. "You don't have to worry about them anymore."
"One of them's dead, and the other won't bother anyone."
He raised an eyebrow. "Did… you?"
"No. There's… a lot more people with magic than just us. They call us 'awakened'."
Ian rolled his eyes. "Nice and conceited."
"Hey, I didn't come up with it."
"How many, then?"
She shrugged. "Who knows? Whoever read from those pieces of paper, right?"
"Right…" He looked uncomfortable, and quickly changed the subject. "But hey, you're both alive. That's amazing."
"Yeah, we made it." She put an arm around Jessica, who hugged her back before laying down again. "A lot of people didn't though."
"I saw… They published lists of people, you know? Everyone they'd confirmed, so that extended family would know." He shuddered. "I kept watching for your name, but it never came up. I called you so many times."
"I ditched my phone that night," she said apologetically. "Sorry."
"Nah, I totally get it." He grinned. "You know the FBI came to question me?"
"Seriously?" She felt a spike of fear, glancing around as if Jeremy Ashe and his men might pop out of any corner. "...Did they ask anything about me?"
He snickered. "So vain, Hales. Relax, that was way back in May. It was just routine shit, asking about the town. You were like a footnote. They just got my name off a student list."
She breathed a sigh of relief. "Sorry."
"So that 'fake' video a couple weeks ago, that really was you?"
"Oh, and the mystery person you flew off with was Jess!" He tapped a hand to his forehead. "I'm catching on now. So you two are what, a crime-fighting duo now or something?"
"We were just in the area. I couldn't just stand by," she replied nonchalantly, though she felt a little bit of pride in the description.
"Jess, how do you put up with a head that big?" Ian grinned, glancing back to her. As usual, Jessica ignored his statement entirely, though she was clearly listening into every word, eyes open and darting around the room. He faltered. "...Jess? Is this 'cause of the vodka joke?"
"It's not…" Hailey grimaced.
Of all the people she'd ever had to explain to, Ian was by far the hardest. He'd been Jessica's friend before any of them—before Weston, before Hugo, and long before Hailey. They'd met freshman year and hit it off, sharing the same taste in almost everything, and Ian was easily the most emotionally intelligent of the group. Hailey wasn't surprised that Jessica had confided in him. He'd introduced the two of them, bringing Jessica along to one of Hailey's parties. She could see Jessica confessing her secret crush to Ian, desperate for advice on how to approach Hailey. If only she'd done so sooner, instead of that day…
"Do you remember that theory Jess was working on? Rituals?"
"...Yeah." He glanced at her again, then back to Hailey. "Permanent magic, right?"
"Pretty much. Stuff that you didn't have to keep going. She figured it out."
"I'm sensing this is going to have a depressing ending." He took a deep swill of his own drink.
"If a ritual gets interrupted, by even the slightest thing, before you finish…" Hailey choked up.
"Oh man…" He put his hands on his face. "How bad is it?"
Hailey took a deep breath. "She destroyed her sense of language. Completely, and it's never coming back until we fix it."
"Her… sense of language?"
"She can't understand a word we're saying. Or read anything, or speak anything. At all." Tears sprung to her eyes, and Hailey quickly brushed them away. She felt like this should have gotten easier, with the number of times she'd explained it—but seeing Ian's face fall, as the depth really hit him, was overwhelming.
Ian didn't say anything. He just stared at some vague spot halfway between the floor and the couch, processing. Hailey felt too overcome to keep talking.
Jessica had no such qualms. Seeing both of them fall silent, she clapped her hands together. She sat up straight, and there was real anger in her face. She glared at each of them in turn.
Jessica pointed at her, at her eyes specifically. She reached out a finger, brushing a tear away from Hailey's cheek. Jessica pointed at the tear, then at Hailey, and shook her head. She held up her hands to her own mouth, covering it up, then her ears and covered them briefly as well. She pointed at herself and shrugged, gesturing wide with her hands.
Ian spoke up. "She's right." He nodded to Jessica and smiled. "This happened when?"
"A year ago. Last September."
"And you're still beating yourself up about it." Ian turned to Hailey, and Jessica nodded emphatically. She pointed at Hailey again, shaking her head vehemently. Her brown-blue hair whipped Hailey in the face as she did.
"Well, it's my fault!" Hailey cried. "If I hadn't—"
Ian shook his head. "Hales, you blame yourself for everything. I'm gonna be the judge here, all right?"
"Judge of what?"
"Start at the beginning, and tell me everything. I'll decide whose fault it is." Jessica, seeing Ian confront her, got up off the couch and took the chair next to his. Hailey was left alone, facing down her closest friend and her oldest foe, united against her. And yet… She felt right at home.
By the time she'd finished, Hugo had arrived. He walked in right as she was explaining the final magnetic ritual to take out Omega, and how that had gone wrong.
"We were all joined up, right? And Cinza, she takes our hands, and I could feel something. It was a lot like when Jess and I did the flight ritual, except with that one we were working together. This was more like she was actually taking from me."
"But doesn't that break what's-his-face's law?"
"Mason's. And no, not really. She couldn't take it until I pushed it out."
Hugo walked in like he lived there. On seeing Hailey and Jessica smiling back at him from the couch, he dropped his phone. "...What the hell?"
Jessica had long-since returned to Hailey's side, after realizing it was going to be a long conversation. Ian had thrown a frozen pizza in the oven for them, and by the smell permeating the house it was almost done.
"Don't freak out, dude," Ian cut in quickly. Hailey got to her feet, very uncertain where they stood. The last time she'd seen Hugo, he was quietly exiting her apartment in Rallsburg while the rest of them experimented with magic, after being the only one of the group not to awaken. "They're alive."
"No…" he murmured. "Goddammit, no. Just no."
Hailey's heart sank. "I…" she started, but what could she say? After something like that?
Luckily for her, Ian wasn't about to let that slide. "What the hell, Hugo? Our friends are alive, man! That's the only thing you have to say?"
"This isn't right."
"Of course it's right! Jessica's alive! I mean, we had to get Hailey along with her, but come on!"
"Hey!" Hailey snapped, her stupor broken.
"Sorry, Hales, but Jess was always the cool one."
"...Yeah, okay. You're not wrong."
He shot her a grin. "So everything's cool, right Hugo?"
Hugo was still staring at Hailey, and she felt a tremor roll through her. She knew that look. It was the same look she'd seen on the faces of so many in Rallsburg, and on the faces of people in the burning building. On the faces of the men who'd taken her hostage in the bar in Tacoma.
He was afraid of her, of what she could do, and for that he hated her.
She took a step forward.
She knew it was coming, and before he'd even taken two steps toward the door, Hailey was already halfway across the room. Her wings wouldn't propel her fast enough (and she didn't want to completely wreck Ian's living room) so she took a leaf out of Alden's playbook and simply threw her whole body haphazardly into the air. She sailed over the couch, almost clipping Ian's head, and landed behind Hugo.
He'd only taken another couple of steps toward the front door when she twisted around. She flung out her arm, slamming the door shut in front of him. The locks clicked a second later, as she grabbed and twisted each one shut from afar.
Hugo froze, staring at the door. Slowly, he turned back to face her.
"I don't want to do this," she murmured.
"You can't just leave."
"What's going on?" Ian asked, stepping between them.
"Don't, please," she begged, but the look in Hugo's eyes told her everything.
"Hales, he's okay. He never told anyone. I've been here this whole time and no one's ever known."
"How much magic have you done since then?" Hailey asked, never taking an eye off Hugo.
"Uhh…" Ian shrugged. "Not much. None, actually," he added sheepishly. "I just wanted to go back to a normal life."
"And I bet your best friend was a big part of that, right?"
"...So what if he was?" Ian shot back. "We've been best friends—" he continued, mocking her tone, "—since we were four years old. He's got my back."
"And he wants to stab me in mine," Hailey snapped.
"Don't be stupid, Hales." Ian shook his head. "Hugo doesn't like this, but he's not gonna turn you in."
"No, Ian, I meant he literally wants to stab me."
"You left. You didn't see what it was like when they found out." Hailey shuddered. "People like him, people who hate what we can do. They just don't give up. They're out to kill us."
"The whole town was blown up by someone who thought magic was too dangerous to exist. He killed everyone, Ian. We barely made it out alive. And they aren't done. I nearly got killed again on Friday."
"I wouldn't," Hugo interjected. "I don't care what you do. Just keep us out of it."
"I can't. I need Ian."
"You what now?" Ian cut in.
"I can't beat him alone. If we don't stop him, everyone with magic is in danger."
"So what," he asked, "we're gonna hunt this guy down and… what, kill him?"
"If we have to."
"Jesus, Hales..." he murmured.
Hugo's eyes narrowed. "You're a vigilante."
"I'm trying to protect myself and my friends. He started it."
"So call the cops."
Hailey laughed bitterly. "Don't you think I would? We can't tell anyone about this. They're not ready yet."
"We've had this conversation before…" Ian muttered.
She shook her head. "It's different now. We didn't know anything back then. Now we know who they are, why they're doing it and how to stop them. And we can." She glared at Ian. "The world doesn't know how to deal with this, so we have to."
Ian glanced between his two friends, locked in a death glare, while the smell of burning pizza wafted through the room. Hailey couldn't tell what he wanted. She forced her vision to slip, trying to see if she could tell how he felt from the connections he had to everyone in the room. The strongest was with Hugo, which wasn't surprising, but another thick line stretched out to Jessica, who was watching the confrontation from the couch with a fearful expression. The line to herself was clearly the weakest, but at the same time, there was a distinct quality to it—as if it were fresh and growing. A few moments later, she was sure of it.
Ian was going to agree with her, finally.
"I can't, Hales," he replied.
Wait, what? "...I need you."
He grinned. "Two years ago and I would have died happy if you said that out loud."
"You don't underst—"
"Hales, look." Ian held out his empty hands. "I'm not a fighter, all right? I'm just a guy who likes playing MMOs. I was never strong like you."
This is wrong. Ian doesn't back down from fights. Doesn't seek 'em out, but he helped me toss bad party crashers more than once, guys twice his size. What's he doing…?
"Go do your thing, but leave us out of it. We just want to live a normal life, all right?"
Hailey felt furious, but something in Ian's expression made her hesitate. Hugo was still watching her with a mixture of fear and loathing. She finally took a step back, visibly moving away.
She cleared her throat. "Okay. I'm sorry."
Ian shook his head. "It's cool. Just… don't look us up, all right?"
Hailey nodded. She gestured to Jessica, who picked up the flight harness. Within the minute, they'd left through the back door and strapped in. Hailey took a deep breath, while Jessica set up the walls of invisibility around them, then bounded into the air. She unfurled her wings and beat hard, rocketing into the air while the backdraft flattened the flowerbeds behind them. As she took off, she noticed a tiny flickering ball of fire, just around the corner of the house in a little empty flower pot.
It was nearly half an hour before Jessica finally tapped Hailey on the shoulder. She tilted her head, gesturing back the way they'd come. Hailey shook her head.
"They're not coming."
She had no idea how to explain the other half of the conversation, which had taken place in an instant between herself and Ian, right under Hugo's nose. Ian was volunteering himself to keep Hugo quiet, by basically pretending it didn't exist anymore. Without Ian, everything was at risk—an even bigger secret than simply magic itself. Hailey had to trust him. As they flew, she smiled a little to herself. Even after a year apart, Ian was still the clever one, solving problems before she'd even realized they existed, and throwing himself in the way for his friends.
"Thanks, Ian," she whispered, before she wheeled them around. Pulling out her compass and her phone, she changed course. Northeast, and a much longer journey than the first one, for a reunion she'd been even less confident about. A meeting she dreaded.
She flew as fast as possible. The sooner the better. Anything to get back home again.
It took them a day and a half of hard flying. Hailey wondered if there was a way she could keep going while sleeping, but she didn't want to risk it, so they spent a night in a small forest somewhere halfway across the country. She wasn't even sure which state they were in, and her phone was too low on battery to check. She had to save it for their destination. They huddled together in a small tent on a sleeping bag, Jessica keeping the area warm while Hailey had exhaustion-fueled visions of bears suddenly ripping apart the nylon walls.
When morning came, she remembered her promise and explained to Jessica exactly what had happened at Ian's. They had a good, briefly cathartic moment getting angry at Hugo together before setting off for the day. The landscape became much more boring, full of cornfields and farms instead of the sweeping vistas or towering Rockies in their first day of flight. Hailey tried to speed up, but wind resistance was simply too much, and she could tell that trying to force even more out of her already tired wings would only just force them down to the ground sooner.
Still, they made good time. They'd set out from Kent on Monday, made it to Norwalk in the evening on Tuesday, and were now cruising over Ohio on Thursday morning. They ate breakfast in midair, as Hailey pulled out a few wrapped up pastries from her bag and Jessica heated them. She wished they had something nicer to drink than water, but it was better than nothing. They flew into Galloway without growling stomachs, at least.
Weston's house was easier to find, since Hailey had actually been there before. She'd visited during their first summer break after freshman year, the year before the Gods found the Grimoire in the library. Everything past that year, she couldn't quite trust, since Beverly had wiped out so many memories.
Beverly… She knew that at some point, they'd become close friends and roommates, maybe even as close as she had been with Jessica, but it was all gone. The only remnant were photos Beverly had kept in her room, before it had all burned down.
Hailey told Beverly she was forgiven, but she hadn't really decided that. She wanted to forgive her. Beverly seemed like exactly the sort of friend she used to make all the time, the quiet and reserved type that balanced her out. Not totally unlike Jessica, in many ways. Jess wouldn't ever do something like that though… Not even if she was desperate. So maybe they aren't really alike at all.
More than anything, Hailey valued friendship and loyalty, and Beverly's actions betrayed them both. They hadn't spoken in weeks now. Hailey wouldn't be quick to forgive that, just as she couldn't easily forgive the man she blamed for last summer's events just as much as she did herself.
Spotting Weston wasn't hard. This early on a Thursday, he was just getting up and making breakfast. His parents were in the room, but from the last time she was there, she knew they'd be heading out soon. She wondered what he'd been up to since she left. Ian looked like he'd been attending a community college from the papers and textbooks scattered around his room, and she could assume Hugo was doing the same.
Weston, though? After his chosen school had vanished off the map? What would he be up to?
His parents were both driving away. Time to find out, I guess.
Hailey tugged on Jessica's arm to warn her, and they broke into a dive. Just as Weston was getting up to put away his cereal bowl, they landed on the back porch. Hailey didn't waste any time with him, knocking on the back door immediately.
His reaction was so… Weston.
"Hm," he murmured, as soon as he'd opened the door. "You changed your hair."
"...Nice to see you too," she finally spluttered. Jessica gave him a little wave, just as she had Ian. He waved back, with the faintest hint of a smile.
There was no need to explain her condition again. Weston was all too aware.
"We need your help," Hailey started without preamble.
"Well, that seemed obvious." He sighed, and stepped out of the way to let them in. "I saw you on the news."
"Which time?" she muttered.
"All of them." He shrugged. "I've been keeping an eye out." He walked back into the kitchen, waving his hand over his shoulder as he went. The back door swung shut behind them. Another wave, and his phone leapt off the table and into his hand.
"I get a lot of practice." He leaned against the wall, tapping away at his phone. "I'm guessing you already went to see Ian."
"He's not coming."
Weston nodded. "He wouldn't."
"Screw you," she snapped. Jessica looked up at the sudden shift in tone. She'd been walking around the room to stretch her legs, investigating the paintings hanging throughout the living room. Weston raised an eyebrow, starting to respond, but Hailey kept going. "Ian's not coming to protect us. He's helping the group, like he always is. What are you doing?"
He shook his head. "I'm—"
"God, this was a waste. I flew two thousand miles to get here, Wes, and this is all you've got?"
"I'm sorry!" he shouted.
She stopped dead. Weston had never apologized about anything. Not for anything to do with magic, and definitely not anything in their personal relationship. Seeing actual remorse in his expression was… uncomfortable. She didn't know how to react to it.
"I was an asshole. I wish I could take it back every single day, but I can't. I wanted to apologize so many times but I wasn't brave enough. I screwed up." Weston stared down at the ground. Jessica hurried over to give him a hug, but he shook his head. She faltered, uncertain. "When I heard what happened… I knew."
"...Knew what?" she asked suspiciously.
"That you'd need our help someday. I knew you weren't dead," he added, smiling slightly. "I'd never believe something like a town blowing up could slow you down. I tried to call you, but your line was disconnected… so I waited." He finally glanced back up at her. "Whatever you need, just say the word. Anything."
Hailey opened and closed her mouth several times, totally at a loss for words. She'd come ready for a drawn-out fight. Not… this.
Weston glanced over at Jessica, smiling. He gestured back at Hailey, miming a mouth with his hand. Jessica giggled.
"Hey," Hailey started, but she was still unsure what to say next.
He shrugged. "I've had a lot of time to think about it."
"...And I've had a really long flight," Hailey mumbled. "Give me a minute, okay?"
"Sure." He nodded to the living room. "Go take a load off. No one's gonna be home til late tonight. Want something to eat?"
Hailey hesitated. Their impromptu mid-flight breakfast really hadn't been much. "...Yes," she said in a small voice. Weston turned to Jessica and mimed a knife and fork, pointing at her, and Jessica nodded.
Ten minutes later, they were both on the couch wolfing down fresh pancakes, while Weston sipped from a fresh mug of coffee. "...Just off a diet?" he asked mildly.
"No," she snapped, still feeling a little hostile toward him. "Flying is kind of exhausting."
He nodded. "I can imagine."
"...These are really good," she added begrudgingly, finishing off the pancakes.
"Thanks." He took the plate she set down and walked away to clean it off. Jessica was still eating hers, shooting a bewildered glance at Hailey. The last time they'd eaten together had been… explosive, to say the least. This new Weston confused them both.
"We need your help," she repeated, trying to get back on track as he sat down again. His living room was exactly like she remembered it, with a wide comfortable couch and large armchairs surrounding a huge TV mounted on the wall. The Davis family was very proud their home theater setup. Speakers were placed discreetly around the room to provide a full surround system, and blackout curtains would sweep out to cover the windows with the press of a button, or even automatically when starting a movie. The TV was currently tuned to the news, though, chirping away quietly underneath their conversation.
"What can I do?" he asked calmly, sipping at his coffee again.
"Did you see the story about the hostage crisis in Tacoma? The bar that was taken over?"
"...You were there?"
"Yeah… and so was our enemy."
"Well, it's not exactly clear," she muttered. "But we know who's got the big guns. He can make those golems, like the ones we saw in Rallsburg."
He nodded glumly. "I'd hoped we'd never have to see those two again."
Hailey shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "Well… he's actually dead."
"We uhh… well, not me, but… someone killed him."
Weston hesitated, his face hard to read. "Okay."
"But his follower figured out how to make something that other people can use. To find people with magic, and another thing to make those golems. They've been hunting us ever since."
"If if wasn't you, and it wasn't Jessica…" Weston prompted.
"There's other people with magic," she confirmed. "Lots more."
"...But you came to me."
"Yeah." She hesitated. He'll figure it out eventually, he's not stupid. I have to head it off now. "Look, there's a whole lot you don't know yet, but this is important. The way we awakened—err, the way we got magic—isn't normal. We're special."
He raised an eyebrow, sipping his coffee again, but didn't say anything.
"We're way more powerful than most people. They're calling us 'natural' awakened, or other fancy names sometimes too. There's a few more besides who you know, and all of us are way more powerful than the rest. Because we got to read from a full page."
"Hm." He nodded. "I remember."
"Right. Most people just awaken from bits and pieces."
Weston took another sip of his coffee, which irritated her immensely. It felt so casual, even though his expression and tone were quite serious. "I assume you still have it. Keep it secret, wherever it is. Don't tell me, so I can't ever give it away. Even by accident."
She felt an immeasurable wave of gratitude that he understood the potential danger immediately. "Yeah."
"So… you want my help in stopping the people hunting you."
He glanced at the TV. "And we need to do it as quietly as we can."
"Pretty much." She looked over too. It was tuned to national news, like every TV she seemed to run across lately. Today, thankfully, it wasn't a story about her. Just typical mundane national crises, ones she could pretend didn't really affect her. Plus a running tag about a mysteriously vanished asteroid, which she did know something about. "There's a lot of people in hiding right now, and a lot of people hunting them. All we've done so far is run away. I think it's time to fight back."
Weston set his coffee aside, leaning forward slightly. "How?"
"We find him and we stop him."
"Okay, but how?"
"Well…" Hailey paused. "We know he's somewhere in Washington, probably still pretty close to Olympia. Between the attack at the bar, Jerry Hauserman's murder, and what a couple of awakened posted about later, everything's centered around that region. It's a huge area to search, and we know he's in hiding, because he's supposed to be dead too."
"His name's Brian Hendricks. You remember my landlord?"
"Vaguely." He shrugged. "I never really bothered looking into getting an apartment there."
"Freeloader," she smirked. "But yeah, he's the one. He can make those golems, and he has something that lets him tell who's awakened just by looking at them. Something he can lend out to people too, apparently."
"But we have no idea where he is."
"We've got an advantage though." Hailey smiled. "His trick doesn't work on us. They tried it on me and got nothing."
"This is sounding impossible."
"So what's your amazing plan?"
He shrugged. "It's not amazing, but there's always the idea of bait."
"...With what he's got on his side? I can hold those things back, but I don't think I can win."
"But with Jess and me behind you? And any other allies you can pull together?"
"...Maybe?" Hailey grimaced. "I dunno. I don't know if he'd fall for it. And I don't want to risk anyone's life just to try it."
"No, definitely not."
Hailey realized how comfortable she'd gotten. At some point, she'd lost all the hostility she felt toward Weston, replaced with an easy familiarity she hadn't known in ages. It wasn't the tight bond she felt with Jessica, nor the bantering friendship with Ian or the passionate romance with Rupert. This was someone who'd known her better than she knew herself half the time, whom she'd shared everything with for a very long time. It was intimate.
She actually felt… relaxed.
"What?" Weston asked, noticing her expression change.
Hailey gave him a weak smile. "You ever realize this is all totally your fault?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, I only went to Rallsburg because you did." She grinned. "We could have avoided this whole mess."
"Hm. I'm pretty sure it was your idea. Something about showing off to your mom." He grinned back.
Jessica glanced between the two of them, clearly confused. Hailey hugged her, letting her know everything was fine. "You haven't just been sitting around at home all year waiting for me to show up, right?"
He chuckled. "No. I'm taking online classes and working. Four days a week."
"And the personal life?"
To her slight surprise, it didn't bother her at all. She'd moved on too, and they were both better off for it. Still, Hailey couldn't help it. She mock-gasped. "Moved on from me? As if!"
This time, Weston let out a real laugh, and she was reminded how much she used to love it. "Sorry, Hales. You could never match up to Chelsea."
She sighed dramatically. "I'll just have to settle for my impossibly handsome British nurse with a heart of gold." She glanced at him sideways. "Did you tell her your deep dark secret?"
"She'll never find my collection of eighties memorabilia, don't worry."
Hailey laughed. "The other one."
"You didn't tell him?"
"Well, he was already awakened, so I didn't have to choose." She frowned. "How'd she take it?"
"Didn't believe me at first, obviously, but now it's just our secret." He shrugged. "I trust her with my life. She doesn't know about the rest of you," he added. "And she never will unless you want her to."
"And she's cool?"
Weston smiled. "Yeah, she's cool."
"Good. I was way too hot-headed for you."
"Oh, we had some fun."
Hailey cackled. "Speaking of which, did you start casting that spell yet?"
Weston grimaced. "I'm not talking about this."
"Oh, come on. Who else could you ever talk to about this?" She grinned. "Just saying, that was a real game-changer in the bedroom."
For a split-second, Hailey thought Jessica had somehow understood what they were saying, and just wanted them to shut up like usual. But it wasn't that.
It was far, far worse.
She was pointing at the TV screen, which they'd both totally forgotten. The headline alone was enough to feel like the world was ending, but the still photo above it had her boiling with unbridled rage. She stood up from the couch, fists clenched, her nails digging into her skin.
"Is that…" Weston started, gazing at the TV.
STARTLING EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT: SURVIVOR TELLS ALL IN CHILLING NEW BOOK: THE RALLSBURG DIARIES
"It is," Hailey growled. She flipped to another news channel. The photo of the town was plastered on the screen again. Anchors and commentators were debating at length already, but no one seemed to actually have him on, or even a copy of the book they were discussing. Still, she knew exactly who had to be responsible for this. Only one person would both have access to those diaries, and be stupid enough to try and make money off of them.
CONFIRMED SURVIVOR OF RALLSBURG INCIDENT, CLAIMS 'MAGIC' WAS RESPONSIBLE, WITH PROOF
Again, while fear mixed with the rage.
THRILLING FIRST-HAND ACCOUNTS CURATED BY RALLSBURG SURVIVOR DETAIL SUPERNATURAL CAUSE TO DESTRUCTION
"This is really bad," she murmured, barely controlling the anger in her voice. Jessica clutched her hand, trembling, watching the TV flip through channels. Every single news channel seemed to be on the story already.
IS MAGIC REAL? EXPERTS TO DISCUSS UPCOMING BOOK FROM RALLSBURG SURVIVOR
Hailey's phone started buzzing. She already knew who it was going to be, and she didn't answer. Cinza wouldn't have anything to say she didn't already know herself. She was still shell-shocked. After all this time, after all their precautions and all the effort they'd spent trying to keep things quiet… this was it?
FBI: "NO COMMENT" IN RESPONSE TO INQUIRY ABOUT 'THE RALLSBURG DIARIES'. RUMORS PERSIST OF SECRET GOVT 'MAGIC' BRANCH.
THE 'AWAKENED' AMONG US: NEW EXPERT COMES FORWARD TO EXPLAIN SHOCKING DETAILS FROM RALLSBURG BOOK
WHITE HOUSE: "WE ARE INVESTIGATING ALL CLAIMS" FROM RALLSBURG DIARIES, NO COMMENT FROM POTUS
She gave up on the news channels, pulling out her phone and scrolling through headlines instead. They were no better, and many were even worse as conspiracy theorists and supernatural nutjobs piled in.
HORRIFYING MURDERS FROM RALLSBURG WERE RITUALISTIC SACRIFICES, 'AWAKENED' PLANNING FOR MORE TOWNS
There. One headline from a paparazzi site, giving her the information she really needed.
UPCOMING 'RALLSBURG DIARIES' AUTHOR HOLED UP AT SAFE HOUSE, ALL CONTACT THROUGH PRIVATE LAW FIRM
Hailey took down the name of the firm: Luther, Renalds and Portman. He wasn't an idiot—at least, not about hiding. She'd never find him, but she sure as hell was going to find the people representing him. They'd get all the first-hand accounts of magic they could ever want. She snapped her phone back onto its snug belt clip, then held out a hand to Jessica.