Chapter 21 — A Return to Form
"Do I believe she was a good leader? I cannot say. Certainly whatever goals she held went unfulfilled. At the end of the Omega epoch, Rachel DuValle saved my life. Some may argue she allowed it to occur, by not taking more decisive action. More ignorant voices will say she herself set events in motion. This is foolish. A leader should not be blamed for events they could not have foreseen. His power was beyond our comprehension. The true measure of leadership is in the unexpected. In that, Rachel reacted as best we could hope: by stopping the threat. I do not know what means she employed to accomplish that end, but since that evil man is now a pillar of smoke in the sky, I trust she made the right choice."
~Cinza, The Rallsburg Diaries
Jeremy snapped his phone shut and walked back into the bedroom. "Well, we're fucked."
"I knew this would happen," Rachel sighed, after he explained what he'd just learned from Hailey.
"Really? Is that a magic thing?" asked Maddie.
"No. But it happened last time too. As soon as I feel like we might actually have a chance to prepare, it gets torn to shreds anyway." Rachel sighed. "How much time do we have?"
Jeremy was already scrolling through reports on his phone. He didn't bother with the news, going straight to his email box and news feed from work. "Jesus, even we don't fuckin' know. They're deploying a team to the damn publisher's office right now."
Maddie laughed. "Bunch of clowns."
He shook his head. "Nah, this is everyone in the Bureau. Even the good ones. How the fuck…"
Rachel had a laptop open as well, scrolling through pages of material. "It looks like it was presented as a trashy exploitative fiction novel. They didn't publicize it at all until the last minute." She shook her head. "It's to be released on Tuesday."
"Four days?" Jeremy asked, while Maddie swore violently.
"Yeah." Rachel kept tapping away at the keyboard. "Looks like Hailey made a splash, too. She's front-page news."
"Well, we gotta get in there," said Maddie.
"If you want to take control of the story."
Rachel shook her head. "We're not ready yet. We don't have a plan for handling integration, or for new laws to deal with the awakening process, misdemeanors, felonies, anything. The economic impact. There's so much we need to plan for."
"And this motherfucker just threw your whole plan out the window," said Jeremy with a shrug.
"He's banking on the idea that the first person to reveal themselves is gonna have control of the whole story, and he's probably right," Maddie continued. "Everyone's gonna remember the first couple awakened. The more there are, the less notable. Hailey's gonna be immortal at this rate, and whoever did this is gonna be right behind."
"Who is it, anyway?" asked Jeremy. "Any ideas?"
"No need," Rachel answered grimly. "Hailey and I came to the same conclusion. It's Nate Price."
"The rich kid?"
"Formerly rich kid," Maddie corrected. "After that whole business reclaiming his family's estate."
"Oh, I loved watching that."
"What?" asked Rachel.
"Courtney ate a ton of shit for it," Jeremy explained, grinning.
"Our half-sister, the governor," Maddie explained, as Rachel continued to stare blankly.
"You're related to the governor?"
Jeremy shrugged. "You didn't know?" He was used to Rachel knowing seemingly everything already.
"I never made the connection…" She trailed off. "That might be an approach we can use."
"...Fuck no," Jeremy sighed.
"You want to go through our sister?" asked Maddie dubiously.
"Well, I don't really want to be on TV…" Rachel said, frowning. "But if we want to have some kind of influence on where this is heading, we need to connect with the actual people in power."
"Ah, so you want the lobbyists," said Jeremy sagely. Maddie punched him in the arm.
"Offer to work for her," said Will. They all looked over at him, sitting up in the hospital bed. A laptop floated over to him and landed neatly beside him. The keys started tapping away slowly on their own. They waited while he worked up to another sentence. "They'll need a way to find criminal magic users. I can do that."
"...Are you sure?" Rachel asked. "You still can't walk."
"I know." He winced. "It'll still be through you. Same as before."
"Before what?" asked Jeremy.
Rachel took a breath before answering. "He means when I was on the Council. No one else knew about Will's affinity, or even that he was awakened. Whenever someone wanted an affinity reading or help locating magical activity, I'd act as a buffer." Rachel looked at him with a mixture of concern and admiration. "You really want to go through all that again?"
"This is important," he said, clearly holding back a cough. "You need something to offer."
"He's not wrong," said Maddie. "Without a card on the table, you're just a recently dead girl. No real connections or authority to back you up. You gotta bring the big guns."
"I am an awakened," Rachel pointed out. "That's still an extreme rarity in the world—one in seventy-six million, and most of us are in hiding. There's twenty times more billionaires than there are awakened."
"Yeah, but that doesn't just get you a voice in the government. It's all about who you know, or how much money you've got. Nothing else." Maddie shook her head. "You know me, but that's about it. We can take it the slow way, where I start introducing you and bringing you into the right circles, but if you can bring a card like that to the table—" She nodded at Will. "—you're gonna have real power, real fast."
"Hang on," said Jeremy. "No offense, but he's stuck in that bed, right?"
"Mostly," Will replied, coughing again.
"This doesn't feel right."
"I don't have to be there—" Will said, before getting cut off again by another coughing fit.
"He can use the spell from quite a ways away," explained Rachel, pouring Will a glass of water. "Far further now than he used to, since he doesn't have much else to do stuck in bed all day. He's had a lot of practice."
"So you'll just be sitting up here in Vancouver, totally alone?" Jeremy shook his head. "If they can find two guys in the middle of the fuckin' woods, they'll find you here sooner or later."
"He won't be alone," said Rachel.
"Your parents are real nice folks, Rachel, but I—"
"I didn't mean my parents." She nodded to the doorway.
Three people were standing there—high school ages, perhaps a year or two older. Jeremy couldn't be sure. One short-ish girl, with long blonde dreadlocks and a huge birthmark on her pale face, flanked on either side by identical twin men with short-cropped black hair and equally bored expressions.
"Sorry it took so long," said the girl.
"That's fine. Thanks for coming."
"Who the hell are you?" asked Jeremy, standing up. He was shocked they'd managed to enter the room without him noticing. I'm fucking slipping…
"Are you that FBI guy?" asked Dreadlock-girl.
"Yeah, he is," chimed in the left twin.
"Definitely the guy," agreed the right twin.
"She's Solveig, and the twins are Landon and Logan," explained Rachel, sitting back down in her chair next to Will. "They work for me."
"Whatever she needs," agreed Solveig.
"Yeah, we're Rachel's Rangers," added the left twin.
His brother glanced at him. "Thought we agreed that name was stupid, Landon."
"It's growing on me."
"Are they…" Maddie started.
Solveig grinned. She held up a hand and snapped her fingers. An empty glass on the bedside table shattered.
Jeremy and Maddie both leapt to their feet, started. The dreadlocked girl's smile only got wider, as she snapped her fingers again. The shards on the table gathered back up and reformed, merging back into a single glass again.
"They are," answered Rachel unnecessarily. "I'm helping pay for their college."
"We'd do it anyway," said Solveig. "I'm taking the year off to do magic."
"Online classes," added Logan, and Landon nodded in agreement.
"Your education comes first," said Rachel pointedly.
"Nuh-uh. Your safety, Will's safety, then our education," said Solveig.
"Also her parents, our families," added Logan.
"The city, the country," continued Landon.
"We got it, guys," said Maddie testily.
Solveig smiled. "They'll all be totally fine while you're gone. Wherever you're going."
"Seattle," Rachel replied.
"Olympia, actually," corrected Maddie.
"We'll need to stop in Seattle first. I have to meet with someone on the way."
"How long will you be gone?" asked Solveig.
"As long as it takes," Rachel replied, with a touch of melancholy. She leaned down and kissed Will on the forehead. He lifted a hand awkwardly to pat her on the back. "I need to go pack."
Rachel left the room, and her group followed her out. Maddie left too, muttering something about getting a bite to eat before they drove all the way back to Seattle. Jeremy and Will were the only ones left, and Will was already back on his laptop. He didn't ever actually touch it. By all appearances, the keys were pressing themselves, while his eyes flicked around the screen. Still, he could type faster than Jeremy ever could, so he didn't seem to be slowed down in the slightest.
"Hey, Will," Jeremy started, taking a seat by his bed.
"I gotta know. Are you really okay with this?"
Jeremy shrugged. "With us just usin' you. You're stuck up here solo and we'll just be usin' you whenever we need a readin', right? Sounds like a bad deal to me."
Will frowned. "I can't do much else."
"I've got a talent nobody has. I've got Knowledge affinity. That's rare. If I can do some good, I will."
Jeremy nodded. "All right. I just wanted to make sure."
"I'm supporting Rachel," he added. "That makes me happy."
"Well lucky you." Jeremy frowned. "Actually, I had another question for you."
"If you're a Knowledge guy, does that mean you can figure out other magic like that? Other… uhh, spells?"
"Right." Jeremy dug through his pockets for the stone. He set it in Will's outstretched hand. "Tell me what this thing is doin', then."
Will frowned, his eyes locked on the small stone with the rune-like carving in the middle. Jeremy wanted to know what that meant too, but he couldn't think of a way without taking a photo and uploading it to the internet—and fuck that. Lani and Maddie didn't have a clue either.
"I'm not sure," he said finally, but a moment later his eyes widened. "Oh!"
"What?" asked Rachel, who had walked into the room at the same moment.
"It detects magic," said Will, before another cough overtook him. A glass of water hovered into his hand, which he took a drink from awkwardly before continuing. "Not very well, but it works."
"Where did you get that?" she asked Jeremy.
"...Stole it off a guy who was stalking a kid down in Tacoma. One of the ones from the bar standoff." Jeremy shrugged. "We guessed what it could do. They were using it to pick out your people in the bar, so they could execute 'em." He shivered. "Cold as fuck."
"Omega must have given it to them…" Rachel murmured, picking it up from Will and turning it over in her hand. "Those symbols."
"Yeah. What's that mean?"
"Truth. Jinsil," she added. "It's in Korean."
"I don't know why. Maybe he was learning Korean. I didn't really know him very well." Rachel sighed. "Specifically, it refers to a sort of general truth of the world. Like physics, or religion in some contexts. Something that does not change and will never change. Universal and rigid."
"So you carve this thing onto a rock and it'll tell if people got magic?"
"No. Symbols like this have nothing to do with magic. He was always a bit theatrical." Rachel handed it back to him. "You can use it, then?"
"That is what's extraordinary. Something only Omega and one other ever accomplished, magical objects that anyone could use even if they weren't awakened."
"How's that work, then?"
"Well, as it was explained to me, the object is actually imbued with specific instructions. Almost like a program. It can keep operating so long as it can draw enough energy to power its function." Rachel sat back down next to Will, taking his hand and squeezing it. "The problem is, energy can only be drawn from a willing person."
"Doesn't sound like a problem to me," Jeremy muttered.
Rachel smiled. "You're right. That's probably a blessing. Anyway. Since an enchanted object needs energy to keep working, if it's too far away from a willing user for too long, the spell will collapse and fade. There's a few theories about how to get around this, by drawing energy from other sources somehow, but for now all we can do is a willing human being."
"But this spell's still here," Jeremy concluded.
"Exactly. Somehow, Omega was able to imbue it in such a way that the spell is still there, long after anyone was actively using it and long after he died."
She took a breath. A darkness flashed across her face.
I know that look. That girl's seen some shit…
"Not only that," Rachel continued, "this is a Knowledge spell, which has always been one of the hardest for anyone to use outside of their own affinity. The fact that anyone can use this, even those with no magical experience or training whatsoever, is intimidating to say the least."
"And those fuckin' golems," he muttered.
"Exactly," Rachel agreed. "For all his faults, there's no denying that Omega was one of the greatest spellcasters in the world."
"Hey Rachel?" Solveig had poked her thin, sharp-angled face around the doorframe into the room. "Car's all loaded."
"Thank you." Solveig disappeared again. Rachel glanced over at Jeremy. "Could I have a minute alone with Will before we leave?"
Jeremy stood up. "Yeah, 'course. I'll be waiting outside."
He left, and the door swung quietly shut behind him on its own. I'm never fuckin' getting used to that. He wandered back into the main room, where Rachel's trio of followers was standing guard by the front door, clearly taking their roles far too seriously. Her parents were eyeing them with suspicion.
"I'm guessin' she didn't tell you about them either?" he asked Andrea, pouring himself a cup of coffee as he did.
She shook her head. "They're just a bunch of kids," she murmured.
"So's Rachel," Jeremy pointed out.
"My daughter's different."
"No, I mean…" Andrea trailed off. "She's different than before."
"She's been through a lot." Way too much.
"She's still trying to do some good though. That's something, right?"
Christ, am I a counselor now or something? "Yeah. She's doin' good."
"You'll look out for her?" asked Eric.
"Both of us will," replied Maddie, who'd been leaning against the refrigerator. "I'll be with her every step of the way."
Jeremy nodded. "If all goes accordin' to plan, she's gonna be the first head of state or some shit."
"We never did pick a name for this new appointee," Maddie explained with a shrug. "Something for the drive, I guess."
Rachel emerged from the bedroom a moment later, a leather bag over her shoulder with a gold buckle on the front and an eight-pointed star embroidered above it. She hugged her mother and father goodbye, and Jeremy lead the way back to Lani's car.
Back to America, back to Seattle, back to normal.
Fuck me, I wish.
Contrary to the idea for discussion, Maddie was out like a light only a few minutes into the drive. They'd spent the whole night talking, with only an hour or two for sleep. Rachel, on the other hand, seemed as awake as ever, while even Jeremy felt a bit tired.
"How the hell aren't you exhausted?" he asked finally.
"Magic," she answered simply.
"What, you're doing a spell or somethin'?"
"Not exactly. But I only need about two hours of sleep a night."
"Shit, maybe you should drive," he muttered, as he felt his eyes drooping slightly again.
"I don't have a license."
He rolled his eyes. "You're also supposed to be dead. If we get pulled over, I think we got bigger problems than you bein' unlicensed."
"I've never driven a car before."
She serious right now…? "It was a joke, Rachel."
"Right." She stared out the window, watching Vancouver disappear behind them. "Sorry. I haven't had much to laugh at lately."
"Uh huh." Jeremy shrugged. "You're never gonna survive Maddie's people if you ain't got a sense of humor. Just warnin' ya. You'll end up tearin' your hair out."
"Good to know."
Most of the drive passed in silence. They crossed the border without issue, since Jeremy was still able to wave his badge to get them through without many questions. He was still supposed to be on vacation, and if his bosses had questions about why he'd gone to Vancouver of all places, he had one hell of an answer in his passenger seat.
Halfway to Seattle, Maddie finally spluttered awake. "...we there yet?" she mumbled, awkwardly turning over with a huge imprint of a seatbelt on her face.
"Not even close," said Jeremy. "Still an hour at least."
"Coulda put on some music or something," she muttered. "Awkward as shit in here."
"Sorry I'm not the best conversation, Maddie."
"Do I gotta do everything in this family?"
She chuckled. "Okay, fine. Hey, Rachel?"
"Talk to my brother, so I can get some real sleep. Too damn quiet." She turned back around, pressing her face into the soft cushions in Lani's car. They both listened, and sure enough, she was gently snoring in only a couple minutes.
"Can she fall asleep anywhere?" Rachel asked quietly.
"So you both got superpowers. Just gotta combine 'em."
She laughed quietly. "Maybe someday."
"...What's your endgame, Rachel?"
She looked over at him, surprised.
Jeremy shrugged. "Look, my job's always been to chase the scarier, smarter type of criminal, so maybe I'm just wired to think this way. But I feel like you've got somethin' you're workin' towards, somethin' drivin' you, and I can't figure it out. What are you tryin' to do?"
"Save the world, I guess."
"Oh, it needs savin'?"
"It might." She sighed. "It was one thing Omega and I agreed on. Something my best friend once said really stuck with me, actually. She said magic was like we were playing with nuclear weapons, without any idea what the potential fallout might be."
"Who's this best friend?"
"Nobody from your lists."
Goddammit. "Thought we were done lyin' to each other."
"This isn't a lie, not exactly. But…" Rachel hesitated. Her brown eyes clouded over, dark and regretful. "Well, I treated her horribly. For once, I'm going to let her have the benefit of the doubt and let her do… whatever it is she's doing now. So her name stays out of it."
I'll figure it out if I need to. "...All right then."
Rachel smiled. "Thank you. To answer your question though, that's what I'm trying to achieve. I always knew magic was going to spread out. By the time Omega tried to do anything, it was already too late. Even if he had managed to kill every single person in Rallsburg, there were already some awakened beyond the borders. I know a few of them, and we'd already made it pretty clear we couldn't find everyone. Nor could he."
"And those scraps of the book, right?"
"Yes, exactly. The Scraps are spreading, too. I'm really not sure why or how. It's like they're moving on their own. I mean, since the paper seems to be effectively indestructible except by magic, there's no reason they couldn't just keep drifting around, but they don't seem to be following the wind, or any pattern I can discern. They're just spreading outward at random."
Jeremy sighed. "That's gonna be a fuckin' headache."
"There's only a certain number of them, so it'll be slow at least. But it won't stop. That's why we need to get a system in place. There's no way we can control the spread. Only one person in the world could hope to do that." She took a breath. "If history's anything to go by, society doesn't take well to rapid systemic change. Humanity will survive—it always survives—but I'm afraid of how much damage might be done in the meantime."
"Right. If people with magic can combine their power to create something with the widespread lingering destructive power of nuclear radiation, they could permanently affect the whole world in cataclysmic ways. Nuclear weaponry is held in check by the prohibitive cost of such a weapon in the first place. It takes sophisticated equipment, a strong understanding of physics, and expensive materials to construct such a weapon. The real danger from nuclear weapons these days is from nations trading or even losing those weapons to less stable elements in the world.
"On the other hand, the development of nuclear science has lead to so many technologies and ideas that make our world better. Nuclear power. Medical breakthroughs, especially in diagnostics and cancer treatments. Magic could do the same, and that's what Omega never recognized. He was too afraid of the dangers—and on that, he's not wrong."
Rachel glanced out the window at the suburbs passing by, the endless in-fill of the cityscape. "If some random person snaps, on a bad day, with a bit too much passion and anger, and they could somehow muster the sort of power that we saw on the fifteenth? They could wipe out whole towns. Whole cities, maybe."
"Thought you said that took special awakened people and a whole lot of effort."
"Yes, but everyone seems to be getting stronger over time. We haven't actually seen an end-limit yet. So will the awakened keep getting stronger over time?" Rachel shook her head. "We need to be preemptive."
Jeremy paused while he merged around a particularly slow car on the highway. There was a lot more traffic than he expected for the time of day. It was already dark, and the main rush of the day should have passed already. "Gonna be a fine line between preemptive plannin' and guilty until proven innocent."
"Yes." Rachel nodded. "I worry about that line every day."
"What about you?" she asked, turning to him. "I know why Maddie's here, but why you?"
He shrugged. "I was lookin' for my partner and ended up in this mess. Complete accident."
"You could have left at any time. You still could."
"And miss out on all this excitin' drivin'?"
She laughed again. "It's not because you like magic, I'm guessing."
"But you're still here, backing us up."
He shrugged again. "It's my job." And Jackie ain't here to do it.
"I thought you were on vacation."
"I'm bad at takin' vacations. Ask any of my bosses."
Rachel nodded. "Well, I'm grateful you're here. To be honest, I really needed someone like you."
"Someone to show up on my doorstep and remind me that I can still do some good in the world."
Jeremy shrugged. "I was just doin' what I was told."
"By the girl you saw, right?"
"That's the one." He glanced at Rachel, who was still staring out the passenger window. "You gonna tell me who she is yet?"
"Because she hates me already, and I don't think making her angrier is a good idea."
"She hates you?"
She sighed. "Yes."
I already know what she's gonna say, but worth a shot. "Why's that?"
"I can't tell you that either."
Goddammit. "Okay, give me one straight answer at least. What's this one stop we gotta make in town?"
Jeremy chuckled. "Of course the rich girl survived. Probably paid her way out."
For the first time since they'd met, he saw a bit of anger return to her face. It was actually unsettling, even for Jeremy. He knew how little she was actually capable of doing, and yet… she was not someone he wanted to piss off.
"...Sorry. So she's a friend?"
They rode in silence for a few minutes.
"...I wasn't sayin' she was a bad person," he added uncomfortably.
"She could be totally fine. I was just makin' a joke about rich people."
For the next half-hour, they rode in stony silence, with only the hum of the car and the light snores of Maddie from the back seat.
Well… fucked that one up.
"Pull off here," said Rachel.
"That dump?" Jeremy asked dubiously.
They were a block away from the most forlorn abandoned convenience store Jeremy had ever seen. He was shocked it hadn't been condemned and taken down—but this part of the city was notoriously filled with stubborn old landowners and a real lack of motivation to develop. The vicious cycle of no one wanting to invest because it had no existing value, which lead right back to no value again.
He couldn't imagine someone like a Laushire living here. Buying the property and developing it maybe, but not eating, sleeping, and pissing here.
Not only was the property itself dilapidated, but the entire street wasn't much better. Half-broken chain-link fences, the remains of a homeless camp, and boarded up buildings lined both sides of the street. In the distance, he could see the beginnings of proper city streets, but it was at least two blocks away. This whole section was left for dead, and their presence felt unwelcome. Even as he watched, a kid in an oversized green army jacket with a wicked scar on her face emerged from the store and fled away from their car, straight into the gnarled woods that jutted up against the building.
Christ, even the street don't want this street. Seems like prime territory to me.
"Hmm," Rachel murmured, staring at her phone in the back seat.
"She's not answering."
Jeremy shrugged. "So let's just go in anyway."
"There's nowhere to 'go in' to. She doesn't live there, that's just where to get into her real home."
"...Meaning what exactly?"
Rachel paused. "Call it a sort of door, that opens to somewhere completely different."
"What, like another dimension?" I'm not that ignorant. I'm twice your age, but I can keep up. "Just cut to the chase, girl."
She nodded. "Kendra can create pocket dimensions where distances do not correlate with their real world counterpart. She uses a miniature version of this to create doors that effectively teleport you as you walk through. That building is just a convenient memorable anchor point."
"...All right. So her house ain't here, is what I'm gettin'."
"Yes." She frowned, still staring at her phone. "And she's not answering me."
"You sure she's even got signal wherever she is?"
"Or maybe she's just busy," added Maddie.
Jeremy jumped. "Jesus, you're awake?
"Awake and starvin'. Are we there yet?"
"Yes 'n no…" Jeremy stared at the building. "So should we just go up and knock?"
"No point…" Rachel said, trailing off. "I haven't spoken to her in months. Maybe she moved."
"We don't have all day," said Maddie, stifling a yawn as she sat up. "I had to buy your meeting with Courtney tonight, and you're still gonna be sharing the space with a few other notables."
"What's the plan, anyway? For the big meetin', I mean." Jeremy asked, glancing over at Rachel. She looked worried, which didn't sit well with him. If the big bad leader's thinking somethin's wrong, should I be lookin' out for more of those fucking golems?
I miss normal bad guys with normal guns.
"It's a first step," said Rachel, still tapping away at her phone.
"I thought you and my sister was the first step."
"Okay, so it's more like step fifty-seven," she sighed. "With Maddie's help, I want to approach the governor and try to arrange for a reasonable level of protection for my people. Get attacks recognized as a hate crime, for a start."
"What do you need Laushire for, then?"
"Last time I saw her, she was already in tight with the devil," added Maddie, leaning forward between the two seats and plucking a couple of peanuts out of the open bag on the center console. "Under a fake name, but she was rubbin' shoulders and tradin' favors with the whole crowd."
"I…" Rachel hesitated, glancing away. "I don't need her. You're right." Petrichor wafted through the car as the first few drops of rain started pattering on the roof. "Let's not stay here any longer."
"I hear that," Jeremy muttered, immediately turning the car back on. They pulled out of the forlorn city block and back into the living part of Seattle. "Anyone else from your old life we should check in with?"
Jeremy looked over, but Rachel was still turned away. watching the street go by. Whatever. It's her call. "You got it."
"So explain this to me," Jeremy started. They were sitting in the lobby while one of Courtney's assistants went off to extricate her from the fundraiser—because she's always holding a fucking fundraiser… "How'd they print millions of copies, ship 'em out all over the country, and no one read the thing?"
Maddie swallowed down the chips she was munching on before answering. "Well, who's gonna believe it?"
"There had to be a bunch of people working on it, right?"
"It's a pretty minimalist cover," said Rachel, "so they didn't need a designer, and the rest of the process could have assumed it was just a work of fiction. The editors were obviously in on it, and I'm sure that as soon as it was announced to be genuine, every shipment was already under strict lock and key."
Jeremy shrugged. He was just making idle conversation. Waiting for Courtney to show up had him fidgeting impatiently. He felt like he needed to be doing something, but he couldn't really think of what that might be. At least Rachel seems to know what she's doin'.
"Oh, for fuck's sake!" Jeremy growled, getting to his feet. The assistant had returned, an apologetic smile plastered across his dumb face. He didn't make it halfway across the hall before Jeremy was right up in his face. "You told her it was her brother and sister?"
"National security concerns?"
"Exactly as you—"
"Opportunity of a fuckin' lifetime?"
Maddie shook her head. "Jere-bear, he didn't even talk to her. Did'ya?" she added, cocking her head to the side.
Reluctantly, the aide shook his head.
"Well if she can't come t'us, we're goin' to her," Maddie finished cheerfully. "Rachel, you coming?"
Rachel sighed. "Yes."
Jeremy grinned as they swept past the hapless assistant. The poor guy wasn't about to get in the way of the Ashe siblings, or the willowy tower of a girl following in their wake. They bounded up the wide marble staircase, two at a time, and headed straight past the men standing at the door and into the party.
Boring-ass party, Jeremy sighed as soon as they'd walked in. He'd expected nothing less from a political fundraiser—but even by those standards, it was so stately and refined that he felt like firing his gun into the air for the hell of it, just so there was something happening.
Of course, their arrival had already caused a stir. It helped that their attire was completely out of place. The fundraiser was mostly black-tie formal wear. While Maddie was at least wearing a business suit, Rachel was dressed in a long dress that clearly didn't fit her right, and Jeremy had on a windbreaker with his pistol visibly holstered at his side, right next to his badge.
'Bout time I can finally work as myself again… More or less.
"Where is she?" whispered Rachel, as more and more heads began to flick towards them.
Maddie stood up on her toes, peering over the crowd. "Table in the corner. She's the one gladhanding the guy who looks like a mob boss."
"...She's your sister?"
"Takes after her father," Jeremy shrugged.
"In personality, too," added Maddie. "Come on, Rachel." She seized Rachel's hand and started pulling her away, weaving through the crowd and tables like a professional. Jeremy did his best to keep up, nearly running over a few curious onlookers that stood up to greet them. The buzz in the room was growing. He doubted anyone actually recognized Rachel, but he and Maddie had both been on the news more than enough.
"Courtney!" Maddie cried in an overly-affectionate tone that had Jeremy cringing right along with his half-sister. "I didn't know you were going to be at this party!"
She froze, hands in mid-air from some energetic speech she'd been giving to the cigar-chewing man two seats down. Slowly, the rotund woman twisted on her chair, brushing back long straight hair from her face to eye them through thin-rimmed glasses.
No wonder Rachel's surprised. She's fat, we're both skinny. She's got straight hair, Maddie's is curly as they come. Courtney looks like she's always trying to win you over, and Maddie looks like she's pulling a prank on you and can't help laughing before it even goes off. I wouldn't call us as siblings either.
"Madelaine," she said, with a perfectly calculated air of warmth. Jeremy resisted rolling his eyes. "I swear I sent you an invitation. Did your poor secretary misplace it again?"
"Oh, I'm sure she just filed it into the wrong box. You know, so many invitations cross my desk in D.C., it's a wonder I make it to anything at all!" Maddie waved airily as she took one of the empty seats. Courtney's table had been almost entirely empty. The cigar-chewing man looked particularly annoyed by the interruption. Jeremy suppressed a grin as he leaned against the wall, just to pressure them a little bit more. Rachel looked uncertain, but Maddie tapped the chair next to her surreptitiously with her foot, prompting her down as well.
"Madelaine, this is my friend Howard Mettis."
"Charmed," said Maddie. "Of Metcon Capital, right?"
"That's right," he growled. Or maybe that's just his voice, if he smokes shit like that.
"Don't tell me my darling sister is talking your ear off about campaign donations, is she?" Maddie sighed dramatically. "Only a week after securing her next term and she's right back at it. You have to admire her dedication."
"Howard," said Courtney, with only a hint of irritation creasing her voice, "this is my half-sister Madelaine, recently re-elected senator for Washington."
"Another six years, but who's counting?" Maddie smiled. "Mr. Mettis, you're certainly in the right circle if you're looking to pick the winners."
"And her brother Jeremy," Courtney added, with a slight flick of the head toward him.
"The FBI agent?" Mettis said, narrowing his eyes.
"Yup," said Jeremy, inclining his head.
"You fucked that one up, didn't ya?"
Like you have any fucking clue. "Maybe. Maybe not."
"Oh, let's not get into that ugly business," said Maddie. "Courtney dearest, I was wondering if we could speak in private."
"Don't you have committee meetings to attend?" said Courtney waspishly.
"There's no way he calls a lame duck session. He'd get mobbed."
"Like that's a big deal anymore," huffed Mettis, as bits of ash fell from his unlit cigar.
"As much as I'd love to debate the finer issues of the modern political system," Rachel cut in, "our business is a bit more urgent than that." Her voice was quiet, but controlled and pointed nonetheless. The sort that compelled attention. It was very different from the uncertainty she'd shown in the car, or the melancholy back in Vancouver.
"...Who are you?" asked Courtney suspiciously.
"Part of our private business," said Maddie.
Courtney frowned. She looked up at Jeremy for some sort of confirmation. He nodded.
"Howard, please excuse us for a minute," she said, getting to her feet and setting down her drink. "This shouldn't take long."
Don't bet on it. "Got a private room we can use?" Jeremy asked.
"There's a few upstairs that should be unoccupied."
Mettis shrugged. "I need something to drink anyway." As he wandered away toward the open bar, they trooped off toward a hallway leading out of the main ballroom.
"What are you doing?" Courtney hissed, as soon as they'd exited the mass of guests. "I'm working here, and you bring some giant co-ed into my fundraiser for what? Is this some stupid college prank?"
"I really wish it was," Jeremy muttered.
"Not here, Courtney," said Maddie.
"If I'm leaving a party I organized, I want an explanation, dammit." Courtney stopped right at the exit, in full view of the onlooking guests. "What's this about?"
"That man you were just talking to," Rachel interjected—again with that compelling, even tone. "Howard Mettis, Metcon Capital. He has personal assets in the two hundred million range, and his investment group is well over a billion. He's made sizeable contributions to a number of Democratic candidates, including Maddie—"
"He has?" Maddie asked, surprised.
"Yes. Ten years ago in April, two hundred twelve thousand dollars in total." Rachel turned back to Courtney. "But he's slowed down making contributions to the party in the last few years and seems to be swinging to the middle, if not the right. You're trying to persuade him otherwise, correct?"
Courtney frowned. "...Yes. Go on."
"What are you using to convince him?"
"The usual. The party platform, and promises to reduce red tape and double taxation on his ventures. My personal line."
"But it's not working. Because someone else has his ear."
"How did you—"
"You said it yourself in your conversation, before we walked up."
She could hear that…? Courtney's eyes widened slightly. "You could hear that?"
Rachel shrugged. "I have good ears." She glanced back toward the crowd, and Jeremy could see her eyes drift slightly. Not cross-eyed, but almost the opposite, like they were looking in totally opposite directions. Her pupils dilated significantly, huge black dots in the center of her brown eyes.
"That woman," she said suddenly. She didn't point outright, but a brief shimmer in the air gave her away all the same. It was so subtle that Jeremy could have missed it had he not already been following her gaze.
"Stacy Vellencamp?" Maddie wondered aloud. "Not likely. They don't run in the same circles at all. Not even the same half of the country."
Rachel turned back to Courtney. "I don't know what it is exactly, but those two have a very strong, close connection. She has a lot of influence over him. You need to figure out what she wants to get his money."
Courtney looked up at Rachel, the foot difference in their heights almost comical at such a close distance. "...Let's talk."
"Muuuuch better," said Maddie, lounging on a couch and draining a glass of champagne.
Courtney had taken them into a private room on the next floor, with a man outside the door and every lock turned. "Are you going to tell me who this kid is yet?" she asked Jeremy, ignoring Maddie entirely.
"Rachel DuValle," said Rachel, before he could speak. She held out a hand for Courtney to shake. "I've been looking forward to this meeting for years, governor."
Courtney looked thoroughly unimpressed. "...And?"
"Use your fuckin' brains," Jeremy sighed. "Who the hell do you think she is, if I'm here?"
"Enough of the games. You got your private meeting," Courtney said testily. "Even if I did get a leg up on Mettis, I'm still losing a lot of face right now."
"Mom would be so proud," Maddie murmured, barely audible across the room.
"I'm one of the survivors of Rallsburg," Rachel interjected. Before Courtney could even start to react to that, Rachel kept going—as if she wanted to just get everything over with as fast as possible. "I believe the upcoming Rallsburg Diaries book is one hundred percent accurate, and will quite probably lead to a mass influx in the near future. I'm also the last elected representative of the Awakened, and this is my formal extension of greeting to you as the governor of the state we reside in."
"...She serious?" Courtney asked Jeremy.
"As a fuckin' bomb."
Courtney reached out slowly and shook Rachel's hand. "I… see."
"I realize this is a lot of information in a short span," Rachel went on, dropping the handshake as quickly as she'd offered it. "But we don't have a whole lot of time. The book is scheduled to go on sale Tuesday, and things will happen very quickly from that date."
"Things like what, exactly?"
"Oh come on, Courtney, don't tell me you didn't even look at that damn book," said Maddie, sitting up awkwardly on the couch. "Everyone's about to find out magic's real. They're gonna want a taste of it for themselves. Washington's 'bout to become the hottest tourist attraction in the whole fuckin' world."
"You're about to have an event of unprecedented scale on your doorstep, governor," Rachel added, "and I'd like to help. I may be the only person in the world with the resources and experience to do so."
"Before I explain, I'd like to make clear what I need from you."
Good, she learned. Make the terms clear before Courtney can fuck you over later. Courtney frowned, and Jeremy saw her eyes flick over to Maddie for a fraction of a second. Yeah, bitch, we coached her. Deal with it. "I'm listening."
Rachel cleared her throat. "Full amnesty for my people on any crimes they may or may not have committed while residents of Rallsburg. A protective detail for my family and amnesty for fleeing the country while wanted for questioning."
"That one's a federal crime," Jeremy cut in. "Courtney can't do shit about that. But we can probably still swing it."
Rachel nodded. "I'll have a full list of requests for you, but that's the general idea. We need protection."
"This is something to do with the increase in random unexplained deaths in the Olympic region, isn't it?" Courtney asked, furrowing her brow.
"Someone's hunting us," Rachel confirmed.
"And 'us' is…"
"People with access to magic."
Courtney sighed. "This is going to be a long night."
"No kiddin'," said Jeremy.
As Rachel began to detail more of her requests, as well as exactly how she could help Courtney in the coming weeks, Jeremy stepped out of the room. He trusted Maddie would make sure Courtney didn't abuse Rachel. Somebody had called him from a number he hadn't recognized, and while normally he'd just assume it was a spam caller and ignore it… he'd given out his number to a fair number of useful contacts lately. Could be anyone.
It took seven rings for the other end to finally pick up. "You called me?"
"...Mr. Ashe, right?"
Who the fuck is this? He sounds like a high schooler. "I give you a card?"
"Yeah. I… I need your help."
"Who is this again?"
"The magician, right? Theater kid?"
Please don't be wastin' my time… "What's goin' on?"
"I'm scared. I think they're coming for me."
"They're gonna kill me."