Chapter 30 — Four Days Later
"The world is not fair. It never was fair. We tell ourselves it's fair so we can wake up in the morning willing to step out the door and pursue those things worth fighting for. Nobody was born equal, and nobody had the same chance to survive. We struggle. We endure. We pray that we can find that one person who makes it all worth it in the end, and when we find them, we cling on until it's painful; until we have broken and healed and broken again ten times, a thousand times over. And we know, inevitably in our souls, that no matter what comes, we will one day be separated from our better halves.
We are insane, every last one of us."
~Cinza, the Rallsburg Diaries
Natalie's phone rang.
She was outside at lunch, in the corner of the blacktop. Quinn sat a few feet away, and the rest of the gang formed a circle around them. Mitch was telling a story about a pair of shoes and a prank he'd pulled on Kelsey, and they were all laughing at it—Kelsey harder than the rest.
Natalie picked up her phone, still laughing. She answered, not even bothering to check who was calling.
Color drained from the sky. Every bit of mirth faded away. The rest of the group kept laughing, but Natalie's world had turned to ice in a split-second. She didn't know what was coming next, but it didn't matter. Any voice that sounded so broken, so utterly laced with melancholy and defeat, could never speak anything good.
"...Yeah?" she finally answered, terrified what might come next.
"Natalie…" She heard a choking sound, the sound of coughing.
Natalie knew what was coming next, but she couldn't pull the phone away from her ear. It was stuck there, in horror, unable to move an inch. She felt like she were falling. Like someone had just shoved her off the top of a tree.
The phone clattered to the ground.
Quinn looked over at her. His expression fell. The rest of the group still hadn't caught on, still laughing, still listening to Mitch's story.
Natalie panicked. She grabbed her phone back up and bolted, straight into the field, heading for the fence line. Is this it? Did someone… Was that the thing on the news? Oh god, what's going to happen now?
"How?" she asked breathlessly, sprinting across the open field, confused yells chasing after her.
"I… it doesn't matter." Hailey's voice got a bit stronger, though Natalie could hear her pulling away from the phone every few moments. "There's… there's gonna be a funeral tomorrow. I thought… you know. I thought you could come."
If there is a funeral, you aren't in immediate danger. It is not you.
Natalie slowed down. "I…" What do I say? Of course I'd go…
But you'll be revealing yourself. This is dangerous.
It's… you know, one of us. She was nice to me back home. And Hailey needs me. I've gotta be there.
You are taking a risk.
I have to do this.
Natalie replied so forcefully that the voice disappeared without another word. She slowed to a walk while her friends caught up to her. They reformed the circle in the center of the wide green field. To her relief, nobody else seemed to be watching them.
"What… the hell… are you doing?" panted Mitch.
"I'll be there," Natalie said to Hailey over the phone.
"...Okay." Hailey hung up without another word.
Natalie pocketed her phone, turning to her confused friends. "I thought…" She trailed off, deciding exactly what to say.
"It's okay," said Steven. "You don't have to tell us if it's, you know."
Natalie shook her head, working up to the words. "...Somebody died. One of us."
"...Oh, man," said Mitch, still breathless.
"What happened?" asked Kelsey.
"I dunno," she said, feeling a bit helpless. Hailey sounded so awful… I was angry at her, but now this…?
"I bet it was that big fight on Friday," said Tyler excitedly. "You know, where they blew up a neighborhood."
"Dude!" snapped Kelsey, punching him in the arm.
"One of her friends just died."
"...Sorry," said Tyler, glancing at Natalie uncomfortably.
"Are you okay?" asked Mitch.
Natalie nodded. She'd really only met her twice—once before the big Summit meeting, where she'd had stopped to say hi (well… in her way, at least). She'd been someone Gwen actually liked at first glance. Gwen didn't like anyone near Natalie. The second time was that night, when they'd all driven out of town, but Natalie had been sleeping in the back of Jackie's car most of the way and didn't really talk to her. She'd been so exhausted from riding around on Gwen all day, she'd just wanted to stop moving for forever—but it just all kept coming.
Stuff about her dad and what he'd done.
Rachel and Will disappeared without a word.
School was scarier than she'd expected.
And now… One of them was dead.
Maybe it's time.
No. I said December. I'm staying with my friends.
You're being held back by them. You need to focus.
"I'm gonna be gone tomorrow," she said aloud. "There's… a funeral."
They all looked so sympathetic that Natalie wanted to tear her hair out. This was why she hadn't wanted to tell them. They just didn't get how dangerous this was. But at the same time, Natalie never wanted to be without them again. If she'd been alone when she found out this kind of news, she'd probably have ended up in the same kind of terrifying sprint through the streets like when she'd been locked out of the Laushire house.
"We'll cover for you," said Quinn, and Steven nodded right along with him, though both of them looked very concerned. The group left, wandering back to the blacktop. As soon as they thought they were out of earshot, Natalie heard Tyler start talking about the battle out in Lakewood again.
Quinn stayed behind. "Are you okay?" he asked quietly.
Natalie nodded. "...I didn't really know her that well."
"Do you think you're in danger?"
She shook her head. "We'll be okay. Nobody knows where I am. Not even Lily."
Quinn smirked slightly. "'We'?"
Natalie blushed, glancing away. "Yeah. Me and you. Duh."
He smiled. "Yeah. Me and you." He glanced back toward the school. "You need anything, we're all here for you, you know? We're a team."
Natalie felt a little glow fill up her chest, right near the crackling fire of magic that sat close to her heart. She reached out with her hand, slowly, while Quinn was still turned away.
The black clouds drove her back. Shouted at her, cursed her, forced her away, reminded her of all the horrible things that could happen.
No. You are stronger than that.
The voice returned, fierce and powerful. It was like a ray of sunlight through the darkness, helping her. Natalie felt her resolve redouble. She reached forward again.
Quinn looked around. His eyes widened slightly behind his glasses.
The clouds returned, and suddenly she couldn't stand it anymore. For a moment she'd felt real connection, but the memories were too strong. Natalie ripped her hand away, as if Quinn were on fire. She hurried back toward the school, before he could see her eyes well up once more.
Jeremy rolled up to the sidewalk in a brand new rental car. He hadn't even bothered to ask the Bureau for another vehicle, after both his and Lani's had now been trashed by golems, and with Aderholt still out for his head. This car, nicely modern with all the conveniences technology could bring, was bought and paid for by the political arm of the family—both of whom stood waiting at the curb.
"Didn't think she'd be comin'," muttered Jeremy.
Maddie glanced over her shoulder, where Courtney was still on the phone with some corporate bigwig. "She was there when we got the call. And Rachel sure isn't coming, so she volunteered herself as a representative."
"Don't you count?"
"That's what I said," she grumbled.
"One of my constituents died to domestic terrorism under my watch," said Courtney, who'd apparently heard every word. "It's my duty to offer my condolences to the family."
"And score some PR points," snapped Maddie.
"This is a private funeral. There won't be any press."
He shrugged. "The press always finds Hailey anyway."
"Oh, are you on first name terms with her now?" asked Courtney. "I'd love an introduction, if you don't mind."
"Yeah, I'll do that," Jeremy deadpanned. Maddie rolled her eyes behind Courtney's back, smirking.
Courtney turned back and finished up her phone call. Something about a major business deal, Jeremy didn't catch the specifics. He leaned over to Maddie, so Courtney didn't hear. "Keep her the fuck away from Hailey. She doesn't need that shit today."
Maddie nodded. "You got it."
Courtney pocketed her phone. "So, are we leaving?"
Maddie rolled her eyes even wider, but to his relief, she didn't take another shot at Courtney for the whole drive. They piled in, and Jeremy pulled out onto the street. It was going to be a long drive from Seattle back down to Tacoma in current traffic.
Plenty of time to try and think of something to say to Hailey. Jeremy didn't have a clue. He'd given the talk to so many families, so many grieving people, but he didn't know any of them. Through his whole career, Jeremy had never actually lost anyone. The closest he'd come was when Maddie had nearly been killed, when Jackie had risked her life to save his sister.
This was different. Hailey had lost someone like a soul-mate. Jeremy was pretty close with his sister, but not like that girl. She and Hailey were utterly inseparable.
What do you say to someone who lost that?
"Well, we're here," said Damian, peering out down the street. There was an isolated church at the end, a beautiful little building with flowers scattered everywhere. The sky was cloudy, with patches of blue, and rain was coming in little drips all over the place.
They didn't see a single person around.
"Are you sure this is the place?" he asked, glancing over.
Natalie nodded. She'd triple-checked the address, and checked it again when they got there. They were at the right place. It might not look like much from a distance, but appearances didn't mean much to people like her. She knew what Cinza could do.
"You want me to stick around, Jenny?"
"That's okay. Thank you, Mr. Kincaid." Natalie pulled her jacket on a bit tighter, trying to block out the cold. The heating in his car was broken. She wanted to use magic to warm up, but couldn't while he was still there. "I'll call you if I need a ride back."
"Uh uh. I'll be in town. You call right when you're ready, and I'll be here."
"You don't have to do—"
"I'm happy to, Jenny." He glanced around again, slightly confused. Still not a soul to be seen.
She nodded. Truth be told, she definitely didn't want anyone else to give her a ride, in case they got an idea where she was living now. Quinn's family was still safe. She needed them to stay safe. As Natalie opened the door to the car, he spoke up again. "I'm sorry about your friend."
Natalie waited until he'd driven away, back down the street and around the corner, then immediately murmured a spell, focusing on the pockets of air under her coat. She sighed in relief as her shirt warmed up like a heated blanket. She rubbed her hands together a couple times, then stuck them in her pockets and started walking toward the empty church.
Every step, she felt more nervous. Who was going to be there? Who would she see? The only people from home she'd even spoken to since May were Hailey, Kendra, and Lily. And none of them knew what she looked like now. Who she'd become.
She stopped walking. I can't do this. She couldn't face them, all alone. No matter how much she wanted to go in, these were people from the past, the memories she'd been trying to bury. Hailey...
A screech from on high. Natalie glanced up, surprised. She knew that sound.
<Percy?> she called out.
From over the woods past the church, Percy shot out of the sky, fluttering over the sidewalk and landing neatly on Natalie's shoulder. He rubbed his head against her temple, flapping his wing against the side of her head affectionately.
<I missed you too.> She stroked his head a couple times, while he took a few awkward steps on her thick green coat, finding a better position. Natalie turned back to the church again. She brushed her hair away from her face and steeled herself.
She could do this.
As she'd expected, the church shimmered slightly as she approached. It was so subtle, she doubted anyone would have noticed unless they were really looking for it—and had eyes like hers. Even she could barely tell something was off. Percy shifted talons nervously as they approached the wall. The path seemed to curve away as they walked forward, and Natalie could feel her brain trying to tell her to keep going, that she'd run into something she couldn't see if she walked forward.
Natalie plunged through without a second thought.
The entire world seemed to shift in place. Things emerged as she passed through—the cars parked in the small lot in front of the church, the flowers laid around the front doors. Percy ruffled his feathers in panic as they walked in, but as soon as the world righted itself, he settled down.
<You okay now?> she asked, a bit annoyed. He was such a scaredy-cat.
That's my name. Even though Quinn knew it, she heard it aloud so rarely that it was still a shock. Natalie glanced up from Percy to see Josh Miller dressed in a thick black overcoat, peering back at her from the top step of the church. He was the only one outside, sitting on the railing and staring out at the sky with a worried look.
"Hi," she called back. She crossed the parking lot quickly and hurried up to join him. She'd never exactly liked Josh—he was always the Councilor most likely to treat her like a little kid and ignore anything she had to say—but today? Seeing someone from home, whom she didn't have to hide anything from or explain anything to?
His eyes flicked over to her ears. Okay, maybe I have to explain a couple things. "I like them," she said, before he could say anything.
Josh shrugged. "If you say so." He looked around. "Anybody else with you?"
She shook her head.
"Well, I guess that's probably everyone then." Josh leaned back against one of the support columns, taking a long breath. "How the fuck did we get here?" He gulped and glanced back at her. "Err, sorry."
Natalie rolled her eyes. "You can cuss around me, Josh. I'm not a little kid anymore."
He glanced over her again, lingering on her scar, her eyes, everything. "...No kidding."
Percy made a half-cry, almost like a loud squawk, and Josh jumped. "Shit."
<Percy, be quiet, okay? I really need you to stay quiet all day.> Percy made another noise of protest, but she could tell he'd do what she asked. He thought she'd leave him again if he didn't. She definitely wouldn't, but if the idea kept him from interrupting the service, then it worked for her.
"...Was that you talking to it?"
She nodded. "Percy won't do that again. Don't worry."
Josh's face twisted into that bemused smile she was so familiar with from the old Council meetings, where he clearly didn't understand what was going on but had decided to just go with the flow, like he always did. "Well, to answer your question, a bunch of people: Hailey's parents, the Silverdales, Cinza and a few other Greycloaks who came with me, and some more I don't know. I was taking a break out here, waiting for Hailey."
"She's not here?" Natalie asked, looking around confused.
"Not yet." Josh frowned. "She called everyone together though. I'm sure she'll be here."
"And what about—"
"Nope. Nothing from Rachel." He sighed.
Natalie didn't even feel disappointed anymore. She knew Rachel wouldn't be here.
"Why'd you come separate from Kendra though?" he continued. "Thought you guys were living together."
Natalie shook her head. "Not anymore."
"Then…" Josh trailed off. "Whatever. As long as you're good. Are you good?"
Natalie nodded, though she knew it was a lie. She doubted Josh could tell though. She'd gotten really good at lying lately, as much as she hated it. "Yeah, I'm good."
"Okay." Josh frowned. The entire conversation felt awkward and uncomfortable for them both, clearly. Natalie didn't know what to say, and from his pauses and frequent glances away, Josh clearly didn't either. "Shit."
"I don't know how to do funerals. I've never been to one."
Natalie nodded. "I have."
A dark cloud passed over his expression. "Oh, damn… Jenny's memorial, right."
Josh sighed. "'Cause there wasn't a… a body. That made it a memorial." He winced. "Sorry, I forgot."
She shook her head. "It's okay." Natalie glanced inside. "Do I gotta go by Jenny, or is everyone here okay?"
"Well, Hailey's parents are here, and a few other new people, but I don't think it really matters." Josh shrugged. "It's up to you."
I want to be me. At least for today, I want to just be me again. "Natalie."
He nodded. "Good to see you again, Natalie."
The doors swung open again. Jeremy looked up from his spot in the front corner, but it wasn't Hailey. Just Josh Miller again, accompanied by a teenage girl with a hawk perched on her shoulder, stunning purple eyes, and a deceptive amount of muscle filling out her small frame. She wore a thick, military-style green overcoat, tight dark jeans, and—if Jeremy wasn't seeing things—had actual pointy elf-ears just barely peeking out through her brown hair.
"Who the fuck are these people?" whispered Maddie, also watching the girl wander in. The hawk took a few fluttering steps, and seemed to glare straight at Jeremy for a second, but the girl made a beeline for the Silverdale parents toward the other end of the room and the hawk soon lost interest.
"Thought she explained everything to you," Jeremy murmured, referring to Rachel. They'd agreed not to mention her name once they were at the funeral. Rachel refused to attend, for one reason or another she declined to share, and had made it quite clear she wanted to stay in the shadows.
"Not about the goddamn elf-girl with the pet hawk. And that cult seemed way nicer in her description," she added, nodding toward Cinza and her three companions, who were talking to Rika Nishimura and Ryan Walker, recovering well from the injuries he'd sustained. Malton's men had been as gentle as a kidnapping could be, since he was wanted as a lab specimen, so Walker was going to be just fine—scared and jumpy, but fine.
Small fuckin' mercies…
"You talk to them yet?"
"Shit, Jere-bear, I'm still workin' up to talk to the damn billionaire in the room," she said quietly, stealing a quick glance toward the front. "Least she seems normal."
Kendra Laushire was seated in the front row of benches, tapping away at her phone as if she were sitting at home, paying little mind to anyone else in the room. Her fiery hair was pulled up tight, partly concealed under a wide-brimmed black hat, and she wore an elegant black dress that matched it perfectly.
Everybody's wearing black except those cloak freaks and the teenager… Whose idea was it to make funerals all about wearing black? Make a depressin' day even more fuckin' miserable.
"I'm gonna—" Jeremy started.
Maddie waved him away. "Go, I'll keep Courtney from pissing anyone off."
Jeremy wandered away. He didn't really have anything particular in mind, since he had no clue where Hailey was, so he just hovered past the different clusters in the room—listening in, hearing their conversations, waiting to see if he could pick up any more information about magic, and Rachel, and everything else going on.
He'd passed on all the information about Brian and his location, as well as his ties to Felix Wieczorek, to the FBI, but they still came up with nothing. Aderholt was getting everything he asked for after the devastation of the neighborhood in Lakewood, but they had no idea what they were really looking for. Two men they couldn't find and unsupported accusations against a multi-billionaire across the Atlantic didn't really lead to results.
On top of which, Aderholt still refused to let Jeremy back into the Bureau. Spiteful motherfucker.
"...seriously, Joe's alive?"
Jeremy stopped a few meters away from the cluster of Greycloaks, where a black-suited and bruised Ryan was looking flabbergasted. Nice suit, though…
The shortest of the group nodded, the shining gems and charms that adorned her neckline catching the light as she did. Her voice echoed in an unnatural way with every word. "He's one of us now."
"No shit. Cloak and everything?"
So that's Cinza… Pretty much what I expected. The crimson-haired girl beside her chimed in. "Joe understands what's important."
"My love, Ryan intended no offense."
Ryan shrugged. "Wouldn't have called that in a million years, that's all." He glanced around. "Stayed home though?"
"He's helping Makoto maintain the Greywood's barriers," Cinza explained. "Keeping sanctuary."
"Could use some fucking sanctuary about now," Ryan muttered.
"You're alive," snapped Rika.
Ryan looked like he were about to match venom for venom—but one look back up front, a reminder of why they were gathered, and his voice never made it past his throat. He fell silent.
"We've made great strides in protection magic," said Cinza, filling the silence. "Our home has not yet been found by a single unwelcome soul. All who wish to stay there are welcome."
"Might take you up on that." Ryan frowned. "But if you guys gotta power it all the time, there's a serious fucking hole in your defense, isn't there?"
"We're working on it," said Nikki. Her eyes were red and puffy, and she dabbed at them a few times with a handkerchief before speaking. Last time I saw her was on a hospital camera… She looks like she's aged ten fuckin' years since then.
"Nikki had a theory," explained Cinza. "Using the energy of less complex entities to fuel the spell."
"Well, shit, that's easy," said Ryan.
Everyone in the group looked at him, dumbstruck. Even Rika, whom Jeremy had concluded saw every single person in the room as dirt compared to herself.
"...Do tell," said Cinza dryly.
"I did somethin' similar with lizard eggs. Self-sustaining enchantment until the egg runs dry."
Nikki frowned. "But… what was the spell?"
"Set off a bunch of fire in every direction when it got stepped on." Ryan shrugged. "Never used it outside the science lab, but it worked." He grinned. "Freaked Josh the fuck out." Ryan looked over toward Josh, sitting near the Silverdale parents and Natalie, and winced. "...I should probably apologize or something."
Nikki spoke up impatiently as soon as he finished, sniffling slightly. "But that's such a simple enchantment. We're trying to power a complex mechanism here. Dozens of layers and components. You can't just use a single egg like that."
"What about a whole dozen?" asked Rika sarcastically.
"That's not really—"
"Hmm," Cinza cut in thoughtfully. "That's actually not a bad idea."
"Not eggs, of course, but if we used many power sources, we could power each component of the spell individually. In fact, if we use something that can actually produce its own power…"
"The trees?" asked Ruby, her eyes sparkling.
Cinza looked over at her with a smile. "Yes, exactly. The trees themselves can protect us."
"Until somebody awakened comes by and notices your massive fucking spell tugging on every tree for a mile across," said Rika darkly.
"The awakened aren't who we're worried about," said Ruby.
"...She's right though," sighed Cinza. "We need to be ready for anything now, magical or mundane."
Jesus… Jeremy really felt for them. They all seemed more on edge than he'd ever felt in his life, and they could do magic.
"What do you think, Mr. Ashe?" she asked, looking past Rika to where he stood.
Fuck. "Sorry," he said, walking up to join them. "Didn't mean to eavesdrop."
"I welcome your input," Cinza went on. "You've been a great ally to us, as Hailey tells it."
"Saved my fuckin' life, man," added Ryan, clapping him on the back as Jeremy joined the circle.
Jeremy shrugged. "Stebbins and Hailey did that, I just got in the way."
"I saw you in Tacoma," said Ruby. "You saved people there."
Jetemy raised an eyebrow. "You were there?" he asked.
Ruby smiled. A second later, she vanished into thin air. Jeremy took an involuntary step back, seriously unsettled, and she reappeared again. Nobody else had even moved. Cinza rolled her eyes.
"So that's how Hailey got away," he muttered.
"Despite our abilities," said Cinza, shooting Ruby a look, "we still aren't exactly safe. We'd love your advice and experience, Mr. Ashe, so that something like this doesn't ever happen again."
Jeremy nodded. "Whatever I can do."
Natalie approached cautiously, still unsure what to say, Josh a few steps behind. Mr. and Mrs. Silverdale sat on the little staircase that lead up to the front, where a casket waited on the table behind them. Natalie avoided looking at it. It made her skin tingle uncomfortably, knowing what was inside.
Beth looked up from the ground, still clutching her husband's hand, as they approached. Her eyes widened. "Is that… Natalie?"
She nodded. "Hi, Mrs. S."
"Natalie…" Beth trailed off. Her eyes welled up again, even though she looked like she'd been crying for days, and she looked away.
"We're so sorry for your loss," said Josh weakly. "She was…"
"Thank you," said Malcolm, after Josh failed to come up with anything.
"She was really nice," said Natalie. "She helped save a bunch of people back home. She was a good person."
Beth looked up, face still streaked with tears, and nodded.
Natalie offered her a weak smile. "She was a hero." Not like me. I wish I were as good as her.
"Thank you," choked Beth. Her husband wrapped his arm back around her shoulder, and they hugged close. Natalie took that as her cue to walk away. She had no clue what else to say, and this was even worse than with Jenny's mom. At least then, Natalie could give them a hug and hold their hand, do the things that words couldn't express.
Now, when Natalie tried to push herself forward, give them a hug that she knew they needed, she couldn't move an inch. Her body wouldn't let her.
Josh put a hand toward her shoulder, intending to steer her back toward the crowd, and Natalie flinched away. He took a step back, confused. "Uhh, sorry."
Natalie just brushed it off like it hadn't happened, though in truth, she was worried about how many times that would happen today. Every single touch was like a shock to her system, and she couldn't be thinking about that right now. She needed to be there for Hailey, not dealing with her own mess.
"Where's Hailey?" she asked.
"Dunno…" Josh glanced around. "Her parents are here."
Natalie looked over. The blonde woman she'd seen on TV was in another corner, along with a man who could only be Hailey's father, talking quietly. Natalie could just make out who they were talking about, with Hailey's mom telling some story about eggs.
"You want to go talk to them?"
Well… it's them or Kendra. At least, I think that's Kendra… Or… wait, who is that? And why's she coming over here?
A brown-haired girl in a simple black dress who didn't look much older than Natalie was walking toward them. Specifically toward Josh, though she took a long curious glance at Natalie as she approached. "Hi."
"Uhh, hi?" said Josh. Natalie didn't answer at all, just stared. She felt suspicious, especially since something about the girl seemed weirdly familiar.
"I don't really know anybody here, so I figured I should start with the coolest people I saw."
...What? She's thinking about that at a time like this?
Josh raised his eyebrows, annoyed, which made Natalie feel a whole lot better. If Josh didn't like her, Natalie didn't have to try to like her either. "And who the fuck are you?" Josh asked.
"I'm Meg." She stuck out her hand. Natalie looked at it like she was covered in spiders. "...Oookay, or not." Meg looked around uncomfortably. "Sorry. I'll leave you two alone then."
The girl wandered away. Josh glanced at Natalie, brow furrowed as if to say, What was that?
Natalie shrugged. "I've never seen her before." She frowned. "I've been kinda…" She trailed off, not wanting to say 'on my own.' It sounded too weak, too simple.
Josh caught on anyway. "Shit, Natalie. I didn't even ask. How's school going?"
Hey, something actually okay in my life. Kind of. Anything to not think about why we're here. Natalie smiled. "It's good."
Jeremy got away from the intense group before too long, making an excuse and slipping away, back across the room to Maddie. "Jesus, they're into some serious shit," he murmured.
"Let's just say nobody better try to break into Cinza's house again." He shuddered. "What're you up to?"
"Your turn to keep Courtney on a damn leash," said Maddie. Their sister was just outside the side door to the small building, visible through the window. She was talking on the phone to someone. "I've gotta figure out what's up with Laushire while I got the chance."
"I'll keep her off you."
Maddie grinned and kissed him on the cheek. "Thanks, bro."
"Would you hurry up already? Damn."
She scurried away, her face falling as soon as she passed out of the corner and into the main area of the church. Just like everyone, the moment the dark wooden casket at the front came into view, she remembered why they were there.
Jeremy took a spot just at the edge of the wall where it turned in before the stage, where he could keep an eye on Courtney and still hear what Maddie was saying.
"Miss Laushire?" she asked.
Kendra looked up from her phone, vaguely irritated. On seeing Maddie, she got to her feet in an instant, her phone dropped into her purse. "Senator Ashe. I hadn't expected to see you here today."
Maddie nodded. "I'm with my brother."
"Ah, of course." Kendra glanced over at him, and Jeremy let his eyes drift away, as if he were just watching the room in general and not them in particular. "Please give Agent Ashe my regards."
"Miss Laushire, if I may—"
"I am not prepared to return to the world of the living quite yet, madam senator."
Maddie paused for a moment. Jeremy hid his grin. She wasn't used to being treated so politely. Most of her constituents, when she did take meetings, were a lot more outspoken. "Actually, I was going to ask, what are you doing?"
Kendra's eyes flashed slightly. "Working."
Maddie nodded. "As Lily Wilmore."
That got Kendra's attention. Her posture shifted just slightly. Defensive. Her eyes narrowed. "Madam senator, I'm not precisely certain to what you refer."
"You're doing a lot of business in my state, and my colleagues from Oregon were able to supply me with similar information." Jeremy couldn't see Maddie's face from his angle, but he could imagine the slight smirk on her face. "So, Lady Wilmore, let's skip the bullshit and get to the point, all right?"
Kendra frowned. Her eyes flicked over to Jeremy, who didn't pretend to be looking anywhere else this time. He wasn't sure what Maddie was up to, but he trusted she had a plan. Meanwhile, with Courtney still out of the building, they didn't have to worry about interference.
"You're building an empire," Maddie stated.
The woman's mouth twitched slightly—the most emotion Jeremy had seen out of her all day. "It's an unfortunate habit of my homeland."
"But you're a Laushire. You're already the richest fuck in the whole world."
Kendra raised her eyebrows. "I believe you refer to my father."
"I'm quite certain I won't be receiving much of an inheritance."
"What'd you do, piss in his breakfast?"
Kendra frowned. "I don't think that's necessary."
"Well, people always said I had the worst mouth they'd ever heard on a member of Congress. No idea what the fuck they were smoking to miss the other ninety-nine assholes, but it never slowed me down."
"Are we finished?"
Maddie shook her head. "What's your endgame? You've pulled together a shit-ton of capital in four months, and nothing's come out of it yet. You've been upending major power brokers. Even the multinationals are getting into it. You know your father is looking into an acquisition?"
Kendra smirked again, but unlike before, it was actually quite visible. "I may have seen a memo."
"I'm on your side here. I can be your voice in Congress. But you gotta tell me what I'm doing out there. I want to help this go smoothly. Without any more car chases or collapsing houses or exploding towns. Work with me."
"...What are you proposing?"
"You need fast-tracked approval for your company mergers and acquisitions, you need the FTC off your back, you need more room to maneuver. You need influence you can't get from the shadows. I got that in spades. I don't sit on the committee, but I can lean on whoever you need leaned on."
"From a second-term senator with the lowest campaign fundraising in state history?"
Maddie nodded. "I'm not tied to a single damn lobbyist. I actually believe in the system, screwed up as it is."
"But you want to tie yourself… to me."
"Not a fuckin' chance."
Kendra raised an eyebrow, waiting patiently.
"I want to work with you. Said it before, say it again. So tell me what you're tryin' to do. I'm guessing it's something to help these people, help your people. And if it helps the rest of the world in the process, all the better. So tell me. If I'm right, then I'm on board."
"You are not incorrect." She hesitated. "And this past week has raised obstacles. I… might be amenable."
Maddie nodded again. "All I'm askin'." She dug a business card out of her bag and handed it over. "Give me a call. Let's have lunch sometime."
Kendra took it with a nod and a slight smile. She didn't say another word though, taking her seat again, while Maddie hurried back to join Jeremy.
"Jesus, it's like talking to a brick wall," she muttered.
"Fuckin' British people." Maddie sighed. "I was sure bringin' up her secret identity would set off some alarm bells."
"But she agreed to lunch, didn't she?"
"Fuck if I know. Oh, God, not now."
Courtney had returned, pocketing her phone. She looked relieved. Can't be good, if Courtney's happy about it. "That was the Tacoma chief of police. I've got them to send our would-be bank-robber into our custody pending further investigation."
Hey, some good fuckin' news. "Thank God," he muttered.
"What?" asked Maddie.
"The awakened guy who tried to blow up a bank vault Monday before last. Courtney's been making sure he doesn't end up on the news."
"Shit, I forgot about him…" Maddie groaned. "Way too much to deal with. I need a drink."
"Get me one too," Jeremy called after her. As she left, Jeremy noticed someone he hadn't earlier.
He rubbed at his eyes. Is that… Meg fuckin' Bensen? What the fuck?
The groups of people had rotated around as time went on, everyone still waiting, not sure what to do next. Cinza's group stuck together, while Meg and the FBI guy ended up in another corner. The Silverdales were still sitting up front, and Josh had ended up with them, just listening. Natalie couldn't have handled that. She was impressed he could stay strong around them.
Instead, Natalie found herself sitting alone in the very last row of benches, staring out into the field past the tall window, wishing she could be out there. Percy seemed to feel the same, ruffling his feathers a bit and nudging her forward.
<We gotta stay here, Percy. Hailey isn't here yet.>
"So that's still a thing, huh?"
Natalie looked up to see Rika standing at the end of the row. Rika didn't have the blue streak in her hair anymore, but she seemed just as annoyed as she always did. The tattoo of entwined flowers on her hand stood out a lot more than it used to, or maybe that was just Natalie's new eyes. Either way, she found it fascinating now.
"What's that flower?" she asked, pointing at Rika's right hand.
Rika looked surprised. She took a seat in the row ahead, right in front of her, and dangled her hands over the back. After a second's hesitation, she took off her jacket, showing the full length of the tattoo all the way up her forearm.
"This is a sakura blossom," she explained, pointing out the light pink flower on the back of her wrist. "Means life and renewal. And then this is a black rose," she added, indicating the thorny flower, "which… you get the idea."
Natalie nodded. "Don't you hate it though?"
"Everybody seeing those. The first thing they notice, before they really know you."
Rika shrugged. "Just means they're shitty people, if that's all they think about."
Natalie realized something—Rika hadn't even glanced at her scar. Maybe she'd missed it, but the older girl definitely hadn't lingered on it like everyone else.
"Besides," Rika went on, "I picked these out. All of these are reminders to myself of what's important."
Natalie's eyes traveled up her arm to the rough Japanese letters on her shoulder, and the bluebird against the sky backdrop on her other arm. "Did they hurt?"
"Not as much as that probably did."
Natalie winced. So she had noticed.
"Did you get the fuckers who did it?"
She nodded slowly, not daring to voice it aloud.
Rika didn't smile, didn't really show any emotion at all. She just nodded back. She didn't try to take Natalie's hand, or hug her, or do anything like that. Just a nod. Understanding. "Good."
Maybe you misjudged her.
"This is Percy," she added, not sure what else to say.
Rika glanced at the hawk. "Thanks for saving my life back in Rallsburg, Percy."
"He did?" she asked, surprised. She hadn't known about that. She looked at Percy. <You saved her life?>
Percy shifted his talons slightly, trying to come up with an answer. The question was a bit too abstract for him, and he couldn't exactly explain it. Thankfully, Rika didn't leave her hanging.
"When we were bailing. That hawk came outta nowhere and distracted… uhh…" She trailed off. "Distracted the guy trying to get us."
Natalie frowned. "I know."
"I know it was my dad." Natalie didn't even have trouble saying it anymore, which scared her a little. "I know he was helping Omega."
Rika hesitated. "You do?"
"Dad made the golems. I saw him." Natalie shook her head. "I dunno why. But someday I'm gonna go find him and figure it out."
She smiled. "Damn, Natalie…"
Natalie wasn't used to warmth from Rika. Every time they'd ever spoken, going all the way back to the early days of the Council when she got into fights with Rachel, Natalie was usually the annoying kid they all tolerated at best—Rika least of all. "Huh?"
"Well." She reached into her jacket pocket on the bench and pulled out a little bottle of something. She offered it forward. Natalie took it, uncertain. "From one girl chasing down her dad to another, good hunting." Rika waved her hand upward, prompting her.
Natalie took a sip. It tasted awful, and burned her throat as it went down. She coughed and quickly handed it back. "Ugh. Was that—"
"Straight whiskey," said Rika, grinning. "And no, you can't have more. Not til you're older."
"I don't want more," said Natalie. She spat out the rest into her sleeve, trying to clear the taste out of her mouth.
"Trust me, you will." Rika took a deep gulp with a sigh. "Worth every drop. Kanpai." She took another drink, then settled back onto the bench. "So, men are the fucking worst, right?"
Natalie shivered, pulling her coat on tighter and renewing the warming spell she'd left off earlier. The church was colder than she'd expected. "What do you mean?"
"Your dad. My dad. Viper, Omega, the shit I've heard about Kendra's dad. Sensing a pattern yet, Jane of the Jungle?"
Rika shrugged, and took another sip of her drink. "What I'm saying is, guys are the worst. Pretty simple."
"Not all guys," she said, thinking about Quinn. She smiled a little, just remembering the last time they hung out.
Rika caught it. "Oh shit, is that…" She leaned forward a little, smirking. "Natalie, don't tell me you've got a crush."
"No," Natalie shot back, with a touch of pride. "I have a boyfriend."
Rika's mouth fell open. A few seconds later, she burst into laughter.
"It's not a joke," Natalie added indignantly.
"Oh, I know," said Rika, even while a few of the Greycloaks glanced over in annoyance. She calmed down, remembering where she was. "Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em." She took another swig of the drink. "Fuck, I'd swear off all guys if I could. But I'm an addict."
"An addict of what?"
She smirked. "A conversation for when you're older."
Natalie frowned. "Is this about… sex?"
Rika gaped at her again. "Oookay, well then. Look, Nat, you—"
She paused. "Okay, Natalie. You're what, thirteen now?" Natalie nodded. "Right. So here's the thing: guys are a bit behind at your age, but when they catch up, they catch up. And you're gonna start looking at them different. They're gonna start looking at you different."
"I know," she said, uncomfortable. But still, she'd never really gotten a good explanation for all of this. Her dad had gone over the basics, but he never really explained a lot. Maybe he would have when she was older, but… well, they never got that far. The talk with Cinza and Crystal in Seattle had only confused her even more, especially since she was barely able to focus on anything at the time.
May as well be Rika, right…? At least I know her.
"So when you're looking at a guy—or especially girls if you're like me at fourteen—and you start to feel like you want them? Like you need them? You shut that shit down."
"Fucking hell, what is it with funerals and sex…" Rika muttered under her breath. She nodded. "Trust me. Nothing good comes out of sex that young. You don't have a clue what you're doing, neither do they, and you're just gonna fuck up any good relationships you have."
"Is that what you did?"
She choked on her drink, spluttering a bit. "Shit, right for the jugular Natalie."
Rika shrugged. "Well, you're right. That's what I did. A lot. And I fucked up every single good friendship I had, from fourteen to twenty one." She leaned forward again, realizing how loud she'd been talking. "I'm not gonna lie. I had fun at the time. It seemed like everything was gonna go great. But that's the trap."
After another swig of her drink, Rika leaned forward again. "Gotta say, you look fucking intense. How'd you pull off all this?" Rika waved lazily to… well, all of her.
Natalie hesitated. "...I did some rituals."
To her relief, though not really a surprise, Rika didn't seem to care. Mostly, she was just curious. "Huh. Guess they don't set off my allergies then. What a relief." She grinned. "Looks damn good though, whatever the hell you were aiming for."
Rika reached out, her rose-entwined hand coming toward Natalie's shoulder.
Natalie flinched away.
"I'm fine," she said—too quickly.
Rika was smarter than that. "What happened?"
"I can't," she whispered. Natalie got to her feet and started walking away, Rika staring after her.
"Natalie, what happened?" Rika asked again, but Natalie ignored her. Memories had been slowly coming back throughout the conversation, things she'd tried to avoid thinking about for so long. She'd been asking Rika all those questions to try and understand, without ever getting right to the heart of the problem. She wanted to know why, but Rika was a good person at heart. Natalie couldn't imagine Rika ever doing what he did.
What he almost did.
You got away. You stopped him.
It didn't help. The voice couldn't get her out of that particular hole. Natalie fled back out the front door as calmly as she could. As soon as she was outside again, with the rain swallowing up the noise of the city in the distance, she found a small space at the end of the front deck. She wedged herself in between the bench and the flower bed, pulled her hood up and hugged herself tight. Percy fluttered out to the railing and took watch, understanding what she needed before she even asked.
Natalie held very still, hands clasped around her legs, trying to force away the memories of that night. She thought of Quinn, and her friends, and her new home—but the black clouds kept coming, forcing him back into her mind, mixed in with images of lost friends, and her dad, and the gang members in the warehouse, and everything else that had gone so horribly wrong in her world.
"What are you doing here?" Jeremy asked, after he finally got her alone for a bit.
"Oh, like I wasn't friends with her?" snapped Meg, rubbing her wrist. "You didn't have to pull me over here."
"Thought you weren't getting involved."
"For your information," she said haughtily, "Hailey invited me. They used to come over to our place all the time. And do you know how hard it was to convince my parents that I had to skip school and come out to the city on a Thursday?"
"Go home. You shouldn't be here."
Because everybody here is at serious risk of gettin' murdered lately… "You're too young."
"Oh, puh-leeze." Meg pointed over at the elf-girl with the hawk, talking with Rika in the last row of pews. "She's like twelve. I'm sixteen."
"She's awakened. She doesn't got a choice."
"Yeah, and I'm choosing stay." Meg took a step back from him. "Look, Mr. Agent Ashe, I'm here because my brother isn't. He went out with them every night for months and he's not around to say goodbye, so I gotta do it. Okay? So deal with it."
Well… fuck. Jeremy shook his head, dismayed. "On your own fuckin' head."
"Yeah, no shit," she grumbled, walking away.
Jeremy turned around, meaning to go back to his sister, maybe figure out what was taking so long—and found himself face-to-face with Stephanie Winscombe.
"Uhh…" he started.
She nodded. "This is my ex-husband, Chris."
Jeremy shook the offered hands, feeling a bit of whiplash in the shift of conversation. From a fuckin' high schooler to Hailey's upper-class mom. Shit, I'm probably gonna be talkin' to the twelve-year-old here in a minute.
"I understand you're friends with my daughter now."
"Somethin' like that, yeah." Jeremy shrugged. "We've helped each other out of a few tight spots."
"Don't be so modest, Mr. Ashe. You two fought together. You saved her life in October, unless I'm mistaken."
He blinked a few times. "She told you about that?"
Stephanie nodded. "I wanted you to know: if you need anything, please call. I can't ever thank you enough."
"Really," added Chris. "Hailey's very precious to us both. If she…" He choked up slightly.
Stephanie rubbed his shoulder, glancing back at Jeremy. "As I said. Anything."
Jeremy nodded. "Thanks." He glanced around. "Honestly, I'm just wonderin' where the hell she is now…"
Stephanie glanced up, toward the ceiling. "I think she's still trying to figure out what to say." Her voice softened, which was very different from the Stephanie Winscombe Jeremy had dealt with for months. "I can't imagine what she's going through right now…"
Chris put an arm around her shoulder. "None of us can, Steph."
Jeremy looked up too, at the empty ceiling above them. "Is she—"
"She'll come down when she's ready," said Stephanie.
Hailey was watching the clouds go by.
She wore a dark blue dress—one of her favorites, which she'd picked out for Hailey back in Seattle. The rain was coming down in sheets now, but none of it landed on her. Hailey was projecting a small wall of air above her, like an invisible umbrella, and the rain simply slid off and landed around her in a ragged circle. Her dress stayed perfectly dry.
The wind was moving really fast. Hailey could sense it, even from this far down. She couldn't see it, since the clouds were practically a solid grey sheet, but they were really moving. The rain probably wouldn't last too long.
Hailey wanted the rain to last.
How many times had they done exactly this? Especially in the summer, they'd lay there, on a rooftop, bask in the sun and just watch the clouds go by. She might make up a little tune, and Hailey would listen. Or Hailey would just talk about anything that came to mind, and she'd listen, even though she couldn't understand a word.
Or sometimes they'd just be silent, and enjoy the sun, the rain, whatever came by, until Hailey took them up into the sky again.
The clouds kept rushing by, and Hailey wanted nothing more than to leap off the roof, heedless of the rain, and let the wind carry her where it would.
She didn't look over. She knew exactly who it was. "Hi, Beverly."
"They're all waiting for you."
Hailey nodded, but she didn't get up from her spot. She was on a narrow flat space on top of the building, barely large enough for two people to lay comfortably. She was on one side, and there was just enough space on the other half—except nobody was there.
Beverly was standing at the far end, where the roof dropped down a bit to the large main portion. "I'm so sorry."
Hailey shook her head. "It's not your fault."
"Maybe I could have…"
"You couldn't. Nobody could." Hailey forced the words out through her teeth. Voicing it aloud didn't make her feel any better. "She wasn't going to… no matter what anyone did."
Beverly nodded, hands in her pockets. The rain didn't land on her either, although it wasn't as obvious as Hailey's invisible umbrella. For her, as skilled and powerful as she was, the rain simply passed through her as if she weren't there at all. For all Hailey knew, she wasn't—Hailey wouldn't put it past her to be able to just project herself anywhere she liked by now.
If I could do what Beverly can, would she…
Hailey shook her head forcefully. She couldn't think like that. Except she couldn't stop herself thinking like that. Every day, every hour since it happened, Hailey had been trying to figure out what she could have done to stop it.
What she could have done to save her.
"I can't stay long," said Beverly, after Hailey didn't speak for a few minutes.
"Go," she whispered. "I'll be fine."
Beverly vanished, but Hailey couldn't keep her face straight any longer. As soon as she was gone, Hailey felt tears trickling down the sides of her face again. They pooled up in her eyes as she stared up into the sky, raindrops sliding away in midair just like the tears on her face.
It's my fault.
Hailey heard sniffling, and it wasn't her own. She leaned up slightly. It wasn't inside the church, either.
She got up, moving the shield with her, and walked to the edge of the roof. A few floating steps and a beat of her wings, and she landed on the deck with a whisper of sound, letting go of her shield as the roof covered them both.
In the corner of the deck was Natalie, wrapped up tight in her jacket, scarred face, like a broken doll someone had tossed there to be forgotten. She looked so cold, and her bright purple eyes were reddened and puffy, full of the pain and loss Hailey felt flooding her own body.
Hailey didn't say anything to her. She was shocked by her appearance, but it just seemed to fit everything else that was wrong with the world by now. In silence, Hailey offered her a hand.
Natalie slowly reached out and took it. Her fingers trembled in Hailey's grip, and as soon as she was on her feet, the hand slipped away—but for Hailey it was enough. It reminded her what she was supposed to do. Be who she always thought I was.
Together, they walked back into the church.
Everyone converged on Hailey as she walked in. Natalie slipped away, her hawk perching on her shoulder again as she fled into one of the corners. Hailey walked straight forward, ignoring everyone, heading straight for the front, where Beth and Malcolm were waiting.
Hailey walked right up to the casket. It was a simple handsome lined wooden box, which Cinza had provided. No hands or tools had carved it; it was made by magic, which was perfect for her. Slowly, Hailey lifted open the top.
Jessica was inside, wearing a nicer dress than she'd ever worn in her whole life. Her face was so calm, so peaceful… so pale. They'd put her hands up on her chest, clasping a flower. Hailey smiled slightly. Jessica had never really liked flowers. She would have protested the little white lilies, but Hailey thought they looked nice. She reached down and stroked Jessica's hair, then planted a kiss on her forehead.
She turned back to the group, who had all taken seats in the pews. She knew they'd all been talking until only moments before, but the social atmosphere was gone. She'd arrived, and she'd brought sadness with her.
"...Hi," Hailey said aloud. Her voice carried far in the near-silence of the room. She scanned through everyone there, grateful that they'd all come to see her. Come to see Jessica.
"She would have been happy you all came today." Hailey glanced back at the casket again, where Jessica's face was just barely visible. "She was… she always liked people coming together. I know most of you never got to talk to her, but she would have really liked this."
Except she really wouldn't… Oh god, look at us.
Beth and Malcolm Silverdale in the first row, both quietly sobbing, huddled together like they were in the midst of a storm.
Jeremy and his sisters, all solemn-faced.
Rika and Ryan, united and not even arguing for the first time Hailey had ever known—but Rika was hard-faced and as angry as ever, while Ryan was still jumping at the slightest noises.
Cinza, Ruby, Nikki and Yusuf, a tight quartet with their hoods down. Ruby was crying on Cinza's shoulder. Yusuf had his hands together, like he was praying. Nikki was sniffling, eyes red. Hailey hadn't even realized she'd known Jessica that well.
Kendra, sitting alone, upright and proper, not a single person within a dozen feet.
Hailey's mom, crying near the back, and her dad a few feet away, looking equally melancholic.
Meg, all joy and mirth long-gone, angry and miserable, totally out of place in the group.
Josh, watching the ground in front of his feet near the front, still as stone.
Natalie, all the way against the wall in the back, scarred and haunted, staring at Hailey like they barely knew each other anymore.
I can't do this.
"I'm sorry," Hailey choked out. "I screwed up."
The crying stopped. Nobody had expected her to say that. Hailey hadn't meant to say it. But she couldn't stop herself.
"Jessic—" Hailey stopped again, her throat refusing to let breath out. She felt like she might throw up. "I wasn't paying attention. I wasn't there when she needed me. She…"
Oh god, Jessica. I'm so sorry.
I need you back. I can't do this alone.
"She was murdered," said Josh, standing up.
The room itself seemed to turn to face him. Everybody shifted in their seats, the rustling and the rain filling the little church.
"Jessica was murdered. It wasn't self-defense, it wasn't fair. It was awful. She deserved better."
Hailey nodded, as the tears started to fall down her cheeks again, but she felt the sadness ebbing away. She was still in pain—she was in so much pain she felt like she might crack and shatter into a million tiny pieces—but the despair was dissipating.
"She was taken far too soon," said Cinza, also rising to her feet, Ruby still clutching her hand. "Jessica was one of the best of us. I admired her. I admit I envied her some days. She was a wonderful, loving soul, and every precious minute we spent together is a memory I won't soon forget."
"She was really nice," said Meg, getting up too. "Jessica and I used to pull pranks on Hailey sometimes when she came over. She knew how to have fun."
Their words overwhelmed her. Hailey took a step back, nearly falling over. She could feel her heart beating up into her throat. Along with it came a few embers—just kindling at the moment, but a single spark could erupt into a roaring fire.
It's not fair. She shouldn't be gone.
Kendra stood up, and for the first time Hailey could remember, she saw some real emotions on her old professor's face. "Jessica saved my life. When Jackson came for our heads, she cast the first spell to drive him back. I would have died that day if not for her."
Rika got up, and her hard voice carried far. "Jessica Silverdale was the best fucking person in Rallsburg, and they murdered her in the street. None of this is fair. She deserved better."
They murdered her.
Hailey straightened up, and the flames roared in her chest. "They murdered her." She cleared her throat, speaking louder. "Viper murdered her. And I'm not gonna let that stand."
Everyone fell silent. Jeremy took a step forward. "...Hailey…" he started.
They murdered her.
Kendra spoke up. "Hailey, what do you intend?"
They murdered Jessica!
"I'm going to find him," she growled.
The windows all burst open simultaneously. Wind howled through the room, blowing the curtains in a wild display of rage. A torrent of rain from outside began to splatter against the floors. Hailey opened her wings wide, and a huge gust carried her into the air, blowing through the church like a tornado. Kendra's hat flew into the air. Percy huddled against Natalie's head as she shielded him, blocking Hailey's wind with her own magic.
Hailey didn't care. She summoned her bag from where she'd set it down next to the casket. Another huge burst of wind from her wings, and Hailey shot out through the front double-doors of the church. Her dress fluttered wildly in the sky as she rose high into the air, soaked by the rain in an instant. She was freezing, but the pain sustained her.
They murdered Jessica Silverdale.
She didn't care. She knew exactly where she was heading. Against the clouds rushing past her on every side, Hailey swung out wide and turned toward the east. It would be a long, difficult flight, but she had a pile of gemstones in her bag, along with her phone, food, and all the supplies she could need. She'd find him, and his employer. She'd hunt them down, one way or another, and she'd tear apart everything they held dear, brick by brick.
Hailey Winscombe was going to London.