Chapter 06 — Behind the Scenes
Josh woke to the faint sound of keys tapping across the room. His eyes were blurry and unfocused, and his head hurt, but he was definitely awake. Something seemed wrong about the tapping sound, but he couldn’t quite figure out what. He rolled over and blinked, trying to see the time on his bedside clock.
”Man, we slept all day…” he muttered.
”Yup,” said Nikki. “Worth it.”
There was still a sense of something amiss, but Josh couldn’t place it. He stretched his arms and sat up slightly, leaning against the corner of the wall to prop himself up more easily. Finally, as he glanced around the room, he finally realized what was wrong.
”Hey… how did you login to my computer?”
Nikki was sitting in his desk chair, spun around and leaning over the back of it. She hadn’t bothered to put on a shirt, or anything really besides her underwear, and was lazily browsing a social network he didn’t recognize. At Josh’s question, she shot a smirk over her bare shoulder.
”Cast a spell,” she said, smug. “Took me like half an hour to figure out how to get your password.”
”You can get passwords?” asked Josh, torn between admiration and exasperation. “Shit, we’re really gonna get in trouble now.”
”Don’t worry, I only use my powers for good,” said Nikki, waving him off. “It’s fine.”
Josh shrugged. He got up and trudged across the room, planting a kiss on her shoulder before leaning over it to see what she was up to.
”Hey—” started Nikki.
”You’re gonna talk to me about privacy when you just lifted my password with magic and you’re on my account?” asked Josh, raising his eyebrows.
”It’s fine.” Josh ran a hand through her hair affectionately before turning to pick up his clothes. “What are you doing, anyway?”
”Just… checking in.” Nikki shrugged. “I do have friends outside Rallsburg, you know.”
”Do I count?”
”Friend, sex slave, whatever.” She grinned. “This was my whole world before the goddess.”
…Shit, sometimes I forget she really does buy into Cinza’s religion. “What do you mean?”
”I barely ever left home. Mom and Dad…” Nikki took a breath, as a dark look crossed her face. “They were always home, or if they weren’t, I was. Somebody had to watch the farm. Boring as hell. I wanted to move out, maybe go into the big city.”
”Didn’t matter to me. Everything was a big city compared to Rallsburg.” Nikki sighed. “I was never brave enough. Always wonder though… if I had been, I wouldn’t have met Cinza. I might not have met Grey-eyes before she stopped awakening people.” She shivered a little, and Josh could tell it wasn’t just because she was nearly naked. “Keeps me up at night.”
”I didn’t know,” said Josh, trying to sound sympathetic.
”‘Course you didn’t, you sleep like a log,” said Nikki. She laughed. “Let’s be real, I would’ve just ended up working the farm my whole fucking life. I was never actually gonna leave. I had to meet Cinza and Grey-eyes before I could learn how to be brave.”
”You’re brave as fuck.”
”Still never left,” she pointed out. “Since I joined the Greycloaks, this is the very first time I’ve left Rallsburg.”
”What about when you rode a helicopter to Olympia?” Josh pointed out.
”That doesn’t count.”
Pretty arbitrary, but whatever. “Well, welcome back to the rest of the world,” said Josh, finally buckling his pants back on. “It’s not so bad out here.”
”Thanks,” said Nikki, with a genuine smile on her face. “Now can we get something to eat?” She glanced around. “Where’s your family, anyway?”
Josh shrugged. “No idea. They’d never come in here without permission though.”
”Ah. The forbidden zone,” intoned Nikki ominously. “…Hey, what’s that noise?”
His phone was beeping in his pocket. Josh picked it out, already dreading what he might see. That particular sound was urgent alerts related to the awakened on news feeds… and sure enough, there was something going on.
”Hang on.” Josh hurried to the computer, clicking through to open the video stream. “Cinza’s in Seattle.”
”What?” Nikki leaned forward, eyebrows creased, practically radiating fear. “Why would she have left… oh, fuck.”
Josh felt exactly the same, as they both watched Cinza and Ruby emerge from a corridor. Apparently, they’d already been inside for some time, and had been ushered upstairs by the Secret Service. Whatever meeting they’d had was long-done, and now… they were about to throw down.
”We can’t hear anything inside,” shouted one reporter over the clamor of noise around the front doors to the hotel, “but it looks like the police are in a standoff with Cinza and her companions. Sources tell us they were sent here to rescue Hannah Newman, also called Ruby, and return her to her father.”
”Fuckers,” muttered Nikki, practically spitting each word with sheer disgust. “Fucking journalists.”
More specifically, bad journalists… shouldn’t generalize that, especially when we need ’em.
They watched as the rest of the standoff played out, resolved by the President and Rachel in fairly short order. Cinza and Ruby exited the building to shouts of support and jeers alike. They got into a strange carriage-like vehicle with Cinza’s favorite star emblem emblazoned on the sides, which promptly merged back into traffic and sped off. As the news story wrapped up, the rage radiating off Nikki’s skin was practically tangible.
”Just leave her alone already,” she growled. “Why do they care so much? She’s already seventeen, she’ll be eighteen this year.”
”Optics,” said Josh. “It’s the easiest thing to get people pissed off about that’s related to us and it builds resentment. If it wasn’t Ruby, it’d be something else. No huge difference to them. They’ll always find something.”
”So what, do nothing?”
”Fuck no.” He was already grabbing his phone from his bed. “Makes no difference to them, but it sure as hell makes a difference to Ruby.”
”Who are you calling?”
”Rachel,” said Josh, both to Nikki and to the click in his ear which told him she’d just picked up.
Rachel sighed, her voice a little fuzzy through the phone. “I take it you were watching?”
”Yup. They’re trying to tear Cinza apart right now.” He gestured for Nikki to vacate his chair. She did and began pulling on her clothes, while he accessed articles and other resources he’d saved related to Ruby. “What was she doing there, anyway?”
”Proving you right yet again.”
”It doesn’t matter.” Rachel’s voice got muffled for a moment, talking to someone else nearby. “She was angry about our response to the attack on Felix.”
Take one fucking night off… “The what?”
”Felix Wieczorek was attacked in his home last night by one or more awakened assailants. They didn’t touch him, but they stole from him and destroyed his belongings.”
”…Shit,” muttered Josh. “How bad?”
”We’re working on it.” Rachel sighed again. “It would be easier if we could improve public perception. We can’t exactly build sympathy when the public hears stories about terrifying home invasions and cults kidnapping children. Exaggerated, obviously, but…”
”But we need better optics,” said Josh, nodding. “Let’s start with Ruby then. That’s pretty unambiguous, right?”
”For fuck’s sake, Rachel. She was in an abusive home with a drunk father who beat her for being gay. What the hell more do you want?”
”It’s not that simple,” said Rachel, now a touch annoyed. “We’ve got no evidence. She never made any claims prior to running away from home or in the year afterward. The only scars left are on Ruby’s wrists, which were concluded by both an appointed psychologist and a school counselor as unlinked to parental abuse or neglect, self-inflicted due to other stressors. By all outward appearance, Ashley Newman is a reformed model citizen, and Ruby’s the depressed possibly-suicidal runaway underage member of a cult. He’s being a responsible adult, too, going to the authorities and asking for help instead of hunting her down solo.”
”So we can’t prove the guy’s a terrible parent. How about from Ruby’s side? Can we make it clear she’s better off?”
”We either need to prove Ruby’s in a more stable home with proper guardians and education—”
He sighed. “Okay, you got me there.”
”—or we need to have her emancipated, so that she’s no longer considered either Mr. Newman’s responsibility or a ward of the state.”
Josh frowned. “What does getting emancipated take?”
”A petition and a hearing, where Ruby needs to prove the ability to manage her own financial affairs, as well as educational, social, and other affairs, and take responsibility for her own actions as such. If a parent opposes the petition—and he certainly will—we need to prove there’s clear and convincing evidence that denying the petition would be detrimental to the minor.”
”And if we just try to wait it out? She turns eighteen in September.”
”That’s a long nine months, and if Ashley proves she’s being brainwashed or otherwise mentally unstable, he could extend his guardianship past eighteen against her wishes, if ordered by a court. The accusation of statutory rape against Cinza is still holding weight in some areas.”
”How friendly are the courts with us yet?”
”Hasn’t been tested…” Rachel sighed. “Hawlstead, the judge who’s been picking up these cases, just released Felix on bail against the advice of a line of police officers from Lakewood and Tacoma, Captain Hoskins, Governor Milton, and myself.”
”Balance of fucking powers,” muttered Josh.
”I wouldn’t count on anything yet. We can’t reliably pick our judge either—there aren’t enough cases involving the awakened yet to claim we don’t have enough justices to provide a speedy trial. Every case might end up with Hawlstead.”
”So… emancipation.” Josh frowned at the form he’d searched up while Rachel spoke. “We could probably handle financial and social affairs, and definitely taking responsibility for her actions. But…”
”Education,” Rachel finished. “Ruby hasn’t been in school since April in twenty-seventeen, when she was fifteen. She’s years behind where she should be, and despite available education options in Rallsburg, she didn’t attend any kind of school. That’s a huge knock against her.”
”What if she did?” wondered Josh aloud.
”What if the Greycloaks had a school? Every religion’s gotta have a school, right?”
Nikki snorted nearby. She’d been listening in silently on the conversation. Josh grinned.
”That’s actually not a bad idea,” said Rachel.
Josh raised his eyebrows. “I was joking.”
”I’m not. If Cinza intends to make the Greywood and the camp a more permanent settlement, and if anyone out there intends to have children anytime soon, they would want to start thinking about education.”
Nikki was nodding along with Rachel’s words, now obviously interested despite her initial reaction. Josh frowned. “You think Cinza can run something like that?”
”If not her, then doubtless there’s at least a few teachers among the hundreds of people up there. They can put something together, and we could say one of them is tutoring Ruby.” Rachel leaned away to talk to someone else again for a moment. “If nothing else, Ruby honestly could use it. She’s definitely got a few gaps to be filled in.”
”How do you plan to pull this off?”
”Well,” said Rachel, her voice getting a little more excited—as it always did when she felt like she’d stumbled onto something new to develop and execute. God, she’s weird sometimes. “The President’s giving a speech on education tomorrow, in fact.”
”It’s nothing related to this. He’s prepping for his reelection run next year and education’s one of his primary platforms.”
”Him and every other president.”
”Well, it is important,” said Rachel with a touch of annoyance. “Anyway, we have a lot of policy advisors and other important people in the education department around. I’ll see what we can dig up about making an accredited school in the Greywood.”
”You don’t already know?”
”Josh, I don’t know everything,” said Rachel, now definitely annoyed. Josh grinned at Nikki—he was just teasing her. “I’ve never had a reason to read about how schools get accredited in Washington State.”
”And now you’re saying ‘state’,” said Josh with a sigh. “Careful, Rachel, before they turn you into one of them.”
”Was there anything else?”
”Nope. I’m starving, and Nikki looks like she might shrivel up from hunger here. We’re going out to dinner.” Nikki’s eyes lit up—obviously they hadn’t talked about anything like that, but Josh figured she could use something to eat after their… strenuous night.
”…Good night, Josh.”
Josh hung up. He looked Nikki up and down and sighed. “Why’d you have to get dressed? You look so much better without it.”
Nikki rolled her eyes. “You weren’t wrong, I’m starving. Let’s go already.”
He started toward the door, but hesitated. A moment later, he turned. With a quick burst of magic, he lifted open the window and popped out the screen. Nikki raised her eyebrows.
”…What are you doing?”
”We’re going out the window.” Josh shrugged. “It’s an adventure or some shit, I don’t know.”
Nikki stared at him, dumbstruck. He hoped she wouldn’t ask any questions. After all, even if they had snuck into his house through a portal into his bedroom, it wasn’t as if he’d ever given her any sense she might not be welcome in his home. Sure as hell wish this didn’t make a difference…
To his relief, she didn’t say a word. Nikki climbed out onto the roof, and—with a little magic of her own—made an impossible leap from the edge of the roof across the fence and neatly onto the sidewalk outside. Josh grinned and followed her down, though his own leap wasn’t quite so graceful. As he landed, he heard a satisfying click behind them. Nikki had closed his window and replaced the screen.
”So where to?” asked Josh.
”Would you hate me if I said fast food?”
He winced. “A little?”
”I adore your cooking and our garden, but honestly…” Nikki shrugged. “I’m on vacation, and I haven’t had fast food in forever. Indulge your girlfriend.”
”In ‘N Out, then?”
”…What’s In ‘N Out?”
Josh grinned. “Okay, time to educate you on fast food.”
They started walking, enjoying the buzz of the town around them, the neverending sprawl of Los Angeles. Nikki was looking everywhere, taking in the sights, fascinated by just how busy and packed the whole place was.
”How the fuck do you sleep here?” she muttered. “It’s so loud. Even Rallsburg wasn’t close to this.”
”You slept just fine yesterday.”
Nikki shoved him playfully. “No thanks to you.”
”Can’t exactly help that I snore, you know.”
”Hmm… well, we do have magic,” said Nikki. “Maybe we can come up with something.” She frowned as they waited for the next light to change, watching the cars speed by, furious horns blaring. “So why did we leave out the window, exactly?”
”Well…” Josh sighed. He didn’t want to lie to his girlfriend—notwithstanding a girlfriend who could both tell when he was lying and find out practically anything thanks to her unique magic. “Same reason I didn’t just cook for you at home…”
”Your parents don’t have a clue about me, do they?” Nikki sighed. “You’ve been back a week Josh. Plenty of time to let them know you met somebody while you were out saving the world.”
”Fuck that. I didn’t tell them anything about what I’ve been doing,” Josh shot back. “It’s more…”
”Oh, don’t tell me they’re super-religious.” Nikki sighed. The street light changed, and they started crossing, blasted by hot air from every car engine they passed. “Sorry. Should’ve known to marry you first.”
Josh frowned. He didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye with his parents on religion, but at the same time, he didn’t like this treatment from Nikki. “They wouldn’t like you.”
”As if. I’m great.”
”You’re goddamn perfect,” said Josh. “But you’re white.”
Nikki stopped halfway across the street. Her eyes widened slightly. Josh grabbed her hand and pulled her across to the other side, just in time for the light to switch back.
”Look, my parents have a thing. About dating white girls.”
”It’s not racism,” said Josh, annoyed.
”Dude, you just said your parents hate white girls. That’s fucking racism.”
How do I explain this to a sheltered white girl from a tiny middle-of-nowhere town? Too many fucking layers to deal with… “They don’t hate white people, or white girls. That’s not… it’s more about history.”
”About history,” drawled Nikki, looking skeptical.
”There’s a lot more here than like, just hating white people. They don’t hate white people, it’s just… complicated. It’s hard to explain,” said Josh, feeling suddenly exhausted. “And again, this is their view, not mine. I fucking love you, so would you give me a second to get my words straight here?”
Nikki gasped a little. She stopped walking again out of shock, but with a very different expression on her face.
”…You love me?” she asked in a small voice.
”You, uhh…” Nikki shook her head, confused. “Nothing.”
”…You okay?” asked Josh, now seriously concerned. She was acting weird, especially coming off the conversation they’d just had.
”…never said… before…” she muttered under her breath, not quite audible.
”You never said that before!” Nikki snapped. “Caught me off guard, okay?”
”…Oh.” Josh shrugged. He hadn’t even been thinking about it, the words had just slipped out, but as he thought for a second—yeah, it was true. “Well yeah. I love you.”
Her eyes blinked rapidly, trying to regain focus on him. “You know nobody’s ever said that to me before, right?”
”No?” Josh frowned. “Nobody’s ever said that to me either. Except my parents.”
”Well…” Nikki sighed. “Thanks. I…” She seemed to be building up to something. Josh wondered if she were going to say it back, but it didn’t come. Eventually, she settled on something more mundane. “I hope your parents can deal with me being pale as fuck.”
”I’ll make them deal,” Josh promised. “Now let’s get something to eat?”
”God, yes, please.”
To Josh’s relief, their food was as good as he hoped. It still didn’t hold a candle to his own cooking, obviously, but Nikki was practically salivating over the burger and fries. He didn’t hold it against her—variety was the greatest of spices, and damned if Josh wasn’t going to take it as a challenge down the line. He’d show Nikki a real burger and fries, not fast food.
”So…” said Nikki finally, as she started in on the second batch of fries—they’d plowed through the first and ordered a second in short order. “What does history mean, exactly?”
”I…” Josh sighed. “Okay, like I said, it’s complicated, right? And also yes, it’s a bit racist, just not like…”
His phone rang. Josh suppressed a shout of joy as he grabbed it and answered the call, without even looking. It was clearly too fast and Nikki could tell he was dodging the question, but in that moment, he sure didn’t care.
A familiar echoing voice greeted him. “Joshua?”
”Saw you on TV today.” Cinza, he mouthed at Nikki, whose suspicious look immediately faded into worried lines of concern. “You guys okay?”
”Not exactly.” Cinza’s voice sounded incredibly tired. “We visited Ruby’s father after the incident downtown. He was… unpleasant.”
”We’re hoping you’ve already begun exploring options to solve this mess, legally speaking?”
”You know me,” said Josh. “Can’t leave well enough alone.”
”I appreciate it,” said Cinza, and he could hear the warmth in her voice. “When might we expect to hear from you?”
”Right now, actually. I called Rachel right after you guys left the hotel. We’re exploring options, but right now, we think our best bet is to get Ruby properly emancipated.”
”Which requires what?”
”A few miracles, to be honest,” he sighed. “Rachel will be in touch with more details. Ever thought about starting a school?”
”Nevermind,” said Josh. He didn’t feel like diving into that quite yet, especially if it turned out to be excessive—or impossible. “I know it sucks, but I’d keep Ruby lying low for now. Any time she goes out is asking for trouble.”
”That won’t be an issue. Neither of us has any desire to leave the Greywood again.”
”Like you wanted to head out today?” asked Josh, rolling his eyes. “Your desires and the world aren’t exactly on the same wavelength, Cinza.”
”A shame. It’d save us a great deal of time.”
”Can I talk to her?” asked Nikki suddenly.
”Is that Nikki?” asked Cinza.
”…Yeah. She’s with me.”
”Please,” said Nikki. She held out her hand expectantly.
Josh nodded. He handed the phone over to her, and started gathering up the trash from their meal. Nikki started off asking after Ruby, her voice dropping lower. He gave her some privacy, cleaning up the trash, using the restroom, and finally going outside to wait in the open air—he couldn’t exactly call it fresh after living in the Olympic Forest so long—of Norwalk.
Probably just Greycloak stuff… Or it’s just friend stuff. Ruby’s her friend, and Cinza’s her… something. I don’t know what the fuck to call that relationship. Mentor? Parental figure? Leader? Or just friends, I dunno. Nothing really fits.
He watched the cars rush by, leaning against the wall near the front door. A guy lit up a cigarette nearby, far closer to the front doors than allowed. Josh considered asking the guy to move, before realizing—he’d been that guy. It wasn’t cigarettes, but still… he’d done much the same. He wasn’t in any position to tell the guy off.
And yet I’m advising people who can make decisions that affect the whole goddamn world… No pressure or anything. I’m crazy under-qualified for this job. Crazy underpaid, too.
Nikki was back. Josh opened his eyes—he hadn’t even realized he’d closed them, leaning against the wall with his hands in his jacket pockets. He took the phone from Nikki’s outstretched hand and put it away.
”All good?” he asked.
”Not really, but we’ll get there.” She frowned. “I need you to get me a ride home.”
”It’s not ’cause of your parents,” she added quickly. “I mean, that’s still not great, but… I gotta be with my family. Cinza asked me to come home.”
Josh sighed. “I figured she might.”
”They need me,” said Nikki quietly. “I’m too valuable. I gotta go.”
”Okay.” He nodded.
”Just like that?”
”The fuck am I gonna do, keep you here?” Josh rolled his eyes. “If you gotta go, you gotta go. Hell if I’m gonna get Cinza after me either.” He pulled his phone back out again and scrolled down to the Ls in his contacts. “She’ll want you back ASAP, too.”
”Yeah…” Nikki hugged him, to Josh’s surprise. They weren’t exactly big on hugs, but in that moment, it felt pretty good. “…Love you,” she whispered behind his ear, and it sent a tingle through his body.
”Love you too.” Josh kissed her through her hair before finally hitting dial. It took a few rings, but finally someone answered.
”Joshua… it’s quite late,” said either Lily or Kendra, obviously annoyed.
”Sorry, it’s sort of an emergency. I swear this is the last one for a while.” He winced as he realized his mistake. “I kinda forgot it’s two in the morning there. Sorry if I woke you up.”
”You did not. I…” She paused. “I do not sleep in quite the same way Kenni does anymore.”
”…Well someday you’re gonna have to explain what that means.” Josh hugged Nikki a little tighter. “I need you to make a portal back to the Greywood for Nikki. Cinza wanted her home as fast as possible.”
”…It will be difficult without my sister, but I should be able to. Where are you, precisely?”
Josh looked around and rattled off the street address, as well as a spot in an alley nearby where he was certain they wouldn’t be noticed. Lily thanked him and hung up before he could say another word. As they walked into the alley, the doorway appeared in the wall. Nikki pulled it open, revealing the void pathway inside.
”So…” said Josh.
”I’ll write you,” he added, grinning slightly.
”You better, dammit,” said Nikki. “And if you don’t sign every single one with ‘I love you’, I’m coming back here to beat you up. Got it?”
She leaned up and kissed him, then hurried through the door, heading back home. It disappeared in moments, leaving only a plain brick wall behind—totally ordinary, where only an instant before, there had been a doorway leading to any number of places thousands of miles away, an impossibility of physics made manifest by a woman who was never born, sitting in a mansion all the way on the other side of the world.
Josh stared at the plain red bricks for a very long time, before finally turning away and beginning the slow walk home.
He spent the rest of the evening picking classes. Since he’d slept all day with Nikki, Josh wasn’t about to fall asleep any time soon. Whittier’s website wasn’t exactly easy to navigate either—he found more results using a search engine rather than trying to browse their own system.
Well… International Economics seems like the most useful for the future. There’s already rumblings about other countries petitioning the United States for magical resources, even though the country doesn’t officially have any. All we’ve got are a few thousand independent people who can kinda-sorta do some tricks, plus a few gods roaming around.
…Wonder what Hailey’s up to right now.
As it turned out, Hailey was still in Georgia, doing her thing. He sent off a text, but the news crews desperately following her like tornado chasers gave him a much better idea. The winter storm hadn’t hit yet, and seemed to be shifting north, but Hailey was still finding things to do, people to save, fires to quench—the usual.
Wonder where she sleeps at night. Maybe she sleeps in mid-air. Who knows what she can do, the kind of power she’s got?
Josh went back to his own life again, pushing away vague daydreams about flying. Whittier wouldn’t just let him sign up for classes, even after getting accepted—he was still way past the deadline for winter term, and if he wanted to take any of the classes starting next week, he’d have to get signed approval from his advisor.
And that is… they did assign somebody, right? Not seeing it in any of my emails… ugh.
He decided to just take a guess and picked the primary undergrad advisor for the Economics department, Jose Alvarado. The guy had open office hours as early as the next morning. Perfect. Josh wanted to get right back into it, as quickly as he could. Potential classes prepped and neatly organized, with a schedule arranged to provide him plenty of opportunity for… extracurriculars, Josh switched gears again.
Thinking of Hailey reminded him that technically, her trial wasn’t over yet. At the moment, she was being tried in absentia. From the details which made it out to the public, it was very mixed. Everybody knew her conviction was a foregone conclusion now that she’d abandoned the trial, but with a bitter taste given all the good work she was doing. However, Josh had someone with much better access to call on, a new relationship he’d just started building up in the last month.
”Josh, we’ve been talking for fuckin’ weeks now. Maddie, all right?”
Josh smiled. Maddie reminded him of Jeremy, someone else he’d befriended very quickly. “Just checking in. I wanted to know how Hailey’s trial is going.”
”Boring. Nothing special. The crazy shit’s in your neighborhood,” said Maddie. “Felix gettin’ out, Ruby and Cinza barreling into our meeting today—”
”You were there?” asked Josh, surprised.
”What, I didn’t make the news?” Maddie groaned. “Fuck, I had a great soundbite too. Assholes.”
”I wanted to take the temperature in D.C.,” said Josh, pulling up his notes on screen. “How bad is this attack on Felix?”
”Not great, but definitely recoverable. The worst you’re getting is more about continuing conflict in general, not straight on hate for the awakened. I swear to God some of the shits on the other side of the table are Hendricks-sympathizers or straight up fucking affiliated,” she added with audible venom, even through the bad phone connection, “but you’re still coasting on a lot of sympathy. Thank whatever you worship that they didn’t lay a hand on him.”
”Any word from London?” asked Josh, skipping straight over the other trial happening in D.C.
Maddie hesitated for a second before picking the conversation back up. “Fuck, Josh, how many ears you think I got? Only so many hours in the day, and I already spent a few trapped in a plane. I’m not Rachel. I still gotta do my job, you know. I’ve gotta worry about the rest of the country too.”
”Right, sorry.” Josh sighed. “Just trying to catch up with everything I missed still.”
”Meanwhile I’d love to get off the damn grid for a while.” Maddie matched his sigh. “I need to sleep. Early security briefing tomorrow, no idea what the fuck it’s about.”
”Anything to worry about?”
”Nah, this shit happens all the time. I think they do it sometimes to remind us they can.” He could practically hear her eyes rolling from across the country. “See you ’round. Tell my brother I love him next time you get out there.”
As soon as she hung up, Josh was already online. He wanted to get more info on the Malton trial, and particularly about how they were handling custody for Malton and Viper. Any precedent, even in London, would hold weight around the world. Malton was awakened, as was his favorite lackey—or ex-favorite. Never would’ve called Viper turning on him.
It had been a long, long time since Josh last saw Viper prior to the third Summit, way back in Rallsburg. He’d seemed the consummate soldier, the eternal professional mercenary. Betrayal just was not in his cards. I’d give a lot to know what turned him. Of course, without more word from the Laushires—and there wasn’t a chance in hell Josh was going to wake one of them up again tonight—all he could do was dive into internet speculation.
Need a better way to communicate between us… secure phones are great, but they’re too symmetric and limited. We need something like… oh, I’m a fucking idiot.
They’d had a method all year, until a traitor in the Greywood forced them to shut it down. The website would still have everyone’s registration, methods of contact, everything they needed to get a network running again. If the awakened population wasn’t increasing anymore, it would be easily sustainable and securable for those who used it. All Josh needed to do was get it online again.
As luck would have it, Josh actually had a contact method for the person responsible, and even better, they were almost certainly awake right now, because they always seemed to be awake. For a while, Josh even wondered if it was Rachel somehow, but he’d eliminated that as a possibility a long time ago.
24fromdowntown: I think we should put the site back up.
24fromdowntown: The spy’s gone, and honestly right now, we seriusly need more communication between everybody.
tezofarl: are you sure? cinza hadn’t reached out yet
24fromdowntown: You know about the blackout, right?
tezofarl: of course
tezofarl: but if she needed to reach me, she’d find a way
24fromdowntown: Yeah, no kidding. But she wanted me to start handling more things lately.
24fromdowntown: And this is my idea. Right now, we just had some awakened attack a guy, and I bet you they used spells they learned off our site.
24fromdowntown: So I want to make sure we can reach out to people like that, and in a way that doesn’t require the news media
tezofarl: i _was_ surprised to get your first message
tezofarl: cinza and i have known each other a long time
tezofarl: since before she was cinza
tezofarl: she must trust you a lot to give you this address
24fromdowntown: Can you do it?
tezofarl: it’s already done
tezofarl: i also got rid of a few bugs and a trojan that the spy planted before we took it down
tezofarl: just needed to spin the server up and point the domain at it again
tezofarl: i hope this helps
24fromdowntown: Thanks. And just to be clear, Cinza didn’t tell me anything about who you are or even where you are.
24fromdowntown: Just gave me the app and the email address to contact.
24fromdowntown: And I don’t need to know either, whatever you want
tezofarl: i’m just a friend
tezofarl: good luck josh
A muffled voice from his bedroom door had Josh nearly jumping out of his chair.
”Chatting up Lily?”
”Luke,” snapped Josh, a bit more angry than he intended. “Give me some warning, man.”
Josh winced. His little brother sounded legitimately upset. He swung the door open with a spell, just as Luke had started to turn away. His eyes widened.
He shrugged casually, knowing that would only impress his brother even more. “What’s up?”
”I’m just bored,” said Luke, shrugging. “Wanna hang out?”
In the past, Josh absolutely would have brushed off his little brother. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Luke, but he was just always wrapped up in his own crap and never made time for his family. Funny how much thinking you’ll never see them again changes things…
There was a game console plugged in next to his computer monitor. Josh levitated a controller up in the air. Luke’s eyes followed it up, wide as dinner plates. Without warning, he sent it spinning forward at his little brother, just slow enough to make sure Luke could catch it. He did easily enough, a grin sprouting on his face.
”Think you can finally beat me?” asked Josh, smirking.
As it turned out, Luke could, though not easily. After the third hard-fought one-on-one in a row, they finally turned over to a co-op mode, just for a little break. Unfortunately, that opened up Josh to get all sorts of questions from Luke, about anything and everything related to the last couple years.
It was a wild trip down memory lane, as Josh related—in redacted form, with a lot of hidden names and information just in case—stories of Alpha and Omega, of his own awakening, and the early days of the Council… which to his surprise, he could barely remember. There were huge gaps where things just seemed to be missing, though he was so certain of events around those meetings.
And, of course, his own awakening.
”What was it like?” asked Luke, breathless, though Josh couldn’t tell if it was due to the game they were playing or his excitement at hearing about magic.
”Scary,” said Josh. “Seriously. You feel like you’re gonna die. You ever run out of breath underwater?”
”…Yeah, once,” said Luke quietly. He paused the game. “It’s like that?”
”Nah, worse, because you know there’s air all around you. It’s right there, but you can’t breathe it, and everything’s just disappearing on you.” Josh shuddered. “Back then I didn’t have anybody to tell me, either. I was like… the first person. Or at least, one of the first.”
”And then that girl shows up, right? Grey-eyes?”
”Yup,” said Josh. His memory of it was a little hazy and confused, but he remembered that Grey-eyes had been there. She hadn’t teleported, but it went the same—she walked him through the rest of his reading until he came back up again, returning to the real world. “Saved my life.”
”And then you became the most important guy in the whole city,” said Luke excitedly.
He snorted. “Not even close. It wasn’t a city, I wasn’t that important, and at the end of the day, nobody really knew much about me. Which is gonna stay the same, right?” Josh added pointedly.
”I’m serious, Luke. I’m just your brother, not somebody important and connected. The rest of the world shouldn’t know about me, okay?”
”I mean…” Luke shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “We already held a memorial and everything for you. The whole church came.”
”…Well,” said Josh, sighing. “I never really go to church anyway, so that shouldn’t be a big deal. I’m just gonna be going to college, mostly.”
”Why go to college?” Luke seemed honestly confused, which had Josh confused. Their parents had hammered into all three of them the idea that they must go to college, no exceptions. “You’re already successful, aren’t you?”
”Not really,” said Josh. He shrugged. “I don’t have a marketable skill, ‘cept maybe cooking. Not sure what kind of job I could get without mentioning I’m awakened, and who knows how somebody would react to that, either? I never finished my degree, and I think that’s important. Important for you, too,” he added, suddenly self-conscious of how much influence he probably had on Luke.
”Yeah…” Luke glanced at his phone. “Oh, another one. My friends have been sending these lately. Saying that awakening’s coming back.”
”Really?” He frowned. “Can’t be true. Trust me, I would know way before the news.” Hailey’s still trying to find Grey-eyes, for one. I get the feeling she’s not coming back ’til she figures out a way to fix Meg. “Can you send me that article?”
Luke forwarded it, and Josh opened the article on his computer. He leaned forward and began to read—and it became clear very quickly just how bogus the thing was.
”Luke, you can’t fall for this shi—stuff,” said Josh wearily. “Look at this.”
”What? It looks like a news site to me…”
”Nah. Check the by-line; that guy’s never written anything but clickbait nonsense. Follow the links too, they all just loop back in on themselves. Nobody’s actually got an original source, they’re all just pointing at each other.” Josh sighed. “This is gonna get people killed, if it hasn’t already.”
”Oh man…” Luke looked upset again. “What if I—”
”Not your fault,” said Josh firmly. “Just be careful before you share anything like this. If you want, run it by me first.”
”And Luke?” said Josh, as seriously as he could. Luke looked scared—Josh realized he’d never used that tone at home before. It was something he’d developed while on the council, just in case he ever needed to lay down the law. He hadn’t needed it much, but it came in handy when he did.
”Do not, under any circumstances,” he said, with as much weight under each word as he could manage, “try to awaken until I say it’s safe. Don’t even go near that stuff, and if you can, keep your friends away too. Got it?”
Josh grinned. “Now pick the controller back up. Break’s over, and you’re not winning this time.”
To Josh’s relief, nothing happened for the rest of the night. He was finally able to focus on his own life again, while all the gears across the rest of the world kept turning without anything breaking quite yet. Josh didn’t expect it to last… but one morning wouldn’t kill ’em.
…God, I shouldn’t think like that. Too many people I know have died…
He shook it off as he walked onto the chilly—for L.A., anyway—college campus. A spell could’ve warmed him up, but Josh was actually enjoying the cold for the moment. Armed with his course schedule plan and an appointment with his advisor, Josh wandered the quad for a bit, just taking in the sights, before finally heading in to find the guy’s office. It took longer than he expected—shit, can’t even navigate a fucking college campus anymore—but he still made it with a couple minutes to spare.
A face peered out of the door—Jose Alvarado, or so Josh assumed.
”Yeah.” He got up and hurried inside, closing the door behind him. Josh took off his jacket, laying it on the back of his chair before sitting down. “Thanks for seeing me so fast.”
”Happy to help any of the students under my umbrella,” said Jose, smiling. He was a guy in his mid-thirties, for sure, with an easy-going demeanour that screamed ‘hey I’m young and cool too!’. Josh wondered how much people on the campus actually liked the guy. Long as he gets me into my classes, I don’t give a fuck. “What can I do for you?”
”Well, I need some overrides to get into classes,” said Josh. “Coming in late and everything.”
”Mmhm. Do you have the forms?”
A few agonizing minutes passed while Jose looked over Josh’s paperwork. He considered pulling out his phone to check on the news, or Tezofarl, or anything, but he didn’t want to make a bad impression. Josh might have gotten accepted—and had his tuition paid up in full—but the advisor in front of him was still the difference between taking classes in either a week or half a year.
”Econ major, then?”
Jose nodded. “You’ve picked a perfect courseload, and all the full classes have a couple last-minute exception slots open. Clearly, you did your homework. However…” He frowned. “You’re not the only one who wants to get into these classes, and honestly, I’m not totally convinced yet.”
”Convinced of what?”
”That you’re a good fit here.” Jose set the paperwork down and leaned forward slightly. “You’re joining halfway through the year with no academic history, your high school GPA barely met our minimum, and honestly, you just don’t have any strong example that you can do the work required to succeed here.”
”I can,” said Josh firmly.
”I’ve got other students just as eager to take these classes with a much better track record,” said Jose. “We don’t want to waste their time on someone who—to be blunt—might just drop out in the middle of term.”
…Okay, from the record they’ve got, that’s not unfair. I was a horrible student. Even if they had my Rallsburg record, it wasn’t exactly great. “So what are you looking for?”
”I don’t know.” He shrugged, leaning back in his chair slightly. “Impress me.”
The fuck? “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Jose smiled. “You seem like a smart guy, Josh. Tell me why you’re special. What makes you the sort of person who deserves an exception?”
I dunno. Compensation for services rendered in the line of duty? Being a member of a tiny endangered minority of magic people? Hell, I could even play the goddamn black card if I want to… but fuck all that. That’s not me, that’s just stuff about me.
”I might not have been to college in a while,” said Josh, “but for sure, I know what I’m doing. Those years off taught me a lot about being an adult and handling responsibilities.”
”Tell me about them.”
Well, fuck. Josh hesitated. “To be honest, it’s sort of… private.”
Jose frowned. “Give me an overview, then? Tell me about what you were doing and what you learned, whatever you think will impress me the most.”
Fuck it. He wants to be impressed? I’ll impress the shit out of him. “Actually, can I show you instead?” Should be just about time, actually… this meeting was at ten and the speech was scheduled for ten-thirty.
”…Sure,” said Jose, obviously confused.
Josh grinned as he pulled out his phone and dialed.
Rachel answered almost right away. “Yes?”
”Hey, do me a favor?”
”I need him to mention something. It’ll be simple, don’t worry. Nothing you can’t clear in ten seconds with policy and strategy.”
She sighed. “Am I going to know what this is for?”
”If I called it showing off…”
”Josh,” said Rachel, exasperated.
”It’ll be a huge help to me, I promise. Just have him mention Whittier college. Doesn’t matter where. I’m sure you’re already namedropping a dozen anyway.”
”Something like that.” Rachel sighed. “What makes you think I have the power to influence his speeches unrelated to magic?”
”Because I know you,” said Josh, grinning, while Jose looked suitably confused. “You guys are on in five minutes, right?”
”More or less.” Rachel took a breath. “I’ll get it in there.”
”Thanks. See you later.”
Josh hung up and leaned back in his chair just slightly, enough to seem casual without being ridiculous. It’d be a few awkward minutes while Jose wondered what the hell his phone call was about and the beginning of the speech. Just enough time to really build up suspense, or so Josh hoped.
”So…” said Jose finally, as Josh kept an eye on the clock.
”Pull up a browser on your laptop,” said Josh, with one minute to spare. “Go to the official White House stream.”
”Just trust me,” said Josh. “They’re doing a speech on education today, and you’re gonna want to see it.”
Jose did as he was asked, still obviously confused to no end. To Josh’s relief, the speech was on time. They waited while the President went through the usual spiel, talking about the need for higher teacher salaries, less students per classroom, better specialized education for special-needs kids—everything that would be fantastic to have but wouldn’t ever actually get past the deadlocked political grid.
Finally, the moment landed, during a concession to successful private schools, and it was every bit as great as Josh hoped.
”We applaud the great private universities across the nation, from Harvard to Stanford, Wesleyan to Whittier—”
”Jesus Chirst,” muttered Jose, while Stafford went on to compare the benefits of private and public education sources.
Huh, they managed some nice alliteration in just a couple minutes. Well done, speechwriters.
”I figure somebody in your faculty will be happy about that,” said Josh, grinning. Jose turned off the stream as he returned to his chair. “So… impressed?”
Ten minutes later, Josh walked out of the office with every class he’d wanted—even one he thought he couldn’t get. There’s definitely something to be said here about privilege and getting exceptions for friends in high places, but fuck if I’m not gonna abuse it. I didn’t have to reveal who I am, or that I’m awakened. All he knows is that I’m seriously connected, but who’d believe him?
Yes, things were definitely looking up for Josh. He’d have the schedule he wanted, with enough space between all his classes to handle anything that came up, and more than enough time at home with his parents and his family. Sure, they might get irritating after a while, but for now, Josh was just happy to be home, be alive, and be unknown again. He could go back to enjoying life, enjoying magic, and doing what he could to help his world thrive.
Speaking of… holy shit, what was that?
He stopped walking, standing near the edge of the quad. An essence had flared up with magical power nearby, the telltale sign of somebody casting a spell. It wasn’t something where Josh could tell exactly where it was, or how far away—not without a few more spells, at least. He didn’t recognize their essence, which wasn’t too surprising, but he realized two very important, very terrifying things simultaneously.
Someone awakened was all the way out in Norwalk, and they were just as powerful—if not more—than the eight. And Josh knew all of the eight, including their essences… but he didn’t know this one.