Chapter 37 — The Ripple Effect
The flight back across the Atlantic was uncomfortably silent. Hailey could feel it in the still, processed air of the cabin. Everything felt unsettled, uncertain—wrong.
Jeremy was tapping away on his phone, pointedly not looking at anybody else. Makoto likewise stared out the window, lost in thought, but he seemed just as unsettled as Hailey. The two EMTs who’d flown across for Kendra were on board too, seated in the back looking exhausted and confused, taking up the spots of the people who should have been on the plane: Lani and the Laushire pair. Hailey couldn’t help but blame herself, and assumed they were all doing the same. Nobody looked at her, except for Cinza—the very last person Hailey wanted to interact with.
Hailey had screwed it all up again. She’d gone after Malton without any kind of plan, just blind rage and the arrogance to think she could do it all on her own. Now, they were coming back with nothing.
Lani was long-gone, along with Rook—or Riley, or Tessa, or whatever the hell she was calling herself now. He’d called Hailey to let her know Riley was willing to testify against Malton, but it felt so hollow after she saw the look of betrayal and disgust on Jeremy’s face. They’d burned a bridge there, and for what? Hailey still doubted Riley was telling the whole truth. Giving up her boss’ location to save her own life? Sure… but coming back into the open after the fact? Hailey doubted she’d ever see the woman again.
The Laushires weren’t coming back either. Kendra was still bedridden, dealing with the aftermath of severe magically-induced trauma, as the family physician decided to call it. They had no idea how long it would take to recover, if she ever would. Cinza tried to offer some reassurance, given her own experiences, but it didn’t seem to take. Lily politely asked them to leave shortly after—assuring them that the offer still stood to help pursue legal action against Malton, to some small consolation.
As soon as they walked outside, though, Hailey was reminded just what that meant. Cameras and crowds followed their every step through London—and indeed, they were walking or driving everywhere. She couldn’t bring herself to fly anymore, or use any magic at all. When she thought about what she’d almost done…
Even in memory, it made her sick. Hailey scrambled for the plastic bag tucked under her seat, in case she needed to throw up. Nothing came out, but it was close—way too close. She took a few long deep breaths, trying to steady herself. Jeremy glanced up at her distress… and then looked away, out the window into the clouds beyond.
She didn’t blame him. He’d been betrayed again and again in the past couple days. Hailey had heard what his sister had asked of him—and even after Hailey ditched him in the basement to go do something stupid, he’d still refused to turn against her. Even after Lani, even after everything, Jeremy still came out to walk her off the ledge. Hailey wanted to talk to him, apologize, anything—but she knew it was only for her own sake. No matter how he’d supported her, there was real pain there, and she wouldn’t be doing him any good using him for her own comfort.
Instead, it was Cinza who finally broke the silence, twisting around from her seat toward the front of the empty plane.
Hailey glanced up, barely meeting Cinza’s eyes for a moment before looking down at the carpet again. She didn’t want to look at anyone for a while. She wanted to be lost.
”They will try to arrest you when we land in D.C. You need to decide what to do next.”
”I don’t care,” Hailey murmured.
Cinza shook her head. “You don’t deserve such treatment. Fly away if you must, but don’t let them subject you to their misguided brand of justice.”
”Misguided?” snapped Jeremy, looking up. His eyes were bloodshot from sheer fatigue. “I ain’t sayin’ we’re perfect, but Hailey broke a hell of a lot of laws and put a ton of people in danger. She’s gotta stand for that.”
”They can’t possibly understand her motivations or her position,” said Cinza. “She doesn’t deserve prison.”
”I ain’t sayin’ she needs to get locked up,” said Jeremy, “I’m sayin’ she should go through the process. Restore confidence. Show people that it works and awakened ain’t exempt.”
”Will it work?”
”It damn well better!”
Cinza frowned. “You rejected the notion of arresting her before. Why now?”
”I was tryin’ to save her life!” Jeremy growled. “I’m still on the fence about you. Tell me why I shouldn’t have left your ass in London for the Brits to deal with. I was the only one in that damn country legally.”
”This plane was sent for me,” Cinza pointed out.
”And you’re declarin’ open fuckin’ war in the Northwest.”
”Brian has thrived in the shadows,” said Cinza. “His forces have grown, not dwindled, and we have been blamed for his assaults. I leveled the field.”
”I do deserve it,” murmured Hailey, interrupting them just as Jeremy got to his feet. They both fell silent, watching her carefully—cautiously. She hated that. Hated that her friends felt afraid of her. Hailey took a deep breath before she went on. “I could have hurt a lot of people. I did hurt a lot of people. That’s the sort of thing you go to jail for.”
”Hailey—” Jeremy started, but Cinza cut him off.
”This is foolish. What good does your incarceration serve?”
”It’s where people like me are supposed to go,” said Hailey, exhausted by every single word she spoke. She just wanted them all to stop talking. It was over, wasn’t it? She’d nearly blown up London, she’d punched her way through guards and servants alike to get to Malton. She’d been the cause of so many deaths, just like the news said.
It’s my fault she died. If I wasn’t trying to be the hero, she never would have been there.
Cinza looked like she was about to speak again, but Hailey was done. She got up and wandered out of the cabin into the rear section, sitting down alone. She wanted to wallow in grief, really feel what she’d done. Remind herself, over and over, replay the events in her head, make sure she never did anything like it again. Hailey didn’t want to make decisions anymore. Every time she did, somebody got hurt.
After a few moments, the curtain brushed aside again as Jeremy came in, alone.
”Go back,” said Hailey.
Jeremy ignored her. He took the seat across the aisle from her, reclining slightly. “Still fuckin’ hate flying,” he muttered.
Hailey didn’t respond. She closed her eyes, trying to shut out everything even more.
”I think you’re doin’ the right thing,” he added, to her surprise. “I don’t think you deserve to go to jail, but that’s what the court’s there to decide, right?”
”I hurt people,” said Hailey. “People who didn’t deserve it.”
Jeremy sighed. “You know I wish I could’ve done what you just did?”
”I’ve had cases like this. Guys who seemed like they could just work the system and get off no matter what I stuck ’em with. I wanted more than anything to just roll into the motherfucker’s house, knock down his stupid-ass guards, and drag him out into the street. I can’t do that though. Not that I wouldn’t, I just can’t.”
”But…” Hailey finally opened her eyes, glancing at him. “Doesn’t that mean the system doesn’t work? Just like I said.”
Jeremy shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe I’m just really fuckin’ pissed off right now. But I’m just one cog. One little fuckin’ gear in the machine. I kick up too much dirt, make some smoke, maybe the machine grinds down a bit—but it won’t stop turnin’.”
He held up a finger. “But here’s the thing, right? I knock out that gum in the works, that asshole who makes everybody’s lives worse. Maybe I go down for it, but I can be replaced. He breaks the whole system by bein’ there. So maybe, just maybe, I find the right person, and I make enough of a difference. I might pay for it, but everybody else gets to live better lives as a result.”
Jeremy grinned. “Plus I’m a pretty shitty cog. They should’a replaced me years ago. I go down, they get somebody better to fill my spot.”
”But what about everybody in the way?” Hailey whispered. “What about…” She trailed off. She couldn’t voice her name.
He put a hand on her shoulder. “That ain’t on you. Jessica wouldn’t want that.”
”It is,” said Hailey. “She wouldn’t have been there if not for me. It’s my fault she’s dead.”
Jeremy shook his head. “It’s not.”
But no matter his reassurances, Hailey couldn’t agree with him. After another few tries without a response, Jeremy gave up. The rest of the flight went by in silence, and when the plane door opened, Hailey walked out into the piercing sunlight. She went right down the stairs, held out her arms, and let them place the handcuffs around her wrists, as a dozen cameras followed her every move, and millions upon millions watched her arrest around the world.
Jeremy wanted more than anything to go with Hailey, but he had orders. The wide authority he’d been granted from both the Bureau, the White House and the international community wasn’t something to take lightly, and Jeremy knew that holding onto his new position was way more important. Besides, he’d done all he could for Hailey, as much as it pained him to admit. She was practically comatose, walking around in a quiet daze as if she couldn’t hear half of what people said to her.
At least her lawyer’s on his way. He sighed, drawing attention from the other occupants of the limo.
”What are we gonna do—” Jeremy started, but Cinza cut him off.
”We should not keep the President waiting,” she said shortly. She rose, able to nearly stand up straight inside the vehicle, and adjusted her robe just slightly. Her hair shifted from its natural brown to vaguely-glowing silver. Makoto reached forward to open the door, stoic as ever.
Jeremy shook his head in dismay—at Cinza’s abject dismissal of Hailey, at Makoto’s apparent unshakeability, at the sheer number of cameras and microphones lining the ropes down the stretch from the White House. Makoto stepped out into the blinding Monday morning sunlight, to a cacophony of camera clicks and a veritable strobe of flashes. He stepped aside, not offering his hand or any other gesture, merely moving out of the way.
Cinza very carefully, very deliberately stepped out of the limo. Her necklace clattered, gemstones tapping on her chest, while the charms adorning her wrists accompanied like a chorus. The eight-pointed star tattoo on her neck blazed in the morning light, as if the sun were striking it directly. The clatter of camera noise increased tenfold. It was far worse than any press gaggle Jeremy had ever faced in his time at the FBI. So many questions, so many shouting reporters, while behind them loomed a legion of protestors and supporters alike. It had only been two days since the Saturday evening when Cinza revealed on camera to the world, yet Jeremy saw a turnout in D.C. unlike any he’d ever witnessed before.
Not all of it was friendly. How do these fuckers come up with huge picket signs so damn fast?
Cinza ignored the protestors, ignored the shouted calls for her arrest or worse. Likewise, she ignored the crazed fans, the supporters cheering her name. She strode directly up the center of the crowd, through the barricades of D.C. police and Secret Service, and up to the front of the building, where President Stafford, his wife, and choice members of his staff were waiting. Jeremy recognized Kimberly Young next to him, as well as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Jack Quayle, further down the row. To his surprise, his old boss Aderholt was there too, though the Director was nowhere to be found.
Aderholt gave Jeremy a withering stare as he followed Cinza up the steps. Jeremy pointedly ignored him. Fuck you, I don’t work for you anymore. I’m here on direct orders from the President and the Director, asshole. You’re outranked.
President Stafford stepped forward to greet Cinza. Unsurprisingly, he towered over her—but somehow, they still seemed equals. Cinza was fully in her element, hair practically shining in the morning sunlight and robes sparkling.
”Welcome to the White House, Cinza.”
He spoke powerfully, in the famed presidential voice Jeremy had never actually witnessed in person. Even Makoto, still standing a few feet from Cinza as a bodyguard, looked a little taken aback. Damn.
”Thank you, Mr. President,” Cinza replied, and her voice was such a stark contrast that Jeremy suppressed the urge to laugh. Of course, none in attendance had heard her in person (and the effect was somewhat lost over TV or long-distance radio comms), so her echoing voice was equally surprising.
The air felt impossibly heavy, a sensation of momentous occurrence. The White House loomed behind the President and his staff, huge monuments over the tiny Cinza and her lone bodyguard, while huge masses filled the streets behind them past the police barricades. Yet Cinza did not seem the less powerful by any measure—if anything, the amount of respect and caution shown by the President and his security detail spoke volumes about her power.
Shit’s gonna go down… Jeremy winced as he glanced over his shoulder into the throng. There were angry faces. Too many. His hand twitched slightly, moving involuntarily toward his holstered pistol, but he suppressed it. To his relief, the President seemed to get the same impression.
”Will you join me inside? I think we have a lot to talk about.”
Stafford looked as though about to offer his arm, but quickly thought better of the image it would create. Cinza certainly wasn’t giving off the impression of wanting help—she was bordering on the verge of hostility, for reasons Jeremy couldn’t quite place. Stafford turned, his staff following his lead, and walked back into the building. She followed, not a second glance back, and Jeremy hurried to keep up.
They swept through the building quickly, random staffers watching their every move. Jeremy admired the sleek movements of the Secret Service as they beelined for the Oval Office. Once upon a time, he’d considered trying for their agency, before realizing how terrified Maddie would be… and how much more training it required.
Stafford took a chair, and Cinza settled opposite him. Kimberly, General Quayle, as well as the president’s chief of staff and a few more staffers Jeremy didn’t recognize settled into chairs or couches on Stafford’s side. Not a single one sat on Cinza’s side of the room. Makoto stood a few steps behind her chair, passively gazing at a spot on the wall behind everyone.
Jeremy’s eyes narrowed. One among Stafford’s group had changed—the First Lady had vanished at some point during their walk, and in her place… Maddie tilted her head just slightly from side to side, begging him to stay silent.
…Maddie, I’ll give you this one, but we’ve got a lot to fuckin’ discuss.
”Well…” started Stafford, glancing around, “let’s just go around the room, shall we?” He nodded at the next face down the line. “This is my chief of staff, Ioannis Miklos. My National Security Advisor Dr. Kimberly Young, whose charming voice you heard on the phone the other day, and General Jack Quayle, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. Next, our new Secretary of Thaumaturgical Affairs Wesley Gatiss, the junior senator from Washington state, and a whole bunch of other people who aren’t important right now.” Stafford smiled, a charming smile that most certainly helped get him elected, and leaned forward in his chair. He extended a hand. “It is an honor to meet you, Cinza.”
Cinza nodded, but her own hand didn’t budge from her lap. “I felt no such honor today, Mr. President.”
The room sharpened audibly. Jeremy gulped. Here we go.
Stafford’s smile didn’t budge an inch as he withdrew his hand. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
”I was subjected to political theatre outside. There is a process,” said Cinza firmly, “for greeting visiting heads of state.”
The smile vanished. Kimberly opened her mouth, but Stafford waved her off. “We’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, I think.”
It was Cinza’s turn to smile, though hers lacked any of the charm Stafford emanated effortlessly. “Hardly. You speak for your people, and I speak for mine.”
”I’m curious,” said General Quayle, “are you intending to declare independence from the United States?”
”That would imply I was ever a citizen of your country.”
Stafford raised an eyebrow. “You were an immigrant?”
Didn’t the fuckin’ accent give it away? Under that echo, it’s clearly Eastern European. Damn President doesn’t recognize that?
”Not by choice,” Cinza replied. “Nor by any record you might find. I was brought to my home, through events too impossible to believe.”
He cracked a slight smile. “I’d believe anything at this point.”
Cinza nodded. “So you would also believe that Hailey Winscombe is innocent of any wrongdoing beyond simple property damage.”
”The British Ambassador might disagree with that,” shrugged Miklos, speaking up for the first time from the President’s side. He had a very soft voice, contrasting the many direct, uncompromising tones surrounding him. “She’s charged with a lot of assault cases.”
”Yet the London authority allowed her passage home in my care,” Cinza shot back.
”In his care,” Kimberly corrected, nodding at Jeremy. He shifted in his seat, suddenly very uncomfortable. “The British agreed to give us custody on the basis that Agent Ashe is the most qualified expert in this field and had authority from both nations to pursue Winscombe.”
Aderholt rolled his eyes, fuming. Jeremy resisted the urge to smirk at him.
Cinza shook her head. “We were able to bring her home. I do not deny that Hailey should stand some kind of trial, but your system of justice holds no precedent and understanding of what she has become. You cannot give her a trial by jury when you have no peers.”
”And you can?” asked Kimberly skeptically. “Do you even have a court?”
Cinza opened her mouth, but the President spoke first. “In a court of law, a jury of one’s peers is broadly defined as a jury of human beings, those of sound mind and awareness. Race, gender, sex, economic status, or national origin do not necessarily preclude one from being a peer. We may be working without some precedent, but our country has laws.”
”But I don’t belong to your country,” said Cinza.
”You’re living on my property,” Stafford replied, with a slight smile. “The Olympic Forest is federal land. May I have it back?”
”You cannot prove I live there,” Cinza replied, matching his smile. Christ, she’s catching up quick. She knew that wasn’t a real threat. I fuckin’ hate politics.
”What do you want?” interjected Jeremy, tired of the run-around. “For a fair trial for Hailey and recognition of the Greycloaks?”
Stafford nodded. “This all comes down to crime, sadly. I wish we could have met before any of this. We need to establish precedent, so the country and the world can have a model to follow. We’re in uncharted waters, facing two crimes that must be answered for, and I need your help to navigate past the rocks.”
Cinza frowned. “Two crimes?”
”The first is Miss Winscombe, naturally. Her trial will be a media circus, and trust me, I’d love to tell Quayle to blow their heads off here and now.” Stafford grinned. “Since they’re not going to give us any peace and quiet, and she can be fully charged under federal jurisdiction, I propose a grand jury to investigate her conduct, handled by my Department of Justice. We’ll get as much precedent out of the process as we can, so we make it clear how the country should handle cases involving the awakened or magic in general. The jury can be convened quietly, and make it as painless as possible for Miss Winscombe.” Stafford winced, glancing at Jeremy. “Please convey my condolences, next time you see her. I would contact her myself, but I don’t believe she would want to hear from me.”
Jeremy shrugged. “Doubt she wants to see anyone right now, sir.”
”No matter how quiet the investigation,” Cinza interjected, “it will blow up. This is the biggest story in the world right now. Everyone will want to hear about the first trial for a magical crime.”
”I agree wholeheartedly,” Stafford replied, “which is why it won’t be the first trial.”
Cinza paused, seeming truly surprised for the first time, rather than simply following the motions of politics. “Explain.”
Stafford raised an eyebrow. “You know, I’ve never met with anyone in this room quite like you.” He nodded to Maddie, who withdrew a folder from her briefcase. Stafford laid it on the table between them and opened it up.
Photos of the lightning-scorched bodies in Rallsburg. Photos of more bodies in a warehouse which Jeremy didn’t recognize. A still from a video in Lakewood, where a girl was shooting lightning from her fingertips. Another video still, her face clearly visible, leaving the hospital in Olympia after Jessica had died, accompanied by Ryan Walker and Makoto.
”Rika Nishimura,” said Stafford. “I take it from your bodyguard here that you probably know where she is.”
Cinza didn’t respond, gazing down at the photos. Fucking hell… Where did this come from?
”Those bodies in Rallsburg don’t match the story we’ve heard. They weren’t beaten down by golems, burned by flames, crushed by rubble, or killed by gunfire. By Agent Ashe’s investigation, there was never any explanation of how they were electrocuted.” Stafford moved the photo aside, indicating a page scan. “And by your own words, only one person in Rallsburg ever displayed the ability to use lightning magic.”
Shit… That’s true, isn’t it? Jeremy controlled his face as best he could, but he felt the pressure closing on them.
”We have questions that need answers and victims that need closure,” said Stafford. “The American people still don’t understand what happened in Rallsburg, and the story seems to be getting more complex with every passing day. Some explanation would go a long way toward promoting peace and calm.”
”A criminal,” said Makoto abruptly, the first word he’d spoken. Half of the room looked up. Well, bodyguards don’t fuckin’ speak in the Oval Office. I didn’t expect him to pipe up either. Damn. “You want a face to blame.”
Stafford sighed. “To investigate.”
”You’ve already drawn your conclusions,” said Cinza, nodding carefully. She sat back in her chair once more. “You have your killer.”
”Do you deny what you wrote?”
”So Rika Nishimura is certainly a person of interest in these killings, at the very least.”
”Self-defense,” said Makoto.
Cinza nodded. She pointed at the scan. “This page is not from the excerpts released to the public. You’ve read the entire journal.” Stafford nodded. “So you know what we were experiencing. Mobs were roaming the streets in between the killing golems. They wanted our heads. Rika was a victim.”
”She killed twenty five people in Rallsburg,” Kimberly shot back. “All of them died from the electricity. And what the hell was she doing in that warehouse in Seattle?”
”I don’t know.”
”That’s why we need to investigate,” said Stafford. “We can’t get answers without asking her these questions.”
It’s not that fuckin’ unreasonable, Cinza… Jeremy wasn’t sure why she was so obstinate about this. Was it just protecting her people, as always? It didn’t seem right. Something else was going on here. Cinza really wanted to avoid this line of interrogation.
I could tell them where she is, he realized. He knew where the Greywood was. Cinza’s protections might keep them out, but how long could they last encircled by the military? It was federal land, after all. The President was certainly capable of ordering such an action. And fuck me, it sure seems like Rika might have done it. After what I’ve learned about her? Even at the damn funeral, she was a huge asshole. Doesn’t mean she’s a murderer, but still…
”Cinza, I understand your caution,” said Stafford sympathetically. “She’s one of your people. If it were me, I’d be just as protective. But I hope you understand, we will give her a fair trial.”
”Were I even to agree, my writing and testimony would not be enough to convict.”
”We’ve got more than this,” said Aderholt. “Corroborating testimony from a high-profile awakened stating Rika is the only one who can use electrical magic.”
”Who—” started Cinza, but Jeremy cut in.
”Hailey. You’ve got Hailey’s recorded testimony from when she cut a deal.”
Cinza shook her head. “That is still not enough. This is a trial of crimes you can’t prove, committed with methods you don’t understand, by people you aren’t even sure were the perpetrators,” replied Cinza. “And you forget the most important thing.”
”Enlighten me,” said Stafford, an inch of frustration in his voice.
”The federal courts are not the only place where she will be judged. For this to fulfill your desire for spectacle, you would need a very public trial.” Cinza sighed. “I am not convinced in the slightest of her guilt or innocence, but Rika Nishimura is not a diplomatic person. She would be convicted by the public, no matter the conclusion of your own jury.”
”So you’re saying—”
”I’m saying I would not be surprised in the slightest if she were shot walking out of the courtroom after having been declared innocent,” said Cinza.
Miklos frowned. “That seems pretty premature—”
”You don’t know Rika like I do.” Cinza sighed. “She’s rich, she’s entitled, and she is one of the most abrasive people I have ever met. People will hate her. Relatives of the families killed will despise her. Hatred from those who fear us will flow free. Rika has few redeeming qualities to persuade them otherwise, none which would come forth in the pressure of a court room.” She shook her head. “I admire your optimism, but I have been down this road before. Those who hate us will find a way.”
”She’s not wrong,” said Kimberly, to the surprise of the room. “We’ve been monitoring chatter in the Olympic region. There’s a movement that’s been growing fast all weekend. Spearheaded by your old friend Brian Hendricks, by all reports,” she added, nodding to Cinza.
Cinza spat on the carpet. “Do not ever describe that evil man as my friend.”
Stafford raised a placating hand. “The cleaning staff in this building is actually the most powerful group in America. Let’s not get them angry too if we can avoid it.” He frowned, glancing to his side. “What are we doing about the anti-awakened movement?”
”Monitoring, for now. We can’t move on any of them yet, and they’ve managed to keep Brian himself one step ahead of us.” Kimberly looked to Cinza again, expression serious. “We can’t arrest him yet, you understand. We have no evidence beyond your word. At most, we can bring him in for questioning about Rallsburg, since he’s still on the list of missing and unaccounted for.”
”I understand,” said Cinza, with only the slightest undercurrent of hostility.
Jeremy leaned forward and picked up the Seattle incident report. Something here ain’t fuckin’ right. “Not all these deaths are from electricity,” he noted aloud.
”No,” said Maddie.
”Two gunshots to the chest here, one neck sliced open with a blade there.” Jeremy frowned. “Why would she swap weapons like that?”
”Something to ask her,” said Kimberly.
”All we want,” Stafford reiterated, “is to give her a fair trial. Something she didn’t seem to get in the past,” he added pointedly, looking down at the scan of Cinza’s diaries once again. “You said she was banished by her best friend for defending the recognized government.”
Cinza didn’t answer for a long while. She turned over each paper in the file, one by one, examining them very carefully. The entire room watched with bated breath. Jeremy had no idea what she might be thinking, or why the decision was so hard for her. There was more to the story. His investigative senses were on fire. He didn’t think anyone else in the room would realize it, since Cinza’s protectiveness was practically legendary—but this was Rika, someone who abandoned Rallsburg, who openly mocked her cult, and even then, she’d likely still get a fair trial and an acquittal.
What are you really hidin’, girl?
”What do you believe in?” Cinza asked quietly, not looking up.
President Stafford looked taken aback. “I’m sorry?”
Cinza looked up. Her robes seemed to pulse with light, ever so slightly. It wasn’t enough to provoke a reaction, a subtle effect that drew all eyes even closer to her. “You made a name for yourself during your campaign. You stood firm as a strong dividing line between religion and the government. But not once did you actually profess your own beliefs, even under pressure from all sides.”
Stafford nodded. “My own beliefs aren’t important. What’s important is that I serve every American citizen as best I can.”
”But how do you define best?”
He smiled. “I do have beliefs, Cinza. I just choose not to parade them in front of crowds for easy political points.”
What a fuckin’ cop-out. Jeremy resisted the urge to roll his eyes, with so many watching him and his side, but Cinza didn’t seem to be as bothered. “I can respect that,” said Cinza, “but it begs the question: what ideals do you follow when you govern?”
”I think I make those public enough. Sixty-five million Americans seem to agree.”
”So I ask you, then—personally, in front of this room of your close associates and a young man I recently trusted to dangle me mid-air from a helicopter—what would your God think of our power?”
”It doesn’t matter,” Stafford replied. “The intention of the founders was to separate religion from the state, and that includes the courts.”
”But that’s impossible. Beliefs dictate the courts. However subtle, however you try to avoid it, what you believe will drive you to take action, or inaction.” Cinza pressed on as Stafford opened his mouth to respond. “I ask you this because I do not believe your courts can bring themselves to acquit one who has killed dozens on separate occasions, no matter the justifications for their apparent crimes. Someone who appears less than fully responsible for their actions or the consequences, yet still holds incredible power at their fingertips—power which can never be taken away.”
”Your prisons cannot hold us, unless we allow it,” Cinza continued. “Those of us who have seen Grey-eyes, who have been given the gift of her mercy and compassion, will forever be seen as a threat and a terror. The world is unbalanced, Mr. President. Your country has a long history of the death penalty, one that still lives today. How fast do you imagine it might be employed against us, who cannot be kept locked safe and tight, far away from your terrified constituents?”
”I think we’re jumping the gun a bit here—” started Miklos.
Cinza shook her head. “This is everything. You ask me to bring before you someone who has committed no crime as far as I am concerned. You need your scapegoat, your face for the less-savory portion of our world. I provided the world a true villain, but you cannot find him. I gave the world another, but you fear pursuing him because of your politics and your economy, so you launched yourselves at the lowest-hanging fruit.”
Nobody was smiling anymore. Stafford was staring at Cinza oddly, his brow creased with concern. Kimberly looked downright livid. The rest of the staff, while not exactly murmuring among themselves, was shifting uneasily and giving each other significant looks. Jeremy was distinctly aware of the Secret Service agents still lining the room, who normally would wait just outside in such a meeting.
”…I require assurances,” Cinza said finally. “I must know that Rika will be treated with the dignity and impartiality to which you all aspire. If I do this, I must not be throwing one of my own to the wolves.”
Stafford sighed. “I think, Cinza, if we had met under other circumstances, I might have liked you quite a lot.”
”Under any other circumstances, Mr. President, I would still be living on the streets, nameless to you and to the rest of the world.”
He nodded. “Agent Ashe will continue to be our liaison, if that’s acceptable?” Cinza nodded. “Ashe?”
”Yes, sir?” Jeremy sat up straight. He’d been leaning forward, as if about to leap into action.
”I am officially appointing you as our liaison to the Greycloaks until further notice—”
”Excuse me, sir,” Aderholt interrupted. Every head snapped to him. Stafford stopped mid-sentence, his mouth slightly open in shock. “You… you can’t do that. The FBI isn’t under your direct authority. Also, that position doesn’t… err, exactly exist.”
”I can’t?” Stafford asked with mild confusion. It took Jeremy a moment to realize he was being sarcastic. Stafford turned back to Jeremy with a vague smirk. “Well, Agent Ashe, it would please me greatly if you would continue the excellent work you’ve been doing working with the Greycloaks. I’d also remind you that I have authority over your Director, and I’m quite fond of blackmailing him with it.”
Get fucked, chief. Aderholt looked down at the floor. Jeremy nearly broke out into laughter, until the photos on the table sobered him once again.
People are dead, and more are gonna be. Are we doin’ the right thing, holding a trial for Rika?
”In return,” Cinza continued, “for releasing Rika into your custody, you need to do something for me.”
Maddie spoke up. “The DOJ will add awakened persons to the public definition of hate crimes, and vigorously pursue any cases involving such to their fullest extent. A senior-level advisor position within the Department of Thaumaturgical Affairs will be created, to be filled by an awakened person reporting directly to Secretary Gatiss, one step away from the President.”
Gatiss inclined his head solemnly. Maddie took a breath, obviously having rehearsed the offer. A few around her looked surprised, but Stafford and Miklos remained calmly in their seats. Maddie continued, just as confident and rehearsed as before.
”The first appointee will be subject to your personal absolute veto. If you’ve got your own candidates to recommend, we’ll include them on the short list. The DTA will immediately begin drawing up legislation proposals and official policies on handling the remnants of the Grimoire that the government comes across, and begin building definitions for handling magical criminal acts. Our preliminary ideas are in these documents. We’ll also push for immediate recognition of the Greycloaks as a religious organization.”
”And I’ll be granting you official leave to continue living on my front lawn,” added Stafford with a smile. “In concert with the state of Washington, of course.”
Maddie nodded. “I’ve cleared this with the governor’s office.”
”Give your sister my best.”
Jeremy rolled his eyes, but said nothing. Maddie set down a huge stack of papers in a neat-bound leather satchel. Cinza briefly read through the first few pages, then looked at Maddie curiously. “This is your offer?”
”Drafted by your own hand.”
Maddie hesitated. “A number of hands.”
Cinza smiled. “Tell her that it’s about time she remembered what it means.”
Maddie’s eyes flashed nervously. Stafford looked around, surprised. “Well, this might be the first time today I’ve felt completely out of the loop. Senator Ashe, would you mind telling the rest of the class who in God’s name you’re talking about?”
”One who’d rather remain out of the spotlight,” Cinza interjected, before Maddie could open her mouth. “I’ll respect her wishes.” She gathered up the offer and set it next to her on her wide chair. Jeremy was used to her size by now, but many of the President’s staff still gazed at her with an air of confusion, like she didn’t belong.
She doesn’t fuckin’ belong in their world, that’s for sure. But I’m not so sure their world’s worth keepin’ around anymore… Fuck me, when did I switch sides? Was I ever on that fuckin’ side? The fuck are the sides? And how did Maddie get over there?
”I will release Rika to you,” said Cinza finally, rising to her feet. She extended her hand, and Stafford shook it firmly. Jeremy let out a huge breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding in. To his relief, nobody noticed—the tension in the room had infected everyone.
”Thank you,” said Stafford. “Now that the ugly politics are out of the way, I’ve cleared my schedule for the whole afternoon. I would love to speak with you more about any topic you’d like, in a room less crowded with all these sycophants and busybodies.”
Cinza smiled. “Lead the way.”
The room cleared out. President Stafford and his chief of staff Ioannis Miklos led Cinza and Makoto off into one of the smaller, more comfortable rooms in the west wing, while the rest of the group dispersed. Jeremy grabbed his sister’s arm as she headed out, pulling her into a quiet corner.
”The fuck, Maddie?” he hissed.
Jeremy shook his head. Nobody was nearby, so he didn’t feel reluctant to really let her have it. “You tried to use Hailey as a fucking pawn in this shit, when she was right at at the edge of the damn’ cliff.”
”I was trying to fix this shit,” Maddie shot back. “Hailey’s going down either way at this rate. Least I could do was make somethin’ out of it. Get Cinza into the negotiating room.”
”I thought you were different,” Jeremy said, and there was real pain thick in his voice. Maddie looked taken aback. Yeah, Maddie, get it yet? You fucked up here. You became one of them.
”I’ve gotta play the game too, Jere-bear,” she said quietly. “I’m tryin’ to fix shit, but you can’t really exist in this line of work without being a little bit of a monster.”
”Cinza got here anyway. You knew she would either way. Hailey was just cheap fuckin’ points, even in your damn line of work.” Jeremy shook his head in disgust. “You shoulda been next to me there, not grouped in with those shits.”
”Just be fuckin’ grateful we’re still under Stafford’s administration and a friendly Congress,” Maddie snapped. “Try to do this in two years when the other team’s got the damn majority and see how far you fuckin’ get.” She looked genuinely upset, and Jeremy forced himself to calm down. This argument wasn’t really helping anything; they were just getting pissed at each other. “I didn’t see you jumpin’ in the way when Hailey got arrested this morning.”
”That was her choice,” Jeremy sighed, the heat slowly draining out of his face. He leaned back against the nearest wall. “Didn’t fuckin’ matter in the end. At least it was her, though, not us throwin’ her to the damn mob.”
Maddie shrugged. “Does it really make a huge difference?”
”Does a fuckin’ trial make a difference?” Jeremy sighed again. “It’s just gonna be a huge goddamn spectacle either way. Piss off the rich and powerful one way, piss off the masses the other. You know she’s becomin’ a folk hero or somethin’, right?”
”Going after the ultra-capitalist pigs above the law, yeah,” said Maddie. “Pretty sure it was your friend in there who started that whole narrative.” She sighed too. “I don’t know if it’s gonna calm everybody down or just kick up more flames.” She looked toward the nearest wall, where a TV was still playing a split-screen loop of Cinza’s arrival at the White House next to Hailey stepping into a police cruiser handcuffed.
”Throwin’ a fuckin’ boulder into a river without knowin’ where it’s gonna splash,” said Jeremy.
Maddie snorted. “You’re still on that?”
”How the fuck did you even get it to the side of the cliff?”
”You’re an FBI agent,” smirked Maddie, “you tell me. You’ve had thirty years to figure it out.”
Their levity faded again as the loop replayed on the screen, thankfully muted so Jeremy didn’t have to hear the talking heads spew their own uneducated opinions about what to do with Hailey. “I’m really worried about her, Maddie.” His sister pulled him into a one-armed hug. “And I’m still fuckin’ mad at you.”
”I had three goddamn people in the world I could trust,” said Jeremy, breaking away. “Just three. One of them stabbed me in the back in London, the other’s been missin’ for months, and then you—” Jeremy choked up, looking away.
Maddie looked like she might cry. “I’m sorry, Jeremy. I know. I…”
”I know why you did it,” said Jeremy. “I get it. You made a call, and even if it was a shitty fuckin’ call, at least it was for the greater good. I don’t know what the fuck Lani was doing. He’s the one who’s supposed to be here, not me. The new awakened rep of the FBI and workin’ with Cinza to save the world or some shit. But he ain’t anywhere. I don’t know where he is. I…”
”…Have you heard from him?” Maddie asked finally, after Jeremy didn’t continue.
”Nothin’,” Jeremy sighed. “He called Hailey, offered to testify against Malton whenever that trial happens—”
”Could be never,” said Maddie dejectedly. “He’s connected and he’s rich enough, and there ain’t much evidence.”
”So yeah, I’m fuckin’ mad.”
”…I’m mad at me too,” she said softly. “You’re right. I was over the damn line. And Hailey needs somebody in her corner. I’m glad you’ve got her back.” She grinned. “Never thought you’d be such good friends with a rich blonde white girl. You switchin’ sides too?”
”Fuck you,” Jeremy snorted. “She and I fought together. I got her back, she’s got mine.” Jeremy stood up straight again, glancing at the door the President and Cinza had disappeared through. “What do you think they’re talkin’ about in there?”
”Probably your special goddess friend.”
Jeremy shivered. “Seriously, Maddie, I wish you’d met her. Never seen anythin’ like it. Still scares the shit out of me and it’s been weeks.”
”That’s the fuckin’ story of the year, Jere-bear. Everything scares me now.” Maddie shuddered. “Hendricks is pickin’ up a real following back home. There’s hundreds at those rallies, and they keep getting bigger. And there was an assassination attempt. Cinza’s set a whole goddamn war in motion now. He’s a fuckin’ martyr and he ain’t even dead.”
It was Jeremy’s turn to give his sister a side-arm hug. “We’ll get the motherfucker, Maddie. Count on it.”