Dissension — Chapter 2

Dissension — Chapter 1
Dissension — Chapter 3

Chapter 02 Responsibility

  It was Christmas Day, and Josh Miller didn’t want to spend another second in the Greywood.

  He’d enjoyed parts of Cinza’s birthday celebration that morning, but her family would never be his crowd. Josh wasn’t even sure he really liked Cinza. They interacted constantly, and he respected her, but he wouldn’t exactly want to hang out with her. Joe wasn’t great company either, or the few newcomers to the Greycloaks. It pretty much just left him, Nikki and Ryan as a trio—and after a while, Ryan’s constant complaining really got on his nerves. 

  But Josh had to stay. It wasn’t like the world was getting any safer for people with magic, and he’d never fully trust Cinza not to go completely into the deep end without him. Josh was the longest-serving person in a position of authority among their whole community, all the way back to the earlier days of the Council before Rachel joined up, and the nagging sense of responsibility never let him rest.

  One day won’t kill them. Well, shit, it might, but what the hell would I do in that case? I’m not a fighter. I’ve never stayed for a fight in my life.

  Now, though, Josh did feel like he was gearing up for battle. His weapons were Christmas presents, his armor guilt and self-shame.

  ”You’ll be fine,” said Nikki, rolling her eyes—she was the only one who even knew he was leaving. “Just get it over with.”

  Easy for you to say, Josh muttered, but not aloud. 

  It’d be far too cruel to say aloud.

  He’d already contacted Kendra and Lily through their connection string—special thanks to Rachel and Will for helping them establish rudimentary long-distance communication. It was instantaneous, too, which broke all sorts of physics that worried him even more for the future, but Josh wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.

  Another pull on the string. Seconds later, a neat wooden doorway wedged itself into the wall next to their bed. He pulled it open, and there the void awaited, cobblestone paths and web of eight doors surrounding the Laushire’s home.

  ”Still freaks me out,” said Nikki.

  ”You get used to it,” said Josh with a shrug. “The Market wasn’t as crazy, but yeah, being able to walk across the world like this is insane.”

  ”I meant that black void,” she muttered, gesturing toward it. “How do you not just feel like you’re gonna fall off all the time?”

  ”You’ve never been inside?” asked Josh, glancing at her. “It doesn’t give me any vertigo at all. I figured you must’ve visited the Market at least once.”

  ”Never.” She shrugged. “And you guys never invited me to any of your special Summits.”

  ”Want to come?”

  ”Nah,” said Nikki. She lay back on the bed and closed her eyes. “Bad day.”

  Josh was torn. On the one hand, the door awaited, a special favor to him from the Laushires, taking untold amounts of magical power and skill to create and maintain. On the other, his girlfriend, suffering side effects or strain or something from her own magical abilities, overstretched for the sake of their community.

  ”Fucking go,” said Nikki, waving at him. “I can feel you brooding from here. You need this way more than I need you.”

  ”You sure?”

  ”I’ll be fine. I’ve got my meds,” she added, waving a bottle of high-strength ibuprofen at him which sat perpetually by their bedside. “Get going.”

  ”Okay.” Josh turned and left without another word—he knew anything more would just irritate her. If she was having a bad head day, even sound was setting her headache off. Shit, she seemed fine through Cinza’s whole party… I don’t think I could keep that up.

  Josh stepped inside. Normally, Kendra or Lily would be there to greet him, but it seemed today whomever wasn’t controlling the portal was busy elsewhere. Another door was already open, and Josh hurried toward it. Every step took him further from the chilly air of the Greywood in deep winter. The void itself was a completely calm sixty-seven or so, forever, but as he got near the other open door, the air of his hometown started to filter in.

  He walked through the door and stepped out into an alley behind a 7-Eleven in Norwalk. Even more than the change in the air, Josh was struck by the noise. The Greywood was so quiet now, since even airplanes couldn’t come near it anymore. Suddenly, he was surrounded by engines, stores, industry. The world kept churning, even without them. 

  It was overwhelming. He felt dizzy before he even saw any of it.

  …Well, I haven’t been out of the forest since May, and Rallsburg wasn’t exactly a loud place before, either. That’s a long-ass time to stay out of the world.

  Josh clutched the packages tight to his side as he walked out to the sidewalk and sat down on a bench, waiting for the bus. Every second, he got a little more anxious. The bus ride went without incident—he climbed on, swiped his long-neglected card for the fare, and remembered every stop along the way—but it didn’t lessen the pressure building in his chest, the tightening of his throat.

  The bus let him off only a block away. He had to force his legs forward with every step. 

  Why am I doing this? Why didn’t I just call? Oh, right, because I’m trying not to be a coward or some shit like that. 

  Their car was in the driveway. His anxiety redoubled.

  Just turn around. Go hang out at the park or something, shoot some hoops, go back to the Greywood. Nobody even knows I left besides Nikki. I don’t have to do this. 

  Music was playing inside. Josh could barely hear the familiar sounds of Nat King Cole. He set down the packages and knocked. A friendly shouting match ensued over who had to answer the door. She ended it, of course, stating she’d answer it since everyone else was just being rude.

  He tensed up. The door swung open.

  ”Hi, Mom,” Josh choked out.

  His mother froze in the doorway, steaming mug of hot chocolate in hand. It started to tip and fall.

  Might as well get it out of the way now.

  Josh reached out and caught it with magic, holding it in mid-air just a few inches below her open hand. Her eyes widened even further as he gently hovered it back to the end table near the door.

  ”B-Brandon!” she called out.

  ”Lunch is getting cold, Violet!” his father shouted back. “Tell them it’s Christmas and they should go home!”

  …Well isn’t that just perfect. Josh’s face cracked into a grin. To his relief, his mother’s did the same. 

  The tension broke. They both burst into laughter—relieved, tearful laughter. His mother lunged forward, arms open wide, and buried him in a hug. 

  ”I’ve been so worried,” she whispered, wrapping him even tighter. “Why didn’t you call?”

  ”I should have. I’m sorry,” Josh choked. There it is. Own it. Be the responsible one everybody says I am. “I brought presents,” he added, gesturing as best he could to the small pile next to him.

  ”My baby,” his mother said, finally backing off.

  ”What’s going on out here?” asked his father, finally coming to investigate. To Josh’s relief, he wasn’t holding any hot liquids, or anything for that matter—Josh wasn’t sure he was in a state to catch anything else. “…Joshua?”

  ”Hey Dad.” He brushed tears out of his eyes. “Merry Christmas.”

  His dad didn’t rush him. Instead, he looked over his shoulder, back the way he’d come, and shouted as loud as Josh always remembered he could. “Mark! Luke! Get out here!”

  ”But Dad, it’s getting cold!” cried Luke, the younger of Josh’s two brothers. 

  ”Right now, young men!”

  Josh winced involuntarily—that voice was one he remembered. A scramble of soft footsteps as the two slid past each other, socks on smooth wood floors proving a challenge in their haste to obey. Within seconds, Luke came into view.

  His jaw dropped. He slid straight into the staircase, completely taken aback. A moment later, the familiar dreadlocks of the middle child, Mark, appeared—and here, finally, Josh got the reaction he expected.

  ”Where the hell have you been?” his brother snapped, obviously annoyed. 

  ”Long-ass story,” said Josh.

  ”Language, boys,” scolded Violet. “Let’s get out of the doorway and let your brother inside already.”

  They let him in, his father helping with a few of the packages. Luke’s excitement was already threatening to bubble over. “I knew you were alive!” he shouted, practically dancing in place. “You’re awakened right? Can you do magic?”

  ”He already did,” said Violet, gesturing at her still-steaming mug, which she seemed reluctant to touch. Josh grabbed it and handed it back to her. She smiled.

  ”Wow,” said Mark, and the venom in his tone wasn’t missed by anyone. Even Luke’s face fell. “You’re so cool.”

  ”Mark,” said Brandon in a warning tone, “keep a civil tongue.”

  Mark fell silent, but Josh could still see it, better than ever before—and damn, he looks like such a little kid now, trying to play at being threatening. He doesn’t have a clue what a real dangerous asshole looks like. Wonder why Mom and Dad are still letting this go on.

  ”We just sat down for lunch,” said Violet, brushing the last few tears out of her eyes. “Come in, please.”

  Yeah, I tried to time it for that, we always have lunch at the same time. Means we’ve got something to focus on besides me. Josh followed her in to find a veritable feast—and a place already set for him at the table. He froze again, overcome with emotion.

  ”I know it’s not as good as last year,” said Violet apologetically, not understanding Josh’s sudden freeze. Everyone else had moved past already to take their seats. “I’m never as good without you.”

  Yeah you are, you’re a professional and I learned my shit from you. Josh shook his head and took his seat at the table. “It looks amazing, Mom.”

  It was, too—Christmas ham centering a spread of all their favorites. Luke was already trying to pepper him with questions, but Brandon kept him occupied, letting Josh enjoy their mother’s cooking. After a while, though, it became pretty obvious they all wanted to ask him about where he’d been and what he’d been up to—all except for Mark, anyway.

  ”Mostly keeping my head down,” said Josh with a shrug. “I stayed in the Greywood almost the entire time. Had my own little cabin there. I just wanted to stay out of everything.”

  ”We read those diaries so many times,” said Violet. “Luke found them and saw your name,” she added, as Josh raised an eyebrow. Neither of his parents were very technologically-inclined.

  ”He had a lot of explaining to do about the site he found them on,” added Brandon sternly. Luke’s burst of pride diminished visibly.

  ”Everybody knows what’s been going on in my world,” said Josh wearily. “I’ve been living without electricity for almost four weeks, totally cut off. Tell me what’s going on out here.

  ”Well,” said Violet with a shrug, “honestly, there’s not much to tell. I’m trying to find a new client.”

  ”I thought your schedule was really full already,” said Josh.

  ”We lost the Rutherfords,” said Brandon with a sigh. “Last month, in fact.”

  Shit, that was her best client… “What about—”

  ”Please, let’s not talk about work today,” said Violet, passing around the dessert—chocolate mousse cake. “It’s Christmas. Let’s just be together as a family.”

  ”Yes,” said Brandon, smiling as he took his wife’s hand. “We’re glad you’re back home, Josh.”

  ”Thanks,” said Josh, infected by the warmth around him. His family had taken him back in, and except for a few speed bumps, it looked like a totally smooth road from there on. 

  Why the hell didn’t I come home sooner?

  The rest of the day sailed by in peace and joy, just like the good lord intended. Even Mark cheered up once the subject got away from Josh and where he’d been all year. Christmas went so well, in fact, that Josh ended up spending the night. He told Nikki it might happen, so she wouldn’t be surprised if he wasn’t back that night. Of course, by the next morning, it became clear—his parents were expecting him home for good. 

  ”You don’t have a school to go back to,” said Violet, folding clothes in his room while Josh lounged in his desk chair, wrapped in a warm blanket and enjoying finally having access to his music collection again. From Josh’s impression, she’d taken to folding clothes in his room as a habit now, and wasn’t about to break it just because he was back. “What else is there for you?”

  A white girlfriend I haven’t mentioned yet, a cult leader who considers me one of her best advisors, and the last vestiges of a job I never wanted but can’t stop doing. Josh shrugged. “I’ve still got friends there, Mom, and I’ve got a home, too.”

  ”Nonsense,” she scolded. “This is your home. You always come home to your mother.”

  ”I was never going to stay here forever, Mom,” said Josh, rolling his eyes.

  ”You will if I have anything to say about it,” she shot back, smiling. “Why don’t you go outside? Luke’s been waiting to play ball with you for seven months now.”

  ”Waiting to lose for seven months,” he shot back.

  ”You be careful, he’s getting good.” Violet waved him away. “Don’t go easy on him!”

  Josh wandered downstairs. His father was out in the backyard, working on a project already—he could never let anything go, same as Josh, and it looked like he’d started on a new addition to the shed only a few days ago. Couldn’t’ve waited til after Christmas, obviously. 

  Mark, meanwhile, was on the living room couch with earbuds in, and Josh could hear the pounding beat of the  music from all the way across the room. He shot a glare at Josh, before turning back to his phone screen, volume audibly inching higher. 

  Idiot. Josh flicked his hand, throwing a spell across the room—unplugging his earbuds, and holding down the volume button as he did.

  His brother’s eyes widened. “What the fuck, Josh?”

  Josh didn’t say anything, just walked out of the room suppressing a grin. Mark would plug them right back in, obviously, but he’d probably let the volume sit where it was without realizing Josh had turned it down. Just saving your hearing. You’ll thank me when you’re older. Or not, since you already hate my guts.

  He went outside, where his youngest brother was already dribbling around—and like his mother said, playing with skill. This wasn’t the fifteen year old Josh remembered. Luke had put real effort in.

  ”Ready to lose?” asked Josh casually, trying to exude confidence.

  Luke grinned and tossed him the ball. “No magic allowed.”

  ”Like I need magic to stomp your ass.”

  As it turned out, Josh nearly did. The game was close—way too close—but he narrowly picked up an early two basket lead and kept it there. He never managed to expand it though, as Luke kept pace with him every step of the way. They were both heaving for breath by the end, which made the sudden phone ringing by the base of the hoop even more startling.

  Nice to have phones again. Josh drained his water bottle and picked it up. Kendra. Shit. I forgot to tell them.

  ”Hey,” he answered, while Luke recovered on the curb next to him. “What’s up?”

  ”This is Lily,” she said, answering his unspoken question right off the bat. “I wished to check in, and ask if you were going to want transport back soon.”

  Josh glanced at his brother, and reluctance filled his every rushing blood vessel. I can’t go back now… but… if they need me, if Cinza starts going over the edge… “Will I be able to later, if I need to?”

  ”You wish to stay in Norwalk?”

  ”Yeah, I’m staying,” said Josh. Luke’s face lit up, and Josh knew right away he’d made the right choice. He shoved his brother good-naturedly. “I’ve got…” Josh trailed off awkwardly, but to his relief, Lily got it. 

  ”Kendra and I have elected to remain in London. Our family needs us, and I suspect you have much the same reasons for choosing not to return. I understand.”

  ”So you can still do it, if you need to?” asked Josh, while Luke looked on with more curiosity than ever. 

  ”If you require a way back to the Greywood, all you need is to ask.”

  ”Thanks, Lily.”

  ”Thank you, Josh.” She hung up. 

  ”Who’s Lily?” asked Luke, grinning. “She your girl?”

  ”Nope,” said Josh. Just a woman in London who doesn’t exist. He grabbed the ball and stood up. “Come on. Best of three.”

  Luke was on his feet in an instant. Shit… he’s not tired at all. It’s gonna be harder this time. “You’re on.”

 

 

***

 

 

  Of course, it was only a single day later that Josh’s unwanted responsibilities reared their head once more.

  He was in his room, listening to music, catching up on the world online, and just generally getting back into his old flow. The world hadn’t stopped turning during the blackout, after all—the courts were preparing to handle Brian Hendricks, Felix Wieczorek, and all the others captured back at the beginning of December. Beyond public information, he still had lines of contact to the sources he’d established before the blackout, including the Governor of Washington’s office, Senator Ashe in D.C., and of course the Laushires in London. Josh had all the sources he needed to stay informed.

  Even if Josh was staying home, he still planned to stay involved. His position had never exactly required him to be on the front lines anyway, but after the last few months—and the speech Cinza had given him back in September—Josh had trained his magic every day, as part of his workout routine. It was just another piece, like cardio or strength. 

  Just in case. 

  His involvement was supposed to stay in the background though, at his pace. Not like this, with yet another phone call. He was already to two calls in the two days since Christmas.

  ”Josh?”

  This time, Josh wasn’t sitting next to any of his family members. He swung the door shut with a spell before answering though, just in case. “So what’s it like working with the President?”

  ”I’ve only spoken to him a few times so far. Most of the time, I’m working with Wesley Gatiss or Ioannis Miklos.”

  ”So, just one step away from the President. Still,” said Josh, “I think we can say you made it, Rachel.”

  ”…Thank you, I guess.”

  ”How’d you even know to call me?”

  ”Kendra let me know you were back on the grid.”

  ”Ah.”

  ”I assumed you still wanted to stay in touch…”

  ”Yeah, Rachel, I’m still in this,” said Josh with a sigh. He leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. “Easier to stay global outside the Greywood anyway.”

  ”Are you working for Cinza?”

  ”Hell no. I’m not working for anyone.”

  ”Okay.”

  Rachel sounded oddly relieved. Josh frowned. Well, that’s something. Cinza practically worshipped Rachel. Guess it’s not mutual… or something else is lurking in their relationship. Gotta keep an eye on that. “So what’s up?”

  ”It’s been four weeks. I think we can assume Grey-eyes isn’t coming back.”

  ”Yeah.” Josh leaned forward and grabbed a handful of chips from the bag on his desk, munching away happily. There’s something I’ve been missing. Cinza’s garden was nice and all, but man, junk food is something special. “Guess that solves my fears.”

  ”I’m sorry?”

  ”Old arguments. They don’t matter anymore if nobody’s getting awakened.” Josh sat forward again. “Are you thinking we need a change of policy then?”

  ”Well, a lot of our original strategy centered around a growing population of awakened in the Northwest which would spread across the country. The legislation was all written with projected statistics modeled after the best growth estimates we had available. Obviously, all of those are useless now.”

  ”Obviously.” Josh scrolled down one of the pages on his screen, suddenly wishing he had the multi-monitor setup Cinza had provided him back in his cabin. Makes comparing stories and tracing sources a hell of a lot easier. “Does the DTA have an estimated awakened population yet?”

  ”…Somewhere between three and five thousand. It’s hard to say, since only Grey-eyes would know for sure, and nobody has the first clue how to get in touch with her, but those are our best estimates based on sampling and magical surveying.”

  Two hundred days between Rallsburg and December 1st… He did the math on his computer while Rachel spoke. “At least fifteen a day since Rallsburg.” Josh leaned back again. “And who knows how much effort that takes?”

  ”I have no idea.”

  ”Probably wasn’t nice and even, either,” muttered Josh. “No wonder she looked fucking exhausted.” He hesitated. “How’d you survey, anyway?”

  ”The stones.”

  Josh sat straight up in his chair, nearly knocking over his drink. “…Goddammit, Rachel,” he snapped. “You realize how much that’s gonna blow up if it gets out?”

  ”They’re just tools.”

  ”Tools created by one mass-murdering genocidal psychopath which fueled another mass-murdering genocidal psychopath’s insane crusade.” Josh shook his head, though of course, Rachel was on the other side of the country and couldn’t see him. “Study them if you have to, but don’t use them.”

  ”We took the necessary precautions to ensure their security and return. They’re in the first DTA lab in Seattle now.”

  ”This is the same as Courtney’s registry,” said Josh wearily. “If you guys create a database, it’s going to get out.”

  ”After consideration, we canceled that project.”

  ”Because Cinza and I shot you down,” he pointed out. “And Jeremy, and I heard the President wasn’t exactly happy either.”

  ”This was just to get a sampling. Statistics. No identification. Not even demographics.”

  ”There were better ways.” Josh sighed. “Fuck it, you already did it anyway. Let’s move on. What did you actually call me about?”

  ”We think the new year is the perfect time to start turning public opinion our way. The sympathetic victim angle’s gone thanks to the chaos Natalie created, but there’s something else we can still try.”

  ”Yeah, forcing thousands of people to leave their homes or live without electricity wasn’t exactly the best PR move for magic.” Josh snorted. “So what’s the new plan?”

  ”The original plan. Show people what magic can offer to the world.”

  ”So what, put on a show for the audience?” Josh heard the garage door open downstairs, and movement in the house. People were home. He didn’t exactly want to spend his whole day on the phone with Rachel, not when he had brothers and parents to reconnect with, friends to hang out with, a life to get back to. “Sounds pretty lackluster.”

  ”Not exactly, though I guess Cinza plans on doing something for New Year’s in the Greywood.”

  ”Yeah, I’ve seen them rehearsing.”

  ”Well, we’re going to announce new blue-ribbon panels starting next week to begin applying magic to existing projects. Energy, climate, pollution, recycling. Things where we could really jumpstart the world and recover lost ground.”

  ”Be careful about that,” said Josh.

  ”What do you mean?”

  ”Giving the awakened a savior complex. It’s bad enough already with Hailey, no matter how much good she’s doing.” He closed his eyes, trying to organize his thoughts properly. “We’re not superheroes, we’re still just normal people.”

  ”Not exactly.”

  ”Yes, exactly,” said Josh irritably. “The same flaws and faults, the same dreams and drives. Yeah, we lucked across something cool as fuck, but we’re all human, no matter what stupid Hailey soundbite they throw at us. If the world’s going to benefit, we need the space same as any other new discovery, to research and develop it properly, understand how it works, and then apply it successfully to real-world problems. It’s not a panacea.”

  ”So what we’re already doing… but slower.”

  ”Something like that,” said Josh, feeling distinct déjà vu from a conversation he’d had with Cinza not too long ago. “Just don’t make us out to be the heroes. That’ll just break us apart even further. We need to create unity, not impress them with how amazing and useful we are.”

  ”…I see.”

  Time to change the subject. She’s got everything she needs from that conversation, and it’s not like I need to belabor the point with Rachel. Her memory means she’s going to go over every single word a dozen times by the end of the day. “How’s D.C., anyway?” he asked.

  ”Very cold. Norwalk?”

  ”After that damn forest? It’s summer here.”

  Rachel laughed. “Your family?”

  ”Well, after freaking them out a bit, they’re just happy I’m home. So am I.”

  ”Me too. I’m glad you went home.”

  He snorted. “So you could finally call me again, right?”

  ”I’m not going to deny that was part of it.”

  ”Kendra’s gotta find a better way to communicate than your relationship trick.”

  ”We’re working on it.” Rachel paused. “About Rika…”

  Another voice piped up in the background, a harsh feminine voice he didn’t recognize. “Hey Rachel, the men in black are here.”

  Rachel sighed. “I’ve got to go. Let’s talk again soon.”

  ”Sure.”

  Josh hung up, cleared out his screen, and turned on some highlight reels of the season. He needed to empty his mind, relax, refresh, recharge. Sure, he’d gotten a normal amount of sleep most nights—nightmares notwithstanding—but there was a general sense of exhaustion that finally surfaced once he got home. 

  Now that he wasn’t in the thick of it, an immense weariness had settled on him, like a heavy blanket he couldn’t quite shrug off. He could still move, do pretty much anything he wanted, but it kept pressing him down, encouraging him to just stop trying and stop, be comfortable, let the rest of the world keep going around him.

  Except, sitting on the couch the next morning with his family, watching the news—his little brothers nowhere to be found, of course—Josh was reminded yet again why he wouldn’t stop. There was an addicting feeling to influence, to seeing his effect on the world stage from the sidelines, and the news gave him yet another dose of endorphins that very next day.

  ”…pleased to announce the development of a new Thaumaturgical Research Center in Seattle. This center will be the focus of magical research and development in the coming months and years to come. 

  ”The world has been graced with a new kind of power, and though many of us might never experience it firsthand, we are nonetheless poised to benefit from its potency. We will be working with the awakened population here in Washington State to understand how magic works and apply it successfully to real world problems.”

  Stafford paused, and his smile vanished as his tone dropped. “However, I want to remind the nation that the awakened are human, just like me and you. Magic is not the panacea we might have imagined, but it does carry the potential for greatness. In America, our greatest accomplishments have come about when we fostered an environment for ideas to grow and flourish, for new technologies to be explored and developed, and for science to work its magic.”

  The President smiled. “I’d like to thank Secretary Gatiss and Rachel DuValle for their hard work establishing this new initiative, and I think I express the hopes of all Americans and many more around the globe for your success in this great mission.”

  Applause rumbled through the crowd, and the handshakes began. Josh nearly laughed aloud at Rachel on the screen, towering over both the President and Secretary Gatiss, shaking their hands, filling the screen on international television as the new face of the magical science movement—a group facing its own growing discontentment among Cinza’s followers.

  If Cinza doesn’t stamp that out soon… we’re gonna start fighting with each other again. We lost our enemy, and people are still angry. They’re going to want a new one.

  ”You know her, don’t you?” asked Violet, glancing at her son.

  Josh shrugged. “Yeah.” His parents exchanged a look, but neither spoke another word. Josh sighed. “This is gonna get really awkward if you don’t just ask me what’s up.”

  ”…I overheard you yesterday on the phone,” said Violet slowly. “I was putting away Luke’s laundry. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I didn’t think it was private…” She glanced at the TV again. “Stafford’s speech sounded just like what you said yesterday.”

  He nodded. “Yeah.”

  ”Son, that’s the President of the United States,” said Brandon, as if Josh somehow didn’t know. “That’s…”

  ”I think I’m gonna try to sign up for classes,” said Josh, desperate to change the subject. “I got into Whittier.”

  ”…How?” asked Violet. “Weren’t you… umm…”

  ”Considered dead until like a month ago, yeah.” Josh shrugged. “Their due date for applications was a couple weeks ago. I got it through in time.” He stood up, stretching his arms and trying to slow down his pounding heart—a useful skill he’d picked up over the years, helping him stay calm when his body was in full flight mode. “I’m gonna go get some breakfast.”

  His parents didn’t say a word as he left. Josh was relieved—if he was being honest, the idea that the President had just echoed his words back at him from an internationally-viewed broadcast was both thrilling and seriously unsettling. He hadn’t expected Rachel to be on screen, nor that she already seemed to have such significant influence within the political sphere.

  Well… that could end badly. 

 

 

***

 

 

  On New Year’s Eve, three days later, Josh was once again lounging in his chair at home. He really loved his desk chair—if he ever did go back to the Greywood, it was absolutely coming with him. On the screen was his account with Whittier College, still picking classes to take again. He still hadn’t decided if he wanted to enter as a transfer student or not.

  If he did… well, it wasn’t like his status as one of the awakened was totally unknown. He didn’t exactly get a flattering profile from Cinza in the book—Cinza didn’t make much of his contributions, and Josh didn’t blame her. Until Rallsburg fell, his role on the council was behind the scenes by design. He’d never wanted the attention anyway. 

  Still, he was in it, and a Councilor to boot. A Joshua Miller from Norwalk wasn’t particularly notable, but a Joshua Miller who had attended Rallsburg University until May 2018… that was a goddamn celebrity.

  Lose three years of credits toward my bachelor’s in business, or announce to the school staff I’m awakened and a veteran of all that crap. Why the hell did I want to go back to school, anyway?

  He knew why. Josh wanted the legitimacy of it, the normalcy. He needed a balance—he sure as hell wasn’t giving up magic, but at the same time, Josh wanted to bring back the normal parts of his life again. They’d been gone for so long, lost in a sea of cult politics and life-or-death situations. 

  Besides, I already asked Kendra and Lily for the tuition money, and they both seemed so happy I was continuing my education. I’d feel like such an asshole if I didn’t go through with it.

  So Josh had picked Whittier, a school close enough for him to stay home with his parents, and small enough to fit the small-school style he’d preferred—one of the reasons he’d ended up at Rallsburg in the first place. It wasn’t exactly the best school for his degree, but it was something

  Reluctantly, Josh closed the transfer form. He’d start over, work toward an Economics degree instead of Business. If he really wanted, he could always get his credits later. For now, even the faculty knowing his history was too much. Josh wanted to go unnoticed again, just another guy in the school, nothing special about him. 

  That they know of. He pulled out his phone—it was time to exercise one of those precious connections he’d built up over the years. “Lily?”

  ”Hello, Josh. Are you prepared?”

  ”Just for the night. Then I’m coming back.” He paused. “Thanks again for doing this.”

  ”It’s not a problem.”

  ”It’s gotta be exhausting, isn’t it?”

  ”It is far worse without Grey-eyes’ assistance. If we do not attempt it often, the strain is manageable. This is why it must remain secret.” Lily paused. “Have you informed your parents?”

  ”Not exactly. Just that I’d be out of town for New Years.”

  ”I see.”

  Josh picked up his backpack and strapped it on. “All right. I’m good.”

  A wooden door was in his bedroom wall. Josh walked through—and now, with Nikki’s words vaguely ringing in his ears, he did feel some vertigo at the black void around the cobblestone path. Nothing had changed, but there it was. Thanks Nikki.

  Lily was inside this time, standing near another open door. “Does the door you pick matter?” asked Josh, curious.

  ”Yes, but in another sense, no,” said Lily with a shrug. “I do not wish to explain it further than absolutely necessary.”

  There’s that Rallsburg paranoia. Josh nodded. “It’s cool, I was just curious.” He glanced out the door, where his cabin waited. “Are you coming as well?”

  ”We want to see the ceremony, and perhaps see if I can find news on Natalie.” Lily gestured for him to continue. “I assume you’d rather we not both emerge from your cabin.”

  He snorted. “Now that would get people talking.”

  Lily smiled. “Where did you tell them you would be?”

  ”Took Hoskins’ offer to go into town for Christmas. He and Nikki are the only two who know where I really went.”

  She nodded. “Well, I will see you later.”

  ”Take care, Lily.”

  Josh stepped through, and the door disappeared behind him. Inside, he found Nikki lying in their bed, half-covered and half-clothed. The warmth from the little box in the corner slowly diminished every few minutes. Josh reached out with magic and refilled it, making sure their cabin would be nice and cozy that night. 

  He sat down on the edge of the bed and ran a hand along Nikki’s arm. She mumbled in her sleep, twisting toward him.

  ”Hey, Nikki,” said Josh.

  Her eyes fluttered open. “Hey you,” she mumbled. “Is it New Years already?”

  ”Eve, yeah,” said Josh. “How are you doing?”

  ”Good day,” she said, smiling. Her hand grabbed at his arm and pulled him down. “Get over here.”

  Some time later, the two of them emerged from the cabin, wrapped up in jackets and scarves. The Greywood never reached freezing like the rest of the forest could, but especially coming from California, Josh felt like he might as well have stepped into a block of ice.

  ”How was it?” asked Nikki, sticking close to him as they headed for Cinza’s cabin. 

  ”I got everything you wanted,” said Josh.

  She rolled her eyes. “Thanks, but I meant your family.”

  ”They’re good.” Josh hesitated. “Let’s talk about it tomorrow, okay?”

  Nikki nodded. “Sure.”

  Cinza’s door loomed before them. Ruby’s engravings were complete, but the girl never stopped adding to the design of the whole structure. With the door complete, she had begun adding flourishes everywhere else, even learning to shape metal to add new textures to their windows. They’d added a new room as well, a loft above the main area with a retractable step ladder that released by a simple trigger—no hanging pull-strings needed when one could flick a switch with magic from a distance.

  Josh knocked on the door.

  ”Come in!” called Cinza’s echoing voice.

  A crackling fire greeted them—burning forever on the same pile of logs, through another trick of nature magic which replenished the wood fibers even as they combusted. It took energy to maintain, but not as much as one might expect. The ever-burning fires had been Cinza’s first idea for a permanent solution to heating after the blackout, but Makoto and Rufus had come up with the portable heat boxes as a more practical solution a few days later. 

  More controllable, and no risk of setting off forest fires everywhere. Since then, they’d distributed a few dozen to the camp, to replace the now-useless space heaters most had brought. Can’t believe Kendra and Lily finally gave up their monopoly on enchanting objects. Still not to Jackson-levels of anybody-can-use-it, but it’s a huge advancement.

  ”Hello, Josh,” said Cinza warmly. She and Ruby were curled up in a blanket near the fire, while Makoto sat a few paces away on the rug. “Welcome home. Your absence was felt.”

  …Well, shit. I definitely have to tell them. Tomorrow, though. “Couldn’t miss your big show,” said Josh. 

  They each took one of the comfy armchairs across from the pair in their single wide one—Cinza and Ruby had improved them as well, and the chairs were both remarkably supportive and incredibly soft. Scratch my chair at home, I want one of these.

  ”Did you get to read the speech on Friday?”

  ”Someone brought me a transcript,” said Cinza. “I’m told Rachel was there?”

  ”Yeah.” Josh shrugged. “Moving up in the world.”

  She nodded. “As she should. Their initiative will hopefully do us all a great service.”

  Huh, guess they’re still on the same side after all. “You said Stafford couldn’t be trusted.”

  Cinza shook her head. “I said Stafford was not to be trusted with our affairs. An important distinction.”

  ”Well, we’ve got to do something now that Grey-eyes is gone.”

  Immediately, Ruby stiffened. Makoto’s eyes flashed. The whole cabin seemed to get a few degrees hotter.

  Cinza frowned. “Why do you say that?”

  ”It’s been four weeks. We’ve heard of at least nine deaths now, and I’m sure there’s more we don’t know about.” Josh shook his head. “I know you don’t want to accept it, but if Grey-eyes were coming back, she’d have done it already. We have to start working from that assumption.”

  ”I couldn’t find her,” murmured Nikki.

  Everyone in the room turned to her, sitting next to Josh with her eyes closed.

  ”Nikki, you good?” he asked.

  She nodded. “Yeah, no headache today. I was just…” Her eyes opened. Nikki was obviously a little upset. “I tried to scry her. I didn’t get anything.”

  ”If Grey-eyes doesn’t wish to be found, I have no doubt she knows many ways to defeat scrying,” said Cinza dismissively.

  ”Yeah, but she never used them ’til now.”

  ”You scried her before?” asked Josh.

  Nikki nodded again. “I wanted to see if it’d work. She came to ask me why I did the first time I tried, and I just said I was experimenting, learning how to use it properly. She said that was okay, then left again. Sometimes, I felt her in the craziest places, too.” 

  ”Which you should not reveal,” said Cinza pointedly.

  ”Never,” said Nikki firmly. “Since Natalie’s ritual, though, I haven’t felt her once. I can find her essence, so it’s not gone, but… I can’t find her.”

  ”Essences don’t disappear when you’re dead though,” Josh pointed out. “I found Morton’s essence just fine.” And nearly died trying. Never doing that again.

  Another sharp reaction from Cinza’s companions. “She’s not dead,” snapped Ruby.

  Cinza laid a hand on her partner. “No, my love, and I don’t believe that’s what Josh intended.”

  Josh nodded. “I’m sure she’s just fine. But we have to assume she’s not awakening anybody anymore. The last death report was yesterday.”

  Her eyes softened. “Who was it?” asked Cinza gently, her tone full of sympathy.

  ”Seventeen year old kid in Montana. Somebody had a Scrap way out there, in safekeeping until they heard she was back,” said Josh, dredging up the details from the story he’d read that morning. “A bunch of kids broke into the safe, passed it around, dared him to read it, and…” Josh snapped his fingers. “He was gone.”

  Cinza shook her head. “A terrible tragedy.”

  ”A preventable tragedy,” Josh shot back, his temper rising a bit. “If she’s still around, she could have stopped it.”

  ”I do not pretend to know the thought processes of deities,” said Cinza. “I owe her my life, as do you and everyone in this forest. Without her, I would be nothing. I would be less than nothing. If she has decided humanity has reached its limit of awakened, I accept and will trust in that decision.”

  Sometimes I really hate talking to her. Josh might have kept going, except that Nikki touched his hand. He glanced at her. “You okay?”

  ”Yeah,” said Nikki. “I just…” She glanced at the door. “Yusuf’s coming.”

  In the last month or so, Nikki had started to become more aware of everyone in the Greycloaks, plus Josh. She knew where most of them were at any given time. It had started after the attack by Brian’s people, wanting to keep track of everybody she cared about, and had shifted into a frequent practice, until Nikki had developed it to a constant perception.

  I still haven’t decided if it’s invasive or endearing. We all told her it was fine, though, so I guess I’ll go with endearing. 

  Sure enough, Yusuf knocked on the door a moment later.

  ”Come in, Yusuf!” Cinza called.

  The door swung wide, and Yusuf’s surprised face greeted them. As soon as he saw Nikki, he smiled.

  ”Ah. I was not to understand you were meeting now.”

  Cinza smiled. “Your presence is always welcome. Would you like to join us?”

  ”Actually,” said Yusuf, “I was asked to deliver the messages to you. Captain Hoskins wants to have talked with one or both of you.”

  Cinza glanced at Josh. “I’ve still many preparations for tonight. Are you able—”

  Josh sighed. “Yeah, I can do it.”

  ”Are you certain? I’d be happy to hear whatever the Captain needs.”

  ”Nah, I want to see him. I’m going to miss Xavier, he’s a good guy.”

  The whole room seemed to take a breath. Josh realized what he’d just said. Shit.

  ”…Josh?” asked Nikki, grasping his hand.

  ”…Are we to understand you’re not planning to stay?” asked Cinza tentatively.

  Josh sighed. Fuck it, might as well get it over with. Nikki’s gonna hate me. “I don’t think so. I can do a lot for us from the outside, with internet access and phones and shit. Plus, I just… I really need to get out of here.”

  Cinza nodded. “This isn’t your place.”

  ”Well damn,” said Josh, rolling his eyes, “don’t hold back, Cinza.”

  She smiled. “You are always welcome, and we will maintain your cabin as long as you desire in honor of your contributions, but we’ve all known this day would come sooner or later. You aren’t a member of our family, and it’s always grated at you.”

  ”Well… yeah,” said Josh, nodding. Nikki was uncomfortably quiet, but she hadn’t let go of his hand yet, which he took as a good sign. Damn, when did I get so attached to her? I mean, I do like her, but… huh. Is this something more than a good friend and great sex? “I’m sure you’ll see me again.”

  ”I suspect you’ll be one of the very first we communicate with, once we design a new method.”

  Josh grinned. “Looking forward to it.”

  ”Now I think you had better leave,” she added, nodding at Nikki. “You two have a lot to discuss.”

  ”…Right. See you tonight, then” 

  Josh stood up, and Nikki stood as well, following him out in a half-daze. Yusuf sat down in the chair he’d vacated, and Cinza had soon struck up a fresh conversation about preparations for that night. As Nikki and Josh crossed the field, he realized she was leading him toward the exit from the Greywood, not back toward their cabin.

  ”You’re coming?” he asked, surprised. As far as he knew, Nikki hadn’t left the Greywood since… well, since they came back in May, after the rest of the Rallsburg remnant scattered to the winds. “I mean, if you want—”

  ”I’m coming,” said Nikki determinedly.

  They walked out in silence, Josh carefully opening and closing the locks as they went, making sure the Greywood remained secure. They hadn’t yet had to deal with any sort of magical assault, of course… but there was no telling what might come next. Cinza wasn’t about to leave her home to chance. It wasn’t until they’d gotten almost halfway to the pilgrim camp—Josh gently warming the air nearby as they hiked through the forest—that Nikki finally spoke up.

  ”You asshole!” she snapped. 

  Josh sighed. “I was going to talk to you first.”

  ”So you bring it up in front of Cinza and Ruby and Makoto first, huh?”

  ”That was an accident,” he said, shrugging.

  ”You already decided!” snapped Nikki. “So what, were you even gonna tell your girlfriend you were moving out?”

  ”I hadn’t—”

  ”Bullshit!” Nikki stopped walking, leaning against a nearby tree to catch her breath. “You know I can tell when you’re lying, right?”

  A ping of concern danced through his head. Nikki did know how to cast that spell—she’d worked it out with help from Rachel now that they were in contact again, who could remember the sensations of magic in the air from when Mabel used to cast the same spell. Josh frowned. “Thought you said—”

  ”No, I’m not using magic on you, asshole. I told you I wouldn’t. I’ve just been sleeping with you for the last few months.”

  He sighed again. “I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to spring it on you. It just… came out.”

  Nikki started to calm down again. “…Yeah, I know. I’m sorry too.”

  ”I wanted to talk to you tomorrow, after the big show.”

  ”This is gonna throw me off so much tonight.”

  ”You’re doing it?” he asked, trying to lift the mood a bit.

  ”Yeah,” said Nikki, smiling slightly. “I’ve been practicing with them. It’s not a big part, but I’m gonna be in it.”

  ”Congrats.”

  ”Yeah, you’d fucking hate it, I know.”

  Josh shook his head. “No shit I would, but this is your family. It’s a big deal.”

  ”…Thanks,” said Nikki. Her expression softened. “And it’s yours, too. Back in California.”

  ”Yeah.” Josh sighed. “If you want…”

  She was already shaking her head before he voiced the thought. “Maybe to visit, but this is my home. I’m staying.”

  Neither of them spoke for a while, letting the sounds of the winter forest around them fill the air, the birds of winter chirping away as the wind whistled through the leaves. If Josh were being honest, he would miss this—the peaceful quiet of the forest, where his mind could really just settle down and think. At the same time, though, he missed the rush of the world, the crowds, the excitement.

  As long as he wasn’t a part of the excitement, obviously.

  ”So do we…” Josh started, but trailed off.

  Nikki shook her head. “Not yet. It’s just me and you, and after the show tonight, you’d damn well better be in my bed.”

  Josh put a hand on the small of her back and pulled her close. “You know it.”

  A twig snapped nearby. They both jumped, breaking the mood in an instant.

  ”Err…” started a voice nearby. “I don’t mean to intrude…”

  Josh whipped around, alert on his feet in an instant. Nikki, too, seemed ready to fight at a moment’s notice. To their relief, though, it was just Captain Hoskins, unaccompanied, carrying a portable heater someone must have powered for him.

  ”You were gonna wait until we started fucking right here, weren’t you?” asked Josh.

  Hoskins coughed politely. “I would have said something long before then.”

  ”You wanted to see him,” said Nikki, brushing hair out of her face and desperately trying to catch her breath. “Here he is.”

  ”I can see that,” said Hoskins pointedly. “How was California?”

  ”Nice and warm,” said Josh, smirking. “Looks like you solved that problem though. Nice toy.”

  ”Yes, Private Deeks managed to win this off someone in a game of cards.” Hoskins shrugged. “Naturally, I had to confiscate it, since our regs currently state no soldier is permitted to have unauthorized magical artifacts in their possession.”

  ”Bet that stung.”

  ”Anyway,” said Hoskins, clearing his throat. “I wanted to inform you and Cinza that the Guard plans to significantly diminish our presence here.”

  Josh sighed. He stepped away from Nikki. This was going to be a serious conversation and not a friendly chat after all. “What’s the timeline?”

  ”Once the winter clears up. We’ve already moved most of our nonessential equipment, and those with Christmas plans already left on the 14th, but the Governor authorized the rest of us to stay on through the winter to ensure the camp’s stability during the harshest months.”

  ”It doesn’t get that cold here,” said Nikki. “And we’ve got magic.”

  Hoskins shrugged. “They’re working off models that don’t include magic, for obvious reasons. All of the men still stationed here don’t have any particular desire to leave anyway, but we do need to go home sooner or later.”

  ”Well, it was always gonna happen eventually,” said Josh with a shrug. “We’ve appreciated everything you’ve done for us, Captain,” he said formally.

  Hoskins nodded. “Thank you. Don’t worry though, I’ve no plans to leave quite yet. You’ll be notified well in advance whenever we do.”

  Nikki shot Josh a pointed look. 

  He sighed. “…About that.”

 

 

***

 

 

  ”Fuck,” gasped Josh as he fell back against the bed. 

  Nikki lay down next to him, panting, with a wide smirk on her face. She danced her fingers up his chest to the stubble on his face. “Yeah.”

  He turned in the bed, looking for the clocktower that stood in the center of the Greywood—a replica of the one down in the pilgrim camp. Ruby had constructed both, and with a little help from Yusuf and Rufus, created the timekeeping enchantment which now kept perfect time for both of the magical encampments in the forest.

  ”Jesus, it’s five in the morning?” he muttered.

  Nikki giggled. “I really missed you.”

  They’d been at the New Years party after the show for a couple hours. It was all great fun, but as soon as Josh and Nikki noticed Zoë Portman and Melody Savana practically dragging each other back to their tent, they knew it was time to do the same. It was all Josh could do to actually make it back to the Greywood.

  ”So…” said Nikki, still tracing circles on his skin, wrapped up pleasantly against his side. “What are you thinking about?”

  ”I don’t have any brain cells left for thinking,” muttered Josh.

  ”Uh-huh.” Nikki giggled again. “But seriously?”

  That I really don’t want to kill the mood, but I hate lying to you. “That I still need to go home.”

  ”…Yeah, I know,” said Nikki quietly. She snuggled up tighter around his body. “I’m okay with that now.”

  ”You are?”

  ”It’s not like you’re going away forever. Besides, we’ve got a secret portal.”

  ”It’s not that simple, you know,” Josh pointed out. “Making those isn’t easy.

  ”You’ll be back. I just gave you a great reason to come back.” Nikki giggled again, obviously still high on the rush of endorphins. “And once Kendra works out how we can talk to each other, it’ll get easier. In the meantime… hey, write a letter or two.”

  ”A letter?” snorted Josh. “Am I in a fucking chick flick now?”

  ”I’d watch it.” Nikki smirked. “Write me once a week. It won’t kill you.”

  Fuck, I don’t want to leave her yet. She’s gotta get out of here for once, and hey, I’ve got a way out.  “…You want to come visit?” asked Josh, throwing caution to the winds. “Nothing’s gonna happen for a while, and I won’t be starting school for a week.”

  ”Shit, you’re actually going back to school?” Nikki laughed. “The hell do we need school for anymore?”

  ”I’ve still got a degree to finish,” Josh shot back. “It matters.”

  ”Okay, okay,” said Nikki, still grinning. “You sure, though?”

  Not even a little bit. My parents are gonna have some words about me and you. “That thing’s gonna run out today anyway,” he added, glancing at the portable heater, “and fuck if I’m awake enough to refill it.”

  ”So we just call up Kendra for a ride in the middle of the night, huh?”

  ”It’s one PM in London,” said Josh. “Perfect time.” He concentrated, and soon enough, he found the connection with Lily. A quick tug, and within a minute, there was a door in the wall of their bedroom. Without warning, it swung open.

  Nikki promptly sneezed. She giggled. Lily had immediately averted her eyes at the sight of them. Without Nikki’s allergy, he wouldn’t have had a clue which she was—they were perfectly identical, as their magic had created.

  ”…Sorry,” muttered Josh.

  ”Please open the door whenever you are ready,” said Lily, still pointedly looking away. She retreated inside and closed the door again, but it remained in place rather than disappearing as it usually did.

  ”Won’t Cinza wonder where we are?” asked Nikki as she put on her bra.

  ”I told her we’d be busy the next few days,” said Josh, grinning. “Didn’t say with what, though.”

  Nikki giggled. “I’ll bet she got the message.”

  They dressed. Nikki packed a bag with a few things, and soon enough, they both walked in. Nikki stared uneasily at the edges of the cobblestone path, but she didn’t seem to have any of the vertigo she feared. Nonetheless, she clung to Josh’s hand as they walked through.

  ”Back to your room, I suppose?” asked Lily, standing a fair distance away from the sniffling Nikki. 

  ”Yes,” said Josh. “Thank you for this.”

  Lily shot him a look—which Nikki missed, to his relief, as she was starting to fall asleep on his arm—which was a clear reminder not to use their power frivolously. He nodded, and her disapproving glare relented. She led them to the correct door, and it swung open as they approached. Soon enough, Josh and Nikki collapsed into his bed, and the door in his wall was gone.

  ”You’ve got a nice bed,” she murmured, stretching out under the covers. “I’m sure we’ll make good… use of…”

  Nikki had already drifted off. Josh might have done the same, except that his phone had a missed call from an unknown number, and from only a few minutes prior. 

  Nobody can call this number. Nobody knows this number. We’ve got Cinza’s blocking shit from Tezofarl. Their code is supposed to be foolproof, and I’ve never gotten a single call I didn’t want. So who the fuck is this? 

  Quietly—so as not to wake his parents or his brothers, he had no doubts Nikki would sleep through anything at this point—he called back. 

  ”Hello?”

  ”…Josh, right?”

  Josh was wide awake immediately. He sighed with relief. “Hailey?”

  Her voice was a bit scratchy from the bad connection, but it was still audibly her. “Yeah. Sorry I haven’t called, I didn’t have your number on my new phone. Finally got it from Alden, who got it from… well, that’s a long story.”

  ”Where are you, anyway?”

  ”Georgia.”

  ”…Georgia?”

  ”Yeah.” A loud whistling sound in the background. “They just announced new weather predictions. You probably didn’t see them yet… wait, why are you up so early anyway?”

  ”You called me like twenty minutes ago.

  ”Well yeah, but then I remembered you were probably out late last night, so I hung up right away.” Hailey laughed. “Guess I was wrong?”

  ”…I haven’t gone to sleep yet.”

  ”…Holy crap. What kind of parties were you at?”

  Josh laughed, and hurriedly stifled himself. “What are you doing in Georgia?”

  ”There’s a huge winter storm coming. They keep thinking it’s gonna get worse like every hour. I figure this is probably the best place for me right now.”

  ”…Huh. Makes sense, I guess.” He glanced at the screen, as if the story he’d read the day before would still be there. It jogged his memory either way. “I heard about that building fire you put out. Felt like old times, huh?”

  ”Something like that,” said Hailey.

  ”Oh god… I’m sorry,” said Josh. “I didn’t mean to—”

  ”It’s fine,” she said, and her patient tone made it clear she was telling the truth. “Jessica wouldn’t want me to mope about it. Don’t feel like you have to tiptoe around anything around me. It was a pretty rough fire though. Barely got everybody out okay.”

  ”They got a photo of you, too,” said Josh. “Still looking great, Hales.”

  ”Thanks,” said Hailey, and Josh could practically hear her smile through the phone. “Kinda sucks that the cops still gotta try to arrest me though. They look the other way til I’m done, then tell me to leave if there’s no cameras around, or make a big show of it if there are. I mean, I knew it’d be like that, but… ugh.”

  ”We’re still working on that,” said Josh. “I got in touch with Jefferson Baux by email a couple days ago. He’s hopeful.”

  ”Cool.” A huge gust of wind blasted the phone microphone. Josh pulled it away from his ear until it subsided. “Sorry, had to take a weird dive. You still there?”

  ”Still here.” Josh glanced at Nikki, asleep on the bed beside him, and felt his own exhaustion mounting. “So you’re good, then?”

  ”…Yeah,” said Hailey, and Josh felt every little bit of contentment in her voice as she did. “I’m good. I’m doing what I always wanted to do, and now I’m doing it right. I’m okay.”

  I’m jealous as all hell. Wish I had my life figured out like that. “Glad to hear it.”

  ”Wow, what am I doing? You’ve been awake since last night. Go to sleep!”

  Josh laughed. “Okay, fine.” He started to take off his clothes, but kept the phone to his ear. “Listen, I’m gonna be out of the ritual zone for a while. Call me anytime.”

  ”…Got it,” said Hailey. Josh was taken aback by how few questions she asked. He was so used to everyone being curious, everyone wanting all the answers—Hailey simply took him at face value without another word. “Now go to sleep!”

  ”Night, Hales. Good luck out there.”

  Josh plugged in his phone and finished undressing. He pulled the covers tight around himself and Nikki, only briefly wondering if his family would break the age-old family taboo against opening anyone’s bedroom door before they’d walked out in the morning. None of those worries stuck around long. Instead, Josh’s brain was stuck on a single thought—how the hell can I be like her?

  He wanted the sort of peace Hailey Winscombe had found. She’d been through hell—a worse hell than Josh had ever known—but she’d ended up one of the most calm and put-together people he knew. She seemed genuinely happy these days, even if she was an internationally wanted fugitive always on the move with no real home to go back to. 

  As Josh drifted off to sleep, wrapped up tight in bed with his girlfriend, visions of the world flashed through his mind. He’d tried to imagine so many ways the magical community might develop, but forecasting wasn’t his strong suit—ironic for a business major, to his bitter amusement. Still, at the end of the day, he’d found himself in one of the most influential positions in the world, with the ear of nearly every major player on the board, either directly or only a few steps away.

  And I’m just a black kid in Norwalk who’s worried about his parents finding out about the white girl in his bed. How the fuck did I end up here?

  He hated the job, but nobody else could do it. It fell to him. No matter how he had landed his position, Joshua Miller made up his mind in the early hours of twenty-nineteen: he’d do his best to help the world to a better place…  so long as he stayed as far away from the spotlight as he could get.

Dissension — Chapter 1
Dissension — Chapter 3

2 thoughts on “Dissension — Chapter 2

  1. welcome to the second perspective of Book 3! Josh is someone who’s been lurking around the shadows for the whole story, never quite in the spotlight but never off-screen either… despite what he’d prefer.

    thanks to everybody who’s been commenting, and welcome to the people who’ve caught up recently! glad to have you 💙

Leave a Comment!