Interlude XIII

Dissension — Chapter 5

Interlude XIII — Until the End of Eternity

  ”Thank you all for being here. Happy New Year.”

  The cheers echoed across the vast meadow. It seemed like every single person in the camp, awakened or mundane, had erupted into applause. Cinza took a short bow. 

  On her mark, Ruby threw everything she had left into one final burst. As the firework shot into the sky, she added lights and trails to its wake, creating an effect unseen by any pyrotechnician before or since. She held tight to the fuse at an inch away from the pouch of gunpowder, watching the clock tower Rufus maintained every day.

  The moment it struck midnight, Ruby lit off the firework. 

  Perfect.

  Panting from the exertion of the entire show, she hurried forward to join her love in the center of the meadow. Cinza was just stepping off the platform when Ruby barreled into her, throwing her arms tight around the shorter girl and twirling her around the meadow.

  ”It was perfect, every moment,” said Ruby, still dancing Cinza through the meadow as the rest of the camp transitioned into a party. The other Greycloaks were filtering into the camp, except for Makoto, who hung back by the treeline watching from afar. “You were brilliant.”

  ”I did nothing,” murmured Cinza, though her arms didn’t loose for a moment around Ruby’s sides, clinging to her back as Ruby practically carried her through the soft grass. “You and the others made the show. I only played my small part at the end. This was your triumph.”

  ”You directed us,” said Ruby. She kissed Cinza on the forehead. “Take your well-deserved credit. You earned this.”

  ”I get all the credit when you deserve the lion’s share,” Cinza sighed. She hugged Ruby tighter as they slowed to a stop, a secluded part of the meadow where they could no longer be seen by the camp. “You’re reward enough for me.”

  Ruby giggled. “Come on, we should go. Everybody’s celebrating.”

  ”Must we?” murmured Cinza.

  She nodded. “Everyone just heard your message. Now you have to actually go meet them. The world knows you from afar. Let them begin to know the true face behind the movement.”

  ”No one knows my true face,” said Cinza.

  Ruby smiled. “Then let them see the face I know, because it’s already perfect.” 

  She grabbed Cinza’s hand and pulled her back across the meadow. Cinza followed reluctantly, but by the time they’d gotten halfway to the camp, she’d lifted her head high. Her stride was confident and sure, her expression benevolent and wise. Cinza put on the face they knew, the noble leader of the new world.

  Ruby fell back a little as Cinza walked into the camp. She wanted to watch and let Cinza enjoy the praise of her people. The other Greycloaks stood out in the crowd by merit of their namesake, but they weren’t treated as particularly special anymore by the pilgrims. They mingled as one with the rest of the new world, as Cinza had wanted.

  However, no matter how much she secretly wished otherwise, Cinza could never melt into a crowd. Within moments, she was surrounded by a clamoring mob, each scrambling over the other to ask her questions, offer praise and thanks, or simply to be in her presence.

  Ruby couldn’t fault them on the last one. Being near Cinza was intoxicating. She gave off a vibe of true power, where simply by standing nearby, one might somehow be blessed by her spirit. Ruby often wondered if Cinza had found some measure of the power their goddess held, with how they both seemed to project the same air of cool competence and selfless compassion.

  And even more similarities than that, Ruby sighed. Cinza also held much of the same melancholy as the goddess, though she kept it as secret as she could from the public. Ruby’s love was not fond of her position or the sacrifices it required of her. Cinza’s only goal was to protect her family, and to welcome the new world with open arms. No matter what the world thought, Cinza stood ready to shield them from the onslaught, regardless of the cost.

  Ruby loved her even more for it. Though she hated how Cinza had suffered, Ruby admired her absolute willingness for self-sacrifice. She only wished she had such a capability.

  I want to be like her. I don’t know how to be, but she’s who I want to be like.

  Ruby knew she was younger than everyone, possibly every awakened in the world besides Natalie. A taboo had circled through all the Scrap-sellers about awakening someone under eighteen, given the permanence of the choice and how little science understood of its potential side effects. Given how publicly cruel life had been for the two underage awakened so far, the more superstitious chalked it up to fate.

  Ruby didn’t believe in fate, but many of the awakened did. Legends sprang up about the curse of the Knowledge affinity, or that those with Creation magic were forever marked as dangerous and unstable. Further still were the legends about the Olympic forest, which at least kept most from wandering the woods at random in the winter. Then, of course, the many superstitions and rumors about the Three Gods and the Eight.

  Ludicrous, of course, all of it. It wasn’t because Ruby and Natalie were under eighteen that terrible things happened to them, it was the fathers they happened to be born from. Ruby related to the younger girl in so many ways. She wished they’d been able to talk more. She might have seen Natalie like a little sister, had events unfolded differently. Their last conversation, a quiet morning phone call with Natalie whispering while her boyfriend slept only a few feet away, had been stuck in Ruby’s mind for a month.

  Could I have done something more? Could Cinza?

  She’d left Natalie with Cinza. By the time she came back with Nikki, Natalie had fled the Greywood. Ruby had no idea what happened. Cinza wouldn’t speak a word, of course, and Ruby loved that she would keep absolute privacy for the girl, but… still Ruby wondered.

  As the night wound down and more groups returned to their tents, it was time for the Greycloaks to take their leave. Cinza found Ruby’s hand, and though she did her best to hide it, she needed to lean on Ruby all the way back to the Greywood. 

  She’s so stubborn. Never letting anyone see weakness. I wish I could be as strong as her.

  The other Greycloaks moved ahead, leaving only Makoto behind to trail the couple. Everyone knew that Cinza and Ruby liked to walk together, and afforded them their privacy. The pair were both quite capable at magic if they happened to be attacked. Cinza was far stronger these days, and with Ruby at her side, the two rarely felt in any danger. Makoto always remained close enough to call reinforcements if truly needed.

  Remembering their new method of communication, Ruby pushed her mind into that second-sight Rachel had taught them. The relationship web was a truly miraculous thing to her, and even more than its effects, she delighted in the sheer overwhelming strength of the bond between herself and her love. They’d never required a visual confirmation of their mutual devotion… but to see that the universe itself agreed with their feelings was a powerful effect nonetheless.

  When Ruby strummed on those strings like a guitar, it sent a shiver through Cinza’s body, one equally as powerful as any physical touch might produce.

  ”Yes?” murmured Cinza, glancing up at her.

  Ruby smiled. “I just wanted to make sure you’re awake.”

  ”I’m thinking.”

  ”What about?”

  ”Where we came from, where we are going, and how long it will take to get there.”

  ”…Literally or figuratively?” asked Ruby. She giggled. “Because I think the Greywood’s only like… five minutes away now. Ish.”

  Cinza smiled. “Do you think they will take the message to heart?”

  ”I don’t know,” said Ruby simply. If it were anyone else, she’d claim total confidence in Cinza’s message, but she knew her love would appreciate direct honesty. 

  ”I pray for their safety,” said Cinza softly. “Too many of us have died.”

  Ruby nodded. “Everybody in the camp is still hurting. It’s been a month and it’s not getting easier for most of them.”

  Cinza shook her head. “A month cannot equate to everlasting death itself. They will never truly be past their pain, only learn to accommodate it.” Her voice dropped to a fierce tone. “The crimes committed deserve the utmost punishment.”

  ”But we gave him up. Natalie left him. We could have claimed him,” said Ruby. “After the blackout, we were basically in control. You told us not to.”

  ”I must balance many plates,” said Cinza. “We are a small community, and the world is a large place. We have only been dealing with one government, and though it represents one of the most powerful countries in the world, there are many more which clamor for our power. Brian Hendricks is of their world, and must be tried by their rules. We have no authority of sovereignty.”

  ”Yet,” said Ruby pointedly.

  Cinza smiled. “Yet indeed. Though I must say I think Natalie has claimed sovereignty far faster than we might ever have dreamed.”

  ”She wanted a home,” said Ruby with a shrug.

  ”Hm?”

  ”I can relate to that so much.” She nodded forward, where the Greywood was just coming into view. They were so used to the forest maze that they could navigate it unconsciously, following the tingles of magic left in the air by sense alone—though it had become more difficult with Natalie’s magic hanging over the whole forest. “It’s what I always wanted.”

  ”A desire universal,” murmured Cinza. “I always wanted a home too.”

  ”And then you made your own,” said Ruby, grinning. “With my help, of course.”

  Cinza shook her head. “My home is with you, wherever you may be.”

  Ruby’s heart fluttered, as it did every time Cinza spoke romantically. It never got old, no matter how many times they told each other of their love. They crossed the Greywood, arm-in-arm, returning to their cabin as the other cloaks vanished into theirs. Within minutes, they’d disrobed, climbed into bed, and wrapped themselves in warm blankets with the roaring fire… but nothing more.

  Her body longed for her to reach out and kiss Cinza, but Ruby could see it in her eyes and her expression—Cinza had too much on her mind. She waited, arms wrapped around her love, ready to listen as soon as Cinza was ready to speak. Hope she does it soon though… I was already super tired from the performance. Nikki didn’t end up helping nearly as much as she thought she could, I had to pick up a lot of slack. 

  ”I’m worried,” said Cinza finally, to Ruby’s relief.

  ”About?”

  ”What comes next.” Cinza closed her eyes, placing her head underneath Ruby’s—letting Ruby wrap her up and contain her. Sometimes, Cinza would enter this withdrawn posture, a relic of some part of her life Ruby would never know, a defensive curl that spoke of past dangers.

  ”Do you mean the trial?”

  She shook her head slightly. “Those are the affairs of the mundane,” said Cinza. “I fear the next stage of our world. We’ve faced threat after threat, from the fight of the Gods to the near-overthrow of the Council, the destruction of Rallsburg, the terrorism of Brian Hendricks. It’s been a month of quiet now, without a single sighting of our goddess. I fear what may come next.”

  ”You think she isn’t coming back?” asked Ruby, a question she would never utter outside their cabin.

  ”She never left,” said Cinza. “She decided the world is no longer worthy, and I will forever wonder why. I’ve no doubt she continues to watch over us, but something about Margaret Bensen’s awakening changed things.”

  ”Maybe not,” said Ruby. “Sometimes it’s not the last thing that causes the end, right? It could be another event we don’t know about.”

  ”You’re right, of course,” said Cinza. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever the goddess decides is our fate. Until then, we press on with what we have and what we know.”

  ”And now you’re afraid of what comes next,” said Ruby, nodding. Her chin brushed against Cinza’s thick brown hair. “What do you want to do about it?”

  ”How can I prepare for that which I don’t know?” asked Cinza. Her voice echo made it slightly harder to tell she was asking genuinely, not out of sarcasm. Ruby would never tell her though—she loved the voice too much, and knew Cinza had long-since moved to unconsciously casting it. “All I wish is for us to all live in peace, free to follow our own way of life without persecution. Beyond that, I don’t know.”

  ”Is that why you never went out to meet with the President or Mr. Gatiss again?”

  Cinza shook her head. “I’ve no need to see them. We needed to meet when magic was a continually growing thing and I could do some good for the people who were not yet part of our community. Now that’s gone, the rest can be handled by the politicians. They actually enjoy that sort of thing; let them have at it.”

  ”I heard you were really good at it though.”

  She backed away slightly to look at Ruby, raising an eyebrow. “…From whom?”

  ”From Makoto, duh. Who else was with you the whole time?”

  ”Mr. Ashe, but I digress.” Cinza withdrew into Ruby’s arms once again. Ruby treasured every moment she could hold her like that, provide a space for Cinza to work out her thoughts and fears. “They argue and posture about things of which I have only a passing interest. Now they’ve gotten Nathaniel to agree to let us keep our land, I’ve little more desire to deal with them.”

  Ruby growled involuntarily at his name. “That snake.”

  ”Someday, he will face a painful comeuppance,” said Cinza. “But let’s not waste our lives worrying about a sniveling wretch scraping out wealth through technicalities.”

  ”Okay,” said Ruby, smirking slightly. She enjoyed undercutting Cinza’s more flowery sentences with something plain and ordinary, and Cinza often returned the favor in kind when Ruby got theatrical.

  They lay in silence for a while, holding each other while the fire crackled and the wind whistled outside. Ruby couldn’t think of a thing she’d change about her current situation. Sure, there were plenty of things in the world she might want to change, but here? With Cinza, in their own cabin they built together, warmth generated by magic they invented and in a bed all their own?

  Nothing could make her happier.

  ”I read something in a book once,” said Ruby slowly. “Something about how the best leaders are the ones who don’t want to lead.”

  ”Hm.” Cinza made the sound simply to show she was still awake and listening, prompting Ruby to continue her thought. 

  ”Because, like…” She frowned. “People who don’t want to lead are less likely to be dictators or corrupt. They’ll take the problems of the people seriously and then stop when they aren’t needed anymore.”

  Cinza shook her head. “I don’t think that really works.”

  ”Why not?”

  ”Any leader who doesn’t want to be a leader might also simply look for the quickest solutions to problems, rather than the right ones, in order to relinquish their leadership as soon as possible.” Cinza sighed. “The world needs a leader who both wants to lead and wants no personal gain from doing so.”

  ”You used to be that person,” said Ruby.

  ”I wanted many things,” said Cinza. “I wanted power, I wanted authority. I wanted control. I sought these things with the leadership I had been given and nearly lost everything truly valuable. You set me on the right path.”

  ”Which was?”

  ”Family. Connection. Love.” Cinza looked back up at Ruby. “I’m never truly afraid as long as you’re all by my side.”

  ”And in your bed?” smirked Ruby.

  ”That position’s just for you,” said Cinza. She wrapped her arms tighter around Ruby, and though she hadn’t done anything yet, shivers of anticipation and joy rushed through Ruby’s body. “Thank you, Ruby.”

  ”For what?”

  ”Every minute, every hour, every day, every year, and every lifetime, from now until the end of eternity.”

  Ruby giggled. “Just shut up and kiss me already.”

  Cinza laughed. A moment later, she did just that… and the fire burned all the brighter, both in the hearth and deep in Ruby’s heart, a perfect ending to a perfect night.

 

 

***

 

 

  Cinza left early the next morning to meet with Rufus and Captain Hoskins down in the camp, with only a quick kiss goodbye to Ruby. She slept in for once, when normally she’d be out early practicing her magic, or helping tend the garden, or checking the spell perimeter, or any other of a hundred tasks she now had living in the Greywood.

  Today I’m just a kid again, sleeping in on a holiday. Except for all that stuff I did last night… 

  Ruby giggled aloud. She finally decided after many minutes lounging in their blankets that she’d work on her next art piece. It would be a good break from her usual chores, and she didn’t have anything assigned today. Plus, it would brighten up Cinza’s day when she came back.

  It’s the one thing I’m really good at… I wish there were more things besides art. Cinza’s so good at everything. I don’t know how she does it. It’s like she’s lived ten lives instead of just one. 

  Ruby got up and went outside. She’d mostly finished work on their own cabin, and had since moved on to decorating other parts of their home. Now, she was adding flourishes to the bridge which crossed the stream flowing through their clearing.

  The stream had been Aaron’s creation, and the bridge Yusuf’s. Their clearing did not originally have a stream, but Rufus had pointed them to a nearby creek, and Aaron dug out a path for the water to flow which wouldn’t disrupt the local ecosystem. Ruby had named it Aaron’s Creek in his memory.

  Yusuf had designed and built the bridge, a strong and sturdy structure that looked like a perfect meld between nature and human-lead construction. After he was done, Ruby set to work on it—tiny slashes of magic to draw her designs permanently into the wood without diminishing its strength or vitality.

  Vitality. Because they’re alive. Like we all are.

  The bridge was alive. It wasn’t simply a meld with nature visually—the bridge was sustained with life by the forest beneath it, as if it had actually grown into that shape. This was Cinza’s innovation, developed based on Aaron’s theories. The bridge was alive, as many of the newer structures in their home were.

   Not our home though… Cinza and I built that ourselves, before we invited the others to come live out here with us.

  ”Excuse me.”

  She’d been on a short break, watching the clouds go by while waiting for the next design to pop into her head. Ruby looked up, surprised. She knew the voice, obviously… but his tone was far from anything she recognized. 

  ”…Hi,” she said.

  Makoto shifted awkwardly on his feet. They were below one side of the bridge, so Ruby could take a bit of shelter from the sun. Ruby was aware of him approaching, but hadn’t thought anything of it. After all, beyond Cinza, she probably spent the most time with him of anyone in the Greywood. Totally normal, except that his demeanour screamed anything but.

  ”Do you have a minute?”

  ”Sure.” Ruby patted the grass next to her, half-in and half-out of the winter sunlight. It wasn’t freezing in the Greywood, thanks to their magic, though it still certainly felt like winter. The sun helped a lot. “What’s up?”

  ”I have been thinking a lot.” He sat down in front of her, cross-legged on the grass. 

  ”Always a good thing,” said Ruby, smirking.

  Makoto smiled. “A lot happened last year. Now it’s twenty-nineteen and a lot’s going to happen this year too.”

  ”Well yeah, it’s a whole year. A lot happens in a year.” Ruby frowned. He’s being weird… “You okay, Makoto?”

  ”Yes.”

  ”Okay, that sounded more like you.” She grinned. “Was there something you wanted to talk about?”

  ”Yes. For a long time now, but I was…” He trailed off, clearly working up the courage to say something. It took her a moment to remember what that would be. 

  Ruby tensed up. Oh… oh no. Not this. Not… not now.

  ”I love you, Ruby.”

  Against her wishes, against the compassion and sympathy screaming at her to do otherwise, Ruby’s instincts won out. She winced.

  Makoto deflated in an instant. His perfect posture vanished. He looked like Ruby had just kicked him in the gut. In a way, she felt like she had.

  ”I’m so sorr—” he started.

  Ruby leapt forward and grabbed his hand. His eyes widened with confusion.

  ”Don’t you dare be sorry,” she snapped.

  ”What?”

  ”Just… just don’t.” Ruby didn’t know what she wanted to say. She’d forgotten that this was probably coming someday. She always knew Makoto had a crush on her, one she didn’t think she could reciprocate. She just… didn’t see him like that.

  Now, after a perfect day, with a whole year ahead and Cinza already so worried about the future… Ruby just couldn’t handle another huge shakeup in her life. Makoto was still watching her, waiting, his eyes plaintive and hopeful and confused.

  ”I…”

  ”Don’t,” she said again, standing up. Makoto mirrored her, but after a few moments of trying, Ruby couldn’t figure out what else to say. She didn’t know how to handle a situation like this—she’d never had a guy ask her out, ever—and worse, this was somebody in her family. Everything about it confused her.

  With what she hoped was an apologetic look, Ruby fled. Makoto stayed where he was, stuck under the bridge like a doll who’d been abandoned in the yard. 

  She ran across the meadow and plunged into the trees on the opposite side. She wanted to lose Makoto’s gaze, then circle around and find someone who she could talk to, someone who might actually understand her confusion.

  It couldn’t be Cinza. Ruby already knew exactly how she’d react, and she loved Cinza for it, but it wasn’t what she needed in that moment. She needed someone who could relate to what she was feeling. For lack of better options, she needed the next youngest member of their home—Nikki Parsons.

  Unfortunately, she didn’t seem to be home. She wasn’t in her own cabin, nor was she in Josh’s. Ruby searched, and felt out with magic, tried to trace her relationship—though of course, the connections didn’t really work like that and couldn’t be used to locate people—and Nikki was just… nowhere to be found.

  Where could she be? She never leaves the Greywood. The first time she ever left was last night, and just for the performance!

  ”Ruby!”

  Yusuf was calling out to her, half-panicked. She practically skidded to a halt, realizing just how insane she looked. He hurried over to her, dropping the bundle of supplies in his arms—he’d just been down to the camp, and she’d run into him on his way back. 

  ”Nothing’s wrong,” she said quickly.

  Yusuf paused for a moment, glancing around. “Something is clearly wrong, my friend. Can you tell it to me?”

  ”I…” Ruby winced. “I think I might’ve screwed something up.”

  ”What are you meaning?”

  It started to spill out, words flowing from Ruby’s mouth almost without effort. Yusuf was just someone so kind, someone she trusted implicitly, and also someone who she felt would never judge her for what she said. Of everyone in their family beyond Cinza, Yusuf was the one she felt the most secure with.

  ”Makoto told me he loved me and I just like… completely rejected him.” 

  Ruby shook her head, crimson hair flying everywhere. Her voice and her affectations slipped away completely. Suddenly, she felt like a girl again, like a teenager without a clue who didn’t spend every night in the bed of the leader of the new world. 

  ”I knew he had a crush on me but I was hoping it would just… go away. I didn’t know what to do about it. I really like him, but I’ve never like, liked guys. I don’t know if I ever could. Besides, I love Cinza. I mean, that doesn’t mean I can’t love somebody else, but I don’t know… I just don’t know,” she trailed off.

  By now, she and Yusuf were sitting on a comfortable overturned tree, right next to each other. Yusuf put an arm around her shoulders, a gentle side-arm hug that was just enough affection to bring her back to earth again.

  ”If I tell him I like him too, then it becomes a whole thing,” said Ruby, reasoning it out with Yusuf as a sounding board. He hadn’t said anything yet, and Ruby wasn’t even looking at him to see his reactions, but it made her feel better. “If I tell him no, then it makes everything more complicated when we go out. He’s gotta be there to protect Cinza when she goes into the old world, and now he’s gonna be thinking about this and what if it screws him up and… what if I screwed everything up?”

  ”Hd’e, tfly,” said Yusuf softly. Ruby had no idea what he’d said, of course—and even in her current state, reminded herself to ask Nikki about a spell to translate languages sometime—but his tone helped her calm down again. “Be still. You are with family.”

  ”I never really, you know…” Ruby trailed off again. “I never dated anybody. I couldn’t… ’cause of my dad.” 

  She winced, but of course, everybody knew about her dad now, thanks to Nate Price and the theft of Cinza’s books. The world wasn’t sure what to believe yet, but among her family, Ruby had seen nothing but support—which she’d always been split on, between gratitude for their love, and pain at the memories which resurfaced, a shame she’d wanted to stay buried.

  ”The only girls I ever, you know…” Ruby shivered slightly—they were outside the Greywood proper, and the enchantments to keep it warm didn’t quite extend out this far. Beyond that, she was suddenly uncomfortable to talk about this with Yusuf, somehow. “The only girls I ever kissed,” she whispered the last few words, “were in secret… or you know, they were supposed to be.”

  ”But now you live as an adult and you no longer concern these things,” said Yusuf.

  ”…Yeah.” Ruby nodded. “Now I’m worried about… well, everything else.”

  Yusuf smiled. “It is good you think of us all. But of this I think you may worry too much. Makoto is not a weak man as your father or others in this world. He can understand being rejection.”

  ”Are you sure?”

  ”I would let him be still for some while,” said Yusuf, the perpetual peaceful smile filling his expression, “but yes, I do think he will be contented. He has a great inner peace.”

  ”So do you,” said Ruby, a touch of jealousy in her voice. “I wish I could be so calm and smart and kind.”

  ”Ah, but then we would all be quiet and speak only when we were spoken to!” cried Yusuf, his eyes sparkling with mirth. “We need young women like you to make sure we are not to stick in the ground and never do anything! Live! Be joyful! Fill your life with love!”

  Ruby giggled. “That sounds kinda crazy.”

  Yusuf nodded. “You are in a place where crazy is normal. If you were one of my daughters in my old home, I might speak different.”

  She leaned against him, liking the nice solid warmth of his body. It gave her a sense of protection very different than what she felt with Cinza, but still comforting. “…Did you ever talk about things like this with them?”

  Yusuf gently shook his head. “Ah, but they were too young to have started such things. I would hope they might turn out like you.”

  ”…Like me?” asked Ruby, surprised. “Even though I… you know… I’m not normal?”

  ”What is normal?” asked Yusuf pointedly. “Are you confident in that what you love? If yes, then let Allah and ‘iilhat alramadi determine the rest. They decide what is the normal, not us who do not to understand the life mystery.” His eyes twinkled. “You know, my Nadia was very convinced she would once have a castle to herself, and drew this castle many times. It always showed two princesses in the throne room.”

  Ruby giggled. “What did you say?”

  ”I said I looked forward to the meeting of them!” roared Yusuf with a laugh. Ruby nearly jumped, but it turned into a laugh afterwards, as Yusuf’s attitude was just so infectious. “Amelia was confused, but Nadia was not. She was confident it would have the two princesses. This is what I am most proud of. My daughter was most confident. I think that is what you are too, and what you need now.”

  ”What I need is… confidence?”

  ”You have always been the most confidence of anyone I know,” said Yusuf firmly. “Now it has slipped. You must determine what it is you want, and proceed with that confidence you trust.”

  The wind blew through the trees around them. In the distance, she could hear the frogs in the creek, faint through the thick underbrush of the forest. Ruby nodded. “Okay.”

  ”So what have you decided?” asked Yusuf.

  ”Wait… already?” She shook her head. “I hadn’t thought about it yet.”

  ”Confidence, abnty!” Yusuf rocked back and forth with her on the log, his huge arm still draped across her shoulders. “What is in your heart about this boy?”

  ”He’s a friend,” said Ruby firmly, the first thing that popped into her mind.

  He nodded. “That is not a strong reaction.”

  ”So…”

  ”I would say that you have an answer to your question.” Yusuf hugged her tight for a moment, then let go. “Stick to your confidence. It does serve you well. Makoto will understand.”

  Ruby got to her feet, turned, and hugged Yusuf full-on. For some reason she couldn’t quite understand, she felt like crying. It wasn’t a sad sort of crying either—if anything, it was joyous and relieved. It didn’t feel related to Makoto, though she was relieved she’d found some advice from someone she trusted.

  No… it was something else. Something about Yusuf.

  ”Thank you,” she murmured, her head laid against his shoulder.

  He patted her on the back. “I hope you do find that peace you want.”

  Together, they began the trek back into the Greywood, Yusuf’s supplies slung over his back. Their conversation turned far more banal after that, a catching-up from the goings-on in the camp and beyond. Yusuf was one of those who traveled regularly, though he never showed the slightest inclination to leave like Josh always grumbled about. 

  As she returned to the clearing, she saw Makoto—and to her relief, he wasn’t under the bridge anymore. He’d moved into the garden and was working alongside Matthew Wilkins to grow a fresh batch. They supplied the entire camp now, after all, and they’d had to develop more efficient and higher-yield designs for their spells.

  Makoto had actually ended up contributing the most to that project, as his college studies in mathematics and engineering had developed a great analytical mind. Seeing him working on it again right after their earlier encounter was a huge weight off her shoulders.

  She’d go tell him more firmly, apologize, figure out where they stood from here. Confusion and strife could get them hurt in a battle someday—and Ruby had no doubt more battles would come. She took a few steps forward…

  …and stopped, because Cinza had just rushed through the trees, her eyes blazing. 

  ”Makoto!” she called.

  He snapped upright at the echoing voice, amplified to reach him easily across the clearing. Ruby froze, Yusuf right alongside her, confused. Cinza started toward her, and Makoto reached them at almost the same time.

  ”We need to go,” said Cinza abruptly.

  ”Why?” asked Makoto, while Ruby began to summon their travel things out of their cabin—just barely within reach. They rushed across the open meadow to land in her waiting palms, except for her scarf, which she made wrap itself around her neck.

  Cinza’s voice was low, laced with suppressed anger and frustration. “To speak with Rachel DuValle.”

 

 

***

 

 

  From the Greywood to the pilgrim camp only took them twenty minutes or so. Cinza, despite her height, moved faster than the both of them. She looked furious, but had yet to explain why to Makoto or to Ruby. They shot each other confused glances every few minutes, wondering what might have happened.

  Cinza’s always been so… enamored with Rachel. No, in awe, that’s a better word. She admires her so much. What could have happened?

  To Ruby, Rachel had been a curiosity for a long time, nothing more. There was a brief span where, thanks to Cinza’s increasingly high praise, Ruby had started to see her in a new light—and in the heat of the season, Ruby had decided she might try to seduce the willowy giant. After all, Cinza wanted to be closer to this girl; why not invite her into their home for the night?

  She might have tried to seduce a brick wall for all the response Rachel gave.

  Ruby might have laughed at the memory, if Cinza weren’t so furious in the moment. She quickly realized they were not going to the camp, as she’d expected, but instead were headed directly south—to the road, and the vehicle they’d stashed nearby.

  ”Where is Rachel?” asked Ruby finally.

  ”Seattle,” said Cinza shortly.

  This, finally, was enough to push Ruby to question her. All the way to Seattle? I thought Rachel might be in the camp, or maybe in Olympia… what’s going on? 

  As they reached the vehicle and Makoto began clearing away the carefully arranged debris which kept it hidden, she took her beloved’s hands in her own, grasping tight.

  ”What happened?” she asked softly.

  Cinza shook her head. “Rachel has made a mistake. I intend to correct it.”

  ”Cin…” Ruby shook her head. “Let the mundane world figure itself out. Your people are here.”

  ”My people are everywhere,” said Cinza. “You taught me that.”

  ”I meant that you were our leader,” said Ruby. “Our home, our people, our place in the world. You have to deal with them to protect us… but is this really part of that?”

  ”If we are not proactive,” said Cinza, as Makoto cleared off the last of the debris and pushed the vehicle out onto the road, “we risk even the home we live in. The awakened everywhere are our people, even moreso now that we are so few and do not grow. Rachel has chosen not to support them, to throw her lot in with those who oppose us.”

  ”What happened?”

  ”A man who deserves all the world’s fury received his just reward, and Rachel has condemned those who chose to deliver it.” 

  Cinza climbed into the vehicle with a hand from Makoto, who then stooped to help Ruby up as well. She winced slightly, remembering their abrupt and awkward conversation only an hour or two earlier, but shook it off.

  ”Details, Cin,” said Ruby wearily. Cinza was in her righteous fury mood, which was exhilarating to experience, but often left Ruby more confused as she tended to avoid the topic while delivering her rhetoric.

  ”Felix Wieczorek was visited last night by one or more awakened,” said Cinza. “They did not hurt him, nor touch him in any way, but they exacted a punishment. It was a fitting blow I could not admire more. He spurned all his journalistic credibility with his lies and propaganda against us, and thus did they destroy all his awards and treasures, those accolades which gave him the platform to harm us.”

  ”And Rachel spoke out against them?” asked Ruby.

  ”She commanded they turn themselves in, and condemned any such acts.” Cinza looked to Makoto. “We must hurry. I do not know how long they will remain in Seattle.”

  Makoto nodded. He closed his eyes and began to cast the spell, relying upon the cache of gemstones they kept near the gear system. Ruby settled back into the soft chair and drew closed the curtains around their vehicle.

  If nothing else, she was excited to finally use it.

  The design was a group effort. Makoto had acted as the engineer, designing an engine fueled by gemstones and magic which could be easily powered by a single person. He’d worked with Brittany and Matthew to handle the rest of the mechanical design, making it ride comfortably even over the rough roads that went back into the mundane world.

  Cinza, ever practical, made sure the whole thing was well-insulated and self-warming for the winter months, and contained easily activated defensive measures like a strengthening spell for the cloth covering and a version of her invisibility field which could cover them while moving. Rufus and Yusuf provided the materials to build the whole thing, including parts and tires reclaimed and repaired from some of the cars still left abandoned in Rallsburg.

  Ruby was the last piece, creating a carriage worthy to carry Cinza. The wood became beautiful flourishes, the cloth emblazoned with the eight-pointed star. Every corner of the thing sparkled, but in a subtle way, so that it did not look gaudy or overbearing. It was the perfect balance of subtle and bold, a strong reflection of their leader.

  They settled back in the rear seats, within the closed canvas covering. Makoto sat out on the front seat, which could be opened or closed as they preferred. Ruby laid her head on Cinza’s shoulder, but her love was still fired up, angry at something she did not yet understand—though if anything, she felt even more enraged that Rachel might be turning against them than her love. 

  ”What did Rachel say exactly?” she asked, as the car slid out onto the road and began burning its way down out of the forests.

  Cinza shook her head. “I received this secondhand from a pilgrim listening to a radio up until the edge of the zone. There was no transcript. I intend to ask Rachel that myself once we find her.”

  ”I can’t believe she’d do this,” growled Ruby. “After everything, she’s going to turn on us?”

  ”We don’t know that for sure,” said Cinza. “I will find out.”

  Ruby shook her head. “It’s just like the Summit. Rachel’s not really on our side. Brian was killing us and she called for mercy.”

  ”It is not such a bad thing to be merciful…” Cinza sighed. “I was not entirely settled on killing the man myself. I do not wish to commit murder, though if the time comes, I will defend us at any cost.”

  ”We will defend us,” said Ruby, and Cinza smiled. 

  ”Rachel is still our greatest ally in their world. She has landed herself in influential positions time and again. I would not burn such a relationship without knowing the full story, though right now, I am very close to doing so.”

  Ruby didn’t answer. She knew Cinza had something about Rachel, some kind of worship she didn’t really understand. It was an unpleasant sticking point between the two of them, that Cinza trusted Rachel so much, but she let it slide. She trusted Cinza wholeheartedly, and that was all that mattered.

  ”So where are we going?” she asked finally.

  ”She should be staying at the Westin, by all reports.” Cinza gazed out the window as a worried look crossed her expression. “…I haven’t been there in years.”

  ”You stayed in the Westin once?” asked Ruby, raising an eyebrow. 

  ”More than once… in a manner of speaking.”

  Cinza didn’t elaborate, and Ruby knew not to ask further. Her past was something just like Ruby’s, one she did not like to delve into. For Cinza, though, it didn’t feel like shame. The past simply… existed. 

  I wish I could do that. Just… set it in the past and keep going. I can’t ever stop thinking about him though, or… everything. I haven’t seen or heard from him in years but I still can’t get away.

  Instead, Ruby simply stayed close to her, riding in silence all the way back into the mundane world once more. She’d trust in Cinza, no matter what came next. 

 

 

***

 

 

  In Seattle, as on the roads through Olympia and Tacoma before it, their vehicle practically stopped traffic wherever it went. No one had seen it until this day. Ruby watched them through the gap in the curtains, which only appeared one way, and reveled in their reactions. 

  ”They’re all watching us!” she said, peering around excitedly. “Look how excited everyone is!”

  ”Excitement can lead to many things,” murmured Cinza, her eyes closed. She’d taken a nap during the highway stretch, while Ruby watched the cars go by. “We should not linger.”

  Makoto nodded from the front seat. They’d opened the curtain between the two after their initial conversation—and to Ruby’s relief, he seemed totally back to his usual self. Any awkwardness had completely vanished. Maybe it was the potentially hostile environment, but Ruby hoped he’d already gotten over that morning.

  Please, please be over it already… I need to go back to us being friends. We spend almost all our time together…

  As a crowd chased them down sidewalks, cameras flashing, and a newschopper circled overhead, Makoto took them directly to the front steps of the building. The whole carriage thumped as they drove straight onto the sidewalk, scattering the crowd in front of them. He brought them to a smooth halt.

  The staircase embedded in the side extended down to the ground. Cinza took a moment to prepare herself, shifting her hair back to the bright silvery-grey, before opening the curtain. 

  A gasp echoed through the crowd. Ruby fought the urge to giggle. Well duh, who did you expect in something like this?

  She followed her love out, only a few steps behind. A confused valet stepped forward, hand outstretched. Ruby smirked and shook her head, while Cinza continued forward into the building, head high, ignoring the shouts and camera flashes around them.

  As soon as the two of them entered the lobby, they were surrounded by Secret Service agents, black-suited and radios one and all. 

  ”I’m here to see the President and Miss DuValle,” said Cinza abruptly. “Take me to them.”

  The two agents who seemed to be in charge glanced at each other. Finally, one stepped away, talking briefly into her headset. Cinza waited, perfectly still. Ruby felt like fidgeting, but she resisted, wanting to put up the some implacable front as her leader. After a minute or so, the agent returned, looking vaguely confused.

  ”Come with us.”

  They were led deeper into the hotel, past various rooms and corridors into the conference suites. As they got closer, more agents appeared, like an entire army concealed within the building. A sense of giddiness threatened to overwhelm her with every passing step. Agents were all over, they were deep inside a super-nice four-star hotel, and Cinza had been ordering them around like it was nothing.

  I’m actually going to meet the President. Like… I knew she had, and saw it on TV even, but… I’m actually here. This is amazing. 

  Sure enough, they approached a final set of double doors, with fully-equipped marines flanking it. A wave of nervous energy rocked through her. Ruby nearly tripped over her cloak. She grasped Cinza’s hand to steady herself. Cinza looked over at her and smiled. 

  ”It’s okay,” she murmured, and from the faint tingle of magic in the air, Ruby knew only she could hear. “We’re in control here, not them. They will not harm us.”

  Ruby nodded. She tightened her grip for just a moment, then let go, so that Cinza could walk slightly ahead, fulfill the leadership role she was meant for.

  The doors swung wide to admit them. Ruby gasped. Besides the people, the room itself was richer than any she’d ever seen. From the handsome mahogany table to the beautiful chandeliers, the place certainly lived up to the pricey hotel outside. She spotted more than a few designs to remember for decorating their own meeting hall when they returned to the Greywood.

  Seated around the conference table inside was Rachel DuValle herself, along with a dreadlocked blonde girl Ruby didn’t know. Nearby, the state governor and her sister who were at the Summit, the President, and a few other people she didn’t recognize. They wore a wide range of expressions—some annoyed, some curious, and most just confused.

  The marines shut the doors behind them, and suddenly, the room was conspicuously silent.

  ”This is an unexpected honor,” said the President finally. He smiled, that winning grin which didn’t seem at all like a fake politician’s smile. That’s why I would’ve voted for him… if I could. He seems like a real guy. I’ll be eighteen next year. Maybe I’ll vote for him… assuming the world still does that in a year and a half. “Welcome, Cinza.”

  Cinza frowned. “As before, we do not meet under a banner of honor, Mr. President.” Before anyone could respond, her head snapped around to face Rachel. “Words have been spoken which must be accounted for.”

  Rachel, to her credit, didn’t recoil an inch. “I stand by them. The perpetrators committed a crime and must turn themselves in.”

  ”They’re awakened,” snapped Ruby.

  Cinza took her hand, but didn’t let up, nor contradict her. “They are, and they struck out in revenge after a miscarriage of justice by your government. They did not hurt him, nor touch him in any way, merely destroyed that which was wrongfully earned. Can such a thing truly be condemned?”

  ”It’s vigilantism,” said the governor. Courtney, I think. Ruby had only met her the once, and hadn’t paid much attention to state politics even when she did still live in their world. “We already went through this with Hailey Winscombe. It can’t happen.”

  She shook her head. “That is another atrocity of your legal system. Hailey Winscombe is a hero and should not have been subjected to such humiliations. Using Bethany Silverdale against her was despicable.”

  ”The woman volunteered for that,” said a handsome guy near the President. He stood up to emphasize his enthusiastic defense. “We didn’t even go looking for her. She hates Hailey.”

  ”And you as a responsible government decided to let a clearly biased and distraught woman fling emotional abuse at a captive audience in your custody,” Cinza shot back. “I have not forgiven you for that.”

  ”Cinza,” said Stafford patiently, gesturing at his staff to sit down. “If it’s any consolation, I instructed my Attorney General to forego such tactics in the future. While Hailey’s trial is now being carried out in absentia, of course, we will ensure nothing of the sort occurs with Miss Nishimura’s.”

  Like Rika wouldn’t just throw it right back at them. Ruby smiled slightly. Those tactics wouldn’t work on her in the slightest. 

  ”To the more immediate matter,” continued the President, “I agree that Rachel’s statement was hastily given. It wasn’t cleared by my communications department and should not be considered the official position of the government at this time.”

  ”So you agree this was a just act by persecuted individuals, and should be left to its own devices.”

  Stafford frowned. “In all honesty, despite being off-the-cuff, I felt Rachel gave a fair assessment of our expected position. We sympathize with these individuals and would offer them the lightest possible sentence, but we can’t simply ignore the rule of law, Cinza.”

  ”Some in your position would do exactly that, and quite gleefully,” said Cinza coldly.

  ”And he’s not one of them,” the staffer next to him shot back.

  ”If I may,” said another nearby quietly, straightening his glasses.

  ”Wesley?” asked Stafford, silencing the other man momentarily.

  ”Cinza, I would be happy to offer these people sanctuary and clemency,” said Wesley, “but the fact is, this may not be an isolated incident.”

  ”Explain,” said Cinza, not nearly as harshly as before.

  ”We’ve been tracking several similar incidents across the Pacific Northwest, both in Oregon and Washington. This was the most dramatic and the highest profile target, but there’s an increase in thefts on suspected or known former members of Brian Hendricks’ organization. There may be a vigilante awakened group forming in the region.”

  ”One instance of revenge against the ringleader is something,” added Courtney. “A pattern of thefts and terror-like acts is another. We can’t let one terrorist group fall only for another to rise in return.”

  Cinza frowned. “You would equate us?”

  ”Of course not,” said Rachel, finally jumping back in. “But it still qualifies as terrorism. Whoever they are, they’re using magic to spread fear and push their message. We want to stop this before it gets bigger.”

  ”And you did so much to stop Mr. Hendricks,” snapped Ruby before she could stop herself.

  Stafford nodded gravely. “You’re right. We failed. We underestimated the threat and your people paid the price. I wish I had acted sooner. But if I can’t learn from my mistakes, I’m not the leader my people elected. I’ll do better: for you, for the awakened, and for the American people. None of us should have to live in fear.”

  After a long pause, in which everyone watched for Cinza’s reaction. That sounded really good… but it also sounded a lot like a politician. Cinza’s talked to him a lot, I haven’t. She’d know if he was being for real or not. 

  Finally, Cinza nodded. She took a seat at the table, in one corner where no one sat nearby. “What do you plan?”

  ”Well,” said Maddie, “first we gotta figure out who they are.” She frowned. “Actually, we were plannin’ to get somebody out to ask you if you had any idea.”

  ”I do not.” 

  And we probably wouldn’t tell you if we did… added Ruby in her head.

  ”What’s our last estimate on the population?” asked the President, glancing at Wesley. “Four thousand?”

  ”Somewhere in there,” said Wesley with a nod.

  ”Not a huge group to search,” said the other staffer.

  ”Unless they aren’t all awakened,” pointed out Rachel. “They might have allies.”

  ”How did you come to that number?” asked Cinza, glancing between them.

  Rachel fell uncomfortably silent, but someone else was there to fill the gap. “We’ve been surveying demographics,” said the staffer. “Making scans, calculating statistics, and trying to account for your population.”

  As he said the word, the room got ice-cold. Cinza’s eyes were blazing in an instant.

  ”And how,” she started, her voice thick with suppressed fury, “did you scan them?”

  The staffer faltered. Rachel suddenly jumped back in, her voice confident and assured once more. “We have the stones.”

  Cinza’s gaze whipped around to meet hers. “You used them.”

  ”Yes. They’re a valuable tool and we have no idea how to recreate the magic yet. The DTA lab will begin studying them soon to try and break down the effect.”

  It made some sense, of course, that they wanted to figure it out. Nobody knows how to enchant things with permanent spells… Just Kendra, Lily and Jackson. Then Lily taught us how to do it after Kendra kept it for so long. It really helped us take care of the whole pilgrim camp… I wonder if that’s why she taught us.

  ”You used his tools,” Cinza said, her voice still low and furious. “Objects created for the purpose of committing hateful genocide, and you used them on unsuspecting awakened to track them.”

  ”We’re taking a census,” shot back the staffer. “Something we’re compelled to do by the law, in fact. These demographics are useful.”

  ”He’s not wrong,” added Wesley, his quiet voice a massive contrast from the enthusiastic staffer. “Knowing the scale of our awakened population is incredibly valuable, especially if it begins to grow again.”

  ”It hasn’t even been a full month,” said Cinza, “and the monsters who murdered us walk free, while our erstwhile allies use their implements of terror on us without our consent.”

  ”Cinza—” started Courtney, but Rachel talked over her.

  ”It was my call,” she said firmly, facing Cinza. “You’ve trusted in my decisions before. Trust in this one, too. These are useful tools despite their origin, and allowed us to build a population estimate painlessly. Nuclear science came from terrible weapons. We could learn great things. I admit using them as a census tool might have been a misstep, but what do you want from us? To destroy them?”

  ”Yes,” Cinza said simply.

  ”We can’t just destroy them,” said Maddie.

  ”You aren’t awakened,” snapped Ruby.

  The room stiffened. Ruby faltered, unsure if she’d gone too far. Cinza didn’t exactly support Ruby’s statement as she went on, but neither did she contradict her.

  ”I was led to believe the stones would be kept solely for research and to track down the remaining members of Brian’s terrorist cells,” said Cinza in a very controlled, even tone. “This is completely different, and absolutely unacceptable.”

  ”But they don’t even affect you—” started the staffer, but Stafford raised a hand to stop him.

  ”I’m sorry,” said Stafford. “We made a mistake in not consulting you.”

  ”So you will destroy them?” asked Cinza without missing a beat.

  ”Every stone will remain within the DTA’s research lab for study. If they are ever to be used again, we will consult with you first, except in cases of extreme emergency.” Stafford tried to offer a smile again, but this time, Ruby could tell it was forced. “Is that amenable?”

  Cinza shook her head. “You have already broken our trust once. I cannot yet grant it a second time.”

  She stood up from the table. Rachel and Stafford did the same, and the rest of the room followed shortly afterward. Without another word, Cinza turned and swept out of the room, Ruby only a few steps behind. The same agents who’d escorted them from the lobby were waiting just outside. They scrambled to their feet as Cinza emerged.

  ”We are leaving,” she said abruptly, striding past them without another word.

  The agents hurried to catch up—which really wasn’t hard, given how short Cinza’s legs were—and soon enough, they were more than halfway out of the hotel.

  ”I can’t believe them,” murmured Ruby. “Why won’t they destroy the awful things? Haven’t they done enough?”

  ”They believe some good can come out of such evil,” said Cinza. She sighed. “In most cases, I might believe the same. I’ve known many people to turn from terrible lives to wonderful ones, and make mistakes along the way. But these are not people, these are objects. Their creator was irredeemable, and their purpose in creation was the same.”

  ”So you think they’re all wrong.”

  ”I think they are all naïve and will make the same foolish mistakes again, to all our detriment.” Cinza picked up the pace slightly. “I wish to go home. I’ve had enough of their world already.”

  ”Same,” muttered Ruby—though, in truth, she had enjoyed the rest of the trip. It had been a long time since she came out into the mundane world. The last time was for Jessica’s funeral, and before that, to help rescue Hailey and Alden from the bar in Tacoma. She liked seeing it again, though she absolutely would never live out here.

  The Greywood remained, and forever would be, her home. Ruby would always want to return there.

  Except, as they reached the hotel and saw the waiting officers, she realized something far worse—she might not get the chance.

  The officers were normal police, two of them plus a plain-clothed individual, and as soon as Ruby walked in, they were looking at her. Not at Cinza, as with the rest of the crowd, but at Ruby. She knew it instantly.

  They were there for her.

  ”Cin…” she whispered.

  ”Hm?” Cinza looked around, and immediately spotted the approaching officers. In a second, she’d placed herself between them and Ruby. Makoto was outside the glass doors, watching with a worried expression—and Ruby wished he were there with them, the grounding pillar of their trio, their firm shield against the outside world.

  But he was outside, surrounded by a mob, and they were not.

  ”Miss Cinza,” said the lead officer politely, “may we speak with your companion?”

  ”Go right ahead,” said Cinza, in no uncertain terms.

  The two officers glanced at each other for a moment. One of them looked like he was considered kneeling down, as if to speak to a child. If he did that, Cinza would walk away right now.

  ”We’d like to speak to her alone, please,” said the other officer. 

  ”About what?”

  ”Well…” The officer glanced at the third person in the group again, then back to Cinza. “To be frank, there’s a warrant out for her arrest.”

 

 

***

 

 

  Ruby shivered. They’d taken her to a security office in the hotel. Despite Ruby’s obvious fear, Cinza had finally reluctantly allowed them to speak with her alone—on the condition Ruby remain in the hotel, and Cinza less than a single room away. Every few moments, Ruby shifted her vision and found the relationship tether between them.

  If she needed Cinza, she would strum their string, and Cinza would feel their connection. She wasn’t truly alone. She’d never be truly alone again.

  One of the officers had stayed outside with Cinza, leaving only the female officer—who looked like a nice lady, all things considered—and the plainclothes man. They sat down opposite her, in two chairs while Ruby sat on a soft, wide couch across a coffee table.

  ”Thank you for agreeing to speak with us,” said the plainclothes guy. “My name is Jeff, and this is Officer Daniels.”

  Daniels nodded. “We wanted to speak with you about your life. Is that all right?”

  ”What about it?” asked Ruby, a little nervously.

  ”Well, it’s not…” Daniels glanced at Jeff.

  ”Ruby,” he started, and paused. “Do you prefer Ruby?”

  ”That’s my name,” said Ruby firmly. “I didn’t get to choose the other one.”

  ”Ruby,” Jeff went on, and he had a very pleasant, comforting voice. Ruby could see why they’d chosen him to speak with her. “We’re concerned for your wellbeing.”

  She couldn’t help it—she laughed. “Is this about running away from home?”

  ”Well, yes,” said Officer Daniels.

  Figures… it’s the first time I showed myself since Cinza’s diaries came out. Of course they were gonna come find me. “I’m happier and safer than I’ve ever been living with the Greycloaks.”

  ”Ruby, you never finished your education,” said Daniels.

  ”Like high school’s worth anything,” Ruby shot back. She was getting heated, and she knew it wasn’t helping her case, but she couldn’t stop herself. “I’m happy now. Isn’t that enough?”

  ”We’re hoping you’ll give the world a chance again,” said Jeff. “We know it wasn’t an easy life, and the Greycloaks offered you an escape. But things are different now.”

  ”Uh huh,” said Ruby. “You guys know where I live. Why didn’t anybody ever come looking, if you’re so concerned?”

  ”Well, to be honest, we didn’t feel it was safe to do so,” said Jeff. “Not because of the awakened, of course,” he added. “But at the time, your region was being… well, terrorized.”

  ”Yeah. I lived through it.” Ruby shook her head. “This feels a little too late, you know. I’m the damsel in distress now, except my hero already rescued me years ago, and she’s right out there.” She pointed at the door, where she knew Cinza must only be a few dozen feet away. “You weren’t there.”

  ”We weren’t, and neither was your father,” said Jeff, and there it was.

  Bile seemed to jump into her throat, simply at the mention of her father. “…Yeah,” said Ruby. “…He wasn’t.”

  ”You left to get away from him, right?”

  ”Yeah.” Memories were surfacing in her mind, one by one—but unlike the other times she fell into that place, she wasn’t afraid. It wasn’t like she was braving the depths, as with Cinza, but more… examining them. Analyzing them.

  Jeff nodded. “It must have been terrible. If I may, and you don’t need to answer, but is the reason you never reported anything because you were afraid of him?”

  ”…Yes,” said Ruby in a very small voice.

  ”It’s good you removed yourself from the danger,” said Daniels, nodding slightly. “We wouldn’t ever want you to be in that situation.”

  ”So if it’s a good thing,” said Ruby, feeling confused, “why am I still in trouble?”

  ”Because it’s still the law,” said Daniels. “You’re still underage and in the state of Washington. We need to make sure you’re being cared for and educated.”

  ”I got that already,” said Ruby firmly.

  ”With a group that regularly puts you in extremely dangerous situations,” said Daniels.

  ”And saved my life,” she shot back.

  Jeff shook his head. “We’re not saying they haven’t done great things for you, Ruby, but you have to admit—even with your father, it’s not likely you would have been shot at, fighting battles with magic, surviving the destruction of Rallsburg, or any of the other incredible things which have happened.”

  ”So?” Ruby frowned. “What am I supposed to do, then?”

  ”…Your father’s changed,” said Jeff finally. “It took a long time, but after you left, he started going to counseling. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, did you know that?”

  ”…No,” said Ruby quietly.

  ”Since then, he’s been a model citizen. Ashley’s been volunteering for schools and orphanages. Not only that,” said Jeff, smiling slightly, “he’s been volunteering at awakened-supporting charities. First it was the Rallsburg Families Fund, and now the Magical Law Association, which is a charity to provide assistance for awakened people who can’t afford legal services.” 

  Ruby took it in without a word. It all sounded great, as they continued to describe other ways in which her father had changed. She didn’t believe a word of it, but then… they brought out the pictures, and there he was. Smiling, in a way she’d never seen, working a charity line, helping out in the community, being a human being.

  That’s not my dad. I don’t know that guy. He looks like dad, but… there’s no way. That can’t be him.

  ”He wants to see you,” said Jeff finally, leaving the last picture on the table. “If you want, you can be accompanied or alone, whichever you prefer. You’ll have a sit-down, and we’ll see if your home is somewhere you can return to.”

  ”Never,” said Ruby instantly. She’d been starting to see a possibility of a reunion, a faint glimmer amidst all the past pain, but those words brought her back again. “The Greywood’s my home.”

  The two of them glanced at each other. Jeff looked more concerned than before as he spoke again. “Ruby, that’s a cabin in a national park, far away from hospitals, schools, everything. We can’t clear that as an acceptable living space for you, legally speaking.”

  ”That’s her place though,” said Ruby, drawing on something else deep within her to give her strength. It wasn’t Cinza this time—instead, the attitude of her friend Yusuf back home, who had such confidence and conviction.

  ”Cinza’s?”

  ”The goddess,” said Ruby firmly. “Grey-eyes. It’s hers. That’s where I belong.”

  ”The…” Daniels shook her head, obviously confused by the sudden shift in the conversation.

  Ruby simply smiled at them. Obviously, they couldn’t understand what she meant, or the sudden calm which had come over her. “It’s okay,” she said. “You can’t really know what that’s like, until she saves you. That’s how it works.”

  ”Ruby…” started Jeff, but she talked over him.

  ”If he’s getting better, great. That’s one less awful person, and the world becomes a little brighter,” said Ruby. As she continued, her voice came back, stronger than in a very long time. “I’ve no desire to return to that life, and may he forever remain removed from my new home. We’ll both be far better off if our ships pass quietly in the night.”

  ”That’s not—”

  ”I am of the Greywood, a follower of Grey-eyes and servant of magic, and I will never be anything else,” said Ruby finally, flourishing her hand slightly.

  Daniels frowned. “That’s all fine, but that doesn’t excuse you from the state. Not yet, anyway. You haven’t been emancipated, and right now by all official records, you don’t even have grounds to run away from home. We believe you, but we don’t have any proof that can hold up with a judge.”

  ”All we want,” said Jeff, shooting an annoyed look at the officer, “is for you to speak with your father. Come see Ash with us. Is that all right?”

  ”No,” said Ruby, channeling her love’s favorite short, simple answers.

  ”We can arrest you,” said Daniels, looking a bit annoyed herself now. “Like I said before, there’s a warrant for you.”

  Ruby smiled, a hard-edged smile learned in the midst of battle, against foes far more fearsome and powerful than a simple police officer and a hapless social worker. She knew their threat, even if completely intended, was useless. They could never force her to do anything against her will. She had magic on her side.

  ”I dare you to try.”

 

 

***

 

 

  The door crashed open. Ruby had shoved it out, after they refused to let her go again. It was a security door, hard metal and deadbolted—but what were such simple materials against magic? With that in mind, Ruby bent the metal back behind her, fusing it in place. It’d give her a good head start to escape the hotel, which had shifted from a wonder of riches into a gilded cage waiting to entrap her.

  She fled the room, as shouts followed her away. Cinza reappeared from wherever she’d been waiting, at Ruby’s side in an instant.

  ”What happened?” asked Cinza as they ran.

  ”They wanted to take me away,” said Ruby. “I didn’t go.”

  Halfway to the lobby, Ruby suddenly stopped. The other officer would be waiting. Ruby didn’t know what would happen when they got there, and suddenly, fear mixed in with the excitement of their flight. She needed strength… and next to her was the love of her life, the other half of her soul. 

  She turned, took Cinza’s hands in her own, and pressed her up against the nearest wall. Before Cinza could say a word, Ruby kissed her—hard, passionately, and without restraint. Cinza stiffened with shock, but only for a moment… and soon she was kissing Ruby back.

  They kissed, again and again, holding each other tight as if in the midst of a storm. To Ruby, it surely felt like one, as the thump of heavy feet sounded behind them. They had no idea what might happen next, how many people they were up against, or if they could possibly get out without losing each other.

  We’ll never lose each other. No matter what.

  ”Until the end of eternity,” whispered Ruby, breaking away.

  Cinza’s eyes were wide. She was panting heavily, though of course, they hadn’t run very far. Their blood was pumping from the adrenaline and the rush of abrupt passion. “Forever,” Cinza whispered back.

  Hand in hand, they fled down the corridor, just as Officer Daniels and members of the hotel security staff appeared. They shouted, but Ruby couldn’t hear it over the rush of emotions pounding through her skull. All she wanted was to escape.

  They rounded the last corner. As expected, the other officer was there, along with more hotel security. They raised their hands, as if they could stop the duo.

  Cinza’s voice grew to deafening volumes, though she directed it in such a way that Ruby’s ears were not so impacted. “Stand aside or be forced aside,” she called.

  The security hesitated, but the officer stood firm. “Stop!” he shouted back.

  Cinza shook her head. Ruby’s hand tight in her own, they barrelled down the hallway. The officer braced for some kind of impact—but of course, neither Ruby nor Cinza had any intention of hurting the man.

  Halfway to him, Cinza threw out the spell she’d been preparing, drawing energy to support it from Ruby’s pool of magic. In an instant, they’d disappeared from view.

  The officer blinked furiously, utterly confused. Cinza led Ruby past him, slipping between the gaps in the men trying to keep them from leaving. Except we have magic. Nothing can ever hold us, or keep us apart.

  A huge thump of wind slammed into them. As they passed the officer, it ran headlong into Ruby. She lost her grip on Cinza’s hand and tumbled, head over heels, onto the carpet. Cinza stumbled, but didn’t quite lose her footing.

  Unfortunately for them both, the fall broke her concentration. The pair reappeared, in the middle of a hotel lobby full of confused guests, Secret Service agents, hotel security, and police officers. The room erupted into chaos, as guests fled fearing some kind of attack, while the uniforms everywhere sprang into action.

  More importantly, they’d been torn apart.

  ”Cin!” cried Ruby, as the officer closed on her. 

  She balled her fists, gathering magic to fight off the officer closing on her. She didn’t think she could create more invisibility in the time they needed—Cinza was always much better at that spell than her, and cast it whenever they went out together.

  No matter what, Ruby wasn’t going to let them take her.

  ”What the hell is going on down here?”

  From another direction, President Stafford had just emerged, the entire retinue in tow. Secret Service agents scrambled to surround him against the possible threat, but he strode up to the pair of them, heedless of caution. 

  Everyone froze. Ruby was still watching the officer in front of her, ready to throw down if need be. Cinza had been facing off against the hotel security, and her hand stayed near her belt—right where her black-taped knife was always sheathed. They were all ready to fight in a moment, but with the President there, none dared to set off the powder-keg waiting to blow. 

  One of the agents leaned in and began whispering in his ear. The President’s eyes widened. 

  He rounded on Courtney. “Your officers just tried to arrest this girl?”

  The governor shook her head. “I had no idea this was taking place.”

  ”Mr. President, sir,” said Jeff, returning the room almost completely out of breath. “I can explain.”

  ”Do so quickly. My trigger finger’s getting itchy,” said the President impatiently.

  ”Ruby Dahl, otherwise known as Ha—”

  ”Her name is Ruby until she decides otherwise,” snapped the President, “and I’ll hear no more of that, thanks.”

  ”Yes sir,” said Jeff quickly, while Ruby felt an incongruous burst of appreciation and pride toward the President whom she’d wanted to vote for. “The fact is, she’s underage, and her father’s a model citizen. By law, we have to make an effort to reunite them, or find some other acceptable guardian for the girl.”

  ”For Heaven’s sake,” said the President, glancing at Courtney. “Madam Governor, I thought we’d buried this.”

  ”Mr. President,” said Courtney, with an uneasy glance toward the many press near the hotel doors, “I had directed the law enforcement agencies to focus their efforts on other fronts, but I can’t just completely ignore the law.”

  ”Wide-ranging executive powers,” growled the President. “Figure it out, Courtney.”

  ”Yes, sir.”

  Stafford looked around at the hotel security and the police officers. “Are you all going to stand down, or do we need to demonstrate the competence of my own security detail?”

  Reluctantly, their opponents relaxed and stepped away. In an instant, Cinza had returned to Ruby’s side. She clutched Cinza’s arm like she were trapped in a storm once more, but instead of a moment of furious passion, now they were truly facing the terrifying forces arrayed against them. No matter what the President said, everyone in the room still felt like their enemy, in one way or another.

  Cinza seemed to feel the same. “This doesn’t change anything,” she said firmly, looking to Stafford. “I appreciate this gesture and accept the kindness, but trust cannot be repaired so easily.”

  Stafford nodded, and didn’t speak another word. Cinza led Ruby by the hand through the still-frozen hotel lobby, past the eyes of Rachel and the others in the President’s retinue, past the officers and security personnel, past the dumbstruck hotel staff and guests. 

  They walked out into the bright sunlight, through an ocean of reporters and onlookers. A straight and narrow pathway existed from the doors to their carriage, lined by more agents of the President. Cinza did not give any of them a single glance as she led Ruby through the parted seas. Makoto extended the small staircase, they climbed inside, and within moments, they’d returned to the road.

  Ruby didn’t speak another word until they were out of Seattle. She curled up on the wide seat in the back, her head in Cinza’s lap, trembling as her love brushed her fingers through her hair, keeping her from falling apart in a world that seemed determined to hate them at every turn.

 

 

***

 

 

  It wasn’t until the highway signs started to read Tacoma that Ruby finally spoke up. She didn’t move, as her head in Cinza’s lap was the most comforting and safe place she could imagine. 

  Instead, she watched the street signs high above through the faux-windows in their carriage. They didn’t allow wind through, with the way they’d designed the spells, so it actually reminded her a great deal of riding in a car. She’d never gotten to drive, of course, since she’d run away before she could get her license—if her father would ever let her, anyway.

  ”They wanted to take me away,” she murmured.

  ”I assumed as much,” said Cinza softly, still brushing Ruby’s hair with her fingers. “They could never take you from me.”

  I’d never let them. Aloud, though, Ruby couldn’t bring herself to be quite so fierce. She was too shaken by the experience, by the sheer threat she’d felt, the overwhelming sense that they might have been ripped apart. “I was so scared.”

  ”I wanted to come to you, every second,” said Cinza. “I’m so sorry that I didn’t.”

  ”No…” she murmured. “It’s okay. I agreed to talk to them. You were there when I needed you.”

  Cinza continued to brush her hair in silence, while Ruby relived the moments again. She wondered if they’d even been telling the truth about how much he’d changed. Obviously there were photos of him, but… what good was a photo? They all knew about how Natalie’s story had been twisted and confused, and how the photos of her didn’t tell the whole story.

  Photos of me wouldn’t show anything either. He never hit me in places that would show… Is he really different now? After all that?

  ”Do you—” she started, but cut herself off. It needed another moment to properly fit into her mind. “Do you think people can really change?”

  ”What do you mean?”

  ”That’s one of the things they talked about,” said Ruby. She closed her eyes, doing her best to relax in Cinza’s presence. “That my dad’s… changed. They said he went to counseling, volunteers at schools and charities, even like… awakened charities. That he’s totally different now.”

  Cinza didn’t respond immediately. Ruby peeked one eye open to see her clearly contemplating the question, lost in thought. She closed her eyes again.

  ”Yes,” said Cinza finally. “I cannot speak for your father, but I believe anyone can change. I’ve changed in more ways than I can imagine, more than once in my life even. My whole identity was broken down and renewed time and again. Sometimes, I felt like there wasn’t a true core to my being until you came along and found it.

  ”You’ve changed too,” she added. “The Ruby I know is very different from the girl I met two years ago. You were broken, and I was broken, but together, we healed one another. We both changed for the better.”

  ”So you think…” Ruby trailed off, unwilling to voice it. Cinza gave her a few moments to finish the thought, but when it became clear she couldn’t, her love filled in the space for her.

  ”I can’t say if he’s changed. That’s something we’d have to see for ourselves. One thing I can say is that… despite everything, he is your father and shares your genes, and he raised you. By some measure, he is an influence on your life, and I could not be more in love with the end result.”

  Ruby smiled slightly, but it had brought up a new thought, one she couldn’t stop herself from voicing. “Same for your parents.”

  Cinza nodded. “Whomever they might be.”

  She hesitated, but she had to ask, and she hoped it wouldn’t feel too intrusive. “Do you wish you had parents?”

  ”I did, for a time,” said Cinza. Ruby’s eyes widened. She hadn’t expected much of a response, and certainly not that, based on what she knew of Cinza’s past lives. “It was a very patchwork relationship, abruptly gained and abruptly lost, but I might call them my parents if anyone ever really filled that role for me.”

  ”Did you get along with them?”

  ”We did not believe in the same things,” said Cinza. “But they were good people, and they cared for me and sheltered me for several years. We were total opposites in faith and ideology, but we still managed some kind of relationship. It didn’t last, but… they taught me many valuable things. From them, I learned tolerance. I learned acceptance for the world, of the infinite variations in people. We were close for a time, but… we were driven apart.”

  She trailed off in a melancholy tone, obviously not wanting to speak of it further. Ruby was shocked how much she had revealed, and in a way, wish she hadn’t. The memories obviously pained Cinza, returning to a past life she’d long-since buried.

  ”I don’t know what I learned from my dad,” said Ruby quietly. She took Cinza’s hand and held it. “But… I used to like him. We were close. Then stuff with my step-mom happened, and then dad found out about… about me. I don’t know why it was so much to him.”

  ”We may never know what those around us believe in their hearts,” said Cinza. “Some keep it locked up tight, so deep they don’t even know themselves. Some are in denial about what they believe, and throw up walls of self-deception that must be broken down until the truth emerges.”

  ”…Do you think that’s him?” asked Ruby, opening her eyes again. “Maybe… I don’t know. I’m…”

  ”You should try,” said Makoto, startling them both. While he could usually hear them whenever they traveled, he’d never jumped into their conversations before. Cinza trusted him without reserve, and after a while, Ruby had done the same. Still, into one of their personal conversations… Ruby felt like it was an intrusion somehow.

  On the other hand, he was always there for her. No matter what happened, Makoto was supportive. She couldn’t deny how much he meant to her, and if he had something to offer, she ought to listen.

  ”You think so?” she asked.

  ”Give him one chance,” said Makoto. “Only one. We will both be there. No matter what happens, it’s your choice.”

  ”But what if he…” Ruby trailed off, too afraid to voice it again.

  ”We won’t let him,” he said simply.

  Cinza nodded. “Nothing,” she reminded Ruby. “Neither man nor magic, no force will keep us apart.”

  Ruby nodded. “…Okay.”

 

 

***

 

 

  They pulled into Ruby’s neighborhood. She’d decided, since they were already near Tacoma, she might as well take a look at his house. Ruby wanted to see it to decide if she could really go through with it. With her help, Cinza managed a spell to lose all the news crews tailing them, creating a brief illusion to throw them off track while the invisible carriage left the highway and headed out into Ruby’s old world.

  Hannah’s world. Not mine. Well… it is mine. I’ve never really separated the two like Cinza. If Cinza even has two. She always seems like there’s so many more than that.

  They drove through the streets she’d grown up on, one by one. Ruby tensed a little, but so far, it wasn’t too bad. Her fingers never broke their interlocking grip with Cinza’s, but she could handle it. If anything, returning to her home was surreal, rather than scary. 

  ”It looks exactly the same,” she murmured.

  ”The suburbs always do,” said Cinza with a faint smile.

  ”No, I mean… everything. It’s all right where I left it.” She turned left and right, looking out their carriage. Nothing had changed at all. The whole place was quiet and still, a static painting broken only by birds and the occasional car, or children hanging out in a front yard.

  As her house came into view, Ruby froze up. It was exactly as she’d left it. Hadn’t changed an inch. There wasn’t a single person outside, either. She’d expected the press, or even just someone from the neighborhood… but it was empty. The house didn’t look dead—the lights were on inside—but the whole idea seemed more foreboding.

  If the outside hadn’t changed… 

  ”He’s home,” she whispered, pointing at his car in the driveway.

  Cinza nodded. “And no one is here. We may not get another opportunity such as this, if they’re all looking for us elsewhere.”

  Ruby nodded, though her skin crawled with anxiety and pent-up emotions she could barely describe. She needed this, but at the same time, she was terrified to go inside. They stepped out into the street. Makoto stayed with the vehicle again, as before—she had decided it was better he make sure they were covered.

  As long as I have Cin with me in there, I’ll be okay.

  They approached the door, and every step felt longer than the last. She rounded the fence, passed the tree she used to climb, spotted the creepy garden gnome statue she’d hidden under a bush and her father had never found. Memories flooded in, one after another, some good… most not.

  Through that door was everything she’d faced, everything she’d fled.

  ”Cin, I…”

  Cinza took her hand and kissed it gently. “We can leave. It’s up to you.”

  ”No.” Hearing her voice was enough to steel Ruby’s resolve. She brushed her crimson hair out of her face and stood up straight. “I need to do this.”

  Except… she couldn’t bring herself to knock, or ring the bell. She stared at it for minutes, the clock in her head ticking away every passing second. A car rumbled by far in the distance, and a fire engine siren kicked on. The world kept turning while Ruby stood, totally still on her front porch, desperate to knock on her father’s front door.

  ”Can you…” she whispered.

  Cinza nodded. She reached up and gently pressed the doorbell. It echoed through the house, in a way vaguely reminiscent of Cinza’s voice. The idea strengthened Ruby again—that somehow Cinza might have influence even in this place, though of course the connection was absurd.

  She heard the sound of movement inside. Every muscle tensed up. Ruby stared straight forward, eyes tracing the woodgrains in the door. It had recently been painted. She wondered if their neighbor did it. He was a painter.

  The door swung open.

  ”…Hannah?”

  Ashley Newman, known to most of the world as Ash, stood before them. To Ruby’s shock, as her eyes finally broke away from their dead-eyed forward lock, he did look different. The beer gut was gone, his shirt looked clean, his jeans didn’t have holes in them. He hadn’t shaved, but it still looked better than the unkempt stubble he used to wear.

  He’d changed.

  So have I, Ruby reminded herself, taking Cinza’s hand firmly in her own. She couldn’t yet muster up a word in response, and Cinza took her grip as a cue to speak.

  ”Ruby came to speak with you,” said Cinza, without a hint of hostility on Ruby’s name. “As requested.”

  ”…Yeah,” said Ash finally, blinking as if he’d just woken up. He glanced around. “Just the two of you?”

  ”Yes and no.”

  ”Well…” Ash glanced back at Ruby. She nearly winced under his gaze, but managed to stay firm, her eyes locked on a spot near—but not quite at—his head. “It’s good to see you again. I…” He trailed off, clearly trying to come up with something to say. Eventually, he turned back to Cinza. “Can I talk to my girl alone?”

  Ruby tensed up again, and her love noticed. Cinza squeezed Ruby’s hand briefly before she replied. 

  ”I will be blunt with you, Mr. Newman, because I don’t yet respect you enough to be polite. I don’t trust you. Ruby has told me about her entire life, from beginning to end, in every painful and heartbreaking detail. If we had not been visited by the police today, I doubt we would ever have come within many miles of this house. Ruby has elected to give you a second chance, because she is a person full of love and compassion, but I am too protective of her to allow even the slightest chance of her coming to harm.”

  Ashley’s eyes screwed up as Cinza talked. He’s never been that smart, really… and he isn’t used to how Cinza speaks. Finally, after a full minute or so, he finally responded. “Okay. Do you both want to come inside?”

  ”That would be best, I think.” Cinza stepped in as Ash cleared the way, leading Ruby gently by the hand. 

  They walked into the living room, where Ruby sat down in her favorite chair. A memory flashed through her brain as she did—the first time she’d brought home another girl, making out in that chair… and her dad coming home without them noticing, shouting, punching Ruby while the other girl ran away, hurting her.

  Cinza’s with me. I’ll be okay. In fact, Cinza was sitting in the same chair as her now—they were both small enough to share it easily, and Ruby absolutely did not want her anywhere further than that.

  ”Wendy isn’t home,” Ash said abruptly, referring to Ruby’s step-mother. “Do you want anything to drink?” he added, clearly uncomfortable with the radiant Cinza sharing a chair with his daughter. Her hair had returned to its bright silvery-grey before they came in, while her tattoos and jewelry seemed to shine even though they weren’t anywhere near a direct light.

  ”Water would be nice, thank you,” said Cinza politely.

  Once he’d returned with three glasses of water, ice and everything, Ruby had finally built up enough confidence to say something. “Hi Dad.”

  ”…Hi Hannah,” said Ashley.

  No. “That’s not my name,” said Ruby firmly, shaking her head. “Not anymore.”

  ”Your…” Ashley nodded. “Sorry. I just… you know why we named you that, right?”

  ”No,” said Ruby, surprised. She’d never heard him talk about the past, except for drunk ramblings about her mother, the one she’d never known. “Why?”

  ”That was your mom’s sister’s name. She… got the same thing your mom did,” said Ashley. He took a sip of water before continuing. “Your mother wanted to name someone after her sister, and you happened to be born a day after she… after she passed.”

  ”Oh.” Ruby faltered. She felt genuinely touched. Cinza squeezed her hand again, giving her the strength to speak. “Okay… that’s… yeah. But it’s still…”

  ”It’s not your name,” said Ashley, nodding slightly. “If you wanna be called Ruby, then you can be called Ruby. It’ll be a bit before I get there though, okay kiddo?”

  ”Okay,” said Ruby, in a very small voice.

  He’s being so… so understanding. Even with me and Cinza practically in each other’s laps here, forcing him to learn a new name, all of this… I don’t understand what’s happening.

  Did I misjudge him?

  Thankfully—or perhaps not, in retrospect—her father gave her a reason to doubt again. “I see you’re still…” Ash trailed off again, glancing awkwardly at Cinza.

  ”Yes,” said Ruby firmly, centering herself on her father’s shortcomings. “I’m still gay.”

  ”That’s…” Ashley trailed off. The whole conversation seemed to be awkward pauses and painful communication between them, with only Cinza able to speak in full sentences.

  ”Your daughter and I are in love,” said Cinza gently, obviously trying to be diplomatic. “She saved my life, and I have never felt closer to another human being in all the world.”

  ”And she’s really been all over the world,” added Ruby, seizing on something she really could handle.

  ”Not true,” said Cinza with a sigh. “Parts, but I’ve yet to experience so many cultures and places I would love to visit. But my life has taken me to very interesting places, no doubt.”

  ”Where would you go if you could, right now?”

  ”Not counting the Greywood?” asked Cinza with a twinkle in her eye. “I’ve always wanted to visit Korea, actually. I’ve a friend there whom I’ve never truly met, and I would love to finally connect with them.”

  Them… must be Tezofarl then. I’ve never heard her mention any other non-binary friends. I didn’t know they were in South Korea. 

  ”That sounds fun. Let’s make it an adventure someday.” Ruby smiled, gesturing upward. “Perhaps we’ll have learned to fly by then, and we can soar across the oceans like the new goddess, wings asplendor.”

  Cinza raised an eyebrow. “Have we elevated Hailey to such a state?”

  ”Would you come home?” asked Ash, interrupting them. Ruby’s brief feelings of comfort faded, lost in the painful weight of her father’s question. She took a long time to answer, working up the courage once again under the weight of a threat she still felt under his gaze.

  ”This isn’t home,” she whispered.

  Her father’s eyes narrowed. “Can I…” Ash hesitated, setting aside his water and leaning forward. “Can I speak with Ruby alone, please?”

  Ruby tensed up again. She shook her head, too nervous to speak as the fears came flooding back inside.

  Cinza sighed. “Again, to be forward with you, that will not happen. Under no circumstances can I allow you to be alone with her today. Nor tomorrow. Maybe someday in the future, if we choose to trust you again, but it will be Ruby’s choice. Until we feel safe with you, Ruby will always have me by her side.”

  ”Who are you, anyway?” asked Ash, rounding on Cinza, the first time he’d really shown emotions in their whole conversation. “Why should I listen to you? Who are you to speak for my daughter?”

  ”I am just another wayward girl in a terrifying world,” said Cinza. “Ruby found me, brought me back to life, and together we built a home for all who shared our hopes and dreams. I have spoken to kings and presidents, and dined with the richest and poorest alike. I have seen cities crumble and castles raised, and I have fought against the gods themselves and won. I am that which you cannot bend to your will, and my heart belongs only to the girl who sits next to me, she whom you claim as your daughter, whose voice is bridled by no one except herself. 

  ”So tell me, Mr. Newman,” finished Cinza, “who are you to speak for my beloved?”

  Ashley stood up suddenly, all pretense of politeness gone. “What the fuck is this?”

  Ruby leapt to her feet too. Cinza’s speech had moved her more than her love could possibly know. She had someone forever on her side, more powerful than anything they could ever face. Her dad was nothing compared to their bond.

  ”This is me, Dad,” said Ruby, with all the confidence and conviction she could muster, just like Yusuf taught her. “She’s my girlfriend, my love, my whole world. What more do you want?”

  ”I want you to come home,” he snapped. “Live with me like we used to. Like your mom would’ve wanted. Stop all of this and just come back.”

  ”Come back to what?” said Ruby, her voice rising in unison with his own. “Come back to you beating me every night you come home drunk? Come back to being called a dyke and a bitch? You scaring away my girlfriend in the middle of the night in the pouring rain? Telling me you were glad Mom never saw me turn out like that?”

  ”I was trying to protect you,” said Ash. “Yeah, I screwed up. I shouldn’t have hit you. But you need to stop acting like a child.”

  ”Who’s acting like a child?” said Ruby, tears in her eyes. “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you see I’m happy? Tell the cops to leave me alone!”

  ”You think I like dealing with cops?” His voice increased in fury. “I had to. You’re in danger. I did it for you, Hannah.”

  ”My name is Ruby!” she cried out, and a gout of flame erupted in front of her. She hadn’t meant for it, but when she got emotional, she frequently dove into her spellcasting without meaning to. It burst forth, a wave of heat through the whole room.

  Ash stumbled backward, eyes wide. “I love you,” he whispered. “I just want you to be home and safe.”

  ”I’m not safe here,” said Ruby. “This isn’t home. This is hell.”

  Without letting him respond, without another word, Ruby turned. She burst out of the house, tears streaming down her cheeks. One of the neighbor kids was outside, playing in his front yard. He stared at her, dressed in her immaculate cloak, makeup smeared and ruined, hair scattered across her face. The kid lifted a hand, pointing at her, mouth open.

  ”What do you want?” she shouted. 

  He jumped, terrified, and ran inside his house.

  Ruby cursed herself. Now she was shouting at kids, just like her dad. Prone to violence, summoning fire when she got upset. She stumbled forward to the carriage and fell inside, crawling up to the wide rear seat and curling up into a ball.

  She cried, so thick she felt like she might choke, sobbing as she hadn’t done since she met Cinza. Everything hurt, everything felt awful. She’d faced him, and it had brought everything back. Worse, in some ways. She just wanted to shut out the whole world, go back to her cabin, hide, be with her family and far away from the man who called himself that.

  A hand fell on her shoulder. Ruby grasped at it, only to find it wasn’t the small fingers she expected, but someone larger and more solid.

  ”…’koto?” she mumbled, glancing up slightly.

  ”Let it out,” he said quietly.

  She didn’t bother to question him. Makoto wasn’t exactly someone to be questioned anyway, especially since he spoke so little. She kept crying, holding onto his hand, safe in the carriage she’d helped to build, with a guy who was practically a brother to her.

  …And I treated him so badly this morning…

  ”I’m sorry,” she mumbled, forcing it through the slowly diminishing sobs.

  ”For what?”

  ”Running away.” It felt like lifetimes ago now, after what she’d just gone through. “I should’ve… should’ve told you something. Not just done that.”

  ”It’s fine.”

  ”It’s not though,” said Ruby. She didn’t move, except to adjust her head slightly on the cushions to something more comfortable, but she kept a firm grip on his hand. “You’re really important to me. You’re like family. I just… blew you off.”

  ”I understand,” he said, his voice gentle and calm as always.

  ”But—”

  ”I know you don’t like guys,” he went on, to her surprise. “I didn’t think it would go anywhere.”

  ”Then… why did you tell me?”

  ”Our life is full of people who lie,” said Makoto. “We all trust each other. I didn’t want you to be in the dark anymore.”

  ”…Oh,” said Ruby. “I mean… I did kinda know already. I just… wasn’t sure you would ever ask.”

  ”I wasn’t either,” said Makoto. She could practically hear the smile in his tone. “Cinza told me to while we were in the helicopter chasing Lily, and I still didn’t.”

  ”So… what now?” she asked. “Are we gonna be… okay?”

  ”Of course.” Makoto squeezed her hand gently, and though it gave her nothing like what she felt with Cinza, it was still a sort of comfort—something like Yusuf, or Matthew or Rufus or Aaron. “We’ll both be with Cinza until the day we die. That makes us family.”

  ”Yeah,” said Ruby. She looked up at him, a smile finally crossing her face. “Family, for sure.” She frowned. “Why are you with Cinza though? I mean… the rest of the Greycloaks aren’t anything like me and you. I know why I am, but…” She winced. “If it’s not too personal.”

  He shook his head. “Cinza saved my life too.”

  Footsteps approaching made them both fall silent. Makoto glanced outside, making sure they were safe—and they were, as it was only Cinza finally returning. She took a seat on the other side of Ruby, and immediately began to brush her hair as she did earlier. “I’m so sorry, Ruby.”

  ”It’s okay.”

  ”I see Makoto was here in my absence,” she added, smiling at their companion.

  ”Yeah. We worked some stuff out, too.” Ruby sat up, wrapping her arms around Cinza. “Thank you.”

  ”I am always here for you,” said Cinza gently, hugging her back.

  Ruby planted a kiss on her lips. “Not just that. It’s all gone. I’m not confused anymore.”

  ”Hmm?”

  ”It doesn’t matter now,” she went on. She took Makoto’s hand as well, holding on to them both. “We’ll face whatever comes. No matter what happens, us three, we’re together. He’s not worth thinking about anymore. I got to say what I needed to.”

  ”I don’t think it will be so easy,” said Cinza. She glanced toward the house with a sigh. “He seems determined to cause us problems, and we may have only exacerbated that today.”

  ”And we’ll deal with it,” said Ruby. She kissed Cinza again. “You showed me a world to believe in, one worth living in. You gave me my life, and the most perfect person in the world to share it with. I couldn’t imagine anything better.”

  ”There’s so much more left to do.”

  ”And we have all the time in the world to do it.” Ruby smiled. “Don’t forget. It’s a new year, and we’re together, from now until the end of eternity.”

Dissension — Chapter 5

3 thoughts on “Interlude XIII

  1. AN IMPORTANT UPDATE

    So, if you hang out on Discord (or if you’re a Patreon subscriber, you got this news two weeks ago), you may have heard the rumblings: Etzy is taking a break.

    Now, this break was actually planned a little while back, to encompass the month of March and be back just in time for April. I was in a bit of a creative rut while also dealing with some major life difficulties, and it was causing me to fall behind on TLS to a degree that would reduce the quality of the story beyond what I was willing to post. It was all nice and neat, I’d be gone from posting for exactly 28 days, we’d come back, there wouldn’t be a hiatus tag, all would be well.

    If you read my stories, you should know by now that nothing ever goes that easy. Cue a global pandemic.

    I’ve mentioned before that I work in the healthcare industry, specifically in IT. As you can imagine, we’re now working a lot. I’m suddenly working from home, working overtime every day, and assisting with massively increased workloads to support our enterprise which also suddenly needs to have a huge increase in work from home employees. It’s a mess.

    So, with that in mind, as with so much of the world right now, TLS will be on hiatus until further notice. I do have a few more chapters written past this already, and I fully expect to get back into my usual swing without too much trouble. Last year, I took a six month break from writing and came back without missing a beat. None of my readers have yet been able to point out in which chapter this break occurred, something I’m quite proud of.

    However, given how crazy and unpredictable the world is, I can’t give an exact estimate. I hope it’s soon. I will still be on Discord occasionally to chat, and I’ll still be trying to write like usual every week. If I managed to start writing chapters regularly, you’ll get them here again. In the meantime, stay safe, be good, and I’ll see you again soon.

    i love you

    —etzy💙

Leave a Comment!