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It was seven minutes after eleven PM, and Dustin Kropp’s cousin was dead.

She lay sprawled on the ground, her skin tight and ashen. Unblinking brown eyes stared up at the sky, glazed over as if she were simply lost in a daydream. Dustin could almost make himself believe that was the case, that any second now she would snap back to reality and ask Dustin how long she’d been staring off into space for. But then his eyes traveled to the gaping wound that had just been delivered to her stomach, and he knew that his cousin was gone.

As he bit his lip in a futile attempt to keep himself from crying, he looked up from her body and towards her killer, a man standing overhead, a mask around his nose and mouth and a hood pulled up over his forehead. The man could have attacked Dustin- he had plenty of time. But for some bizarre reason, the masked man refrained from even attempting to strike him.

“I hope you’re happy.” Dustin spat as tears welling up in his eyes and his throat began to sting. He tried to stop the tears, to not give this man the satisfaction of seeing him cry.

Though most of the man’s expression was unreadable due to the mask, Dustin could see his eyes- brown, with surprising emotion inside them.

Dustin couldn’t see the man’s mouth, so it almost appeared as though there was a third person when he, surprisingly, replied to Dustin’s question.

“I’m not.”

***

Earlier that day...

And more mysterious deaths have been occurring around the province, causing extra police officers to be stationed around the city at night. Investigators note that there are still no leads in the case, and that if any citizens out there have evidence or tips, send them in at the anonymous hotline provided on the Ilta Police website. Now, on to Janis Sarkisian with sports.

Thanks, Damien. Now, our local basketball team, the Wolves, played the Adar Tigers last night and won with a score of thirty-seven to eighteen...

Dustin reached out and turned the radio dial down, muting the voices of the news anchors. He didn’t care much about basketball scores, but the first part of the broadcast worried him. And not just the part about the mysterious deaths.

As he pulled into the driveway of his cousin’s house, the newscast still gnawed at the back of his mind. However, he put on a smile as he rang the doorbell, not wanting to worry his niece or cousin-in-law.

“Dustin!” A little girl around six years old opened the door. She looked so much like her mother- tawny beige skin, angular brown eyes, short black hair.

“Hey, Harmony.” Dustin grinned. “How’ve you been?”

“Awesome.” Harmony responded. “Last week we had a field trip to the nature center, and Ms. MacNamara taught us how to make leaf rubbings! Wanna see?”

“Sure.” Dustin said, and Harmony grabbed his wrist and dragged him through the front door. After pausing to shut the door behind him, Dustin turned and followed Harmony into the living room.

She led him to the coffee table, which had pieces of paper strewn all over it, as well as crayons and various leaves. “You just take the leaf and put it under the paper, and then you draw on top of it with a crayon and you can see the leaf on top of the paper!” Harmony smiled, showing her missing front tooth, as she demonstrated the process, holding up the finished product for Dustin to see when she was done. “Pretty cool, huh?”

“Definitely cool.” Dustin said, and when he saw Harmony smile, he just had to smile himself.

“The lady at the nature center had earth magic, Dustin, and it was so cool! She bent the trees down so we could grab the good leaves off the branches, because all the leaves on the ground had holes. But she told us not to do that very often, because it hurts the trees if you do it too much.” Harmony gestured to the various leaves on the coffee table. “I grabbed all of these off of the ground.”

“Pretty smart.” Dustin nodded when he saw the leaves.

“Have you ever seen someone with earth magic?” Harmony asked, her brown eyes wide with curiosity.

“Oh yeah. Plenty of times. I’ve seen people with fire magic, too. And air magic, and water magic...”

“What about light magic?” Harmony interrupted.

Dustin tried not to let the worry show on his face as he answered, “Light magic users don’t exist anymore, Harmony. Remember?”

“Oh, yeah.” Harmony said, looking mildly disappointed, but that quickly disappeared as she returned to her leaf rubbings.

“Dustin! I didn’t know you’d come in.”

Dustin turned around to see his cousin, Christine Canigula, a pencil tucked behind her ear and a smile on her face.

“Hey, Christie. Harmony was just showing me her leaf rubbings.” Dustin stood up.

“Oh yeah. She’s been making a lot of them since that field trip.” Christine smiled at Harmony, who looked up.

“They’re so cool!” Harmony chirped, holding up another piece of paper with the imprint a maple leaf in pink crayon.

“Yeah, they are.” Christine said. “Hey, Harmony, could you move your coloring into the playroom for a bit? Me and Dustin have to talk about boring adult stuff for a little bit.”

“Like what?” Harmony asked.

“Oh, you know, taxes. Jobs. Homeownership.” Christine counted off the items on her hand as she spoke, giving Dustin an almost imperceptible wink.

Harmony wrinkled her nose. “Boring.” She gathered up the paper, crayons, and leaves into her arms and began walking down the hallway towards the playroom.

“Thank you, sweetie.” Christine called after Harmony, but as soon as the door to the playroom shut, she turned back to Dustin, her expression suddenly severe. “I’m assuming you didn’t come here just to chat.”

Dustin shook his head. “Did you see the news?”

“I haven’t been able to. I didn’t want Harmony to freak out.” Christine bit her lip, “Is it bad?”

“More ‘mysterious deaths’ have been popping up around the city. And they still can’t figure out who did it. All those deaths, and not so much as a lead.”

“You’re saying that it’s suspicious.” Christine’s eyebrows raised the slightest bit.

“It’s strange.” Dustin said.

“So you want us to...” Christine paused and looked around, almost as if scanning for invisible eavesdroppers. “...meet up tonight?”

Dustin nodded. “Same place, same time. Michael’s working tonight, so I’ll be able to leave and come back like nothing ever happened.”

“I’ll tell Harmony and Jeremy I have a meeting with a potential client.” Christine said.

“All right. So it’s agreed.”

Christine gave a short nod. “Agreed.”

“I’ll see you tonight.” Dustin smiled and pulled Christine into a hug, which was returned.

“You could stay for dinner, you know.” Christine said.

“No, I’ll say bye to Michael before he leaves for work.” Dustin replied.

“Okay. See you tonight.”

When Dustin stepped out onto the front porch, he paused for a second. After looking around carefully to make sure there was absolutely no one observing him, he opened his palm and let a small amount of magical energy loose from his veins, hoping that the magic in the atmosphere would meet it. To his relief, it did.

Using his magic felt like finally taking in air after holding his breath for an absurdly long time. He didn’t get to do this often- even doing it now was a risk. Still, he savored the small moment, watching the energy dance around in his palm. Before he closed his fingers to snuff out the small spark of magic, he took in the whole sight- the golden light, the warm feeling, and the sheer power of the light magic that he was carrying.

***

Being a light magic user had never been easy in this world, but especially not in Ilta. Dustin had the unfortunate luck to be born a light magic user in the very province that hated light magic the most, and from a young age he had learned to reign in his power. To shove it down. He was constantly having to fight the urge for that magical energy to escape, because doing so would result in him becoming another ‘mysterious’ death on the nightly news.

Both him and Christine learned to convince people they were powerless- a rare ailment, something looked down upon by society, but not nearly as much so as being a light magic user. Sure, Dustin and Christine had more trouble compared to people who could use their magic openly, but it was better than being dead. Small moments alone were the only time Dustin risked letting his power go, and it felt incredible. When he performed magic after keeping it hidden for so long, it was like he had been keeping all of his muscles tensed and then suddenly relaxed them all at once. It felt freeing. Powerful. He almost never wanted to reign in his power again.

But he had to. He’d seen too many of his family members die from not keeping their powers a secret. It wasn’t worth the risk of death for just a few precious moments of freedom.

Still hanging on to that feeling from the magic he performed on Christine’s porch, Dustin parked his car in the spot outside his apartment building. Some kids had drawn on the sidewalk with chalk, and though the kids weren’t around, Dustin stepped over the drawings- one of a pink and yellow butterfly and one of a red flower.

He got into the elevator- an absolute piece of shit that Dustin was amazed he hadn’t died in yet- and pressed the button for the third floor. The elevator began to creak upwards, the single light flickering from the sudden movement, and Dustin contemplated for the third time that month if he should send the landlord a letter. On the walls, someone had carved out an obscene message to someone named Stephen, and clearly nobody had bothered to paint over it.

The elevator door opened up at the third floor, and Dustin exited while saying a small prayer of thanks for the fact that the elevator hadn’t broken down while he was in it. He walked up to the third door on his left, taking in the chipped paint and the splinters, then put his key in the lock and opened the door. Or more accurately, jammed the key into the lock and spent several minutes trying to get the damn thing to turn already.

He opened the door and entered the apartment, letting the familiar feeling wash over him. This place might have been a dump with a death trap elevator, but it was home.

“Dustin!” Dustin’s boyfriend Michael Mell sat up when he saw Dustin come in.

“Hey, babe.” Dustin smiled as he leaned down and gave Michael a short kiss. Michael was dressed in his work clothes- a white button-down shirt and black pants. He had night shift at the tech company he worked at, so he usually left for work around dinnertime.

“Cecil missed you.” Michael said, and as if on cue, the small black cat on the coffee table rolled over and meowed.

“I was gone for, like, an hour.” Dustin rolled his eyes, but reached down and scratched Cecil behind the ears. “What’d you do while I was gone?”

“Played some video games. The usual.” Michael said. Gaming was one of his hobbies, and he never seemed to get tired of it.

“Anything interesting happen?” Dustin asked.

Michael pretended to think, then responded, “The fan broke.”

Dustin had to laugh. The fan had been broken for a week now. “We should really call someone about that.”

“Good idea.” Michael nodded. “You should do it while I’m gone.”

“That’s funny. As far as I recall, you don’t have to leave for another...” Dustin looked down to check his watch. “Fifteen minutes.”

“Well, I’ll be busy during those fifteen minutes.” Michael said.

“Doing what?”

“This.” Michael leaned in and gave Dustin another kiss, the rims of his glasses pressing up against Dustin’s face. Dustin leaned into the kiss, not able to suppress the small smile that crept up on him.

“You’re a real jerk.” Dustin scoffed, but he still smiled.

“Yeah, I love you too.”

The kiss grew a little more passionate, a little more hungry. Michael even nipped slightly at Dustin’s bottom lip, which made Dustin shiver just a little at the amazing feeling it gave him. That feeling was the closest thing to magic he could get and still be safe. The warmth of being pressed up against Michael, the feeling of closeness, the knowledge that both of them were fully and wholeheartedly there...

Scratch that, it was better than magic.

The tips of Dustin’s fingers found the waistband of Michael’s pants, but he stopped there. Michael did have work soon... it was probably best if he didn’t get distracted any more than he already was.

When the two finally pulled apart, Michael was smiling and Dustin could feel himself doing the same.

“Remind me to do that more often.” Michael said.

“Do that more often.” Dustin responded, and Michael chuckled.

“I need to get going.” After pressing one last soft kiss to Dustin’s lips, Michael stood up. “See you in the morning.”

“Love you.” Dustin gave Michael a small wave as his boyfriend exited the apartment and shut the door behind him.

Despite the amazing feeling Dustin got from kissing Michael, there was a small part of him that felt guilty. Not even Michael knew he was a light magic user- only Christine knew, just like he was the only one that knew about her. Michael still thought Dustin was a Powerless- he’d thought that from the day they’d met, and he still didn’t love Dustin any less because of it. Dustin wanted to tell Michael... longed to tell him. But that small part of him, the part that he’d trusted since childhood to guide him, was holding him back. Michael was a night magic user, after all, and though he’d never once expressed negative feelings towards light magic users, Dustin still didn’t know the risk. Maybe Michael would keep his secret. There was a very large chance that he would, in fact. But then there was that small chance, that sliver of doubt... that was the part that could cost Dustin his life.

He felt horrible distrusting Michael like that, but it was the only way for him to stay alive.

The only way for him to stay with Michael was to lie to him.

***

That night, after eating dinner alone in the apartment and filling Cecil’s food bowl, Dustin put on a grey hooded sweatshirt and tied a bandanna over his nose and mouth. He didn’t take the front door- that carried too much risk of being spotted. Instead, he opened the window and climbed out onto the fire escape attached to the side of the building. Shutting the window behind him and leaving it open just a smidge, Dustin made his way down the fire escape and into the city.

He walked through the back alleys, with his head down and his eyes and ears open. He traveled further and further through the city, with no maps to go off of, just his own familiarity with this route, until he finally came to the spot he was supposed to meet Christine at. Right between two tall office buildings, which were now empty of workers. An iron ladder ran up the wall of one building: Dustin’s route up. He set one foot on the first rung to test it, and when it held, he lifted his other foot off the ground and onto the second rung. The metal creaked ominously, but held fast as Dustin made his way up and onto the roof of the office building.

Once on the roof, it didn’t take long for him to find Christine, crouched near the edge and staring down at the streets below. She was dressed in nearly the same way that he was- her nose and mouth obscured, a hood pulled up over her hair.

“Christine.” Dustin said, crouching down next to her.

“Hey, Dustin.” Christine responded.

“It’s a beautiful night.” Dustin looked out at the city, and Christine’s shoulders relaxed. That was their code phrase they had in place- it let the other person know that they were safe up there. If there was some sort of danger Christine couldn’t see, like if Dustin was being followed or a security drone was filming them, Dustin could signal the danger by saying “It’s not the best night to be up here.”

“Did you see anything on your way here?” Christine asked.

Dustin shook his head. “Nope. Just a stray cat that hissed at me and ran off.”

Christine chuckled. “I think it’s safe to say that’s not our guy.”

“I don’t know, he looked very suspicious to me.” Dustin joked, and for a moment, the tense atmosphere dissolved.

“I haven’t seen anything either.” Christine reached up and rested her cheek on her knuckles.

“Do you think we will?” Dustin asked.

“With all those ‘mysterious deaths’?” Christine raised her eyebrows. “I’d bet money on it.”

“You’d probably win that bet.” A third voice sounded out from behind them, and both cousins immediately turned around and stood up, steeling themselves for a fight.

The figure that had spoken was a man, dressed in all black, with a hood pulled up over his forehead and a tight purple cloth pulled over his nose and mouth. Something glowed in his hands... night magic.

“Little late for a midnight stroll.” The figure said, raising a hand. The trail of magic followed his movement, glowing an eerie purple against the backdrop of the dark sky. His voice was almost unnaturally deep- he must have been using some kind of voice changer.

“Funny you mentioned that.” Christine said, opening her hand. A glowing ball of light energy formed in the palm of her hand, illuminating her angry face. “We were just leaving.”

Christine wound her hand back and threw the ball of light magic at the mysterious man, who countered it with a ray of night magic. The two beams of energy collided in midair, sending out a wave of energy that Dustin had to use all of his strength to avoid. Almost instantly, the man primed up another charge of night magic to launch at the two of them.

“That shouldn’t be possible.” Dustin said through gritted teeth as he conjured up a shield just in time to deflect the blow. The ray of night energy bounced off the shield and up into the night sky, glowing like a comet.

“He’s trying to force us to the edges.” Christine said, summoning another ball of energy in her palm. “Get back.”

Dustin did as she said and jumped backward as Christine flung the energy towards the user, who dodged it and sent a bolt of energy back in her direction. Christine dropped to the ground, the magic sailing over her head and down towards the street. A scream went up, but Dustin didn’t dare look back to see who made it. He focused on the masked man only.

“Hey, jackass.” Dustin summoned up a ball of light magic energy and chucked it at the man. “Chew on this!”

This time, Dustin got lucky. He landed a hit on the man’s lower back, which caused him to yell out in pain and turn around to face Dustin, fury in his eyes. The man took something off of his belt- a knife with a serrated blade. He raised the knife, and before Dustin could do anything-

He brought it down.

The point of the knife scratched against Dustin’s left eye, sending a white-hot spike of pain through his head. Dustin gasped and fell to the ground, clutching his eye and feeling something warm drip onto his hand... he didn’t even want to think about what it could be.

He couldn’t see out of the eye that the man had scratched, but through the tears of pain blurring his one good eye, he could see the man raise his knife to strike again.

“No!” Christine yelled, and a shield went up between Dustin and the man, sending Dustin backwards a few feet. He panted for breath, still clutching his injured eye with one hand and rubbing his good eye frantically with the other to try and get the tears out so he could see.

After managing to clear his good eye, Dustin turned to face the man, who was now gearing up a bolt of energy to throw at Christine. Christine was backing up, obviously contemplating her options- she didn’t have enough magic to make a shield. Dustin looked down and saw that Christine was standing close to the edge, dangerously close, and before he could consider what else to do, he called out.

“Christine! The edge!”

“What?!” Christine broke her gaze away from the man and looked at Dustin, and that was when the bolt of night energy hit her in the stomach. She clutched her abdomen, her eyes wide, almost as if she was in shock. Then, without another word, she stumbled backward and over the edge of the building.

“Christine!” Dustin yelled, scrambling to the edge of the roof. Far below, he saw her limp form, and something welled up inside of him... anger.

“No!” He yelled, and something inside him snapped.

A wave of energy unlike anything Dustin had ever released before poured out from him, and he somehow managed to ride this wave of energy down to the ground until it deposited him next to Christine.

“Christie...” He gasped... taking in the horrible gaping wound on her abdomen, the blood staining her clothing- Oh God, there’s so much blood.

“D-Dustin?” Christine coughed, dark blood coming out of her mouth.

“Christie, you’re gonna be okay, I’ll get you some help, I promise...”

“Dustin, take care of Harmony.” Christine’s voice was shaking, but strangely calm. “And tell Jeremy...” She gasped, as if the very effort of speaking strained her. “Tell Jeremy how much I love him.”

“No. I won’t have to tell them that, because you’re not going to die, Christie-“ Dustin felt his own words get interrupted by a sob escaping his mouth.

“I love you, Dustin. Don’t stop fighting. No matter what, don’t stop fighting.”

And with that, Christine’s head rolled back, her eyes becoming strange and lifeless, like those of a porcelain doll. Her skin lost its color, becoming ashy and tight.

She’s dead.

Dustin couldn’t suppress the sob that escaped his mouth, but once he heard footsteps behind him, that sob turned into a growl of rage. He turned around and, with his one good eye, saw Christine’s killer standing over him, his brown eyes strangely emotional.

“I hope you’re happy.” Dustin growled.

“I’m not.”

And with that, the man was gone, with only the sound of police sirens filling the silence in the night.

“I’m so, so sorry, Christie.” Dustin let out another sob as he stood up and ran down the alleyway, leaving his cousin’s body behind.

Everything seemed so confusing as he ran, and he didn’t even notice the pain in his eye. It felt like the buildings around him were tumbling down, burying him beneath bricks and mortar.

Christine is dead. She’s dead. She’s not coming back, she’s dead. She’s dead.

Like a broken record, his mind could only repeat those two words as he ran, stumbling up the fire escape and through the window, into the kitchen. He pulled a drawer open with a clatter, tearing out the first aid kit that he and Michael kept there. As Dustin’s fist tightened around a roll of bandages, a familiar voice, filled with concern, rang out from behind him.

“Dustin?”

Dustin turned around to see Michael, who had his hand over his mouth, his eyes traveling from what was left of Dustin’s eye to Dustin’s face.

“So,” Dustin sighed, “I guess you’re wondering what happened to my left eye.”

Chapter Text

“Oh my God...” Michael gaped at the bloody wound on Dustin’s face. “Babe, what happened?”

“I’ll explain later...” Dustin paused, letting another sob escape his mouth, partly from the pain, but mostly from the knowledge that his cousin was gone. “But for right now, I would really like to get a bandage over this.”

Michael nodded grimly and grabbed the bandages out of Dustin’s hand. “Do you want me to clean it, or...”

Dustin nodded. Enough had happened tonight, he didn’t need an infected wound on top of all of it. Michael grabbed an alcohol swab out of the first aid kid and dabbed gently at the edges of the wound, sending small flares of pain up. Dustin winced slightly, and Michael gave him an apologetic look. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay.” Dustin said.

After a few more minutes of cleaning the wound, Michael put down the bloodied alcohol swab and grabbed the roll of bandages out of the first aid kit. “Here you go.” Michael applied the bandages over the wound. “That should stop the bleeding until we can get to a hospital.”

“Michael...” Dustin’s voice trailed off as he struggled to think of just how he was going to explain this to his boyfriend.

“What happened to you?” Michael asked, his expression filled with worry.

“It’s... a long story.”

“You can tell me anything. You know that, right?” Michael said.

Dustin took a deep breath. “You... you have to promise me that you won’t freak out.”

“Dustin, if this is about something dangerous-“

Dustin cut Michael off by opening up his hand and letting out the tiniest bit of magical energy, which the magic in the atmosphere quickly met and returned in another display of light magic. Michael gasped slightly, his eyes widening as he took in the sight.

“You... that’s... that’s light magic.” Michael gaped.

Dustin nodded grimly. “Yep.”

“I thought... you told me you were a Powerless.”

“I know. I lied. And I’m so, so sorry.” Dustin bit his lip.

“You... why did you lie to me?” Michael asked.

“Christ, Michael, you know that light magic users are illegal. I could have been killed.” Dustin said.

“You...” Michael’s shoulders sagged. “You’re right. But why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was scared. You never know what people will do to people like me, Mike. You just don’t know.” Dustin sighed. “I feel awful about it, I really do. I kept wanting to tell you, but... I got scared every time. And then as time went on, it just felt like it was too late to tell you. Like, after three years of dating, you can’t just be like ‘oh and by the way, I’m an illegal light magic user, okay, have a good day at work. I know that’s not an excuse. I just want... I just want you to know why I didn’t tell you.”

“Dustin, I would never do that to you.” Michael said.

“I know. But I got scared.”

“Not gonna lie, I don’t blame you.” Michael sighed. “I don’t... I don’t know if I can forgive you yet. But I still love you.”

Dustin exhaled in relief. “Me too.”

“Now that we have the pleasantries out of the way, what in the everloving fuck happened to your eye?” Michael asked.

“I...” Dustin bit his lip, and the choking feeling welled up in his throat again. “Christine and I were investigating.”

“Investigating what?” Michael asked, his eyes widening.

“You know how all those deaths have been popping up around the city with no leads?” Dustin asked. “We wanted to see if we could find anything.”

“You went out to do vigilante justice stuff?” Michael’s eyes widened even more. “That is fucking cool. But why?”

“Mike, you know how my parents died?” Dustin asked.

“No?” Michael looked confused.

“Violently and mysteriously. No leads. And my parents were light magic users.” Dustin choked back a sob. “Christine was too.”

“What do you mean was?” Michael asked, his face becoming clouded with worry.

“This guy showed up... he was so freakishly powerful. Like, he could do two spells in a row and not even get winded.”

“That’s impossible.” Michael said.

“It should have been. But he wiped the floor with us. He took out my eye with a knife- I only managed to land one hit on him, Mike. One. And his back was turned.”

“And what happened to Christine?”

“She...” Dustin let out a ragged gasp. “She put up a shield between me and the guy. He turned on her, backed her up to the edge of the roof. She didn’t have time to make another spell, and she was close to falling- I wasn’t even thinking. I called out and warned her about the edge, she got distracted... and he hit her.”

“Oh my God... she... did she?”

“She’s dead.” Dustin said, a sob coming out of his throat.

“Oh my God...”

“It’s my fault. I distracted her, she could have dodged it, she could have-“

“Hey, hey.” Michael put a hand on Dustin’s shoulder. “We... we can talk about this later. Right now, we need to get to the hospital.”

Words had left Dustin, but he managed a nod. He felt hollow, like someone had scooped out all of his insides and left the husk of a person behind.

Maybe that was just how you felt when the one person in the world who knew exactly what you were going through all the time was suddenly taken from you.

***

The next few days passed in a vicious blur. Getting treated for his eye at the hospital, hearing about Christine’s death on the radio, and finally, going to her funeral.

The doctors had to surgically remove his left eye, or, more accurately, what was left of it. He was going to get a prosthetic eye- it wouldn’t help him see normally, but it would help him not look like a guy who had stepped off a pirate ship. In the meantime, before getting his fake eye, he had something called a comforter behind his eyelid, which the surgeons had temporarily stitched shut. The only thing that remained of the wound was a pale scar that ran across his eyelid, standing out against his skin.

It felt so strange, having half of the world suddenly go dark just like that. He was looking over his left shoulder, trying to see the things that he just couldn’t see when he looked forward. Already, he’d spilled coffee when he was trying to pour it into a cup and missed the cup by a long shot. Of course Michael was helping, but his doctor said that it would be a long time before his body adjusted to, quote unquote, “monocular vision”.

Then came officially hearing of Christine’s death. The radio broadcast had come on the day he was released from the hospital, which coincidentally happened to be the same day that Christine’s body was found.

...and another body has been found, that of 28-year-old Christine Heere, a budding actress. Officials have ruled Heere’s death as an accidental fall, although citizens on the street below observed a bright flash of light and a figure fleeing from the scene. Heere left behind a husband and child, and us here at Ilta News send our continued well wishes and condolences to her family-

Dustin hit the pause button on the radio, bringing the anchors to a dead stop. Michael gave Dustin a concerned look, like he wanted to say something comforting but didn’t have the words.

The funeral was the worst part. Looking at Harmony, crying in the front pew through the entire thing, and Jeremy, staring ahead with an expression of total and complete shock... it felt like the knife that had severed his eye was back, twisting around and stinging an already agonizing wound. And seeing Christine in her coffin, wearing a blue dress with a lace trim, her expression almost peacefully asleep... that was the part that made Dustin lose his composure and start crying. The only thought running through his head was why.

Why didn’t I get to tell her how much I loved her? Why did I call out to her and get her distracted in the first place?

After the burial, Dustin went up to Jeremy, who was standing off to the side. Harmony was off talking to Christine and Dustin’s other cousin Carrie, who gave Dustin an understanding and sorrow-filled look as he walked up to Jeremy.

“Hey, Jeremy...” Dustin let his voice trail off, not even sure what he was going to say. “Are you... are you holding up okay? I can’t even imagine what you and Harmony are going through.”

“Thanks, Dustin.” Jeremy responded, and now that he was up close, Dustin could see the tears brimming in Jeremy’s eyes. “I’ve been holding up the best I can. Harmony... she’s pretty wrecked.”

“I could imagine.” Dustin sighed.

“How’s your eye doing?” Jeremy asked.

“Better.” Dustin found himself reaching up and touching his perpetually closed left eyelid, almost out of habit. “My doctor says I’ll be able to get fitted for a glass eye within a couple weeks.”

“That’s... good to hear.” Jeremy sighed. “Listen, Dustin, can I ask a huge favor of you?”

“Of course you can.” Dustin said. “What do you need?”

“Can Harmony... can she stay with you and Michael for a couple days?” Jeremy asked. “I need to get... Christine’s stuff in order, and I’d rather Harmony not see it. She’s having a tough enough time as it is.”

“Of course Harmony can stay with us.” Dustin said. “She’s always welcome.”

“Thank you so much, Dustin. It really... it really means a lot. You can just stop by the house on your way home to pick up some of her stuff.”

“Don’t mention it, Jeremy. Anything that helps you guys.” Dustin responded.

And with that, he walked over to where Carrie and Harmony were standing.

“Hey, Harmony.” Dustin said softly. Harmony turned to look at him, and Dustin saw that her eyes were rimmed with red.

“Hey, Dustin.” Harmony said, looking down at her feet.

“Your dad says that you’re going to be staying with me and Michael for a few days.” Dustin bit his lip. He knew what Harmony was going through- he’d lost his own parents too. But losing a parent at such a young age... that, Dustin couldn’t even fathom.

“Okay.” Harmony replied, and her voice seemed so small that it broke Dustin’s heart. “Are we leaving now?”

“Would you like to?” Dustin asked, and Harmony nodded.

“Bye, Carrie.” Harmony wrapped her arms around Carrie and hugged her, then broke apart from the hug and turned to Dustin.

“Hey, Dustin...” Carrie’s voice trailed off. She grabbed Dustin by the shoulder and lowered her voice to a whisper. “Don’t do anything rash, okay?”

Dustin nodded. “I won’t. Bye, Carrie.”

Carrie smiled sadly. “Goodbye, Dustin.”

The two of them walked through the funeral until they found Michael, who was staring off to the side looking around. When his eyes landed on Dustin, he relaxed. Then his gaze traveled to Harmony, and he looked at Dustin with a confused expression.

“Harmony is going to be staying with us for a few days.” Dustin said, nodding slightly at Michael.

Michael fixed his expression into a small, careful smile. “All right. Hey, Harmony.” He bent down so he was at Harmony’s level, and Harmony smiled weakly.

“Hey, Michael.” She said, clutching the fabric of her black skirt in her hands.

“Are you ready to go?” Dustin asked, more to Harmony then to Michael.

Harmony nodded slightly. “Uh-huh.”

“We need to stop at her house first, and get some of her things.” Dustin told Michael.

“All right. Do you know their address?” Michael asked, fishing his car keys out of his pocket.

Dustin nodded. “I’ll plug it into your GPS.”

The car ride to the Heere house was painfully silent. Michael turned on a radio station in an attempt to ease the atmosphere in the car, but even the music couldn’t make a dent in the deafening silence.

Getting to the house was almost worse. Less than a week ago, Dustin had been talking to Christine in this very house, and now Christine was gone. Seeing pictures of Christine everywhere in the house, walking by her open office door and seeing the stuff she’d left that no one had the heart to move... all of it kept reminding Dustin that Christine would have still been here if not for him.

Harmony’s room was so bright and colorful, it was almost easy to assume that everything was all right. Her walls, painted yellow with a mural of butterflies on one wall, were decorated with hand-drawn artwork. A paper lantern hung from the ceiling, illuminating the whole room in a warm and comforting glow. The only thing that brought Dustin back to reality was the picture on the nightstand, in a Popsicle-stick frame painted pink. The picture was of Harmony and her parents, standing underneath a sign for a kindergarten orientation. Everyone in the photo was smiling, blissfully unaware of the circumstances they would be thrown into just a year later. Dustin had to tear his gaze away from the frame as his right eye began to water, not wanting Harmony to see him crying.

“I got packed.” Harmony said, holding up her purple backpack. She had changed out of her black dress and into a yellow long-sleeved shirt and red skirt.

“What did you pack?” Dustin asked.

“Clothes and some toys.” Harmony handed the backpack to Dustin, who looked inside to confirm that Harmony had everything. Indeed, she had four outfits packed inside the backpack, along with a coloring book, a set of crayons, a toiletry bag with a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a pink stuffed bunny with a white ribbon tied around its neck.

“Looks like you’re all set.” Dustin remarked, and Harmony nodded in agreement.

“Yeah.” She gave Dustin a small smile, but her heart wasn’t in it.

“Let’s get going then.” Dustin put a hand on Harmony’s shoulder, and the two of them walked into the hallway, through the living room, and out to where Michael was waiting in the car, leaving the house behind them. Yet the feeling that had come over Dustin as he entered the house didn’t fade, no matter how much distance he put between himself and the building.

***

Back at the apartment building, Dustin had given Harmony some dinner in the form of a microwaved Kraft macaroni and cheese, and was now sitting beside her on the couch, watching colorful animated characters dance around on a screen as they tried to look for a lost sock.

“You know, sometimes these guys aren’t very smart.” Harmony remarked.

“And why’s that?” Dustin asked.

“They always ask you where something is, and it’s usually right behind them.” Harmony shook her head. “Some people just don’t ever learn.”

Dustin bit back a chuckle, despite himself. “That’s very true.”

After the episode ended, with the characters finding the lost sock, Dustin looked towards the clock- eight PM.
“Hey, Harmony, I think it’s time for you to start getting ready for bed.”

Harmony looked at the clock and nodded, getting up off of the couch. “I’ll go get my PJs on. Where’s my bedroom?”

“Well, me and Michael are sleeping on the pullout couch tonight, so you can have our bed.”

Harmony smiled, the first genuine smile Dustin had seen from her all day. “Thanks, Dustin. That’s really nice.”

“Don’t mention it.” Dustin waved his hand dismissively. “Do you need any help getting ready for bed?”

Harmony shook her head. “I’ll tell you when I’m ready. Can you read me a bedtime story?”

“Of course. Did you bring any books?” Dustin asked.

Harmony shook her head. “Do you have any?”

“I’ll see if I can download one on my phone.” Dustin said. “You just get into your pajamas and brush your teeth.”

Harmony nodded and disappeared into the bedroom. After a few minutes, Dustin managed to find a kids’ book and download it onto his phone, just as Harmony called out from the bedroom.

“Dustin? Can you please read me my story now?”

“Coming.” Dustin called back. He walked into the bedroom, where Harmony was curled up under the blanket, holding her stuffed bunny over her heart. “That’s a cute bunny.”

“His name is Pip.” Harmony held the bunny out to Dustin.

“Hey, Pip.” Dustin smiled softly.

Harmony hugged the bunny to her chest. “He’s really brave. He protects me from monsters. That’s what my mommy said...” Harmony stopped in the middle of her sentence, her shoulders sagging. “That’s what my mommy said he would do.”

Dustin took a deep breath and fought back the tears, putting a hand on Harmony’s shoulder. “I’m sure Pip must be really good at keeping the monsters away, then.”

Harmony nodded. “He is.”

“Do you... do you still want to hear a story?” Dustin asked.

“Yes, please.”

“All right.” Dustin opened the Ebook app on his phone and clicked to the children’s book that he had just downloaded. “This story is called The Very Hungry Caterpillar...”

***

After Dustin had finished his story and Harmony had fallen fast asleep, with Pip the Bunny clutches tightly in her hands, he returned to the living room to find Michael sitting on the couch, watching the nightly news on the television. The anchor was talking about another death that had occurred just that night, of a young college student named Sonya Rostova.

“Sonya...” Dustin looked at the screen, recognition settling in. He remembered a girl named Sonya, the daughter of one of his parents’ friends, another family of light magic users. He had played with her a couple times as a kid, but had lost touch after her family moved to a different part of Ilta.

Michael turned and looked at Dustin with surprise. “You knew her?”

“Our parents were friends when we were little. She was... like me.”

Michael bit his lip. “How many other... people like you are there in Ilta?”

“Honestly?” Dustin sighed. “Not many. Probably less than a dozen as of right now. And that number gets smaller every day.”

Michael’s eyes widened. “Oh man.”

Dustin sat next to Michael, rubbing his temples. “Michael... I really am sorry for not telling you. I feel awful.”

“I get it. I mean, I don’t necessarily forgive you yet, but... I get why you didn’t tell me. I guess I would be pretty paranoid too if I were you.” Michael sighed. “I’m not really in a position to speak on the matter, though.”

After a few minutes of silence, Michael asked, “How did you end up in Ilta?”

Dustin shrugged. “Same as you. I was born here. Just like my parents were, and my grandparents. There used to be a whole underground network of light magic users, Michael, that went all the way through the provinces. I was never around to see it, but my parents told me about it. They said there used to be more than a thousand light magic users in Ilta. Still small compared to the rest of the population, but... nothing like the numbers we have now.”

“So it was like a secret society?” Michael asked, his voice tinged with excitement.

“Pretty much. But as time went on, the government wised up. People started going ‘missing’. Then, they started showing up dead.”

“Oh my God.” Michael gasped. “The government... killed them?”

Dustin nodded. “That’s our most commonly held belief. We don’t have any evidence, but no one else could kill that many people separately and leave no evidence.”

“My God.” Michael shuddered. “That’s terrifying.”

Dustin nodded. “It’s why Christine and I were out that night. We did that a lot, went and looked for proof. We thought if we found something, we could tell people. Bring the government down.” Dustin laughed darkly. “We were pretty foolish.”

“You guys were brave.” Michael said.

“Doesn’t really count if I don’t have anything to show for it but a missing eye.”

Michael reached for the remote and turned the TV off. “How about we just turn in? It’s been... it’s been a pretty long day. You’re probably tired.”

Dustin nodded. The two of them rearranged the furniture to make room for the pullout couch, and Dustin fell asleep thirty minutes later, listening to Michael’s rhythmic breathing.

***

Dustin wasn’t sure what time it was, but he was woken up by a scream.

“What was that?” Michael asked, sitting up next to Dustin.

“Harmony.” Dustin said, a pit forming in his stomach.

He threw back the blanket and got up, followed closely by Michael. The two ran down the hallway until they reached the bedroom, knocking over something in the process. Whatever they’d knocked over fell to the ground, but Dustin didn’t stop to see what it was. Inside the bedroom, it was difficult to see in the dark, but the moonlight streaming in through the window illuminated the face of a terrified Harmony, staring off into the corner. Dustin’s gaze followed Harmony’s, landing on something in the corner...

No, not something. Someone. Him.

“Go away!” Harmony yelled, her voice breaking. Her eyes landed on Dustin. “Dustin, there’s a monster!”

The man that had killed Christine was back, staring at Dustin. One of his fist was clenched, and Dustin could see purple magic forming in between his fingers. He raised his hand, the ball of night magic tossing sickly purple light across the room, and geared up like he was about to throw it at Dustin. Then his eyes traveled to Harmony, and though Dustin was across the room from the man, he saw something flicker across the man’s face. Hesitation.

Dustin took advantage of that hesitation to grab the man and pin him against the wall. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Harmony scream and scramble out of bed, running behind Michael, who summoned his own ball of magic and held it up threateningly.

“What do you want with us?” Dustin asked, pushing the man up against the wall. “Tell me.”

“I want you dead.” The man snarled, the voice changer making him sound gritty... inhuman. A sweeping kick knocked Dustin back, sending him crashing to the ground. The man took a step towards Michael, but stopped when he saw Harmony behind Michael’s leg, wide-eyed and trembling. “This isn’t over.”

And with that, the man turned and vaulted himself through the open window onto the fire escape, casting one last glare at Dustin before he started running.

“We need to follow him.” Dustin said, meeting Michael’s eye.

“But what about Harmony?” Michael asked.

“Call Brooke. She can watch Harmony until we get back.” Brooke was their neighbor, an actual Powerless. Both Michael and Dustin trusted her, she was good with kids, and she was willing to work on short-notice.

Michael looked like he was willing to argue, but saw Dustin’s pleading look and gave a grim nod. He took his phone out of his pocket and pressed a number, then said, “Brooke? We need you to do us a favor. We’re about to leave, and we need you to look after Dustin’s second cousin. Can you? Oh my God, thank you so much.” He ended the call and turned to Harmony. “Harmony, our friend Brooke is going to watch you. She has a key, and she’ll let herself in. You can trust her.”

Harmony’s eyes widened, and she clutched Pip the bunny closer to her. “Are you going after the monster?”

Dustin nodded. “Yes, we are.”

***

Somehow, by nothing short of a miracle, they managed to catch up with the man. They followed him, quietly, for almost an hour, through the busy streets. Along the way, Dustin explained the situation and just who that man was to Michael.

“So he’s the guy that killed Christine?” Michael growled. “Nak nang juetang.

“Keep it down. We don’t want him hearing us.” Dustin said, keeping his eyes trained on the man.

“I swear, when we get him alone, I’m gonna...” Michael’s voice trailed off, leaving his specific threat up to interpretation, which was almost more terrifying than if he’d said it outright.

Ahead of them, the man made a sharp turn into an alleyway. “That way.” Dustin said.

The two of them rounded the corner, just in time to see the man punch in something in a keypad and enter a door in the side of a building, shutting it behind him. Dustin walked up to the door and attempted to open it, but sighed in frustration when it wouldn’t budge.

“Locked. Of course.” Dustin grumbled.

“I’ve got this.” Michael stepped in between Dustin and the keypad. After some fiddling, he popped the cover off, exposing the inside. “Whoever put this here, they picked a shitty brand. I didn’t even need a screwdriver.” After a few minutes of Michael pulling wires and fiddling, during which Dustin couldn’t figure out what his boyfriend was doing, the keypad gave a beep and something inside the door clicked. “Try it now.”

Dustin pulled on the door, and it opened with ease. “How did you do that?” He asked Michael, his eyes widening.

Michael chuckled. “I work with electronics for a living, Dustin. That was a cakewalk.”

Dustin pushed open the door, examining the room before him. It looked like a warehouse, albeit one on the small side. In the center of the warehouse, Dustin saw two figures conversing, but he couldn’t make out their conversation.

With careful steps, Dustin and Michael made their way along the wall, crouching against some boxes. From here, they could listen, but not be at risk of getting seen or heard.

Dustin recognized one of the figures immediately- the mysterious man. He was looking down at the ground, his fists clenched. The other figure was a woman, probably around thirty, with long dark hair, wearing a black suit and an irritated look on her face. She was pacing, talking to the man.

“I gave you a job.” The woman snapped. “Kill both light magic users, and you get to go free. Instead, you only kill one, and tonight, when you were supposed to kill the other, you turn tail and run.”

“The kid was there.” The man said, and the woman stopped pacing and turned to glare at him.

“You think I give a damn if there’s a kid?! You were supposed to finish the job!” She eyed the man, a sneer forming on her lips. “Take off that mask. I want to see your sorry face.”

The man obliged, and it took everything Dustin had not to gasp once he removed his mask. It can’t be.

For a second, Dustin wondered if this was a dream, a sick invention of his mind. But then the woman grimaced, and the next words out of her mouth sent shivers up Dustin’s spine.

“You’re lucky there’s still time to correct this... Jeremy.”

Chapter Text

The pit in Dustin’s stomach seemed to grow larger by the second as he took in the sight of Jeremy, standing there in front of the woman, his fists clenched at his side. He had to be dreaming. There was no way that this was Jeremy, that Jeremy would kill his wife. He’d loved Christine. This had to be a dream.

But every second that passed reminded Dustin that it wasn’t a dream, it was reality. CHe looked over at Michael, who had covered his mouth with one hand, eyes wide. Jeremy was his best friend... this was probably as much of a shock to Michael as it was to Dustin.

The woman had kept talking through all of this, unaware of Dustin and Michael watching. “...and if you aren’t willing to do the dirty work, then you’ll get me someone who can.”

Jeremy nodded. “Yes... yes ma’am.”

The woman took something out of her pocket... a cell phone.

“Get me the name of the most notorious and powerful fire user out there.” The woman spoke into the phone, her voice pure ice.

After a moment, the phone gave a small beep, and the woman looked at the screen with a small, wicked smirk. “Ah. Richard Goranski-Dillinger. I’ve heard of this one before. He’s wanted for burning down a house five years ago, and he’s been on the run ever since. I always knew someone that powerful would come in handy some day.” Was

The woman turned to Jeremy, her dark hair flaring out behind her with the sudden movement. “Here is your new assignment, Jeremy. Go to Calida in Adar. Find our... friend, Richard and bring him back to me.” She took something else out of her pocket and held it between two fingers, something thin, black, and rectangular. A credit card. “Tell him I’ll pay whatever price he asks.”

“And what if he refuses?” Jeremy asked, taking the card from the woman.

The woman pursed her lips together. “You know what to do if he does.”

Jeremy nodded. “Yes ma’am.”

“And Jeremy...” The woman said coldly, raising a single eyebrow. “...you will not fail this time. Not unless you want the pitiful little part that’s left of your family to suffer. Is that clear?”

Jeremy pulled his hood up over his head and put the cloth over his nose and mouth. When he spoke again, it was with that same deep voice that the voice-changer provided. “Crystal.”

Au revoir, Jeremy.” The woman gave a small, condescending wave. “I expect to see you and Rich the next time we meet.”

Jeremy nodded curtly. “Yes, ma’am.”

And with that, Jeremy disappeared, exiting out the same door he’d entered through. The woman, however, stayed back, dialing something into her cell phone. Dustin couldn’t hear the person on the other end of the line, but it sounded important.

“Yes, sir. I understand, sir. Heere got cold feet, but I’m sending him to get someone else. An... old associate of ours.” There was a long pause before the woman spoke again. “No, don’t hurt him.” Her voice carried surprising desperation, before she seemed to realize her own emotions. “That... won’t be necessary, sir. I promise, this mistake will not be repeated. In a few days’ time, Kropp will be dead, and so will anyone who stands in the way. Thank you, sir. Goodbye.”

With that, the woman hung up, stuffed the phone in her pocket, and stormed off, muttering curses. She went in a different direction than the door Jeremy had gone through. After a few more minutes of silence, Dustin turned to Michael, who still had a hand over his mouth and a shocked expression on his face.

“Michael?” Dustin asked, his voice feeling too loud and so out of place in the quiet warehouse.

“That wasn’t Jeremy. It can’t have been.” Michael said suddenly, his voice like steel.

“Michael...” Dustin bit his lip.

“Dustin, Jeremy loved Christine. Do you know how happy he was when they started dating? You would have thought someone had moved the Earth for him.” Michael’s words had a desperate edge to him, like he was falling and reaching for something to grab onto.

“Michael, I know that. But that... that was definitely Jeremy.”

“I’ve known him since we were kids, Dustin. Jeremy would never- he would never kill someone. Especially not his wife. Or you.” For the first time, Dustin saw that Michael’s eyes were glossy.

“Michael, I know that you’ve known Jeremy for a while. But he did kill Christine. I saw it. And he tried to kill me. He obviously knew who I was, and he took a knife to my eye without even hesitating.” Dustin sighed. “This is probably a lot for you to take in.”

“It wasn’t...” Michael’s shoulders deflated, and his voice broke. “So Jeremy is a... he’s a murderer?” Michael flinched, as if the very word ‘murderer’ was painful for him to say.

“I can’t believe it, either.” Dustin leaned back against the boxes they had been hiding behind, and for a long moment, both him and Michael were silent as the truth sunk in.

“So what’s our next move?” Michael asked, breaking the silence.

“What?” Dustin looked up at Michael.

“Obviously, we have to do something. Jeremy’s going to go recruit a goddamn arsonist, and then that crazy lady is going to pay said arsonist to kill you.”

“So what are you saying we do?”

“She said that this Richard guy was in Calida, right? That’s, what, two hours’ drive away from where we are now?” Michael said. “What if we find this guy, tell him about the whole thing, and convince him not to help in the whole murdering-you plot.”

“You heard what that lady said. If that dude says no, Jeremy will kill him.” Dustin responded. “I’m not going to be responsible for another person’s death.”

“Well, we have to at least intercept him before Jeremy gets to him.” Michael said. “If we don’t, that dude will take the money and put your head on a pike.”

“And what are we going to do when we intercept him?” Dustin asked.

“At the very least, we can convince him that you don’t deserve to be killed and he can buy us some time to figure out what to do next.”

“What about Harmony?”

“Brooke can look after her for a little bit longer.” Michael said. “I’ll just send her some cash from Venmo.” He stood up, brushing some dust off of his pants, then held out a hand to Dustin, pulling him up.

“So we’re doing this?” Dustin asked, raising one eyebrow slightly.

Michael gave Dustin the smallest smirk. “Yep.”

***

Which was how they ended up on the highway thirty minutes later, driving to Calida, Adar with some pop song was playing on the radio that neither of them had bothered to change. Michael was driving (it was his car, after all) while Dustin looked up the city of Calida on his phone.

“Apparently, Calida has crazy high crime rates. Like, do-not-piss-anyone-here-off kind of high.” Dustin whistled.

“So, not the place you want to take the wife and kids over spring break?”

“Not exactly. Just the place one could find a wanted arsonist.” Dustin said. “And I’ve also been looking into this Richard dude.”

“Did you find anything?” Michael asked.

“Yeah.” Dustin winced. “Apparently, he burned down the house while his husband and daughter were still inside.”

“It was his house?” Michael asked, his surprise evident on his face.

Dustin nodded grimly. “Yeah.”

“Did the husband and kid... did they...” Michael’s voice trailed off, the end of the question hanging in the air without even being said at all.

Dustin shook his head. “No. Both of them survived, but... the house was basically burned to the ground.”

Michael grimaced. “That’s fucked up.”

Dustin bit his lip. “Doesn’t really make me look forward to talking with this guy.”

“Well, it’s much better than getting burned alive by him.”

Dustin chuckled, despite the circumstances. “I’ll take an awkward conversation over being barbecued any day.” A yawn forced its way out of Dustin’s mouth, causing Michael to look at him sympathetically.

“You should at least get some sleep before we get there. We slept for... three-ish hours?” Michael shrugged. “You’re probably exhausted.”

All the adrenaline had been making him forget about it, but now that things had slowed down, Dustin realized how truly exhausted he was. “What about you?”

Michael shrugged. “I’ll be fine. If I get tired, I’ll just swing into a coffee place for a late-night cup of ‘Please Don’t Fall Asleep At The Wheel and Kill Us All’.” Upon spring Dustin’s confused expression, he added, “Back when I worked at a café during college, that’s what we called coffees that people ordered really late at night.”

Dustin gave a small chuckle, then leaned back into the seat and closed his right eye. Before too long, the sounds of the car traveling down the road, the music on the radio, and his own thoughts faded away, replaced by silence as sleep overtook him.

***

When he woke up, the car was traveling down the streets of Calida, and Dustin saw right away that this place wasn’t a joke.

In an alley between two buildings, a conversation was occurring between two people. One handed the other a stack of cash, and in return, the other person handed them a plastic bag filled with something Dustin couldn’t identify. Seedy bars seemed to be the most popular type of business- the car would barely have passed one before another one appeared a short distance away from it. Everyone walking on the sidewalk seemed guarded, apprehensive. Some of them had hands in their pockets, and a few even had pre-casted spells in their hands, as if they were waiting for someone to strike. All the other cars parked up and down the street looked like they had seen their fair share of bad days- most of them had dents or cracks in their windshields, and one even had a full-on broken window. Dustin felt out of place in the car that he and Michael were in, which, while hardly in factory condition, was pristine compared to the cars on the streets.
Finally, Michael pulled into a parking space, and the two of them got out onto the streets, locking the car behind them.

“Where do we look first?” Dustin asked, scanning the streets around him. The air smelled like car exhaust, cigarette smoke, and alcohol. Definitely not a pleasant smell.

“What are you looking for?”

A voice came from behind the two of them, a female voice. Dustin turned to see a young woman, around twenty-one, leaning against the wall next to a convenience store. She was dressed simply, in a green tank top and denim shorts, and she spoke with a slight Spanish accent.

“A person.” Michael said, eyeing the woman warily.

“I can help.” The woman said, stepping forward. “I know pretty much everyone in this city. Of course, it won’t be free, but...” her voice trailed off, and a devilish smirk tugged at the corner of her lips. “...a girl’s gotta survive somehow.”

Michael sighed. “How much?”

“Fifty dollars.” The woman held out her hand expectantly. “I take cash.”

“Fifty? Just to tell us where someone is?” Dustin scoffed. “That’s some bullshit.”

“Listen, either you pay me, or you spend the rest of the night on a wild goose-chase through the city. What’s it gonna be?” The woman cocked her head to one side. “I don’t have all night, chamacos.”

Michael sighed and took out his wallet quickly, taking out two twenties and a ten. “You better not take the money and run.”

The woman laughed. “Don’t worry.” She took the cash from Michael and put it in her shorts pocket. “I have morals, unlike most of the folks here. Who are you looking for?”

“A guy named Richard Goranski-Dillinger.” Dustin said.

The woman’s eyes widened. “Rich? Man, cabrón still owes me a drink.”

“Where can we find him?” Dustin asked.

“That’s easy.” The woman chuckled. “He’s probably at the usual spot where he spends his Saturday nights.”

“And where is that?” Michael asked.

“The Cosmo. Turn left up at this next crosswalk, then a right at the next, and it’ll be right there.” The woman pointed down the street. “Ask for him at the bar. And do me a favor, huh? When you see him, tell him Vanessa’s still waiting on that drink.”

Dustin nodded. “Yeah, will do. Thanks for the help.”

Vanessa smirked. “Thanks for the business.”

With that, Dustin and Michael began walking away. Out of curiosity, Dustin turned back to look at Vanessa, but she was nowhere to be seen.

“You know, if anyone had seen us, they would have thought we were making a drug deal.” Dustin said.

Michael chuckled. “Some drug deal. She didn’t give us anything. If anyone assumed it was a drug deal, they must think that was the most desperate scam of the century and we’re the idiots who fell for it.”

The two of them walked down the street, Michael putting a protective arm over Dustin’s shoulder. Dustin looked around, taking in the neon signs, shoddy buildings, and the wary-looking people. This place, this city... it didn’t look like a place that anybody should be living.

His eyes landed on a neon sign that featured the image of a woman in a slinky red dress lounging on a couch made up of the words The Cosmopolitan, and under that, the words Live Music were lit up in yellow.

“I think that’s it.” Dustin pointed to the sign. “Cosmo is probably short for Cosmopolitan.”

Michael looked inside. “It does look like the sort of place a wanted criminal would spend his free time.”

Cautiously, Dustin reached out and opened the door. As soon as he stepped inside, he was overcome with a flood of noise- conversations that he couldn’t quite make out, glasses clinking together, and a woman’s voice singing in low, husky tones to a song with a heavy bass beat.

Dustin looked over at Michael, who seemed to be overwhelmed by all the noise and was staring ahead in shock. Dustin reaches out and gave Michael’s hand a gentle squeeze, which seemed to bring him back to reality.

The two of them started walking through through the bar, passing a table where a poker game was underway, and from the size of the chip piles, it was getting intense. They passed the game and made their way up to the bar, where the bartender was occupied pouring a series of shots into miniature glasses. Dustin noticed that the bar didn’t have a permit anywhere near it showing that the establishment was licensed to serve alcohol, and he was beginning to think that a permit was something this place lacked.

“Excuse us.” Dustin said, and the bartender looked up from pouring the last shot.

“Yeah?”

“Do you know where we could find Richard Goranski-Dillinger?” Michael asked.

The bartender jerked his head towards a booth in the back, where a guy around thirty with messy brown hair was sitting alone, sipping a can of beer. “Back there. But he’s not exactly the friendliest guy. Why you want to talk to him is beyond me.”

“Thanks.” Dustin gave the bartender a small nod, and he and Michael started off through the crowd. When they got closer to the booth, Dustin could see that Rich had summoned a small strand of fire and was letting it snake between his fingers, the red-orange flames glowing viciously. When Rich saw Dustin and Michael approaching, he raised a single eyebrow.

“Man, what happened to your eye?” Rich whistled.

Dustin ignored the question. “Are you Rich Goranski-Dillinger?”

“Depends on who wants to know.” Rich flicked his fingers, and the tendril of fire briefly snapped itself out like a whip before returning to its snakelike state.

“My name is Dustin Kropp. We’re here to warn you.”

“Warn me about what?” Rich asked, his eyes narrowing dangerously. Up close, Dustin could see burn scars on the left side of his face, neck, and his left hand. He was wearing a camouflage jacket, but the sleeve was pulled up enough that Dustin could see something on his wrist... a bracelet. When Rich saw Dustin looking, however, he pulled the sleeve down over the bracelet.

“Some guy is looking for you.” Michael said. “His name is Jeremy Heere, and he’s bad news.”

When Michael said Jeremy’s name, something passed over Rich’s face- something like recognition. However, quick as it had come, it vanished, and Rich scoffed. “Everyone who comes here is bad news. Try harder.”

“I mean, this guy is seriously bad news. He killed his wife.” Michael said, biting his lip.

“Wonderful.” Richard said, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “So what? I’ve dealt with guys that have killed people before.”

“He doesn’t want to kill you.” Dustin said. “He wants to hire you to kill me.”

Rich’s scoffed. “I’m not a hitman.” His eyes passed over Dustin, as if he were just noticing him for the first time. “What did you do to make someone want to send a hired killer after you, anyway?”

“It’s a... long story.” Dustin sighed. “But the point is, we need you to accept the offer.”

Rich’s eyes widened. “Woah, kid. I must not have heard correctly, because you said they wanted me to kill you.”

Dustin nodded. “Yeah, so we need you to say you’ll kill me, but then not kill me.”

“What’s the goddamn point of that?” Rich scoffed. “I’ll just tell the guy to fuck off.”

“You don’t understand, if you say no, he will kill you.” Dustin said.

Rich opened his mouth to say something, but then Michael tapped Dustin on the shoulder. Dustin looked across the bar, towards the entrance... and his gaze landed on Jeremy, the purple cloth still pulled over his mouth and nose.

Dustin grabbed Rich by the shirt collar and pulled him down under the table, where they were quickly joined by Michael.

“What the hell?!” Rich grunted, rubbing the back of his neck. “What was that for?”

“Jeremy. He’s here.” Dustin said, and he didn’t notice his pun until he’d already spoken the words.

“Great. Just peachy.” Rich grumbled.

“We need to get out of here without him seeing us.” Michael said.

“How? He’s standing right in front of the entrance.” Dustin sighed.

Rich raised an eyebrow, and a mischievous grin spread across his face. “So you’re saying we need a distraction?” Without waiting for Dustin to respond, he reached up on top of the table and grabbed the beer he had been drinking. He summoned another strand of fire and stuck it into the can, then chucked the can into the crowd. “I hope you guys can run.”

“What do you mean?”

Instead of replying, Rich stood up, cupped his hands around his mouth, and yelled, “Fire!”

The effect was immediate. A crowd of people, all at various levels of drunkenness, began to rush to the exits, creating a bottleneck situation as dozens of people tried to cram through one single door. Rich grabbed Dustin’s arm and pulled him into the fray, and Dustin felt Michael grip his other arm. It felt like a mosh pit, with people slamming into him left and right, and when he finally got out into the night air, Dustin had never been so happy to smell car exhaust in his life.

“No time to stop.” Rich grumbled, breaking away from the crowd. “Tell me you guys brought a car, because I sure as hell didn’t.”

Michael nodded, and now it was his turn to take the lead.

The three of them took off, feet pounding on the concrete. On a whim, Dustin looked over his shoulder to see that Jeremy had noticed them, and was now breaking into a run after them.

“Uh, guys?” Dustin said, jerking his thumb backwards. “We have company.”

Rich muttered an array of curses under his breath, and yelled up at Michael, “Got the car keys?”

“Yep.” Michael said, fishing the car keys out of his pocket. The three of them dashed across a crosswalk, ignoring the loud, angry honk from a driver that had been forced to come to a sudden stop due to their little chase.

Michael clicked something on the keys, and the car beeped. “Get in!” He yelled.

“You don’t have to tell me twice.” Dustin grumbled, flinging open the passenger door and scrambling in. Michael entered the driver’s seat, and Rich got behind them.

“Are you seriously putting on your seatbelt right now?” He snapped at Michael, “Just fucking drive!”

Michael turned the keys in the ignition, and the car rumbled to life. Without another word, he slammed down on the gas pedal, and the car rocketed away from Jeremy and into the streets of Calida.

Rich sighed and leaned back. From the rear view mirror, Dustin saw that something had come loose from under his shirt during the chase: a simple chain with a silver hoop attached to one end of it. Rich stuffed it back into his shirt before Dustin could get a close enough look, however, and he turned to Michael.

“Well, Mister Pyrotechnics, do you have any suggestions as to where we go next?” Michael asked, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Actually...” Rich cracked his knuckles. “I know just the place.”

Chapter Text

Whatever Dustin had been expecting to hear when Rich knocked on the door of the apartment he’d brought them to, but it certainly wasn’t the words “For the last time, Shaun, it’s over!”

“Oh, finally?” Rich scoffed. “I was wondering when you were going to drop that loser.”

“Rich?” The woman on the other side of the door sounded surprised.

“In the flesh.” Rich responded, and Dustin heard shuffling from the other side of the door. When it opened, the group came face-to-face with a woman in a grey t-shirt and black gym shorts. She looked just like any other person who was having a casual night in, save for the jagged scar that carved its way across her face, starting at her left eyebrow, going across the bridge of her nose, barely skirting past the corner of her right eye, and ending near the right side of her jaw.

“Chloe, my dearest friend.” Rich held out his arms, and Chloe rolled her eyes.

“What authority are you running from now?”

Rich put his arms back down by his sides. “None, but there is a crazy dude after us.”

Chloe sighed, but she stepped aside and held the door open. “Come in.”

Dustin stepped inside, taking in the simple apartment. There was a combination kitchen and living room, with a small hallway leading to two separate doors that Dustin assumed led to the bathroom and bedroom. Rich opened the fridge, looking through its contents with a raised eyebrow.

“You don’t have any good stuff?” He huffed at Chloe, who slammed the door shut once Michael was inside and secured it with a simple chain lock.

“Hey, not all of us are Scrooge goddamn McDuck.” Chloe said, stepping into the kitchen. She eyed Dustin and Michael, scanning them from head to toe as if checking for threats. “Who are these two helpless saps you’ve dragged along?”

“Hey!” Michael said defensively. “I wouldn’t call us ‘saps’.”

Chloe ignored Michael’s comment and turned to Rich, who emerged from his fridge run holding two cans of cheap beer. He held one out to Chloe, who accepted, and cracked the other one open for himself. “This is...” Rich’s voice trailed off, and Dustin realized that he and Michael had never actually introduced themselves.

“I’m Michael, and this is Dustin.” Michael gestured to both of them in turn.

Rich nodded, taking a sip of his beer. “They’re the reason we’re here to begin with.”

“And why’s that?” Chloe asked, leaning against the chipped kitchen counter.

“It’s a long story.” Dustin said sheepishly.

“We’re not going anywhere.” Rich crossed his arms. “Spill.”

“You two have to promise you won’t tell the police.” Michael said.

Chloe and Rich looked at each other... and promptly burst out laughing.

“Tell... tell the police!” Chloe said through laughs, “Oh, that is priceless!”

“I don’t know, Chloe, are we going to tell the police?” Rich said jokingly, before doubling over in laughter.

“What’s so funny?” Dustin asked, slightly irritated.

Chloe took a sip of her beer, still chuckling. “Let’s just say that neither of us are really the law’s best friend.”

Dustin sighed. “All right. But you two have to promise not to freak out.”

Before Rich or Chloe could say anything, Dustin opened his hand and let out some magical energy, letting the magic in the air meet it and produce a ball of light magic that collected in his hand, emanating a warm golden glow. He looked up at Rich and Chloe, both of whom were watching with wide eyes.

“Holy shit.” Rich murmured.

“Likewise.” Chloe looked up at Dustin, both eyebrows raised. “You’re a...”

“A light magic user.” Dustin nodded.

“Dude, that is fucking crazy.” Chloe ran her fingers through her brown hair. “I thought you guys were extinct!”

“So did I.” Michael said. “Up until a few days ago.”

“Dude, that explains why you have some guy out to murder you.” Rich’s eyes widened.

“Wait, what?” Chloe’s head whipped around to face Rich.

“I probably should have mentioned that.” Rich put the can of beer down onto the counter.

“All right.” Chloe leaned back against the counter. “Start from the beginning.”

And Dustin did. He told Chloe the whole story, starting from the rooftop battle with Jeremy and ending with the escape from the bar. The whole time, Chloe was listening intently, her expression changing at certain parts of the story, but her focus seemingly never breaking.

“That is heavy.” Chloe said when the story was finished. “He killed his wife?”

Dustin nodded, the choking feeling that had become so familiar over the past few days coming back again. He didn’t want to cry in front of these two total strangers, but it didn’t look like he was going to have the choice. “Yeah.”

“Dude, that’s...” Rich sucked in a breath, obviously searching for the right words. “I’m sorry. That’s fucked up.” He put a hand on Dustin’s shoulder, and the sleeve of his jacket slipped down enough so that Dustin could once again see the bracelet on his arm. It was made of pink thread, with a series of plastic beads strung along it. It looked like something a kid would make, not something a hardened arsonist would wear.

Upon seeing Dustin looking at the bracelet, Rich took his hand off of Dustin’s shoulder and pulled his sleeve back down, concealing the bracelet underneath the camouflage-print fabric once more.

Chloe looked at Dustin with sympathy in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Dustin. You shouldn’t... no one should have to go through that.”

“And now we’re running from a murderous night magic user who wanted to hire me as a hitman to kill this guy over here.” Rich jerked his thumb towards Dustin. ”We need a place to lay low.”

Chloe bit her lip. “Fine. You guys can stay here.”

“God, thanks, Chloe. I owe you one.” Rich said.

Chloe scoffed and shoved Rich. “You owe me several.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Rich rolled his eyes and stepped into the living room, sinking down onto the leather couch. Michael followed, leaving Dustin and Chloe alone in the kitchen.

“Chloe?” Dustin asked.

“Hm?” Chloe looked up from the kitchen sink, where she was pouring out what was left of her cheap beer.

“What’s that bracelet Rich is wearing?”

Chloe shrugged and leaned back against the sink, crossing her arms over her chest. “Your guess is as good as mine. I’ve only known Rich for about six months. We’re pretty similar, you know? Two people who are always moving around, bouncing from one town to another.”

“You said that you weren’t exactly the law’s best friend. What... what did you mean by that?” Dustin asked.

Chloe chuckled. “You’re a nosy one, aren’t you?”

“I didn’t mean to pry-“

“Nah, it’s alright. Two years ago, I got into a street fight with this guy that jumped me. It’s how I got this scar. You know, it was kind of my ‘arrow-to-the-knee’ moment.” She pointed to the scar that ran across her face. “Anyway, I killed the guy, subsequently forcing me to go on the run.”

“But it was self-defense.” Dustin said.

Chloe shrugged. “No one saw him jumping me. The crowd only started gathering when spells started flying.” She grabbed a glass off of the counter and turned on the sink, but instead of putting her cup underneath the stream of water, she simply put a hand in it. To Dustin’s amazement, the water seemed to bend out from her palm and flow into the cup, like a miniature river. When the cup was two-thirds of the way full, Chloe tightened her hand around the stream of water, and the water separated itself into little cubes, which began to freeze. When Chloe was done, she had a small handful of ice cubes, which she quickly plopped into the glass with a splash.

“You’re a water magic user?” Dustin asked, his eyes widening.

Chloe nodded and took a sip of her water. “Bingo.”

“But you live in Adar. That’s, like, the opposite of where water magic users live.”

“Making it the perfect place for a wanted water magic user to hide. Or a light magic user who’s on the run from a murderer.”

“Touché.” Dustin said.

The two of them walked into the living room and joined Rich and Michael. After a long silence, Rich spoke up.

“So what’s our next move?”

“What?” Michael asked.

“Obviously, we’re not going to stay in this apartment forever. So what’s our next move?” Rich repeated.

“Well, Jeremy was sent here by a lady. It kind of looked like she was his boss.” Dustin said.

“Did you catch her name?” Rich asked, sitting up.

Dustin shook his head. “No.”

Rich bit his lip. “What did she look like?”

This time, it was Michael who spoke. “Long dark brown hair, fair skin, it looked like she had brown eyes, and she was wearing a suit.”

Rich grumbled something under his breath. “Did she speak French at all during the whole encounter?”

Dustin thought back to eavesdropping on Jeremy and the woman, and he nodded. “Yes. She said ‘Au revoir’ at one point.”

Rich groaned. “That bitch.”

“What? Do you know her?” Michael asked, his eyes widening.

“Know her?” Rich’s eyes narrowed as he put his beer can down onto the end table. “Her name is Madeline. And she was my old boss.”

***

Hot flames leaping through the air, scorching wood and grass until the very world around him was burning. A woman, Madeline, standing amongst the flames, her eyes glowing with a sickly violet light. Screaming from inside the house, screams that he knew. Sirens approaching from somewhere, but Rich’s focus too much on the woman standing before him to pay them any mind.

Madeline holding up a hand, her gaze trailing along the house engulfed in flames. Her turning to Rich, a simpering smile crossing her face. Firelight dancing across her face, throwing her features into shadow as a single word escaped her mouth.

“Run.”

***

“When I was in high school, I fell in with this criminal organization. It was based in Ilta, which was where my family was living at the time.” Rich said. “The organization was run by this lady named Madeline. She controlled everything- nothing got done without her approval, and no one left the organization until she deemed they could. She basically had executive power over us all.”

“So what you’re saying...” Dustin bit his lip. “Is that you think Jeremy is in with this criminal organization?”

Rich chuckled, cynicism lacing his voice. “I don’t think. I know he was.”

“What?” Michael sat up, surprised. “He couldn’t have been. I knew him back then.”

Rich looked Michael in the eye. “Did you ever think that something might be up with Jeremy? Like he was hiding something from you?”

“I...” Michael’s voice trailed off, and he sighed. “Around junior year, he suddenly got really busy. He said it was because he got a part-time job.”

Rich nodded. “I remember Jeremy. We were never close, exactly, but I remember him. A nerdy kid, around my age, who was just trying to get by.”

“His family was pretty struggling as a kid...” Michael shook his head. “No. Jeremy wasn’t a criminal.”

“People do desperate things when they’re desperate.” Rich said. “I know I did.”

“What’s weird about this...” Dustin bit his lip. “Madeline didn’t seem like the boss when we saw her. Yeah, she seemed like she was Jeremy’s boss, but not like she was the boss.”

“That’s right.” Michael said weakly. “She was on the phone with someone after Jeremy left. She said something about how ‘this mistake will not be repeated’. And then she said ‘Don’t hurt him’.”

Rich looked surprised. “The hell?”

“It sounded like she was working for someone.” Dustin said. “Like someone was in control of her.”

Rich sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. “This night just keeps getting weirder.”

A knock at the door startled everyone in the room. Chloe walked up to the door, looking through the peephole. Her eyes widened as she stepped back, and she gestured to Michael, Dustin, and Rich without looking away from the door. “Hide.” She hissed.

The three of them obliged. Rich scrambled underneath the kitchen counter, out of sight from the door, Michael ducked behind the couch, and Dustin opened a nearby hall closet and hid in there, closing the door behind him. Oh, the irony.

From the downward-facing wooden slats in the closet door, Dustin could see Chloe opening the door and coming face-to-face with Jeremy. Dustin’s breath caught in his throat as he struggled to not move, to not breath, to not even make a sound.

“What the hell do you want?” Chloe said, her hands on her hips. Dustin couldn’t see her face, but she sounded like she was very annoyed.

“I’m looking for someone by the name of Rich Goranski-Dillinger.” Jeremy responded. “My sources tell me he’s a friend of yours.”

“Haven’t seen him.” Chloe huffed.

“Really? Multiple people saw him get into a car that headed this direction.”

“It’s the city, idiot. There are a lot of things in this direction.”

“And he was also seen entering this building.” Even through the voice-changer, the ice in Jeremy’s tone was evident.

“He was probably going to his girlfriend’s place. She lives on the fifth floor, apartment ‘07.” Chloe crossed her arms and tapped a foot on the floor. “Now, can you go? It’s Bachelorette night, and if I miss any more than the recap, I’m screwed.”

“I’m coming back here if you’re lying.” Jeremy took a threatening step forward, and even from a distance, Dustin could see the beginnings of a spell flickering in his hand.

“Yeah, yeah.” Chloe said curtly. “Are you gonna leave me alone, or do I need to call security?”

Jeremy’s silence almost made Dustin afraid for Chloe, but after a moment, he stepped backwards, and Chloe shut the door in his face. After waiting a few more moments, she turned and called into the apartment, “All right, let’s get a move on. We have about five minutes before he realizes that story was nothing but one big lie.”

“Just how much of that story was false?” Dustin asked, stepping out of the closet.

Chloe counted off the items on her fingers as she said, “One: Rich doesn’t have a girlfriend. Two: No one lives in apartment 507 except an old lady and her cats. Three: I don’t watch The Bachelorette. Four: Even if I did, Bachelorette night is Monday, not Saturday. And five, this apartment doesn’t have security.”

“Where are we going now?” Michael asked. “We obviously can’t stay here.”

“We’re going to get some answers. Obviously, there’s something bigger at work than just Madeline wanting Dustin here dead.” Chloe said. “And I know just the person who can help. An informant. She’s an air-magic user, and she practically knows everything and everyone that has ever set foot in her province.”

“Wait, an air-magic user?” Rich wrinkled his nose in confusion. “That would mean she’s in...”

“Makani.” Chloe finished his statement for him, a grin on her face. She grabbed something off of the kitchen counter- a cell phone in a pink striped case.

“You can not be serious.” Rich groaned.

“Dead serious, Rich.” Chloe walked over to the window and opened it up, stepping outside onto a rickety fire escape. “We’re going to Makani.”

Chapter Text

“Why does this plan involve dressing up again?”

It was a day after the group had left Chloe’s apartment via the fire escape, and now they were standing outside of The Muse, a luxury hotel-slash-casino in the air-magic province of Makani, dressed like they were going to a fancy party and not there to gather information on a criminal agency that wanted all of them dead.

“This place has a dress code. We want to look like we belong.” Chloe was dressed in a long-sleeved red dress with a skirt that ended just above her knees, her hair done up in an elaborate bun.

“We look like a bunch of rich jerks.” Rich tugged at the collar of his dress shirt, obviously not noticing his pun.

“I’m guessing that’s the idea.” Michael said. “Hey, babe, does my tie look okay?”

Dustin gave Michael a slight smile. “It looks just fine.”

Rich rolled his eyes and turned to Chloe. “How do we even act like rich people?”

Chloe shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. Act like you’re better than everyone else and get pissed when something doesn’t go your way.”

“My bank account doesn’t have enough zeroes in it for this.” Dustin muttered.

“Right back at you.” Rich said.

“You guys ready?” Chloe looked over her shoulder, stepping forward and pausing in front of the frosted glass doors.

“As we’ll ever be.” Michael reached over and gave Dustin’s hand a squeeze, taking in a deep breath.

Chloe nodded, turned back to the doors, and pushed them open. The four of them walked into the lobby, passing people that were even more well-dressed than they were, conversing at a volume that was little more than a murmur from where Dustin and the group were standing. Dustin took in the sight of the lobby- the polished marble floor, the abstract sculptures, and the ceiling made up of several glass panels, giving whoever looked through it a clear view of the night sky.

“Jesus, this place is even more stuffy then I thought it would be.” Rich murmured.

Chloe pursed her lips. “Just act like you belong here, and no one will bat an eye.”
Sure enough, as they made their way across the lobby, nobody gave them a second glance.

“Where is this person you know?” Dustin whispered to Chloe as they approached the elevator.

“She’s on the casino level.” Chloe whispered back, pressing the up button.

“Do we actually have to gamble?” Rich asked.

Chloe shook her head. “No. Just act casual.”

The elevator chimed softly and the doors opened. A few well-dressed people spilled out, eyeing the four of them out of the corners of their eyes. Dustin caught whispers, snippets of a conversation. The words, “...no upholding of standards anymore...” stood out to him, as well as, “...they just let anyone walk in here.” And Dustin understood where they were coming from. Yeah, he and the others looked decent, but they had nowhere near the amount of finery the other patrons of the hotel had.

“Bunch of stuck-up pricks.” Rich muttered as the group stepped into the elevator.

“You can say that again.” Chloe’s eyes narrowed and she pursed her crimson-painted lips, pressing the button for the twentieth floor. The elevator gave a soft chime and started moving upwards, the transparent glass walls giving Dustin a clear view of the lobby below as it seemed to shrink with every floor they passed.

“So, any tips?” Rich asked, fidgeting with the chain around his neck.

“Remember what I said. Act like you belong, and no one will question if you really do.” Chloe said.

The elevator doors chimed and opened, letting a smooth jazz tune spill into the elevator. The four of them exited the elevator and entered a large room that was lit by dim golden lights and full of people. Cheers went up from various gambling tables as games were won, as well as groans when they were lost. The music turned out to be coming from a raised stage in the middle of a room, where a woman wearing a sparkling golden dress that stood out against her dark skin was gripping a microphone as she sang along to the song that was somehow familiar.

“Where is this person?” Dustin asked, barely skirting by a waiter holding a tray of champagne glasses.

“Right there.” Chloe pointed to the woman singing on the stage.

“Her?” Rich asked. “How are we supposed to get to her?”

“We wait.” Michael said. “Singers have to take breaks eventually.”

Chloe nodded. “Precisely. Just act casual until then.” She grabbed a glass of champagne off of a tray and took a sip, adopting an expression that was halfway bored, halfway irritated.

“Hey, Dustin, isn’t this Brooke’s song?” Michael asked, leaning over to whisper into Dustin’s ear.

“You’re right.” Dustin’s eyes widened as he realized why the beat was so familiar to him. Brooke was a songwriter, and this was a song that she had written a few months back.

When will they learn, when will they see?

That their hearts are in the dark, where the light can’t set them free?

They try to reach that light, but it’s never guaranteed.

Tender nothings can’t save them when they’re trapped without a key.

The music slowed to a stop, and a smattering of applause rose up from the crowd.

“She’s pretty good.” Dustin remarked.

“I hope she’s as good at getting us information as Chloe says she is.” Rich was fidgeting with the bracelet around his wrist.

“Me too.” Michael sighed. “I don’t want to stay here for any longer than I have to.”

“Don’t do well in crowds?” Rich asked.

Michael shook his head.

“Me neither.” Rich replied, running his hand along one of the beads.

“Hey, Rich?” Dustin said, and Rich’s head went up at the mention of his name.

“Yeah?”

“If you don’t mind me asking, what’s that bracelet?”

Rich bit his lip, a surprisingly forlorn expression coming over his face. “It’s from someone who was... who is important to me. Now don’t press any harder.”

***

Madeline glancing at the bracelet on his wrist. “You’re sure you want to say no? I can be... persuasive.”

Rich gripping the bracelet protectively, almost as if it were a towline. “No.”

“I don’t want to hurt your family, Rich.” Madeline’s expression being deceptively sympathetic. “But if that’s what it takes to get you to comply...”

“Stop.” Tongues of fire lashing out from Rich’s free hand, scorching the grass around him to a charcoal black. “You’re not... you’re not going to lay a hand on them.”

Him losing control and letting a fire burst out from him, consuming everything he could see until the world was nothing but a flaming inferno.

***

”Of course.” Dustin bit his lip. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”

Rich shook his head. “It’s alright.”

“Thank you.” The singer on the stage said, drawing Dustin’s attention away from the conversation. “My name’s Jenna Rolan. I’m here every week, same time as I am now.”
Another smattering of half-hearted applause, and Jenna stepped off of the stage.

“Now’s our chance.” Chloe whispered, her voice barely audible over the cacophony of the casino. She put the champagne glass down onto a tray being carried by a passing waiter and started making her way through the crowd.

“She’s a natural.” Michael whispered as they walked through the crowd with Chloe giving anyone who got in their way an extreme side-eye glare.

“Guess all that time being a huge bitch paid off.” Rich muttered.

“Ha-ha.” Chloe rolled her eyes. “I heard that.”

“Oops.” Rich deadpanned.

The group approached Jenna, whose golden dress made her easy to spot against the dim backdrop of the casino. When they reached Jenna, she was observing a poker game going on while sipping a glass of champagne, leaning back against the wall.

“Chloe!” Jenna looked up, her eyes widening when she saw Chloe. “Long time no see, girl! How’ve you been?”

“Oh, you know. Same old, same old.” Chloe pulled Jenna into a hug. “Everyone, this is Jenna Rolan. She knows everything about everyone.”

Jenna nodded. “I suspect you didn’t swing by just to say hi?”

Chloe shook her head. “We need your help with something. Something big.”

Jenna looked around, biting her bottom lip. “We should go somewhere private to talk.”

And that was how the five of them ended up in a janitor’s closet, telling Jenna their situation.

“Damn.” Jenna’s eyes widened as Dustin finished telling his story. “That is one helluva origin story.” In the close quarters of the janitor’s closet, the golden eye makeup and jewels on her cheekbones were now clearly visible.

“You can say that again.” Michael looked down at the floor.

“And you guys said you needed help finding this shady lady?” Jenna asked, sitting up.

“Bingo.” Rich leaned against the wall of the janitor’s closet.

“Have you heard anything like this?” Dustin asked. “Any shady people? Maybe the name Madeline was mentioned somewhere?”

Jenna pursed her lips. “I’m not sure...” Her eyes widened as though she had been struck with a sudden realization. “But the hotel did just get their conference room booked for a company meeting yesterday.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Rich asked.

“It was booked yesterday, and the meeting is happening tonight.” Jenna raised her eyebrows. “I don’t know about you, but company meetings usually take longer than that to plan.”

“What name was the reservation under?” Michael asked.

“Hmm...” Jenna took a phone out of her purse and typed something onto the screen. “Just... a... sec... here.” She held the phone screen out to Michael. “It was made under the name ‘Lea Mined.’”

“Well, that doesn’t help us at all.” Chloe scoffed. “All it does is tell us that some lady with a weird-ass name rented out a conference room here.”

Michael’s eyes widened. “It is a weird-ass name. Does anyone have a piece of paper?”

“What do you mean?” Rich asked.

“Come on, I’ll show you.” Michael repeated, “Does anyone have a piece of paper and a pen?”

Jenna fished a pen out of her purse, along with a scrap of paper that Dustin saw was an old receipt, and handed them to Michael. “Here.”

“Thanks.” Michael took the receipt and pen from Jenna. He shook the pen a few times and then started writing on the paper. “See? ‘Lea Mined’.” Michael drew some arrows coming from the different letters in the name. “It’s an anagram. It looks like it’s one name, but if you rearrange the letters, you get...”

“Madeline.” Dustin’s eyes widened as he came to the realization. “Oh my God, Mike, you’re a genius!”

Michael gave a falsely bashful shrug. “I saw it on Discovery.”

“But why the anagram?” Rich asked. “Why not just use a fake name entirely? I worked for Madeline, and she didn’t like to take chances.”

“Maybe the anagram wasn’t her taking a chance.” Michael said. “Maybe it was a clue.”

“A clue so that only people who knew what to look for could find Madeline.” Chloe’s eyebrows raised. “She wasn’t risking letting other people know who she was- she only wanted a few people to know!”

“So there are other people involved in this!” Rich’s eyes widened.

“We need to get into that meeting.” Chloe stood up, dusting off the back of her skirt.

“How?” Dustin asked. “It’s probably secured. They’re not just going to let anyone waltz in there.”

“Unless those ‘anybodies’ have access.” Jenna held up something between two fingers- a keycard. “Employees of the hotel really need to watch their pockets more.”

“Oh my God, Jenna, you sneaky thief!” Chloe chuckled, giving Jenna a congratulating pat on the shoulder.

“What are we waiting for?” Jenna flashed the group a mischievous smirk. “We have a party to crash.”

***

When the group stepped back into the elevator, Jenna swiped the keycard through a sensor below the buttons, and a single button at the top of the panel lit up. Jenna pressed the button, and the elevator traveled up an extra few levels until the screen at the top of the elevator displayed the words Conference Level.

“The conference levels are locked so that meetings don’t get interrupted by people wandering all over and trying to find, like, their rooms or something.” Jenna explained as they stepped out onto the conference level, which was really just a hallway that had various sets of double doors leading to the meeting rooms.

“Which one are they in?” Rich asked, looking at the double doors.

Jenna looked at something on her phone. “Conference Room 5.”

“So we just hide outside?” Michael asked.

Jenna shook her head. “Nope. According to this, the meeting doesn’t start until 7:15. We have ten minutes.”

“Ten minutes to do what?” Chloe asked.

“There’s a storage closet in every conference room.” Jenna said, “I think it’s to store vacuum cleaners and stuff so that the staff don’t have to move vacuums around the building just to clean up the conference rooms after a meeting.“

“So we just hide in there and eavesdrop?” Rich’s eyes widened. “That seems deceptively easy.”

“I, for one, am not complaining about things being easy for once.” Chloe raised her hand.

“Nine minutes.” Jenna said, tapping her foot on the floor. “If we want to do this, we have to do it now.”

Dustin looked around the group. “Are we all in?”

Rich gave a grim nod. “I suppose so.”

“Hell yeah.” Chloe smirked.

“I’m in if you’re in.” Michael reached out and gave Dustin’s hand a squeeze.

Dustin looked up. “I guess we’re eavesdropping on a meeting full of potential criminals.”

***

They’d gotten into the storage closet just in time. Less than a minute after they’d worked themselves in among the cleaning supplies and equipment, they heard the door open outside and several sets of footsteps walking in.

“There’s at least a few women.” Jenna whispered. “You can hear their heels.”

“I hope this was worth it, Madeline.” A female voice, harsh and taut, cut through the air as Dustin heard the scraping of chairs against the hardwood floor. “I didn’t have to travel far to be here, but some of the other people in this room did. It would be a shame to have inconvenienced everyone, now, wouldn’t it?”

“This concerns everyone in this room.” Madeline’s voice was sharp and poisonous, like a knife blade dripping with arsenic. “There’s been a new... development back in Ilta. One that puts us all at risk.”

“What kind of development?” A new voice, this one gravelly and ancient, reverberated through the crack at the bottom of the supply closet door.

“It’s something related to the Kropp case.” Madeline said, and those words seemed to suck the very air out of the room. Dustin’s breath caught in his throat, as if one sound, one breath would result in them being caught.

“The Kropp case?” If the verbal equivalent of raising both eyebrows existed, that was certainly what the unknown woman employed as she spoke. “If I’m understanding, the boss told you to get rid of those cousins, and that was the end of that.”

“One of them escaped.” Madeline made a faint noise that sounded like she was sucking in a breath. “As Hades can tell you for himself, I sent my most trusted agent to Adar to employ the fire-user Richard Goranski-Dillinger so that he could... assist us in tracking down and eliminating Dustin Kropp. However, Mr. Heere has informed me that Mr. Goranski-Dillinger joined Kropp and his... partner and fled Adar with an unnamed water-magic user.”

“And what are you gaining from telling us this?” There was a noise that sounded like a chair’s legs scraping against the floor, and then the sound of heels clicking on the floor. “It sounds to me like this is just some pathetic excuse to avoid punishment for your own failures.”

“If you will let me finish, Chandler-“ Madeline interjected, venom in her tone.

“You were always the least dependable of all of us.” The woman, who must have been Chandler, spat. “We all know that you don’t care what happens to the rest of us, Madeline. You’re just here because your stupid little brother got himself a gambling debt he couldn’t pay and-“

Chandler was cut off by the roar of magic letting itself come to life, and Dustin had to suppress a gasp as a loud thud echoed through the room, the noise seeping into the supply closet. “You want to finish that?” Madeline’s voice was shockingly cool, like ice that one could fall through any second.

Dustin strained his ears to hear anything, but before he could pick up anything else, a new voice cut through the air: another female, with a Russian accent. “Will you stop it? You’re acting like children.”

Dustin heard the creak of wood and the hiss of magic fading away, as quickly as it had come. “What I’m trying to propose...” Madeline said, her voice barely concealing her anger, “...is that we put out an alert across the provinces. Tell people they’re wanted criminals. They won’t be safe anywhere, and sooner or later someone will spot them and turn them in to the police. Then, we can take it from there.”

“You want us to basically set up a state of province-wide panic and have everyone convinced that wanted criminals are on the loose, just so you don’t look like you’re bad at your job?” Chandler’s voice was even more muffled than the others’ was, and her words were intercut by hisses of pain. “The whole point of this operation is that it’s run in secret.”

“I don’t see you coming up with any better ideas.” Madeline hissed.

“The way I see it, this is your problem, and your problem alone. It happened in your province, under your jurisdiction. There’s no need to drag the rest of us in to fight your battles.” Chandler responded.

“I don’t know what sort of world you live in, but they’ve crossed province lines. In the boss’s eyes, that concerns all of us.”

Dustin looked over at the others, who seemed to be just barely holding back their shock. Chloe was digging her fingernails into Rich’s arm, and for once it didn’t seem like Rich had a snippy comeback to shoot back at her. Jenna’s hands were clasped over her mouth, her eyes widened and every muscle in her body tensed like a tightly coiled spring. And Michael just reached over and squeezed Dustin’s hand a little bit more, but cautiously, as if the very movement would let whoever was in that meeting room know about their existence.

“Madeline’s right.” A new voice, another male, sounded out. This one was quieter, a little bit more timid. “Once those four crossed province lines, it became everyone’s problem.”

“Evan has a point.” The same female voice that had stopped the argument rang out. “So we can either continue scratching at each others’ throats, or we can do something and avoid getting disposed of by the boss.”

“Thank you, Marya.” The male, Evan, said. “So who’s in favor of sending out a province-wide alert?”

Dustin didn’t get to hear the votes being counted, or the end result. Because at that very moment, in that split second between Evan speaking and the rest of the people in the meeting responding, Dustin jumped slightly. His elbow hit a bottle on the shelf, and that bottle went clattering to the ground in a noise that seemed and felt deafening.

“What was that?” Chandler’s voice was sharp, but there was another element to it- one that sounded like fear.

“Someone else is in here.” The gruff, male voice that Dustin had matched to the name Hades sounded out.

“Close the doors.” Marya said, and Dustin’s heart dropped as he heard the sound of a pair of doors- their only way out -being shut. “No one is leaving until we take care of them.”

Chapter Text

It was so quiet, Dustin felt like he could hear his own heartbeat. His mouth was dry, as if every last bit of moisture had been sucked out of it. No one dared to move, speak, or breath as the five people outside the storage closet moved around. There was the sound of a door scratching on the floor, and a resolute thud as the doors, the only way for Dustin and the others to get out, were shut.

Footsteps.

The sound of knives unsheathing.

Out of the corner of his eye, Dustin saw Chloe form a stream of water in her hand, then freeze it into a sharp icicle. Rich took something out of his jacket pocket- a knife. Michael cast a spell in his hands, the purplish-black light glowing for a mere second before it faded away, and Michael with it.

Shadow magic. Dustin realized. Michael was physically still there, but he had harnessed the shadows around him so that he was no longer visible to the naked eye.

Five people behind that door. Five dangerous people. And that was just those who had spoken- they had no real way of knowing whether that number was exact. These people had magic, and they had knives.

But the group on the other side of the door had five seriously pissed-off magic users with scores to settle.

The door opened, light flooded the room, and all hell broke loose.

Chloe’s icicle whizzed through the air, narrowly grazing Dustin’s left ear and hitting a blonde woman in the arm. The woman gasped, her red-painted lips contorting into a scowl.

Rich grabbed the door handle and flung it all the way open, hard, hitting a guy with a blue polo shirt, dark skin, and dark curly hair. “Eat that, you mother-“

Rich was cut off by the blonde woman tackling him and throwing him to the ground, holding up the bloodied icicle Chloe had jabbed into her arm. Rich rolled out of the way, sweeping his leg across the floor and sending the woman down with him.

An older woman with red hair held up a hand, and a stream of water shot out from it. Dustin and Chloe scrambled out of the way just in time to avoid being hit, but Jenna wasn’t as lucky. The water hit her on the shoulder causing her to yelp in pain and clutch the wounded area.

Dustin held up both his hands, letting out as much magical energy as he could muster, summoning a dome-shaped shield in front of Jenna and Chloe.

“You alright?” Chloe asked.

“Sweet Jesus in the manger, that hurt like a bitch!” Jenna groaned.

“Looks like it’ll be a pretty nasty skin burn, but you’ll live.” Chloe said. “I would give you something to bandage it up, but-“

“It can wait.” Jenna nodded.

“Hey, Michael?” Dustin called, wincing with the force of the water on the shield. “I could use a little help!”

Dustin didn’t hear a response, but he did hear the woman who was assaulting them with the magic equivalent of a pressure-washer grunting and swearing in Russian, and the jet of water stopped. Dustin let the shield down, and without hesitating a moment more, he rushed out the open door and into the conference room, not risking getting caught in there again.

In the conference room, Dustin barely had time to process what was going on before the man Rich had KO-ed with a door stood up, one arm across his stomach. Though the man’s breathing was heavy, he still held up his free arm and opened his palm. Dustin heard the shattering of glass, and the yell of “Get down!” from Chloe. Before Dustin even knew it, he was dropping to the ground, just in time for shards of glass to whizz over his head and shatter even more against the floor. His jaw ached from slamming into the ground, and it may have just been his imagination, but he could have sworn that there was a coppery, sharp taste of blood in his mouth.

Little white starbursts filled his vision as someone tackled him to the floor, knocking his head back against the hardwood and sending a sharp flare of pain up his skull. When his vision cleared, he saw Madeline, standing over him with a knife in one hand, the other hand holding him down with surprising strength.

Deja vú?” She asked, a mocking smirk on her lips.

Dustin didn’t answer, instead lifting his head up and biting down on Madeline’s arm, hard. Madeline gave a yell of pain, releasing her grip just long enough for Dustin to roll out from under her and shove her to the ground, knocking the knife out of her hand. He summoned a ball of light in his hands and thrust it at her face- not strong enough to kill or injure her, but enough to disorient her for the time being.
Deja this, bitch.”

“You-“ Madeline snarled, clawing around aimlessly in the air trying to reach Dustin, but it was no use.

Dustin backed away, and no sooner had he done it then he heard something being sprayed into the air. He turned and saw Chloe, holding both hands in the air and muttering something under her breath. The air filled with a heavy grayish fog, only it wasn’t fog. Dustin noticed from the wet feeling on his skin that this was mist.

Whatever it was, it was making it damn hard to see. Apparently, that had been the goal. Dustin couldn’t see anyone else in the room, he could only hear yells of indignation, thuds, and, in Rich’s case, loud swearing.

“No, you idiot, that’s me!” Chandler’s voice rang out. “Don’t attack me, find them!”

Somebody grabbed Dustin’s wrist, and it took everything in his willpower not to gasp or yell out in shock. He was glad he didn’t, too- when he looked to see who had grabbed him, it was Michael, with a finger to his lips in the universal “don’t-make-a-damn-sound” sign.

Dustin nodded, letting Michael take his wrist. He saw a soft purple glow emenating from the tips of Michael’s fingers, and suddenly a wave of shadow came over him, pulling him under the darkness and out of sight.

The second he was pulled under, he felt a dull ache under his skin. It wasn’t overwhelming, but it was definitely noticeable. He looked around at the others, who were locked in a sort of human chain to stay connected to Michael, who looked as if he were holding a hundred-pound weight over his head and couldn’t put it down.

From somewhere in the room, he heard Madeline yell, “Marya, get this mist out of the air!”

“Got it.” Marya must have done something to the water in the air, because Dustin felt the moisture leave the room.

“Where’d they go?” The gruff male voice, Hades, hissed.

“Search the room.” Madeline growled.

Dustin heard footsteps, but couldn’t focus on anything else. The pain that had set into his bones was growing, turning from an ache into a stabbing, shooting pain that crept up his body and settled underneath his skin. It felt like it was sucking every last bit of oxygen from his lungs- it was, he couldn’t breathe, the darkness was suffocating him-

All of the sudden, Dustin heard elevator doors closing, and the darkness was yanked away from over him like a blanket being ripped off of a sleeping person. He inhaled deeply, letting the oxygen flood his lungs and bring coherency back into him. When he looked around the elevator, most of his friends seemed to be in a similar state. Except Michael, who seemed more tired than out of breath.

“We need...” Rich gasped. “We need to get out of here.”

“Look at us.” Chloe panted, rubbing her shoulders as if she’d been bruised there. “None of us are in shape to walk, let alone drive.”

“Chloe’s...” Michael sighed. “Chloe’s right. They still think we’re up there. We have at least a few minutes.”

“Those people... who were they?” Jenna leaned back against the wall.

“I knew Madeline, but the others-“ Rich shrugged. “Strangers.”

“They want us dead. All of us.” Dustin grimaced. “And they have the ability to put out a police report on us.”

“But that doesn’t make any sense.” Rich sighed. “Madeline and her people are criminals, and I’m guessing those four others aren’t exactly the most savory folks either. So why would they...”

“Corrupt government.” Jenna’s words seemed to sink into the air like stones.

“What?” Michael’s eyes widened.

“Think about it. Criminals who have the power to control what police reports get put out? That only happens when the government isn’t what people think it is.” Jenna said. “And I’ve heard some reports of shady people intimidating candidates who want to run for office in the provinces.”

“So you’re saying that you think our whole world is run by criminals?” Chloe raised her eyebrows.

“I’m not saying that’s definitely the case, but I think it’s a possibility-“ The elevator doors chimed and opened, cutting Jenna off.

“We can’t talk about this now.” Dustin said. “Right now, let’s focus on collecting ourselves and getting the hell out.”

Some patrons gave the five of them weird looks as they exited- and with good reason, too. They were scuffed up, their clothes dirtied and, in some cases, ripped. Chloe’s dress had a huge tear in the shoulder, and the collar of Rich’s dress shirt had been torn.

“I need a drink.” Chloe groaned as they sat down on one of the many couches in the lobby, one that was only occupied by one man who was typing around on his phone. “Please tell me this place has an open bar.”

“It does, but not the fancy stuff.” Jenna nodded. “Who’s willing to make the drink run?”

“I’ll go.” Rich stood up. “What does everyone want?”

“Whiskey.” Chloe said.

“Two beers.” Michael said, nodding to Dustin.

“Vodka with club soda.” Jenna leaned back against the seat.

“Got it.” Rich clicked his tongue and walked off, leaving the others to quietly wait.

“You guys look like you’ve had a rough night.” The guy sitting by them said, looking up from his phone.

Chloe chuckled darkly. “You don’t know the half of it.”

“Partying?” The guy asked.

“You could say that.” Dustin answered. “What are you here for?”

“Business trip.” The guy sighed. “I had to leave my daughter alone with a babysitter for a few days, so I really hope it’s worth it.”

“You have a daughter?” Michael asked.

The man nodded. “Uh-huh. Her name’s Malika. She’s ten years old and she’s probably the sweetest girl on the planet.” He swiped something on his phone and held it out to them, showing them an image of a young girl with dark skin and wide, brown eyes, her hair pulled up into a braided ponytail.

“She’s cute.” Jenna smiled.

The man nodded. “Yeah. She’s the best thing in my life.”

“Here you go.” Rich set a tray down on the table, and everyone grabbed their respective drinks.

“Thanks.” Chloe grabbed her whiskey and took a tentative sip.

“Are you sure you guys should be drinking? You look pretty roughed up already.” The guy said, putting his phone in his pocket.

“Trust me, after the day we’ve had, alcohol is the one thing-“ Rich’s voice trailed off when his eyes met the man’s.

However, no one had time to ask the reasoning behind the awkward moment, as right then, somebody crashed down through the glass ceiling.

“Get down!” Rich yelled, grabbing the two people nearest to him- Dustin and the man -and pulling them to the ground as glass shards rained down.

No sooner than this had happened, the man punched Rich right in the face.

“Agh!” Rich yelled. “Hey, I’m not with those people who just crashed through the ceiling, okay?!”

“Oh, I know.” The man huffed, shaking out the hand that he’d punched Rich with. “I just really wanted to do that.”

Screams echoed out from somewhere in the lobby as a ray of dark magic shot overhead, slamming into the wall and sending chunks of plaster flying through the air.

“What the hell is going on?!” The man yelled.

“We need to get out of here!” Jenna grabbed the serving tray off of the table, throwing it in the direction the magic had come from. The yell of pain and the clatter they heard told Dustin that Jenna had hit her target.

“Come on.” Rich grabbed the wrist of the mystery guy and attempted to pull him up, but the man jerked his hand away.

“Don’t touch me!” He hissed.

“Listen, do you want to live?” Rich asked.

“I-“ The man was interrupted by another ray of magic shooting over their heads, this one way too close for comfort. “Alright.”

The six of them dashed across the lobby, joining the frantic rush of people heading for the front doors. When they managed to get out onto the streets, the night air hit them like a freight train, as well as the sound of sirens.

“Cops. Get to the car.” Chloe said.

Thankfully, they hadn’t parked the car too far away from the hotel. As they scrambled to open the doors and find a reasonable position to sit that wouldn’t get them pulled over by the cops, Dustin had never been more grateful for a crowd.

Michael hit the gas, and the car vanished among the dozens of others driving through the city.

“Lunatics.” The guy groaned, running his fingers through his hair. “You’re all lunatics.”

“Says the guy that climbed into a car with said lunatics.” Rich muttered.

“Who are these people?” The guy asked Rich. “I mean, this guy...” he pointed to Michael, “...has only one eye, that lady...” he pointed to Jenna, “...just took out someone with a serving tray, she...” he pointed to Chloe, “...looks like she could probably snap you in half, and he...” he pointed to Michael, “...just looks confused!”

“Ah, so you’ve met everyone already.” Rich said, his voice dry. “I guess I should introduce you guys to him, huh?”
Without waiting for the rest of the group to answer, Rich continued.

“Jake, meet everyone. And everyone, meet Jake. My... ex-husband.”

Chapter Text

“What?!” Dustin whirled around in the shotgun seat to look at Rich, his jaw dropped. And he certainly wasn’t alone. Nearly everyone else in the car was reeling from the bombshell Rich had just dropped- that the mysterious stranger they’d picked up at the casino was Jake, Rich’s ex-husband- and the guy whose house he had burned down five years ago.

This had made things significantly more awkward.

“Technically, we’re still married.” Jake bristled, his voice like ice.

“Really?” Rich asked, a tinge of surprise in his tone, but it was quickly concealed.

Jake nodded. “Yeah. I can’t seem to find the papers. I think I might have left them in the house- oh wait!

Rich sighed and looked down, not meeting Jake’s eyes as Jake continued.

“You didn’t just burn down our house. You burned down our house and then left us. You left me. So explain why the hell you’re here now, five years later, running from a casino with people shooting magic at you, and you drag me into a PT Cruiser with four strangers, and now we’re stuck in traffic at ten-o-fucking-clock at night, running from said people shooting magic at us!”

“It’s a long story.” Chloe said. “And I, for one, have questions too. You’re married?!”

Rich nodded, seemingly having been robbed of his ability to speak.

“You don’t even have the ring.” Jake said coldly.

Rich’s hand reached into his shirt collar, almost of its own volition, and pulled something out- the chain he wore around his neck. “I kept it.”

That’s what it was.

“You-“ Jake’s eyes widened, but his expression hardened again just as quickly. “It doesn’t matter. You still left me... you still left Malika.”

An uncomfortable silence followed, and not even the overly peppy pop song Michael had coming out of the car’s speakers could drown it out. Finally, Rich spoke up again.

“Where do you live?”

“What?” Jake asked, tearing his gaze away from out the window.

“Where do you live?” Rich repeated.

Jake’s eyes narrowed. “Are you seriously trying to-“

“What? No! I want to drop you off at home.”

“Why?” Jake snapped.

“Because you didn’t ask to be here, you don’t want to be here, so dammit, Jake, get off your high horse and tell us where you live so we can drop you off at home and you can get on with your life.” Rich snapped back.

There was a single tense moment that seemed to hold a whole conversation in it, a whole story- but Jake broke it by saying, “I’ll put it into your GPS.”

Which was how they ended up on the highway, traveling to a different province in the dead of night, following the directions Jake had given Michael. The awkward silence in the car hadn’t disappeared, but with everyone’s exhaustion catching up to them, it became a little more bearable as most everyone in the car fell asleep. The only people who didn’t succumb to their exhaustion were Michael (obviously, he was driving) and Dustin.

“So...” Michael said, keeping his voice low and not taking his eyes off the road. “This is a new development.”

“That’s one way to put it.” Dustin sighed, leaning back against the seat. The fighting seemed to have made a dull ache settle behind his left eyelid, like the pain from the knife wound had never really gone away.

“I can’t believe he’s Rich’s husband.”

“I can’t believe he’s the person we ran into.” Dustin ran his fingers through his hair. “Out of everyone...”

“Do you think Jenna was right?” Michael spoke up abruptly. “Do you think those people actually... control the government?”

“I don’t know.” Dustin sighed. “Those people... they were dangerous. They are dangerous.”

“There were five of them.” Michael said. “Five, and they all had a different type of magic.”

“One per province.” Dustin seemed to come to the realization along with Michael. For the next few minutes, there was nothing but grim silence as the two of them contemplated this new turn of events.

“Poor Harmony.” Michael sighed. “Her mom is dead and her dad is the one who killed her.”

“That’s fucked up.”

“Are we going to... are we going to tell her?”

“We have to, eventually.” Dustin said. “She deserves to know.”

“She’s going to be wrecked.” Michael reached out and adjusted the radio dial, taking the station from a late-night DJ to the regular news station.

“This just in- a casino in Makani was attacked by a group of dangerous criminals. They were reportedly dropping through the ceiling of the lobby, launching magic at innocent people, before fleeing when the cops showed up. Law enforcement officials say that the fugitives were seen escaping in a black PT Cruiser, license plate 300GT. They have been described as four men and two women, photographs still pending. Law enforcement urges anyone has any information on these criminals to call the anonymous crime-stopper hotline.”

“Oh my God.” Dustin’s mouth fell open.

“You guys...” Michael raised his voice, speaking to everyone in the car. “You guys need to listen to this.”

“What?” Chloe groaned, rubbing her eyes sleepily.

Michael turned up the radio dial, letting the sound of the anchorman’s voice fill the car.

”...and listeners should be warned that these criminals are highly dangerous, incredibly powerful magic users. They have no qualms about attacking civilians. Should you sight these people, do not engage with them. Call law enforcement officials and exit the area, and urge others to do the same. What’s that? Oh my God... ladies and gentleman, we have received reports that one of the fugitives matches the description of Rich Goranski-Dillinger, previously wanted for arson and two counts of attempted murder.”

Dustin looked back at Rich in the rear view mirror, who had his hand clasped over his mouth in shock, eyes widened. Jake seemed equally affected, as if the ability to speak had been taken from him. Jenna’s jaw had dropped, and Chloe seemed like she was thinking she hadn’t heard right. But the anchorman kept talking, and one thing was utterly clear- someone was in control of the government. Someone had effectively painted big target signs on their backs. Michael, without warning, pulled over to the side of the road.

“Why are we stopped?” Jenna asked.

“They have our license plate number, and we’re the most wanted people in all the provinces right now. Keeping this car will be like shooting up a flare.” Michael explained, taking the keys out of the ignition.

“But how are we going to get back to my place?” Jake asked.

“We’ll have to walk.” Michael sighed.

Walk?!” Jake’s eyes widened. “That’s going to take days.”

“It’s the only option we’ve got at this point.” Michael unbuckled his seatbelt and stepped out into the darkness. “And we need to leave our phones here, too.”

Jenna nodded. “Triangulation. The police can track our signal. We can get some of those prepaid phones when we find a town.”

“This is insane. You people honestly expect me to just... to just go on the run with you?” Jake asked. “I have a daughter. And she needs me back.”

“We’re not asking you to join us. We just want you to not get us arrested.” Rich unbuckled his seat belt as well. “Cell phones won’t be a problem for me. I’ve been using burner phones for years now.”

“Gee, I wonder why.” Jake muttered. “Can’t imagine why you of all people would have to go off the radar.”

If Rich heard the dig, he didn’t acknowledge it. “We better start walking. It’s midnight, so we’ve got darkness working to our advantage, but when the sun comes up, we need to be far away from here.”

Everyone else nodded, seemingly agreeing. They all dug around in their pockets and, in Jenna’s case, their purses, digging out their cell phones and depositing them on the floor of the car.

“Better leave your credit cards, too.” Chloe said. “If you’ve got ‘em. We need to get used to cash only.”

Michael, Dustin, Jenna, and Jake all reached into their wallets, taking out their credit cards and dropping them next to their phones.

“You owe me a new phone and a new card.” Jake grumbled, side-eyeing Rich.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you’ve got phone insurance.” Rich muttered.

“This is gonna be a long trip.” Jenna whispered to Dustin, who nodded in agreement.

***

A few hours later, in the light of the early dawn, the group was making their way through... the middle of bum-fuck-nowhere, evidently. The only thing surrounding them for miles was wheat fields, which didn’t exactly make anyone thrilled after Rich shared the lovely tidbit that corn snakes liked hiding in wheat fields. Chloe, who had lost her shoes back at the casino and was walking barefoot, took this the worst of all.

“This is officially the worst trip of my life,” she groaned.

“Girl, trust me, I want to lose my heels.” Jenna responded.

“We all need to lose these outfits.” Michael said. “They’re a bit too... conspicuous for people trying to evade the law.”

“Whatever gave you that idea?” Jenna asked, gesturing to her sparkly gold dress.

“No clue whatsoever.” Jake said dryly. Dustin noticed that he seemed to be purposely keeping a few steps ahead of Rich, almost as if forcing himself to not look at him.

“Look.” Rich pointed to something on the horizon- a farmhouse.

“A house? Rich, that’s the last place we should be right now.” Chloe raised an eyebrow.

Rich shook his head. “No, not the house. Check out what they’ve got out front.”

Dustin squinted his right eye, barely managing to make out the outline of clothes on a clothesline swaying gently in the breeze.

“Free clothes.” Rich smirked.

“Are you crazy?” Jake hissed. “Rich, that’s stealing.”

“If you haven’t noticed, Jake, we’re on the run from the law. I doubt a few outfits are going to get us in much more trouble.” Rich rolled his eyes and started walking up the hill towards the farmhouse.

“He’s got a point.” Jenna shrugged, turning and following Rich. Within a few seconds, the rest of the group (even Jake, though he did so begrudgingly) was following him as well.

The clothes on the line were nice, if a bit on the rustic side, and no one seemed to have any trouble finding a suitable outfit. Chloe grabbed a denim dress with flowers stitched over the front pockets, as well as a pair of women’s moccasins sitting on the front porch. “This is much better.”

Jenna, on the other hand, grabbed a pink blouse, a pair of blue jeans, and some leather sandals that had also been left lying on the porch. “Looks like it’s our lucky day.”

Dustin scanned the clothes hanging on the line, finally grabbing a yellow tee-shirt, a pair of overalls, and a pair of men’s cowboy boots. “Looks like they’re those kind of people who leave all their shoes on the porch.” He muttered.

Jake, meanwhile, seemed to be having a harder time choosing an outfit. He grabbed and let go of multiple articles of clothing before finally settling on a pair of blue jeans, a blue button-up shirt with slightly puffed sleeves, and another pair of cowboy boots. “This’ll work.”

Rich had barely hesitated, grabbing a flannel shirt and the same jeans-and-boots combo the other two men had used. Michael looked somewhat sheepish to grab the same combination of jeans and boots, but he mixed it up with just a plain white tee shirt.

After changing into their new, rustic ensembles, then there was the question of what to do with their old clothes.

“Do we leave them?” Chloe asked.

Rich shook his head. “They’ve got our DNA. It’d be kind of hard for Jake to return to normal life if their name was all over the news.”

“Their?” Dustin asked.

Jake shrugged. “I’m non-binary. You can use he/him or they/them. I’m cool with either.”

Dustin nodded. “Gotcha.”

“Maybe we should burn them.” Chloe suggested.

“Where are we gonna start a fire?” Jenna asked. “That’s pretty attention-grabbing.”

“Let’s just keep them on us until we find a place with a Dumpster.” Michael said.

“Speaking of finding a new place, we should hit the road.” Rich rolled up his old clothes and tucked them under his arm. “I don’t wanna be around here when these people wake up and discover our little shopping spree.”

“For once, I agree with you.” Jake nodded.

And with that, they set off once more.

“We need fake names in case anyone asks.” Chloe said, about thirty minutes after they’d left the farmhouse.

“What kind of fake names?” Michael asked.

Chloe shrugged. “Just a name. You’ve gotta be able to remember it, though.”

“I’ll be Tiffany.” Jenna said. “Tiffany Mann.”

“I know.” Dustin snapped his fingers. “I’ll be Justin.”

“Are you serious?” Chloe rolled her eyes. “Fine. It’s up to you. I’ll be Katlyn.”

“Who should I be?” Michael asked.

“How about George?” Jenna suggested. “You look like a George to me.”

“What? George?” Michael wrinkled his nose.

“It kind of fits, babe.” Dustin remarked.

“I’ll be Troy.” Rich spoke up.

“What about you, Jake?” Jenna asked, and everyone in the group turned to look at Jake.

“I cannot believe I’ve fled authorities, stolen clothes, and now I’m coming up with a fake name on the same day.” Jake muttered. “How about... Britton?”

“Britton?” Rich asked, and Dustin could see he was concealing a smile.

“It’s a nice name!” Jake said defensively.

“It’s a little... out there, don’t you think?” Rich’s tone was light, even somewhat... playful.

Jake rolled his eyes. “Fine. I’ll give myself a basic-ass white person last name. Smith.”

“Britton Smith? I like that. It’s got a ring to it.”

***

Walking in the countryside turned out to be significantly less fun after the first four hours, especially after everyone got tired of the sentence “I spy, with my little eye, something that is tan” and answering with “wheat”. So everyone was pretty thrilled when they stumbled across a small town along the highway.

“Sweet Jesus in the manger, I have never been so happy to see a tiny-ass town in the middle of nowhere.” Jenna sighed.

“Do you think there’s someplace we can eat?” Rich asked hopefully. “I’m starving.”

“We’ve got to blend in.” Michael joked. “Everyone say ‘yeehaw’.”

“Even if I am on the run, wearing stolen clothes from a fucking farm, I am not, under any circumstances, saying the word ‘yeehaw’.” Jake threw his hands into the air. “I refuse.”

“I should mention, he hates country music.” Rich said.

“If this town is one of those janky little places that has speakers in the streets blasting country music, so help me God, I am walking right through this place and not stopping.” Jake grumbled.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if there was a country music festival happening right now?” Jenna giggled.

“Stop.” Jake groaned.

Chloe snapped her fingers and started singing, “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene...

Jenna picked up on the hint, and she too started singing, “I’m begging of you, please don’t take my man.

Michael, a goofy smile on his face, joined in. “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene...

Dustin leapt in to finish the verse. “Please don’t take him just because you can.

“I hate all of you.” Jake muttered.

“How do you all know the words to that song?” Rich asked, more impressed than anything else.

“It’s a good song.” Chloe shrugged.

“And you never know when you’ll need to annoy someone with it.” Jenna giggled again as Jake swore under his breath.

”I applaud your dedication.” Rich reached out and gave Jenna a high-five.

As they proceeded further into town, Dustin was pleased to see that nobody gave them a second glance. Yes, they were a little roughed up from the casino fight, but none the worse for wear. And after ditching their old clothes in a dumpster behind a drugstore, there was no reason for anyone to think they were any more than normal citizens.

“Check it out.” Rich pointed across the street, and sandwiched right between a store selling homemade jewelry and a general store, there was a diner that had the red and blue Open sign on, with a crowd inside that wasn’t so small that they would be the center of attention, but it wasn’t such a big crowd that the place would be swamped.

“How much money do we have?” Chloe asked.

Michael checked his wallet. “I’ve got... ten dollars.”

“I don’t have any cash. I didn’t pick up my wallet before we left the apartment.” Dustin groaned.

“I’ve got five.” Jenna offered.

“Six.” Rich held out a crumpled five-dollar bill and four quarters.

“Two dollars and five cents. Plus a mint.” Chloe said.

Jake rolled his eyes. “Luckily for you all, one of us keeps a decent amount of cash on them at all times. It’s on me.”

“You sure?” Rich asked.

“Don’t question free food when it’s offered.” Michael said.

“What he said.” Jake nodded.

So, a few minutes later, the six of them were sandwiched into a booth with red vinyl seats, glass covering the red-and-white checkered tablecloth, and menus that had been covered over with plastic, drinking coffee and eating waffles, toast, and eggs over easy.

“This is the best food I’ve ever had in my life.” Michael said, with his mouth full of waffle.

“Ugh, close your mouth.” Chloe gagged. “We don’t need to see a play-by-play of you eating your breakfast.”

“Sorry.” Michael swallowed his food.

“Thanks for breakfast, Jake.” Jenna said, adding some more pepper to her eggs.

“Don’t mention it.” Jake shrugged.

Suddenly, the waitress closest to them gasped. “Bless their hearts.”

“What’s going on?” Dustin turned, trying to see what the waitress was looking at.

“There were two kidnappings last night. Two. On the same day.” The waitress clasped a hand over her mouth. “Oh, those poor little girls.”

“Could you turn the TV up?” Jake asked, his posture suddenly rigid. Dustin could see that he was putting everything he had into not breaking down.

The waitress nodded, and the volume on the television increased.

“...the apartments were, quote, ‘a mess’ when SWAT teams arrived on the scene, with no signs of the children to be found. Something interesting to report is that both girls were staying with a babysitter while their parents are out of town. Another interesting thing to report is that one of the missing girls, Malika Goranski-Dillinger, is related to Richard Goranski-Dillinger, who is wanted for setting the house he lived in on fire with his husband and Malika inside, and who is also a suspect in the recent Makani casino attack. Police have not ruled out the possibility that Richard is behind the kidnapping.”

“No.” Jake gasped. Rich had gone white as a sheet, his mouth hanging open in shock.

“The other missing girl recently lost her mother, and was staying with a babysitter at an apartment in Ilta belonging to her mother’s cousin. That little girl’s name is Harmony Heere.”

Chapter Text

Harmony didn’t know where she was. Why had the police come into her room in the middle of the night, grabbed her, and knocked down Brooke when she tried to stop them? Had she done something wrong? She remembered seeing things on the news about the police breaking into homes in the middle of the night because there were criminals hiding there- but Harmony wasn’t a criminal. She tried to ask the police why they were taking her, but they only said she would find out “soon enough”.

The police station was cold. It felt like someone had turned the air-conditioning up too much. She was sitting in a plastic chair in an almost-empty room, sleepy but not able to sleep. It didn’t look like a police station, even though the people who took them wore police clothes and had guns. There were no windows, and there was only one other person in the room with her- a girl who looked only a little older than Harmony with dark skin, brown eyes, and hair pulled up into a ponytail made up of dozens of tiny braids. She was wearing a white shirt and pants with purple polka dots on them, like pajamas. Had they taken her out of bed, too? What was she doing here?

“Hi.” Harmony said softly, her voice sounding too loud in the quiet room.

The girl looked up, her eyes widening, but she gave a little wave. “Hi.”

“I’m Harmony. What’s your name?”

“Malika. Malika Goranski-Dillinger.” The way the girl said her “s” sounds was funny- it was almost like a “th” sound instead.

“Do you know why we’re here?” Harmony asked, drawing her legs to her chest and hugging them.

Malika shook her head. “No. They took me out of my apartment and when the babysitter tried to stop them, they hit her with something.”

“What was it?”

Malika shrugged. “I don’t know. It was purple, but it didn’t look good.”

“I’m scared.” Harmony whimpered.

“Don’t be.” Malika said gently. “We’ll be fine.”

“Are you just saying that to make me feel better?” Harmony asked.

Malika sighed. “Kinda, yeah.”

The door opened, and both girls looked up, expecting to see another police officer. But instead, what they saw was a man in a white tee shirt and jeans. “Hey, you two.”

“Who are you?” Harmony asked, somewhat cautious. Her mom and dad had always told her to never talk to strangers.

“My name is Evan Hansen.” The man said, his tone gentle. “I’m here to pick you up.”

“My Papa always says I shouldn’t go with strangers.” Malika said, her eyes darting to the door as if she was thinking about standing up and running. For a second, Harmony thought about doing it too.

“Your Papa is very smart.” Evan said. “But I’m not a stranger.”

“I’ve never seen you before.” Malika hugged her arms across her chest.

“I’m friends with both of you girls’ parents. They asked me to pick you up, because they can’t get here right now.”

“My mommy always said that if you were friends with her, you’d know our password.” Harmony said. They’d made the password a long time ago, right after Harmony had a police officer come to her school and tell them about stranger danger, and how the kids should have a password with their parents that they would tell any adult who picked their kids up. That way, the kid would know if they were really there to pick them up or if they were trying to kidnap them.

Evan nodded. “Of course. The password. It was Midsummer, wasn’t it?”

Harmony nodded. “That’s right!” He really did know her parents after all. Harmony felt her nerves easing away. If Evan knew her parents, he couldn’t be bad. Her parents weren’t friends with bad people.

Malika didn’t look convinced. “What about my password.”

“Nothing slips by you, huh?” Evan laughed. “‘Strawberries.’”

Malika’s eyes widened, and she nodded. “Yeah. I guess you know my Papa after all. Sorry for thinking you were a stranger.”

Evan shook his head. “No, don’t apologize. It’s good to be safe.” He stood up, motioning for Harmony and Malika to do the same. “Come on.”

“Can we get some food on the way there?” Harmony asked. “I’m kind of hungry.”

Evan nodded. “Sure thing. Wouldn’t want you girls to be hungry. Especially since it’s kind of a long drive.”

“Where are we going?” Malika asked.

“Someplace where you girls can wait until your parents come for you.” Evan said. “Which won’t be very long. I guarantee it.”

***

After seeing the news, everyone had pretty much lost their appetite. They paid for their meal and left, and now they were sitting in an alleyway between a bookstore and a pharmacy, not quite sure of what to do now.

“Malika...” Jake was a wreck. “Malika, oh God, no. Please.” His words came out between sobs that made his whole body shake as he leaned against the wall. “Please.

“Jake...” Rich moved to place a hand on Jake’s shoulder, but Jake moved away.

Don’t touch me!” He hissed, but his anger could only stay up for so long before he broke down and leaned against the wall, this time slumping down until he was sitting on the ground. Rich sat down next to Jake and grabbed his hand, and this time, Jake didn’t pull away. The two of them just sat there, and soon enough, Rich was crying, too.

“Oh my God.” Dustin had his arms around Michael in a deep hug, his face buried into Michael’s shoulder. “Harmony...” He let out a raspy half-sob. “We never should have left her, Mikey.”

Michael didn’t say anything, but his body was trembling as if one small touch would send him careening to the floor.

“Malika...” Jake sobbed. “My baby girl is gone.”

“I’m sorry.” Rich’s voice broke. “God, Jake, I’m so sorry. This is all my fault. I never should have left you guys.”

“It’s too late for that now.” Jake didn’t sound angry, he just sounded defeated.

“I know.” Rich lifted up his wrist and stared at the pink beaded bracelet. “I know.”

Jake’s eyes widened as they saw the bracelet. “What’s that?”

Now that Rich was holding it up, Dustin could see it clearly. The beads were in a pink and purple alternating pattern, except for four black-and-white letter beads that spelled out “Dada”.

“What does ‘Dada’ mean?” Dustin asked.

“It’s...” Rich ran his fingers through his hair. “It’s what she called me. I was Dada, and Jake was Papa. She was just so amazing, and I left her.”

“Why did you do it?” Jake asked. “Why did you leave us?”

“Madeline. It was Madeline, that bitch.” Rich scowled, but behind his anger, Dustin saw deep pain.

“But why? Why did Madeline want anything to do with you?”

Rich sighed. “I was sixteen, and I was sick of everything. Sick of going to bed hungry because my dad spent money that was left over after rent on booze. Sick of getting hit every time he wasn’t too drunk to care. I wanted an out. And that’s when Madeline and her people found me. And I joined her.”

“Why?” Jake asked. “Why would you do that?”

“I didn’t think I had a choice back then. I was young, I was hungry- I thought I was never gonna escape.”

“So you decided to become a criminal.” Jake said bitterly, crossing their arms over their chest. “Good for you.”

“You didn’t let me finish.” Rich snapped, but his anger quickly melted back into sadness. “For the next two years, that was what my life was. Pulling jobs in the dead of night, getting paid for it- I fell into this rhythm. That’s where I met Jeremy.”

“That guy who killed his wife?” Chloe’s eyes widened. “What does he have to do with this?”

“He was in the same organization as me. Same age.” Rich sighed. “He was never... he was never like the other people in the organization. He wasn’t tough. I don’t think he even knew how to hurt someone. He joined a few months after I did, and kids like him... they got eaten alive. I sort of looked out for him. Showed him the ropes, taught him how to defend himself. But he still... he still didn’t like hurting people without a cause. Or hurting innocent people.”

“Well, that’s a far cry from the Jeremy we know and love.” Chloe scoffed.

“I don’t know what happened to him.” Rich shook his head. “We lost touch after I... left.”

“You left?” Michael asked, eyes widening. “You left what’s basically the magic Mafia?”

Rich nodded. “I’d just gotten accepted to college, one that was out of Ilta. And I finally saw a future that wasn’t on the streets.”

“Let me get this straight.” Jenna pinched the bridge of her nose. “You decided to walk away from a criminal organization that controls the entire world.”

“To be fair, I didn’t know about the controls the entire world part yet.” Rich said. “And I didn’t exactly walk away. I still was with the organization. Madeline made it very clear that I was expected to come back after my degree was done.”

“So what changed?” Jake asked.

“I met you.”

“What?” Jake’s eyes widened, as if he hadn’t expected that.

“I met you while we were in college and we just... clicked. You saw me as a person, not as some kid from the streets. And you were the first person to do that, Jake.” Dustin saw that Rich’s voice was wavering, and tears starting to well up in his eyes.

“I didn’t... I didn’t know.” Jake leaned back against the wall, like he was taking in Rich’s words.

“When we started dating, it was the first time that I felt like I was worth something.” Rich wasn’t even trying to hide the fact that he was crying now. “That’s why I never told you about the organization. I didn’t want you to see me any differently.”

“So you didn’t go back.” Jake said, and Rich nodded. “You didn’t go back... because of me.”

“And after we got married and adopted Malika... then I had two people in my life who cared about me. And I loved you both...” Rich inhaled deeply, trying and failing to stave off a sob. “But then Madeline found me.”

“That night...” Jake’s voice trailed off.

“She came up to me in the backyard. Told me that I had to come back. And I... I told her no.” Rich bit his lip. “She had her people attack me and... and I killed them. But when I used my magic, it set the house on fire, and...”

“Why did you leave?” Jake asked, his voice full of pain. “If you’d told me... I would have understood. I would have forgiven you. You didn’t burn the house down on purpose.”

“Because I was still being hunted by Madeline, and as long as I was around, neither of you would be safe. And I know how fucked up that is, but it’s true.” Rich let out a ragged sob. “I was an idiot when I was a kid. And now Malika’s missing and it’s all my fault and goddammit, you have every right to hate me-“

“I don’t hate you.” Jake cut Rich off. “I don’t hate you. I’m still angry at you, and I don’t forgive you just yet, but... I don’t hate you. Not anymore. We have bigger things to do now. Like getting our daughter back.”

“Jake’s right.” Chloe spoke up, putting a hand on Rich’s shoulder. “We’re getting Malika and Harmony back. Rich, you’re going to see your daughter again if it’s the last thing I ever do.”

“Chloe...” Rich’s voice trailed off as he pulled Chloe into a hug. “Thank you.”

Chloe’s eyes widened and she let out a yelp of surprise, but she quickly returned the gesture. “Hey, don’t mention this to anyone, all right? I’ve still got a rep to maintain.”

“We’re with you guys.” Dustin stepped forward, holding Michael’s hand. Michael nodded.

“Damn right we are.”

“What are we waiting for?” Jenna grinned. “Let’s go find those kids.”

“Running blindly off to find some kids that you don’t even know the location of?” The voice that shot through the air and cut off Jenna made goosebumps appear on Dustin’s arms... he recognized that voice. “I must say, I didn’t take you for idiots.”

Dustin knew what he was going to see when he turned around, but it still made his heart sink a little to find Jeremy standing in the entrance to the alleyway, blocking the only way out. “Miss me?”