Satan Stuff

The bell ringing alerted David that he had a customer. Exiting the back room, he saw a young woman who looked vaguely familiar.

“Welcome. Are you looking for something in particular or just browsing?”

Rather than answer, she continued to look at the shelves in front of her.

“Well, please let me know if I can help.”

Perhaps she was looking for something to steal, David thought. There was nothing on the shelves that was particularly dangerous, and he hadn’t opened the store to make money. If she felt the need to steal, he wasn’t going to worry about it too much.

Wanting to be available but not act like he was suspicious of her, he stayed in the front room, but made a point to keep his nose buried in a book he was reading. In the end, it didn’t matter because she walked right up to the counter.

“Where is your Satanic stuff?” Her voice was hesitant.

Taken aback by the question, David replied, “Excuse me?”

“Satan. You have Satan stuff, don’t you?”

Now he recognized her. “You were with those protestors a few weeks ago, weren’t you?”

The question seemed to embolden her a little. “So what? Now I’m a customer.”

David had to repress a chuckle. “Is your plan to trick me into revealing my secret connections to Satanism in order to confirm your group’s grievances?”

“No. I’m just interested in Satan.” Her defiance from a moment ago had waned, and she seemed unsure of herself again.

David pulled a chair from behind the counter and sat down. One lesson Samuel had impressed upon him was to always be approachable, never intimidating.

“What’s your name?”

“Abby.” Now she seemed nervous, as though she might get caught doing something wrong.

“Abby, your parents, your community… would they approve of you being here?”

“I’m an adult. And anyway, don’t you want to tempt me away from them?”

“I’m not interested in coming between you and anyone, nor am I going to tell you what to do. If you need help getting away from someone, I will do whatever I can. But it’s not my place to tempt you into anything.”

“What kind of Satan-worshipper are you?”

“I’m not any kind of Satan-worshipper. I don’t believe in Satan. I just want to help people. That’s what this place is about.”

“Hmph.” She didn’t seem convinced, but David saw no benefit in arguing with her. If her group had indoctrinated her, there was nothing he could say. And if she had already begun to question things, pushing her too quickly might drive her back.

“You really don’t have anything on Satan?”

“I’m afraid not. If there is something else you are looking for, maybe I can help with that.”

“No.” Her disappointment was palpable. Whether she believed him or not, she appeared to accept that he wasn’t going to give her what she wanted.

As she walked toward the door, she turned back briefly. “You don’t seem evil.”

“Thank you,” he managed before she left.

David sat for awhile, wondering if there was something he should have said or done differently. Whatever happened to her next, he silently wished her well.

A Matter of Trust

Inside the room, the three statues were still in place, Thomas and the other two mages frozen in time. Coming to Thomas’s room felt increasingly futile; like many mages, Thomas didn’t keep many notes, and the ones Sarah could find were indecipherable. Still, he was a member of the house, and she was determined to free him. His rooms were the best chance to find a way to do that.

“What is going on?”

Sarah spun around to find Matthew standing in the doorway. “You should still be resting.”

“I’m feeling better. I have been for days. And you’ve been hiding things from me.” Matthew walked over to Thomas. “For instance, you said he was fine. I thought he wasn’t coming to see me out of anger.”

“I didn’t want you to worry. You need to focus on recovering.”

“Has he been like this since the attack?” He bent down to try to touch Thomas. “Frozen in time?”

“Yes, and yes. I assume Solomon did it, though not before he managed to stop those two.”

Matthew looked at the other two mages. “I recognize them, though I don’t know their names.”

“Too bad. That information would be useful.”

“Sarah, do you not trust me?”

“Why would you ask that?” In several other conversations, they had danced around this issue. It was unsettling for him to ask about it so bluntly.

“Not telling me about Thomas. Keeping me isolated and bed-ridden. I just can’t help but feel like you regard me with suspicion.”

“I didn’t want you to worry, that’s all. Too many pieces are in motion, and I’m trying to keep everyone safe.”

“Really?”

“Yes. I’m concerned for you. I don’t want you in harm’s way. That’s true for everyone in this house.” Deception was part of the illusionist’s training, but Sarah still felt a twinge of guilt for bending the truth.

“Sarah . . . Oh.” Rebecca, breathing heavy, stopped in the doorway upon seeing Matthew.

With a wry smile, Sarah admonished him, “Look, you’ve worried your caretaker.”

“Sorry, Rebecca. I just needed to get out of that room for a bit.”

“It’s fine. I just don’t want you over-exerting yourself.”

A loud cracking noise caused all three to turn and look. Further into the room, behind Sarah, Julia materialized.

“What th-”

As quickly as she had appeared, she vanished.

“Julia!” Rebecca yelled after her, but there was no response.

“What was that?” Matthew asked.

“I have no idea.” There was no need for Sarah to feign confusion. “But I think we should find out.”

The Color of Black

So far, every attempt at creating a red crystal had failed. Julia knew that she was missing something, some insight. After her talk with Aisha, she had gone back over all of Jason’s notes, looking for some clue. Every read through, however, turned up nothing. The temporal powder Aisha had brought her was purple. The temporal magic she had siphoned off of Thomas had been a bluish green. Nothing she had experienced suggested temporal magic would have a red crystal.

The blue crystals interfered with magic. Green crystals operated spatial magic. And purple revealed hidden knowledge. All of the colors she had seen temporal magic take on already had crystals associated with them. But if temporal magic wasn’t red, what was? Or had Jason left out red altogether? If so, what was the missing color?

Julia had been going around this particular circle for weeks, making no progress. Indeed, it felt as though the answer was moving further and further away. Was there even a puzzle to solve? Maybe there was never supposed to be another crystal; maybe Jason just put an extra space in the box. That would certainly fit with his chaotic nature.

Julia paused. Jason had two talents. The white crystals always kept his skill with raw magical energy at the front of everyone’s mind. But he also had a gift for chaos magic. Could that be the missing crystal?

She cleared off her workbench and laid out the colored crystals she had. Chaos magic was even more esoteric than temporal magic, and it was unlikely there were any resources she might draw on. Jason had left no notes on the subject. A wildness rose up from within, and moving quickly, she crushed all of the crystals into powder and blended them together. Then she added the last of the purple temporal powder.

The threads of the different magical energies were mixed together through the powder. Coaxing each one into a weave with the others, she could feel something important happening. As she worked, a new crystal slowly took shape. It was black, deeper than even the darkest part of the night sky. Staring into it, she could make out tiny dots of every color she had ever seen, and even some she had no names for.

When she finished, the wildness fled from her, and she felt completely drained. The crystal on the table seemed to shimmer and warp as though she were looking at it reflected in a funhouse mirror. Whatever had driven her to create it was gone now. Why had she created it? It seemed unlikely to help them in their current predicament. What was its use? She had solved the puzzle, but to what end?

Picking up the crystal in order to study it better, Julia felt a warmth extend from her hand up her arm. The warmth intensified to the point where it should have burned her, but the feeling went beyond pain. After a moment, she felt herself being pulled apart at the subatomic level. It still didn’t hurt, and an instant later, she felt nothing. Julia and the crystal had vanished, vaporizing into nothing.

Isolated and Desperate

“I should probably be upset with you.”

Peter looked around, obviously searching for the owner of the voice, but not seeing anyone.

“Who’s there?”

His question was met with laughter, though it didn’t sound cruel.

“This is not funny!” Being taunted was worse than being isolated, he decided.

“How long have you been here? No, wait. I know the answer to that. When was the last time you had anyone to talk to?”

He had been alone ever since he’d been trapped in this pocket dimension. The woman, the spatial mage, was the last person he had spoken to. This voice sounded deeper, male. Who could have found him here? “Who are you? Show yourself.”

“That’s not an answer. Maybe you don’t want to talk to me. I guess I’ll leave.”

“No! Wait!” Being left alone was horrible. Maybe being taunted wasn’t as bad as he thought. “I’ve been trapped here for years, with no one to talk to.”

“That sounds lonely.”

“It is. Please stay. I’ll talk about whatever you want.” He didn’t try to hide the desperation in his voice.

“You mean you’ll tell me about the mana worm? About who you were working with?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not really interested in a bunch of lies.”

“I won’t lie. I’ll tell you anything you want to know.” It never occurred to Peter to wonder if he was hallucinating the voice. “I don’t know what the others wanted, but the mana worm was supposed to kill the spatial mage. That way I could get my sister out.”

“Rebecca.”

“Yes. Rebecca. But something went wrong. The spatial mage survived the attack. I don’t know how.”

“What about your co-conspirators? Who are they?”

“I don’t really know. I spoke with a man who called himself Solomon. But there were two others I never saw clearly. He knew about Rebecca. I knew where a mana worm was imprisoned.”

“So you released the worm?”

“Yes.”

“That seems reckless.”

“They said they could control it.”

“And you believed them?” The voice clearly thought he was a fool.

“Well . . . I just needed to get to Rebecca.”

“Now you’re here.”

“Can . . . can you get me out?”

“It’s possible, I suppose.”

It was the first time Peter had felt a glimmer of hope in a very long time. “Really?”

“Of course.”

“When? How? I need to get out of here.”

“I said it was possible. I didn’t say I would do it.”

“But I’ve told you everything I know!”

“I doubt that’s true, but even if it were, you did that on your own. I never said I would let you go. Besides, you haven’t really told me anything I didn’t already know.”

“Who are you?!”

“You really don’t know. I guess I’m not surprised; you seem to be very incurious. Who helps people destroy a house without finding out why? But to answer your question, I’m the one who killed, and was killed by, the mana worm you released.”

The color drained out of Peter’s face. “You’re her friend.”

“Yes.” Jason chuckled. “I might be able to convince her to let you go, but I’ve got other things to do. If you’re lucky, I’ll come back to visit you again sometime.” There was a long pause, and Peter had begun to think he was alone again. But then the voice returned. “Please don’t think this is revenge. I don’t actually care that I’m dead. However, you did put others at risk, so I think it’s safer for everyone if you stay here.”

“Don’t leave me alone!” This time, though, the voice really seemed to have departed. Once again, he was alone.

Culture Clash

Half a dozen people were standing in front of David’s store and holding signs. One read: “Magic is the Devil’s Work.” The protest had been going on for over an hour, and David was considering just closing for the day. Business had been slow anyway. Still, he wasn’t prepared to give in just yet.

Instead, he opened the door and sat down on the top step leading down to the sidewalk. When the protesters noticed him, they all stared at him until one man walked up the steps towards him.

“You need to shut down this . . . sinful place.”

David kept his voice even and mild. “What is the problem?”

“The occult. It’s Satanic. We don’t want Satan worshippers in our neighborhood.”

“I assure you, there’s no Satan worship going on here.”

“All magic comes from him.”

“It doesn’t. Indeed, most of it is just the harnessing and manipulation of natural energies that surround everything.”

“Lies!”

David ignored the exclamation. “All I’m doing is helping people. No more, no less. I don’t force anyone to come here, and I don’t try to influence anyone’s beliefs. Helping people is good, isn’t it?”

“That’s how Satan gets in. He fools you into thinking that he’s helping you. Before you know it, you’re lost in his clutches. The Book of Acts tells us to burn books about magic. Exodus tells us to kill sorcerers.”

David sighed. “You aren’t listening.” Standing back up, he brushed off the seat of his pants. “Well, good luck with your protest. I’ll be inside if you want to talk.” He walked back into his store.

He had hoped they could genuinely talk and reach some sort of common understanding, but they weren’t interested. They had their beliefs, and nothing he said would change their minds. He knew people like this existed, but he hadn’t encountered them before now. Back home, everyone trusted and respected Samuel. Their traditions went back hundreds of years. But here, magic was either dismissed as fake or condemned as evil.

From the back room, he heard a crash. He rushed to the front of the store to find his window smashed and a burning pool of liquid on the floor. It smelled of gasoline. A simple spell extinguished the fire. Looking outside, most of the protesters were gone. Only one person, a young woman, stood out front.

David stepped outside again. “Did you do this?” He kept anger out of his voice.

She looked scared as she shook her head.

“Did you see who did?”

Nodding, she remained silent.

“Are you okay? I’m not going to hurt you. I just want to know what happened.”

Rather than responding, she ran off like she had been freed from some binding. He thought about running after her, but he didn’t want to leave the store unattended.

What were his options? He could shut down the store. What was the point of staying in business if he wasn’t wanted? But he knew there were people he had helped, and likely there would be more such people in the future. He was loathe to give up.

If he did keep the shop running, how should he deal with the protesters? Especially whoever tried to burn it down? All the truly dangerous stuff was in the vault in the basement, so they were unlikely to cause too much harm. But he wasn’t going to be able to do anyone any good if this sort of thing kept happening.

For now, he could strengthen the fire resistance of the building and its contents. That should buy him time to figure out his next step. Helping people was going to take more work than he realized.

The Missing Crystal

Why wasn’t it working? The principles should be same as the crystal she had made to knock down spatial barriers. Yet, no matter what she tried, Julia couldn’t get this version to cohere. The reverse white crystal drained magic power, but she couldn’t make it mix with temporal magic.

The jar in front of her contained the last of the purple powder that had been exposed to temporal magic. Aisha had gotten it for her years ago, while she was still stuck in the past. There was only enough left for one, maybe two, attempts. Aisha still had had no success in tracking down another temporal mage, so she wasn’t likely to get anymore.

Looking at the clock on her wall, she realized she’d been sitting, hunched over, for almost six hours. Exhaustion hit her. Despite her desire to keep going, she needed a break. Maybe she should go back to Thomas’s rooms and look once more for anything that might provide a clue. First, she needed some food. And maybe a nap. She pushed back from her work bench, stood, and stretched.

Out in the living room, she found Aisha sitting cross-legged on the couch and reading. Aisha looked up from her book. “She emerges.”

“Yeah. I needed to step away for a bit. So what did Sarah want?”

“If I had to guess, she has some doubts about Matthew.”

“Really?”

“She didn’t say anything directly, but she asked me several questions about that incident we had with him a few years back.”

“Hmm.” Julia didn’t know much about the third founding member of the house, but she always had the impression that he and Sarah had been close. “I was going to go get some food. Care to join me?”

“Sure. Where?”

“Do we have anything in the cabin?”

Aisha shook her head. “We need to restock. How about Mediterranean?”

“Greece it is.” Julia opened a portal. “After you.”

Sitting outside a small cafe in the outskirts of Athens, they sipped their frappes.

“I don’t know how you can drink it plain. Isn’t it bitter?” Julia asked. She always ordered hers sweet.

“This is how I had it the first time. Never felt the need to add sugar.”

“Don’t you drink your tea sweet?”

“Chai and Greek frappe are not the same thing. Stop that.” Julia had been mouthing the words as Aisha spoke. After a moment, both women chuckled. “Okay. We’re here. We have good coffee. The prospect of good food is imminent. What are you stuck on?”

Julia sighed a little. “Am I that obvious?”

“Let’s just say I’ve known you for a little while.”

“It’s the crystals again. The missing one, it has to be temporal magic. That’s the most glaring omission. But no matter what I do, I can’t put it together. I prep a red crystal, tap into the temporal essence, but it won’t fit.”

“And you’re sure it’s temporal magic?”

“Thomas was a friend of Jason’s for a long time. Jason got spatial magic from me; it stands to reason he would have picked up temporal magic from Thomas.”

“And it’s a red crystal?”

“That’s the only primary color that’s missing from his set. It has to be.”

“All of that seems reasonable. So let me ask you, with how well you know him, how reasonable – no, how predictable – is Jason?”

“Are you saying . . .”

“I’m not saying anything. I don’t have any answers. You know him. What do you think?”

Julia stopped to consider Jason and what she knew of the crystals. “If I toss my assumptions, I’m back to square one.”

“If your assumptions were wrong, square one is further than you were.”

“I suppose that’s true.”

The food they had ordered arrived. Leaving magical puzzles behind for the moment, they turned their attention to eating and enjoying the pleasant afternoon.

Looking for Problems

A knock at the door interrupted Sarah’s rumination. It was Aisha.

“Julia said you wanted to talk to me?”

The other mage was much more outgoing and social than Julia, but Sarah was familiar enough with disguises to know she kept many things to herself.

“Julia gave you a badge?” She must have, or Aisha wouldn’t have made it to Sarah’s door alone.

“She lent me hers. Wouldn’t give me one of my own unless you okayed it. I’m guessing she still hasn’t asked you about it.”

“No. With everything that has happened . . .”

“I understand. I’d have to be playing a very long game, but to you, I’ve only been in your lives for a few months.” Aisha smiled and waited.

“Oh! Forgive me. Please come in and have a seat. Would you like some tea?”

“No, thanks. Some water would be nice.”

“Of course.” Sarah went to the sink in her kitchenette and got two glasses of water. Upon returning to the living room, she set one down in front of Aisha, who was now sitting on the couch. She took the other one with her to an armchair.

“So what did you want to talk about?”

“Matthew.” There was no real point in being circumspect. “You and Julia had a run in with him awhile back?”

“Yeah. At least five or six years ago now. We had been looking for information on temporal magic. Julia was looking for some way to return to her original time. Turns out it was a trap set for someone else.”

“Do you remember where you got the information that led you to that trap?”

Aisha thought for several moments before shaking her head. “One of my informants, I’d guess. But I don’t remember which one. Too long ago, I’m afraid. Does it matter?”

“I don’t know. I figured it was a long shot, but I wanted to check.” Even asking these questions felt like she was being disloyal to Matthew. He was one of her oldest friends and had done nothing to earn her distrust. But as guilty as it made her, she couldn’t shake the feeling that she was missing something.

“Sorry I couldn’t be of more help.”

“It’s okay. Just letting paranoia get the better of me.”

“One thing I’ve learned – mage or no – never ignore gut feelings. Maybe they aren’t sending a clear message, but they are telling you something. Don’t doubt yourself.”

“You give motivational speeches, too?”

Aisha laughed. “No. I just don’t like seeing incredibly capable women running themselves down.”

Sarah wasn’t sure how to respond to that. “Well, thank you for your time. I hope I wasn’t intruding too much.”

“Not at all. This was nothing compared to what Julia usually asks me to do.”

“I hope this isn’t out of line, but I think you’ve been really good for her.”

“Trust me, it goes both ways.” Aisha stood up. “I should probably get going. If you need anything else, or even just want to chat, you know how to get in touch.”

“Thanks again, Aisha.” Sarah stood to walk her to the door when a thought occurred to her. “Hey, did you and Julia ever tell Matthew your names?”

“Nope. We were very careful, especially Julia. She didn’t want to do anything that might put her past in jeopardy.”

“That makes sense. Well, have a good day.”

“You too, Sarah.”

After Aisha had left, Sarah thought about that last bit of information. Maybe Matthew had gotten Julia’s name from somewhere else. Maybe it didn’t mean anything. But maybe it did.

Educated Guess

“You know there’s a color missing from the box you left me.” Julia could feel Jason’s presence across from her, but she didn’t look up from her workbench.

“Of course. I’m the one that left it out.”

“You going to tell me what it is?” Her hands were busy carving a crystal into the proper shape to store mana.

“That depends.”

“On what?” She gritted her teeth as she hit a particularly stubborn spot.

“On whether you think I’m real. If I’m real, then I know the answer. If I’m not, then any answer I give is really just you guessing.”

“Lovely. How should I know if you’re real? You didn’t appear at all while I was trapped in the past. If you’re a figment of my imagination, wouldn’t you still have come around? Or maybe, since my subconscious knew you hadn’t died yet, it kept me from imagining you?”

“Excellent points.”

“So are you real?”

“How should I know?”

Julia slammed the tool in her hand onto the bench. “Jason!”

“What? I feel real, but maybe you just have a vivid imagination.”

“I think you have to be real,” she said while trying to suppress a smile, “I don’t think I hate myself enough to irritate me this much.”

“As far as I know, you don’t hate yourself at all.” Jason returned her smile. “You know, I didn’t give you all of my research so that you would ignore your own work.”

“What can I say? This fascinates me. So are you going to tell me about this missing color or not?”

“Honestly, I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out yet. Maybe you’re not ready.”

“Jason!”

“Fine, fine. If you really want me to tell you instead of discovering it for yourself, I will.”

Loud knocking from the front room interrupted him. She heard Sarah call her name. “Julia!”

Julia glared at Jason. “Don’t go anywhere.”

The knocking finally woke her up, and she lifted her head off the workbench while cursing dreams.

She opened the door. “Is something wrong?”

Sarah shook her head. “I was just hoping to talk to Aisha. Is she here?”

“Oh? What about?”

“I just wanted to ask her about Matthew. Something is bothering me, and I thought she might able to shed some light on it.”

“Now I’m curious. Unfortunately, she’s not here right now. Last I knew, she was tracking down a lead on another temporal mage. I can try to get in touch with her.”

“Thanks, Julia. That would help a lot.” Sarah already seemed to be thinking about something else as she walked away.

Once the door was closed, Julia was tempted to try to find her way back into the dream, but Sarah’s request had piqued her interest. As she was deciding to track down Aisha, another thought occurred to her. Jason had been right: she should have already figured it out. Getting in touch with Aisha might need to wait.

Conversation between Old Friends

Matthew was sitting up in bed when Sarah entered the infirmary. “You look better,” she observed. “How do you feel?”

“Still tired, but definitely on the mend.” He gave her a weak smile.

“That’s good.” She took a deep breath. “So where the hell have you been for the last decade? You just leave without talking to me? You know I’ve been looking for you.” Sarah stopped herself before getting more upset.

“I’m sorry. I thought if I left, you might leave as well. I know I abandoned you, and I’m sorry.”

“Mmm hmm.”

“I notice you brought Rebecca into the House.” He seemed eager to change the subject.

“I had to rebuild. A House with only two mages isn’t much of a House.” She was trying to shove her resentment to the side, but she also wasn’t prepared to let it go completely.

“Yeah.” He did sound contrite. “Who else did you bring in?”

“You remember Thomas’s friend Jason? He joined about a year after you left.”

“Oh, right. I’m sorry about Jason.”

That caught her attention, but she continued. “He brought another mage with him, a spatial mage. And Thomas recruited David a few years ago. He’s another elementalist and also the one that found you.”

“The place sounds pretty lively. I’m a little surprised Thomas has included so many mages.”

“It was that or lose the House completely.”

“I suppose. So Thomas is okay?”

“More or less. Who are the people that attacked us? What do they want? You said you were working with them for a time?”

“They kept a lot of things from me, but I think there are two mages behind everything. One of them is a temporal mage who goes by Solomon. The other is an elementalist named Robert. They bring in others when necessary. They told me that they wanted to stop Thomas from messing with the timeline, but eventually I realized they wanted to kill him. I never did find out why.”

“Are they going to come after you?” Her concern was genuine.

Matthew shrugged. “I assume. If they think I’m in their way.”

“Do you know where they are?”

“I knew where they were. I’m guessing they’ve moved by now.”

Sarah thought for awhile, absorbing everything, before asking, “How long ago did you fall in with them?”

“About two years ago. Hey, would you ask Thomas to drop by. He and I should talk.”

“I’ll ask him, though I can’t make any promises.”

“I understand.”

“You should get some rest.” Sarah stood to leave.

“I will. Tell Rebecca, David, and Julia thank you. And hey, do you forgive me?” He gave her a look with puppy dog eyes.

“Yes. We’ll talk more later, okay?”

Matthew nodded and laid down.

Sarah wasn’t sure she actually did forgive him. Their conversation had bothered her for some reason, and she needed to work it out. Matthew had been a friend for a very long time, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.

New Tradition

The candles were once more arranged in concentric circles within Julia’s pocket space. This time, however, she had arranged four couches within the candles. Rebecca sat on one of them between David and Marie – the latter was resting her head on Rebecca’s shoulder and seemed to be dozing. Sarah lounged on the couch across from them, her elbow propping up her body. Julia sat on a third, while Aisha rested her head in Julia’s lap. The fourth couch remained empty.

“So you and Jason spent every Winter Solstice like this?” David asked.

Sarah gave him a look of warning, but Julia shrugged it off. “I appreciate the concern, Sarah, but it’s been roughly eighteen years since Jason’s death. I know it’s more recent for all of you, but I have had lots of time to find some measure of peace.

“To answer your question, David, yes. He and I would stay up all night talking. I know a number of magical traditions make use of this night for special rites, but he and I used it as a time to step back from every day life and reconnect as friends.”

“So why did you decide to invite us?” David followed up.

“Jason wanted me to belong somewhere. Maybe that sounds silly, but it was one thing he always was on me about. This night used to be about us, but I figured he would want you all here. And I think over the last several years, I’ve begun to understand the importance each of you has had in my life.” Absently, Julia ran her fingertips up and down Aisha’s arm, and the other woman smiled up at her.

“It’s too bad Thomas can’t be here,” Rebecca said softly so as not to waken Marie.

“Yes, it is. But no business tonight. No worrying about current troubles. Tonight is just about friendship.” Julia was firm but not angry.

“So the fourth couch?” Sarah gestured at it.

“Well, I did want there to be plenty of room to sit and get comfortable, but I have to admit it’s also for Jason. The last time I was here, Jason showed up. I thought there might be a chance . . .”

After a brief lull, David changed the subject. “So you were stuck in the past for fifteen years? What did you do the entire time?”

“Mostly, she got in trouble that I had to bail her out of.” Aisha answered.

“Ignore her.” Julia playfully covered Aisha’s mouth.

“Actually,” she continued after moving Julia’s hand, “she was quite boring. Always inside doing research. I had to find ways to get her to leave the house.”

“Yes, wild goose chases after magical books. Threatening to reveal my existence to my past self. Life with you around was never boring.”

Aisha laughed. “That’s why you kept me around.”

“Hmmm.” Despite her attempt to seem put out, Julia couldn’t keep a smile from her lips.

Sarah looked at Rebecca. “Have you heard from Bailey?”

“No.” Rebecca seemed a bit melancholic at the mention of her friend.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring you down.”

“It’s okay. You didn’t. Not really. I think about them now and again, but they are really good at not being found. I hope they’ll come back eventually, but we can’t control others.”

Marie murmured at shifted a bit without opening her eyes.

“Anyway, even ignoring all the major events of the past year, I’ve been busy helping Marie get set up. So I haven’t had much time to worry about Bailey.”

Another comfortable lull descended.

This time, Julia broke the silence. “How’s business at your store, David?”

“Slow, but I’m starting to develop a few regulars. I’m just happy to be in the community making connections.”

“It’s a good store. I’ve found a few items for my clients there,” Aisha volunteered. “I could probably funnel a few more customers your way.”

“That would be great, but I wouldn’t want to steal any of your business.”

Aisha waved away the concern. “There will always be more esoteric requests to keep me busy.”

Conversation continued to ebb and flow throughout the night. Julia look around at the group and couldn’t help but think that Jason would be pleased.