We got to Neal’s mystery vacation yesterday afternoon. We were high in the mountains on a nearly empty, somewhat precarious-feeling pass, when he pulled off the highway at an apparently completely random location and just parked there on the side of the road.

“Neal, why,” Julian said.

“We’re going star gazing,” Neal said, and I swear to god I thought Julian was gonna deck him.

“It is literally raining,” Julian said, but Neal was already getting out of the car.

“Will you just trust me please?”

Trusting Neal meant a 5 mile hike further up into the mountains in the rain, through an increasingly dark woods.

By the time we reached the lake it was the last gasp of twilight. I had no idea how we were going to get back, and while the rain had at least stopped, there was not a single star in the sky.

I really thought Julian might finish him off right there hahahahaha.

“What the fuck,” he said. “Are we doing out here?”

Neal was totally unbothered by Julian’s tone, but he was also exhausted because he should NOT have been hiking.

“Just wait,” he said, limping down to the big shore and easing himself down to sit.

“Neal,” Julian said, and I could hear in his voice that he was barely clinging to calm. “I know you’re trying to help —”

“Sit your ass down,” Neal snapped. “And watch.”

Julian just stood there taking deep breaths ahaha, so I went and sat with him to keep the peace. The ground was a little wet, but we’d just hiked miles in the rain.

“What are we waiting for?” I asked.

“You think I’m gonna spoil the surprise now? After driving across the country?”

It was sort of cold. Twilight inched imperceptibly towards true darkness. Julian finally came and sat just as the last of the light was finally gone and we were left in the kind of darkness that only barely illuminated the silhouette of the peaks against the sky across the lake.

We were all really quiet. And then Neal said, “what you are isn’t your fault.”

“That doesn’t change that I almost killed you,” Julian replied just as evenly.

“No,” Neal agreed.

“It’s my responsibility to keep this thing in check,” Julian said.

“I know,” Neal said. “But you do, Jude. I’m not afraid of you, and you know I forgive you, and I see how hard you work not to hurt anyone. This self-flagellation is for you, not for us.”

Julian didn’t say anything for a long moment.

“Shiloh could have died,” he said eventually. “We should have told her.”

“So apologize to her,” Neal said. “And ask her if she wants to stay. She’s sitting right there.”

I froze like a rabbit because obviously I didn’t want anyone apologizing to me, and when it got super super awkward, I looked away from them and out at the water, and that’s when I saw the stars.

For a second I thought I was imagining them. I looked up at the sky and saw nothing but clouds. But when I looked back down at the lake, stars. More than I’ve ever seen in my life, great, swirling, colorful, swaths of stars. But what I was seeing didn’t fully set in until I saw the planet. It was bigger than the moon, and had rings.

I must have gasped, because Julian looked around too, and just like that our conversation was over.

“What is this place?”

“Celeste brought me here once,” Neal said, smug as hell. “I told you you’d like it.”

The hiking, the rain, the miserable drive, all of it was worth it for a single glimpse of this insane sky, and we got to watch it all night.

I asked if it was a portal, but apparently it’s not. It just reflects some other dimension’s sky a few nights a year.

We fell asleep at dawn, all huddled up together on the rocks. When we woke up the lake just reflected our boring overcast sky, and we were cold and hungry and exhausted. We had a long hike ahead of us.

On mile three or so, Julian said, “Hey Shiloh, I should have told you about my condition. I wanted to believe that I had it under control forever, but I don’t. Not telling you put you in danger, and I should never have let that happen.”

Listen, I wasn’t mad. I didn’t want him to apologize to me at all, but when I glanced at Neal it was clear that I needed to forgive him.

“It’s okay,” I said.

“If you want us to take you home, or to Palefish, that’s —”

“Nope, I’ll stay,” I said.

“Think about it,” Julian said.

I wanted to laugh at him. Like, does he really think that in all the bazillion hours I’ve spent in the back of that car, I haven’t thought about whether I want to go home? Of course I want to go home sometimes. I miss my mom. I miss Georgia, and Warren Miller. I can’t even think about Tilly without wanting to dive into traffic. But what is there for me at home? I’m a high school drop out with no job, and no prospects. What does he think I’m gonna do, go back to Black Lake and repeat my senior year, with my demon eye and my government sponsored extracurricular medical testing?

I made the decision to stay months ago, when they forgot me at Linda’s rest stop, and the silly little hiccup of Julian occasionally turning into an eldritch monster isn’t gonna change that. And anyways, I’m in it now. One doesn’t see the secret magical world and decide to carry on a boring, mundane existence. As for Palefish… I mean, sure, seems fine. But better than this? Than the three of us in the rabbit?

“Sorry Julian,” I said. “But if you want to get rid of me now you’re gonna have to eat me.” Neal laughed and even Julian reluctantly smiled, and that was that.

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