((author’s note: from here on out, chapters have been proofread, but not edited. This is still the ‘old’ version. You shouldn’t notice a huge difference, but the UNEOA is still the UN in this version.))
San Francisco, USA – Sunday, the 10th of June 2012. 08:10 PM.
The clicking of the holding cell’s lock had a familiar sound to it; Chris had had nearly two weeks to memorize the pattern when she’d been a prisoner. Now that she stood outside alongside the guys in blue uniforms, the series of clicks – twice faint, once loud – still conjured up memories of staring at white walls, bored out of her mind.
It had to be even worse for Nora. Unlike Chris, the Darkshaper was about to face a potential death sentence. The powers that be had left little doubt about that, and the political pressure from Canada wasn’t helping.
Mr. Black should be on trial, not you.
Chris’s escort of two security guards opened the door just far enough to see the dark-skinned girl perched on the cot. She sat with her shoulders bent and her head bowed, the mane of thin black braids hanging into her face to conceal everything except for the grim line of her mouth. Unlike Chris back then, Nora wore civilian clothes instead of a prison overall. The missing bulk of her costume gave her an almost gaunt appearance.
“Hey,” Chris offered as she peeked into the cell. “Ready to go?”
Nora’s jaw worked silently. She looked up after a second, brushing the braids from her eyes with one hand. “I guess,” she said. It took her another moment to shift and get up.
Chris stepped aside to let the girl step out of the cell and move to her side. She couldn’t think of anything witty that wasn’t going to sound fake, and Nora wasn’t the type who’d appreciate empty reassurances. As soon as the guards closed the door behind Nora, the two teenagers moved down the length of brightly lit, white-walled corridor in joint silence.
When they had entered the elevator cabin, Chris watched one of the guards unlock ground level with his security keycard. Her mind raced, going through all of the arguments she’d mentally prepared for the impending Covenant meeting. She tried to identify the strongest ones, the facts and observations she could use for an early advantage in the negotiation process.
They’re going to want to deal with Legion more than anything else, Chris mused, glancing to Nora’s stony face. She counted the Darkshaper among the top three Evolved who could attack Legion while he was underground. Under some circumstances, that fact could count in her favor. But the authorities would want convincing arguments to ensure that Noire wasn’t going to lose control again.
Chris had no idea how she’d offer the Covenant that kind of reassurance, but she figured she might find something to latch on to during the interview. She didn’t have a very clear idea of the personalities involved in making the decision, either. She’d met Athena, but none of the others. The internet and the official hero guide manuals were full of outdated and mostly useless profile information. Most still listed heroes that had died or gone rogue months before.
Chris stepped out of the elevator first when the door slid open, waiting for Nora to step to her side. The girl’s body language hadn’t changed. She briefly looked up at Chris, then shuffled along with the guards, staring at the floor and not much else.
She won’t be much help if they let her speak for herself, Chris suspected. Better make sure they don’t have questions left for her when they’re done with me.
The group passed the surveillance wing’s lobby, where their guard escort raised their fingers to signal an ‘A-okay’ to the group of uniforms who’d gathered by the entrance to sip coffee. A portly man with glasses shuffled over to the reception desk with excruciating slowness to activate a switch and let the entrance door slide open.
Nice job you got there. Coffee, donuts and hardly ever anyone to observe.
Chris shook her head at no one in particular and stepped outside. The evening breeze on her face carried a scent of Chinese food from a nearby diner. On any other day, it would have been enough to make her stomach grumble, but tonight she just couldn’t muster up the appetite.
Dusk coated the business office buildings across the street in shades of grey, and lights had been turned on to peer down at her from the residential blocks and the Wardens headquarters. On her way to the main entrance, Chris looked up at the fifth story to maybe catch a glimpse of the rest of their team at one of the windows. The windows on the left side with the Wardens communal living room were illuminated, but she couldn’t spot Peter or Emily’s silhouettes.
They’re probably watching a movie to get their minds off of this. Chris could picture the girl on the couch, munching cheese crackers while Peter zapped through cartoons and action movies looking for something to inspire optimism.
“Thank you,” Nora mumbled to the left, drawing Chris’s attention back to ground level. Their group approached the entrance, one guard leading the way while the other kept an eye on their rear.
“What for?” Chris asked, dumbfounded.
“For trying,” Nora said. “I know that’s what you’re gonna do. Save mah ass again.”
I don’t know if I can. It’s the Covenant, and I’m not exactly a talker. Chris kept that to herself. “You can thank me when it’s over, if you still want to,” she said instead.
Nora shrugged, just barely lifting her shoulders, then letting them sag. “Sure.”
Chris caught herself rubbing her face as she stepped through the front door into the main hall, just like she had a few days ago after her own release from ‘observational confinement’. She didn’t have a welcoming committee waiting for her this time, but her pulse sped up regardless. Her face felt hotter than it had a few minutes ago.
She hadn’t thought it possible, but Chris’ stomach sank another inch after the elevator doors slid shut behind her. Mr. Turner had let her know that the assessment interview was going to happen on the fourth floor, similar to the briefing they’d received back before Legion had a name. She knew how it was going to go down. Wait, wait, wait. Be called in when the Covenant deemed themselves ready and suitably informed of the relevant facts. They’d either summon her alone and Nora afterwards, or both of them together.
Option two would suck. Two not-talkers together had twice the chance to screw this up.
Chris hoped the wait wasn’t going to drag on for hours. Waiting for a judging authority was among the worst ways of killing time. If she was just waiting for the stupid school bus, she could resort to running instead. Situations that couldn’t be resolved by running were among her least favorite problems.
Two years ago, she’d barely made it through the two-hour lead-up to the announcement of whether she’d remain enrolled at high school after dealing with a pair of bullies. Those guys deserved broken noses, but in her experience, authorities only cared about the rules.
Nora had broken the principal rule of never threatening normal people with her powers.
The guards led the two Wardens into a small office that contained nothing but a desk, an office chair, a shelf of folders, a wall clock and a hovering drone. It looked like a silver soccer ball, similar to the drone Chris had encountered when she woke up on a park bench the morning after her transition. Its camera lens buzzed as they entered, aligning itself towards Chris, then Nora.
“Hello, Athena,” Chris tried. She wasn’t too surprised not to receive an answer.
“Please wait here,” one of the guards said from the door. “Mr. Turner or one of the heroes will be with you shortly.” He closed the door without locking it.
“At least they’re not locking us in,” Chris commented. “Guess that’s a good sign?”
Nora shrugged again. “Don’t know why they wanted me in that dumb cell for a few hours,” she said with a flat voice. “Was pointless if you ask me.”
“Maybe they weren’t sure if the Covenant wanted to talk to you.” Chris regretted the words the instant they left her mouth, not liking what they implied. Too late. That’s what happens when I try to make nice small talk.
Nora didn’t seem bothered. She stepped up to the window to peer outside, hands tucked away within the pockets of the oversized sweater that hung to her thighs like a loose sack of potatoes. It looked like something she might have worn back before she joined the Wardens and lost some fifty pounds of weight.
“Why don’t cha sit?” Nora asked over her shoulder. “There’s a chair.”
“Don’t feel like sitting,” Chris said.
Both of them kept standing, sharing another minute of silence while someone’s rough coughs came through the wall. The wall clock above the desk ticked the seconds away. Chris started pacing, her eyes flicking back to the hovering drone whenever she completed the seven steps to the other end of the office and turned. In turn, the drone realigned its camera lens to keep track of her movements.
Would be nice if I could peek through the drone into the conference room. See what the Covenant is plotting.
“Hey,” Nora finally started, turning to face Chris. She leaned back against the wall, crossing her arms over the front of her baggy sweater. “You’re kind of okay, you know. Tolerable. Not what I expected when they said we’d be getting another high schooler.”
“Yeah?” Chris asked, stopping her pacing halfway through the room.
“Yeah. Figured we’d get some whiny kid who expects special hero treatment. Then they said the high schooler’s that rogue freak from the news, and I thought hey, cool. Someone who’s gonna kick O’s ass if he pulls his flirty bullshit.”
The freak from the news? Is that supposed to be a compliment? “You’re okay too, I guess,” Chris said. “I was just glad I wasn’t getting teamed up with a pretty princess.”
“Don’t cha think I’m pretty?” Nora furrowed her brows in a mock scowl.
“Um, that’s not what I meant.”
Are we socializing or something? Chris couldn’t tell. She resumed her pacing, three steps to one wall, turn around, seven steps to the other end of the room. She was just about to make another turn when someone rapped on the door with three short knocks.
“Yeah?” Chris asked, shooting the drone a glance before turning her attention to the door.
“Christina? The heroes are asking for you,” Mr. Turner’s voice sounded from the other side.
“For now, yes.”
Why doesn’t he just come in? It’s not like we’re making out or anything. Chris made a step, then stopped, half-turning turning on her heels. Nora was still standing by the window in the same position. When Chris met her eyes, she unfurled her arms and lowered them from her oversized sweater.
“Yeah, you look okay,” Nora said, flicking a thumb up. “Don’t cha worry about your hair, just go.”
“Um, Nora. Anything you want me to tell them?” Chris asked.
The other girl tilted her head back, considering for a second. “Always wanted to be a hero,” she said. “Still do, no matter what dumb bitches say about me.”
“Okay.” Chris stepped up to the door and put her hand on the handle without pushing it. She let her forehead sink against the doorframe instead, forcing herself to suck in a deep breath while her heart pounded like crazy.
On the other side, Mr. Turner noisily cleared his throat.
“Hey Chris,” Nora said.
“What?” Chris replied without looking up.
“Call your parents.”
“Yeah. I will.” Chris straightened and pushed the door handle, not giving herself another moment to mull everything over. The door opened with a squeak, alerting Mr. Turner who was dressed in his usual choice of awfully formal and meticulously ironed suit. His lips quirked in a distant half smile that didn’t reach his eyes.
“Christina,” he said, watching her as she closed the door behind her. “We shouldn’t keep the Covenant waiting, but do you have any questions before we go?”
You’ve already filled them in on most of the facts, I suppose. Chris shook her head. She just wanted to get through this without more delays and hopefully without feeling awful afterwards.
“I should commend you for the way you handled the situation,” Mr. Turner said as they walked towards the set of conference rooms further down the corridor, leaving the guards behind. Glancing back, Chris could see them flank the door she’d just stepped through.
“Okay,” she replied, listening half-heartedly.
“I mean it. Not just the encounter with Legion, but the incident at the diner as well. Given your limited options, you found the best possible solution.”
But Josh is gone, and Saint is probably still screaming his lungs out. Chris stopped in front of the door that had been marked as ‘occupied’ with a small plate. Mr. Turner quickened his pace for the last few steps to catch up. “Keep that in mind. You’re not on trial, here.”
But Nora is. “I’m ready to go in,” Chris lied.
“Very well. I’ll see you later. Good luck,” Mr. Turner said, then pulled the door open.
Chris stepped through and found herself in a modest sized room with the generic long table one would expect at a business meeting. The shutters of the the ceiling high windows in the back wall had been lowered, blocking the view of the city lights. A light brown wall to wall carpet covered the entirety of the floor. The walls had been painted a plain shade of light grey except for the black and white cityscape behind the head end of the table.
Four of Athena’s drones hovered in the room, one each for every corner. The ones here were heavily armored and, judging from the look of their various hardpoints and extensions, probably armed as well.
Apart from the drones, only three of the five Covenant members were present. Paladin had claimed the head end, sitting straight-backed on a squat metal chair that had no doubt been custom fitted to bear the weight of his armor. The hero made a smashing appearance in the bulky white and grey powered suit whose ornate shoulder plates jutted a good foot outwards. The matching helmet rested on the table beside one heavily armored elbow, its extinguished eye slit staring blindly into space.
Chris noted the absence of Paladin’s oversized, Athena-powered sword. Hey, cool. He’s not set up to make heads roll.
Athena sat to Paladin’s left, equipped with a golden-lined, red tinted version of his power armor. Her design was sleeker, favoring aerodynamic forms over bulk. It still looked massive enough to probably triple her body weight, in no small part thanks to the two foot wing approaches that extended obliquely from the suit’s back. Each one consisted of three golden metal rods that had been arranged in a vertical pattern with shortening length the further down they were.
The heroine looked up from her laptop as the door opened, allowing Chris to recognize her olive-hued skin and Mediterranean features. Similar to the first time they’d met, Athena’s black curls spilled freely onto her shoulders. She hadn’t worn the armor before, though.
Queenie, who sat to Paladin’s right, looked almost inconspicuous in comparison. Her lacy white and gold dress broke the dress code of the other two, making her look even smaller than she was. She’d lifted the veil of her trademark diadem and tossed it back over her head to let it spill over her back alongside her long blonde tresses. Queenie’s youthful features left little doubt about her status as the Covenant’s youngest member.
Barely twenty, Chris remembered. She couldn’t help but smile at Queenie’s informal conduct. The heroine lounged on her chair with one arm dangling from the back, visibly cheering up the instant Chris stepped into the room. Queenie’s fingers flashed a victory sign behind the cover of her chair.
Unfortunately, the British heroine clearly wasn’t in charge here.
“Hello, Christina,” Paladin started, motioning to the lone chair that had been positioned at the other end of the table, furthest from the three heroes. “Please have a seat.”
Where is Radiant? Chris thought, brows furrowing. She had expected to see him at the head end of the table rather than Paladin. Samael could be absent for a number of reasons, but the team leader shouldn’t have been missing.
Athena waved a hand in the direction of the door; Chris heard it snap shut behind her a second later. So they don’t want Mr. Turner to sit in. She resisted the urge to jam her sweaty hands into the pockets of her hoodie as she stepped over to her indicated chair. The lights were way too bright, and everyone including the four drones was staring. At her.
“Hello,” Chris offered belatedly as she settled on her chair.
Queenie responded with a disarmingly wide smile, eyes bright and sparkling an expression of ‘awww, how cute.’ Athena kept her face blank, but Paladin’s lips curled up just a bit.
“We’re not going to eat you, promise,” Queenie said with her thick British accent.
“Thank you,” Chris replied mechanically.
“She’s shy. Go easy on her, Sensei,” Queenie added, now flashing Paladin a grin.
Athena spoke up, eyes on the screen of her laptop while she pressed a few keys. “We meet again, Christina. How have you settled into the Wardens?”
Can we cut the small talk and just get this over with? Chris rubbed her sweaty hands against her pants beneath the table. “Um. Pretty well, I guess? We get along,” she said.
“You have made an impression. Your team has great respect for you, and Mr. Turner speaks very highly of you. Perhaps you might fill the leader role in the future,” Athena continued.
Chris struggled to keep her face blank. Mr. Turner’s just doing damage control after this disaster. He’d canonize all of us to saints if it suited him.
“We have been informed that much of what we know about Legion is thanks to your observation and the conclusions you have drawn. We have not been able to identify him yet, but efforts are underway in that regard. Should he emerge again, we will be better prepared than we were.” Athena’s tone didn’t match the optimism of her words, she rattled them off as if she was reading a prepared speech, and her eyes peered out of her face like hollow sockets.
Wow, something’s really bugging you. Chris pressed her lips together, not wanting to draw any more attention to herself. This isn’t about Nora, is it?
Queenie’s smile had faded by now. Paladin displayed exemplary professionalism by sitting impossibly straight and still, equal parts aware and attentive without a flicker of emotion on his face. He shot Athena a glance and took over.
“You may have noticed Radiant’s absence,” he said. “It’s not official until tomorrow, but we should let you know that he has gone rogue. I’m taking the lead in his stead.”
Seriously? Chris’s breath stopped for a moment, the connotations of the statement distracting her from everything else. As far as she could tell, dropping out of the Covenant without dying was a really big deal.
No wonder Athena looks like she’s about to cry. Chris might have felt a pang of sympathy if her concern hadn’t been invested elsewhere.
“This means that I, along with Overseer Vega, will have the final say on your teammate’s fate,” Paladin continued. “Do you believe she poses a danger to others? Take a moment to think if you need it. You’re the one who stopped her power from harming others, and we value your opinion.”
Do you have to ask me this? That’s not fair. I’m her teammate.
Chris brought up a hand to her face, then settled it on her knees when she realized what she was doing. She didn’t want Nora to be executed by the Covenant, but if she was honest with herself, she had to admit that the girl was dangerous. Nora was far from delving into psychopathic villain territory, but there was no telling what might happen if her emotions boiled over. Which had happened before.
“Um,” Chris said after a moment, trying to dig up arguments she’d prepared in advance. “Maybe she shouldn’t work around normal people. But she really wants to do good, and she’s one of the few who could hurt Legion. Without her, I think we’d be short on firepower.”
“The reach of her shadow is quite limited if she doesn’t willfully direct it,” Queenie said. “She doesn’t have full control of it, but it doesn’t attack people outside of its immediate range if she doesn’t want it to.”
Paladin let out a small ‘mmh,’ tapping his armored fingertips together. “Most any situation with a threat is going to involve others. I don’t think her working alone is an option. And I don’t believe we can respond quickly enough if her power goes out of control. Not without Radiant.”
“My power blocks hers,” Chris argued. “I’ve done it before, at the diner. The shadow can’t get through my forcefield if I don’t want it to. If I get a strong flashlight, it’s pretty safe.” Chris took a moment to consider her words, feeling the weight of them as her gaze slid from Paladin’s face down to the table in front of her. “Um, I guess I can promise to never leave her side? My danger sense would let me know right away if there’s going to be trouble. It would wake me up, too.”
Paladin glanced aside to Queenie, who gave a small nod, then continued. “That’s a serious promise to make for a girl as young as you are. You might wish to pursue personal interests at some point. You’ll be distracted some of the time.”
I don’t have a boyfriend, if that’s what you’re getting at. “I don’t have that many hobbies, really,” Chris said. “She could come along when I go for runs. She’s pretty fit.”
“I do believe she is serious, Katsuro,” Athena said. A small smile flit across her face.
“So it seems,” Paladin agreed. The corners of his mouth twitched a bit, and he took his time studying Chris from his seat. “Young people rarely show this much determination for something, but I recognize that look on her face.”
“So do I,” Athena agreed. Queenie smirked, raising eyebrows at her. Chris had no idea what they were talking about. It looked like some sort of Covenant inside joke, and she wasn’t in the mood to share in the amusement.
“Are you accepting my promise or not?” Chris asked.
“I’ll think about it,” Paladin said, mouth straightening in a grim line. “There is more we need to address, and this concerns you.”
Chris could feel her fingers dig into her pants. “Okay,” she said.
“Losing the Counselor and Saint is a tragedy with large implications,” Paladin continued. “I assume you’re aware that Saint’s power was protecting a number of people of some importance. He’s also the main reason none of us were ever harmed, not even when facing Shadowslasher. That protection is gone. The UN have tried to hide it from the general public, but we don’t know how long we have before potential villains figure it out.”
“Okay,” Chris commented.
“The UN’s press conference is scheduled for tomorrow and cannot be delayed for many reasons,” Athena continued. “We have reason to assume the event will be targeted by Shanti protest groups and troublemakers, and we would like you to assist us.”
All three heroes looked at Chris expectantly now, paralyzing her. Did they just ask me for help? Me?
She must have looked pretty dumb, because Queenie smirked again, eyes sparkling with mirth. “I think she’s overwhelmed, Sensei. Maybe try to break it down a little?”
“We would like you to lend us your protection during the event tomorrow, Christina,” Paladin said.
Okay. They actually asked, and they didn’t even twist my arm this time. This is for real. Chris pinched her forearm under the table just to make sure. “Just me? What about my team?” she asked.
“I believe you would agree that Kid should not be involved,” Athena said. “In fact, she may be removed from the Wardens as it looks like the team will keep on being exposed to dangerous situations. You could take Overdrive along, if you wish.”
“Can I think about this for a bit?” Chris asked. Part of her had already made the decision and wanted to scream hell yeah, but she wasn’t going to give up a possible trump card as long as Nora’s situation hadn’t been resolved.
“You can,” Paladin said. “But keep in mind that you would need to fly to New York tomorrow morning.”
No one said anything until Chris spoke up again. “Um, is that everything?” she finally asked.
“I believe so, yes,” Paladin said with a glance to Athena, who nodded. “You have until midnight to inform Mr. Turner of your decision.”
Chris got up and settled a hand on the chair frame to steady herself. Dozens of possibilities and implications whirled through her mind while those three pairs of eyes bored into her.
“Christina,” Paladin said with his distinctive calm, severe tone. “If Noire surged, would you be able to take care of her?”
Chris shut her eyes, not even wanting to consider that option despite knowing she probably had to. It was an awful thing to ask of her, but maybe fair considering she’d offered to take responsibility for Nora. If the girl experienced a power surge, it could mean disaster. The shadow might even become fully sentient and detach itself from Noire’s control. It had happened with Wishing Well’s mirror image.
“I would,” she said after a moment, hating herself for it.