Northampton, England – Saturday, the 16th of June 2012. 11:38 AM.
There was a saying that music healed the soul. Sarina wouldn’t have been able to tell whether it applied to her, but she’d used the downtime in Paris to download some tracks to her music player. The beats helped carry her through the moments of doubt and self-loathing that clouded her mind after Liverpool.
The music kept her sane, pulled her mind away from the fact that she wasn’t a whole person, and not fully in control of herself. She avoided the tracks she associated with home or with Jasper. Selecting the wrong track by accident conjured up an image of his sorrowful, withdrawn face.
Instead of her usual selection of music, Sarina found herself warming to harder, faster beats with gritty lyrics she used to hardly listen to. Still hip hop and electro, but the edgier variety of the genre. She wasn’t sure why. It was like tripping on something relaxing, helping her no longer care all that much about everything that had gone wrong.
Sarina barely remembered the drive to the mansion she found herself in. She remembered deleting the track that brought out her powers, moments after the other presence withdrew from her mind. She was sick of losing herself, and no amount of power justified what she’d done in Liverpool.
The following hours had been a blur. She remembered locking herself into the room she’d been assigned. She remembered her teammates knocking, asking her with pleading voices to please open up. She remembered passing out from exhaustion, then waking up with a heavy heart, a swollen face and the realization that her career as a heroine was over before it had begun.
Two or three times a day, someone – usually Tess – came by to ask if she was ready to open up yet. When they realized she wasn’t, they buggered off.
On the second morning, the manor had been mercifully quiet and Sarina’s parched throat urged her to unlock her door and sneak downstairs to where she remembered seeing the kitchen. She successfully raided the fridge and library and made it back to her room with a bottle of soda, a ham sandwich and some random books. They turned out to be Bram Stoker and J.R.R. Tolkien. She raided the fridge twice more, but never had a need for more books.
The fourth morning found Sarina sitting on a windowsill, watching the sun rise over the nearby lake and the surrounding meadows and forest. Not a single car disturbed the peace. Small birds warbled to greet the new day from the nearby branches, and the only road in sight disappeared into the lush green forest.
The world is still the same. Sarina quietly opened the window to avoid disturbing the birds and inhaled the grassy scent of the British countryside. Even if every single person out there hates me.
When the sun had dipped above the horizon, Sarina collected a chair from the small table beside her canopy bed and took it over to the open window. She settled down against the frame, folding her arms on the windowsill to cradle her head. While sitting with her eyes closed to fully appreciate the forest, she recognized the song of a nightingale among others. It didn’t sound any different than it had at home. Her mother was a self-proclaimed bird lover and had always opened the windows in the morning, eager to get the most out of the dawn concert.
Thinking of her family, Sarina realized she was ready to face the idea of never going back without feeling homesick. If she listened into herself, the sadness was still there, but more distant. It felt like standing on a cruising ship, drifting away from the shore to start a new life elsewhere. Caught up in something greater than herself and out of her control.
I just wish I had the chance to actually say goodbye.
Sarina didn’t know why the manor had been unoccupied when they’d arrived late on Tuesday, or how Ace knew about it. She hadn’t exactly been in the mood to care.
It was a very classy house, two stories of beautifully adorned reddish brown stone with tall arching windows and countless chimneys that peeked down from the multi-sectioned grey tile roof. She hadn’t seen much of the mansion, but her room was outfitted with old fashioned furnishings. Their elaborately carved and polished wood had been covered with linen sheets for god knew how long;
whoever used to live here didn’t expect to be back anytime soon.
A flash of light drew her attention back to the horizon. Far in the distance, lightning rippled across the cloudless sky. Sarina leaned out of the window to get a better view, holding her breath in anticipation of thunder, but none came. Minutes passed. Just when she thought she’d imagined it, a roar of low-flying aircrafts thundered across the sky. A half dozen military jets flew over the house in a V-shaped formation, seemingly heading off in the direction of the previous lightshow.
What’s going on?
Sarina watched the jets turn into specks on the horizon and eventually veer off. It didn’t look like they attacked anything or anyone, so Sarina decided to leave her room and check the news. She got up from her chair in seconds and was halfway to the door when she realized she was probably looking awful, and that the others might mistake her for a zombie if she didn’t at least shower and get her hair done.
She turned back around and entered the small bathroom that connected to her bedroom, stepping up to the silver framed mirror above the basin. Her reflection glared back at her with weary green eyes that were surrounded by a fading hint of dark circles. Her reddish blonde hair was a disheveled mass that spilled half a finger’s length beyond her shoulders, concealing half of her face. The strand of hair that had been whitened by Snow’s powers rested against her cheek, and she brushed it back absently.
Are they still going to accept me? she wondered. I never opened the door when anyone asked. And Jasper is probably still mad about… everything.
The face in the mirror didn’t have an answer for her.
Sarina had finished washing her hair in the clawfoot porcelain tub when she heard a knock on her door. Two knocks, actually. The first one was more of a tap, barely audible through the open bathroom door. The second one reverberated through the room a couple of seconds later.
“Yes?” Sarina asked, wrapping her wet hair in a towel she’d retrieved from her bag.
“Oh hey, you’re awake,” a voice from the other side of the door said. It sounded young and a little anxious.
What’s Sunny scared of? I’m totally myself. The lightning had been so distant that Sarina didn’t assume the others had seen it. They might have heard the jets, but then again, regular airplanes sounded the same and weren’t exactly uncommon.
“Since a little while. I was just about to come down. What’s up?”
“Um, who am I talking to? Sara or…?”
Sarina rolled her eyes. If I was in crazy bitch mode, we wouldn’t be having this chat. She finished buttoning her pants, then stepped over to the heavy oaken door, pulling her shirt down over the belt.
“It’s just me. I deleted that track from my player, if you’re wondering.” Sarina brought her fingers up to the key, then stopped, her readiness for social interaction faltering.
“Oh, okay.” There was some unmistakable relief, there. “No one’s seen you outside your room since Tuesday, we’re getting worried. There’s breakfast downstairs. Aren’t you hungry?”
Sarina pondered the question for a second, leaning her towel wrapped head against the door. Her fingers were still on the key. Touching, not turning.
“Is Jasper downstairs?” she asked.
The answer came after a short pause. “Not right now. He took some stuff up to his room. It’s next to yours, by the way.”
Sarina turned her head to glance to the wood paneled white stone wall that extended to her left. Knowing where he was didn’t change anything, but it gave her a queasy feeling in the pit of her stomach. That queasy feeling remembered the way he’d avoided looking at her during their two hour drive away from Liverpool.
It doesn’t matter, she told herself. It’s not like we were best friends or anything.
Sarina swallowed the lump in her throat and turned her attention back to the door. “I’ll be down in a few.” Belatedly she added, “Sorry about the stuff I took from the fridge.”
“It’s cool,” Sunny replied through the door. “No one got mad, it let us know you were still alive. See you later!”
Sarina listened to the sound of fading footsteps, fingers locking firmly about the key. I’m still going to do good, she decided. I don’t need powers or anyone’s approval.
Five minutes later, she was on her way down the circular staircase to join the voices she heard drifting through the half open door ahead. Two of them sounded familiar. The third belonged to a man who spoke with the tempo and fluency of a newsreader.
Sarina stopped on the last step to try and make out some words. Before she could, the voice cut off in mid-sentence, replaced by a piece of classical music.
Sarina continued on through the short corridor with a frown on her face. The abrupt change reminded her of that one time she’d caught her grandpa watching TV late at night, all too quick to change channels the instant he realized she’d woken up.
“Hey, Sara!” Sunny’s voice drifted from the kitchen, a little too cheery. “I made scrambled eggs for you!”
Sarina pushed the door open and stepped into a sizeable, brightly sunlit kitchen with light grey stone walls and tall wooden shelves. A rectangular work desk took up most of the center space, stacked with knives and other utensils that had been tucked away in wooden holders. More kitchen equipment hung overhead, along with dried herbs that gave off a mild aromatic scent.
The music came from a small radio that had been placed atop a breakfast table at the far end of the room. Tess and Sunny had taken opposing seats there, enjoying a hearty breakfast complete with toast, fried ham and scrambled eggs. Tess wore jeans and a short sleeved green blouse instead of her work overall for once. She’d done her red hair up in the usual bun and was nibbling on a piece of buttered toast. Sunny pointed to the plate and chair next to his, flashing a wide grin.
“Hurry up before they get cold!” he hollered.
“Morning. What’s with the radio?” Sarina asked from the door. “Wasn’t it tuned to a news cast just a moment ago?”
The kid glanced across the table to Tess. Her expression didn’t change, but she rubbed her forearm on the table. “Yer after coming out of yer hidey hole. Didn’t wanna scare ye away with dat story.”
“The world’s going crazy!” Sunny said. “Villains pop up everywhere. Some French people lynched an Evolved, and the President’s trying to kick out all the foreigner ones he welcomed before. Guess all the trouble isn’t worth it anymore? Now those Godkin psychos are going nuts because they don’t like any of us getting killed by normal people. There’s street battles in about five different cities.” He finished by stuffing himself with a forkful of bacon, eyes glued to Sarina’s face.
Tess just watched her with the kind of expression one would expect from a juror in court, seconds before the imposition of the sentence. The furrows on her brow looked deep enough to plant corn in it.
“Anything in Switzerland?” Sarina asked. She could feel her face scrunch up in response to Tess’ gloomy look.
“Don’t worry, your folks are fine,” Sunny said. “It’s still really quiet down there.”
And why are you telling me all this after turning the news off for my sake?
“Was there anything about England?” Sarina asked. “I’ve seen lightning and fighter jets from the window of my room.”
“Huh. Must have been Cloudburst. He’s all over the place, France didn’t want him anymore after his power surge.” After an incredulous look from Sarina, Sunny added, “I told you. Everyone’s going nuts. But at least the Covenant’s execution orders stopped.” He highfived himself at that, even though their message to the world had been a team effort.
Here’s hoping we stay sane.
Sarina left the door open and made her way to the breakfast table. The scent of toast and scrambled eggs that wafted through the kitchen made her mouth water. Her stomach felt like a void nestled within her gut, ready to absorb just about anything. After a final glance to the radio, she claimed the chair beside Sunny.
“Are we going to do something about it?” Sarina asked as she grabbed a slice of toast. “We could go after villains in Europe.” The question helped distract her from that other thing that lurked at the back of her mind. She didn’t feel ready to ask about it. Not just yet.
“Maybe?” Sunny suggested. “We have to wait for Gentleman, though. He’s about to visit with a bunch of his guys and talk to Ace.”
“Ace’s got some questions too,” Tess said, her voice grim. “We all want to know what the story with Raven is. Liverpool should have been easy.” She looked like she was about to say something else, but took a bite of her toast instead.
“Why do we have to wait?” Sarina asked. “The last time Ace did him a favor, it didn’t go well. We should just do our own thing.”
“I don’t think Gentleman knew about Raven showing up,” Sunny said. “But we can ask him. Maybe he knows who hired the Crows. He knows a lot of stuff.”
“Too much,” Tess said. “He’s a slippery snake, that one.” She swallowed the last piece of her toast and picked up her empty plate, rising from her chair.
“I kind of like him. He’s a badass. He’s rich, knows everything and a lot of guys follow him.” Sunny cupped his chin with his hand and shot Sarina a glance across the table. “Not as badass as our Wondergirl, though.”
“Forget it,” Sarina said. “Now I’m just me.”
Sunny’s eyebrows shot up, and he settled back on his chair, studying her. “You sure? You just had that look on your face when I brought Raven up.”
He rubbed his eye. “Um, you know. The same look you had in the car after taking your mask off. When we were driving here.”
She gave him a smile, reaching over to ruffle his dirty-blond hair. “You’re seeing things. Really, I’m me.”
He made a face, swatting her hand with his own. Then he froze. His eyes darted over to the open door and the staircase behind it. The corners of his mouth sagged, the grimace replaced by a look of distant concentration.
“What is it?” Sarina asked, tilting her head at him.
“Ace just got a call,” Sunny said after a moment. “Those guys are almost here. Oh, and Jasper is about to come down.” The juvenile grin returned to light up his face. “If you wanna hide, I got you covered.”
“You’d hide me from Jasper?” she asked, amused enough to smirk a little.
The kid shrugged. “Sure. I could hide you in my room, if you prefer?”
“You’re cute, but a little too young for me.”
He hung his head, shoulders dropping.
Over by the window, Tess laughed so hard she bent over the counter, shoulders shaking.
I’ve never heard her laugh, Sarina realized. Most of the time she’d spent with the young Irishwoman, Tess had either been driving or busy tinkering some equipment or car upgrades.
“With those guys, you meant Gentleman’s gang?” It was easy to assume, but Sarina wanted to be sure.
Footsteps came down the stairs. Sarina mentally prepared herself by buttering her toast, pretending to be too too busy to pay a whole lot of attention to anything else. She ignored the nudge of Sunny’s foot beneath the table and went on preparing her breakfast, eyes on the plate. That way, she wouldn’t know whether Jasper still had that withdrawn look on his face.
The footsteps stopped. The door creaked faintly, then Jasper’s voice drifted through the kitchen, still scratchy from sleep. “Morning. Hey, Sara. Feeling better?”
“Morning,” she murmured without looking up from the table. “Sure. I deleted that track, hope you don’t mind.”
“That’s fine,” he said.
Sarina thought she overheard a note of relief in his voice, but she couldn’t be sure without getting a look at his face. The toast on her plate showed her a nice cheery smile – a thick, mouth-shaped smear of butter at the center with two smaller clumps above it.
“Morning, dormouse,” Tess said. “Suit yerself. Got plenty of breakfast to go around.”
“What’s with the Vivaldi on the radio? I didn’t know you developed a taste for classical,” Jasper said. Now he definitely sounded amused.
Sarina expelled a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding.
“Maybe we wanted to give you a proper entrance?” Sunny said. “You haven’t left your room much yourself.”
“I’ve actually been working,” Jasper said. “Ace’s and Tess’ tracks are done. Let me know when you want to give it a try.”
Sarina poked at a piece of fried ham on her plate. If Ace and Tess get power boosts from Jasper’s music, they don’t need me anymore. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that, and she had no idea whether her parents would still welcome her home after what happened in Liverpool. The police obviously knew Sarina’s name.
They’d announced it over loudspeakers, for crying out loud. Logic dictated the authorities would contact her family.
“Can do that later,” Tess said. “Gentleman’s gang’s about to stop by.”
“Why now?” Jasper asked, the humor draining from his voice. “Haven’t you cleared your debt with him?”
“Lord knows. He owns this place. I’m ready to move out when ye kids are.”
“I know why,” Sunny said. “But Ace’s going to skin me if I say anything.”
Something about his tone caught Sarina’s attention, and she looked up to see him frowning. Their eyes met for a fraction of a second before he looked away. Something about me? She put her fork down, her appetite reduced to almost nothing. I hope he doesn’t ask about that stupid goodbye letter.
“No one’s skinning my nephew,” Tess declared sternly. “But ye stop earwiging the boss’ phone calls already, slaightear. Ye keep it up, I’m milking the pigeon myself.”
Is he actually your nephew? Sarina didn’t want to interrupt, but she filed the question away for later.
“Can’t,” Sunny said, covering his ears with both hands. “It’s not like a radio you can just turn off and forget about.”
“I’m guessing Gentleman wants Jasper to boost the powers of his gang with music,” Tess said. “Ace and I already talked about that. Ain’t happening.”
“I appreciate that,” Jasper said. “I didn’t sign up to work with those guys, and I’d like to keep it that way.”
“What guys?” Sarina asked. Suspicion flared at the back of her mind, putting her on alert. “I remember he said something about it in Paris, but I have a feeling I should ask again.”
Sunny bit his bottom lip. “We’re not working with them, just paid off some debt with the Liverpool thing. They helped us out of a tight spot before you joined.” He put a hand over his heart. “Honest.”
“Okay. But I told you, I’m not working with villains.”
“I’m glad we agree on that,” Jasper said.
Sarina almost glanced up at him. She caught herself at the last instant and filled her cup with orange juice instead. Beneath the table, Sunny nudged her foot again. She was about to scold him for being such a kid when she sensed movement and a gentle touch of fingers on her shoulder.
“Don’t worry, Sara.” Jasper’s voice came from right beside her.
What about? The fingers withdrew from Sarina’s shoulder, making her feel awkwardly caught out. She glanced up, more or less in his direction.
“I’m not worried,” she said. You aren’t some kind of Empath, are you? Sarina realized this wasn’t the first time she’d asked herself that question.
Jasper stepped around the table to grab a piece of toast while Sunny and Tess watched on, not even trying to hide their amusement. It only lasted for a moment before the kid’s mouth, eyes turning distant in that ‘I just heard something interesting’ way.
“There’s a car coming up the road,” he said. “Someone tell Ace. I think it’s them.”
Sarina wasn’t sure what she’d expected, but this wasn’t it.
The trio who stepped through the open double doors and into the mansion’s foyer looked like they stepped right out of a sitcom: early twenties, styled, groomed and surrounded by an air of made-up importance. The blonde wore glittery heels so high Sarina couldn’t help but wonder how she managed to walk. The dark-haired girl and the pudgy young man had equipped themselves with brand sunglasses that gave them a distinctive rich tourist look.
“Really, that’s them?” Sarina whispered to Ace. He stood beside her at the bottom of the stairway, ready to greet the guests.
“No. They’re just a travel squad, meant to look like they don’t work with Evolved. Gonna meet the real guys after we get inside.”
Travel squad? What? Why? Sarina hid her confusion beneath a blank mask, hoping the mystery would get cleared up without her betraying her cluelessness.
Each new arrival’s attention seemed to stick to Sarina from the instant their eyes fell on her. The young man was blatantly obvious in the way he pushed his sunglasses up to check her out, the women at least pretended to admire the foyer’s interior architecture.
“So that’s the girl,” the man said. “The one that’s setting headlines on fire.”
Why is this always about me? Sarina was reminded of the gathering in Paris. The constant fuss about her was really starting to grate on her nerves, and she didn’t appreciate being reminded of the news.
At least they don’t look like villains.
Once the trio had gathered at the center of the foyer, Tess closed the massive double doors and joined Sunny by the ornate tile mosaic that marked the entrance to the library. Assuming that Ace would play host and draw everyone’s attention, Sarina went over to join Tess and the kid. Jasper lingered near the stairway, and Snow sat on the stairway a few steps up from Ace, staring into space.
“What’s going on?” Sarina asked, no longer keeping her voice down.
“That’s what you get for staying in your room all the time,” the Sunny said. He pointed a finger to the odd trio of guests at the center of the hall. “They’re proxies. Just watch.”
The dark-haired woman pulled something like a folding mirror from her handbag and flipped it open, then held it out in front of her. A few seconds later, the blonde disappeared. The man who’d taken her place was considerably taller and bulkier, with broad shoulders and arms that filled out his leather jacket rather impressively. His broad, sharp featured face hinted at native American origin, as did the tribal tattoos that trailed down the side of his neck.
“That’s Laughing Wolf,” Sunny whispered. “He’s always first. And he never laughs. Ever.”
“Evolved?” Sarina whispered back, not taking her eyes off the man.
“Of course. He smells trouble like no one else.”
Sarina would have expected the tattooed man to inflate his massive chest and sniff the air, but he didn’t. Instead, he scanned the hall and everyone in it with a sweeping glance. Seemingly satisfied, he raised his wrist with something that looked like a watch and rumbled some words. His gravelly voice choked too many syllables to be understandable from where Sarina stood.
“They’re using cameras,” Sunny explained with a knowing face. “Gentleman found a way to improve Drifter’s range. Now it doesn’t matter what kind of live visual he uses for swapping people.”
“Drifter? Doesn’t he work with the police?” Sarina asked. She remembered reading a story about a man who’d resolved a hostage situation by replacing the hostages with a SWAT team.
“He did. Guess the Conglomerate made a better offer.” Sunny squinted back to the trio in the foyer, scratching his nose.
Looking in that direction, Sarina could see that that the plus size beau was gone, same as the second woman. In her place, Sarina spotted a short, curvaceous female whose numerous tattoos and garish purple hair identified her as Eve, another familiar face from the Sun King’s court in Paris.
Sarina didn’t spare her more than a glance. Her attention was drawn to the well-dressed man who’d appeared beside Eve. More specifically, his face. It was flawless to the point of unfairness, like something a teenage girl might cut from a fashion magazine to pin to the wall above the bedside table.
No, that wasn’t quite right. Sarina realized her mistake when he turned his head to chuckle at something someone said. The contour of his facial profile was off, the brow more defined. His hair was brown and straight, not close-cropped like Radiant’s dark blonde curls. The incident light that flooded the foyer cast a deceptive golden glow over it, though.
“Wow. That’s the first time I’ve seen Gentleman without a mask,” Sunny said.
Sarina tore her eyes from the man’s face. She drew one leg up against her chest in an attempt to suppress the curious tingle that coursed throughout her body. Not Radiant, she reminded herself. And not a very trustworthy character.
“Hey.” She realized Sunny was talking when his finger poked into her arm. “They’re going to talk to Ace and Tess for a bit. It’s nice outside. Want to come?”
“Sure,” Sarina said without thinking. Sunlight and fresh air sounded just fine after all those days she’d spent inside, reading and getting high on music.
The group at the center of the hall began to migrate towards the library. Ace and Gentleman spearheaded the group, talking in low voices. Neither of them spared Sarina a glance.
Maybe this isn’t about me after all.
She looked over to the small elevated area with the fireplace, where Jasper was busy explaining the piano to Snow. The white-haired girl ran her fingers across the keys without pressing any of them, as if she was afraid of making a sound. She looked happy, though. Like someone who’d finally found something – or someone – worth paying attention to.
Sarina’s pulse sped up, and her face felt warmer than it had a moment ago. Feeling silly about it, she looked away.
“Come on. Let’s go.”
Sarina yielded to the tug on her arm and let Sunny pull her to her feet. He led her across the hall and to the heavy wooden doors leading out to the courtyard. In passing, Sarina heard Ace’s muffled voice come through the library door, hard and without a trace of humor.
Why would this be about me? They know I’m not using my power anymore.
The kid pushed the doors open and stepped outside, holding it for Sarina. The warmth of the late summer morning washed over her before she even stepped through, beckoning her with the scent of grass and flowers.
“What if Ace is looking for us later?” she asked. “If those guys came all the way from France, it has to be important.” Something about her own words gave her a vaguely uneasy feeling that she couldn’t place. She didn’t feel threatened by the group. She liked to believe she could tell if people didn’t wish her well, and the Nameless weren’t like that.
Sunny closed the door behind her and started walking towards the ornate stone fountain that marked the entrance to the overgrown garden, hands jammed into his pockets. “I can hear if he’s looking for us.”
What are you running from? Sarina watched him with a frown, but followed his footsteps.
“Are you listening to them right now?” She quickened her pace to keep up, gravel crunching beneath her sneakers.
He stopped by the fountain and heaved himself up to sit on the edge. “I always listen,” he said. “Ace knows he can’t shut me out. I’m just not supposed to tell anyone.” He scratched his nose again, eyes darting towards the row of shuttered windows that lined the manor’s reddish brown stone façade. Some of them had to belong to the library the others had claimed for their talk.
“And you wanted to tell me something?” She turned to lean back against the fountain, squinting into the sunlight.
“Uh, I need you to promise something. Two things, actually.”
Something about your kiddie crush? The thought filled her with genuine amusement.
“Shoot,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll promise anything, but if I make promises, I’m good at keeping them.”
He nodded without looking at her. “Okay. First thing… you can’t let anyone know I said anything. Ace WILL skin me, I swear. He’s not a bad guy, but he gets really mad about me sharing stuff that was said in private.”
“Alright,” she said. “It’s our secret. What’s the other thing?”
He turned his head to look her straight in the eye, his dirty-blonde locks ruffled by the wind. “You have to promise me you’re never going to leave.”
She blinked. “Why’s that? I’m not planning to leave, but who knows what’s going to happen? If you want a promise from me, you have to tell me more.”
“It’s because…” He paused there, shoulders slumping. “If you leave, I can’t keep you safe. And there’s someone looking for you. Someone dangerous. Data found proof of them breaking into data caches and scouring the web. You know Data is like the Gandalf of the internet, right? And he can’t track whoever it was.”
“Could it be the heroes?” Sarina asked.
Sunny shook his head. “No. The only one who’s this good is Athena, and they’re sure it’s not her. Gentleman said there was some Tech in Mexico who maybe could have pulled it off if she had a power surge. But that would be real spooky.”
“She’s dead,” Sunny said. “She was Technomage. Legion got her.”