Northampton, England – Saturday, the 16th of June 2012. 02:25 PM.
“I’m gonna save the world.”
Coming from a nine year old girl who’d just been taken from her home in the middle of the night, that statement was both eerie and endearing. Looking down at her, Sarina had no response. She watched Emily’s face for any hint of a joke – if she was seeing all of this as some big game, it might explain why she was so calm about it – but the little girl looked dead serious. The longer Sarina looked at her, the more her heart sank.
“Are you going to let us help you with that?” she asked to break the uncomfortable silence.
“Sure. You can help if you wanna.”
“What about the others? Jasper’s going to save us all with music if we get sad and cranky,” Sarina quipped in an attempt to lighten the mood.
“Because!” Emily declared in a tone that suggested she was done with the subject. She twirled on her bare feet and started to head off towards the stairs, eyes following the narrow red carpet that led up to the first floor.
Now you don’t want to talk to me anymore? Sarina shook her head in silent regret. Whatever helps you feel better.
“Hey Emily, wait!” Patrick called after the girl. “We have to get you some shoes first.”
Emily stopped and turned back around, one hand on the wooden railing. “Is the Irish lady with the phones upstairs?”
“She should be,” Jasper said. “We should get everyone together. Then Sara can tell us what happened while Tess takes care of you.” He glanced at Sarina with a look that begged for approval. It was exactly the kind of look that would make her feel terrible for saying no, despite wanting to.
Sarina returned a blank look. She didn’t feel ready to elaborate on all the flavors of fail she’d tasted over the past couple of hours.
“Sure,” she forced herself to say. “Let’s gather in the library, and we’ll fill Tess and Emily in later. Is Gentleman’s crew gone?”
“The last of them drove off a few minutes before you arrived,” Jasper said. “Eve was swapped for you. It’s just us in the house now.”
That was a relief, at least. “The library then,” she said.
The Nameless gathered in the same circle of padded green armchairs they’d used during their previous meeting with Gentleman: Jasper to Sarina’s right, Patrick to her left, and Ace across from them. Snow had claimed the last seat after some words of encouragement to draw her out of the vacant rooms she’d been exploring. The white-haired Asian girl perched on her armchair like a queen who had been forced to sit on her throne, straight-backed and a little stiff, as if her involvement in the gathering made her uncomfortable.
Given the circumstances of her solo mission and return, Sarina shared the sentiment, but she hoped she was doing a better job at hiding it.
“Do you want the short version or the long version?” she asked. “Actually, maybe we should wait until Tess gets back?”
“Uh, that’s going to take a while,” Patrick said. “Last I knew, she wanted to have a nice long chat with Emily. Make sure she was okay with being here.”
“Are we okay with it?” Ace asked. “That’s a whole load of responsibility I’m not keen on havin’, to tell you the truth. I say we send the kid home.”
“I don’t mind looking after her, and I think Tess is okay with it too.” Sarina shot an inquiring glance to Patrick, who returned a nod. “This is probably the only place she’ll be safe from the villains who want her powers. She can access the memories of people she marked with her power, and she knows several heroes. Maybe even the Covenant.”
“I’m fine with having her here,” Jasper said. “If Sunny can extend his protection to one more person, I believe it’s the right decision.”
“Yeah, no problem whatsoever,” Patrick said. “Leave it to me. Tess doesn’t mind either, I already asked her.”
Ace pushed the hat up from his brow to scratch his scalp, squinting. “You guys want a lil’ kid knowin’ all about you?”
“Got something to hide?” Sarina shot back. The hostility in her voice made Ace’s face tighten and startled Patrick into sinking back into his seat, as if he had been hit by a shockwave. Heck, it startled her.
That’s what you get for prodding when I needed some alone time.
She pushed the thought from her mind. They were her friends and obviously worried about her. They had a right to know where she’d spent the last couple of hours, and what happened to her there.
Snow broke the silence with her gentle, heavily accented voice. “I like if she stay. More children is good. Make me happy.”
Sarina flashed her a smile, grateful for the unexpected support. The memory of her previous outburst was washed away from her mind, and when Ace and Patrick exchanged a meaningful glance, she wondered what she’d missed.
“Why don’t we let it rest for now?” Jasper suggested, watching Sarina with a cautious, slightly puzzled frown. “I’m sure we can all agree Emily needs some time to recover from the stress. For now, the question of how this group is going to proceed is maybe be more important. Would you let us know what’s going on, Sara?”
“Yeah, you’ve beencranky ever since you got back,” Patrick interjected, arms crossing over his chest in disapproval. “It’s got me worried.”
“Me worried,” Snow echoed from her seat. She had her fingers laced together on her lap, as if holding on to something only she could see.
Fine. If you insist. Sarina drew in a breath and exhaled, giving herself another moment to decide on the right angle to approach the subject. “Gentleman wants me to try the same thing again. He didn’t say when or where. Soon, I guess.”
“Try again? Didn’t it go well?” Patrick asked, obviously unwilling to let her recover.
“No. The city was a mess, people died, and I couldn’t do a thing about it,” Sarina said, rattling off the words just to get them out and be done with it. “My power didn’t do anything. They took the villain out after I was gone.” She allowed herself the saving grace of leaving out the fact she’d almost died..
Patrick continued prodding without mercy. “What villain was it? What did they do? We kept an eye on the news while you were gone, but, man, there’s so much going on! We didn’t even know where to look.”
“Hellion. In Thailand.” She didn’t want to ask for details – after all, even that small victory at the end might have been a lie – but some kind of morbid curiosity egged her on. “Was there anything about how that ended?”
“I watched a short report about it with Tess,” Jasper said. “They said the threat had been dealt with, but the city was closed off. No reporters were allowed in.”
“Said somethin’ about some hero. I forgot the name. Who was it, kid?” Ace glanced aside to Patrick, who spilled the answer eagerly.
“Warbreaker. Hey Sara, was that guy even there? If they tacked the victory on someone other than you, that’s lame. Real lame.”
She pulled a face, but not for the reasons he most likely assumed. “He was.”
“And did the bad guy die?”
“No. Magpie – someone from Gentleman’s crew – shot him with Power Zero. I don’t know what happened afterwards, but Athena was sending drones. Did you hear anything about it?”
“The Covenant reported they were intervening and that the situation was under control,” Patrick said. “Don’t know more than that. But the Covenant started equipping drones with Power Zero shots. The drones are just really slow.”
So that much was true. Another thought followed, a logical conclusion of the first one. Maybe I helped make a difference after all.
“Gentleman has Power Zero?” Jasper asked, frowning. “I had hoped he was bluffing about it. If he got some, then who else has it?”
“That’s lame,” Patrick said. “Now everyone’s going to use guns and the surges will probably still happen anyway. There’s nothing hero-like about that anymore, just bam.” He shot finger guns at Ace.
“There are no heroes, kid,” Ace said. “Never were. You gotta take care of yourself and the ones you care about. It’s the only sane thing to do.” His gaze, obscured by his hat, swiveled to Sarina. “Sure you’re up for this again? Shit goes wrong, you’re dead. Ever think about that?”
Sarina listened into herself to try and figure out how she felt about it. Sure, she had already more or less agreed to the deal by failing to meet Gentleman’s proposal with a firm ‘no’. But if everyone believed she was something special and was supposed to work miracles, so how could she not give it her all and try again? Could she live with herself if she just went into hiding without even knowing if the family she’d left behind would be okay?
The answer was no.
“I’ll do it,” she finally declared. “But I have to ask if you guys would be up for it, because I’m not working with Gentleman’s crew anymore. They weren’t bad people, they just… I don’t know. I’d be more comfortable with you guys to back me up. Sure, we only met a short while ago and maybe I shouldn’t feel that way, but I trust you guys.”
More than most of the friends I’ve had so far, she silently added.
Truth was, she’d rarely felt truly attached to anyone other than her current family. Up until two and a half years ago, she had drifted from one place to the next, the faces of passing acquaintances soon forgotten. The teens in the youth care centers had been too entangled with their own personal issues to care all that much about someone else.
The reactions she got for her declaration of confidence were heart-warming. Patrick’s fingers formed a heart shape over his chest, Snow displayed a Mona Lisa smile, and even Ace grinned a little.
Now that the frown had slipped from his face, Jasper looked as easy-going as he usually did. His lips quirked into that tiny almost-smile he usually wore around her, and he leaned over touch her hand with his fingers. That brief touch, light and unobtrusive, made her feel better about today, about her messed up powers, her homesickness, and everything else.
Ace cleared his throat, his face turning serious again. “We gotta have a lil’ chat about that too. Don’t mind helpin’ you out, but we gotta consider what’s at stake. Especially if we’re keepin’ the kid. You wanna help people, sure. But is it worth riskin’ someone you care about?” He cocked his head to the side, squinting at Jasper.
“We did it before,” Sarina pointed out. “In Liverpool. To deliver a message to the world.”
“You’re right about that, but we did that because someone was askin’ us to. We should play it safe now. Just do what we gotta do so we can get our folks to the shelter before shit gets worse.”
“I’ve seen the shelter. It didn’t look like a hotel suite, but I guess they haven’t finished building it. I’ve seen the Princess too, she’s fine.”
Ace nodded at that, eyes becoming distant. “Good to know.”
The look on his face reminded Sarina of what Patrick told her earlier. We’ll take care of your son too. She almost said it out loud, but caught herself at the last instant and continued on with a different wording.
“We’ll have to make sure others are fine too. My parents, my brother. Patrick’s sisters. We can’t just use our powers to hide somewhere and hope it all goes away. I mean, we could but… wouldn’t you feel bad about it? Powers are a responsibility, don’t you think?” Having put her medley of thoughts and emotions into words, Sarina scanned the faces around her in search of agreement.
Patrick spoke up first, his face lighting up. “I know Tess has it in her head to take care of me for some reason. I think she’ll be fine as long as I am.”
“And you? What do you think?” Sarina asked him.
He smirked at that. “I already told you in Paris. I’m with you all the way. And I’m the most important person, so screw the others if they don’t want to come along.”
“Thank you, Patrick. It means a lot to me.” Hearing herself say it like that made her realize it was true, not just some phrase she’d dug out of her good girl book because it was a polite thing to say.
“I told you the same not that long ago,” Jasper said. “I’m there for you. That hasn’t changed. I’ll get loud and pesky if I think you’re about to make a mistake, but if that doesn’t happen, feel free to assume you’re good to go.”
She smiled at him, knowing he didn’t need words to understand. I appreciate it, Jasper. I really do.
Ace took a few seconds of being stared at before he had a response. “Got family someplace too, so I can relate to the idea of responsibility. But I’m the guy who’s got to make the decisions for this group, and if I think it’s a shit idea, it probably is. Not sayin’ no yet, gonna wait and see what Gentleman’s schemin’ now.”
“That sounds fair,” Jasper said. “Let’s wait and hear what this is about, then decide.” He looked at Sarina. “Are you okay with that?”
“Sounds fine.” Sarina’s eyelids drooped downward as her mind drifted back to her last encounter with Gentleman. She could tell he’d been bothered by something she said, she just couldn’t remember what it was. She did recall the tingle of unease it gave her.
Sarina abandoned the train of thought when Snow’s silver-bell voice broke into the silence. “I help.”
The white haired girl had a small smile on her lips that made it seem like she genuinely enjoyed the idea, but there was no way of telling whether she understood what she was helping with. In all the time she’d spent in Snow’s company, Sarina had learned that the girl’s attention was very unpredictable. Her focus could change in a matter of seconds.
“Hey Snow, do you know what we’re talking about?” Patrick asked, taking the words from Sarina’s mouth.
“Yes,” came the answer. “Help with family. Is important.”
“You’re right, Snow,” Sarina said. “I’m glad you want to help.” With a glance to Patrick, she added, “I want to send a message to my folks, like Emily did. Why didn’t anyone tell me we had a safe way of doing it?”
The question hung in the air, left unanswered for an awkwardly long moment. Sarina watched them shift on their seats with a mounting sense of unease, wondering if she’d said anything wrong.
Finally Patrick spoke up, a smile flickering across his ace. “Sure, no problem. We thought it better to wait until you ask, with your homesickness and all.” His tense posture belied his smile, suggesting the matter wasn’t as small as he made it out to be.
“So I could send a message today, if I wanted?” Sarina asked, searching for any indication that she was being lied to and finding none. Snow had zoned out again, Ace wore a poker face, and Jasper just watched her with genuine curiosity.
“Sure,” Ace said. “Gonna be okay with not gettin’ a reply? Messages go out only. It’s the only way to keep ‘em safe for us. Can’t be traced that way.”
“It’s better than nothing,” Sarina said as she settled back into her armchair. She didn’t want to doubt them. Not right now, minutes after her declaration of trust in them.
“I’ll let Tess know if I see her first,” Patrick said. He furrowed his brow, adding, “You’re not going back into your room, are you? You’ll get all pale and tragic if you don’t come out. One Snow is enough.”
“I like the sun,” Snow said, drawing a chuckle from Ace.
And flowers. And singing songs to yourself, like a fairytale princess. Sarina smiled at the thought.
“No joke. Sometimes we have to take you back inside so you don’t get a sunburn,” Patrick said. All eyes were on Snow in anticipation of a response, but none came. Her face was like an oil painting again, distant and unmoving.
“Would anyone mind if I steal Sara away for a little while?” Jasper asked after a moment of silence. “Gentleman should be too busy rehearsing his next speech to get back to us anytime soon.”
“Steal me away?” Sarina asked, suddenly alert. “This isn’t something bad, is it?”
Jasper shook his head while Patrick snickered to himself for some reason Sarina wasn’t following. She liked the kid, but this was one of those times she wanted grab the nearest random object and throw it at him.
Jasper at least had the decency not to be amused at her expense. “Don’t worry. Nothing bad, I promise,” he said, keeping a perfectly straight face.
Just don’t ask me any more questions about Thailand.
“Okay. Let’s go, then.” She pushed up from the armchair and made her way to the door, pulling Ace’s hat down over his face in passing. Despite being twice Patrick’s age, he was wearing the same stupid grin.
Jasper followed without comment, and she held the door for him until both of them had escaped the library’s stale, dusty, old book smell. She turned to him as she closed the door, waiting for a hint on what to expect.
He smiled slightly and offered a hand to her with a flourish. “May I lead the way, my lady?”
“I just said I trust you, so… sure,” Sarina said, gentler than intended. She was tired of all the secrecy involving her, but maybe this was different. When she tucked her fingers into his palm to be led across the hall and towards the stairs, she could feel his calloused fingertips brush against her smoother skin.
Guitar fingers, she thought.
“It’s something we talked about a few days ago,” Jasper said as they headed up the stairs. “Before we left France.”
“We talked about a lot of things, Jasper.”
“How many of them do you remember?”
“Um,” she started, taking a moment to think back to those days they’d spent in Ace’s townhouse in Paris. “I remember it was a nice, relaxing time. That Ace taught me how to use guns, and that we sat outside listening to music and sipping ice tea.”
He gently squeezed her hand as they reached the top of the stairs. “How about Britain’s Got Talent?” he asked.
That sparked a memory and made her chuckle. She tilted her head to the side, trying to read the answer from his face before she heard it. “Don’t tell me you’re going to sing.”
He didn’t answer immediately. They turned left, into the short section of corridor that led past the parlor to the music room. Bright, golden streaks of afternoon light flowed through the tall, arch-shaped windows. They cast a warm, almost magical glow over the antique interior. It seemed like the perfect time and place for something good to happen, something to banish the gloom of the past days.
Jasper failed miserably at hiding his mirth. “You’ll see,” he said as he opened the door.
The music room with its arching ceiling, golden hued walls and heavy red velvet curtains could have been taken from a storybook castle. A small, circular extension on the right side of the room – framed with trumpeting angels and twisting vine ornaments – contained a black piano that surpassed the one downstairs in terms of size and pomp. The wooden harp at the center of the room was nearly as tall as Sarina was. Two small electrical candelabras hung overhead, made obsolete by the bright daylight that flooded through the large windows.
Jasper closed the door and motioned to a padded stool that had been drawn up against the huge central window. “Take your seat, my lady.”
Still looking around, Sarina spotted the guitar a second later. It leaned against the red velvet upholster sofa that stood to the right of the door, ready to be picked up by skilled hands.
She could see where this was going, and the realization amused her.
“I remember how you compared your singing to your strumming skills,” Sarina said as she stepped over to the window and sat down. “Where did you get that guitar? From here?”
“It was in this room, yes. I wish I could have met whoever owned it. They had good taste, and I’m going to regret leaving the guitar here.” Jasper pulled the padded piano stool towards himself, slumping a little.
“Aren’t all guitars the same? We’ll get you another one.”
“They’re not.” He chuckled, shaking his head in dismay. “This is a custom Martin with a Hawaiian wood trim, worth about ten grand.”
“Okay. You’re the expert!” Sarina threw her hands up in surrender. “What are you going to play for me?”
“Something I dreamed up after we arrived here.” He sat on the stool across from Sarina, then picked up the guitar and positioned his fingers over the strings, eyes never leaving her.
Hope you had nicer dreams than I did. Looking at his face, Sarina could believe he had There was an air of amiable candor about him that inspired her to settle back against the window, letting herself be enveloped in the warm sunlight.
Jasper plucked the strings to elicit strong, sustained notes of changing pitch. They picked up the pace as they rise and fell, developing into a melody that alternated between vivid and relaxing.
Just as Sarina started to get the suspicion that Jasper would never sing, he did. His voice had a warm, soulful quality that hit all the right notes, as far as she could tell. She didn’t know if he would have won that talent show, but it did succeed in making her feel a little warmer inside. No one outside her adoptive family had ever done anything this nice for her.
“A week long journey wasn’t enough
To know where it’s going to end
But girl, you’re headed home
To a place that knows no bounds
Between the shores of your soul
One week of learning wasn’t enough
To know what it takes to succeed
But girl, you’re understanding more
Of the trials we face together
Towards the fulfillment of your role
The chorus developed the melody further, refining it with a graceful rhythm that brought out the heartfelt warmth of Jasper’s voice.
Don’t go one step further
Before the mirror shows you an angel
Ready to take flight
Don’t take one step back
Before your shadow ceases to follow
The brightness of your light.”
The song ended after another set of verses and chorus. The last chord Jasper struck vibrated with a lingering tone, filling Sarina with a feeling she couldn’t place. He looked up at her expectantly, and she met his eyes, searching them for a clue on what to say or how to react.
She had no experience with this kind of situation or the woozy way it made her feel. She’d hung out with her first and only boyfriend – who’d gotten her hooked on coke – out of some sense of wanting to belong. Besides, he seemed to care, and by the time she realized he maybe didn’t, she dreaded losing the respect and acceptance of his friends. Once that chapter had been closed, her standard reaction to compliments was to brush them off with one of the phrases from her assorted collection of kind words. Some guy friends she’d liked more than others, but they were just that – guys she liked to talk to and hang out with.
Sarina finally found her voice. “Jasper, that was really sweet of you,” she heard herself say. “The song was about me, right? About a journey, and figuring myself out, and not letting the bad stuff take control…”
His mouth curled up at her first words, and he gently set the guitar down on the carpet while she finished rambling. “Sweet?” he asked. “Did you just promote me from nice guy rank?”
Her eyes stupidly fixed on the guitar as if it held the answer, and she forced herself to look back up. “Maybe?” was all she could manage.
“I can hear you, you know,” he said as he straightened from the piano stool. “It’s part of my power. And you sound beautiful right now.”
What’s that supposed to mean?
“Something other than my voice?”
“Yeah. It’s music, actually. Everyone sounds different to me depending on the kind of person they are and the mood they’re in.”
“And what kind of person am I?” The words came out before she could think twice. She might not actually want to know.
He answered right away, not needing any time to consider. “You’re not who the news broadcasters say you are. If you were, I’d know. I tried to tell you this morning, but you left before I could explain.”
Sarina swallowed at the memory of how everything had come crashing down around her in the library this morning. She’d gone to Thailand to prove to herself that she could do Good. That she’d actually inherited some part of Shanti, who had been her idol at some point.
“Then how do you explain… her? The other me?” she finally asked, encouraged by the relaxing atmosphere of the sun-soaked music room.
“I wish I knew, but maybe some part of you wants to be her, sometimes. My power reinforces what’s already there – powers, usually, but the side effects were never fully researched. Queenie said she felt ecstatic, almost a little tipsy, after using my track to boost her powers. She joked about getting me arrested for dealing drugs.” He gave her another of his quirky little grins, clearly amused.
“I actually considered getting myself arrested,” she admitted, not in the mood for jokes just yet. “Just in case what the news say is true.”
“Don’t,” he said, the humor vanishing from his expression. “If you trust me at all, don’t even think about it. Whatever it is that’s happening to you, we’ll figure it out together.”
Sarina listened to him, then listened into herself, closing her eyes for a moment. I trust you, she decided. I’ve trusted you all along. One thing continued to puzzle her, though.
“Why do you trust me?” she asked. “You convinced the Nameless to take me along before we even met for the first time.”
“I told you. I have a good people sense. And I could hear you with my power, even over that chat connection.” He ran his fingers through his tousled brown hair and squinted down at his guitar. He was trying to say more, so she didn’t interrupt.
“Besides, I’m in love with you,” he finally blurted out.
After everything Sarina had learned that day, his confession didn’t startle or even surprise her nearly as much as it could have. The signs had been there, she realized. She just didn’t know what to do with them. Unlike everyone else who’d ever shown an interest in her, he didn’t use silly pick-up lines and never asked her out. He never stared at her, and she’d never interpreted his body language as more than friendly interest in her well-being.
She couldn’t help but chuckle. At his insecurity, for the most part, but also at herself for misinterpreting all those remarks and smirks Patrick had kept on teasing Jasper with.
He jerked as if she’d slapped him, and she stood, quickly crossing the distance between them to grip his shoulders. “Jasper, you dope. Why didn’t you say anything?”
His shoulders shrugged beneath her hands. “I’m a coward, I guess.”
“Why? You’re obviously not scared of me. Or are you?”
He squinted up at her face. “No one likes rejection. And you never seemed interested – If you were, I would have heard it. There’s something, but it’s different and never seems to last. It’s like you get distracted and forget.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way for a guy,” Sarina admitted. “Not the way it’s shown in romance movies or Bollywood flicks.” After a second of consideration, she added, “Maybe because I’ve never been in a romance movie.”
He nodded at that, and a hint of a smile returned to his lips. “Maybe. Someone should write one long happily ever after and add you in.”
Sarina released his shoulders and leaned in to place a kiss on his cheek, taking a moment to figure out what it felt like. What he felt like. The warmth of his skin and the spicy scent of his aftershave stirred something inside of her, made her a little woozy, but it wasn’t all that different from what a long day in the summer sun made her feel. Not enough to be sure.
There was no uncertainty about him. He made a small sound of surprise and approval, and his hand went up to her back, resting there. Before she could figure out how she felt about that, he lowered it again, as if anxious about her reaction.
She pulled back from his face and straightened up. “I need some time.”
“Of course. Sure,” he said, bobbing his head.
“And you could include me in one of those happily ever after stories. Just make it a song.”
He smiled at the thought. “I might. By the way, I recorded the song you just heard. I didn’t use my power to compose it, so you can listen to it whenever you like. Just pass me your player.”
That was an idea she could appreciate immediately. “Thanks, Jasper. I’ll listen to it while we drive to wherever we’re headed next,” she said, pulling the music player from her pants pocket.