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Veracity

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June 28, 2017

“It’s ready.”

Veronika Makarova glanced up from behind her desk, pausing in the middle of writing. Her eyes scanned the Headhunter who spoke: blond, middle-aged, broadly built. A jagged scar ran across his left cheek, a souvenir from one of his captures. A mark of failure.

“Have you made contact with Milton?” she interrupted, clicking her black fountain pen shut. It was nearly midnight, and she was expecting an important call from Seoul.

Karl Pelzer suppressed a small shiver, a habit he did not get rid of despite having known the woman for years. Her steel blue eyes remind him of the blade that had cut through and scarred his skin. He cleared his throat.

“Only a few seconds.” His voice was gruff, his accent distinctly German. “Gorski was there. No one else. Then they injected him and he was Blocked.”

“They found an injected form of the Blocker?” she raised an eyebrow, impressed once again at the group of rogue sensates she had admittedly underestimated. A mistake she never planned to repeat. 

“Yes.”

“Be more vigilant, the next time Milton makes contact. I will not have them slip from me so easily. I expect to have him back, and soon.”

Karl gave a small, stiff nod. 

Veronika leaned back in her leather chair, her back against the clear drop down window. The lights from the other office buildings in Southwark shone like stars, but from her office on the twenty fifth floor, she felt as if she was above them all. 

“You said the St. Petersburg plan is ready to launch?” she asked.

"Yes."

She gave her indication of a smirk, the corners of her dark red lips quirking upwards for a brief second before pressing into a thin line. She leaned forward. On cue, Karl inched closer to her desk.

“Be ready in three days. I expect no delays.”

“Yes, madame.” 

Then Veronika sat back in her chair and pushed open the cap on her fountain pen with her right thumb. She flipped to a page in the planner she was writing in, and wrote in an impeccable cursive:

July 2nd. Nevsky Prospekt. 

“Good day, Herr Pelzer.”

Karl took this as his cue to leave.

*

Wolfgang woke up to silence. He could tell the seven other voices in his head were still there, but they sounded as if they were separated from him by soundproof glass. All he could feel when he tried to reach out with his mind was a solid, cold barrier. Good. The further they were, the safer they’d be.

The footsteps in the hallway echoed off the walls. He counted three pairs of boots, hard soles, military grade. Based on Will’s deductions, that meant he was in an urban area. There was no sound of instruments hitting against a metal tray, no rustling of the hard plastic Hazmat suits. It would appear he was alone.

The Traceworks machine hummed next to him, announcing its presence with vibrations. (As if he could ever forget it was there.) It growled like a tiger trapped in a zoo, awaiting release, waiting to continue devouring its prey. Every day felt like it would be his last, but Wolfgang had always prided himself on his ability to withstand pain. 

The ache in his chest was a constant growing throb. He drew a careful breath and his muscles spasmed. Instead of breathing out, he coughed, and his lungs clenched tightly in protest. He tried to open his eyes, but the whiteness of the ceiling was blinding, so he shut them tight and listened.

When the Hazsuits came, he noticed a change in the cadence of their footsteps. Their heels clapped against the marble floor in quick succession. He turned his head to the left and squinted, trying to see without being blinded by the fluorescent lights. A Hazsuit was swapping an emptied IV bag with a brand new one. His dosage was carefully measured, allowing no time for his cluster-mates to slip in and deduce his whereabouts. 

If his throat wasn’t so parched he would have laughed. The meticulous IV timetable alone was enough to show how scared BPO was. The Hazsuit’s movements were tense, too. They jumped a little in surprise when they noticed him watching. He allowed himself a smirk. For the first time in days, he felt like the predator. 

Whispers had interrogated him twice more after he’d given Kala away. He’d have gone and shocked himself with those paddles for putting her in danger, but his limbs were bound to the recliner. Nothing hurt him more than seeing her lying on the ground of the airport, glassy-eyed, bleeding. Broken. His only consolation was knowing Kala was still free. If something happened to her, a part of his mind would have snapped louder than a shot, even if he was fully sedated.

Wolfgang Bogdanow might not always make the best decisions, but he always learned from his mistakes, so the second time the paddles pulsed against his chest, he kept himself submerged underwater, in the depth of his favorite memory alone.

He was fifteen, and he was swimming at the crack of dawn. There was no one else in the outdoor pool. The air around him was a crisp autumn chill, the way he liked it. He held his breath and sank deep into the water, trying keep himself from resurfacing for as long as he could. Surrounded by the blue water, he relished in the solitude —

Then the pain from the electric current yanked him back to the surface, and he found himself staring into Whispers’ face. 

“Impressive, Wolfgang. But the water can’t keep you from me forever.”

“Maybe not. But I will fucking drown you in it, first chance I get.” He tried to keep his voice firm, but he sounded hoarse and shaky. Still, he gazed straight into Whispers’ eyes, and let the hatred he once embodied when he killed his father take over.

Nonetheless, the day after that, Whispers had gotten close, too close, to finding Felix, when the memory of the pool brought forth another memory of him and Felix jumping into a lake naked on a dare. Thankfully he had managed to push away before the headhunter could take over his mind’s body. He knew he wouldn’t be so lucky next time.

“The pain will break you soon if I don’t.” Whispers’ voice, steady as ever, masked disappointment.

But he hadn’t seen Whispers in days. Three days, maybe? He wasn’t sure. He wanted to think Sun gave him a piece of her mind, or Will shot him clean between his eyes and watched the life go out. But Wolfgang the optimist died on the same day as his mother. Perhaps Whispers was biding his time while Wolfgang was trapped in his cage.

And now, as the drowsiness brought forth by the tranquilizer kicked in, and his consciousness started to flicker in and out of focus, he heard the Hazsuits speak in hushed whispers, saw them gesturing wildly to each other, and concluded that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t the only one breaking.

*

Hernando stared at the locked closet inside which Lito sat. The Speakeasy, they called it. Someone off Blockers would always be in there, a makeshift safe space they’d built to communicate without giving away their location. They hadn’t managed to get back in touch with Lito’s German friend — cluster-mate, he corrected himself — but they kept a rigorous schedule. He longed for the days when the three of them attending a party at Kit Wrangler’s house was the craziest story of their day. 

He recalled that time Lito called him on his way home, yelling about some crying Korean woman and a pain in his stomach he thought was a tumor, and wondered why he didn’t think there was more to it back then. He’d dismissed the episode as one of the many dramatic antics one would expect from Lito Rodríguez, the king of drama in and outside a movie set. 

(I was not crying, the woman in question, Sun, had replied with a glare when Lito introduced her at the airport. And then Lito pulled her into a bear hug and started to speak to her in rapid Korean, while he and Dani stood there wondering what their lives had come to.)

And now Lito was trying to contact a German locksmith telepathically in a locked closet, and Will was opening the door to the first hostage’s room, fist raised and jaw firm.

Dani sat next to him on the couch facing the window, and leaned her head on his shoulder. She looked at the bolted-down closet and sighed.

“It takes a while to get used to, but you’ll get there.” They snapped out of their trance and noticed Amanita standing in front of them with two cups of coffee.

“I don’t know how we can,” Dani confessed, taking the mugs from Amanita’s hands with a small thanks, and passed one to Hernando.

“It’s like FaceTime without a phone, but cooler,” said Amanita.

They thought about it. 

“It feels like Lito has this… this secret life,” Hernando said. “I used to think I know him. And then he passes out and starts bleeding and refuses to go to the hospital, and then he insists that we go to London. London. And when he tried to explain it to us we thought he was going crazy -”

“Maybe that’s why he waited so long to tell us,” Daniela said in a small voice. Amanita put a hand over her shoulder and squeezed it in comfort as she sat down, careful not to spill the mug of coffee in her hand.

“- and then he was speaking six languages, and plotting to interrogate prisoners with people we didn’t even know he knew,” Hernando continued. “It’s all -” he gestured to everything around him, mattresses and sleeping bags strewn across the floor, scratch papers filled with notes in six languages scattered all over the big dining table. “I feel… It’s like… Like I’m stuck in one of the only movies I can’t analyze.”

“It’s like that telenovela we filmed where he had to play twins,” Dani said.  

The Mirror Has No Heart? The one with the good twin and the evil twin?” Amanita asked. 

“Exactly!” agreed Hernando. “Lito’s living as two people. Except here we have ‘action movie star’ Lito, and ‘actually kidnaps people in a Hazmat suit’ Lito. I mean, yes, I know both Lito’s are my hero,” Hernando remarked with a blush, and Dani smiled a little, “but neither of them are invincible. I don’t want Lito to get hurt.”

“I think about the same thing with Noms everyday. But that’s why we’re here.”

Hernando nodded. “I can see how you can get cocky, with all this -” he waved his hands around to search for the right word - “this ‘sharing’ thing. But access to more minds? It doesn’t give you superpowers.”

“Every sensate needs a sapien guardian. Or two.” Amanita stood up and patted Hernando on the shoulder. “We keep them grounded.”

Hernando nodded. And, just before Amanita headed back into the kitchen - “So when you said they share one mind, Amanita, what exactly does that mean?”

“Well, based on what Noms told me, if one of them sees something, everyone else can see it too. Or if they feel something strongly enough, the rest of them might feel it too — when Noms first felt like that she thought she was going crazy —” 

“So they share emotions?” Dani asked.

“Yeah. Like if one of them’s afraid, or angry, or excited… or aroused.” 

Dani pressed a hand against her mouth, eyes suddenly wide open. She let out a small squeal.

“A-a-aroused?” Hernando asked hoarsely.

“Oh yeah. Noms is fucking amazing when she gets like that.” Amanita winked and got up, heading back into the kitchen to make another cup of coffee for a sleep-deprived Nomi currently asleep face down on the mattress in the corner. 

On the other side of the living room, Dani and Hernando gawked at each other. Then Hernando buried his face in his hands.

*

Milton kept his gaze fixated on the ceiling despite the intense swelling in his left eye, a testament to the cluster’s frustration from the day before.

“Stop this nonsense, Will. It’s not me you should be fighting.” His voice, hoarse from dehydration, was steady as always. 

“You’re right,” said Will as he leaned over to look Milton in the eye. Or was it Will? His usual defensive posture was gone, replaced by an air of nonchalance. “It’s not you we’re fighting. You mean nothing to us,” said Lito in Will’s body.

“In case you have forgotten -”

“Oh, right. You’re our bargaining chip. Hmm.” Will said with a tone of mock defeat as he walked away from the stretcher. “I guess you haven’t heard?

“Do tell, Mr Gorski. If you are Mr Gorski.”

“I hate to break it to you.” Lito-in-Will ignored the comment. “But the Chairman said he no longer needs you. So since you’re stuck with us with no reason for BPO to get your sorry ass traded back to them, we’re gonna have some fun.”

Then Will was back in his field of vision, fist raised, aiming straight for the angry purple bruise on his jaw from a few days past. Milton suppressed a pained groan, but a whimper escaped as blood trickled down his chin.

“Either you tell us where he is, or we’ll make you. We’ll get an answer out of you one way or the other.”

When Milton opened his mouth again, blood was dribbling down his chin, but he tried to speak with his usual air of dignity. “You’ve never been a good liar, Will.” He tried to grin, too, but decided not to push it when he felt the muscles on his battered jaw protest. “I know you haven’t spoken to the Chairman.”

“Yeah? Why’s that?”

“The real Chairman would never give up on me so easily.”

“Good pals, are you?”

“No, no,” Milton said with a dry chuckle. “You misunderstood.”

“Please, enlighten me.” 

Milton quirked his right eyebrow, the only one he could raise without pain. “I’m sure you’ve already been informed of the internal struggle inside BPO. The sensates in BPO have their own agendas apart from the sapiens, Will. If my procedures sound unethical to you, they are nowhere nearly as destructive as the plan put forth by the sapiens.”

“So they do have a greater purpose for this genocide,” the sarcasm was apparent in Will’s voice. “And here I thought they were killing us for fun.”

Milton ignored that last comment. “Mr Gorski, if a headhunter like me is enough to drive you and your cluster into hiding, then the Chairman’s plans will destroy all of us. Your foolishness will be the end of Homo sensorium.”

“Sounds sinister,” Lito kept Will’s tone nonchalant, though both men suppressed a shudder after hearing that last revelation. “Why don’t you tell us more? We’ll need information if you wanna stop those sapiens in time.”

“You really think you can stop BPO?” Milton gave a dry chuckle. “Please, don’t be a child, Will. A ragtag group of sensates renegades, against the Chairman?”

“You’re one to talk,” Will glanced at his prisoner, bound by an array of belts and ropes on a stretcher, a stolen IV drip of saline attached to his left arm.

Milton laughed, as unnervingly as before. “Mark my words, Will. One rookie mistake is enough to end your cluster for good.”

Will crouched down and looked him straight in the eye, their faces so close, their noses were almost touching. “Your concern’s real touching, Milt,” he said, spitting out the last “t”. “But like I’ve told you before, we’re not amateurs.”

With that said, Will walked away.

“These interrogations are getting you nowhere, Officer Gorski -” Whispers called before Will shut the door. “You know what you have to do to find Mr. Bogdanow.”

*

June 29, 2016

Wolfgang woke up to a scarred face sneering down at him. 

The man crouching down to look into his face wore a simple black leather jacket and jeans. Moderate climate, then, Wolfgang deduced. Or maybe this was a costume. But he’s obviously had this jacket for a long time: the ends of the sleeves on the jacket were worn, the leather chipping away, and there were deep creases around the underarms and the collars. Were they in Europe?

“Good day, Wolfgang,” the man spoke in German, his accent distinctly Berliner, all too familiar to Wolfgang’s ears.

Unlike Whispers, who relished in taunts and ridicules and rhetorical questions, this man wasted no time before turning the dial. Wolfgang turned his head to his left, and saw the arrow pointing to the highest voltage Whispers had used. The man took the paddles from a Hazsuit and pressed them hard against Wolfgang’s chest. 

Wolfgang closed his eyes and submerged himself in the memory he used before, hoping the water can drown out his pain. But his body betrayed him, convulsed hard against the shock. He clenched his teeth tight, suppressing a scream. He tasted something metallic, and warm liquid was trickling down his chin from the corners of his mouth. He didn’t dare draw a breath in case he choked on his own blood.

The shock stopped not long after it started, and Wolfgang noted to himself that the pain felt slightly dulled compared to last time. He didn’t know what to make of the fact that he was growing accustomed to torture. He tried to bring his mind back into the safe haven underwater, imagined blue water, crisp autumn air, stillness…

“Care to share a memory with me, Wolfgang?” The man in the leather jacket suddenly appeared next to him in the pool, his voice conveying none of the gurgling one would expect to hear if they were to see someone speak while underwater.

Wolfgang shut his eyes tight, the blue of the water fading away until only the cool and rippling sensation around him remained. He tried to ignore the intruder. Maybe if he couldn’t see him, he could convince himself the man wasn’t there?

Then a hand was slapping against his bare chest, and it was not a part of his memory, because in his memory his chest didn’t ache at the slightest hint of contact. The impact made him cough out. His blood sprinkled into the face of his torturer, who merely wiped it away with the back of his hand before punching Wolfgang in the chest again. He tried to bring himself back into the safety of being underwater, but instead of chlorine, all he could taste was the metallic tang of his blood.

Firm hands griped his shoulders and started shaking him, slamming his back against the reclining chair. He wheezed. His blood was on the verge of trickling into his windpipe. 

“S-s-sto-o-p,” he wheezed before coughing again. Please, he thought. Please stop.

It stopped, and Wolfgang thought it was finally over. 

But then the man pressed his hand against his chest, his fingernails on the verge of digging into Wolfgang’s flesh, and Wolfgang felt a tingling sensation from where the fingertips pressed against his chest, the pain worming its way beneath his skin with every passing second. He felt a million tiny needles prodding at his lungs. He let a whimper escaped from his tightly pursed lips, and then he choked. All he wished then was to get away from the pain, remove his physical body from that prison and transport himself somewhere safe.

Somewhere safe.

Before Wolfgang realized what he was doing, an image of his apartment flickered into his mind’s eye. Then his mind was not his anymore, and his vision glided over to the bedroom, where a memory of him and Felix passed out in his bed after a long night of drinking and dancing in clubs zoomed into view. Then the torturer was inhabiting the Wolfgang inside the memory, pushing himself up from the bed.

No!

Wolfgang imagined invisible tendrils reaching out to bind himself to the bed, but they, like him, were numbed by the electric shocks and the physical attacks that followed, and the exertion made his vision zoom in and out of focus as if the water from the pool in his earlier memory had seeped inside his head.

His left arm — but not his, no longer his — moved without his command, pushing Felix’s head towards him so that he could see his face. His right arm reached to Felix’s right back pocket, the place he always kept his ID.

“Felix Berner,” he heard a raspy voice say. 

Suddenly Wolfgang felt himself pulled away from his own memory, a hand at his shoulders hoisting him out of the flashback, and his back slammed against the reclining chair on which he was bound. Another gush of warm metallic liquid brimmed in his throat from the impact. The man grabbed his shoulders again —

Then he heard the door open, and the man let go of him. A young woman’s voice spoke through what he presumed was the mask on a Hazmat suit. She had a London accent. 

“Pardon me, Mister Pelzer. Someone’s expecting you down in the atrium.” 

Pelzer let out a gruff sound of acknowledgement before turning back to Wolfgang, who cowered in the chair, dreading another punch to the chest. Weak, said his father’s voice, but he pushed it away and braced himself for more pain.

“That will be all for today, Wolfgang. You have been very helpful.”

Pelzer appeared to have turned to leave, and Wolfgang was about to try and breathe a sigh of relief when turned and slapped Wolfgang’s chest again. And before he had a chance to launch a mental kick at himself for putting Felix in danger, Wolfgang choked and passed out from the pain.

*

This is fucking crazy. Felix chanted it to himself like a mantra as he got on the train. This is fucking crazy. Fucking crazy.

Then again, nothing about his life had been normal lately.

It all started when he and Wolfie decided to steal the diamonds from right under Steiner’s nose. They’d thought it was a clever trick to pull under the watchful eyes of his uncle. In retrospect, if they’d stuck to petty thievery, a lot of this could have been avoided. 

Though he was almost certain someone more powerful than Fuchs was involved in his friend’s disappearance, and he wasn’t sure anyone could have avoided that

He’d gone to Wolfie's apartment the day after he last saw him to confront his friend for ignoring his texts. He found the place tidy but not spotless, the way Wolfie normally left it, but there was a half-packed suitcase on the bed, the clothes strewn about as if he’d gone out for a quick walk and would be back to finish packing later. 

You motherfucker. Going through with the India Plan without me? 

But a hunch told him there was no way Wolfie would ghost his best friend and take off to another continent without at least saying goodbye.

The walls, upon closer inspection, had a faint smell of chlorine and bleach. Someone had definitely tried to get rid of the sign of struggle. Blood? Probably. He prayed it was not Wolfie's. Then his phone had chimed, and an undetectable number had sent him the following words: 

Wolfgang is in danger. Do not go back to your shop. Go pack your bags. We will be in touch. — A Friend

And this was how Felix Berner found himself on a train from Paris to London four days later with no further instruction except to wait in front of the ticket office at St. Pancras Station. 

When the train door opened he walked out and sat down at a bench right below the big screen with the timetable. He took out his phone and scrolled through Twitter mindlessly, then stopped and did a double take when he found his picture on a wanted sign, posted by the Berlin Metropolitan Police. (And it was not a flattering picture, mind you. It was a fucking mugshot from when he had long hair.)

Felix Berner. Wanted for robbery. Reward up to €5,000. 

Whoever was behind Wolfie's kidnapping had probably also done this. Felix admitted to himself that if he wasn’t so creeped out, he would have seriously considered asking someone to turn him in. They could have split the reward. 

“Felix!” a woman exclaimed behind him.

He turned, but before he could open his mouth to say anything, he found himself suffocating in a jumble of wild black curls and yellow sundress. He could smell jasmine. Behind her, a woman with short black hair smiled faintly at him in apology.

“Let him breathe, Kala,” the other woman said in English, with a slight Korean accent. 

“Right.” Kala gave an apologetic smile before pulling back and placing her hands on Felix’s shoulders to look him in the eye. “Sorry.”

“Alright,” he said in English, mindful that he was no longer in Berlin. “I’m flattered that a woman like you threw yourself at me like this -” the woman with a bob behind Kala put a hand to her face - “but I’ve had a fucking crazy couple of days. And the last time I tried to help a damsel in distress, I got shot.”

“Felix,” Kala started, sitting down next to him. She opened her mouth, and closed it again. “We - I mean, Wolfgang, he -” she flailed her hands about, brows furrowed in search of the right words - “we’re trying to -”

“She’s the India Plan,” said the woman behind them. 

Felix froze, and turned back to Kala, who nodded. Then the woman with the bob walked closer and patted him on the shoulder with a firm hand.

“If you want to help us find Wolfgang, I suggest you keep quiet and follow us.”

This is fucking crazy, he repeated the mantra to himself as he followed them into a rental car. But in the past few days, he’d taken five trains and two shuttle buses across Western Europe to find his best friend per the instruction of anonymous texts. He certainly wasn’t going to stop now.

*

When Felix had been debriefed and everyone else had gone to bed, Sun and Nomi sat on the couch facing the door to take the first shift. Sun watched as Nomi sifted through confidential emails and hacked into security systems in places she didn’t even know could have cameras. 

“I used to think you can only hack like this in a movie,” she remarked.

Nomi smiled. “I told you, I’m an all-access kind of girl.”

“You are.” Sun thought of the time Nomi broke her out of prison, away from the confines that made her vulnerable to ordered attacks by her brother’s men. Sun didn’t protest when Nomi yawned and turned the screen towards her, and laid her head on her shoulder. 

Nomi’s fingers continued to dance on the trackpad. She logged on to a Korean news website. Sun turned to her and raised an eyebrow.

“I thought you’d like to check for updates on Mun.”

Right. With all the crazy things she experienced in the last few days, she’d nearly forgotten about the stubborn detective. She swallowed back her guilt. She tried to tell herself that her concern was merely due to her brother’s responsibility for his shooting, but even she couldn't convince herself.

Nomi lifted her head and put an arm around Sun’s shoulder. “I don’t think he’s giving up any time soon.” 

She pointed to the screen that now showed a video of the latest news report. Shot detective at Bak Summer Gala, awake, in stable condition, the caption said. 

And then: Detective identifies CEO Bak Joong-Ki as shooter.

Stupid. Dangerous. Joong-Ki will kill him if he finds out. He did all this for her. He got hurt because of her. Why her?

“My theory is that it’s a cop thing.” Nomi said, knowing what was on her mind despite being on Blockers.

Sun snorted. “Not all police are like that.”

“No, I suppose not.” Nomi leaned against Sun’s shoulder again. “But he’s not like every police officer, is he?”

Three hours later, Will and Riley woke to find Nomi asleep on the couch, her head cuddled against Sun’s shoulder. Will opened his mouth to say something, but Sun’s glare shut him right up. And when Riley leaned in closer to put a blanket over them, she could have sworn Sun was smiling.

Chapter Text

June 30, 2017

It was hard for Dani to sleep past eight in the morning, a deprivation she usually made up for with shameless napping. There was a certain sense of power that came with being the first to wake. The quietness of the morning allowed her to be free with all her thoughts, and lately, there was a lot for her to ponder over.

She had also never been able to sleep well when she felt unsafe. Back when she lived with Joaquín, she’d perfected the art of concealing the black rings around her eyes and sustained her sanity by drinking black coffee with a shot of mezcal. Now that she was sharing a space with ten strangers and two prisoners in the living room of a two bedroom hideout in London? It was a wonder she fell asleep at all. 

She woke to find everyone asleep except for Will and Riley, who kept a vigilant eye over the door. Will's head leaned against Riley’s shoulder, and Riley was humming an Icelandic lullaby to herself while she absentmindedly stroked his hair. Kala was curled up on the couch in a fetal position, a blanket draped over her, her head on Riley’s lap. 

Kala coped with stress by working tirelessly whenever she had free time, and last night she’d finally crashed. Dani felt a pang of sympathy for her; she knew the pain of sleep deprivation all too well. The night they brought in the two prisoners, Kala had fallen into a trance. Lito had quietly filled them in on the situation while everyone else came her aid without a pause. They’d navigated themselves around each other so naturally, like the kind of family Dani never had but always envied. Dani had initially suspected it was a joke.

She turned her head to her right, where Hernando gently snored between her and Lito, his head ducked low and halfway buried underneath their blanket. He didn’t used to sleep that way. It was a new habit he picked up the night they took refuge in her house, after they’d escaped from the paparazzi crowded around Lito’s old apartment. Lito, on the other hand, always slept on his back with the blanket tucked under his arms, his chin raised, ready to face the world with a smile full of charisma. 

She pulled herself up, keeping quiet in case she woke her boys. Will and Riley and bid her a silent good morning when she turned towards them. Carefully, she stepped over Lito’s outstretched arm, which he’d reached across the space between their mattress and Sun’s over the course of the night. 

She’d come to know that Lito viewed the Korean woman as something of a big sister, and he searched for her protection instinctively, even in his sleep. Though the Korean woman was stoic as always, lips tightly pursed in her no-nonsense manner. She slept on her back with her arms on her side, never moving but always ready to jump into action. 

And when Dani tiptoed around the side, she nearly laughed out loud upon noticing that, next to Sun, Capheus lay spread-eagled with his day clothes still on, taking up a large and vulnerable presence on their shared mattress.

She stepped around one last mattress on her way to the kitchen. The iced latte she retrieved from the fridge was just cold enough for her liking, and she sat down at the kitchen table to sip at it, taking in the view of Nomi and Amanita huddled together in a tangle of limbs and blankets, hands locking, foreheads touching.

She was, she admitted to herself, a little jealous of the love that flowed between the couple. They embodied a wholeness with the way they complemented each other, and even though she’d only known them for three days, the only way Dani could imagine them was together. Not to mention Amanita was the type of woman Dani aspired to be: headstrong, gorgeous, big heart brimming with acceptance. She’d learned a lot about sensacity from Amanita, the only other non-sensate in the room besides Hernando and herself.

And Felix.

Dani struggled to find the words to describe the newest addition to their team. Her first impression upon seeing the lanky man was “criminal”, if the fidgeting fingers and furtive glances were any indication. His flamboyant fashion style brought about the party-animal persona pretty effectively, though it had vanished as soon as he saw the sheer number of people in the room. 

But she suspected there was more to Felix than meets the eye.

She was accustomed to criminals, of course. She’d grown up around them, gone to family reunions where everyone argued about money for the entirety of dinner, not even bothering with euphemisms. She’d seen all the telltale signs on Felix, too, but compared to her family, he lacked the facade of discretion. Instead he wore the token of his status with pride, a pair of flashy silver leather shoes. 

Last night it’d taken them three hours of talking, two BPO lobotomy records and a demonstration of sensate powers from Sun and Capheus to convince Felix they were on his side. And the moment he decided he believed them, he’d insisted on taking an active role in the rescue. It was in that moment Dani realized the difference between Felix and people in her family. He had something they did not: someone to protect.

But then he’d winked at Dani, smoothed his hair back with his hand and approached her to “make the pretty lady’s acquaintance”, and she decided that despite his admirable loyalty and bravery, Felix was still an annoying flirt.

As she pondered over these first impressions, the man in question rose from where he was sleeping and waltzed into the kitchen, wearing an air of confidence like a favorite jacket. (Except he’s shirtless, she added as she snuck a glance at the scrawny fella.) He helped himself to black coffee and a big spoonful of sugar before making his way over to where she sat, slipping into the stool next to her. His eyes traveled down the plunging neckline of Dani’s pajama top and back again, and he gave her a wink. She rolled her eyes.

“This is fucking crazy,” he pointed out in a suave voice, apparently unfazed by her lack of interest. “But lucky for you, I am an adventurous man.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“You might not know me, Dani, but back in Berlin, I’m kind of a big deal.”

“Oh, I know,” Dani decided to tease him a little, “I saw your wanted poster. Interesting hair choice. Why’d you cut it off?”

“Pfft,” Felix batted the air with his hands, trying to hide his embarrassment but failing as a faint blush creeped up his cheeks. “That? I was attracting too many ladies. I couldn’t make time for them all. I don’t like breaking hearts, but I’m a busy man.”

Of course you are.

“What happened there?” She decided to switch topic to stop his endless attempts at flirting. She nodded at the scars on his chest, bullet wounds mixed with cuts from glass shards that she could recognize all too well.

“Oh, these?” His eyes gleamed as he propped his elbow against the table, showcasing them in their entirety. “I got these from saving a damsel. It was quite the adventure.”

Of course it was.

Still, she couldn’t help but smile a little when Felix flexed his muscles and gave her a toothy come-get-me grin. 

*

The next time Wolfgang woke up, he turned his head to find a young woman sitting next to his recliner, her eyes fixated on the screen of the Traceworks machine. She’d pulled off the hood and mask on her Hazmat suit, revealing shoulder-length black hair with the tips dyed blue. She wore a name tag on her suit that said “Yang”.

“Wh -” he hated the way his voice came out raspy, a result of excessive screaming followed by choking, but he rasped on regardless - “What the fuck do you want?”

To his surprise, Yang smirked. “Well good morning to you too.”

“You were here yesterday.”

It was not a question. He’d been paying particular attention to voices to try and deduce the number of people present in the room along with his whereabouts, and he distinctively remembered this London accent.

“Well yes, I mean, I do work here. I have a uniform and all.” She gestured to the mask she held in her hand. “Though it is getting quite hot lately, isn’t it? It never used to get this hot.”

“How the fuck would I know?”

“Right. I guess they’d never let you in somewhere with a window.” She shrugged. For someone who presumably spent her days tranquilizing prisoners, she sounded surprisingly lighthearted. Wolfgang narrowed his eyes.

“Bit unfortunate, really,” she continued, unfazed by Wolfgang’s sudden fixation on her. “They’ve a few rooms upstairs with quite the view. The skyline, and all that.”

He’d have snorted at her lack of discretion if he wasn’t already exhausted from talking. “Why the fuck would you tell me all this?”

“Well, I reckon if I have to babysit a prisoner while Pelzer’s running about trying to locate his colleague, I may as well keep myself entertained.”

“His colleague?” he prompted. If she didn’t want to shut up, he may as well try and get some information out of her.

“You haven’t heard?” She smirked mischievously, and a single dimple appeared on the right side of her cheek. She almost looked innocent. Wolfgang wondered about her age. “Some rogue sensates snuck in here and kidnapped one of the Headhunters. Gave him a good old smacking, too. Took us all day to clean the blood off.”

So Milton really had been captured. Good. He hoped Will put a bullet through him after giving him a piece of his mind. But why -

“If this is some kind of trick, it’s not gonna work.”

“Small talk is a very effective means of interrogation, I’ll have you know,” she said, rolling her eyes. “I’d have gone with mind reading, but they don’t trust me to be off Blockers.”

“You’re a sensate?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?”

“But you work for them.” The hatred was apparent in his voice. “You really are out of your fucking mind.”

“You’re not the only one with secrets, Wolfgang,” she responded cheekily. “If you share one of yours, I might consider sharing one of mine.”

“Get the fuck out.” He spat.

“Alright, suit yourself.” She shrugged.

Yang stood up and put her hood back on. She reached over to the IV bottle, flicked on a switch at the top, then gave the drip chamber a small squeeze. Tranquilizer started trickling into the tube connected to his hand. He didn’t realize the IV had been off.

“Camera’s gonna be on in -” she rolled back the sleeve of her Hazmat and checked her watch - “five minutes. So you might wanna start acting unconscious.”

*

“We know there’s more than one of you out there catching sensates,” Nomi said to Milton. They’d decided to tackle the interrogation from another angle when Will’s tactic failed to yield results yesterday. Amanita had insisted on sitting right outside the door so she could burst in if something went wrong.

“An astute deduction, Miss Marks.”

“We have facts. Locations. We know where to find them. We can track them down. You’re not gonna win this one, Milton.” Nomi sat down at the chair near his stretcher.

“Yes, do help us catch the incompetent ones in our midst,” Milton responded calmly. “You and I both know the experienced Headhunters would be a lot harder to track.”

“We tracked you down,” Nomi pointed out.

“They won’t be so reckless like you are.”

“They? Who’s they?”

“Oh come, now, Nomi. Surely you know it’s not going to be so easy to get me to talk.”

Nomi sighed. “There’s been a lot of missing persons in London lately. And I don’t believe in coincidences.”

“Is that so?”

She ignored his question. “We have reason to believe the missing people are sensates.”

Milton raised an eyebrow. He cocked his head to the side and looked her in the eye. “Tell me, Miss Marks, what do you plan on doing after this? Catch all the Headhunters yourself?”

“If we can get rid of another one of you, I’d say that’s a win.”

“It will take quite some work, if you’re hoping to annihilate us all.”

“Maybe this other Headhunter I’ve located, -” she pulled up her phone and read from the screen - “Karl Pelzer -” she said slowly - “will be more open to interrogation?”

Milton’s poker face was a well-practiced mask, but she detected a twitch in his right eyelid for a brief second. A hint of surprise, she recalled from Will’s crash course.

Nomi let out a small smirk of triumph. “Thank you so much for confirming his name.”

*

Meanwhile, in the other room, Sun was hitting a wall.

“Why can’t you ever give a straight answer?”

“The truth is for me to know, and for you to find out in due time,” Jonas answered from the bed on which he was cuffed. A small courtesy on their end, if only for old time’s sake.

Sun scowled. “Next time I should look inside your head.”

“If you do, you will be disappointed. There is much for you to learn about your powers. I’ve had years to perfect mine.”

“Time is not the only indicator of expertise.”

“That may be,” he conceded, “but all I can say is that right now, you will not understand any of my decisions. What you did was reckless. If you take the wrong step, it can lead to the end of Homo sensorium.”

“Milton said the same thing.”

“I suggest you take his words on the matter. He is, after all, one of the earliest Headhunters. If there’s anyone who knows about the sapiens in BPO and what they’re planning, I have reason to believe it would be him.”

“If you are hoping to overthrow BPO, I don’t see why you do not approve of what we did.”

“You misunderstood,” he replied. “I am not hoping to overthrow anyone. But I cannot say the same for your cluster.”

“The same for what?”

“Your actions, whether you know it or not, have started a war. And in wars, there will always be a losing side.”

She crossed her arms. “We do not plan to lose.”

“All victories come at a price, Sun. You know that better than most.”

“What’s your point?”

Jonas chuckled. “Soon you may find yourselves with more trouble than you’ve bargained for, but by then, you will have reached the point of no return.”

*

“Jonas hasn’t told you anything?” Capheus asked Sun that night as they sat on the couch to guard the door.

“Nothing useful.” She recounted Jonas’ exact words. Capheus furrowed his brows.

“What does he mean, there’s no return? What are we returning from?”

“I suspect getting Wolfgang back won’t be the end of our problems,” she speculated. “I think BPO might come after us because of what we did, and we may have to kill them all if we don’t want to be on the receiving end of their bullets.”

“Sounds like a job for the spirit of Jean Claude.”

“You have highly overestimated my ability to defy death.” 

She thought back to her last night at Cheongju Prison. She still had nightmares about being hung, of her limbs flailing helplessly against the bounds of a rope that clung too tight around her neck and hung too high for her to reach the safety of the ground. She pushed the image away from her mind when she realized Capheus wasn’t on Blockers.

Capheus shook his head. “But you did defy death, because you are sitting here now.”

He reached inside the drawer of the nightstand next to the couch, brought out some gauze, and started bandaging her bleeding hands. (She’d literally hit a wall after she’d failed to get a straight answer out of Jonas.)

“You were not alone then, and you are not alone now. Whatever we do, we always have each other’s backs.”

“But that means if one of us gets hurt -” she paused, wondering if she should voice the one thing she’d been dreading since the moment they set out to capture Jonas and Whispers.

Once again, Capheus knew what was on her mind.

“Didn’t we once think the idea of beating Whispers was impossible?” he asked. “But look where we are now. And who’s to say this is all we can do?”

“You think we have a chance?” she asked in a small voice.

“I know we do.” 

“Why?”

“As far as I know, no sensate had even made it out of a BPO headquarter alive,” he pointed out. “But we did. Twice. I know we can do it again, but this time, we wait for the right moment, and we fight harder than we have ever done.” 

He twisted his expressions into a menacing growl that made Sun chuckle. 

“You are such an optimist.”

“So I’ve been told. I got it from my mother.” He smirked impishly. 

“You should have warned me it’s contagious,” she joked. Capheus raised a fist in victory.

“Van Damme always comes back,” he reassured. “And so will we.”

*

July 1, 2017

The wild-haired man, bound against a recliner seat, snarled at the scar-faced blonde who towered over him. 

Karl had spent weeks trying to pry inside his prisoner’s head for information, but the Egyptian had proven himself to be skilled at shielding his mind. He’d seriously considered simply giving this man up to be grafted, but Milton was certain he had crucial information, and he’d be more useful alive than dead.

He grabbed the paddles and pushed hard against the prisoner’s chest, counting to three before he let go. The Egyptian sneered at him through bloodied teeth, unfazed by the pain. 

It hasn’t worked before, and it’s not going to work now, he thought, taunting the Headhunter.

The machine beeped, detecting the quickened brain waves. Karl focused on the echo of the other man’s pain that reverberated in the back of his own mind, a result of their connection. But Karl could only perceive that this man had felt pain, not experience it himself. He’d never leave himself that vulnerable.

He leapt into the Egyptian’s mind as soon as he identified the echo, hoping for a glimpse of a sensate that felt his pain. He found himself submerged in a stark black space like before. This time, though, there was also a faint sound that flickered on and off… He closed his eyes, ignored the nothingness around him, and concentrated. Gradually the sound drawled out into a constant buzzing. It was the all-too-familiar buzzing sound a Blocker would make before it shut off the Psycellium. 

All my connections are dead, he’d said reproachfully during his first interrogation. Search me all you want. You will find nothing. But lately BPO’s Blocker supply had been disappearing, and Yang, the employee who’d brought this prisoner in, said her cluster had traced an underground Blocker trade back to him. They believed he was receiving the supplies from someone working inside BPO recently.

Milton had interrogated this man once before he was abducted. He’d noted that whatever information he was withholding, he was putting all his might into keeping it hidden. It must have been something he desperately needed to protect.

Karl yanked himself away from the darkness and looked into his prisoner’s eyes. “Not all of your connections are dead,” he said. “They’re hiding. But I know you’ve seen them.”

Karl immediately zapped the paddles against the man’s chest once again. Before he could recover from the spasms brought forth by the heightened voltage, Karl dug into his mind, hoping his last comment had brought forth the man’s memory of the mole he must have dealt with face-to-face. 

Sure enough, a scene unfolded around Karl’s disembodied mind. He could hear the gushing of a river and children’s laughter. He found himself encased in a dome of warmth. The orange Egyptian sun hung low in the sky. Two little boys were sitting in a canoe tied to the bank. They paddled, pretending to be in control of the waves. The older boy shouted something to the younger boy, who nodded. But the words were lost to Karl’s ears, masked by the gushing water.

The scene around him morphed into another scene. The air around him was still warm, the setting sun still a glowing orange, and the river gushed on like before. But this time there was a one young man kayaking, paddling like he’d practiced for years, coursing around the bends with ease. The man wore a grim expression, and when he reached calmer waters, he retrieved an urn from underneath where he sat and scattered some ashes into the river.

The scene changed again, and Karl hoped he was worming his way into a relevant memory. But instead he found himself back in the first scene with the little boys who wanted to kayak across the Nile. His mind’s eye was bouncing between the two connected memories back and forth like a ball in a juggler’s hands. He squeezed his eyes shut and blocked his ears to drown out his senses.

Then he his consciousness was back in the interrogation room, and the prisoner looked at him with a smug grin, blood dribbling down his chin. 

Is this the best you can do? the Egyptian taunted, as Karl walked briskly out of the room. 

*

Veronika’s dark red nails drummed against her teal Moleskine planner, on which she wrote “Bak, Seoul office, 1AM BST”. Her phone was lying flat on the desk in front of her, and her free hand twirled the waves on her blonde ponytail.

“Rasal is still refusing to reconsider,” said the voice through the speaker.

Her fingers stopped drumming. “Mr Kapoor,” she enunciated slowly, “if you are calling to reassure me of your incompetence -”

“No, of course not, ma’am,” he answered immediately. 

“Then what is it you wish to tell me?” she asked, irritation apparent in her voice. She leaned back in her chair and glared up at the ceiling.

“I-I have good news.” He stuttered, then paused, and continued again after she made a hum, a cue for him to go on. “I’m - I’m close to securing a means of surveillance, ma’am. My men have been searching through his company’s database, and they believe they have located the import export records on his drug storage units from the years before.”

She flicked open the cap on her black fountain pen and noted the development in her signature calligraphic cursive.

“When will these files be ready?” she asked after a few moment’s pause.

“We - erm -” he sounded tense, his words jumbling together in a rush. “W-we are doing our very best, ma’am, I am putting my very best man on the job -”

The point, Mr Kapoor?”

“- b-but it will not be ready for another two weeks, they say,” he finished in a small voice. Then, hearing no reply, he continued - “They need time to work around the configurations placed on the documents, ma’am, but the data is there.”

Veronika let out an exasperated sigh. “Tell your men to work faster. We cannot afford to waste time at this stage.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And Ajay?” she kept her voice light, but she could make out a small intake of breath from the other end. The same sound of panic whenever she called him by his first name. 

“Y-yes, ma’am?”

“We may have been business partners for years, but the history of our collaboration is irrelevant in this matter.” 

“I know. Y-yes, I know.” She could imagine him nodding frantically.

“If you prove yourself too incompetent to deliver on time, there are dozens of others waiting in line to serve my operation. You are not irreplaceable.”

“Understood, ma’am,” he said hoarsely.

“That will be all. Good day, Ajay.”

Chapter Text

July 2, 2017

Kala and Nomi sat facing each other in the Speakeasy. With a shared consciousness they reached out towards the minds of the rest of their cluster, but found only silence. 

It was early in the afternoon, and BPO would likely be fully operating, so everyone else was on Blockers. They tried to ignore the feeling of absence in their collective perceptions and hoped the night would come sooner.

But Wolfgang’s absence felt different. The synapses in the Psycellium that connected their minds to his were still there. But every time they tried to signal his part of the shared consciousness, they’d hit a barrier. And if they tried to push past it, they’d find themselves sliding back into their own minds.

“They’re keeping him sedated,” Kala concluded with a frown. Nomi nodded.

“I think we’re the only ones who have injectable Blockers,” Nomi said, smiling like a proud big sister. “BPO should be afraid of you.”

Kala smiled back shyly, but Nomi knew she was beaming to herself inside her mind.

“How are you feeling?” Kala asked instead, rubbing a thumb on the back of Nomi’s hand. “You know you didn’t have to -”

“I’m fine.” Nomi tried to keep her tone steady as her eyes glanced nervously around the corners of the closet. She tried to stifle her anxiety, pushing the bad memories away. “It’s… I have to try it out to work through it. And I’m okay. It’s just that I can’t be -”

“- alone,” Kala finished her sentence. She nodded. 

“Have you found anything on Pelzer?” Kala changed the topic, putting a hand to Nomi’s knee in comfort to draw her thoughts away from the walls closing in.

“He’s usually active around Bloomsbury, - ” Nomi said after a few moment’s pause, gazing into Kala’s eyes instead of the tight space around them, “- which makes him a little hard to track down because there’s always so much data being logged from there.”

“Have you found any identifications?”

“He’s using more than one name.”

“That would be a strategic choice for someone in his position.”

“He’s using disguises too,” Nomi added. “I found a couple credit cards active at different times of the week. He might be switching between his aliases.”

“And you think the cards are used by the same person?”

Nomi nodded. “Last night Bug and I were looking through the ID photos linked to the credit card accounts we pulled up. Nothing stood out at first, but -” 

She pulled out her phone and handed it to Kala. The first picture she showed was one of a blonde, rugged-looking man with a jagged scar on the left side of his face. Then she swiped left to reveal a second photo of a scarred man in a black ponytail. Another swipe, and now a man with brown curly hair stared back at her, also with the same scar.

“It’s really improbable for all three of them to all have the same scar and never use their cards within the same hour,” Nomi told her.

“And they have the same facial structure, making it even less probable.”

“And the one registered under the name Pelzer?” Nomi added tensely, “This morning he used it to buy a coffee at Heathrow. Terminal three.”

Kala’s face mirrored Nomi’s look of unease. “International flights,” she recalled. Then she perked up again, “Did you find a ticket registered under his name?”

“Single flight to Saint Petersburg. But there was no record of him at Immigration. He might have switched to another ID after he landed.”

Kala groaned.

But Neets and Bug are checking hotel reservations. We’ll find him,” Nomi reassured. 

It was Kala’s turn to look like the proud big sister. 

*

“Hello again, Mr Gorski.” Milton’s smile was cold when Will entered his room in the London hideout.

“You’re right,” Will cut straight to the chase, “I know what I have to do to find Wolfgang. Why don’t we give it a try?”

His watch beeped as if on cue, signifying Milton’s Blocker was wearing off as well as his own, and he mirrored the older man’s cold smile. 

Milton felt the synapses in his mind snap back into place, the numbing sensation of the Blockers fading away, leaving his consciousness exposed. Vulnerable.

“You sure you’re ready for this?”

Will ignored him. Instead, he crouched down towards Milton’s stretcher so their eyes gazed into one another’s. He imagined Milton’s pupils as vortexes through which his mind’s eye could be transported into the consciousness of the Headhunter. Will continued staring  without blinking as his surroundings faded from his view.

At first there was only darkness. During their tug-o-war the year before, it was clear that Milton was skilled at clearing his mind of all memories from the prying eyes of his sensate enemies. Will had felt his own dreams tainted with the chill Milton’s presence embodied, had tried to push back into the mind of his invader, but all he found was more ice. They numbed his senses, forced him to draw his consciousness back to the comfort of the bed he shared with Riley.

But, like an explorer who journeyed to the Poles and was determined to stay, Will grew accustomed to the cold. He no longer felt the need to retreat when he sensed the frigidity that sheltered Milton’s mind. Instead, he imagined the heat from his own consciousness as an armor, and his mind’s presence pushed on through the blizzard until he reached whatever Milton was trying to hide.

I found Croome like this, he reassured as the ice melted away. I can do it again. Without drugs.

The darkness around him started dissolving into a scene of stark white buildings and the tang of salt lingering in the air. He heard seagulls chirping, and a woman’s laugh, clear as a bell. Will felt a chilling sensation worming its way into his mind, numbing his neuronic connections. The image around him was morphing into the shared living room of their hideout, a memory of himself and Lito on the couch watching one of his movies —

Whispers already knew about Riley and Nomi (and Kala, he noted with a pang), but Will was not about to compromise another one of his cluster. So before Whispers could take over his body in the memory and look closer at Lito’s face, Will forced the memory away and imagined it was Riley on the couch, huddled against him during one of their night shifts. Riley’s hair tickled his chin, and her breath was warm against his chest. 

Warmth. He engulfed the memory in her warmth, hoping to melt away the tendrils of ice creeping up behind him that threatened to freeze him in the memory. He felt the tendrils retreat, and he found himself back in Milton’s memory with blue sea and white buildings on a hill. Greece? 

He turned his head and saw a young woman walking next to him, holding his hand. Her light blue dress was a perfect blend of the colors around her, and her waves bobbed as she nodded at whatever he had said. 

But it was not his memory. It was Milton’s.

The woman started to flicker out of view as Whispers tried to force Will out of the memory, but Will opened his eyes wide and took in the woman’s face, fixating on her presence in that moment in time. She had a small pink flower tucked behind one ear, and the corners of her emerald eyes crinkled as she smiled. She swung his — Milton’s — hand playfully as they strolled down the walkway. 

She opened her mouth, and Will expected to hear words he could not understand. 

Kala had speculated whether reading the mind of another sensate allowed the reader to comprehend whatever language was spoken. Theoretically speaking, she’d said to him, no possible outcome seemed more likely than the others. Kala wondered if it could also be affected by the native language of the person whose mind was being read. They’d decided the only way they could know was by testing it out.

You think this new power of ours… It’s epigenetic? she enunciated the last word slowly.

The woman’s voice sounded like English to Will. Or perhaps it sounded that way to Milton when the memory was first formed, and it became encoded in the same way? Will took note as he concentrated on the conversation, the sound of Milton’s protests growing quieter.

I suspect there’s been changes to the physiology of our brain following — or maybe even before — our initial rebirth. Which would explain the migraines, said a young man’s voice. Milton’s? It sounded sincere, so unlike the one that haunted Will’s dreams.

The woman cringed. I remember, it was a very painful transformation. Our brains must have grown a whole lot, for us to be connected so thoroughly.

Milton laughed. I’d say it was worth it, he said, squeezing her hand. She smiled.

I think the changes occurred in the frontal lobe, he continued.

Frontal lobe?

It plays a large role in navigating voluntary movement. That could explain why we can, in a way, "inhabit" each other’s bodies and use our skills to physically do things miles away. He spoke faster now, with a passion in his voice Will could not detect in the older version of Whispers. And it also plays a role in integrating certain memories. The ones associated with emotions, derived from input from the limbic system. Which means -

We can feel what someone else is feeling? she finished.

Precisely.

She opened her mouth again, but the sound of her voice became gurgles to Will’s ears, and the scene around him faded into the darkness. Will found himself back in the confines of his own body in the room in the hideout. 

“That’s quite enough, Will,” Milton’s voice filled with an anger Will had only felt once before, when the man had yelled at his wife and daughter to leave him alone as they complained about being holed up in a BPO safe house.

Will felt the corners of his lips twitch into a triumphant smile. “Touchy subject, is it?” he taunted. “Was that one of your cluster?”

Milton pursed his lips and glared up at him.

“You really care for her. Or, I’m sorry, cared? I wouldn’t know.”

“What happened was none of your concern.”

“Sorry.” Will shrugged. “Cop habits.”

Then Will took out the syringe he kept in his pocket, and injected a dose of Blocker into Milton’s neck. The Headhunter bit back a groan as a prickly and numbing sensation slithered through his synapses.

“I will not be interrogated like one of your lowly criminals, Officer Gorski,” he said between clenched teeth.

“You don’t have to tell me anything,” Will replied as he sauntered out of the room. “I think I’m getting pretty good at this mind reading thing.”

*

On his first day in the London hideout, Capheus made his second acquaintance with electric home appliances. 

His favorite was the toaster, because it made a delightful ding when bread jumped out of the slots. The first time he witnessed this magic, he was only too eager to catch a slice of toast with his hand. Kala had chastised him as she soothed his burns, her tone of exasperation befitting a mother of a misbehaving five-year-old. Lito, who was making coffee nearby, tried and failed to suppress a fit of giggles.

(Kala had punished him by tossing a pillow at him. And, Lito noted as the pillow flew right into his face, she had a surprisingly good aim. Instead of coming to his aid, Hernando had crossed his arms and told him off for laughing at his friend.)

While Capheus had certainly learned his lesson with the toaster, he was still far from well-versed in dealing with other “miracle makers”. Overcooked dinners in the microwave were a common occurrence, as were under-brewed coffees and ice cream in the fridge. His cluster-mates had compiled a list of tips to for him to keep in mind in his battle against technology. After three days, Capheus had managed to remember everything.

Except which knob controlled the cold water in the shower. 

Which was why, as Lito was marching into the kitchen to join Hernando in making dinner for the family, Capheus’ shriek stopped him in his tracks.

“I’ll save you, amigo!” Lito pivoted on the spot and made a beeline for the bathroom, throwing the door open without hesitation to come to his friend’s rescue like a true hero. 

Hernando stared and pointed at the now-closed door to the bathroom with his mouth open.

“I - but - he’s -”

Amanita strolled past him to check on the soup she was in charge of making, and patted him on the shoulder. 

“Aww, it’s okay, honey.” She smirked at the way he opened and closed his mouth with no sound coming out. “It’s not the first time they’ve seen each other like this.”

The bell peppers he was dicing earlier lay forgotten on the chopping board as he put a hand to his face and started mumbling in Spanish.

On the other side of the room, Felix plopped down on the couch next to Dani, who had recorded the whole scene with her phone. 

“If this is the new normal, I must be batshit crazy,” he declared.

“Join the club,” Dani responded as she took out shot glasses and a bottle of scotch she kept on the nightstand nearby. She poured two drinks and handed one to Felix.

“Cheers.”

He threw back the drink in one gulp, and turned to Dani, who grinned teasingly, showing him her empty glass, and poured him another. 

But before Felix and Dani could down their second shot, they were interrupted by Nomi, who, with a loud gasp, leapt from where she sat on her mattress and turned up the volume on her laptop. A news reporter’s voice reverberated around the living room where everyone stopped in their tracks to listen.

“… fifteen dead and two dozen injured at the mass-shooting at Nevsky Prospekt in Saint Petersburg. Witnesses identified three culprits who shot themselves shortly after…”

*

July 3, 2017

In the Speakeasy, Kala reached out to all corners of her cluster’s shared consciousness. She felt the prickles from the numbed synapses of the six cluster-mates on Blockers, and braced herself for the barrier of resistance from Wolfgang’s mind. Still, she pushed on, forcing away the “what if’s” that plagued her waking moments, and hoped to shatter the wall.

But the wall never came.

Instead she found herself lying in a room that was all white. She heard a machine beep nearby. A needle was pushing against the back of her left hand. The fluorescent light was hurting her eyes, so she squinted. She let out a deep breath, but the muscles on her chest clenched, and she bit hard on her lip to stop the whimper from escaping.

Wait, what?

She turned her head to the left and opened her mouth in horror when she saw the machine. It was the same machine Whispers had used to track her. The monitor showed elevated heartbeats. His heartbeats.

Kala shifted out of Wolfgang’s body and stood next to the recliner on which he was bound.

“You shouldn’t have come.” 

His voice was raspy, and with every strained syllable, she could feel the despair seeping through. But it was his voice.

She drew a sharp breath and leapt up from the ground so fast, she worried she’d launch her consciousness straight back into the Speakeasy. 

But she forced herself to stay, leaned closer and took in the details of his face, and let out a pained sob upon seeing the streaks of dried blood that ran down from the corners of his mouth, along with the gushes of scarlet sprinkled on his white gown. 

She reached out a hand to caress his cheek, but stopped abruptly, worried it might hurt him. 

I’m sorry, came his voice inside her head.

No.” She shook her head vigorously and her black curls swayed. Her brows furrowed in that particularly listen-to-me way. “No,” she repeated. “Don’t you dare.”

To soothe the pain that bled through their connection, Kala recalled the sound of rain pattering against the pavement. Then she reached out again and, slowly, the tips of her fingers grazed the side of his stubbled face. 

Wolfgang closed his eyes, hating himself for giving in. His nerves tingled at her touch, and he could feel his muscles relax. He exhaled slowly, mindful of the coughing fit he’d sent himself into the last time he breathed out too hard. His lungs prickled, but the pain seemed to have dulled in her presence. 

She brought forth the memory of their cluster’s infiltration of BPO. They’d wheeled Milton’s unconscious body away on a stretcher, sauntered through the halls and smuggled a Headhunter from right under BPO’s nose. And she’d smacked a Hazsuit hard across the face with a gun as she snatched their ID. 

The corners of his mouth quirked as he detected a shred of her wicked satisfaction at that.

“We’re coming for you,” she leaned in close and said softly.

Don’t, he shook his head. Tiny light spots flickered in his vision from the movement.

“We’re not giving up on you. I’m not giving up,” Kala insisted, putting her hand over his head to steady him, stroking his hair over the EEG cap he wore.

She continued to think of falling rain as she felt his lungs throb with the pain left by the electrical pulses. Tried to lull his mind with the rhythm of raindrops and soothe the burning sensation in his chest with a memory of cool water dripping on her skin. 

Kala pressed her lips against his, slowly, as they reacquainted themselves with each other’s presence. Her hair fell down the sides of her face like curtains, shielding their kiss from the reality of the white walls surrounding them. She grazed over the crackles on his lips carefully. Wolfgang suppressed a moan, and her tongue ran down the crevice of his now-parted mouth, smearing away the remnants of blood that had gathered from Pelzer’s relentless pummeling and electrocutions from the night before.

He hastily push that memory out of his mind, but she had already seen it.

In their shared consciousness, the drizzle turned into a storm. Her lips quivered and she drew back from the kiss, soft brown eyes brimming with tears. He felt a tightness in his own right hand before he realized she had clutched hers into a fist, and pressed it against his palm. She gritted her teeth so hard, he felt a slight crackle under all the pressure.

When he looked at her again, there was lightning in her eyes.

Kala,” he breathed, hoping to drown out the tempest that had taken over.

Kala’s gaze softened at the sound of her name, and when they locked eyes again she smiled, her warmth pouring over him like sunshine. But gray clouds hovered near the periphery of their minds. She put a hand on the side of his face and traced circles on his cheekbone with her thumb. 

“Wolfgang,” she said, voice quivering, “I’m not ready to say goodbye.”

He hated himself for what he was about to confess. 

“Neither am I.”

After one last kiss, she left his side and paced around the room, carefully noting every detail she could find. She knocked on the walls, stomped against the ground, and perked up her ears to listen to any cues that may give away his location. We’ll find you, she promised.

Then the door to the room opened and a figure in a Hazmat suit strolled in, pulling off the hood as the door clicked shut behind her to reveal black hair with the tips dyed blue.

“So sorry to interrupt,” Yang said cheerily in her unmistakable accent, “but we’re expecting visitors.” She walked towards the IV drip and started to fiddle with the switches, plugging in a new bag of sedatives to feed into his bloodstream.

“Camera’s on in five minutes,” she announced, winking at the space next to Wolfgang where Kala was standing. He quickly pushed the memory of his last conversation with Yang into the consciousness he shared with Kala, and she nodded. 

I love you, he heard her think as walls closed in on his mind again. Wolfgang, I love you.

Before he lost himself to the darkness, he heard thunderclaps.

*

“I believe I’ve fulfilled my end of the bargain,” said Lila, lighting up a cigarette. 

She took a long drag, turned her head, and blew the smoke to her side. Then she looked out the window and took in the view. Southwark was especially majestic at night, all indigo sky and yellow lights. She’d always been fond of big cities; there was always more room to fill, endless opportunities to seize.

Bernard paused in the middle of typing and looked up from his keyboard. “You have,” he answered. “I hope you didn’t come all the way just to confirm this.”

She smirked, eyebrow arching. “I’ve come to say goodbye. Sebastian is expecting me back in Berlin. It’s been a pleasure.”

“Are you certain you do not wish to continue our collaboration?” he asked. “Veronika said she would like for you to reconsider.”

“Where is she now?”

“Out, I’m afraid. Urgent matter in Saint Petersburg.”

Lila scoffed. “There must have been an awful shortage of people.”

“No, hardly.” He put away his laptop.

“Tell her I’m not interested in being her servant.” The disdain was apparent in Lila’s voice.

“This offer extends to all members of your cluster,” he offered. “You will be able to physically work alongside each other, with guaranteed protection.”

“We have no need for your guard dogs. We look after ourselves.”

With that said, she stood up and walked towards the door.

“Miss Facchini,” he called out to her, and she stopped in her tracks. She turned. “I do believe it will be in your best interest to accept the offer.”

“Why?”

“For what Veronika has in store for the future of Homo sensorium, you and your cluster will need all the protection you can get.”

Lila crossed her arms. “We agreed, no more secrets.”

“I do believe there are people right here in this building who can explain her plan better than I. People you trust.”

She scoffed. “There’s no one I trust.”

“Really?” He stood up and looked her in the eye. “Not even your cluster?”

*

In the London hideout, everyone finished dinner in silence. The horrifying news from the day before still loomed over their consciousness. Nomi had blamed herself for not uncovering the truth about Pelzer fast enough, but Will had insisted they wouldn’t have had time to stop him either way. 

The laptop with the configured voice chat application had been on for entire day as Amanita, Nomi and Bug sifted through databases to try and uncover the reason behind an attack on the most famous street in St Petersburg. So far they were drawing a blank. The one thing everyone agreed on was that BPO was definitely responsible.

“I mean, with Taylor, we know Whispers was trying to eliminate his political opposition,” Amanita said as Riley and Capheus started loading dirty dishes into the dishwasher, “but this time they were killing random people.”

“Are there any connections between the victims?” asked Will.

“None whatsoever,” came Bug’s voice from the speaker, complete with his signature pregnant pauses. “All innocent civilians going about their innocent civilian lives.”

“Maybe they want people to be scared,” Lito suggested. “This was one of the most popular places in the city, no? Something happens here, everyone goes crazy.”

“That seems like the most plausible explanation given everything we know so far,” Kala agreed. “And if we assume BPO really is behind this — which probably is the case, but nothing is ever a hundred percent certain — I think it’s also safe to say the shooters were Bolgers. Most likely controlled by Pelzer as physical proximation may allow the Bolgers to be more easily controlled.”

“Bolgers? The ones who got their brains chopped?” Felix asked. They nodded. “Fuck,” he continued. “They’re using them like fucking zombie soldiers.”

“But why?” asked Hernando. “Why would they use sensate like that?”

Lito turned to him. “They’re not the ones who ordered the attacks, Hernando,” he explained. “Sensates are never the ones in charge. Everyone at the top, they’re all sapiens. And these traitors work for them.”

Dani looked at the closed door behind which Whispers was held captive with a look of horror. “There’s people in charge of psychopaths like him?”

“Whispers said it’s the sapiens in BPO we need to worry about,” said Will. “Said they’re planning something big.”

Nomi sighed. “How much easier would our lives be if these Headhunters are the end of our problems?”

“Mm,” Amanita agreed as she admired the engagement ring on her hand. “So much easier.” She smiled and leaned into Nomi. “I feel like I’m living in a Nancy Drew book.”

“Great. Now I have to play a fucking detective,” Felix said with a groan.

“Maybe these attacks are random, so no one can track them down and stop them in time,” Kala speculated. “And if that’s true, I think it’s safe to assume they’re planning other attacks using the same strategy.”

“This is the first strike,” Lito remarked tensely.

Kala nodded. “The question is, why do they want to kill a large number of innocent people instead of use these Bolgers to target someone specific? What can they achieve from these large-scale attacks that they can’t accomplish by private assassinations?”

“Maybe they’re trying to get attention,” Hernando suggested. “I mean, mass-shootings in major cities around the world? People are gonna be scared. BPO wants them to be scared.”

“But what do they want people to be scared of?” asked Amanita. “They haven’t blamed these attacks on a race, or a group of terrorists —”

Then it hit her.

Sensates,” Nomi said hoarsely, knowing what was on her mind. “They want to blame the attacks on sensates.”

Chapter Text

July 4, 2017

“To whom am I speaking?” came the Secretary’s voice through Milton’s phone. 

Nomi could tell he used a voice processor, but there was something familiar about the rhythm with which he spoke. She couldn’t put her finger on it, but when she looked at Neets, she had the same puzzled expression.

“We’re going to make a deal,” Will responded.

“Is this Mr Gorski?”

Normally, Will would have been creeped out that the Secretary knew who he was by the sound of his voice, but at this point, nothing about BPO surprised him anymore.

“We have Gibbons. You have Wolfgang. I think we can work something out.”

The Secretary chuckled. “Mr Gorski, surely you don’t believe we’ll just hand your cluster-mate over?”

Will looked over at Lito, who shrugged.

“You need him. I know you do,” he insisted.

“That may be,” the Secretary drawled, “but his value to us is, I have reason to believe, nowhere near as high as Mr Bogdanow’s value to you and your cluster.”

Will looked at Kala, hands clasped, eyes closed and lips moving in a silent prayer across the table from him. After her last visit, it was clear Wolfgang couldn’t withstand torture much longer. He sighed. “Fine. Name your price.”

“I suspect you already know.”

Riley turned and looked at the door behind which Jonas was held captive, biting her bottom lip, something she typically did when she was anxious. She turned back to Will and frowned. Lito shook his head.

“I’m not sure I do,” Will replied, pretending to be confused. Lito gave him a nod.

“Jonas Maliki.” The Secretary’s voice was impatient now. “I have no time for your lies, Mr Gorski. I know you’re holding him captive.”

“Let’s say we are. So what?” he answered, trying to sound nonchalant. “I have a feeling you two don’t get along.”

“His connection to Milton could prove valuable to us.”

“You’re the last person I’d trust with too much power.”

The secretary chuckled. “I know a lot about your kind, Mr Gorski. Your loyalty to your cluster outweighs your need for leverage. As for us, we can commence our usual operation with or without Milton. He’s not our only Headhunter.”

Fuck, Will mouthed. He put the receiver on silent and turned to his cluster. 

Nomi shook her head. “This is a trap.” 

“But we have no choice,” said Lito.

“We can go in with a war plan,” Sun pointed out.

Capheus sat up in his chair. “Are you suggesting we fight them?”

Sun smiled dangerously. “That is exactly what I’m suggesting.”

Next to her, Felix flashed a side-smirk and cracked his knuckles in anticipation.

Will thought about it, then turned the receiver back on. “Fine,” he answered, trying to sound dejected. “We’ll do what it takes.”

“Is that all, Mr Gorski?”

“Under two conditions,” Will continued. “You can only bring one van, and we get to choose the time and place.”

“If you wish.” 

“Tomorrow.” Not likely to be a problem if BPO was really holding Wolfgang somewhere close as they’d suspected.

“Tomorrow,” the Secretary conceded. “But rest assured, we will not let your cluster play us for fools a second time.”

Third,” Lito said with a smirk after Will ended the call.

*

Veronika watched with a raised eyebrow as Dr Bernard Kolovi hung up the phone. From the computer screen in front of her, a video of the Saint Petersburg attack replayed itself on loop. She pushed a button from underneath her desk, and the blinds behind her raised, revealing the Southwark night scene with all its dazzling lights.

“They wish to trade,” he told her. 

Love will be the death of Homo sensorium. She scoffed. “Under what conditions?”

“One van only. And that they text me the time and location.”

She glanced at the phone he held before turning her gaze to pocket mirror sitting on her desk. She flipped it open in her left hand, dabbing at the corners of her eye with her finger to smear away excess silver eye shadow in preparation for her meeting. The phone dinged, and Bernard unlocked it, reading the new text with a frown.

“Is it in London?” she asked. He nodded. “Good. Send the address to Lila.”

“Are you sure it’s not best to -”

“Send it to Lila,” she repeated. “And prepare a regular van for dispatch. Best to have her cluster arrive separately.”

“If you insist.”

The corners of her mouth quirked up for a second. She shut her teal Moleskine planner and leaned back in her chair. Crossing her legs, she looked at her hands and started to examine her new manicure, painted to match the dark cherry shade of her lips.

“Believe me, Bernard,” she said calmly. “Resourceful as we might be, sensates understand best how to subdue their own kind.”

He nodded. “We need Milton for our next step?”

“Perhaps. Karl already volunteered. But a second mind will work in our favor.”

“And Jonas?”

“He won’t be necessary. But he’ll make a useful distraction.”

She stood up and put on the black trench coat hanging from the back of her chair, adjusting the dagger brooch she kept on the left collar. Then she clapped her hands once. The overhead light dimmed, and she and Bernard gazed at each other in near-darkness save for the small lamp next to her computer. 

“What for?” he wondered out loud. Then he tilted his chin down and looked into her eyes, steel blue orbs that cut through the shadow.

“You wish to keep the hostage?” he speculated.

The corners of her mouth quirked up again, vanishing in a flash. “Wolfgang and I have a debt to settle.”

He suppressed a look of surprise, previously unaware of any personal vendetta she had against the locksmith. Instead he gave a nod, then walked over to the door and held it open, gesturing for her to go ahead. Veronika returned the nod before she strode past him, her high heels making a staccato on the polished wood. Before the door swung closed behind them, she snapped her fingers, and the last lamp flickered off.

*

“Tell me about Angelica,” Nomi said to Jonas as soon as she heard Amanita bolt the door from outside. 

She was off Blockers, and Jonas’ had worn off a few minutes ago. When she mentioned Angelica, she heard a faint echo in the back of Jonas’ mind. She pursed her lips, concentrating on the voice that uttered her name — a voice that sounded like his, accompanied by a feeling of careful hands running across a rough sequoia bark.

“Not going to interrogate me today?”

She shook her head. Jonas was never going to reveal anything else, and as angry as her cluster-mates were for his double-cross, none of them wanted to coerce answers out of their old mentor by force. Instead she latched on to the sensation from the hand touching the tree, the representation of Angelica’s presence in his mind.

“I don’t think you intended to sell us to BPO,” she said instead.

Jonas chuckled, and the hand stopped. “What gave it away?”

“It’s not what she would have wanted.” Nomi projected herself into the memory inside Jonas’ head, and stood next to Angelica and the large sequoia. She held out a hand, and her Mother reached out to her.

A pause. Then, “I suppose you’re right.”

“I don’t know why you wanted to protect Whispers, and you’ve made it clear you’re not gonna tell us. Even if you do, we can’t take back the things we’ve done.” Her Mother’s mind converged with her own, and when Nomi spoke the last sentence, it was a confession of Angelica’s regrets, not hers.

He seemed to have detected the shift in her tone. “So why are you here, Nomi?” 

A barrier of stone rose around Nomi’s presence inside his mind, trapping her arms in place so the Angelica in his memory could not reach her.

She hid her frustration. “Angelica used to work for BPO.”

“Yes.”

“I want to know what made her change her mind.”

“It’s not so much something she’d learned, as something she’d come to understand.”

“About what?” She tried to shake herself loose, but the barrier refused to budge.

“The truth of what BPO, what the sapiens, wanted to do with the knowledge she’d helped them procure.” 

Nomi brought forth the memory Will had shared with them, of Angelica and Milton discussing the future of the neuro graft. They’re afraid of us, said the voice that used to haunt their dreams. I believe this will make them… Less afraid. 

Well, it seemed to have the opposite effect. 

“BPO owes much of its progress to her,” Jonas continued.

She wondered if Milton had already known what BPO planned to do with the knowledge. Wondered if Angelica knew, too.

Jonas must have detected her doubt. Angelica would never have allowed it, he thought immediately, ever so defensive of the woman he loved. And with that thought, he triggered a memory of their last night in the cabin, before he’d lost her to Chicago. 

I can’t change what I’ve done, she’d said as they lay in bed one last time. But this can’t go on.

What about this cluster, he’d asked, stroking her head. 

She smiled wistfully. Just a few weeks now, I think. 

What about your last? 

She’d known for months, but the answer that came out of her mouth felt like a cursed confession. It’s too late for them.

This one will be different, he reassured. Angelica learned from her mistakes. But her optimism had perished in the flames along with Raoul. 

She smiled wistfully and shook her head. Kareem will be in touch, she told him instead, bringing forth the image of their grinning wild-haired Egyptian friend.

Nomi felt the image dissolve before her mind’s eye, and found herself in darkness, surrounded by the chirping of birds. Then she felt a rocky platform grow underneath her feet, pushing her out and away from the memory.

Promise me you’ll fight for them, she heard Angelica whisper before Jonas drove her out.

“How many clusters did Angelica birth before us?”

“That is for me to know, and you to find out when it’s time.”

“Time for what?”

“The truth.”

She crossed her arms, but knew better than to press. “We can’t just let BPO continue to chop up our brains. Angelica didn’t have a chance to fix things, but we do.”

“Are you certain you are ready to face the consequences?”

What would Will say? “I guess we’ll find out when it’s time.”

A chuckle. “Clever, Miss Marks.”

He sounded uncannily like Whispers. And, despite knowing he wasn’t intent on putting them in danger, the remark made the hair stand up on Nomi’s arms. 

“I’ve defied the system all my life.” She held back her shudder as she stood, and turned to face him. “I’m not about to stop now.”

So much like Angelica, she heard him think as she walked out.

*

Kala sat cross-legged in the corner after everyone had fallen asleep. She was clicking and scrolling between different charts and graphs as she typed frantically into her laptop. Her other hand scratched at the top of her head, making the unruly curls wilder. 

That, coupled with the black rings under her eyes and the way she muttered to herself, made her look like quite the mad scientist. Our mad scientist, Riley thought with a smile as she approached her slowly, reaching out a hand to tap her shoulder. She jumped back slightly at the touch, and her head made a thump against the wall. “Ow,” she muttered.

“Sorry,” Riley whispered as she sat down next to her, putting a hand behind Kala’s head to massage it. “Aren’t you tired?”

Kala frowned at some dataset she pulled up on her tablet, shaking her head. “I’m having a breakthrough with the formula. I was thinking, after my conversation with Nomi two days ago — I mean from my judgement alone, it doesn’t seem like BPO has figured out the injectable form of the Blockers, and that served us well -” she looked up at Riley - “so I thought, perhaps it would be strategic, given that we have to be on the run from BPO after we get Wolfgang back, which we will, I’m certain about that -”

“We will,” Riley reassured her. “What were you saying about the Blockers?”

“I’m working on an antidote,” she said after pausing for a few seconds to clear up her train of thought. “An injectable one. We’ll need that kind, more than the capsules.”

“Why?”

“Well, what if while one of us is on Blocker, we get captured by -” she clasped her hands - “BPO. Hypothetically. I’m not saying that we will, nor do I believe we will, but you can never be certain -” she looked at Riley again before she stopped and ran a hand through her hair, which had stuck to the wall with static electricity. “I’m rambling again.”

Riley shook her head and laughed a little, quietly. “Take your time. Will’s got the guarding part covered,” she looked over at the couch where Will sat, and he waved.

“It’s just…” Kala sighed. “I was thinking, what if BPO separates us, and forces us to be on Blockers. Or if they steal my formula and inject us. And I thought, if we’re cut off from each other, we need an antidote. A -” she glanced up at the ceiling in search of the right words, before she looked back at Riley and smiled mischievously - “a secret weapon.”

Riley smiled back. “I like the sound of that.”

“But I’m stuck,” she admitted. “I’m stuck, but I couldn’t fall asleep anyway so I thought I may as well try and work around it -”

Her eyes glanced around the room before fixating on the iPod Riley held in her hands, the playlist still running even though she’d removed her headphone to talk to Kala.

“What are you listening to?

“Some of my dad’s old recordings. Do you want to share? Maybe it’ll inspire you.”

Riley shared a piece from her dad’s concert in Copenhagen ten years ago, her go-to soundtrack during the days she spiraled in and out of her living nightmare. Within minutes, Kala’s head was on her shoulder, and the light from the laptop dimmed. As Riley beckoned Will over to carry Kala to her mattress, she smiled upon seeing the title of the song: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major*.

*

After Will and Riley’s shift ended, Nomi and Sun took over the guarding duty, sitting on the couch as they watched over the front door in case anyone barged in or the prisoners broke out. Trepidation loomed over the room like an ever-vigilant BPO helicopter, the unease apparent even as everyone drifted into a restless slumber. 

Instead of worrying about Neets, who had insisted on joining the rescue mission, Nomi decided to check for updates on a certain stubborn detective. 

“It’s not safe for him in the hospital,” Sun remarked as Nomi typed into the bar of the Korean search engine.

“You think your brother’s gonna target him?”

“I know he will.”

“Mun doesn’t seem like he’d cave under blackmail,” Nomi observed.

“He wouldn’t.” Sun agreed. “But he should.”

Sun thought back to Mr Lee, who wanted to defend her after her father’s lawyer was threatened. She wondered where he was now.

“He didn’t.”

Nomi’s voice brought her back from her reverie. She pointed at the screen.

“Detective Mun Kwon-Ho is in full recovery after his recent injury at the Bak Summer Gala. He has declared that he will testify against the shooter he identified, none other than Bak Joong-Ki, CEO of the Bak Enterprises. However, the Seoul Metropolitan Police have so far failed to procure evidence…” said the news reporter’s voice through their shared earbuds.

“I couldn’t locate a footage of the shooting either,” Nomi said nervously, turning off the volume. “Everything’s erased. But I know there was a camera behind your head. I saw it.”

Sun’s hand clenched into a fist. Nomi turned to her.

“Bug’s keeping an eye out. There’s got to be a copy of the footage somewhere.”

Sun sighed. “He’s going to get himself killed.” For me.

“He’s a survivor,” Nomi reassured, with as much certainty as she could muster. And, looking around the room one last time at the way everyone tossed about uneasily as they dreamed, she hoped she could say the same for all of them.

Chapter Text

July 5, 2017

 “Are we in the clear? Do you copy?” Capheus’ voice boomed through the wireless device.

“Yep, we’re here early.” Will held back a laugh, shaking his head at his cluster-mate’s impression of what he thought was cop lingo. Next to him, Nomi and Amanita clutched their hands and looked at each other nervously, while Kala had her eyes closed, uttering a silent prayer to Ganesha.

“This is fucking crazy,” came Felix’s voice. He was speaking from the driver’s side of the first van. “Fucking crazy. Do you copy?”

There was deep sigh from Nomi’s end of the four-way communication system. “Are we really making the right choice coming here early? I feel a little exposed.”

“Too late to turn back now,” Will said, more to her in person than through the devices they had clipped to their collars. He tried not to think about the fact that their van was parked in within walking distance from the front door of the abandoned warehouse where they’d arranged to meet with BPO. 

“You know you have backup,” Capheus chipped in again. He’d driven a second van, with Lito and Sun in tow, into the woods surrounding the warehouse. Their hiding spot was just out of sight from the periphery of the warehouse, but close enough to barge in at full speed if something went wrong. There was were only two proper roads that led to this place, one where they’d come, and another one behind the back entrance. The geographic isolation was one of the reasons Will chose it as the meeting point.

Will sighed and thought about Riley back at the hideout with Dani and Hernando, who they’d left behind to guard the empty apartment. In case BPO somehow found out where they were hiding, someone needed to be back there to grab the emergency supplies and notify the gang before they drive right into an ambush. 

The area around the warehouse was eerily silent, and he wondered if maybe this was the ambush. He wished he could visit Riley and ask what she thought, but she was trying to contact members of the Archipelago for extra aid.

Nomi seemed to have guessed what was on his mind. “I’m still working around the configurations of the security cameras set in this place,” she told him. “There’s definitely one on the back. I’m trying to turn it on.”

He was almost certain BPO was waiting for them to make the first move. 

He looked at Amanita, who gave him a nod. They stood and grabbed the handles on the stretchers. They’d covered the unconscious hostages in bodybags, hoping it’d help them stall. Will clung to Jonas’ stretcher extra tight, determined not to give him away to BPO, to hell with what he’d promised to the Secretary. After last night’s discussion, everyone agreed they couldn’t let Jonas go, not after Nomi got a glimpse of how much information they could try and gouge from his mind. Ideally, they’d end up keeping both Jonas and Whispers. But their old mentor was definitely the priority.

They could only hope to out-trap the trapper.

As soon as they wheeled the stretchers out into the open, a van approached them from where they’d stayed hidden, under the shadows on the left side of the warehouse. The van was painted green with the BPO logo on the sides, like they’d expected. Will and Amanita backed up a little, hoping there weren’t more to follow. 

Thankfully the one and only van stopped, and two Hazsuits, each protected by an armed guard, rolled out a stretcher with a zipped bodybag on top. They stopped between the middle of the ground between the two vans, standing a stretcher’s length away from Will and Amanita. The guards pointed their guns at them. 

“Open them,” one guard said in what Will thought was a gruff Russian accent.

Amanita crouched down, and, as they’d rehearsed, slowly unzipped to reveal Milton’s bruised and swollen face. Will didn’t open the bag that contained Jonas.

“You open that first,” Will said, pointing at the stretcher guarded by the Hazsuits. One Hazsuit was shorter and slimmer than the other. Their frame made them look almost vulnerable. He wondered if they were like Sun, unassuming but deadly.

The Hazsuit first rolled Milton’s stretcher back into the trunk of the BPO van while the guards stood their ground. Then after they came back out, the smaller Hazsuit started unzipping the bodybag they’d brought out, and Will swallowed hard. Next to him, Amanita drew a sharp breath.

It was definitely Wolfgang, but so unlike the quietly intimidating locksmith in the way he lay on the stretcher at the mercy of the Hazsuits and the guards. BPO didn’t bother cleaning him up, and he was put into the bag in the state they’d found him in. Dried blood was crusting around his nose and chin, and the rings around his eyes were a sickly purple. 

“It’s him.”

Will’s voice was hoarse when he spoke to Nomi through the wireless device again, and he heard three sharp breaths drawn from the other recipients, followed by a curse from Felix. 

He knew Felix would have joined the fight if they’d let him, but he was certain Wolfgang would have killed him for putting his friend in danger if the BPO guards didn’t beat him to it. It was almost too lucky that Felix happened to know how to drive a van. Apparently he’d picked the skill up in the spur of the moment after a particularly bountiful theft.

The guards inched closer to Will and Amanita, and nodded at the still zipped bag in front of Will, training both guns on him.

Gee, okay, fine,” he said in a dramatic tone, particularly loudly so everyone could hear through the device.

Felix had left the driver’s window in the van open just enough for a pistol to peek through the top. The guards realized a second too late that Will’s latest statement was a cue, and as they aimed their guns at the front of the van, they were shot. Not in the most fatal of spots, but Will finished Felix’s job as the guards fell to the ground from their injuries.

Amanita aimed her gun at the Hazsuits, who took out their weapons from their side pockets. She aimed for the larger one, but missed, and was just about to duck when she realized the other Hazsuit’s gun wasn’t aimed at her. 

The was the sound of a bullet piercing through Hazmat. With a thud, the larger Hazsuit fell to the ground, blood seeping through the bullet hole on their hood. The smaller Hazsuit pivoted on the spot and took off towards the woods, unfortunately on the opposite side of the warehouse, and not where Capheus’ van was hiding.

Will pushed Amanita behind him as she recovered from shock, and he started shooting at the six hidden guards that now stormed out from the BPO. Kala ran out of the van and grabbed the stretcher that held Wolfgang, and Amanita was prompted back into action by the sudden movement. She grabbed Jonas’ stretcher, and both women started wheeling the stretchers back. A bullet swished past Will’s ear, too close for comfort, and Amanita tossed him her gun. He caught it and started shooting at the guards with two hands —

“Umm, Will,” Nomi’s shaky voice came through the speaker just as the last guard was crumpling to the ground. “Camera’s on now. There’s a silver minivan hidden in the back.”

The minivan in question sped into view as she spoke, not a BPO van, but a common household one. The side door started sliding open. The driver of the green BPO van rushed out to help the new arrivals, and Will, who’d forgotten he existed, shot at him frantically with the gun he held on his right hand, tossed it aside when it was empty.

He shot at the still-moving second van with the remaining gun in his left hand, exhausting all the three bullets he had left. But he couldn’t see if he’d shot anyone. It was too dark to see what was inside the silver van. 

Fuck.

Nomi must have signaled Capheus through the wireless, because the next thing Will knew, Capheus was driving his van straight into the seven people jumping out of the silver minivan, never mind the fact that these new guards were all aiming their guns at the driver’s window. Capheus kept his head ducked low and gave a battlecry as he sped up and charged past at full-force. 

Four of the new guards from the silver minivan fell on the ground and scrambled back to avoid being hit. Three leapt up as soon as Capheus drove past: a man in shoulder-length hair and dark shades, a woman with silky black hair and a leather vest.

And Lila Facchini.

Sun’s form appeared next to Will and looked him in the eye. He nodded.

They connected, and they could feel the synapses in the Psycellium buzzing with anticipation at their sharing. Will felt Sun take control of his limbs, though both of them saw through his eyes. His right hand formed a fist that slammed against Lila’s cheekbone. His leg swiped and he tripped her over. Sun helped him hold back the people in Lila’s group one at a time as all remaining six charged at him, kicking the guns out of their hands and using their bodies to shield oncoming attacks from the others. 

Then Will heard the rev of an engine behind him, and Sun jumped from the back door of Capheus’ van that drove past, into the heat of the battle next to him. They fought back to back, mindful of the sound of a gun going off behind them. It was Lito, shooting into the dark to try and ward the attackers away, though he couldn’t risk hitting his cluster-mates, so most of the bullets thudded against the side of the silver van. Without their guns, Lila and her team stood no chance against Sun —

“Six more vans coming in from the back!” Nomi shouted from the first van. “We need to get out of here now!”

Will heard tires screeching, and turned just in time to see Lito holding the door open as Capheus’ van circled back to pick them up. He and Sun ran to catch up. They jumped inside and Lito bolted the door behind him. Sun gave him a pat on the back as they sat down. 

“Good work.” She smiled dangerously.

“Full speed ahead!” Capheus shouted through the wireless. All three of them felt the car swerve and then shoot straight for the road they drove through to reach this warehouse. Will visited Capheus at the driver’s seat and looked into the sideview mirrors, cursing when he saw three vans following them, including the one that contained Lila and — her cluster? He didn’t have time to process it.

It was only as they drove away that he remembered Milton was still in the first BPO van. Fuck. They couldn’t risk their necks to get back and grab him now.

*

In the first van, Felix shifted the gears into the place as Nomi spoke to Hernando and Dani back at the hideout to inform them of the situation. He put his hands on the driver’s wheel and was just about to step on the gas pedal and follow Capheus’ van onto the road —

When he felt a pistol press against his temple.

“Drive!” shouted a young woman’s voice in an American accent. “And go in the opposite direction, for Pete’s sake! You wanna lose them, not lead them back to your hideout!”

He jumped back in his seat so hard, his head hit the backboard that separated the back of the van from the driver’s area, but he was too appalled by his predicament to notice the light spots that now danced in the forefront of his vision.

He turned the wheel and stepped onto the pedal without a second thought, driving straight into the woods as the ground below bumped against the tires. Three green BPO vans followed right behind him, according to a glimpse in the sideview mirrors, but all his eyes could pay attention to was the young woman with the gun sitting on the seat next to him, dark hair blending in with the black hoodie she wore.

Her pistol pressed against his temple again. “This is a car chase, FYI,” her sardonic tone conveyed an underlying feeling of exasperation, “so stop gawking at me like a goldfish, and go ditch those vans! Go!”

He sped up and weaved through the trees in front of him, not knowing where he was but not intending to stop as he heard bullets thumping against the sides of the van. He thanked his lucky gold-plated watch that Will always prepared for the worst. The vans they’d rented with the creepy white haired dude’s credit card were sturdy enough to survive most bullets.

“W-who-” his voice was high-pitched as he panicked - “who the fuck are you?”

The woman waved her other hand up and down frantically, bobbing the Hazmat suits mask she held. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m the one who just saved your asses, Felix,” she shouted. “You can shut up now and thank me later!”

Nomi’s frantic shouting from the speaker became a blur as his ears filled with the sound of his heartbeats.

*

Will, Lito, and Sun managed to lose the BPO vans on their trail after a few hours of Capheus’ mad driving techniques, which he apparently copied from Hard Target. Lito buried his head in his arms and waited to hear from Felix, while Sun sat stoically still and closed her eyes, trying to visit Nomi in the second van as Will looked on anxiously between them.

“What’s happening?” Riley visited a few minutes later, sitting down next to Will.

“Some Hazsuit snuck into Felix’s van with a gun.”

Riley gasped and put a hand to her mouth.

“She’s not shooting anyone. Yet,” he told her. “They’re trying to lose the BPO people on their trail. But we need to be prepared to catch this hijacker after we get back to the base.”

Riley nodded and left to inform Hernando and Dani of their plan.

*

Meanwhile, in Felix’s van, everyone looked on anxiously at the panel that separated Felix from the back. Amanita, Nomi and a visiting Sun fell into a quiet discussion with Will through the wireless, mindful of the possibility that the hijacker was listening in. Kala held Wolfgang’s hand as he stirred from his place on the stretcher. Jonas’ stretcher lay next to his, forgotten.

“K-Kala,” he whispered, sounding strained. His eyes were still closed and his head was lolling from side to side. She reached out a hand to steady him underneath his head, holding it in place. A fresh drop of blood was trailing from the corner of his mouth, and she used a thumb to wipe it away, holding in her tears.

“I’m here,” she whispered back, leaning in closer. She accepted some kleenexes Amanita handed her and started dabbing at his chin, cleaning off the dried blood, painful reminders of his torture. 

“‘M sorry,” he mumbled. 

“Don’t.”

Her voice shook, and she kissed him to keep him from apologizing more. His skin was clammy, and the sweat that covered his face was ice cold. She put the kleenex away and tugged at the zipper of the bodybag to close the gap, like a makeshift blanket. The fabric pushed against his chest slightly.

“Hurts,” he said with a whimper. 

“I’m sorry.” It was her turn to apologize now. She laid his head down again, freeing her hands to take off her yellow cardigan and lay it carefully over his chest.

His eyes opened a little. She noted that his pupils were still partially dilated as a result of the sedative, but the blue was just as she remembered. The color of glacier melting under warm currents. He frowned. 

“Cold,” he uttered. Nomi and Amanita started fumbling with the zippers on their own jackets before Kala even turned to ask. Sun, too, started unbuttoning hers before she remembered she was visiting. 

Wolfgang shook his head slightly. “You. Cold.”

She shook her head and laid Nomi’s jacket on top of her cardigan on his chest. His eyes closed again, and she carefully lifted his head slightly to put Amanita’s folded hoodie underneath, like a makeshift pillow. 

“‘M sorry,” he said again, his voice barely audible as he drifted off into slumber.

*

Felix trembled as he made a turn back towards the direction of their hideout per the hijacker’s instruction after what seemed like an eternity. He didn’t look to his left at all if he could help it, although he was mindful of the woman’s warm breath somewhere near his ear, in contrast with the cold pistol pressed against his temple. 

“You still with us, Felix?” came Amanita’s voice through the wireless.

“Well, go on, then. She wants to know if you’re alive, or if some ghost is driving this van. That’d be creepy,” the hijacker said next to him.

“I-I’m here,” he replied.

“And you,” Amanita said, presumably addressing the ex-Hazsuit in the black hoodie. “What the hell are you playing at?”

“I’m more of a ‘do now and explain later’ type of girl,” she said, flashing a cheeky smile at no one in particular. “So let’s get back to your lair before you flood me with questions, kay?”

Chapter Text

July 5, 2017 (cont’d)

The moment Felix stopped the van outside the isolated parking space within walking distance of the two-bedroom hideout, Sun pinned the hijacker against the front of the car as Will cuffed her hands behind her back. 

Amanita searched her and pulled out two passports from the inside pocket of her hoodie — one American, one British. And, tucked in a sewn-in pocket inside the woman’s right boot, was an ultra-thin switchblade.

“You went to get your bag?” Will asked incredulously after he finished checking the inside of the van where she’d sat, waving the camper-style backpack.

“It’s called an emergency supply,” the hijacker said, watching him examine her blade, not protesting as Will pressed his gun against her head. “And I never thought I’d be arrested for saving you from certain death, Officer Gorski.”

He’d have wondered how she knew his name, but he’d grown accustomed to people knowing more about him than he was comfortable with. 

“What’s this?” he examined the switchblade Amanita handed him.

“I’m sure you’ve seen your fair share of weapons. What’s it look like?”

“I know you,” Kala said as she walked back out into the parking area. “You were there. You were with Wolfgang. Your accent -”

The hijacker smirked. “You guys aren’t the only ones living two lives.”

“You work for BPO.”

“Worked. I’m sure they’ll be thrilled to have me back after I shot old Dobson back there.”

“You’re a sensate?” Will asked.

“Jonas hasn’t told you about me?” She watched everyone gawk at each other, and rolled her eyes. “Ha. Typical Jonas.”

“What’s Jonas got to do with you?”

“Everything. And I’m not just saying this to be vague. That’s more his thing. I meant everything. Why I’m here, why you’re gonna be stuck here… All the stuff he should have told you but -” she looked at them again - “probably didn’t?”

“Enlighten us, then,” Will said, leveling his face so he could meet her eyes.

She laughed. “It’s lovely getting to know all of you, really. But shouldn’t we take this inside? And go wake Jonas up. He’s got a lot of explaining to do.”

*

When The Guy had asked Nomi for a favor in exchange for the E-Death “in the name of veracity*”, no one in her cluster had thought he meant it literally. But this revelation was far from the craziest they had that day.

“You literally haven’t told them anything?” the woman interrupted as Jonas started explaining what Veracity was, making big show of putting a hand on her face.

“If you asked them to wake me up, Mavis,” he uttered her name with more annoyance than the cluster thought he was capable of, “you should let me speak.”

“Haven’t done much of that lately, have you?”

“Your name is Mavis Fowler**?” Amanita interrupted as she examined the American and British passports they’d found on the hijacker. The last name on her British passport was Yang, the name on her BPO uniform, Kala had told them before she went back into the room to check on Wolfgang.

A smirk. “Yeah, my stepdad picked it. He loves his irony.”

Jonas cleared his throat, and Mavis gestured for him to continue.

“Veracity is an organization that knows the truth about Homo sensorium and BPO, and how their mission changed over the years.”

“How?” asked Nomi. “How did they find out?”

Jonas chucked. “You of all people should know. Most of them are sapien hackers and ex-military volunteers. Veracity has many resources at their disposal, though many world governments are less than friendly with them.”

“Yeah. Vigilantes, renegade hackers, whatever they call themselves,” Mavis added. “And they picked Veracity ‘cause it started with a V, and it gives them an excuse to wear those creepy clown masks. They’re big on aesthetics.”

Jonas shushed her with a glare.

“Veracity has informants inside BPO,” he continued, “mainly to assist with data concealment. Erasing genetic testing records of people with Homo sensorium alleles.”

“And sell drugs -”

“The informants also provide a portion of their Blockers ration to the Archipelago,” Jonas amended. “The chemists in the trade replicate the new capsules for distribution.”

“Like Puck,” Riley recalled. Jonas nodded.

“I joined this organization shortly before Angelica birthed her last cluster,” he continued. “I had intended to assist them in protecting all clusters, yours included. But the plan for your cluster changed after you escaped the Iceland facility.”

“They know about us?” asked Will.

“Oh yeah. The one and only August 8 cluster. Heroes of the hour,” Mavis told him. Jonas sighed and turned to her, ready to chastise her again for interrupting. She made a zipping motion with her hand in front of her lips.

“Wait, if they’ve got more than one spy inside BPO, where the hell were they when Whispers was breathing down our necks?” Will stood up, clenching his fists. Riley put an arm around his shoulder, whispered into his ears and pushed him back down on the couch.

“Making tea, probably. Or cleaning Headhunter blood off the walls.” She winked at Will, not bothered at all by the accusation.

“I had been trying to secure my position inside the organization after Croome, our most resourceful ally, was killed,” Jonas explained. “The other informants had heard rumors that the sapiens were planning a series of attacks on major cities around the world, but none of them were in a high enough position to gather anything concrete. I was working to gain the Chairman’s trust.” He turned to Will. “I said you would not understand why I made my decisions.” 

Mavis muttered something under her breath that sounded like “gee, I wonder why”.

“It would appear that, with Wolfgang’s capture and the rumored attacks, coupled with my newfound predicament -” Jonas glanced at the door behind which he used to be held captive - “Veracity had decided to take a more risky approach?” He turned to Mavis.

“Kareem,” she said, looking down at her hands and frowning.

“What about him?”.

She sighed. “Why do you think they’d let me watch Wolfgang, Jonas? Or escort him tonight? Kareem volunteered for me to turn him as a Blocker trader.” She swallowed. “That’s how I got those sapiens to trust me.”

Jonas swallowed hard at that; the Egyptian man was one of his oldest friends. They’d known each other since their university days.

“They said they’ll try and get him out,” she quickly reassured after seeing the change in his expression. “He just, well, he just has to stall so they don’t - I mean it shouldn’t be too hard with his skills…” her voice grew quieter.

“What do we do now?” Lito asked in an effort to bring the two out of their reverie. Dani and Hernando each clutched one of his hands and looked between him and Jonas, the worry clearly etched on their faces.

Jonas looked at Sun and gave her a solemn nod. “This is the war you were talking about?” she asked, looking between the two Veracity informants.

Mavis nodded. “The point of no return.”

Jonas sighed, closed his eyes and leaned back against his chair.

“We can’t stay here much longer,” she continued when she realized Jonas was in no mood to speak. “I’ll text the Guys, see if they can find us a new hideout.”

*

July 6th. United States. Veronika circled the date in her planner. Tomorrow’s launching was one she’d been anticipating for months. The lab tests had yielded fantastic results, but everything would be much more exciting, she knew, when the Reciphorum was unleashed into the real world.

North America had always been a tricky terrain to cover, with all the underground Blocker traders BPO had so far failed to capture. Nonetheless, she’d received sufficient funding from Bak and Kapoor to execute the current operation, and Velásquez had always been reliably punctual about importing from her stock. His friend and business partner, Señor Flores, met with her at Leicester Square the day before to inform her that the new product had been successfully distributed in a wide range across California by their dealers. 

It was nearly time to commence. 

The Reciphorum would sweep through the nation like a tornado, drawing out the sensates in hiding underground. Veronika’s favorite thing about Velásquez was that he never asked follow-up questions. The less he knew about the products, he’d told her, the more smoothly their transactions would go. His only priority was to sell what people wanted, and he was certain the newest addition to his inventory would be sensational.

The corners of her mouth quirked up for a second as her signature cursive glided across the line again. Inform Bernard of new development, said the print-worthy calligraphic letters in indigo ink.

The impending plan was, in fact, almost flawless enough to take her mind off the fact that Lila’s cluster had failed entirely in their pursuit. It was too bad, really. She was beginning to see the Neapolitan as a beneficial asset to her operation. 

Lila reminded her of herself. She, too, used to believe she could have everything, but now she knew the only way she could have the world at her mercy was to turn it against itself while she watched the destruction from above. The younger woman would have been a potential successor to her operation, had she not been a sensate.

Admittedly, she didn’t expect Wolfgang’s escort to betray her, though in hindsight she suspected a twenty-one-year-old couldn’t have acted on her own behalf. She wrote down a reminder to tell Karl to make haste with the Egyptian’s interrogation.

It wasn’t so much the other seven sensates she wanted to capture; she was certain Milton could locate them, now that he was back from sabbatical. But she no longer had Wolfgang at her disposal, and that loss was frustrating enough for her to mull over for days to come. 

Veronika learned from her mistakes. And she was certain Lila would, too, once she gave the younger woman a little more motivation.

I will find Wolfgang and make him pay, she reassured herself. I will find him like I found her.

*

June 6, 2017

The Guys have found the solution to our problems,” Mavis informed them after hearing the chime on her phone. And, as everyone glared at her to cut the drama, “The new hideout! We’re meeting someone tonight to get the address.”

“I’ll go,” Amanita volunteered immediately. Nomi nodded as well.

“Mm.” Mavis tilted her head and looked at the group. “I appreciate the spirit, but BPO knows about you two. Any of you not wanted by the authorities or Headhunters?”

Hernando and Dani looked at each other.

“No, no,” Lito said with a rigorous shake of his head. He knew he couldn’t escort them personally, if the newfound fans swarming around him when he got off his flight two weeks ago was any indication.

“Lito, we wanna help.” Dani grabbed his forearm arm and swung it back and forth. She looked at him, keeping her eyes wild open and her bottom lip jutted out.

“Dani -” he tried again, caving under the puppy dog face.

“Baby, please?” Hernando approached him from the other side. 

“One of you,” he gave in, feigning annoyance at the way his family ganged up against him. “Not both. One.”

Dani let out an excited squeal and turned to Hernando, who conceded with a sigh.

“Someone else should go with her as lookout.”

“I volunteer as the lady’s escort.” Felix waved his arm dramatically. Dani rolled her eyes.

“I can go,” Sun declared, coming to Dani’s aid. Capheus voiced the same thought.

“Okay, BPO may not be onto you two, but I can’t say the same for, oh I don’t know, your entire country?” Mavis reminded them. “Felix it is.”

Then she looked at the address Veracity sent her. “Oh, look at that! They wanna meet at some fancy bar in Soho,” she teased, showing them pictures. “It’s a date!” 

Lito threw her a death glare. She put her hands up in the air as if under arrest. “It’s alright, superstar,” she said, “I’ll make sure they behave themselves.”

“Hang on -” Amanita started. Mavis smirked, knowing what she was about to say, and ducked under the couch. She fished out her bag and opened the zipper, pulling out a bleached blonde wig.

“I wouldn’t go full-on vigilante without bringing my emergency supply,” she told them. Then she pulled out a tube of bright red lipstick. “Felix, you’re gonna need some of this.” 

Felix, who had been beaming like he’d just stolen a real gold watch, gawked at Mavis and opened his mouth to protest —

“Just kidding,” she singsonged. Then she pulled out a traveler’s pack of hair dye. “But how would you like to be a brunette?”

*

“Where is she, Bernard?” Lila stormed into the professor’s office without knocking, platform heels clanking against the wooden floor.

“Veronika is currently preoccupied with the oncoming operation,” he answered, unfazed by the intrusion. “You have caught me just in time, Miss Facchini.”

“Not her,” Lila slammed her hands on his desk and towered over him, looking into his eyes. “Sylvie. You sent her to the medical professionals. Now what? Where have you moved her?”

“And what,” he asked, as he put on his jacket and closed his laptop, “made you think we have transferred your cluster-mate anywhere?”

Lila scoffed. “You’ve keeping her sedated.”

“Miss Mwela was in need of surgery. Surely you know she’d be put under anesthetics?”

“For twenty hours?” She walked around the desk to stand right in front of the professor, crossing her arms.

“She is currently detained for medical reasons. Veronika doesn’t believe she’ll be healed in time for your next mission.”

“But where is she?”

“Secure. Worry not, none of your enemies would be able to find her.”

She glared. He put his laptop in his briefcase and turned off the lamp on his desk.

“I want to see her,” she insisted.

“You will be able to visit her when wakes.”

But she couldn’t trust anything he said. BPO had already forced her cluster’s hands twice. She scoffed again in disbelief. He ignored her as he made his way to the door. 

“Fuchs has been expecting you?”

“Sebastian’s starting believe I’ve abandoned him,” she said as she followed him out, cooing at her boss’ attempt to show his feelings.

He kept walking. “Go back to him.”

She raised an eyebrow. “And?”

He paused to press the elevator button.“Veronika also asks that you assist him in eliminating Khalil Dogan.” The elevator door opened. He stepped inside, and she walked in after him.

He’s still going after the other King, then. She clucked her tongue, not at all surprised by Sebastian’s recklessness. “Does her majesty have any more orders for me?”

He pressed the button to the ground floor. “Remember where your loyalty lies. Veronika will not tolerate another attempt at undermining her authority.” 

We could have had everything. She gritted her teeth as she recalled how Wolfgang blatantly insulted her offer and turned his gun on her.

“Understood,” she tried to keep the hostility in her voice at bay. She took out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter from the pocket of her black jumpsuit, preparing to light one when she got outside.

As they made their ways to the lobby, a man in a suit collected the briefcase in his hand and escorted him into a black car waiting outside.

“Veronika is expecting me in Chicago. See you soon, Lila.”

*

Felix watched as Kala held out a gentle hand to check Wolfgang’s pulse. She pulled up the blanket that covered his body and bit her lip at the sight of purple veins bulging on the surface of his chest, marred by bruises from the paddles. She didn’t dare touch him again in case the pain woke him up.

Kala had injected Wolfie with a carefully measured dose of some drug — she’d told him the name, but Felix had always been shit at chemistry. He was glad enough knowing they got Wolfie back before he was gonna become one of those Bolger things. 

Felix pushed the image of his best friend with a scar across his forehead away, shuddering as he wondered what he would have done if he found his friend in that zombie state.

I’m going to fucking kill those Headhunters, he’d promised as soon as he saw the state of Wolfie last night, all gray-tinged skin and ragged breaths. Then he’d taken one look into Kala’s eyes and concluded she would most likely beat him to it. Whatever she planned to do to them, he hoped she’d let him watch.

Kala muttered in Hindi under her breath as she laid a wet towel across Wolfgang’s forehead, and he stirred slightly, furrowing his brows. Felix wondered if that was how Wolfgang had felt when he was the one lying unconscious. Okay, maybe he felt a little guilty that he’d faked being out cold for a few more days to mess with him.

Kala turned to him. “You should get some sleep,” she said quietly in German. Felix did a double-take before he remembered it was night time, and she was off Blockers. This language switching thing made his fucking brain hurt.

“I could say the same for you,” he answered after the pause, noting the dark circles under her eyes that hadn’t vanished since the day he met her.

Then there was a thump, and they turned to see Wolfgang scrambling to back away from the foot of the bed. His arms shook under his weight and slid. Kala caught him just before his head was going to hit the headboard.

“K-Kala,” he rasped before coughing. Felix froze in his chair at the sight of blood sliding down the corner of his mouth. Kala, on the other hand, propped up the pillows on the bed with a steady hand and leaned Wolfgang back. She dabbed at the his mouth with the towel on his head, which had fallen off when he jolted.

“I’m here,” she whispered, leaning in close. “Shh, you’re okay.” She put the towel away and started smoothing his hair back, her fingers massaging his scalp. He drew back from her hand as his eyes opened wide, pupils dilating as he struggled to drift out of unconsciousness. She felt his mind graze against hers like a calloused hand.

“P-please,” he murmured, “please st-stop.”

“I’m sorry,” she immediately drew back and sat at the edge of the bed, though her mind continued to reach out. She put her hand on top of his, slowly, but he pushed it away. Her lips trembled as she suppressed a look of hurt.

“Do you want me to leave?” she asked in a shaky voice as she inched away from where she sat. He furrowed his brows but didn’t answer. She could hear his thoughts, words mixed together in a medley of syllables.

Felix walked closer and sat down at the other side of the bed. “Hey, Wolfie, it’s me,” he said, waving a hand in front of his face.

“He - he knows,” he muttered in German, shutting his eyes again as he winced. “H-hurts. T-tried to k-keep him away. But hurt me. Too much. I can’t… h-he found you.”

The image of the scarred blonde Headhunter appeared in Kala’s mind, and she let out a sob. Felix swore as he realized what Wolfie was talking about. “You’re not in fucking BPO anymore,” Felix’s voice shook too. He cleared his throat. “Pelzer’s not here.” 

“No. N-Not gone. Always here.” Wolfgang raised a shaky hand and pointed at the top of his head, before his arm fell limp. Here. In here, his voice, no longer muddled, continued to explain in Kala’s mind.

He can’t reach you, Wolfgang, she thought back.

“P-Please, stop, stop,” his inhaled sharply and started coughing again. Please. No more. Black swirls loomed over his consciousness like a cyclone, and in his mind’s eye he was spinning, the movement aggravating the pain in his chest.

She stood and put a hand behind his back, rubbing circles as her other hand caressed his face. “It’s me, Wolfgang. It’s me.” She reached into the center of his mind, steadying her presence against the wind that threatened to push her consciousness away.

“He’s - he’s here. Go, safer for you,” he mumbled. Can’t let him find you, schatz, he thought, the voice barely louder than a whisper. To Kala it sounded like an old radio, the static drowning out his words. But every sound struck a pang in her heart.

You’re safe, she thought back as she kissed him gently, tasting metal. The hand that caressed his face reached for the towel again, dabbing at the fresh blood streaming from his nose. You’re safe with me. I promise.

His mind stopped spinning, and the darkness cleared. Kala imagined rain filling in the empty space as she recalled a memory of warm drizzles on a Sunday morning. He opened his eyes slowly, and his pupils drew into focus.

“You’re here,” he concluded after his hand touched her arm.

She smiled through her tears and put the towel away, before grabbing his hand. “I am.”

“Well, fuck, so am I, Wolfie,” Felix chipped in from behind her. She didn’t notice he’d come over. Wolfgang raised his chin slightly and gave his friend a big grin. Felix snorted. Wolfie only used to grin like that when he was fucking drunk.

“F-Felix,” he said, slurring at the last syllable.

Then he turned to look at Kala again. He let go of her hand and reached a shaky arm behind her waist, drawing her close. She let him move her, and found her face buried in the crook of his neck, which she kissed. He hummed as the corners of his mouth quirked up again.

“You motherfucker.” Felix threw his arms up. “I went across half of fucking Europe for you, and you ditch me for the pretty lady.”

Kala smiled at Felix apologetically as Wolfgang pulled her close next to him with a strained groan from exertion, ever so protectively. She lay on her side to face him as he drew her away from the edge of the bed. 

Stay, she heard him think. She nodded, carefully putting a little distance between her body and his chest. His hand was stroking her hair now, careful not to hook his finger against a stray curl and tug too hard.

She heard Felix close the door as she took in the sight of her bhediya, eyes closed, brows no longer furrowed, lips curled up in a dimpled smile reserved just for her. His breaths still came out ragged, but the rhythm slowed as he lost himself in her memory of rain in Mumbai. He drifted back into a sedative-induced slumber as the new dose Kala had injected earlier kicked into effect.

I’ll keep you safe, schatz, she heard him think as his consciousness flickered out of reach.

Chapter Text

July 6, 2017 (cont’d)

The Bug has uncovered the truth,” came the melodramatic voice through Nomi’s laptop. Sun and Amanita sat next to Nomi at the kitchen table, all eyes fixed on the screen.

“Bug,” Amanita warned. Nomi held back a laugh.

“Right, right, no drama.” He raised his hands up in surrender. Sun raised an eyebrow.

“What he meant to say is -” Nomi came to his aid - “he found the deleted footage from the Bak Summer Gala. The one from the camera behind you.”

“Those who are guilty of violating the moral law always cover their tracks,” Bug said again, drawling out his words as he opened his eyes wide and stared at the video cam. “But The Bug has uncovered them from the evildoer’s personal hard drive.”

Sun opened her mouth, and closed it again. She frowned as she searched for words of gratitude, and finally had to decide on a simple, “Thank you, Bug.”

The Bug is happy to serve in the name of justice.”

A smirking Amanita turned to Sun. “I think it’s time for a good samaritan to tip off the Seoul Metropolitan Police.”

*

Felix felt like a secret agent.

A dashingly handsome, mysterious secret agent with brown hair slicked back and a pair of sunglasses more expensive than his apartment. The suit jacket he borrowed from Lito fit more like a black overcoat on his gangly frame, with the shoulder pads jutting out like epaulets. Thankfully he had enough sense to pack his one and only white shirt, he thought as he looked at Dani, who was sitting next to him, pinning her hair into a twisted updo.

It was Salsa Night at the bar, Mavis had told them as she dyed Felix’s hair. Dani had watched with a giggle she didn’t bother suppressing as he cringed at his reflection. Then the younger woman had reminded them that it was a classy sort of place, and they were expected to dress like they were “fancy rich people”.

Upon hearing this, Dani immediately pulled out a dress from her suitcase: red, single-strapped, with a billowing ankle-length skirt that had a slit down the right side. (Wherever you go, Dani, always bring heels and a red dress, Mads, her college roommate and best friend, had told her at the start of freshman year. She lived by this advice even after they’d fallen out of touch.)

Felix, on the other hand, had cursed himself for not packing the one nice suit he’d bought with the diamond money.

Capheus drove the rental car to the Soho bar, and Mavis sat in the passenger seat, giving him directions from her phone. “Drop me off here,” she told him when they were three blocks away. Then she turned back to Felix and Dani, and said, “You guys can get off at the front door. Best if we don’t all barge in together like some kind of shady entourage.”

Then she put on her own pair of sunglasses, adjusted her blonde wig, and stepped out of the car. Her hands tugged at the hem of her simple black dress to adjust it before she started walking. Felix watched her take careful steps down the road in borrowed high heels, swearing when she almost fell sideways into a tree.

When Dani and Felix entered the bar, music was already playing. The middle section had been cleared, and the tables were pushed aside to allow room for dancing. Most of the people were having a blast on the dance floor, and everyone else sat scattered around the bar table or inside the cushiony booths near the wall. 

Felix took off his sunglasses and nodded with approval at the sight of couples swaying wildly to the beat. Mavis had already arrived then, and she looked at them from where she sat at the bar, sipping at a glass of the house wine. They locked eyes for a few seconds before she turned away to chat with the bartender, writing in a notepad she’d brought.

I always add a bit of backstory to my disguises, Mavis had told Dani as they entered the car earlier that evening. Makes it more fun. Tonight I’m a writer, people-watching at the bar to gather inspiration for my next novel.

Felix raised his chin and held out a hand to Dani.

“We need to blend in,” he said in a conspiratorial stage-whisper as he nodded at the crowded dance floor, removing his borrowed suit jacket to put on the back of a chair. 

Dani raised her eyebrow and pulled off the black scarf she was using as a cardigan to lay atop his suit, before accepting his hand. He pulled her in just as the next song was starting.

Felix had never shied away from dancing. At clubs he always made his way to the center of the floor. Though he’d never been professionally trained (who the fuck had time for that?), he always danced with endless energy, flailing his arms wildly, exaggerating his steps as he stomped around. The ladies found it entertaining, and that was all that mattered.

But tonight, as Dani pulled him to the center of the dance floor when a new song started, he found himself in a daze. Dani twirled around him, a whirlwind of black hair and scarlet satin. He’d expected this dance to be like the ones he did with those easygoing ladies at his favorite clubs. His eyes widened as he saw Dani’s feet stepping around his in perfect rhythm. But all he could do was make sure he didn’t trip over her legs. Or his own.

She paused and pulled him close, still swaying. “You okay?” she asked, her tone taunting. “Am I going too fast for you?”

Pfft, no,” he bluffed, trying not to pant. “One thing you should know about me, Dani, I like things intense.”

“Good.” She smirked. “I was saving the best part for last.”

He swore under his breath as she started leading them back and forth again. Her fingers gripped behind his back and at his shoulder as she twirled them around, pulling him close to her and then pushing him back as they side-stepped in a who-knows-what formation. His leg muscles protested at the swiftness in which she made them move as he glanced down at his feet every other second to make sure he wasn’t about to stomp on her toes. 

When he lost balance and his face nearly planted into her shoulder, she laughed and finally slowed down for him to catch up. 

She loosened the arm around his waist, putting a bit of distance between them so he could see her steps more clearly. Then she took a simple step to the left and nodded at him encouragingly. He followed her lead and scrunched his brows in concentration as he tried and failed to discern a pattern in the movement.

“How the fuck do you remember these things?” he asked as she grabbed his hand and leaned back with a toss of her head, before pulling herself towards him again.

She smirked, putting a hand on his shoulder again. “I don’t. I’m more of an improviser.”

Then she told him to hold on to her hand, and she twirled outwards. He tugged, and she spun back. He caught her with a swift arm around her waist.

“See, you’re getting it.” She winked. 

He grinned as the music started coming to an end. He looked down at her feet, then up at her face, his head bobbing back and forth as he continued to try and to figure out a pattern. But his own footsteps came a bit more easily now, filling the space around hers. Call it muscle memory.

He nearly collapsed into her when the song stopped, but he forced himself to stay upright and flash her a smile.

Dios mío, it’s hot in here,” she said as they walked off and another pair took their place. She fanned the air into her neck with her hands and let out a deep exhale. Her forehead shimmered under the layer of sweat, making her glow in the dim blue lights of the bar. He watched her grab the black silk scarf she used as a cardigan and flap it against her back to cool herself down, while he put the borrowed suit jacket back on, wishing he’d brought something more fitting.

“You want a drink?” she asked, hooking her arm around his casually.

He simply nodded. For once in his life, he didn’t know what to say.

After the bartender brought them their drinks, she downed her first shot with a toss of her head, making her hair bun loosen a little. Locks of black hair fell on the sides of her face, framing her pointy chin. He downed his shot and looked back, giving her a thumbs-up when she raised an eyebrow, impressed.

Their conversation started with small talks. It was a force of habit he’d picked up after his routine trips to the bars and clubs at night. Wolfie-the-stoic was never going to initiate conversation, and Felix had to get the ladies to chat so they could both walk away with a score every night. He liked hearing people talk about themselves, and he’d always made himself approachable with compliments and silly grins. 

That was how found out about the diamond from Mumbai — Steiner had drunkenly boasted about his plan after Felix appealed to his ego and challenged him to a drinking game. He pushed the memory away.

Dani started talking to him about her days in college in San Diego, and he laughed when she mentioned the pranks she and her sorority sisters used to pull. She’d celebrated every success in the way he and Wolfie used to celebrate after heists: with dancing and booze. They clinked their glasses and down another shot after finding that thing in common.

When she was excited, the left corner of her mouth would quirk up a second before the right, and he found that delightful.

Her dress was somewhat see-through, and happened to be in a shade that matched her lipstick, but he knew that from memory, and not from glancing down her neckline as she spoke. Over the past few days he’d gotten used to looking into her eyes. He’d also gotten acquainted with the signature tick of her right eyebrow, a gesture that could convey a dozen different things depending on the context, but usually meant she was teasing.

She finished listing all her best pranks, and her sharp brown eyes softened as she started talking about her escapades with Lito and Hernando. 

She was an actress before she became Lito’s agent — she’d told him that one night as they played a drinking game (where he found himself admitting defeat for the first time since the Great Stolichnaya Incident of 2003, something Wolfie had sworn to never speak of again). But he didn’t know until tonight that her best Christmas memory was from last year, with her boys and Lito’s mom. He wondered how she’d spent her holidays before. 

Meanwhile Mavis sat near them, looking around the room, still pretending to jot down notes as her other hand fiddled with a handmade red and blue bracelet that stuck out like a sore thumb from her sophisticated evening outfit-costume. She gave Felix a slight nod when he looked back to check that nothing was amiss. And then a middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair and a dark blue suit slipped into the stool between Dani and Mavis.

The man ordered a cocktail with an Italian accent, and Felix saw Mavis scratch the tip of her nose, the cue they’d agreed on. Mavis turned to the man, nodded in greeting, and started making small talk. Felix and Dani took turns glancing around the room to make sure no one was fixating on them for an unnecessarily long time. 

They heard Mavis tell the man she was planning to travel to Rome with her roommate, and ask for restaurant recommendations, handing him the notepad. After writing down a few words, he finished his drink, and excused himself as he left for the restroom. Mavis turned back to talk some more with the bartender as Dani and Felix stood up. They had arranged to meet in front of the fish and chips place two blocks away.

When they got out, it was past midnight, and the street was bustling with excited chatter as groups of giggling friends walked past them. They started to cross the street per Mavis’ instruction, but before Felix could take a step, Dani swore under her breath and put a hand on his shoulder, turning them back.

“What?” 

“We can’t cross here,” her voice shook. “Let’s go left first, cross over there.”

“Why?” Felix whispered.

“Why the hell is he here,” she muttered instead, ignoring his question.

Felix turned to her. Who the fuck is he? he mouthed. 

She shook her head frantically, gesturing for him to be quiet as she started to guide them down the sidewalk, away from there. He threw her a questioning glance before sneaking a glance behind him.

A man was leaning on the wall of the closed key shop across the street, smoking a cigar. He wore a brown leather jacket despite the heat, and a big golden pendant dangled in front of his chest. It was too dark to make out the man’s exact features, but Felix could see black hair and tattoos on his neck.

Felix recoiled as he turned back, and quickened his pace. The tattooed man’s mannerism gave him a shudder. He looked at Dani when he caught up with her, and saw that her hand was shaking as she clutched her purse extra tight. And the look in her eyes? It was the same look Wolfgang wore when he cowered under his father’s gaze.

“Yeah, let’s move,” he said hoarsely, and asked no more questions. 

They ducked their heads low and didn’t stop walking until they arrived at the fish and chips place to find Mavis waiting. She waved her purse with the notepad inside triumphantly as Capheus rounded the corner in a different car, waving at them from the open window.

Kareem growled madly when he saw Karl enter the interrogation room, and the Headhunter had to resist the urge to pummel his prisoner in the chest. Instead he slipped the EEG cap over Kareem’s head and waited for the Traceworks machine to detect the brain waves. From the pocket of his leather jacket, he took out a syringe with a light green liquid inside.

“Spooky color,” Kareem remarked with a whistle.

Karl wiped down the needle with antiseptics, taking his time so Kareem could get a good look at the way the liquid sloshed around and foams gathered around the top. 

“Hoping to turn me into a mutant?”

“No, hardly,” Karl finally responded as he turned to look at his prisoner in the eye. The corners of his mouth twisted into a grin, distorting the scar that ran down the left side of his face. “This -” he brought the syringe forward so the prisoner could take a better look - “will turn you into one of us.”

Kareem sneered. “I will never be one of you.”

“You won’t have a choice.”

Before the prisoner could gather his thoughts and give him a snarky retort, Karl pushed the needle into his neck. The Egyptian spasmed in his recliner, the leather straps threatening to snap. Then his muscles went lax, and he leaned his head back and let out a sigh, unaware that his mental walls were collapsing under his newfound lack of inhibition.

Karl used the second before Kareem closed his eyes to gaze into his dilating pupils and latch on to the sensation of utter bliss that reverberated through both their minds.

When he first became acquainted with his powers after his rebirth, Milton had told him eye contacts weren’t the only way one could connect to other sensates, though it was by far the easiest. The alternative was an Empathetic Connection, where one’s intense feelings seep through the Psycellium to make connections with other sensates who were experiencing the same emotions. This method had always been challenging for Headhunters; to genuinely experience these emotions would make them too vulnerable.

But if the Reciphorum proved itself effective in this trial, it could be revolutionary to the way they Hunted.

Karl concentrated on the echoes of the Egyptian’s bliss, hoping the distribution of the drug across California would yield significant results. He could make out seven different voices, all mumbling incoherently. Karl visualized the voices as flickering lights inside a heavy gray fog, and he drifted towards the closest one. The space below him swayed like he was on a turbulent sea, a sigh of Kareem’s consciousness resisting, but the movement was futile as Kareem’s muddled mind struggled against the force of the invasion. 

Karl found himself colliding with the first flicker as he moved forward, ignoring the waves underneath. An image of a man in dreadlocks sitting at a dim-lit bar came into view. As he tried to move the man’s arm, he felt a buzzing in his head — the Blocker this man had taken was trying to shut off the Reciphorum-induced bliss that slipped through the cracks of the barriers around his mind. The hand that extracted the ID from the man’s back pocket was shaky, but Karl forced his own consciousness into the man’s body and detected the name and address on the man’s driver’s license. 

Karl repeated the information he’d gathered to himself before he closed his eyes and concentrated on finding the swaying ocean with the lights again. Then once more he collided with one of the flickers and found himself in a back alley, surrounded by a gang of dealers towering over him. He located an ID in the person’s jacket pocket and gathered the name and address. On he went, until the last flickering light ebbed away, and he found himself in the fog again, the swaying growing still.

Karl concentrated on feeling the tense muscles of his own body from standing still for what he presumed to be a long time. As the sensation of aching in his back and legs returned, he found his consciousness back in the room with the white fluorescent light, the Traceworks machine beeping nearby to show a decrease in Kareem’s brain waves.

The prisoner in question lay on the stretcher, eyes still closed, mumbling as his mind drifted into nothingness.

Danke, Herr Asghar,” Karl whispered into the now-unconscious man’s ears, pulling out a notepad to jot down the names and addresses of the sensates he’d seen in his visions as he grinned madly. “You have been very helpful.”

*

As Riley fell asleep on the mattress near the couch, Will stepped over duffle bags and loaded suitcases to join Mavis on the first shift of the night. They were planning to travel to the new hideout tomorrow, but everyone was prepared to grab the emergency kits they kept by their pillow and escape from the window should someone come bursting through the front door. Lucky this hideout was on the second floor.

The younger woman was gazing to her right as she talked under her breath, her hand fiddling with the bracelet she never seemed to take off. When Will sat down next to her she didn’t stir, but simply acknowledged him with a nod and turned back to talk to the empty space with a smile. She was speaking in a language he didn’t understand, but he thought he could detect a few familiar words.

“It’s Portuguese,” she answered when she heard him wondering. She reached out towards the visiting sensate on her right to say good night, before turning her full attention to Will.

She opened her mouth again before he could say something in reply. “By the way, can I have my knife back? My boot’s feeling very lonely without it.”

He took out the switchblade he’d confiscated from her from the side pocket of his duffle bag, but stopped before he could lay it on her outstretched hand.

“Why do you need this so much?”

She smirked. “Let me guess, bad cop habits?”

“I’ll make you a deal,” he told her. “Answer my next question, and I’ll give this back.”

She shrugged.

“Why do you have two passports?”

“Oh, don’t tell me I’m the only one with fake IDs in this place.” She took out the passports in question and waved them tauntingly in front of Will.

“Which one’s real?”

She shoved the American one into his hand and snatched the switchblade back before he could close his fist. He opened it.

Date of Birth: Jun 06, 1996. 

6/6/96. He nearly snorted. 8/8/88 was their birthday, and Lito used to say it must have been destiny at work due to the size of their cluster.

“Is there six of you?”

A flash of pain echoed through their connection, and Will apologized when he realized what it meant. She turned from him and looked down at her hands, fiddling with the bracelet around her wrist. He put a hand on her shoulder, prompting her to look at him again. “BPO?” he asked softly.

She nodded.

Then she shared a memory with him, of pummeling fists and the musky smell of the damp walls where a few boys bunked in a room overlooking the courtyard. The window was barred from the inside. Will saw a long-haired teenager with a muscular build sitting on a bottom bunk, wearing a set of gray overalls like the others. The boy made a move to punch the wall again, but Mavis grabbed his wrist.

Oh, punching your way out of here? Fantastic idea, she remarked with a roll of her eyes. 

She sat next to the boy on the bed, donned in a night gown, but none of the other boys appeared to know she was there. Will noticed she had longer hair then. She wore the same smirk that made a single dimple appear on her right cheek, but the edge to her voice was more playful, less defensive.

I’m not trying to get out, Mavis, that’s not gonna fucking happen anyway, the boy seethed, keeping his volume down.

But I know you want to, she singsonged. He turned and glared at her.

Look, maybe you should join them. She nodded at the window. He got up and went to look down at the courtyard, where other boys in gray overalls played rugby against a team wearing private school jerseys. Could be a good outlet for when you get a little punch-y.

He frowned and thought about it.

I know you wanna go home to your sister, Mavis prompted again. But they’re not gonna let you out if you keep being, well - she gestured to all of him. 

He crossed his arms and glowered before nodding.

Good boy. She patted him on the shoulder. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go back to bed.

Then the memory faded, and another scene flashed by in Will’s mind. The same boy was struggling against the binds on a stretcher in a surgery room as Mavis and her four other cluster-mates shouted at him and at each other in total panic. One of his arms escaped the binds and grabbed a scalpel on a tray that lay nearby, which he jabbed at the doctor who towered over him, trying to slip an EEG cap on his head. 

But he’d missed his doctor’s temple, and instead the blade cut across his cheek. The doctor, who Will recognized as Pelzer, howled in pain as his blood slid from the jagged wound. Then two more guards rushed into the room to push the boy down, but before they could restrain his loose arm, he’d grabbed a pistol one of them kept hooked on their belt, and aimed it into his mouth —

There was the sound of gunshot as the memory faded.

Then another scene unfolded around Will. He saw Mavis standing in front of a desk in a study. The man sitting on the other side was looking up at her, frowning. Absolutely not - he to say started.

So what, I should keep hiding out here like a sitting duck?! she shouted back as tears streamed down her face. Morgan’s dead. And I can’t -

It won’t happen again, he tried to reassure her as he moved his gaze away from her face and looked down. We’ll make sure -

She snorted. They’re hackers, not freaking magicians.

The man sighed deeply and ran a hand through his salt-and-pepper hair.

Stop treating me like a child, dad, she continued, crossing her arms. I know what I’m doing.

I know you do, Mr Fowler said quietly, before lifted his head to look at her again. I was just praying this day would never come.

She looked surprised. You knew I’d want to -

You’re a lot like your father, he said, thinking of his deceased friend. I don’t want to lose you too, Yang-Yang.

Her gaze softened upon hearing the old nickname. She let herself smirk a little. Alright, I’ll try not to die, she said. He smiled at that, wistfully.

Then Will found his consciousness launched back into his own body. He turned to Mavis, who was biting her lip as she twiddled her thumbs, trying not to cry at the reminder of her cluster-mate’s death. He put a hand over hers in comfort.

“Sorry if I’m overstepping. You don’t have to answer,” he started softly, “but what -”

“Happened to my father?” she guessed, sniffling. “BPO happened. It’s always them.”

“He was a sensate? But I thought before 9-11 -”

“There’s always been people in the know who wanted us gone. 9-11 just pushed the other BPO sapiens over the edge. That’s when we moved from Beijing.”

Of course. Nomi had located a major BPO facility there.

Mavis flipped through her British passport absentmindedly, and Will could make out visas and travel stamps on a couple pages. “Dad had this made when mom and I moved in with him. An escape plan. But -” 

“You were tired of running,” he finished for her. He thought back to his own cluster, how they’d decided to stand up against BPO despite the odds. It comforted him to know they weren’t the only ones.

“Yang was the name my birth father gave me,” she told him. “It’s only fitting that I use it to finish what he started.”

She was spinning the switchblade with her fingers now. She pulled out the blade and examined it, turning the handle so the sharp edge glinted under the ray of moonlight that creeped in from between the drawn curtains.

“Our Mother used to say that if we get caught, we have to do whatever it takes to protect our cluster.” She pushed the blade into the slot on the side of the handle again. “But I wish we could have found another way.”

“Why do you carry this, then?”

She smiled dangerously, eyes cutting through the dim moonlit room like scalpels. When she spoke again, the edge was back in her voice. 

“I’m not planning to use this on myself.”

*

Later that night as Will drifted out of a dream where he and Riley were climbing atop that volcano with the name he couldn’t pronounce, he found himself staring into the face of a man with a demented glint in his eyes and forceful hands that yanked at his hair.

But he was seeing through someone else’s eyes. 

The man in the memory pulled the woman, whose eyes he saw from, into a corner of the bedroom and started thrashing her about. She put up her arms to protect her face and chest, but her bones threatened to break under the impact. Spots danced around her vision.

Please, Xanthus, please, please, her voice quivered as she pleaded in a foreign language through split lips. Will felt the pain as if he were her, and the language sounded like English to his ears. A feeling of dread plagued through the dream — no, memory — and Will was frozen on the spot near the corner where she crouched.

Then there was a chilling presence in the back of his mind, and Will found himself bound by tendrils as cold as ice before he was yanked out of the scene.

And he was back at the hospital room where he’d watched the life drain out of his father. He was speaking through Riley, but he couldn’t hear any of the words they’d said. All he could hear was the voice that haunted his dreams.

I was right, Will, said Whispers. You don’t really care for him.

You don’t know me! he shouted at the voice. Leave me alone! You don’t -

You fought harder for Wolfgang than you ever did for him. Did he really mean that little to you?

Fuck off, Will seethed, trying to reassured himself that Whispers was doing this on purpose to get a reaction. He wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.

How heartless of you to let your father die alone. He could almost see Whispers shaking his head in disapproval. And really, it’s your fault he died at all. If you hadn’t left Chicago -

You have no fucking right -

Oh, come now, Will, Whisper’s voice was pitiful. You and I both know it’s the truth.

No!

He jolted out of his dream and rolled off the mattress with a thump. Sun was by his side in a second, hands on his shoulders, eyes glancing around the room for potential signs of danger. Capheus stood from the couch and raised his fists, feet spread apart in a defensive stance.

“No, no, no…” he kept muttering as he sat on the ground and started rocking back and forth in a fetal position with his head atop his knees, suppressing his sob. Sun let go of him as Riley came over and embraced him from behind, smoothing his hair with her hand.

“Will, Will, listen to me,” she said quietly, not wanting to wake Felix, who snored nearby.

She reached out to his mind, a shivering presence in their shared consciousness, and imagined her hand smoothing over his doubts, letting the warmth of her presence seep inside and drive the cold whispers away. 

She brought forth the memory of her mother stroking her hair when she’d woken from a nightmare. She recalled the sensation of careful fingers brushing against her scalp, tingling the nerves until she’d smiled contently and closed her eyes. She’d listened as her mother’s voice hummed her favorite lullaby until she’d fallen asleep, and she repeated the song to Will now, hoping it would do the same for him. She felt his shaking come to a halt.

“‘M sorry,” he mumbled as he let her guide him back onto their shared mattress. “Dad, dad, don’t go, I’m - I’m sorry.”

When she lay down next to him again, she put her arms around him, hoping to shield him from his doubts. He woke at the touch, his eyes opening. 

“What happened, Will?”

He buried his head in the crook of her neck and sniffled, sending forth both visions from Whispers’ mind. She gasped, then sighed.

“He doesn’t know you,” she said as she rubbed circles on his back, shaking her head at the way he crumbled under his remorse. “You may not see it now, but next time he tries to tell you who you are, remember to look in here -” she tapped a finger against his forehead with her other hand.

He turned a little so he could look her in the eye.

“- and here.” She tapped her finger against where his heart was. “You’ll see what I see, not what he sees.”

Humming, he felt the corners of his mouth quirk into a smile.

His breaths evened out after a few more minutes, and when he tried to breathe, he crinkled his nose in annoyance when he realized it was stuffed. Riley took out a pack of tissue paper from the side pocket of a duffle bag nearby and pinched it, grinning when he gruntled in protest like a petulant child with a cold.

When she tossed the tissue away and settled back down next to him, he pulled her close, inching his head forward so that their noses bopped against each other’s.

Love you, came his voice inside their shared mind.

“I love you too, Will.”

Chapter Text

July 7, 2017

Hernando and Dani sat in the living room of the new hideout and watched the sunrise through the gaps between the newspaper pasted on the window. They were in an abandoned nursing home on the outskirts of London. On the bright side, it was a three story house with six bedrooms, so the gang no longer all had to be cramped inside one living room. The downside was the moldy, squeaky mattresses.

While Lito had fallen into a deep sleep on said mattress within second, Hernando and Dani eventually gave up trying to get comfortable. They volunteered to take Capheus and Sun’s place for the last guarding shift before the morning. Mavis was certain they weren’t followed, but no one wanted to take any chances in case BPO broke in through the front door, the only door that could actually open.

“I never thought I’d be hiding again,” Hernando said, pushing up his glasses to get a better look at the orange sky before the sun fully rose.

Dani nodded, putting her hand over his.

“The situation with the -” he scrunched up his nose - “with the sensates, it really resonated with me, Dani. It’s like… It’s like we finally leave behind the paparazzi and angry ex-fans, and someone comes up with another reason to drive us into that life again. It feels like where we were a few months ago with the new apartment and the typecasting scripts. But this time -” he put his face in his hands and continued, his voice muffled - “this time I don’t know how we can get out. This is no Iberian Dream.”

Dani leaned in close. He lifted his head up and put an arm around her shoulder. 

“This is different,” she agreed. “It’s not just about losing a career anymore. I don’t even know what we’re up against. Those hunter people? They -” 

She thought back to the man Lito called Whispers. She’d only caught a glimpse of him as Lito and his cluster-mates wheeled him by to lock him into a bedroom of their last hideout, but she’d shuddered at the sight of him. Her hands had gone cold as if his iciness was contagious.

Hernando nodded as he, too, tried to push the image of the white-haired Headhunter out of his mind. “I know, Dani. And they’re not even the biggest problem.”

“What does BPO even want from this?”

“I think… I think they’re turning all the sensates in the world against each other so everyone loses sight of the bigger picture.” At Dani’s look of confusion, he explained, “The sensates are so busy fighting among themselves, avoiding their own kind, they overlook the threat from the sapiens.”

“Makes sense.”

“Yes, this appears to be a typical style of diversion,” he explained. “Have you seen Lito’s second movie?”

The Peril of Brotherhood? Yeah. Why?”

“Do you remember the scene where José turned his gun on his friend because the secret passage could take only one?”

A nod. “He turned on Juan because he thought Juan would turn on him.”

“Exactly. And now he’s alone. Vulnerable.” Hernando leaned back and ran a hand through his hair as he sighed. “These sensates, they’re alone too, because every sensate they see, they think they might be a Headhunter. They can’t risk making allies. It’s a vicious cycle.”

She groaned. “Why, why is BPO like this?”

“People are scared of people who are different from them.”

“What’s gonna happen when they’re exposed? Nomi thought BPO might blame the attacks on sensates, right?”

“People are gonna be scared. If they’re exposed, the Headhunters won’t be the only ones going after them.” He turned his head towards the stairs, thinking about Lito, asleep in their second floor bedroom. Dani looked at him and held his hand.

“God, I miss the days when finding an apartment was our biggest problem.”

“It was ours.” He thought about Will and Riley, who had been on the run. “Not his. He was living two different lives. Two sets of problems. I didn’t even know -”

“But now we know,” she reassured before he could fall into another cycle of self-blame after his initial one during the debriefing on their first day in London. “Now we can help him. And all of his family.”

He smiled. “Our family, Dani.”

*

Nomi usually woke to the sensation of Amanita’s fingers running through her hair, followed by affectionate pecks that brought a smile to her face before she even opened her eyes. She’d never been a morning person, but Neets rose with the dawn, and if it weren’t for her, Nomi would have slept until noon everyday.

But today she was woken up by a whimper.

Will’s paranoia was rubbing off on her, she thought as she shot up from her bed, opened her eyes and scanned across the room several times to locate the source of the distress, her head turning so fast she could feel the strain of her neck muscles. She finally located the sound: her fiancée, her fierce protector, cowered against the corner. Amanita was pointing a shaky finger at the opposite wall, and Nomi couldn’t help but giggle.

“Noms,” Amanita whined. “Noms, it’s - it’s right here. It’s so close.” Her voice trembled. “I-I can feel it crawling on me. Noms.”

“It’s a spider, Neets,” Nomi teased, but walked over to the wall where Amanita was pointing anyway. “I think it’s more scared of you.”

Another whimper. “I highly doubt that.”

Nomi chuckled. “Alright, hang on,” she said as she fished out a piece of scrap paper from her bag. Then she curved it around the sides like a makeshift scoop, and poked the end at the spider from where it clung to the wall. The spider climbed onto the paper and Amanita suppressed a screech.

Noms,” she whined again. “Get it away from me.”

“Patience, Neets,” Nomi chastised half-heartedly, smiling at the way the other woman humphed indignantly at her response.

Nomi held the paper with the spider on one hand and opened the door with the other. The windows were all boarded shut, so she walked all the way downstairs and opened the front door to drop the spider off in the front garden, nodding a good morning at Hernando and Dani as she passed by the living room on the way back.

When she opened the door to their bedroom again, she was tackled into a hug, followed by the good usual good morning kisses from a tip-toeing Amanita.

“My hero,” she said, in-between pecks. “What will I do without you?”

“You’ll have to learn to live with spiders,” Nomi teased when the kisses subsided. “You grew up near the woods! How did you survive?”

Amanita started pulling Nomi back to the bed. “I was in a commune, Noms.” They sat down again, leaning against the headboard. “I let the other kids take care of the bugs,” she explained, running her hand up and down Nomi’s arm.

A chuckle. “Spiders aren’t bugs.”

Fine, but they’re still creepy.” She pouted. “It’s the legs -” she wiggled her fingers around, imitating the ways in which most insects moved about. “Ugh. Just - no.”

“Is that why you didn’t like Bug when you first met?”

No!” Amanita said immediately, moving her gaze away from Nomi. “I just thought he was a bit -” she started fiddling with her dreadlocks - “okay, maybe it didn’t help with the first impression,” she conceded, turning back to face her fiancée. “But just because that Bug is tolerable now, doesn’t mean I can deal with the other ones.”

Nomi turned and tilted her chin down to give Amanita a quick peck. “You don’t have to.”

“Mm.” Amanita closed her eyes, savoring the kiss. “You look good in a shining armor.”

*

At lunchtime, the Bug in question called. “Seven missin’ in California,” he said hoarsely, devoid of the usual dramatic tone.

Seven?!” Lito exclaimed. Hernando’s eyes grew wide and Dani looked shaken.

“This can’t be a coincidence,” said Kala. “There were four last night, wasn’t there?” Everyone nodded. “Bug -” she turned to the screen - “where were they last seen?”

“They all went out on the 17th. Bars, clubs, all of that fun business. No one’s seen them since. Probably all went missin’ at round about the same time.”

Felix thought about it. “Must have taken drugs,” he concluded. 

“Are you certain?” asked Sun.

“The environment does provide the perfect cover for discreet transactions,” Kala observed.

Felix shrugged. “Or they could have been drugged by someone else. Lots of crazy shitheads at the bars.”

“BPO’s behind this, either way. It has to be them,” Will added.

Fuck, Felix mouthed. Riley nodded solemnly, and Amanita and Nomi clutched each other’s hands tight and looked at Bug, who also had a grim expression.

“So these missing people, are they -” Hernando started. 

“Yes, they’re sensates, Hernando. They’re hunting again,” Lito told him. Hernando swallowed hard, and Dani looked around the table, frowning in concern.

“But why would they go out without taking a Blocker?” Kala wondered.

“Maybe they did,” Capheus speculated.

Kala perked up. “You think BPO has found a way to counteract the effect of the Blockers?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” said Amanita. Nomi nodded next to her.

“They must be making more Bolgers,” Will concluded. “They’re gonna use them to attack again. And soon.”

“But where?” asked Riley.

Bug cleared his throat, and everyone looked at the screen. “I’ve identified several air and land vehicles that make regular trips to and from BPO facilities,” the air of drama was back in his voice, albeit his eyes still looked haunted. “I’ll keep tabs on the license plates and alert you if I find them travelin’ to the same place.”

“Thanks, Bug,” Nomi said.

“Justice is as justice does. Right, Angels?”

*

Wolfgang greeted Kala with a grin when she returned to their room after lunch. They’d kept him partially sedated, lowering his dosage everyday so he could ease into the pain in his chest. His eyes were half closed, but he tried to keep them open and take in the sight of his Kala, all floral patterned-dress and gentle brown eyes.

“Did I wake you?” she rushed to his bedside and knelt next to him. “Sorry -”

He turned and shook his head slightly, reaching out a hand to touch her, the muscles on his chest straining. He chastised himself for being weak. The voice in his head sounded uncannily like his father’s.

Kala scowled when she noticed the way he cringed, knowing what he was thinking despite the Blocker they’d kept him on to shield his mind from the Headhunters. She held out her hand and pressed her palm against his before bringing his hand to her cheek, smiling at the sensation. His senses tingled, too, and, the voice in his head subsided.

It had been three days since they first saw each other in person, but Kala was still giddy whenever they touched. The physical contact reminded her that Wolfgang was really here. She felt a little like Daya back when she had that crush on the cute shop boy across the street. She remembered how her sister used to buy a kulfi from there everyday after school just so she could look him in the eye. Then she’d come home and continue to stare at him from their bedroom window.

But what she and Wolfgang had? It ran far deeper than any crush. Riley was right, Kala thought, as she took in the sight of Wolfgang lying in bed looking at her. The presence was something she couldn’t imagine losing.

Wolfgang tried to shuffle himself to the left to make space for Kala, groaning with every move, but she stopped him before he could seriously hurt himself.

“It’s the middle of the day, bhediya.” Her complaint was half-hearted. 

“Maybe you should take a break.” His voice was still a little scratchy, but his throat no longer ached every time he tried to speak.

She laid down on his right side without another protest, knowing she’d cave eventually anyway. It was hard to say no when he was smirking at her, dimples and all. She tried to tell herself she only caved because he was injured.

Wolfgang draped his blanket over both of them before slowly pulling her close. The tip of her nose was almost touching his chest. She tried not let her eyes linger too long over the purpled veins and old scars. She’d seen his scars before, but not in person, and not when they stood out against the dark bruises like lightning. 

Her finger hovered an inch above his skin, and he could sense her hesitation. “Does it still hurt when I touch it?” she asked softly. 

He paused and his smirk widened. “Why don’t you find out?”

“But I don’t -” she looked up and detected an impish glint in his blue eyes. She laughed a little, the corners of her eyes crinkling. “If you insist.” She leaned in, found a puckered scar, and pecked it lightly. Then she looked up.

He pretended to think about it. “Better.”

Blushing, she leaned in again, this time on a particularly angry bruise near his collarbone. Her lips grazed the surface gently, and Wolfgang growled.

“Better?”

“Yes, doctor.”

She smiled, and he stretched out his right arm to fit under the space between her neck and the pillow under her head. His hand rubbed against her forearm, and she looked at it, frowning when she noticed a jagged scar along the side of his right elbow.

“How did you get this?” she said as her finger started to trace along the scar.

“Felix doesn’t want me to tell.”

She turned back to watch him, lips pursed and brows furrowed, a look of concentration. He used to bring up this memory of her every night. He’d imagine himself tapping her on the nose to see if he could make her laugh.

“Must have been terribly embarrassing,” she deduced. “I’m very curious now.”

“Will you stay here longer if I tell you?”

It was Kala’s turn to tease. “Why don’t you find out?”

He paused and took in her expression, savoring the memory. “Felix and I broke into a liquor store when we were fifteen,” he started after a pause. “We were on a dare.”

“Wolfgang! Did you punch through a window? You could have been -”

“I picked the lock, schatz.”

“Oh.” She blushed a little, embarrassed at her overreaction. “So how did you…”

“We found a shop with a shitty lock.”

She huffed, a little dramatically to show him she did not approve of thievery. Then she perked up a little, turned to him, and asked, “Did you get caught?”

“Why do you want to know?” he teased.

“I’m trying to deduce why Felix finds this embarrassing.”

“Well, we didn’t.”

“Huh.” Kala frowned again, and his grin grew wider. She so wanted to kiss that smug look off his face. “So what -” Then her eyes widened. “You got drunk.”

“Felix got drunk,” he amended. “I had to carry him home.”

She laughed as she pictured a teenage Wolfgang trying to lift a gangly Felix over his shoulder, swaying as he tried to find balance. He continued, “We were gonna sell the bottles for cash. Felix took Stolichnaya and an 8-pack of beer. I took some schnapps.”

She sighed, exasperated. He chuckled.

“After we got out through the back door, we heard sirens. We thought it was for us, so we split ways and took off. A few hours later I went to look for him. I found him passed out on top of some garbage bags in front of a dumpster.”

“Don’t tell me he drank everything!”

He laughed a little, and bit back a groan when his chest muscles clenched in protest. Kala put her hand over his and nuzzled her head against the side of his cheek, trying to distract him from the pain. 

His stubble was turning into a beard, she noted. She’d have to fix that.

“No, he drank the Stoli.”

“Oh my God, why?”

“It was our first heist! We didn’t know what to do. He panicked when he heard sirens. Wanted to get rid of the evidence. He tossed the beers in the dumpster.”

“So he drank some evidence and threw away everything else?” She tried to stifle a laugh, and ended up making a sound that was a combination of a sigh and a chortle. And of course he couldn’t resist pecking her on the cheek. “Was he okay?” she asked, after returning his kiss.

He nodded. “He chugged down half the bottle before he threw up and passed out. I had to bring him to my uncle’s. We snuck into my room through the window. Frau Berner would have killed him if I hauled him home like that.”

She nodded, before remembering, “But how did you get the scar?”

“Felix was heavier than he looked. I fell, two blocks away from my uncle’s house. A sharp rock or something cut me.”

She traced the scar along his elbow. “Did it hurt?”

“Not as much as Felix’s head the next morning.”

She cringed. Then she turned to look at him, frowning. 

“What is it?” he asked. He started to kiss her between her brows. His lips were still slightly chapped, and it tickled. She mumbled, wanting him to stop but unwilling to draw away, and ended up burying her face into the crook of his neck.

“What about one you took?” she asked, voice muffled.

He lifted a strand of curls and tucked it behind her ear. “The bottle’s still in my apartment. But the schnapps is gone now, we drank that.”

“I didn’t know you were so nostalgic.”

“It’s a nice bottle.”

She moved her head away from his neck so she could look at him again. “Why is Felix so embarrassed by this?”

A smirk. “The beers weren’t the only thing he chucked into the dumpster.”

Realization hit, and she froze, opening her mouth, eyes widening. She let out a half-gasp, half-shriek, and buried her face in his neck again. The last time he’d seen this look of horror was at her first wedding. He had to restrain himself from laughing, mindful of the tightening muscles on his chest. 

“Oh my God,” she finally said after a few minutes’ pause, pulling her face up. “Why?”

“I asked him, but he was so drunk I couldn’t hear what he said… Something about DNA and surveillance cameras? He left his boxers on, but everything else -”

It was both horrifying and hilarious to imagine a teenage Felix donned in nothing but colorful underwear, and as aghast as Kala was, she couldn’t help the scandalized laughter that escaped. When she looked at Wolfgang again, he found a little seed of wickedness budding in the soft brown of her eyes.

“Felix will be angry with me if he finds out what I’ve told you,” he said. He withdrew his arm from underneath her neck, and started to stroke her hair. 

Kala let out a hum as she smiled, content, but the air of mischief lingered on the corners of her mouth as she continued to smirk in a very Wolfgang-like fashion. She leaned in close to his ear. “Find a way to silence me, then,” she whispered.

So he kissed her until she had to gasp for air.

“Your turn,” he said. 

An indignant huff. “I’ve never stolen anything -”

“Tell me something about your childhood.”

She frowned again, trying to recall something interesting. Compared to her cluster, she’d always thought she was lacking in the “exciting anecdotes” department. Wolfgang seemed to know what was on her mind, Blocker be damned.

“Have you ever helped at the restaurant? Cooked with your father?” She was not getting away from him now, he thought as he tried to steer the conversation for the first time in his life. Felix would have been proud.

Oh,” she perked up. “I can make the entire menu.”

He didn’t think it was possible for him to feel more impressed by Kala. “All of them? When did you learn?”

“My third year of secondary school,” she told him, wishing Headhunters weren’t a problem so she could share the memory with him. “Daya had a crush on the new boy in her class. She used to go to the park with him everyday after school. But my father was a bit… concerned, when it came to boys.”

“Concerned?”

“I once had a lab partner who never came back to my house after he and my dad had a talk. I had to finish the entire project myself! So Daya knew he’d overreact.”

Wolfgang smirked as he imagined Sanyam chasing away some poor boy, waving his spatula. 

“My mother was visiting her family in Punjab, so he’d come upstairs to our room and check on us. Daya didn’t want him to know she hadn’t come home. She begged me to distract him, so on the first day I asked him to teach me how to make samosas.”

She showed him a scar along the fold of her joint on her left index finger. “I nearly cut my finger off, the first time I tried to cook.”

He stroked her hand before lifting it to his mouth to kiss the scar.

“Of course, Daya was over him before my mother even came back.” She smiled as she remembered how many sleepless nights she’d spent listening to Daya gush over a different cute boy. She continued, “But when she stopped going to the park, I’d already learned five recipes, and my father was so happy I was interested in his work. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I wanted to quit.”

It was just like Kala to spare others’ feelings at the expense of her own. Wolfgang found that both endearing and exasperating. He pulled her closer so her head was leaning against his right shoulder, and she couldn’t stifle her yawn — the sleepless nights she’d spent working on her anti-Blocker formula was really catching up to her.

He inched his head closer to her ear, and noticed that her hair smelled like jasmine, just like in his memory, but it was stronger when she was there in person. “Stay,” he whispered.

“Will that help you heal?”

He nodded. She responded with another yawn, mumbled a good night, and promptly fell asleep. He watched her, watched as the afternoon light escaped through the gap between the moth-eaten curtain, casting a golden ray over her head, and for the first time in years, he started to believe in miracles.

When Felix came back an hour later and found Wolfgang grinning like a fucking idiot in his sleep, his cheek pressed against Kala’s, he did the only sensible thing a friend would do in that situation, and snapped a photo.

*

Someone had tried to break into Mun’s hospital room.

They hadn’t succeeded, Nomi assured Sun as she showed her the news report, but the attacker, most likely under Joong-Ki’s orders, had, according to a nurse who witnessed the scene, marched down the hall with a gun hidden inside their jacket and put up a good fight against the guards stationed outside the detective’s door. But the police released the assassin the day after because the security cameras in the hospital — the most technologically advanced one in Seoul — all miraculously went dead during the same ten-minute interval. And, the nurse, too, had disappeared.

Will sat down next to Sun at the start of their shift that night. Instead of nodding to acknowledge his presence, she continued to look outside from the gaps between the old newspapers plastered on the windows, frowning.

“He’s going to get himself killed.”

Will moved closer and put a hand on her arm. “He’ll be okay. If anything, he seems tougher than he looks.”

“We both know luck has its limit.”

“Yeah, but it’s not just luck.” He looked at her. “Someone’s looking out for him.”

She shook her head. “Me? I cannot do anything.”

“You already did.”

“What happened in our past is not going to help him.”

“He knows you’re still out there somewhere. He won’t give up on you. You’re giving him a reason to go on.”

A sigh. “Why does he want to help so badly?”

“It’s part of the job.”

She raised an eyebrow. “No one would go to such lengths for duty alone.”

It would seem his cop habits were rubbing off on everyone, he thought as he smiled sheepishly. So, like any innocent person would do under interrogation, he shower her a glimpse of Sara Patrell, pressing a finger against her lips. “It’s the feeling that haunts me. Maybe it’s the same for him.”

“The feeling?”

“Whenever I get a new case, I think about the people I save more than the people I fight. The hardest part is when I’m forced to stop and accept it’s too late.”

“Denying the truth won’t make the consequence any easier to bear,” she said, looking away. That’s what I did with Joong-Ki.

He put his arm around her shoulder, prompting her to turn to him again. “You’re right, it won’t. But this isn’t the end for you. We’ll get him.”

I don’t want anyone else to get hurt.

“He knows what he’s doing,” Will reassured. “This accusation he made? I think it was bait. That’s why he stationed those guards. They’re witnesses.”

“It was reckless.” He could have been -

“It was,” he agreed. “But most of us don’t like playing it safe.”

She thought about her decision to go to prison, and their cluster’s actions against BPO. “Imagining the risk is different from experiencing it.”

“True,” he conceded, “but the uncertainty’s part of the job, too.” 

The old Sun Bak was a law-abiding citizen. If she was to imagine her future, she would never have imagined herself on run from two authorities in alliance with a group of fighter-hacktivists in Guy Fawkes masks. But life always gave her the unexpected, and these days, she decided uncertainty was not always unwelcome. She smiled as she remembered the day she and Will fought back to back against Lila’s cluster and won.

She never used to remember her fights. But, like everything else in her life, that appeared to be changing, too.

Chapter Text

 

July 8, 2017

Riley was going about her morning routine making breakfast for everyone when she stopped in her tracks. The skillet and pancake batter lay on the counter, forgotten, as she backed into the fridge. A side-glance told her there was a visitor, and she reached for the bottle of Blockers she kept in her robe pocket in case of emergencies, but when she turned to look at the visitor’s face, she breathed a sigh of relief.

“Mr Hoy?”

“Haven’t seen me in a while, have you?” he said with a hearty laugh. “I don’ mean to frighten you. Jus’ came to ask for somethin’.”

She nodded.

“’S a rough time for the Archipelago. They’re huntin’ us down again.”

“Who, BPO?”

“Aye, the Headhunters. You let the Cannibal go, didn’t you?”

“How did you know?”

He chuckled and tapped a finger against his head. “You underestimate the power of network, Riley Blue.”

“We traded with BPO. Our cluster-mate was captured. We had to get him back.”

He nodded. “Can’t say I blame you.”

“Is there anything I can -”

“The sensates, they’re disappearin’ like mad. Ain’t ‘nuff Blockers to keep up.”

She cringed and looked at the half empty bottle of black capsules in her hand. “Mr Hoy, I’m not sure we have enough -”

“’s not the drug we need, lassie. I’ve just been thrang. Could use a wee bit assistance, makin’ these Blockers, if you can spare a lad or two.”

“Oh.” She smiled in relief. “We have someone who can help. I’ll ask her.”

*

On the train ride to Scotland, Felix looked out the window, uncharacteristically silent as he reassessed his impression of a certain Indian woman for the third time. A now clean-shaven Wolfgang had shared with him a series of anecdotes, most of which involved a member of the cluster (often himself) in danger and Kala coming to their rescue, fire-a-blazing behind her as she produced bombs and watched shit explode. 

Fuck, Wolfie, she’s a keeper,” he’d told his friend. 

Upon hearing that, Kala had smirked at Felix in a way that reminded him of Wolfgang. Felix wondered if being a sensate meant their personalities rubbed off on each other, too. The last thing he needed was for Wolfgang to start lecturing him about science.

Wolfgang and Kala sat opposite of him in their private compartment. If he wasn’t on the run from some batshit crazy organization trying to start a massacre, he’d have been rejoiced at the prospect of traveling like a millionaire (courtesy of Nomi). The booze one could get on this train was to die for, but in his current mood he didn’t feel like drinking. 

He watched Kala reach an arm behind Wolfgang’s to fluff the pillows she’d put there. Wolfie turned to watch her, and when she finished, he pecked her on the forehead, smiling as he drew back and watched her blush. Felix hadn’t seen him smile like that since he’d woken up from the hospital bed. 

(Those fucking diamonds. Felix pushed the memory out of his mind, trying not to touch the place where the scars still marred his chest.)

“So, Scotland,” he decided to fill the silence. Kala and Wolfie turned to him. “I always thought I’d go there on vacation, not when I’m on the run from psycho mass-murderers.”

“You could have stayed in London,” Kala replied archly. “Someone else could have come with us.”

Pfft.” He leaned back, and turned to his friend. “Tell her, Wolfie, have I ever stayed home and let you have all the fun and glory?”

“Only for the past year or so,” Wolfgang sided with Kala, who ooh-ed at the low blow.

Felix was starting to miss the days when Dani was the only one poking fun at him. 

“You and your imaginary friends have had too many adventures without me,” he said, pretending he wasn’t bothered at the painful reminder of his lack of sensacity. “You’re missing out.”

Wolfgang kissed Kala again, before turning back to Felix with a shit-eating grin. 

“Fuck you.” Felix stood up, folding up the wheelchair Wolfgang. Then made his way over to the compartment door and grabbed the handle. “You two, -” he gestured between them - “finish whatever you’re gonna do before I come back.”

They didn’t.

*

Will’s Blocker wore off before dinner.

He had decided to look around Whispers’ mind before he fell prey to his invasion, and Riley was sitting next to him on their bed, Blocker at the ready in case he got caught. Holding her hand, he closed his eyes, and felt her inject him with a small dose of heroin, just enough for him to reach the Headhunter’s mind without triggering his addiction. 

It wasn’t difficult to locate the coldness Whispers’ presence embodied in the Psycellium, but the challenge was to connect to it without being noticed.

I am looking for the Chairman, he thought to himself as he suppressed a shiver. He was getting close. A memory of a conversation with the Chairman, where I can see his face. 

He’d gathered that a sensate felt others’ emotions by the memories they triggered, which were then translated into a relevant and familiar sensation. Whispers’ fear was a thin walls of ice surrounding his memory. The cold barrier was easily broken, but the sharp corners still cut if Will tried to put a fist through it in his mind to see what was hidden. And the pain it brought would be no less insufferable than if he had physically broken his hand: he’d learned that the hard way, the first time he pushed through to see Croome. 

So when Will made out the ice out of the darkness that surrounded his presence in the Psycellium, he imagined a hand wiping away the frost gathered at the surface. Peeking through the barrier, all he could see was more black. He hovered closer and made out a woman’s voice echoing within the chamber. But her tone was sharp, and her words cut cracks on the wall, which shook slightly upon Will’s touch.

I want to see his face, Will chanted in his mind again, but no images showed.

Then he felt a firm arm on his shoulder, and a fiery sensation he knew too well engulfed them both — the embodiment of Lito. I think we should work around it, came the actor’s voice in their shared consciousness. 

Around what?

The woman makes him scared. I can feel it. 

But how -

I can feel it because you feel it because he feels it because — you get the idea. But he’s trying to hide it. He’s lying. There’s a reason he’s lying. He doesn’t want you to know she scares him.

He tried to nod, his mind’s eye bobbing up and down in his vision. Will felt Lito give him a pat on the shoulder before his fire vanished.

Show me the woman, he thought instead, forehead pressing against the ice.

Blonde curls and steel blue eyes pierced through the semi-transparent layer of ice, and for a second Will suspected she could see him watching. She couldn’t have, he reminded himself, because she was a memory. Something about the middle-aged woman brought forth another memory of piercing eyes glaring through the darkness. But Wolfgang’s had a softness beneath; hers was unrelenting.

Still, he breathed a small sigh of relief at his success, fogging up the surface a little. He imagined a hand wiping at it to give him a clearer view.

What evidence do you have that Croome is lying? Will heard her ask. She had an impeccable London accent, but Will knew, because Milton knew, she was not from here. 

The woman closed the cap of her black fountain pen and leaned back in her chair. The blinds were pulled up behind her, and Will could make out Southwark with all its tall glass buildings, the panels reflecting the sunlight hitting against them.

He had been listening in. Reporting back, said the voice that haunted Will’s dreams. Will drew back from the ice slightly, reminding himself not to lean too close against it in case the Headhunter caught him snooping and tried to push back.

To whom?

Our computer systems are not as secure as they appear, said Whispers. The DNA census data has been disappearing. The deletion was a gradual process, but now it has been brought to my attention. There are people infiltrating our organization.

She scoffed, and Will felt Milton draw back slightly. The corners of her dark red lips quirked up for a second. Our organization, Milton?

Your operations cannot be completed without me, he reminded her.

It was Angelica Turing’s theory, if I’m not mistaken, that inspired the prototype for the Reciphorum?

But the Traceworks -

Would not have been completed without her research.

He was seething, but she watched him stir in his chair, lips pursed. You cannot hunt down the August 8 cluster without me, Veronika.

She tutted her tongue upon hearing her name, suppressing her annoyance at his audacity. That may be, her tone was calm when she spoke, conveying none of her surprise. But you are in no position to bargain, after your complete failure at the Iceland facility.

Will knew Milton’s veins were bulging as he resisted his temper. I am aware.

She gave him a stern nod. Until my men have gathered concrete evidence of Croome’s actions against my orders, you will do as he says. 

Understood. Then he got up from where he sat, and Will felt the lens from which the memory was viewed move upward, before Milton looked down at Veronika again. 

May I suggest a search of his office? 

She raised an eyebrow, and Will knew Whispers was smirking. 

A personal relic would make a perfect disguise.

*

Mr Hoy wasn’t the only surprise visitor Riley had that day. 

“Foolish girl,” came the familiar Icelandic woman’s voice behind her as she was about to climb up the stairs before bed. “You’re going to get your cluster killed.”

She jumped, and would have fallen if it weren’t for Will holding her in place. 

“Yrsa?”

“The woman from Iceland?” Will asked, looking at the same direction. He had started taking Blockers before bed in case Whispers tried to deduce the location of their new hideout. “What did she say?”

“She thinks we’re all gonna die,” Mavis explained as she walked over from the kitchen and gave Yrsa a wave. “Evening, Mother. You’re looking well.”

Yrsa breathed an exasperated sigh, and Will looked between Riley and Mavis, and then glanced at the space where he thought Yrsa must be. “Mother?”

“Right! Haven’t told you her name. Silly me,” Mavis leaned against the wall next to the staircase, gesturing between Will and the empty space. “Will, Yrsa. Yrsa, Will.”

Will opened his mouth, but no sound came out. 

Sun walked over from the living room and raised her eyebrow when she found Riley and Mavis looking at a visitor she could not see. Riley gave her a nod, and she walked back to her position silently, knowing she would be debriefed later.

“I should have known you were involved,” Yrsa said to Mavis, ignoring Will. 

Mavis smirked. “I thought you weren’t talking to me anymore.”

“Why wouldn’t she be talking to you?” Riley asked, turning to Yrsa.

“It was terribly naive of you to think you can fight and win against BPO,” Yrsa spoke to Mavis, her gaze stern as she gestured at Will and Riley. “Have you no idea you are endangering this cluster?”

“Hey, I don’t think I was the one who put -”

“Foolish child. And your own cluster, too. Are you so willing to risk -”

“I’ll have you know, Yrsa,” Mavis’ voice shook as she crossed her arms and stepped forward. “That I have everyone under Veracity protection. Which you would know if you haven’t been hiding for the last two years!”

“I did what I had to do.”

“Well -” Mavis swallowed to steady her voice, before looking at Riley and a completely baffled Will. “So did we.”

Riley beckoned Will over and whispered what Yrsa had said. He nodded before putting a hand on Riley’s arm, pulling her closer. Yrsa observed the exchange between the two of them with a frown. 

“In wars, there will always be loss,” she said, more to herself than to the people she was visiting, gazing at the space behind them.

“Jonas said the same thing,” said Riley, recalling what Sun had told them.

“He should know that, more than most. I’m surprised he’s still willing to cooperate with Veracity after what happened with Angelica.”

“You know Jonas? Then why did you say he couldn’t be trusted -”

Next to Riley, Will sighed as he put the pieces together. “You didn’t want us to get involved.”

Riley’s eyes widened. “You worked for Veracity. You were erasing the DNA data.”

“I did,” she admitted.

“What changed?”

Yrsa shook her head and sighed, not wanting to divulge. But there was a hint of emotion flickering on and off between their connection. Riley felt a passion intermingled with warmth, a familiar sensation — she’d often felt that way around Will. She smiled, relishing in the personal memories this feeling had brought.

Before she knew what was going on, she had latched on to the impression of whatever memory Yrsa had tried to repress, and she was looking at a strawberry blonde, green-eyed woman. The woman’s hands caressed her face, but her fingers didn’t quite graze her skin: the memory felt foreign, like she was experiencing the woman’s touch through a mask.

Just as Riley was about to open her mouth and ask where she was, she shifted out of the body she was inhabiting, and watched on the side as a younger, happier version of Yrsa smiled and kissed the other woman.

“I know now that wars are not worth the risk.” Yrsa’s voice brought her back to the present. 

The older woman narrowed her eyes at Riley. Next to her, Mavis was gawking, wide-eyed, muttering woah under her breath. 

What? she thought to Mavis.

That, replied the younger woman, was freaking impressive.

“You loved her.” She turned to Yrsa, trying to suppress her guilt at accidentally finding the woman’s memory.

“I wish we’d never gotten that far.”

“I’m not sure I agree.” She thought about Magnus, about scars that never quite healed, though she could never imagine giving up the memories they’d built.

In the back of Riley’s mind, voices still echoed like long lost memories.

They’re still alive, Yrsa, I know they are. The voice had a musicality to it, and the inflections of every word sounded like a wistful melody. They’re keeping them hostage. I just have to find them. 

Please be careful.

I remember what the facility looks like. What I need to do shouldn’t take long.

At the sight of Yrsa’s pursed lips in the present, Riley felt the synapses in the Psycellium ripping away, fading. The pain wasn’t sharp, but the lingering emptiness echoed in the space where the connection used to be, getting louder every time she — Yrsa — tried to reach out with the tendrils of her own mind, hoping to feel something.

“I wish I hadn’t,” Yrsa explained, “because love between sensates have far more dangerous consequences. And my selfish desire to love had killed us all.”

“Is that how clusters are born?”

Yrsa nodded. “Most of us are products of love. Sensate children are much the same. But as a sensate, love is a death sentence.”

“I’m not sure I agree with that, either.” She thought of her life before she connected with Will. In retrospect, it wasn’t much safer. It may have been a step up from having an entire organization chasing after her, but even after a year on the run, fearing for the life she finally decided she still wanted, she had cherished every second she had with her cop.

Mavis, presumably having read her thoughts, nodded next to Riley as she fiddled with the bracelet she always wore.

“I know you don’t,” Yrsa told Riley. “Which is why I can’t help you.”

Before Yrsa could leave, Mavis stepped forward and tackled her in a hug, the force knocking her back. “I’ll try not to die, Mother,” she reassured. “I’ve survived this long, haven’t I?”

“You have,” she conceded.

Mavis turned to Riley and Will. “Well, so have they. So have a little faith in us.”

*

Will had always been a light sleeper. Riley knew this from when they started living together. He’d jump out of bed at the slightest sound she made, ready to tackle what he thought was an attacker. She’d laugh, but she’d always remind herself to be quieter next time. That night Will turned as Riley slipped into bed next to him, making the old mattress creak. She gasped, thinking she had woken him. He shook his head and inched closer.

“I wouldn’t give it up for anything,” he told her. Riley had informed him, and Sun and Dani who was on guard duty, what Yrsa had said.

Riley stroked his hair. “What?”

He smirked, knowing she just wanted him to say it. “You. Us.” He moved forward to peck her on the lips. “Being a sensate. God, I can’t even remember being unborn.”

She cringed at that. “I remember the migraines.”

“Right. That wasn’t fun.”

She laughed. “But it was worth it,” she confessed as she reached down to pull the unzipped sleeping bag, their makeshift blanket, over both of them.

He responded by kissing her again, his nose crinkling slightly as their lips touched. When he pulled away he opened his eyes, taking in her smile. He responded with a smile of his own before turning away to lie in a fetal position. She embraced him from behind.

“Good night, Will,” she mumbled in his ear and saw him frown.

“We haven’t gone on a date,” was his response.

That made her laugh. “I think everywhere is closed now.”

“Not today,” he said with a yawn, and she reached over to kiss him on the cheek, noting to herself that he needed another shave. She’d take care of it tomorrow, she thought as her fingers ran across his cheek, the coarse stubble scratching her skin.

“Why were you thinking about this?”

“Because -” he inched back slightly so her chest was against his back, and he could feel her heartbeats - “tonight Lito was telling me about this restaurant he and Hernando went to on their first date, and I got hungry.”

“I can make something if you want.”

“Mm, no.” He mumbled, eyes closed now, shifting his head so that it burrowed deeper into his pillow. “It should be my treat. You’re always cooking.”

“I don’t mind cooking.”

“I know you don’t.” He turned his head back a little so she could see him, more or less. It was hard to tell with his eyes closed. “But I should -” another yawn - “I should do something for you. And we haven’t been on a date.”

“You’re right, we haven’t,” she conceded as her hand started smoothing his hair back again, a trick she knew worked better than any lullaby with him.

“I’ll find you somewhere nice,” he promised before he drifted off.

Will was the first person (after Magnus, she thought with a pang, but the thought of him no longer made her want to lie down forever) who made her believe she was worth saving. He had put his faith in her at the Iceland Facility. Faith that she, at the time, didn’t believe she deserved. But because of him, she had decided to spare her own life. 

She loathed to think what would have happened had he not been there to stop her.

And now? 

Maybe it was the nature of their connection, but every time they got away from the clutches of BPO under Whispers’ watchful eyes, she grew a little more optimistic about her future. Their future.

Will was a fighter, that much was clear. He still believed he could save everyone, despite all the times he had been proven wrong on his job. And she knew how many times he had broken, because he could never hide his nightmares. 

At the end of the day, it was this innocence that made her fall in love a second time.

“I love you, Will,” she said as she watched his chest rise and fall. He didn’t respond, but he smiled as he started snoring gently.

*

July 9, 2017

Lito watched from across the kitchen table as Mavis logged on to her email from Nomi’s computer, typing out a series of codes to override all kinds of protection protocols set in place to encode her communication. She’d learned it from one of the Veracity hackers she worked with during her training, she told them, tilting her chin up as Nomi nodded in approval. The perfect disguise for a young sensate trying to impress.

Identity was but a costume, the designer from Kit Wrangler’s party had said. (He didn’t even remember his name; the entire memory of the party was a blur). Mavis seemed able to shed one identity for another, as evidenced by the night she put on an air of sophistication with a black dress and a blonde wig. He was both curious to see what else she could become, and nervous about what her skills implied.

“Ooh, new message,” Mavis leapt a little in her chair, and her shell of professionalism vanished, leaving behind the core of an excited twenty-one-year-old on her first big mission.

“Your cluster-mate?” Will, too, sat forward in his chair. 

A nod, before she turned back to skim the email.

“Is that the Portuguese?”

“Brazilian,” she corrected, turning back to face Will. “But it’s not him, it’s someone else. And she says the professor she’s working with is attending this convention thing abroad…” She looked at the email again, ignoring Will, who opened his mouth to ask another question. “Huh, he’s in Chicago, apparently. Sounds fishy. Lots of crazy stuff happening in Chicago.”

“Her professor?” Amanita interjected.

“Oh yeah, she’s in college. She got this internship at UCL this summer though, and she’s working with this neuroscientist who’s kind of a big deal. And she thinks — and I’m gonna agree with her because she’s freaking smart and she’s usually right about these things — that this scientist guy might be working with BPO.”

“Are you sure it’s safe for her to be so high-profile?” Nomi asked. 

Lito crossed his arms and huffed, pretending to be offended. 

“Not like you, Lito,” Nomi quickly amended. “Your status is a good cover.”

Mavis shrugged. “None of us knew when this feud or whatever you wanna call it with BPO would end. We may as well try and live a little. Or, some of us.”

“Are you sure she hasn’t been found out?” Sun asked.

“I’d say she probably hasn’t.”

“Why?”

“Because -” she drawled, puffing out her chest dramatically, and Lito was reminded of the times he passed on new knowledge to Hernando for a change - “she’s always on Blockers, and her birthday is registered as the first of July.”

“Is that legal?” came Will’s voice.

She smirked. “She was adopted from Kenya. They couldn’t pin down her exact birth date with a medical test.”

Capheus stopped in his tracks on his way to rinse out his mug. “When was your birthday?” he asked Mavis, brows furrowed.

“June 6th. Why?”

Lito saw his hands shake, though the Kenyan had tried his best to suppress it. Capheus set the cup down on the counter, knowing he might end up breaking it otherwise.

Riley turned to look at the cluster, and all of them turned to Capheus, anticipation mingling with trepidation. Hernando and Dani were looking at each other, frowning. Lito met their eyes and nodded slowly, giving them an “I’ll explain later” look.

Mavis tilted her head to look at all of them. “Okay, you people are scaring me. What’s wrong with my birthday?”

Capheus took a deep breath. Lito guessed he was going to ask anyway, if only to eliminate the slightest possibility. “What is her name?”

“Grace. Well, I think her original name is Kiira. Her parents kept it as her middle name. It’s what we call her -”

Capheus was leaning against the fridge for support now. “Kiira?” he asked to make sure he heard correctly. Mavis nodded.

“Why, do you know her?”

They all did. But in their collective memory, Kiira was still the small bundle of giggles and big hopeful eyes. Capheus still cried about the day they gave up his sister. Lito had often shed the tears in his place. One night Lito had sobbed so hard in his sleep, he had woken up and hugged a baffled Hernando and Dani in the middle of the night. They didn’t need an explanation to know he was hurting.

When Hernando would ask him about that night, long after their struggles in London were nothing more than bittersweet memories, he would explain to his partner that he had grieved because he had dreamed of the moment Capheus’ sister left her mother’s arms, of Shiro’s crestfallen voice that carved a hole in their hearts.

Goodbye, my Kiira*.

Chapter Text

July 9, 2017 (cont’d)

“Have you procured the records from Rasal Pharmaceuticals?” Veronika asked, laying the phone flat on her desk as she leaned back in her leather chair.

“N-No ma’am,” came Ajay’s voice. “We’re getting close, but -”

Veronika tutted her tongue. “What did I tell you?” her voice rose, and she heard a sharp intake of breath from the other end. “You are to inform me after you have secured the import and export records overseen by Mr Rasal. Not before.”

“I-I know,” he explained, speaking as fast as he could. “W-We have found a new development with Rasal’s wife. That’s why I’m - that is why I’m calling.”

She waited for him to go on, drumming her long red nails against her mahogany desk.

“My men had pulled up some bank records,” he continued, “and they found a lot of transactions from Rasal’s account to France. Erm, I mean, Paris. We- we suspect Mrs Rasal may have been relocated abroad.”

Clever, Mr Rasal. She reached for her favorite fountain pen, opened the cap, and dipped it in the bottle of indigo ink she always kept on her desk. “He knows his foolishness had put her in danger,” she observed, writing down the new development on her teal Moleskine. “Mr Rasal must care for her a lot.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ajay said. “He fears for her safety. He told me himself, when Manendra Rasal started running for office.”

And here she thought only sensates were foolhardy enough to fall prey to love. It was almost too easy. She scoffed. 

Her arm shook slightly, and a blot of ink dripped from the black pen she held in midair and landed on the page. She dropped her phone on her desk and snatched a tissue paper from the box to suck up the ink before it bled thorough to the next page. 

“Ma’am?” came Ajay’s voice, partially muffled by the desktop.

“Yes, yes, I’m still here,” she tried to sound impatient instead of irked. With a shaking hand, she carefully tore out the page from the planner, crumbling the paper into a ball with her hand. Then she dropped it on her desk and smashed it with a fist. “Forget about the storage unit records,” she continued.

“A-are you sure, ma’am?” he tried to sound like he didn’t hear the sound. “I promise, my men have been working around the clock -”

“Forget about those records,” she repeated, sounding impatient. She slammed her planner shut with a scowl, “and focus your resources on finding his wife.”

“Y-You wish to find Mrs Rasal, ma’am? But I thought the plan was -”

“Plan’s changed.” Her steel blue eyes glinted slightly at the new revelation, before she looked down at her desk and saw the teal Moleskine, which, she remembered with a twinge in her hand, now had a missing page.

Look what you did, Veronika. Gone and ruined this, too? the voice in her head she’d long forgotten returned with a vengeance, too many decibels above her threshold. A tear slid from the corner as she gritted her teeth, grabbed the Moleskine with a shaking hand, and flung to her right as hard as she could. It hit the wall with a thump. She buried her face in her hands, mascara smearing across her palms.

She heard Ajay drew a sharp intake of breath through the speaker, but she knew he wouldn’t pry. “As you wish, ma’am,” he said, trying to sound unaware of her outburst.

Nodding at no one in particular, she turned her gaze away from the couch on top of which her journal now laid. “Yes, yes. This new means of coercion will be more effective.”

She hung up before he could say another word, and tossed her pen in her drawer.

*

“Tell me about the Chairman,” Will said, sitting next to Jonas on the couch that afternoon. The crew had all gathered around the living room after lunch, sitting in chairs they pulled from the kitchen. Even Kala visited from Mr Hoy’s lab. Wolfgang, on the other hand, was in quarantine, Blocked at all hours.

Will had gathered that Veronika was an important figure from sifting through Whispers’ mind last night, though he wondered why he could not locate a memory with the Chairman’s face. Kala had speculated that perhaps the Chairman title was a ruse, and BPO has no single leader. Lito was inclined to agree — after Will showed them what he saw, the actor was certain the woman’s power over the Headhunter wasn’t an act.

“You are more right than you know,” Jonas looked between the three of them. 

“Jonas,” Amanita chipped in, “if you’re gonna start playing games again -”

He held up a hand to stop her. “I have had some time to reconsider my way of teaching.”

Mavis muttered an “about time” under her breath, and a few others nodded. Even Sun let out a sigh of relief.

“So, the Chairman title is a lie?” Lito asked. Hernando leaned forward in his chair to listen, frowning as he tried to take in every word.

“In a manner of speaking.” Jonas chuckled when he heard Nomi groan. “The woman Will saw is in a leadership position in the organization,” he continued to explain, true to his word, “but those who work closely with her do not refer to her as the Chairman when they are discussing private matter.”

“But she’s the Chairman as we know it?” 

Jonas nodded. “She had asked me to refer to her as the Chairman, after she intervened with my impending operation. She never told me her first name. But her business partners refer to her as Miss Makarova.”

“Veronika. That’s what Milton called her.”

Jonas nodded. 

“What else do you know about her?” asked Nomi.

“She’s Russian. The Makarova name appears to be well known in Russia. It’s an open secret that they are associated with Vor.”

“Why is she in charge of BPO?” asked Will.

“I believe she joined the organization shortly after 9-11.” 

“Whispers didn’t always work under her?”

Jonas shook his head. “No, Milton has been there long before her. She had acquired her position at the top of the organization a few years back. I haven’t been able to find out what happened to her competitors.”

Lito swallowed, hard.

“Do you think she’s got something to do with the missing people?” asked Nomi.

“Most likely, yes. Her family was in charge of one of the most prominent drug dealing operations in Saint Petersburg. It would not be hard for someone with access to BPO resources to develop a new drug that counteracts the effects of Blockers.” 

“And if she kept in touch with her family’s old connections, it would be easy to distribute the new product,” Kala added. Jonas gave her a nod.

“My father was negotiating with Russians a few years back,” Sun added. “I believe they never did reach a consensus.”

Amanita turned to her. “Do you think your brother’s still working with her?”

“Nothing about Joong-Ki surprises me anymore.”

Dani, who had been silent, leaned forward in her chair. “He’s not the only one.”

Sun raised an eyebrow.

Dani turned to Jonas. “You said her name was Makarova?” He nodded. She let out a deep sigh. “Figures.”

“What is it?” Hernando asked.

“She’s one of my dad’s business contacts.”

Lito groaned, and Hernando buried his face in his hands.

Dani turned to them. “I saw Joaquín,” she told everyone, and they all shuddered except Mavis and Jonas, who looked at each other, confused.

“Joaquín?” Lito leaped a little in his chair. “He’s here? What is he doing here?”

Hernando lifted his face from his hands, his eyes wide open as he sunk back in his chair. “He could be negotiating with this - this Veronika woman,” he sounded hoarse. “Joaquín works with your parents, no?” 

Dani nodded. Lito looked like he was about to descent into madness. 

Jonas cleared his throat. “Knowing the names of her collaborators gives us an advantage.”

“Yeah. I’ll start keeping a tab on their transactions,” said Nomi.

Kala turned to Jonas. “Is there anything else you know about her?”

He thought about it. “When we were negotiating my new -” he looked at Will - “conditions… Something stood out in the way she spoke about sensates.”

“How do you mean?” asked Sun.

“I believe you have already deduced the intention behind the recent attack?” Jonas asked. Everyone nodded. “I believe there is a personal reason she wants to turn the world against Homo sensorium.”

“She wants revenge against sensates?” Capheus ventured. “But why?”

“Sadly -” Jonas glared at Will - “I was whisked away before I could investigate.”

Will crossed his arms. “We’ll ask when we get her.”

*

They made their ways down the stairs slowly, Will’s smile widening with every step as he guided a blindfolded Riley with one hand behind the small of her back. They’d missed dinner because Will had insisted on calling Diego from a burner phone to inform him of the nature of the missing persons case in California.

When the blindfold was lifted off, Riley realized she was in the kitchen. But the lights were off, and Lito was the only other person in the room. He wore a black suit and red bowtie, and what appeared to be his best leather shoes. Grinning, he held out a battered old pewter tray to offer them two glasses of some sparkling drink, which they accepted.

“Welcome to your first date.” 

Lito gestured to the dining table with a white tablecloth, on top of which he’d placed a glass coke bottle with the label removed. A pink rose was inside the makeshift vase, and two candles was on either side. The dinner table was intended for a dozen people, so two plates, covered with larger plates used in place of lids, were put next to each other on one end. Small candles decked the rest of the table, forming an outline of a heart.

Will put his glass down and walked over to one side. He pulled out the chair for Riley to sit down, before he took the seat opposite of her. 

“So, what’s on the menu?” Riley asked. 

Lito walked over and lifted the plate in front of her to reveal a medium steak, the way she liked it. Hernando had put sautéed carrots and asparagus on one side of the plate, and the peppery sauce on the other side was artfully poured into the shape of Cupid’s arrow puncturing a heart. Lito lifted Will’s plate to reveal an identical dish. Turned out coffee wasn’t the only thing they liked the same way. 

Riley’s eyes widened. “Will! Wow. You did this?”

“Uhh,” he said, scratching the back of his neck as a blush crept onto his cheeks. Will’s astounding ability to burn the most basic dishes known to American adults had been a recurring joke among the cluster ever since he’d divulged the secret to Lito, a choice he regretted. “I may have enlisted some help?”

“Hernando made the food. Dani picked the soundtrack,” Lito said to her a wink, flashing his signature swoon-worthy smirk. They hadn’t noticed the red music player plugged into the speaker Riley had brought, which was playing a classical piano piece.

“No appetizers?” she joked. 

Will shrugged. “We were running out of groceries.”

Riley smiled before taking a sip of her drink, raising an eyebrow when she discovered it tasted like lemon. She was expecting something alcoholic. “What is this?”

“Homemade lemonade and sprite.” Will said, beaming. “I made it.”

“I like it,” Riley declared, holding up her glass. “Join us for a drink, Lito?”

Lito shook his head. “I am not crashing your date.” He opened the fridge and took out a jug filled with Will’s lemonade soda. “You can serve yourselves, yes?”

After Lito set the jug down on the table, he waltzed out of the kitchen, humming to himself as he bounced up the stairs. They laughed as they raised their glasses.

“To us.” 

They threw back the drink, giggling as bubbles tingled their throats.

“I, uhh.” Will’s smile turned sheepish as he gestured to their dishes. “I did help with the chopping. But, umm, I didn’t wanna risk burning the house down.” 

She laughed. “Is that what you say on all your first dates?”

“I -” he paused, and decided to tease back. “I mean, usually we’d go to a restaurant? I don’t remember. It’s been a while.”

A ticked eyebrow. “Really?”

“Yeah. Huh, the last one was… God, before I started my job?” He frowned a little, nose crinkling. She found that particularly endearing on her cop.

“Well then, I feel very honored.”

Nodding, he paused for a few seconds, opening and closing his mouth to try and figure out what to say in response. He gave up eventually. “Maybe we should eat first.”

She laughed and tried a piece of carrot. It was sautéed lightly, and sprinkled with a pinch of salt. The surface was crisp, but the juice was still sweet inside. All her vegetables turned out bland. She made a note to ask Hernando to teach her his ways.

Will went straight for the steak. He cut a large piece and shoved it into his mouth, moaning when his taste buds decided it was the best steak he’d ever eaten. “God, this is so good.” He cut another piece and brought the fork to Riley’s mouth. “Try it.”

“You know I have the same thing,” she said, but accepted it anyway, eyes widening when she took in the taste. 

In return she fed him a carrot. He chewed slowly, savoring the taste. Then he tried one from his own plate. “I think yours tastes better,” he concluded. 

She made a move to switch their plates, but he put a hand on top of hers to stop her, wiggling his fingers to graze the back of her hand, a small tickling move, he’d discovered in their days in Amsterdam, that could always make her grin.

“It’s better because it’s yours.”

Her grin turned into a smirk. She reached over and stole a piece of his steak, bringing it into her mouth as his face morphed into one of mock vexation. “You’re right,” she said, taking a slow sip of her sparkling lemonade. “It is better.”

They clinked their glasses again, downing their second drinks.

It was then that they noticed what was playing on the speaker. They had been listening to mellow ambience music for the last half hour or so (who was keeping time?), but all of a sudden, Riley perked up in her chair.

It was the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, the same music that lulled Kala to sleep when they were still plotting a way to get Wolfgang back. With Wolfgang safe in Kala’s hands, and the new situation with Veracity, it seemed a lifetime ago that their biggest concern was how to interrogate a certain white-haired Headhunter.

Will frowned, concentrating. “I think I’ve heard this before.”

“My papa used to play this a lot. It was one of my favorites.” 

He paused to listen. “I like it.” Then, “Did you ever learn to play an instrument?”

“I used to play the piano. Papa taught me the ukulele, too.”

“Do you know how to play this one?”

She shook her head. “I used to beg him to teach me. He told me it’s a lot harder than it sounds, and he’d teach me when I was older.” She looked down at the fork in her hand. “But I don’t play anymore.”

His gaze softened. “You don’t have to tell me if -”

“I stopped when mama died. She used to watch me play.” She swallowed hard, remembering the times she looked to her right as she played, expecting to see her mother but finding nothing but empty space. “Sorry.” She shook her head, smiling in apology.

He returned the smile and reached over, putting his hands over hers, prompting her to look into his eyes. “It’s good to remember.” He sounded wistful. “That’s what my dad used to say.”

“It is,” she agreed.

“I don’t remember my mother,” he continued. “But dad said I take after her.”

“What was she like?”

“She was a social worker. He said she worked at a children’s shelter.”

Riley pictured a smiling woman with warm eyes like Will’s. She would have liked to get to know her. 

He smiled. “A lot of her kids used to get in trouble with the cops. That’s how they met.”

“Did she get them out of trouble?”

“Mm. Dad said she was pretty forgiving. They argued a lot about these things. She always insisted on giving them another chance.”

She thought about it. “Did he listen?”

“Not always. More often when they started dating, though.” 

She laughed. 

“I think, when she died, he went back to how he was before.” He started picking at the vegetables on his plate. “Especially with me. I thought I could never make him proud. And all the shoplifting and lock-picking didn’t exactly help,” he tried for self-deprecation, hoping to lighten the mood.

Riley shook her head. “That’s not the Will I know.” 

“Isn’t it?”

She walked over to embrace him from behind, and kissed the top of his head. “The Will who saved me from Iceland? The one who never gave up searching for Sara Patrell? I believe he would have been proud if he knew the truth.”

*

July 10, 2017

Kiira had set up a meeting with Capheus at a cafe near University College London.

Mavis had insisted that at this stage in the operation, it was best to have everything in the open. Of course, it was entirely possible that Kiira's birthday and country of birth was no more than a miraculous coincident, but apparently there was another way, a sensate way, to confirm their relation.

Though as soon as Capheus made his way to the back of the cafe where the booths were, as soon as the young woman looked up from the book she was reading, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, he knew. It was like looking at a young version of the mother he remembered from his early childhood. Except her hair was tied up in two afro puffs atop her head, and she was donned in black ballet flats and a white off-shoulder dress. 

Then a memory of her birth flashed before his eyes, and his flashed before hers. Kiira tilted her head to examine his expression, big brown eyes filled with curiosity. Just as he remembered when he was eight.

“I suppose this tests your hypothesis,” she concluded. Her voice was soft and had a light quality to it, unlike the chipper way Mavis spoke. And, despite knowing she was raised in Cambridge, her accent gave him a pause. “I’ll be honest, I don’t quite know what to say in a situation like this. I haven’t pictured this scenario in my mind for years.”

He nodded, mouth hanging halfway open. Words became a jumble in his mind, but everyone else except Sun, who was on just-in-case security duty, was on Blockers. I would start with a simple hello, she suggested.

“H-Hello, Kiira,” he croaked. 

“Right. Hello.” She leaned forward, tilting her head a bit to the left. “I suppose that is the most logical response. Capheus, is it?”

She was calmer than he had expected. Though, come to think again, he wasn’t sure his mind was in a state to expect anything before the meeting — it all happened so fast. But her composure, and the fact that he was surprised by what he was witnessing, only served as a reminder of how much he didn’t know about his own sister.

She cradled her mug with her hands and turned it back and forth on top of the saucer, one thumb fiddling with the string attached to the teabag inside. “I’m Grace to most people,” she told him, interrupting the train of thought he now realized must have been broadcasted to her mind as well. “But you can call me Kiira if you wish. My family does.”

“O-Okay, yes.” His cheeks flushed. 

He and his mother had picked the name together, but he reminded himself that they were not the family she grew up knowing. Mavis had called her Kiira, but she was in her cluster. Could he do the same? Or was he overstepping? He shouldn’t have assumed -

“It’s alright, really,” she reassured, smiling politely. He could have kicked himself for forgetting, for the second time, that they were both sensates. “It’s - I do like the name.” Something from my past to remember by, he heard her think.

“Would you like to know about -” he started, before he stopped himself, wondering if the question would make her angry. Or upset. Or both? He wondered for a moment if she had inherited his mother’s temper or his father’s.

She nodded, knowing what he was going to ask. “Tell me.”

He didn’t know where to start.

“Mavis told me you’re running for political office?” she prompted, pulling her teabag out of the mug to lay on the saucer. “Does it run in the family?”

“Well, in a way. Our father set up a tea planters’ union.”

“Is he still in office?”

“No.” He sighed. “He was killed during one of his riots.”

“Oh,” she replied. “I’m sorry. It must have been hard for you.” The grief in her mind was an echo of his. He knew from the thoughts that ran through their shared mind that she was wondering how she should feel, and what was expected of someone in her situation.

“It was hard on all of us, yes. We were -” he recalled how he and his mother had starved, how he had worried if his then-unborn sister would survive. He hoped she’d hear him out. She furrowed her brows as she picked up the thought.

She looked up. “Was that why…” 

He wasn’t the only one at a loss for words. But if Mavis was truthful about how long she had been reborn, that meant Kiira would be more acquainted with her powers than he was. And it appeared Mavis was telling the truth, he concluded, as he saw glimpses of a young Kiira laying awake at night, mentally listing the 50-and-ongoing possible reasons she was separated from her birth family.

“We never wanted to let you go, Kiira.” He tried to bring forth the memory he had shared with Riley at the graveyard, but being on Blockers all the time meant he was out of practice, and the images came out slightly blurred, his mother’s voice somewhat distant. “But we wanted to give you your best chance.”

She was silent for a while as tears brimmed in her eyes. For a moment, he thought he had upset her. But she shook her head.

“It’s not - I just felt your -” she sighed, giving up when she couldn’t find the right words to describe the emotions she’d received from the memory. “Thank you.”

“I owe you the truth.”

She thought about it. “We’ve not gotten acquainted enough to owe each other anything.”

“I guess not,” he conceded. “But - I’m sorry if I’m overstepping -” but are you happy? his mind blurted out before he could stop himself. 

“I am.” 

“Mavis told me you’re in medical school? What a gift.”

She nodded. “It is. I’m studying to become a neurosurgeon.”

“I don’t know if this means anything to you -” he looked at Kiira, who nodded, prompting him to continue. “But our mother, she wanted to be a doctor, too.”

“Interesting,” she said, tilting her head a bit to the left again. 

She was raised by two English professors, and she’d always wondered if her desire to heal came from her birth family. He smiled upon hearing her thoughts.

But her parents were in Cambridge, and she was in London. And Whispers and the others were still hunting. “Is it… Is it safe for you -” to be out here? Alone?

Her eyes widened. He knew she’d come to the conclusion that it would be beneficial for the sake of their safety to stop talking out loud, and simply project their thoughts into each other’s minds. Mavis’ contacts got me enough Blockers for a decade.

But what about your professor? 

Kiira fished a phone from a backpack she kept near her side, and showed him a picture of the professor’s profile on the UCL website: Andreas Thorsten. Acclaimed neurologist. Received his Ph.D from University of Chicago.

I’m working on a way to locate alternate IDs he may be using - she pointed at the picture of the professor on her phone - but it would be a challenge. It would be highly illogical for him to keep his surgical records in his office, though I don’t know where else I could look.

We have someone who can do background checks.

Your cluster?

Yes. She’s very good at accessing the unaccessible, he thought, beaming.

Kiira nodded, impressed. Seems you have quite a resourceful assembly.

We do.

I’m glad to be of help. I wish I could have come with you.

I’m sorry about your cluster-mate. They had been informed about Morgan’s death, Kiira saw inside their collection of recent memories.

Thank you.

She looked at the back cover of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on her lap, and Capheus knew she was listing 50-and-ongoing possible ways she could exact revenge on the BPO Headhunter like an organized mental to-do list.

I’m worried about Mavis, she admitted. How is she?

He started showing her his memories of the young ex-spy inside his head, starting with the image of Mavis rolling her eyes as Will pinned her against the front of the van, to Kiira’s utter amusement judging by her giggle. 

They sat in silence for a while as he waited for Kiira to sift through his mind. As the sky started to dim outside, she looked at the leather-strapped watch on her wrist. “I’m afraid I must to leave. I’d rather reach my flat before it gets dark.”

She stood up, as did Capheus. “Do you need an escort?”

She shook her head, but smiled. “That won’t be necessary. It’s only three blocks away -” and it’s best if we go in different directions in case we’re followed. “But thank you.”

Before she made a move towards the stairs, though, she paused to survey Capheus again. His head was slightly bowed so could see eye-to-eye, and his hands were clasped in front of his chest. Upon seeing the signature tilt of her head, he read her thoughts and fount out she had a tendency to do the same whenever she was nervous. She was counting the little cues in his mannerisms that she too possessed, wondering how many were caused by genetic factors.

Then his mouth opened slightly, as if searching for more to say. Truth be told, it had been years since he last imagined the two of them meeting in person, too. He projected this thought forward, hoping she would hear it.

She nodded.

“Imagining a meeting is different from experiencing it,” she concluded. “But it’s been good, getting to know you.” She held out her hand, and he shook it. Her grip was firm, and her chin was raised, giving off an air of confidence much like their late father.

“Yes, it’s very nice to finally meet.” I’ve missed you.

“You could stay a while longer. They have very good tea,” she told him before she made her way down the stairs.

I hope we’ll meet again, Capheus.

*

The last thing Sun had expected that night was a call from Detective Mun. But life’s found a way of defying her expectations once again, she concluded, as Nomi shoved a burner phone into her hand and guided her to the kitchen.

“I didn’t know you had a romantic streak, Miss Bak,” came Mun’s voice. “But thanks for the chocolate bars. They’re my favorite.”

It’s true. He used to buy one every day.

Sun glared, and Nomi winked and nodded at the phone. “There are many things you don’t know about me.”

“That’s true. I don’t even know where you are.”

“Nice try, Detective.”

She heard ruffling from the other end. Then, “Huh. No return address on the envelope. Well, it was worth a shot.”

She glowered as she focused on the presence of Nomi’s mind. You sent a card?

Who sends gifts without a greeting card? was the reply. 

“My friends at the station,” he continued, “told me someone found the footage of my shooting from the Gala?”

“And?”

There was the sound of a wrapper opening, then he gave a slight, satisfied moan as he bit into the chocolate bar, savoring the taste. She sighed, annoyed at the dramatic pause. 

“I’m just asking because… You disappeared, and then a mysterious stranger tipped off the police?” he asked with his mouth still full, before swallowing. “I can’t help but wonder if you’re involved.”

Mrs Cho was right, Sun thought, crossing her arms. Rhetorical questions are the worst. 

“Don’t worry, Miss Bak. I’m looking for your brother, not you.”

“Stay away from Joong-Ki. He is more dangerous than you think.”

“I know,” he sounded almost solemn when he spoke again, but then the air of gravity was broken with a chuckle. “But so am I. He’s failed to kill me twice, after all.”

If they were talking in person and he weren’t injured, she would have punched the smug grin she knew he was wearing right off his face. “I’m serious, Detective.”

“So am I. I can take care of myself, Miss Bak.”

“Just be careful.”

“I’ll talk to my lawyer tomorrow when I get out,” he told her. She heard him break off another piece of chocolate. “He’s not getting away that easily.”

*

Wolfgang was addicted to hearing Kala talk about grenades. Maybe it was because her impromptu explosive had once saved his life at his uncle’s. Perhaps she just looked like a Goddess when she was surrounded by orange flames; or, in this case, rows of colorful chemicals bubbling in beakers.

“It has to be able to break on impact,” Kala said to Mr Hoy, who was sitting on a stool nearby, documenting their progress with the Blocker assembly that day. “But if we were to carry it around, we also can’t risk having it break by accident.”

“Aye, you won’t want your wee backs to be marred when you’ve got Headhunters chasin’ after you,” the old chemist agreed. 

She turned to Wolfgang and Felix, who sat nearby, pressing filled black capsules together with their other halves, the last batch that day. “What do you think?”

“Bombs are always a good idea,” said Felix. 

Wolfgang nodded. “They won’t be expecting it. And it’s easier to aim.”

The clock struck twelve. Felix passed Wolfgang the pressed capsules and bade everyone good night, followed by Mr Hoy, who retreated into the Speakeasy underneath the chemical work station to contact an Archipelago Blocker dealer.

Wolfgang counted twenty capsules to put inside each reused bottle. He covered the old labels with blank stickers and wrote the new date on top.

Kala stood up and started washing the beakers near the sink. “I suppose it would be useful for those of us who can’t shoot well. But it’s not as fatal.”

Wolfgang smiled at the way she frowned when she thought about the damage her explosive should bring. “Do you want it to be?”

She turned off the tap so he could hear her response. “It just has to be corrosive and create enough of an obstruction for people to stop shooting at us. But oh -” she turned around and ran back to her laptop, still speaking as she frantically typed down her ideas before she could forget - “if I can create a reaction that produces a poisonous fog, perhaps it could take out the enemies more permanently.”

He stood up and inched his way towards where she sat, one side leaning against the edge of the station for support. “Well, when you put it like that, it sounds very sexy.”

She smiled as she scrolled up, scanning her earlier notes for the grenade design. Her hair was in a messy bun, and one strand had fallen loose on the side. He reached out a hand to tuck it inside the rubber band, kissing the area where it tickled her neck.

“It’s midnight,” he said into her ear. 

She turned to face him, frowning as she took in his still-pallid complexion. “You should go to bed, bhediya.”

“What about you?”

“I’m working on the formula for the grenade.” She turned back to her screen.

Words he never thought he’d hear someone say. He smirked, showcasing his dimples in their entirety. “You can finish tomorrow.”

As if on cue, she yawned. “No, you go ahead. I’ll finish up.”

“I’ll wait for you, then.” He tried to sit down slowly, but the stool he had chosen was too low, and his body betrayed him as he let out a strained gasp. Felix was right. He still needed a fucking cane. 

She sighed, turning back to him as she lowered her stool to look him in the eye. “Wolfgang. You’re recovering. Go to bed.”

And that smirk was back, the one that made her cave every time. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t have my cane.”

Wolfgang,” she groaned, closing her laptop. She stood up. “Alright,” she declared, crossing her arms. “I am only helping you because I don’t want you to fall down the stairs.”

His smirk grew wider. “Yeah, okay.”

She held out her hand, and pulled him up gently. She wasn’t wearing heels, and for the first time she noticed their height difference: she’d have to stand on tip toes so their eyes could be at the same level. Laying his arm across her shoulder, she put her arm against the small of his back and guided him outside the room.

The stairs weren’t much of a challenge, though she could tell they were going a little too fast for his comfort even though he tried to keep himself from grunting. All the way up, she wondered if she should scold him for not using his cane, but then he paused halfway to catch his breath, and she nearly kicked herself for being harsh. 

Her grip around his back tightened, and her voice was softer when she spoke again. “We’re almost there.”

He nodded and continued walking, slower now, trying to keep his frantic breathing under control. When they reached the top and rounded the corner, they stepped into the first room, the one they’d been sharing. She guided him to bed and gave him a new ration of Blockers, not wanting any Headhunters to invade his mind in his sleep. 

He’d all but collapsed into the bed when he tried to lie down.

After washing up, she climbed in from the other side. He turned to watch as she settled in next to him, smiling when she noticed he was still awake. She helped him undress, lifting the shirt he wore over his chest, and he cringed when he looked down and was greeted by the new bruises and old scars he’d tried to forget. 

She pulled the shirt off, lowering his head into the pillow slowly. Then she took off his pants and socks, but decided against pulling off his boxers. She had caved enough for one night.

“It’s getting better,” she reassured him, kissing a particularly angry bruise. 

He wasn’t sure he believed that. But when she laid down again and turned to face him she was smiling, and the last thing he wanted was to see the smile vanish. So he nodded and inched closer to peck her on the lips. 

She closed her eyes and hummed, sounding content. He smoothed her hair back with his fingers in the way he knew she found calming, and soon he felt her drifting off, her presence fogging in their shared consciousness until only an ever-present radiance remained, even as his Blocker kicked into place.

“You’re the cure,” he mumbled, watching her smile grow wider as she slept.

Chapter Text

July 11, 2017

When Will woke in the middle of the night, he heard voices echo as Whispers’ vision started to come into focus in their shared mind. 

He felt Riley wake beside him, moving over to hold his hand, her other hand presumably reaching for the Blockers they kept on the nightstand. He stirred, opened his eyes and gestured for the syringe next to the bottle of Blockers, their emergency heroin supply. He wished he could have had a larger dose, but Kala had advised against it in case he relapsed. 

Still, he wasn’t going to let this impromptu dream-connection slip away. 

His vision was slipping back and forth between the room he shared with Riley and the scene unfolding in the BPO office, and Whispers’ presence was far from welcoming. But he latched on to the coldness in the corner of the Psycellium that he knew belonged to the Headhunter. At this stage in the war, more information was hardly a bad thing.

It getting a lot easier for Will to learn what the Headhunter was thinking or doing anytime his Blockers were wearing off. He wondered when he had gone from hiding from Whispers’ prying to actively creeping around in the man’s head. When a sensate is on the run, he supposed, all the ethics of mind-reading goes out the window. Though he wasn’t sure he liked beating the Headhunter at his own game, as satisfying as it was to get answers.

He shooed the thought away when Whispers’ vision came into focus again. 

There was a laptop in front of him, and Will squinted, trying to make out the image on the screen. It looked like a Google map of Great Britain. There were red dots scattered all across the country, congregating around certain points, one of which he guessed was London. But Whispers was scrolling up to zoom in on Scotland.

The heroin kicked in, and the words became clearer, as did the voices.

Are you certain it was Mr Berner that he saw? Whispers asked, addressing a young man who Will saw standing on the other side of his desk. He had dark rings under his eyes, and his shirt was plastered to his body with sweat.

The man had a Russian accent when he spoke. He said he was in disguise, but he remembered him. They used to work together.

Your informant was in Aberdeen?

Yes, sir. He saw them get on another platform.

Will felt Whispers sigh. Was anyone else with him?

A woman. And a man on a wheelchair. Their faces were hidden.

He heard Whispers chuckle. Must be Mrs Rasal and Mr Bogdanow.

Will knew Whispers already found out Kala worked as a chemist for Rasal Pharmaceuticals. A glimpse into the Headhunter’s recent memory showed that that morning, he’d learned the Blocker traders were making their ways across the Archipelago with an added frenzy because of the new drug-induced mass-huntings. At a time like this, it wouldn’t be hard to deduce what a chemist like Kala would be up to.

What day was this? Whispers asked.

The 20th, sir.

Then go back to your office and start searching.

Shit. Whispers was getting too close for comfort. Although -

Hoy, Will thought, trying to trigger any possible memories the Headhunter might have. Mr Hoy. Old Man of Hoy?

There was no echo, no images shifting around to reveal the face Riley had seen at the rave. Will breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe Whispers never knew him. Or maybe he knew him by a different alias? 

Then the scene faded into darkness, before both Will and Whispers were looking at Riley’s face in bed. Will shut his eyes immediately, tapping his finger on Riley’s hand. She put a Blocker in his mouth, and handed him a bottle of water, which he chugged. 

The last thing he knew Whispers heard, before the connection was cut off, was the sound of Riley’s voice, asking what had happened.

“Whispers might find the lab,” he told Riley as he sprang up in their bed. “We need to warn them.”

*

The apartment felt empty without Kala. 

It was especially hard to wake up and see the empty space next to him. Rajan had gotten used to seeing Kala on the patio, smiling at the view of Mumbai below. Sometimes she’d sing in the shower and wake him up. In fact, he had become so dependent on her voice that he’d forgotten to reset his phone alarm.

Damn it. He was going to miss his meeting with Agent Singh. 

As he made his way across the living room, he saw the new gift-wrapped box sitting on the coffee table and suppressed a shudder. The man at the reception desk had given it to him last night, saying Mr Kapoor had dropped it off, but he was too tired to deal with it then. 

It wasn’t hard to guess what was inside. He’d received another jade Ganesha statues in his mail a few days after Kala had left for Paris. The box had been wrapped in pure white paper, and the word Transparent had been written in English at the top.

As soon as the elevator opened on the ground floor, Rajan ran into the car waiting in front of the apartment building, his ever-vigilant bodyguard Vikram following close. The driver stepped on the pedal as soon as Vikram shut the door. They zig-zagged through the busy streets full of trucks and bikes and auto rickshaws. In his sleep-deprived state, the motion made Rajan’s head spin.

When he finally made it into his office, hoping his sweat didn’t stain the gray suit he’d haphazardly thrown on in the morning, Agent Singh stood from where he sat on the couch. Vikram stood by the door, keeping an eye out for potential intrusions. 

They shook hands, and Rajan apologized for being late.

“It’s alright, Rajan. Sit down.” The Agent gestured to the seat next to him. He reached for a binder he’d put on the coffee table and opened it.

“Sir, about Ajay -” Rajan started, and Agent Singh waved him off. 

“We have our eyes on him watching for evidence of suspicious activities. You don’t have to worry about him.”

“Have you found anything?”

“He had been exporting a great deal of funds to a Russian account for the past -” he took out a piece of printed records from inside the file and skimmed it - “fifteen months. My men believe he could have been negotiating a contract with Vor.”

Rajan’s eyes widened. “A - a year?”

“It’s not the first transaction he’s made with that account. We have pulled up records of multiple transactions between them, several years past. We believe whoever the Russian was, they could be a long term business partner.”

“Have you found the name of the owner?”

“The account was deactivated three months ago. All records on identity erased.”

Damn it. Rajan frowned. “Sir, does this means my collaboration with Ajay…” He looked up, not wanting to vocalize that thought.

The Agent seemed to have understood. “We will take your cooperation into consideration when we start our investigation into Rasal Pharmaceuticals. But I am afraid your previous involvement with Ajay Kapoor will be reflected in your records.”

His eyelid twitched slightly. “I understand, sir.”

“But we will remember that you came forward with your knowledge to help with the investigation, Rajan.”

Rajan pressed his palms together, bowing his head in gratitude. “Thank you, Agent Singh.”

Agent Singh nodded. “I just came to inform you of the latest development, courtesy of your assistance to our investigation. But I wouldn’t worry too much about your penalty — it’s not enough to warrant jail time. And the fine should be more than affordable.”

“What about this company?”

He thought about it. “I don’t think your company is the only one selling expired drugs. A reputable company such as this should survive the scandal, especially if people hear you willingly cooperated.”

Thank you, Rajan thought, to no deity in particular.

“What about Ajay?”

“If I were him, I would leave this country immediately.”

Rajan breathed a sigh of relief. 

“But -” Agent Singh continued, and Rajan held back a groan - “if we are really dealing with Vor, it could be months before any of us could gather enough evidence on this Russian partner to prosecute Ajay, if we can find anything at all.”

If he had been alone, Rajan would have sworn.

He was in no mood to stay in his office after the meeting, so after Agent Singh left, he asked his driver to take him back to the apartment. The minute he got home, he charged straight into living room, ripping open the box wrapped in sunshine yellow paper. The color of the dress Kala wore on their first date, he remembered.

There was no card, but there was a jade Ganesha statue just as he’d expected. It broke into pieces as soon as he laid his hand on it, one sharp corner pricking his palm. Fuck. He dumped the rest of the content on the coffee table, not caring whether he’d made a dent. 

But the statue wasn’t the only thing in the box. Wilted red rose petals fell out from the bottom on the box, drifting in mid-air before gently landing on top of the broken statue, like a scene from a morbid fairy tale.

His phone rang then, and he plucked it out of his suit pocket so fast, he nearly dropped it on top of the shattered statue. 

“What are you playing at?” 

“Did you enjoy my present?” asked Ajay.

“I told you it’s over.”

“Rajan, would you really throw your company into the scandal for a woman? For some ridiculous moral righteousness? I didn’t think you were the type.”

“You don’t know anything about me.”

“Don’t I?” Ajay laughed. “I know how far you’re willing to go to keep Kala safe. Speaking of, I haven’t seen her these days. How is she?”

He clutched his fist. “Whatever problem you have with me is between us. Stop harassing my wife,” he demanded, voice raised.

“Why worry, Rajan? We both know she’s out of my reach.”

Rajan scowled. “I’m keeping her safe with me, yes. For good reason.”

“I know she’s not living in your apartment.”

What? Rajan mouthed and turned to Vikram, who stood nearby, stoic as ever. The bodyguard raised an eyebrow before he started to scan the room for suspicious devices.

Ajay chuckled. “I heard Paris is really beautiful this time of year. The perfect time to visit, wouldn’t you say?”

*

Lila wanted to live without a leash around her neck.

She had always been this way. Her parents and older brother had never approved. You are part of this family, they used to say. Always was and always will be.

But they weren’t the family that she needed.

She had always prided herself on her perception, her ability to read both sensates and sapiens. Everyone in Naples knew that as a Facchini, she was trained in the art of manipulation from day one, but she’d suspected there was something about her that set her apart from her parents and brother. There were times she could sense someone’s intention the moment their eyes locked and see a brief glimpse of their memory. 

She used to think it was a hallucination. After her rebirth, her Mother had been quick to discount that theory.

“Dogan is dead?” Maitake asked from where he stood besides her on the patio. 

Lila didn’t flinch when he visited with his black cotton shirt halfway unbuttoned, the serpentine body of the Japanese dragon tattoo on his chest peeking out from his open collars. She was used to seeing her cluster-mate in various states of undress. She knew he was changing into more formal attire for dinner with some of the Headhunters, per another one of Veronika’s orders.

She nodded, taking a drag of her cigarette, and offered one to him. He accepted it, and she handed him a lighter. “Marcela helped. Sebastian was useless.” As always.

They gazed out, looking at the city clothed in the glory of dusk, orange and pink rays pouring into the open streets. Down below, the vulnerable pedestrians walked on, unaware they were being watched. The two of them exhaled and watched as the light gray smoke tinted the sky for a few moments before it disappeared.

Marcela visited then, appearing in front of them. She wore a rich purple dress that hugged her curves, and her black hair was newly curled. Lila could smell perfume.

“Good?” she asked.

The corners of Lila’s mouth lifted for a second as the setting around them changed into the inside of Marcela’s hotel room in London, complete with ebony furniture and backlit mirrors. Lila had to admit BPO was generous when it came to accommodation. Maybe they knew from the beginning that the hotel rooms would turn into prisons. 

“Purple looks good on you. Veronika is going to be jealous.”

The Mexican nodded, not changing her expression. “This shows her we’re unfazed by her little games. If we want to find Sylvie, we have to wait for her to slip up. Jealousy could work in our favor.”

Lila knew better the to question the logic of a well-trained assassin.

Memories their Congolese cluster-mate shared with them flashed through their shared consciousness. Lila could still hear Sylvie’s voice singing Fally Ipupa's songs, the sweet soprano weaving through the Psycellium like one of her special hand-etched carpets. Fighting was far from Sylvie’s strong suit, but she’d insisted on joining the action. Mai soli means we fight together, she’d said to Lila as their silver van drove into the middle of the gunfight with the August 8 cluster.

The three of them were silent for a moment as they reminded themselves why they hadn’t put a bullet through Veronika’s temple. If Veronika thought confiscating one of the cluster could make the rest of them obey, she clearly didn’t know Lila as much as she’d claimed.

Maitake turned to Lila. “What is your plan?”

She turned and nodded at the interior of the penthouse. The drop-down windows of the top floor gave her a good view of the elevator that led to the living room. Sebastian was on his way back from Zurich. He would be here in a few hours.

Marcela stepped forward. “You wish to do it alone?”

“I’ll take care of it.”

Maitake frowned. “Lila, be smart.”

“I am.” She crossed her arms. “Veronika wishes to make a deal with Sebastian. She plans to use his dealers for the next hunt.”

“This is reckless,” he protested. “You should wait for us to come back.”

She shook her head. “I will call you if there’s a problem. But it should work.” 

They frowned, but didn’t protest further.

“See you soon.”

BPO had known about Lila’s cluster since the day they were reborn, but their collaboration with the Headhunters was ultimately Lila’s decision. BPO had promised them research into their anatomy and immunity from their hunts, and she was blindsided, too eager to find out what made her special to realize the repercussions of a deal with sapiens. She’d convinced all of them to stay on BPO’s side. To hunt, rather than be hunted.

Jonas had warned her not to test their luck like this. She wished she’d listened.

Veronika was a lying snake, like most people in her life. She’d known the Russian woman was bad news the moment she laid eyes on her. But instead of recoiling, she had pushed her cluster right under her fangs, believing one day they could kill her with her own venom. Now all of her cluster was paying for her delusions. 

But if there was one thing Lila believed herself capable of doing, it was fixing her mistakes.

*

In Chicago, the trains creaked when they turned, and all one could see when they looked out the window was more city: busy streets, brown buildings, areas behind billboard signs no one ever cleaned, or houses set too close together, bracing themselves against the oncoming noise pollution. 

To Will, trains were inevitable, an irritating part of his life that made him groan during rush hours. Train rides weren’t meant to be scenic, save for the one he shared with Riley in Amsterdam after their daring escape. Usually he expected to see more people’s heads than trees. But, he supposed as he looked out the window of the Eurostar, watching the afternoon sun cast a pleasant warmth over the farms he passed by, having a private compartment meant he was given the luxury of peace without being disturbed by strangers. 

Riley was sitting next to him, her head on his shoulder. He wondered what she was thinking. It was so easy to take their connection for granted until they started to stay on Blockers during the day. She shifted her head, prompting him to face her. 

“Have you been to Paris?” she asked.

“I’ve never even been outside the States before I went to Iceland.” He cringed, remembering  ambulances and helicopters and the heavy fog high up in the mountains.

Nomi and Amanita had fallen asleep on the opposite bench, huddled together, headphones over their ears. Kala and company should be due in Paris soon, and Sun and Jonas were in St Pancras waiting for the next train. The rest of the group planned to travel the day after.

Quietly, she said, “I’m sorry you had to see Iceland like that.”

“Mm,” he pretended to think hard as he ran a thumb under her cheekbone, “I mean, last time wasn’t all bad.” 

He flashed her an impish smirk before lowering his head to bop the tip of his nose against her forehead. Pretending to be annoyed, Riley elbowed him gently on the side, and he contorted his face in mock pain, so adorably dramatic that Lito would have been proud.

They looked out the window in silence for a few minutes, before he asked, “You’ve been to Paris before, haven’t you?”

“Papa’s orchestra had a few concerts there. I did a few shows, too.”

“Mm. I’ve never been to any of your shows.” Neither of them thought the one in Amsterdam really counted. “Maybe you can do one in Paris when BPO’s out of the picture?”

“Add it to the list.”

He sighed. “I wish we didn’t have to stay inside. I would have liked to see the city.”

“If we weren’t on Blockers, I could show you my memories.”

He sat up, and she lifted her head from his shoulder, pulling herself up to sit cross-legged on their shared bench. He turned to her, propping an elbow on top of the back cushion. “We don’t have to wait ‘till tonight. Just tell me,” he said.

“About what?”

“What else did you do in Paris?”

A wistful smile. “When I was younger, mama always came with us. We’d go to the Louvre.”

He realized they’d never talked about her mother, though he didn’t wish to make her uncomfortable. So he asked, “Did she like art?”

“She was a painter.”

His eyes widened as he remembered the paintings hanging in Riley’s house when he visited. He’d assumed they’d bought them. “What did she like to paint?”

“Landscapes, mostly. She was into abstractions, impressionism, that kind of style.”

“Like Monet?”

She raised an eyebrow. “You learned about Monet?”

“High school art project. We had to either write a paper or paint something.”

“Really? And you chose to write a paper?”

He scratched the back of his neck and looked away. “Yeah, I can’t paint.”

Riley giggled. “Anyone can paint. You just haven’t found your style.”

“Ha. Tell that to my art teacher.”

“I’ll add it to the list.” 

He paused, furrowing his brows for a few seconds before he turned to her again. “What was your style?”

“I was more into music. But sometimes I tried to paint like Van Gogh.”

All Will knew about Van Gogh was The Starry Night, and the fact that he’d cut off his right ear. But it made sense for Riley to like his style. When they were hiding out in a village in the Netherlands whose name he couldn’t remember, she’d stay up and watch the stars. 

“Was he your favorite?”

“One of them. Mama showed me some impressionist paintings in the Louvre. Oh! -” she perked up and moved away from Will, fishing a burner phone out of their duffle bag. She typed something into Google - “this was my favorite. Look!”

She pulled up an image, a painting of golden specks decking a muted dark green sky. The title was Nocturne in Black and Gold – The Falling Rocket, by James Whistler. That made sense, too. There was something celestial about the way Riley carried herself in the night time, and over the past year he’d come to associate her with stars.

He never thought he was the romantic type, but Lito was rubbing off on him. It was probably a good thing Diego couldn’t get in his head, or he’d never have let Will hear the end of it. He really hoped he wasn’t blushing as hard as he imagined he was. Thankfully, Riley had decided to drop the subject, and opted for kissing him on the cheek instead.

“It’s pretty,” he admitted.

Riley was smiling, the corners of her eyes crinkling, when she snuggled up next to him again. And a grin crept up his face in response. Her excitement was infectious. He wished he could make her smile like that more often.

The Eurostar passed by a farm with a wooden house painted red, the kind of idyllic setting Will had only read about in story books. 

“Never thought I’d see something like this so close to Paris,” Will said.

“I didn’t either, the first time I came.” She let out a yawn. He put his arm around her shoulder, drawing her closer. “Paris feels so different.”

“All I know is the Eiffel Tower. Was that your first stop?”

A nod. “The three of us had a picnic nearby on my first trip. It was pretty nice. A lot of people had the same idea. And someone’s puppy tried to steal my ham.”

His laugh came out more like a loud snort. Blushing again, he checked to see Nomi and Amanita were still asleep, sighing in relief when Nomi stirred but didn’t wake.

“We should have a picnic sometimes. Add it to the list?” she asked.

He cringed. “Not sure that’s the best idea.”

“Why?”

“I’m allergic to grass.”

It was a wonder that, after “living like an old married couple on the run” (as Diego had so cleverly put it), they could still find little things that surprised them about each other. How could a person know so much about someone, and so little at the same time?

“Like, deathly allergic?”

He shuddered. “Just rashes, but it makes me wanna peel my skin off.”

“Sounds awful.” She cringed. “Do you just avoid it, then?”

“Not always. I used to played baseball. I had to wear those ridiculous socks that pulled up to my knees.” Diego had never let him hear the end of that. And, judging by her widening smirk, neither would Riley.

“So no picnic,” she conceded, holding back a giggle. “What else should I know about you?”

A pause, before his smirk of mischief grew to match hers. “My favorite color.”

“What’s your favorite color?”

He ran a hand through her hair. “Blue.”

*

Lila Facchini was not a woman people usually said “no” to, not since the day she realized she could use the looks she’d inherited from her mother and make men cater to her every whim. All she had to do was stroke their massive egos. Sebastian Fuchs was no different. 

But Wolfgang was, she thought, seething as she remembered the day he’d dismissed her proposal as a fantasy, blatantly declaring she was just like everyone else. 

She’d known he was hard to crack, but she always loved a challenge, believing there was no refusal a little persuasion couldn’t upturn. She hadn’t anticipated losing.

I didn’t lose, she reminded herself. I let Wolfgang suffer for what he did. Just like I promised.

Though she’d lost him in the end, the same day BPO confiscated one of her cluster. She had to give Veronika some credit for finding one of the only ways to make her cave. But she had hoped to make it only a temporary victory on the Russian’s part.

If only she could find Veronika’s weakness, like she did Sebastian’s and Wolfgang’s.

Lila recalled how Veronika had fumed when her cluster had let Wolfgang get away. She knew the rage that came with a vendetta too well to dismiss the woman’s outburst as a case of extreme irritation at her cluster’s “incompetency”. As far as Lila’s sources could tell, the Russian hadn’t maintained prolonged contact with anyone except Bernard, though Lila was certain whatever family she had would be deemed a hindrance, an obstacle in the road she had no doubt already cleared. 

She frowned, wondering what possible feud a woman like her could have against a person half her age. But Veronika would never disclose what made her blood boil. As far as Lila could tell, the woman was simply devoid of emotions. Truth be told, she sometimes wished she was just as cold. It would have made life much easier. 

Veronika had once told Lila she reminded her of herself, and some parts of her wanted to believe that was true. Though Lila had always known, with a mix of pity and relief, that she would never be like the Russian. Because Lila was never alone. Veronika was. 

And, she thought as she poured a drop of the clear poison she’d acquired into Sebastian’s glass, that would make killing her much simpler.

When the elevator opened, she was sitting cross-legged on a stool at the bar, wearing the black dress with the plunging neckline she knew he was partial to. She ran a hand up her thigh before nodding her chin at the two glasses of bourbon.

He smiled but waved her off.

“I should unpack,” he said, gesturing to his suitcases.

Pouting, she pretended to be disappointed. “You can do it later, can’t you, Sebastian?”

He sighed and walked closer to her, as expected. “What’s the occasion?”

“Nothing.” She smiled, raising one eyebrow, hoping to come across as a little naughty. “Just felt like celebrating.”

Relenting, he sat down on the stool next to her, gazing at the city from the window. 

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” she asked, pushing a glass towards him.

“It’s why I like this city.” He gestured to the buildings below. “All of this could be ours.”

Ours? Or yours? She held back a scoff, and forced herself to nod.

He picked up the glass, and she tried not to stare at it, tried not to anticipate the exact moment he’d hit the ground. Instead she directed her gaze to the other bottles on the shelf, and at her own glass. He watched her, amused. “Something on your mind?”

It wasn’t her first kill. Marcela had taught her how to shoot years ago, and she’d left Naples when she was certain she could fend for herself to seek out opportunities Berlin. Sebastian was one of her first contacts. 

Once upon a time, Sebastian had been a good friend. He had listened to her confide in him and lauded her courage while his friends had snuck non-so-furtive glances down her neckline. But she couldn’t find a trace of that friend anymore.

Still, she would have stayed with him for as long as she needed. For as long as her cluster needed to find a way to break through. She stayed so long already, she had almost forgotten what it was she had set out to do, only that she wanted more. 

But then Wolfgang walked into her life, a gangly Felix in tow, and reminded her that she was still trapped. BPO hadn’t been in touch with her for nearly a year by that point, save for the contact who provided her with Blockers. But the more she thought about their long-lasting alliance, the faster she wanted her cluster to be freed.

Her cluster. She reminded herself what she had to lose if she let Veronika get the upper hand. Shaking her head, she forced herself to smile. “Just tired,” she lied.

“Should we do this another day?”

“No -” Lila leaned forward and put her hand over his, clutching it maybe a little too tightly around the glass of amber poison he held. It shone under the dim lights, but her reflection was warped against the surface of the liquid. All she could make out was black swirls. 

“I miss drinking with you.” That, at least, was true. “Do you remember when we used to drink together?” 

She tried not to roll her eyes. She had wanted to believe Sebastian wasn’t like other sapien men. But a few months after their first meeting, he’d come inside her the moment they were both intoxicated, and proved her wrong.

He smiled. “I remember going to Luzia every night, hoping you’d show up.”

The man who had cared for her? She no longer remembered what he looked like. Before her mind could come up with another reason to stall the inevitable, she raised her glass, a little too quickly. The bourbon nearly sloshed out from one side. 

“May I propose a toast?”

Sebastian raised his glass. “To what?”

Once upon a time, Sebastian had been a good friend. But that was before her rebirth. Before she realized she — they — could have everything else and more.

“To freedom.”

When she tossed back her drink and watched Sebastian do the same, she felt her hands go cold, and wondered if she would ever get used to the chill.

*

Ever since Jonas explained his involvement with Veracity, he had been asked to join the group in guard shift duties. He’d insisted he had come clean on everything, but with Jonas, how could they ever tell? Especially now that he was on Blockers 24/7 in case Whispers was planning to snoop around in his head.

Will found Jonas already waiting on the couch in the living room after he’d kissed Riley goodnight and come downstairs to join him in guard duty. The older man turned when Will sat down next to him, and gave him a slight nod. 

“Something on your mind, Will?”

Will sighed, giving up his attempt at a poker face. He asked the question that had been on his mind for days. “Why didn’t you tell us about Veracity?”

“You could say I was… otherwise preoccupied?” 

Will glared. “You were a wanted terrorist -”

“The original plan was to find all of you and inform you of your new status as sensates,” he continued, chuckling at Will’s frustration. “But alas, that was not meant to be.”

“But you connected with me after. Why not then?”

“I wasn’t sure whether BPO would have been listening in. I couldn’t risk exposure.”

Will thought about their conversation on Independence Day. “Have you always been working with Veracity?” Or, knowing Jonas, it was possible that the man had changed his allegiance several times, just like his nationality.

His answer confirmed his suspicions. “Not always, no. I used to be on the other side of the war, once. Angelica used to believe BPO’s research was crucial to the sensates’ development in modern society.”

“So what changed?”

“She learned the truth about Whispers.”

About time. Will wasn’t much of an eye-roller, but he could see the appeal.

“Ever since Dr El-Saadawi’s death,” Jonas continued, “BPO had been divided between people who wished to continue with her plans for the organization, and people who believed it was best to reveal the existence of Homo sensorium to the world.”

That, Will had already known. But - “Whispers didn’t seem like he wanted exposure.”

“Well, he had always worked best alone. I don’t think anyone knew of his intentions at first. Not even Dr Kolovi.”

“But why did Whispers think sensate should be hunted down?”

“He wants the same thing anyone in a vulnerable position of power wants. Leverage. His ability to command an army of lobotomized soldiers is what keeps him alive.”

“He’s been doing that for years, though.”

“He has,” Jonas conceded. 

“So when did Angelica stop working with him? When did she start working with him?”

“Angel’s first cluster was born shortly after 9-11. She joined a year after, when Todd had disappeared after he volunteered for the brain operation.”

She was searching for his children, Will remembered Jonas say a few months back.

“We went to the cabin,” Will confessed. “We saw her use Raoul to destroy her research. Was he the reason she stopped working with Whispers?”

“Amongst other things, but yes.”

“What else?”

“Five years ago, Whispers’ used a lobotomized sensate to assassinate a cluster that had worked closely with El-Saadawi. He believed human sacrifices were not only worthy, but necessary, for the future of Homo sensorium he hoped to build.”

Of course he did. “Was that all?”

“And other sensates, born or unborn, hunted for the sake of experimentation. Angelica believed the procedures should be entirely voluntary. But the truth was, many was forced into the circumstance without their control.”

“Like her other children.” Like Sara Patrell.

Jonas paused, and Will watched him closely. His hands were clasped together when he spoke again, and his voice was strained, though he’d tried best to hide it. “Yes.” 

Will frowned, wondering what Jonas hadn’t divulged. “Are they all dead?”

“What constitutes death? A physical form of decay? Or something that revolves around the drastic changes to our minds, our perceptions?” 

And there was the cryptic philosophical rambling Will had expected. He knew Jonas was trying to divert his attention. Sometimes prisoners would do the same during an interrogation. Will gazed into Jonas’ eyes. 

“So, are they?” he asked again.

“They are,” Jonas said without blinking.

Lito may have been the best liar in the cluster, but Will had spent his career hunting down truths. And he knew people blink less when they were lying. But Will also knew Jonas would only retreat further into his shell of riddles and games if he confronted him, so like Jonas, he tried for a diversion.

“Have you ever regretted your decision?”

“In joining Veracity?” Jonas thought about it. “I don’t know what would have become of me had I not chosen this path. Perhaps you’d all already be dead. Or I would.”

“That’s fair, I guess.” Will pretended to be satisfied with the response.

“But as of now,” Jonas added. “I have found no reason to believe my life would have been better if I had simply gone into hiding.”

Will nodded. After his escapades in Iceland, he knew this feeling of “we’d given it our best shot” all too well. 

“Tell me, Will. If I had told you about Veracity at the beginning, would you have chosen differently? Would you have run? Or fought?”

“I think you know the answer.”

Chapter Text

July 12, 2017

Was he dreaming? Or was it a memory?

The images Will saw in his mind were hazy. It was still dark out. He was stirring in his bed, on the brink of waking up. Riley’s embrace from his back tightened, as if she had sensed his distress. He closed his eyes, trying to convince himself to fall back asleep. He heard voices in his head that didn’t belong to anyone he knew, and he felt warm. But he was in Paris, and he knew the temperature was on the chilly side that night.

Then the hazy images slowly zoomed into focus, and he was surrounded by yellow. The sun hung low outside the window of what appeared to be a small wooden house. A kettle was burning on the stove. On the wall hung a large, fading photograph of two boys, one older than the other, with their arms around each other’s shoulders, grinning from ear to ear. 

There were three people seated around a dining table, and they appeared to be in deep discussion. Will’s presence in the memory had no form, he concluded as he looked down at his body and saw nothing. He was a phantom, and he felt like an invader, intruding on something private but not wanting to back away.

How many are like us? came a woman’s voice. Will nearly jumped. He could have sworn he’d heard that voice before. 

But not in real life. Only in memories.

He walked closer and examined the three people, identifying the wavy-haired Greek woman as the speaker right away. There was a sadness in her eyes that reminded him of Riley during the early days of their connection. On her left was a man with unruly black hair and a dazzling smile that revealed the bronze glow at his cheeks. 

And next to them was a pale bespectacled man with mousy brown hair, wearing an enthusiastic smile Will could never picture on the older version. Milton.

They appeared to be in their early twenties.

Was he getting better at invading the Headhunter’s dream mind? Or was it a fake memory, made up by the man to lure him in? Either way, Will was determined to stay.

In response to the woman’s question, young Milton pushed up his glasses. I’m assuming there is a genetic predisposition involved, though it’s most likely a recessive gene. By my calculation, there should be tens of thousands of us. At the very least.

Yeah, I bet they’re hard to find. The other man smirked, running a hand through his hair, making it even messier. No one would go running around, telling people they have voices in their head. Heh. Imagine that.

The woman (Leonora, said a voice in Will’s ear that sounded like Milton’s but so unlike his) nodded slowly. Do all the people like us come in groups of three?

Will was awash with a sense of curiosity mixed with foreboding.

It was Whispers’ cluster. All dead, he remembered Angelica say when he’d asked about them. He still talks to them in his sleep. Kala had told them her hypothesis that Blockers would start to wear off slightly earlier when one became desensitized to their effects, and the user would have to take a larger dose if they wanted to keep their minds isolated. A vicious cycle.

Looking at the memory now, Will couldn’t help but wonder whether the Headhunter slept on Blockers to shield his mind from invaders or himself.

I believe groups could be larger, or smaller, depending on how many were born at that moment in time, and how many are still alive at the time of the rebirth. Milton tried to act casual, but Will could feel him beaming at the way his cluster-mates gave him their full attention.

So many horrible things going on in this world. Leonora’s lip trembled as she imagined all the ways their potential cluster-mates could have perished before they were reborn. Her hand tugged at the sleeve of her dress to cover her forearm, which Will noticed was covered in purple bruises. I wish we had the chance to know all of us.

The messy-haired man (Ismael, the voice said again, louder this time, as if a ghost was whispering in Will’s ear) leaned forward, beaming. Why limit our interactions? What if we can find other groups? People who understand us.

Is this safe? asked Milton.

Good point, Nora. But we can’t reach a conclusion if we simply keep everything hidden.

I don’t want to hide anymore. She looked down at her body, and Will cringed in sympathy, not wanting to imagine what other scars were hidden.

Milton sounded resolute. We’ll get you out.

But Xanthus would never -

Not if we have anything to say about it. Ismael shook a raised fist, and Milton nodded, making Leonora laugh a little, breaking her frown.

But how should we go about the investigation? asked Milton.

Ismael perked up. Actually -

His cluster-mates looked at him and waited for him to continue, but he chose that moment to do a dramatic pause, making Milton groan in mock-annoyance. 

I heard - he drawled, puffing out his chest - that there’s a scientist here in Egypt who studies mutations in the brain. She did an interview with the Daily News. I read it a few days ago. But she also said she travels a lot, so who knows if she’ll even be home?

What’s her name? asked Milton. Perhaps I’ve read one of her works.

Dr Ruth El-Saadawi. I think she wrote a bunch of stuff on brain mutations, starting in the 60’s. Dunno if she’s studying our kind of brain, though.

Milton frowned when he realized the name didn’t ring a bell. And he thought he was well-versed in the field of neuroscience. I suppose we can try. Does she live far?

Cairo should only be a day’s journey by train. I can manage.

Leonora put a gentle hand on his shoulder. Are you certain we can trust her?

You two can come with. Not physically but - he gestured at the two of them, invisible visitors in his living room - you know what I mean.

What if it’s a trap? asked Leonora.

Ismael looked at Milton, who nodded. Only one way to find out.

*

There was something heroic about returning to the station after he’d been shot.

Detective Mun knew he wasn’t gravely injured from some epic Cops vs Evil Corporate Gangster chase he often saw on TV. But he had to admit, when his partner had called the hospital and informed him that the footage of the Gala had been erased, that Joon-Ki Bak was a bigger problem than he’d initially suspected. 

And if meeting Joon-Ki’s sister had taught him anything, it was that the Baks had a propensity for worming their ways out of trouble with spars, car chases and (he couldn’t believe it when he first saw the news) garage explosions. So maybe this case wouldn’t be so different from an action movie after all.

In hindsight, it was probably reckless of him to have rehearsed what authoritative, punchline-worthy statement he’d say to Joon-Ki during the arrest, but not expect the man to pull a gun on him. Of course a man who’d hire killers to murder his own sister (pure speculation at this stage) would be paranoid enough to carry a weapon everywhere.

But his failure to capture Joon-Ki the first time had only made him more determined. He always loved a challenge, and right now, Miss Bak’s case was the biggest one. Lieutenant Lee had offered to hand over his case to another detective and enroll him in witness protection, but he’d insisted on carrying out the investigation himself. Because how could he pass up the chance to serve justice on one of the most powerful businessperson in the nation? 

(And hopefully get a second chance for a rematch with Sun Bak?)

The station had pulled up her file after she’d escaped from prison, and he had the chance to browse through lists of stellar academic achievements and diplomas. The more he looked, the more he realized he couldn’t link the persona in the official documents with the woman he’d fought at the graveyard.

But, he thought with a smirk, her old schools had also sent forth an impressive list of suspension records. Fighting in the schoolyard seemed to be a frequent occurrence back in her day. It wasn’t really a surprise, considering how prone Miss Bak seemed to be to solving her problems with her fists.

Though this time the problem seemed to be an intangible one.

An anonymous “good samaritan” had forwarded the recovered footage from the Bak Summer Gala to the Seoul Metropolitan Police. And, in hindsight, it did seem odd that Miss Bak, someone with no other family or friends, was able to escape prison at the exact minute their clearance system was overridden.

It was almost like a hacker had been looking out for her.

Perhaps Joon-Ki Bak wasn’t the only one with more questionable resources than the police could account for, if her mysterious escape from the country was any indication. And if both of them had allies in the shadows, it would certainly make it harder to capture Mr Bak and locate Miss Bak to collect her testimony. But if being a cop had taught Detective Mun anything, it was that even the most resourceful villains leave a trail.

He just hoped he could find the people behind the scenes before they find him.

*

The Paris flat was as over-the-top romantic as Rajan’s villa in Positano, if not more. 

It was a simple two-story building, and the outside walls were painted a light sunset yellow. Though it was in the middle of the city, the way Kala liked it, the building was tucked in a smaller alley away from the tourist-packed main streets. Outside, the windows frames were painted off-white, and underneath them were rectangular gardening pots holding pink and purple flowers in a species Wolfgang couldn’t name. 

All of this gave the building a sort of story-like aesthetic that reminded Wolfgang of those watercolor postcards in the arts and crafts store he used to pass by on Leipziger Street on his way to the key shop.

Just the sort of place Kala would have liked to call home, he’d thought when Kala had first wheeled him down the stone-paved way, pausing to wave at a friendly old man who was carrying a paper bag full of groceries. (He’d wanted to walk, but Kala and Felix had practically bound him to the wheelchair.)

The cozy interior of the flat would have been enjoyable had they not been on the run. It was a three-bedroom place with lots of wooden furniture that blended in well with the apple green walls, clearly not intended to hold a cluster of eight and company. Though by this point sharing a sleeping space was the least of their concerns. After the nursing home, the mold-free couches and beds seemed like luxuries.

By night time that day everyone had arrived in this new hideout, and the entire group sat around the living room discussing the next step, including Wolfgang, who, despite Kala’s protests, insisted on staying up late to see if he could offer some insight from his unfortunate first-hand experience.

Bug had called an hour ago to tell them that the BPO vehicle transfers were sporadic. He’d ventured it was a strategic move to throw him off. After all, he’d pointed out, Whispers should know better than to underestimate Nomi’s “crime fightin’ Charlie’s Angel squad” after Riley and Will had slipped from him in Iceland.

Will settled into a couple’s armchair with Riley as everyone else took seats in the living room. “I saw the Chairman,” he told Wolfgang, trying to bring him up to speed. “Chairwoman, actually. Jonas said her name is Veronika Makarova.”

Wolfgang looked like he was going to be sick. He froze in his seat, and Felix opened his mouth to ask what the fuck was going on, but decided against it. Kala inched closer to him and frowned, concerned.

“Is she -” Wolfgang paused to calm himself. Many people shared that name after all - “is she connected with Vor?”

Amanita raised an eyebrow. “How’d you know?”

“With his fucking family? He knows all about gangsters,” Felix told her.

“Do you know anything else about her?” asked Nomi.

Wolfgang shook his head, but he was frowning. His hands were clasped tight on his lap, and he looked down, blue-eyed gaze boring a hole into his knuckles. His Blocker had worn off a few minutes ago, and everyone was hoping he could share whatever he might have learned about the Chairman in his days as a hostage, if anything. The cluster felt a tension in their shared mind, like tight fingers threatening to pulling the connections apart.

“Wolfgang,” Kala prompted, putting a hand on his back. “Did your family ever mention the name? Did they -” she shut her eyes, hating herself for bringing up his family’s criminal past when it could upset him - “Did they… collaborate?”

He looked up, first at Kala, then at a tense-looking Will and Riley. “Did you get a memory of her?” his voice was tense.

Will nodded. Riley clutched his hand, and he closed his eyes, concentrating on the memory he’d gathered from Whispers’ head. It came out blurry in their shared minds, and Riley closed her eyes too, hoping their energies could combine and make the image clearer. Eventually the memory zoomed into focus.

Wolfgang got a glimpse of the Russian woman in her entirety: white blouse, blood red lips, steel blue eyes that looked like they could cut into his mind even as a sapien. He felt a buzzing in his ears as he lost balance in his seat, and his back hit against the back cushions of the couch, but he was too busy gasping for air to notice the pain or Kala’s voice asking him what was wrong. He shut his eyes tight.

Did he roll off the couch? He thought he might have heard a thud among all the buzzing in his ears, which grew louder until he was only conscious of the darkness and the noise that amplified every ragged breath. And had the floor always been so cold?

Then, as if his consciousness was hurled through a tunnel that travelled back in time, colors and sounds and smells and tastes began unwinding in his mind’s eye. Unbeknownst to him, the same images played through the heads of everyone in his cluster. 

No, not images. Memories.

Wolfgang was four when he first found out he had an aunt, and it was not from some sort of warm and memorable family gathering. His aunt didn’t visit his home in Berlin, presents in tow, gushing over how big her nephew had grown. 

It had been a mistake that he knew about his mother’s half-sister at all.

He remembered that day because it was one of the few days his father wasn’t in the house, one of the few days he didn’t hear plates shattering and his mother crying in the kitchen while he banged on the locked bedroom door to his own room, begging his father to let him out. His father had travelled back to Russia a day ago for some kind of business negotiation, and he and his mother were left alone. 

They were safe.

Or so they had thought, until that night, a woman — the same woman from Will’s mind, who had barely aged well over the years — stormed into their living room, blonde curls ever so impeccable though she looked like she had ran all the way here. As soon as she saw Wolfgang, her eyes had bore into his with such a hatred, he felt his face burn.

Your husband, the woman said, loudly, seething, has the audacity to show up in Saint Petersburg?

She had spoken in Russian, but he had understood. It was the language his mother spoke to him when his father was out, their little secret. Because secrets keep people together.

Instead of answering, his mother had turned to him. Go to your room, Wolfgang, dear, she said, calm and soft as ever, giving him a forced smile.

But - he tried to protest. His mother shook her head, frowning in that I’ll-talk-to-you-later kind of way she always did when one of his father’s clients came storming in. They were only allowed to lock their front door at night time.

He ran to his room and left a gap on his door so he could see the angry woman. Her nails were long and acrylic with the ends sharpened. In his imagination they grew into claws, sharper than the dagger brooch on the left collar of her black trench coat. And the dark red of her nails and lips reminded him of blood.

From a distance, the woman almost looked like his mother. They mirrored each other in the way they held their ground, feet apart in a defensive stance. But everything about her was off. Her blue eyes made him shiver. 

Did you really think you can keep hiding from me? he heard her ask.

Please, Nika. Leave me be.

Don’t. Call me that. 

How many times do I have to say I’m sorry? 

The woman stepped closer, glowering in a way that made Wolfgang take a sharp breath. She scoffed. You think an apology can fix everything? 

What more do you want?

Veronika turned her head towards Wolfgang’s room, and he quickly hid behind the door, heart thumping in his little chest. I want you, she said these words slowly, to suffer like I did.

I’m sorry she hurt you. You never told me. But you -

A sneer. Your mother is a monster. She deserved what she got.

Haven’t there been enough deaths? his mother’s voice trembled.

Have there? There are others like her.

Please, not this -

Veronika pointed at the closed door behind which Wolfgang was still hiding, peeking one eye out, his ears perked, trying to take in every word. He’s like her, isn’t he? 

What?

Don’t play dumb with me, Zorina. I know you had him tested. The corners of her mouth quirked up for a second when his mother had tried, and failed, to hide her shock. Your mother was a freak. She spat out the last word. And so is he.

Whatever you have against me, don’t let Wolfgang suffer for my mistakes. 

Oh, sister, Veronika laughed then, her voice shrill, making the hair stand up on Wolfgang’s arms. You think everything’s about you?

His mother crossed her arms. So what? she said, voice raised. You’re going to hurt a child?

No, hardly. I’m not going to do anything.

Before his mother could react, Veronika had reached over and lifted his mother’s shirt, revealing bruised ribs and fading scars. He heard her laugh.

Just as I thought, she said, letting go of the shirt. Her heels clicked as she made her way out the door. She paused and turned back before she stepped out. You can’t protect him forever, Zorina, she told her. Sooner or later, he’ll have to face Anton alone.

*

“Look who’s back from sabbatical,” said the prisoner when Milton came into the room.

The prisoner was in a worse state than he’d remembered. His hair stuck to his forehead and the sides of his face with sweat, his lip was split with an angry dark red gash down the middle, and the bruise around his left eye only darkened since the last time Milton saw him. A metal basin filled with blood-stained towels was placed on one side of the recliner, and a machine to the left showed elevating heartbeats, even though the Egyptian tried to appear calm. But then, Kareem wasn’t the only one looking worse for wear.

“Have you decided to come forward with the information on Veracity?” Milton tried to sound nonchalant. He preferred to keep his hands clean and have a Hazsuit carry out the physical aspects of an interrogation. But at the moment, as the man smirked with blood-stained teeth, he could see the appeal of punching the prisoner himself.

“What, and let you miss out on all the fun?” 

“If you’ve been working against us for a long time, Mr Asghar, you should have already gathered that we have a way of obtaining what we want. Your resistance is futile.”

“Well, that’s too bad.” His smirk only grew wider. “I was rather hoping I’d won.”

Milton stepped forward and grabbed the front of his shirt, pulling him up from his chair so that their faces were a mere inch away. “I don’t like games -” he said through clenched teeth - “or attitudes -” their foreheads were touching now - “or people who think they can outsmart me.”

“Hmm.” The Egyptian raised a teasing eyebrow. “Do you not like me because I’m evasive? Or because you can’t break me?”

Sighing, the headhunter grabbed a stool nearby and sat down next to the recliner. “I was offering you one last chance to come clean,” he said, shrugging. “But I suppose I’ll have to give you a little reminder.”

Ice blue eyes locked with brown, and four pupils dilated as Milton pushed their minds outside their physical bodies. They were plunging into the depths of a tunnel that had no end. Then the ground formed beneath their feet into wooden floorboards in different shades of brown, placed in a pattern familiar to the Egyptian. 

Kareem felt the mid-afternoon breeze carrying the tangy smell of the ocean, and, looking around, he found himself in the living room of his childhood home. There were three people seated around the dining table, but they were in deep discussion, not mindful that they were being watched.

One of them he recognized as Milton. It was like looking a younger version of the Headhunter through a two-way mirror, a ghost from the now cold-blooded shell of a man who stood next to him, also invisible to the past version of himself. 

Kareem remembered that day. It was the last day he ever saw his brother.

Ismael had reassured his cluster-mates that he could embark on a journey to Cairo to find Ruth El-Saadawi, hoping she could explain the reason behind their connection, and he had never came back.

Ismael had told Kareem that all he’d seen on the day of his rebirth was a scared old man — his Father, Kareem knew now — who had backed into a corner before he was shot by a masked murderer. If it weren’t for the series of strange events that happened the days after, he would had thought the vision was a nightmare, and nothing more. Back then the thing he craved most was an explanation.

It had been years since Kareem had last seen his home, and the nostalgia was overwhelming, though the fact that he left on the same day as Ismael, who had never returned, gave him shivers. Still, Kareem found himself rooted to the place, bathing in the memory of a time before he had lost his brother. Before everything had gone south. It almost felt like time was frozen in a happier moment.

But it wasn’t, because Kareem heard a familiar cold chuckle that certainly didn’t belong in this memory. He tried to snap out of the trance then, closed his eyes and focused on the sensation in his physical body, on the stone-hard recliner chair and the air-conditioned room that was too cold, on the metallic smell of his blood. And then he was back, and the machine that detected his heartbeats beeped faster.

But Milton had been back long before him, he knew as soon as he saw the sneer on the Headhunter’s face that towered over him. His Mother had told his cluster that sensates were most prone to mind invasion when they were immersed in a memory, out of touch with their physical bodies. Swearing, he shut his eyes and tried to focus on the canoe and the gush of the water and ashes, but found himself frozen in a space that could only be described as the in-between point before what he wanted to see and what Milton wanted.

Then there was the sound of ice crackling, and the ground shifted beneath his feet.

The Headhunter stood next to him as they witnessed a bearded man in a fisherman’s hat on the docks of Venice board a boat, inside which two passengers, a young man and Kareem himself, stood up and bid the fisherman good day, setting down a backpack. Then Kareem shifted into the body inside his memory, and move back next to the leather sack. His hands, but not his, tore open the zipper, revealing bottles upon bottles of black capsules in clear bottles, and powders in plastic bags, and syringes…

And then the images around him shifted and he was in the airport, pretending to wait for his luggage as he bumped against a middle-aged man and slapped a bottle of Blockers into his hands, but this time he also reached for the wallet inside the man’s jacket, opening it to reveal his ID. The momentum that came with rapid mind-reading was something Kareem was familiar with thanks to his training. 

He used to find it pleasant, the quick shift in of color and sound and smell. But back then he was the one in control. He heard Milton chuckle next to him, and felt his blood go cold.

Now, wasn’t that easy?

*

Everyone, even Jonas and Mavis, knew better than to ask Wolfgang questions. They sat around in silence as Wolfgang pulled himself up from the ground, ran off and shut himself in the room he shared with Kala, not bothering to use his cane. Lito had quietly filled Hernando and Dani in on what happened, and Nomi did the same with Amanita, before everyone decided to go to bed and hope things would work out the next morning, save for Sun and Felix, who had volunteered to take the first guarding shift.

Kala looked at Felix, who nodded and gestured for her to follow Wolfgang alone. She hesitated when her hand touched the door knob, not knowing what she’d find. Kala expected him to be withdrawn. Or crying? But Wolfgang had never cried in person since she had learned to shed his tears. Or maybe he was angry, and she dared not think what rage could drive him to do.

But then she heard a muffled sob, and the door flew open even though she didn’t remember turning the knob, or shutting the door closed, although she did hear a click. She sat next to him on the bed. He didn’t acknowledge her presence, but didn’t inch away when she moved closer. They sat in silence for a while, and the buzzing in Wolfgang’s head pulsed through the Psycellium. A bottle of Blockers sat on the nightstand, reminding her that his exposed mind was vulnerable to prying, but she decided to wait. 

For once, she couldn’t soothe his pain with a memory of drizzle.

He turned, slowly, and their eyes met. But his pupils were unfocused, his gaze lost in a world beyond this one.

“I used to see my mother’s ghost,” his voice was gruff when he spoke again, and it was barely louder than a whisper. “He used to say I was delusional.”

She didn’t need to ask to know who he was. It was common knowledge that Wolfgang had spent his life hiding things about himself thanks to that man. Still, it was a wonder how little she, and the rest of the cluster, knew about Wolfgang’s past, though what memories they did gather snuck their ways into everyone’s nightmares.

“Was she like us?”

He shook his head, looking down at his lap. “She never got the chance.”

She realized he had never told them what happened to his mother, but she didn’t wish to pry until he was ready. He frowned as he picked up the thought. “She’s dead because of me,” he told her. “It was my fault. She moved to Berlin with him when she found out she was pregnant. She hadn’t even told him yet -”

“Don’t.” She shook her head. “Wolfgang, you can’t blame yourself for what -”

She’s dead because of me!” he repeated, and kicked the nightstand with his foot. He hadn’t expected it to tip over, but it did, and one of the drawers fell out, landing right in front of them with a loud clatter. He felt Kala flinch. It was about time she saw him for who he was. Really, it was incredible someone like her had stayed with him for so long. 

He turned to face her, fists clutched in an anger directed at himself. “If I wasn’t -”

He had expected her to back away after he’d lost his temper, but her eyes bore into his with a sharpness he had seen only once before, back at the key shop. She still remembered what he’d said. Maybe everything would be easier if I wasn’t -

Don’t,” she said again, volume raised.

He gave a small startle before shaking his head, burying his face in his hands. The buzzing in his head hadn’t stopped since he’d first recalled his memory of Veronika. It ebbed and flowed with a numbness that had nothing to do with Blockers. Then the buzzing grew into indistinguishable voices, and when Kala tried to make out who the speakers were, she felt her head spin.

So she leaned into Wolfgang, embracing him from the side, hoping her body warmth could help the buzzing subside, but it only worked to intensify the emotion until she was struck with the pain that she’d come to associate with loss.

She heard a kitchen timer go off. Then she wasn’t in her bedroom anymore, but in Wolfgang’s childhood home in Berlin, watching three men kick open the door and train their guns on a seven-year-old version of Wolfgang, who was on his way to the kitchen to help his mother prepare dinner. One of them he recognized as Balthazar, a Russian who did business with his father. He didn’t remember meeting the other two.

His mother had dropped the plate she was holding, not even noticing that it had smashed into pieces on the floor. She stepped forward and stood in front of Wolfgang, blocking the pistols. Leave him, she demanded. He has nothing to do with this.

Wolfgang used to think gunshots were loud, not hard to miss. But when a pistol was pressed against someone’s skin, the sound of bullet piercing through flesh was dull. He would have thought the gun shot blanks if his mother hadn’t collapsed to the ground, blood seeping out from the wounds on her midsection.

You can’t protect him forever, said Balthazar, before the three men stashed the gun away and marched out the door.

Wolfgang knew he should have called for help, or maybe tried to go after them even though he stood no chance against guns. At school they’d taught him the number to call in case of emergencies. But he was rooted to the spot as if he had been growing out of the wooden floor his whole life, and all he could hear was a buzzing in his head. The plate his mother had dropped was on the floor next to her, sprinkled with blood. His mother’s cheek, he realized as he kneeled, was paler than the white china. 

He was alone.

When the memory turned into darkness, and black faded into the present moment, he found himself back in the room he shared with Kala. She was petrified, sitting next to him, but as soon as he laid a careful hand on her shoulder she started trembling, her hair rubbing against the side of his shoulder. Then came the sobbing as she cried in his place. He wiped her cheek with his thumb, his mind blank. 

For him, the tears had been long forgotten. All the emotions he had left? It was anger — not at Veronika. At himself.

“She’s dead because of me,” he repeated, closing his eyes. “She stayed with him because she wanted to hide me from her.” And for what? 

“She loved you, Wolfgang,” he felt her sniffle before holding his hand, tracing the lines on his palms. “You know what it’s like, wanting to protect someone you love.”

He opened his eyes and took in the way she looked at him, teary-eyed, grief-stricken. 

He thought about his mother again, lying on the kitchen floor in her blood-stained robes. Everyone he had cared for had a tendency to leave too soon, he’d learned that day. But maybe, if no one cared for him anymore, people would stop getting hurt.

She shook her head. “I’m not leaving you,” she repeated again. “And if they want to take you away, -” again, - “they’re going to have to go through me.”

And Kala was nothing if not determined. He knew no amount of self-loathing would make her change her mind. But nonetheless he wondered why she’d believe he was still worth protecting. Why she still believed he could rise above his past.

She leaned forward and put a hand behind the back of his head, pushing him forward. Her lips caught his with a fervor, an insatiable need to feel his presence, intensified by their connection. For a few seconds he didn’t remember to gasp for air. Her grip around him tightened, sheltering his body like an armor.

Before she gave him another dose of Blockers, she showed him the memory of the day at the temple when he had visited her as she prayed. She’d wondered, then, if his timely appearance was Ganesha’s way of giving her answers, but over the past year she’d concluded he’d given her more than that. 

He’d given her freedom.

“You are not a monster, Wolfgang,” she whispered in his ear. 

How do you know?

His consciousness shifted out of the bedroom, plunging into darkness once again. A few seconds later he saw himself marching to what he believed would be his death at his uncle’s, with a single gun and a hope that, should he die, he would take everyone who had hurt Felix with him to do the world a favor. 

Because monsters only care about themselves, was Kala’s answer.

Wolfgang saw himself standing in front of his bleeding uncle, gun raised. But this was the first time he saw the memory through her eyes. And all she saw, when she had looked at him as the bullets were emptied, was the same helpless boy that had kneeled in front of his mother’s body, believing she would have lived if he had never been born. He had spent a lifetime keeping Felix from suffering the same fate.

The tears from her face dried, and he was the one sobbing now, head buried in her chest as she stroked his back. As Kala whispered soothing words in his ear and pulled him into bed, wrapping the blanket around his body like a shield, she made a promise to Wolfgang. 

She promised she would find a way to save him from himself.

Chapter Text

July 13, 2017

“Have they gathered anything from our… new recruits?” asked the Professor.

Veronika put the phone on loudspeaker and laid it flat on her desk. “Yes, Bernard. The Reciphorum was effective. It was fortunate our recruits belonged to different clusters. The Headhunter made good progress tracking down the rest.”

She imagined him smirking. “What about Wolfgang and his cluster?”

Reading from her new planner, she said, “Ajay’s sources believe they may be hiding out in the Paris flat Mr Rasal had purchased.”

“Should we start a search?”

“No, no,” she wrote a few words, her letter a calligraphic cursive, impeccable as always. “Let them come to us.” 

She would very much like to get her hands on Wolfgang, though she reminded herself to be patient. Her nephew was, after all, part of a bigger problem now. One false move could hinder any progress she’d made in her game plan.

“What is the plan?” the Professor asked.

“Capture one, lure out the rest. Same business as always. Karl is in charge of the specifics. But I can tell you it will take place at the Beijing facility.”

She heard him make a hum of approval. That facility, they both knew, had the newest security system installed. The most traps.

“We’ll draw out more of their allies that way, whoever they may be,” she continued, “perhaps even that traitor girl.”

He sighed from the other end of the line. “Have you got a plan for her?”

Veronika suspected there were more spies in their midst, and something larger than a group of vigilantes were at play, working to undermine her authority. Judging by the surveillance footages sent forth to her every night, it would appear quite a few sensates in BPO had been getting restless following the news of Yang’s betrayal. The cameras had broadcasted every wink, every hushed whisper. So far, three perpetrators had been caught.

“I plan to make an example of her,” was her answer.

“And Wolfgang?”

“Don’t worry, Bernard.” She let out a chuckle. “I’m a woman of my word.”

Silence from the other end. He was probably raising an eyebrow.

“You will get your cluster sample, as promised,” she reassured. “But first, Wolfgang and I have matter to discuss.”

It was a conversation they were meant to have a long time ago. From experience, she knew his abilities would complicate things, but it was nothing a dose of Blockers couldn’t fix. She didn’t have the same luxury when she dealt with her stepmother, one mind against many. Wolfgang should be an easier target. The corners of her lips quirked up for a second.

“Understood,” he said, after a pause. “And our current operation?”

“The São Paulo plan is ready to launch,” she said, adjusting the dagger pin on the collar of her trench coat. “Milton will be in touch.”

The Headhunters preferred to chase after their prey when the panic was fresh in the sensates’ minds, but she had always enjoyed striking at a moment of peace. And right now, she knew Wolfgang’s cluster was laying low, trying to figure out her next step. As if she had not already set the entire war in motion.

Hunt, or be hunted. That was what Veronika’s childhood had taught her. It had certainly served her well so far.

*

Dani liked having a drink on the balcony early in the morning. She was delighted when she found out she and Felix had that in common. 

“Didn’t think you were the type to rise with the dawn.” She plopped down on the seat next to him, overlooking the quaint little Parisian neighborhood, all pebbled streets and merry dog-walkers.

“Who do you think wakes Wolfgang up every morning?”

Taking a sip of her strawberry margarita, she asked, “How? Just sneak into his apartment?”

“Sometimes. But I prefer to creep up behind him and scare the shit out of him.”

She couldn’t help smiling a little. “You’ve been doing this a long time, huh?”

“He’d be lost without me.” He gave her a toothy grin.

“How’d you two meet?”

“Detention.” He paused, thinking. “I don’t even remember what the fuck I was in for. But he was there because he was fighting.”

Of course he was. 

“He was a shit fighter. That’s why he got caught,” Felix added.

Dani raised an eyebrow. Lito had told her the man in question had helped him beat Joaquín, and that fight was as epic as the action scenes from one of Lito’s movies.

Felix noticed her expression. “Yeah, we learned from the best. Conan was a legend.”

“You two get in a lot of fights?”

“Sure we do.” He leaned back in his chair, flexing his arm muscle. “Lots of damsels in this world in need of a daring rescue.”

Of course there are. 

She wanted to roll her eyes, but stopped when she realized it was the exact reaction Felix had hoped to get out of her. She had known the “damsel in distress” thing was a cover-up for something serious, most likely criminal, since the first time she talked to Felix. He probably knew she’d resort to teasing every time he started boasting about heroics. A perfect diversion. She must admit, she was impressed.

“Felix,” she said, and he stopped grinning and turned to her, sitting up straighter. “Look, I know what you two did for a living before -” she gestured to the living room, where Will and Riley were sitting on the couch with a view of the front door. A few others stirred in their sleeping bags strewn about the place - “and I’m not judging. Hell knows my family’s probably done way worse -”

She was surprised when he snorted. “Yeah, I doubt that.”

“The point is -” she stopped in the middle of her sentence - “wait, what do you mean?” 

Did it have something to do with last night? Last night Lito had told her and Hernando about Wolfgang’s memory. She could tell he knew a lot more about Wolfgang’s past than he’d told, if only because the German was in his head for over a year.

“You’re not the only one from a family of criminals.”

She’d gathered as much from the way Wolfgang reacted when he heard Veronika’s name. Really, criminal would probably have been an understatement. And who was she to judge, when she had moved back to Mexico to get away from her family? But -

“Did he… Was he ever involved?”

“We were,” was his answer. “Not always by choice, but we were.”

“Why you?”

“Like I said, he’d be lost without me,” he tried to joke. But his smirk vanished as soon as he sighed. “The man who shoots people in mob fights? That’s not the Wolfie I know.” 

She nodded. “I get it. He’s your friend.”

“Yeah. And I’d rather he doesn’t fucking die.”

“So what’s he really like?”

She’d wondered about Wolfgang since they’d rescued him, but all she knew so far was that he didn’t talk much. Except to Felix. And Kala, who (she thought, suppressing a smirk) always seemed to be in his room.

“He’s terrible with small talk. Every time we go to a club, I have to do all the chatting. He just sits there -” Felix leaned forward and frowned, giving her a hardened gaze - “like that.”

She laughed.

“Yeah, everyone thinks he’s this tough guy who broods all the time. But -” he stopped, leaning back in his seat again, popping open another can of beer he’d placed on the floor next to the chair. “Gah, never mind, he’ll kill me if I tell you.”

“No -” she inched forward and snatched the beer from his hand, before raising the can high above his reach - “You already started. You can’t take it back now!”

His smirk grew wider. “I should not have said that,” he continued to tease. “He made me swear not to tell anyone, Dani. Hell, he’ll kill me if I told you. It’s so embarrassing -”

Felix,” she pleaded. “Tell me. I won’t say anything.”

He nodded, pretending to be solemn. “You better not. He’s tougher than he looks.”

“But you just said -”

“He brought a bazooka to a fight once.”

“Holy fucking -” she opened her mouth to shout out more profanities, before she realized what he was trying to do. She stopped and crossed her arms - “wait. You were gonna tell me something embarrassing. Don’t change the topic. Shoot.”

He raised his hands up in surrender. “Alright. But you’re not gonna tell anyone. Not Lito, not Hernando -”

Smirking, she moved her chair closer. “Tell me.”

“Everyone thinks Wolfie’s this tough broody type of guy,” he said in a stage-whisper. “But really, he’s a fucking softie.”

“Huh. He doesn’t seem like it.” Much. She’d seen the way he looked at Kala, but she’d assumed that softness was reserved only for her. And Felix, on certain occasions.

“It’s true.” Felix glanced behind his back, all conspiratorial as he checked for eavesdroppers. “He used to feed stray cats.”

“No. Fucking. Way.”

He nodded, the familiar grin creeping up his face again. “It’s true. Sometimes he just sits there and watches them. The cats in the alley behind his old house? They liked him. A lot. Even let him pet them once.”

She giggled. Wolfgang the cat whisperer. Who would have thought?

“But you wanna know my favorite thing about those cats?”

“What?”

“One time it was really cold, and he brought them into the house and hid them under his bed for the whole night. One of them snuck out and pissed on his father’s pillow.”

At her look of horror, he continued, still smirking, “And he slept on it for weeks.”

She laughed along, handing back the can of beer she’d confiscated from Felix. But she couldn’t help but wonder about Wolfgang’s relationship with his father. There was something familiar about that gleefulness Felix wore. She’d felt the same way after she’d slept with Joaquín’s best friend. 

Perhaps there was a reason Wolfgang never talked about his past, either.

“What?” Felix asked. Of course he’d noticed the change in her expression. She cursed herself inside her head.

“Oh, it’s just the whole Veronika thing yesterday. It’s sort of…” she started, but paused. Wolfgang probably already knew about her history from inside Lito’s head, but she knew he wouldn’t divulge her secrets. She wanted to trust Felix, if only because he seemed like a loyal friend. But once she had believed the same of Joaquín. Could she really trust her own judgement anymore?

“What is it?” he asked again.

“What I mean is,” she amended, “it just reminded me that my family isn’t the only one that’s completely messed up.”

He was frowning. She hoped it wasn’t because he’d noticed she was only telling part of the truth. “Well, it’s a fucked up world,” was his response.

She nodded, happy he was at least changing the topic. “Yeah, you can say that.”

He raised his can of beer, and Dani raised her unfinished glass of margarita. “But. We’re gonna make it less fucked up after we go kick some Headhunter ass.”

“To a less fucked up world.”

They threw back the rest of their drinks in one long gulp.

*

With every seemingly impossible thing going on in her life at the same time, the last thing Kala expected to encounter in a flat purchased by Rajan was a call from the man in question.

“H-Hello?” she picked up the receiver. Before she’d heard the ring, she didn’t even realize there was a landline hanging on the living room wall.

“Kala,” he breathed, sounding relieved. “I called two days ago. You didn’t answer.”

She opened her mouth, and closed it again, one hand clawing at the wild curls on the back of her head as she furrowed her brows, trying to think of an explanation. Of course she should have expected Rajan to notice something off. But now was not a good time to come clean, she tried to convince herself. She didn’t even know how she could go about explaining this… whatever this situation was. Everything.

She shook the thought away. “Yes. I was - I’m still a little jet-lagged. Yes. Pretty sure I was asleep. In the room. Uhh, one of the rooms.”

“Oh.” She couldn’t tell if he was convinced. “I tried to call your cell phone yesterday, when you didn’t pick up the landline. But it was off.”

Kala didn’t swear much, but she could see the appeal. “I think -” she turned to Lito, who waved his wallet - “I mean, they said my number wasn’t working. I must have forgotten to pay the fees.” On second thought, she added, “I’m sorry I made you worry.”

“I’m happy you’re safe. That is all I want to hear.”

Her cheeks grew hot from guilt. Rajan had most likely put himself in more danger by moving her abroad. Yet the biggest current distraction in her life was lying in the bedroom Rajan had most likely furnished for them, and for the past few days she’d all but forgotten the ring on her finger.

“Kala? Are you still there?” 

“I’m worried about you, Rajan.” That, at least, was true. “Has Ajay made any more threats?”

“Uhh, no,” he said. Too quick, thought Lito as he visited, appearing next to her. He frowned and shook his head. He’s lying.

But she decided not to press in case he did the same with her. “That’s - that’s good,” she tried to sound like she believed him. “I’m happy you’re safe, too.”

“I missed you, Kala.” She pictured him smiling, maybe even scrolling through the pictures he had of her on his phone, and wanted to kick herself for keeping up with this lie. How could she face Rajan again and tell him she’d lied to him countless times before? How could she face Wolfgang?

Though by that point in the conversation, she had no choice but to continue lying. She tried to not let her voice shake when she replied, “Me too.”

She tried to tell herself it wasn’t entirely a lie. That she did miss something about her old life, a much simpler time when she knew nothing of the German ex-criminal who, despite her initial judgement, she now believed was a gift from Ganesha. Kala Dandekar was a proper daughter, and if someone had told her that one day she would fall in love with one man and get married with another, she would have found the idea abhorrent.

Then again, everyone in her cluster had begun to shed their old lives the moment they were reborn, slowly, like an old repainted wall chipping away. She supposed that in a way, this new version of Kala was always there, hidden underneath a mask of pleasantries and smiles, without which she’d have felt utterly vulnerable. Perhaps it’d be liberating to tell Rajan the truth. But she wouldn’t know until she did.

After they said their goodbyes and hung up, she sat down on the couch next to Lito and buried her face into a cushion. There were other people in the living room watching her, she knew, but she couldn’t go back to the room she shared with Wolfgang just yet. She felt Lito give her a side-hug, and whisper that it was okay, that without lies, life would be too hard.

Then they heard the balcony door open, and Mavis was making her way inside. But the younger woman paused upon seeing what was happening. “I’ll, uhh -” she started to back away, but her eyebrows were locked in a frown, and was her voice trembling? - “I’ll just… come back later.”

“No, it’s okay.” Kala straightened herself, and Lito did the same. “What is it?”

“Kareem. He said a Headhunter told him BPO found six Veracity spies.”

Kala heard Jonas swear from where he sat, as well as a couple others. “It would appear we have underestimated BPO this time,” said Jonas. 

“Fuck,” Felix muttered. “Well, now what?”

“It’d be helpful if we know what BPO’s working on. What we’re up against,” Nomi pointed out. Everyone turned to Jonas. 

He sighed. “I have told you what you wanted to know.”

“Yeah, but not everything,” said Will. Jonas gave a half-nod, half-shrug. He took that as a confirmation. “And maybe Wolfgang should be awake for this part,” he added.

Kala buried her face in her pillow again.

“I thought you’ve agreed to stop interrogating me?” Jonas raised an eyebrow.

“We said no more secrets,” said Amanita. “So honest answers would be good.”

“Let’s start with Angelica,” Will suggested. “Tell us about her work with Whispers.”

*

“What can you tell us about the neural graft?” Nomi asked the first question when everyone had gathered in the living room.

“Why do you want to know?”

Nomi crossed her arms, recalling what had triggered Jonas’ memories the last time she tried to get information out of him. But they had decided to keep him on Blockers 24/7 for the time being, so she would have to make do with just her words. “I just wonder why Angelica would have helped him with this, seeing as he’s using it for, well -”

Jonas sighed. “It was not her intention to assist Whispers in building an army, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“It’s hard not to think that way,” said Amanita. “He certainly seems to think she had a big part to play in all this.”

Jonas was silent. Will leaned forward. “We agreed, no more secrets.”

“If you must know, her intention was to develop a procedure that could grant the wish of sensates who wished to be severed from their cluster.”

“Someone like Todd?” asked Riley.

A nod.

As much empathy as their newfound powers had given them, everyone in the cluster still wished Todd had never been reborn. By now they knew Mavis and the sapiens among them shared the sentiment.

Jonas chuckled as he noticed the exchanged looks. “We wish for many things. But at the end of the day, what matters is how we deal with the inevitable.”

Kala frowned. “What? Todd becoming a sensate? Or Whispers taking advantage of Angelica’s research?”

He thought about it. “Could be both. Could be just one. But I can’t imagine Angelica doing anything different than what she’d done.”

“So she did research on the neural graft for Todd,” Nomi said his name with a disdain, complete with a scowl.

“Angelica would have done anything for her children,” Jonas said, smiling in the way he always did when he talked about her. “She wanted to make a procedure that terminates any sharing between a sensate and their cluster. That was her first step.”

“So when did Whispers come in?” Wolfgang spoke. He didn’t know Rajan had called just yet, but he would when his Blocker wore off. Kala dreaded that moment.

“She needed funding for her research, so she sought out BPO, believing they were still following Dr El-Saadawi’s footsteps. I believe he volunteered as a researcher in this project. He said he was interested in the idea of giving sensates more autonomy for safety reasons. So that sapiens don’t feel threatened by their ability to share.”

“Right.” Mavis rolled her eyes.

“Dr Kolovi was another researcher involved in the project. He claimed he was fascinated with Homo sensorium, as an anthropologist, and he wanted to study their dynamics, how they interacted with their own species.”

Felix whistled. “Shit like that’s always a cover-up for something sinister.”

“In one experiment, they included the use of an EEG cap. Most likely Kolovi’s idea… I’m no expert with brain technology, but I suppose when someone can visualize the changes in the brain, it makes it easier to command the sensate who had undergone the procedure. It was initially a voluntary procedure.”

“That’s how these things usually start off,” Amanita pointed out.

“In this particular case? I believe you’re right. When Angelica found out their plans to use this procedure for military purposes, she found a way to destroy her data.”

“But they already got what they needed,” said Nomi. 

Jonas nodded. “Is there anything else you want to ask?”

Lito raised an eyebrow. “Do you want us to?”

“We could just sit in silence until one of us speaks again,” Jonas suggested. “Though I suppose it would not be the most desirable option.”

That was fair enough, they supposed. They may as well go all out.

“There is one more thing,” said Sun. “Do you know what BPO could have used to locate the sensates in California?”

“I know all of you already have a few viable theories,” he answered, remembering hearing their discussion from a few days past. “I suspect Felix was not mistaken when he said it could have been drugs. There was something else Angelica worked on in her early days. The Reciphorum, she called it.”

“Oh!” Capheus jumped a little in her chair, and everyone else perked up too. Will had informed everyone of Veronika and Whispers’ conversation in the memory he’d found, and there was mention of a Reciphorum.

“Yes, with Will’s new finding, I have reason to believe Veronika had chosen to develop the drug for the purposes of hunting.”

“So what does it do? This… Reciphorum,” Hernando repeated with a frown, concentrating on the syllables, hoping he’d remember the next time round.

Jonas paused, wondering how to go about explaining. After a minute, he decided to ask, “Have you heard of The Echo?”

Their frowns deepened. Jonas chuckled.

“Have you ever wondered how the more advanced members of your species could tell who was a sensate the moment they made eye contact?”

Lito shrugged. “I always thought it was intuitive.”

“Yes and no. The longer a person stays a sensate, the more in tune with their abilities they get. And when they meet a new sensate, they detect a glimpse of a feeling inside their mind that does not belong to them. Angelica called it The Echo. An echo of each other’s emotions, reverberating between their connected minds.”

“Like how we feel what everyone feels inside our cluster?” asked Kala.

“The Echo is particularly strong within a cluster, yes. But you can learn to detect Echoes of sensates outside the cluster upon eye-contact. Though it is so brief that it’s easy to miss.”

Will nodded. That made sense. “Angelica studied this, then?”

“She did. She was amazed at the overwhelming empathy that came with her powers. She wanted to find the reason our brain responds differently to emotional signals from others, how it differed from emotions experienced by sapiens.”

“Is that why she made the Traceworks?” asked Nomi.

Jonas raised an eyebrow, impressed. “The Traceworks was developed by Dr Kolovi to let researchers witness how sensate connections happen from a third eye. But he needed Whispers for the project — only sensates could connect their minds to this machine and visualize the connections. Angelica’s research was instrumental to the Traceworks’ success, but she wasn’t around when the first prototype was tested.”

At their puzzled expressions, he explained, “She was working on various ecology projects at the time, so she traveled a lot. She didn’t know Dr Kolovi had tested his subjects using acute pain as the stimuli. When she found out, Whispers told her it was the most effective way.”

Will sighed. “Of course it was.”

Jonas nodded. “Had she known how far they were willing to go to see their projects come to a success, she would have restrained herself from giving away all her data. But Angelica always saw in the best in everyone.”

Everyone frowned. They couldn’t picture the younger versions of Kolovi and Whispers that they’d seen on old photographs as the trustworthy type.

“They talked of understanding among our species and theirs, of research for the betterment of Homo sensorium, and she wanted to believe them. She wanted this for us. Words are the cruelest forms of deception,” said Jonas.

Nomi rolled her eyes. “So what about the drug?” she asked, deciding to bring them back to the topic. She and Kala had discussed the possibility of another mass-hunting of sensates with Will, and they agreed the only way they could track down the possible locations of the next hunt was by understanding how the drug worked.

“The Reciphorum works on the same principle as The Echo. It’s an excitatory drug, designed to bring the user into a state of euphoria. But it would appear BPO has now found a way to make the concentration larger in every dose, so the Reciphorum’s effect on a sensate’s brain could exceed the barrier created by a Blocker.”

“Bug’s keeping an eye on the IDs of the missing people,” said Amanita. “He said so far there’s no proof they’ve met each other before.”

Jonas nodded. “You have experienced pain within a cluster,” he said to the sensates among the group. “I believe you remember how it felt?”

The eight of them cringed, hard. Their most recent memory of sharing was when Wolfgang’s chest was zapped with electric paddles. It was a pain they had tried and failed to forget.

He continued, “Acute pain like that could be felt within a cluster. But euphoria was a sensation with an Echo far stronger than pain.”

Kala looked intrigued. “Why?”

“The type of pain the paddles produce depends on an external stimulant to maintain. Constant bursts of electricity. And you have witnessed the amount of damage, sometimes irreversible ones, that electricity could bring. But euphoria could be triggered and maintained for a longer period of time internally, without physical harm.”

“But why that drug?” asked Felix. “Why don’t they just get some cocaine?”

Kala turned to him. “It wouldn’t be good for the cardiovascular system in the long run. There’d be physical damage too.”

Jonas nodded. “That is one reason. Another is that the materials used in the Reciphorum was found in nature, in a plant that can send signals to every plant of the same species within a rather large proximity. She said they appeared to have their own clusters. Polypliotic, like us. And when the chemicals extracted from these plants were used in a drug designed for sensates, it could produce a feeling of bliss that exceeded the limitations of… a sensate’s social circle, if you will.”

“So every sensate in the area felt this?”

“If they were experiencing the drug at the same time, yes. The euphoria produces a loud Echo in the Psycellium. It allows sensates to make connections with each other. An Empathetic Connection.”

Will frowned. “Even if they’ve never made eye-contact before?”

“That is correct. An Optical Connection would be the easiest way to connect. But there are certainly other ways.”

“Like what?” asked Wolfgang.

“So far only the Optical and Empathetic Connections are known. There have been reports, other incidents of unexplained sensate connections, but not enough data had been procured to explain how these connections differed.”

Kala smiled, feeling a little more cheerful. Finally, a project she could look forward to when this war was done.

“Whatever mistakes Angelica made, she spent the rest of her life trying to make up for,” said Jonas. “As for all of you, it would be in your best interests to learn from her past. Do not let your guard down.”

Will chuckled. “Oh, we wouldn’t dream of it.”

Jonas nodded, approving the skepticism. “Perhaps one day your cluster could complete Angelica’s work,” he said, echoing Kala’s thought.

They added it to the list of things they planned to do when this mess was over.

*

Nancy Drew books made perfect bedtime stories.

When Nomi and Amanita first started living together, they’d established the little tradition of reading each other a chapter of their favorite series before bed. Who cared if they’d read Nancy Drew enough times that they could practically recite the stories word for word? A classic was a classic. Their classic.

And Nomi carried their ritual around whenever she traveled, in digital form. The cluster tuned in when she read these stories sometimes, when they still lived apart. The stories were a soothing distraction. Her voice was a constant in their wildly unpredictable lives.

They hadn’t read to each other since they left for London. Hunting down Whispers had that effect on people. But Capheus had told them he missed hearing adventures, no matter how confusing they were. There was one perk about sharing a living space, she thought as she pulled out her tablet. She may as well get everyone into the series once and for all. 

Except for Jonas, who occupied one bedroom. And Will and Wolfgang, who was quarantined in the other two rooms in case their Blocker wore off and someone tried to snoop through their eyes. And, by extension, Riley and Kala. 

So that night Nomi started reading The Secret of the Old Clock*. The beginning to all beginnings. (Amanita had only given a slight humph of protest upon hearing they wouldn’t pick up where they left off.)

Nancy Drew, an attractive girl of eighteen, was driving home along a country road in her new, dark-blue convertible. She had just delivered some legal papers for her father,” she read.

Sun let out a dry chuckle upon hearing the word “legal”. Nomi raised an eyebrow.

“Go on, then,” said Sun. She certainly hoped whatever law firm Nancy’s father worked for wouldn’t come across the likes of Joon-Ki.

A few sentences later, there was another interruption. “From the lawn of a house just ahead of her a little girl about five years of age had darted into the roadway,” she read. Lito gasped loud enough for everyone to hear as he made a show of putting a hand over his mouth.

Like pre-schoolers desperate to hear the rest of the story, he was shushed by everyone. Including Dani and Hernando. (“What? She’s gonna get hit,” was his defense.)

…as the van sped away, the child lost her balance and toppled off the wall out of sight!

Lito shrieked. Instead of shushing him, Felix let out a cackle, sending everyone into a fit of giggles. Even Sun chuckled from her corner.

Nomi sighed like a school teacher who regretted becoming a teacher. “Really?” Amanita turned to Lito. “Can’t you, like, scream in your head?”

He shrugged. “It’s not the same.”

When Nomi got up to “the poor little girl has no close relatives except Edna and me,” she could tell Lito was about to start making sniffling sounds.

Well, this was going to be fun.

Countless sentences and ten more interruptions from Lito later, the chapter was finally finished. Amanita had volunteered to read chapter two (because one chapter was never enough), but when Nomi turned to hand her the tablet, she discovered that her fiancée had burrowed herself inside their sleeping bag, gently snoring. One of her blue braids had slipped out to graze floor below. 

So with a smile (and an “aww” from Lito), she tucked the braid back inside, and slid down to join Amanita in a blissful, dreamless sleep.

*

These days when Will glimpsed memories from Whispers’ distant past, he was always seeing through what he would call a third eye. But when their Blockers happened to be wearing off at the same time in the past few months, he’d often find his consciousness entering Whispers’ mind, occupying his body. 

Sure, the lack of distance allowed him to hear Whispers’ thoughts more clearly, but other than the tactical advantages, Will wouldn’t call it a welcome change. It was too personal for his comfort. He was afraid the Headhunter’s lack of empathy would be contagious.

Riley had decided to let him sleep wearing an eye mask after Whispers had almost seen their second London hideout through his eyes. Kala had also allocated one of the bedrooms to them, and they made sure to draw the curtains completely shut. Not a foolproof safe guard, but it would at least buy him a few seconds to take another dose.

Though this time when Will felt his body move without his consent, he knew the man’s intention was not to pull off his eye mask. Instead, he simply sat up and leaned against the headboard, head tilted back slightly. Sounds were coming to focus inside their heads, and while he felt Riley stir beside him and utter some kind of question, her voice felt distant. Like a memory. 

He shuddered at the thought that Riley was part of Whispers’ memory too.

The darkness in front of his eyes faded to a fluorescent white Will had come to associate with a sense of dread. Will heard the whirring of a bone saw before he noticed the instrument was in his hands. He was wearing a white coat, and his shoes were covered in some kind of plastic protection. There was no one in the room.

Except for the man lying on the surgery table, his face and body covered in a bloodstained white cloth with the top of his forehead peeking out. Will could make out black hair and bronze skin tinged with bruises that had faded to a deep asphalt.

Back in his bedroom in Paris, he gasped for air, and his heart dropped a beat.

The arms he possessed moved without his command, slowly, shaking. The free hand lifted the cloth off of the patient’s face. He saw Ismael, dried blood trickling down the corner of his purpled lips, eyes closed in eternal sleep. It was the first time he saw a victim through Whispers’ eyes.

The hand with the whirring bone saw made contact with the dead man’s forehead.

Will didn’t know whether he had screamed, only that he was launched out of the memory with an impact that knocked his back hard against the headboard with a loud thud. Riley was rubbing a hand behind his back. He yanked off his eye mask and buried his face in their blanket. She followed, leaning her head against his back.

Her voice was soft when she spoke a few minutes later, after he’d stopped shaking and he’d noticed his sweaty forehead staining the blanket. “What did you see?”

“He wanted me -” he gasped, and Riley made a soft shushing sound in his ear. He took a few deep breaths before turning to her, seething now - “He wanted me to see this.” 

“See what?”

He tried to send forth the memory, but he gagged when he pictured Ismael’s corpse, at the mercy of the bone saw, and instead of worming his presence into Riley’s mind, he pushed himself away, nearly falling off the bed. She steadied him and pulled him down to lie on the pillow, stroking his head, her other hand reaching for the Blockers on the nightstand.

“Tell me, then,” she said.

“His cluster-mate,” his voice was shaking, “Kareem’s brother. He was -” he shook his head and shut his eyes with a whimper. His hand reached up to his forehead, and he made a motion with his finger, dragging it across.

“Oh, Will.” She put her hand over his eyes. Or tried to — but her hand was shaking almost as much as his. It could have been them. Almost was, once. 

He knew she wished she could shield him from his memories, but all he could see when he closed his eyes was the darkness fading into fluorescent white. So he drew away and opened his eyes again, nodding when she offered him the Blockers. She lifted his head, and he swallowed.

The shock dulled down somewhat when the Blocker kicked into effect, but he clutched the blanket tight with his fist and moved closer to face Riley. “I felt like I was there.”

She was leaning against the pillow propped behind her back, and she closed her hand around his fist, warm against his cold, clammy skin. “You’re here,” she reassured, both to him and to remind herself that their moment of danger had passed. For now.

He nodded, still sniffling. “He was his friend. I thought he was his friend. What made him -” he groaned, and she pressed her lips against his forehead.

“I don’t know,” she said. “What you saw, the memories of his cluster? That’s not the Whispers we know.”

He let the kiss linger for a few more seconds before he drew back. “What happened to him? What made him this way?”

She put her arm around his shoulder, pulling him up slightly so his head rested against her chest. “I don’t know, Will. I don’t know.”

He supposed it was another thing they had to find out.

Chapter Text

 

July 14, 2017

The Archipelago had found another safe house on the outskirts of Paris. It was in a neighborhood full of rich people’s vacation homes. Felix expected it to be fancy.

And it certainly was, if the rose garden that surrounded the area in front of the entrance was any indication. The house was painted a creme white, flowers and leaves decking the windowsills in a fashion similar to Kala’s flat in the center of the city. 

When Kala, Sun, Felix, and Wolfgang (who was begrudgingly walking with his cane) arrived in the morning, it was still chilly, but the windows were open, taking it all in. They stared at the place in awe, and Felix knew the rest of the group would react the same way when they make their ways over tomorrow.

A good location for a new hideout. Everyone agreed the Paris flat Rajan had purchased was only good for a temporary stay. After all, transactions between bank accounts, Nomi had pointed out, was one of the easiest things to track down. Bug could do it, and BPO certainly wouldn’t find that too much of a challenge.

Then the front door opened, and they saw a tall, lean man with an umber brown complexion. He grinned and extended his arms in welcome, showcasing his Hawaiian shirt in its entirety. The orange and green matched the colors weaved into his dreadlocks, which brushed against his shoulder. It was not until he was standing right in front of them that they noticed he also wore a black tie with a whimsical pattern.

“The heroes of the hour!” he said in a London accent, his voice booming. Then he extended his calloused hand, speckled with dried gold paint, which Felix shook while everyone else hung back, dazed at the enthusiastic welcome they had certainly not expected. “Leon Tucker, pleased to meet you.”

“Those are some awesome shoes,” was Felix’s reply as he glanced down at Leon’s feet.

Leon’s shoes were a mustard yellow, the exact shade he would have opted if he’d decided to buy a new pair. On habit he noted the fineness of the stitches along the seams, the firmness of the leather. Handmade and Italian. They looked expensive as fuck.

“Back at you, mate,” said Leon, examining Felix’s silver shoes in return.

Leon turned to smile at the rest of the crew, and it was then that Kala noticed she had not spoken a word. “I’m sorry,” she apologized for the four of them, “when they told us about this place, we were not expecting -”

To her surprise, Leon laughed. “Ahh, yes. My cluster runs this place. Always a fun surprise for first-time lodgers.”

“You do this often?” asked Sun.

“We -” he gestured to the magnificent house behind him, - “are the Airbnb for sensates in need, my friend. Who’d you think did all the fancy gardening?”

Next to Felix, Wolfgang raised an eyebrow.

“Right,” said Leon, noticing his apparent disbelief, “not me. This is all Gina and Rickie’s work. Sometimes Genevieve helps.”

“How many of you are there?” Wolfgang asked.

“There’s five of us. But three of them went out shoppin’. And Miki is - oh, hang on -” Leon made his way to the open window - “oi!” he bellowed, “Miki, they’re here!”

The window opened further, and a woman gave them a wave in her oven mitts. Her dark brown eyes squinted into half-moons as she smiled, and deep dimples appeared in her tawny cheeks, adding a playful glow to her expression. One of her black braids slid past her shoulder, the dyed red tip brushing against the ledge. 

She beckoned for them to come in, and they were happy to oblige when they smelled marshmallow chocolate chip cookies wafted through the air. They found themselves in a vast doorway with photographs hanging from walls filled with abstract painted patterns. Below their feet, marbled floor tiles reflected the overhead lights. A wide wooden staircase stood on their right. Felix heard a child’s laugh.

“They’re here!” the boy cheered. And, instead of running down the stairs, he jumped on the railing and slid down, falling off halfway to roll off the rest of the steps. Felix cringed as the boy hit the marbled floor with a thud

“Damien!” Miki shrieked, rushing over to examine him.

The child — he couldn’t have been more than nine — lifted his head, grinning. He had sparse, dark freckles near his cheekbones. Spiky black hair stood up on his head like the prickly quills on a porcupine.

“M’alright!” he declared. “Did ya see that landing? I’m Damien! You’re late! Okay, test two!”

“Oh no you don’t,” Miki said, her voice stern, grabbing his hands as he tried to run back upstairs. She tapped the elbow that had smacked against the ground with her finger, breathing a sigh of relief when he didn’t flinch. She muttered something about “another broken arm”. Damien stuck out his tongue before running into the kitchen.

Sighing, Miki turned to them and smiled in apology.

“Is he like us?” Sun asked.

Homo sensorium? Yeah. He’s been with us two years. His mom dropped him off here.”

“Oldest resident in Château Tucker, he is,” Leon interjected, and Miki rolled her eyes, punching him lightly in the arm. He groaned. “Ow, that actually hurt.”

It was Miki’s turn to grin. “Good.”

Turning to the four visitors, Leon pointed at Miki and shook his head. “Always bullies me, she does. Don’t let her size fool ya. She gets surprisingly punchy.”

Felix watched Sun suppress a smirk as she examined the round-faced woman whose height only reached her chin, standing barefoot on the cold marble floor, bulky muscles on her thighs exposed in their entirety underneath the oversized t-shirt she wore. Thought after witnessing Sun’s kickass fighting when the rescued Wolfie, he knew better than to judge a woman by her size.

“It’s only surprising because you always underestimate me,” Miki voice was light and cheery when she teased, and she sounded American. 

Leon shrugged. “You have a point there. I should carry around a shield or somethin’.”

Miki nodded, approving of his admission of defeat, before turning to the group, who were watching their squabble with amused expressions. “Now that that’s settled, want some breakfast?” she gestured to the kitchen, where the smell of cookies were getting more inviting by the second. 

They nodded. They hadn’t eaten since the crack of dawn, just before they’d made their ways here. By then they were too hungry and tired to wonder why the hosts would consider cookies to be a normal breakfast option. As if he could read their thoughts (and he probably could, had the three of them not been on Blockers), Leon remarked, “It’s cookies for breakfast whenever Miki’s in charge.”

Miki nodded, eyeing the half-empty tray of soft-baked cookies Damien was wolfing down before bringing the other batches out of the oven for the guests. “I’d say this goes well with coffee,” she told them. And, at Damien perked up in his chair, “No. No coffee for you.”

“Aww come on, that was one time -”

*

The Paris safe house was even bigger on the inside.

Kala counted eleven bedrooms as they were led by Leon and Miki on a tour through the three floors of the mansion. The floor in the hallways, living rooms and (to her delight) basement lab were all paved with fine marble, and the bedrooms were lined with mahogany tiles. The creamy white color of the paint remained on a few walls, though the others were covered with oil and acrylic paint. 

She wouldn’t call them graffiti, exactly, though the style was mostly abstract, the shapes too foreign for her to try and interpret. Ajay was right, she thought, cringing at the thought of the man that later turned out to be yet another criminal in her life. Perhaps not understanding a work of art made it more appealing. The bright and colorful patterns in the works added vibrance to a house that had once no doubt hosted the most wanted sensate fugitives. She knew Hernando would swoon once he laid his eyes on them.

“Did you do all this?” she asked Leon. Wolfgang, who was walking beside her, an arm around her shoulder, also glanced around in awe. 

“Sure did,” he answered, smiling in a smug way. And, as Miki punched him in the arm again, he added, “she helped, too.”

“Helped?” Miki crossed her arms. “Please, you wouldn’t have been inspired without me.”

Leon pulled her into a side-hug, conceding. “She has chromesthesia,” he explained to the guests as Miki beamed. “Which, I suppose, means we all have. You should’ve seen us back when we first got the place. All the music and colors… Bloody exhilarating, it was.”

“How long have you lived here?” asked Sun.

“How long… Blimey, ’s been two years, hasn’t it?” he turned to Miki, who thought about it before nodding.

Felix looked around the well-furnished hall and let out a whistle. 

Leon laughed, “This is all thanks to my granddad. He was an artist, and a bloody rich one at that. Left me loads ‘o money when he passed away. Good man.”

When he opened the door to the next bedroom, Kala let out a squeal. Laughing, Wolfgang turned to the source.

On the wall of the bedroom was a lilac colored silhouette of a baby elephant with too-large ears standing on a cloud of by pink and purple swirls. It was surrounded by midnight blue decked with silver dots. Other colorful clouds decked the night sky, some of them a little hazy, as if they were drifting into a mist. On the other end of the room, near the door, was a black silhouette of a larger elephant.

“Did that when we had a Disney marathon,” Leon explained. “You two can take this room, if you want,” he added, winking at Wolfgang when he opened his mouth to ask how he knew. “I can know what sensate couples look like. You should see Gina and Henrik when they get back. Those two are insufferable.”

Miki giggled. As Leon waltzed back into the hallway to lead them to the next bedroom, she put a hand on Wolfgang’s shoulder, holding him and Kala back. “You should rest,” she said, when Leon, Sun and Felix were out of earshot. “You’re looking a bit pale. Mavis told me you were electrocuted?”

Wolfgang shrugged. Miki sighed and grabbed his hand, pulling him over until he conceded and sat on the bed. “I’ve got something for that,” said Miki, standing up. “Wait here.”

She went into the en-suite bathroom that they hadn’t noticed was there, and came back with a small round jar. There was some kind of white paste inside.

“Lie down, bhediya,” Kala said gently, and Wolfgang obliged. Miki gestured to his shirt. He reached to take it off, but it was hard when he was lying down, and the angle of his arm made his chest ache a little. He bit back a groan, and Kala sat on the bed and helped him pull off his gray cotton top.

The bruises from the paddles had mostly faded, save for a few contusions that looked a little green. Some of his veins were bulging slightly above his muscles. 

“Impressive recovery,” Miki noted, and Wolfgang suppressed the urge to groan again. Kala knew, from what memories he shared, that he was remembering the times a doctor would remark on his skin’s amazing ability to patch itself quickly after every cut. “That’s good news,” continued the woman, who noted the change in his expression but thankfully decided not to pry. “This would have stung a bit if his bruises were still purple.”

Miki nudged Kala in the elbow with the hand that held the jar of salve, raising an eyebrow as her other hand twisted the cap open. It smelled like an herbal concoction, but the smell was different from the large collection of herbs Kala was used to seeing in her father’s kitchen. Kala furrowed her brows, trying to decipher the ingredients.*

“Did you make this?” she asked.

Miki nodded. “I like to experiment with herbal medicine. It’s an Iñupiat thing.”

“Like a tradition?”

“Yeah. My parents aren’t really into it. But my grandma taught me.”

“Are all the ingredients found in France?”

“Some are. But I also included some herbs native to Alaska, where I’m from.”

“Are they perishable?” 

Expired drugs are a big problem in pharmaceutical companies, she knew all too well, shaking the thought of her husband away with a pang of guilt. On the bed, Wolfgang frowned at her, and she shook her head, mouthing “it’s nothing”. It was a topic that they both knew they had to deal with eventually. But maybe later. Neither of them knew where to even start.

“They won’t expire for another year, I think.” Miki said, voice growing quieter. “I’m hoping it’s enough to last until - well, you know.”

Kala nodded, frowning.

“Anyway -” Miki said, standing up from where she sat on the bed, handing the open jar to Kala - “I’ll leave you to it.”

Upon hearing that, Wolfgang’s frown turned into a smirk, making Kala’s cheeks warm up. She hoped to Ganesha she wasn’t visibly blushing. 

Miki mirrored his smirk. “Unless you want me to -”

Kala snatched the jar from Miki’s hands before she even finished the sentence, making Wolfgang chuckle. “Sorry,” she apologized, and Miki laughed, raising a teasing eyebrow. “I got it. Thank you.”

“Alright,” the Inuk sing-songed, walking out. “I’ll leave you to it.”

When Kala dipped her fingers into the jar of salve, she noted it was minty. Her hand felt a little cold when the breeze from the open window drifted by. Slowly, she traced the bulging veins on Wolfgang’s chest, her fingers circling around the fading scars, gliding across the green bruises. He hummed, content. She looked up to see he had closed his eyes.

“Good?”

He smiled, dimples appearing in his cheeks again. “Yes, doctor.”

She laughed at that, before dipping her head down to kiss the places that she knew still hurt, one by one. The salve tasted bitter in her mouth, but his growl prompted her to kiss him some more.

“Better?”

A nod, before his smile widened. The small voice at the back of her mind was telling her the same lips had kissed another man barely a month earlier, and all the guilt she had suppressed came flooding back. It was lucky Wolfgang was on Blockers. 

“Something wrong?” he asked, eyes still closed.

Kala was not as selfless as she once believed. She had suspected this for a long time, now.

“Just thinking,” she lied, telling herself it would be the last time she ever did.

Nodding, Wolfgang’s hand reached up to his face, and he grazed a calloused finger against his lips. He let out a content hum as his lip caught hers with a fervor, heat crashing against the cold. She savored this moment, in the hopes that it would give her another reason to do the right thing in the end. Because after being reunited with Wolfgang, she knew there was no way she could let him go again. No matter the consequences.

Someday soon, she would tell Rajan the truth and set herself free. 

*

“I think it’s time I teach you to shield your mind against sensate enemies, in light of the recent… developments at BPO,” said Jonas.

Everyone, save for the four that ventured ahead to the next safe house, gathered around the living room of Kala’s Paris flat. Sun and Kala visited to inform them that all are well at the new hideout, and the rest of the group would travel there the next day.

Will frowned. “The Blockers seem to be wearing off quicker for Riley and me. Whispers keeps trying to break in, I can feel it.”

“Exactly,” Mavis chipped in. “The in-between times are the worst. You know, when it’s still all buzzing up here but you can sort of feel someone else’s mind creeping in before you take another dose?” she gestured wildly around her head. “Yeah. Been there.”

“The transition periods are when we are most susceptible to invasions,” Jonas added. “The disorientation lowers your inhibition against Headhunters. It is usually then that they will choose to slip into your mind through a hint of your emotions.”

“Can’t we just push back into their memories?” asked Will. 

Jonas nodded. “That is one possible way. I believe you have become familiar with this method of coping? I will say, it is also the more extreme method.”

Will cringed, knowing too well the price he had to pay to barricade his mind. He tried to push the image of Whispers performing a lobotomy on his cluster-mate out of his memory.

Seeing his reaction, Amanita asked, “Is there a better way? One where they wouldn’t get creepy recurring nightmares as a side-effect?”

“Yes! I am glad you asked,” Mavis turned to Jonas, rubbing her hands together. “This should be fun -” then, turning to the group with a smirk - “you sure they’re ready for this?”

“Ready for what?” asked Nomi.

“A memory loop,” Jonas said, before Mavis could interject again. “Two related memories, connected by an element that draws them together.”

Hernando frowned, looking back and forth between Jonas and a confused Lito. “Element?”

“Think about a tangible object, or sequence of action, that was present both times. When you know what memories you want to use, find that object or motif. Something symbolic enough to evoke a strong and identifiable emotion.”

“Does it… Does it have to be a happy memory?” Lito’s voice was quiet, and he looked down, gazing at nothing in particular.

“The most effective emotions to use in the loop are ones where there is growth behind the positive emotion,” Jonas explained. “Something meaningful you have learned over the years that makes the second experience so similar, and yet so different, than the first.”

“I’d say hindsight helps,” Mavis added as she looked around and took in their blank stares. “Like, you get that second experience a few years, maybe even a few decades later. And then you remember the first time and go woah, here’s something I missed. And it makes the memory that much deeper.”

Will frowned. “Wouldn’t that make things worse? Letting a Headhunter see something so personal?”

Jonas nodded. “Nothing can block out a sensate’s mind presence in its entirety except Blockers. The memory loop and reverse invasion tactics should not be used in place of Blockers. They are your last resorts, should you find yourself in an interrogation with a Headhunter. These are the most effective ways to prevent another sensate from seeing the memory you are trying to hide.”

“Would this work under the effects of the Traceworks?” Kala asked.

“I believe so. If the focus is strong enough, if you immerse yourself in the memories and concentrate on the emotions you experienced at that moment, it can provide some relief to the pain from electrocution. Enough to dull the Echo of the emotion behind the memory you were trying to hide, making it faint, harder for the Headhunter to identify.”

Sun frowned. “What if you don’t know which memories to choose.”

“For most people, the two memories would take some time to find,” Jonas said. “It’s a slow process. But certainly something to think about as you go about your next few days.”

“I -” Lito started, then paused, and exchanged a nod with Dani and Hernando - “I think I know. I have it.”

“If anyone else thinks they have found their loop, this would be a good time to start. This skill is easiest to grasp when you’re practicing with someone you trust.”

From next to Amanita, Nomi leaned forward. “I’m ready, too.”

“Before you start,” Jonas added, “think of a third memory that you will try to hide from each other. Protect it.”

*

The two of them sat back to back, a bedroom wall separating them from each other. The doors were closed to allow complete privacy, and they knew everyone was chatting in the living room, doing their best to keep their volume down. Jonas had said it was crucial that they learn to do this when it was quiet. In an interrogation room, the loudest noise would be the beeping of the Traceworks machine.

Nomi hugged her legs closer to her for comfort, leaning her head on top of her knees. Behind her, Lito’s presence buzzed in her mind, inviting her consciousness to drift through the wall and see what he saw. By then it had become second nature to see through the same pair of eyes, and their minds navigated to fit around each other’s. She could make out the lemon yellow walls of the room, the sunlight pouring through the open window.

You should probably block me out now, she reminded Lito.

He chuckled. You’re an invader now. Right.

Lito squinted to focus on the beams of light on the wooden floor, taking Nomi’s gaze away from what was outside the window. Warmth, she heard him think. Summer. It was summer. 

There was the sound of footsteps. It came from behind her, accompanied by the sound of a young girl’s laughter. Lito was running in a pair of oversized sandals, and Nomi was feeling the strain of his leg muscles. Dust crept in between his toes, making his skin itch, but all he wanted to do was keep running. 

There was a narrow alley in front of him with many open doors and windows, and Lito ran past. As Nomi slipped into his body, she could smell the aroma of chili peppers wafting through the air, hear the sound of oil and meat sizzling against skillets.

Come on, Lito, there’s a town to save!, shouted the girl as she ran past him, a blur of black and coral pink. Strands of hair were slipping out of the braid down her back that whipped left and right as she jumped over a hurdle of empty paper boxes lying on the street, the loosening bowtie at the end threatening to fall off with every leap.

Behind them, Nomi could make out the sound of a woman calling out from one of the open windows. Dios mío, María, get back here, you are ruining your best dress!

Nomi giggled, recalling María’s ever-presence in memories of Lito’s childhood. She had seen glimpses of her in Lito’s mind over the past year. But this memory felt different.

María stuck out her tongue and grabbed Lito’s hand. He ran alongside her until they reached the main road, where tourists and locals alike bustled along the roads looking for a restaurant to sit down and have a nice meal.

Lito pretended to check a watch on his wrist. Oh no! The bad guys are going to blow up the town in three minutes! We must hurry, Agent María!

Copy that, Agent Lito. She looked around, frowning as she mumbled, no, not that one, not that one… And then, There! she pointed at the restaurant with a crudely painted shopfront. A one story building with a flat roof, he noted. Fairly easy to climb.

Aha! he exclaimed. A very clever disguise for their base of operation. But not clever enough for us.

She smirked, one hand reaching into her pocket to pull out an imaginary gun, which she held firmly in her right hand. Shall we?

Nodding, he ran with her until they reached the painted red-and-yellow sign. The secret entrance is on that side, he whispered, glancing at the area where the dumpsters were. They rushed over and started climbing, ignoring the stench.

María’s mother must have been furious, Nomi thought.

Lito chuckled, and everyone in the memory froze, pausing like a video on playback. She was.

Too late, the scene in front of him vanished, and he was looking at Hernando in the tiny bathroom at the Diego Rivera Museum, their bodies crashing against each other as his slippery hands grappled at the cotton shirt that had been plastered to his lover’s body with sweat. Then he felt Nomi inhabit his body in the memory, looking up at the worn gray-blue paint on the ceiling, down at the gray tiles beneath his feet.

He let out a groan. Well played, Nomi.

She sent forth an emotion that Lito could only describe as smugness.

He latched on to that, and Nomi was launched back into the memory loop again, fast-forwarding until Lito and María had already climbed on the roof. The two friends fought back to back wearing identical smirks, kicking at imaginary villains left and right, pointing their hand guns at them, pretending to shoot.

Whoo! We saved the town! said María after a few minutes, tucking away her invisible weapons.

Then Lito around to face her. Nomi laughed upon a closer inspection of Lito’s friend, hair matted with sweat and dirt with loose strands flying about, a gray handprint smeared across her right cheek. Lito chuckled, too, though he knew better than to let his focus slip this time round. He fixated his gaze on María, who was grinning with a missing front tooth, one strap of her dress slipping off her shoulder. 

María drew herself closer to Lito, putting her hands on his shoulder, and looked at him, mischievous dark brown eyes widening.

What are you doing? he asked, laughing.

She shushed him. Don’t ruin the moment, Lito.

What moment?

An exasperated sigh. This is where we kiss.

Uh - he took a step back, frowning. But why?

She pulled him closer again. You know, like in the movies! The boy and the girl realize they’re perfect for each other. And they kiss.

But - 

Lito paused, wondering why he didn’t feel the same way. He had seen the ways the other boys in his neighborhood grinned and bragged about the girls they wooed, and he had prepared himself to feel the same. In the movies, the men would bring the ladies roses. And wear cologne, and a nice suit. When he asked if he could dress the same way, papá had said he wasn’t old enough. 

That must have been it. The heroes in the movies were all grown-ups. Maybe when he was older, he would want to kiss a girl. He would.

Come on, Lito, I’m waiting, María said again, tugging at his shirt.

I, uhh - he looked around, trying to think of a way out of this. But we’re all sweaty. 

It’s like that in every movie, silly. It’s more romantic that way.

He closed his eyes. Good boys tell the truth, his mamá had said. But being honest was harder than he thought. What would María think, if he had told her he didn’t want to kiss her? Would she still want to be friends?

Mamá said that I - he closed his eyes, uttering a silent apology to mamá - I am not to kiss until I am older.

She frowned. How old?

In his mind, he breathed a sigh of relief. I have to wait until I marry.

Aww, she whined, but conceded, letting go of Lito. But that’s gonna take years.

Sorry, María, he mumbled, averting her eyes.

She shrugged, before she looked down at her muddy outfit and started giggling, ever the optimist. Well, I do need time to find a good wedding dress. Because this one is definitely wrecked.

He laughed along as they climbed down and raced each other home, and pretended to forget about his lie, hoping it was a one-time thing. 

When Nomi heard the thumping of footsteps again, she found herself running down a street with a green carpet, cameras and microphones and too-bright lights looming overhead. She — no, Lito — was wearing all black, blending in with the darkness around him, and a woman dressed in the same camouflage was running beside him. They climbed up the fire escape ladders on the side of the six-story building and brought themselves into the thick of the epic battle on the rooftop, fighting back-to-back, kicking and shooting prop guns at the masked villains. 

It was his favorite movie to shoot, because it was the only one where he fought alongside the girl instead of saving her. María had always insisted girls could be heroes, too. Even as she had grown older, as she had learned to take better care of her dresses, to talk and act “like a proper lady”, the impish glint in her eyes never vanished. 

They remained friends for years until he moved to Mexico City to kickstart his movie career. Whenever he came home, his aunties would tell him to consider asking María’s hand in marriage. You’re a perfect match, they’d said. 

But he had stopped himself before he had a chance to knock on her door, run away from the village where he grew up and never looked back. He had already accepted that it was not a matter of age that stopped him from kissing her before, but a matter of the heart. And he couldn’t lie to his best friend a second time.

*

His consciousness had slipped back to the Paris flat, and it was only when Nomi visited him, patting him on the shoulder, that he opened his eyes.

“Hey. It was the right thing to do,” she reassured.

He nodded. “I know.” Then, smiling, “I had my first date with Hernando in the Diego Rivera Museum a month after.”

She smiled back.

“Sometimes,” he continued, “sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t stopped in front of the door. If I had proposed to her that day.”

“You wouldn’t have met Hernando.”

“Now I can’t imagine life without him.”

“What about her?” she asked. “Have you ever…”

“I couldn’t.” He buried his face in his hands. “I don’t know what I would even say. What could I say? That I lied to her?”

“I think you should find her when this is over.”

“I’m scared, Nomi,” he confessed. “She was my best friend. I don’t know if I’ll be able to move past it if -” he choked back a sob - “it’s too hard.” 

She put her arm around him. “Whatever you choose, you won’t have to do it alone.”

Chapter Text

 

July 15, 2017 (cont’d)

Nomi had always loved dolls, and her father may not have forgiven her for that, but her sister had been happy to share. Teagan thought it was fun to play with Mike, who didn’t make fun of her girly toys. Nomi recalled the Sunday afternoon, mindful of Lito’s presence on the other side of the wall, his mind eager to step into her memory. 

They had just come home from church. Her parents had left immediately for brunch with her father’s business partner, and she and Teagan had been left alone with their babysitter. Nomi had bolted to her room first thing, tearing off the tie that chafed her neck, peeling the suit that encased her body like a casket, tossing both on the corner of her bed.

She heard Lito chuckle as he saw the memory through her eyes, and felt his mind looming over the scene, trying to wipe out the visions from the past to focus on the memory she was trying to hide. She felt Amanita’s fingers brushing against her sides, their lips grazing, their warm bodies huddled in a tangle of limbs on the bed in their apartment. 

In her mind’s eye, the scene in her childhood bedroom was drifting away. 

Lito was feeling victorious. Nomi could feel the hint of a smug grin coming from his end. But she was saved by the sound of a knock from the fading flashback, and she focused her gaze on the door, trying to picture it clearly in her mind. The fading flashback turned opaque again as she pushed her consciousness back into the memory. Lito groaned. 

From behind the door came a little girl’s giggle. It wasn’t exactly a secret how much Nomi hated her church clothes. Smiling, she opened the door, taking in the sight of her sister still dressed in her favorite attire, all strawberry blonde braids and white cotton dress, a radiant smile identical to the one in the family portrait in the living room. 

With a huff, Teagan unloaded her armload of dolls on Nomi’s bed, before plopping down, giving her a gap-toothed smile. 

There was one doll that Nomi favored more than the others. It was a barbie with blue eyes and dark blonde hair. Like her, but not her. And she wasn’t talking about the fact that it was made of plastic. 

She took the doll in her hand and examined her midnight-blue dress, her favorite color. The velvety fabric hugged the doll’s too-perfect figures. She stroked it, smiling.

You always take that one, her sister whined, gesturing to her large collection strewn about the mattress. Pick someone else. I want her.

Nomi blushed a little, laying the doll down. Right. Sorry, T.

It’s fine, Mikey.

Maybe it was the fact that her parents weren’t around, so she’d let her guard down. When she heard the name, a cringe crept onto her face before she could stop herself. Earlier that day, as the pastor droned on, she had sat on the bench in the front row of her church and imagined herself to be Nomi, the girl in the cyberpunk novel she’d found at the library. 

It was easy to pretend she wasn’t Michael when she was alone, and for a while, she had all but forgotten that Nomi was nothing more than a fantasy.

Teagan had been paying attention to her expression, she noticed too late. She tried to wave it off, but her sister had laid the doll with the blue dress on her lap. Okay, okay, she gave in. You can take her if you really want to.

She smiled, appreciating the gesture. Thanks, T. But it’s not that.

Teagan inched closer, looked up at Nomi, and frowned. Then what is it?

Nomi opened her mouth, and closed it, wondering what it was she could say.

How was she going to explain that… That she didn’t feel like Mike? That she, more than anything, wanted to be Nomi? To be all of her, not just a person who could crack codes? How was she going to explain that to Teagan?

As far as her parents knew, she was a lost cause since the day she’d quit the swim club. The last thing she needed was to get T into trouble, too.

Tell me your secret, Mikey, Teagan whispered, her tone dramatic as she glanced at the door, making sure no one was on the other side to eavesdrop. I wanna keep a secret.

She shook her head. It’s nothing -

I know you, Mikey. It can’t be nothing. Teagan crossed her arms.

Nomi sighed. It’s - it’s hard to explain. 

Her sister nodded for her to go on.

Sometimes - she took a breath, and shook her head. No. Not just sometimes. All the time. I don’t… I don’t feel like Mike.

Teagan scrunched up her brows again. You mean you don’t like your name?

You’re right. I don’t, she conceded. She couldn’t find the exact words to describe all that she felt about herself, but at least that was true. It would do for now.

So why don’t you tell mom and dad? They can change it.

It’s - she stopped mid-sentence, her mind drawing a blank. They’re - You know how angry they can get. With me. I can’t stand them yelling at me again.

Huh. Teagan frowned, thinking. Well, you do get in trouble a lot, like all the time - 

At that, Nomi sighed, shaking her head. It was something she couldn’t help. Something her sister, the perfect angel child in her parents’ eyes, wouldn’t understand.

- but I guess we can try giving you a secret name? Teagan suggested.

A smile. Sure. I’d like that.

Our little secret, Teagan made a motion to zip up her lips.

Nomi, she told her. I like Nomi.

Lito smiled as they shook hands behind the closed door. 

Then, remembering his mission, he tried to force their shared mind out of the loop. But it was hard to transition right back to the memory with Amanita. He needed a buffer. So he searched for another memory in Nomi’s mind, a memory of her sister fulfilling their secret promise. 

The memory of dolls was flickering out of his field of vision now, the image blurring as it faded into a memory months later, to flashes of Nomi and Teagan chasing each other in the back garden. Teagan was yelling out her secret name as she tackled her down and started tickling her, and they rolling atop the lawn, sharing a laugh. 

She had called her Nomi. Lito smiled at that thought. It warmed his heart to know someone in her family had cared.

But that memory, too, faded into black. 

*

When Lito could see again, someone behind him was pulling at his shoulders. Muscular hands grappled too hard on his arms, and he could feel bruises forming. He let out a yelp as his eyes watered. Blinking, he took in the sight of a school hallway lined with doors and lockers, students passing by, whispering and pointing.

He had expected Nomi to protest, to pull him away from the memory and bring him back to the loop. But in their mind she was shaking, resistance fading away as he heard her sob. He felt the barrier around her mind crashing down, crumbling.

He wasn’t supposed to see this, he realized, his heart skipping a beat. It wasn’t the memory Nomi was intending to try and hide, but one she had tried to forget on her own. But it came flooding back, triggered by… Which memory was it? The dolls? Or Teagan calling her by her then-secret name?

Too late, he tried to think about Parisian bedrooms and sunlight through the windows and Jonas and the others in the living room making lunch, swallowing back his guilt. But the blue-gray of the lockers zoomed into focus as they stood unmoving in front of Lito’s eyes. 

In front of her

In the periphery of her vision she made out strawberry-blonde hair and perfectly ironed uniforms, of Teagan making her way past, surrounded by her friends, a group of equally well-groomed girls in her year. Teagan had stopped at an intersection the halls, pausing before she was about to make a turn. She had reached out a hand and opened her mouth, but then closed it again, taking a step back, turning away.

Nomi closed her eyes as her sister ran off, her friends scowling in disapproval before following along. Teagan, please, she wanted to shout, but the boy who had pressed her against the locker had grabbed a hold of the tie around her neck. She choked, gasping for air as red and gold spots flickered in and out in front of her vision. 

No no no no, stop, Lito thought, his head slamming against the wall behind him as he tried to physically launch himself, along with Nomi, out of this nightmare. This memory. 

He shut his eyes, but it was inside his head, and the vision only grew stronger.

Nomi felt her legs give way under her, felt another boy grab the hem of her shirt. Had these lockers always felt so cold? She pondered that as as a side of her head was pressed against the metal by a firm hand, and grubby, untrimmed fingernails dug into her scalp. 

The boy’s accomplice sneered as he leaned in close. He whispered against her ear, and she felt him spit into her ear as he spoke. Don’t resist, faggot. No one’s here to save you.

These boys had hurt her before, but no cuts or bruises or dislocated shoulders had stung more than that word.

The vision fast-forwarded. She was watching the empty hallway through a slit on the inside of a locker now, choking out words no louder than whispers as the bell rang and everyone shut themselves behind closed doors. Her breaths came out raspy, constricted by the metal. The walls around her seemed to be drawing closer. Her arms were pressed against her sides, crushing her ribs and lungs.

Her watch ticked on her wrist, marking the time she spent inside the confinement, frightened, helpless. Trapped.

The janitor who rescued her said she had been in there a few minutes. But to her it felt like hours. He’d told Nomi a student had come and informed him of her predicament, and after she muttered an incoherent thanks, she was ushered to her next lesson, where Mrs Benderman had chastised her for being late, for not bringing her textbook, and blatantly ignored the crumpled state of her shirt and her red-rimmed eyes.

Stop it!” Lito was shouting now, punching the wooden floor with his fist as he found his consciousness back in the bedroom in which he sat. “Fucking monsters. Nomi, I’m -”

She was sobbing quietly next to him, and he turned her around, letting her bury her head in his chest. He muttered apologies as he stroked her hair, hating himself for not pulling them out of the flashback sooner.

“N-Not your f-fault,” she blubbered, shaking his head.

“It’s not your fault, Nomi,” he repeated those words, kissing her atop her head. “Those fucking monsters. I’m sorry, hermana.”

They sat there, embracing each other in silence for a few moments. Then, “That was when she st-stopped calling me Nomi,” she confessed.

Lito froze. 

There was a voice in the back of their minds, one that belonged to a teenage Teagan. Stop getting into fights, Mike. You’re better than that.

M-Mike? was her response, her voice shaking. T, we said -

That was years ago, Mike. It’s time to stop running away from your problems. Or you’ll only get into more trouble. I’ll see you at home.

“Why?” Lito croaked. “Why couldn’t she -”

“She had her friends, and straight-A’s… And a good future.” She sighed. “Our parents were so proud. She was perfect.”

“Nomi -”

“And me?” she continued before scoffing, but the spite was lost as soon as she sniffled. “I was troubled. She was better off without me.”

“No -”

“It’s all in the past,” she insisted. 

But not forgotten. Never forgotten, Lito knew, judging by the way her mind had spun when she saw the memory she was trying so hard to erase, by the way she still whimpered and trembled whenever she found herself in a small dark space alone.

Lito frowned. “What about now?” he asked, remembering the heartfelt speech Nomi had made at Teagan’s wedding rehearsal dinner.

She smiled then, and a tear trickled down the side of her cheek. He wiped it away with his thumb, tilting her chin up so she could look at him. “Better,” she told him.

“How?” he asked. He’d always had trouble forgiving. 

She showed him the second memory in her loop.

It was the day she was discharged from the hospital after her surgery. Teagan hadn’t been there to visit again after she’d dropped by as she was waking up. She had begun to think her sister had changed her mind. As she wheeled herself up the ramp in front of her rundown apartment building, she decided to give her sister some space. 

Before her surgery she’d told Teagan she never wanted to see her again, and with that, she had reopened what little wounds they had tried to mend over the years. She’d said it out of spite. She regretted it as soon as the words came out. 

For someone who had been on the receiving end of most cruelties, she had been astounded by how easy it was to be heartless.

When she stopped by her door, she noticed a cardboard box sitting in front it. 

She picked it up and carried it on her lap as she wheeled her way inside. All it said on the label was her address. No returns. 

When she slit open the tape, she was surprised to find another box inside, a purple box, embellished with golden lines on the edges. It opened up from one side like a large journal. 

And inside the box was a dress, wrapped carefully around a thin sheet of pink paper. 

Midnight blue, half-sleeved, with cut-outs on the shoulder. Almost exactly like the dress her favorite doll used to wear. The velvety fabric felt cool to the touch, and she stroked it, smoothing it out, smiling at the way light reflected off the ridges the dress made against her outstretched fingers. 

She looked at the box again. There was a card lying on the bottom with only three words, written in in a familiar elegant cursive.

I’m sorry, Nomi.

As the memory faded, Nomi found Lito tearing up next to her, not making a sound. Just as she was about to offer him a tissue, she remembered he was visiting from the next room, so she opted for a hug instead, rubbing circles on his back in a motherly fashion until he calmed down.

When he looked up again, she noticed he was grinning amid watery eyes and snotty nose. She couldn’t help but snort, the pain from her earlier flashback ebbing away as she found herself laughing at Lito’s ungraceful expression. “What? What is it?”

He sat up straight, ignoring the way the tears dribbled into his mouth. “I remember that dress.” His grin widened. “You wore that dress to the rehearsal dinner.”

“So I did.” She smiled. “I was saving it for the perfect occasion.”

“It was.” Lito started sobbing again. “It really was.”

*

Lila braced herself for the unknown as she stood in front of Veronika’s office. Frowning, she halted the hand she raised to knock the door. What was this about? The last time Veronika had spoken with her, it was to ask her to go back to Sebastian.

“Come in,” said Veronika behind the still-closed door.

Lila raised her head high and pushed the door open, pursing her lips, convincing herself that Veronika knew nothing. She strolled inside, platform heels tapping against the marble floor, and stopped in front of Veronika’s desk, arms crossed, not taking a seat. “Whatever this is, is it really necessary to call me in to London?”

The older woman glanced up from where she sat, shutting her Moleskine planner, which Lila noticed wasn’t the teal one she’d seen last time. 

With a slight quirk of her dark red lips, Veronika asked, “I just wanted to check in on things. How are you doing with your mission?”

She almost scoffed, but opted for a raised eyebrow instead. “Dogan is dead. Like you asked.”

A sigh. “Not him, Lila.” Veronika leaned forward, widening her steel blue eyes, raising her eyebrows in return. “Sebastian Fuchs.”

“What about him?”

“I was going to ask for his assistance for my next operation. But it would appear he is… Otherwise preoccupied?”

It was Lila’s turn to smirk. “He might be. What do you want from him?”

“Don’t play games with me, Lila.”

“That is not your place to say, Veronika.”

Veronika raised her eyebrows again, apparently shocked at her audacity. Lila continued, “What were you hoping to accomplish by confiscating one of us?”

“It was a test.” Veronika leaned back in her chair. “Miss Mwela is in safe hands. That, you do not have to worry about.”

Lila scoffed. “It’s hard to believe you.”

“It was a test -” she repeated, blue eyes boring into brown with an intensity that cut like a shard of ice. Lila held back a shiver, “- which you failed. You failed the moment you killed Sebastian Fuchs.”

Too late, she gave a startle before she realized Veronika was watching her reaction. She cursed under her breath and reached for the pistol always she kept in her purse. Veronika put up a hand and shook her head.

“There’s no need for that, dear. We both know you won’t pull the trigger.”

Scowling, Lila raised her chin. “And why is that?”

“I have relocated her. Bernard can’t help you find her this time. You need me alive.”

A smirk crept up the corners of Lila’s mouth again. “You’re desperate,” she noted, trying to convince herself as well as the woman in front of her. “I put a stop in your next operation. You have nothing else to hold over us.”

To her surprise, Veronika laughed. That was the first time she’d ever heard the woman laugh. The sound reminded her of hail thumping against a car, the thin layer of metal bending underneath the impact.

“Oh, Lila,” Veronika was smiling when she spoke again, and Lila tried to stand her ground, gripping her hands at the back of the chair in front of her to steady herself, “you are just like everyone else. Pity, really. We could have done great things.”

“I am not like everyone else.”

“Like every sensate. Weak. Reckless. Your cluster tried to warn you, didn’t they? But you thought you knew best.”

“I killed Sebastian -” she learned forward, sneering into Veronika’s face - “before you could use him for one of your schemes. We will not let you put a leash around our necks again.”

Another laugh. Lila tried not to cringe. “Did you?”

“Did we what?”

“Are you certain our supply hasn’t already been distributed in Berlin?”

“Bernard told me to ask Sebastian -”

The corners of Veronika’s lips quirked up again. “That was the test, Lila. I had already made an agreement with Sebastian the last time you were in London. The Reciphorum? His men had already passed them down to the dealers.”

I played right into her hands. She felt her stomach clench. Her grip around the back of the chair tightened, turning her knuckles white.

“It was a test, and you failed,” Veronika said, observing her reaction. “You turned against me for the welfare of one of your own. I know now that you cannot be trusted.”

“Haven’t you always known?”

“I wanted to give you one more chance.”

“How merciful.” Lila was seething now, and she reached for her pistol again. “I suppose you’ll have to kill me now?”

Veronika sighed. “No, no. I have discovered a better way to deal with your kind.”

She reminded herself to stay firm. “Have you?”

“Your kind,” she said, scowling like she had a bad taste in her mouth, “finds strength in number. By yourself, you are no match for me. So every mistake you make -” she snapped her finger, acrylic red nails glaring underneath the light in the office - “will bring you closer to working alone.”

Lila jerked her head around, making a move to leave.

“Oh, Lila, it’s too late to warn them now,” said Veronika. “It has already been done.”

*

Nomi and Lito’s memory loop practice had come to a relative success, triggers aside, but among cluster-mates, it was easy to get wrapped up in the emotions behind the memory and forget to break through. Empathy had become as easy as breathing to them. But Jonas said it was a necessary starting place. Perhaps the hosts at their next safe house would be able to help them work on their invasion tactics.

They had decided to toast to a successful first training anyway, though the celebration was stopped short when Nomi’s burner phone rang with an anonymous caller, the now-known code for Bug, who had a way of disguising his phone number. 

“Angels,” his voice was hoarse when Nomi put him on speakerphone.

“Bug, what happened?” Amanita chimed in, concerned.

“The BPO vehicles were erratic, I couldn’t track down where they were headed -” he sounded like he was burying his face in his hands, and they heard a groan - “I’m sorry. Maybe I could have done somethin’ if I -”

“It’s not your fault,” Nomi reminded him. “The world wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place if it weren’t for BPO. What is it?”

“I sent over a news footage.”

On Nomi’s laptop, a woman’s voice was solemn as she announced the terrorist attack at the Ibirapuera Park in São Paulo. One dozen dead. Two dozen injured. Culprits shot themselves before the police arrived.

“Fucking BPO.” Amanita clenched her fists.

Mavis had run out of the room then, and slammed the door to the patio behind her as the rest of them made a move to follow. She waited for a few seconds before she started talking rapidly at what looked like thin air. But even the sapiens among them now understood it was a sensate visit, most likely from one of her cluster. After a minute, Mavis stopped talking and hugged them close, whispering a few words before they presumably vanished.

“Are they okay?” Will asked when she came back into the room.

She nodded. Everyone let out a breath they didn’t know they were holding. Then Will frowned. “Your cluster. There’s a Brazilian, isn’t there?”

Another nod. “Yeah. He lives in São Paulo.”

Dani let out a gasp, and clasped her hands around her mouth.

Shaking her head, Mavis added, “he’s okay. Some men from the Archipelago came to his house during the attack. His family’s relocating to a hideout. He’ll be -” she sighed, “he’s gonna be on Blockers all the time now.”

“I’m sorry.” Riley came forward. 

“It’s -” Mavis took a deep breath - “it’s a good thing. He’ll be safe.”

That word seemed to mean something different everyday.

*

That night, when Riley took the first shift with Mavis, she found the younger woman staring at her lap, dark brows locked in a frown as she picked at the bracelet she never seemed to take off. It was handmade, and the cords were fraying, though some ends had been sealed with glue. She looked up when she felt Riley watching. An Echo of an emotion flashed by in the consciousness they shared. 

Was it longing? The younger woman’s defenses around her mind were hard to break, but she supposed it came with her years of experience as a sensate spy. Mavis chuckled at that thought. It was Riley’s turn to frown.

“Shouldn’t you take another Blocker?” she asked.

Mavis shrugged, taking out the bottle of black pills she kept in her pocket. “Everyone I’m connected to is Blocked. Well, except for you. And I’m running low.”

“We’ll make more. Kala said the new safe house has a lab in the basement.”

“True. But we’ll have to share with, like, half the Archipelago. BPO’s still on the move.”

Riley sighed. “Everyone’s in danger now.”

“Yeah, but they weren’t exactly safe before. You guys did everyone a favor.”

“But what if -” Riley paused, dreading her next words, her voice shaky - “what if we don’t win? And we’ve just made everything worse?”

“Without all of you, Veronika would have finished spreading the Reciphorum, and sensates would have been toast anyway.”

Riley had to concede with that logic.

“I may have stolen some of Kiira’s reasoning. But still.”

“Is everyone else in your cluster safe?” she asked. Capheus had been worried about his sister since the day they’d met, and Mavis never talked about anyone else except Morgan. The younger woman flinched at the thought of his name.

Riley detected another Echo when she made eye contact to try and say sorry. Guilt. She knew the feeling too well.

“I always feel like there was something I could’ve done,” said Mavis. “It can’t change what happened, but I still wonder.”

Riley nodded, and a memory of blood and helicopters and wind on the mountains flickered into her mind. She shut her eyes and pushed the thought away, swallowing hard. Survivor’s guilt. Will had told her. And a hint of savior behavior, perhaps.

When she opened her eyes again, Mavis was gazing at her with a newfound intensity, though she didn’t look mad. Just lost in thought. Riley waited for her to speak.

“When you were on the run, Will tried to break into Milton’s mind, didn’t he?”

Riley nodded. “He thought he could use their connection to get information.”

“And you?”

She shook her head.

Mavis’ eyes widened. “Interesting.”

“Why?”

“I saw you with Yrsa that day. You found her memory.”

“I -” Riley paused, wondering just how she had done that. With everything else going on, she had almost forgotten about the encounter. She recalled what Jonas had taught them. “I think I felt an Echo from her, and then I was in her head.”

“You’re a natural, you know,” Mavis observed.

“It can’t be. It’s just a coincident -”

“No.” Mavis sat closer. “It’s really hard for most sensates to know what they’re feeling. Like, yeah, we might cry for some weird not-so-personal reason without knowing what hit us. Not for you, though.”

“But why?”

“Could be experience,” she said after a pause. Riley knew she was watching her closely, though she trusted Mavis not to pry, knowing the younger woman wouldn’t want her to do so in return. “And besides that, some just people feel things deeper than others, and they couldn’t help it — they were born that way. That’s our best guess. Again, I may have stolen this theory from Kiira.”

“Do you feel the same?”

“Hmm.” She thought about it. “Not exactly. I prefer to just trick people. Let them recall what I wanna see.”

Had they met under more peaceful circumstances, she and Lito would have gotten on well, Riley concluded. Mavis smirked upon hearing that thought. 

“Maybe. Or we’ll just drive each other nuts.”

That made her chuckle. “When this is over, you can find out for yourself.”

When this is over, thought the younger woman, making her smile. For a second she almost looked happy. 

“Do you know where you’ll go?” asked Riley.

Mavis looked down at her lap again, at the carefully woven red and blue bracelet on her wrist, the bright colors clashing against each other. “Home.” 

Riley turned her gaze to the bedroom door, behind which Will was sleeping. “Me too.”

“Gonna introduce him to your dad?” Mavis teased, making Riley blush.

“Yes. Are you planning to do the same with yours?” 

Mavis was unusually silent, brown-eyed gaze frozen as she sat and stared at Riley, mouth open slightly. After a minute of silence, she sat back, crossing her arms. “What - How in the world did you know?”

A smirk. She had seen the way Mavis looked at the Brazilian on the patio, even if the visitor was invisible to her eyes. “So, will you?”

Mavis raised her chin, “My dad already knows.”

“Did they give you this?” she pointed at Mavis’ bracelet.

Instead of responding, the younger woman scrunched up her nose and thought of a memory, the images too fleeting for Riley to catch a glance in their shared mind. But the Echo remained for a few seconds more, and the mere impression made Riley smile. 

Wonder. Mixed with a hint of amusement. She could see Mavis giggling.

Actually she couldn’t see anything, but the body she had inhabited was giggling, and it sounded like Mavis. Riley felt calloused hands caressing her cheeks.

This kinda tickles, she heard Mavis’ voice. Whatcha doing?

I can see you, came a young man’s voice opposite of her, filled with wonder. I can see you. And I can feel you. But you’re not really here, are you?

Nope. I’m in New York, Mavis answered. I’m Mavis, by the way.

She felt a hand grab hers gently. Gabriel.

Where are you?

São Paulo. Wow. So yesterday… 

Yep, that was me.

He paused. How do you know?

I couldn’t see for a few seconds. Are you -

I was born blind, he explained. Yesterday was the first time I - but how -

We’re sharing, she told him. Right now you can see and I can’t.

Will we ever get to see each other at the same time?

She felt Mavis nod. I think so. I’ll just have to find another one of us to share with.

When Riley regained awareness of her body in the living room again, she saw Mavis winking at her. “That was the first time we met. Told you you’re a natural.”

Riley smiled. “So.”

Mavis knew what she was going to ask. “He gave this to me, yeah.” She showed her the bracelet. “Dad and I flew to São Paulo before I left to work for BPO two years ago.”

Riley saw a boy with black curls bunched up in a low ponytail, felt gentle hands sliding the handmade bracelet up her wrist. It had been a surprise. He’d made it on his own and hidden it from the rest of the cluster for a week before Mavis’ visit. 

Be safe, he’d whispered, out of earshot as his parents were debriefed by Mavis’ stepdad in the kitchen. Come back to me.

Course I will, Mavis had tried to sound lighthearted, but Riley knew she had been just as worried. And when I see you again, I expect to see myself on a statue.

It was then that Riley noticed the sculptures around his room. Some were lined on the bookshelf, and a few large ones with abstract forms were placed near the corner of the wall, next to pieces of uncut wood and half-chiseled plasters. Gabriel made sculptures using his sense of touch, she thought, in awe of his dedication. That would explain the callouses.

He laughed, and pulled Mavis close for a kiss. They smiled when their lips made contact. The presence flowing between their minds was overwhelming.

It’s a deal, he promised when they finally pulled away.

And as Riley’s mind was lifted from the memory, she was smiling too.

“I’ll miss him,” Mavis confessed. “I miss all of them. More everyday.”

“But they’re safe,” Riley recalled what Mavis had said earlier. Right now it was the only thing keeping all of them sane: knowing their families were out of harm’s way.

“They are. I’ve got the Archipelago looking out for Gabriel and Kiira. The other two’s been stuck in safe shelters since Pelzer started hunting them down three years ago.”

“Have you talked to them?”

She shook her head. “They’ve been on Blockers.” Then, trying to lighten up the mood, “Last time I talked to them, they told me they’re getting cabin fever.”

“We’ll get them free. All of them.” 

Riley didn’t want to think about what she had to lose. She wasn’t sure she could go through that a second time.

“We just have to get rid of BPO,” Mavis said. “We’ve got this. Shouldn’t take too long now.”

“It shouldn’t,” Riley agreed, before they lost themselves to silence.

They would bring down BPO. They would. 

They had to.

Chapter Text

July 15, 2017

On the flight home, Capheus gazed out the window, lost in thought as the pink clouds at sunset drifted by. The city underneath had long since disappeared from view. From up high, it was difficult to imagine that the threat to his very existence could be hidden among the structures that grew smaller every second.

It was just a matter of perspective, he supposed. Once he had wondered why the most powerful people had offices in skyscrapers. Perhaps it was a means of reassurance, to be above everyone else. A validation of power.

The bodyguards sat on either side of him, backs stiff against the chair, clutched fists at the ready in case of an attack. It was, as one of the Guys from Veracity had told him, a precaution. Capheus Onyango had become a well-known name following his political campaign, after all. And after this public debate against Mandiba? He imagined his fame would spring out of control. 

But he’d always taken life one day at a time, and it had served him well thus far. So by the time he landed at Jomo Kenyatta International he was beaming. More so when he saw his mother, dressed radiantly in an orange dress she’d sewn herself, glowing and healthy. Like how he remembered her as a boy. 

“Oh, my Zebra!”

Her smile froze when she saw two tall muscular men following close behind him.

“Not to worry, mother. They’re here to protect us,” he reassured.

She nodded, slowly, glancing up and down at them, her gaze focused on the area near their pockets. He gave her a slight shake of the head. Weapons would never have made it past customs, and their black suits had caught enough attention as they were.

A black minivan was waiting for them outside the airport, surrounded by half a dozen of black cars. Mr Kabaka, dressed in full formal attire complete with a tie, waved at Capheus from the lowered window at the driver’s seat. The back door slid open to reveal a beaming Amondi, who beckoned Capheus inside. 

“Van Damme!” the girl threw her arms around him as the car started, squeezing the air out of him as she laughed. “How was your vacation?”

That gave him a pause. Apparently his mother thought it was best not to reveal everything yet. He didn’t like to think how many lies she’d had to make in his absence. 

“It was fun,” he said. “It’s good to be back.”

Shiro turned back from the passenger seat, giving him a meaningful look. “We’re staying with Mr Kabaka. Don’t want Mandiba’s men finding you.”

He nodded. “Any more trouble while I was away?”

“We’re staying at our vacation home,” Amondi chimed in. “They didn’t find us. It’s our secret lair. You’ll love it.”

The girl’s enthusiasm was contagious, and he couldn’t help smiling in return. “I’m sure I will.” Then, turning to his mother again, “Does Zakia know?”

She nodded. “She has visited many times. And Jela.”

“Zakia’s the best!”

“Yes, Amondi has taken a liking to her.” From the rearview mirror, Mr Kabaka gave Capheus a wink. “She’s a nice girl.”

He felt his cheeks warm. “She is.”

“And I suppose these men are informed as well?” Mr Kabaka asked, turning to look at the bodyguards seated in the back row after he stopped for a red light.

They nodded, not saying a word. 

“My - my friends thought it was best that they stayed with me on my flight, just in case,” Capheus explained.

“Good. You have smart friends.” Mr Kabaka turned back and started driving again. “Considering what happened last time, you will need all the protection you can get.”

Capheus sighed. The most well-protected people are the ones in most danger. He wondered which of his enemies would get to him first. 

*

When Riley, Will, and Jonas made their ways down the pebbled walkway, their eyes widened as they took in the view of the creamy white house, surrounded by rose bushes. 

Next to them, Mavis giggled, earning a glare from Jonas. Mavis had stayed at this place for a few days before she moved to London and started working for BPO. She had told them to expect a large utilitarian house with exposed bricks and a concrete driveway. Sun and Kala, they now realized, were in on this joke. They felt betrayed.

Holy shit, it’s Riley Blue!”

A man in a lime green, short-sleeved shirt with half the buttons undone strolled down pebbled walkway in greeting, extending his hand as Riley gave him a small wave. “Leon Tucker. I used to come to your set every week in London.”

With everything that had been going on, they’d nearly forgotten about Riley’s near-celebrity status in the EDM world of Western Europe. 

“Thank you,” Riley said, shaking Leon’s hand as a blush crept up her cheeks. She couldn’t remember the last time she was happy to be recognized, instead of horrified.

“Bloody hell, May, you could’ve warned me,” said Leon.

“Why?” Mavis hid a smirk. “So you could’ve worn your best shirt?”

“All my shirts are perfectly suitable for the occasion, I’ll have you know,” Leon said, pretending to be offended as he made a dramatic 180-turn and sauntered back, leading the rest of the guests into the house, muttering, “But I would’ve worn my best tie.”

Before Leon could reach for the doorknob, the door opened from the inside. A boy peeked his head out to grin at the visitors. Leon gave him a salute.

Walking inside, Mavis stopped in front of the child, pretending to frown as she crossed her arms to examine him. “Do I know you?”

Damien’s grin widened. He puffed out his chest. “Nah. I’m a changed man.”

She reached forward to ruffle his hair. “‘Course you were, Damien. Last time I was here you were, gee, I don’t know -” she leveled her hand to half his height - “this tall?”

He pulled his head back and stuck out his tongue. “I was seven, not two!” he shouted as he ran back upstairs.

Leon invited the guests into the living room. “Oi, Genevieve!” he stuck his head in as the matted glass door slid open. “We’ve got company!”

From the small velvet couch close to the drop-down window, an ivory-skinned woman was reading MacBeth. She lay on the seat of her couch, her legs bent over the back. Her tangle of red curly hair hung from the edge of the seat, and she tilted her head back to smile at the visitors upside-down, laying the book on her chest. They held back a chuckle.

“Mornin’. And Mavis! Howya!” Genevieve greeted, a smooth Irish accent rolling off her tongue. She turned to her equally amused cluster-mate, “Leon, help me out here.”

He walked over, but paused just before she could reach him. “You forgot the magic word.”

An exasperated sigh. “Fine. Help me out here, knucklehead.”

Leon held out his hand, but before she could grab it, he scooped one arm under Gen’s back and another behind her bent knees, carrying her to her feet bridal-style. She screeched as she swooped in the air. The copy of MacBeth fell on the floor, and she picked it up and whacked him on the arm with it, before turning to the group. “‘M sorry about him.”

“Why must you always hang like a bat if you can’t get off the couch?” he muttered.

“Because sitting upright is boring,” she explained, more to the visitors than to Leon. “I’m a big fan of yours too, Riley Blue. But I’m sure Leon’s gushed over you enough for both of us.”

Jonas smirked. “It would appear your reputation precedes you, Riley.”

Mavis started laughing then. Will turned to her, puzzled. Winking, she nodded at the gigantic worn-out poster of Our Father Who Art In Hell on the living room wall. When Leon turned to see where she was looking, she turned her head away, mouthing “it’s a surprise”. 

And when Lito arrived with Hernando and Dani that afternoon, they were astonished to find their future host frozen in the middle of his step, flapping his hand towards the direction of the front door as his mouth opened and closed, uttering no sound except the occasional incomprehensible croaking.

*

Veronika dialed the Professor’s number on her phone. She tapped her red acrylic nails against the screen as she waited for him to pick up. Her new black Moleskine lay open on her desk, and she took a moment to admire her penmanship, scrutinizing the way the indigo ink settled on the page, neat letters against an invisible horizontal line.

July 5th. Shanghai

She smiled, running a finger across the cursive letters that beckoned to her every command. Bernard would be happy to hear about the new development. If all went well, the next operation could work in both their favors.

Growing up, Veronika had seen too many visitors gathered in the family room at her father’s commands, sensates and sapiens. One thing they had in common was the way they’d strive to make deals that ensured mutual profit. The sensates’ powers would be of use to her father’s operations, and they would get paid generously in return. 

He had failed to see the danger these people could bring.

But Veronika did. Her stepmother had been a source of fear since she’d moved into her home. She found fault in everything Veronika did, and punished her behind closed doors, one mind against many. 

And it was worse once Veronika realized not everyone would grow up to have their own cluster. Her stepmother, she had realized, was a different species altogether. A species that Veronika had grown to fear. 

Their linked minds gave them an unfair advantage: her stepmother was never alone. Veronika was. 

Her father was no help. Stop whining, Veronika, he’d say as he polished the sleek, limited edition black rifle, a gift from a business partner that he’d placed atop their fireplace like a trophy. It is not becoming of a Makarova to complain and take no action.

As a child, only thing Veronika could control was the way a pen moved across her page, following the guidance of her hand. But that, too, proved to be erratic, circumstantial. Some letters would come out slanted, or too bold, or too close together… 

So she’d practice for hours into the night. And on her 18th birthday, the elegant cursive finally beckoned to her command. It was a sign, a sign that she was old enough to execute this level of control in the real world, away from the page. To fix the problem, because she could live with it no longer.

All she was doing, she’d told herself as she aimed the stolen rifle from her hideout in the rundown back alley, was was leveling the playing field. The world would take care of the rest.

As her stepmother’s body hit the ground with a thud, she felt lighter. She was free. And she was addicted with the sheer power that came with pulling the trigger.

One day, every sapien in the world would see what she saw. 

“Bernard,” she said, as the Professor picked up her call from the other end, “get in touch with the technicians. Erase Bak’s records.”

“The embezzlement transactions?” he asked. “Are you sure that’s wise?”

She clucked her tongue. “When has my plan ever failed?”

“A valid point. And you wish to do this because?”

“As it stands, Bak is a valuable business partner. A major means of financial support for our organization, though I have yet to enlighten him on the details of our operations.”

“Ahh. You cannot have him behind bars.”

“That would be a most unfortunate loss, yes,” she agreed. “And our men have been working tirelessly to ensure the Seoul Metropolitan Police doesn’t get ahold of anything else incriminating. I have plans to bail him out of police detention some time soon. Though I have been told one particular detective has been meaning to testify against him in an upcoming trial.”

She heard him sigh. “On what grounds?”

“A lot of the illegal transactions from Bak Enterprises was linked to his account.”

“What of the sister?”

“I have reason to believe Miss Bak didn’t act alone when she escaped from prison.”

“You think she received help? From whom?”

Dark red lips curled into a smirk. “When Joon-Ki called me after her disappearance following the car accident, I did a little file-searching myself.”

“Found anything of note?”

“Yes.” There was an inflection to her voice, a tone of utter amusement. “Her birthday. August 8th, 1988.”

He chuckled. “I’m surprised it took us so long to find out”

“You know what this means, don’t you, Bernard?”

“Catching her would solve two of our problems. Have you got a plan to lure her out?”

“Don’t I always?”

“Care to enlighten me?”

“Miss Bak is a martial arts champion. I believe she and Officer Gorski -” and Wolfgang, she added, scowling - “are the muscles of their cluster.”

“You have found a way to draw them out of hiding, then?”

“I have spoken to Karl. Save for a few minor preparations at the Beijing facility, the next attack is ready to launch. And this cluster will have every reason to rush to the rescue.” 

“Why is that?”

She smirked. “I have found the perfect bait.”

*

Paris.

When Amanita thought of Paris she thought of roses, of slow music and wine-colored dresses, of strolling down dimly lit paths at midnight. Romantic? Sure. Overrated? Probably.

Though whatever preconceptions she’d held of the city of love had shattered the moment she and Nomi had dashed out of the Eurostar. She’d never associated this city with the thrill of a chase, but that was exactly what they had done the moment they arrived: hid in the restroom and put on disguises, away from the prying eyes of BPO spies and surveillance cameras. And she had to admit, she liked this version of Paris a whole lot better. 

She felt like Nancy Drew. Better than Nancy, actually. Nancy didn’t have Noms.

The Headhunters, though, was definitely a downside. 

Note to self, she thought, as she and Nomi squeezed their ways past another congregation at the platform, the train swooshing away behind them, come back here with Noms on a proper honeymoon. When gun-wielding creepers aren’t breathing down our necks.

She heard Nomi grunt as a scraggly man with a goatee pushed his way past her, bumping into her shoulder. Putting an arm around her fiancée, Amanita pulled her close, trying to shield her from further run-ins with inconsiderate subway-goers. She turned to glare at the rude man: pale, bald, with dark tattoos on the back of his neck, wearing a black sports jacket and a dark gray woolen hat. And a giant-ass scarf.

“Who dresses like that in summer?” Nomi muttered next to her. 

She rolled her eyes. “A lunatic who rams into people at subway stations?”

Nomi chuckled. Amanita gave her a cheeky smile. 

“Seriously though,” Nomi said again, turning back to look at the man who was casually leaning against the wall near the exit elevator, watching the crowd thin out as people squeezed their ways in the lift, “what is up with that gigantic scarf?”

It was certainly a longer than normal scarf, Amanita noted, frowning as she made out the pattern, yellow and orange stripes between blocks of gray, moss green and beige. Maybe the guy wore it to match his whole winter-y look. Then the man in question lifted his head to look in her direction, and she swore under her breath, turning away. Nomi grabbed her hand and pulled her up the escalator.

“It’s a Doctor Who scarf,” she inched closer to Nomi, putting a hand on her shoulder as she tip-toed to whisper into her ear. The steps started moving beneath them.

Nomi turned to look her in the eyes, the tip of her nose brushing against her cheek, making her grin. “Maybe it’s special.”

Special. Her fingers brushed against her engagement ring. She’d taken to tracing it with her right thumb whenever she was with Noms. The reminder made her feel all sorts of giddy, the kind she only used to get when she’d had too much champagne. 

Nomi chuckled. “Let’s get to you-know-where,” she whispered, a hand on the small of Amanita’s back to guide her out of the way. “And then -” a teasing eyebrow peeked up from behind the rim of her glasses - “we can celebrate.”

Humming, Amanita turned to do a quick check behind them. She frowned when she noticed the creepy man in the Dr Who scarf strolling nearby, eyes locked straight ahead. Nomi ducked her head upon noticing the change in her expression, and they hurried forward, worming their ways through a particularly tight crowd.

Just one flight of stairs left before they’d get to the other platform. They ran, hoping that if he hadn’t lost them, at least he wouldn’t be able to catch up. She noticed a restroom sign on her right and pulled Nomi inside, shutting the door behind them.

“Remind me to wear flats next time. These shoes are killing me.”

“Aww, I’m sorry, Neets.” Nomi pecked her on the cheek, sympathetic towards her fiancée’s plight. Then she pulled out a folded print-out map from the side pocket of her bag. Amanita leaned in, smiling as she made out the faint jasmine smell of Nomi’s perfume. 

“This is the last transfer?”

Nomi nodded. “We should be there soon.”

“Thank God,” she groaned, clinging to Nomi’s arm as they made their way out again.

She could feel her feet swelling up in her black ankle boots. Damn these rock-hard soles and impossible heels. How pretty they looked had become irrelevant an hour ago.

Thankfully there didn’t appear to be anyone else on the platform. And a train was just pulling into the station. Her wish had come true. She breathed a sigh of relief as she made out a few unoccupied seats through the window.

“Told you they’d hurt,” Nomi teased, looking down at her feet.

“But they’re cute,” she whined as they stepped aside to let people off the train. Then, in a lower voice as Nomi guided her inside, their arms intertwined, “If we’re gonna go rogue, we need to kick ass and look good doing it.”

Nomi chuckled as she all but collapsed into the nearest seat. “You can’t kick ass if you can’t walk, Neets.”

That was fair, she supposed. She leaned her head on Nomi’s shoulder as the train started moving. She didn’t know when she’d fallen asleep, but the next thing she knew, Nomi was tapping her on the nose, telling her they about to reach their stop.

*

July 16, 2017

“I am perfectly capable of flipping this pancake myself, Hernando.”

“Or you could use the spatula,” his partner suggested, standing aside nonetheless to let him have at it. He pushed up his glasses with the back of his hand, careful to avoid smearing pancake batter on his lens. “There’s no shame in using the spatula.”

Lito shook his head. With a triumphant smile and a well-practiced flick of his wrist, the pancake leapt out of the skillet and somersaulted in the air twice. He caught it with the pan in his hand, smirking to an amused Hernando as he showed off his success. 

“Beautiful, baby,” Hernando said, stepping behind him to grab the skillet from his hand,  taking the chance to press his chest against his back. “But -”

“But what?” Lito turned around so that their noses was touching. 

Teasing, Hernando took a step back. He raised the skillet under Lito’s chin. “But it landed on the same side. Everyone’s gonna eat half-burned pancakes.”

An indignant huff. From the other side of the kitchen, Dani giggled as she poured more coffee beans into the grinder. “You should leave it to the expert, Lito.”

Hernando brought the pan back to the stove. “See, two against one,” he said, flipping the pancake once more so that it landed on the other side, the way the fundamental rules of cooking breakfast foods intended.

Ay, that is not fair,” Lito whined. “You’re ganging up on me. Again.”

“Well -” Hernando turned to place the pancake on top of the stack sitting on the kitchen island - “if you want to be technical, there’s no way we can outnumber you. You have your cluster, your… Your mind-network connections. There’s eight of you.”

Four,” Lito corrected, crossing his arms as he plopped himself down on a high stool by the kitchen island, pouting. “Some of them have to stay on Blockers.”

“Hmm.” Hernando sat down next to him and picked up a chopping board. He started peeling oranges with a small knife, curling the shavings around the half-exposed fruit in a phoenix-tail fashion. “How does that feel, when they’re on Blockers?”

The coffee grinder started whirring. Dani walked over to join them.

“Like half of me is missing,” he said, his voice hollow. “Yes, I know - I know I am here. All of me. But my cluster, their voices had been in my head for a year. Like background music. Always there — their thoughts, feelings… And now half of them is silent. It’s too quiet.”

“Voices in your head. Interesting.” Hernando scratched his beard. “Do they ever fight?”

He laughed. “All the time.”

“How?” asked Dani.

“We disagree on what to do. One of us would be in a situation and the rest of us would argue with each other. ‘Kill him’, or ‘Don’t kill him, leave it to the police’. And then someone else would say, ‘But the police can’t do anything’. Will usually disagrees there.”

“And that… helps?” she asked.

A chuckle. “Usually it leaves them more confused. But we keep them company. And we understand each other. It helps.”

His family smiled. Lito knew they were thinking about the days he’d spent wallowing in self-pity at the loss of his career. 

“But you -” Lito gestured between the two of them, smiling - “you two help, too. In a different way. And I need both kinds of help.”

“Do you?” Hernando laid the artfully peeled oranges in the middle of a large plate like an art display. Lito knew he was only pretending to sound unconvinced. “They know everything. Why do you need us?”

Dani smirked, raising an eyebrow. 

“Because -” he stood up and moved until he was right behind his family, and he poked his head forward, whispering into their ears - “you don’t need to be a sensate to know what I’m thinking. Neither of you do.”

They smirked at that. His emotions were etched on his face, he knew, more often than not. “But that’s not the only thing,” he added. “You don’t just know what I’m thinking. You know how to fix me.”

“Of course we do, Lito,” said Dani. “Who could say no to a Kit Wrangler movie?”

“But it was you who knew it would get me out. You helped me get the part, Dani. Without you and Hernando I would have - I would have still been in bed with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s.”

Hernando frowned. “Well -” 

“Yes, maybe not.” He cringed as he remembered the day Hernando found him bleeding on the bathroom floor. BPO would have gotten to them either way. “But at least now I have a future when we get back, no?”

But when would that be? said a voice in the back of his mind that didn’t belong to anyone in the cluster. Shooting was gonna start in less than three months. What if he was already -

No. Another voice cut in, one that sounded a lot like Will. We’ve never failed before. Now’s not gonna be an exception.

His family was watching him, frowning, as he argued with himself inside his mind. He shook his head and gave them a sheepish smile. They sighed.

“Lito. We’re going to go home after this fight,” said Dani. Hernando nodded next to her as they both looked Lito in the eye. “And we will go on a freaking vacation to celebrate taking down these BPO pirañas before we head to LA.” 

“We will.” He repeated, trying to convince himself. The voices in his head were quiet now. “Thank you, family. This is what I needed to hear. And -” he smiled, remembering his earlier point - “only you would have known to say that.”

“Not bad for a sapien?” Hernando teased. Lito grinned.

“I guess you’re right, Lito.” Dani leaned back, propping her elbows against the kitchen island. “We do know what you’re thinking.”

Lito’s grin widened. “Guess what I’m thinking now?”

Hernando turned to the stack of pancakes, putting a glass lid on top so they wouldn’t get cold by the time everyone else came down. “These pancakes. They’re missing something.”

“Missing what?”

Dani and Hernando exchanged a nod, before she got up and sauntered to the fridge, pulling out a bowl. “Blueberries.”

“You’re right,” Lito concurred. “Not bad for a sapien.”

*

Felix watched Dani as she started rinsing the dishes in the sink. She’d told him a few days ago that she enjoyed doing them by hand. She said she liked the sensation of warm water running the gaps between her fingers. 

He’d deduced that she grew up rich. For poor pieces of shit like him, who had to wash all of their dishes by hand, the thrill of it would’ve been lost a long time ago.

She scrubbed at the stains with a careful hand, head tilting in satisfaction as she held it near the window and verified that it was spotless. He noticed she was still wearing the old t-shirt and shorts she slept in. That was new. 

In their old hideouts she was always fully dressed before breakfast. They all were, actually, like they were bracing themselves for an invasion. Maybe there was something about living in a proper house with amiable company that made all of them relax for a change.

BPO may have been operating under the guise of a non-profit organization bullshit, but they organize themselves just like any old gang. He’d seen it in the criminals Wolfie used to call family. The carefully aimed pistols, crinkly eyes zoomed in on the target like a hawk, waiting to strike fatally when they were most exposed. Vulnerable.

And here he thought Sergei was the end of their gang problems. Who knew he had a psycho for an aunt with an army of creepy mind-controlled soldiers, too? Why did he have to befriend the one guy whose life was a literal fucking soap opera? At this point, Felix wouldn’t even bat an eye if all of this turned out to be the doing of Wolfie’s evil twin.

Though at least he and Wolfie weren’t alone anymore. Two against many didn’t always work in their favor. So despite how he admired the way Conan fought his battles, it was nice to know that he had backup, should either of them wind up getting their asses kicked.

That wasn’t the only perk of having allies, he reminded himself, looking over at Dani once more. When he first met her, his intentions had been totally different. The eye wants what the eye wants, he tried to tell himself. 

Though she’d shut down the idea, and opted for making fun of his old mugshot. (His fucking long hair. What was he thinking?) They’d gotten to know each other better since, but no matter how much he bragged about his damsel-saving ways, she only answered with a teasing eyebrow, asking for more stories as she poured him another shot. 

(Also, she’d always out-drink him. That alone made her all the more impressive.)

What he liked most about Dani was that she knew how to hold a conversation and party wild at the same time. She never let danger stop her from having a little fun. They had a blast on Salsa Night at the bar with the fancy-ass name he couldn’t remember. All he recalled from that evening was a billowing red dress and the way he’d stumbled over his feet after downing one too many vodka tonics. After hanging out with his stoic best buddy for so long, it was refreshing to find someone who talked as much as he did.

But she seemed less eager to talk about her recent past. He had many reasons not to pry, one being he wasn’t completely upfront about his, either. And, from being friends with Wolfie for all these years, he knew that if she wanted to open up, she would. Eventually. 

He’d always enjoyed seeing Dani in killer heels and dresses that hugged her figure at all the most enticing places, reminders that she was way, way out of his fucking league. Domestic wasn’t usually his type, but damn if she wasn’t a vision. Maybe he liked this side of her a little better, he thought, grinning as she started humming. She uttered the lyrics in Spanish, hips swaying along to the rhythm, feet shuffling in cozy, pink, fluffy slippers. 

She seemed less guarded. Not a care in the world. Happy.

Her head bobbed as she got to the climax of the song, and a chunk of her hair slipped out of the messy bun atop her head, brushing against the skin beneath her neck as it fell down. But she didn’t notice. She was concentrating on a mug she held, turning a sponge around the rim, examining it against the sunlight.

Holding back a chuckle, he wondered when he’d gotten so close. He was standing a mere step behind her. And surprisingly she didn’t seem to have noticed. 

The strand of hair was swaying now, too, and the slightly curled end flopped from side to side. He wondered if it tickled. Without thinking, he reached forward, caught the loosened hair between his fingers and lifted the strand, trying to tuck it back into her hairband.

She flinched. 

The mug fell into the sink with a clatter, and the next thing he knew, she had turned to face him. Her hands clawed the edges of the counter as she tried to back away. For a few seconds she just looked at him with a frozen gaze he could only describe as terror, as a corner of her mouth twitched, the tiniest fraction of a spasm most people would have missed. 

And then, shaking her head, she let out a deep breath, putting one hand over her heart as she straightened herself.

“Felix!” she tried to laugh it off, even tried to flash him a grin, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Ay, you scared me!”

Fuck. Now he’d gone and done it.

“Oh, sorry,” he tried to play it dumb. Tried to put on his shit-eating grin as he slowly backed away. “I’ll uhh - I’ve got shit to unpack.”

And then he was dashing out of the kitchen. His side slamming against the corner of the kitchen island in his rush to get out, and he suppressed a groan. The next thing he knew he was dashing down the stairs, locking himself in his bedroom.

He’d fucked up, he told himself as he sat on his bed, frowning at nothing in particular. Not intentionally, but he’d screwed up all the same, triggered the fear she had tried so hard to bury. For a few seconds he had made her look at him in a way that reminded him of the way Wolfie looked at his father before a fist came pummeling into his chest. He had made her believe she was going to be hit. 

Wolfie would’ve killed him if he’d overreacted, if he’d made a big fuss out of scaring her. He had to play it cool. But, he reminded himself, he had to be careful, too. The last thing he wanted was to do was make her afraid.

First Wolfie, and now Dani. It would seem that, for reasons unknown, he just happened to attract broken people. Because now he cared about another one. 

*

The Bug has located a pattern in the BPO migration,” said the hacker’s voice through the speaker. He inched his face forward so that his round eyes stared straight at the camera.

“Where are they going?” Nomi asked. In the living room, everyone paused in their midday routines to listen.

“I realized somethin’, Noms. You know how I couldn’t figure out the Bolgers were being transported to São Paulo?” he paused, making Amanita roll her eyes. “It’s because they were diverting their task forces, see. Sendin’ these Bolgers, and folks in Hazmat suits, to multiple cities at once. And you know what my theory is?”

“They’re gonna use all of them?” Nomi guessed. On the other end, Bug gave her a slow nod.

“The problem is, Angels, I don’t know which city they’re planning on attackin’ next. And the cities they were sendin’ them to? ‘S all over the world.”

“Where in the world?” asked Amanita, sitting down next to Nomi. They clutched their hands together and looked at each other, frowning.

“Well, China, for starters. I’m thinking Beijing. One of the BPO headquarters is there, right, buddy?” Nomi nodded. “They might be reloading their supplies while they’re at it. And then there’s Germany. Most likely Berlin. Don’t know what they’re plannin’ over there.”

“Probably another terrorist attack,” Nomi speculated.

“And there’s one more place.”

“Where?”

Bug took a deep breath. “Kenya. And, judging by these surveillance footage and air traffic monitors, all the people they’re sendin’ to Africa are on their way to Nairobi.”

*

At the Seoul Metropolitan Police Station, all the other detectives had gone home for the night except Detective Kwon-Ho Mun.

Mun leaned forward, elbows propped against his desk, eyes a mere inch away from the monitor screen. The page he had pulled up was blank, devoid of the names and numbers he had spent the past few weeks memorizing. Transaction records to and from Bak Enterprises within the last two years. Gone. Like the company had halted in their operations and recently started afresh.

He was never one to swear, but as he clutched his fists and slammed his forehead against the keyboard, he knew he was dangerously close to blurting out his collection of obscenities at full volume, surveillance cameras be damned. 

The Detective kicked against the leg of the desk, and his chair started rolling back until he hit the wall, making the file cabinet in the corner rattle. At the very least —

Thankfully the printed records were still there, hidden beneath overlapping folders and certificates. But printed words on paper was no effective verification if the banks had lost all data pertaining to company's spendings. Perhaps he could ask a worker at the bank to testify the documents he had in hand. It seemed like the most logical option. 

Then again, if Mr Bak had the resources to erase the existing incriminating evidence, who was to say he wouldn’t take it one step further?

He lifted the hem of his shirt to peek at the scars near his abdomen. The most recent one was still an angry red, puckered down the middle, little indents on the sides where the needle wormed its way in to stitch it up. A faded one lay underneath, a longer, thinner line, barely noticeable compared to its new counterpart.

Gingerly, he traced the white scar and watched it gleam as he turned his body underneath the light in his office. The skin in that area still stung whenever he touched it, but he closed his eyes and let the feeling sink in. Pain meant he was alive. But it also reminded him that he wouldn’t have been if he’d run out of luck.

Two strikes. Should there be a third, it would most likely be the last. He decided he didn’t want to find out just yet.

Because of the footage, the station had put Mr Bak in police detention for harming a police officer. Bak’s lawyer had insisted it was an accident. He suspected Mr Bak would be bailed out soon — that crime alone wouldn’t have granted him much time behind bars either way. Unfortunately, without Miss Bak’s testimony, the court would not agree to another trial. And the longer the wait, the more likely another lead would mysteriously disappear.

The fact of the matter was, Joong-Ki Bak had more connections than the Detective had anticipated, be it corrupt politicians or hired arms, though he had a feeling neither were responsible for the most recent development. This wasn’t the first time electronic data related to Mr Bak had vanished, but he knew better than to hope that the transaction record, like the surveillance footage from the Bak Summer Gala, would find its way back. 

And as the identity of most of Bak’s allies remained, unfortunately, unknown, the safest option at this stage was to refrain from any form of confrontation. He could stick to investigating from his safety of his office until he found another lead. He’d received more than his share of help already. It would have been wishful thinking to expect more from the same self-proclaimed good samaritan. 

Hang on. He inched the chair forward with his feet to grab the notepad on his desk. The caller who claimed to have recovered the footage had been foreign. 

Middle-aged man. Most likely American, judging by his accent. The call could have been done via a voice simulator. But the fact that he had communicated in English, simulator or not, must have meant something. A hint? Or perhaps a red herring, though his intuition was inclined towards the former. 

Who knew this case would turn into an international scavenger hunt? And, if the person had been helping from abroad, it would be reasonable to assume whoever offered their assistance to Mr Bak had resources outside of his country’s jurisdiction. 

He had a feeling the caller knew more than he was telling. If not, they clearly had the means to find out. Sun Bak’s current refuge outside the country came to mind, along with his earlier suspicions of outside interference during her escape from prison. Maybe the same anonymous caller had helped her. 

But why?

There was definitely something larger at play. Probably something so unexpected in a case like Mr Bak’s, that most detectives wouldn’t think to look. An ally with enough resources to rule half the world? Or, he thought, shaking his head as he chuckled (he really had been watching too many cop shows, unrealistic as they may be), some kind of secret organization, aiming to eradicate people who knew too much. 

People like Miss Bak. 

That seemed to be the only lead he could chase at the moment, as ridiculous as it was. Not that he was complaining. What better way to eliminate the fantasy-driven wild speculation than to ask the woman herself? He imagined Miss Bak rolling her eyes, scoffing at what would no doubt be a ludicrous suggestion on his part.

He hoped she would call again.

*

“You said you have good news, son?” asked Shiro. 

Mr Kabaka and Amondi had gone to bed. Capheus and his mother settled themselves into the velvety brown couches in the spacious living room of the Kabakas’ new vacation home on the outskirts of Nairobi. He could hear birds chirping in the trees in the back garden outside, expressing their thanks for the colorful bird houses Amondi had made for them.

Capheus took a deep breath. “It’s Kiira.”

His mother frowned. “What about her, Capheus? You don’t mean -”

“Yes.” A grin broke out, and he bounced a little in his seat, turning to face his mother. “Mama -” he put his hands on shoulder, bringing her closer - “I found Kiira.”

“In London?” her voice trembled, but she mirrored her son’s expression. “She’s in London?”

“She grew up in Cambridge. Raised by English professors,” he added, imagining his baby sister growing up surrounded by stories beyond his imagination. Kiira certainly seemed like someone who craved knowledge when they met. “She is so smart, mama. And beautiful. She takes after you.”

A tear slid down her face. He wiped it away with his palm, still grinning. “I believe there’s parts of your father too,” she said.

He thought about Kiira, all diplomatic smile and raised chin as she greeted her long-lost brother. Her emotions were carefully hidden, though his sensate powers allowed him a few glimpses. She had been so excited to get answers after all these years. The curiosity had certainly reminded Capheus of father.

“There is,” he confirmed. “But that’s not all. She wants to become a doctor, like you did. Well, a brain surgeon.”

“She’s in medical school?” 

“She is.”

Shiro breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing that. Capheus didn’t need to be a sensate to know she had been worried Kiira would grow up like she did: dreams unfulfilled, trapped by circumstances beyond her control.

When his mother spoke again, her voice was quieter. “Is she… happy?”

“She is.”

“That’s all I ever wanted.” He saw a gleam in his mother’s eyes. She was ecstatic, he knew. But also… relieved? Knowing that by giving her up, she didn’t doom her child to a life without hope. That Kiira had been given a chance.

“She’s happy,” he reassured. “She’s doing what she loves. And -” 

He paused, wondering if it was better to leave the rest unsaid. Being a sensate at this time in history made her far from safe, Blockers or not. He had worried about Kiira ever since they said goodbye that day at the café, praying that whatever his cluster and company had planned to do wouldn’t be at the expense of Kiira’s safety.

“You know you can tell me anything, son.”

Capheus chuckled, trying to reduce the tension. “I could never hide things from you.”

“I knew whatever was troubling you was outside of your own life.”

Before he left for London, he had explained everything to his mother as Nomi prepared his travel documents. To his surprise, she had believed him as soon as he mentioned being connected to others in his mind. His maternal grandmother had been the same way, she’d told him. She had disappeared a few months after Capheus was born, never to be seen again. 

After everything his cluster had seen, he was certain BPO would not have been merciful with his grandmother. 

But, his mother had added, just before he’d left for the airport, she had witnessed the bond shared within a cluster, and understood the necessity of his mission. She only hoped they could succeed in their pursuits. 

And they had. More so than he’d imagined.

“Kiira wants to be a surgeon. A brain surgeon. She’s curious about the brain because… Because she’s like me.”

His mother’s frown was back, and she pinched her nose with her fingers, sighing as she leaned against the back of the couch. “You mean -”

“Yes.”

“It’s not safe for her.”

“No,” he admitted. “But she has more experience. She was reborn long before me. One of her cluster is staying us — she used to work with BPO, but as a spy — it’s a long story. What I mean is, Kiira knows her enemies.”

He didn’t tell his mother about Morgan. Kiira had grown up wondering why her birth family had left her, wondering if she was at fault. It made his heart ache to remember she had lost another part of her family, too.

“Why isn’t Kiira staying with you?”

“I asked her to. But she has an internship this summer.” Working for a man who, based on her suspicions, worked with BPO. He shook his head, trying to reassure himself that Kiira knew what she was doing. His baby sister could take care of herself. She’d survived on Blockers in London for two years, after all.

“Are you certain she’s safe?”

“Yes. She has Blockers.”

“What wonders a little medicine can do.” She sighed. “But they’re not perfect.”

“I’ll find a way to check in with her when I get back to Paris.”

“Paris? I thought -”

“We had to move hideouts. Several times. But hey -” he leaned back on the couch as well, both of them facing the blank television screen - “I’ve always wanted to go to France.”

She smiled. His optimism was contagious. It was the reason he never lost sight of it. “Tell me then, my wild Zebra. What is Paris like?”

“Well, I’ve only seen the inside of a beautiful apartment. And the view from the window seemed lovely. Very different from how it was on TV.” He laughed. “Maybe when this is over I can see it properly.”

“You should. Once you become president you won’t have much time.”

“The debate.” He sighed. “Mama, is it crazy to think that all of this -” he gestured to the well-furnished house, to the new suit that Mr Kabaka had hung near the body-length mirror in preparation for his public appearance tomorrow - “that all of this feels so unreal? I never thought I would be a leader. Much less part of a group that’s trying to overthrow a power we haven’t even fully understood.”

“You always said you wanted to live like you were in a movie,” his mother pointed out.

“I guess I am. People already call me Van Damme.”

That made her laugh. They sat together in silence after this, her arm around his shoulder, eyes closed, ears tuned in to the sound of leaves rustling outside. It was a little tradition they’d started since they had moved to Nairobi. Sometimes it was nice to sit still and see where his mind could wander off to. 

He thought about Zakia and Jela. Mr Kabaka had arranged for them to visit tomorrow. He’d have to tell them about everything, but maybe not now. Maybe it could wait until after his speech. But he did not need to worry about that yet. He just wanted to live in the moment.

Like he had always done.

But something had changed in the last few weeks. Maybe it was the election, the way people in Kibera put more trust in him than he knew what to do with. Or maybe it was seeing a member of his cluster under BPO’s clutches, spending days preparing for a rescue mission they knew they could not afford to lose. 

His bodyguards had informed him a few hours ago that BPO’s had been sending their resources to Kenya and two other destinations — Bug had found that out while he was monitoring BPO’s vehicles, and Mavis had passed on the message through her Veracity contacts. He had to be careful. And keep his friends' family safe, too.

Capheus used to wish he had Jean Claude’s powers. But now he had come to realize there was a pressure that came with being undefeated. There was a pressure knowing each fight could be his last.

Van Damme always came back. People counted on him to save the day. Capheus dreaded to think what would have happened if he didn’t.

*

Mavis, said a young woman’s voice in the back of her mind. Mavis.

She turned in her bunk bed, slowly, careful not to rattle the hinges lest she woke the other people sharing the room. Sleep hadn’t come so easily to her for the last two years, but that night she had somehow managed to drift off as soon as her head hit the pillow. Perhaps the latest discovery from their friend Bug had reassured her of her newfound allies’ control over the situation. Planning out the next step should be easier now.

Wha - she mumbled, hoping she didn’t say it out loud.

Bad time, I know, but I couldn’t make my Blocker wear off faster, Kiira thought back, sounding fully awake. Mavis chuckled. They really had been Blocked from each other for too long. She’d nearly forgotten how big a night owl Kiira was.

The woman in question appeared at the foot of the bed then, sitting cross-legged with a book in her lap — The Secret of the Old Clock, the first Nancy Drew book. Mavis smirked at the coincidence. Her hair was a full afro, loosened from the puffs she’d wear during the day, and it bobbed a little as she turned her head and scanned the room. Kiira smirked as she took in the forms of Sun and Felix passed out on the bottom bunks. 

Mavis sat up and draped the blanket over both of them. They cuddled into each other, shoulders bumping. If you were hoping to talk to Capheus, she thought, yawning, he just left for Nairobi. Debate with Mandiba. Sorry.

“Well, yes -” there was a hint of disappointment in her voice, but she shook her head - “but there’s more. It’s about Dr Thorsten.”

The shady surgeon guy?

“Yes.” She laughed. “He’s back from abroad, and he wanted to check on my work progress. I’ve arranged to meet with him in his office.”

Make sure you bring a weapon, was Mavis’ response. And, at her smirk - I’m serious, Kiira. He could be a spy or something.

“It would be highly unlikely for him to have figured out my identity as a sensate,” she said. “But I suppose the possibility should be taken into account.”

What if you bring a lookout?

“Also a viable option. I was wondering if I should keep my mind open for this meeting, if you know what I mean.”

What if he’s a Headhunter too? Mavis pointed out.

“It would be a necessary risk, though if that is the case, I highly doubt he would go about his routine outside of BPO without taking a Blocker. I believe we can get more information if both of us are present.”

Fair enough, she concurred. Two minds against one should work in our favor.

“The meeting is tomorrow. Dr Thorsten claims he’s preoccupied at the moment.”

Mavis perked up. Actually, Nomi’s hacker friend found out where BPO’s next attack might be. Well, next three attacks. We don’t know which place they’re gonna start with.

Kiira cringed. “Blimey, they sure are in a rush.”

Yeah. I think they just wanna throw us off. Hate to admit it’s sort of working, though. And your supervisor’s been busy too. Gee, I wonder if it could be related.

“Very likely, I think.” Kiira nodded, frowning. “Perhaps he helped prepare the lobotomized soldiers. Or he’d control them, if he’s a Headhunter.”

For our sake, Kiira, I really hope he isn’t.

A solemn nod. “Only one way to find out.”

Chapter Text

July 17, 2017

“Is it time?” came the Professor’s voice through the phone.

Veronika watched the sunrise in her office in Southwark, when the street lights were dimmed but the roads were still empty. The buildings were dull browns and grays against the orange sky, asleep except for the security guards stationed at the front doors. A fresh beginning. She was here to witness the wakening.

“It’s time.”

A couple patters and clicks from the other end. And then, “It has been done.”

“The news channels have been notified?”

“Yes, Veronika,” said Bernard Kolovi. “The brain scans, the genetic data… Everything.”

“Everything,” she repeated, shedding her black trench coat to reveal a turquoise blouse underneath, ironed flawlessly at the seams — her battle suit, coupled with a black pencil skirt, a stark contrast to the dark crimson of her lips. The same armor she wore on the day she took over the office. “Everything will fall into place.”

“You’re certain the other half can wait?”

A chuckle, the sound of a steel dart piercing the center target. “No need to inform the press of the full story yet. Give people time to put two and two together, Bernard. Not every species respond well to change.”

“Given my knowledge of evolutionary history, I am inclined to agree.”

Him and his scholarly ways. She couldn’t help but smirk. “There are more pressing matters at hand. Have you paid a visit to the Chicago headquarters?”

“I just finished speaking to the Supervisor.”

“Good.” 

“May I ask why you want to appoint more men as stakeouts?”

She made a small hum. “The Archipelago is a vast trading network. It would be better to nip the Blocker trades in the bud before another round of Blockers can be distributed. Catch the traders, instead of the buyers.”

“An efficient strategy as always,” he remarked. “We catch a few, and we gain access to all of their connections.”

“Precisely.” 

Catching sensates wasn’t a matter of rounding up the most bodies, she’d learned from her experience. It was a matter of identifying the root of the problem and working her way up. And in this case, the root of the problem lie in the sensates’ access to Blockers, means of hiding from her prying eyes.

A pause. Then, “There’s more to your plan, isn’t there?” he observed.

“You know me too well.”

“Let me guess. Replacement traders?”

“I prefer the term infiltration. But yes. The Archipelago is a system that relies on trust, rather than benefit. You and I both know these arrangements can be rather unstable.”

“The problem with an oversized population,” he remarked. “It would be nearly impossible to distinguish the allies from the outsiders. You’d think sensates would have learned by now.”

If only their mind connections had net capacities. But who was Veronika to complain, when this flaw of Homo sensorium worked in her favor?

“No matter,” she told him. “All we need to do is wait. I have no doubt the apprehended men will have valuable information on their clients’ whereabouts.”

“And the replacement pills are in production, I presume?”

“Reciphorum in capsules?” she smirked, even though he couldn’t see. “Not even close to a real challenge. Our scientists finalized the formula weeks ago. All the new products had been distributed to the infiltration volunteers yesterday.”

“Perfect timing.”

She looked out her window again. The sun was rising, a bright orb underneath thick gathers of purple-gray clouds. A few people strolled along the sidewalk, unaware of the change in the world that was to come.

“You’re right, Bernard,” she said. “It is.”

*

To Dani’s frustration, Felix excused himself from the kitchen after breakfast. 

Usually he’d have stayed and had a little chat with her, bottles of liquor in hand as they’d ruminate over the loss of their relatively less life-threatening formal lives. This morning he’d flashed her his usual toothy grin as she’d tried to make light conversation. He’d laughed at her jokes and nodded at the right times. But she could tell his mind was elsewhere by the daze in his eyes. 

She was a little jealous of Lito. BPO or not, his powers could sure come into handy.

Wolfgang had stayed behind to help clean up, and when Kala went downstairs to the basement lab to work on her anti-Blocker formula, she and Wolfgang found themselves alone. Except for the occasional laughter echoing from upstairs, where Damien and Leon were locked in a fierce game of Mario Kart.

He furrowed his brows as he scrubbed the coffee stain on the counter with a towel. He was lost in thought, too, she could tell. Though she supposed his preoccupations were of a more romantic nature, judging by the way the corners of his lips ticked as he smirked at nothing in particular, a mannerism she believed he picked up from Felix, though the other man’s smirk would have been much dopier.

Felix had told her they were tight like brothers. And the more she observed them, the more they acted like family. It was their bond that made Dani want to get to know Felix, despite his damsel-rescuer façade, before she’d gotten to see the guy behind the tall tales.

Which also meant that if anyone knew why Felix was acting odd, it would be Wolfgang.

The man in question looked up then, and she raised an eyebrow, giving him a meaningful look as she walked over to the sink, knowing he had followed. As he rinsed out the coffee stain on the towel, he turned to her, waiting for her to speak.

“Felix is avoiding me.”

A shrug. “Why do you say that? He talked to you.”

“Yeah, but it’s not -” 

She paused, searching for the right words. What exactly was different from the last time he’d spoken to her? When he had snuck up behind her, and she’d shrieked because he had scared the crap out of her and -

Oh.

“Is he - did I scare him off?”

“It’d take a lot more to make Felix scared.”

That, she did know. He had marched into a battle against BPO with a group of strangers he barely knew. And he’d never hesitated to take another shot whenever they drank together, even when he was clearly smashed beyond repair.

“But he’s not himself. He’s not telling me how you two… I don’t know, outran the security guards at a high-end pub. Something crazy like that. Or something about rescuing damsels.”

The corner of his mouth quirked up a little at that. It was the first time she’d seen him smirk without Kala present. “That’s not what really happened.”

“I know. But the point is, he’s not even trying to brag anymore.”

He frowned. She could tell he deduced something was off, too. “Since when?”

“He hasn’t really talked since yesterday morning. Well, he sort of snuck up on me when I was doing the dishes and I said he scared the hell out of me. And then he just… left. Said he needed to pack.”

Wolfgang was silent, but just for a second, his eyebrow ticked, and his eyes widened when she mentioned her reaction. And then his expression became stoic again. Unreadable. 

“I know I sort of freaked out, but I thought he was -” she blurted out the words, then stopped, cursing herself for letting it slip. For a moment, she’d thought she was back home, talking to Lito and Hernando. Not in a safe house in Paris with a large group of strangers on the run. As if her life wasn’t already complicated enough -

Before she could say anything else to change the topic, he said, “I know.”

“You - what?”

“It’s the connection. We know everything.”

“Oh.”

Everything. Her chest felt a little lighter when she heard that. Was it a relief, knowing they all knew so much about her, but they hadn’t treated her any differently? Was she glad she didn’t have to explain herself to anyone in case -

But then - 

She remembered that Lito hadn’t told her or Hernando anything about his cluster-mates until they’d arrived in London and started asking questions. Maybe Wolfgang hadn’t told Felix. Maybe Lito’s whole cluster had some sort of pact, an unspoken agreement that they’d keep what they knew about each other’s lives to themselves.

“Felix doesn’t know,” he explained, giving her a pause. Right. Sensates seemed to have a way to guess what she and the other sapiens were thinking, too. She thought she’d have gotten used to this mind-reading business by now, Blockers or not.

She didn’t know whether she liked that Felix hadn’t seen that side of her past, but that wasn’t something she could share with Wolfgang. So instead, she said, “On the plane, when Lito was trying to explain his connection to us, he told me you were there. When he rescued me from Joaquín.”

“It was nothing.”

“No, it wasn’t,” she insisted. “Thank you.”

“No one deserves that.”

She sighed, leaning against the counter. “Yeah. He was a real piece of work.”

Silence. She knew Wolfgang wasn’t much for talking, but maybe a moment of reflection was what she needed, too.

She thought about the day Lito came to her rescue. There was something different about the way Lito had looked at Joaquín before he’d thrown that final punch. Or maybe it was Wolfgang standing in his place. She had never seen Lito glare at anyone with that dagger-sharp gaze outside a movie set, and it was a look she’d always remember. It was a look of loathing mixed with vengeance she had yet to understand, though she’d tried to convince herself that Lito was just trying to impersonate the heroes he played, dirty looks and all.

“Joaquín was an asshole,” she said, more to herself than to him. Then, as he turned to face her, “That was in the past. But it’s not something you forget.”

A curt nod. As she straightened herself and made a move to leave, he said, “No, it’s not.”

There was something about his tone, a certainty, that made her suspect he wasn’t just agreeing with her out of sympathy. Intrigued, she watched him as he turned back to the dishes still in the sink, and the brief flicker of emotion was back, even if he’d tried to hide it by turning away. It wasn’t exactly anger. There was no rage behind his expression. Only a quiet, unfading sense of loathing.

You’re not the only one who came from a family of criminals, Felix had told her that morning on the patio in Kala’s flat. Lito had told her about Wolfgang’s family’s involvement with Russian gangs. Perhaps there was more to his past, a secret neither of them felt the right to divulge. 

The first day Felix joined their mission, he’d jumped at the first chance to help out in Wolfgang’s rescue. She’d been intrigued by the protective instinct underneath all that over-the-top flamboyance. It almost seemed like he believed he was the only person capable of keeping his best friend safe.

But she knew better than to ask Wolfgang about his past, so she uttered another small thanks and left the kitchen. She made her way to the garden, not entirely mindful of where she was strolling. Maybe, she thought, shaking her head as she let out a sigh, yesterday I’d scared him more than he’d scared me.

She wondered if Felix was starting to suspect there was more to her past. And if so, she wondered if he was trying to keep her safe, too. Somehow.

*

Amazing homemade pad thai was one of the things Riley least expected to encounter on the run. But she could hardly resist the temptation when Georgina and Henrik, the last two hosts of the Paris safe house, insisted on giving “the hero cluster” a little taste of Gina’s signature dish. A blessing to the house, according to Leon.

The woman in question was tall and toned, raven-haired with a sun-kissed complexion. Her half-Thai, half-Australian heritage had given her the advantage of mastering twice the number of recipes. The couple stood next to each other, one person per skillet as they tweaked the two recipes to cater to all tastes: chicken and vegetarian, the safest two options when one found themselves seeking refuge with company from all over the world. 

Henrik’s shoulders were slightly hunched — as the tallest person in the house, he towered over everyone, and the furniture was far from friendly with his height. As Riley sat there and tried her best to memorize their recipes by observation, Gina reached across the stoves for the bowl of crushed chili peppers with a sly smile, crooking her elbow to brush against Henrik’s torso in the process. 

His face flushed upon the contact, salmon pink against his fair skin. Riley could tell he was trying to hold back a laugh. 

On the first day, she’d learned that the Dutch man was extremely ticklish, an unfortunate trait that made him an easy target for his cluster-family. And his large body mass only made things worse. Another thing she had learned was that Gina took delight in teasing her vulnerable partner. 

“Cheer up, Jaobaan*,” she said as she ran her fingers through the blond waves atop his head that never seemed to stay put, “we’ve got company.”

Henrik turned and gave Riley a sheepish smile. “She’s bullying me, you can tell, yes?” 

She gave him a nod. Their never-ending display of affection coupled with endearments in Thai always brought a smile to her face. “I can tell.”

As if he wanted to prove her point — and he might have known what she was thinking, as the hosts had no need for Blockers inside the house — Henrik ducked down and pecked Gina on the forehead. He gestured to the fridge by her side. “Pass me the tofu, ja**?”

They spoke mostly in English, mindful that they could not share knowledge of their own languages with other clusters and sapiens, but words from their collection of languages weaved their ways into the hosts’ everyday vocabulary. Even the accents they used in their minds had started rubbing off on each other.

“None of you are allergic to peanuts?” Gina asked, adding a dash of sesame seed oil as a finishing touch. 

Riley shook her head. 

“Right.” She poured a few spoonful of crushed peanuts from a tin that sat on the counter, stirring the crunchy bits into the noodles with an oversized pair of chopsticks. “That’s good to know. Last thing we wanna do is end up at a hospital.”

“You haven’t been in two years?”

“Well -” Henrik said, exchanging a look with Gina - “not to a hospital, no. But Damien broke his arm a few months ago, and Miki didn’t know how to mend bones. We had to find a retired sensate doctor in Lyon to treat him.”

At Riley’s look of sympathy, Gina added, “Lil’ bugger tried to slide off the rails on the stairs. He fell, of course. But we thought the cast oughta be punishment enough.”

Riley couldn’t help but smile at the way the couple talked about the boy like he was their misbehaving son. At twenty-three, most people would have been worrying about starting new careers, but this cluster had settled into a routine, a domestic lifestyle with a side of very interesting house guests. It was a consolation to know, despite the fear of BPO looming over every sensate’s existence, that it was still possible for people like Gina and Henrik to enjoy the little moments that made their incognito lives worth living.

This was once the kind life Riley imagined she would have with Magnus, a life filled with children’s laughter and domestic bliss. She buried the thought before either of the hosts could latch on to her lingering grief. It was much easier now, she realized, to push away the image of the family she could have had. 

A year ago she would have scolded herself for betraying her husband and daughter’s memory. But now? She wasn’t sure she could ever be free of the pain, but the guilt seemed to have subsided, and in its place was an anticipation for a future free of hiding, free of the prying minds of Headhunters. 

She imagined Will waking up next to her in a large bed with a too-soft mattress, wrapped in a bathrobe that had shrunk after they’d left it in the dryer for too long. It would be wonderful to finally visit Chicago without any lingering paranoia of being caught. Maybe they’d make a home there. Will could be a cop again, and her papa could visit every time his orchestra had a concert in America.

It wasn’t until a winking Gina pushed a plate of mildly spiced chicken pad thai underneath her nose that Riley realized she had been lost in a daydream of what could be. 

*

The bedroom Lito shared with his family looked like a jungle.

A jungle of dark green leaves with red stems, partially obstructed by what looked like a sandy orange whirlwind. The sandstorm was painted with vibrant colors and a distinct texture. Leon had told them he’d pasted a layer of real sand from a beach in the south of France to create the impression of a jungle in the desert.

Lito liked to watch Hernando examine the art. Even after spending three days at this new safe house, he could still discover little details about the mural that anyone else would have missed: a slight twirl of the paintbrush that made the leaf hang a little limp from the branch, a chunk of red that has a blue rather than brown undertone in a particular shaded area near the corner…

“I think the furniture and bedding is selected to complement this jungle-like impression,” he said to Lito that afternoon, after he’d finally finished asking Gina questions about her pad thai recipe. “This particular shade of orange -” he pointed to their pillowcase - “resembles a rising sun. It has a red undertone instead of yellow, not too bright so that it takes your attention away from the art itself. And you can tell this scene on the mural is meant to take place at around dawn.”

Lito noted the way Hernando’s eyes lit up whenever he talked about art. “How?” he asked, walking up to examine the wall, putting an arm around Hernando’s shoulder. “How is it that you know so much?”

With a smug smile, Hernando gestured to an area with an abundance of dark-leaved trees. He nudged his glasses up the bridge of his nose with his knuckles. “The angle of the shadow underneath the trees. If it’s around midday -” he traced the lines with his finger hovering in the air, careful not to graze the artwork itself - “the shadows wouldn’t drag on for this long, see, because the sun would be over the top of everything.”

“Mm.” Lito tried to sound critical, but when Hernando turned to look at him, brows locked in a perplexed frown, he couldn’t hold back his sly grin. “What if it’s the afternoon? Or some time before the evening? We can’t tell which way is east in a painting, can we?”

Hernando crossed his arms, taking on the challenge. “The vibrance of the colors Leon chose would suggest otherwise. They clearly indicate a bright new beginning. If it was nearly dusk, he would have chosen darker colors for the sky. Maybe a dash of purple.”

“Right you are,” said the man in question. “Yes. It takes place in the mornin’.”

Leon was leaning on the doorway, grinning at his visitors. Hernando had been ecstatic when he’d heard about the host cluster’s shared chromesthesia. He’d spent all afternoon asking Leon questions about how his newfound relationship with music had affected the way he understood form, and texture, and motif, and a hundred other professional-sounding words that Hernando had long ago adopted into his everyday vocabulary.

But right now Hernando was standing there, frozen, opening and closing his mouth, looking back and forth between Lito and Leon.

“I wasn’t -” he mumbled in English - “we were speaking Spanish.”

Leon laughed. “We get a lot of Spanish visitors. I picked up a few words.”

“How much did you hear?”

Mañana. That’s ‘bout it. Gina’s the language expert, not me.”

Lito clapped his hands together. “So -” he started, pushing Hernando by the shoulder until he came face to face with Leon - “why not consult the artist himself, Professor Fuentes? Ask him about his masterpiece, maybe write his biography?”

Hernando clucked his tongue. “Cheeky,” he muttered, clearly only pretending to be annoyed. “Yes, I was wondering if you can explain the symbolism behind the sandstorm? The partial obstruction of the scene of this jungle in the desert — were you hoping to leave others a space for their own interpretations?”

Leon shrugged. “Tell you the truth, mate, I was just tryin’ to feel the music. We were watchin’ Lion King that day. Great songs, way too many colors.”

“So it was a deliberate choice to showcase the red and the green? And the sand-like color of the storm? We don’t see much of the sky here -”

A chuckle. “Honestly, we were just runnin’ low on blue paint. I’m glad you can find some symbolism from it, though. Always nice when someone thinks I’m deep.”

“There appears to be a hidden depth in many of your works.”

Leon beamed. “Right. I like to think so, too. Worked wonders when I made graffiti back in the day. Drop in a few random symbols and watch the audience go bonkers.”

Lito perked up, turning to Hernando with a shit-eating grin. “Graffiti, you say?” he asked, raising a teasing eyebrow. He knew Hernando was, for the most part, a law-abiding citizen who appreciated art in pre-arranged displays.

“My best mate James and I used to find shit-packed places and turn ‘em into art galleries, see -” Leon’s hands flailed about as his voice boomed across the halls - “we’d paint on the brick walls ’n such. Sometimes the pavement, but we prefer walls. We figured, well, the world can always use some more art, right? And the neighborhoods we chose were dodgy. Couldn’t hurt to bring in some color.”

“Interesting.” Hernando said after a moment’s pause. “So for you, art is a matter of accessibility? Letting things be visible to the public eye?”

Leave it to Hernando to analyze the motives of graffiti artists. Lito was a little — just a little — disappointed that Hernando wasn’t taken aback when he’d learned Leon used to deface public property. But, he supposed, no art lover could resist the urge to gawk at every attention-grabbing work out there. And he knew for a fact that Hernando appreciated every bit of art he came across, legal or not.

“Somethin’ like that,” Leon admitted. “We’d get into jail now and then, if the coppers catch us before we could finish. Granddad always used to bail us out. Said they oughta spend their precious time catchin’ real criminals.”

So that’s where Leon got his rebellious spirit from. His grandfather sounded like one of the fun-loving rich men from his films, the ones who’d offer the main character an extra pint at a fancy house party while he was trying to assassinate an evil infiltrator among the ranks. Hell, did everything about his life read like a scene from a movie now? 

Lito had forgotten he wasn’t on Blockers during the day. 

“Mate,” Leon said, turning to face him, “I’m runnin’ a bloody Sensate Airbnb with Lito Rodríguez as my house guest. Can’t get more dramatic than this -”

Hernando mumbled something under his breath that sounded like “welcome to my life.”

“- unless, I dunno, you start keepin’ someone hostage in the basement,” Leon continued. “An enemy. Oh! Someone from BPO with insider knowledge.”

“Yeah, well.” Hernando let out a sigh. “We’ve already done that.”

*

Mandiba maintained perfect poise in his black suit as he glared over the stoic audience, daring them to protest as he reached up a steady hand to adjust his tie. Capheus stood behind the podium on the other side of the stage and tried his best not to look too panicked. The lights on the stage made yellow spots dance in front of his eyes and scalded his head like a midday sun in July. His sweaty palms wrinkled the ten pages of notes Zakia had helped him prepare.

He still hadn’t told her about his cluster. The last three days had seen much progress in the way he prepared for his first ever public debate against a well-experienced politician, but amid all his anxiety of facing the masses after a month-long hiatus, he had lost all courage to come clean about why he had spent time abroad. She hadn’t asked. He could tell she trusted him to tell her when he was ready.

His girlfriend sat in the first row, glowing in a lemon yellow saffron dress. His mother had worn a purple shawl she’d made as a mark of support for the KDRP. The two women smiled at him when he turned around to watch them. Next to the women, Amondi beamed and waved with a frantic enthusiasm. And there was Mr Kabaka and Jela’s family… They all wanted to watch him “make history”, per his friend’s exact words.

He felt a slight buzzing in the back of his head, the sign of his Blocker wearing off. There was a tension in his body that made his back straighten, and a tick in the muscles of his right hand, ready to jump to his defense. He didn’t even notice when the host had asked the first question. Thankfully, it seemed to have been addressed to Mandiba.

“Access to clean water has been a challenge for Kibera for many years, yes,” Mandiba said in monotone, like he was reading out headlines of the local news paper to a random person on the street. “But the system that allows for the transport of clean water needs economic support. And there is a high demand for this resource. It would be reasonable to make a profit from this transaction, to ensure quality service.”

The host turned to Capheus. “What are your thoughts on this, Mr Onyango?”

The first question and Mandiba’s response almost seemed too predictable. Capheus would have broken into a grin if it weren’t for the fact that everyone’s eyes had turned to him. The perfect rebuttal was highlighted and bolded on the first page, but this time round he didn’t even need to consult his notes. “The clean water provided in Kibera is not a service. It is a business that reaps a profit from every transaction.”

He watched Mandiba’s lips curl into a thin line as he shook his head slightly. Turning back to the audience, Capheus carried on speaking. “The price — the demand — is too high. This system would gain no support if the citizens are unhappy.”

Applause. A few members of the audience in the middle even let out a whoop.

“Forgive me for saying this, Mr Onyango,” Mandiba started again, and from the inflection in his voice, Capheus knew he was withholding a sneer, “but a common citizen would not understand the resources, the money and the labor, that it would take to run a well-established system that provides for the masses. To believe otherwise would be a sign of idealism. A common mistake amongst young politicians.”

Capheus didn’t notice his cluster had appeared next to him until he heard Nomi let out an indignant gasp upon Mandiba’s none-so-subtle insult. Zakia was frowning, too, as she exchanged a look with his mother. They had expected dismissals, but they’d assumed it would have been buried underneath layers of convoluted lies and obscurities.

Nonetheless, Mandiba had underestimated the perks of a fresh perspective. “It would appear that our current system is a tried-and-true method,” Capheus agreed. “But all significant changes in history were driven by idealistic beliefs at the start. Perhaps a new alternative way of gaining access to clean water is what Kibera needs.”

Mandiba made a sound between a sniff and a cough. Capheus suspected he was holding back a snort. “At what cost? Mr Onyango, are you proposing that we sacrifice all of Kibera’s resources on a project that may never result in notable change?”

He swallowed back the urge to answer the question that was asked. Mr Kabaka had told him to answer questions with a different question. “What changes would I bring to Kibera by allowing the system to run as it is? By not addressing an issue that has clearly impacted the citizens’ lives for many years, that will impact their lives for many years to come, if no one takes initiative?”

If he could see behind podiums, he would probably have found Mandiba clutching his fist. “Considering the current economic status of this neighborhood,” Mandiba said louder than before, trying to bring reassurance by assuming an air of confidence, “I believe uncertainty would prove to be catastrophic -”

Someone started screaming in the crowd. 

It was too bright on stage to make out the faces of the people in the back rows. All Capheus could see were silhouettes ducking down, hiding behind chairs. Some people dashed toward the ropes that separated the reception areas from the parking spaces.

“Everyone, stay calm!” the host tried to shout, but no one appeared to have heard.

Then there were gunshots.

The host screamed, dropped the microphone and dashed back to hide behind the curtains that shielded the backstage from the public eye. Armed bodyguards escorted Capheus’ family and friends out of the audience and into a black van that he had seen in Mr Kabaka’s garage, but the crowd became nothing more than a stampede of terrified citizens as they trampled over fallen chairs. And, Capheus noticed with a pang, fallen bodies.

“Take cover!” Will shouted as he pushed Capheus down by the shoulders. He squatted behind the podium, trembling as his hands tried to grab onto something, anything, other than air. Judging by the sound of a bullet swooshing past the top of the podium a second later, he was lucky to have ducked when he did.

Capheus turned his back against the podium and saw armed guards rushing to his aid from backstage, trying to dash while they kept their bodies as low as they could. The man in the front tossed him one of the guns he held, and with a well-practiced catch, Capheus got hold of the weapon, switching out the safety as his finger pressed against the trigger, which was slipping under a layer of sweat.

The voice next to his ear was calm, decisive, unmistakable. “Let me,” said Wolfgang, taking over his body before he could utter another word.

Then he was peeking over the podium, aiming his gun at a man who was scanning the audience for remaining victims. The man’s clothes were unassuming, like he’d acquired them from a local market. Really, he would have made it through the entire debate unnoticed if it weren’t for three things. One was the guns he held in his hands. Two, the controlled, nearly robotic way in which he took every step. 

And three? The unmistakable horizontal scar that ran across the front of his forehead.

Wolfgang pulled the trigger. Capheus didn’t realize he had until he saw the Bolger crumple to the ground to join his victims. And then two Bolgers rose from the corpses, as if they had been lying low, preparing to make their move when the first hitman went down. The guards came to his rescue and whisked him away before before Wolfgang could aim at the other Bolgers. He heard the guards pull triggers as he ran.

And then all was quiet except for the sound of two more bodies hitting the ground.

*

“You’re cold,” said Wolfgang.

It was not a question. Blue eyes bore into brown as he took hold of her cold fingertips, and she smiled at the warmth flowing from his hands.

“I’m alright,” said Kala, tugging his arm so he could inch closer to her as they walked. “I just didn’t expect Paris to get so chilly at night.”

They were making their ways down the stone pavement in the quaint little area where Rajan had purchased her Paris flat. She had hoped to never return to this place, to the reminder of the secrets she had kept from her husband. But Ganesha must have wanted her to confront the truth: a few hours ago Nomi had hacked into the surveillance system in the area to make sure BPO hadn’t found out about their past hideout, only to find Lila Facchini in the area, strolling about in black leather and killer heels.

Nomi also found a small van parked one block away, barely in the camera’s view. Of course Lila didn’t come alone. But neither did they — Wolfgang had taken a new Blocker after Capheus’ debate, but Kala had let hers wear off. Everyone followed close behind them, scanning for any signs of ambush, too paranoid with the new potential danger to process the shock from the attack in Nairobi just yet. 

There was a rustle in a bush nearby. Kala didn’t flinch as she registered Sun’s silhouette. Sun had insisted on coming along as physical protection, dressed in comfy black sportswear that gave her plenty of freedom to fight, should anyone give her a chance. But she was out of earshot. Something told Kala she had intentionally given them privacy to talk.

Wolfgang pulled her close as he turned to face her. “Take this,” he said, stripping off his black bomber jacket. He wrapped it around her shoulders before she could open her mouth to protest. It took all of her self control not to sigh in relief when she realized the jacket was still warm with his body heat.

“No,” she tried to protest, squirming away, but he wrapped an arm around her shoulder and locked her in place. “You’re recovering,” she tried again, a feeble attempt, she knew. “You’re gonna get sick.”

“I’m used to the cold. You’re not.”

She sighed, knowing there was no reasoning with him when he got stubborn. So, with a mock huff of annoyance that fooled no one, she pushed her arms into the sleeves. He pulled up the zipper and smirked when she pointed out it was large enough to pass as an overcoat.

His eyes wide open, he scanned the area again. Then Kala felt him tense. She turned to look in his direction, at the driveway that led to the front door of Rajan’s flat… And came face to face with Lila, who was standing a few paces away.

From his back pocket, Wolfgang pulled out a pistol.

“I’m not here on behalf of BPO,” she said in English, in a mixed accent Kala couldn’t quite place. Kala hadn’t realized she’d only ever heard Lila speak German.

Wolfgang scoffed, pointing the gun in the direction of Lila’s head. She raised her hand in surrender. “I don’t care why you’re here. How did you find us?”

She ignored his question. “You can shoot me now,” she said, quite calm for someone under the mercy of a gun. “But I don’t think you will. I know you, Wolfgang.”

You don’t know him, Kala wanted to say, but decided to hold her tongue.

As if she could read her thoughts (and Kala realized she very well could), Lila raised an eyebrow. “Is that her?” she asked, looking between the two of them with a smirk. “I can see why you’d want her.”

Silence. 

Kala felt Wolfgang’s arm around her shoulder tense, and she tried not to think about Sun, who was probably trying to sneak up behind Lila. Instead she focused on rage, on the explosion in the restaurant before Lila had nearly shot Wolfgang for not beckoning to her will. She scowled as she imagined all the things she wanted to do.

“I have information,” Lila said, narrowing her eyes at Kala, having picked up her none-so-friendly thoughts. “It would be in our best interest not to kill each other. Yet.”

“Why are you helping us?” asked Wolfgang.

Capheus appeared beside Kala. Lito’s driving over, he whispered, even though Lila wouldn’t have been able to hear. I’ll help.

A pause, as Lila’s hands clutched into fists. She exhaled before speaking again, “BPO cannot give me what I want.”

“I told you.” Wolfgang seethed. “I’m not interested.”

A dark, hooded silhouette crawled toward Lila, nimble feet tip-toeing on the pavement without making a sound. Kala turned her gaze toward the gun Wolfgang was pointing at Lila, trying to focus her thoughts on his finger around the trigger.

“But the plan’s changed, Wolfgang,” said Lila. “BPO’s not interested in keeping us alive. They’ll kill all the sensates. All of us.”

Sun was right behind her now, arm raised with a syringe of injectable Blocker in hand. She gave them a slow nod. As if on cue, Wolfgang let out a snort, throwing Lila off guard. “They screwed you over, didn’t they?”

Lila opened her mouth to answer, but was interrupted by the sound of screeching tires. Kala turned and saw a blur of silver — not the color of the SUV they had taken from the rental facility. The van stopped, and the driver’s window opened to reveal a scraggly man in a woolen hat. No one exited the van from the side door.

“Lils, behind ya!” shouted the man in English, his accent fully Scottish.

Before Lila could see what he meant, Sun had pushed the dose of Blockers into her neck and pinned her arms behind her back. Wolfgang pointed the pistol right at her temple. There was another sound of screeching tires as Lito rounded the corner with their black SUV.

“Stop driving, and do not leave the car,” Sun said loudly, glaring at the man in the silver van. “Or we’ll shoot her.”

Lila turned to look the Scot in the eye. Go, Kala heard her think, the voice in her head barely louder than a whisper as her Blocker started kicking in. Leave. Get the others.

As the three of them marched Lila over to their black SUV, she tried to kick Sun in the shin and get away, only to be whacked on the back of the head by Wolfgang. She fell limp as she passed out. Felix got out from the passenger’s seat to help haul her in.

No one else was getting out of the silver van. And despite the relief, Kala couldn’t help but wonder where the rest of Lila’s cluster had gone. The silver van was still parked on the other side of the road, and for a second, it looked as if the Scot wanted to come to Lila’s rescue despite what she’d told him.

But then Felix and Wolfgang leapt out of the SUV again, military-grade long rangers in hand, and Lila’s cluster-mate changed his mind and sped away out of sight. All of them got back into the car, ignoring Lila’s form slumped against the left window in the back seat. Wolfgang squeezed himself in next to Lila’s unconscious form before Kala could protest, and Sun went in after him, eyes fixed on their hostage in case she decided to wake up.

“Should we go after them?” asked Sun as Capheus-in-Lito turned on the engine.

Nomi appeared, squatting in the narrow space in front of their legs. “We’ve got her,” she said, nodding at Lila’s limp body. “We can see what the others are up to. If you follow that van, he might be leading you into a trap.”

Nodding, Lito turned the wheel and started driving in the opposite direction, back the way they came from.

*

May, I’m here early, thought Kiira, nudging Mavis in the back of their shared consciousness. 

Mavis sat up straight in her chair. Around the kitchen island, the people who stayed behind turned to look at her, fully tuned to the ongoing investigation in case anything went wrong. “She’s there early. The doctor guy isn’t there yet.”

How peculiar. 

“What? What is it?”

I thought Dr Thorsten would be more meticulous. But he hasn’t locked his door.

“The door’s unlocked,” Mavis said to Will, who frowned.

“Sounds like a trap,” he said.

It could very well have been. Mavis knew how BPO operated: a false sense of security was usually their go-to strategy for a capture. “Kiira, are you sure you’re not followed?”

Positive. Veracity guards down the hall like you asked. No one else. And before Mavis could say anything else, Yes, May, I have considered the possibility that this meeting is a trap. But I believe the benefits outweigh the cost.

Her shoulder tensed. “I sincerely hope you’re right.”

In their mind’s eye, Mavis could make out careful hands pulling out a desk drawer. Inside was a large blue folder labeled Confidential. A black corner peeked out from the side. Not a piece of paper; it was made of a thick material that reflected the light on the ceiling.

Kiira was glancing up again. She was checking for approaching footsteps. Hearing none, she turned back to the folder, unhooking the string tied around the clasp. She pulled out a napkin from her pocket. The fingerprints, she thought. Can’t let him know I’m snooping.

“Look at you being all professional, Miss Anderson,” Mavis said, chuckling. Then, switching her consciousness back to the Paris hideout, she nodded at her allies around the kitchen island and mouthed “she found something.”

When her mind was back in the London office again, she saw Kiira put the napkin over the corner and pull out the page with one hand.

An fMRI? Kiira’s hand came to a halt as the brain scan revealed itself. The patient’s name on the top right corner had been crossed out with a black sharpie. All they could see was the silhouette of the side of a man’s head. And inside…

“Could it be one of his patients?” asked Mavis.

Kiira went back and pulled out a second scan from the folder, one that gave them a view of the patient’s brain from the top. But it was no ordinary brain. She felt Kiira freeze, still bent over the scans that she laid atop her supervisor’s desk. 

The patient had a merged frontal lobe. A Homo sensorium after rebirth.

“Shit,” Mavis swore. Will’s prodding yanked her consciousness back to Paris again. “It’s a sensate. He’s got a brain scan of a sensate.”

“The frontal lobes -” Nomi started.

“Merged. Yeah,” Mavis said, before shutting her eyes again. 

Kiira, she called out. Kiira, I think we’ve seen enough. Fuck. He’s working with BPO. He could be onto you! You should leave.

A nod. Just a minute.

Kiira started tucking the scans inside the folder again, careful to leave a corner of the first page peeking out the way she found it. Just as she was about to shove the folder back into the drawer, she looked up, checking to make sure no one had come in while she had been standing there wondering just how much of academia BPO had already taken over.

And looked right into the cold gray eyes of Dr Thorsten.

“You’ve always been a curious girl, Miss Anderson,” he remarked, looking at the folder still in her hands. “Inquisitive to a fault. But didn’t your parents teach you not to snoop?”

“I -” Kiira froze. Mavis opened her mouth in her place, trying to come up with a sufficient lie. But how could they possibly come up with a reasonable explanation for this? And the brain scans -

“Or are you Miss Anderson?” he asked, voice calm, thin lips curling into a smile that did not reach his eyes. “I can never tell with your species.”

“Sir, I’m afraid I don’t understand -” Mavis tried, but he shook his head, cutting her off as he took a step closer. With a firm hand, he snatched the folder from Kiira’s hands.

Mavis appeared next to Kiira and put a finger against her lips, telling her to stay quiet as she made her way over to the door, tip-toeing although she was perfectly aware Dr Thorsten could not see her.

Fuck. The two guards that accompanied Kiira to the office had disappeared. She didn’t like to think where they could have gone. And in their place stood six men in black uniforms, guns aimed at the direction of Dr Thorsten’s door.

“Don’t lie to me, Grace,” he was saying as Mavis reappeared next to Kiira, shaking her head. Six guards outside, she told her. She felt Kiira’s hands freeze. “Or is it… Kiira? Is that what the K stands for?”

We’ll find a way to get you out. Mavis thought, standing next to her, two against one. Not that it would last. I’ll - I’ll follow you. I’ll find you.

“Beautiful name. Kikuyu, isn’t it? Like your mother’s tribe.”

“M-my mother is from Cambridge,” Kiira tried again, hoping he didn’t notice the way her voice shook. 

“I’m sorry — I meant your birth mother. I must admit, it took us a few weeks to identify your true date of birth, Kiira.”

Mavis knew she was trying not to cringe. She knew Kiira wanted to keep the name just for herself. A token from her past, something only her family and her cluster knew.

“The sixth of June. Do you know who else was born on that day?”

Kiira made a move for the door, but he beat her to it, his wide frame blocking her only entrance and exit. He pulled out a photograph from the pocket of his jacket, a woman in a white blouse with black and blue shoulder-length hair. Someone had taken it on Mavis’ first day working for BPO. It was a remnant of her past she had gladly left inside her locker before she went rogue.

“Mavis Yang is the name she gave. Real name’s Mavis Fowler, according to her real passport. Fitting.” He tutted his tongue. “The sensate who worked with the Hunters.”

Kiira took a deep breath. Deny it, Mavis told her. “I don’t know who she is.”

“Born on the same day as you,” he continued, ignoring her lie. “And I have reason to believe you have a real… connection.”

Kiira shook her head. 

“There is one way to find out whether you’re telling the truth, Kiira.”

They were trapped. Mavis knew there was no chance Kiira could escape under the clutches of six armed man plus one doctor, and the office was on the top floor of the building, the windows barred from the outside in case of a burglary. A perfectly reasonable precaution, if only the circumstances had not been in the enemy’s favor.

“I thought,” Kiira replied, gritting her teeth, “the truth serum has not been invented yet.”

He raised an eyebrow at her retort. Mavis gave her a nod, no longer searching for a way out. Anything was better than simply giving in. Stalling gave them time to think of the next move. Don’t show them you’re scared.

“No, it hasn’t,” the Doctor admitted, “but I have something better.”

He lunged forward, pinning Kiira’s arms behind her back, pressing her face against the wall. She shrieked when she felt a cold needle being pushed into the side of her neck, a numbing liquid worming its way inside her bloodstream, making her senses tingle.

“We have the August 8 cluster to thank for this new and improved version,” Mavis heard him say. His voice sounded like an echo from far away. Her vision was blurring, the London office flickering out of view. 

When she could see again, she was back in the Paris hideout. She let out a sob. Everyone shifted in their seats, exchanging looks of horror.

“They’ve got her,” she said, voice trembling. “They’ve got Kiira.”

Chapter Text

 

July 18, 2017

Capheus told everyone the truth around midnight.

He had told Jela about his sensate connections once, albeit in vague terms. It was enough to convince his friend that a businesswoman in Korea, who had landed herself in prison, could pass on her martial arts skills through telepathy. But he had omitted a very important part of his secret: the fact that an evil organization, under the guise of a non-profit genetics lab, was hunting down people with his unusual brain anatomy.

Zakia, on the other hand, only had a vague idea that Capheus had flown to London to attend to an important matter with foreign friends she didn’t know he had. As a journalist it was her job to seek out the truth. But now that he had told her what he was hiding, Capheus could tell she was trying to come up with some other explanation. But real life demonstrations of power sharing, courtesy of the two Veracity-bound cluster-mates who acted as his bodyguards, could hardly be discredited. 

The performance was met with many slacked jaws and a round of applause from Amondi. 

Capheus dreaded breaking the news to the girl. It wasn’t something a child her age should have been exposed to, but after she’d seen him shoot a Bolger on stage, she started asking questions. Something told him she wouldn’t have believed another lie, even if he did come up with a logically coherent one.

“So you -” Jela croaked, gesturing between the guards, who were blocking the attacks from Mr Kabaka’s hired arms by alternating between two sets of completely different fighting tactics - “this - this is how you fought Superpower?”

“Well, it was all Sun. I didn’t know anything about fighting.”

“A member of your group - your cluster - helped you slaughter a dozen men while she was physically trapped in a prison cell? All the way in Korea?” Zakia asked after a few moments’ pause. She looked at him before turning back to the tablet on her lap, scrolling through the brain scans and genetics data that some Veracity hackers had sent over.

“I mean - it’s -” Capheus scratched the back of his head - “yes.”

Amondi’s eyes were wide open. “So you became a superhero one day, like Spiderman? Wow.”

He gave her a slight grin, though he couldn’t help but notice Mr Kabaka’s stern expressions next to the excited girl. Mr Kabaka was looking out the window, brows furrowed like he was expecting someone to break through the fence that separated the vacation home from the rest of the wealthy, secluded neighborhood. His bodyguards fell into a whispered discussion as the Veracity guards went off to shower after the power demonstration. 

“I didn’t want to tell you. I thought BPO wouldn’t come to Kenya, and telling you would only make you one of their targets,” Capheus said, his voice barely louder than a mumble, but he could tell Mr Kabaka was listening. He plopped down on the couch between his mother and Zakia. “My cluster warned me after I got back, that BPO’s moving resources to Nairobi and a few other places. But -”

“You didn’t expect an attack at your debate.” Zakia finished for him. “And you thought they were mistaken. You were hoping the attack wasn’t going to be in Nairobi at all.”

He turned to her, nodding, and she put her hands over his. It was a comfort to know that she wasn’t mad at him for withholding such a dangerous secret. “I thought they would invest most of their resources in Europe. Or North America -” 

And South America, he added, recalling the most recent attack before tonight. Come to think of it, they had at least one facility in every continent. Why wouldn’t they target Africa, too?

“- I know now that it was wishful thinking,” he continued, “but I just… I thought these problems wouldn’t be the problems I’d be facing back here.”

It was like coming home after fighting in a world war to lead a civil uprising. In his defense, no one in their right mind would have expected the two wars to overlap. No one would have expected the full impact from the battles to collide with each other and create the worst form of explosion.

“So what do these - these BPO people hope to get out of this attack?” asked Mr Kabaka.

“We think they’re going to blame the attacks on us. On sensates. We don’t know how.”

“Fear,” Mr Kabaka mumbled, still lost in thought as he scrolled through what looked like a list of addresses on his phone. Locations for other secret estates to relocate his family. “They’re exploiting people’s fear. People are going to turn on you.”

Zakia shuffled in her seat. “Do you think BPO may have contacted the media with some kind of evidence?”

He frowned. “Maybe. They have genetic data, brain scans, everything. These shooters today, they weren’t in control,” he repeated, even though he had reiterated BPO’s exploitation of Bolgers countless times throughout his explanation. “They were controlled by other sensates who worked for BPO.”

“BPO’s not going to tell the truth about any of this,” said Zakia. 

Everyone around the room was silent, including Amondi. She’d told Capheus she saw YouTube videos where citizens of Nairobi claimed to have been robbed by Van Damme. Why do grown-ups lie so much? she’d asked on his second day back. He couldn’t give her an answer then. He, too, had been hiding part of the truth.

“At least we’ll be prepared,” Jela reassured, gesturing to the direction where the staircases were. His wife Elena had gone up to settle their kids into a guest room. “Whatever lies the news has to tell, we’ll know the truth about you.”

Capheus nodded at his friend, a quiet appreciation of his loyalty. 

“You’ll have to go back?” his mother asked, though it looked like she already knew.

He made eye contact with Mr Kabaka. “You’ll have to relocate,” he said. Mr Kabaka sighed. “It’s best if I don’t know the new address. I’ll leave tomorrow.” He turned to the Veracity guards. “They can escort me.”

His mother opened her mouth to say something, but instead she shook her head, wished him good night, and, along with everyone else, started heading upstairs. No one would have been able to sleep soundly. But they all wanted to pretend they could.

“Come back to me,” said Zakia. “I want to hear the full story. The real story.”

A smile, his first real smile that day. “You better help us tell the truth to the press.”

“I’ll be honored,” she whispered, giving him a peck on the lips before she joined everyone else going upstairs.

When he thought everyone else had cleared out of the living room, he settled down on the couch again, welcoming the chance to ponder things over. But, to his surprise, Amondi popped back into the living room, sat down next to him, and tapped his shoulder.

“You said these bad people have superpowers, too?” she asked, leaning in like they were sharing a secret. But the frown etched on her face was something he had never seen before. It may very well have been the first time she realized the full extent of the danger she was in. The danger he was in. “It’s going to be hard, isn’t it?”

Capheus nodded. But the smile he had given Zakia lingered on the corners of his mouth. A means of reassurance, more for her sake than his. “Some of them, yes. But you know what, Amondi? We have something they don’t have. A secret weapon.”

She lowered her voice, glancing around to make sure no one was listening in. “What is it?”

He remembered how his cluster had stood behind him as he gave his speech. At that moment he’d felt powerful, even if the rational part of his brain had tried to make him second guess his decision to run for office. The eight of them had had pretty good luck making their ways out of impossible situations so far. Maybe, just maybe, the universe was granting them a favor. 

“A good heart.” 

*

Breaking news: Unidentified epigenetic factors result in mutation of frontal lobe. Doctors recommend physical check-up for early signs of disease. Symptoms include: hallucination, migraine…

It was two in the morning. Around the living room, no one made a sound as all eyes fixed on the TV screen, where the reporter was showing fMRI scans of people with merged frontal lobes. After they’d locked Lila into a windowless room in the basement with an ensuite bathroom, the cluster and company were reminded of the fact that several things had gone horribly wrong in one night.

It didn’t help that Capheus had lost touch with them. Under Will’s suggestion, he’d taken another Blocker on his ride back to the Kabakas’ vacation home. They’d decided not to break the news of Kiira’s capture until they at least had an idea of where she could be.

Right now no one knew which of the problems they should agonize over. They had deduced a long time ago that Veronika planned to reveal the existence of sensates to the world. Though not like this. But why was this even a surprise, considering what else they’d learned about Veronika over the past weeks?

“They’re trying to stigmatize us,” said Nomi. “They’re putting a label on us. Mutation. No one wants anything to do with a disease.”

Next to her, Amanita clutched her hands tight. “They’re gonna pull more of this shit. Next time they’ll say it’s a freaking violent mutation or something. You said they were gonna blame the attacks on sensates, Noms?”

Nomi nodded.

“There’s gonna be another attack,” said Lito. 

“But when?” asked Kala. “BPO won’t give us time to prepare. How soon?”

“People are scared now.” Lito pointed to the TV screen, where the reporter had moved on to the attack in Nairobi, showing a footage of people screaming as they scrambled to get away. “What if — and I know I’ve only seen this in movies but it makes sense, that’s how the villains make people so terrified — what if there’s another massive attack right after.”

Amanita thought about it. “Like, now?”

“Sure. Could be today. Or tomorrow, or maybe two days later, in another part of the world where people don’t expect this. Everyone’s gonna panic. They’re gonna think this -” Lito gestured at his cluster-mates around the room - “this ‘disorder’ is making people go loco.”

“It makes sense.” Will said, turning to Nomi. “Bug said there’s two other cities where he found BPO vehicles coming in? Berlin and… where else?”

She typed a few words into her laptop. “Beijing, he thinks. But wait -” a few more windows opened up, and Nomi inched her face closer to the screen as she scrolled through the interfaces, her well-practiced hand gliding across the trackpad - “he’s sending in some lists. Train schedules?” she paused, frowning. “Oh. Shit.”

Will walked behind the couch where she was sitting and peeked over her shoulder to look at the screen. “What? What is it?”

“Train bookings. They’re transferring passengers to Shanghai, by the looks of it. Just bought the tickets.” At everyone’s puzzled expressions, she added, “Bug kept a tag on the people he saw traveling in BPO the vehicles, the ones he suspects are Bolgers.”

“The next attack might be in Shanghai?” asked Kala.

Mavis, who had been silent since she’d witnessed Kiira’s capture, spoke up from the corner where she sat. “They’ll control them from the facility in Beijing. Usually works better if they’re kind of close, not halfway across the world.”

Will turned to her. “You mean the Bolgers?”

“Yeah. A sensates can wear one of those EEG-caps and control Bolgers from somewhere else. I’ve seen it done before.”

“Beijing and Shanghai?” Felix croaked. “Fuck. What about Berlin?” he asked, turning to Nomi, who was looking up something else from her laptop now, her frown deepening as she zoomed into what looked like a surveillance footage. “Your hacker friend guy said there’s people heading to Berlin too, right?”

Mavis thought about it. “They could be attacking Berlin first. In that case they’d control Bolgers from the London facility.”

After a few moments’ silence, Nomi jumped from where she sat, nearly dropping her laptop on the floor. But Amanita caught it just in time. “What is it, Noms?”

Nomi turned the screen so everyone could see. It was a grainy surveillance footage from a camera in Heathrow Terminal Three, but the two people sitting in front of the gate were unmistakable: a blond, butch man and a young woman in afro puffs. Karl Pelzer’s eyes were fixed on Kiira, daring her to make a run for it.

“Gate 52E,” said Nomi, scrolling through her phone now. “A flight to Beijing. Boarding in five minutes.”

*

That morning, all the employees at the BPO Chicago facility gathered in the atrium for the announcement, fully dressed in stark white Hazmat suits. No one uttered a word as the Professor instructed them to remove their masks.

Professor Kolovi took note of the blue and black name tags of the employees; sensates and sapiens. In BPO they worked together in true obligate mutualism fashion, the way Dr El-Saadawi intended. But all he could see was how the blues of the sensate tags stuck out like weed in a fern garden. 

The sensate employees knew they were outnumbered. If evolutionary history had taught the Professor anything, it was that humans had the capacity to do the unexpected if their life hung in the balance. In extremis was real. And right now the sensates were desperate as ever.

“You are probably all wondering why you are here,” he started, his voice calm, echoing in the atrium. “And don’t worry. I don’t plan to let you leave this meeting without answers.”

He turned to his left and waved. The two guards in black nodded upon his cue. They opened the door behind them and pushed in a chair on which a young man in his early twenties sat bound by black cords, his back stiff against the back of the chair as his fingers tapped against the armrest. His mouth was taped over; the Professor could make out a few muffled syllables, desperate attempts to plead his case.

“Here in BPO, our most important value is loyalty. Loyalty to the cause. Loyalty to the orders which you were given. But Carter here -” he gestured to the man as the guards pushed his bound chair on stage - “believed the best way to serve this organization was by distributing our products before they were ready to hit the market!”

He heard a few people snicker in the crowd. 

“Yes, a ridiculous notion. But alas, this poor man was driven by delusions. He believed the best way to assist our research was by providing sensates around the world with a means to hide from us.”

Carter glared. Professor Kolovi chuckled.

“In case any of you were still unclear -” he called out to the now murmuring crowd - “no, that is not the purpose of our Beta Blockers.”

Some people laughed.

“They are meant to offer a barrier against the mental distractions some of you inevitably experience. To assist the sensates among us — the Headhunters, researchers, and assistants — in the gathering of genetic data.”

A man in the front with a blue name tag raised his hand, the rehearsed cue for the next part of the demonstration. The Professor gestured for him to speak. 

“What happens if we abuse our Blocker privileges?”

“I am glad you asked.”

The guards brought out a wall of white canvas and placed it behind the stage like a backdrop. Professor Kolovi reached inside the pocket of his suit and pulled out a pistol. And aimed it at Carter’s forehead.

“Oh, just a quick warning,” he turned back and said into the microphone, keeping his tone light, nonchalant. “Things might get a little… Bloody.”

Carter’s eyes widened. He shook his head with a frantic desperation, convulsing in his seat as he rattled back and forth. The wheels of his chair jiggled under the movement of his thrusting body. That made the Professor smirk. He’d spent his academic career studying the impact of interspecies mass-genocide, believing it was a thing of the past, never to be repeated once threats like Homo asiaticus and naledi had been eliminated. 

But then he’d learned about Homo sensorium.

This planet had limited resources. And as harsh as it may have sounded to amateurs outside of his field, keeping other species in check was key to the survival of Homo sapien. Perhaps an all-around elimination of Homo sensorium wasn’t necessary. He saw the merit of Dr El-Saadawi’s argument for the interdependence of both species. 

But, he reminded himself as he switched off the safety and pulled the trigger, this was a world of competition. And it would be in his best interest for Homo sapien to assert their dominance in society before Homo sensorium beat them to it. Lila’s cluster had come a little too close to doing just that.

He wanted to study the way sensates interacted as a species outside of society’s awareness. It would have been hard to do so if he was dead.

In the atrium, all was quiet except for the sound of the gunshot.

Carter fell limp as soon as the bullet penetrated his skull. Trickles of blood slithered down from his forehead like vipers as the Professor turned to look at the canvas. The crimson splatter was a statement of the impending fate for the traitors among them. 

Someone screamed. A sensate, judging by the color of her name tag. She looked close to Carter in age, and she passed out at the sight of Carter’s blood on the canvas. 

Maybe sensates could feel the death of their cluster in spite of the Blockers. That would be an interesting subject to study once he got his hands on a cluster of eight. An ideal set of participants, as his data would be more generalizable due to the diversity of the sample.

Another sensate rushed to the woman’s aid. Typical, he thought, shaking his head. Take out one traitor, and the rest reveal themselves. He could never comprehend why sensates insisted on working in close proximity with members of their cluster. It only made them more vulnerable to elimination.

The Professor snapped his fingers and made eye contact with the dozen guards that came through the side door. He gestured at the man and the woman. He could sense the air of unease building up in the room as the crowd parted to make way. They whispered to each other, sensorium and sapien alike. 

“Take these two to the operation room,” he said, inching closer to the microphone so everyone could hear. “They will be more useful to our future operation as soldiers.”

*

“Through dental records, the Berlin Police identified that the remains of the skeleton found in the burnt vehicle. The remains belonged to a major sports sponsor, multi-millionaire Sebastian Fuchs…”

Riley held her breath as she made her way down the stairs to the basement. The news reporter’s voice reverberated in the hallway, a reminder of the kind of woman she was about to deal with. It was her first time conducting an interrogation, and as reassuring as Lito’s presence in her mind was, she was nervous. 

Don’t worry, hermana. All you do is get into her head through her emotions and see what memories she’s hiding. If she asks questions, I can help you out.

Will and Sun stood outside the door to Lila’s bedroom, fists raised in case she wanted to make a dash for it. That was another perk of being in a hideout that came fully equipped with every amenity: there was a windowless room with an en-suite bathroom that worked as a perfect prison.

“Riley Blue,” said Lila. 

Riley expected as much. Her reputation preceded her, both in the EDM fanbase and BPO. She didn’t expect to see Lila sitting cross-legged at her bed. She thought she’d at least be near the door, if only to irritate her interrogators. 

Will shut the door behind her and turned the lock again. From the shadow underneath the door, Riley could tell he was leaning close, ears alert in case Lila tried to attack her.

“Pity,” Lila continued, “I was hoping to see someone new from your cluster.”

Riley didn’t answer. Instead, she asked, “Why are you in Paris?”

“Mrs Rasal should really be more careful about picking hideouts.” Lila tutted her tongue, raising an eyebrow in amusement when Riley suppressed the urge to cringe at Kala’s title. “BPO knows all about her, thanks to Wolfgang. Where is he? I missed him.”

Riley could feel Lito forcing her to raise her chin high as she sat down on a stool near Lila’s bed. “Did you kill Sebastian Fuchs?” she asked. A rhetorical question, they knew. But any sign of emotion could be used against her, so she tried to sound nonchalant.

“I did what I had to.”

I guess so did we, Lito whispered. Riley allowed herself a small smirk.

“Right. I can see I didn’t find your most up-to-date hideout. Relocated, have you?”

“Wolfgang said you’re out of options,” Riley answered instead. “BPO betrayed you. Why did you think you could collaborate with them?”

Lila narrowed her eyes and inched her body closer so her face was only inches from Riley’s. “We have the advantage. All the higher-ups in BPO work alone.”

A smug grin. Lito was taking over again. “You had the advantage.”

“Is someone else here?” 

Footsteps echoed in the back of Riley’s mind, hard thumps against the cement. A manicured hand was feeling around for any semblance of another sensate’s presence in her mind. She’d learned by now that every sensate wormed their ways into others’ minds in a different manner. This tactic was, admittedly, more pleasant than the ever-present chill from Whispers’ mind, a sensation that always froze Will from the inside.

“You’ve been practicing,” Lila observed.

What would throw her off? Lila clearly wanted to get her to remember the reason she was guarding her mind against invaders. The most annoying response would be a shrug.

There was a small buzzing from the side of her mind Lila had occupied. A tiny shred of annoyance. Riley recognized the feeling. She’d felt the same way when Jacks would knock on her door, drunkenly slurring the lyrics to some English folk song at three in the morning. Before she could recall his face, though, she thought about Will outside the door, pushing away the image of her ex bleeding to death in Nyx’s apartment.

Kala and Mavis had theorized that her ability to identify and latch onto emotions stemmed from a talent for introspection. She’d spent a long time pushing away her feelings, trying to take every emotion she had and flush them out. She’d tried to overwhelm her senses so she had no space left to feel. But demons swarmed around the periphery of her consciousness, their names labelled in a shade of scarlet that reminded her of blood. Once in a while they’d find their ways in, the sound of their footsteps masked by the overwhelming beats of EDM. 

Kala knew about how her introspection skills came to be; Mavis, Riley suspected, had deduced it by now.

But for now Riley focused on the feeling of annoyance in her past, and nothing more. Jacks’ face became a blur. Lila was annoyed, and frustrated, and perhaps a little worried about how long they would keep her there. An easily identifiable mix (she pushed her consciousness back to the bedroom they occupied), evidenced by the way Lila pursed her lips and gritted her teeth beneath a mask of contempt as she scanned the room for potential escape routes.

Riley gritted her teeth, too, and kept her wide-open eyes trained on Lila. Lito appeared behind her and put his hands on her shoulder, grounding her to the reality that was Lila’s prison. Her next words were carefully chosen. “How much about the sapiens in BPO did you know?” she asked, “Before they turned their backs on you?”

And the annoyance was back, as much as Lila tried to cover up with a loud scoff. In her mind, she reached out with the same emotions from her own experience, feeling the magnetic pull that drew their emotions closer to each other. 

If there was one thing she realized about Lila after the fight at the restaurant, it was that the woman was not in full control of her emotions, but driven to act by them. Her anger gave her an impulse to attack; her desperation, it would appear, gave her an urge to seek temporary alliances with old enemies.

“Whose side are you on?” Riley asked again when the chaotic mix of both their emotions tingled her senses. Her hands were getting warm. She wanted to clutch them into fists. “The Headhunters’?”

“No one’s,” Lila said, seething. It only made her emotion more overwhelming in their shared mind. I don’t take orders from anyone, Riley heard her think.

Lito took over again, recalling Fuchs’ face from a memory they had taken from Wolfgang. “It wasn’t your idea to kill Fuchs. They made you do it.”

For a moment, a memory of Sebastian Fuchs flashed by the forefront of Lila’s mind. Enough for Riley to get a glimpse of amber scotch, a black evening dress, and the Berlin night scene from a drop-down window. When Lila spoke again, another emotion started swarming the empty spaces in their consciousness. Pride, albeit with an ill intention.

“I take orders from no one,” she said. “I killed him because I wanted to.” 

I wanted to, Lila repeated in her mind. But in their mind’s eye, it was Veronika’s face they saw. Just a flash of red lips and golden hair, but the chill that accompanied the memory was unmistakable.

“No.” That was Riley and Lito. By now they had both realized the truth. A rare grin crept its way up Riley’s cheeks without Lito’s influence. “You killed him because you had to.”

There was no response.

“You don’t need to say anything else,” Lito-in-Riley added. “You betrayed us. You betrayed all the sensates in this world. And now you’re paying the price.”

The memory of Lila’s conversation with Wolfgang was back in both their minds, and Lila wasn’t trying to mask her rage anymore. “We could have had everything. Sensates could have eliminated them all.”

Riley shook her head. “That would never have worked. It’s not one or the other.”

Lila rolled her eyes. “You so-called heroes and your wishful thinking. They’re going to turn on us if we don’t do it first. It’s already happening. You heard the news.”

“And you did nothing to stop it from happening,” said Lito, as a reminder of her incompetence. He and Riley felt her rage simmer in their chests. You’ve doomed us all. You, not them, he thought through Riley, making sure Lila could hear.

“You think I was the only one?”

Lito shrugged in Riley’s place. “Other traitors don’t have what we need.”

A pause. Lila laughed, nearly catching Riley off-guard. “I’m not going to let you interrogate me like this. You won’t get anything out of me.”

She’s trying to make you frustrated, Lito whispered to her. And then she’ll invade you. Riley allowed herself to raise an eyebrow, nothing more, as she made a move to stand up.

“I’m not the only one with secrets,” Lila added, just as Riley was about to rap the door three times, the code for letting her out, “you should keep an eye on Jonas.”

*

Despite her reputation as a Korean prison escapee, Sun insisted on coming along to invade the Beijing facility. Any objections were silenced when she pointed out that Wolfgang was too much of a target on BPO’s radar to join their upcoming raid, and Will was going to Shanghai to stop the next Bolger attack. 

There was certainly going to be fighting, if only with Pelzer. And no one wanted to risk being off Blockers the entire time just so Sun could visit and help out when the situation called for a physical confrontation. “And,” she added, “BPO doesn’t know about me. We can all wear masks and keep it that way.”

“They don’t know about me either,” Lito chipped in. “I’ll join you.”

Which meant Hernando and Dani volunteered to come as well, to Lito’s protest. After ten minutes of arguing, the compromised decision was that the two sapiens would join Will in stopping the attack in Shanghai. Just in case — though no one wanted to entertain the possibility — something went wrong in one of the two operations.

“I’ll join you two and Will for Shanghai,” said Mavis.

Will frowned. “But Kiira -”

“Will be in Beijing. I know. Pelzer’s gonna make her control the Bolgers with him. But they’ll be expecting me. They’ll be looking me on their surveillance system. If they see me with anyone, I’ll blow all our covers.”

“I’ll go to Beijing,” Felix volunteered. At their raised eyebrows, he flexed his muscles. “I can fight. And you need a getaway driver — we might have to steal a van.”

Dani shuffled in her seat, but didn’t say anything to protest. He shifted his gaze around the room and tried not to look her in the eye.

After they came up with a rough plan of action for both teams and all the travel documents had been finalized, Sun and Kala took over the first night shift. The first floor living room was empty save for Genevieve, who was hanging upside down on her favorite couch, reading Going Postal by the lamp.

As much as Sun worried about their upcoming mission, she was excited by the prospect of fighting again. Her muscles tingled as she recalled her favorite moves. She anticipated using all of them on whoever they came across in BPO. Kala turned to look at her.

“When was the last time you lost?” asked Kala.

“A while ago.” Sun thought about it. “I was at school. There was a boy, Yeong, who thought he was the best fighter.”

“You proved him wrong.”

Don’t I always?

From the couch near the lamp, Genevieve let out a chuckle before she turned her attention back to her book. They were all off Blockers to save whatever rations they could for Will and Wolfgang, whose minds were connected to Headhunters. It would be a few days before someone from the Archipelago could drop by and give them the chemicals they needed to make more Blockers.

Kala turned to face her. “How?”

Sun smiled at Kala’s genuine curiosity. She knew, from glimpses of the other woman’s childhood, that physical combat had never been her forte. But secretly Kala admired people who rumbled and came out victorious, and she’d fantasized about wreaking havoc herself. The car explosion in the garage at the Summer Gala was a dream come true.

“Back in second grade we started training at the same dojo on Saturdays, under the same teacher. All his brothers were trained there. And his family hired a private teacher, too. He used to remind me of that every time we were out on the playground.” Sun rolled her eyes.

Kala laughed.

Sun let Kala inside her memory. It was a crisp autumn day, and Sun had been sitting on a swing on the school playground, readying herself for the first push. She shuffled her feet back, long hair neatly tucked away into two pigtails with blue ribbons at the ends. But Yeong grabbed the rope on her swing and stopped her before she could kick off. 

In typical Sun fashion, Kala felt her throw him a death glare. What, she said, unamused.

The tournament’s next Saturday, he said. I’ve been practicing. I’m gonna win gold.

She shrugged. So?

His grip around the rope tightened, and by that point Sun was scowling as she tried to yank the rope away from his hand. You don’t think I can win?

Who says it’d be you?

Yeong scoffed. What, don’t tell me you think you’re gonna win.

I don’t see why not. We’re at the same level.

I know more moves than you. He let go of the swing, flexing his muscle. 

But Sun was in no mood to play now. She turned to face him again. It’s not about how much you know, she recalled from their last lesson. In their shared mind, Kala saw a glimpse of their teacher, a younger version of the same man who took care of her dog and gave her shelter after she escaped from prison.

I can fight better than you, he reiterated, louder this time.

Well, Sun started walking away, hiding a smirk. I guess we’ll see next Saturday. She picked up her pace and started heading back to the school building.

As she expected, Yeong caught up, and grabbed her shoulder so she could face him again. I’m going to win, he insisted. I am!

She shrugged off his hand. Sure, she drawled. Whatever you say.

I can beat you. I can beat you right now.

Sun rolled up the sleeves of her uniform. I’d like to see you try.

And try he did. 

Neither of them were experienced enough to engage in a full-on, movie-level epic martial arts battle. It was difficult for Kala to comprehend what exactly had gone on — Sun had trouble remembering her fights. In there memory there was a lot of shuffling on all fours as the two of them tried to grab at each other’s arms and legs, their white uniforms scrubbing grime and dirt off of the mats on the playground. 

Sun batted his hands away with punches and random kicks of her feet, but somehow, after a few minutes of rolling around, he’d tackled her from the side and locked her arms behind her back.

Ha! I won! he declared as they were pulled away by teachers. 

It was only then that Sun noticed a crowd had gathered around to watch. She’d sulked for the rest of the day. She couldn’t concentrate on the lessons. All she could think about was wiping that stupid smirk off of Yeong’s face the next time they came face to face.

When the memory faded, Sun heard Kala laugh. It felt odd to experience her past in a sensate way. She hadn’t revisited this memory in years.

“That was the last fight you lost?”

“The last one I remember losing,” Sun amended.

“How did the tournament go?”

“I won. I started practicing when I got home. I didn’t want to hear him brag about winning for the rest of the year. But I didn’t get to face him at the tournament.” Sun sounded disappointed. “He was defeated by someone else in the second round.”

Kala giggled.

From her favorite couch, Genevieve groaned as she inched off the seat. She laid her head against the carpeted floor as she squirmed further down, until her upper body was lying against the ground, the static making her red curls fly about like a vibrant mess.

“‘M alright,” she grumbled when Sun made a move to try and help her. She turned to her side and grabbed the coffee stand to hoist herself up. She laid her book on the stand and sat cross-legged on the carpet. “Done with the book,” she explained. “Go on, tell me ‘bout the time ya kicked ass. Much more excitin’ to hear it from the hero herself.”

Sun smirked, pleased at the eager audience. Back in her pre-prison days she never talked about her victories to anyone except her teacher. She decided she liked this change.

“I may’ve already seen it, your memory,” Genevieve clarified when she realized Sun was deciding how to bring her up to speed. “Right. By that, I meant I couldn’t resist snoopin’ and I saw the whole thing. ‘Cept the last part when ya lost, I zoned out there.”

Sun wanted to look affronted, but it was hard to be mad at a sensate admirer. So she continued, “After my victory, Yeong tried to say I shouldn’t have won.”

Kala looked like she wanted to roll her eyes. Genevieve let out a long, exaggerated sigh.

With a chuckle, Sun shared another memory. It was the Monday after the tournament, and although not many people at school knew about her victory, she was smiling as she headed off to recess, hoping to get a spot on one of the swings before the older kids came out. But a voice stopped her in her track.

Jae-joon let you win, said Yeong. In your last match. He let you win.

Sun crossed her arms. You’re just mad because he beat you in the second round.

He didn’t let me win. He fought me with his full strength.

She started walking off. Why wouldn’t he?

He just - he - Yeong paused, before blurting out, He went easy on you because you’re a girl!

Now he’d gone and done it. Sun turned around again, clutching her fists. Her expression didn’t change, but Kala could feel her muscles tick. Genevieve ooh-ed at the sign of trouble.

That has nothing to do with it, said Sun. She didn’t raise her voice. I beat him.

He didn’t wanna make you cry. Yeong walked up to her, cooing. Girls are all crybabies when they lose. He pretended to rub his eyes. Wah-wah-wah -

Sun slapped him.

The next thing she knew, they were locked in another fight. A crowd gathered as they started throwing kicks and punches. Yeong was a loud fighter; he yelped as he made every move. But Sun remained quiet and focused on jabbing all of his weak spots. She’d spent the last week practicing ways she could kick his butt before her father got home, and her muscle memories kicked in when she finally got the chance to fight him again. She wanted to get back at him for defeating her last time.

One of the moves she used to win against Jae-joon was a kick behind his knees. When she found an opening she did just that, and it knocked him over. Before he could get up from his kneeling position, she tackled down his upper body and sat on top of him. He squirmed underneath her weight, but she was unrelenting. 

You take that back! she shouted, pulling his arms behind his back. Take that back!

Yeong started crying.

Her father was far from pleased when he got called to the principal’s office in the middle of the day. Yeong ended up at the nurse’s with a dislocated shoulder, and Sun was suspended for two weeks. Her father yelled at her for the entire ride home, but she was too smug to care.

Her mother had patched up her bruises and re-braided her messy hair. And, after her had father left, she’d asked if Sun had won. It was one of her happiest memories.

Let’s not make a habit of this, Sun, her mother had told her before dinner. Not every problem can be solved by using your fists. And not every problem is worth hurting yourself for.

Sun supposed she had a point. She’d seen her father avoid some conflicts with his business rivals and toy with the rest with some kind of plan. Strategies, he’d called them. But when Sun went to bed smiling that night, she couldn’t help admitting that she liked using her fists much better. Even more so when her mom brought her to her teacher’s house in secret for extra training the next day (she’d complained about being bored), and he’d congratulated her on the victory.

But her mother had been out of her life for years. What would her mother have said if she’d seen how Sun turned out today? She hardly believed her mother, ever the pacifist, would have been able to come up with a less gruesome alternative for her current predicament. As Sun found her consciousness drifting back to her living room, she concluded that for the current problem, violence was the only choice. 

Kala and Genevieve were nodding, both silent as they listened to her thoughts.

BPO wasn’t one for negotiation. And, unlike her situation with Joong-Ki, she couldn’t simply walk away and hope some kind of authority could help bring them to justice. No one would have been able to save Kiira and the innocent would-be victims in Shanghai except for her cluster and allies. And if doing that required violence from their end?

“Then so be it,” Kala finished for her. 

When Sun looked at Kala again, she saw flames in her eyes, a flashback to the explosion at Wolfgang’s uncle’s house. It was the first time Kala realized there were some problems that words couldn’t fix.

“So be it.” Sun echoed her thought as she looked down to examine her hands, noting the injuries across her knuckles, new red scars atop the old.

She had not lost a fight for years. And she did not plan to, for years to come. 

*

Will started packing for Shanghai after Riley fell asleep. They’d taken the bedroom in the basement so he could keep an eye on their prisoner.

The lights in the basement lab were still on. Will found Henrik standing a meter away from the large cork board on the wall, muttering to himself as he moved a pushpin with a string attached. He pinned it on the other end of the board, on top of a photograph of a man Will had never seen. The way Henrik hunched over the hoard to hunt for clues reminded Will of his early days as a cop.

When Henrik noticed him watching, he gave a slight nod, still mumbling as he looked between the board and a notebook in his hand. 

“Oh, I was just -” Will started - “Leon said you keep firearms in the basement?”

It took Henrik a second to realize he was being addressed. He scratched the back of his head and smiled in apology, tousling the already messy curls on his head. “Sorry. Here.” He pulled out a drawer beneath the sink of the lab counter and handed Will a pistol. 

“Wouldn’t they find it, though? At the airport?”

“It’s just for the car ride,” Will explained. “In case someone’s on our trail.”

“Makes sense.” He opened the small safe under the drawer and took out a packet of bullets. “We don’t keep them loaded, you know, just in case -”

“Damien. Yeah, I figured.”

Henrik sighed. “Too curious for his own good sometimes, that kid. We don’t want him to hurt himself. Once he talked about going rogue and storming a BPO facility.”

“Oh, that’s -” it was Will’s turn to scratch his head, wondering what he could say to that.

“Concerning?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s what Gina said. That’s why we keep the guns unloaded.”

“So who is he?” Will put the pistol and the packet of bullets on the lab counter behind him and pointed at the cork board, at the photograph of the man where Henrik had added the pushpin. “Are these all Headhunters?”

“Not Headhunters,” Henrik explained. “These are the Blocker traders around the Paris area. They work with the Archipelago.”

“You know all of them?”

“Sometimes we get new traders, if one of them’s holed up somewhere. You never know with Headhunters scouting around.”

“How do you know if the new traders are, umm -”

“Not spies? We don’t. That’s what I’m worried about. It’s getting worse.”

“Worse?” 

“All these regulars are disappearing. Veracity’s been in contact. They said the sensates are all running low on Blockers.” He showed Will the notebook he was writing in. “There used to be five regulars around Paris, and only one of them’s still around.” 

Henrik pointed out a particular line of writing in his notes. His half-cursive letters were scrambled out of order, and nearly impossible for Will to decipher. Will wondered if the words were in a language he didn’t know.

“No one could get in touch with the other four,” Henrik continued, pointing at another part of his notes. Will tried to make out what it said. “The one I just pinned? He was in contact three days ago with the trader who’s still around. But not anymore. Everyone’s worried.”

“Right. Yeah.” Will lifted his head to look Henrik in the eye.

“Oh. It’s -” embarrassed, Henrik closed the notebook - “that’s why we have the board.”

Will nodded. He knew there must have been a reason his hosts came up with the alternative system, but he didn’t want to pry. Henrik picked up his thought.

“Do you want a Blocker? We have more in stock.”

“Oh. I was hoping to get a glimpse of Whispers. But I guess he’s Blocked himself off.”

Frowning, Henrik scratched his head again, worsening his case of permanent bedhead. “Whispers,” he muttered. “White hair? Round glasses?”

“You know him?”

“He tried to catch Gina. Went all the way to her school in Sydney to find her.”

“Wow.” Will recalled how close Riley came to being under the knife and suppressed a shudder. “Must’ve been a close one.”

“We were lucky. She was trying to board a ship out of the country. There was an Archipelago trader at the pier who noticed what was going on. He helped her get away.”

“Is that why you all came to Paris?”

Henrik nodded. “It was safest if we all stayed together, and Leon got his inheritance when his granddad passed away. We don’t have to worry about one of us being caught now. We can focus on helping the cause.”

“Thank you.”

“Gina would have died if it weren’t for other sensates. I wouldn’t wish that on any cluster.”

“Have you always been -” Will started, but stopped himself before he could blurt out something inappropriate - “close?”

If he was alone, Will would have groaned. Maybe it was late, and his brain didn’t fully registered how awkward this question must have been. He was, admittedly, far from well-versed in the protocols of meeting a new sensate couple. 

To his surprise, Henrik beckoned him closer, pulling out two stools from underneath the lab counter. He invited Will to sit down. “Since the beginning. I can tell it’s the same way with you and Riley, yes?”

If he wanted Will to blush, he succeeded. “How did you meet?”

“It was funny, actually.” Henrik grinned a little, a boyish grin, a stark contrast to the serious vibe he gave off when he was focused on an analysis. “We first connected when I was asleep. I thought it was part of my dream. She was arguing with someone.”

And here Will thought seeing Riley at that creepy abandoned church was an odd way to meet. But it would appear most first-time connections were under similarly unusual circumstances. “So what happened?”

“She was arguing with this guy she was dating.” And, at Will’s look of horror, “I don’t think she saw me — I was seeing through her eyes, you know?”

“Yeah, I get it.”

Henrik shared the memory. Will found himself looking at a man with shoulder-length beach waves, and he felt himself cross his arms in the body he was inhabiting. When he spoke, the voice sounded like Gina.

What’s your problem, Spencer? she asked, voice raised as she stepped closer to look him in the eyes. You just — you pulled me away in front of all my friends. Why do you always do that?

I just wanted to talk! He threw his arms up. We hadn’t talked in like, three days. You’re always busy with something. We never have time to talk.

Well, we’re talking now, Gina plopped down on her bed. Out with it, then. What’s the problem?

You make time for everything. Everything. You - you study, and you meet with your professors and your friends and that one bloke from your Monday lecture who’s always askin’ you stupid questions - he took a deep breath - but you can’t go out for one dinner with me?

Is that what this is about? Will felt Gina raise her voice. You think I’m ignoring you?

Aren’t you?

I’m just busy, she told him. Will could feel the tension riling up inside her chest, the stress of everything combined, suffocating her as Spencer continued to fuss. It’s the end of term. We weren’t partying when you came barging in. We were revising.

That’s exactly my point! He almost looked relieved, like he thought it was a perfectly reasonable complaint. You make time to help everyone with their homework. Bloody hell, Georgie, it’s like you’re runnin’ a fuckin’ charity. 

That was certainly not the response she was hoping for. Don’t - she put her face in her hands - don’t bloody call me that. Not now.

You don’t need to go ‘round helpin’ everyone. He walked closer and tried to put a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. You don’t have any time for yourself.

She scoffed. When she looked up again, her vision was blurred like she’d been tearing up. You mean I don’t have time for you

Well, you don’t.

That, of course, made things even worse. I made an effort to spent time with you every day, she was hollering now. Every day! For the whole bloody year! All I want is a few days of space, and you can’t even go one day without getting jealous?

The next voice Will heard was Henrik’s. It sounded like he was on the verge of falling back asleep. Seems like he’s not appreciating you, he slurred.

What? Gina asked, out loud. Her boyfriend said something in return, but it became a muddle of incoherent yelling as Henrik spoke again inside their mind. 

He’s just trying to get affection out of you, he told her, stumbling over his words. Will knew Henrik was wondering whether he was crazy, giving advice to someone he believed to be a figment of his imagination. Like, he’s - you’re devoting a lot of time, right? And he’s spoiled. He gets mad when you can’t give him attention. What’s he given you?

To his surprise, Gina heard every word he was thinking. She got up and opened the door to her room. Out, she told her boyfriend, who yelled out what sounded like a protest in return. I can’t - it’s - I just can’t deal with this right now.

A day later she saw Henrik’s reflection in her mirror. Three days after that, she broke up with Spencer, and never looked back.

Woah,” was all Will could say when he found his consciousness back in the lab.

Henrik smirked in triumph. “Yes, basically, I helped her break up with him.”

“Is that why you got together?”

“Maybe.” He thought about it. “But we were friends first. She helped me with my course work.” He smiled. “That’s just the kind of person she is.”

“I’m happy for you.”

“I’d have quit school if it weren’t for her.”

“How come?”

Henrik opened the notebook, filled with illegible scribbles. “I have dyslexia. It’s a nightmare when I’m trying to study.”

In their shared mind, Will found himself looking at a desk with open textbooks and loose pages of illegible notes strewn around the place. Henrik picked up one of the textbooks and tried to concentrate on a paragraph, and the letters within the words started scrambling around, switching places as he set his eyes on them*. Groaning, he shut the book again.

Hey, said a voice behind him. He turned and looked Gina in the eye, not bothering to hide his frustration. They had been talking for a few days, trying to convince themselves that they weren’t going crazy, that the other person was real. Need help with that?

I’m going to fail, he told her.

She chuckled. With that mindset? Probably.

Great.

Not a visual learner?

I could be. He shrugged. With pictures, charts, that kind of thing. Not words.

She furrowed her brows for a few seconds. Will felt her consciousness taking over Henrik’s perception. Ahh, she said, as her mind retreated back to her own body. Right. Dyslexia. We’ll have to try something different then.

You don’t have to -

Nonsense. No one’s gonna fail on my watch. She snatched the book he was trying to read from his desk and sat cross-legged on his bed, letting the light from the window help her see. Sit, she ordered, patting the space next to her.

He chuckled as he made his way over. Yes, ma’am.

Gina started reading the text from the beginning, pausing to confirm that she wasn’t losing him. And for the first time in days, the words started to make sense. He could recall what he’d heard from his lectures. He’d taken notes, of course, but the most infuriating part of his dyslexia was that he had a hard time reading his own writing.

By the time the sun had set, her voice was getting raspy. Henrik felt her mind drifting off as she scrambled for the light switch, and he reached over to turn on the lamp for her, his arm grazing her chin. Let’s call it a day, he said, taking the book back.

Then Henrik was at Gina’s place, putting water into a kettle. A few minutes later she huddled on her couch with a mug of honey chamomile tea in hand, and he sat next to her. He put an arm around her as they started to talk about fun things they did as children. When the tea cooled down, she took a small sip. Her eyes widened.

Alright, you’re definitely real.

Henrik chuckled. What gave it away?

I’m rubbish at making tea.

Will didn’t notice the memory had ended until he’d turned his head and saw Henrik smiling, lost in thought as he stroked an old ring on his left index finger. “This was my father’s,” he explained. “He was a teacher. Helped a lot of kids. I wanted to be just like him.”

“Did you have to quit school? When you -” Will looked around the safe house, located in a city which none of Henrik’s cluster used to call home.

“We all did. Well, Miki and Leon didn’t go to university, but we’ve all been living a different life since we came two years ago.”

“Do you think you’ll go back? After everything?”

Henrik thought about it. “I’ve changed a lot. I want to go back and finish my degree and start teaching, but -” he paused, shaking his head - “there’s no other way to say this except ‘I’m not the same person as before’.”

“No, I get it.”

Some days Will would picture himself getting his job back, getting his life back, in the near future when this was all over. But after eliminating the biggest threat to his survival, a feat that the rest of the sapiens in the world might never even know about? There was no way he could go back to being just a Chicago cop. 

For starters, he’d realized, somewhere between hiding out in Amsterdam and hopping on that train to London, that there was no way he could envision a future without Riley.

Henrik nodded. “Gina and I, we’ll have to finish school together. Maybe we can go to America, or somewhere else new. At least language won’t be a problem,” he said, trying to lighten up the mood.

Will didn’t even realize he had shared this fantasy of his. There was an air of sincerity about Henrik that made Will lower the barriers he put up around his mind, despite only having known each other for five days. 

Wait, he reminded himself, his cop instincts kicking in as soon as he realized Henrik wasn’t the only person who could hear his thoughts, Whispers might’ve slipped in. Shit.

He closed his eyes, concentrated on locating all the other minds currently occupying his thoughts, and breathed a sigh of relief when he found no sign of the Headhunter’s presence. Henrik handed him a glass of water and a small bottle of black capsules from their storage, which he graciously accepted. He downed a Blocker.

“So,” Henrik asked, his serious visage disappearing as soon as he broke into that boyish grin again, “when are you going to ask her?”

“What?”

A quirked eyebrow.

“What - how -” Will looked incredulous, “Did I show you something?”

“No.” Henrik shrugged, the signature grin still etched on his face. “Unless there’s something you’d like to show me?”

With a fellow sensate who seemed to have been able to sneak inside his head, there was no point denying anything. After Henrik promised not to tell another soul, Will gave in. 

When he entered his bedroom again, Riley stirred in her sleep and mumbled something in Icelandic, but didn’t wake. The old backpack he’d brought from Chicago was still lying by the foot of their bed where he’d left it. 

As if on instinct, Riley broke into a smile in her dream when he pulled out the box from a hidden pouch on the bottom left corner of his bag. It was a just-in-case hiding space he’d paid a tailor to sew in a few years back should he have needed to hide something small, and he thanked his cop habits for that. He closed the door behind him as quietly as he could and got back inside the lab.

Henrik’s eyes widened when Will opened the velvet box. 

Inside was a rose gold ring** with a fire opal in the center. The opal was surrounded by leaf-like decorations on the sides, decked with small diamond accent stones. Will had seen it in the window of the vintage shop in Amsterdam near their hiding place, the first time he’d gone outside after Whispers was put on ice. He’d known immediately that it was the one, and he’d turned away before Riley could see where he was looking.

“When did you -” Henrik tilted his head, frowning - “I thought you two were always together. How did you get this?”

“She went to her friend Vincent’s for a few hours to get the Blockers tested, after we got out of the museum.” His cluster had already told the hosts about his encounter with Croome a few days back. “That was when I went back to the shop.”

“Wait, you brought your credit card on the run?”

Will tucked the box away and reminded himself to put it back into the hiding spot later. ”I didn’t. But I had some savings back home. And, well, Nomi helped me… get access to them.”

Henrik laughed. The entire safe house was more than familiar with the antics of their hacker friend and ally by now. “When are you planning to break the big question?”

“I don’t know when all this -” he gestured to the pistol he’d left on the lab counter - “will end. I don’t wanna wait that long.”

“So, when?”

“After we stop the Bolger attack in Shanghai — wherever that’s gonna take place, Nomi and Bug are still looking into that. And infiltrate the Beijing facility. And bring Kiira home.”

“Shouldn’t be too long, now.”

“It shouldn’t,” Will agreed, with as much courage as he could muster. He refused to consider the possibility of failing.

Chapter Text

July 19, 2017

In a movie, the best course of action would be to make a run for it.

But this wasn’t a movie. And Kiira was painfully aware that if she attempted to escape from the Headhunter (who had held her captive, forced her to put on a smile and hand over what was most certainly not her real passport when they boarded), BPO would have caught up with her before her Blocker wore off. Before she could attempt to try and contact Mavis, who was most definitely worried out of her mind.

She bit the inside of her cheek in an effort to suppress the racing thoughts rushing through her head, but it was getting harder to concentrate on her plan of action as the plane neared its destination, the Beijing Capital Airport. 

There was still an hour or two to go, but in the air, with most of her fellow passengers asleep, it was unlikely she could get any assistance. She supposed she could try and write a secret message behind the bathroom mirror and signal a flight attendant to check inside. The problem was, she would be putting someone else at risk, too. 

She could see why Mavis kept a switchblade tucked in her boot. Though no sane security guard would have allowed her to bring one into a plane… Which would have provided her with a perfect chance to escape. Or at the very least, be banned from all future flights, and then she could hope BPO wouldn’t ship her over to the target location like cargo. 

Still, she fantasized about blades, her eyes tracing the Morgan-inflicted scar down the left side of his cheek. As a student who had devoted the last few years of her life studying biology amongst other areas of science, she knew all the regions of Karl Pelzer’s body that, once stabbed, would grant him the maximum amount of pain. Nearly fatal pain, but not quite, just enough to make him struggle for a few hours before his eventual death as he bled from his wound. Right now this thought was the only thing keeping her calm.

Damn, Kiira, the world should be thankful you’re choosing the good path, said the Mavis voice in her head. The memory of her cluster-mate made her heartbeat calm a little. You’d have made a freaking scary torturer.

She suppressed a smirk. What would Mavis have done? Surely, as a Veracity spy, she had run into sticky situations now and then?

Mavis would probably say something humorously self-deprecating, cheeky enough to let the other person roll their eyes and hope to ditch her as soon as they got the chance. As if on cue, Karl raised an eyebrow, all gray-eyed glare as she turned to watch him. She tried not to blink too much. Or tremble. Or both.

“Don’t think about it,” he said under his breath, eyes glancing around the cabin to make sure no one else was listening. “You’ve nowhere to go.”

“Well,” Kiira tilted her head, putting on her best Mavis impression, “by technical terms, Mr Pelzer, I do believe you are mistaken. We are, in fact, on a vehicle that is transporting us to a location in another continent which is most certainly not nowhere.”

He breathed through his nostrils. As Mavis had worked under Pelzer’s scrutiny for all of her two years as a spy without raising much suspicion, Kiira knew her Mavis impression had touched a nerve. It was hard to stop herself from smirking.

“Don’t try to play smart with me.”

“I assure you, Sir, I am acutely aware this is not a game.”

“You’ll regret saying this when I’m done with you.”

His responses were predictable. She was almost disappointed. 

The Veracity hackers told her the Headhunter pursuing Capheus’ cluster was more theatrical in his delivery of death treats. Like Jim Moriarty, who liked to broadcast his master plans before his enemy’s planned (and often failed) demise. It was comically cliché that villains would come to regret telling the hero their plans, but repeat the same mistake over and over. Perhaps Pelzer had learned from his fictional predecessors. Kiira ought to have given the Headhunter more credit.

“I’m afraid I’m rather unclear on the specifics of my eventual death,” Kiira replied, echoing her thoughts in a way reminiscent of a dry textbook as her mouth moved before her mind could fully process what was being said. “I believe the plan was to utilize my abilities for one of your operations before this final stage?”

“Who told you?”

“A simple deduction, really. The fact that the organization is investing in my travel indicates my purpose in the next mission extends far beyond that of a lobotomized soldier.”

He sneered. “You sound like fucking Milton.”

“From this evidence”, she continued, ignoring his comment, though in her mind she pictured the white haired man she saw in Capheus’ memory, “I’ve come to the conclusion that BPO -” she said the acronym louder, hoping someone would hear, and he pinched her arm and glared to tell her to quiet down - “is rather short on sensorium manpower. And the future operations require a way of control, something unachievable with sapien allies.”

Pelzer didn’t dignify that with a response.

“You need me alive at the moment,” she whispered as her mind assumed full control over her speech again. “Because this operation cannot fail. And this operation cannot fail, because the sapiens you answer to will not be pleased.”

“It will not fail,” he told her. “I will make certain of it. And you will get what you deserve when I am finished with you.”

“What I deserve is freedom,” she said, seething. And Morgan deserved the same thing.

Pelzer could have been scoffing, but he did a decent job hiding it. She supposed it was up to her to do more prying. 

She turned to him again. “My only question now is, why is this operation so important? Yes, I know they’re all important, but this is the first time you needed extra help commanding the - What do you call them? Soldiers.”

And, when he didn’t respond. “Does this have to do with the news release? With the so-called brain mutations — which, as a medical student, I have to say, is far from an accurate description of an epigenetic brain disorder -”

A tight hand clutched her wrist, urging her to stop talking. He stared her down, growling. “How did you hear that?”

Kiira put on her best Mavis-smirk. It gave her a sense of power to know that despite her predicament, there were little details she could hold over the Headhunter. She decided to remember this trick for a rainy day. “I could hear your radio from the back of the van you locked me in. Yes, I was awake by then.”

With that said, she turned to face the screen in front of her, and clicked through the channels of available shows. Before she put on her headphone, she added, “I know what this operation is about. You’re going to blame this on sensates. Again. Only you’ll link it to the made-up disorder this time, too.”

His expression was stoic as ever, but he turned away from her. Smirking, she decided to stop provoking him for now. She had faith Mavis and the August 8 cluster would have gathered enough resources to locate her destination. She may as well go along with Pelzer’s plan and gather information that could assist in bringing down the corrupt organization before they can do any more harm. 

The game is on, said two voices in her head. One sounded like Sherlock Holmes, and the other, her brother Liam. She remembered when they used to huddle up on the couch for Sherlock marathons and try to solve the case before the end. But, to her disappointment, real life cases didn’t give way to nearly as many clues.

As the Sherlock theme played, she looked at the screen and prayed for an escape plan.

*

“Have you come to let me out?”

Jonas sighed as he laid down a bowl of something savory on the desk in the corner of Lila’s room. He turned to look at the Neapolitan, taking in the way she tried to maintain her air of dignity, chin raised and gaze sharp, despite the tousled updo and wrinkled jumpsuit she had not taken off for days. 

She smirked when she realized he was watching, a provocative quirk of her lips — an unsettling expression she’d picked up from Veronika.

“I suppose the answer’s no,” she tried again.

He made a move to leave, but she hummed and shuffled in her bed to give him space. Instead of sitting next to her, Jonas just stood, frowning. “Like I have told you before, Lila, I am not going to take a side.”

“It looks like you’ve taken theirs.”

“They took action without consulting me. Their decisions, as always, were made regardless of my opinion.”

“What would you have said?”

A pause, before he sat down and turned to face her. “It was a rash decision, to seek out what you believed to be their hiding place alone. Yes, Calum was with you -” she cringed at the name - “but driving a van was hardly going to help in combat.”

Cal thought they’d be more open to negotiation. And I agreed.”

“And the rest of you?”

“Veronika kept an eye on everyone, Marcela especially. They couldn’t leave their rooms. Cal happened to be in Paris for another assignment.”

For once, Jonas actually looked intrigued. “I’m surprised they let him wander about. And you. After what happened with Sebastian Fuchs.”

“You’ve heard, have you?”

“I know you, Lila.” He looked into her eyes, speaking in the way a mentor would when they wanted to talk their protégée out of doing something rash. “I know you’re prone to impulsive acts of violence when a plan defies your expectation.”

She wanted so badly to lash out at Jonas, who sat unmoving in his spot as he continued to gaze at her with that knowing look. But lashing out would only prove him right. And she was not hasty in the way he believed. She wasn’t. “I believed it was a strategic move. Veronika said she was looking to trade with Sebastian.”

“The Reciphorum has been distributed?”

“Yes.” And, as an idea struck, she sat up straighter and resisted the urge to smirk. “But before that, the product was tested on a prisoner. An Egyptian, I believe.”

Lila heard Jonas swallow, and when he spoke again, she knew he was doing his best to hide the inflection in his voice, the one that made his emotions vulnerable to prying. “Veronika had no doubt given you the information as a test,” he said.

“It was. She wanted so badly to believe I could be trusted.”

“You were playing a dangerous game, Lila. I warned you once. But you believed you had the advantage.”

We did. We still do. Help me find a way to reach them. Tell me where we are.”

“It would be unwise for me to compromise my whereabouts.”

His cowardliness would be the death of them all. “You’re not helping us!” she raised her voice, hoping she was loud enough for someone to hear her outside the door. “You promised you’d do what you can. You said so before they kidnapped you and made you their slave -”

She halted her yelling when she noticed no change in his expressions, no glance towards the direction of the door, and bit back a curse. Why wasn’t he worried about being exposed? 

Jonas extracted an electronic device from his pocket. “No one is guarding this door. Someone escorted me in, but they’re all upstairs now. It’s lunchtime.” He nodded at the bowl he left on her desk. “I told them I’d try and get some answers out of you. But my efforts would prove to be unsuccessful.”

She grabbed at his shoulders in an effort to hurt him, to get some kind of reaction out of him. “You’d leave me here to rot?”

“I am simply doing what is best for me to survive,” he cut in, his voice steady, as he glanced at her hands on his shoulder. Too late, she realized she had proven exactly what he’d said about her temper. 

Seething, she let go. He nodded and continued, “You know as well as I how precarious our survival is in the current climate. I promised to do what I could to keep all of you alive, but not at the cost of my own life.”

“All you care about is yourself.”

He shrugged. “I believe we are much the same.”

“No.” She moved away from him to stand near the door. “I am not doing this for myself. It’s for all of us.”

“What do you plan to do to find your missing members?”

“My plan,” she retorted, seething, “is none of your concern. You’re not going to help.”

Jonas was unfazed. She tried not to look disappointed. “I’ve helped before. I warned you not to get too close to the likes of BPO. You didn’t listen.” 

He stood up and walked to join her at the door. With a wave of his hand, he gestured for her to step aside. She did so grudgingly. 

“You’ve made your decision. They’ve made theirs. And I’ve made mine,” he told her. He pushed a button on the device, and spoke into the microphone on the side of the contraption. “Ready when you are, Will.”

When he let go of the button, Lila asked, cocking her head towards the closed door, “Aren’t you afraid I’ll tell them the truth?”

“You won’t,” he said. 

She hated that he was right. They heard the sound of Will’s footsteps, along with two others, coming down the stairs from the far end of the basement. Always with the reinforcements. 

She scoffed. “How can you be certain?”

“Because our secret is the only thing keeping you alive.”

*

When Felix and Dani parted at the airport, he’d wanted to tell her to be safe. Usually he didn’t have a problem saying what was on his mind, but for the first time the words became a jumble as soon as he opened his mouth. She’d raised her eyebrow and given him a questioning glance. He’d settled for muttering something that sounded like “see you soon”. 

Upon hearing that, she’d smiled, her first time in days.

Felix kind of wished he didn’t say anything, though, because as soon as the plane took off, he found himself locked in a confrontation with Lito and Sun. Lito and Sun, of all people.

Lito turned to him and tried his best to glare. Felix could tell he was doing a dramatic impression of one of his deadly characters. He’d seen a couple of his films during his late night guarding shifts, and though he was no Conan, he was pretty impressive. More so in person when he was trying to scare Felix shitless.

“What are your intentions?” asked Lito. He exaggerated his accent, the r’s and t’s, and the sharpness of it made him sound antiheroic. In the window seat next to Lito, Sun glanced in their direction with an amused smirk before putting on her headphones.

“My intentions?” Felix tried not to cringe. Instead of confronting the man who had twice the amount of muscles over him, he tried for something suave, a distraction. “We’re on a suicide mission. My intention is to not get my ass kicked.”

Lito was, of course, unamused. “What are your intentions with Dani?”

Felix shrugged, trying to buy some time as he figured out what he wanted to say, as Lito stared him down with a newfound intensity. If Felix admitted he found Dani hot, he had a feeling he’d get his fucking ass kicked before he even set foot in the BPO facility. So he settled for, “She’s fun. We shared a few drinks.”

Lito shifted in his seat and inched closer, bearing down on Felix like a stuck-up bouncer at a high-end club. “Fun?”

Fuck. That was not the right thing to say. “She’s a good friend,” Felix amended. “We got to know each other. She told me about cool stuff she did with you and Hernando.”

It was Lito’s turn to be silent. He turned to face the front, dark brows locked in a Wolfie-like brood. Finally, he said, unconvinced, “Is that all? You want to be friends.”

“Wait, -” Felix paused, remembering the day he’d given her a scare. Shit - “did she say something? Does she want me to back off?”

“Why would she -” Lito turned to him with a sudden jolt. Felix nearly jumped in his seat. “What did you do?”

Cocking an eyebrow, Sun paused the movie she was watching and turned to watch their exchange. Felix started opening and closing his mouth, aghast and embarrassed, without uttering a word, which made Lito’s frown deepen.

“I -” he finally spoke. “Alright, I didn’t know it was gonna freak her out so much -”

What did you do?”

Felix explained the situation to Lito in what he thought was incoherent mumbles, but Lito seemed to have picked up the gist. With a sigh and an ay, Lito leaned forward and put his face in his hands. Confused, Felix turned to Sun with a questioning glance between her and Lito, and she shook her head.

“Look,” Felix tried again, “Dani looked like she thought I was gonna hit her. I didn’t want to scare her again. So I backed off.”

Lito lifted his face from his hands. “You backed off?”

A nod. “Yeah. I tried to give her space.”

“When? When did this happen?”

“Like, five days ago? Why?”

Another groan from Lito’s end. “She was upset,” he said, more to Sun than to Felix. It seemed to be a common habit among the cluster, turning to each other when they wanted to confide. Wolfie and Kala, he remembered, surprising his pang of jealousy, were the same way. “She was upset and I didn’t know why. She’s been so quiet and I didn’t - ay, I’m terrible, Sun. Terrible. She said she was fine but -”

“Wait,” Felix interrupted, “she was upset?”

“She was upset you’re not talking to her,” Sun explained.

“But I do talk to her.”

Sun shook her head. “Not like before.”

“What do you mean?”

She simply looked at him until he came to his senses. Groaning, Felix suppressed the urge to plant his own face into his palms. Why the fuck was he so embarrassed to admit he’d always been flirting with Dani? It wasn’t like it was his first time flirting.

And then, as Felix watched Sun put a hand on a still-appalled Lito’s shoulder, it hit him. 

For a few weeks now, Felix had come to see Dani as a friend. He’d come to know her well, through all the conversations they had as they sat around trying to get drunk: tall tales of street fights and car chases and damsels weaved their ways into their conversation, stories of his past he’d exaggerated to make his life sound epic. 

She’d break into a smile every time he recounted another one of his victories in life, and it made him wish the stories were all true. He wanted her to be impressed. And he was fucking happy whenever she was, because that gave him hope.

“You don’t just want to be friends,” Lito finally declared, jolting Felix away from his train of thought. It was like Lito could see inside his head, too. Which was beyond creepy.

It would have been so easy to deny it, to deny the fact that he still had a crush on Dani, and hope to get this awkward conversation over with. But if there was anything Felix learned about Lito in the past few weeks, it was that the man was a fucking human lie detector. 

“Maybe not,” Felix admitted. Then, in an attempt to appease the other man, who was beginning to look a bit murderous, “Hell, it doesn’t matter what I want. She’s clearly not interested. I’ll back off.”

Lito tilted his head, thinking. Felix let out a breath he didn’t realize he was holding. “I don’t know how Dani feels,” Lito finally said. “I can’t make decisions for her. But I don’t think this is the best time for -” he gestured to all of Felix - “for this. For her.”

And Lito was right. The timing (Felix realized as he looked around the cabin and reminded himself they were flying to China to kick Headhunter ass) was beyond shit. Even if they were victorious in their current mission, who knew how long it’d take for them to take down the big bosses at BPO? Could be a year. Could be less than a month.

After the eventual victory, though, they’d all part ways and go back home, try and patch up the remainder of their old lives before moving on. And, on the second day they met, Dani had already made it clear she wasn’t looking for a fling.

“I get it,” Felix said, entirely serious. “I’ll back off, leave her alone.”

“Well.” Lito looked at Sun again with an expression Felix couldn’t gauge, but Sun seemed to have understood. She nodded and gave Lito a meaningful look. “I don’t think that’s what Dani wants, either.”

“You’re making me more confused.”

“She wants a friend, Felix. Someone she can talk to, have a drink with… Someone she can trust, besides me and Hernando.”

Felix thought about it. “I don’t know. I’ve made things weird.”

“Talk to her.” Lito patted him on the back, his hand firm. “She’s not mad. She misses you.”

Dani. Missing him. Fancy that.

Felix nodded before turning back to face the front. Frowning now, he wondered how the fuck he would even go about trying to initiate such a conversation. “Hi, Dani, so I know you’ve been through some fucked up things in your past and I’m an idiot and I made it worse can we forget all this shit and start over?” -

But starting over wasn’t going to change anything. They’d still be stuck in circles, trying to hide from each other: Felix with his tall tales, Dani casually avoiding all mention of shit in her past that Felix had no intention of prying. But Felix realized she hadn’t led a perfect life before all this superhuman BPO madness. The world had screwed her over, as much as it did with him. Maybe even more. 

In some way, they were both kind of broken. And if he still wanted to be her friend, the only way to go forward was to tell the truth. No more lies.

*

Dani had her eyes closed, but Hernando knew she was still struggling to fall asleep. She had her head on his shoulder, and he put his arms around her, a feeble attempt to shield her from the passengers crossing the aisle on her right. Next to him, Will was frowning at nothing in particular, no doubt going through all their plans and preparations for the upcoming mission after Mavis had fallen into a restless sleep next to him.

He and Dani had been silent as they took in every word the two sensates were discussing as the plane took off. They had tried not to worry about Lito, who was on his way to Beijing, preparing to storm into a place Hernando pictured as a literal fortified palace. But Lito hadn’t looked as on edge when they’d said goodbye at the airport. It wasn’t his first time on a mission like this, a mission where the only acceptable option was to come out alive.

“You should try and get some sleep,” Will told him. “We’re gonna need the energy.”

Hernando nodded, stroking Dani’s hair as she drifted off. “You too.”

Seconds later, they turned to face each other again, a silent admission that they couldn’t.

“I know you’re worried. But Lito knows what he’s doing,” he reassured.

If they weren’t in such a dire situation, Hernando would have smirked at the irony. He used to take pride in being the more put-together of the two, and the way he’d ramble on about his favorite subjects always brought a smile to Lito’s face. Hernando had studied many things, but “ways to prevent a terrorist attack” wasn’t one of them. Lito, on the other hand, was well-versed in matters of life and death.

“That’s why I’m worried,” Hernando confessed. “Knowing a lot about something doesn’t account for all the uncertainties.”

Will sighed, conceding. “It’s the same for Riley and me. She wanted to come along. I didn’t want to put both of us in danger.”

“Lito didn’t want us to go,” Hernando recalled. “He was trying to talk us out of it last night. We were trying to talk him out of it, too. But he told us he had no choice.”

“Mm.” Will tilted his head. “There’s always a choice. But Lito wouldn’t have backed away.”

He had to agree with that. Over the past year, Lito had made it clear that in matters of true heroics, he was no coward.

“Me, neither. Or Dani,” he said. “We wouldn’t have let him fight alone.”

The corners of Will’s lips quirked up into a smile as he looked over at Hernando’s shoulder, observing the way Dani slumped against him, inching closer as she mumbled something in her sleep. Her blanket slipped off her shoulder, and Hernando grabbed the corner before it fell to the ground, tucking her back in.

Hernando, too, was smiling. After spending so long in hiding, wishing the world hadn’t made their relationship so complicated, Hernando found it comforting to talk openly about Lito to someone who knew him equally well, if not more.

“I know there’s no way we’ll be able to account for all the uncertainties,” Will admitted, after a moment of silence. “But that means BPO can’t, either.”

Certainly a sound argument he couldn’t refute. Hernando raised an eyebrow. “You’re right. They don’t know much about us.”

Will nodded at his backpack, inside which he’s tucked away the fake travel documents Nomi and other Veracity hackers had helped procure. They would meet up with more contacts at the luggage claim to pick up their guns. “They don’t know we found out where it’s at,” Will said, keeping his voice low. “We just have to find a way to -” he looked around, making sure no one else sitting nearby was listening in - “get inside. Without raising suspicion.”

A solemn nod. Hernando tried to keep it vague too as he added, “And find the people we’re looking for, before it starts.”

“Nomi sent us pictures,” Will reassured. “It’s not impossible.”

“It’s not impossible,” Hernando repeated. 

It’s not impossible. It was something he used to say to himself before he’d start preparing a lesson plan about an artist he knew nothing about. Or something he used to tell his students whenever they shied away from an academic challenge. Never something he thought he’d say en route to a confrontation with brain-controlled assassins, armed, at the moment, with nothing but false identities and an escape plan.

But this was the only way to make the world safe for Lito and the other sensates, it was something Hernando knew he must do.

*

“I know where Kala is.”

Rajan covered the microphone before he swore out loud. He had hoped Ajay would have let things go by now. There were no more Ganesha statues delivered to his apartment, so he had assumed his ex-business partner had taken his negotiations elsewhere. But the past had a way of catching up to him when he least expected it.

“I know you know she’s in Paris,” he tried to stall, clenching his fists. He hoped he had come off as confident. Reassured.

“I have eyes and ears around her hideout,” said Ajay. 

Kala wouldn’t let herself be used as bait like this. She was too smart for that, and he knew either way she would not have gone down without a fight. She wouldn’t. Still, he held back a shudder. “So do I.”

“You’ve been in contact with her?” Ajay sounded surprised. 

Rajan frowned. He’d called the apartment twice more after his last conversation with Kala, but no one had picked up. But the guards Rajan hired had told him the location was secure, so he had assumed she just wasn’t in the mood to talk. “Of course I am. She’s my wife.”

He heard Ajay chuckle. “The guards you hired, they give you daily reports, don’t they? You believe them when they say Kala’s safe?”

“I hired them. I expect them to do their jobs.”

A pause from the other end. He imagined Ajay shrugging. “Circumstances arise. Maybe someone else had bought their allegiance.”

“How do you mean?” Rajan tried to sound unconvinced, nonchalant.

“You don’t know Kala as much as you think, Raj.”

The old nickname made him cringe, and he slammed a fist on his desk and bit back a groan as his muscles clenched in protest. “Who are you to say what I know?”

“Of course, she can’t help it. It’s in her nature. Her DNA.”

Rajan massaged the bridge of his nose. “Is this a threat?”

“A warning. For old time’s sake.”

Rajan sat up in his chair and frowned, listening closely. He didn’t respond, simply held his breath as he waited for the dreaded words to come. 

“My business partners can use your financial support, Raj. If you agree to help, no harm would come to Kala. She can enjoy her little time in Paris, and you two can reunite someday, if that’s what you wish. You know I am a man of my words. And I know you will deliver.”

Ajay hung up before he could get another word in. The phone clattered against Rajan’s desk as he buried his face in his hands. 

He knew Ajay was lying. He had paid a dozen men to secure the hideout, some under aliases, some some dressed as innocent civilians going about their day. No one could possibly identify all of the people he’d hired. Could they?

Agent Singh had told him Ajay didn’t work alone. When he’d heard about the Russian business partner, whose name the federal police had yet to uncover, he had assumed it was simply a person who provided Ajay with funds for his less-than-legal operations. Though now he suspected something larger at play — a higher power behind Ajay that gave him the guts to deliver on his threats.

Ajay made it sound like Kala was targeted by something specific to her, something irrelevant to her relations with Rasal Pharmaceuticals. But what could it be? What was it about Kala that he didn’t know?

If Ajay had been monitoring the hideout as he claimed, calling Kala now would only let him know Rajan had believed his threats. But in a couple days he would try calling her again. And he would get some answers.

*

Will was landing in less than an hour, and Jonas knew Riley was scared for his life.

“I believe Will has shown himself more than capable of handing physical confrontation,” he said, joining Riley on the couch in the living room. 

All was quiet except for the music coming from Leon’s room, muffled by his door. Perhaps the artist was working on his latest painting. Or perhaps loudness was the way he processed his emotions, compared to the deathly silence from the other bedrooms.

“I know.” Riley sighed. “He’s a cop. I know he can fight. But what if -”

Riley stopped herself, but Jonas knew what she wanted to say. He had learned about her past through his connection with Will, and he sympathized with the way her trauma had led her to jump to the worse conclusions.

“You’re afraid to face the worst possible outcome.”

She nodded. 

“I felt the same way with Angelica.”

He saw her flinch. The cluster had seen visions of Angelica killing herself. He knew it wasn’t something they could forget, if his own nightmares were any indication.

“What was her plan? Before she had to -” Riley paused. He knew what she wanted to ask.

“Angelica wanted to fix her mistakes. Her research into Homo sensorium and how it links to the ecosystem may have led to inventions that threatened the existence of all sensates, but she believed she had time to reverse the effects. She wanted to seek out our old allies.”

“Those who believed in El-Saadawi’s idea?”

He nodded. “She wanted to start over. Carry out her research in a way which benefits sensates, rather than assist their annihilation.”

“She turned her back on Whispers,” Riley recalled. Five years ago, he’d told them. He wasn’t surprised they hung onto every word.

“After Sara Patrell, she started questioning his ways. When he assassinated members of a cluster who once worked with Dr El-Saadawi, it was the final straw. He reminded her of the neural graft, all the things her research had accomplished, to try and convince her to stay loyal to his cause, because he believed the benefits outweighed the costs.”

There will always be unfortunate necessities*,” Riley recalled. “That’s what he told Will.”

“Angelica was beginning to realize what it would cost to see her research come to fruition. But she wanted to find a way to go around it — to carry out her research outside of BPO’s influence and avoid the consequences. She was a visionary. And she used to believe Whispers was the same.”

Jonas remembered the times she’d wake him in the middle of the night to discuss a new theory of how Homo sensorium came to be, and how many other secrets about their species they had yet to uncover. I hope to understand us one day, she’d say to him as they trekked the woods near her cabin at night, hunting for inspiration. And then I’ll find a way for the sapiens to do the same. For sapiens and sensates to understand each other.

Riley was silent now. She leaned back on the couch to look up at the ceiling, lost in thought. Jonas was curious to hear what she was thinking, but he had been meticulous with his Blocker dosage in case of a slip-up from his end.

The truth had a way of revealing itself, he knew. But now wasn’t the right time.

It was incredible how one person’s death could change people in so many ways. He’d seen it in Will’s determination to get to the truth, and he’d heard Angelica’s revelation about the perils of her research. Obligate mutualism played out a lot better in theory, but to enforce it among humans who had spent centuries driving each other apart in the most brutal ways? It would be challenging, if not impossible. And perhaps the more people investigated what made sensates and sapiens different, the more it would drive them apart.

He’d witnessed it in Lila. After her rebirth she’d jumped at the chance to assist in BPO’s mission, in their research to determine what made her and the rest of her cluster different. Her eagerness, born out of a need to validate her superiority, had led to her downfall. Learning about sensacity had driven a wall between Lila and other sapiens. And other sensates, too.

Riley turned to look at him. He sometimes suspected Riley could read his thoughts, more so after Mavis told him about her gift with memory-seeking. Riley had a way of sensing people’s needs. It made her a good friend, a thoughtful cluster-mate. And, he admitted to himself, a most unexpected but powerful enemy, should she find herself in conflict.

“Jonas, do you think it is ever possible for sensates and sapiens to get along?”

“Fear is a powerful thing. Not everyone in society will be accepting of our differences, judging by the brutal sapien history throughout the centuries, all over the world. But there will always be people who are open to change, the driving forces of societal breakthroughs. The sapien allies you have now, Riley, will be crucial to the obligate mutualism in a future society where the existence of sensates is known.”

“How long will it take?” she asked, more to herself than to him.

“Like any progress in society, it would be slow. And I suspect Veronika’s exposure plan had given her and other anti-sensate sapiens a head start.”

“But it’s not the whole story,” said Riley. “Someone needs to tell the world the truth.”

“They do,” he agreed. “Angelica would have wanted the same thing.”

“What about you?”

“I believe,” Jonas chose his next words carefully, echoing his thoughts without giving away too much, “the truth has a way of revealing itself.”

He hoped Riley’s cluster — and Lila’s — would be there to witness the unmasking, should the day come. And, if he was fortunate, he would be there, too.

Chapter Text

July 20, 2017

“There are four soldiers,” Pelzer told Kiira, shutting the door behind them. Locking her in. “We each take two. Shoot as much necessary.”

It was getting harder and harder to pull a Mavis, to try and irritate the Headhunter the best she could. “Never thought I’d hear someone say this out loud,” she remarked, hoping her voice wasn’t shaking as much as the rest of her body. “You’re really lowering the bar for human decency, with all these attacks.”

He glowered, but didn’t dignify that with a response. 

Kiira glanced around the stark white room. It looked like a dentist’s office, with two reclining chairs instead of one. And instead of lamps over the chairs, there were wired caps with nodes on the joint intersections — EEG caps. The counters around the room were cleared of all objects. She wondered if she could find something weapon-like from a drawer.

Of course, all this would prove to be taxing when her hands were literally tied. 

“Is this necessary?” she asked, raising her cuffed wrists right under his view.

“Don’t be smart with me,” he growled. He took out the gun tucked under his belt and aimed it at her head. “Sit down.” He cocked his head to the reclining chair. 

Slowly, she obliged. She inched up the chair, leaning her back against the recliner, and felt Pelzer grab her handcuff. He uncuffed one of her wrists and bolted that cuff to the armrest of the reclining chair. Gray eyes piercing in a scalpel-sharp gaze as he glared, daring her to try and make a break for it.

“The match starts in fifteen minutes,” he said, leaning on the stool next to her recliner. He grabbed her free wrist with his hand, sneering as she let out a small gasp in protest. “And you will make your move when I tell you to.”

Pelzer reached up and pulled down the EEG cap, cold against Kiira’s head, pressing her hair against her skull. The nodes on the cap tingled as she registered their presence, buzzing in anticipation like a predator taunting prey.

*

Of course Mavis to remembered to bring disguises. 

By that point, Dani wasn’t surprised when the younger woman pulled out her makeup bag and two wigs from her backpack. Will and Hernando opted for hoodies and sunglasses. They had to meet a trader from the Archipelago for the guns they’d requested at baggage claim, and so, to keep up appearances, they all checked in their bags.

And now, fully armed again, with tickets Nomi had printed in hand, they wandered outside the Shanghai Stadium, debating how they could get in with guns in tow when there were airport-style security checks lined up in front of all the entrances. Dani swore under her breath. Most of the audience had already gone in. It was getting dark, and the tennis match was starting in ten minutes.

“Oh yeah, I forgot how obsessed China was with security,” said Mavis. “Can’t get inside anywhere without getting scanned. Even the subway.”

Will and Hernando resisted the urge groan. Dani muttered ay under her breath. “You couldn’t have mentioned that earlier?” asked Will.

“Sorry. Must’ve slipped my mind. It’s been a while. I was five when I left.”

As if to answer their prayers, a black car turned around the corner. Someone from inside the stadium went over and opened the door, holding it open for three men in suits, who marched out of the car and made their ways into a VIP entrance.

Aha,” Mavis muttered, under her breath. She beckoned the three of them close, and nodded at the entrance where two men stood guard on either side of the door. “Right, I think we might have to pull a Lito.”

It would appear Lito’s trickster-y ways had caught on with his cluster and allies. If lives weren’t at stake, Dani would have laughed.

“Ooh, I got it,” Mavis said, turning to Hernando and Dani. “You two, go up to them and pretend you’re lost foreigners.” 

She pulled out a small writing pad from her bag and a ballpoint pen, and jotted down a random address using an apparently child-like scrawl. She added a phone number underneath for good measure.

“Here, ask them for directions to this non-existent street. Will and I will hide, knock them out when they’re distracted.”

Dani took the slip of paper from Mavis and looked at the fake address. From her knowledge she couldn’t tell if they were real characters. “You expect them to buy it?”

A shrug. “You’re foreign. They’ll think you made a mistake when you’re copying this. And trust me, people love to help foreigners.”

She proved to be right, for as Dani and Hernando pointed emphatically at the piece of paper and asked for direction to this made-up place with careful English, the guard they approached gestured the other guard to come over and try and decipher what these “foreigners” wrote. A few seconds later they were out cold, knocked out by their own batons, courtesy of Will.

The two of them stared at the crumpled, limp forms of the guards, but Mavis and Will sauntered past without batting an eye. Fucking hell. It was like they’d done this before. They probably had. Lito probably had, too.

“Who knew my Chinese lessons could come in handy?” Mavis remarked, ushering the two of them in with a wave of her hand. As they exchanged looks of horror and followed suit, Dani wondered if she’d ever get used to Lito’s cluster and their ally’s vigilante ways.

Luckily they spotted some men in suits making their ways to what looked like the viewing platform. Someone in the hallway stared at the four of them as they made to follow suit. Mavis turned to Dani, nodding as she looked between them and the suspecting man. With a smirk, Dani raised her head high, eyeing the others to follow suit. 

They tried to act like they belonged there, even though they had no idea whose match they were seeing. Thankfully they passed without any more problems, and before long, they were scanning the front rows for potential Bolgers.

“How’d you know they’d be sitting in VIP seats?” Hernando whispered.

“They’re gonna be armed,” said Will. “Can’t smuggle those in with all that security.”

Only half the seats were filled by the time the game began, and they considered themselves lucky BPO didn’t choose a hardcore match with world-famous players. They found four unoccupied adjacent seats in the third row to keep an eye out. They’d thought to look for the signature scars across someone’s forehead, but almost every other person in the audience seemed to be wearing a baseball cap with a logo up front, unfortunately covering their foreheads. Damn those rip-off souvenir shops.

One player scored fifteen. The viewers cheered, some standing up to wave their hands and scream in joy. The perfect opportunity for a man in a sports jacket in the first row to stand. and aim a gun at the audience behind him.

Before Dani could yell out in warning, Will had already leapt over the second row seats and tackled the Bolger shooter to the ground, wrestling the gun off him. He shot the Bolger as the people nearby screamed. The audience in their row scampered away towards the exits as the audience from the rows above moved closer to the source of the gunshot, talking over each other, trying to figure out what was going on.

*

Through the eyes of the lobotomized woman she was commanding, Kiira watched as the second soldier under Pelzer’s control snuck up behind Mavis. 

The soldier her cluster-mate was currently battling was under Kiira’s control. Kiira tried to make his arm go slightly limp and give Mavis a better chance of winning without Pelzer’s notice. As she did so, she felt a jab of pain in the back of her skull. Kill her, said Pelzer, or you will be the one to die.

Kiira would prefer they both lived, so she tried to reach out to her cluster-mate in their shared mind. She could make out faint whispers of Mavis’ voice, shadows of the thoughts running through her head. Mavis’ Blocker must not have worn off completely: Kiira couldn’t get in a word of warning before she felt another burst of pain in her head, felt another pinch on her handcuff-bruised wrist. 

So she uttered a silent apology as she made the soldier elbow Mavis on the shoulder. She knew Mavis had learned to shoot, though physical confrontations, namely wrestling, was hardly her strong suit. Mavis was batting the attacker’s pistol away with frantic jabs of her fist, while her other hand grabbed at the man’s wrist, trying to twist his right arm around and make him drop his weapon before he could fire. 

Kiira’s consciousness was with the lobotomized soldier at the sports stadium in Shanghai, but back in the Beijing facility, she felt a cold pistol pressed against her temple, in between two wires of the EEG cap wrapped around the top of her head. 

Stay on task, Pelzer warned, his voice in her head giving her goosebumps. She felt him grab her wrist tight, his calloused hands bruising her flesh, threatening to break her bone. Let your soldier sit still, lay low. Don’t stand up to shoot until I signal.

The pistol was still against her temple when she felt Pelzer’s mind drift away. The soldier Pelzer was controlling was a mere foot away from Mavis now. Kiira wanted to call out. She tried to command the woman she controlled to open her mouth, before she realized lobotomized sensates could not speak.

A man in large glasses and a beard threw a punch at the sneak-attacker from the side, knocking him over, and Kiira resisted the urge to cheer, knowing Pelzer could still fire his gun. She watched as a woman rushed to help the bearded man, whom she called Hernando, and together they wrestled the gun from his hands. Pelzer was much more advanced with his ability to command his soldiers, and he made his soldier crawl back to a standing position and take out the army knife tucked in his belt.

Hernando raised the gun he took from the soldier, but his hand was shaking so much, it didn’t look like he could shoot. 

The soldier was advancing, the blade pointed to Hernando’s stomach, almost making contact with his body. The woman came to his aid. She pulled out her own gun from her purse, aimed with a practiced precision before Pelzer could make the soldier could react, and pulled the trigger. She didn’t flinch as the bullet pierced right through the center of the soldier’s neck.

Kiira heard Pelzer swear as his soldier crumpled into the ground.

Mavis, too, had figured out a way to unarm her opponent. After much struggle, she was able to corner him. He tried to raise his arm and shoot Mavis in the torso. With a grit of her teeth, Mavis kicked his groin, and he recoiled in pain. She took the opportunity to push his hand so his gun was pressed against his ribcage. And, her finger over his, she pushed the trigger, and watched the blood seep out from the wound without a change in her expression.

The security guards rushed down the aisle, and it was time for Mavis and her allies to make a break for it. Mavis slipped from the guards’ notice, as most of their manpower was focused on the man with the dusty hair — Will, she recalled from Capheus’ memory. Someone had probably witnessed him shoot a man dead and reported him.

Three lobotomized soldiers dead. Kiira’s was the last one left.

Kiira felt Pelzer tug at her arm. Go, he whispered, his breath fogging up against her ear, making the ends of her hair stand up. 

She made her soldier stand. No one noticed. With Pelzer watching, she suppressed the urge to let the desperation overwhelm her senses. Glancing around, she couldn’t find the bearded man and his woman companion anywhere. She hoped they’d escaped, too.

Shoot, Pelzer whispered. 

Shoot who? Kiira asked, trying to delay the inevitable.

He sent forth an image of Will. Him, you foolish girl. Then the guards. 

Kiira was running out of options. She had faith Capheus’ allies would have figured out where she was. But if she didn’t do anything, Pelzer would no doubt have pulled the trigger on her. Then she’d be dead. So would Will, once Pelzer took control of the soldier’s body.

She tried to keep her mind blank as she made her soldier raise the gun to the level of Will’s head, slowly. Someone shouted hey! behind the woman she was commanding. She felt Pelzer’s clutch on her wrist again. Shoot! Pelzer thought. Now. Or I will shoot you.

As she pulled the trigger, she tilted her chin up, commanding the woman’s hand to do the same. The bullet flew right above where Will’s head was and hit the wall behind him. A noteworthy enough distraction for the security guards to turn their heads, for Will to break away from their clutches and make a dash for the exit.

Back in the Beijing facility, Kiira slid down in her reclining chair as Pelzer pulled the trigger, his bullet missing her head by a mere inch. She tried to squirm away and make a run for it, but Pelzer’s hand was tight around her wrist. His scarred face twisted into a sneer as he pushed his pistol against her forehead, ready to shoot again -

Only to turn away at the sound of someone kicking the door open. In shock, he let his hand slip, dropping the pistol as he took in the sight of three figures in Hazmat suits storming in. 

It gave Kiira an opportunity to yank her arm away from him. She slid off the chair, dropped to the ground on her knees, and crawled to take cover behind the reclining chair, as best she could with her left wrist still cuffed to the armrest. A fight between the three figures and Pelzer commenced as more BPO guards rushed in to the Headhunter’s aid, and Kiira reached to pull open the only drawer on the side she could reach, praying she could fish out some sort of weapon before one of the BPO guards noticed.

*

Sun found it exhilarating to be back in action.

Bulky Hazmat suits aside, she thought one person against four guards was a bit of an easy start. Still, she gave it all her might, using one guard as a human shield as she fought off the other two. It was a little challenging to get rid of the guards when there were no railings from which they could fall to their potential deaths. She’d have to make do with knocking them unconscious, to her disappointment.

The other voices became a blur as she twirled her body, using her limbs as traps to snare her opponents in place before she threw them down. She thought she heard Felix and an unfamiliar woman’s voice, one that in all likelihood belonged to Kiira. He was shielding her from the blows of the guards, batting them off as best he could with the baton they’d nicked from the security guard at the front desk.

Another grab at her shoulder. Sun turned and punched the attacker in the face.

Lito roared from the door before he rushed in and went straight for Pelzer, tackling him down. As strong as the Headhunter might have been, no one could withstand the impact from another grown man’s body. Judging by the thud (Sun thought as she threw another guard — or maybe it was the same one, she didn’t bother to remember faces — over her head), the two men had taken their fight to the ground. 

She heard Spanish curses mixed with German. The men were probably rolling around, trying to have a go at the other person’s head, or vital organs. Or both. 

It was lucky the Hazmat suits came with a bit of head protection.

She heard a gun go off and suppressed a cringe — the Headhunter, who Lito was fighting, was the most likely one to carry such a weapon — though the bullet sounded like it hit some kind of metal. So Sun allowed herself a three-second pause as she stood up higher and looked around for her cluster-mate. 

Lito was grabbing Pelzer’s wrist, pushing the direction of the gun Pelzer held away from doing any harm. Turning around again, Sun saw no more guards making a go at her, though Felix was still fighting off two guards from where he crouched, shielding Kiira as best he could with his lean body. Kiira was crouched in a fetal position, protecting her head and torso from the direct line of hit — a clever means of self-defense.

The obvious choice, of course, was to help Lito. She leapt right in front of both of them and kneeled, made a grab for Pelzer’s forearm, twisting his arm 180-degrees towards the outside. There was a crunch as the Headhunter yelped in pain. Pelzer tried to kick Sun with his leg, but Lito straight up sat on top of his kneecaps, pushing him down with his weight. 

Sun made eye contact with Lito — or as best she could, anyway, through the visors on their stolen Hazmat suits — and nodded. 

Turning to face Pelzer, she pushed herself up and kicked his head. His head hit against the foot of the recliner chair, and lolled when she let go of his arm. Lito stood up as well. 

Pelzer didn’t move. He appeared to be unconscious. 

The guards who were attacking Felix and Kiira decided Sun and Lito made for better targets. As Sun tried to dodge the attacks from one man, finding him a surprisingly adequate fighter, compared to the others, Lito was having a bit of trouble with his opponent. Before she knew it, the guard had pinned Lito’s arm behind his back. Felix came to his aid, throwing a punch at the guard’s face. The guard’s grip around Lito’s arms tightened as he turned his head away, his nose sprouting blood.

When she had her back turned to look at Lito, the guard Sun was fighting threw a punch from behind. It would have knocked her out, had she not moved her head a little to the right on instinct. She turned and grabbed the guard’s left arm, pulling it over her shoulder, twisting until she heard a snap. Screaming, he nonetheless wrapped his leg around hers, kicking her thigh with the bulk of his heel. 

Sun reached her other arm behind and searched for the weapon tucked under his belt. Feeling a handle, she pried it out before elbowing him on the stomach, knocking him to the ground. But she didn’t find a trigger. Because the guards didn’t carry guns.

They carried tasers.

Her fingers located the button, and the man was holding his broken arm, inching away from her as best his could. Before she could make the probes shoot out, she felt a shudder. Her arm convulsed as if she was about to be electrocuted — or already had been — as she felt a faint echo of pain, a tug on the skin underneath her chest. 

It was like the probes had jabbed themselves into her skin. Like they did on her last night in prison, during a fight she’d mostly forgotten, the memory shoved away in a corner of her mind. She remembered the metal piercing her skin. She remembered feeling like her muscles were ripped apart from the inside with a sharp hook. And then she’d fallen unconscious. Vulnerable. Her body at the mercy of the men who had tried to kill her and almost succeeded.

Her breaths came out short, but there wasn’t enough air, and each time she gasped their chest constricted a little tighter. She could feel a pounding inside her chest and a buzzing inside her head. Tiny light dots were flickering in and out of her vision. Tingles crawled up her skin as she became numb, forcing her to stay in place like she’d frozen.

The guard she was aiming at was inching further away, towards the direction of the door. He was trying to stand up. 

She was losing

Sun felt Lito’s hand on her shoulder, a slow, gentle pat. He was whispering something in her ear, though the words sounded far away. Lito pried the taser from her hand enough so the button was exposed, and held her arm steady as the wires and probes shot out and latched themselves onto the guard. Sun closed her eyes when the BPO guard began convulsing, feeling the pounding in her chest like echoes in a cave too dark for her to see. She didn’t know how long it took for echoes to fade. 

When she came to her senses again she realized she could move, and there was no taser in her hand. She turned her head in time to see Pelzer — Pelzer? she though she’d knocked him out — grab Lito by the collar and shove him against a corner. And rip off the mask, exposing his face in its entirety.

Lito Rodriguez,” Pelzer rasped, spitting blood from his mouth. “What a surprise.”

Before Pelzer could rip the taser away from Lito’s hand, Sun knocked him out from the side, and his head hit the wall before he slid down. Unconscious for real this time.

“Let’s go,” Sun said, hoping her voice didn’t shake. It did.

She offered her hand to Lito and pulled him back to a standing position. They exchanged a look, but didn’t say anything else. They made to head out after Felix picked the lock of Kiira’s handcuff with a paperclip he found and freed her from the reclining chair, helping her up. Before Felix and Kiira could follow suit, Kiira tugged her arm free from Felix’s hold. She pulled open a drawer and fished out a scalpel.

And raised it above Pelzer’s head.

In an instant Mavis and Will appeared, their Blockers apparently worn off. Sun heard footsteps and shoutings some distance away inside the building, more BPO guards rushing to their coworkers’ rescue. Still, Kiira didn’t step away. She crouched down, hoping to get a better aim at the Headhunter’s temple.

Kiira. Mavis stepped forward, crouching down next to Kiira, grabbing her forearm, avoiding the bruised parts near her wrist. You have to move. They’re coming for you.

“Not before I finish.”

Sun nearly doubled back upon hearing the tone in Kiira’s soft, lowered voice, so similar yet so different to the version in the memory Capheus shared. The look in her eyes — dark brown, hardened — sent a shiver up her spine. Never in Sun’s imagination could she’s imagine a woman with Shiro’s warm smile shoot daggers with her voice.

They’ll catch you, Mavis tried again. Please. Listen. They’re coming. Leave. Now.

Kiira - Will made a move to crouch down, too, but Mavis shook her head. It’s sensible, Kiira, come on, she tried again. 

Kiira paused and turned to Mavis, frowning.

Kill him when there’s no one else to catch you for what you’ve done, Mavis thought.

“But what if we -”

He’ll be there. When we find the Chairman and the others. He’s gotta be there too.

The cluster-mates looked each other in the eye. Mavis gave Kiira a slow nod. Trust me. You trust me, don’t you?

After a second, Kiira stood, tossing the scalpel on the ground as she dashed out the door after Sun, Lito and Felix. She shot one last glare Pelzer’s way as they reached the emergency staircase, barely out of sight as BPO guards rounded the corner.

*

Felix swerved the van around the lanes without a care in the world.

Lito wondered if he’d picked up driving techniques from Capheus after their last mission when they’d rescued Wolfgang. He would’ve asked if he wasn’t so fucking scared for his life. Kiira was next to him, clutching their shared seat belts like it was a lifeline — there were only three seats up front in the van, and they had to squeeze. 

On their right, Sun turned to look at the side mirror outside her window. “They’re coming closer,” she said, the shaking in her voice from earlier completely gone.

Swearing, Felix slammed his foot on the pedal, but the BPO car seemed to have beat them to it. The black car passed by too quickly for Lito to make out what model it was. A race car, no doubt. Fuck race cars and their impossible speed limits.

The car turned and parked horizontally in front of them, blocking the highway. They hadn’t made it onto the main road to the airport yet. There were no cars behind them.

Out came a security guard in a ski mask who pointed their long-ranger at the driver’s window, right in the direction where Felix’s head was. Lito heard him whimper. The driver from the BPO car came out as well, dressed in identical disguises, rounding their way over to join their companion.

The first guard pulled at the collar of their jacket, and when they spoke again, their voice was magnified, booming across the road.

“Out. Hands above your head,” they said. They pronounced each word in a clear-cut American accent, though their slight roll of the r made Lito frown. There was something familiar about the way the guard spoke, he thought as he followed his other three allies out the car, hands raised as instructed.

The guard walked closer until they were an arm’s length from Sun, who looked like she wanted to lunge for their throat. Then the driver stumbled on their way to join their fellow guard, and Lito heard them mutter shit under their breath as they clung to the front of the car, trying not to fall over entirely.

To Lito and the others’ surprise, the first guard rolled their eyes like their colleague’s clumsiness was a simple inconvenience, before letting out a small chuckle. They walked over and hauled their fellow guard up by the armpit. As Sun made a move to attack, the first guard grabbed the top of their ski mask and started pulling it off. Curious, Sun halted.

The mask came off to reveal a woman with short brown curly hair that stopped right below her ears, which bounced a little as a breeze drifted by. She beckoned the driver over and pulled on their mask, her other hand patting a little dust off their shoulder. 

“Andy, honey,” she put on a playful tone of annoyance as the second mask lifted to reveal a man with short, sandy hair, “always so clumsy. Ay, what to do with you.”

The four of them stood there in shock, before turning to each other, frowning as they tried to figure out what the fuck was happening. Lito opened his mouth to say something, but all he could do was croak as he pointed a shaky finger at the woman.

“The other cars are gonna catch up with us in -” the woman checked her watch, unfazed by their lack of verbal responses - “dios mío, three minutes. Alright, come with us, all of you. Gotta ditch your van.”

She beckoned the driver closer, pecking him on the cheek before saying, “Better go turn on the engine, Andy. Gonna have to drive faster.” Then, turning back to the four of them, “Hola, Lito. And friends.”

Lito hadn’t seen her with short hair since she’d turned six and her mamá had insisted she grew it out. But the impish twinkle in her brown eyes was unmistakable. She winked, greeting her best friend with a mischievous smirk.

María?

*

The authorities hadn’t caught up after Will, Mavis, Hernando and Dani escaped from the Shanghai Stadium, and their flight was boarding in half an hour. It was the nearest one Nomi could book — she’d phoned and told them she’d picked the flight with two layovers around Europe before Paris, to throw potential stalkers off their trail. 

Dani and Mavis returned from the restroom with new disguises in place, and Will and Hernando changed out of their incriminating clothes. After their escape, some Veracity agents had picked them up at the rendezvous point. While three of them exchanged pleasantries and information with the agents, Dani had been silent.

The last time she’d fired a gun was over a year ago, at a movie set where she worked with Lito. It only shot blanks, and the guys from special effects took care of the blood. The last time she fired a real gun was before she’d left home for college. She’d been relieved to think she never had to do it again.

As Mavis and Will fell into a hushed conversation, Hernando turned to her with a questioning look. She forced a smile, a half-heartedly one.

“Dani,” he started, his voice gentle, “what happened back there was -”

“Please don’t.”

A sigh. “Okay, so I didn’t know you could shoot. I mean I did think maybe you could, but I never pictured - what I mean is, it doesn’t change anything.”

Ay, Hernando, don’t -”

“Dani.” He put his hand on her shoulder, prompting her to turn and look at him. 

He looked at her with concern and tilted his head slightly, waiting for her consent before he spoke again, ever the gentleman. She nodded. 

“You don’t have to tell me anything. I just want you to know… what you did, it doesn’t change how I feel about you.”

“I never thought I’d have to do that again,” she confessed, after a few moment’s pause.

“You’ve done it before,” he observed. “Your family?”

Dani nodded. 

“Of course.” She scoffed. “Who else?”

She’d learned to shoot a gun when she was nine, at the gun range at her father’s country club. Javier, one of her father’s bodyguards, had taught her. She’d wondered why her father was so insistent she learned how to shoot.

When she’d acquired a decent aim, Javier had taken her hunting in the woods in Northern California. She’d flinched when she saw the deer, bouncing about, hunting for food in an air of utter bliss that weren’t meant to be broken. She’d wanted to dash back to the car, but Javier had grabbed her arm, forcing her to aim. His hand over hers, he’d pulled the trigger. 

After the deer dropped dead, Javier had grabbed her by the shoulders and turned her around, crouching to look her in the eye as she felt herself tearing up. Your father doesn’t tolerate weakness, he’d growled. And you’ve a lot left to learn, before you can take over.

With his sharp gaze bearing down on her, he’d dared her to cry. 

She didn’t. 

Hunting made a good actress out of her. As she got older, she was able to convince Javier, and other men who worked for her father, that she no longer cared about taking a life. She was almost able to convince herself.

She’d also come to realize the reason her father was keen for her to learn to shoot. And no matter how much she pretended it didn’t bother her, she knew she could never be like them.

“You don’t have to tell me why,” Hernando repeated, putting his hands over hers. Dani noticed his hands were warm, and hers were close to freezing. “I - I understand. What you did before. What you did tonight.”

It was ironic, really. The further she thought she’d escaped from a life intertwined with her family’s affairs, the closer it brought her to another painful reminder of her past. “I thought I’d never have to shoot again.”

A tilt of his head. “Bad memories?”

“You could say so. Makes me feel like one of them.”

A nod. Hernando didn’t need her to elaborate. She didn’t know why she was still nervous to talk about her family in front of her partners, after the shit they’d seen.

“You saved me back there, Dani,” he said. “What you did, you used it for good.”

She tried to smile, the corners of her lips quirking. But she couldn’t stop the frown from forming as he put his arm around her, their heads touching. Hernando looked at her and saw she was lost in thought. He didn’t pry, didn’t ask any more questions, simply waited for her to speak when she was ready.

Dani remembered the last time she’d pulled a trigger and saw real blood. She’d never been asked to shoot a person, but her father had gone with her to the woods before she left for college and asked her to demonstrate what she’d learned. She’d prayed no deer would show up that day. Nonetheless, when one dashed out from behind some trees, her instincts from years of practice had kicked in. She’d aimed with a decisive jerk of her arm before her brain could register what she was doing.

She’d pulled the trigger. It hit the deer right between the eyes, and there was a second where she and the deer looked at each other. She’d mouthed a silent apology as it collapsed.

Good, Daniela, her father had said, clapping her on the shoulder. You are ready.

She’d nodded, turning to face him, keeping her facial expressions unchanged. She may have been ready, but she wouldn’t. She wouldn’t. As long as she had another choice.

“I know I’m not like them,” she told Hernando. “But every time I do this, it reminds me of my family. The way I was raised, the things I did.” Things I had no choice in doing.

“I’m sorry, Dani,” he said. “I’m sorry I made you do it again.”

“It wasn’t your fault, silly,” she tried to lighten the mood, punching him lightly on the shoulder as she sniffled. “He was gonna stab you. I wouldn’t have let you -” die. I can’t lose you - “get hurt.”

“I know.” He pulled her into a hug, rubbing a hand on her shoulder. “You saved me. You saved me," he repeated, watching her smile grow wider. "My hero.”

*

As Dani and Hernando talked, Will turned to Mavis with a raised eyebrow. “So,” he said, “wanna talk about what happened back there?”

A shrug. “Which part?”

“You know which.”

“Fine.” She looked at him. “They were running out of time. Kiira and the others would’ve been caught if she’d stayed to do her little -” she made a stabbing motion with her fist, moving her arm down in an arc.

“That’s not all.”

He thought she was going to keep denying, but she sighed, giving in. 

“Look. The moment I signed up for all this -” Mavis gestured to herself, to Will and Dani and Hernando, and waved her fake passport in her hand - “this spying business, I knew there’s no going back. Yeah, I wanted to get rid of all the freaking Headhunters, and go home, and live a long, normal life — maybe with Gabriel, but that’s a discussion for the future way ahead of me — without creeps trying to spy on me from inside my head.”

Will couldn’t help chuckling. Mavis, giving in, let out a chuckle of her own.

But,” she continued, “I’d be lying if I said I expect to come back as same person I was two years ago. That’d be nuts. I literally killed someone -” she ran a hand through her hair in frustration - “okay, two people, one of which was not a Bolger, and honestly? It’s not something I thought I would’ve done, like, ever.”

Will nodded. There were lots of things he never thought he’d end up doing, but all his old morals went out the window the moment he decided to break protocol visit Jonas, a convicted terrorist, after he’d gotten the man captured.

“Yeah, this whole tug-o-war with BPO’s screwing us up big time,” Mavis echoed his thought. He could tell she’d been watching him, reading his expressions. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I did mess up back there. I could’ve let Pelzer just… die. Could’ve done everyone a favor. They could’ve had time to escape — I didn’t know.”

“So why didn’t you?”

“That’s the thing.” She looked him in the eye. “It wasn’t me. It was Kiira.”

Realization dawned on him. “You don’t want her to be the one who -” he didn’t finish his sentence. Mavis knew what he was going to say, anyway.

“We were connected. I could’ve taken over and done the stabbing for her. But did you see Kiira back there? She was ready to kill him herself. She didn’t want my help. Probably would’ve pushed me out if I’d tried to take over and take the blame.”

He remembered the way Kiira’s dark eyes had hardened as she’d raised a scalpel above the fallen Headhunter, the blade a mere inches from his throat.

“That’s not her,” Mavis continued. “That’s not the Kiira I know.”

“Maybe this war’s changed her too.”

“Could be,” she conceded. “But I -” she groaned, leaning back on her chair, tilting her head to look up at the ceiling as she searched for her next words. “I didn’t want to admit she may have changed, okay? I’ve known Kiira for four years. She wasn’t - isn’t - the murdering type. Hell, she wants to be a surgeon. She wants to help people.”

He smiled, remembering how proud Capheus had felt when he told his cluster about Kiira after their meeting at the café, beaming for hours afterwards. He’d said Kiira took after Shiro. And a little bit of him, too. Maybe. 

None of the cluster could imagine her killing people. 

“I guess it was selfish of me,” Mavis admitted. “It’s Kiira’s first time being in the middle of all this. And I know no matter how fucked up Pelzer is, no matter how much he deserves to die, if she’d killed him, she would’ve lived with the guilt for years.”

She would have. Will certainly did. No matter how many times he convinced himself killing was the only choice, sometimes.

“And the whole mix of guilt and satisfaction from killing someone for revenge?” Mavis continued, “It changes people. Too late for me, now, but I didn’t want it to happen to Kiira.”

“It’s not too late for you.”

She shook her head. “I’ve been spying for two years, Will. I don’t even know how I’m gonna get my normal life back. I didn’t actually finish high school before I joined Veracity, you know? It’s gonna be so weird. I’ve been gone for too long.”

“Not Kiira, though,” she continued. “She has a future she’s built for herself. A life she can go back to. I didn’t know if tonight would’ve ruined it for her, if she’d gone through with the stabbing. Could’ve turned her on a completely different path. But -”

“You’d rather not find out,” he finished for her.

Mavis nodded. “Way I see it, if we’re gonna take down BPO soon anyway, chances are we’re gonna run into Pelzer again. So it’d be better for both our sakes if I’m the one to kill him then. And I will. There’s no way I’m gonna let him get away with what he did.”

“No Headhunter’s gonna get away with this,” Will promised. “We’ll make sure of it.”

Chapter Text

July 22, 2017

“Riley Blue!” greeted a familiar voice as the cluster and allies began their now-familiar breakfast routine. 

Riley saw the flash of orange hair and sighed at the sight of the Australian: studded leather jacket and distressed jeans with chains, a wink and a shit-eating grin. And a huge messenger bag slung over one shoulder, fully packed.

“What are you doing here?” asked Will, standing in front of Riley.

Leon walked into the kitchen after Puck. “No worries, mate. He’s with me. The Archipelago sent him over.” 

“Bowling ball.” Puck said to Will. “And friends. Cluster-mates, I presume?”

Mavis strolled into the kitchen and groaned at the sight of Puck. 

You’re playing messenger now?”

“The Archipelago didn’t send me here to talk, Mayve.” She rolled her eyes at the nickname. “They need a chemist.”

“More traders disappeared?” asked Henrik, who turned from the stove where he was cooking, skillet still in his hand. 

“Opposite problem, actually. New supply o’ Blockers came in some days ago. Got some new volunteer traders, too. But the Blockers did anything but blockin’.”

“What do you mean?” asked Capheus. He was standing by the toaster with a breakfast tray, collecting food to send to Kiira’s room. 

The woman in question had been sleeping for the past twelve hours or so. The rescue mission had been taxing for all people involved, Kiira most of all — when they’d brought her in yesterday, she looked like she hadn’t rested in days. 

“Sensates are disappearing. More than before. Right after they received the new supply, from the new traders in our midst.”

Kala froze in her track on her way to the fridge. “The Reciphorum. Oh, no.”

“They used it as a tracker,” Nomi added, two mugs of coffee in hand. Next to her, Amanita muttered shit under her breath.

“Seems you know more about this drug than I do. I’m off to the lab, makin’ real Blockers.” He turned to look at Kala, gesturing to his bag before he moved towards the stairs. “I came prepared. Care to join me, love?”

*

“Neuroscientists from the Biological Preservation Organization believe the violent episodes at the tennis match in Shanghai Stadium three days ago were a side-effect of the same fatal epigenetic brain mutation responsible for the death of seven patients in California…”

The sound of the news reporter’s voice reverberated through the hallway. The television was set on the highest volume so people in the basement could hear the update. Will had shut himself back into his room following breakfast. His Blocker was wearing off, and with the newest development, he hoped he could find his way into Whispers’ mind again and try to figure out BPO’s next move.

Alas, the Headhunter thought with a chuckle, he and Gorski had the same idea.

Upon hearing his thoughts, Will tensed, tightening the straps of the blindfold around his eyes. It was getting harder to remove himself from inside Will’s head, to visit and deduce his surroundings. Admittedly, it was a significant setback. But judging by the shiver running through Will’s body, it was likely the ex-officer was more distressed by their new connection dynamics than he was.

He could use it to his advantage.

Good morning, Officer Gorski, he thought, doing his best impression of a whisper through their minds. He felt Will shift in his seat and stiffen his posture.

Huh. Will was trying to sound unfazed. You trying to spy on me before I can spy on you?

Milton let out a scoff. Is that what you call this? Spying?

He felt Will shrug. You’re usually more careful with your Blocker, thought Will. Can’t let anyone inside your head, can you? It’s getting too risky, at this stage of your little world domination scheme. So you must have something to show me. Well, Milt, I’m all ears.

With a twitch of his mouth, Milton felt Will’s consciousness slide into his own mind. He opened his eyes, making sure Will could see where he was: the stark white auditorium of the London Headquarter, gray-tiled walls and marble floor. Sensates and sapiens in Hazmat suits sat in the audience watching as he walked to center stage. 

The employees whispered to each other. This characteristic air of unease always seemed to float about the place. More so when, following his entry on stage, the guards behind him rolled out a bald man strapped to a stretcher, his white-robed uniform stained with sweat and blood, and handed the Headhunter a pistol.

There would always be sacrifices in war. And Will Gorski had chosen the losing side. It was time to show him the consequences of his cluster’s actions.

“I have been informed there are traitors in our midst,” he spoke into the microphone, calm as ever. “And the Chairman does not tolerate disloyalty.”

Will tensed.

“But I realized we have never explicitly showed exactly what treachery would cost. A mistake I plan to fix.”

Turning to the traitor, he raised his pistol. He aimed it at the man’s head as he walked around until he was behind the stretcher so everyone could get a clear view of the execution. The man — Mason was his name, judging by the tag he wore on his soiled robe — was fully conscious now, trying to loosen himself as best he could under the restraints. Mason stared cross-eyed at the gun in his hand. 

He switched off the safety lock. Mason muttered something, too, pathetic pleas, fruitless attempts to spare his traitor life. Please, sir. Please.

His muscles tensed, and he knew Gorski was trying to take control of his body. Smirking, he reached his left hand into the pocket of his suit and pulled out a syringe, which he injected into his arm before he pulled his trigger. The pricking sensation as the Blocker kicked into effect was all too familiar to him by now, and he relished the buzzing in his head, more so when he registered the sound of Will cursing out loud back in his hideout. 

Will had tried and failed to take control over the arm holding the gun. It was one of the few instances where Milton was relieved no sensate with their frontal lobes intact could share outside their cluster. The timing was perfect. Almost too perfect. 

The bullet shot out of the pistol and lodged itself between Mason’s eyes. Milton made sure to keep his own eyes open and his mind focused on his fading connection with Will. He wanted the younger sensate to see the life go out in the traitor’s eyes.

This war against Homo sapien could not be won without necessary bloodshed, without all the sensates devoted to the same cause. His cause. His army. 

The sooner Will and his cluster understood, the better.

As the current of Will’s racing thoughts drifted further away, he felt Will punch a wall, his knuckles aching and bruising from the impact. He caught a glimpse of Riley rushing into the room to pull him into her arms, to stop him from hurting himself. With Miss Gunnarsdóttir present, it was the perfect time to deliver the final punch. 

Send my regards to Lito Rodríguez.

*

That afternoon, María returned from her new hideout to collect the newly packaged Blockers Puck had made, blue capsules instead of black. Kala had proposed this idea so sensates in need could distinguish the newly made, 100% safe products from the potentially tainted ones still going around the Archipelago. She and Andy had permanently relocated from Beijing to Berlin, the city where Bug and the Veracity hackers believed the next BPO-staged attack would take place. 

It seemed surreal that María ended up as a Veracity agent, and Lito as part of a group of sensate vigilantes. But the more he believed his life was not as dramatic as his movies, the more the world proved him wrong. 

His concern at the moment, though, had nothing to do with spying.

María sat on a bench in the front garden of the safe house, sipping a mug of hot chocolate. Before Lito could announce his presence, she had already scooted over to make space. It was as if becoming a spy had made her extrasensory. Or maybe, Lito thought, frowning, his footsteps were simply too loud.

“Out of all the ways I imagined seeing you again, Lito, I never thought it would be like this.” 

She laid the mug atop her lap and put her hands around it to warm herself up. Lito realized she was wearing a wedding band. He opened his mouth, and closed it again with no idea how he could begin to explain. 

They used to be the kind of friends who always had something to talk about. Now, as she waited for him to speak, there was nothing but silence.

“You know, your cluster’s reputation precedes you,” she continued to speak. “I heard about the August 8 cluster a year ago when two of you broke out from the Iceland facility. And I remember thinking, ‘Hey, that’s Lito’s birthday. Wouldn’t it be the coolest thing if he was actually one of them?’.”

“How long have you been -”

“A spy?” she finished his sentence. They exchanged a smile, and she winked, and for a second he felt like they were teenagers again, chatting on their way to school.

He nodded.

“Two years. Three, if you count the training.” 

“That’s -” Impressive? Scary? A little bit of both? - “That’s longer than I’ve been a sensate.”

María quirked an eyebrow. “Then tell me, Agent Lito. How long have you been a sensate?”

The old nickname put Lito at ease. He wondered if María did it intentionally. If, after all these years, she still retained her uncanny ability to guess what was on his mind. 

“Over a year,” he said. “How did you know about BPO?”

“Remember when I took a year off after we finished high school?”

“You went to America.” 

It was the first time they’d parted, truly parted. When she came back, Lito had already left for Mexico City for his first audition. He used to wonder if things would have different if he’d gone traveling with her. But he’d come to realize, with the uncertainties in his future looming about his mind, that his contemplations about past had been shoved into a corner of his mind, indefinitely forgotten.

“That’s where I met Andy. I knew he was a hacker. But later he confessed to me that he hacks for Veracity, and, well, you know how it goes from there.”

“I know,” he echoed, still frowning. “María -”

His friend turned at the same time he did. They looked each other, neither of them speaking another word for a few seconds. Her gaze, he realized, now encompassed a firmness as well as the air of mischief he remembered. Lito had seen the changes in her appearance during their encounter a few nights back, but this time he was able to notice a thin scar on her right cheekbone. A nick from a blade, perhaps? 

She noticed where he was looking. “Oh, yeah. A little souvenir from my training.” Then, with a sigh, “Lito, I know what you were gonna say. I’ve been keeping track of the news.”

“You have?”

Moving a hand away from the mug she held, she punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Of course, silly. My best friend’s a movie star. A great conversation starter, no?”

After all these years, she still knew how to make him smile.

“I’m mad about the kiss, though.”

His expression turned grim, and he opened his mouth to apologize, before he took another look at her and noticed a slight tick at the corners of her mouth. “Ay, María!” he tried to sound angry, but failed miserably, bursting into laughter instead.

After his laughter subsided, he asked, “You’re really not mad?”

“It’s in the past, Lito. We were kids.”

Part of his brain wanted him to ask why not? Why aren’t you mad? Truth be told, he had expected her to tell him he had lied to her, that he’d betrayed her trust. That was the reason he hesitated to approach her in the garden, even though it was clear she’d been waiting to talk to him. He’d have to thank Nomi later, for making him get out here.

“I can imagine how hard it must be to come out,” she answered in response to the question he never asked. “With you being -” she put on her best impression of a news announcer’s voice - “Lito Rodríguez, recently voted the sexiest man alive in En Fuego.”

He smiled in relief. She gave his shoulder a light squeeze.

“And it worked out well in the end, didn’t it? I have Andy, you have Hernando and Dani.”

Lito nearly jumped in his seat. “You need to meet my family!”

“Oh, we introduced ourselves, when you were helping out in the lab. Dani’s a delight. And Hernando, well…”

“Yes?”

“He’s cute. Really cute. But he’s not my type.”

Lito laughed. “What’s Andy like?”

“We’ve got to properly introduce everyone. Preferably after we take care of BPO.”

“Can’t you stay for the night?”

“I wish I could, Lito. But Andy and I have some protecting to do.”

She sounded just like the old María, the one who’d puff out her chest atop a one-story building and declare the two of them as “guardians of the city”. But now their responsibility involved real life and death, and the stakes were higher, much more tangible, than the products of their wild imagination. 

This could very well be the last time they saw each other.

“We’ve got this, Agent Lito,” said María. She knew what was on his mind. If it weren’t for the lack of an Echo when they’d made eye contact back in Beijing, Lito would have believed her to be a very skilled sensate. “I mean, your cluster’s basically an army. And all of us in Veracity’s rooting for you. There’s talk in the Archipelago, too.”

“No pressure,” he muttered.

“Tell you what,” she tried to lighten the mood. “We can meet again, after your cluster brings down BPO and become actual superheroes. We’ll go to a nice restaurant somewhere, and the five of us can talk. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”

Lito smiled. “I’d like that.”

*

On their night shift, Lito approached Sun with a cup of tea in hand. She gestured for him to leave it on the coffee stand. He sat down next to her at arm’s length and turned to watch her frown at nothing in particular.

“Sun,” he started. He wanted to tap her on the shoulder to get her attention, but thought better of it, remembering how she almost murdered Nomi after she’d snuck up on her. After Beijing, the last thing he needed was more bruises

She turned to look at him, her face conveying all the impatience of a sleep-deprived mother dealing with a pestering child. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said, somehow managing to guess his intention before he’d realized what he wanted to say.

“You don’t have to say anything.” With his best puppy dog eyes, he looked at the space between them on the couch. Sun sighed before nodding. He inched closer until their arms were brushing. “We couldn’t have saved Kiira without your help, Sun.”

She raised an eyebrow, amused. “You couldn’t?”

“You know we couldn’t!” He grinned a playful grin, hoping to put her at ease. “They weren’t expecting a martial arts champion. But you, you stormed in, and you were -” Lito shook his fist and bared his teeth, doing his best impression of a tough fighter type guy - “surprise!”

He knew Sun was holding back a smile.

“Felix and I would’ve been destroyed if you weren’t there,” he continued. “You saw how I was. You saved me.”

There was a pause in which neither of them spoke. Sun sat there frowning, lips pressed into a thin line. “You too,” she said finally, looking down at her hands.

Lito was quieter when he spoke again. He wanted her to help her work through her feelings, but the last thing he wanted to do was come across as forceful, in case she put up her walls again. “It’s what we do. We help each other.”

Sun breathed through her nostrils, slowly, still frowning. Lito knew what she was going to say. When they were on their way back, she may as well have been thinking out loud, despite the Blockers they were on. She had stared into space for their entire flight with her shoulders tense, one tight hand clutching the other, which was curled up in a fist, like she was anticipating another fight, one she could not afford to lose.

If Lito could still read her mind, he was pretty sure he’d hear her think, But I didn’t help you back there. We almost lost, because of what I -

No,” he insisted.

A confused Sun to turn to look at him. With a jolt, Lito realized he’d said it out loud. He’d interrupted the voice in his mind that sounded like Sun, forgetting that after their encounter with Pelzer, they had all started staying on Blockers. Even speaking English had become second nature after he’d spent so long hiding with his clusters and allies.

“No, what?” Sun asked.

“Don’t blame yourself.”

She huffed. “I can’t help what I think.”

“Maybe not,” he conceded. “But I can try to convince you to think something else?”

He could tell by the way she parted her lips slightly that she was intrigued. Puzzled, too. But mostly curious.

“You can try. I can’t promise it’ll work.”

“I know you feel like you failed back there, like you failed me, when we got a hold of the -” he paused before he could say taser, not wanting to startle her, to make her back away in the middle of a conversation they very much needed to have - “when we found out the guard wasn’t using a gun.”

She looked like she wanted to say something, maybe to point out that it was a failure on her part because their target had almost escaped. Almost. But he wouldn’t hear it. He continued, “But before that? When we ran in and those guards came after us? You were sweeping the men left and right, you were - I couldn’t even see what you were doing. You defeated them all -” he imitated the way she’d blocked attacks with her hands, with her foot, making her chuckle - “like that. You were a - a tornado.”

“Was I?” She was trying not to smile, to give him the satisfaction that he’d succeeded in cheering her up somewhat. Not that it ever fooled him.

“You don’t remember how you fight, but I do. I love a good action scene.”

She smirked, shaking her head as his eyes widened when he realized she’d relented. “Not all my fights look like that,” she said. “Sometimes it’s harder.”

Like on her last night in prison. The memory still haunted his cluster, Sun most of all, as much as she tried to brush it off. Those fucking cowards had used tasers. They knew they couldn’t have won any other way. That didn’t count as a loss to Lito.

But it did to Sun. 

“Maybe that’s the problem.”

“What is?”

Lito hovered a hand above her shoulder and waited for her nod before putting his arm around her. “Every time we call for your help, we expect you to win.” He snapped his finger. “Easy, like that. Because we’d never seen you lose.”

She thought about it. “I haven’t lost in a long time.”

“That doesn’t mean you couldn’t.”

Frowning, she looked at him, like she wanted to say something in protest but couldn’t find the right words.

Lito continued, “I know it would be easier, whatever we plan to do now, if there is some - some magical way to make sure we always win. But that’s the problem. You make fighting look easy, like magic, and sometimes we forget how hard it can be.”

Like when Lito had tackled Karl Pelzer and expected to come out fully victorious. He’d spent so much time in Sun’s head, he’d forgotten that by himself, with the body he controlled, he had almost no training in hand-to-hand combat. Sun had to rescue him, like she did with everyone all the time.

“Remember when I thought my career was over? I gave up. I gave up and I told myself that was it. But you’d never do that. You would have kept fighting.”

“I would,” she admitted.

“That’s the problem, Sun. It’s not fair that I can lie in bed in my pajamas and cry for days, and you always have to go on like everything’s fine.”

“So what are you saying?”

“I’m saying -” he pulled her in closer and hugged her, his chin resting on top of her head - “losing a fight doesn’t make you less of a fighter.”

He could tell he was getting through to her. Still, she asked, “It doesn’t?”

“No,” he said. “Especially not for you. I know you’re used to winning, but no one can do it all the time. No one’s that perfect.”

“I suppose you have a point.”

He reached for the box of Kleenex on the coffee stand. “Here.”

She pulled herself out of the hug and pursed her lips, unamused. “I’m not going to cry.”

“Okay. No crying.” He put the box back and raised his hands in surrender. “But I’m here, if you need to talk. If you need to tell me how scary these tasers are, I can help.”

“Thank you, Lito.”

He pulled her back into the hug. “It’s what family does.”

*

In his hotel room, Maitake concentrated on finding Jonas’ mind through their connection. Marcela sat next to him on his bed and waited for him to give her the signal. They were under surveillance. He knew Veronika had eyes and ears everywhere, watching him establish the connection to try and negotiate for Lila’s freedom. Veronika would’ve liked to use Lila for the next operation, after all.

Marcela curled her hand into a fist, manicured nails making dents against her flesh. Maitake knew how much his cluster-mate hated to succumb to the Russian’s plans. But they had agreed it was for the best. They couldn’t overthrow Veronika when one of their cluster was being interrogated in who knows where. Paris? Or perhaps they’d relocated by now.

Jonas’ Blocker dosage wasn’t as powerful as the August 8 cluster believed. After spending so long in interrogation, he’d developed a bit of resistance, and the effects started wearing off earlier than Mrs Rasal’s calculations led them to believe. Not so much that his new allies would be able to notice he was fully connected again, but enough to let a few voices from his memory slip. To let others know he was there.

Maitake heard a buzzing in the Psycellium, as if on cue. It grew louder and more intense before fading altogether.

How many minutes have you got? he cut to the chase, tapping his finger against his knee to tell Marcela he’d found Jonas. Only one of them had been allowed off Blockers for the time being. Veronika had wanted this plan to succeed, but not badly enough to risk her control over the cluster. Just like they’d predicted.

He heard a chuckle from the other end. Five, give or take. 

“Is he alone?” asked Marcela, a meticulous gaze trained on the center of an abstract portrait that hung behind his bed. She looked like she was fixating on the target for her next assassination, ready to shoot. No one had ordered a hit from her for months, since they’d all become more involved in BPO’s dealings. But old habits die hard.

Are you alone?

I’m in my room. Someone will come with my Blocker soon.

Good, let’s talk, thought Maitake, exchanging a look with his cluster-mate. We need Lila back. What’s it going to take?

What makes you think I’m willing to help?

Marcela raised an eyebrow. Maitake shook his, frowning. She mirrored his expression and turned back to the painting, as if it could give them an answer.

I know you, Jonas, he answered. You’re not as loyal to your allies as you may believe.

I never tried to deceive myself on where I stand.

Marcela scoffed like she could guess what Jonas was saying.

I believe it’s best if you negotiate with the cluster members, thought Jonas. They’re not exactly thrilled about having a prisoner in the hideout.

Are they interrogating her?

You and I both know Lila’s can hold her own against any sensate. The question is, for how long?

“What could they want from her?” asked Marcela. Maitake relayed the question.

Nothing in particular. Though they are rather keen to know more about their enemy in BPO before they come up with an annihilation plan. About Veronika, if not the Headhunters.

It seemed they were at least on the same page regarding the Russian. A small consolation which could prove itself useful down the line.

That could be arranged, Maitake thought. Lila in exchange for information.

In theory, Jonas thought, sounding amused.

What do you mean?

If Lila has the same information, what makes you think they’d agree to your terms? They could pry it out of her. Do not underestimate them, Maitake.

You think they wouldn’t agree to the trade?

They might. But they’ll try the same tactic they used last time.

Maitake still seethed whenever he thought about their loss that evening, the last evening he saw his whole cluster together. They’d anticipated the August 8 cluster to put up a fight, to try and make it out with their end of their bargain but not fulfill BPO’s. They hadn’t anticipated losing.

Jonas chuckled. They’ll agree to a trade, but they never play by the rules, Maitake. I suspect they won’t carry through with their end of the agreement.

Those bastards. You think they’ll leave Lila behind?

Most likely. Perhaps they’ll catch another one of you, if you aren’t careful.

We won’t be so careless.

Jonas nodded.

And we’ll need - Maitake closed his eyes and sighed - we’ll need your assistance.

What makes you think I will risk my life for an inter-cluster war?

“He’s not willing,” said Maitake, feeling his consciousness fade back into the hotel room.

Marcela tutted her tongue, the agreed-upon signal for their doomsday tactic. It was a plan their cluster had arranged in the brief minute before the rest of them were put on another Blocker dose, not to be used unless Jonas could not be persuaded any other way. 

Maitake tried to keep his expression neutral, knowing Veronika could be watching. The one place they were safe from her was inside their mind. With the new bargaining chip in hand, he was confident Jonas would be more open to negotiation. 

Well, for one, it would be easy to inform your allies of your connection with us. And you will lose the trust you worked so hard to gain.

He heard Jonas take a deep breath. I’m listening.

And the second reason - Maitake sat a little straighter - concerns an old friend of yours.

You’ll have to be more specific.

Kareem Asghar. Veronika’s prisoner. Used to work with Angelica before Milton came along, didn’t he? One of your oldest friends?

Jonas tensed. What about him?

Veronika thinks he’s got no more use for her. She has her men infiltrating the Blocker trade to gain the information he concealed from the Headhunters.

He felt a surge of panic through their connection and smirked, knowing he was getting through to Jonas.

Kareem’s lobotomy is arranged for July 12th, he added. Five days from now.

Did Veronika tell you to tell me?

She doesn’t know. Maitake exchanged a smirk with Marcela. And I think it’s best, for all our sakes, for us to keep it that way. There’s still time to save him. If you agree to our terms.

Jonas took a deep breath. What’s it going to take?

Lila, Maitake thought simply. You have to free her, if the August 8 cluster doesn’t.

*

July 23, 2017

“I’m worried about you, Miss Bak.”

Sun glared Nomi, who sat across the living room, typing away on her laptop. Amanita smiled and leaned against Nomi’s shoulder. They were sharing a pair of purple earbuds, were probably eavesdropping on her conversation with Mun.

Sun sighed. Nomi’s all-access ways and unending supply of burner numbers would be the death of her. “Your concern is unwarranted, Detective.”

“Aww, Sun,” said Amanita, her head on Nomi’s shoulder. “Don’t be mean.”

“Well, it is part of my job to locate runaway prisoners,” Detective Mun retorted. She imagined him scratching the back of his head from his office in Seoul. “So my concern is very much warranted.”

“I can stay alive perfectly well on my own.”

“Yeah, well.” He paused, and she heard papers ruffling from his end. “I don’t doubt you’ll bite someone’s head off, if they try to attack.”

“So why are you calling?”

“Funny,” said Mun. “See, I was about to leave my office, but I received an anonymous text with this number on it. I was under the impression you wanted to talk.”

You’re welcome, mouthed Nomi. Sun wanted to punch a table, but the nearest coffee stand was made of glass. So she settled for clutching her hand into a fist.

“I stand corrected,” he continued when she didn’t respond. “You didn’t send me the number, did you? Must be your hacker friend.”

Amanita raised an eyebrow. “Oh, he’s good.”

“My hacker friend?” Sun tried to sound amused. 

“Come on, Miss Bak. Prison system override? The incriminating records on your brother that mysteriously reappeared?”

“I don’t know anything about that.”

“Must be a coincidence,” he said, fully unconvinced.

“It was.”

“The court cannot proceed with your brother’s trial without your testimony. I promised I’d keep you safe, if you turn yourself in. The deal still stands.”

“I appreciate your concern. But I cannot accept the offer.” Not yet, anyway. Not when BPO was hot on her trail, and anyone involved with her would be in mortal peril.

“I’ll wait for you to change your mind.”

“What makes you think I will?”

“Wherever you’re hiding right now -” he paused. She heard something squeaking. Perhaps he was stretching on his cushy office chair - “it would appear the world’s destined on drawing you out. Have you heard the news?”

“Which one?”

“The brain mutations, violent episodes… The world’s not safe, Miss Bak.”

After everything she and her cluster went through, that was hardly news. “The world is never safe.” You should know that. Better than most.

“Just be careful, wherever you are. You haven’t come across any attacks, I hope?”

“Nice try, Mun.”

There was a pause. She heard him chuckle. “What happened to ‘Detective’?”

She was certain Detective Mun was holding back a smirk. That infuriating, smug, lop-sided smile that made her want to have a go at him, to knock that expression right off his face. But he was back in Korea, out of reach. So she settled for punching the couch cushion. Nomi and Amanita giggled.

“Yeah, Sun,” Nomi teased, “what happened to ‘Detective’?”

“Nothing happened, Detective,” she said through clenched teeth.

Mun laughed. Sun wanted to punch a wall. 

“Whatever you say, Miss Bak.” He sounded like he was full-on smirking now. “I have to catch the last train home now. My offer still stands. But -” She imagined him raising his hands in surrender - “I understand if you still don’t want to come home. Though I’m sure when you’re ready to talk, your hacker friend will send me a number.”

She glared at Nomi, who winked before pecking Amanita on the cheek. 

“I’m sure she will.”

After Mun hung up, Sun buried her head in the couch cushion she was using as a substitute punching bag. Nomi moved to sit next to Sun on her couch, and Amanita sat on her other side. And, as if Sun hadn’t embarrassed herself enough for one morning, they waited for her to pull her face from the couch cushion before congratulating her on “winning over a detective’s heart” — Amanita’s exact words.

She should have been annoyed at Nomi for setting her up a second time. Or mad. Or both. Unfortunately, Sun had discovered over the past year or so that there was simply no way she could stay angry at her cluster-mate for very long. So as Nomi and Amanita pulled her into a side-hug, she crossed her arms and did her best to convey she was not at all amused by the little set-up stunt they pulled.

It fooled no one.

*

Will reminded Jonas of what he once was: young, determined, protective of the ones he loved at all costs. Though, he’d never been as keen to declare his allegiance to any side as Will as an adult, Jonas saw in him the same decisiveness he had in his youth, prioritizing the things in life he valued most. Once Jonas thought his purpose was finding a place where he belonged. After his rebirth, he realized it was finding a way to stay alive. 

Angelica believed life could go on after death, so long as there was something — or someone — for their spirits to return to. She lived on through her children, and Jonas tried to see them the same way. But the difference between them was that Angelica was never afraid of the unknown. Jonas, on the other hand, dreaded uncertainty. If there ever was a choice, he would have preferred to live on through his carnal form, in full control of his place in the world, instead of appearing in the corners of someone’s mind.

Nonetheless, he felt obligated to provide Angelica’s children and their allies, with knowledge he’d acquired by his own experience. Which was why, at the moment, a bewildered Will and Henrik sat on his bed, per his request.

Scratching his permanently tousled hair, Henrik tried to crack a joke, though Jonas could sense his hesitation. “You’re not interrogating us, are you?”

Will, on the other hand, frowned and fell silent. 

“In your own house?” Jonas raised an eyebrow. “That’s hardly wise.”

The young men looked at each other with identical blue-eyed apprehension and pursed lips before turning to Jonas, waiting for him to explain himself. In the clusters he’d met, there was always someone who exuded trust and a sense of parental authority despite being the same age as their cluster-mates. 

He was hardly a mentor-like figure to Will’s cluster, with his general inability to help and the secrets he’d never told. But it was a relief to know he could inform the men of what knowledge he could afford to pass on and hope it could work to their benefit in a post-BPO world. Ideally, he would be around to see this play out. 

Realistically? Lila was a wild card, and her cluster’s shifting allegiance away from Veronika’s side had added a new variable in his involvement in the rebellion against the Headhunters. He didn’t know what the future would hold. The lack of control over his fate was daunting, to say the least.

“Angelica believed sensates experience love in its purest form,” said Jonas. “I mentioned it once before. But what I did no elaborate on was what exactly that love entailed. It was not, like most people would believe, always romantic love. Although that form of love tended to come faster, more intense, for many sensates. 

“Some people feel affection through platonic love, love between cluster-mates of a non-romantic nature. Many underestimate the strength of that love, but I have seen some that are equally as powerful as romantic love, if not more. Your clusters -” Jonas looked at the door, outside which people were going about their afternoon routines - “have intense bonds, more than most clusters I’ve met.”

They nodded, wondering why Jonas was talking to them about their love life like a parent would if they were trying too hard to bond with their child.

“It is possible that one of your cluster-mates would carry an unborn cluster and give birth in the near future.”

Henrik froze like a teenager caught sneaking into his girlfriend’s house through her bedroom window after dark. Will’s ears turned scarlet.

“It’s nothing to be embarrassed of.” Jonas looked at the affronted young men, amused. “Birthing other clusters is a natural stage of a mature sensate’s life.”

Henrik cleared his throat. “Mature in what way?”

“Mature in terms of emotional connection. In terms of love.”

“Oh, God,” Will muttered under his breath, suppressing a groan.

Jonas continued, “New clusters are formed by love within a parent cluster. I believe that was why Yrsa was aversive this type of love.”

“She thought sensates are best left unborn,” Will recalled.

Henrik suppressed a shudder. Jonas imagined he was picturing a life in which he had never met Georgina. Connections, once established, could not be taken away without emotional repercussions. Losing part of a cluster hurt as much as losing part of oneself with no means to recover. And finding love in a cluster was the opposite: the only way Jonas could put the feeling into words was that it magnified the intensity like a person was experiencing the same affection twice, but at the same time.

“So should you find yourselves, or anyone else in your cluster, feeling sensations that emerge from an unknown source, it is likely that they’re expecting to birth a cluster of their own. It’s a life-changing experience. And I trust the two of you will be responsible to help your cluster see through the completion of the stages before the actual birth.”

It was Will’s turn to freeze. Henrik stared at Jonas with a slack jaw. “Jonas,” he said, slowly and quietly, his voice slightly hoarse. “Are you trying to give us ‘The Talk’?”

There were snickers outside the door, multiple voices whispering and giggling. Several footsteps pattered out of the hallway before he could open the door to find out the identities of the eavesdroppers. But, judging by the pair of high-shrieked laughter echoing from the living room, it was an easy enough guess for Jonas. In terms of theatrics, Leon certainly gave Lito a run for his money.

Jonas had never been one to blush, but needless to say, it was an awkward call-out. “If you prefer to think about it that way,” he replied, as calmly as he could. “But I prefer to think of this as an interlude.”

“An interlude to what?” asked Will.

“Something to think about before you retreat back into the comfort of your clusters and go back to planning your next step in this war. A glimpse into what your future may hold.”

Jonas found it odd that most sensates Mothers and Fathers chose to avoid the topic until a cluster was well on their way to rebirth. His Father, though, had sat with all eighty of his children at some point in their lives and explained, in very certain terms, what to expect throughout the process of birthing a new cluster. It was fortunate his Father was around to guide them through the process.

“If we were to have children, I hope BPO won’t be a problem for them,” said Henrik. 

“It won’t be,” said Will, ever so determined.

It was difficult for Jonas to imagine the emotional disturbance that came with being reborn at a time Headhunters were active. He was reborn at a time before BPO, a time when sensate researchers like Angelica, worked on their own terms, examining the phenomenon of their natural yet supernatural existence. There was no authority to interfere with their findings, no sapien leader who sought to recruit sensates to their side to do work against members of their own species.

With all the meticulous plotting that went into Veronika’s schemes, he was surprised she would underestimate the lengths sensates would go to avoid capture. Forced allegiance had never worked out well for either end of the power hierarchy. Authority like this was most vulnerable to collapse. Jonas was surprised Veronika and her Headhunters didn’t take the history of warfare into account when they planned their operations.

“Whatever the future may hold, I believe it’s in your best interest to know sooner rather than later. Your relationship with members of your cluster is stable, to say the least. Your minds have grown accustomed, dependent, even, to the power that came with the increased connections. It would welcome any means of expanding itself, including establishing connections to a new, unborn cluster.”

“I look forward to it,” said Will.

Jonas chuckled. “Right now the neural network inside connects you to members of your own cluster, perhaps a few others, more in Henrik’s case. But when you are expecting a new cluster, the consciousness of your unborn children will be privy to influence from your mind. So protecting your brain, is crucial. A head damage would not bode well.”

Henrik sighed. “Probably good that we find out now. In case the next battle comes at a bad time for any of us.”

Jonas nodded. He knew Will and Jonas preferred to know their enemies before a battle. They liked to be prepared for the good and the bad. Their love lives, for one, could benefit from guidance from their sensate predecessors, considering the ever-expansive and reproductive nature of their minds.

Usually it was Angelica’s job to give her children this talk. The first time round, it had been an amusing experience for all parties involved, Mother and child alike. In the end they had managed to compile the facts in a somewhat coherent manner. Jonas swallowed, thinking about their lost children. Like everything else in his adulthood, they had been taken too soon. It was after her first cluster’s death that he'd decided to take a side once and for all.

Angelica’s side.

*

“Have a drink with me,” Dani said to Felix that evening, after their allies had finished cleaning the kitchen. She grabbed his arm before he could open his mouth to protest, and let go with an immediate apology when he moaned in pain.

Unlike her, he hadn’t made it out of his battle unscathed. According to Lito, Felix had spent most of the fight trying to shield Kiira from the guards’ blows, earning a few scratches up his arms and a sprained left shoulder.

She let him sit down again, and walked over to the fridge. “Still hurts?”

He flashed her a dopey grin. “Yeah. Gonna get a few scars.”

Dani couldn’t help but shake her head at that. She let out a half-exasperated, half-amused sort of chuckle. She looked towards his chest, currently covered by a blue Hawaiian shirt. “I think you have plenty of scars as it stands.”

At that, his grin faded. She quirked an eyebrow as she took out the dry sparkling wine and orange juice and reached for the champagne flutes in the cabinet, pouring two mimosas.

“Dani,” Felix started. He sounded a little hoarse. Serious, even.

She turned. He met her eyes. She brought over their drinks and joined him at the counter, turning the stool so she faced him.

“I missed talking to you,” she told him, before he opened his mouth again. 

She had a feeling what he wanted to talk about, but she didn’t want him to be the one to lead the discussion. She’d find herself suppressing a chill if anyone brought up her past, even Lito and Hernando. And her talk with Wolfgang had confirmed what she’d suspected: that Felix discerned more about her history than he’d let on. 

Felix nodded. She tried not to look too surprised. She’d expected him to switch to his one of his lighter conversation-starters, maybe point out how they’d only parted for about two days. “I missed talking to you, too, Dani.”

She let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding. “So… Are we okay?”

He nodded again before downing his whole glass of mimosa, slamming the champagne flute back on the counter. Dani brought her drink to her lips and took a sip, watching him. 

The corners of his mouth tensed for a second before he spoke. “Dani, I know there’s some things in your - in your past, something you don’t wanna say. Hell, I get it. It’s fine if you don’t want to tell me.”

“Felix, what are you -”

He held up a finger, asking her to hold her questions, as his other hand started unbuttoning his Hawaiian shirt. When the buttons were undone, he revealed his torso, pushing the fabric aside so she could see his scars in their entirety, angry criss-crosses mixed with bullet wounds over his chest.

She’d his scars them before, in their dim-lit London hideout, but underneath the kitchen lights, there was a starkness to the fading white lines and splotches that made her wince. The scars glinted as she tilted her head to examine his chest, noting that a fair bit seemed to be near the left side. Close to his heart.

“I said I got these from saving a damsel.” He looked down at his chest. His voice was gravely, unrecognizable, devoid of the usual suave inflection. There was a vulnerability in the way he spoke, one she’d never associated with the man who’d bragged about taking out six beefy bouncers at Luzia with his bare fists.

“I did think there was more to it.” She set her drink on the counter. Dani never thought she’d be the one to try and ease the tension. But she realized it was the first time she saw Felix like this: lost, apprehensive. Scared. “I didn’t wanna pry,” she added. “You’re allowed to have secrets. We all got ‘em.”

“I want you to know.”

“Okay,” she said, putting her hand over his.

He looked up to meet her eyes. “I didn’t get these from saving a damsel. Someone shot me.”

She put a hand over her mouth. “Oh, Felix -”

“No,” he interrupted, before she could express sympathy. “I deserved it. I fucked up. Like, really fucked up. And I paid the price.”

“What did you do?”

“Over a year ago, Wolfie’s cousin Steiner planned out this heist. He was gonna drill a safe and steal some diamonds, sell them, make a fortune. But Wolfie and I, we wanted to prove something. We wanted to prove we could do it better. So we beat Steiner to it.”

“You got caught?”

“We didn’t. That’s the thing. I thought we’d won. I thought, ‘Fuck, we showed them now. Our luck’s gonna change’.” He shook his head, looking exasperated with himself. “Yeah, Wolfie cracked the safe. We got out in time. We sold half these rocks to a merchant, made a bit of fortune. We got cocky.”

“They figured out it was you two.”

He cracked a little smile at that. “I was an idiot to think they wouldn’t. Wolfie’s the only decent box-man for miles. If anyone could’ve cracked that S&D, it would’ve been him.”

An S&D. Uncrackable, by the standards of the men her father hired to do his dirty work. She raised an eyebrow, impressed.

“Yeah. Maybe we should’ve drilled,” he joked. Then he sighed, his smile fading again. “Dani, I want you to know what really happened because I’d been trying to make you think I’m some kind of hero like Conan, some guy who never loses a fight and always saves the damsel. But I’m not like that.”

Dani gave him a small smile, a sign of reassurance. She didn’t know if he expected her to be mad when he told her the truth. But she was relieved he didn’t feel the need to lie, to try and impress her any longer.

“I want us to be friends, and have drinks, and talk. Properly talk. Because you can hold your liquor better than most people I know. Except Wolfie.”

Her smile turned into a smirk. “I can, huh?”

“Yeah. Gotta say, I’m impressed.”

“You’re not so shabby yourself.” She punching him lightly on the shoulder that wasn’t bandaged. Jokes aside, though, “I knew you were bragging about playing hero. But that didn’t stop me from having drinks with you.”

“I’ve always wondered if you were crazy, wanting to hang out with me.”

A shrug. “Maybe I am,” she said, looking at his scars. “Maybe we both are.” Maybe that’s why I found your damsel stories funny. And annoying. And kind of cute.

“Yeah,” he agreed. “But I’m not just crazy. I also fuck things up, a lot. It was my fault, my idea to steal the diamonds. I wanted us to have one over his uncle and cousin. And get fucking rich. Wolfie didn’t give a fuck ‘till I talked him into it.”

“Everyone makes mistakes, Felix.”

“But this is worse. God, Dani, you should’ve heard the shit he told me when he thought I was unconscious. He said once, maybe I’d be better off if we weren’t friends. So his crazy-for-shit gangster family wouldn’t use me as a target.”

She swallowed, remembering the same thoughts running through her head when Joaquín and her parents threatened Lito in their apartment after the São Paulo Pride Parade.

“I feel terrible because he shot up a lot of people,” Felix continued, “so they wouldn’t come get me in the hospital and finish the job.”

“His cousin?”

“Yeah.”

“His uncle?”

“And others. I knew there was more.”

She sighed. There always was.

“Dani, I know there are things in your past you don’t wanna tell me. And you don’t have to. Hell knows I’m not exactly trustworthy, with the shit I’ve done.”

“You didn’t have to tell me about your past.”

“But I wanted you to know. I’m not Conan. I’m not some - some glorious, epic hero who always does the right thing. I don’t save damsels. I mean, fuck, I can barely save my own ass. I almost died from stealing some stupid rocks. Almost got Wolfie killed, too.”

Their eyes met, and she reached her hand forward, pausing until he nodded. Gingerly, her fingers grazed the uneven surface of the skin on his chest, feeling the bumps and ridges, slipping past the scars. A dull pain echoed through the hollows of her chest. She imagined how awful it must have been, to have a reminder of his mistake permanently etched into his skin, haunting him every time he looked down.

“You wouldn’t have let Wolfgang die,” she said, buttoning his shirt with both hands. “I know you. You’d have done the same for him.”

“Yeah, I would have. But I got him into this crap. Then it got worse, with Fuchs, and Lila, and Wolfie got captured by those fucking Headhunters and -”

She put her hand over his on the counter, tracing circles on the back of his hand with her thumb, “That’s not on you, Felix. BPO would’ve found another way to get to him.”

“Maybe. But I didn’t help.”

“You’re helping now. Not just Wolfgang — you’re helping all of us. And Lito told me you were a real hero in Beijing.”

And his grin was back. “Yeah, it was epic. Felt like I was in one of his movies.”

“See?” She grinned, too. “There’s no way to change the past. But you can try to do better. And I’d say you’re doing a pretty good job so far.”

She raised her champagne flute and poured half the leftover mimosa into his. “I think this calls for a celebration. To our victories!”

He hesitated for a second before lifting his own drink. They clinked their glasses together, before downing their mimosas in one go. She pulled out more sparkling wine and orange juice from the fridge and refilled their flutes.

“And after that, -” she laid the juice and the wine on the counter - “we can try out a new drinking game. What do you say?”

*

Sometimes Wolfgang would wake up in the middle of the night. Kala knew he’d always been a light sleeper, and with the trauma of his recent abduction still fresh on his mind, he was finding it harder to sleep through the night. His Blocker dosages were carefully calculated, but there were other factors that determined the exact amount of the time the inhibitors could affect his brain. There were times, usually at night, when he’d slip out a few minutes before it was time for his next dose. 

They liked to savor the moments they could feel the full extent of their connections, and imagine future where this could be the norm again. Kala remembered what Riley had said about presence. She felt Wolfgang’s presence of minds as if it was an extension of her own. Even now as he slept on, more still than usual, she thought, stroking his hair.

She looked at the bedside alarm. It was five more minutes before he was supposed to take his next Blocker, but she could already feel her mind slip outside of her own body and inhabit the space next to her where Wolfgang lay, mumbling in German in his sleep. His memories hadn’t fully been unleashed, so she couldn’t understand what he was saying. She decided she liked that added layer of mystery. The way the syllables rolled off his tongue made his words sound like poetry.

Kala leaned in closer until their foreheads were touching, her skin warm against his. When she realized he felt colder than normal, she frowned. There was no cold sweat clinging to the surface of his skin. She pulled his side of the blanket till it reached below his chin, hoping to bring up his temperature.

He slept on his side, facing her, but he turned to lie on his back, his arms stiff against his side like a log. She’d seen Wolfgang fidget in his dream, but never like this. Curious, she inched closer until the top of her head nuzzled against the side of his neck again. It didn’t wake him, but on instinct he moved his arm and slid it underneath her neck, his hand touching her shoulder. He felt cool to the touch. She laced her fingers between his as best she could, but his hand remained stiff, clutched into a fist.

Why was he so tense?

She concentrated on his presence in their shared mind, a quiet but constant vibration like the static of a radio that had been put on standby. She imagined herself drawn to the source, the force of it pulling her closer like their minds were opposite magnetic poles. Her mind’s eye was propelled forward through infinite darkness until she felt a chill in the air.

When she opened her eyes there was more darkness, but she could tell she was walking. She felt Wolfgang’s footsteps as if they were her own. Left, right, left, right. His hard boots treaded on a damp ground in some deserted alleyway. Or perhaps it was a warehouse? She couldn’t see the sky.

Sometimes he stepped on shallow puddles and the water clung to his soles, splashing as he walked on. Kala realized his footsteps weren’t the only ones. There were others close behind him. He stopped in front of a metal door. She heard someone speak.

Open, said a gruff male voice, reverberating around the empty halls. Kala felt a gloved hand clutch his shoulder: large, sturdy, unrelenting.

Wolfgang reached out a hand and pulled the handle. The door was heavy, but he swung it to the side with ease, holding it behind him with one hand as he walked in. There were a few small windows in the room, and they were opened to a slit. Some lights passed through. It was still daytime. 

In the middle of the room sat a person on a wooden chair with a bag over their head. 

Kala felt Wolfgang stop when he was two arms’ length from the person, and the large man walked past Wolfgang and around one side of the chair until he was behind the prisoner. Slowly, he pulled the bag off the prisoner’s head to reveal a long-haired tattooed man with piercing eyes, his gaze made less intimidating by the purpled rings around his eyes. The prisoner spat before tilting his head to look Wolfgang in the eye and cursed in Russian, the meaning of the words lost to his ears — he’d been out of practice for too long.

Who’s this? Wolfgang asked.

Instead of answering, the large man merely nodded at the space behind Wolfgang. Kala heard another set of footsteps and realized they weren’t the only three people in the room. Uncle Sergei walked forward and crouched to meet the prisoner’s eyes. 

He defied my orders. And you know how I feel about disloyalty, Wolfgang.

You want me to do it? asked Wolfgang, sounding surprised.

If this pussy’s not gonna do it, I will, said another familiar voice.

Kala felt someone pluck out the gun from the back pocket of Wolfgang’s jeans. Sergei shook his head, stopping the person in their tracks. Wolfgang turned and snatched the gun back from his cousin Steiner.

Yes, Wolfgang, you, said his uncle.

Why?

Consider this your initiation.

Wolfgang had known this moment was coming since his sixteenth birthday. Felix had suggested they grab a couple fake IDs and try their luck in another country where no one knew who he was. But he had refused to run.

The memory seemed to have fast-forwarded, or perhaps Wolfgang was waking up. Kala heard the sound of a gunshot before she opened her eyes to find herself back in the Paris bedroom she shared with Wolfgang. She saw his eyes grow wide upon the realization that Kala had seen the whole memory.

As if on cue, the alarm clock beeped, signaling the time for another dose.

He didn’t say anything when she handed him the bottle of water and an older black capsule their hosts had in storage, and downed the Blocker like it couldn’t have come fast enough. Before he could turn away from her, she touched him on the shoulder, prompting him to turn back around and look into her eyes.

“I know,” she said, her voice gentle. There was no fixing the past. The only thing to do now was to show him she had accepted all of him, and hope one day he might do the same.

“Kala -”

“Don’t.” She raised a finger and stopped him before he could say anything else. “You can’t change my mind, Wolfgang.”

They both knew they had gone a long way past that. He sighed.

She scooted to lie back down, looking between his head and the pillow until he did the same, relenting under her silent command. They faced each other, the blanket wrapped around both their shoulders. She reached for his hand, smiling when she discovered he’d started warming up after his memory faded. Hands intertwined, she ran her thumb across the back of his hand, tracing the old scars atop his knuckles with a frown. Souvenirs from a fight in the schoolyard, perhaps?

“Bar brawl,” he mumbled. “Two against six.”

“That hardly seems fair.”

“It wasn’t. Felix and I finished them off in two minutes.”

Of course you did. She smirked. He reciprocated with a dimpled smile that made her heart flutter. It was broken by a yawn.

“Go back to sleep, bhediya.”

Nodding, he brought his other hand up and touched her cheek. They inched their heads closer until his blue eyes was all she could see, their noses nearly touching.

“Wolfgang, please don’t push me away.”

“Don’t think I can,” he mumbled as he drifted off, smiling once more.

Chapter Text

July 24, 2017

“We’d like to propose a trade,” said a deep voice through the speakers on Nomi’s laptop, an anonymous called with a configured number. The person spoke slowly in an accent Nomi couldn’t place. Each word was carefully chosen.

“Who is this?” Nomi spoke into her microphone with a frown, clutching Amanita’s hand. “Who are you, and how did you get this number?”

There was a pause, before, “How I came across your information is irrelevant.”

Nomi looked at Will, who shook his head. 

“We’re not negotiating with someone who isn’t willing to give us their name,” she said.

“We’d like to propose a trade. Lila Facchini’s freedom, in exchange for information.”

Nomi scoffed. “I think we’ve got the information part covered.”

“It’s my understanding that you’re seeking the whereabouts of the sapiens inside BPO. Veronika Makarova, in particular.”

Lito looked between Nomi and the stairs leading down to the basement and winked. “As we said,” Nomi answered, sounding more confident, “we have our means of accessing the information we need.”

“If you’re trying to get Lila to confess, you will find yourself disappointed.”

Nomi raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“Her knowledge is outdated. Plans change. So does locations.”

Everyone in the living room shrugged, agreeing the caller had a point there. Still, “You’re right,” Nomi conceded. “Plans do change. Ours, too.”

“Tell me then, Nomi Marks -” Nomi did a double-take when she heard her name - “how are you planning to go about overthrowing BPO’s authority without any clue on what the Chairman’s next operation entails? Or an address, at the very least?”

“Wait,” Lito whispered. Nomi typed in a few keys to mute the microphone before turning to him. “I think it’s one of Lila’s cluster,” Lito continued. “Maybe we should meet him.”

Jonas frowned. “More confrontation? Is that wise?”

“Some updated information on Veronika might be helpful,” said Kala. “Although an exchange might not be necessary since we have access to Lila, and whoever she’s connected to, by extension. But it would be helpful to see someone from her cluster.”

Amanita smirked. “Noms and I can track them down if we see what they look like.”

Will nodded before turning to the rest of the group. Most of them murmured an agreement. Some shrugged, trusting his judgement.

“Not all of us have to go,” Sun added. “Only those of us they already know. And me.”

“Not Lila?” asked Jonas, sounding… Impressed? It was hard to tell.

Amanita’s smirk widened. She could guess what was on everyone’s minds. “You think they’ll buy our bluff after what happened last time?”

“I don’t think they have a choice,” said Lito, smirking back.

Nomi un-muted the microphone. “Alright. We’re listening,” she said to the caller. “So, where do you propose we meet?”

*

With the growing danger brought forth by the BPO infiltrators in the Archipelago, sensates around the world were in a panic to find safe shelters. Which was why, later that morning, the August 8 cluster and their allies found themselves with a new addition to their team: a two-year-old toddler named Amélie, brought to the safe house by her flustered mother.

“I’m sorry,” said the young woman, both to her child and everyone else. “I’m sorry. I wish I could stay,” the young woman explained in English, her French accent faint but noticeable. “But I can’t lose my job. And it’s not safe for her where we live. And I can’t explain this -” she gestured to all of them.

Amélie fussed when the woman handed her to Gina, but didn’t cry. She looked on, confused, between her mother and the group of strangers. The little girl turned to look at Riley, shoving her fist into her mouth. Riley felt her heart drop at the sight of blonde curls and blue eyes. She felt Will’s arm tighten around her shoulder, keeping her steady.

“Is she Homo sensorium?” Gina asked her mother.

Oui.” The woman nodded frantically. “Her father was a, uh - what do you call? A sensate.”

Everyone went quiet. Gina and Henrik exchanged a nod, their expressions grim.

“We’ll keep her safe,” Henrik promised.

The woman took out a folded piece of paper from her pocket. “I have my name here. And my number. And our address, right here in Paris. If you need anything -”

“We’ll call you,” Leon reassured, sounding uncharacteristically serious. He accepted the paper and looked at the woman’s name. “We’ll keep her safe, Clara.”

*

It was two hours after Clara left when Amélie began crying, and the hosts found themselves at a loss on what to do with the toddler. They had children guests now and then, but never this young, and never without the parent around. No one said much during dinner as the child was passed back and forth in an attempt to calm her down.

Their tactic proved ineffective almost immediately.

The whole time, Riley looked frozen. She tried not to make eye contact with Amélie in case she called out a different name. Her cluster tried to give her space, but there was only so much they could do when all of the house’s inhabitants were cramped inside one kitchen and living room, alternating between cooking, eating, and cleaning.

Riley knew, by now, that everyone save for the hosts had been informed of her past. Every time Amélie started another bout of tantrums, she could feel her cluster-mates and allies holding their breaths, sneaking glances her way to make sure she was okay.

Will’s grasp on her hand tightened. They exchanged a silent look. She nodded, and he excused them from the dinner table, guiding her away until they were at the far end of the hallway, away from the sound of the toddler’s cries. She leaned against a wall and felt her breath quicken, ignoring the warm prickle in her eyes.

Will stroked her hair. He leaned his head forward, the tip of his nose touching her forehead. Gingerly, he lifted her by the chin and stroked her cheekbone with his thumb. She tried to reassure him with a smile, swallowing hard.

It wasn’t long before the tears fell.

“We can go down if you like.” He looked at a set of stairs which led to the basement, not the one near the center of the house they usually used, and back at her.

She let him guide her, his hand squeezing her shoulder. They walked down the steps one at a time. By halfway she felt like she was going to collapse. She leaned against the railing and exhaled, feeling Will stop next to her once he realized she wasn’t walking anymore.

“You okay?” he asked, keeping his voice low in case anyone passed by. 

She shook her head. With Will, there was no need to put up a front. “I’m not,” she said, her voice shaking. “I thought I would be.”

She was shaking now. Not from the open window, but from the chill deep inside, the permanent sleeping poison crawling up to pull her beneath the surface of her memories. She felt her head spin and heard the sound of metal crashing. She saw herself trapped, tumbling through snow before coming to a complete stop.

“Why?” she whispered, to no one in particular. Her tears fell freely this time. She weeped for a past that could no longer be.

“I don’t know, Riley.” She felt herself pulled back into Will’s embrace and felt him trembling, too. “I don’t know.”

Will helped her sit down on the steps and pulled her close. They spent a few minutes holding each other, not saying a word. Riley took in his scent, detergent from his freshly laundered shirt mixed with the smell of aftershave. With her head buried in the nook of his neck, her breaths started to calm.

*

Capheus didn’t expect to find Kiira awake. 

For the past two days, he’d been delivering food to her room, but he’d always found her asleep, wrapped in a cocoon of blankets, head covered save for the bit of afro peeking out from the top. It amused him, the way she kept herself so isolated in her sleep. But it also served as a reminder that unlike him, she grew up in a colder place where she had to warm herself by making a shelter out of her bedding.

“Morning,” said Kiira, looking up from the tablet she held in her hand. She was reading what looked like an academic paper. “Wait. Is it morning?”

He grinned, laying the tray on top of the nightstand by her bed, next to the bottle of Blockers they kept just in case. “It’s dinner time, Kiira. We didn’t want to wake you.”

She grinned back, slightly embarrassed. “I was about to get food. But thank you.”

“It’s no problem.” He turned to leave. 

“Capheus?” she called out, stopping him in his tracks. “Can you -” she pursed her lips, like she was debating what to say.

“You want me to stay?”

“I’d like that. Unless you’re busy — oh! Is your cluster planning your next step? Have you learned anything else on the BPO sapiens? Can I help?”

He chuckled, amused. “Not yet. There’s something we need to take care of tomorrow, but the planning’s been done.”

Kiira switched on the lamp and scooted over in her bed before she helped herself to the food. Capheus looked at the empty space, and she nodded. He sat down next to her, his back against the headboard.

They spent a minute or so in silence, neither of them knowing what else to say. Capheus had spent every night after his first meeting with Kiira, thinking of all the questions he wanted to ask. He’d supposed they’d meet again after the fiasco with BPO had ended. He didn’t expect he’d see her again so soon, he thought, looking at her bandaged wrists. 

He didn’t expect to see her after he’d almost lost her.

“I’ve been meaning to say,” Kiira said after wolfing down her plate of spaghetti, “you must have a professional chef in your midst. One of your cluster?”

“Ahh. Not exactly. A partner. Lito’s partner.”

She blinked, a sign of recognition. “Oh, yes. Hernando?”

“You know about him?”

“I talked to Lito on the flight back.”

He smiled, pleased Kiira was getting to know everyone. “Who else have you met?”

“Sun and Felix, same place.” She showed him the article she was reading on the tablet. “And Kala and Nomi popped by earlier. They thought I’d be interested in the earlier research BPO’s done, when they were testing Blocker prototypes.”

Before they set out to kidnap Whispers and Jonas, Nomi had pulled out the information from a database with Bug’s help. From what Capheus could understand, Kala had found the data very helpful when she was working to modify the pills to an injectable form.

“You and Kala, you’ll have a lot to talk about.”

“Most likely.” Kiira smiled, locking the tablet’s screen again. “She’s asked for my assistance in the lab. After I’ve caught up on sleep, of course.”

Capheus had never been violent, but he seethed at the reminder that BPO had kept his baby sister hostage and exploited her gift for their operations. She tilted her head and watched his expression. Perhaps she was trying to read his thoughts despite the Blocker she was on. She certainly seemed like an analytical type.

“It wasn’t violent,” she said, reassuring. “There were lots of blindfolds and ropes… Lots of moving around. Couldn’t sleep, though. I was trying to deduce my location.”

Of course she was. He imagined what it would have been like to watch her grow up, to hear her ramble as she went about quest after quest to satisfy her curiosity. But Kiira was a grown woman now. And although he’d missed the opportunity to experience what she was like as a child, there was plenty of time to catch up now that they were under one roof.

“Do you do this often? The deduction.”

“It’s one of my hobbies.”

“Oh! Like Sherlock Holmes?”

“Exactly.” She looked pleased with herself. “I love the books, and I’ve watched the different adaptations. Fiction makes everything look easy.” She sighed. “Lots of the knowledge can be helpful in theory, but I’ve discovered real world situations give way to more variables.”

“It can’t be easy, trying to think when you’re in danger,” he observed.

“It’s not. But it’s easier now since I’m safe again and I’m with -” she looked like she was suddenly reminded of something important. She groaned, putting a hand over her face - “oh no, no no no no - I’ve completely forgotten -”

“What? What is it?”

Liam.

“L-Liam? Who’s Liam?”

She continued to mutter under her breath as she unlocked the tablet and swiped through the desktops until she found a messaging icon, some application Capheus couldn’t recognize. A warning about confidentiality configurations popped up on the screen. Kiira hit “accept” before she logged in and scrolled through her messages.

The first slot on top had the name Liam Anderson in front of the contact number. Capheus’ mouth widened. Anderson was Kiira’s last name. Which meant -

“Oh, good, Nomi must’ve told him.” She read through the chat record and breathed a sigh of relief, before turning to Capheus with a smile in apology. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking - you wouldn’t know -”

“Your brother?” he asked.

A quirked eyebrow. “Is that a deduction?”

He laughed. “Maybe.”

“My older brother, yes. He was adopted from Ireland when I was three.”

Capheus used to stay up at night, thinking about the sister he could’ve had. He’d hoped she wouldn’t be as lonely, but the reminder that Kiira’s had a brother who grew up with her sent a pang up his heart. Was it jealousy? Or longing? 

“What’s he like?”

Kiira thought about it. “He’s a complete jokester. Got into trouble at school a lot. Drove mom and dad up the walls. But he’s a good listener. We’d have a Sherlock marathon on Christmas Eve every year…. I think you’d like him.”

He wished they could connect in their minds like the first time they’d met. Kiira frowned, before she jolted slightly, reaching for the tablet again. She scrolled through Liam’s profile and showed him a family picture: a gangly red-haired man with pale, freckled skin, a teenage Kiira riding on his back, and their blonde, impeccably-dressed parents standing next to them, beaming at their silly children.

“This was a few years ago,” she explained. “A few months before I was reborn, I think.”

“Do they know?”

“Not at first. But after -” her voice grew quieter - “after Morgan, Liam noticed something was off. He kept asking. Eventually I had to tell him.”

“You haven’t told your parents?”

She shook her head. “Liam and I decided it was best they didn’t know. Mavis’ dad said a lot of BPO collaborators worked in a University. I suppose my most recent ordeal was a testament to that.”

“Are they still safe in Cambridge?”

She showed him the recent messages from Liam. “Someone from Veracity reached out to them. There’s a safe house in England, not too far away. Liam’s gone there too.”

“That’s good news.”

“It is.” She leaned back against the headboard and ran her fingers through her hair. “But I’m worried - they’ve got their jobs. They can’t afford to stay there for ages.”

“They won’t have to, Kiira. I’m sure.”

With a cluster like his? There were so many ways they could win, and every victory they had up to this point only made Capheus more certain they could take down BPO. The sooner, the better. Shouldn’t be too long now.

“Have you always been an optimist?” Kiira asked.

“Yes.” After a pause, he added, “I got it from our mother.”

“What’s she like?”

To her amusement, Capheus dashed out of Kiira’s room to hunt down Nomi, who was sitting in the room she shared with Amanita reading The Mystery at Lilac Inn. Before long, he ran back into Kiira’s room with a printed photo in hand. A family photo from the day he gave his first election speech.

*

Riley woke up a few hours later and found Will asleep facing her, one arm tucked underneath her neck. Carefully, she pulled herself away and sat up. He stirred, but didn’t wake, and mumbled something under his breath. His hand reached out to touch the empty space where she was a few seconds ago.

She watched him for a few minutes before putting on the robe on the chair by her bed. The last thing she remembered was drifting off as Will held her on the stairs. It wasn’t a mystery how she made it back into her bedroom. She pulled up their blanket over his shoulder and planted a kiss on his head before heading out.

The hallway was silent at this time of day, and a quick glance at a clock nearby told her it was nearly midnight. She walked up the stairs and found Gina standing at the top near the railing, holding Amélie in her arms. The toddler turned at the sound of Riley’s footsteps and pointed, babbling something in French. 

The sound of her voice made Riley’s heart clench. Her grip tightened on the railing to steady herself, taking a deep breath. Gina muttered something to Amélie, words Riley couldn’t understand, and the toddler grinned, two large dimples forming on her rounded cheeks. Riley couldn’t help reciprocate with a slight smile of her own. 

Amélie tugged Gina’s hair, winding and unwinding her raven locks around her chubby fingers. Gina shifted the toddler in her arms so they both faced her. “Did you sleep well?” 

“Yes. Thank you.”

“Kala and Wolfgang are in the living room, if you’re looking for them.”

“Thank you,” Riley said again before shaking her head. “I’m not - do you need any help?”

She didn’t know why she’d asked. After Lúna, she hadn’t been able to go near a small child without feeling a burst of panic from the pit of her stomach. 

“I’m going to the kitchen,” said Gina. “Gotta prep a few things for breakfast tomorrow. Would you mind watching her?”

“Oh, I -”

“It’s alright,” Gina amended, sensing her hesitation. “I can ask Kala and Wolfgang.”

The image of Wolfgang holding a small child amused Riley. Her heartbeat began to slow down when she pictured Kala smirking at an exasperated Wolfgang, muscular arms holding a petulant toddler who prodded at his face. Before Gina could make her way to the living room, Riley spoke, stopping the younger woman in her tracks.

“I can do it.”

She followed Gina into the kitchen and settled herself on a stool, her back against the counter. The feeling of dread spiraled back into her mind at full-speed, but she ignored it. Riley shut her eyes tight and tried to banish the whispered protests in her mind once Gina settled the toddler into her lap.

On instinct, she wrapped her arms around Amélie’s midsection to keep her from slipping. She heard a soft whine, realized she was holding her too tight, and quickly adjusted her arms. She breathed a sigh of relief when she heard no more protests coming from the child. Amélie’s skin was soft underneath the pink dress she wore. Riley was afraid she’d break.

Amélie tilted her head back as much as her body would allow, her hair tickling the bare skin above Riley’s chest. Their eyes met, baby blue against hazel. She blinked and cackled in amusement when Riley did the same, bouncing under Riley’s hold. Against all odds, Riley found herself chuckling.

“She likes you,” Gina observed from a distance, dicing mushrooms with an expert hand.

“She’s lovely,” Riley said after a pause, her voice quiet.

They remained silent for a few moments. Gina continued to prepare the ingredients for omelettes for breakfast the next morning. Riley could tell by her frown that she was deep in thought. Finally, Gina said, “Looks like she’s falling asleep.”

Amélie had stopped stirring in her lap. She was using Riley’s body as a pillow now, her eyes closing and opening with all her might, fighting the tiredness which threatened to overtake her. The adorable sight made Riley ache. With Gina’s help, Riley stood up from her stool, still holding the stubborn child.

“Might work better if you walk around a bit. The motion helps.”

“Do you do this often?” Riley asked.

Gina shrugged, putting away the chopped vegetables into Tupperware containers. “Now and then.” She stacked the boxes on a shelf in the fridge. “Families stay with us sometimes. Henrik and I help with the kids.”

“How many people have stayed here?”

The hostess pursed her lips, thinking. “Can’t count off the top of my head. But oh! Here -” she walked out of the kitchen, Riley following with a half-awake Amélie in tow. 

They made their ways down the hallway with small steps, exchanging amused smiles when the toddler finally decided to shut her eyes and relinquish control of her awareness to the realm of dreams, limbs relaxed with a look of utter peace on her face. 

Riley followed Gina, realizing they were near the basement stairs again. 

“We keep pictures of our old guests,” Gina said quietly. She looked at the wall along the staircase leading to the second floor. “Genevieve took most of them. She used to study photography.”

Riley hadn’t noticed the framed photographs when she passed by earlier. This was the part of the house Leon’s art hadn’t covered. The walls were left in the original off-white color, the paint chipping around the nooks and crannies. Some of the photos were smaller, featuring only one or two people. She recognized a long-haired Mavis sitting face-to-face with her stepfather at the kitchen table, wearing identical smiles that didn’t reach their eyes.

The other photos were wider, horizontal. In one, there was Leon with his jovial grin, rocking a full afro instead of dreadlocks. Next to him was the rest of his cluster save for Genevieve, their expressions unmistakable yet almost unrecognizable from the hosts Riley knew today. They were sitting around the living room with drinks in their hands, chatting with three other companions. She noticed scribbles on the lower right corner, words etched into the frame using a small blade. 

2014. Followed by three vertical lines. | | |.

Her eyes widened. She counted twenty - no, thirty - photographs mounted on the walls. Some of them featured couples who looked at each other like nothing else mattered, and some featured families, parents with their children and the occasional pet. There was even one or two with old people sporting a cane or sitting in a wheelchair.

The lighting on this part of the hallway was dim, but Riley realized a third of the photos, including the one she saw, were black and white. The colored photos had no words or lines on their frames. She didn’t need to be a cop to deduce what the carvings meant.

“I don’t use these stairs often,” Gina confessed, her voice shaking.

“It hurts to remember,” said Riley.

Gina looked at her with an unnamable expression behind her eyes. “I come here to put up a new photo, sometimes,” she said finally. “Or to think.”

“What about?”

“Sometimes I wonder if what we do matters to them.” Gina looked at the photos again, eyes trained on a black and white portrait, fading remnants of a happier time. “But it’s not about them anymore.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Maybe not to some people. But to me? To me it’s about us. It’s what we do to honor their memories that matters. We keep fighting. We keep hiding. We keep loving. We keep going.” She looked at at a colorful photo of a family with three children. “Otherwise it doesn’t matter what they did or died for.”

Keep going. She’d spent years in the same place, shielding her mind from the overwhelming grief. But in the past months, on the run with a man she’d give up her life to protect, the armor she’d built had started to crumble.

“You keep going,” Riley echoed. The words lingering on the tip of her tongue. 

It pained her to say it out loud. Like she was making a vow. But as soon as the promise was made, she felt lighter.

Amélie snored gently. Riley exchanged a look with Gina, who showed her to the room on the second floor that passed for a nursery. The walls were filled with anthropomorphic animals inspired by cartoons. A star nightlight sat in one corner, emanating a soft yellow glow. The toddler was quiet when Riley laid her on the small bed and tucked her in. Before she closed the door, she bid the child a silent good night.

On their way downstairs, Riley’s eyes lingered on a smaller picture of a mother and her son, who she immediately recognized as Damien. The only thing that changed was his now fully grown front teeth. His silly grin and dark hair and freckles matched his mother’s.

“She dropped him off two years ago,” Gina explained.

“Why did she leave?”

“Some Headhunters were chasing them down in Athens, so she dropped him off here and travelled around looking for a new place to live. She even went back to her home in Surabaya for a bit.”

“Where is she now?”

Gina’s expressions turned grim, and Riley felt her heart drop. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “We’d lost contact after she got to Bangkok. The Archipelago hasn’t had any luck tracking her down.”

But her photo was colorful, and there were no engravings on the frame. With a pang, Riley realized it must have been a deliberate decision.

“Before she left, she said she’ll come back for him soon.” Gina took a deep breath, trying to keep the tears brimming in her eyes from falling. “He’s still waiting.”

Riley gritted her teeth, clenching her hand in a fist. A tear of frustration and anger stung her face. Her cluster had thrown the first punch against BPO, not knowing their actions had led to a war bigger than themselves. In this moment, she was reminded again why they had to go out and fight.

*

July 25, 2017

Versailles was less than an hour’s drive, but it was a close enough location to arrange the trade-off without raising the suspicion they were still in Paris. Their only intention was to get a closer look at Lila’s cluster, which seemed like a silly reason compared to their other battles, but over-preparing wouldn’t hurt. 

And, Nomi thought, clutching the small tracking device she held in her hand, maybe now we can keep a tab on where they  go. 

Will and Henrik were alone in the first van. Nomi and Sun were hiding in the back of the second van, with Kala, Wolfgang and Felix sitting up front. 

“Almost there,” came Amanita’s voice through the wireless device on Nomi’s ear. She heard Henrik and Felix give them the affirmative.

“I’m ready too,” she replied. “Any minute now.”

“Good luck, Noms.”

Nomi sighed. Sun patted her on the shoulder with a sympathetic look in her eye. Nomi would never stop feeling guilty for insisting she came alone on this mission. And by alone, she meant without Neets. 

They’d decided it was going to be a “show up, distract, plant the tracker and run” type of mission, so the less people in tow, the better. Last night, after hours of back-and-forth arguing and pleading, her fiancée had relented on the condition that she wouldn’t be excluded in any future battles.

But all three of the prominent fighters on their team were present in case Lila’s cluster got violent. Wolfgang had insisted he’d recovered, which meant Kala couldn’t be talked out of coming along. Kala had brought a small tranquilizer gun with the needles dipped in a new Blocker formula variation she’d been testing, a useful tool for future invasions. If all went well, she wouldn’t need to come out of her hiding spot. If it didn’t, she’d pointed out, she could at least make an experiment out of it.

“Where should we hide out?” asked Felix through the wireless system, slowing down the van he drove, which had most of the allies in tow.

“It’s an abandoned warehouse,” said Gina, taking over Neets’ microphone now. “Their van’s approaching the door on the north side. There’s a road right in front of that door. Henrik, you and Will can pull up across the road from them.”

“Alright, G,” Henrik responded. Nomi imagined him smiling.

“Be careful, alright?” said Gina. If they weren’t on Blockers, Nomi was sure the younger woman would have visited to give Henrik a piece of her mind. He’d more or less snuck out of the house and hid out in the van Will was planning to drive alone, and didn’t reveal himself until they were on the highway out of Paris. He’d insisted Will needed a backup in case he alone wasn’t enough of a distraction.

Henrik chuckled. “Aren’t I always?”

Gina tutted her tongue. Nomi was sure she was crossing her arms. “Felix,” Gina said instead, avoiding the topic altogether, “there’s a door on the south side that’s left open. You three can pull up there. Quietly. Sneak in, hide behind some cargo.”

“The perfect ambush,” Felix remarked, shifting the gears, turning towards the south side. He and Wolfgang might not reveal themselves at all, if Henrik and Will could hold their own. But a second line of defense was always necessary, especially since Kala was looking to conduct an experiment while they were at it.

“They stopped their van. Same one as last time. Just confirmed the license plate,” Neets was back again. 

Nomi muttered a yes under her breath. They were using the same BPO-licensed van to do all their dirty work like she and Will had expected. It would make tracking them so much easier. All Nomi had to do now was plant the bug on the underside of the van, and get the hell away before anyone noticed.

“Sun,” said Neets. Nomi took off the ear piece and placed it between her ear and Sun’s so they could both hear. “Take care of Noms for me, okay?”

“Don’t worry, Amanita.” Sun’s hands clutched into fists. “I’ll cover her.”

Gina and Neets bid them good luck again as Will parked the van.

*

Will and a dark-haired man in sunglasses stood on opposite sides of the narrow street. The warehouse was in the middle of nowhere, a perfect meeting spot like last time. At this time of day no car would pass by this isolated road.

The man pulled out a piece of folded paper from his jacket’s inner pocket and waved it at Will before tucking it back. Henrik sat in the car per Will’s instruction, crouched under the passenger side window so he couldn’t be spotted. But they both came off Blockers for this mission, so the Dutch man appeared next to him, giving him a thumbs-up. Will tried to keep his expression neutral. He blinked twice in return, careful not to draw suspicion.

“Bring her out,” Lila’s cluster-mate demanded. Will nodded, making his way towards the back, and pulled out a large, bulky chain of two dozen keys from his back pocket. 

The plan was to stall and hope Lila’s cluster-mates would come over and tell Will to hurry up. Or attack him. Or both. Though whether all seven of Lila’s cluster would come over or not, no one could guess. Will tested the keys on the chain one by one, pretending to be annoyed every time the one he tried wouldn’t open the lock.

Like he’d expected, the man in the sunglasses walked over and snatched the chain of keys from Will’s hand. Two other people climbed out from the door of the van facing away, and ran over. One was the scrawny Scot with the woolen hat who was there on the night they captured Lila. The other was a shaggy-haired albino man in all-black.

The albino tried to pin Will’s arms behind his back, but cop training had taught him the foolproof way to resist. He elbowed the man in the nose and found himself in a fight with the albino and the Scot. 

Need help? Henrik thought, his form appeared next to him.

I think I got it. Will threw a punch, hitting the Scot on the side of his jaw. But if more of them come over from that van, he added as a second thought, then drive away. They’ll chase after you. I’ll get a ride from Felix.

Sun visited, nodding in approval at his plan before vanishing.

The two men he fought were scrappy, hard to knock down, and Will felt himself tiring out. Maybe it was their plan all along. A third man in thick black braids and a tiger shirt dashed over from the van to help his cluster-mates.

He’s down to the last five keys, Henrik appeared again, sounding urgent now. Will groaned as he blocked an attack from the third man, not noticing the Scot, who had kicked into his side with a hard-soled foot. Tiny white dots flickered around in Will’s vision, and in his moment of distraction, he found himself locked in a chokehold.

Will was on the verge of blacking out. He gasped for air, squinted and made out the form of Felix and Wolfgang dashing out from their hiding spot inside the warehouse to intervene. They ran out f at full speed and charged at the mob of three men. If Will wasn’t on the verge of passing out, he’d have wondered why only four men were present, and where the rest of the cluster went. 

But it would appear Lila’s cluster-mates had improved their combat skills since their last confrontation, for neither Felix nor Wolfgang could get through to Will.

*

Kala stifled a gasp from her hiding spot behind the northern doors of the warehouse, watching Felix and Wolfgang fight Lila’s cluster-mates back-to-back as the albino man continued to choke Will. Wolfgang’s gun had been knocked aside, a few paces away from his reach. Felix hadn’t had the sense to pull out his from his pocket before he’d rushed out to join his brother, and now he had no time to retrieve it. They pummeled their opponents with their fists however they could, dodging most of the blows.

Kala had been too worried about Wolfgang and Felix to notice a woman crouching from behind the van, out of sight from the fighting mob — until the woman pulled out a gun and aimed for Wolfgang’s head.

Before the woman could pull the trigger, Kala ran out from her hiding spot, all judgement out the window. She grabbed the woman’s right wrist and tried to snatch the gun away, both women kneeling. Kala’s knees scrapped against the gravel through the fabric of her pants. They initiated their own round of ill-matched wrestling. The woman pushed her knee into Kala’s stomach, knocking the wind out of her. She fired the gun while Kala’s hands were still clawing on top of hers.

Thankfully, it didn’t sound like the bullet hit anyone. Kala could make out the sound of Wolfgang shouting something in German. She heard Felix bellowing out curses in multiple languages from where he was still locked in combat. She shifted her body, ignoring the protests of her bruising muscles and the growing nausea pounding through her head from the impact earlier, and angled her arm so her left hand pulled out the tranquilizer gun in her back pocket before the woman could intervene. 

At this proximity, it wasn’t hard to lodge the small needle into the woman’s neck. Their eyes locked, and Kala felt the full force of their connection clicking in place before the woman snarled, distracted enough for Kala to finally yank the pistol from her hand and toss it away, so far she could’ve sworn she heard it hit the outside wall of the warehouse. She heard the buzzing in the back of her mind, the faint hint of the Blocker kicking into place slower than the speed of the usual dose in pill form. 

But before she could react to her apparent success, she heard the sound of a flick, something metallic like a blade. The woman jabbed her arm forward, and Kala felt a sharp pain on her right side. The corner of the woman’s mouth quirked, a victorious smirk. Voices hissed in the back of their shared consciousness, fading as the buzzing grew louder. 

Then Sun and Nomi were rushing to her aid. Nomi yanked off her flannel shirt and pressed it against Kala’s side. Sun threw punches and kicks at Lila’s cluster-mate with a newfound rage, but by some unfortunate miracle the woman had managed to dodge all her hits. Then, before Sun could tackle her down to the ground, she dashed to the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut. 

Kala heard the sound of tires screeching before she closed her eyes and pleaded to Ganesha she wouldn’t fall unconscious.

*

When Sun was sure Nomi and Wolfgang got Kala covered, she made a beeline for the bulk of the action in the middle of the street. Henrik had, against Will’s orders, decided to come to Will’s aid instead of take off with their van, which might have been a fortunate thing, considering Sun had to fight her way past the three men having a go at poor Felix before she could come to Will’s rescue. 

Sun knocked the other men down for a long enough time to catch a glimpse of the man in the sunglasses, the first of Lila’s cluster who emerged from their van, throw open the door to their van. He cursed in what she recognized as Japanese before making a go at the newly-freed Will, who was desperately gasping for air, finding his balance. Henrik stood in front of Will and blocked the attack. The Japanese man grabbed him by the collar and slammed his body against the side of the van and threw punches with his free hand.

The albino man Sun was fighting was tricky. He had nimble hands and strong arms, and although his aims weren’t what she’d call “calculated”, he moved in an agile manner Sun normally wouldn’t expect from someone of his build. It was a challenge to knock him down, and it took more time than usual, but eventually she was able to get away fast enough to rescue Henrik before the Japanese man could deal a fatal blow.

Will stood up and made a move to join her, but she shook her head. Get Felix’s van, she thought, throwing a punch at the Japanese man. Help Henrik. Get Kala and the others.

Sun’s other hand was gripping the back of the jacket. She wanted to grab him by the arm and throw him over her shoulder, but the man wriggled himself loose from his jacket and ran towards the driver’s side of the van Will had driven. Cursing, Sun turned around to look for Lila’s other cluster-mates, only to find them scrambling into the trunk of the same van. They slamming the doors shut, and the Japanese man drove away.

Don’t go after them, thought Will, bringing their second van around. Sun to climbed into the passenger’s side and closed the door. Everyone else must have been in the back.

“But -”

Shaking his head, Will started the van and tossed a Blocker into his mouth, downing it with a bottle of water before passing her the rest of the bottle of pills. She took one, accepting the water Will handed to her, and knocked it down, cringing in anticipation of the unpleasant buzzing as the chemicals worked their ways into her head.

“Nomi got the tracker planted, didn’t she?” asked Will.

“Yeah, but -”

“And you got the jacket. Check the inside pocket.”

Her finger touched against the piece of paper she didn’t know was there. She pulled it out and gasped when she noticed the printed words. They looked like -

“Names of BPO’s sapiens.” Will said, beaming. “Well, some of them. And an address.”

“Veronika’s address?”

“The most recent one, anyway. She’ll probably have others -”

“But it’s a start,” Sun finished his sentence. She turned and frowned at the divider between them and the back trunk, “How’s Kala?”

Will fished out the wireless earpiece Felix had left on the seat before he exited the van earlier and passed it to Sun. She pushed the small button on the side and waited for a signal.

After a few seconds, she heard static from the other end, before, “Hello?”

“Nomi. We got the list. How’s Kala?”

“Stable.” She could hear the relief in Nomi’s voice. “We’ve staunched the bleeding. She’s awake. Doesn’t seem like the blade cut too deep. Thank God.”

Will looked at her with a puzzled glance. She gave him a curt nod, and they both sighed in relief. “Are Henrik and Felix okay?” Will asked. Sun relayed the question.

“Yeah. Just bruised. A lot,” said Nomi. “I contacted Neets and Gina. They’re calling in a doctor with the Archipelago’s help. I’m so glad we didn’t go with Nantes.”

Sun murmured an agreement. A city four hours’ drive away from Paris would’ve put any injured person at risk on their way back, even if Kala’s condition seemed stable for now. As they drove onto the highway with one less van in tow but no one in mortal peril, Sun wondered whether they were getting too used to going all-out in their battles. She wondered if they were really as undefeatable as most of their sensate allies claimed, or if there were other reasons they always seemed to make it out of their fights unscathed.

One possibility was, she looked down at the paper in her hand, this list was merely a decoy, like their arranged trade-off with Lila’s cluster. Another was Veronika had ordered everyone to refrain from killing until she could get to them personally. (It’s what your brother would have done, said a voice in her mind, one that, strangely enough, sounded like Detective Mun.)

The last possibility would be that this was a distraction. From what, she wasn’t sure. A way to draw out the fighters among them so BPO could kidnap the rest of their allies? She swallowed, shaking her head when Will asked if something was wrong. It couldn’t be, she reasoned. Nomi just called them. They’re fine. They’re all fine.

Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling something was missing.

*

Jonas hadn’t expected anyone to get hurt.

Perhaps the August 8 cluster had had too many successes since the last time they’d nearly fallen prey to Whispers’ operation, but when Amanita said Kala had gotten cut with a blade, he felt a pounding in his head. He breathed in and out, slowly, trying to appear calm and collected as always. After everything, this would be the worst time to draw suspicion.

Why are you doing this, Jonas? said a voice in his mind, one that sounded like Will. Why? 

He shook his head to get rid of the thought, knowing he was on Blockers, and there was no trace of memory anyone could detect after he had taken a new dose an hour ago. He’d let his previous dose wear off long enough to contact Stanley, one of his oldest friends in the Veracity operation base near Paris. One of the few who’d understand.

Jonas had met Stanley behind the tall bushes in the back garden shortly after. The retired scientist had given him a syringe filled with a thick yellow liquid before going back to the van he’d driven over, parked a five minutes’ walk away out of sight. Jonas had hidden the syringe in the back pocket of his jeans next to the injectable Blocker he’d nicked from the lab supply closet earlier. He’d returned to the house through the side door moments before Will and the others parked their remaining van in the driveway.

Everyone in the house, save for the children who had fallen asleep under Miki and Genevieve’s watch, were too preoccupied with bringing the Archipelago doctor up to speed to notice he’d slipped out. Moments later they busied themselves by towing a half-conscious Kala to the basement, some turning back to help Felix and Henrik, who limped down the stairs, looking worse for wear. 

All the injured people were being treated in the lab. The counters were cleared of all beakers and chemicals, acting as temporary operation tables. The Archipelago doctor barked out orders for everyone else to help. He instructed Wolfgang to remove Nomi’s shirt around Kala’s torso. Wolfgang’s hands were steady like always, but he gritted his teeth when he peeled the fabric away, and his eyes screamed murder when his fingers became stained with Kala’s blood.

“No damage to the internal organs,” Jonas heard the doctor say a few moments after he’d shone a flashlight around the cut. “But we need to disinfect the wound. And she’s going to need stitches.”

Jonas wanted to linger, to see if Felix and Henrik didn’t have any internal damage either. But he slipped out of the door of the lab before he had a chance to convince himself to stay. There was work to be done.

Deep down, Jonas had hoped he was wrong. He had hoped Will’s cluster would change their minds and bring Lila along for real after all. Whether Lila’s cluster would have managed to save her from there would have been another matter, one he wouldn’t be responsible for no matter the outcome.

It would have spared Will and the others from the rage that would surely come from this betrayal.

But Jonas couldn’t take sides. Not for his own sake, and not for Angelica’s. He couldn’t choose between Lila’s cluster and Will’s. And after siding with one for too long, it was only fair, only sensible, to lend a hand to the other.

Lila’s room was on the other end of the basement, and he walked slowly, ears trained in case anyone else came downstairs and caught him in the act. No one stopped him. The keys he’d stolen jingled in his pocket along with the bottle of Blockers, and with a sigh, he pulled it out and jammed it into the knob, hearing Lila’s surprised gasp on the other side.

He pushed the door open to a slit.

“Jonas?” She quirked an eyebrow, scanning the area behind him. “You’re alone?”

“If you want to leave, follow me now. Quietly.”

Now you’ve decided to help?”

He shot her a glare. Lila rolled her eyes and tip toed out of the room and shut the door gently behind her, careful not to make a sound. He gestured at the stairs a few paces away, the barely used one on the far end of the house. She stepped in front of him. Before she could start climbing, Jonas pulled out Stanley’s syringe and injected the yellow into the back of Lila’s neck. He put a hand over her mouth before she could protest.

“This paralyzes the eye muscles temporarily,” he whispered into her ear before pushing her forward. “It’s relatively quick-acting, but you’ll be able to make out the steps on the stairs. Your vision acuity will start to fade. You won’t be able to see much else, so I would suggest you don’t try to deduce your whereabouts.”

She opened her mouth when he released his hand. It looked like she was going to curse, but she held her tongue. Slowly, she laid a hand on the railing and pulled herself up, careful to keep the floorboard from creaking. He walked behind her, a hand on her shoulder to guide her out the back door. It clicked shut behind him, and he felt his heart skip a beat.

This was it. He’d done it. There was no turning back.

The cluster and allies wouldn’t notice Jonas had left the lab until half an hour later, after Kala’s wound had been stitched up and Henrik and Felix had been given the appropriate medication for their contusions. They would not find their prisoner’s room unlocked for another ten minutes. 

When they did, Jonas and Lila was already in the back of a rental van driven by Stanley, on their way out of Paris.

Chapter Text

July 26, 2017

It was five hours after Jonas and Lila escaped when Will made contact with him. Will’s first instinct was to punch Jonas in the face. The only thing that stopped him was Nomi’s grip on his arm back in the living room of their safe house reminded him of the priority. Squinting, he looked around at the darkness of Jonas’ surroundings.

Lila was leaning against the corner, knees against her chest. He tried to make contact with her — he’d interrogated the Neapolitan once, but had less success than Riley — but was surprised to find her mind undetectable except for the faint buzzing sound.

“I’ll make sure she stays on Blockers,” Jonas’ voice cut in. His form was barely noticeable, but once he’d announced his presence, it was hard for Will to miss the sight of him sitting cross-legged against the wall? The van? The -

“We’re in the back of a van, yes,” he answered.

“What the hell?!” was Will’s response.

“There are things I cannot tell even you, Will,” said Jonas, drawling, his voice reverberating around the space. 

Lila sat up straight, then. Her hands fumbled around in the air. When she spoke, the bitterness was hard to miss. “A visitor? How delightful.”

“What’s up with her?”

“I procured a medication that paralyzed her eye muscles. She should recover in another hour or so. But she wasn’t able to see the details of your hideout. And rest assured, I don’t plan to divulge your whereabouts.”

Will crossed his arms. “How thoughtful.”

Jonas shrugged. “I did what I had to.”

Why?”

“I need her assistance in the next stage of my operation, Will. Like you needed the information from her cluster for yours.”

Will sputtered, incredulous. “Since when did you get your own agenda?”

“I’ve always had my own agenda. I was just waiting for the right time.”

“After all the -” he put his face in his hands, and felt himself kick a coffee stand back in the living room in Paris, before Nomi laid a hand on his shoulder and whispered soothing words in his ears - “You know what? I don’t fucking care anymore. Do whatever the hell you want. But if BPO catches you again, it’s all on you.”

“Understood.” Jonas sighed. He pulled out the bottle of Blockers he’d stolen and some water, swallowing one capsule before Will could get a chance to throw a punch.

Will found his consciousness back in the living room, and his fist landed on the couch cushion. Nomi pulled his arms behind his back as best she could before he could try to hit something again. 

So that’s it, then? he thought, knowing there were a few seconds when Jonas could still hear.

I’m sorry, Will, Jonas thought back. Will couldn't trust the sincerity in Jonas' voice. I wish I could tell you, but for your own safety, I believe it’s best you don’t know for the time being.

“You don’t get to decide!” Will shouted out loud, bellowing at an empty couch he faced. “You don’t get to decide what we shouldn’t know!”

I’ll see you again, thought Jonas, before the Blocker kicked in.

*

Breakfast was a silent affair that morning. Wolfgang hadn’t left Kala’s side since they’d carried her back to her room, and Riley had brought up a tray for them. Dani started fussing over Felix as soon as he came down, and although he played it cool and insisted he was barely hurt, never mind the way he winced every time he turned to reach for something, his smug grin suggested he enjoyed the attention. 

Henrik, however, was desperately trying to avoid the same attention from Gina. He wore a bandage across his forehead. He’d gotten a cut — apparently Lila’s cluster-mate had worn rings — but nothing severe enough to require stitches.

“What if he had a blade?” Gina whispered, their voices muffled against the sound of the sizzle of the frying pans where he was making scrambled eggs.

“He didn’t,” he insisted, turning to give her a reassuring smile. “It’s just a scratch."

“But your bruises -” she reached to graze her fingertips against his blue button-up, careful not to prod against the contusions on his skin.

“- Are only bruises,” he finished for her. “Doctor said no internal damage. I’m fine, schatje.”

“Yeah. This time,” she mumbled.

“I’ll be careful next time. You’re not getting rid of me so soon.”

She hummed, not fully convinced, and plucked the spatula from his hand. “Promise?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He raised his hands in surrender, laying down the pan. She took the opportunity to snatch it over by the handle with her free hand. She waved at a chair with the spatula and gave him a stern librarian-esque look until he gave in and sat down.

Riley and Will looked at their exchange and laced their hands under the table. When Henrik sat down, Amanita winked, making Will blush to everyone’s amusement.

“We were pretty lucky,” Nomi pointed out. “God, we could’ve -” 

She paused. No one needed to finish her thought. Across the table, Kiira frowned, twirling a strand of tight curls with one finger, lost in thought. Capheus noticed the change in her expression. He turned to Mavis for answers. She shrugged.

After a moment, Kiira said, “I was helping the doctor with Kala’s stitches yesterday. It was -” she hesitated.

“What is it?” asked Nomi.

“It was a clean cut,” she said. “Straight, no turn of the blade down the middle.”

Nomi frowned, too. “You think she did it on purpose? But why didn’t she -” she sighed, stopping herself again.

“I overheard something about Lila’s cluster, when I worked at BPO,” Mavis chipped in. “The higher-ups knew all eight of them. But they seemed scared of this one woman. They called her Marcela — that’s all I could overhear. Did she do this?”

“It was a woman,” Nomi remembered. “Only one woman showed up last night.”

“If we assume it was her,” Mavis added, “why didn’t she go for the kill? Unless -”

“She meant to keep Kala alive,” Kiira finished for her. “The position of the cut seemed deliberate. Deep enough to draw blood, but not enough to puncture any organs.”

Capheus looked at his sister. “You think she wanted to scare us off?”

“Seems like it,” Kiira said. She turned to Nomi. “And you said they were close when she pulled out the blade?”

“Yeah. Really close.”

“It had to be calculated,” she concluded. “And Marcela would have to know a lot about human anatomy if she’d made the cut so quickly in the middle of a struggle.”

“She could’ve been an assassin,” Mavis speculated. “That’ll scare anyone.”

An assassin. If that was the case, Kala had had a very narrow escape.

“But why?” Capheus voiced the question on everyone’s minds. “What was she after?”

“When Lila was looking for Wolfgang, she said she wanted help,” said Will. 

“And only five people showed up for the trade-off,” Nomi remembered.

Capheus perked up. “You don’t think BPO did something to her cluster?”

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” said Amanita, exchanging a worried look with everyone else. “But if they’re asking for help, they’ve got the worst way of showing it.”

*

“Is the full Hazmat gear really necessary?” Lila complained, tugging at the tight strings of the oxygen tank behind her back.

Jonas shut her up with a sigh as they rode up to the elevator of the Chicago facility. Their arrival had been smoother than planned, thanks to the Veracity infiltrators Jonas had contacted prior to their landing. He’d timed his Blocker intake so he could get a few minutes’ window in between his doses, not enough time for Headhunters to deduce his whereabouts, but sufficient for contacting old friends.

The Egyptian had been moved several times during his capture, though the Archipelago had always been on the lookout for his transfers. Whispers had known Jonas and Kareem were old friends, though no one in the Archipelago had heard of Jonas’ escape save for the few he trusted to keep this discreet. 

“This is no time to wonder about fashion, Lila,” he whispered back. It was a good thing elevator surveillance didn’t come with voice recordings.

“Did my cluster agree to this?” she asked. “When you told my cluster you’d rescue me, did you tell them you were going to blind me and ship me off to Chicago?”

“The agreement was I release you if the August 8 cluster didn’t. I said nothing about bringing you back to them.”

If it weren’t for the masks, Jonas would probably find her rolling her eyes.

“If you’re unsatisfied with your arrangement, I can contact Will and have you sent right back to their basement.”

She sounded like she was going to say something, perhaps give him a piece of her mind for forcing her into this deal, but the elevator stopped, and she was sensible enough to keep her mouth shut.

The elevator door opened, and they found themselves face to face with four guards standing outside, blocking the double door to the interrogation room. Keeping his hands from shaking, Jonas took out the ID of the man he’d stolen the suit from. His contacts had assured him the man was appointed to Kareem.

“The Chairman said the prisoner is not to be tended to until tomorrow,” said the guard.

Jonas turned and gave Lila a small nod. Keeping her voice low, she said, “We’ve been informed the prisoner’s Blocker wore off early. We’ve been ordered to tend to him at once.”

“Ordered by who?”

Words weren’t going to help with this current mission, Jonas decided. He tugged at the elastic behind his mask, making sure Lila could see his signal. She mumbled something about searching for the message and reached for the communication device in her back pocket — a simple miniature tablet designed for the higher-ups and the lower employees to communicate and keep up with BPO’s operations.

But instead of the tablet, which they’d left at the bottom of the basement staircases after they’d gotten changed, she pulled out a gun. Before the guards could draw out their tasers, she shot the guard nearest to her in the chest. Jonas followed suit, pulling out his own gun.

And was zapped by the taser barbs that shot out from one of the other guards’ hands.

Jonas could understand why Sun was shaken by the contraption now. It was like tiny wires had wormed their ways into his veins. His muscle twitched, and the barbs scratched his muscles from the inside out. He gritted his teeth and did his best to stop a scream from escaping. It would have been a dead giveaway.

Fortunately, the source of his shock died down. Seconds later the barbs were wrenched from his torso. He squatted and gasped for air, squeezing his eyes shut until the dizziness subsided and his heart rate slowed back to normal.

Jonas put a hand over the two small cuts where the barbs had punctured through his Hazmat suit and his skin. He pressed lightly, gritting his teeth when the pain hit. When he pulled his hand away, there were droplets of blood on his gloved fingers. The injuries weren’t severe, but they were jarring enough for him to cringe at the spot on his torso where the white fabric stained red.

“You’re useless.” Lila hoisted him up by the underarm.

“I did take your expertise into consideration for this particular plan,” he croaked.

She scoffed, sauntering into the room. “You’d be dead if you didn’t.”

“Much appreciated.” He resisted the urge to groan before he followed suit.

Kareem was awake when they entered, breathing raggedly. His face was gaunt and gray-tinged. The dark purple rings underneath bloodshot eyes and dribbles of dried blood down his chin made him looked like he’d climbed straight out of a casket, out of a graveyard underneath a haunted hospital.

He looked like he’d prepared to snarl, but stopped himself upon seeing the red spots on Jonas’ suit. “You got f-fucking shot,” he said, his voice hoarse, eyes wide. He curled his mouth into a demented smile. “Hope that -” he wheezed - “that kills you, scum.”

With a sigh, Jonas pulled up his mask, revealing his face. “My sources tell me your lobotomy is scheduled for tomorrow, Kareem,” he informed. He stepped aside and pulled open a nearby drawer to fish out a body bag. 

“Jonasss,” slurred Kareem. “’S about time, mate.”

Upon closer inspection, his pupils were dilated. What drug they injected him with, Jonas didn’t want to stay long enough to find out.

“We don’t have long until someone realizes there are four dead guards outside this door. So I would appreciate if you could keep quiet while we disguise you as a corpse.”

Kareem mumbled something in Arabic. They took it as a yes, and placed the body bag beside him on the stretcher. On the count of three, they rolled him in, adjusting the fabric before pulling the zipper shut. 

“Where now?” asked Lila.

“The morgue,” said Jonas, looking at the watch he’d placed outside the sleeve of his Hazmat suit. “Then we’ll pretend this patient -” he walked to the end of the stretcher, and together, they started pushing it out the door towards the elevator - “was a lobotomy gone wrong.”

*

In her office in London, Veronika sighed. She looked across her desk at Bernard Kolovi, who looked her in the eye, calm as ever as he delivered the bad news.

“They didn’t get Lila back?” she asked, trying not to sound too agitated. She scribbled a few words on a notepad before tearing off the paper to hand to the Professor. 

July 14th. Paris.

“The August 8 cluster didn’t fulfill their end of the bargain. Maitake said they didn’t bring Lila to the trade at all.”

That was hardly shocking. Truth be told, she’d anticipated another betrayal from the rebels’ end. They never played by the rules. But what surprised her was, once again, the rogue sensates had made it out of the fight unscathed.

As if to answer her question, the Professor added, “Mrs Rasal was injured. Marcela said she’d cut her with a blade.”

Veronika raised an eyebrow. “Dead?”

“She hadn’t had time to finish her off. They came prepared.”

That gave her a pause. It was the first time she’d heard of a failed assassination attempt from Marcela. Though to some extent it was a relief — she’d wanted the entire cluster together. Then the Professor could conduct his experiments to their full extent before she finished them off one by one.

“I thought you wanted them alive,” the Professor remarked, sensing what Veronika was about to say. It was unnerving when a fellow sapien exhibited a skill akin to the sensates’ powers. Bernard knew her well, but even then -

She shook the thought from her head. She stood up and walked over to the coat rack, pulling off her black trench coat with her favorite dagger brooch, then snapping her finger to turn off her desk lamp. Following her cue, the Professor stood up as well.

“I do want them alive,” she told him. “But Lila’s cluster understand my intention, and I expected them to do the opposite of what they were told.”

“Ahh.” He opened the door and gestured for her to exit, closing it behind him.

“Precisely. I wonder what made them change their mind.” She frowned. By this stage, there was no reason to hope they’d come to their senses. She wished she could see what they were hiding. The surveillance from their rooms gave away nothing. Perhaps she ought to ask Karl or Milton to take a look inside their minds.

They stepped inside the elevator.

“Any news on the August 8 cluster’s location?”

Veronika tutted her tongue. “They have hackers in their midst. It’s difficult to find them through surveillance. Perhaps it’s time for Plan B.”

“And what would that be?”

“Similar to my recruitment strategies.” She took out a compact mirror and a tube of red lipstick, and retouched her makeup as the elevator came to a descent on the ground floor, in preparation for her meeting with a BBC journalist later this evening. “Interrogations.”

“Find a sensate who’s been in contact with them?”

“Precisely.” She buttoned her trench coat and slipped the makeup back into her purse. “And we can search for a contact within a small enough range. We know they’re hiding in Western Europe, based on their trading arrangements in France with Lila’s cluster. No large group would arrange to travel across continents for a decoy trade-off.”

“A reasonable analysis. And they can’t be far from a major city.”

She sneered, blue eyes glinting. “There’s only so many places their possible contacts could be. Send a few men on the streets as lookout, and they should be spotted in no time.”

“No time at all,” echoed Professor Kolovi.

*

July 27, 2017

Nomi found herself drawn to cafés. There was something profoundly welcoming about the smell of the coffee, the whirring of the machines, the quiet chatters of the patrons… On lazy Sundays, she liked to find a nook in the café near City Lights where Neets worked, a quiet corner where she could work on her blog and watch people go about their day.

She and Amanita had developed their own little tradition. Every time they travelled for a romantic getaway, they’d search the internet for the best coffee shop in the area and spend their first few hours there sampling their local selection of specialty drinks. So now that Nomi and her fiancée found themselves in Iceland, they gravitated towards Riley’s favorite coffee shop in the neighborhood where she lived.

“You think this will work?” asked Amanita, leaning in close. They scanned the overhead menu for something to order.

“It should.” Nomi looked around to make sure no one was eavesdropping. “These people have eyes and ears everywhere. And Lito’s not exactly hard to miss.”

“Yeah. Wouldn’t wanna be him right now.” 

Nomi smirked, picturing poor Lito surrounded by a gaggle of admirers at seven in the morning, assuming his Pride video had gotten hits from Iceland. Usually Lito would have been delighted to greet his fans, but when their intention was to draw BPO’s attention to their location, it took away most of the excitement.

The man in front of them moved away, having received his drink on a small wooden tray with intricate floral carvings at the edges. 

Góðan dag!” greeted the cashier. 

Before Amanita could open her mouth to explain she couldn’t speak Icelandic, Nomi had already greeted the woman back in the same language and ordered two mochas with whipped cream, knowing they’d need a double energy boost.

They stepped aside to let the next person order. “I forgot about the language thing,” Amanita said, flashing a conspiratorial smile. “That’s the first time I heard you speak one.”

“Riley’s not awake yet, so -” she tapped the side of her head and winked. 

Neets’ eyes widened before she pulled Nomi close by the shoulder. “You sound hot in Icelandic, Noms,” she whispered, making Nomi blush.

The friendly cashier returned with their tray after taking the next order. They found a corner booth with cushy seats, a perfect place to cuddle up in private and keep an eye on the front door in case Lito and his family walked in to join them. Amanita slid in and pulled Nomi along, ignoring the seat on the other side. From the window, they could see the empty streets save for one or two people on the sidewalk strolling about.

“Nice view,” said Nomi, admiring the cute shop fronts on the other side. She cupped her hands around the red patterned mug to warm herself up. Despite Riley’s warnings, they had come a little underdressed, particularly so when they’d landed at five in the morning.

Neets turned to peck her on the cheek. “It is,” she said, admiring her fiancée. 

Before Nomi could say something sweet in return, Neets had stolen the mug from her hands, brought it to her lips, and bit off a chunk of whipped cream from the top before placing it back on the table.

“Cheeky.” Nomi pretended to be annoyed. “You’ve got some on your nose.”

Amanita swiped the cream from the tip of her nose and sucked her finger, eyebrow raised in challenge. Nomi pulled her closer by the waist and kissed the remainder of the cream off her nose, giggling when she heard a squeal.

“Nice comeback,” said Neets. She reached for her own mug, ate some more cream with a spoon, and blew on the drink to cool it down. She moaned after she took her first sip.

“Good?”

Nodding, Neets shoved the mug under her nose. “Try it.”

They passed the first mug back and forth in comfortable silence. Nomi took a Blocker pill in the meantime, and with the newfound security, they admired the café, enjoying each other’s presence. It was a rare opportunity to be so far away from their other allies.

“Call it a date?” asked Neets. Of course she knew what was on her mind.

“Remember our first?”

“Mm.” Neets cuddled against her again, their heads leaning against the soft backs of the chair at the booth. “The first chapter.”

It was three days after Neets had asked her number in City Lights, five days after Pride. They’d met up at the café near the bookstore which would later become their favorite hangout spot. Nomi had gotten there fifteen minutes early.

And Neets had come ten minutes late.

Nomi had begun to think Amanita wasn’t going to show up. But then there she was, crashing through the door. She’d weaved rainbow streaks into her hair, and her long braids whipped around her shoulders as she scanned the room for her date. With her purple bold-patterned romper and a studded leather jacket, Amanita was a whirlwind of vibrant hues. She’d caught the attention of the whole room, including the barista, who stopped in the middle of mixing her drink to stare. 

But she only had eyes for Nomi. Nomi, who sat in a corner, her face masked behind an old worn copy of The Secret of the Old Clock she always kept in her bag. She put the book away and caught Amanita’s attention with a shy wave. Amanita smiled and hurried over. The smile sent tingles up Nomi’s spine.

I’m so sorry, she’d said, plopping down on the seat opposite of Nomi. I thought I’d be out by three, then we got held up by this one customer who couldn’t decide which Terry Pratchett novel to get, and he finally decided and I had to ring him up and his credit card was declined but he didn’t -

It’s fine, Nomi interrupted before Amanita could work herself up into a frenzy. Amanita smiled again, this time in apology. Nomi chuckled.

They’d started chatting about their day, about what they did for a living, where they lived… Amanita had gone off on tangents more times than Nomi could count. Somehow they’d ended up talking about the merit of breakfast foods. The rabbit trails made her all the more endearing. Three hours later, before they’d parted, Amanita noticed the copy of the Nancy Drew book sticking out the top of Nomi’s bag.

Saw you reading that when I came in. You’re in for a wild ride. Carolyn Keene is magic.

I know, Nomi said, turning her backpack around show her a W.W.N.D.D. button among others. I’ve been there.

What the hell. Amanita leaned in to admire her collection. Where have you been all my life?

They’d met up every week after their first date, always at a wild place in San Francisco Nomi had never heard of. But Neets seemed to know all the cool neighborhoods like the back of her hand. When they weren’t meeting in person, they were texting. Amanita had a way of engaging her in conversation about the most mundane things in life and make her think. 

Before long, every week turned to every day, until they were seeing each other so much — before work, after work, at some indie bar in The Mission sharing a drink till midnight — they decided to move in together. 

Where have you been all my life? After they’d gone through hell and back, Nomi found herself asking the same question everyday.

“I don’t know where I’d be if I hadn’t walked into City Lights that day,” Nomi reflected, grabbing their second cup of mocha.

Amanita frowned, thinking. “That’s a problem for a parallel universe Noms.”

Nomi chuckled. “Wouldn’t wanna be her.”

“No,” Amanita brought up her left hand, examining the way the light glinted on the surface of the gem on her engagement ring. “I can’t even imagine.”

*

The streets of Reykjavik were quiet in the early morning except for the ebb and flow of the waves on the shore. The quaint, colorful houses with slanted roofs looked like a scene straight out of a painting. Hernando appreciated all forms of beauty, and after spending most of his days cooped up indoors, Iceland was a sight for sore eyes.

After Lila had escaped, some of them had decided to travel around and, if luck would have it, be spotted in a city far from Paris under BPO’s surveillance. They’d considered finding a new hideout altogether, but with the majority of the Archipelago on quarantine as a result of the recent troubles in the Blocker trade, it was difficult for Mavis’ contacts to find a place in close proximity to London. And it was crucial for them to stay close to the base of Veronika’s operations, in case they find themselves planning another raid.

Words he never thought he’d hear himself think.

The plan was to stay close to the neighborhood where Riley once lived and wait for Will to bring Riley’s father up to speed, though Hernando suspected it wasn’t the sole intention of Will’s visit. They’d arranged with Veracity agents to transfer Riley’s father to an Archipelago safe house after their meeting. Once BPO heard Lito’s cluster had been here, it would put the man in danger.

“It’s so… calm,” Dani said in a quiet voice, trying not to disturb the peace. 

“Feels like we’re intruding on a scene that’s meant to be left alone,” Hernando responded. He stopped in his tracks, and his family did the same. Frowning, he scrutinized a house which was painted sunset yellow, the paint chipping away at the corners of the panels, revealing the rusty texture underneath.

On his other side, Lito squeezed his hand and smirked. “One of your artistic reflections?”

“He’s always reflecting on something.” Dani tugged him on the arm. “Aren’t you?” 

He shrugged. “You could say that.”

They continued walking in silence, not mindful of the direction they were traveling. The soles of their shoes thudded against the ground in a sporadic fashion, a staccato of footsteps tapping a rhythm of their own creation. 

“Feels like we’re being watched,” Hernando said, his voice strained. The last time he set out to help Lito’s cluster on a mission, it was all too clear his lack of ability for combat put them in more jeopardy. But with their identities exposed, they, along with Nomi and Amanita, were the best baits. He prayed BPO’s eyes and ears wouldn’t relay the message back to the headquarters in time for an immediate capture.

“We might be,” Dani pointed out, whispering in case anyone was eavesdropping — it would be so easy to do in a place with little background noise. “That was the plan, wasn’t it?”

“It’s not that.” Hernando shook his head. “It’s - it’s more of a feeling. We’re the only people here. If someone -” he pointed to the large drop-down window of a nearby house, the curtains drawn shut from the inside - “if someone looks out, they’ll see us. Just us.”

“I know what you mean,” said Lito. “I feel it too. Like we’re under a spotlight. Except we don’t know if anyone’s watching, or if everyone’s watching -”

Dani shot Lito a glare, looking between him and a visibly nervous Hernando, and mouthed not helping. Before long, both their arms were wrapped protectively around Hernando’s shoulder. Hernando felt his tension subside. Dani reached up her hand and tousled the hair on the back of his head, giving him a playful wink.

Though they were both capital cities, Reykjavik was completely different from Mexico City where he grew up. Hernando had always thought of skyscrapers and crowded streets as an extension of his home. In Mexico City, he brushed past the shoulders of pedestrians every time he walked down the street, living his life under public scrutiny. But he knew no one would stop and take a closer look at a random stranger. 

It was liberating to blend into the crowd. Or, in Lito and Dani’s case, saunter past them in fancy suits and gowns, flashing a smile at the camera, waving to the screaming fans. Here, there was no need to put up a front. And Hernando found the freedom unsettling.

They reached the end of the road and turned left to head to the coffee shop uphill, where Nomi and Amanita had gone an hour ago. On the way, all three of them remained silent. After staying in safe houses with more than a dozen people for a month, speaking out in the open with no one else around made them feel awkward. Vulnerable, even.

It was ironic, because Hernando used to crave this quiet freedom above anything else.

He’d always fallen for artists. Something about their expressiveness drew him to them. He was the connoisseur of artists’ personas, the aspects of themselves they chose to reveal to the public eye. But that wasn’t why he gravitated towards men with a penchant for making a statement. It wasn’t so much what they revealed he desired to see, but what remained hidden, reserved for a selected few.

When he was nineteen, he’d dated a man named José. José studied fine arts at the Academia de Artes where he was studying art history. They’d agreed to keep their relationship secret for the sake of their safety. Hernando had spent countless afternoons in José’s studio discussing the employment of shading techniques for anatomical sketches, or the implications of his pastel drawing of a pale orange sunrise…

José’s voice had a soft gravely cadence. When he spoke of his art, he sounded like whispering autumn winds. His studio was cramped with racks, paints and and canvases, and smelled of old acrylic. They barely had enough space to sit down at the equally crowded desk, but the studio was their safe space, a place where they could openly explore each other without facing judgement or consequences to their future careers.

They’d still worried they might be overheard. Their favorite time was after midnight, when other students who occupied the neighboring studios wasn’t there to listen in on their conversations. Back then Hernando had dreamed of moving to a place where the two of them could be free: a place where no one knew who they were, and no one cared.

He hadn’t realized they’d stopped in front of the quaint little café until Lito tapped him on the shoulder. Dani turned to him, eyebrow raised. He offered a small apologetic smile, and mumbled something about getting distracted.

“Something on your mind, Hernando?” Lito whispered close to his ear, pulling him by the arm until they were standing against one side of the café, away from the main road. 

“Just remembering.”

Lito touched his cheek. His thumbs pausing to stroke at Hernando’s beard, grinning at the way the hair scratched the surface of his palm. Lito used to complain his beard was too spiky, and it made his face itch whenever they kissed. But he’d gotten used to the feeling of the beard, like Hernando had gotten used to hiding his love behind closed doors.

“You don’t have to be afraid,” Lito whispered, leaning in until their noses touched. He tilted his head. When he spoke, their lips touched. The warmth sent a shiver down his spine. “Here, we can be ourselves.”

Dani mouthed an aww. She’d leaned against the wall to give them a little space, but watched them intently, masking a smile. She pulled out her phone and snapped a picture.

“That’s the problem,” Hernando whispered back, doing a double take when he discovered his voice was hoarse from arousal. He reminded himself to be discreet. “We have no disguise. They knows who we are. They know about -” he looked between himself, and Lito and Dani - “about this.”

“Because they know what they’re looking for.” Lito gestured to the front steps of the café, where a man and a woman holding hands stepped inside the glass door. “But these people? They don’t know us. They’re not looking for anything. To them we just are.”

“Are you sure we’ll -” he looked around again, making sure no one was eavesdropping - “we’ll be out on time? What if -”

Lito shushed him by putting a finger on his lips. Without thinking, Hernando crossed his eyes to look at it. His expression made all three of them break into fits of giggles.

When the laughter subsided, Lito reached for his hands. His hands were much warmer, bursting with his signature passion even in the direst of times. “We’ll be fine,” Lito reassured. “We always are. Have you ever seen us fail, Hernando?”

Hernando frowned, recalling all the times he’d seen Lito’s cluster put up a fight. He sighed. “You haven’t yet -”

“Uh uh uh -” Lito held up his finger, shushing him before he could express the rest of his doubts - “and we don’t plan on it. End of discussion.”

“We’ll be fine,” Dani agreed. “We’ve survived worse. This?” She led the way to the front door of the cafe. “This is a vacation.”

“A romantic getaway,” Lito whispered in his ear, still holding his hand as they followed Dani.

Hernando blushed. It warmed him up from the inside. “If you say so,” he finally conceded.

“Ooh!” Dani squealed. She stopped in front of the door and saw the chalkboard sign, filled with beautiful calligraphy in several languages Hernando could admire all day long. She pointed at one line in English, written in pink words with blue accents. There was a miniature drawings of a mug of hot chocolate and marshmallows. “Perfect! Three for two!”

*

Riley’s house was like how Will remembered: warm, cozy, an eclectic mix of classical taste and modern, whimsical decors. Gunnar came to the back door as soon as he knocked. He’d been waiting in the kitchen, preparing a kettle for tea.

“You must be Will,” said Gunnar, beckoning him in. He looked around to make sure no one else was nearby, and shut the door behind him.

“Good morning,” said Will. He wished he didn’t have to be on Blockers, it would have been nice to speak Icelandic as a first impression. But he couldn’t risk it with Whispers snooping in the back of his head. 

And Riley couldn’t know. Not yet. He pulled down his gray hoodie to hide the bulge of the velvet box in the front pocket of his jeans. And then he realized he didn’t know where to put his hands. Did he always have this problem?

“A young woman phoned ahead. Told me you were coming.”

Nodding, Will reminded himself to thank Mavis for giving Gunnar a heads-up, shoving his hands into the pockets of his hoodie.

“She also sent some documents over.” Gunnar frowned, moving to pick the kettle off the stove. “I don’t know how she got my email. I didn’t ask how she got my email. There was something about science. Genetics. Brain scans.”

Will froze in his tracks, a few paces from the kitchen table. “What did she send you?”

“I read through them all.” Gunnar sat down and laid the tray of two mugs and the kettle on the table, gesturing for Will to take the opposite seat. “Couldn’t really understand them, but it was about… neurobiology? There were brain scans. Data on genetics.”

“Oh. That.” Will sat down, but didn’t know where to look. He wanted to look Gunnar in the eye. He should. But it was difficult enough to come up with an explanation, let alone see Riley’s father react to it all. 

“I was hoping you can explain it,” said Gunnar, putting a teabag into each mug before adding the water. “The woman said you were with Riley in Amsterdam. And before that, at the new hospital here in Reykjavik they’d transferred her to.”

Will breathed a sigh of relief. At least Mavis had given him a viable starting point. “About the hospital… Did they say where they were taking Riley? Or why?”

“They said it was a private hospital. They wanted… They wanted to do a brain scan. Said she had an aneurysm, and they needed to see if there was a bigger problem.”

“That was a lie,” Will blurted out. Gunnar looked shocked at the harshness of his voice, and he felt himself flush. He hadn’t meant to sound so aggressive. “I mean,” he continued, his voice calmer now, “they wanted to hurt Riley. Because there’s something different about her brain — about our brains — and they wanted to study us.”

“By hurting you?”

Gunnar’s voice shook. Will looked up and saw his eyes had gone dim. “By hurting us. Yeah. But I got Riley out in time. They’ve been hunting us down. We had to hide.”

Riley’s father took a deep breath, leaning forward, propping a hand against his forehead. “They were the same people who took Ellen.”

His heart stopped a beat. “Riley’s mother?”

Gunnar looked at the rings on his hand, fixating on the wedding band, as if the memory was strong enough to bring her back. “She was ill, and they said - they said they needed to do a full brain scan, see if something’s causing the illness from inside her brain. They transferred her to the same facility. A week later they told us she passed away.” He shook his head.

“That was a lie,” Will said again, gentler now. He turned back and saw the old family portrait on the bookshelf by the piano: the three of them sitting in the living room on Christmas Eve, singing along as Gunnar played on the ukulele. 

When he turned back, Gunnar was wiping his eyes with a tissue. He breathed in, slowly, and shook his head. “I suspected something was off. They wouldn’t let us see her body. Said she was cremated. Something about biological contamination.”

Lies. Will had spent his whole life trying to discover the truth behind Sara’s death. But for Riley and Sara’s parents, someone whose loved one had been taken from them without an explanation, the pain must have been unimaginable.

“You’re saying they tried to take Riley, too?” he asked.

Will nodded. “They did. We didn’t let them.”

“We?”

“There’s eight of us. We have a connection. We can… we can see into each other’s minds, feel each other’s emotions, guide each other’s bodies. I came to Iceland after they moved her. We got her out. But they’re after us. And they’re going to come after you, too,” Will added, remembering the real purpose of his visit — the one he’d told the others, anyway. “We’re meeting at the airport in three hours. We’re getting you to a safe house.”

“But who are these people?” 

“Some are like us, on the run.” Will tapped the side of his head. “Some are allies. Like you.”

“They’ve been helping Riley?”

“Yeah.” Will smiled, thinking of the hosts at the Paris safe house. “They’ve been helping all of us. And they’ll explain what’s going on better than I can.”

“What about you? What about Riley? And the others. Eight of you?” Gunnar was frowning, still processing what Will had told him. “Where will you go?”

“We’re safe, too, for now,” Will reassured. “Safer than when we were in Amsterdam.”

Gunnar nodded, taking his mug for a sip. Will could tell he wasn’t entirely convinced. Not that anyone could blame him.

“Riley would’ve wanted to see you,” he explained, his hand fiddling with the box in his pocket again. “But she didn’t - we didn’t tell her -”

“Is she okay? Is she hurt?”

“No!” Will said immediately. He scratched the back of his head. “It’s - I - I wanted to ask you something. Alone. She couldn’t know.” Gunnar’s face blanched, “N-Nothing bad, but -”

He didn’t know what else to say. He was making it worse, with all the rambling. Since when did he ramble? Did he always stutter when he was nervous? His ears felt warm. His cheeks, too. Was he blushing? Was it visible?

It must have been, because Gunnar scratched his goatee and leaned closer to look at Will with a quizzical glint in his eyes. “What is it she can’t know?”

Groaning, Will decided to give up talking altogether. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the box with the ring. He opened it and laid it flat on the table, entirely visible under the warm glow of the kitchen overhead light.

“I know I’ve - I know it’s only been a year. More than a year, actually. Not too long, but eighteen months, almost.” Will twiddled his thumbs, nervously fidgeting, his eyes trained on the velvet box, not daring to look at Riley’s father.

Silence. Gunnar was waiting for him to continue.

Will took a deep breath. “I’ve spent the past eighteen months with Riley. We were on the run from the people who tried to take her away. I was in a bad place, and she helped me. So much. I didn’t know where I’d be without her. I know it sounds like - like something everyone would say, but I don’t know how else to say it. I think -”

He looked up. He didn’t know what he expected to see in the older man’s face. Anger? Disappointment? Confusion?

But Gunnar didn’t looked like he was passing any judgement. Instead, he gazed at Will with a newfound intensity before glancing at the ring inside the box again, the corners of his lips quirking into a smile.

“It’s a beautiful ring,” said Gunnar, saving Will from the awkward silence. 

Will nodded. Maybe Gunnar had already guessed what was on his mind? 

But this was no time to make assumptions. And Will couldn’t keep avoiding what he wanted to say. This may be the last chance he could speak with Riley’s father before the final battle. This probably was the last chance he could see Gunnar until after this whole mess was over and done with. And he couldn’t wait that long.

“I’minlovewithRiley,” Will blurted out, barely louder than a mumble. He swallowed hard, sat up straighter in his chair, and tried again, one hand pinching the other underneath the table to keep himself from speaking too fast. “I’m in love with Riley, Sir. And I can’t imagine a future without her.”

Silence. 

Will looked up. Gunnar’s expression was inscrutable. Will felt the thumping of his heart growing louder. He feared his heartbeat was loud enough for Riley’s father to hear, too.

“You’re in love with Riley?” Gunnar finally asked.

“I am. I’m in love with Riley.” Will uttered each syllable with the utmost precision, like he was etching the words into stone. “I’m in love with her. I want to propose. I’m here to ask for your blessing.”

“She seems happier,” said Gunnar. He reached across the table, and Will brought his hands up, too. His palms were sweating. Why did his hands have to be so sweaty?

Gunnar put his hand over Will’s, grazing the surface of his skin with calloused fingers from years of wear. Slowly, Gunnar turned his hand over. With his other hand, he laid the velvet box back in Will’s palm and closed it, securing the ring inside. He bent Will’s fingers to close around the box and drew his hands away.

“Happier?” Will asked in a shaky voice.

“When I saw her in Amsterdam, she looked happier. I hadn’t seen her smile like that in a long time. And I know now she was with you.”

“Oh. I -” Will didn’t know what he could say. He was happier, too. So much happier.

“You make Riley happy,” said Gunnar. “That’s all I ever wanted.”

Will felt like he could breathe again, the tightening in his chest fading as his eyes widened and he broke into a full-faced grin.

Gunnar stood up, and Will did the same. The older man stuck out his hand. “I can’t make decisions for Riles. But I know my daughter. If she feels the same way, she’ll say yes. You have my blessing, Will.”

Will shook his hand, his grip firm, decisive. “Thank you, sir.”

“Gunnar is just fine, son.” Gunnar pulled him closer and gave him a hug, patting him on the back twice. 

They spent the rest of their time in Riley’s house in comfortable silence, except for the occasional questions from Gunnar about how long he would be expected to stay at the safe house and what he should pack. Will helped him bring the suitcase downstairs after he got a call on his burner from the driver the Veracity hackers had arranged.

When they parted at the airport — Will back to Paris, and Gunnar to the Oslo safe house — Gunnar stopped him before he could follow Nomi and the others to their gate, and pulled him into another hug. Two Veracity guards made their ways over to escort Gunnar to his flight.

“Keep her safe,” said Gunnar before he walked away.

“Always,” Will promised.

*

July 28, 2017

Around five in the afternoon, Detective Mun received a call in his office.

“Good day, Detective,” said the caller. She had a mature woman’s voice, calm and cutting-edge, the kind that made the hair stand up on his arm. She spoke in an impeccable London accent he’d heard too many times on English learning tapes growing up.

“Who is this?”

“Someone who has your best interest at heart,” she said. 

“It’s hard to believe you when you won’t even tell me your name.” He stretched in his seat and put his legs up on his desk. “People behind aliases always have something to hide. What’s your secret?”

“I’m not here to play games. I’m here to give you a warning.”

Detective Mun resisted the urge to scoff. He considered himself lucky he’d spent many days enriching his English vocabulary from detective movies that deviate, by a long shot, from the reality of his career. “That doesn’t sound ominous at all.”

“My intention is not to scare you.”

“Isn’t it?”

“My intention,” continued the woman, sounding — annoyed? bored? a little bit of both? he couldn’t decide yet, “is not to deliver a threat. I am calling to inform you about the detail regarding a certain case you’re working on.”

He laughed. He could’ve sworn he heard the woman sighing on the other end. “Is this about Sun Bak? Is this another one of these anonymous calls?”

A pause, before, “There’s been others?”

The Detective felt his heart drop for a second. But all the training he’d received in his early days working on the force had prepared him for spur-of-the moment lying. So, as cheekily as he could, he replied, “Oh yeah, so many. Conspiracy theorists talking about alien abductions, or foreign ministries taking her hostage… Wild stories, I tell you.”

“Indeed.” She sounded disappointed. And irritated. He could hear it now.

“So what is this warning you speak of?”

She cleared her throat. When she spoke again, the edge was back in her voice, devoid of all hints of emotions again. “I’m calling on the behalf of Sun Bak’s brother. I know you’re the officer responsible for putting him behind bars, but I assure you -”

“Ahh,” he interrupted, suppressing a snicker when he heard a curt intake of breath from the other end. The woman had obviously not expected him to be so nonchalant about this ordeal. “Another death threat? I’m starting to wonder how many people Mr Bak had under his command.”

“I assure you, Detective Mun, I am under no one’s command.”

Really. But you would take the time to call me and try to force me to release a potentially dangerous criminal back onto the streets? How come?”

“Sun Bak is involved in more illegal matters than you know, Detective. She is a danger to the world, and I hope you’ll find her and put her in her rightful place.”

“That might be a bit of a challenge.” He smirked, amused Miss Bak had caught the attention of someone from another continent. What kind of trouble could that woman have gotten herself into? “Seeing as we’re having trouble locating her whereabouts.”

“I believe my men can be of assistance to your search, if you would agree to my terms.”

“You want me to release Bak Joong-Ki, a shooter and potential embezzler, in exchange for more people on the watch to catch one possibly innocent woman?” the Detective asked slowly, trying to get the woman to hear how ridiculous her terms were.

“I have information on what other dealings Sun Bak is involved in.”

“If Miss Bak is involved in anything else outside the legal boundaries, I believe the Seoul Metropolitan Police is more than capable of finding out on our own.”

“Don’t get involved in matters you cannot comprehend, Detective. It’s in your best interest to reconsider my offer. Or you may find yourself in mortal danger.”

“Mortal danger, huh?” He chortled. “Maybe you missed the part where I said I work for the police. What kind of officer do you take me to be?”

“A sensible one,” she sounded impatient. “Clearly, I was mistaken.”

“I might not be the most sensible detective on the force, Miss, but I believe in justice.” He moved his legs down from the table and sat up straight. “And you know what the biggest injustice is right now?”

She said nothing.

“The biggest injustice is the fact that so many of you are willing to stand behind a shooter on a pending trial for contract killing and demand his release, knowing it would put another person’s life in danger.”

“Oh, Detective,” she sounded amused. “More people’s lives are in danger than you believe. And Sun Bak will be responsible for their deaths, not her brother.”

“Unless I receive hard evidence of that allegation, I won’t consider your offer. Good day.”

He hung up before she could get another word in.

*

It was the first time Lila had seen Cal in white. His pale skin was accentuated by the stark white sheets, and the IV tube around his arm looked like a bulging vein. 

He looked exposed.

“Ya look like ya’ve seen a ghost, Lils,” mumbled the Scot, squinting. 

She snorted. “I know you’re alive. Or I wouldn’t be able to visit”

“Fair point.”

She walked forward and sat in the chair by his bed. 

He didn’t take his eyes off her, and she pulled up the collar of the makeshift blouse she wore — she’d had to leave her favorite pantsuit behind. The room was chilly at this time of night, and she buttoned up her blouse all the way. 

Usually she’d have left her clothes the way they were. She would’ve even been pleased if she’d caught someone sneaking a glance her way. But with someone who could see inside her mind, there was no need to keep up appearances.

“Ya only got ten minutes, eh?” he asked before she could speak.

“Jonas doesn’t want them to find us.”

“Us?” He frowned. “You’re with him?” 

“He’s useless on his own. He has me acting as his bodyguard.” She rolled her eyes. “Don’t know where he’s taking me now.”

“Bloody bastard.” Cal seethed. 

He tried to curl his hand into a fist, but Lila grabbed him by the wrist and pushed his arm against the bed. She couldn’t help the smirk that snuck up the corners of her mouth. “I can handle the fighting, Cal.”

“Yeah, I’ve no doubt ‘bout that. Ya hold your own with a gun pretty damn well.”

She shrugged. “Didn’t help much with BPO.”

“Nah.” He grinned, a full grin with the gap in his mouth where a front tooth was missing. “‘M sure we’d be dead by now if ya hadn’t caught the German bloke.”

But they’d caught Veronika’s attention. And that had ruined everything.

It was Wolfgang. All his fault. Him and his cluster with their heroic complex. They tried to outsmart BPO, and now her cluster was doomed.

“I dunno, Lils,” said Cal. “Maybe we were doomed from the start. I know crafty blokes like them sapiens. Fought a couple myself.”

She chuckled. “I remember.” 

The first time they’d connected, he’d been in a fight one against three with people on the street in a back alley in Edinburgh. He’d gotten away before they could take his wallet. It’d costed him his front tooth and given him a black eye. 

She’d thought it was utterly foolish. Cal’s thoughts had confirmed he’d agreed, but he liked to pick fights because he was bloody bored. Ain’t been fightin’ the street blokes like I used to, he’d told her. Kinda missed bein’ king of the alley, I do. 

The next time he’d picked a fight, Lila had helped him win. One of the thugs had brought an illegal firearm, and Lila’s calculated shot an inch above the thug’s head had sent the man scampering away like the coward he was. But when sapiens ran the organization that held her cluster hostage, it was hard to seize the same amount of control. 

“Maybe we were,” she admitted. “That’s what Maitake said. They shouldn’t be trusted.”

They shouldn’t. But she’d insisted on the collaboration. 

“Hey, ain’t a better time to beat up some sapien ass than now,” he tried to cheer her up.

“I can’t if I don’t even know where I’m going.” She put her face in her hands. There was no makeup to smudge.

“We were tryin’ to get ya back.”

“I know.” She sighed. “Jonas said he’d let me go after we find his friend a safe place. Don’t know if I’d take his word for it.” 

“Well, BPO’s got us sensates runnin’ like rats. I’d go into hiding if I were him.”

“You need a safe place, too.” She pointed out. “I wanted to visit the others. Are they all on Blockers?”

“Well -” he cringed - “most of ‘em. Lemarr’s a tad unconscious. Got hit worse than I did.”

She startled. “Un-unconscious?”

“Put up a bloody long fight, they did. Got a ninja in their midst or somethin’.”

“And the others?”

“They’re fine. Got the same idea you did. Been tryin’ to find a way to move us best they could with ‘Ronnie spyin on em — can’t have us stayin’ in this hospital for long, BPO’s gonna take us hostage.”

Hostages. Like two of her cluster had already become.

“They need to hurry,” she said quietly, looking down at her lap. If Cal and Lemarr were taken too, it would’ve been on her. It had always been on her. But there was still a chance to turn things around. She’d managed it before. She could -

“Ya don’ have to work alone, Lils, you know.” 

“I know.”

She was never alone. Not anymore. It made her stronger, and more vulnerable.

“You’ll find em, when Jonas lets ya go. I know ya will.”

She nodded. “Be careful, Cal. I don’t know if -”

If Veronika had ordered her two cluster-mates killed. Or worst.

No. She wouldn’t. It wasn’t too late. It wasn’t.

“Don’t ya worry your pretty head about me.” When he said it, it didn’t sound patronizing. He had no ill intentions. She chuckled. “‘M scrappy, see.” 

He shook his fist and showed her the scars overlapping, souvenirs from years of rumbling on the streets. “My best mate and I can kick ‘em Headhunters’ asses if they try ‘n take us. Buy ya some time.”

She noticed the Dr Who scarf carefully folded on the nightstand, the one he never went anywhere without even if it was too hot out. As a child he’d dreamed of the Doctor coming to his shabby run-down shelter to take him on his travels. Though Cal had grown out of believing the existence of the TARDIS, he’d never say no to adventure.

He’d stolen the scarf from some rich collector after he’d snuck into his house from an open window. Ruddy bloke wasn’t a fan at all, he’d insisted. Just wanted it ‘cos it costs more than my flat. It’s a disgrace, havin’ it on display jus’ for show.

“It is a disgrace,” Lila echoes, remembering.

Everything — everyone — used for the sole purpose of catching eyes was distasteful. The mere thought made her sick. It was a past she’d never forget. One she vowed to never relive. 

At sixteen Lila had decided to channel the so-called beauty every family guest had feasted their eyes upon her whole life. She’d convinced Giovanni, with the newfound lure of her enticing body the elders had taken to discussing with no discretion, to invest his fortunes on her. Never mind her idiot brother. Her parents had given him all the family savings. They’d thought he’d be better suited to take over her father’s dealings.

Giovanni was an old family friend and collaborator, a gaudy, sickly man with a slyness in his beady eyes that made her recoil. But by the end of the night he’d fallen under her spell.

It was the first time she’d used her so-called beauty for her own agenda. And it was liberating.

Two years and two dozen mafia kings later, she’d left Naples with enough funds to start her own dealings. She’d left her parents and brother behind and moved to Berlin. To a new start. A life where she was in control. 

She’d grown from the little doll who sat in her family room with tailored rosy pink dresses for the guests to gaze upon. The girl no one listened to without trying to pick her up and pinch her cheeks. They’d admire her gowns and run their hands through her auburn tresses and say she’d grown prettier everyday. But they never cared about her.

Once she’d left that life behind, she’d never looked back.

Lila made a move to stand when she felt Jonas tap her shoulder, signaling time was up. 

“I won’t let BPO take you, or Lemarr,” she vowed before she left. “Veronika can go to hell.”

Never again was she going to let someone tie a leash around her neck. And now that extended to the rest of her cluster, too. It didn’t matter if that “someone” had dozens of Russian mobs at her beck and call, and an army of sensates, set out to eliminate her kind. She would fix this. 

She would.

*

“Don’t move.”

Kala barely had the chance to open her eyes before Wolfgang laid a gentle hand on her shoulder and settled her in place. She’d woken up and tried to stir, but he was, as expected, watching her every move.

She opened her eyes and smiled at the sight of him gazing at her with the signature intensity in his eyes. He was sitting cross-legged on the bed next to her. Some time during her painkiller-induced stupor she’d snuggled up with all the blankets. It was hard to tell how long she’d rested and how long she’d spent drifting between wakefulness and sleep. The doctor had given her narcotics to help with the pain. She could feel the effects wearing off. It was her last dose.

She made to inch closer to him and winced, unable to stop the hiss that escaped. It felt like a blade was still embedded in her flesh, tugging her sharply on the side whenever she moved.

“Careful,” he said, reaching for the hand she’d used to prop up her body. With his other hand behind her shoulder blade he settled her back in place lying down, their fingers intertwined. “Don’t pop a stitch.”

Wolfgang sounded worried. And angry. And scared. 

Kala smiled, trying to convince him she was fine. From what the doctor had told her as he’d stitched her up, her injury was more of a cut along the side than a stab wound. More stitches, less depth. Less chance for an infection. That was all she’d remembered, anyway. She’d busied herself by reciting the periodic table over and over in her mind to distract herself from the pain. Her cluster had been worried enough as they were.

“I suppose you’re right,” she gave in, her voice quiet. She felt tired, drained, like she’d been asleep for too long.

She settled for turning her head, craning her neck to look him in the eye, and squeezed his hand gently in reassurance.

“You hungry?” he asked.

“Don’t know,” she mumbled. 

She felt chilly, her mind devoid of the usual voices in the back of her consciousness. Then she remembered she’d made eye contact with a woman in Lila’s cluster. They’d probably had to inject her with her own Blocker formula. 

She’d never expected to use the injection on herself. It was so painfully ironic, she nearly snorted. Her muscles around her midsection tensed with a dulled pain. The gauze scraped against her flesh and she resisted the urge to scratch, knowing the temporary relief would make things worse in terms of healing.

He reached out to touch her forehead and frowned. His hand was cold. The fever would be expected after such an ordeal, but it came at a terrible time. She’d come to a breakthrough with her new formula right before the confrontation with Lila’s cluster, one that could now be used in tranquilizer darts and fashioned as a new weapon. She wished she could get up, to go to the lab, to -

“I’ll get you something to eat.” he stood up and left without question. She felt her eyelids grow heavy again

The next time Kala woke, Wolfgang was sitting on their bed reading Genevieve’s copy of Going Postal by the bedside. There was a tray with a covered bowl on the nightstand next to him. When he noticed her eyes were open, he tucked the bookmark on the page he was at and put it down by his other side.

“How long was I out?”

“Not long.” He fetched the tray and put it on his lap. “Got you food.”

She did her best approximation of a shrug under the covers. With a sigh, he lifted the lid and stirred the soup with a spoon. It smelled like tomatoes and sautéed vegetables and lentils, and she realized she was kind of hungry. Hernando, or Gina, or whoever had cooked dinner had clearly outdone themselves.

“Help me up?”

He moved one arm behind the crook of her knees and one around her lower back and hoisted her up, fluffing the pillows against the headboard before he leaned her back. He pulled up the blanket and tucked the ends behind her shoulders.

“I can feed myself,” she suggested, half insistent.

He shook his head and lifted the spoon with the minestrone in front of her lips, and that was the end of the discussion. Every time she took another spoonful, his smile grew a little wider. She reach out and poked her finger on his dimple, making him chuckle.

When the food was finished, she opened her mouth to ask for a napkin, but was greeted by a full kiss on the lips instead, his tongue licking the remainder of the soup away. It made her laugh. “Wolfgang,” she whined, trying and failing to sound annoyed.

He dabbed at her mouth with a napkin, his smile morphing into a Felix-esque shit-eating grin. “Something wrong?”

She sighed and shook her head, conceding with a smile of her own. It was statistically impossible to stay mad at him when he looked so smug, so pleased with himself. 

“Stay.” 

He moved closer and put his arm around her shoulder, both of them snuggled underneath the blanket now. “Anything for you, schatz.”

*

Across the living room, Will watched Amélie settle on Riley’s lap with a big yawn, chubby cheeks smushed into Riley’s chest like it was a pillow. Riley smiled and put a protective arm around the toddler’s back. She squirmed, but didn’t protest before closing her eyes. 

Every time Riley smiled, Will fell a little more in love.

The child had wormed her way into everyone’s hearts. But after her first night at the safe house, she’d grown particularly fond of Riley. And, despite the pain, Riley found herself drawn to the girl, aching every time she came near, but no longer escaping. 

The sight of Riley with the child made his heart skip a beat.

His hand moved to the velvet box in the front left pocket. He’d kept it there since the start of this evening. They’d volunteered to take the first guarding shift at midnight, a courage had him shoving the box into his pocket when she was out of their room. 

The child was still awake by the time most people had gone to bed, and Riley had volunteered to take over the job of lulling her to sleep. She’d sang the Icelandic lullaby Will sometimes found her humming in her sleep. It seemed to have done the trick.

He pulled down his shirt to cover his pocket. He walked over, keeping his footsteps as light as possible. “We should put her to bed,” he whispered.

Riley nodded and adjusted her hold on the child before standing up, glancing nervously ahead. They made their ways up the stairs one slow step at a time. Will led the way, taking great care not to make the floorboards creak. Amélie’s gentle continuous snores told them they had succeeded in their effort. He watched from the doorway as Riley kneeled beside the bed and set the child in, tucking her into the blanket. Instead of standing up, she watched the smile form on her chubby cheeks.

Her expression was hard to read, a mix of calm and apprehension. He didn’t know how long had passed before she finally stood up and tiptoed quietly towards the door, whispering góða nótt before closing the door.

“I couldn’t reach Jonas or Lila, last time I came off Blockers,” Will reassured. He knew she was worried. “They’re both Blocked. And Nomi saw them on surveillance in Gatwick on their way to Chicago. We’re safe.”

“But for how long?”

“The flight on its own’s gonna take twelve hours. And then there’s the waiting in-between,” he reassured. “We should be fine for another day or two.”

Riley nodded, hesitation etched in her furrowing brows. 

“Besides, I think Lito’s fans convinced everyone we’re on the move.”

The memory of their cluster stumbling upon the fan encounter photo on Instagram this morning was one Will would remember for a long time. 

Back in Reykjavik, Lito and his family had walked into the café where Nomi and Amanita were sharing a drink and straight into a group of overly enthusiastic fans. They’d taken a dozen selfies with him and asked him to sign their foreheads. In the photo Lito looked dumbfounded. He hadn’t expected diehard fans in Iceland, of all places, and now, of all times. The photo was, as Kiira had dubbed, “a tangible evidence for their relocation”.

“Poor Lito,” said Riley. 

Will turned to walk down the stairs, and she followed, chuckling softly to herself. They reached the first floor. Instead of going back to the living room, Will walked into the kitchen. It’d give them more privacy for - 

Riley looked at him, puzzled.

“I-I just… I thought tea might help?” he said, trying not to blush. 

She seemed to have bought the suggestion, and fished around the cabinet for honey and chamomile. When the kettle finished brewing, they made the tea in identical blue mugs. As they sat waiting for the drink to cool off, they’d devised a plan: Riley would come off Blockers for the next day and try and make a connection with Lila. She’d look inside Lila’s mind to see if her memory of this place was detailed enough for her cluster to find them. Or if Jonas had divulged the location, because with Jonas, they could never tell. 

And if Lila was still in the dark, or convinced that they’d moved? They would be safe where they were. At least for a little longer. 

She spoke with the decisiveness he’d remembered from his time in Amsterdam and London, with a newfound confidence that came with being on the run, with accepting another chance at building a future. What amazed Will most was that everything Riley had been through didn’t make her bitter. Her gentleness never faltered. If anything, it grew, along with the bravery that showed itself at the most desperate times.

Riley put her hands around the mug, warming herself as she brought it against her lips and took a sip. The corners of her eyes crinkled when she smiled. Her happiness was contagious. Will imagined seeing this smile every morning after they’d start their new life together.

There was never a right moment. But with her, every moment was perfect.

“Riley.”

Riley turned.

She parted her lips to ask what was on his mind, but he set the mug aside and stood up. Confused, she did the same. He put his hands on her shoulders, drawing her close. “I know it’s only been eighteen months since we first met. Well, eighteen crazy months in -” he chuckled - “what, four different countries?”

She laughed, nodding.

“I feel like I’ve known you my whole life. You fit into my world in a way no one else could, and no one else will. The moment I saw you in the church, I understood what made me whole. You. You make me whole.” His voice caught in his throat. “When we were the run from Whispers, you kept me alive. You reminded me to live.”

He stopped talking and looked at her, letting the silence say what he couldn’t. She tilted her head and twitched her brows in a quizzical expression, one that made him smile every time.

“The days you were in Chicago was the most terrifying days of my life. I’d nearly lost you once.” Will broke off, trying to forget the terror he had felt when she was captured. “It scared me so much to know I might lose you again, this time without a way of getting you back. To know I might lose the chance at a life together. And I know I can’t imagine spending my life apart from you.”

Will kneeled reached for Riley’s left hand. With his free hand he pulled out the small velvet box and flicked it open. The fire opal shimmered in the dim kitchen, speckles of colorful dots dancing around the polished gem. 

Riley froze, gazing at the ring before meeting his eyes.

“Riley Gunnarsdóttir,” he said slowly, enunciating the syllables of her full name in the way Gunnar had taught him on their way to the airport. “Will you marry me?”

For a moment Riley didn’t speak. Her haunted eyes lingered on her finger where another ring used to reside. Did he ask too soon? It was too soon. Riley needed time. How could he have presumed -

“Yes.” Her voice was shaking, barely audible. She swallowed, taking her gaze away from her hand. Their eyes locked. “Yes,” she said again, louder this time. She broke into a full-faced smile. “Yes.”

Moments after he put the ring on her finger and kissed her hand, they heard a squeal. 

The kitchen door burst open, exposing their ecstatic cluster and extended family in their overwhelming entirety. It was a sight to behold, one Will could never forget: Wolfgang was sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor, a tearful Kala on his lap. The rest of his cluster and company peeked behind each other’s shoulders to get a look through the small gap between the double doors to the kitchen. 

Capheus was jumping now, barely containing his excitement, though he kept his voice low in case he woke the children and the hosts.

“She said yesssss,” Amanita sing-songed, exchanging a kiss with Nomi.

Lito, on the other hand, turned to his family with a grin. “I told you!” he said. “I told you he was gonna do it today. I told you! I knew he wasn’t only in Iceland for -”

“Alright, Lito.” Dani patted him on the shoulder before sauntering into the kitchen. “No need to rub it in.”

Hernando followed in after her and went straight for the cabinet where they kept all their alcohol. “This calls for a celebration,” he said, keeping his tone matter-of-fact, nudging his glasses up his nose.

At that, Lito’s face lit up. He opened the fridge and started pulling out fruits, ingredients for the many drinks he was definitely going to need to mix. 

Riley laughed when she saw the giant tray full of limes. “When did we get so many?”

Lito planted a kiss on top of her head. “I knew what Will was gonna do.” He stepped away and ran his hands up and down Riley’s arms like a proud big brother before admiring her new ring with an approving nod. “So I asked Genevieve to pick these up.”

“How -” Will looked at everyone, bewildered - “how did you know? Why were you -” he looked at the kitchen door and back.

Wolfgang settled Kala into a seat and nodded at the clock displayed on the microwave. “Two o’ clock,” he said simply, patting Will on the shoulder. “Capheus’ shift.”

Sun smirked at him from across the counter, pouring herself some wine. “And mine.”

Will felt his face burn. He could imagine Capheus running up and down the stairs to rouse everyone for the big moment, but Sun? As if she could sense his thoughts, Blocker and all, she gave him a wink and passed him two champagne flutes. A whooping Felix strolled past and filled the glasses, a pounder in his other hand.

They made a toast to Will and Riley. To love, to laughter, and countless years of happily ever after. 

The cluster and extended family had been in more danger over the past month than they had for their entire lives. But that night time was frozen. All woes were forgotten until dawn crept up on them like a final score waiting to strike. They celebrated like this was a happy ending, not the calm before the storm.

They made a toast to their future, after the war.

Chapter Text

July 29, 2017

Lila had connected with Marcela for the first time during a hit on a rooftop. The assassin’s energy was stagnant, her heartbeat not a bit faster than normal, as she’d propped up her long ranger and aimed for the kill.

After spending years dealing with mafia men, Lila knew not to disturb the woman when she was on a job. She’d stood on the side and watched her pull the trigger, admiring the view of Mexico City from above. Moments later the bullet shot through an open window in the building on the opposite side, and an unassuming man had dropped dead.

Then Marcela had disassembled the gun like she’d done it a hundred times — she probably had, Lila could tell by her expert aim. She didn’t speak to Lila, but packed up and walked down the stairs. She slipped out from a door in the back, propped open by a sturdy metal hairpin, and boarded a subway train. Lila didn’t know if Marcela had even seen her.

But she didn’t know how to get herself back to Berlin. This connection was still all very new. Their Mother had spoken to them three days ago, and given them a preview on how their lives were going to look from there on out. She’d scrutinized everyone, not unkindly, just curious, but she’d done a double-take when she reached Marcela. 

Mother knew not to voice her thoughts to a new group of people who could feel what they were thinking, but Lila had suspected she was less than pleased with Marcela’s apparent indifference to her newfound powers. 

Well? asked the assassin when they finally reached her shop. Are you going to say anything?

The day before, Lila had connected with Cal. She’d felt the heat riling up from inside his mind, a roughened sort of rage. This time she frowned and tried to detect a trace of emotion from the Mexican woman, but felt nothing, save for an echo of her own curiosity reverberating between their minds. 

Is this what you do? Lila asked, impressed.

The woman rearranged the candles inside the display. She’d opened the shop as a front for her other dealings. This was the first time Lila saw someone use a candle shop as a front.

I sell antiques, too.

Lila looked around. How often do you do it?

As often as necessary.

Do you get hired by the same people?

No. Everyone. I do what I’m paid to do.

The assassin took no sides. That idea sounded like a win-win. Certainly more profitable.

Marcela locked up the front of the shop and made her way to the back, climbing up the stairs to a humble one bedroom apartment. There were minimal decors in the room save for basic furnishing, and the small window showed a view of the back alley. Lila did a double-take. She thought someone with her income would splurge. Invest in a penthouse somewhere, perhaps.

I don’t do it for wealth.

What, then? Control? Revenge?

Marcela walked over to the kitchen and emptied a mug she’d left on the counter. Social comparisons are as relevant to me as this old cup of coffee.

Lila couldn’t get her head around her blatant independence. Then why do you do it?

The world needs cleansing. Marcela scrubbed the inside of the mug with a sponge, only stopping when it was spotless. People like them will all be dead, sooner or later. Kill by the likes of their own.

People like who?

Marcela put the mug away and looked at her, unblinking. You know who.

Of course. Lila rolled her eyes. The moment Sebastian walked over to her at Luzia, she’d known he was more than just a sports sponsor. But he’d made conversation with her. He’d asked about her day, her job (model, she’d said, not untrue considering her last conquest liked to take photos of her). She wore a dress that hugged her curves, but he appeared to have made it no mind. If he did, he left no comments.

You thought he was different, Marcela observed.

He was. Different in that he’d deceived her into thinking he was a friend. But after a few months of drinking and chatting, he’d shown his true colors. Underneath the dim violet lights at a private club where she was invited as his plus one, he’d told her she was beautiful. Exquisite. Desirable.

He’d told her he wanted her, like how the other crime lords had wanted her. She’d felt like walking away. She knew she should have. But a habit she’d perfected over the years, she’d leaned in and pulled him by his collar for a kiss.

Lila seethed. I thought wrong.

He’ll meet his end. Marcela turned away, walking to the cabinet where she kept an aged bottle of scotch. They all do.

*

After Lila and Jonas had found a hideout with Kareem in tow — a cramped basement somewhere in the less glamorous side of Chicago — Jonas had let Lila go back to her cluster as promised. Lila didn’t want to risk being off Blockers for more than a few minutes in case any of the August 8 cluster tried to see where she was, but she’d connected to Maitake as soon as the walls around her mind disappeared. 

He told her they were hiding out in Bordeaux. 

“Did Veronika send you out there?” she asked, frowning at the darkness around him. He’d hidden inside a cupboard, or a closet, somewhere cramped so no Headhunter would be able to tell where he was.

“We had Cal and Lemarr transferred somewhere secure,” he said. “Can’t stay under BPO’s watch after that. You know what they’ll do to us.”

She nodded, relieved they’d decided to remove themselves from the likes of Veronika.

Maitake had predicted a long time ago that the collaboration was a bad idea. Now that they connected again, Lila could hear him repeating the same thought. He didn’t do much to hide the bitterness. Maitake had never been one to try and hide anything.

“You were right,” she conceded before exchanging a nod with her cluster-mate. Together, they swallowed a black capsule and washed it down, the buzzing all too familiar as they kicked into place.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d simply given in, but now that she was on a flight to Berlin two hours away from landing, still searching for a way to travel without being traced, pride was hardly a priority.

Jonas had managed to procure a fake passport for her from one of his contacts. How, she didn’t care to ask. But the document said she was eighteen, and she’d had to disguise herself to look the part. She cringed at the floral dress she’d picked up from a thrift store. Her auburn curls cascaded down her back, tickling the sides of her face. She hadn’t let her hair down like this since — she couldn’t remember how long.

Maitake had given Lila their address four hours later when their Blocker wore off again. A few hours and two bumpy shuttle rides later, she knocked on the front door in the rhythm of the opening score from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, sneaking furtive glances around to make sure she wasn’t spotted. The indigo skies faded into a warm yellow, the first sign of daybreak. The air was still chilly, and there wasn’t a person in sight around the impoverished neighborhood full of rundown, abandoned bungalows.

The door opened a slit, before it closed again. She heard someone sliding the chain off the lock. Then it opened again, and a strong arm yanked her in by the hand before she could say anything. She heard the door slam shut, the chain sliding back in place.

“I wasn’t spotted, Maitake.” She said in English and yanked her arm away. She looked into his eyes, gritting her teeth. “I was careful.”

He scoffed and led her down the narrow hallway into the unkempt kitchen. “Careful? This is what you mean by careful?”

“I didn’t let them see anything. I kept my mind in check.”

He turned abruptly before they reached the kitchen counter. She almost rammed into him. “Your rash decisions had nearly gotten us killed, Lila.” His voice was a low growl.

She crossed her arms. “I’m here now. By all means, keep an eye on me.”

“Be careful what you wish for.” Marcela walked past them into the assembly of moth-eaten couches they called a living room. “Ragnar’s out getting food,” she explained when Lila craned her neck to see if her remaining cluster-mate was around.

Maitake looked like he was going to chastise her some more, but Marcela gave him a look, a steady unblinking glare, and he held his tongue. They settled into couches and didn’t say anything else for a few seconds. After spending days in isolation save for the occasional interrogator, her cluster’s presence in the room was overwhelming.

“Jonas drugged me before he got me out. I couldn’t see anything.”

Marcela tutted her tongue. “Doesn’t matter. Finding them again won’t do us any good.”

At that, the assassin and Maitake exchanged another look. Lila frowned and looked between the two. “What did you do?”

Maitake cleared his throat. “How much do you know?”

“I know you tried to negotiate a trade-off for me. And Veronika wanted me back, fuck knows why.” She looked at him. “Should I know anything else?”

“I had to hurt someone to get away,” Marcela explained. At Lila’s quirked eyebrow, she added, “An Indian woman. I didn’t kill her.”

Of course it was her. Lila’s life seemed to be driven by unfortunate coincidences these days.

“Wolfgang’s not going to negotiate now,” Lila pointed out.

“Not like he ever had,” said the assassin, “but he might not have a choice. I’ve encountered my share of vigilantes. No raid can go exactly according to plan.”

With that said Marcela made her way back to the kitchen and put the kettle on, pouring ground coffee into a secondhand mug. Lila made to join her, but Maitake grabbed her by the shoulder, stopping her in place with a tight grip. She rolled her eyes and glared at his hand: calloused fingers with thick silver bands, veins bulging. There was a tattoo of a ceremonial sword on the inside of his wrist, the tip pointing towards the crook of his elbow.

She remembered the time he got the tattoo. It was the second time they’d connected, and she’d woken in the middle of the night to the pain of needles pricking her skin. She knew he owned a tattoo parlor in Nakazakicho, but it was the first time she saw him inject the ink into his own skin.

Why not ask someone else to do it? she asked, gritting her teeth. She wasn’t particularly sensitive, but every time the needle hit too close to the bone, there was an uncomfortable vibration that made the hair stand up on her arms.

The pain is contained when I’m the one executing, he said, eyes fixed on the needles shooting out and retracting back in from the buzzing rotary machine. The ink sunk into his skin as he slowly made his way down his wrist, forming his design with a practiced hand. His other hand was clutched into a fist, steady and unmoving on the counter.

A fair point, she supposed. He’d probably grown used to the pain by now.

You don’t trust someone else to get it right, she said, reading his thoughts.

Exactly. He laid the syringe-like machine aside and looked at her. Everyone has their own way of going about their business. Never the same as each other’s. So I rely on myself. No one else.

She frowned. Does it get lonely?

You work your way up by depending on lesser men’s mistakes, he said. Isn’t that lonelier?

At that, Lila had scoffed and felt her consciousness reenter her own body. but once the connection had ended, she couldn’t help admitting Maitake might be onto something. She didn’t even know what she’d do with the power once she’d gotten hold of the wealth from all the mafia kings in Berlin. All she knew was she wanted it.

Not everyone was after power. Before her rebirth, she’d have found this a ridiculous notion. But being a sensate meant she could get a clearer sense of their perspectives, unclouded by her own judgements. That night, after her talk with Maitake, she’d crawled into bed with Sebastian and wondered she might grow tired of her life one day.

“Let it go, Maitake.” Marcela’s voice from the kitchen brought Lila’s thoughts back to the present. “What’s done is done. And this isn’t over for us.”

With a glare, Maitake let go of her shoulder. Their eyes bore into each other’s with a hardened gaze, neither of them relenting. Eventually he shook his head.

“At least you made it back. That’s one less thing to concern ourselves with.”

*

“In light of the recent attacks around the world, geneticists have determined the cause of the brain mutation to be a malevolent virus released as an act of biological warfare. Anti-governmental organizations around the world have joined forces and unleashed chemicals, which triggered the epigenetic mutation of the frontal lobe, resulting in hallucinatory symptoms in those infected…”

“Why are they doing this?” Capheus muttered to no one in particular. It was getting harder and harder to keep up with the news when everything seemed to be going wrong.

“Nomi’s right about the stigmatization,” said Kiira, who sat beside him. He saw his sister staring at the screen, frowning at the brain scans the reporter was showing. “They’re abusing the knowledge of neuroscience to spread rumors. It’s absolutely vile.”

“The infected may be prone to violent destructive behavior, which brings danger to their communities. We urge our viewers to bring the infected to a nearby hospital, to receive treatment before the damage to their brains become permanent…”

Capheus sighed. “They’re declaring war?”

“I think so.” The reporter moved on to the next headline, and Kiira turned the TV off. “Veronika’s hint to us, most likely. A call for surrender.”

“Nothing good will come if we surrender now.”

“No. They just want us to feel responsible for all the new sensates they’ve recruited — Nomi’s been keeping track of the hospital records. She said people were dying, people sent in for neurological diseases.”

“Dying?” Capheus was surprised to hear the bitterness in his voice. It sounded so unlike him. Kiira, on the other hand, merely nodded. “When was this?”

“She told me this morning, during our shift. Her friend Bug called from California.”

Nomi had gone back to bed when her shift had finished, but Capheus had woken up by dawn and couldn’t fall back asleep. He knew something was off. The last time he’d been on  such high alert, the gang leader of Superpower had come to his house and marched him out with a gun pointed to his head. 

But this time the threat to his existence had extended to the rest of his cluster. The rest of his kind. There was no way his cluster and allies could plan the next step without additional information, but he felt like a sitting duck, waiting for news about Veronika and the other sapiens to travel back here from the Archipelago.

“I wish we could do more,” he said. 

“From what Mavis told me, your cluster’s contributed quite a lot to the cause.”

That made Capheus smile. “I do have powerful friends.”

“Hey.” Kiira turned to face him, crossing her legs. “You’re underestimating yourself. You’ve done a lot for your cluster, too. Or I expect half of them would’ve lost hope by now.”

“I wish I could do something now, Kiira. There must be something -”

“We are. Remember our plan?”

Capheus sighed. He still hadn’t entirely approved of what Kiira and Mavis was planning to do later today, but everyone agreed it was necessary. And Sun, sensing his worry, had volunteered as their escort.

I’m not doing anything,” he amended.

“You’re waiting. Patience is a necessary evil for what we’re about to do,” said Kiira. “I suppose we could raid a hospital and kidnap a dozen confused newborn sensates who were sent in, but that doesn’t mean we should. It’ll make things worse.”

Speaking like a true voice of reason. Like Nomi, or Will, or Kala… Well, everyone, in one way or another. She had so much in common with his cluster. There wasn’t enough time in the world to catch up on everything he’d missed from their lives spent apart. “Seems like you’ve done a lot of waiting too, huh?”

“You could say.”

“For your degree?”

“Yes. But not just that. I’m always waiting for something, I suppose. Nothing’s set in stone in my future, assuming we do survive this ordeal with BPO and get our lives back, -” he startled, and she amended - “which I’m sure we will. What I mean is, I’ve got plenty of time to figure things out.”

When Kiira spoke of uncertainties, of the unpredictability of life and the importance of seizing every moment, she sounded so much like their father it hurt. If father were alive today he’d have been proud. Capheus was. He knew their mother was, too.

“You do have time,” he agreed. “At least eight more years than me.”

The corners of her eyes crinkled. She suppressed a giggle. “Right. I have all the time you have, plus eight more years. That is a lot.”

“Maybe you can collaborate with Mr Hoy and the other scientists. Oh! With Kala!”

Kiira tilted her head, brows furrowed in thought. “Kala did tell me she’s planning to continue Angelica’s research. Finding new ways to establish connections with sensates outside the cluster, and all that. Studying the sensate brain would be a good area of study.”

“Exactly. You’ll be the first sensate brain doctor. A revolutionary.”

“Like you?”

And our father. “If I win the election.”

She shook her head. “I don’t think that’s a prerequisite for being revolutionary. Not in your case, at least.”

“How do you mean?”

“I’ve seen your speech on YouTube, Capheus. People listen to you because you know them, and you care. It’s not something anyone would forget, even if you did lose — and if you lose it’ll have to be a corrupt interference from Mandiba’s end.”

“You sound like Zakia.”

“Your girlfriend? The one from the photo you showed me?”

He smiled in defeat. “Good deduction, Holmes.”

“What’s she like?”

“Hmm.” He leaned back against the couch and looked at the ceiling. “She’s a journalist. A voice for the people. She inspired me to run for office.”

“Sounds like a good influence.”

If they weren’t cooped up in a safe house, isolated from the rest of the world, Capheus was sure Kiira would ask to meet this Zakia and evaluate how good of a match she was. For a moment they felt like siblings, giving each other the latest details of their love lives. Their sensacity made memory-sharing much easier the first time, but their shared predicament under this roof brought them closer in a different way.

“She is a good influence,” he confirmed. “You should meet her one day. You’ll have a lot to talk about.”

“I should. I’d like to. I know the rest of my summer’s free. I mean, my internship didn’t exactly work out.”

Another reason to keep fighting. He wasn’t going to let BPO take his sister. Not after he’d just got her back. 

She tilted her chin and gave him a nod of approval. “I suppose you’ll want to meet my parents too? And Liam?”

“Of course.” He frowned at her in mock scrutiny. “No one else I should know about?”

Several, actually.” 

He opened his mouth, but he’d forgotten what it was he was going to say.

“Not at the moment!” she added. 

He let out a sigh of relief he didn’t know he was holding. 

“Though I’ve had my share of flings.”

When?”

And there was that protective older sibling instinct. Nomi and Kala had warned him about this after his first talk with Kiira since she’d recovered from the extreme jet lag and sleep deprivation. Capheus had insisted he wasn’t going to get hung up over who his sister may be dating. She was an adult, after all. His cluster-mates remained unconvinced.

“My first happened here in Paris when I was fifteen.”

“You’ve been here before?”

She nodded. “Student exchange program. I learned quite a bit.”

“You speak French?”

Oui, monsieur.

He found himself in awe for more times that day than he could count. As if Kiira’s knowledge hadn’t impressed him enough. But wait -

“Your first date.” He scooted closer. “What was their name?”

Her name is Janelle.”

She was watching his reaction, he could tell. He gave her a reassuring smile before he went back to scrutinizing everything Kiira said about her love life in a typical big brotherly fashion. Between sharing his mind with Nomi and Lito, and dating Zakia, he’d learned more about love in the past year than he had for the first nearly twenty-seven years of his life.

Love is love. And he was happy for Kiira. But she was too young to be dating. She was.

“We broke off on friendly terms.”

“Friendly terms?”

As soon as he’d asked, he could hear Nomi and Kala giggling in his head. Never mind the fact that they were both asleep. Oh dear. They’d never let him hear the end of this.

“We stayed friends, is what I meant.” His overreaction made her laugh. “You’re starting to sound like Liam.”

Maybe Liam had a point.

“Come visit, when you can get out of your political duties. You and he would get on well.”

“I’d like that.”

He’d all but given up on the idea of finding his sister. But like all things in his life, something good came out of a struggle. Something unexpected.

*

“Remind me why you’re going to a farmers market again?”

Mavis turned around from the mirror, where she was adjusting her wig, a brown bob. She looked at Will like he’d asked her what was for dinner for the third time in a row. “Well, for starters, we got all these extra Blockers we can’t finish and they’re blue and they’re coded safe, and the Archipelago needs supplies. And we’re meeting one of my old Veracity contacts. For the information you risked your life to get.”

Will sighed. “Are you sure you won’t be spotted?”

“Oh don’t worry, Will,” Kiira came out of the bathroom and joined Mavis at the mirror, adjusting her faux ashy blonde locks. She pulled out a tube of pale pink lip gloss from Mavis’ purse, and her cluster-mate gave her a nod of approval. “We have security — Sun agreed to come with us. And we’ll take the long way home. Three train transfers. Would anyone follow us for twenty stops inside a stuffy train?”

Capheus spoke up from across the room, where he was packing the bottles of Blockers into two bags they were passing on to Mavis’ contact. “Headhunters would,” he mumbled. Reluctantly he looked at the younger women at the mirror, who were now helping each other with their eye makeup.

Kiira’s expression softened, but she didn’t change her mind about going. She gave Capheus a reassuring nod when he handed over the bags. She slung one over her shoulder and passed the other to Mavis, who groaned in a dramatic way that rivaled Lito’s antics, making Kiira snort. “Why do these have to be gray?”

Will looked incredulous. “What’s wrong with gray?”

Sun walked down the stairs, sporting a black crop top and denim shorts. “Doesn’t go with their dresses,” she said matter-of-factly, gesturing to Mavis and Kiira. 

And it certainly didn’t. They had spent the past hour contouring their faces to make themselves unrecognizable, decking their eyelids with glitter. Kala had lent them some of her things to wear. Totally not their styles.

We could be anyone. Mavis smirked into the mirror and added a final dash of crimson to her lips. She’d never felt the need to wear makeup until she started training. Over the past two years, though, she’d become kind of an expert.

Then again, being undercover would do that to people. It was all kinds of cool and exhilarating to pretend she was someone else, but she’d stayed in BPO for a long time. Sometimes she’d find herself wondering if she really felt like a pretentious do-gooder in a lab coat, sauntering around the halls, passing forth data and equipments to the higher-ups.

Sometimes she’d look back at the carefree teenager she used to be, and all she could see was a stranger. Right now she was a stranger too. But a fabulous stranger in a borrowed dress she wanted to keep. And a mismatched bag full of blue pills that didn’t look suspicious. At all.

Kiira laid a hand on her shoulder and turned her around, forcing her gaze away from the mirror. A tilt of her head told Mavis the other woman knew exactly what was on her mind. Kiira shook her head.

That made Mavis smile. She’d missed this silent communication. And as life-threatening as their current predicament with BPO may be, she was relieved to get it back, at least for a little while, if they find themselves split up again in the future for reasons.

Another pair of feet pattered down the steps, and Miki appeared, sans makeup, dressed like she’d just put on the first thing hanging off the back of her chair. Their host had the fortune of being able to go out without wearing disguises, and she’d insisted on coming along. Will and Capheus had agreed before either women could say anything in protest.

“I need to stock up my supply,” said Miki, ushering everyone up the stairs. “Some of my salves are running low.”

Henrik met them on the top of the stairs, fully dressed. 

“Lemme guess.” Mavis examined the Dutch, prodding at the grocery bags he held in his hands. “You’re gonna play security too?”

Sun shot him a glare. He scratched behind his head, making his hair into an even bigger tousled mess. “We do need groceries,” he said. A feeble attempt, they all knew. 

“You’re recovering.” Sun crossed her arms. “What would Gina say?”

“Fresh air is good for recovery,” he responded, already opening the front door. They were greeted by a wave of midday heat. Only Henrik looked happy to see it wasn’t cloudy. 

“God, we spent too much time in the basement,” said Mavis, shielding the sunlight from her eyes. “All this effort with the eye makeup. If I’d known it was so freaking sunny I’d have made us wear sunglasses.”

*

The Veracity contact, Topher, was to meet Kiira and Mavis behind a booth that sold mini-terrariums. He’d chosen the spot a day before, and Veracity hackers had relayed the memo to Nomi’s email. The terrariums on sale were made by an award-winning craftswoman. Her work had become something like a brand for connoisseurs of hipster flea markets.

People crowded around the displays and ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the intricate pieces fastened on dainty chains. The terrarium necklaces would have made great accessories if they weren’t encased in glass pendants, easily shattered. But against all logic Mavis found herself drawn to the them. She entertained the idea of owning something just for the sake of looking pretty, something with absolutely no use in an emergency. Perhaps when their current emergency was over and done with, she could come back and get one without worrying about her backpack running out of space.

“A good choice for location,” Kiira mumbled beside Mavis, sticking close. They swerved around the gathering crowds of women donning the most colorful of dresses, careful not to step on anyone’s toes. “Certainly takes the attention away from our flamboyant fashion.”

Topher greeted Mavis with their secret handshake, his golden-brown skin glowing underneath the sweltering sun, a line of sweat forming at the edge of the baseball cap he wore. The handshake wasn’t created just for fun, although coming up with over-the-top gestures was entertaining. “Alright,” he said. “I can verify it’s you, Mavis. And could this be -” he admired Mavis’ company. “Miss Kiira Anderson! In the flesh!”

Kiira nodded in polite greeting. “We brought what you asked,” she said, trying to keep it subtle. She withdrew the folded piece of paper Will and the others had snatched from Lila’s cluster-mates and passed it to Topher. 

He glanced furtively around to make sure no one was staring before he unfolded the paper and scanned across the list, lips curling into a satisfied smirk. “We do have people at most of these locations. Three out of the four.” He pointed at the addresses of Veronika’s hideouts. Her homes. Technically. Would the woman ever let herself get so attached? “I’ll send word to the others, see if anyone spots her around any of these.”

“Thanks, Topher.” Mavis looked around before taking the list back. Their hosts, who were shopping at a nearby booth that sold homemade honey, winked at her. No one else noticed. “You’ll let us know?”

“I’m sure word will get ‘round. Shouldn’t take too long. Few days, maybe?”

“And the names,” Kiira added. “Any chance we can get anything on them?”

Topher inched closer and whispered, “Sapiens?”

Mavis nodded. “Higher-ups. Could come in handy for what we need to do.”

He bowed, a theatrical bow. “At your service, My Ladies.”

They passed the bags Blockers to Topher. Mavis reached into her purse and pulled out an extra bottle. When they hugged, she shoved it into the pocket of Topher’s hoodie.

“For you. I know how rare they are these days.”

He beamed, taking a quick peek. “Blue now, is it?”

“Blue’s the new code for safe,” Mavis and Kiira said at the same time.

“Good precaution. Take care, both of you.” 

He gave both women pats on the back before he picked up the bags and looked for a way to leave. They were in an area in-between the backs of two rows of booths, like an open-sky tunnel with many exits. After waving goodbye, they walked away in opposite directions. Mavis and Kiira counted five booths they squeezed their ways out between a crêpe booth and one that sold homemade lemonades mixed with other fruits, from the good old raspberry and strawberry to fruits Mavis couldn’t even name. Fancy.

As predicted, Miki was sampling all the flavors to her sweet tooth’s content, her grin growing wider with each one.

A crowd had formed around the lemonade booth. Mavis and Kiira squeezed their ways through to collect Miki after she’d gone through the whole selection with the mini sample cups. They agreed to come back to this booth when there was less of a crowd, and followed Henrik and Sun down the road to buy groceries.

Haggling in a market in the middle of Paris was taxing when one didn’t speak French. Normally Mavis would have tricked the merchants into thinking she wasn’t interested, and tried to get them to lower the starting price before arguing her way down from there. Lucky for her, Kiira had taken over the responsibility for most of the talking, bickering back and forth with the man who was trying to sell them organic home grown tomatoes for twice the price they’d pay at a grocery store.

Mavis knew Kiira had stayed in Paris before. She’d had more than her fair share of French culture embedded in all their cluster-mates’ memories along with happy moments from her first romance. And now, dangers and all, Mavis knew Kiira was excited to be back.

At two o’clock, when the temperature had raised to an unholy degree, the sun baking their skin with its unforgiving heat, the five of them headed to the subway station at the end of the street. They never did make it back to the fancy lemonade booth, but instead found a gelato booth that more than fulfilled their cravings. 

When they turned the corner, just before they reached the subway stop down the road, Miki froze. She stood there like she’d been petrified by some supernatural force. Her pupils dilated, and she opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Mavis, Kiira and Sun stared at her and at each other before laying a hand on the Inuk’s shoulder to try and rouse her.

Miki didn’t budge.

Henrik made eye contact with her. After a moment, he gasped and grabbed the immobile Miki by the arm to pull her away from the trance. She followed along and shuffled her feet like someone else was in command of her body, before she’d jerked her arm away and passed out against the wall of the building they were standing by.

“What’s happening?” Kiira yelled over everyone else’s screams.

“It’s the -” Henrik, who was off Blockers, looked around, eyes wide in terror - “someone was trying to see inside Miki’s head! I saw her memories shuffling and -”

“Oh shit!” Mavis ran back to the market, in the midst of the chaos that ensued. Henrik settled Miki into the narrow gap between two buildings, mostly out of view, and everyone followed the ex-spy, baffled. “No, no, no!” 

“What?” asked Sun.

The ex-spy stopped abruptly and turned around to face her allies. “It’s the Reciphorum. The Reciphorum. It must’ve -” she swerved her head around, back and forth between the booths - “the lemonade!”

Mavis pointed at the booth they’d passed by right after the trade-off with Topher. The rest of them turned to look in the direction she was pointing as two men dressed in bulletproof vests and some kind of uniform was pulling an unconscious woman away on a stretcher. Without the need to say anything else, Sun lunged forward and took the two BPO guards down with a few punches.

Mavis grabbed Kiira’s hand and instructed her to duck her head low. They squeezed through the fleeing crowd of confused sapiens, looking for signs of any unconscious people the BPO guards hadn’t spotted. They saw a middle-aged woman lying against a fruit booth. 

“Hide her under?” Kiira suggested. She lifted the opaque white table cloth at the front of the booth, revealing an empty space between the legs of the table.

“Good plan.” 

The woman was heavier than she looked, so they laid her flat and rolled. They hid her under the cover and hoped there wouldn’t be a stampede. So long as the conscious fled instead of lingered about in a panicked frenzy, she should be safe.

A turn of her head told Mavis Henrik was locked in hand-to-hand with a butch guard who was swinging a baton a few paces away. Henrik crossed his arms and blocked the force of the first hit. The frustrated man decided to kick him on the shin, hard.

Before the guard could go for another sing, this time aiming for Henrik’s head, he was tackled to the side by a woman in ballet flats and a black romper. She clearly hadn’t come prepared for battle, but the way she navigated herself told Mavis she was a trained professional. The woman threw the guard down. Two more guards came over to assist their fallen colleague. Mavis had seen the same moves from some of her contacts back in training, those who were looking to BPO’s infiltrate security instead of offices. Which meant -

The heroine-in-black-romper turned around and gave Mavis and Kiira a wink after all three men had been knocked unconscious. “Mavis and Kiira, is it?” 

Before they could respond, María was already down the road three booths away, where two more men in uniforms were dragging an unconscious man onto a stretcher. 

“Oh no you don’t!” she hollered.

María could clearly hold her own, so after Mavis and Kiira shook themselves free from their daze, they set out on their scouting mission once more. They elbowed through the crowd, which was both fortunately and unfortunately thinning, and located another unconscious man outside the BPO guards’ notice.

He was even harder to move. Thankfully, Henrik seemed to have seen them in the crowd and followed along. Together they managed to hide him under the table in another booth.

Now the coast was clear, and Henrik ran off down the street. He dashed back two minutes later and confirmed Miki hadn’t been taken away. Luckily BPO guard had checked there for potential sensates.

Mavis allowed herself a brief moment to wonder what the sapiens who fled this scene would make of this whole ordeal. All they would be able to say was… The popular lemonade had apparently been spiked with something, and there were uniformed guards who mysteriously appeared on the scene and tried to take the people who’d fainted to a hospital. (A hospital. Of course they’d think that.) Then some people had tried to attack the guards.

Yeah. They wouldn’t have been able to make sense out of it.

The five of them and María, would be the bad guys according to the sapiens’ side of the story. At least she and Kiira wouldn’t be recognizable with all their disguises. And with the BPO guards down — twelve, Mavis counted, taking a moment to admire Sun and María’s quick skills in combat — they had to move quick. Who knew how long the Reciphorum was gonna hold?

More people arrived at the scene, casually-dressed folks holding bags filled with syringes. They handed some to María before turning to Mavis and Kiira. Sun, and Henrik, who was carrying Miki, walked over.

“These will knock them out. The unconscious sensates, I mean,” one of the agents instructed. “They’re injectable Blockers. Gotta thank your ally for that.”

They got to work. Mavis and Kiira injected the two sensates they’d hidden. Henrik had apparently hidden another. And then there were the two sensates María and Sun rescued from the BPO guards.

Not too shabby for six against twelve.

A couple vans arrived at the scene to take the unconscious sensates away. María and her fellow agents hauled the unconscious sensates inside. They put Miki into the last van, then María climbed in after. She beckoned Mavis and the others to join in.

“Guess we’ll give you a ride home,” she said.

“Too risky,” Mavis replied. Kiira nodded emphatically in agreement, still catching her breath. “She be awake in a bit.” She looked at Miki, who was stirring fitfully in the back seat. “And she’s on Blockers now. When she’s awake we’ll go the rest of the way by subway. Just drive us to a random station.”

María smirked. “Speaking like a true spy.”

That made Mavis beam. She felt like she was back in training, kicking ass. 

“How’d you get here so quick?” asked Henrik.

“Some spies in the London facility got wind of the plan in Paris. They didn’t know what, exactly, but we assumed it was some kind of attack. So I came a few hours ago to scout the area. I didn’t expect it to be the… What do you call them?”

“The Reciphorum,” Kiira supplied. She told Mavis she’d spent the last few days reading up on all their allies’ current knowledge about BPO’s operations to bring herself up to speed.

“Reciphorum,” María said the word slowly, trying to commit it to memory. “We thought it was another lobotomized soldier attack.”

“Either way, you saved us,” said Mavis. “Like, big time.”

María shrugged like it was no big deal. Then they heard a phone ringing, and the driver of the van handed María a burner. She answered and set it on loud speaker.

“We lost three,” said a gruff voice from the other end.

Three?” María froze. “We were - we saved five sensates, a-and Miki, I thought -”

“Yes, three,” the called cut in. “We’re tracking the BPO vans. Seems they’re transporting the people to a nearby facility — probably London?”

Dios mío.” María put her face in her hands.

“You did good,” reassured the voice. “We just have to keep an eye on things from our end. Make sure the three taken don’t get turned into soldiers.”

They’d set out today, thinking dealing with a Veracity contact in the middle of Paris was the most risky thing they’d do. But instead they found themselves in the middle of a BPO-orchestrated raid. They looked at Miki in total silence. The Inuk mumbled something on the verge of waking up. After everything Mavis had seen, everything she’d lost, she still found it unbelievable that they’d almost lost a friend. 

*

For the third time that day, Riley tried to reach out to Lila, calling forth the riling bitterness that would draw the Neapolitan’s mind to hers. It was crucial that they found out how much Lila knew, and Riley could fortunately afford to come off Blockers now and then. The first two times she’d tried to establish a connection, there was a solid wall between the space in the Psycellium that separated her mind from Lila’s, one she couldn’t shatter without launching her consciousness back into her bedroom in Paris. 

But this time she crossed the barrier with no resistance.

This time Lila was waiting for her inside what looked like a closet. Riley didn’t make an effort to get out and see where Lila was. Right now finding the other cluster was far from their main concern. 

“Did you hear what happened in Paris?”

Riley frowned. What was Lila playing at? Was she stalling?

The other woman shrugged. “I’m not trying to guess where you are, Riley Blue. Finding you again would be suicide.”

“It would.” Riley was surprised to hear the decisiveness in her voice.

“So why are you here?”

What would Lito say? “I believe wasn’t finished with your interrogation.”

“Hasn’t there been enough attempts? You tried, Gorski tried, too. Multiple times. Tell me, what is it you’re so desperate to find?”

“Don’t know yet.” Riley tried to sound nonchalant, keeping her voice steady. “But whatever you’re hiding has to do with Jonas.”

At that, Riley felt a jolt of something hot, the sensation of a heated needle pricking the surface of her skin. It stayed for a moment — not enough to cause pain, but the irritation lingered beneath her skin like a spider waiting to crawl. Riley had realized over the past year that the mind didn’t always represent memories in full flashbacks; sometimes they were stored as impressions, swarming around the consciousness until they were called forth.

She turned and looked at Lila. The woman kept her expression guarded, lips pursed, eyes staring straight ahead without blinking. Too guarded. Riley used to do the same every night after her show had ended, whenever the demons of her past came swarming back.

“Not a fan of Jonas, I take it?” Riley asked, curious. 

Riley felt a needle jabbing at the side of her neck and cringed. She slapped her hand over the place where the injection was, but felt nothing. Immediately she recognized it as a memory: a vivid one from not long ago.

Warm liquid tingling in her veins. Vision going out of focus, off-white walls, stairs and hand grabbing at railings. A firm hand at her shoulder guiding her out of place, through a door, past — dark green, bushes, stone-paved paths — a garden? Stumbling for a few minutes before coming over to an empty space. Kind of empty. Some cars. A parking lot? The street lights were dim, blurry yellow blobs hovering above. 

Riley let out a breath she’d been holding since she made contact with Lila. Her vision was tampered with. She couldn’t have known where they were hiding. The general details, perhaps. A house with an off-white wall. Somewhere with a garden and a parking lot nearby. Not too much to go off of. 

Now all that was left to do was to discover why Jonas did what he did. She couldn’t understand why Lila was mad at someone who had helped her escape. He’d sacrificed the safety of staying somewhere secure. She thought Lila would be grateful. 

Grateful. Riley projected the question forward, her ticked eyebrow mirroring her intrigue.

Lila scoffed. “He only gave us what he owed.”

She’d fallen for the bait. Riley smoothed over the jolt of her victorious satisfaction in her mind with memories of the melodies her fathers used to play, focusing on the rhythm and the pitch. She could tell Lila was frustrated she’d buried her thought before the other woman could detect her intentions.

“Us?” asked Riley.

Lila swallowed. “Me,” she corrected. Her finger twitched, and she blinked twice in rapid succession. The movements wouldn’t have been noticeable if Riley weren’t looking for these signs, courtesy of Lito’s crash courses on lie detection.

“You know Jonas.” Riley let herself sound smug, now that she’d gotten what she needed. She looked into Lila’s eyes and urged herself not to jerk away when the woman glared back. “You knew him before we captured you. And he’s related to your cluster in some way.”

Lila tried to shrug it off. “His reputation precedes him.”

“You knew him personally.” It was the only way the memory of someone could be buried in so deep, in the form of an unpleasant sensation. Like the ice shards scattered around the periphery of Will’s mind that reminded him of Whispers.

Riley heard the sound of footsteps approaching the vicinity of her own mind inside the Psycellium, the telltale sign of Lila trying to break in. Jonas’ name echoed around the barrier of her memories, a voice that sounded suspiciously like Angelica. Most of Riley’s memories of Jonas were second-hand, procured from Nomi or Will. Not nearly specific enough for anyone to extract dangerous details.

Riley let Lila have a glimpse of Jonas talking to Will at Den Haag Centraal. It was a close enough look for Lila’s emotional reaction of the man to bleed through. A few seconds later Riley felt it: a resentful sort of rage, buried deep, anchored in a back corner of Lila’s mind. When Jonas started talking about Angelica, Riley felt a sharp tug, like the anchor was yanked out of the spot where it had stayed abandoned for so long.

“It’s about Jonas and Angelica,” Riley realized, feeling her consciousness drift back into Lila’s Speakeasy. “You haven’t thought about them in a while. Why now?”

“Thought I was done with them,” Lila said simply, turning away. 

Somewhere in the back of their shared mind, Riley felt a barrier rise. Before it separated their consciousness from each other’s, Riley squeezed her eyes shut and focused on the imager of Angelica on the day of her rebirth, on remorseful blue eyes and a sad smile, on Angelica’s hand reaching out to her child before she’d pulled the trigger and left the world with nothing but memories through Jonas’ eyes. 

She was an enigma to Riley. An enigma to all her cluster. And after everything Jonas had done, no one knew what to believe anymore. Riley let her own sense of longing for truth about her Mother swarm over the shared space she and Lila’s minds still encompassed, trying to push down Lila’s wall.

What was the last time Lila had seen Angelica? And Jonas? Were they together? Was her whole cluster there? Was -

Riley felt bricks tumbling at her feet. The wall had crumbled. Broken.

Lila was seething, fists clenched, knocking on the door of the Speakeasy. She called out a name, someone in her cluster, and asked them to let her out so she could take a Blocker. Riley had to act fast.

Angelica. What did Lila know that Riley didn’t? 

The voice started as hushed whispers, but Riley could tell it was Angelica’s voice. It grew louder as Riley let her mind wander closer to the source, and then it wasn’t just Angelica’s voice, but an amalgamation of many voices drifting about the same space. The other voices, however, didn’t have much of an echo. They felt more like thoughts.

Riley found her mind in a black space. The atmosphere around her felt dense, almost claustrophobic, like Lila was resisting her invasion from the outside in. Angelica’s image formed, an apparition in the middle of a void. Her blonde hair was pinned back, and she wore a BPO lab coat. She greeted Riley with a smile.

But the smile wasn’t directed at Riley.

Riley turned around in the body she inhabited and saw seven people standing behind her. Some of them made her recoil in an instinctive fear that she had no explanation for. Riley suppressed her urge to pulled herself out from the memory.

Tears welled up in Angelica’s eyes. Jonas appeared behind Angelica and whispered something in her ear. She nodded, and he took a step back with a nod and a smile. 

Angelica reached out a hand, and Riley did the same, noting the manicured red nails that didn’t belong to her. Their fingertips touched, and a memory flashed by: Will’s memory of the day they made the trade with BPO to save Wolfgang. The day he saw Lila’s cluster amid all his fighting with the BPO guards.

It had to be them. Her fear had to have come from Will’s confrontation.

Who are you? Riley felt herself asking. The voice belonged to Lila.

Riley feel Lila’s hand grip her shoulder in the Speakeasy, dragging her back, yanking her away from the memory. The image of Angelica and Lila’s cluster were fading from her eyes. She prayed Angelica would speak before Lila could shut her out for good.

Before Lila could put up her wall again, Riley heard Angelica’s voice.

I’m your Mother.

*

“Kala. I’ve been meaning to ask you something.”

Rajan’s voice was tense. She could hear it through the phone. She drew a sharp breath, shuffling in her spot on Wolfgang’s lap. “What is it?” she asked, surprised at how calm she sounded. From across the room, Lito gave her an affirming nod.

“It’s not easy to discuss on the phone,” he said. “Might be easier if we talk in person?”

That made her heart drop. She looked around the small sitting area in the basement near the lab, at Lito and Hernando, who were watching a rom-com on the TV with the volume turned down. And Wolfgang, who sat there holding her, his gentle hand playing with her curls. How she could even begin to explain it all, she had no clue. 

“I… Don’t think that’s a good idea.”

Wolfgang turned to her with a look that could only be described as hurt. It made her heart ache. She closed her eyes.

“Kala,” said Rajan, more emphatically now. “Has your safety been compromised? Is that why I can’t come?”

That wasn’t completely wrong. She did get herself seriously injured in a fight with another cluster. Not that Rajan would know about clusters. Wait. Then how did he -

“Why do you ask?” she said instead. “Why do you think my safety is at risk?”

“No, I - I just wanted to make sure.”

Lito raised an eyebrow from across the room, but right now knowing Rajan may be lying gave her no satisfaction. Kala hadn’t been entirely forthcoming with her situation either.

“I’m safe, Rajan.” Again, technically not a lie. But saying it made her feel terrible. 

“Okay, good.” He sounded relieved. “Kala, I’m… I’ve heard the news. There’s been attacks all around the world. Paris, just today.”

“Oh.” That. “I’m okay. I didn’t go out.”

“That’s, erm - good.”

They were going in circles. Kala could feel Wolfgang’s silent frustration despite the Blockers from the way he wrapped his arms tighter around her. There was no easy way to begin explaining the truth. There was no -

“Kala, listen,” Rajan said again, bringing her out of her trance. “I’m asking because - and I’m not accusing you of anything, Kala, it’s just… Ajay called.”

Kala sat up straight. Wolfgang craned his neck to look at her, eyes full of concern. “Ajay? What did he want? Rajan, are you -”

“I’m fine,” he cut in. He didn’t sound fine. He sounded agitated. Worried. For her. “I’m - he told me there’s people who are - ahh, I don’t know exactly what he meant -”

“People who are what?”

“Coming after you. Not for something you did,” he added immediately. “It’s… he was going on about something. Like DNA. Something like that. I don’t know if he was toying with me but I have to know. Is there something you’re not telling me? Something you can’t tell me?”

Kala froze. She’d known. She’d known this day would come. But she had been too preoccupied with BPO and the Reciphorum and Bolgers and Veronika and the Archipelago to remember that Rajan wasn’t entirely oblivious. That sooner or later, he’d have noticed something was off. 

“Rajan, there’s -”

For a moment she thought she was going to tell him everything, right there, through the phone, before she could find another reason to stall. But Nomi had told all of them, time and again, that anything digital could be recorded, archived, traced back as incriminating evidence, even. So, with a shake of her head, she amended, “We can’t do this here. Not on the phone. Not now.”

“When?” 

This required strategic planning, procuring evidence… and the probability of the life she’d built for herself falling into disarray. “This isn’t easy to explain. Can I call you back?”

She imagined Rajan nodding. “Of course. I’ll be here.”

“Thank you.” She said.

“Anything for you, my love.”

My love. It pained her to hear these words. Not because she doubted his love wasn’t true, but she knew — had known for a long time now, if she was honest with herself — that her love was not. And it never would be. 

“Be safe, Rajan,” she said in place of a goodbye. 

“Be safe,” he said. “I love you.”

She hung up before she could blurt out another lie. 

*

“I know I should tell Rajan. I know.”

Kala was kicking at the foot of her stool with the back of her heels, leaning against the lab counter. If Kala’s injuries hadn’t made it hard for her to exert herself, Nomi knew she would probably have been pacing around the entire room by now. Nomi sat facing her, her back agains the storage cabinet where their hosts kept the beakers.

“We’re getting so close to formulating the final plan to bring down BPO, and it’s only a matter of time before Rajan decides calling me every other week is not enough, and he’ll fly to Paris, to our flat, and I won’t be there because I will either be cleaning up after the mess that BPO has left behind, or storming into battle, or - or still in this safe house, if we, for some reason, haven’t made the move to attack -” Kala turned to Nomi, who sat there patiently, waiting for her to finish her rant - “What do you think?”

“I think you already know the answer.”

She groaned. “I didn’t think - it’s so soon! How has it already been a month?”

“You know you can’t avoid him forever, Kala.”

“I know.” She put her face in her hands. “I don’t know - How am I going to explain all this? How am I going to explain Wolfgang? It’s going to destroy Rajan.”

Nomi scooted forward and put a hand on Kala’s shoulder, making her look up. She tucked a strand of loose curls behind Kala’s ear. “It’ll destroy him more if he found out another way.”

“But what if he doesn’t? What if we just left? Find some place where no one knows us. Like… Oh! Iceland. Or America. What if we move to California and -”

“Do you really think that’s best for you?”

Sheepishly, Kala shook her head. “But we’ll be able to start over,” she tried, a feeble attempt, they both knew. 

“You know you’ll never let it go unless you tell him.”

Kala sighed, giving in. “But how?”

“I’ll compile the data I pulled up. You’re both scientists. That should be enough to convince him about the sensate thing.”

“What about Wolfgang?”

“I think once he believes you about Homo sensorium, it should be easier to explain.”

Kala frowned and fiddled with the fabric on her nightgown, staring at the area where she’d changed her bandage a few hours ago. Nomi reached forward and held her hand, but she knew Kala wasn’t pained because of the physical injury. 

“I don’t know what’s going to happen if I tell him,” Kala admitted. “It’s - I’ve never done anything like this. I never thought I’d do anything like this.”

“Sometimes we surprise ourselves.” Nomi thought back to all the changes in her life she’d made in the past year. In retrospect it seemed logical that she’d chosen to get back to her criminal ways given the cards she was dealt. But there was a time when she thought she’d moved on from hacking entirely.

“I’m not sure how I feel about surprises,” said Kala.

At that, Nomi smirked, remembering Kala’s first wedding. “I think we all know how you feel about this one.”

An indignant gasp. “Nomi!”

“You know it’s worth it. Telling the truth about Wolfgang. It’ll set you free.”

“I know, but -” Kala lowered her voice - “my parents would be upset. I know they would. ”

Nomi could understand her hesitation, even if she’d never had to make decisions based on consequences it would bring to her family herself. She supposed, on top of cultural differences, that having supportive parents made it difficult for Kala to grow out of the fear of disappointing them.

“I know your parents, Kala. They want you to be happy. And they liked Rajan because they thought he made you happy.”

“They thought he was a good match.”

“Hey.” Nomi stood up, walked behind Kala, and looped her arms around her shoulder. “You’ve found a better match, haven’t you?”

That made Kala smile, despite everything. “I have.”

“See? It might take them a while to wrap their head around -” she looked around the lab - “all this, but they’ll come around.”

“I’ll have to change my job.” Kala shrugged. That, Nomi knew she wasn’t too upset about. Not after she’d heard about them selling expired pharmaceutical stock. “Maybe I can work for a company that actually helps people.”

“Or a company that helps sensates. You can finish what Angelica started too. You have the advantage.” Nomi gave her a friendly squeeze on the shoulder. “Not that we’ll reveal the whole Homo sensorium thing at once. But still.”

Kala thought about it. “What are your plans after we take down BPO?”

Nomi pulled her stool closer and sat back down, facing Kala. “Neets and I were thinking, we should work on pulling up evidence that’ll incriminate Joong-Ki. Something to prove he’s been working with Vor. And we can see if anything similar comes up for Dani’s parents, maybe even Joaquín.”

Kala’s eyes sparkled with something mischievous. “Have you found anything yet?”

Nomi shook her head. “But some of the Veracity hackers are helping. Something has to come up eventually. Digital data always leaves a trace.”

“And after that?”

“Mavis said Veracity’s planning to reveal Homo sensorium’s existence. The truth, science and all. Not all at once, but they have a five-year plan, so it’s less of a shock for the sapiens. She doesn’t know the details.”

“We have to stop Veronika before false information get out.”

“Exactly.”

That was the end of that discussion. So now -

“I told Rajan I’d call him back,” said Kala. “But when? When should I tell him?”

“Better now than later.”

They ended up writing a script. Kala rehearsed it three times, before nodding for Nomi to hand her the burner phone with the number already dialed in. Nomi walked around and put her hands on Kala’s shoulders again, giving her a reassuring squeeze. 

A few minutes later Kala ended the call, after making a plan to meet Rajan in Lyon in two days’ time. She looked like she was about to cry. From nerves? Anticipation? Maybe a mix of both. Nomi plucked the phone away from her hand and gave her a hug from behind, until she felt Kala’s breathing calm.

“I can’t go back home after this,” she said, her voice shaky.

“You don’t have to. Might help if the two of you move someplace new.”

“Is that what you did?” 

“I moved out when I started college, way before I met Neets. But yeah.”

Kala frowned. “And it helped?”

“Like I said, sometimes we surprise ourselves. I did things I never thought I could.”

“Was it hard?” Kala asked in a small voice. “Did you ever think about going back?”

“At first. I got used to it pretty quick, though. And in the end?” She examined her left hand from over Kala’s shoulder, twirling her ring with the tip of her thumb. “Totally worth it.”

Kala nodded. Still scared, but Nomi knew she wasn’t going to back out.

“And you won’t be alone,” Nomi added, before she helped Kala up from her seat and guided her to the stairs, holding her hand.

“I’ll have Wolfgang.”

Nomi chuckled. “You’ll have all of us.”

*

Riley and Wolfgang took first watch that night after Kala had fallen asleep, and everyone had returned to their rooms to process the Lila revelation Riley had shared after she returned from her visit to Lila’s Speakeasy. They shared the couch and turned on a Eurovision rerun in the living room, enjoying the quiet time after midnight they used to take for granted. 

Even though they weren’t completely alone.

Amélie sat in Riley’s lap, tugging at the ears of the stuffed beagle she was cuddling, a gift from her mother, who stayed for dinner every other evening. Her mother had put her to bed before she’d left, but Amélie had woken up a few hours later, and, despite Gina’s exasperated pleas, refused to stay in bed. She seemed to have a penchant for fighting sleep, no matter how tired she was. Right now she was leaning her head lazily against Riley’s chest, and her eyes were shutting of their own volition, though she’d tried her best to keep them open.

“Do you think things would’ve been different if Angelica hadn’t died?” Riley asked, keeping her voice quiet. She hoped the cadence of her foreign words would be enough to lull the child into boredom and make her give into exhaustion.

Wolfgang frowned. “We wouldn’t have been friends. Not with Lila.”

That, she supposed, was true. She couldn’t envision any of them negotiating with a woman who associated herself with the Kings under any circumstance.

“Doesn’t matter now,” Wolfgang added. “What’s done is done.”

Riley nodded. “She got you captured,” she said. She wasn’t sure exactly why she’d said it — to remind herself, perhaps, why they had kept their distance from the other cluster?

“She hurt Kala.”

She did. Riley remembered the night they’d rushed her back to the safe house, the way the doctor had peeled off the shirt plastered to Kala’s wound and revealed the cut. The look in Wolfgang’s eyes was something Riley could never unsee. He looked ready to kill.

Riley used to think she wasn’t capable of hurting others. But if it had been Will lying on the lab counter with a knife wound, she wasn’t sure she’d have reacted differently. 

“She’ll pay for what she did,” Riley found herself saying.

Wolfgang nodded curtly. “She made her choice. We made ours.”

The Archipelago had been able to confirm the location of two of Veronika’s homes, the houses she returned to on a somewhat regular basis. One was in Scotland, in an isolated neighborhood up north; the other was right in the heart of South Kensington. That had come as a surprise to everyone; they’d expected the Russian to choose a more discreet shelter. Either way, they were one step closer to bringing down BPO from the top. 

“It’s almost go time,” said Riley. 

“Yeah.” He muted the TV when the program cut to a commercial break, but she saw a hint of a smirk despite his neutral expression, likely wondering what would become of him and Kala after this war. “We’ll be free.”

Smiling, Riley looked at the rose gold ring on her finger, tilting her hand to examine the speckles of colors shimmering in the fire opal stone. When they’d gone to bed last night, Will had confessed he’d told her father about his plan to propose. Her father seemed to like Will so far, he’d told her. Riley was sure when the two of them had the chance to properly talk, they’d get along well. “We can go home,” she said.

They were close, really close, to putting an end to their biggest threat at hand. Perhaps a few other higher-up sapiens alongside Veronika, too, in case any of them were lined up to take over the organization once the Russian was history. 

With Bug’s help, Nomi and Amanita had procured basic information on five of the sapiens on the list, simple biographical things, sometimes a photo to two. But they had trouble pinning down the contact information. Like them, the sapiens seemed to always be relocating and reestablishing their connections with new communication devices. The Archipelago, though, was confident they could track these people down.

Wolfgang un-muted the TV as the Eurovision logo came back on the screen.

Amélie crawled off Riley’s lap and settled herself in the space between the adults sitting on the couch. She let go of her stuffed beagle — Riley had to pick it up from the floor — and scooted over to Wolfgang’s side. To Wolfgang’s surprise, she made a grab for his arm. 

Riley noticed Wolfgang had frozen. His expression was a mix between befuddlement and fear. The toddler grinned, a full chubby-cheeked grin, and pulled herself up using Wolfgang’s shoulder as support.

He couldn’t help grin in return. 

“She likes you,” Riley observed.

“She just wants something to hold.”

Riley shook her head. “She trusts you.” As if to prove Riley’s point, the girl climbed onto Wolfgang’s lap and sat there, tilting up her head to look Wolfgang in the eye again. “See?”

He shrugged and stroked Amélie’s blonde curls with a careful hand. Riley expected the girl to giggle, but instead she yawned. On instinct, Wolfgang pulled her close. She laid her head on his chest, and within moments she stopped stirring.

Quirking an eyebrow, Riley looked between a baffled Wolfgang and the sleeping toddler before winking at her cluster-mate. They stood, Wolfgang’s arms wrapped protectively around the girl, and walked up the stairs. Before he put Amélie to sleep, he held her for a moment where he’d knelt by her bed, deep in thought as he looked at the way she smiled peacefully in her sleep.

After they made their ways back down, Wolfgang sat on their couch and faced Riley. “It’s not just us who’s in trouble because of what Lila did,” he said.

Riley wondered what Lila had been trying to accomplish by turning Wolfgang in to the Headhunters. From what she’d detected in the woman’s mind, it seemed have been an impulsive decision. Something had snapped in her after Wolfgang’s blatant refusal of her offer for collaboration, and she wanted to get even.

“We did what we had to do to get you back,” said Riley. “She underestimated us.”

Lila underestimated the strength that came with having something to fight for. Wolfgang might’ve believed they were better off without him, once, but Riley hoped, between Kala and everyone else, that they’d managed to convince him he was family.

He frowned. “She doesn’t know us.”

“No,” she agreed. “Not all clusters are like us.”

They were silent for a few moments, watching the people singing in strange costumes on TV. Neither of them were paying attention to the performance itself, but the music helped them think.

“Doesn’t matter now,” Wolfgang said finally.

“What doesn’t matter?”

“What past bullshit went on between her cluster and BPO, and Angelica.”

And you. Riley nodded. “What’s done is done.”

Riley could spend days thinking about what could have been, but she knew the only thing that mattered now was what they did next. Wolfgang had always been better at confronting the harsh realities, but after spending over a month under one roof, his fighting spirit seemed to have affected them all.

“What’s done is done,” Wolfgang echoed. “All that matters now is how we fix it.”

Chapter Text

July 30, 2017

When Lito woke up at five in the morning for the last watch with Henrik, he didn’t expect to see Damien charging down the stairs from the second floor with a plastic sword, hollering “no more lies”. Leon had warned him they’d watched his movies too many times on quiet evenings. Lito had assumed Leon meant only the five of them. Not a nine-year-old.

Then again, knowing Damien, he wouldn’t be surprised if the boy had persuaded Leon, who’d helped him pester the rest of the hosts until they’d all relented.

“Damien!” Henrik hissed. He rushed up and snatched the sword away before the kid could take out someone’s eye. “You’re gonna wake Amélie up!”

“Oops.” Damien stuck out his tongue. “No more lies,” he whispered instead, shaking a fist. “No more lies. No more lies!”

“Sorry about that.” Henrik hauled Damien down the rest of the stairs by the underarms. “Don’t know why he’s even up so early.”

“It’s no problem.” Lito smirked. Damien reminded him of himself as a boy, battling the days away against villains from his imagination. Though he and María had kept each other company. He supposed Leon did, too, with Damien, but it wasn’t the same.

“I’m hungry. You got food? I want food.” Damien dashed to the kitchen before either men could respond. Exchanging sighs, they followed suit. 

By the time the reached the kitchen, Damien was already seated at the kitchen island, biting into a frozen waffle. Henrik took it from him before he could break his teeth, and put a few more waffles into the toaster. Lito brought out two mugs and started the coffee machine.

“Lito, how’d you get the blood in that scene in Our Father Art in Hell?” Damien asked a few minutes later, piling syrup and whipped cream on his now properly-heated breakfast. “Like - pshhhh -” he wiggled his fingers, imitating the blood gushing out from his neck. “No more liessss,” he said, clutching his chest dramatically.

Next to Damien, Henrik snorted into his mug.

From across the kitchen island, Lito took a long gulp of his own coffee before clearing his throat. “It wasn’t real blood,” he explained. “Just red ink. And prosthetics.”

“Aww.”

“What, did you tell him it was real blood?” Lito asked Henrik.

The younger man scratched his head, his cheeks flushing pink. “I said I didn’t know. Said he had to ask the man himself. None of us expected you to show up.”

“Everyone’s surprised when they see me,” Lito said. He remembered the look on Pelzer’s face when he’d removed the mask of his Hazmat suit, gray eyes expanding to the size of golf balls upon the revelation. That image was almost worth being on Blockers for the rest of the battle. Almost.

“Yeah. Because you’re famous,” Damien pointed out. 

Lito put on a mock look of indignation. “Hey, famous people can be sensates.”

Henrik shrugged in a Damien-has-a-point sort of way. “I guess no one expects it. We’ve had other public figures in the Archipelago. Retired ones, mostly, but not like you.”

“And you weren’t hiding,” Damien added. “Not like us. Or my mom.”

Lito turned to Henrik with a frown. Henrik shook his head before Damien could catch either of them in the communication. Lito and his family had stumbled upon the portraits on the stairs not long after Riley did. That night, after the kids had gone to bed, Miki had quietly brought everyone up to speed in the basement lab. They’d agreed to avoid the mention of mothers whenever the boy was around.

“That’s true,” Lito said quickly, hoping to change the conversation. “I’m everywhere.”

“Mm.” Damien prodded at his last waffle, jabbing holes into the surface with his fork. “Wish my mom’s everywhere. I’d know where she is.”

“Hey.” Henrik patted the boy on the shoulder and lowered himself to meet him in the eye. “She’ll get in touch, alright? She just has to lay low because -”

“Cannibal’s hunting,” Damien drawled, crossing his arms. “Yeah yeah. I know. You’ve told me. He’s always hunting.”

Henrik looked Lito in the eye and mouthed help

Lito opened his mouth, but for the first time in ages he didn’t know what to say. What could he say? He usually would’ve come up with a lie by now, but he’d never lied to children. And he couldn’t bring Damien’s hopes up in case -

No. No. That couldn’t have been true. She was hiding. On quarantine. She must have been.

Not that Lito could believe his own words anymore.

“Maybe she’s taking too many Blockers,” Damien said again, sparing Lito for the moment. “I haven’t seen her in months.”

“I miss her too, dear,” said Henrik. 

“No, I mean I haven’t seen her. She used to visit. She visited a month ago.”

Henrik startled. “What do you mean a month ago? Damien, she left Paris two years -”

“Two years ago. I know. I mean like - like when one of you go poof and show up in front of me when you’re actually in the garden, or downstairs, or somewhere.”

“Visiting?” Lito perked up. Sara Patrell had done it with Will. He could still see her ghost years after she’d died. Of course a sensate parent would be able to visit their children, born or unborn. “She came to see you?” Lito tried to keep his tone neutral, like he was asking a normal question. “Did she - did she say anything?”

“She said she loved me.” Damien frowned. “And sorry. I said it’s okay but she kept saying sorry before she said goodbye.”

Henrik’s face blanched. Lito felt his hands go cold.

“Damien,” said Henrik, slowly. Lito could tell he was trying to keep his voice from shaking. “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“I thought she wanted to talk alone.”

“Right. Yeah.” Henrik shrugged. “Never mind, I was, erm, I was curious.”

“She missed you,” Lito added, diverting Damien’s attention when it looked like Henrik couldn’t keep his smile up for much longer. “They have to keep her on Blockers, all the time, like me, see?” He showed Damien the emergency bottle he kept in his own pocket. “But she slipped in a few seconds to see you, before she had to take another one.”

“Right. Yeah,” said Damien, his voice slightly higher than normal. “I know that, it’s just… I miss her too.” Damien pushed the last waffle around his plate with the fork. “And dad.”

Lito raised an eyebrow. Henrik shook his head. Damien was still looking at his food, but Lito saw a slight twitch of his fingers, and he was frowning. Something told Lito the kid knew more than he was letting on.

Damien most likely realized Lito was scrutinizing him. He laid the fork on the plate and looked up at Lito across from him. “You don’t have to feel bad for me,” he said. With a jolt, Lito realized the kid had been observing him, too. “I know we’re in danger. The Headhunters killed my dad.”

“I’m sorry, Damien,” said Lito. Henrik put an arm around Damien’s shoulder.

“I mean, it’s not your fault,” said the boy. “And I was three. I don’t really remember him. But I still miss him.”

“I know.” Lito’s heart ached for the boy. He’d lost his father to cancer not long before he moved to Mexico City. Every Christmas, seeing the empty seat at the family table felt like reopening a fresh wound. He couldn’t imagine growing up without papá.

“But it’s okay,” said Damien, putting on his own smile. “I still have mom. And I can see them both. Sometimes together.”

Lito looked between Henrik and Damien, puzzled.

“They were in the same cluster,” the boy explained.

Lito froze. The only sensorium child Lito had gotten close to knowing was Sara Patrell. It was always so shocking to learn a new aspect of their sensacity.

“And someday you’ll have your own cluster.” Henrik ruffled Damien’s hair. He exchanged another look with Lito, one full of unspoken pain.

“I know.” Damien leapt off the high stool, his syrup-soaked waffle forgotten. “Mavis said the earliest is at thirteen.”

“Th-thirteen?” Lito croaked.

“She said it’s rare,” Damien explained. “But there was one cluster. Maybe I’ll be reborn early too.” He looked at Lito. “I hope I’ll have nine cluster-mates.”

Lito chuckled. “Maybe.”

Damien stretched, exaggerating his groan. “I’m stuffed. Let’s watch a movie. Oh! El Caído.” He ran to the living room and dashed straight for the shelf where they kept DVDs.

Throughout the movie, Lito checked on the boy, but he seemed to be fully engrossed in the plot, even if, as Henrik pointed out, they had seen this movie “an embarrassing number of times”. Damien insisted on Lito doing a live demonstration of the scene where Tino killed the Father, and he was happy to comply. 

The movie was bittersweet in many ways, It was the last role he’d taken before he came out. It was the last time he pretended to be the hero, before he’d stepped up and done something heroic in real life. And it was during this scene that he felt the connection to his cluster for the first time.

Lito felt the corners of his lips quirk into a smile before he morphed his face into the solemn El Caído expression, and delivered the final punchline in front of the TV.

Damien cheered, a whispered cheer, as most of the house was still asleep. Henrik, too, gave a quiet round of applause. At the moment the boy seemed happy, but Lito exchanged a worried look with Henrik, knowing this distraction was temporary. The pain of losing a loved one comes and goes. Damien would ask questions about his mother again — maybe in a few hours, maybe a few weeks. 

Lito hoped it was the latter. And he hoped, by then, his cluster would have taken down BPO and found the answer. One way or another.

*

Nomi had told Sun she’d send Detective Mun a new number to call everyday in case of new developments. Sun had been annoyed, but against all reason, she couldn’t refuse. She’d even found herself hoping he’d call. What had gotten into her?

He called on the third day, at three in the morning in Paris’ time.

“We’ve received hard evidence that your brother hired people to kill you in prison, Miss Bak. Courtesy of some of you hacker friend.”

Sun raised an eyebrow at Nomi, who, coincidentally, was taking the guarding shift with her. Nomi shrugged. “Must be one of the Guys at Veracity.”

“The court’s moved the date of his trial forward in light of the new evidence. But we still need your testimony.”

“I’m aware,” said Sun. And she was. A part of her was rejoicing in her brother being brought to justice, but with BPO threatening to unleash hell on her kind, it would be unwise to travel. “But I can’t.”

“You’re safe now,” he said, full of conviction. “Please, come back.”

She sighed. “It’s not that simple, Mun.”

“They’re keeping a closer watch on him now in detention. His trial still can’t go on without your testimony, but he can’t hurt you.”

“I know.” Sun smiled, a sad smile. “But he’s not -” she took a deep breath and looked around the safe house, and at Nomi, who was listening to something else using headphones, knowing Sun needed space - “he’s not the only one.”

“Are there others?” Mun’s voice sounded closer, like he was leaning in to the receiver. She imagined him frowning. “Others working for him? Tell me.”

“Not for him. Well -”

They did discover Veronika might be one of her father’s old business contacts a while back. Really, by this point, nothing surprised her about her brother. “I don’t know. Maybe,” she said. “But it’s a different problem. Not related to what Joong-Ki did.”

“Oh.” He paused. She heard the sound of pages flipping, before, “Does it have to do with a woman? London accent, kind of cold, scary sort of voice?”

She froze. “How did you -”

“She called me, Miss Bak.” He sounded amused. Why did he sound amused? He could’ve been killed. Again. He was still in danger because of her.

“If you’re joking -”

“I’m serious,” he said. There was no hiding the smirk in his voice.

“What did she say?”

“She wanted me to let your brother go. Gave me all kinds of threats. You know, if you’re telling the truth, and for the sake of this argument I’m gonna believe you are telling the truth about your other predicament being mostly unrelated -”

Sun slammed her fist on the couch cushion she was holding. Her voice was much louder when she interrupted, “What threats?

He chuckled from the other end. “Don’t worry. I get plenty of those. It’s part of the job.”

“You don’t understand.” Her voice was shaking. Slightly. Barely noticeable. But since when did her voice shake? “Ver -” she wanted to say the sapien’s name, but stopped herself in time - “she’s not like the others. She will carry through with her threat.”

“Sounds like you know her. You can tell me all about her if you come down to the station. I can go escort you from where you’re hiding, if you’re concerned about your safety.”

“No, I -” she ran a hand through her hair, frustrated. Nomi gave her a look of concern, but she shook her head. “I can’t, Mun. I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know how to explain. But there’s nothing you can do for this. It’s not like my case with my brother. You have to believe me.”

“I do.” His voice was full of concern. She pictured his face, downturned corners of his lips coupled with sad eyes. Her fingers threatened to claw the couch cushion inside out. “But there’s got to be something I can do to help -”

“There isn’t,” she cut in, sounding harsher than she’d intended. Unless you want to get yourself killed. Maybe you do. You’re reckless. Stupidly reckless, I can’t even begin to - 

Fine. I don’t want you to get yourself killed.

He was persistent. “Maybe if you try and explain the situation to me -”

“Why do you care so much?”

Her voice was full-on shaking now, but she’d stopped trying to hide it. He could attribute it to agitation. It wasn’t like he’d suspect she cared. About him. And she did. But only because her brother had nearly taken his life, and she felt responsible. Only that.

“If you’re worried I’m gonna be in danger, don’t. My run-in with your brother? It wasn’t the first time I nearly got myself killed, and it’s not gonna be the last.”

“What was your first?”

“It was a long time ago.” He tried to shrug it off. But she’d heard it. She’d heard the way his voice thickened, burdened with a guilt she couldn’t place. “It’s been three years. Three and a half now, I think.”

“Tell me.”

He sighed. “It’s all in the past. I mean, either way, I said I’d help you with the case and I -”

“Mun,” she insisted, “I want to know.”

“Telling you won’t change your mind about coming back, will it?”

She knew he was joking. Or, trying to. 

“I can’t.” It pained her to say it again. “But I want to know why this is so important.”

There was pause on the other end of the line. After ten, twenty seconds, she thought he was going to hang up. But then he mumbled, “Okay.”

“Okay.” She was relieved he’d relented. Why did she care so much?

Mun took a deep breath. “Her name was Chun Hei.” 

Sun frowned. “Was she your first?”

“My first case? No. But it’s one I’ll never forget.”

She waited for him to continue.

“Maybe it’s for the best. Reminds me why I became a cop.”

“I’m sure.” After Will, Sun wondered how many cops became cops because they wanted to be heroes, and how many stayed that way. She wanted to know where Mun stood.

“Chun Hei’s mother died when she was young, and her father was involved in dangerous things. Drug dealings, illegal embezzlements, all that. Dragged her into it, too. Said she was part of the family. My Lieutenant caught one of their cronies in the act. Eventually it was traced back to her family. But her father didn’t go to jail. She did.”

Sun wanted to punch a wall. “She took the fall for them,” she said. A bitter tear rolled off her cheek. Nomi came over and put her arm around her shoulder, dabbing at her cheek with a tissue. She leaned in to Nomi’s touch.

“All of us at the station knew it couldn’t have been her. But we didn’t have evidence pointing to all of her family, and in her testimony she said it was all her, and her dad had nothing to do with it. She wasn’t that kind of person, you know? She was a music teacher. She told me once, she got the job because she wanted to help children, to see if anyone needed someone to listen when their families couldn’t.”

Of course Chun Hei wasn’t the type. She was forced. Trapped. 

Sun scoffed, a tearful scoff. Nomi whispered something in her ear, but she didn’t pay attention. She muttered she was fine, and, after giving her a hug, Nomi backed away, back to her couch to give her space. Talk later, Nomi mouthed. Sun nodded.

“I didn’t want an innocent person to go to jail. So I investigated her father’s business, hoping to find a lead, anything that might incriminate him.”

“Did you find anything?”

“I did.” He sounded pained. She clutched her fist. “And I told her I did. I visited her in prison, and I told her I could keep her safe until the trial. I told her I could collect her new testimony down at the station, prove she was threatened to take the fall. We could put her father where he belonged and set her free.”

She pursed her lips. That sounded like the sort of reckless thing he’d do, the kind that’d get him killed. But knowing at least one cop out there wanted to help felt kind of nice. Warm, almost. Not that she’d tell him. He was smug enough as he was.

“But one day before I’d arranged to escort her to the station, I walked home late after work, and some of her father’s men were there. They said if I didn’t let the case go, I’d pay. So I fought them. And there were… Seven, maybe eight of them?”

“You were outnumbered.”

“I was. One of them stabbed me.”

Her heart dropped.

“I was fine,” he said. “I think he didn’t aim for the kill. Just wanted to scare me.”

But still -

“I got out of the hospital a week later, and I went to the prison to talk to her. And they said she -” his voice broke. He paused. There were shuffling sounds from his end, before she heard a thud. Maybe he’d kicked his desk. Or punched something, too.

Mun took a deep breath. “She killed herself. She killed herself in prison.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” She heard him sniffle, before clearing his throat. “She left a note. My Lieutenant showed it to me. She said she didn’t care if she suffered alone, but she didn’t want someone to die for her.”

I don’t want anyone to die for me, either. I don’t want you to die for me.

“I wanted to be a cop to help people. I knew what I’d signed up for. But I’m not going to quit doing what I have to do because I fear for my life.”

“I know.” He’d made that clear, time and again.

“I failed her. I’m not going to fail you too.”

“It’s out of your control, Mun.”

“It’s my job to defend people the system failed to protect. People like you, Miss Bak. What kind of officer would I be if knew you were in danger and did nothing?”

A safe one? One who knew their limits? One who acted like all the other officers in charge of her case, who’d believed what they’d heard and moved on?

But she didn’t tell him any of this. She knew, from the days she spent inside Will’s head, that telling him now wouldn’t change his mind. It’d make him more determined to help.

“Sun,” she said instead. “You can call me Sun.”

“Sun.” There was a smile in his voice.

“It’s out of your control.”

“I understand there are things you can’t tell me. I won’t pry, if you think telling me’s going to put you in more danger. But if you ever need an intervention, if it ever gets too bad and you need my help -”

“I’ll call you,” she said. And, surprisingly, she meant it.

“I’ll be waiting.” He sounded like he meant it, too. “Stay safe, Sun.”

*

When would the August 8 cluster to make the next move?

Maitake had known the meeting with Wolfgang’s cluster was a trap, and loosened himself from the jacket deliberately, hoping the added information could give their ex-enemies enough of a lead to take down Veronika. Much like the way Marcela decided to avoid aiming for the kill during her struggle with Mrs Rasal — grudges aside, taking the chemist down would mean one less leverage against Veronika. But Veronika had taken more precautions now that she knew some information was compromised. And Maitake, along with the rest of his cluster, had found themselves growing impatient. 

“There’s no use staying here,” he pointed out. Across the living room, his three remaining cluster-mates turned to him. “She’s going to find us. We should give ourselves up.”

Lila looked incredulous. “What, and let her butcher our brains?”

“We might be able to negotiate -”

“With Veronika? Maitake, I know people like her. I’ve dealt with people like her. She’s going to have us executed.”

Ragnar spoke up from where he sat cross-legged on the couch, shuffling the deck of cards he always carried with an expert hand. His stark white hair glinted underneath the lamp light, the bluntly-chopped tips grazing the sides of his chin. “Then we play smart. Like she does.”

“What are you suggesting?” asked Marcela.

They watched their Estonian cluster-mate take out the Queen of Hearts and flip it in the air with the tip of his fingers before stuffing it back into the deck. Ragnar’s sleight-of-hand was always mesmerizing to watch. There was a hidden deadliness to the way his performance caught people’s eyes, rendering them unaware of the truth behind the dazzles of his magic tricks. “Say we have something to offer, in exchange for Sylvie and Quyền’s freedom.”

Lila shook her head. “We won’t hold up under the Traceworks for long. She’ll know it’s a lie.”

But it wasn’t about beating the Russian to the next move. It hasn’t been since the assassination of Sebastian Fuchs had backfired, and costed them what little reason Veronika had to keep them alive. “We need to know her next plan of attack,” said Ragnar. “That’s all.”

“Wolfgang’s not going to cave,” said Lila. “And he won’t believe what we say.”

There was a hint of bitterness in her voice. She glared at nothing in particular as her fingers curled, nails scratching the fabric of her borrowed jeans. Her silent rage over the German’s rejection hasn’t faltered. If anything, it festered after she’d spent a few days trapped underneath the August 8 cluster’s basement.

Maitake sighed. “It’s a risk we’ll have to take.” 

At that, Marcela quirked an eyebrow, brown eyes piercing. Maitake knew what she was thinking, even if her mind was inaccessible at the moment. Risk-taking was hardly the way he’d chose to go. He had frowned upon Lila’s reckless since their rebirth, when BPO had traced down their identities through their Mother and offered a deal for collaboration. For their cooperation in BPO’s research, Veronika had promised the cluster immunity from sapiens, should information about their existence be released to the world. As part of the deal, the knowledge the organization gained would be made accessible to them too.

Maitake had been skeptical of the Russian’s intentions. Really, all eight of them had been. But Lila had wanted to test the limits of their powers and understand the leverage they had against sapiens at large. In the end they compromised for the sake of safety: instead of trying to hide from BPO’s prying eyes after they had already been found once, they had, in Jonas’ words, made a deal with the devil. Thought when Headhunters became distracted with the August 8 cluster, they saw an opportunity, a window of time to try and free themselves. 

To say they’d failed would have been an understatement.

“We can’t surrender,” Lila insisted. “We can find another way.”

Maitake glared. “There is no other way.”

“Mm,” Ragnar spoke up again, adjusting the collars of his black leather jacket, the one he’d never parted with since BPO had flown him to London. “That’s not entirely true.”

“This is no time for theatrics,” said Marcela.

His pale lips curled up into a thin smile. “The simplest solution. Tried-and-true.”

“What solution?” Lila snapped. She’d grown impatient, too. Normally Maitake would’ve frowned at her temper, but in this instance, he’d grown equally agitated. None of their cluster were the type to sit indoors brooding over theoretical battle plans. Cabin fever had driven them to the brink of madness.

“We join the resistance. We know the August 8 cluster has a high chance of succeeding in their conquest for the throne.”

“Wolfgang’s not going to -”

“I don’t mean we sign a peace treaty,” Ragnar explained, his voice airy and calm as ever. “We can find a way to ensure the collaboration without the potential backstabbing. Some form of forced alliance, one they can’t find it in their right minds to refuse.”

Maitake frowned. After the predictable betrayal the August 8 cluster had pulled both times, trustworthiness was hardly their finest quality. “There’s always room for deception. They’ll say it’s for the sake of a good cause.”

“Double-crossing is a tried-and-true tactic,” admitted the magician. “Which is why, as I always say at the beginning of my show, the answer -” he pulled out the Queen of Hearts from behind the collar of his jacket, one corner of his mouth ticking at the way the three of them suppressed their looks of surprise - “is right in front of you. You,” he turned to Lila.

“Me?” She looked puzzled. 

“Well, the man you were with before you made your way back.”

She rolled her eyes. “Jonas. Of course.”

“Why Jonas?” asked Marcela.

Ragnar leaned back, propping his feet up on the coffee stand as he shuffled his deck again. “He’d betrayed them, almost as many times as he’d turned his back on us.”

Lila raised an eyebrow. “You want me to turn Jonas in?”

“A small lead would do. Veronika has resources to track him down from there.”

Indeed, thought Maitake. Offering a viable piece of information. That ought to keep Veronika from straight-up executing them.

Marcela nodded. “Jonas knows where they are.”

“Where they were,” Lila pointed out. “They would have relocated after I got out.”

“Either way,” Maitake spoke up, “his interrogations would buy us some time, and it’s a lead Veronika would follow. Meanwhile, we can find a way to track them down for real.”

“That wouldn’t help us,” said Lila. “Wolfgang would -”

Ragnar turned to her, smirking. 

Oh.” She caught on. “We add another leverage. Make the deal hard to refuse.”

“This is where my plan for surrender comes in,” Maitake realized. “We find out Veronika’s next plan — date, location, anything else — and we offer it to them.”

“Seems they have their own way to gather intel,” Marcela pointed out.

Lila perked up. “We have a third leverage, too,” she said. “You’ve said you’ve given them the names? And Veronika’s address?”

“Four of her homes,” Maitake recalled.

“But Veronika’s staged attacks never happen during the night. She always plans to see them through -” Marcela smirked - “in her office.”

It was typical of Veronika to revel in the fear of her fellow sapiens. Having linked minds made sensates a force, but Veronika was playing a numbers game. And since there were no neighborhoods like the sensorium-run Rione in Berlin they’d planned to build, sensates would be vulnerable against their newfound fear-driven enemies.

“Exactly.” Lila perked up. “When the time comes, we can take them to her.”

*

Jonas had spent a long time wondering under what circumstances he would be reunited with Kareem. They hadn’t spent much time together since he’d joined Veracity before Angelica’s death, save for the brief exchanges before they went their separate ways: Kareem to Athens to assist with the Blocker trade, and Jonas to Chicago.

It felt odd to be back in Chicago under a circumstance that was debatably worst than before. The fact that one of his oldest friend was lying on a makeshift bed of moth-eaten mattress and patched blankets, an IV drip feeding into his veins, didn’t help. But the retired doctor at the safe house had done the best he could with the equipments available, and so far, the Egyptian’s life signs are stable. Weak, but stable.

“You look like I’m dying, Jo,” he cracked a joke, the corners of his bloodied lips quirking.

“We’re all dying. Slowly, but surely.”

Kareem snorted. With his weak lungs, the sound came out more like a huff, but Jonas knew what he’d meant. “You haven’t changed.”

Jonas sighed. “I’ve gone too far down the path to change.”

“Let me guess.” Kareem groaned and shuffled slightly in the mattress, nudging against the pillow, which was slipping away from under his head. Jonas pulled it down so part of it could support his neck. “You haven’t told them?”

“Lila dropped by for a few seconds before I took my last dose. She said they’d found out.”

The Egyptian raised an eyebrow, impressed, though his black eye throbbed in protest. “Was it Wolfgang? I knew he’d be good at this invasion thing.”

“Riley Blue, actually.”

“The DJ?”

“Yes. The DJ.”

“Why you wanted to keep them away from Lila’s cluster at all, I’ll never understand. They’d have made good allies.”

At that, Jonas chuckled. “It would appear Miss Facchini made Wolfgang’s acquaintance before I could reveal that part of Angelica’s past. And you know Lila; she’s never been the forgiving type.”

If it weren’t for his lungs, Jonas was sure Kareem would have chortled. “Right. I suppose you should’ve broken it to Will and the others sooner. Could’ve avoided all this drama.”

Jonas looked annoyed. “I thought Lila’s cluster were lost to the Headhunters. Lila didn’t inform me of the change in plans. They got it in their heads that they could go rogue and build their own sensorium neighborhood.”

“Guess Veronika’s revenge against them was a wake-up call, huh?”

“They were desperate,” Jonas remembered. “Lila attempted to seek out Wolfgang for help.”

Kareem wheezed, trying to hold back a laugh, brown eyes gleaming. His face turned red at the lack of oxygen. Jonas glared until he’d calmed himself down. When he could breathe again, he asked, “I’m assuming that’s where everything went to hell?”

“You could say. I was quite content in my new hideout until Maitake had demanded my assistance in breaking Lila out from the prison.”

“You best not get yourself caught, then,” said the Egyptian. “Pelzer and Milt, they’ll pry it out of you. Locations and everything.”

Jonas knew that despite Kareem’s good-natured façade, he’d never gotten over the guilt of giving away crucial leads for the Blocker trades under Whispers’ interrogation. But Jonas was hardly good at convincing his friend he wasn’t at fault. There was no such thing as fault, not when the Headhunters had the advantage against uncooperative sensates.

Instead, Jonas shook his head and addressed the problem at hand. “I’m certain Will and the others would have found new places to hide. Stanley said Lito was spotted in Iceland?”

“You think they split up?”

“Perhaps. They do have several ways to communicate without being traced.” 

One of the older inhabitants in the safe house waved from the stove, asking Jonas to help him make breakfast.

“’Course. They can take care of themselves,” Kareem agreed. “I’m glad Mavis is in safe company. Kiira, too.”

Jonas made a move to stand up, and gave his friend a nod. “I don’t doubt Will and the others will find their ways around the Headhunters. Pity I won’t be there to see it.”

Kareem made a hum of agreement. “Yeah. Would’ve been quite a story.”

*

Miki approached Sun in the afternoon when most of the cluster retrieved into the basement lab. Nomi had, with Bug’s help, pulled up more profiles on the sapiens in BPO, and Will and Henrik are updating the cork board to figure out the best way to approach the situation. Sun had stayed upstairs to help clean up after lunch, lost in thought as she scrubbed the plate with a sponge.

The Inuk took the plate from Sun’s hand and smirked. Sun raised an eyebrow.

“Teach me how to fight,” said Miki.

“Now?”

Miki nodded. “I wanna see how you do it. Like that day at the market — Mavis said you took down half the BPO guards.”

Sun smirked. “They should know they need more guards by now.”

“Well, it is hard to know your limit.” Gina walked in smelling like shampoo, a towel wrapped around her hair like a turban. “I’m sure they’ll send more, next time ‘round.”

I look forward to it.

“As do all of us,” Gina replied. 

Sun startled, backing against the sink. With most of her cluster on Blockers all the time save for Capheus and Riley, she’d forgotten her mind was exposed to prying.

“Why do you want to learn?” asked Sun.

Gina exchanged a look with Miki. “Henrik seems to find his way into trouble more often than I’d like. Thought I might try and help.”

That, Sun supposed, was as good a reason as any. She’d seen the way Henrik faced his opponents at the market. He had a lot of brute strength, and could withstand punches, but he could use a few lessons on fighting tactics.

“You can teach us the tactics,” Miki chipped in. “We can help him if we’re sharing.”

Even better.“You’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” Sun observed.

“I’ve gotten in my fair share of rumbles.” Miki shrugged. Sun remembered what Leon had about Miki said the first day they’d met. Sensing her thought, Miki added, “I’d take his word for it. I win most of my fights.”

“I don’t doubt you do,” said Sun, examining her muscles through the oversized T-shirt she wore, which was slipping off one of her shoulders. 

“Let’s not do this in the kitchen though,” Gina reminded them. 

They decided to use the living room as the practice area instead, an overenthusiastic Miki bounding ahead on their way over. With a grunt, she pushed one couch to the side by herself. Following her lead, Sun and Gina cleared the area of potential obstacles, leaving enough room to practice one-on-one combat. 

First, Sun explained the defensive stance, using herself as an example. She adjusted the position of their feet and arms after they mimicked her position. The basics of where they should distribute tension in their bodies were fairly simple to explain, and after a few minutes Gina and Miki grasped how to defend themselves from anticipated attacks from the front. 

Gina hadn’t experienced fighting hand-to-hand, she’d told Sun. Miki, on the other hand, had gotten in her fair share of rumbles. A quick pat-down of told Sun the