The Protector's gaze was grim and distracted as she looked vaguely toward the lowly messenger who had risked his life in the tunnels to bring her this news, without really seeing him at all. That was nothing new. Jaden was used to being unnoticed. In Vega, he was a V1. Here in the Outlands, he was a Tunnel Rat. A scavenger. An outsider. Which still got him more respect that being one of the ubiquitous underclass within the city walls.
It was not in his nature to seek attention. Attention was bad for your health when you were no one anybody would want to waste a spotlight on. What worried Jaden most, in fact, was that, given how worried the Protector seemed to be by the news he had brought, he might be in danger of getting more attention from her than he could possibly want.
She looked agitated, as if she would like to be angry if only she could think what it was she needed to be mad at. Her lips were pressed tight together. She folded and unfolded her hands, actively not pacing. Jaden fought the urge to lower his gaze, which he knew from experience she would find insulting. If he had dared, he would have fled.
“You're sure those were their names?” she asked again, her voice tight with unspeakable restraint. “Their real names.”
What was he supposed to say to that? The names meant nothing to him. Her nostrils flared with impatience. Dear Savior! She really was looking for an excuse to loose her temper. “I... I only know what was said,” he managed finally, his voice not shaking too much. He hoped. She hated it when people were afraid of her.
“What did they look like?” she asked impatiently, as if he should have anticipated that she would need to know this.
Jaden shrugged, making an effort to appear less intimidated without seeming unconcerned, not sure if he was doing a very good job of either. “I didn't get close enough to see them, but the man, Rupert Giles... all I know is that he's tall and has some kind of foreign accent. Some people thought he might have been from New Delphi; although, like I said, that's not what The Archangel told the Senate, at least from what I heard from the laundry girls. Not sure how old he is. The Befores I talked to said he was young, but most of the Afters said he was older. But the girl—”
“What was he wearing?” the Protector interrupted. Was there really a hitch in her voice? It seemed impossible.
“At the Senate meeting?” Jaden asked, not sure where she was going with that.
“No genius!” she snapped, finally raising her voice. Despite the buildup, Jaden flinched at the sound of her anger. He couldn't help it. She might not have been half angel like some people said, but she wasn't exactly human either, and he had seen what could happen if she really lost her temper.
But the moment of impending danger soon passed. The Protector's eyes flashed at the sight of the fear she had inspired; but then she took a slow, deep breath and got a hold of herself. “When he got here,” she all but whispered. “What was he wearing before he changed into whatever clothes Thorn trotted him out in.”
“I don't know,” Jaden whispered even lower. “I never... no one seems to have seen him before the meeting, and by then he was wearing new, clean clothes. All I know about the girl is that she's redheaded and probably in her late teens.”
“Willow,” a hard, masculine voice corrected him, emerging from the shadowy opening behind the Protector. “She's not 'the girl'” Commander Harris declared, emerging from the tiny, ordinary two room unit that he and the Protector shared, “She's Willow.”
The Protector didn't contradict her husband, but she pursed her lips and crossed her arms, which he seemed to notice, even though he should only have been able to see the back of her head from where he stood. Even though he had only one eye that could see at all. The other one was plastic, and looked like it. In spite of all that he saw her with a clarity that was hard not to notice.
“Come on, Buff,” he half argued, half cajoled her, as no one else alive would have dared to do. “Give the poor kid his wooden nickle and let him go get something to eat.” She rolled her eyes and handed Jaden a small red marble representing enough food credits for one good meal. Then, after half a second's thought, she reached into a pouch at her belt and pulled out a huge cat's eye worth about twenty times that.
Jaden blinked in surprise. Pressing the large marble firmly into the boy's trembling hand, the Protector said in a hard, quiet voice, “Find out as much as you can about them and come back tomorrow. Don't tell anyone about this, inside the Walls or outside.”
Jaden nodded. It was all he could manage. His mouth still gaped open. The Protector gave him a look. A what-are-you-still doing here look. Heart pounding, he turned and scurried away in the direction of the nearest stairwell.
But as soon as he was around the corner, he stopped to listen. He couldn't help himself. It was what he did, gathering information. They weren't speaking loudly, but at least they didn't go back into their unit immediately. He only made out a few words. The loudest and most emphatic were 'impossible' and 'dead'.
For a few moments after that, their voices were raised in argument, his more so than hers. “But you dreamed it!” Commander Harris was insisting. The Protector responded by telling him to grow up, that if nothing else, The War should have cured him of believing in dreams and prophesies. “No,” he insisted right back. “I call bullshit. This wasn't just any dream, Buff, this was your dream. Your very-real-seeming-just-like-in-the-old-days prophetic-type dream, and now here they are! Back from the dead!”
Jaden didn't hear her response to that, only the Commander arguing back, “Just because the kid didn't say he looked like You Know Who doesn't mean—”A door slammed. Commander Harris cursed fluently. The door slammed again and there was silence.
Obviously they'd gone back inside their unit to fight in privacy. With a shrug and a deep breath, Jaden took off running for the stairs again and didn't stop until he was back in the tunnels under the heart of Vega. By now it had dawned on him that he'd gotten more than a sweet marble for his trouble, and he raced to get back to House Whele to bring the Consul the news before someone else did.
“So you honestly believe she didn't send them?” Whele asked when Jaden had delivered his breathless synopsis for the fourth time. The boy nodded solemnly, relieved that at least there was no more up-the-chain-of-command to go, no one else to have to repeat it to.
“Even though she knew them by name?” Whele persisted. his voice sounded conversational, almost friendly, maybe just a little bored; but Jaden wasn't fooled by that. The Senator's eyes were sharp and greedy like always. Like all the Tops really, although what they could possibly have to be greedy about was a mystery to Jaden. They never missed a meal, that was for certain.
But regardless of his eyes, Whele kept his mouth closed. Silence reined. Heavy, expectant silence. “She couldn't have,” Jaden found himself explaining, almost against his will. “When I walked away, after they thought I was gone, I heard her arguing with the Commander. She wasn't sure it was them because I never said he looked like you.”
Whele cocked his head slightly. His mouth twitched but he stopped it from doing whatever it was trying to do. Jaden couldn't tell if he was annoyed or impressed. Maybe just impatient, because the expectant silence was now accompanied by a demanding glare. Jaden lowered his eyes. “So, like I said, she wasn't sure but he was. He...” Jaden caught himself just short of telling Whele that the Protector dreamed prophecy, instinct telling him that was too much to give away. “...seemed really, really sure about it.”
“I don't know why, he was sure,” Jaden mumbled. “He just was.” What was he supposed to say? It wasn't like he had some ready alternate explanation like: “He's sure because I need something to move this plot forward so that I can wrap up this chapter with a plug for the 2018 Headline Awards featuring all the wonderful characters portrayed by Anthony Stewart Head and therefore identical to both Consul Whele and Mr. Giles as well as Uther Pendragon, Maurice Riley, and many many others.” It wasn't like he could just say, “Check out http://tonyhead-awards.livejournal.com/ to see last year's winners and think about what works you might want to nominate this year, or we are still looking for judges if anyone would like to volunteer.”
Of course not. None of that would have made any sense. It would be like breaking through the fourth wall into an ocean full of sharks. “If it helps, we could have coffee afterwards,” Whele suggested.
“Ummm... thanks,” Jaden said, as he slowly backed away, “but I think I'm just going to exit stage left before I think too much about that and my head explodes.”