Cass sat at a table right in the middle of the Mister Sun’s main room, alone, eyes intent on the door. The lights near the entrance were turned low, all the others were off completely, casting the area in a dusky gloom. Painter and Wren were both upstairs in Painter’s small room, hopefully getting some much needed sleep. Though she wouldn’t have been surprised if they were both lying wide awake, listening for whatever might come. Mister Sun had retired to his side room. She was pretty sure he was waiting just on the other side of the door, just in case.
It’d been a gamble, sending a message through Able, but it was one she’d felt she had to take. If North was in on the plot, they would know soon enough. And they’d already done everything they could to stack the odds in their favor.
“One incoming,” Cass heard Wick say over internal comms. “It’s him.”
A minute later, the front doors slid smoothly open, and a hulking figure stood in the entrance, silhouetted by the street lights behind him. He stepped cautiously over the threshold, out of the shadows and into the softer lights at the entrance. It was North. He looked off to his right as he entered, lowered his head and squinted, trying to force his eyes to adjust as he peered into the darkness. But as he scanned back to his left, his eyes quickly locked on Cass’s, drawn no doubt by their soft electric glow.
“Lady Cass,” he said, with a slight bow. North seemed surprised to see her. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.” He stepped forward.
“That’s close enough,” Cass said as North reached the edge of the light, near the first row of tables. The doors slid closed and the locking mechanism clicked audibly.
“Front’s clear,” Wick said.
“Street’s clear,” Sky said.
“Rear’s good,” Finn answered.
Cass didn’t answer. Just kept her eyes on North. He remained at the entrance, hands folded in front of him. Usually quietly confident, he seemed instead tense and uncertain. Maybe just a man awakened in the middle of the night. Or maybe a man fearing the unraveling of a plan. Cass let him wait in silence, knowing the less she led him, the more likely he was to reveal his own thoughts.
“A bit late for tea,” North said. Cass held herself still, her eyes locked on his. An odd benefit of her altered eyes; he knew without a doubt that she was watching him, but couldn’t read her expression.
“Are the others joining us?” he asked.
“We’ll see,” she answered.
“May I sit?”
“If you must.”
Cass waited while North moved to the closest table and pulled a chair out for himself. He sat with his hands in his lap, under the table.
“Hands on the table,” Cass said.
“What’s going on, Cass?”
“Hands on the table,” she repeated. His shoulders sagged and he sighed. Then he raised his hands slowly in an exaggerated motion and held them up and open, and then placed them flat on the table in front of him.
“You’re usually more hospitable,” North said.
“You never really know people, do you?”
“It’s been a long few days, Lady. I have neither the energy nor the patience for games.”
“No games,” Cass said. “But I do have some questions.”
“They couldn’t wait for morning?”
“Enough, Cass. I assume from the time and location of this meeting that you’ve learned something significant. And I assume from the fact that we’re the only two here that it’s something you don’t want the others to know.”
“What makes you think we’re the only two here?”
North’s eyes narrowed and his head started to turn slightly, but he stopped himself, kept his eyes on hers. She wondered just how much of her he could make out in the darkness.
“Have you spoken with Aron tonight?” she asked.
North shook his head. “Should I have?”
“How about Connor?”
His brow furrowed. “Not since we were with him together. Did they discover something?”
His face passed through a range of emotion in seconds, from confusion to disbelief to shock. It all looked genuine to Cass. “Who… what happened?” he asked.
“They tried to take Wren.” Another wave of emotion.
“Tried to take him? Where? I don’t understand.”
“This is the first you’ve heard of it?”
For a brief moment, North didn’t seem to understand the question. When he grasped the implication, he became visibly angry and stood up.
“I have pledged my life to serve your son,” he said. “And I have served faithfully, at times to my own great pain.”
“Easy there, partner,” came a voice behind him. His eyes went wide, but he didn’t turn. “Why don’t you sit back down and keep your hands on the table like the good lady asked.”
North slowly lowered himself back into his chair, revealing Gamble’s petite frame behind him, her jittergun aimed squarely at the back of his head.
“I take this treatment as a great personal offense,” he said. “I have been nothing but a friend to you and your son.”
“You didn’t answer the question,” Cass said.
“If I had known anything about a plan to take Wren from you, I would’ve stopped it myself.” He glowered at her from across the room, seemingly more angry at the questioning of his honor than over the deaths of Aron and Connor. “And if what you say is true, then I do not blame you for taking their lives.”
“It is true. It’s why I’m here, instead of at the compound. And it’s why I asked you to come, North. I don’t know who else we can trust.”
“This is trust?” he said, waving his hand vaguely around and ending by pointing at Gamble behind him.
“No. But it’s smart,” Cass answered. Then, “You can bring the lights up.”
A moment later, the lights came up in the room, and North’s eyes darted first to the back corner of the room, then to the left, where Able and Swoop were standing.
“Seems excessive for one man,” he said.
“We weren’t sure you’d come alone.”
“The message said to.”
“Can I offer you a drink?” she asked.
“Are they really dead?”
Cass nodded. North looked down at his hands on the table, curled them into fists, and then stretched his fingers out wide. “Then yes, I would like a drink.”
Before Cass could stand up, the door to Mister Sun’s room swung open and he came out with a little bow, motioning for her to keep her seat. She chuckled at that, and suppressed a smile as Mister Sun disappeared to the back room. Gamble holstered her pistol and sat on a table, legs dangling like a kid.
A few moments later, Mister Sun returned, carrying a tray with cups and a pair of bottles, which he placed on Cass’s table. Cass motioned to North, and he joined her. He poured for himself from one of the bottles, and offered some to her, which she declined. They sat in silence for a few minutes while North sipped and processed.
“What was their plan?” he said. “What were they hoping to accomplish?”
“They wanted him to use the machine.”
North watched her for a long moment, and then took another sip of his drink. He shook his head as he set the cup back on the table.
“No. Before. Let’s start at the beginning.”
It started as a flutter in the corner of Painter’s mind. Something alien and unwanted, like a nightmare he fought to forget, all the while feeling the more he struggled to ignore it, the more certain it seemed he would recall it in all its vivid horror. Yet worse. Painter couldn’t quite find a way to describe it even to himself. It was almost as if it was someone else’s nightmare was thrust into his own head. A flash of incoherent babble crackled through his mind, and he sat up violently on the floor.
But as quickly as it had come, it vanished, and his thoughts were clear once more. He checked the time. 01.47 GST. Maybe he’d started to doze off, and the turmoil of the day had bubbled through in an almost-dream. If there was another explanation, Painter couldn’t think of one. Even so, the feeling it left behind made him uneasy.
He looked over to the bed he’d given up, where Wren was breathing in the slow even rhythms of undisturbed sleep. At least he hadn’t woken his young friend. Hard not to envy the little king, sleeping peacefully despite the events of the day. Of the week. But then Painter shook his head. Who knew what burdens the poor boy carried? It seemed more like a life in prison than a life of power.
Painter fluffed up the bundle of clothes he was using as a pillow and then lowered himself onto his back carefully. His back and ribs still ached from his near-death experience with Gamble, but already the pain was less severe than it’d been, even just an hour ago. He reached up and lightly ran his fingers over his cheekbone, and over the gash that Mouse had had to seal up. Still puffy, and warm to the touch, but some healing was already evident there too. Funny, the way people treated him, like he was something lesser, something to be pitied. If they only knew… but then, even Painter still didn’t know all the ways he was different. Better, even.
His thoughts turned to Snow. If she had only known, would she still have joined up with whatever gang it was that had poisoned her so? Her eyes haunted him. The look of utter horror as she stared at him, mouth open, as if Painter had risen rotting from the grave. If she had only given him the chance, could he have even explained it to Snow?
Not with his mouth, no. Odd that with all the other improvements the Weir seemed to have made, they couldn’t fix his stutter. Improvements. Something within him revolted at that idea. They weren’t improvements as much as they were violations. And yet, he couldn’t deny that the Weir had in some way made him stronger. For so long they had been nightmare creatures, bringers of terror and death. His instinctual hatred was only natural. It was a challenge to even entertain the idea that maybe the Weir were in some way not completely evil. But if they were completely evil, then what did that mean for him?
Painter laughed at himself for trying to find reason in any of it. It all seemed meaningless. Useless attempts at philosophy by an untrained mind. Maybe life was just a series of accidents after all. Probably he was too tired to think. He lay with his eyes open, staring at the ceiling, and let his mind wander, heedless of its direction.
The room was dark except for thin orange ribbons cast on the ceiling by the street lights through the blinds. Not dark to Painter’s eyes, but what he knew was dark for normal humans. Normal. Average. Common. Unremarkable. Painter closed his eyes and let himself smile at that. Yes, that seemed a better description. Unremarkable humans.
And just as he was finally drifting off into sleep, a soft but sudden sensation caught his attention. He lay still, holding his breath, searching for it again. A few moments later, yes, there. The merest trace of a new pulse of signal. It was hard for him to notice unless he really concentrated. Painter rolled over silently and pushed himself up. Crept to the window. Eased the blinds away from the window ever so slowly. Just enough to catch a glimpse of a shadow as it slipped into an alley.
Someone was in the street below.
“Straggler’s back,” Sky said over the team’s special communications channel. This was the third time the figure had passed near Mister Sun’s place; first might’ve been an accident, and the second a coincidence. But three times was as good as an enemy action. It was a tough call, though. The straggler was either really terrible at avoiding observation, or really good at looking like an amateur. Trouble was figuring out whether he was scouting the site, acting as bait, or just in the absolute wrong place at the perfectly wrong time.
“That’s three strikes,” Wick said. “If you wanna drop him, I’ll work clean-up.”
Technically, as a member of the Governor’s personal bodyguard, Sky was authorized to take any measure he deemed necessary to ensure the boy governor’s safety. It was a heavy responsibility to bear, though, and Sky was ever mindful of the cost every time he pulled the trigger, no matter how justified. And he was nowhere close to feeling justified.
“Finn, you getting any read off him?” he asked.
“Negative. He’s not talking to anybody.”
Sky shook his head. “What are you doing out here, man?” he whispered to the figure below. Straggler moved into the shadows along the building across from the Tea House. “Go home. Just go home.”
“I don’t like it, Sky,” Wick said. Wick hadn’t been blessed with Sky’s patience, but he never went without the OK. Of course, he also usually had a really good read on people, and if he didn’t like it, there was probably good reason. Just as Sky was thinking that, the straggler darted across the street and towards the back entrance. Wick was nice enough not to comment.
“Trouble,” Sky said. “Straggler just ducked behind the building. Did you pick him up, Finn?”
“No, I don’t see him. You get an ID?”
“Negative. Pretty sure it’s a dude, but never got a look at the face. Some kind of hood or something.”
“I’m not seeing him,” Finn said.
“You’ve got eyes on the back door?” Wick asked.
“Of course,” Finn said. “But if the first time I see him is when he’s at the door, that’s bad things, man.”
“Sky, you agree he’s hostile?” said Wick. He was looking for confirmation, to OK the kill if necessary.
“Can’t say for sure. But he’s definitely shady.”
“Alright, hang tight, bro,” Wick said to his brother. “I’ll swing around.”
“Hold there, Wick,” Finn said. “I’ll loop Able, get him to come out.”
“I’m already street level,” Wick answered, and Sky could hear the movement in his voice. “And I’m almost there anyway.”
From his elevated position, Sky saw Wick effortlessly flow across the street like a wisp of smoke. They were all highly trained professionals, but nobody really moved like Wick. He vanished around the same corner where the straggler had gone less than a minute before.
There was a long silence. Sky kept careful watch of the approaches towards Mister Sun’s, but his eyes kept drifting back to that corner, wondering what was going on down there. What was taking so long? As he looked back up at the far end of the street, three figures came into view, and Sky cursed to himself.
“Patrol inbound; front side, three men, fifty meters,” he said.
“Check,” Finn said.
Wick didn’t answer. Forty meters. There was a sudden sharp noise from the alley, quickly muffled. But not quickly enough. Sky saw the guards in the street react, their posture stiffening. Alerted. They fanned out slightly and started prowling towards the building.
“Wick, you alright?” Finn asked. No response. Thirty meters. “Wick!” Finn said again, more forcefully.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he answered in a whisper. “How close is that patrol?”
“Twenty meters,” Sky reported. “One’s splitting off.” One of the guards was now moving to an adjacent alley, circling around towards the back of Mister Sun’s house.
“I gotta to take Straggler in.”
“Swoop’ll be pissed,” Finn said.
“Doesn’t matter, they’re too close. Tell him we’re comin’ in the back.”
Sky heard the subtle click in the channel as Finn cycled it and looped Swoop in. “Swoop, Finn.”
A moment later, Swoop answered, “Yeah, go.”
“Problem. Wick’s gotta bring a guest in through the back door.”
Sky watched as the two remaining guards spread their position, one keeping to the front of the building, while the other cautiously tried to get an angle on the alley where Wick and Straggler had gone.
“And we’ve got a patrol sniffing around outside,” Finn added.
There was a pause. There was almost always a pause with Swoop. “Check,” he finally said.
The guards looked at each other, and one nodded to the other. The first entered the alley.
“Keep your head down back there, Finn,” Sky said.
Cass heard a commotion on the stairs, someone descending in a hurry.
“There’s someone outside!” Painter called as he came down, but Swoop was already in motion and just pointed for him to get back upstairs.
Cass barely had time to process what Painter had said, before she heard Wick come bursting through the back door. He appeared in the central room a few seconds later, forcing a hooded figure ahead of him. Painter finally seemed to realize what Swoop had meant, and quickly retreated up the stairs again.
“Sorry,” Wick said. “Patrol’s right outside. I told him to keep his eyes closed, his head down, and his mouth shut.” He leaned in and put his mouth nearly against the side of Hood’s head when he said the last part, for emphasis. Hood shrank away from Wick slightly, but the tilt of his head made it seem more from annoyance than fear. Wick forced Hood into a chair near the back of the room and stood in front of him, gripping his shoulder.
Swoop moved in next to Wick, and started asking questions in a low voice, in his steady tone. Somehow the lack of emotion made Swoop more frightening.
Able took a place about midway between Cass and Hood, positioning himself as an additional shield. Gamble kept her spot at the front of the room, but slid off the table to her feet, and casually rested one hand on the grip of her holstered jittergun. She caught Cass’s eye, held a finger up to her lips, and then pointed to Mister Sun’s side room. Cass nodded, and she quietly got up from the table and signaled for North to follow her. But before she reached the other room–
“What’d you do to Painter?” Hood blurted, a little louder than was comfortable. A woman’s voice, vaguely familiar to Cass’s ears. “I saw him with you. You beat him up.”
“What do you care?” Wick said.
“You people,” Hood said, with a strange emphasis on the word. “You think you can just do whatever you want to whoever you want. It’s not right!”
“So you think we roughed Painter up, and then you thought it’d be a good idea to come here, and what?”
Hood didn’t answer. Cass moved closer and motioned to Swoop to pull the hood back. He shook his head and pointed to his eyes with two fingers. Worried that Hood was going to see Cass. But Cass persisted. Swoop drew back the hood, and as he did, a cascade of wavy red hair tumbled out. Hood didn’t raise her head though, just stayed hidden under her fiery mane.
Hood hadn’t sounded scared, and neither did she look it. Cass thought she’d recognized the voice. Now she was sure of it.
“Kit,” Cass said. Swoop glanced at Cass sharply for breaking security and revealing her presence, but Cass held up a hand indicating it was alright. The girl reacted by raising her head slightly, but she still didn’t open her eyes. “Kit, it’s alright, you can open your eyes. It’s Cass.”
Wick let go of Kit’s shoulder and took a step back.
Kit opened her eyes slowly and raised them to meet Cass’s. They shone softly with the light of the Weir and refracted in the tears that pooled at their base. “Miss Cass?” Kit looked around the room then. She was in her mid-twenties, and when she sat up straight, her muscular frame and broad shoulders were apparent. “What’s going on?”
“What’re you doing here, Kit?” Cass asked.
“I saw them with Painter.”
“You shouldn’t have come. It’s very dangerous right now.”
“I thought he was hurt. I thought maybe…” she trailed off, and her eyes darted to Swoop and then down to the floor. “I don’t know what I thought. I just couldn’t do nothing.”
“Well, now that you’re here, ma’am,” Wick said, “we’re going to have to ask you to stay for a little while.” Kit glanced up at him, uncertain. “For security.”
He squatted down so he wasn’t towering over her anymore, and softened his voice. “And don’t worry, Painter’s fine, we didn’t beat him up. Not really. I mean, I guess technically we did, but not for the reason you probably think.”
“Wick, lock it up,” Swoop said. Wick nodded and flashed a quick smile at Kit, reached out and patted her leg, and then stood again. He motioned with his thumb towards the back door and raised his eyebrows, but Swoop shook his head and held up a finger, telling him to wait.
“Sky, status,” Swoop said. He waited for a moment, and then said, “Check.” He subtly shook his head at Wick. Then he turned his attention to Kit. “Ma’am, I’m going to need you to move this room over here.” He pointed towards Mister Sun’s side room.
Kit stood, but didn’t move. “You can’t keep me here,” she said. “I haven’t done anything wrong.”
“You broke curfew.”
Kit shrugged. “Then I’ll go outside and turn myself into the guard.”
“Ma’am.” Swoop said it with an even tone, but there was a warning behind it. Kit was strong, though, and not one easily intimidated.
“It’s not about you, Kit,” Cass said. “It’s for me.”
“Are you in trouble?”
Cass just smiled.
“Then how can I help?”
“For now, you can just do as we ask.”
“OK, sure. If you just ask,” she said, with a pointed look at Swoop. Kit started towards Mister Sun’s room. Able automatically glided over to escort her, and Mister Sun followed closely behind.
“I’ll keep her company,” Mister Sun said.
“Thanks, Mister Sun,” Cass said.
Kit and Mister Sun went into his side room. Able closed the door behind them and stood guard next to it. Gamble returned to her perch on the table in the front, and Swoop disappeared into the back room.
“She’s got a little fire in her, doesn’t she?” Wick said to no one in particular, with a little smile on his face.
“More than a little,” Cass answered, as she returned to her seat. Wren had always said Kit had been the easiest for him to Awaken, that she’d just “sprung open” — like she’d been fighting it on her own already, and just needed a little nudge. For many nights afterwards, in the still, quiet hours, Cass had wondered if anyone could ever free themselves from the Weir — wondered if maybe she could’ve fought harder to recover herself. And if she had, if Three would not be dead now. But no, Wren had assured her there was nothing she could’ve done. No use dwelling on what might’ve been. Especially now, when there was so much else to do. “North, we’ve got to make some decisions.”
North returned to his chair at the table, across from her. “The girl complicates matters.”
“It was already complicated. And she won’t tell anyone we’re here.”
“Not on purpose, perhaps.”
“Well, I’m open to suggestions,” Cass replied.
“I wouldn’t have ever expected to say this, but I believe the safest thing for you… for you and the Governor.” He paused and rubbed his chin with his fingertips. “The safest thing is for you to leave Morningside.”