Soren is in town on a mission. Clari is in town for auditions. His goal is to provide protection. Hers is to believe that she doesn't need any.
A Soft Place to Land
Soren hasn’t seen his mother in two months, but her embrace was as warm as ever.
“Oh, sweetheart, I missed you very much.” she smiled as she cupped his face in her hands.
He smiled a gentle smile back. That was him, Bethany thought. Soren was a kind and gentle young man, and it showed in his face. They all say he got that from her, along with his brown skin and jet black hair (his eyes were not her brown, however, they were his father’s blue).
“You’re alone?” she asked, eyeing the lone travelling pack he carried in his back.
Bethany had many questions, but it all can wait. “Well, it’s great to see you again. We can talk inside, once you’re settled.” She led her son to where a converted double decker bus, her home for the past few months, was parked.
As they made their way inside, they were greeted by Bethany’s companions - all women, mostly middle-aged - who were all part of her traveling charity group. They travelled from town to town, like a caravan consisting of the double decker bus where the their members rode and slept, and a truck filled with supplies that they also open as their mobile headquarters. The duration of their stays in a town often ranged from several days to a month at most, as they offer residents what feeding programs or medical assistance they could provide.
It was also an effective cover for a much more elaborate mission.
They were on their way to one of those towns now, temporarily parked in a gas station to refuel, and to meet up with the twenty year old young man that requested to join them in their next stop. Bethany was the leader of this crusade and her son took after her. It was not Soren’s first time helping them out.
It was an effective cover for his own mission.
Soren settled in one of the spare bunks in the bus, the one nearest to his mother’s. Within the safety and privacy of the vehicle, they began to talk.
“How is your sister?” Bethany asked, at the same time relaying her question in sign language. Soren was deaf, and didn’t wear hearing aids, but he was adept both at reading lips and in sign language.
‘She is doing fine and told me to send you her love.’ Soren answered in sign. ‘The team is on a mission, so she’s a bit busy.’
“Are you allowed to tell me what mission this is?” she signed back, taking a seat.
‘Rescue.’ came his answer.
It sounded simple, Bethany thought, but… “Kali is needed in this ‘rescue’?”
‘The mission requires good fighters.’
Bethany frowned but nodded. So it wasn’t a simple rescue mission. She was worried, but her daughter was very strong and Soren didn’t look too concerned. Still, that left her wondering: “Aren’t you a good fighter, too?”
Soren sent her a sheepish smile - he had never been one to brag. He only replied, ‘My skills are needed here.’
“What’s your mission, then?” she asked.
At this, he sat up straighter, and Bethany was relieved to know that at least for this one, he was willing to share more information. ‘We got a tip. Several lab trucks are heading to Crestdale, but we don’t know if they’re there to search or just resupply.’
She considered this. “That’s a vague tip. Do you know when they’re arriving, at least?”
‘They’ll be there a week from now. We knew that it was your next stop, so I volunteered to go, to meet up with you so I can get there under a safe cover, ahead of them. We know there are Gifteds in Crestdale but we have no contacts so someone has to warn them. If we confirm it’s a search, they have to hide or leave, and I’ll call for back-up to help them. Ross agreed that I’m the right choice, since I’m not Gifted and I won’t be hunted. Kali also wants me to be there with you.’
Bethany nodded as she took all this information in. She agreed that he was the right man for the mission. It was a simple one, just reconnaissance, almost harmless for someone like Soren… but it could also turn very complicated all at once.
She reached out and laid a firm but gentle hand on his shoulder. “You don’t have to worry about us here, you know the labs won’t touch us. But we can help you look after the Gifteds in Crestdale.”
Soren smiled. ‘Thanks, mom.’
“Okay, now rest up.” she said, standing up from her seat and ruffling his hair. “We’ll be going in a few minutes and we should be in Crestdale in a few hours. Two, maybe three. You know where everything is, grab some snacks if you want some. I have to talk to the others.”
She left a kiss on his forehead before walking off, gathering people on her way.
Soren sighed as he rested in his temporary bunk, lying on his back and staring at the low ceiling - or was it roof? - that the bus provided. As tired as he was from his travel from the safehouse to the gas station to meet up with his mother’s group, he felt restless. It’s not that he was scared - he’d gone on solo missions before, though those were simple ones. Mostly guard duties, escorting a Gifted to or from a safehouse.
Maybe it was because it was the first time in a while that the others were going on a ‘rescue’ mission and he wasn’t with them.
He took his phone out - no new messages. He decided to send a message to his sister.
[ ‘I’m with mom, eta 3hrs. How’s everything?’ ]
It took almost five minutes before the reply came.
[ ‘we’ll be ok. be safe. love you. X’ ]
He smiled, tucked his phone back in his bag, and decided he’d take a nap.
Clari’s friends at work teased her, telling her that the cute, quiet guy must have a crush on her. He came over for the third time that week, on her shift, ordered their combo meal (burger, fries and soda), and sat on the corner table, alternating between looking out the window and busying himself with his phone. He’d stay for an hour and then leave.
She had learned on day one that he was deaf, but he was patient and he read lips. To top it off, he was the classic ‘tall, dark and handsome’ guy, all in a very gentle way. It made him easy to remember and recognize on day two.
She didn’t know why the others think he likes her - maybe it was part of hazing the newbie. It was silly.
Regardless, Clari decided that the guy wasn’t a bad sight to see during a hectic shift in the harsh world of this busy fast food chain. Sometimes all it takes is a couple of nice and calm customers to cancel out the nasty ones.
One of the girls told her (she didn’t ask, they just did, because they had somehow gotten it in their brains that Clari had a crush too) that they saw the guy in the downtown feeding program that arrived a few days ago. He was helping out those ladies, the charity volunteers, pouring warm soup for the homeless and the little street urchins.
So he’s in town for a cause, Clari thought. It was a good cause. The people were grateful, she’d been hearing good things about that charity from everyone in the city.
With that, she wondered: why does he look so lonely?
Being with the charity always gave Soren a sense of purpose, even on top of his mission - he and his mother were alike that way. More importantly, this time, it gave him an excuse to wander around town, under the guise that he was roaming to spot citizens in need and inform them of the feeding program. He can investigate, he can search for people. Her mother and the other charity women had already managed to get information, in their own way, about the “special” people in town.
So far, he had found three - that homeless man who can walk through walls, the little girl with the stretching arms, and a woman who can create small force fields. He had given them the warning - that the people from the labs were coming to town in a few days and it was still unsure if it would be a hunt or not, that they should lay low, probably hide or leave for a few days. Thankfully they trusted him at once. They said they knew some of the others, and will extend the warning.
After his “walks”, he always found himself wandering into a busy but homey burger place, one of those old but popular franchises across the country - he and the team liked to stop by and grab a bite whenever they came across one in their stops. He stayed there for a while to try to relax, sometimes to keep in touch with the others.
A young man hanging around a fast food chain, having burger and fries while texting his friends did not look suspicious at all.
By the fifth day, his sister sent a simple text: [ ‘feli says hello. X’ ]
It made him breathe a sigh of relief, then smile. Felicity has caught up with them. With the speedster back on the team, they have an even higher fighting chance than usual. Soren was not much of a loss if they were talking firepower, but Felicity was a welcome boost.
[ ‘Tell her I said hi.’ ] was the reply he sent.
The lab troops were still two or so days away from town. He hoped this will all be over, that it was just a supply run or a quick stop, that there would be no search. No people hunted, no people hurt.
Clari always sucked at remembering to bring her umbrella. She always forgot to listen to the morning weather report. She always failed to notice whenever the weather changed, until it was too late.
She was already on her way home, walking by the sidewalk with no nearby shade whatsoever, when it rained.
But, rain or not, she had to go home soon. She had chores to do, lines to memorize…
It took her by surprise when, walking hurriedly under the pouring rain that afternoon, someone caught up to her with an umbrella.
She recognized him at once. The guy from the burger place.“Oh, it’s you! I- um, sorry, you don’t have to-”
Mr. Quiet Tall Dark Handsome 3:30 PM Combo Meal A Table 17 (that’s what she called him in her head, okay?!) leaned down a bit, to get a better view of her face- no, her lips. It must be her lips, right? Since he was reading them?
“No need to do this.” she tried. Patron or not, she didn’t want to bother this stranger. “I’m fine. Thank you.”
He looked at her for a bit before he shuffled awkwardly, shaking his head, sending her a reassuring smile. ‘It’s okay, it’s no trouble, I’ll help.’ was what he must be trying to tell her.
Then he gestured something - maybe in sign language - but she didn’t understand it right away. Then he pointed at her, and then across the street.
“O-oh, no, I’m not going across- I’m going… uh… there.” she said, pointing towards the other direction, further down the street’s sidewalk.
He nodded and then started to walk towards that very direction with an expression that must have been telling her that they should go.
“But-... You? What about you?” she asked, vaguely pointing at him, the only way she thought she could emphasize what she was trying to say.
He thought about it before shaking his head, then he took his phone from his pocket and started tapping rapidly.
[ ‘I’ll help’ ] was the text in his phone screen.
“You… you really don’t have to.” she tried, but she knew she was floundering.
[ ‘Nothing else to do today’ ] he followed up.
Clari considered. The rain was pouring hard, no signs of stopping. Finally, she said, “Okay then, can you… walk with me, just… just a few blocks away?”
He walked her to the entrance of her apartment building, and only smiled and nodded when she thanked him. He turned to leave, but before he could walk away, Clari reached out to grab his sleeve.
He looked back at her and blinked.
“You’re always at Andy’s.” she said. “I, uh, I work there?”
“Can you… tell me your name? Since you’ve been coming in there a lot, and… um...”
He seemed to think about it for a second, then raised his free hand and started gesturing, then he remembered that she probably couldn’t understand sign, even letters. So he took his phone again, typed his name in, and then showed the screen to her.
“Soren.” she read, then smiled up at him. “I’ll remember that. Thanks. Again. Uh, Soren. I’m Clarisse. Err, Clari, in my nametag.” She fumbled for the plastic nametag she had tucked in her chest pocket (she was still wearing her uniform shirt, now wet) and showed him the printed letters in the item.
Soren smiled back, pocketing his phone again before he extended a hand to her.
It’s been awhile since she shook someone’s hand, but she did it anyway. His grip was firm. It felt weird to leave things like that, so Clari added, “I heard that you’re with the charity downtown. And… err… I just wanna say I think it’s really nice, what you do for those people.”
Soren only nodded, the smile staying on his face.
“So, uh, yeah, that’s it! Um, bye? See you around?”
He nodded one last time, and gave a little wave before he walked off.
The mission didn’t stay simple, however. It was early morning when four large trucks arrived and parked in the town square, just a few meters from where Bethany’s charity group were situated.
The trucks were pure dark blue. They belonged to the government research facilities. The labs.
They were a day early.
Bethany and Soren passed by the trucks to observe, under the guise that they were coming back from grocery shopping. They sat together on a nearby park bench, not very noticeable, a mother and a son taking a break from walking, carrying paper bags of groceries.
The uniformed officers loaded boxes upon boxes in two of the trucks. Supplies.
It was quick, and those trucks left right away. Soren prayed that the others would follow.
That was when those trucks were replaced by several vans and a car. People started streaming out one of the remaining trucks.
They were armed.
“Soren.” Bethany said softly, laying a hand on her son’s arm so he would look at her. Her face was grim as she answered his unspoken question with a nod.
They both stood up, carrying their grocery bags again and walking quickly. As soon as they made a turn in another street, out of the officers’ sights, they looked at each other.
Bethany took his paperbags. “We’ll be fine.”
Soren gave his mother a quick kiss on the cheek and ran.
He couldn’t do anything to stop this, not alone - so he sent a quick message to Ross and the others as quick as he can. He hoped the backup will make it in time.
He didn’t have time to warn all the Gifted in town. Only a few of them left him their numbers, it was too risky, but he texted them all. There’s a search. They should hide, they should leave.
He first reached the homeless man, who didn’t need telling twice. The man had packed his few belongings and as soon as he saw Soren, he took off, disappearing through an alley. Soren hoped the man had a good hiding place.
He got to the mother of the little girl with the stretching arms. She nodded and said they’ll be on the next bus they could take, wherever it was going, as long as it was out of Crestdale. They had a few others with them.
He was lucky to run into the teenage boy who could fly - the kid escaped as quickly as he can, saying he’ll try to warn others if he saw them on his way.
By this time, he realized he couldn’t reach any of the others. When he got back to the town square, a very large crowd had already gathered there.
The lab officers had several Gifteds - most of them children - in the town square, already working on tagging them, ready for transport to wherever the hell their facilities were.
A woman cried while she watched an officer try to beat her son. The young boy couldn’t be older than ten, but he was fiercely fighting back, emitting sparks from his body, making the officer step back. The officers were equipped for this, though - the boy was struggling against his restraints to no avail. There was someone shouting how “dangerous” the “defective” beings were. There were a few people screaming to stop the violence, to not hurt children, but they were threatened all the same.
The mother was crying louder now, about to run towards her child but an officer pushed her back harshly. She stumbled and would have fallen to the ground had a young woman not caught and assisted her, pulling her back to rejoin the crowd before the officer can strike against her too.
“No! My son, my child!” the mother still struggled, escaping the grasp of the people holding her back. Soren recognized the familiar stance taken by one of the officers pushing them back, and he dashed just in time to catch and intercept the kick that the officer meant for the mother.
The officer and the crowd were shaken.
To hell with it, he decided, dodging the incoming punch from the enraged officer while also stepping back, an arm thrown back, shielding the others behind him, pushing them back for their protection. The officer didn’t stop attacking him, though - and training and instincts in play, Soren exchanged blows with the officer while more of them stepped in to neutralize him.
Soren vaguely felt someone tug at his arm, grabbing his sleeve, and risked a glance to see blue eyes in a scared face framed by golden hair, and she was yelling - begging - for him to stop.
“Soren! They’ll kill you! You can’t fight them! Please!”
She knew his name. She looked familiar. Behind her, the woman, the mother he tried to protect, was crying and shaking her head as she reached out to him. She was worried for her son, but she was scared for him too, this stranger who caught an attack for her.
He looked back at the young woman who had grabbed his arm- ah. The girl from the burger place. The one he walked home. Clari, her nametag had told him. She was the one who helped the crying mother. She was the one who was now pleading with the officer to not hurt him - “Please, we’re all very sorry and we’ll stop now, we won’t fight, but please if you could just let us talk to the children, just for a bit, they’re very scared-”
He didn’t know what happened next, because then there was a sharp tug on his arm, and an explosion.
Clari saw it first. Clari saw it all. She saw when Soren dashed to shield the lady who Clari was trying to hold back. She saw when the boy cried not to hurt his mom, not to hurt anyone. Before anyone, Clari saw the boy’s powers go haywire and trigger an explosion in one of the cars nearby. Clari saw another captive child scream and the ground beneath her give in.
Clari could only move just fast enough to pull Soren out of the way, and only because she was already cling to his arm at the moment. She had no time to warn the others, not even the lady behind her.
They landed tangled up with each other behind a huge slab of cement. It was chaos. People were running and screaming.
Soren recovered first, sat up and looked down at Clari, still sprawled in the ground, groaning. She had not let go of his arm.
He helped her up and quickly peeked over their hiding place to assess the situation. Some of the officers were still struggling to stand up. However, some of the people they captured were already being dragged towards one of the trucks. The two kids who must have caused the quake and the explosion were unconscious and being carried. People tried to go after them but this time, the officers didn’t go soft. They raised their guns and shot whoever was against them - everyone on sight who looked like they had an intention to stop them.
Soren was tugged back again, just in time to avoid the bullet that was no doubt aimed at his head.
He stared at Clari - that was twice now that she pulled him from danger. She stared back at him, and she was breathing hard.
“This is crazy.” she mumbled, finally letting go of his arm to bring her hands to her face. “Oh my God. OH MY GOD. I’M GOING TO DIE. I’m going to- WHY DID YOU HAVE TO GO AND DO THAT?!”
Soren blinked. She was looking at him, teary-eyed.
“Why did you have to fight-”
Too late. Someone just rounded in on them, but this time Soren saw it coming. He pulled Clari behind him and moved quickly, knocking the officer’s gun out of their hands, incapacitating them and leaving them unconscious in the ground.
Before they could get attacked again, Soren looked around quickly. He grabbed an officer’s discarded shield and offered his hand to Clari. She took it without hesitation. He pulled her against him and both of them dashed towards a nearby alley.
The shooting continued, but they were in a relatively safer place. They leaned against the wall and slid down to sit on the ground, panting.
Soren looked at his companion to check if she was okay, and she looked back at him.
“Why did you fight back?” she asked, softer this time. “It provoked them and… and...” Clari trailed off, bursting into tears.
He sighed, biting his lip. He wondered where his mother was. He hoped they were fine. He took out his phone. His mother had been calling… but more importantly…
He nudged Clari, and showed him his phone again.
[ ‘I’m a volunteer’ ] the message read.
She looked at him with a confused frown. “I... know that?”
He shook his head, and her eyes widened in realization. He was a volunteer.
He continued the message.
[ ‘Supposed to protect them didnt know abt raid’ ]
Clari stared, and for the first time she saw the broken expression in his face. He ran a hand through his hair as he started tapping another message.
[ ‘Labs were expected tmr and for supply run only warned some to run too late for others’ ]
He blames himself, Clari realized. He was supposed to protect the… the special people, but he failed.
But no. Not really.
“Hey.” she said, tugging awkwardly at his sleeve. She was doing that a lot, she noticed. “You were able to save me.”
Soren stared, because Clari’s blue eyes had a faint golden glow to them.
He had no time to ask because she then stuck her head out towards the streets - only for what seemed like a millisecond before she turned back to him.
“Listen.” she said, then groaned at the mistake. “Sorry. Or… or read. Whatever it is you do.”
He nodded, bewildered.
“They’ve loaded the kids in the truck. They’re unconscious but they’re breathing. About ten more officers in there. Only four left firing, I think they’re warning shots. Most of the people have run or hidden or… died. Two vans still standing, one car down the street, apart from the two trucks. They didn’t get hit by the blast.”
Soren pointed at her eyes, vaguely gestured what he only hoped he interpreted as ‘What did you do?’
“It’s my… gift.” she said, closing her eyes and sighing. “I can see… better than most people. Perfect vision, zoom in and zoom out, and I can process what I see real fast so I can catch little details in one glance.” then she smiled sheepishly at him. “Pretty useless for fighting, huh?”
Soren shook his head, sending him a small smile. He can bet that Zoe and Duncan can find use for someone with super-sight - it would be invaluable for strategy.
But now was not the time to think of his teammates. They had to get out of there first, and maybe they can use Clari’s abilities to help them live through this.
They heard rushed footsteps nearby and both quickly stood to attention. Just then, another officer rounded the alley, but Soren was fast enough to pull Clari out of the way again and deliver a swift kick to the officer’s side. Then he landed a punch to the head to knock him out. Soren kicked the man’s gun away.
Clari looked to the streets again and when she turned towards him, she was biting her lip.“They know we’re here. And I think they saw my eyes.”
She wanted to cry again, Soren knew. She was scared. Obviously she had never been in a situation like this before. But she stopped when she saw Soren’s determined blue eyes and outstretched hand.
‘I’m here, we’ll get through this.’ is what Clari chose to hear, so she took his hand once more and let him pull her back into the street.
“There!” she heard someone shout as they dashed, avoiding another round of bullets with the protection of the shield that Soren held firmly in his other arm. “Unarmed, one male, one female! The female must be powered! After them!”
More gunshots, but they were able to hide behind an upturned car. Everywhere there were large blocks of debris from either the quake or the explosion. They have to get out of the town square, Soren decided.
Clari gripped his hand tightly. She had seen him take down officers who got close, but there was no telling what would happen if they just kept running, trying to avoid bullets. The shield would give way eventually.
This time however, Soren managed to grab a fallen officer’s gun. Clari watched him frown as he weighed it in his hand, not keen on the idea of using it, but she saw in his eyes that he knew he had no choice.
He let go of her hand to raise his phone again. His message was fragmented, but she understood.
[ ‘use power look where they are i will distract be quick’ ]
It wasn’t the best plan, but Clari nodded. “Are you… are you going to kill them?”
She knew it was not the time to worry, especially about lab officers, but she couldn’t help it.
[ ‘i try best not to kill’ ]
Clari nodded. She was not dying today. She was going to fight.
After a quick nod, Soren stood. He shot at them randomly and as expected, they shot back and didn’t notice Clari right behind him. She was down again in a split second, and he followed.
She spoke quickly, and he watched her lips intently. She also gestured the numbers, to make it clearer. “One behind the van, two by the truck. One behind the postbox. Three running towards the van, the blue one. No others in sight, but I wasn’t able to see through inside the vehicles.”
‘Got it.’ he nodded.
Soren wasn’t the best gunman in the team - the would be Valeria, but he can aim and shoot. At this distance, he had a decent chance of aiming true.
He was able to take down four officers - they weren’t the most excellent shots, but they were distracted anyway. But then one bullet grazed his arm and he had to duck again.
“Oh my God, are you okay?!” Clari exclaimed, and this time she did cry as she helplessly watched Soren grip his wounded arm tightly, applying pressure, trying to reduce the bleeding. She didn’t know what to do. “It’s-... It’s my fault.” she sobbed. “You don’t have to do this, just let them have me.”
He let out a sound that sounded a lot like a snort, and she only gaped as he smiled and shook his head.
‘No way. Never.’
Then Clari froze, quickly looking around as if to look for something. “I hear something-”
Mentally, Soren cursed.
That was so stupid, Clari thought. Beeping? What else could it have been? She thought maybe they wanted her alive. Now she knew that if they can’t have her, she was better off dead.
Her eyes may be fast, but it took her several moments to realize that Soren had wrapped his arms around her, cradling her head protectively against his chest, maybe hoping that he still might save her as the explosion hit.
It was loud. Deafening.
Good. It was a quick death.
When she opened her eyes, there was smoke everywhere and ringing in her ears. But as it cleared, she looked up - Soren was fine, still holding her tight, and he was looking up to see an unfamiliar man standing over the two of them, eyes closed, teeth gritted in concentration, arms outstretched.
There was a faint, hazy glow around them - a dome. Everywhere, there were debris. They were in plain sight. When the shooting resumed, Clari held on to Soren in fear, but realized that he didn’t even move to try to avoid the bullets.
Because the bullets were not reaching them, instead they were bouncing off the dome.
It was a shield.
“That was close.” their surprise savior said, finally looking at them. He had dirty blonde hair, a kind smile, twinkling pale blue eyes, and a surprisingly ordinary face. Like an old friend who had come to visit. “Ready to run? Because we’re running.”
Clari looked at Soren. He only smiled a relieved smile at the other man and nodded. He helped her stand up and Clari felt a rush of guilt - he was the wounded one, and yet she was the one with shaking legs, needing assistance to get to her feet. But he held her tightly, and she found the strength to run.
The man led them to a nearby alley again, and this time before the officers could catch up to them, a strong wall shot up to block the opening. It separated them from their pursuers effectively.
Clari and Soren turned to see another person, a woman this time, taller than all of them. She had dark skin, dark pixie cut hair, and gray eyes that glowed slightly as she pressed her hands against the wall she just built. Clari could tell that she was keeping it firm and solid against any potential attacks.
“What happened?” the shield guy asked, the question directed to Soren.
Clari stepped back as he examined Soren’s wound. He helped him tear off a sleeve of his shirt to use as a bandage.
Soren answered in sign language and the guy did the same, but also spoke aloud. That left Clari listening to only half of the conversation.
“Yes-... Okay-... You’re sure?... I’m sorry, we really should have sent more people-... No-... No, Soren. You did good. We confirmed that they escaped successfully-... Yes, Feli did a quick sweep of the town, they’re all safe so far, except the ones caught in the square-... Yes, your mother is fine, she’s with her group... Mission’s ongoing, but we managed to get Dory’s team in on it, that’s how we got Ed, how we got here so quickly-... Now we need to get you to safety- What? Oh.”
Clari blinked when they both turned to look at her. Soren nodded at her while his friend looked at her curiously.
“Hi.” he said, smiling. “My name is Ross. That’s Garnet, over there.” he said, gesturing towards the young woman who was still busy maintaining their protective wall. Garnet spared a nod when Clari looked at her. “We’re volunteers, like Soren.”
“Clarisse.” she said, looking down. “I… I guess I’m like you? I have… abilities. I don’t know why the labs didn’t pick me up, though… not until I used my...”
“Gifts. We call them gifts. They saved your life, didn’t they?” Ross asked, voice calm, collected yet warm. “You’re lucky. But I think you understand that you can’t stay here right now.”
“We’re taking Soren to a safe place. You can come with us, you can both lie low until this dies down.”
She knew she had no choice, and this was an offer of safety. Soren had just risked his life to protect her, and he trusted these people - so she had to trust them too. “Yes, please. I’m very grateful.” she said softly.
“Of course.” Ross said, lifting a hand to pat her on the shoulder. He seemed like a person used to reassuring other people. It comforted Clari. “Now we have to get moving.” Ross took a phone from his pocket and sent a message. Then, he turned towards Soren again. “We’re taking you to one of Shin’s places. Rest up, recover, make a plan, wait until we come back from the rescue mission.”
Soren nodded, and winced at the pain in his arm. Now that the adrenaline has gone down, he was finally feeling it.
A few moments later, a large door-sized shadow appeared in one of the walls surrounding them. It was bordered by a swirling, purplish glow. From the darkness, someone stepped out. A brown-haired young man stood before them. He extended his hand towards the portal he came from and then closed it to a fist. At the gesture, the portal disappeared.
“Wow, Ren, you look beat. Never thought I’d see the day.” he said with a teasing grin, but Clari saw the worried glint in his eyes. He carried a backpack with him and he offered it to them. “From Feli. She got it from your mom. She says ‘be safe’.”
Soren nodded gratefully as he accepted the bag. He flinched visibly at the weight, so Clari took it quickly and slung it on her own shoulder.
“Ed.” Ross regarded the newcomer. “You know what to do.”
“Portal, coming right up.” the young man called Ed said, rubbing his hands together and concentrating. “He knows we’re coming, though, right? Shin hates surprises.”
Ross chuckled lightly. “Don’t worry, he’s expecting us.”
“Right.” at that, Ed touched the wall again, and a new portal appeared. He sent them another smile and with a flourish, said, “After you.”
Clari had never used a portal before - she didn’t even know they really existed. Instinctively she held on to Soren’s free arm. It made her feel safer, somehow. He looked at her and smiled in reassurance. Together, they walked forward.
The exhaustion of the recent events caught up to Clari all at once as soon as she stepped through the portal and found herself inside what looked like a small, modest studio type flat.
She suddenly found herself dizzy and losing her balance, and would have fallen backwards if not for the two pairs of hands that caught her by her arms and shoulders.
“We got you.” came from a deep but soft voice, and Clari tilted her head to see Garnet smiling down at her gently.
“Portals could throw you off if you’re not used to them.” Ross added, rubbing her back softly.
There was another person in the flat waiting for them, a tall but lanky bespectacled teenager with distinctly japanese features, pale skin and dark hair. He was quick to tend to Soren and usher him towards his flat’s couch.
“Bullet?” he asked Soren as he began unwrapping the torn sleeve that was being used as a makeshift bandage. Soren nodded and gestured something else. The teen chuckled and reached out towards the medical kit in the coffee table. “I always thought you were bulletproof, Ren.”
“Thanks for this, Shin.” Ross said, leaving Clari to Garnet. He headed straight for the small kitchen in the flat, grabbing a small basin from one of the cupboards and filling it with water.
“Don’t mention it. It’s good to have a use for this old place, anyway.” Shin said, helping Soren take off his ruined shirt. “But I’ll have to leave soon. Important stuff in the University. Can’t risk my cover.”
“Same here, we can’t stay too long. We’ve got a mission ongoing, and I already pulled Garnet, Ed and Feli in the middle of it. We have to get back ASAP. Will Soren be fine?” Ross asked as he returned with the water-filled basin and a small towel, settling both items for Shin’s use.
“It’s shallow, I don’t think it needs stitching. We just have to clean it and wrap it up.” Shin answered.
Clari let Garnet sit her down in one of the chairs in the small two-person dining table. Ed had closed the portal behind them, also going to the kitchen, but to grab some water from the fridge for himself.
Clari looked up when Garnet offered her a glass of water. “Are you okay?” the young woman asked, and Clari realized Garnet looked younger than she first thought. It must be her height. She was very tall, but looking at her face, she was clearly about eighteen.
“Yes, thanks.” Clari said, accepting the beverage. She drank it quickly before asking, “Where are we?”
“Shin’s old flat.” Garnet answered quietly. “Somewhere in… Bellmare, I think.”
Bellmare. Clari nodded. It’s just a bus ride away from Crestdale.
“I would’ve brought you to a safehouse, you know.” Ed said with a small frown. “But the nearest one’s still pretty far, and I’ve got a few more jumps to go before I’m out.”
Clari wasn’t sure she understood it, but she shook her head and smiled. “It’s okay, thank you.” She looked over to see Ross and Soren talking in sign again while Shin wrapped clean bandages on Soren’s arm. Shin spoke up as well, and there seemed to be an agreement between the three before Ross stood up and turned to the others.
“We have to go. Ed, are you good?”
“Yep, ready to go again.” Ed put his empty glass by the sink, then headed towards a nearby wall. He closed his eyes, concentrating.
“Garnet?” Ross asked.
The young woman nodded, and gave Clari’s shoulder a soft squeeze before she followed Ed.
Ross turned to Clari this time, and it surprised her when he actually got down on one knee so she wouldn’t have to look up at him. “Hey. I know it must’ve been a bit… too violent back there, and you look shaken, but you’ll be safe here. We can’t stay, we have an… ongoing engagement somewhere else, that we have to get back to. But Soren will be staying with you. He’s one of our best, he’ll look after you and he will answer any question you might have. We’ll get back to you as soon as we can.”
“I understand.” she said softly, voice weak from exhaustion.
“You should rest for now.”
Clari nodded weakly. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” he said, patting her hand before standing back up. He said his goodbyes to Soren and Shin, before he followed Garnet and Ed through the new portal.
When Clari looked towards her remaining company, Shin was also cleaning up the first-aid kit. He talked as he stood up and took the basin of water back to the kitchen, then began moving around the flat. “Sorry I have to leave you guys too, but you should be fine here. It shouldn’t take Ross and the others long. Sonnet stayed here a couple of days ago so there’s food in the cupboard and in the fridge, plenty of drinks, and I’m pretty sure the bathroom’s still stocked. There’s no bed, just a mattress, but there are plenty of pillows and blankets on the closet.”
Clari listened intently. Shin was moving around too much for Soren to really read his lips and he wasn’t signing, too busy checking things and putting them in order, so she concluded that he was counting on her to get his message. He went to rummage the small messenger bag in a corner table and took out a key. He tossed it to Soren, who caught it easily with his good hand.
“The phone line’s disconnected, but the internet connection’s secure. Dory made sure of that. So you just plug in the modem and router if you need it.”
This last one, he directed to Soren, who stood up to see him off. He looked at Clari and gave a small smile and a nod of acknowledgement. “Please help him with the bandages if they need changing.”
He stopped by the doorway beside Soren, looking up at him. This time he also signed as he spoke. “I almost had a heart attack when they said you were in trouble, and alone. So don’t get in any more trouble, not on my watch. I don’t wanna die of a heart attack. At eighteen.”
Soren smiled and said something in sign. He reached out and ruffled’s Shin’s already messy, spiky hair before the young man opened the door and left.
As soon as the door closed, he looked at Clari, still sitting quietly by the dining table. He offered a small smile as he sat back down on the couch, wincing slightly. No doubt he had some bruises, aside from the bandaged wound on his arm.
“Um…” she started awkwardly. “Thanks. For saving me.”
He nodded, then raised a hand expectantly.
Clari blinked - was he asking to shake her hand? For her to come to him? He tilted his head now, eyebrows slightly raised. She still didn’t understand. Then he finally pointed towards her and Clari looked down- Oh. Oh, of course.
His backpack. She had been hugging it to herself all this time. And he had no shirt on, he probably had spares in his bag, and he was asking for it.
“Oh! Sorry!” she laughed shakily and stood up quickly to give him his bag. She sat on the couch next to him and helped him open the bag. He was trying to avoid using his wounded arm. The bag was filled with neatly packed clothes, some toiletries, a few energy bars… “Here, what do you need?” He reached out for a sleeveless shirt and she took it out, unfolded it, and helped him wear it. “Anything else?” she asked, feeling the need to fuss. He saved her, after all. This was the least she can do. “Food? Water! I’ll get you some water-”
He shook his head tiredly, patting her on the shoulder and standing up. She followed him to the fridge, where he opened the freezer and took out the ice tray. Before he could ask, Clari had already looked through the cupboards to look for an ice bag. She found one and brought it to him, but didn’t give it and instead filled it with the ice cubes herself. She handed it to him after.
He nodded gratefully as he pressed it to his side. Clari frowned. Right. He got kicked there, for the woman, for Clari. She wondered what happened to that woman. She hoped she made it out alright.
She was cut off her thoughts when he took his phone out and typed a message again.
[ ‘Do you want to change?’ ]
For the first time since their escape, Clari looked down at herself. Her blue skinny jeans were dirty and torn at the knees, her blouse was rumpled, her cardigan was torn at the sleeves, and she felt the bruises and scratches all over her body as well. She had no doubt her face was also dirty and her hair was a mess.
“Oh… I… guess so, but…”
[ ‘I still have some clothes you can borrow while you wash yours’ ]
Clari looked at him and smiled. “Thanks.”
He shook his head as if to say ‘don’t mention it’, and held up another message.
[ ‘You can shower first’ ]
Clari kept her shower quick. She would have loved a long soak, but she didn’t want Soren to wait too long. He must want to wash up too. He had more bruises and scratches than she did. There was a towel and a fluffy bathrobe in the bathroom. She chose the bathrobe and when she finished, Soren had laid out several clean clothes on the coffee table, most of them shirts and a few boxers.
He held up his phone again. [ ‘Pick whatever you want’ ]
“Thanks.” she said. She had been saying that a lot today. He stood up with a pair of cotton pants and headed for the bathroom to give her some privacy.
She chose a thin, plain white shirt and a pair of dark red drawstring boxers.
When Soren returned, towel draped on his shoulders and wearing the same sleeveless shirt now paired with loose cotton pants, Clari was sitting on the couch, wearing his shirt and boxers, and hugging her knees to herself as she watched the news on TV.
Of course. It had only been a little over an hour. The explosion and the quake during a “peaceful” government laboratory “search” in Crestdale. People and officers were hurt or dead. As always there was no coverage on the parents and loved ones crying for the people the lab troops took. Only some civilians saying that the “defected” people were better off in the labs, that they caused the trouble, look what they did to the town square, they do deserve to be locked up and corrected!
Clari curled up tighter and buried her face in her knees. She only looked up when she felt Soren sit on the couch, his backpack in between them. She wondered what he was thinking as he began gathering his clothes again and stacking them in a neat pile. When he finished with that, he leaned back against the couch and breathed deeply.
They were silent for a very long moment, just staring at the news reports in the TV, until they changed to a different event. Somewhere else, there was a city festival. There were bright, colorful floats in the parade. Clari looked away, and saw that Soren was staring down at his phone. He wasn’t typing. He must be thinking of what to say, or how to start whatever he wanted to say.
“Soren?” she called, but knowing he can’t hear her, she reached out and placed a hand on his arm. He turned towards her. “You know, I do think you did a good job. More of us would have been caught if you didn’t do what you did.”
He spared a small smile and nodded, typed and lifted his phone to her. [ ‘I’m glad they’re safe’ ]
She smiled back at the message. It sounded so selfless, and she did feel that he meant it fully. “So… you’re a volunteer. Do you have… a gift, too?”
He shook his head. [ ‘I’m pretty normal’ ]
“Um, no, you’re not. You kicked major butt out there.” she said, this time shifting so she can face him easily. He did the same, chuckling at her remark. “How old are you, anyway? I heard that the volunteers are pretty young, teenagers and people in their 20’s and early 30’s? Your friends looked pretty young, too.”
[ ‘I’m 20. Ross is a bit older.’ ]
“Twenty?! We’re the same age! How long have you been doing this?”
He shrugged. [ ‘Since 15 i think? I joined with my sister. She has a gift. She’s in a mission with ross and team rn.’ ]
“Fifteen. So am I right, those other guys… Garnet, Shin, Ed… they’re teenagers?”
[ ‘17 give or take. Theyre brave kids.’ ]
Clari looked down with a sad smile. “They are, aren’t they? All of you are. I’ve always heard of you guys. Volunteers. People who help us escape and hide from the labs… I always thought those people were very brave, but I didn’t need… I didn’t need your… assistance… before.”
He frowned, noticing that she was shaking slightly, and that she was curling up over herself again.
[ ‘It’s ok.’ ] he tried. He didn’t know how to comfort her, he didn’t know much about her…
“I had it so easy.” she said, sniffing. “I’m from the country, you see. Farm girl right here. And… and the news… so far they all seemed so far away? Like… they wouldn’t happen to us. The lab troops only went there once, I was a kid, and my parents were able to hide me somewhere in the farm. And my power is so easy to hide, too. I just have it, it’s there, in my eyes, constantly. They only glow when I focus on really using them, on… on maximizing it or something. I’m… I look ordinary. It’s easy to hold back and if I ever lose control, no one would even notice. I had it so easy.”
By now she was crying, and Soren said nothing, just switched the TV off, watched her and read her lips and tried to understand.
“I came here because… God, it’s so silly... I want to be an actress. I want to act, to sing on stage. I came here to audition for every part that would allow me to audition for it. My family thinks I’m crazy to come here, where there are searches and raids and people would turn me away anyway, once they know I’m one of the “defective” people… But I told them I’ll be okay, it’s easy to hide my powers. I came here and I thought it’ll be fine. I’ll be fine! Because unlike the others, I can blend in, I can hide! But… but today. There was no search for me, probably ’cause I’m new in town… but when I heard the labs were taking people, I couldn’t help but go there and see. See for myself, what they’re all afraid of, because I’ve never had to be scared of it. And then… and then that happened…”
She trailed off helplessly and sobbed against her knees, curled up into a trembling, sobbing ball. Soren reached out and rubbed her back comfortingly. He waited, patient, for her to let it out, before he offered her a small pack of tissues from his bag.
“I’m sorry for being like this... You already saved my life, and now I’m crying all over you too.” she laughed gingerly as she took some tissues to wipe her tears and blow her nose. She felt him reach out to pat her head and then tuck strands of her blonde hair behind her ears, and she laughed again. “You’re so sweet. I was just… I really thought I was gonna die back there and I can’t believe I’m here, safe, right now.”
He let her sob some more into the tissues, just gently rubbing circles by the side of her arm. It seemed to calm her down, and soon she was just hiccuping softly every now and then.
He finally lifted his phone again, and she rubbed the tears off her eyes to read his message.
[ ‘You look very tired. Maybe take a nap?’ ]
She wanted to say ‘no’, she didn’t need to take a nap, not when she knew there were still people in trouble, not after seeing those unconscious children loaded in the back of a truck, knowing their parents were worried sick... But what can she do? She did feel so tired, and her body hurt from all the running and tripping and falling earlier and… and there was nothing either of them could do until the others come and pick them up, right?
“I… I think I’ll do that.” she said softly.
They both took the mattress propped against the wall and settled it on one corner of the room. Clari found the blankets and the pillows easily in the closet. She also saw Soren take a pillow for himself and settle his bag on the floor by the couch.
The mattress and the pillow were soft, the blanket thick and warm, and Soren’s too-big shirt smelled faintly of chocolate and whatever cologne he used. She fell asleep easily.
Clari woke up to the sound of her phone vibrating against the floor beside the mattress. She sat up, still wincing from some of the bruises in her body and grabbed the gadget. It was her father, calling, but she also saw that she had six other missed calls, a lot of text messages and that it was… it was 4PM. She had slept for roughly 6 hours. She looked up to see Soren sleeping peacefully on the couch. His bandages were stained red now… they would have to replace those.
She cleared her throat as silently as she could before tapping the answer button on her phone. “Hello?”
“Clari! My girl, where are you? How are you? We saw on TV, about Crestdale, and your manager called because they couldn’t contact you-”
“Daddy, I’m okay.” she said, softly.
“They said you were in that town square, the explosion-”
“Yes, I was. But I had… help. I got out in time, and I’m fine. A little beat up, but fine.”
She heard her father sigh. “Thank God. We’re so worried. Where are you now? Are you sure you’re okay? Do we need to come get you?”
“No. No need, daddy.” she answered soothingly. “I’m someplace safe. Staying with… with a friend. Just a little ways out of town. I’ll stay here for a while until things calm down back there and then I’ll… I’ll carry on.”
“Alright.” he sighed. “They didn’t find you, then?”
She resisted the urge to break down and say ‘yes, dad, they’ve seen me and they might hunt me down from now on’. Clari only squared her jaw and answered, “No, dad. They didn’t. I’ll be okay.”
She told him to send her love to everyone, to tell mommy to stop worrying, that she was fine. Then she called her manager too, telling the man that she was alright, she got out of the scuffle before the explosion, and that she stayed with a friend nearby.
Clari also texted some of her co-workers who tried to reach her, saying much the same thing.
She heard a grunt and looked up to see Soren getting up. He winced from pain for a bit but was able to sit up and stretch weakly.
Then there was a grumble. From Soren’s direction. She looked at him and saw him smiling sheepishly at her, a hand over his stomach.
They both missed lunch.
Clari giggled and stood up. Her turn to do something now. “What do you want to eat?”
It was eggs, hotdogs, toast and some instant noodles for them. They were both starving and besides some cereals, junk food and apples, those were their only options. Clari questioned Shin’s choices… she thought he’d at least have some vegetables or rice, healthier stuff… but who was she to complain? Soren said that he was pretty sure it wasn’t Shin who stocked up the unit.
[ ‘he’s actually vegan’ ]
Thinking about it, Shin did mention something about someone else who stayed in the flat recently. Maybe that was it. Clari didn’t bother to ask.
They ate in silence, both too hungry to initiate conversation.
They both insisted to do the dishes. Clari won.
“At least let me do this.” she had said, and Soren proved weak against her stubborn glare and pouting face.
After that, there was nothing to do, but they still felt restless. They flipped through TV channels and found nothing to catch their interest. They discovered a deck of cards in one of the shelves but after one lame game of bridge, they gave up. They switched the modem and router on, connected to the internet, but still didn’t find it enough of a distraction. Clari found a magazine - she was good at reading, her abilities made her a speed-reader, but the magazine was about engineering, and she hardly understood the technical jargon. Soren flipped aimlessly through what looked like a thick reference book, filled with diagrams and charts.
She asked him why the flat was filled with all these engineering and technology reference books. He told her that Shin works on robotics and engineering research in a famous university.
“Work? Not study?”
[ ‘Studying as part of work. He’s kind of a genius. They pay him to work with them.’ ]
At that point, Clari suggested they replace Soren’s bandages, and he let her help him through it.
Soon they found themselves sitting beside each other in the couch again. Clari tried flipping through TV channels again on the hopes she’ll find something to interest her this time. After a while, when she looked beside her, Soren had dozed off again, hugging his pillow to himself. She smiled softly, lowering the volume of the TV. She had a lot of questions for him, but somehow she didn’t feel like asking. If she did, he’ll have to type his answers. They weren’t simple yes-or-no answers either, and Clari just thought that it might be too much trouble for him…
A thought struck her then. She picked her phone up, checked that she was connected to the wifi and tapped on her phone’s app store.
In the search bar, she entered: sign language.
Soren woke up when he felt someone gently shaking his shoulders. He opened his eyes to see Clari hovering over him, face anxious.
In the haze of sleep, he forgot himself and gestured, ‘What?’
She blinked at this, but answered anyway. “Someone’s knocking on the door.”
He sat up immediately and looked towards the door. He looked at Clari and raised a hand, pointed downwards, then pressed his hand to his lips, index finger up. She interpreted that as ‘Wait here and stay quiet.’ She only nodded as he straightened his shirt down and ran a hand through his hair before he headed towards the door.
On his way he grabbed a mop that was leaning on one side of the wall and hid it behind his back. Then carefully, he opened the door a crack.
Clari heard the muffled voice from outside say, “Put that away, whatever it is. You won’t be needing it.”
Soren let out a sigh and then smiled. He stepped back and opened the door to let their guest in. As soon as the girl - no, woman - stepped inside the room, Soren welcomed her with a warm hug. She was just as tall as he was, strongly-built, her hair only slightly longer than his, her skin only a shade lighter, her features just a more feminine version of Soren’s. To Clari, they could be twins. She must be Soren’s sister.
“I was worried sick.” she said, hugging her brother back tightly, before withdrawing when he stiffened and groaned. “Oh, shit. You’re injured. Sorry.” She went to close the door behind them and then laughed when Soren put the mop back against the wall. Clari watched a soft smile bloom on the young woman’s lips before she took her brother’s face in her hands and pulled him down only slightly to kiss his forehead. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
Soren signed something, and she let out a chuckle before they hugged again. After that, she finally withdrew and stepped aside to address Clari. “Hi, you must be Clarisse. Ross told me about you and the… situation.” she said, stepping forward and holding out a hand. “I’m Soren’s sister. Kali.”
“It’s nice to meet you, Kali.” Clari said, nodding and shaking the other girl’s hand. She saw Kali eye her from head to toe, eyebrows raising slightly and lips quirking up into an amused smile. Kali looked at Soren and said, “I hope I’m not interrupting anything?”
Soren blinked, looked at Clari, then back at his sister and frantically shook his head. Clari looked down at herself and realized that - of course - she was still in Soren’s clothes! “A-Ah, this isn’t what it looks like! My-... M-my clothes were dirty and torn from the… from what happened today, so Soren let me borrow some of his own!“
Kali laughed. It was an easy, friendly laugh. “I’m kidding! I just never get to tease Ren often. He’s such a good boy. And why’re we all standing? Let’s settle down.”
Soren checked the time before signing something to his sister. Kali nodded easily. “Yeah, sure. Go make some dinner.”
“I can help.” Clari volunteered, but Kali held her back with a look, and Soren shook his head at her before quickly maneuvering around the tiny kitchen.
“Ren’s got that covered.” Kali said, sitting down on the couch. She smiled at Clari. “You and me, we have stuff to talk about.”
Clari stared after Soren for another second, before meekly joining Kali on the couch. Kali gave her a moment to brace herself before the woman smiled and in a soft but firm voice, said, “So. Tell me what happened.”
Clari blinked, slightly confused. “What… I thought Ross…”
Kali chuckled. “Okay. Yes, there was a raid that went haywire. Ross took Garnet and Ed to help extract Soren, you happened to be there needing help as well, and they brought you both here for your safety. Now tell me how that happened.”
“I’m- I’m not sure, Soren was the one-”
“I’m asking about you, Clarisse.”
Clari looked at the other woman and swallowed. “Clari. That’s-... That’s how my friends call me.” she said quickly, before sighing. “I was just… I work in Andy’s, the burger place, in Crestdale. I’ve been there a month. It was a part-time job while I… err… while I try out for some auditions.”
“I wanted to be on stage.”
Kali studied her face carefully, and Clari could just feel the judgement coming. ‘Stage? Someone like you? As if they’ll give you a chance if they knew what you are. Silly girl.’
But Kali kept silent, and when it became obvious that Clari was waiting for a signal to continue, she nodded and asked, “Auditions. Right. So you’re new in town, auditioning and working part-time. And?”
“I was out, but too early for my shift, so I decided I’ll walk around… then people started gathering in the town square and next thing I know the officers from the government labs were there, and they were taking… people. Children. I knew I should’ve hidden. But… but I couldn’t help it, it was my first time seeing something like that up close, and I’ve never been found out before. The other officers didn’t seem to be interested in me either, so I figured I was still safe. I recognized some of the people there… There’s a lady from the same building I live in, and they took her son. She was going after him and was about to be hurt by the officers, so I tried to stop her. Then Soren defended us, and… and well, the fight happened and some of the children panicked, I guess. They lost control. There was the quake and the explosion. I was lucky I saw it happen, just in time to pull back, I managed to pull Soren with me. From there, I just… kind of stuck with him?”
Kali nodded again, in full understanding. “Ross told me you have super-sight?”
Clari shrugged. “I… guess. Yeah.”
“It’s a good gift.” Kali smiled. “I’m a canceller. If I will it, I can cancel the gifts of everyone in a certain area near me.”
Clari stared at the other woman in awe, nodding. “That’s… that’s amazing.”
A smile. “It’s useful.” Then her expression turned serious again, but still understanding. “Now, we think of what to do next. Our team just came from a pretty tiring deal, but Ross is having our hackers and some friends try and find out if you’re wanted by the labs.”
Clari bit her lip. She wouldn’t know what to do if that happened. Will she be living on the run for all her life?
“But even if you are, it will take a while for that to circulate. You’ll still have a couple of days before every station has your wanted poster in it. For now, we’ve confirmed that the lab trucks have left Crestdale. It’s safe again, and if you want to go back, you could. But we never really know when or if the lab trucks will return.”
Clari nodded grimly.
“I’m sorry, things will never be the same for you in that town. But you still have a chance to gather your things, say goodbye to your friends, if you do decide to leave. That still counts for something. Some people… they’re not so lucky.”
Clari glanced up at the woman, curiosity in her eyes.
“I know a lot of people like us who lose everything in a raid. Burned down houses, dead family.”
“Oh.” Clari bit her lip. “I’m-... I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. Like I said, that should count for something. Do you have anywhere else you can go? Your family?”
“Yes, they’re… they’re in my hometown. They know I was in Crestdale, but they don’t know I got chased by the lab people. I told them I got out alright and I’m staying with a friend until the trouble’s gone down.”
“That’s good, at least. You still have a home.”
“I’m… I’m not sure I want to go back, though.”
“That’s alright, too.” Kali reassured. “If you’re lucky enough to not be wanted by the labs after this, we know some other cities that are still safe from the raids. Friendly ones. And we’ve got contacts in most of them so if there’s ever a threat, we can warn our people quicker. Have them make plans for their safety. We can help you move to one of those cities.”
“Thank you.” Clari spared a smile. “That means a lot.”
“It’s what we do.”
Clari looked down, thinking about it. “We? You mean, the volunteers? That’s what Soren said, that’s… you and Ross and your other friends. You’re part of it.”
Kali nodded. “Yep, that’s us. Never needed our help before?”
She shook her head. “It’s easy to hide, my gift. And back in my hometown, the labs don’t reach out much. I don’t know a lot about you guys.”
“That’s fair. We’re pretty discreet. We have to be.” Kali explained, sighing heavily. They were silent for a while.
Clari spoke up after a moment of contemplation. “So, um… you guys will help me settle someplace… safe?”
“Yes.” Kali nodded without hesitation.
“That’s if… if I’m not wanted.” the blonde started, brows furrowing. She swallowed, afraid to ask the next question. But she knew she had to. “What if… what if I am?”
“It’s still your choice. You can still live in cities, but you’d have to be careful, hide, move a lot… maybe change your name. We’d help you if you call.” Kali reassured her. “But also, we can take you to a safehouse. You heard of those?”
She nodded reluctantly. “In passing. They said there must be some place you take those of us who are hunted. And… and I also saw it on the news, a few years back… when they discovered a whole community and… raided a safehouse. It was horrible.”
Kali’s smiled dissolved then, and she looked away, lips drawn into a thin line. Clari drew back, horrified - Kali and Soren were around her age, Soren said they started at fifteen, so… God. They were already volunteers when that safehouse was raided. They could’ve been there for all Clari knew-
She was about to say something, to apologize, but Kali closed her eyes and let out a deep breath. Then she faced Clari again with a composed smile. “Yes. Right now there are still several safehouses standing. We’re very careful not to give them away.”
“Think about it, though, will you?” she continued. “You’re one of us. We’ll support you, whatever you choose.”
Clari met the woman’s warm, confident, piercing brown eyes and replied. “I will. And… and thank you. For this.”
Kali smirked. “Nah. It’s Ren who saved you. We were short-handed, he took this job on by himself and saved a lot people, and you. Everyone from home’s real proud of him.”
They looked towards the kitchen to see Soren frying some eggs and hotdogs (because that really is all that’s left in the little kitchen - they’d have to leave soon, or buy some decent food). Kali’s gaze travelled towards the table when Clari picked up her phone to put it back in her pocket. The woman caught a glimpse of the phone screen and smiled. “Aw, you wanna talk to him?”
Clari blinked at her and blushed - Kali had caught her studying sign language! She looked away gingerly. “I… I just thought-... It’ll be nice if- if I could, umm, understand… a bit of…”
Kali cut her off with a laugh. “That app is a bit mediocre, here, let me rec a much better one.” With that, she took her own phone out. The lockscreen, Clari observed, was a photo of Kali, Soren and an older woman who must be their mother, or a close relative. She saw the immediate family resemblance. Kali opened the app store in her own phone and searched for something before pointing it towards Clari. “This one. It’s better for beginners, and has all these nifty features…”
As they ate dinner, Clari learned several more things about the siblings. Kali was one year older than Soren. Their mom was one of the women in the charity. Kali told her brother that their mother was safe, and was very relieved to hear that Soren was, too. She couldn’t get back to him in time because some of the wounded needed their assistance. Kali talked about other people too, signing whenever her hands weren’t occupied with eating.
There was a boy named Tim who was really worried about Soren, but couldn’t go with Kali to visit. Someone called Feli will be staying with them for a while. Another someone called Dory was going to hang around, too. Ross - that name Clari recognized - feels very guilty for sending Soren to Crestdale alone and, according to Kali, he needs to ‘chill with all the team leader angst’.
It came as a small surprise to Clari to hear that. So Ross was the team leader? Yes, he did seem in-charge earlier, but it was a very… subdued kind of authority. Like he was only carrying out instructions in place of someone else, like he was only in charge for a temporary time.
Clari couldn’t help but compare him to Kali. Kali’s authority was solid, she was very calm and confident, and always seemed to know what to say. Clari actually thought Kali was some kind of leader figure in the safehouse, with how she talked Clari through things earlier.
There was something common between them, though. Clari noticed that they both had a steady, calming presence.
That was something Soren shared with them too. He looked gentle yet firm and reliable. To an extent, the others she’d met were a bit like that, too. They brought the promise of security with them.
Clari wondered if all of them were like that.
Or, recalling Kali’s grim expression a while ago as she remembered a fallen safehouse, maybe it was something they had to learn to be.
She couldn’t help but cling to it, somewhat. Right there, with them, she was safe. She felt safe.
It was late when Kali’s phone chimed, signalling a text message. She read it quickly and then smiled at them. “I guess that’s me.”
“You’re going?” Clari asked.
“Yep. I still have a stop after this.” the woman let out a breath and stood up. She didn’t really have anything with her other than her phone and wallet. Then she looked at Clari. “About what we talked about… Have you thought about it? We can wait, but not too long-”
“I-...” Clari started, but stopped at the first word. Then she looked at Soren and back at Kali. “Can I-... I don’t know if it’s okay, but… Can I go with you to your… safehouse?”
Soren blinked, but his face was merely curious, then he looked towards his sister to gauge her response.
Kali gave her a considering look. “May I ask why?”
“I’ve never… I’ve never really met others like us.” Clari started, her hands gripping the hem of the borrowed shirt that she wore. “And… um… I just want to… see how it is, for them.”
She bit her lip, wanting to say so much more but no knowing where to start.
But she didn’t have to say anything anymore, before Kali had broken the silence with a hum. “Hmm… Okay, then.” the woman said with an easy smile. “And I’m guessing you’ll need to stop in Crestdale to settle your businesses and get your things?”
Clari nodded hesitantly.
Kali laid a hand on Soren’s shoulder to catch his attention, and she started signing again. “Tomorrow, you two go to Crestdale. Do whatever needs to be done, then come home.”
Soren smiled and nodded, replying in sign.
Kali chuckled, then looked at Clari. “Soren will take you there. He’ll make sure you’re safe, and he knows what to do if there’s ever any trouble.”
Clari exchanged a looked with Soren and appreciated the gentle smile he sent her.
Kali leaned down to kiss her brother’s forehead, and left with a bright “I’ll see you both soon!”
They left early the next morning. Clari accepted a hoodie that Soren offered. It reached down mid-thigh, but it was snug and better than her torn and discarded blouse and cardigan. She wore her own pants from yesterday, looking better after having been washed, despite the tears in the fabric.
Soren left a little note of thanks in the table.
Thanks for letting us crash here.
See you around.
-- Ren & Clari’
They only grabbed sandwiches and coffee for breakfast to eat in the bus, and with less traffic due to the early hours, they were already back in Crestdale in a little over an hour.
They bypassed the town square and went straight to Clari’s quaint flat. It wasn’t much bigger than Shin’s. She didn’t have a lot of belongings, and between her auditions and work, she didn’t have time to really customize the place. So she finished packing up quickly, just two large bags of clothes, necessities and keepsakes - important personal belongings. She left the things she could stand to lose, if ever things become bad in the room. Clari wasn’t planning to immediately cut her lease on the place anyway, and she’s still got a month already paid, so it was fine to leave them there.
The next step was to say her goodbyes at work.
Clari was able to make a hasty, but neat handwritten letter - she didn’t have time to print find a computer and print it out. Soren accompanied her to Andy’s Burgers, but they stopped a block away from the place as Clari took in the sight of the small restaurant.
She turned towards Soren and, with an uneasy smile, asked, “What about we go get lunch first? I’m starving after we spent the morning packing.”
Soren somehow understood. He nodded, and followed Clari when she headed to the less popular fastfood chain beside Andy’s.
She was silent during lunch, and Soren could practically read the words she was mouthing. She was practicing the short speech she planned to tell her boss.
When he knew they couldn’t delay further, he gave her a light nudge and a reassuring smile.
Clari looked up at him and sighed, then nodded.
“Alright, let’s do this.”
She asked him to wait for her outside as she talked to her manager.
It was quick. Working in Andy’s has always been meant to be short-term, but Clari still felt a pang of sadness in her. It was a tough job but it was a good job, with good people.
She told the manager that there was a family emergency, and she has to go back to her hometown as soon as possible. Clari preferred to think that maybe her acting skills were improving. The manager believed right away and nodded solemnly. He told her that he accepts her resignation and that he was sorry to lose a good employee. He wished her luck and safety on her way home. He said that if Clari ever came back to Crestdale and needs a job again, he’ll see what he can do for her.
It was the middle of the day so they couldn’t do a short employee assembly to send Clari off. Nevertheless, she managed to take an extra minute or two to pull aside three co-workers she was more familiar with and to say goodbye to them. They were surprised, but were understanding. One girl even pulled her into a tight hug.
And then she was stepping out into the sidewalk again, walking towards were Soren was standing on the shade of a coffee shop, waiting for her.
“It’s done.” she said, tucking her hands behind her so he won’t see her fidgeting. “I can leave Crestdale.”
He already had his phone ready in his hands, and he only typed out a short message.
[ ‘let’s go home then.’ ]
Clari had to admit that she was impressed by how Soren could carry his bag and one of hers, after what he suffered the day before. Bruises couldn’t heal that easily, and his arm was surely not fully recovered yet.
But he walked purposely towards the bus stop. She followed his lead and soon they were on a bus ride that he claimed would take them a few hours.
“How do we get there?” she asked him. “Am I… allowed to know?”
[ ‘a bit. for precautions.’ ] Soren answered in a form of his phone screen as usual. [ ‘we’ll pass by 2 towns then get off at the 3rd. we have some friends there who will lend us a vehicle. i’ll drive to somewhere safe for Ed to fetch us.’ ]
“Oh. That’s... very elaborate.” she remarked. Bus, car (she assumed), and then portal. She hoped she’ll be better at handling portals this time. The last one made her feel very dizzy.
[ ‘Safer.’ ] he added.
“What time do you think will we get there?”
[ ‘maybe late night. depends on Ed rly. long distance portals can tire him out. dont wanna overwork him. so he might sleep first and just get us tomorrow morning. its ok we can stay with a friend.’ ]
She fell silent, looking out the bus window. They’ve got a lot time to spare, stuck with each other like this during a long bus ride. And neither of them really feel like taking a nap.
“So…” she started, and paused when she glanced towards him and saw him staring closely at her. Of course. He had to look at her to read her lips. She quickly searched her brain for whatever little sign language she learned the previous night, but as she raised her hand, she swallowed and put it down again, doubting. She wanted to at least be decent at it if she was going to use it. She didn’t want to screw up. But when she saw Soren’s message in his own phone: [ ‘yes?’ ], an idea hit her.
She took her phone out from her pocket and opened her messaging app.
She typed in a message. ‘hi :)’
Soren blinked. [ ‘what r we doing?’ ] He was using shorthand now, making her assume he has eased to her presence enough to communicate informally.
‘talking!’ came her reply.
He raised an eyebrow. [ ‘u dont hav to do this. i can understand u fine.’ ]
‘yeah but it’s unfair u have to type and read my lips both while i just talk. u hav to keep looking at me too nd its not comfortable’
[ ‘sorry do i make u uncomfortable?’ ]
She looked at him incredulously before realizing how her words must have sounded to him. She shook her head fervently and typed. ‘no no no i mean u! ur position cus were side by side and u always have to face me a bit to understand me? it cant be comfy right?’
A look of understanding crossed his features and nodded slightly. [ ‘u have a good point’ ]
‘so lets just talk like this for now! its kinda fun now that i think abt it’
A chuckle. [ ‘ok. wat do u want to talk abt?’ ]
They keep the conversation going for over an hour, sharing bits and pieces of random information between them.
Soren laughed when Clari confessed that her former co-workers at Andy’s believed that he always came over because he had a crush on her. Clari sighed in exasperation when he admitted that he did it because Andy’s had a good view of the streets while providing an affordable but decent snack.
Clari told him a bit about her family’s little farm back home. Soren shared a bit about his sister, whom he considers his best friend, and his mom who leads her own charity. His dad was distant, his parents having divorced when he was young and custody of Soren went to his mother.
One thing Clari used her powers for is to read the notes being passed between the students in the front rows of the classroom, and, finding that it was a nasty conversation about one of her more socially awkward classmates, she proceeded to snitch to the teacher.
[ ‘that was cool’ ]
‘yeah but the next day i got bright blue paint dumped on me.’
[ ‘oh wow.’ ]
Soren knows mixed martial arts and kendo. She asked him if he has a sword, and he smiled sheepishly at her.
[ ‘just the one’ ]
[ ‘yea i left it in the safehouse cus it looks suspicious taking it everywhere’ ]
‘ive never seen a real sword b4 omg may i see it??? PLS’
[ ‘when we get there :)’ ]
She asked about the safehouse next, and he tried to describe it as best as he could but he was apparently bad at describing things. She assured him that it’s fine, she’ll just see for herself.
After a while, she fell asleep leaning against his shoulder.
She woke up another hour later, when Soren gently shook her and told her that they’ll be alighting in a few minutes. She hurriedly fixed her hair and straightened her shirt. Soren stretched, rubbing his shoulder to ease tension a bit.
Clari blanched. “Oh God. I’m sorry. I slept on your bad arm-”
She stopped abruptly when he just reached out to poke her nose, before he shook his head and shrugged.
Clari stared at him for a while before she took her phone out and typed a message.
‘u know b4 i knew ur name in my head i always called u mr. quiet tall dark handsome 330 pm combo meal a table 17’
He snorted, and raised a hand to his mouth, obviously to stifle a laugh.
‘from now on in my head i’m calling u MR. TOO GOOD FOR THIS WORLD’
He typed in his own reply: [ ‘ur too kind’ ]
Soren let out a low chuckle before conceding.
They alighted at the bus stop of a pretty nondescript town (not too big, not too small) with people milling around the streets busy with their own daily activities. She followed Soren’s lead as they walked along the sidewalk. He had told her their destination was only a few minutes’ walk away.
They arrived in a spacious car rental and repair shop. A dozen identical cars were parked in the lot. There was a small two-story building that must serve as a receiving-slash-waiting area and management office. Then there were two garages, the first was closed while the other was open, showing several employees working on car repairs.
The bells in the door jingled when they entered the small air-conditioned building. Soren paused to show Clari a message. She read it, blinking down at the instructions before nodding at him.
They approached the middle-aged man in the front desk and with a prompt from Soren, Clari spoke up. “Um, we’d like to rent a car?”
“Hm.” the man grunted absently, not bothering to look at them, but his hands started to move, typing in his computer. “M’gonna need to see an ID- You got an account with us yet?”
“Yes.” Clari said. “Gardner, Diana.”
At this, the fingers in the keyboard paused, and the man finally looked up and regarded them. Then he sat back and continued typing. “Miss Gardner. Of course. No need for the ID then, take a sit and I’ll have one of our folks get’cha.”
Clari looked at Soren, who contentedly nodded and headed for one of the waiting chairs. Clari followed him quickly.
It only took a minute or two before they were approached by a tall, slender woman wearing a black tank top and navy blue jumpsuit with the top undone and the sleeves tied at her waist. As she walked, she took off her working gloves and tucked them in the tool kit that rested by her hips. She had short, platinum blonde hair with streaks of light blue and pink framing her beautiful face. What struck Clari the most were her peculiar light pink irises. Were they contacts?
“There’s one of my favorite faces.” the woman said by way of a greeting. Confirming that Soren had his eyes on her, she began signing. “How’ve you been? I heard you got into some trouble.”
Soren only smiled and signed in reply as he stood up. ‘I’m alive. And it’s nice to see you too.’
Clari watched curiously as they shared a light hug. Then she looked towards Clari before looking at Soren, who must be signing a quick explanation, a rundown on events. “Huh. I see.” she mumbled, then extended a hand towards Clari then.
“Hey. I’m Dove.”
Clari blinked once, then quickly stood to attention to take the woman’s hand. “I’m Clari. Nice to meet you-”
“Likewise. I’m this nerd’s girlfriend.”
That made Clari pause.
This suddenly turned awkward.
She just spent two days getting comfy with a guy who had a girlfriend who was standing RIGHT THERE- Oh God. And look at Dove! She was gorgeous. And looked like she would take no shit. Clari was going to die. DIE.
“Uhhh, o-okay, um, wow. Hi. I-... did not know that, obviously, haha- I’m- actually- err-... we-...”
What does she say here, exactly? ‘I promise there are no illicit shenanigans going on with me and your boyfriend and he is merely escorting me to a safehouse because it’s his job-slash-life-mission and I’m sure he is very loyal to you and I will return this hoodie of his that I’m wearing I promise I will’?
Then she gave up because Soren pouted and tugged ever-so-lightly at Dove’s ear.
Dove laughed, waving his hand away. “Whaaaat? You’re such a killjoy!” Then she smirked towards Clari. “I’m just teasing. Him. Not you. Although your reaction was fun too. Soren is very single. It’s nice to meet you, Clari.”
Clari found that she could breathe again.
“So. Where are you two headed?”
Signs. Clari recognized them as letters. I-R-I-
“Iris?” Dove finished for him. Soren nodded. Clari didn’t know who the hell Iris was, but they’re apparently going to her next. “Well, let’s get you a car then.”
It happened quickly, methodically. Clari got the impression that Dove always did this, that Dove was some kind of a common stop for volunteers who need to go places. From her earlier greeting - ‘I heard you got into some trouble’ - she was connected to Soren and his team closely enough to know the latest general happenings. To top it off, it was obvious that they have a good, working, discreet protocol.
Clari didn’t know, and wasn’t about to ask, if Dove was a Gifted. It was clear that she was a trusted ally.
Dove gave them a normal-looking car that came from the closed garage. Clari didn’t want to comment on the bunch of other sleek shiny vehicles parked in there, or what she recognized were a bunch of guns in the wall… or anything really. She had a feeling it was better if she didn’t know.
She just watched and listened as Dove gave the car keys to Soren and told him that the car should take him to his destination in one piece, like always.
They loaded the bags into the backseat. Soren and Dove hugged again and Dove kissed him on the cheek.
“I’ll expect Iris in a few days then.” Dove said. “You two take care. You know how to contact me.”
And they drove off.
They didn’t get to talk much on the way. Soren was busy driving and he had to keep his eyes on the road, leaving no room for conversation between them.
It was a two hour drive that Clari spent using the sign language learning app that Kali recommended to her. Soren looked at her curiously at first, but didn’t bring it up when he saw her focused expression.
It was early evening by the time they arrived in a small suburban town. Clari observed and recognized the surroundings even as she had never been there before. The sights were familiar in a way that they reminded her of her hometown. Soren kept driving into a country road, and for miles Clari could see fields and forests of green.
The road forked eventually and Soren easily took one of the narrower paths. After a few more minutes, they drove beside a small lake, and up on a hill where on top sat a little shack with a matching barn. Parked outside the shack was a motorcycle and a bike.
Their car pulled up to park neatly in front of the shack just as the door of the house opened and a short, curvy woman stepped out. She had reddish-brown hair falling in waves along her shoulders, and she wore a loose button-up shirt with torn shorts. Under the light on her porch, they saw her smile.
Soren flashed a quick message to Clari. ‘Iris. volunteer. lives here with her girlfriend.’
Clari nodded at him and smiled, and they both got out.
“Soren!” the woman greeted happily. Her voice was gentle, her tone maternal.
Iris started signing, and Clari held back from biting her lip. Everyone around Soren knew sign language. Clari could only imagine how much of a hassle she had been for him in the past two days. Being surrounded by people who you never have problems talking to, it should suck suddenly being stuck with a person who couldn’t understand the way you usually communicate.
But he had never once appeared bothered, or annoyed with her.
She’ll file that for more evidence that Soren did deserve the title ‘Mr. Too Good For This World’.
Clari went back to her senses fast enough to catch the rest of what Iris was saying. “-told me what’s up. We’re waiting for Ed’s call, so maybe we can have dinner first. It’s almost done. Oh, hi there, you must be Clari. I’m Iris!”
Clari smiled quickly, the woman’s incredibly warm greeting was too comforting and put her at ease. “Pleased to meet you!”
The shack was neat and homey, a home for two, with a cozy receiving area for guests. Clari looked around as they set their bags on the floor beside the fluffy couch. There were many photos on the wall - Iris and a beautiful woman and some friends. There was a shelf filled with knick-knacks… little figurines, matchbox cars, toy soldiers and dolls with miniature furniture.
Iris was in the middle of cooking dinner. Soren walked up to her to offer help, and Clari followed as well.
“Oh, I’m almost done.” she soothed, her gentle smile never disappearing. “But maybe you two can set the table? Soren knows where everything is.”
They both nodded and Clari followed Soren towards the cupboards. He was taking out several plates before he seemed to think of something, and looked to Clari and gestured expressively towards the three of them in the kitchen, then at the small stack of plates on his hand.
Clari blinked before realizing what he was trying to tell her. She turned to the other woman. “Oh, um, Iris? How many plates?”
“Just three.” Iris answered. “Charlene’s staying in town. It’s tech week.”
Clari gestured ‘three’ towards Soren and he took three plates and handed them to her. Then he started taking utensils.
“So what does your girlfriend do?” Clari asked, maintaining the conversation.
“Theatre. She’s part of the tech crew.”
“Oh, that sounds neat! What show is she working on?”
They talked like old friends catching up, the conversation going on throughout dinner. Soren was content to watch them both, Iris talking about the little farm, the town, her girlfriend, herself and how she knew Soren. She said that she’d known him since he and his sister first joined the team. She’s 28 now, and used to work more closely with Ross and the ‘older’ volunteers.
28, Clari thought. So that was how they defined ‘old’ in the team. Not that surprising now, after Soren told her just how young their youngest members were.
They get a call while cleaning up after dinner. Iris set her phone down on the table and put it on speakerphone.
“Hey, Iris. It’s Dory.” - the voice was young, feminine and high-pitched. Clari could imagine a girl around thirteen or fourteen, and at this point wouldn’t be surprised if she was right.
“Hi, Dory. We’ve been waiting for your call. Soren and Clari are here, we just ate dinner.”
“Oh, good. About that, though... um. Ed just passed out.”
Iris chuckled as she translated the message in sign language for Soren. He gave an amused sigh and replied to her. ‘What happened?’
“Is he okay?” Iris asked.
“Yeah, yeah. It’s just. He’s tired. He’s been jumping around since morning? But he knew he has to fetch Ren and his new friend, was saving one last jump just for that, but some stuff happened in one of his stops and he had to do some extra stuff. So he said sorry, he promised he’s gonna get them tomorrow instead, and he just crashed in our be- BASIL, HANDS OFF MY BOYFRIEND, LET HIM REST!”
There was a more distant voice. “But he pulled me in!”
Dory spoke up again. “Sorry. So yeah, we want Ren back home, but Ed really can’t do it right now. Can you let him and new girl stay there for the night, please? Kali said it should be fine, but...”
Iris did a quick translation for Soren, who glanced at Clari. Clari shrugged, clearly indicating that she was fine with it. Soren nodded at Iris.
“Of course it’s fine, Dory. Let Ed rest. We’ll wait for him tomorrow.”
.That was how Clari ended up staying another night in someone else’s house. She took a quick shower upon Iris’ encouragement. When she got out, in one of her comfy shirts and a pair of jean shorts, Iris was setting down pillows and blankets by the couch while Soren was laying out a sleeping bag on the floor.
Iris turned in early for the night after a call with her girlfriend. That left Clari and Soren sitting up amongst the pile of pillows and blankets in the couch and living room floor in relative silence.
They both looked out the wide window of the shack. With the curtains drawn, they could see outside. The sky was clear, the moon was full, and the stars bright. The trees and the fields were dark and quiet.
It was Clari who ‘broke’ the silence as she nudged Soren lightly, her phone poking his shoulder to get his attention. She showed him a message.
‘Is Iris a Gifted?’
He nodded, and then took out his phone and typed. ‘u didnt notice the car is not outside anymore?’
She blinked, and craned her neck to see further through the window, and yes, the black car that Dove rented out to them had gone missing, after all. “H-How?” she whispered, and was about to type that out but Soren beat her to it.
‘size manipulation’ his message read, and he pointed towards the shelves of knick-knacks by the wall.
It clicked for Clari. The miniatures. The… the matchbox cars that looked very detailed and sleek...
‘she’ll bring it back to dove without even driving it. cool right?’
‘its amazing. how about dove?’
‘not a gifted but she’s our best mechanic. we go to her for help when we need vehicles and weapons. just sometimes. we avoid weapons.’
‘wow. she sounds really scary.’
‘she is. but only if you deserve it.’
Clari could have left the conversation at that. Soren had started yawning, growing slack against the couch, finally feeling sleepy.
One last question then, she decided.
‘what do u think the others in the safehouse will think about me?’
Soren blinked down at her message before looking at her and smiling.
His reply felt like a promise. ‘they’ll love you.’
She sighed - Soren has been nothing but kind and caring… it made her feel like he could be biased. She wanted to ask more - ‘Will they love me even if I’ve never been hunted like them? Even if I lived comfortably? Even if I came with you not because I need to but because I was just curious? Even if I didn’t care before it finally affected me?’
But she held herself back, not wanting to give him the burden of having to answer her, to comfort her even when she didn’t feel like she deserved it. There were so many others who needed comfort, out there, Clari felt like she had no right to demand it for herself.
‘im going to sleep. you should too. good night clari.’
She smiled, and didn’t stop herself from reaching out and giving his shoulder a small squeeze. He looked at her and she took the chance to tell him, “Good night.”
She woke up in the morning to the smell of pancakes and bacon and to a voice that was vaguely familiar.
Deep, friendly, casual. Male.
“Oh my God, I’m so lucky. You cook the best pancakes!”
Clari looked up to see a face that matched the voice, also vaguely familiar. She stared at the young man stuffing his face full of fluffy syrupy pancakes energetically.
“You flatter me, Ed.” Iris replied with a laugh. “You’re just hungry.”
“No no no I’m not kidding. I really got up early and didn’t eat breakfast so I can enjoy your cooking.”
“Aww, you’re too sweet.” Iris ruffled his hair, laying out more pancakes and bacon in the table.
Ed finally noticed Clari watching them with a small amused smile, and he brightened up. “Hey! Ren’s girl! Good morning! Breakfast?”
“Good morning.” she greeted back, standing up. She carefully stepped over Soren, who was still sleeping, and came to join them on the table.
“We can take our time today.” Ed said as he stacked his plate up again. “I got nothing else to do, and if Ren sleeps ’till noon, I’ll be happy to eat Iris’s lunch.”
Iris laughed. “Well, too bad for you, Ren’s up now.”
Clari looked up to see Soren walking towards them sleepily, rubbing his eyes. They greeted him a good morning. He gave Ed a tap on the shoulder when he passed, went to the fridge to pour himself a glass of water and then finally sat on the free chair beside Clari.
They exchanged short smiles before digging in the delicious breakfast.
“Come to think of it,” Ed started, making his companions look up at him. He seemed to look back and forth between Soren and Clari several times. “Now that Ren’s not a beat-up mess and you’re not in shock anymore, you two are really easy on the eyes together.”
Clari and Soren looked at each other then, Soren with a curious expression while Clari was slightly panicking. She was just the girl he saved out of good will and she was tagging along to a safehouse. She didn’t want to give people the wrong idea and make him uncomfortable-
Then Soren simply chuckled, and gestured something that made Ed and Iris laugh.
Clari smiled, more out of amusement to their reaction, rather than from her understanding of what caused it. “W-What did he say?”
Iris, good-natured, sweet Iris, was the one who answered her question. “He said: we get it, you’re bi."
Clari didn’t know what she expected the safehouse to be like. When she had asked Soren, he had focused more on the people rather than the place, and he stopped after he struggled to describe it properly.
In some ways, she thought the safehouse would be some dark, gloomy building… somewhat like an old hospital or city orphanage, with tiny square rooms and several common areas for the people it housed. She didn’t want to linger on that image. It seemed too much like an image of the abandoned mall housing homeless squatters in a city near her hometown. It might be offensive to assume that a safehouse was like that.
She was relieved to learn that it was very different.
On the outside, the safehouse looked like… a house. A very big house, something of an old mansion, abandoned, with vines creeping in, a tree had grown on the side of it. It was eerily silent.
“Oh, it’s just the outside.” Ed quickly said as he closed the portal behind him. “Creepy, right? But it’s a joint effort to make it look like that. So we can stay safe.”
She followed Soren and Ed as they went through the door without knocking. Instead of an old, scary, sprawling and unlived space, the interior of the house was bright and modern. It looked very homey and lived-in. The ceiling was high, the grand staircase looked sturdy, and the walls were strong.
Clari could immediately see that there was a huge greenhouse-slash-garden outside, at the back of the house. A huge, glass door opened into it, letting in sunlight and fresh air.
There were many people up and about. When they stepped inside the house, several heads turned and faces brightened up.
“Hey, it’s Ren!”
“Ren! You’re back!”
What Clari didn’t expect (but should have) was this: roughly a half dozen young children from about four to twelve years old all suddenly barreling into Soren excitedly.
He was just as excited to see them, almost falling over but maintaining his balance as tiny hands clung to his shirt and sleeves. He lifted one of the smaller kids up in his arms - a girl with light green skin and unique yellow eyes, who squealed in delight and clung to his neck. The other kids were asking frantically about where Soren went off to, seemingly forgetting that he couldn’t hear them all properly until he gestured towards them and they all remembered themselves. One of the older children then voiced out their question in sign language while the others watched curiously.
“He’s popular with the kids.” Ed told Clari as they watched the heartwarming reunion. Then after a mischievous chuckle, he called out, “Hey, I’m back too.”
“Yeah, but Ren was gone longer!” one of the children said.
Ed pouted. “Kids hate me.”
Soren was still talking to the children.
“Oh! That happened?! That’s so cool!” the oldest kid said, while the others were whispering upon themselves. “What’s he saying? It’s too fast.” came from one, answered by “Friend. He says friend. New friend?”
Clari was taken aback when one of the kids turned to her. “Hi, Ren says you’re his friend!”
“Oh.” was all she could say, blinking down when some of them stepped towards her. She looked at Soren and he nodded encouragingly at her. At the cue, she looked down at the children and sent them her brightest smile. “Hello. Yes, I’m Soren’s friend. My name is Clari.”
She vaguely heard Ed snigger and say something about ‘going back to my crew’ before slipping out.
Now the kids were all interested in her, specially with Soren steering them slowly towards her direction.
“You’re so pretty!” one of the girls said.
“Your hair’s like my sister’s hair!” came from a little boy.
“Did you really help Ren beat up the bad guys?” was from one of the older kids.
Clari laughed as she finally crouched down to get into eye level with them. “Okay, okay, one question at a time.”
Her eyes caught the little girl that Soren had just let down on the floor again. She was standing back shyly, hiding her face in her hair, and Clari was awed when the girl’s light green skin slowly turned purple.
“That means she’s shy.” one of the children said.
Clari maintained her smile for the girl. “Hi there, sweetie. What’s your name?”
The girl’s answer was barely above the whisper. “K-Kayla.”
“Kayla.” Clari repeated. “I’m Clari. I really like your dress.”
It was a white dress with a pink flower pattern, and the girl gripped the hem and smiled shyly as she accepted the compliment. “Thank you.”
“I’m quite new here. Can you introduce me to your friends?”
It didn’t take long for the girl to step forward and cling to her sleeve before she started pointing out at the other kids and saying their names as they introduced themselves to Clari.
Clari never had a problem with names and faces. She’s not sure if it was part of her gift, or just really good memory, but she got the names and faces of the children in first introduction.
Soren watched this all in amusement and a bit of pride. He knew the kids would like Clari. She has the same friendly, outgoing atmosphere around her as Iris. That was how they got along so well the previous night.
In speaking of all that, though, Soren had to wonder where the others are. He was about to nudge one of the older children to ask, when he saw movement along the staircase.
Clari looked up momentarily from her conversation with the kids to see two teenagers running down the stairs and towards Soren. They looked to be about sixteen or seventeen, both smiling happily.
The first was a petite girl with dark skin and glasses, raven hair piled up in a bun behind her head.
“I’m so glad you’re okay.” the girl said, hugging Soren tightly. She giggled when he hugged her back and managed to lift her slightly.
“Okay, move over, Zoe. It’s my turn.” the other teen said. He was tall, with light brown skin and dark brown hair with an undercut. He had a boyish grin and brown-gold eyes behind his own glasses.
The girl called Zoe stepped back with a sly smile at her friend, who was more tentative as he stepped forward, but when Soren opened up his arms, the boy crashed against him affectionately. Soren had to lean down a bit because the teen had wrapped his arms around his neck, burying his face on the man’s shoulder.
“Gee, Tim. Really subtle.” Zoe said with a snigger.
When they withdrew, Soren ruffled the teen’s hair, and Tim just blushed slightly, looking down. “Welcome home, Ren.”
Soren started signing, and the two looked from him and then to Clari.
The girl smiled immediately at the newcomer. “Hey, we heard about you. I’m Zoe. Resident. Clari, right?”
“Yes.” Clari said, standing up to shake Zoe’s hand. “Nice to meet you.”
The boy stood back, but his smile was also welcoming and easy. “Tim. Are these guys bugging you?” he asked, eyeing the kids, who were now all fiddling guiltily as they avoided his stern look.
“No, not at all. They’re wonderful.” Clari said, resting a hand on one girl’s head and one boy’s shoulder.
“They are, but they should be somewhere else right now.” Zoe said, crossing her arms at the kids. “Your lessons are starting soon, right?”
One of the younger kids complained. “Yeah, but Ren just came back-”
“Ren would like it if you guys went to your lessons on time.” Tim followed up. “C’mon, you guys. Let’s go.”
He held out his hands and two of the younger ones clung to them while the others followed his lead as he pulled them away. They waved goodbye to Soren and Clari, asking if they can play more later.
“Ren, you should send them to lessons.” Zoe told Soren with a scolding look.
Soren shrugged helplessly as if to say ‘what can I do?’.
Zoe just sighed, then turned to Clari. “They love him and he spoils them. Anyway, welcome to the safehouse. I see you’ve met some of our younger residents.”
Clari saw the subtle shift in Zoe’s demeanor. She held more authority now, despite her small stature and her age. She almost reminded Clari of Kali. “Yes, I’m… I’m glad to be welcomed here.”
“You’re one of us. Of course you’re welcome.” Zoe smiled. “Anyways, Ross sent me to get you two. He wants to have a word before the grand tour.”
Clari followed Soren and Zoe through the wide hallways of the safehouse. On the way, Soren disappeared into one of the rooms to put his bag away. Clari’s was left in the entrance of the house, she was told that someone would get it later when they decide where she’s staying.
Zoe asked Clari simple questions about their trip, easily recognizing stories about Dove and Iris. She seemed well-acquainted with both.
They arrived inside a room that looked like some kind of personal study. Inside were two men, one of whom Clari recognized.
No one sat on the office chair behind the table in the study. Instead, Ross was standing by a small open window, his face expectant and gentle like the last time Clari saw him. His companion was sitting on the armrest of the couch - a tall thin man, about Ross’ age, with longish black hair tied loosely behind his head.
“Hi, Clari. I’m glad to see that you’ve made it here.” Ross greeted cordially. “Please take a seat.”
Clari sat on the couch, while Zoe leaned against the study table.
“You’ve met Zoe.” Ross continued. “This is Dana, another one of ours. He’s an empath.”
Clari looked at the man, Dana, and met piercing green eyes behind eyeglasses. She nodded politely, feeling a bit nervous. She had never been with an… empath before. She wasn’t even entirely sure what it meant.
“We’re coming off a bit intimidating, huh?” Dana said, his voice was low and smooth, soothing. “I can sense emotions, but I can’t read your mind. Ross’s gift is shields. And Zoe’s more of a strategist than anything else. We’re not here to test you or anything.”
Clari calmed down a bit, appreciating his effort to comfort her.
The door opened and Soren entered. He let out a small smile before sitting down beside Clari. He exchanged friendly nods with Ross and Dana as he leaned back comfortably on the couch.
“We just want to meet you properly.” Ross continued, looking straight at Clari.
Like this, Clari could feel the authority again, although gentler. He reminded her of her friendlier professors in school. The ones who were understanding and went out of their way to help students.
“We don’t call ourselves any fancy name, but most people refer to us as volunteers. You’re in one of the handful of safehouses that we carefully maintain. We have approximately around 70 people in this house, it’s one of the smaller ones. Half of those are children and young teens. A quarter are adults, parents and family. Another quarter are… let’s say, the ‘active’ ones. That’s us, the ones you met so far. Me and Soren, Garnet and Kali… Ed’s more of a temporary member, but he’s one of us, alright. Dove, to an extent. Iris, not too much nowadays. Along with a few others, we routinely go for supply runs and other volunteer business.
“Here in the house, we all help out to provide a good environment for everyone, specially the children. Not everyone here is a Gifted. Soren and Zoe, for example. Most parents, some siblings. Regardless, everyone is treated equally. Everyone has chores to do, from cleaning up to cooking to teaching. We want the kids to have a safe but normal childhood. They also have lessons, as close as we can get to a school.”
He paused, and Clari knew that he was gauging her reaction. She breathed deeply before smiling. “It sounds amazing. That you manage to keep something like this standing despite what’s happening… outside.”
“We try our best.” Ross said with a nervous, humbling chuckle. “I know we look really young, heck I’m only in my mid-twenties. But that’s only because the ones who came before us fought hard - and some of them fell - just to get a safe place for us. There are more competent adults around here, I swear - they just somehow think I’m good at talking so I’m doing this.”
“You’re too humble, Ross.” Dana chimed in good-naturedly. “You’re our leader.”
Ross gave a dismissive wave. “We all do what we can. So.” he turned to Clari. “Most of the people who stay here are here because they can’t be anywhere else. Kali told me that you asked to be here because you were curious. That’s alright too. But while you’re here, can we count on you to do something for us too?”
“Of course!” Clari answered, too fast, and realized it instantly. She faltered for a bit. “W-What is it?”
“Help around, in whatever way you can. All of us contribute around here. It’s how we feel at home, and we’d like you to feel welcome that way, too.” Ross answered. “Dana will show you around, maybe you can find something you’ll be comfortable doing. You can settle for one or switch things up if you find it’s not right for you. We’ll be happy to see you going around.”
Clari nodded, breaking into a smile. “I’d like that. I’ll be happy - honored - to do something around here. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” Ross said, and this time he looked at Soren. “I’m glad you’re back, Ren. Zoe and Tim will run the house to the ground without you.”
Soren chuckled, while Zoe whined. “Heeeey!” she pouted. “It’s not my fault that Ren’s, like, 98% of Tim’s impulse control. He’s a teenager with fire powers, temper issues and a crush on the hottest guy in the house. You gotta expect he’ll go into some kinda meltdown- I mean, I love him? He’s my best friend? But he’s also the worst. So don’t blame me for asking for help in dealing with that.”
“TMI, Zoe.” Dana said, laughing. “You’ll put Clari into shock.”
“I’ve heard the kids welcomed you warmly.” Ross told her, holding back his own laugh. “And they’re adorable, but we’ve also got a bunch of teens here, most of them with powers, so I hope you’re ready for a skirmish or two.”
Clari giggled. “I’ll try to watch out for that.”
There was a knock on the door, interrupting the light-hearted conversation, before it opened and another familiar face peeked inside the room. Kali stayed by the doorway and grinned slightly when she saw her brother and Clari, before her expression turned blank again as she looked towards Ross. “Sorry to interrupt, but we just got call. It’s Valeria. There’s a… situation.”
Ross’ expression turned grim, before he turned to the others. “It’s nice to talk to you, Clari. Dana, I think you can take her around the house now?”
“Sure.” Dana said, standing up and nodding at Clari. “Let’s go meet everyone.”
Clari knew that they were sending her away so they can discuss something, and she let them, understanding. They said the ‘active’ members only did supply runs, and miscellaneous volunteer business, but she knew they were, effectively, fighters too. Soren was one, Kali was obviously one as well. Zoe was a strategist, and Clari was sure simple supply runs don’t require much strategy. Ross was a shield, Garnet and Ed had powers that were useful in battle and extraction. She knows what they do… rescue, fight back in raids, defend. Those weren’t her stuff, and Ross obviously knew that.
That was why Clari just sent one last fleeting look to Soren, who nodded encouragingly, and followed Dana to tour the safehouse.
She was not a fighter like them, but she was sure that she can do other things to help.
The tour was a nice, peaceful thing. The house was quiet at that time of the day, Dana had told her. The kids were on their lessons, some of them hanging out in the gardens, and the adults were busy either preparing lunch or cleaning up in various places in the house. The other residents were friendly and welcomed Clari warmly. They all took her short introduction in without batting an eyelash. Just a simple ‘got involved in a raid on Soren’s job and now she’ll be staying with us’ from Dana seemed to be enough.
In the middle of it, though, they met up with Soren and Zoe, who were both obviously looking for them. The safehouse was a large house - it was easy to lose someone in the many hallways of the three-story building.
The explanation was hurried. They were expecting a bunch of people to arrive that day, from one of the safehouses whose position got compromised.
Ross will be taking Soren, Zoe, Kali and the others to help and provide some security. They have to go.
Clari didn’t expect them to leave so soon, but she knew the best she could do was watch and listen as Zoe explained the situation to Dana.
By the third time she found herself stuck in the same room as Soren, Clari was already finding it more funny than awkward.
The reason was simple and straightforward, really. They had a few spare rooms, and had actually planned to give one to Clari, but now that they were to expect new people, they couldn’t be sure there’ll be any left for her, even if they all move to share.
Soren had his room to himself - it was one of the small ones, so it was decided she’ll share with him to the meantime. Someone had already brought her bags to the room when they got there.
‘We’ll be gone a day or two anyway.’ Soren had told her. ‘You have it to yourself then, and we can decide what to do when I get back.’
She didn’t want to complain, not when she was getting what could be called special treatment.
He was packing again, lighter this time. She silently watched him as he did this, sitting on the bed he told her she was free to use.
As he finished up, she spoke. “Soren.” she knew he couldn’t hear her well, not really - but it was more for her than for him. She leaned over a bit to catch his attention, and when she was sure he was looking at her, she spoke. “Where you’re going… will there be fighting?”
He considered it, before nodding slightly. Then he took his phone again and typed out his answer.
‘we try to avoid it but we fight if we have to.’
“I see.” she said, then reached out to take one of his hands. She gave it a small squeeze and smiled. “Thanks for everything, for saving me and taking me here.”
He smiled back and nodded.
He walked over to a corner of the room and took something leaning against the wall. It was long and lean, wrapped in a black cloth case, with a strap that allowed Soren to wear it across his back.
His sword, she remembered. She wanted to joke around, remind him that he promised to show her when they get to the safehouse, but it was not the time for that. She only kept silent as he picked up his bag next.
He turned to her again, inclined his head as if to say ‘I gotta go’ as he put his hand on the doorknob.
Wordlessly, Clari stood and walked up to him. She felt him stiffen in surprise when she wrapped her arms around him, burying her head on his chest. “Take care, okay?” she said, at the moment not caring if he could understand her or not. But when he hugged her back tightly, she understood that her message got to him somehow.
Clari smiled as she withdrew, and before she could hesitate, she stood on the tips of her toes and leaned up to press a short kiss to his cheek. “Good luck.”
He blinked at that, but only chuckled and ran a hand to stroke her hair once before he turned the knob and left.
Clari spent the next few days doing chores around the house. On her first day, she helped prepare the spare rooms, laying out sheets and blankets, fluffing out pillows, dusting the bedrooms. She looked after the kids who were at least a bit familiar with her while the adults busied themselves with helping a set of mostly children and teens move in.
All she had been told was that a safehouse location was compromised, so the volunteers were moving the residents around - splitting them to different other houses for their safety.
She helped in the cooking and cleaning, and to send the younger kids to bed.
She had learned that only few of the kids have parents in the house. Some of them lost their parents. Some of them even have parents who gave them away voluntarily to the government labs, and the kids were only rescued and brought to the safehouse by the volunteers.
For the parents who were in the safehouse, they all tried to extend their care beyond their own children, looking after everyone as best as they could.
By the third day, Dana told Clari that she was well-liked. The kids listened to her, the teens were respectful, and the adults appreciated how competent she as at whatever chore they asked for her assistance in.
They called her “Soren’s girlfriend” at first and she got tired of correcting them by day four, but eventually, close to a week, she noticed that more of them had started calling her by her own name.
“Clari, will you look for Kayla? The poor girl’s hidden somewhere again.”
“Clari, darling, can you help me set the table for dinner?”
It felt nice, to do things, to belong in a community.
She wondered how Soren and the others were doing, if they were alright. She thought to ask Dana, since he seemed to be an authority figure after Ross, but she held herself back. She didn’t want to rely too much on Soren, or have him worry about her.
What Clari didn’t know was that Soren would worry anyway.
He wouldn’t really call it worry, though. He knew she was in a safe place. He knew she can handle her own, with charisma like hers.
What he felt was more like curiosity and concern mixed together. So eventually he gave in and texted Dana.
[ ‘How’s Clari settling in?’ ]
It took a while for the reply to arrive, but Dana never really kept anyone waiting too long.
[ ‘Hurry home. You now have plenty of reasons to be worried.’ ]
[ ‘???’ ]
[ ‘By the time you come back, she’s everyone’s new favorite.’ ]
Soren let out a chuckle, then caught himself. Tim was sleeping curled up with his head on his lap, Zoe was another dead weight on his side. He didn’t want to wake them.
He pulled Zoe more comfortably against him, laid a hand on Tim’s head when the boy stirred, and then let himself doze off as well.
It’s been a week, and Clari had already gotten used to the house by then. It was early morning when she found herself with free time on her hands and wandered by the safehouse gardens.
When she got there, she saw the usually empty bench occupied by someone - an unfamiliar man, older than her, younger than the parents… He was maybe around Ross and Dana’s age.
She took the details in easily - dark brown hair, peaceful eyes, a stubble lining defined jaws. Scars littered his arms. He had strong, broad shoulders, and a missing left leg. A crutch rested against the bench. He looked rugged yet somewhat serene as he sat under the peaceful morning sun.
Clari had never seen him before, despite being sure she had met everyone in the house.
She didn’t notice that she was stepping closer, so when she stepped over a twig, making it snap, both of them jumped.
She saw that one of the man’s eyes were a faded gray, while the other still a deep blue.
“Hey.” he greeted, his voice deep yet easy. He squinted at her for a bit, before smiling lightly. “You must be Clari.”
From his casual and familiar approach, Clari could tell her was pretty used to his surroundings. He wasn’t new here.
“I, um… yes.” she started sheepishly, feeling braver as she walked up to him. “I haven’t seen you around here before?”
The man smiled a gentle smile. “I came in last night. And I mostly keep to myself. It’s nice to meet you, Clari. Dana told me about you. I’m Iago.” he extended a hand, and she shook it. His palms were calloused, grip firm. “You can say I’m one of the old geezers they take care ’round here.”
She smiled back slightly.
“How are you finding the safehouse so far?”
Something about him reminded Clari of someone else, and she didn’t have to think too hard. Kali. Kali’s authority - easygoing but steady, that of a leader. Reassuring. Makes you feel secure. His smile was confident. That reminded her of Zoe. His words… his approach, they were humble despite his obvious strength. That was Ross now.
Did this man - Iago - learn from them?
Or did they learn from him?
“I received the warmest welcome.” she replied carefully. “Everyone is nice, and it’s good to be… with people like me, without worrying about them, or myself.”
He nodded at this, and continued looking up at the blue sky. “It’s good that you tagged along with Soren, then?”
“Yes.” that answer was a no-brainer, she thought. Soren had been nothing but excellent company, a good friend and she was grateful to him. “I like it here.”
“Really?” Iago asked, looking towards her again. “I’ve been told you were here out of curiosity.”
Clari paused. “I-... that’s... true.”
“Your eyes are very expressive, Clari. Maybe it’s part of your gift.” he remarked, no teasing, all honesty. “They tell me there’s more to this… this decision, to come here… other than curiosity.”
Clari looked at him, and breathed deeply before looking up at the sky as well.
“In the town square, I wasn’t able to do anything.” she said.
She was met by silence, so she continued.
“When it happened, the quake, the explosion… I didn’t even know that if there was anything I could do. Soren - Soren has been in that town for a week and he found people and was able to help them. I’ve been in there for a month and I didn’t even realize there could be others like me. I never bother to look, because I never got caught up in it.”
She looked towards Iago now, and he stared back, a blue eye, a blinded gray one, scars that would forever mark his skin... He looked worse for wear. He looked tired from battles that were already long done.
(And maybe that was the reason he was there, in the gardens? In solitude?)
For some reason, even while she couldn’t say this to Soren, or Kali, or to Ross and Dana, she found it in herself to confess to Iago.
“I’m not saying I want to hide or stay in the safehouse, I just… don’t want to stay blind to things anymore.” Clari continued, and before her next words, she let out a nervous chuckle. “I mean, my gift is super-sight but I overlooked so much. Too much. And seeing Soren in there, doing his best, one man against a bunch of armed officers… it made me realize that people really fight for these things.”
Iago was looking at her with an understanding smile now, and Clari only smiled sheepishly. “So… so maybe if I can meet others, if I can just… learn about how to help them, too. Then maybe next time, I can… I’ll know better, what to do? I can do something too.”
“It’s very interesting to hear that.” Iago concluded. “Ah, there it goes again, in your eyes.” He chuckled lowly. “Do you feel guilty? Maybe you think you should have seen all this sooner?”
She looked down, clutched her hands together and nodded slightly. “A… a bit. I just realized how selfish I’ve been, how… how naive and privileged. And how little I cared.”
“That’s not important now.” he said, taking his crutch and settling it in his arm before standing up with ease despite his injury. He crossed the few steps between them, and laid a hand on top of her head. “What matters is you’re here, you took initiative, you’re trying and learning. That means you care, and I’m sure everyone sees that. And from what I hear, you’re doing a good job.”
Later, she’d learn who Iago really was. She’ll never really be able to see him that way, though, not like how the others do. For Clari, she’ll always remember Iago as this. Kind, strong, and supportive, who knew the words she needed to hear to set her mind and heart at ease in that moment.
“Now let’s go.” he said, walking past her and gesturing for her to follow. “Our volunteers deserve a warm welcome.”
Soren and the others were back, days later than they planned, a bit worse for wear, but alive and well. They spent days misdirecting the lab officers, avoiding a raid on one of their safehouses, and guarding the other houses with more vigilance than usual. It was a success. No casualties.
They were greeted warmly, a celebration of everyone’s safety.
Clari entered beside Iago, and recognized both familiar and new faces. She saw kids already rushing to greet their housemates.
“Iago!” came from Zoe, who ran towards them to give Iago a hug.
“Welcome home, Zoe.” Iago said, who caught the girl easily and pressed a kiss on the top of her head like a big brother would. “You did a great job.”
Zoe laughed, then broke away and grabbed Clari’s hand next. “Clari, it’s nice to see you again! Did you settle in well?”
“I did.” Clari said, and didn’t resist the urge to tuck stubborn strands of hair behind the girl’s ear. Zoe blinked as she did this, but smiled appreciatively. She was too young, too brave, already fighting in a battle such as this, but Clari could understand what one does for one’s family. “Everyone’s been waiting for you.”
Clari looked up to see that Iago walked towards Ross next. Ross turned from a conversation with Dana to face Iago and to be pulled into the man’s arm.
People like hugging around here, Clari thought. She loved it.
Ross smiled into the embrace, and only pulled back so they could share a kiss.
Then Clari heard Zoe say, “Oh, look. One minute in and Ren’s already decided to be a jungle gym.”
She looked around and spotted Soren surrounded by kids again, this time carrying one and letting another dangle from his arm and at least two cling to his waist.
He met her gaze across the room and smiled brightly. Clari walked forward and called the children by their names, telling them that Ren was tired and they need to let him rest so he can play with them later.
He raised an impressed eyebrow when they frowned but actually followed her instructions, releasing Soren… only to tackle Tim next.
Tim complained, but he was weak to big puppy eyes, and quickly relented and let them pull him to the gardens.
Soren raised a hand to greet Clari, and was further taken by surprise when she only smiled back and raised her hands, then began to sign.
It was slow, a bit clumsy, but accurate. ‘Welcome home.’
He couldn’t help the grin that split in his face as he replied. ‘Thank you. It’s good to be home.’
‘I studied this while you were gone.’ she added. It did help that a lot of people in the house knew sign language. And Dana was a good teacher in the crash course.
‘It looks good. Got tired of typing on your phone?’
Clari’s eyes narrowed as she stared at him before giving up and asking, “Wait, what was that? I’m new to this.”
He only chuckled, then shook his head. ‘Nevermind.’
Before she could reply, he had pulled her into his arms in a loose hug, one that allowed her to step away if she wanted to.
Hugs, Clari thought. She really loved hugs. And it was silly but she missed Soren. A lot. Being stuck with a person for three straight days does that to you.
So she returned the gesture and hugged him back, and taking that as his cue, Soren finally tightened his arms around her.
He was warm, and strong, and she felt… grounded. Content.
Content - yes, that was the word. It’s been long since she felt that way, that she almost forgot that she was supposed to feel so. It’s been months of drifting, almost aimless, being indecisive, working hard and auditioning for roles she wasn’t sure she’ll ever get. She never thought she’d feel content until she made that dream come true, but at that moment, she realized that she was satisfied, for now. It was a good feeling.
This, Clari decided. She liked this. This man, these people and this place… A place that gives her a purpose after she felt aimless for the longest time.
She could come to call this place home.
.fin.- 02/13/2017 -
This story title was inspired by the song 'A Soft Place to Land' from Waitress the Musical.