Clari and Soren journey to a safehouse.
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.