Nova jumped off Sirius’s motorcycle as soon as it slowed enough to allow it without bone-shattering danger and barrelled through the front door of the Storm family’s house.
It had been a while since she’d visited.
She’d moved out to her lighthouse near the capital a bit more than a year ago, to make it more convenient to commute to the six different part-time jobs she’d simultaneously taken up – and to her therapist, too. Thus, she became an apprentice tailor, smith – using an old forge and everything, rather than more modern metalworking techniques, carpenter, architect, jeweler, and cook. Of course, since she had neither credentials nor education – not even elementary education, as far as official records were concerned – it had taken a healthy helping of money to convince each of these artisans to take in a potentially useless girl and teach her their respective craft.
Edea’s international calendar was a bit different from Earth’s; it worked with six days a week, four weeks a month, fourteen months a year, with sometimes a leap day or two at the end of the year to account for the planet’s orbit around its sun. With those six days, Nova barely managed to arrange a convenient rotation where she worked at a different place every day. It made her schedule somewhat cramped, but at least she was never bored.
And after just a few rotations, her teachers recognized and accepted her with better grace than before. For one thing, Nova learned fast and was quite skilled with her hands. She was a decent student to them. For another, she made for an outstanding poster girl. Just having her working in a shop in full view of the public had the power to attract clients. To employ her, in and of itself, was already a great boon to business.
Though it caused Nova some problems, too.
In truth, at first, she’d simply decided to purchase a house in a neighborhood even closer to her workplaces, inside the capital rather than outside it. But after only a few weeks, she – or rather, her bodyguards – had experienced real problems with stalkers. It turned out that in little Saltwell, people knew not to mess with her, but in the capital, once she started showing her face with any degree of regularity in the same places, some ambitious young men – most of them noble, with enough money to patronize the upscale establishments she’d chosen for her apprenticeships – worked up enough courage and self-confidence to try their luck with her. And enough courage and self-confidence to insist heavily upon rejection.
Eventually, to curtail all these issues, she directly bought the lighthouse and lived happily ever after in blessed, blissful solitude.
When Nova burst through the door of the house, she’d already typed down her greetings on her bracer. She cranked up the volume to max, and…
‘ESFIR! IT’S MY BIRTHDAY! I’M NOT JAILBAIT ANYMORE! WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE SEX WITH ME TONIGHT?’
The voice was loud enough that the neighbors probably heard every word and Nova almost hurt her own ears, but whatever. Some things in life needed to be said loud and clear.
The one who opened the living room door and stepped into the entryway to welcome Nova wasn’t Esfir, however. It was Marian. Upon seeing her mother’s smile which didn’t look quite like a smile should, Nova put on the brakes and quickly returned the volume of her bracer to normal levels.
Marian nodded pleasantly, and her not-smile widened and brightened. This was not a good sign. “Hello, Nova. Please don’t scream indecent proposals to your sister-in-law where everyone can hear.”
Uh-oh, Mom looks really angry, this time. I guess I went a bit too far…
‘I’m sorry. I promise I won’t do it again.’
Before her mother’s wrath, Nova folded instantly. Reincarnator superpowers were all well and good, but some things were just out of reach of humanity. Going against her mom was one of those things.
“One, we both know that’s a lie. Two, it’s not to me that you should apologize,” Marian said. She seemed about to continue with her scolding, when Sirius arrived at just the right time, doing proud the dream of heroic life-saving he’d dedicated his life to pursue. “Sirius, welcome. It’s been quite a while since you last came to Altera, hasn’t it?”
“Marian. Hello. It’s a pleasure to be here again. Unfortunately, Wieslaw and I have been busy, recently, so we haven’t been able to travel. Nova’s birthday was a good opportunity for us to take a short break.”
“Of course,” Marian said with a gentle voice. “You can’t keep fighting all the time, no matter how good the fight.”
“I think so too. Staying healthy and happy is also important for us. We can’t continue doing what we do if our bodies and minds aren’t in perfect condition. Oh, I took the liberty to bring a few things,” Sirius added after the dull platitudes were out of the way, lifting his hands and showing Marian what he’d been holding.
Hey! Aren’t those my flowers? He’s a thief! Unbelievable! Outrageous!
A few crowns of weaved, colorful flowers. They looked freshly picked, and Nova recognized them as the species growing in the field around her lighthouse. Sirius must have arranged them like this while she’d been getting ready for the trip to Saltwell. The flower crowns looked impressively good for something slapped together in a few minutes.
“Here,” Sirius said, handing one of the crowns to Marian. “It’s not much, but I felt I shouldn’t just show up with my hands in my pockets.”
‘You always reject me, but you don’t hesitate to hit on my mom right in front of me?’ Nova’s robotic voice asked, somehow managing to look crossed and offended.
Sirius looked a bit tongue-tied, but Marian rescued him. “Don’t listen to her, Sirius. That’s very sweet of you,” she said with a grin, then turned a sharp gaze toward Nova. “Someone could benefit from your courtesy and propriety rubbing off on them.”
‘Understood,’ Nova said with a sloppy military salute.
Then, before anyone could stop her or ask what exactly she had ‘understood,’ she snatched one of the flower crowns from Sirius’s hands and trotted toward the living room. Inside were a few guests, family and friends of Nova, come to celebrate her birthday. Even if only children received gifts on their birthdays, it was still customary to host a little party to mark the occasion. In this room stood Wieslaw, in conversation with Louis and Delia; her father swapping jokes with Ingrid Astia, whom Nova hadn’t seen for nearly a full year; Ryner and Lynn trying to placate an incensed Esfir. Yuri was also present, not as a bodyguard but as a guest. She was wolfing down food from a buffet table heaped with snacks and sweets. The king and queen weren’t here – perhaps expectedly; they were public figures who couldn’t move as easily as everyone else.
They all turned to welcome Nova and wish her a happy birthday when she entered the room, but before anyone could say anything, Nova bounded toward Esfir, waving the flower crown in her right hand while the fingers of her left formed new words at lightning speed.
‘Esfir. I’m sorry about earlier. I got too excited. Look what I made for you to apologize. It’s not much, but I felt I shouldn’t just show up with my hands in my pockets.’
Distantly, she heard Sirius, still in the entryway outside, cough unnaturally, like he choked on his own saliva. She ignored him. He’d probably survive.
Nova placed the flower crown atop Esfir’s head at an artful angle as the woman stared at her with an awfully suspicious gaze. “…Thank you, Nova. It’s beautiful. And I suppose I accept your apology. Provisionally.”
“Depending on your behavior today,” Esfir clarified. “I’ll consider letting this slide if you don’t do anything strange.”
“Strange, like stealing Sirius’s gifts from his hand and passing them off as your own,” Marian’s accusing voice came from behind, interrupting Esfir before she could get to the part where she really forgave Nova.
Nova turned around to face her mother. She was glad her blank face hid her discomfiture. ‘But they’re my flowers. So the gift is half mine.’
“Wait, so, you didn’t even make the crown?” Esfir asked with an incredulous voice, and Nova was forced to spin around again to face her. Esfir was smiling too, now. It was a smile remarkably similar to Marian’s. No wonder the two of them got along so well. “Sirius, thank you for the flowers. It’s beautiful craftsmanship. Nova, your apology was so… heartfelt. I’m touched. Truly.”
There was a certain incisive edge to her tone that Nova wasn’t sure she liked. And Marian was still glaring at her from behind. Sandwiched between two enemies, neither of whom she could deal with easily, Nova was starting to feel a little beleaguered. She glanced around at the other guests, but all of them, without a single exception, were just watching the fun.
They don’t even care that it’s my birthday, and gang up on me like that. How merciless…
Only when her gaze fell upon Lynn did Nova finally come up with a plan to escape these murky waters. It would be throwing Lynn to the wolves, but considering she too was appreciating Nova’s plight with a bright, happy smile on her face, Nova’s hesitation swiftly evaporated.
Your sacrifice will forever be remembered, sister.
‘I confess,’ the robotic voice said. ‘I stole the flowers from Sirius. But I have a more heartfelt gift for you. You’ll be pleased with it.’
“I can’t wait to hear it,” Esfir said with a dry voice.
‘I’ll give you… my second kiss.’
Esfir quirked an eyebrow at that. “Huh-uh. Forgetting for a minute the question of why I would ever want such a thing from you… Only the second? Not even the first? That’s what you call heartfelt? It’s still a bit lacking in sincerity, don’t you think?”
Nova shrugged, but inside, she was quite pleased that Esfir asked the question she needed her to. ‘First has already been taken. Second is the best I can offer.’
“Oh?” This time, Esfir’s curiosity was piqued. Even the other guests visibly perked their ears. “May I ask who Miss Storm decided was worthy of such favor?”
Most of the speculative – or ferocious, in Louis’s case – gazes were aimed at Sirius. He blushed a little under the attention and hastily shook his flower-laden hands in the negative, as if to shake off the suspicion heaped on him like one would shake off a dangerous wasp. “Nope. No. Not me. I’m absolutely, thoroughly innocent. We’ve never even come close to kissing. At all. Ever.”
Wieslaw’s snicker was acutely audible.
The glare Sirius shot his way in return promised death and damnation.
The only one who saw the truth coming was Ryner. He was standing in front of Lynn and had a front-row seat to the sight of her shamefully lowering her head and trying to disappear into the glass of fruit juice she was holding. Even with her head down, however, it was evident that her entire face was flushed bright red, and the rush of blood was rapidly encroaching on her neck and ears. His mouth opened wide enough to fit a fully grown apple in it.
“Lynn, you… You’re the one who…?”
His voice likely came out as a mere reflex, but it rang out quite loudly in the suspenseful atmosphere that pervaded the room. The weight of everyone’s awareness suddenly shifted onto Lynn.
They all took in her embarrassed appearance.
The commotion that followed didn’t bear speaking of.
Suffice it to say that Nova’s series of social faux pas – loudly proclaiming her carnal desire for her sister-in-law, then making a gift of something she’d stolen a second ago – was swiftly forgotten.
Hehehe. Perfect. All according to plan.
Nova’s smug self-satisfaction at successfully redirecting the attention away from her own faults crashed down in flames and burned to cinders when she heard her mother’s voice again.
Marian’s smile looked even less amused than before, if that was possible.
“Would you mind elaborating a little? Did you aim for your sister-in-blood after your sister-in-law kept rejecting you?”
# # #
Sirius opened the glass doors and stepped onto the veranda. Winter had just made way to spring, and the evenings were still quite cool – especially in northern countries like Altera – but Sirius’s body wasn’t so fragile that a chilly wind could affect it.
The hushed silence of the veranda compared to the bustling excitement of the party inside provided a strange contrast, as if he had stepped into a different world. Sirius didn’t have time to appreciate the scenery of the Storms’ beautiful garden, however, before the glass doors opened again behind him.
He looked over his shoulder in surprise. “Wieslaw, sorry, I didn’t see you following me. Did I just shut the door in your face?”
Wieslaw shook his head with a wry smile as he closed the glass doors again. “It’s fine. Don’t worry. I was just skulking about.”
“…Skulking? Why are you skulking?”
“I need to talk to the birthday girl. Discreetly.”
Sirius lifted an inquisitive eyebrow. “Nova? She’s not with Marian, getting grilled for details?”
“No, she ran away through a window after Marian was done with her. Probably, she was worried that Lynn would attempt to find her and take revenge, after she got over her embarrassment.” He chuckled. “Can you believe it was Lynn who made the first move, though? I’m truly shocked. I didn’t expect that at all.”
“What?! No way! Really?”
Despite his distaste for gossip about the personal affairs of others, Sirius’s shock at this revelation made his mouth move faster than his brain. He had been as surprised as everyone else by Nova’s confession, but he had assumed that Nova had been the one to kiss her sister, rather than the other way around.
Wieslaw nodded as he headed down the small wooden stairs leading from the veranda to the garden, Sirius on his heels. “Yes. Last year, at the Olympics. Apparently, when Lynn finally won the gold, she was so happy she forgot herself and kissed Nova once they were alone together. Afterward, she made Nova promise that she wouldn’t tell anyone, but, well, she had to know Nova wouldn’t sit forever on a story of such destructive power. Come to that, I’m more surprised she restrained herself from boasting about it for a whole year. She must have been waiting for a good occasion like today to spill the beans.”
“I see… Wait, how would you even know all that?”
“I was eavesdropping on Marian’s interrogation.” Wieslaw gave Sirius a sidelong glance. “I think you must be the only one who didn’t follow when Marian took Nova away. We were all outside their room, listening in. Delia and Yuri were practically squealing at every word.”
“So that’s where you all went…”
Of course, despite his words, Sirius had already guessed what everyone had been up to – they’d all been pretty blatant about their intent, after all. He just felt it wasn’t something praiseworthy to poke his nose into another family’s business. Since the others didn’t do so with any ill intent, he didn’t stop them, but he certainly wouldn’t join them.
“Let’s table this conversation,” he said as Wieslaw seemed about to provide more juicy details – Sirius hadn’t expected the man to love gossiping so much. “Why do you want to speak with Nova?”
Wieslaw glanced around to make sure no one would overhear them, then leaned toward Sirius and spoke in a quieter, more serious voice than before. “There are only a few years left until the trials start, and I’m beginning to worry about her.”
“She hasn’t seen live combat for several years, now. I’m sure Marian could be convinced to let Nova join Viper Nest again, but Nova isn’t even trying to. She seems fine with only those ‘part-time jobs’ of hers.”
“She still trains by herself, though. She could probably give you a run for your money in hand-to-hand combat.”
In truth, Sirius was rather torn on that very question. On the one hand, he did resonate with Wieslaw’s concerns and wanted Nova to be able to defend herself. On the other, it didn’t sit too well with him to let a girl like her do something as dangerous as Wieslaw suggested. Honestly, Sirius quietly approved of Nova’s idea to focus on honing abilities geared toward a more supporting role.
“I know she does. But training in a safe and controlled environment is completely different from live combat. You know that.”
Seeing Sirius’s silence, Wieslaw looked at him with sharp eyes that seemed to see right through him. “You won’t always be there to protect her. Nothing says the trials will even allow us to help or communicate with each other.”
Sirius didn’t answer, and they walked side by side in thoughtful silence.
As Wielsaw had guessed, they found Nova in the garden, sitting on a swing whose chains looped around the lowest branch of a tall oak. Instead of swinging forward and back, she was spinning left and right, twisting in one direction for a while, then letting go so that the released tension in the chains would make her spin the other way. She wasn’t really paying attention to what she was doing, though. Her face was down, her eyes focused on the bracer strapped to her left forearm. She looked to be reading.
“Nova, do you have a moment?” Sirius asked as they approached.
Nova stopped spinning on the swing seat and raised her gaze toward them.
“What are you reading?” Wieslaw asked as he leaned against the oak’s trunk and tried to get a look at the bracer’s screen.
Nova seemed to have had her dose of fun for the day after successively picking on Sirius, Esfir, and Lynn; she answered earnestly. ‘The news. More gravitational anomalies keep appearing above the planet. One more telecommunication satellite crashed in the Boreal Ocean, yesterday.’
Sirius frowned. “Again? Am I the only one thinking this has something to do with, well, us? The trials?”
“I think so as well,” Wieslaw said gravely. “And something the mainstream news isn’t telling is that not only are the anomalies getting more frequent, they’re also getting stronger. A lot stronger. It’s affecting the moons, now.”
Both Sirius’s and Nova’s head whipped toward him at that.
“Woah woah woah! The moons?!” Sirius asked, his voice full of disbelief. “How bad is it? Are they going to collide with Edea?”
“No. It’s not that bad, fortunately. Prima hasn’t been affected much at all. But Maser is a lot smaller, and it’s slowly getting pulled away from its orbit. Down there on the ground, the only effect we’ll see are erratic tides, but there’s still the question of what exactly is pulling a moon away from its planet.”
There was a short and heavy silence as everyone tried to imagine the form the answer to this question might take, before Wieslaw continued in a lighter tone.
“There’s nothing any of us can do about this, though, so no point in worrying ourselves sick. We’ll just have to see what the trials make of this, if anything… However, on that subject, Nova…” He turned to face the girl, and she raised her head to show she was listening. “What do you think about coming back to Amidonia with us, tomorrow?”
Nova tilted her head. She didn’t bother wording her question, but it was plain to see.
“We’ve recently been following the trail of an organization in Verizen whose main income lies in organ trafficking,” Wieslaw explained. “Since they dare to continue operating in our city when most other criminals have already received and accepted our eviction notice, they must be confident in their own strength.” Wieslaw stopped for a moment to check Nova’s reaction, but she didn’t make it easy on him. She stayed silent and motionless, and he had to continue. “So,” he said awkwardly, “we could really use your assistance.”
Seeing that Nova still wasn’t answering, Wieslaw made meaningful and urgent eye contact with Sirius, asking for help in convincing her. Sirius still wasn’t sure it was such a good idea, but perhaps that was the point.
He wasn’t sure.
Wieslaw seemed to be.
And Sirius trusted his friend implicitly.
Sighing inwardly, he faced Nova. “Wieslaw’s right. It’s not rare for me to have too many things to tackle and have to call on him to provide direct support in the field. Except, every time he does, that means he’s not on data oversight, monitoring police feeds, CCTVs, and enemy comms. And everything becomes a frantic mess. Another pair of feet treading the pavement with me would be a great help.”
After a moment, Nova looked back and forth between Sirius and Wieslaw.
‘Are you asking me to risk my life based only on those arguments?’
Sirius winced and gingerly offered, “You’d be fighting for a good cause?”
Nova’s beautiful eyes stared fixedly at him as the fingers of her left hand formulated a response he was sure he wasn’t going to like.
‘Fight for a good cause? Do I look like a fucking idiot?’