After disembarking from her private jet, Nova decisively vetoed the idea of using public transport and called a cab. Nova and Sirius took the passenger seats facing the front of the car, while Wieslaw sat across from them.
As soon as they were seated, Nova stretched out her legs and rested them across Sirius’s lap, to his distinct lack of amusement. Still, it didn’t seem very appropriate to start an argument at this time and place, so he bore with it stoically and allowed her to do as she pleased. It wasn’t like she was heavy, anyway.
Sirius was starting to doubt the wisdom of lending Nova a room in his house. She’d wanted to rent a hotel suite, at first, but Sirius had offered her the use of his home, more by reflexive politeness than any real desire to live under the same roof. Her immediate agreement, as if she didn’t want to leave him enough time to retract the offer, had already been a bad omen, but when he remembered her joke on the plane about asking his parents to approve of a marriage…
She wouldn’t say anything weird, right?
No, she definitely would. Absolutely. The question was how bad it would be.
Well, no matter how anxious he was now, Nova would still be welcome in his home, like Sirius had promised. He wasn’t that churlish. Wieslaw lived in a small apartment with his single mother, so he couldn’t accept Nova quite as readily, but Sirius’s home was much larger – though nothing near any of the Storm family’s properties, of course. There was room enough for one more girl, especially since Nova didn’t have much luggage. He’d sent a message to his father to make sure, just in case, and he’d indeed received the expected go-ahead. His parents had wanted to meet Nova for a while, now.
They first dropped off Wieslaw, who waved them goodbye and promised to meet them tomorrow to discuss the next steps of their operations, then the cab continued toward Sirius’s house. The car’s motion had slowly pushed Nova into slouching in her seat. She leaned against the window behind her, with her feet still up on Sirius’s lap, and her skirt had subsequently ridden up her thighs to a dangerous extent.
Sirius was struggling to contain his wandering gaze when Nova spoke up suddenly. ‘Will we start operations straight away, tomorrow?’
Sirius welcomed the distraction. He forced his eyes to focus on Nova’s face – though even that wasn’t nearly as calming as it could have been with someone else – and shook his head. “No. Tomorrow, we’ll try to sum up everything we know about our target, try to sum up everything we know about ourselves, and try to come up with a workable plan of action to balance these two elements. Wieslaw and I already have a pretty good idea of things, but your input will be welcome.”
Sirius wasn’t afraid to speak openly because the driver was separated from them by an opaque, solid glass sheet which couldn’t be opened even if they or the driver wanted to. Privacy was ensured. Though, in truth, historically, the pane of armored glass had been universally adopted by taxi companies more to ensure the driver’s safety than the passengers’ privacy.
‘Know your enemy and know yourself, find naught to fear for 100 battles?’
“Something like that. Our opponents this time aren’t simple. We don’t want to mess this up.” Sirius cracked into a smile. “Also, tomorrow is a school day. Wieslaw and I have to attend our university classes.”
Nova raised her head and stared at him. ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’
There was a long silence. If they’d been outside and the climate a bit drier, a tumbleweed would surely have rolled across the scene on a background of chirping crickets, cawing crows, and gusts of wind.
Eventually, Nova found her voice again. ‘Can’t you just skip?’
“I could. But I don’t want to. University is important. Saving lives and fighting crime is important too, but neither Wieslaw nor I are slaves to the world. We have a life beyond our vigilante work. We need a life.”
“Of course. Didn’t your mother say so, yesterday, too? You can’t keep fighting all the time, no matter how good the fight. You need something stable on which you can rest. Otherwise, you’ll break.”
‘So you just ignore every victim in danger on your school days? That doesn’t sound very heroic.’
“We don’t ignore them,” Sirius replied, speaking slowly to consider his words as he said them. “If we find someone in danger, we’ll obviously help them, but we’re not actively going out to hunt down criminals like we do the rest of the time. Well, it’s not like everything is so cut and dry. We don’t have a specific, unbreakable rule to compartmentalize our lives. The point is only that we shouldn’t sacrifice everything we have and love. Otherwise, we’ll be the ones in need of saving.”
‘Wieslaw said you broke up with your girlfriend on Earth because of your vigilante activities. Wasn’t that sacrificing something you loved?’
A flash of pain flickered over Sirius’s face, but he swiftly hid it and replied as naturally as he could. “That was different. I always try to live as normal and fulfilling a life as possible, but if that brings innocent victims into the jaws of danger, it’s a whole other matter.” He shrugged and gave Nova a smile. “I can still live a good life as a single man.”
But Nova seemed determined to question him to the end. ‘Then, shouldn’t you leave your current family? Aren’t you putting them in danger?’
“No. I’m wearing a mask – well, a helmet, technically, since I received my own combat suit from your family – precisely to avoid having to do that. On Earth, I started out quite haphazardly, just going around righting wrongs in broad daylight. The ones I helped were my friends and neighbors. Everyone knew who I was and what I was doing.” Sirius smiled bitterly. “I was young, then, and as naive an foolish as you accuse me of being now.”
‘You’re still naive and foolish. You have the mind of a child.’
It was the usual insults, but this time, Sirius didn’t find any reproach in them. He grinned at Nova. “What about you, then? You agreed to come, in the end, didn’t you? And we didn’t have to work half as hard to convince you as I expected. I don’t believe you’re half as bad as you make yourself out to be.”
Nova’s face didn’t falter, but Sirius could tell she was displeased. ‘Then you don’t know me very well. I came to Amidonia became I am curious how you guys operate. And like Wieslaw said, I am helping you. I care about you, and Wieslaw, and myself. The faceless victims mean nothing to me. They are numbers in statistical charts.’
Sirius’s grin didn’t falter. “All right, then. If that’s how you want to think about it, forget I said anything.”
Nova stared at him for a long time, clearly not putting any stock into his ‘conceding’ of the argument. The air of displeasure hanging about her grew thicker, and she gave a silent sigh. ‘You are very annoying. I suggest you be quiet, now.’
Let alone faltering, this time, Sirius directly burst into a loud laugh. “Hahaha! Good! For once, I’m the one who’s annoying you. This is very good. Excellent! Oh, and since I’m being annoying, I might as well go all in. So get your feet off me, woman! Right this instant!” He swatted at her legs a few times, hinting at her to sit normally.
Astonishingly, she did.
Wait, so, it was as simple as just asking? I feel defeated, somehow…
Before he could complain aloud, though, Nova continued, folding her legs quietly and sitting with her knees together like a prim and proper young lady. ‘So, you go to university. What about me? Do I spend the whole day playing with myself or what?’
The sudden return to their original conversation subject threw Sirius for a loop for a second, until he remembered what exactly they’d been discussing. Then his brain actually caught up to what she’d just said, and he found himself having some difficulty answering correctly. “Um, well, yes. I mean no!” He forcefully fought down the blush that was fighting its way up his cheeks and yanked his mind back on track. “I think… Well, I planned for you to accompany us. We can discuss our operations while we’re there.”
Talking in English would ensure perfect privacy, no matter who tried to overhear them – as long as there wasn’t a reincarnator around, of course.
‘You want to plan the destruction of a criminal cartel at school, during the breaks between lessons? Or during lunch break? In the cafeteria?’
Sirius felt Nova’s robotic voice sounded almost incredulous.
“Yes. Is that so weird?”
It took a few seconds, but eventually, Nova slowly shook her head, then shrugged noncommittally. ‘Fine. University it is. Since I’m just a tourist here, I’ll just follow the tour guide and see where he leads me.’
“Right now, the first stop is dinner with my family,” Sirius said, glancing through the car’s window at the fuzzy glow of the street lights.
Night had already fallen. It wasn’t that the flight took a long time – it wouldn’t have taken long even with a commercial airliner, let alone Nova’s super-plane – but they only left Altera late in the day, as Nova’s combat suit had required servicing. She hadn’t worn it for a few years, and the thing was supposed to fit perfectly to the body of its wearer, so Aaron had had to adjust a few things before it was ready for use.
“We’re there,” Sirius said soon afterward.
The car was already slowing down, and when Sirius knocked against the armored glass sheltering the driver, it pulled over. The price of the fare appeared on the flat-screen embedded within the glass. It was quite a bit more expensive than Sirius would have expected, but he wasn’t so miserly that he’d let a woman pay in his stead. Or at least, that’s what he’d intended. While he was reaching for his bank card in his jacket’s inner pocket, Nova leaned forward and slapped her bracer against the glass. With a small ding, the displayed amount scrolled down to zero, and the bolts in the passenger doors simultaneously unlocked with a dull sound.
“Thank you very much for your patronage,” a polite, male voice came through the speakers secreted through the passenger compartment. “Don’t forget to retrieve your baggage from the trunk. Do you need help carrying them?”
Sirius looked helplessly at Nova as he stowed back his wallet, then pressed the intercom button next to the flat screen. He said, “No, thanks. We’re good. Just give us a second.”
“All right, sir. Have a nice evening.”
Nova was already outside, picking up her suitcases. She had only two, and both were quite small. One had wheels and an extendable handle, while the other was matte black and reinforced, with a biometric scanner instead of a lock. This latter one was just the right size to be stacked on top of the other, its straps wrapped around the extendable handle, so that Nova only had to carry the one.
Sirius was even more lightly burdened. He just carried a light backpack. Since he’d rented a motorcycle to make the trip to Saltwell for Nova’s birthday, it would have been inconvenient to bring anything heavier. For just the day or two the whole trip took, more than this would have been useless, anyway.
“Here, let me get that for you,” he said, snatching the case’s handle from Nova’s hands.
She let him do so while she turned to examine the house where he’d lived ever since he’d been born in this new world. It was… a house. A simple one. It looked pretty much like the other houses on either side of it, up and down the road. It had two stories and a small garden wrapping around to the back of the house, dotted with exterior lights. The windows on the first floor were lit and glowed warmly in the night.
“I suppose it doesn’t measure up against your lighthouse, but there it is. My home,” Sirius said with a small smile as he started toward the front door, cutting directly across the lawn.
‘It looks nice.’
Sirius gave her a strange look.
“No. You’re just behaving very strangely, today. Not only are you wearing modest clothing, but now, you’re being polite? Thoughtful? Are you sick?”
Nova shot him a glare. ‘You, on the other hand, are very rude.’
Sirius gave a little snicker and rang the doorbell. He didn’t wait for someone to come for the door, though, and directly opened it. He ushered Nova in and followed after her.
# # #
Sirius’s little sister, Camilla Antema, was the first to burst into the entrance hall. She looked to be in a hurry to welcome her brother home – enough to surprise Nova with her enthusiasm.
She was quite pretty – perhaps expectedly, considering she shared her brother’s genes. Her skin was brown and her hair black and cut in a boyish bob cut. She was tall for her age – taller than Nova – and looked quite athletic. She wore shorts and a plain white t-shirt, and no makeup. She looked lively and approachable, someone who’d be easy to befriend.
When her eyes swept over her brother and landed on Nova next to him, however, Camilla put on the brakes and froze. Then, her face went through a confusing succession of emotions. First, it was shocked and stunned as she stared at Nova’s face then looked her up and down. Then, her expression wavered for a little while between envy and resentment, before settling into a blank, emotionless mask remarkably similar to the one Nova wore all the time.
“So. You’re Nova, huh?” Camilla asked finally.
She stood with her – rather flat – chest thrust out, her balled fists on her hips, in the middle of the hall, barring the way forward. Her stance was quite confrontational. So were her question and the tone of her voice. And her glare.
Nova had to wonder what it was she’d done to deserve such a reaction. The two of them met today for the first time, so there was little reason that could justify her resentment. Same for the envy Nova thought she’d seen across Camilla’s face – Nova’s first guess would have been that Camilla envied her beauty, but Camilla wasn’t ugly enough to justify that; she’d be effortlessly popular with pretty much anyone who looked at her.
Then, Nova had to stamp down a strong wave of annoyance.
After her past life, undeserved hostility wasn’t something Nova took well.
Still, she wasn’t quite temperamental and uncontrolled enough to slam the girl’s face into the wall of her own house right on first meeting. Also, Sirius was faster and stronger than her; he’d stop her before she could do anything.
Maybe there was a good reason for Camilla’s reaction, too.
‘Yes. I’m Nova. Good evening to you.’
And to myself, too, hopefully.
Camilla looked a little nonplussed at Nova’s synthesized voice, but then she regained herself. She lifted her chin and snorted, before turning towards Sirius, who was looking with quiet trepidation at the increasing chill in Nova’s eyes. “Hmph. Brother, I understand that someone as kind as you are would agree to travel to another country just to participate in a birthday party, but was there really a need to invite this woman into our house afterward?”
“Camilla, this is…”
But Nova interrupted him.
Because she finally understood. Camilla’s face, as she looked at her brother, might at first seem carefully controlled. But her eyes told another story. The gaze which had been cold when turned to Nova was now filled with…
Oh. Of course, it all makes sense, now. Sirius is definitely main character material. And it’s a well-known fact that any main character worth his salt needs a harem. It’s not even remotely surprising for his little sister to be in it, too. In fact, I should probably expect for his classmates at university to also display some amount of jealousy, tomorrow.
‘I see,’ the robotic voice said, loud enough to drown Sirius’s next words. ‘You have the hots for your brother. And you feel threatened by his friendship with me. But you need not worry. Any further relationship between us would be purely physical. And short-lived. It’s highly unlikely that we would ever fall in love. Therefore, I suggest that you restrain your hostility. Aiming for your brother’s friends is certainly never going to make him return your feelings.’
The voice was emotionless and clinical, but the reactions to it were not.
Sirius was… facepalming, like he couldn’t believe what Nova had just said. The idiot was probably too dense to even realize his sister’s attraction to him. Fortunately, Nova had been here to set things straight, or the poor girl likely would have suffered for a long time trying to drop hints obvious enough for him to notice…
Camilla, on the other hand, at first showed no particular reaction and stared unblinkingly at Nova, but then her face, neck, ears, and everything else flushed so red Nova wondered if she might faint in the next few seconds.
But those were not the only reactions.
Because, as fate willed it, the moment Nova’s words rang out in the entrance hall was the moment Sirius and Camilla’s parents came to welcome their son and their guest. They both stood stock-still, halfway out of an adjoining room. Judging from the look on their faces, they were as shocked by Nova’s words as Sirius himself. Were they perhaps unaware of their daughter’s incestuous inclinations? Nova had assumed they knew, but her own experiences might have influenced her – Marian and Aaron unquestionably knew about hers; even forgetting what had happened with Lynn during her birthday party yesterday, they had once explicitly forbidden Nova from sleeping with her brother…
Though, now that I think about it, they might have just thought I would try that as a way to approach Esfir, rather than because I actually found Ryner himself attractive…
Still, it was highly possible Fareed and Rana Antema genuinely weren’t aware of their daughter’s perversions. Not every child could be as open about them as Nova.
Fareed was like a middle-aged version of his son and built just as solidly. His hands looked rough and lined, but warm. In fact, that description applied to the rest of him, too. He felt like a man who had truly lived his life. From what Nova remembered, he was a fireman. Sirius’s mother, Rana, looked a lot younger than she ought to. And contrary to Camilla, her breasts were magnificent. Nova had to expend a lot of willpower to not stare at them too much. Despite her youthful appearance, a few laugh lines already marked the corners of her eyes and conspired with the rest of her features to make her look kind and motherly. But Nova knew this belied the steel inside her – this woman was a detective in Verizen’s Violent Crimes Unit with an impressive record of arrests under her belt.
With a fireman and a cop for parents, Nova had to wonder if a passion for life-saving and crime-fighting ran in the family.
Considering both of their brains seemed to have short-circuited after her little faux-pas, Nova decided to take the first step in glossing over the incident.
She took a small step forward and gave a graceful curtsy. Her right hand pinched the side of her skirt and raised it, while her left was busy forming words. ‘A pleasure to meet you, Fareed, Rana. My name is Nova Storm. I will be imposing on your hospitality for the next few days.’
Being suddenly faced with such a perfect, elegant display did little to help Sirius’s family get over the sudden shock, but it did divert their attention, and eventually, they all regained their wits.
“Nova, welcome to our home,” Rana said with a warm – if a little strained – smile. “It’s nice to finally meet you, after hearing about you from Sirius for so long. Please, come in. The entrance hall isn’t exactly the best place to make each other’s acquaintance.”
‘Thank you.’ Nova nodded and entered the house proper, trying to ignore the burning gaze from Camilla stabbing into her back.