“Oh, a visitor? Invited by Mr. Antema, I suppose?” the teacher asked pleasantly. “Are you a prospective student visiting the campus?”
‘No. I’m an actress,’ Nova said, before tilting her head toward Sirius next to her. ‘This loser over here hired me to pretend to be his girlfriend for the day so that he could show off. Revolting, isn’t it?’
The stunned silence that met this shameful revelation of Sirius’s dastardly motives was glorious. Nova was very proud. Sirius, on the other hand, was quietly burying his face into his palms while muttering imprecations under his breath. The gazes of the other students aimed in their direction became heavy.
Or maybe they’re just wondering what kind of actress can neither emote nor speak with her own voice.
The old teacher clearly hadn’t expected that kind of absurd answer, either, but he recovered admirably. “A student of the arts, then,” he said with an amused smile. “I hope your acting skills are as good as your drawing skills, then, Miss…?”
“Feel free to come to the next lesson as well, Miss Storm.”
The old man apparently didn’t want to spend too much time speaking with a nutjob like her, so he gave Nova a nod in goodbye, which she returned, before leaving the room with his bag in hand. Nova was a bit surprised he turned out to be such a nice conversation partner. Judging solely from his way of giving the lesson, she would’ve rather imagined him as a stuck-up, old-fashioned, boring old fogy. It was something of a pleasant surprise, and though she didn’t expect to ever meet him again, the last minute of banter at least made up for the annoying few hours which preceded it and improved Nova’s mood.
Embarrassing Sirius in front of all his friends undoubtedly contributed, too.
Nova nudged him with her elbow. ‘Shouldn’t we hurry up and join up with Wieslaw? Otherwise, your schoolmates will start interrogating you about me.’
“And whose fault is that?” Sirius whispered heatedly.
Already a group of them were making their way in their direction – though, truthfully, they already had been from the start, and Nova’s conversation with the elderly teacher had brought them to a pause.
The young man walking at the front looked somewhat belligerent, didn’t he? Like he wanted nothing more than to start a fight. Did he have a bone to pick with Sirius? Did they share some form of rivalry, perhaps? Did the two of them compete for the title of most popular man on campus? Or perhaps, it was a more torrid story. A passionate summer fling ending in a messy breakup?
No matter what, though, Nova didn’t want to be involved in an argument with students. It would just bring back old and unwelcome memories of her life on Earth. It was time to make herself scarce.
Nova quickly sent her drawing to her bracer’s memory – it would make a lovely gift for Esfir, she felt – then turned toward Sirius. ‘I apologize. I shouldn’t have called you a loser,’ she said, reducing her bracer’s volume to match his whispering and gazing at the students approaching them. ‘How do you want to handle this? Do we run away? Do we neutralize them before they can talk to us? I only have a knife on me, right now, but I think I can do it.’
Sirius sighed. “How about you just let me handle this?”
Nova nodded decisively, pleased to receive the answer she’d been hoping for. ‘Excellent idea. You deal with them. I’ll look for Wieslaw.’
“Hey, no, wait…!”
At this point, the wisdom of sitting in a corner at the back revealed itself. Ignoring Sirius, Nova hurriedly put on her Commissar cap, then turned around, opened the window, and vaulted out of it, just as the group of students reached the desks she and Sirius had chosen.
It was the third floor, but Nova hadn’t trained in Viper Nest for nothing. Her old earthling self would have likely squashed at the bottom and broken both his legs upon hitting the concrete, but this Nova slowed her fall by sliding down a rain gutter’s downpipe and lightly stepping on jutting window sills and reliefs carved in the wall. She landed 10 meters below with perfect balance and took a moment to straighten her shirt’s cuffs and collar – not because they’d been disturbed, but because James Bond looked really charming when he did that, and she wanted to imitate him.
She looked up to see Sirius gazing down at her from the window of the amphitheater, his mouth set in a quietly disapproving curve. The belligerent student was standing behind him, also staring at her, but looking less annoyed and more bewildered. She waved her hand at them.
Archeology department, right? Now, where is that?
If she stayed here any longer, Sirius would surely start criticizing her for her actions – or maybe remind her not to pick things off the ground or follow strange men who gave her popsicles – so Nova immediately headed off in a random direction.
This was the largest university in not only Verizen but Amidonia as a whole. In fact, considering Amidonia’s prominence on Edea, it wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to rank it right up there as one of the largest universities in the whole world. When Nova finally found a map of the place at a bus stop, she realized that, while Sirius’s parents might have called it the ‘Department’ of Medicine and Pharmacology, it was more like a whole university in and of itself, at least in sheer size. As for the Department of Archeology and Anthropology, it was something like 15 km away. There was no way Nova was going to reach there within a reasonable timeframe.
Oh, and I’ve only got a visitor pass. I presumably won’t even be allowed to enter other departments.
Had Sirius expected that when he told her to wait, before she jumped out the window? Perhaps she should have stayed and listened, after all.
But it didn’t really matter. Sirius and Wieslaw had already planned how and where to meet up for their briefing. They were used to this place. Nova just had to call them, ask, and show up at the appointed time.
Until then, she was free to act like a tourist and see the sights and spend a pleasant time.
Thus, Nova walked for a while, her hands in her pockets, ignoring the infatuated stares from the students she passed and enjoying her life.
As the morning classes came to a close, more and more people started streaming out of the buildings, chatting animatedly, finding seats on benches dotted along the path, sitting in the grass to have a meal or just take a nap under the sunlight, and generally just doing what people did every day. Nova looked at them all like she was on the other side of a TV screen, watching a documentary on distant and exotic animals. The human in its natural habitat. It all felt strange. Every single one of them moved so casually, like their actions were natural, nothing to gush about, common sense. But to Nova, it was amazing. They could so easily accomplish what had taken her death to have the courage to do. Reincarnation? They didn’t need a cheat like that; they got it right the first time.
How fucking pathetic was it that, on Earth, she’d never been able to simply take a spontaneous, peaceful walk like she was doing now? Back then, it would have been a painful chore, something requiring considerable effort, something she would have wished would end just a minute faster so she could go back to the safety and solitude of her shitty, rundown apartment. She’d spent her life hurriedly making the trip to and from her workplace, with the occasional foray toward the nearby supermarket, like she’d constantly been running away toward her destination, as paradoxical as that sounded.
It really was fucking pathetic.
But it wasn’t pathetic in a good way. It didn’t inspire pity or compassion. Nova didn’t want to give a hug to her past self and gently push him toward salvation and tell him something gentle and comforting like ‘the world only hates you as much as you hate yourself.’ She wanted to break all his limbs, slap all his fucking teeth out, and tell him to get a fucking hold of himself.
She’d never entered an interesting shop only to see what it sold, sat on a park bench and enjoyed the feel of the sunlight on her face, chatted with someone about nothing in particular. And she sure as shit had never lied down on the grass to take a nap. People might have looked at her, if she’d done something so reckless! Couldn’t have that!
Good. Let’s do that, then.
Without further ado, Nova left the pebbled path she’d been treading and found a good, clean, dry spot in the grass under the shadow of a tree whose leaves had already sprouted again after last winter. She slipped out of her suit jacket and folded it beneath her head as a makeshift pillow. Then, she closed her eyes.
A chuckle was building up in her chest, and she wished she could have given it voice. She couldn’t help but find it amusing – in a perverse, almost masochistic kind of way – to derive enjoyment from remembering her past self for the sole purpose of immediately doing the exact opposite of what her memory prescribed. Almost like poking an open wound just to better appreciate the lack of pain afterward.
Let’s also ignore the fact that taking a ‘hold of myself’ involves ditching my friends and sleeping under a tree while they do all the work.
Nova took a deep breath and fully relaxed.
After a short while, she really ended up dozing off. It seemed sleeping in an unfamiliar bed at Sirius’s house hadn’t been as restful as it could’ve.
# # #
“Just how far did she go? Did she actually leave the campus?” Sirius asked, his voice full of unspoken complaints even underneath the spoken ones. “She said she was going to look for you, but…”
Wieslaw, walking next to him, replied tranquilly, a smile on his lips. “That’s the third time you’ve asked me this question, and the answer hasn’t changed. She definitely hasn’t left. Security didn’t log her departure, and I can’t imagine they would have forgotten her so easily if they’d seen her.” He gave Sirius a sidelong glance and a grin. “You look like a dad whose daughter got lost in a shopping center.”
“It’s not too far from that. She may boast all the time that she’s 30 years our elder, but her mental age barely reaches above the single digits.”
“How mean. You’re talking behind her back.”
“Not at all. I would have no issue whatsoever saying that right to her face. And I expect that she would have no issue hearing it. She’s too impervious to criticism to care.” Sirius stopped complaining for a second to hail a young man walking past them. “Excuse me, have you seen a girl in a black suit wearing a strange hat? Like a military cap of some sort.”
The young man blinked, then pointed toward the direction where he’d come from. “Are you talking about her?”
Sirius and Wieslaw both turned to follow the line of the young man’s arm. Over there, on an artificial slope off the path, there indeed was a girl sleeping in the grass under a tree. She wasn’t really dressed in black anymore, since she’d apparently taken off her jacket to reveal the white shirt underneath, but the cap shielding her face from the sun and serving as a sleep mask was a dead giveaway.
Sirius sighed. “Yes, that’s her. Thank you.”
The young man nodded and went on his way while Sirius and Wieslaw approached Nova.
“Well, at least she didn’t get into any trouble,” Sirius said as he climbed the slope toward her.
“She’s a bit too unwary, though,” Wieslaw said, shaking his head. “Sleeping in the open like this. Did she forget that her bodyguards stayed in Altera, this time? I know witnesses are walking all around, but still…”
Before they could actually reach her and nudge her awake, however, Nova stirred. Her hand rose to push the cap out of the way of her eyes, and her gaze flicked from Sirius to Wieslaw. ‘I don’t need witnesses. I’ll wake up before anyone can get to me,’ she said.
Wieslaw quirked an eyebrow. “I thought you were asleep.”
‘I was. But not deeply. When you got closer, my spider sense started tingling,’ Nova said. She slowly made her way to her feet, dusting off her pants and straightening up her cap. ‘So, are you guys done planning already? Are we ready to shoot people, yet?’
Sirius shook his head, looking at her with eyes full of reproach. “No. We were supposed to discuss this together, if you’ll recall.”
‘You managed to get rid of that guy from your classroom, then?’ she asked, looking around for any signs of him. ‘He didn’t look very friendly.’
“I did, and no, he isn’t. Mostly, though, he just wanted to know who you were, so I gave him your phone number. Expect him to ring you up in the next few days. I’m sure the two of you’ll get along swimmingly,” Sirius joked. “Afterward, Wieslaw met up with me, and we’ve been looking for you for nearly half an hour.”
Nova was unrepentant. She shrugged. ‘You could have just called me.’
“We were planning to do that if we got past the ‘nearly’ and actually hit that half an hour,” Wieslaw said, then clapped his hands. “It’s fine, though. We have time. So. Should we go find a restaurant somewhere and grab a meal? We’ll talk while we eat.”
Nova nodded, then leaned down to pick up her jacket. Sirius’s eyes were drawn to her backside, but for a different reason than usual. When he saw Nova simply drape the jacket over her arm, he spoke up. “I suggest you put it on.”
Nova tilted her head in question.
“Some people might be unnerved by your wearing this,” he explained, pointing at what had grabbed his attention, the sheathed knife strapped to her belt at the small of her back. “I thought you were joking, when you said you’d brought a knife with you. I’m pretty sure you could get arrested for that. Cops would consider it a deadly weapon.”
Nova readily followed Sirius’s advice and put the jacket on but still decided to argue. ‘Quit nagging. It’s just a pocket knife.’
“I don’t think this could fit in anyone’s pocket.”
It was a straight, double-edged dagger with a fixed, matte black blade and handle, something like 25 cm in length. It was definitely a weapon. Anyone who mistook it for a mere pocket knife had to have a hole in their brain.
“How on earth did you sneak that past security?”
‘It’s reinforced ceramic. Metal detectors won’t work on it.’
“You do realize this is a crime, right?”
‘You’re too naive, boy,’ she said, crossing her arms over her chest and giving Sirius a disdainful gaze. ‘When you’re as filthy rich as I am, you don’t need to care about laws. Everybody knows that.’
“You do realize my mother is a cop, right?”
“All right, you two,” Wieslaw said, raising his hands between the two others. “Don’t start again. We’ve got a lot to talk about. If we want to start the operation by tonight, we need to get to it. Also, and more importantly, I want to eat something. I’m about to starve to death on my feet, here.”
Sirius nodded. “Of course. Sorry. Let’s go.”
‘I’m hungry too.’