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The Eye of the Beholder
“Not in Moscow,” he agreed without opening his eyes. “She is a long way from home.”

The suggestion of Morven’s office roused him, with some irritation, for he’d been expecting Nina to see to the gathering of answers while he caught some of the rest she seemed so insistent he needed. He watched her for a moment from the enthronement of the chair, lounged for all appearances as though the office belonged to him rather than her. His gaze had a mildness to it, yet most quickly discovered discomfort in being the object of his attentions when he looked at them like that, all consideration.

After a beat, he heaved himself to his feet and followed her furtive gesture. No one stopped them, despite Nina’s by now clear unease and possible regret. Sören showed little concern of his own as she slipped them into the office. The pain by now was a distancing memory, as the tech in his eye socket finally won the battle to right whatever malfunction existed in its circuitry. So far there had been no discernable pattern to it. For now he didn’t dwell on it, nor the certainty that it would happen again.

He traced his fingers over some of the loose papers littering the desk. He doubted Morven had returned to her office after her suspension, and he might have assured Nina this step was unnecessary. But he hadn’t. While he showed a modicum of interest in his surroundings, he finally reached for the tech. The faded numbers on his arm itched for attention, but he refrained from beginning anything so time consuming. A simple search to test the eye remained functional would do for now, especially while in company. Sage Parker.

While the search ran (and ran) he watched Nina. Sweat popped on her brow and she muttered quietly to herself. She had come this far, and he doubted she would bail now. It wouldn’t even matter if she did, and truthfully Sören did not care for whatever inner turmoil plagued her over her own actions. He had hardly been coercive, nor even particularly demanding. But it was a useful trait, and Sören could probably do without the complication of her resolve softening. He sat in Morven’s chair, swiping a finger across the desk’s main screen, currently revolving the Guardian’s logo.

“Have you ever been to India, Nina?” His voice was softer than it had been, the first stirrings of a storyteller’s cadence. A cynic might note it as a distraction, which it was, but even if she recognised it as such he thought the curious pull would be stronger than the fear of rolling heads. “There’s a lake in the Himalayas, surrounded by rock-strewn glaciers and snow-capped mountains, isolated from the touch of man. Peer into that lake, as I have, and once you would have found the ancient, frozen remains of hundreds of human skeletons. Their death is a mystery I chased, but it was a different answer I found. There was something else in that lake.” He watched her, expression limned by the light of the screen, seeking the captivity of her attention. “Do you know why I checked your wrists, Nina?”
Morven wasn’t in her little, tidy office, but Nina saw her distinctive handiwork in the careful arrangement of medical books, chart folders, and the flasks and bottles in the locked medicine cabinet with all the labels facing front. Nina stood for a while longer surveying Morven’s office. Certainly an improvement on some of the other doctors she’s had to work with.

Soren turned to look at Nina, his face lit by the artificial light. His cheeks and chin seemed to catch the screen's light more like a dagger now than ever before. And his eyes… eyes that had seen more pain than they deserved.

“India,” Nina murmured, measuring the word softly in her mouth. “My tattoos, perhaps.”

She smiled. The day will come, Soren. But it will be on equal terms. You will trust me. One of these days. But now is not the time.

“I admit that surprised me when you looked at my arms. And frankly, I’m very curious about that lake in the Himalayas, too. I know you’d like to be left alone and this was an opportunity to find Morven, Soren. You lost your friend, after all. Are you and Morven from the same hometown?“

“But it’s totally up to you to tell me things.”

Nina turned her back on Soren and wandered the length of Morven’s office. She let herself through a screen door at the end. There, to her surprise, access led off into a small bed. The bed was made up and empty. Gleaming surgical tools, stainless steel tables, and a sink for disinfecting sat in corners. Nothing personal.

Nina frowned. Like Soren, she had no illusions as to what clues this place would offer. She doubted she’d have to stop by again to inspect, and she doubted too that this office would remain unused much longer. It was inevitable.

She closed her eyes, and for a moment she could see the floor drenched in blood; soiled sheets; the moaning, screaming faces. And the silent ones. Her nose seemed to detect blood and rotten flesh for a second, but it was just the rubbing alcohol.

Just the alcohol.
Little of interest rolled in from the search. Sage Parker was an American civilian, not much more than a kid. Why Morven had found it necessary to risk her career for such a nobody Sören couldn’t fathom, but she had always had strange notions of sacrifice. Given Nina’s current situation he wondered if it was a hazard of the occupation, to place the lives and interests of others above common sense and self-preservation.

He set the hook, but she finally backed off a little. Sören watched her retreat with a low chuckle. She had wanted his attention, parading like a mouse over the paws of a bored cat, until the cat’s whiskers finally twitched. He rarely roused for those who did not share his gifts, but ultimately he would use who he could. He pushed up from the desk, ignoring her question, and followed her to the threshold of the screened off room. His figure swamped the doorway. She was much smaller than he, and he was a tall man, broad at the shoulder.

Maybe he intended to scare her. Maybe he intended to test her mettle. Either way the little mouse had nowhere to run.

Sören reached for her arm, twisting it to expose the flesh of her inner forearm. The grip was not pinching, but there was corded muscle behind it, and his hold would tighten if she struggled. “If you’d had a symbol here, a snake eating its own tail, I would have killed you,” he said. There was no threat to it, not now; if anything he spoke too casually about something so heinous. His gaze searched for any recognition, but he did not expect to find it, not until she pieced together what it meant he was. Ascendancy exposed the Atharim after the attempt on his life, but a civilian had little need to remember their obscure branding. 

He dropped her, but didn’t retreat. She was still trapped. “You ought to think twice before helping every stray you find on the streets. Some of them may bite.”
Now that was interesting.

Nina’s wallet had just shown her pulse rate spike the highest it had been in six years. One for the diary, she thought.

Nina turned. Soren stood in the doorway to the room. He towered over the doctor, and his torso and corded arms were massive, especially next to Nina’s bony frame.

“Soren?” She was looking up at him, blinking fast. “Soren, wha—?“ Nina began. The rest of her sentence was lost beneath the crushing pressure of Soren’s gaze. Nina’s eyes and mouth opened very wide. She took a step back. The area immediately around them had become very cramped.

He took her by the arms and she fell silent, unable to speak. Nina stared up at the part of her arm his fingers had indicated. She felt a twinge of fear and melancholy. But it for her sister Rena who could channel, she might have died by Soren’s hand.

There was no friend to their kind here.

Soren held her gaze for several seconds. Nina could almost see his mind working through the possibilities, necessities, and maybes.

Nina tensed. This was still manageable. There was still a possibility he thought she wasn’t involved with atharim. She ought to let him think that. From this moment forward it would be smart to leave him, and his troubles alone. But she didn’t like the feel of that idea. That wasn’t Nina’s style.

“What do you mean? You think I’m atharim?” she whispered. Her skin was deadly pale and her eyes showed signs of upset and reproach.

“Will you now kill me, just to be sure?”

Her heart was thumping.
At least sense finally caught up enough for her to seem afraid. She recoiled, wide-eyed, tense. Sören might not claim to be a decent man, but he did not revel in her fear. It was necessary, though, given her persistence. If she was to be useful, he preferred her to understand the dangers of his company, and if she were not then it appeared to be the only way to shake her loose. His arms folded, one fist clenched in the crook of an arm. The runes hovered close. No, he did not think her Atharim -- nor had he suspected, until her words now. For a fleeting moment he wondered if it was he who had been blithely led into a trap. But none sprang. Nina practically trembled. 

Still, he let that question hang like a noose. Let her wonder if it would tighten suddenly, or simply slip free from the yoke of her shoulders. “A snake wouldn’t have allowed herself to become cornered, alone,” he said, soft emphasis on that last word. “And yet someone truly ignorant would not remember that name.” If she had been a channeler herself, he had no doubt he would have felt the shiver of it on the street. Nina had barely asked permission for her interference as it was; she would not have held that back. Perhaps a friend or relative, then.

“It would have been quick. There would have been no warning, first.” Suspicion that had not been there before hung like fine mist, now, as he scrutinised her. There was no tattoo, but no denial on her lips either, despite that she was afraid. That, he noted. The unexpected lure of a secret whet his appetite, but it was soured somewhat by the sense of a misstep. He brought up the tattoos only because he had been sure of what she was not. Sure enough to warn her of what he was, and betray himself in the process.

Sören could be cruel. He could certainly be cold. He did not lose sleep over the lives he had cut short, when those actions had been necessary. But he was not capricious.

He turned aside; enough that she could scurry for the exit if she wished.
Nina thought: is he for real?

And a second thought, like a stutter. My reaction is as fixed as his action. And thinking that annoyed her.

It’d be so easy to run. Pretty little tattoo’d thing, all scared to death. For a moment Nina was going to turn around and run away, with her hand up in front of her mouth...

When she first found out about Rena’s powers she ran. She freaked. She went down into the stairwell, closed the door, and just cried. For a few hours. She couldn’t stop. While she was crying, she thought about lots of things. One of the things by the way was her own reaction.

Look, when you come up against your beliefs like that, when you learn the world was round, discover monsters really exist, when you find out your father was right after all, or, when you look at your little sister Rena and see something, like that—man you’ve to have some sort of reaction: laugh, cry, something. She’d just hate for Rena to think she’s not as brave as everybody supposed she was. I guess I’ll have to think of something, she’d thought at the time—when she was done crying she took a nap. When she woke up, she was big sister Nina again.

But what would she get by telling him that? Because she liked Soren, she wanted him to trust her a little. If she could show him she understood something about him, perhaps he would…

No, Rena’s secret wasn’t hers to tell.

She took a breath. Then another. For the fear. You know you can control things like that, with breathing exercises. And it worked. A little.

“Well.” This a considered sentence. Measured. She wondered what to say. She tried, “thank you.”

“You really scared me. I guess a lot of people would have been. I keep thinking of all the terrible things you could have done to me. But if it’s any of them, there isn’t anything I can do to stop you.”

She stepped over closer to Soren, curious. Did he really kill anybody? Maybe this was the sort of thing he was asking about her tattoos earlier. Even if he said so in a jokingly way. Perhaps it’s the sort of thing that should only be told to one person. But now that she knew, maybe he could talk about Morven. She’ll just listen in that case.

“I’m just glad I don’t have a heart condition. To protect your secret, I suspect you’ve done some things that haven’t made you all that happy. My interest in you just about exploded, by the way, the research, the tests… yeah, I’d just hate to leave you alone, because that’s the kind of person I am—just a nuisance. I’ve occasionally been known to pick up a stray or two from the street and get them treatment. Nothing political, mind you. But they still frown on that sort of thing.”

“Ah, ha!” Nina drew back, ineptly mocking something theatrical since he was touchy about questions. “Just for argument’s sake now: suppose I do know something about the snakes, and about you, how do you know I won’t use it against you?”
He watched Nina, somewhat blandly. She did not run, but it took her some time to rebuild herself. His stance remained still, her escape route beyond him and out of the room still viable if she chose to take it. Meanwhile his arms folded against his chest. There were no further answers to be found here, of that he was certain, and she was correct about the nuisance. She was one.

“No,” he agreed. “There isn’t a thing you could do to stop me.”

No ghosts paraded from her accusation. No guilt, either. She was wrong to suspect he held any feelings on the necessities she spoke of, if it did sting a frown to his lips. Mostly because it reminded him of the dream he had walked before his eye’s malfunction in the streets.

She stepped closer, and his eyes followed her. He stared down. Not a mouse to his cat, he decided. More like a fucking flea. She was relentless.

“Supposing you know something of snakes, and supposing I find an unwelcome guest on my doorstep some time soon. Supposing you could even live with the thought of that blood on your hands, and I doubt that, to whom do you think I would come when they failed to kill me?” And fail they would; nothing short of cool arrogance assured his tone. There was little real threat in it, though, because he was quite certain he understood her loyalty to life. If she betrayed him, it would be for a reason beyond the accident of his birth.

“What do you know of snakes?”
“Not a lot,” she said.

Soren wore one of his lightless, chilling expressions.

They sat a moment more in silence.

She thought hard. “I found out by chance somebody has… powers. She’s young, you see. So very young, yet she’s already been through so much. More than ever now I want to protect her, just these last few moments of talking with you, you know?”

Nina smiled, “Of course I do. I don’t want to ruin what chances for a stable life she’s got. And I know enough to be afraid of the snakes who hunt her.” she said, “which is the real point. The point I have a feeling you were making anyway. They’re here.”

She looked around.

“No, not in the room. Not in the hospital now, I hope. But they’re hunting you. Maybe Morven. We just don’t know it. Look, we know who her last patient was. We can ask around, very circumspectly, and get a story from this Sage Parker. I’m getting quite the taste for amateur sleuthing.”

“This goes no further, of course. Doctor-patient confidentiality. I’ve been doing that my whole career. My lips are sealed.”

“You need rest, Soren,” she began to say when her wallet beeped, “I need to get back to my wards. I’m sorry.”
Not a lot. A disappointing answer. He did not break the grip of silence, having little more to say to address her brief display of bravado. Apparently she took that as an expectation on his part to pry into her business, for she began talking. Again. His lips twitched, but he did not interrupt, if the lay of his expression did not speak much of interest either.

“There is nothing I can do to help that,” he said bluntly, assuming it was what she was asking. It was a conversation he had had before, and the tone of his voice had that sort of rote to it.  “The way the power is split between the sexes makes it impossible to teach the opposite.”

Of her warnings, he said little. His networks spanned such that he did not fear being caught unaware, and those protections ought to have protected Morven too. She was not dead, he did not think. He would certainly prefer she were not.

The we was met with some dubiousness, but he accepted that she would help. A nod followed on the heels of her wallet’s alert, and he let her go.

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