The call came late in the night, just as their emergency planning session drew to an end.
"Number Seven, reporting in," came the unmistakably irreverent voice over the phone, and Belze looked at her as she stood with a start.
"Sorry, Sefi. Got myself in a bit too deep."
"Is this line secure?" Sephiria nodded at Belze and pressed the speaker button. "I assume you lost your cell."
"Yeah. As secure as it can be." Janus muttered something about paranoid scientist women.
"Where are you right now?"
"Um, listen, Sefi, I've gotta make this quick. I don't trust that bastard, and he's been looking at me funny all night."
"Remember that crazy professor lady you had us look up a while ago? Tearju Lunatique?"
Project Eve, she thought. Heartnet.
"Yeah, well, I'm at her place right now. Except she's not here, because she's been abducted, apparently."
Belze interrupted, voicing the question on both their minds. "Number Seven, what does this have to do with the mission you were sent on?"
There was a pause, then a wry chuckle. "Should've known you'd be listening over Sefi's shoulder. Hey, Sefi, you still there? I think you were right. It was a real mess. I mean, there's not much I can say about it that I'm sure you don't already know. Things just kind of blew up, just like you said they would. But... I'm pretty sure they were the ones who wanted Lunatique."
"Yeah. You'll never guess who else is here with me." Janus laughed. "Charden Flamberg. Rinslet Walker. That little nanogirl."
"Eve?" said Sephiria at last. "The one who was with Heartnet?"
"The one and only! She sure is growing into a looker! And Rins..."
"Charden Flamberg," said Belze. "He's one of the two I faced. One of the two who defected."
"Yes, I remember," said Sephiria. "Janus, be careful."
"Yeah, I know. I don't think he's one of them. But he's definitely up to something. Eve said he came to warn the professor lady. That's why I think it was them."
"You said Rinslet Walker is there as well? What was she doing in that area?"
"Oh, her car broke down. Hehe, must be fate..."
"What are you going to do next?"
"Well --" Janus began. "Oh, sh-- um, Sefi? Gotta run. Basically though, nanogirl wants us to get the prof back. I'll try to get in contact again tomorrow --"
"Flamberg's a cunning one," said Belze. "The only one of them who had any brains."
Sephiria said nothing for a while. "I suppose now we can set those plans aside as backup."
A few more moments of silence.
"Go get some sleep."
She nodded. "Good night."
- - -
She dreams of roses. Velvety red petals, the deep color of wine, falling from the sky in a scarlet storm. Skin soaked in blood and heads flying and spinning all around, faces frozen in grotesque masks, half rotten and crawling with maggots.
She woke to find her heart beating madly and her hand clenching at the nonexistent handle of a nonexistent sword. She did not dream often -- none of the Time Guardians did -- and the strangeness of it left her unsettled and confused. She felt at her side for Christ, found it lying nearby where she always kept it, fingered the hilt and stood. As she dressed and poured herself a cup of tea, there was a knock on her door, and she knew even before she opened the door that it was Belze.
"Tea?" she said, though she knew he preferred coffee.
He stayed in the hall instead of stepping through the doorway, and shook his head. "I meant to ask you earlier..."
"What exactly did the Elders say to you?"
"The Elders? They were worried. As to be expected. Things have been unsettled ever since --"
"That's not what I meant."
She looked at him.
"When you returned. While you were recuperating."
"Oh, that?" She shrugged delicately. "I suppose they just wanted to confirm the reports with me firsthand. Rumors were flying, and they were impatient for the truth."
"The truth," he repeated, then frowned. "That was all?"
"What else would they have come for? Certainly not concern over my health?" she said gently, though she regretted the words as soon as they left her mouth.
He shifted, tilted his body to the side. "I am sorry for disturbing you."
But before he could leave, she reached out and placed a hand on his arm. "Come in. I can make coffee."
He came in and she made coffee and they sat in silence for a while.
"Do you remember..." murmured Sephiria, after some time, as she mulled over her tea. Then she looked up and brushed a strand of hair from her face. "Rinslet Walker. Her entering into the picture may be a stroke of luck for us."
"I wonder. If it were anyone but Number Seven, perhaps."
She had to smile at that. "No, it's because it's Janus that it will work out. Both Rinslet and the little princess are wild cards, but I think they will not be to our disadvantage."
"You know something."
"Yes," she said, and she smiled again. "It may be that my memory is at fault, but perhaps you will remember more clearly than I. Do you recall the file you had compiled for me?"
Belze looked at her in realization. "I do remember. Xiaoli looked into her quite thoroughly, but there were pieces of her background even he was unable to uncover. Specifically, the details of her childhood. The most he could find on anything that happened before she turned thirteen was too vague to be of much use. But the one thing he did confirm --"
Sephiria nodded. "Her hometown."
"Then you think that her presence in this mess may be more than mere coincidence."
"Perhaps," she admitted.
"What will you do?"
"There's not much I can do from Janus's side now. Though I may have to call back Xiaoli, and move the Quarters after all." She paused. "How is Maison, by the way?"
"The old man? Nosy and arrogant as ever."
She laughed then, and she could see Belze attempt to hide a smile. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that Belze and Maison had been Numbers long before she had ever even heard of Chronos. Harder yet to believe that Maison alone survived now, of that war twenty-five years ago. Even in times of relative peace it was practically unheard of, for a Time Guardian to survive to that man's age. Those who lived even to Belze's age were rare enough.
No, the Chronos Numbers started young, and died young. That was the way of things.
Still, Heartnet had been the youngest. Barely eighteen, barely a man. Even she, prodigy that she was, had been nearing twenty when she first took up the mantle of leadership. And then only because of scandal, unforeseen complications, unexpected death. Heartnet had been the first appointment she'd made, almost two years after her own formal induction into the Guardians. The first and only Number Thirteen.
"I wonder if he will let himself get dragged into our affairs this time?" she mused out loud, and she knew from the look on Belze's face that he knew she did not speak of Maison.
But before he could answer, there was another knock on her door, and this time she opened it to find a messenger on the other side.
She sighed, and wordlessly handed the note to Belze, who stood as he finished reading it.
"Should I go with you?"
"It's all right. They like you about as much as you like them. I'll talk to them myself."
A plan was beginning to form in her mind, and it surprised her in how uncharacteristic it was of her. But the pieces were beginning to move, and she could not afford to waste any more time, or remain anything less than flexible in her strategy.
- - -
"That Janus! Fucking useless bastard! Heard he's gone missing, eh? Probably dead -- he sure had it coming to him!"
"Let us go. We can take care of it."
"Heh. All we'll need is an hour, Captain. We'll have them on their knees, screaming for mercy. Let's see who'll have the guts to go around bitchin about Chronos then!"
The two looked at her expectantly, and the air seemed to throb with heady anticipation. But Sephiria said nothing, and looked back at them coolly.
Baldor slammed his fists down on the table between them, leaned forward, glaring into her eyes. She could smell the coffee on his breath, and thought vaguely of Belze. "Fuck this! Sephiria --"
"Janus is still alive. This is his mission, and he will continue to handle it. I must ask you two not to interfere."
"Goddamnit!" Baldor swung a fist back as if to hit her, the table, the wall, anything. Kranz remained considerably quieter, but Sephiria sensed a tautness in him, and wondered what the blind man was truly thinking, underneath the silence.
"The Elders have not forgotten the mess you two made the last time you moved without orders," she said, slowly, deliberately. Nor had she. She'd managed to get the Elders to withhold their punishment until after Creed was taken care of -- Belga's death had made it more than clear that she could not risk losing two more of her men, no matter how unruly and incapable of following orders, for such a trivial reason. But immediately after Creed's death, the Elders had pronounced their sentence on the pair while she recuperated in a private, Chronos-run hospital. She did not know what their punishment had been.
But she did know that the two had been restless and chafing, for weeks now.
"What the hell? That bastard's the one who fucked up this time, and you still --"
"Baldor, let's go," said Kranz.
Baldor sneered and whirled around. "Fine."
Sephiria bit her tongue and watched them leave without a word.
Like fighting fire with fire, she thought. If she had calculated correctly...
Had it been anyone else, she would have worried everything would blow up on her when she was least expecting it. But there were some risks that had to be taken, and she knew Baldor and Kranz too well. They had grown up together. She alone they respected, albeit grudgingly. And loyalty to Chronos had been hammered into them from the start, was too deeply ingrained within them now, after more than twenty years. Fighting was all they knew, all they had. She understood that. She would give them that.
Let the game begin, she thought wryly, though it was never a game, had never been a game, would never be a game. Not to her. Never to her.
Updates will be slow and according to my own pace. I'll also eventually be editing and reformatting to put up on my own site. Also, I think this will be the last Sephiria chapter for a while. The action will be shifting to mostly Rins for a while, or maybe Eve (not sure yet how I'm going to be moving the pieces around), while Sephiria waits behind the scenes and watches things unfold. :P