I Am the Conductor
Noise. Her mind was filled with noise.
Nova jerked herself awake, drenched in sweat and filled with a sense of horrific dread, with a name perched on her tongue, a name that brought her grief and also uplifted her. The name that was conducting the noise in a nostalgic tune, with no distinct rhythm or notes. It reminded her of the time Otto tried to "fix" all the kitchen appliances and ended up bringing them to life.
She blinked and sat up. She'd fallen asleep on her beanbag chair in the early hours of the morning, a stuffed animal in one hand and a book in the other. Normally she wasn't much of a reader; she vaguely recalled trying to distract her brain enough to allow her to sleep. Now the clock on the wall betrayed that she'd barely slept for three hours and the room seemed to shake with fatigue. Nova tried to remember why she'd woken up, why she sat here, drenched in sweat and freezing cold. Then the name came to her and, in the darkness, she spoke it in a quiet whisper, as if she might disturb some ghost.
Nova's eyes journeyed to the corner and finally lay rest on the figure that was sitting there.
He stood. 'I heard you talking in your sleep.'
'You shouldn't be here,' Nova replied.
'No, I shouldn't. I'm here anyways.'
Nova curled up. 'How long have you been there?'
'Not long,' he shrugged and sighed. He crossed the room and sat down beside her. 'I couldn't sleep.'
'What's wrong?' Her insides clenched. Perhaps he'd found out and had come here to confront her?
'Really?' Nova was genuinely surprised. Normally when Mandarin had a problem with the member of the team it was Sprx, since Sprx seemed determined to be on Mandarin's permanent bad side.
'…Nova, who do you like better?' Mandarin asked. 'Me or Antauri?'
'That's not a fair question, Mandarin.'
'Who do you think would make a better leader?'
'…Antauri is your second-in-command.'
'Nova, your honest opinion. Who would lead better?'
'It's not my place to make that judgement. You do a good job, and if Antauri was in charge, he'd do a good job as well, only in a different way.' She laughed slightly, as if the thought was ludicrous or even amusing. 'You're so paranoid.'
'Paranoia is what's kept me in command.'
'Mandarin – '
'It's not just Antauri,' he admitted.
'Sprx is always contradicting me. Today, I thought…I thought…I thought that it looked like Antauri was about to say something, say something to undermine my authority. Gibson is always hiding in his laboratory, probably coming up with some malicious deed to end my life. I've done nothing but sacrifice for the sake of this team and now they want to pull me from command!'
'Mandarin, you're being paranoid,' she repeated.
'…You really think so? Do they trust me? Are they on my side?'
'We're on your side, Mandarin. We're not only your team. We're your friends, too.'
'...Do you trust me?'
'Yes,' she lied.
And so they talked, about something irrelevant or idiotic because the conversation went on and she couldn't remember what they'd talked about. What mattered was the warmth of his body and entertaining his thoughts and values, lying to his face though she knew that tomorrow she'd have to say "no." Eventually she fell asleep again and when she opened her eyes, Mandarin was standing before her, basking in a solitary spotlight while the noise in her mind sounded in the background, chaotic and without tune or structure.
'Mandarin?' she whispered.
'Nova,' he responded, turning slightly and grinned, but not in a creepy way. He smiled like the way he used to smile at her, before. He was wearing a tuxedo with tails and a baton was gingerly held in his hands.
'What are you doing?'
Mandarin turned his back to her and did not answer. With elegance and poise, he raised his arms, as if he were a bird about to take flight. His eyes slightly closed, he raised the baton and instantly there was silence.
He threw down his arms. Music flew out, music that floated up to the ceiling and formed joyous notes of the days that had passed, as if the music, itself, was laughing. Suddenly Mandarin faded into the music and she saw her entire team. All of them were there. She could see them, dancing and happy, but there was something missing. Something they lost. Something they were going to loose.
A light hand touched her. The perpetual twilight dissolved and Nova sat bolt upright. It was Antauri, looking at her firmly and sadly. Instinctively she looked for him, but he was absent; he must have left when she fell asleep.
'…It's time?' she asked.
'It's time,' nodded Antauri.
Nova looked around for the music and noise as she left her room, briefly glimpsing Sprx, Otto, and Gibson standing out in the hall, all with grave expressions. She turned only once, hoping to see Mandarin conducting the orchestra. But there was nothing except the bean bag where – a few hours ago – she'd fallen asleep, restless and comforting her closet friend with lies. She wanted there to be noise or music. She wanted Mandarin to be how he once was a few years ago, courageous but stern, abiding and loyal.
Except there was silence.