It was very easy to understand why she didn't want to be attached to labels. He didn't like being "the cobbler's son", and so it stood to reason that she didn't want to be known as "the grand Psychonaut master's daughter". It was partly due to the unwanted attention, partly to do with not wanting an easy way out, but perhaps mostly due to wanting to be one's own self.
So it may have seemed slightly unusual that she hung around headquarters an awful lot, but that came with the duality of the girl. She was indeed passionate about her psychic training, though at the same time, cooled off on the topic when someone inquired about it. She was concerned about others but didn't like to show it, and while she certainly cared for her father, she didn't like to be around him at work.
Which was how the Lili Corner came to be in his office.
When not at summer camp, Sasha Nein had an actual office, with an actual desk and chair and filing cabinet; a compact little computer meant for file browsing and not much more, a few pens and pencils, perhaps a notepad to jot things down, and a calendar on the wall that featured Bauhaus art. It had been one of Milla's more stylish gifts to him.
He had to emphasize the 'actual', but it was purely on a sarcastic note – and somewhat untimely, given that his current task was looking over applications for said camp. Whispering Rock was one of those positions everyone claimed they wouldn't mind taking, but nobody wanted to actually go through and volunteer for it. Sasha was known as one of the "Rockers", and because of that, it seemed to cast a strange persona on those who hadn't known him before the camp opened. What were they expecting, a jungle man? The younger agents were ridiculous sometimes.
Lili was one of those who didn't find it strange for him to have an office. She had been a regular in the headquarters since as soon as Truman gained clearance from the hospital (and his wife) – a proud father to his then-newborn baby girl. Sasha had been a...well, it was complicated. It didn't help that at the time, he spoke very little English, and having a high-ranking officer waltz around headquarters with an infant just added to the confusion.
"Wer ist das?" he remembered asking the cadet who was also serving as his guide. She smiled, her never-opening eyes reflecting the curve of her mouth.
"Truman Zanotto – Nachfolger für der Großmeister des Psychonauts."
"Sie ist seine Tochter. Heisst Lili, ich denke."
So Sasha's first experience with the girl was when she had been a squirming bundle in Grand Master Zanotto's arms, except at that time he hadn't been Grand Master. Now Lili was – well, she wasn't a grown up, but ten years made quite a difference.
Actually, more like eleven years. He looked at the line on the camp application, realizing it was, by sheer and almost gross coincidence, Lili Zanotto's. Despite last summer's "incident", Whispering Rock was still chugging along as a psychic summer camp. All it took was implementing a few tests for the counselors and parents found themselves at-ease again. It helped that the kids who had been there – who had their brains removed – were excited about coming back. Perhaps that issue of True Psychic Tales that was, ahem, creatively adapted, had a hand in that.
Knock knock knock.
"Hey, Agent Nein?" asked a familiar, somewhat congested-sounding voice.
"Hereinkommen," he replied, but realized a few too many syllables had passed his tongue. "Er – come in."
The door swung open but shut very quickly, a pair of scampering feet accompanying it. Sasha didn't need to look up, counting the beats it took for the feet to reach their usual corner spot. Zwei, drei, vier...yeah, it was the littlest Zanotto. Lili skidded down to her knees and banged her shoulder into the side of his filing cabinet, nestling herself into the spot.
He heard a few pages flip – glossy pages, the noise was too smooth to be anything else – and then a slight sigh from her. Sasha curled in his lips and etched them towards his cheek, trying to decipher what kind of sigh it was. He had to be careful with Lili, and with women in general, and – who was he kidding, he had to be careful with people in general – no, wait, he had to be careful with other living beings, because they emitted subtle nuances that varied and lacked consistency. Perhaps most embarrassing was that he didn't quite "get" Milla, and he'd been her partner for how many years? Five or something? ...Maybe six? Seven...?
So Lili's sigh didn't earn any kind of reaction from Sasha. He returned his attention to the camp application, tapping a pen while reading the information he had read at least four times before. He wondered...perhaps she was getting bored of the camp. Did she feel it worth her time, or was she just going through the motions and attending every summer to please her father? Was it to set an example?
No, that couldn't be it. Lili was fiercely independent and wouldn't go out to the camp every summer just for the sake of her father's image. There had to be a reason she went, and if logic was dictating properly, then it was probably because she actually liked it.
Alternatively it was because it was something to do and she just went along with it.
Or maybe there was some pressure involved, maybe her mother or something.
...No, Sasha was never going to fully understand how other people worked. It was a miracle he himself managed to exist, and seeing the bizarre minds of others just confirmed that nobody would ever be able to understand everyone.
Then Lili sighed again. Sasha raised an eyebrow, backtracking over the previous two minutes. There had been no additional noises, so what was she reading that was taking her so long? Or was this a cue? Were his social graces supposed to be kicking in?
Well, worst that could happen was that she'd go into her "ugh adults are so annoying' mode and then leave the corner, and subsequently, his office. That was okay. She did that on occasion, when he slipped up and managed to say something that was "annoying", because heaven forbid an adult try to dispense advice to a younger cohort.
"I see you applied for camp again," he said, hoping those were words that would start a not-hostile conversation.
"Yeah...guess I did."
Sasha wasn't sure where to go from there. He thumbed a corner of the application, reminding himself of just what paper felt like. Gloves had become almost as standard to his attire as his sunglasses, and mostly because he didn't feel like knowing what the cafeteria attendant had been grousing about before giving him his food. There were some trace emotions on this sheet of paper, but he was used to the Zanottos. It was to the point where the traces left behind were more like dull bumps than charged tingles.
"Agent Nein -" "Miss Zanotto -"
They still weren't looking at each other, but both fumbled out very quick "no you first"s. Then they paused, and let that pause turn into another pause, and that second linger a bit longer than intended, before Lili cleared her throat.
Sometimes he wondered why she, of all people, referred to him as that. The 'Agent' title was a bit formal for a child he had known pretty much all her life. Then there was the fact that Milla was often referred to as 'Miss Milla', but him, never; never anything other than 'Agent' from the campers. A few of the older agents just sort of mumbled 'Nein' at him (that itself was confusing; he had to learn to never think anyone was speaking German at him, and that itself was another story all together), and some of the smartalecky ones liked to say 'Herr' – ACK! Ein wenig Konsistenz!
In short, it was frustrating. And why couldn't he be anything other than 'Agent'? Was he that authoritative? All the time?
"- so I'm not really sure about it."
Uh-oh. He had drifted way too far out of the conversation, to the point where he wasn't even aware they were having one. Lili was waiting for his response, and all he could do was release a defeated, "Pardon?"
And there was the sigh. The exhaled breath scratched in her throat, but there was no mistaken that as the tired and true "annoyed with this" sigh. A few more seconds would decide her next course of action...
"Were you not listening?"
So she was going with the sassy route today. Okay. So be it. C'mon social graces, now was not the time to fail: "I was not, sorry."
"What happened? I thought you always paid attention to stuff."
"Usually. I was...caught up in my thoughts."
"You do that?"
"More often than you'd think."
"Huh. ...What were you thinking about?"
"Titles," he replied without hesitation. Lili, he had discovered, was very good at getting him to talk. It wasn't interrogation, and it wasn't that she had stumbled into an awkward phase of controlling her telepathy. No, it was most likely a side effect of him having practiced his English on her ever since she was a baby. The best audience was one that wasn't going to mock him in return, and she, a squirming creature more intent on touching her toes while on her back, was perhaps the best kind. When she graduated to actual movement and wanted to climb on him instead, well, that was a different story.
The memories made him flush in embarrassment, almost making him nauseous in the process. He remembered his agent-guide describing the situation as "so cute it makes me want to vomit". Incidentally, that was also one of the first phrases he could recall learning in English.
"Uh – yes?"
"I asked you why you were thinking about titles."
"Yeees." Lili certainly wasn't a flailing little baby anymore, and he sometimes missed the days when she couldn't backtalk him.
"I see. Well – merely the idea that ones holds different titles to different people. Like Agent Vodello, for instance."
This seemed to perk Lili up. "The Mental Minx!"
That phrase had been increasing in popularity lately. Sasha blamed it on True Psychic Tales' recent publication – he had taken to reading the blasted things, ever since the Budapest incident – and its insistence of relaying the latest narrative without using actual names. He wasn't too fond of being labeled "the Bauhaus Bowlcut", and was convinced the writer was shooting purely for alliteration without actually thinking about the words used.
But he managed to push that aside. "Correct. She has her codename, her rank as an agent, her title, and then her general day-to-day personage. Different people will call her different things."
"Right. Sooo...why were you thinking about that?"
Now this was the part Lili wasn't good at. She wasn't his therapist (he didn't have one, so she certainly wasn't his), but she tried to get him to talk more than he was willing to. He oftentimes chose to her ignore her obvious attempts at picking his brain – figuratively, thankfully, not literally. Points for trying, though.
"It came up."
"...Oh." Lili was clearly disappointed at the way the conversation had ended. She at least had the common sense to not try and test her luck prying at him, so she instead returned to whatever she had tried to tell him earlier: "I applied for camp again because it's what I've been doing, but ever since last summer, I'm not really sure about it."
So it was for the sake of having something to do. Sasha finally decided to turn in his chair and look at the girl, kicking his foot up to his knee while she scrambled to adjust herself to sit and face him. "You would hardly be blamed for not wanting to return to camp. After all Miss Zanotto, you were caught up in the worst of it with Agent Vodello and I."
"It's – it's not that."
He paused, raising an eyebrow slowly while digesting the words. If she was going to completely ignore the fact that had been kidnapped, and held as the ultimate prize, then what could've possibly been bothering her?
The eyebrow must've spoken for itself, as Lili took that as a cue to continue. "I mean, yeah, that was...you know." She didn't want to admit to fear. He could respect that, but at her age, it was difficult to determine if it was recklessness or bravery. "And then the whole thing of Dad being kidnapped, that wasn't fun either but that wasn't the camp's fault, and I'm not saying that if I had been at home I could've prevented it or anything. It has nothing to do with that."
"Okay." He had to admit, Lili was good at covering her bases, usually being one step ahead of others' thought processes.
"It's...well. It's Raz."
"Ah. Your...boyfriend." Could ten – pardon, eleven – could preteens really be dating? Was that a thing now? He had questioned this to Milla and she'd scolded him, so maybe the world had done some weird advancing while he stayed inside learning a new language, culture, and career path.
"Is..." Oh no, was he really going to have to provide relationship counseling to an eleven-year-old? Sasha's social graces were already fighting to stay "graceful", and even if Lili wanted such advice, he was probably the worst person to turn to -
"Oh! Oh, no, we're fine."
Phew. One bullet dodged.
"It's just that – well, he's a Psychonaut now. He's an actual agent and everything."
"Somewhat," Sasha corrected. "His promotion to agent was a decision made by Cruller. Your father chose to uphold the assessment, but Razputin has to make his way through the ranks like every other agent does."
"Hm. That would explain why I see him in the mail room the most."
"But that doesn't change the fact that he's an agent, and that was his first time going to camp. I mean, I know his brain is 'one in a million', I said it, but it's...like..." She titled her head to the side, staring ashamedly at the carpeting of the office. "Am I just not...as good as him?"
Sasha bit his tongue to his immediate first response. He let it pass before opening his mouth to speak. "I wouldn't say it's that."
Lili frowned. "So what is it? It has to be that – don't lie to me, Sasha!"
He had to pause to recover from the whiplash of having someone other than Milla call him by his first name. "It isn't that, Miss Zanotto. You must understand that Razputin...he was..." Sasha rubbed the back of his neck, even with the knowledge that it was a dead giveaway of his thoughts. "It was the most unusual of circumstances."
"I...guess." Lili released a pent-up sigh before falling on her back, legs still crossed. "Eh...I don't want to be an agent yet." She rolled her head to look at the door. "I know my dad doesn't want me to be..."
"Grand Master Zanotto – your father -"
"I know who my 'father' is -"
"- he was not a fan of Razputin being promoted to agent at such a young age." Sasha lowered his previously neck-occupied hand, tapping his fingers on his kicked-up knee. "Your boyfriend was not the first, but the circumstance is unusual no matter the context."
Lili lifted her head up, her mouth squirmed into one of her cheeks, eyebrows drawn tight. "Then why'd he let Raz stay in?" This was clearly a scenario she hadn't been aware of before.
"The Grand Master has a trust in Cruller others don't, and in the end, he believed Razputin was fit for the task." He shrugged. "The idea for now is to keep the boy out of danger and have him be a mail room lackey for a few years, maybe call him when needed. The agency may be penny-pinchers, but they aren't completely heartless."
That somehow made Lili giggle. She dropped her head back to the ground and lolled it to the side facing her usual corner, spreading out her arms in the process. "Dad...I don't think he wants me to be a Psychonaut."
She may not have been his therapist, but Sasha oftentimes found himself being hers. This was probably also another side effect of having known her for so long. Once Lili had learned to not only walk, but speak, she had quickly found out which agents would talk to her and which ones wouldn't. Sasha had turned into a prime choice, with her running to his office with everything from "my favorite crayon broke" to "the boys at school pick on me so I punched them and I got in trouble". Maybe it was the fact that he usually didn't respond, just listened, and usually people just wanted to vent at someone. Sasha seemed to be Lili's "someone to throw words at" person.
It was, however, a little hard to empathize with her situation. In the back of his mind, Sasha knew his own father still cared for him – he, the cobbler's son, who hadn't seen his father for the better part of two decades. He wrote letters to maintain his "alive" status, but there was something about going back to Germany and seeing his father, the real man, in the actual flesh, that he just couldn't bring himself to do. Not...not yet.
But because of that, he could only abstractly think of how Truman must've felt towards his fledgling psychic daughter. She, the grand master's daughter, probably knew her father cared for her, and his intentions were to not stunt her growth but keep her safe while he still could. But he could only keep her safe for so long, and at this point in time, there were only seven years left until he could no longer restrict her.
"I don't think he is try to dissuade you from doing whatever it is you want to do, be it within the Psychonauts or not." Sasha settled his hand on his knee to avoid tapping his fingers. "I can only guess, but I would think Truman is merely looking out for you and to avoid pressuring you into a situation you may not want to be in."
"But I want to be a Psychonaut!" Lili shot up from the floor, her palms smacking into the carpet in front of her. "I've wanted to be one even before Dad was the grand master!"
Sasha raised an eyebrow. "Really now."
"I figured, if I could do something even half as exciting as what went on in True Psychic Tales, then why would I want to be something ordinary?"
He lifted his hand to counter, to point out that Echte Psychische Tales – Märchen – whatever – was hardly the best baseline for deciding one's life and future career path. But he was caught by the young girl's face, so full of determination and steadfastness that he wasn't really up to "crushing" her dreams. She knew the boring part of the job anyway. If by this point she had seen it all and still believed it a career worth pursuing, then, that was her resolve.
"So is that why you keep attending camp?"
Lili hesitated before nodding. "They won't let me in the academy yet, so camp's the next best thing."
"Even with your father being grand master?" If Milla had heard him make a joke right then, she probably would've started laughing in disbelief...
"I'm not going to use my dad to get into the academy!"
"I know. I was joking."
"...You're not good at it."
The young psychic snorted before picking up her fallen comic in her unofficial-official corner. Sasha recognized a panel on the side of the page he saw, and gritted his teeth. The Budapest issue was going to haunt him for a while.
"This one's my favorite," Lili said, eying him while folding the issue shut. "Well, maybe not my favorite. Top five for sure."
"Mmmhm." Sasha returned his feet to the ground, turning around to face his desk.
"Me and Raz were taking about it,"she continued, standing up and hopping the (short) distance to the door of the office, "and we were wondering – you and Miss Milla, how'd you get to be partners?"
Sasha didn't look up from his desk. "They don't tell you in the comics?"
"Nope. You guys were introduced straight-up as a partner duo; they haven't done an origin story yet."
"Probably because it isn't a very exciting story." He flipped Lili's application over and scrawled genehmigt on the sheet. "We were assigned to the same case, it was discovered our abilities synced up, and that was that."
"Oh." Lili was clearly not convinced, and her voice carried with it an edge that suggested she could always try asking later. And, knowing her, she would.
"Perhaps you and Razputin can work something out and lend your story to the comic." If that meant getting people off his back, then he would by all means encourage it.
"...You said he's in the mailing room?"
"Should be, but given him..."
"Right, but it's someplace to start. Thanks Agent Nein – bye!"
She may not have liked to be labeled in a way that linked her to her father, but there was no doubt: Lili was like Truman, and very much a Zanotto.