Song of the Earth

Fuck. Xifeng holds up her hands, pointing the gun at the ceiling to be clear she doesn’t need to be shot in the back of the head. “Bern,” she replies, surprised by the steadiness of her own voice. “She’s a Nephandus.” Slowly, Xifeng sets the X-5 down on the floor. She’s got another one in her bag anyway.

“Brendon Bern is not going to shoot you,” Matt says weakly from under the cloth. “Bern has his own secrets. His particular mission is to ensure you and Agent Bailey survive all obstacles.” Even tied to a table and tortured, Matt is still Matt. He can still leverage secrets for power.

Brendon lowers his sidearm, since it’s clear he’s not going to shoot Xifeng. “How do you know that?”

Xifeng glances over her shoulder. Seeing that Bren isn’t aiming at her anymore, she quickly scoops up her own X-5 and holsters it. “Doesn’t matter. I’ve got an obstacle you can help me with right now.” Provided there are no more interruptions, she pulls the cloth off Matt’s face. “We can’t leave him here, Bren. We inadvertently sent a Nephandus to interrogate him.” Debussy‘s body gets a spiteful little kick for Xifeng’s trouble. “I know of more of them in the Union, highly placed, and he knows too much to let him fall into their hands.” Well, actually, the other one she knows about is in another interrogation room, but her subordinate doesn’t need to know that’s the only one she’s aware of.

“Wait, what the hell.” Brendon is momentarily flustered by Xifeng bowling over him. “Assuming I believe you, and I guess I do since I’m not taking you into custody, I already know he knows too much.” His weapon is aimed at Matt, now.

“Wait. Your orders are to kill me?” Matt asks. The German nods briskly. Matt laughs a little, out of place with his, “That fucking bastard.”

There’s a deep sigh from the Woman in Black. Xifeng looks up from working the strap on Matt’s right wrist loose with a visible tic in her eyebrow. Later, she’ll wonder what the hell she was thinking, but now, she just steps between the two of them. This is it; she’s placed her life in Matt’s hands, because he’s the one who said Bren wouldn’t shoot her. “I can’t tell you how much time we don’t have for this right now.”

Bren stares at Xifeng for a moment. This isn’t how this was supposed to go. Then he nods, suddenly, holstering his X-5, and moving to start working at the straps on Matt’s feet, since Xifeng has his upper body covered. “Where are we moving him?” He asks, always the soldier ready to follow orders.

Turning, Xifeng returns to her task, prying the straps open. “The garage. My car. Then…” She shrugs, glancing at Matt’s face. “Where is safest for you right now? I don’t know how long the drugs will be in your system.”

“Probably the east coast,” Matt mutters groggily as he sits up, taking stock of his surroundings. “They can be countered. Help me over to that table.”

“Okay, wait,” Brendon says. “You can’t just move a deviant out into your car and wait for the drugs to wear off.” How the hell is he the voice of reason right now? “If you need a place to keep him safe I can find you somewhere, but he needs to stay drugged.” He’s willing to break a lot of rules right now, but he’s still a Technocrat. He’s not going to go along with the whole plan.

Matt looks frustrated, weighing his options. “If I could tell you everything, I would. But there’s a reason your handler didn’t. This isn’t the first time you’ve had to trust Xifeng alone with me against the Nephandi.”

With a long-suffering look for Bren, Xifeng immediately moves to help support Matt’s weight. “The last time we worked together we took out a whole church full of them and saved a kid’s life.” That said, she doesn’t want to push him too far. It’d help to have him on her side at least until she gets out of here. “Why, where did you have in mind?” As curious as she is to know who told Brendon to look out for her (and Charlotte?), she really cannot be bothered to pry that out of either of them right now.

Bren just sighs, staring at the whole situation. Then, “Get out of here.” He says, tossing Xifeng his keys. “Take my van if you need to, it’ll buy you time and give you a place to stow him. I’ll take care of this.” The body laying about with a bullet from a firearm registered to Xifeng in it.

Matt finds what he’s looking for, injecting himself twice with ab small syringe and grabbing a separate bag for the road. “Anti-nausea,” He explains. He used to be a medical doctor, he knows what he’s doing will work even if he doesn’t believe In it the same way. “What I have myself will make ”/characters/james-mcavoy" class=“wiki-content-link”>McAvoy‘s drugs wear off, but I can’t make it work instantly." He seems surprised at Brendon, but isn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, even if that gift horse isn’t coming along to watch their back.

She catches them, meeting his eyes. “Thank you.” Xifeng knows what this means for him, if his involvement is discovered. She leaves Matt to lick his wounds, stepping back over to Bren. In exchange for the keys, she hands him the disk in her bag. “Evidence that she was a Nephandus. I made arrangements so you shouldn’t need to use it, but just in case. Tell them to search the safe in her office.”

With that, she returns to Matt’s side. “Can you fire a gun right now?” Yeah Bren, she’s offering to arm the drugged deviant. She offers Matt her shoulder to lean on.

“I don’t use guns,” Matt says a little hotly. He’s standing on his own now, and looks through some of the medical and torture tools. He settles on a scalpel, pocketing it. “I’m ready. How are you taking me out?” He doesn’t seem to need to lean on Xifeng at the moment.

“As quickly as possible. We’re going to take the maintenance access stairs down to the garage. If anyone else is in there, they’re actively looking for us.” Xifeng readies her X-5, approaching the door to the hall. “Bye, Brendon.”

Cautiously, she cracks the door open to check the hall. If it’s empty, she’ll lead Matt towards the stairs. She honestly hopes she doesn’t run into anyone she knows, because she’d hate to shoot them.

Luck is with Xifeng today. She and Matt literally walk out of the interrogation room. They hear some commotion down in one direction, but it doesn’t impede them from getting to the maintenance access stairs.

There are keycards needed to get into this floor, but not to get out or into the garage (being a Technocratic construct doesn’t make the building immune to fire). Matt is a little winded at the aerobics with drugs still in his system, but he keeps up with her. They exit into the garage just as alarms start going off.

“Either they’re onto you or they’ve hit a snag in interrogating a Nephandus,” Matt observes, recalling the commotion they did not check out. Heroic Women in Black can only manage a zillion problems at once, a zillion and one is completely beyond them. “Bern was right though. If we don’t make it out of here you need to kill me.”

If the construct were immune to fire, Xifeng’s little fire alarm trick wouldn’t have worked. She keeps up as brisk a pace as Matt can manage, and flinches at the sound of the new alarm going off. “This way.” She heads off to the left, skirting the edges of the garage as she moved towards Bren’s assigned spot.

“Can we burn that bridge when we come to it?” she asks wryly. I didn’t throw my life away just to murder you on the way out the door." Xifeng moves swiftly from one point of cover to the next, watching for any signs of movement. “Who’s my anonymous benefactor?”

They see movement once, Matt drawing Xifeng up beside him as three Operatives run past—two the far side of the aisle, one so close they could almost reach out and touch him. His eyes pass over them, unseeing.

They make it to the van. “You aren’t going to guess?” Matt sounds disappointed as he waits for her to unlock the back, then sits on the edge of the car and pulls his body in with his arms. He’ll close up while she gets in the driver’s seat.

Xifeng holds her breath as they run by, somewhat bewildered that they aren’t seen. When she moves on, she does so with even greater caution.

She lingers near the back door just long enough to be sure that Matt can get himself inside, and then darts around to the front. “Is it someone in the Union?” Though she slides the key into the ignition, she pauses here to adjust the mirrors and buckle up. Once they start the van, everyone’s going to hear them. Her eyes meet Matt’s in the rearview mirror as she waits to make sure he’s strapped in.

“Yes,” Matt answers. The seats are folded down in the back in preference of transferring things, but it’s still more subtle than sitting in the front seat. Matt waves her to go while he pulls the seat up and gets himself in while she drives. She just has that look like she’s expecting to plow through a barricade.

When they start driving, it’s not like anyone comes shooting at them. But an armed man waves for her to stop near the garage entrance. He has a routine nature about him, like he doesn’t expect the van to be the one he needs to stop specifically.

Turning the key, Xifeng puts the car in gear and pulls out into the aisle. She doesn’t gun it. “Here in Cincinnati?”

The Woman in Black frowns, spotting the man waving at them. “Duck down.” She eases the van to a stop, steering with her left hand and pulling her X-5 into her lap with her right. Though she has to press the brake to stay in place, she covers the accelerator with her left foot.

“Everything okay?” she asks the man at the gate as she rolls down her window. “It’s way past my bedtime.”

The man gives her this slightly bewildered, judgmental look morning people have for night owls. “It’s almost sunrise,” He mutters under his breath as he approaches the car.

Xifeng sort of recognizes him. He’s not NWO, he’s Syndicate muscle. Name is an R something. She can’t remember if he’s Enlightened, but he’s part of her world, and he gives her a look of recognition.

“There was a criminal incident so we’re just doing a check of outgoing vehicles,” He answers by rote. A nice, mundane answer. “Do you mind if I look in the back?” He waits for her scripted affirmation.

If he does, he’s either not going to see anything or he’ll get stabbed in the neck. “Sure.” Xifeng pointedly does not check the rear view mirror. Do your hide and seek trick again, Matt.

The security guard walks around to the back and opens the door, looking around the apparently barren back before closing the door. His eyes only hover slightly longer than normal as they sweep over Matt, but his eyes can’t focus on the Chakravanti.

“You’re good to go,” He says, giving her the thumbs up. Luck is still with them.

Matt waits until she drives out to lean up, handing her a note written on an old receipt of Brendon’s. “I have a spare car in Cincinnati. Park at this intersection and we can take it, unless it’s been towed.” It hasn’t, but they’ll have to move around the block to park something this size.

Xifeng flashes a pretty smile at the man and gives him a wave. “Thanks, have a good one.” Rolling her window up again, she heads out into the street.

Glancing up, she reaches back for the receipt and scans over the address. “Okay. You didn’t answer my question.” She signals, taking a right turn to get them moving in the right direction. “Are they in ”/wikis/cincinnati" class=“wiki-page-link”> Cincinnati?"

Distantly, she can’t help but wonder what her own endgame is here. Couldn’t she just drop Matt off at his own car and find her own way? That’s probably what she should do. She drums her thumbs on the steering wheel with a sigh as she finds no parking spots immediately near the intersection they want. “There’s parking on the other side of the block.” Off they go.

“Yes, they’re in Cincinnati,” Matt answers as if she’s asking a vaguely impertinent question. It’s not yet the right time to tell her about all that, anyway.

Time. This is the right time, for all of this. Luck has been on their side the entire way—he’s certain Xifeng can feel it even without Tamas. Luck—karma—carried him to her doorstep. He warned her and she heeded his warning, and made her own decision without coercion. She killed Octavia, talked her way past Brendon Bern, and walked her way past security. This is the right time.

They cross a plaza to get to the side of the street where his car is waiting, a black cadillac. There’s a fountain in the square. Most cities in the north shut off their fountains in the winter, but Cincinnati has several heated fountains that run at least part of the winter, probably modeled after Fountain Square. The sunrise catches his eye over the water, orange and golden. Red sun at morning, he thinks. It’s like the atmosphere has no idea what’s coming.

He’s so caught up in the certainty of the moment that when Xifeng crosses his vision, passing the fountain, he knows what must be done. He sweeps her legs out from under her so suddenly she hits her face on the pavement. He thought it would be the cord, but in the gods and the Wheel determine when a woman or man might Awaken. Swiftly, before she can recover, he picks her up roughly, unceremoniously, and shoves her body into the fountain.

‘Heated’ might be a bit of a stretch—the water is just barely above freezing, and enough to jolt Xifeng to alertness after the disorienting impact of the fall. Matt plants his right knee firmly in her lower back, and seizes hold of her hair. This isn’t going to be easy. He’s still weakened from the drugs, and she’s fighting for her life.

He’s the one who asked her to guess. With a roll of her eyes at his tone of voice, Xifeng drops it for now, concentrating on parking the van.

She hops out, sucking in a sharp breath at the cold air. Her warm winter gear is all back in her office, a place she will likely never see again. “Jeez.” Holstering her gun again, she wraps her arms around herself to brace against the bite of the wind and steps up beside him on the sidewalk.

The sunrise catches her eye as well; she slows half a pace to take it all in. A new day. The metaphor is enough to make her want to gag. Normally she’d be watching it from the window of her cozy apartment, enjoying a morning cup of tea before her drive to work. She should be packing her lunch and dreaming about her impending promotion right now, or thinking about how to spend her Christmas bonus, not-

“Hhfff-” She goes down soundlessly, except for the gasp of air leaving her body as the wind is knocked out of her. Xifeng feels the salt on the pavement dig painfully into her palms, the stun and sting of her cheek bouncing off the concrete as she turns her head to try to avoid cracking her skull open. There’s enough time to blink and suck in half a breath before he snatches her up again, and this time she does let out a high yelp before she crashes into the water.

Just the shock of the cold disorients her again, numbing her limbs and giving Matt the split second he needs to get a good grip. Reflexively, Xifeng starts to suck in a breath, only to stop and snap back to her senses as her mouth fills with icy water. Bren was right. She’s made a huge mistake.

Anger and adrenaline take hold as she thrashes, her right hand scrabbling at the holster on her hip. Her X-5 is more waterproof than most Sleeper weapons, but she’s in no position to shoot. She just tries to blindly flail back and upwards at the arm holding her head under, assuming whacking him with a metal object will hurt more than feet and elbows.

Matt grits his teeth at the impact, but he’s got adrenaline running too. You can never kill someone like this without suffering some pain yourself. He tightens his grip in her hair, though the pain is nothing like what the Technocrat is starting to feel in her lungs, and holds her steady.

Xifeng remembers the cord, suddenly, in Joshua‘s vision, and his inability to distinguish self from other. He wasn’t showing her how Matt killed him.

He was showing her how Matt was going to kill her.

Feeling the gun hit home, Xifeng swings it again, but it’s feebler this time. It’s not just the pressure in her lungs now, it’s the cold burn of the water. It takes almost no time at all for freezing water to dull feeling in the limbs – her scalp, for that matter, isn’t really sensitive enough anymore for her to realize just how hard he’s holding her down. Pressing her left palm into the bottom of the fountain, she twists and bucks to try to throw him off her back.

She doesn’t care what Joshua showed her. Joshua was insane. After all the shit she’s survived in the past half a year, she isn’t going to die facedown in a fountain.

It takes less time to die in freezing water than warm. She does occasionally manage to push herself up and get half a breath of air, mixed with water, but the cold constricts her lungs.

There is a kind of certainty that comes with knowing you’re about to die, even if you can’t accept it. She pushes herself up on her palm and feels air, but she doesn’t complete the motion before she collapses under the weight of Matt’s knee, and she knows that will be the last time she gets to the surface again.

Xifeng can’t stop picturing Chenglei, of all people, at this moment. His pale face, his bloodied arms, the dull mat of his hair as he lay in the tub. He must have been so scared. What was he thinking about as his consciousness slipped away for the last time? Did he know he would never wake up? Did he have any regrets? Did he think about her, his annoying little sister? Will she see him again soon?

That question, not consciously bidden, terrifies her as it bubbles to the surface of her mind. How could she, if she’s alive and he’s dead? She surges upwards, gulping in air with a quiet sob, and plunges down again. This time, when she tries to lever herself off the bottom, her elbow just buckles. Xifeng doesn’t feel it when her chest finally hits the bottom. She’s so cold. Was her brother cold, too? There wasn’t any water in the tub, but she thinks he might have been.

Their family didn’t have a lot of money, but one time when she still had all of her siblings, her parents took them up the west coast for a weekend. There was a deep ditch outside of their motel, and it rained and rained and rained. It didn’t matter; the idea of a family vacation was so novel, even if they were cooped up in a tiny room together. Her father went out to pick up take-out, and her mother dozed off on the couch. Chenglei took Xifeng outside with her sisters, where they took turns shoving each other into the two feet of muddy water at the bottom of the ditch. That was cold too, but there was movement and squealing and laughter to go with it, and her father pulled in and angrily shooed them all inside for warm baths before any real harm could come of it.

She should call her sisters. They’re still in California, living near her parents. It’s been a while since she flew home to visit.

Xifeng doesn’t notice that her limbs have stopped moving, or that her eyes are open and unblinking now. The revolver she was swinging at Matt sinks to the bottom of the fountain. She drifts, unseeing, her jaw slackening just enough to let a few bubbles of air rush to the surface and burst.

Xifeng thinks of Chenglei, and how his death made her the oldest sibling. Her childhood seemed to end that day. Perhaps it was a natural consequence of this that she became a police officer.

A light flickers, on and off in her mind. She can trace the connections, now, see how one event caused the other: her life as a cop and then a Woman in Black. She sees Peter, and how even his disgusting harassment, too, led her inexorably toward now: the demotion he handed her placed her in AT-12, where she was first assigned to pursue Sonia Farooqi. Cadence‘s death at Jacob’s hands, while Farooqi’s cabal rescued Jahan, led to Vic Jacque’s capture and assignment to her amalgam. Vic, lost at the Carnival to Joshua, only to re-emerge as a kind of emissary before Xifeng was forced to kill them. That connection to Joshua, that curiosity he possessed, leading to him reaching back in time and driving her brother mad, causing him to kill himself and completing the turn of the wheel.

It’s not that any of this—her brother’s death, Peter’s harassment, Vic forced to commit suicide—is just, anymore than pushing someone out a window is just. But just as falling is a natural consequence, she can perceive the natural consequence of human actions, all of us tied together, each life touching and moving the others around it.

At some point she realizes she’s no longer just picturing these things in head, but actually seeing them. Not in her mind, but happening. It’s more than it was the first time though—far more than light plays across her eyes as she sees Cadence’s death, as she watches the Virtual Adepts raid the construct in virtual reality, as she sees Kite turn his back on them and leave her and Bren to die displaced in time. She sees Koaumé moving Bren to protect her and draw her out of rubble after she sent Alex on…

She’s seeing all that, but she sees where she is too. She pushes herself up on her elbow out of the water. She’s standing in a shallow river, no more than ankle height. The horizon is twilit around her, but the light comes from no single visible source, and everything is grey and monochrome. Alex has been here—she’s sent Alex here, and almost drawn him out. And still she sees:

Jahan’s madness, and everything that went into it, causing him to wither her body, so Matt could give her the pomegranate, so he could ask for her help, so she could be here…

Koaumé meeting with Cécile, with others Xifeng infers to be Kite and the Adepts of Time. There is no way she will remember all this when she comes back (when she comes back?). It’s too much for any human mind to hold, at any time outside of this moment.

There’s a power in what’s happened to her, in no longer needing to be constrained by life or fear or even time. Or maybe it’s the trauma of what happened, breaking her mind and shredding her last resistances to the idea that she’s been in control all along, any illusions that she could live her life as mundane Xifeng Lin, passively accepting the hand reality has dealt her.

She can see that passivity for what it was now. She’s always refused to accept bad situations, while at the same time constraining herself to other rules. The Technocracy. Static reality. The idea that those are things greater than herself that can’t be changed.

Xifeng sees the ritual of the Agama blooming like a flower in her mind, sees the chain of Chakravanti Awakening unbroken for thousands of years, from the first Chakravanti to Cécile to Matt (even if Gabrielle Awakened him first), and even Sonia. This is why they are Tradition. And she sees him sitting vigil by her body right now, laid out on the frosty pavement, waiting.

She is dead right now because she chose to be dead, because she walked her path, through a million million other possible outcomes, to be standing with her back to Matt at that moment, on the cusp of Awakening. And she can choose to be alive again, as long as she accepts that she is the one who chooses that, and that no one, not even Matt, is bringing her back this time.

Or she can not. It is her choice, after all. But there is more at play than when Matt, or Cécile, or even Sonia went through this. Her mind traces over the way Kouamé’s life touches others, Kite’s, the Pretty Girl‘s, Jessica’s, other’s. She knows what they are preparing for, and more than that… feels an absence in the web of fate, something that terrifies her, distantly, even now. Were she still a Technocrat she might describe it as dark matter, something she can’t perceive but that touches the lives of everyone around her.

A lot of people are going to die. Her sisters are going to die. Her mother.

She doesn’t know if she can stop it, if she still exists in that world. Even knowing and seeing as much as she does right now, there are still gaps. But she won’t, if she goes on.

The pattern of lives marches on in her mind, infinite, complex, glorious, waiting for her to choose.

To Xifeng, the time she spends on the precipice of that grey, watery place is interminable. There are too many lies to unlearn, too many recursive loops to comprehend, and so much of what feels like inevitability in everything she knows now. How can she hold these two conflicting thoughts in her mind at once: that a series of choices she made herself brought her here, but also that so much of her future had already been dictated for her in her past, long before she arrived at her destination? After tonight, what does she have to return to anyway? Her eyes fix on the far horizon, and she feels the current tug at her ankles. Even the knowledge that her loved ones are at risk isn’t enough. She can’t save them without the Union’s resources.

There are tears on her cheeks. She swipes them away with the heel of her hand, gritting her teeth. “I should go back out of spite,” Xifeng mutters to herself. It sounds insane as soon as passes her lips. You don’t just go back when you die. And yet, it’s such a satisfying thought. To ascend through the ranks as she did, and then to suddenly fall, only to rise again as everything she previously stood against?

Did she really stand against it, anyway? The very first time she met Matt, she helped him keep another deviant alive. Xifeng catches onto that memory. He told her about this. He offered to perform it then, and she thought he was joking. Sure, maybe visions of her place in a long, proud line of Chakravanti were already dancing through her head, but that memory snaps everything into focus. How can she find out if he meant it if she doesn’t go back to ask him?

Beside Matt, in the cold, Xifeng suddenly coughs up a mouthful of water, then nearly inhales it again. The tips of her fingers are looking blue, and she begins shivering as soon as life rushes back into her body. She turns her face to the side, curling in on herself as she retches up the frigid water in her lungs.

The first thing Xifeng feels when she returns is burning, and then ice, the sensations so similar the lines blur against her senses. Her lungs are burning, sure, but a thin layer of ice actually formed on her while she was dying—her face, her chest, her hands, even her eyelids, ice that cracks and shifts under the force of her living, breathing, flesh. She couldn’t have been gone that long, could she? Enough for ice to form and yet still have a body to return to.

The memory of it all is leaving her now—she knew it would, as much as she hoped it wouldn’t. She couldn’t hold onto it and claw her way back to life at the same time. Only the perspective of what she personally experienced—not the lives of Jahan and Koaumé and Joshua and Gabrielle—remains, and the sure knowledge that as things stand, the world will perish in fire and water, much like the freezing burn of ice on her skin.

And Matt. She remembers the shape of the Agama past, even if she can’t see them anymore. She knows the significance of what Matt did to her, and what was done to him. “Welcome back,” Matt says warmly, supporting her back as she sits up. He’s even more poorly dressed for the weather than she is, but he pulls a couple of the larger sheets of melting ice off with his hands. “Chakravanti.” Before, she hated him, or at least was angry with him. And maybe she still is? But there are so many other emotions she feels right now. Love for Matt, certainly—he gave her something her own parents couldn’t give her—but also triumph, pride, euphoria.

“Can you stand?” He asks. He wouldn’t be surprised if she can’t, yet, and he’s fully capable of carrying her if not. Her magick brought her back from death, but she’s still bruised and cold and her lungs will hurt for hours yet. It’s a glorious kind of hurt, though. All of her wounds and pains confirm to Xifeng that she’s alive, and for the moment she revels in the sensations. The whole world seems brighter and more wondrous—the sunlight golden, the fountain sparkling—and the more she draws her attention away from the travails of her body, the more rewarded she is.

Even without any grasp of the spheres, Xifeng can feel a strange rightness in the way the knowledge leaves her. There is a balance, only barely perceptible to her now, in letting that go to come back to herself. She’s too weak to do much more than get her elbows under herself; he’ll have to prop her up the rest of the way so she can spit the last of the water out of her mouth.

She doesn’t even look at him, her attention drawn away by the quiet morning around them. When she flexes her fingers, then rubs her palms together, her wince of pain is audible, but the shocking pins-and-needles sensation of her blood flowing back into her hands is delightful. “Asshole,” Xifeng replies under her breath, but there’s no real heat behind it. Certainly she remembers betrayal, anger, terror, as he plunged her into the water, but these new emotions are fresher and rawer.

Xifeng thinks about that, glancing at her legs. “I don’t know. Maybe not.” Finally meeting his eyes, she hesitates, her brows drawing in as she struggles with what more to say. ‘Thank you’ can’t capture the entirety of the tempest brewing inside of her.

Matt shares the moment with her. It’s the first time she’s ever seen him smile, at least sincerely. It’s not a grin, but it’s something.

But the feelings will still be there for Xifeng for some time. He picks her up and walks her to the curb. He’s fit but it’s not quite as effortless as it might otherwise be for him. He expended a lot of his power holding her Spirit close to Life, even more than he usually would. Now they need to rest.

He sets her down gently, and, kneeling, reaches under the car, retrieving a key. He opens and unlocks the passenger side door, sets her inside, and closes it. He trusts she can manage the seatbelt and the vents. Then he climbs in and starts the car. The first thing he does is set the heater on.

Then he seems to know where he’s going, driving south.

Xifeng smiles back, if threadily. Her shivering is growing more violent now; she’s incredibly relieved to be inside the car, even though it will take another few minutes to warm up. She’s able to fumble the seatbelt into place with her numb fingers, and she huddles in against the car door while she waits for the vents to begin to blow hot air. Apparently, she won’t have much to say until she defrosts a little.

She’s passingly curious about their destination, watching out the window as she warms her hands by the heater. When she speaks again her voice is rough around the edges, her lungs and ribs still throbbing from her little swim. “Why me?”

“Because you were worth it,” Matt says as he drives, not taking his eyes off the road. Xifeng can only just now feel the heat coming out of the car. “Because I knew you should have been a Chakravanti, and when you learn Tamas, the Entropy sphere, you’ll learn to trust that feeling.”

He slows down, verbally, as he thinks about his answer. “I guess because I knew you could be Awakened, and believed you should be. I waited months for the right time, trying to nurture you, nudge you in the right direction… And that it would be your choice, when you were ready. Ideologically, even if you didn’t totally know what was going to happen.” He fills the car with his voice, giving her something to focus on.

In her adult life, particularly since she signed on with the Union, sentiments like that have been few and far between. It was only recently that Xifeng felt like she was fitting in with the Technocracy. Maybe that’s because she never belonged there in the first place. She smiles again, squinting as the rising sun catches her eyes between the passing buildings. “When did you know, then? When we were looking for Will? I remembered you talking about it.” Darting a look at him, she adds, “After I finished drowning.”

“Yes, it was then.” Matt answers simply. “Certainly long before I drowned you. I think if other deviants had gotten to get to know you, they’d have wanted to Awaken you too.” No judgment there. Xifeng was trying to kill him.

They’re driving into the warehouse district along the river. A bit of a shady area of town, but about what she should expect from him now.

“Lucky for you that I didn’t hang out with deviants.” Reflecting on it, Xifeng supposes it makes sense that she never became Enlightened in spite of her devotion to the cause. “Then how does this work? We always provided structured training to agents who achieved enlightenment, based on their skills.” She pauses. “I mean- they did. Not we.” That might take some getting used to. She’s watching the scenery change with lift of her eyebrow. Well, probably he’s not planning to kill her twice in one day.

Matt just sighs in the way that only someone inside a group he fiercely defends sighs before he criticizes it. “The Traditions are not a monolith. There are Traditions where you would undertake years of schooling or tutelage, and ones where you’d be left alone to figure it out on the internet.” He holds up a finger. “The Chakravanti, either, aren’t a monolith. The name is Hindi but the ethnic groups most closely associated with the Tradition come from India, Zimbabwe, Greece, Britain, and modern factions that aren’t tied to any one place at all. There is a lot of variation among factions—in culture, religion, language, and history as well as ideology, but some things we hold in common.” He glances at her, though he’s been driving on autopilot since they left. “You are my student, and I will be responsible for you until you become a full member in your own right. So think of it more of a formal system of apprenticeship.”

He slow down, looking for a place to park. As luck would have it there’s a spot where he needs it. “And anyway, acquiring apprentices isn’t a competition,” Matt says, in a tone that says it is absolutely a competition. He parks the car.

“I have a spare jacket in the back, I forgot about it. Let me get it for you, and then we need to get going into the safehouse.” They’re at the docks. Xifeng may only be a baby mage but she knows who lives here: the Vampire Prince of the city.

Actually she was just worried she’d have to figure it out on her own, but didn’t want to come straight out and ask if he was going to teach her. Xifeng just nods, apparently satisfied with that answer.

She looks around at where they’ve stopped, frowning until she places this particular configuration of buildings. “Your safehouse is the Prince’s house?” Xifeng fixes him with an incredulous stare. Nevertheless, she’ll accept the jacket, easing into it with a pained wince before getting out of the car. She’s moving slowly, and may need a hand actually getting back to her feet or crossing any significant distance, but it seems like she can probably walk this time.

“One of them,” Matt says cryptically, pleased she figured it out and even more pleased not to have a drawn-out discussion about it. He shuffles alongside her, ready to help her if she needs it. There are already people working, and the grounds are well-salted, but there are some staircases to traverse downward.

They walk directly to the Prince’s yacht. She’s never been there but she’s certainly seen photographs. A pair of dock workers, muscular white men, approach and stop them. Human ghouls, certainly. “I’m here to see Taylor,” Matt says evenly.

“I don’t know who you are, but—”

“Tell him his Sister is here.” Xifeng hears a weird emphasis on the way he says ‘sister.’ The man blinks, looking over at Xifeng. The Prince is American Indian, and she most definitely is not, so he doesn’t see how she could be his sister. Her appearance otherwise doesn’t faze him—lots of beat up people in this business—but she is a bit ridiculously banged up, too.

“Go,” Matt says with a note of command in his voice, catching the man’s eyes. “Do your job. Tell them we are here.” The man scurries off, his colleague remaining with a befuddled look.

The messenger returns after a moment, asking them to come with him. They head over onto the actual yacht, meeting with a second human on the exterior of the ship. She is a little shorter than Xifeng, Greek or Middle Eastern with very dark eyes and curly hair pulled back to the napeof her neck. Matt rolls his eyes. “Thea,” He says to the seneschal. “Have you conveyed my message to them?”

She shakes her head slightly. “Maybe you’re new here, but that’s not how we do things. Whatever you are, you’re visiting a foreign dignitary—”

“You have three kids, all dead and buried. You’ve served ”/characters/alethia" class=“wiki-content-link”>Alethia since 1910, that longetivity made possible because she is True Brujah. She understands the importance of time, and timing. You do not. Go, tell her her Sister has come home. It’s a matter of some urgency."

If Xifeng speaks Matt doesn’t answer her. Thea leaves, and returns less than a minute later, seeming alarmed and curious under her professional demeanor. “This way.”

They are taken downstairs to the Prince’s sitting room. The Prince is sitting in his chair that for all intents and purposes is a throne. Alethia stands pensively by the door, her arms crossed. Thea lets them inside and shuts the door behind them.

Matt is the first one to speak, but he doesn’t say anything Xifeng might be expecting him to say. “I had a dream, which was not at all a dream.” He recites. “The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars did wander darkling in the eternal space, rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth swung blind and blackening in the moonless air; Morn came and went–and came, and brought no day, and men forgot their passions in the dread of this their desolation; and all hearts were chill’d into a selfish prayer for light: And they did live by watchfires–and the thrones, the palaces of crowned kings–the huts, the habitations of all things which dwell, were burnt for beacons; cities were consum’d, and men were gather’d round their blazing homes to look once more into each other’s face; happy were those who dwelt within the eye of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch: A fearful hope was all the world contain’d; forests were set on fire–but hour by hour they fell and faded–and the crackling trunks extinguish’d with a crash–and all was black.”

Into that silence the Prince speaks. “Thy Godlike crime was to be kind, to render with thy precepts less the sum of human wretchedness, and strengthen Man with his own mind; but baffled as thou wert from high, still in thy patient energy, in the endurance, and repulse of thine impenetrable Spirit, which Earth and Heaven could not convulse, a mighty lesson we inherit: Thou art a symbol and a sign to Mortals of their fate and force; like thee, Man is in part divine, a troubled stream from a pure source; And Man in portions can foresee his own funereal destiny; his wretchedness, and his resistance, and his sad unallied existence: To which his Spirit may oppose itself–and equal to all woes, and a firm will, and a deep sense, which even in torture can descry its own concenter’d recompense, triumphant where it dares defy, and making Death a Victory.”

Alethia looks… impatient at the ritual, but her own face is serene as she replies,
“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!"

The script complete, the True Brujah’s expression changes. “This is bold, even for you. What are you doing here?” John Taylor chuckles a little.

“We need safe harbor.” The Chakravanti says evenly. Neither Alethia nor the Prince look as animated as usual. Dawn has already broken, and it weakens them to remain awake. “It’s dangerous for us to be together.” The Prince says, looking Matt in the eye. “It’s not something that has happened before,” Alethia adds.

“Three at once has happened already.” Matt says. “You don’t think I’d come to you if I had any other choice? We’re almost out of time now. The Nephandi, and the Avengers both have what they need to access the Network. In hours, not days.”

Xifeng doesn’t interrupt at all, or bother him with questions. By the time they board the yacht, the simple exertion of moving this far has worn her out again. Go figure, you aren’t back to your spry self right after coming back from the dead.

That isn’t to say she doesn’t react. She manages to maintain her placid expression as the dock worker tries to puzzle out who exactly the Prince’s sister is, and then shoots a curious glance at Matt. He can certainly tell when she /has/ a question…

No matter how civil they’re all being to each other, once Xifeng is shut into a room with a pair of old, powerful vampires, she finds her fingers itching for the comfortable grip of her X-5. She still has the backup revolver in her bag, which hopefully made it this far, but she knows better than to reach for it. She merely observes the exchange of verses in baffled silence. Alethia’s gets a little quirk of her eyebrow; the lines sound familiar, like something she might have read in an English class once, although she can’t place the author. Are they all just reciting poetry at each other?

If Matt is going to tolerate an interrogation on the subject, it sure won’t be right this second. Xifeng waits patiently, glancing from one face to the next as they debate, her hands stuffed deep into the pockets of her borrowed jacket for warmth.

The vampires take it in stride. It’s the Prince who makes the decision. “We’ll talk then. And her?” He asks, paying attention to Xifeng for the same time.

“My student needs dry clothes and rest.” Matt answers easily. Looking at her, “We’ll talk soon too.” Alethia opens the door and summons Thea, who takes Xifeng away into the den of vampires, leaving Matt with their leaders.

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