Floriculture II


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Scene Title Floriculture II
Synopsis Chess journeys to Fort Jay at the request of the Department of the Exterior.
Date March 27, 2021


“Do you know what floriculture is?”

She can’t see his face. He’s too tall, too far away. Everything past hip-height feels so distant as to be blurry.

“It’s a discipline of horticulture, specifically regarding flowers.”


The smell of flowers is sticky-sweet in the humid air of the greenhouse. Red blossoms hang down at eye-level, vibrant and colorful.

“It is a discipline that encompasses the entire life cycle of a flower.”


He smells of flowers too. But his aftershave is familiar as well; woody, with a hint of something like oak. Wet earth, pine needles, fresh grass.

“It’s an overwrought word, when gardener would suffice.”


The gardener looks down, but he has no face.

“Would you like to try a hand?” He asks, offering his shears down.


A child’s hand reaches up, takes the shears firmly in hand.

“Careful, now. Pruning is a delicate task.”


The blades scissor open, slowly closing around the neck of a flower.

“For the best blossoms to flourish, the weak must be trimmed.”


A single blossom falls to the floor.

Expertly done.

Fort Jay
Governor’s Island

March 27th
7:17 am

“Ms. Lang?”

Chess blinks her eyes open at the sound of her name. She must have dozed off while waiting, still cradling her finished cup of coffee in her hands where she sits. The man looming over her is a familiar one, but not surprising, the voicemail left on her phone yesterday was warning enough that this meeting was going to happen.

It’s been a while since Chess had seen Agent Harris, and memories of her time in Homeland Security’s custody come flooding back. Harris raises his brows in momentary concern and offers a polite smile. “Long night?”

Her dark eyes meet his, and she tips her head a little ruefully at the question. “And an early morning,” she says with a polite smile that echoes his, as she rises to her feet — quickly enough despite the drowsiness she feels.

One hand tugs at the purse strap on her shoulder, a long-ingrained tic from carrying a duffel on her shoulder with all her belongings for so many years. The purse is tiny in comparison, just big enough to hold keys, wallet, phone, and that lightness makes it less comforting than the bag had been — it had been security blanket she’s tried to outgrow, this past year, but today Chess is wistful for its comforting weight, for all of the items within it that belonged to her or could be used as a weapon.

“Didn’t get much sleep, for some reason,” she adds, her tone wry but her eyes full of questions.

“I appreciate you coming out here on such short notice,” Harris says. “SESA is participating in some cross-departmental cooperation today and they’ve agreed to share a conference room with my agency so you and I can speak in private.”

Harris briskly leads Chess from the lobby of Fort Jay deeper into the building. The path to their ultimate destination is fraught with levels of bureaucracy set against an office atmosphere that isn’t sure whether it wants to be a Crate and Barrel advertisement or an Etsy Store. Glass walls, wood paneling, everyone has a plant on their desk. SESA’s offices are designed to feel welcoming, even if they crib a bit of style from 1970s couture.

“I apologize for the somewhat cloak and dagger nature of all of this, too,” Harris says as he approaches a wood paneled section of the hallway and stop at a thick door that is decorated with wood paneling on its outside face but appears to be made from a six inch plate of steel judging from its middle. “But this is a matter of national security.”

Harris motions through the doorway, which leads into a conference room with walls covered in soundproof baffling. There are flat panel displays mounted on the walls, no windows to speak of, and nearly all of the chairs at the black conference table are empty save for one. And that is where Chess is introduced to—

“Agent Gates,” the tall man at the conference table says, standing up to his full height and offering out a hand for Chess. “It’s a pleasure to finally make your acquaintance Ms. Lang.”

A brow tics up at the explanation and the mention of a conference room necessary for a private conversation, but once again, Chess doesn’t voice the obvious questions. She hasn’t been in the depths of SESA’s offices before, and her gaze darts this way and that are curious as they move through the corridors. Office life is new to her, in general, and Fort Jay’s aesthetics and energy is different from that over at the Clocktower building.

“I wouldn’t expect anything less,” she murmurs with a small smirk, a bit of bravado that doesn’t quite hide the anxiousness she feels.

It reminds her of being 16 years old again, worried about her fate after manifesting her ability in public.

She’s about to ask what she’s done wrong when Harris motions for her to step into the conference room, and the question dies on her lips as Gates introduces himself. Chess reaches out to take the hand.

“Finally?” she asks, brows lifting in query. She doesn’t say she’s pleased to meet him — she isn’t sure she is.

“I’ve read quite a lot about you,” Gates says, returning to his seat. Harris doesn’t enter the office, but instead closes the door which turns a green light on inside, indicating that the room is now completely soundproofed. “Your file with SESA, and my organization, is significant. But more so I mean based on your reputation, there’s very few people in this world you can say they stared down Uluru and lived to tell about it.” Gates’ brows climb up. “There’s very few people alive on Earth who can make that claim.”

Gates folds his hands in his lap, leaning back in his chair. There’s no dossier in front of him, no file to reference, it’s just he and Chess in the isolation of a soundproofed room. “Which… brings me to why I wanted us to talk. Your involvement in Adam’s operation, the nature of the experiment you were unwillingly a part of—the Flower Garden—and of course your personal relationship to Eve Mas.”

Gates glances down at his hands, brushes his thumbs together, and looks back up to Chess. “We need your help.”

Glancing back at Harris as he exits, Chess’ eyes widen slightly, unseen by Gates, before she turns back, and manages to take the seat closest to the door. Her hands pull the small purse from her shoulder and hold it in her lap — it’s something to fiddle with, worry at with her fingertips unseen from the man across from her.

She remembers telling Harris she wanted to help, a year ago. A lot has changed since then. A lot hasn’t.

“I lived, but I didn’t succeed,” Chess reminds him. As if he needed that reminder. “In the end — whatever was supposed to make us ‘flower girls’ so special, she — it — still got in my head.”

Chess swallows hard at the wave of emotion that wells up in her, remembering the offer, that Monkey’s Paw. Remembering how close she was to saying yes, to being the Dragon’s champion.

To becoming like her father.

“I wasn’t immune or whatever they thought we would be,” she adds. “Maybe against being possessed, but as far as I know, it didn’t try with any of us.”

Her head cants, eyes narrowing slightly as she studies Gates. “Do you know where it is? Where Adam is?”

Gates closes his eyes and shakes his head. For a moment, all he can do is look at his lap. “No,” he says after a moment, and it’s heavy with regret. “We’ve tried. Remote viewing, we burned out two people. Just—dead.” There’s a heaviness of guilt in Gates eyes when he looks back up to Chess. “We don’t know where Adam is, or if Adam is even alive anymore. I suppose we have to take Eve as a possible case for him being alive but…”

Shaking his head, Gates clicks his tongue. “The Entity made itself known near Tibet. It… destroyed the entire city of Lhasa. Gone. Like it didn’t even exist anymore. The Chinese government covered up the disaster as an explosion at a chemical factory.” He looks down to the tabletop, lifting a hand to rest it there, fingers picking at a corner of the enamel surface. “That was last summer. We don’t know where it’s moved since.”

Gates looks up from the table to Chess. “But, that’s not what I wanted to talk to you about. I called you here because we believe you may be able to help us with an important operation that is pending, one that… if successful, will save billions of lives. And one that—if it fails—could cost them all.”

Her eyes widen with horror as he discusses remote viewing, ‘burning out’ people, thinking of her sister and making a note to visit her as soon as she leaves Gates’ office. Chess doesn’t have time to recover from that before there’s more horrible news to bear, and she murmurs a quiet “Jesus.”

Horror gives way to confusion, and she tips her head slightly. She’d offered to help back in March, when she was still reeling with grief and regret and shame for the lives lost and her part in it. Some of that has faded, but it hasn’t lessened her need to protect others — a need that she’s starting to think is a flaw rather than a noble trait.

“I want to help,” Chess admits, emphatically, dark eyes shining with a surge of tears that she manages to blink back. “But what can I do? I couldn’t break through to Eve — I almost did, but the Entity was too strong for us both. And I couldn’t kill it. And now it knows me — what if I make things worse?”

Gates folds his hands in his lap, considering Chess in silence for a time. “If it’s any consolation, what we’d like to have you do is only tangentially related to the Entity. It’s more pertaining to your relationship with Eve Mas, but… as things tend to… this all comes back to it.”

“But I’m not going to be the one breaking those details to you. That’s… going to be up to Agent Castle.” Gates says carefully, then briskly moves on. “I’m here to talk to you about the Flower Garden. We’ve learned more, and wanted to share that information with you.”

Her brow lifts at the mention of Eve, and she opens her mouth to ask a question, but then Castle’s name is dropped. She closes her mouth again — looking slightly relieved to hear that the agent mentioned knows she’s here, knows what this is about. Her tension doesn’t fade completely, though, and it’s back in the next breath.

Flower Garden.

Chess’ fingers tighten on the purse still clutched in her lap. Her dark-eyed gaze travels to the door, then back to Gates. “All right,” she says, her voice schooled into a neutral tone, though the worry is clear in her eyes. “I’m guessing it’s not great news, but no one ever promised me a rose garden.”

It’s a bad joke. The left corner of her mouth pulls upward slightly, as she braces herself for whatever news he’s about to unleash.

Gates sighs softly through his nose, folding his hands in front of himself. “We apprehended Doctor Wu Shengjiao in the California Safe Zone after Wolfhound cleared the area for us. After some convincing, he’s agreed to cooperate with us and shared a wealth of information pertaining to the origin of the Flower Garden project and its purpose.” Gates breathes in deeply, like a man about to deliver bad news. “Not everything Wu said lines up with what Adam told you.”

Sitting forward, Gates folds his hands on the table, then scoots his chair closer to Chess. “According to Doctor Shengjiao, the Flower Garden was—as Adam said—founded by Kaito Nakamura as a part of Yamagato Industries research into cloning and genomics. However, Wu claimed that Kaito had a partner who helped him develop the project, someone from outside the Company, and someone that remained on with the project after Kaito died.”

“Now, Wu wasn’t able to provide me with a name. He was going off of hearsay and conjecture from other lab workers who were converted over from Yamagato Industries when Pinehearst took control of the operation following Kaito’s death.” Gates says with a glance down to the floor. “Based on our own research, we don’t believe this third party was a member of Pinehearst, Praxis Heavy Industries, or any other known group within the Flower Garden’s known reach.”

Gates wrings his hands together as he continues. “According to Wu, the surviving Pinehearst employees that remained under Adam’s direction talked about a sub-director who oversaw the day-to-day operations, but none of them had met him. When Adam took over, the sub-director vanished without a trace. But whoever he was, he was equally willing to work with Kaito as he was Arthur Petrelli.”

“Wu wasn’t able to be of much more help. He did confirm that by the time he’d gotten on to the project, he assumed that all the work being done was to replicate Expressives by way of cloning. He only learned of the connection to the Entity shortly before you did. Wu did confirm Adam’s belief that your genetic makeup somehow renders you resilient to the Entity’s external mental influence, and somehow protects your thoughts from it. But even Wu wasn’t sure how.” Gates admits with a sigh.

“But, there’s more to this.” He continues. “Wu shared intelligence with me that we believe had not ever made it outside of the Flower Garden’s walls. The three pods of siblings?” He says with a worry in his brow. “There were three more, born in 1987. From what the documents Wu showed us indicated, none of them survived to adulthood due to… medical complications.” Gates looks down at his lap. “You and your sisters came at a great cost.”

Narrowing her eyes at the mention of Wu, Chess listens like she might a college lecture — it’s just so much ancient history, in a way and feels distant from her at first. That yet another person, another man, had been involved in the creation of herself and her sisters, isn’t particularly surprising. It’s just one more person to be angry at in a long, long list that never seems to resolve.

“Epigenetics,” murmurs Chess when Gates mentions not understanding their resilience, remembering Adam’s surprise when she suggested that, when she had first met with him and Joy in Praxia. There’s a pang of something — not quite grief, but loss. Regret.

“She still got in my head,” she reminds him quietly.

But at the news of the pods born in 1987, her lips part, only to close as she swallows a moment later. Three more pods, dead. The bodies continue to stack up.

“My sisters and I have paid a lot of prices, too,” Chess murmurs, tears springing to her eyes at the thought of more dead sisters. One hand leaves the comfort of the purse to swipe her eyes, first one then the other. She clears her throat, and looks back at him, meeting his eyes with hers.

“Three by nine like us? Were they… were they like us, genetically, the three pods, or different?” she asks. It doesn’t matter, really, except that she wants them to be remembered — names, faces, how they died. If only by herself.

“Did they have names? When did they die?”

“They didn’t live long enough to have named,” Gates says with some difficulty, looking down to where his hands are folded in his lap. “They died in the same year they were born, the tissue samples used in their creation were old, as far as Wu was aware. Predating Joy’s willing participation in the process that led to you and your siblings. The ah…” Gates exhales a sigh, then looks up to Chess.

“In the 1940s there was a program called Project Icarus, started by the Nazis, to research Expressives. You may’ve read about it after the Albany Trials, or in Wolves of Valhalla.” Gates explains, trying to assume a conversational tone and distance himself from the emotional quality of the topic. “It’s most famously known for its research in replicating people with abilities, in the Pinehearst Company’s attempts to develop a synthetic formula.”

Gates’ brows rise slowly. “But Icarus’ origins started with Adam Monroe, during his time with the Party. He was a test subject before he, ah, naturalized to work with his captors. Some of the experiments were barbaric, severing his limbs and attempting to graft them on to Non-Expressive people in the hopes of jump starting or copying Adam’s own regenerative power. The results were… “ he shakes his head, “the descriptions alone keep me up at night. The same kinds of things Adam had authorized the Institute Remnant to continue working on when he developed Project Hyra.”

Clearing his throat, Gates looks over at Chess. “This is all relevant because,” he says with a waver of his hand in the air, as if negotiating between two topics like a fish navigating a winding river, “the first set of siblings utilized Adam’s flesh. They were grafted, in-utero, with tiny portions of Adam’s cells in the hopes that they would symbiotically become something more. They… did not. But the legacy, what Project Icarus was trying to create, in a way was realized through you and your siblings.”

Gates leans to the side, resting his elbow on the table. “That’s all we learned from Wu except for a handful of names of individuals who also had involvement in the Flower Garden that we’re looking into. Pete Varlane, as it turns out, was called in to consult in the mid 2000s when there was talk of making another pod of clones. Kaito’s death put an end to that, but Pete remained on call from time to time. We also have the name of Doctor Yi-Min Yeh, whom I believe you’re familiar with, and a British geneticist named Wilson Groveland. We don’t have any leads on Groveland. His trail goes cold around 2012 in the US, he could very well be dead. We don’t even have a photograph of him. So, I’m afraid there’s not much to go on.”

“I know none of this is much help to you,” Gates admits, “but I wanted to make sure you knew what we knew. I’ll be sharing this information with your surviving sister Alix as well.” Then, glancing over his shoulder, Gates considers something, but waits.

From the first words on, Chess stares at the same spot on the table, a smudge left by someone’s fingers that hasn’t been wiped clean yet. Her hands return to hold the purse in her lap, fingertips worrying at the rivets and the seams, something her nervous energy on. For once, the emotions don’t play across her face as usual, and it might seem she doesn’t hear, until she murmurs a soft, “Jesus,” at the talk of the experiments Adam went through.

For all her anger and resentment, she still feels sympathy for him. Sometimes.

Her eyes lift back up to Gates’ face at the mention of the familiar names of Varlane and Yi-Min.

“Thank you for telling me,” she finally says quietly, her head canting in curiosity as he glances over his shoulder. “Two questions. Well, three. The first is if Wu is in prison and staying there — all this cooperation isn’t so he can walk free in some sort of plea deal?”

Though her eyes study his, looking for the answer before she allows him time to speak, she continues with her list.

“Two, did they recover Lanhua’s body or confirm her death?” Chess manages to keep her voice neutral, but her gaze drops again under knitted brows. After a breath, she looks back up. “Three — you were going to say something else. What was it?”

Gates looks back to the door for a moment, then blinks and shakes his head, shifting in his seat. “Wu will be in prison for the rest of his life. The information he has is too valuable for capital punishment and if we went that route it could antagonize China as he’s a Chinese citizen. As it stands we’re in a balancing act to keep them from demanding he be extradited. But we have every intention of keeping him behind bars where he can’t harm anyone else.”

“As for Chen…” Gates looks down at his hands. “We received confirmation about a week ago that the Army Corps of Engineers assessing damage at the Ziggurat found her body. I know you two had a complicated relationship, and for what it’s worth you have my condolences.”

“The other thing…” Gates looks up from his hands to Chess. “Is more complicated. Do you need a minute?”

“So long as he’s in prison,” murmurs Chess, relieved the information hasn’t been used as a bargaining chip to free himself. At least not successfully. But any sign of relief on her face fades by the news of her sister’s remains.

Her lips pressed together, Chess looks down, lashes lowering. There are no new tears in her eyes when she looks up, but her dark eyes are solemn and sad.

“Thank you,” she says. “Complicated, yes. I wanted to save her. But it was always too late for that, before I could even try.”

Chess takes a breath, then shakes her head at the question of needing time. “I already knew, but with my family,” a small smile returns, shaky, “you can’t really assume anyone’s ever really gone, I don’t think.”

Gates can’t help but smile at that notion, even if it’s a bittersweet one.

“The other matter of business is of a personal nature,” Gates explains. “We have, for a time, known of another surviving member from the Flower Garden project. Up until recently she made the decision to keep her status a secret, but in light of your involvement in our work and the events that happened in the California Safe Zone, she’s made the decision to make contact with you.”

But that is where Gates puts the ball in Chess’ court. “If you’re willing to make the connection. I recognize—as does she—how sensitive of a situation this is.”

There’s no witty retort to his words, at least not at first. Chess stares at Gates in surprise. Her brows draw together; her expression crosses the border into hurt for a moment — the words ‘made the decision to keep her status a secret’ are like a punch in her gut.

She presses her lips together, looking down and then inhaling through her nose before she looks up again. One brow lifts. “I rest my case,” she murmurs — regarding another member of her family not being dead.

The words lack any actual humor and Chess nods slowly.

“I would like to, if she wants to,” she finally says. “With my other sisters, there was some resentment, and our reunion wasn’t really their choice.” Nothing was their choice goes unsaid.

Gates glances down and then looks to the door again. He doesn’t say anything, and yet the door pops open from the outside. Stepping in is someone who at first blush looks familiar, but much like the difference between Alix and her sisters, there’s something in her eyes and posture that tells Chess she’s different. In spite of being the spitting image of Clover Hull, she’s… someone else.


The blonde woman who walks into the room is at once humble as she is hesitant, like a cat approaching an unfamiliar stranger. Sage is nothing like her sister, dressed in sleek lines of conservative businesswear with a crisp white blouse, dark blazer and ironed slacks. She threads a lock of hair behind one ear, then looks with uncertainty between Gates and Chess.

“Chess,” Gates says with a look from the door to her, “meet Sage Abernathy.”

Sage smiles, nervously, and Gates rises to stand.

Chess turns to the door, and her brows lift as she sees Hull’s identical.

“Oh, you mean now,” she whispers, sitting up a little straighter. Her lips part to ask any of a dozen questions that flood her mind, but she manages to hold them back. Her eyes study the other woman, noting the differences from Clover as well as the similarities.

“Hi,” she manages to say, after a long moment, and then she looks back up at Gates. “Thank you,” is spoken in soft but sincere tones — for the information, dire as it’s been, and for the introduction to another of the sisters.

She rises, then, too, her purse still clutched between both hands. The right hand releases the corner of the bag, and stretches out toward the young woman. Shaking hands with a long-lost sister is a little strange, but so is meeting them in this manner. “I’m Chess. Yīngsù.”

Try as Chess might, she can’t hide the obvious emotion in her face — nervousness and worry and hope — as she waits for Sage to speak.

Gates quietly approaches Sage, putting a hand on her shoulder. He says nothing to her, but then looks back to Chess to explain, “I’ll be right outside.”

Sage nods to Gates, watching him leave. She stays silent until he shuts the door behind himself. Then, blinking her attention back to Chess, Sage lets out a long-held breath. “Sage Abernathy,” she says in a gentle tone of voice, so much like Hull’s voice but also not.

“I imagine you have…” Sage starts to say, then laughs awkwardly as she approaches the chair Gates was in, “…well, a number of questions. I have a few of my own, but since I’m the one ambushing you,” she lifts one brow, “I suppose it would be fair to let you start, if you’d like.”

Chess slowly sits again, purse once again held between her frenetic fingers but out of sight. She studies this “new” sister. There are questions, but some she doesn’t know how to ask, and some she doesn’t dare ask.

“I like your hair,” she says instead, with a small smile, finding that common ground before she asks anything of the stranger. Chess’ hand lifts to push back a lock of her own blond hair that’s a small act of rebellion against the genetic identicality she shares (and shared) with her fellow pod of clones.

“I only just met Clover two months ago,” she adds, her brows drawing together. With a small shake of her head, indicating confusion, she asks, “You haven’t contacted her either? How were you separated? Where did you go after that?”

Sage tilts her head to the side, brows knitting together. Unconsciously she threads her fingers around a lock of blonde hair. Her eyes search Chess’, and then confusion turns to emotion. Her jaw sets straight, and she shakes her head in a small motion of denial. “Clover?” Comes out like a frog croak from a vice-tightened throat.

“I—” Sage takes a shaky step forward, closer to the chair now. “Is she—I—” Swallowing down her emotion, Sage tries to regain control of herself. She focuses on facts, data, clinical and unemotional things. “I’m the only survivor of my pod that I knew of.” Sage says with a quaver in her voice.

Chess’ eyes widen and she finds herself in the rare position of telling someone else about one of their sisters — something she hasn’t done since meeting Kimberly. She nods, her dark eyes intent on Sage’s. “Clover’s alive. I didn’t know about her until last year, but we didn’t meet until a couple of months ago.”

She fidgets at the strap of her purse, then adds, quickly, “She wasn’t with the group working with Adam. She actually helped take down Praxis. Before that, she was out west, and then more recently in Providence. She’s okay.”

As okay as any of them are, anyway.

“It’s… strange, there’s two left from each pod now. Six of us.” Six of 27. “Six if you count Val, anyway.” Sorrow, guilt, regret pull Chess’ gaze downward, and she studies the grain of the conference table for a moment, before looking back up.

“I can give you her contact information if you like. It took her a while to contact me, but you… you actually were old enough to remember each other,” Chess says, struck by a pang of both jealousy and guilt that makes her take a breath. “Do you remember the others, too?”

Sage looks haunted by Chess’ inquiry regarding the others, but she nods all the same. Now she sits in Gates’ chair, crossing her legs and folding her hands in her lap; posture straight, shoulders squared, chin up. Trying to be strong in spite of all of this.

“I don’t remember much of my sisters,” Sage says with a look down and to the side, eyes shadowed by the dark fringe of her lashes. She is quick to change the subject as she blinks a look back to Chess. “I would very much like to talk to Clover, though.” It’s hard to read Sage’s intentions, she has experience in compartmentalizing her emotions.

For a moment, Sage is quiet, collecting her thoughts. Then, when it seems like she has something of grave importance to ask, what she actually says is dissonant.

“What kinds of foods do you like? What do you dislike?” Sage wonders. There’s a somewhat clinical curiosity in her tone.

Chess parts her lips to say something in that quiet moment, to offer reassurance or commiseration. But then Sage asks her about food of all things, and she tips her head slightly, thrown by the non sequitur.

“I’m not picky,” she says after a moment. “I was adopted by a Chinese father and a Vietnamese mother and I grew up in Colorado, so I grew up eating a little of everything, and in the war and after, you couldn’t be picky if you didn’t want to starve.”

Her smile turns a little wry. “I don’t cook well. I can make, like, fried rice and spaghetti. Thankfully not together.” Her hands finally come up from her lap, crossing on the edge of the table. “Top five, no particular order: a good steak, pho, xiǎobāo, shrimp, chocolate.” She considers the list for a moment, then adds, “And Basil makes an amazing burrata and grilled vegetable sandwich that’s to die for; it might bump bao out of the standings.”

Chess’ chin juts toward this stranger, this “new” sister. “You?”

Sage smiles, a glassy sheen of tears ghosting across her eyes before she looks away and blinks them shut. She is quick and practiced at drying her eyes with the side of her thumb, swallowing down emotion and looking back to Chess with a genuine—if pained—smile.

“I’m allergic to chocolate,” Sage says with a breathy laugh. “I don’t know what I was expecting there. To—find out there was something inherently identical in us?” She smiles, though this is a bit more bitter. “I—have very plain tastes. I’m a chicken tenders and ketchup girl,” she admits with a wrinkle of her nose and a shaky laugh. “I don’t drink, either. Alcohol, I mean.” She shakes her head slowly. “It doesn’t—sit well with me.”

Sage searches Chess’ eyes for a moment, then looks down to her lap. “Are your—” she makes a noise in the back of her throat and shakes her head, “do you still talk to your adoptive family?” She asks instead, looking up.

The smile draws one from Chess, but she winces at the chocolate allergy. “That’s a tragedy,” she murmurs. She might say as much to the teetotalism, but keeps it to herself, knowing her reliance on alcohol might verge on the unhealthy.

“No,” is the terse answer to Sage’s question, and Chess looks down for a moment, then back up to say more. “They were pro-registration, very wary of anyone ‘evolved.’ Including me. Probably pro-relocation too, but I didn’t ask. I was at college at the time, and…” she lifts her shoulders. “I haven’t seen them since I left for college that summer.”

She offers a small, pained smile, before pushing a lock of hair back behind her ear. “Were you adopted? Where did you grow up? What’s your ability?” Chess grimaces, holding up a hand in apology. “Sorry. Too many questions.”

Sage smiles, a gentle and reluctant thing, and takes in a deep breath at all the questions. She holds it, counting backwards in her head, steadying herself. Then, on an exhale, she smiles again.

“I grew up in Maryland,” Sage says with some effort, as if the conversation were difficult for her. “No parents to speak of, but I did have handlers. I suppose I was adopted, you could say that. I was the control sibling of my pod, raised in isolation from the others. Each pod had one. Yours was—”

Sage grows quiet, lowers her head, and folds her hands in her lap. “I’m sorry, I realize that may be hard to hear all things considered.” Question of her ability hangs unanswered for the moment.

“Handlers.” Chess echoes the word flatly.

Her brows draw together and she shakes her head. “No, it’s okay. I want to know. I’m still sort of piecing it together. I only know about Lanhua and Kimberly. Was it Kim? The control?”

Chess always assumed Kim had escaped, like she had, with the help of Joy and whoever else it was she saw in her childish memory of that night, the night she tried Refrain. “I only know what Alix wanted to tell me — the others, they…”

She exhales and looks away, tears filling her eyes for a moment as she thinks of the fates of the others — Vi and Ivy, both gone. Val, working with Mazdak. “They resented me, my so-called normalcy. We didn’t really have a chance to totally get over it, and now…” she shrugs, one hand reaching up to swipe away the tears that collect in the corner of her eyes. “I don’t blame them. Not that my life’s been easy.”

“Lanhua was supposed to be the control,” Sage says with a look down to her lap, “but—from what I know after our agency questioned Doctor Wu—that changed when you were abducted from the lab. They found you, eventually. Kept tabs on you your whole life…”

Sage sighs, wringing her hands in her lap. “In a way, Lanhua’s chance at a normal life was stolen that day, too.” Then, looking up to Chess, Sage shakes her head and looks regretful. “I shouldn’t have… said it like that. I’m sorry.”

Chess’ brows draw together and she looks down at her own hands in her lap. Tears fill her eyes and she shakes her head slightly. “Normal,” she breathes out.

She tips her head to stare at the ceiling, blinking away the tears before she looks at Sage again. “No, it’s true. That’s not your fault. Thank you for telling me,” she says quietly. “I wanted to save her.”

The dam breaks at that moment, and Chess covers her face with both hands; her brow furrows, visible above the tips of her finger. “I wanted to save all of them,” she whispers into her hands, the sound caught, amplified, in that space between lips and palms.

She lowers her hands, and makes no effort this time to wipe away the tears or blink them away. “What made you change your mind? About letting us know you’re alive?” she asks.

“Things,” Sage says with a quaver in her voice, averting her eyes. “I—can’t really talk about it. Basil—Agent Castle is going to meet with you after this to go over the specifics.” She looks up at Chess with a crease in her brows and worry in her eyes. “I just… I realized that if I waited any longer, it might be too late, you know?”

Sage’s expression shifts into a weary, emotional smile. “I don’t rightly know how many opportunities we’ll get to… to talk or—I don’t know. See each other. But I’d never forgive myself if that stayed at never.” Her gaze wanders back to her lap, shoulders hunched forward.

There is a very telling lack of surprise in Chess’ eyes at the implication that their time together might be short. She doesn’t know what the mission is, but Chess has known for as long as she’s known Basil (not quite five months) that he’s trying to save the world.

She stands, moving to the seat catty-corner from Sage’s, rather than the one closest to the exit. “That bad, huh,” she says a little wryly, before reaching out, her hand resting palm up on the table between them, offering for Sage to take it.

“I understand why you wouldn’t want to meet the rest of us. Especially the others,” she says softly. “Alix would still be happy to meet you, to know you. And if anything happens to me,” she swallows, unsure what she’s being tasked to do, or if there’s any hope of doing it, “I’d like to know you have each other. The few of us left — Clover and Kimberly, too. I can introduce you.”

She tips her head, to catch Sage’s eyes with her own. “I’ve learned that our chosen family is as important, if not more, than the ones we’re born to. But we can still choose to be, if we want to be. If we get to know one another and find we like who we are, not who we were designed to be, yeah?” Her smile is tentative. “For whatever time we have left.”

“Kimberly…” Sage mouths the name, her eyes casting to the side as if considering something. When she blinks her attention back to Chess, Sage slowly rises from her chair. She takes a moment to steel herself, swallowing audibly as she does, and then manages a tense and somewhat inscrutable smile before stepping around and away from her chair while keeping one hand on the back to steady herself.

“I will send Basil in,” Sage says as she changes her train of thought. “You’ve given me a great number of things to consider, Chess. But I assure you, I do not want this to be the last time you or I speak to one-another.”

Expression turning hopeful, Sage angles for the door. “Be brave, Chess. You’re stronger than you believe.”

When Sage stands, Chess drops her hands back into her lap, glancing down at them as they twist together. When she looks back up, she manages a small, tentative smile, a little more distant as Sage puts distance between them. But it grows as Sage speaks again. “Me neither,” she says quietly.

The sentiment to be brave, that she’s strong draws a small huff from Chess, and she looks away to wipe her eyes again.

“It’d be nice to not have to be at some point, but that’s a luxury I’ve never had,” she says quietly. It isn’t quite true — it’s a luxury she will never afford herself, if lives are at stake and she can do something about it.

Sage looks at Chess for a long, silent moment before adding: “Me neither.”

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