The Outing Part Seven

‘Go get a shower,’ Falcon instructed when she and Jay were in the long corridor housing most of the downstairs facilities of the Predgarian Centre. ‘Leopard won’t be happy if you’re late for her sneaking lesson.’

‘It’s called stealth, Falcon,’ Jay corrected. ‘Leopard hates it when you call it sneaking.’

Falcon’s lips twisted in wry amusement as the boy turned towards the staircase. Leaving him be, she headed for the kitchen and bit off a groan when she found Dove sat at the table.

The beautiful blonde woman, dressed in a pair of smart cream trousers and white blouse smiled at her. ‘Welcome back.’

‘Were you waiting for me?’

‘Of course. How was the outing?’

Falcon didn’t cover her groan this time as she sat at the end of the table. At least the healer was honest. Resting her arms on the wooden surface, Falcon leant forwards and buried her head. ‘Why did Lion get me to do this?’

‘Because you’re perfect for the job. Not even Lion or Tiger can identify Sarpiens on the street like you can. Lion’s actually been talking about sending the others out with you for training too.’

Falcon’s fists clenched on the table and the sigh escaping her lips sounded more like a growl.

‘Something went wrong today, didn’t it?’ Dove guessed.

‘Jackal.’

Falcon lifted her head at the lengthy pause.

Dove gave a soft exhale. ‘You seem to have kept both Jay and yourself safe, so I guess it ended well.’

‘It almost didn’t. I came across Osprey first – out of armour. I didn’t want him to see Jay so I activated and diverted him out the area. When I got back I found Jay missing – then ran right into Jackal.’

Dove giggled. ‘You do like to live on the edge, don’t you?’

‘I’m not doing it on purpose!’

Dove reached out and placed a hand on her forearm. ‘I know that, Falcon – we all do. I guess we never realised how much things would change having you here. You really make protecting you a full-time job.’

Falcon sighed. ‘I know, I wish things were different.’

‘Well, on a happier note, Tiger and I are going shopping tomorrow afternoon.’

Falcon’s head sank to the table again. ‘I’m not really-’

‘You’ve been putting us off three weeks now, Falcon.’

Falcon paused a moment over what to say. Lifting her head again she rose from the table and took a small bottle of orange juice from the fridge.

‘I don’t really need any clothes, Dove. I’m fine with what I’ve got.’

‘You mean your week’s worth of jeans, denim jackets and leather vests?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Falcon, don’t you want some variety?’

‘I like my denim,’ Falcon tried not to wince at her own petulant tone. She hadn’t meant for it to come out like that.

Dove sighed at her. ‘You need some different clothes. What if you get called to an official meeting? You wouldn’t want to meet the other captains dressed like you are now, would you?’

Falcon glanced down at herself, ‘don’t see why not. If I ever meet them I’ll probably be in armour.’

‘And if you meet General Jaguar?’

Falcon gulped down the last of her juice. ‘Er, well, guess I’d manage.’

‘Please, Falcon, just come shopping with us. I’m sure we can find some business clothes you’d like.’

Falcon threw the empty bottle in the bin. ‘There’s really no need to waste the money, Dove. I’m happy with what I have.’

‘Fine,’ Dove responded as Falcon headed for the door. ‘Tiger and I will just pick out something we think you’d like.’

‘What?’ Falcon asked, half-turning to her.

‘Tiger’s seen some very nice pencil skirts on sale.’

Falcon’s eyes bulged at the very idea. ‘You’re going to buy me something whether I come or not?’

‘Yes, so you might as well so you can choose.’

Falcon glared at Dove’s charming smile. The woman was a bull when she wanted something.

Shoulders slumping, Falcon realised she was beaten. ‘Fine,’ she muttered, ‘but no skirts.’

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The Outing Part Six

Jackal waited till he was a few streets away before finally taking the radio from its pocket on the inside of his leather jacket. It had been buzzing at him during the entirety of the duel against Falcon.

He grinned, remembering her hesitancy during their brief conversation. Karen had never been good at handling him when he threw away the insults and jibes. She expected him to be violent and abusive – and on a normal day he’d be happy to oblige, but sometimes he just wanted to see that wary, bewildered expression.

Jackal switched the frequency on his radio onto “open.”

‘Speak.’

‘General,’ Grey Rhino’s deep bass of a voice crackled across. ‘Where have you been?’

Jackal noted the man’s voice was harried, which was unusual for him. ‘What’s the problem?’ He had no intention of telling any member of his Elite what he did in his free time – least of all Rhino.

The general grew bored as Rhino tried to explain, but drifted away on a tangent over the state of the walls.

Jackal took the radio out of range of his hearing for a few moments. He slowed upon passing a diner with its doors wide open, the smell of beef and fried onion wafting through the air.

Tempted to stop for a burger, Jackal’s attention was brought back to the moment when he heard Rhino utter the words “chaos” and “cataclysmic.”

Did Rhino even know what cataclysmic meant?

Jackal switched his radio off and picked up the pace. Maybe he’d better see for himself what was happening down there.

Deciding to head back to the warehouse district rather than one of the narrow wall entrances in town, he wasn’t quite to the main intersection when he had reason to stop, finding the hulking Rhino taking up most of the passage.

‘Rhino.’

‘Hm?’ the massive, almost bald man rumbled, turning on the spot.

‘General, you came!’

Jackal held in his sigh. ‘Just what’s the problem?’

‘They’re everywhere, General. Cobra’s trying to get them back under control, Mantis is with him now, I think.’

‘Mantis is..? Just what are you talking about?’

‘The bugs, of course.’

‘What?’

Rhino turned in the tunnel, letting Jackal see past him. He stared at the walls, the torches glinting off dozens of tiny, rounded metallic surfaces.

His eyes were drawn to the ground where even more of these buggish things were crawling about.

‘What…is this? Aren’t these the same robots Cobra used to infect the kids in West Sector?’

‘Exactly the same.’

Jackal looked up as the Silver Harrier joined them, a disgusted expression marring his handsome features.

‘Cobra’s been trying to overcome the machine’s weakness so that we can use them instead of coercion – but things didn’t go so well.’

‘I can see that,’ Jackal replied. ‘How does infesting Trine’s tunnels help with him finding the bug’s weakness?’

‘It doesn’t. He told me he’s been experimenting with a few other strains of the serum. One of them has given the robots…how did he put it? a low-level sentience.’

‘Low-level? So these things are thinking for themselves?’ Jackal willed himself to remain stood and not take some cautious steps back from the beetle-like creations.

‘Sort of. They’re not really dangerous, just hungry.’

‘Harrier, machines don’t get hungry.’

‘Yeah, but they think they are, they’ve taken on a kind of life of their own. Cobra says they’ll try to feed and breed even though they can’t until we do something about it.’

Jackal rubbed at his forehead with one hand, ‘and what is being done about it?’

Harrier shrugged. ‘Cobra says he doesn’t want to lose all his progress so he’s got a team of Sarpiens putting them into tubs for him.’

‘Tubs,’ Jackal muttered and strode past the Avian. ‘Fine, let me know when it’s done.’

He shook his head, it was unthinkable that something this incredibly stupid could happen.

Entering his quarters, Jackal switched on the light and paused in the doorway. Stood there a few moments, he watched the shiny insects crawl around the rocky walls before releasing a long sigh, ‘should’ve had that burger.’

The Outing Part Five

The first thing Jackal did was take one small step back and then with one foot, send Falcon’s radio scuttling even further away across the cobbled ground.

Falcon’s teeth clenched, she should’ve seen that coming, Jackal never missed anything.

Giving no jeering remarks or warning, the Sarpien general lunged in the Canine Pounce.

Knowing how devastating the attack could be when it hit, Falcon didn’t bother to parry, using a Cat-Roll to the side to avoid it instead.

Against any other Sarpien Falcon might’ve used more Avian to break up her old, personalised style, but Jackal knew full-well who she was and where she came from – there was no point pretending.

Ready for the evasion, Jackal spun, his sabre swinging dangerously close. Falcon fended it off with her claw and took a few steps back.

For a single moment her eyes darted to the radio again but had to focus completely on Jackal as he attempted to close with her.

She grunted, the full force of his blade coming down on her steel claw. She gasped as the general spun into a surprise Dog-Sweep, tripping her up.

As she landed on her back, Jackal pinning her to the ground, Falcon had no choice but to look up at his leering face.

‘You’re off form, Karen,’ he drawled, ‘just what are you looking for?’

‘Like I’d tell you,’ she grated. Falcon called on the Power, sending ice running up her arms.

Jackal swore, releasing her as his hands began to chill and freeze.

Taking the moment, Falcon caught Jackal in the chest with a Reptile Palm-Strike, forcing him back before smashing him in the face with an Avian Strike.

Falcon found her feet as the scarlet-haired Sarpien reeled back.

‘You left yourself wide open,’ she told him, flapping her wings once. ‘Maybe you’re the one off-form.’

Jackal’s lips twisted in a wry grin as he stood his full height. ‘Maybe I’m just letting you warm up.’

Falcon snorted, ‘any excuse.’

As Jackal’s eyes narrowed, showing his anger, Falcon rushed forwards, going on the offensive. She could’ve stalled longer, Falcon knew Jackal loved taunting her, but it would achieve nothing. She needed out of this fight, but leaving him here on the street without making him retreat would mean an ambush later down the line.

Jackal was ready and swerved from her oncoming claw, landing a heavy Alpha Punch against her chest plate.

Falcon reeled back, her teeth grinding. She couldn’t take too many of those, Canine armour increased physical strength far more than an Avian did.

Not letting up Jackal closed in, landing another, pounding her stomach this time.

As Falcon fell backwards she let loose a blue-tinged aura sphere, blasting the Sarpien away from her.

Struggling to breathe, she found her feet and noted Jackal a few yards away, rising from the floor with no hurry.

‘You know, people would say we’re being stupid right now,’ Jackal commented. ‘You can use ice, I can use fire – yet here we are going at it with fists and weapons.’

Falcon panted a moment before straightening. ‘It was always our way.’

All expression of arrogance and mockery left his face and he sheathed his dreaded blade. ‘I’m glad you remember that.’

For a moment Falcon stood, mouth slightly open, having no idea how to respond to a Red Jackal that wasn’t goading or taunting.

‘I was never likely not to.’

Jackal’s face turned inquisitive and his mouth opened, on the verge of speech. He shook his head and instead turned, walking away.

‘We’re done?’ Falcon blurted, surprised out of her composure.

Jackal glanced back, and though his familiar smirk was present, it was touched with regret. ‘This was just a bit of fun, we both know I can’t take you one-on-one.’

After Falcon was left alone on the street, a sad smile crept over her lips. ‘I wish I did know that,’ she murmured.

She stepped forwards to retrieve her radio but before using it decided to put out one last aura sweep.

Falcon shook her head and with a sigh turned, finding Jay’s head poking out from the corner at the end of the street.

The boy was chewing his lip again. It didn’t matter how many times she told him to stop, he always kept doing it.

‘Did you hear all of that?’

‘Um…’ he began as he joined her on the street.

Falcon gave another sigh.

‘Why did you…sound like…?’ Jay looked about, casting his eyes anywhere but at her.

‘Jackal and I have history,’ she told him, ‘you know that already. We’re still enemies and he’ll always be there to take full advantage of my mistakes. I guess…we’ve just been at this so long now, you know? It’s not as important as it used to be for him to bring me down right away. He knows I live here, after all.’

‘I just don’t understand why you were both being so civil – don’t you hate him?’

‘Of course I do. You think I like him stalking me through town?’

Falcon didn’t speak her full thoughts though. She couldn’t stand it, but Jackal knew her in a way no one else did, and sometimes, those moments with him gave a sense of familiarity.

She caught Jay staring at her and realised he’d picked up her emotions. Falcon smiled at him, not bothering to deny her feelings on the matter. ‘Let’s go home.’

The Outing Part Four

With her sharp raptor vision, Falcon found it easy to scan the crowd in the market square. After a few moments she flapped her silver wings and rose a little higher, extending the search to the connecting streets.

Jay wouldn’t have gone off on his own without good reason, Falcon believed that, but for all she knew there might be more Sarpiens in the area other than Osprey. Perhaps Jay had hidden in a shop somewhere.

Falcon reached out with her mind, now she was in armour her aura sweeps would reach much farther.

She grunted, on the instant recognising one far too close for comfort. This was out of hand, she needed back-up.

Taking the radio from her belt, she decided it was time to swallow her pride and tell the others she’d lost Jay.

Falcon gasped as something bashed into her from behind. The wind knocked out of her, she dropped from the sky and down to the ground below, having no time to recover.

As her armour scraped across the uneven cobblestones and her radio clattered away from her down the street, the shops on either side of her were nothing but a blur of colour.

Groaning, Falcon worked through the pain of impact and turned over onto her back in time to see Osprey diving towards her.

Several courses of action sprang to mind, and she was fully aware of the screaming crowd in the near distance. They had evidently realised there was a fight with Sarpiens underway.

Falcon gritted her teeth, she’d wanted to keep the fighting off the streets. As Osprey’s wings flapped in a loud flurry, almost on top of her, Falcon grabbed the arm coming towards her with its deadly claw. Careful to keep it out of reach, she pulled the Avian down a little before hoisting him over and behind her with the Cat-Flip.

Rising and turning on one knee before standing her full height, Falcon’s breath caught upon finding two Sarpiens, not one.

Falcon let out a quiet breath, trying to centre herself for what was coming. She hated fighting Jackal, she could never be confident of the outcome.

The Sarpien, clad from head-to-toe in his mid-class crimson plates, was still concealed by his Canine helm.

Its removal was always a sure sign he was about to attack and that he was serious.

‘Excellent work, Osprey. I’ll take it from here.’

‘But-’

Jackal’s intimidating Canine head swung to the grey Avian.

‘Yes, General,’ the young Sarpien muttered. He retreated, his sullen glare fixed on Falcon.

She didn’t really care, Osprey was a nuisance compared to the Sarpien stood before her.

Jackal reached up and pulled the helmet from his head, revealing his hard-planed features, scarlet hair and jade eyes.

For a single moment Falcon considered flying away, but she suspected Jackal would just have Osprey ambush her again.

She eyed the radio less that a foot behind the Sarpien general, if she could just get to it.

‘You’re not on duty, Falcon,’ Jackal spoke, his face breaking into a knowing smirk. ‘You work the mornings with Hawk.’

Falcon had to actively prevent her teeth from grinding, she hated that he knew her patrol pattern. She’d been a Predgarian for three months now though, it stood to reason he’d know.

‘This is not the time or place for this, Jackal,’ Falcon told him, keeping her voice steady. ‘If you know when I’m on patrol we can do this anytime, doesn’t have to be here.’

Jackal’s teeth bared as he grinned and he drew his jagged-edged, blood-red sabre.

‘You’re in a hurry, Falcon,’ he purred. ‘You don’t want me to get in your way.’

The evil light coming to his eyes made it hard for Falcon to keep hold of her impassive features. ‘You’re looking for something, aren’t you?’

‘Fine,’ Falcon replied, voice low. The long, steel blades of her claw slid out the top of her left gauntlet. ‘Let’s do this.’

The Outing Part Three

Jay watched as Falcon lifted into the air. His face broke into a frown as he returned his gaze to the market square.

Would Falcon be okay? Jay shook his head, trying to dispel the doubts and awful scenarios trying to play themselves to him. Of course she would. She’d rescued him from Trine’s tunnels – and stopped Jackal from mind-controlling him. Of course she’d be alright. Osprey was just one Sarpien.

His watch of the crowd shifted as he noticed a single woman. Jay tried not to stare but he couldn’t help it. The way she walked…

He tried to remember what it reminded him of. Jay jumped a little, his blood feeling cold in his veins. She walked like Leopard!

Jay tried to study her like Falcon had taught, what was there about the woman that stood out?

Her clothes were strange – all brown leather, even the tight trousers. The woman’s hair was lanky and dark, in need of a wash.

The face was sharp, humourless, the eyes brown. It was an odd colour for an Aljurian. With such dark hair though, she probably came from the far south.

Jay couldn’t place why, but the woman scared him. His intake of breath was a little laboured as she drew closer to his location.

His hands clutched the corner of the wall. She hadn’t seen him, but…

Shaking from the suspicion the woman might be a Sarpien, his fear made his feet move.

Breaking into a short run, Jay wound through the crowd and away from the market. After a minute or so he stopped, panting.

He gulped as he looked about. No one had followed him, but what about Falcon? Jay sighed, he had to get back to where he was – or at least near to it.

Glued to the spot, he stared wide-eyed at the small street he’d just run through.

‘Come on,’ he muttered. ‘How are you gonna be a Predgarian like this?’

Falcon never hesitated. She never stared down a street, scared because there might be bad guys.

‘Falcon can fight though,’ he muttered.

He shook his head, not able to tell if that was a valid reason or just an excuse. Well, no matter, he still needed to get back to the market.

Taking a deep breath, Jay forced his feet forwards and back towards possible danger.

Just turning the corner, Jay froze at the man stood in the centre of the street. His eyes widened to saucers at the black leather jacket, plain denim jeans and mullet of scarlet hair.

Somehow, through his terror, Jay’s brain told him that Jackal was stood with his back to him, while he was stood there like an idiot.

Jay backed round the corner, trying not to let his heaving chest be overheard.

‘Well,’ Jackal’s voice spoke.

Every single muscle in Jay’s body was locked, but it didn’t sound like the Sarpien general was speaking to him. It didn’t really sound like he was speaking to anyone in particular.

‘The Silver Falcon is in town,’ the general drawled.

A glint of sparkling light caught Jay’s eye. Craning his neck, he saw Falcon’s elegant form floating in the sky.

Jay gaped. What was she doing? She was hovering in plain sight, not moving at all. What happened to Osprey?

He heard Jackal moving off so glanced around the corner. Jay swallowed as the man transferred into his ruby armour, his face and hair obscured by the intimidating Canine helmet.

Jay knew Jackal was going to attack Falcon, but what could he do? There was no way to warn her.

He took a few deep breaths. Falcon was the best, she could handle Jackal. He’d just have to wait until she chased him off.

The Outing Part Two

Falcon didn’t explain as she kept her grip firmly on Jay’s shoulder and half-pulled, half-dragged him from the seating area.

Placing him in front so the teenager was between her and the milling market crowd, Falcon pushed him a tiny bit. ‘Head towards that narrow street in front of you,’ she murmured in his ear.

Jay’s head bobbed and he strode forwards, thankfully not taking his time but not rushing either.

When they reached the cobbled side-road, Falcon pressed Jay against the wall with one hand and turned, peering out at the crowd.

‘What is it?’ Jay asked, his voice breathless. ‘Is Jackal here?’

Falcon snorted. ‘Look, I know he’s been the cause of a lot of chaos the last couple of months, but Jackal’s not behind every incident in the city.’

‘I didn’t say he was,’ Jay grumbled.

Falcon continued to watch, her eyes darting, trying to discern if there were any other Sarpiens about. She didn’t bother to stop Jay when he peered around her.

His intake of breath was audible. ‘I know him!’

Falcon gave a questioning glance.

‘He was one of my guards when I was in Trine’s lair.’

Falcon nodded. ‘He’s a Sarpien these days – Grey Osprey.’

‘Osprey? Hawk’s mentioned him. He says the Sarpien doesn’t like him.’

Falcon snorted again, ‘Sarpiens don’t like anyone. I know what he means, though. That one’s taken a disliking to other birds of prey. Leopard says she’s even seen him arguing with Harrier – and they work together.’

Falcon stared at the young man as he wandered through the market, he was slowly coming closer to them. ‘Does Osprey know what you look like?’

Jay nodded.

‘All right,’ she sighed, digging the medallion out from beneath her shirt.

‘What are you going to do?’

‘I’m going to activate and fly up to a roof. Osprey always takes a shot at me when he can. I’ll lead him away from here and come back for you, so just stay here, okay?’

Be careful, Falcon.’

She smiled and activated the coin, letting the silvery glow bathe her in its magic.

Standing a good foot taller now she was in armour, Falcon unfolded her giant, silver wings. The spirit of the avian all around her, she felt stronger, more confident. Falcon could feel the wind gently ruffling her now longer, paler hair and the silver plates of her greaves and armguards did not hinder as much as with other warriors, her armour incorporating a lot more leather than even other light-armoured warriors in the same class.

Falcon lifted off and alighted on the nearest roof. She stayed there a few minutes, scanning the crowd, though she made sure not to make it too obvious she was watching Osprey.

The young warrior was already veering towards the nearest exit, thankfully the other side of the market to where Jay was hiding.

For a moment Falcon considered returning to Jay. She could get back on the ground and her armour off before Osprey reappeared. He might decide to cause trouble though.

She let loose a resigned sigh. Lion was going to lecture her on riling up Sarpiens needlessly again.

The grey Sarpien rose from among the buildings on his dull wings. Falcon waited a moment more, to give ample time for her to notice him. She wouldn’t want him to think she’d been waiting.

Falcon took flight and winged her way upwards. She’d already decided where she was going. In the distance there was a high radio tower. It would do.

She landed on its rough cement roof with a clunk and turned to watch the slower Avian join her.

Falcon took a few steps back, putting a little space between them.

With a nasty grin, Osprey took the crossbow from its place on his back.

Not bothering to wait a moment longer, Falcon gathered her will and threw out a few ice shards. As the Sarpien darted to the side she launched herself at him in a low Feline Jump-Start.

Her claw unsheathed and Falcon delivered an Avian Strike, her fist and claw finding Osprey’s left wing.

He screamed in agony as it pierced through feathers and into flesh.

Falcon wanted to finish this quickly, so as she deflected his desperate counterattack, she punched him in the jaw and threw him off the side of the tower.

Immediately rolling backwards, Falcon let herself fall off the other side and careered down in a steep dive, only slowing her speed as she reached the street.

She sped alongside the road for a minute before alighting. Hiding behind a parked car, she performed a small aura sweep to ensure she was properly hidden before deactivating.

Falcon paused a moment, panting a little. She watched the tower for a while, noting when the grey Avian managed to make his way back up.

A fall like that with an injured wing wouldn’t put an armoured warrior out of action for good, Falcon knew that, and Avians could reset their wings by deactivating. It was the one injury a medallion could take away.

Still, it had given her the time she needed to disappear. That trick would never have worked against Harrier or Jackal, both of them could track auras.

Now invisible to the Sarpien again, Falcon made her way back to the market to find Jay.

She breathed in when she arrived on the small cobbled path where she’d left the teenager. It was empty.

Falcon threw out her mind in another aura sweep, but without her medallion active it could only reach ten feet or so.

‘Oh, Jay,’ she muttered.

She wandered down the narrow street in search of him, her eyes lifting to the sky every now and then for signs of Osprey.

It might be impossible for her track Jay without putting her armour back on, but if she did Osprey would attack again.

Falcon let out a sigh. Why did these things always happen to her?

The Outing Part One

Jay stumbled over what seemed to be nothing and paused in the middle of the street.

Falcon stopped and turned to him. She adjusted her brown leather gloves, making sure they overlapped with her denim jacket.

‘Relax,’ the short Unician told him, her jet hair and narrow, yellow-tinted features stood out with so many people around.

Jay had never really dwelt on where it was he lived before meeting Falcon. The majority of the southlands were inhabited by pale-skinned people, most of which born with blond or light brown hair. Unless you went south-east, in which case people’s hair tended to be darker, but they still had the same, paler skin tone.

Jay nodded at Falcon even as he scrubbed at his blond hair.

Falcon sighed and went to him. ‘You’re going to get me shouted at,’ she told him, patting his hair back down. ‘Tiger spent ages putting you in order this morning.’

Jay scowled. ‘I didn’t ask her,’ he pointed out.

Falcon chuckled. ‘Come on, we don’t want to spend too long in town. You know how worried Lion gets about you.’

Jay groaned, ‘don’t remind me. Will I be able to leave the Centre by myself when I get a medallion?’

‘I should think so,’ Falcon assured him.

Jay frowned at her. That wasn’t exactly a yes in his opinion.

‘Your training’s coming along nicely,’ Falcon told him. ‘So now it’s time to start focusing on fine-tuning your senses.’

Jay nodded and tried to suppress his grin. Finally! He’d been waiting for this. It had been promised for weeks.

‘Dove will be taking you out to train your empathy,’ Falcon continued, ‘I couldn’t help you with that anyway. What we’re going to focus on is body language.’

Jay frowned, he thought he’d be training telepathy or sneaking. ‘Body language?’

Falcon nodded and stopped on the street corner leading into the town square. She waited for a few women to pass.

‘Recognising body language can be as useful as empathy or precognition. One glance can tell me if a person is a shopper, a thief or something a lot worse.’

Jay breathed in, trying to calm his nerves. By worse Falcon meant a Sarpien. He was suddenly taken back to the morning he and Falcon had tried to escape Jackal and get to the Predgarians. At one point Falcon had veered off course, off the street and straight into a diner. She’d said there’d been a Sarpien – but he’d never seen one.

Falcon placed a hand on his shoulder. ‘I won’t let anything happen to you,’ she whispered.

‘I know. I trust you, Falcon.’

Falcon got that strange, wry grin again. It appeared every time he said something like that. Now Dove had been helping him to use his empathy, he felt the emotion behind it.

She felt like she wasn’t good enough, that he was foolish to rely on or trust her.

‘You rescued me,’ he told her, ‘twice. I know you’ll always be there for me.’

Falcon shook her head at him. ‘No one can know what the future holds – but I’ll certainly do my best. Come on, let’s go find some people to watch.’

Jay nodded and followed her into the market. ‘I’ve missed this,’ he murmured.

Falcon threw him a sideways smile, ‘you’re a lot taller than you were when I found you here.’

Jay groaned, ‘don’t. It’s Hawk’s favourite thing at the moment. He keeps calling me a weed.’

Falcon laughed, ‘he’s just worried you’ll outgrow him.’ She gestured over to the other side of the market where there was a small café. ‘Let’s get a drink.’

Following her, Jay obliged when she told him to grab a table.

Falcon hesitated, ‘what would you like?’

‘Moluka?’

Falcon sighed and turned away. Jay grinned as the emotion washed over him. She always got so exasperated when people mixed food or drink from different cultures. Jay loved the milky coffee drink though. Who would’ve thought the bitter coffee bean would pair so well with buffalo milk?

A few minutes went by and Jay took some more deep breaths. He hadn’t thought he’d be so nervous outside the Centre.

He tried to keep his face straight when Falcon returned, holding a tray laden with their orders.

‘Relax,’ she soothed.

‘I am,’ Jay objected.

She gave that half-smile again. ‘I might not be empathic,’ she told him, sitting across from him. She placed the tray between them, ‘but I’m an expert at body-language. Stiff limbs, stony face, scared eyes. You look ready to bolt.’

Jay tried to relax his muscles.

Falcon grinned. ‘Like this,’ she advised, slowly one by one, rolling her shoulders. ‘Back and forth, then, roll your head around. Slowly, try to be discreet, you don’t want people to think you’re having a seizure.’

Jay frowned at the jibe but did as she said.

Feeling a bit better, Jay picked up the tall mug of moluka. ‘So how would you make this?’ he asked. ‘If you didn’t want to mix ingredients what kind of milk would you use instead?’

‘The milk’s not the problem. There are plenty of buffalo up in Unicia, but we don’t drink coffee. Despite it being popular almost the entire world over, it’s only grown in Oldeiria.’

‘Wow, I had no idea. So what would you use instead to make moluka?’

‘Nothing. I can’t stand coffee. It wouldn’t be much of a moluka without the bean though, so there’s no point in trying to substitute it, it would taste totally different no matter what you tried.’

‘What do they drink in Unicia then?’

‘Konae, a type of tea derived from the green kona plant found in the mountains.’

‘Oh, is that the tea you drink at home?’

‘Sort of. It’s an inferior plant grown in Kian. It’s the best I can get this far south.’

Jay smiled. ‘I hope I get to see Unicia someday. They say the capital shines – is there a lot of glass?’

‘Marble,’ Falcon told him, ‘white marble, the suns reflect off it. It’s not a true shine, like light off water or glass, but it can still be blinding, especially at mid-day.’

Jay watched as Falcon poured herself a cup of pale, green-tinted tea from the small porcelain pot she’d ordered.

‘Do you miss it?’ he asked.

‘Don’t be silly. I’ve never been to Unicia.’

Jay concentrated on his mug of steaming moluka. Falcon had just lied, he’d felt the shift in her emotions. She had been to Unicia before, but why would she deny it? Jay swallowed, Falcon’s sadness flooding him.

‘I’m sorry,’ he muttered.

She offered a small, wan smile. ‘It’s okay, let’s get to work.’ She nodded past him. ‘Turn slowly, as if you’re just scanning the crowd out of nothing but idle curiosity. See the woman with the pink shopping bag?’

‘Yes?’

‘Take note of her eyes. She’s completely immersed in window shopping, her eyes scanning clothes – she’s bypassing the everyday ones, only looking at the dresses.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘That she’s pleasure spending. She wants something nice for herself, or is preparing for an event. A party, a business event or perhaps a vacation – winter is on its way after all.’

Jay blinked a little. He was amazed Falcon had got all that so quickly.

‘Skip the vacation,’ Falcon muttered, ‘she’s looking at the knee-high dresses, long-sleeved and discreet colours. Business it is then. Odd.’

‘What is?’

‘She’s looking at them in distaste, that dress wouldn’t fit her…ah, shopping for someone else then. She looks old enough to have an adult daughter.’

Jay jumped, feeling Falcon shift from observation to hyper-alert. She reached out for his shoulder and pulled him up from his seat.

‘Time to leave.’