Nonchalantly, He Returns
"This sucks," Bijou said aloud.
The rest of Titans 7 couldn't agree more. It was not a good start for an early morning.
There were several moments of utter silence, especially when a question came up that no one could answer. The group sat almost listlessly around the dining table in Mel's apartment. Everyone was dressed haphazardly. The entire history of Conan's life was spread over the surface. The group made special care not to spill their espresso coffee on it.
"We might be facing some major changes," Mel announced to the team. "Because of the hacker… now that the Foundation…"
There was no need to finish. Everyone understood.
"Who knew that Enoch Kosti himself had a hand in all this?" Peter declared. "But it should've been glaringly obvious from the start."
"It always seemed plausible to me," René muttered under his breath.
Liat sighed heavily. She hadn't said a word throughout the whole "meeting".
"This info… it doesn't help much at all, does it?" Bijou asked.
"This 'Cameo Omega' problem looks rather serious," Peter corrected. "And the good Director is keeping his mouth shut…"
"So, what are we supposed to do about it?" she answered irritably.
"There's nothing we can do," Mel interjected. "All we can do is wait and do our jobs."
Bijou flinched, clearly disturbed. "But…"
"Don't get it, already?" René chided her. "We might be 'Titans 7', but we're only a piece of the puzzle. Leaders… don't tell the company secrets to peons."
There was another pause. It was relatively shorter than the previous ones.
"Where's that Mr. Lang fellow?" Mel asked curiously.
"In Conan's apartment," Liat replied briefly. "I let him in."
"I wanna talk to him later," he decided.
Peter shook his head dismissively. "He's not in the talkative mood. He just wants to see Conan."
"Yeah… as soon as we find out what actually happened to him…!"
Liat's features tightened in response. "Don't we already know that?"
"But where is he!?"
Another pause ensued.
As the sun slowly rose, shining through the window, Yula ventured into the dining room in her pajamas. She rubbed her eyes groggily and clung to Mel, shamelessly claiming his attention.
"What are you doing up so early?" Mel asked, trying to smile for her.
"Had another… weird dream…" Yula mumbled in complaint.
He rubbed her curly head and hugged her in comfort.
"Want some coffee?" he asked jokingly.
Yula's half-closed eyes suddenly popped open, and she grimaced. "Eww! No!"
She wriggled out of his embrace and marched towards the kitchen. Mel's façade dropped as soon as she disappeared.
"To be a kid again," Bijou said longingly.
"You're still a kid," Peter deadpanned.
Bijou stuck out her tongue.
Liat cleared her throat and got up from the table. "I'll be right back."
She walked away, and some of the members noticed the gloom hanging off of her shoulders.
After she disappeared around the corner of the hall, Mel turned to Peter with a weary face. "I'd give her up now, if I were you. While you still have yer dignity…"
"I beg your pardon?" Peter answered in annoyance.
"He's right," René agreed. "Doesn't make sense… but a woman's heart is always an unpredictable sea."
Bijou cocked her head in bewilderment. "Huh?"
"Yup… it's inevitable," René mused.
"I feel for you, Pete," Mel said with utmost sympathy.
"I think… you're both over thinking this," Peter said coldly (with some doubt).
"What are you guys talking about!?" Bijou cried, insisting on being acknowledged.
The men turned theirs eyes upon her. She stiffened in her chair but stared back in defiance.
"Don't mind us," Mel told her. "This is just man talk."
Bijou raised an eyebrow and rolled her eyes. "Sexists."
Meanwhile, in the home of Conan Kosti, Timothy was in the middle of exhausted sleep on the couch. It had been a rough journey, and a (to say the least) tiring yesterday. While he slept, the kittens roamed about the apartment. One of them climbed onto the arm of the couch and purred against his head.
One could still see that he was troubled; his expression fluctuated between hardness and serenity. Lying in such an uncomfortable place wasn't helping matters.
Adding to his frustrated rest, a hand brushed the hair off of his face, even though it was meant for affection. The torment grew worse when the hand started poking him in various spots on his face. He growled in response and swatted the hand away.
In retaliation, the hand reached out and clamped tightly over his nose. Timothy found himself unable to breathe and woke up, gasping for air.
"Good morning!" Conan sang, releasing his nose.
Timothy looked at his face, at first too flustered to respond. He rubbed his nose with a scowl. Conan smiled innocently.
Quickly springing into action, Timothy reached out menacingly. Conan tried to escape but was pulled into a crushing half nelson. He squealed in almost masochistic delight.
"You little jerk!" Timothy snarled. "You give me a thousand heart-attacks… and you come waltzing in here like it's nothing!"
"This is my place, you know," Conan pointed out in a wheezing voice.
"I have donuts in the kitchen."
"THAT'S NOT GOING TO SAVE YOU!"
Conan sniggered, causing Timothy to tighten his grip. "Stop laughing!"
He didn't. He simply clung to the offensive arm and tittered like a maniac.
Slowly but steadily, Timothy's hold weakened, and in the end, he was hugging Conan from behind. His body was trembling.
"Someday, I'm going to kill you…" he said in defeat. "Do you have any idea… what I'm feeling right now?"
"If you're going to be angry with someone," Conan countered, "get angry with the Larkin Foundation. And it can't be helped. I have to clean up the mess my grandfather was forced to make."
"But… you don't… have to…"
"Yes, I do."
Conan sighed, patting his arm gently. "Because I'm the only one who can. And since he's my family, it's… my responsibility, I suppose."
The kitten, no longer appeased, leapt off of the couch and went elsewhere. Its absence wasn't missed.
"I thought I was family…"
"Of course, you are. Why do you think I wanted you to come?"
Timothy whimpered. Conan hummed the last bar of "Pop Goes the Weasel", something that he did not appreciate.
"You have always been family," Conan continued. "And you're probably the reason why I never wanted a girlfriend in the first place."
"Where is this coming from?" Timothy asked.
"I've always been a clairvoyant," Conan went on, "so, I've always lived emotionally isolated from everyone. Virtually no one accepts supernatural things… not in the domes. But you're the only person who accepted it… accepted me. So then… over the years, I thought to myself…'what's the point of getting a girlfriend, who I can't completely open up to, when I could just have supportive you?' It was pointless."
"Then your powers were at fault. Not me. And besides, your grandfather knew you were psychic."
Conan pouted and answered curtly, "He's dead!"
"You little piece of work."
Timothy let him go and slumped against the couch. Conan leaned against the edge of the couch and examined his old friend. He had visibly lost weight.
I'll be having one very large cooking session tonight, Conan thought firmly.
"Feeling better?" he asked.
"No," Timothy muttered. "People are out to kill us…"
He shrugged apologetically. "Well, sorry… there's nothing I can do about that…"
Timothy leaned his head back and covered his eyes. Conan rose and sat next to him on the couch. They were very conscious of the sudden shift on the cushions.
"You've gained some weight," Timothy stated, wanting to change the subject. "I've often worried that you were too thin, and it never made sense since you're such a good cook. But what's with your hair?"
Conan stared blankly and yanked on his modest ponytail. "This?"
"It wasn't like that when you sent me the photo."
"Oh that? I just did a body swap yesterday."
Timothy stared at him in horrified confusion. "A what!?"
Conan averted his eyes and tugged on his ear. "A body swap. BODY SWAP. You're wondering why I'm not dead, right? That's because… after all this time, I was wearing a fake cameo. It worked as some form of transfer unit. When my other body bit the dust, I—or rather—my ghost was transferred into another body. I did cut my hair then. Everyone else in Titans 7 went through the same thing. But unlike them, the body I was in… I only needed to use it for only a little while, so yesterday, I had to hop into this one. This time, I think I'll keep my hair like this for a bit."
Timothy gave him a stupefied nod, as if the whole explanation had made perfect sense to him.
"You didn't realize that technology could be that advanced, did you?" Conan asked with a smirk.
"It sounds… like something out of a… sci-fi movie," he replied.
"Don't kid yourself. We're live in a sci-fi, post-apocalyptic world… with elements of horror and a closet dystopia. Haven't you ever read the classics?"
"Get real, you pinhead…"
Timothy went limp where he sat, drained by the revelation. Conan smiled in a strangely maternal way and rested his hand on his friend's shoulder.
"Shall I make get you some maté?" he offered. "I've already brewed it."
"We're gonna need something stronger than that," Timothy argued.
"With a dose of vodka and some cream?"
Conan nodded faithfully and lifted himself from the couch.
"Conan?" Timothy stopped him.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Were you serious when you said you had donuts?"
At the same time, in the great headquarters of the Larkin Foundation, a team of people also held a meeting.
Iggy Pryce, the unkempt, hacker extraordinaire himself, was almost too proud of himself to pay attention to his teammates. He sat right next his close colleague and confidant, Aram Eginhard, who was his stoic, neat opposite with a minimal haircut. Hermina swallowed nervously as she sat on the other side, her eyes glancing from the table before them… to the look on their superior's face. Oda Caldwell, an ash-blonde who appeared to be bubbly, had all eyes on their superior; whether or not she was truly paying attention was left to speculation.
Their astute leader, Winston Rand, was a serious, clean-cut man in both image and action. Nothing about him was out of place and he behaved as if he had had a wonderful night's rest, even when he was forced to wake earlier than normal. He casually flipped through the retrieved photographs, contained inside a similar device that Hermina and Iggy presented to the Director. His change in mien was subtle and controlled; those who knew him—namely, his subordinates—were the only one who could catch his surprised reactions.
"Unreal, isn't it?" Iggy drawled in amusement. "LOLITA caught his pretty face from a mile away… in less than two minutes! I guess Mr. Kosti's alive after all!"
"Mr. Rand?" Hermina asked questioningly. "Tell us… this couldn't be possible… could it? Conan Kosti was confirmed dead. And there was an autopsy… and a funeral. It's not…"
"Oh, it's possible," Winston declared, without taking his eyes off of the images. "It's most definitely possible…"
"But…" she protested.
"You're not thinking hard enough," he scolded her. "You—all of you—should know that it could be done… with the power of Larkin technology, that is."
The table went deathly quiet. Iggy, barely able to contain himself, was positively thrilled to hear his superior's words. The rest of his colleagues, however, didn't share his feelings. After a moment, after Winston waved his hand over the screen a few times, Aram was the first to speak.
"So, what you're saying is…" Aram began, "…Wilhelmina has gone and stolen… that?"
"It's the only thing that makes sense," Winston replied calmly.
"So, they hacked into our system and stole the info?" Oda asked curiously.
Iggy intervened quickly with a shake of the head. "If they did, I would've found their footprints there too."
"So, it was leaked then," Hermina suggested, folding her hands under her chin. "We have a mole in the company. But… it had to have been done a long time ago. It takes time to create the right conditions…"
"So… you're saying that someone knew that Conan Kosti was going to get shot?" Oda asked mockingly. "A long time ago…?"
"If there's something they know that we don't…!"
Aram cleared his throat, cutting into their brewing exchange. "What about his known associates? They people that are around him in those images?"
Winston briefly looked up from the images and narrowed his eyes at Iggy.
"You asked personnel to search for their faces in the cities' records, right?"
"I did it!" Iggy declared indignantly. "Come on! What am I… a flake!? I'll pick the stuff up after you let us loose."
"Do it now, Pryce," Winston demanded. "Now…"
Iggy raised his hands defensively but got up from his seat. The automatic door slid open as he went and shut behind him as he left.
"So, do you think the thief has already defected?" Hermina asked.
"That's probably true," Winston agreed. "However, I just wanted to know… if Conan was the only one who was… 'rescued'. And I find that highly unlikely."
With a light exhale, he closed his eyes and snapped the device shut. He sat it casually on the table and rubbed his chin.
"We haven't received our orders yet," Winston told them. "However, it's very likely… in the worst case scenario…that we're going to be sent on an extraction mission."
"Extraction!?" Oda squeaked.
"To take back what Mr. Kosti has stolen, of course."
The entire table cringed in various ways of dismay. As true citizens of the domes, the very idea of stepping into the wilds was an unpleasant thought.
After a few doses of spiked tea, Conan had dragged his hapless companion into the office of Director Ambrose. Nevertheless, Timothy was eager to see the man and have a few words. Unfortunately for him, as soon as Mr. Ambrose had politely welcomed them into the office, it was only Mr. Ambrose who had spoken the most.
For about half and hour, Timothy had been treated to a lengthy explanation of the situation at hand, along with the current "setbacks" Wilhelmina was facing. At the end of it, Timothy was left more exhausted and even more worried than before. But at the very least, less clueless.
"So, you see, Mr. Lang," Mr. Ambrose finished, "those the circumstances we are under. I understand that you're very concerned for Conan's well-being, but it has to be done. We have no choice, and time is running out."
Timothy was too stunned to blink. "Wow."
"Makes you glad to be in the wilds, doesn't it?" he replied with raw humor.
Timothy only grunted in reply. Satisfied, Mr. Ambrose turned to Conan and became more serious.
"You realize," he said, "just to be sure… you cannot come back to this building. It would probably be wise to have Titans 7 pack their bags too. From now on, you are only allowed access to the ground floor."
"I understand," Conan replied, holding up a box of donuts. "I'll go back as soon as I deliver these to the gang."
"Oh!" Mr. Ambrose replied. "Are those from the local bakery?"
"Yes, Uma got them."
Conan opened the box, and Mr. Ambrose reached inside.
His companion flinched in outrage. "What a second! You're jumping and running again!?"
"Yes, I am… and you're coming with me, right?"
Timothy stopped, his anger vanishing.
"If you don't mind, that is," Mr. Ambrose prodded, pulling out a glazed blueberry.
"And it's not far," Conan added. "We won't even be leaving Sandeep."
Timothy stared hard at him and puffed through his nose. "I don't like this at all, but as long as you're in my line of sight… I'm fine with it."
"You can't follow me on the job, you know…" Conan reasoned. "It's dangerous…"
Timothy's face contorted in hideous ways. "Just as long as you're coming back to the same spot…"
"Then, it's decided," Mr. Ambrose declared, biting in. "That'll be all then."
Conan bowed his head respectfully and stood up from the chair. Timothy sternly followed suit and was right behind him as they headed out of the office.
Suddenly, Conan stopped at the door.
"Tim," he said. "Could you wait outside for a moment?"
Mr. Ambrose looked up in surprise. Timothy nodded reluctantly and walked out into the lounge. As soon as the door closed, Conan turned back and sat down again.
"Is something wrong?" Mr. Ambrose asked.
Conan's manner became decidedly frosty. He sighed, reigning in his thoughts, and the Director waited rather anxiously.
"I thought that this could wait, but I've changed my mind," he said. "Uma told you about my vision last night, right?"
"Yes, she did," Mr. Ambrose replied. "You said… that you knew you had had it before."
"That's not the only thing. I'm starting to remember many things."
Mr. Ambrose solemnly lowered his eyes. "I see…"
"I always thought it was a little strange…" Conan continued, "how you were able to be prepared to save my life. How you were able to save them all—Mr. Nye, Mr. Fremont, Mr. Bentley, Miss Trig… Miss Blanchefleur. Yes, I know how the Titans 7 program works. I know all of that... but it never explained how you knew when to them rescue them… at the exact time they needed to be rescued. And why them, I thought? Why?"
The older man did not reply.
"It was strange, but I remember now. I finally remember… that I was the one who predicted their deaths in the first place. It makes perfect sense! Only… I don't recall ever having a premonition… that was ever that accurate. And that's not all. My vision… that prediction… that wasn't the only thing I told my grandfather. I told him many things. So, why then? Why is it that I've never been able to remember anything? And why am I only able to recall it now?"
Mr. Ambrose sat back in his chair, the years coming down upon him. He had already dropped the donut on his desk. Conan thought, for a moment, that he appeared quite old.
"Did you and my grandfather…" he hesitated. "Did you tamper with my memories?"
Mr. Ambrose breathed deeply, his whole body moving in response.
"It was…" he finally answered. "It was Enoch's wish. He… there was no way we could burden you with the information you knew. You were only a child. He thought it was best… and so did the rest of us. We were all quite fond of you. And what you knew was very dangerous."
Conan softened a little, his eyes filled with thought.
"So, we performed a series of hypnotic sessions on your mind," Mr. Ambrose revealed. "We designed it so that… so that you wouldn't recall anything… until you went through your second body swap. Now, you remember everything… just as I thought you would."
Conan laid the donut box on the desk. He rested his elbows on the surface and ran his fingers through his hair.
"Are you angry?" Mr. Ambrose asked.
"What's to be angry about?" Conan replied. "You did what you had to do. You all did."
"Well… I need to tell you this… the procedure…it had a side effect."
Conan gaped in shock. "Side effect…?"
"You asked why you were able to have such an accurate prediction? That's because it used to be normal for you…until after we finished the hypnosis. We never could understand why, but after we had successfully locked your memories, your power diminished drastically."
Conan buried his face in his hands. "Lovely."
"It's very likely…" Mr. Ambrose pondered, "that the full brunt of your ability will return to you. Perhaps, it already has. It's all ill timed, so you'll need to brace yourself. Unless, you'd rather go through with another set of hypnotic tests…"
"Stay away from my mind," Conan replied sharply.
Mr. Ambrose smirked, pleased with his answer.
"Good… I didn't think you'd react badly, but I was worried…"
He stopped short. Conan still had a serious but inquiring look.
"Is something else the matter?" Mr. Ambrose asked.
"Why did you give Titans 7 the permission to look into my records?" he asked.
Mr. Ambrose froze. Conan wrinkled his nose impatiently.
"I wanted them to get over their suspicions of you. That was my only intention."
Conan smiled lightly. "You… didn't have to do that."
"They would've done it themselves… eventually. Mel… he's a good leader, but he gets reckless at times. At the very least… the blame won't rest on them."
Back in Mel's apartment, the spirits of Titans 7 had—in some ways—lifted up.
They no longer spoke of being ignorant pawns. Instead, they were more preoccupied with the surprisingly colorful events of Conan's past. Liat managed to smile. René found it easy to smile. Bijou giggled often. Mel remained indifferent. Peter sometimes frowned.
"In the fifth grade," Bijou snickered, "he clobbered a bully in self-defense…with a rock…"
"Talk about the turning of the worm," Peter commented.
"Good for him," René cheered. "Don't get on his bad side, Mel."
"You're really pushing your luck," Mel snarled.
The doorbell rang. Mel looked at Yula, who was sitting on a nearby couch. She nodded to him and got up to answer the door.
"Remember to get the footstool," Mel reminded her. "So, you can look through the peephole."
"Please lay off me," René countered. "I was just following the Director's orders. You still can't fault me for that."
"That's not the issue," he rejoined. "Lately, the problem has been your mouth…"
Peter deliberately interrupted. "His grandmother's name was Hollis Kosti, née Calder. She was a talented painter and an antique shop owner… who was reportedly rumored—among friends—to be able to predict the future…"
The table became very, very quiet. Bijou burst into a tear-jerking cackle.
"Hmm," Liat mused quietly. "So, that's where it comes from. It's… in Conan's blood."
"So, he's got you believing that too," Mel snarled in contempt.
"Well, you'd have to be stupid or stubborn as a mule to deny it now," René whispered under his breath.
"What was that…?" Mel glared darkly.
Mel glanced to his right and realized that Yula had already come back. She was eating a jelly filled donut.
"Where did you get that?" he asked her.
Yula glanced upward, over his head.
"What do you know?" a voice pondered over him. "It's my alma mater!"
Mel jerked his head upward. Conan glanced at the papers in Mel's hand, sucking on tea from a thermos. Peter, Liat, and Mel stood up abruptly. The whole table stared in amazement.
"C-conan!" Liat cried.
"Welcome back," René greeted casually.
"Thank you," Conan replied.
He opened the box and respectfully presented the contents to Mel first.
"Donut, Mr. Fremont?" he offered.
Mel glared into Conan's mismatched eyes, into the donut box, and then at Conan again. He cautiously reached into the box and took out a vanilla sprinkle.
"Where… did you turn up from…?" Mel demanded.
"Ah, do I have to answer that?" he crooned.
Conan turned his head with a smile plastered on his face. Liat had her hands crossed, her hair in disarray and her face pale with shock.
"Is something wrong, Miss Blanchefleur?" he asked facetiously.
Liat coughed, taken aback by his playful nonchalance. Conan sat the box in front of Bijou, dooming her to wonder whether it was appropriate to take one out.
"Mr. Ambrose…" she said. "He said you went through a body transfer…why…?"
"Yes, I did. But now, I'm right here. I'm fine."
"I'm fine. Isn't that all that matters?"
Titans 7 was too perplexed and far too confused to answer. Except for René. He only looked on as if it were just a show.
"Don't worry," Conan chirped. "I didn't come to interrupt. I just came by to say that I'm all right. It was just a little experiment that Mr. Ambrose and I performed. There's no need to be up in arms about it, and I didn't mean to cause any trouble. Okay?"
"But… he…" Liat stammered. "You…"
Conan tilted his head and gave her a cheerful grin. He sauntered towards her with a slightly apologetic look in his eyes. Liat looked away, visibly pained.
"Have you been worried about me all this time?" Conan asked.
Liat swallowed, not wanting to answer. Conan chuckled under his breath and brushed her bangs back into neatness. She flinched under the sudden touch.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, drawing close.
Before Liat could react, Conan placed a gentle peck on her lips. While Peter stood right behind him. A visible tenseness reverberated throughout the table. Yula cooed.
Conan craned his neck and looked back, still touching Liat's face, and wiggled his eyes at Peter's reaction. Peter, with a red face and tightened lips, was not pleased. Liat didn't—or rather—couldn't move.
"I'll answer those three questions for you," Conan said to him, "after you're done cleaning up Valonia."
He let Liat go, strolled past Peter's still form, and walked out of the apartment with a bounce in his step. The front door clicked with a deafening sound.
"I think I'm starting to like him!" Bijou admitted.
Peter stared worriedly at Liat, who was in a frazzled daze. René glared at him ironically. Mel gazed upon him with many condolences.
"Don't you say a word!" he growled at them.
Mel got up and went into the kitchen. René got up and pretended to use the bathroom.
As Timothy watched Conan stroll out of the apartment and shut the door, he silently wondered what he was snickering so devilishly about. He decided to ask later.
Conan stopped and leaned against the door, allowing his mirth to subside. And then slowly, the glow left his visage, his smile disappeared, and he suddenly looked very tired. Timothy, who knew him very well, did not like the sudden shift in his mood.
"Are you pretending to be cheerful?" he asked with a scolding tone.
Conan shook his head. "No. I'm making an effort to be cheerful because I want to be. So, let me be that way… for a little while longer…"
Hello, dear readers. I'm having a good day today. I'm uploading a bushload of things; shamelessly, the majority of it is on Fanfiction. Since it's the largest update session I've had in a long time, I'm very excited!