"-listening to me?" came a snappy, disjointed voice.
Cassandra blinked a couple of times, her brown eyes snapping back to her best friend on the bench across from her. She hadn't been paying much attention due to her irritation; her dorm-mate had hogged the bathroom so long that she hadn't had a chance to shower that day. She hated not being able to shower every morning; it made her feel unclean for the rest of the day.
"I'm sorry," she sighed deeply. "What were you saying?"
Avery rolled her dark blue eyes and discreetly pointed across the cafeteria, to where a young woman with her dark blue hair up in a ponytail was standing with her tray, waiting to get her dinner at the serving hatch.
"Phyllian?" murmured Cassandra. "What about her?"
"She's wearing a baggy jumper," Avery whispered back. "Since when has party-girl fashionista Phyllian EVER worn something with long sleeves and a non-tight stomach?"
Cassandra shot Avery a narrow-eyed look. "Are you really implying what I think you're implying?"
"It's been about four months since she told us she slept with Alastair," Avery added pointedly.
"Avery…!" Cassandra bit her lip. "Do you really think she's knocked up?"
"Yeah, I do," Avery replied simply. "The timing is too coincidental. I mean, Phyl would NEVER wear anything like that unless she was hiding a baby bump."
"Wow…" Cassandra glanced surreptitiously over at Phyllian, who was now heading over to join her two best friends at another table. "Honestly, I think you're right, Avery."
"Do you think Al knows?" Avery murmured.
Cassandra turned her eyes to face Alastair, who was one of Phyllian's two best friends. The brown-haired man was happily chatting away to Phyllian and Dakota, though the former was looking slightly uncomfortable.
"No, I don't think so," Cassandra replied.
As Avery fell silent and began eating her food, Cassandra glanced round the cafeteria. Her eyes landed first on Phyllian again, and then Phyllian's stomach. There was no way it could be coincidental. First Phyllian's confession about herself and Alastair four months ago, and now a baggy jumper that Phyllian would never wear normally. That HAD to be a sign.
Movement by the doors drew Cassandra's eyes. She automatically scowled as she saw her dorm-mate enter the cafeteria, followed by her dorm-mate's best friend. Estelle swished her jet black hair as she walked past Cassandra, fixing the tiny hat that was attached to a hairband on her head. Cassandra glared at her dinner as she realised that Estelle's hair smelt strongly of vanilla. So THAT was why she'd taken so long in the bathroom that morning: Estelle had very thick, long hair, and it took her a while to wash it. But normally Estelle only washed her hair after Cassandra had been in the shower, so that they'd both have a turn in there, but today she'd gone first and used up all the allotted shower time.
"You're an asshole," she muttered at her food, then she looked up at her best friend. "Avery? What are you staring at?"
The maroon-haired woman quickly tore her eyes away from the two women by the serving hatch and began gobbling up her dinner awkwardly.
"Avery," Cassandra said sternly.
"Fine," Avery sighed. "I was just admiring Estelle's hair but I didn't want to bring it up because I know you're pissed off about her hogging the bathroom this morning?"
"How'd you know?" asked Cassandra in surprise. "I never told you, did I?"
"No, but I heard you muttering darkly when you came in the room and you also don't smell of that strawberry body wash you always use. I put two and two together, Cass."
Cassandra sighed. "Fine, it's true. I don't want to talk about it, if you don't mind."
As Avery opened her mouth to reply, they heard a sudden loud crash, followed by yelling. The two women's heads whipped round to face the source of the noise, discovering an overturned table and two people arguing loudly. Cecily and Julian, both blonde-haired, looked on the verge of physically attacking each other.
"I don't think we ever need to worry about CECILY getting pregnant," snorted Cassandra softly, turning back to her almost-cold food. "She and Julian probably wouldn't even be able to get into the same ROOM, let alone the same BED."
"I think they love each other in some weird way," Avery said, taking one last gulp of her apple juice. "They do argue a lot, but they're all lovey-dovey just as often."
After a few seconds silence, the two women flinched as they heard another crash. Cassandra looked over her shoulder and snorted again as she took in the sight of Julian lying on the ground, having his arm twisted by Cecily.
"He said the wrong thing again," observed Avery casually.
"Well, that's what happens when we're not given an assignment for weeks on end," Cassandra sighed. "Where's Doctor Jasper?"
"Nobody's seen him for a while," came the voice of one of the other agents. Marcel stepped over the overturned table and sat down on the bench next to Avery. "Not since the anniversary of his wife's death three weeks ago."
Cassandra dropped her gaze to her lap. She remembered how depressed Doctor Jasper had been on the fifteenth anniversary of his wife's death. Aurora Jasper had been on her way home from a shopping trip when she'd been literally caught in the crossfire between an armed robber and police. Doctor Jasper wouldn't talk about it much, but Cassandra had gathered that she'd been shot multiple times and died before he could say his goodbyes. Cassandra had heard tell that Doctor Jasper and Aurora had had a child before she'd died, but Doctor Jasper refused to confirm or deny the rumours, and the child had never been talked about again after its first mention to him.
"I hope he hasn't done anything reckless," Avery muttered. "I mean, he's never left us alone for this amount of time before, has he?"
"No," Cassandra replied, biting the corner of her lip worriedly. "A few days at most."
At that moment, the cafeteria doors swung open, and Doctor Jasper himself stepped into the room. He looked tired and dishevelled, and he was still wearing the same clothes he had worn when they last saw him. Even though he was only thirty-eight, the tiredness on his face made him look almost elderly.
Cassandra, Marcel, and Cecily, among others, involuntarily stood up. The same concerned expression was on all the agents' faces.
"Doctor, are you alright?" Cecily asked, her voice carrying across the silent cafeteria.
"I…" The doctor's voice was just as weak as he appeared on the outside. His entire body sagged; it wasn't just tiredness. He looked…defeated. "I'm afraid Aurora Foundation is being shut down."
This elicited gasps from almost everyone in the cafeteria, including Cassandra. Aurora Foundation had been Cassandra's home, her entire life, since she was four years old. She, like all the other agents, had been rescued or adopted from orphanages when they were very young, and trained up to become secret agents for the Aurora Foundation, which was a good organisation that fought criminals and the other forces of evil that threatened the streets. It was the only life Cassandra wanted. The other agents were like her family, and Doctor Cornelius Jasper was a father to her. To all of them.
"What's happening?" Avery murmured fearfully.
Cassandra could only shrug helplessly back.
Doctor Jasper looked like he was about to collapse. He clearly forced himself to raise his head and look directly at his agents. "I'm sorry." He cleared his throat, though the action quickly turned into a full cough. "Words cannot express how regretful I am that things turned out this way. But this situation is beyond me. I had no say in this decision at all."
"Is it a money problem?" asked Phineas, from the table next to Doctor Jasper. "Are we not trying hard enough?"
"Let us do another fundraiser!" Mila called. She was sitting at the table next to the overturned one. "We can be better, all of us!"
Most of the other agents made noises of agreement, but Cassandra stayed silent. She could tell that the problem was a lot bigger than just money.
Sure enough, Doctor Jasper shook his head weakly. "Thank you, Mila, but money is not the problem."
"Then what is?" Gracie asked softly.
Gracie was the joint youngest of the group. While all of the others were between the ages of seventeen and nineteen, Gracie and Dakota were only fifteen. They were both very much the babies of the group, though Gracie showed her age a lot more often. Now was one of those times.
Seeing how scared and confused Gracie was, Doctor Jasper held his arm out towards her. Gracie slowly came round the table and crept towards him. He brought her into a one-armed hug, and when Dakota appeared at his other side, he put his other arm around the younger boy. He kissed both of them on the tops of their heads, before holding them tightly to him.
"What's going to happen to us?" Gracie whispered.
"I'm going to find homes for you," replied Doctor Jasper, resting his head on top of Gracie's. "Nothing bad will happen to any of you."
"Please tell us why this is happening, Doctor," Cassandra pleaded, taking a few steps nearer to her adoptive father. "Why is Aurora Foundation being shut down?"
The only ones near enough to hear his next whispered words were Gracie and Dakota: "Oh, Aurora, please forgive me…" As they glanced at each other sadly, Doctor Jasper raised his voice. "I cannot say. I'm sorry, but it will put you in danger."
"We can handle it," insisted Cassandra, moving a few more steps. "Doctor, you are our father. Aurora Foundation is our home. Please let us do everything we can for you and this organisation."
"This isn't just our home," piped up Phineas. "It's yours as well."
"Yeah," Orson agreed abruptly. "You told us once that this place is helping you cope with your grief at your wife's death because you're keeping her memory alive in the building, us, and the work we do."
Doctor Jasper chuckled weakly. "When did I say that?"
"Five years ago, on the tenth anniversary of her death," replied Orson.
Cassandra chuckled involuntarily. Orson's eidetic memory was both extremely useful and a non-ending source of creepiness. There was a running joke among the other agents that you shouldn't tell Orson any secrets, lest he bring them up again when it's least helpful to you.
"I cannot deny that it's true," Doctor Jasper agreed, nodding slowly. "But like I said, this is beyond me. I've already spent the better part of three weeks fighting this decision. I'm so sorry, everyone. Aurora Foundation is dead." He hung his head, squeezing his eyes shut as the dam inside him finally broke. "Just like my beloved…"
Gracie and Dakota supported him as his knees buckled, and once Orson and Rosita had rushed to help them, they helped him walk out of the room.
Trying to ignore her own emotions, Cassandra looked round the room at how the others were reacting. Avery was staring down at her empty plate; Cecily and Julian were now clutching each other as if the former hadn't just judo-flipped the latter over a table; Alastair, Phyllian, and Johan were whispering intently to each other; Mila, Nate, and Phineas were sitting still at their respective tables, clearly stunned; Estelle had frozen by the serving hatch, her tray about ten seconds away from falling out of her hands; and Marcel was twisting his hands nervously.
The atmosphere had never been so tense before.