A week later, Nora found herself back in London. Ian had tried to talk her out of it – as he usually did - but she needed to get out of the estate and do something. Yes, she knew part of it was to get away from Leo and his eyes that always seemed to find her and the uncontrollable desire to tell him things she shouldn't, but she had reminded Ian - and herself - that she worked better on her own. They had gotten a few leads from Leo and Hester's ventures out to local pubs, but she wanted to track down a few of her own that she had managed to get through painstaking work.
She pulled up the collar of her coat and then pulled out her phone, double checking the address. She then stopped and looked at the cafe she had stopped in front of. Nodding to herself, she slid her phone back into her purse and walked in, glancing around. She then went up and ordered a coffee, waiting patiently for it.
Nora then started walking to the table she had scoped out, but on the way, she bumped into a table, nearly knocking over the cup of coffee on top of it.
"Oh, so sorry," she exclaimed as she turned to the woman sitting there, leaning over to causally drop something into her open purse when she wasn't looking. The woman threw down the book she had been reading and grabbed the mug, then looked up at her, smiling slightly.
"It's fine," she said.
"Really… I am, so clumsy," Nora continued.
"Don't worry about it," the woman replied tensely.
Nora smiled at her and then walked over to the table and sat down, pulling out a tablet and set of earbuds. Glancing around again, she maneuvered herself a bit and then settled in, glancing every so often at the woman.
Nora had known for a while that Qualia had brought in a renowned American scientist, but she had yet to find anything on what Athena Morrow was working on with them, though she had found a decent amount of papers on her previous work. All Nora knew was that it was tied up to AI. Didn't help that the woman was hard to track down. Morrow had been off tracking down something on her own and it was only in the last few days of watching her that Nora found she frequented this shop.
At the moment, Morrow seemed content to sit and read while enjoying her coffee despite Nora's run-in. It took a lot of luck and a bit more sleuthing and hacking to get this close. Close enough that she could drop the bug in her purse that hopefully Morrow wouldn't notice for a while.
After about 20 minutes, Nora finally got a break.
Morrow's phone rang and she answered it, donning a largely false happy air to her voice.
"Yea, I'll be in soon," she said as Nora made sure that she was recording everything even though she couldn't hear the other end of the conversation.
Most of the conversation was bland, though as she watched Morrow, the scientist glanced around occasionally, likely being careful with what she said.
"Another that might work? Okay," Morrow said. Nora perked up at that. "I'll get back as soon as I can."
She then ended the call and finished her coffee before packing up her purse and standing. Nora slid her tablet into her own bag and waited a few moments before following. It got a bit harder once they hit the crowded sidewalk, but she managed to keep Morrow in her sight. The scientist then stopped and got into a car. Nora then turned and quickly walked back to where she had parked. Before she started the car, she pulled out her tablet again, opening up a program she and Ian had developed together.
After typing in the plate numbers and syncing it with the listening device she had planted, Nora was easily able to hack into the car's GPS. Nora then took off, driving through the city and then out of it, easily following the path that Morrow was taking. She wasn't surprised when it led her straight to the lab near the estate.
So, Morrow was working here.
Pleased with that bit of information, Nora continued home, eager to get started diving more into just what Morrow might be doing with Qualia.
Leo glanced over at the table of Qualia workers as he picked at his fish and chips. He knew he should be putting more effort into blending in, but he wasn't all that hungry at the moment, too charged by the fact that they had finally managed to catch a break.
It was bad enough he had to constantly remind Hester not to stare.
He reached over and pulled out the tablet Ian had given him, making sure that the recording program was running. He had to admit, the man was a genius. No wonder Nora got all sorts of information for her stories.
"Ah, fuck it all. We've got another," one of the men said. Leo perked up at that, glancing over to see one looking down at his phone.
"Where is this one?" another asked.
"Not far. We're supposed to go pick up the scientist and then get it and take them both back to the Silo," the first said, reaching over for his drink and quickly finishing it.
"What the hell is going on, you think?" the second asked.
"Dunno. But as long as I get a paycheck at the end of the month, I don't care," the first said. "We get paid to pick 'em up, not ask questions."
The two then stood, throwing some money on the table before walking out. Immediately, Hester started to stand.
"Just a minute," Leo said quickly, reaching out to grab her arm.
Hester looked at him, then glanced down at his hand on her arm.
"But we should follow," she said.
"Yea, but not too close," Leo said softly.
He glanced around as he threw some money on the table and then stood, motioning for Hester to follow him.
They stepped outside just in time to see the two men get into a black van. He made a note of the plate numbers before quickly walking to the car Ian had lent them. Once inside, he pulled out his phone and dialed him up.
"Need something?" Ian asked brightly as soon as he answered.
"Yea, I got plate numbers on a Qualia van. They're about to make a pick-up," Leo said. He then recited them to Ian.
"Hold on just a moment," Ian said as a few moments of silence followed. "Perfect. Got it."
"We should follow them," Hester said.
"No, no need. I can track them from here," Ian said quickly.
"But they're about to take another synth," Leo said, frowning, thinking they should try some sort of intervention.
"I know, but it's too late. You don't have a plan and I don't want them taking in either you or Hester," Ian said, though the strain in his voice was clear. He didn't like the idea any better than Leo, it was clear, but more than that, he wanted to keep Beauchamp Estate off Qualia's radar. "But this is good. We can use this in future pick-ups."
"So… you want us to come back?" Leo asked.
"Yea, Nora just texted and she's coming in with news," Ian said.
Leo stiffened slightly. Despite their new level of openness, she had been going out of her way to avoid him lately, retreating to her previous aloof and slightly brisk attitude. Though it wasn't as though he had been going out of his way to talk to her either.
But no matter where she was in the room, he always found her first, almost as though there were some sort of magnet drawing him to her. It left him curious and a bit unsettled.
"Alright," Leo finally said. "See you soon."
He then started the car, heading back to the estate.
"We should have followed them. Interrogated them," Hester said, breaking the silence.
"Yea, but Ian's got a point… what if it goes wrong," Leo replied.
"It wouldn't," Hester said, seeming confident in that.
"Let's… just see what Nora's got," Leo said.
They both fell silent for a few minutes.
"I do not trust her," Hester finally said. Leo looked over at her, confused.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"She is not like us," Hester replied. "She will not do what needs to be done."
Leo frowned, slightly unsettled by that statement, but pushed it aside.
"She's good at what she does," he said. "We… we can trust her. And Ian."
Hester didn't reply, just stared ahead at the road. Leo sighed and continued driving.
Ian glanced up from the computer, noting Nora's happy demeanor as she walked into the library and pulled out the tablet from her bag.
"I have hit the motherload," she declared.
He was tempted to roll his eyes but refrained. She had been off on her own for the better part of the last week, working an angle that she hadn't been inclined to share. Ian didn't ask about it, knowing she was perfectly capable of finding things on her own. But he knew she was doing it to avoid Leo, which he thought was two steps back rather than forward. However, he also knew pushing her on that front wouldn't get them anywhere.
"And just what is this motherload?" he asked casually, glancing at the clock and noting that Leo and Hester should be getting back soon.
"Well… my digging has paid off," she said happily. "Dropped a bug into Athena Morrow's purse. AND… she's working at the lab nearby."
Ian's mouth dropped open. Even after years of knowing Nora, working with her, she still managed to do things that surprised and impressed him. And bugging Athena Morrow's purse seemed to be a major accomplishment. They would finally know what Qualia was doing with the conscious synths.
"Though you'd like that," Nora replied smugly. "We can probably listen in now, if you want to fire up the program."
Ian turned his attention to the computer, but before he could do anything, Leo and Hester walked in. He looked up, noticing the slightly uncomfortable look that came across Leo's face as soon as he saw Nora. Though she remained lounging in the chair, Ian could also see the slight change in her expression.
Ian sighed, thinking to himself that the sooner the two got over themselves and realized they were attracted to each other, the better everyone would be. But that apparently wasn't happening anytime soon.
"Good. Nora's managed to plant a bug on Athena Morrow," Ian said, keeping to business.
"Who?" Leo asked.
"American scientist that Qualia has hired. She's made great strides in AI technology," Nora said boredly.
"Oh," Leo said as he walked over and sat down.
"Leo and Hester got us plates on some foot soldiers," Ian said. "Should help with tracking and getting there before they do."
Nora gave him a look that he knew was supposed to be unimpressed but didn't quite reach it.
"They mentioned some place called the Silo," Hester offered. Nora sat up.
"Morrow said the same thing. That's where she's working. It's the lab near here," Nora replied. She turned to Ian.
He chuckled under his breath.
"Already on it," he said.
Everyone turned their attention to the smart board as both locators were now at the lab, confirming that was where they were keeping the synths.
"Right, so when do we break in?" Nora asked, turning to him.
Ian only frowned in response. He knew Nora had been waiting on news of this sort. But he still felt it was too risky. Nora had too many run-ins with Qualia workers. Someone was bound to recognize her, even with everything he could do. Yes, she could wear a disguise, but he worried that would only go so far. Not to mention, they still knew nothing about what went down inside the lab. How many guards they had. Security protocols. The actual layout of the lab. It was massive and Ian had a good idea that it would be easy to get lost or turned around in there. He didn't want Nora going in until they were able to plot out an exact escape route and had a foolproof plan.
"Not yet," he said, looking back down at the screen and hearing her huff in annoyance.
He couldn't help it. Since they met when he was 14, all he had wanted was to protect her. And it was getting harder. She was getting more reckless. Going out on her own, not letting him into her plans. They had gotten rather lucky this far, he thought. All it took was one wrong move and they would have her. While he knew she wouldn't say anything about this place or anything, he still worried she would get hurt. Or that he wouldn't be able to get her out.
Nora had already been through too much, in his mind.
"We wait and see what info we get and then we make a plan," he said firmly.
He looked up, aiming a stern glare at Nora. She rolled her eyes in response and stood.
"Fine. I'll be in the gym," she replied as she walked out.
Ian rubbed his face. There really was no getting through to her some days.
Leo sat for a few moments longer before standing.
"I'll go check with Max," he said as he walked out, Hester silently following.
"Christ, give me strength," Ian muttered for not the first time.
Nora leaned against the railing of the balcony, a beer in her hand, as she looked out over the moonlight-covered grounds. Being outside always helped her think clearer as she tried to come up with a plan.
She had spent some time listening to the recordings from Morrow's purse. While she hadn't gleaned as much as she wanted, it was enough to know that the Silo was where they were keeping the conscious synths. And that Morrow was doing some sort of experiment with them, though she didn't quite yet understand just what. She was often speaking to something or someone called V which Nora assumed must be an AI program.
But even with the bit, Nora knew enough that Ian was right. They needed more information before they broke it. It was going to be difficult to get through the security. Her first idea was to go in uncover, but they'd need to spend a long time building up a fake identity for her that would survive whatever brutal background checks Qualia was sure to do.
Unless they sent in a conscious synth. But that didn't settle well with Nora unless they knew they could get them back out. She didn't like the idea of using someone has bait.
Sighing, Nora shook her head. She wasn't going to figure it out tonight, that was obvious.
Nora turned, seeing Leo halfway through the door, a beer in his hand as well, though he was already turning to leave. Christ, he really did have a way of finding, whether he was actually attempting to or not. Nora watched him a moment, intending to let him leave, but then something inside her took over. A part that didn't want him to leave.
"It's okay," she said before she really thought about it.
Leo stopped, giving her a look that clearly said he didn't believe her. Sighing, she motioned for him to join her. Cautiously, he stepped over and leaned against the railing next to her.
"I like being outside," she found herself admitting. "Helps me think."
"Same," Leo admitted.
Nora looked over at him, not quite believing him. But from what she could see, he was telling the truth. They stood in awkward silence a few moments.
"This place reminds me of where I grew up," Leo finally said. "Well… it's not this big, but… out in the countryside."
Nora looked over at him, finding him staring out at the grounds wistfully.
"Did you like it there?" she asked.
He smiled slightly but didn't look at her. He finally nodded.
"Yea… still have some good memories, despite, well…" he said before taking a drink of his beer. "They would take me for hikes around the grounds… Mia called it exploring."
Nora's eyes widened slightly, though she turned to look away, taking her own drink. She wasn't sure if she should ask him more questions or let him speak on. Or if she even wanted to know more. But part of her did. With all her research into him and his father, there was a large part of Leo Elster that was still a bit of a mystery to her.
"Mia… she was… like your mum, wasn't she?" she asked hesitantly, still not able to look at him.
"Yea, she is," he replied. "I wish she were here… but Max said she had something to do, so… she'll show up when she's ready… She'll be okay, though I worry about her a lot…"
Nora stared at her beer bottle, the question on the tip of her tongue, but yet, she held back. God, what was it about Leo that had her lowering her guards?
Leo glanced over at Nora, seeing that she was staring intently at her beer. He wasn't sure why he spoke the way he did around her. It had been a week of almost radio silence, but yet, the moment they were alone, he wanted to talk. To tell her about himself. To ask questions and learn more about her. Surely even with everything, Nora had some happy memories from her life. But the current peace between them was a precarious one. He knew all it would take was one misstep and it would be broken, and the walls would come back up.
"What's it like? Having a family?" she asked softly.
Leo's eyes widened. That was the last thing he thought she would ask. Ian was part of a large, close family. Surely, she would have asked him by now. But then Nora looked up at him and he could tell she was sincere in her question, as odd as it was. Leo would never claim to have a normal life or upbringing, but even he had a family. It was strange to find someone like Nora who had had nothing.
"Don't you know from Ian?" he asked, looking back at his own beer and shifting on his feet uncomfortably.
"Well… some… from what I see… but I don't ask him about it," she said, sounding a bit defensive. Right, wrong direction.
"Most of the time, it's nice. Having someone there you can count on… sometimes it's annoying. They always want to give advice," he said. Nora snorted and looked over at her.
"Sounds like Ian," she said, looking back out at the ground. "The annoying bit, that is… though… I can count on him."
Leo was silent a few moments before he spoke again, going over what to say.
"Mia and Niska, they would always read me stories," he said. "All sorts of books… and Fred, he was really good at sport. We would play football together."
"And Max?" Nora asked.
Leo looked over at her again, finding she was leaning towards him, her expression open and eager. He looked away again, rather surprised by the turn of the conversation.
"I always saw Max as a little brother," Leo said. "Not sure why, but… he was always… more innocent than the others. Kind… Open."
"I can see that," Nora replied. He glanced over, noticing that she was back to looking out over the grounds. "I suppose everything here, it wasn't all bad… when I was younger… I used to think Martha was my mum, in a way… she would play games with me… take me into the gardens when they were kept up… teach me about flowers and the like…"
A soft smile came over her face. It was completely different from anything Leo had seen from Nora before. The harsh edges had faded away as she appeared caught up in some happy memory.
"She always made sure that Christmas was good… she had me help with the decorations… let me help with the cooking. And every Christmas morning, I'd wake up to sweets in my stocking," Nora said. "We'd start with preparations on the first day of the month, practically…"
Leo said nothing as she went on, getting caught up in her story. When she went silent, he offered up his own happier memories of Christmas. When things were almost good. As they spoke, he could feel something. The stirring again. But he still wasn't quite sure what it was. Nora even laughed a few times - a genuine laugh, not the harsh bark he was used to.
"God, I can't believe I thought Santa was real for so long," she admitted.
Leo chuckled as well, feeling almost lighthearted. But then Nora's expression changed suddenly, turning dark.
"Well… suppose all good things aren't meant to last," she said, taking another drink. "Course, he was there to ensure that the Santa nonsense stopped. Though it was the least of it…"
Leo watched her, almost seeing the walls physically come up around her.
"I should… get to bed… lots to do tomorrow," Nora said. She then abruptly turned and walked back into the house.
Sighing, Leo turned to look back out at the grounds. While he had been waiting for that very thing to happen, he was surprised at how disappointed he felt. And then confused about why he was disappointed.
He stood a bit longer, finishing his beer, before straightening up and turning to go back inside to his own room. All the while telling himself that it didn't matter. Even though Nora had just had him talking about things he hadn't shared with anyone… it didn't matter. Soon he would be gone, even though with each passing day, he no longer knew just how long soon would be.
And he wouldn't admit to himself that he was thinking it would be nice if soon changed to longer.
So, this is a recent add-in. As I was going through and editing, I realized we needed a bit more fleshing out of Leo and Nora's budding... friendship? Relationship? And I thought it would be cool to include a bit of Ian's perspective since we'll be getting more of his side in the upcoming Part 2 (which I'm currently plotting out).
Thanks for reading and following!