Nancy had made it back to her pit again while they weren't looking. A few of the diggers gave her odd looks as she pit-hopped again, but she felt she could depend on their silence. If Beltrán or José asked specifically about her absence, that was another matter. But they didn't seem suspicious of her at this point.
Then she thought about Claire.
Claire could go either way. She could be either suspicious or harboring lingering resentment. Neither made a particularly good scenario, but given the choice, Nancy would choose resentment for sure. That was more navigable.
The next time Nancy looked up at the three, though, she got a surprise.
All of them were staring at her.
While a bit unsettling, Nancy was sure she had avoided their scrutiny in making it back. They must have started looking just a second ago. As for why she, Nancy, had chosen to look up at that particular moment, she ran through a list of excuses: felt their eyes on her.
Actually, that worked. She didn't need any other excuses.
Quickly she turned her eyes back on the ground and stuck her shovel deep in the ground, ripping out huge chunks of dirt. Not good for any potential finds, Nancy reminded herself. She had to be gentle. Then again, they didn't care much about the artifacts here other than the money they could get from them. The thought only did worse for her as she gnashed her teeth together and swallowed even bigger, deeper pieces of earth.
"Nancy!" Beltrán's voice rang out.
Nancy jumped, the began digging more gently. Maybe they did care after all.
"Come up here, please," he continued.
Unnerved, she staunchly resisted the urge to turn and look at Sonny. She wondered whether he would smile or look worried. She convinced herself of the first, both because that seemed like something he would do under the circumstances and because a smile was more along the lines of what she needed right now.
But Beltrán couldn't catch her looking. She had already almost alerted him to this relationship between workers just by showing up with Sonny a few minutes ago.
Nancy beamed up at them without guile and stepped out of her pit and toward them.
Beltrán and José stepped away almost immediately when she got there. Looking instinctively at José, Nancy was both surprised and dismayed to see that he just turned his eyes away. He had been the most supportive of the team leaders, the one who could keep her above suspicion. Quickly she catalogued the safest people for people on her team. Of those who trusted her, José trusted her the most. Of those who trusted Dylan (apart from those on his own team), Beltrán trusted him the most.
Now that José would not offer his trust to the others, there peeled off one layer of safety for Nancy. Now she could rely only on herself and Sonny. Probably Dylan and Lou. Maybe the others Henrik sent, if they didn't have any ulterior motives in wanting to go. She'd thought the fact would make her glad. She didn't like relying on people on-site, especially for such horrible activities as were going on here, but for a place so dangerous she knew she'd had to take all the help she could get.
José's help had reached the end of the line, it looked like.
"Come on," Claire smirked. "Let's take a walk and talk about some things, Nancy Drew."
Nancy kept her face carefully blank at the use of her name. She nodded curtly and followed Claire, hoping this wouldn't end in her being bound and gagged. The day had already been sufficiently dramatic without her having to worry about that, too.
Keeping his eyes on them until they disappeared from his view, Sonny resolved to keep her absence at the back of his mind until she came back. Wasn't that the woman Nancy had been worried about blowing her cover?
Around him there lay a thick air of foreboding in the site. The hands of his dig partner shook. When Sonny tried to talk to him and he didn't respond, he got the feeling it was for a different reason this time. He'd probably be afraid of his voice shaking if he even tried.
He began thinking about the clues. More because that's what Nancy would want him to do more than it actually needed to be done. He smiled. He'd figure out at least one of them. She'd tell him he was brilliant. He'd tell her she was brilliant-er. And then they'd discuss their future migrant life together, him tagging along on her cases, her tagging along on his, the rest of the time lying in the grass and looking up at the sky and watching the clouds move and just talking about what made the world turn.
He got so caught up thinking about those that the priority of clues was soon lost to him amidst the glow. For one thing, his mother could finally stop harping on him to go back to school now that he was headed in the direction of Option B, settling down with a nice girl. Not that settling down with a nice girl would have to keep him from returning to school necessarily. In fact, he was sure that'd be next on his mother's agenda.
Maybe he didn't need to go back to school after all. Maybe things were fine just the way they were.
Maybe things were great just the way they were.
After a few revolutions around Venus he got himself to slow down. He had to think about his future before he considered theirs, and how much of a theirs was there, anyway, one hour after a pair of kisses?
Smile growing, he decided to leave that be for now.
Once upon a time he might've gotten his ducks in a row, gotten his PhD before joining S.P.I.E.D. He hadn't even started thinking that until a few weeks ago. Then he'd tried to fit in a plan with all of the other things in his head, bringing on someone else to replace him for the two or three years it would take to rework his thesis and finish his coursework. But S.P.I.E.D. was too small as it was. Besides, Sonny knew himself. There was always the fact that after finishing school—or even before finishing it—he'd go off on a tangent and decide he'd try to get a job at NASA—that is, another job at NASA—and then from there go on another tangent and so on and so forth until he forgot about S.P.I.E.D. So he could quit just about as much as he could deny the existence of the Annunaki.
His thoughts turned to the broader spectrum.
He'd been following Jin's orders, going out and investigating these locations, for a while now, and he'd been thinking parallel to Jin's thoughts and theories starting when he was a kid. Sometimes the question of just how much of his life was his own flashed in his mind. Just as soon he felt guilty and pushed the matter aside. But try as he might, he could never forget what he felt for the few moments he was convinced that the beacon wasn't in New Zealand, the sensation of his identity slipping away from him. The deep-seated frustration of having complete belief in someone and nothing to show for it. He never knew he'd felt that until then, and he spent a lot of time thinking about it afterward, his own strange harsh words, "There's nothing here, Jin!" reverberating painfully in his head.
He'd had to think about it then. Think about how much of this was his life. Whether this was really what he wanted or whether he just wanted the world to be okay.
The belief had come quickly to him once he found one of the locations in the comics. It had been belief in the form of infatuation, love at first sight, all-nighters in his dorm spent inhaling the ideas and musty yellow scent of books, five-hour-long conversations with his grandfather meant to make up for lost time, two-hour-long conversations with his mother who got upset when he forgot to call, millennia worth world history materializing in his head when they came back to check up on their investment or take the most steadfast cows and believers on a ride to their home planet. That last one was more something he wanted than something he believed. And the cattle mutilations charge was about as ludicrous as they came. There had been accounts of humans being experimented on and returned alive, so it made no sense that the cows would be returned dead, not if they had the means to put them back alive and no reason to kill them. That was just projected human anthropocentrism.
Sonny scoffed and stuck his shovel far into the ground. Seriously, cattle mutilations? Couldn't blame that one on the aliens, at least not the ones he knew. Probably just some creepy cults who were good at cutting animals or people up.
He felt almost as strongly about that as he did about constellations. Jamila had not appreciated his constellations pamphlet. She didn't mind so much how forceful it was as much as she hated for her usual reason that it didn't make sense. Well, it wasn't like he could just sit down and write a pamphlet and stay on topic the whole time. Both of his books had been heavily edited. But Sonny had pushed for the pamphlet. He thought it was hilarious and informative, so they published it.
Realizing that he had gotten off-track, Sonny started thinking about who he was again, who he was really, and what he wanted. Most days he knew. But today and days like the one in New Zealand, he thought he caught a glimpse of some other factors. How much his own life did he have to be living to be considered alive? How many of his ideas hadn't been building on ideas already out there? He'd wanted to think his thesis was original, too wide for the narrow margins of the department, that that was why it had been rejected by the committee and he had had to leave with a Masters.
But if it weren't for Jin, he wouldn't have ever had those ideas. So maybe they weren't so original after all. He might've subconsciously been doing the Confucian thing, honoring his family by imitating them.
He shook his head. Most days he didn't feel like that. But some, like today, he gauged the ownness of his life by how easy it was to break free. How few allegiances he had to other people.
These were the concerns of his mother, who didn't want her father's life for him. She actually preferred Sonny's job-hopping lifestyle, though not by much. Chin-Sun Joon made him promise that he wouldn't abandon her like Jin did. She always spoiled him, protected him, clung to him a little, especially since the accident. Even though his choices sometimes exasperated her, she never stopped supporting him. And because she supported him she allowed him to try to smooth things over between her and Jin. Most of the time it worked out well. Sonny felt especially triumphant the times he got her to call him.
And as for the problem of his life being tied too much to Jin's, Sonny didn't have to think about that most of the time. Well, he didn't think he had to, but Jamila and his mother had ganged up on him. There had been no way out. He still decided that Jin's mission was his calling, to Jamila's satisfaction and his mother's dismay. Jamila had simply told him that there were other paths to a better world and that he, still being young, should make sure he was sure about his pursuits. His mother had several reasons, a little bit that she wanted a better, more fun life for him at his young age, a little bit that she wanted her son to be a little more normal, and a little bit that she, like all mothers, feared he'd never call again.
Maybe they were right to make him think about it. Usually Sonny was preoccupied with the world around him and the universe beyond that, but lately he wondered about himself. He didn't tell anyone about those worries, though, not even Jamila. And Jamila, being Jamila, didn't ask. As long as his ideas weren't too dangerous, she seemed to think that they were better left alone. And when they were dangerous—Sonny grinned wryly—let the lecturing commence. Somehow Nancy had guessed, though. She had seen a flash of uncertainty over what he believed. She had been around for his little outburst, after all.
Out of the blue, Sonny's phone started to ring.
Weird. Making sure that Beltrán and José weren't around, he walked behind one of the hills and pulled his phone from his pocket.
He frowned and took the call. She wasn't supposed to call him unless it was important. And, knowing Jamila, this was important.
"Sonny?" she said.
She sounded odd. He picked up on that right away. There was a firmness and rigidity in her tone beyond what was normally there, as if she was overcompensating for some worry. So Sonny didn't make the point that she wasn't supposed to call him unless it was important. One, because he enjoyed talking to her, and two, because he knew immediately that this fell under important.
But he couldn't deal with it all just now, didn't want to deal with whatever problem she called about. He knew eventually he'd have to, but for now he cut into the silence. "Can I talk?" he asked her. "Just for a few minutes?"
"Of course," said Jamila. She sounded relieved, too. "I'm just worried about your having to leave abruptly—"
"The diplomats? We already talked about that when you called me. Don't worry about that," Sonny told her. He rushed into all of his thoughts head-on, jumping back to some points when he realized he had skimmed over them. And maybe he sounded pretty crazy just going into his head that didn't make sense to other people. Well, it had started making sense to Nancy. That was a consolation. A warm feeling filled his chest in anticipation of that process, getting to know her, her getting to know him, finally being around someone who understood him and supported him, him letting her know that she didn't have to be a hero all the time and strive towards omniscience.
Quickly Sonny returned to the conversation at hand. He knew that Jamila trusted him. She'd let him have his time. She wouldn't cut him off because she couldn't stand it when he or anybody else cut her off. Not that Sonny meant to be rude. He just sometimes forgot other people were talking when a brilliant idea occurred to him. Great, he thought, forcing himself to slow down. Now he was getting off track again and at the worst possible time. After he stopped talking to work on refocusing his thoughts, he continued until he had exhausted everything.
Jamila didn't speak for several seconds after he finished. "Wow," she said.
"Yeah. A lot to chew on, right? Too much in my head for even me to handle."
"Don't think about that right now. You've got other problems."
"Like, at the site?" He chuckled. "Yeah. I know."
Several more seconds passed. He didn't want to go into whatever this was. Neither did she. He could tell. "Jamila, what's wrong?" he asked finally.
"I thought for hours about this. I wouldn't be telling you if it weren't absolutely necessary."
"What is it?" he asked, annoyed, before she could launch into a prologue.
"I hate making you think about this right now. But you've—you've got to get out of there."
"I know, and we're close," he assured.
"For one thing, it's dangerous," Jamila continued. "Henrik's told me several times now about those diplomats who are coming to the location to conduct their own investigations. He kept calling until I answered. Now he wants to remind you your cover will be blown if you stay. You and Nancy need to get out before they arrive, or they'll kill you."
Sonny sensed she had more to say. He waited. He found to his surprise that he wasn't holding himself back from speaking. Whatever it was that she was going to say next, he didn't want to hear it. He never wanted to hear it.
"For another…" she began, then trailed off.
He hoped his phone would lose signal. He wanted to run to a place where it would cut out for sure but felt his feet rooted to the ground.
"It's finally happening," she said, that same firm, grim tone to her voice. "Jin is dying."