Sophie had a very valid reason for picking out her eyelashes at the moment, despite her friends objections.
They had all been collected from their respected homes, shoved through the gates of a new magnificent mansion the black swan called their new HQ, and then told to wait for further instructions outside a door.
They had been standing outside said door for what probably was hours, with no imparter or chance of entertainment.
Questions and anxiety crawled in the depths of her mind, stirring memories she didn't need to recall. No one dared to speak or initiate conversation. Not even Keefe, who usually couldn't keep his mouth shut for more than two minutes. Sophie kind of wished he would. Any stupid remark would be better than the aching silence.
A meeting wouldn't cause Sophie this much worry. The Black Swan did tell them to come over a lot. She didn't mind.
But they never appeared so flushed and so disturbed at her doorstep, and only days after the murders.
It started when a couple had gone missing earlier that week, and two bodies were found later the same day. The elves were forced to do a DNA test, since the organs were cut out and the faces were mutilated beyond recognition. The same thing happened a couple days after, except with a toddler and his older sister. She was horrified.
Sophie knew it was the Neverseen's doing. Yet the councilors weren't ready to entertain the idea of an elf being in charge of such horrific murders. They hadn't accused anyone, but Sophie could tell they had their eyes trained on the ogres. A few elves even thought humans were responsible.
She didn't have much time to talk about it with her friends. After the murders, elves were told that all the shops would have to close for the time being. Youth were expected to go straight to school and straight back, no detours at all. The elite students had visitors cut off completely, and further protection was added around the city.
Despite the precautions the council had placed, Sophie didn't believe it was enough to keep out the murderer. The condition of the bodies proved they were ruthless.
She didn't get why the council thought it couldn't be the Neverseen. Just a few months ago, they were ready to flood a whole city filled with innocent elves. Individual murders of children weren't that large of a step up.
Besides, it's not like the Neverseen hesitated to kidnap and torture 12 year old her.
The creak of a heavy door sliding open jerked her away from her thoughts.
A weary figure peeked out from behind, his features blurred beyond comprehension. Sophie recognized him as a member of the Black Swan, not so creatively named Blur.
"Let's go in."
Sophie hesitated for a second before following him. The other trailed in at her tail.
The blinding light of the room caused her to squeeze her eyes shut, temporarily frozen. She had been in the dim lighted hallway for so long, the sudden transaction to the bright room caused surprised her. She let out a soft groan, slowly adjusting to the light.
The shifting blues on the ceiling were the first thing she noticed. Further inspection and a whole lot of squinting helped her conclude that it was just a trick of the light. Quite literally.
Different hues of blue swam against each other, crystal lights rippling through to make it look like wind pulling at the sea. Flickers of silver came and left with the waves, resembling fish gliding through clear streams. Directly above her, clear turquoise blue merged with faint traces of sandy blonde. It slowly descended towards the other side of the large room, deepening. Below what Sophie assumed was the deepest point, a shade of navy blue rippling softly, stood a wrinkled person that smelled like feet.
Or that's what he appeared to be. Sophie knew Mr. Forkle was actually an elf under the disguise. An elf that hadn't aged a day over 25, and was probably just as stunning as the rest of his- their- species. Of course, she hadn't seen Mr. Forkle in his true identity. He preferred to be seen as an old man that stunk. Being honest, Sophie preferred him that way too.
He appeared solemn, not particularly worried. But the bags under his already heavy eyes did not lift the dread of Sophie's shoulders.
"I apologize about the wait. We... we were having some difficulties." He exchanged a glance with Blur. The elf merely shrugged.
"Let's get straight to the point. We are running out of time."
That's not surprising.
Sophie nearly jumped at the sudden transmission. She whipped around to face an apologetic, yet painfully handsome figure, her very own cognate. Fitz mouthed a quick sorry and Sophie turned back, replying to his transmission. Sorry. I was lost in thought.
His response was cut short when Mr. Forkle resumed. "The murders proved that the Neverseen are willing to do anything to get what they want."
Sophie nodded, half to herself. She was glad there was someone else out there that believed the Neverseen were responsible.
"Wait, are we sure it's the Neverseen?" Keefe spoke out, his brows furrowed. Sophie nearly snorted.
"Who else would murder and mutilate innocent people to probably scare the rest of the population into submission?"
He shrunk, and Sophie remember his own mother was in Neverseen, and might as well been a murderer. Her eyes widened and she clasped a hand over her mouth.
"Oh god, I'm so sorry, I really didn't mean it like that, I'm sure Gisela- your mother- I'm sure the Neverseen have a better reason, not that murder can be justified and killing kids is really not good and also not the best way to win a populations favour, or anyone's, to be honest, I mean- I'm sorry, I wasn't-"
"If you two are done, we might be able to leave before sunrise. I have a lot to say." Mr. Forkle called, his eyes narrowing. Sophie took a quick look outside the skylight and noted that it was in fact getting darker by the moment.
They both murmured an apology, and he continued.
"The Black Swan has come up with a plan. It will end this, once and for all. Or at least, it will try to. Despite our careful planning and considering of all variables, things can go wrong. But at this point, we honestly don't have a choice. Elves are dying, and we don't know exactly why. Sure, we have our guesses, but the Neverseen true intentions are still masked. We need to stop this, before anyone else gets hurt.
"The plan is dangerous, and time restricted. We will need to work quickly and quietly, with someone you aren't quite familiar with. You will start next week, this week will be filled with intense training. Do we have any questions?"
"Intense training?" Biana spoke, a finger twirling through her dark locks. Sophie noticed she tend to do that as a nervous tick, quite like her own eyelash picking.
"Physical training. I will also be subconsciously training your mind. It's not as creepy as it sounds,"
Sophie raised an eyebrow. "It's actually a lot creepier," she confirmed. Distant memories of a shadowy figure towering over her at night echoed in her mind, and she bit back a shudder.
Mr. Forkle sighed. "Well, it's necessary. You must be both physically and emotionally prepared. By sending simulations of best memories, I will be creating a safe haven for your thoughts. That is only one of the alterations I will be doing."
Fitz frowned. "Hold up, a safe haven? Why would we need that?"
"You will go through a lot. That is not debatable. I will also be soothing your mind to resist panic, and to be able to control adrenaline levels when needed to. In other words, you won't freeze or breakdown if something goes wrong. Also, I will be giving you elixirs that can reject any type of sedative chemical, such as desflurane, halothane, chloroform and ether, which can all be used for kidnappings. Unfortunately, this also means slumberberry tea will no longer be effective. I may as well give you some healing elixirs as well, since injuries will most probably occur. "
Sophie spotted Dex gulp. "Why..." He trailed off. "What exactly will we be doing?"
"Well, it really depends. Some of you will stay here in preparation, while others will be gathering vital information."
A collective murmur of surprise arose from around the room. Sophie's own eyebrows rose in disbelief. "You're dividing us?"
Mr. Forkle shook his head. "Not exactly. You'll be in contact. And you'll be paired up in 3 groups. It's solely for the purpose of getting the most done it the least amount of time. If we send all of you together, you have much bigger chance of being caught."
It was Linh who spoke up. "What do you mean, paired up? And getting caught? By who? What are we doing?" She asked, her voice wavering.
She had bags under her usually bright silver eyes, proving that the news of the murders had taken a toll on her. Her brother, Tam, stood in front of her defensively, his arms crossed on his chest. It was sort of sweet, how he was always on the lookout for his twin. Linh had once told Sophie that it was her that was born first, therefore older, but that didn't deter Tam from being overprotective. He only seemed to want to prove himself more.
"Everyone will be paired up depending on their abilities and attitude. For example, Sophie and Fitz will be paired up, since they are cognates." Fitz flashed her a grin, but she could hear groaning in the background. Keefe really didn't sound like he liked that idea. "Tam and Marella will be paired, since their abilities, fire and shadow, can be used together. Linh and Wylie, a long with a few others, will be persuading the elves that we are on their side.
"Sophie and the rest will be finding important tools I believe the Neverseen have scattered all around earth, and using it get to the Neverseen. We won't be using imparters or nexuses since the councilors can track us. One of the problems in our plan is the fact that your absences will be noted in Foxfire, and right now we don't have a fix solution to that. One possible fix is cloning. I've discussed it with our technopath, and she says its possible to design and program androids that would mimic certain elves for a period of time. Their personalities, reactions and looks would be alike. She has started, but she isn't sure she'll be able to fix all the bugs in time. She also doesn't know what would happen if the software crashed while at Foxfire. That would certainly raise questions, if not more. We currently haven't come up with any other solutions."
"The councilors aren't in on this plan, besides Oralie. Councillor Oralie will try her best to help you, but the councilors have limited going out without bodyguards. She will have trouble. I've grouped all of you based on your abilities, and I'm confident-"
He was interrupted when Granite burst through the doors, breathing heavily with a beeping imparter in his hand. He didn't waste time in proceeding.
"Another... body... has been... found. They've... gotten to... the councilors." He managed between pants, pausing a moment to catch his breath. He looked up, regret and grief filling his pale blue eyes.
"I'm sorry. Oralie is dead."
"What?" Sophie's voice wavered as she stared at the rocky figure. What he said... it couldn't be- wasn't true.
Oralie was a councilor. She had security beyond measure. Sophie could understand being able to kill an average citizen- it wouldn't be hard considering how trusting elves were of each other- but a councilor? And after all the caution that had spread? The council had taken extra precaution in protecting themselves. There was no way anyone could have gotten to Councilour Oralie, let alone killed her.
A tear slipped through, but she paid no notice, trying to make sense of the situation.
If they were trying to scare the nation, why would they have targetted the most helpless Councilor (at least, in their eyes)? Everyone knew how friendly Oralie was, and how much she despised the constant supervision. It would make much more sense to kill, say, Emery. No offense.
Out of all the Councilors, why Oralie? Oralie wasn't...
The sudden realization knocked her off her feet, and she slid down to the floor on her knees. Of course. It was her fault.
The Neverseen knew how close she was to Oralie. It was evident. That was why they went after her. Because of Sophie.
Sophie's eyes burned with held back tears, and her throat constricted painfully. Why did this have to happen to her? She didn't choose to be an elf. She didn't want to be an experiment. She didn't choose to be the odd one out, both in the human world and amongst the elves. She didn't choose to have herself and everyone she loved in constant danger. She didn't choose to have people die for her.
A sobbed racked through her chest and Sophie pulled her knees up to her chest.
Granite whispered something to Mr. Forkle and slipped out again, regret filling his pale eyes.
Was she being selfish? Probably. But right now, Sophie didn't care. She just wanted to go home and forget about everything. The murders, the threats, the stress. Just forget.
She barely noticed the warm arm wrapping around her. She sobbed into their chest, not caring who it was.
They hugged her tighter, whispering soft condolences into her ear. She couldn't distinguish the words; her mind was a mess and hearing soft words wasn't something she thought she could do. She felt a presence on the other side of her as well, hugging her as well. Soon others joined in, and Sophie could feel all the heaving chests and hear the sobs echoing around.
It's going to be alright. Oralie wouldn't want you crying over her, would she? She would have wanted you to be strong and make sure what happened to her doesn't happen to anyone else. You're stronger than this Sophie.
Sophie couldn't tell who that faint transmission was from. She wiped her eyes. I don't want to be strong.
If you weren't strong, Sophie, who would be? You're our only hope. It's a lot of pressure, but we are here to bear it with you. We're here for you.
Sophie sniffed, blinking back tears that threatened to overflow once again. Fitz (she managed to identify the telepath) was right. They were all here for her. And they would always be.
The person beside her stood, helping her up. The world was still a mess of colors- tears still streaked her face- but she managed a wobbly step. Wiping her eyes, she looked to see who had helped her.
It was Fitz. She really should've known. He smiled at her, and she caught sight of his own tears.
Noticing that she had noticed, he blushed and turned away, drawing a quick hand over his cheeks.
"Sorry," he mumbled.
She was just about to reply when Mr. Forkle called them to follow, his voice strained. Biana was still sniffling, and Sophie squeezed her hand.
They were lead into a much smaller room with a large screen. Blur typed something into a small device near the door, and a meeting was projected onto the screen. They took a seat, and Sophie hurriely wiped awsy her tears.
The council was there, visibly stressed. A few still had puffy red eyes, much like Sophies own. There were off-screen sobs and shuffling around the corners. There were quite a few councilors discussing amongst themselves, and Bronte was instructing an elf off in the corner.
Emery did a quick look around and then stood, where a mic was previously stationed. His eyes were red and puffy, but he kept his figure straight.
"We-" Councillor Emery's voice wavered dangerously, and he cleared his throat. "We are deeply affected by the loss of our friend, role model, and fellow councilor, Oralie Monet. She will be grieved considerably.
"The murder has been posted much bigger of a threat than we initially thought. We assure you we are doing our very best to protect-"
There was a sudden wailing in the background and Emery looked momentarily distraught. He blinked and continued.
"Getting to the point, we have made a few decisions that will help ensure this does not happen again. Foxfire is now closed, all students are excused from attendance. All Elite students will be heading home. All shops in Eternalia and Mysterium are expected to follow this as well. Queen Hylda has been generous enough to supply us with enough bodyguards to station in front of most houses in the Lost Cities. Despite this, elves are expected to take all necessary precautions and stay at home.Thank you, and stay safe."
The screen blacked out.
Sophie face contorted at the screen. What kind of horrible speech was that?
Even Mr. Forkle had a look of disappointment that paired quite nicely with her own disgust.
"That was quite- nevermind."
Sophie could've sworn he muttered something about Oralie deserving a better sermon. She couldn't agree more. He pulled up the screen and began his own speech.
"Councillor Oralie's death has been a tragic reminder of what is at stake right now. Besides being cautious, elves are also forced to abandon the routine of their daily lives. The Neverseen have succeeded in cornering the nation into hiding, but I doubt that's all that they have in plan. But we must not give up, even if it seems as the councilors have. Though it will be hard, we must stay strong. Not only for Oralie but for the elves as well. The councilors have proved incompetent. We are their only hope."
The speech was short, but it said enough. The Neverseen had succeeded in cornering the majority of the cities, and the council was pretty much just hiding. So it was up to the Black Swan to do whatever they could to stop the Neverseen.
The sniffling around the room had subsided, and Sophie shuffled in her seat. "How..." She trailed off, rubbing her temples. Remembering their previous conversation, she cleared her throat.
"What's the plan?"
"You're crazy. There is no way this can work." Keefe remarked, a doubtful look on his face. Mutters arose. Sophie couldn't agree more. The plan Mr. Forkle proposed was nothing short of absurd.
Apparently, the only idea the Black Swan had wad to send the teens to the Forbidden Cities, to retrieve a bunch of notes, and then use them to make something that would help defeat the Neverseen. All while having limited training and limited time. Sophie was beginning to despise the word.
Besides, going into the Forbidden Cities was too much of a risk. What if they accidently revealed their abilities to the humans? The government would probably get involved, and it wouldnt end nice.
Mr. Forkle rubbed his temple, letting out a sigh.
"The Black Swan has practically foolproof-ed this plan. As long as you follow the instructions, close to nothing will go wrong."
It was Marella who spoke up this time. "Um, do you even know what the magical thing that supposed to save us all is?" Murmurs of agreement arose from around the room and Mr. Forkle groaned in frustration.
"This is the only plan we have. Unless you'd like a repeat of what happened with Oralie, I'd suggest you stop asking stupid questions and let me begin the prep!"
The room fell silent, and Mr. Forkles eyes widened. "I- it wasn't supposed to come out like that. I apologize. But we must get started. Our time is quite limited."
Without waiting for an answer, he began.
"We will be dividing you all into 3 groups. Group A will be accustoming the elves. Group B and C will be retrieving the notes."
In group A there is Linh Song, Cora Derri, Wylie Endal and Guinevere Derri. Cora and Guinevere will be joining you later. Please line up by Granite and Squall. "Group B is Biana Vacker, Marella Redek, Dex Dizznee, and Tam Song. Please line up by Blur and Wraith. "Group C is Fitz Vacker, Keefe Sencen, Deborah Edward, and Sophie Foster. Deborah will join soon. Please line up by Wraith and Blur."
He paused as everyone shuffled to their designated places. Tam scowled at the separation between him and Linh, but didn't object. Sophie thought his real problem was the way she was gazing at Wylie.
"Alright. The point of this is to match you up with those who you coordinate best with. We do not need disruptions while on the quests."
Quests. The word sent chills down Sophies back, but also a sweet sorta anticipation. She was a going on a quest. She was going to save the world.
Well, if everything went according to plan.
Mr. Forkle seemed to have transmitted something to the collective members, as they all headed out in different hallways, beckoning their respective group to follow.
Sophie wandered into a small room racked with books and tables after Wraith and Blur. Mr. Forkle followed behind. They sure did love moving around.
They took a seat.
Mr. Forkle jumped right into the lecture "The locations and vital tips are listed here," he motioned to a scroll on the table. "But we need to make something clear first. Under no circumstances can you lightleap. And you certainly cannot return here before the provided date and time. It will prove up proving fatal for both parties. Am I making myself clear?"
Confused looks were shared, but they nodded anyway. Dex furrowed his brow.
"Are we going to have to use those... gars?"
Mr. Forkle frowned. "Pardon, Do you mean cars? Standard land motor vehicles?"
Dex blushed, nodding. Mr. Forkle contemplated the idea.
"Perhaps." He didn't sound too happy about it.
Blur opened the scroll, and began reading off.
"First location, you must find a note hidden in Toronto, Canada. Second-
He was cut off by Fitz, who had a expression of disbelief on his face. "Wait, we have to figure out where exactly on our own?"
Blur had an irritated look, like he'd been asked this before. "Yep. Don't look at me I have no idea what's going on. Next, Paris France. After that is..." He nudged Wraith with his shoulder. "My reading is rusty, uh what does this say again?" Wraith leaned over to take a look.
"Moscow, Russia. Then it's Giza, Egypt. And then-" Blur cut him off, scowling. "No need to brag, wispy. Anyway, so third is Moscow, Russia. Forth is Giza, Egypt. Fourth is.." He squinted at the paper. "... Tocky, Jopan?"
Blur facepalmed. Or at least, it looked like it. His sleeve rolled down as his arm went up to where Sophie assumed his head was, and his vest shook with a sigh. "Tokyo. Tokyo, Japan. Just hand the sheet over, I'll read it."
Blur grudgingly obliged.
"Okay. So Tokyo, Japan, and then New York, USA. And then you'll be heading over to Abu Dhabi, UAE, then Istanbul, Turkey. Then London, England and lastly some place in Brazil even I can't pronounce. You'll get copies so dont focus too hard."
Sophie's eyes widened. "How are we going to get anywhere if we cant light leap?"
Keefe nodded in agreement. "And aren't... cars... too dangerous to drive?"
Sophie looked over to him. "Not really, actually, I-"
Mr Forkle cut her off. "Yes, cars are very dangerous. Fatal, even. The speed humans drive it on?" He shuddered. "Though, we will he equipping you with the essential skills to drive in case of emergencies. But your main travel vehicle will be an... aeroplane, if I'm using the right word."
Weren't airplanes more dangerous and plenty faster than cars? Sophie kept her mouth shut.
Blur jumped into the conversation. "I've preared passports and 'official' documents for all of you, if you're worried about that. Nationalities in every place in the world! Beside the Lost Cities, of course. You guy won't be able to return until after you get all of that stuff and prepare. Sorry if it sounds like we're kicking you out, but its probably safer out there and we need to do something."
Keefe shuffled over, leaning towards Sophie." Is it just me or does something feel a bit... odd?"
Sophie looked over. "What do you mean?"
He frowned. "I- you know what, nevermind. It's the color of Wraiths vest. Since when did he start wearing blue?" He shook it off with a strained laugh.
Sophie frowned, but didn't push it. She grabbed his hand and gave it a reassuring squeeze. "You know you can talk to me, right? I'm here for you."
He looked at her that strange look he always seemed to have on. "Uh, yeah, Sophie."
She glanced at Wraiths blue vest. Sure, it was a bit strange, but not really... conversation-starter worthy. They turned back to Blur, who had started arguing with Wraith on something about... money?
"Dollars will work! I've done my research." Blur argued.
Wraith groaned. "Each country has its own currency, Blur, dollars will not work."
"Dollars is the default currency, wispy. Ask Sophie! She's lived there."
They turned to her, and she blushed at the attention. "Uh, you're both right? In a way? Technically, each country has its own currency," Wraith gave Blur what Sophie assumed was a smug look. "But, you can convert currency at all airports. So, yeah, you can use dollars. It doesn't really matter."
Blur looked a bit cynical but grinned. Wraith sighed. "Why can't humans just use one for of currency for everything? It would be easier and much more accessible."
Sophie bit her lip. "Well, we-humans don't really want it to be accessible. Then it would be easier to steal."
Blur frowned. "I forgot that humans steal stuff. Why don't they just stick to what they have?"
Mr. Forkle cut off Sophie's defensive reply. "We're getting off topic. For communication, since all of you will be spilt up, we will be using phones. The human version of imparters. They can't be tracked by the council, and it will look generic in your surrodings. Our technopaths will conduct a bit of altering so its free range and able to pick up signals anywhere, and from anything, including the Lost Cities and imparters. I will hand over your phone numbers and explain how to use them later on. "
At any other time, Sophie would've been excited. But grief hung too thick in the air to enjoy anything. Tears threatened to leak again, but she brushed them away. Keefe seemed to notice the change of mood, since he gave her hand a quick squeeze. It didnt do much to cheer her up, but she appreciated the effort.
"Deborah will be joining group C, tomorrow. She has experience in social situations in the Forbidden Cities and will be helping you navigate around the globe."
Sophie felt a pang of envy. Didnt they trust her enough to lead them? Though, I'm not exactly the most sociable person... she shook her head, clearing her thoughts. Deborah- whoever she is, better be good.
"That will be enough for today. Blur and Wraith will be escorting you to your rooms, without and problems, I hope, and-"
Sophie cut him off. "Wait, we're staying here?"
Mr. Forkle gave her an odd look. "Of course. The council thinks you are in your respective homes, and like I said, we can not lightleap anymore. Locations are trackable, and we can't risk this HQ, Seaborne, being discovered."
Marella spoke up, her voice wavering. "What about our parents? My mother, she-".
"They understand the importance, and wish you the best of luck. Once we have altered the phones, you will be able to contact them. Your mother will be fine and supervised." He added. "This is very important. I understand your concerns but sacrifices must be made. Now, Blur, try to cooperate with Wraith as you take them. I must go." He turned on his heel and left, heading towards where they came from. Everyone lined up by Blur amd Wraith.
Sophies mind wandered away as she got into line. She wouldnt be able to see her parents until after the quest. Was it-
A snap next to her ear shook her from her thoughts." Hello? Earth to Sophie?" Biana called, waving a hand in her face.
She blushed, stepping back. "Yeah, sorry, I was, um, thinking about something?"
Keefe snorted, then gazed off, taking his chance. "Hardly a moment goes by without Sophie dreaming about her true love... Keefe Sencen." He let out a dramatic sigh and Biana laughed.
Sophie shoved him with her elbow. "If you must know, I was thinking about what Mr. Forkle said. About the whole... quest, I suppose."
Fitz nodded from in front of them. "It's a huge deal. Elves dont normally go to the Forbidden Cities. Ever. I wonder how they're gonna smuggle us in."
Sophie pressed her lips together in thought. "They'll need a blue pathfinder... are those traceable?"
Fitz thought for a moment. "Yeah, I think so. It wouldnt make sense if they werent, since Elves arent allowed to interact unless its for the council."
Dex shuffled up from behind. "I'm not sure if Dad will be able to run the shop without me- though I guess since their closing it down, he wont exactly be needing me. Though he might go a bit mad, being around the triplets twenty four seven."
Biana laughed, giving him a pat on th shoulder." He'll be fine. If anything, he'll only be proud knowing his son is off saving the world." She turned to Fitz."Oh, gnomes, if this really goes through, we'll be the talk of the family."
Fitz faked a shudder, laughing. "Let's hope the news doesnt get to them, then. You know how distant our cousins can be."
Blur called them to move along, annoyance hanging from his voice.
They followed him to a dome like wing, where rooms were fitted in a round, interconnecting wall. Blue jewels and opal shells were engraved into the borders, twisting and turning to form waves. Wraith lead them to their rooms.
Sophie didn't take much time admiring the set up, though it was magnificent. There was a door connecting her to Biana on one wall, another connecting her to Marella and her normal entry/exit one. The window showcased what she thought was an aquarium with no animals at first.
Seaborne really does live up to its name. We're underwater, Sophie realized. The thought of being underneath something so votalie didn't settle well with her
After exchanging a couple of good nights, she changed into a pair of pyjamas she found in the shell themed closet and collasped into bed.
And she let it out. All the sorrow, the guilt, the stress, the remorse. The tears came slowly at first, then trsnsformed to sobs that rattled in her chest and ripped threw her throat. Sophie curled against her pillow tighter, burying her face into it. Sleep wouldn't come easily. These days, it never did.