Needless to say, I had a lot to talk with Izzy about by the time I got home that evening. My parents were still gone, but Skyped in over a laptop placed at the head of the table so we could have an approximation of family dinner night. The room behind them in the camera just looked like any of the other hotel suites we’d stayed at, so it didn’t exactly tell me much about where they were.
After that, Izzy and I stayed in my room and pretended to be playing video games while we discussed everything that had happened. And boy was it weird to be in my room like that after being in the virtual recreation of it when that whole thing with Paige’s father went down. Sure, it had been my room as it was decorated in the past, but still. It made me feel strange, sitting there while images of that whole fight played out in my head.
In any case, before we started, I made it clear that there were some big things I had to tell Izzy, but wanted to do it all in order. So that was exactly what I did, going through everything that had happened inside the virtual reality space in order. God was it ever tempting to jump ahead to the really big stuff, but I felt like it was important for her to have all the actual context.
And boy did she ever react when I eventually got to that big stuff. The controller dropped from her hand when I talked about taking my helmet and mask off in front of That-A-Way, and she was suddenly staring at me with wide eyes. I pushed on with a quick nod of understanding, explaining everything all the way up through Way eventually revealing her identity to me, and the two of us having our talk at the end. And, of course, everything that had been established about Paige and the newly dubbed Raige as far as what we needed to do to help them.
Throughout the entire remainder of the story, ever since I got to the part about taking my helmet off, Izzy had completely stopped even the pretense of paying attention to the game. She was facing me with her mouth open, as it clearly took everything she had not to suddenly interrupt. And yet, once I finally finished, she didn’t say anything at all. She just stared in silence, as though everything she’d been bursting to say simply vanished entirely from her mind in that moment.
“So yeah,” I finally announced, breaking the silence once it had dragged on for almost thirty seconds. “That was my day. How was yours? Anything interesting happen? Ooh, did Claudio make that special layered pudding? He said something about making that before, and–”
“Are you freaking kidding me right now?!” the girl suddenly blurted out loud, flailing a bit while literally jumping to her feet. “You know about Amber and she knows about you and she knows that I know about you and also everything else that happened to you and everything about your family, and you actually think we’re gonna talk about pudding?!”
Yeah, maybe I had a little too much fun with the whole thing. Restraining my smirk, I managed a mostly straight-faced, “Well, if he made it, I should probably know so I can run down there.”
That earned me a kick while the younger girl rolled her eyes. “Oh please, as if your family’s personal freaking chef wouldn’t whip it up for you the second you asked for it.” After pointing that out, she focused once more. “Seriously, she really knows everything about everything?”
I shrugged. “There might’ve been something here or there that I forgot to mention, but basically yeah. That’s why it took me so long to get home. We kind of had a lot to go over. Do you realize how busy the past… just over a month has been? I got my powers in the second week of March, and it’s April sixteenth now. At this rate, I’m gonna cram a decade worth of stuff into the rest of the year. Which is convenient, since dealing with my family is gonna age me that quick too.”
“At least Amber knows what’s going on?” Izzy pointed out with a shrug. “That’s something.”
“Oh, it’s definitely something,” I agreed. “I mean, I don’t–I’m glad she knows. And that I know. It’s just–it’s really complicated in other ways. It’s going to take awhile for me to wrap my head around this whole thing. And honestly, I’ve got the really easy side of it. I can’t even imagine what she’s going through right now, or what sort of things she’s thinking about all of it.”
Izzy’s response, as she glanced over toward the window, was a quiet, “I can.”
Her words made me hesitate before looking that way to hesitantly ask. “Are you okay?”
“Hm? Oh, yeah.” Turning to meet my gaze, Izzy tried to give an encouraging nod. “It’s just a lot, you know? I was just thinking about what it’s like to have the whole thing dumped on you at once like that. I mean, I’m glad I know, and I’m glad that we can talk about everything. Believe me, I’m really glad.” She sighed then, flopping back down into the bean bag chair as if all the strength had left her. “It feels really heavy sometimes.” Her eyes had closed briefly through that before opening to focus on me. “How do you handle it? They’re your family and all that and you have to keep lying right to their faces. You have to hide basically everything now.”
Swallowing the thick lump that tried to form in my throat, I answered in a soft voice. “It’s not easy. But I’m not the only one with problems. Plus, I have you to talk to about it.”
“And Amber,” she pointed out with a very small smile.
“And Amber,” I agreed, nudging the girl. “So hey, that’s some of the pressure off you, I guess. Spread out who has to deal with Cassidy’s mental breakdown.” With that… sort of joke, I cleared my throat. “Anyway, right now, what I really want is to find out more about how their whole operation works. Not to mention separate Paige and Raige. And the way to do both of those things is to break into that mall base. So I guess that’s our next main thing to focus on. Which–hey.” I blinked a couple times as a thought occurred to me at that moment.
“What?” Izzy asked, shifting a bit on the bean bag to stare at me curiously.
“I just realized,” I murmured before looking over to meet her gaze. “If Amber knows that you know about everything, and you know that Amber knows, then… maybe you can be involved a little more. You know, if you want to. I mean, instead of hiding at the library or whatever when the two of us are supposed to be out together and I’m with the others, you could… come? Between you, Amber, and me, we can come up with a story about how you know about the Ministry that’s close to the truth without really exposing everything. We still have to hide that you have any knowledge of the Ministry from everyone else, obviously. Can’t take any chances about my parents getting suspicious. But when we’re just at Wren’s or doing this tunnel thing, maybe… you could be there. You know, if you want. You could meet Pack without fighting.”
Shifting in the bean bag so she could look at me, Izzy hesitated before asking, “Are you sure? I mean…” She trailed off, clearly considering all of that. “I guess you’re right. If we made up a reason for me to know about the Ministry beyond, uh, you know… living in their house.”
“We’ll just say you had your own encounter with them or something,” I agreed. “Way–I mean Amber–I mean Way can help. God, that’s gonna take a lot to get used to. After all that stuff we did at school and–” Belatedly, my eyes widened. “You think Jae knows about her? I mean she has to, right? They’re pretty good friends, and that… that guy Amber knew from that other school with the car. Damarko? It was Damarko. Is he–wait, no. No. Don’t tell me, don’t say anything.” My head shook, hands already covering my eyes. “I’m not even gonna look at your reaction. Do not tell me anything about that. I’m gonna stop trying to guess. That’s not fair to them. Or to you, putting you in the middle like that. God, I don’t even know how you managed to keep quiet about Amber for so long. You’re really good at keeping secrets, you know that?”
“I’m… doing my best,” came the quiet response. There was a moment of silence after that before Izzy added, “But, that means you know I’m keeping secrets right now. Still. I’m still keeping secrets. They’re not my secrets to tell, you know? I just–I don’t wanna lie to you, Cassie. You’re my friend. You’re–” She swallowed hard before reiterating, “You’re my friend. But they’re my friends too. I can’t just–”
“Stop.” I quickly shook my head. “Izzy, it’s okay. I told you, I don’t want you to tell me anything about them. I just got caught up for a second with the whole Amber being That-A-Way thing. Really, I promise, it’s totally okay. Don’t tell me anything that isn’t yours to tell.”
Nodding slowly, Izzy hesitated before asking, “Do you think Amber’s mad because I didn’t tell her anything about you even though we’re supposed to be teammates and everything?” Her voice trembled just a little as she squirmed, clearly feeling even more of that weight on her shoulders.
“What? No!” I quickly insisted, setting the game controller down before turning fully to face her. “Izzy, she’s not mad at you. Seriously, she knows why you kept my thing secret, just like I know why you kept her identity secret from me. No one’s mad at you or anything. It’s okay.” Shrugging then, I added, “Actually, she kinda wants to meet tomorrow morning. We figured the three of us could go out, grab some breakfast, and talk in a park somewhere. We’ll just tell Jefferson that we’re taking an Uber so we can have breakfast with a friend and we’ll make it to school on our own. Actually, I better send him a text about that. He does better with schedule changes if he has all night to let it settle. Err, that is, if you wanna do that?”
Izzy was already nodding quickly before I’d even finished asking that. “Yeah, I–yeah.” It looked like she wanted to say more than that, but clamped her mouth shut and simply kept bobbing her head with obvious eagerness. She definitely wanted to have the chance to talk with Amber and me together about this whole thing.
So, I sent that message to let Jefferson know, before the two of us spent another twenty minutes or so talking about what happened and what we were going to do next. Izzy was visibly nervous about the prospect of meeting Pack and all the associated stuff that would come with that, so I did my best to calm her down. And, of course, made it clear that she didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to. If she preferred to stay out of things and just be my alibi and confidant, that was completely fine. She, however, insisted that she wanted to help more and be involved. And now that Amber was on-side, she actually could. She was just, well, understandably nervous.
Either way, we finished up and headed for our separate beds. Tomorrow was already promising to be a pretty big day. As I watched Izzy on her way out my door to go back to her room, I hesitated before calling, “At least you’re never bored around this place, huh?”
She paused there, hand on the doorknob before looking over her shoulder to me. “Bored?” the girl echoed with a snort. “No, definitely not bored. But isn’t there like a Chinese curse or something about living in interesting times?”
My head tilted. “Yeah, sounds familiar. Maybe we can ask someone over there the next time my parents decide we’re going to China.”
“The next time–” Cutting off her own disbelieving voice, Izzy shook her head. “Wow, dude.”
“Oh come on, I was kidding!” I called as she started through the door. “We don’t have to go there to ask, I know Google exists!”
“You ought to,” came the response as Izzy began to close the door after herself.
“Your parents probably own a big chunk of it.”
So, the next day (which was Friday, April 17th), Izzy and I got up a bit early, cleaning up and dressing before heading out. I had texted not only Jefferson, but Chef Claudio as well to let him know he didn’t have to make any food that morning. Not for us, anyway. They still tended to cook for the rest of the staff, of course. That was one of my parents’ firm rules. Everyone who worked in the house got to eat just as well as we did, were paid incredibly well, and received a full slate of insurance and medical assistance. It was all about maintaining loyalty. Which, now that I knew more about my family’s whole thing, made even more sense. Obviously I’d never been anywhere near that situation, but I was pretty sure there were a lot of people who would turn a blind eye to anything criminal they might’ve seen if their boss was taking that much care of them. A good salary, benefits, insurance, and retirement plan went a long way toward something like that.
So, Izzy and I stopped in at one of the local fast food chain restaurants, meeting Amber at the door on the way in. As soon as she saw her teammate (and boy was that something that would take awhile for me to get used to thinking), the younger girl immediately froze up, stopping practically in mid-step. Despite the assurances I had given her, Izzy was clearly still afraid of how Amber would react to the revelation of the pretty major secrets she’d been keeping.
Thankfully, Amber seemed to realize that without any prompting and immediately stepped that way before embracing the other girl. “Hey there, Izz!” Obviously, she couldn’t really say anything out in public like this, but she did the best she could with that simple and immediate hug. “It’s so good to see you again,” she announced at least partially for the benefit of anyone who might wonder why meeting at a fast food place warranted a hug. “Feels like it’s been forever.”
After a brief hesitation, Izzy returned the embrace. I could tell even from standing nearby that she’d really needed it. Which just reminded me of why she needed it. The kid had literally been sold to a gang of supervillains to be tortured into obedience. And not just by anyone, by her mother. Her mother had done that. No wonder Izzy was afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and making someone who was supposed to care about her completely turn. After all, if her mother had done it, anyone could do it.
If we ever found that fucking bitch, I was gonna let her know just how annoyed I was with her.
In the interest of not making any more of a scene than we already had, the three of us went to the counter and bought a bag full of breakfast sandwiches along with juice and coffee (for Amber and me, Izzy wasn’t a coffee person yet) before heading out again. We made our way to the nearest park and sat at a table in a corner where we had a full view of everything around us in all directions. From here, no one would even be able to get within shouting distance without us seeing them, let alone close enough to hear our murmured voices. We were safe to talk.
Which probably meant it was ironic that the three of us were completely silent for over a minute. We just sat there, staring at one another. We weren’t even eating yet, so that wasn’t a ready excuse. A few times, one of us started to say something, before falling silent. It was clear that no one really knew what to say. We had the time and privacy, but nobody had the right words.
Finally, I managed to find my voice first, somehow. Probably because I’d already talked to both of them separately, while they were still stuck staring at each other while trying to feel out how they were each feeling. I supposed that was one benefit I had in this whole situation.
“So we’re all here,” I announced, drawing the immediate attention of the other two. “And on the same page, for once. Everyone here knows everything. Or should, unless I forgot something while I was playing exposition fairy.” Considering that briefly, I shook it off. “Yeah, same page.”
“Two different Paiges, actually,” Amber teased before holding up both hands. “Sorry, sorry. Yeah, we’re on the same page. Everyone knows who everyone else is, and what’s going on with the Ministry.” She looked at me then, squinting a bit thoughtfully. “Your parents. I can’t believe I didn’t realize it was them. I mean, come on, they’re the most powerful unaffiliated people in the city. Supposedly unaffiliated. Everything they do is mysterious, they have lots of free time. And your dad, he’s really…” She trailed off, clearly finding it hard to finish that last sentence.
“He’s Silversmith,” Izzy murmured in confirmation, her own voice soft enough to barely be audible. Apparently she was still struggling with that too. Which just meant that the three of us had something else in common. “He’s Silversmith and he’s a bad guy.”
“He’s both good and bad,” I pointed out. “I mean he’s done good things and bad things. The people he saves as Silversmith really would have been worse off without him. Like you, Izzy. He saved you from those Oscuro people. He’s done a lot of good and I don’t–I’m not saying that to excuse him. Yeah, he’s my dad, but I know he’s done a lot of bad things too. They both have. I’m just saying there’s more, you know, nuance to this whole thing. That’s why I want to find out more. We can’t do anything until we know exactly how the Ministry works, who else is in on it, how it came to be a thing, all that. And to do that–”
“We need to get into that mall base,” Amber finished for me, voice flat. She was looking at me intently. “But are you sure you’ll be able to handle it if… when the time comes to actually do something about this Ministry, about your family? I mean, you’re right, there’s… more nuance to the good and bad thing.” Even as she said that, her gaze shifted off me to look off into the distance thoughtfully, before she swallowed hard and focused. “But if it comes down to it…”
“If it comes down to it,” I answered, “I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know what’s gonna happen or… or what I’m going to do. Or what I even could do. But I’m trying. I’m–I just have to know the truth right now. I just need to know everything I can about them, and go from there.”
Our gazes met, holding that way for several long, somewhat tense moments before the other girl exhaled. “Good,” she announced. “If you said you were ready to lock them up and throw away the key, you’d have been lying. Either to us or to yourself. Not being sure, that’s… that’s the truth.”
Folding my arms against my stomach as it rolled a bit queasily, I nodded. “Yeah, well, I owe you that much at least. But seriously, we have to get in that base. Not just to find information, but for Paige and…” I coughed at the name. “And Raige too. Seriously, we need her to pick a better name. Maybe when we get her a body of her own.”
“Which we can only do by getting in that base to find the addresses,” Amber finished with a nod. “Yeah. So that’s the next big thing on the to-do list. But hey, at least it means we can finally focus?”
Snorting at that, I pointed out, “Except for the fact that Alloy and I have to go find and talk to that Amanda chick about any potential weaknesses Pencil has, sure. Totally focused. Oh, and I have to go over to the Seraphs place so I can finish up working there. And–yeah. Point is, I’m totally focused, yup.” I gave two thumbs up to them.
“Okay, one, Pack and I are both helping you and Alloy with the Amanda thing, you two aren’t going by yourselves,” Amber reminded me. “She’ll be right there with you and I’m playing back-up.” She paused before glancing to Izzy. “We?”
Izzy answered with a firm nod. “We’re playing back-up.”
“See? It’s all working out after all.” Offering them what was probably a pretty unconvincing smile, I added, “Now let’s eat this breakfast.
“I’m pretty sure the three of us getting in trouble for missing school wouldn’t help me deal with this to-do list any faster.”