A/N – There was a commissioned chapter focusing on a SPHERE forum discussion posted yesterday. If you missed that, you might want to click the previous chapter button above.
By the time I was done with the cops and Pack, there was a message on my phone saying that Murphy and Roald were going to go back to the hospital. People were looking for them anyway, so that was a whole situation they were going to have to deal with. I told them to let me know what was going on and if they needed anything. Not that I would have known how to help, most likely, but still. I just wanted Murphy to know that I’d try if she–if there was–ugh.
Yeah, I had nothing. The one thing I could do, help find that bastard, wasn’t going to happen right now. No matter how badly I wanted it to. And everything else within Murphy’s personal life was… out of my depth. I had no idea how to help her with any of that. But at least she had Roald, and I was pretty sure she was going to be staying with him and his family. At least, I hoped she was. The thought of her sitting at home alone with–no, that wouldn’t happen. She was a minor. They’d want her to stay with an adult. And Roald’s older sister probably fit that, if she was able to take care of him and their younger sister. Well, for a given definition of ‘take care of,’ given what they’d been doing when we first met.
But hey, they had money now. I had made sure of that. So they would have food. Somehow, I comforted myself a little bit with that. And then immediately felt so guilty I wanted to scream. Was I patting myself on the back because I gave them money for food, after Murphy’s fucking brother just died? What–why was–I couldn’t… think. Every impulse I had was wrong, every thought that popped into my head immediately made me feel sick, like there was something wrong with me. How was I supposed to help Murphy? What was I supposed to do?
Home. In the end, that was the only choice. I had to go home. Tomorr–later today was still going to be really big, considering my parents were officially arriving. Which would mean looking my brother in the eyes and pretending I knew nothing about what he had been doing, pretending I didn’t know that he helped a murderer escape. Hell, I was going to have to pretend I hadn’t just been in an actual physical fight with him.
I was tired. Just the thought of sitting at home and playing nice, pretending to be clueless, was exhausting. Hard as it was to even think about, I was going to have to go home and sleep.
So, that’s what I did. I made it home and checked on Izzy, only to find that she was still in bed. She’d slept through the whole thing, which was simultaneously completely understandable and yet also bewildering. I honestly had not been out that long, no matter what it felt like. So, I made my way back to my own bed, fell into it, and was asleep again within seconds. Seriously, it was almost immediate. I thought that I would toss and turn for hours, but it was like someone flipped a switch. My head hit the pillow, and I was completely out. The next thing I knew, several hours had passed and my alarm for school was going off.
Blearily, I reached out and swatted at the thing a couple times before finding my phone to stop the sound. Then I rolled over and sat up, just in time to hear a quick knock at the door before the house computer informed me that it was Izzy. I told her to come in, and she quickly burst through before shutting the door behind her. In a rush, she blurted, “You went out last night?” Accompanying her words was her phone, which she held up in front of me to show me a thread on the SPHERE forums about Paintball being involved in a fight. “Was it–did it have anything to do with those shootings?”
After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “Sorry, there were all these messages on my phone from Roald, about this whole thing with… with Murphy. Her… her brother died and it was–” Swallowing hard, aware she would see the way I flinched, I pushed on. “It was bad. But I didn’t want to wake you up and I didn’t know it was going to turn into… sorry. I need to talk about it, but not here. Later. Maybe with Amber. I–yeah. I need to talk to you and Amber about some stuff. Can you see if she’s busy? I… need to take a shower.”
“Are you okay?” Izzy’s voice was pensive as she stared at me.
I nodded quickly. “I’m not hurt or anything. I just–I can’t talk about it right here. I just… can’t.” I couldn’t bring myself to get into that whole discussion in this house. The thought of it made my stomach clench and roll over.
In the bathroom, I checked my Touched phone. There are a couple messages from the others. Pack let me know that she was going to call in that favor from Blackjack to keep an eye out for Luciano or anyone associated with him. Then there was a message from Peyton to say that she got Murphy and Roald back to the hospital, and was going home as soon as she saw them leave together with Roald’s sisters. And finally, there was a message from Roald himself, telling me that they had made it home and Murphy was sleeping in his little sister’s room with her. He also asked me to let Wren know that they wouldn’t be there that afternoon.
Right, yeah, that was another conversation I was going to have to have. I had to tell Wren just why her brand new employees were going to need a little time off. I was pretty sure the story was going to upset her as much as it did me. She really liked them. This was just… unfair. Yes, it was childish to think about it that way, but damn it, it really was unfair! Murphy’s brother deserved to be alive. She deserved to have him back. Luciano deserved to be in prison. This whole situation was fucked up and wrong and my family helped make it happen.
Needless to say, I went through the shower very quickly. Izzy did the same, before the two of us made our way downstairs and let the kitchen know we didn’t need anything. I didn’t need to say anything to Jefferson, because he was officially focused on doing things for my parents that morning. We were supposed to take a car service anyway. So that was what we did. We just took it a little bit early, heading out to pick up some breakfast before going to the park. The same park where we had met Amber before. And, conveniently, where we would be meeting her again. Izzy had sent a message to the older girl and asked to meet her there while I was in the shower. So at least that was one less time I would have to tell this story.
She was there waiting for us when we arrived, and I passed a breakfast sandwich to her before plopping myself down on the picnic table, with my feet on the bench. A long, heavy sigh escaped me. The other two stood there and watched silently, giving me a moment to collect myself. Finally, I started to tell them what happened the night before. Without looking up except for once or twice, I went through the whole story, from the moment I woke up to find all the messages on my phone, all the way to falling asleep again after getting home. Getting to the part about Simon helping that piece of shit escape was one of the only times I actually glanced up, only to find their expressions basically unreadable. My gaze found the grass once more as I went on.
“Anyway, that’s all of it,” I finished after swallowing the hard lump in my throat once it was done. “Now they know… more of the truth. They know about the Ministry, and they’re going to help break into that base so we can find out where they sent Luciano.” My gaze rose once more to look at both of them intently for the first time, as I continued. “We’re going to track him down. Wherever they sent him, we’re going to find him and drag him back. He belongs in prison.”
With a nod, Amber pushed her way to her feet and put both hands against the side of her head. “God damn it, that poor girl. That poor–god damn it.” She gave me a look then, frowning. “Just how much fucking money did that guy give your parents to make them give him a pass on killing several people? I mean, don’t they have enough already? I kind of doubt some nobody lowlife drug dealer could pull together the sort of funds to even pay your family’s gardening bills for a week.” With a long, heavy sigh, she waved both hands. “I mean, sorry, I just–”
“No, it’s fair,” I replied flatly. “I don’t know. Seriously, I have no idea. It might just be part of maintaining their, you know, reputation or whatever. If it gets out that this guy paid his taxes and they still left him high and dry, it could wreck the whole system.” Realizing how that could be taken, I quickly added, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending it or anything. I’m just saying, that could be an explanation for why they’d go to bat for him even when his payments don’t really amount to that much in the long run. If they start picking and choosing whose payments actually buy them what they’re paying for, the whole system can fall apart. I mean, I want the system to–” My eyes closed and I shook my head. “You know what I mean.” It was really hard to talk about this from my parents’ point of view without sounding like I was agreeing with them.
Izzy, who had been sitting on the bench, rose to her feet and looked over toward the nearby road while speaking thoughtfully. “You’re right, that’s how they would see it, probably.” She folded her arms against her stomach, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “They’re probably not looking at it the same way we do. Not even close. They don’t know any of the people he shot. They don’t… it’s not… it’s just numbers for them, you know? It doesn’t affect them. Not really.”
“That doesn’t make it better,” I pointed out. “Actually, it makes it worse.” Pushing down the rolling nausea in my stomach, I made myself continue. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure he’s not exactly a top priority client for them. So, they probably don’t go completely nuclear if something happens to him. Actually, they’ll probably be more upset about their base being broken into than they are about someone bringing him in. But even so–”
“They’ll probably make the connection,” Amber finished for me. “The whole point is we don’t want them to know that any of us were involved in that break-in. And if his files get stolen just before, say, Paintball finds and arrests him…”
“It could raise a red flag or two,” I agreed dryly. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure they could put that together. So even when we take him down, we’re going to have to be careful about how it happens. Maybe we can do it anonymously or something. And as a part of a whole group of takedowns. You know, get as many files as we can and use them to bring in other people they’ve helped escape.”
A very slight, somewhat predatory smile crossed Amber’s face. “Now that’s something I could get behind. Grab all the files we can and hit people who think they’re safe and sound. Make this Luciano guy just somewhere in the middle of the list so he doesn’t really stand out.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, that could work, if we do it right. Like you said, we’d have to be anonymous. No flashy power use or anything. Has to look like other people hitting them.”
Agreeing with that, I added, “It will actually probably be easier to do that with more of us. We just have to be careful to hit hard and fast before getting out of there. We can’t get into some prolonged thing, or it’ll come down to either getting caught or exposing our powers. Which would kind of mess up our ability to pose as other people.”
“Let’s focus on getting the tunnel made first,” Amber murmured thoughtfully. “Once we’re close to getting in, we can plan out exactly how we’re going to do it.” She gave me a brief glance. “You trust your new friends to help pull that off?”
My head bobbed. “Yeah. They’re definitely not connected to the Ministry at all, that’s for sure. And they’ve got reason to want to stop them. They’re with us.”
“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean,” the other girl pointed out. “Do you trust them to help without rushing off on their own and getting hurt? They’re not exactly super-experienced.”
“Hobbes did okay while it was the two of us,” I noted. “I mean, yeah, she was pretty motivated, but still. It looked like she could help even more.”
Izzy spoke up then. “It’s umm, gonna take some time to make that tunnel. You know, if umm, if we’re going to do it without attracting attention. Even with help. We could probably use that time for practice.” Belatedly, she added, “For everyone, I mean.”
“Right,” I confirmed, “We’ll practice as much as we can. I’ll put paint on the inside of our clothes and everyone can work on some drills. We need to hit the guys in that place hard, fast, put them down, grab what we need, and get out. I’ll do multiple sections of paint, and we can have like… a timer or something beep in my ear whenever I need to activate each section. But I’m pretty sure we still need to be in and out within sixty seconds. That’s six sections of paint boosts. If I do them all ahead of time, it’ll be fine.”
“Sixty seconds,” Amber agreed. “That should be too fast for your family to get the call and react. We get what we need and get out. We escape through the tunnel and leave them with no idea who any of us are. Maybe we should have a quick way to fill in the tunnel so they can’t follow that easily?”
Thinking about that, I gave a slow nod. “Yeah, we’ll come up with something. Fill it with water or something. Maybe not water, that’s too close to Raindrop.” I added that bit with a gesture toward Izzy. “We don’t want them thinking about her at all.”
“Which means I can’t be there,” she pointed out. “I mean, look at me. It’s gonna be hard enough pretending you aren’t Paintball. Me? How are they gonna believe someone this small is some big commando thief? Even in black with a mask, I’d stand out.”
“We’ll all stand out,” Amber replied pointedly. “But yeah, maybe it’s best if you work behind the scenes. Cover our backs, work on sealing the tunnel behind us, something.”
Coughing, I gestured to my phone for the time. “We’ll work on it. But we should probably get to school. Last thing we want is my parents paying more attention, and they might just do that if they hear about either of us missing classes.”
A bit more quietly, I added, “Besides, I should probably talk to Tomas about going over to his house at some point, so I can check for anything about that sex-shifter you saw.
“Cuz God knows, I’m super-excited about that.”
Somehow, I made it through the school day. It wasn’t exactly easy. The whole thing seemed to drag on forever, as though every class took up as much time as the entire day should have. Periodically, I received text updates from Roald, letting me know what was happening on their end. They hadn’t gone to school, of course. They were dealing with the fallout of that whole situation. Apparently Tyson’s funeral was going to happen Saturday. A lot of the details were being taken care of by Roald’s sister, with assistance from a helpful cop who had shown up to investigate the drive-by. Not that there were going to be many people there. Unsurprisingly, Murphy didn’t have a lot of friends or family that would show up. It was basically just a small thing with her and Roald’s family. Which was… completely awful, to be honest. I hadn’t known the guy at all, and obviously he’d had problems, but he deserved to be remembered and mourned. Murphy deserved to have her brother’s life matter to people.
But no, they would have an almost empty funeral and then he would be put in the ground. Apparently they were setting up a donation thing to pay for all that. My first instinct was to throw a bunch of money at it myself. But I would need to be more careful than that. If I just handed them over a bunch of cash without any explanation, it might look a bit suspicious. Even more than my funds already were. Maybe I could anonymously donate? Or make it… I’d figure it out. I would make sure the guy got a decent burial. It was pretty much the least I could do. Especially considering I had failed, thus far, to bring his killer to justice.
Bring his killer to justice. How stupid did that sound? How naive? Even the thought made me grimace to myself while standing in front of my locker at the end of the day. And yet, that was exactly what I wanted to do. Luciano belonged in prison. And I was going to make sure he ended up there. No matter how many wheelbarrows of cash he had given my parents.
“There she is.” Startled out of my thoughts by Tomas’s voice, I turned to see the boy approaching before he leaned against the nearby locker. “You said you wanted to talk about something?”
Right. I’d mentioned that in passing between classes. Now it was time to actually get into it. Forcing a casual smile, I replied, “Oh, you know, I was just thinking I should come over sometime so you could show me that song you’ve been working on.”
Raising an eyebrow, he asked, “How’d you know I’ve been working on a song?”
The question made me snort and wave my hand in a vague gesture. “When are you not working on a song, dude? It’s just been a long time since I got to hear you practice.” Slyly, I added, “And, you know, if your mom happens to be there and is anywhere near the kitchen…”
“Ohhh,” he drawled, “I see how it is. Play to my musician ego to get your foot in the door just so you can see if Mum’s got any pies done.”
Allowing a guilty flush to cross my face (it wasn’t hard), I coughed. “What can I say, she makes really good pies. Are you really sure she does it all by herself?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” he replied while holding up his hand in a scout’s honor sign. “I’ve watched her in the kitchen. Still can’t do it like she does, but she definitely fixes them all by herself, from scratch. Not a frozen pie or restaurant delivery in sight. You trust me, right?”
Oh boy. Forcing myself to continue meeting his gaze without flinching or looking away, I shrugged. “I mean, you’re a boy, so I trust you about that far.”
“Ouch, my wounded soul.” Making a show of staggering backward while clutching his heart, Tomas winked. “Maybe I can pry some more trust out of you by getting pie into your face. You wanna come over today?”
“Just my mouth is good enough, not the whole face,” I retorted. “And today’s not good. My family just got back from being out of town and all.” I was watching his face to see if he gave anything away. If he even knew anything. “So they’ll want me to be around.”
With a shrug, Tomas replied, “Oh right, yeah, they were gone, huh? Any idea what they were doing?”
“Business stuff,” I answered flatly, trying to pretend I didn’t care at all. “Or something. I dunno. Anyway, the point is they’ll be back. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Oooh, kinda got a date tomorrow.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Tomas looked uncomfortable. “I mean… sorry. It’s just this… guy from an ice cream shop. We started talking and–yeah. We’re just hanging out and… boy, this got weird all of a sudden.”
Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I shook my head. “No, no, it’s fine. It’s cool. We’ll plan something later. I umm, have fun. On your date, I mean. When it happens. I just–I uhh, I’ve gotta go.” Grabbing my bag, I shut the locker and started to head out.
Fuck, damn it, why was I so stupid? Why did hearing about Tomas having a date make me feel queasy inside? I didn’t still feel that way about him. Hell, there was still a chance that our entire relationship had been a trick of some kind. I couldn’t–I couldn’t think about that. I had far more important things to focus on.
Those ‘more important things’ came into clear focus as I left the school and looked to where Jefferson would be. Only he wasn’t there. Instead, Royal Thunder was parked in that spot, with my dad waiting in the driver’s seat and waving to me.
Oh boy. Time to shove down all my emotions, pretend to be a completely clueless happy little daughter just running to meet the dad she’s been missing, and give literally nothing away about what I was actually thinking.
If nothing else, maybe I should put in for some extra credit from the drama department.