The drive out of that place honestly wasn’t that long, though it seemed like forever. I kept having to resist the urge to look around too much. It felt like there were eyes on us constantly. Which, to be fair, there certainly were. The plants were all spies. Which was a really creepy thing to think about whenever I happened to glance at the various bushes and trees. Any of them could have been watching and listening, all the time. To say nothing of the animals, which I was pretty sure were also spies. Yeah, I had no idea how the people in here lived like this, because it was freaking me out just being there for a few minutes.
Dad, of course, didn’t seem bothered at all. He had turned around in the seat and was asking Izzy what she thought about her new friend. Not enough to seem overly pushy or anything, but he was definitely curious about all that. Izzy, for her part, simply said that he was nice and that he’d done a lot of work on their project. Belatedly, she added that his sister was ‘intense.’ I had to bite my lip hard to avoid giving a response to that.
Judging from the quick look that Dad gave me, I hadn’t entirely suppressed the reaction. He chuckled very faintly before giving a short nod. “Yes, I suppose intense is one word for it. And hey, I can tell you this much, from what I saw of that project of yours…” He whistled low. “That’s A-plus work right there. Really well put together, and with some nice sources. If that school isn’t careful, I might just hire the both of you right now and put you to work as research interns in one of the firms.”
“Don’t let him make you interns,” I put in immediately. “Tell him it’s associate or no deal. Wait, no, tell him executive and then let him negotiate you down to associate.”
“Awww.” Dad gave me a proud look. “You have been listening to your old man.”
Forcing the lump away that tried to form in my throat, I offered a shrug. “Yeah, well, sometimes you talk louder than the television and it’s hard to tune you out.”
Dad, in turn, offered me a beaming smile, hand reaching out to squeeze my shoulder. “That’s one of my best strategies! Talk too loud for the other person to ignore. You girls should write that down, it’s a good one.”
There were a few things I wanted to say, involving him making offers someone else couldn’t refuse, but I bit my lip and held back. That was a rabbit hole that I really didn’t want to start going down. Instead, I shifted the conversation to asking about how their trip went. Not enough to seem like I was actually fishing for real information or anything, but not asking anything about it at all would also have been suspicious. So I pushed just a little bit, as though I was slightly jealous about being left behind. Or just trying to angle for presents or a different trip sometime.
Unsurprisingly, my dad didn’t tell me what they were really doing. He just played it off as another boring old business trip and kept changing the subject over to talking about things we had done while they were gone. Of course, we couldn’t tell him most of it, so we were all lying to each other. Though at least, hopefully, only one side actually knew that.
On Dad’s suggestion, we stopped for some exotic ice cream on the way back. It was a new place that had apparently been getting a lot of good reviews. The guy behind the counter couldn’t have been much older than me, but he sure knew a lot about ice cream. He talked up the different processes of making it (apparently they did their own fresh on-site), and managed to make it interesting. He was a cute guy too, Asian with longish hair that had this thin green streak in it, and amber eyes. His nametag read Maki.
In any case, he had a lot of good suggestions for flavors to try, and let us sample several. And the reviews were right, this place was great. Maki was funny, charming, and to top everything off, he could juggle. Yeah, he put on a show right there while we were deciding what flavors to get, casually tossing three pints and the ice cream scoop through the air in a circle. I even took a picture of him in the middle of that. With his permission, naturally.
Finally, we ended up picking out flavors we all wanted, and also got a couple pints for Mom and Simon as well before heading out. On the way, as we went back to the car, I shook my head. “Wow, I haven’t even heard of that place yet. That thing says they only opened a week and a half ago, how’d you know about them already? You were out of town.” Even as the words slipped out of my mouth, I was regretting the accidental possible push against their cover story.
Dad, however, simply replied, “From Kent Jackson, actually. He had a lot to say about the place. Apparently his son–oh.” In mid-sentence, he abruptly stopped talking.
“What?” Blinking that way, I started to reflexively ask what was wrong. Then I realized. I remembered. Tomas had said that he was going on a date with ‘a guy who worked at an ice cream shop.’ “That guy back there, Maki. Tomas is dating him.”
Dad was wincing. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I completely forgot that was where I heard about this place until you asked. Do you want to take the ice cream back? Or toss it and go get it from somewhere else?”
Swallowing, I shook my head. “No, no. It’s not the ice cream’s fault. And it’s not Maki’s fault either. And it’s not Tomas’s fault. It’s nobody’s–it’s not–it’s fine. We were already broken up. We didn’t–it’s fine. It’s ice cream. Let’s go eat some ice cream.” Under my breath, I muttered, “I need it now.”
So, we headed back for the house. And all I could think about the entire way was how differently I would have felt right now if I didn’t know the truth. If I didn’t know what was really going on, I would have a new pseudo-little sister living with me, ice cream, my parents back after a long trip, and I would be driving my dream car. It really would be perfect. Well, aside from the whole ‘getting that ice cream from my ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend’ thing, but even that wasn’t horrible. Hell, if that was the worst thing about today, it would’ve been pretty good. A pretty good day. And that was exactly what my father thought he was giving me. Because he had missed me and was trying to do something fun. He was trying to make me happy.
He was a good dad. A good dad who did some really terrible other things. Even evil things. But that was what made this whole thing so hard. It was what made it so confusing. Well, that and the fact that the Ministry obviously did some actual good things as well. Like Peyton had said, there were positives to them. But there were a hell of a lot of negatives too. Like, for example, everything about last night. Yeah, they let the man who murdered Murphy’s brother (and several others) just get away because he paid them. That was… bad. Really bad.
It was all so complicated, frustratingly so. But at least I had people who knew enough to help me right now. We were going to build that tunnel and get into the secret base. We would find everything we could about the Ministry’s business and figure out where to go from there. We just… had to be careful about it. And obviously try to make sure that they didn’t realize it was us doing it. That was going to be the real hard part, and something that would take a lot of time and planning.
But for now, I had to make sure my family didn’t get suspicious about anything. Which meant playing my role as the clueless daughter (and little sister) who didn’t know a damn thing about what was going on. So, as I parked the car in the garage, I put my game face on and gave Dad a sly look. “See how safe that was? In a couple more months, when I get my licence, you won’t have anything to worry about.”
Dad, in turn, snorted. “Yeah, kid, I’m sure you’ll always drive exactly the same way you do when I’m literally sitting right next to you. Actually, you should keep that in mind. Whenever you’re out there, assuming that day ever comes, just pretend that I’m sitting right here in this seat. And you know, obviously that means you can’t have anyone else sitting here. I don’t like to share seats.”
Snorting despite myself, I made a point of rolling my eyes at him before getting out. Then I tossed him the keys. “Believe it or not, I’m not going to make a habit of pretending my father is sitting in the car with me no matter where I go. And I’m sure as hell not going to tell my friends that they can’t sit in the front seat because my imaginary father has dibs.”
Making a show of huffing as though offended, Dad retorted, “I don’t see why not. I’m cool. I’m hip. Your friends would be lucky to have me grace them with my presence on a trip to the juice bar.” He winked then, before laughing at my expression. “Isn’t that right, Izzy?”
She had just gotten out of the car herself, managing a quick, “Sure, juice bar, dads sitting in the front seat of cars, imaginary something or other.” She was pretending to be very engrossed in her phone, which made a pretty convenient distraction.
The three of us grabbed the bags of ice cream pints and headed inside. I had only just made it through the door from the garage into the long hall (it served as a buffer to keep noise and fumes from the cars from getting into any useful rooms) beyond, when my mother seemed to materialize out of nowhere, blurting my name. The next thing I knew, she had pulled me into a tight embrace. It took me a second to stop myself from freezing up, but I managed to return it. God, my mom. I had missed her so much. My dad too. Both of them. Seeing them, hugging them, hearing them, just being with them reminded me how much I loved them despite everything. Soon, I found myself clinging to her even more tightly than I intended. Sure, the revulsion of what happened last night still rolled through my stomach, but I couldn’t help my reaction to actually being around them again after they had been gone.
“Mom,” I managed, my voice cracking just a little bit. Which just made my stomach flip over even more. I almost hated myself at that moment. I thought about what Murphy was going through and quickly released my mother before stepping back. It was all I could do not to turn around and run right back out of the house, through the garage, and just keep going. And boy would that have been fun to try to explain later. Yet, despite knowing just what a bad idea that was, it was still so tempting. And it wasn’t all because of what they had done, or what they helped do. A large part of my sudden rush of revulsion was at my own reaction to them. I missed them so much, seeing my mother like this made me so happy that I immediately felt like I was betraying my friends, like I was betraying Murphy. I was–it was–fuck.
Mom, however, didn’t know anything about that. I wiped it off my face by the time she smiled down at me, hands on my shoulders. “My dear, sweet Principessa. I’m so happy to be home now. That was far too long to be away.”
Somehow, I managed to stop myself from asking how long it would be if they went to prison for all the stuff they had helped do. Not that I wasn’t tempted. Forcing that thought away as well, I instead asked, “Does this mean that you’re not going away again for a while?”
“Oh, Princess.” Smiling fondly, my mother tugged me into another embrace. “I certainly hope not. That was more than enough for me.”
“Me too,” Dad put in, as he and Izzy came through the door. It certainly didn’t take that long for them to cross the last few feet in the garage, so they had obviously stayed back to give me a moment with Mom. Which, of course, had left Izzy alone with my father. I briefly wondered how she felt about that, which just made my stomach clench yet again. God, this whole situation from her point of view was probably just as bad as it was from mine, if not worse.
Meanwhile, Mom was already stepping over to take Izzy’s hands, squeezing them with a fond smile before pulling the girl into an embrace too. Her voice was a gentle murmur. “Izzy, my dear, I missed you as well. I hope the staff treated you properly. How are you?”
Looking slightly overwhelmed (which was understandable, even from my parents’ point of view), Izzy took a second to find her voice. “Thank you, ma’am. Um, Mrs. Evans. I’m okay.”
“More than okay, I hope, since we brought ice cream.” Dad held up the bags in question, gesturing. “Now come on, let’s get to the kitchen so we can eat this before it melts all over the place and make a mess. You really don’t want to make Olivia find someone to clean up melted ice cream off the carpet at four in the afternoon.”
Mom, of course, had a few (mostly teasing) words for Dad bringing home ice cream a couple hours before dinner. But she didn’t put a stop to it, which is what really told me just how much they had missed us. Any other time, she would have told him to put it in the freezer until later.
In the dining room, we had just started to set the ice cream containers out on the table when another voice spoke up from the opposite doorway. “Well, if it isn’t the tiniest stranger.”
Simon. Hearing his voice, I really had to stop myself from visibly flinching. After the fight we’d had the night before, it was hard not to jump or recoil a bit. Not that he knew anything about that. He had no way of knowing about the wave of revulsion and anger that swept through me as I thought about him actually fighting to help the man who had murdered Murphy’s brother escape. He certainly had no way of knowing that I was the one he had been fighting against to do that. And, just like Mom and Dad, he couldn’t find out or realize.
So, just as I had been doing this whole time, I shoved down my immediate reaction and turned to face him. “Oh great, they brought you back too?” My voice cracked just a little bit, but I hoped he didn’t notice. “I hope you at least had the decency to bring me a present.”
“Sure did, the gift of my presence.” With a broad smirk, he waggled his eyebrows at me. “Get it? Gift of presence? Pres–” He grunted as I kicked him in the shin. Which, after last night, I knew for a fact he let me get away with. If he had wanted to, he could catch my foot and put me on my back without even thinking about it.
“Now, no fighting,” Mom chided. “Come and take your seats for early dessert.” She said that with a look at my father that made it clear this was a special thing and he shouldn’t think it was okay all of the time.
Of course, once we were all eating, Izzy and I both had to talk even more about the stuff we’d been doing while they were away. And, as far as that went, I was proud to find that we managed to make our answers sufficiently boring enough to make Simon feign falling asleep (of course, prompting Mom to give him a sharp poke). But the point was, he wasn’t suspicious. None of them were. We kept it boring without being obvious about hiding things. And pushed slightly for information about how their trip went without being obvious about trying to catch them in any lies.
And we had decent ice cream. Okay, very good ice cream. Remarkably good. My ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend’s ice cream shop was amazing. That was the cherry on top of the whole night. Also my ice cream had cherries in it.
In any case, we hung out for the rest of the evening like that. Dad suggested a movie in the theater, so we went there and watched this comedy western thing before dinner, which we had about an hour later than usual thanks to the whole ice cream thing. Then Mom wanted to do something together, so we played a board game in one of the dens. All of us, my parents, Simon, Izzy, and me. It was all so weirdly normal and casual. Mom and Dad acted like… Mom and Dad. Simon was Simon. We played several games, I accused my brother of cheating, jumped on his back, Mom told us to settle down, Dad laughed, we all laughed.
And then Izzy and I went upstairs, and the second the door of my bedroom closed behind us, the smile wiped itself off my face like someone had flipped a switch. I slumped back against the door, eyes closing for a moment as I let out a long breath and let the stress of pretending everything was fine throughout the entire evening slide out of me.
When my eyes opened once more, Izzy was standing a few feet away, watching me a bit pensively as she quietly asked, “Are you okay?”
“Not much worse than usual,” I replied quietly before shaking my head. “I mean, wow. That was hard.” Swallowing, I moved away from the door while continuing. “I sort of… forgot what it was like to be face to face with them, knowing all these things. And after last night… after Simon–” Cutting myself off, I put my hands against my face and gave a slight shudder. “Sorry, I’m okay. I’m… I’m okay. I–”
The next thing I knew, Izzy took both of my arms and gently pulled my hands down from my face so she could look at me. Her voice was gentle. “It’s okay… to not be okay.”
Unable to find my voice for a moment, I settled on simply taking a small step that way and embracing her. She returned it, and we stood there like that for a few seconds before I managed a weak, “Thanks. You being here means a lot.”
Eventually, she released me and asked, “Are you going out tonight?”
I thought about it, but shook my head. “No, after last night, I need some extra sleep to catch up. Besides, Roald and Murphy are gonna need a couple days before they do anything else. Preferably more than that, but I don’t know how long we can stop Murphy from trying to go off to do something on her own. I need to talk to Paige and Raige about that whole Irelyn thing, but that can wait. I’m just gonna crash and try to turn everything off for awhile. I’m pretty sure there’ll be plenty to do soon enough anyway.”
With a nod of agreement, Izzy headed out. I got ready for bed, ordered the lights to go out, and then laid down. My head was on the pillow and I started to drift off almost immediately, my thoughts winding down.
And then I sat up. With two words, I ordered the lights to come back on, before sitting there in bed as my mind raced. Pushing myself over to the edge, I grabbed my Touched phone and quickly typed out a message to Amber, along with an attachment.
Does this look familiar?
After that, I waited anxiously for what felt like forever (but was really only about thirty seconds) until I saw the notification that she was typing. Soon, the message came back.
That’s him. That’s him, how did you get that?
Seeing that, I breathed out and slumped back. I was right. The realization that had struck me just before I was about to fall asleep was correct. I had to let that wash over me for a few seconds.
Finally, I straightened a bit and typed out two more quick messages for Amber.
The sex-shifting person you saw is named Maki. They work at an ice cream shop.
Tomas is dating them.