“That son of a bitch!” Amber’s words were accompanied by the sound of her fist slamming down into the wooden table that she, Izzy, and I were sitting at in a corner of the random park I had brought them to so I could explain the whole situation with Benjamin Pittman. We were all dressed in our civilian clothes so we wouldn’t attract attention, though I was pretty sure it wouldn’t matter what we were dressed in if too many people heard that sort of outburst. Thankfully, the park was basically empty at this point. Probably because so many people didn’t feel safe being out on the streets with the war going on.
Izzy, meanwhile, slumped back on the bench, staring intently off into the distance with her brow furrowed. “Do… do you think he has her? Or did he just get the phone number? Can they tell where the call came from, or from what phone?”
My head shook. “According to Wren, that’s being blocked on their end just like it’s blocked on ours. Well, not just like. She went into some long technical explanation, but the end result is the same. We don’t know where it’s coming from. It could be the same phone or a different one. She said that maybe she can do something more with the call that comes in tomorrow, but she’s not sure. Depends on how well he or his people are blocking the signal or whatever.”
Amber was sighing heavily. “I can’t believe after everything you guys did to get Paige’s sister out of danger, now she’s suddenly right in the middle of it.”
“Yeah…” Trailing off, I looked back and forth between the two of them. I was wondering if either or both of them knew that Irelyn Banners was Flea. So far, they hadn’t reacted as though they did, but maybe they were just extraordinarily good at hiding it. Which I didn’t blame them for. If they did know, they probably saw it as not their place to expose the woman’s identity. Even though it was important information. I was having that same problem. They worked alongside her all the time and if they didn’t know who she was, it was because she didn’t want them to. But on the other hand, if I asked about it, they would know, and I would be taking that choice away from her. Yet on the third hand, knowing who she was could end up being incredibly important in the future if we had to help her.
I just… I had no idea. Just like talking about my family, bringing up the subject wasn’t something I could do over. It almost makes me wish that my power included the ability to rewind in case I did something wrong. What color paint would that be?
“Cass?” Amber was looking at me curiously. “Is something wrong? Err, I mean something beyond the obvious.”
No, I couldn’t talk about it right now. It wasn’t my place to expose who Irelyn really was if they didn’t know. At least not right at this moment. Maybe once we knew more about what was going on, I could make a better decision. If Benjamin Pittman just had the phone number or the phone itself and Irelyn was free, that would be a very different sort of situation than if he or his men had her. Yeah, that was my best move. I would hold off on telling these two the truth about her until I knew more. Which sounded a bit like a cop-out in my head, but what else was I supposed to do? If I flat out told them when I didn’t need to, I would be exposing someone else’s secret identity, and I knew for sure how I would feel if someone did that to me.
It might turn out that I didn’t have a choice, but for the moment, I wasn’t going to leap that far. So, I shrugged. “There’s a lot of things wrong. And I’m nervous about this whole tunnel thing. It’s a lot more important now, you know? I mean, not that it wasn’t important before, but we need to get done with this. We need to get in there and find a new body for Raige.”
“She wants to help?” Amber asked, frowning thoughtfully. “I thought she was gonna take her new body and run off on her own.”
My head bobbed quickly. “I’m pretty sure that was her original plan, but now she wants to deal with their dad. Honestly, I don’t know how much of that is because she cares about Irelyn, and how much is because she’s pissed at Benjamin for betraying and trying to kill her. Maybe six of one, half a dozen of another. But either way, she wants to be involved now. And I’m not going to argue against that, considering we could use all the help we can get.”
Izzy picked herself up from the table, arms folded against her chest as she turned to look out at the distant street. “Do you think we should move up the plan to get in the base? I mean, we don’t know how long their sister might have, or how much trouble she’s in.”
I thought about it briefly before shaking my head. “Wren needs all the time she can get to run the suits through last minute checks. She’s already working her butt off. I think she said something about expecting a shipment of important stuff for this sometime today. Whatever it is, I don’t want to stress her out even more by taking a full day away from her. The poor kid needs more time, you know? Tomorrow night is already soon enough.” Wincing at my own words, I amended, “At least, I hope it is.” Thoughts about how guilty I would feel if it turned out that that time had been crucial when this was over ran through my head, but I stuck to it. I was worried about Irelyn, yet if we went rushing in there without everything being ready, we stood a good chance of losing everything. So, hard as it was, we had to just wait, and hope that the woman was okay.
Shaking off those thoughts, I took a deep breath. “And now I have to go spend time with my ex and his new boyfriend so I can try to figure out what either or both of them have to do with my family’s criminal empire.” A brief pause followed before my face twisted.
“On second thought, maybe going straight into that tunnel and getting into a fight with a bunch of murderers isn’t such a bad plan after all.”
In the end, of course, I went with the smarter plan, no matter how much it made my stomach twist itself into knots. Part of me wished I could justify making excuses to not show up, but Wren really did need time to finish her thing. And we weren’t even sure if Pack would be able to get away from La Casa today. Not to mention I didn’t want to attract any new problems by changing plans at the last second. Going in half-cocked was a recipe for disaster.
So, I showed up at the mall food court as planned. I was a few minutes early, and yet I could see Tomas and Maki sitting together at one of the tables, talking and laughing together. It was a sight that made me pause, my stomach trying to do a three-sixty pop shove-it (skateboarding trick) inside my torso.
I was early. They probably wanted more time alone. I would be interrupting if I went over there. This whole thing was a bad idea, a terrible idea. I should just turn around and walk out. I could call on my way through the parking lot and tell Tomas I couldn’t make it. Even if I didn’t go into the tunnel today, obviously there was other stuff I could do. I could go back and help Wren at the shop. That was even more important than spending time figuring out what was up with Maki, wasn’t it? At the very least, it was of more immediate importance. I wasn’t a technical genius or anything, but I could hold stuff or fetch things for Wren. I could totally help out around there. Yeah, that made sense. Getting everything ready to go into the tunnel was a lot more important right now. There was no need for me to be here, no need for me to–
“Cassie!” Tomas, of course, had noticed me as I stood there indecisively, and was now waving to get my attention. “Over here!”
Well fuck, now I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t exactly turn around and walk away before calling to make excuses. That probably wouldn’t go over very well. Even if–no, Cassidy. Pushing all such thoughts out of my mind, I took a deep breath and walked that way while forcing a smile that I hoped was at least vaguely convincing. “There you guys are. I thought you’d be a lot harder to find. This place isn’t very busy, huh?”
Maki had already stood up and turned, tugging a chair out for me. Their gaze met mine with a smile that seemed both genuine and curious. “Good to see you again, Miss Evans.”
My face twisted once more and I gave a quick, almost frantic headshake while sliding into the chair they had pulled out. “Cassidy. Just Cassidy. Or Cass. Or–whatever. Call me Dumbo for all I care. Just not Miss Evans, nothing like that.”
“Hey, is that D–” Tomas started.
“Dumbo is not open to you too,” I retorted before he could continue. “That offer is only open to your better half here.” My head nodded toward Maki before I added, “Maybe I should call him your better three-quarters? How much would you say you’re contributing to this whole thing?”
“Ouch.” Putting a hand against his heart, Tomas made a show of groaning. “A mortal wound, and only five seconds into the outing. However will I survive the hours ahead of us?”
“Maybe you won’t,” I primly replied. “Maybe you’ll die, and then your boyfriend and I can have all the fun we were all gonna have today but for two-thirds of the cost.”
Yeah, I had no idea how I managed to sound so casual and even tease him like that. Inwardly, I was a mess. Maybe it just came from the practice I had with hiding my real feelings from my family and acting normal around them. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? I genuinely wasn’t sure.
Tomas interrupted my musings by rapping his fist against the table. “Okay, well, until I keel over and give both of you a cheaper outing, why don’t we get this show on the road? I know we said we’d get lunch first, but I was thinking we should work up an appetite. And, as I recall, you were saying a lot of big words about how you were going to check my arse at the mini-golf in this place. So let’s see if you can put your rented club where your mouth is.”
“Ew,” I retorted, “I’m not putting one of those clubs anywhere near my mouth. Do you have any idea what sort of people hold them? That’s disgusting.”
“She has a point,” Maki confirmed, looking at Tomas with a shrug. “That is pretty gross, and I have to say, if you let one of those clubs anywhere near your mouth, we might have to break up.”
“No licking rented sports equipment, got it.” Pantomiming checking that off an invisible list, Tomas added, “It’s important to know the do’s and don’ts of any relationship.” He glanced toward me, mouth opening as though he was going to say something. But then he caught himself and gave a slight headshake, clearly thinking better of it. Instead, the boy simply rose to his feet. “But that doesn’t change the fact that Cass over here has been talking a lot of shite about her golfing, and it’s time for her to put up or… well, put up.” He winked at me. “Sorry, can’t let you get away with just shutting up. Not now.”
“Good,” I shot back, pushing myself up as well before poking him in the chest. “Cuz I wasn’t planning on it. In fact, I may kick your butt so bad that our next stop will be the hospital so you can get some ointment.”
Maki, looking back and forth between us, asked, “Were you two this competitive while you were dating?”
“Worse,” Tomas informed him. “She’s mellowed out lately.” With a wink my way, the boy gestured. “And she’ll mellow out even more once she loses, so let’s get that over with.
“After all, how good could she be at mini-golf?”
As it happened, the answer to Tomas’s question was apparently ‘very good.’ Which, yes, was partly because I had practiced at our home course. But I was also pretty sure that my spatial awareness power or whatever the hell it was helped a lot. Not that I was trying to cheat or anything, but I just… knew where to hit the ball to be most efficient. It wasn’t perfect, and I did my best not to overly exploit it, even going so far as to intentionally miss a few times. But still, I scored the best on the mall course I ever had.
I wasn’t the only one who did really well either. Maki actually kept pace with me, their own score remaining neck and neck with mine throughout the course. I had no idea what being able to shapeshift from male to female and back again had to do with being good at mini-golf. But then again, I didn’t know what projecting paint that provided various effects had to do with being good at mini-golf either. Maybe Touched were just naturals at it. Or–yeah, I had no idea.
Even Tomas wasn’t having a terrible day, but he couldn’t keep up with the two of us, and the whole match rapidly became a two-person race. I was even fine with letting Maki win, shoving down the competitive spirit that tried to take over once or twice. But when I started intentionally doing worse, Maki still didn’t pull ahead. It was like they were matching their own game to mine, or something. I started to think they were trying to do the same thing I was trying to do, let the other person win by just a little bit. While still beating Tomas, of course. I wasn’t feeling that uncompetitive.
In the end, I managed to let Maki take the lead on the last hole, close as it was. At that point we still weren’t that hungry, so the three of us went to see a movie in the mall theater before heading back to the food court for lunch. Obviously, I didn’t get much of a chance to talk during the show, so that was basically a wash as far as finding out more about Maki went. Thankfully, golfing and eating were a different story. I had to talk a fair bit about myself and my family, of course, so it didn’t come off like an interrogation. But that still gave me an excuse to ask questions as well. I managed to find out things like Maki’s parents’ names, general ages, a few dates of when they had lived in different places that I could maybe use to check against stuff I might end up finding in my family’s secret base–the one just under our feet, actually– and a couple other things that probably weren’t important.
This was hard. I couldn’t even act like I knew that Maki was both male and female, let alone ask the sort of questions I really wanted to. I came close a couple of times to just grabbing them by the shoulders and demanding to know what they knew about everything. Especially about why they had been arguing with what was presumably their family before Tomas’s dad showed up and took them away in his own car. But something told me being that open about it wouldn’t lead to anything good, or useful. Or even if it did, I probably wouldn’t like dealing with the cost.
“Now see, this is what confuses me.” That was Tomas, lounging in his seat in the food court where we had our food spread out over the table. “My chips?” He picked up one of his french fries, studied it, then popped it into his mouth and considered. “They’re okay. Cassie’s chips?” His hand sneaking out, grabbing one of mine before I could stop him from eating that as well. “Better than mine. Probably because they’re stolen and everyone knows how much better crime food tastes. But still…” His hand moved to Maki’s tray then, taking one of their fries. That one he put in his mouth and savored with a murmur. “But these ones? These ones are perfect. Plump, crispy, hot, just the right amount of salt, just… perfect. How does that happen? We all got our food from the same place at the same time. So how does he end up with chips that are so much better than either of us?”
Visibly blushing, Maki squirmed a bit in their seat before offering a shrug. “Pretty sure it’s just in your head. You know, that stolen food being better thing. Is that an actual thing, or did you make it up?”
“It’s definitely a thing,” Tomas confirmed. “Criminal food always tastes better.” He stopped to think about that before musing, “Not that I’ve had a lot of it, but I do remember sneaking into my family’s fridge after midnight to eat a Scotch egg after I was supposed to be in bed, and they always tasted better then.”
Blinking at him, I asked, “I’m sorry, eating a what?”
“Scotch egg?” He looked at me, head tilting. “Don’t tell me you people don’t even know what those are.”
Maki spoke up then, taking pity on my confusion. “It’s a boiled egg that’s been wrapped in sausage and then covered with breading before being baked or deep-fried. You might’ve heard of it as a bird’s nest or something like that.”
My head shook. “Nope, I am pretty sure I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
“Your loss,” Tomas informed me. “Well, I could say they taste better stolen in the middle of the night when you’re supposed to be asleep. So maybe you could get your parents to buy some, then sneak downstairs and take them in the middle of the night. Pretty sure that’s the only way you’ll get the full effect.”
I started to tell the boy that I would get right on that, but before I could, Maki abruptly stood up while blurting what sounded like a curse in Japanese. Immediately, they flushed a bit self-consciously before apologizing. “This has been a lot of fun, really. We should do it again. But I’ve got to go help my family deal with something.” They waved their phone vaguely, as though that explained anything.”
Tomas blinked that way. “You haven’t finished your food yet? And–”
“Sorry,” Maki interrupted. Their face twisted a little. Partly with guilt about taking off so unexpectedly, I was sure, but also something else. It looked like they were almost in pain, like they were barely holding themselves together.
Or stopping themselves from shifting, I realized. I didn’t know if Tomas knew about their power, but I certainly wasn’t supposed to. Not to mention anyone else who might notice in the middle of this food court. The place was even less busy than it had been earlier, but it wasn’t exactly empty. What if Maki couldn’t control their shifts that well? Were they running off and making weak excuses about it because they were about to shift sex from male to female?
While I was still realizing what was probably going on, Maki had already made another apology before heading off. They were walking quickly, slipping between a couple crowded tables on their way to what looked like the exit. Which made me wonder just how long they could hold off their shift, if that was what the issue was.
“I promise, it wasn’t you.” That was Tomas, noticing the way my gaze was following Maki. “He’s just like that sometimes. You know, has to run off and take care of one thing or another. I think he gets overwhelmed. Just don’t take it personally. He liked you. Likes you, I mean.”
Shaking off all the thoughts running through my head, I managed a smile. “That’s cool. I like him too. I mean… you did well. You did good. You’re good. You’re–this is awkward.” Wincing, I took a breath before letting it out. “I’m glad you found someone that’s cool to be with. It would’ve sucked to lose you to someone who was terrible.”
“So I shouldn’t date Arleigh or Paige, got it,” the boy remarked with a wink before considering. “Speaking of which, how long do you think Paige is gonna be gone? I know it was her birthday and her parents are rich and all, but even they can’t keep her out of school for the rest of the semester.”
Coughing despite myself, I shrugged. “Who knows? I mean, I’m not a fortune teller or anything.
“But something tells me we’ll be seeing Paige again pretty soon.”