Author: Cerulean

Patreon Snippets 24 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The following is the 24th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Heretical Edge-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Avalon and Gwen (The following takes place sometime after the previous chapter 17-01 and before the next chapter 17-02

“This place has the best sushi you will ever eat. Bar none.” 

With that small aside, Gwen pulled the nozzle out of the corvette’s gas tank, slid it back onto the pump, hit the screen twice with her thumb to decline a receipt, and started up toward the rundown, dingy-looking building advertising one dollar hot dogs and seventy-nine cent large fountain drinks. “Don’t just stand there, this is the best time of day for the fresh stuff.” 

Avalon, standing by the rear of the car, stared after the blonde (with pink tips) woman while silently echoing, ‘fresh stuff.’ Her head shook as she quickly pushed herself into motion, walking that way. “Wait, this is a gas station.” 

“Uh huh,” Gwen agreed, already reaching out for the door after giving a quick nod to the distracted man who passed them while talking on his phone. 

“A gas station in the middle of Nebraska,” Avalon continued, stepping in once the other woman gestured for her to go ahead. “Which, just to be clear, is literally the most landlocked state in the entire US. I double-checked just to be sure. It’s the only state that is triple-landlocked. You have to go through at least three states, or two states and a big Canadian province, to get to the ocean no matter which way you go. We’re talking over a thousand miles to the nearest ocean.” 

Stepping into the store before letting the door close after her, Gwen airily replied, “That’s right.” She turned a bit then, eyes surveying the empty shop aside from a single employee who was silently reading a magazine while keeping half an eye on them. The man looked Latino, with long hair pulled into a ponytail, a heavyset body, and a tee-shirt advertising a boxing match that had been over for going on twenty-five years. 

Satisfied that there was no one else in the convenience store, Gwen called out toward the man sitting there. Only she spoke in what sounded like rapid Japanese, and all Avalon got out of it was that her tone sounded questioning. Plus she was pretty sure there was a greeting in there somewhere. 

By the time Gwen was half-way through her question, the man behind the counter was already scrambling off his stool. It fell with a crash while he darted around the side and approached, speaking in his own rapid Japanese the moment the woman had finished. Again, Avalon couldn’t follow the actual words, but she could tell he was apologizing. He also kept bowing repeatedly, fumbling for something in his pocket. 

“Kaili,” Gwen interrupted, her hand moving to touch his arm. “It’s alright. We haven’t seen each other in awhile, and I looked different then. But please, my… niece here doesn’t speak your language.” 

“Niece?” The man’s gaze snapped from Gwen to Avalon, eyes widening. “You are the princess of Avalon?!” He was already bowing to her rapidly, babbling in his own language once more in what sounded like even more apologies. 

“Wait, no, I’m not–I mean it’s not princess anything, it’s just Ava–” Cutting herself off in mid-objection (which she was pretty sure the man himself wasn’t even hearing in the midst of his own apology), Avalon looked toward Gwen, voice flat. “Gaia knew what she was doing.” 

Giving her a tiny smirk, Gwen nodded easily. “Of course she did. Good or bad, that woman rarely did anything by accident.” With that, she turned back to Kaili and spoke up with a gentle, yet firm voice. “It’s alright, we aren’t here for any of that. We came for the sushi. If it’s ready?” 

Clearly snapped out of his rambling apology for not somehow intuiting who Avalon and Gwen were the moment they stepped inside, Kaili stopped short, glancing toward an unlabeled door in the back while tugging a set of keys from his pocket. “Oh yes, yes, of course. Our normal customers have not arrived yet, you shall be the first. And ahh, have first choice, naturally.” Even as he said that, the man was already hurrying toward that rear door, using no-less than four keys on separate locks before he finally pulled it open. As he was starting to give a grand gesture for the two to go through, a man in a trucker’s cap began to come in the main door from the lot outside. But before he could get more than a step inside, Kaili snapped, “We’re closed!” At his words, the customer was pushed back out the door by an invisible force and the door shut firmly in his face before the sound of a lock clicking filled the air. Outside, the man voiced confusion, pulled at the door twice, then shook his head and walked away muttering. 

“Ahem,” Kaili turned his attention back to the two women, arm rising to motion them inward as he held the door politely. “Please, please, after you, your majesties.” 

Avalon started to object, then simply gave a heavy sigh before walking through the door, with Gwen following just behind her. There was a set of stairs on the other side, leading down into an open basement room that was much larger than the building upstairs. Along the walls on either side were several enormous aquarium tanks, filled with fish of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Many of which didn’t look like they belonged on Earth. The tanks continued down under their feet, as Avalon, Gwen, and their escort walked across a glass floor, toward several tables that had been set up in the middle of the room, spaced far enough apart that the occupants could have a private conversation. 

Handing the two of them menus, Kaili bowed once more before announcing that he would return right away. Then he moved to a door at the back of the room, which seemed to lead to a kitchen area. 

With her menu in one hand, Avalon glanced around, taking in the colorful fish on all sides of her. Glancing up, she saw a literal glass ceiling with even more fish visible there. “This is… different.” 

“Not what you expected, hmm?” Gwen teased lightly. “It’s something wonderful hiding under the guise of something plain. I think that’s why I like it so much.” Pausing briefly, she added, “Well, that and the fact that the food truly is utterly delightful. I, ah, wanted to share something nice with you. I know we haven’t… really had much time to talk about…” She gestured back and forth between herself and the other girl. “Our situation.” 

“You mean my situation as your, ah, niece?” Avalon tried out the word, face twisting a little before she shook her head. “You don’t have to call me that. I know you didn’t get along with Gaia, and she just adopted–” 

“Stop,” Gwen interrupted. “You’re right, I have had my issues with… Gaia. When we get her back, she and I are going to have a very long, very intense conversation about a lot of things. But she has more than proven that she is not the same person I knew back then. And she has absolutely proven that she loves you. Believe me when I say, I watched her all last year. The way she is with you, the way she watches you when you aren’t looking, the way–” Cutting herself off, she simply finished with, “She does not see you as a responsibility, she sees you as her daughter. I hope you know that.” 

“I’m… still coming to terms with it,” Avalon murmured while shifting in her seat. “I need–I want–we have to get her out of there. I have to tell her, I mean… I have to tell her everything I wanted to tell her before.” 

“We will,” Gwen assured her. “But that’s my point. You love her and she loves you. She is your family. Which means you are my family. Believe me, Arthur will make that abundantly clear when we get him back. Which we are also doing.” 

“Arthur… literal King Arthur,” Avalon breathed out the words even as her head shook in disbelief. It took a moment to organize her thoughts. “You know, I thought that with Liesje’s spell finally cast, my whole ridiculous important family thing would be over. But I’m sitting here with Queen Guinevere, wife to King Arthur, whose sister is the, ahem, formerly evil witch Morgan Le Fay, who is my adopted mother.” 

“Yeeeah, your life is never gonna be boring,” Gwen confirmed with a light, casual chuckle. “But at least you’ve got some interesting relatives out of it.” 

Grimacing, Avalon muttered a dark, “Better than my dad, that’s for sure.” She paused to consider briefly before meeting the woman’s gaze. “It is pretty weird though. I mean, having Harper as my aunt.” 

With an audible snicker, Gwen offered, “It could be worse. At least you’re not related to Litonya.” 

Silently mouthing, ‘oh my God’ at the very thought, Avalon gave a full-body shudder. “Is this your way of making up for not being able to mentally torture me for all the years I was growing up, by putting that thought in my head?” 

“Figured that out, did ya?” With those teasing words, Gwen sobered a bit, her voice softening. “Wherever you came from, however it happened and whatever the reasoning, you are Gaia’s daughter. Which means you are my niece. That means something to me. And it’ll mean something to Arthur. Not to mention the people who are still loyal to him. You are, for all intents and purposes, a princess. Granted, one with no lands or real responsibilities… yet. But a princess nonetheless.” 

Awkwardly rubbing the back of her neck, Avalon made a face. “I’m not–I mean… I’m not, though. Not–I just want to… I’m not that type of person. When I was a kid, I was a wimp. At the Garden, I learned how to be tough, how to fight and protect myself. Then that fell apart, and Flick… Flick, Gaia, and the others taught me how to open up a little bit and not be so hard. But I’ll never be…” She took a deep breath. “I’ll never be a princess-type princess.” 

A snort escaped Gwen, which turned into a laugh. “I’m sorry, have you taken a look at me? Listen, Avalon–” Stopping abruptly, she shook her head. “I’m starting to think Gaia named you that to mess with me too. Anyway, I was raised to be a fighter. I was raised by Michael. I never–being queen was never on my to-do list either. Neither was falling in love with Arthur. So believe me, I know where you’re coming from. I know how uncomfortable it can be to find out that people are looking up to you, that you’re actually responsible for more than just yourself and the few people around you. That’s why I’m here now, with you. Because I want to help you be ready for when that responsibility actually shows up. You and me, we’ve got a lot in common. I wish I had a me to be there for me when I was me back–” She stopped, face twisting a little. “And now I’ve lost myself.” 

Smiling just a little, Avalon quietly replied, “That’s why we’re here, so you can start talking to me about all these things?” 

“Well no, we’re together so I can start talking to you about all these things,” Gwen corrected. “We’re here because like I said, their sushi is goddamn amazing. Now look at the menu and figure out what you want. And don’t worry, if you want to sneak a little wine, I won’t tell anyone. 

“After all, I am the cool aunt. And being queen has its privileges.” 

*********

The Calendar (The following takes place sometime shortly after the upcoming 17-03)

“Why are we here?” The skinny man who asked that question had short, dirty-blond hair that was mussed up, and wore a pair of jeans with a flannel shirt tucked into them. His words were addressed to the eclectic group standing around him, all of them waiting in a large shed at the rear end of an old farm. 

“You know why we’re here, November.” That crisp reply came from a tall, blonde woman in a red evening gown that looked quite out of place in the dingy shed. “We were invited.” 

Clearing his throat, a black man with shoulder-length dark hair wearing a pristine white suit pointed out, “Now January, I believe what November was asking was why were we invited?”

“Feb’s got a point,” Julie (July) agreed. Like the man she was referring to, Julie was black and appeared to be what humans would consider twenty-two or so. She preferred to wear a tan trench coat, like various Earth detective stories they had seen, over black pants and a white shirt. “They already have three of us up there. Why would they want any more?” 

“Unless it’s a trap.” That supposition came from October, or rather, Otto. He appeared to be in his mid-thirties (making him several thousand in actuality), and his own style of clothing went toward loud Hawaiian shirts covered by a white lab coat. He also wore glasses that possessed an array of special abilities. “Perhaps Athena’s alliance believes that they can remove a resource from an enemy in one stroke by taking her entire Calendar off the board.” 

“If you believed that,” the eldest of their group, a gray-haired man in a multi-thousand dollar suit, put in, “You would not have agreed to come here.” August’s eyes narrowed that way. “Not unless you had some plan of your own.” 

The two members of the group who had been silent up to that point were both rather large men, each standing well over six feet. One would have been considered Latino if he had been human, and wore clothes that were rather drab and heavily patched. They had been worn for a long time. The other, equally as tall, had green crewcut hair and also wore simple clothing. Tember (September) and March respectively. 

It was Tember who spoke up then, his attention on Otto. “Come on, man, tell us you didn’t bring some sort of bomb or weapon that’s gonna start the war up all over again.” 

March, who rarely spoke at all given his intense dislike of attention, made a noise in the back of his throat that showed just how much he didn’t like that idea either. 

With the attention of all seven other members of the immediate group on him, Otto waved both hands. “I didn’t bring a bomb or a weapon. I mean, no more weapons than the rest of you are carrying. Trust me, I got the speech. Multiple times. I’m just saying, if they wanted to get rid of all of us, it makes the most sense to do it all at once. If they ‘lost’ the other three, it would look suspicious to ask for replacements. This way, we can all have an accident together.” 

“Now I’m regretting even bringing it up,” November muttered before shaking his head. “I wasn’t trying to say it’s a trap. I’m just asking why they want us up there. There has to be a reason, but I can’t figure out what they get out of it.”

August, who had been gazing out the nearby open door for a moment, turned his attention back to the others while speaking flatly. “When it comes down to it, we are not worth such effort. It would be trivially simple for Cahethal to replace all twelve of us should the need arise. Never forget that the courtesy she extends us in allowing our autonomy and individuality is not due to any specific unique achievements on our part. There is a long list of those like us who would quite easily take our place.” 

“She hasn’t replaced June yet,” Julie pointed out in a quiet voice. “Why do you think that is? I mean, she replaced December faster than this. And others.” That last bit served to remind the others that she was one of the longest-lasting members of the current Calendar. To the point that she had slightly adapted the provided name of July to Julie, making it more of her own. 

“That is a good question,” January agreed thoughtfully. “I suppose she could still be holding out for Kushiel’s daughter, despite May and April’s strong doubts on that front.” 

For a brief moment, all of them exchanged silent looks. In the end, it was Feb who broke that silence. “She has an Olympian power. If she said the word, Cahethal would replace any one of us with her. She doesn’t have to keep a position open. She would create an opening if she had to.” 

None of the others disagreed with that, though they were glad not to be the one who brought up the reality that they simply were not truly that important in the grand scheme of things. 

Tember finally let out an audible sigh. “Everyone calm down. No one is being replaced. Kushiel’s  daughter–” He stopped, considering briefly before amending his words. “Theia has no interest in joining us. May and April made that clear. Whatever Cahethal’s reason for not replacing June yet, I don’t think it has anything to do with her. We’ll find out when she wants us to know.” 

“Okay, so that takes us back to why does that group want us up there?” Julie pointed out. “Athena is not stupid enough to think she could get real information out of us. And even if she did, they already have the other three. What is the tactical advantage of having all of us there the same time?” 

Otto, voice thoughtful, put in, “Maybe they’ve got some new tracking spell or something and want to put it on all of us while we’re there so they’ll always know if we start spying on them.” 

January opened her mouth, then paused to consider. “That… if they had such a spell, it would be enormously valuable. At least as much as their new protection magic. The ability to mark us in a way that allows them to track us even through other possessions, and to always know precisely where we are… that would be one of the biggest anti-Seosten weapons in existence.” 

“And if anyone could and would develop it,” Otto pointed out, “it’s Athena’s organization right here at Rysthael.” 

August raised his hand to stop them. “I’m afraid we are getting far too deep into the weeds of wild supposition here. I do not know why we have been invited to visit this place any better than any of you, but I do not believe the intention is nefarious. Ignoring the fact that our friends would have warned us if they suspected any such efforts, it is simply unnecessary. Not only do they have April, May, and December as it is, they also have plenty of other Seosten with them who would quite willingly submit to the testing of such a spell. Our presence would be entirely superfluous.” 

“Unless they just wanted to cast it on us to make sure we can’t ever actually spy on them,” Otto started to point out before blanching as the entire group stared at him. “I get it, I get it, paranoid. It’s not likely, yeah. But I still don’t–” 

At that point, his words were interrupted by the sudden appearance of the portal they had all been waiting for. It grew to full size in front of them, just before several figures stepped through. The group immediately recognized April, May, and December, even as the latter blurted January’s name and embraced her tightly. Then she began to make her way around the circle, giving each of them hugs of their own. 

By that point, April and May had stepped aside to give room for three more figures to join them. The first was Theia herself, while the second was Mercury, his gaze passing quickly over everyone as though assessing them for any threat. Finally, the third was a woman who would have been entirely unfamiliar to them if they had not read the detailed dossier about her. 

“Principal Abigail Fellows?” January couldn’t keep the surprise from her voice. “We didn’t expect to see you here.” 

The woman in question offered her a small smile. “I suppose it is a bit of a surprise. And I know how surprises can be disconcerting. Sorry for that. I wanted to come greet you myself and extend our invitation to visit the school, if you are all still interested.” 

December immediately began to launch into a long spiel about how much they had to come, before May gently covered the girl’s mouth and spoke up herself. “Perhaps official introductions.” She and April went down the line, giving each Calendar member’s name. 

And with each introduction, Abigail insisted on shaking their hands. Which was quite disconcerting for all of them, even knowing about the protection spell. 

“Well,” Mercury finally announced, “shall we go back through? We have–” 

Before he could say anything else, the man abruptly pivoted, hand coming up with a pistol, which he pointed past the others toward the doorway. The doorway where another figure, simultaneously incredibly familiar to the Calendar, and utterly astonishing, had appeared. 

“June!” December blurted out loud, lunging that way. “What’reyoudoinghere?! Ithoughtyouweredeadtheysaidyouweredead! Howcomeeveryonethinksyou’redead?!” 

The man in question, a Seosten who appeared to be around twenty, with short black hair, wore the same dark clothes and white jacket they had always seen him in. But he also wore something else, a sly, cocky smirk that seemed out of place on one of their kind. 

“Well hey there, pals,” he greeted them while ruffling December’s hair. “You weren’t about to go on this tour without me, were you?” 

“Cahethal said you were dead, June.” January’s gaze was laser-focused on the man. 

“Well in a way, I suppose June is,” the man replied lazily. “I got tired of him. And tired of working with that old stuffy bitch. Decided to go back to my old self. Or one of my old selves anyway. Thought maybe I could collect some long-owed royalties.

“After all, these humans have been profiting off the name Dracula for a very long time.” 

A/N: Dracula was previously seen (and established to be an SPS Seosten) in a historical figures snippet found as the last entry in the chapter right here. And yes, he has somewhat changed his appearance since then.

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Interlude 21A – An Unexpected Detour (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

“Thanks a lot, keep the tip.” With those words, Irelyn Banners (dressed as a civilian rather than as her costumed identity of Flea) stepped back into the fairly cramped motel room with a box of piping hot pizza. Kicking the door shut behind her, the brunette woman with her hair kept in a loose ponytail held the treat up in one hand so her companion could see it. “Here we go, the real dinner of champions.”  

From the other side of the room, Hazel Ruthers (better known to the public as Trivial) raised an eyebrow. Outside of her own costume, Hazel had straight black hair that fell only a couple inches above her shoulders, with fairly dark skin to indicate her mixed-race status. She had a two-liter bottle of soda in one hand and was using it to fill a couple of plastic cups provided by the motel. “Could we really be considered champions when ordering pizza is basically the height of what we’ve been able to accomplish the entire time we’ve been down here? I don’t want to say we’re bad at our jobs or anything, but we’ve been here for days and have nothing to show for it. At this point, after all the people we’ve talked to, I’m not convinced your sister even exists, let alone that she’s ever been here. Are you sure she wasn’t just the result of some manic and incredibly elaborate fever dream you had?” 

Snorting at the question, Irelyn set the pizza down on the nearby bed (one of two in the room they were sharing) before grabbing a paper plate. “You do realize that you’ve met her before, right?” She was already loading up the plate with several pieces, which she handed over that way. “Multiple times, actually. We went and got lunch together a few months ago.” 

“Maybe we were both having elaborate fever dreams,” Hazel retorted while taking the offered plate. She traded it by handing over a cup of soda before taking a seat on the end of her own bed. “I can’t rule that out. But come on, seriously, if your sister was anywhere around here, someone we talked to would have seen her. We’ve got nothing. I mean, nothing here anyway. Maybe she made that call and left immediately? Or maybe she found a way to bounce the signal. All you’ve got that says she was here is that phone call Bryson tracked down to this place, right? It could be faked.” 

Heaving a sigh, Irelyn took the cup and sat down to get her own plate of pizza. “By that standard, the whole thing could have been faked. Even her being the one talking. God knows, Dad has pissed off enough powerful people. I wouldn’t put it past some of them to–but they don’t know what I am. She was clearly stopping me from exposing my identity to whoever was sitting there listening, and–” Cutting herself off, she blanched. “Yeah, maybe they were threatening her or something. I don’t know. I was hoping we’d get some easy answers just by tracking her down, but you’re right. She’s obviously not here. Unless she’s a lot better at hiding than I think she is, someone around here would’ve seen her.” 

Scooting over to the edge of her bed, Hazel spoke gently. “Well, there is some good news about all that, you know?” She took a bite of the pizza, waiting for the other woman to look toward her expectantly before explaining. “If they went through all the trouble of making a phone call or whatever to send you down here, it means your family is probably still alive. I mean, if they were just gonna… umm, you know, just gonna kill them, they wouldn’t go through all that to distract you. They wanted you distracted and out of the way, and sending you all the way down here to Florida probably means it’s something elaborate and time-consuming. And the more time-consuming it is, the better chance your family is still okay.” Having said all that, she visibly grimaced. “I know that’s not exactly the best news in the universe, but–” 

“But it’s something,” Irelyn agreed, her voice coming with another heavy sigh. “I know what you mean. Obviously they had a reason to distract me. There’s no point in sending me on a wild goose chase if they were just going to kill them and dump the bodies. There’s… something else going on. Something I don’t know anything about, that’s just–fuck. I don’t know.” She set the plate down before throwing up her hands helplessly. “If this really is a dead-end, then I’ve got nothing. At least with that phone call I had a lead. But if she’s not here, if my parents and sister aren’t–I mean… they could be anywhere.” 

“Hey now.” Reaching out, Hazel put a hand on the other woman’s arm. “I don’t come bearing only problems, I’ve also got solutions.” Belatedly, she amended, “Okay, maybe not exactly solutions. But at least clues, or hints, or… another idea. I’ve got something we can check.” 

Irelyn arched an eyebrow that way. “You’ve been looking into other things too, haven’t you?” 

“Well, the same thing, your missing family,” Hazel pointed out. “Just different avenues for finding them. I mean–okay so I started looking into where your sister came from. You know, where your family adopted her from. I know, you I think this is all about your dad pissing someone off, but I figured it might be a good idea to look at your sister’s past too, since you weren’t. Sorry if that was, like, overstepping or whatever. I just, you know, thought it was worth it.”  

“You don’t need to apologize, Hazel,” Irelyn assured her. “I was laser-focused on it being some guy from my dad’s business. If that’s wrong–well then it’s wrong. But are you saying you actually found out something about Paige?” The very thought that this whole situation could have come from her adopted sister’s past instead of someone that their father had pissed off was enough to make her reel inwardly. But she wasn’t going to dismiss the prospect. Not now that they had it already spent all this time looking for Paige here in Florida to no avail. She was ready to pursue any lead at all, as long as it actually led somewhere.

Hazel hesitated before giving a very slight nod. “Yes and no. I mean, I found out some stuff, including a lot of dead ends. Like, for example, the group your dad adopted her from doesn’t exist. They never existed.”  

That made Irelyn do a quick double-take. “Wait, what do you mean they never existed?” 

“I mean that group was never a real adoption agency,” Hazel informed her. “As far as I can tell, the agent your father worked with to secure the adoption isn’t real. Well, obviously she’s real, but the name is fake. The name of the group is fake, and even–” She grimaced while passing on the news. “Even the name of the doctor who supposedly delivered Paige as a baby is fake. It’s all fake, Irelyn. There is no such doctor who ever worked in that hospital. There was no adoption agency by that name, no doctor, no nothing. The agent never did any adoptions before that one. As far as I can tell, every single name on the official records about where Paige came from, aside from that one adoption agent, is completely made up. The rest of them aren’t real people. The judge, the lawyers, all of them. They don’t exist. Or at least, they used fake identities for this whole thing. Which itself is pretty fucked up, you know?” 

By the time she finished all that, Irelyn was staring at her, having completely forgotten about the pizza. “You’re telling me that almost everyone behind my sister’s adoption and–and her entire life before we got her was completely made up? How is that even possible? I mean, why would–did my Dad–of course he knew.” Her head shook rapidly. “He had to know. Maybe he went through some illegal channels to adopt her. But why? Why would he need to do that? It’s not like there aren’t plenty of perfectly legal adoption services out there. I don’t–oh my God.” Her eyes had widened dramatically. “You think my father had Paige kidnapped from someone?” The very thought was enough to make her physically recoil. Irelyn had plenty of problems with her father, but she’d always seen him as generally a decent person, for what he was. And if not decent, at least not the type to have a child kidnapped like that. She had plenty of issues with the man, but he wasn’t that sort of person, was he? The fact that she had to seriously ask herself that made bile rise in her throat. She felt physically ill. “You think he had her kidnapped and… and got some schmuck adoption agent to make it look legitimate? But wait, why would he do that? If the rest of the identities are fake, what was the point of having a legitimate adoption agent?”

There was a brief pause before the other woman answered. “I don’t think this person was a legitimate adoption agent, Irelyn. Like I said, he never did any adoptions before that one, before Paige. He’s a real person, but there’s no record of him ever existing before Paige’s adoption. And the agency he was supposed to work for doesn’t exist, it never has. So this guy came out of nowhere, no background, no real history. I think he was mostly used to make the adoption look good for anyone your parents talked to. You know, so their friends or business people could see a real live person discussing the adoption with them.” 

Irelyn was still visibly reeling from all that. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, “But… but would my parents really…” 

“I don’t know,” Hazel hesitantly replied. “I don’t know enough to say what your father knew about the situation or–but I mean, obviously he had to know some of it. There’s no way he didn’t realize that a lot of this information was bogus. He’s not an idiot. He’s a lot of things, sure, but not that stupid. He had to know that the adoption agency wasn’t real. Maybe he thought there was a legitimate reason, or… I don’t know. Maybe there was a legitimate reason, Irelyn. We don’t know enough to say for sure. All we can say is that all that information is fake.” 

Absorbing all of that, Irelyn shook her head. “So, basically, all we know is that we don’t know anything. We’re right back to where we started from. If none of that information is real, then… then we’ve got nothing to go off of. Which means if this is about Paige’s own history instead of something my dad did, they could be literally anywhere.” 

Hazel offered a very slight smile while rubbing a hand over the back of her neck. “I wouldn’t say we’ve got nothing, exactly. I umm, I might’ve asked Bryson to check for anything he could find about those names. You know, whether they ever popped up again in relation to adoptions or anything like that. Especially the agent, the only guy who actually existed, even if everything about him was fake.” 

Irelyn’s gaze was intense as she stared that way. “Please tell me he actually found something useful.” She needed some actual good news.

Hazel, thankfully, gave her a nod. “Yeah, he found something. Turns out that guy, ahh Albert Elcott, he did two more adoptions that same year. It’s definitely the same guy too, not just the name. The signature matches the one on your paperwork. Both of the other adoptions were in Salt Lake City.” 

Taking a moment to process that, Irelyn slowly replied, “Salt Lake City? Does that have any sort of relevance?” 

“Not exactly,” came the response, “But get this. Those three adoptions, Paige and the other two, were the last–the only ones this guy ever did, before he retired… at age thirty-four.”  

Irelyn gave a double-take at that, squinting. “He retired at thirty-four?” 

With a nod, Hazel explained, “Apparently he ‘inherited’ a small fortune from some dead great-aunt or something. Enough to buy a big house in some small town south of Salt Lake and live without working for the rest of his life. I mean, he’s not in some giant mansion or anything, but he’s comfortable. And it gets more interesting than that.” 

“More interesting?” Irelyn shifted a bit on the bed. “I dunno, it’s already pretty up there.” 

Smirking a bit, Hazel continued. “Those other two adoptions he did, the birth parents’ signatures are different names, but they’re all in the same handwriting. At least, according to the experts Bryson asked. Two different experts looked at the handwriting and they said all six signatures from all six different birth parents for the three kids were written by the same person. They were trying to disguise it, but these guys were pretty sure.” 

That… was a lot. Irelyn had to take another minute to think her way through it. “Okay, so what we know is that the agency my parents worked with to adopt Paige was fake. The agent who worked with them obviously changed his identity before then, because there are no records of him anywhere before that. The doctors and nurses back at the hospital who originally delivered Paige as a baby don’t exist. Her birth parents don’t exist. And the one person in this entire situation, besides Paige, who does actually exist, the agent who facilitated the adoption, bought a house and retired that same year after two more adoptions. And all three of the adoptions were signed off by the same person posing as all six birth parents.” 

“Yeah, that pretty much sums it up,” Hazel confirmed. “It’s all pretty weird, huh?” 

“Pretty weird…” Irelyn echoed a bit blankly, gazing off into the distance. “Yeah, I’d say so. But you know what we’re gonna do now?”

“Go see this guy in Utah?” Hazel guessed. 

“Go see this guy in Utah,” Irelyn confirmed. “So what’s the name of this town he lives in, anyway?” 

*******

“Actually, it’s pronounced Tooele,” the friendly waiter who had been serving Hazel and Irelyn lunch politely informed them. “Too-ill-uh. Too-ill-uh, not tool or toollie. Yeah, I know how it looks, but here we are.” 

“Damn,” Hazel lamented. “I guess neither of us wins that bet. Thanks though. And hey, this is a nice place.” 

Beaming, the man thanked them for stopping by, gave the pair a last refill of iced tea, then stepped away to handle a couple newly arriving customers. Which left the two women to look at one another in silence for a moment. 

Irelyn spoke first, keeping her voice low despite the fact there was no one nearby the back corner booth they had requested. “So, this town has about forty thousand people. You know how big Detroit is right now? Two point five million people.” 

“I think it’s cozy,” Hazel noted, glancing around. “I mean, I’d get bored pretty quick, but it’d be a nice place to visit sometimes. I can see why our strange friend decided to retire here. That money he got probably wouldn’t give him a very nice life for long in a place like Detroit. It’s too expensive. But here?” She gestured around. “Cost of living can’t be that high. It’s quiet, peaceful, people probably leave him alone.” 

“Something tells me it’s not just that,” Irelyn flatly replied. “Come on, I’ll tell you about it on the way.” She took a final gulp of her iced tea before getting up to leave, tossing a twenty dollar bill on the table for a tip on the way out. It had been good food, and good service. 

Once they were outside the so-named Chubby’s Cafe, the pair headed for their rented car. Irelyn drove, checking the GPS on her phone before heading for the house their target lived in. They had thought about showing the picture they’d taken off his (quite barren and ignored) Facebook page to the waiter in there, but given the size of the town, they didn’t want to accidentally tip the man off ahead of time. This seemed like the sort of place where a lot of people knew one another. 

“So, what’s got you suspicious now?” Hazel asked. “I mean, besides this entire thing.”  

“You know how this Albert Elcott guy bought a fair-sized house to retire?” Irelyn started. “Well, see, I took a look at the property records around him, and it turns out he owns the houses on either side too. They’re owned through a shell company, and he has people going in and out every year. Different renters, probably paid off to keep quiet about anything he’s doing. Or, you know, anything they hear.”

Giving a low whistle, Hazel shook her head. “So you think he’s up to something else after all, besides just living the good life.” 

Irelyn confirmed, “Yeah, I definitely think there’s a reason he doesn’t want real neighbors who might snoop in on what he’s doing in that house. Owning those other two homes gives him a buffer to do whatever he wants without prying eyes. And there’s more than that. I found several deliveries of… pretty high tech stuff. He tried to split it up with different companies, months or even years apart, even having it delivered to one of those other two houses sometimes. But trust me, whatever he’s doing, it involves building something pretty advanced. And now I really want to know what it is.” 

“So you wanna go in like this, or suit up?” Hazel’s question came as she glanced out the window at the houses around them. “You think this town even has any Touched?” 

“Not on the record they don’t,” Irelyn replied. “The nearest Touched teams are up in Salt Lake, thirty miles north. And they’re mostly still dealing with the fallout from that Collision Point between Hollow and Grote. Pretty sure they wouldn’t be down here. Which is another reason this place is probably good for whatever that Elcott guy’s working on.” She paused to consider then before adding, “Let’s suit up. It’s a little risky, but I don’t want to take the chance of letting this guy get away just because we couldn’t go all out to catch him.” 

So, the two of them parked the car in an alley they found near the neighborhood in question, changing into their costumes before driving the rest of the way. It was barely afternoon in the middle of the week, so they didn’t expect many people to be around. Still, rather than a park in front of the house, they stopped a few doors down. The neighborhood itself looked like any suburban street, with perfectly maintained green lawns, lush bushes and trees, everything neatly arranged and quiet. The place felt eerie and strange to Irelyn, for all its complete bland normality. 

Still, there was nothing else to do beyond walk up to the door and get some answers. So, that was what they did. The two stepped out, glanced around once more, and then strode that way. There was no one in sight, but they wanted to get into that house before someone happened to glance outside and raise questions. 

“We just gonna knock on the door?” Hazel (or Trivial when in costume) asked, her eyes scanning carefully for any threats. 

Irelyn considered, even as they got to the chain link fence surrounding the property. “You know, I think we’ll go right inside, and–” Abruptly, she stopped talking, as the door of the house opened. They saw a brief glimpse of the man that they were after, a short and wiry figure with stringy black hair and a ruddy complexion. But as soon as he saw them, the man’s eyes widened dramatically and he abruptly jumped back inside and slammed the door. 

“Hard way it is, then!” Flea snapped, hopping right over the fence and all the way to the porch in a single motion. Her foot reared back before kicking the door off its hinges. It was reinforced, but that didn’t matter when it came to her leg-strength. The door snapped open and fell to the floor with a loud clatter in the small entranceway. She heard footsteps running down some stairs to her left, and sprinted that way, passing through the short corridor to find an open door to the basement. 

With Trivial right behind her, Flea pursued their quarry, calling out, “Albert, stop! We need to talk to you! We’re not here to–” 

She cut herself off, as they had reached the bottom of the stairs. The basement was unfinished, a simple cement floor and walls, totally open save for a complicated-looking machine in the middle. It was about ten feet wide, reaching almost to the ceiling, consisting of a wild assortment of pipes, sheets of metal, glowing lights, tubes with various liquids in them, spinning wheels, and more. 

“What… the hell?” Trivial managed, her gaze moving from the weird machine to the man himself. “Hey! We need to talk to you!” 

“No, no, no, no, you can’t be here. It was ready, it was finally ready, why are you here?!” Albert demanded. He was standing in front of the machine, head shaking violently. “I did everything he said. I did everything right. How did you–why would you–no, no! You can’t be here!” 

“Albert, hang on.” Irelyn held a hand up cautiously. “Who are you talking about? We’re not here to hurt you. Do you know who we are?” 

The man wrapped his arms around himself with a slightly crazed giggle. “It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I did my part. I did what I was supposed to do. I was always Plan B. Just Plan B. But then I was Plan A. I was supposed to have more time, and then I didn’t, but I still fixed it. I followed all his instructions and I made it work! It needs more tests. I was supposed to test it. One more month. One more month to perfect it, just to make sure. But you had to come. You had to fuck it all up and come! So oh well, no more tests. No more perfection. We have to do it now.” 

“Albert, get away from that–” Irelyn started. But before she could say more, the man abruptly snapped his hand out, smacking a button on the side of the machine. She and Trivial both launched themselves that way, but their vision was overtaken by a blinding flash of light even as a sense of weightlessness filled them. It felt like they were floating for a few seconds, before the light faded and the ground rushed up under them. They both fell onto dirt, grass, and pebbles. 

With a grunt, Irelyn looked up just in time to see that Albert guy vanish through the trees. Trees? Yes, there was a forest around them. They had… teleported? Frowning, she lunged to her feet. 

Trivial was right behind her, blurting, “Where the hell are we?” 

“I dunno, but he does,” Flea replied. She was already rushing toward the trees where Albert had disappeared. Only to stop short a few seconds later, as she came through them and found herself on the edge of a cliff. There was no sign of Albert, but far below was a rocky beach next to a tumultuous ocean. On that beach was an assortment of people all gathered around several fires, apparently cooking food. Some had very obvious physical changes, such as visible spikes, horns, one who looked like an eight foot tall living tree, and another who was more like an anthropomorphic caterpillar. 

“Wait, are those… are those Touched down there?” Trivial demanded, staring that way. 

“Yes,” Flea confirmed, her throat suddenly dry. “I know where we are. Trivial, we… we’re both dressed up as well-known Star-Touched. 

“And we’re standing on Breakwater.” 

Previous Chapter

Interlude 16C – First Date (Heretical Edge 2)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The following is the donator-chosen interlude that we had a tie-breaker vote to determine, which is why it is coming after 17-01. In a few days to a week after people have had a chance to read it, I’ll rearrange things to put this back after Interlude 16B where it belongs.

Flick was okay. She was safe. After weeks upon weeks, going into months, of worrying about the trouble-prone girl after she had been abducted by Fossor (and then vanished just when the rescue party had found their way into Fossor’s stronghold), she was finally home where she belonged. Granted, there had been a brief detour even after that psychotic fuck’s death in order to rescue Elisabet from the Meregan world (and find out what the Meregan themselves were up to in the process). But now, after all that, Felicity was home, safe and sound, though perhaps more than a bit worn from the whole experience. 

With any luck, she would stay out of trouble for awhile. Or, more to the point, trouble would leave her alone for awhile. God knew that girl had had enough problems to fill an entire library full of books about them. And that was just in the past year and change. It was time for the whole universe full of annoying bad guys who wanted to cause trouble to just… back off for awhile and give Flick time to get her head on straight. Not to mention time to spend with the mother she had only just managed to save. 

It was that certainty, that Felicity desperately needed a break, that had led Avalon to spend the past weeks running herself ragged. As it turned out, killing someone like Fossor didn’t end his control and power over people. The old Necromancer didn’t exactly have a lot of friends, but he did have minions who had various reasons to want to start acting up after their master was obliterated. It was some vague form of loyalty, magically-enforced or otherwise. Whatever it was, the weeks since his death had been filled with a handful of Fossor-aligned monsters making trouble. They were acting up, making noise in Flick’s old hometown or places she knew about in an obvious attempt to get the girl’s attention. 

Avalon wouldn’t let that happen. There was no way in hell she would let those people tear Felicity away from spending time with her mother. Thankfully, several others felt the same way, including Professor Dare, Nevada, Kohaku, and Klassin Roe. Plus Shiori, Asenath, and several others. They all knew what was going on and understood that these minions of Fossor were doing their level best to get revenge for his death, from Flick, Joselyn, or both. 

So, ever since then, Avalon and those others had been doing everything they could to deal with the not-so-random threats that had popped up several times without letting Flick or the rest of her family know there were any problems. It wasn’t fair to expect them to drop their whole reunion after finally having some time together, just to go fight some more. Fossor had already taken enough time away from them. The people who cared about them could deal with the stragglers and wannabes, the threats who were either trying to avenge their master’s death (whatever their reasoning), or fill the void he left by killing those responsible for that death. 

And even once it seemed those particular problems were over, there had been the spell to worry about. Her ancestor’s spell. As soon as all her time wasn’t taken up with helping to handle Fossor-related minions, it had instead been taken up by helping to put the protection spell together, in being available for those who knew what they were doing to draw blood and use various magics on both her and Professor Tangle (the other descendant of Liesje) in their efforts to update the original enchantment to their new specifications. 

But, for the moment, that was done with. There were no currently standing threats, no one making a nuisance of themselves. And the protection spell was in place. And Flick had her grandparents back. Not to mention the other reunions that had taken place. 

There was nothing else to focus on, nothing else to drag her attention and efforts away. Which meant that, for the first time in awhile, Avalon had some actual free time. And she knew exactly how she wanted to spend it. Well, beyond more training. Enthusiastic as she might have about all that, even Avalon had her limits. And these past weeks had been busy even for her. 

Besides, the thing she needed–wanted to do now had been building for quite some time. There had been–she had been too distracted and distraught during Flick’s disappearance, too focused on looking for and worrying about her to actually follow through on it. Not to mention the guilt she felt whenever the thought came up. But now that Flick was home safe, there were finally no active problems, and Liesje’s spell was in place, it was time.

So why was it that, standing outside the house directly next to the one she lived in, Avalon felt so awkward and nervous? There were no immediate threats, nothing demanding her attention (besides her missing adopted mother, but there was literally nothing she could do about that for the time being), and yet as she stood there, the dark-haired girl couldn’t stop her stomach from turning itself into knots. It was still early enough that the artificial sun hadn’t done more than barely begin to rise, leaving most of the college-aged neighborhood cast in shadows. 

It was in one of those shadows, barely on the edge of the house’s porch, that Avalon stood. Her gaze was centered on the row of buttons next to the door. Each button had a different name under it, and pressing that button would connect the person outside to that person’s room through the intercom. There was also a general doorbell that would ring through the common areas of the house (along with any personal room that had been set to accept them). But, early as it was, Avalon wasn’t going to press that one. Her attention, instead, was centered on the one simply labeled, ‘Aylen.’ Taking a deep breath, she reached out, pausing slightly to collect herself, before pushing her finger against the buzzer. 

She didn’t hear anything immediately, of course. The intercom would be ringing in that room. After a few seconds of silence, there was a click, and the girl in question spoke up. “Good morning, Avalon. Are you ready?” As she spoke, Sovereign, the cyberform hawk, flew out of the opening to land upon the edge of the porch railing so he could survey the neighborhood.

“I am,” she confirmed before her insecurities and doubts could take over. “If… if you are.” 

There was a very slight pause before the other girl replied, “Yes. I… I’ll be right there.” 

The intercom clicked again, and Avalon stepped back into the shadows once more. She fidgeted, looking down at herself for a moment. She had tried on no less than seven different outfits that morning, discarding all of them one by one. Finally, she’d settled on wearing wine-red tuxedo pants with a matching jacket that was left open over a black button-down shirt. She also wore black leather boots, and had taken roughly an hour putting her hair and make-up together after a long shower. In truth, she had been up since around three in the morning making herself some form of presentable in her own mind. 

And yet, now, standing here, Avalon started to doubt everything she had previously decided was fine. Should she have gone with lighter make-up? Or maybe a darker shade of lipstick? Was her hair curly enough? Wait, should it have been straight? Was using the curling magic a bad idea? What if she’d gone with the white suit instead? Or not a suit at all? Should she have waited another hour and arrived when the sun was actually all the way up and it was lighter? Was her breath okay? Oh fuck, was she sweating? Were her armpits soaked? She couldn’t take the jacket off, not anymore. If she took it off and there were two big sweat blotches she would completely die. Magic. What was the spell to clean up clothes? Damn it, what she wouldn’t give for a Seosten perfect memory. Maybe she had it written down in the–

At that moment, before the panicking raven-haired girl could allow that train of thought to drag her any further off the rails, the front door opened. And just like that, she found herself looking at Aylen. But this was not the sort of Aylen that she was accustomed to seeing at school or in battle. This was an Aylen who had dressed up. Like Avalon, her hair was dark, though hers was drawn into a tight braid rather than worn loose. She also wore black slacks with matching shoes, a loose-fitting white button up shirt with long sleeves, and an open vest whose color almost perfectly matched Avalon’s own tuxedo jacket and pants. To cap it off, she wore a tie very loosely around her neck, which matched the vest (and Avalon’s suit). 

Standing there, the two girls stared at one another for a moment. Aylen’s head tilted, before she found her voice. “Uh, you look… really nice, Avalon.” Visibly swallowing, she straightened up and gave a slightly stronger nod. “Really, really nice.” 

Feeling the warm blush cross her face, Avalon took a second before hesitantly responding. “So do you. I mean–” She looked down a bit, then up once more to meet the other girl’s gaze. “You look great. I uh, I thought I might have come too early and woke you up.” There was a note of apology to her tone. 

“No,” Aylen assured her. “I’ve been awake since two. I kept thinking about–ahh, hang on.” She stepped out of the house finally, closing the door after herself so the two of them could stand alone on the porch. “I kept thinking about my family. I love them, they’re just… a lot. So uh, just… keep that in mind, okay? They don’t mean anything bad, they’re just–they can be intense.” 

“I’ll keep that in mind.” With those murmured words as her own stomach flipped over, Avalon turned on her heel and started to move down off the porch, before awkwardly halting herself mid-step. She glanced over her shoulder, offering a hand back that way. “Shall we go?” Shall we go? Why would she say that? There had to be a better way to bring up the subject of leaving than ‘shall we go.’ What was wrong with her? Why was this so awkward? 

To her relief, Aylen accepted the offered hand, and began to walk with her. The two of them had just reached the end of the yard, when she glanced over toward the other house and asked, “You’re sure Flick is okay?” 

The question made Avalon hesitate, standing there at the end of the sidewalk. She took a breath, glancing to the house in question before turning back to the girl in front of her. “I’m sorry,” she started in a quiet voice. “I’m sorry that.. that the past few months have been so… busy. I wanted–I wanted to take this… I wanted to go out like this before. But I was preoccupied, and that wasn’t fair to you. If you want–” 

“Stop,” Aylen interrupted. Her gaze locked with Avalon’s. “Listen very carefully, okay? I get it. I understand. What happened with Flick being taken, that was important. If you just–if we went out together, you wouldn’t have enjoyed yourself. And after that, there were other things to do. You had to give her time with her family, and with you too. And you had to… you had to work on your ancestor’s spell. You don’t have to explain it, you don’t have to apologize.” There was another very brief pause before she hesitantly asked, “Is that why you’ve seemed so…” 

“Awkward?” Avalon finished for her, blanching a little. “You noticed that after all.” 

“A little,” Aylen confirmed, offering a very faint, unsure smile. Her voice was even quieter. “I thought you were having second thoughts about the whole thing.” 

Overhead, Sovereign circled while giving a low screech, clearly informing the two that he thought they were being silly. 

“I’ve had seventh thoughts about the whole thing,” Avalon informed her flatly after glancing upward. “But not because I don’t like you. I uhh, I do. I do like you. I just… I don’t want you to feel like you’ll always come second, or third, or… I don’t want you to feel like you’ll never be a priority.” 

“Flick needed you,” Aylen replied. “And then your ancestor needed you to finish the job that she started. If… if you had walked away from that to spend time with me, I wouldn’t have respected you as much. I wouldn’t have liked you as much. We have time. I’ll have my chance to be the priority. If… if you still want to give this a shot.” 

Finding a genuine smile in that moment, Avalon offered the other girl a shrug. “Well, I didn’t get dressed up this much just to go to the training room.” Even as she said that, however, a look of consideration was crossing her face. “On the other hand, it might be a good idea. I do like to practice moving in different clothes, just in case…” 

“Later,” Aylen interrupted, hand squeezing Avalon’s.

Their gazes met for a few long, silent yet somehow comfortable seconds before Avalon leaned over. She hesitated, staring into the other girl’s gaze for a moment before leaning in the rest of the way. Their lips touched softly, a bare brush at first before both gave a soft sigh of enjoyment and acceptance. Then they kissed fully. 

“Later?” Avalon finally echoed once they drew apart slightly. 

“Yes, later,” Aylen confirmed.  “You can’t get the suit all messy just yet. After all, you still need to see my family. 

“And Grandfather is going to want pictures.” 

********

A blinding flash greeted Avalon and Aylen as the front door of the small, cozy-looking two story house somewhere in northern Iowa opened. The unexpected light made Avalon reel back a step, seeing stars even as she snapped her hands out in the specific way to make her bracelets transform into their gauntlet forms, ready to deal with whatever threat had suddenly–

“It’s okay, Avalon.” Aylen’s hand found its way to her shoulder just as the weapons transformed.

Only then did the young woman’s vision clear enough that she could see the source of the light flash. And even then, the sight on its own still might have made her lash out, if she didn’t already know better. Because standing right in front of them, framed in the doorway, was a Fomorian. Yes, a Fomorian wearing rather eclectic clothing that would have given anyone pause, but a Fomorian nonetheless. 

In this case, that eclectic clothing consisted of rainbow-colored pants, a beret, and a big white shirt with the words, ‘This Grandpa Belongs To’ written across it. Below that on the left was a cartoony picture of Bastet with her name under it, while Sonoma’s cartoon face and name was next to her wife. Under Bastet was Aylen’s sketched face and name. And to the right of that, below Sonoma, was a picture of the Earth itself, with ‘All Of You’ written under it.

Only once Avalon had taken in the entire shirt did she finally see the source of that flash. Clutched in the Fomorian’s hands, having just been lowered from his face, was an old-fashioned-looking camera, like something out of the very late 1800s. 

One more thing, besides the clothes and camera, would have given Avalon pause about the uniqueness of this particular Fomorian. His smile. She had seen them grin before, of course. The one back on the Meregan homeworld had done plenty of smiling, but it was the terrifying sort of smile, the sort that twisted a person’s soul and made their skeleton try to escape. This? This was an open, goofy, beaming smile of pride and love. 

“Oh! I forgot to say it!” the ancient creature abruptly announced. “Do it again!” Without any further warning, he slammed the door in their faces. 

“Uh.” Avalon started. She had met the eccentric old Fomorian before, of course, back when she, Flick, and several others had come to hear his story. So the fact that he was a bit different wasn’t shocking. But still, she hadn’t expected this, exactly. 

“It’s okay,” Aylen assured her before reaching out to knock once more, two quick raps against the door as though they hadn’t already been through that. 

Once again, the door swung open just as it had before. This time, when the old Fomorian appeared with his ancient-looking camera raised, he didn’t trigger it immediately. Instead, he called, “Say Timberdoodle!” 

Without missing a beat, Aylen promptly echoed the word while nudging Avalon with her foot, who mentally shrugged and said it as well. As soon as she did, the blinding flash came again. 

“Perfect!” Grandfather declared, stepping back. “That’s a good first one. Come in, come in out of the cold. Wait, is it cold?” Sticking his finger into his mouth, the Fomorian extended his hand past them into the outside air before considering briefly. “Hm, two-seventy point nine. Why aren’t you burning up yet?” A concerned expression crossed his face, and he leaned between the two girls, gaze snapping up and down the quiet suburban street. “Come to think of it, why isn’t everything on fire?”   

“That’s Kelvin, Grandfather.” The response came from further back in the room, as Avalon caught a glimpse of the small and somewhat delicate-looking Native American woman who was one of Aylen’s mothers. Sonoma. She stood next to a large, quite elaborate cuckoo clock. “You translated it into Kelvin again.” 

In that moment, Sovereign glided down out of the sky outside, shot through the narrow opening in the doorway just next to Grandfather’s head, and landed on the back of an armchair next to Sonoma so the woman could reach out to rub his metallic wings. 

“Aha! Mystery solved.” Stepping back out of their way once more, Grandfather noted, “In that case, it’s twenty-eight degrees Fahrenheit and negative two point two Celsius.” His gaze found Avalon’s before he smiled even brighter, cheerfully adding, “Isn’t it just wonderful what overachievers you all are? I gave you the chance to name everything and you eager beavers have looped back around several times to name the same things over and over again.” 

With a quiet chuckle, Aylen gave a single, graceful nod. “We do enjoy our various languages, Grandfather.” After saying that, she stepped over to hug the Fomorian, who had set the camera aside. The two embraced tightly, before Aylen did the same for Sonoma. Then she stood by her mother (or one of them at least), and looked back to the girl she had arrived with. “Ah, you met–wait, is Mother here?” 

Mother, Avalon knew, was what Aylen called Bastet. Sonoma was Mom. It was how she differentiated them. 

“She’ll be up in just a moment,” Sonoma informed them. “She’s just… attending to something downstairs in the basement.”  

That raised several questions in Avalon’s mind, but before she could find the right words, Grandfather had stepped in front of her. He started to lean in close before catching himself. Holding up both hands placatingly, he recited, “Hm, ah, I have been told my appearance and eagerness can be a bit unsettling. Would you, ah, perhaps mind if I were to examine you closer so that I might see the one who has come to mean so much to our little Aylen?” 

“Grandfather…” Aylen half-groaned, though she clearly couldn’t help the very faint, somewhat embarrassed smile that crossed her face. 

“It’s okay,” Avalon assured her before offering the Fomorian a slight shrug. “I mean, you basically made us, right?” 

Promptly producing a pair of bifocals that she in no way believed he actually needed, Grandfather set them atop his nose and leaned in close while hmmming to himself. He peered into her left eye, then her right, before leaning around to stare intently at her earlobe. Very carefully, he took hold of a bit of hair and lifted it up, then let it drop. “Hmm, yes, a proud line indeed. Aha, haha, I remember when he fell in that mud pit trying to impress his mate. Would not believe the places he had to pry leeches out of.” Abruptly leaning back to look her in the eyes once more, he noted, “You have greater balance, I hope.” 

“So do I,” Avalon fervently agreed. It was a lot to take in, even having met Grandfather before. But he had a way of being immediately endearing that made the whole thing easier than it should have been. 

By that point, the nearby closed door had opened, allowing Bastet to step out. The blue-haired, pale woman was pulling what looked like bloody dishwashing gloves off her hands. “Well, that thing’s not coming–” The lid of the trashcan had opened seemingly of its own volition for her to toss the bloody gloves inside before she looked over to Avalon. “Ah, glad you made it.” 

Rolling her eyes, Aylen gestured. “She did that on purpose to mess with you. Mother, stop. Mom, Grandfather, Mother, this is Avalon. Please, be nice.” 

With a very small smile, Sonoma cleared her throat. “I don’t think that will be a problem, dear.” She looked to the girl in question then, adding a little more gently, “But I think we all understand if we can be… a lot.” 

“Eh.” Avalon made a point of shrugging. Her hand reached out to take Aylen’s. “I’m used to people who are a lot. You all seem great. Aylen’s very lucky.” She said that while interlacing their fingers. 

“Yes,” Bastet agreed with a genuine smile. “She is. And I think that luck is continuing.” 

“But enough of this,” Sonoma announced. “I’m sure you two would like to be off for your date.” 

Grandfather, however, gave a quick shake of his head. “Not yet, not yet!” The man’s hand snapped out to snatch his camera up once more. “Come, we need to get a couple pictures out in the garden, next to Peaches and Apricot.” 

“Peaches the apple tree and Apricot the blueberry bush,” Aylen informed Avalon. “Don’t ask, he named them.” 

“Ahem, they simply informed me of what their names are, young lady,” Grandfather corrected. “They would give me the silent treatment for a month if they didn’t get to meet Miss Sinclaire as well. Besides, they’re blooming beautifully right now after the cold-resistant upgrade I gave them, so those pictures will be just wonderful. 

“And they’ll look perfect on the quilt I’m making!” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Oookay, so my dad, as Silversmith, wanted to talk to me. This was fine. This was good. This was okay. This was… was–oh boy. Yeah, I had no idea how this was going to go. But I couldn’t exactly refuse without causing even more suspicion that he might already have. And given who he was, I couldn’t even pretend that there was an emergency that I had to go take care of. I had no reasonable way to get out of having this conversation right now, much as I might’ve wanted to. And what really sucked was that if I hadn’t known the truth, I would have been incredibly psyched to have a conversation with Silversmith. But then, if I didn’t know the truth, a lot of things would’ve been different. And not for the better, tempting as it might’ve been to think otherwise sometimes. Knowing that the truth was the right way to go in the long run. 

For a brief moment, I even wondered if this was really my father or not. But the thought vanished as fast as it had appeared. Of course this was my dad. They wouldn’t leave something like this to a minion or body double or whatever. Now that the speeches and all that were over, he’d probably excused himself from the table. Hell, for all I knew, that Eric Abbot guy was aware of the whole story. Actually, I was willing to bet he was part of the Ministry, if not a full on Touched himself. He clearly knew the truth. So yeah, this was definitely the real Silversmith. Which meant it was really my dad.  

Somehow, I managed to keep all the confusion and uncertainty out of my voice as I offered a shrug that I hoped was convincing. “Uh, sure, I guess.” Glancing to the others, I gestured for them to go ahead. “I’ll catch up with you guys in a minute.”

From the very brief look that Amber gave me, it was clear she wasn’t sure about leaving me alone. But it disappeared just as quickly, and she kept a straight face while calling for the others to keep up. Like it didn’t matter at all. Because we had to pretend it didn’t, or it really would. 

So, they kept going while I turned back the other way with a bright, “You wanted to talk?” Inwardly, I was telling myself that there was nothing to worry about. My father wasn’t going to try anything right now in the middle of a huge group of people. 

Of course, the moment I had that thought, Dad immediately announced, “Let’s take a little walk to someplace a bit more private, hmm?” His hand gestured around us at all the people. “Fun as it can be, it’s kind of hard to hear yourself think sometimes in a place like this, you know?” His voice was casual, but I could tell he was paying attention to everything I did. 

“Sure,” I made myself respond. I couldn’t let him hear any hesitation or fear in my voice. Well, he could pick up some nervousness. That was to be expected. It’d be weird if I wasn’t nervous. But it couldn’t be–yeah. I had to be careful with this whole thing. It could blow up in my face so easily. Saying the wrong thing, or even giving the wrong reaction, could make this go so very wrong. 

It was a thought that I had to push out of my mind while following after my father as he led me through the crowd. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest, and I was doing my level best to breathe in and out as normally as possible in order to stay calm. Well, sort of calm. 

Thankfully, no one else was paying much attention to us, so I didn’t have to worry about someone else getting involved or being a distraction. Aside, of course, from the few people who complimented our costumes. No one actually thought we were the real deal. Why would they? Walking around an event like this was basically the perfect disguise. Which made me wonder how many real Touched were hanging out here. Hell, I already knew that there were at least two Fell-Touched disguised as different Touched in this place, and I was willing to bet there were probably others. I just had to hope that none of them were planning to cause trouble. 

Or maybe not hope that. Maybe actually hope the opposite. If there was trouble right now, I wouldn’t have to talk to my father about… whatever it was he wanted to talk about. If someone started a distraction, I could be saved from this whole thing. But no. No, I couldn’t let myself hope that something went wrong here, no matter how convenient it might be for me. The rest of these people didn’t deserve that. 

So, forcibly shoving the thought out of my head, I focused on my father just as he pushed open a semi-hidden door ahead of us and gestured for me to go through. This was my last chance. If I didn’t want to be alone in a private place with him, I had to do something now. And then live with the consequences. Yet which would be worse, the consequences of showing him that I knew more than I was supposed to by refusing to be alone with him, or of walking into that private place and… dealing with whatever came next? 

In the end, the only real choice (and it wasn’t a choice at all) was to go with door number two. Taking a deep breath as silently as possible, I stepped through the door, my senses keenly alert for anything out of the ordinary. I had, of course, been covering the inside of my costume with as much paint as I could manage this entire time. There were various-colored shapes all over me, though out of sight so my father wouldn’t know I was prepping. If things did go down right now, I was about as ready as I could be. 

The door turned out to lead to a small hallway with another door to the left before continuing straight ahead to another that was marked emergency exit. There wasn’t much room here, but I was able to walk most of the way to the exit before turning back, putting about six or seven feet of distance between myself and my father as he closed the other door behind him. Then, we were left alone in that much quieter space. The soundproofing was still incredibly good here, to the point that I could have believed we were the only ones in the building. Despite the fact that there were thousands of people just a few feet away, it felt like I was completely alone with my father, cut off from any outside interference. Which was a prospect that really shouldn’t have scared me as much as it did. 

And yet, here we were. I had no other excuses, nothing to stop me from having this face to face with my dad. Standing there, I made myself sound as casual as I possibly could, praying that my voice wouldn’t crack as I spoke up. “So, you wanted to talk? Please say you’re gonna let me borrow the Silvercruiser. Wait, you do really have one of those, right? I know they have a toy of it, but I’ve never been completely sure if that’s a real thing or not.” 

I could hear the amusement in my father’s (altered) voice. “A silver hovercycle that can turn invisible? Of course I have one of those. I mean, I’m not going to get into whether the toy or the real thing came first, but still.” I could tell he was smiling at me. “Those companies have pretty good ideas sometimes.” 

Oh boy were there a lot of things I wanted to say to that. But I pushed most of them aside and simply replied, “Maybe I can get some of them to push the idea of a Paint Buggy. You know, big four-wheeler thing with wide tires and this tank full of paint on the back that you can spray with a hose from the gunner position. If I can make it popular enough as a toy by the time I get my drivers license-err, how do they handle finding out if you can drive in your costumed identity without giving away your identity?” 

Something curious, my father asked, “Is that a legitimate question? I mean, do you really want to know?” 

Well, now I really did. So I gave a quick nod. “Wait, you mean there’s a real answer?” 

“Of course there is,” he assured me. “Believe me, you’re far from the first person to have that thought. It came up a long time ago, and they worked out a system for it, which allows them to verify that a Touched is drive-legal without exposing who they really are.” 

“Okay,” I admitted, “now I’m really curious. How can they manage something like that? And, you know, how secure is it really?” Not that I had any intention of following through, because no matter how secure the system was, I didn’t trust my family not to have some way of gaming it to work out peoples’ identities. Still, I was curious to hear what they’d done to make enough people believe it was safe. It had to be something pretty good. 

“Actually,” Dad informed me, “it’s an international system. Started down in California, if I remember right. And I usually do.” That bit was said with clear charismatic teasing amusement, and I made myself chuckle to avoid making the whole situation worse than it already was. Dad continued after giving me time to react. “In any case, if you look at the back of a driver’s license, you’ll find what looks like a serial number. It’s twelve digits. When you get your license, that number is added to a special international registry, and the only information it gets is the fact that you are legal to drive, along with any restrictions. At any point, you can go to a secure website and input that number on your license. It’ll send back a three word code. Something like Bear Sofa Clock, or Headphones Chocolate Paper. That’s all you need to remember.” 

“I get it,” I put in. “So if cops want to find out if you’re legal to drive, you give them your three word code. They put the code in the computer and it tells them whether you’re legal to drive or not.” 

“That’s right,” he confirmed. “The authorities don’t get the numbers from your three-word code, so they can’t check your actual identification. All they get is a ‘yeah, this is a licensed driver.’ And sure, it’s not a perfect system. There’s ways to game it, such as a licensed driver letting someone who isn’t use their code. But, you know, if you’re a Star-Touched, or at least a Sell-Touched trying to make nice, the hope is that you’ll play by the rules. Besides, once you have a code associated with you, if someone else uses the same one, it sends up red flags. Then you’ll have some questions to answer.” 

Offering a shrug, I replied, “Well, I’ll keep that in mind whenever it comes up. You know, if I actually survive this whole thing long enough for it to matter.” That last bit came out before I could even think about what I was saying, and I immediately regretted it. But it wasn’t like I could take it back. I was just glad that my father couldn’t see my face. 

Of course, I had something else to focus on almost immediately, as he lifted his head slightly to regard me. “Yes, well, as it happens, you surviving is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about.”  

Do not react, I immediately practically shouted at myself. Do not react to that, do not give him any sense of fear or nervousness. Do not show anything. It took everything I had not to recoil or give anything away through my body language.  

Instead, I made myself tilt my head curiously. “Should I be worried that the leader of the Conservators wants to talk to me about whether I’m going to survive or not?” My voice was even, as I managed, if barely, to keep it from cracking. It had to sound like I was still totally casual about the whole situation. Even if, in reality, I was double-checking that every spare concealed surface had some form of paint on it. Okay, quadruple-checking.

Dad simply chuckled, head shaking. “That depends on how well you react to a, well, let’s call it a gentle reprimand.” He pushed on before I could react. “I know, I know, you don’t work for me, or for any of us. I get that, believe me. It may be hard to believe, but I understand the lure of working by yourself in situations like this. So yes, I know you aren’t working for me and I don’t have real authority over you. But Raindrop and That-A-Way are, and it seems that they’ve been doing a bit of… extracurricular work with you.” 

For a split-second, I had a positively terrified thought that he knew about the tunnel. I very nearly reacted badly. But, at the last possible second, I caught myself with the realization. He wasn’t talking about the tunnel or any of that. “You mean the whole thing with the Scions,” I managed, staring up at him. “You’re… you’re upset that they were involved with… with exposing Cup.” Saying that made my heart slow down a bit, so it no longer felt like I was going to need a quick trip to the hospital. Well, not just yet anyway. The jury was out on how well I’d feel once this conversation was over. 

My father nodded once. “I’m afraid so. We just need to have a quick little talk. As I said, I know you’re not subject to our rules. But believe it or not, we still care about what happens to you. And, well, Raindrop and That-A-Way are part of the Minority.” His voice softened slightly, as he clearly tried to keep what he was saying from sounding too much like a dressing down (while still maintaining its seriousness). “Finding out Cup’s real identity was a huge thing. Congratulations on that. But going by yourselves, not telling any adult what was going on, talking those two into leaving their team behind…” He was clearly staring intently at me from behind that silver helmet. “Tell me you have some idea of how dangerous that was.” 

Swallowing hard, I made myself nod. “I know, trust me. It was–if we hadn’t–it could’ve gone really bad. I mean, we didn’t know she was–” 

“I know,” Dad cut me off. “You had no idea who she really was. But you were still investigating something that you knew could set the Scions off if they found out about it. And you all went out without having real backup. If you had taken a couple adults with you, or even just–” He hesitated before sighing. “We could have captured Cup instead of just exposing her identity. We lost that opportunity, and she escaped.” 

Unfortunately, he had a point, and that realization made me flinch a bit visibly. Taking a deep breath, I hesitantly replied, “You’re right. If we’d had more backup, maybe we could have captured her. But…” Now I really hesitated. Did I really want to say this? “But as often as the Scions have found out when someone was coming after them, as much as it seems like they have inside information, do you really think it’s impossible that they might have gotten wind of what we were doing if more people knew about it?” 

Dad was almost deathly silent for a moment, regarding me intently before speaking very carefully. “Are you accusing one of our Star-Touched of being a traitor who works for the Scions?” His voice sounded as though it could have cut through glass. 

Hurriedly, I shook my head. “No. No, I’m not saying that at all. But you have a lot of support personnel. You know as well as I do that the moment some official thing went down the line about talking to a witness who might know something about the Scions, there’d be a whole bunch of red tape to go through. And every bit of red tape is another person who could spill the beans. For all we know, if we let it be an official operation, it could’ve turned into a trap against us. They could’ve put a bomb in the apartment and killed everyone the moment we went in. Or… or something. The point is, the more people who knew about it, the bigger chance of it blowing up in our faces. Uh, no offense or anything.”  

I could actually hear Dad snort quietly before he responded. “I suppose I can see where you’re coming from. You’re a very suspicious person, aren’t you?” His gaze seemed to bore right through me. “I don’t suppose there’s any particular reason for that you might want to get into?”

I was silent for a second, before he gently prodded, “If there’s any problems at home or anything. You know, any reason why you don’t tend to trust other people very much.” 

Yeah, he wanted to see if there was any chance I would talk to him about the Ministry. And, come to think of it, probably also wanted to test my reaction to find out if I knew about his connection to them. That’s what this entire conversation was about, at least in part. 

My head shook. “I guess I just prefer going my own way. Helps avoid that red tape I was talking about.” Belatedly, I added, “But I know it was dumb to go out there by ourselves when the Scions were involved. Even if we didn’t expect to run into them, especially like that. I promise, we–I’ll be more careful.” 

Dad seemed to regard me in silence for a few brief seconds before clearing his throat. “Good to know. And in the future, if you ever want to get help without going through all the official channels, feel free to call me. Believe it or not, I do know how to keep a secret.” He was extending his hand with a card in it. A card that had his name and a phone number on it. “This will get through to my cell any time of the day. If you need help, with anything at all, just ask.” 

After a very brief hesitation, I took the card and held it tightly. Somehow, I managed to make my voice sound casual. “Thanks. I mean, thank you, sir. I uhh, I’ll keep it in mind. You–you’ve always been my favorite hero, you know.” That time, my voice shook. But that was okay, it made sense for it to do so, even if he didn’t know the reason. 

I could hear the smile in my father’s voice. “Well, thanks. Glad to know an old fogey can still inspire the new generation. And like I said, you call that number any time you need anything. Now go on.” He opened the door and gestured for me to head through. “Have fun with the others. 

“Who knows, maybe they’ll be better than me at convincing you and your partner to join up with the team.” 

So, I thanked him again and went through the door, forcing myself not to look back. When I eventually made my way through the crowd to find the others, I saw that they had been joined by Syndicate, Whamline, and Wobble. All of them were in front of the entrance to the phase room, clearly waiting. When Raindrop saw me, she said something to the others and everyone turned my way. That-A-Way spoke up. “Hey, Paintball. Everything okay?” She was clearly trying to keep her voice casual and even to avoid sounding nervous about that whole thing, but I could see just how tense she was. Not to mention how tense Izzy and Peyton were too. 

“It was about the Scion situation, wasn’t it?” Wobble put in, a bit knowingly. “That’s why he wanted to talk to you.” 

Syndicate spoke up before I could respond. “Yeah, the boss wasn’t too rough on you about that whole thing, was he? I mean, yeah, we weren’t happy about finding out that you all went off and nearly got killed without telling us what was going on, but you still managed to find out who they really are. That’s more than, well, anyone else has been able to do.” 

“Couldn’t be that bad,” Whamline pointed out. “Not like he could assign the dude toilet duty or anything. He doesn’t work for him.” Pausing, he added, “You know, I’m starting to see the benefit of going solo.” 

Snorting despite myself, I waved both hands. “It’s fine, I’m fine. Silversmith just wanted to have a little talk about being careful, that’s all. We’re all good.” 

Clearly knowing that I didn’t want to get into all that right then, Izzy announced, “We let another group go ahead so we could wait for you.” Her eyes found mine as she added, “If you still wanna do it?” 

“Sure thing,” I agreed easily. “No way am I missing out on this. Then again, everyone keeps talking about how cool it is, like walking through solid objects is gonna change everything.

“But personally, I think it’s just a phase.” 

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By Blood 17-01 (Heretical Edge 2)

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Christmas morning was, to say the least, a bit of a blur. It seemed weird to immediately think of it in the sense of a montage, and yet that was what it felt like even while it was happening. I had my grandparents back, and that was a whole thing. I spent hours just sitting on the couch with my parents in their apartment on the station, listening to Grandmaria and Grandpartie tell stories about what they had been through since they were transported to the Seosten homeworld. My grandfather, of course, compared everything to various adventures in Star Trek. That was a whole thing, especially since my father’s favorite captain was Picard and Popser’s was Sisko. My grandmother and mom, meanwhile, liked Kirk the best. All of which begat an entire conversation about various episodes and what-if situations. And apparently whenever Uncle Al showed up (he was giving our immediate family time to reunite), he would have his own very strong opinions to share. 

Personally, I didn’t really pay that much attention to that entire franchise, but it was still nice to just sit there and listen to them go back and forth about it. Though, to be fair, given the people involved I would have quite willingly listened to them go on about nearly anything. All that mattered was the fact that they were here now. They were all here, together on Christmas morning after we had been separated for so long. Hell, even the fact that it was Christmas was basically immaterial when you got right down to it. My grandparents had arrived. It could’ve been Arbor Day, and it would still be one of the most amazing and wonderful times of my life.

There was also the fact that through that, I found out that my grandmother had become a Puriel-Heretic. Seriously, she was bonded to him and it had stuck. She actually had his power, even if she was only a tiny fraction as powerful with it as he was at the moment. But she was learning. Baby steps, just like the way I was with my incredibly powerful Necromancy. Except even more, because it was goddamn Puriel

Which, of course, fled to a sudden moment of fear about what would have happened if the Whispers had decided to go after her instead. Whether their lack of attempt had more to do with not knowing about that, or her not being powerful enough for their purposes yet, I was just glad they had mostly left her alone. 

And she wasn’t the only potentially-absurdly powerful grandparent I had, either. Well, she already wasn’t because of Dare, but still. She wasn’t the only potentially-absurdly powerful paternal grandparent I had. Grandpartie had been bonded to the same sort of thing Gaia and Seller had been bonded to. He had picked up the technology control powers, like the former headmistress. Because of course he had. This was my grandfather we were talking about. He loved new technology. Given the chance to mentally control it? I was willing to bet that he had quite literally jumped at the chance. Possibly to the point of banging his head on the ceiling.

So, both of my paternal grandparents were bonded to incredibly powerful beings, and had their own absurd gifts that they were slowly learning how to harness. Which was… yeah, that was a thing. 

Not only did we sit there listening to Grandmaria and Popser tell their stories, but we also got to tell them our own. Well, mostly me. I ended up talking a lot that morning, from quite early, essentially re-telling the whole story about what had happened since I took the bus that morning a year and half earlier. A year and a half. God, it felt like so much longer. Most of a lifetime, actually. When I tried to think about what life was like before that day, through the first full sixteen years of my life, I almost couldn’t picture it. The whole thing basically felt like a story I had read somewhere, rather than what amounted to almost ninety percent of my life. 

In any case, telling the story (or many stories) about what I had been through up to this point eventually led to my grandmother insisting we make cookies and take them with us when we visited the others. She felt distraught that she hadn’t had time on Earth to actually buy presents, and assured us all that they would be doing that eventually. No amount of protests that it wasn’t necessary would dissuade her. She was going to get presents for everyone, no question about it. We would just have some sort of late/extra Christmas when the time came. 

That, of course, added to the ‘montage’ feel. I helped her bake cookies, while also taking the time to help my parents put the finishing touches on the gifts we were taking over to the others. Which was supposed to have been done the night before, but we’d been a bit occupied. 

We weren’t too far through that before Tabbris arrived. She had been spending time with her other family, and popped up to meet our grandparents for the first time in an actual peaceful, quiet situation. Or at least, that was the idea. Except as soon as she arrived and saw them in the kitchen, Tabbris immediately hid behind me with her hands on my shirt. She was clinging to me while peeking out that way, making a very uncertain noise in the back of her throat. Apparently it was one thing to meet them in the heat of the moment back on the ship with everything that had been going on, and quite another to do so right now on Christmas morning with no other distractions or anything. 

Brushing her apron off, Grandmaria took one look our way and seemed to understand. She immediately reached out, plucking one of the just-finished cookies from the tray. Her voice was chipper as she took a couple steps our way. “Now, if there’s one thing I know about my Flick, it’s that she loves my coconut chocolate chip cookies. She doesn’t share them with anyone she doesn’t really care about. She especially wouldn’t break one in half except for the most special sort of person.” 

Having said that, she extended a hand with the warm, delicious, oh-so-incredible cookie in her palm, offering it to me. In the background, I saw Popser and Dad having a quiet conversation in a corner of the kitchen while occasionally glancing our way, and Mom was pretending to be busy with the mixing bowl, all of them giving us time to get through this.

Taking the cookie, I went down to one knee and looked toward Tabbris. My hands smoothly broke the treat in half before I spoke quietly. “She’s right, you know. I don’t share my grandmother’s special coconut chocolate chip cookies with just anyone. They have to be my top most favorite people in the world. And splitting just one?” I gave a low whistle before raising my half of the cookie to take a bite. Immediately, my eyes rolled back a bit as I gave a murmur of appreciation. Then I lifted the second half and offered it to the other girl while continuing softly. “That sort of thing is only for someone I love very much.” 

There was a brief pause before Tabbris, face pink, slowly took the offered cookie half and bit into it. Immediately, she visibly shivered and gave a very quick nod. Her voice was a whisper. “I wouldn’t wanna share a whole cookie either.” Having said that, she quickly shoved the rest of the cookie in her mouth and murmured appreciatively. Then her eyes blinked open once more to focus on our grandmother, offering a tentative smile. “Um, hi… hi.”

Gesturing back and forth, I introduced them officially. “Tabbris, this is our grandmother. Grandmaria, this is Tabbris, my sister.” 

“Why, hello, Tabbris.” Grandmaria stepped over closer. She didn’t go down to one knee the way I had, instead reaching out to take the girl’s raised hand as she started to wave. “Do you know what my very favorite sorts of heroes are?” 

“Um, no?” Tabbris offered a bit uncertainly while letting the older woman take her hand (her other one was busy checking for any crumbs from that cookie). 

With a kind, gentle smile, our grandmother explained, “I have three favorites. My first favorite heroes are the very sneaky ones who do all this work to help people without getting a lot of credit for it. My second favorite are the people who help my friends and family. And my third favorite are my own family themselves. So, you know, by all that, I would say that you might just be my very most top favorite person right now. I’m not sure yet though, we need one more test, just to check.”

Eyes darting briefly to me, still kneeling beside her, and then back again, Tabbris hesitantly echoed, “One more test?”  

Still giving the same tender, welcoming and yet somehow conspiratorial smile that I recognized from so many years past, Grandmaria gently replied, “Well, yes, before I decide if someone fits the family member sort of favorite person, I have to see how good they are at hugs.” 

A giggle escaped the girl beside me, before she managed to retort with a somewhat-straight face, “I dunno, that puts a lot of pressure on a first hug.” 

With a laugh at that, our grandmother tugged her over by the hand and the two embraced. It was somewhat tentative at first on Tabbris’s part, as she was obviously still a bit nervous about the whole thing. But that quickly vanished as she felt just how intently Grandmaria was hugging her, and she ended up latching on just as tightly. 

Watching that while smiling, I straightened and glanced to my parents. They were both watching as well, and Dad gave me a thumbs up. Then he leaned over to whisper something to his own father before both of them chuckled softly. 

By the time Tabbris and Grandmaria separated, Popser was right there. He reached down, taking the little girl by both hands and squeezing them. On a ‘one, two, three, hup,’ he hoisted her off the floor and into his arms for a tight hug of his own. 

It didn’t end there either. They both passed Tabbris back and forth for several more hugs before being satisfied for the moment. Then we got back to talking while finishing the last batch of cookies as I (with help from Tabbris, Dad, and Mom) finished getting them caught up on what they had missed. Or at least as much as we could think of right then. I was sure there would be a lot more specific details we have to get into later. But they had at least the broad strokes. And it also gave me a chance to let Tabbris know about just what our grandparents had been bonded to, so I could see if the look on her face was as great as the one on mine had probably been. So, of course, she had to hear all about that. And they both had to demonstrate, which was fun. Especially when Popser got Tabbris to ‘pull his finger’ and turned every television, radio, light, etcetera in the apartment on, including setting off a couple alarm clocks. And yes, that made Tabbris fall over giggling.   

Eventually, the cookies were ready and we packed them up along with all the presents, before heading out to go see Abigail, Koren, and Wyatt. They were waiting for us in Abigail’s apartment, and we all exchanged more hugs and greetings. Grandmaria and Grandpartie were both immediately taken with all three of the others, and stories were soon flying back and forth. Wyatt wasn’t exactly shy (awkward sure, but not shy), yet even he seemed to take to our grandparents incredibly quickly. Before long, he and Popser were sitting at a corner of the room, going over some sort of security device designs that Wyatt had scrawled on the back of a napkin. They sounded like little kids conspiring to build a tree house or something. It was pretty great, even if I was a bit nervous about what they would end up with. 

Koren, standing beside me as we watched everyone interacting and laughing like that, leaned over to whisper, “Did you ever think we’d be standing here like this back at school last year?” 

The thought made me snort at first, before shaking my head. A lump had formed in my throat. Looking at everyone, I stopped to think about how lucky I was in that moment. Sure, plenty of bad stuff had happened. And plenty of other bad stuff would happen in the future. But right then, I was celebrating Christmas with my father, mother, Grandmaria, Grandpartie, Koren, Wyatt, Abigail, and Tabbris. They all knew the truth, they were all on the same page, and we were together. What would the me from the year before even do if I had told her things would be like this was what the next Christmas would be like? I honestly had absolutely no idea. 

Of course, that led to the question of what next Christmas would be like, but I wasn’t going to focus on that right now. This was a day that I wanted to savor every last minute of. 

Finally, I found my voice. “Nope. I think I can safely say that I never expected to be in a situation like this.” Then I glanced toward the other girl and added, “Especially not when we first met.” 

Koren, in turn, snorted while giving a vigorous nod. “Especially not when we met.” After a brief grimace, she offered a small shrug. “I guess that just goes to show how much things can change, huh?” She glanced over toward Wyatt before adding, “Really, really change.” 

“Here,” I raised my hand with a treat in it. “Try one of Grandmaria’s cookies. Believe me, you wanna talk about change you’ll look back on? 

“After this, everything in your life will be ‘before cookie’ and ‘after cookie.’”

*******

So, that was how Christmas went. Well, that was how Christmas with the family went. We exchanged presents and all that. Uncle Al did eventually show up, which started a whole other round of stories, especially when who he really was got pointed out. And yes, they all made me change into my werelion form to pose with him. It wasn’t exactly the same as a real Nemean Lion (I was entirely too tiny), but the others got a kick out of it anyway. 

All in all, it was fun. And I also spent time with others, besides family. It was an entire day of that stuff. Not to mention the fact that everyone else was still deep in partying mode after that whole protection spell thing. Which they had gotten Puriel and everyone else linked into, so hopefully they would be safe from Whisper counterattacks. And beyond that, they were apparently working on security updates on the station to keep them out or monitor for them. I’d tried to get more information, but Abigail basically gave me a hard stare and told me to enjoy Christmas. I sort of heard an unspoken ‘or else’ behind her words, so I left it alone for the moment. Abigail could be pretty scary in her own right when she wanted to be. 

Late that night, after almost everyone else had already gone to bed, I was sitting in the park part of our housing area, watching a few people on the forcefield elevators as they came down. I had both of the rings that I had inherited from that Seosten ghost hovering close to the ground in front of me, as Jaq and Gus played by hopping back and forth through them from both sides so they could be faster or slower. They were clearly amusing themselves quite a bit, and I couldn’t help but smile every time I glanced that way. 

“Well, it’s nice to see they’re having fun.” Asenath, seated beside me, noted. “Who gave them the Christmas hats?” 

Yeah, both cyberform mice were wearing little red Santa hats that had been attached to their equally-little heads. There were even tiny bells on the end that jingled softly whenever they did their hops back and forth. 

“Shiori,” I informed the other girl, as a fond smile found its way to my face at the thought. “I told them they didn’t have to wear the hats past the party, but you should have seen the look they gave me. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to get that girl to make a whole bunch of little hats for them to wear. Otherwise I’ll never get those ones off them.” 

With a very low chuckle, Senny took a small piece of metal about the size of the top of a soda can from her pocket and tossed it down for the pair to immediately start munching on from either side. “Well, I can’t exactly blame them. They are very stylish.” 

“That’s for sure,” I agreed, before looking toward her. “It must be weird for you. I mean, you grew up before the whole Santa myth was even–” 

“Myth?” She glanced to me and raised an eyebrow. “After all this time, you really find the story of Santa completely impossible to believe?” 

Her words made me squint at the girl. “You are not about to tell me that Santa Claus is real. I’m sorry, but if you say those words, I’m just going to get up and walk away.” 

She, in turn, gave a low laugh. “Okay, the answer is no, he’s not real. And yet he is. Sort of.” To my confused look, Senny waved a hand. “It’s the elves that are real. Or rather, the LVS.” When I didn’t get it, she spelled it out. “The L-V-S.” 

From there, she told me the story about the tiny creatures who had arrived on Earth with no memory of their past, and their only clues being a badly damaged ship with the letters L V S visible. Letters the collective amnesiac creatures had taken as their name. LVS or ‘elves.’ Apparently they had been helped a lot by the actual Saint Nicholas way back in the days that he had actually lived. Once he died, they spread his legend and basically helped create and push the whole Santa Claus thing. And they tried to give gifts as much as they could. Clearly, they couldn’t do the whole world or anything like that, but they did do what was possible. And any parents that happened to see brand new gifts under the tree with no explanation, well, that was covered by the Bystander Effect. If they even got that far. According to Asenath, a lot of people just assumed either the other parent or some relative left the gift. They ignored it. 

Hearing all that kind of made me want to meet these LVS, but apparently they were pretty notoriously secretive. Asenath herself had only met them one time, a few decades back. Still, I’d met enough important people in the past year and a half that I wasn’t going to rule out the possibility. 

Before I could say anything else about that, the phone in my pocket buzzed. I plucked it out and took a look before blinking. “Uh, maybe it’s a good thing you’re here,” I murmured. “It’s Jack Childs.” The Eden’s Garden Victor was calling me, and I could only think of one reason for that. 

“Hello?” I answered, hitting the speaker button. “It’s Flick, and Asenath is here too.” 

“Ah, good to hear,” came the response. “Heard a lot about you, Asenath. Good things, for the most part. And plenty of bad from the right sort of people.” 

“I do enjoy hearing that the right people have bad things to say about me,” Senny noted. 

We both heard the man chuckle. “Ain’t that the truth. Anyway, a happy Christmas to you both. But I think you know why I’m calling.” 

“You have a lead on Kyril Shamon’s secret prison,” I immediately replied. “I mean, where he might be keeping… Tiras.” As I said that, my eyes darted toward Asenath. She had gone a bit still, staring intently down at the phone. 

There was a very brief pause (which seemed to be a lot longer than it actually was) before Childs confirmed. “That’s right, we’ve got a lead on it. But even better, we have a lead on a transport that’s taking place. If you can take a group, subtly intercept that transport, and show up there, you’ll be able to get your entire group inside before they know anything’s wrong and when it all goes down, Shamon will think the Rebellion simply chased it down that way.” 

“So whatever resources you used to find out where it is won’t be burned,” I murmured thoughtfully. A part of me wanted to note that they also wouldn’t have to get their hands dirty, but I knew better than that. This was about more than Senny’s dad. As important as he was to her, and to Shiori and me by extension, there was a whole war for the world and beyond to deal with. The rebel Victors couldn’t blow every resource they had to help save one guy. Or even a full prison camp. 

“Yes,” came the response. “The transport isn’t for a couple weeks, but if you’re interested, you should start putting together a group to deal with it. Be ready to get into the camp, find the prisoners, and get out before Shamon finds out and sends reinforcements.” 

“Oh, we’re definitely interested,” I replied, smiling dangerously toward Senny. 

“Just give us the details. We’ll take care of the rest.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Two quick things! First, there was a non-canon for this story posted yesterday for EVERYONE to read, focused on Joyride vs the Minority, right here. And second, if you only read this story rather than Heretical Edge, there is an important note in my comment at the end of this chapter concerning updates to Patreon bonuses and goals. If you do support these stories or have any interest whatsoever in doing so to help ensure they are as good as they can possibly be (and help get every reader even more of those stories), it would be fantastic if you could read that comment after you finish the chapter. If you do read Heretical Edge and have already seen that comment/update, there’s nothing new there.

So, that Andy guy and I stepped away to a small hallway just outside the main room. It led to some offices or something, and while we could still hear people going nuts through the closed door, it was at least quiet enough that we could talk without shouting to make ourselves heard. For a few minutes, I talked to him about having a Tech-Touched friend who was looking to get into selling stuff and how we wanted to make sure she wasn’t giving away her location that easily. He made it clear that he had a pipeline of people who could move the stuff and sell it if it was any good, including himself. So, I told him I’d talk to Trevithick and set up a meeting if she wanted to, or just continue to be the go-between if she didn’t. He seemed pretty stoked about either option, to be honest. Especially when I asked for his phone number and an address where I could maybe find him later. He fumbled a bit, but eventually gave me a card with a business office listed on it, quickly letting me know that he shared it with a couple other people but all I had to do was ask for him and someone would track him down. Or call the number on the back, day or night. He stressed that part, making it clear I could call him any time I wanted. 

After promising that I would be in touch, and that he should be ready to move product as soon as Trevithick had something done, I made my way back out onto the main floor while stowing the card he had given me. Alloy was waiting by the door, apparently preferring to let me handle that part while she simply watched more of the convention. Which was fair, given how much there was to see. 

When I emerged, she glanced my way and tilted her head curiously. “So how’d it go, Mr. Businessman? Are we gonna be rich and powerful?” 

“Well, you’ve got the powerful part down already,” I pointed out. “As for rich, let’s hope for successful to start out. Gotta build contacts, make it clear we can deliver what we promise, that sort of thing. Being Touched will help somewhat, but if you screw up early on or overhype it, people’ll just end up turning on you as fast as they turned to you. Better if we build a solid ground network and improve it from there. This guy’s got his own contacts, if we can get some stuff into his hands and let him sell it, we’ll have a better chance at laying a foundation that–what?” I blinked that way, realizing she had been staring at me intently for most of that. 

Quickly, Alloy shook her head. “Uh, nothing. I mean, you’re just really into this stuff. You know a lot about it for a–you know, middle schooler. No offense. Err, I guess that would be more offensive to everyone else. You just–never mind.” 

Blushing a little bit despite myself, and glad that I had the helmet to cover it, I shrugged helplessly. “It’s really not a big deal. I just read a few paragraphs out of a book in the library. You know, after we talked about doing something like this with Trev the other day.” What else was I supposed to say, that I had heard my father talking about business stuff and what sort of problems startups ran into since I was a little kid sitting on his knee? And then I’d just follow up by telling her exactly who my father was. That would sure go over well. 

Okay, I thought that sarcastically in my head, but really, I did need to tell her the truth at some point. Just not right at the moment. There was way too much to deal with as it was. I wasn’t ready to get into that whole thing, even if it would help the whole feeling of awkwardness around her thinking I was a kid. 

Yes, yes, there were several good reasons to tell her everything. Another large one being that she deserved to know if we were going to work together. Soon, I told myself. It would have to be soon. Even if I couldn’t make myself get into it right now, it would come up eventually. It had to. And better that it be on my own terms. Just… yeah. 

Shaking all that off, I gestured for her to come with me. “Where’d the other three go?” 

Stepping up beside me, she raised a hand to point. “That Fragile girl– boy that’s a weird way to phrase it–she wanted to check out something called a dimensional-phase room. Which, for the record, sounds completely amazing, and we are so going over there. You’re lucky I lost the paper rock scissors game for who had to stay and wait for you.” 

I pointedly adopted an exaggerated huffy voice. “And here I thought you were just being a loyal partner.” 

“Partner shmartner,” she shot back, “did you hear what I said about dimensional-phase room? Sorry, but if it comes down to a choice between you and one of those, you’re gonna lose.” She seemed to consider those words briefly before amending, “I mean, unless it’s a villainous dimensional-phase room. Then… well, how villainous are we talking, on a scale from say, rob an ATM to murdering innocent children… a four and under, you’d probably lose out too.” 

Before I could even start to try to respond to that, someone dressed like Boulderdash began to approach us. It was a pretty good costume too, with clear effort put into small foam rocks over most of the body, and a big shell over the back that was probably fiberglass or something. For the head, they had a black and gray ski mask to match the rest of the body, with painted goggles to mimic his large eyes. They were a little bit short for the real thing, but still. 

The Boulderdash person slipped through the crowd, walking up before stopping right there in front of us. Their voice was muffled. “Here to see all your adoring fans, huh?” 

Confused, I exchanged a glance with Alloy before turning back that way. “Uhh, do we–” 

Before I could say anything else, ‘Boulderdash’ reached up to the shell on their back, opening a little slot on it so I could see a familiar face peering out at me. A familiar lizard face. It was Mars Bar. I swore he smiled as soon as he saw me, giving me an iguana grin. 

“Wha–” Giving a quick double-take at that, I snapped my attention back to the figure herself while demanding, “What the hell are you doing?” 

In a voice that was still muffled yet suddenly recognizable, Pack teased, “Well, I had to wear a costume that allowed me to get my little buddies in. You really think I’m going to come here and not let them see all this cool stuff? They’d never forgive me.” 

Giving the girl a look, I retorted, “Believe it or not, it’s not the lizards’ presence here I’m concerned about. I mean, okay it is, but they’re only here because you are so why are you–what’s–are you guys–” 

“He’s freaking out, isn’t he?” That particular question came from Lucent. Or rather, a giant version of him, a person in a raven costume, who stepped over to join us. “I told you he’d freak out.” 

“If you’re one of her lizards that she’s somehow given full speech capability to, I swear to God,” I managed, shooting a look back and forth between them before the voice struck me. “Wait, Broadway?!” I hissed that name, of course, not that it was strictly necessary. It wasn’t like anyone was eavesdropping. Actually, I was pretty sure I could have screamed, ‘Two real life members of La Casa are right here’ and no one would’ve heard me or paid attention. Not with how nuts and loud everything was around us. 

“Aww, he recognized me!” Broadway was clearly beaming under her costume, shooting a look toward her criminal teammate. “Wait, did he get me faster than he got you? Does that mean he likes me more?” 

“Dude.” It was Alloy’s turn to hiss at me. “How many members of La Casa are you friends with?” 

Once again, I was glad that my costume choices left my flushed face undetectable. Yes, that was clearly the biggest benefit, rather than stopping anyone from knowing who I was in the first place. With that filling my mind, I coughed. “We’re not exactly–I mean– that is…” Okay, I gave up on that, turning to face the other two. “Wait, are we about to have a problem?” I said that while trying very hard not to pointedly look at the several cameras around the room. I had no doubt that there was some advanced security in here including audio. Not that they would necessarily just happen to be paying attention to us, but still. 

Pack, however, shook her head as she interpreted my meaning. “Don’t worry, we’ve got it under control. Some of their surveillance equipment is just having a little bit of a hiccup now and then. Nothing too dramatic, just enough to make sure they can’t hear us. Or a few other places, just so it’s harder to narrow down where it’s coming from.” 

“Their surveillance is having issues and they’re not like, evacuating the building?” Alloy questioned. She too seemed to barely resist the urge to literally look at the cameras. 

“Like she said,” Broadway put in, “it’s just audio. And maybe a bit with not allowing them to zoom in, blurring a few cameras here and there, that sort of thing. They’re not gonna evacuate the building for that. Especially when they can stand right there and see that nothing’s going wrong. Besides, with all the amateur Touched-Tech all over the place in here, they’ve gotta expect it.” 

“On that note,” I questioned, “What’re you guys doing here?” 

“He keeps asking me that,” Pack informed Broadway in a clearly put-on confused tone. “It’s like he thinks we’re not supposed to want to go to places and have fun or something.” 

“Okay, I think my question is, are you here to have fun or here to have fun?” I managed with a somewhat weak voice. “I mean, you did just point out that there’s lots of… toys around here.”  

“Pshh, now he thinks we’re here to rob the place.” Pack was clearly rolling her eyes. “Honestly, if we were, we wouldn’t announce ourselves to a couple Boy Scouts. I mean–” She looked toward Alloy and gestured. “Not Boy–you know what I mean.” 

“They let girls in now anyway,” Alloy informed her with a shrug. “And what are you doing here if you’re not being nefarious? Which, for the record, is a very fun word.” 

“Having fun, without the nefarious part,” Broadway replied a bit primly. “And yeah, totally a fun word. But seriously, dude, look around. We’re not like, supervillains twenty-four/seven/fifty-two. We have time off.” With that, she gestured around us. “This place is sweet. We came in to have fun. Sweet, innocent, totally legal fun.”

“Sweet, innocent, totally legal fun that requires you to use security jamming tech?” I pointed out. 

Broadway, in turn, giggled. “We’re not using it all the time. We just have it in case things go wrong and we need to skedaddle, you know? And in this case, to come over and say hi without being eavesdropped on. And without you guys getting in trouble for not immediately starting in on the whole ‘halt evil-doers’ business. So slow your roll. Or, you know, whatever the right term would be.” That last part came in a distracted tone as her head (still covered in the raven mask) turned to follow a large man dressed up as The Hyperborean, a seven-foot-tall muscular guy made of ice who wore bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and sunglasses. This guy didn’t quite match the real Hyperborean in height or muscle, but it was pretty close. And the costume he wore over himself resembled ice pretty well. 

“See, now she’s distracted.” Shaking her head, Pack nudged her partner. “Like she said, we’re here to have fun, not cause trouble. Scout’s honor. And as your partner there said, we can actually join them now, so it’s all kosher. I mean, I’m not Jewish either, but you get the point.”

Before I could find my voice to respond to that, That-A-Way approached with Raindrop and Fragile, the three of them holding several light green balls. The (currently) blonde girl was already speaking. “Okay, so they let us take a couple extra–uh?” She had just noticed the other two. 

Clearing my throat, I nudged Peyton and slipped a twenty dollar bill in her hand. “Hey, there’s souvenir hats over there, why don’t you take our new friend to get one?” 

“Super-subtle, I don’t suspect anything weird at all,” Fragile announced, giving me a thumbs-up before pivoting on her heel to walk that way with Alloy. 

“Aww, man, that’s a great costume,” Pack abruptly announced, giving Way a pointed look. “You look just like the real Way, only even more attractive and smart.” 

“Uhh,” Way managed to repeat her previous noise. 

Broadway, in that raven costume, was looking after the departing Fragile as she noted, “Hey if she’s hanging out with you, she must be that new chick, right? That was a nice entrance she had up there. Should’ve seen the look on those rich fucks’ faces. It was a hoot.” 

“Uhhhhhhhh!” Way’s gaze snapped to me, her eyes wide. 

“God damn it,” I muttered before waving my hands back and forth. My voice was as low as it could be while still being audible to them. “It’s Pack and Broadway.” 

Even as I finished saying that, Pack was opening up the little slot in her costume shell. That time, it was Tuesday the Gecko who was looking out at us, joined quickly by Scatters the Neon Day Gecko. Both of them seemed to brighten when they saw Way, who had turned that wide-eyed stare at them. 

“You–what–how–why–” Her brain was clearly stuck, as she couldn’t put a full sentence together and had resorted to simply pointing. 

“They’re not here to cause trouble,” I finally put in while shaking my head. “I mean, obviously they’re here to cause us some mental trouble, and having a lot of fun with it, but other than that…” 

Looking back and forth between them as she processed all of that, Amber opened and shut her mouth a couple times before focusing on Pack. “Can I talk to you for a minute?” She hissed those words while her eyes darted toward Broadway a couple times. 

The other girl agreed, and they stepped out of the way. Which left me standing there with Raindrop on one side and Broadway on the other. Which was just the most comfortable and excellent position to be in. But at least–nope, I wasn’t even going to think about hypothetical ways it could get more uncomfortable. That just seemed like a recipe for disaster. 

While all those thoughts were running through my head, Broadway gave Raindrop a thumbs up. “Hey, while we’ve got the chance, great job the other day with that whole dropping the tarp from that hardware store on us? I swear, you almost got me.” 

“Um, are you… complimenting me for almost arresting you?” Izzy sounded understandably confused. 

“I mean, sure?” Broadway shrugged as much as the bird costume allowed her to. “We do illegal stuff, you try to stop us. If you manage it, good for you. It’s not personal, dude. And like I said, it was a cool move. I’ll be ready for it next time, but you uhh, you keep me on my toes. It’s cool.”

Izzy clearly had no idea how to respond to that, but eventually settled on a weak, “Um, thanks.” Then she thought about it for another moment before adding, “I uh, I don’t suppose you’d like to give me some advice?” 

“To catch me, my friends, or bad guys I don’t care about?” Broadway shot back with clear amusement. “Because something tells me the last one would still lead to the first two. Unless you want to hand over a written statement that you’ll never try to catch me again. And, quite frankly, I like the whole cat and mouse thing, so not even then. But, I’ll tell you one thing. I don’t know what happened to you recently, but you’re a hell of a lot cooler than you used to be. I mean, you’re more confident, you look like you stick up for yourself more, you’re even answering questions on the news sometimes. You used to be this quiet little wallflower who always looked like you were afraid the person who was asking you questions was gonna hit you with the microphone. I mean, I don’t ahh, I’m not trying to be insulting or whatever. I don’t mean it in a bad way. I mean, I do, but only in the sense that you’re not like that–and it’s fine to be like that if you’re not comfortable with–fuck.” 

For a brief handful of seconds, she was quiet, as though considering her words. Then she gave a short, decisive nod. “What I mean is, whatever changed in your life recently to make you more confident, it’s a good thing. You’re a lot more fun this way, and a lot harder to get away from. So whoever or whatever was making you all meek and stuff before, I’m glad you’re in a better situation now.” She paused, clearly ran those words over in her head, and then nodded once more. “That’s it.” 

I almost said something, but decided it was a bad idea. Not only because I wasn’t supposed to have that close of a relationship with Raindrop, but also because she could speak for herself just fine. Which, come to think of it, was Broadway’s entire point. 

So, I stayed quiet. Izzy, however, straightened up a bit. “Thanks, I um, I guess. But just so you know, I’m still going to try to catch you, even if you are nice to me.”  

“If I thought anything less, I wouldn’t have said anything,” the other girl informed her casually. “And who knows, you keep pulling out tricks like that tarp and you might just do it.” She didn’t sound worried about the possibility, yet it wasn’t as though she was dismissing it entirely or being insulting. She simply wasn’t worried about what would happen if she was caught. 

By that point, Pack and Way had finished their conversation and came back. Amber cleared her throat. “Let’s just say, you guys… don’t start anything and we’ll all just pretend we don’t know anything about each other.” She gave a quick glance toward the girl in her Boulderdash costume before adding, “Please don’t make me regret trusting you when you say you’re not here to do anything bad.”

“Promise,” Pack solemnly replied. “We are absolutely here for casual fun and nothing else. Legal casual fun,” she added quickly after giving that a second of thought. “You know what they say. Be gay, do crime. And you’re already halfway there.” With what was very clearly a wink that was hidden behind her costume, she took Broadway by the hand and they started off. 

Shortly after that, Alloy and Fragile approached once more. The latter had a quite snazzy-looking red top hat, which she was practicing flipping around in her hands, along her arms, and up to her head. She was surprisingly good at it. Once they arrived, she looked to me and brightly announced, “If you have any more friends around here that you don’t want me to hear you talk to, they’re selling these really cool belts at the booth next to the hat one.” 

Flushing a little, I mumbled something about keeping that in mind, before thanking her for playing along. Then I added, “What’s with those things you guys came back with, anyway?” My hands gestured to the light green balls she, Amber, and Izzy still had. 

“They’re for the phase room,” Amber explained. “They’ve got a lot of people waiting to go in, so they do it by colored balls. When these light up, it’s our turn. We got a couple for you guys too.” She passed them over toward Peyton and me. “Seriously, we’ve gotta try it. It’s all set up like a normal living room and kitchen, but they can phase you while you’re in there. You know, make you intangible. So you can walk around and wave your hands through stuff.” 

For a brief second, I just stared at her. “Dude, you can already do that by yourself. Why do you need to wait around and go in a special room for it?” 

“Pfft, I can do that while going one direction,” she retorted. “I always wondered what it’d be like to be able to use my power anywhere I wanted. Believe me, if they had a ‘teleport room’ or a ‘be super fast’ room, I’d try those too.” 

By that point, it was time to go over to where those guys were taking the photograph of all the people dressed up like Alloy and me. I felt a little weird about actually being in the picture, but then, it was also pretty fun to think that nobody there knew. 

It also turned out the guy who thought he could get the real us to sign the photo once it was blown up to giant-size was Richard Mornes, the guy from Ten Towers who was in charge of coordinating with law enforcement, recruiting people from the Minority, that sort of thing. I wasn’t sure if he recognized me while we were doing the picture, but as soon as one of the other Paintballs asked if he was sure he could get me to sign it, the man glanced my way. His eyebrow rose before he replied, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure he’ll be interested.” 

Shortly after we were done with that, the balls lit up. As soon as she saw that, Fragile seemed to light up herself. “Oooh, come on, come on, let’s go check out the phasing room!” 

Before we could head that way, however, my attention was drawn to one side, as none other than Silversmith approached. Okay, to be fair, there had been like fourteen Silversmiths, all varying levels of believable. But something told me this was the real thing. This was really my dad. 

“Ahem, sorry for interrupting,” he spoke while I did my best not to react to his presence. “I’ll let you guys get right back to enjoying the rest of the convention down here in just a second.” 

“Uh, so, there’s nothing wrong?” Amber asked, obviously worried about the whole Pack and Broadway situation. 

“Nope,” my father confirmed. “Nothing at all. Actually, you guys can go ahead.” His attention turned from her, sliding over the others and settling on me. 

“Paintball, you mind having a little chat for a minute?” 

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Interlude 16B – Reunions 2 (Heretical Edge 2)

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A/N – There is some important information in the author comment after the end of this chapter concerning updates to Patreon bonuses and goals. If you do support these stories or have any interest whatsoever in doing so to help ensure they are as good as they can possibly be (and help get every reader even more of those stories), it would be fantastic if you could read that comment after you finish the chapter. Thanks so much to all of you!

The sound of a ball repeatedly bouncing between wall and racket grew faster and louder with each passing moment. Soon, the figure darting back and forth across the small court became little more than a barely-visible blur as she activated her inborn boost ability. It wasn’t quite as fast as the girl had been capable of moving while possessing Pace with her superspeed, but still quite a feat. More than the average Seosten was capable of, that much was certain. And she held it, if not as long as many of the eldest and most powerful of her people, at least substantially longer than most her own still relatively-young age. 

Finally, after boosting herself as high and as long as possible as she turned the ball into a nearly-solid line of back-and-forth bounces between the wall and her racket, Theia abruptly pivoted a hundred and sixty degrees on one foot without any warning. The hand holding her racket dropped limply to her side while her other hand snapped upward to catch the ball that was still coming her way, snatching it out of midair an inch from the back of her head. And just like that, she stood facing the figure who had stood in the doorway for the past minute. 

“Hello, Father.” 

Puriel, his eyes focused on hers, stood silently for another moment before stepping the rest of the way into the enclosed racquetball court. His footsteps echoed a bit as he took several steps and then stopped. The door fell shut with a somewhat final-sounding thud, and still the man had not spoken. Nor had Theia moved other than to lower the hand that held the ball. For a handful of seconds, which seemed much longer than that to both involved, they stood facing one another in complete silence. A pin dropped to the floor could have imitated the sound of a grenade in those brief moments. 

In that time, he took in the girl’s appearance. She wore a pair of tennis shoes that had been painted bright orange, with several white lightning bolts added to them, and a pair of mismatched purple and green socks. Her baggy jean shorts fell to her knees, with a rainbow-colored belt. Beyond that, she wore an open orange windbreaker with its own lightning bolts, matching her shoes, over a rainbow striped shirt to match the belt. And, atop her head, the New York Rangers cap. 

Finally, Puriel spoke his first words since entering the room. His first words since opening the door to see her. The first words he had spoken to her since he had taken her away from Kushiel’s experiments and sent her to be trained the way others with her condition were. The first words he had spoken to her since she became a person with a name. His first words not to the person she had been, but to the person she had become. 

“Hello, my daughter.” 

Three words. Each by themselves simple and unimpressive. Yet, as with all things, far greater when put together. Words held power. Not only of the enchantment sort, but true power, of the sort that would shape reality with no particular magic involved. The proper words, spoken at the proper time and by the proper person, could decide the course of an entire empire. As could the wrong ones, spoken at the wrong time, by the wrong person. 

These words might not have determined the fate of so many (though that in itself remained to be seen, as lesser moments had caused great change), but neither of those affected by them missed their significance. 

Another thump broke the brief silence that had followed those words, as Puriel dropped to one knee in front of the brown-haired girl. His hands rose almost to her face, before he stopped himself and stayed there with his hands shaking very slightly, mere inches from her skin. 

When she saw that he had stopped, the girl closed her eyes and began to let out a low, quiet sigh despite herself. Yet before all of the air could escape her, Puriel spoke once more. 

“May I touch you?” 

Eyes snapping open as the breath she had been slowly letting out became an audible (if barely) gasp, the girl met her father’s eyes in stunned silence. Silence which stretched on for several more seconds, as their gazes locked. And somehow, standing there in front of the man, she knew that he would not be the one to break that silence. If it took a lifetime, he would not move or speak again until she did. He had given her something precious, something far more powerful than any who had never been without it would comprehend. 

No, even that wasn’t correct. He had not given her anything. Acknowledging her right to choose whether to accept his touch was not a gift to be granted. Such a small thing which, in a just society, would have been entirely mundane. It would–should have been the absolute rule. 

It should not have mattered so much. And for that, the girl felt something she had thought impossible for her in the moments leading up to this reunion. 

She felt a single tear, before her eyes blinked it away. Setting her chin, she gave a very slight nod. Her voice was very soft, almost inaudible. “Yes, Father.” 

Granted the permission he sought, Puriel finally moved his hands those last few inches. A gasp of his own escaped the man as he cupped her face. His expression was, at first, unreadable. He slowly moved his thumbs along her cheeks and under her eyes with the gaze of a man who was truly seeing and touching his own child for the first time. An unconscious, entirely unbidden smile rose to his face. It was a smile of pride, of delight, of… pure wonder.  

“Theia.” The name came in a hushed, reverent tone, as he slid both hands along her face and through her hair, then down to her shoulders to squeeze. “Theia, my… my…” Where only a single tear had appeared on her face in response to that simple-yet-crucial request, his own fell freely. And then his arms wrapped around her, as the man pulled the girl to him. He was saying something, yet the words were muffled as he all-but crushed her to his chest. 

And then he repeated it, drawing back just enough that she would hear and understand. 

“I am sorry. I am so very sorry, my daughter. My daughter. My child. I’m sorry.” 

For several long moments, they stayed there like that. Puriel’s voice had fallen silent as he simply kept his arms locked around her. He held on as though afraid that to let go would be to lose her for good. His hand brushed up through the girl’s hair once more, then down her back. He held and touched his daughter in the way of a brand new parent only just experiencing their child for the first time. He touched her as though she was a newborn, and he a father who was just experiencing the true miracle of what he had made. 

Finally, the man pulled back slightly, meeting her gaze once more. Before he could say anything else, however, Theia spoke first while letting the ball and racket drop from her hands with a clatter. “You know what I did to Mother.” It was a statement of fact, an acknowledgment of reality. And yet, more than that. It was an acceptance, her voice making it clear that she expected anger, if not more.

Puriel, however, was silent for a few seconds. He said nothing, did nothing, made no move. His eyes continued to meet hers, his steady gaze the only proof that he had not once more fallen into lost memories. No, his silence in this moment was born entirely of shame rather than a damaged mind. When he spoke at last, it was with a voice that was rough, cracking slightly with each word. “I failed you in more ways than I could ever truly count. But by far the worst was to leave you with… with your mother for so long. I allowed my own prejudices, my own fears, my…” He stopped, glancing away briefly before returning his gaze to her while swallowing hard. “I failed you, Theia. I failed to give you a name. I failed to protect you from what I knew was a terrible environment, from a… a damaged woman. I failed to protect and guide you. I failed in every conceivable way.” Slowly, he moved his hand back to her cheek, gently resting it there. “I failed you when I could have helped. And yet, you have made your way through all of it.” His voice still held pain and regret, yet there was more pride in those words. 

Theia, mouth opening then shutting briefly, made a noise in the back of her throat. It took the girl a couple of tries before she found the right words. “You do not… seek justice for her?” 

It was then that Puriel realized why they were here alone, in this out-of-the-way room, why she had told others to let them meet here without any onlookers. She expected some form of punishment. She expected anger, retribution for the death of his wife, her mother. And she had sent everyone away who could have intervened. Hearing that in her voice, seeing it in her eyes, the realization made him start just a little. 

This was what she expected, because it was what Kushiel (and he to a lesser extent in his inaction) had cultivated into her. She expected her parents to hurt her. 

Processing all of that, realizing what his own daughter thought would happen here even after their initial reunion, Puriel closed his eyes. A low shudder ran through the man as he fought through all of the feelings and thoughts that came with her expectation. It seemed impossible to find the right words to respond to such a thing. Through distant memories, he thought of how desperately he and Kushiel had tried to conceive a child, how terrible each failure had been and how delighted they felt when it had finally happened. He thought of his wife’s face when she proudly told him that the pregnancy was sticking, how it had felt in his own soul every time she reported in to tell him that she still had the baby. He thought of how wondrous it had been to touch her stomach shortly before the birth, and know that he would soon have his own child. 

And then he thought of every failure that had come following the girl’s arrival and the revelation of her condition. He thought of every change he could have made and didn’t. He thought of everything his entire society did to punish people like his daughter for the crime of being born. And most of all, he thought of what her mother had done in her deranged, deluded attempts to ‘fix’ the girl. 

“There is justice to come,” he finally found himself saying. “But it is justice for you, not toward you. It is justice for all… all like you.” Swallowing hard, he slowly stood up while sliding his hands down to take both of hers and squeeze them. “Kushiel made her choices. I do not fault you for protecting yourself and those you care about. I fault her for the choices she made, her father for forcing those choices onto her, and our society for creating… the situation in the first place. I do not blame you.” 

His voice softened, gaze meeting hers as he quietly added, “I blame myself for not doing more when I could have, before you were forced into such a choice. You deserved better. You always deserved better. A better family, and better people.” Head tilting slightly, the man added, “And it sounds as though you finally found it.” 

“I have… an Abigail,” the girl informed him. “And a Pace. And a Douglas. They are not Kushiel. They are better.” Even after saying that, she looked uncertain if it was the right thing, almost fearful of his reaction. But then she steadied herself and gave a nod of certainty. “They are better.” 

“I have heard of–well, the first two,” Puriel confirmed. “They sound quite impressive. As for the last… what is a Douglas?” 

“He is a friend. He gave me this hat.” Raising her hand, Theia touched the object in question, before amending, “It is covered in the enchantments which block out the Whispers and partially affect our people when possessing someone. He gave it to Pace so that she could help move the body we shared. When we were… separated, I attempted to return the hat, but he was… he wanted me to keep it. So I have.” 

Puriel absorbed that for a moment before choosing to focus on something else. Something far more important. “The name. Your… your name. I must know. How did– how that come about?” The odds of her happening to choose a name so close to that of the woman whose closeness to him had so infuriated Kushiel couldn’t be a coincidence, could it? 

And yet, it did seem to be just that. Theia informed him that Abigail had, independently of any actual knowledge of the situation, come up with the name Aletheia as a reference to the mythological goddess of truth (originally born of Apollo’s work, of course), which his daughter had shortened to Theia. 

Somehow, it didn’t surprise him that Kushiel had failed to tell their daughter about the real Aletheia. If his wife had ever had any inclination that there could be any relationship between the woman she had decided was her enemy (one of many), and her child, she would have… He grimaced at the thought before focusing on the girl in front of him. His voice was soft. “It is a good name. It is–” He stopped, considering his next words carefully. “It is the right name. But–but I should have named you. I am glad that you have one. It is yours. And yet, I am–it was a mistake to send you away. I had three… three opportunities to name you. First, when you were born. Second, when I sent you away from your–away from Kushiel to the training camp. And third, when I sent you to Manakel. I–I should have named you. I should have followed up, should have seen how you were–” Stopping once more, the man took a breath and let it out. “There are many things I should have done, but did not. I have made a great many mistakes. Those I cannot change.”

He was silent for a moment, his eyes gazing past her before slowly moving back with visible effort, holding himself then and there. He would not lose himself in memories. “Living in the past is–it’s something I find myself doing far too often, in ways I cannot control. When it comes to–to what I can control, I would prefer to focus on the present and future. You are Theia. You are my daughter. If… if you will allow me to, I would like…” The man straightened to his full height. “I would like to get to know you.” 

Blinking several times rapidly, Theia took a moment to find her own voice, though it came in a soft whisper. “And I would like to know my father.” 

Those simple words, that she wanted to know him, sent a rush of feelings through the man. He found himself smiling very faintly. His hand rose to gently brush two fingers along her forehead. His daughter. His child. It was so–it was overwhelming. It shouldn’t have been. He’d had decades to comprehend that, and yet somehow, right now standing in front of her, it was different. She had grown, and so had he. Things were… better. 

“You have your mother’s hair, and eyes,” he murmured quietly, before adding, “And her gift.”

“She is not happy about that,” Theia noted. “The hair, eyes, or gift. She does not like me.” A thoughtful look crossed her face. “Perhaps because I killed her.” 

“Yes, well…” Puriel grimaced once more, memories playing through his head along with an assortment of emotions. “She was always good at holding a grudge.” His next words were a half-muttered, “I expected that to end with her death, but perhaps I should have known better.” 

“You loved her,” the girl quietly noted, her eyes watching his intently. 

“Yes,” he confirmed immediately. “A part of me still does. I know what she is. I know what she did to you, and to others. I know that her death was for the best, and I do not blame you for it. I even… I believe it would have been better had she not come back in any way. I know that. I feel that. I believe it. And yet, there is a part of me that will always see the Kushiel I knew, the one she was when it was only the two of us, when she was…” His eyes closed, as he forced himself through great effort not to fall into that memory. He would not allow his wife to take him away from their daughter. Not this time. 

Finally opening his eyes once more after several long seconds of focus, the man spoke again. “A part of me will always love the person she once was, as well as the person she could have been. But it is a part that does not control me. As I said, living in the past is something I have done far too much. When she died, she was not the person I loved. She made her choices. Now I make mine.” 

“You sent me away,” Theia noted. Her voice was not quite accusation or relief. She wasn’t certain how to feel about the simple fact she was stating. “Twice. You sent me away to the… to others like me. And then you had me sent here, to Earth, to Manakel. You knew that–that she was wrong. But you did not tell me that. You did not… tell me anything. You sent me away.”

“I believed doing so would protect you,” Puriel admitted. “I believed that had I shown you much affection or… or spoken up more than I did in simply taking you away from Kushiel, she would have reacted poorly. She was quite jealous of my affections. And I did not trust that I could always be there to protect you should she react poorly. I believed the best way of protecting you was to make it seem as though I simply wanted you out of the house, as though I was tired of her… work with you. I believed that following up would draw her ire toward you once more.” 

“And when you told them to send me to Manakel?” Theia prompted, her hand tightening a little bit on the racket as she thought about how that had gone. 

“I thought he would give you–I thought he would help you.” Puriel took in a breath before letting it out. “It seems that failing to notice how much my old friend had changed was another to add onto the list of all the many mistakes I have made over the centuries. I heard of the problems you were having integrating with the other–with those like you. I thought that… sending you on a mission, sending you here to work alongside the man who was one of my closest friends once, would be good for you. I thought it would help.” 

A cough escaped him then, as he gestured around the room. “In the end, it seems to have done just that, though not in a way I ever could have expected.” 

“I did not imagine it either,” Theia admitted, before adding, “But I would not change it. Not if it meant not meeting Abigail and Pace.” A brief pause followed, then, “And Douglas.” 

“Yes,” Puriel murmured, “as much pain as there is in our past, it has led to some good. And people whose presence I would not wish to live without.” 

“One in particular?” Theia prompted knowingly, raising herself up on her toes while waggling her eyebrows at him. “Who happens to live in your head and invent things like teleporting spaceships? One who is basically my–my…” She trailed off uncertainly. 

“She is Sariel’s child,” Puriel murmured, before adding, “But she is also more than that. She has been a daughter to me. I–does that make you sad?” 

“Because you spent time with her that you did not spend with me?” Theia bluntly asked, before her head shook. “Abigail says that learning from our mistakes is a good thing. She says that doing the wrong thing to one person and the right thing to another because you came to understand what you did wrong the first time is… is how it is supposed to work.

“Besides, that all makes her a little sister to me. And I have always wanted a little sister. When do I get to meet her? I’m told noogies and fighting over telephone time are to be expected. I do not have a boyfriend, but I believe she is supposed to have a crush on whoever it ends up being. I hope she calls me an ugly pig and then apologizes so we can hug and promise that boys aren’t important while the names appear on the screen.” 

For a moment, Puriel just stared at her, processing all of that before giving a slight shake of his head. “I–you will meet her soon. She deserves time with Sariel and her other siblings for now. And… and I wanted this time to be just the two of us. This is about you, Theia. I want to know more about you. 

“Starting with this Douglas. Tell me more about the boy who gave you that hat.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Boy was going downstairs a real shift. The difference between the rich people party on the upper floor, and what we walked into down there was like night and day. Alloy and I had followed the Minority people down some private stairway and to a door that was apparently in an unused corner of the room. As soon as that door opened, we were assaulted by a mix of light and sound. The whole place was lit up by hundreds of slightly too bright tube lights hanging from the ceiling of this enormous warehouse-like space. From what I had heard on the way down, there were booths filling almost every square inch of the place, and thousands of people making their way through to see exhibits, buy merchandise, and all the rest of that sort of thing. 

And yet hearing about it was nothing compared to literally hearing it. The place was a madhouse. I felt physically assaulted by the noise as soon as we opened that door. Thousands of people all talking at once, hundreds shouting for attention or trying to sell things, dozens of buzzers, alerts, whistles, chimes, and other noises. To say nothing of the like three different songs I could hear just from the entranceway coming from different areas. Someone was playing a guitar, another person appeared to be repeatedly breaking windows or something, somewhere off in the distance what sounded like a car alarm was going off, and a couple hundred feet to our right, a bunch of people were doing what sounded like incredibly loud tribal chants. 

“Yup,” Syndicate noted while slowly looking around from the doorway (having to raise his voice to a near shout even though he was right next to us), “pretty much the same as last year.” After a brief pause, he added, in an even louder voice, “Actually, I think they’re a little quieter this year!” 

The spot we were in was behind several large booths, blocking people from seeing us. There was a narrow pathway to the left and right leading to areas we could join the crowd and, apparently, blend in. According to the others, there were so many people in costumes here that we wouldn’t stand out at all unless we used our powers. They strongly advised not doing that, unless we really wanted to be mobbed and never be able to move anywhere. Which was a warning that had made Peyton push her remaining floating marbles into a ‘pocket’ in her armor for the time being. 

Fragile, the brand new glass-form Minority girl, leaned closer to peer out that way. Her voice was tentative. “This… this is quieter?” Realizing only a couple of us had heard her, she repeated it a bit louder. 

“Compared to last year, yeah!” That-A-Way confirmed with a glance my way. “If we all stick together, we’ll stand out more and people might wonder if we’re not cosplaying!” she called over the somehow even louder noise. “We should split up so we don’t attract attention!” Her head shook a bit. “Believe me, it might sound fun to have all those people know you’re the real deal, but it’s not!” 

“It doesn’t sound fun at all!” Peyton informed her, wincing a little. “I don’t need that kind of attention, thanks.” The latter bit was added a bit more quietly, so only I could hear her. 

After a moment of thought, Syndicate decided, “I’ll take a walk with Wham and Wobble. Way, Rain, think you guys can show your friends and the new girl around, uhhh…” Trailing off, he took a second glance at the glass figure as though only just remembering an important point. “Oh, you uhh, people aren’t gonna know you yet, but they will know that’s not a costume. How did–” 

“It’s okay,” Fragile assured him. Extending a hand, she showed us a small circular device, the size and shape of a coin, in her palm. It was red with a blue dot in the center. Once we’d all seen it, she closed her hand around it tightly. A moment later, there was a brief flash of light and suddenly a very different figure was standing there. She looked like an ordinary person with pale skin, long red hair, and green eyes. 

“An Incogniter?” Whamline put in, sounding curious. “I’ve never seen one like that. They’re usually bigger.” 

The ‘Incogniter’ was apparently really good at its job, because it even showed Fragile blush. I had no idea how it managed something like that. She looked down, kicking the floor lightly before giving a short nod. “Silversmith gave it to me so I could… um, be normal in public.” 

“That’s not what you really look like though, is it?” Syndicate asked, giving a brief look toward Alloy and me. “I mean, not that everyone here can’t be trusted or anything, but–” 

“What the boss means,” Whamline put in casually, “is that just in case we do get outed and people in here figure out we’re the real deal, it’s probably better if they don’t immediately associate your real appearance with the brand new Minority member, you know?” 

Fragile, in turn, quickly shook her head. “Oh, no, it’s not the real me. Just a random thing. Um, there’s a random mode and a few set things, like… what I really look like. I mean, what I looked like before. I mean–” She cut herself off and offered a shrug. “It’s safe.” 

“Oh, good to know, I guess.” For some reason, Syndicate looked a little uncertain. Well, his body language did. The red hard-shell mask he wore covered all of his face up to just a bit before his hair. Either way, it only lasted for a moment before he shook it off. “Just be careful, okay? I’m pretty sure those things won’t protect you from someone feeling that there’s something different about you if they bump into you too much. People are pretty distracted and all, but still.” He offered her a thumbs up. “Wouldn’t want you to get knocked down and shatter again. It was cool–uhh, terrifying but also cool upstairs. Down here might be hard to explain. And it’d definitely make the Incogniter earn its keep.” 

Fragile promised to be careful, before we split up. Which led to Amber and Izzy leading Alloy, the new girl, and me to the right and out toward one of the openings between booths. Finally, we could see the actual people instead of just hearing them. And if things had been loud and overwhelming before, actually being out where we could see the crowd was even more so. It was insane. There were lines leading out from every booth, and even more people moving between them, just shuffling along taking a look at everything on display. About half were in some sort of costume, be it an original creation or an established Touched. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure I recognized some of the costumes as Touched from other states, so maybe there were no original costumes. In any case, we wouldn’t stand out. 

Seeing all those people made me shake my head. “Okay seriously, how have I never heard of this?!” I called over the sound of the crowd, which was even louder now. “How did I not know it was a thing?!” 

Alloy glanced to me. “Maybe it’s a big fight club! You know, you don’t talk–never mind.”

“You don’t go on the SPHERE forum very much, do you?!” Amber called while leaning in a bit for us to hear. “This is sort of their annual fuck you to the people upstairs! See, they know that the rich bigwigs have their meeting on this night, and they’re not allowed up there, so a few years ago a few of them got the bright idea to rent out the rest of the hotel where the conference was happening and throw a really huge party to screw with them. Some sponsors found out what they were doing and sent some tee shirts and toys to buy, and it escalated from there. Now the VIPs upstairs do their business in the upper floor of this convention center and the little people fill up the rest of the space with all this stuff. What started as a thread on the forums to bitch about rich people not letting everyone into their private parties evolved into… this.” 

“Giving a bunch of rich people even more money,” Peyton noted flatly. “You know a lot of what the mob here are spending here goes straight into the pockets of the people they started this whole thing to protest against, right?!” 

Amber gave a ‘what can you do’ shrug. “They still have fun! But that’s probably why you haven’t heard of it. Not talking about it in public is kind of part of the… game or whatever. It’s like an inside joke that you don’t talk about it. They give it a codename on the SPHERE forum, so if you don’t spend a lot of time there you probably don’t recognize it. There was a pinned thread for ‘fishing trip.’ 

“I saw that!” Peyton confirmed. “But I uhh, don’t like fishing!” She squinted. “Damn, that’s sneaky.”

The currently hologram-covered Fragile spoke up. “I’ve read about it a lot! I never got to go though, cuz…” She trailed off before fidgeting. “Cuz my dad thought it was too dangerous.” 

Amber gave a quick nod. “The people can be a little wild, but they’re usually pretty nice. At least they were last year. I–” She blinked over at us as though doing a quick headcount. “I’m the only one here right now who’s actually been to this thing before. Weird.” 

Right, because Syndicate had walked off the other way with Whamline and Wobble. I certainly had never heard of this thing before. Which still struck me as a little odd, considering I would have thought I’d have heard of it at school. But maybe it just wasn’t that big there, or… something. After all, Peyton didn’t know about it either. Huh. 

Shaking that off, I looked around at all the people that were here. God, it was so insane. There were dozens and dozens of costumed figures just within my line of sight. They were dressed up like any number of well-established Touched from all over the place. Not to mention the people selling stuff. Straight across from where we were standing, a booth was selling this special silly string that would blow apart into confetti a few seconds after being sprayed, which would subsequently dissolve into nothing. Next to that was a booth where they were selling multi-colored candles that made music as they burned. 

Then, I saw it. Or rather, him. Some guy dressed up like me–err, like Paintball. He was about six inches taller than me, but other than that it was a pretty good likeness. He had the overall costume just right, and even a matching helmet. He also had a mix of random color splotches and actual designs across it, like a red horse over one shoulder and a purple sword across the chest. 

Yeah, I had thought that I was prepared for something like this, but seeing someone dressed up like me was more surprising than I’d expected. For a second, I just stood there, staring that way. A mix of emotions and thoughts were running through my mind. This was–it was–oh. Someone was actually dressed like me, imitating me, making themselves look like–pretending to be–oh. 

A hand found its way to my elbow, and I saw Izzy looking at me. I couldn’t read her expression through the mirrored faceplate, but I could tell she was concerned. Her voice was just loud enough for me to hear over the commotion all around us. “Are you okay?” 

I gave a quick glance toward Fragile, but the hologram-covered girl wasn’t paying any attention to us. She was looking up and down the aisle, expression filled with delight as she kept blurting out for us to see one thing or another. Seriously, it was like seeing a little kid at the circus or something. Everywhere she turned, the girl found something new to gawk at and point toward. Actually, it was kind of adorable, weirdly. Watching her like that, I had the strangest feeling she didn’t get out much. Maybe she was pretty sheltered. Which made her being allowed to join the Minority a bit… odd. But then, she had demonstrated that she could be shattered into pieces and then just reform, so maybe that helped. 

Finally, I gave Izzy a quick nod and a thumbs up. I wasn’t sure how much I meant it, given the rush of emotions that seeing someone dressed up as me was actually instilling, but still. I wasn’t going to let all that confusion bring me down, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to let it affect everyone else. Forcing a bit of brightness into my voice, I replied, “Just feels a little weird, that’s all.” 

“Tell me about it,” she replied, looking past me. Her voice sounded a little strained. 

Turning, I saw another person cosplaying. This one was dressed up as her. Except–uhh, well, it was a version of her that was about six years older and much more developed. Seeing that made me do a double-take, eyes widening a bit behind the helmet. “Oh, uhh, wow.” 

Making a noise in the back of her throat, Izzy managed a weak, “Uh huh.” 

The whole thing was so much to take in. We started walking, keeping together as a group while trying to see everything we could, and it was just… a lot. There were more people dressed up like us, including several in Alloy-like armor, which really threw Peyton for a loop despite hearing about it ahead of time from Lucent. Apparently she hadn’t really believed him, because now she kept rambling about how she’d barely done anything and only just started so why would anyone have a costume of her already and so on and so forth. I could tell she was just as delighted as she was confused, continually looking that way while Amber informed her (with more than a little amusement) that it didn’t take people long to put together costumes when they put their minds to it. Especially when those costumes were either super easy (like mine) or very visually neat (like Alloy). 

“Besides,” I put in as we all stood next to a booth selling funnel cakes shaped like various Touched, “like Lucent said, you have multiple sets of armor, so if they don’t like one of your looks, they can always just use a different one.” 

Amber was nodding. “Yeah, and think of the merchandising. You could have a whole group of action figures just made up of the different versions of your armor you’ve used.” 

Snorting, Peyton waved that off at first. “Yeah, sure, like people would actually make action fig–what?” She gave a double-take, staring at That-A-Way. “What’re you–” 

“Come on.” Amber nodded for the rest of us to follow before starting to head through the crowd once more. “There’s some more you should see.”  

We all exchanged glances, before Izzy reached out to gently catch Fragile by the elbow to get her attention as the other girl had been distractedly watching a guy dressed up as Big Top (a circus-themed Star-Touched from Chicago) juggling while riding a unicycle around in a circle. Once she was with us once more, the four of us headed off after Way. 

“Hey!” Someone else dressed up like–well, me waved as he passed. The guy looked more like a version of me who had been hitting the gym pretty regularly. “Nice one, dude.” He gave me a thumbs up. “You almost look perfect. Helmet’s a little off though. The visor part should be wider, and the gloves are all wrong. But hey, super-close.” 

Having no idea how to react to that, I belatedly managed a weak, “Uhh, thanks, I tried to go as authentic as possible.” 

My taller, athletic male duplicate cheerfully replied, “Solid effort, dude. And hey, you even brought the sidekick.” His focus shifted briefly to Alloy with an approving nod. “If you guys get a chance, you should stop by the photo booth over there in like an hour.” He waved to the far side of the room. “We’re gonna get everyone dressed up like those two.” His hand gestured to encompass Alloy and me. “You know, take a big group photo and blow it up. One of the guys around here thinks he can get the real Paintball and Alloy to sign it. Wouldn’t that be wild?” 

Coughing despite myself, I gave a quick nod while thanking the fact that I didn’t have to try to keep a straight face. “Sure does, totally wild. We’ll try to be there.” 

As he headed off, I found myself looking at Alloy with a mumbled, “Pretty crazy, huh?” 

She, in turn, looked me up and down a bit before dryly retorting, “Do I know you? I mean, you can’t be my partner. Your gloves are wrong and the visor isn’t wide enough.” 

“Ha ha, hilarious.” Rolling my eyes, I pivoted back to where Amber was waiting. “What’d you wanna show us?” 

“This,” she replied before extending a hand. I had just enough time to see some sort of oversized glove of her own before a stream of liquid shot at me. No, not liquid. Paint. There was a button on the palm of the glove she had put on, and when she pressed it, blue paint shot out in a stream before hitting my chest. 

“What th–” Blinking down, I stared at the splotch of blue. 

“Don’t worry, it washes out,” Amber informed me, before pulling the glove off. “Right, Andy?” 

The man she was talking to was a few inches over six feet tall, though pretty scrawny. He had a long graying-blond beard and a nearly bald head. When Amber addressed him, the man gave a little nod. “That’s right. Don’t even need to scrub very hard, it’ll come right out with no stain. And it’s non-toxic. See?” He held up his own hand with one of the gloves on and squirted the stuff right into his own mouth. Which was… sure something. 

Grimacing after that, he admitted, “Doesn’t taste great. But it’s not poisonous. Believe me, that was our big thing if we’re gonna let kids run around with these. It had to be easy to clean up, and it couldn’t hurt them if they swallowed it.” 

“Uh, we?” I blinked at that, feeling slightly confused and overwhelmed by all this. 

Turning, the man gestured up at a sign hanging over his booth that read ‘Andy And Patsy’s Toy Box.’ After giving us a chance to read it, he added, “Lots of people in this line of work get a bit uppity when you call them toys, but we know what we’re doing. And we try to aim a bit lower with a lot of our stuff. That’s our rules, everything we put out has to be safe for a kid to play with. I mean, within reason, you know? We’ve got our toddler-line, but for the most part it’s about eight and up. Nice outfit by the way. Looks almost perfect, except–” 

“I know, visor’s too small and the gloves aren’t right.” Getting that out, I extended a hand toward Amber before checking out the glove as she handed it to me. “How’d you put this together?” 

“Check just inside the opening, under the little flap there.” Andy advised. I did, and found a half dozen slots holding tiny vials with different colored liquid inside. The vials were only about the size of somewhat large pills. As I was looking at them, he explained, “There’s only enough liquid in each of those vials for one spray unless you hook them up to this.” He showed us a small water bottle-like device with a clear plastic tube attached. “If you hook this onto your belt and run the tube up under your shirt and through your sleeve, you can attach it to the base of the glove right there, where the vials are hooked in. Then when you push the button on the palm, it’ll pull water up through the tube, color it with whatever vial you’ve got it set to, and shoot for as long as you have water and anything left in the vial to color it. Pretty neat, huh?” 

My mouth opened and shut a bit before I gave a slow nod, staring at the glove in my hand. “Really neat.” Shaking off the confused feelings, I looked up once more and continued. “Seriously, that’s cool.” 

The man beamed with delight. “I just wish I could get hold of the guy himself so I could make these things be certified.” 

“Certified?” I echoed. “Oh, that’s where the Touched it’s umm, based on or whatever signs off on it, right?” 

His head bobbed. “Yeah, see, these things can be bootleg, which means no one’s approved them. Most people won’t buy bootleg, and you can get in trouble. They can be registered, which means the authorities know about it and they’ve passed safety inspections and all that, which means some of the proceeds go toward the Fund.” 

The Fund, of course, was money that went toward rebuilding places and people damaged by Touched battles, especially Collision Points. Every country who had a member within Armistice contributed to it through taxes (especially those on Touched merchandise) among other things. 

Andy was still talking. “And those who get the actual Touched in person to approve it have the stuff certified.” 

“Which means that Touched gets a percentage of the proceeds too,” Amber informed us. “Usually like fifteen percent, same as the Fund gets. We Minority people have ten percent go to our college fund and get to keep five as part of our salary.” 

Andy started to nod, before giving a double-take. “Wait, we Minority people? Hang on–are you–wait–” He was starting to realize. 

“It’s pretty loud in here,” I put in. “Why don’t we take a little walk, Andy? I’ve got a friend who’s really into building some neat stuff.

“And I’m pretty sure she would love to get some advice from you on how to sell it.” 

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Interlude 16A – Reunions 1 (Heretical Edge 2)

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The Olympus was docked with the Star Station. With the shields from the station extended over the old ship, it was protected in the middle of the sun, safe from any detection. Normally, it would have taken a lot more effort to set the ship up in a way to accept the Star Station’s shields like that, but her temporary crew had been working hard to create a few modular systems that allowed the Olympus to seamlessly plug itself into the station and accept that protection. 

They had all built the system in the time the Olympus had been traveling. But only one of them had designed it. One of them had developed the plans necessary to protect the ship like that. 

Spark. At least, that was what she was called now. She was the daughter who had been taken away from Sariel so long ago. She was the one whose brilliance had helped put the ship back together, the one who designed the system which helped the Olympus get past the Seosten barrier, as well as the one that allowed the ship to safely dock here at the Sun Station. She was the one who had designed the prototype teleporting ship whose existence had saved Puriel from being taken over by the Whispers, thus saving everyone else on that ship. And, by extension, most likely the rest of the universe.  

She was the one who had done all of that. She was the one whom Sariel herself was staring at from the doorway into a small meeting room just off the side of the Olympus’s primary cargo bay. The ship was docked, others were taking care of important things as far as dealing with finding out what the Whispers were attempting to do. Which left Sariel standing in that doorway, looking at the daughter she had lost so long ago. 

And she wasn’t alone. Sitting beside his sister was the other child who had been ripped away from Sariel. The one who was called Omni. Where Spark had long hair fashioned in a tight braid with alternating blonde and black hair, Omni had shaggy brown hair. He was the youngest here, a year younger than Tabbris, where Spark was a year older. Neither of them were looking toward their mother. They held hands, gazes locked onto the floor.  

Puriel was there too, sitting in a far corner of the room without moving. Like the children, he made no move to look at Sariel when she entered, despite all of them clearly knowing she was here and who she was. He was instead staring at a holographic screen that had been projected in front of him, reading up on something. 

For a few long moments, the woman stood there in the doorway, gaze passing over the group. So many thoughts went through her mind in those moments that she had no idea what to say or do. She felt frozen in place, realizing belatedly that Puriel was intentionally keeping himself out of the way and ‘distracted’ to give her the opportunity to make the first move, the first decision. He had been their leader for so long, and had tried to control everything she did, that sitting there doing nothing was the best way he had to show her that he would not try to control things anymore. He wasn’t approaching her, wasn’t loudly greeting the woman and introducing her to the children, her own children. He was giving her the opportunity to decide how this whole thing would go. 

After those first few frozen moments, Sariel pushed herself out of the doorway. Silently, she approached the pair of children sitting in the middle of the room. Once she was directly in front of the two, Sariel slowly took a knee. Without speaking just yet, she reached out to put her own hand on top of the two they were holding clasped together. One hand from each of them, brother, sister, and mother. Still, none of them spoke. They stayed like that for a minute, as Sariel absorbed the pure, wondrous joy she felt at the simple fact that she was there with them. A shudder of emotion ran through her, and she slowly lifted her other hand, reaching out to very tentatively brush her fingers through her son’s hair. A soft whimper escaped the woman at the feel of it, her fingers trailing down his cheek as the boy squirmed uncertainly. The lump in her throat grew thicker as she moved her hand over to the girl sitting beside him. Or at least the image of the girl. Sariel knew that what she was seeing there was a solid hologram, projected from Puriel’s power. But that didn’t matter. None of that mattered. For all intents and purposes, Sariel’s daughter was right there. Yes, her skin and hair felt a little too solid and warm, but it was her. It was her mind, her thoughts, her soul. She was there. They were both there

It was that thought which finally broke through the lump in Sariel’s throat, bringing forth her first words to them. “My babies.” There were tears in her eyes. “My… you…” Her eyes closed tightly and she gave a heavy shudder as the emotions from this reunion became too much to handle in that moment. These two had been ripped away from her such traumatic times, and she had been convinced for so long that they were either dead or… or so far gone she would never see them again. To be right here with them now was more than she ever thought she would get. That joy mixed with the heavy emotions that came from thinking about losing them in the first place became too much to handle. Her eyes were tightly shut as she held one hand against the slightly too-warm face of her missing daughter. Tears escaped to fall slowly down her face. 

Then she felt it, a small hand touching the side of her face to gently brush tears away. As her eyes opened, Sariel saw her son sitting there with his hand extended. His gaze met hers, voice small and vulnerable. “We can leave if it makes you sad, Mother.” 

“Oh Void. Oh no.” That was enough. Sariel reached up to take her son’s hand, squeezing it while shaking her head. “No baby, you don’t make me sad.” Her voice cracked through the words. “You don’t make me sad at all. Losing you is what made me sad. Seeing you right now, you are so–you’re my little boy. You’re my boy. And I just–I just think about all the time I missed with you, because I couldn’t protect you.” 

With that, she moved her other hand over to cup the side of Spark’s face. Her touch made the girl start a little bit, reluctantly raising her gaze to meet her mother’s. The two of them locked eyes for a moment before Sariel found her voice once more. “I am so sorry, my sweet, incredible babies. I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you.” As she spoke, her fingers moved back to brush through that holographic hair. “You are so brave, so brilliant, so… incredible. Both of you.” Her eyes moved back and forth between them. “I love you, both of you. You are both so… amazing.”

“I am not what you want,” Spark spoke, her own voice cracking just a bit as she met her mother’s gaze somewhat reluctantly. “I am Mendacia. I am not what you would hope for.” 

“No,” Sariel informed her in a quiet, yet firm voice. “You are so much more than I could ever have hoped for. You are everything I ever wanted you to be and more. So much more. You are a brilliant, brave girl who does the right thing. You try. You take care of the people you love. That’s what matters to me. That’s what you are, what you will always be, my child.” 

There was a very brief pause then before she thought of the next most important thing for her daughter to hear. “Your name… your name is what you want it to be. Your name has been Spark, and that is who you are. I will use any name you like. That is your choice. But I want you to know… to know the name I gave you.” 

A confused frown found its way to the girl’s face as she shook her head. “You knew I was Mendacia. You would have given me no name.”   

“Yes, she would have.” That was Puriel, speaking up without looking that way. His voice was rough, cracking a little. “Your mother would have given you a name before you were taken.” 

Sariel, gaze passing over the man as a rush of very conflicting emotions ran through her, turned her attention back to her daughter. “Your name is Spark. It is a brilliant name for a brilliant girl. But you are also Korsmea. My… my mother’s name. I gave it to you as soon as I knew about your condition. Because I love you both, and I always will. No condition is going to change that. Not my mother’s memory problems, and not… anything that might change how your possession power works. You are my daughter. I love you. Whatever you call yourself, whoever you are attached to, wherever you go and whatever you do, I love you. You are Spark. You are Korsmea. You are my daughter. I love everything you are.” 

Even as she finished saying that, Sariel was tugging the girl off her seat and pulling her into a tight embrace, crushing her against herself. She hugged her daughter tightly, before looking toward the boy. “And you are Omni. You are everything. You can be anything you want to be. But you should also know the name I gave you. You are Omni, and you are also Jehoel. That is the name of Apollo’s father, the man who took me in as a child and cared for me when nothing forced him to do so. I named Spark Korsmea in honor of the woman who could not always be my mother. And I named you Jehoel in honor of the man who took it upon himself to be as much of a father to me as he could.” 

Her eyes moved back and forth between the two with deep, tender affection. “You are Spark and Omni.” Her arm moved to pull the boy up as well, tugging him right up against herself to crush both of them in as tight of a hug as she could manage. “You are Korsmea and Jehoel. I love you both no matter what you call yourselves. I love you more than I could ever tell you. 

“You are my children, and nothing will ever change that.” 

******

Ten minutes later, Tabbris stood outside the room. She wasn’t quite in the doorway, huddled in on herself with her arms folded around her special fish bowl. When she had run to the house to get it, all Tabbris had been able to think about was sharing a look at her fish friends with her new siblings. But now, standing here in this moment, she couldn’t shake the feeling that it was dumb. What if they hated fish? What if  they thought it was silly? Why did she run all that way to bring the fish bowl back instead of just focusing on meeting them in person for the first time? What if they thought she was showing off? Dumb, dumb, it was dumb. She shouldn’t have brought it. Maybe she should run back and put it away, or find someone who could hold the bowl for her. Or–

“Hey, Tabs, you okay?” 

It was Tristan, standing there with Vanessa. As her older siblings, the ones she already knew quite well, stood in the hall next to her, Tabbris swallowed hard. Her voice was a whisper as she hesitantly admitted, “I don’t know if I should take this in.” 

Tristan exchanged a glance with his twin before taking a knee next to Tabbris. “Well, the fish are your friends, right?” 

“And you want them to meet your friends,” Vanessa continued, taking a knee as well. 

Gulping, Tabbris gave a slow nod, taking a moment to find her voice. “But what if they don’t like them?” 

Another brief, silent glance passed between the twins before Tristan spoke with a shrug. “Vanessa doesn’t like everything I do. And I don’t like everything she does. Cuz we’re different people.” 

“Very different,” Vanessa confirmed. “But no matter how many things he likes that I don’t, he’s always going to be my brother. And I’m always going to love him. Even when he ticks me off.” She gave him a quick look at that, squinting briefly before turning back to the younger girl. “Maybe they’ll like your fish and maybe they won’t. But the point is, liking those fish is who you are. And you shouldn’t hide that. Because they’ll love you, just like we do.” 

Tristan nodded, reaching out to touch her shoulder. “Tabs, siblings don’t always get along or like the same things. But you’ll always be siblings. That’s what matters. Trust us on that.” 

Before Tabbris could say anything else, or even think much about what her older siblings had said, a voice called from within the room. “Kids, you can come in now.” 

Hearing her mother’s words, the young girl froze up briefly. She blinked down into the magic fish bowl, seeing several of her little aquatic friends swimming around in the much-larger pool within. “Sorry, guys,” she whispered to them, “if this is dumb, it’s my fault, not yours.” 

With that, she took a deep breath, held the bowl closer to herself, and nodded to Vanessa and Tristan. Together, the three of them stepped through the doorway. 

Immediately, they saw their mother and two new siblings sitting in the middle of the room. A moment of quite emotional silence passed before the trio began to walk once more. They crossed the distance quickly, despite walking slowly to take in the sight of the other two for as long as possible. Before they knew it, all five were arranged in a circle with their mother standing a bit to the side, watching them silently. 

Of all of them, it was Sariel’s youngest son who spoke first. “Hi,” he started in a quiet voice. “I… I’m..” He glanced at their mother as though searching for her strength, then turned back to them and straightened up a bit. “I don’t want to be everything. It’s… too much. I’m–I want to be Jehoel. I mean, I am Jehoel.” 

“I’m Spark,” the blonde-black-haired girl declared. Immediately after spitting that out, she gave their mother a quick glance. “I mean, I can be Korsmea too. Spark Korsmea. I’m okay with that. I can be both. But I want to stay Spark. I can’t forget that. I won’t.” 

“You don’t have to,” Sariel assured her, voice soft as she reached out to touch the girl’s solid-light shoulder. “No one is ever going to make you forget where you came from or what you’ve been through. You are whatever you want to be, now and forever.” 

From there, the other three introduced themselves to their new siblings. Tristan boasted about how cool it was to finally have a brother to help him with all the girls, before immediately launching into a discussion about the pranks he had pulled on Vanessa. Despite the protests from his twin about not corrupting their new brother, the two boys were almost immediately whispering and snickering into each other’s ears. 

That, of course, led Vanessa to start whispering to her two sisters. Soon, they were all teasing one another with those whispers, some speaking just loudly enough to be overheard by the others in order to prompt aghast protests. Eventually, Spark asked what Tabbris was holding, and the girl tentatively, nervously introduced her fish, holding up the bowl. 

Spark and Jehoel were immediately interested, the latter more so. The boy kept asking what the different fish were named, and what type they were. He asked what they liked to eat, where she had gotten them, where they liked to live, anything and everything. Tabbris, of course, had answers for every question, and had soon gotten over her nervousness to proudly talk about her aquatic friends. 

And through it all, Sariel stood back to watch. Her hand covered her mouth to contain the vocal reaction that came as she stared at her children interacting with one another. She didn’t want to say anything, she couldn’t say anything. Not without disturbing them and breaking the spell that had come over the room as soon as the five siblings began to truly interact for the first time in their lives. Five of her children were there. All save for… all save for the one she had created without knowing what she was doing. The child who had never been intended as one, yet was suddenly so important. 

Someday, somehow, she would bring the orb she had created back to this world, and let all of her children be together. It was impossible to do now without endangering the universe that her other child had created. 

And that in and of itself was more than Sariel could even try to comprehend. The spell she had created had become sapient and was even now in that other universe, searching for her. But if she went to her immediately, the result would be catastrophic. No matter how much she wanted to find this incredible… magic daughter, they had to be incredibly careful about it, or risk accidentally destroying everything that magic daughter had built. 

But she wouldn’t forget her. Even standing here, watching her five incredible children finally meet, Sariel promised herself that she would never forget there was one more out there. And someday, somehow, she would bring her back too. No matter how she had first come about, she was still her child. And Sariel would never give up until she had finally put her family together. All of them. 

From there, with that thought in mind, the woman turned her head. Her gaze found its way to the man who sat silently in the corner, who had been sitting there the whole time and had only spoken up once. All without ever looking that way. 

For a moment, Sariel simply stood there, watching the man while listening to the sound of her children talking. A rush of thoughts and feelings worked their way through her, as she gave a little shudder before managing to focus. One more thing mattered right then, one very important thing that had to happen. 

She took a step, only to find herself facing Spark as she transported her holographic body directly in front of her. Hands raised, the girl met her mother’s gaze while speaking firmly. “Mother, he saved me. I know he did bad things. I know he hurt you, and… and the others.” She glanced back toward her siblings, who were all watching. “But he saved me. I am only here because of him. I was… nothing.” 

Swallowing hard, Sariel reached out, hand cupping the girl’s face. “No matter what Kushiel may have called you, I promise, you were never nothing.” She paused then, meeting the girl’s gaze before giving a very slight nod. “But you’re right, he saved you. I won’t forget that.” Leaning in, Sariel gently kissed her holographic forehead, voice tender. “Give me a minute, okay? It will be okay, I promise.” 

After a brief hesitation, Spark glanced to Puriel and then back to Sariel before giving a nod. Once more, she vanished, reappearing by her siblings. 

Which left Sariel standing there, watching the man who had affected her family so much, for both good and ill. Taking a breath, she took several more steps, putting herself directly in front of where he was sitting. 

Finally, Puriel raised his eyes to meet her gaze. Visibly swallowing, he spoke very softly. “Hello, Sariel.” 

She didn’t respond, not at first in any case. Instead, the woman stood, watching him as she fought to sort through her feelings. Several long, silent seconds passed before she finally spoke. “Hello, Puriel.” Another long pause filled the air, then, “You didn’t listen.” 

“No,” Puriel agreed as his voice cracked slightly. “I did not listen to you, or to others. I…” The words caught in his throat, before he managed to force them out. “I owe you a greater apology than I could ever give. I owe–”

“No,” Sariel interrupted immediately, her own voice cracking as well as she cut in. “You–the things I… the things that happened were-” She stopped, eyes closing briefly. So many emotions were running through the woman that she could barely hold herself together, could barely stand there. “You helped tear my family apart. I can never forget that.” 

As Puriel’s gaze fell, Sariel reached out, her hand catching his in a firm, almost too-tight grip. “But–” Her voice broke, forcing the woman to take a moment before she could speak again. “But you also helped put it back together. You saved my daughter, and my son. And for that, even if I can’t forget what you did… I can forgive it.” 

She gave a tug, pulling the man to his feet to stand in front of her while speaking in a soft whisper. “I forgive you, Puriel.” 

It took the man several tries to find his voice, eyes flooding with tears as he stared at her as though incapable of finding the right words. Finally, all he could manage was a weak, “Thank you.” 

“Thank you,” she returned, “for my children. But… I think you have your own daughter to go see right now. 

“And she has been waiting to speak with you for quite some time.”  

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Equal And Opposite 21-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Dad’s speech didn’t go on for very long. Which made sense, he was kind of an expert at reading a room and knowing just how much to talk. This audience consisted of a bunch of people who were all important in their own rights, and were also waiting to eat. If he had gone on too much, he would’ve annoyed them. So, he just propped up their egos a bit with a few words about how special they were and how wonderful it was that they gave so much back to the city. And, of course, a bit about how vital the work the Seraphs did was when it came to protecting the hospitals. Soothe the sense of self-importance the rich people in this place had by talking about how the city was only doing as well as it was because of them, and then make it clear (in a subtle, encouraging way) that the Seraphs and other Star-Touched teams were largely responsible for keeping the city safe so the investments these people put into it could pan out.

He said all that in very few words, while somehow making it sound and look as though he was talking to each person individually. He didn’t call anyone by name, but he met people’s gazes and gave that… that special smile that made it seem like he knew everything about you, like you were both sharing some sort of private moment even though there were plenty of other people around. The room was full of men and women who were accustomed to being the most important people around, yet my father’s speech, short as it was, made them feel it in a totally different way. And he did it while actually being the richest person in the room himself. 

I had seen my father’s speeches before, but never exactly like this. Not from this perspective, and not… not knowing what I knew. It made the whole thing even more impressive somehow. My father wasn’t just obscenely rich, he was also one of the most powerful Touched in the country and ran an organization that controlled all crime in one of that country’s biggest cities. He was, inarguably, the most powerful man in the room. But no one would know that just from listening to the way he spoke just then. He made everyone else seem important without putting anyone down. He built people up, he–yeah. No wonder my dad was such a successful businessman.

In any case, the point was that he didn’t talk for too long. Soon, there were waiters going around asking what people wanted to eat, while the band started up in the background. A few couples started to dance, but mostly people got ready for food. Especially at this table. Not that we saw very much of each other. As the waiters began to spread out and take people’s orders, privacy screens rose around us. There was the main privacy screen, a square that rose up around the table blocking any of the other people from seeing us, while remaining transparent from our side so that we could see others. Then there were also the individual privacy screens that rose up around each of our spots so we couldn’t see each other and could eat without giving away our identities. They were like the ones back at Caishen’s place, extending back a bit off the table on either side. You could put the screen back down if you wanted to, or combine them so that the people immediately surrounding you who knew your identity already were included. Obviously, I left mine up. Then again, I also didn’t remove the mask entirely. I just slid the front of the helmet up and pulled the mask high enough to uncover my mouth so I could eat. 

Call me paranoid, but I wasn’t going to take that sort of risk around here. Not with my parents and undoubtedly plenty of their minions in the room. And that wasn’t even counting anyone else who might have interest in finding out people’s real identities. 

Beside me, Peyton didn’t totally uncover herself either. She looked around a bit and considered, before simply reshaping the helmet around her face so that her mouth could be seen. Then she leaned closer to me while whispering, “They aren’t gonna serve food with like fifteen different forks and then tar and feather us for not knowing which one goes with the salad, are they?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” Dynamic spoke up from where she was sitting, hidden behind her own screen, “we’ve been going to plenty more of these than you and we still don’t know which fork goes with what. But the secret is, they’re all too afraid of us to actually speak up and say anything about it.” 

Clearing her throat a bit, Brumal put in, “I believe the more important thing is that they can’t see how you’re eating, so there’s no complaint to make. But either way, don’t worry about it.” Her voice softened slightly, as I saw just enough of the top of her head to know that she was looking toward Alloy and me. “No one who matters is going to give you a hard time about what utensils you use.” 

“And if they try,” Amber put in, “just tell them where to shove it.” 

“Please don’t tell the financial backers to shove anything into any place,” Brumal pleaded, her head turning to give a look toward That-A-Way. “They are not that hard to ignore without causing a scene, believe me.” 

By that point, the waitress had arrived at our table (standing far enough back that she wouldn’t be able to see anyone’s face over the screens) and listed what was available. She proceeded to take everyone’s order, and even spent a minute explaining what different foods were past the fancy names for the benefit of the others. And technically mine too, since I wasn’t supposed to know what they were either. I tried to play as clueless as possible, asking easy questions. 

Once everything was ordered and the waitress had stepped away, the conversation turned toward the gang war. It seemed like everyone sitting there had a particular story to tell about something bad that had happened through it. They had saved plenty of people, of course. But there were others who had died or at least been injured, had their property destroyed, and so on. Every Touched sitting at that table had a story about watching someone lose, if not their life, then things that mattered deeply to them. 

Peyton and I glanced toward one another. I had lowered the screen between the two of us, since I still had most of my face covered anyway. Our eyes met, and I could see how troubled she was. It probably reflected back from my own gaze to her. We were both thinking about the Ministry, and how they could stop this war if they really wanted to. And about Pack. Yes, she was right about the fact that she couldn’t do anything to stop the war, but she also helped participate in it. Even if she personally avoided hurting innocent people, how much did her teammates? How much–urgh. Between her and Eits, I felt very uncomfortable about the whole situation. Hell, even Broadway. From what I’d seen of the girl, I liked her. That was my biggest problem with this whole situation. So many of the people I would have thought I was adamantly against were more likable than they should have been. It was my problem with my family, with Blackjack and the rest of La Casa, even with Deicide. 

It was all just so complicated. If only they could all be more like Cuélebre. At least I could be pretty sure that he didn’t have some special backstory that would make me sympathize with him or anything. Although, now that I actually thought that, it would probably turn out that his entire criminal Empire was built up to take care of a hospital full of injured orphan puppies or something.

Okay, yeah, that wasn’t very likely. But still, I was starting to think that everyone had their own understandable reasons for being involved in bad stuff. Well, except for the Scions. I was pretty sure there was no amount of tragic backstory or mitigating circumstances that could come close to excusing the things they had done. 

By that point, the waitress was coming back with a tray of drinks. As she approached, the privacy shield extended up and over our heads making it totally cover the table so she couldn’t see anyone’s face. Which made me wonder briefly how she would put the drinks down without dropping them, but maybe there was some sort of… thing? Curious, I stood a bit and looked down. Sure enough, the table was visible. The screen specifically only scrambled the appearances of people within it. Looking at the table itself was a bit like looking through an actual window screen. A bit distorted, but still plenty visible. But when I looked over at Peyton, her face (with the helmet still covering most of it anyway) was incredibly blurry and smudged. 

“Is everything alright?” A familiar voice spoke up nearby, and my head snapped that way. Immediately, I realized two things. First, this was not the same waitress who had taken our order. The one who would come with the drinks was different. And second, I knew her. Actually, I knew her fairly well, considering I saw her practically every day. 

Christiana Diaz. The thin, young Latina woman who worked as one of Chef Claudio’s assistants. I’d recognize her anywhere, considering one of the things we had in common was our height. She was only an inch taller than my five foot zero. And that wasn’t the end of our similarities. Christiana had the same ‘look younger than she really was’ thing I did, given she was actually twenty-two but looked more like she was in her late teens. She wore her hair short on the sides with a mop of curls on top. 

So, I recognized her instantly. A rush of thoughts went through my mind, and it took basically everything I had not to blurt her name in surprise. Boy would that have been hard to explain. But somehow, I managed to shove the reaction down and simply put all my surprise into a gasp before giving a sharp exhale that turned into as much of a laugh as I could manage. “Oh! Damn, sorry. You uhh, you sure you’re not a ninja? You kinda snuck up there.” 

There was a very brief pause before Christiana giggled and shook her head. “No, no, sorry. It’s my fault. I keep saying I should put some little bells on this outfit.” With a wink, she added, “Can I help you with anything, sir?” 

The lower half of my face was exposed. She could see my mouth. Did she know my face well enough to recognize me from not? No, of course not. That was ridiculous. And yet, I almost couldn’t stop myself from reaching up to pull the mask down. That would have been even more suspicious, of course. But it was still almost impossibly tempting. 

Shoving that impulse down as hard as I could, I gave a quick shake of my head. “Nah, nah.  It’s all good. I was just seeing how the–you know, what the screen–what it looked like.” I was babbling, and I was saying too much. I needed to stop talking. The more things I said, the more likely she would figure out who I really was. I had to give her as little to work with as possible. So, I want my mouth shut after saying all that, before reaching out. “Oh, uh, I’ll take ours.” 

There was a brief pause before Christiana nodded, carefully turning the tray and extending it so I could take the glasses meant for Alloy and me. Mumbling a thanks, I sat down and gave my partner her drink. 

Peyton, of course, was staring at me. “Are you okay?” she asked in a whisper that was barely audible. “You seemed a little… uhh, not.” 

Taking a gulp of my drink, I quickly shook my head. “It’s fine, I’m fine. It’s just … different being in a place like this, you know?” 

That seemed to do the trick. The other girl achieved a sigh while nodding almost frantically. “Believe me, I know what you mean. It’s so weird being here with all these rich people who wouldn’t even notice if they ran over me in the street.” 

Amber made a noise in the back of her throat, and I winced at Peyton’s choice of words. But I couldn’t exactly explain why it was the wrong thing to say. Instead, I simply replied in a low voice, “Some of them would notice.” 

That started even more discussion around the table, centered around celebrities and rich people they had worked with, saved, or whatever. It was a mix of horror stories and nice ones, even a couple bits about celebrities who I thought would be real pains in the ass ending up actually sounding pretty cool. Which didn’t exactly prove they were nice to everyone, given who these people were, but still. 

Honestly, once I got past my surprise of being served by Christiana (she also brought our food), and the fact that my parents were on the other side of the room, it was… nice. I was able to just sit there and listen to more experienced Touched tell stories and exchange inside jokes. Sure, I didn’t get all their references, but they tried to explain it as much as they could. And even aside from that, it was just cool to sit and listen to these guys talk about fights they’d been in, people they had saved, villains they fought, it was… it was actually one of the first times I really felt like a part of this community.  

That wasn’t exactly a good thing, of course. I wasn’t a part of their community. I couldn’t be. I couldn’t trust all of them. For all I knew, half the people at this table worked for the Ministry in one way or another, even if they didn’t really know it. No matter how welcoming they seemed, I couldn’t let myself forget that fact. I could talk with them, even work with them, but I couldn’t entirely trust every single one of them. And that meant I couldn’t entirely trust any of the people here aside from Peyton. 

Well, and aside from Amber and Izzy, of course. They were a different story, and I was incredibly lucky that I had them as a connection to the Minority. For a brief moment, I tried to think of how this whole situation would have played out if I didn’t know who those two really were. It wasn’t a very fun thought. Actually, come to think of it, I might have been too paranoid to even come if I didn’t have those two helping. 

In any case, I was silent through most of the rest of the meal, content to simply sit there and listen as the others went on. And from the looks that Peyton gave me once in awhile,  she was enjoying herself too. We both sat there listening to the stories, feeling a bit like we had been given a backstage pass or something. Which was weird, given we were technically, like, one of the bands, to stretch the analogy. But still, it was just different somehow. Sitting here, listening to the far-more-experienced people trade war stories, made the whole thing more real. 

It helped that the food was pretty good. Or, if you listened to Peyton go on, it was completely amazing. She finished off her entire plate, and then a second one when Christiana came by to ask if anyone wanted more. It honestly just tasted like the food we had at home, but then, I supposed that made sense. If Christiana was here, maybe Claudio was too. He had, after all, been the head chef of a five star restaurant before my parents snatched him up. 

As dinner was winding down, we had another speech to sit through, but this one I didn’t mind too much. It was Radiant, standing right up there on stage to talk about how important Detroit and its Touched-Tech factories were to the nation at large, and how proud everyone here should be about how much the city had been turned around in the past couple of decades. It was no secret that Detroit hadn’t been in the best of shape before the whole Touched thing came around, but now we were one of the strongest, most economically sound cities in the country. Not to mention one of the fastest growing, to an absurd degree. The people who had come to the city and invested in that growth had a lot to do with that, and most of them were sitting in this room. Radiant basically told them to give themselves a pat on the back for that. 

At least, that’s how it started. And clearly it was where the rich people in the room expected it to stay. But before long, the woman shifted her focus a bit. She went from talking about these important, wealthy people giving so much to the city to talking about the city itself, and the people in it. And almost before anyone realized the subject had changed at all, suddenly Radiant was talking about how the people in the city were the ones who really changed it. The people here had benefited a lot, and their influx of money helped give the place the jumpstart it needed. But no amount of money-fueled jumpstarts would have accomplished anything if it wasn’t for the people who lived here, the ones out on the street doing the work every day. 

It was kind of amazing to sit there and watch, because it wasn’t that she insulted or demeaned the rich people in the room. No, she propped them up just fine. She gave them their dues. But she also pulled other people up, putting them on an equal level with the millionaires and billionaires (and even the Touched) in this room. She lifted everyone up, noting the importance of each contribution. She wasn’t denouncing the rich people while making some stand for the little guy. She had started by propping up the people in this room, making it that much harder for them to disagree or be offended when she brought the rest of the population up to the same level. 

Leaning a bit closer to Peyton without taking my eyes off the woman on stage, I whispered, “If I was the type of person to be interested in someone older than me, I might be in love.”

“Oh, believe me,” she replied in a hushed voice, also without looking away from Radiant, “you’re not the only one.”

With a chuckle, Wobble spoke up. “Sorry, you guys. We’re pretty sure she’s already spoken for.” 

Amber was nodding. “We’re not sure by who, but we’ve seen her with a wedding ring. So, you know, you’re kind of late for that train.” After a brief pause, she added, “And I don’t think you meet the age requirement.” 

After Peyton and I both made a show of snapping our fingers in disappointment, our attention turned back to the woman in question as we listened to the rest of her spiel. She made it clear through all of it that the people in this room needed to keep contributing to the overall benefit of the city if they wanted it to continue to thrive, pointing out the forces that were already trying to drag it down. She talked about how Star-Touched chose to use our powers to help people, and that those with resources like these people possessed had the same responsibility. And yet, it wasn’t like she was shaming them or anything. The way she phrased it made it sound as though she was proud of the opportunity these people had, going on a bit about how they could have everything they wanted while still contributing to raising the standard of living for everyone in the city. 

It was more than a little impressive, made even more so for how relatively short it was. She didn’t talk for very long before simply promising that she would be keeping an eye on things here to see how California could incorporate the incredible ideas that they came up with, and bring some of those ideas…. and the people involved, to projects in her own state. 

So there it was, the biggest crux of her speech. She wasn’t just praising these people for the work they could do here, she was essentially saying that she would be keeping an eye on the city and the people she liked would get her recommendation for all-new projects in California. How much money would that be worth? A lot, to say the least. Without actually shaming anyone, Radiant told these people that she expected them to look after the regular population, and that those who did would be rewarded with enormous new contracts. 

As she left the stage and the music picked up, we watched more couples move to the dance floor. Including my parents. I was focused on staring at them while trying not to look like I was staring at them, when Amber reached over to touch my hand through the privacy screen. “Hey,” she started, “you wanna go down with us to check out the convention floor? I’ve gotta see if there’s more people dressed up as you or Whamline. 

“And it better be you, or I owe him fifty bucks.” 

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