Aikawa Inari

Dig In 22-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“That son of a bitch!” Amber’s words were accompanied by the sound of her fist slamming down into the wooden table that she, Izzy, and I were sitting at in a corner of the random park I had brought them to so I could explain the whole situation with Benjamin Pittman. We were all dressed in our civilian clothes so we wouldn’t attract attention, though I was pretty sure it wouldn’t matter what we were dressed in if too many people heard that sort of outburst. Thankfully, the park was basically empty at this point. Probably because so many people didn’t feel safe being out on the streets with the war going on. 

Izzy, meanwhile, slumped back on the bench, staring intently off into the distance with her brow furrowed. “Do… do you think he has her? Or did he just get the phone number? Can they tell where the call came from, or from what phone?” 

My head shook. “According to Wren, that’s being blocked on their end just like it’s blocked on ours. Well, not just like. She went into some long technical explanation, but the end result is the same. We don’t know where it’s coming from. It could be the same phone or a different one. She said that maybe she can do something more with the call that comes in tomorrow, but she’s not sure. Depends on how well he or his people are blocking the signal or whatever.” 

Amber was sighing heavily. “I can’t believe after everything you guys did to get Paige’s sister out of danger, now she’s suddenly right in the middle of it.” 

“Yeah…” Trailing off, I looked back and forth between the two of them. I was wondering if either or both of them knew that Irelyn Banners was Flea. So far, they hadn’t reacted as though they did, but maybe they were just extraordinarily good at hiding it. Which I didn’t blame them for. If they did know, they probably saw it as not their place to expose the woman’s identity. Even though it was important information. I was having that same problem. They worked alongside her all the time and if they didn’t know who she was, it was because she didn’t want them to. But on the other hand, if I asked about it, they would know, and I would be taking that choice away from her. Yet on the third hand, knowing who she was could end up being incredibly important in the future if we had to help her. 

I just… I had no idea. Just like talking about my family, bringing up the subject wasn’t something I could do over. It almost makes me wish that my power included the ability to rewind in case I did something wrong. What color paint would that be? 

“Cass?” Amber was looking at me curiously. “Is something wrong? Err, I mean something beyond the obvious.” 

No, I couldn’t talk about it right now. It wasn’t my place to expose who Irelyn really was if they didn’t know. At least not right at this moment. Maybe once we knew more about what was going on, I could make a better decision. If Benjamin Pittman just had the phone number or the phone itself and Irelyn was free, that would be a very different sort of situation than if he or his men had her. Yeah, that was my best move. I would hold off on telling these two the truth about her until I knew more. Which sounded a bit like a cop-out in my head, but what else was I supposed to do? If I flat out told them when I didn’t need to, I would be exposing someone else’s secret identity, and I knew for sure how I would feel if someone did that to me. 

It might turn out that I didn’t have a choice, but for the moment, I wasn’t going to leap that far. So, I shrugged. “There’s a lot of things wrong. And I’m nervous about this whole tunnel thing. It’s a lot more important now, you know? I mean, not that it wasn’t important before, but we need to get done with this. We need to get in there and find a new body for Raige.” 

“She wants to help?” Amber asked, frowning thoughtfully. “I thought she was gonna take her new body and run off on her own.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “I’m pretty sure that was her original plan, but now she wants to deal with their dad. Honestly, I don’t know how much of that is because she cares about Irelyn, and how much is because she’s pissed at Benjamin for betraying and trying to kill her. Maybe six of one, half a dozen of another. But either way, she wants to be involved now. And I’m not going to argue against that, considering we could use all the help we can get.” 

Izzy picked herself up from the table, arms folded against her chest as she turned to look out at the distant street. “Do you think we should move up the plan to get in the base? I mean, we don’t know how long their sister might have, or how much trouble she’s in.” 

I thought about it briefly before shaking my head. “Wren needs all the time she can get to run the suits through last minute checks. She’s already working her butt off. I think she said something about expecting a shipment of important stuff for this sometime today. Whatever it is, I don’t want to stress her out even more by taking a full day away from her. The poor kid needs more time, you know? Tomorrow night is already soon enough.” Wincing at my own words, I amended, “At least, I hope it is.” Thoughts about how guilty I would feel if it turned out that that time had been crucial when this was over ran through my head, but I stuck to it. I was worried about Irelyn, yet if we went rushing in there without everything being ready, we stood a good chance of losing everything. So, hard as it was, we had to just wait, and hope that the woman was okay.

Shaking off those thoughts, I took a deep breath. “And now I have to go spend time with my ex and his new boyfriend so I can try to figure out what either or both of them have to do with my family’s criminal empire.” A brief pause followed before my face twisted. 

“On second thought, maybe going straight into that tunnel and getting into a fight with a bunch of murderers isn’t such a bad plan after all.” 

*******

In the end, of course, I went with the smarter plan, no matter how much it made my stomach twist itself into knots. Part of me wished I could justify making excuses to not show up, but Wren really did need time to finish her thing. And we weren’t even sure if Pack would be able to get away from La Casa today. Not to mention I didn’t want to attract any new problems by changing plans at the last second. Going in half-cocked was a recipe for disaster. 

So, I showed up at the mall food court as planned. I was a few minutes early, and yet I could see Tomas and Maki sitting together at one of the tables, talking and laughing together. It was a sight that made me pause, my stomach trying to do a three-sixty pop shove-it (skateboarding trick) inside my torso. 

I was early. They probably wanted more time alone. I would be interrupting if I went over there. This whole thing was a bad idea, a terrible idea. I should just turn around and walk out. I could call on my way through the parking lot and tell Tomas I couldn’t make it. Even if I didn’t go into the tunnel today, obviously there was other stuff I could do. I could go back and help Wren at the shop. That was even more important than spending time figuring out what was up with Maki, wasn’t it? At the very least, it was of more immediate importance. I wasn’t a technical genius or anything, but I could hold stuff or fetch things for Wren. I could totally help out around there. Yeah, that made sense. Getting everything ready to go into the tunnel was a lot more important right now. There was no need for me to be here, no need for me to–

“Cassie!” Tomas, of course, had noticed me as I stood there indecisively, and was now waving to get my attention. “Over here!” 

Well fuck, now I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t exactly turn around and walk away before calling to make excuses. That probably wouldn’t go over very well. Even if–no, Cassidy. Pushing all such thoughts out of my mind, I took a deep breath and walked that way while forcing a smile that I hoped was at least vaguely convincing. “There you guys are. I thought you’d be a lot harder to find. This place isn’t very busy, huh?” 

Maki had already stood up and turned, tugging a chair out for me. Their gaze met mine with a smile that seemed both genuine and curious. “Good to see you again, Miss Evans.” 

My face twisted once more and I gave a quick, almost frantic headshake while sliding into the chair they had pulled out. “Cassidy. Just Cassidy. Or Cass. Or–whatever. Call me Dumbo for all I care. Just not Miss Evans, nothing like that.” 

“Hey, is that D–” Tomas started. 

“Dumbo is not open to you too,” I retorted before he could continue. “That offer is only open to your better half here.” My head nodded toward Maki before I added, “Maybe I should call him your better three-quarters? How much would you say you’re contributing to this whole thing?” 

“Ouch.” Putting a hand against his heart, Tomas made a show of groaning. “A mortal wound, and only five seconds into the outing. However will I survive the hours ahead of us?” 

“Maybe you won’t,” I primly replied. “Maybe you’ll die, and then your boyfriend and I can have all the fun we were all gonna have today but for two-thirds of the cost.” 

Yeah, I had no idea how I managed to sound so casual and even tease him like that. Inwardly, I was a mess. Maybe it just came from the practice I had with hiding my real feelings from my family and acting normal around them. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? I genuinely wasn’t sure. 

Tomas interrupted my musings by rapping his fist against the table. “Okay, well, until I keel over and give both of you a cheaper outing, why don’t we get this show on the road? I know we said we’d get lunch first, but I was thinking we should work up an appetite. And, as I recall, you were saying a lot of big words about how you were going to check my arse at the mini-golf in this place. So let’s see if you can put your rented club where your mouth is.”  

“Ew,” I retorted, “I’m not putting one of those clubs anywhere near my mouth. Do you have any idea what sort of people hold them? That’s disgusting.” 

“She has a point,” Maki confirmed, looking at Tomas with a shrug. “That is pretty gross, and I have to say, if you let one of those clubs anywhere near your mouth, we might have to break up.” 

“No licking rented sports equipment, got it.” Pantomiming checking that off an invisible list, Tomas added, “It’s important to know the do’s and don’ts of any relationship.” He glanced toward me, mouth opening as though he was going to say something. But then he caught himself and gave a slight headshake, clearly thinking better of it. Instead, the boy simply rose to his feet. “But that doesn’t change the fact that Cass over here has been talking a lot of shite about her golfing, and it’s time for her to put up or… well, put up.” He winked at me. “Sorry, can’t let you get away with just shutting up. Not now.” 

“Good,” I shot back, pushing myself up as well before poking him in the chest. “Cuz I wasn’t planning on it. In fact, I may kick your butt so bad that our next stop will be the hospital so you can get some ointment.” 

Maki, looking back and forth between us, asked, “Were you two this competitive while you were dating?” 

“Worse,” Tomas informed him. “She’s mellowed out lately.” With a wink my way, the boy gestured. “And she’ll mellow out even more once she loses, so let’s get that over with.

“After all, how good could she be at mini-golf?” 

******

As it happened, the answer to Tomas’s question was apparently ‘very good.’ Which, yes, was partly because I had practiced at our home course. But I was also pretty sure that my spatial awareness power or whatever the hell it was helped a lot. Not that I was trying to cheat or anything, but I just… knew where to hit the ball to be most efficient. It wasn’t perfect, and I did my best not to overly exploit it, even going so far as to intentionally miss a few times. But still, I scored the best on the mall course I ever had.

I wasn’t the only one who did really well either. Maki actually kept pace with me, their own score remaining neck and neck with mine throughout the course. I had no idea what being able to shapeshift from male to female and back again had to do with being good at mini-golf. But then again, I didn’t know what projecting paint that provided various effects had to do with being good at mini-golf either. Maybe Touched were just naturals at it. Or–yeah, I had no idea. 

Even Tomas wasn’t having a terrible day, but he couldn’t keep up with the two of us, and the whole match rapidly became a two-person race. I was even fine with letting Maki win, shoving  down the competitive spirit that tried to take over once or twice. But when I started intentionally doing worse, Maki still didn’t pull ahead. It was like they were matching their own game to mine, or something. I started to think they were trying to do the same thing I was trying to do, let the other person win by just a little bit. While still beating Tomas, of course. I wasn’t feeling that uncompetitive. 

In the end, I managed to let Maki take the lead on the last hole, close as it was. At that point we still weren’t that hungry, so the three of us went to see a movie in the mall theater before heading back to the food court for lunch. Obviously, I didn’t get much of a chance to talk during the show, so that was basically a wash as far as finding out more about Maki went. Thankfully, golfing and eating were a different story. I had to talk a fair bit about myself and my family, of course, so it didn’t come off like an interrogation. But that still gave me an excuse to ask questions as well. I managed to find out things like Maki’s parents’ names, general ages, a few dates of when they had lived in different places that I could maybe use to check against stuff I might end up finding in my family’s secret base–the one just under our feet, actually– and a couple other things that probably weren’t important. 

This was hard. I couldn’t even act like I knew that Maki was both male and female, let alone ask the sort of questions I really wanted to. I came close a couple of times to just grabbing them by the shoulders and demanding to know what they knew about everything. Especially about why they had been arguing with what was presumably their family before Tomas’s dad showed up and took them away in his own car. But something told me being that open about it wouldn’t lead to anything good, or useful. Or even if it did, I probably wouldn’t like dealing with the cost. 

“Now see, this is what confuses me.” That was Tomas, lounging in his seat in the food court where we had our food spread out over the table. “My chips?” He picked up one of his french fries, studied it, then popped it into his mouth and considered. “They’re okay. Cassie’s chips?” His hand sneaking out, grabbing one of mine before I could stop him from eating that as well. “Better than mine. Probably because they’re stolen and everyone knows how much better crime food tastes. But still…” His hand moved to Maki’s tray then, taking one of their fries. That one he put in his mouth and savored with a murmur. “But these ones? These ones are perfect. Plump, crispy, hot, just the right amount of salt, just… perfect. How does that happen? We all got our food from the same place at the same time. So how does he end up with chips that are so much better than either of us?”

Visibly blushing, Maki squirmed a bit in their seat before offering a shrug. “Pretty sure it’s just in your head. You know, that stolen food being better thing. Is that an actual thing, or did you make it up?” 

“It’s definitely a thing,” Tomas confirmed. “Criminal food always tastes better.” He stopped to think about that before musing, “Not that I’ve had a lot of it, but I do remember sneaking into my family’s fridge after midnight to eat a Scotch egg after I was supposed to be in bed, and they always tasted better then.” 

Blinking at him, I asked, “I’m sorry, eating a what?” 

“Scotch egg?” He looked at me, head tilting. “Don’t tell me you people don’t even know what those are.” 

Maki spoke up then, taking pity on my confusion. “It’s a boiled egg that’s been wrapped in sausage and then covered with breading before being baked or deep-fried. You might’ve heard of it as a bird’s nest or something like that.” 

My head shook. “Nope, I am pretty sure I’ve never heard of anything like that.” 

“Your loss,” Tomas informed me. “Well, I could say they taste better stolen in the middle of the night when you’re supposed to be asleep. So maybe you could get your parents to buy some, then sneak downstairs and take them in the middle of the night. Pretty sure that’s the only way you’ll get the full effect.” 

I started to tell the boy that I would get right on that, but before I could, Maki abruptly stood up while blurting what sounded like a curse in Japanese. Immediately, they flushed a bit self-consciously before apologizing. “This has been a lot of fun, really. We should do it again. But I’ve got to go help my family deal with something.” They waved their phone vaguely, as though that explained anything.” 

Tomas blinked that way. “You haven’t finished your food yet? And–” 

“Sorry,” Maki interrupted. Their face twisted a little. Partly with guilt about taking off so unexpectedly, I was sure, but also something else. It looked like they were almost in pain, like they were barely holding themselves together. 

Or stopping themselves from shifting, I realized. I didn’t know if Tomas knew about their power, but I certainly wasn’t supposed to. Not to mention anyone else who might notice in the middle of this food court. The place was even less busy than it had been earlier, but it wasn’t exactly empty. What if Maki couldn’t control their shifts that well? Were they running off and making weak excuses about it because they were about to shift sex from male to female? 

While I was still realizing what was probably going on, Maki had already made another apology before heading off. They were walking quickly, slipping between a couple crowded tables on their way to what looked like the exit. Which made me wonder just how long they could hold off their shift, if that was what the issue was. 

“I promise, it wasn’t you.” That was Tomas, noticing the way my gaze was following Maki. “He’s just like that sometimes. You know, has to run off and take care of one thing or another. I think he gets overwhelmed. Just don’t take it personally. He liked you. Likes you, I mean.” 

Shaking off all the thoughts running through my head, I managed a smile. “That’s cool. I like him too. I mean… you did well. You did good. You’re good. You’re–this is awkward.” Wincing, I took a breath before letting it out. “I’m glad you found someone that’s cool to be with. It would’ve sucked to lose you to someone who was terrible.” 

“So I shouldn’t date Arleigh or Paige, got it,” the boy remarked with a wink before considering. “Speaking of which, how long do you think Paige is gonna be gone? I know it was her birthday and her parents are rich and all, but even they can’t keep her out of school for the rest of the semester.” 

Coughing despite myself, I shrugged. “Who knows? I mean, I’m not a fortune teller or anything. 

“But something tells me we’ll be seeing Paige again pretty soon.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a non-canon for this story posted a couple days ago which is now available for EVERYONE to read right here

So, I skated for a while, both blades and board. A lot of people liked to stick with one or the other, and saw switching back and forth as not being loyal or whatever. They got really into that sort of thing, with huge arguments about which was better. But I tended to go with whatever I was in the mood for at the time. If that actually made me worse at both than I would have been if I focused on one, the way some people thought, so be it. I didn’t feel worse than I could have been, plus I had fun. And wasn’t having fun kind of the point of the entire thing? 

Anyway, once I’d had enough of that fun for a while, I found myself grabbing a couple bottles of water from the cooler and standing in front of that guy from before, Ryder. As promised, he hadn’t set foot on anything with wheels. He was just sitting off to the side, watching everyone else. He didn’t seem to know anybody except Dani, and something made me want to make sure that he wasn’t lonely or whatever. I couldn’t explain it, I just didn’t want to let him feel ignored. 

Twisting the caps off the water bottles, I extended one to him before speaking up. “So, you’re absolutely sure there’s no way we could talk you onto one of those boards? It’s seriously not as scary as it looks from the outside. Just takes some practice.”  

After a moment of hesitation, he took the bottle while shaking his head. “Sorry, I like having all my bones intact. I have enough trouble walking around without killing myself. Adding wheels into the mix just seems like a bad idea altogether.” Belatedly, he added, “But, you know, you seem pretty good on them. You sure you weren’t born with wheels?” 

Snorting despite myself, I plopped down next to him and took a long gulp from my own bottle. “I’ve seen baby pictures, no wheels attached. Though maybe they had them surgically removed first?” Pretending to consider that, I finally shook it off. “Nah, I’m pretty sure my family would have told me. They lie about plenty of stuff, but that seems like it would’ve come up.” 

Looking away from me, Ryder murmured, “I guess all families lie, even the super-rich ones.” 

“Maybe especially the super-rich ones,” I found myself replying before grimacing. Why would I even say that? Or any of this? I didn’t know anything about this guy. Like, absolutely nothing aside from the fact that he was tutoring Arleigh and was friends with Dani, whom I also didn’t know very well. I had to be careful not to open up too much. Saying the wrong thing, even to a completely random person who didn’t know me at all, could seriously backfire. 

Ryder, meanwhile, had looked over to me. “I guess money doesn’t solve everything. Just makes it easier to deal with a lot of things.” He hesitated briefly, seeming to consider something before speaking again. “Though in a way, you’re really lucky as far as the rich and powerful parents thing goes. Err, I mean obviously you’re lucky. But for a different reason. I just–” Shaking his head as though clearing it, he pushed on. “What I mean is, people don’t know you. They don’t recognize you. Do you have any idea how strange that is, for the daughter of people as big as your family to be completely invisible on the street? You can walk into any store and nobody will recognize you. Most girls in your position would be going around getting constantly mobbed. You know, by paparazzi and people like that.”

Flushing a little, I folded my arms across my stomach. “Trust me,” I murmured, “they’ve got much better things to photograph than me. I don’t exactly take after my mother. If I did, maybe more people would want pictures.”

“And if more people wanted pictures, you wouldn’t be able to sit out here doing the things you like,” Ryder pointed out with a shrug. “I mean, do you want to be a model?” 

“I dunno,” I answered honestly. “I mean no, not like that. I don’t want to be chased around and like, yeah. I still want to do my own thing most of the time. You’re right about that, having anonymity is really good. It means I can do stuff like this.” Biting my lip, I slumped back a bit and sighed. “But sometimes I do like to feel pretty. I like to dress up. I like feeling… I dunno, feminine? Sometimes I feel like this stuff suits me better, the skating, running around, screwing off with the guys, that sort of thing. And other times… other times I really wish I could fill out a dress better than I do. It’s like I can’t make up my mind if I’d rather be more of a girl or more of a guy.” Grimacing, I gave a quick shake of my head while trying to make it sound like this stuff didn’t really matter. “Forget it. Believe me, I know it’s stupid.” 

Before I could tell myself to shut the fuck up and stop talking about this with someone I barely knew, Ryder’s hand touched my shoulder. His voice was quiet. “It’s not stupid, Cassidy. I know a lot of stupid things, and that? That’s definitely not one of them. What you’re talking about, it–” He stopped, seeming to consider his words for a moment. “It just sounds like you’re your own person. And that’s a good thing. Don’t let anyone try to force you into a box. Sometimes you feel more like this.” He gestured over to where the others were shouting at one another while skating through the various concrete ramps. “And other times you feel more like… you know, a traditional sort of girl. There’s nothing wrong with either of those, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be both. Whatever you are, just make sure it’s what you chose to be. Not what someone said you should be just because it fits their own personal understanding of the world.”

I couldn’t–I had no idea what to say to that. Or how to deal with the feelings that kept twisting their way up through me. My stomach felt weird. I wasn’t sure why this whole thing had come up, or why I felt like talking about it with him of all people made sense. Again, I didn’t know anything about Ryder Towling. There was absolutely no reason at all for me to feel comfortable talking about this sort of sensitive, personal thing with him. Part of me wondered if he was a Touched, like that Tell guy. But no, that didn’t seem right either. I just… felt comfortable with him. 

Yeah, it didn’t make any sense. And it sort of scared me a little bit. But not as much as it probably should have. The thought that I could say the wrong thing to a guy I barely knew should have terrified me into immediately excusing myself and walking away. Instead, I sat there and considered his words for a long, silent moment before replying, “Probably a good thing that people don’t depend on me to be a certain type of person. I’d end up disappointing them.” 

Ryder gave a soft snort at that. “Now that I really doubt,” he informed me before taking a long pull from his bottle. His voice turned quieter. “You are an awful lot of things, Cassidy Evans. But I’m pretty sure one thing you could never be is disappointing.” 

A deep blush rose within me, and I turned slightly that way, trying to find the right words to ask what would make him say that just because I did a little skating around him. But before any words could come out, we were rejoined by Dani once more. She had a couple others with her, including Amber, whom I had not seen arrive. 

“Not having any luck getting this guy on wheels, huh?” Dani teased lightly while gesturing. “Well come on, maybe we can interest you in a different sort. You know, the kind attached to a car.”

One of the boys, a tall red-head named Clyve, spoke up. “We’re gonna go get ice cream from that new place. Some of us keep hearing people babble on and on about how good it is and haven’t had a chance to go yet.” 

New ice cream place. Maki’s place. The thought of going to see my ex-boyfriend’s new love interest immediately made me want to give excuses and leave. But there was that voice in the back of my head reminding me that I really did need to find out more about… them if I was going to figure out what that whole deal was. And to be quite honest, going in a big group like this was undoubtedly the very best cover I would get. Even if it made me uncomfortable, going was the best choice. Which, of course, was a realization that made my stomach twist. 

I found myself looking over toward Amber, who met my gaze with an understanding expression. She raised both eyebrows before clearing her throat to casually ask. “Oh uhh, didn’t you say something about having a thing with your parents this weekend? Is that today?”

I knew what Amber was doing. She was giving me a way out of this. She knew how uncomfortable it would be, and was letting me know that she would be there to find out more about Maki herself. She was telling me that I didn’t have to be there if I didn’t want to be. 

Except I still felt like I needed to. Sure, she could find out stuff on her own, and could almost certainly do as much if not more than I could. Okay, definitely more than I could in some ways. But if I let my discomfort with the situation keep me away from it, even with this excuse, it would open the door to allowing such feelings to keep me away from other uncomfortable situations. Which, given that the whole thing with my family, felt like a very bad precedence to set. Yes, I didn’t really want to be there, but I wasn’t going to let my personal feelings get in the way. Finding out what was going on with the sex-shifter person who had some connection to the Ministry was more important, and if having one of us there was good, having two had to be better, right? 

Forcing back a sigh at my own annoying logic, I gave her a thankful look before shaking my head. “Nah, not today. I’m up for some ice cream. And believe me,” I added in Clyve’s direction, “they haven’t been overselling it. This stuff is just as good as everyone keeps saying. Better, even.” With a wink, I added, “But uhh, I don’t think all of us can fit in one car.” Saying that, I glanced around at the roughly fifteen or so people who were still hanging around. 

“Well, I brought Ryder here for a reason beyond coaxing him out of his comfort zone,” Dani noted. “Namely, he has a car. So ahh, come on.” Pivoting, she waved both hands around her head. “Everyone heading for ice cream, load up and move out!” To Amber and me, she added, “Come on, it may not be the limousine the princess there is used to, but I’ll see if I can scrounge out a chauffeur’s hat to make you feel more at home.” 

Her words very easily could have been taken as rude or… taunting coming in the wrong tone. Yeah, they could have come off poorly from someone else. But somehow, I wasn’t offended. I knew she was teasing, it was just her way of doing that. I wasn’t sure how I knew that, but maybe she was just good at expressing herself. Or… or something. 

Shaking that off, I started to move after her and Ryder. But Amber gently caught my arm, her voice low. “How… how was the funeral?” 

Of course she knew I had gone. Biting my lip, I looked back to her before glancing around quickly to make sure no one was in earshot. Then I whispered, “Simon was there.” As her eyes widened, I gave a quick two sentence summary for her about what I had seen. Through it, Amber seemed to reel a bit. Yeah, it was a lot to take in. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times as she tried to find the right words to respond to the news, before finally settling on a simple yet effective, “Motherfucker.” 

“Yeah, pretty much,” I murmured, frowning at the uncomfortable, confusing thoughts in my head. I still had no idea why he had been there, or what his whole deal was. It just raised a bunch of questions that I had no way to answer right then. So, I shoved them down and gestured. “We better get over there before everyone starts yelling at us for holding up ice cream.” 

The other girl looked like she was going to say something else for a moment, but in the end she just gave a short nod. “Yeah,” she murmured, “don’t wanna keep everyone waiting.” 

So, we started off that way, after I gave a quick glance back to the spot where Ryder and I had been talking. That weird feeling rose up in me once more before I made myself quash it for the moment. 

Today was just… really weird all around. 

******

“So uhh, I owe you an apology.” 

The words came as I was stepping away from the toppings station at the ice cream parlor with my cup of the frozen treat heavily laden with caramel syrup and sprinkles. Turning, I found myself looking at none other than Maki himself. Themself. Damn it, I still didn’t know what the right term was. I was going to mentally stick with them for the moment. 

“Uhh,” I managed uncertainly, “an apology?” 

They nodded, meeting my gaze a bit sheepishly. “I probably should have said that I knew who you were before. And then I went and talked to Tom about you visiting. It’s ahh…” Raising a hand to rub the back of their neck with obvious discomfort, they glanced away while murmuring, “It was kind of rude. So yeah, I’m sorry about that. It wasn’t fair. Not with the whole… ex thing going on.” With a grimace, they added, “I think I’m probably making the whole thing worse.” 

My head shook quickly. “It’s okay. I mean, it was already pretty awkward before you said anything. But I swear I didn’t know who you were before we came. My dad just mentioned ice cream and I didn’t put it together with what Tomas said about how–yeah.” Shaking myself slightly, I focused on adding, “Let’s just say there’s been plenty of awkwardness to go around. But hey, it’s still really good ice cream. And trust me, I’ve tasted a lot in my time. This stuff is basically perfect.” 

To my confusion, Maki glanced away with a muttered, “Yeah, well, it would be.” As I blinked uncertainly, they seemed to realize what they had said and visibly blanched. “I mean, sorry. It’s just been a long few days. Long couple weeks, really. My family just moved here and all.” 

Well that was as good of an opening as I was going to get. Bracing myself inwardly, I tried to sound as casual as possible while asking, “So uhh, how’d you and Tomas meet, anyway? I mean, if it’s not too personal or whatever. And even as I say that, I realize I sound like a crazy ex. Don’t worry about it. I mean, I may be crazy in a lot of ways, but I’m not that sort of crazy. And I–I’m making it worse again. So you know what, I’m just gonna shut up.”

With a tiny smirk, Maki replied, “Believe me, I’ve been on your side of the whole thing before. With a lot more confusion and weirdness than you could possibly imagine. So yeah, I get it. But the truth is there’s not really much of a story to tell. We met because our fathers introduced us. His dad had some history with mine, and when we were going to move over here to the States to start up our business, Mr. Jackson suggested we come to Detroit. So, we did, and I met Tom. I dunno how that’s going to go, but uhh, he’s… nice. I mean, more than nice, I just–” They made a face. “It was my turn to make it awkward.” 

“Well, I appreciate you giving me a break from the job,” I found myself casually replying. The two of us met each other’s gazes and both snickered a bit. Okay, yeah, putting aside the mystery around their whole… thing, I could see why Tomas would like them. 

Still, I did have questions that I needed to get answers to if I was ever going to figure out what was going on. So, trying to sound as casual as possible, I asked, “Ahh, where did you move over here from? I mean, you said your family came to the States and all. Are you uhh, I’m not sure how to… your English is really good. I mean, you don’t really have much of an accent at all.” 

Offering me a faint smile and a lifeline, Maki replied, “We’re originally from Hamamatsu, in Japan. It’s a couple hundred kilometers south of Tokyo. Ahh, sorry, about a hundred and fifty miles for Americans. But I only spent the first seven or eight years of my life there. My family moves around a lot. It’s–” Clearly stopping themself from whatever they had been about to say, Maki instead finished with, “I’ve spent most of the past eight years or so bouncing through Western Europe. I guess that’s how my dad met Tom’s.” 

“Is your dad a diplomat too?” I asked, before amending, “I mean, was he, before you guys did the whole ice cream shop thing? Which seems sort of like a weird career move, but hey.” 

Maki chuckled slightly, offering me a perfect smile that made me see even more why Tomas would be interested in them. “He just likes to start up businesses, run them for awhile, then hand them off to other people so he can do something new. I guess he gets bored easily or something. He–” Stopping, they clearly mentally corrected something they were about to say. “He’s got a lot of irons in the fire. And now we’re here doing this. He promised we could visit America the next time he made a big change, and that I could pick the business. So, ice cream.” 

“Well,” I replied while gesturing with my full spoon, “judging from the taste of this, it was the right move. Whoever your supplier is, they’re a genius.” 

With a mysterious smile, they replied, “It has a lot to do with the storage and preparation too. But thanks, my parents will be glad to hear you enjoyed it so much. I umm, I’m glad I could meet you. You know, officially. If it wouldn’t be too awkward or bad for you, maybe we could all go hang out sometime. I wouldn’t mind hearing some stories about Tom. And it’s even more fun if we’re talking while he’s right there.” They added that last bit with a wink. 

Well, as far as getting opportunities to snoop on their life and find out what was going on went, this was going incredibly well. Better than I really could have hoped. I pushed aside my personal feelings and nodded. “Sure, ahh, that sounds good. Here, why don’t I give you my number. Then we can keep talking about him and set up a time to do it in person.” 

In the end, we both exchanged numbers and texted one another to make sure we had them right. Then I went back to join the others, who were just about done anyway. I was teased a little bit about ‘stalking’ Tomas’s new boyfriend by a few people, but they moved on pretty quick. And soon, everyone decided to disperse and head out to do their own thing. Which was just as well, considering I really needed to go home and put in an appearance before escaping to go to that party. And boy did that sound like completely ordinary teenager things when I thought about it like that. Funny how that worked. 

As I was heading out, Ryder caught my attention at the door and raised an eyebrow. “That guy over there is your ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend?” 

Flushing a little, I replied, “Yeah well, what can I say? I live an exciting and interesting life.” 

Ryder chuckled softly, holding the door for me. “You know what, Cassidy Evans? That I can definitely believe. 

“I’m pretty sure you live a more interesting life than anyone could guess.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-07 (Summus Proelium)

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The drive out of that place honestly wasn’t that long, though it seemed like forever. I kept having to resist the urge to look around too much. It felt like there were eyes on us constantly. Which, to be fair, there certainly were. The plants were all spies. Which was a really creepy thing to think about whenever I happened to glance at the various bushes and trees. Any of them could have been watching and listening, all the time. To say nothing of the animals, which I was pretty sure were also spies. Yeah, I had no idea how the people in here lived like this, because it was freaking me out just being there for a few minutes.  

Dad, of course, didn’t seem bothered at all. He had turned around in the seat and was asking Izzy what she thought about her new friend. Not enough to seem overly pushy or anything, but he was definitely curious about all that. Izzy, for her part, simply said that he was nice and that he’d done a lot of work on their project. Belatedly, she added that his sister was ‘intense.’ I had to bite my lip hard to avoid giving a response to that. 

Judging from the quick look that Dad gave me, I hadn’t entirely suppressed the reaction. He chuckled very faintly before giving a short nod. “Yes, I suppose intense is one word for it. And hey, I can tell you this much, from what I saw of that project of yours…” He whistled low. “That’s A-plus work right there. Really well put together, and with some nice sources. If that school isn’t careful, I might just hire the both of you right now and put you to work as research interns in one of the firms.” 

“Don’t let him make you interns,” I put in immediately. “Tell him it’s associate or no deal. Wait, no, tell him executive and then let him negotiate you down to associate.” 

“Awww.” Dad gave me a proud look. “You have been listening to your old man.” 

Forcing the lump away that tried to form in my throat, I offered a shrug. “Yeah, well, sometimes you talk louder than the television and it’s hard to tune you out.”

Dad, in turn, offered me a beaming smile, hand reaching out to squeeze my shoulder. “That’s one of my best strategies! Talk too loud for the other person to ignore. You girls should write that down, it’s a good one.” 

There were a few things I wanted to say, involving him making offers someone else couldn’t refuse, but I bit my lip and held back. That was a rabbit hole that I really didn’t want to start going down. Instead, I shifted the conversation to asking about how their trip went. Not enough to seem like I was actually fishing for real information or anything, but not asking anything about it at all would also have been suspicious. So I pushed just a little bit, as though I was slightly jealous about being left behind. Or just trying to angle for presents or a different trip sometime. 

Unsurprisingly, my dad didn’t tell me what they were really doing. He just played it off as another boring old business trip and kept changing the subject over to talking about things we had done while they were gone. Of course, we couldn’t tell him most of it, so we were all lying to each other. Though at least, hopefully, only one side actually knew that. 

On Dad’s suggestion, we stopped for some exotic ice cream on the way back. It was a new place that had apparently been getting a lot of good reviews. The guy behind the counter couldn’t have been much older than me, but he sure knew a lot about ice cream. He talked up the different processes of making it (apparently they did their own fresh on-site), and managed to make it interesting. He was a cute guy too, Asian with longish hair that had this thin green streak in it, and amber eyes. His nametag read Maki. 

In any case, he had a lot of good suggestions for flavors to try, and let us sample several. And the reviews were right, this place was great. Maki was funny, charming, and to top everything off, he could juggle. Yeah, he put on a show right there while we were deciding what flavors to get, casually tossing three pints and the ice cream scoop through the air in a circle. I even took a picture of him in the middle of that. With his permission, naturally. 

Finally, we ended up picking out flavors we all wanted, and also got a couple pints for Mom and Simon as well before heading out. On the way, as we went back to the car, I shook my head. “Wow, I haven’t even heard of that place yet. That thing says they only opened a week and a half ago, how’d you know about them already? You were out of town.” Even as the words slipped out of my mouth, I was regretting the accidental possible push against their cover story. 

Dad, however, simply replied, “From Kent Jackson, actually. He had a lot to say about the place. Apparently his son–oh.” In mid-sentence, he abruptly stopped talking. 

“What?” Blinking that way, I started to reflexively ask what was wrong. Then I realized. I remembered. Tomas had said that he was going on a date with ‘a guy who worked at an ice cream shop.’ “That guy back there, Maki. Tomas is dating him.” 

Dad was wincing. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I completely forgot that was where I heard about this place until you asked. Do you want to take the ice cream back? Or toss it and go get it from somewhere else?” 

Swallowing, I shook my head. “No, no. It’s not the ice cream’s fault. And it’s not Maki’s fault either. And it’s not Tomas’s fault. It’s nobody’s–it’s not–it’s fine. We were already broken up. We didn’t–it’s fine. It’s ice cream. Let’s go eat some ice cream.” Under my breath, I muttered, “I need it now.” 

So, we headed back for the house. And all I could think about the entire way was how differently I would have felt right now if I didn’t know the truth. If I didn’t know what was really going on, I would have a new pseudo-little sister living with me, ice cream, my parents back after a long trip, and I would be driving my dream car. It really would be perfect. Well, aside from the whole ‘getting that ice cream from my ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend’ thing, but even that wasn’t horrible. Hell, if that was the worst thing about today, it would’ve been pretty good. A pretty good day. And that was exactly what my father thought he was giving me. Because he had missed me and was trying to do something fun. He was trying to make me happy. 

He was a good dad. A good dad who did some really terrible other things. Even evil things. But that was what made this whole thing so hard. It was what made it so confusing. Well, that and the fact that the Ministry obviously did some actual good things as well. Like Peyton had said, there were positives to them. But there were a hell of a lot of negatives too. Like, for example, everything about last night. Yeah, they let the man who murdered Murphy’s brother (and several others) just get away because he paid them. That was… bad. Really bad. 

It was all so complicated, frustratingly so. But at least I had people who knew enough to help me right now. We were going to build that tunnel and get into the secret base. We would find everything we could about the Ministry’s business and figure out where to go from there. We just… had to be careful about it. And obviously try to make sure that they didn’t realize it was us doing it. That was going to be the real hard part, and something that would take a lot of time and planning.

But for now, I had to make sure my family didn’t get suspicious about anything. Which meant playing my role as the clueless daughter (and little sister) who didn’t know a damn thing about what was going on. So, as I parked the car in the garage, I put my game face on and gave Dad a sly look. “See how safe that was? In a couple more months, when I get my licence, you won’t have anything to worry about.” 

Dad, in turn, snorted. “Yeah, kid, I’m sure you’ll always drive exactly the same way you do when I’m literally sitting right next to you. Actually, you should keep that in mind. Whenever you’re out there, assuming that day ever comes, just pretend that I’m sitting right here in this seat. And you know, obviously that means you can’t have anyone else sitting here. I don’t like to share seats.” 

Snorting despite myself, I made a point of rolling my eyes at him before getting out. Then I tossed him the keys. “Believe it or not, I’m not going to make a habit of pretending my father is sitting in the car with me no matter where I go. And I’m sure as hell not going to tell my friends that they can’t sit in the front seat because my imaginary father has dibs.” 

Making a show of huffing as though offended, Dad retorted, “I don’t see why not. I’m cool. I’m hip. Your friends would be lucky to have me grace them with my presence on a trip to the juice bar.” He winked then, before laughing at my expression. “Isn’t that right, Izzy?” 

She had just gotten out of the car herself, managing a quick, “Sure, juice bar, dads sitting in the front seat of cars, imaginary something or other.” She was pretending to be very engrossed in her phone, which made a pretty convenient distraction. 

The three of us grabbed the bags of ice cream pints and headed inside. I had only just made it through the door from the garage into the long hall (it served as a buffer to keep noise and fumes from the cars from getting into any useful rooms) beyond, when my mother seemed to materialize out of nowhere, blurting my name. The next thing I knew, she had pulled me into a tight embrace. It took me a second to stop myself from freezing up, but I managed to return it. God, my mom. I had missed her so much. My dad too. Both of them. Seeing them, hugging them, hearing them, just being with them reminded me how much I loved them despite everything. Soon, I found myself clinging to her even more tightly than I intended. Sure, the revulsion of what happened last night still rolled through my stomach, but I couldn’t help my reaction to actually being around them again after they had been gone. 

“Mom,” I managed, my voice cracking just a little bit. Which just made my stomach flip over even more. I almost hated myself at that moment. I thought about what Murphy was going through and quickly released my mother before stepping back. It was all I could do not to turn around and run right back out of the house, through the garage, and just keep going. And boy would that have been fun to try to explain later. Yet, despite knowing just what a bad idea that was, it was still so tempting. And it wasn’t all because of what they had done, or what they helped do. A large part of my sudden rush of revulsion was at my own reaction to them. I missed them so much, seeing my mother like this made me so happy that I immediately felt like I was betraying my friends, like I was betraying Murphy. I was–it was–fuck. 

Mom, however, didn’t know anything about that. I wiped it off my face by the time she smiled down at me, hands on my shoulders. “My dear, sweet Principessa. I’m so happy to be home now. That was far too long to be away.” 

Somehow, I managed to stop myself from asking how long it would be if they went to prison for all the stuff they had helped do. Not that I wasn’t tempted. Forcing that thought away as well, I instead asked, “Does this mean that you’re not going away again for a while?” 

“Oh, Princess.” Smiling fondly, my mother tugged me into another embrace. “I certainly hope not. That was more than enough for me.” 

“Me too,” Dad put in, as he and Izzy came through the door. It certainly didn’t take that long for them to cross the last few feet in the garage, so they had obviously stayed back to give me a moment with Mom. Which, of course, had left Izzy alone with my father. I briefly wondered how she felt about that, which just made my stomach clench yet again. God, this whole situation from her point of view was probably just as bad as it was from mine, if not worse. 

Meanwhile, Mom was already stepping over to take Izzy’s hands, squeezing them with a fond smile before pulling the girl into an embrace too. Her voice was a gentle murmur. “Izzy, my dear, I missed you as well. I hope the staff treated you properly. How are you?” 

Looking slightly overwhelmed (which was understandable, even from my parents’ point of view), Izzy took a second to find her voice. “Thank you, ma’am. Um, Mrs. Evans. I’m okay.” 

“More than okay, I hope, since we brought ice cream.” Dad held up the bags in question, gesturing. “Now come on, let’s get to the kitchen so we can eat this before it melts all over the place and make a mess. You really don’t want to make Olivia find someone to clean up melted ice cream off the carpet at four in the afternoon.” 

Mom, of course, had a few (mostly teasing) words for Dad bringing home ice cream a couple hours before dinner. But she didn’t put a stop to it, which is what really told me just how much they had missed us. Any other time, she would have told him to put it in the freezer until later. 

In the dining room, we had just started to set the ice cream containers out on the table when another voice spoke up from the opposite doorway. “Well, if it isn’t the tiniest stranger.” 

Simon. Hearing his voice, I really had to stop myself from visibly flinching. After the fight we’d had the night before, it was hard not to jump or recoil a bit. Not that he knew anything about that. He had no way of knowing about the wave of revulsion and anger that swept through me as I thought about him actually fighting to help the man who had murdered Murphy’s brother escape. He certainly had no way of knowing that I was the one he had been fighting against to do that. And, just like Mom and Dad, he couldn’t find out or realize.

So, just as I had been doing this whole time, I shoved down my immediate reaction and turned to face him. “Oh great, they brought you back too?” My voice cracked just a little bit, but I hoped he didn’t notice. “I hope you at least had the decency to bring me a present.” 

“Sure did, the gift of my presence.” With a broad smirk, he waggled his eyebrows at me. “Get it? Gift of presence? Pres–” He grunted as I kicked him in the shin. Which, after last night, I knew for a fact he let me get away with. If he had wanted to, he could catch my foot and put me on my back without even thinking about it. 

“Now, no fighting,” Mom chided. “Come and take your seats for early dessert.” She said that with a look at my father that made it clear this was a special thing and he shouldn’t think it was okay all of the time. 

Of course, once we were all eating, Izzy and I both had to talk even more about the stuff we’d been doing while they were away. And, as far as that went, I was proud to find that we managed to make our answers sufficiently boring enough to make Simon feign falling asleep (of course, prompting Mom to give him a sharp poke). But the point was, he wasn’t suspicious. None of them were. We kept it boring without being obvious about hiding things. And pushed slightly for information about how their trip went without being obvious about trying to catch them in any lies. 

And we had decent ice cream. Okay, very good ice cream. Remarkably good. My ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend’s ice cream shop was amazing. That was the cherry on top of the whole night. Also my ice cream had cherries in it. 

In any case, we hung out for the rest of the evening like that. Dad suggested a movie in the theater, so we went there and watched this comedy western thing before dinner, which we had about an hour later than usual thanks to the whole ice cream thing. Then Mom wanted to do something together, so we played a board game in one of the dens. All of us, my parents, Simon, Izzy, and me. It was all so weirdly normal and casual. Mom and Dad acted like… Mom and Dad. Simon was Simon. We played several games, I accused my brother of cheating, jumped on his back, Mom told us to settle down, Dad laughed, we all laughed. 

And then Izzy and I went upstairs, and the second the door of my bedroom closed behind us, the smile wiped itself off my face like someone had flipped a switch. I slumped back against the door, eyes closing for a moment as I let out a long breath and let the stress of pretending everything was fine throughout the entire evening slide out of me. 

When my eyes opened once more, Izzy was standing a few feet away, watching me a bit pensively as she quietly asked, “Are you okay?” 

“Not much worse than usual,” I replied quietly before shaking my head. “I mean, wow. That was hard.” Swallowing, I moved away from the door while continuing. “I sort of… forgot what it was like to be face to face with them, knowing all these things. And after last night… after Simon–” Cutting myself off, I put my hands against my face and gave a slight shudder. “Sorry, I’m okay. I’m… I’m okay. I–” 

The next thing I knew, Izzy took both of my arms and gently pulled my hands down from my face so she could look at me. Her voice was gentle. “It’s okay… to not be okay.” 

Unable to find my voice for a moment, I settled on simply taking a small step that way and embracing her. She returned it, and we stood there like that for a few seconds before I managed a weak, “Thanks. You being here means a lot.” 

Eventually, she released me and asked, “Are you going out tonight?” 

I thought about it, but shook my head. “No, after last night, I need some extra sleep to catch up. Besides, Roald and Murphy are gonna need a couple days before they do anything else. Preferably more than that, but I don’t know how long we can stop Murphy from trying to go off to do something on her own. I need to talk to Paige and Raige about that whole Irelyn thing, but that can wait. I’m just gonna crash and try to turn everything off for awhile. I’m pretty sure there’ll be plenty to do soon enough anyway.” 

With a nod of agreement, Izzy headed out. I got ready for bed, ordered the lights to go out, and then laid down. My head was on the pillow and I started to drift off almost immediately, my thoughts winding down. 

And then I sat up. With two words, I ordered the lights to come back on, before sitting there in bed as my mind raced. Pushing myself over to the edge, I grabbed my Touched phone and quickly typed out a message to Amber, along with an attachment. 

Does this look familiar? 

After that, I waited anxiously for what felt like forever (but was really only about thirty seconds) until I saw the notification that she was typing. Soon, the message came back. 

That’s him. That’s him, how did you get that? 

Seeing that, I breathed out and slumped back. I was right. The realization that had struck me just before I was about to fall asleep was correct. I had to let that wash over me for a few seconds. 

Finally, I straightened a bit and typed out two more quick messages for Amber. 

The sex-shifting person you saw is named Maki. They work at an ice cream shop.

Tomas is dating them. 

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Commissioned Interlude 6 – Amber (Summus Proelium)

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Shortly after dawn, the sound of shoes slapping against concrete filled the early morning air, as a dark-haired, slim girl jogged up the hill wearing running clothes and a set of earbuds. Through those earbuds, Amber O’Connell listened to the near-deafeningly loud, pounding music that was doing its level best to help her not think about all the things she kept irritatingly thinking about. 

The whole point of this run was to help the girl clear her head, help her avoid thoughts of… of the horrible truth while she was supposed to be pretending to be a normal, everyday person. It was supposed to help her stop dwelling on all that bullshit. 

But there was too much. Her thoughts were too loud even for the music to drown out, no matter how high she pumped the volume. As she ran along the sidewalk, with each foot that came down against the cement, Amber’s mind was filled with thoughts. Filled with the actual truth

Silversmith was a bad guy. He worked for this… this Ministry. Everything Amber and the rest of the Minority–everything all the Star-Touched in Detroit did, it was only because the Ministry allowed it. This crime syndicate ran everything. They decided what the supposed heroes were allowed to do, how much they were allowed to stop. No matter what Amber or any of the other ‘good guys’ did, the Ministry won in the long run, because they controlled things behind the scenes. They took money from villains just to be allowed to operate in the city, they controlled the courts, the police, they had people inside the Touched teams to sabotage or simply spy. 

There could have been someone on Amber’s team who was really reporting to the Ministry. Her supposed friends, her teammates, one of them might be–probably was a traitor. Everything they had been through together, everything they had accomplished or fought against as a team, and one of the people she was supposed to be able to trust with her life was a fucking spy, damn it!

But who? Which of her supposed friends was actually reporting to the bad guys? It could’ve been any of them, as much as Amber wanted to scream out loud that it wasn’t. Syndicate? He had four bodies, he could easily have one of them spy where he shouldn’t without being noticed. Wobble and Whamline? It could’ve been either of them too. They tended to hang out together the way she did with Jae, so did that mean they would’ve been in on things together if one of them was? 

Jae. No, it couldn’t be her. Or Izzy. Amber knew them both too well. She hung out with Jae all the time, they were basically best friends by this point. And Izzy was a kid. And–

But that was the point, wasn’t it? The best spies were the ones you’d never expect. And this Ministry could have lied to either of them, Amber realized. They could’ve convinced Jae or Izzy that they were doing the right thing by reporting what they knew, like it was some kind of secret Star-Touched thing that no one was supposed to know about. And it wasn’t like Amber could just start asking them about it without giving the whole thing away if they were in on it at any level.

So she couldn’t ask them. Not without something more than she had. She couldn’t ask them and she couldn’t trust them. God damn it! She couldn’t even trust her best friend or the kid she’d grown really fond of ever since Izzy was put on their team. She couldn’t–didn’t… fuck. 

Not knowing who you could trust was a really fucking shitty position to be in. Not knowing if you could even believe anything your best friend or the people you relied on to have your back in a life-and-death fight said? It made Amber want to scream out loud, made her want to start hitting things and not stop until she’d broken all the bones in her hand. It made her want to grab every single one of her teammates and shake them, scream in their faces, demand answers. 

It made her want to do drastic things. Things she couldn’t do without giving everything away. It would betray Paintball, the poor guy. He’d trusted her with this and he was holding it together even after knowing the truth for longer.

That poor kid. He had to be like Izzy’s age, maybe a little older. And he’d been stuck knowing about this all by himself. No wonder he’d refused to join the Minority. Fuck. All that time he’d spent knowing that even Amber could’ve been a spy for the Ministry? How was he dealing with it so well? Because she already felt like she was going to explode. And that was before the whole insane Paige thing. 

Paige. On top of everything else, suddenly Paige Banners was some kind of artificial lifeform. Seriously? There wasn’t enough shit to deal with, not enough insanity, now suddenly someone Amber knew in her real, civilian life was a biological android or something. And her real father was a supervillain living on Breakwater? She’d just–that was just such a giant–

Urgh. She’d known Paige for years. Years. And she’d never had any idea that the girl was anything more than what she seemed. Well, okay, her weird hatred of Cassidy Evans had been something. But honestly Amber had just written that off as something that started between Paige’s parents and Cassidy’s as the second-richest and richest people in the state. Like Glomgold and Scrooge McDuck. She’d just figured that eventually Paige would grow out of it. 

But now? Now it turned out that Paige was a biological robot or whatever. So why had she been drawing attention to herself by hating Cassidy so openly? Was it a flaw, or a… was there a reason for it? What was the point of being such a bitch specifically to Cassidy and no one else? Because that was just weird. It had been weird before, but now it was really weird. 

Fuck, she had no idea. Which was even more frustrating the more she thought about it and came up with no actual answers. Lots of questions, but no answers. It was like there was one huge, crucial key to this whole thing that she was missing, a central piece of the puzzle. And without that central piece, none of it would fit together no matter how hard she shoved at them.

Yeah, she really needed to scream and hit something. Unfortunately, there was no one who deserved it in front of her. And even if there was, Amber was pretty sure it wouldn’t actually help anything. It might make her feel better for about two seconds to walk up to Silversmith and try slugging him, but in the long run it would make everything a hell of a lot worse. 

She wasn’t that stupid. She would keep it under control, would stop herself from pulling some insane move that would accomplish nothing except for getting herself, Paintball, and Pack in some deep shit that would be impossible to get out of. She had to bottle up those impulses. 

But the real shit, the real thing that was pissing her off so much, the thing that made her want to grab a baseball bat and just start screaming at the top of her lungs as she used it to hit Silversmith over and over again had nothing to do with the Paige situation. It was something a lot simpler and a hell of a lot more personal. 

Did they know where the guy who killed her father was? The piece of shit who stole that car and hit her dad before magically disappearing with absolutely no trace. Did he really just get lucky and leave no evidence of who he was? Did no traffic cameras pick up his face, no witnesses see anything about him? Was this random fucking cocksucker really that lucky? 

Or did he have help? Did he pay money to this Ministry to make his problem go away? Did Silversmith help him just to make sure Amber was motivated to join the Minority? Was her entire recruitment, after getting her powers, fueled by making sure she never found the man who had killed her dad? Was it possible? Of course it was. She had powers. The moment they knew what she could do, Silversmith or any of the other Ministry fucks could’ve looked into her history, found out what happened, and made sure she never found the asshole no matter how hard she looked. Or he could’ve gone to them first. Either way, there was a chance the Ministry was covering up who this guy was, that she could have found him by now if it wasn’t for them. And that chance, that possibility, was more than she could stomach. It was a possibility that drove her to try to drown out those thoughts with the pounding music, with running until she couldn’t breathe, until she wanted to pass out. 

If that was true, if the Ministry had helped the guy who killed her father escape or hide… what would she do? What could she do? Bring them to justice? They were the justice. From what Paintball had said, they controlled everything important in the city, if not the entire state. She would have to have absolute proof, a dump truck full of evidence. And she’d have to take it right to–to someone above even the state level. FBI? One of the other Conservator teams in another state that wasn’t compromised? Or a different Star-Touched group. Maybe a lot all at once. 

Regardless, none of that mattered right now. To do any of it, they needed a lot more information. And evidence, of course. But they needed information to begin with. They needed to know who they could trust, first of all. Finding out which people were working for the Ministry, so they knew who they could safely bring into things, that was the overwhelmingly first priority. 

And that meant getting into that base under the mall. That was the only actual lead they had at this point, aside from whatever Paige might know if they could wake her up. Because she had to know something important, right? Paintball had said that Paige knew a lot about the Ministry. So if they could wake her up, if they could… could fix her or whatever, they might know more. 

And what the hell was with all the P names? Pack, Paintball, Paige? 

Okay, Amber might have been a little tired by that point, possibly. Doubling over by a tree at the top of the hill, she panted, taking the bottle of water off its slot on her hip before taking a long swig. Fuck, it was too much. The problems, the implications, all of it kept rebounding through her head until she couldn’t even think straight. She wanted to scream at the top of her lungs, right there in the middle of the sidewalk. 

That… might attract some attention. She was pretty sure Silversmith and the rest of the Ministry would notice if she just started screaming incoherently like that. And she probably couldn’t do much to expose or stop them if they managed to commit her to the nuthouse or whatever. 

So, Amber kept it under control. Gulping water and breathing in and out until she felt herself calm down a little bit, she focused first on the music, allowing that pulsing, pounding rhythm to drown out everything else just for a few seconds. 

Then she shifted her mind, gradually, back to the thoughts that might actually help. The mall and Paige. Those were the two options they had right now. Finding a way to infiltrate the secret Ministry base could get them answers. She doubted there was anything as handy as a simple list of everyone who worked for them, but there had to be something useful in there, right?

But that was the problem. How did they get in there without exposing her powers? Because Amber could teleport into the place easily enough. But they’d have cameras, they’d see her, even if she was in disguise. And the second she used teleportation to get in and any other power to get out, they’d know who she was. 

Unless she didn’t use any other power. What if she pretended to only have teleportation? It wasn’t like her ‘porting had any specific tells other than only moving north. And she could couple it with something else, some sign to throw them off like… like a flash effect. 

Hey, yeah, that was a thought. If she could get some kind of device that gave off a colored flash whenever she hit a button or something, and only used it when teleporting, they’d start looking for someone who gave off that colored flash when they teleported. That could throw suspicion off her. 

And if… wait, wait a minute. If she got one of the others to act as though they had her power, say….  have a disguised Pack take her hand and pretend she was the one turning intangible to walk them through a wall or a door, that could throw them off too, possibly. 

It was worth thinking about. Using her powers while throwing in different details to send the Ministry barking in the wrong direction. See how they liked being tricked. She’d have to think about it some more, maybe look into what sort of things they could get a hold of that would help. But it was a thought. She’d share it with Pack and Paintball too, see what they could come up with along the same general idea. 

Lost in those thoughts, Amber almost missed the commotion happening ahead of her. The music in her ears was loud enough that she didn’t hear it at all. Not at first. But from the corner of her eye, she saw a car that had stopped basically in the middle of the street. Early as it was in this residential area, there weren’t that many cars to begin with. But that one had stopped short. 

Blinking up, the girl saw a black sedan with dark windows. All four doors were open, as several people had gathered around one other person. All of them were Asian, and as Amber muted her music, tugging the earbuds out, she heard them talking in Chinese or something. Whatever it was, they were all clearly arguing. The three surrounding the other were all dressed in dark suits, two male and one female. All older. The one being talked at, who was doing just as much yelling back at them, was a younger female, maybe a year or two older than Amber at most. 

She had no idea what they were saying, but there was a lot of yelling and a lot of hand waving going on. It was clearly an intense argument that was getting more intense by the moment. Amber was afraid someone was going to start swinging. And judging from the vehement voice coming from the lone girl, it might well have been her. 

Fuck, what was she supposed to do? Could Amber intervene without exposing anything about herself? She wasn’t in costume or anything. She wasn’t That-A-Way, she was just Amber O’Connell, high school student. There was no reason for anyone to listen to her, especially not a group like this. So what could she actually do? Should she try to at least speak up? Maybe these people would calm down if they knew they had an audience. 

Fortunately, before Amber had to make that decision, and before the whole situation escalated any further, another car showed up, slowing to stop beside the first. This one had diplomatic plates. In fact, Amber recognized it. And she recognized the man who stepped out of the passenger side. It was Tomas Jackson’s father. 

Why was the UK diplomat here now? It was kind of weird enough that there were international diplomats in Detroit anyway, but Amber understood that was because of how much Touched manufacturing was in the city. A number of other countries had put a lot of money and resources into helping to build up this place, so they had a vested interest in keeping an eye on it. It was a whole thing. 

But why was the guy here right now? Was this a whole UK-Chinese thing? Or Japanese, she still wasn’t sure exactly what they were. Maybe Korean? They could be–focus, Amber. 

For reasons she couldn’t explain, she had already ducked behind the tree and the partial fence that was there. It was weird, but she felt like being seen watching this was a bad idea. 

Mr. Jackson stepped out of his car, saying something in… whatever language they were speaking to the people there. There was a whole spiel of back and forth between those three, Mr. Jackson, and the girl they had been arguing with. Finally, Mr. Jackson stepped that way, gesturing for the others to step away while he said something more quietly to the girl and handed her something. It looked like a phone. She took it, held it to her ear and listened for about twenty seconds, then seemed to deflate a bit and handed it back. 

Things were calm then. Mr. Jackson said something to the other three Asian people and they moved to get back in their car. But he gestured to his own vehicle, and the girl they had been arguing with moved that way rather than following her other companions. Mr. Jackson opened the backdoor, and she moved to get in. 

Then something else weird happened. As Amber was watching, the girl… wasn’t a girl anymore. Her hair, facial features, and body shape shifted, until it was a boy getting in the car. She just casually shifted her sex before stepping in the vehicle, like taking off a hat. 

Mr. Jackson looked around, but Amber had already ducked back. She listened until both cars started up before peeking in time to see them drive away together. 

Okay… that was weird, right? 

Because that seemed kind of weird. 

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