Amber O’Connell

Project Owl 14-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“I think they might want us to go that way.” 

Tomas’s dry words came as our large assortment of teenagers made our way into the front foyer of Paige’s house, behind the birthday girl herself, just to find the grand room with its sweeping staircase and priceless artwork, filled with servants. There were maids blocking various doorways, what looked like a gardener standing in front of an antique grandfather clock as though to stop anyone from getting near it, a cook standing in front of those stairs, and so on. A dozen or so of the Banners’ staff stood in key positions to stop any of our group from wandering off or touching something they shouldn’t. And all of them were pointing toward the only doorway that wasn’t blocked. 

Yeah, most of them were smiling (or at least trying to), but it was still really damn creepy. Actually, it was probably even creepier with the smiles. They almost looked like robots, standing there guarding everything deemed valuable or important from the scary teenagers. Boy, I was glad my family didn’t live like that. Did Paige have to worry about being glared at by random staff for getting near a painting or a statue, or was this just for us? 

Okay, thinking back on the things I’d seen my classmates do (and that I’d done myself), this was fair. A huge group of teenagers in one area like this–yeah. It made total sense to make sure things didn’t… go wrong. Especially given how we could egg each other on into doing very stupid things. Which I could say with a considerable amount of authority, considering I was very often the one who was egged on to do those stupid things. But hey, they’d already had that Slip ‘N Slide set up in the school hallway. What was I supposed to do, say I couldn’t make it from one end to the other? 

Wait, that was another thing that ended with me being soaked while someone screamed at me. Huh. Maybe Izzy had a point. 

Shaking off those thoughts, I let myself be pulled along with the rest of the group as we moved through the doorway, finding ourselves in another hall, then a T-junction of corridors before making it to a door leading to what turned out to be the back patio. This was where the party was supposed to be, apparently, given all the balloons, decorations, tables laden with treats and presents, and so on. The nearby pool, a huge, horseshoe-shaped thing, even had ‘Happy Birthday Paige’ written above it in colorful Tech-Touched hologram lights from nearby projectors. In the distance, on the far side of the grounds, some kind of outdoor stage had been set up with curtains raised around it.

The moment we were out here, everyone spread out a bit. Paige had moved to the edge of the pool, pivoting back to face us with that smile that I’d seen her use on teachers and other adults for so many years. It was a smile that could instantly dissolve into a vindictive scowl the moment their backs were turned and I was the only one who could see her. I’d long-since learned not to trust it. And today was no different. Seeing that smile made a slight shiver run through me.  Whatever Paige was up to, I definitely wasn’t going to turn my back to her anytime soon. Otherwise I’d be likely to get a dagger shoved in it. Metaphorically, of course.

“How’re we doing today, Dynasties?!” the blonde called, her voice filling the area without even needing a microphone (her time as a cheerleader had done wonders for her ability to project). Dynasty, somehow, was the name of our school’s mascot. Yeah. We were the Cadillac Dynasties. And some of my classmates wondered why we were considered spoiled and privileged. That was a real mystery. 

And speaking of being spoiled and privileged, Paige waited until the resulting enthusiastic cheers died down before continuing. “In a couple hours, we’ll have some pizza and wings, then cake and ice cream! And after that… well, then I get my presents.” She said it casually, with a confident, yet charming and somehow self-deprecating smile that made most people chuckle.

“But after I’ve been thoroughly impressed and bribed by all the goodies you’ve brought,” she continued easily, “then we’ll all go inside to my family’s private theater, where you are all invited to watch the new Lou Devereux movie, not due out in public until next week!” 

Yeah, that definitely got cheers. I heard a lot of excited murmurs, words about how cool this was, how they knew Paige would have something good planned, and so on. Beside me, Tomas patted my back slightly, while Izzy actually touched my hand gently. I had a feeling she could tell I was uncomfortable, whatever I did to try to hide that. 

Paige was already continuing. She had adopted a clearly put-on, confused tone. “Except, there’s a problem, isn’t there? I mean, we’re not eating for a couple hours, and the movie is after that. So, what are we going to do in the meantime? It’d be boring if we just sat around, huh?” Her head tilted back and forth as though she was thinking about it, before perking up. “I know! Parties have music, right? So we should have some music.” 

The blonde raised her voice even more then, practically shouting. “Hey, boys! Think you could give us some music?!” 

With that, and as Paige pointed, the curtains around the stage in the distance suddenly dropped. Everyone turned that way to see a band already there in position. And this wasn’t just any band. No, of course not. This was–

“Zenith Renaissance?!” one of the other party guests blurted, her words quickly taken up by others. Because yes, the internationally famous Zenith Renaissance, a band that regularly sold out world tours and whose albums were some of the hottest releases of the past few years, was right there on the stage. And they were already starting to play one of their main songs. Which, of course, drew screams of delight from everyone around me as a bunch suddenly rushed that way to get closer to the stage. A stage that was, naturally, suddenly protected by several big guys in labeled security shirts. 

“How the fuck did she keep this a secret?” San Francisco blurted from a bit behind me, his tone utterly amazed. “And how did her parents convince these guys to play a private concert for a couple hundred people at best?” 

Quietly, I murmured, “You’d be surprised at how good she is at keeping secrets.” Then I quickly shook that off and added, “And money, probably. A lot of money. Probably flew them straight out here from wherever they’re touring right now.” Belatedly, I added, “Come to think of it, where are her parents?” There’d yet to be any sign of them. Paige and the household staff were the only ones we’d seen. 

Most of our classmates had already rushed to be in front of the stage. Even Amber and Jae headed that way to get a good spot, the former calling back that they’d save space for us. But Tomas was still there with Izzy and me, offering a shrug. “Probably busy. Not like they need to be down here. And from what my mum said,” he added in a somewhat quieter voice, “they don’t spend a lot of time with Paige to begin with.” 

That made me do a quick, confused double-take. “Wait, since when does your mom have anything to do with Paige or her parents?” 

That earned another shrug from the boy, who started to walk that way to join the others while answering. “They’ve been golfing together a couple times since we got back! And they do brunch.” 

Okay, now I really wanted to know more about all that. Especially given the fact that Tomas’s father had only recently tried to kill Paige to shut her up. Now his mother was friends with her adopted–uuuurgggh, this was all too goddamn confusing. 

The sound of someone clearing their throat drew my attention behind me, as I belatedly realized that Izzy and I were the only ones still standing away from the stage. Well, Izzy, me, and Paige. Yeah. She was the one clearing her throat, gazing at me with an unreadable expression. I couldn’t tell if she looked sad or smug. 

For a moment, Paige and I just stared at each other, before she casually drawled, “That can go on the table with the others.” Her head nodded toward the present that was still clutched in one of my hands. “Or in the trash if you want to spare one of the maids the time it’ll take to put it there themselves. Either way, I’m sure it’ll end up where it belongs.” A brief pause, then, “I’m sure a lot of things will end up where they belong today.” 

“Hey!” That was Izzy. “When someone brings you a present, you’re supposed to say thank you.” 

Paige, for her part, looked a little amused. “Aww, Cassidy, look. You finally found someone shorter than you to hang around with. Tell the truth, which elementary school is she from?”

“The one where they teach basic manners,” Izzy immediately shot back, surprising me a bit. “You obviously wouldn’t know it.”  

For a brief moment, Paige just stood there without saying anything. Finally, she chuckled and pivoted to walk away with a deceptively casual, “Good to see you’ve got someone to fight your battles for you, Cassie. Not like you’re any good at it yourself. Maybe try someone who’s old enough to stay up past eight o’clock next time?” 

She kept going, heading to join all her devoted fans (who were really fans now that she was giving them a private concert and advance movie screening) even as the music started up. They greeted her with a cheer, of course. Yeah, she owned this party. 

Izzy, meanwhile, looked at me. “Is she really always like that?” 

My mouth opened to confirm it, before I stopped, pausing as an important realization struck me. “No,” I murmured in surprise. “She isn’t always like that.” Quickly, I corrected myself. “I mean, yes, she’s always a bitch to me. That’s not new. But she’s usually nice to other people. Look at what she’s like with all those guys. Amber and Tomas both even said that Paige is cool to everyone except me. So…” Squinting uncertainly, I looked to the girl beside me. “Why would she act like that to you? She’s always more diplomatic with other people, or just uses them defending me as a way of turning it around on an insult to me, like she did at the end with that whole thing about me not fighting my own battles. But she insulted you. She made fun of you being short and young. That doesn’t–she doesn’t do that. Why would she do that now?” 

Izzy offered an uncertain shrug. “Because she knows I’m staying with you, maybe?” 

“Maybe,” I allowed, though it didn’t sound right. There was something off about this entire situation, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something was wrong here. Seriously, where were Paige’s adopted parents? Shouldn’t they at least make an appearance?

Speaking tentatively, Izzy asked, “Do you want to drop off the present and leave? You’ve made an appearance like your parents wanted.” 

Part of me just wanted to do just that, wanted to take off right then and say screw this whole thing. But I couldn’t. Not when this was my best chance to actually find out the truth about the whole Paige situation. This mystery had been going on long enough, and now that I was actually here in her house, I wasn’t giving that up. Something big was going on here, and I couldn’t just walk away from it. 

So, I shook my head, offering the younger girl what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “Not gonna let her being a bitch chase me away from a party. Even if it is hers and even if she’s being more of a bitch than usual. Come on, let’s drop off the gift then go see if Amber and Jae managed to save us a spot.” 

*******

We watched the concert. Outside of the fact that it was in Paige’s backyard and I still didn’t know what the hell was going on with her, it was pretty great. Especially once I let myself give up on the idea of trying to sneak into Paige’s house during the whole thing. There were way too many people around, with various house staff members standing by every entrance. I had the feeling they were there to make sure none of the guests went on an unauthorized tour. Which was exactly what I wanted to do, but not for the reasons they might have expected. 

Or maybe it was for the reasons they expected. For all I knew, the entire house staff was in on this whole thing and knew what Paige was up to. Maybe they were just there to stop a bunch of teenagers from making a mess or stealing things. Or maybe they were there to make sure that whatever was going on went off without a hitch. 

If something was going on. I still didn’t have any proof of that, and it felt like I was crazy for thinking there was. Yet there was that tickle in the back of my brain that just wouldn’t go away. Something was happening, something big. Paige was throwing this party and had invited all these people, including me, for a reason. But… why? What was her deal? 

I still didn’t have any better ideas and wasn’t any closer to answers by the time we all ate pizza, followed by cake and ice cream. It was served out on a large buffet table where you could take anything you wanted. Izzy gorged herself. Obviously, she didn’t exactly feel guilty about taking all the food she could possibly want from Paige after that whole confrontation. 

After that, Paige opened her presents. She oohed and awed dramatically over each one, making a big deal about thanking the person who gave it. Well, except for mine, of course. She opened the one from Izzy and me, producing a couple premium seating tickets to a play that was all-but impossible to get into for most people. It was a play I knew she wanted to see, because I’d heard her talking to a couple friends about it back at school. But because it was from me, she simply held them up, announced what they were, and said a simple, “Thanks so much.” Without naming me, of course. But everyone knew. 

Then it was time to head in to see this movie. I probably could’ve taken off by now. I’d more than made an appearance. But I just… I had to see this through. Something was keeping me here, some thought that this was too important for me to just give up and head home. The answers to what the hell Paige’s deal was were here somewhere, and this was my best chance to get them. 

Once more, as we made our way through the house to the Banners’ private movie theater, there were staff members standing around to make sure nobody wandered off. Good lord, I’d thought this would be a chance for me to sneak away and search the house, but that just wasn’t gonna happen. Not with all the eagle-eyed and attentive maids and such who were bound and determined to watch every step we took. It felt like if someone had so much as taken a wrong turn down a different hallway, a SWAT team would’ve descended on them. I probably would’ve had more luck searching this place by coming in the middle of a school day or something. Because this was just insane. 

But I was here now, and maybe things would calm down during the movie. Yeah. Once everyone got settled in and it was dark, I’d slip out to ‘use the bathroom’, then manage to get myself lost. That felt like my best chance. For now, I’d just wait for the movie to start and everyone to get engrossed in it. 

Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t the first thing on Paige’s mind, apparently. Once everyone was seated in the private theater (there were just barely enough seats for the entire crowd with a couple left over), she moved front and center with her hands up. “You guys all having a good time?!” 

The answer, of course, was a resounding roar of approval from most people, and I watched as Paige… well, seemed to ignore it. Most of the time she would have basked, but now it felt like she was just going through the motions. The look on her face, it wasn’t–it was wrong. It was the wrong expression for this kind of thing, even if she was really good at hiding it. There was something…

Belatedly, I realized Paige was still talking while I was trying to decipher her expression and mood. Something about giving presents to everyone who came–right. Yeah, she was going to gift a present to each and every person here, one at a time. There was a table full of colorful gift bags beside her, and she proceeded to start calling every person up, one at a time, to get their present for being a ‘wonderful guest.’ 

The gifts were either a new phone, new smart watch, or new ipad, depending on what Paige had determined each person needed or would want more. And yeah, everyone went nuts. A few people hugged her after getting their gift, before heading to their seat. 

Honestly, I expected her to skip over me. Expected it so much I almost didn’t hear her when she said my name. So she said it again. “Cassie Evans.” 

She was looking at me. They were all looking at me. Fuck. Pushing myself up while asking myself what the hell her game was, I headed to the front. Cassie. She called me Cassie. Paige never did that. It was always Cassidy. Cassie was way too familiar and friendly. And she’d called me that earlier, hadn’t she? With Izzy. Why…? 

Reaching the front, I squinted at the girl, almost silently daring her to pull something now in front of everyone. She, in turn, offered me a faint… kind of sad smile. Sad? Why was she sad? 

“I want you to know,” Paige informed me, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “I think you earned this a long time ago.” With that, she turned to pick up yet another small gift bag, this one with my name on it. She held it up, and I saw her hand dip into the bag, eyes rising to meet mine with an expression of… fear…? 

A sudden, terrifying bang filled the room. It sounded like a gunshot. Instantly, the lights went out. The whole area was suddenly pitch black and everyone started screaming, even as something was shoved against my face. A mask? No, like an oxygen mask. It was an oxygen mask, except it wasn’t pumping oxygen. It was–it smelled sweet, it smelled–

My knees went weak. I collapsed forward, caught by Paige in the darkness even as my consciousness started to fade. I felt sick, I felt wrong, everything was… everything was…

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Paige’s voice whispered in my ear as she slumped to the floor with my falling body. Her voice, her apology, was the last thing I heard. “You have to die. I don’t have a choice.

“You have to die.”

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Project Owl 14-01 and Patreon Snippets 17B (Summus Proelium)

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The single requested snippet for Summus Proelium this month follows the end of this regular chapter. Thank you very much to the patron who requested it! 

The morning started out like most others did these days. In other words, it started by me being woken up by Jania Estrada, our elderly-yet-eternally-energetic maid from Panama, turning on the vacuum cleaner a few feet away from the bed I was snoring on. As usual, the sudden loud noise sent me tumbling out of bed with a yelp, which made Jania’s cheerful laugh overwhelm the sound of the machine itself. She wasn’t malicious about it, of course. Jania was one of the nicest people I knew. But she had a job to do and I tended to sleep in on non-school days, for reasons that should have been fairly obvious (not that I could give them to her). She wasn’t waking me up for the hell of it, even if my reaction did give her some amusement. She did other work upstairs and waited as long as she could before Olivia, our head housekeeper, would have had harsh words for her tardiness. 

Still, whether by choice or not, Jania did find waking me up with the vacuum and my subsequent reactions to be ever-so-amusing. Sometimes I managed to wake up first, but others, like now, she would put the vacuum close enough to give me a minor heart attack when it flipped on. 

Lying in a heap on the floor, I turned my head just enough to stare at the gray-haired woman who was currently giving an entirely-too-innocent expression while vacuuming back and forth. “Oh, Miss Evans!” Her mock surprise wasn’t the least bit convincing, and she obviously knew it. “I did not see you there. Were you not downstairs already eating?” Her head tilted, and then she made a sound of put-on realization. “Oh, that must have been Miss Amor who was at the table.”  

With a groan, I rolled backward and managed to pull myself to my feet somewhat awkwardly. “Yeah, sure,” I retorted, “simple mistake. We look so much alike.” Picking up one of my pillows, I chucked it lightly at her. She, of course, smoothly ducked without paying much attention. For an old lady, she was pretty spry and had good reflexes to go along with her good mood and sense of humor. 

Checking the time, I grimaced. It was almost eleven o’clock. God, I really had needed sleep. Worse, Paige’s party was supposed to start at two, so that was only three hours away. Urgh. Once again, I considered just pleading off. But not only was there that whole ‘keeping up appearances for the family’ thing, I also really wanted to know what the hell was going on with her, and this was basically my best (if not only) chance to find out. 

As far as the first bit went, I did wonder just what my parents were thinking about all this. They knew that Paige knew at least something about their business, that she had enough information to make them back off and leave her alone. Yet they still wanted me to go to this party. Was I some kind of unwitting spy? Were they going to ask me all kinds of things about her when it was all over? Was this just their way of getting someone in Paige’s house? Were they using the whole party thing as a way to find out how much Paige really knew, as some kind of test or… something? I had no idea. All I knew was that my mother said that it would be rude for our family to turn down an invitation from her family, but that I was free to leave once I’d made an appearance. Which was an offer I still wasn’t sure if I’d take or not. Sure, I was wary of going, but once I was there, it made sense to stick around and see what happened. Again, it wasn’t as though this kind of opportunity came around a lot. 

Still, with only three hours to go, all sorts of doubts and insecurities were popping up in my head. Anything could go wrong over there. And by that, I meant anything. Paige could be planning some kind of humiliating, nasty attack against me, or this could end up being some big Touched/Ministry-related thing. Or it could be nothing at all, just both sides (her and my parents) feeling each other out to see what the other would do. 

It was fucking complicated, and I had no idea how it was all going to play out. What I did know was that I was hungry, and that at least was something I could take care of immediately. Well, almost immediately. First, I headed into the bathroom, took a nice, hot shower, then dressed before heading downstairs. 

The others were obviously long-since done with breakfast by then, with Dad already off to some meeting, Mom having a conversation in the front hall with some florist or dressmaker or something who had stopped by (I wasn’t sure, as I kept hearing both words about flowers and fabric), and Simon paused on his way out the door of the kitchen as I was going in just long enough to give me a noogie before he headed for the garage. 

Izzy was still sitting there, looking at the comic strips in the newspaper. After ordering food at the intercom, I took a seat next to her. “How’s Garfield today?” 

“Fat and lazy,” she replied, looking over at me. “Are you really going to go see that girl’s birthday? Isn’t she, umm… not very nice?” 

Yeah, I may have said a thing or two about Paige while Izzy and I were playing video games before. Plus, she’d seen her back at Amber’s own party. Grimacing, I shook my head. “Don’t really have much of a choice. It’s a whole ‘rich people’ thing. Her family’s rich, mine is rich, we have to play nice at times like this. According to Mom, it wasn’t even Paige who wanted to invite me. It was more ‘her family inviting our family’, with me as the proxy.” Rolling my eyes, I added, “Fun, huh?” 

“Super,” came the simple response, before Izzy turned a bit more to face me directly. “Your umm, your mom asked if I wanted to go, cuz there’s supposed to be a lot of different kids there, even my age. It’s a whole thing. The Banners invited half the people in the city, it seems like. But I… I told her I wasn’t sure if you wanted company. Or, you know… some kid tagging along.” 

That made me do a double-take, blinking at her. “Wasn’t sure I wanted–sure, Izzy. I mean, I’ll take all the back-up I can get. And you’re not just some kid, you’re–” Realizing I had no idea how to finish that sentence, I settled on doubling down with, “You’re not just some kid. Besides, if Paige is awful, I’ll just retreat to the tweens area and hang out with you.” 

“You don’t think that’ll just give her more ammo about you being too young?” Izzy pointed out, clearly trying to sound diplomatic about the whole thing. 

I, in turn, shrugged. “It’s not like she needs any excuse. I’m not gonna live my life by what might give Paige Banners a way to make fun of me. She’ll do that regardless. I’d rather have fun. And if I’ve got to make an appearance there, I’d rather have someone else to hang out with, like you.” 

“And Amber and Jae,” the other girl pointed out. “They’ll be there too, right?” 

“Right, yeah, them too.” I gave a slow nod before giving her a quick wink. “You guys really hit it off before, huh?” 

A brief, vaguely odd look crossed the girl’s face before vanishing. It could’ve been my imagination. Either way, she gave a quick nod. “Uh huh, they’re nice.” The curt answer was followed up by a curious, “What’s a birthday party for the rich like?” 

“Oh, you’ll see,” I informed her with a cough. “It’s always different, and I haven’t exactly been invited to many of Paige’s, so I don’t know what she does.” Or did I? At some point, I’d clearly been close enough to Paige to know a lot more about her than I did now. Did I visit for her birthday? Had I–

“Cassidy?” Izzy’s voice interrupted, as she touched my arm. “Are you okay?” 

“Oh, uhh, yeah, sorry.” Flushing despite myself, I nodded. “I’m fine. The point is, birthdays are extravagant. But then, I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out a lot of things around here are extravagant by now.” 

Even as I said that, the kitchen door opened and Christiana, one of Chef Claudio’s assistants, emerged with the tray holding my breakfast. After thanking her for setting it in front of me, I quickly dug into it, while glancing at the girl next to me, “So, you’re gonna come, right?” 

“Um, okay.” Izzy still sounded unsure about the whole thing, but gave me a little nod. “If you want me to.” 

Honestly, I really wasn’t sure how all this was going to go down. Would having Izzy there put her in danger? I’d basically figured out and accepted by that point that my parents didn’t mean her any harm, whatever reason they had for her being here. But taking her out to where Paige’s house was, when I wasn’t sure why I had even been invited? Was it stupid? 

Maybe. But there would be a lot of people there, as Izzy herself had noted. No one was going to pull something obvious with so many witnesses and bodyguards around. 

Right? 

********

“Holy shit, Evans, you actually showed up?” 

Izzy and I had just been dropped off in the front drive of the Banners mansion. Like my family’s place, the ‘driveway’ was long enough to have several school buses park along it. There weren’t exactly school buses parked there now, though there were several cars all letting out an assortment of teenagers. Most looked pretty damn impressed by the massive house in front of them. 

That obviously surprised exclamation had come from a short (well, taller than me but only by about four inches or so), vaguely heavyset black guy with glasses and an ever-present red baseball cap worn backwards. San Francisco Cavers. Yeah, his first name was San and his middle name was Francisco. His parents really thought they were clever, I supposed. 

“Hey, San,” I greeted him. He’d gone by Frank (as in San Francisco) for awhile back in junior high before deciding he hated that worse than just San. “What’s up?” 

Whether his name was cool or weird, San was a friend. Sort of. Mostly he was a ‘hang out at school or go do something dangerous and crazy afterward’ sort of buddy. Not that we’d exactly hung out any time recently. Mostly because I hadn’t hung out with… any of my school friends. How could I? Either I’d be putting innocent people in danger by being around them, or I’d be spending time with people who were planted by my parents to keep an eye on me. Any of my ‘friends’ at school could’ve been secretly reporting to my parents. Or collateral damage if something happened to me. 

Paranoid? Sure, definitely, no question. But didn’t I have reason to be? Yeah, I’d avoided most of my school friends since that night. It hadn’t been all that hard, given how much I’d tended to keep them at a distance anyway. For… reasons I was starting to understand, with this whole Anthony Tate thing. He’d been a really close friend and he died. Whatever happened back then had obviously been traumatizing enough that my parents erased it from my memory. But I had a feeling that some of it had stuck around. Between that and Paige apparently being erased and–

Actually, was it possible that… if Paige and I had been friends, even if she was also somehow erased from my memory, when she’d showed up again and acted like such a bitch to me, I’d subconsciously taken that as some kind of betrayal? Could that have helped my whole… avoiding close friendships thing too? 

Huh. 

San was shaking his head. “What’s up? What’s up is I’m surprised you came. I mean, it ain’t like you and Princess Peach in there are all that close.” 

Grimacing, I nodded. “Yeah, well, it’s a family sort of thing. You know, gotta keep up appearances.” 

With that, I started to introduce Izzy as a girl who was staying with us for awhile, just as Tomas approached. Of course he was there too, speaking of people whom I still didn’t know if I could trust at all or not. I wanted to, naturally. But I kept flipping back and forth between just how involved he was with his father. The fact that he’d been my boyfriend for awhile after Mr. Jackson erased my memory back in the day… yeah, it made me uncomfortable. But Tomas was just so… decent, so cool. He made me feel like I was special. 

Then again, so had my parents. And look at that whole situation. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, I focused as Tomas was saying, “You know Cass isn’t going to let someone being a hellbeast stop her from doing anything.” His hand patted my back as he added, “I mean, come on, this is the same girl who, according to some very interesting stories people were telling the other day, jumped into Maggie DeLeano’s pool from the roof just because someone said she was too chicken to do it from the balcony. She didn’t just beat the dare, she upped the ante. And freaked out Mr. DeLeano when he saw her fall past the window, so he came out and started yelling.” 

“You did?” That was Izzy, staring at me with wide eyes. “Wait, how big was the DeLeano house?” Clearly, she was trying to figure out just what level of crazy I actually was. 

“Just a few stories, no big deal,” I insisted. “They have a deep pool too. Trust me, it was nothing.” 

“Nothing?” Tomas chuckled, giving me a look. “From what I heard, no one else was ready to go jumping off after her.” 

“That’s because they’re all sissies,” I pointed out mildly, poking him in the chest. “And so are you.” 

“Sissy and proud of it, ma’am,” he replied with a grin that made my heart twist itself into knots. Even now, even with everything I knew and all the things about that whole situation that terrified me, Tomas could make my knees shake and my mouth go dry with a single look. How was that fair? 

With some effort, I shoved all those thoughts away before looking at San. “Anyway, can we stop telling Izzy all about the dumb things I used to do when I was young and stupid?” 

Lowering his head, the boy stared at me over the top of his glasses, looking entirely unimpressed. “Dude, it was like…. four months ago.” 

“Four month–” Izzy looked at her fingers, doing the mental math. “Wasn’t it still winter then?” 

“Pshh, their pool was heated,” I pointed out, as if that actually solved anything. Still, my face flushed a little. “And yeah, four months ago. Like I said, young and dumb. I wasn’t even sixteen yet. Totally not worth ever bringing up again.”

“What’s not worth bringing up again?” Amber, approaching with Jae (who was heavily done up in a hat, sunscreen, and dark shades to protect her sensitive albino skin), asked. She exchanged a fist bump with San, while looking toward me. “You sure you wanna be here?” 

Despite myself, I rolled my eyes. “Come on, guys. I didn’t accidentally have the driver drop us off here thinking it was the mall. And I didn’t bring this for my health.” From my pocket, I produced a small, red-wrapped present to wave at them. “Believe me, if it was my choice, I’d rather be almost anywhere else. But her family and mine just–we have to play nice.” 

Quietly, Jae pointed out, “Her too.” 

“Right, that should mean she plays nice too, especially with all these people here,” Amber agreed. “But shouldn’t we go in to find out? What’s everyone standing outside like this for anyway?” By that point, there had to be over a hundred teenagers out here, all talking in small groups or pairs. 

San shrugged, looking around at the rest of the mingling groups. “One of the butlers was out here before. He said something about the party being prepared and that we’ve all gotta wait.” 

Tomas gave a short nod of confirmation. “Yeah, and he didn’t look too happy about all the people out here either. Pretty sure if it was up to him, he’d turn the hose on all of us.”

That, of course, was the perfect opening for San to start talking about the time I’d managed to get Mrs. Kormish to turn her hose on me after one too many times running through her backyard to get the balls that ended up back there. Her yard was right on the edge of the park where I took my skates and board to use the ramps and rails, and some of the guys played baseball on the nearby diamond. I didn’t really play, but every time a ball went in mean old Mrs. Kormish’s yard, the boys all looked to me to go get it. Apparently I was the only one who wasn’t chicken, given how much she yelled at and threatened anyone who got near her grass. 

Anyway, one time I’d gone too close to her back porch, and she came running out from the side of the house (apparently she’d been working in the flower garden there), spraying me with the hose and screaming bloody murder. That was a fun time. 

Izzy was squinting at me. “How come so many of your stories end with ‘and then I got soaked while someone screamed at me?’” 

San laughed. “Oh, kid, you think that’s bad, you should’ve heard about the time we out on the beach, and–” 

He was interrupted (and I was spared hearing that story again), by the arrival of Paige herself. Several people quickly spoke up, pointing her out as the birthday girl stood at the front door. Her gaze swept over the crowd and… I swore she looked right at me. Our gazes locked, holding steady for a solid couple of seconds before she spoke up. 

“You came.” 

Me? Was–was she talking to–

By that point, her gaze had swept on, taking in everyone with a very faint smile. Whatever had been there on her face earlier was gone now. It had been replaced by a polite smile, that of a gracious host. “Thank you all. I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. But believe me, it’s going to be worth it. Come on inside.” She turned, gesturing as two maids there opened the large front doors, holding them wide for everyone to follow as Paige herself walked back into her house. 

“Let’s get this party started.”

********

Patreon Snippets – Raindrop

“Does this hurt?” With that question, the paramedic who stood in front of Raindrop gently turned her arm, testing the range of motion. “You said a brick clipped it right here? Or was it higher?”

It had been a few minutes since the fight with Suckshot and Landlock. Izzy was still standing in the theater, though no longer up on the stage. Still in full-costume, of course, the girl was holding her arm out absently for the medic to check over while her gaze remained centered on the spot where Paintball was waving off a medic of his own, insisting he was fine. 

Realizing belatedly that she had been asked a question, Izzy flushed under her mirrored faceplate and quickly turned her attention back. “Huh? Oh-um, no, it’s just a little sore. Um, bruised, I guess?” Her gloved hand moved to gingerly touch the spot where she had been clipped by the brick before Paintball showed up. Before Paintball helped save them. Helped save her

She was blushing again. Forcing herself to focus once more, she listened as the medic finished up with making sure she wasn’t injured even worse, and told her what to do if she did find that it was more than a bruise. 

Finally, he left. Paintball, meanwhile, had already started to head for the exit after seeing that the authorities had Suckshot and Landlock in hand. After giving a quick glance around herself to make sure she wasn’t ignoring anyone, Izzy jogged after, catching up with the boy. For a second, she hesitated. What was she going to say? The first thing that sprang to mind was to ask how he was already so good at this stuff when he’d just started out a short time ago and wasn’t working with a group. He was her age. Her age, but he did all this stuff alone, or even came to help when they needed it even though he wasn’t part of their team.

And that was another question Izzy wanted to ask. Why? Why didn’t he want to work with them? Actually, it was pretty obvious that he was just fine working with them, as long as it wasn’t official. So… so what was his deal? 

Ugh, he was so mysterious. He came out of nowhere, was super-good at this stuff even if he made mistakes, and he just… he just helped. She’d even heard that he was giving out sandwiches and stuff to the homeless. Again, what was his deal

But she couldn’t bring herself to ask any of that. It was too confrontational, too direct. And after everything he’d done, after the way he’d jumped in and–

Blushing again. Good mask. Very good mask. Izzy had never been so thankful for–

“After you.” Paintball was holding the door open leading out to the street. Holding the door and waiting for her expectantly. 

“Thanks,” Izzy quickly piped up before starting to move through. The minor voice changer she used, just enough to make it so people wouldn’t be able to put her voice online to figure out who she was, picked up the squeak in her words, making the girl blush even more as she quickly stepped through the doorway. Then she turned back, facing Paintball. “Um. Thanks for all of that, I mean. Thanks for helping.”

For a second, Paintball seemed to be confused. “Thanks–oh. Uh, no problem. It’s what we do, right?” 

“Right,” Izzy agreed hurriedly, bobbing her head. It was just what they did. Never mind that Paintball managed to be funny and cool about it while not having a team with him or anything. Never mind any of that. Stop thinking about that. Yeah. 

Clearly, whatever else Paintball was, he was not telepathic. Because he gave no indication that he had any hint of anything Izzy was thinking. Instead, his helmeted head turned as he took in the sight of various cops rounding up mostly-injured and only slightly resisting gang members all around them. “I guess we should help clean up a bit, huh?”  

Once again, Izzy found herself nodding. Right, they should help clean up. She and Paintball should help. 

Her blush was going to burn through the mirrored faceplate, she just knew it. 

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Patreon Snippets 16B (Summus Proelium)

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That-A-Way’s First Experiments With Her Powers, Just Over One Year Ago 

“Okay, what the hell?!” Amber O’Connell blurted in the privacy of her own bedroom, while the speakers from her computer blared out music from Spotify to ensure her mother wouldn’t hear what she was up to. She was standing by the door, staring very intently at a spot by the closet directly across from her. “Work! Come on, you did it before! What the fuck, did I get a defective orb or something?” 

The Summus Proelium sphere. That’s what it was. That was the thing that had appeared earlier that day, while Amber was losing her mind over the realization that all the work she’d put into finding the person who had killed her father in a hit-and-run was useless because the car had been stolen. So the owner wasn’t responsible. It was a total dead-end. She had been… not dealing with that very well, when the sphere appeared in front of her. She’d touched it, seen visions of herself, her dad… her poor dad. She saw the car that had hit him, the man she thought was responsible, she saw everything she’d done to track him down, all for nothing. 

Then she’d come out of it, stumbled forward, and in an instant, she had been a hundred yards away. She’d teleported. She had absolutely, totally teleported! 

But now she couldn’t. She was standing here, where no one could see her, and her power just wouldn’t work. Was that it? Had her power been something like, ‘teleport one time?’ What bullshit was that?! How was she going to find her father’s killer if her powers didn’t even work? 

Annoyed, Amber stalked forward while throwing both hands up in the air. How was she supposed to use a superpower that wouldn’t listen to her?! Was teleporting hard? She’d focused on it as much as she could for the past five minutes, but nothing happened. Not even a flicker. Why didn’t it work?! In frustration, she brought both fists against her closet door. 

And her hands went right through it. Through it as in through it, as if the door wasn’t there at all. The door was still intact, but her hands were… were like ghost-hands. Wait. Eyes wide, the dark-haired girl slowly extended both arms, sticking them further through the closet. 

Behind her, the bedroom door started to open while her mother called, “Amber, what’ve I said about blaring your music so–” 

Spinning, Amber lunged that way with a gasp. And, in the next instant, she was there. She was right next to the door. Teleport. She had teleported again. Also, her hands were solid, a fact she found out quite suddenly as she banged into the door to stop her mother from barging in. “Sorry, Mom!” she blurted. “I’ll turn it down.” No way was she going to explain all of this right now. 

After a quick back-and-forth where Amber promised to gather her laundry and bring it down, her mother left. With a sigh, the girl shoved the door shut once more and turned. “Okay, teleport. Since you’re working again, let’s go.” Once more, she focused on the spot by the closet. 

Nothing. Again. A long, heavy groan of frustration left her. “What?! Why–what the hell?” 

Okay, wait. With a thoughtful frown, Amber walked forward toward the closet, still trying to focus on her power. Her hand rose and extended, until she walked right into the closet door… and passed through it. Her hand was in the closet, sticking through the door like it wasn’t there. 

She couldn’t teleport from the entrance of her room to the closet, but she could… turn intangible? And if she went from her closet to the bedroom entrance… Amber looked that way and focused again. 

There. She was right there, by the bedroom door. She’d teleported across the length of her room with a thought. So what the fuck? Why could she do it in one direction but not another? What sense did that make? And why was she intangible going the other way? What? 

Turning back toward the closet, Amber focused once more. She thought about using her power and stepped forward while slowly putting her hand out toward the end of her bed. And just like that, she was intangible again. Her hand passed through the foot of the bed like it wasn’t there. 

Okay… she turned to look at the bedroom door, only to yelp as her hand abruptly jerked away on its own. It had gone back to being solid and automatically snapped away from the bed it had still been inside of just because she turned–wait. Just because she turned to face the other way. 

A thought sent her from the bed over to the entrance to her room. Teleport. Turning back the other way and focusing on her power, she was intangible (a fact that was proven as she waved her hand out to the side and made it pass through a shelf full of trophies and pictures). 

Right. She could teleport, but only when going one specific direction? Was the direction from her bedroom door to her closet the same way she’d been facing when she’d teleported the first time? It had to be, right? And facing the other way, toward her bedroom entrance, she was intangible. But why? Why did she have one power facing one way and a different power facing the other way? Gluegirl (the hot super chick on the New York Conservators that Amber’d had a crush on basically since she’d figured out she liked girls) didn’t have to worry about things like what direction she was facing. 

Wait, more importantly, did it work in other directions? Did she have teleportation through a hundred and eighty degrees  and intangibility through the other hundred and eighty? Curious, Amber stepped to the middle of the room, facing the closet. She did an about-face, turning to her right at exactly the midpoint between the closet and doorway. Taking a breath, she focused again on using her power. The problem, of course, being that she wasn’t exactly sure what the power was. Would it just be teleportation or intangibility again? Curious, she put a hand out toward her desk. Nope, solid. Definitely solid. Then she focused on staring intently at the spot by the window. Teleport… teleport… nothing. Right, so she didn’t just have the two powers. There had to be something else, but how was she supposed to guess what it was? 

With an annoyed sigh, the girl took a step toward the window. And suddenly, she was slamming face-first into the window. She hadn’t teleported. No. She had actually moved through the entire space to get there, she’d just done it incredibly quickly. So quickly that she’d actually crashed into the window and bounced off it with a yelp. 

Hold on, hold on! Scrambling to her feet, Amber turned to the door, thinking hard about the hallway outside her room. 

She was there. She’d faced the bedroom entrance, thought about it, and was suddenly on the far side of the door, in the hallway. 

Oh fuck, that was really stupid. If her mother had been standing there, what–shit. She’d been so intent on testing this out that she hadn’t even thought about that. Luckily, however, her mother had gone back downstairs. Amber was alone in the hall. 

Turning to face the same way she’d been going when she’d bounced off her window, Amber hesitated just for a second before launching herself into a sprint. Once again, she was incredibly fast, crossed the entire distance, past her parents’ bedroom, the sewing room, and the upstairs bathroom all in an instant before bouncing off the wall at the far end. She yelped, falling on her rear at the top of the stairs. 

“Amber?” Her mother called from below. “What’re you doing up there?” 

“Nothing, Mom!” the girl blurted, hurriedly picking herself up. “It’s fine, I’m fine, I’m just–” Under her breath, she finished, “–a fucking superhero.” 

Wait, wait. What about the other way? Looking back the way she had come, Amber thought about it. Intangibility when she was facing her closet. Teleportation when she was facing the entrance to her bedroom. Superspeed when going toward the stairs at this end of the hall. But what about going back the other way? 

Well, shit. After another five minutes of focusing and walking back and forth, she still had no idea. She had a sense of something happening. There was just a feeling she got somewhere in the pit of her stomach when her power was working. It was there when she was fast, when she teleported, and when she turned intangible. And it was definitely there when she was facing the other way. But as to what it actually did? No clue. None. She definitely couldn’t fly. And how weird would that be anyway, being able to fly but only in one direction? Probably only slightly weirder than only being able to teleport or run superfast in one direction, come to think of it. 

Either way, she had no idea what moving that direction did. Which was just dumb. How many Touched got powers and couldn’t even figure out what one of them did? 

With a sigh after failing for another ten minutes at deciphering the power, she headed downstairs. She’d been smelling cookies for awhile. Getting some sugar and chocolate, that would help her think about how to figure this out, right? 

Seeing her mother down the hall in the laundry, Amber called, “Hey, is it okay if I grab a couple of those cookies?!” The whole time, she kept focusing on her power, trying to see if anything would happen. 

“Is it okay if you what?” Her mother prompted without turning around as she sorted the clothes. 

“Please,” Amber added, restraining the urge to roll her eyes. 

“Yes, take a few,” came the answer. “But leave enough for the Moensens, I’m taking some over there in a couple minutes!” 

“Kay!” With that, Amber moved into the kitchen. There, the cookie sheet was on top of the stove. Full of delicious, delicious chocolate chip scrumptiousness. Reaching out, she tapped the metal pan once to check the heat before picking it up and turning with it to grab a plate so she could slide the cookies she wanted right off onto it. 

Fucking owww! The second that Amber turned toward the island counter, the metal tray in her hand abruptly turned burning hot, and she yelped while dropping the pan. 

The cookies and pan were falling. But they were doing so incredibly slowly. Speed. Her speed, she was facing the right way to have speed, and it had kicked in. In a rush, Amber forgot her burned hand, quickly grabbing a nearby oven mitt from the island. She had time to slide it onto her hand, grab the pan, and quickly right it while catching all the falling cookies before any could hit the floor. 

That done, the girl turned back to the stove and set the pan down once more before staring at it with wide eyes. Hot. It had suddenly turned hot as soon as she wasn’t facing this way. Did that… did that mean…? 

She reached out without thinking about her power. She’d been focusing on it the whole time she’d been in the kitchen, so intent on trying to figure out what the power actually did while facing that way, that she hadn’t even thought about using it while picking up the pan. 

Fuck! Hot! Without focusing on her power, the tray was too hot to touch. But then she focused on it once more, getting that feeling in the pit of her stomach. And once again, the tray wasn’t hot at all. Did… did that mean her power when facing this way was ‘immunity from heat?’ 

No, wait. Hold on. Glancing over her shoulder to make sure her mother wasn’t around, Amber reached out to grab a knife from the nearby drawer. Taking a breath and letting it out slowly, she once more focused on her power while touching the knife to her own arm. Gently at first, but with gradually increasing pressure. 

It worked. Or rather, it didn’t work. The knife wouldn’t cut her. 

She’d figured it out! Invulnerability. She had teleportation when moving one way, intangibility the opposite way from that, superspeed when moving a third direction, and she was invulnerable when moving the opposite way from that. Four different powers when moving in four different directions! She finally had it! Holy shit, she had superpowers and she knew how to use them! 

“Oh fuck,” Amber managed, while staring at the tray full of rescued cookies. 

“What the hell am I gonna name myself?” 

 

********

 

Lucent 

 

As the sun set, and the streetlights began to glow, a single dark-colored bird perched atop one of those lamps. There were identical bird figures atop the roof of the nearby pharmacy building, on the edge of a railing across the street, atop another streetlamp a block away, and on the ladder of a fire escape in the alley between the pharmacy and the building next to it. 

None of those other figures moved. But the first, the one atop the light directly in front of the pharmacy itself, cocked his head to the side, studying the doors below, then the street in either direction. From the perspective of anyone down there, he would be almost invisible in that position, perched above the light. 

That near-invisibility grew even stronger as the dark raven’s feathers abruptly shifted color. What were once black turned a silvery-gray to blend in with the lamppost. At the same time, the motionless bird figures shifted to match the color of their surroundings as well. Then there was peace, the only sound being that of the cars passing by below and a few pedestrians hurrying to their own vehicles to get home. 

That relative calm was interrupted by the sound of a voice cackling, “Hehe, hey Luci, heard you’re a proud papa now.” 

The voice was only audible through the tiny earpiece, hidden under his feathers, that Lucent wore stuck gently but firmly in the hole. The earpiece conveyed sound through the various communication networks the Touched raven was linked to. In this case, it was a personal channel, one that he and other Touched animals throughout the country were a part of. Some of them were more active talkers than others, some used a text-to-speech program to talk, and some didn’t say anything at all. They simply listened. Lucent understood those last ones. They found it hard to find the right thing to say, but still wanted to be a part of the Touched-animal chat room to stave off the loneliness that came with being part of the few non-human intelligent creatures on the planet. Touched animals of any kind were rare to begin with, so any individual would at best have a few others of their species. Some had none at all, and lived their lives as the only member of their kind with intelligent thought. 

The one teasing him through the com, in that moment, was a member of that last type. His name was Postal, and he was an alligator living in Florida. The only Touched alligator that was known to exist. Beyond his enhanced intelligence, Postal’s powers allowed him to mark any target he was looking at. As long as he continued looking at that target, any non-melee attack that Postal was aware of could be redirected to it rather than to its intended destination. This included gunshots, ranged powers, even such simple things as thrown balls. In addition, Postal could mark a single target that any ranged attack would veer away from. This he didn’t need to constantly look at, but the effect would fade if the marked target left his general area. 

“You have been reading the Sphere… forum again, I presume?” Lucent calmly replied, pitching his voice to be quite low. The pause in the middle came as he took a breath. He wasn’t wearing the device on his beak that often projected his words. As a raven, one of the few animals in the world who could physically speak human language without extra technical aid, Lucent didn’t actually need such a device all the time. But it made extended conversations easier, as given his small size, he lacked much lung capacity for speaking long sentences without taking a break to breathe. 

In this case, however, he’d wanted to blend in and look like any other bird for anyone who had been watching him approach this place. There were rumors that one of the Fell-gangs was going to make a move on the pharmacy he was perched outside of, and Lucent was determined not to let another shipment of much-needed medical supplies disappear. The other bird-like figures perched around the street were part of his own power. Essentially, they were statues whose heads could move to look around. Lucent could shift his own vision at any point to see through their eyes in order to watch more of the surrounding area. In any combat situation, the statues could also project concussive blasts from one eye and lasers from the other. 

“Sure have,” Postal confirmed that he had been reading Sphere. “How come you never told me you had a bouncy bundle of joy in the world, huh? Really bouncy, from the sound of it.”

For a moment, Lucent didn’t respond. He was watching a pair of figures at the far end of the street, half-hidden in a doorway. He’d thought they might have been suspicious, just standing there in the shadows. Then he realized they were rather involved with one another, physically

“Well now,” he abruptly replied while instinctively puffing himself up a bit, “‘Twould hardly be… appropriate to put such a… son in the spotlight before he… was properly raised, would it?” Again, he had to pause now and then to take a breath. 

That raised a few comments from other Tonis (TOuched Nonhuman Individual) in the chat, including Lion, the Tech-Touched mouse from Seattle who designed elaborate defensive structures. She’d been too busy with a recent project and had no idea what they were talking about. So, in a way that made it clear he was leaning into the obvious joke, Lucent explained the ongoing theory amongst those in the Detroit section of the Sphere forum that the newest (very human) Star-Touched was secretly Lucent’s own son. 

After more teasing back and forth, there was a soft chime followed by the sound of Lion saying her name, an alert that she was inviting him to a private chat. He accepted after taking another look around to ensure the area around the building was still clear. 

“Lucent?” came the always hesitant, nervous voice of Lion. “I ahh, I know you joke about it. But how’re you doing with this whole son thing? I know you… that boy you used to be with in that theater, before you were Touched…” 

“Bradley,” Lucent managed, as a wave of pain washed over him. Bradley was the son of the man who had actually ‘owned’ Lucent before he gained his intelligence and powers. It was Bradley who cared for Lucent the most, who ensured he was fed and played with him. The two had been nearly inseparable for a couple years, living in an old, yet well-loved theater where Lucent had originally learned to speak by mimicking the old medieval-style language spoken in the plays the theater’s owner (and Bradley’s father) was so fond of. 

The boy had been about the same age that this Paintball must be, when tragedy had struck. Tragedy that resulted in the destruction of the theater, the deaths of many people including poor Bradley, and Lucent gaining his new powers and intelligence (and later, a new name, as he felt the old him had died back then with his best friend Bradley). 

“Ohhh, oh, I’m sorry,” Lion lamented. “I shouldn’t have brought it up. I’m so sorry. I just–I wasn’t sure how you were–I wanted to–” 

“Tis quite understandable… dear miss,” Lucent quickly assured her. Nervous and skittish as Lion was, particularly about reaching out to people, he didn’t want to make the tiny mouse feel bad. “Little as I know this… Paintball, I do believe he… is a fine and upstanding young… man whom my Bradley would… have gotten along quite well with. He’s a strong, smart… creative lad. Being seen as… in any way responsible for that… even as mere jest… is a fine honor and one I… look on with pride.” 

There was a brief pause, before Lion tentatively asked, “You’re sure you’re okay with it?” 

“Aye,” Lucent confirmed. “Lad’s a true hero. And I hardly fault… others their fun. My only concern is for… the boy himself, and his feelings. But from all evidence… he would find it as amusing as I.” 

“Maybe you two should find a way to play into the joke,” came the mouse’s quiet suggestion. 

“Mayhaps we shall,” Lucent agreed, before going silent as a dark sedan approached the building. It turned down the nearby alley, and he shifted his vision to the statue he had parked on the fire escape there to watch as men in masks began to step out of the car once it had come to a stop. 

“Ah, pardon me, milady,” he informed his conversation partner while pushing himself off the lamppost, taking to the air on silent wings. 

“Duty calls.” 

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Pink 12-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, it was hard to concentrate on the race after that. I mean, it was a good one, for sure. Even Izzy, Jae, and Amber got into it despite not really being ‘racing’ type people. They were still totally hooked. But all I could think about throughout all the excitement was that I needed to get back to the Seraph HQ and see those folders again. Was the right one down in the area I’d been cleaning out? If I got there and looked around, would I actually find it? Would it have the answers I needed? Would the answers actually lead me to Bobby, or to something else important that he’d been trying to leave clues or something to? Would the file be something like-

“Cassie?” The small voice interrupted my racing (hah) thoughts, and I blinked over to find Izzy staring at me. “Are you okay?” she asked quietly. “You look… weird. Do your ribs hurt?” 

Before I could respond to that, Amber and Jae both looked away from the race, the former speaking up. “Why would her ribs hurt?” She frowned in confusion, adding, “What happened?”

My mouth opened, but again before I could say anything, Simon answered for me instead while reaching over to ruffle the long side of my hair. “Oh, my sweet, innocent little sister who never does anything wrong totally thought it’d be a good idea to go off on her own to try skateboarding in the middle of nowhere and hurt herself on Friday, didn’t she? Then she had to walk home.” 

Flushing a little, I managed an indignant little shrug while defensively protesting. “I… I wasn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, I was just at that half-built water park just outside of town.” 

Simon raised an eyebrow, a smirk touching his face as he pressed. “And that place is…?” 

Shifting back and forth in my seat, I folded my arms and muttered, “In the middle of nowhere.” 

“Are you serious?” Amber exchanged a quick glance with Jae before looking back to me with obvious concern. “Are you okay? What–how did you hurt yourself? Did–what happened?” 

This was somehow just as awkward as lying to my parents had been. Maybe even more so, since these two didn’t have anything to do with the Touched stuff and were just concerned about me. I squirmed a little uncomfortably before giving them the same general story I’d told before about how I snuck into the place, skated for awhile, and then broke one of the wheels off my board while dropping into an empty pool. I mentioned that my phone broke and that I’d had to walk several miles back into the city in the middle of the night before getting a ride. 

When I was done, Jae shook her head. Her voice was quiet, yet admonishing. “Not smart.” 

Wincing, I nodded. “I know, I know. It was dumb. And I paid for it.” Glancing over my shoulder to where my dad was sitting, I quietly added, “I’m gonna keep paying for it with the lack of driving.” To the confused looks, I admitted what my punishment had been, adding, “So I will absolutely definitely not be skating in the middle of nowhere like that again. All skating in public places for this girl.” And I just had to hope that nothing like what had happened yesterday came up again. Or that I came up with a much better excuse for it.  

“Well,” Amber put in, “at least you’re okay, you know? That umm, that kind of story could end up worse.” Belatedly, the dark-haired girl blanched visibly. “Uh, sorry. That’s probably not helpful.” 

“We’re just glad she made it home,” my father insisted. “Cassidy’s safe, and only a little hurt.” Pointedly, he added, “But she’ll be very hurt if she pulls anything like that again.” His eyes were focused on me intently. “And by that, I mean you’ll be punching yourself because you won’t be able to drive until you’re eighteen.” To soften that, Dad winked. “Which is just as much of a punishment for me, because I’ve been waiting to see how good you are at playing chauffeur since you were playing with the toy cars in your diapers, so let’s not have to go that far, hmm?” 

Horrified beyond what I could even hope to articulate, I blurted a sharp, “Dad, don’t talk about diapers!” My face was red, and I was very pointedly trying not to look over at Jae, Amber, and Izzy. I really didn’t want to know how they were reacting to that. 

With a broad smirk that told me just how intentional all of that had been, Dad casually replied, “Just think of the things I can embarrass you with if you give me reason to again.”  

Blanching, I shrank back in my seat and mumbled, “Yes, sir, threat completely received.” 

With that, I turned my attention back to the race. And tried not to let myself get too lost in thoughts of what I would find in the Seraph files. 

Because I was pretty sure it was going to take awhile before I could get over there. 

*****

After the race, we went to dinner as promised. And because it was my dad, dinner was amazing. We brought Amber and Jae with us and went to a steakhouse, and Mom was at the restaurant waiting, since it was family dinner night. Both of my parents made sure everyone ate until we were stuffed beyond all comprehension. Then Mom had desserts packaged up for everyone to take home ‘to eat in a few hours when you can actually enjoy them.’ 

It was dark by the time we dropped those two at Amber’s house. Jae said she’d get a ride home from there. With Simon having taken off with Mom earlier when we left the restaurant for some reason, that just left Izzy and me there with my dad in the back of the car while Jefferson drove us back to the house. I’d never do it, but for just a second I considered what would happen if I asked my father to have me dropped off at the Seraph HQ so I could do some extra work. 

Yeah, bad idea. Just as it would be a bad idea to try to sneak out tonight. I was going to have to wait until tomorrow after school to do anything I needed to do. Which made me really antsy, but what choice did I have? None. I had no choice. All I could do was wait and hope that whatever was actually in that file could wait until I managed to get there and find it. 

Besides, I wasn’t exactly back in top shape yet. That was for sure. The whole outing today had taken a lot out of me. More than I wanted to admit. By the time we got back to the house, my side was complaining and I wanted to lay down for awhile. But no way was I going to admit that I didn’t feel very good. My parents would obviously take any excuse to have me dragged to the hospital for a full range of tests. Or worse, put me on strong painkillers that might leave me loopy enough to say something I really couldn’t afford to say. Not to mention how long my parents might hover over me. No, I was just going to suck it up and get through this, damn it. 

After thanking my dad again for the whole day out, I reassured him that I definitely felt well enough to go to school tomorrow. Because no way was I going to stay home. Not if I was going to successfully sneak out again to get over to the Seraph base. 

Then Izzy and I went upstairs to head for our rooms. She seemed fairly distracted by something, continually glancing out the windows we were passing on the way. Finally, I asked, “You got a hot boyfriend sneaking over to hang out? Cuz you know I would totally cover for you, but we might need to find a way to get him past all the cameras and the rest of the security.”

Poor Izzy did a quick double-take at that, her eyes widening as she stammered, red-faced. “Wha-what? No, I don’t–I’ve never, I wouldn’t have–that’s not, I don’t even li–that’s n–no.” She finally managed, shaking her head back and forth quickly while a sound of protest escaped her.

I couldn’t help it, a small snicker escaped me, as I took her hand. “I’m just teasing, Izzer. It’s okay. No secret boyfriend, got it. But umm, are you okay? You kinda look like you want to be somewhere else. Which I totally get, even a big place like this gets stuffy when you can’t be on your own for so long.” 

“It’s not–” After starting with those two words, Izzy stopped. She considered for a second before exhaling. “I’m sorry. I just… I miss my mom.” Her voice was very quiet, and she seemed somehow ashamed of actually saying that, as if it was the worst thing she could have said.

“Izzy, I–” Stopping myself, I stared at her for a few long seconds. What was I supposed to say to that, given how little I knew about the situation? Especially given what I suspected. Finally, all I could do was offer a hesitant, “Do you want to talk about it?” God, did I ever wish I had someone I could talk to about my own family. But I couldn’t put that on anyone else. 

With a quick headshake, Izzy too declined. “I–thanks, Cassie. Really, you’ve been so cool. But I can’t talk about it. I’m sorry. I–” Swallowing, she looked to me with an expression far more serious than I would have expected to see on a twelve-year-old’s face. “I don’t want to lie to you.”

Wow, she had absolutely no idea how well I could sympathize with that. For a moment, I just stared at her before eventually finding my voice. “It’s okay, Izzy,” I assured her. “Just… talk to me whenever you can, about whatever you can. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know you’re a really cool person. And you’d talk about things if you could. So… whenever you want to talk.” Giving her an encouraging nod, I gestured. “But come on, because in the meantime, there’s a game room up there with our names on it. And I swear, I am gonna kick your butt this time.” 

After a brief hesitation and another quick glance to the window that I noticed out of the corner of my eye, Izzy seemed to nod to herself. She muttered something I didn’t catch, before following after me.  

So, the two of us went the rest of the way up to our area and spent a couple hours in the game room. And I was wrong. Though I did win a few matches, Izzy was very clearly the superior player in most of the various games we played on any given system. I wasn’t even letting it happen, she was just that good. It was kind of amazing that her hand-eye coordination was so great. 

In any case, at least it took my focus off the fact that I couldn’t sneak out tonight. It let me distract myself for awhile from everything else that I really needed to do. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I would’ve done without Izzy there. It would’ve been much harder to convince myself not to try to get out of there tonight, regardless of the risks, that was for sure. As it was, playing there with the other girl for hours was enough to leave me so tired, I couldn’t even think about getting out of the house. I just mumbled something about definitely beating her next time as the two of us stumbled off to our separate rooms. There, I got ready for bed and collapsed in it. It was only barely ten o’clock at night, but that was absolutely okay by that point. I needed all the sleep I could get. 

Tomorrow was going to be a long day. 

********

Hah. Long day. Boy was I right about that. I spent the entire time at school ignoring pain in my side, trying not to react every time I felt it because the absolute last thing I wanted was for my teachers to get too interested in any injuries I had. If that turned into a thing with my parents and all, I could kiss goodbye to ever being left alone long enough to be Paintball. 

Plus there was Tomas. He wanted to know what happened to me the other night, in my own words. Apparently he’d gotten a brief one-sentence answer about it Saturday after spending most of the evening before that being terrified about where I was. He’d been staying up Friday night, waiting to get any kind of word. When my parents finally let his know that I was home safe, he’d fallen asleep. On Saturday, his dad just told him I ‘hurt myself skateboarding’ and he had to wait until today to actually talk to me in person. 

I had apologized for not putting my new phone together and downloading my contacts in time to respond to his texts, but that the weekend had been crazy (to say nothing of the fact that I still needed to put my Touched phone back together). 

We sat together at lunch, along with Amber, Jae, and a few other people who were basically friends (even if I didn’t see them much outside of school) who had heard about me hurting myself from the rumor mill. Everyone wanted to know what kind of dare I’d been trying to complete that time. As if getting myself hurt because I couldn’t back down from a dare to prove how tough I was some kind of–okay yeah I could see why they would think that. 

As school was ending, I stood at my locker putting things away. Down the hall when I glanced that way, I could see Amber talking to Paige near one of the stairwells. The two of them seemed pretty deep in conversation, which was… interesting. Finally, they broke apart and Amber headed my way. So, I closed my locker, adjusted the bag on my shoulder (the uninjured side, which still caused a brief shot of pain to run through me), and waited for the dark-haired girl to reach me. “Hey, what was all that about?” I asked curiously, trying to keep any suspicion out of my voice. Just because I had a whole thing with Paige going on didn’t mean Amber had anything to do with it. She wasn’t connected to any of what was going on. 

Sure enough, Amber blinked at me uncertainly before realizing. “Oh, you mean–no, sorry. Trust me, Paige and me aren’t suddenly friends. I just got partnered up with her for a Physics thing.” Offering me a shrug, she added, “Guess I’m gonna have to work with her for awhile. You know, in the interests of not failing.”

“I can definitely understand that kind of interest,” I agreed, as the two of us walked out of the school together. “Still, good luck dealing with…” My hand waved vaguely. “All of that.” 

With a soft chuckle, Amber nudged me. “Thanks. She doesn’t seem so bad now. Pretty sure she’s just got some kind of huge hate-on for you in particular.” There was a brief pause before she added a curious, “Sure you don’t have any idea why she’s such a bitch to you?” 

A flash of possible answers rushed through my head, none of which I could actually say, given the whole situation. “Nope,” I finally managed. “I guess it’s just one of those things.” 

“Just one of those things,” Amber echoed, not exactly sounding all that convinced. Still, she shook it off and raised a hand. “Anyway, I’ll survive. It’s not me she hates so much. Maybe I’ll–” Whatever she was about to say, the girl stopped herself. “Never mind. I’ll catch you later, Cass.” 

She waved before trotting off over to where Jae was, and I continued strolling across the sidewalk to reach the lot where Jefferson was waiting with the car. Once I was inside, he pulled smoothly away from the curb with a simple, “Your parents will be in meetings for the rest of the day. They wished me to ask how you’re feeling.” As always, his words were crisp and seemingly emotionless, speaking the bare minimum of what he needed to and nothing more. Dad had told me at one point that Jefferson had a mild form of autism. It was hard for him to understand social cues or emotions. That was a big part of why he liked his schedule so much. He was also a very good driver. 

“I’m fine,” I lied, shifting a little in my seat. “Thanks, Jefferson.” Was he a villain too? He had to know the truth about my parents, right? He was too connected to everything not to. He drove both of them all over the place and they trusted him far too much. I wasn’t sure about the entire household staff. But if any of them knew exactly what my family was and what they really did, it was Jefferson. 

For a moment, I considered asking him what he knew, if anything, about Bobby, considering the man was my family’s previous primary driver. But considering that was obviously very connected to my lost memories, bringing him up or being curious about him would probably trip a lot of alarms for my family. Alarms I couldn’t afford to trip if I was going to keep everything I knew secret. So, I kept quiet and sat back to watch the streets as we drove. 

Eventually, Jefferson dropped me off. I went in, talked to Simon and Izzy for a bit, took some meds for the pain, then told one of the servants I was going for a walk to stretch my legs and that I would have my phone with me all the time if my family needed anything. No way could I just sit around doing nothing for another afternoon. There was too much I needed to get done. 

So, that said, I headed out. I still wasn’t quite up to Paintballing my way through the entire city. I was going to have to take things slower and easier than that for a bit. 

Instead, I called for an Uber. My first stop would be getting a new cell phone for Touched work. Then I would visit Wren and see how she was doing. 

And try not to spend the whole time obsessing over how many people in my life were secretly supervillains.

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Pink 12-02 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: There was an extra commissioned interlude for Heretical Edge posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it and read that story, you might want to click here after reading this chapter

We didn’t go straight to the track or either of the museums. Instead, Dad led the three of us across the lot to a restaurant near the track. Technically, it was all owned by the same company, a company my father had a large stake in. The track, the museums, the restaurant, all of it was partially owned by my family. And that was just on the surface. Part of me wondered how much of the city my parents owned through the whole Ministry thing. Actually, come to think of it, I probably didn’t want to know right then. It would just be depressing to think about how much power they had when I was supposed to be trying to relax and show Izzy a good time. 

The restaurant was basically a hamburger place, but not exactly a McDonalds. The burgers were really thick and came named after various cars or drivers. They even did a thing where the top of the buns would have an image of a race car lightly burned into them. And the fries were the really long shoestring versions with Parmesan and truffle oil. They were amazing. I really didn’t have to fake that much enthusiasm for coming here, given how hungry I was. 

Apparently, Izzy had never been there before. Or to the track itself. As we walked in the front door of the restaurant, she gasped at the centerpiece of the foyer. It was a full-sized, actually working race car. Specifically, it was a 1967 Ford GT40 Mark IV, beautifully red with a white number 11 on the side. The Mark IV was the only model of the GT40 line that had been built here in the US, since the first three versions were built in England. It was also the only car that had been designed and built entirely here in the US to win at Le Mans in France. 

I told the other girl all of that while the two of us walked a circle around the car. Izzy nodded appreciatively at the right places, but I had the funniest feeling that she really didn’t care all that much. She was one of those people who just thought a car was a car, and that as long as it got you where you wanted to go, there really wasn’t much of a difference between them. Heathen. 

The restaurant manager was talking to Dad and Simon while I was explaining the car’s history to the younger girl. By the time I got that far, it was time to go. My father beckoned, and we followed as the manager (a really friendly man named Kevin whom I had met a few different times since he was always here ready to direct us to a table when we came in) led us to the back of the restaurant. We passed through a couple doors to reach a private dining area with huge floor to ceiling windows that provided a good look at the track off in the distance across the lot, where we could see some of the cars taking practice laps. 

Izzy and I sat on that side of the long table, so we could turn our chairs a bit to look out at the track. Menus were passed out and the manager promised he would be taking care of everything personally. He took our drink requests, assured my father that our food would be out in plenty of time for us to eat before catching the first actual race, and hurried off. Our drinks were brought in and put on the table almost before he’d actually made it out of the room. Yeah, I’d never really paid that much attention before, but I supposed my father was something of a big deal. 

Simon was tuned out again, lost in his phone. But Dad stood up, moving over to stand next to Izzy and me as he gazed out at the cars doing their practice laps. There was a fondness in his voice as he told us about the first time he’d snuck into the track to watch cars pass by. It made him sound… human and simple, just a kid who couldn’t afford a ticket to see something he loved. I glanced over to see his face, and my father looked nostalgic, lost in his memories. It made me want to ask him how so much had changed. Not only in how much money and power he now had, but where his innocence had gone. I wanted to ask him if he was happier this way, if he had any idea how much misery he brought to other people through this Ministry bullshit. 

Instead, I simply listened quietly while he told us about that first race he’d watched, and about how he’d had to run from security before it was over. His run from the security officers had been a race in and of itself, one that more than a few spectators had actually put money on, apparently. 

“Did you get away?” Izzy asked, apparently enraptured by the story. She was sitting there, arms on the back of the chair that she had turned around in and chin in her hands as she stared at my father with a wide gaze. “They didn’t catch you, did they? Otherwise you would’ve been banned from that track.” 

In response, Dad chuckled. “Well, first, you’ll find that many ‘lifetime bans’ disappear when your name shows up on a lot of the checks that pay the salaries of the people who banned you.” With a wink, he added, “But no, I wasn’t caught. Actually, I owe that to my wife. That was the day…”

Then he trailed off. A slight frown touched his face before he shook his head. “Never mind, probably not the best time. Suffice to say, Elena and I had an interesting first meeting.” Turning from the window then, as he had been staring out at the track through all that, Dad smiled broadly. “And now we’re here. See how things work out in the end when you keep at it?”  

Huh. There was something there. Actually, now that he had talked about it being his first meeting with my mother, I really wanted to hear more of that story. But I knew pushing wouldn’t work, not right now. I was going to keep that in mind and maybe ask Mom about it later. Or I’d find a way to ask Dad when we were alone. 

Either way, that was for later. Right now, I was going to focus on our little outing, and on making sure Izzy had a good time. There would be time to handle all of that other stuff. Instead, I looked at the girl beside me and nudged her before pointing. “See that car over there? The driver’s name is Pranav. He’s really cool, and he’s from Hyderabad. He’s got a lot of stories about India. When the race is over, maybe we can talk to him for a few minutes. I bet he’ll let you sit in his car.” 

“Really? Cool.” From the look on her face, I was guessing that while Izzy did think that was cool, it wasn’t nearly the kind of ecstatic feeling I’d had when I got to sit in Pranav’s car years earlier. It had been like Christmas morning for me, to the point that I’d barely been able to sit still. She thought the idea of sitting in a race car was just… cool. But at least she wasn’t against it. 

We ate our food as soon as it came, while Dad and I told Izzy stories about car races and various drivers. Simon piped up now and then, but he was mostly interested in his phone throughout all of that. Every once in awhile, he’d look at Dad when he thought I wasn’t looking and mouth something, but I could never really catch much of what it was. My best guess from what I did catch was that he was reporting numbers. Numbers of what, I had no idea. I didn’t know if it was weight, times, amounts, all of the above, something else, or anything. All I was sure of was that it had to do with Ministry stuff. And it was important enough that our father didn’t make him put his phone away during the meal. 

The food was, of course, amazing. Kevin made sure we had dessert, and then we left to head over to the track. On the way, I told Izzy about the time I’d been so excited to get to the race that I’d grabbed the hand of a stranger thinking it was my dad and dragged him toward the door. 

“It was funny,” I started, “because when I–” Then I stopped. The memory that had flashed into my head was that I’d told someone about that the day after and they–he… told me about something he did that was like that.. He told me… He… he was… he was…

A rush of pain flooded my head. I stumbled just a little before catching myself. Dad’s gaze snapped to me, hand rising. “Cassidy? Are–” 

“Sorry, sorry,” I blurted, shaking my head while doing my best to ignore the nausea-inducing pain that was still pulsing there. “I got distracted and tripped over my own feet. It’s fine, I’m fine. I just–I need to use the restroom.” 

“Take Izzy,” my father murmured. “Are you sure–” 

“Dad,” I insisted, meeting his gaze, “I’m good. Trust me, we’ll be right back.” It took everything I had not to double over and clutch my head right then. I really wished one of my paints erased pain like this. 

With that, I took Izzy’s hand and walked with her. Restroom. I knew where the restroom was. I just had to go that way, get in a stall, and sit down for a minute. Then I could get through this. The memory that kept trying to shove its way into my head was painful enough that it had nearly made me fall over back there. I had to get a handle on it, quick. Before my dad started getting more… worried about my reaction. I’d gotten lucky with the whole doctor thing yesterday, the last thing I needed now was for my parents to insist on a hospital visit. 

Izzy was watching me as we walked, her own expression pensive. I could tell she wanted to ask something about all that, which she finally did with a hesitant, “Are you okay? I mean, I know you don’t want your parents to be all worried and stuff, but if you really have a head injury…” 

“It’s totally fine,” I quickly insisted. “I mean, probably not totally fine. I’ve got bruises and all. But I don’t need any kind of doctor or anything. I’m just, you know, I need to get some water.” 

“Maybe you can use these too?” Izzy offered while holding up a bottle of Ibuprofen. When I glanced that way, she added, “I asked Mr. Jefferson if we could stop to pick up pain relief and he gave this to me when I told him it was for you. Did you know he has a whole medical kit in the car? Not just a normal emergency first aid kit, it’s like a whole ambulance supply shelf.” 

Taking the bottle, I swallowed a couple of the pills before nodding. “Thanks, and yeah, Jefferson’s really big on being prepared for anything. I…” Biting my lip, I glanced to her. “You asked him for headache medicine for me before I had a headache?” 

She managed a little smile, shrugging. “You got hurt just like… a day ago and now we’re out in bright daylight around a bunch of loud cars. Of course you’re gonna need something for pain. I just… wanted to help.”

I could hear the guilt in her voice. She still felt bad about everything that had happened. And I wasn’t sure why, exactly. Unless… if I was right about one or both of her parents being supervillains, of course she would feel guilty. Of course she would. Duh. How did I feel? How easy was it for me to feel that guilt overwhelm me? Yeah. Yeah, that was it. Again, everything fit. 

Grabbing a couple water bottles after feeding ten dollars into the nearest vending machine, I passed one to Izzy before gulping down about half of mine. For her part, Izzy stared at the bottle, her face twisting. “Five dollars for a bottle of water? It’s water! How do you make people pay five dollars for twenty ounces of something that’s seventy percent of the world?! There’s over three hundred million trillion gallons of it! Are we on Mars? Did we go to Mars after all and nobody told me?!” 

Snickering a little despite everything, I shook my head. “It’s just marked up for being in a venue like this. You should see how much a hot dog costs.” Pausing, I added, “I mean, I assume it’s supposed to be a lot. Everyone else says it’s a lot.” 

Izzy was staring at me. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, almost pleading as though hoping I could make some logical sense of it for her, “It’s water.”  

“Very expensive water, apparently,” I replied while patting her shoulder. “So you should drink it. But first, let’s do our business.” By that point we were at the restroom, which I gestured toward before heading in. 

I took my time, sitting in the stall with my head in my hands. My mind was racing, now that I’d given it the chance. The day after that whole thing at the race track years ago. I’d told… someone about it. I knew I did. I told someone the story and they told me a story about… about…

Uuuuuggggghhnnnnnn. The pain was almost too much. I had to quickly bite down hard on my knuckle to avoid giving an audible reaction. My vision swam for a second, and it was a good thing that I was already sitting down. Damn it, damn it! 

Anthony. It had to be Anthony, right? He was my age, he’d been erased from my memory. I’d told someone about taking the hand of a person I thought was my father and walking off with a stranger at the racetrack. Yes. Yes, that was right. It was clear in my head. I told that person about it, kind of laughing but also kind of scared by the memory. I told them, and she–

Wait.

She? No. No, that was wrong. That was wrong. No, the person that had been erased from my memory was Anthony. And Anthony was definitely a he. So… why did I think ‘she’? What memory had I lost that had to do with a she? That didn’t even make sense. Why would there be some other friend who was… no, no I was wrong. It had to be Anthony. This was just my erased memories playing a trick on my brain. That was the only explanation for it. The person I’d told that story to the day after was that Anthony kid, not some weird girl I couldn’t remember. 

Shaking off those feelings, I cleaned up at the sink, splashed water on my face, then met up with Izzy to leave the restroom. The two of us walked out together before I turned in a circle to orient myself about where we were going. Right, we needed–

“Cassidy?” A voice from nearby called, and I blinked that way to see a familiar guy wearing a race uniform with Ten Towers logos over it. 

“Adrian?” I blurted. It was him, the guy who had been abducted and roughed up by Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful just because he happened to drive Ashton’s brother Josh out of the city. The guy who had driven me home that first night, the night that I… the night I found out about my family.

“You know him?” Izzy piped up, blinking back and forth between us with a curious frown. 

“Sort of,” I replied. “Oh, uhh, Adrian, this is my friend Izzy. Izzy, this is Adrian. He was an Uber driver, and also a janitor at school. But then–I mean, something… happened? I don’t–” 

“It’s a long story,” he assured us. “And probably not one we should get into. But yeah, I guess I’m not really either of those things anymore.” 

I gestured to his uniform. “Yeah, I guess not. Looks like you upgraded.” 

Chuckling self-consciously, Adrian rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah well, I’m not exactly a race driver. Not yet, anyway. Gotta earn that. But they let me drive the pace car, and I get to put the Ten Towers rides through their paces. Mostly I’m a mechanic though. But hey, it’s a living. A pretty good one. Plus, it means my brothers get to live on campus.” 

I smiled a little at that. “Cool. That’s really cool. I’m glad everything–I mean, I’m glad you’re okay. You disappeared from school, and no one really knew what happened exactly.” 

“Thanks, kid–I mean Cassidy,” the guy quickly corrected. “You have a good day and all. And hey, try not to be out so late all the time. Things get pretty dangerous out there. Good to meet you too, Izzy. You guys enjoy the race.” 

Giving him a thumbs up, I headed off with the other girl, lost in thought. So, Adrian was doing okay. He was safe with Ten Towers, especially now that the whole search for the vials was over. At least there was that. I could think of a lot of worse ways closer over that whole thing could have gone. 

“Hey, Cassidy!” Once again, I was dragged out of my thoughts as Izzy and I approached Dad and Simon. Those two were there, but there were a couple others as well. 

“Amber? Jae?” I spoke up, blinking back and forth between the two girls. 

“Your dad told us you were coming here,” Amber explained, after Jae murmured a quiet greeting. “He said we could join up with you to watch the race.” Belatedly, she added, “Hey, Izzy. What’s up?” 

While they greeted each other, I looked toward my father. He raised an eyebrow, mouthing, ‘Sorry, is that okay?’ while nodding toward my two classmates. In turn, I offered him a quick smile and nod. It was fine. Today was about relaxing and not having any problems. I needed a break from… all of that. Having a couple totally normal friends around like Amber and Jae was just what the doctor ordered. 

“Well, guys?” I pushed as soon as the greetings were over. 

“Come on, let’s go see this race.”

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Interlude 10A – That-A-Way (Summus Proelium)

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Please note, for those who read Heretical Edge, there was a commissioned interlude posted yesterday. If you haven’t read that, you might want to do so by clicking here.

Boring, boring, boring. The night was so freaking boring. Amber had been on patrol for what felt like half a day by that point (it was only two hours), and literally nothing of any note had happened. She was strolling along the sidewalk, making herself visible for people so they knew there was a Star-Touched in the area (according to Silversmith, that was a big part of the entire job), and generally just associating with the civilians. Which was fine. It was totally fine. It was part of the job. But… but she was so bored. She wanted to cut through the next alley and just see what she could find somewhere off her assigned patrol pattern. But that was a bad idea. Silversmith tended to get a bit annoyed if you deviated off a path when he specifically gave you one. He didn’t always, of course. A lot of the time you could simply patrol a given section of the city however you wanted. But when he did assign a full path, you had better stay on it. 

And here she was, walking the path that Silversmith had assigned, with nothing happening. Seriously, she was about to fall asleep on her feet. Not from exhaustion, but from sheer boredom. The most exciting thing that had happened was a few people wanting to take pictures with her, and even that wasn’t often because the authorities tried to make it clear that official Star-Touched on patrols were to be left alone to do their jobs. So mostly people just took pictures of her from afar, which was fucking creepy as all hell, seriously what the living fuck. 

Creeps aside, Amber was about ready to call in and ask if there was literally anything going on that she could help with. Even if it was as simple as getting an old lady’s cat out of a tree. She was that desperate for something to do beyond walking down the street while studiously ignoring people with cell phones out filming her. Because if she didn’t find something to do, she was seriously going to consider chucking a rock or two at a few of the creepiest ones. Actually, she might do that anyway. It sounded like a good idea. 

Then she saw it. Up and to the left, on the roof of a dry cleaners, stood a figure in dark-purple armor with speaker system vents all over it. Broadway. That was Broadway, from La Casa. Amber had never met her in person (even if she’d come close during that… thing with Pack the other day), but she did recognize her from the briefings they’d gotten. She was pretty distinctive.

In any case, fuck yeah, something to do! And she was even standing to the north, which was just perfect. Grinning at the fact that she was finally being freed from her mind-numbing boredom, Amber instantly teleported herself right up to the side of the other girl, hand lashing out to catch hold of her arm as she positioned herself facing east to activate her invulnerability. 

Broadway was already gone. She’d used her own teleportation power to esca–no, she was right there at the other end of the roof! Before the girl could counter-attack, That-A-Way threw herself that way in a superfast sprint. Broadway’s fault for setting herself up to the west.  

A sudden blast of deafening sound focused solely on her made the girl stumble, falling to one knee as her hands covered her ears. Oh shit, that was loud! She could barely think through it. Focus, focus! She’d teleport out of the way, circle around and come up behind–

The sound stopped. Blearly, Amber blinked up to see Broadway holding both hands out. Just as she started to dive out of the way of whatever was about to hit her, however, the sound of the other girl’s voice reached her. “–not here to fight, dude! Just hold up a second, jeez!” 

Okay, it was true that Amber hadn’t seen Broadway actually do anything wrong. But still, she was a wanted criminal and all that. And… and she was friends with Pack. Yeah. Amber knew the two were teammates. She knew from Pack’s rambling back when they had… um… fought that Broadway had been the one driving that van. So maybe she sort of… overreacted. Maybe her own boredom wasn’t the only reason she’d lunged to attack. It was slightly possible that seeing Broadway there had reminded her of that whole thing with Pack and her guilt over… 

Over what? She hadn’t let Pack escape. She hadn’t. She’d tried to bring her in, had even fought her. So why did she feel guilty about it? Why did she feel so guilty that seeing Broadway here had made her feel like she had to prove she hadn’t let Pack go on purpose by grabbing her teammate? How did that even make sense? And why the fuck was this so complicated anyway? 

Pushing herself up, Way watched the Fell-Touched warily, ready for any kind of trick. This had to be a trick, right? Her eyes narrowed, glancing around briefly just in case something was coming at her from another direction. Nothing. They were alone on the roof. “What do you want?” 

“Me?” Broadway shrugged elaborately, clearly overly-emphasizing the motion so that it would carry through the armor she wore. “I don’t want anything really. I was just looking for the bastards who attacked… never mind. Point is, I saw you on patrol and thought my buddy might want to know you were around. Turns out she wants to talk to you pretty bad though.” With that, she held up a flip phone, offering it that way. “She said to tell you it’s about Paintball.” 

The reflexive denial that had been on Amber’s lips, the immediate refusal to talk to Pack and risk everything that would come with that, died. Paintball. Fuck. “What did you people do to him?” she demanded, ignoring just how little sense that made. They were the bad guys, the bad guys. She had to force herself to keep thinking of them that way, no matter what. Which, again, might have resulted in a little overcompensation. 

“Seriously?” Broadway was clearly just as aware of the ridiculousness of that assumption. “Here, dude.” She underhand tossed the phone without arguing further about that. “Talk to her.” 

Amber considered tossing the phone away. Damn it, she was Star-Touched and they were Fell-Touched! If anyone found out she was having some kind of casual conversation with them, let alone that when she and Pack had fought she had… that she might have… that…

Fuck. Snapping the phone open, she brought it to her ear and demanded, “What’s going on with Paintball?” 

Pack’s answer came immediately. “You tell me. What the hell are you doing? Why didn’t you go help him? You can’t be done already. Don’t tell me you left him out there on his own.”

Okay, now Amber was even more confused. She blinked over at Broadway, who stood still, watching her with what seemed like curiosity even though it was hard to read through the armor. “Uhh… what? I haven’t talked to Paintball lately. What are you going on about?” 

There was a brief silent pause, followed by a full litany of cursing. Amber was pretty sure there were some bad words in there from several other languages. It went on for a few long seconds before Pack finally snapped, “–fucking idiot!” 

“Excuse me?” Way demanded reflexively. 

“Not you!” the voice on the phone blurted. “Paintball! He’s a fucking god damn idiot! He fucking lied to me just to–who the fuck knows why! He lied to me! He said he was going to call you for help! That’s the only reason I let him go by himself, because he wasn’t–god damn it!” 

“Calm down,” That-A-Way ordered, her mind swimming. “Okay, just wait a minute. What was he going to call me about? You let him go where by himself? And why did you have anything to say about it anyway? He doesn’t work for you. He–” 

“Never mind that!” Pack interrupted. “Look, we–I don’t know what the hell is going on, not exactly. But Paintball asked Eits to do some research for him. Yeah, I don’t know why. Eits found some address and got jumped for it. Someone beat the shit out of him. I got Paintball here and gave him the address. He said he was going to call you for back-up to check it out! Now he’s been gone for over an hour and I find out he never even called you!” 

Taking in all that, Amber felt a rush of nausea and confusion wash over her. What the hell was Paintball having a bad guy look up for him? And why had he gone off on his own after telling Pack he would ask for help? And why hadn’t he checked in again? 

“Where is he?” she finally demanded. “Where did you send him? I’ll check it out myself.” 

“Not by yourself you won’t,” came the retort. “Broadway has the address. Follow her, I’ll meet you there. We’ll find out what the fuck is going on, even if I have to smack Paintball until he stops being so secretive.” 

Amber considered arguing. But Pack had already hung up. So that conversation was over. With a sigh, she looked at Broadway. Several options bounced back and forth through her mind, but there was really only one possibility. She couldn’t just abandon Paintball. And it would take too long to try to explain the situation to her own people. “Fine,” she muttered. 

“Lead the way.” 

*******

It was some small, ordinary house in the middle of an ordinary neighborhood. Well, maybe not actually that small. But still, it was just a house. Given that the state it was in, Amber would have said it was empty, but a dog was sitting in the fenced-off and heavily overgrown front yard and didn’t seem to be starving or anything. It was just sitting there, watching people pass by.  

At the moment, Amber was standing at the end of the street in a clump of trees just above a drainage ditch. Broadway and Pack (who had the cage with her lizards sitting nearby) were standing a few feet away, all three of them watching that house as they had been for the past minute. 

“So, I don’t get it,” Broadway finally piped up. “Why’re we standing around like this? Are we going to go bust in there and check this place out, or what? Paintball’s like, a friend to you guys, right? If he’s in trouble, that’s the first place to start. He could be hurt or something in there.”  

Way gave the Fell-Touched a brief squint. “We–” she amended belatedly. “I don’t just go breaking into people’s homes like that. We don’t know if he’s in there at all. We don’t even know if he made it or not. Anything could have happened. We don’t have a warrant or probable cause or anything to justify busting in someone’s private home just because we’re worried. Especially since I’m off my patrol route and haven’t reported in about this. You know, for obvious reasons.” 

“Oh,” Pack replied casually, “well that’s easy to deal with. Just close your eyes for a minute.” As she said it, the girl was already starting to move that way, stopping to pick up the cage on the way. “Luckily, I brought my universal lockpick. Didn’t I, Marsy? You wanna smash a door in?” 

Quickly, Amber moved and grabbed the other girl by the arm. “Stop! You can’t just break in there either. It’s broad daylight and anyone could be watching. Do you have any idea what you could-”  

Pack snatched her arm free, somehow managing to scowl at That-A-Way despite the completely blank mask that covered her face. “No, do you have any idea what could be happening to Paintball in there while we just stand here? Did you hear the part about how some assholes practically beat Eits into a coma just for looking for this place and not telling them the address? Whatever’s going on here, whatever it is, it’s really fucking important. Don’t you care about what could’ve happened to Paintball and why he just completely disappeared?”

Wincing at that, Amber nodded. “Of course I care! I’m here, aren’t I? I mean, I really shouldn’t be, but…” She sighed, shaking that off. She made her choice and would deal with the consequences if it came to it. That said, she wasn’t going to be stupid about the whole thing and just burst right in. “But we have to do this right. Not only because we–I could get in trouble, but because if there are bad guys in there, waltzing right in could be just as bad as doing nothing.” 

“Moving girl’s got a point,” Broadway put in, giving That-A-Way a thumbs up. “Bad guys or good guys, we’re all pretty screwed if we walk into the same trap that caught Paintball. I mean, not that we know he walked into a trap. But let’s be real, he probably walked into a trap.” 

Finally relenting, Pack glanced to the cage at her feet. “Fine, Riddles and Twinkletoes can scout the place out from above and close in. They can check what the place looks like up close, see if anyone’s in there through the windows. But we do this fast.” 

Amber agreed, stepping back and watching as Pack brought the two lizards to their larger forms and sent them off to do their job. As they took off, one flying and one invisible, she asked, “How many times have you tried calling him?” Even then, Amber was taking the phone from her own pocket and hitting the option to try calling Paintball himself for about the fifth time since she’d heard about this. As with the first four, it went straight to the generic voicemail. 

“Half a dozen,” Pack replied flatly. “After that, there didn’t seem to be a point. We know something’s wrong. Either something in that place attacked him, or he got jumped on the way here.” She looked over to Way, adding pointedly, “Either way, I’m getting in that house to find out what the fuck is going on.” 

There was something in her voice, a… guilt? Amber wasn’t sure, but it sounded like the other girl was blaming herself for the whole situation. She found herself pointing out, “Look, Pack, you know Paintball isn’t your responsibility or anything. He’s not on your team or–” 

Pack quickly interrupted. “Fuck that. I should have known that he was going to feel guilty about the whole thing with Eits. I should have figured out that he was lying and that he’d go off by himself to try to make sure no one else got hurt or some shit. I should’ve known, but I was just…” She was clearly scowling, arms folded across her stomach as she looked away. “I was upset. I was mad that he got Eits involved, even though it wasn’t his…” A long sigh came. “I was mad. I was stupid. He was stupid. We were all stupid. And now Paintball’s in trouble.”

By that point, Riddles was swooping in to land on a nearby tree. Pack looked that way, and Amber resisted the urge to demand to know if they were actually communicating. 

Finally, the other girl looked to her and Broadway. “The house seems empty. And it looks like no one’s lived there for months. There’s cobwebs, dust everywhere, the lot.”  

“That… doesn’t make sense,” Broadway pointed out, bouncing a bit as if impatient and tired of standing still. “What about the pupper out front?” 

“Yeah…” Amber squinted that way, forgetting who she was with in that moment as she pushed off to walk to the house. Something really weird was going on. “I think we need to check out that dog.” Now the whole thing was even more suspicious. What the hell was going on? 

The neighborhood was pretty quiet, so the three reached the gate of the house without running into anyone. As they stood there, the dog perked its head up and panted while looking at them. 

“Hey, boy… or girl,” Amber coaxed, hoping the animal wouldn’t be too put off by their costumes (especially Broadway’s heavy armor). “Who’s a good whatever-sex-you-are? You are. You are. C’mere…” She put her hand through the gate and the dog gave a happy little wag while getting up to move that way. 

Suddenly, there was a sharp whistling sound as something shot past Amber and the others. It was a small stone, which rebounded off the dog’s snout, making it jerk back with a reflexive snarl. 

Spinning that way, her guard up as she snatched the taser-baton from her side, That-A-Way stared at… “Skip?” It was the girl from Ten Towers, standing there in the white short-sleeved robe and hood that covered a blue-black bodysuit, her lower face covered by a black cloth mask. She had just hurled the stone past the three Touched to hit the animal.

“Not a dog,” she said simply, in that matter-of-fact, eerily calm way she had. Amber had seen and fought alongside the girl several times and she’d never seen her raise her voice or seem emotional in any way. “Get back now.” Her tone was about as urgent as it ever got.  

Even as Skip said that, Amber felt movement behind her. She spun, activating her power to teleport to the north while grabbing Pack. Broadway teleported backward at the same time. 

They barely avoided the mouth of the dog. A mouth that was now a hell of a lot bigger than it had been. Large enough to have swallowed Amber whole if given a chance. 

“The fuck?!” the girl blurted, stumbling a little. Even as she said that, the dog’s head (because that was the only part of it that had grown) resumed its normal size. It snarled at them before abruptly spitting some kind of nasty-looking greenish-brown mucus stuff at the ground. The mucus spread out to cover a space about two feet wide, before the dog… dove… into the mucus. Literally, it dove into the gooey, gross stuff, disappearing as if it was jumping into a pool of water. A moment later, the mucus faded into the ground, leaving them staring at nothing. 

“I’m sorry,” Amber managed while scrambling to the fence. “But what the fuckity fucking fuck?!” 

“Uhh, what she said,” Broadway agreed, sounding like she was about to be sick. “What the hell was that?” 

“I don’t know,” Skip calmly informed them. “But it was playing lookout for the people who abducted Paintball.” 

“What?!” Pack snapped, suddenly moving that way. “You saw something happen? Who–what–where?” 

Without responding to the girl directly, Skip turned her head slightly, looking at That-A-Way. “You work with villains?” She didn’t sound judgmental. She barely sounded curious. 

“It’s a long story,” Way informed her. “Really long. But we’re looking for Paintball, if you–” 

“He said a friend of his was hurt and needed help,” Skip replied flatly. “I saw him after that and thought he might be in trouble. I was busy, but after I was done, I looked for him. That brought me here. I don’t come out here very often, so my closest marker was a few streets over and I had to come look for him. I got here in time to see people put him in a car, but I was too far away to see who they were. They wore long coats.” 

“God damn it!” Pack blurted. “I knew that idiot was in trouble! And now we have no fucking idea where he is!” 

“You would have an idea,” Skip calmly informed her without a trace of recrimination in her voice, “if you allowed me to finish speaking.” 

“What?” Pack demanded. “You said you didn’t see who they were and you weren’t close enough to do anything about it.” 

Skip gave a simple nod. “True. But I did see the license plate before they left and sent it to Ten Towers support. I waited, and was on the phone with them when you arrived. I witnessed the so-called dog shift itself into a larger form in an attempt to ambush the invisible figure you sent to investigate the house, but you approached first and interrupted, forcing the creature to resume its passive form in an attempt to shift the ambush to you instead. Thus, I thought it prudent to interrupt.” 

“You said you were on the phone with your support team?” Amber managed, pushing her way past all that. 

“Yes,” Skip confirmed. “They have traced the car through several street cameras to a warehouse on the far side of town. If you would like, I can take you there.” 

“Oh, we definitely like,” Pack retorted. 

“Take us to this warehouse. Because whoever abducted Paintball is about to get a really goddamn rude awakening.” 

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Private Affairs 9-04 (Summus Proelium)

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It definitely wasn’t hard to have fun at this party. Amber (or her mother, rather) had seriously gone all out for it. And I knew why. A little over a year earlier was when Amber’s father had been killed by that hit-and-run driver. So, obviously, Amber hadn’t really been in much of a birthday party mood when her sweet sixteen came around. This whole thing was probably her mother’s way of trying to make up for that and help her daughter move on or something. 

The point was, there was definitely effort put into this, and it showed. The whole place had been rented out. There were batting cages, go-karts, bowling, a full arcade area with several VR stations, a room for laser tag, and so on. I knew I wasn’t the best judge as far as money went, but renting this whole place out had to cost a fair bit, right? Especially on a Saturday night.

There were also a lot of people here. It felt like a good portion of our grade had shown up, along with some other members of Amber’s family and maybe some from other schools or something. Lots of other teenagers running around, yelling to one another and visiting with the birthday girl herself. She was super-busy the whole night. I hoped she was having a good time herself. She seemed to be, it was just that every time I looked that way, she had a whole crowd of people around her. 

So yeah, it was impressive. And just a lot of fun in general. I spent a couple hours completely mostly forgetting about everything else while focusing on using the camera that Amber’s mother provided to take pictures of everyone to use as reference for the drawings later. I even saw Izzy enjoying herself. She seemed to get along with Amber, Jae, and the others pretty well, whenever they interacted. Izzy still didn’t talk very often, and she wasn’t doing much, if anything, with the debit card I’d handed her. But she was definitely having a good time, and that was the important part. 

Also, Jae was really good at the go-karts. Like, crazy good. As I stepped out of my own kart after she beat me in a best two-out-of-three contests (I was debating about whether to go for best three-out-of-five or something), I glanced that way to the other girl getting out of hers. “Where the heck did you learn to race karts like that? Are you an Indianapolis 500 driver in disguise and you’ve just been playing us this whole time?” Pointing at her, I fake-demanded, “Are there cameras around here watching me get schooled by a stunt driver?” 

With a faint but visible smile, Jae shook her head. She took the helmet off and reached out to set it back on the rack before looking to me once more. Her voice was soft. “Lots of Mario Kart?” 

“Aha!” I pointed at her. “I knew you were a ringer. I demand a new challenge at the ping pong table, where I may reclaim my lost honor, or something.” Dramatically moving my finger from the girl herself to the arcade room, I added a bit more casually, “But first, we grab more pizza?”  

She agreed, and the two of us moved to the room where the food was. There were several long tables laid out with basically all the junk food in the world on them. Finding some pizza, we loaded a couple plates. As we were finishing with that and stepping away, food in hand, Jae looked past me. Immediately, I saw the expression on her face go from casually happy and enjoying herself to incredibly guarded. It was like she’d flipped a switch and was closed off. 

Confused, I glanced over my shoulder and immediately understood her reaction. Standing there, staring at both of us with a small smirk on her face, was Elesha Carver. She was a black girl from our school, and I was pretty sure she was basically to Jae what Paige was to me. 

Okay, maybe not exactly the same. At the very least, I was really hoping Elesha wouldn’t also turn out to have some unexplained immunity to memory erasing, and be holding onto secret information that she refused to share but could potentially take down an entire underworld criminal empire. Because that kind of coincidence at this point would just be silly

But she was definitely a bitch. Which was a fact she proved an instant after opening her mouth, with a sly, “Heeeey, Jae. I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we string you up to the ceiling and then bounce strobe lights off your skin. You’d make a great party decoration, you know?” 

My mouth opened as several not-so-polite retorts leapt to mind (as well as the urge to punch her), but before I could say anything, another voice spoke. “Out of curiosity, exactly what level of lack of self-awareness does a black person have to have to talk about stringing someone up?” 

It was Paige, speak of the devil. She wasn’t paying any attention to me. She might not have even noticed me, to be honest. All of her focus was solely on Elesha, as she continued with a flat, “I mean, there’s being a completely incomprehensible moron, and then there’s being stupid enough to be black and mock someone for their fucking skin color, you ludicrous twat.”

Was this a bad time for me to speak up and say something about how it was equally stupid to hate (and spend years mocking) someone for being short and not fitting some classical idea of adult beauty? Because I felt like that was a really good opening for it. But I resisted, because this wasn’t about me. It was about making sure Jae’s night didn’t get ruined by this bitch. 

“You know what?” Elesha was retorting, “Fuck you. At least I’m not some kind of freak.” She said that, of course, while giving Jae a disgusted look, her mouth twisting hatefully in a way that made her look even nastier than she already had. “I’m not a mutant albino walking abortion.” 

“You know what else you’re not?” That was Amber, having extricated herself to come up from behind the other girl while she was talking. “Invited. As in you were never invited here.”

I could see by the expression on Elesha’s face that she’d already realized she’d made a mistake by picking this argument right now. But, of course, she didn’t back down. Shooting a glare toward Amber, she retorted a bit heatedly, “You invited everybody, remember? You put those invitations up all over the goddamn school. I’m pretty sure one of the fucking janitors is here.”  

“The janitors are cool,” Amber informed her. “And if you’ll take a quick look at any of those invitations, you’ll see that it says quite plainly, ‘All People Welcome.’ You, you’re not a person. You’re basically mucus, and I don’t want mucus at my party. It’s gross. So why don’t you leave?” 

For just a moment, I had the terrible feeling that a fight was going to break out. I had no idea if Amber would even do if Elesha took a swing at her, to be honest. Actually, I didn’t know what I would do if someone took a swing at me in here. I couldn’t exactly use my powers like I would in costume. I could paint the skin under my clothes and be careful about how obvious I was with the boosts, but even that felt risky. Honestly, the safest thing to do if something did start would probably be to let myself get hit, then just drop to the floor and stay there. 

In the end, I never did get to find out if Elesha would have backed off or not. Because just as this whole situation seemed to be right on the cusp of boiling over, someone called out from the far side of the large room, by the televisions, “Hey! Hey, shut the fuck up, it’s a Collision Point!”

That immediately shut down everything else that was going on. Everyone turned away from what they were doing. And I did mean everyone. The entire room grew completely silent, save for the televisions as we all moved closer. They were already changing the channel to match the one that the middle one was on, a channel that showed a serious-looking anchor talking. 

“Where?” Amber asked quietly, stepping up beside me while staring intently at the screen. “It’s not…?” She didn’t finish that sentence, trailing off instead. But we all knew what she had been about to say right then. Here. She had been about to ask if it was happening here in Detroit. 

Someone else, I wasn’t sure who, answered with, “Not here. Not this time. It’s Salt Lake City.” 

Sure enough, the anchor had a picture of Utah projected beside him, with a marker showing where Salt Lake was as he said something about the Collision Point starting near a library.

“Anyone know if they’re dealing with Stalkers, Wanderers, or Hidden?” Paige asked from somewhere behind me. I still didn’t know if she’d even noticed my presence yet. 

In answer, the guy who had called everyone over replied, “It’s Hollow and Grote Slang.” 

“One Hidden, one Stalker,” someone noted. “At least it’s not two Stalkers. They’re the worst.” 

Yeah, they were probably right. Two Stalkers hitting a Collision Point was bad. All Collision Points were bad, regardless. But those were bad on a whole other level. 

Collision Points. That’s what we called it when two Abyssals ran into each other and started a fight. See, when an Abyssal first… manifested or whatever, they were stuck in a single monstrous form. It was usually pretty big, between ten to twenty feet or so, and looked distinctly not human. That was what a lot of people had thought Cuélebre was at first, a new Abyssal.  They had no real intelligence at that point and just attacked everything around them. Which was also how people figured out that Cuélebre couldn’t be a new Abyssal, because he definitely had control. New Abyssals lashed out at everything and tried to do as much damage as they could. 

But it was worse if they managed to survive long enough to evolve to the second stage. First of all, second-stage Abyssals shifted back into a mostly or even entirely human-looking form. Some people said it was to recharge or something, but no one really knew. They simply went from being giant monsters down to looking like they had before their initial transformation. 

That was where the three classifications came in. Stalker, Wanderer, or Hidden. Stalkers were those who actively remembered what they were, liked it, and hunted for others of their kind. Wanderers were those kind of in the middle, the ones who had vague ideas or recollections, maybe dreams about doing bad things. They tended to… well, wander. They were drifters who went from town to town, simply staying on the move. According to a couple rare interviews that had been taken from a coherent Wanderer or two, they always felt the urge to keep going. It was like they were being pushed to look for something, but they had no idea what.  

Yeah, while Stalkers were actively malevolent and often did their best to hurt and kill people even in their human form, Wanderers could sometimes actually be spoken to, if you happened to know what they were. There were recorded interviews with Wanderers, who always just seemed… pretty out of it, like they barely understood what was going on. A lot of people dismissed them as mentally handicapped. Which hadn’t exactly done wonders for how actual mentally handicapped people were seen, that was for sure. They always spoke in a slow, somewhat dream-like voice, like they were partially in a trance. 

Then there were the Hidden. Those were the people who had absolutely no idea what they were. They went about their lives completely oblivious to the fact that they could transform into a huge monster at any given moment. 

The Hidden went about their lives as normal as possible. The Wanderers… wandered, drifting from place to place in their endless and unexplained search for whatever they were looking for. And Stalkers tried to locate any of their kind so they could trigger a fight. 

Because yeah, that’s what they did. Abyssals, when they encountered one another, fought. When two second-stage humanoid Abyssals touched one another, they would transform into their monster selves. Then they would set about doing their level best to completely fucking massacre each other. There was no love between any of them, no cooperation. There was nothing but violence and death, as they would hurl themselves at one another, doing everything they could to kill not just the other Abyssal, but anything that happened to get in their way. 

That was what we called a Collision Point. Two or more Abyssals who found one another, touched, and turned into huge (sometimes gigantic) monsters intent on beating the living shit out of each other, even if they had to rip apart buildings and massacre dozens or even hundreds to do it. At that point, they would fight either until one of them killed and absorbed the other (which basically seemed to make the winner take on some of the loser’s traits and powers while getting even bigger), or until something  (like a local Touched team) forced them to withdraw from each other. 

So yeah, to put it simply, Collision Points weren’t fun. They usually ended up with a lot of damage being done to the city they happened in, as the dueling Abyssals threw around absurd levels of destruction in their attempts to kill one another. Even Wanderers and Hidden, once shifted into their Abyssal forms, turned basically completely rabid and tried to destroy or kill everything between them and their opponent. 

Once enough damage was done by other Touched, or one of them managed to kill and absorb the other, the fight would be over. Once that happened, any of the surviving Abyssals would simply disappear. The… understanding was that they were transported somewhere else and returned to their human forms. Wanderers resumed their old mental state, while Hidden completely forgot what they had just been doing. Or maybe they had false memories. It wasn’t clear, and it was pretty hard to get that kind of information. There had been one short interview with a Hidden Abyssal who managed to be captured and locked up, but it wasn’t very enlightening. And he had vanished pretty soon after that brief discussion. 

Pencil, of course, was the leader of the Scions of Typhon. Typhon was a Stalker Abyssal, one of the largest, most violent, and most… successful in North America. He had killed and absorbed multiple other strong Abyssals. In one such fight, he’d basically leveled the majority of Waunakee, a small town in Wisconsin. A third of their roughly fifteen thousand residents were killed in that, while almost all of their buildings ended up uninhabitable. It was… bad. A lot of these Collision Points were bad. 

That was why no one was playing any more games or arguing. We all stood there, watching the news in silence as they showed footage of the local Utah Touched teams trying to deal with Hollow and Grote Slang before too much damage was done. 

Of the two, Hollow was the small one. She was pretty tiny, as far as Abyssals went, standing ‘only’ about eight feet tall. She was fairly humanoid too, though her skin was pitch black and oily. Really, her entire body seemed to be made of oil shaped like a person. She had only vague facial features, impressions where her eyes should have been. And she didn’t have permanent arms. Instead, any number of arms would extend from any point of her body whenever she happened to need them. 

Grote Slang, on the other hand, was far different. He was one of the bigger Abyssals, and definitely not humanoid. In his monster-form, he was basically a giant snake. And by giant, that was a snake a hundred feet long and as wide around as a city bus. Wicked-looking tusks came out of the snake’s mouth, curving up with venom dripping from them. Worse, he had two actual trunks, like an elephant’s, one leading off of each side of his head. The trunks were about a third as long as his body but could stretch to about half, and were used to grab prey and drag them up to his mouth. 

Yeah, like his mythological counterpart, Grote Slang was basically a cross between an elephant and a giant snake. It was bad. Really bad. 

We all watched on those screens as the news reported on the ongoing fight. None of the other guests tried to play any games or anything. We just watched as the Touched tried to stop too much damage from being done. They were… about as successful as they could be. Several full buildings and houses were still either heavily damaged or outright demolished, and a couple city blocks weren’t going to be safe to live in anytime soon. But the authorities reacted quickly enough and managed to get somewhat lucky in separating the two and doing enough damage to make them pull back. Didn’t kill either of them, but they at least managed to stop things from getting a lot worse than they could have.

At some point in all that, Izzy had found me. We stood there together and I had ended up taking her hand without really thinking about it. Once it was over, I glanced down, then looked over to where she was still staring at the television. “Sorry, we didn’t have to… watch all that. Are you okay?” 

Her head nodded slowly. “I wanted to,” she assured me quietly. “And yeah, I’m okay.” Strangely, she did sound okay. She didn’t seem too freaked out by all that. 

Glancing nearby, I could see Amber’s mom talking to her. It looked like this whole thing was about to be closed down for the night. Which was just as well. After watching all that on the news, it was clear that people weren’t just going to jump right back into playing games. Yeah, it had been almost two thousand miles away on the other side of the continent. And yes, they’d managed to contain things before too much damage was done. But even in that near-best case scenario, at least a few dozen people had still died. They wouldn’t have a real count until tomorrow, at the very least. Still, it wasn’t great. 

Abyssals were bad. When they found each other, bad things happened. Buildings and sometimes entire swaths of land were destroyed. Lots of people died. It was horrific.

And after watching something like that, even on the news from so far away, well… a lot of people didn’t feel like partying anymore. This sort of thing happened every once in awhile. Sometimes it was better and sometimes it was worse. But it was never good. 

Some of us stayed, mostly talking about either the attack or other attacks. A few drifted off to try to distract themselves with other games. From the corner of my eye, I saw Paige glance down at her phone. An annoyed look crossed her face before she turned and walked away, heading for the restroom corridor. With a quick look around to make sure no one was paying attention, I slipped away too, trying to follow her without being noticed. 

Reaching the area where the bathrooms were, I saw Paige step inside the women’s restroom. I carefully moved closer, stopping right next to the door. Through the crack, I could hear her talking. 

“Yeah, behind the library on Woodward, got it. I said I got it. When? And you better be exact, Pat, because my father’s contact windows are narrow. Specific coordinates, specific times.” 

Wait, what? What was she talking about? Paige’s mother and father were right here in the city. She talked to them every day. So… huh? 

The other girl continued. “I’ll be there. Yes, I know. Three hours and six minutes. Yeah, something tells me complaining about how late it is wouldn’t do much good. 

“After all, Breakwater’s an inescapable super-prison. It’s supposed to be hard to call out of.” 

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Patreon Snippets 12B (Summus Proelium)

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Thanks once again to all $10+ Patrons. These are the two snippets that were requested for Summus Proelium. 

Standing outside his daughter’s private hospital room in their own home, Blackjack… or rather, Eric Abbot as he was known to those close to him, put a hand on the door and looked through the window. He stared at the little girl in the bed as she wrote intently in the notebook propped up against her knees. Several stuffed animals were gathered along the side of the bed as though listening while she dictated what she was writing. Her story was accompanied by grand gestures that kept interrupting her own writing. Once she apparently wrote something that she found so amusing she actually started laughing, the sound carrying through the door. It was a sight that made Eric smile, while a long, heavy shudder ran through him at the brief thought of what could have been.

For so long now, he had been terrified that his beautiful, amazing little girl would never grow up, that she would never be able to see all the things he wanted so desperately to show her. Every day when he saw how wonderful, brilliant, and effortlessly charming his child was, Eric despaired of what would happen to her without the medicine she needed. It had driven him to greater and greater heights of anger and frustration. But he never let her see it. He would not scare his little girl like that. Not when there was already so much for her to be afraid of.  

But she knew. She always knew just how upset he was. And often, it had seemed as though she was taking care of him more than the other way around. She was so strong, so brave. Disease be damned, she was one of the most amazing people he knew. Yes, he was biased. But she truly was remarkable, to handle all of this as well as she did. It inspired him more than he could ever articulate. His daughter was his everything, and if the worst had happened, if he had truly lost her…

Stepping into the room, the man looked to the two doctors who were working in the corner. Greeting them by name briefly, he asked the pair to step outside for a few minutes. Only once they were gone and he had locked the door, did Eric let his guard down a little bit and allow himself to let go of some of the rigid control with which he held himself. He felt his eyes grow a little wet as he stepped over and spoke up. “Hey, Smelly,” he greeted his daughter, a teasing nickname that was a combination of Small and Melly (for Melissa) 

“Hi, Daddy!” Melissa piped up, looking at him eagerly. Every day, Eric was amazed and humbled by his daughter’s resilience and ability to cope with this terrible situation. Sometimes it seemed as though she had been in the hospital forever, trapped in this room with her brittle bones. Bones that would have snapped from very little pressure. Bones that, without Worthy’s medicine, would have rotted away and disintegrated into a poison that would kill her. 

They’d stopped the disease from getting worse for quite a while, but they still couldn’t push things. Her bones were so fragile, and would continue being fragile until further into the treatment, that there was no way to let her live a normal life right now. They couldn’t risk allowing Melissa to run outside, play with others, or do… anything a little girl should have been able to do. She escaped through her writing into worlds of grand adventure and dashing heroes. In her stories, she could be anything, do anything. She could create universes worth of excitement that made her long days and nights spent in that single bed more tolerable.  

Sitting down on the chair that he pulled closer, Eric picked up the girl’s newest stuffed animal, the pink crocodile with the cloth skateboard attached to its feet that Sterling and Elena (or Uncle Stan and Aunt Ellen, as she knew them) had convinced her to name after their own daughter, Cassidy. 

For a moment, he just turned the toy over in his hands, staring down at it while his fingers shook. He had to take a breath and steady himself. It was so strange. He could order men to their death, could look someone like Cuélebre right in the eyes without flinching. He could stand down any threat. But the emotions he felt as he sat here with his daughter could be his undoing. He felt a shudder run through him once more as his eyes closed and a few more tears fell. 

“Daddy.” There was a small hand on his arm, and Eric opened his eyes to see that his daughter had shuffled over a bit to be next to him. She was staring at him with a wide, understanding gaze that seemed far more wise than her tender years. “If I have to stay sick, it’s okay. Please don’t be sad. I don’t want you to be sad.” 

He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t even swallow past the hard lump that formed in his throat. Rising from his own chair, the man moved over and sat on the bed, gathering the girl up into his lap and hugging her gently to his chest. “My girl,” he murmured in a voice filled with wonder and amazement at the simple truth of that statement. “You’re my baby girl. My brave little girl.” 

Kissing the top of her head tenderly, Eric finally shook his head. “I’m not sad, Smelly Melly. I’m not sad at all. I’m happy.” Swallowing, he added, “I’m happier than I’ve been for a long time.”  

Leaning her head back, Melissa gently poked at his face, her expression curious. “But you’re crying, Daddy. You aren’t supposed to cry when you’re happy. Did you get broken?” 

The question made him chuckle a little despite himself, and the man nodded once. “Maybe I did get a little broken. But you won’t be. You–” Once more, the words caught in his throat, and he had to give a light chuckle of bafflement at the absurdity of his emotions. Maybe Melissa was right, maybe he really was broken. The years of being terrified for his daughter’s life, of working so hard to keep her safe from this horrific disease, had taken its toll. Especially the past few weeks, as he dealt with the mounting desperation and panic at the possibility of losing her for real. 

“Baby, we found it,” he finally managed. His hand gently touched her face, fingers tenderly brushing along the girl’s cheek. “We found your medicine. We found all of it. You’re going to be okay. We’ve got your medicine here, right here in the house. Where it should have been the whole time. We’ve got all of it, Smelly. Every last bit.” With each word, his voice cracked with a bit more emotion, while he watched the expression on his daughter’s face. 

She was staring wide-eyed at him. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, “So I can get better?” Her voice was tentative, making it clear how hesitant she was to express even that much hope. Which he could hardly blame her for after everything that had happened. “Really better?” 

His head gave a short, jerky nod as a small, emotional laugh escaped him. It was a laugh born not of amusement, but of uncontained emotion that had to escape in that moment. “Yes, baby girl. Yes, you’re going to be okay. You’re going to have your medicine and you’ll get better just like Dr. Worthy said. You’re going to be just fine. You’re going to be safe. You’re gonna be strong, and you’re gonna grow up, and… and you’ll be okay.” 

Once the last word escaped him, Eric found himself unable to say anything else. The tears had started in earnest as soon as he saw them appear in his daughter’s eyes. He pulled her closer and the two hugged, father and daughter clinging to one another against the storm of emotion that swept through each of them. 

It took both a few minutes to collect themselves enough to speak again. Once he could finally find his voice, Eric leaned back and smiled at his daughter a bit shakily. “See, maybe you’re broken too.” 

“I’ll be broken if I can stay with you, Daddy,” Melissa informed him. Which was enough to make the man lose himself in another tight embrace with the beautiful, amazing little girl who made everything he had ever done in his life worth it just to be there with her. Nothing else in the world mattered. Nothing. Just being right there with her. 

“No, sweet thing,” the man finally managed. “You won’t be broken. You’ll be amazing. You’ll be a writer, a real writer. You’ll travel and see all the amazing things you’ve ever wanted to see. You’ll do everything you want to do, because you’re going to be okay. You’re going to be fine, my baby girl.”  

The two of them sat together like that for another minute before Melissa sniffed once and quietly announced, “I miss Dr. Worthy, Daddy.” Her voice was hesitant, and she glanced up guiltily, as though she felt bad about bringing up a sad moment right then, at a time in which they were supposed to be happy. 

Eric, however, gave a short nod. “I know, baby. I miss him too. I sure wish he could be here right now. I wish he could see just how much you’re going to grow up. But you know what we have to do to make up for him being gone?” 

The girl’s head shook slowly. “Nuh uh. What, Daddy?” Even as she said the words, she clung to him a little tighter, needing the reassurance of his physical presence to prove to herself that she wasn’t dreaming. 

“Live,” Eric informed her with a little poke to her nose that made the girl giggle. “You make Dr. Worthy’s work worth it by living the biggest, best life you can, okay, Smelly? You were the last big thing he worked on. So when you’re better, you’re gonna go out there and be whatever you want to be. You’re gonna live. That’s what you can do for Dr. Worthy. You’ll be out there telling your stories to everyone in the world.” 

“Can I tell you a story right now, Daddy?” she asked quickly, reaching out to pick up the nearest notebook, which he could see was filled with her neat, careful handwriting. “I made up a new one last night.” 

“Of course, you know I love your stories,” he assured her before settling up against the headboard of the bed. Letting his daughter adjust herself until she was comfortably resting against him, the man put an arm around her and listened while she began to read her newest story. Maybe it would have been strange to some people that she was the one who read him a story rather than the other way around. But he didn’t care. This was what his girl wanted. 

Fairly soon, it was clear that all the excitement had worn her out, and he could hear the mounting tiredness in her voice as she pushed on to get through the story. Eventually, he held the notebook and turned the pages for her while she laid back against his chest and simply read the words. Even that eventually trailed off into more and more silence between the words as her eyes would close for a few seconds, open again to read the first few words her gaze found, then close once more. 

Then she was asleep. For a while, Eric simply sat there with her, tenderly stroking the girl’s hair as he whispered soothing words to ensure she knew, even in her unconscious state, that she was safe and that he would never let anything bad happen. The thought of losing her, of being so helpless to protect his little girl…

Realizing he needed to get up before he ended up waking Melissa, Eric very carefully extracted himself and straightened. He took a moment to gently lay her on the pillow and put the blanket over her before standing up. It was okay, he had to remind himself. She was safe and she was going to stay that way. 

Quietly ordering the computer to lower the lighting, he walked out of the room. Closing the door behind him, the man was met by a friend that he’d known for exactly as long as he had known Samuel Worthy. Elarc Sorn, the former mercenary for Braintrust who had been convinced in that meeting three years earlier to switch sides, stood with a cell phone in one hand. 

“Reports are in,” he informed his boss after having waited patiently for him to be ready. “We lost a few people. Six dead, another eight arrested at the scenes. About thirty or forty thousand dollars worth of damages to a couple of our sites. Don’t have to reclaim anything cuz they backed off as soon as word got out that the vials were off the market.” 

“They were a distraction-force,” Eric replied flatly. “They never intended to hold our territory, only do enough damage to force us to split our resources to handle it. And to sow discord among our people if I didn’t address the situation properly, make them see me putting them in danger to protect my own daughter.” 

Sorn nodded once. “That does seem to have been the goal, sir. But they didn’t do nearly as much damage as they could have.” 

“They did enough,” Eric informed him. “We’ll respond in kind.” As he spoke, the man reached for the phone in his jacket pocket. Instead, he found something else. The skateboarding pink crocodile. Somehow, the stuffed toy had ended up in his pocket. Probably courtesy of his daughter wanting to share something with him. For a moment, he gazed at the creature. Cassidy. Cassidy the Crocodile. 

Somehow, his thoughts turned to the boy who had been so responsible for making this night possible. Paintball. Whoever the boy was under that mask, he was very clearly going to be important going forward. Important not only to Eric and his people, but others as well. There was more going on there, Eric knew. While his power wasn’t telling him exactly what, he knew there was something big just lurking under the surface. Something tantalizingly close. 

Exhaling, he absently put the toy away while looking back to his subordinate. “For now, let people recover. They’ve all done enough. Make sure compensation goes to the families of those we lost, and get our legal representation for the ones who were picked up. I want them out as soon as possible, and I want them eager to jump back into things. We need everyone we can get.” 

Walking down the hall, he spoke in a low, dangerous voice. “Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners think the war is over. 

“But it’s just beginning.” 

*******

The front doors of the Evans mansion closed behind Izzy, Damarko, Amber, and Jae as the four of them walked out together after watching the movie in that giant home theater. No one said anything until they reached Damarko’s car. Then Amber turned, glanced around briefly, before taking a knee and embracing Izzy. “How’re you really doing?” 

Izzy’s eyes closed, as she told herself not to stiffen up, and definitely not to push Amber away. She knew the other girl meant well. She was trying to help, trying to make her feel safer. But being touched like that, it just… she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Not after…

Shaking that off, she gave a quick squeeze in return before stepping back in a way that she hoped wouldn’t make Amber feel bad or anything. There was a lump in her throat as she spoke with a quiet, “I could be a lot worse.” 

“A lot worse as in, ‘could be enslaved by some Fell-Gang assholes?’” Damarko asked, “Or a lot worse as in, ‘could have to stay somewhere other than the biggest house in the whole city?’” Without looking, he caught the elbow that Amber tried to shove at him before adding, “She knows I’m just trying to lighten the mood.” Pausing then, he added, “You do know that, right?” 

“Uh huh,” Izzy confirmed, glancing to Jae. “You’re really different like this, you know?” 

It was like a switch had been flipped. The quiet, demure and barely responsive Jae straightened, raised her head, and smiled. At one point, Izzy had seen the old Superman movies with Christopher Reeve, and the way Jae switched from the persona she put on in public to the way she was now or as Carousel reminded her of him going between Clark Kent and Superman in the same scene. It was that much of an immediate and thorough switch. 

“I’d rather not be the same,” the Albino Asian girl replied, “in case the flame of my fame puts my name to acclaim and this dame is fair game to shame, claim, or maim.” 

“In other words, she’d rather be really different between her civvie self and her Touched self so no one recognizes her and causes problems. And see, I told you guys she holds all of that in at school and can’t help blurting out the rhymes as soon as she gets a chance,” Amber noted before focusing on Izzy. “So, you’re really okay right now? What’s… umm… you know, what’s it like living here?” 

“What’s Cassidy like, she means,” Damarko put in. “Is she this really spoiled rich girl in private? Does she like, have servants bring her towers of ice cream the size of your head?” He blinked at Amber and Jae. “What? I’m not blaming her. I would totally do that if my family owned half the city.” 

“She doesn’t notice,” Izzy quickly piped up. She waited until they were looking at her, then shrugged. “Cassidy. She doesn’t notice that she’s rich. Not really. Not… like… like that. It’s like… her family having so much money is like most people having legs.” 

Amber frowned. “Uh… what?” 

Trying to put her thoughts (she’d had them over the past couple days all jumbled up) into some kind of order, Izzy carefully explained, “I mean, a umm… a normal person with working legs, right? They walk around all day, and if they see someone who can’t walk, they feel bad for them and maybe think about how they might be able to help. Or they feel like… how much better they have it. But most of the time, they don’t really think about it. They don’t think about how good their legs are when they get up and walk to the kitchen. That’s what Cassidy is like with money. She’s not bad because she doesn’t think about how rich she is. When she sees someone without money, she tries to help them. But most of the time, she’s just… a person with working legs. She has money, it doesn’t… register, or whatever unless it’s really pointed out. Someone with legs isn’t bad just because they don’t think about how useful that is most of the time. It’s just their life. Having so much money is her life.” 

“Do you like her?” That was Damarko, getting straight to the point. “I mean, do you think she’s cool?” 

For a brief moment, Izzy considered the question. “I don’t… know her very much,” she carefully answered. “I know she’s keeping secrets. I think she might have a boyfriend or something that she doesn’t want her mom and dad to know about. But… yeah. Yeah, she’s pretty cool. And she’s funny. I… she’s not anything like how I expected the Evans’ daughter to be.” 

“Yeah, you can say that again,” Amber agreed with a snort. “But seriously, we knew she was cool. Good project partner anyway, and that absolutely translates into other things. So if shit goes down out here, she will totally have your back.” 

Blinking, Izzy carefully pointed out, “I don’t… think she’d be able to help very much if any bad guys showed up. And hey, you guys never said you were friends with the richest girl in town.”

“I meant have your back as in she’d stand behind you,” came the grinning retort. “Which is the safest place to be, cuz you’re Izzy God Damn Amor.” With a wink, Amber added, “And we weren’t really that close until Mr. Dorn teamed us up for that school thing a few weeks ago.” She hesitated as though considering something about that before shaking it off. “Anyway, enough about Cassie. While we’re here, there’s something else we should talk about.

“Paintball. What’s that guy’s deal?” 

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