Amber O’Connell

Hostile Witness 18-04 (Summus Proelium)

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The non-canon chapters are out right now! You can find the Summus Proelium noncanon right here and the Heretical Edge noncanon right here

Talking to Paige about the Irelyn thing was going to have to wait for the time being. I wasn’t ready to go asking the girl why she hadn’t mentioned having an older sister who would start sniffing around. That was all just… complicated. I needed to deal with something else first.  

The next morning, we finally got an official update about Simon and my parents. Supposedly, they would be back in the city by Tuesday. It was now Saturday, so apparently whatever they were so busy with was going to keep them occupied for another three days. Part of me wondered if they were in that secret mall base at that very moment, and I almost wanted to go there and pink-paint my way straight through the door to ask them what was going on. That would have been unfathomably dumb, of course. And it would have accomplished basically nothing. But I still had the impulse, as much as I pushed it aside. 

In any case, worrying about what my parents were up to could wait, as we had more immediate things to focus on today. Namely, the fact that we were going to check out that Amanda girl, and hopefully come out with some information that would actually help stop Pencil and the Scions. 

Also important was the fact that this would be the first time all of us worked together in the real world, rather than in virtual reality. Much as that had seemed realistic, this was still a big step. To say nothing of the fact that it was my first time working with Alloy after telling her (most of) the truth about the Ministry, and the first time I’d be doing anything with That-A-Way after both of us had found out each other’s identities. Oh, and we were going to be letting them know that Raindrop knew what was going on and would provide back-up alongside Way if needed. Which was also bound to change things one way or another. Really, the only relationship that hadn’t changed in some way was the one with Pack. And even that wasn’t quite true, considering Way now had to hide the fact that she knew my identity from the girl she obviously liked (and that entire situation was already complicated enough as it had been). 

As far as the household staff knew, Izzy and I were going to spend the day shopping and hanging out in town. The two of us made a big deal about talking up how cool it was going to be, with Izzy making sure to ask me if I knew Simon’s shoe size so she could buy him something for his rapidly approaching birthday. Which was apparently something she really did want to do. She had some idea about buying him running shoes to go with a private joke between the two of us (oh, and Amber now too) about how he should get used to running away because we were going to stop them. Yeah, it was silly, but hey. Whatever helped her (and the rest of us) amuse ourselves a little bit sounded good to me. 

We accepted a ride from Jefferson and let him drop us off at one of the other malls. Thanking the man, the two of us made a point of walking inside together so the man could see it happen before he left. I didn’t think any of the staff were suspicious at all about what we were doing, but still. Best to be on the safe side. Besides, we actually were going to meet Amber here. 

But we were also going to be safe about the whole thing. To that end, the two of us walked through the mall and pretended to shop for about twenty minutes. Well, I pretended. Izzy actually did buy a pair of those shoes she had been talking about and carried them with us as we made our way to the arcade. Amber was already waiting there at the Skee-Ball game, but there was a younger boy actually playing on the next lane over, so we moved to the other side of the room, where the pinball machines were. Those were empty, and the three of us had a brief, whispered conversation. Even then, we didn’t say anything completely obvious. We used a lot of insinuation and talking around the actual specifics while making sure all of us were ready to head out and meet up with Alloy and Pack. 

Once outside, the three of us cut across the parking lot and found our way to the back of an old liquor store that was closed at the moment. The street was a hundred feet away, and there was no one anywhere in sight. Finally, we could actually talk.

“You doing okay?” Amber asked Izzy, while putting both hands on the younger girl’s shoulders. “You and me, we’re going to take it easy today and make the other guys do the legwork, right?” 

With a small smile, Izzy nodded. Her voice was a murmur. “I’m okay. I–I’m more than okay. I get to help. I mean, if something goes wrong I get to help.” She shot me a quick, apologetic look. “I don’t think it’s going to go wrong.” 

“It’s okay,” I assured her. “Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Trust me, I’m just glad we have both of you sitting in the background waiting to jump in. I mean, yeah, I hope this goes fine and we just get the information from her. But if something blows up, I feel a lot better knowing you two have our backs. Makes the whole idea of going in there a lot less terrifying.”  

“And I feel better knowing I’ve got Izzy next to me,” Amber put in. “Helps when we can split the weight between our shoulders.” With a wink to the other girl, she added, “That reminds me, I told Syndicate you and I would do the north-east patrol tonight so all of him could cover Whamline’s route down south, if that’s cool?” 

With a quick nod of agreement, Izzy curiously asked, “What’s Whamline doing?” 

Amber, in turn, shrugged. “I dunno. Something about another commitment that came up in his civvy life. He said he’d make it up later, but I don’t think anyone’s really worried about it except him. From what Syndicate said, he wouldn’t stop apologizing about flaking on a patrol.”  

While they talked a little more about that, I excused myself and stepped to the hidden alcove where the back door leading into the liquor store was. Sliding the backpack off my shoulders, I took a minute to change into my costume. Hell, on top of all the other advantages, it turned out that having someone (or in this case someones) who knew my identity made it convenient to have them play lookout while I changed. Which had always been a fairly nerve-wracking prospect to do by myself. 

In this case, however, I was able to change without worrying. Then I stepped out next to Amber and gave Izzy a chance to change as well, while the other girl and I watched for any interruptions. 

And there she was. It certainly was far from my first time seeing Izzy as Raindrop in general, and I’d even been around her a few times in person. Most notably when I’d run into that theater to help her and Amber/Way deal with Suckshot and Landlock. But I hadn’t really known who she was. I’d had no idea that the little girl I’d been spending so much time with at home and had already started to care about, and the badass water-gravity manipulator I fought beside, were the same person. This was really my first time being face to face with Izzy as Raindrop while knowing exactly who she was. 

For a moment, I just stared at her, looking the other girl up and down. She looked the same as Raindrop always did, in her dark blue bodysuit that had those gleaming silver armor panels, and the white cloak with a hood. Her face was hidden behind a helmet with a mirrored faceplate that just showed me my own reflection staring back at me. She was Raindrop. But she was also Izzy. And that was a weird feeling for me to try to cope with. Which made me wonder just how she felt about the situation from her point of view. She was seeing me up close as Paintball too. 

“You two okay?” Amber asked, looking back and forth between us. “You’ve been staring.” 

Both of us shook off our internal thoughts and confirmed that we were fine. So, Amber muttered something about how weird all this was before taking her turn to change while we kept watch. 

And then we were all dressed. For like the first time, the three of us were heading out together while we were all on exactly the same page. These two, they… they knew the truth. They knew about my family, the Ministry, all of it. And they had my back. Boy, was this a really different feeling or what? Seriously, I was accustomed to stuff being shoved onto my shoulders, not taken off it. This was weird. 

At least it was going to be a long time before I ever had to worry about the weight on my shoulders entirely disappearing. As evidenced by what we were about to do once we met up with the others. Going out of our way to seek information that would piss Pencil off immensely if he even had an inkling that we were trying to get it. As if he wasn’t annoyed with all of us enough as it was. And now I was dragging Izzy into the situation, when she hadn’t been on his radar before? Oh, right, there was that weight again. Like an old friend settling right back into place. This one just happened to be named guilt rather than responsibility. 

Yes, I knew it was dumb to think that way. Logically, I knew Izzy deserved to make her own choices, and that I was only a few years older than her anyway. I also knew I would be dead in the water (and maybe dead literally) without help from people like her and Amber. But no amount of firmly telling myself that would entirely erase the pit in my stomach that got bigger every time I thought about getting people I cared about anywhere near any situation involving that psychotic fucking piece of shit. He made me nervous, I couldn’t help it. 

At least the three of us could move pretty openly together whenever we were out like this. If anyone asked, Amber and Izzy would just say that they had run into me and we decided to do a little patrol together. They could even play it up as if they were trying to convince me to join. So, we would be covered there. As far as today went, meeting up with Pack would be when things got a little more complicated.

But at least for now, we were fine. And we made fast progress, considering we had deliberately set our changing point south of where we were meeting the other two. It meant Amber could grab both of us and teleport from roof to roof basically the whole way. It was even faster than my typical way of traveling, even if she could only do it in one compass direction.  

“You know,” I started while Amber was taking a breath when we were almost to the meeting point, “I could get used to this sort of traveling. Maybe bring along a lawn chair and a book so I can kick my feet up and catch up on some reading.”  

Rolling her eyes, Amb–Way. I had to think of her as That-A-Way while we were all in costume, or I was going to screw something up badly. Way rolled her eyes and retorted, “The only book I’ll let you get away with reading is our European History textbook for the next project for Mr. Dorn. And since we don’t have one of those yet, I guess you’re just going to have to suck it up and stand while I teleport with you.” 

Snickering, Izz–Raindrop spoke up. “You guys should probably get all that ‘talking about things that give away your secret identities’ stuff out of the way now, before we go any closer.” After that little bit of teasing, she sobered visibly before somewhat nervously adding, “Are you sure about the umm, about what we’re gonna tell them for, you know, me?” 

Way and I exchanged brief looks before the other girl nodded to Izzy. Her voice was gentle. “Yeah, Rain, it’ll work. Trust me, they won’t question it too much. Okay, Pack will probably give you a little crap, but most of that is just going to be screwing with you. She likes to do that just to get a reaction for the hell of it. And part of it will be a test, just in case you were a spy or something. A very young spy.” She paused briefly to consider before frowning. “Also, she might try to recruit you. Possibly repeatedly. Just uhh, laugh it off.” A thought abruptly seemed to strike her, considering the way her eyes widened. “Oh. If–listen, if she does make a crack about that, don’t take it seriously, okay? I know–I mean, that whole thing with…” She trailed off, clearly uncomfortable as the thought of how the younger girl might react to someone teasing her about joining a villain gang after what her own mother had done clearly came to mind. 

Raindrop, for her part, was quiet for a moment before giving a slight nod, her voice as firm as I had heard it. “It’s okay,” she insisted. “I… know the difference between a joke and what… and what happened before. Even a ‘haha, totally joking unless…’ sort of joke, you know? I don’t know her, but you guys do, and if Pack was like that, I don’t think you’d have anything to do with her. She’s not like that, and I don’t think that Blackjack guy is either.” From her voice, it sounded like she was giving us some approximation of a smile from behind that mirrored faceplate. “I guess there’s bad bad guys, good good guys, good bad guys, bad good guys, and like… every level of every kind. I just—I’m okay. I’m not gonna freak out just cuz she makes a joke about joining her team.” 

I may not have known much about Izzy’s mother, but I did know one thing. She had truly, royally screwed up for not recognizing just how awesome her kid was. What a bitch. 

From the look that Way gave me, I had the feeling she was thinking basically the same thing. But we didn’t say it. Instead both of us nodded to the other girl. No one said anything. Raindrop and I just joined hands with Way once more, and we all made that last teleport jump. Instead of landing on another roof, this final teleport took us inside an old gas station garage that had been directly across the street. The place had closed down a few months earlier and no one had bought the property yet. Apparently there had been some kind of meth gang trying to set up shop here, but the Minority chased them out only a few days earlier, which was how Way and Raindrop knew about it. This was where we were going to meet the others. Being in the garage would keep us safely out of sight so we could talk about everything in complete privacy. 

The others weren’t there yet, probably because we made sure to get there about half an hour early just so we could already be waiting when Pack and Alloy showed up. Then the three of us killed time by once more going over exactly what we were going to say about Raindrop being involved in the situation now. 

Pack was the first to arrive out of the other two. We heard a van pull up behind the building, and That-A-Way stepped over to push the button that made the rolling door go up so the La Casa Touched could back the vehicle  into the garage. The door was lowered once more while she got out, hopping down to the cement and brushing her hands off. “You people really need to–” 

Only then did she look up, seeing Raindrop standing a bit behind Way and me. Cutting herself off, Pack tilted her head and stared. Her expression was, of course, hidden behind that blank black mask. “Sorry, I didn’t know we were bringing friends. Maybe I should’ve brought one of my own? Eits and Broadway both looked pretty bored this morning.”

Coughing once, I shook my head. “Sorry, this was–uh, yeah. Pack, this is Raindrop. Raindrop, Pack.” 

“We’ve met a couple times,” Pack replied dryly. “You know, at work.” The way she said that made it clear that two of them had fought on opposite sides. But, she did at least follow that up with a shrug. “It was fun. Hope Twinkletoes didn’t toss you too hard. I told him to be gentle.” 

Clearly flushing a little behind her own mask, Raindrop murmured something under her breath before more audibly adding, “It’s okay. I hope the umm, bear wasn’t too scared about floating.” 

“Mars Bar,” Pack informed her. “And he doesn’t do great with heights, but he’s fine. And now that all those pleasantries are out of the way…” She looked to Way and me. “What’s she doing here?” To Raindrop, she added, “No offense. Just… what?” 

Checking the text that had just come in on my phone, I replied, “Alloy’ll be here in a minute, we should hold off and explain it together so we don’t have to do it twice. But uhh, the short version is she knows about the Ministry and she’s gonna help.” 

“She knows about the Ministry, huh?” Pack’s voice made it clear that she didn’t think it was impossible that even someone as young as Raindrop could be some kind of spy. “Interesting.” 

Yeah, we definitely needed to explain what was going on. At least, as much as we could. If we were going to work together, Pack couldn’t be focused on being suspicious about Raindrop. Especially if we were going to do anything that even remotely involved the Scions. That was too dangerous to screw around with. 

As promised, Alloy arrived just a minute or so later, coming up to knock on the side door. As I let her in (wearing the purple-silver Sentai armor version of her costume), she was already talking while panting heavily. “Sorry… Mom… wanted some help… groceries… had to…” She trailed off, having spotted Raindrop. “Uhhh…” 

“Yeah,” Pack put in, “that’s basically what I said.” 

So, without wasting any more time, Way, Raindrop, and I launched into our explanation of what had happened. Obviously, we didn’t want to outright lie too much to these two people we were supposed to be working with. To that end, the very first thing we said was that we were going to be a little vague and twist things a bit to protect certain identities, but that this was the overall gist of the situation. We were right up front about the fact that it wasn’t one hundred percent of the truth, sort of like when a news report or true crime show said that certain details were changed to protect people. And we admitted that some details were twisted more than others. 

In any case, the story we told was that Raindrop’s family had attempted to sell her to Oscuro through that Handler guy. She escaped that situation but was almost captured again before Silversmith stepped in and rescued her. From there, she was sent to live at a safe house. 

All of that, of course, was one hundred percent true, if lacking in a couple key details. 

From there, we basically just said ‘and then stuff happened that we can’t get into because there are a lot of secrets involved, but Raindrop found out about the Ministry existing and got worried that the whole thing with her parents and Handler might’ve had something to do with them, so we had to tell her more details before she snooped around on her own and ended up getting in trouble.’ 

Yeah, there was a good bit of skipping over or outright avoiding details. We yada yada’d Raindrop finding out about the Ministry in the first place with the explanation that saying how she found out would risk revealing secrets we couldn’t reveal. That-A-Way implied that it had to do with her own identity, to protect me. Without actually saying that, of course. It made enough sense, given they were on the same team. Yeah, that skirted the line of outright lying, but it was the best we could do to avoid exposing who I was to the other two, and I just… wasn’t ready for that. Good as it felt to have Way and Raindrop know the truth, I barely knew Alloy (and was already trusting her with a lot as it was), and Pack was still technically a Fell-Touched. I wasn’t ready to go as far as sharing my identity with them just yet. 

“And you’re sure she’s not a plant?” Pack flatly demanded, before looking at Raindrop. “Again, no offense. But seriously, come on, guys. How do you know she’s not a mole?” 

“She’s not,” I replied. “I just… I know it’s hard to take something like that on faith, believe me, I know. And I can’t really explain it. But just… trust me. If she was a mole, we’d all be locked up right now. She knows everything. There’s nothing for her to be a mole about anymore. If she was really just spying for the Ministry, she could’ve had all of us taken in already. I mean come on, it’s not like they have to catch us in the act of anything. If she was reporting to them, we’d already be in the black van with the hoods, or whatever they do.” 

Shifting her weight back and forth a few times as though considering that, Pack was clearly staring intently at the girl in question. Finally, she reached into her pocket and produced Holiday the skink. “What do you think?” She held the lizard out that way, allowing Holiday to almost touch Raindrop’s reflective faceplate. When the skink put a foot against it, Pack gave a nod of satisfaction. “Good enough for me.” 

Exhaling, I looked at Alloy. “You okay?” 

She, in turn, shrugged. “Dude, I’m brand new to all this too. If you say she’s okay, who am I to say you’re wrong? But… that story about what happened, I know you said some of it’s twisted a little for identity protection, but the bit about… about her family…” She looked at Raindrop directly. “Was that true?” 

Raindrop, in turn, gave a very short nod. Her voice was quiet. “It’s true.” 

“Fuck.” Clearly swallowing hard, Alloy added, “Sorry. I mean… sorry.” 

“Yeah, that sums it up,” I agreed. “The point is, she’s involved, but we have to be really careful about using her so the Ministry doesn’t find out she knows anything.”

“Right…” Thinking about that for a moment, Pack finally shrugged and looked at Way. “Guess you’ve got someone to talk to while you wait around to see if we need backup, huh?”

“That’s the plan,” Way agreed. “And speaking of plan, we should probably get into ours. 

“Cuz boy I just can’t wait to go poke the Scions with a stick. This is gonna be nifty.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, I had a lot to talk with Izzy about by the time I got home that evening. My parents were still gone, but Skyped in over a laptop placed at the head of the table so we could have an approximation of family dinner night. The room behind them in the camera just looked like any of the other hotel suites we’d stayed at, so it didn’t exactly tell me much about where they were. 

After that, Izzy and I stayed in my room and pretended to be playing video games while we discussed everything that had happened. And boy was it weird to be in my room like that after being in the virtual recreation of it when that whole thing with Paige’s father went down. Sure, it had been my room as it was decorated in the past, but still. It made me feel strange, sitting there while images of that whole fight played out in my head. 

In any case, before we started, I made it clear that there were some big things I had to tell Izzy, but wanted to do it all in order. So that was exactly what I did, going through everything that had happened inside the virtual reality space in order. God was it ever tempting to jump ahead to the really big stuff, but I felt like it was important for her to have all the actual context. 

And boy did she ever react when I eventually got to that big stuff. The controller dropped from her hand when I talked about taking my helmet and mask off in front of That-A-Way, and she was suddenly staring at me with wide eyes. I pushed on with a quick nod of understanding, explaining everything all the way up through Way eventually revealing her identity to me, and the two of us having our talk at the end. And, of course, everything that had been established about Paige and the newly dubbed Raige as far as what we needed to do to help them.

Throughout the entire remainder of the story, ever since I got to the part about taking my helmet off, Izzy had completely stopped even the pretense of paying attention to the game. She was facing me with her mouth open, as it clearly took everything she had not to suddenly interrupt. And yet, once I finally finished, she didn’t say anything at all. She just stared in silence, as though everything she’d been bursting to say simply vanished entirely from her mind in that moment.

“So yeah,” I finally announced, breaking the silence once it had dragged on for almost thirty seconds. “That was my day. How was yours? Anything interesting happen? Ooh, did Claudio make that special layered pudding? He said something about making that before, and–” 

“Are you freaking kidding me right now?!” the girl suddenly blurted out loud, flailing a bit while literally jumping to her feet. “You know about Amber and she knows about you and she knows that I know about you and also everything else that happened to you and everything about your family, and you actually think we’re gonna talk about pudding?!” 

Yeah, maybe I had a little too much fun with the whole thing. Restraining my smirk, I managed a mostly straight-faced, “Well, if he made it, I should probably know so I can run down there.” 

That earned me a kick while the younger girl rolled her eyes. “Oh please, as if your family’s personal freaking chef wouldn’t whip it up for you the second you asked for it.” After pointing that out, she focused once more. “Seriously, she really knows everything about everything?”  

I shrugged. “There might’ve been something here or there that I forgot to mention, but basically yeah. That’s why it took me so long to get home. We kind of had a lot to go over. Do you realize how busy the past… just over a month has been? I got my powers in the second week of March, and it’s April sixteenth now. At this rate, I’m gonna cram a decade worth of stuff into the rest of the year. Which is convenient, since dealing with my family is gonna age me that quick too.” 

“At least Amber knows what’s going on?” Izzy pointed out with a shrug. “That’s something.”

“Oh, it’s definitely something,” I agreed. “I mean, I don’t–I’m glad she knows. And that I know. It’s just–it’s really complicated in other ways. It’s going to take awhile for me to wrap my head around this whole thing. And honestly, I’ve got the really easy side of it. I can’t even imagine what she’s going through right now, or what sort of things she’s thinking about all of it.” 

Izzy’s response, as she glanced over toward the window, was a quiet, “I can.”  

Her words made me hesitate before looking that way to hesitantly ask. “Are you okay?” 

“Hm? Oh, yeah.” Turning to meet my gaze, Izzy tried to give an encouraging nod. “It’s just a lot, you know? I was just thinking about what it’s like to have the whole thing dumped on you at once like that. I mean, I’m glad I know, and I’m glad that we can talk about everything. Believe me, I’m really glad.” She sighed then, flopping back down into the bean bag chair as if all the strength had left her. “It feels really heavy sometimes.” Her eyes had closed briefly through that before opening to focus on me. “How do you handle it? They’re your family and all that and you have to keep lying right to their faces. You have to hide basically everything now.” 

Swallowing the thick lump that tried to form in my throat, I answered in a soft voice. “It’s not easy. But I’m not the only one with problems. Plus, I have you to talk to about it.” 

“And Amber,” she pointed out with a very small smile. 

“And Amber,” I agreed, nudging the girl. “So hey, that’s some of the pressure off you, I guess. Spread out who has to deal with Cassidy’s mental breakdown.” With that… sort of joke, I cleared my throat. “Anyway, right now, what I really want is to find out more about how their whole operation works. Not to mention separate Paige and Raige. And the way to do both of those things is to break into that mall base. So I guess that’s our next main thing to focus on. Which–hey.” I blinked a couple times as a thought occurred to me at that moment. 

“What?” Izzy asked, shifting a bit on the bean bag to stare at me curiously. 

“I just realized,” I murmured before looking over to meet her gaze. “If Amber knows that you know about everything, and you know that Amber knows, then… maybe you can be involved a little more. You know, if you want to. I mean, instead of hiding at the library or whatever when the two of us are supposed to be out together and I’m with the others, you could… come? Between you, Amber, and me, we can come up with a story about how you know about the Ministry that’s close to the truth without really exposing everything. We still have to hide that you have any knowledge of the Ministry from everyone else, obviously. Can’t take any chances about my parents getting suspicious. But when we’re just at Wren’s or doing this tunnel thing, maybe… you could be there. You know, if you want. You could meet Pack without fighting.”

Shifting in the bean bag so she could look at me, Izzy hesitated before asking, “Are you sure? I mean…” She trailed off, clearly considering all of that. “I guess you’re right. If we made up a reason for me to know about the Ministry beyond, uh, you know… living in their house.” 

“We’ll just say you had your own encounter with them or something,” I agreed. “Way–I mean Amber–I mean Way can help. God, that’s gonna take a lot to get used to. After all that stuff we did at school and–” Belatedly, my eyes widened. “You think Jae knows about her? I mean she has to, right? They’re pretty good friends, and that… that guy Amber knew from that other school with the car. Damarko? It was Damarko. Is he–wait, no. No. Don’t tell me, don’t say anything.” My head shook, hands already covering my eyes. “I’m not even gonna look at your reaction. Do not tell me anything about that. I’m gonna stop trying to guess. That’s not fair to them. Or to you, putting you in the middle like that. God, I don’t even know how you managed to keep quiet about Amber for so long. You’re really good at keeping secrets, you know that?” 

“I’m… doing my best,” came the quiet response. There was a moment of silence after that before Izzy added, “But, that means you know I’m keeping secrets right now. Still. I’m still keeping secrets. They’re not my secrets to tell, you know? I just–I don’t wanna lie to you, Cassie. You’re my friend. You’re–” She swallowed hard before reiterating, “You’re my friend. But they’re my friends too. I can’t just–” 

“Stop.” I quickly shook my head. “Izzy, it’s okay. I told you, I don’t want you to tell me anything about them. I just got caught up for a second with the whole Amber being That-A-Way thing. Really, I promise, it’s totally okay. Don’t tell me anything that isn’t yours to tell.” 

Nodding slowly, Izzy hesitated before asking, “Do you think Amber’s mad because I didn’t tell her anything about you even though we’re supposed to be teammates and everything?” Her voice trembled just a little as she squirmed, clearly feeling even more of that weight on her shoulders. 

“What? No!” I quickly insisted, setting the game controller down before turning fully to face her. “Izzy, she’s not mad at you. Seriously, she knows why you kept my thing secret, just like I know why you kept her identity secret from me. No one’s mad at you or anything. It’s okay.” Shrugging then, I added, “Actually, she kinda wants to meet tomorrow morning. We figured the three of us could go out, grab some breakfast, and talk in a park somewhere. We’ll just tell Jefferson that we’re taking an Uber so we can have breakfast with a friend and we’ll make it to school on our own. Actually, I better send him a text about that. He does better with schedule changes if he has all night to let it settle. Err, that is, if you wanna do that?” 

Izzy was already nodding quickly before I’d even finished asking that. “Yeah, I–yeah.” It looked like she wanted to say more than that, but clamped her mouth shut and simply kept bobbing her head with obvious eagerness. She definitely wanted to have the chance to talk with Amber and me together about this whole thing. 

So, I sent that message to let Jefferson know, before the two of us spent another twenty minutes or so talking about what happened and what we were going to do next. Izzy was visibly nervous about the prospect of meeting Pack and all the associated stuff that would come with that, so I did my best to calm her down. And, of course, made it clear that she didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to. If she preferred to stay out of things and just be my alibi and confidant, that was completely fine. She, however, insisted that she wanted to help more and be involved. And now that Amber was on-side, she actually could. She was just, well, understandably nervous. 

Either way, we finished up and headed for our separate beds. Tomorrow was already promising to be a pretty big day. As I watched Izzy on her way out my door to go back to her room, I hesitated before calling, “At least you’re never bored around this place, huh?” 

She paused there, hand on the doorknob before looking over her shoulder to me. “Bored?” the girl echoed with a snort. “No, definitely not bored. But isn’t there like a Chinese curse or something about living in interesting times?” 

My head tilted. “Yeah, sounds familiar. Maybe we can ask someone over there the next time my parents decide we’re going to China.” 

“The next time–” Cutting off her own disbelieving voice, Izzy shook her head. “Wow, dude.” 

“Oh come on, I was kidding!” I called as she started through the door. “We don’t have to go there to ask, I know Google exists!” 

“You ought to,” came the response as Izzy began to close the door after herself. 

“Your parents probably own a big chunk of it.” 

*******

So, the next day (which was Friday, April 17th), Izzy and I got up a bit early, cleaning up and dressing before heading out. I had texted not only Jefferson, but Chef Claudio as well to let him know he didn’t have to make any food that morning. Not for us, anyway. They still tended to cook for the rest of the staff, of course. That was one of my parents’ firm rules. Everyone who worked in the house got to eat just as well as we did, were paid incredibly well, and received a full slate of insurance and medical assistance. It was all about maintaining loyalty. Which, now that I knew more about my family’s whole thing, made even more sense. Obviously I’d never been anywhere near that situation, but I was pretty sure there were a lot of people who would turn a blind eye to anything criminal they might’ve seen if their boss was taking that much care of them. A good salary, benefits, insurance, and retirement plan went a long way toward something like that. 

So, Izzy and I stopped in at one of the local fast food chain restaurants, meeting Amber at the door on the way in. As soon as she saw her teammate (and boy was that something that would take awhile for me to get used to thinking), the younger girl immediately froze up, stopping practically in mid-step. Despite the assurances I had given her, Izzy was clearly still afraid of how Amber would react to the revelation of the pretty major secrets she’d been keeping. 

Thankfully, Amber seemed to realize that without any prompting and immediately stepped that way before embracing the other girl. “Hey there, Izz!” Obviously, she couldn’t really say anything out in public like this, but she did the best she could with that simple and immediate hug. “It’s so good to see you again,” she announced at least partially for the benefit of anyone who might wonder why meeting at a fast food place warranted a hug. “Feels like it’s been forever.” 

After a brief hesitation, Izzy returned the embrace. I could tell even from standing nearby that she’d really needed it. Which just reminded me of why she needed it. The kid had literally been sold to a gang of supervillains to be tortured into obedience. And not just by anyone, by her mother. Her mother had done that. No wonder Izzy was afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and making someone who was supposed to care about her completely turn. After all, if her mother had done it, anyone could do it. 

If we ever found that fucking bitch, I was gonna let her know just how annoyed I was with her.

In the interest of not making any more of a scene than we already had, the three of us went to the counter and bought a bag full of breakfast sandwiches along with juice and coffee (for Amber and me, Izzy wasn’t a coffee person yet) before heading out again. We made our way to the nearest park and sat at a table in a corner where we had a full view of everything around us in all directions. From here, no one would even be able to get within shouting distance without us seeing them, let alone close enough to hear our murmured voices. We were safe to talk. 

Which probably meant it was ironic that the three of us were completely silent for over a minute. We just sat there, staring at one another. We weren’t even eating yet, so that wasn’t a ready excuse. A few times, one of us started to say something, before falling silent. It was clear that no one really knew what to say. We had the time and privacy, but nobody had the right words.

Finally, I managed to find my voice first, somehow. Probably because I’d already talked to both of them separately, while they were still stuck staring at each other while trying to feel out how they were each feeling. I supposed that was one benefit I had in this whole situation. 

“So we’re all here,” I announced, drawing the immediate attention of the other two. “And on the same page, for once. Everyone here knows everything. Or should, unless I forgot something while I was playing exposition fairy.” Considering that briefly, I shook it off. “Yeah, same page.” 

“Two different Paiges, actually,” Amber teased before holding up both hands. “Sorry, sorry. Yeah, we’re on the same page. Everyone knows who everyone else is, and what’s going on with the Ministry.” She looked at me then, squinting a bit thoughtfully. “Your parents. I can’t believe I didn’t realize it was them. I mean, come on, they’re the most powerful unaffiliated people in the city. Supposedly unaffiliated. Everything they do is mysterious, they have lots of free time. And your dad, he’s really…” She trailed off, clearly finding it hard to finish that last sentence. 

“He’s Silversmith,” Izzy murmured in confirmation, her own voice soft enough to barely be audible. Apparently she was still struggling with that too. Which just meant that the three of us had something else in common. “He’s Silversmith and he’s a bad guy.” 

“He’s both good and bad,” I pointed out. “I mean he’s done good things and bad things. The people he saves as Silversmith really would have been worse off without him. Like you, Izzy. He saved you from those Oscuro people. He’s done a lot of good and I don’t–I’m not saying that to excuse him. Yeah, he’s my dad, but I know he’s done a lot of bad things too. They both have. I’m just saying there’s more, you know, nuance to this whole thing. That’s why I want to find out more. We can’t do anything until we know exactly how the Ministry works, who else is in on it, how it came to be a thing, all that. And to do that–”

“We need to get into that mall base,” Amber finished for me, voice flat. She was looking at me intently. “But are you sure you’ll be able to handle it if… when the time comes to actually do something about this Ministry, about your family? I mean, you’re right, there’s… more nuance to the good and bad thing.” Even as she said that, her gaze shifted off me to look off into the distance thoughtfully, before she swallowed hard and focused. “But if it comes down to it…” 

“If it comes down to it,” I answered, “I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know what’s gonna happen or… or what I’m going to do. Or what I even could do. But I’m trying. I’m–I just have to know the truth right now. I just need to know everything I can about them, and go from there.” 

Our gazes met, holding that way for several long, somewhat tense moments before the other girl exhaled. “Good,” she announced. “If you said you were ready to lock them up and throw away the key, you’d have been lying. Either to us or to yourself. Not being sure, that’s… that’s the truth.” 

Folding my arms against my stomach as it rolled a bit queasily, I nodded. “Yeah, well, I owe you that much at least. But seriously, we have to get in that base. Not just to find information, but for Paige and…” I coughed at the name. “And Raige too. Seriously, we need her to pick a better name. Maybe when we get her a body of her own.” 

“Which we can only do by getting in that base to find the addresses,” Amber finished with a nod. “Yeah. So that’s the next big thing on the to-do list. But hey, at least it means we can finally focus?” 

Snorting at that, I pointed out, “Except for the fact that Alloy and I have to go find and talk to that Amanda chick about any potential weaknesses Pencil has, sure. Totally focused. Oh, and I have to go over to the Seraphs place so I can finish up working there. And–yeah. Point is, I’m totally focused, yup.” I gave two thumbs up to them. 

“Okay, one, Pack and I are both helping you and Alloy with the Amanda thing, you two aren’t going by yourselves,” Amber reminded me. “She’ll be right there with you and I’m playing back-up.” She paused before glancing to Izzy. “We?” 

Izzy answered with a firm nod. “We’re playing back-up.” 

“See? It’s all working out after all.” Offering them what was probably a pretty unconvincing smile, I added, “Now let’s eat this breakfast.

“I’m pretty sure the three of us getting in trouble for missing school wouldn’t help me deal with this to-do list any faster.” 

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Interlude 17B – Amber (Summus Proelium)

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The sound of someone aggressively clearing their throat made Amber O’Connell jolt a bit. That surprised twitch was followed by a brief, relatively minor shot of pain in her hand as her reaction made the mug she had been holding onto splash some of its hot coffee out. It was enough to make the dark-haired girl focus on where she was. Specifically, the rearmost booth inside Rosie’s Rascal, an old diner that had been around and owned by the same family since the sixties. Not that anyone called it Rosie’s. For unknown reasons, even though the name of the place was technically (and written on the sign and menus as) Rosie’s Rascal, everyone who went there regularly referred to the place as Rascals. Without the apostrophe, as in multiple rascals, not belonging to one in particular. Again, no one seemed to know why the moniker was pluralized that way when it wasn’t in the actual written name. It was just one of those things. You accepted it or you looked like a clueless tourist by calling it Rosie’s. 

With a hiss from the coffee splashing over her hand, Amber reached out to pick up a couple napkins. Belatedly, she realized she had been staring off at nothing for the past… several minutes, at least. It was a thought that made her wince a bit while putting the napkins against her hand as she turned to see who had been so intent on getting her attention. It was an older guy in an old blue navy coat that had seen better days thirty years ago and was now more patches than original material. He wore a tattered old beanie over his head, and the scowl across the man’s dark-skinned face was enough to make his annoyance clear if his intensive throat-clearing hadn’t done the trick. “It’s Thursday. I sit there on Thursday. It’s time for pie.” 

“Hey, hey, Earl.” The new (quite familiar) voice came from behind the man, as Jerry Meuster approached and put a hand out gently. “Come on now, let’s get you seated at this table right over here. I’ll spot you an extra slice of pie tonight.” 

While the public knew Jerry as the Minority Star-Touched Whamline, at the moment he certainly wouldn’t have been recognized as such. Rather than his dark army camouflage costume and gauntlets, the red-haired, muscular boy wore a heavily grease-stained white shirt with blue pants and an apron with the name of the diner scrawled across it. The Rosie’s in ‘Rosie’s Rascal’ stood for Rosie Meuster, Jerry’s great-grandmother. His family had owned and operated the place for all these decades. Jerry himself had basically grown up in the diner, and still helped out whenever he wasn’t busy with Minority-related things. The fact that his family owned the place gave him a ready-made excuse to disappear anytime he needed to without worrying about explaining things to a boss. 

Earl, however, shook his head stubbornly. “I don’t wanna go to another table. It’s Thursday. This is my table. It’s time for pie. This is where I sit. It’s my place. Our place. We sat here. She can’t, she can’t anymore. But I can. This is our spot. Thursday night pie. We sat here. I sit here.” 

A sharp pang went through Amber that had nothing to do with the coffee that had spilled on her hand. Immediately, she slid out of the booth. “It’s okay, he can sit there. It’s not a big deal.” 

Jerry looked uncertain for a brief second before giving her a grateful nod as she picked up her coffee and slid over into the next table. Mouthing his thanks, he turned back to the man in question. “Here we go, Earl. Have a seat. You want the pecan and a cup of decaf, right?” 

“Pecan,” Earl agreed, head bobbing a few times sharply and definitively. “That’s what I have. It’s Thursday, I have pecan and coffee. Decaf, can’t have caffeine, bad. She said it was bad. I can’t have it. You’ll make sure, right? You’ll make sure it’s not caffeine. Has to be decaf. Has to be. Sh–sh-sh-she doesn’t want me to have caffeine.” With each repeated stutter as he tried to force the word ‘she’ out, the man jabbed two fingers none-too-gently against his forehead. 

While Jerry gently agreed that he would get the pie and make sure the coffee was decaf, Amber found herself staring into her own mug. The same thoughts that had made her gaze off at nothing a minute earlier before Earl had interrupted were back. The same thoughts that had taken up permanent residence in her mind in the hour or so since Paintball had finished telling the story. 

Or rather… since Cassidy had finished telling the story. Paintball was Cassidy Evans. All this time, all the things they’d done, all that worrying about how some boy in middle school was supposed to deal with the secrets he was keeping, and it turned out that the ‘boy’ was actually Cassidy Evans, the daughter of literally the richest family in Michigan. Not to mention Amber’s classmate, whom she had spent plenty of time with over the past few weeks. The entire time, the entire time she’d known Paintball, Amber had also been spending time with Cassidy. And she never knew, she never even slightly suspected that the two were the same person. 

Part of that, of course, was the efficiency of the disguise. No one who knew Cassidy would think that she would willingly pretend to be a boy. It just… wasn’t who she was. She didn’t obsess over looking girly or anything, but it was pretty clear that being teased about it had bothered her for a long time. Which was why the thought that she would willingly and actively pose as one, to the extent of using a voice changer to even sound male, had never even occurred to Amber. 

But it went beyond that. So far beyond. Yes, Paintball was Cassidy Evans, but her family was part of–no, her family was the Ministry. They ran it, they founded it, they were the leaders. They controlled the Ministry and through that they controlled the city and had their hands in almost every Touched (Star and Fell alike) who lived there, to one extent or another.

It was, to put it simply, a lot to take in. The whole situation was so much to deal with. She had no idea how Cassidy had managed by herself for so long before even being able to talk to Izzy about it. And speaking of Izzy, how was she dealing with this whole thing? She was a kid. Yeah, technically she was only a few years younger than Amber, but still. Those were important years! And not only was she dealing with the Ministry thing, that was coming right after that whole horrible bit with her mother. So Izzy had to deal with the fact that her actual mother had tried to do that terrible, fucked-up thing, and the people she was living with were the leaders of the Ministry. It was just–it was bad. It was a lot to deal with for anyone, let alone someone as young as Izzy was. Amber had no idea how she or Cassidy were acting as normal as they were. With everything that those two were dealing with, it was practically a miracle that at least one of them hadn’t completely lost it already. 

Honestly, it probably shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise. The Evans were billionaires, with a b. The idea that they had absolutely nothing to do with an organization built around profiting off of the Touched in the city, and controlling as many of the teams as possible was… naive, at best. Of course they were the Ministry. In hindsight, it was obvious. They’d built their entire empire around the concept of building up as much of Detroit as possible. Who else would have the kind of funds and resources it would take to bribe, blackmail, and control as many people as the Ministry obviously did? Again, incredibly obvious now that she thought about it. 

Yeah, the whole thing was totally clear in hindsight. Well, not totally clear. She still had a lot of questions. Probably at least half as many as Cassidy herself had. God, Cassidy. What kind of pressure had that girl been under for all this time? It hurt to even think about. 

And then, of course, there was the question that Amber had been asking herself ever since she first started to find out what the Ministry did. They chose whether to either allow or disallow crimes, and to help the bad guys who paid them get away with what they did. So, what about the man who had stolen that car and killed her father with it in a hit-and-run? She still needed–no, she still had to know if the Ministry had anything to do with how effectively he had disappeared. There had been no real evidence to find the guy, and Amber was convinced someone had helped him. What if that was the Ministry, if it was Cassidy’s parents?  

And there was more than that. Even if they hadn’t intentionally allowed the man to escape, she refused to believe they couldn’t have used their resources to track him down. They controlled practically all the organized crime in the city, and she was supposed to think they were incapable of putting a tiny fraction of that toward making sure the man who killed her father faced justice? It might be different if they didn’t know her enough to actually know about her father’s death, but they did. They knew exactly who she was, and what sort of pain she had been through. They could have found the man. She absolutely believed they could have if they wanted to. Yet they hadn’t. And she couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole reason they hadn’t was so that she would be motivated. Because of course, they didn’t only control the crime in the city. They controlled the heroes too. They had to make sure there were effective Star-Touched to serve as deterrents against criminals who didn’t pay their taxes or whatever shit they called it. What if they had seen motivating Amber to train and work harder as more important than actually finding her dad’s killer? What if she had been spending all this time playing their obedient little soldier, all while they used her father’s death as motivation for her? All while using her grief to manipulate her. The thought of all the time she had spent with Silversmith, looking up to him, learning from him, thinking he was… that he was such a good example–She’d wanted her dad to meet him. God, the thought made her eyes water as she stared down at that coffee mug. She’d spent so long wishing her dad was still alive, and a not-insubstantial-percent of that time wishing he could meet Silversmith. She thought they’d get along. She’d thought–she’d thought… God, she was so stupid. 

Sterling Evans was Silversmith. That in and of itself was enough to send her reeling. The man she had looked up to as a mentor for a long time was Cassidy’s father. Yeah, she’d already basically figured out before all this that the Conservator leader had to be connected to the Ministry, given how much sense it made with the way Paintball had been acting. But this was a step beyond. Silversmith was Sterling Evans, and the founder/leader of the Ministry itself, along with his wife.

All of which made that whole fear that they had had something to do with letting her father’s killer escape even worse. She knew Silversmith, she spent plenty of time with him, learning and training under his guidance. And she had looked Mr. Evans in the face. He had once told her in front of the school, while taking something in for Cassidy, how sorry he was to hear what happened to her father. And now… now after all that, he might’ve been responsible for helping her dad’s killer escape? Yes, it was hypothetical, but… but even the thought of it made her want to scream until her throat tore, and then vomit. And if it turned out to be true, if it turned out that Sterling Evans really had allowed that piece of shit to get away? She didn’t know how she would be able to restrain herself.

And yet, she had to. That was the whole problem. Just like Cassidy and Izzy, Amber had no choice but to play dumb. She couldn’t let on that she knew anything, no matter what. And the prospect of that, of having to go on playing good little Minority soldier was just… hard. But if Izzy could do it, she could too. She would push her feelings and apprehensions down and play the part. For now, at least. But in the meantime, she was going to find out more. They had that secret base under the mall to check out. She would look for answers there, and once they fixed Paige and got her and that twin of hers into separate bodies, she would ask both of them what they knew about what happened to her dad. Paige knew all sorts of things about the Ministry, she might be aware of that. 

The point was, she was going to find out the truth. She had no idea what she would do with it once she had it, but she was absolutely going to get it, no matter what. And then… then she would go from there, somehow. But she had to know if the Ministry had intentionally allowed the man to escape (and profited from that directly) or simply neglected to bother finding him (and profited from it indirectly). 

She was still stuck in those thoughts, and suspected she would be for quite some time off and on, when Jerry sat down across from her in the booth with a curious frown on his freckled face. “You okay?” he asked quietly. “You’ve been staring at that coffee for so long you could probably let a baby swim in it without any problems.” Belatedly, he amended, “I mean, heat-wise. There’s still all the problems you’d have from having a baby swim in coffee. Can they even–” He cut himself off with a sharp cough. “It’s cold, is what I’m saying. You want a fresh cup?” 

For a ridiculous and clearly stupid moment, Amber considered telling him what was going on. Not about who Paintball was, of course. Just the Ministry stuff in general. She very briefly thought about it. But no, of course, that would be stupid. Stupid beyond belief, actually. She had no idea how much he already knew. She didn’t know how much anyone on the team knew. Except Jae. If Jae was involved with this stuff, Amber would eat every shoe in her closet. 

And yet, she couldn’t tell her either. She had no idea how the girl would react, even if she really didn’t know anything yet. It was just–it was too complicated right now. Besides, she had promised Paintb–Cassidy that she would keep everything secret. 

And if she wasn’t going to tell Jae, she sure as hell wouldn’t say anything to Jerry.  They worked together, fought together. She’d trusted him to have her back in very dangerous situations, and he had always come through. Beyond that, she had spent some time here at the diner while off-duty, enough that no one would think him sitting down to talk to her was weird. But despite all that, there was no way she could trust the boy far enough to tell him the truth. She’d trusted Silversmith too, and look where that had gotten her? 

All of that ran through her mind in a brief moment before she offered him a faint smile. “Thanks, that would be great. Sorry, I’ve just been thinking about my dad a lot lately.” That much, at least, was absolutely true. Which helped her sell the lie part of that response. 

Grimacing, Jerry gave a short nod. His hand moved to touch hers briefly. “That still sucks, Amber. Did they… I mean, did they find something new? I just–not that it couldn’t be on your mind anyway, but I just thought if they’d picked up some new evidence, or something that could’ve–I mean…” He made a face, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, never mind. Stupid question.”

After a brief hesitation, Amber swallowed. “No, no new evidence or anything. Just started thinking about him a little bit, and when I do that, it’s hard to stop.” She gave another very faint, wavering smile, trying to look as normal as she could. “It’s–okay, it’s not fine. It sucks, just like you said. It’s fucking awful, and I can’t–I can’t stop–” Cutting herself off, she exhaled, placing both hands flat against the table while making herself speak as clearly as possible. “I’d love some hot coffee, thanks.” 

“Sure thing.” For a brief moment Jerry hesitated before meeting her gaze. “And seriously, Amber, if you ever want to go talk about him, I’m down for that. Just to listen. I don’t–when I was little, my grandma died. I was only a kid, but I remember her. I remember how much it hurt to be at the funeral. And I remember it helped if I could talk about her. I just–sorry. It’s nothing compared to you and your dad. And I’m not exactly a therapist or even much of a friend. But like I said, if you want to talk about him, I can be quiet and let you say anything you need to.” 

Swallowing back the lump in her throat, Amber nodded. “Thanks, Jerry. If I need to talk, I umm, I’ll keep that in mind. And you’re wrong, you are a good friend. I just… I think I need to be alone right now so I can think.” 

Giving her a very slight smile of acknowledgment, Jerry stood and took the cold mug away. He stepped over to fill it up with fresh, hot coffee and set that down in front of her before quietly telling the girl it was on the house. Then he moved to help another customer on the opposite side of the diner. 

Not wanting to waste a second cup of coffee after how nice the boy had been, Amber made sure to sip from it while sitting there. She still had far too many thoughts and emotions running through her mind to be entirely healthy, but she tried not to get completely lost in them. Whatever ended up happening, whatever she found out about her father’s death and how much the Ministry had known about it, she would deal with it. She just had to take things one step at a time, and the first step was actually getting into that base. 

Well, okay, the first step apparently was making sure Cassidy and her new sidekick/partner didn’t end up getting themselves killed by investigating that girl who was supposed to know something dangerous about Pencil. Not to mention Pack. She… she couldn’t let anything bad happen to Pack either. And that whole situation made things even more complicated. 

With a long, heavy sigh, Amber took another gulp of coffee before glancing over her shoulder. The old man from before, Earl, was sitting in the other booth. His attention was centered on the half-eaten piece of pecan pie in front of him as he poked at it with a fork. He was muttering to himself, something about responding to words his obviously late wife had said at some point in the past. There was a tremor to his voice that made Amber flinch. She had no idea how long ago his wife had passed away, but he was obviously still deep in grief. How long had they been married? How long had he–

It was none of her business. Making herself turn away to stop gawking at the man so he could have the privacy he deserved, Amber focused on her own coffee once more. For a few seconds, she just stared at it. Would she be like that guy, sitting here thinking about who she had lost? Would she end up trapped in her memories like that? 

No. Not her. She didn’t blame Earl at all. Whatever happened to his wife, there was obviously nothing he could do about it. But she could absolutely still do something about her father. She could find out the truth, and make sure whoever was responsible got what they deserved. 

With that in mind, Amber drained the last of her cup and set it down before rising. She left a ten dollar bill on the table despite what Jerry had said and gave the boy a nod before heading for the exit. A moment later, she passed through to the street, as the little bell above the door gave a friendly jingle. 

Once out in the open air, Amber looked both ways while taking in a deep breath. Yeah, whatever happened next was obviously going to be dangerous, terrible, and hard. But at least she would be doing something. At least she would actually find out the truth, and handle whatever came with that. But for now, she was going to go home and try to get some actual sleep. 

Because the next few days were going to be pretty damn busy. 

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In Like Flynn 17-11 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The monthly non-canon chapters were posted over the weekend! You can find the chapter for this story, Summus Proelium, right here and the one for Heretical Edge right here

I had definitely experienced bigger shocks in my recent history. Certainly much worse ones. Everything that had to do with my family and what they really were totally beat out this moment, no question about it. And yet, standing there right then, staring at the girl across from me, still ranked pretty high up there. The sudden revelation that the Minority-Touched I had been working with so much, and the girl I spent time at school with were the same person sent me reeling, both physically and mentally. A series of noises escaped me, but they weren’t coherent or even vaguely decipherable as words. They were only sounds, filling the air meaninglessly. Somewhere in the middle of that, I plucked my helmet off and held it loosely in one hand (I hadn’t put the actual mask back on) so I could stare bare face to bare face with the other girl. I just… I had to see her straight on, with nothing between us. Not that I was entirely sure how it would help, but still. 

“Now you know how I felt back at… your house,” Amber informed me dryly while arching an eyebrow pointedly. “And I had to jump right to it and keep trying to fight that son of a bitch. At least you’ve got downtime to process.” 

After a very momentary pause, she visibly winced at the words that were about to come out of her mouth before asking, “I mean, it is you, right? That wasn’t actually some trick you and the kid programmed in to distract that guy if anything like that happened, just in case?” It was clear that she didn’t think that was in any way possible, but still wanted to cover her bases just in case. And really, who could blame her? This entire situation was pretty fucked up. 

Before I could answer, Raige, whom I had forgotten was standing there with the shock of this whole revelation, spoke up almost cheerfully. “Oh no, it’s really her. And it’s a pretty good disguise, if you think about it. I mean, who’s ever going to think that Cassidy Evans is willingly posing as a little boy? Especially after everything my doppelganger over there put her through.” 

“Shut up,” Paige muttered, her face slightly flushed. She was looking at me the whole time, voice softening slightly. “I didn’t have a choice. My–” She glanced at the identical girl nearby before belatedly amending her words. “Our father set the rules about that very clearly.”

A brief start of realization, Amber looked back and forth between us. “Oh my God, your dad has some huge grudge against the Evans, so he made you treat her like an enemy all this time? What the hell did that accomplish?” she demanded, sounding exasperated with the whole thing.

“She was supposed to do more than just antagonize me for years,” I informed her without taking my gaze away from Paige herself. “Back at her birthday party, she was supposed to kill me.” 

While Amber gave a double-take at that, Paige and I took turns explaining, with a little ‘help’ from Raige, exactly what was supposed to happen that day, along with what had actually happened. We filled in the blanks about that whole situation so that Amber knew the full story. At least as far as that went. There was a hell of a lot more story to fill in for everything else. 

Which was made perfectly clear when Amber let out a breath. “Okay, I guess I understand that day and all that, but what about everything else? How did you get powers? Why did you start going out as a boy in the first place? What do you know about these Ministry people, and how? What does any of that have to do with Paige’s father? Why does he have some big grudge against your parents, and what–” Abruptly, she trailed off. Her eyes widened dramatically with realization as she snapped her gaze to me. “Oh my God! It’s them, isn’t it? The Ministry. Your parents are connected to the Ministry. That’s how you found out about them, and…” She slumped back on her heels, head shaking. “That’s why you’re so obsessed with hiding your identity. It’s why you won’t join the–” Once again, she interrupted herself as a different realization jumped to mind, making her blurt a sudden, “Oh God, Izzy! I mean–”  She cut herself off, blanching as though she had said too much already.

“It’s okay, I know,” I assured her. “And I’m pretty sure those two know everything about the Minority.” I said that while looking toward the twins. “They’re pretty well-informed, after all.” 

Sounding pretty cheerful and amused by the entire situation, Raige nodded easily. “Oh yeah, we know all your identities. Parts of the benefit to having a backdoor in with the Ministry. Okay, maybe not an entire door. But at least a window. Enough to know some pretty juicy secrets.”  

“Secrets we don’t talk about,” Paige snapped pointedly, before adding, “And you two should get out of here before they send someone in to check on you. I mean, you can have this whole conversation somewhere better than this place, right?” For a brief moment, she looked as though she was going to say something else, before stopping herself. I had the feeling she actually wanted us to stay even longer, and pointing out that we should leave was her way of ripping the Band-Aid off. 

But she also had a point. We had to eject before the guys outside freaked out and came in after us. They would obviously give us a little leeway, but I didn’t want to push that even further. So, biting my lip, I focused on the blonde girl who had antagonized me for so long. “I’ll come back and check on you when I can.” Belatedly, I glanced toward Raige. “I’ll check on both of you, I mean. So try not to antagonize each other too much while we’re gone. Like I said, just go to your own corners of the world if you have to. Whatever it takes to play nice and get along until we can separate you.” 

“What he–I mean she said.” Shaking her head a bit at her own correction, Amber continued. “Seriously, just leave each other alone if you need to. We’ll both come back and check on you whenever we can. And we want to find you both without all these bruises, so no more fighting.”

“Hey,” Raige replied easily with a shrug, “I was just following orders before. Now that Daddy made it abundantly clear what he thinks of loyalty, I don’t have any reason to fight with that one over there. I mean, as long as you work on getting me that new body so I can go off and live my own life far away from all of you. Just do that and everything’ll be totally hunky-dory.”

Exchanging brief looks, Amber and I both replaced our mask and helmet respectively. Really, I wasn’t exactly sure why we did that. It wasn’t like whether we had them on or not would affect our bodies in the real world. Maybe it was just a psychological way of telling ourselves that we were going back to being That-A-Way and Paintball for the time being. 

In any case,  I watched intently as her facial features shifted slightly along with her hair turning blonde. Touched-Tech, obviously. Which again, made perfect sense. It had always seemed a little odd that the adults behind the Minority would let her get away with only hiding her identity behind a little domino mask. The fact that it did so much to actually change what she looked like solved that question.

Once we were suitably disguised, I glanced over to the twins to promise one more time that we would check in on them. There was more I wanted to say, but it would have to wait. I really didn’t feel like talking to Paige about all the issues we had while in front of an audience. Even if I was now aware that I knew That-A-Way much better than I had thought. And yeah, that would be a whole thing in and of itself. The two of us were clearly going to have a long chat. Between that and the fact that I definitely still needed to talk to Peyton about some of the stuff she’d heard in here, I had several of those ‘important conversations’ coming up in my near-future.  

For the moment,  Amber and I simply spoke the code to eject ourselves from the simulation. Again, my vision was filled with the kaleidoscope of lights, colors and all the random sounds. Seriously, at one point it sounded like one of those old World War One fighter planes had flown practically right through me. To say it was disorienting was a massive understatement.

Finally, there was that reddish-purple fog from before, accompanied by the sensation of falling straight down on a roller coaster. I had thought I was ready for it this time, but a yelp still escaped me. Then I was conscious and aware, jerking a bit against the seat I’d been perched in. Nearby, I could see Wren watching anxiously, even as I heard Ambe–no, That-A-Way jerking in her own seat on the opposite side of the machine. We’d made it, we were back in the real world. Quickly, I pulled the sunglasses and special gloves off before fixing my mask and helmet. Only then did I push myself up and give an almost dog-like shake. My body felt weird and tingly. Probably a side effect of sitting for so long while my brain thought I was actually moving. “Wow, that’s some nifty gizmo you got there, dude,” I informed Wren with an only slightly shaky thumbs up. “Seriously, that French guy you got this prototype from really knows his shit. And you put it together, just–maybe see if he wants to collaborate on something, cuz you two do good work.” 

Wren proceeded to blush deeply, hopping off the edge of the table she had been anxiously perched on. “You’re okay? You’re all okay? It took you awhile to come out of it, longer than the others.” Even as she said that, the girl was looking over to the corner of the room, where Pack and Alloy were clearly exercising/playing with the lizards. They had both straightened up when That-A-Way and I had emerged from the machine, Pack standing with two of her lizards (Twinkletoes the chameleon and Holiday the skink) perched on either shoulder, while Scatters the tiny Neon Day Gecko was settled right on top of her hooded and masked head. “You two good?” she asked, though her attention was more on That-A-Way than me.  

“We made it,” Way confirmed while casting a brief glance back toward me before her attention shifted to Wren. “And he’s right, that was a lot more realistic than I expected. Hope your French guy gets it up and running so I can talk the bosses back at the Clubhouse into buying one for the rest of the Minority to use in training. Seriously, just being able to practice stuff and have full-contact sparring without worrying about hurting anybody would be pretty amazing.”  

Alloy, who had picked herself up from the floor while holding Riddles in her small bearded dragon form, abruptly spoke up. “Are we seriously just being this casual right now after what happened in there? Who the hell is Paige’s father and how did he send some… some virtual copy of himself into her computer brain thing and oh my God I sound like a nutjob.” 

“Welcome to the club,” I replied, reaching out to squeeze Wren’s shoulder briefly before leaving the girl to walk over to where Alloy herself was. “Seriously, welcome to the club. There’s a lot of stuff to talk about. And I will, I promise. You’ve earned some answers. And maybe I should have talked about it with you before. But I just… it’s hard for me to get into all that. I’m sorry. You deserve more of an explanation than you’ve gotten so far. Especially after you went in there with us. I really don’t know what we would have done without your help.” 

“Damn straight,” Pack put in. “You were the MVP in there. So if he doesn’t treat you right and start giving you answers, I can talk Blackjack into a really good signing bonus for you.”

Letting out a clearly exaggerated sigh, That-A-Way protested, “Seriously? Could you at least wait until I’m not in the room before you start trying to recruit for your criminal boss?” 

“Sorry, babe,” Pack replied casually and without any actual regret, “You know what they say. Always be hustling. Especially when your boss offers such attractive bonuses for anyone who recruits a good Touched to begin with.” Slyly, she added, “Speaking of which, do you have any idea how much bank you and I could make if I bring you over to the shady side? Huh, huh? We could have a lot of fuuuun.” She intentionally and pointedly drawled out the last word. 

Visibly flushing a little behind that mask, Way shook her head. “Sorry, not interested in anything Blackjack has to offer. You’re just gonna have to do without. Why don’t you try robbing another bank to make up for it,” she added while rolling her eyes. Even as the words were out of her mouth, however, the girl was already frantically trying to verbally back up. “I mean, not that I–” 

It was too late, as Pack raised both hands triumphantly over her head, playing that whole thing up for all it was worth. “And there it is! You all heard it. I have carte blanche to rob a bank, given straight from a prestigious and, dare I say, truly stunning member of the Detroit Minority.” 

“Sorry,” Way retorted while giving a dismissive wave of her hand. “You forgot to get it in writing, so I guess you’re screwed and you’ll just have to go to jail like the other bank robbers. Oh, I know, how about you have a total redemption moment and come over to the sunny side?”  

Pack, in turn, shot back, “Tell you what, as soon as the kid over there joins you guys, so will I.” She was nodding in my direction, of course. Considering how clear I’d made my unwillingness to do that, as well as (at least partially) why, Pack obviously felt safe making the bet.

Before they could banter back and forth any more, Alloy abruptly blurted, “Oh shit, I need to get home.” She was looking at her phone before wincing while glancing up. “Sorry, I didn’t realize what time it was. We were in there for longer than I thought. I umm, I really have to go, before Mom has a coronary. Uh, thanks for inviting me to that… crazy thing, I guess?” Looking to me, she added, “I really do want answers about what’s really going on and all that. And about what that guy wants and how he’s ‘trying to end death’ or whatever. But you know, Mom comes first.”

“Oh, believe me,” I assured her immediately, “I know exactly what you mean. And yeah, we’ll definitely talk later, I promise. Just go do what you need to. And Alloy, thanks. Seriously, I wasn’t just saying it before. I really don’t know what we would have done in there without your help.” 

Obviously embarrassed by the attention, she made a few noises about it not being a big deal and headed for the elevator to leave. Just as it started to descend, she called out that she would text me sometime the next day so we could meet up again and have that conversation.

Once she was gone, the three of us who were left gave Wren an actual update about what had happened. Alloy and Pack had given her the CliffsNotes, but they had been waiting for us to get into the whole story. So, over the next few minutes, we explained what was going to happen. Unsurprisingly, as soon as we got to the part about needing to find another body, the Tech-Touched girl was immediately apprehensive. Her head shook, insisting she couldn’t build anything like that. But I assured her that we already had some leads about how to possibly find one of Paige’s father’s prototype storage places. All she would have to do was look it over, and possibly help us compare it to Paige’s body to see if we could figure out what was different. 

“Plus,” Way pointed out, “since Raige isn’t actively fighting her anymore, she can probably talk you through some of this stuff herself. You know, with that communication thing you built. Hell, if it’s about getting her own body working, I bet Raige would help out too. You three could all collaborate to figure it out. You’d just be their hands. You know, in a manner of speaking.” 

That calmed the girl down a bit, and eventually Pack said she needed to go as well. After a little more teasing back and forth about what kind of crimes she was off to commit, she headed out. Meanwhile, Wren was yawning and trying to hide it, leaving Fred in the corner of the room giving us meaningful looks. He’d been downstairs before, but came up as Pack was on her way out. Now, the man was basically doing everything up to pantomiming that we should leave so he could get Wren to go to sleep. Yeah, after all the work she’d done to get that machine working in such a short time, the kid definitely needed to get some rest. Even if she was trying to hide exactly how exhausted she was. Any minute now, her head was probably going to hit the table. 

Without even needing to look at each other, That-A-Way and I both said we needed to get out of there. We thanked the kid one more time before taking the elevator down and heading out. Both of us were completely silent the whole way through the store, and even once we got outside. Together, we walked silently through the alley behind the shop, before Way caught my arm and looked meaningfully to a nearby roof. When I nodded, she teleported us up there. 

Once we were on the roof, the girl looked around to make sure we were alone before taking off the mask. As her hair and face shifted to normal, she stared intently at me. It looked like she was taking a moment to try to find the right words. While she did, I slowly pulled the helmet off and set it on top of the nearby air conditioning unit. Then I took off the mask. And boy did that ever feel weird. It made me feel naked, standing there with my face exposed. Finally, I plucked the Bluetooth device out of my ear and put it, and the mask, next to the helmet. And then I just stood there, looking at the other girl in silence for what felt like an eternity. There were several times that one or both of us started to say something, before stopping. Neither of us knew exactly what to say. 

Finally, I let out a long breath and looked to her while trying to clamp down on the nerves that were making my heart want to beat its way out of my chest. There was no point in holding back right now. Amber knew who I was. She was way too close to things for me to push her off, and quite frankly she’d earned the truth. So, that was exactly what I was going to give her. “Okay,” I announced, “I’m gonna tell you what happened the night I got my powers. And everything that came after that. I’ve only told the whole story once before, and that was to Izzy.” 

Amber blinked at that, hesitantly asking, “You mean Izzy really does know about you? How… how much does she know, exactly? And for how long?” 

“All of it,” I informed her. “I told her everything. And she found out the night we had that whole thing with Paige in the first place. When I got home after all that, I guess I wasn’t really thinking too clearly. I ended up going up on the roof, and she was already up there. She saw me use my paint and I saw her floating. That kind of forced us to talk about everything.” 

“Like you’re gonna talk about everything now?” Amber pressed, folding both arms as she watched me intently. 

“Yeah, like–wait a minute, she knows who you are, doesn’t she?” I suddenly realized. “She–boy, she really is good at keeping secrets.” After processing that realization, I shook my head before focusing on the matter at hand. “Okay. Well, here goes. 

“It started when I was pretending to drive one of my family’s cars, and my brother came into the garage…” 

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Building Connections 16-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey guys, the non-canon chapters for this month came out! You can find the Summus Proelium chapter here and the Heretical Edge chapter here

There was a text waiting on my Touched phone the next morning, from an unknown number. Or rather, several texts. Apparently they were from the girl with the marbles, because the messages amounted to several bits rambling about how she hoped she had the right number and if she didn’t, it was really screwed up. Then some apologies about how she wasn’t saying I was screwed up, but that she had screwed up taking down the number or something. Then there was a bit about ignoring everything if I wasn’t the right person, followed by another one that finally let me know who she was by saying she was ‘the girl with the special marbles.’  

Only then, by about the sixth text (all sent in the span of about five minutes) did she finally say that she wanted to meet that afternoon. She told me to send back proof that the person she was sending these messages to was who I was supposed to be by sending back the answer to why she’d had to cut our meeting short before, then she would give me a location to meet her. 

Well, I could say this much for her. At least she had the right idea about being careful. Not perfect (and then, neither was I), but still. She had the spirit of things, well enough not to go blabbing important things over a phone before it was confirmed that the right person was getting them. Maybe we could do something with that, if I wanted to–

Damn it, Cassidy, no. Don’t go thinking of recruiting poor innocent girls who don’t have anything to do with this situation. She didn’t deserve to have to deal with this Ministry stuff at all. Getting her involved wasn’t fair. Not for anyone really, let alone someone as brand new to this as she was. 

And yet, what was the alternative? That question had already been brought up. Could I send her to the Minority, knowing what I knew? What if she was–what if they used her? What if–fuck. I wished there was an easy answer to this, but there wasn’t. There just wasn’t an easy answer to any of it. Because of course there wasn’t. When had there ever been an easy answer to anything since the moment I saw those people being killed? 

Actually, that thought brought something to mind. I still didn’t know who those people were. Clearly they were a threat to the Ministry, a big enough one to warrant sending Simon himself to execute them. No, even bigger than that, because my father had been there too. Simon had said that, the next night when I saw him with our dad as Silversmith. He’d said that Dad was there that night, I just hadn’t seen him. So who were those people? Who were the two people who had been executed in cold blood and were important enough for both Simon and our dad to be there to make sure it happened correctly? That felt like an important thing to look into, but how would I even do that? Yeah, speaking of impossible questions, there was that whole thing. 

After reading the messages and going through all that in my head while I sat in my bedroom that morning, I sent back the answer to the mystery marble girl. Specifically, that she’d had to leave because her mother would’ve locked her in the house for a year if she found out anything about her daughter being near what had happened. Then I asked if her mother found out anything anyway. It was a good, casual way of finding out how good this girl was at keeping her secrets. 

I didn’t see any immediate typing response, so I put the phone away and moved to take my shower before checking on Izzy. She was already up and ready to take her own by the time I came out, so I told the girl I’d wait for her and we could head downstairs together. While waiting, I checked the phone again. Still nothing. So I went back to my room and used the laptop there to try checking out any news stories about the thing at the shopping center the night before. 

Right, yeah, there was a lot about it. That whole event was basically frontpage news. While they didn’t have a lot of the specific details, the journalists had been able to piece together a general idea from the people who had been kept as hostages or prisoners. According to them, the Easy Eights under Juice showed up and would’ve burned down the whole place if Paintball hadn’t shown up with his new sidekick–wait. 

Yeah, that one made me do a double-take, sputtering as I almost fell backward off my desk chair. Sidekick?! What–why would–what did they–how did they even–

A knock at my door suddenly interrupted my brain bluescreen, and I quickly shut the laptop before jumping that way to open the door. “Yeah?” 

It was one of the cleaning ladies, who asked if I needed my room spruced up. She also let me know that my father had asked for my presence at one of his home offices before I went to school.  So, I thanked her and said she didn’t need to do anything with my room. Then I waited for Izzy to be out and dressed before both of us headed for the office, whispering to one another about what my father could possibly want. Not that we talked about anything important out in the public halls where someone could overhear, of course. Mostly we talked about whether it was something to do with school, or something else. We were trying to talk in a bit of code about extracurriculars, but I’m not sure either of us were that good at doing it on the fly yet. We really needed to come up with appropriate codewords to use in this sort of situation, ways of talking about things without giving anything away. I’d add that to the list of things to work on. And then collapse under the sheer weight of said list. 

Either way, eventually we made it to the office Dad was using. The door was closed, so I spoke the code for the intercom to connect into the room and announced that Izzy and I were there. After a very brief pause, the door clicked and Dad’s voice said we could come in. The two of us exchanged looks before stepping through into an office that was about the same size as my bedroom. So, pretty big. Most of the walls were taken up by various bookcases, which practically sagged under the weight of their contents. One window overlooked the grounds, next to a wooden door that would step out onto a patio. There was another door on the opposite side of the room that led to a full bathroom complete with its own whirlpool tub, while Dad’s very large, ornate wooden desk sat closer to that wooden patio door. 

“Well hey there, girls,” my father greeted us with a smile as we stepped in. He rose, waving a hand at a pile of folders and random papers that were spread across his desk. “Don’t suppose either of you would like to trade, so you can worry about all this financial mumbo-jumbo and I’ll go deal with your schoolwork?” Waggling his eyebrows briefly, he made a show of pausing to consider. “On second thought, I just remembered I’ve dealt with middle and high schoolers before. So I changed my mind, I’ll take predatory bankers, investment firms, and hungry shark lawyers over that. Actually, come to think of it, I might just take actual hungry sharks over that.” 

“Gee thanks, Dad,” I muttered, “you’re really making both of us super-eager to get to school.” 

With a chuckle, Dad waved that off. “Sorry, never mind that. Actually, I’m glad you two came together, since this involves both of you.” Meeting our gazes one at a time, he finally focused on me before explaining, “Your mother and I need to take a little trip, and Simon’s coming with us. Which means it’ll be the two of you here with just the house staff for… probably about a week. Do you think you girls can be okay with that?” 

Raising an eyebrow despite myself, I pointed out, “You know that still leaves like fifteen adults in the house at all times, right? And a full security system. I’m pretty sure we’re not about to burn the place down just because you guys aren’t here.” Belatedly, I added, “Where’re you going anyway?” Not that I expected a real, truthful answer, but it made sense for me to ask. 

“Just some work stuff, and your mother wants Simon to get his feet wet,” Dad informed me casually. “And believe me, I know how easy it is for you to get yourself in trouble, staff or no staff, little missy.” To Izzy, he added, “Don’t let her talk you into skateboarding off the roof or something.” 

“Oh come on, I only did that the one time,” I protested. “And there was a stunt airbag right there. I was fine.” 

“You may have been fine,” Dad noted, “but I seem to recall that your mother came out of the house just in time to see you sliding off the other end and didn’t know about the airbag.” 

Flushing a bit despite myself, I kicked at the floor and squirmed. “Yeah, she screamed pretty loud. And then she said a lot of words she doesn’t usually say, most of them in Italian.” 

“Yeah, so let’s not make your mother curse in Italian again, if we can help it.” 

Giving my father a thumbs up and promising not to do dumb things like that again, I added, “When are you guys going, anyway? Next week?” 

With a visible grimace, Dad shook his head. “This afternoon, actually. It’s kind of a last minute emergency set of meetings. Gotta talk some of our partners back off the ledge. Believe me, it’s all boring stuff. Boring, but important, and I have to say, you would be shocked how often those two things intersect in the adult world.” Adding a faint smile, he focused on Izzy. “You’ll be okay here? If you’d prefer to go with and wait in the hotel…” 

Izzy, of course, shook her head quickly. “It’s okay, Mr. Evans. I’ll stay with Cassidy and keep going to school. I mean, I just started, you know? Probably not a good thing to take off for a week.” 

“Fair point,” Dad agreed. “Anyway, we’ll be heading out about an hour after you’re out of school, Cassidy. So both of you come home so we can go over a few last minute things, okay?” 

Both of us agreed easily, before I gave my dad a brief hug when he made the motion for it. For a second I thought he was going to do the same for Izzy, but in the end he seemed to reconsider pushing that quickly, and simply squeezed her shoulder before sending us off with a warning not to be late for our ride to school.

Still, we didn’t go straight to breakfast. The two of us went to my room instead. Once we were safely locked up in there, I spoke in a lowered voice. “What do you think that’s all about?” 

“You mean why are they really going away?” Izzy murmured thoughtfully. “You don’t think they’re actually leaving the city, do you?” 

My head shook quickly. “Not on your–both of our lives. There’s too much going on right now. I think they need to focus on this gang war after the Eights just pulled that shit yesterday, so they’re giving an excuse not to be around the house playing normal, happy family for a few days. But if they’re taking Simon too, it must be really big.” 

Sitting down on the edge of my bed, Izzy gave a slow nod. Her voice was quiet. “Yeah, really big. That gang war’s escalating and affecting businesses.” After a momentary pause, she added a bit hesitantly, “I guess you can’t just go ask Blackjack to maybe tone it down a little? I mean, since you went through all that to save his daughter’s life. He does kinda, you know, owe you.”

Grimacing, I shook my head. “Believe me, I’ve thought about it. But I’m pretty sure he feels that he owes those guys pain and suffering for putting his daughter in danger more than he owes me for helping to get her out of it. If I asked him, he’d probably say something about how he owes me a lot, but he can’t let the other gangs get away with what they did or they’ll try that shit again. Or something like it. And how that would be putting his daughter and the rest of his people in even more danger by showing weakness, so as much as he’d love to cease hostilities, it would do more damage in the long-run. So is there any other way he can help me?”

Izzy stared at me for a moment before offering a very faint smile. “You’ve put a lot of thought into that, huh?”  

Snorting, I gestured, “I might’ve had a lot of time to consider it, yeah.” Then I sighed, looking away toward the window. “If I thought it’d do any good, I’d say something. But it wouldn’t. That’s his daughter, and those people put her in danger, could’ve killed her, just to try to weaken his position. He’s not going to back off and leave them alone now. I already convinced him not to take out his revenge on Ashton. There’s no way that’ll stretch to the rest of his enemies.” 

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” the other girl murmured thoughtfully before sighing. “This is gonna get worse before it gets better, isn’t it?” 

With a wince, I offered, “Maybe my family can get it under control before the whole city starts burning? And boy is that a weird thing to come out of my mouth. I mean, they’re bad, right? They’re bad. but in this case, the one thing they might be good for is stopping this from going too far. This gang war escalating too much has gotta be pretty bad for business, doesn’t it?” 

“That’s probably why they’re ‘leaving’ to focus on it,” Izzy agreed. “But if they really are gone, you know that gives you time to work on your plan about breaking into the mall without having to check in as much.” She brightened a bit. “And I can cover for you here with anyone else.” 

Staring at the other girl for a moment, I had to swallow back the lump in my throat. My hand rose to touch the side of her face before I knew what I was doing. “Thanks, Izzy,” I finally managed. “Seriously, I really… I don’t know what I’d be like right now if I didn’t have you to talk to. I was… I was getting pretty bad back there.” 

A moment of awkward silence passed between us, before we were both embracing. I wasn’t even sure which of us had started it. We hugged there on the bed, and I held the younger girl tightly, my voice soft. “There’s something else we can do while they’re gone too.” 

“There is?” she asked, pulling back a little to blink at me. 

I nodded firmly. “We can try to find out what happened to your mom. I mean, if you want to. I know–I know it’s probably a hard thing to… yeah. If you want closure or… or just to know where she went or if she…” This was awkward, and not at all how I’d intended the whole thing to go.

For her part, Izzy was quiet for a moment. Then she exhaled and gave a very slight nod. “I want to know the truth. What… whatever it is. I wanna know where my mom is.” 

Returning the nod, I promised, “We’ll find out. Whatever it takes, we’ll figure out where she went and what happened to her.” With that, I glanced over to the wall of clocks and winced. “But right now, we’ve gotta take a quick breakfast and get outside before Jefferson makes himself our new archenemy for being late.

“Cuz I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure we’ve got enough problems without adding an annoyed driver onto the pile.” 

********

In the end, I didn’t get a response from the mystery marble girl until lunch time. I was sitting in the cafeteria with Dani, Amber, Jae, Tomas, and San when it buzzed soundlessly in my pocket. San and Dani were going on about something that had to do with politics, so I tuned them out and carefully slipped the phone out to glance at it in my lap. The message said to meet her behind this old mattress store a few blocks away from where that whole thing had gone down last night. Which was fine. Unfortunately, she was asking to meet at the same time that Dad wanted Izzy and me to be home to tell them goodbye. 

So, I sent back a message asking to extend that to an hour and a half later, because of a ‘family thing.’ There was a brief pause before I saw the notification that she was typing. 

“Right, Cassie?” 

Wait, that was my name. Blinking up, I realized Amber was the one who had spoken, but they were all looking at me. “Uhhh…” I managed oh-so-eloquently. “What?” 

That prompted entirely too much snickering from everyone, before Tomas shook his head. “Sorry, you sorta walked right into a ‘Cassidy is so bored she’s tuning you out completely’ question.” With an easy, charming grin that made my heart flip over a few times, he added, “The point is, nobody wants to talk about the shite that’s going on with my country’s politicians, let alone yours.”

There was a general murmur of agreement, and the conversation moved slightly to what was going on with the Fell-Gangs who were at war. And boy could I have contributed to that one more than anyone understood. But, I bit my lip and forced myself to act like I knew as little as they did. 

Through that, the message from the marble girl came in. She was okay with waiting until then. So, I sent a confirmation before exhaling while putting my phone away. Today, I’d have my conversation with her, where she’d probably ask what she should be doing with her powers, what team she should join, where she should go, or whatever. 

And I still had no idea what I was going to say to her. 

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Interlude 15B – Dani and Amber (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The Non-canon chapters were posted on Patreon over the weekend and can now be viewed by EVERYONE, even if you are not a member. The Heretical Edge Non-Canon can be found here and the Summus Proelium Non-Canon can be found here

“So, your friend’s pretty weird.” The conversational announcement came a few seconds after Dani and Amber had been left standing by themselves in front of the school when San dragged Cassidy away after simply and unsubtly announcing that the two girls had a lot in common. 

“Which friend?” Amber retorted easily while folding her arms as she regarded the new girl for a moment. “The billionaire princess skater girl who’s way nicer than you’d probably expect, or the dude named after a city who thinks he’s equal parts Casanova and Cupid?” That last bit was added with a squint toward the retreating figures in the distance. 

“Yup,” came the encompassing answer as the black girl grinned. She rocked back on her heels a bit before adding, “Soooo, like he said, I’m Dani and you’re Amber. And the Frisco Kid there might’ve been super-unsubtle and all, but he did get one thing right. I mean, besides the names.” 

“Wow,” Amber remarked. “That is a deep pull for a reference. What’s that, early seventies?” 

Dani’s head shook. “Late. Seventy-Nine. And what can I say, my dad used to love him some Gene Wilder and Harrison Ford. Anyway, that thing he was right about is that it’s breakfast time and I am like, super-fucking hungry. So, I’m gonna see if I can find that enormous cafeteria again. You wanna help me do that a little faster? I hear I’ve got something called an expense account there and I’m pretty eager to see what kind of damage I can do to it in one day.”

Snorting despite herself, Amber turned. “Yeah, come on, it’s this way. I’ll show you. And does that mean you’re not used to having an expense account attached to your school meals?” 

The response was a chuckle as the other girl moved to keep up with her. “Trust me, babe, there’s a lot about this whole situation that’s new to me. I’m not exactly what you’d call old money. Or new money, for that matter. The entire having money concept is a bit shaky.” 

Something about the way the girl said that made Amber glance toward her as they walked toward the school entrance. There was a somewhat strange sense of deja vu, but it was momentary. Shaking that off, she curiously asked, “Did you win a scholarship here?”  

Dani’s response to that was a laugh. She practically doubled over, head shaking. “Sorry, sorry. Just the idea of me getting a scholarship for anything is pretty fucking hilarious. Unless they’re giving out ‘mediocre achievement awards’ now.” Still chuckling, she explained that her mother had been gone since before she could remember and that her father bounced years back. Apparently she’d done the foster family circuit for awhile until the government found some rich great-aunt who lived in Europe. It was that great-aunt who put Dani in this school. 

“She also put me up in an apartment in the city with–” The girl’s face twisted just a bit. “I guess you’d call her a nanny? Anyway, she basically leaves me alone for the most part. I think she’s just glad to have an easy job. Whole thing’s stable enough. And now I get to go to rich kid school. But lemme tell ya, I was not expecting the first student I met to be Sterling and Elena Evans’ little princess. Not that she’s anything… uhhh…” 

“Anything like you’d expect, yeah.” With a nod, Amber gestured as they entered the cafeteria. “Anyway, here we are. If you’re really hungry, this is definitely the right place to go. Pretty sure the head chef used to work in one of those fancy hotel restaurants before this place stole him.”

“See, and here I am just trying to get my head around the idea that lunch isn’t mystery meat casserole served with an ice cream scoop,” Dani muttered while looking around the room. The two were attracting a few curious looks from people who clearly didn’t recognize the new girl. 

Ignoring that, Amber was about to point out where Dani could order that food she wanted. Unfortunately, a new voice interrupted before she could speak up. “Well hey, Amber, hey Jae.” 

Great. Knowing that voice, Amber turned a bit. Yeah, of course. It was Arleigh Fosters, the tall, blonde chick who had decided to make Jae her mortal enemy at the beginning of the school year just because her then-boyfriend had said something about Jae looking cute. Yeah, it was stupid, but it wasn’t like Jae asked for his opinion. 

As soon as the two turned toward her, Arleigh made a show of looking surprised, hand covering her mouth and all. “Oh,” she faux-gasped, “you’re not Jae. Hah, well then! Silly me. I thought maybe she finally took that trip to the doctor to get her whole… pigment situation fixed.” Her hand waved around as though to encompass Dani’s entire body. “And, you know, they just went a little overboard.” 

Sighing inwardly as she yet-again reminded herself that smacking the other girl would be very against the Minority rules of not standing out or attracting that kind of attention, Amber demanded, “Seriously, Arleigh? What’re you doing, trying to bully by proxy? You know I don’t give a shit what you think, right? Neither does Jae. And, oh, she’s not even here. Who exactly are you trying to mock? Yourself for pretending you’re too stupid to know the difference between a black girl and an albino Asian girl? No, seriously, what exactly was your plan here?”

“Wait, is that what this is about?” Dani looked back and forth between them before settling on the blonde girl. “You’re seriously like, trying to be the bitch bully of the school? Do they pay you for that? Cuz if you’re really like… targeting someone who isn’t even here, they should really dock your salary. That’s just lame.” She glanced toward Amber then with a slow head shake. “Gotta say, I’m pretty disappointed, I expected more effort from rich kid bullies.” 

“One, I’m not a fucking bully,” Arleigh snapped. “This isn’t some kid’s movie or an afterschool special. Her friend is a fucking freak. Worse, she’s a boyfriend stealing bitch freak. And I don’t have to explain anything to you. I’ve already heard what you really are. You’re just a broke fucking–” 

And then she said it, a word that she never should’ve said. A word that no one ever should’ve said. A word that immediately made Amber’s eyes widen, breath catching as a feeling of disgust and rage filled her. 

In the background, she heard Dani coldly and dangerously demanding, “What did you just–” 

Without thinking, Amber lashed out. Her fist collided with Arleigh’s stomach with enough force to double the other girl over, her cry muffled by the fact that the wind had been knocked out of her.

The moment she did that, a rush of fear ran through Amber. What the hell did she just do? God, she was attracting attention. Now the school was going to get involved, and that would–

She was distracted by Dani, who stepped up closer to the doubled-over Arleigh and put an arm around her to help the girl straighten up before too many people could notice. Clearly forcing her upright, Dani leaned in closer to whisper in the girl’s ear. Amber couldn’t hear what was being said, but she could make out the dangerous, intense tone of the new girl’s voice. And she saw the way Arleigh’s eyes rapidly widened while her face grew almost pale enough to make the girl bully herself if she stuck to the same standard that she used for Jae.

Finally, the blonde managed to pull herself free, staring at Dani, then at Amber, then back again. It looked like she couldn’t decide which of them was more dangerous. Her face twisted a bit as she sputtered, “You two freaks deserve each other. Just go fuck yourselves.” Despite the harshness and certainty of her words, the girl’s voice caught a bit. She was clearly blustering. With one hand over her stomach, she staggered away, muttering curses under her breath. 

“Dude,” Dani announced with a look toward Amber. “Nice hit. Great follow-through. You take boxing lessons from your dad or something?”

The question made Amber flinch, thoughts of her father rushing through her head. “I–no. No, he…” 

“Aww, shit, I stepped in it, didn’t I?” Wincing, Dani asked, “Yours run off too?”  

“What? No!” Amber hurriedly blurted. “No, he didn’t–I mean–” She swallowed the thick lump in her throat. “He died, a little over a year ago. Hit and run.”

For a moment, the other girl stared at her, before closing her eyes with a heavy sigh. “And here I am, standing with both feet in the shit now.” Opening her eyes, she met Amber’s gaze. “Seriously, I–I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything until I knew what was going on. I just–sorry.” 

Biting her lip, Amber shook her head. “You didn’t know. You couldn’t know. It’s–I mean, it’s okay. I miss my dad, but you don’t have to feel sorry for me or anything. I–” Cutting herself off, she gestured. “You’re still hungry, right?” 

So, the two of them went through and got food. In Dani’s case, she truly did stick to her plan of seeing just how far she could stretch that expense account. Which, as it turned out, was pretty far. She had a tray laden with a truly remarkable array of meats and pastries, along with some very delicious fruit and yogurt. It was a veritable feast, and even the girl herself looked a little overwhelmed as she set the tray down. “Eesh,” she murmured, “I might’ve gone a tad overboard. But hey, waste not, want not.” 

Raising an eyebrow, Amber remarked, “I’m pretty sure that’s not what that phrase means. Like, I’m fairly certain it means the exact opposite of whatever this is.” 

Dani seemed to consider that for a moment before simply offering a shrug. “Eh, whatever. The point is, I’m about to dive into my first spoiled rich bitch meal. You might want to send for help if I don’t surface within ten minutes.” With a thumbs up, she found her fork and knife and set to work.

Despite her words, the other girl did keep talking while devouring her meal. The two of them chatted mostly about what Amber thought about the school and most of the people in it. It was clear that Dani didn’t exactly hold the wealthy in high esteem. Which, again, bugged Amber. Not in the way she might’ve expected, given a lot of these people were her friends and not nearly as bad as Dani seemed to think they were. But because it… it felt like she was missing something. 

More to the point, talking with Dani felt far more normal than it should have. It didn’t seem like they were having their very first conversation, awkwardly feeling each other out. Instead, it felt as though they were picking up from a previous conversation that neither of them have ever had. Yeah, it was weird. It was weird because it wasn’t weird. Because they were so comfortable already. They just started talking and the words flowed easily. It was one of the most normal and casual conversations Amber could remember having in a long time with someone who wasn’t Jae, which was just… odd. Did she really like Dani that easily? 

Noticing that the other girl kept taking a bit of meat and rolling them into small balls before setting them aside, Amber asked, “You got a dog at home or something?” 

“Huh?” Dani blinked, then looked down and coughed. “Oh, uhh, no. I mean, it’s more like a couple rats.” She gave a short nod. “Yeah, just a couple rats. They like it when I bring extra food.” 

“You keep rats? That’s cool, what’re their names?” Amber had always wanted to keep a pet rat, but her mother wouldn’t stand for it. Which was totally unfair bullshit. She was a superhero, she should be able to keep a pet rat if she wanted one. 

Dani seemed a little surprised that Amber would ask that. Taking a second, she finally replied, “Oh, you know, Remy and Nicodemus.” 

“From Ratatouille and… Secret of NIMH?” Amber guessed before being rewarded with a nod. “That’s so cool. Maybe I can see them sometime. I mean–” Belatedly realizing what she had just said, Amber turned pink, waving both hands. “Never mind, I mean–never mind.” 

The other girl seemed just as flummoxed, words catching in her throat a few times before she managed a quick nod. “Right, yeah, maybe sometime. That’d be… cool.” 

“Yeah, cool. Sometime.” Feeling awkward, Amber thought about excusing herself. But that would’ve been running away. Instead, she sat right where she was, telling herself not do anything else as stupid as inviting herself over to the home of a girl she had barely met. 

Finally, Dani brushed her hands off, picking up a napkin to wipe them while asking, “So, where does one get doggy bags? No way I’m leaving the rest of this here. Actually, do they let you put stuff in a refrigerator around here? Wait, don’t tell me, there’s coolers inside the lockers?” 

Snorting despite herself, Amber shook her head. “Sorry, we’re not quite that spoiled. But we do have pretty big lockers compared to the public school. And I’m pretty sure if you ask, they’ll put whatever you want in one of the coolers at the back of the kitchen and put your name on it.” 

So, the other girl did just that, taking her leftovers up to be put away. The lady behind the counter seemed a little surprised, but willingly put the food in a bag, scrawled Dani’s name on it, and sent it to be put away. 

“Right,” Amber started once that was done, “come on, I’ll show you where your first class is. And we should probably talk about how we’re going to avoid Arleigh for the rest of eternity.” 

Dani, however, responded with a shrug. “Meh. If she wants to start shit again, I say let her bring it. She really doesn’t know who she’s fucking with.”

Squinting toward the other girl, Amber asked, “Hey, that reminds me. What exactly did you say to her when you whispered back there? She looked pretty freaked out. Not that I feel sorry for her or anything, but seriously, how’d you do that?” 

Dani, in turn, gave an almost feral smile. “Oh, you know, I just made up some shit about being connected to a street gang who would make her life a living hell if she kept pissing me off. Something about stripping her car for parts, shaving her head, sending a bunch of my older cousins to fuck with her house.” 

“You said you didn’t have any cousins or anything, just a great-aunt,” Amber pointed out. 

With a grin, Dani nodded. “Sure, but she doesn’t know that. Anyway, she’ll probably start shit again eventually, but I think she’ll back off for now. Hey, when she starts up again, you think she’ll go with the black thing, the poor thing, or the gay thing?” 

“All of the above if she can manage it,” Amber replied. “Especially since she’ll have time to really think of something good. I mean, ‘good.’” She used her fingers to make the quotes. 

“Yeah, well let’s see what she comes at me with.” Dani sounded unconcerned, shrugging both shoulders. “Maybe I’ll just hire you to be my full-time bodyguard, huh? You did a pretty good job the first time.” 

Both girls smiled at each other briefly, before Amber’s blush returned. “R-right, um, speaking of the whole gay thing. I mean, what you mentioned before, and like San said about us having things in common. And like–I mean I just, I’m sort of…” 

Sort of what? She wasn’t in a relationship, because she couldn’t be in one. Pack had expressed obvious interest, yes, but that couldn’t happen. Pack was a bad guy–girl. Damn it, why did bad girl have to have such a very different connotation than bad guy? She was a villain, there. She was a villain and had no interest in being anything but a villain. All she really cared about was making money. Well, okay, she did have important lines she wouldn’t cross, and she’d been really helpful before. But still, she was far from a hero, and had absolutely no interest in changing that fact. She and Amber could never actually be something, right? So why would she tell this totally normal, cool, and super-hot girl that she wasn’t interested? Especially given that would be a lie. She was absolutely interested. And the thing with Pack couldn’t go anywhere. And… and…

“Yo.” Dani was waving a hand in front of her face. “You okay in there? I think I lost you for a second.” 

Realizing that she had literally spaced out like that made Amber’s eyes widen, and she shook herself quickly. “Sorry, I just–I um, I don’t think I’m ready to… um.” 

“Dude, we’re just talking, chill.” With a small smile, Dani gave the other girl a thumbs up. “It’s all good. I’ve sorta got someone I’m interested in too.” For a moment, she gazed off past Amber, seeming to get lost in her own thoughts before shaking that off. “I dunno if it’s gonna be anything. It’s kinda complicated, you know?” 

Oh boy, did this chick have no idea. “Trust me,” Amber assured her, “I definitely know complicated. I hope you figure it out though. And if you wanna talk about it sometime…” 

“Yeah, you too. Good luck with your whole thing.” With that, Dani pivoted on one heel to start walking down the hall with her guide. “Hey, if we both figure our shit out, maybe we can all double-date or something.” 

Briefly thinking about how ridiculous that would be, bringing Pack to a restaurant along with all her lizards, Amber nonetheless found herself smiling. Because the only way that would ever happen was if she was honest with Pack, and the two of them worked through their differences. And that really was something to smile about. “Yeah,” she murmured under her breath. 

“It would be pretty cool to do something like that someday.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Trust 15-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“Cassidy Evans. Like, the billionaire princess of Detroit, perfect daughter of their lord high majesties the queen and king of the city, Elena and Sterling? They who own half the buildings in this fucking city, and probably three-quarters of the government? That Cassidy Evans?” 

That was the new girl, of course. I had just introduced myself the moment Mrs. Donnelley had walked away, leading her to give me a double-take before blurting that whole thing out. She was staring at me as though I’d just told her I was really Abraham Lincoln, raised up from the grave and set to run for another election with her on the ticket as vice-president. 

Opening my mouth, then shutting it as a blush settled across my face, I settled on a weak, “Just Cassidy is fine, we don’t usually go with the rest of the title unless it’s a really special occasion.” 

The other girl shook her head at me, insisting, “You ain’t exactly what I was expecting.” 

Coughing, I offered a slight shrug. “Yeah, I get that a lot. My parents don’t exactly encourage a lot of paparazzi photos or anything, so most people who don’t actually know us or look into it basically assume I’m like…” Scanning the front lawn of the school, I gestured to a crowd of gorgeous cheerleaders heading inside together while laughing at something. “One of them.” 

Giving a side-glance that way, the girl nodded. “Yeah, something like that. You uhh, you sure you’re not like a body-double or something? You know, someone to pull threats away from the real Cassidy Evans?” Even as she said it, I saw a grimace cross the girl’s face. “Sorry. That sounded less shitty in my head.” 

“It’s okay, I get it,” I assured her. “And if I was a body-double, I’m doing a pretty shitty job. I mean, look at me. You were told I was Cassidy Evans and you’re having trouble believing it. How many assassins are gonna take a look through a scope and be like, ‘yeah, she looks like a billionaire’s kid, let’s do this?’”

For a moment, the two of us squinted at each other, before I managed, “We’re both trying to figure out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, aren’t we?” 

Dani (that was her name, I finally remembered) laughed and shook her head. “If you’re really her, probably a good thing. Keep those assassins guessing.” 

“Damn straight.” Grinning despite myself, I tried to ask why I felt so casual with this chick. We met like thirty seconds earlier, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like… weird. Weirdly comfortable. Maybe it was still just a result of me finally being able to talk to Izzy about my family? Maybe I was just still incredibly relaxed and comfortable because I’d expressed all that stuff I had been bottling up for so long, and it was spilling over into my interaction with this new girl. That was probably it, right? It made sense. 

Either way, I gestured. “Come on, I’ll show you around. We’ll stay low in case the assassins think you’re a better candidate for Cassidy Evans than I am.” 

“I’m black,” she pointed out mildly before starting to follow. 

“I said what I said.” With that, I began to guide the new girl through the school, showing her where the main office was, where various sections of the school were, the library, study hall, the indoor tennis and basketball courts (she seemed confused about those being entirely separate rooms), our theater and auditoriums (again with the confusion), and the pools. 

“Pools,” she echoed once we turned away from that door. “As in plural. Multiple indoor pools at school.” 

“Oh, there’s a couple outdoor ones too,” I quickly assured her. “If you go around the back and head…” Trailing off, I glanced toward the girl and grimaced. “And that is totally not the point you were making, was it?” Flushing a little, I asked, “You’re really not used to this private school stuff. Did your parents win the lottery or something? I mean–I don’t mean to sound like–I don’t–you’re just obviously not used to this stuff.” 

Her eyes rolled as she gestured to the clearly very stiff and not-very-used uniform. “What gave it away? I blend in so well.” Snorting, the girl added, “No, my folks didn’t win the lottery. They ahh, took off. Well, Mom died so long ago I don’t remember anything about her. Dad vamanosed with some chick awhile ago. I got bounced through foster homes for awhile, then they found some great-aunt or something. She lives in Europe, but apparently felt just bad enough to put me up in one of her apartments with a babysitter and have me go to school here.” 

It was weird. On the surface of it, every part of that story was logical and made sense. But I had this insistent little thought that it wasn’t true. It was this little voice in the back of my head that kept poking me and insisting that there was something wrong with that story and I couldn’t figure out why. Honestly, it was probably just my paranoia. I didn’t know anything about this girl, and certainly didn’t have any reason to doubt what she was saying. Aside from… well,  everything in my life. Yeah, I did have reason to be suspicious about new people with uncertain backgrounds that popped into my orbit, especially with the whole biolem thing going on. And it wasn’t like I could just ask if she was a real person or some biological android being.

Yeah, paranoid. Absolutely and completely paranoid. This poor girl didn’t deserve that kind of shit, especially when she was walking into this brand new situation. So, I shoved all those thoughts down, locked them in a box in the back of my mind, and chucked it away for the time being. I could be paranoid later. Right now, I was just going to stick to this being a normal school thing. For fuck’s sake, I had enough problems without my brain inventing a whole new one about some random girl who just needed to be shown around for a few minutes. 

So, with a cough, I nodded. “Sorry about your dad taking off, and–uhh, all that. Sounds shitty. Decent apartment anyway?” 

She shrugged. “Entire place is probably about the size of your bedroom, Princess. But it’s good enough for me.” 

Somehow, I didn’t think informing the girl that she was probably exaggerating the size of her apartment rather than the size of my bedroom was exactly the right move. So, I snorted and nudged her as we made our way back around toward the front of the building. “Well, at least you’ve got a good school. Especially if you have any interest in swimming, inside or out!” 

“What’s this about going swimming?” It was San Francisco, the boy popping up out of nowhere, wearing his ill-fitting school uniform that was clearly a size too big for him despite his husky frame. “And who, might I ask, is your lovely new friend, Miss Evans?” He made a (very awkward) show of bowing. 

Rolling my eyes, I gestured back and forth between them. “San, this is Dani, she’s new. Dani, this is San Francisco and don’t look at me like that San, she was gonna find out your name eventually.” 

“Yeah, eventually, man. As in after I had time to make her get to know me,” the boy complained, shooting me a dirty look before turning back to the other girl. “Don’t let my parents being weird as fuck distract you from the magic fingers.” As he said it, San was holding both hands up, wiggling said fingers rapidly. 

For just a moment, I felt like slapping my own face. Instead, once the brief awkward silence had gone on long enough, I kicked San in the foot and hissed in a stage whisper, “Dude, you might wanna explain what you mean before she switches from mentally filling out a restraining order to physically doing it.” 

Poor San’s eyes had widened as he realized what he’d said, and he’d gone from wiggling his fingers to quickly holding his hands out in a stopping motion. “N-no, no, not like, I mean–piano! I play piano! Keyboard, whatever you need. That’s all I meant, you know, magic fingers, piano. I’m really good. Uh, at the piano.” 

Deciding to throw the guy a bone, I nodded while chirping, “He’s not lying about that. He is really good with the–what do they call it, tickling the ivory?” 

“As long as the ivory is part of the piano, he can tickle it all he wants,” Dani retorted before giving the boy another look. “Please stop wiggling your fingers at me.” 

“Yeah, that’s fair,” San agreed, shoving his hands behind his back. “Anyway, that was a really long and awkward way of saying, suuuuuuup girl?” 

“She’s new,” I put in quickly, before Dani had to respond to… well, that. “Obviously. I was just showing her around. She just umm, her great-aunt…” I trailed off, glancing that way since I wasn’t sure if she wanted me babbling about her own personal history and situation. 

Dani, however, seemed not to care. She offered a shrug. “Rich great-aunt, dead mom, missing dad, get to come to school here cuz of guilt or something. Who knows. I’m not sticking my head in that wooden horse. But for the record, your flirting is barking up the wrong sapphic tree.” 

San, in turn, blinked once. “Wrong sapphic–ohhh, you mean you’re–right. Have you met my friend Cassidy here?” 

My eyes rolled. “San, how many times do I have to tell you, I’m not gay?” 

“But you’d be such a good one,” he insisted teasingly, before gasping as I lightly kicked his shin. “Ow, look, I just–oh there we go. Amber!” 

Sure enough, Amber was passing by, turning our way at San’s words. She approached, asking, “Have you guys seen Paige anywhere? I don’t–um. Hi.” 

San gestured back and forth between them. “Amber, Dani. Dani, Amber. You two should do breakfast, you’ve got a lot in common. But hey, look at the time. Let’s go, Cass, we’ve got that thing at the place.” 

Before I could protest or say anything else, he was pulling me away, leaving the two girls there staring at each other. As he pulled me to the school entrance, I snorted while yanking my arm free. “Did anyone ever tell you it’s weird that you’re the one who keeps trying to set everyone up?” 

“Hey, man, being a lover of romance doesn’t mean only wanting it for yourself,” he informed me. “I just want everyone to be happy, that’s all. Is that a crime? And ahh, on a totally unrelated subject, how’s everything going with Tomas?” 

As my face turned pink, I grabbed the door and pulled it open to step inside. “Nothing’s going with Tomas. Nothing. We’re just friends, that’s it.” 

Following me, San sounded unconvinced. “Uh huh. Sure, babe, whatever you say.” He gave me a knowing look before gesturing. “I gotta head for class, but if you wanna go be ‘just friends’ with Tomas some more, I think he’s hanging in the music room auditioning people for his band.” 

With that, he headed off, and I turned to look back the way we’d come. Amber and Dani were still standing there. It looked like they were talking. Weirdly, I felt like that was a good thing. And familiar, somehow. 

Eesh, I really had to stop paying attention to San. He was clearly a bad influence. Shaking that off, I turned to head for my own locker. On the way, I glanced over to where I knew Paige’s was. Amber’s question rang in my ears. 

Yeah, I’d seen Paige. I knew where she was. I’d even taken the time to call the school from my Touched phone, using the voice changer to pose as the other girl’s adopted ‘father’ to say they were taking her out of town for a little while. The receptionist had tried to say something about signing a form, and I told her to fax it over to the number on the sheet, then hung up. I figured I’d deal with that later. After all, the least I could do was try to help make sure Paige had a life to come back here to if–when we managed to wake her up. 

Now all I had to worry about was how the hell we were going to pull that off.

********

A few hours later, in my math class before lunch, I was poring over the set of problems we’d been given to keep us busy for the last half of the period. At the same time, thoughts of what we might be able to do about Paige’s situation kept intruding, making it hard to concentrate. Normally I didn’t mind math so much, but right then I just couldn’t make my mind focus. 

That problem was very quickly made worse as a voice came over the intercom, drawing everyone’s attention that way. “Attention students and faculty,” the voice of one of the office secretaries announced, “due to altercations between members of the Easy Eight and Ninety-Niner criminal organizations taking place several blocks away, the authorities have asked that this school enter lockdown procedures. Rest assured, this action is purely taken as a measure of extreme caution, and there is no reason to believe the altercation will make its way this far. You should continue your scheduled work and lessons as planned, as class is still considered to be in session. Now, remain in your rooms and step away from all doors and windows as lockdown is initiated in five… four… three… two… one.” 

The moment the countdown finished, while all the people around me were already chattering excitedly, lockdown started. In our case, that meant steel shutters closing around all the windows, along with a larger one closing around our classroom door. It was a safety procedure. Now all the classrooms, as well as the various entrances into the school itself, would be completely shielded. 

Which meant I couldn’t go out to see what was happening in this ‘altercation’ between those two Fell-Gangs even if I wanted to. There was no way I’d be able to, say, ask the teacher if I could possibly use the restroom for twenty minutes or so just to nip out and take a peek.

Yeah, so right now I was stuck here the same as everyone else. Obviously, despite what the receptionist had requested, nobody was focused on math anymore. Not even our teacher. Everyone was chattering about what was going on down the street, trying to find details on their phones, and speculating about which gang would win the fight. 

Meanwhile, I… well, I was basically in the same position. I was trying to find out the truth about what was going on out there. Not that knowing would’ve helped me. I was stuck here in this room the same as everyone else. No rushing out to help deal with the situation for me. 

Sighing, I turned to look toward Jae, who sat behind me. Her gaze was locked intently on the nearby steel-covered window, looking almost as though she wanted to bore her way through it. Was she claustrophobic or something? It just looked like she really didn’t want to be trapped in here. 

“It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” I spoke up, trying to distract her. As the pale girl’s pink eyes blinked to me with confusion, I added, “The fighting between those gangs. The news said they’ve really started going after each other lately. Now they’re fighting close enough to get the school locked down?” 

There was a brief pause before Jae gave a slight nod, her voice quiet. “I hope someone stops them.” 

Ouch. Yeah, someone should be out there stopping them. For a moment, I wondered how much of this my parents were going to allow to happen. After all, there was no way this whole war would’ve gone on this long or escalated like this if they weren’t allowing it. Obviously, they’d signed off on Blackjack getting his revenge or whatever against the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro for trying to stop him from getting the vials to save his daughter. As for the Easy Eights, maybe he and Deicide had come to some kind of arrangement as part of the favor he owed her for giving back the vial she had? 

I wasn’t sure. Either way, it was two Fell-gangs versus two other Fell-gangs, and my parents were allowing it to go on. So how much damage was enough for them? How many people would be hurt or killed while they allowed the fighting to continue? Did they give a shit about any of those people? 

“Cassidy.” Jae’s quiet voice pulled me back, and I realized she had been staring at me with a look of concern. “Are you okay?” 

Right, apparently there’d been something in my expression while I’d thought about my family. Quickly, I nodded. “Sorry, yeah. Just thinking about how long we’re gonna be stuck in here.” Biting my lip, I glanced to the girl. “Are you okay?” 

Again, the other girl paused momentarily before admitting, “I don’t like being trapped.” 

Listening to the buzz of conversation from the rest of the class around us, I grimaced. “Yeah, I know what you mean. But hopefully it won’t be too long. I mean, the authorities should break it up soon enough, right?” 

Jae’s response to that was a noncommittal noise, before we were interrupted by the sound of our teacher getting the television in the corner of the room tuned to the right station. Abruptly, everyone saw the scene going on just a few blocks away. It looked like something out of an action movie. Cars were overturned in the middle of the street as various Prev members of either gang used them for cover while taking shots at one another. Fell-Touched were there too, like Angel Dust, Juice, and Skadi on the Easy Eights side, and Sandon and Jailtime on the Ninety-Niners side, along with some other guy I didn’t recognize, who was dressed like an old west cowboy with a demon mask.

The news was right, it was a warzone. There were people lying in the middle of the street, clearly injured or worse. The news chopper doing its best to stay above the action and out of the way while still giving a good view of what was going on. Which allowed us to see more people huddled behind buildings or in any cover they could find, just trying to stay out of the way. Seeing the people out there, clearly terrified and trapped, made me bristle. Fuck. I wanted to be out there. I wanted to go help them, but I couldn’t. I was as trapped in this room as those people were trapped where they were. 

How long would my parents let this go on? I had no idea. But I was pretty sure of one thing. 

This war was probably going to get a lot worse before it got better.

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Commissioned Interlude 6 – Amber (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay… that was weird, right? 

Because that seemed kind of weird. 

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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 that girl’s birthday party? 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 were 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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