Amber O’Connell

Enkindle 23-08 (Summus Proelium)

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My parents had really freaked out about the invasion of their base. How did I know that? Because the next morning, Tuesday, my mother informed Izzy and I while we were eating breakfast that there would not be a family dinner that night. Considering we’d even had it for the most part while they were out of town and only able to appear via video chat, that was pretty big. Though, of course, she didn’t tell us why. She just said that something had come up at the office and they were going to be very busy with that. 

So yeah, canceling family dinner was a big deal. I did my best to seem genuinely surprised and curious in a normal way without looking like I was pushing to see what sort of answer she would come up with. I had to make my reaction come off as completely clueless, yet with the right balance of teenaged not caring that much but being accustomed to the dinners happening. 

Honestly, I really shouldn’t have bothered. My mother was so distracted that I don’t think she heard half of what I said. She just accepted that I was mildly curious about what was going on, gave me some excuse about being busy, then went back to talking on the phone using what was obviously careful language to avoid saying anything dangerous in front of me. I was pretty sure I could have said something like, ‘hope you catch the people who broke into your mall base and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down,’ and there would only be like a twenty percent chance of her actually processing what I was saying properly. 

But, of course, tempting as that was, I resisted the urge. Mom left after giving both Izzy and me a hug, promising to make it up to us later. Then she was out the door and on her way downtown. I exchanged a look with the younger girl beside me, but neither of us said anything about it. Well, actually we did. But we kept our comments limited to what we would have said if we didn’t know the truth. I was absolutely certain that anything we said in here would be heard by someone we didn’t want to hear it. So we played our role as clueless teenagers. 

We also wouldn’t be getting a ride from Jefferson that morning. He was fully occupied helping my parents out, which had to be doing a number on his dislike of schedule changes. And that all by itself told me how big of a deal this was for them. This whole situation was obviously all hands on deck. It made me feel anxious for the fact that we couldn’t eavesdrop on what they were saying. I had no idea how much information they actually had right now, or what they would be able to find out over the next few days. I was pretty sure we hadn’t left anything that could expose us, but not knowing for sure what they were doing made me nervous. 

It was sort of like the opposite of the situation we’d been in before. They’d had no idea we were even a thing, let alone what we were planning. Now they did know about us, at least in general terms, and we had no way of finding out how much they would be able to figure out. It was our turn to not know what they were planning. 

But, we were just going to have to suck that up and move on. We had other things to deal with right now. Mainly the fact that we were supposed to go out as a group later tonight and meet with Glitch. I had no idea how that was going to go, and it was making me nervous. But I knew it was the right thing. The others finally knew the truth about me, and we could work together properly. It was the right time for us to make an appearance as a team. Doing so by meeting with Glitch and letting her know what we were going to do about the whole Tech-Touched tax thing was just… well, as good of a moment as any. 

I had also told Izzy and Amber late the night before about what happened, both with the Luciano thing and later at the shop. They knew about the zombie-man, and that the others were aware of my identity and all that. Though I promised them I hadn’t given away their own identities. I wasn’t sure exactly how long those could remain secret if they kept working with our fledgling group, but it was up to them to decide what to do about it. 

In any case, both Izzy and Amber thought I’d done the right thing by telling the others who I was, given how much trust they’d earned. We were in this whole thing together now. We were a team, and they had deserved to know the truth about me and my connection to the Ministry. 

Eventually, the two of us finished our breakfast. I’d already called for an Uber, and it pulled up outside the house as we made our way there. We weren’t going to be skipping school today. Distracted as my parents were, I really didn’t want to give them any reason whatsoever to think something might be up with me. Sure, connecting the base invasion with me skipping school would be a huge stretch, but still. We needed them not focused on us at all. Thus, not giving them any reason to even think about us. 

Besides, after the insanity of the past couple of days, and what was coming up soon, I needed the break of just going to school and being normal for a few hours. Was it weird that I saw sitting in class listening to teachers and doing work as a break from my extracurriculars? Yeah, probably. But hey, I’d never claimed to be normal. 

I was dropped off at my school first, and I made sure the driver was paid with a substantial tip before sending him on to drop off Izzy at her own school. Then I turned to face the school itself and took a deep breath. Time to go inside and pretend to be a completely normal teenager for a few hours. 

“You’re not fooling anyone, you know.” 

The words made me turn abruptly, just in time to see that Dani girl approach from the direction of the student parking lot. Blinking a couple times, I found my voice finally. “Eh, what?” 

Stopping there, she raised an eyebrow at me before gesturing at the departing Uber. “You really think people will buy this whole ‘oh I have to be driven around in a normal car like everyone else, I totally don’t have a personal private rocket ship and teleportation technology I can use to go anywhere I want’ business?” She winked then, giving a pointed and overly dramatic sigh. “I mean, it’s either believe that you have access to all that and are trying to hide it, or that you actually are stuck driving around in a wheeled car like the rest of us schlubs.” 

A very tiny smirk found its way to my face as I offered a shrug. “I mean, when it comes down to it, whether I have to use a normal car to hide my vast technological sci-fi toys or don’t have access to that at all, the end-result is the same, isn’t it?” 

Dani, in turn, shook her head. “It’s not the same at all. If you had access to that stuff, you could cruise around in a spaceship on your off days. I mean, for all we know, you’re out there flying to new planets and hobnobbing with alien diplomats on the weekend.” 

Dramatically raising my finger to my lips, I gave her a sharp, “Shhh. If everyone hears about that, they’ll all want a ride to Alpha Centauri. Believe me, political relations are already tenuous enough without adding a bunch of extra galavanting teenagers who want to cruise the galaxy.” 

With a laugh, the other girl retorted, “Oh yeah, and everything I’ve heard about you makes you the perfect diplomatic representative for humanity. No way would you ever do something dramatic on a dare that made the aliens panic.” 

“I’ll have you know, I am on my best behavior whenever I’m on an alien world.” With a grin, I added, “That’s why I act up around here, to get it out of my system.” 

“Oh, is that why?” Amber put in while joining us. “Sorry, what was that about aliens?” 

With a shrug, Dani replied, “Just working out exactly what our local richest teenager in the state likes to do in her off-hours.” 

Amber looked me over as though appraising for a moment. “Last time I checked, it was a lot of putting herself in physical peril, right? Skiing down death-trap mountains, skating off skyscrapers downtown, bungee jumping into the Grand Canyon?” 

“Sometimes all in the same day!” I chirped with a broad smile. “Play your cards right and maybe I’ll bring both of you along sometime. We might even take the rocket ship.” 

Dani gave me a thumbs up. “Sounds good, just let me know when and where. Hope I get to wrestle an alien.” With that, she glanced at her phone and said something about needing to talk to someone before class. Then she headed off, leaving me standing there with Amber.  

“You good?” the other girl asked after we watched her walk away. 

Nodding a little, I replied, “Yeah, I’m okay. Still kind of coming to terms with the fact that the others know the truth now. Like… it kind of freaks me out a bit, you know?” 

“You mean because now there’s five extra people who know exactly who you are and who your parents are?” Amber put in before exhaling. “Yeah, that’s pretty big. You’ve been keeping this secret for a long time now. I mean, relatively speaking for how big it is and how much you’ve been doing. And now it’s sort of out of your hands. You can’t control what they do with it. If they fuck up and give away your secret, you can’t undo it. You just… have to trust them. It’s scary, huh?” 

Swallowing hard, I murmured, “Absolutely terrifying. The more people who know about me, the bigger chance of this getting out. You’re right, I can’t control them. I can’t be there every minute of every day. I have no idea what they’re doing right now. I mean, I trust them, or I wouldn’t have told them the truth. It was the right thing to do. But still, it just… it’s a lot. And I keep having waking daymares about one of them saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and…” I shuddered. 

Her hand patted me on the back. “Don’t worry, I get it. Believe me, I know it’s a big deal. But you’re right, it was the right thing to do. If you guys are going to be a real team and work together, they needed to know what they were dealing with. The whole story. Especially if Luciano’s turned into some superpowered zombie monster. That seems like a problem that’s gonna get worse before it gets better.” 

“Well, Paige was supposed to be siccing the Ministry on him,” I pointed out quietly, glancing around to make sure no one was anywhere nearby. “Which could kind of be a two birds with one stone situation if it distracts them from focusing on us. But I guess we’ll see what happens.” 

“Yeah,” Amber agreed, “You could say the same thing about this whole situation. We just have to see how it goes. But whatever happens, just remember you’re not alone. You’ve got people you can trust.”  

Nodding slowly, I took a breath before starting to head for the building. There was no sense in being late to class. “Sure,” I murmured on the way. “I just hope that we can find a way to help Trivial and Flea.

“Because as much danger as we might be in right now, I’m pretty sure they’re in a lot worse.” 

******

School that day passed through a time distortion that made it simultaneously take forever and yet finish in the blink of an eye. While I was sitting in every class, I couldn’t stop looking at the clock, which seemed frozen every time I glanced that way. Given what I had to do that evening, I was anxious to be done with all this. But when the final bell rang and it was time to leave, it somehow felt like I’d barely spent any time there at all. Brains were weird sometimes.

I was at my locker when Dani approached alongside San Francisco. The latter spoke up. “Yo, we’re gonna go catch a movie, you wanna come? It’s that special fifteen year anniversary release of Duskrunners. You know they’re counting ticket sales to decide if they’re finally gonna do a second one.”

“Yeah,” Dani put in, “I haven’t seen it yet, but San here keeps saying I should’ve been there at the first release.” 

Raising an eyebrow, I pointed out, “San wasn’t there at the first release. Or if he was, he wouldn’t remember. He would’ve been two.” 

“All the more reason for us to go to this one and get the movie the sequel it deserves,” San insisted. “Come on, I promise, seeing that movie on the big screen is gonna blow your mind. When I went the first time–” 

“First time?” I interrupted. “You mean you already went to see it in the theater?” 

“Opening night, dude,” he retorted. “It’s been out since last Friday, and I’ve seen it three times. Today’s lucky number four. Even with the curfew, which didn’t make that easy. But I need reinforcements, just in case my tickets aren’t getting the job done. Plus, you know, maybe if you really like the movie, you can poke your dad about throwing some funding toward the sequel.” He waggled his eyebrows at me pointedly. 

Snorting despite myself, I gestured. “I’ve sorta got plans today, but I promise I’ll look at my calendar and see when I can get free for a couple hours.” I wouldn’t have minded going to see a movie that day, especially one San was so excited about. But I’d already promised Wren that I would come by and talk some more about funding for the shop, some toys she wanted to try out, and how that night was going to go when we went to talk to Glitch. She was pretty nervous about the whole thing, understandably. 

“Gotta make it at least three hours,” San informed me. “Gonna need extra time after the movie so we can talk all about the tie-in comics and books and about what’s canon and not canon. It gets a little confusing sometimes.”

“Can’t wait,” I dryly replied before glancing toward Dani. She had been watching me curiously the whole time. “Maybe you can help him narrow down how to explain this stuff to a clueless newcomer. Or just tell me to run if it’s impossible.” 

With a visible smirk, the other girl shrugged. “Hey, if it’s impossible and I have to sit through it, I’d be more likely to tie you down so you have to suffer too. Sure you’re too busy today though? Cuz I could do with some reinforcements. And if there were two of us, we could tie him down if it gets too bad.” 

Snickering a little after giving San a look as though I was considering the ‘tying him up’ part, I finally shook my head. “Like I said, sorry. I’ll try to get some free time soon so we can see just how cool this fifteen-year-old movie actually is and how much it holds up. But hey, let me know how it goes. At the very least, so I’ll know if I need to cut and run whenever I see San here again.” 

“Pfft.” Dani gave me a pointed look. “Trust me, babe, even if it’s terrible, I’m definitely going to talk it up just so you can suffer as much as me.” 

San made a sharp harumphing sound, straightening as he looked back and forth between both of us. “I’m telling you guys, it’s not gonna be bad. It’s awesome, and you’re both gonna love it whenever you get to see it.” Muttering something under his breath about how he still couldn’t believe that we hadn’t seen it at any point in the past fifteen years, he shook that off before gesturing toward the nearby doors. “But if we’re gonna get there in time to get decent seats and snacks, we gotta go.” 

With an added promise (or threat) to make sure I made it to the movie next time, Dani headed out with him. I watched them go, then turned back to my locker while my head shook with amusement. At some point I really was going to have to go see that. San wasn’t the type of person to just let that go. And the last thing I wanted was for him to start wondering why I was so busy all the time. And hey, if I did like it, maybe I really could push my parents toward helping to fund a sequel. 

After all, if they were going to profit so much off a criminal enterprise, they could at least make people happy with it. 

*****

“Speaking of profiting off a criminal enterprise,” I muttered under my breath awhile later, once I’d made it to Wren’s shop. 

“What?” the girl herself asked, popping up from behind a counter where she had been digging through a pile of what looked like random junk. 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Nothing, never mind. I just–I’m glad I get to help get this place running properly.” I had my helmet and mask off since everything was closed up, which was a really odd feeling. Standing here with my face exposed while the rest of me was in costume, it felt… well, it almost felt like I was naked, honestly. It was weird and uncomfortable. I felt exposed. Which was the point, really. Everyone here knew who I really was. I just… wasn’t accustomed to that. 

Coming down the stairs with an armload of supplies, Paige flatly put in, “We don’t have to get this place running to pay Glitch, you know. Cassidy and I can both help with that. In more than one way.” 

Wren, however, shook her head. Her chin was set stubbornly. “If she wants money from me, it’s gonna be from my stuff. I mean–uhh…” She paused, frowning uncertainly. “I guess you’re already paying to help get us off the ground and all, but that’s… uhh, different? I think… somehow. Sorta.” 

“Don’t worry,” I assured her, “we get it. And you won’t have to give them stuff forever. We’re gonna deal with the whole thing eventually. Just… probably not a good idea to make too many enemies right now. Especially not when they obviously know about the shop.” Saying that made me shift a little uncomfortably. 

Then I looked over at Paige, trying to change the subject for a moment while we still could. “Did you get to talk to the Ministry about Luciano?” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed. “I mean, I left an anonymous message about him, and the stuff you guys saw. I don’t know how seriously they’ll take it, but hopefully they’ll at least look into it.” 

A grimace found its way to my face. “Yeah, well, we’ll see. Maybe when they start getting other reports about him, they’ll do something. Cuz I kinda doubt he’s the type to lay low and not draw attention to himself. But you know that ‘drawing attention’ thing is probably gonna involve hurting people. Or… or killing them.”

“I’m working on something to trap him too!” Wren quickly put in. “Something he can’t burn his way out of, or whatever he did to escape from the dumpster.” She frowned thoughtfully. “You said he didn’t burn out of that one, right?”  

“Yup.” The memory made me frown as well. “Still have no idea how he managed that, unless he got teleportation powers too. Which is patently unfair. And speaking of an unfair situation,” I looked back to Paige once more. “What about school? Are they uhh, bringing up stuff about your parents being gone?” 

Paige started to shake her head, but it was Sierra who answered, on her way down the stairs behind the other girl. “As far as the school and his company’s concerned, Mr. and Mrs. Banners are on an extended retreat still. They’ve called in a few times to let people know they’re still alive, thanks to voice changers and Paigey baby’s memories of how he talks to people.” 

“Don’t call me Paigey baby,” the other girl retorted, before focusing on me. “But yeah, like she said, everyone still thinks the Banners are just being eccentric rich people on safari or whatever. The company’s still making money without his help, so there’s not too much concern yet. But that won’t last forever. And… I do want to find out what happened to them. Even if they did buy me to replace the daughter they threw out. Plus we have to get Irelyn off that island. Not to mention Flea and Trivial.” 

She was saying it that way in front of Wren rather than give away that Flea was Irelyn, I knew. It was a trick that only worked because everyone thought Flea herself was Asian, and Trivial hadn’t been in the city long enough. Not to mention she was too young. Those were the only reasons the others hadn’t figured out that Irelyn was one of those two. 

And yeah, it felt awkward and kind of bad to lie like that still. But again, it wasn’t our place to expose Irelyn’s identity. I just hoped that when and if it came up later, the others would understand. They’d been more than understanding so far. 

“We will,” I found myself assuring her after that moment of silence. “We’ll find out what happened to all the Banners. I mean, we’ve still got that blackmailing the Breakwater people plan, right?” 

Wren’s head bobbed rapidly. “Uh huh! I’m building the thing to track where the island is so you can tell them to get them off it or else.” She paused briefly. “Uh, does that make us sound like the bad guys?” 

Smiling a bit, I reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “Don’t worry, we are definitely still the good guys around here. They’re the ones not getting a couple superheroes off their prison island because they don’t want bad publicity. I promise, we’re still solidly on the right side of this.

“And speaking of being on the right side of things, let’s finish putting this stuff together so we can go pay a gang of supervillains to leave us alone.” 

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Enkindle 23-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Things hadn’t changed at all after I slept for a few hours. Nor did they after I splashed water on my face rather aggressively three or four times, or after I took a long hot shower. Even after all of that, as I got dressed, the situation was the same. Raige had her new body, and it looked identical to my body. She looked like me. Well, a blonde me with glasses and all, but still. How was I supposed to deal with that? What was I even supposed to do with it? I had no idea. I just–I couldn’t even think about it without my brain showing one of those old television test patterns. I thought I had been prepared for her to look like another Paige, even a younger Paige. It had occurred to me that a prototype body might look like a kid version of Paige. Or some random person. But a body that looked like me? It had never even crossed my mind as a vague possibility. I was completely dumbfounded by that whole situation, even now that I had gotten some sleep. If anything, I felt even more flummoxed by it. I just… couldn’t deal. 

Once I was in the hall outside the bathroom once more, Izzy was there waiting. She glanced toward me, then down the hall where the stairs were before shaking her head. She didn’t need to say anything. I knew what that meant. There was no sign of my parents. They were either still upstairs and hadn’t come down yet, or they had yet to come home. Given the situation we had left them with, I was going to bet on the latter. I was pretty sure it had been a long time since someone–anyone actually struck a blow against them at all, let alone got away with it. And given my parents weren’t standing in front of me demanding I tell them what the hell I was doing, they clearly hadn’t gotten any actual answers from their investigation so far. So, yeah, they were probably still out there working on it. 

Okay, was it weird that I felt a little bad about costing them sleep? Sure, part of me was glad for it, a little vindictively. But another part felt guilty. Why did I feel guilty about that? It was a tiny cost for them, basically inconsequential. And yet, I couldn’t entirely shut it out, even after telling myself how stupid it was. My brain wouldn’t listen to itself. Which felt unfair, though unsurprising.

Shaking that off, I nodded at Izzy before starting to walk that way. We didn’t go upstairs, of course. Those rooms were for my parents, and I had no reason to be there for the moment. The very last thing–okay one of the last things I wanted right then was for Mom and Dad to be told by the staff that I was snooping around. Given how paranoid they were bound to be after last night, I felt like they weren’t likely to dismiss anything like that. So, tempting as it had always been for me to go looking through their rooms for anything important and then just say that I was looking for them if anyone found me, now was probably not the best time. They would be on hyper-alert for anything out of the ordinary. 

Which was why we were going down to eat breakfast and then go to school. Even though I really didn’t want to, there was no choice. I’d rather curl up in bed for another three hours or so, and then get started dealing with all the everything that was waiting for us at Wren’s shop. But if my parents got a call that I had skipped school, that would be something out of the ordinary for them to pay attention to. Again, we had to avoid any suspicion right now. While they were dealing with the break-in, I needed my parents to think that everything back here at home was perfectly normal. We couldn’t give them any reason whatsoever to suspect that there might be something going on here, or just with us in general. There was too big of a chance that the whole house of cards would fall apart. 

So, we ate breakfast and took the ride from Jefferson to school. On the way, I checked the news on my phone. I wasn’t expecting to see anything about what had happened and I didn’t end up being surprised. There was a lot of stuff about the gang war and all that, even a bit about a car chase involving a van and several vehicles that had ended with the van in the water. But it didn’t go into any details other than that, and was stuck in the middle of an article about general violence in the city. Obviously, my parents weren’t going to let any details about what they knew get reported in the public news. So I checked for any social media posts about it, and got a couple vague ones that mentioned the ‘police chopper’ chasing the van. Other than that, it was all pretty much the same. 

Putting my phone away, I glanced toward Izzy before looking to the front. The partition was up, giving us privacy back here. And, well, giving Jefferson privacy up there. Shifting in my seat to use the intercom button, I waited for the beep before asking, “So how late did the play go last night? Should I feel bad that I wasn’t there, or glad that I can actually sit through school today without getting in trouble for falling asleep?” Boy, was it hard to get through that with a straight face. But it was even harder to get through it without yawning, which would’ve been even worse. 

There was a very brief pause before Jefferson’s voice replied, “It was nearly two in the morning when the play ended. I can hardly believe your parents would actually have allowed either of you to attend on a school night.” 

“Yeah, I think that was mostly Dad not thinking,” I replied easily. Again, I had to stifle a yawn. “But hey, maybe he would’ve convinced Mom that we should all stay home and sleep this morning. You think he’ll get up before noon?” I figured that was innocuous enough, a way of looking more like I was teasing my dad rather than probing for information. 

Again, there was a brief pause before he responded. “I believe your father was up and leaving for the office slightly before you appeared for breakfast, Miss Evans. He is very punctual when he wants to be.” There was a note of pride in his voice then, given his own preference for punctuality. Then he added, “Though I cannot say for certain what he will do once he arrives at the office, and he does have a quite comfortable couch.” 

Making a show of giggling a little, I let go of the intercom and leaned back to glance at Izzy. Neither of us said anything. We weren’t that stupid. We had talked a little bit before sleeping, and some more when the alarm dragged us out of far too little sleep. Now, all we did was nod very slightly before starting to talk about utterly inconsequential things. If anyone had actually been eavesdropping, I was pretty sure they would either give themselves a concussion falling asleep, or claw out their own ears to get away from the mundane teenage girl talk. 

Eventually, we reached the high school and I said goodbye to both Izzy and Jefferson  before hopping out. Without looking back, I started walking to the front door, as though it was just another ordinary day like any other. Some people waved and greeted me with a word or two, and I returned it before heading inside. Normal. I had to look normal. No seeming paranoid, no jumping every time someone said my name, no acting like that guy walking past was sent by my parents to grab me because they had figured everything out and wanted to have a discussion about it in person. Normal. Totally normal. 

“Cass!” Amber called out, nearly giving me a heart attack as she popped into view. “Come on, I’ve gotta show you something.” With a flick of her finger as though beckoning, she pivoted and walked toward the entrance of the library. “There’s no way we’re not getting those bonus points.” 

The two of us made our way through the library, heading upstairs and back to the reference section. This early in the day, there was no one back there. Well, almost no one. 

“Hey,” Paige spoke up, rubbing the back of her neck as she turned away from the large encyclopedia she had been looking at. “Uh, well I guess the first thing I should say is that Raige went for a walk.” 

That made me do a quick double-take. “I–she what? She went for a walk? As in out in public?” 

Paige shrugged a little, lowering her voice. “She said she had to get out and look around, stretch her legs, that sort of thing. And that she was going to get some more things to disguise herself, like colored contacts and spray tan. She had to get out of there. After all that time stuck on the couch, I can’t really blame her. And I’ve actually been free to walk around before. It’s her first time outside of sharing my memories.”

“Yeah, it’s her first time. Do you really think she–” Stopping myself, I exhaled. “Sorry. I’m just… kinda paranoid, I guess.”

“You have reason to be,” Amber put in, gesturing back and forth between the two of us. “And Paige has reason to want to trust her–you know, sister? Sort of? Even if she looks like–this is weird.” Her face twisted a little as she thought that through before settling on, “Really weird.” 

“You can say that again,” I muttered. With a sigh, I added, “But I get it. She’s not a prisoner, and we can’t treat her like one if we want to keep this whole allies thing going. Your dad already fucked her over and made her turn on him, I don’t want to be the same as that creep. Or even vaguely similar. I’m just a little weirded out by the idea that there’s some girl out in the city right now who looks like me. Even if she’s in disguise. It’s just… I guess it is like having a twin. And right now, my parents seeing a twin of me would be a real fucking disaster.” 

“They won’t,” Paige assured me. “Raige knows better than to go anywhere near them. Your parents are gonna be too busy dealing with everything that happened last night to go eat breakfast in some random dive, or walk through a completely different mall. Or whatever else Raige does. It’s a big city with a lot of people. As long as she doesn’t do anything to draw a bunch of attention to herself, she will practically be invisible. And I know how it sounds when I say that, but even Raige knows how to be subtle, believe me. She’ll be fine.” 

It kind of sounded like she was trying to fully convince herself of that, but I left it alone. There was no use worrying about something I couldn’t affect right now anyway. Instead, I took a breath before focusing on Paige herself. “You know this whole thing is going to be weird too, right? I mean, you being back at school and all that. People are going to wonder if the two of us aren’t at each other’s throats all of a sudden. It’ll be something weird and different, and stuff that’s weird and different might get back to my parents. It’s a little more complicated than two plus two to figure out what’s actually going on, but I feel like them knowing that you know something about their business and all of a sudden the two of us are all buddy buddy might just… give them too much to work off of. They might not get all the way to four, but I don’t particularly want them to know that there’s any addition to be doing at all.” 

Grimacing a bit, Paige nodded. “Yeah, that’s fair. I just–yeah, we’ll have to fake it. I mean, I was always faking it, so that won’t change for me. But–” She stopped, giving a low sigh. “You’re right, it’s weird. I always thought that… that at least after my birthday, I wouldn’t have to act like that anymore.” 

“You thought that because you were planning on being dead,” I shot back. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say pretending to hate me and act like a psycho cunt who picks apart my insecurities is at least better than being dead.” 

Paige, in turn, coughed. “I do prefer being alive. I just–I hate that my dad’s bullshit still has to affect me even now. I just want to shove him out of my mind, but I–he’s… I still have to act the way he wanted me to act, just so your parents don’t get suspicious about things. And we still have to deal with him because Irelyn and Trivial are stuck out there. Which, for the record, I looked up everything I could find about Breakwater, and no one has said anything about anyone being there who shouldn’t be, let alone a couple Star-Touched.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and looked toward Amber. “Uh, wait, you know what–” 

“I told her,” Paige confirmed. “Earlier this morning. I don’t– I’m going to try not to tell anyone else in the group, if possible. Not yet, anyway. That’s just too many people to spill Irelyn’s secret to. But I thought having Amber involved would help. Four heads are better than three, or something.” She raised one shoulder in an absent half-shrug, clearly focusing mostly on the actual problem itself, her missing adopted sister. 

“Right, I know about that. But my question is, how is that even possible?” Amber demanded. “Them being trapped there, I mean. They have to have people watching the island, right? How could they have two Star-Touched running around there and not notice them?” 

“Maybe they did notice and just don’t care, or think it’d be a bigger controversy to get them off it,” I muttered a bit darkly. “The big thing about that place is that no one who isn’t supposed to be there can find it, and no one imprisoned there can get off, right? It’d probably be a pretty major hit to the place’s reputation if people found out that someone managed to send a couple Star-Touched there. Or anyone there. Which–how did they get there? We still don’t know. We don’t know anything about all that.” 

While Paige grimaced, Amber spoke up. “We’ll find out what happened. I, uhh, I’m not sure how yet, but we will. We just have to take this whole thing one step at a time. Getting Raige her own body was a step. Now we’ll figure out what the next one is. If they are hiding the fact that there’s two people stranded on Breakwater, maybe we can get the word out about that. You know, anonymously.” 

I wasn’t sure how that would work, or why anyone would believe rumors like that. But instead of naysaying, I nodded. “We’ll think about it. And we’ve got all those papers and files to go over still. Probably won’t help with this thing directly, but maybe they’ll have something about your dad from when they caught him, you know?” I looked to Paige then. “Something we can use.” 

“What about your pare–I mean your adopted parents?” Amber asked the other girl. “We still have no idea where they are, right? What’s the school gonna say?” 

Paige shrugged. “Not much. As far as they’re concerned, they already talked to Mr. Banners over the phone and he apologized for keeping me away for so long. But… yeah, we don’t know where they are. I never knew what my father was going to do after all that went down. They haven’t… found their bodies or anything, so…” She shifted, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t know. I wish I did.” 

We talked a little bit more about all that, and other stuff, but hadn’t come up with anything substantially useful by the time we had to go to class. Amber and I let Paige go first so we wouldn’t be seen walking together. After she headed out, I looked at the other girl. “I kinda feel like I could fall over and die for ten hours or so. And thinking about all the things we still need to deal with isn’t helping.” 

“Tell me about it,” she replied, “I almost threw my alarm clock out the window this morning. You have no idea how tempting it was to just call in sick. Err, well I guess you do.”

“I definitely do,” I agreed, yawning. “I’m gonna take a nap this afternoon. I don’t want to, but I don’t think I have a choice. I’ll be worthless sitting at the shop staring at those files if I don’t sleep for a couple more hours.

“If Raige really wanted to walk around and experience her new body, I should’ve had her take my place today so I could sleep in.” 

******

Thankfully, nothing much happened through the rest of the school day. I saw Paige a couple more times from a distance, or in the classes we shared, but we avoided having any direct contact for the moment. Neither of us were exactly eager to get back to playing things out the way they were supposed to go, so I supposed we were avoiding it. Paige was with all her school friends every time I saw her, laughing it up and going on about her long vacation and how her dad had insisted on some sort of spiritual retreat to ‘get back to basics’ or something. Whatever her cover story was, it had her audience enthralled. 

She did apparently talk to Amber a bit more, specifically about Raige. Who had apparently chosen a different name to go by. 

Now it was later that evening. As promised, I had gone home and taken a nap for a little bit. When I got up, my parents still weren’t around. They were really busy with this whole break-in thing. So Izzy and I ate a quick early dinner before heading out. She and Amber had to do Minority stuff, which left me standing here on the roof of Wren’s shop with Paige and the girl formerly known as Raige. Or rather now…

“Sierra, was it?” I asked the girl in question while looking her up and down. She did look somewhat different from me here in the daylight. Well, the resemblance was still there, obviously. But with slightly darker tanned skin, different-colored eyes with the contacts, glasses, long hair on both sides, and the fact it was blonde… yeah, she was different. Then there were the clothes. She was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and tight pants that I just could not pull off. 

Well, I supposed technically there was–that is–I wasn’t… huh. Now I felt even weirder.

On top of all that, she was a couple inches taller than me, somehow. All put together, while I was sure my family and those really close to me would recognize her–or rather me, most others would probably at worst notice a weird resemblance. Hopefully we could do more to shift her appearance eventually, but this was a fairly decent start for the time being. 

Inclining her head a bit, the girl nodded. “That’s right. Raige was a little over-the-top and not really… me. So you know, my solution for being too over-the-top was to name myself after a mountain range. Sierra Nevada. First name, last name. We’ll be working on paperwork and identification.” She gave me a sly smirk. “On top of all the trust issues and psychological trauma, Pittman did give us a pretty good understanding of how to go about that. You should see all the fake IDs Paige has.” 

Clearing her throat, Paige gestured. “At least she pulled off looking pretty different.” 

“Even took a page out of your books and got a few different shoes with lifts in them,” Ra–Sierra drawled idly, gesturing down at them. “Not huge ones, just a couple inches. Enough that your pals down there probably won’t look at the two of us and see that we’re the exact same height.” 

“Right, uhh, thanks for that.” Biting my lip thoughtfully, I looked her up and down once more. “I don’t suppose you came up with any genius ideas for getting Irelyn and Trivial off Breakwater while you were at it?” 

“Sorry, babe,” she replied with a shrug. “I thought about it, but kinda came up empty. I think we’ll have to get the kid involved. If anyone’s gonna have an idea about how to move a couple people off an island we can’t find, it’s her.” 

She had a point. And, as I was thinking about that, we all heard voices from below. Peyton was arriving at the store, along with Murphy and Roald. 

“Well,” I started with a gesture toward the ladder leading down, “I guess we should get down there and start talking it over with her, huh? And while we’re at it, we can officially introduce you to the others, Sierra.

“But for the record, if any of them immediately says ‘hey that’s Cassidy Evans with blonde hair,’ I quit.” 

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Dig In 22-14 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so we weren’t quite done for the night yet. At least, some of us weren’t. Pack, Alloy, Murphy, and Roald might’ve gone home, but Amber, Izzy, and I were still going to go along with Paige and Raige to check out those secret labs. Part of me felt a little worried about going out again this soon, but it really was the best time. The Ministry would be occupied trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to them and who was responsible. They certainly wouldn’t be reinforcing these other places. Not yet, anyway. They might have been talking about refurbishing Pittman’s labs for other things, but I was pretty sure that that would be one of the furthest things from their minds right now. Later, of course, it would become a problem. Especially once they decided that they needed to put a heavier security on all of their properties. It would become a hell of a lot harder to get in those places and take what we needed then. That was why we needed to go tonight, while they were still reeling and distracted. 

I was telling myself all of that while putting the hated stuffed bra back on along with the suit itself. Seriously, I did not like doing this. But if we went in there as ourselves and found out too late that the Ministry had put up cameras, we would be screwed. I was going to go ahead and assume my parents could look at their mall base being invaded and then Pittman’s old labs being searched a couple hours later and put two and two together. 

So, we were suited up once more as we crouched in an alley across the street from what looked like an old dive bar that hadn’t been open for ages. It was sandwiched between a pawn shop and a tiny Chinese restaurant. From what we had been able to put together, the last time the bar was open was over ten years earlier. Pittman had bought it and used the place as one of his smaller labs. Which, given there was an entire basement area beneath the shop, made it possible that there was a hidden area somewhere in there that my family’s people hadn’t found. 

Sure, it wasn’t likely that we’d get super-lucky with the first place we checked. Hell, there was a good chance that we wouldn’t find anything at all in any of these places. The Ministry had to have gone over them pretty thoroughly. But we had to try, and trying meant starting somewhere. So, this seemed like as good of an option as any. 

The area we were in wasn’t exactly the best part of town, to put it mildly. Even with the curfew, there were still some people out walking in small groups. Probably because the cops didn’t patrol here that often. The place wasn’t rich enough to have constant security, and it wasn’t right in the middle of disputed gang territory. Not those sort of gangs anyway. There were just a lot of poor people around, and homeless, and… yeah. It wasn’t a good neighborhood. 

Still, eventually the way was clear. There was no one in sight at the moment, after a couple very clearly drunk guys managed to find their keys and stumble into an apartment a few doors down. We exchanged glances before collectively nodding. With one more quick glance around to make sure no one was looking, we darted from the alley and crossed the street to the doorway of the old bar. Paige was in front, and she ignored the visible deadbolt, instead turning to what looked like one of those intercom systems on the front of apartment buildings where you hit the button to contact one of the places inside so they could buzz you in. Despite being for a single place, there were about twenty buttons spread across the thing, all of them unlabeled. Paige didn’t hesitate at all, her fingers dancing across the console to put in the eight digit code. There was an immediate corresponding beep, and then a click as the door opened. She gave the rest of us a brief look, her expression unreadable under the mask. With a muttered reminder to be careful, she opened the door the rest of the way, and we all slipped inside. 

Yeah, this had definitely been a bar at one point, though it was clear that almost everything of value had been taken out of it. The only things left were the booths along one side and the bar itself. The shelves were bare, there were no tables or chairs, and I could see a spot where there had clearly been a jukebox at one point. It was all gone now. It had been emptied out, either by Pittman himself, or the Ministry, or people who managed to break in somehow before the place was secured. Whatever it was, that didn’t matter. We didn’t care about any of that stuff. We were there for far more important things than a jukebox or some random alcohol. 

Quickly, we scanned the room, but couldn’t see any cameras. It was possible the Ministry didn’t have any set up here yet, given they would have taken out everything they could find in this place and didn’t have any reason to keep it under constant surveillance. Not this long after Pittman had been sent to Breakwater. As far as they would be concerned, he had no way of getting out of there, so why spend the effort and resources to watch over his random properties constantly years after he had been dealt with? They were talking about converting his spaces to new labs, but until that happened, they probably didn’t care too much. Not yet, anyway. Which, again, was why we needed to do this right now.

It didn’t take long to find the door to the basement, and we carefully descended the cement stairs while keeping our eyes open for cameras or traps. But the place was empty. We got down there to find a wide-open space, like an unfinished basement in a house. It was all cement, with a heavy sink in one corner, and clear markings where there had once been equipment. But now all of it was gone. There was nothing in here. At least, not that we could easily see. 

“We should spread out,” Amber murmured, “check for any hidden doors or anything.” 

Raige, who had apparently taken control of Paige’s body in that moment, snarled, “If we have to check the quick way by knocking down some of these walls, so be it.”  

We scoured every wall, even going over the floor for trapdoors. And yes, we put a couple small holes in the walls where there might be something. We even found one promising bit, a hidden space in one corner. But it turned out to just be the size of a closet (one in a normal house, not mine), and held little more than some random science equipment and tools, like scalpels and flasks. There might have been something useful within that stuff, but it wasn’t what we were looking for. We took some of it in a bag, looking around the place for another minute or so, then made our way out. This was our first try, and it was basically a bust. Which wasn’t surprising or anything, but still. A part of me had hoped that we would get lucky. 

At least we had several more options to go. So, we made our way out, returned to the alley, and headed for the next spot. All these labs were close enough together, in this part of town, that we could get there by moving through alleys, keeping our heads down, and watching out for anyone. Which meant I didn’t have to keep changing back into my Paintball costume to play lookout. Pittman had probably intentionally kept his places close enough to quickly move back and forth between. Far enough apart that they all wouldn’t be found if one was (if you didn’t have the addresses already), but close enough that he could walk to any of them within about fifteen minutes.  

Or maybe I was overthinking it, and he chose these places because it was an area he could afford to buy property in, and set up a shop without attracting a lot of attention. 

The second place we checked looked like it had once been a clothing shop. There were still metal racks sitting around, but that was about it. We didn’t even find any secret rooms in that one, no matter how much we searched. It was even more of a dead end than the first place. 

The third place we checked, on the other hand, didn’t look like it had been anything of note before. It was just a smallish, one-story building sitting in one corner of a parking lot near a much larger pharmacy and medical supply center, the sort of place you would drive past your entire life without really noticing. At most, you might idly wonder what the place was as you drove past, then forget about it immediately as soon as you turned the corner. The building was just there, amounting to little more than scenery in the neighborhood. 

After once more taking the time to make sure the coast was clear, we made our way over there and into the building, using the code to unlock the door. Inside, the place was a maze of small offices, with a waiting room out front. It looked like this had once been a doctor’s office or something. Which made sense given the nearby pharmacy. And it was obvious why setting up in a place like this would be good for someone like Pittman, who would need ready access to a lot of medical stuff in order to build his bodies. This place was looking somewhat promising. But on the other hand, it also meant that the Ministry would have gone over everything very thoroughly too. We still had to get lucky and hope that they hadn’t taken everything useful in here. 

A search through the main floor revealed little of consequence. A few empty pill bottles, some dusty medical tools that hadn’t been taken lying here or there, that sort of thing. Most of it was picked clean by one group or another. But just as I was starting to think this would be a dead end as well, Raige kicked open a supply closet, and a thorough search revealed a trapdoor in the floor under the carpet. The four of us (five, actually, given Paige and Raige both counted) exchanged looks. Then I went first, struggling very slightly with my fake chest (and yes, I did mutter and curse the entire time about it) before climbing down the ladder to the room below. 

Upon arriving in the room below, the place was filled with a steady humming sound. It was also pitch-dark. But I was able to run my hand along the nearby wall and find a light switch, which I flipped up. As I did so, a long row of overhead lights began to turn on one after another, starting almost directly above me and leading down the length of what turned out to be a room roughly the size of a basketball court. 

As the others joined me, we could immediately tell that this place was different. It was readily apparent that the Ministry had not found that secret door. It reminded me a little bit of Wren’s lab for the fact that there were tables along the room full of tools and random bits of machinery. But there were also large floor to ceiling freezers all along both walls to either side of us. Those were the source of the humming sound that filled the room. As I looked at them, I could see a clipboard hanging next to each door. With a glance to the others, I walked toward the nearest and carefully pulled the board up to look at it. There were notes there, listing what appeared to be names, dates, ethnicities, diseases, and causes of death. There were two dates actually. One generally between fifteen and forty years earlier than the second. 

I wasn’t dumb. I knew what this was. My eyes selected to the freezer then to the clipboard and I grimaced while stepping away. “Bodies,” I announced. “He’s got dead bodies in all these freezers. Or parts of them, I don’t know. Either way, it looks like this is the place where he was doing a lot of his dissection to figure out how to make new bodies or whatever.” 

Sounding a bit sick, Izzy weakly noted, “I guess that means we’re in the right place? I mean… not really the right place, but…” She trailed off, shaking her head. 

“Yeah, doesn’t feel like a place we really want to be,” I agreed, “But it’s probably the best shot we’ve got. So let’s look around.” Even as I said that, my eyes were widening. “We’ve gotta check all these freezers, don’t we?” 

“Check the clipboards,” Paige advised, already moving to the opposite side of the room to start working her way down the line there. See if you can find any that don’t sound like a person who was alive before.” 

“We’ll work on that,” Amber put in before nudging Izzy. “You should check the tables for anything useful. We still need one of those orbs.” 

We all knew what she was doing, making it so Izzy didn’t have to go down the row of freezers and potentially have to open some of them to check inside. And I was glad for that. Izzy had been through more than enough emotional turmoil tonight. She didn’t need to deal with… that. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about doing it myself, obviously, but still. She deserved a break. 

So, we searched down at the line of freezers on either side. Unfortunately, none of the clipboards said anything about a newly built body or anything like that. They all listed birth and death dates as well as causes. Some of them had the information crossed off in red ink, followed by a third date and either a checkmark or the word ‘disposed.’ My best guess was that that meant he had either used that body or discarded it. 

This whole situation was incredibly morbid, to say the least. And I was desperately hoping that we wouldn’t have to actually open the freezers. But I was starting to worry that we wouldn’t have another choice. We couldn’t risk walking away from this place without checking if there was the slightest chance he had simply stuffed one of his prototype biolem bodies inside one of them. And it was looking more and more like we wouldn’t find one conveniently labeled as such. 

We started with the freezers that were labeled as the bodies having been used, of course. Amber and I both stood in front of one, looking at the clipboard announcing that the body had been ‘disposed’ about six years earlier. Exchanging glances, the two of us sighed heavily together, then reached out to grab the heavy metal bar on the door. Neither of us wanted to do it alone. With a pair of grunts, we hauled the door open, bracing ourselves for… 

Nothing. There was nothing in that freezer, just as the clipboard had promised. Well, almost nothing. The space within the freezer was basically coffin-sized (which just made the whole thing even worse, and the walls were covered in blood and… and probably other body stuff that I really didn’t want to think about. It also smelled so bad that I instantly recoiled and gagged against the mask, barely keeping my stomach under control. Amber was in much the same boat, but managed to shove the door shut first. 

“Don’t you–ugh, love being a superhero?” she asked while half-doubled over and clearly doing her level best not to lose her dinner. 

Grimacing, I gave a short nod, breathing heavily. “Yeah, it’s fantastic. Nothing but glory and sunshine for this job.” Even as I said that, my eyes were scanning the row of freezers. Oh god. If an empty one smelled that bad, how was it going to be when we had to open one with an actual dead body in it? The freezers–damn it, this was not my idea of a good time. 

Unlike Amber and me, Paige–no wait, that was Raige– was on the other side of the room opening one door after another, looking inside before muttering a curse, and moving on. Somehow that made me feel worse, like I was making such a big deal out of this while she was just fine with it. She was looking for a body she could use, a body she could live in. And here I was just being a baby about smelling some–okay yeah it was still awful. But still. 

Before I could think too much more about that, Izzy abruptly called out from the far end of the room where she had been sorting through a pile of stuff in a large crate there. “Hey! Hey, I think I–look.” She turned as the rest of us looked that way, holding up something in one hand. It was a small metal ball about–oh. 

Raige was there in a second, literally shoving one of the other tables out of the way and sending a small pile of tools crashing to the floor in the process. “Wait, is that–holy fuck, kid, I could kiss you right now.” Even as she said that, the girl was taking the orb from Izzy’s hand. “This is–this is it. I mean it’s not perfect, it’s not the most advanced version, but I can definitely use it.” 

Amber and I arrived then, looking at the thing. Just like the one I had seen back in the warehouse when Paige cut open that biolem’s head, the orb was baseball-sized and had a series of various-colored flashing lights along it. I could see a collection of short, maybe three-inch wires sticking out of the bottom, which probably extended when the orb was… inserted. I remembered the other one had had those wires leading down through the body to control various parts. 

“So you can use that?” Amber asked, giving the thing a long look. 

Shifting just a bit as she stared down at it, Raige gave a short nod. “Yeah, get me a body to plug it into and we’re in business. But this is a great start, pipsqueak.” She reached out to give Izzy a light punch in the shoulder. 

“Probably shouldn’t call her that.” That was Paige, clearly. “I think she’s earned a better name than pipsqueak.” Even as she said that, the girl was clearly examining the ball in her hand. 

“It’s a term of affection,” Raige announced. “Anyway, this looks like the start of home sweet home. Now let’s find an actual–” 

“Hey, look at this.” Amber, who had stepped away to the other side of the table where Izzy had found the orb, put her hand against the wall. “This bit here looks a little–” Her hand pushed hard against that bit of wall, and it abruptly shoved inward. Hidden door. There was a hidden door in this already-hidden room. Whatever was in there, Pittman definitely didn’t want anyone to find it.

One by one, we slipped through that hidden door, and found ourselves in a much smaller room. This one was barely large enough for the four of us to stand in along with the large metal tube taking up most of the space. It was about four feet across and six feet high, and had a large computer console next to it that seemed to be displaying a bunch of information that I couldn’t even keep track of. But the gist I got from it was that this might be exactly what we were looking for. 

Sure enough, Paige smiled. “This is it. This is what we need.” 

Her face shifted then, as Raige spoke. “Could uhh, could the rest of you wait outside for a minute, huh?” I could tell she felt a little awkward, which was strange to see coming from her. “This bit’s a little personal. Like changing clothes.” 

Amber, Izzy, and I exchanged glances before collectively shrugging. Then we moved back to the larger room, stepping away while talking a bit to each other about what was going on. Not that we had very productive things to say. We were all exhausted by this point. All I wanted to do was go back home and sleep. Especially knowing that I was going to have to get up in a few hours and go to school if I didn’t want my parents to suspect anything. And now it was even more crucial that they didn’t. 

Eventually, Paige stepped out of the room. She grimaced a bit when we looked that way. 

“You okay?” Amber asked. “I mean, are you… you?” 

“I’m me. Just me,” Paige confirmed. “We made the transfer, but uh, we’ve got a umm, maybe a slight… uncomfortable… a uhh, issue with–” 

“Fuck it, I’ll show ‘em!” A voice called from in the room. Something about it made me blink. Something very famili–

And then Raige stepped into view in her new body. Only she didn’t look like Paige. And she certainly didn’t look like any random person. 

The hair was different, long on both sides rather than short on one, and without the dyed tips. But other than that, her new body… was me. 

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Dig In 22-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey, is that D–” Tomas started. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Dig In 22-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“Cassidy. Psst, Cassidy. Hey–” 

A very small ball of wadded up paper bounced off my neck, making my eyes snap open as I sat up and looked around. What–where? Oh, class. I was in class. School. Somehow, I had closed my eyes for what felt like a blink only to end up completely falling asleep. At least we had a substitute today, which meant everyone was watching a movie. The room was dark, an old classic film from the late nineties I’d seen seventeen times was playing on the projector screen, and everyone was being quiet to avoid drawing the substitute’s attention. No wonder I’d fallen asleep. 

My back ached a little where I had twisted it wrong, and I had to grimace while looking around blearily for a moment before my eyes fell on the person who had thrown the paper. “Tomas?” I whispered under my breath, glancing toward the back of the room where I could see the substitute reading something on his phone. He wasn’t really paying attention. That was how subs worked, most of the time. They didn’t care as long as we weren’t too obvious about the fact that we weren’t watching the movie, or doing the worksheet, or whatever they had given out to keep us busy for the class period. Very seldom did they actually try to teach the class. 

Tomas was sitting in the aisle across from me, turned completely to face my way. “Are you okay?” he whispered. “You seemed pretty out of it right there.” 

Out of it? Well yeah, I supposed I was. It had been another week since that event with Angel Dust, meaning it had been two weeks since the dinner party and convention. Specifically, it was Friday, May 8th. And if the first week following the party had been busy, this past one had made it look positively docile. The gang war was getting even worse, particularly now that it looked like the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro were starting to splinter a bit. Some of their people were getting into fights between themselves, which just emboldened La Casa and the Easy Eights to hit them harder. Territory was changing hands by the day, and it was all the authorities could do to try to keep up and stop the situation from completely spiraling out of control.

So yeah, things were getting pretty out of control. I was out there every day doing what I could to help out alongside Alloy. We’d put a bit of time in to show that we were around, then go to the construction site to work on the tunnel a bit. I felt bad about not putting in a full shift at both, and wished I had Syndicate’s power to be in two places at once. Well, four places in his case, which would be even better. To make up for that deficiency, I had been pushing myself as hard as I could, working in the tunnel and trying to help out in the streets. It meant I was exhausted every night, and probably wasn’t getting enough sleep. But I was okay. I had to be okay. 

Well, maybe the fact that I had fallen asleep in class would tend to disagree with that assessment. I would get a real nap in later. I had promised myself that I would sleep for a few hours right after school. The idea made me feel a hard stone of guilt in my stomach, but it couldn’t be helped. If I pushed things too much harder, I was going to screw up somehow. And I was pretty sure it would be a screw-up I couldn’t come back from.

Still, I obviously couldn’t tell Tomas all of that. So I settled on shrugging a little. “I guess I haven’t been sleeping very well. You know, just one of those things.” Yeah, that wasn’t very informative, but what else was I supposed to say? I couldn’t tell him the truth. There was no way for me to know just how much he was involved in the whole Ministry thing. As much as I didn’t want to think that he was that sort of person, I also didn’t want to believe my parents were those sort of people, and look how that had turned out. It was all a mess. Not being able to trust a guy I had cared so much about for so long was one of the worst feelings I’d ever experienced. 

Tomas raised an eyebrow, glancing back to the sub briefly before giving a teasing whisper, “Oh, right, it must be that terribly lumpy bed you’ve got. What on Earth were your parents thinking? Why, that thing is barely more than a camp cot. What did it cost, a mere twenty thousand dollars? You might as well be sleeping on the ground. On a pile of nails. Fresh from the furnace.”

Blushing despite myself, I rolled my eyes and retorted, “Yeah, yeah. I didn’t say the bed wasn’t comfortable, jerk.” My finger flicked a tiny piece of eraser off my desk, which bounced off the middle of his forehead, making the boy gasp softly. 

“Good shot,” he murmured, rubbing his temple. “Bet you couldn’t do that twice in a row.” 

Wait, was that part of my power, the whole accuracy thing I’d noted when it came to using my paint? Did it extend to–oh. Realizing belatedly that I actually might’ve been able to ‘do that twice in a row’ after all, I mumbled something about being lucky once in awhile, dismissing it in the hopes that he would do the same.

It worked. Partly because he had other things on his mind. Leaning over a little, he whispered, “You’re not worried about this weekend, are you?” 

This weekend? A rush of confusion, and more than a little paranoia, filled my mind. This weekend was when we thought we would be able to finish that tunnel and make our move. But how could he possibly know anything about–wait, no. He didn’t know anything about it. He wasn’t asking about the tunnel, obviously. This was about something completely different. Namely, the fact that I was supposed to hang out with him and Maki this weekend. Which was uncomfortable all on its own, but I had to do it if we were going to learn anything about Maki themself. Amber was completely sure that they were the person she had seen get picked up by Tomas’s father after shapeshifting to change sex. So yeah, there was definitely something going on there, and hanging out with them alongside Tomas was my best chance to find out what. 

Which did indeed mean that we were going to try to break into the Ministry base the day after I hung out with my ex-boyfriend and the person he was now dating. But hey, it could have been worse. We could’ve flipped those. Somehow, I was pretty sure that breaking into the base first and then hanging out with Tomas and Maki the next day would have been even harder to deal with. At least this way, I wouldn’t have some other distraction in the back of my mind while we were supposed to be focusing on getting through that tunnel. 

Okay, that was a lie. Of course I would still have distractions. But I could try to fool myself, damn it. And I could push most of them out of my head for awhile. Getting into that Ministry base was too important, and we had spent too much time and effort on the tunnel, to let myself screw it up by being too focused on the whole Tomas thing. This way, I could get through hanging out with them, find out whatever I could about Maki, and then shift my attention to where it needed to be. 

Yeah, sure, that would definitely work.

And speaking of focusing on things, I met the boy’s curious gaze before shaking my head. Somehow, I found a smile. “Nah, don’t–ahh, don’t worry about it. It’s fine. I mean sure, it’s gonna be a little awkward. But it’ll be fine. I mean, Maki seems cool. I’m glad you umm, I’m glad you’re with someone like that. I mean, they–” I almost said ‘they’ for Maki, which would’ve been bad considering I wasn’t supposed to know about that whole situation. Instead, I quickly corrected, “They always say, if your ex is gonna get with someone new, make sure you at least get some good ice cream out of the deal.” 

Tomas gave me a doubtful look at that, his eyebrow rising. “Who says that, exactly?” 

I gave him a put-on innocent look. “I mean, I’m sure I could pay somebody to say it for me. Maybe even a lot of somebodies. What do you think the going rate for getting this entire class to repeat those words just so I don’t sound completely ridiculous might be?” 

“Oh yeah, cuz you definitely don’t sound completely ridiculous already,” Tomas shot back with a chuckle. He opened his mouth to say something else, but the bell chimed first. Unlike movies and television shows I’d seen, our between classes bell wasn’t an obnoxious buzzer, it was a pleasant chime. 

Everyone else was already getting up to leave as I gathered my things and walked next to Tomas on our way to the door. “It’s cool, really. I’ll be there tomorrow. One o’clock, right?” We were going to get a late lunch and then see a movie, or something. 

Tomas started to confirm that, as Amber joined us. “One o’clock for wha–ohhh right, Tomas’s attempt to make his ex-girlfriend get along with his current boyfriend. You are a glutton for punishment, aren’t you?” 

Giving the other girl a shove, I retorted, “Be nice. Maki’s cool. We’re cool. It’s all cool. Believe it or not, this isn’t a sitcom or a soap opera. I am more than capable of getting along with both of them. It’s fine. It’s–you know, it’s fine.” 

The other two exchanged looks as we walked down the hall together. But whatever they might’ve said in response was cut off as another chime came. This one was not the bell for class, but the start of an announcement. 

“Good morning, students,” the pleasant voice of one of the school secretaries began. “As you are well-aware, the fighting and conflict between various Fell-Touched gangs in the city has been rising in the past couple of weeks. In order to gain some control over the situation, the police force, mayor’s office, and our local Star-Touched organizations have decided that it would be for the best to institute a curfew for the time being. It will be announced on the news and official city bulletin over the next few hours, but what you need to know is that every person who does not have official work-related business keeping them out should be off the streets by eight PM until further notice.” 

Needless to say, the announcement brought about a loud chorus of groans and boos directed toward the loudspeakers. Not that it accomplished much, but everyone made sure to let their annoyance be known. Even Tomas and Amber contributed, though the look the dark-haired girl gave me behind his back made it clear that she was simply trying to blend in with everyone else. 

Of course, the whole thing made me wonder if it was supposed to apply to Star-Touched, or if we were exempt or whatever. Well, clearly all Amber and Izzy had to do was whatever the leadership told them. Alloy and I might… eh, we’d just take it as it came. Worst case scenario, someone would try to tell us to go home. 

And if we couldn’t be out on the streets, we’d just make sure the tunnel was ready to go. 

As those thoughts worked their way through my mind, Tomas focused on me. “At least we already planned on making tomorrow an early one, huh?” 

Amber shook her head. “Personally, I still think hanging out with your ex and his new boyfriend is weird. I’m just saying. Hey, Jae.” 

That last bit, of course, came as the girl in question joined us. She was looking around at the people loudly complaining before shaking her head. Her voice was quiet. “It’s like they want to be in the middle of a Fell-Touched war.”  

“You know people like that,” Tomas put in with a shrug. “They think they’re invincible.” His eyes centered on me pointedly. “Isn’t that right, Miss Can’t Resist A Dare?” 

Huffing a bit, I retorted, “I’ll have you know, I am more than capable of resisting a dare. It’s just that I usually don’t want to. If it’s something I don’t want to do, I just don’t. For example, if someone dared me to give you a hug right now, I definitely wouldn’t do that. Because you’re a jerk.” The words came out primly as I lifted my chin and harumphed at him. 

Tomas snorted. “I bet if someone dared you to do a flip off the top of the school before crashing into me for a hug you’d do i–wait.” His face twisted a little as he reconsidered what he had been saying.” 

Grinning, I gave a quick nod along with a thumbs up. “You know what? Absolutely. If you want me to do a flip off the top of the school then crash into you for a hug, I will do that.” 

Jae and Amber snickered, before the latter spoke up. “Anyway, the point is, nobody thinks they’re going to be the ones who end up getting hurt. They all think it’s gonna happen to someone else and they’ll be fine. Which, I mean, yeah, it’s a pretty big city. But it’s also a pretty big gangwar.”

While the others were reacting to that, I glanced away at the crowd of students who were reluctantly starting to move to their next classes. Everyone was talking about how annoying and unfair having a curfew was, especially one that early. Amber was right, everyone just assumed the fighting in the streets wouldn’t affect them personally. But, of course, there wasn’t exactly a way for the city to tell the gangs to only fight where people weren’t.

Oh wait, maybe not the city themselves, but that should have been exactly what the Ministry could do. If they were really trying to keep damage to a minimum and were good at maintaining control, shouldn’t they just be able to tell the gangs to take their war outside of the city, or to places where people weren’t going to be? But no, they were fighting all over the place and people were getting hurt. Innocent people who had nothing to do with any of it. Businesses were being damaged, civilians were being injured, or worse. And the war just kept escalating. Now we were on a full curfew? What was next? How bad was this going to get before it was over? And did I actually want an answer to that question? 

Regardless, one thing was clear. This whole situation was going to get worse before it got better. The gangs weren’t going to stop fighting on their own. They were just going to keep escalating until one side faltered and the other could claim some sort of victory. 

But hey, maybe we would find something useful in the Ministry base this weekend, something we could use to convince the gangs to back off. Yeah, that didn’t sound very likely, to say the least. Yet I had to give myself something to hope for. 

On the other hand, maybe I should just stick to hoping that we got through the whole thing alive, in one piece, and without losing any of our secrets. 

*******

“Still nothing from Irelyn?” 

It was a few hours later, and I was at Wren’s shop, upstairs with Paige (and Raige) to check in. Her eyes were opened again, as they both took turns speaking through the same body. 

My head shook. “No. I definitely haven’t heard from her, and no one I’ve spoken to has either.” My face twisted a little into a grimace. “I even checked with Arleigh. Tried to make it sound casual, you know? Just asked if she ever saw that woman who accosted us outside the restaurant again. She hadn’t, but she did use that as an excuse to invite me out to dinner some night, any night. She’s free whenever and I should totally check out this awesome sci-fi-themed restaurant with her. And the worst part is, it actually does sound pretty cool. But if she ever finds out that I went without her, she’s going to be even more impossible.” I groaned a bit, slumping against the far corner of the same couch Paige’s body was lying on, down by her feet. “But hey, at least she’s not–” Cutting myself off, I frowned and tilted my head. “Uh, I was gonna say at least she’s not… well, you. This is weird.”

It was clearly Raige who spoke then, sounding amused by that whole thing. “I dunno. Seems pretty fun from where I’m sitting. Can’t wait to see how you two work this whole thing out once we get separate bodies. But in the meantime, what’s this about Irelyn not checking in again? It’s been weeks. She should’ve come back to kick the rocks around some more by now. Our distraction wasn’t that good.”  Her tone through that had gradually changed from amusement to what sounded like genuine concern, though masked somewhat by projected annoyance. “The fuck is taking so long? She’s a better detective than that. She must’ve figured out that you aren’t down there by now. Don’t tell me she gave up and decided to have a quick little vacation down there.”  

“Maybe we should call her again and find out,” Paige put in, her voice uncertain. “Unless she found something in Florida that she thinks has something to do with me, she wouldn’t leave the city for so long. Not with–” She stopped, going silent for a moment before finishing with a simple, “Not without getting any actual clues.” 

“You could call her,” I agreed. “It’s been a couple weeks and if she still hasn’t come back, maybe she did find something. I mean, something she thinks is about you. Or…” I trailed off, frowning. “I dunno. But yeah, you should call her again. You don’t think she got in trouble or something, do you?” The idea that we had sent some poor, practically defenseless woman down to Florida to poke around looking for her sister was starting to sound like a bad idea in my head. 

So, Raige gave Paige a little bit of control once more and she called Irelyn. Unfortunately, that didn’t lead to answers, or to making any of us feel better. There was no response. She tried six more times over the next half hour, all to no avail. Which only made Paige even more worried. And Raige clearly wasn’t doing much better as far as that went. 

“Fuck!” I wasn’t sure which of them said that, though ‘both’ was an option. “What happened to her? What the hell is going on? Why isn’t she answering?!” Her eyes snapped toward me. “She left thirty messages on the phone since the last time we talked to her, but all those calls ended a couple weeks ago. Since then there’s been nothing. No messages, no calls, nothing. Something’s wrong. She would have–she should have–it’s wrong. Something happened.”

What was I supposed to say to that? She wasn’t wrong. Something had obviously happened. The only question was how bad that something might be. “I don’t–maybe she’s asleep or–” I cut myself off at a hard glare from her. “Yeah, probably not. Seriously, we can’t freak out. Let me take the phone and I’ll keep trying to call her. Wren says it can’t be traced, and I believe her. I’ll just use my voice changer thing if–when she answers. I’ll find out what’s going on with her.”

“And if she doesn’t answer?” Paige demanded in a voice that was attempting to be flat, but I could still hear a bit of guilt within it. “What then?” 

I honestly had no idea. We couldn’t go search all of Florida for one woman. It would be impossible. “Sunday night we’re going into the Ministry base,” I reminded them both. “We’ll find that list of your dad’s secret labs and hope there’s a body for Raige in one of them. Once you’re both on your feet, we can go from there. We’ll get hold of her, you guys. Just… just one step at a time.” 

Paige slumped back on the couch, both her and Raige clearly lost in private conversation. I wasn’t sure how long that would take, so I rose, promised to come back later to check in or if anything happened, then started downstairs with the phone in one hand. 

Right, as if there wasn’t already enough pressure riding on this whole thing, now we had a missing woman to deal with. The weekend was gonna be quite… something. First I had to go hang out with my ex and his new boyfriend tomorrow just so I could spy on both of them, and then Sunday I had to break into the secret Ministry base so I could spy on my family.  

And I honestly had no idea which one I was looking forward to least. 

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Equal And Opposite 21-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today was just… really weird all around. 

******

“So uhh, I owe you an apology.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Kith And Kin 20-05 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a commissioned chapter focusing on a SPHERE forum discussion posted yesterday. If you missed that, you might want to click the previous chapter button above.

By the time I was done with the cops and Pack, there was a message on my phone saying that Murphy and Roald were going to go back to the hospital. People were looking for them anyway, so that was a whole situation they were going to have to deal with. I told them to let me know what was going on and if they needed anything. Not that I would have known how to help, most likely, but still. I just wanted Murphy to know that I’d try if she–if there was–ugh. 

Yeah, I had nothing. The one thing I could do, help find that bastard, wasn’t going to happen right now. No matter how badly I wanted it to. And everything else within Murphy’s personal life was… out of my depth. I had no idea how to help her with any of that. But at least she had Roald, and I was pretty sure she was going to be staying with him and his family. At least, I hoped she was. The thought of her sitting at home alone with–no, that wouldn’t happen. She was a minor. They’d want her to stay with an adult. And Roald’s older sister probably fit that, if she was able to take care of him and their younger sister. Well, for a given definition of ‘take care of,’ given what they’d been doing when we first met. 

But hey, they had money now. I had made sure of that. So they would have food. Somehow, I comforted myself a little bit with that. And then immediately felt so guilty I wanted to scream. Was I patting myself on the back because I gave them money for food, after Murphy’s fucking brother just died? What–why was–I couldn’t… think. Every impulse I had was wrong, every thought that popped into my head immediately made me feel sick, like there was something wrong with me. How was I supposed to help Murphy? What was I supposed to do? 

Home. In the end, that was the only choice. I had to go home. Tomorr–later today was still going to be really big, considering my parents were officially arriving. Which would mean looking my brother in the eyes and pretending I knew nothing about what he had been doing, pretending I didn’t know that he helped a murderer escape. Hell, I was going to have to pretend I hadn’t just been in an actual physical fight with him. 

I was tired. Just the thought of sitting at home and playing nice, pretending to be clueless, was exhausting. Hard as it was to even think about, I was going to have to go home and sleep. 

So, that’s what I did. I made it home and checked on Izzy, only to find that she was still in bed. She’d slept through the whole thing, which was simultaneously completely understandable and yet also bewildering. I honestly had not been out that long, no matter what it felt like. So, I made my way back to my own bed, fell into it, and was asleep again within seconds. Seriously, it was almost immediate. I thought that I would toss and turn for hours, but it was like someone flipped a switch. My head hit the pillow, and I was completely out. The next thing I knew, several hours had passed and my alarm for school was going off. 

Blearily, I reached out and swatted at the thing a couple times before finding my phone to stop the sound. Then I rolled over and sat up, just in time to hear a quick knock at the door before the house computer informed me that it was Izzy. I told her to come in, and she quickly burst through before shutting the door behind her. In a rush, she blurted, “You went out last night?” Accompanying her words was her phone, which she held up in front of me to show me a thread on the SPHERE forums about Paintball being involved in a fight. “Was it–did it have anything to do with those shootings?” 

After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “Sorry, there were all these messages on my phone from Roald, about this whole thing with… with Murphy. Her… her brother died and it was–” Swallowing hard, aware she would see the way I flinched, I pushed on. “It was bad. But I didn’t want to wake you up and I didn’t know it was going to turn into… sorry. I need to talk about it, but not here. Later. Maybe with Amber. I–yeah. I need to talk to you and Amber about some stuff. Can you see if she’s busy? I… need to take a shower.”

“Are you okay?” Izzy’s voice was pensive as she stared at me. 

I nodded quickly. “I’m not hurt or anything. I just–I can’t talk about it right here. I just… can’t.” I couldn’t bring myself to get into that whole discussion in this house. The thought of it made my stomach clench and roll over. 

In the bathroom,  I checked my Touched phone. There are a couple messages from the others. Pack let me know that she was going to call in that favor from Blackjack to keep an eye out for Luciano or anyone associated with him. Then there was a message from Peyton to say that she got Murphy and Roald back to the hospital, and was going home as soon as she saw them leave together with Roald’s sisters. And finally, there was a message from Roald himself, telling me that they had made it home and Murphy was sleeping in his little sister’s room with her. He also asked me to let Wren know that they wouldn’t be there that afternoon. 

Right, yeah, that was another conversation I was going to have to have. I had to tell Wren just why her brand new employees were going to need a little time off. I was pretty sure the story was going to upset her as much as it did me. She really liked them. This was just… unfair. Yes, it was childish to think about it that way, but damn it, it really was unfair! Murphy’s brother deserved to be alive. She deserved to have him back. Luciano deserved to be in prison. This whole situation was fucked up and wrong and my family helped make it happen. 

Needless to say, I went through the shower very quickly. Izzy did the same, before the two of us made our way downstairs and let the kitchen know we didn’t need anything. I didn’t need to say anything to Jefferson, because he was officially focused on doing things for my parents that morning. We were supposed to take a car service anyway. So that was what we did. We just took it a little bit early, heading out to pick up some breakfast before going to the park. The same park where we had met Amber before. And, conveniently, where we would be meeting her again. Izzy had sent a message to the older girl and asked to meet her there while I was in the shower. So at least that was one less time I would have to tell this story. 

She was there waiting for us when we arrived, and I passed a breakfast sandwich to her before plopping myself down on the picnic table, with my feet on the bench. A long, heavy sigh escaped me. The other two stood there and watched silently, giving me a moment to collect myself. Finally, I started to tell them what happened the night before. Without looking up except for once or twice, I went through the whole story, from the moment I woke up to find all the messages on my phone, all the way to falling asleep again after getting home. Getting to the part about Simon helping that piece of shit escape was one of the only times I actually glanced up, only to find their expressions basically unreadable. My gaze found the grass once more as I went on. 

“Anyway, that’s all of it,” I finished after swallowing the hard lump in my throat once it was done. “Now they know… more of the truth. They know about the Ministry, and they’re going to help break into that base so we can find out where they sent Luciano.” My gaze rose once more to look at both of them intently for the first time, as I continued. “We’re going to track him down. Wherever they sent him, we’re going to find him and drag him back. He belongs in prison.”  

With a nod, Amber pushed her way to her feet and put both hands against the side of her head. “God damn it, that poor girl. That poor–god damn it.” She gave me a look then, frowning. “Just how much fucking money did that guy give your parents to make them give him a pass on killing several people? I mean, don’t they have enough already? I kind of doubt some nobody lowlife drug dealer could pull together the sort of funds to even pay your family’s gardening bills for a week.” With a long, heavy sigh, she waved both hands. “I mean, sorry, I just–”  

“No, it’s fair,” I replied flatly. “I don’t know. Seriously, I have no idea. It might just be part of maintaining their, you know, reputation or whatever. If it gets out that this guy paid his taxes and they still left him high and dry, it could wreck the whole system.” Realizing how that could be taken, I quickly added, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending it or anything. I’m just saying, that could be an explanation for why they’d go to bat for him even when his payments don’t really amount to that much in the long run. If they start picking and choosing whose payments actually buy them what they’re paying for, the whole system can fall apart. I mean, I want the system to–” My eyes closed and I shook my head. “You know what I mean.” It was really hard to talk about this from my parents’ point of view without sounding like I was agreeing with them. 

Izzy, who had been sitting on the bench, rose to her feet and looked over toward the nearby road while speaking thoughtfully. “You’re right, that’s how they would see it, probably.” She folded her arms against her stomach, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “They’re probably not looking at it the same way we do. Not even close. They don’t know any of the people he shot. They don’t… it’s not… it’s just numbers for them, you know? It doesn’t affect them. Not really.” 

“That doesn’t make it better,” I pointed out. “Actually, it makes it worse.” Pushing down the rolling nausea in my stomach, I made myself continue. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure he’s not exactly a top priority client for them. So, they probably don’t go completely nuclear if something happens to him. Actually, they’ll probably be more upset about their base being broken into than they are about someone bringing him in. But even so–” 

“They’ll probably make the connection,” Amber finished for me. “The whole point is we don’t want them to know that any of us were involved in that break-in. And if his files get stolen just before, say, Paintball finds and arrests him…” 

“It could raise a red flag or two,” I agreed dryly. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure they could put that together. So even when we take him down, we’re going to have to be careful about how it happens. Maybe we can do it anonymously or something. And as a part of a whole group of takedowns. You know, get as many files as we can and use them to bring in other people they’ve helped escape.” 

A very slight, somewhat predatory smile crossed Amber’s face. “Now that’s something I could get behind. Grab all the files we can and hit people who think they’re safe and sound. Make this Luciano guy just somewhere in the middle of the list so he doesn’t really stand out.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, that could work, if we do it right. Like you said, we’d have to be anonymous. No flashy power use or anything. Has to look like other people hitting them.”   

Agreeing with that, I added, “It will actually probably be easier to do that with more of us. We just have to be careful to hit hard and fast before getting out of there. We can’t get into some prolonged thing, or it’ll come down to either getting caught or exposing our powers. Which would kind of mess up our ability to pose as other people.” 

“Let’s focus on getting the tunnel made first,” Amber murmured thoughtfully. “Once we’re close to getting in, we can plan out exactly how we’re going to do it.” She gave me a brief glance. “You trust your new friends to help pull that off?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah. They’re definitely not connected to the Ministry at all, that’s for sure. And they’ve got reason to want to stop them. They’re with us.” 

“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean,” the other girl pointed out. “Do you trust them to help without rushing off on their own and getting hurt? They’re not exactly super-experienced.” 

“Hobbes did okay while it was the two of us,” I noted. “I mean, yeah, she was pretty motivated, but still. It looked like she could help even more.” 

Izzy spoke up then. “It’s umm, gonna take some time to make that tunnel. You know, if umm, if we’re going to do it without attracting attention. Even with help. We could probably use that time for practice.” Belatedly, she added, “For everyone, I mean.” 

“Right,” I confirmed, “We’ll practice as much as we can. I’ll put paint on the inside of our clothes and everyone can work on some drills. We need to hit the guys in that place hard, fast, put them down, grab what we need, and get out. I’ll do multiple sections of paint, and we can have like… a timer or something beep in my ear whenever I need to activate each section. But I’m pretty sure we still need to be in and out within sixty seconds. That’s six sections of paint boosts. If I do them all ahead of time, it’ll be fine.” 

“Sixty seconds,” Amber agreed. “That should be too fast for your family to get the call and react. We get what we need and get out. We escape through the tunnel and leave them with no idea who any of us are. Maybe we should have a quick way to fill in the tunnel so they can’t follow that easily?” 

Thinking about that, I gave a slow nod. “Yeah, we’ll come up with something. Fill it with water or something. Maybe not water, that’s too close to Raindrop.” I added that bit with a gesture toward Izzy. “We don’t want them thinking about her at all.” 

“Which means I can’t be there,” she pointed out. “I mean, look at me. It’s gonna be hard enough pretending you aren’t Paintball. Me? How are they gonna believe someone this small is some big commando thief? Even in black with a mask, I’d stand out.”

“We’ll all stand out,” Amber replied pointedly. “But yeah, maybe it’s best if you work behind the scenes. Cover our backs, work on sealing the tunnel behind us, something.” 

Coughing, I gestured to my phone for the time. “We’ll work on it. But we should probably get to school. Last thing we want is my parents paying more attention, and they might just do that if they hear about either of us missing classes.” 

A bit more quietly, I added, “Besides, I should probably talk to Tomas about going over to his house at some point, so I can check for anything about that sex-shifter you saw. 

“Cuz God knows, I’m super-excited about that.” 

******

Somehow, I made it through the school day. It wasn’t exactly easy. The whole thing seemed to drag on forever, as though every class took up as much time as the entire day should have. Periodically, I received text updates from Roald, letting me know what was happening on their end. They hadn’t gone to school, of course. They were dealing with the fallout of that whole situation. Apparently Tyson’s funeral was going to happen Saturday. A lot of the details were being taken care of by Roald’s sister, with assistance from a helpful cop who had shown up to investigate the drive-by. Not that there were going to be many people there. Unsurprisingly, Murphy didn’t have a lot of friends or family that would show up. It was basically just a small thing with her and Roald’s family. Which was… completely awful, to be honest. I hadn’t known the guy at all, and obviously he’d had problems, but he deserved to be remembered and mourned. Murphy deserved to have her brother’s life matter to people.

But no, they would have an almost empty funeral and then he would be put in the ground. Apparently they were setting up a donation thing to pay for all that. My first instinct was to throw a bunch of money at it myself. But I would need to be more careful than that. If I just handed them over a bunch of cash without any explanation, it might look a bit suspicious. Even more than my funds already were. Maybe I could anonymously donate? Or make it… I’d figure it out. I would make sure the guy got a decent burial. It was pretty much the least I could do. Especially considering I had failed, thus far, to bring his killer to justice. 

Bring his killer to justice. How stupid did that sound? How naive? Even the thought made me grimace to myself while standing in front of my locker at the end of the day. And yet, that was exactly what I wanted to do. Luciano belonged in prison.  And I was going to make sure he ended up there. No matter how many wheelbarrows of cash he had given my parents. 

“There she is.” Startled out of my thoughts by Tomas’s voice, I turned to see the boy approaching before he leaned against the nearby locker. “You said you wanted to talk about something?” 

Right. I’d mentioned that in passing between classes. Now it was time to actually get into it. Forcing a casual smile, I replied, “Oh, you know, I was just thinking I should come over sometime so you could show me that song you’ve been working on.”

Raising an eyebrow, he asked, “How’d you know I’ve been working on a song?” 

The question made me snort and wave my hand in a vague gesture. “When are you not working on a song, dude? It’s just been a long time since I got to hear you practice.” Slyly, I added, “And, you know, if your mom happens to be there and is anywhere near the kitchen…” 

“Ohhh,” he drawled, “I see how it is. Play to my musician ego to get your foot in the door just so you can see if Mum’s got any pies done.” 

Allowing a guilty flush to cross my face (it wasn’t hard), I coughed. “What can I say, she makes really good pies. Are you really sure she does it all by herself?” 

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” he replied while holding up his hand in a scout’s honor sign. “I’ve watched her in the kitchen. Still can’t do it like she does, but she definitely fixes them all by herself, from scratch. Not a frozen pie or restaurant delivery in sight. You trust me, right?” 

Oh boy. Forcing myself to continue meeting his gaze without flinching or looking away, I shrugged. “I mean, you’re a boy, so I trust you about that far.” 

“Ouch, my wounded soul.” Making a show of staggering backward while clutching his heart, Tomas winked. “Maybe I can pry some more trust out of you by getting pie into your face. You wanna come over today?” 

“Just my mouth is good enough, not the whole face,” I retorted. “And today’s not good. My family just got back from being out of town and all.” I was watching his face to see if he gave anything away. If he even knew anything. “So they’ll want me to be around.” 

With a shrug, Tomas replied, “Oh right, yeah, they were gone, huh? Any idea what they were doing?” 

“Business stuff,” I answered flatly, trying to pretend I didn’t care at all. “Or something. I dunno. Anyway, the point is they’ll be back. Maybe tomorrow.” 

“Oooh, kinda got a date tomorrow.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Tomas looked uncomfortable. “I mean… sorry. It’s just this… guy from an ice cream shop. We started talking and–yeah. We’re just hanging out and… boy, this got weird all of a sudden.” 

Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I shook my head. “No, no, it’s fine. It’s cool. We’ll plan something later. I umm, have fun. On your date, I mean. When it happens. I just–I uhh, I’ve gotta go.” Grabbing my bag, I shut the locker and started to head out. 

Fuck, damn it, why was I so stupid? Why did hearing about Tomas having a date make me feel queasy inside? I didn’t still feel that way about him. Hell, there was still a chance that our entire relationship had been a trick of some kind. I couldn’t–I couldn’t think about that. I had far more important things to focus on. 

Those ‘more important things’ came into clear focus as I left the school and looked to where Jefferson would be. Only he wasn’t there. Instead, Royal Thunder was parked in that spot, with my dad waiting in the driver’s seat and waving to me. 

Oh boy. Time to shove down all my emotions, pretend to be a completely clueless happy little daughter just running to meet the dad she’s been missing, and give literally nothing away about what I was actually thinking. 

If nothing else, maybe I should put in for some extra credit from the drama department. 

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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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