Amber O’Connell

Friends and Enemies 8-09 (Summus Proelium)

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“You want me to break her legs?”

Jolting a bit at the question, I looked across the lunch room table at the girl who had asked it. Amber. It was the next day after my whole… complicated evening at Tomas’s, and she and I were eating lunch as we waited for Jae, who was finishing up some kind of extra credit work in the science lab. I still wasn’t exactly sure what for, but whatever, she did a lot of extra credit stuff. Either she just liked doing it, or she was pushing to get into a really good university and wanted to pad out her application. Which was fair.

Seeing my surprised expression, Amber nodded across the room. “Paige. You keep staring at her. And you’re holding that fork so tight, I’m afraid you might snap it in half.”

Yeah, Paige was here. She must have been really confident in whatever leverage she had, because she had just shown up to school as if nothing had happened. Looking at her today, you never would have guessed that she’d had a gun pointed to her head the night before. You would never know she came so close to being killed. She was effortlessly smooth and interacted with people as if she didn’t have a care in the world. 

And she definitely wasn’t any nicer to me. If anything, she was even more caustic than usual. Which, I supposed made a certain sort of sense if she knew it was my family who had nearly had her killed. That had to be why she hated me so much, didn’t it? She knew something about my family, something that made them want her dead. That had to be connected to why she’d been so intent on attacking me every chance she got. Because Tomas had been right, last night when she didn’t know who I was, she was a lot more tolerable. So that had to be related. 

Except she’d very clearly hated me for years. And I was pretty sure my family hadn’t wanted her dead for that long. So what happened? Did she just get the proof she needed? How? What was it? And how did she know about my family in the first place? Hell, was her hating me even directly connected to that? It seemed like it had to be, but what could she have found out all the way back in middle school? Also, how was she immune to Mr. Jackson’s power? 

And while we were on that subject, had he ever used it on me? The fact that my parents had someone who could erase people’s memories made it somewhat easier to understand how they got away with as much as they did. But how many of my memories had been erased or changed? Had I found out the truth about them before and they just erased it? The thought had led me to throwing up in the bathroom the night before. 

Clearly, making sure they didn’t find out that I knew the truth was even more important than I’d thought before. I couldn’t give them any reason to think they needed to fix my memory. Not until I had a better handle on this whole thing. Not until I was ready to make a much bigger move. 

The point was, I had a hell of a lot of questions, many of them revolving around Paige Freaking Banners. So yeah, I had probably been staring at her more than I should. 

Flushing a little under Amber’s stare, I shook my head. “No leg breaking.”

Raising an eyebrow at me, the dark-haired girl asked, “You sure? I’d do it pro bono. I mean, I do still owe you for that awesome movie night. And for being a pretty good project partner, I suppose.” Adding that part thoughtfully, Amber tossed a tater tot in the air, tilted her head back, and caught it in her mouth. 

“Something tells me that breaking Paige’s legs would probably complicate more things than it solves,” I replied dryly. “And I told you before, you don’t owe me anything. It was just a fun night.”

From the grin that abruptly blossomed on the other girl’s face, I realized that I had just walked into some form of trap. “Well, then I suppose the best way for me to pay you back is to give you a fun night, isn’t it?”

As I stared at her, wondering what I had just opened myself up to, she pointed at me. “It’s my seventeenth birthday party this weekend. And you’re going.”

Oh, right. Amber‘s birthday. She, like most other people in our grade, was almost a year older than me, since I’d skipped first grade. It was another thing that contributed to me always being smaller than everyone else. Not the main thing. I was small regardless. I could probably come to this school in my twenties and still look like a freshman at best. But still. 

Amber was explaining. “My mom and uncle are renting out that place on Lynnwood with the arcade and the batting cages and all that. Saturday night from six until whenever we’re done, we’ve got the whole place to ourselves. There’s gonna be dinner and games and lots of other shit. And plenty of people, including you.”

Declining at this point felt like a bad idea. Besides, I liked Amber. I liked Jae too. With everything that was going on, would it really kill me to take a night off just to help celebrate the girl’s seventeenth birthday? 

While I was working my way through that, Amber continued. “You should bring that girl that’s staying with you, too. Izzy? Arcade games, batting cages, miniature golf, there’s gotta be something she’ll like. Although now that I say it, you probably have all of those things in your house, but still. Maybe she’ll like the fresh air?”

Izzy. Getting her out of the house and letting her have fun did seem like a good idea. And I could tell from the look on Amber’s face that she knew she’d hit the mark. So, I heaved a long, put upon sigh before waving a hand vaguely. “Okay, okay, I get it. I suppose I will just suffer through an entire evening of fun and games if that’ll make you feel better, birthday girl. And I’ll see if Izzy can come.”

Grinning at me, Amber held up another tater tot between two fingers and flicked it my way. After I caught it in my mouth, she glanced past me. “Everything good?”

She was talking to Jae, who took the open seat beside me while nodding once. “Done,” she replied quietly, setting her tray of food down. Sticking a fork in her salad, the pale girl added, “Did you ask?”

Amber shrugged. “I just got through the inviting her part. Haven’t gotten to the posters part just yet. I wanted to make sure she wanted to come first.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Posters part?”

She nodded. “See, my mom wants to do this charity thing. She had the idea to have an artist at the party taking pictures. Then everyone who donates to that children’s hospital that got attacked could get a drawing of themselves with a certain theme. You know, like pirate or ninja or anything like that. The size or the detail of the picture and all that would depend on how much they donate. They can fill out a form saying what they like to see along with a receipt of their donation. She had a guy lined up to do it, but he had to back out at the last minute. I said I knew someone who was a really good artist at school. She can find someone else if you want, but I just thought I’d ask if you’re interested. We can pay you for it, then mail the pictures ourselves once they’re done. “

Staring at her, I blinked a few times. “Drawing… oh. Oh, umm… I… yeah. Yeah, I can do that. I mean, I hope I can do that. Sure.”

Grinning widely at my agreement, Amber looked to Jae. “See, told you this was gonna be the best party ever.”

Jae, for her part, simply looked over at me, her voice soft. “Is your friend coming?”

“Friend? Oh, you mean Izzy,” I realized. “I’ll ask if she wants to. Thanks for inviting her, you guys. I know you barely know her.”

Amber shrugged. “She seemed pretty cool. 

“And this party needs all the cool people.”

******

By the time school let out, I still had no idea what I was going to do about the whole Paige situation. And I had other things to worry about for the evening. Two things in particular, each on opposite sides of the legal line. First, I needed to take those papers down to the courthouse and turn them in before the judge got too antsy. I’d been told that I would generally have a week or two, as the law didn’t exactly move fast anyway, and they knew that a lot of us were busy. But still. 

The other thing I had to do was get that device we’d… borrowed back to the maintenance place so it could be returned to the Seraph hospital before they noticed anything wrong. Wren had apparently finished extracting it and making sure the thing was okay, so I would get it where it needed to be tonight. 

That was for later, of course. Once things all closed down, I would worry about that. For the moment, the courthouse was the number one priority. 

Well, the number one priority after I visited Wren, at least. But that was related to the court house anyway. I had to take some of those papers over to her, as the person who was responsible for Ashton being confined inside her base. There were parts she had to sign and fill in under her chosen moniker of Trevithick. 

That didn’t take too long, and I promised to come back and see her again shortly before heading out again. Eventually, I was waiting in costume in front of the back door of an unlabeled, unremarkable building a block or so away from the courthouse. I’d texted That-A-Way for advice and she let me know that this was the way most Star-Touched got into the courthouse without being mobbed or anything by going in the front door. Apparently, there was a tunnel leading to the court from this building that helped keep all that stuff out of public sight. 

A second after I knocked, there was a soft whirring sound  and I saw a small camera in the upper left corner turn a little to focus on me. There was a brief pause, then the sound of a couple electric locks disengaging before the door opened to reveal a man in a police uniform. “Paintball, I assume?” 

“In the flesh,” I confirmed. Waving the papers in my hand, I added, “I was just hoping to drop off these detention things.”

The cop nodded. “Yeah, they said you’d probably be coming by. Just in case though, could you show me your power so I know I’m not letting in a stranger with your costume?”

Obligingly, I turned and held my hand out, shooting a bit of red paint to a stick on the ground before yanking it back to myself. “Good enough?”

“Yup,” the man confirmed before stepping back and gesturing for me to enter. “I’m Officer Metts. Good to meet you, kid. Pretty sure this won’t be the only time. I get stationed out here a lot.”

Stepping in, I took another look at the man. He was black, and looked to be in his thirties, very well built, with dark hair cut short and hazel eyes. His nose was maybe just a little too big for his face and had been broken at least once, but he was still pretty handsome. 

“Well,” I replied, “I’m glad the guy at the door isn’t someone who hates Touched.”

Chuckling, the man nodded. “Don’t worry, they figured out a long time ago that having someone who can’t get along with the masked types is a bad idea. Just makes things worse for everybody. Come on, I’ll take you down to the tunnel and let ‘em know you’re coming.”

We were in what looked like a simple apartment lobby area with stairs leading up, a couple apartment doors to the left, and an unlabeled door to the right. He went to the right and opened the unlabeled door, revealing another room with another set of stairs, these ones leading down, and a couple elevators. We took the stairs, heading, as promised, into the tunnel. It clearly went on a long distance, but the man simply pointed. “There’ll be a guy meeting you at the entrance to the courthouse. Just head that way and you can’t miss him. Unfortunately, I’m not gonna be here when you get off. You’ll have to be let out by one of my coworkers. But don’t worry, none of us bite.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “Maybe I’ll see you next time when I have to come in for those deposition things.”

“Maybe you will,” Officer Metts agreed. “Good luck for now, though. And hey, watch your back out there. 

“I hear Cuélebre’s really pissed off at you.”

*******

So, I turned in those papers before waiting to have a short chat with the judge. I had to sit around for about half an hour, but that wasn’t a big deal. And it was definitely understandable, considering I didn’t have any kind of appointment. Eventually, the judge had called me up out of the basement room where I had been waiting, and I had a talk with him about what happened with Ashton. He was thorough, but not too prying. He got the information he needed and said he’d make an official ruling after consulting some books, but that I shouldn’t worry. 

Eventually, that was over and I had gone home to have dinner and be visible for a little while. Not to mention hang out with Izzy. I brought up the party thing and both she and my parents were pretty accepting. I had no doubt we’d have escorts we didn’t even know about, but Mom still seemed pretty happy with the idea regardless. 

Izzy, meanwhile, seemed okay with it too. She clearly wanted to get out of the house, big as it was. And I couldn’t blame her for that. So we would definitely be going to the party. 

Of course, for that to happen, it would probably help if I wasn’t a fugitive from the Seraphs. To that end, it was time to return their device. So, I’d let Eits know to add it back into the schedule using the back door he’d built into their system, and he told me what packing label to put on it once I was in there.

And there I was, crouched on the roof of the building across the street from the Taurus repair facility. It was late enough by now that there was almost no one there. All I had to do was sneak in and drop this off. Eits was standing by to loop their cameras as soon as I gave him the signal, and he’d unloop them once I was out.

So, here went nothing. Holding the box under one hand, I sent the text his way, waiting for the acknowledgment before shoving the phone in my pocket and taking a running start. Like the last time, I used the nearby billboard and dropped in on top of the smaller building in the middle of the compound. From there, I waited for the guard to pass, then hopped down and made my way to the place we picked this thing up from it to begin with. 

Unfortunately, I had to duck back and wait there, because there were a couple guys in work overalls having a discussion about the Pistons (as in the basketball team) right in the doorway. There was some good-natured arguing back-and-forth, as one of the man apparently was more into some other team. Or maybe it was a completely different sport. Honestly, I had no idea. 

Either way, I anxiously waited, knowing the cameras couldn’t be looped for too long. But, finally, the two men left the building, walking together towards the much larger one. Watching them go from my hiding spot, I slipped around the building and in through the door. 

Once inside, I called Eits and had him talk me through printing out the right label with the number on it. It took a couple tries to get right, but finally, I stuck the label on and thanked the boy for his help. “Seriously, no way could I have pulled this off without you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” came the response. “The boss’s kid needed it. And now she’s safe, thanks to you. So we’re good. Maybe we can find another reason to hang out at some point before you have to try to arrest me.”

Snorting, I replied, “Arresting is sort of like hanging out. But we’ll figure it out later. Thanks again, I’ll put this back and then get out of here.”

Disconnecting from the call, I found the spot on the shelves where the box would wait for pick-up in the morning. Satisfied that they would find it, I quickly checked the yard to make sure it was clear before making my way out. 

Great, that was one more thing off my mind. The hospital would get its device back and no one had to be hurt or anything. Now I could focus on the important things, like finding out just what the hell was going on with Paige, how to deal with the fact that my ex-boyfriend’s father worked for my supervillain parents, what Izzy’s whole deal was… yeah, I had plenty to occupy my mind, that was for sure. 

Which, of course, was why I had barely taken two steps after landing in the alley outside of the repair facility when a voice spoke up. 

“I guess a thanks is in order.”

Spinning that way, my gaze found a man in gleaming golden armor, with metal wings and an enormous sword bigger than he was resting against the ground with his hand set casually on the pommel. 

It was Hallowed, one of the local Seraph leadership and also one of the most powerful Touched in the city. 

“After all, you returned our item without us having to go track it down ourselves,” the tall man continued casually. 

“Though I do think it’s time that the two of us had a little chat about borrowing things that don’t belong to you.”

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Friends and Enemies 8-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Izzy didn’t wake up again, and the two of us slept through the rest of the night. We slept so well, in fact, that I was almost late for my ride to school. This time, however, Jania didn’t wake me up with the vacuum. Instead, she gently touched my arm and woke me carefully to avoid bothering Izzy. I quietly slipped out of bed, whispered a thank you and made sure she had seen the note about the glass in the other room, then made my way to the bathroom to get cleaned up. When I left (after grabbing the bag with my costume from its hiding place and slipping it into my backpack), the kid was still asleep. I hoped she’d stay that way for a bit. She deserved the rest.  

In any case, I made it to school. Which was good, because I was pretty sure that if I’d abandoned Amber and Jae right when we were supposed to give our projects, I’d never hear the end of it. Well, from Amber anyway. Jae would probably just look silently disappointed with me, the thought of which somehow seemed worse than anything Amber could possibly say. 

But I made it, and we presented our report on Laura Cereta, one of the first known feminist and humanist writers in the world from way back in the fourteen hundreds. Amber and I did most of the talking, but Jae filled in her part too. After the main report, the three of us took a few questions (mostly from Mr. Dorn, though a couple other students were actually interested enough to ask something) to prove we knew the material. When we were done, he said he’d let us know what our grade was tomorrow, mentioning that he was quite impressed. Then he moved on to the next group. And that was that, our whole project was over and done with. 

“Hey,” Amber muttered on the way back to our desks. “Don’t be a stranger just cuz the project’s over, got it? Seeing that movie last night was pretty awesome.” Going briefly silent with a tilted head as she took her seat, the girl belatedly added, “Oops. Guess that kinda sounds like I just want you to hang out with us for the benefits, huh?” She looked to me. “Seriously, come hang out at my place some time. It’s not a mansion, but hey. We could still have fun. Right, Jae?”

The other girl nodded, and I gave them both a thumbs up. “Sure, no worries. We’ll hang out.” It would be kind of weird, considering I hadn’t really… just gone over to a friend’s house like that since long before this whole Touched thing. Oh, sure, I had friends at school. But they were friends at school. I hung out in groups now and then, went to some parties, that kind of thing. I wasn’t a hermit. But somehow, having a close friend that I confided in and all that had felt… wrong? Dangerous. Something. I couldn’t explain it. All I knew was that whenever I started along the path of making a close friend, something in the back of my head would always tell me it was a bad idea. It made me feel… guilty, like I was betraying someone. Which was dumb. What the hell did I have to feel guilty about? Who could I possibly be betraying? 

Oh well, that whole feeling had kind of faded since I found that orb and all this started happening. Probably because I had a lot more to worry about now than some stupid paranoid thoughts that I couldn’t even actually explain to myself. There were real problems, real reasons for paranoia and to be worried about someone close to me getting hurt. I no longer needed some half-formed vague notions about ‘betraying’ someone by making a new close friend. Which, I supposed, was one thing to be grateful for. Maybe I’d send my parents a greeting card reading, ‘Thanks for being evil supervillains, at least now I’m paranoid for a reason.’  

Yeah, that probably wouldn’t go over well. But like with most of my thoughts and fantasies about the various ways I might present the fact that I knew the truth to my family, the thought of their faces in those first few seconds was almost worth it. Sort of. Until I actually stopped to think about it. Then all I could figure was that it would go one of two ways. First, they’d be angry, they’d show me their… evil side. And the thought of that was enough to make me want to die. 

The other option was that they’d be ashamed, sad that I had found out. And… and part of me didn’t want to experience that either. But another part of me did. One part of me wanted to shove it in their faces and scream that I knew they were monsters. 

But they weren’t monsters. They were my family. They were my mom, my dad, my brother. I wanted to scream at them and I wanted to hug them. I wanted them to be good, God damn it. I wanted to throw everything I knew about what they were doing right in their faces, and I also wanted to hide it, bury it deep down. I wanted to forget it, I wanted to scream it from the rooftops. I wanted to deal with it, I wanted it to disappear. I wanted to wake up in the morning and find out everything about my parents being evil was just a bad dream. 

Would I still want that if it meant giving up my powers? I loved my powers. But… but my family. Would I erase my whole identity as Paintball if it meant not just forgetting that my family were a bunch of supervillains, but actually erase that fact and make them normal people instead, the way I used to think they were? Would I choose to become normal if it would make them normal? 

Fuck. I was supposed to be able to answer that question, wasn’t I? What… what would I choose? Gun to my head, one way or the other, which would I choose? Which would I choose? 

“Cassie?” A voice interrupted my internal musing. Class was over, and Amber was standing there, looking at me curiously. “You okay? You looked kinda… lost for a minute there.” 

Clearing my throat, I nodded quickly while picking myself up and grabbing my bag. “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks. And hey, glad I got teamed up with you for the project. It’s… it was fun.” 

On my way out, Mr. Dorn spoke up. “Cassidy, please wait a second, would you?” 

So, I did. Waving to Amber and Jae, I stood by the man’s desk and watched curiously as he adjusted and stacked the papers he’d taken from everyone who presented today, then put them into a folder in his satchel. Zipping it shut, he finally looked up toward me. “It sounds as though you, Jae, and Amber are getting along beyond just doing the project together?” 

“Uh.” Blinking, I nodded. “Yes, sir, they’re cool. Jae knows a lot if you give her time to talk.” 

“Yes, she does,” he agreed with a small smile. “Most people don’t, though. Most people–” He cut himself off and just shook his head. “Not a good idea to dwell on that kind of thing. The point is, I’m glad it worked out. Jae…” He paused, seeming to consider his words. “Jae needs more friends she can count on. People who can be there for her. And you–” Again, he seemed to stop short, changing whatever he had been about to say. “Eh, never mind. I’m rambling because I’m hungry, see?” With a little smile, he gestured to me. “Go ahead–oh, you’re ahhh… friends with Tomas Jackson, yeah?” When I nodded, he continued. “Great, could you make sure to remind him that he needs to show up here after school for that exam he and I were talking about?” 

I agreed before heading out. Sure enough, I saw Tomas at lunch, and told him what Mr. Dorn had said. He, in turn, reminded me that I was supposed to go to his family’s place for dinner that night. Which was going to be interesting. I hadn’t spent a lot of time with Tomas’s family back when we were dating, but I’d spent enough to know that his father was a lot different from Tomas himself. His mother, on the other hand, was more like her son. Much more laid back than her husband. Kent Jackson had always given me the creeps for… well, reasons I couldn’t explain. He was polite enough, for the most part. He was well-spoken, he never said or did anything bad to me. Nonetheless, every time I saw the man, a weird feeling went up my spine. 

But I was just going to have to get over that, or at least shove it down while going to this dinner. Because Tomas would be pretty disappointed if I didn’t show up. Besides, his father didn’t deserve the kind of apprehension I’d felt toward him. Now that I knew my own parents were evil supervillains, I really had to let go of that old imaginary paranoia. 

I’d go to this dinner with my old boyfriend and have a good time. I would not let weird, unfounded feelings ruin that. 

******

The house the Jacksons were living in right now was the same one they’d lived in before. It was probably owned by the British government or something and given to their diplomats. The house itself was fairly large, I supposed, for a normal home. It was three stories, but still much smaller than my family’s place, more… cozy. There was a wrought iron fence all the way around the property, with a clearly armed guard just inside the gate. A couple more guards patrolled the grounds, while a fourth guy was barely visible on the roof. 

That might have seemed excessive to some, but this place was basically right near the edge of Sherwood territory. Sherwood, the Fell-Gang that was obsessed with nature, plants, wild animals, that kind of thing. Most of them hated technology, advancement, industrialization, anything like that. They didn’t hold much territory in the city from what I’d seen, but what they did have was guarded obsessively. From what I’d seen in the news, they basically had spies all over their area in the form of animals and random plants. You never knew what kind of information the grass, trees, flowers, even weeds were sending back to the Sherwood people. To say nothing of random squirrels, mice, birds… yeah. 

Not only did Sherwood violently attack any outside gangs who dared set foot in what they considered their space, but cops and Star-Touched had to be careful too. Sherwood didn’t openly attack them quite as much, but you didn’t want to be on your own if they were feeling particularly annoyed. Especially not after dark. And the people who lived there were basically always aware that what they were saying could be spied on through any plants within earshot. Not only that, but cutting plants out of your life was apparently not allowed either. You had to have a full, well-cared for lawn, flowers, the works. One of the reports I’d watched on the news a few months back had said that every once in awhile, residents would receive some kind of plant on their doorstep and were expected to put it in their house and take care of it. 

I couldn’t even imagine living under that kind of oppression and insanity, and my parents were literal supervillains. The officials and Star-Touched teams had tried to root them out (hah), but it was hard when every plant in the general area was basically spying and playing lookout. 

Thankfully, as far as I knew, the spying plants only worked within a certain radius of the Sherwood territory. That’s why they kept their claimed area relatively small, because they couldn’t expand that far without losing their main advantage that helped them keep everyone in line. They’d tried to expand now and then through various means, but got swatted back through a combined effort from the authorities and Star-Touched teams before they could take root (okay, I was sorry for that one). 

So yeah, I didn’t blame the Jacksons for having visible security. From what I remembered based on the other times I’d visited, the whole area surrounding Sherwood space also had an actual organization whose job it was to go out and kill any plant that tried to reach its way out of Sherwood territory, as well as sensors to check for root systems below the ground. It was a whole thing. 

I was planning on taking a quick trip over to check in on Wren once this dinner thing was over, so I brought the bag with my costume along. But there was no way I was going to take it into the house. Not when someone might look inside. So, I hid it on the roof of a nearby fast food place, tucked out of sight, before making my way to the actual house in question. 

The guard at the gate actually recognized me. His name was Joel, and he grinned when I approached. “Well, hey there, Miss Evans. Good to see Tomas didn’t turn into a complete idiot while he was gone and jumped right back into finding the best girl he ever brought home.” 

Feeling a deep blush spread across my face, I shook my head. “We’re not together or anything like that, Joel. His parents just wanted me to come to dinner.”

Giving me a look that was clearly doubtful while nodding unconvincingly, the man replied, “Sure thing. Whatever you say. Come on in.” He pressed his thumb against the scanner nearby and the gate opened, letting me through. More quietly, he added, “Good to see you again. Have a nice evening in there. Smells pretty good, I think they’ve been going overboard for you. Which,” he added slyly, “is clearly just because Tomas’s… parents want to make a good impression.” 

Yeah, that blush of mine definitely got worse. Mumbling something under my breath that even I didn’t follow, I headed up to the front door. It opened before I even got in there, and Tomas himself greeted me with a smile. 

“Hey, Cass,” he started, stepping back while holding the door. “Come on in, Mum and Dad are just handling a few last minute things, but they wanted me to go ahead and show you to the dining room.” He had dressed up somewhat, in black slacks and a dark red polo shirt that was just… unfair. It was unfair how good he looked. Which, of course, did absolutely nothing to help my blush. 

“Um, thanks.” Forcing the words out, I stepped through the door into the front hallway. Soft music was playing from somewhere. It was a classical music piece. Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies”, if I remembered correctly. It was one of Tomas’s parents’ favorite pieces. I wasn’t really that into classical music, but I could definitely understand liking it from time to time. This one was… soothing. It made me think of laying on a cloud somewhere. Hearing it, all I wanted to do was relax, like the tension in my muscles instantly eased and the weight on my shoulders lifted a bit, just from hearing it. 

Shaking off that feeling, I followed Tomas to the dining room. We talked for a few minutes there until his parents arrived together. His mother, Millicent (she went by Milli or Mills) Jackson was the first to step over to me. She was a tall, elegant-looking blonde whose regal bearing and gaze reminded me of my mother in some ways. But she was actually a lot different. Tomas had gotten his affinity for British punk music from her. She also tended to tell some pretty raunchy jokes when she was with just Tomas and me. However, she could also present herself just as formally as my mother did when she actually wanted to. 

“Cassidy,” the woman greeted me with an endearing smile. “It’s so good to see you again. How are you?” 

“Oh, um, I’m good, Mrs. Jackson,” I replied, only for her to quickly correct me. 

“It’s Mills, you know that. Let’s not act like strangers, hmm?” 

It was Tomas’s father’s turn then, and the man stepped my way. As always, I felt… reluctant to look at him. I couldn’t explain why, even to myself. He was normal-looking, a kind of pale guy with brownish-blond hair and dark green eyes. He’d been dressed formally every time I’d seen him, and this was no exception. There was literally nothing about him that should have been intimidating. 

But he intimidated me, and I had no idea why. 

“Indeed,” the man spoke easily, his voice sending a shiver down my spine. “we’re all glad you’re here. I trust your parents are doing well? They always had such excellent stories.” 

“Yeah, I… I don’t know enough about their stories, sir,” I managed. “But they’re doing fine.” 

“Excellent,” Mr. Jackson murmured before extending a hand to me. “And how is school going?” 

Glancing at his hand, I started to reach for it. But Tomas spoke up first, blurting, “Okay, okay, we get it. Come on, Cassidy’s great. Can we eat before she starves to death? I’m pretty sure that’s not good etiquette.” 

Chuckling, Mills waved me to a seat, leaning in to whisper something to her husband. I caught a bit that sounded like she was telling him not to be so stiff. 

So, we sat and ate dinner. It was pretty great. When it was over, Tomas and I went up to his room to talk. His mother made it clear that if she found the door closed, she’d take it off the hinges for good, which turned my face bright red. 

We talked and just sort of hung out for about an hour. Tomas was lying in his beanbag chair strumming his guitar while I sat against his dresser. Eventually, I realized the strumming had stopped, as had Tomas’s voice. Blinking over that way, I saw his chest rise and fall, head turned to the side with his eyes closed. He was asleep. 

Shit. Picking myself up off the floor, I hesitated briefly before quietly making my way out of the room. I’d tell his parents I was leaving, then head out. 

Making my way down from the third floor to the second, I glanced around curiously. I didn’t just want to take off without saying anything. So, seeing a light coming from under the door of the room I knew was Mr. Jackson’s office, I headed that way. I was about to knock, when a loud voice from inside brought me up short. 

“Yes, Sterling, I know.” 

My father? Why was Kent Jackson talking to my father? Frowning, I hesitated, looking up and down the hall before listening. 

“I’m just saying she was snooping around, that’s it,” Mr. Jackson continued, making me stare with wide eyes at the door. Me? Was he talking about me? 

“Yeah, she’s in the back of the van now, still unconscious. She’ll be out for awhile.” 

Right, so… not me. But… a girl was unconscious in a van? That didn’t sound great. And why was Mr. Jackson talking to my dad about that? Was… wait… that wasn’t right, the Jacksons couldn’t be part of–

“Yeah,” Kent’s voice replied to something my father had apparently said over the phone. “Yeah, I’ll take care of it. 

“My power may not work on the girl, but a trip to a quiet little pier and a bullet in the back of the head should do the trick.” 

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Friends and Enemies 8-04 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we had our family dinner with Izzy. I wanted to say that it was full of tension, fear, and thinly veiled ominous words. But the truth was worse. Because there weren’t any of those things. It was fun. It was a great meal and both of my parents were clearly out to impress Izzy. Dad joked a lot and Mom told some stories about when she was a little girl and had to sit around a boring hotel room while her father was on business. 

Mom had other stories too, but they were ones that she didn’t share as much anymore. Specifically, they were stories about all the beauty pageants she had to go to as a kid and teenager. She used to tell me those stories all the time, but stopped when it became clear I was… developing differently. I was too small and too… yeah. The only way I would ever be a model is if I stayed in the children’s category. 

So, Mom had stopped telling those stories when that kind of thing started bothering me. She didn’t make some announcement about it or anything, they just gradually stopped. I knew why, but we never really talked about it. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t mind hearing more of those stories now that I was a little older and not quite as bothered by my development. 

Except that my mother was evil and dammit, I kept forgetting that. Seriously, I would be sitting there listening to my parents talk and it would entirely slipped my mind that they were villainous masterminds who actively controlled the criminal underworld in the entire city. They were just my mom and dad, for God’s sake. It was so easy to let myself stop thinking about the truth for short lapses. 

But that was kind of the point, wasn’t it? My parents were incredibly good at fooling everyone, especially me. Actually, no, not especially me. Especially all the people they interacted with who weren’t me. Of course I didn’t suspect that my own father was both a supervillain and the leader of one of the preeminent superhero teams at the same time. Who would actually suspect that of their own father? But the fact that they managed to keep all this secret from so many much smarter and much stronger people for so long showed just how good at this they were. 

So yeah, they were clearly laying on the charm for dinner. Simon even brought up a sci-fi movie coming out soon that he and Izzy both wanted to see. The two of them talked about that for a few minutes, equally engaged with each other despite the age difference. 

Well, Simon did most of the talking. Though she was coming out of her shell a little bit, Izzy still didn’t say much. I could tell she was interested in what he was saying, and she did speak up a couple times, but mostly she just listened and nodded. 

Eventually, dinner was over, along with dessert. Dad leaned back in his seat and checked his watch. “Well, I’ve got a Skype interview in a few minutes with that Lincoln Chambers guy from the LA Times about Elon’s latest stunt, but you kids should do something fun. What about that movie you were talking about?”

Izzy hesitated before quietly speaking up. “It doesn’t come out for another week.”

Dad simply shrugged, taking his cell phone out. “Not for most people. Let me make a call real quick.”

So, he was on the phone for a minute while Izzy looked to me a bit incredulously. I shrugged back at her before Dad clicked off the phone. “Right, it’s all set. They’re bringing over one of the drives with the movie on it and you can all watch it in the theater.”

Izzy stared at him. “Theater? What theater?”

With a grin, Simon teased, “Haven’t explored that much around here yet, have you?”

Quickly, I spoke up. “It’s not a full theater, we just call it that. There’s just a few rows of seats and a screen that’s like half the size of what you might find in a real theater.”

From the way Izzy stared at me, I was pretty sure that hadn’t really made her find the whole thing any less ridiculous. Which was fair. 

Dad was talking again. “It’s gonna take them an hour or so to bring the drive over for the projector. Why don’t you three run out and pick up some treats in the meantime? Make a big night of it, that’ll do you all some good.”

If only he knew just what I’d been up to lately and how busy my recent nights had been. Then he’d really think I needed a break. Though how literal that was, I couldn’t be sure. 

That particular fun thought made me blanch inwardly,  though I fought like hell to keep the reaction off my face. I might have tried to find a way to decline, except for two things. One, it definitely would’ve raised suspicions that I didn’t want raised. And two, if I didn’t do this, it would leave Izzy alone with Simon. Which… yeah, while I really didn’t expect him to hurt her or anything, leaving them alone like that felt like a bad idea for reasons I couldn’t really explain even to myself. It felt wrong and I didn’t want to do it. 

Plus, Izzy actually looked a little bit excited about something and like hell was I going to crush that by naysaying things. No, thank you. 

So, the three of us went to the garage. Izzy stood there for a moment, mouth falling open as she stared wide-eyed at all the vehicles. A sound of disbelief and amazement escaped the younger girl. 

Laying a hand on her shoulder, I murmured, “Dad likes to collect cars.” And up until very recently, I loved spending time in here going over every single one of them with a fine-tooth comb. God, I’d loved these cars and the idea of soon driving them. Now being in here was a reminder of just where our money came from and how much blood was on it. And I didn’t even know the full truth about how much blood that happened to be, just that it was a lot. 

Of course, Simon went straight to the 71 Cuda. “Come on, we’ll take Royal Thunder. That’s Cassidy‘s favorite.” 

Glancing to me, Izzy questioned, “Royal Thunder?”

Biting my lip, I explained, “The first car Dad had when he was younger was a 67 Barracuda. He said it was practically junk when he got it. He had to rebuild almost the whole thing. And the muffler didn’t work perfectly, so he nicknamed it Thunder. When he got this one, it was a lot more expensive and all that, so it became Royal Thunder.”

The words felt hollow in my throat, while they had always previously made me feel really close to my father. The stories he would tell me about putting that old car back together and all his frustration and joys in finally making it work meant so much to me. That was why Royal was my favorite. It was a connection to my father. And now… sigh. 

Pushing that back, I got into the car. Izzy and I both slipped into the back, leaving Simon in the front. As he pulled the car out of the garage and headed down the long driveway, Simon spoke over his shoulder. “How much longer you got left until you get through Drivers Ed anyway?” 

“A month,” I murmured, though I couldn’t keep a smile entirely off of my face. I had been looking forward to driving for basically my entire life. Even with everything that I had found out, not to mention just how crazy and fun my paint method of travel already was, the idea of finally driving still made me grin. It was one part of my old self that I didn’t have to fake enthusiasm for, even if it was a bit subdued. I was pretty sure Simon just took that as me trying to hide it and play cool. 

In any case, we drove out to the mall and picked up a bunch of treats. The whole time we were walking around, I noticed Izzy constantly looking around. She tried to be subtle about it, but she was definitely watching for anything bad. It was almost like she expected to get jumped. Which, of course, made me even more curious about what her deal was. She definitely wasn’t being held hostage, at least as far as she knew. She wasn’t upset about being with my family. But they still could have done something to her without her knowing it was them. Or maybe she was collateral damage from one of their things and they felt guilty? That could be it. 

Leaving the mall with our arms full of packages, we still haven’t encountered anything like what Izzy could have been afraid of. However, I had noticed a couple of Simon’s friends standing around basically anywhere we went. They were clearly keeping an eye on us. Though exactly why, I wasn’t sure. But it couldn’t have been a coincidence. I saw too many of them too often for that. And I was sure there were others watching us that I didn’t actually recognize. 

Izzy was still staring down at the bags in her arms with a look of disbelief. “Do we really need all this for one movie?”

With a wink, Simon asked, “What makes you think we’ll stop with one movie? We’ve got a whole theater over there. I’m sure we can find something else you want to watch. Besides, this is just restocking the place. Don’t have to eat all of it in one night, even if it’d be fun to try.” He added a wink that made Izzy blush. 

My mouth had just opened to retort when I was interrupted by a familiar voice. “Cassidy?” It was Amber. She was with Jae and that Damarko guy I had met the other day. The three of them were just going into the same mall we had been coming out of. As I looked that way, I heard Izzy give a noise of surprise. Shit, as jumpy as she was, I needed to introduce these guys before she started thinking they were a problem. 

Quickly, I raised one of my free hands to just gesture back-and-forth between them. “Hey, guys. Izzy, this is Amber and Jae. They go to school with me. And this is their friend Damarko. He doesn’t go to our school, but Amber uses him as a chauffeur.”

“Pfffffft,” the black-haired girl retorted, “don’t you start too.”

Snorting, I nodded back to our young companion. “This is Izzy. She’s staying with us.” I almost said for a little while, but a voice in the back of my head told me that would sound too much like I wanted her to leave soon or something. I didn’t want to say anything that might make her feel like an imposition or whatever. 

Jae was the first to extend a hand to the younger girl, her voice quiet. “Good to… meet you.” 

Soon the four of them had exchanged greetings and all that. Which was when I had a great idea. “Hey, why don’t you guys come to our place if you’re not doing anything? We’re gonna watch that new Outlanders movie.”

Damarko gave a double take. “Outlanders of Reach Three? That doesn’t even come out in theaters until next week, how are you supposed to—”

Amber interrupted. “Told you, she’s filthy stinking rich. You don’t have to worry about silly things like actual release dates when your parents probably own a big chunk of the studio that made the movie.”

Blushing a little, I waved my full arms. “You guys wanna come, or what? We’ve got enough snacks for basically the whole school.”

“Not that the whole school is invited,” Simon put in. “But I suppose it wouldn’t be too bad to have a few more. You’ll have to bring your own car though. Royal Thunder doesn’t have that many seats.”

It didn’t take long for the trio to agree, and they made plans to follow us back home in Damarko’s car. Only once we were walking away did I blink and cringe with a look toward Izzy. “Shit. Sorry, are you okay with this? I know they’re basically strangers, but—”

Her head bobbed quickly, as the girl blushed for some reason. “Uh huh. It’s okay. They’re… they seem cool.”

So, we led the other three back to the house and let them through the gate so Damarko could park right up near the front door. As we all went inside, the others looked around with wide eyes. Amber gave a low whistle of amazement. “So, where’s the grandfather clock that we go through to get to the Batcave?”

Laughing maybe a little more than I really should have in an act of overcompensation, I shook my head. “Sorry, no batcaves here. Unless you count Simon’s closet. Who knows what kind of animals are living in there. It’s probably a whole ecosystem.”

Kicking the back of my leg, Simon retorted, “I’ll have you know I have names for everything living in my closet, thank you very much. Now come on, let’s see if they dropped off the drive with the movie yet. Theater’s at the other end of the house.”

Damarko asked, “So, how do we get there? Is there like a tram that runs back and forth, or did your parents splurge and put in literal teleporters?”

Rolling my eyes, I turned to walk. “Come on, the house isn’t that huge. We go to school every day in a bigger place.”

“You know,” Amber put in, “as far as defenses against having too big of a house go, ‘the school for two thousand students is bigger’ isn’t really much of one.”

I pointedly pretended I didn’t hear that, and we all went to the theater room. Sure enough, the movie had already been set up, and the man who had delivered it was waiting there for us to sign his non-disclosure forms saying that we wouldn’t talk about the movie in public until after it officially released. Those all signed, we divvied up the snacks before settling in. I sat next to Izzy and Jae ended up on the other side. To my relief, they and the others seemed to be getting along. I even saw Izzy whisper something to Jae now and then. She didn’t seem put off or surprised by the girl being albino, which clearly put her above certain other people in our actual grade. 

We watched the movie. It was actually pretty good, though Simon, Damarko, and Izzy got more out of it. The three of them knew all these extra names and people from the expanded books and comics and stuff that I didn’t know the slightest thing about. But whatever, they were happy.

After that, we watched two more movies, until it was way too late to be up on a school night. But I don’t think any of us cared. It was just fun sitting there talking and enjoying the films. It was… nice. Seriously, I stopped thinking about Touched stuff basically all night long. I was just there with my friends… and brother. A brother who had…

Yeah. Maybe I didn’t forget about all of that entirely. But pretty much. All in all, it was a fun evening, and Izzy even spent a few minutes with the other three out in front of the house talking a little bit while Simon and I cleaned things up and sealed the movie up to be sent back. 

Once we saw the others off, Izzy and I headed back upstairs to our rooms. On the way, I glanced to the younger girl. “So, that was pretty good, huh?”

The smile that she turned toward me with was pure radiance, but it faded quickly, as if she was starting to remember why she wasn’t supposed to be happy or something. “I… thanks, Cassidy. You’re right, it was fun.”

Part of me wanted to ask what she had just thought of, but I suppressed the urge. Instead, I teased, “Seriously though, I call dibs on the shower first. It’s already so late, I don’t know how I’m gonna get up in the morning.”

Or you could try not reminding her that you’re going to school and she’s stuck here in the house for some reason, Cassie, what the fuck is wrong with you?

While I was flinching at my internal voice, Izzy just waved a hand. “Go ahead,” she replied quietly. “I’m too tired to shower.” As if to prove that, she yawned wide and long.

“You had a good time though, right?” I asked. 

Her smile returned. It was a little more subdued than it had been in that instance before she started thinking about whatever it was she was thinking, but definitely there. “Uh huh. It was the best.”

Leaving the girl to head for her room, I went in and took a shower. I hadn’t been exaggerating about needing to sleep. There may have been no fights or anything that day, but I was still tired as hell. This was a break that I had needed. And I was sure things would pick up again very soon. Plus, I had that project to turn in the next day with the others. Not to mention figuring out what the hell that pink paint did, and how to get into the base under the mall. 

Maybe I should ask Wren if she had any ideas about either of those. I wouldn’t tell her how I knew about the base, of course. I didn’t want her that involved. But she could have ideas about how to sneak in there, or even just how to see what was there. And maybe having another person’s input on what the pink paint could be for would be good. 

Either way, all of that would wait until tomorrow. Right now, the only thing I wanted to do was fall into my bed and sleep for as long as possible. 

Before I made it back to my room after the shower, however, there was a muffled scream from the other room, along with a crash. I bolted that way, only to find Izzy sitting up in bed, sweating profusely while looking around in confusion. The end table next to the bed had been tipped over and there was a broken glass on the floor next to it. 

“I… I think I had a nightmare,” she murmured weakly before noticing the glass on the floor as I turned on the light. Her eyes widened, and she started to quickly stammer apologies. 

My head shook, and I walked around the glass. “No, no, it’s okay. Just… I’m not sure how the table tipped over.”

“I think I was holding onto the edge of it when I flopped over and pushed it,” the other girl murmured weakly with another apology. “I shouldn’t have had water by the bed.”

“It’s okay,” I repeated. “Come on, we’ll pick up the big pieces carefully, then put a note up on the door so the maids know it’s there. And maybe you shouldn’t sleep in here alone tonight until it’s all cleaned up. Wouldn’t want you want to end up with little bits of glass in your feet.”

She blinked at me, shaking her head. “Where should I sleep?”

With an easy smile, I replied, “You can come in with me if you want. Believe me, it’s a really big bed. 

“Besides, it’s been awhile since I had a sleepover.”

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Showdown 7-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“I’m really sorry,” Izzy was saying about fifteen minutes later as I walked with her through the house. The kid looked like she was trying to disappear into the too-large hooded sweatshirt she was wearing, her voice a quiet mumble. “I didn’t mean to barge into your home and take over.” 

Blinking sidelong at her, I shook my head. “Trust me, you’re not taking over anything. We could put up a whole football team here and not run out of room. And I’m including the coaches and support staff in that.” With a wink, I added, “Seriously, it’s no big deal. I just, um, are you okay?” 

The answer really seemed like no, though she just offered me a clearly self-conscious shrug while murmuring an almost inaudible, “I’m fine.” There was no conviction behind her words. Whatever else she might be, the girl was not a very good liar. Something was wrong, but I had no idea how to ask what exactly.

Seriously, how did I bring up, ‘So is my family putting you up because they killed your parents in their supervillain personas or something?’ It was hard to carefully segue into something like that. 

All my parents had said was that there were some private issues involving Izzy’s family and that the authorities had asked if we could put her up in the safety of our place for a bit while it was sorted out. And that Simon and I were not to let anyone know there was anyone new living with us. We were strictly ordered to stay quiet about Izzy. Dad had also made it clear that I shouldn’t push too far or be very nosey about it. Which, of course, just made me even more curious. 

“Technically, there are nine bedrooms,” I informed the girl while walking up the stairs. “But that’s pretty misleading, because almost every bedroom has a couple other rooms attached to it. My rooms are up here on the third floor, east wing. There’s the main bedroom where I sleep, the bathroom attached to it, a playroom right across the hall, a study room next to the playroom, and this other room next to the bathroom that isn’t really used for anything. I’m not sure what it was supposed to be for, but it’s empty. That’s the room Dad said they were bringing in a bed to.” 

As I explained that much, we passed my own bedroom, and I had a moment of paralyzed indecision. Would showing her my room come off as showing off when she clearly wasn’t accustomed to anything like that? Would not showing her come off as if I wanted to keep her out? I had no idea what to do about it or how to be a good tour guide of my own home. 

My parents’ home, I reminded myself. I’d done nothing to earn a place in this house. And, given I had some vague idea of how we’d gotten it, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do anything to earn a place in it. That was why I’d started up with the idea of investing the money I had both from my (rather absurd) allowance and savings into Wren’s business. At least then, even if the source of the money was still bad, it would be going to a good cause. And I wouldn’t have to feel quite as bad about the money that came out of it. It might help me become a little more self-sufficient. Which… I had a feeling might be important at some point in the future. 

Finally, I decided that ignoring it and acting like I didn’t want her in there or seeing it was worse, even if barely. So, I pushed open the door and gestured. “This is my room. You can come in any time I’m not, you know, sleeping or changing or whatever.” I wasn’t worried about her finding my costume or anything, considering I already had to be careful not to let Jania or one of the other maids find it. When I was at home, the costume was hidden in a bag under a couple floorboards I had pried up with the help of some purple paint. The floorboards were themselves under a big heavy mirror in my (enormous) closet, which I also had to use purple paint to even move out of the way so I could get my costume out. The odds of Izzy accidentally finding it were… okay, I wasn’t going to tempt the universe by thinking anything else. But still, it was pretty safe. 

I showed the girl through my room, then over to the ‘playroom’ so I could show her how to work the remote for the TV and game systems if she wanted. After that, I took her through the bathroom and showed her the whirlpool tub and separate shower before continuing on to the far door. “And your room,” I announced while tugging it open. “It’s ahhh… there’s not much.” 

Sure enough, the room was still empty. It was about half the size of my bedroom, which still left it pretty good sized, as far as I knew. My bedroom was a little smaller than one of my classrooms at school. So yeah, pretty big. 

“Oh.” Izzy’s voice was small and quiet, the girl slowly stepping into the room to look around in obvious awe. “It’s… it’s….” 

“It’s kinda empty, I know,” I managed as she trailed off. “But like my dad said, they’re bringing in a bed right now. And we’ll get some… I…” Pausing, I stared at her. The girl was looking away from me, arms crossed over her stomach as if it hurt. A single tear had fallen partway down her cheek, though from the look of the wetness in her eyes, there were a lot more she was holding back.

“I… um, I know we don’t know each other,” I started a bit awkwardly and uncertainly. “But if there’s anything you want to… I don’t know, talk about or even just have someone listen. I can do that.” Boy did it sound dumb and condescending coming out of my mouth. I had no idea what else to say, though. What was going on? Who was this girl? Why was she here? What happened? I had all these questions, but no way to ask them. At least, not without being rude. And seeing this girl standing there, valiantly trying not to cry as she stared at a blank wall, made the idea of being even a little bit rude to her seem utterly repugnant.

There was a brief pause as Izzy just stared at that wall before she slowly turned her head to glance at me. For a second, I thought she might actually say something important. It looked like she wanted to. But in the end, the girl just gave a short shake of her head, mumbling, “Thanks.” 

Right, she had absolutely no reason to actually trust me. Before I could say anything, the sound of heavy footsteps approaching made me poke my head out the doorway. Sure enough, a couple workers (they normally did gardening stuff outside, I was pretty sure) were headed this way carrying the empty bed frame. Still, even empty, it was a pretty big frame. These guys were strong. 

Stepping back, I motioned for Izzy and the two of us moved so the guys could haul the frame into the room on its side (it barely fit through the doorway, which said something about how big the doorway was considering the frame wasn’t exactly small). They brought it in, set the bed down near the far wall, then went out to grab the mattress and box springs. Meanwhile, I looked to the other girl. “Hey, you wanna get some ice cream while they do that?” 

She seemed to perk up a little bit, before an obvious flash of guilt and uncertainty crossed her face. There was a brief hesitation before she seemed to set her chin, giving a slight nod. I had no idea what had been going through her mind just then, and pushing felt wrong. So, I just led her out, waving to the men and calling a thank you to them (Izzy did the same) before heading back down to the kitchen. There, I showed her where the ice cream was kept. There were eight different flavors kept in gallon buckets, along with the toppings. We made a couple sundaes before going to sit at the table in the smaller dining room, the one that only sat ten people. The two of us sat next to each other, eating our ice cream in silence for a minute before I spoke up. “You see that button over there? That’s the intercom to the kitchen. You press that and you can ask the cooks for food during the day. There’s someone in there from about six in the morning until about eight at night. If you don’t know what’s available, there’s a menu on the wall there next to it. They update it once every couple weeks. And if you want something special, they’ll usually get it for you if you ask nicely. 

The girl was just staring at me, spoon with mostly-melted ice cream halfway to her lips. “You order food in your own house like a restaurant?” Her voice was a hushed whisper, clearly baffled. 

Blushing self-consciously, I offered her a helpless shrug. “I–um, I guess so? Sorry, it’s weird, huh?” 

“A little weird,” the girl agreed, before she too blushed deeply. “I mean, not that you’re wrong or… or…” Sighing, she looked at her bowl while offering a mumbled, “I don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore.” 

That sounded like a potential opening to ask her what had happened to bring her here. But before I could, Simon came in. “Hey, munchkin and guest munchkin,” he started, taking a chair out and turning it around to sit in the wrong way. “You get all sorted out?” 

“They’re putting the bed in,” I answered when it was obvious that Izzy was hesitating. “We’ll have to get more stuff tomorrow when the stores are open. I–” Pausing, I glanced to the girl beside me. “Do you have… uhh, more clothes or anything?” 

It was the wrong thing to say. I saw her cringe, head dropping a bit before she offered a weak, “Not really.” 

“We will have more clothes brought tomorrow.” That was Mom, coming into the room briskly before gently touching Izzy’s shoulder. I saw the girl flinch before the hand was quickly removed, and Mom continued. “They will have everything you need, and you may pick from as many styles as you like. For the time being…” Lifting a bag in her other hand, she extended it to Izzy. “I had Sterling run a quick errand. You should find something in here that will fit for you to sleep in this evening and another to wear tomorrow.” 

There was a little more back and forth, but it was obvious that Izzy was tired and kind of… lost. She didn’t want to talk very much. So, I took our bowls back to the kitchen when we were done, sprayed them out in one of the sinks, and headed back upstairs with her. Gesturing once we were up there, I offered, “You can use the shower first. And don’t worry about taking all the hot water or anything, you could run the shower all day long and be fine.” With a little smile of encouragement (I hoped it was encouraging anyway), I added, “Or you could use the tub. Whichever you want. I could show you how to set up the jets. They’re pretty great.” 

Again, I saw a tiny smile start to appear before she cringed, clearly at the thought of actually smiling. Whatever had happened, it really messed this kid up. I wanted to ask her about it, especially if my parents were involved. But all I could do was tell her that I was there if she wanted to talk, which I’d done already. Saying anything further would be pushing things. 

So, I just left her to use the shower or bath and walked into my own room, taking the time to close the connecting door into the bathroom before heading over to fall into my bed face first. 

What the hell was going on? Who was this girl, why was she here, and why were my parents taking care of her? It was like she was in some kind of witness protection program or something. Hell, for a second, I’d thought she might be Blackjack’s daughter. But I was pretty sure she wasn’t. For one thing, she didn’t seem sick at all. Sad and alone, yes, but not sick. 

The point was, I had a lot of questions. And no real way of getting answers without pushing the girl in the next room far more than was probably safe or polite. But hey, at least I would be going out to get those vials tomorrow. That would, hopefully, finish up at least one of the problems I was dealing with.  

I just had to hope that nothing went wrong. Because I was pretty sure things were going to get even more busy around here than I could imagine. 

******

Right, it was the next day. Which meant it was finally time to use that suit to find the rest of the vials, so Blackjack’s daughter could be safe and I could be done with all of that. Or at least, it would be time, once I got through the actual school part of the day. Being the first school day after everything that had happened at the Reformation Ball, I didn’t dare skip it. No matter how much I wanted to. And I really wanted to. But skipping school at this point, even after calling in an excuse, felt like courting trouble. No, I had to be patient, even if it was excruciating. 

At least I managed to be somewhat distracted by the fact that Jae, Amber and I were finishing up the last of our project. We would be presenting it the next day, so hopefully we were ready. We’d done as much work as we could, even if I felt a bit guilty about being so distracted. School was important, and I didn’t want to let down my project partners. It was just… yeah. Lots of things going on. But I was pretty sure it was okay. We’d finished writing up the report, and tomorrow we would present it to the class. And by then, with any luck, I’d be done with Blackjack’s thing as well because his daughter would have all her medicine. 

Fingers crossed, anyway. I’d been literally doing that all day, every time I thought about what I was going to be doing after school. I was doing it then, as I walked out of the building. Which was when the phone that I used for Touched stuff buzzed. I’d kept it on me all day just in case there was a problem with the suit. But when I dug it out quickly, fumbling a bit, the message wasn’t from Wren or Fred. Or even Pack. Instead, it was a picture from Eits, of that baseball that he’d taken back from his asshole father set up in a glass box on a fireplace mantle. Under the box was a metal plaque with words etched into it, reading, ‘The Third Ball My Parents Never Wanted Me To Have.’ 

Snorting despite myself, I almost tripped. With a smile, I sent back, ‘You should e-mail that to them.’ 

A moment later, he started typing. I was walking slow down the front walk, glancing up to make sure I didn’t bump into anyone. Then the message came in. ‘E-mail hell, I’m putting a copy in their mailbox.’ 

Sending back a laughing emoticon, I blinked up just in time to see Jae and Amber standing out on the sidewalk next to the student parking lot. They were talking to some black guy I didn’t recognize. He was tall and thin, wearing a red sweatshirt and some ratty old jeans. When I got nearer, Amber glanced to me before saying, “With her.” 

“With her what?” I piped up. “What’d I do?” 

It was Jae who answered, after giving Amber a brief look. “Our project.” 

“Right, yeah.” Amber’s head was bobbing as she gestured to the boy. “We were just telling Damarko here why I can’t blow off school tomorrow. The project. Oh and uhh, Cassidy, this is Damarko Myers. Damarko, this is Cassidy Evans. Of that Evans. Careful, she could probably buy your house with what she finds in her couch cushions.” 

Flushing despite myself, I shook my head. “We’re not that rich, knock it off.” Then I extended a hand to the boy. “You don’t go here, I take it?” 

He shook my hand with a smile showing a row of perfect white teeth. “Nah,” Damarko replied casually, “Amber and I did some work together over the summer, so we’re kind of friends. You know, as long as I drive her wherever she needs to go.” He was clearly teasing, adding an easy, “And Jae’s here because she makes it so much easier to deal with Amber.” 

“You’re a jerk, you know that?” Amber informed him, huffing a little before glancing to the girl beside her. “Jae, tell him he’s a jerk.” 

Jae, however, was looking at me. The Albino girl asked, “Are you okay?” 

For a second, I almost told them about Izzy and how confusing it was to have someone else living in my house. But I stopped myself. No one was supposed to know she was there. Instead, I just nodded. “Oh, you mean… with the… the party thing.” They all stared at me, clearly interested and worried. I tried to shrug it off. “Like I said earlier, I mostly just hid in the bathroom down in the suite the whole time. I didn’t… I saw a couple of them from behind and then hid.” 

“Smart,” Damarko noted. He glanced to Amber and Jae, the former of whom asked, “So we’re okay for tomorrow?” 

“Yup,” I confirmed. “We’re all good. I’ll be here and we can do our thing. And get an A, damn it.” 

“Hell yeah, we will,” Amber agreed. “After all the work we’ve put into that damn thing, we better get an A.” Belatedly, she added, “Seriously, you need a ride home, Cass? Cuz trust me, Damarko doesn’t have aaaaaaaanything better to do. Like, at all. Ever.” 

“You know,” the boy retorted, “at some point, I will have something better to do. Then you’ll be sorry.” 

“Yeah,” she agreed with a sly smile, “sorry for whoever you’re busy with.” 

Shaking my head at them, I replied, “Nah, I’m good. Got some stuff to do. You guys take care. See you tomorrow.” 

I turned, and as I walked away, the three started talking again. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Jae looking at me before she turned back to the others. What were they talking about? Why had my name really come up? Because something told me it wasn’t just the project. And it wasn’t about the party thing either, because we’d already talked about that earlier that day. It was something else. Or maybe the past couple weeks had simply left me utterly paranoid. 

Yeah, it was probably just that. And now I had to stop obsessing over something trivial like what three random teenagers were talking about. Because it was time to go meet up with Wren and Pack, and finish this whole vial business once and for all. 

And hope that we didn’t have to pry the vials out of the hands of any more supervillains.

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Collectors 5-05 (Summus Proelium)

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“You sure this plan of yours is gonna work?” 

It was the next morning. I had gone to school for the first couple periods before taking off. With a call from ‘my dad’, of course, thanks to my voice changer. As far as the school was concerned, I had a doctor’s appointment and would be back to school as soon as it was over. Which gave me time to (hopefully) get this component that Wren needed away from the delivery truck so she could finish that little project. 

Looking over to where Pack was leaning against the wall in the alley we were hiding out in, I shrugged. “If I was sure it was going to work, it’d be a memory, not a plan. But it’s the best we’ve got. Unless you’ve had any better ideas about how to get that thing off the truck?” As I spoke, my eyes glanced to the side, where Mars Bar the iguana-bear and Holiday the panther-skink were waiting as well. Tuesday, the gecko-monkey, was sitting on top of a nearby dumpster, playing with… I didn’t know what he was playing with. Nor did I want to know.  

Expression hidden behind her full face mask, Pack shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about it, but nope. You’re right, this pretty much seems like our best shot. If you’re absolutely positive that you don’t want to just call in Blackjack to deal with it. I’m pretty sure he could get that thing.” 

“And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t really care all that much about who got hurt in the process,” I reminded her pointedly. “We can do this without help, and without sending in an army of thugs to stampede over that poor driver. Scaring him just a little bit maybe, but not hurting him.” 

Once again, she shrugged. “If you say so. Still think you’re overcomplicating this, but I guess it’s your show.” As she said that, the girl glanced up to the roof of the building where the lizard-bird Riddles was perched and had just made a soft cawing noise. “Right then, that truck’s on its way. Just turned onto our street, so we’ve got about twenty seconds. You ready for this?” 

“Guess I better be,” I replied before cracking my neck from one side, then the other. Bouncing up and down on my heels a couple times, I breathed out. “Okay, let’s do it. Just… you know.” 

She nodded once. “Yup. Okay, Mars, carefully, just like we practiced.” Giving a quick glance up to her bird for the exact timing, the girl finally made a gesture with her hand. “Now!” 

And just like that, the enormous bear-lizard picked me up from behind. I tried to brace myself, but even knowing it was coming, it was still terrifying. Holding me up above his head, the grizzard gave a deafening, pants-wetting roar before hurling me out of the alley. 

With a yelp, I went flying end over end through the air. From the corner of my eye, I could see the Tauros truck almost directly under me. The driver was even leaning forward, craning his neck while already slamming on the brakes. The squeal of the tires on the street filled the air, and I shot a bit of red paint down to yank myself straight at the hood of the truck before landing in a crouch on it. The paint held me in place even as the truck jerked to a sudden, wild halt. 

“What the hell!?” I heard the driver shouting, even as he started to open the door, standing up and leaning out to stare at me with wide eyes. “What do you think you’re–” 

His words were cut off then, as he caught a glimpse of movement from the alley I had just been thrown out of. Looking that way, he very clearly saw Mars Bar and Holiday charging, because he made a noise of shock and started to sit back down so he could close his door. But I was faster, throwing myself off the hood to ground just past the driver before shooting red paint at him to yank him toward my suddenly red gloves with a shouted, “Get down!” 

The man collided with me and we went tumbling, just before Riddles swooped through the open door of his truck with a loud screech. At the same time, Mars Bar shouldered his way past the truck, bumping it hard with another roar. Boy was he hamming this whole thing up.

At least, I hoped he was hamming it up. Pack had insisted the grizzard completely understood that this was all fake, and I was praying she was right about that. This would suck otherwise. 

Coming to a stop, I made sure to end up on top of the poor driver. He grunted under the impact, and I blurted a quick, “Sorry, sorry! Stay down!” Patting his side, I rolled off the man before shooting off a wide spray of red paint toward the charging Holiday and Mars Bar. Activating it yanked the two into one another. It wasn’t all that hard, and definitely less than they could actually take. But the two animals still gave loud howls of pain and surprise before falling in opposite directions. Apparently they thought this was the time for their Oscar reels. 

“Hey!” The shout came from Pack herself, as the girl came running with a bat in her hand. Seeing her, I reached down to wrap an arm around the driver, coloring part of myself purple before using a shot of red paint to yank us up to the roof of a nearby fast food joint. There I carefully set him down. “You okay?” I quickly asked, glancing between him and the others. 

The man’s eyes were wide as he stared at me from his seated position. “I–I don’t know! What–” 

“Hold that thought,” I blurted. “One sec, gotta deal with this.” With that, I leapt off the building, throwing myself into a lunge aided by a bit of blue paint that sent me flying at Pack. The two of us collided, sprawling end over end. Her bat fell away, and she swung at me with her right fist, actually connecting, though not that hard. I still made a point of staggering before grabbing onto her and giving a sharp whistle toward Mars Bar, Riddles, and Holiday. “Hey, you guys like your owner? Well, come get her then!” That said, I used more red paint to yank myself toward the same alley we had emerged from, with the trio of lizard-animals charging after us. 

Landing in the alley, I checked to make sure no one was watching. We’d already planned out exactly where to leave the driver so that he wouldn’t have line of sight either to the back of the truck or the inside of the alley here. And I’d moved the dumpster from the side of the building itself so that he couldn’t easily climb down. For a moment at least, he was stuck up there.

“We good?” I quickly asked Pack after setting her down. My three ‘pursuers’ came lumbering into the alley as well, slowing as soon as they were out of sight of the street. 

In response, she glanced to the side. “Twinkletoes?” 

At her words, the gorilla-chameleon appeared, complete with a little metal collar around his neck that had a cell phone hooked into it. He grunted, reaching down to the side of the dumpster before picking up a crate with the Seraph Hills logo on it. It looked pretty similar to the one Eits and I had taken from the Tauros building the night before, though maybe slightly larger. 

I hoped it was the right one. Eits had given Pack that collar to put on Twinkletoes. The  cell phone in the collar had a little camera on the front that was supposed to have scanned the serial numbers attached to the crates on the truck and chime when it scanned the right one. Supposedly, Twinkletoes would have made his way invisibly onto the truck, moved around until the thing gave him a pleasant chime, then took the box that prompted it, leaving all the other ones. That was the idea, anyway. Like with the others and our play-fighting, Pack insisted he understood the explanation, and the few test runs we’d done with other boxes had seemed to work out. So… here was hoping. 

Pack was already stepping that way. She picked up the crate, checked the serial number against a piece of paper that she’d written it on, then gave me a thumbs up. “We’re good.” 

Exhaling the breath I hadn’t even been aware that I was holding, I returned the gesture before starting to move. “Keep Riddles out of sight,” I reminded her, not wanting the driver to see the bird-lizard that had ‘almost gotten him’ hanging around. That’d probably be suspicious. 

I took off then, not out of the mouth of the alley we’d just come through, but past Twinkletoes and Pack, to the opposite street. There, I used red paint to pull myself up to the next building over, right on the corner, took a running start, and launched myself with blue paint out over the street with the parked truck. There were cars backed up there, and a few that were pulling around. This wasn’t a busy street (we’d intentionally chosen it that way), but it had been parked there for a couple minutes by that point.

Coming down on the roof of the fast food place, I startled the driver, who jerked reflexively from where he’d been talking on his phone. Apparently he’d called for help. When he saw me, the man settled. “Yeah, yeah the paint kid’s right here. Guess you don’t need the ladder after all.” 

He disconnected, and I offered a weak, “Sorry about that. Are you… are you okay?” 

“Fine, I guess,” the man replied in a voice that was still just a little shaky. Thankfully, he seemed unhurt. “What happened to–uhh…” 

“Pack,” I replied. “One of La Casa. And she got away. I didn’t want to leave you here too long. Should’ve figured you had a phone.” Kicking the roof, I injected embarrassment into my voice while squirming with feigned self-consciousness. “Guess I should’ve kept chasing her.”

“Shit,” the man muttered. “I hope she didn’t take off with any of my shipment. God damn it, you have any idea what kind of paperwork is inv–” He stopped then, wincing. “I mean, sorry. Sorry, kid, you were great out there. Didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. Thanks for your work.” 

Oh boy, did I ever feel guilty right then. It would’ve been easier if he was a jerk, or at least dismissive. Swallowing, I nodded and reached out to him. “Here, I’ll help you get down, then make sure no one bothers you while you look through your shipment. I didn’t see her get near it, so it’s probably fine. But ahh, I’ll wait until you look through it. That’s the least I can do.” 

After all, I didn’t add, I kinda have to stick around to make sure our little ruse really worked. 

Helping the man down, I walked with him back to his truck. There was a uniformed cop there, already writing out a ticket. When he saw us approaching, the officer stopped. “You the driver?” 

We explained the situation, and the cop agreed not to ticket the guy (another potential problem off my conscience), and stuck around while he went into the back of the truck to check his load. 

Meanwhile, the cop and I stood outside the truck and waited. His name was Officer Lensroy, and because I so needed another reason to feel guilty about this, he was really nice. He asked me questions about being chased by Cuélebre, and seemed genuinely interested. He even made a few jokes. All of which made it harder and harder to stand there and lie to both him and the driver. But I had to. For Blackjack’s daughter, I had to. I’d make sure everything worked out. 

I hoped. 

Finally, the driver stepped down. “Looks good,” he announced with a voice of relief. “Never saw that girl go anywhere near the truck, and neither did ahh, Paintball was it?” When I nodded, he continued. “Neither did Paintball. And my handy little scanner here says every box is accounted for.” He waved the small device in his hand. 

I suppressed the urge to openly sigh in relief. It had worked. Twinkletoes managed to switch our box with the one that was already on the truck, and Eits’ little delayed magic with the computer system set the serial number on our box as the one that was supposed to be on the truck. Perfect. 

Congratulating the man on his truck being safe, I made my farewells. As I started to leave, Officer Lensroy called out, “Hey, one second!” 

A million things went through my mind just then, as I slowly turned my gaze back to him, waiting. No way was I going to say something potentially incriminating in that moment. 

The cop smiled at me. “Whoever you are, you run back to school now, you hear? Ain’t no emergency going on, and that lizard girl, wherever she is, ain’t causing trouble at the moment. Get on back to your classes. Hero or not, don’t you go making me call the truant officer.” 

Flushing a little, I saluted the man. “Yes, sir.” And I meant it. I would be going back to class. 

Just as soon as I made sure Wren had everything she needed to start building that suit. 

*******

It was the right piece. With that and what I picked up from the junkyard guy, Wren had what she needed. So now she was busy working. Pack and Fred were going to be running any physical errands she needed done over the day, and I would check in later. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be any unexpected problems. 

It was only after I’d left that I realized I hadn’t actually asked Pack what her school situation was like. Which probably made me worse at this whole hero thing than Officer Lensroy. 

In any case, for the moment, I was back in class. Or rather, lunch. As we had fairly often over the past little while, Jae, Amber, and I were eating while talking about our project. 

That was the idea, anyway. Mostly we gossiped, joked, and basically just hung out. We did work on the project too, of course. It was just… not as much time or effort as we spent talking. 

“So Cass,” Amber was saying as she stirred her pasta salad idly, “you must be happy about Tomas, right?” 

I blinked at her blankly, idly doodling with a colored pencil in my notebook. “Happy about Tomas?” 

“You know, Tomas Jackson?” she prompted. “That diplomat’s kid from–” 

“From London,” I finished for her, nodding as I absently picked up a different colored pencil and sketched a bit more. “Yeah, I know who you mean. But why would I be happy about him? He went home last year.” 

“You mean you don’t–” Stopping, Amber blinked toward the silent Jae, then back to me. “He’s back, Cassidy. He was in my first class this morning. You didn’t know that? I–” Realizing what she’d said then, the girl flushed. “I mean–sorry, I guess he just hasn’t had a chance to–” 

“It’s fine,” I assured her. “I–we broke it off when he went back to London anyway. I haven’t even exchanged more than a couple e-mails and texts since then. And I was at the doctor’s earlier. Maybe I would’ve run into him then.” I shrugged, thinking about that. “He really moved back here?” 

She nodded. “Something about his dad getting another assignment, right, Jae?” 

“That’s what he said,” the Albino girl confirmed quietly. She was watching me with a thoughtful, somewhat curious expression. About what, I couldn’t say. 

“Yeah,” Amber decided, nodding. “I’m sure he’ll come find you, he probably just has the other lunch period. So, you know, be ready for that.” She gave me an easy smile, eyes glancing down before widening. “Holy crap, dude.” 

“What?” Blinking the way she was staring, I found myself looking at the doodle in my notebook. 

It wasn’t a doodle. Somehow, while not really paying attention, I had used my colored pencils to draw and color a pretty damn good image of a knight fighting a dragon. 

“What, yourself,” Amber retorted, clearly thinking that I was just being falsely modest. “Can I see?” She waited until I moved my arm before tugging the notebook over. “Holy shit. That’s–when did you learn how to draw like this? That’s really good. That’s like… professional quality.” 

“I…” I hadn’t. I’d never drawn like that in my life. I’d taken no lessons for it or anything. I hadn’t even really been paying attention. So… how? How had I just done that? Was it part of my power? It had to do with like… colors and stuff, was it related? It had to be, right? But… but…

Realizing both the girls were staring at me, I felt the heat rise to my cheeks as I mumbled, “It’s not that big of a deal.” 

“Dude, trust me, this is a big deal.” Amber waved the notebook, sliding it to Jae for her to see better. “Like I said, that’s totally professional quality. Seriously good professional. You could be a comic book artist or–or something. And you did that just sitting here talking? That’s awesome. You’ve gotta show me some other stuff.” 

“I…” Swallowing back my total confusion, I nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.” 

Jae slid the notebook back to me, offering a smile and a quiet, “It’s really good.” 

I stared at the drawing briefly. They were right. It was good. My hand pressed down against it, as I felt that rush of confusion and uncertainty come back. How did I draw like that without even thinking about it? Was ‘super-artist’ really a side effect of my power? Why? 

Between that and the news that Tomas had apparently come back, I had a lot to think about that lunch period. 

And here I’d thought that I was going to be bored for the rest of the day. 

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Collectors 5-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Ten days. I had ten–wait, no, it was the day after I’d found Ashton, and Blackjack would absolutely count that as a full one. Nine. I had nine days to get answers out of the guy about where the rest of the vials were, before La Casa took their turn with him. And what was I doing right now? What was I doing during a time when the clock was ticking so audibly right in the back of my head, when every minute counted?

I was sitting at lunch, struggling my way through my chemistry homework in between taking bites of food. Not that I was a bad student or anything. I did decent in most of my classes. But I’d been a bit preoccupied lately, and if I let my grades slip too much, my parents were going to notice. I had to get this done and turned in before the end of the day. It was already late, but I’d told the teacher that I left it in the library and she’d given me that long to get it to her. 

I’d gone to my dress fitting the night before. After everything that had happened with catching Ashton and meeting Pack, going to a simple, mundane thing like that had been pretty disorienting. I’d barely had time to take a quick shower before the appointment, which had actually made me a few minutes late. But I’d figured that was better than showing up smelling like… well, smelling like I’d just chased a guy halfway across town in a full body suit. 

In any case, I’d made it and gotten the fitting for my dress, which would be ready for the ball. Now I just had to focus on my homework. I really needed to get it done, since I was pretty sure the teacher wasn’t going to give me any more time. Besides, I wouldn’t have been able to do it after school even if she allowed it. I had to go see what I could do to help Wren build her truth-device. And, well, also check on that La Casa lizard girl to make sure she wasn’t trying anything. Not that I really expected her to, but paranoia was a powerful drug. 

Speaking of my increasingly rampant paranoia, it wasn’t exactly helped as a voice somewhere behind me abruptly announced, loudly and clearly, “Paintball.” I jerked a bit, twisting in my seat to look over my shoulder despite myself. Which, honestly, was really fucking stupid. 

But it wasn’t someone trying to prove who I was. Instead, at the next table over, there were a group of guys and a couple girls. One of the boys was the one talking, both completely unaware of my reaction. “Yeah, it’s definitely Paintball, dude. That’s what the little guy goes by. He’s the one who was out there being chased all over the city by that Cuélebre son of a bitch.” 

“I saw that, man!” another guy abruptly put in, taking a bite of pizza before continuing with a wild wave of his hand. “That kid was like, flip-jumping all over the place, with dragon dude right behind him. I was waiting for the bus and they went right over our heads. The little guy went through the alley and Cuélebre just kinda went… through the alley.” He made a crashing noise to illustrate his meaning. “I was so pissed that I couldn’t get my phone out before they were gone. You know how many views you can get for that kind of shit up close? That could like, launch my channel.” 

“Hey,” one of the girls at their table put in after taking a long drink of her iced tea, “just be glad you weren’t Paintball. I mean, powers or not, some scrawny twelve-year-old boy being chased by Cuélebre in full on pissed off mode? I hope the little guy’s okay.” 

Okay, ouch. Sure, she was being empathetic and all, but still, I felt a little indignant. Fourteen year old boy, maybe. But twelve? That was pushing it. I wasn’t that small, people. The fact that it made my disguise even more effective crossed my mind, but I still felt like grumbling to myself. 

The guys at the other table went on to talk about how cool the whole Paintball and Cuélebre thing had been. Which helped salve my ego about the whole twelve-year-old boy thing, while simultaneously making me remember the unholy terror I’d felt while the chase was actually happening. It was easy to sit here and think, ‘wow, that was badass.’ But thinking about being in that moment, mostly what I recalled was trying very hard not to piss myself in the middle of it. 

Before I could listen to much more, there was a squeak of the chair nearby as Amber sat down, accompanied by Jae. “Hey,” the brunette girl started when I looked that way, “how’s it going? You ready for tonight?” As she spoke, Amber started pouring ranch dressing over her fries. 

“Tonight?” I echoed blankly. How would they have any idea about my plans for the night? I was just going to help Wren with anything she needed for that truth machine and then–oh, shit. Wait. 

Jae spoke up quietly, confirming just as the realization came to me, “Library.” 

Right. Right, shit. We’d planned on going to one of the main city libraries to do some more work on that project this evening. Apparently it was one of the few times during the week that Jae and Amber weren’t busy with one thing or another, so I couldn’t just put them off. As much as I really needed to help Wren with her work, I had class stuff to do too. 

Geez, being a superhero and a student at the same time was already complicated enough. How did people with actual important day jobs deal with it? Because this was pretty exhausting. 

“You didn’t make plans, did you?” Amber asked, squinting at me. “I mean, I guess if we really–” 

“No, no.” My head shook. “No, I’ll be there, no worries. I’ve just got things to do after, but I can work out the scheduling. No big deal.” I offered her a slight smile, trying to make it sound like it wasn’t important before looking over toward Jae so I could change the subject. “Hey, you’re pretty good at science, right? Little help?” I turned the homework page around and pointed to the number I was stuck on. “I can’t figure out where I’m supposed to look for this.” 

Looking at the page, the pale girl nodded before getting up. She moved around to my side of the table, sitting beside me while adjusting the book. I watched as her fingers flipped pages back to an earlier chapter to show me what I’d forgotten. It was actually pretty simple, I’d just spaced on one little thing from the last section that made it clear. Which was probably a consequence of skimming too much while trying to blow through the homework so I could get out to the streets.

“Thanks, Jae,” I murmured quietly, skimming the page she’d pointed out. “You’re seriously a lifesaver. I dunno how long it would’ve taken me to remember this part by myself. I might have to borrow your brain some more just to get this whole thing done in time.” 

“Oh, she’s definitely a lifesaver,” Amber agreed, popping a fry into her mouth with a small smile before continuing. “I can’t tell you how many times she’s made sure I didn’t miss an assignment.” Winking at the girl in question, she added, “But I suppose I can share.” 

With Jae and Amber’s help, I managed to get the rest of the worksheet done before lunch was over. So I’d be able to run that down and turn it in, which solved one of my problems. Then I’d just have to get to the public library and work with them for a couple hours before going to check in with Wren. But hey, at least Mom and Dad were going to be ‘gone’ for the next few days, so even though it was Tuesday, I didn’t have family dinner to worry about. That was a plus. 

So I’d hit the library, then deal with the Ashton thing. One situation at a time. Nine days. I had nine days to figure this out and get the rest of those medicine vials out of him. 

Eight and a half.

********

The trip to the library took a couple hours. I tried not to seem like I was rushing or anything. But honestly, Jae and Amber seemed fairly eager to get out of there too. They didn’t try to hang around after we’d done what we needed to. Which suited me just fine, though I did wonder where they were going. 

I also wondered if they were dating, considering Amber didn’t exactly keep her preference for girls quiet or anything. But I was pretty sure Jae was straight, though I supposed that was more a feeling, since I’d never seen her actually date anyone. Unless she and Amber were dating, in which case–

Right, it was none of my business. Moving on. I made my way to the bookstore where Wren’s secondary lab (and, I supposed, her new home) was. As I approached the door, it opened and I went right through to join the others in the basement. 

Pack was still there, obviously. And it looked like the two of them had had quite the evening. There were blankets and pillows scattered around, along with food carry-out bags and a handful of empty soda cans. A partially-finished Monopoly game was sitting on one of the tables, with a couple other board games nearby. And there were pages and pages of half-done blueprints and design ideas, most scribbled out or with various reasons why they wouldn’t work written over them in red marker. Some had bits missing that were cut or torn out, and there was a larger page, clearly haphazardly taped together from those pages, in the middle of the main table.

Pack was sitting over on the floor with her collection of lizards all over her. She was feeding them, looking up as I came in. “The kid’s a real genius, you know. Knows her stuff.” 

“Is that a ‘wow, I’m impressed,’” I asked as neutrally as possible, “or a ‘I could really get in good with my boss if I told him to really go after recruiting this kid before someone else snatches her up?’” New to all of this though I might’ve been, I knew just how valuable a good Tech-Touched was to these gangs. Let alone one as young and impressionable as Wren was. 

Her response was to lift her head a little. I couldn’t see her expression, but there was an obvious smirk in her voice. “Relax, man. I’m not hardcore or anything. I just joined La Casa a few months ago because they offered me better training, equipment, and help. I mean, it took me a week before I stopped saying ‘the La Casa.’ They really don’t like that.” There was a pause before she admitted in a quieter voice, “Sometimes I still say it like that, just to tick some of them off.” 

Okay, was it wrong that I kind of liked this girl? Because, well… yeah. Shaking that thought off, I focused on replying with a simple, “I’ll try to remember the etiquette for that. And got it, you aren’t some obsessed fanatic or anything. Good to know. Remains to be seen if that’s the truth, but still.” Giving her a thumbs up, I added, “So you guys look like you’ve been busy.” 

“Ain’t that the truth,” Pack muttered, gesturing toward Wren. “The kid kept changing the plans for this suit thing over and over. I think we went through about twenty-seven different blueprints.” 

“The others wouldn’t have worked,” Wren herself piped up after taking a gulp from a glass of what looked like orange juice. “Or they would’ve taken too long, or needed more than we could get, or–” Stopping, her head shook. “The point is, this should work.” As she spoke, the girl brushed some crumbs and food wrappers off that taped-up collection of different pages, holding it up for me to see a design not too-unlike the one she had shown me yesterday, with notes all over it, individual components scrawled in, and things like power sources and specific wiring details written along the side. 

“That’s the suit we’re going with?” I asked curiously. 

She nodded quickly. “Uh huh. It’ll work, I know it will.” Smiling at the taped together sheets before glancing up to me, she added, “But we need some things.” 

“Name it,” I replied, “we’ll pick up whatever you need to build this thing.” 

“I could name it,” she carefully informed me, sounding like she was trying very hard not to be insulting. “But you probably wouldn’t remember half the names. So I wrote it down, with details!” Scrounging around the table a bit, she came out with a smaller notebook, one that would fit in a pocket. “See, I wrote all the pieces down on different pages. These ones are easy to get and not too expensive. These ones are available but kind of expensive. And…” She flipped to the last page, with only one item listed. “This one isn’t really available for sale anywhere. It’s sort of an experimental piece of medical equipment. I’m pretty sure Seraph Hills has a few of them.” 

“The university?” I asked, thinking. “That place is pretty upscale.” It was, in fact, one of the best medical schools in the entire country, having been built only about twelve years ago, but had rapidly become what amounted to the foremost training center for doctors and medical professionals in a Touched world. It was also very well protected with its own private security team, many of whom were actually Touched themselves. Understandable, considering a lot of the research that went on in there. Not to mention all the equipment that Tech-Touched donated to keep the place as state of the art as possible. 

“Isn’t there any other way we can make it work?” Pack put in with a visible wince. “I mean, I’m not exactly super-eager to run up against Seraphs, you know?” Seraphs, of course, were the name of that private security team, a mixture of well-trained and equipped Prevs (humans without powers/non-Touched) and people who did have powers. Their entire job was to keep the hospitals and medical schools they were attached to safe from attack. And they were very good at their jobs. There was a reason the Seraph-protected hospitals were safe ground. It was an enforced neutral zone. Any hospital that got attacked had Seraphs protecting it, delaying the attackers while basically every decent Touched in the area would swarm in to provide reinforcement. No one bothered Seraph places and got away with it. 

Wren hesitated. “Yes and no? I could maybe build something that would work, but it wouldn’t be as good with the stuff we’ve got, and it’d take a lot longer to get done than ten days.” 

“Eight and a half,” I murmured under my breath before heaving a sigh. “And I’m pretty sure those Seraph guys won’t exactly be super-eager to share their tech, even if we ask nicely.” 

Pack shrugged. “I guess I could tell Blackjack he needs to send some people to pick up that stuff. He could probably mount a quick smash and grab just to get it and run.” 

“And probably hurt innocent people who are just doing their jobs?” I pointed out. “Not to mention potentially breaking a bunch of stuff that those med students need to learn to use so they can help people. And if anyone died in that ‘smash and grab’ just because your boss isn’t exactly in the mood to play nice?” My head shook. “No, I don’t want to ask Blackjack to do anything like that.” 

That blank black mask turned a bit to stare at me. “So what do you suggest?” she asked, while reaching up to scratch one of the lizards on her shoulder. “How do we get the last thing on that list without stealing it, if it’d take the kid there too long to build a working facsimile herself?”

That… was a good question. I hesitated, sighing inwardly as I tried to think. “I’ll work on it. Let you know what I come up with. Right now, let’s worry about the stuff on the first two lists. Stuff that’s easy and cheap, and stuff that’s more expensive.” 

“I can take care of the expensive stuff,” Pack put in. “I didn’t see anything on there that me and my friends couldn’t grab.” She gave me an obvious look. “You know, after the stores are closed so no one gets hurt.”

“We don’t need to steal anything,” I insisted. “I…” Then I paused. How much could I say here without giving too much away. I glanced at the second list. The stuff on it probably wasn’t too expensive. Not for someone whose allowance was in the thousands per week and who hadn’t exactly spent all that much of it in her life. “I’ll handle the second list. You deal with the first. I–here.” Turning away from them, I unzipped the front of my costume, reaching in to find my wallet. There, I fidgeted with it a bit before coming out with a handful of twenty dollar bills, then zipped up the suit again and turned back to hold the cash out toward Pack. “Use this, get whatever you can on the first list. And pay for it.”

There was a brief pause as the girl stared at the money in my hand before snatching it. She gave a low whistle. “You came prepared, kid. Sure thing, I’ll get the stuff, and I’ll even play nice the whole time. But you know, at some point we’re gonna have to figure out what to do about that last thing.”

With a soft sigh, I replied, “Trust me, I know. Let’s just worry about the first two for now, huh? And hope that one of us thinks of something helpful before we get to that one.” 

Because getting into a fight with the Seraphs for stealing from a medical university probably wouldn’t do wonders for my budding superhero career.

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Legwork 3-03 (Summus Proelium)

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“Man, I still can’t believe you get to come here whenever you want.”

Amber was the one talking, and ‘here’ was the White Pines Country Club. It was a pretty exclusive place. A pretty exclusive place that my parents happened to be on the board of directors of. We’d been members basically my whole life.

I wondered how many of the other important members were also supervillains.

Feeling self-conscious (for a few reasons), I shrugged at both Amber and Jae, who sat next to her. The three of us were out on one of the balconies overlooking the golf course, sitting on some admittedly incredibly plush and comfortable chairs. “It’s not a big deal. Your families could probably join up if they wanted to. I mean, we all go to the same school, you know.”

Taking a sip of her virgin strawberry daiquiri, Amber shook her head. “No, see, our families are comfortable. High end of comfortable. Yours is filthy stinking rich. There’s a difference.”

“It’s not just filthy stinking rich people who come here,” I pointed out. “If it was, there’d be like, four members.” Shifting in my seat as I tried to push my thoughts away from that one about how many of the people I saw here all the time might be evil, I looked to the quiet Jae. “Besides, with how cool she looks, I bet you guys could get in all on your own.”

“It’s true,” Amber agreed with a wink at her friend, “she is pretty cool.”

Jae, who was wearing dark shades and a large sun hat to help keep her sensitive skin from burning so easily while we were out here in the open, flushed a little and took a drink from her iced tea. Her voice was very soft as she suggested, “We should probably start.”

“She’s got a point.” Looking to Amber, I added, “We should get to it. I just figured coming out here might be a nice change of pace from holing up the library or whatever. But we can still work on the project without too many distractions.”

Clearly distracted, the dark-haired girl stared at a passing woman in a short tennis skirt. “Uh huh, not too many distractions. Sounds yummy–I mean good.” She looked back to me. “Good.”

Giving her a disbelieving stare, I shook my head while muttering, “Has anyone ever told you that you’re as bad as a guy?”

Her response was a Cheshire grin. “Bad wasn’t the word they used.” Before I could respond to that, her eyes glanced over my shoulder as she added a quiet, “Heads up.”

I turned, just in time to see basically the last person I wanted to run into (okay, there were a few lower on that list, like Janus). It was Simon, dressed in his own tennis outfit as he smiled broadly while sidling up to the table. “Well, if it isn’t my little sister and her friends. And here I thought you didn’t like watching golf.”

“I don’t,” I retorted. “I like playing it, but it’s boring to watch. Thankfully, it looks like a lot of people agree with me.” I gestured around the mostly empty balcony to illustrate that fact. “So this is a quiet place to work.” Pausing pointedly before making my voice sound as lightly teasing as possible, I added, “Or at least, it used to be.”

“Psst,” Simon stage-whispered toward Jae with a slight smile. “I think she’s talking to you. There’s already been noise complaints about the racket you’re making out here.”

Jae, in turn, sank a bit in her seat while apparently trying to hide behind her iced tea glass. Her reply was a very quiet, “They must have very sensitive hearing.”

“Ears like rabbits, I tell you,” Simon agreed, winking before he looked to me. “Anyway, I just thought I’d see if my little sister was bored.”

“Bored? Not until you showed up,” I tried to tease before giving him a firm pushing motion with both hands. “So why don’t you let us get back to work before you put us to sleep?”

Snorting, he gave me a light jab at the shoulder before stepping back. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’ll stop crowding you guys and let you work. You don’t need a ride home, do you?”

The thought of being alone in a car with him made me repress an almost violent shudder. It was all I could do to keep the revulsion off my face while quietly replying, “I think I can manage.”

With a nod to the other two, he headed off. Amber, watching him go, murmured, “Something about him bugs me.” She jolted a little then, as I caught the slight motion of Jae subtly kicking her under the table, eyes finding me. “I mean… um, sorry.” Flushing as she clearly just realized she’d been talking out loud, the girl gestured. “I guess we should work, huh?”

“Yup. And don’t worry, I uhh, I get it.” Leaving it at that, I reached down to grab the bag at my side, taking a book out to set on the table. “Right, so… Laura Cereta.

“Let’s see what history has to say about you.”

******

Hours later, we’d done enough on the project for the day, so Jae and Amber had gone off to do… whatever they were going to do. I, meanwhile, was standing on the roof of a building downtown, dressed in my costume. Because it was time for me to started on my other project. Namely, finding either Ashton himself, or at least those vials, so Blackjack’s daughter didn’t die.

Yeah, I had a feeling this project was going to be harder than the other one.

Face covered by the ski mask but with the helmet hanging loosely from one hand, I tried to think. What did I know? Or at least, what could I be pretty sure of?

I was pretty sure that Ashton guy was still in the city. Mostly because what he took had to be useless for him personally. It was valuable only as a way of getting money out of Blackjack, or one of the other gangs. Unless I was really off, my guess was that he was going to lie low until it was clear they couldn’t find him in time, then find a way to start auctioning it off. He’d try to get money out of Blackjack, or out of one of the other gang leaders who wanted to take the vial to get control and concessions out of the man. Or just to fuck with him. Either way, it was only worthwhile to Ashton as something to sell. And the only people interested in buying it would be the ones here in this city. So he was probably hiding out somewhere within it.

But where? He had basically the entire city looking for him. Cops, heroes, villains, entire gangs were going to be roving the city, turning over every stone they could to find this guy. He wouldn’t be able to hide anywhere they could find out about. Every family member, every friend, they’d tear through every clue to drag him out. They’d be going through showing his picture at every motel, homeless shelter, bed and breakfast, taxi driver, bar, everywhere. And yet, despite all the people out scouring the city, apparently he was still safely hidden.  

So how was he doing it? Why had no one been able to find him, even with what had to be incredibly intense motivation? And how was I going to do any better than they were?

I needed to think outside the box. I needed to figure out where to look that everyone else wasn’t already looking. Obviously, Ashton wasn’t stupid enough to stay somewhere he could easily be noticed. My guess was that, wherever he was, he hadn’t left for a long time. Probably since he stole the vials to begin with. He’d most likely set the place up far ahead of time, so he had food, water, everything he needed to stay holed up without venturing out to be recognized.

Also, I realized belatedly, he’d probably only ever gone there in disguise. There was too big of a chance of someone noticing a new person fitting his description. So, be it a wig and glasses or… or whatever, anyone around where he was staying had probably never seen the real him.

Right, unless I was wrong, this guy was holed up somewhere he wouldn’t have to come out of for a long time and was disguised so that no one around would recognize him.

How the hell was I supposed to work with that?

“You got any ideas, Pinky?” My question was addressed not to a cartoon mouse, but toward the blob of pink paint that I had sprayed out onto the nearby wall. Glancing to it, I waited until it was painfully clear that no answer was forthcoming. “Right, so you’re not ‘magically instill answers’ paint. Got it.” Scratch that off the list of possible powers the pink stuff could’ve been hiding.

“I guess I’ll have to do this myself then. Hmm.” Frowning behind the mask, I moved to the edge of the roof and looked down. I’d come to a place across the street from the bank in question, hoping it would give me some ideas to work with. But even looking at it now, I still wasn’t sure.  

Unless… apartments. Right, so I could guess that he’d set up an apartment ahead of time, and that it was stocked with everything he needed. But I was also pretty sure that it would be somewhere within walking distance of the bank. Because he wouldn’t want to take his car there to be found, and there was no way he’d risk a cab or Uber driver remembering him. So he’d walk. Beyond that, he’d also probably want to change into his disguise on the way, rather than doing so at the bank where his disguise would be seen, or at the apartment where his real self would be seen. He’d want to leave the bank as his real self, change somewhere along the way, and show up at his hideout in his disguise. That made sense, right? Yeah, totally made sense.

So apartments within walking distance of the bank, preferably with a place he could stop and change at. Either a fast food or gas station bathroom, some other store, an alley, something. There were probably a few that fit that bill, depending on how far he’d want to walk. Not longer than ten to fifteen minutes or so, I was guessing, since he would want to get out of sight quick. But not much less or he’d be too close to the bank. He’d want a sweet middle ground where he felt safely distant from them, but close enough to get to and hide in time.

Okay, then step one in this plan that was slowly taking shape in my head was to identify potential apartments that could fit that bill.

With that in mind, I put the helmet on my head, adjusted it, and then took a few steps back. Taking a breath to brace myself, I ran forward, painted my legs purple, and leapt as high and far off the roof as I could before extending a hand to shoot a burst of red paint toward the antennae sticking off the edge of the next roof over. Using that to yank myself across the distance before disabling the red paint on my hand, I tucked myself into a flip to fall just under that antennae, landing on the roof on both feet before sprinting once more.

I was going apartment hunting.

******

Cripes, there were a lot of apartments in Detroit.

Yeah, a lot. Even narrowing it down the way I had still left more than I’d thought there would be. Being incredibly picky about it, I ended up with six strong possibilities. Six apartment complexes that were within the right distance, that seemed private and quiet enough, and generally fit the idea I’d had in my head. If none of those six panned out, I’d have to expand. But I’d start there.

To that end, I was crouched on the roof of yet another building (I was becoming very acquainted with roofs already), watching the nearest possibility. It was a small complex that amounted to four main buildings, all in a line, with dog paths between the first two and a pool between the others. There was a high fence all the way around the whole place, with a gated parking lot.

It was late enough that the windows of the main office were dark. They’d been closed up for a few hours by that point, the employees long gone aside from possibly a night manager, who didn’t work in the main office itself.

So the main office was clear. Exactly as I wanted. Looking around briefly to make sure I wasn’t being watched, I used a purple strength boost combined with a blue springboard to fling myself high into the air, then red-paint-yanked myself across the street and down toward the building in question. A shot of black made sure my landing would be silent, as I came down in a crouch.

Waiting there for a minute just to see if anyone had seen anything, I couldn’t hear any reactions. So I slid over to the far side of the roof, leaning over to carefully look through the window.

Nothing. It was dark aside from the light from the screen savers on a couple computer monitors. Which was just perfect for me. Aside from the fact that I was about to technically break into a place illegally. Yeah, I probably needed to work on that whole ‘hero’ thing. But this was important. Plus, I wouldn’t actually be stealing anything. Nor would I be really be breaking.

Nope, no breaking here. Instead, I boosted myself back up onto the roof and took a phone from my pocket. This one wasn’t mine, it was a pay-as-you-go phone I’d picked up from a gas station. I’d already taken it from the package and made sure it worked, and now I used it to look up the number of the after-hours office for this place. Dialing it in before lifting the front of my helmet and mask, I carefully moved the slider on my voice changer over to the first option.

“Yeah?” a male voice grumpily spoke up. “I mean, ahh, Four Pines Apartments, how can I help you?”

“Yes, hello,” I started. My voice sounded like an old woman. Mostly because I was pretty sure no one on the other end of the phone would have listened to either my regular voice or the one I used that sounded like a fourteen year old boy. “I think someone might’ve made a mistake at your office, young man.”

There was a brief pause before the guy replied, a little uncertainly. “Sorry, ma’am, if you have a problem with your bill, I’m sure you can–”

“Oh, no, no, no,” I interrupted. “This isn’t a complaint. I’m just calling to warn you that someone left the door to the main office open. My little Posey almost ran right in there after the squirrel. I shut the door so no one else would go rooting through your things, but it’s still there. The squirrel, that is.”

The man on the phone clearly had to take a second at that, realizing he wasn’t about to be sworn out by an angry tenant. “Oh–I–right, thank you, Miss…?”

“You’re quite welcome, young man. Have a good evening.”

With those words, I disconnected. There, that should do it. Laying on my stomach, I carefully watched the path leading up to the main door into the office.

I didn’t have to wait long. Within a couple minutes, I spotted a figure moving quickly along the sidewalk from one of the other buildings. Laying flat, my costume painted black, I watched as a man in his late twenties approached, grumbling to himself. Slowing as he approached, I heard the man mutter about people not locking the door, just as he went to open it.

“What…” There was a brief pause, then a jangle of keys as the man unlocked the door before carefully stepping inside. “Hello? Squirrel? Are there any squirrels in here?”

Leaning carefully over the edge of the roof, I peered down and watched. The man made his way into the office. As soon as he was through the door, I activated the black paint to silence myself, dropping behind him before quickly and carefully scooting through the doorway. There was a small lobby, with several private offices attached to it. The man was standing in the middle, looking around for the supposed squirrel. Quickly, I slipped to the right, through the open doorway of one of the offices to slip out of sight.

The man looked around a little bit more, but it was pretty half-hearted now that he’d found the door locked. I heard him talking to himself as he tried calling the number of the phone that had called him, but I’d already turned it off.

Finally, he gave up and stomped out, locking the door behind him. Once he was definitely gone, I straightened up and moved to the nearby computer.

Password locked. And no convenient password written down anywhere. Damn. But there were still several more computers. I moved quickly to the next office.

They were apparently pretty security conscious here, at least as far as computers went. Or they were used to other employees trying to snoop on them. All the computers were locked, but I was able to find a password written on a post-it note inside one of the desk drawers of the last office. That opened the computer, and I went through the files, looking for resident information.

There it was. They had it in an Excel file, which I brought up and sorted by date, looking for anyone who had rented an apartment within the past six months. Ashton might’ve started this further back than that, but I was kind of doubting it.

Once I had that list of nine possibilities, I looked at other criteria. Anyone with more than one person living there was immediately dismissed. I also looked at birthdates, mentally crossing out anyone who was definitely too old to be Ashton in a simple disguise.

Doing all that left three possibilities. Three different apartments. Noting where they were on the handy map posted on the wall, I turned everything back off, then carefully opened a nearby window and slipped out to climb back on the roof. Three apartments to play peeping tom at, just to see if any of the people in there looked like they could be Ashton.

They didn’t. One was a black guy, and the other two were Hispanic. None were white, and none looked anything like the picture I’d looked up of the man I was looking for. While he could have been in disguise even in the confines of his safe apartment, I kind of doubted it. And it wouldn’t have been that much of a disguise.

So, unless I’d missed something, these apartments were a bust. But that still left another five possibilities to check.

Yeah, it was gonna be a long night.

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Interlude 2C – Carousel (Summus Proelium)

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“Jae!” The shouted name was accompanied by a series of increasingly loud knocks against the wooden door. “Come on! Get up! I’m gonna be late for work, and you know what happens then? They don’t hire me for another episode and you’ll have single-handedly destroyed my career! Come on!” The cajoling words were punctuated by two more quick bangs against the door, and a heavy, audible sigh.

Sitting up in bed, Jae Baek opened her eyes, glancing around the small room. The bed itself took up about half the space, while her dresser and desk occupied a substantial portion of what was left. The albino-Asian girl slipped her legs off the bed into the single bit of open space right between her desk chair, her bed, and the door. Just as another knock started to come, she opened the door (very nearly taking a fist to the forehead in the process). Standing there in her pajama bottoms and tee shirt, she faced the woman outside the door. Or rather, she faced the woman’s shoes. Jae’s gaze remained low, as usual, while her voice was also soft and polite. “Good morning, Kella. I’ll be ready in ten minutes, as soon as I shower.”

“Hurry,” the overly botoxed and heavily bleached blonde woman urged, annoyance clear in her voice. “I don’t have time to wait around while you sleep in to all hours. Some of us have responsibilities, you know.” With that, she spun on a heel and walked away, high heels clicking on the hardwood floor.

With a quiet sigh, Jae turned to take clothes from the nearby dresser before heading for the bathroom across the hall. She could hear the woman making as much noise as possible in the kitchen, just to make it absolutely and perfectly clear how annoyed she was at having to wait.

With a soft sigh, as the things she could have said to the woman flooded her mind, Jae stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. It wasn’t worth the fight, even if she had been brave enough. Kella Song was her… step-adopted mother, of sorts. It was complicated. Jae, along with six other ‘ethnic’ children of varying ages (Jae being the youngest), had first been adopted by Timothy Wallace and Andrea Mars. The former was producer and director of various television shows, while the latter was an actress who had served as lead or co-lead of a couple movies and one long running drama series, the latter of which she had received awards and great accolades for.

A couple decades earlier, an award-winning television actress and her director-producer husband might have seemed very… out of place in Detroit, of all places. At least if they wanted to have any kind of career. But with the resurging economy in these past twenty years, and a rebuilt infrastructure, the city had become a good stand-in for other larger cities such as New York. It was useful when shows lacked the funding to actually film where they were supposed to be set.

In any case, Jae and her adopted siblings had been taken in by Andrea Mars and Timothy Wallace as part of a… giving back to the community or… something. With their wildly varying and nicely photogenic ethnicities (especially Jae hitting the mark of both Asian and albino), the two could parade their children around to show how much they cared about minorities.

That wasn’t fair. Timothy (she had never and would never refer to him as father) may have mostly seen the children for what they could do for his image, but Andrea had been the opposite of what Jae thought a vapid actress would be. She had genuinely cared for all of them, and spent as much time as she could with the group. It was Andrea who helped pull Jae at least a little out of the shell she had spent so long in before being adopted at the age of nine.

For a few years, things had been nice. Jae got to know her new siblings and mother, learned not to expect anything from Timothy, and actually began to enjoy herself. Even her small room was a personal choice rather than anything forced on her. Jae preferred not having a lot of space. That was the way she had grown up, in foster home after foster home. It was what felt natural.

But the time with her new family didn’t last. When Jae was thirteen, Andrea suffered a traumatic ruptured brain aneurysm and passed away before even reaching the hospital. Within a couple years of that, each of her adopted siblings had moved on to college or other things (Andrea had been the glue that kept them together), leaving Jae the only child in the house, and often the only person in the house, as Timothy took more jobs that kept him away.

It was that feeling of being abandoned, of having had a real (if unconventional) family for such a brief time before it was snatched away to leave her alone in a silent, dark house that had driven Jae to such emotional extremes that her Touched-sphere had appeared. The sphere which had given Jae her powers and introduced her to a new unconventional family, the Minority.  

Then Kella happened. Though she was younger than Andrea had been (and much younger mentally), the woman had already used enough plastic surgery to qualify for some kind of frequent patient award. She was a thirty-something clinging to her teens and the very short-lived success she’d had as an actress back then. And she was certainly in no mood or mindset to actually help raise a teenager when she herself had never truly grown beyond being one.

Kella and Timothy were married just before the man himself found great success once more on another show. That kept him very busy, so he was rarely home. Which left Kella and Jae alone most of the time. Kella, at Jae’s request, knew nothing about her being Touched or a member of the Minority. Timothy did, but he said nothing to Kella. For all the faults he may have had as far as actually spending much time with his adopted children went, he did keep his promises. And he had promised not to tell Kella until or unless Jae asked him to.

Besides, it wasn’t as though the woman ever expressed that much interest in anything Jae did.

What she was interested in was drinking. And also taking as many roles as she could. Even if those roles were almost exclusively either commercials or extremely minor ‘day player’ roles on an established show.

The drinking part was what had gotten her license revoked. Which meant that with her husband gone so often, the woman either took cabs or other ride sharing services to get to her roles, or she relied on Jae to drive her. Most of the time it was that second one, as it didn’t cost money.

Showering quickly before dressing, Jae made her way back out to find Kella waiting for her in the kitchen. The woman held out a bagel with sausage, egg, and cheese stuffed into it that she had taken from a box and heated in the microwave. “I made you breakfast,” she announced. “Come on, let’s go. If I’m late for this shoot, do you have any idea what that’ll do to my career?”

With a quiet, “Thank you,” Jae took the breakfast sandwich. It was nice of Kella, even if she was still acting so incredibly impatient. The woman wasn’t horrible (aside from that whole drinking problem), just… self-centered and not really the type of person to raise or care for a minor. She didn’t know how to handle Jae. Microwaving breakfast for her while demanding she be driven to her work because she’d lost her license for driving under the influence was par for the course.

She wasn’t abusive. She was… complicated. And unreliable. Complicated and unreliable, that summed up Kella Song well enough. She had never intended to be any kind of mother.

Heading outside while taking a bite of the bagel sandwich, Jae silently opened the back door and waited for Kella to get in, the woman making a muttered production about how much the director was going to chew her out for being late. Then Jae got in the front, starting the car before checking the time. She still had about forty minutes before classes started. Plenty of time to drop Kella off and get to school.

Did Kella even remember that Jae had school to go to after this? She genuinely wasn’t sure.

But hey, at least today would hopefully be less exciting than yesterday and last night had been. Jae just hoped no one lit any fuses on the powderkeg today. Or at least that they would wait until after school to do it.

It would just sort of be nice to get through all of her classes without having to go fight any supervillains.

******

On second thought, supervillains would have been nice. At least she could hit those problems.

That was the thought that occured to Jae a short time later, as she stood facing her locker. The actual lock part had been broken (not for the first time), and the door stood open to reveal an exciting collection of hate and vile.

First, there was the fact that everything in the locker reeked beyond belief, as what seemed to be a combination of sour cream, old milk, and rotten eggs had been thrown inside at some point the day before. It also looked like there were some mushed bananas in there for some reason.

On the door of the locker was a taped bit of paper that read, ‘Just in case you want to be even whiter, freak.’ Below that, written in marker on the door itself, were a series of notes, some barely legible. They reached all the way to the bottom of the locker, most written in different handwriting. Among other things, they read,  ‘Fuck off, mutant’, ‘Get out of our school’, ‘Eat shit and die’, and ‘Are you cuntagis? Cuz I’ll still fuck you if you put a bag over your head.’

It went on like that, with other fun misspellings and bits of horrific grammar.  And dicks. Lots of dicks. They were drawn all over the inside of her locker. One enterprising person had even gone beyond drawing to tape up an actual photograph of a penis.

Quietly, to the point of barely being audible, Jae whispered to herself, “For people who think that I’m such an untouchable freak, they sure are eager to let me know they have penises ready to go.”

It made her smile just a little bit, though it was a smile touched with resignation. With a sigh, she closed the locker door and turned to find the nearest janitor. In the process, she nearly ran right into Amber, the two of them both jerking back at the last second.

“Jae!” the dark-haired girl blurted. “God, do you smell that?” Her nose wrinkled. “What the hell is it?”

Quietly, Jae replied, “I think someone’s lunch went bad.” Leaving it at that, the girl started to walk. She was not going to have her teammate and friend feeling sorry for her. Or worse, trying to take care of it herself. Jae knew Amber well enough to be certain she would start throwing people around until someone talked. And as much as the girl would have appreciated the gesture, this was something she needed to deal with herself, or not at all.

The two of them walked together, talking for a few minutes until Jae said that she’d forgotten something. They were near Amber’s first class (a purposeful move), so she said goodbye to the other girl before heading back the way she’d come. On the way, she felt her friend’s eyes on her, but resisted the urge to look back. It only would have confirmed Amber’s obvious suspicions.

Instead, Jae made her way to one of the janitorial closets. There was usually at least one of the custodial staff around there right as school was about to start.

Sure enough, Frank Harrington was there, just filling one of his mop buckets. When Jae approached, the man looked up, smiling broadly. “Well, if it isn’t the only kid in this school who ever beats me at Scrabble. You up for a tie-breaker match later?”

“Maybe,” Jae agreed before adding, “Could I borrow some cleaner and a rag? I spilled some of my lunch in my locker yesterday and didn’t notice.”

Raising an eyebrow, Frank gave her an unconvinced look. “You spilled it?”

She met his gaze, pausing briefly before giving a single short nod. Her voice was even softer than usual. “I’m sorry.”

For a moment, it looked as though he might push things further. The man knew something else was wrong, and was clearly wondering if he should take this to the administration. In the end, he handed over a spray bottle, several rags, and some kind of air freshener. As Jae took them, he hesitated before speaking up. “You come back for that rematch, you hear? I’m gonna take the crown.”

“What crown?” the girl found herself asking.

“I’ll make a crown,” he declared, “and then I’ll take it.” Pointing at her, he added, “Next Monday. Lunch. You bring that thesaurus you call a brain and I’ll bring a crown. Got it?”

She agreed before taking the cleaning supplies and heading back to her locker. The bell would ring in the next few minutes, but she had time to at least start cleaning things out.

The books that were covered in the… stuff were all put in a plastic bag after being wiped off as well as she could. Several notebooks and loose bits of paper were thrown away, but she was able to salvage her favorite pencil case that she’d had since the first day of school after being adopted. Andrea had given it to her, with a note written on the inside about being part of a family.

Taking the case, Jae smiled while opening it, only for her smile to fall immediately. It hadn’t gotten away unscathed after all. Over the note that her now-deceased adopted mother had written, someone had used marker to scrawl, ‘Ghost Slut.’

Clutching the box tightly with both hands, Jae closed her eyes. She was breathing harder, the rage boiling up before she could get a handle on it. Of all the things to ruin, of all the things they could have destroyed, they chose to scrawl those hateful words over a beautiful note written by the woman who had adopted her. A woman who was no longer around.

No. No. She would have stood for other things. She would have gritted her teeth and bore it, for the most part. But this? This was too far. This was something she would not just ignore.

First, Jae finished cleaning the locker as well as she could, including scrubbing off the vile marker scribblings. She hesitated over the writing in her box, but was afraid that any attempt to clean off that ink would also wipe away what remained of Andrea’s note. In the end, she pushed the box into her bag and straightened up.

The rest of the vandalism could have been anyone. But the specific note in her pencil box? She knew who had done that. One person had started calling her Ghost Slut, Casper The Friendly Whore, and other variations of that theme. There were others who used it now and then, but she knew this was the work of the person who had started it.

And she knew what to do about it.

******

Jae’s chance didn’t come until fourth period. That was the first time she shared a class with…  Arleigh Fosters. At the beginning of the school year, Arleigh’s then-boyfriend, Price, had made the mistake of saying that he thought Jae was cute and exotic. It had been a stupid thing to say to someone as prone to jealousy as Arleigh was, but he hadn’t actually meant anything that bad by it. To Price, it had been an offhand comment that he immediately forgot about. But it had boiled up and blossomed into a full on rage fit from the Arleigh, who became convinced that Jae was sleeping with him. She had all-but attacked her at the end of September, until Price stepped in. He’d broken up with her then, while making it clear that he and Jae were not a thing.

But that hadn’t helped. Arleigh was utterly certain that Jae had been the one to break them up, and ever since that day, all of incredibly-rich girl’s hangers on and friends had made it their life’s mission to make Jae feel like a freak.

Now that she thought about it, Jae knew what today had been about. It was around this time the year before when Arleigh and Price had become a thing. This must have been the day that would’ve been their anniversary, renewing the hatred in the girl enough to make her lash out again.

As luck would have it, Jae’s desk was situated directly behind Arleigh. The tall, blonde girl was already there, staring at Jae with a smug, self-satisfied look that made it even more clear she was the one responsible. With her phone in one hand, the girl made a point of typing out some kind of text, glancing up at Jae once more, smirking again, then typed some more.

“Alright, alright, alright, people!” Mr. Hughes announced while coming into the room. “You know the rules. Phones away. That includes you, Miss Fosters.”

With a sickly sweet smile, Arleigh replied, “Of course, Mr. Hughes.” She then set the phone down on top of the book bag at her side, giving the girl behind her one last glare.

Jae ignored her, sitting down with her gaze on the desk. Or at least, it would appear to be to everyone else. In reality, she was watching Arleigh’s phone, and keeping a look out for anyone paying too much attention. Luckily, everyone was too busy listening to Hughes as the man began to go over the results of a quiz they’d just taken the day before.

Once Jae was certain the coast was clear, she focused on the phone on top of Arleigh’s bag. Stretching out her power, she felt it pick up the phone, shrinking it down to about the size of a marble before it floated up under her desk. Jae was able to grab hold of it and put the phone in her lap without anyone noticing.

From there, she divided her attention between Mr. Hughes and the phone, making sure it was silenced before opening up the messaging app and scrolling through. As expected, Arleigh spent a pretty big portion of her conversations with people insulting other people, many of whom she was also having conversations with insulting the people she was having the first conversations with. She was talking behind everyone’s back.

Taking as many screenshots of the various conversations as she could, Jae then went about sending those screenshots to the people who were being talked about. All of the insults, all of the catty remarks about their personal problems, all the times that Arleigh had spilled some close personal secret to someone else just so they could mock the person in question, all of it. She screenshotted all of it and sent dozens of messages to as many contacts as she could.

Already, the phone was starting to blow up with responses demanding to know what the hell was going on. Still, as one last measure, Jae opened up Arleigh’s Facebook account and proceeded to upload all the screenshots there as well, posting them publicly.

Finally done, she looked around once more. By that point, Mr. Hughes was deep into his lecture for the day, and everyone was taking notes. Using her power again, she sent the phone back out, carefully letting it spin around her desk until it was positioned just above the other girl’s bag. Then she let it fall back into place. One of the students beside her noticed something, glancing over as if he’d seen the tiny marble-sized phone out of the corner of his eye. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, he shrugged and went back to paying attention to the teacher.

After that, Jae focused on class. When it was over, she straightened from her desk and headed out without sparing a glance toward the girl in front of her.

She was all the way to the door before hearing the shrill, panicked, “What the fuck!?

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Interlude 2B – That-A-Way (Summus Proelium)

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“Paint powers, seriously?”

The somewhat dubious question came from Laki Sefo, the tall boy that most in the city knew better as Wobble. Though they wouldn’t have recognized him as he was now, lounging in a recliner in the Minority’s headquarters without his iconic emerald battle armor. They might recognize him as the boy who had led his public high school basketball team to become state champions as a junior the year before. He’d quit the team this year, earning as much enmity from the people who had cheered him on through three previous years as they had given him praise before. His fans were decidedly not happy about Laki’s decision to stop playing.

But it wasn’t as though he could tell them that he didn’t have time to play basketball with all the superheroing he was doing. Even if Amber would have liked to see the looks on their faces.

As for the dark-haired girl herself, she was sprawled over the couch on her stomach, with her chin resting on one end and her feet propped up at the other. Her eyes were fixed on the television several feet away that was facing the end of the couch rather than the front of it. A game controller was held tightly in her hands, while she focused on the screen. “Uh huh,” she replied to Laki, squinting a little in concentration, tongue poking its way out of her mouth briefly.

Amber and Laki were the only two current occupants of the Minority base as it was their night to be on duty. At the moment, being ‘on duty’ wasn’t so bad, since they were spending it in the lounge part of the base. The lounge amounted to a large room filled with several couches and chairs surrounded by televisions and game systems, with a pool table on one end and a foosball table at the other. A couple well-stocked refrigerators and a microwave were along one wall. They may constantly put their lives on the line, but at least they had entertainment and snacks.

Besides, it may have been only the two of them officially on duty, but if anything important happened, the others would be called in.

Anything, that was, beyond Amber’s seventh straight attempt at a particularly difficult fight in her game. Her fingers moved quickly over the controls, as she struggled to pull it out that time. “Come on… come on…” The music abruptly turned dour, and she cursed. “Oh, fuck you! Really? What kind of cheating bullshit is that?!” Muttering a few choice words under her breath, she looked over to the boy, who was waiting patiently with one eyebrow raised.

“Maybe,” Laki offered, “you need some more advice from Izzy?” He was referring, of course, to Isabel Amor/Raindrop, the youngest member of their team.

“I do not need advice from Izzy,” Amber retorted while pushing herself up from the couch. “I can totally beat that guy. I just need to clear my head first.”

“And you don’t want to admit that a twelve-year-old is better than you at a game,” Laki lightly teased while remaining in his relaxed position, one leg up over the arm of the chair.

Amber squinted at him, but ended up dutifully echoing, “And I don’t want to admit that a twelve-year-old is better than me at a game.” She stuck her tongue out at him then while tossing the controller back onto the couch, her expression quickly changing to one of eagerness. “But yeah, dude! Apparently he calls himself Paintball. Which is cool. We couldn’t really see much with that helmet and all, but I’m pretty sure he’s like… fourteen? Probably a freshman. Hey, maybe he goes to your school. You should keep an eye out for people that changed a lot, or keep skipping, or… you know, whatever. Just keep an eye out.”

Shrugging, Laki straightened in his seat finally. “Why? If he doesn’t want to join, he doesn’t want to join. We can’t force him. That’d be a bad idea anyway.”

“I know that,” Amber informed him. “I’m not saying force him to do anything. I’m not even saying go out of our way to figure out who he is. I’m just saying keep your eyes open. You know, cuz new Touched tend to not exactly be great at hiding their identities. And this kid really pissed off Janus. So he’s probably gonna piss off other people too. And if he’s not good at hiding, he might just get in more trouble than he can handle. We keep our eyes open and if we figure out who it is, we can help him if he gets in trouble. Right?”

“Right,” Laki confirmed, giving her a thumbs up. “That’s a lot of ifs, but sure.” Pausing briefly, he added, “You already went through everything in the debriefing, right?”

She nodded. “Yeah, this afternoon. Had to sit down with ‘Smith, Brumal, and Caishen and give them all the details we could remember.” Smith was the Conservator leader Silversmith, while Brumal and Caishen were the leaders of the state-level team of Spartans and the corporate-sponsored team of Ten Towers, respectively. All three adult teams took responsibility for training and preparing the Minority teens in exchange for having first dibs of recruiting them later, once they were eighteen. Laki had once joked that he couldn’t play basketball because he was already going to go through one draft once he graduated high school, and he didn’t want to do that twice.

“What’d they say about this new guy?” Laki asked while moving to the other side of the lounge area, opening the fridge there to root around inside.

“We said,” Silversmith (fully dressed in his metal armor and helmet, as always) abruptly announced while stepping into the room from one of the doors, “that everyone should keep an eye out for him. If he’s this new to everything, he’s bound to piss off the wrong people. Which would be bad. So if you see him, try to convince him to at least come in and talk to us. Even if he doesn’t want to join, we can offer a lot of advice for rookies.”

Both teens quickly turned to face the man, Laki offering something resembling a salute. “Evening, sir. Is something going on?”

“Actually, yeah,” Silversmith confirmed. “We’ve got Adrian Perez and his siblings in a safehouse. Kriegspiel and a couple of the Spartans are keeping an eye on them. Flea and RePete are trying to track down where this Josh guy went from the bus station Perez dropped him off at. And Bokor’s got some of his zombies looking through the guy’s home since we cleared the gangs off it earlier. Dynamic’s still patrolling the street, but even with the other teams out there–”

“Things are getting nasty, aren’t they?” Amber quickly put in. “From the bounty.”

Silversmith nodded. “Yes. Whatever this thing is that got stolen, it’s got everyone going nuts. Especially La Casa. They want it back, bad. And they’re tearing up the streets to get it. Everyone’s tense out there. We’ve already dealt with half a dozen brawls just in the past couple days. And it’s getting worse. Frankly, I hate to involve any of you with this…”

“Anything we can do, sir,” Laki quickly assured the man. “You know that.”  

Offering the taller boy a clearly grateful nod, Silversmith looked to Amber. “Any time you need to leave, you just speak up. And we don’t want you working past eleven. It’s still a school day tomorrow. That said, thank you for the help. We’re going to call the others in. Except for Raindrop. She’s still young enough, I don’t… want her involved right now. Unless things get really desperate.” He sighed at the thought before pressing on. “Anyway, we’ll get the others to meet you both. We’ve got an area we need you to patrol. It shouldn’t be too bad, but things are tense and it’s a good idea to have some visible Touched presence out there. Hopefully that’ll be enough to calm things down. If not, try to control them as much as possible and call in backup.”

The two teens agreed before splitting up to head for their respective locker rooms in order to change into their costumes. Amber found her own labeled locker, barely sparing a glance for the picture of Gluegirl she had taped up there. She’d always had the hots for that chick. Not only was Gluegirl really hot, she was also constantly mocking and taunting her enemies. She treated the whole superhero thing like a game, refusing to grant the villains the respect they wanted by taking it seriously. It also helped that her dark blue and white costume looked like it was painted on. Which, considering it seemed to be made of the same adhesive stuff that she used with the rest of her powers, was probably pretty much the truth.

Actually, she seemed to have a decent amount in common with this new guy, though they were from totally opposite sides of the country. Gluegirl had started out with the Minority in Florida before eventually being taken in by the New York Conservators a couple years earlier. Either way, the powers were vaguely similar enough (Gluegirl created and manipulated purely different types and colors of adhesive rather than paints that provided different effects, but still) that Amber briefly wondered in that glance at the poster if there was any connection.

Probably not. After all, there were a lot of people with strength-based powers and nobody thought all of them were related. It wasn’t like this guy was her brother or anything. Even if getting to meet Gluegirl through her brother if he was would pretty much be the coolest thing ever, and– Focus, Amber.

Hurriedly changing into her purple costume before grabbing the mask that would change her hair from black to blonde when she put it on, as well as adjusting her facial features slightly, the girl headed back out to the lounge. Laki was already there, in his armor, helmet in hand. He and Silversmith were talking quietly.

“Hey, guys,” she quickly spoke up, drawing their attention. “Did I miss anything?”

“Nope.” Shaking his head, Silversmith gestured to the door. “The lift’s prepped to take you to the patrol area. Syndicate, Carousel, and Whamline should meet you there as soon as they get checked in. Remember what I said, just be a visible presence so people know you’re around. Anything happens, call it in and then try to defuse it. If it gets bad, withdraw and wait for reinforcements. No unnecessary risks, okay?”

Saluting along with Laki (though hers was slightly more sarcastic), Amber headed for the hall, and from there to the transport lift that could instantly take them to various prepared spots around the city. On the way, she affixed the mask to her face, grimacing through the shifting of her nose and cheeks. It didn’t exactly hurt so much as it… mostly tingled. But it still felt funny either way. She’d never get used to it.

“So,” she started once the two of them were in the lift and waiting for the room to shift, “you think we’ll run into trouble out there?”

“Hope not,” Laki replied easily while putting his helmet on and fastening it into place. “I could do with a quiet night. Especially if it’s such a powderkeg. Any chance people might’ve gotten it out of their systems?” He barely paused before adding, “Yeah, I didn’t think so either.”

The doors opened once more, revealing an alleyway behind a local fast food diner. Stepping out of the unmarked building that would look, to any outside observer, like a random shed, the two glanced around for a moment to get their bearings.

“Right,” Amber (That-A-Way, she reminded herself. She had to think of herself as That-A-Way in costume) started, “Let’s just step out here and take a look around until the others show up. I mean, Smith did say to be a visible presence.”

The two costumed teens took a short walk to the nearby sidewalk, keeping the transport shed in view so the others would know where they were. There, they looked around. The street was still busy enough, even though it was almost nine o’clock at night, that they had a couple dozen people looking at them. A few waved, but no one approached. Civilians had long-since been conditioned not to immediately mob costumed Touched on patrol. It was too easy to end up in the line of fire, or be mistaken for a threat.

Not that being approached sometimes would be all bad, That-A-Way thought to herself while her eyes followed a couple of very attractive women who were walking past in clubbing clothes. She could totally enjoy a conversation with–

The women stepped out of the way, and That-A-Way found herself looking at the car idling at the nearby traffic light. A dark green Ford sedan. The same kind of car that had hit and killed her father.

It wasn’t the same car. She knew that. That car was long gone, the owner having it dismantled for parts because he couldn’t stand to keep it around after what it had been part of.

Greg Fardspar. That was the name of the man who owned the car that had killed her father. Amber knew that, because she had tracked the man down back when it happened. Grieving and lost after her father’s death, she had thrown herself into, as she called it, doing the cop’s jobs for them. She had interviewed people who had either seen the accident or lived and worked in the area (some would have called it stalking, threatening, and interrogating), had taken pictures, had run down leads. She worked for weeks, ignoring basically everything else to the point of breaking up with her girlfriend at the time.  

Then she had found him. She found the car in question in his driveway. It even had the damage to the front end. It had been all the girl could do not to… not to take matters into her own hands even more than she already had.

Justice. Her father would finally have justice. She’d called the police. They took her seriously eventually, and came to check out the house and the damage to the car there in the driveway. Then they had gone in to first interview, then arrest Greg Fardspar.

But then they released him. Because Greg wasn’t involved. His car had been stolen that night, and it was that person, whoever they were, who had caused the damage. Greg had an airtight alibi, plus a police report about the theft. The cops had even brought his car back a couple days later when it was found in an old parking lot.

She’d had nothing. Everything she had done to get justice for her father had meant nothing. There was no way of knowing who stole Fardspar’s car and took it for a joyride. A joyride in which they had killed a man, then driven off. They would get away with it. They would get away with it.

It was while she had been dealing (or not dealing) with that realization that Amber’s Touched-sphere had shown up. Then that she had heard the words ‘Summus Proelium’, and had gained her powers. And now… well, now she was still grieving for her father, even over a year later. But she was getting there. Except for times like this, when she was unexpectedly reminded in a way that struck her like a physical blow.

“Way?” Wobble’s voice finally penetrated the thick cloud that had surrounded her mind as she stared at the car, and she realized that he’d been trying to get her attention for a minute.

Her head quickly shook, just as the light changed at the sedan pulled away. “I–sorry, what?”  

Wobble was looking at her, and though she couldn’t see his face, she could tell he was concerned. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” she insisted, flushing a little bit from embarrassment. “Sorry, I just… zoned out.” Leaving it at that, she looked around. “Did I miss anything?”

There was a brief pause before Wobble replied, “No, no. I just wanted to make sure you were all right. You looked really freaked out there for a second.”

Swallowing, That-A-Way forced herself to smile. “Trust me, I’m cool. Or I’ll be cool, anyway.” Admitting that much, she offered her fist to the boy. “All good.”

“All good,” Wobble echoed, touching his fist to hers. The two of them continued to look up and down the street, watching for anything suspicious. There were a few things that stood out (it was a Detroit street at night, after all), but nothing that demanded immediate attention.

They were only waiting for about five minutes before the shed opened up again, letting their three teammates out. Well, six counting the three ghostly duplicates that accompanied their leader.

“Hey guys,” Syndicate greeted as he, Carousel, and Whamline approached. “Looks like you didn’t start the party without us.”

“Technically, they did,” Whamline pointed out with a snicker in his voice. “You know, cuz a party is a group of people, and since they were already-ow.” He stopped, rubbing his leg where one of the ghostly Syndicates had briefly become the solid one just long enough to kick him.

“Ahem,” the first Syndicate, returning to his solid form once more, continued, “things look pretty calm so far.”

“Calm things may appear,” Carousel chimed in, “but very tense, I fear. Everyone around here is very upset. Many would grab that bounty in a net.”

That-A-Way nodded. “She’s right. Things are calm enough right now, but there’s a whole lot of gasoline on this pile of wood. If something sets it off…”

“So let’s see what we can do about making sure no one throws any matches,” Syndicate announced. “You know what Silversmith said, be a visible deterrent. How about we split up. Two groups. Two of me will go with That-A-Way and Wobble since you guys were supposed to be on patrol to start, and the other two can go with Carousel and Whamline. We’ll take a long walk in opposite directions and then circle in to meet a few blocks over. Then go from there.”

They agreed, before heading out. As she walked with the two insubstantial versions of Syndicate and Wobble, That-A-Way thought one more time about the paint-based Touched they’d met earlier. It sure would be nice if he ended up joining the team after all.

Though it would’ve been even better if he’d been a girl instead of another guy.

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Becoming 2-05 (Summus Proelium)

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“Well, if the project didn’t specify only one person to focus on, I’d say the Medici family would be good.” After saying that, Amber shoved half of a chocolate-covered éclair into her mouth while making noises of delight. That was quickly followed by the other half of the treat, and more happy sounds, as the other girl half-collapsed against Jae while smiling with delight. “Mmmm…”

The three of us were sitting in the school cafeteria the next morning. We’d staked out a small table far away from everyone else so we wouldn’t be disturbed, and were going over project possibilities.  

“Medici?” I asked absently while flipping through one of the history books we’d taken from the library. Not that we really needed books when there was the whole internet, but still. Having hard copy sources tended to make teachers happy.

“Super rich family in Florence,” Amber explained. “They were basically this like… banking dynasty for a long ass time from back in the fifteenth century. They… hold on.” She glanced at her phone. “Yeah, four different popes came from them. So did two French queens. They funded the invention of the piano and the opera, and Leonardo, Michelangelo, and maybe some other ninja turtles. Oh, and Galileo. Seriously, dude, they were like… the money behind everything for a long time.”

Boy, did that ever ring a few bells. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought she chose that one on purpose. It took me a second to clear my throat. “Oh, uh, well yeah. If we could do it on a group or something, that’d work. But Mr. Dorn definitely said ‘single person’. Maybe we could ask him if that’s okay… or keep looking.”

“Let’s keep looking,” Amber agreed, looking over to Jae. “What do you think, any ideas?”

As she spoke, I took another quick look at my former cheerleading teammate. I still felt bad about how she’d quit the team back when her dad was killed in that hit and run. Apparently the coach had said she could come back this year and just pick up where she’d left off, but Amber refused, saying she was too busy. Personally, I was pretty sure cheerleading had been a big thing with her and her dad, and she didn’t want to do it without him around. Too many memories. Which was too bad, really, since she’d been one of the team’s best tumblers. Seriously, that girl could do some pretty crazy stuff.

Jae, by then, had answered the question about whether she had any ideas by passing over a piece of paper that she’d written a list of names on. Amber and I leaned closer to look at it while I read the names. “Laura Bassi – female physicist in the eighteenth century, Nicolas Steno – father of geology, Cleisthenes – father of democracy, Lucius Vellutus – successfully led a secession in Rome of the plebeians to advocate better treatment and actual representation…” Blinking up at the incredibly pale girl, I remarked, “Hey, these are all pretty good. I don’t think I’ve heard of any of them. Or if I have, I don’t really remember them very well.”

Amber nodded. “Yeah, and they sound important enough to fit Mr. Dorn’s request. Which one should we focus on?”

Biting my lip, I mused, “Laura Bassi sounds interesting, but so do the rest of them. This Steno guy is the father of geology? Cleisthenes is the father of democracy? This Vellutus guy basically took the working class on strike and actually changed things for the better? How do we pick out of options like those?”

Jae shifted in her seat a little before reaching out to point to a name that I hadn’t gotten to yet. Her voice was quiet as she read it aloud. “Laura Cereta.”

Exchanging a brief look with Amber, I asked, “Who?”

“Writer,” Jae answered softly. She fidgeted for a moment, clearly uncomfortable with the attention before pressing on. Despite her shyness, I could tell this was a subject she really cared about. There was obvious excitement and passion in her voice, quiet as it was. “She was a humanist and feminist writer… in the fourteen hundreds. She was one of the first people to actually write about female friendships. She wrote about how women should be educated, and how marriage should be a partnership. And she was smart. Like, one of the leading scholars in Italy smart.”

After saying all that, the girl hesitated. She was obviously embarrassed and wanted to return to her silence. But her love of this Cereta woman pushed her to add, a little more quickly, “In one of her letters, she wrote, ‘I am a scholar and a pupil who has been lulled to sleep by the meager fire of a mind too humble. I have been too much burned, and my injured mind has accumulated too much passion; for tormenting itself with the defending of our sex, my mind sighs, conscious of its obligation. For all things — those deeply rooted inside us as well as those outside us — are being laid at the door of our sex.’

As she finished that, I swallowed. “Wow… umm… yeah. Yeah. I mean, I guess she didn’t really go discovering new continents or conquering other peoples. But she sounds pretty important. And I doubt she’s at the top of anyone else’s list.” Looking to Amber, I added, “What do you think?”

Her nose scrunched up a little thoughtfully. “I think she sounds cool. Come on, let’s see if we can catch Mr. Dorn before first period.” Picking up the books we’d spread out, she stepped away from the table, while Jae joined her. I started to follow too, but stopped to grab something from the table that Amber hadn’t picked up. “Oh, hey, you left your… pen?” I was blinking at it in my hand, not because a pen was so surprising, but because of the words written on it. Stamped across the simple white pen was, ‘Prime International Enterprise’. PIE. The bank that had been… well, almost robbed the other day.

Okay, it wasn’t really that weird that Amber had a pen from the bank. This was a private school. Private school often meant money, and money meant bank. PIE had a lot of clients, most of them not evil or anything. Still, seeing it like that made me do a little double-take.

“Oh, thanks.” Amber took the pen, blinking at me. “Uh, you okay?”

The bank thing wasn’t really a secret, so I just shrugged. “Yeah, I just–didn’t someone just try to rob that place the other day?”

“Huh?” The other girl glanced at the pen, taking in what it said before clearing her throat. “Oh, right. Yeah, sorry, my dad used to collect pens and there’s this whole big… jar of…” She paused, swallowing. “I just grabbed one. That was pretty screwed up though, huh? I mean, what kind of idiot tries to steal from the Super-Mafia?”

I thought of Josh’s brother, muttering, “A pretty big one, apparently. Come on, let’s go tell Mr. Dorn who we’re doing our project on.”

I really wanted to get this project done. Because I was pretty sure being a Star-Touched to make up for the horrible things the rest of my family was doing would take up most of my remaining free time.

******

As it turned out, all three of us had study hall right before lunch. Well, they called it study hall. There wasn’t really an assigned place to go, which made it pretty much a free period. So, since Mr. Dorn had agreed to let us do our project on Laura Cereta, we’d decided to meet at the library at the start of that study hall to get started. I was there now, scanning through some old news stories about Silversmith on my phone while desperately trying not to throw up in my mouth at the thought that he was both a villain and my father. He had been my hero, and now I tasted bile just from looking at a picture of him standing triumphantly in front of a group of Scions of Typhon grunts and acolytes (their term for regular foot soldiers or Touched) he’d helped bring down.

Yes, it had been a pretty big deal to stop Trolley and Hammock (The Scions had some kind of weird thing about Touched names. They always chose completely random, ordinary words that were often unrelated to their powers and had nothing to do with anything else. Their leader was named Pencil). They were nasty, horrible people who had been in the middle of a murder spree. Stopping those two and bringing them in was good. They weren’t just thrown in regular jail after being caught. They were sent to Breakwater, some kind of inescapable prison for the worst of the worst. According to the rumors I’d heard, it was an isolated island somewhere that the most dangerous Touched were left on to fight things out amongst themselves where they couldn’t hurt any innocent people.

It sounded a little fucked up, to be honest. And I was pretty sure there were like a dozen different movies about why that kind of thing was a bad idea. But it was what it was. And as far as I knew, no one had ever escaped from it once they were seen as bad enough to be sent there. Which, Trolley and Hammock definitely fit the bill on that. They’d been responsible for about sixty-seven murders just in that two week period where they’d been on their main rampage.

So… so my dad had put an end to that.

But he had also sanctioned other murders. Enough that it wasn’t a big deal to him at all. So… so…

My head hurt. And so did my stomach.

“Hey, Cassidy!”

Oh, thank God. Amber and Jae were here to distract me from what had quickly been turning into entirely too much obsessive brooding. Closing the news story on my phone, I quickly turned in the seat, only to find that it was actually only Amber. “Hey, I–”

“Miss O’Connell.” That was one of the librarians, Mrs. Mossing. She looked like she had been hand-picked from a casting department to play a stern librarian. She was old, with gray hair pulled into a severe bun, and she always wore frumpy clothes. “How many times do I have to tell you, keep your voice down in here?”

We both apologized to the woman, before I quietly asked, “Err,  isn’t Jae with you?”

Raising an eyebrow, the other girl snorted. “Gee, thanks. Now I know which of us is more popular. But actually, I just stopped by to see if she was here already. And to uhh, tell you that we’ll have to take a rain check.” She looked apologetic. “Really sorry. Something came up.”

“Something came up?” I echoed, blinking at her. “At school?”

Wincing, the other girl nodded slowly. “Like I said, sorry. It’s umm, it’s kind of a personal thing. I mean…” She looked at her phone then, giving a visible grimace. “Shit. Um. When Jae shows up, could you please tell her that Uncle Don is sick? You, uh, you got that?”

“Uncle Don is sick,” I repeated back to her. “Sure, no problem. I can do that. And sorry to hear about your uncle.”

“Great, thanks!” Giving me a thumbs up, Amber turned to head back out of the library. She stopped to say something else to Mrs. Mossing before leaving.

Watching her go, I shrugged. Well, if nothing else, maybe I could use this time to practice with my power. God knew I needed all I could get. I just had to wait for Jae so I could tell her about Amber’s uncle.

Or I could get bored after like two minutes of that and wander out into the hallway to look around for her. Yeah, I went with that one. Turning in a circle in the hallway, I looked around and ended up asking a few people who hadn’t seen her before finally looking to one of the school’s baseball players. “Hey, Pat, you seen Jae Baek anywhere?”  

“Oh, hey, Cass,” Patrick Aaron, a skinny black guy who was a star shortstop, shrugged. “Not really. Hang on. Hey, Francesca, you seen Jae around?”

The girl he was addressing, a slightly hefty brunette whom I’d never shared a class with, looked over from her locker. “What? Oh, yeah, she’s in the ladies room over there.”  

Thanking the two of them, I headed that way. The hall was pretty empty by that point, since everyone who didn’t have study hall/free period was either in class or late. I stepped through the door, already starting to talk. “Hey, Jae, you–”

I stopped then, because the albino girl was there. She was standing by one of the sinks, and as I came in the room, she jumped, quickly starting to shove things from the sink into her bag. But not quick enough that I didn’t notice what they were. Self-tanner, dark hair dye, and some crumpled paper.

“Wh-what?” Flushing with obvious embarrassment, Jae stared at me, only seeming to belatedly realize who I was. “Cassidy?”

Oh. Oh God. There were tears. She was quick to recover and had already blinked them away, but the girl had definitely been crying. She wasn’t just embarrassed because I’d seen those things on the sink, she was upset.

“Yeah, I, um… are you…” Remembering why I was there, I quickly pressed on. “It’s Amber, she wanted me to tell you that she can’t make it. Apparently her Uncle Don is sick?”

“Uncle Don?” Snapping out of her embarrassment, Jae looked to me. “She said that? I–thank… thank you.” She shifted the bag back up onto her shoulder then, seeming to shrink in on herself as she mumbled, “I better go see if she… if she needs anything.”

Stepping out of the way, I let her start to walk past before speaking up. “Um, Jae? I know this is like… really none of my business. And I’m probably overstepping like…a thousand different bounds. But I still wanna say, whether you use those things or not, I think you’re really cool.”

For a moment, I didn’t think she would actually respond. The other girl was quiet, biting her lip as she seemed to debate back and forth with herself for a couple seconds. Then she looked to me, and asked something I hadn’t been expecting. “Why did you stop being a cheerleader?”

“Um. I… guess because the whole reason I joined was so that people would stop seeing me as a prepubescent little boy,” I answered honestly. “But it didn’t really work.”

It looked like she really wanted to say something to that. But she didn’t. Instead, the other girl hesitated briefly before nodding to me. Then she headed for the door, leaving me standing there in the restroom by myself.

I was about to leave, before noticing something on the floor next to the sink. Stepping over, I knelt to pick it up. It was a crumpled note. The same crumpled note that Jae had been putting into her bag with the tanner and hair dye. She’d missed the bag with the paper.

It was an incredible invasion of privacy, but I wanted to know if it was something I should chase her down for. Telling myself that if it looked personal, I’d stop reading, I uncrumpled the paper and gave it a quick glance. I’d just read a couple words, not the whole thing. Just enough to see if it was important.

As it turned out, a few words were all I needed to read. And far more than I actually wanted to. There were only four words on the paper, written in big bold letters with a red marker.

It read, ‘Kill yourself, albino freak.’

Okay, now I actually wanted to hurt someone. I wanted to find whoever had written this note and beat them into a fucking coma. What the actual fuck?

Crumpling the note even more, I shoved it into my pocket. My first instinct was to throw it away, but then I figured I’d keep it. If I ever found out who wrote the thing, I might be able to make them eat it.

Leaving the restroom a minute later, I looked around before heading down the hall. I figured that I could stop by the cafeteria to grab a sandwich from one of the machines, then head out for some practice over what was left of study hall and lunch.

That was the plan, anyway. It was derailed partway there, as I was passing one of the janitors talking on his cell phone. “Yeah, I told you, I’m sorry,” he announced with a sigh. “What can I say, Adrian never showed. Which means I’ve gotta stay. Look, Judy, I know. I know what I said, but that was before–I can’t just take off. I can’t just–damn it, we’ll talk about it later. Yes. Yes, later. Goodbye. Good–” Sighing, the man hit the disconnect on his phone before cursing under his breath.

“Um, excuse me?” I spoke up, waiting until the guy looked to me with an expression that made it clear he was surprised a student was talking to him. “Did you say Adrian didn’t show up today? Did he… call in sick, or…”

“Nope,” the man, whose nametag read Eugene, replied. “Just a no-call, no-show. Which, for the record, looks really fu–really bad on him. Unless he’s got a pretty good excuse, he might as well not bother coming in anymore at all. Little piece of advice, you get a job you give a crap about, don’t blow it off. Especially when you’ve only been there a couple days.” Muttering something about being left to clean the locker room by himself, the guy glanced to me once more as though just remembering who he was talking to. “Wait, you know Adrian?”

“Uh, we’ve talked a couple times,” I murmured. “If he didn’t show up or call or anything, did anyone call him? Or, you know, check his house?”

“Sorry, kid, we’re not his babysitters,” Eugene informed me. “If he can’t bother to show up or let us know what’s going on, there’s not much else we can do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bunch of piss to wipe up from fifteen year olds who haven’t figured out how to hit the toilet.”

He left then, and I let him go. My gaze was on the floor, as my mind reeled. Adrian had never shown up. He never made it to work, never called…

It could be a lot of things. But from what little I knew about the guy, he seemed responsible. Hell, he mentioned taking care of four little brothers. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t just blow off work like this. Not without a good reason.

Or a very bad reason. And the last time I’d seen Adrian, he had been driving Josh out of town. Josh, the guy all those bounty hunting assholes had been after, so they could go through him to get to his brother, Ashton. Adrian had been driving Josh out of town, and now he was missing.

I had a really bad feeling about this.

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