Cassidy Evans

Pink 12-09 (Summus Proelium)

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The three of us talked a bit more, getting a fairly rough plan of what we might do to get into that secret base. We had ideas, though there were a few blank spots we’d have to fill in later. It was something, at least. And thankfully, having these two onboard meant that I had people to bounce thoughts off of other than myself, people who could point out flaws in any idea I had, and who could come up with their own. Not coming up with the entire plan entirely by myself was a real treat. Almost as much of one as not carrying out the entire plan alone would be. 

And yet, I was still alone, wasn’t I? On the big stuff. There were still things I wasn’t telling them about, things I couldn’t tell them about. They had no idea who I was, that my own parents ran the secret criminal conspiracy I’d clued them in on, that… that… a lot. There was a lot they didn’t know, and that I couldn’t share. Not yet. Maybe someday? Maybe–fuck. Or maybe I was just keeping it to myself out of habit or paranoia or something. Should I tell them who I really was? Should I tell them everything? They knew enough to really get in trouble now, so what exactly was the point of holding back on those few very key details? Was there a real reason? 

Yes. Because once I told them all of my secrets, there was no going back. There wasn’t really any going back now, of course. But telling them about the Ministry was a different kind of vulnerable than telling them about me. Showing them who I was, who my family was… that would be something I could never actually walk back, a box I could never close. It would leave me personally vulnerable in a way I wasn’t just by telling them about the Ministry existing. 

Did that mean I was a coward, because I didn’t want to expose myself like that? Was I just a scared little girl, was I protecting my family, was I… was I… what? What was I? Was my refusal to tell them the truth about everything good or bad? What was the right decision? When was the right time to tell them about who I was? How far did this have to go before I told the full truth? How much did they have to do to prove they were on my side? What did I want from them, exactly? How many times was I going to run these questions through my head. 

Fuck! I didn’t know. I just didn’t know, and I was terrified of making the wrong choice. Which was actually a big reason why I didn’t tell them about me. Because that would be making the choice to do so. A choice I could never change. So I just… didn’t. Somehow, in my head, not telling them spared me from making that choice. At least for the moment. But it was coming. I knew that much. At some point, I was going to have to reveal who I really was and how much I was really connected to this Ministry. 

How would they react to that? I… I didn’t know. I was afraid to think about it. 

Either way, I wouldn’t have to deal with it right now. At the moment, Pack and I were standing alone just outside the storage place, in a dark alley untouched by any of the distant streetlights. That-A-Way had just excused herself, saying she had to get back to her patrol before any of the people on her side noticed anything wrong. She’d paused before leaving, looking at Pack and me for a few long seconds. It seemed like she had been about to say something. But, in the end, she just muttered something about meeting us later to ‘deal with all this’ before teleporting away. 

For a moment, Pack was quiet. The only sound in the alley came from the lizards in the cage crawling around. Finally, she spoke up. “If you don’t have any damsels in distress to save, Eits wants to talk to you too.” 

“What?” I blinked, turning that way. “How’s umm… how is he–” 

“He’s doing better,” she informed me. “Not perfect. We’ve got our own access to special healers, but it’s not an immediate thing. He should be back to normal in another day or two. But he’s up and around. And, like I said, he wants to talk to you. In private. If you’re up to it.”

My head bobbed hurriedly, as I blurted, “Sure, yeah! I mean, of course. If he’s up to it. I just–I didn’t want to push him, or you, or… or the whole situation. I just–I wanna tell him how–” 

Pack interrupted with a raised hand. “Not me,” she said simply. “Whatever you wanna say to him, you can say to him. Just uhh, let’s keep this Ministry stuff to ourselves for now, huh? He’s already gotten pretty hurt once recently. Plus, he umm… he owes Blackjack a lot for helping him transition and all that. I’d rather not make him choose between loyalties right this second. Maybe later, but right now it’s just a bad idea. Let him recover, at the very least.” 

I swallowed hard, thinking about how much trouble Eits might’ve gotten into if my parents thought he was onto them. “Yeah.” My voice was quiet. “I don’t want him to get hurt again either.” She was right, the last thing Eits needed at this moment was to get in trouble again. Even if using his help to break through the security in the mall base would–no. No. The Scions already hurt him really bad once. If something happened to him and it was because of my parents, I’d… I’d… I didn’t know what I’d do. But I wasn’t taking that chance. Not right now. 

With that much agreed between us, Pack and I left the alley. She had a car parked nearby that the two of us slipped into. From there, it was a short drive to some old, beat-up parking lot behind a self-serve car wash. She’d texted while we were on the way, but Eits hadn’t arrived yet. 

Instead, the two of us sat in the car, watching the mostly-empty road as we listened to the lizards in their cage once more. That time, I was the one who found my voice first. “This whole situation is pretty screwed up, huh?” 

Gazing sidelong at me, Pack was quiet before slowly replying, “Something tells me I don’t know the half of how screwed up it is from your point of view.” She shrugged elaborately. “You’re holding stuff back. I get that. There’s parts of this you’re not ready to share. And from what you have shared, there’s probably a good reason for that. Just…” Hesitating, Pack obviously took the time to consider her words. “Just try not to let it bite all of us in the ass, huh?” 

“I’ll do my best,” I promised. What else could I say? I wasn’t going to deny that I still had secrets, or that they could be dangerous, or anything like that. She and I both knew how stupid that would be. But I meant what I said. I would do my best not to let things get even worse. 

Before the other girl could respond, headlights drew our attention to the entrance of the lot, where a gray sedan pulled in. The lights flickered twice, then once before the car pulled up alongside us. I saw Eits sitting in the driver’s seat, though he didn’t seem to be actively holding the wheel or anything. Must’ve been using one of his mites. 

“Go ahead,” Pack urged with a gesture. “He said he wanted to talk in private. And Paintball…” She paused briefly, looking toward me in silence as though she couldn’t decide exactly what to say. Finally, she settled on, “Thanks for trusting me with this. I know I gave you shit about what happened to him, but… but I know you were doing the best you could. It wasn’t your fault.” 

Awkwardly thanking her, and promising that we would get to the bottom of the whole thing, I stepped out of her car and moved to get in the passenger side of the other. Closing the door after myself, I hesitated before looking over to the boy in the driver’s seat. My voice was quiet, and obviously a little strained. “Hey.” 

Eits shifted in his seat to look my way. There was the slightest grunt of discomfort. Soft as it was, I still cringed at the thought that even moving that much hurt at all. “Hey yourself,” he replied. Belatedly, the boy added, “Pack wasn’t giving you too much shit, was she?” 

“I’d deserve it if she did,” I insisted. “I never should’ve asked you to get involved in something that–” 

His hand rose to stop me. “Paintball, stop. If it wasn’t important, you wouldn’t have asked. Hell, if it wasn’t important, those assholes wouldn’t have jumped me. And they wouldn’t have abducted you. I just–fuck, Paints, they’re the Scions. Of course they’re into some really bad shit. But you…” He raised his gaze to mine, staring at me. The diagonal black and gold bands that ran across his face to serve as his mask did nothing to hide the intensity in his eyes. “You didn’t know the Scions were involved before.” 

Quickly, I shook my head. “No. No, of course not. I swear, I didn’t know they were involved. I didn’t know it’d be that dangerous. I mean, I knew it was important or I wouldn’t’ve asked. But if I knew the Scions had anything to do with it, I swear I would’ve warned you. If I asked you at all. I would’ve made sure you had backup, and… and, you know. I would’ve done more.” 

“I know you would’ve,” Eits assured me. He hesitated before adding, “Did you find what you needed at the cabin? Pack said you went back in for a minute after all that.”

Oh God. How much should I say? For a moment, I sat there, frozen by indecision. But… look at what he’d already gone through. I’d already promised Pack we wouldn’t involve him in the rest of this just yet. But I could at least talk about what I’d found a little bit, right? He deserved that, after what he’d been through to get me as far as I was. 

“I found a few toys,” I carefully answered. “They had a code on them that glowed in the dark. The code was to a folder in Seraph HQ, and when I looked at that, I found a bit… more about what I’ve been looking for.” 

That made Eits give a quick doubletake. “Err, how exactly did you look at a folder in Seraph headquarters? You been making friends in high places over there too?” 

Oh, wait, shit. Fuck. He didn’t know about that whole thing. Freezing, I stared at him guiltily from behind my mask and helmet. “Um.” Wow, good thing he couldn’t see my expression. “It umm, I guess it sort of…” Squirming there in the seat, I managed a weak, slow, “They sort of… found out about the program you put on the computer in that shipping company and Hallowed was waiting after I returned the item, so we made a deal for me to do a little work for them in exchange for ‘borrowing’ their equipment?” 

For a moment, Eits just stared at me. His uncovered mouth fell open, a slow, quiet sound of disbelief escaping him. Finally, he managed, “And you didn’t tell me?! I–Paintball, that was my fault! I should’ve–that–I didn’t put everything I could’ve to–I figured a trucking company wouldn’t have–that–you should’ve told me! I was involved in that too.” 

“I know! They know, I mean–” Flushing deeply, I insisted, “It’s okay. I mean–yes, yes I should’ve told you. But it’s over. I’m working it off and they were pretty understanding about the whole thing.” 

Still, Eits shook his head. “Damn it, Paints, if I’d known they were onto that, I would’ve helped you another…” Exhaling, he pointed to me. “You’ve gotta stop trying to do all of this by yourself. I don’t know the half of what you’re up to, but I know it’s big. I know it’s important, and that you’re keeping a hell of a lot to yourself. I’m also pretty sure you’ve told Pack part of it too, a different part than you’ve told me. And I know you’re doing all of it like that because you’re afraid of something even worse happening than me getting a little beat up. But for fuck’s sake, if it’s that big of a deal, you can’t do it alone.” 

I froze, not saying anything. What could I say? I didn’t want to lie to him, but I couldn’t tell him anything more than I already had. Not right then. It was a bad idea even if I hadn’t promised Pack that I wouldn’t get him deeper involved until he fully recovered. 

For a long few seconds, the two of us just stared at each other like that. Eventually, Eits sighed, slumping back a little. “Paintball, we both know you’ve got secrets. Big ones. And you’re obviously keeping them for a reason. Just… just don’t try to do everything all by yourself. Find someone you can trust, even if it’s just to talk to. Even if it’s not me or Pack or anyone, find someone you can unload with. Does anyone beyond me even know that you’re… you know.” 

“A girl?” My head shook, voice quiet as I glanced out the window. “No. You’re literally the only person besides me who even knows that much.” Quickly, I snapped my gaze to him once more, blurting, “And you can’t–” 

“I’m not telling anyone,” Eits insisted firmly. “I already promised I wouldn’t. Your secret is safe with me, I swear, Paintball. That wasn’t my point. Just… you just need someone to talk to. Someone you can trust to just… just vent about all this to. Believe me, as someone who had a hell of a lot of my own venting to do about my situation, it really helps. And bottling it up, trying to handle all of it just by yourself? That’s gonna make things worse. Please. Find someone you can unload this stuff on before it boils up too much, okay? Just try.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? I couldn’t tell him why I didn’t trust anyone with the stuff I knew, or why I didn’t want to burden the people I did at least mostly trust with the whole story. I couldn’t tell him that I still wasn’t sure whether I was protecting other people or my family by keeping it to myself, or what any of that meant to me. It was just too much for me to ‘unload’ like he was saying. 

But I couldn’t refuse either. So, throat dry, I nodded. “I’ll work on it.” That was all I could manage. 

Belatedly, I changed the subject. “Hey, we figured out what my pink paint does!” Yeah, it was an obvious attempt to talk about something less uncomfortable, but still. I really did want to share it. 

From the sound of his voice, Eits was just as aware of what I was doing, but he was curious too. “You did?” 

“Yeah, with a bit of help,” I confirmed. “Uhh, watch.” Carefully, I pointed to the steering wheel and covered about four inches of the top right side with pink. As Eits watched, I reached out, activating the paint before grabbing hold and stretching it up and back to myself. That part of the steering wheel stretched like chewing gum, while the boy beside me made a noise of surprise. 

Letting it go, I watched as it stayed perfectly in place, stretched out like that. It was easily stretched and molded, yet when I released it, the painted thing remained solidly where it was. 

I showed Eits a few more things with it while he watched, obviously enthralled. And while doing so, I realized something else. When I had a nonliving object painted and let the paint run out on its own, it would simply stay where it was, like that bit with the steering wheel. 

But, if I disabled the paint ahead of time, if I focused on turning it off, the object didn’t immediately go back to its normal state. Instead, for just a few extra seconds, it turned sort of… loose-rubbery, for lack of a better word. Like a rubber band. I could pull it out, let go, and it would snap back to where it was when I first turned the paint off. It was only for like three seconds or so. But the point was, I could paint something, disable the paint, yank it out, then it would snap back to the position it was in when I disabled the paint once I stopped holding it back. Again, like a rubberband. 

“Wait, wait, wait.” Quickly, I scrambled out of the car. Pack was still sitting over in hers, apparently involved with her lizards. She looked up and over as I climbed up on Eits’ sedan, even as the boy himself asked what I was doing. 

“Check this out!” I blurted, before spraying the pavement with pink. Instantly, I dismissed the paint and then jumped. As my feet hit the ground, it literally bent under the force of my impact, then snapped back to where it was, launching me several feet into the air. Trampoline. It was like a trampoline. It wasn’t quite the same kind of launch I got from blue paint, but still. It was cool. It was really fucking cool. 

Pack came over to see what the hell I was doing. When I explained, she brought the lizards. Then we let them play, bouncing off the ground and into the air. They seemed to enjoy it, especially when Eits stepped out of the car and stood in a third spot as we all bounced them back and forth. I kept reapplying and dismissing the paint whenever needed, and the three of us played bounce the lizards off the trampoline ground. Pack, of course, made sure her little friends weren’t scared or anything. They seemed to understand what was going on. Which made me feel even more confused about how exactly her power worked and what it did to them. 

Either way, the three of us were laughing throughout all of that. For a few minutes, I forgot everything else. I stopped worrying about that whole stupid situation and just had goofy fun with the two Fell-Touched. I even forgot they were technically villains. We just goofed off with Pack’s lizards, finding things to bounce them off of. I used orange paint to keep them safe from being hurt, and we just… forgot everything else. 

Eventually, the other two had to leave. I thanked them both again, promising Eits that I would think about what he’d said. As I was walking away, however, he called out before coming over to join me. He was moving slower than normal, and wincing a little, but at least he was moving. 

Once the two of us were a bit away from Pack, who studiously paid attention to getting her lizards back in the car, Eits lowered his voice. “I meant to say something before, about that Paige Banners girl.” 

“You said you couldn’t get any more info about her without physical access to the adoption records,” I replied, shaking my head. “I don’t want you doing anything like that. I’ll deal with it myself.” I hadn’t even told him about finding out that Paige was found by those Ten Tower people, or the dead bodies that had been around her. 

“Well, too late,” he retorted. “I already got something for you. It’s not much, but… here.” With that, Eits produced a piece of paper with a name written on it. “Turns out that Paige girl has some kind of history with Ten Towers. Not sure what it was, but one of the Ten Towers Prev troops who was involved in all that sort of went rogue a couple years ago. He’s working as grunt muscle for the Ninety-Niners now. Maybe you can get something out of him about what he saw back then?” He shrugged helplessly. “Sorry, it’s the best I could do.” 

“That’s–” Swallowing, I took the note. “Thanks. But just… just get better, okay?” 

As soon as he promised he would take it easy, I took a running start, spraying blue at the ground in front of me. As my feet hit it, I was launched up and forward. In mid-flight, I sprayed a pink circle into the middle of the billboard I had launched myself toward. Twisting in the air, I activated and immediately disabled the pink, just before my feet hit it. That spot of the billboard bent inward dramatically, bowing in like a trampoline being pushed to its limit. Then it snapped back to normal, hurling me even higher into the air and over the roof of a building. 

Yeah, I had a lot to deal with. But Pack and That-A-Way were going to help. They knew some of it. I had… something approaching friends, even if none of them knew the whole story. And, just as importantly, I knew how to use the pink paint now. I knew how to use all of my powers, I had allies who were ready to help with the whole Ministry thing, and I had a new lead for figuring out Paige’s whole deal.  

Maybe, just maybe, I was finally going to get somewhere with all this. 

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Pink 12-08 (Summus Proelium)

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So, the other two told me about the ‘theory’ online. A joke theory that the real reason I wore a helmet in addition to a mask was because I was hiding a beak. Because my real dad was actually Lucent the raven. 

Once that much was explained, I stared at the two of them open-mouthed. I knew I should say something, but what exactly was I supposed to say? It was so absurd, I just wanted to laugh. So I did. I snorted first, then shook my head as the snort turned into a giggle fit. My hands pressed against the visor as I doubled over, unable to muffle the outright laugh that came next. A bird. People thought, or were pretending to think, that I was part bird. Somehow, in the midst of every bad thing I had to deal with, all the stress that came with figuring out how to investigate my own family’s underground crime ring, finding out more about this secret history with Anthony Tate and Paige that had been erased from my brain, the entire Pencil situation, all of it… all of it was just too much. And this stupid, ridiculous little theory made me start laughing until I couldn’t stop. I was laughing so much I was almost crying. And then I was crying. Only belatedly did I realize that the snickers and laughter had turned into tears. 

The fuck was wrong with me? I couldn’t even laugh properly without crying. God damn it. 

“Um.” Pack exchanged an obviously confused look with That-A-Way before asking, “You okay?”

Forcing down all of those feelings, I nodded quickly. “Right, yeah, sorry. We’re good. I’m good. We just–um, no beak here.” 

“Yeah, we’ve seen you without the helmet,” That-A-Way pointed out dryly. “Otherwise, totally would’ve bought that theory.” She was obviously trying to tease me a little bit, offering a slight smile of encouragement. “So, you wanna figure out this pink paint thing or what?” 

My mouth opened to agree, then I paused for just a second. Something about That-A-Way’s smile, it made me… feel like it was familiar somehow. But that was dumb. Of course it was familiar. I’d seen Way smile before, after all. God, my brain was weird sometimes. 

Shaking that off, I nodded. “Yeah, sure. Hope we have more luck with you guys.” 

“What’ve you tried so far?” Pack asked, setting Riddles on her shoulder to let the bearded dragon look around curiously. 

I shrugged at that. “I’ve kinda been distracted, so I haven’t tested it as much as I should’ve. Mostly I just put it against things, activated it, then tried touching them. Nothing happened. It doesn’t give mind-reading powers or anything, or disguise powers, or flight. I tried putting paint on my shirt and jumping up and down, tried walking through walls with paint on the wall or on myself… It feels kinda funny when you touch it but I can’t figure out what that means.” Flushing a little, I admitted, “I keep getting distracted by other things every time I try to focus on just the paint.” 

“You, getting involved in too much stuff?” That-A-Way made an exaggerated sound of disbelief and a dismissive gesture with one hand. “I don’t believe it.” 

It was a good thing I had a helmet on, because letting those two see me stick my tongue out at her probably wouldn’t have done a lot of good for my whole pretending to be a boy situation. Still, it made me feel better. As did kicking her in the leg to make the girl yelp. 

In any case, we really did need to figure this out. Because having my entire arsenal of paint was important if we were going to pull this off. So, the three of us moved up to the circle I’d painted on the wall, and Pack put her hand against it. “Turn it on? Or whatever you call it.” 

Shrugging, I did so, focusing on activating the paint. “You’ve got ten seconds.” 

“Well it’s not electrified,” Pack pointed out after running her hand over it. She tugged her glove off, revealing dark skin as she pressed her fingers back to the paint. “Check this out, Rosey.”

“Rosey?” I echoed blankly. 

She pointed to That-A-Way without looking. “Compass Rose.”  

“Wha–never mind.” Shaking her head, the blonde girl stepped closer, reaching out to feel the pink circle. “Huh, it–” Then the circle disappeared. “Shit. It definitely didn’t feel like the rest of the cement around it.” 

Pack nodded. “It’s not hot or cold. It didn’t turn anything invisible. I didn’t feel any different when I touched it. It wasn’t… hmm. I didn’t feel different, but that spot definitely felt weird. Not like the rest of it.” 

Way was staring at the spot where it had been, sounding thoughtful. “It felt more like… umm… softer? Yeah, it felt softer. Hey, try it again.” 

Spraying another circle, I watched as the two examined it once more. That-A-Way finally reared back her fist and punched the wall. When she pulled her hand back, there was a noticeable dent in the pink circle, a fist-shaped impression deep in the actual cement. 

“Um.” Frowning, I stepped over there and leaned in, just as the pink disappeared. The wall was definitely dented. The actual concrete had pushed inward, like it was made out of playdough or something. “I’m no expert, but I don’t think cement is supposed to do that.” 

That-A-Way put her hand out, running it along the fist-shaped indentation. “Holy crap, dude. What the hell did that stuff do, make the wall… soft? Your paint makes things soft?” 

Pack stooped, grabbing the wooden broom before holding it up. “Hey, paint this thing.” 

So, I did. Carefully spraying pink over the handle, I activated it and gave her a nod. 

Pack, in turn, gripped the broom handle from both ends and bent it in half. It didn’t break. It didn’t snap. The handle itself bent easily, as Pack basically tied it into a knot. “It’s… it’s like it’s made of rubber,” she announced, as the pink paint vanished, leaving a normal wood broom handle that was stretched out to be thinner than it used to be and wrapped around itself several times.  

“Are you telling me that paint makes things… what, rubber?” That-A-Way asked, taking the tied-up broom to examine it. “Some kind of soft rubber that you can bend and twist around?” 

“Hold on…” Curiously, I held up my own arm, focusing on painting not only my costume, but also my actual arm inside pink. Activating both, I took hold of the middle of my arm with my other hand and very carefully twisted, ready to stop if I needed to. 

It bent. My actual forearm bent. Not like, at the elbow or the wrist, but midway in between. It bent in half as if I had a whole other elbow there. Before even thinking about what I was doing, I grabbed tight and pulled at my arm. It stretched out like it was made of taffy. I twisted it around a few times and yanked it out in two different directions. It was silly putty. My arm was like silly putty. And it didn’t hurt at all. It looked really fucked up, for sure. but it didn’t actually hurt. Actually, it barely felt like anything at all except for maybe a little tingly. 

“Oh, my God!” I blurted out loud while staring at my pretzel-like arm. “That’s what the pink does. You have no idea how long I’ve been trying to figure that out.” 

“Goodie,” Pack muttered. “Excuse me while I go barf in the corner.” 

Of course, the real question was what would happen if my arm, or any body part, was bent and twisted like taffy when the pink wore out. Which was a thought that occurred to me about half a second before that very thing happened. The pink paint wore off, and my arm instantly snapped back to being the way it was supposed to be. It unbent and sort of… schlooped back in on itself just like normal. It was all really quick, almost before I could even think about how bad it might be. 

“Oh fuck!” That-A-Way blurted. “Did that hurt, are you okay?!” 

“Nope,” I replied. “Didn’t hurt. Felt a little weird, but it didn’t hurt. I uhh… guess I’m lucky the power works like that on biological things, huh? Might’ve been bad if it just… snapped or something.” Even as I said that part aloud, my face paled. God, that really would’ve sucked. I probably would’ve been on the ground screaming my fucking head off if my power didn’t put my arm back properly.  

“You guess you’re lucky it works like–” Pack started to echo before cutting herself off with an exasperated sound. “Rose, are you sure about this whole thing? Cuz I think we just got ourselves involved with a lunatic.” 

“Lunatic or not,” the Minority Touched insisted, “he knows more about the truth of what’s going on in this city than anyone.” She gave me a brief look, “And definitely more than he’s said so far. So I don’t think we have much choice right now.” Belatedly, That-A-Way added, “What else do you think that paint can do?” 

“Well,” I offered with a shrug, “let’s find out. I mean, if you guys want to help me some more.”

The other two looked at each other briefly, before Pack replied with a flat, “Duh. Playing with new powers is like… one of the best things in the world. Helping someone else play with new powers? That’s a pretty close second. So yeah, come on, let’s see what else you can do with it.”

Considering what to do for a moment, I held my hand up, painting it pink. “Hey, Way. Pull my f–” 

“If you finish that sentence,” she interrupted sharply, “I swear I will lock you in this shed.” Squinting at me pointedly, the girl carefully reached out to take hold of three fingers at once. “Just… tell me if it hurts,” she advised before gingerly starting to pull as I activated the paint. As expected, my fingers stretched out. Again, it was like pulling taffy. Or gum. I wasn’t sure what was going on with my bones inside, but it probably looked pretty gross. Hell, it looked gross just like this, as That-A-Way pulled those three fingers out until they were a good two feet long.

“Okay, hold up,” Pack quickly put in. “Where’s the extra material coming from? Cuz yeah, your fingers are a bit thinner than they would be, but not that much. That’s two extra feet of skin and… and…” Flailing a bit helplessly, she blurted, “How’s it stretching out that far?!” 

I started to say something, but in the next moment, the paint wore off. Instantly, the pink color vanished and my fingers were snapped out of That-A-Way’s hand with a schlooping noise before they shot back to my hand and into place, practically vibrating from the force of it. 

“Fuck!” That-A-Way jumped, head jerking my way as she looked at my now-normal fingers. “Are you okay?! Did that–are you–” Her gaze was riveted to my hand, voice quiet. “What the fuck?” 

“Nope,” I assured her, as well as Pack, who was also staring intently at me. “I swear, it didn’t hurt at all. Felt a bit tingly or whatever, and sure sounded weird. But it definitely didn’t hurt. I think the effect turns off pain receptors in it or something?” Belatedly, I thought about how useful that by itself could be. If painting something pink turned off physical pain… yeah, that could help a lot. Hell, I’d had that exact thought before, that being able to shut off pain would be great.

Opening and shutting my hand a couple times before pointedly wiggling my fingers, I looked to the others. “See? It’s all good. No problems.” That said, I tilted my head curiously. “You know, my paint affects other people too.” It was too bad I had a mask and helmet on, because it meant they couldn’t see the way my eyebrows were waggling. But I was pretty sure they could guess. 

There wasn’t exactly a rush to be the first to volunteer. Finally, Pack sighed and stepped over, gingerly extending a hand to me. “If this actually does hurt and you’ve been fucking with us,” she informed me, “I swear I will find a way to pay you back.” 

“Trust me,” I assured the girl, “I don’t have that good of a poker face. If that actually hurt even a fraction of what it seems like it should, I would’ve been crying and screaming. I swear, you don’t really feel anything at all. Cross my heart. Which, come to think of it, I might be able to do with this power, if I could twist my chest around the–never mind.” Realizing they were really staring at me by that point, I waved it off. “Here, the point is, it’s definitely not gonna hurt. And even if it somehow acts differently with you than me, we’ll go really slow and careful at first, I swear.” 

Suiting action to words, I painted her index finger pink. Then I very gingerly took hold of the end and watched her face while starting to pull. I heard her sharp intake of breath and saw a visible flinch when the finger started to stretch, and stopped short. But after a moment, she gave me the nod to continue. It had just surprised her. So, I tugged a little more, stretching the finger further. It was now about a foot long and, judging from the lack of screaming, didn’t hurt after all.

“Holy shit!” Pack blurted, head shaking. “Look at that. My finger’s just like–you’re right, it doesn’t hurt. Feels funky, but not really…”  She trailed off, sounding like she felt a bit sick. “Oh man, that’s fucking gross. Totally fucking g–” At that point, the paint wore off and the tip of her finger was snapped out of my hand to sloorp right back into its normal position and length. The suddenness of it made Pack yelp, stumbling backward while grabbing her hand. Then she stopped, staring at it, then up at me. “God damn, dude. You’re right, it just feels really weird.”  

We tested that a little bit more, with That-A-Way’s help too. Very carefully, I let both of them tie two of my fingers into a knot, just to see what would happen. I was ready to instantly paint them again if something went wrong, but wanted to see how my power dealt with that. Better in a semi-controlled environment like this than the middle of a fight, after all. 

As it turned out, there wasn’t a problem. When the paint wore off, my fingers sort of… schlurped in their still-boneless and stretchy forms to release one another before zipping back to their normal positions. The feeling and structure and all that didn’t return until they were back the way they were supposed to be. And no matter how much we tried to tie them up, they were able to go right back to normal. Which made me wonder what would happen if it was somehow physically impossible for a stretched-out body part to get back to the way it was supposed to be. But that kind of extensive (and dangerous) testing would have to come later. Right now, I was still getting the hang of the basics of this stuff. 

We did try a few other things. I stretched my fully-pink arm out and watched as That-A-Way hit it with that metal pipe. She started softly, working her way up to full on, two-handed slamming it into my pink arm. Each time, I didn’t feel anything and the arm just bent inward under the force of the hits. Again, it looked gross and awful, but didn’t actually hurt at all. And each time, once the power wore off, my arm returned to normal with no apparent ill-effect. I tried it with my leg too, with the same result. Everything I used the paint on turned rubbery and could be pulled, stretched, or twisted into new shapes as long as the paint was active. If the thing was biological (or close attached to something biological, like my clothes, I supposed), it went right back to normal after the paint wore off. If it was some random object like the wall or the broom, it stayed the way it had been twisted. 

That, of course, made me wonder how the paint knew which was which. I could see biological things going back to their normal shape as some kind of safety measure, but how did it know to put clothes back to the way they’d been? How did that work? 

Eventually, I even moved on to testing the paint on my lower torso. Painting the costume and my skin pink (Front and back, all the way around, of course), I let Pack take a turn with the pipe. She shoved it into my stomach end-first, and it just kept pushing that in and back. Looking over my shoulder, I watched as a pipe-shaped bit of my pink-painted costume torso started pushing back that way. 

“Oh gross, gross! Nope, I’m done, I’m done.” Pack quickly yanked the pipe away, a moment before my stretched-out insides snapped back to the way they should be. 

“Paintball,” That-A-Way piped up, gesturing to the wall, a blank section near the one that had the fist-shaped impression in it. “Try it over here again, on this part.” 

So, I did. Extending a hand, I shot a circle of pink about a foot across at the wall. As soon as I activated it, That-A-Way shoved both her hands into the wall hard. She was able to, with some effort, grab two handfuls of the rubberized wall and pull them out, yanking the playdough-like cement out, then pushed and molded it until there was a hole in the wall leading into the storage unit next door. 

“Holy shit, dude,” Pack blurted, “do you have any idea how easily you could use this to break into places and…” She trailed off, blinking over toward That-A-Way, who was squinting at her. “Umm… save… puppies and orphans and… something. Whatever.” 

Snorting, I shook my head. “You’re right about one thing. This will make it easier to break into places…

“Like, say… that secret base under the mall.” 

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Pink 12-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Owww, owwww! My head. Fuck, god damn it! Yeah, the next few minutes after I saw those words weren’t fun. I held my head, grimacing and whimpering through the pain, as flashes of… of something worked their way through my mind repeatedly. Flashes of a van? A van. Why was I seeing a van? 

Find Cassidy. Cassidy will help me. 

What in the living fuck was that supposed to mean? Why would Paige Banners say that once, let alone repeatedly? How did she… what… why would… Why? Just why? Once I’d recovered from the rush of pain in my head, that single question and variants of it echoed through my mind for hours, as I worked in a daze to clean up more of that room. I couldn’t just take off the moment I found that file, naturally. That would’ve looked just a bit suspicious (not to mention being wrong considering I was supposed to be working on this to make up for temporarily stealing from them). Still, I couldn’t actually focus on anything I was doing and just went about the work barely noticing the specifics of it. I felt even more lost.

Spending those hours dully and mechanically moving files around and scrubbing things while obsessively thinking about the Paige situation didn’t really help all that much. I still had no idea why she would have asked for me or what she thought I could’ve done. Or why she acted like such a… bitch to me the moment we supposedly met in middle school. Because this had definitely been before that. Paige Banners knew me before I supposedly met her in school. 

Finally, I figured I’d been there long enough and stopped working. By the time I got out to the front area, Tricia was there. The elderly woman greeted me happily, said she’d heard I had the chance to meet Lucent, and offered me a couple cookies from a tupperware behind her desk. I thanked her and said a few more words, but honestly I really wasn’t paying much attention. As soon as possible without being overtly rude, I excused myself and got out of there quickly. 

Once I was out of the Seraph place, I made my way to the roof of a building and just sat down, took my helmet off, and put my still-masked face against my hands. Fuck. Fuck. What did all this mean? What did all of it mean? Why was Paige asking for me? Why did she think I could help her? Why did she suddenly hate me after we met at school? What did all of that have to do with that Anthony Tate kid? Why did Bobby have a secret code on those toys that led to a file all about Paige Banners being found in an alley in some kind of catatonic state or something, next to three dead bodies? How did all of it fit into my lost memory? What picture was this puzzle? 

Right, okay, I could work out some of it if I just stopped freaking out so much. Take the whole thing one step at a time, right? I’d been focused on the shocking revelation that Paige Banners asked for my help, that she’d basically pleaded and begged for them to contact me. Because there was no way that was just some other Cassidy. That would be too much of a coincidence. 

The point was, I’d been reeling from that and stopped really focusing properly. I just had to take this whole thing from the top. First, Paige clearly knew me before I remembered us meeting. The only two possibilities for that I could think of were A: she knew about me enough to ask for me but we’d never met, just as I’d always thought. Or B: I knew her before I remembered knowing her, but that memory had been erased from my mind just like Anthony had been. 

It had to be B. Honestly, that was really the only option that actually made sense given everything I knew. A was technically an option, but I only included it in my thoughts to be thorough. But I shoved it aside for the time being to focus entirely on option B. And then I just sort of let the realization of B’s implications wash over me for a few silent moments, still keeping my face against my hands while sitting alone on that roof in the early evening sunlight. 

I knew Paige before, just like I’d known Anthony. That was the only real answer. I knew her. And not only did I know her, she knew me well enough to tell the authorities that I could help her when they found her catatonic surrounded by several dead bodies in an alley. She’d wanted my help. She’d begged them to have me help her. We had been… we had to have been… friends? 

Fuck. That was the part that made all of this so hard for me to accept. Friends? Paige and I had been friends? Close enough friends for her to beg for the authorities to find me back then. But how? How could I have been friends with Paige fucking Banners when we were children?

Obviously, my friendship with Paige (I just had to accept that it was a thing and move on) had been erased, just like my friendship with Anthony had been. For whatever reason, everything I knew about both Anthony Tate and Paige Banners was erased. To figure this out, to really understand and get anywhere, I was going to have to accept that fact. I had been friends with Paige at some point and my memory of being friends with her had been taken away from me. 

Okay, with that accepted at least tentatively, what next? Paige. This whole thing had happened five years earlier. Both her being found and asking for me and the death of Anthony and his parents happened five years ago. That wasn’t a coincidence either, and it almost certainly meant those two memories, of Anthony and of Paige, were erased for the same reason, right?

I didn’t think that was a stretch. Both incidents being five years earlier and my memories of both being erased… yeah. I’d ‘met’ Paige shortly after that, in the seventh grade. That I remembered. I definitely remembered how much she’d obviously hated me from the very start, how she’d made fun of me for looking like a little boy. Not helped by the fact that I had been skipped forward past the first grade. So in seventh grade, I should have been in sixth. And I would’ve been small for a sixth grader. Which meant… yeah. Paige had basically been the ringleader of kids who taunted me about all that from the very first day we (supposedly) met. 

But why had she acted like we didn’t know each other? Why had her attitude about me changed so thoroughly between the time that she begged for the authorities to find me just months earlier, and when we ‘met’ in the seventh grade, after she had apparently been adopted by the Banners? Was it for the same reason that I didn’t remember her? Did her memory get erased too? Or did she think that I was suddenly ignoring her? Had she spent all this time not knowing that my memory was erased and I had no idea who she was? Was she pissed off because I didn’t help her when she’d needed it, because I hadn’t been there when she asked for me? 

No. No, that didn’t make sense, right? Either her memory was erased or she knew that mine was, otherwise she would’ve approached me. She would have asked me why I wasn’t there for her, why I’d ignored her or whatever she might’ve thought happened. She would have brought it up. If she remembered me and thought I abandoned her or whatever, she would have used that as part of her reasons for why I sucked. And it wasn’t like she would’ve had a hard time convincing people of it. I was a little rich girl. She easily could have used me supposedly ignoring her when she needed help to turn people against me, even if she didn’t give specifics. 

But it never came up. She never even implied that we’d known each other before, as far as I could remember. Not that my memory was exactly the best witness in this whole situation, but still. She didn’t make a thing out of it. Which didn’t make sense unless she either lost her memory too, or knew that I had and deliberately chose not to remind me of it. 

The problem was, I had no idea which of those was right. Why would she not talk to me about any of what happened if we used to be close enough friends for her to ask the authorities to find me. And not just ask, but repeatedly ask. According to that file, asking for my help was basically the only thing young Paige would do. 

I’d used my phone to scan the papers in the file, so I could look through it later. But honestly, I didn’t know what else I could get out of it. Not without knowing more. Maybe the names of the Ten Towers people who had found Paige to begin with could be useful? But even if I tracked them down, what was I supposed to say to them? What was I supposed to ask? That was a whole conversation that I had no idea how to even start. 

So yeah, I was still really confused. And I had to get home, because I didn’t want my parents to start to worry about me. I was going to have to play this easy and safe over the next few days. Especially considering I was planning on seeing if That-A-Way and Pack could meet the next evening to talk about… all that stuff. 

Right. Time to go home for now. I could figure all this out later. Hopefully. 

********

“Okay then!” The two words were accompanied by the sound of a heavy rolling door being shoved upward along its track. That-A-Way, gripping the handle as she held the door up just above head level, gestured. “You wanted privacy, so here’s some privacy.” 

It was the next evening, after Tuesday family dinner with my parents, Simon, and Izzy. I’d managed to contact both Pack and That-A-Way, arranging to meet here at this old storage yard away from prying eyes and ears. Apparently That-A-Way knew the owner and that the cameras in this back area hadn’t worked in months. He didn’t have enough customers to fill up these sheds, so he hadn’t bothered to fix the security for them. As long as we stayed back here away from the management office, we’d be safe. Especially inside one of the storage units. 

Maybe it was a little bit of overkill, but for the things I needed to talk to these two about, I was totally cool with being too paranoid. If there even was such a thing in this kind of situation. 

Standing a bit to the side with her cage full of lizards at her feet, Pack gestured for me to go ahead. “This is your show, Paintboy. So you first. I’m not exactly jumping for joy about sneaking around behind the backs of the people who’re supposed to be part of my team. But if you’re right about some mysterious secret society skimming money off the top, I wanna know about it.” 

Taking a breath, I nodded before stepping into the storage unit. Pack and That-A-Way followed me in, before the latter pulled the door shut. We were in darkness for a moment, then Way found the light switch and flipped it on. Now we were alone in this almost empty unit. There was a broom, a random metal pipe, and a few other bits of trash lying scattered along the floor in this place. But it was about as close to completely alone and safe as we were likely to get. 

Turning to the other two, I told them about the mall base again. I explained about how I’d noticed someone I recognized from the night I’d gotten my powers (leaving out that the person in question was my brother) and followed him to that door. I mentioned distracting the guy guarding it, and how I’d gotten into the hallway, seen the security pad on the inner door, then hid before listening as the guy I’d recognized had the spat with that other guy about being paid. I explained the details about the whole ‘Ministry tax’ as far as I understood it. 

“He said they pay ten percent of the take from any job done in the city,” I informed the other two. “Just for permission to operate in the city. Then it’s another twenty percent for the patrol schedules of heroes in the city for the day of the job. Apparently it’s more than that if the Ministry directly intervenes. The Ministry guy said that they knew exactly how much whatever these biker dudes took was worth, and that thirty percent was forty-six thousand.”

“Wait, a biker dude?” That-A-Way frowned. “Was he like this big, heavy guy with all these tattoos on his arms. One of them was like a… umm, like an eagle with a headband.” 

“Eagle with a headband!” I quickly blurted, nodding while pointing at her. “Yeah, he definitely had that. It was up on his bicep here.” Gesturing to my own arm, I added, “You know that guy?” 

“We’ve met,” the other girl informed me dryly, rubbing her own fist. “I know what that job was too. They stole a couple classic cars. We weren’t supposed to be in the area, but there was this kid with a bike that–never mind. The point is, they got away with a couple vehicles from that museum on Piquette.”

“Piquette–you mean the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant?!” I blurted, my voice rising a bit. “They stole cars from that place? Which ones, did they hurt any of th–” Belatedly, I realized the other two were staring at me, and stopped myself, flushing. “I mean, I didn’t hear about that.” 

Squinting at me, That-A-Way murmured, “Uh huh. Car guy, got it. Anyway, the point is, I had a thing with that guy. He’s lucky he got away.” Pausing then, she frowned intently. “Or maybe not lucky. We were going to chase them, but got called off by Silversmith. He said we were supposed to cut them off on this other route, but they never even went that way.” Her voice was troubled, to say the least. After saying that much, she looked up to me. “You said not to trust anyone on the Conservators, not even Silversmith.” 

Meeting her gaze, I nodded. “I know what I said. We have no idea who they’re working with on the Star-Touched side. But if they have all this power and information, if they can actually influence patrol routes? That’s gotta be pretty big, right. So yeah, don’t trust anyone else. Not now. Not until we know more. Like I said before, this isn’t something you can just put back in the box once it’s open.”

“And part of knowing more is getting into that mall base you were talking about,” Pack pointed out. She’d taken one of her lizards (I was pretty sure it was Tuesday) out of the cage and was rubbing his neck. “So how do we do that without immediately broadcasting who we are? Cuz if both our leaders are in on this,” she gestured between herself and That-A-Way, “they’re gonna know who we are.” 

“I was thinking about that,” I confirmed. “You guys can’t go there in your normal costumes. You’ll need alternate disguises. And you can’t use your obvious powers.” 

“Us?” That-A-Way pointed out. “What about you? If these guys are as big as you say…” 

I shrugged. “They already know I’m investigating them. I mean, they saw me save that Paige girl. What they don’t know is how much I know. But still, we have to be careful. I’d rather avoid having any confrontation if we can help it. So we go in the middle of the night, hopefully after everyone’s gone.”

“And how do we get past that locked door you were talking about?” Pack demanded. “Cuz you know it’s alarmed. Not to mention all the other security measures they’ll have.”

“That’s why we have to find a guy who works in there, wait for him to leave, then…” I hesitated before pushing on. “Then grab him and use his pass key to get in once everything’s locked down.” 

They were staring at me again. That-A-Way managed, “You want to abduct a guy who works in that secret basement and use his passkey to get in?” 

“That’s about the size of it, yeah,” I confirmed. “I can’t think of any other way to do it, can you? We need proof about what they’re doing down there. The whole reason they’re leaving Paige Banners alone is because she has mutually assured destruction material. We need our own. We need to know more. Which means we need to get in that basement, get pictures, video, whatever. I’ve just been flailing around in the dark here. If I’m gonna get anywhere, I have to take some chances.”

“We,” That-A-Way corrected gently. “We have to take some chances. But you’re right. And you’re also right that Pack and I need to hide who we really are. At least until we know more.”

“And speaking of knowing more,” Pack put in, “how about you explain everything your paint is capable of so we know what we can all do? And by paint, I mean the pink one. Because there is a whole thing on Sphere about what paints do what and no one can figure out what pink is. Unless it really does hide the beak.”

That made me do a double-take. “Hide the what?”    

I could’ve sworn she was smirking at me from behind that full face-concealing black mask. “Never mind. But you might want to check out your thread in that place. It’s… right, yeah, never mind. The pink?” 

That made me shrug helplessly. “I dunno. I haven’t figured it out. Here.” I pointed at the nearby wall and sprayed a pink circle onto it. “When I activate it, nothing happens.” 

“Well, good thing you’ve got help now,” That-A-Way informed me. “Trust me, it took awhile for me to figure out how my direction powers worked. Between the three of us, we should be able to crack this little mystery.” 

“Yeah,” Pack agreed. “And if all else fails, we could always ask Paintball’s bird-daddy.” 

“My what?!” 

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Pink 12-06 (Summus Proelium)

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After reaching the Seraph base, I paid a brief visit with Matt Orens, the guard whose son I had agreed to make a storybook for. I let him know that I was still working on that after a bit of an interruption, but that I would get it to him as soon as possible. He said he understood how busy Touched could get, and that I should take my time to make sure it was good rather than rush it just to get it to him sooner. He wanted a good present for his son, not something haphazard. So, I promised to make sure it was as good as possible before excusing myself to head inside. 

Tricia Peppernickle, the elderly lady who had been behind the desk of the administrative building, wasn’t there. Actually, it didn’t look like anyone was behind the desk when I entered. 

“One moment, please!” a male voice called through one of the open doorways nearby. As I glanced that way, the voice added, “Apologies, I shall be prepared to assist you forthwith!” 

“Oh umm.” I shrugged. “It’s okay, take your time. It’s not urgent or anything.” Right, I was only there to help clean up a mess to work off my own crime, and also to secretly snoop around to find out the meaning of that file number that had secretly been written on those toys in Bobby’s cabin. Nothing all that important. Also, forthwith? Who the heck used language like ‘forthwith’? 

As promised, it didn’t take long for the voice in the other room to finish up whatever he was doing. I heard a filing cabinet slide closed, then there was a rush of sound that made me look that way in time to see a small black shape come flying out of there in a flurry of rapidly flapping wings that made me jump back in surprise, a soft gasp escaping me. 

The shape landed on the counter, and I realized what was going on. Duh. It was Lucent, the Touched-Raven who was part of the Seraph. He’d been a normal bird before, just as any Touched-Human, he’d touched one of those special orbs. Any animal who became Touched automatically got human-level intelligence along with their powers. The level of that intelligence seemed to vary somewhat both randomly and based on the animal itself (as did their resulting personalities). In Lucent’s case, from what I’d heard, he was very intelligent. Probably as a result of being part of a species that was pretty fucking smart to begin with. 

It was the first time I’d seen him up close, given he tended to try to avoid the cameras. He looked like a normal (though quite handsome as far as they went) raven with sleek black feathers and a piercing dark gaze as he perched there on the counter and stared at me. A small anklet was attached to one of his feet, and he had what looked like a sort of white… sheath over his beak, with a couple lights on it. As he stared at me, the lights glowed a bit while that same voice emerged from a couple small speakers at the end of the beak sheath. “Aha! You are the hero known as Paintball, yes? It is a fine pleasure and honor to converse with you at last!” 

Everything that came out of him sounded so… excited. He seemed genuinely happy and enthusiastic. It was pretty charming, and I found myself smiling immediately behind my helmet. “Oh, uhh, hi. Lucent, can I–is it okay if I call you Lucent?” I asked a bit awkwardly, unsure of how this sort of thing was supposed to go. Was it rude that I kept staring at him like this? Probably. But come on, he was a talking (even if the Tech-device was doing that part) bird! 

“I quite hope you will, Sir Paintball!” came the crowed (ravened?) response. Somehow, I could almost see the amusement in those dark eyes as the bird gave a sharp, human-like nod. “It is, after all, my name. ‘Twould be quite the inconvenience to have to recall some other moniker to respond to for every person who wished to call my attention.” There was a brief, clearly thoughtful pause before he added, “Though I have been referred to by a good number of far less dignified monikers before and after my ascension, I prefer this one by a substantial margin, I must say.” 

Quickly nodding, I promised, “Oh, I wouldn’t call you anything bad or–I mean, yeah, Lucent. It’s Lucent, got it. Um.” Hesitating, I reached out carefully, raising my hand and extending a single finger toward him, trying to somehow make it look like the offered shake I intended it as and not just like I was pointing at him. Which wasn’t easy. “It’s nice to meet you, sir.” 

The raven’s head tilted sideways, then I heard a sound that I belatedly realized was a soft chuckle. He leaned forward, beak parting to take my finger gently in it. I felt very slight pressure as he bobbed down once before releasing my finger. “Quite!” came the enthusiastic agreement, punctuated by an actual cawing sound directly from the bird rather than the beak device. “I’ve heard such impressive things for a new young hero such as yourself. You have already become a true inspiration in such a short time, particularly to still-maturing hatchlings.” 

Finding myself blushing under the raven’s praise, I shrugged helplessly. “It’s not a big deal. Plus, you know, I did sort of break the law and temporarily steal from you guys. That’s why I’m here.” 

“A small crime for the greater good,” Lucent assured me. “While you should certainly be prepared to make your token payment for it, your intentions were sound and just. I, for one, thank you for the work you did to save that child’s life, regardless of her father’s actions and choices.” 

“Oh, umm… thanks.” Shifting on my feet awkwardly, I asked, “Are you sure I didn’t pull you away from anything important? I just came to do some more of that whole working off my crimes thing.” Honestly, I was torn right then. I really did need to get in there and find that file. But talking to an intelligent bird was also pretty damn cool. I had a lot of questions about bird things and how wild animals worked, but all of them sounded way too personal to get into right away. 

From the way his head tilted the opposite direction from before, I had a feeling Lucent was quite aware of all the questions I wanted to ask. He assured me, “Oh, I’ve done quite enough in there for now. Come, I shall escort you. Ah, that is, if you don’t mind my presence on your arm?” 

After a brief hesitation, I belatedly realized what he meant, and quickly held my arm out, elbow turned to offer a perch for him to land on. “Oh! Yeah, sure.” I tried to sound casual about the whole thing, while inwardly squealing about the handsome and brilliant raven, and how awesome this entire situation was turning out to be. Seriously, I was talking to a freaking raven! An intelligent raven, who was charming and noble and everything. There were some definite upsides to this entire Touched situation, that was for sure. 

With a quick hop and one brief flap, Lucent landed on my outstretched arm. “Tally-ho!” he called before his head turned to look at me. “Ahem, apologies, Sir Paintball. I occasionally excite myself.” He said it with a hint of amusement and self-deprecation. “It is quite thrilling to meet new people whom I have immediate respect for.” 

Shaking my head, I hurriedly assured him while turning to walk, “Oh, it’s really not a big deal. Really. It’s just cool to meet someone like you. I mean a bird that–” And then, in my distraction through all that, I accidentally walked almost directly into the side of the open doorway I’d been trying to pass through. It wasn’t hard or anything, just a bit of a bump. But it was right on my injured side, and still enough to make me yelp, doubling over a bit as my hand quickly moved to grab my ribs. It was the same arm that I’d been using to hold Lucent, forcing him to fly up and away to land on top of the open door. Oww, oww. For a second, I didn’t even think about anything else. I couldn’t think about anything else. The only thing I could focus on was the rush of pain through my side. I hadn’t braced myself for that or anything. God damn it, ow. 

It passed fairly soon. But not soon enough. When I lowered my hand and blinked up to the top of the door, Lucent announced, “Sir Paintball, I have requested the presence of medical personnel. Please take a seat there until they arrive to look you over.” His head bobbed to indicate the nearby chairs. 

“What?” I blinked that way before hurriedly shaking my head. “Oh, no, it’s okay. I’m okay. I mean I’ve already seen a doctor with my family. My ribs got hurt, but it’ll be fine.”

Those piercing, dark eyes seemed to stare through me as Lucent flatly asked, “And are your parents aware of your clandestine heroic activities? Do they know precisely how you were injured, by what, and if there may be additional complications due to it?” 

Hidden behind the helmet and mask, my mouth fell open, then shut, as a blush creeped across my face. “Um. Not exactly,” I admitted weakly, staring at the dark bird perched above my head.

Lucent gave a quick nod, a firm caw escaping him before the lights on the beak-cover flashed along with his voice. “As I suspected. And even if the injury has been adequately looked after despite the vast chasm between what that poor physician knows and the truth, you are still out and about in your Touched identity. Best to have it taken care of right now, before something happens to exacerbate it.” 

“Taken care o–” Belatedly, I blurted, “Patchwork! I–she said I could pay for healing and she’d do it. How…” I felt like slapping my own forehead through the helmet, but that didn’t seem like a good idea. Especially given the way the pain in my side kept flaring up with every small motion I made. “How’d I forget about that?” Seriously, it had entirely slipped my mind that I could have called her for help. Hell, I might’ve been able to get her to fix me up before I even went home the other night. Though, on the other hand, being injured had sold my story about what happened, and might’ve stopped my parents from throwing a harsher punishment at me. Hmm.

Before the bird could respond to that, a Latino guy in a blue medic uniform with short sleeves and intricate arm tattoos came through the other door, the one leading outside that I had entered through. “Alrighty, what do we have here?” He gave a winning smile before gesturing. “Hey there, Paintball. Heard there was some kinda medical alert up here?” 

Oh. At that moment, the thought occurred to me that I might not want some guy I didn’t know feeling up my side to check how my ribs were. I didn’t exactly have the world’s largest chest, to say the least. As plenty of people at school, including Paige, had always been more than happy to remind me. As evidenced by my ability to pose as a boy wearing these coveralls. But I wasn’t totally flat either, and if some guy started pushing his hand against my stomach and side, pushing the costume flat against my–right. Yeah. That was probably a bad idea for my secret. 

Somewhat awkwardly, I stammered, “O-oh, no, it’s okay. I um, I had a doctor look at it before, but I forgot about Patchwork. She said I could pay her to fix me up sometimes and I don’t–um, I don’t mind doing that. You know, if she’s not busy. Or I could just wait. No big, I mean I made it here, and I really doubt I’m gonna suddenly get into a big fight or something in the middle of Seraph headquarters, right? Haha… ha…” Trailing off, I squirmed a little, telling myself to shut it.

From the look that the medic guy and Lucent exchanged, they definitely noticed something strange about how I was acting. Which was totally strange, because I’d been so cool and smooth about the whole thing. How ever did they pick up on my super-subtle reaction? 

Still, the medic didn’t push things when I was obviously uncomfortable. He did introduce himself as Max, asked me what happened (I told him a bad guy hit me with some kind of Tech weapon) and said that Patchwork was on her way up. He asked how it felt, if I was having trouble breathing or had been having such trouble earlier, where exactly it hurt, what the doctor who had looked at me had said, and so on. But he didn’t touch me, and stayed perfectly respectful. I had a feeling these guys were accustomed to dealing with people with plenty of secrets and/or trauma. 

It didn’t take long for Patchwork to arrive. As before, she came through one of the interior doors, dressed, as always, in her costume of a black mesh shirt over green chest armor, black leather pants, motorcycle boots, and a green visor that covered the upper half of her face. Her hair was still short, spiky, and green. 

“The fuck, man?” she demanded upon seeing me. “You go and get yourself busted up already? What, were you just waiting for an excuse to go a few rounds with Cuélebre or something?” As soon as she said it, the woman smacked her own forehead. “The fuck am I saying, you went after that cocksucker twice before we even met. I must’ve been outta my goddamn mind when I offered to play hero bandaid for you.” Despite her words, she was clearly teasing. At least, I was pretty sure she was teasing. Mostly. 

“Sorry,” I mumbled, flushing a bit. “I didn’t mean to get hurt, trust me. And I can totally pay you. Or wait if you’re busy, or–” 

“Shut the fuck up,” she interrupted. “Don’t you know how hard it is to bitch about having to do my job when you’re so fucking ‘nice’ about it? Takes all the fun out of the situation.” 

Blinking a couple times, I hesitantly asked, “You… have fun yelling at people about healing them?” 

The toothy grin she gave me was almost feral. “Everyone’s gotta get their jollies somehow.” Sobering, the woman added, a touch more quietly, “I see plenty of bad shit out there, kid. Fucking with people like you, the ones who don’t have half their body ripped open, that’s how I keep going. Like I said, everyone’s got their own ways. But seriously, don’t be such a fucking martyr about it, kid. Someone’s giving you shit you don’t deserve, you throw right back at ‘em. You got hurt being a hero, out there helping people. Someone like me starts giving you shit, don’t be a meek little bitch about it, tell that piece of shit to fuck off.” She punctuated those last two words by smacking the back of her right hand against her left palm hard enough to make the sound echo through the room. “Get it?” 

“I think you just called yourself a piece of shit,” I pointed out a bit mildly before nodding. “But uh, other than that, sure. Got it. Stand up for myself.” 

“Damn straight.” Stepping over to me then, Patchwork asked what was wrong. When I told her, she touched my side. I tensed a bit, but her hand was fairly low. After feeling the injury gently, she agreed with Dr. Roev, but said she could fix it easily. Which she did, simply by calling Max the medic over. Touching one hand against his chest, she copied the healed state of his ribs, then touched my side once more and transferred it to mine. 

Oh my God. The relief was instantaneous. I almost cried. Only when the pain was gone did I fully realize just how much it had lowkey been omnipresent. Sure, it had only actively and consciously hurt when I moved too fast, twisted around, or whatever. But there had been a constant low-ache that made it impossible to be fully comfortable no matter what I was doing. Now, that was gone. I felt totally normal again. 

“Holy shit,” I blurted, “I could kiss you.” 

“Try it, and I’ll triple your fucking fee,” came the snapped retort, followed belatedly by, “… make that quadruple.” 

“Ouch,” I managed. 

“Now, now,” Lucent piped up, “be nice to the poor lad, Lady Patch.” 

“Told you before, bird, I ain’t no lady.” Squinting up at the intelligent corvid briefly, Patchwork then turned her attention back to me. “Back to my payment. You ahhh… shit, you got twenty bucks, kid? Cool if you need to get back to–” 

I immediately unzipped one of the coverall pockets, dug around inside to find the wad of cash there, carefully extracted a single bill from what I’d brought along for getting a new phone and costume pieces (without showing just how much was in there), and handed it over. “Wouldn’t want you to have to come break my legs for not paying. Then I’d have to pay you even more for healing them.” 

For a moment, the woman squinted at me. Then she gave a short, sharp laugh before shaking her head. “You’re okay, kid. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got other shit to do.” 

She left, taking Max with her. After that, Lucent hopped from the door to my offered arm once more, and we walked together down the hall. I input the guest code that Patchwork had given me, thanked Lucent for the escort (and for talking to me), then got to work in the room once more. 

Or at least, I started to work. I did that just long enough to make sure I was really being left alone for the time being. Then I took a moment to quickly and quietly look through the large stacks of files and folders I’d already put together before that were waiting to go into the cabinets.

Okay, so first I had to locate a folder with a name ending with that original Ten (Three at the time) towers symbol. Right before that would be a four. And the first four digits were either six, two, three, nine, or three, nine, six, two. One of the toys had had a six and a two on it, the other had had a three and a nine. So that was what I needed. A folder with those five digits, in one of those two potential orders, followed by the Three Towers symbol. 

Granted, there was always the possibility that I’d run into both of those. But somehow I doubted it. And if I did, I’d just figure out through context which one was right. Hopefully. 

It wasn’t an issue, as it turned out. After about forty minutes of looking (mixed with actually doing the job I was supposed to be doing), I found the folder in question, with Six-Two-Three-Nine-Four, followed by the symbol. As soon as I found it, a sound of excitement escaped me, before I hurriedly glanced around. Nothing. No one was here. Sobering, I took a moment to collect myself before opening the folder to see what the hell Bobby had left that secret code for. 

The folder was fairly thin. There wasn’t much in there. It looked like a medical file for an incident five years earlier. The patient was a Jane Doe, an estimated twelve-year-old girl who was brought into Seraph medical by a couple Ten Towers Star-Touched for immediate care. According to the handwritten notes in the file, the girl was found unresponsive next to three dead bodies in an alley. She was alive and conscious, but in some kind of vegetative state, likely a result of trauma. The doctor noted that within ten minutes of her arrival, she apparently snapped out of the state… sort of. Apparently she kept repeating two sentences over and over again, one with two words, the other with four words. 

The first sentence was ‘Find Cassidy.’ 

The second was ‘Cassidy will help me.’ 

Staring at the words on the file, I felt a chill run through me. Cassidy. Me. There was no question. None. With a shaking hand, I turned the paper to look behind it. Nothing. Wait, no, there was a photograph, like a Polaroid or whatever. It was stuck to the back of the paper. Gingerly, I tugged the photo away and looked at it. The picture was of the patient who had repeatedly begged these doctors to ‘find Cassidy’ and that ‘Cassidy will help me.’ And the girl in that picture was instantly recognizable, even if she was several years younger than she was now. 

Paige. 

It was Paige.

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Pink 12-05 (Summus Proelium)

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I had a dozen texts and three voicemails from Wren once I tore my replacement phone out of its plastic packaging, set it up, and downloaded my old Touched phone data to it. Mostly they were a three-to-one mix of her being terrified of what had happened to me and her wanting to show me the stuff she’d been working on. Apparently she and Fred had already started moving stuff back to the old shop, and she had some spiffy new defenses she wanted me to see. 

So, I called her up to let the girl know I was on the way and that I was fine. Fine enough, at least, that she really didn’t need to know how sore I felt or how much my ribs hurt if I turned too fast or bent over. Yeah, I wasn’t going to make her even more worried. She was a kid, and was still trying to put her own life together. No way was I going to put something like that on her. 

Wren hurriedly informed me that she and Fred were at the old store right then, and I promised I’d be there soon. After that, it was just a matter of getting another ride over to that general area, using a random roof to (somewhat awkwardly) change into my costume (sans the helmet, which was still back with the damn Scions), then heading over to the pawn shop itself. On the way, I kept a sharp lookout for anything out of the ordinary. Yeah, people weren’t after the vials anymore and most knew that attacking a Tech-Touched on their own turf was a bad idea. Not to mention the fact that very few should have any idea a Tech-Touched lived there. But still, the whole idea made me nervous. I really wanted to tell Wren to give it up. Except this was her dad’s store. There was no way she would just walk away from it, no matter what the potential danger was. Getting her to create defenses was the best I could hope for. Well, that and hoping that if things were actually bad, Fred would insist they leave. 

Stepping through the front door, I found the main floor of the shop looking about the same as it had the first time I was there. It was, of course, still an enormous open space about as wide as the school gym, with dozens of shelves scattered around that were filled with all sorts of seemingly random stuff, while the central third of the space was several feet lower than the rest, with various built-in steps leading down into that pit area. 

The same four glass counters formed the same rectangle around the space where the clerk worked. As I entered, both Wren and Fred were there, busy talking about something. The moment the bell dinged, Wren blurted my name (well, Paintball at least), slid off the counter she’d been perched on, and dashed my way. Two steps into it, the wings popped out of her metal backpack thing and she glided the rest of the way before landing right in front of me. Then I was being hugged tightly. Luckily, I saw it coming and popped an orange circle onto my back for defense so I wouldn’t crumple from the force of it. As it was, I had to grit my teeth tightly, managing a weak, “Hey, Wren. Sounds like you’ve been pretty busy lately, huh?”

Pulling back a bit, the little blonde nine-year-old squinted up at me, very obviously annoyed. “Pretty busy? Pretty busy? You go off and almost get yourself killed and all you have to say about it is that I’ve been busy?!” She gave a loud huff, folding her arms. “You’re in trouble.” Despite her words, it was obvious that it took a lot for her to sound as stern as she did. The kid was trying as hard as she could to be serious and let me know just how upset she was without too much squeeing and hugging. 

Still, I knew she was right, and had to wince at how much I’d obviously upset her. “Sorry. I guess Pack let you know what was going on then?” Obviously, just being scolded by That-A-Way and Pack herself hadn’t been enough. I had to have Wren and her puppy eyes sicced on me too.  

“I was trying to call you and you never answered,” she informed me in a sad voice, head shaking. “So I asked Pack if you were okay and she told me what happened.” Again, the girl squinted at me. “She said you got in trouble cuz you said you had help but you didn’t.” 

“That’s… about the size of it,” I confirmed while cringing a little bit. “I definitely learned my lesson, believe me. I won’t do something like that again. If I say I have help, I’ll have help.” 

“Good.” That was Fred, as the man approached. “Cuz I really don’t wanna have another night of sitting up with the kid until someone actually bothers to let us know that you’re okay.” 

“My phone was broken,” I mumbled helplessly. “And I had my own parents to–I’m sorry. I’m sorry I made you worry, Wren. I’m sorry I made both of you worry. But seriously, I’m okay. And I really want to see what you’ve been doing over here. Are you sure it’s safe to be in this place?” 

“Don’t worry,” Fred informed me, “I told the kid we couldn’t come back here until she had a fool-proof way of getting us out if anything went wrong.” As he said that, the man waved a hand, showing me the watch attached to his wrist. “It’s a teleporter linking this place to the other shop. Something happens, just push the face in and say the command. Then poof, we’re not here.” 

Wren showed me her own watch, nodding eagerly. “And I’m working on one for you! That way if you get caught again, you can just teleport away.” Squinting pointedly, the kid added, “I’ll hurry and make it faster, cuz you get in trouble a lot.” 

She wasn’t wrong, but I still made a huffing noise. I would’ve stuck my tongue out at her, given my lack of a helmet, but that seemed a bit childish at the moment. “Just make sure you guys are safe here first. You can really teleport out as soon as anything happens?”

Her head bobbed up and down quickly. “Uh huh! And there’s another defense too, you wanna see?” Even as the girl said that, I could see the mix of eagerness and mischievousness in her eyes. Apparently, whatever she wanted to show me was really funny. 

Glancing to Fred briefly, I waited until he gave a subtle nod before agreeing. “Okay, let’s see.” 

With an excited squeaking sound, Wren cleared her throat before loudly declaring, “Intruder defense Alpha-Zero-One engage, ninety percent.” 

As soon as she said that, I heard a weird… humming sound. It filled the room, and I started to look around. But then a blur went rushing past me. It was Wren. She went from standing in front of me, to the door behind me, to the counter, back to one of the other shelves, then back to me, then to a shelf on the far side of the room all in just a brief few seconds. 

The same thing happened with Fred, as he vanished into the elevator leading upstairs, then came back, then checked on something at the register, then came to me with something in his hands all before I could so much as raise my hand. He held it up, and I belatedly realized it was an analog clock. As I stared at it, the second hand spun rapidly. In the brief four seconds or so that I watched, about three minutes passed. 

Finally, I saw Wren open her mouth. The sounds she made came out in a rush so fast they didn’t sound like words. At least at first. But finally, humming sound stopped and I heard the tail end of her saying, “– and restore to default security measures.” 

Things were back to normal. My gaze snapped around quickly, as I blurted, “Wren, are you screwing around with time stuff?! Are we–we’re not–you didn’t–” 

With a giggle, the younger girl shook her head. “No, see, there wasn’t any time travel or anything. I mean, not like you’re thinking. The defense system targets intruders and makes them slower. Everything else was moving at normal speed. You were just moving and thinking really, really slow so everything around you seemed really fast. See, you were in there for fifteen minutes and to you, it was only about thirteen seconds. That way, if anyone comes in who isn’t supposed to be here and we turn on the defense, we have time to do basically anything. Even call for help if we need to.” 

As she finished explaining all that, Wren stared at me eagerly, eyes shining with delight as she blurted, “Isn’t that cool?!” 

I didn’t even have to exaggerate my agreement as my head bobbed. “It’s totally cool, Wren. You outdid yourself with this. Nonlethal and super-effective. How long can it keep going like that?” 

Squirming a little, the girl admitted, “Only about twenty seconds or so of slow-time. But we’re working on getting the time up and cutting the energy use. And that’s almost half an hour real-time, which is plenty for us to do a lot of things while any intruders are basically frozen, you know? Even if it’s just leaving.” 

“You’re right, a lot can happen in half an hour.” I gave her a thumbs up that made her grin happily before asking, “So teleporters to escape and this slow-down effect as soon as intruders get in. Can that be automatic or do you have to actually give the command like you did just now?” 

It was Fred who answered. “Either-or. Kid set it so we can set it off manually, or tie it to an alarm for whenever the shop’s not open. As long as no one else but us is supposed to be here, if anyone does show up, it slows them down and lets us know what’s going on.” 

“And there’s gonna be more!” Wren insisted. She was bouncing up and down with excitement. Which, considering her jetpack wings were still out, actually sent her up above my head, then back to the floor with each bounce. It was enough to make me snicker a bit before containing myself. Meanwhile, she was still explaining. “I’ve got ideas about Flingbeams, they’re–err, wait, I’m not gonna say it yet cuz they might change. Also they’re a surprise. But they’re gonna be cool! No one’s gonna break Dad’s store again. I mean, not without being hurt a lot and stuff.” 

“As long as you’re safe,” I agreed, glancing to Fred before adding, “I don’t think you being here is exactly common knowledge or anything, but you should still be careful. Especially with Braintrust out there and interested. If anything seems fishy, you jump out of here and worry about details later, okay? Call me, call Pack, call whoever you need to for help.” 

“Don’t have to tell me twice to look after our skins,” Fred assured me. The man gave a very slight self-deprecating smile. “Seriously though, what the kid said before, that goes for me too. You’ve done… right by us, even when I didn’t really deserve it. Don’t go getting yourself in hot water like that without help of your own. You uhhh…” He coughed, sounding self-conscious suddenly. “You’re a good one, so don’t be an idiot and get killed.” Belatedly, the man added, “Who’d bankroll the kid’s business without you, huh?” He sounded more comfortable then. 

Snorting, I gestured vaguely. “Silly me, I can’t die without making sure Wren’s Nest becomes the best tech shop in the city. Maybe one of you could write a note so I could give it to the next person who tries to stab or shoot me?” 

My reward for that was a poke in the stomach from Wren (luckily she didn’t jab higher or I might’ve yelped), as she countered, “What about a new helmet instead? Pack said yours got lost or something, and you don’t have a replacement yet.” Her hand waved toward my simple mask. “You weren’t gonna go get into another fight without something to protect your head, were you?” There was definite recrimination in her voice at that idea.

Quickly, I raised both hands while shaking my head. “Nope, no, ma’am. I just didn’t wanna make you wait anymore. I was gonna go get a new helmet after this, before I… umm, do the next thing on my list.” After defusing that quickly, I blinked before adding, “Wait, new helmet?” 

“It’s not super, super special like the boots,” she lamented. “I didn’t have time to do that much with all the stuff I was making for the shop. But it’s still something! And I’m totally gonna improve it later, in different versions, I swear.” With that, she turned and launched herself into the air and clear across the room, soaring over a dozen random shelves to reach the far side of the central counter, where she started digging through a few different bags. 

While she was gone, Fred glanced to me. His voice was quiet. “You seen a doctor about those ribs?” When I shot him a quick, surprised glance, he snorted. “You’re good at hiding things from the kid. But I saw how you reacted when she hugged you, and that poke. I’m not gonna scare her, just… you saw someone who could take care of it, right? If not, I think I can–” 

“I saw someone,” I hurriedly assured him. “A doctor, I mean. It’s–it’s a long story, one I can’t get into. But he looked at me and… and it’ll be okay.” Belatedly, I added, “Um, thanks. You know, for caring.” I knew the whole thing sounded awkward. It felt awkward. Still, it was the best I could do. 

Before Fred could respond to that, Wren was back. She had, as promised, a helmet in her hands. It looked almost identical to my last one, with the front part that could be pushed up out of the way while still leaving the secondary visor in place across my eyes. This helmet, however, had what looked like two small headlights built into either side of it, facing forward. It also had a little speaker grill bit built into the front (the part that could be pushed up out of the way when I opened the helmet). 

Wren quickly explained while handing the helmet over. “See the volume thing on the left side? You can push that up to project your voice really loud. You know, if you need to shout over people or call out to someone. It’s like a megaphone. And the lights are for when it’s dark and you don’t want to use the night vision.” 

Raising an eyebrow (which was dumb considering she couldn’t see it anyway), I asked, “Night vision?”  

The kid’s head bobbed up and down so fast I thought it might fall off. “Uh huh! Of course there’s night vision, what kinda amateur do you thi–never mind.” Giggling despite herself, she informed me, “there’s night vision and thermal vision, you just have to say ‘night vision engage or night vision disengage’ or ‘thermal vision engage and disengage’ while you’re wearing it. You can whisper it too. Or touch that button there right next to the main visor for three seconds, then let it go for night vision and five seconds then let it go for thermal vision. Then touch it again to go back to normal.” 

Turning the helmet over in both hands, I smiled like an idiot before managing, “Wren, that’s really cool. I didn’t–I mean I don’t–I mean thanks.” 

It was her turn to blush a bit, squirming in the air (she was hovering about a foot off the ground) before hurriedly explaining, “That’s not all. There’s one more thing. Put the helmet on and pull the front down.” 

So, I did as she asked. The helmet fit snugly in place, and I slid the front part down, making it lock in place before giving her a thumbs up. “All good so far.” 

“Okay!” With clear excitement, Wren explained, “Now say, ‘Map me, then give an address or a request, like ‘nearest McDonalds.’” 

Considering that briefly, I settled on, “Map me the Henry Ford Museum.” 

As soon as I said that, a few images appeared on the visor in front of my face. At the bottom, which I could only read by focusing my eyes that way, were the words Henry Ford Museum and an address. In the top right corner of the visor was an arrow pointing me in the right direction, along with a thing telling me how many kilometers away I was. 

Wren pushed on quickly. “The arrow appears on the side you need to turn to, or right at the top if you just need to go forward. You can say ‘dim map’ to make it go away so you can focus, then ‘raise map’ to bring back the same thing without asking directions again. Or you can say ‘end map’ to turn it off completely.” 

“Wren, this is…” Swallowing hard, I leaned over to hug the girl as tightly as I dared. “Thanks. This is awesome. Seriously. Between this and the shoes, you’re really decking me out.” 

With a clearly self-conscious giggle, Wren insisted, “It’s nothing big. I can do better. I will do better. You know, with more time, and… and everything. I’ll make it better.” 

“This is enough for now, I swear.” Smiling, I nudged the girl while releasing her. “Really, take care of your shop and all that. You’re just… you’re awesome. Thanks.” 

After that, I stuck around for another twenty minutes or so, just hanging out and making sure Wren knew how grateful I was. And, of course, reassuring her that I really was okay. With a promise to check in soon, I excused myself. It was time to go visit the Seraph base and hopefully find out just what the hell was in that file once and for all.

And hey, with this fancy new helmet, at least I wouldn’t get lost. 

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Pink 12-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow was going to be a long day. 

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pink 12-02 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on, let’s go see this race.”

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Pink 12-01 (Summus Proelium)

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It was a good thing that the next day was Saturday, because there was no way I was going to be able to go to school. I was completely out of it, dead to the world (metaphorically rather than literally thanks to Pack and the others) until almost noon. Even then, it felt as though only a few minutes had passed from the time I closed my eyes to the time I woke up staring blearily at the outline of bright, middle-of-the-day sunlight coming in through my closed blinds. 

For another couple minutes, I just lay there, staring at the hints of light while trying to get my mind around everything that had happened the day before. After being abducted and nearly killed by the Scions, rescued by Pack, That-A-Way, Broadway, and Skip working together, having to lie to my parents by making up a story about where I’d been all night (and subsequently being examined by a doctor), being punished by having the time it would take me to get an actual car extended, and what else…? Oh right, telling Pack and That-A-Way about the secret organization running both the good and bad guys in the city without actually mentioning that the people at the head of that organization were my own freaking parents

Yeah. It was a lot. I’d had a busy day. No wonder I’d slept so long. It was a wonder I wasn’t some gibbering wreck in the corner, to be honest. And I still hadn’t been able to find Bobby, even though that had been the entire point of that endeavor. Though I did have that code off the toys that I’d found in the cabin. A code for something I didn’t know anything about. Oh, and of course, Eits was still hurt. Eits had been hurt because I asked him to look into that for me. 

That thought, of Eits lying there in that bed, made my eyes close. I shuddered a little, terrified just at the memory of seeing him like that. Knowing that he was there because of me was just… too much. I couldn’t stand it. And I couldn’t lay there anymore. I had to distract myself from that. 

A sudden weight shift on the bed made me jump. Izzy was there, picking herself up from the bottom of my bed, where she had apparently laid down. “Sorry,” she managed, blushing a little. “I was waiting for you to wake up but I guess I… fell asleep.”

Even as she said it, the girl was yawning. Which made me realize, “Wait, you were… you were up for a long time waiting for me, weren’t you?” Saying that, I felt a renewed rush of guilt go through me. The thought of Izzy sitting up, worried for so long without any way of knowing where I was or what had happened, somehow it made me feel even worse than I had about making my parents worry. Izzy hadn’t asked to be involved with any of this, she was innocent. 

A slight flinch crossed the younger girl’s face before she admitted hesitantly, “I tried to cover for you, but it umm… it didn’t work.” Looking guilty, she stared at me with wide eyes. “I’m sorry.” 

“You’re…” I had to do a double-take at that, staring right back at her. “You’re sorry? What–Izzy, no.” Quickly, I scooted down to that end of the bed to sit next to the other girl. “You don’t have to be sorry about anything. It was my fault.” Technically it was the Scions’ fault, but I’d never say that to her. “I’m the one who made a mistake. I’m the one who–never mind. It’s okay. You don’t have to feel guilty just because you couldn’t stop my parents from realizing I never came home. I promise, it’s okay.” With that, I put a hand on her shoulder. “So knock it off, alright?”

Izzy hesitated, looking at me with a surprisingly intense stare for someone who wasn’t even quite yet a teenager. Finally, she gave a short nod. “But you’re not in too much trouble?” 

I made myself shrug. “Yeah, I sorta have to wait longer before I finally get to drive once I pass my test and all that. I’ve been looking forward to it basically since I was old enough to know what a car was, and now it’s further away.” It wasn’t all that hard to make it sound like the punishment was as bad as it was supposed to be, because driving really had been incredibly important to me up until recently. I still wanted to, of course. I just… had bigger things to worry about. Much bigger things. But I could still make that sound pretty convincing. 

“I’m sorry,” Izzy quietly said once more, this time adding, “I hope your parents weren’t super mad.” 

“We worked it out,” I assured her. “But I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to go anywhere today. So, you wanna play some more of that game from before?” 

There was a moment of hesitation before she nodded. “Uhh, okay.”

“Great. But breakfast first,” I insisted. 

“I don’t like to get my butt kicked on an empty stomach.” 

******

So, I basically played games and watched movies with her all day. It was pretty much all I could stand to do with the pain in my side and how exhausted I felt. Not to mention how much my parents kept either checking up on us or having one of the staff do so. They also had me take several special pills that were supposed to help my body heal faster. It wasn’t like an instant cure or anything, but still. It also made me a little woozy and sleepy, another thing stopping me from going out or doing much. 

But that was okay, I needed the break. I would get back to everything else soon enough. For that one day, I just spent time with Izzy. That was good enough. 

Then it was Sunday, and I felt a little more like myself. After getting up, showering, and dressing, I emerged from the bathroom to find my dad there. He enthusiastically told me that he was taking Simon, Izzy, and me out to visit the racetrack just outside the city, and that we would make a day of it. We were going to get lunch, see some cars and races, tour the track, then get dinner. It was going to be a whole thing. And, of course, it would allow him to keep an eye on me to make sure I didn’t have any kind of lingering effects from that whole head injury thing. He didn’t actually say that part, but I picked up on it pretty easily. 

I also couldn’t really argue. Of course the old me would be ecstatic about going to see the cars at the track with my dad. If I tried to demur or wasn’t into it, he’d know something was wrong. He’d be even more suspicious. Hell, he might try to find out if I was some kind of shapeshifter  Touched who had stolen his real daughter, given the circumstances. So I had to do this, and make it seem like everything was just hunky-dory. No matter how much I really didn’t want to. 

Besides, Izzy was going, and there was no way I’d abandon her like that. I wasn’t going to leave her to go out with my father. Especially not when I still didn’t know what that whole situation was. If something happened to that girl while she was out with Dad and I wasn’t there, I… I’d feel even worse than I did about Eits getting hurt. 

So, I was going. I made a point of thanking my father, hugging him, promising that I would never do anything as stupid as skating alone in a construction zone again, then hurried into my bedroom. As soon as I was out of sight with the door closed, I turned off the excited act, the bright smile melting from my face as I turned to look in the mirror. Yeah, I was going to have to keep that up all day, wasn’t I? That was just great. 

“Cassidy?” The sound of Izzy’s voice from over by my window, where the other girl had been standing, made me jolt with surprise. That was the second time in less than twenty-four hours that she’d startled me. When my gaze jerked that way, her face was scrunched up uncertainly. “Are you really okay? You…” Again, there was a brief hesitation, as if she wasn’t sure she should actually say anything. “You looked sad.”

Quickly, I bobbed my head. “Yeah, sorry, I was just thinking about… stupid things. No big deal. Seriously, how could I be sad when we’re going on this awesome little daytrip, right? You–wait, do you even like cars?” It only occured to me at that moment that this whole thing might not actually be much of a fun event for her if she wasn’t actually into this stuff the way I was. 

Sure enough, the other girl offered me a helpless shrug, looking self-conscious. “They’re okay,” she offered weakly. “I mean, your parents have a lot of really pretty cars, but I don’t know what the big deal is about engines and models and all that. It goes vroom and takes people places.” 

“Goes vroom and–” Adopting a scandalized look, I poked her. “Yeah, trust me, there’s a lot more to it than that. Good thing we’ve got today to get you into it.” Winking then, I added, “It’s okay if you’re really not though. Maybe it’ll still be nice to get out of the house and walk around? Plus, they have some pretty good snacks at those places. Suuuuper buttery popcorn. And the places my dad’s gonna take us to for lunch and dinner… oh believe me, you don’t wanna miss that.”

“Okay, okay,” Izzy retorted with a little snicker, clearly realizing how much I was trying to play it up for her. “You’re right, I do want to get out of this place. I want–” She stopped abruptly, though it had been clear that she’d been about to say something important. But then something flashed across her face. It was a weird expression, like… sad and lost, but also furious. Then it went away just as quickly as it had appeared. 

“Izzy?” I pressed just a little bit, not even thinking about my own things in that moment. Not after the brief flash of whatever that was that I’d seen in her eyes at that moment. Izzy was really upset about something. Not an immediate thing, but… but something. Even though I’d only known her for a very short time, seeing her look like that made me want to find whoever made her feel that way and… and do bad things. “Are you okay?” Now I felt like our positions had flipped. It was me asking her if she was alright after I’d seen an expression on her face. 

Wait, did that mean that whatever she was going through was similar to what I was going through? Did… was one of Izzy’s parents or another family member a supervillain? Maybe Izzy had found out and that was why she was here, being kept safe from Touched on either side and the authorities. Could that explain the vulnerable, yet angry look I’d seen, and everything else? 

It could. It really could. I couldn’t really think of any part that it didn’t cover. Izzy finding out that someone really close to her, my guess was one or both parents, was a supervillain and then being ‘protected’/hidden away… it would make sense. It gelled with everything I’d seen and answered a lot of questions. Especially about why she seemed so open sometimes, but also guarded. And why she would be especially sensitive to any relationship I had with my own parents. That made a disturbing amount of sense. 

Yeah, I was pretty sure that was it. But who? Who was Izzy’s supervillain parent or parents? That was all I could think about as the two of us left my bedroom and headed downstairs to where Dad and Simon were already waiting in the main foyer by the front door. I was distracted from those thoughts as both of them loudly and (clearly intentionally) obnoxiously complained about how long it had taken for us to finally join them, making a whole production out of it. 

“See?” I started conversationally while looking at the younger girl beside me. “This is why going to someplace with a lot of noise like a racetrack is a good idea. Because it’s so loud you can’t hear the boys whining all the time.” Saying that, I winked, pointedly ignoring the wounded sounds and looks while Izzy snickered.

“Okay, okay,” Dad began with a shake of his head. “Let’s get this show on the road. Jefferson’s bringing Big Sal around, and you know how much of a bad idea it is to make that man wait.” 

Yeah, apparently even my own father didn’t like to take our time-obsessed driver off his schedule. Obviously most of that was just playing with us around, but still. Jefferson was not a man who enjoyed surprises or things that made him late once his day was planned. 

We moved out of the house to the front drive, where Big Sal (our imposing black SUV with heavily tinted windows) pulled up just in time for Jefferson to step out, walk around to briefly open and walk away from the back door for the rest of us who didn’t literally sign his paycheck, then open the front passenger door and hold it for my father to get in. 

Izzy and I climbed in the back, while Simon took the middle seat and immediately shoved his earbuds in before losing himself in music. Once Dad was in his seat, Jefferson closed that door, closed our door, then walked around to the driver’s side. A moment later, we pulled out. 

We were driving away from the house in Big Sal. I’d asked my dad about the SUV before, and he’d told me that this thing had enough armored plating and reinforced glass to take multiple tank rounds while barely showing a scratch. It was rated to keep presidents and royalty safe. 

I wondered if he had any reason for us to travel in this today other than just wanting to have enough seats for Izzy. We had plenty of cars. Was there another reason for having this particular one? Was it just that we were taking her away from home and Dad wanted to be safe, or something else? Was there more to this whole trip today? Or was I just being paranoid? 

Either way, I would keep my eyes open. And just hope that nothing crazy happened while we were out on this little trip. I could really use a break, after everything that happened the day before yesterday. And I also needed to sneak away at some point and buy a new phone so I could contact Pack to find out how Eits was doing. Not to mention checking in with Wren, actually meeting with Pack and That-A-Way to figure out how the three of us were going to sneak into that secret base under the mall, piece together what the code on those toys was for, find Bobby, piece together my missing memories, find out what Paige’s whole deal was and how she was connected to that Anthony kid who had apparently been my friend, and, and…

I had a lot to do. Too much. But I needed a break right now. Besides, if I bailed on this trip, Dad really would be suspicious. So I was stuck here, cooling my heels, metaphorically speaking. I had to act like I didn’t have anything important to do, no matter how much stuff was piling up waiting for me to get on with it. I had to reassure my father that everything was just fine first. 

On the way, I thought about my whole theory about Izzy’s family member being Fell-Touched. It still all fit as far as I could tell. She was Latina. Did that mean that one of her parents was a member of Oscuro? It basically had to, right? The odds were really high that way, in any case. If Izzy had a family member who was part of Oscuro, that would explain why my parents were keeping her secreted away. Despite my (totally understandable, damn it) paranoia, I was increasingly certain that they really did care about Izzy and were protecting her. They might have been horrible people in many ways, who did a lot of horrible things, but in this case, I was fairly certain they weren’t the bad guys. So they had to be protecting her from someone else who was dangerous, and Cuélebre was pretty high up that list. 

Except did they really have to protect her? Everything else I knew about their organization, this ‘Ministry’, said that all they’d have to do was tell Cuélebre to leave her alone. So what else was I missing? There was some really obvious thing that would immediately fill in all the blanks here, but I was just missing it. 

I was distracted then, as Dad passed something back to Simon, and he passed it to me. It was a new phone, just like the old one. At least, on the surface. I was going to go over it with a fine tooth comb to make sure it wasn’t reporting anything back to my parents after the scare I’d given them. Not that I’d done Touched stuff on my normal phone in the first place, but I didn’t want it telling them where I was all the time. Any more than normal phones did, anyway. The point was, I was going to make sure this phone hadn’t been tampered with before I took it with me anywhere sensitive. Actually, it was probably safest to just leave that phone wherever I left my clothes from now on. I could easily set up a thing to forward calls from that to my Touched-business phone. Yeah. If Pencil hadn’t destroyed my phone’s ability to connect to the towers and my parents had checked where I was? That would have been really bad. 

Well, it also might’ve been good, if it had helped Dad dump a whole bunch of troops on top of the Scions. But bad in other ways. 

Eventually, we reached the racetrack. It was an enormous facility, the arena itself enclosed behind heavy walls with a retractable ceiling for bad weather, a giant garage along the side opposite the entrance where extra work could be done, and two whole car museums attached to either end. The western museum was dedicated to ‘normal’ vehicles throughout history, while the eastern museum was dedicated to showcasing vehicles created, inspired, and/or used by Touched. There was a lot of Tech-Touched stuff in the eastern museum, special stuff developed throughout the past twenty years. I’d spent a lot of time in both museums ever since I was a little kid. Not to mention all the time I’d spent in the stands, watching the eclectic assortment of souped up vehicles speeding past. Tech-Touched liked to bring their vehicles here from all over the world during open-powers races to show off what they could do. It was a lot of fun to watch, and I was excited to see another one now despite my own reservations about everything else. 

Jefferson parked, and we got out. Dad made a broad gesture. “Alright, come on then. Let’s show Izzy how we like to have a good time.” 

And at that moment, I was so into this whole thing that I managed to resist the urge to ask how many teenagers we’d have to kill before Dad and Simon would start enjoying themselves.

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Ready 11-07 (Summus Proelium)

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There was a commissioned interlude posted on Monday covering a look at the in-universe Sphere Online Forum. If you have not seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

At one point when I was younger, before I was even in high school, Simon had told me that the best way to tell a lie was to make it one that still made you look bad. Basically, if you wanted someone to believe the lie, you couldn’t make yourself come out looking perfect. The best lies, according to my brother, were the ones that made the person telling them look at least somewhat in the wrong or bad. You could avoid telling the very damaging truth by telling a less damaging lie. But never try to get off scot-free. That just made people suspicious. People tended to believe you when you confessed to doing something wrong. 

Of course, these days I knew just why my brother was such a connoisseur of lying. But it was still sound advice, nonetheless. Even if the thought of what kind of things he’d needed to hide from me at the time made my stomach turn itself into knots and brought bile to my throat. 

Ignoring that, I focused on the advice itself. I’d been thinking about what lie I was going to tell my parents the whole time that I was on my way home, and preparing for it. Sure, I’d hoped I could get into the house without my absence being noted, but hoping for the best and preparing for the worst was a good motto. So, I’d rehearsed what I could say if this moment actually came, and here it was. 

Shifting and fidgeting on my feet like a little kid who was afraid of getting in trouble, but also scared in general (an easy role to play, given the circumstances), I rubbed my hand against my arm. “I umm… I was just…” Swallowing, I peeked up at the two of them, quickly blurting, “I’m sorry, I know it was stupid and everything. But I really wanted to try and I thought I could do it and it’d look really cool but then I screwed up and it hurt and I didn’t mean to stay out so long but–” I made sure to ramble almost but not quite incoherently, as though I was trying to tell the story from three or four different points and jumbling everything together. It would sound far less rehearsed that way. Which was the exact reason why I’d thought up what I would claim happened without rehearsing specifics. I was pretty sure that was my only chance to make it work. 

Mom quickly shook her head, moving her hands to my shoulders while kneeling right there in front of me. “Principessa, we’re not angry with you. My beautiful girl, we were afraid. We were so afraid. We…” She hesitated, exchanging a brief look with my father before looking back to me, her voice that same gentle, caring tone that made it so hard for me to see her as this merciless, evil supervillain. “Just tell us where you’ve been. We’ve had the police look for you, we had Simon–oh dear, call Simon.” She added that last bit with a nod toward Dad. “We asked the Jacksons if they’d heard from you. No one had. No one knew where you were.” Her voice was trembling a bit, and I immediately felt guilty about making my mother that upset. Which… was a weird feeling, given what I knew about them. What about all the people she’d upset? 

Still, I had to press on. So, I gave them the story that I’d come up with to explain my absence, in a halting, nervous, almost shell-shocked voice. “I was skating out where they’re building that water park on the north-west end of town. You know, the one that umm, the one that’s been on hold with all that union stuff or whatever?” I knew damn well they knew which one I meant, considering my father was one of the financers for that particular development. I’d heard the two of them talking about it a few times here and there. From what I knew, they weren’t exactly happy about the delays. Which made me worry about the people who were opposing it. 

Sure enough, my parents exchanged brief looks before Dad nodded. “Yes, we know it. And we also know that that’s not the north-east part of town, that’s out of town. A couple miles out of town.” 

Cringing a little (again, not a hard thing to fake), I nodded. “Yeah, I… I took an Uber out there. They dropped me off.” 

Dad was squinting at me with narrowed eyes, finally starting to get over his initial relief that I was in one piece. “You had them drop you off to skate in a construction zone outside of the city? Cassidy, you…” He exhaled. “Didn’t we talk about skating in established areas? And being safe. I swear the words ‘be safe’ have come out of my mouth.” 

Wincing visibly under their stares, I nodded and squirmed before reaching down to grab the skateboard with the partially broken wheel that I’d bought from that guy while waiting for my cab. “I-I’m sorry, I just really thought it looked cool. You know, there’s all kinds of equipment and partially filled pool foundations, the cement pieces where the slides are supposed to go, stuff like that. It was empty and quiet, so I thought I could just skate around for awhile and clear my head. I just… wanted to try it. I’m sorry, it was stupid.” 

Mom’s mouth opened, and the way her expression twisted just a little made me think she was going to yell at me. In the end, however, she caught herself, hissing out a wordless sound of annoyance and distress instead. A few long seconds of that passed before she managed to form a coherent response. “Cassidy Sofia Evans, do you have any idea how–what… What happened?” She finally settled on the last bit after Dad put a hand gently on her back. 

“I’m not sure,” I managed, turning the skateboard over so they could see the broken wheel. Then I leaned over to pick up the dented helmet. “I was skating and then I dropped down into one of the pool foundations and… and the wheel snapped or something. I just… I just laid there for awhile. It hurt. Then I got up and tried to call for a ride, but…” After a moment of hesitation, I showed them the phone that I had smashed. “I had to walk back to the city. I used the phone at a gas station to call for a ride once I was close enough, but… but it takes a lot longer to walk back than driving, and that development is way out there so I was kinda going through the middle of nowhere.” 

Biting my lip hard, I glanced up to look at them with an added, “I’m really sorry. I know it was dumb, I just didn’t think it would be that bad. I was…” My face twisted a little as I repeated, even more weakly, “I’m really sorry.” 

My parents didn’t respond at first. Dad just brushed his hand over my hair, staring at the helmet and the board in my hands while looking almost like he wanted to snap both in half. Finally, he exhaled sharply. “That’s… that’s all? You had an accident, broke your phone, and had to walk back to the city?” 

“That’s all?” Mom started incredulously, looking at him like he’d just transformed into a green and purple bunny before hopping around on a pogo stick. 

Dad, in turn, gave her a brief, silent look. I wasn’t supposed to know what he was saying with it, but I did. He was reminding my mother that there were far worse situations I could have been in, given the things they were into. He’d clearly thought up all sorts of nasty things that could’ve happened to me. So getting this (hopefully believable) answer that I’d just been a dumb kid and hurt myself actually was a relief. 

Once they’d exchanged those looks, Dad looked at me. “Are you okay?” His voice cracked just a little as he asked that, clearly remembering the way I’d yelped when he tried to hug me, his fingers very gingerly feeling along my head for a knot or a bruise. 

Wincing a little when he did that, I nodded. “I’m okay, I swear. I’m bruised and everything, but I can remember my name. I remember what day it is, what the president’s name is, our address, all that stuff. I can say the alphabet backwards even though I think that’s more a drunk test than a damaged brain test. I’m okay. Nothing’s broken.” 

“We’re still calling Dr. Roev to examine you,” Mom declared. She gave me a look when I started to protest. “We are calling Dr. Roev, end of discussion. He’ll tell us if you need to go to the hospital. And then we’ll go from there. Don’t argue, you’re already in trouble, young lady. Big trouble.” 

“That’s right,” Dad agreed. “We know grounding doesn’t exactly hold much weight. Not with your room being everything it is, the two of us being so busy, and everything else. And you’re sixteen years old, you shouldn’t need to be grounded. But how’s this? A one month extension onto getting your car. That means instead of getting a car and driving as soon as you get your license, now you wait one month past that.” 

Wow. Not so long ago, getting my licence and my car had been basically everything in the world to me. Now, the reminder that it would be coming up fairly soon was actually surprising. Of course, I still wanted to drive. I wanted my own car and now I was being told that I would have to wait a full month longer than I was supposed to. If things had still been normal for me, that one month extension would have been one of the worst possible (still reasonable) punishments my parents could give me. But in the wake of everything, it just seemed like such small potatoes. 

Still, I had to play it up, so I made my expression fall as if that crushed me. “Whaaat? But I–” 

“No.” Mom quickly cut me off, putting a finger to my lips. “No arguing. Not now. Not…” Trailing off, she leaned in to hug me as tightly as she dared. “Oh, my beautiful girl. You’re okay. You’re safe. Grazie a Dio.” Her voice was shaking just a bit before she straightened and took my hand to lead me to the gate. “Come, we’ll call Dr. Roev and make sure you’re actually safe.” 

Unfortunately, there still wasn’t much I could do to argue about that idea. If I pushed too hard not to have the doctor examine me, I’d just make them more suspicious again. Thankfully, they were having him come to check me out and not going into the hospital for a full-on battery of tests. I’d just have to be satisfied that they weren’t doing blood work or anything like that. 

Dad stayed back to say something to the police officer and the guys in suits. I just assumed that all of them were on my family’s payroll. They’d probably been mobilizing to find out if any of their (our?) enemies had actually grabbed me. Which made me wonder briefly what they’d actually do if that ever happened. Actually, what would I do? Would I find a way to escape from someone who knew me as Cassidy without revealing my powers? Or would I wait to be rescued? 

On our way up the long walk toward the house, Mom was quiet at first before finally asking me in a gentle voice, “Do you… resent having another girl around right now?” When I looked at her, she put a hand on my shoulder to squeeze, expression worried. “If having Izzy here is upsetting you, if it makes you feel as though you can’t be here and have to go out to have privacy…” 

“What?” My eyes widened and I quickly shook my head. “No! No, that’s not it at all, I swear. I like having Izzy around. Seriously, don’t–don’t send her away or anything. I promise, that’s not it. I mean it’s nothing. There’s nothing to be ‘it.’ I just thought it’d be cool to practice my skating in a place like that. You know, with all those huge empty pools and ramps and stuff. I thought I could try some new tricks out there, that’s all. I thought it’d be fun.” 

Only after I’d said all that did I have the thought that telling them I didn’t want Izzy around might have been the better way to go for the girl herself. It might’ve gotten her out of this place and over to… to… where? I still didn’t know what that exact situation was or why she was here. If my parents had her here because they were protecting her from some other enemy of theirs or… something, having her sent away was worse than having her here. God, this was complicated.

Mom’s eyes studied me for a moment through that, clearly trying to see if I was hiding some deep-seated resentment of the girl they had taken in. Finally, she gave a short nod, her expression softening considerably as she touched the side of my face once more. “My beautiful girl. If there is anything you ever want to talk about, anything at all, you can come to me. Or to your father. We love you, Cassidy. Tell us if you need anything, do you understand?” 

“Yes, Mom,” I quietly agreed, shifting a little on my feet before adding, “I’m sorry. I… I didn’t mean to make you worry so much. I won’t go skating in a place where no one can find me like that again.” And I was really hoping I wouldn’t end up in a situation where I needed another excuse for disappearing for hours (or even longer) again. Because if it did, I was pretty sure I’d end up chained to my bedroom or something, which might make being Paintball somewhat harder to pull off. 

We made it inside, Dad joining us at the door after giving his instructions to the men. Once there, we went to the kitchen and my parents insisted that I eat something while we waited for the doctor. So, I had a sandwich. Then another one. I was actually famished after everything that had happened. Having actual food in my stomach made me feel a bit better, though I was still worried about what the doctor would say. All I could do was hope that he wouldn’t find anything that completely blew my entire story out the window. If he did, I didn’t know what I’d do.

For the moment, all I could do was sit there, eat my sandwiches, and wait to see what happened. Throughout all that, Mom and Dad asked me questions about how I felt, where it hurt most, how tired I was, and more. Part of me wondered how much of that was them reassuring themselves that I was here and safe, and how much was them wanting to keep me awake until that doctor of theirs could give me that full check-up. Probably equal parts of both, really. 

Finally, Dr. Roev showed up. He was a tall guy, almost six and a half feet, with pale skin dotted with freckles, a cheerful face with bright red cheeks, and a full head of bushy brown hair. He asked me to stand up, used his little penlight thing on my eyes while asking me to look various directions, checked my heart rate with his stethoscope, felt along my ribs, and used some kind of Tech-Touched imaging device along my head to check for any concussion or brain bleeding or whatever. He also used the same imaging device along my chest to check for broken bones or internal bleeding there, all while having me talk to him. First it was just about what happened, then about myself. He wanted me to tell him my favorite movies, books, what games I liked to play, about people I knew at school, things like that. 

Finally, the doctor straightened and addressed both me and my parents. “No concussions. She’s lucky. She’s clearly taken a bit of a head injury, but she should be okay there. Looks like she cracked a couple ribs and has a lot of bruising. Whatever she hit impacted the most right about here.” He indicated the left side of my sternum, where it hurt the most. “Ice it, get plenty of sleep, and make sure you take a really deep breath and let it out, or cough really hard at least once an hour while you’re awake. When you’re lying down, if you sleep on your side, lay on the injured one. I know, I know, that sounds odd. But lay on your injured side so you can breathe better. Don’t tape it up or anything, that’s bad. Just ice it now and then and make sure you take some ibuprofen or something for the pain. Don’t try to be a hero.” 

Oh, now he told me that last part. I managed a short nod. “Thank you, sir.” 

“Any time, kid.” He winked at me before turning to my parents. “She’ll be okay other than that. Make sure those ribs heal properly. I’d give it a few weeks before she does anything too strenuous again, just to be on the safe side.” 

Dad ruffled my hair, saying something about how I would never be skating by myself in a vacant development again. Then he escorted the doctor to the door while Mom stayed with me. She asked me how I was feeling, then told me to get some sleep and that no one would bother me. Which sounded great to me. All I wanted to do was fall down and stay unconscious for a few weeks. A few hours would have to be enough. 

When Dad came back, he had Simon with him. My brother gave me a hug, called me an idiot, and then Mom told him to take me up to bed. I resisted the impulse to argue that I didn’t need an escort. Instead, I hugged both my parents, promised repeatedly never to do anything that stupid again, and went with Simon. On the way, we grabbed a bottle of heavy-duty pain meds. 

Once we were upstairs, Simon shook his head at me. “You know, if you pull something like that again, Mom and Dad are gonna duct tape you to a chair and just have me wheel you to school. Which is gonna suck, cuz I’ve got my own shit to take care of. So don’t put me through that.” 

Flushing a bit despite myself, I nudged him with my foot. “Thanks, Simon. Love you too.” 

He left me there, and I checked on Izzy next door. She was asleep in her bed, so I went back to my own room, downed a couple Ibuprofen without bothering to turn the lights on, and then sighed while flopping down onto my bed. 

Ow, that was a mistake. There were things in my pockets. Reaching down, I tugged out those two toy planes and the action figure. I’d shoved them in there while changing clothes without even thinking about it. Now, I pulled them out before blinking a bit. In the dark like this, a bit on each toy was glowing. It was glow-in-the-dark paint. Just a little bit on each toy, enough for two small numbers. On the action figure was a six and a two. On the normal fighter jet was a three and a nine, and on the alien-painted fighter was a four and a weird, yet somehow familiar symbol. It looked like a capital E with a diagonal line from the right end of the top horizontal line down to the inside of the bottom corner, crossing through the middle horizontal line on its way. I knew that symbol, but I couldn’t remember from what. I had seen it before, and recently, but… where? Six, two, three, nine, four, and then a weird symbol. It was a combination or a code, or something like that. 

But… a code for what? And why was that crossed through E symbol so familiar? I knew I’d seen it recently. But where?

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