Damarko Myers

Interlude 25B – A Fortuitous Meeting (Summus Proelium)

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“Look, all I’m saying is this better not be our public debut.” The boy saying that, Zed Chambers, made the announcement while gesturing up and down to indicate the very simple black jumpsuit and ski mask he wore. “There is no way we’ll ever live down the shame of being this basic.” 

His twin, Lexi, was dressed identically (something they had grown out of ages ago). She stood next to the boy, giving him an appraising look. “You know, what you should really be worried about is what happens if one of us takes that mask off your head so we can see what your hair looks like when it’s actually messed up.” 

The fourteen-year-old twins, as well as the other two (or five depending on how one counted) in their little group were standing across the street from a dive bar near a truck stop about thirty miles south of Detroit. The city of Monroe, Michigan was a few miles further on, but this place had the fueling station, diner, motel, and the aforementioned bar. It was essentially the middle of the night, definitely past curfew time back in Detroit. But this wasn’t Detroit, and both the bar and diner were still hopping. From the dirt lot behind the motel where they were gathered, the group could quite easily hear the music blaring out from the bar despite the fact that it was clear across the street. How the people in there could spend more than five minutes without going deaf permanently was anyone’s guess. 

“Oh please,” Zed shot back with an audible scoff. “I’ll have you know, I get the good stuff for my hair. I could stand in the middle of a wind tunnel and it wouldn’t move. See?” He reached up as though to pull the mask up. 

One of their companions, Damarko (or the version who called himself Rabbit) quickly caught the younger boy’s hand. His voice was slightly pained. “Ah, let’s try to keep the masks on, huh? I don’t think you really wanna explain to your parents how some random person happened to get a picture of you behind a motel in the middle of nowhere at one in the morning when you’re supposed to be safe and sound asleep in Jae’s guest room.” He gestured toward the identical jumpsuit and mask he and his duplicates (who were spread out to keep an eye on things in case anyone approached) wore as well, rather than their usual Syndicate costume. “Especially not while we’re all dressed like we’re about to rob the place.” 

“Yes, please,” Jae put in while shifting from foot to foot. “I’d rather not have to explain any of this.” 

“What, no rhyme?” Lexi asked, looking that way. 

“I’m not Carousel,” Jae reminded her easily while waving a hand demonstrably in front of her ski mask-clad face. “No jester’s mask. We can’t be here as other selves. We have to be… other other selves.” Her eyes, visible through the holes, squinted slightly. “You get the point.” 

Rabbit gave a quick nod. “Exactly. We’re not here as the Minority, which means Jae pretends her power is normal telekinesis and I keep my other selves out of sight and stick to turning intangible and invisible. As for you guys… well you don’t have any public identities anyway, but like I said, you don’t want to explain to your parents what you were doing here. None of us want to have to do any explaining.” 

“Yeah, you’re right,” Zed agreed. “Mom and Dad can be pretty scary when they wanna be. But come on, are we gonna get in there and find this guy or what?” He waved a hand toward the loud bar in the distance. “There’s no way that party’s chilling out any time soon. So the only people in that motel should be the guy we’re looking for and his buddies or bodyguards or whatever.” 

Lexi’s head bobbed. “Yeah, we already came this far. If this is really the dude who sold phony IDs to guys who tried to kidnap us from Jae’s house, he’s gotta know who they really were. He’s the only lead we’ve got. So let’s get in there and find out what he knows!” She punctuated the last couple words by slamming her gloved fist into her hand. 

Instead of responding immediately, Rabbit held a hand up for them to wait while cocking his head to the side. “Okay,” he finally murmured after getting a report from his other selves, “looks like the entire back is clear. They’ve got one guy in the night manager’s office watching wrestling in front, the first floor is empty, then two guys on the second floor playing cards by the stairs on the east side. Our guy’s door is three down from them, and he’s watching TV with some girl.” 

“At least he’s not doing something else with the girl,” Lexi noted. “We’re not even old enough to legally watch R-rated movies without adult supervision yet.” She waited for the others to look at her before snickering. “And I don’t think Mom would understand if I called to ask her permission to go in that room.” 

Snorting despite himself, Rabbit agreed, “Yeah, that might turn into a whole special conversation none of us want to have. So let’s be grateful for small favors, and try to avoid any extra attention, okay?” He waited until the other three nodded, before turning back to look at the motel. “Quick and easy, without letting anyone know who we really are. Let’s do thi–what the–?!” 

Those words came as his head snapped around toward the motel. They were staring at the back of the building, but the loud roar that suddenly filled the air a second later came from the front. As did the loud crashing sound, and the following high-pitched scream. 

“What–what the hell’s going on?!” Zed blurted, spinning to stare that way with the others. 

“Oh shit,” Rabbit started, “Colt says it’s–” 

That was as far as he managed to get, before the sound of breaking glass interrupted the boy as a chair was thrown through one of the windows in the motel’s second floor. Another roar came, before a figure hurled himself out through the opening, sprawling out in the dirt. 

Behind the panicked, window-diving figure, an enormous reptilian figure came crashing through the same opening. Or rather, part of the opening. The figure was too large for the actual size of the window frame, so it took out part of the wall on every side as well. The ground seemed to violently shake as it landed heavily, sending dirt and debris flying. Then it loomed up, its form illuminated in the glow from the distant lights. 

With a blurted curse, Lexi reared back her hand with one of her glowing ‘eggs’ that would transform anything hit by it into light and send them flying off in a direction of her choosing cupped in it. She started to throw, before Jae stopped her. 

“Wait! That’s… that’s…” 

******

“Mars Bar!” Up inside the motel room where the identity forger had been a second earlier, Pack grimaced at the enormous hole where most of the wall had been a moment earlier. The bear-lizard would be fine, of course. It was only a one story drop. But still, seeing her reptilian partner slam through like that was enough to make her wince. 

Broadway, straightening up from where she had just finished ensuring that the man’s two bodyguards weren’t about to cause any problems, spoke brightly. “Well hey, the job was to chase him out of the motel, and I think we managed that. Thumbs up to us.” Even as she said that, the sound of someone whimpering in the corner caught her attention. Looking that way, toward the woman their quarry had been watching the movie with as she huddled on the far side of the bed, Broadway waved. “Hey, don’t worry. We’ll bring your boyfriend back safe and sound. We’ve just gotta talk to him about a fake ID he sold to some shit-ass murderer, that’s all. I know he looks scary, but Mars Bar is a big old softie. Your guy’ll be fine.”

Despite her efforts, the reassurances probably weren’t very helpful, coming from a figure in dark-purple power armor with a helmet that had a V-shaped visor across the front with multi-colored lines that danced wildly whenever she spoke.

“Guys!” That was Eits, coming through the open doorway at a sprint, out of breath. He blurted, “There’s people down there with Mars and the guy! People in masks!” 

“What?!” Both girls blurted that together, looked at each other, then ran to the broken wall to see what the hell was going on down there. What they saw was Mars Bar calmly standing with one paw holding their quarry gently yet firmly against the ground, while four people in masks stood around him clearly arguing with each other. Mars Bar wasn’t attacking them, but he was growling low, making it clear that any attempt to approach would be a bad idea. 

On top of that, the bear-lizard was joined just then by Holiday, who had been prowling through the bushes as backup just in case they chased the guy in the wrong direction. Now, the panther-lizard stalked up next to her friend and bared her teeth at the strangers. 

“Hey!” Without wasting another second after shouting that, Pack jumped through the hole. As she did so, Scatters came charging up in her reindeer form and leapt, catching the girl on her back before landing smoothly. Perched on her mount, Pack came up on the opposite side of Mars Bar from Holiday. Her attention was focused on the four masked figures. “Who the hell are you guys? Cuz if you’re trying to rob our little friend here, boy do you have shitty timing.”

With a sharp whistle, Broadway used the sound waves to teleport down next to them. “Yeah, dudes. All you had to do was wait like thirty minutes and we would’ve been done with him so you could clean out his wallet or whatever. We’re not trying to horn in on your territory.” 

“Our territory?” one of the figures, clearly male and young, blurted. “Wait, we’re not–” He stopped as one of the female figures stepped on his foot. 

“What are you guys doing here?” the other male figure quickly put in. He stood there, gaze snapping back and forth between the lizard-animals and the two Fell-Touched. “Aren’t you usually up in Detroit?” 

“Hey, they do know who we are!” Broadway exclaimed brightly. “Look, like I said, we’re not trying to barge over your territory or anything. This isn’t an expansion. We just need to chat with this guy here for a few minutes, find out what he knows about something pretty important, then we’ll be out of your hair.” The last thing any of them wanted to do was accidentally start some sort of gang war with an unknown group down here and have them blame Blackjack for it. 

The second girl, who hadn’t stepped on the boy’s foot, took a small step forward. “We need to talk to him too. It’s…” She paused as though considering how much to say. “It’s important.” 

“Is it, now?” The new voice came from directly behind the four black-masked figures, as Grandstand revealed herself. When they twisted around and separated to try to look at both her and the group in front of them at the same time, she continued. “Believe me when I say, whatever you want to get out of this guy isn’t nearly as important as what we want to get out of him. But we can all come to an arrangement. Just back off for a minute, let us have a–”  

“Wait!” The new interruption came from Eits, his second in the past couple of minutes. Rather than jump from the second floor, he had run out and around to come down the outside stairs, and was now stumbling into sight while panting even more. “There’s guys coming! Lots of guys, they just pulled up! Guns, big guns, maybe powers too. They’re still getting organized but there’s a lot of them!” 

Producing a shotgun seemingly from nowhere, Grandstand pointed it at the group in front of them. “Friends of yours?” 

“What?” the girl who had stepped on the boy’s foot to stop him from talking earlier blurted in disbelief. “No, they’re not with us! We’re not–I mean we’re really–uh.” 

“It doesn’t matter,” the second boy, who seemed to be in charge, immediately put in. “Your friend over there is right.” He nodded toward Eits. “There’s about three or four truckloads of guys out there, and they’re all armed to the teeth. And before you say it, there’s guys back that way too.” He gestured toward the dark woods behind them. “They parked on the dirt road over there and they’re spreading out to come this way. They’re trying to trap us between them. And don’t ask how I know all that.” 

From his place on the ground, the man they had all been after started to laugh. “Yeah, you stupid fucks! Thought I was just a helpless little bitch, huh? Well I’ve got friends too, people I hook up with anything they need, and they’re about to whip the shit outta you cocksuckers!” He got that much out before his words turned to a terrified noise as Mars Bar pressed very slightly down on his back and growled to remind the man of his immediate situation. 

Without hesitating even for a moment, Grandstand spoke up. “Okay, sounds like they’re here for all of us. So we’ll just have to work together. We can figure out who gets first dibs to talk to our friend here later.” She nodded over her shoulder. “I can handle the guys coming up behind us before they get close. Will uhh…” She paused, frowning just a little while looking at the three La Casa Touched. “Will you guys be okay with this side?” 

“Oh, we’re good,” Pack assured her. “Especially with our new friends here. Err…” Blinking that way, she slowly asked, “Do you guys have… any weapons at all?” 

Before the others could respond, the first girl piped up. “We’ll be okay. Actually, can you explain something to your lizards so they won’t freak out too much?” She asked that while raising both hands, holding two glowing silver egg-shapes. 

“Cuz I know how we can scare the shit out of those guys.” 

******

From his position up on the roof of the motel, Colt-Syndicate stood in plain sight to look down at the people who had just shown up in the parking lot. He was invisible at the moment, so they couldn’t see him anyway, and standing up like this gave him a good view of the whole group. They didn’t look like any organized gang he had ever seen, given the random assortment of flannel, army camo, or just random sweatshirts. But they were definitely working together, and they were heavily armed. Whatever or whoever they were, these guys meant business. 

He was relaying all the information he could to Rabbit, while Armadillo did the same for what he could see of the group coming up through the woods behind the motel. Puma was on the far side of the street, watching the group below from behind while keeping an eye out for anyone who might come out of the bar.

If they had to, all four Syndicates would reveal themselves. It would give away who they really were, even though they all wore the same masks and black jumpsuits. The fact that three of them were always intangible, and could only be seen as blue-gray ghost forms, would make that obvious. But if necessary, they would do it. Making sure they all got out of this alive was more important than keeping their involvement secret, no matter what that meant. 

Colt’s main job right now, however, wasn’t to reveal himself and the others. No, at the moment, his job was to aim. Well, he and Rabbit working together. They judged the exact distance needed, the appropriate angle, everything necessary to have the best… impact. 

After one more minor adjustment, Rabbit announced, Okay, I think we’re good. 

Holding his index fingers and thumbs out in the shape of a rectangle together, Colt slowly nodded. The group of whoever they were had just finished having whatever very brief discussion they were having, and were turning to head up to the motel. All good, but they’re coming, so do it now, now! 

On the far side of the motel, the others did their part. An instant later, two streaks of light came flying through the motel. They were intangible, doing no damage to the building itself. But immediately after clearing the building, Lexi’s power wore out as planned. Which sent Mars Bar and Holiday flying into the assembled group before they could so much as register the sudden appearance of bright lights. The panther-lizard crashed into two of the men, knocking them to the ground before catching hold of another man’s waistband in her teeth to yank him down as well. 

And yet, those three were the lucky ones. A dozen more went down as a flailing Mars Bar slammed into them. Six of those were sent flying into the side of one of their trucks before collapsing in a heap, while the other six were scattered along the ground. 

Just like that, of the roughly thirty men who had rolled up and started to head into the motel, fifteen were on the ground and had absolutely no interest in getting up again. Which left another fifteen still standing, for the moment. 

But that moment didn’t last long. Even as the men who hadn’t been knocked over reacted to the sudden arrival of Mars Bar and Holiday, the others all came flying through the building as well. Lexi had given everyone an egg and told them to crack it against their chest. Now they were right in the midst of the suddenly-overwhelmed group. 

One man pivoted and raised his gun, only to take the butt of a shotgun to the face as Pack struck him hard. As he stumbled, she fired the gun at a second man, hitting him in the chest with a beanbag round. 

A third guy was trying to lift his own shotgun, just before Zed lunged at him from behind and managed to trail a hand down the man’s arm and leg. As he did so, his power activated, creating a solid-light duplicate of the guy’s shirt and pants. In this case, however, the duplications didn’t move. They remained frozen in place, trapping the man in solid hologram copies of his clothes so he couldn’t raise the weapon or move at all. 

The fourth and fifth men were sent flying across the street and off into the next field as Lexi hit them each with another couple eggs. At the same time, the sixth man flinched as Zed reared back, only to blink as he realized it was only a rock in his hand. Yet the boy used his power again just as he released it. And in this case, he didn’t create only a single copy, nor did that copy stay where it was. Instead, he created fifty copies at once, sending all of them flying into the man until he was practically buried under solid-light rocks. 

By that point, the seventh and eighth men had managed to figure out they were under attack, and even brought their weapons up properly. But Rabbit materialized behind them (he had shifted his solid-form over to Puma briefly so he could turn invisible and get in position), catching first one, then the other with one of the Minority-issued tasers that would actually put people on the ground. 

All of which left three men out of the initial thirty still standing. But before they could do anything else, a cloud of dirt, rocks, bricks, chunks of asphalt, and other bits of debris crashed into them. They were blinded and pummeled repeatedly until they dropped to the ground and covered their heads. Jae, making sure she sent objects flying before they had time to expose her identity by shrinking down and orbiting her, walked forward with her hand outstretched. 

Finally, as the whole group of suddenly-ambushed men were trying to decide if they wanted to risk clambering back up to make a real fight of it now that their opponents had lost the element of surprise, Broadway stepped right into the middle of them before pointing both hands toward the trucks they had shown up in. A near-deafening crack of thunder blasted from the speakers on her suit, and all four vehicles were torn off the ground by the kinetic blast before being sent flying a good fifty feet through the air. They crashed down into an assortment of broken parts, several wheels rolling off out of sight. 

The men, those who were conscious enough to make any decisions, chose to stay on the ground. 

We still good, guys? Rabbit checked in with his other three selves. Only once he had gotten the affirmative did he exhale. “Okay, I think we’re–” 

“Well, I took care of my targets,” Grandstand announced while coming around the corner of the motel. “I sure hope you’re all–ah. I’m impressed.” 

She was here before, Colt noted. She has no idea we’re here so she didn’t use her power on us. She’s pretending to be surprised, but she was watching just in case something went wrong. 

Yeah, Armadillo confirmed from his own position in the woods. She was done with these guys right when you all started your thing. Pretty sure she ran back there to keep an eye on her friends. Wait, are they friends now? Is Grandstand part of La Casa? 

That started a whole discussion amongst the others. But Rabbit was focused on the people who weren’t his duplicates. “Is uhh, is everyone okay?” 

“I’m not.” A small, weak voice announced as a shaky hand rose. It was one of the men who had shown up. He was pinned underneath one of Mars Bars’ paws. “I think… I th-think I need to change my pants.” 

“Might wanna think about that the next time you start shit,” Pack informed him. “Mars Bar, Holiday, if any of them try to get up, bite them somewhere they’ll remember it.” 

“And how’s our other friend doing?” Grandstand asked, gaze focused that way. 

“Twinkletoes has him,” Pack assured her. “All we’ve gotta do is grab him and get out of here before more of these chucklefucks show up.” She glanced over her shoulder toward the still-loud bar. “Or they stop serving alcohol over there.” 

“Great,” the woman replied before turning her attention to Rabbit, Lexi, Zed, and Jae. “Well, I dunno who you guys are, but you were pretty useful. And a promise is a promise. So, let’s get out of here together. 

“Then we can take turns smacking answers out of that asshole. It’ll be a blast.” 

This storyline will be continued at the end of the next arc. 

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Patreon Snippets 27B (Summus Proelium)

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Pack Trying To Figure Out Why Sierra Looks Like Cassidy 

The following takes place during the recent commissioned interlude focusing on Amber and Dani, after the first scene (at school) but before the second scene (in the costume shop).

Benjamin Pittman was a creep. That much was patently obvious, and Dani didn’t exactly need to do any deep thinking on the subject to come to that conclusion. He was clearly a power-hungry asshole who shouldn’t have been put in charge of flipping burgers at a fast food joint, let alone determining the immortal future of the human race or whatever it was he called his biolem project. The man was just plain bad news, and anything terrible he did shouldn’t have been surprising. It felt like assuming the worst was probably the best way to go whenever it came to the question of, ‘why did Pittman do a thing?’

And yet, Dani was still confused on one particular point. Why Cassidy Evans? The secret biolem body that old Benny had had stored away in a secret room within a secret room, kept safe through all this time, given nutrients and power and allowed to grow for the years he had been locked up on Breakwater happened to be one that looked like Cassidy Evans? Why? What was the point of that? Sure, she came from a rich family, but why her specifically? Wouldn’t it make more sense to replace one of her parents, or even her older brother? When he’d made the body originally, it would have been Cassidy as a like… what, eleven-year-old? What was that going to accomplish as far as Pittman’s goals went? 

She had been thinking about that basically off and on ever since she first saw Sierra and realized what was happening. How she had avoided blurting Cassidy’s name at that moment, she’d probably never know. It had been a close thing, that was for sure. A couple times she’d considered bringing it up, but that was impossible to do without explaining how she knew the Evans chick well enough to recognize her even through the hair change and all that. Maybe they wouldn’t press her too much on it with the distraction of just who Sierra’s body looked like, but still. 

No, she would need to find out for herself what Pittman’s plan had been. And since he was… out of reach, to say the least, that left finding out more about Cassidy herself. Maybe there was something about the girl, or access she might have through her family, or something, that would cause all this to start to make sense. But to find that, she was going to have to be a little underhanded. 

It was weird that she actually felt bad about that. Cassidy should have been, on paper, a typical spoiled rich girl who deserved to get a little comeuppance for once in her life. But having gotten to know the girl at least a little bit, she just… wasn’t like that. Dani mused on that fact while sitting in an old sedan she had borrowed from the fleet of vehicles available to La Casa Touched. Some were more eye-catching than others, but there were plenty that were meant to blend in anywhere. Those were what she preferred. Having an awesome car sounded good on paper, but it also got eyes on you. Cop eyes. And given she was already operating under a penalty for existing while black in the first place, speeding around in an eighty-thousand-dollar sports car probably wasn’t a great idea. 

Yes, Cassidy wasn’t what she would’ve pictured when someone brought up ‘teenage daughter of billionaires.’ And she wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of examples of students at that school who did fit the stereotype of worthless rich fuck no one would ever miss if they fell down a well without a Lassie to bring help, but not as many as she thought there would’ve been. There were cool people there, and annoying people, and–yeah, it was complicated. 

As she thought about all that, another car pulled up beside her, as Eits stepped out in his civilian clothes. “Yo,” the boy started, holding out his phone, “you ready?” 

Dani confirmed she was, and a moment later her own phone showed that it was receiving a file. She watched it downloading before asking, “Did you get all of it?” 

“I mean, you won’t tell me exactly what you’re looking for,” Ryder pointed out while leaning against the hood of her car so he could talk to her through the open window. “So it’s not like I can say if what you need is in there or not, you know?” His hand gestured vaguely. “But yeah, I got all the student files from that school of yours, plus like three different middle schools that feed into it. That’s report cards, parental notes, stuff the teachers scribbled in the margins of their grade books about them, any medical files that were added to the school records, police reports filed with the schools, all of it. Plus passwords for their school email accounts, locker combinations, and some other stuff. Now uhh, if you want me to help you narrow all that down…” 

Smiling just a bit at his fishing attempt, Dani shook her head. “Thanks, if I change my mind I’ll let you know. Right now this is just something I have to do myself.” After saying that, she gave him a look before turning to glance into the backseat, where all her lizards were crawling around. Including Mars Bar, the iguana, sunning himself up against the rear window. “Believe me, I recognize the irony of me, the girl whose name literally means I don’t work alone, saying that. And uhh, saying it to the guy who just got all this stuff so I wouldn’t hit a dead end.” A grimace found its way to her face before she added, “Thanks, seriously. I owe you. Both for doing this and for putting up with me not telling you why I needed it.”

Ryder shrugged. “No big deal. I mean, you already helped me with that other thing, so I’d say we’re even.” 

“Yeah,” Dani replied while staring at him. “And are you ever gonna tell me why you needed me to help you steal stuff to get around those Sherwood spying plants? You thinking about pulling off a job in their territory?” 

Ryder’s immediate response was to ask, “You thinking about pulling off a job inside your school?” When she didn’t answer, he shook his head. “I’ll tell you more when I can.” 

“Right back at you,” Dani agreed. “Seriously, be careful, okay? Don’t do anything too stupid.” 

“And you take that right back at yourself,” the boy retorted before coughing. “Or… you know, something like that.” He sobered then. “Let’s both be careful. And promise to ask for help if we need it. 

“Something tells me, between the two of us, we’re gonna find all new ways to get in trouble.” 

——

Once he left, Dani sat back in her seat with Riddles, the bearded dragon, sitting in her lap. She scratched under the grateful lizard’s chin while flipping through the newly arrived files on her phone with the other hand. Of course she didn’t care about the vast majority of it, but she couldn’t have told Eits that she only wanted Cassidy Evans’ file without giving him a lot more info than she wanted to at that moment. Not that she didn’t trust the boy, but… it just felt like keeping this to herself was a good idea. 

First, she tried to search for the name Pittman in any of the files connected to Cassidy. Maybe he had been one of her substitute teachers, or a guest speaker, or… something. But no, his name didn’t come up anywhere. Not just in the high school records, but the middle school ones as well. As far as she could tell, Cassidy Evans had never had any official, school-related connection with Benjamin Pittman. 

So, that was a dead end. She tried a few other words and names, including simply looking for the names of any teacher or substitute who worked with Cassidy at any point, then using her own phone to look up that person online to find out if they were real or if they had mysteriously disappeared around the same time Pittman went to prison. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out either. It turned out that any person who taught at one of those schools, even on a temporary basis, was thoroughly vetted and had quite the impressive resume. If only Cassidy was poor. But then, that would sort of make this entire thing pointless, wouldn’t it? Dani wasn’t sure what the connection between Pittman and Cassidy was just yet, but she was pretty confident that it had to do with Cassidy’s family being… well, rich as fuck. 

Hold on, Cassidy’s family. The obvious reason for Pittman wanting a Cassidybot was to infiltrate them, and possibly spy on them. Which still didn’t explain why he wouldn’t just replace one of the adults if he actually wanted to accomplish something, but maybe it was more about getting eyes (and hands) inside their house? But why? Dani was relatively certain Cassidy wouldn’t be able to transfer any significant amount of money out of their accounts or anything, so robbing them (to any real degree) couldn’t be the answer. 

Maybe she was looking at this the wrong way. Switching things up, Dani started looking through Paige’s school files. She was the one created by Pittman. And there was that whole business with Paige and Cassidy arguing and fighting all the time. Given the way Paige was with everyone else, as far as Dani had heard, it was odd that she had constantly been at odds with Cassidy. 

Searching for all references to Cassidy in Paige’s files turned up a lot of results. Mostly about how much they really didn’t get along. Even though Dani was certain most of the incidents between them weren’t reported, what there was in the file painted a pretty thorough picture of Paige hating Cassidy. Which was definitely Pittman’s doing. Between knowing how Paige acted on her own, and knowing the man had built a robot replacement for Cassidy, that much was obvious. 

But it was something else that made Dani stop short with her scrolling. Another time that the name Cassidy came up in Paige’s file. She had to read the thing a couple times. Buried deep in a clearly forgotten part of the girl’s original middle school file was a photocopied report about a young blonde girl being found in an alley next to three dead bodies. There was a scribbled note from one doctor or another to the middle school counselor about how they should monitor Paige, the girl in question, for lingering psychological issues from being around dead bodies and apparently being in some sort of fugue state when they found her. But most importantly, the file noted that when she was finally able to talk, the young Paige had specifically asked them to ‘find Cassidy’ and that ‘Cassidy will help me.’ 

It was the same Cassidy, obviously. But then… why would Paige believe Cassidy would help her? Or that she could help her? 

Before she could think more about that, her phone beeped with a reminder. Reading it, Dani put the phone away and started the car once more. “Sorry guys,” she informed the lizards, “we’ll have to play detective a bit more later. 

“Time to go meet KD and find a decent costume for my date tonight.” 

*******

What Were Jae And Damarko Doing When The ‘Mugger’ Tried To Ambush Them Before Being Stopped By Paintball? 

“Are you absolutely sure you told your parents about being attacked and almost kidnapped when you were at Jae’s house?” As Damarko (or the currently-solid version of him that called himself Armadillo) said those words, his gaze flicked back and forth between the two fourteen-year-old twins who sat together on an old wooden crate in the middle of this old junkyard. “Cuz, you know, seems like they’d want you to be… oh, literally anywhere but back in Detroit if they knew about that.” 

“He has a point,” Jae agreed from where she was standing a few feet away with her arms folded. “Your mother is a police detective and your father is a crime reporter. They know how dangerous this sort of thing can be.” 

Lexi immediately shook her head, that long dark hair flailing in every direction. “Okay, first of all, we were totally not almost kidnapped. Those guys didn’t know what hit ‘em.” As she spoke, the girl grabbed an abandoned bottle from the ground and tilted it back and forth as though mimicking someone walking. “They were like, ‘oh hello helpless children, we’re gonna throw bags over your heads and take you in our vaaaaaaaaaayyee!’” The exaggerated scream was accompanied by Lexi touching the bottle with a silver ‘egg’ from her other hand. The egg broke and the bottle turned translucent before flying off like it had been shot out of a cannon. The effect wore off just as it was over a dumpster, allowing the bottle to shatter against the wall and fall into the trash where it belonged. 

“Only less murdery than that looked,” Zed, her blond, well-dressed and coiffed brother, noted. “Anyway, Mom thinks she’s handling the situation. She got a few of her cop buddies up here to look into it and they arrested the guys who were at the house. Even took a couple of those Spartans with them for Touched backup. And they found out those guys were hired by someone down in LA, which is what her and Dad are looking into right now. Apparently he’s some dangerous guy, so they were pretty happy to send us up here for a few days when we said we wanted to visit Jae some more. Especially when her stepmom said it was okay for us to stay there.”

“Except we don’t think the bad guy in LA is the only problem,” Lexi put in. “We think he’s got a partner here still. You know, a partner of the non-nameless thug variety. So we wanna find out who that guy is while Mom and Dad deal with the bigger threat down in California.” 

“And school isn’t an issue?” Armadillo couldn’t believe he was asking that, but still. 

“We’re on a year-round schedule,” came the casual reply from Lexi. “Sixty days on, twenty days off. We just started the twenty days off. Which means we have that long to find out what’s really going on with those guys.” 

Exchanging a look with Jae before turning back to them, Armadillo nodded. “Yeah, I gotta admit, when Jae said she needed help skipping school to go deal with some bad guys under the radar yesterday, we thought she was messing with us.” He gestured to the three other versions of himself, all intangible, who were standing up on the roofs or down at the end of the alley playing lookouts. “And we seriously did not expect you guys to show up this morning playing backup.” 

“Technically we showed up last night,” Zed pointed out with a shrug. “We just didn’t have time to talk about anything till now. And Jae said you guys found a list of names in that place after you dealt with the stragglers who were still hanging around.” 

Jae nodded once. “At the address you sent, the one the man who rented one of the cars that was at my house used. The place was almost cleaned out, and the bad guys who ran away when we showed up took more stuff with them. But this was under one of the trash cans. Rabbit found it.” She looked down the alley toward the Damarko duplicate who stood there before turning back to them while holding up a piece of paper with about seventeen names, first and last, scrawled across it. 

“None of them are the guys who were arrested for being at Jae’s house trying to kidnap you,” Armadillo noted. “We don’t know if they’re part of it or also targets. We’ll have to find out by looking into them.” 

“And we’ll help,” Lexi put in. “As soon as we know for sure what they wanted, we’ll call our parents and they can handle the heavy lifting. We just… we just wanna prove we’re not helpless, that we can take care of ourselves and… and contribute.” 

Letting out a sigh, Armadillo gestured. “Right, well, we’re definitely calling in help as soon as we’ve got something substantial. But for now, Jae and me, we’ve gotta get to school. Some of us aren’t on a break, and skipping two days in a row is just begging for attention I don’t think we want. Just promise–”

“We won’t look into the names without you,” Zed assured him without needing to be told. “We swear. We’re just gonna get breakfast and look around a bit, then go back to Jae’s house and wait for you. Her stepmom said she’d take us out to lunch later. Nothing dangerous.” 

“If you want to avoid danger,” Jae put in, “don’t let Kella drive you anywhere. 

“There is no one more terrifying behind the wheel.” 

*****

After leaving the Chambers twins for the time being, Jae and three of the Damarkos (Puma was staying with the twins to keep an eye on them) started making their way to school. They went to different ones, but the Damarkos wanted to keep talking to Jae about what was going on, so they stuck with her for the moment. To make the trip quicker, they took a shortcut through one of the many doors across the city that had been set up by the Ten Towers Tech-Touched Switchshift to allow them to have easy access into the Minority base from almost anywhere. In this case, they simply passed through the base briefly, chose an exit near Jae’s school, and left again. On the way out, Armadillo and Rabbit stayed behind to take a different exit, one nearer to Damarko’s school. After Colt dropped the girl off, they would switch which of them was solid in time for Armadillo or Rabbit (whichever lost their paper-rock-scissors match) to head in for class. 

They didn’t talk about things inside the Clubhouse, considering they really had no idea who might be listening in. But as soon as they were in the alley across from Jae’s school, she and Colt whispered intently about the situation. Neither of them liked the idea of not telling anyone about what was going on, but they did know that the moment the authorities found out the truth, they would contact Zed and Lexi’s parents, who would immediately pull them back to Los Angeles. The twins just wanted a chance to prove they weren’t helpless, that they could use their powers and join their own local Minority. And, Jae and Colt were both pretty sure, they wanted to prove to themselves that they could do it. 

Still, the second there was a real threat, they would absolutely be calling in help. Giving the twins the chance to prove themselves against a few random thugs was one thing, but as soon as any other Touched were involved, Jae and the Damarkos were going to call in the cavalry, no matter what. 

They had both just agreed to that as they heard movement behind them. Both spun that way, just in time to see some… random guy with a gun. But before they could react, Paintball came flying in out of nowhere. A shot of red paint announced his presence, before the gun was yanked out of the man’s hand while Paintball himself collided with the man. 

Colt made as though to take a step that way, but Jae quickly put a hand against his chest, keeping her voice low. “He’s got it, and he doesn’t know about us.” Instead, she quickly looked around to see if there were any other attackers. The area looked clear. Just an ordinary mugger? 

No. No, she doubted that very much.

By that point, Paintball had the man… well, basically in hand. The guy was ranting and rambling something about monsters, which was even more confusing. Jae really wanted to ask him what he meant, but that felt like a bad idea right now. 

“Hey, you’re the girl from the grocery store, right?” Paintball snapped his fingers and pointed at Jae before asking if they were okay.

She and Colt looked at one another. Jae could see the unspoken question in the boy’s gaze, whether they should say anything to let Paintball know the truth. She gave a very slight, almost imperceptible shake of her head. Paintball was cool, but he wasn’t part of the team. Besides, they still had that ranting guy on the ground as an unwanted audience. 

So, Colt turned back that way and replied, “Uh, thanks, Paintball. Lucky you were there.” 

Paintball shrugged and said something about being out for a run. Something about that felt weird, but Jae was more focused on trying to figure out who this guy was who had tried to attack them. Was he one of the people on the list of names they’d found? Was there any way she could get his name out of him? 

Unfortunately, Paintball had just told them they should head out and leave him to talk to the cops. Hesitantly, Jae asked, “Are you sure… you don’t need help?” Yeah, there was no way to do this without telling the boy more than she wanted to, and he insisted they didn’t need to stay. 

So, they left, after Damarko got his shirt signed by Paintball. The two of them headed out, looking back repeatedly. Jae was trying to commit the ‘mugger’s’ face to memory so she’d recognize him if they saw his picture later. 

“You think this is connected to the Chambers?” Colt asked just as they passed out of sight from where Paintball was. “Pretty weird timing if it’s not.” 

“Yeah, weird timing,” Jae quietly murmured, frowning thoughtfully to herself. “Was he waiting there for us? Was he after us? How would he know we were coming out of that door? There’s nothing–how would he know?” 

Colt shrugged. “Dude, I dunno. But I’ll tell you one thing. Okay, two things. First, we need to find out what that guy’s name is. 

“And second, the other Damarkos are totally jealous of my new Paintball shirt.” 

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Schooling 24-07 (Summus Proelium)

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We didn’t end up running into any problems during that quick little patrol. Probably because almost everyone who would have caused trouble was still recuperating after the massive brawl from yesterday. That or, in the case of the Scions, they were apparently spending their time running God knew how many potential recruit candidates through the initiation test or… whatever it was they were doing. What it came down to was that there were more psychopaths out there besides Jennica competing to cause the most chaos and trouble in order to impress Pencil and Cup. The very thought of that brought bile to my throat, as did the positively cheerful thought of what else might happen before this audition bullshit was over. 

But, we didn’t run into any of that, or any other trouble. Which meant I was able to get home and get a solid six hours of sleep. And considering I hadn’t actually done that much physical exertion, since most of that had been inside the virtual reality, that meant I was rested long before my alarm was due to go off in the morning. Feeling restless, I left a note for Izzy and took a quick breakfast in the kitchen before heading out for what I told the staff members I passed was a run. It really was a run, of course. I just left out the fact that I would be changing into my costume and running across rooftops in the city, with my actual clothes in a backpack over my shoulder. 

It was pretty different being out here early in the morning. Well, early as far as I was concerned. It was not quite seven o’clock yet as I bounced my way from a traffic light to run along the side of an office building. My feet pounding against the brick was the most prevalent sound I could hear that early, aside from a few cars in the distance and birds calling out to one another. 

And then there was the bird who called out to me. “Ah, Paintball!” 

It was Lucent, of course, coming down from above as I stopped short at the edge of a rooftop. He landed smoothly on a nearby antenna and regarded me. “A fine morning to you, lad. Though I do hope this means you have thoroughly slept and are now out for a brisk early jog,” he announced. “Rather than the far more worrying option, that you have been out this entire time.” 

My head shook quickly. “Hey, don’t worry, Pops. I’ve definitely been asleep. I actually got more sleep all in a row last night than I have lately.” I paused to consider my words before adding, “Which isn’t really all that much, I guess. Still, I can’t sleep anymore.”

His head tilted sideways to consider me briefly before offering an understanding, “Let me guess, you’ve become accustomed to less sleep overall, and also spread out. You sleep a few hours at night, and then nap in the afternoon. Now you’ve done that enough that your body is accustomed to it. I’m told that happens to most Touched who operate that way.” 

Confirming that with a short nod, I asked, “What about you? I mean, did you get enough sleep? I heard you guys had it pretty rough the day before yesterday. Did uhh, did you get enough sleep?” 

Again, he regarded me. His expression seemed quizzical, but I couldn’t tell if that was just the ordinary raven look. After a moment, he replied, “Yes, it was a bit rough for everyone, it seems. I know you’ve heard this already, but I wished to offer my own apologies for being unable to respond to your request for aid until the situation had already been handled.” He paused then before adding, with a voice that was clearly amused and lightly teasing, “That is quite certainly not the sort of example I wished to give to any son of mine.” 

Painting a grinning smiley face across my helmet in orange paint, I gave him a thumbs up. “Don’t worry, I know you had your own problems to deal with. I’m just glad everyone got through it more or less intact.” With that, I glanced away, erasing the smile. A soft sigh escaped me. “But something tells me things are gonna get worse before they get better. Deicide’s really pissed off right now, isn’t she?” 

“She is not very happy, I’m certain,” Lucent agreed, turning his head to look out over the city around us. “I fear things will be escalating now, as soon as she and the others have regrouped. She will not allow that sort of betrayal to stand for long.” 

“Why did they betray her?” I found myself asking. “I mean, why would those guys think they could get away with switching sides like that? And to Oscuro of all groups. They’re not even Hispanic. I mean, I don’t care about that, but Oscuro is supposed to. Err, yeah, they made an exception for Grandstand. But, you know, considering she left them high and dry to go after her own vendetta, I would think they’d be less likely to make an exception like that again.” 

“Ah, we do have an answer to that, actually.” Lucent actually perked up a little at that, as though happy to be able to solve something for me. “According to intelligence our people on the street have been able to pick up, It seems that Juice, Janus, and Devil’s Due will not actually be joining Oscuro. In truth, Cuélebre has been traveling outside of the city, looking for new Touched members to recruit. He found another gang willing to come to the city themselves, whom he apparently does not mind sharing some territory with. They have their own Touched, several of whom were Hispanic and interested in joining his gang. But their own group desired a trade, so their strength wouldn’t be diminished.” 

Blinking a couple times as I absorbed that, I slowly offered, “Oh. So he recruits a few non-Hispanic Touched, then immediately trades them to this new gang so they’ll send their own Hispanic Touched to–is this fucking baseball or something? They’re trading players now?” 

Lucent chuckled softly, which was an odd sound to hear coming from a raven. “You might be surprised to learn how relatively common that sort of thing is, to be honest.” Again, his head tilted to look back at me with that seemingly quizzical expression. “Though perhaps not, as I hear you have done your own recruiting to fill up a brand new team of your own, as this Avant-Guard.” 

“Yeah,” I confirmed while giving him a thumbs up. “I mean, everyone kept telling me I shouldn’t go around by myself, so now I’m not. Errr, not as much. I have friends.” 

The TONI raven gave me what I swore was a bright smile. “And I am quite glad to hear that. Still, please ensure that you are all careful. Particularly considering what is happening in the city lately, and how those troubles are bound to escalate. There is a training facility at the Seraphs headquarters, and I have already been assured that you and your team will be welcome there.” 

No matter how much I trusted my ‘bird-dad,’ I wasn’t just going to give away exactly what we were doing with our own training. Maybe that was stupid and unnecessary, but I felt like it was best to keep that to myself. At least for now. Still, no matter how much mental training we were getting inside the VR place, we did need physical training. So, I gave a quick nod. “That sounds cool. I think we’ll probably take you up on that. Just don’t be surprised if your own members start complaining about a couple of us monopolizing your equipment. Poise and Style really want to make sure they whip us into shape.” 

“In that case,” he informed me, “I would like to meet them so that I might shake their hands for such forward thinking. And I do hope you are taking their suggestions seriously.” 

“Oh, believe me, we are.” Thinking about what we had started the night before, I added, “We’ve been working on that, but they’ll be glad to know there’s a real place we can go with some actual equipment and all that.” 

“Equipment and skilled trainers,” Lucent added, a bit pointedly. “People prepared to ensure that you and your team are ready should worse come to worst, powers or no. Which, I believe is a point of contention among some out there. There is some question of whether most of your group have any powers at all. From witness accounts and footage of that baseball field event, many are debating about the… Poise and Style you called them? Some believe they could not possibly move the way they do without some sort of gift, while others call it training or even the effect of Touched-Tech equipment. Which you would have access to, of course.”

I could tell he was gently fishing for information, probably curious about how much help I had on the actual powers front. Still, all I offered was a shrug. “They can take care of themselves.” If I wasn’t going to tell him about the virtual reality training room, I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him that those two were actually Biolems. Trust him or not, it was best to keep that to myself.

I could tell that he wanted to say something more about that, but he let it go and simply glanced up toward the sky before remarking, “I think perhaps it might be time that you made your way toward school? You wouldn’t want to be late, of course.” 

Again, I gave him a thumbs up. “Sure thing, Pops. Don’t you worry, I’ll be sitting right in class, learning all my Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. And all the rest. Just try to keep the city in one piece while I’m busy with that, deal?” 

“Deal,” he agreed with another soft chuckle. Then he regarded me seriously. “Be very careful out there, my boy. You have accomplished quite a lot in a short time span. And a great deal of that has involved making enemies. I am very glad that you have friends to aid you, but still, keep your eyes open. If you need outside aid, do not let the delay you experienced when it came to that zombie attack dissuade you from reaching out. We are all more than willing to lend a hand. Or a wing, as the case may be.” 

Promising that I would be careful and definitely reach out if I needed to, I took off running once more. I still had plenty of time before school, which didn’t start until eight-fifteen. But I wasn’t going to tell Lucent that. The public schools started closer to seven-forty-five, and between that and the difference in the middle school starting time, I didn’t want to say anything to him that might allow the Touched bird to narrow down where I went to school. 

Eesh, was I just being super-paranoid again? Like, too much so? I was almost certain he was trustworthy. But then, I couldn’t really trust my own family when it came down to it, so maybe that made sense. Either way, I didn’t feel comfortable exposing that much. Not even to my ‘bird-dad.’ 

I did make my way gradually in that direction, through a winding, looping route. I had already made sure Jefferson would know I wasn’t going to be home for him to drive, so that he only had to take Izzy. The run across the city gave me time to clear my head and really think through everything that had been happening lately. And, of course, stretching myself like that felt good. 

Eventually, I made it close to the school while still having about half an hour before classes were supposed to start. I had already eaten breakfast at home, but that run had still made me work up an appetite, so I was going to head in and grab something from the cafeteria.

However, just as I landed on the roof of a building near the school and was about to shrug off my backpack so I could change real quick, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. Paranoid as I was at that point, I dropped down low and leaned over to peer that way. There was an unlabeled door at the end of an alley far below. The building itself was just some sort of currently unused place for dental offices and the like, nothing special. But as I stared that way, I could see none other than Jae and that boy, Damarko, making their way out of it. The room behind them looked dark and rather empty, so what would they have been–oh. Right, yeah, okay then. Go, Jae. Now I was very certain that the two of them had some sort of thing going on. Why else would they have been holed up in some dark, unused room before school? Clearly, I didn’t know Jae nearly as well as I’d thought I did. But hey, at least she had someone. Even if she apparently wasn’t ready to share that fact with anyone else just yet. Either way, good for her. Damarko was definitely a catch, though I was a little worried about how her adopted step-mother would react to the whole thing, since he apparently didn’t go to the ‘rich kids school.’ Was that why Jae was keeping it a secret? Boy, was that an uncomfortable thought. 

Still, I was about to dismiss that and leave the two alone so I could change and get into school. None of that was really any of my business when you got down to it, and my stomach was starting to grumble even louder after that run. However, just as I was pulling back, something else caught my attention. There was an older guy coming out of the alley as well. He wasn’t coming out of that room the other two had emerged from, but from further back in, around the dumpsters. And he looked rather disheveled and dirty, as though he had been hanging out in the trash or something. His attention was laser-focused on the two ahead of him. That by itself would have been curious, but it turned to outright alarming when I saw him pull a pistol from his jacket pocket. What the hell?

Obviously, I didn’t wait to see what he was planning on doing with that. The moment I saw the gun, I launched myself off that roof and plummeted that way. On my way down, I shot a line of red from the gun to the nearby wall and activated it so the weapon was ripped from his grip. Before he could react to that, I painted orange on myself and a tiny bit on him as well, so he wouldn’t be killed as I slammed into him from above. We both went down, the man cursing out loud in surprise and probably a little pain despite the paint. 

Despite his obvious surprise, the man wasn’t completely done. I felt him squirm around and kick under me, the hard blow pushing me away. I rolled on the sidewalk and snapped my gaze up just in time to see him pull a dangerous-looking switchblade knife from his pocket, snap it open, and lunge at me with a scream. A flash of the training Paige and Sierra had put us through the day before went through my head, as I quickly jerked aside so the blade went past me, while snapping my hand out to smack the weapon out of his grip. It clattered along the ground nearby even as the man fell on top of me. He was still screaming in rage. Apparently he was very unhappy about me interrupting his attack on a couple of innocent teenagers. 

Yeah, I was starting to think there was something wrong with this guy. With effort, I managed to shove myself out from under him while he was rearing back for a punch and hit his chest with a bit of red paint. Another shot went to the nearby wall, then I ducked down so he could be yanked off me and sent flying that way.

Grunting, I popped to my feet behind the man. Before he could react, and before the paint could wear off, I fished a pair of ordinary handcuffs from my pocket and got them around his wrists. He was still shouting and cursing while I painted my arms purple and pushed him to the ground, but most of the fight seemed to have gone out of him. Mostly he was just rambling about how I had to let him go, the monsters had to die, or something to that effect. He wasn’t making much sense, and the fact that he was basically foaming at the mouth made me doubt he was in the best frame of mind to explain anything. Even discounting the whole ‘about to shoot a couple random teenagers’ thing. 

And speaking of those random teenagers, I looked up from getting the man on the ground just in time to see Jae and Damarko standing there staring at us. Right, shit, I had to be careful here. I couldn’t let Jae know who I was. I had to pretend I didn’t really know her at all, except for–

“Hey, you’re the girl from the grocery store, right?” Snapping my fingers, I pointed that way. “Yeah, hey, you okay? I think this guy was uhh… trying to mug you or something?” I didn’t really need to fake the confusion in my voice at that point. What was this guy’s endgame? These two had to be just targets of opportunity, right? So why was he so pissed off right now? He’d stopped verbally ranting, and was just laying there. But I could feel the rage vibrating through him. Man, this guy really wasn’t healthy. 

Jae and Damarko exchanged glances, an unspoken conversation passing between them. I was pretty sure they were feeling guilty about having done their… whatever that was in the room over there. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring that up. And neither did that. Instead, Damarko offered a hesitant, “Uh, thanks, Paintball. Lucky you were there.” 

“I couldn’t sleep,” I offered with a shrug. “Been out for a run. But what about this guy? You two know him?” When they shook their heads, I grimaced. “Guess you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But hey, you should go ahead. I’ll tell the cops what happened here and wait for them to show up.” 

For just a moment, it looked like they were both going to argue about that. Jae actually spoke up, though her voice was quiet and uncertain. “Are you sure… you don’t need help?” 

I shrugged, rising so I could keep one foot on the man. “It’s cool, I’ve got this.” I had to stop myself from making my voice unnaturally deep in response to talking to someone who actually knew me. The voice-changer itself was already doing the heavy lifting on that front. “You guys don’t wanna be late. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure this guy isn’t gonna go after anyone else anytime soon.”

Again, it looked like they were going to say something. But they both stopped themselves, aside from offering very sincere thanks. Damarko added something about needing to get my autograph, so I touched his shirt and put ‘Save you anytime you need – Paintball’ across it. Which he seemed to get a kick out of. 

With that, the two of them headed off, though they looked back several times and were holding an intense conversation on their way. Meanwhile, I reported the attack and capture via the Doephone app, before sighing as I looked down at the now-quiet man. 

“Dude, you totally owe me breakfast for this shit.” 

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Schooling 24-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Obviously, I had been through a lot of ridiculous things since I’d Touched the orb that one night a couple months ago. It was pretty hard by this point to say that any single moment definitively topped all others as far as standing out went. But I was going to have to admit, standing on a rooftop in the middle of the night, giving our made-up story about how my friends and I had been robbed by a group that was actually us to a bear and raccoon who shared the same space and kept taking turns being physically present? Yeah, that was going up near the top of the list, at the very least. 

And, to be quite frank, it was probably pretty up there as far as being terrified went. So I had to hide that reaction as much as I could. I was standing here lying to what was apparently not only one (or two) of the Ministry’s highest ranking people given they had the title of Minister, but one of them was probably capable of smacking my head clean off my shoulders. Yes, I had orange paint and all that, but still. Standing in front of a nine-foot tall bear, even if he was in an incredibly-tailored suit, while lying my ass off about something as important to the Ministry as who had robbed them… it wasn’t exactly my idea of a fun time. 

Still, at least we had planned out exactly what we were going to say about this. We’d known that there would come a time when we had to tell the story, and that we might not all get to tell it together. If they asked us separately without any warning, we wanted to have our story straight. This way, whichever of us they talked to would say the same thing. 

In short, the story we’d come up with, which I relayed to my alternatingly bear-raccoon interrogators, was that our group kept some supplies for Trevithick’s work hidden in a few old sheds around the city. Sheds which we had rigged with alarms and other protection to keep the equipment safe. One day, we had been talking and practicing outside one of those sheds when we heard something moving inside. Opening it up, we found three black-masked figures starting to pull boxes over to a hole they’d made in the floor. We were, quite understandably, surprised to see someone there. So they managed to throw some sort of flash bang thing before we could react. We chased them through the tunnel after recovering, but it simply led all the way to a large drainage ditch a couple blocks over, where we’d lost them. 

“But at least they only made off with a couple boxes worth of stuff,” I finished with a shrug. “And we put cameras in our storage places now, believe me.” 

Price, the raccoon, was perched on top of one of those small metal smokestack things, rubbing his paws together thoughtfully as he regarded me. “I don’t suppose you can show us where this other tunnel is so we can check for any other evidence?” 

Looking right back at him, I replied, “I don’t suppose you can show me where your tunnel is?” As he lifted his chin in reaction, I added, “I mean, that’s why you showed up like this to ask these questions, right? These people broke into some place that was important to you, and now you’re looking for any clues that could help you track them down. But something tells me you don’t want to let the sharing thing go both ways.”  

There was a brief pause as he seemed to consider my words, before hopping down as the smoke and light burst appeared. The bear, Fisher, was back. “You’re ahh, you’re right, we don’t have the authority or permission to take you to that place. But we did hope that–” 

“Look,” I interrupted before I could talk myself out of interrupting a bear, “I get it. I know why you all want to stop these people. I mean, I may not know the whole story, but something tells me your whole secret gang doesn’t really like the idea of another secret gang horning in on your territory. Trust me when I say you guys have a better chance of catching them than we do. But if, by some chance, we do happen to get them first, we’ll be sending them to prison, not to you people. Don’t take that the wrong way, it’s just… yeah.” It was important that I stick that bit about sending them to prison in there. It implied that I didn’t know they could get to any prisoner quite easily, and I really wanted to obfuscate just how much I knew about the Ministry. Or just let them think I was that naive. 

“We did get off on the wrong foot, didn’t we?” Fisher noted while giving me a curious glance. He stepped backward, hunching down a bit. I had the feeling he was intentionally trying not to intimidate me. “We heard our introduction to you was Squire carrying out an execution.” 

Squire. That name immediately leapt out to me, for more than one reason. First, he was obviously talking about my brother. That was Simon’s name in the Ministry, Squire? And second, I’d heard that name recently anyway. Back when we had been working out where Luciano was, Murphy had read a bit about how they were sending Squire instead of Plan Z to take care of something else, because Plan Z was busy. Simon was Squire. 

Absorbing all of that, I focused on the large bear in front of me, who was still doing his best to look unimposing. “You mean when I wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time, saw two people get shot in the heads, and then this Squire guy ordered his friends to kill me for being there? I’d say that was more than one wrong foot. That was at least a wrong leg.” 

Fisher gave a slight nod, slumping down to a seated position there on the roof in front of me. “Yes, very regrettable. We wish that had gone differently. If you like, we can answer questions, such as what exactly it was that you walked into that night.”

Questions? Oh boy, yeah, I had a lot of those. And yet, “How would I know you’re telling the truth? I mean, I hate to sound like a broken record, but again, don’t take that the wrong way. If you’re gonna say those two people were pedophile rapists who got what was coming to them, I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not.” 

With a poof of light and smoke, Price was back. “You’re right,” he agreed. “You got no reason to believe anything we say. And we’re obviously not about to be best friends here. Still, like we said before, we wanted to thank you for putting all that aside when it came to this zombie situation. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be able to laugh about all this tension.” 

“Maybe,” I allowed with a little shrug. There was no sense in being needlessly hostile. Not only did I really want to avoid a fight right now, but I needed the Ministry to continue seeing me as not a threat. They knew that I knew a bit about them, and that I wasn’t on their side. But as of right now, they also saw that I was willing to ask for their help, and I hadn’t tried to go to the cops or anything. I wasn’t an immediate problem they had to deal with, which meant I could potentially be an asset at some point in the future. I wanted them to keep thinking that. On the other hand, I was pretty sure they would be suspicious if I was too easy on them. 

To that end, I added, “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to let me take this Squire guy to the cops so he can tell them the whole story about why he killed those people. You know, as part of laughing about everything in the future, once they accept his story and give him a pat on the back for doing such a service to the community?” My head tilted one way, then the other. “No? Worth a shot.” 

There was a snort from the small raccoon, before he replied, “Sorry, that probably won’t happen. Not unless Squire… let’s say, screws up very badly.” 

Yeah, there was a lot I was tempted to say about that too, but about ninety-eight percent of it would’ve given away far too much about who I was. So, I simply shrugged once more. “In that case, I should probably get out of here. I mean, it’s been pretty cool, talking to a bear and raccoon at all, let alone a bear and raccoon who keep switching places. I feel like it’d be fun to hang out sometime. Maybe go see a movie. But right now, I’m basically asleep on my feet. Seriously, remember that whole ‘saving a stadium full of people from a bunch of fiery zombie monsters’ thing? You were there to see how awesome we were. But being awesome takes energy, so I need to go home.” 

With a slight chuckle, Price waved a paw, which gave me a nice look at his claws and reminded me that just because he wasn’t as big as his partner didn’t mean he couldn’t still be dangerous. “Sure thing, kid. And might I just say, you took talking to a raccoon and bear who keep swapping places better than a lot of people might’ve.” 

Speaking dryly, I replied, “Well, you did make it clear that my first impulse to hug you was a bad idea, and my second impulse to ask for a selfie probably wasn’t much better. You don’t seem like the type of guys who want to have your picture out there, considering I would’ve heard about you otherwise.” 

Fisher returned, swapping places with Price before giving me a short nod. “Those are some good instincts. Maybe they’ll take you a long way. But ahh, as far as hugs go, I will note that I am much more open to the concept than my partner.” 

My mouth opened, before I paused, looking him up and down. Then I shrugged, “Mmmmaybe we should hold off on the hug until a second meeting. But there’s something…. else that could be cool.” With that, I told him what I was thinking. 

Absorbing the request, Fisher made what sounded like a low chuckle. “You are an odd and fascinating boy, Paintball. And yes, perhaps we’ll see you again sometime. We know we can’t tell you not to tell any of your friends about us, if you’ve said anything about the Ministry already…” He trailed off, as though waiting briefly to see if I would react at all. When I didn’t, he just carried on. “But just know that if word gets out about us, or anything else, we know how to track it back. So be careful. And that goes for everything else you know about our group. Discretion is the better part of valor, and valor keeps everyone happy.”

Promising the bear that I would keep that in mind, I added, “About that request?” 

His eyes widened just a little. “You were serious about–ah… well yes, I believe we can accommodate that, if you are certain.” With that, he extended one arm, waiting expectantly. 

Some part of my brain was asking if I was crazy, rather vehemently. I ignored that part (it was used to that), and stepped that way. Pausing, I pointed and coated both of his arms with purple paint before turning around. Fisher reached down, and I felt his enormous paws close around either side of my waist. Without any apparent effort whatsoever, he hoisted me up in the air. “You are certain about this.” 

In response, I gave him a thumbs up while activating the paint I’d given him. “Let’s light this candle!” 

There was a brief pause, before Fisher leaned back, holding me out over his head, almost horizontal to the ground. Then he snapped upright with a roar, and hurled me out over the city. Between his natural bear strength, the Touched-based increase I was pretty sure he already had, and the boost I’d given him, I was sent flying over the rooftops with a loud scream that was half-terror and half-exhilaration escaped me. Several seconds in, and the scream turned to a laugh. I was sailing past several buildings, tumbling head over heels through the air. I was dizzy, in the middle of some terrifying mixture of flying and falling, and it was absolutely amazing. 

Just before I would have splatted against the side of a building, I managed to right myself, using orange paint on my legs, and a shot of blue against the wall so I could simply bounce off it, maintaining my momentum through another couple jumps and a shot of red that sent me sailing freely over the next roof. Fuck, fuck, fuuuuuuuuuck this was fast! 

I wanted to do it again. But I had a feeling they wouldn’t be there if I went back. So, I let my speed gradually slow so I could get my bearings once more.  

What did it mean, exactly, that Ministers Gray had shown themselves to me? Was it just that they were testing how I would react and whether word of their existence would leak out? Obviously, just like Fisher had said, if they showed themselves to me and then rumors of a bear-raccoon joint TONI started going around town, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out what happened. But was that the only reason they made a point of letting me see and talk to them, or was there something else? Were they trying to make me think there could be trust between us or something? I… I didn’t know. 

What I did know was that I needed to get home and sleep, before I ended up crashing right into a wall or falling off the edge of a roof. Though to be fair, either one would result in me not being conscious anymore. Which was sort of like sleeping. 

But hey, at least I probably wouldn’t have to worry about being turned into a murder-zombie if that happened. So we had accomplished something today. 

******

The next morning was Thursday, May 14th. When I’d gotten home the night before, Izzy had already been asleep in her bed. I took just enough time to check on her, then crashed into my own bed and slept until the alarm went off for school. Then I dragged myself through the shower and was just getting dressed in my room when the intercom buzzed to let me know she was out there. So, I let her in and the two of us took a few minutes to talk about what had happened the night before. She’d had just as much excitement as me, given the whole Cuélebre situation. 

“So now he’s pissed at you too?” I asked while nudging her as we sat on the edge of my bed. “You know you didn’t have to do that just to be like me, right? Actually, imitating me in general is just a bad idea all around.” 

Audibly snorting, the other girl lightly kicked my leg. “I wasn’t imitating you. He was gonna hurt Whamline, so I had to spray him down. You know, as a distraction.” After a brief pause, she grimaced. “But uhh, yeah, I don’t think he likes me very much right now.” That said, she turned my way and poked me in the arm harder than she had kicked me. “What about Broadway’s sister? She’s still out there, and she’s gonna be even more mad at you than Cuélebre is at… uh, both of us?” Squirming a bit, Izzy added, “Plus, she wants to get into the Scions, and they hate you too.” 

“Pretty sure they hate both of us,” I pointed out mildly, even as my face twisted a bit. “But yeah, she’s probably gonna be a problem. We know she’s out there now though, and so do the good guys. And the Ministry. It’s gonna be hard for her to show her face out there very much. Not that that solves the problem or anything, just… yeah, we’ll keep our eyes open. And uhh, keep watching for bears and raccoons.” 

She blinked at that, then stared and listened with an open mouth while I explained about meeting the Ministers Gray. When I was done, she took a moment to make sure I wasn’t pulling her leg, then sank back a bit, absorbing all of it. Finally, she murmured a soft. “Wow.” 

My head bobbed. “Wow about sums it up, yeah. I guess they want to see what I do with that sort of information. It’s definitely a test, and… I think also a sort of threat. But we can handle tests and threats, right? 

“Right,” she agreed before pushing herself up. “But you know what’s gonna be an even bigger threat if we don’t move?” 

“Jefferson,” I confirmed, hopping up after her. “Yeah, you’re right. We better get down there, or he’ll kill us before Jennica even has the chance to try.” 

So, the two of us had a quick breakfast before joining Jefferson for the drive to our schools. We talked about ordinary girl stuff on the way, to the point that I was pretty sure poor Jefferson’s ears practically started to bleed. Which I felt a little bad for, but hey, anything to make sure he’d report that there was absolutely nothing interesting going on with us. 

In any case, I eventually found myself at school, where I took a waiting Amber for a walk around the back field for her turn with the whole catching up thing. She apologized for not being able to get there, and for not even being around when the rest of the Star-Touched showed up. 

“They took us straight to the clubhouse, then had our parents pick us up,” she was saying while we studied some graffiti on the side of one of the football goalposts. “I mean, they promised your situation was already taken care of, but I still… you know.” 

“I know,” I confirmed. “It’s okay. I mean, like I said to your…” Briefly, I made a point of looking at my phone. “Seventeen text messages, we’re good. We were safe.” 

Her gaze met mine as she bumped her fist into my shoulder. “Sure, if you count adding another pissed off enemy to your ongoing list as being safe.” She tried to make it sound teasing before visibly sobering. “Look, just be careful, okay?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” I assured the girl, “I wouldn’t wanna be eaten by a bear.” Letting that hang for a moment as she stared at me trying to figure out if that was some sort of strange figure of speech, I finally snorted and explained the situation. Which meant I was treated to my second ‘person staring open-mouthed at me while trying to figure out if I was screwing with them’ of the past hour. 

Finally, Amber rocked backward on her heels. “Oh. I mean… oh. Wow. Well, either they’re sharing information with you because they don’t think you’re a problem…” 

“Or because they’re planning on making sure I’m not,” I finished, feeling a slightly queasy sensation run through me before pushing that aside. “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure it’s that first one.” 

Amber sighed. “I hope so. You’ve got enough people angry at you as it is.” 

“You know, people keep saying that,” I pointed out. “But the way I see it, if I get enough people pissed at me, when they do make a move, they’ll all run into each other, start a fight, and then I can escape unscathed. Like those cartoons where the whole group dog-piles the guy and he just crawls out from under the dust cloud and walks away.” My eyebrows waggled pointedly while she stared at me. “No?” 

“You should probably go back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan,” Amber replied flatly. Her mouth opened to add something else, before looking past my shoulder as she adjusted to call out, “Hey, Jae, what’s up?” 

Sure enough, Jae was approaching. She had on a wide-brimmed hat as well as sunglasses, and was clearly wearing sunscreen to protect her delicate skin. And even then, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t stay outside for very long. She also stayed silent until she was right next to us, before finally offering a slight smile our way while speaking softly. “Morning. Would…” She hesitated, clearly wanting to ask something but apparently uncomfortable with it. 

“What is it, Jae?” Amber prompted. “It’s okay, you can tell us. Unless you wanna just talk to one of us?” She glanced to me, looking slightly uncertain. Or possibly uncomfortable. 

“Oh yeah, sure. Sorry.” Holding up both hands to assure them it was okay, I started to say I would see them inside. For all I knew, Jae wanted to talk to Amber about stuff involving her being That-A-Way and didn’t realize that I already knew that. Hell, I didn’t know if Jae knew that. It was a weird situation. The two of them were friends, but that didn’t mean she definitely knew, and even if she did, I didn’t necessarily want her to know that I knew because that could lead to figuring out who I was, and then–yeah. It was a whole thing. 

Before I could head off, however, Jae quickly spoke up. “I–uh, actually I was… wondering if you both could take notes for me today. I have a… doctor’s appointment. I mean, Amber in the classes we have and… and Cassidy in the classes we have that I don’t have with Amber. I–that is–”

“Sure thing,” I assured her before she could fumble on with that. “No problem. Doctor’s appointment, huh? Everything cool?” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed while glancing out toward the parking lot. “Dad just wants me to get a check-up since he’s back in town. He was just working on some movie with this contagion outbreak, and… it made him paranoid. So Kella’s gonna drive me over there.” 

I rarely heard Jae say much, so this was practically a whole speech by her standards. Which made me once again think she must’ve been feeling awkward about the whole Amber being That-A-Way thing. But that wasn’t a discussion I could get into right then, so I just let it go and promised again to take notes for her. Amber did the same, and then Jae headed off. 

“She knows, doesn’t she?” I started quietly after watching the girl leave. 

Amber seemed to jump a bit, turning back my way. “Huh?” 

“About you being Touched, I mean,” I clarified. “Err, sorry, I probably shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just, that was a little awkward right there, like she wanted to say something but didn’t. Or… something.” 

There was a brief pause before Amber gave a slight nod. “Uh, yeah. She knows. But she doesn’t know anything about you.” 

“Yeah, that’s probably why it was awkward,” I noted, shaking my head before starting to walk to the school building itself. “This whole situation is just weird sometimes, you know?” 

Muttering something about me having no idea, the other girl followed. The two of us were just heading inside, when I glanced toward the parking lot. There, I saw Jae getting into the passenger seat of some random car. At first, I thought it was her stepmother giving her that ride she was talking about, but the driver was a man. One that I belatedly recognized. 

Okay, so if Jae’s stepmother was supposed to be taking her to the doctor, why was she getting into a car with that Damarko Myers guy? Wait, hold on…

Did… did Jae have a secret boyfriend? 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Commissioned Interlude 10 – Minority Guys (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The following is a commissioned interlude, not part of the normal schedule. There was ALSO another chapter focusing on Jae and the Chambers twins posted earlier. If you have not read that yet, you can see it by clicking right here

Laki Sefo/Wobble

Present Day

The repetitive sound of a basketball hitting pavement filled the park early in the morning. A tall, lone figure was backlit by the rising sun as it came across the horizon. In the crisp air, he dribbled the ball between his legs and back again before rising up to shoot from the three-point line. The ball swished smoothly through the net before falling directly into the hands of a man who had approached from the sidelines. 

“Looking good, Laki,” the curly-haired blond man announced while turning the ball over in his hands. Thirty years earlier, Harris Mauter had been on his way to the NBA, before twisting his knee his last year of university. He’d taken to coaching basketball first for college before his own bitterness at his situation had seen him demoted to high school. There, he’d found his calling and become relatively stable and happy. Or rather, normally happy. Aside from when one of his most-promising young athletes went and threw their whole career away for nothing. 

It was that very athlete the man was staring at just then. Laki Sefo. Just sixteen years old, yet he stood six feet, seven inches tall. And unlike many youths who grew tall early, Laki wasn’t thin. He was well-built, and often passed for being an adult. Hell, the Samoan boy had been passing as an adult for a couple years. And the boy had talent. Incredible talent. At fifteen and only a sophomore the year before, he had led his public high school team to be state champions.

And then he quit. It happened shortly after the party to celebrate their final win. The boy, who was set to cruise on through two more years of high school before being snatched up on a full scholarship to any university he wanted ahead of an inevitable NBA career, had quit the sport entirely. No reason given, no injury, nothing. He still played like a champion, but he just… refused to. 

Catching the ball as the man tossed it to him, Laki quietly replied, “Thanks, Coach.” 

“Coach?” Harris tilted his head curiously. “I’m sorry, am I your coach? Was this entire past year a bad dream and you didn’t throw away everything for no reason?” 

Grimacing a little, Laki spun the ball around in his hands before shaking his head. “Sorry, Coach.” 

Harris paused, taking a breath before gesturing. “Look, kid, I drive by here every morning. And I see you out here a lot. Even watched you play a couple pick-up games. You’re just as good as you used to be. Maybe better. You say the word and you can come right back. Everything forgiven, same spot again. I mean, technically you’d have to try out and earn it, but we both know that’s not a problem.” 

Laki was quiet for a moment, still holding the ball. He knew just how badly the man wanted him to say yes. He knew… he knew how badly he wanted to say yes. He loved basketball as much as he loved anything else. And yet, in the end, the boy simply shook his head. His voice was soft as he repeated his last words. “Sorry, Coach. I… need to get to work.”  

With that, he turned and began to walk away, while Harris stared after him in disbelief. The man called out a question about where he was working, and that they both knew he still loved basketball, but Laki didn’t respond to either. He didn’t want to lie to the man. Not after already disappointing him. And he couldn’t tell him the truth about where he was working. He couldn’t tell him the truth about why he had quit the team.

He couldn’t tell him what had really happened, the night of the championship game. 

********

One Year Earlier

Lying on his back on the cement in his own backyard (well, his family’s backyard), fifteen-year-old (and already six-foot three) Laki held one hand out toward the basketball hoop attached to a metal post. A series of vibrations shot from his outstretched finger, carefully calculated to carry the ball through the air, directing it somewhat precariously toward and finally through the hoop. As the ball fell, he sent a stronger vibration that way, making it bounce the ball off the nearby garage wall and back toward him so he could catch the thing without getting up.

“Damn, dude,” another boy, standing closer to the gate leading out of the backyard, shook his head. He wasn’t nearly as tall as Laki, standing only five feet, seven inches. His blond hair was  fashioned into a faux-hawk, and he had a ready smile. “That shit’s cool, every time I see it.” Stepping over, he looked down at the other boy (Laki lying on his back was basically the only time he would be able to look down to see him). “Still can’t believe you got that lucky. Come on, your life is already perfect. You’ve got like, a hundred million dollar NBA career ahead of you and you find one of those orbs? So now you’re a superstar basketball player and you have actual superpowers. Save some for the rest of us, huh?” 

Chuckling easily, Laki pushed himself to his feet. “Sorry, Ken. Like I said, it just showed up while I was waiting for the bus. I didn’t exactly call for it. But tell you what, next time, I’ll make sure to ask the orb to stick around so you can touch it too.” 

With a snort, Ken retorted, “See, you joke, but I wouldn’t put it past you to find a second orb to get even more powers. That sounds just like you.” Checking his phone then, he added, “I gotta run. But I’ll be there tonight. You’re gonna win, right?” 

Laki, in turn, offered a broad smile and wink. “Can’t predict the future, dude. Grand Rapids has a pretty good team.” He let that sit in the air for a moment before laughing. “But yeah, we’re gonna smoke ‘em.” 

The boys exchanged high fives before Laki watched his friend head out the gate. Still antsy, unable to make himself sit still for the hour it would take before it was time to head out for the game, the tall boy decided to go for a jog. He could listen to music, clear his head, and get himself in the right frame of mind. 

Almost fifty minutes later, he was on his way back home after completing a nice loop. Earbuds blasting one of his favorite songs, Laki jogged down the street several blocks from his house. He would be home in a minute, and would have just enough time to grab a lift from his dad to the school. In that moment, the boy was mostly lost in his own world, thinking about how the game was going to go. And about how great it would feel for his team to be state champions.  

He was not so lost in thought, however, that he didn’t notice another boy approaching from the side, crossing the street with his hand raised. Slowing, Laki looked that way. He sort of recognized the boy as someone from school, and around the neighborhood, but they had never really interacted. 

“Uh, hey, Laki. Uh, hi.” The boy, black with a buzz cut and an oversized football jersey, started awkwardly. “I mean, you’re Laki. Of course you are. I just–um, my name’s Joe. Joe Pallamarti. We don’t-uhh, know each other or anything. I mean, you probably don’t know anything about me. But I live right down the street, we go to the same school, and–” 

“Hey, sorry, really cool to see you, Joe.” Giving the boy a casual smile, Laki started to move past him. “I gotta head out so I can get to the game. You gonna be there?” 

“Wa-wait!” Joe called out, face heavily flushed. “Look, I–fuck, fuck. I need your help, man.” 

His words made the taller boy blink, slowing a bit. “Uh, what? You okay?” 

Joe folded his arms against his stomach, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Look, I–I was there, okay? I saw you touch that Orb the other day. I saw what you–I mean– I wasn’t gonna say anything. I’m not gonna say anything. Not to anybody. Never, ever. Not a fucking word. But I–I need your help. And I can’t think of anyone else to talk to about it.” 

Eyes widening through that, Laki gave a quick shake of his head. “What–hey, I don’t know what you’re talking about. But if you think you can latch on and blackmail–” 

“No!” Joe hurriedly insisted. “No, no, that’s not what–I swear, I won’t tell anyone. That’s not what this is–I’m explaining it wrong. Listen, I just need–” 

Laki put a finger against the boy’s chest, pushing him back. “Whatever kind of game you think you’re playing, I don’t want anything to do with it. If you try to fuck me over, you’ll regret it.” 

“No, I swear!” Joe’s voice was desperate. “It’s not about–I need… look, there’s this guy, he keeps harassing my sister. She told him off but he won’t listen and–and I’m afraid he’s gonna come back. I just want you to tell him to back off, that’s all. I mean, look–you’re huge. And with your–” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “With your powers, if you wore a mask or something, you could put the fear of God into him, you know? You could make him leave her alone.” 

Opening his mouth, Laki hesitated. “I don’t–that’s not… why don’t you call the cops?” 

“Don’t you think I tried?” Joe insisted. “They don’t listen. He hasn’t done anything, so they just said they can’t step in. Just–I know he’s going to come back today. Any minute now. If we could run over there, it’ll just take a–” 

“Whoa, whoa, now?” Laki’s head shook. “Hey, sorry. Look, maybe I can come help you out later, but not right now. Are you crazy? It’s the last game tonight, the championship. You know, that thing everyone at school is talking about.” 

“But if you–” Joe started. 

“Later,” Laki interrupted. “Seriously, come by after the game. We’ll go over and find that guy you were talking about. Make him lay off your sister. But I gotta go right now. I’ll see you then, dude.” 

As he started jogging back to his house, the other boy stood where he was, calling after him, “What if he shows up?!” 

“It’ll be fine!” Laki called back, already putting it out of his mind. He had other things to focus on. Couldn’t let his coach down. Couldn’t let his team down. Couldn’t let the scouts who would definitely be there that night down. 

Time to show how good he really was.

*****

Much later that evening, Laki was high off the adrenaline of leading his team through the championship. They won. They were indisputably the best team in the state, no question about it. He had been on fire all night long. It was the best game of his high school career. Those college scouts were damn sure to be calling. Things couldn’t get any better. 

Stepping out of the car after his friends dropped him off, the boy was about to head inside when flashing lights down the street caught his attention. Turning that way, he saw several police cars and an ambulance outside of a house in the distance. The sight made him frown, walking that way before he knew what he was doing. 

There was a small crowd of neighbors gathered around the house, held back by police crime scene tape. Ken was already there, glancing over as the other boy approached. “What a fucking nightmare, huh? I mean, uh, congrats and all. But…” He turned back to look at the house in the distance. “Fuck.” 

Laki was frowning even more. “What’s going on?” 

“You don’t know?” Ken grimaced. “Sorry to bring you down on your big night.” He nodded to the house. “That’s Joe Pallamarti’s house. You don’t know him, but he goes–”

“To our school,” Laki finished. “I know him. Why–what happened?” 

Ken shrugged. “Some guy his sister was dating or something. Sounds like she dumped him, so he came over, broke his way into the house, and uhh, things got ugly. Joe tried to get in the way, but uhh, he and his sister both got shot. They didn’t make it.” 

“Didn’t–” Laki reeled backward, eyes wide. “Wha-what the fuck do you mean, didn’t make it? He was just–he was–I–” He doubled over a little, voice hoarse. Bile filled his throat. “I should’ve… I should’ve…”

“Hey, hey, man, ease up.” Ken reached out, putting a hand on his friend’s arm. “It’s fucked up, but come on. You didn’t even know them, man. You were at the game, you didn’t know anything about it. You weren’t here.

“There’s nothing you could’ve done, right?” 

**********

Damarko Myers/Syndicate

Present Day

Standing in front of what would look from the outside like a completely mundane tool shed in an out-of-the-way alley, Damarko Myers stood facing himselves. Or perhaps it was more accurate to say all four of him stood facing themselves.

Being a single person with four different bodies and separate minds was complicated. Two years earlier, there had been only one of him. Then the tall (though not nearly as tall as Wobble), dark-skinned and wiry boy had Touched. First there had been two more of him, though only one of the group could be solid at any given time. They had called themselves Trilogy. But six months later a fourth version had appeared, so their name had become Syndicate. Individually, they went by animal names to differentiate amongst themselves. Rabbit, Colt, Puma, and Armadillo.

In their insubstantial form, the various versions of Damarko could choose whether they were visible to everyone (though with a blueish-gray ghostlike appearance), or only to each other (including whichever of them was solid at the time). At the moment, they were only visible to one another. So, anyone who might have happened to look down that alley would see what appeared to be a lone Damarko, dressed in jeans and a long open flannel shirt over a black tee, tapping his fist three times against his other palm before showing one or two fingers to… apparently no one. That repeated a few quick times before he pumped his fist in the air, and then immediately vanished, only to reappear a few feet away. 

No, he didn’t teleport. That version (Rabbit) simply became insubstantial, while Colt turned solid. Snapping his fingers, Colt insisted, “Someday I’m going to figure out what my tell is, then I’ll win one of those games.” 

“Sure, buddy,” Rabbit retorted with a grin. “But until then, you get toilet duty.” 

“I dunno what you’re grinning about,” Colt shot back, “Trash duty isn’t that much better.” 

“Sure seems better to me,” Rabbit replied, shrugging. “But maybe that’s cuz the trash doesn’t go out for another three hours, and the restroom’s right now.” 

They, and the other two, continued to tease one another about what chores they had been saddled with that evening while turning to move toward the nearby shed. Colt, as the solid one, reached out to press his hand against the seemingly blank wall next to the door. As he did so, his palm activated the button, which activated the pinhole camera a couple feet higher. The camera was basically invisible. He only knew where to look in order to see the tiny hole it was looking through thanks to being told exactly where it was. The thing scanned his eyes, and there was a brief pause before the door clicked, allowing him to open it. 

Technically, the other three versions of him were intangible and capable of going through the door before it opened. But the place had a lot of security against that sort of intrusion. Which they knew from past experience. If they did try to go straight in, it would have set off about a dozen different alarms, called in aid from various authorities, and just been a complete mess. Besides, simply going into the building like that wouldn’t actually accomplish anything anyway. So, they waited before heading in with their solid brother. 

The shed’s interior didn’t look any different than it should have. It appeared to be a completely empty small building. But, as the door shut, the Touched-Tech built by the Ten Towers Touched known as Switchshift went to work. A moment later, there was an audible ding, and Colt reached back to open the door once more. Rather than admitting them to the same alley they had just left, the quartet emerged into a wide, circular room with a desk to one side, a pair of double doors straight ahead with an enormous clock above them, and an elevator to the left. 

“Syndicate.” Smiling warmly, the blonde woman in her forties who sat behind the desk rose and emerged from behind it. “Or should I say… Colt… Armadillo… Rabbit… and Puma.” With each pronouncement, she pointed to one of the boys in particular. 

All four of them stared at her. The intangible trio had made themselves visible in those blue-gray ghostly forms just to test her (for about the thousandth time), and were still surprised by the results. Armadillo shook his head. “You know, someday we’re going to figure out how you do that, Ms. Esters.” 

His words made the woman smile. “Just like I told you before, I have triplets. You get pretty good at telling them apart with enough practice.” Her hand gestured back to the desk, where a framed photograph of the woman with her husband and the identical ten-year-olds was visible. “So, who’s doing what tonight, boys? I’ve got a porcelain ticket, an emerald ticket, tile ticket, and fuzzy ticket.”

Puma spoke up. “You know, no matter what cute names you give them, it’s still restroom cleaning, trash collection, kitchen clean-up, and vacuuming the clubhouse.” 

“Sure sounds like you’re the one with toilet duty,” she teased him with a raised eyebrow. 

“Nope,” Rabbit put in. “He’s in the kitchen. Colt’s the one cleaning the toilet. I’ve got trash. And uh, Armadillo gets to play with the vacuum.” 

“Well then.” Turning, Ms. Esters stepped over to a cupboard behind her desk and returned with a bucket, mop, and other cleaning supplies, which she handed over to Colt. In the bucket was also a box of large trash bags for Rabbit to use when the time came. To Puma, the woman added, “When you clean up that kitchen, don’t forget to really get into the inside of that microwave. Those hot pockets make a real mess. And you boys let me know if you need any help.” 

“I guess that means there’s no reports?” Colt sounded a bit hopeful. Anything to get him out of focusing on the bathroom. 

His words drew a sly, knowing smirk from the woman. “Nothing just yet, but you know how it’s been lately. Something could come in any minute.” Before he could smile, she added, “Which means you should get in there and scrub that toilet now, while you’ve got the chance.” Her voice turned to a stage-whisper. “Believe me when I say, it needs it. And you know the rules about cleaning the Clubhouse.” 

The Clubhouse was the term for the areas of the Minority Headquarters where the actual team members hung out, trained, played games, ate food, and generally stayed while they were on-duty but not patrolling or responding to a situation. The Minority Headquarters itself technically consisted of two other floors full of support personnel and office workers. It took a surprising number of people to run this team of teenage superheroes. There were two private practice lawyers and their assorted paralegals for dealing with civil cases and legal questions that arose, a handful of police officers who worked directly with the team and were assigned to the building, three people whose job it was to scour the internet for anything that could possibly either make the Minority look bad or potentially expose their identities, at least four full-time accountants, and a couple of technicians down in the lab picking through new toys that were either sent in from other Tech-Touched who wanted to help, or scavenged from crime scenes. In most cases, the latter were sent to bigger labs such as those used by the Conservators. But they did have a small place here. 

Beyond all that, there were even more people working in the various offices. Even a couple of public relations people to help keep their team looking good in the eyes of the rest of the city. To say nothing of all the special investigators they had. All in all, it was a very busy building. And those people had plenty of their own support personnel, employees who kept the building clean, delivered their mail throughout the offices, and so forth. All except for the Clubhouse itself. The area where the teenagers hung out. There was a very firm rule that it was up to the members of the Minority themselves to clean their area. They cleaned up their kitchen, their bathroom, took out their trash, vacuumed their own carpet, and so forth. Some might have said that they already did a lot of work putting their powers toward helping people, but the people who had instituted that rule wanted to make sure the teenagers didn’t end up thinking they were above everyone by having what amounted to servants clean up their hangout every week. They still got plenty of benefits, including a salary and a lot of free food (always good for growing teenagers). But cleaning up their own messes was non-negotiable.

Together, the four identical figures thanked the woman and turned to head for the elevator. The double doors straight ahead from the entrance they had come through would have led them to the office area where everyone else worked. Those doors were securely locked, and monitored by Ms. Esters or one of the other two who took turns at that desk, to stop anyone who didn’t have clearance from accidentally seeing the Minority members unmasked or fully in civilian clothes. She, and the other two, were essentially their… minders. And tutors when the occasion called for it. They stayed upstairs for the most part, leaving the Minority teens to carry on as they wished so long as they followed the rules. 

Syndicate didn’t head for the doors, however. They turned and walked to the elevator. Unlike the normal ones inside the main office, this one only went down to one area, the Clubhouse. 

Once they were on the elevator and the doors had closed behind them, the Damarkos glanced at one another. Puma spoke first. “She still reminds me of–” 

“–Alice,” Armadillo finished. All four nodded together, their expressions identical not only in physical appearance, but also in the pain that passed through them. 

The elevator doors had opened by then, but none of them moved. It didn’t feel right to do so. Not yet. Not until they had all lowered their heads, staring at their own feet for several long seconds as the memory washed over them.

Alice Mcgregor. Four years earlier, she had been the then-singular Damarko’s piano teacher. Between the ages of ten and thirteen, he had visited her house twice a week to take lessons and practice. He wasn’t an expert or anything, but he had gotten pretty good. Mostly because Alice was a good teacher. 

Then she was killed. Not at her house or anything. She had been mugged and murdered at a bus stop late at night. Damarko’s parents didn’t tell him the truth about it at first, of course. He’d had to read the details online. Something he still regretted doing. Worse, they never caught her killer. It was just a random attack. 

It was the memory of Alice’s killer escaping justice that had helped prompt Damarko to join the Minority when he eventually found an orb and Touched two years after that event. The Touching part itself wasn’t traumatic or anything. He had simply been playing lasertag with some friends, huddled behind cover, when an orb showed up right in front of his gun. He thought it was part of the room at first, a new special effect or something. But then he reached out to touch it and… well, things had never been the same. 

The point was, remembering reading about the savage murder of his old piano teacher, a nice woman who had given him chocolate and peppermint candy, two years before that moment had convinced all of the Damarkos to head straight to the Minority and sign up to help however they could. And now here they were. 

Raising their gazes to look at one another, the four gave an assortment of firm, silent nods. Their promise to help anyone they could reestablished, they turned to walk out into the Clubhouse, Colt dragging the mop and bucket with them. 

It was time to go to work. 

*****

Jerry Meuster/Whamline

A Little Over One Year Ago

Throwing open the door to his bedroom with a slam, the red-haired teenager rushed inside, already cursing. “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Rather than anger, his tone was one of fear and desperation. He quickly began to yank his jacket off while kicking the door shut behind him. In a frantic rush that ended up being far less efficient than if he had taken his time, and nearly made him fall over repeatedly, the boy stripped himself down to being completely naked. 

Still cursing the whole time, tears in his eyes, he grabbed all the clothes and threw them into an old duffel bag. His shaking hands zipped it up, before he cursed even more emphatically and unzipped it to yank all his possessions out of the pockets. Then he zipped it back up, and stood while grabbing the bag. The boy was halfway back to his door before remembering that he was naked. Throwing the bag down, he raced to put on new clothes.

Once he was actually dressed, Jerry Meuster went to grab the bag once more before jerking with a yelp as his cell phone buzzed and vibrated from the pile of stuff on the floor. Staring at it as though the thing was a hissing snake, he hesitated before gulping as he grabbed the phone and checked the caller ID. A relieved sigh at what he saw escaped the boy before he answered. 

“Yeah? No, I’m not fucking kidding! It was an accident, asshole! I was just fucking around, the dude wasn’t even supposed to–yeah. Of course not, how fucking stupid do you think I am? But I’ve gotta get rid of the clothes, right? You know, for like, evidence and shit. No, I didn’t throw it away. I’ve gotta–yeah. Fuck, fuck. Just meet me out by the school. I don’t know, it seems like the right place. Whatever, just fucking meet me there! And bring some gasoline!”  

Clicking the phone off, he gave one more look around the room before racing back out, letting the door slam behind him once more. A shout came in from the far side of the house about not slamming things, but he ignored it for the moment. There were more important things for him to focus on. Like not ending up in prison. 

*****

Jogging across the school parking lot several minutes later with the duffle bag on his shoulder, Jerry approached another boy who was standing there waiting for him. The second boy was slightly taller, a Latino teenager with long dark hair. He turned as Jerry approached, jolting a bit. “Fuck, you scared the shit out of me. That’s the clothes?”

Shaking the bag on his shoulder, the other boy gave a quick nod. “Well, I didn’t leave them at home. Did you bring the fucking gas, Jorge?” 

“Over there.” Jorge nodded to a red gas can, sitting next to a large metal trash container that was chained to the ground. “You sure you need to burn them? I mean, you didn’t like… get blood on you or anything, did you?” 

Giving the other boy a sharp look, Jerry retorted, “I’m not taking any chances. You think I want to end up in prison just because some guy was too fucking stupid to live? I was just screwing around, having a little fun. He’s the one who–” Cutting himself off, he made a growling sound in the back of his throat before walking over to dump the contents of the bag, and then the bag itself, into the large trash barrel. That done, he stooped to pick up the gas can and began to empty it over the clothes. Once they were all thoroughly doused, the boy held his hand out. “Gimme your lighter.” 

After a brief hesitation, Jorge stepped over that way and passed him the flip lighter from his pocket. “Be careful with it, I–” 

Taking the thing, Jerry simply flipped it open to get a small flame and then tossed it into the can. Immediately, there was a whoosh as the contents went up. 

“–like that lighter,” Jorge finished, staring at the tall flames. “Damn it.” 

“No evidence,” Jerry insisted, watching the fire burn. “We watch this for awhile until we’re sure it’s all gone, then we’ll put it out. Gardener’s still got the hose attached to the school over there. We make sure it’s all destroyed. Can’t have anything tying me back there.” 

The two of them stood there silently for a few minutes of silence, both lost in thought. Finally, Jorge spoke in a soft voice. “Kinda feel shitty about that guy, huh?” 

Jerry didn’t respond for a moment, his eyes locked onto the flames. His eyes closed, head tilting a bit before he quietly replied, “Yeah, shitty. That guy shouldn’t have been out there. Shouldn’t’ve… fuck. It’s all so fucked up, you know? Why the fuck did he have to be there?” 

Jorge opened his mouth to say something, then seemed to think better of it and remained silent. His eyes moved back and forth between the flaming barrel and the other boy, a thoughtful look crossing his face before his gaze rose toward the sky. 

“We clean this up,” Jerry finally announced after another few minutes had passed, “and then we never talk about it again. You understand? Once we’re done with this, it never happened. We don’t talk about it, we don’t write anything about it, we do nothing about it. It’s over. We erase it with the fire, right?” 

After a moment of silence that made Jerry move his gaze from the barrel over to his friend, Jorge finally gave a short nod, his own voice barely audible against the crackle of the flames. “Right. We erase it and walk away. 

“It’s over.” 

*******

“Three weeks, man!” Jerry snapped. “We burned those fucking clothes three weeks ago. It was over, remember? It was over! We said we weren’t going to talk about it again, so why the fuck did you bring it up?” 

The two boys were standing in an alley several blocks from the diner that Jerry’s family ran, late into the evening. It was almost midnight, as they stared at one another, expressions barely visible through the light of the distant streetlamps. 

“Why?” Jorge echoed. “You know why! You know what they found!” 

Rolling his eyes, Jerry’s head shook. “And I’m telling you, they can’t trace it back to me. I didn’t leave any evidence in there, okay? Nothing they can use. I wiped the whole thing off. Even if they got some fabric or whatever, we burned my clothes, remember? They’ve got nothing. We’re fine!” 

Turning away, Jorge groaned, putting his hands to his face. “I never should have gotten involved. I never should have showed you how to do any of that. I should’ve–fuck, fuck, fuck!” 

“Hey!” Jerry reached out, grabbing the other boy’s shoulder. “Just calm down. It was an accident, okay? It was an accident and it’s over. Nobody knows I was there, and nobody knows you had any involvement at all. We’re cool. We’re safe. It’s all good.” 

“All good?” Jorge made a face, pulling his shoulder away before turning to look at his friend. “Dude, you fucking killed a guy. How is that all good?” 

“It was an accident!” Jerry snapped, voice rising to a near-shout before catching himself. “It’s like I said, total and complete accident. I didn’t know he was there, okay? I didn’t mean to hurt him. I didn’t–fuck. I didn’t mean for any of that to happen. But I’m not going down for it just because he was in the way. So calm down. They don’t have anything tying me to that. All we have to do is keep our heads down and not say anything. This’ll blow over. Hell, it’s already blowing over. They’ve got more important things to focus on.”

Jorge fell silent, clearly choosing over his words before looking up once more. “Listen, if they do track you down, it’s gonna be really bad. Straight up murder charges or whatever, cuz you ran and you hid it. But if you, you know, negotiate with them and get it down to accidental manslaughter or–” 

“Why the fuck would I say anything to them?” Jerry demanded. “Like I said, they’ve got nothing. They can’t find me. They can’t track me down. They don’t even know who the fuck I am. I don’t need to negotiate them down from murder to manslaughter, because they can’t get me for either of them! They don’t know who I am!” 

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Jorge stammered. “I’m just saying, if we talk to them about how it was an accident, and like–” 

“We?” Jerry interrupted once more. He took a step that way, eyes narrowing. “The fuck do you mean ‘we?’ You mean me? It’s my fucking ass on the line, dude. You’re my friend, right? So we don’t say anything to them, right? Because that’s the way we make this go away, right?” 

Jorge took a deep breath before exhaling. “Right.” Turning away to stare at the brick wall once more, he added, “Maybe we can send something to his family. Like, anonymousl—” 

In mid-sentence, the boy gave a sudden grunt of surprise and pain, jerking violently. 

“Shhh.” Jerry held a hand clamped over the boy’s mouth, shoving the knife deeper into his back before bringing it out to stab again, then a third time. “Shhh. I told you. I fucking told you to drop it. I told you not to bring it up again! Now you’re talking about sending shit to his family? You wouldn’t let it go, would you? You wouldn’t–” He brought the knife back out and then stabbed it in again one last time. “–let it go!” 

Stepping back, he let the body fall to the ground, panting as he stared down at it. The knife was still buried in the boy’s back, and he reached down while taking out a handkerchief to wipe off the handle. Once that was done, he looked around the empty alley quickly before stepping back to fumble with his phone until it was out of his pocket. His fingers dialed 911, and Jerry stammered, “Pl-please, come quick. Please, my friend–it’s my friend, we were mugged and–and they stabbed him. They stabbed him in the back—he–he’s not breathing! Please, come quick! Please!” 

In mid-plea, the boy saw something out of the corner of his eye. Ignoring the operator’s requests to stay on the line, he disconnected and turned his head. 

An orb. A glowing orb was floating right next to him, as though staring at the body on the ground. Seeing it, everything else seemed to wash away. Slowly, he raised his hand and reached out toward the orb. 

Soon, Jerry Meuster would have his own superpowers. He would choose to join the Minority, as everyone there would believe the orb had come to him in the wake of witnessing his friend’s murder. Which, of course, was technically true. He would even have a pretty good time playing superhero for awhile, much to his own surprise. 

Although his surprise at how much he enjoyed being a member of the Minority was nothing compared to when he found out just who one of his teammates was. After all, in all of his planning how could he possibly have expected to find himself working side by side with Amber O’Connell…

The daughter of the man Jerry had hit and killed while joyriding in a stolen car.  

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Patreon Snippets 12B (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But it’s just beginning.” 

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amber frowned. “Uh… what?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Paintball. What’s that guy’s deal?” 

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Friends and Enemies 8-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Showdown 7-02 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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