Dani Kalvers

Enkindle 23-08 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Equal And Opposite 21-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Today was just… really weird all around. 

******

“So uhh, I owe you an apology.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Equal And Opposite 21-02 (Summus Proelium)

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The next morning was Saturday. It was also the day of Tyson’s funeral. Some part of me had had the wild thought that even if I couldn’t appear as Paintball because of the connection it would draw to Murphy, maybe I could at least go as myself. Except that was a bad idea too. Even if people didn’t recognize me (and to be honest, most wouldn’t because I didn’t fit what they assumed the daughter of Elena and Sterling Evans would look like), they would still wonder why I was there. After all, this clearly wasn’t going to be some big crowded event. If I attended, I would be noticed. Especially by Murphy and Roald, who would wonder why some girl they had never seen before was sitting in on the funeral. 

Not for the first time, I wondered if I should just come straight out and tell all of them exactly who I was, and the full truth about this entire situation. But there were things still holding me back. I trusted them, of course. But if I let them know who I was, I didn’t know how it would change… everything. How they thought about me, how they–but no. No, that wasn’t the important thing. The most important thing was that I was afraid of what would happen if my identity happened to somehow get further than that. Or if my parents found out they knew something and… talked to them. If they didn’t know who I was, they would have no way of telling– but that put them in danger too. If they couldn’t tell my parents what they wanted to know, if they–so I should tell them. But if I told them, I didn’t have control over who found out. Or even less control than I already had, given Izzy and Amber knew. But they didn’t–but if my parents–

God damn it. I had no idea what to do, or what the best move was. Every time I thought that I was bound and determined to just tell them all the truth, my stomach twisted in on itself and I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t even sure exactly why not. I just couldn’t make myself take that step. Something in my head kept telling me that it was something I couldn’t take back. If I told Murphy, Roald, Wren, Peyton, and Fred all who I really was, I just… Something about that felt like too big of a step. It was so dangerous. Even telling them as much as I had was dangerous, of course. But totally revealing all of my secrets was just… I felt queasy at the thought. Was that stupid? Was I being dumb about this whole thing? Should I just bite the bullet and go for it? Maybe… maybe later. Yeah, I just had to let them process what I had already told them. It was too much to dump on all of them all at once. Later, maybe I would see what–how they dealt with it. 

Telling myself that made sense helped somewhat. But then, it didn’t actually solve my original problem. I wanted to do something for Tyson’s funeral. I couldn’t just sit around and ignore it. Of course I didn’t know the guy, and what little I did know about him didn’t paint a very flattering picture. But he didn’t deserve to die, and Murphy had said that he was trying to turn his life around. Except now he would never have that chance. Just ignoring his funeral, when my family was the reason that his murderer was still free, was wrong. I couldn’t do that. 

In the end, I had to do something for it. Even if I couldn’t actually attend the funeral itself, I could at least be nearby. So, I found myself taking a seat on the roof of a building across the street from the cemetery where the funeral was being performed. Well, we kept calling it a funeral. It was more of a simple graveside service. They couldn’t afford some big event at a church. And it seemed like they didn’t have the family or friends to fill such a thing anyway. That part didn’t surprise me, given everything I had heard and already knew about the Murphys. 

The building was really too far away to make out much of the funeral. Which was kind of the point, given I didn’t want to be seen attending it. But that was what high-powered binoculars were for. Nestled in a sitting position with my back to an air conditioning unit, I lifted the front of the helmet so I could put the binoculars against my eyes and scan that way. Now I could see what was going on more clearly. They were all standing around the open grave with the casket ready to be lowered into it. Murphy was there, in an ill-fitting suit that looked as though it had been patched several times. Roald was standing next to her in a suit of his own, which didn’t look much better. There was a smaller girl right beside him whom I assumed was his younger sister. The older sister, if I guessed right, was standing a little further away talking to what looked like the man who would be giving the service once they got started in a few minutes.

My eyes scanned over the rest of the people, not that there were many beyond that. I did, however, catch sight of a van approaching through the winding cemetery road that had the Detroit Department of Corrections logo on it. Which gave me pause for a moment before I realized. It was Murphy’s parents. That had to be it, right? If they were going to be given leave from prison for anything, it would be the funeral of their son. Somehow, I hadn’t even considered the fact that they would be there. How would they react to the whole thing? How would Murphy react to them being there? Suddenly, I felt more like a creepy voyeur than I had ever intended. This was wrong. I had felt so strongly that I needed to be here, but now I was questioning that whole thing. Maybe the truth was that while being here might make me feel better, I was actually just spying on things I didn’t deserve to see. This service wasn’t for me. It was– 

A sound nearby interrupted my inner turmoil, and I quickly lowered the binoculars and turned to see a familiar figure landing on the roof nearby. Peyton, in her newest purple and black armor configuration. As the hoverboard transitioned back into her bronze and gold marbles, she spoke up. “You couldn’t stay away either, huh?” 

Grateful, for more than one reason, that I still had my ski mask to hide my face even with the front of the helmet lifted up, I hesitated before giving a short nod. “But now I’m starting to rethink that. It feels weird to spy on them, you know? LIke I’m being a shady creep.”

“We’ll tell them we were there,” Peyton offered with a hesitant shrug. “I mean, we’ll tell them you were there. I already said I would try to find a way to watch. I was looking around for a decent place when I saw you down here. It umm…” She trailed off before sighing while taking a seat next to me, both of our backs to the metal box. “This whole thing sucks, doesn’t it?” 

“It’s definitely not fun,” I replied simply before raising the binoculars again. The van had stopped by that point, a couple hundred feet from where the burial was happening. I could see a couple of prison guards opening it up to help the occupants out. I didn’t recognize them, of course. But I could tell that they were Murphy’s parents. One was an average-height slender black man with long, incredibly luxurious-looking hair. The other was a somewhat tall caucasian woman with brownish-blonde hair and a nervous look about her. She kept glancing around constantly, as though convinced they were being watched. Which… well, yeah. Both of them were wearing prison jumpsuits and were still handcuffed as the guards helped them down from the van and then started to escort them over to where the service was happening. All of which seemed stupid to me. They were in prison for simple drug offenses. Couldn’t they be given normal clothes to wear so they could attend their own son’s funeral without looking like Hannibal Lector? I mean, yeah sure it wasn’t that bad, but still. This was ridiculous. Just unchain them and let them say goodbye to their son, for fuck’s sake. 

I was so focused on my annoyance about that whole situation while following the moving parents with the binoculars, that I almost jumped when Peyton nudged me while saying something. I’d half-forgotten she was there in my distraction. “Huh–what?” 

“I said,” she repeated, “Doesn’t it seem fucked up that they think they need four armed guards just to watch over a couple grieving parents, who are still chained up? They just sold some drugs to willing people, it’s not like they murdered the pope or something.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed in a flat voice, “it’s a bit of overkill.” Even as I said that, I realized what she had said. Four guards? I had counted three, the driver and two helping the Murphys down. Looking back that way once more without the binoculars zooming me in so much, I finally caught sight of the fourth guy. He was a bit further back, having apparently gotten out the far side of the van before trailing behind. From this distance, I could barely make out anything about him. And yet, there was something immediately familiar about–

Raising the binoculars quickly once more, I focused that way. And then almost cursed vehemently out loud. Of course the fourth guard looked familiar. It was Simon. My brother. The person who was the entire reason Murphy’s brother’s murderer had escaped unscathed. He was dressed up like a prison guard, escorting their parents to the funeral. What–why? What the fuck? Why the hell was he here? What did he think he was doing? Was this some sort of sick joke or something? Why would he ever come to a funeral like this? I knew he wasn’t a real prison guard. He had to be using one of those hologram things or something. But either way, why? What the hell did he get out of being here? What was–why–what? 

“Uh,” Peyton spoke up curiously. “You okay? You’re holding those binoculars so tight it looks like you might snap them in half. And they look pretty fancy, so you probably don’t want to do that.” 

Forcing myself to lower them and look back to her, I kept my voice as even as I could. “Yeah, I’m good. I mean, no I’m not. I’m really pissed off about this whole situation. But I’m about as good as you could expect.” After a brief pause, I added quietly, “I’m doing better than Murphy.” 

With a sigh, the other girl slumped back a bit next to me and reached into a compartment she had added to her armor, pulling out some binoculars of her own. Lifting them up, she looked that way and murmured, “This whole situation is pretty fucked up, isn’t it?” 

Wincing inwardly, I nodded. “Pretty fucked up indeed.” She had no idea just how much. Even as that thought came to mind, I was adjusting the binoculars to check on Simon again. He was standing at the edge of the funeral, playing the role of a guard watching over their prisoners even as Murphy’s parents embraced her. There was… there was a lot of emotion going on there. I quickly moved the view back over to Simon, not wanting to intrude on a family thing like that. He was staring intently, not at the Murphys, but at the casket. He looked… not happy. 

I had no idea what to make of that. I have no idea why he was here, what was going through his mind, why he looked angry while staring at the casket containing the body of the guy whose murderer he had helped esca–okay, when I put it like that, It sort of sounded like he felt guilty. But did he? I didn’t trust my own judgment about that whole thing. I couldn’t think of any other reason why he would be here. Was he going to all the funerals? Or was there something special about this one? Was I being incredibly naive? Maybe there was a valid reason beyond guilt for a member of the Ministry to come here. Maybe he was making sure there were no more loose ends. And the anger was because he had something else he wanted to do more, and blamed Murphy’s brother for making him miss it. 

Okay that felt a little too far to the other end of the naive/cynical line. Both of those felt wrong, but I had no idea what the actual answer could be. Why was Simon here, and why did he look so upset when he looked at that casket? 

Unfortunately, I was pretty sure that, short of marching down there and demanding answers from him in person, I wasn’t going to get any right now. And, come to think of it, that probably wouldn’t help either. Even if it was really tempting just to see the look on his face if I had actually confronted him. Maybe being taken by surprise like that would make him give something away that he wouldn’t have otherwise. But no, this wasn’t the right time for that sort of desperate move. Especially not now. I wasn’t going to ruin the funeral just because I wanted to violently shake my brother until he spat out real answers. 

Instead, I made myself put that thought away and focus on the funeral as a whole. For around an hour while people spoke and said their goodbyes, Peyton and I both sat there watching. Every once in a while we spoke quietly to each other, but for the most part we just sat silently and observed. It still felt a bit like we were intruding, yet this was the best we could do. Now that I saw Simon there, I knew not physically attending the funeral properly was the right way to go. A terrifying thought of what he would have done if I had been down there as myself raced through my mind, and I shuddered inwardly. That could have been really bad. 

Eventually, the service was over, and Tyson’s casket was in the ground. Several of the people, including Murphy and Roald, had each shoveled some dirt over it, then watched as a backhoe did the rest of the work. Once he was completely buried, goodbyes were said. That lasted for about five minutes or so, while Murphy and her parents had a whole… thing. It felt awful just sitting here, my emotions twisting inside my stomach. Again, they were only in prison on drug offenses. Couldn’t they be released for a couple days to help their daughter get through this whole thing? 

If they were rich, they would have been. It was no question. Hell, their prison would have been a country club, and they would have been given at least two weeks leave from it to handle funeral arrangements and everything else. But they weren’t rich. So they were fucked over by the system that was supposed to protect them. 

As those thoughts worked their way through my mind, and made it even harder to avoid snapping the binoculars, I watched Simon and the real guards lead their charges back to the van. Meanwhile, the rest of the (rather small) crowd was dispersing as Roald’s older sister led the others across to another lot where a beat-up sedan was waiting. From what Murphy herself had said, they would now go to get some lunch at a buffet somewhere. Obviously, I wasn’t going to follow them. I was tempted to follow the prison van just to see what Simon did, but that was probably a pretty bad idea too. 

Which left me sitting next to Peyton as the two of us looked at each other. With a heavy sigh, I muttered, “Well, that pretty much sucked, huh?” 

“Hoover-level sucking,” she agreed. “Can we go find some bad guys to beat up? I need to get it out of my system, and the people I really wanna punch, I… can’t. Not yet, anyway.”

“Good idea,” I agreed, pushing myself up. “Let’s take a bite out of crime.” 

*****

Unfortunately, McGruff the Crime Dog would have starved that day. No matter where Peyton and I went, we couldn’t find any criminals to deal with. It even looked like the always-rampaging gang war had decided to take a timeout for the day. Which was just typical, really. The one time we wanted to find bad guys, they had all decided to go on vacation. Or maybe we just sucked at finding them. It was, after all, a pretty big city. 

Whatever the reason, we finally gave up after a couple hours. We both had other things we wanted to take care of before that big dinner thing tonight. So, after warning the other girl again that she had better show up to the event hungry given how much food there would be, I headed off. My brain was full of thoughts that I didn’t want to have, yet wouldn’t go away. Mostly revolving around what the hell was going on with Simon going to the funeral. Yeah, that was clearly a whole thing. There was no way I was going to be able to figure it out just based on what little information I had, but that wouldn’t stop my brain from obsessing about it. Because brains were stupid like that and often refused to listen to common sense. 

I was hungry, but after all of that, there was no way I was going home just yet. So, I changed clothes to avoid attracting attention, and found a small, out-of-the-way Indian place to eat at. It was pretty incredible, even distracted as I was. So, I made a mental note to come back another time, and to bring the others.  

As I was getting up to leave, my phone buzzed with a text. The one for Cassidy Evans, rather than Paintball. So, I took a look. It was from that Dani girl, inviting me out to that skatepark on Grand River. Right, that whole thing about people from school talking me into doing dangerous shit for fun. For a moment, I squinted and considered asking for a raincheck. But no, I needed some way of distracting myself from everything. Later tonight, I was going to have to play nice in public while my father and others gave their big speeches and all that. Going while I was still tense about the whole situation with Tyson probably wasn’t a good idea. If I couldn’t let off steam by finding crime to fight, maybe I could do it this way. 

So, in the end, I sent back a text saying I would be there as soon as possible. I just needed to grab my stuff from home. I would head in, grab it, and head out again. No reason to stick around. With any luck, I would avoid Simon and my parents altogether. Sure, it was Saturday, but they had plenty of their own stuff to do before that party.

*****

For once, I wasn’t completely proven wrong about my assumptions. My family was occupied with their own things, and I was able to get in, grab my stuff, order a ride, and get out without any interruptions. A short while later, I arrived at the skatepark, paid the driver, and headed over to where I could see a bunch of people from my school already hanging out. 

Dani was there, talking to someone with their back to me. As I approached, she gestured and called out, “There she is. Told you the richest teenager in Detroit wouldn’t blow us off.” 

Rolling my eyes, I retorted, “Maybe I bought the place and came to kick everyone off it.” 

“What–” Turning quickly to face me, the person Dani had been talking to came up short. “Oh, uh, hey.”

“Hey yourself, I know you,” I put in, realizing belatedly where from. “You’re–” 

“Ryder Towling,” Dani interrupted, gesturing back and forth between us. “this is Cassidy Evans. Ryder–wait, did you say you know him?” 

“He’s tutoring… uh, someone from school, Arleigh,” I replied. “Right?” 

Ryder, for his part, squinted briefly before belatedly extending a hand. “Oh, yeah. We met at her house the other day.  She uhh, talks about you a lot. Are you guys–” 

“We’re nothing,” I immediately cut in. “Nothing at all.” With a gesture, I added, “So, you skate?” 

“Me?” The boy blanched. It was pretty cute, and I couldn’t help the quick smile even as he continued. “Nope, no sir. I’m just here as emotional support. Dani’s an… old friend. I get to watch. Believe me, if I step on one of those things, I’ll find a way to break my leg and at least three limbs from an assortment of other people.” 

“He’s not exaggerating much,” Dani remarked with a small smirk. “You definitely don’t want him on a board anywhere near you. But he’s pretty good at watching. So, let’s get to it. I wanna see what you can really do. Surprise me.” 

Yeah, I was pretty sure if I showed them what I could really do, she’d be plenty surprised. It was a bad idea, of course. And one that I would never actually indulge. 

But boy, was it ever tempting. 

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Kith And Kin 20-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, the next day at school was awkward. I kept wanting to talk to Tomas, but had no idea how to start with all that. I needed to ask about Maki, clearly. Tomas was my best chance to actually find out what was going on with that situation, yet the whole thing was just… so complicated. Seriously, even if Tomas had no connection to the Ministry and didn’t know anything about them, which I was seriously doubting, how was I supposed to press him for information about his new boyfriend without looking like I was jealous or something? 

And yes, being mistaken as being jealous was basically at the bottom of the list of priorities, but still. I couldn’t just start pressing Tomas for answers without likely looking at least somewhat suspicious. I had to be careful and delicate about the whole thing. Which wasn’t helped by the fact that every time I started to think about going up to the boy and talking to him, a lump formed in my throat and I felt like I was going to throw up. Not really because of the new boyfriend thing, but because of my increasing thoughts that he was somehow involved in the Ministry stuff. It sucked, but I couldn’t make my brain shut up with its paranoia that Tomas had only been dating me to keep an eye on me or something. Just the thought that any part of our relationship had been a product of my parents’ meddling was awful. 

To that end, it wasn’t until I was walking out of school at the end of the day and I saw him ahead of me that I finally actually did something. Taking a deep breath, I picked up the pace to move alongside the boy. He glanced my way and smiled, making my heart clench in on itself. “Hey there, Cassie,” Tomas greeted me with a completely unfair wink. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

Snorting, I replied, “Yeah, I know, it’s weird, huh?” It wasn’t the best segue, but I continued with, “And let me guess, you’re running off to spend time with your mysterious new boyfriend?” 

The words made Tomas almost double over, snorting with amusement. “Dude, Maki is a lot of things, but mysterious? Nah, he’s basically an open book.” Glancing my way once more, he slyly added, “But then, you probably know a lot about him, after getting ice cream over there.” 

“You know about that?!” I blurted unthinkingly, before flushing deeply. “I mean, of course you do. Dad’s kinda–and he was–and we were–” My blush was even worse. “I swear I didn’t know who he was when Dad said we should go there. I wasn’t trying to check up on your–I mean I wasn’t–I mean–” 

Snickering at my reaction, Tomas patted my back. “Easy, easy there. I know, but it was worth seeing your expression. God, Cass, at some point you’re gonna have to get more of a poker face. You gotta figure out how to hide things a little better, you know?” 

The fact that I managed to keep a mostly straight face in response to that proved him wrong. Well, not exactly a straight face. I covered my reaction by exaggeratedly rolling my eyes and giving him a goofy expression. Was it cheating to deliberately have such an over-the-top reaction that there was no way to pick out the subtleties of it? Whatever, it was enough to hide how I really felt, and that was what mattered. “Yeah,” I managed, “I’ll get right on that. Maybe my dad can show me how he bluffs people at work.” Despite everything, I made sure to keep an eye on the boy’s expression when I mentioned my father’s work. But either he didn’t know anything, or he was really good at the poker face thing he had just been talking about. Whatever it was, he didn’t give any reaction that I could read. 

“Anyway, Maki’s cool,” he went on with a shrug. “We really should hang out sometime when he’s not at work. I think you’d like him.” His voice softened a little as he rubbed the back of his neck a bit awkwardly. “But, you know, if that’s too–I mean…” 

“Sounds good,” I made myself say. No matter how I felt about it, having this open invitation to talk directly to the boy again and possibly find out more about what was going on with his (or her/their) situation with the Ministry was too important to pass up. My family would have no reason to wonder why I was spending time with Maki if it came through Tomas. “We’ll hang out sometime. I’ll umm… yeah, just lemme know. I’ve got stuff to do today, so I suppose you’re free to spend time with your boyfriend by yourself.” With those teasing words, I nudged his shoulder. By that point, we had reached the front of the school and I saw Jefferson there with the car. “Text me about it!” 

Tomas agreed casually, as I started heading off. Before I could reach Jefferson, however, someone else fell into step beside me. It was that new girl, Dani. She was already speaking casually. “Heard you like skating. Actually, I heard you’re pretty good at it.”  

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” My head bobbed quickly. “I guess. I do it enough, anyway. Why?” 

She offered me a shrug. “Oh, you know, I’m just trying to put something together. A bunch of us are hanging out at that skatepark on Grand River sometime this weekend. Still working out the details. But somebody said if I want to get a lot of people there, you’re the one to talk to.” 

That made me stop and blink at her. “People don’t care where I go,” I replied with confusion. “Why would me being there have anything to do with how many people show up?” 

Dani shrugged. “I dunno, babe. I think it has something to do with people wanting to see what crazy stunts they can get you to do or something. Whatever, the point is, it could be pretty cool. I’m ahh, not a bad skater myself. Be kinda fun to see what Miss Rich Girl can really do.” 

Snorting despite myself, I replied, “Yeah, maybe. Give me a text whenever you figure out when it’s actually supposed to be, and I’ll see what’s going on.” I gave her the number of my regular phone, before waving as I headed off to join Jefferson at the car. 

“Was that something important?” he asked once I got in the back. 

“Just an invitation to hang out sometime, I guess,” I replied with a shrug, leaning back in the seat. “Sorry for taking a couple minutes, I should’ve told her I’d talk later.” 

There was a brief moment of silence from the front seat, before Jefferson turned a bit to face me. He wasn’t an especially tall man. Actually, everything about him was unassuming. He had a very plain, pale face, thin glasses, and average cut dark blond hair. He didn’t stand out in a crowd. Hell, he barely stood out all by himself. 

“Miss Evans,” he began after that brief pause, “I am aware of my reputation for preferring punctuality. It is one I encourage. But I do not fault you a moment after school to speak with your peers. Time is allotted for that before we pick up Miss Amor. There is a marked difference between lagging behind in the morning and being late for school than there is in taking a few minutes to speak with your… friends when classes are over. Do not… feel that you must apologize for that. It is never my intention to force you to abandon all social niceties to placate my desire for haste.” 

That was all he said. And honestly, it might have been the most words I’d heard him say in a single go the entire time I’d known him. I was still sitting there in silent surprise as he turned back around and began to pull the car away from the curb. I had no idea what to say to that. Finally, I managed a somewhat weak and awkward, “Thanks.” 

From there, we picked up Izzy and headed home. It had been tempting to simply say that we didn’t need a ride so I could go straight to working on that whole tunnel thing finally, but I didn’t want to give my parents any reason whatsoever to think anything was up. They had just gotten home the day before, so I was going to play things as cool as possible. We would go home, make an appearance for my mother, and then make our exit with an excuse about hanging out somewhere. That was the best way to handle this, no matter how much I just wanted to jump into it. 

On the way, I talked to Izzy about completely innocuous things. Mostly about how her school stuff was going. Apparently, she was settling into classes pretty well. She said that she’d already made some friends there, which didn’t really surprise me considering how cool she was. It was just too bad her mother didn’t give her the chance to show her that. 

With effort, I pushed that thought out of my head and focused on keeping things casual. Even disregarding the whole secrecy thing, pretty much the last thing Izzy needed was me bringing up her mother right then. Or any time, really.

Soon, we made it home, and the two of us were met at the front door by my mother. She’d had snacks prepared by the kitchen and wanted to sit with us out in one of the gardens. There, she talked to both of us about how our days went, and her own as well. At least, as much as she was actually willing to tell us. Obviously, she didn’t get into any of the Ministry stuff. Though I had to admit, that would have been a good way of completely shocking me into giving something away if she ever wanted to. As far as Tomas’s earlier mention of poker faces went, I definitely wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face through my mother just randomly starting to talk about this stuff. 

Actually, that was something to think about. At some point, my parents probably were going to want to start telling me about this stuff. I wasn’t sure when, but it would happen. And what was I going to do when they did? How was I going to react? How was I going to pretend that I didn’t know what they were talking about? How much could I think about any of that without making my reaction seem rehearsed? Would it be a long time from now? God, would it be soon? How much of the whole Paintball situation would have changed by then? 

Of course, I had to force myself to focus mainly on actually carrying on a real conversation so my mother didn’t get suspicious. Thankfully, she was a busy woman and couldn’t sit with us for too long. We were only out there for about twenty minutes or so before she got a call and had to excuse herself. Which left Izzy and me sitting together out at the table, surrounded by gorgeous and exotic flowers, with a small fountain burbling away next to us. 

Clearing my throat, I glanced to her. Just in case Mom had anything nearby that might overhear us, I simply said, “Hey, you wanna go hang out at the mall?” 

“Sure,” she replied easily, pushing herself up. “We could probably get food there too, huh?” 

Making a show of snickering, again just in case, I nodded. “Yeah, we can do that. Come on.” I was already pulling my phone from my pocket to text the kitchen staff so they’d know not to worry about dinner for the two of us, then I ordered an Uber. 

Soon, we were close to the alley that led to Wren’s shop. The two of us found an isolated area to change into our costumes out of sight, and then quickly made our way to the store itself. It was really Izzy’s first time there, but we had both agreed that the time had come to stop tiptoeing around this whole thing. I’d called ahead to make sure Wren was okay with me bringing Raindrop. Given the loud squeal of excitement that came through the phone, I was assuming she was fine with it. 

Someone was waiting for us by the back door as we approached. Seeing her, I immediately reflexively took a step back, only to belatedly realize it was Alloy. She wore a new set of armor made out of her black and purple marbles. This one had a purple base body-suit-like structure that ran from her toes all the way up over her head in a ski-mask sort of thing. It was fairly thin. Meanwhile, the black marble had turned into armored plating around her chest, knees, hands, and across her face. 

“Wha–oh, jeeze, hey, warn me next time you’re dressed up in something new,” I managed after that initial reaction. Beside me, Raindrop had tensed up as well, only to turn slightly to blink at me. 

Alloy, for her part, made a chastised sound and stammered, “Ahh, sorry. Sorry, I forgot I wasn’t–I mean I was–I mean… sorry.” Seeing the other girl with me, she quickly stepped forward and extended her hand. “Hi again! I mean, hey. Nice to see you without the, you know, whole life and death Scion situation going on.” Belatedly, she seemed to realize just how different she looked in her new armor and stammered a quick, “Oh, it’s me! It’s Peeeaaaaayntball’s assistant. Partner. Friend. Sidekick. Alloy. I’m still Alloy, just a new costume. I like to switch it up.” In a quieter voice, she half-hissed, “I have your action figure.” 

It was clearly Raindrop’s turn to blush, though it was hidden behind her reflective mask. “Uh, hi.” She accepted the other girl’s hand and shook it somewhat awkwardly, as if uncertain how to go about this whole thing in meeting another Touched who was also apparently a super-fan. “I’m umm, uh, glad you’re okay.” 

Shaking my head at the two of them, I looked to Alloy and quietly asked, “How’s Hobbes doing?” 

She gave a heavy sigh and offered a weak shrug. “She’s still with Calvin and his family. They’re taking care of funeral arrangements and… and all that. Or trying to. Do you have any idea how expensive something like that is if you don’t want them to just dig a hole in the woods somewhere and drop them in? Seriously, it’s like ten thousand dollars. They’re setting up a crowdfunding thing, but you know, who really cares enough about him to help with that? People don’t even know him. All they know is–” She stopped, clenching her fists. From behind her, the other marbles rose up into view, contorting themselves into boxing gloves as though they wanted to hit something too. “Never mind. People suck. It all sucks. There’s some other fundraising going on and they’ll get part of it, I just–I wanna do more, but I can’t. I can’t do anything. I can’t help her. I can’t help any of them.”

Reaching out, I put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. “People will help,” I insisted. “Don’t worry, they’ll get the money they need for the funeral.” Even if I had to make sure it happened myself. I couldn’t do much to help Murphy with her pain and loss, but I could damn sure get the money for the funeral and all that. 

Izzy and I exchanged brief knowing looks, just before another figure appeared nearby. It was That-A-Way. She popped into view near the wall before turning to us. “Hey. I guess I’m not late, huh?” 

My head shook. “Nope, you’re right on time. And you definitely beat–” 

Before I could finish that sentence, a loud squawk interrupted. We all looked over to see Riddles fly down from above, landing on a nearby dumpster. She squawked at us again, clearly informing everyone that we should wait.

We didn’t have to wait long. Within the next thirty seconds, a van came into view through the alley. It rolled to a stop, before Pack stepped out. She had her lizard backpack with her. “Fancy seeing you guys again. Think we can avoid a running gunfight with the Scions this time?” As she spoke, Riddles flew down to land on the backpack itself, perching there while giving a watchful look all around. 

“Let’s hope so,” I muttered. “We’ve got enough to deal with. Now come on, let’s get in there.” With a look around at the rest of the group, I exhaled before reaching out to grab the door. One by one, the other four filed inside before I brought up the rear and let the door close behind me. 

We had been in the shop for approximately two and a half seconds before a loud squeal of excitement filled the air. Wren–or Trevithick, as she was in the same costume she’d worn when Lion had visited, the black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels over her arms, legs, and chest, with a black helmet and pink visor. Her rapidly-moving dragonfly wings were buzzing as she flew straight down from the ceiling to land right in front of Raindrop, talking a mile a minute. “Ohhh you’re here you’re really here I can’t believe you’re really here and you made it and it’s really you and you’re so cool I watched you on the news forever well really only a few times cuz the news is boring but you’re not boring you’re awesome and I saw you fight that mean Janus guy and the other guy with the big hammer but you said I don’t think so and made it float away and you hit him with a tidal wave and I have a hat with your name on it but I couldn’t find it and Uncle Fred said it might be at the other shop but we didn’t have time to go over there and I have a backpack too and that’s over there and it’s got your picture on it that’s why I said I had a backpack and I made a birthday cake I mean Uncle Fred did but I helped and it had all the Minority on it and you were my favorite piece and–” 

Coughing, I quickly stepped in and put a hand on the brilliant little girl’s shoulder. “She’s pretty awesome, yeah. You both are. Raindrop, this is the awesome Trevithick. Trevithick, this is the awesome Raindrop. It’s about time we all started working together to deal with the real problems around here. Which means getting everyone on the same page. Almost everyone else is already. Just uhh…” I hesitated, then looked to Wren. “Where’s Fred? I need to talk to both of you about something important. That’s why we’re all here together. It’s why I brought Raindrop too.” 

“Did someone say–oh.” That was Fred himself, coming out of the doorway leading to the stairs. As he saw everyone, the man came up short. I saw his Adam’s apple bob as he gulped before stepping forward. “Ah, well, I guess it’s ahh, yeah. You’re all here.” 

Introducing Raindrop to him, and vice versa, I gestured. “Would you and Trevithick mind sitting down?” After a brief hesitation to gather myself, I added, “There’s some really important stuff we need to talk about. Secret stuff that you need to know. It’s time.” 

Fred and Alloy gathered a few chairs and everyone took a seat. Everyone except me, anyway. For my part, I stood in front of them and let out a long breath before focusing on Fred himself. “I don’t mean to single you out. I’m sorry for that, for this. But I have to, right now, in front of everyone. You know what you did before was a mistake. But what I’m about to tell you and Trevithick is a lot bigger than anything else. It’s… it’s big, and you could f–screw over all of us, everyone, if you wanted to after I tell you about it.” 

Fred, for his part, was quiet for a moment. He saw everyone looking at him, but didn’t react. He stared at the floor, then shifted his weight to meet my gaze. “I’m not that guy anymore.” His voice was firm. “I–I did–what I did before, trying to get money the cheap way, the illegal way, that’s not–I won’t do that again. I don’t know how to promise that any better than–than just saying it. I give you my word, I swear. I won’t screw you over.” 

I had to believe him. If this whole thing was going to go on, he needed to know the truth. They both did. We needed Wren’s help going forward. Which meant getting everyone on as close to the same page as possible. Scary as the whole prospect was, it was time. The encounter with Simon and that whole situation had convinced me of that much. 

So, after taking one more deep breath to brace myself, I launched into the whole thing. The others piped up now and then to give their own perspective, but mostly it was me. I explained what the Ministry was, and how much control they really had over everything. And I explained how that related to what had happened to Murphy’s brother and those other people who had died. 

By the time I was done, Fred had stood up and was pacing back and forth, listening while covering his face with his hands. Once in a while, he muttered something about how much sense that all made. But mostly he was quiet. 

Wren, meanwhile, absorbed it all in silence, aside from shifting a bit in her seat now and then or asking a clarifying question. She seemed far more mature in those moments than her actual age and appearance would have suggested. 

Finally, in the end, she asked, “What… what are we gonna do about it?” 

“What are we going to do?” I echoed, glancing to the others. “We have a plan. I mean, not a full plan. But a start. We have an idea of how to get into one of the Ministry’s bases, to get more information. That’s where we’re going to get our friend upstairs the info we need to find her a new body. And it’s where we’re going to find out as much as we can about how they operate and any more of their secrets we can get a hold of. That much we can do. But if we’re going ahead with this, if we’re actually going to go up against the Ministry, we… I need help. We all do. I know it’s a lot to put on you, Trevithick.” 

“Wren.” She pulled off the helmet, facing the others. “I’m Wren. And… and yeah. Yes. I wanna help.” With that declaration, she straightened up, fists clenched. “They hurt Hobbes. If… if you think you can find out where that bad guy went by breaking into their secret base, then I’m gonna help.”  

Giving one short nod, I replied, “And you, Fred?” 

He, in turn, continued to face away from me for a few seconds before turning to face us. “I can’t do much. Just watch over Wren there, really. Maybe drive a car if you need it. Be an innocuous face. Fetch things. But if that helps–whatever you need. I’m… I’m in. I’m in for whatever this is, wherever it goes.” 

“Good,” I managed after a moment. 

“Then let’s talk about what we need to get this tunnel started.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Building Connections 16-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

“Right, Cassie?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 15B – Dani and Amber (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trust 15-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trust 15-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Unfortunately, by the time I eventually left Wren’s place awhile later, I still didn’t have any more concrete plans. Involving Eits seemed to be the only real chance we had, but I was reluctant to bring him in. He had every reason to be loyal to La Casa after everything they’d done for him. But did that make him loyal to the Ministry if he found out about it? And did he need to find out about it? And was it fair to not let him find out if he was going to do that level of favor? And could he be trusted with knowing about what Paige was even if he didn’t know about the Ministry? He already knew I was a girl and hadn’t given that away, but… but… this was more. 

I trusted him not to tell people about me being a girl. But this? This would be trusting him with Paige’s secrets, Paige’s life. If he even just mentioned to Blackjack that he knew a cyborg, or thought that saying something about it was necessary to protect his own people… could I trust him that far? Was it fair to involve him when I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell him the whole story? 

And yet, things didn’t get any easier if I put the idea of Eits aside. Because who else could I bring in? Who could I talk to who might be able to help? Then, even if we got to the point where there was someone, we ran into the same damn problem. Worse even. If there was some stranger we could bring in to help Paige, then they would know her secret just as much as Eits would. Putting aside the (incredibly important and impossible to actually put aside) questions about whether Eits could be trusted with that kind of secret, there was no reason to believe some stranger could either. Eits had already proven he’d keep my secret, but, but this was…

Either way, I was going to have to trust someone with incredibly dangerous information. The only question was who, and how much. Bringing in someone from the outside would involve tracking down a person good enough with computers and technology to help Wren fix the orb and someone good enough at the medical stuff to open Paige up in order to get at it. 

Fuck. It was so much. I had no idea how I was going to make a decision like this. Every option just seemed dangerous and bad. Yet, I couldn’t just not make one. Paige was counting on me. Terrifying as the concept of making the wrong decision might’ve been, making no decision was still a decision. And it was the wrong one. Leaving Paige trapped in her mind, locked down like that, wasn’t going to solve anything. For all I knew, it would make things worse, the longer she was like that. I was pretty sure she was safe for the time being, but… but not positive. I wasn’t positive about anything, it seemed like. I just desperately wanted to make the right decision. 

At least I had one thing now that I hadn’t had before: someone to talk to about it. Yeah, that was a fucking miracle. Or it felt like one. After leaving Wren’s, I went back to the library, changed clothes, and met Izzy. The two of us went into a private study room where we wouldn’t be overheard, and I explained everything that had happened at the shop. Which wasn’t much, given I hadn’t come to any decisions. But it at least gave me the chance to voice my thoughts and worries aloud while the younger girl sat there and quietly listened. That was pretty huge. 

I also mentioned the call from her teammate, telling her about how That-A-Way had said the bodies that were in that building were gone and everyone was acting like they were never there.

“Your parents covered it up,” Izzy announced in a quiet, somewhat stunned voice once I got through that part. It sounded like she was still processing the fact that they could manage something like that on such short notice. Which was fair, considering I was still processing it. “They’ve got that kind of influence? They could just make a bunch of bodies disappear from a crime scene and have everyone believe it never happened?” Yeah, she was definitely reeling. 

“I’m betting it’s not just their level of influence,” I pointed out. “It’s not just a matter of them owning everyone who was there, I mean. There’s gotta be people who weren’t on their payroll. My bet is they used Mr. Jackson to help erase a few memories. You know, just adjusted things a bit to hide the truth. But… yeah, yeah, they’ve got that kind of influence. As far as I know, they either own or have a lot of power and say over practically every law enforcement, Star-Touched, and Fell-Touched group in the city. I’m gonna guess that they own important people everywhere. The government, hospitals, everything. Which seems like a lot of people for a secret organization.”

“Most of them probably don’t know who they actually work for, or how big it is,” Izzy pointed out. “They just know some guy comes with money in one hand and a picture of their family in the other, and tells them to do something. Or blackmail, or anything. The point is, they don’t know they’re working for some city-wide criminal conspiracy group. They just know that single guy.” 

Exhaling long and low, I nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense. See? You’re already helping me figure all this out.” Offering the girl a small smile, I shrugged. “Sorry. Yeah. I don’t know what to do. Paige is–is counting on me. But if I bring the wrong person in, if I trust Eits or anyone and they betray us? It’s just too much to think about. But I know I have to. I have to figure it out.”

Izzy, in turn, scrunched her face up a bit thoughtfully. “Okay, well, think about the worst case scenario depending on how much you say. If they know she’s Paige Banners and her father is on Breakwater and she’s one of these cyborgs and your family are the Ministry–” Cutting herself off, she winked at me. “Maybe a little too much info?” 

I blanched. “Yeah, just maybe. They don’t need to know anything about my family. Or me. There’s no reason for them to know who I am or what my family does. So–” Abruptly, I blinked at her. “You were saying that out loud just so I’d stop freaking out about the worst possibility.” 

Izzy’s response was a grin, before she tapped the table. “Right, so put the Ministry thing aside. If they know about Paige, everything she is, and what and who her dad is, how bad is it?” 

My mouth opened, then I hesitated and thought about it for a moment. “In that case, they’d know that Paige was basically artificial, a human mind put in a robot brain which was put in a… a clone body, basically.” Even as I said that out loud, my face twisted a little. “This is weird.” 

“Really weird,” Izzy agreed, her own face having twisted to match mine. Then she shook that off, adding, “And they’d know about her dad being on Breakwater. But not really his plans or anything. They’d just know that some crazy guy built his daughter a new body, put her brain in it, and then got sent to supervillain prison. That’s the most they know. What can they do with it?” 

“Blackmail Paige?” I offered, before amending, “I mean, if they could figure out who to take that kind of info to who would actually listen.” 

“Paige’s family is rich and powerful,” Izzy pointed out. “They’ve had crazy stories written about them in sleazy magazines and online all the time. Do you have any idea how many people think your family are all secretly lizard aliens?” 

I coughed. “A few, I guess.” Shrugging then, I added, “So the general public might not–probably wouldn’t believe it. I mean, it is a pretty absurd story. But the Ministry might, especially if they remember the bio-tech guy that got put away. With the timing and everything, they could put that together. Then they’d know Paige was related to the guy who was a threat to them. And they’d go after him. I mean, I guess that depends on how much they know about…” I trailed off. 

“How much they know about what?” Izzy prompted after a moment. 

Shaking myself, I continued. “How much they know about the situation. I don’t actually know how much my family knows about Paige’s dad. She said she called my old bodyguard, Robert Parson, and that he made some calls to get the guy arrested. But I don’t know if he involved my family at all. Or, if he did, how much they actually know about it. For all I know, they don’t know him from Adam.” 

“You need to talk to Robert Parson,” Izzy noted quietly. 

“Yeah,” I agreed, grimacing again as a sigh escaped me. “Just one minor problem with that plan.  

“I have no fucking clue where to start with that.” 

*********

We didn’t magically come up with a perfect solution while we were at the library, but talking it out did help me feel a little more focused. I was going to have to look into what kind of potential options we had. Maybe I would need to take the plunge to trust Eits enough to do his thing with Paige’s orb. Or maybe I’d have to find a way to pay someone else while keeping Paige’s identity as secret as possible. But either way, I couldn’t do either of those things until we had a plan for actually getting to the orb. And that required some kind of medical person who could open her up. Which… yeah, I had no fucking idea how we could find and trust someone like that. 

The only idea I had that wouldn’t involve getting someone else was to use my pink paint and somehow… pull Paige’s body open enough to get at the orb, then keep applying the paint as long as whoever our tech person happened to be was doing their job. I wasn’t sure if that would work, because applying the pink to a physical body had never allowed me to actually tear their body open before, it just let me stretch a body part out, like silly putty. 

And, to be perfectly honest, the very thought of trying something like that made me really queasy. I was hoping there was another way, before I had to test it. Because urgh. 

Either way, I didn’t have a plan yet. Which made me feel pretty useless as far as Paige went, but my only hope was that she was basically just sleeping. That was okay, right? She was essentially in a coma, so it didn’t matter how long it took me to find a solution to this. And it was better for me to make the right plan, one that would actually help her without destroying her life, than it would be to jump on the first thought that popped into my head. 

She was safe. She was with Wren, she was basically sleeping, and no one else could find her. At least, as long as I was careful. Which was the whole point of taking my time figuring this out. 

Izzy and I spent most of Sunday dealing with that, in between walking to the mall to get some food. Not just to get food, of course. We also walked past the entrance to the secret Ministry base so she could see what I was talking about. There was a guy standing nearby wearing a mall security uniform, looking like he was just watching for shoplifters. But we both knew the truth. He was definitely keeping an eye on that door. 

That was how our Sunday went, aside from family dinner, which went about as well as it could. Izzy did her best to keep her reactions as normal as possible, and any bit of nervousness or uncertainty was easily dismissed as just the way she’d been with us the whole time. Afterward, we watched a movie in the screening room with Simon half-watching while doing work on his phone. Eventually he left and the two of us talked a bit more. 

That was what we spent the entire day doing: just talking. We talked through everything. Not just the whole situation with my family, but Izzy’s too. She talked about missing her mom, despite everything the woman had done. She mentioned wanting to find out if her mother ever made it out of the city, or if my family had done something to her. I could hear the fear in her voice. Despite the way her mother had betrayed her, Izzy still cared about her. I promised the girl we would find out what happened, somehow. It was another problem to deal with later. 

Eventually, that day was over. Izzy and I slept in the same bed again, neither of us wanting to be alone in that moment. And it was, again, one of the best night’s sleep I’d had any time recently. I didn’t even think about going out as Paintball that night. I just–I couldn’t do it. I needed the break. 

The sleep was so good that I actually woke up before the alarm would’ve gone off for school. Only like two minutes before, but still. I felt rested and awake, ready to go. Which was only added to once I had a shower and Izzy and I both wolfed down a truly amazing amount of breakfast. Between the two of us, we were a couple bottomless pits.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this, Izzy?” That was my mother, who was simply drinking a cup of coffee while watching the two of us devour our expansive breakfast with a look of mixed amusement and fascination. “If you’d like to wait another week or so…” 

Izzy’s head shook. “No, thank you, Mrs. Evans. I’m ready. It’s okay.” 

What she was ‘ready’ for, in this case, was going back to school. Or rather, back to a school. She wasn’t going back to her old one. Instead, my parents were going to send her to the same elite private middle school that I had gone to. It was part of a compromise. They didn’t think her old public school was safe enough, but she really wanted to get back to some kind of normal. Which meant being in school and around other people her age. Hence this. She’d go to my old school. The arrangements had been made the night before, and the people at the school were expecting her. 

With a soft smile, Mom gave her a short nod. “As you wish. You can leave with Cassidy, and Jefferson will drop you off after leaving her at the other school. But please, remember you can always call him to pick you up if you need to, if it’s too much.” 

Despite her words, I had a feeling that Mom was happy Izzy was taking this step. In her mind, it probably meant the girl was settling in. She was seeing this whole situation as less temporary. Going to school was something normal. It meant she was more comfortable with us. At least, as far as my parents were concerned. 

Izzy mumbled something resembling agreement with my mother’s advice, before the two of us finished our breakfasts and headed out. As promised, Jefferson was waiting right out front for us. Mom had made sure to let the man know the new route the night before so he wasn’t surprised to see Izzy with me. Which was a good thing, considering how the man generally reacted when it came to surprises. 

So, the two of us sat in the back of the car, as I gave the other girl some advice about teachers I remembered, how to avoid annoying the draconian assistant headmistress who roamed the halls looking for people to throw into detention, and how to get to the main office. 

Izzy was nervous. I could tell that much, no matter how much she tried to hide it. Nervous and uncomfortable, in her brand new school uniform that had arrived overnight and been waiting for her this morning. It was basically identical to my own, consisting of the same black pants, black blazer, blue shirt, and white tie. Which made sense, considering this was basically one of the main feeder schools for Cadillac Preparatory.

Either way, it was obvious that Izzy felt ridiculous and uncomfortable in her uniform, as much as I tried to make her feel better. But it was okay. What she really wanted was the chance to get out of the house and be around other people. And this was that chance. 

Eventually, we made it to my school. Quickly, before Jefferson could be annoyed by the delay, I made sure Izzy had my phone number so she could let me know if she had any issues. Then I slipped out and started to head inside. 

I only made it a few steps before Mrs. Donnelley, one of the women from the school’s main office, stepped up. She was a tall lady, just over six feet, in her late fifties with dark brown (likely dyed) hair who always wore a really neat red suit. I liked Mrs. Donnelley. 

“Cassidy Evans, just the girl I was looking for!” the woman boomed with a broad smile. 

“You found me,” I replied with a shrug. “Which is a really huge bit of luck considering this is where I’m dropped off every morning.” 

Tutting her finger at me while unable to contain her laugh, Mrs. Donnelley shook her head. “Now now, just be quiet then. Time for you to give something back to the school by showing our brand new student around. Think you can do that?” 

I shrugged. “Uhh, sure, I’ve got time to spare. Who–” 

In answer, the woman gestured for someone behind her to come into view. “Come on then, introduce yourself, sweetie.” 

With that, a black girl with short, spiky hair that was dark except for the very bright white tips stepped into view. “Hey,” she mumbled. “Nice to meet you, I guess. 

“I’m Dani Kalvers.”  

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Interlude 12A – Pack (Summus Proelium)

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For those of you who only read Summus Proelium and may have missed the note posted at the start of the previous Heretical Edge chapter, there was a special commissioned interlude for Summus Proelium, focusing on Armistice, posted on Sunday. If you happened to miss that, you can see ipat by clicking here

“I’m sorry, what was that about school?” Dani Kalvers demanded while carrying her cage full of lizards through the La Casa homebase (The The House Homebase, heee, that never got old) alongside a man in his late twenties with skin as dark as hers, along with a stylish mustache and short hair. He looked like a young, very fit Lando Calrissian. In Touched life, he wore a black bodysuit with emerald green highlights, a dashing cape that was very dark, almost black green on the outside and a silky emerald on the inside, along with black gloves, boots, and a full head-covering black helmet that conformed tightly to his face, with a charmingly smiling expression etched into it in the same green as the inside of his cape. Right now, however, he was dressed much more simply, in dark jeans and a button-up red shirt. 

He was publicly known as Hardway, a Touched with the power to manipulate the inertia and motion of anything within six feet, including himself. To those who knew him in regular life, he was Isaiah Coleman, an insurance salesman with remarkable numbers (very remarkable, considering how often he left his actual job for Touched business), a wife, and a three-year-old son. 

Smirking a little at Dani’s reaction, the currently unmasked Fell-Touched glanced toward her. “What, you didn’t think you’d go forever without having some kind of schooling, did you? Come now, Blackjack wants productive, useful people. Your powers make you that to start with, but you need a real education to reach your actual potential. Not to mention,” he added pointedly, “if we’re going to put you into one of our La Casa businesses for your cover, you’ll need to have actually had the education to do that job. It’s not exactly hard to apply, but it has to look right to outsiders. You don’t want the feds working out exactly who all of us are just because they see a high school dropout managing a six figure salary with no apparent income, right?” 

For a moment, Dani stopped in the corridor to squint at him. She, like him, was currently in civilian clothes. “This feels like a trick question,” she announced, while easily holding the cage of lizards with one hand. The cage itself was a gift from Blackjack. It was Touched-tech, somehow much lighter than it should be even with all her lizards happily lazing around inside it. Made it easier to move around with her little friends, anyway. Apparently Blackjack was working on procuring something even better for her, though she wasn’t sure what that could be. 

“It’s not a trick question,” Isaiah assured her with a chuckle. “Believe me, you gotta play the game right if you don’t want a whole team of Fedstars breathing down your neck.” Fedstar, of course, was the (often used disparagingly) slang term for any government-aligned Star-Touched. “They look for stuff like that. You can be comfortable. Hell, they can even know that you’re probably connected to criminal stuff. But you need plausible deniability. You need a job, you need an education. La Casa’s gonna make sure you get both. Only thing you’ve got to do is put in the work for the education part.” 

“Because Blackjack wants smart people working for him, people who can do more than just hit things, yada yada, yeah, I get it.” Dani exhaled, trying not to think about everything Paintball had told her about how the whole Detroit Touched scene really worked. Blurting out a question about that probably wouldn’t end very well. At the very least, she’d be expected to explain how she knew any of that stuff. And that would be betraying Paintball, something that kid didn’t deserve.

Besides, she really wanted to find out for herself exactly how this worked, how much money was being taken away from her to pay these ‘Ministry’ people, and what she could do about it. 

Not that she was one hundred percent against the idea of something like the Ministry, but she didn’t appreciate it being a secret. And she didn’t appreciate not having a choice of how much of her money went to pad their coffers. Nor did she appreciate being the one out there taking risks while they apparently were content to just rake in the money that she earned. It was bullshit. If there was going to be something like this Ministry, things needed to be more fair and shit. 

Either way, the point was that she definitely wasn’t going to bring it up here and now. Not until she knew more and had actual leverage to pull. She cared about her teammates here in La Casa. Most of them seemed pretty cool, and she had no idea how much any given member knew about the Ministry. Maybe some of them would be just as annoyed about their income being taxed to shit. Hell, maybe all of this could be solved easily. But Dani wasn’t going to take any risks until she had some solid info, and firsthand knowledge of what the fuck was going on.

“Great, then we’re on the same page,” Isaiah announced, flashing her a quick, toothy grin that probably would’ve been charming if she’d had any interest in the male sex. He turned, starting to walk again. “Blackjack’s asked me to be your advisor for this thing. Which means getting you enrolled in a school where you can advance as much as we think you’re capable of. And believe me, we think you’re capable of a lot. We’ll fake your previous transcripts, that won’t be hard. You’ll just have to finish out this year as a junior, be a senior next year, and we’ll make sure you end up at a decent in-city university with a light schedule. You’ll have the remaining high school time to decide what you’d like your cover-career to be. Feel free to think outside the box. If you want, I’ll help you go over some possibilities.” 

“But the point right now,” Dani put in, “is that you want me to go back to high school. High school.” 

“Pshhh, just sign up for a private school,” Isaiah shot back easily. “You’d be amazed at the difference between that and the public cesspool. Go play at being a rich girl in some private academy with a bunch of naive spoiled kids and take them for all you can get. We’ll make up something about your dad being a reclusive rich designer or something. Or maybe it’s your grandparents and they live off in Europe or something. Whatever you want. We’ll go flip through some options as soon as you’re done with your session.” 

“My session,” Dani echoed, exhaling long and slow, with a slight grimace. “Right. Are you sure about this whole thing?” 

The answer was another grin. “You’ll be fine, trust me. All you’ve gotta do is hang out with the kid for a couple hours. She’s been asking about your lizards forever. Just let her see them, teach her their names, how to play with them or whatever. You’ll be great.” 

Yeah, Dani was supposed to sit with the boss’s kid and entertain her for awhile. Apparently the girl had actually specifically asked for her a few times. Which was… weird, wasn’t it? It seemed weird. Either way, part of Dani wondered if Blackjack was specifically trusting her with his daughter because she’d spent time with that Wren kid. 

Actually, come to think of it, how weird would it be for Wren and Melissa to get to know each other? Melissa had all kinds of trouble moving around very easily with her disease (which they were thankfully dealing with now that they had all the vials), and Wren was all about movement. Could she like, build the other kid an armored suit or something? Huh. 

Wait, was that why Blackjack was cool with her being around his daughter now? That opportunity-sense of his, did it… was he just… could it have told him that she could help with all that? And if she could, she would, right? Wren seemed like the kind of person who would absolutely help Melissa if it was possible. And Blackjack would definitely pay. But would that get her too involved in the Fell-Touched side of things? She’d been okay with helping to save Melissa’s life, how would she feel about making something for her? And how did Dani herself feel about it? Was she okay with getting that kid more deeply involved in stuff she might not want to? Even if she was good with helping Melissa, that might open the door to other things. If people found out she had supplied Blackjack with something, even if it was for his daughter, it might… people on either side of the line might react in different ways to that. It might force Wren to make different choices. It might… 

Well, fuck. Suddenly, this whole thing seemed a lot more complicated. And this time, it wasn’t even Paintball’s fault.  

********

An hour or so later, Dani sat on the floor of Melissa’s hospital-like room. The pale nine-year-old with light brown hair wore a pair of loose drawstring white pants with dueling knights all over them, and a light blue tee shirt that had her name across the front in sparkly letters. She was, at the moment, holding one of the lizards gently in both hands, being very careful with him. “So this one is Mars Bar, and he’s a iguana who turns into a big, strong grizzly bear, right?” 

Dani watched Mars Bar with a small smile. “Yup. He’s not even full-grown yet. I’m gonna have to find another way to carry him around when he gets bigger. Your dad said he’s working on that.” 

On that note, she tapped the floor next to another lizard, before reaching up to scratch under his chin. “So who’s this one?” She flattened her hand, letting the creature in question crawl up her arm to meet one of his companions who was already on her shoulder. 

Melissa, in turn, pointed first to the one Dani had indicated, then the other. “That’s Tuesday the gecko, and that’s Riddles the bearded dragon. They’re a monkey and an eagle. And the chameleon over there is Twinkletoes, he can turn into a gorilla. And…” She looked around for a moment, squinting thoughtfully. “Oh! There she is. Holiday’s a skink, and she turns into a panther.” She carefully set Mars Bar down while gently petting along his side, clearly enthralled. 

“You’ve met my friends,” Dani pointed out before gesturing to the two stuffed animals who sat nearby. One was a stuffed bear with a trenchcoat and deerstalker hat, holding a magnifying glass, while the other was a smaller pink crocodile on a cloth skateboard. “Who’re yours?” 

Quickly, the younger girl picked up the pair, one in each hand. “This is Inspector Guillotine the detective. He’s trying to be a better person cuz of Cassidy.” She pointed to the crocodile. “That’s her. She was a witness so he has to protect her, but she keeps getting in trouble so Inspector Guillotine helps her. And she helps him care about people. Which is hard for him, because his archenemy, Paws Lynch, killed his own sister. She was the inspector’s wife! So he got really sad for a long time, but Cassidy helped him feel better.” 

“Huh.” Carefully, Dani took Cassidy the crocodile, turning her over curiously. “Paws Lynch and Inspector Guillotine? Those are awesome names. And Cassidy Crocodile? That’s a pretty cool one too.” 

“Aunt Ellen came up with it,” the kid informed her. “She said it was a good name for a daredevil.” 

“Good name, huh?” Dani blinked up then. “Is that like… the name of a daredevil or something? Something Cassidy or Cassidy something?” 

Melissa shrugged, clearly uncertain. “I dunno, but it’s still a good name.” Changing the subject, she eagerly asked, “How many lizards can you use your power on? Could you make like… a whole army of lizard-animals?”  

“I’m not sure,” Dani admitted with a shrug. She watched the assorted creatures for a moment. “I mean, definitely not an army. I just… I feel like there’s a limit. I’m not sure exactly how it works yet, and I don’t know how I know that. It’s just like… instinct, I guess?” She grimaced a little. “I should experiment some more. Been a little busy.” 

Leaning in a little conspiratorially, Melissa whispered, “You wanna experiment right now?” 

The question made Dani blink uncertainly, squinting at the younger kid. “Experiment right now? Sorry, I don’t have any spare lizards to work with and my power can only give any lizard one alternate form. All these guys have their other forms. So, you know, I can’t use it on them.” 

To her surprise, Melissa nodded. “I know.  But you could use it if you had another lizard, right?” Slyly, she got up and moved over to the far side of her bed. Dani had already noticed that the girl always moved very slowly and carefully. She stepped gingerly, clearly afraid of how easily her bones could break if too much pressure was put on them. The medicine she’d been taking was supposed to fix her, and it was working. But it would take time to repair the damage that the disease had done. And even after that, it would take longer for the girl to get over the psychological pressure of what her body had been put through for literally years. 

It was bullshit, and if Blackjack hadn’t been a criminal mastermind Fell-Touched, he never would have been able to save his daughter. Rot Bone was a horrific, fucked up disease, and this totally innocent kid would’ve died in one of the worst ways Dani could possibly imagine if her father wasn’t a criminal who could pull up the kind of resources it took to help her. 

That was what Dani wanted. She wanted to never have to worry about money again. Not just for herself, but for any future family and friends she had. She wanted to create a legacy, the kind the real rich and powerful had. She wanted to have the kind of power that people like the Evans or the Banners had. They had so fucking much power even without being Touched, just because they were rich. All her life, Dani had been looked down on, for being black, for being a girl, for being gay, for being poor, for having a mother who didn’t really care what happened to her and a dad who had died when she was still a kid, even younger than Melissa. She was just the poor little black girl who liked girls. 

Fuck that. Dani wanted more out of life. She was going to own penthouses, convertibles, go on vacations to islands. She wanted every fucking thing that those cocksuckers always told her she couldn’t have for one reason or another. She didn’t just want to be comfortable. She wanted ‘fuck you money.’ She wanted to have so much cash people couldn’t dismiss her anymore.  

Pulled out of her thoughts by the sight of the small cage that Melissa pulled out, Dani leaned over to squint at the tiny, yet incredibly beautiful lizard inside. “Whoa.” 

“It’s a neon day gecko!” Melissa exclaimed, moving back over carefully before setting the small glass cage down between them. The creature inside was only about three inches long, but had been named incredibly well. The head was a bright green, while most of the body and tail was a metallic neon blue. the legs were slightly darker blue, and there was a long black stripe running down either side of the creature. 

“Holy crap, dude.” Dani leaned in closer, staring at the creature. “I’ve heard of these guys, but I’ve never seen one up close. He’s gorgeous.” 

“She,” Melissa corrected. “And yeah, she’s amazing, huh? I umm, I don’t really use my allowance for much, so I asked my dad if we could get you a new lizard since you umm… you know, helped get my medicine. I wanted to say thanks.” 

Swallowing hard, Dani glanced to her. This was the real reason she’d been asked to come and ‘babysit’ for awhile, she realized. It was because Melissa had wanted to give her this present. Which… yeah, she really didn’t know what to say for a moment, before eventually settling on, “Thanks. Thanks a lot.” 

There was a brief moment of discomfort before Melissa hurriedly offered, “Why don’t you take her out? They’re really friendly and fun, the lizard guy Dad brought in said so. And… maybe you can decide what kind of new animal to make?” She was blushing a bit, clearly embarrassed. “I kinda… sorta… wanna see?” 

Snorting, Dani nodded in agreement while opening up the cage to let the colorful lizard out into her palm. “Sure, it’s the least I can do. Let’s see. First, she needs a name. Can’t have powers without a name. What do you think?” 

Blinking at her, Melissa stammered, “But your lizards all have awesome names. I can’t think up a good name like you.” 

“You came up with Inspector Guillotine and Paws Lynch,” Dani reminded the girl. “You can definitely help with this one.” 

The two went back and forth on several possibilities, before both of them agreed on one that Melissa had come up with. Holding up the tiny, colorful lizard in one hand, Dani stared at her. “That’s right, your name is Scatters.” She looked to the rest of her lizards, all of whom had gathered to watch the newcomer. “See, Scatters? This is your family. Guys, this is Scatters. She’s gonna be our new friend. And what kind of friend…” She squinted curiously at the tiny, colorful creature. “I bet you’d like to be bigger, huh? Big enough to… hmm… Oooh, I’ve got an idea.” 

For ten minutes or so, she sat there, focusing her power on the tiny lizard. It took that long to make the full connection, to establish the creature’s alternate form. Partway through, she had to set the gradually growing neon gecko down and step back with Melissa, most of her attention still taken up with making her power work. 

Then it was done. Dani, Melissa, and the other lizards were suddenly sharing the room with a much larger figure. Where once had been a three-inch-long neon day gecko now stood a full-sized reindeer, albeit one with very reptilian features. The neon blue, scale-covered body remained, somehow even brighter and more striking in this form. The head was the same sharp green, as were the antlers. That black stripe ran down the animal’s side, and her legs were a darker blue, right down to the even slightly darker hooves. 

“Now that,” Dani announced while resting an arm gently over Melissa’s shoulders, “is what I’ve been needing. Someone I can ride on.

“So how hard do you think it’ll be to get a saddle that’s the right size, with little carrying pouches for the rest of these guys?”

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