Elena Evans

Project Owl 14-01 and Patreon Snippets 17B (Summus Proelium)

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The single requested snippet for Summus Proelium this month follows the end of this regular chapter. Thank you very much to the patron who requested it! 

The morning started out like most others did these days. In other words, it started by me being woken up by Jania Estrada, our elderly-yet-eternally-energetic maid from Panama, turning on the vacuum cleaner a few feet away from the bed I was snoring on. As usual, the sudden loud noise sent me tumbling out of bed with a yelp, which made Jania’s cheerful laugh overwhelm the sound of the machine itself. She wasn’t malicious about it, of course. Jania was one of the nicest people I knew. But she had a job to do and I tended to sleep in on non-school days, for reasons that should have been fairly obvious (not that I could give them to her). She wasn’t waking me up for the hell of it, even if my reaction did give her some amusement. She did other work upstairs and waited as long as she could before Olivia, our head housekeeper, would have had harsh words for her tardiness. 

Still, whether by choice or not, Jania did find waking me up with the vacuum and my subsequent reactions to be ever-so-amusing. Sometimes I managed to wake up first, but others, like now, she would put the vacuum close enough to give me a minor heart attack when it flipped on. 

Lying in a heap on the floor, I turned my head just enough to stare at the gray-haired woman who was currently giving an entirely-too-innocent expression while vacuuming back and forth. “Oh, Miss Evans!” Her mock surprise wasn’t the least bit convincing, and she obviously knew it. “I did not see you there. Were you not downstairs already eating?” Her head tilted, and then she made a sound of put-on realization. “Oh, that must have been Miss Amor who was at the table.”  

With a groan, I rolled backward and managed to pull myself to my feet somewhat awkwardly. “Yeah, sure,” I retorted, “simple mistake. We look so much alike.” Picking up one of my pillows, I chucked it lightly at her. She, of course, smoothly ducked without paying much attention. For an old lady, she was pretty spry and had good reflexes to go along with her good mood and sense of humor. 

Checking the time, I grimaced. It was almost eleven o’clock. God, I really had needed sleep. Worse, Paige’s party was supposed to start at two, so that was only three hours away. Urgh. Once again, I considered just pleading off. But not only was there that whole ‘keeping up appearances for the family’ thing, I also really wanted to know what the hell was going on with her, and this was basically my best (if not only) chance to find out. 

As far as the first bit went, I did wonder just what my parents were thinking about all this. They knew that Paige knew at least something about their business, that she had enough information to make them back off and leave her alone. Yet they still wanted me to go to this party. Was I some kind of unwitting spy? Were they going to ask me all kinds of things about her when it was all over? Was this just their way of getting someone in Paige’s house? Were they using the whole party thing as a way to find out how much Paige really knew, as some kind of test or… something? I had no idea. All I knew was that my mother said that it would be rude for our family to turn down an invitation from her family, but that I was free to leave once I’d made an appearance. Which was an offer I still wasn’t sure if I’d take or not. Sure, I was wary of going, but once I was there, it made sense to stick around and see what happened. Again, it wasn’t as though this kind of opportunity came around a lot. 

Still, with only three hours to go, all sorts of doubts and insecurities were popping up in my head. Anything could go wrong over there. And by that, I meant anything. Paige could be planning some kind of humiliating, nasty attack against me, or this could end up being some big Touched/Ministry-related thing. Or it could be nothing at all, just both sides (her and my parents) feeling each other out to see what the other would do. 

It was fucking complicated, and I had no idea how it was all going to play out. What I did know was that I was hungry, and that at least was something I could take care of immediately. Well, almost immediately. First, I headed into the bathroom, took a nice, hot shower, then dressed before heading downstairs. 

The others were obviously long-since done with breakfast by then, with Dad already off to some meeting, Mom having a conversation in the front hall with some florist or dressmaker or something who had stopped by (I wasn’t sure, as I kept hearing both words about flowers and fabric), and Simon paused on his way out the door of the kitchen as I was going in just long enough to give me a noogie before he headed for the garage. 

Izzy was still sitting there, looking at the comic strips in the newspaper. After ordering food at the intercom, I took a seat next to her. “How’s Garfield today?” 

“Fat and lazy,” she replied, looking over at me. “Are you really going to go see that girl’s birthday? Isn’t she, umm… not very nice?” 

Yeah, I may have said a thing or two about Paige while Izzy and I were playing video games before. Plus, she’d seen her back at Amber’s own party. Grimacing, I shook my head. “Don’t really have much of a choice. It’s a whole ‘rich people’ thing. Her family’s rich, mine is rich, we have to play nice at times like this. According to Mom, it wasn’t even Paige who wanted to invite me. It was more ‘her family inviting our family’, with me as the proxy.” Rolling my eyes, I added, “Fun, huh?” 

“Super,” came the simple response, before Izzy turned a bit more to face me directly. “Your umm, your mom asked if I wanted to go, cuz there’s supposed to be a lot of different kids there, even my age. It’s a whole thing. The Banners invited half the people in the city, it seems like. But I… I told her I wasn’t sure if you wanted company. Or, you know… some kid tagging along.” 

That made me do a double-take, blinking at her. “Wasn’t sure I wanted–sure, Izzy. I mean, I’ll take all the back-up I can get. And you’re not just some kid, you’re–” Realizing I had no idea how to finish that sentence, I settled on doubling down with, “You’re not just some kid. Besides, if Paige is awful, I’ll just retreat to the tweens area and hang out with you.” 

“You don’t think that’ll just give her more ammo about you being too young?” Izzy pointed out, clearly trying to sound diplomatic about the whole thing. 

I, in turn, shrugged. “It’s not like she needs any excuse. I’m not gonna live my life by what might give Paige Banners a way to make fun of me. She’ll do that regardless. I’d rather have fun. And if I’ve got to make an appearance there, I’d rather have someone else to hang out with, like you.” 

“And Amber and Jae,” the other girl pointed out. “They’ll be there too, right?” 

“Right, yeah, them too.” I gave a slow nod before giving her a quick wink. “You guys really hit it off before, huh?” 

A brief, vaguely odd look crossed the girl’s face before vanishing. It could’ve been my imagination. Either way, she gave a quick nod. “Uh huh, they’re nice.” The curt answer was followed up by a curious, “What’s a birthday party for the rich like?” 

“Oh, you’ll see,” I informed her with a cough. “It’s always different, and I haven’t exactly been invited to many of Paige’s, so I don’t know what she does.” Or did I? At some point, I’d clearly been close enough to Paige to know a lot more about her than I did now. Did I visit for her birthday? Had I–

“Cassidy?” Izzy’s voice interrupted, as she touched my arm. “Are you okay?” 

“Oh, uhh, yeah, sorry.” Flushing despite myself, I nodded. “I’m fine. The point is, birthdays are extravagant. But then, I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out a lot of things around here are extravagant by now.” 

Even as I said that, the kitchen door opened and Christiana, one of Chef Claudio’s assistants, emerged with the tray holding my breakfast. After thanking her for setting it in front of me, I quickly dug into it, while glancing at the girl next to me, “So, you’re gonna come, right?” 

“Um, okay.” Izzy still sounded unsure about the whole thing, but gave me a little nod. “If you want me to.” 

Honestly, I really wasn’t sure how all this was going to go down. Would having Izzy there put her in danger? I’d basically figured out and accepted by that point that my parents didn’t mean her any harm, whatever reason they had for her being here. But taking her out to where Paige’s house was, when I wasn’t sure why I had even been invited? Was it stupid? 

Maybe. But there would be a lot of people there, as Izzy herself had noted. No one was going to pull something obvious with so many witnesses and bodyguards around. 

Right? 

********

“Holy shit, Evans, you actually showed up?” 

Izzy and I had just been dropped off in the front drive of the Banners mansion. Like my family’s place, the ‘driveway’ was long enough to have several school buses park along it. There weren’t exactly school buses parked there now, though there were several cars all letting out an assortment of teenagers. Most looked pretty damn impressed by the massive house in front of them. 

That obviously surprised exclamation had come from a short (well, taller than me but only by about four inches or so), vaguely heavyset black guy with glasses and an ever-present red baseball cap worn backwards. San Francisco Cavers. Yeah, his first name was San and his middle name was Francisco. His parents really thought they were clever, I supposed. 

“Hey, San,” I greeted him. He’d gone by Frank (as in San Francisco) for awhile back in junior high before deciding he hated that worse than just San. “What’s up?” 

Whether his name was cool or weird, San was a friend. Sort of. Mostly he was a ‘hang out at school or go do something dangerous and crazy afterward’ sort of buddy. Not that we’d exactly hung out any time recently. Mostly because I hadn’t hung out with… any of my school friends. How could I? Either I’d be putting innocent people in danger by being around them, or I’d be spending time with people who were planted by my parents to keep an eye on me. Any of my ‘friends’ at school could’ve been secretly reporting to my parents. Or collateral damage if something happened to me. 

Paranoid? Sure, definitely, no question. But didn’t I have reason to be? Yeah, I’d avoided most of my school friends since that night. It hadn’t been all that hard, given how much I’d tended to keep them at a distance anyway. For… reasons I was starting to understand, with this whole Anthony Tate thing. He’d been a really close friend and he died. Whatever happened back then had obviously been traumatizing enough that my parents erased it from my memory. But I had a feeling that some of it had stuck around. Between that and Paige apparently being erased and–

Actually, was it possible that… if Paige and I had been friends, even if she was also somehow erased from my memory, when she’d showed up again and acted like such a bitch to me, I’d subconsciously taken that as some kind of betrayal? Could that have helped my whole… avoiding close friendships thing too? 

Huh. 

San was shaking his head. “What’s up? What’s up is I’m surprised you came. I mean, it ain’t like you and Princess Peach in there are all that close.” 

Grimacing, I nodded. “Yeah, well, it’s a family sort of thing. You know, gotta keep up appearances.” 

With that, I started to introduce Izzy as a girl who was staying with us for awhile, just as Tomas approached. Of course he was there too, speaking of people whom I still didn’t know if I could trust at all or not. I wanted to, naturally. But I kept flipping back and forth between just how involved he was with his father. The fact that he’d been my boyfriend for awhile after Mr. Jackson erased my memory back in the day… yeah, it made me uncomfortable. But Tomas was just so… decent, so cool. He made me feel like I was special. 

Then again, so had my parents. And look at that whole situation. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, I focused as Tomas was saying, “You know Cass isn’t going to let someone being a hellbeast stop her from doing anything.” His hand patted my back as he added, “I mean, come on, this is the same girl who, according to some very interesting stories people were telling the other day, jumped into Maggie DeLeano’s pool from the roof just because someone said she was too chicken to do it from the balcony. She didn’t just beat the dare, she upped the ante. And freaked out Mr. DeLeano when he saw her fall past the window, so he came out and started yelling.” 

“You did?” That was Izzy, staring at me with wide eyes. “Wait, how big was the DeLeano house?” Clearly, she was trying to figure out just what level of crazy I actually was. 

“Just a few stories, no big deal,” I insisted. “They have a deep pool too. Trust me, it was nothing.” 

“Nothing?” Tomas chuckled, giving me a look. “From what I heard, no one else was ready to go jumping off after her.” 

“That’s because they’re all sissies,” I pointed out mildly, poking him in the chest. “And so are you.” 

“Sissy and proud of it, ma’am,” he replied with a grin that made my heart twist itself into knots. Even now, even with everything I knew and all the things about that whole situation that terrified me, Tomas could make my knees shake and my mouth go dry with a single look. How was that fair? 

With some effort, I shoved all those thoughts away before looking at San. “Anyway, can we stop telling Izzy all about the dumb things I used to do when I was young and stupid?” 

Lowering his head, the boy stared at me over the top of his glasses, looking entirely unimpressed. “Dude, it was like…. four months ago.” 

“Four month–” Izzy looked at her fingers, doing the mental math. “Wasn’t it still winter then?” 

“Pshh, their pool was heated,” I pointed out, as if that actually solved anything. Still, my face flushed a little. “And yeah, four months ago. Like I said, young and dumb. I wasn’t even sixteen yet. Totally not worth ever bringing up again.”

“What’s not worth bringing up again?” Amber, approaching with Jae (who was heavily done up in a hat, sunscreen, and dark shades to protect her sensitive albino skin), asked. She exchanged a fist bump with San, while looking toward me. “You sure you wanna be here?” 

Despite myself, I rolled my eyes. “Come on, guys. I didn’t accidentally have the driver drop us off here thinking it was the mall. And I didn’t bring this for my health.” From my pocket, I produced a small, red-wrapped present to wave at them. “Believe me, if it was my choice, I’d rather be almost anywhere else. But her family and mine just–we have to play nice.” 

Quietly, Jae pointed out, “Her too.” 

“Right, that should mean she plays nice too, especially with all these people here,” Amber agreed. “But shouldn’t we go in to find out? What’s everyone standing outside like this for anyway?” By that point, there had to be over a hundred teenagers out here, all talking in small groups or pairs. 

San shrugged, looking around at the rest of the mingling groups. “One of the butlers was out here before. He said something about the party being prepared and that we’ve all gotta wait.” 

Tomas gave a short nod of confirmation. “Yeah, and he didn’t look too happy about all the people out here either. Pretty sure if it was up to him, he’d turn the hose on all of us.”

That, of course, was the perfect opening for San to start talking about the time I’d managed to get Mrs. Kormish to turn her hose on me after one too many times running through her backyard to get the balls that ended up back there. Her yard was right on the edge of the park where I took my skates and board to use the ramps and rails, and some of the guys played baseball on the nearby diamond. I didn’t really play, but every time a ball went in mean old Mrs. Kormish’s yard, the boys all looked to me to go get it. Apparently I was the only one who wasn’t chicken, given how much she yelled at and threatened anyone who got near her grass. 

Anyway, one time I’d gone too close to her back porch, and she came running out from the side of the house (apparently she’d been working in the flower garden there), spraying me with the hose and screaming bloody murder. That was a fun time. 

Izzy was squinting at me. “How come so many of your stories end with ‘and then I got soaked while someone screamed at me?’” 

San laughed. “Oh, kid, you think that’s bad, you should’ve heard about the time we out on the beach, and–” 

He was interrupted (and I was spared hearing that story again), by the arrival of Paige herself. Several people quickly spoke up, pointing her out as the birthday girl stood at the front door. Her gaze swept over the crowd and… I swore she looked right at me. Our gazes locked, holding steady for a solid couple of seconds before she spoke up. 

“You came.” 

Me? Was–was she talking to–

By that point, her gaze had swept on, taking in everyone with a very faint smile. Whatever had been there on her face earlier was gone now. It had been replaced by a polite smile, that of a gracious host. “Thank you all. I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. But believe me, it’s going to be worth it. Come on inside.” She turned, gesturing as two maids there opened the large front doors, holding them wide for everyone to follow as Paige herself walked back into her house. 

“Let’s get this party started.”

********

Patreon Snippets – Raindrop

“Does this hurt?” With that question, the paramedic who stood in front of Raindrop gently turned her arm, testing the range of motion. “You said a brick clipped it right here? Or was it higher?”

It had been a few minutes since the fight with Suckshot and Landlock. Izzy was still standing in the theater, though no longer up on the stage. Still in full-costume, of course, the girl was holding her arm out absently for the medic to check over while her gaze remained centered on the spot where Paintball was waving off a medic of his own, insisting he was fine. 

Realizing belatedly that she had been asked a question, Izzy flushed under her mirrored faceplate and quickly turned her attention back. “Huh? Oh-um, no, it’s just a little sore. Um, bruised, I guess?” Her gloved hand moved to gingerly touch the spot where she had been clipped by the brick before Paintball showed up. Before Paintball helped save them. Helped save her

She was blushing again. Forcing herself to focus once more, she listened as the medic finished up with making sure she wasn’t injured even worse, and told her what to do if she did find that it was more than a bruise. 

Finally, he left. Paintball, meanwhile, had already started to head for the exit after seeing that the authorities had Suckshot and Landlock in hand. After giving a quick glance around herself to make sure she wasn’t ignoring anyone, Izzy jogged after, catching up with the boy. For a second, she hesitated. What was she going to say? The first thing that sprang to mind was to ask how he was already so good at this stuff when he’d just started out a short time ago and wasn’t working with a group. He was her age. Her age, but he did all this stuff alone, or even came to help when they needed it even though he wasn’t part of their team.

And that was another question Izzy wanted to ask. Why? Why didn’t he want to work with them? Actually, it was pretty obvious that he was just fine working with them, as long as it wasn’t official. So… so what was his deal? 

Ugh, he was so mysterious. He came out of nowhere, was super-good at this stuff even if he made mistakes, and he just… he just helped. She’d even heard that he was giving out sandwiches and stuff to the homeless. Again, what was his deal

But she couldn’t bring herself to ask any of that. It was too confrontational, too direct. And after everything he’d done, after the way he’d jumped in and–

Blushing again. Good mask. Very good mask. Izzy had never been so thankful for–

“After you.” Paintball was holding the door open leading out to the street. Holding the door and waiting for her expectantly. 

“Thanks,” Izzy quickly piped up before starting to move through. The minor voice changer she used, just enough to make it so people wouldn’t be able to put her voice online to figure out who she was, picked up the squeak in her words, making the girl blush even more as she quickly stepped through the doorway. Then she turned back, facing Paintball. “Um. Thanks for all of that, I mean. Thanks for helping.”

For a second, Paintball seemed to be confused. “Thanks–oh. Uh, no problem. It’s what we do, right?” 

“Right,” Izzy agreed hurriedly, bobbing her head. It was just what they did. Never mind that Paintball managed to be funny and cool about it while not having a team with him or anything. Never mind any of that. Stop thinking about that. Yeah. 

Clearly, whatever else Paintball was, he was not telepathic. Because he gave no indication that he had any hint of anything Izzy was thinking. Instead, his helmeted head turned as he took in the sight of various cops rounding up mostly-injured and only slightly resisting gang members all around them. “I guess we should help clean up a bit, huh?”  

Once again, Izzy found herself nodding. Right, they should help clean up. She and Paintball should help. 

Her blush was going to burn through the mirrored faceplate, she just knew it. 

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New Deals 13-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Izzy needed help getting ready. She was nervous about going to dinner with this reporter guy, obviously afraid that she was going to say or do something to embarrass my parents. I tried to reassure her while helping the girl get dressed and put her hair up, but I wasn’t sure how much good it did. That probably wasn’t helped by the fact that the poor kid seemed pretty tired. She kept yawning while we were getting our hair taken care of in the bathroom. Watching her open mouth in the mirror for the third time, I gently asked, “Are you still having nightmares?” 

Immediately, the poor kid flinched, mouth snapping shut as she looked down at the sink before shaking her head. “Not as much,” she murmured quietly. “It’s getting better.” 

“It’s okay, either way,” I hurriedly assured her. “I just mean, you know, if you need umm… anything.” This was really awkward and I finally shrugged helplessly. “Whatever I can do.” 

What I really wanted to do, of course, was tell her that she should talk to me about what was actually going on, what had happened to traumatize her, why my parents were putting her up, what… all of it. I wanted to know what her whole deal was, if I was right about at least one of her parents being a supervillain or what. I was really leaning heavily on that assumption, but I couldn’t be positive. Not without more information, but I was pretty sure pushing her would backfire. 

So, instead, I just helped her get ready and the two of us started out. On the way to the stairs, Izzy glanced at me. “Have you ever met these people? Your mom is, um, really intense about making a good impression.” Clearly afraid she had said something wrong, the girl quickly amended, “I mean, she didn’t do anything bad, or–or say anything, it was just–she’s umm…” 

“Intense, yeah.” Giving the poor kid a small smile (while inwardly lamenting that we were basically the same size) I assured her, “Don’t worry, I get it. She gets it too. And no, we haven’t met this reporter guy, or his family. Mom just always gets really into these kinds of dinner plans, especially when it’s someone who could hurt the family name, like… well, like a fancy reporter.”

Silently, I thought again about what kind of impression I could make on this guy if I wanted to make that kind of insane, family-ending leap. But how stupid would that be? If this guy was on my parents’ payroll, he wouldn’t do anything useful or helpful at all. And if he wasn’t, they’d kill him, and probably his family too, before they could even get up from the table. Either way, I wouldn’t accomplish anything at all other than blowing the fact that I knew the truth. Which would put both Izzy and me in danger. I didn’t believe for a second that I could take my dad in a fight if it came right down to it. Either physically or emotionally, come to think of it. I had no idea what would happen, but it would be bad. Nothing good could possibly come from taking that leap right now. 

Mentally pushing that aside, I reached out to touch the other girl lightly on the arm. “It’ll be okay. Trust me, we just have to play nice through dinner, be polite and all that. Then, after dessert, Mom will excuse us so they can talk business. We’ll probably have to entertain their kids, and I’m not sure how old they are. Either way, it’s bound to be more exciting than listening to the adults blab on and on, you know?” 

And boy, what I wouldn’t give to go back to a time when I actually believed that, when I really didn’t want to know everything my parents were talking about. Well, no. Even as I had that thought, I realized it was wrong. I didn’t actually want to go back to a time when I was completely clueless. I’d like to slide into a time when it was the truth, if that had been an actual option. But I did not want to be ignorant about what my family was really up to. I wanted my parents to stop being supervillains, yet I didn’t want to forget that they actually were. Complicated as this entire situation was, I would always choose to know the truth and move on from that, not erase my memories. 

The truth was a painful thing to stand on, but lies crumbled under your feet. 

Simon was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, all dressed up as well. He grinned at the two of us as we descended. “Well, well, someone looks all fancy and nice now. Oh, and I guess you’ll do in a pinch too, Booster.” He reached out to poke me in the forehead, laughing as I swatted his hand away before turning. “Come on, they got here a little early, so everyone’s in the dining room already.” Glancing over his shoulder, he teased, “Guess it was my job to make sure you didn’t go skateboarding into the room or something equally likely to make Mom’s head explode.” 

Scoffing at him, I retorted, “As if that’s the only way I could be embarrassing at this dinner. Please, give me a second and I’ll come up with something really good.” It was nothing but light banter, the kind my brother and I would have had at any time. But it brought a hard lump to my throat and a deep knot to my stomach. It hurt. It hurt because I could tease back and forth with him like this while knowing what he was really capable of, what he had really done. Hell, I didn’t even actually know all the things he had done, not for certain. I just knew some of what he was capable of. Even that was enough to make a shudder run through me at the thought. 

Simon didn’t notice, of course. By that point we had reached the doors to the dining room, and he stepped up, pulled the door open, and grandly gestured for the two of us to enter. “Presenting the princesses of the kingdom!” he announced in a loud voice, “Miss Izzy and Miss Cassidy.” 

Rolling my eyes at him, I gently took the other girl’s hand and stepped through into the dining room. We were still using the smaller one, with the table that sat ten (rather than the full-sized room suitable for thirty people), but for once we would actually be using the whole thing. Almost, anyway. There were supposed to be nine of us, between both my parents, Simon, Izzy, Lincoln Chambers, his wife, their twins, and me. 

Immediately after stepping into the room, I saw Mom and Dad sitting at their usual spots, with Dad at the end chair and Mom to his right. Simon’s chair was next to Dad, while mine was next to Mom. Izzy would sit next to me. 

But this time, of course, there were other people here. The first of whom drew my attention immediately. It looked like an old mountain man or lumberjack had wandered into our house. Seriously, he was a huge guy, taller than Dad, with long hair and a very thick beard. It looked like he should be galavanting around with a big blue ox or something. Was this the reporter? 

Apparently so, because the man turned to us and smiled. Any intimidation I might have felt at his initial appearance disappeared as I saw how gentle his eyes were. I didn’t know how else to explain it other than he looked kind and intelligent. Wow, no wonder he was such a good reporter. He was big enough to intimidate the people he needed to, and yet somehow immediately made me feel like I could trust him with that single look.

I couldn’t, of course, for all the reasons I’d already thought of. But still, that was really effective. If he really was on my parents’ payroll, they’d done an excellent job when they recruited him.  

Dad was already standing up. “Ah, Lincoln, this is my daughter, Cassidy. And this is the girl I told you about, Izzy Amor. Girls, this is Lincoln Chambers, and his wife, Joselyn.” 

My eyes moved then, finally looking away from the enormous figure to see the smaller woman seated next to him. She was blonde, with her hair cut short, and a slim yet athletic build. Her eyes seemed to evaluate me quickly, looking me up and down as though assessing… something, before she smiled. Just like her husband, it looked incredibly genuine and inviting. 

“Hello, Cassidy, Izzy,” Mrs. Chambers greeted us, rising immediately to extend her hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you. I feel as though half of my husband’s articles about your father have been little details about his son and daughter.” To Izzy, she added, “And then we end up visiting at the perfect time to meet you too.” 

The two of us shook her hand, then her husband’s, before the latter gestured. “And, lest we forget about our own kids long enough for them to make a break for the nearest pizza place…” 

My attention was drawn to the twins. A boy and a girl. They looked to be between Izzy and me in age, maybe fourteen or so. The boy had blond hair like his mother, thought it was kind of spiked up with what had to be a lot of gel. His sister’s hair was more like their father’s, dark and full, falling a little past her shoulders. 

“Cassidy, Izzy,” Mrs. Chambers announced, “this is Zed and Lexi. Kids, come say hi.” 

What followed, of course, was the always awkward forced meeting between teenagers in front of their parents. It was obvious that none of us really knew what to say, but I tried to push past that by telling them we could go check out the game room once dinner was over. That usually did the trick as far as breaking the ice went. This time was no different, though it was Lexi who seemed more interested in the games. Zed, on the other hand, asked about the full-sized basketball court he’d heard about. Which Simon took great joy in confirming the existence of and promised to take him to check out while ‘the girls played with the kid games.’ 

Leaning closer to Lexi, I stage-whispered, “He’s just jealous because he can’t beat Izzy or me in any of those ‘kid games’ no matter how much he tries.”

“And you can’t beat Izzy yourself,” Simon shot back pointedly. 

We bantered a little bit more, before sitting down to have dinner. Lexi, who was seated across from Izzy, started asking both of us if we’d ever played the competitive mode of one of those online first-person shooter/survival games. We hadn’t, but apparently she was really into it. She went on for a little bit about how she really wanted to join this tournament but they only allowed people who were at least sixteen. Apparently, she was afraid that the game would be out of style by that point. But she was still practicing all the time. Aaaalll the time, according to her mother’s teasing interjection. 

So yeah, between us talking about games, Simon and Zed having their whole sports discussion, and our parents talking back and forth from one end of the table to the other about other things, the dinner actually went pretty quickly. It was delicious, of course. My parents wouldn’t have stood for anything less in this kind of situation. But even disregarding that, Chef Claudio, Ethan, and Christiana had outdone themselves. They’d really pulled out all the stops, making me wonder just how much Mom and Dad had impressed on them how important this dinner was. 

Either way, we had dessert and then our parents dismissed us for the time being. They needed to talk about their own things. Simon took Zed off to check out all the gym stuff, while Izzy and I headed upstairs to play some games with Lexi. 

The girl wasn’t exactly exaggerating about training to join a professional e-sports team. She really was that good. I couldn’t touch her if my life had depended on it. Izzy had more luck, but even she only managed to win one out of every three games or so. 

Eventually, I told the other two that I was going to step out for some air for a minute, and that I’d bring back some drinks. I left them in the middle of their latest, even more intense match and headed into the hall. Being around my family like this, seeing the Chambers and having no idea if they were actually this nice and just being used by my family, or if they were secretly part of this whole thing… it was too much. I had to step outside, had to clear my head. 

In this case, going outside just meant walking to the end of the hallway and stepping out onto one of the many balconies overlooking the grounds. Letting the cooler evening air wash over me, I put my hands on the railing and leaned over to glance down before exhaling long and hard. So many thoughts, worries, and questions were running through my head, and I didn’t have a real answer for any of them. Honestly, what I wanted to do in that moment was fall into my bed and sleep for a good long while. Maybe a month or so. Not that it would help, though. I’d still have the same problems to deal with whenever I finally woke up. Closing my eyes and waiting, astonishingly, wasn’t going to make everything better. 

Hearing someone behind me, I turned to see Mr. Chambers stepping up to the sliding door. He offered me a smile, tapping the side of the door as though knocking. “Hey, mind if I join you for a minute? Your dad took a phone call and the women are busy.” 

“Oh, uhh, no, go ahead, sir.” Stepping back to give him room to step out onto the balcony, I asked, “How’s your trip so far? Getting any good stories?” 

“Working on it,” was his casual response, before the man put his own hands on the railing with an added, “Very nice place your family has here. You’re probably too young to really remember, but Detroit… it used to be a lot worse.” 

“Yeah, I’ve… you’re right,” I confirmed, “I’m too young, I never knew that Detroit. But we’ve learned about it in class, and some older people talk about what the city used to be like.” 

That earned me a raised eyebrow from the man, as he turned slightly. “You listen to older people? What kind of kid are you?” 

Flushing a little at that, I shrugged. “The kind who likes getting better than failing grades in history class and who doesn’t want my mom to throw a shoe at me for ignoring people.” 

Mr. Chambers chuckled, though it was almost more of a groan. “Don’t tell me that hard times Detroit is something you learn about in History. It makes me feel old, and that’s not fair. My own kids do that to me enough as it is.” 

“Okay,” I found myself teasing, “it was totally in current events class.” 

“Better.” With a small smile, the man looked at me a bit more seriously. “Your dad tells me you’re really into a lot of this extreme sport stuff.” When I nodded, he grimaced. “See, I’m safe with Lexi. The most dangerous thing she’s aiming toward is carpal tunnel. But I don’t know what I’d do if Zed was into that stuff instead of his precious basketball.” He winked at me, adding, “Guess that means you’ve got a pretty cool dad.”

A lot of thoughts running through my head at that point. But I pushed them all down, with some effort, and simply offered the man a small smile that I hoped looked genuine enough. “Don’t worry, he gets a little crazy at some of the risks I take too.”

“Oh yeah? Are you the one that’s the bad influence around here?” Mr. Chambers teased before adding, “Believe me, I don’t need the kids adding more gray hairs to my head. Their mother does that plenty enough on her own working for the LAPD.”

That made me do a quick double take, looking at the man suddenly. “Your wife’s a cop?”

“Why,” Mr. Chambers retorted, “you got active warrants?” He grinned at that before watching me, squinting very slightly. “You okay?”

Now I had even more thoughts running through my head. If his wife was a cop, did that make it more or less likely that they were working for my parents? Or that one of them was. Could she be working for them without him knowing? Or the other way around? What did it mean?

Somehow, I forced all of that down and focused on shrugging at the man. “Sure, I was just wondering how you could worry about one of your kids getting into extreme sports when your wife has a job like that. Seems like you’d be inoculated against it.”

There was a very brief pause where I felt like the man was examining me more thoroughly. Then he seemed to shake away whatever he’d been thinking and chuckled. “Yeah, you’d think so. Guess I’m just a worrywart.”

“Well, while you’re warting,” I very hesitantly asked, “do you ever worry about something happening to your kids because of what you and your wife do? I mean, with all the criminals you piss off.” 

That, obviously, made the man give a doubletake. “Well, damn, Miss Evans,” he managed, “you don’t go for the easy, weather and traffic-type questions, do you?” 

Blanching a bit, I shook my head. “Sorry. You don’t have to answer. It’s just… my parents don’t do anything dangerous like that and even I get worried about them, like when they go on long trips. It sounds like you and your wife do some dangerous things.” 

For a moment, Mr. Chambers just looked at me. It seemed like he was sorting through his thoughts and also trying to decide just how real to be. Finally, the man exhaled. “Believe me, we take precautions. But when it comes down to it, we help people. People who wouldn’t have that help. We look at our kids and yeah, it scares us to think about something happening to them. But it also makes us think about all the other kids out there who don’t have someone looking out for them, and all the parents who can’t. We’re lucky. A lot of people aren’t. Every time I worry about what might happen to my children or wife, it reminds me of all the stuff that has happened to other children and wives. Stuff that won’t get dragged into the light if someone doesn’t do the dragging.” 

“He’s right.” That was Joselyn Chambers, his wife. She stood in the doorway to the balcony, offering me a small, yet genuine smile. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I was just looking to see where my husband wandered off to.” Focusing on me after reaching up to affectionately rub the man’s shoulder, she added, “We do worry about our children, just as yours do when they have to leave you to go on their business trips. Or even just when they send you off to school in the morning. Watching you walk out there while they know the kind of things that can happen, even with all their money and protection… I promise, it’s one of the hardest things in the world. And seeking out so many of those terrible things, seeing them with our own eyes? It’s terrifying. But we can’t leave it alone. Because leaving it alone wouldn’t make it better. When you see that someone is in danger, turning your back and walking away doesn’t solve anything. Turning off the light so you don’t have to watch only gives evil the ability to work in the dark. I didn’t become a cop to put my family in danger. I did it because that danger exists, regardless of what or where I am. It’ll always be there, lurking in the shadows. So you take away the shadows. You turn on the lights. You expose the evil. You face it. And you deal with it.” 

A long, silent moment passed then, before Mr. Chambers coughed. “Little heavy for the sixteen-year-old, babe.” 

Blinking twice, with a look that made it seem as though she had forgotten just who she was talking to, Mrs. Chambers gave a short nod. “Ah, sorry. Got lost in my own head there.” Offering me a slightly self-conscious smile, she amended, “The point is, we’re working to make the world better for our kids. Just like yours are.” 

“Well,” I murmured while turning to look away, staring up at the sky while her words about exposing evil rang through my head. “Not just like…” Belatedly, I added, “My dad’s not a reporter. And my mom is definitely not a cop.” 

The three of us stayed out there for another minute or two, just watching the grounds. Then Dad came to find them so they could finish their conversation, and I headed down to get the drinks I had promised the others.

Before long, this whole thing would be over and I would take a little nap before heading out to meet Murphy and Roald so I could tell them about working for Wren. 

Wait, did that technically make them minions? Was… was I press-ganging a couple desperate teenagers into being my minions?

I might be a worse hero than I thought. 

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New Deals 13-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Things mostly calmed down pretty quickly after that. The Star-Touched adults had managed to regroup a bit and sent a couple of their people to help the Minority. By that point, the warring gangs had basically separated and gone to their respective corners, so to speak. So it was just a bit of cleanup.

The other Fell-Touched, like Janus, had managed to escape. But we kept hold of Suckshot and Landlock, eventually seeing them both hauled into the back of two separate special armored containment vans. 

Through most of that cleanup, I worked with Raindrop. I had the feeling that the people around us assumed we were about the same age. Actually, come to think of it, maybe she was an incredibly small sixteen-year-old too. Wouldn’t that have been just perfect?

Either way, she was pretty fun to hang out with once things calmed down a bit. She didn’t say a lot, but the things she did say tended to be insightful or just funny in a very simple, straightforward way. I would say something and she’d have a one or two word response, in a totally serious tone, that made me snicker. For whatever reason, it felt like I knew her a lot better than I did. We’d only just really met, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling like we’d interacted a lot more. It was weird. But then, maybe she was just one of those people who made friends easily. 

While we were doing that, I noticed some of the cops and reporters in the distance talking. I couldn’t make out most of what they were saying, but I did hear both of our names come up and saw some of them pointing our way. They were clearly talking about the fact that Raindrop and I were working together, but what… what were they saying? And why were some of them taking pictures? 

Eventually, That-A-Way approached and asked to speak to me privately. We stepped out of the way, over by a corner of the theater building while both of us watched the assortment of cops, reporters, and other Touched milling around. 

“Thanks,” Way murmured quietly. “You know, for showing up. You really helped turn things around.” She glanced toward me, lowering her voice even more. “I heard a few of those gang guys talking. This whole thing, it’s just a skirmish. Just the opening salvo. Apparently things are going to get a lot more heavy pretty soon. They’re going to war with each other.” 

Grimacing, I shook my head. ”If this was just a few opening shots, I don’t want to see what their idea of a full war is.”

“Neither do I,” she agreed, “but I have a feeling that we don’t really have a choice. This whole thing is gonna escalate really fast. And more civilians are going to be caught in the crossfire.” 

There was another brief pause while she clearly thought about her next words before quietly asking, “Those people you were talking about, shouldn’t they keep this kind of thing shut down? Seems like having a bunch of pissed off gang members at war with each other would be bad for business. If they really have that much control over every criminal in the city, shouldn’t they snap their fingers and make these guys back down? I mean, if there’s going to be one benefit to a group like that, you’d think it would be them stopping all-out war like this.”

Yeah, she had a point. I had no idea just how much my parents knew about this situation. But I refused to believe they were clueless. From everything I had seen, there was no way the gangs here would do something like this without at least mentioning it to my family, to the Ministry. Which meant they had to have at least partially approved this sort of thing. But why? What did they get out of it? Was it just not worth the hassle of trying to contain these guys constantly? Did they have to let them get their aggression out now and then before things blew up too much to control at all? I had no idea how that worked. 

With a sigh, I shook my head. “I dunno. But something tells me that if we want to find out how all this works, we need to get into that place. The sooner the better. There’s got to be some answers in there.”

Of course, there was also the possibility that those answers would lead toward my family. But that was a bridge I would cross when we came to it. I still had no idea exactly what I was going to do if and when Way and Pack, the people I had brought into this, found out that the Ministry was led by the Evans. I just… didn’t know. 

Way was looking at me again. “We have to come up with a plan and get in there,” she murmured quietly. “I’m pretty sure you’re right. That’s where we’re going to find answers. That’s where we’re going to…” She trailed off, grimacing for a moment before finding her voice once more. “It’s where we’re going to find out more about who we can’t trust.” There was a somewhat dark grimness to her voice, and it made me think for a moment about what all of this must have been like for her. She didn’t know who on her own team she could trust. She didn’t know which of her mentors she could look up to. What was it like from her side? Especially considering I wasn’t telling her everything I knew, a fact she was no doubt totally aware of. 

I started to agree with her, that we would get into that secret mall base as soon as possible. But before I could say more than a couple words, someone approached. It was, in no uncertain terms, the worst person I could think of to potentially overhear what we were talking about. Yeah, my dad, as Silversmith. He approached, offering each of us a nod while speaking up. “It seems we owe you another debt of gratitude, Paintball.” His hand extended toward me. “Thanks for stepping in and helping out today. Not sure how this would have gone without you.” 

Desperately fighting back the impulse to give any suspicious reaction whatsoever, I forced myself to accept the offered hand while shaking my head. “Way asked for help. I wasn’t just going to tell her to jump off a bridge.”  

He chuckled lightly, an encouraging sound that almost made me smile. How did he do that? How did he disarm me so easily when I knew who he was and what he did? Was it just because he was my dad? No, it had to be more than that. He was just that good at talking to people. He was just that good at convincing them that he was a friend, someone they could trust and confide in. It was scary seeing it from this side of things. 

While I was still fighting those reactions in my head, Dad put his hand on That-A-Way’s shoulder, squeezing slightly. “We owe just as much congratulations and thanks to you. Knowing when to call for help is important. Not trying to go at it alone, not showboating and getting people killed in the process, that’s what makes for a real hero. You did great today. All of you did.” 

“People still got hurt,” Way quietly pointed out. “Some still died. We didn’t save everyone.” 

Dad gave a short nod of agreement, as a long, heavy sigh escaped him. It sounded like he bore  the weight of each and every one of those injuries and deaths on his shoulders. Which was funny (in a totally not funny at all way), because I was pretty sure he really did bear the weight of them. He let it happen. He let this war get started. The Ministry allowed it. So yeah, the weight of it should have been on his shoulders. But he was still standing, and I was going to bet somehow getting even richer off of this whole thing. Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how, but the only thing I could think of that would make the Ministry allow something like this was if they were somehow making more money from it than if they hadn’t. Money or power, one or the other. Or both. I wasn’t sure of the specifics, not yet. But I did know that my father and mother had given the go-ahead for all of this to happen. They allowed it, so they were responsible. 

“You’re right,” Dad spoke up. For a crazy, horrifying second, I thought he had somehow read my thoughts. Then I realized he was responding to the girl beside me. “We didn’t save everyone. But you can’t always. All you can do is try. Put the effort in. Save everyone you can. Because, and I want both of you to listen to this right now, it isn’t about how many you fail to save. It’s about how many would have died if you weren’t there at all. And believe me, there would have been a lot more people hurt or even dead today if the two of you weren’t here. All those people in that theater, you saved them. You and Raindrop.” 

He said the last bit while stepping aside a bit and gesturing for the girl in question to join us. Which she did, moving up between Way and me while staring at my dad, at Silversmith. I couldn’t see her face, of course, hidden as it was behind that faceplate. But from the way she held her head, her body language, and everything else, I had the distinct impression that she basically hero-worshiped him. I had no idea what was going on there, but it was pretty obvious that she really looked up to him. Again, not surprising, considering how well my dad played the role of champion for the masses. He should have won an Oscar or two by now. Still, it made me feel sick in my stomach. Actually, the thought that he was fooling Raindrop in particular seemed to raise my hackles more than it really should have. I barely knew the kid. Maybe it was just because she was a kid? Maybe it reminded me of how much I had looked up to Silversmith before I knew the truth. 

Either way, Dad held his arm out, pantomiming looking at a watch. “Unfortunately, no matter how impressive you guys are, I have a feeling none of you can quite stop time just yet. And since everything seems calm enough now, I should get going. There’s going to be a lot of paperwork about all this. Be glad you guys only have to deal with a bit of that. And hey, you even get to avoid most of the reporters.”

Reporters… Oh damn, right, that dinner with the guy from the Times. It was getting close. No wonder Dad was making his excuses to leave. He congratulated us again, then offered to walk That-A-Way and Raindrop back to their base with the rest of their team. Way declined, saying she’d catch up after talking to me for a minute, claiming she still had to thank me herself. 

So, Raindrop headed off with him by herself. And I tried to figure out why the sight of her walking with my evil dad made me want to throw myself after them to stop it. Well, besides the obvious reasons. There was something else making it hit me more than I thought it should have. 

“It pisses you off too, doesn’t it?” Way spoke quietly with a glance toward me. “Seeing the way everyone loves him. Especially Rain.” She sighed, turning my way fully, as though to put her back to that whole thing. “I know you said you can’t say everything you know, but you made it pretty clear that he’s one of the ones that can’t be trusted. You said especially don’t tell him anything. So yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s one of your big conspiracy people. But he’s such… I mean…” She exhaled, slumping over a bit. “Fuck.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “fuck. Trust me, I know. It’s a whole thing. But you’re doing a good job of hiding it.”

She snorted at that. “You just couldn’t hear all the nasty thoughts I was having when he was here.” 

“Yeah, and neither could he,” I pointed out. “Look, we’ll get answers, okay? We just can’t rush it. They already know that I know some of what they’re up to. They just don’t know how much. Not even close. But they know that I know some of it. So we have to be careful.”

Way paused, then chuckled. “You know, the way you act about all this, sometimes I forget you’re younger than me. You seem a lot older than you should be.”

Shit, getting her off the train of thought was probably a good idea. But I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. So, I just shrugged. ”I’ve had to grow up quick lately. But if I don’t get out of here now, I’m going to end up grounded. Then we’ll see how grown up I am.”

With that, I excused myself and took off, using a shot of red paint to a nearby building to hoist myself out of there. Right, I hadn’t really been exaggerating that much. If I missed this dinner, Mom would never let me hear the end of it. She’d made it clear that it was important that we present ourselves as a family tonight. Which gave me a lot of other thoughts I felt like saying, but kept to myself for obvious reasons.

As I raced home, I did my best to push those thoughts out of my head. This guy was an award-winning investigative reporter. It would probably be a bad thing if I gave him a reason to be suspicious of my family. For him as well as us. He may have been a big shot, but I was pretty sure my parents wouldn’t hesitate to have him killed if it came down to protecting themselves and the family. And I was also willing to bet that my family’s resources trumped whatever he could come up with. 

It had, of course, occurred to me to try talking to the guy about everything. I had the random, crazy impulse to just spill my guts to him and have everything out in the open. He was a reporter, after all. But again, that would be stupid. He’d never be able to publish an article like that, not with the contacts my parents had. The only real option to get it out before they erased it would have been some kind of online thing, but that would probably be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Even if I was involved, I’d just be the rebellious kid. There was no doubt in my mind that my family could quash the whole thing. Hell, it wasn’t as though it would be anything all that new. People claimed enormous criminal conspiracies against the rich and famous all the time. A lot of it was even true. And this was one of those times. But it would be dismissed like all those others. No, if… when I went public about all this, it had to be perfect. I would only get a single shot at that kind of thing. I would only be able to take my family by surprise once. It was going to have to be a silver bullet situation. Proof. I needed proof of everything, and I needed to understand exactly how the organization worked, who was a part of it, who could be trusted and who couldn’t. I needed all of it.

Of course, the other big reason for not telling this Chambers guy the truth? For all I knew, he was on my family’s payroll. Yeah, he was all the way down in LA, but did that really mean anything? After all, Mr. Jackson had been in the UK for a long time. And it really would be within my family’s interest to have one of the best investigative reporters from one of the biggest news outlets on their side.

No, clearly for a lot of reasons, I couldn’t open up now. Not to anybody, let alone a reporter who may or may not be working for my parents on the down low. 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head firmly, I focused on getting home. That meant changing clothes in a public restroom at the edge of a park and taking an Uber the rest of the way. I was cutting it fairly close, considering I still needed to shower and all. But at least I wasn’t late. 

Paying the driver after he stopped in front of the gate, I hopped out, grabbed my bag, and headed in. On the way past, I greeted the guard waiting there, who teasingly informed me that I’d better hurry. 

Mom and Dad were in the front foyer as I passed through the door. Mom stepped over, looking like she was going to embrace me, but thought better of it. She was already dressed up for dinner and wrinkled her nose a little at how sweaty I was. So sue me, running across the city was a bit of a work out, even with powers. 

She settled on gently touching the side of my face. “I’m glad you made it, Principessa. Thank you for remembering. Now please, go and get cleaned up. We will be eating in thirty minutes.”

“Yeah, kid,” Dad spoke up, “and see if you can help Izzy with whatever she needs? She should just be about done getting cleaned up herself. The clothes she helped pick out are on her bed.”

God, he really had no idea that I had just been talking to him a short time earlier. Hell, he didn’t look like he’d been out doing anything at all. I was sweaty and all that from rushing home. My hair was a mess from being under the helmet and mask.  But Dad? He was perfectly put together. Not a single hair was out of place and it looked as though the biggest workout he’d had in the past couple hours was pushing a few papers. 

Shoving that thought aside, I promised that Izzy and I would be right down. Then I headed up the stairs two steps at a time. Yeah, I’d go get cleaned up so we could get this whole thing over with.

Time to meet Lincoln Chambers and his family.

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New Deals 13-06 (Summus Proelium)

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For a few long seconds, I just sat there, frozen from confusion. Pack saw two guys standing there talking to Blackjack. But I saw my parents. Was I being affected by some kind of power that made me see things differently? No. That didn’t make sense, did it? No one in here knew enough about me to make me see my family members over there. Plus, if it was some kind of ‘see people you know’ power or something, Pack wouldn’t just be seeing two random guys. 

Okay, so it wasn’t that. My flash of panic that someone in here knew about my identity and my family and was fucking with me only lasted a brief moment before I got it under control. There was another explanation, one that didn’t involve all my secrets suddenly being out, thank God.

“Dude.” Pack sounded confused and maybe a little exasperated. “Are you okay over there?” 

Was I okay? Hah. Not really, considering the way my heart had just been trying to claw its way out of my chest so it could escape. “Sorry,” I quickly muttered, resisting the urge to stare at Blackjack and the people who were either my parents or looked exactly like them. “It’s been a long day.” And from the looks of it, getting longer by the minute. Wait, all days got longer by the minute. Fuck, I knew what I meant. “You were talking about those… guys.”

Guys, she saw guys. It had to be a power of some kind, right? My parents–wait, was that how they hid their identities? By appearing as different people to others–but why would I see them for who they were? Was I immune to the power or something? Why would I be–hold on…

“Like I said,” Pack was in the middle of replying in a low voice, “they came in to talk to Blackjack. I didn’t hear a lot before they went into the other room, but I heard a name. Tate.” 

That made me do a double-take, looking at her while seeing my mother and father still in the middle of what seemed to be an intense conversation. “Tate? You definitely heard that?” 

“Yeah, as in the name of that kid you were talking to Way about,” she confirmed. “What was it–Andy? Tate, that was right, wasn’t it?” For a brief moment, she sounded uncertain. 

“Anthony,” I corrected in a much lower voice. I still wasn’t comfortable here like this. “Anthony Tate, yeah. So those two came in and talked to your boss, and they said something about Tate.”

“I told you,” she reiterated, “I didn’t hear much. They went into the other room pretty quick. I heard something about Tate, and then something about someone’s father being dead.”

Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “Someone’s father being dead? Whose?” 

Snorting, Pack retorted, “The fuck should I know? I wasn’t exactly in a position to ask for clarification, dude. They said something about someone’s father being dead–oh, I kind of got the impression this wasn’t something new. The way they said it, he’s been dead for awhile.” 

Someone’s father had been dead for awhile. Biting my lip, I tried to sound as casual as possible. “Which one of them said it? What’d they say, exactly? I mean, as much as you can remember.”   

The other girl took a moment, clearly focused on recalling as best as she could. “The guy with the red hair said, ‘The Tate situation was supposed to be over and done with. We put it behind us.’ Then Blackjack said, ‘At least the father’s dead.’ Wait. Wait, did he say ‘the father’ or ‘your father?’ Shit. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure. He either said ‘At least the father’s dead’ or ‘At least your father’s dead.’ Then they went into the other room.” 

Sinking back in my seat, I thought about that for a few seconds. The Tate situation, my parents were annoyed because something about it was coming back to bother them after they thought it was handled. But what? Was it something about Paige? Paige had been erased from my memory around the same time that Anthony was, and I’d heard her talking about how whatever she was doing had something to do with him. She’d specifically said that my mom and dad had no idea where she came from or why she was doing… whatever she was doing because they hadn’t thought about the name Anthony Tate in years. So of course they were connected, but how much of that did my parents know? Was this whole conversation about the Tate situation not being over because of Paige, or because of something else? What prompted that? 

“You sure you’re okay?” Pack was asking, her voice clearly uncertain as she absently scratched one of her lizards. “Do you know those guys over there or something?” 

Boy, talk about being simultaneously very wrong and very right. For a moment, brief as it was, I almost considered telling her about how I wasn’t seeing those two the way she was. But that would’ve led to her asking who I was actually seeing. And even if I just described them instead of saying they were my parents, she’d definitely start looking into those details. And if that led her to who they really were… well, was that really bad? Did I think it was bad because it would put her in danger, or because it would put my family in danger? Which one was I really bothered more by? God damn it, what was wrong with me? 

Finally, after shaking myself, I nodded. “I’ll be fine. And no, I’ve never seen those two guys.” Hell, those words were the literal truth, I had most certainly never seen the two guys she was talking about, not even when I looked right at the two who were supposed to be them. 

And yet it was still a lie. A lie that made me feel like shit after saying it. Pack was a villain, but she’d also been my friend. She’d helped me, had gone out of her way to come save me from Pencil. She had put her lizards in danger to help me, and how was I paying her back? 

Fuck. This whole thing was just so complicated. Too god damn complicated. I had no idea how to make it better. I couldn’t tell her the truth. Not… not yet, right? But no matter how many times I said ‘not yet,’ it was becoming increasingly obvious that I was going to have to make that kind of leap at some point. Once I did, it would be a leap I couldn’t take back. And it felt like the longer I waited, the harder the fall after that leap was going to be. 

I couldn’t see her face, of course, but I had the feeling that Pack was squinting at me uncertainly. After a moment of that, she shook her head. “Well, keep an eye out for them. Sounds like they’re connected to this Anthony Tate thing you’ve been looking into. And…” She hesitated before offering a shrug. “And that other thing you were talking about.” Apparently even Pack didn’t actually want to mention the Ministry out loud right here in the casino. 

“I’ll see what I can find out,” I promised, before adding, “Thanks, Pack. Seriously, I know this whole thing is hard for you after everything La Casa’s done.” 

“Yeah, well, I’m not doing anything against La Casa,” she insisted firmly. “Just looking out for my own interests on top of that. I wanna get to the bottom of this whole thing. I–” In mid-sentence, she glanced over before squinting. “And there they go.” 

Sure enough, my parents and Blackjack were walking away together, heading for one of the exits. Not the one I had come through, of course. 

After we both watched the trio head off, Pack turned back to me. “Right, so, about this whole Trevithick thing. You want help getting Braintrust to play nice.” 

“I want to make sure they know that pushing any harder is going to end up being more of a pain than it’s worth,” I confirmed. “I know we can’t get away with telling them to fuck off completely. Not like that. But giving them something so they feel like they’re walking away the winners, while making sure they know they can’t get anything more than that without a bigger fight? That sounds doable. I mean, with help, yeah.” 

Pack was quiet for another few seconds, before she gave a short nod. “I like the kid. Not just gonna sit around and let her be exploited. So yeah, I’ve got your back. Just tell me when and where so we can make an impression.” 

Thanking her, I added, “Speaking of making an impression, you’ve gotta tell me. What does the new lizard turn into?” 

“Scatters?” There was sly amusement to the girl’s voice. “Oh, I’m not telling you yet. 

“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”

*****

I couldn’t just leave Wren out of the situation entirely, much as I might’ve liked to. That wasn’t fair to her, given the fact that the whole thing was about Braintrust wanting to use her talents in one way or another. She deserved to know what was going on and be included in this situation.

So, Pack and I went there next. Actually, we called to arrange a meeting the next day, but Fred said the kid tended to work through the night and sleep in the mornings (being home-schooled through the afternoon). So, we headed over right then. To keep things subtle and avoid drawing attention to the girl, we used her car (or at least, a car that La Casa allowed her to use), with heavily tinted windows, heading for Wren’s shop. 

The girl herself met us on the main shop floor, literally (with the help of her little winged jetpack thing) throwing herself clear from the elevator to the entrance to half-crash into the girl beside me for a tight hug while squealing, “Pack! You’re okay! Hi! Are the lizards okay?! Can I see ‘em? Are they sleeping? Can I pet ‘em? Are they hungry? Can I feed ‘em? Did you really get a new one? Is it a boy or a girl? Did you bring her? Wait, did you eat already? Are you hungry? We could get pizza. For us, not for the lizards. But I have crickets and worms and stuff for them just in case! Hey, maybe they could put those on a pizza!” 

The words all came in a rush, blurted out as soon as Wren thought of them, without any pause to allow Pack to actually respond. And through it all, she clung tightly to the other girl as if she was a long-lost best friend who had only just returned. It reminded me of the fact that these two had bonded for days while Pack stayed around Wren when the whole situation with the vials was going on. Pack wasn’t some criminal to Wren. She was a friend. 

Then again, she wasn’t some criminal to me either. It was a lot more complicated than that. More complicated than even she knew, really. I didn’t exactly have that much right to judge her given who my family was and the fact that I still hadn’t told anyone about it. Yeah, it was dangerous, but it was also… fuck. It was complicated. All of it was just so complicated. 

Shaking that off for the moment, I watched as Pack introduced Scatters to Wren, who basically lost her mind over the adorable little neon gecko. Pack pulled the rest of her lizards out of their cage and carried them to the nearby table, where they ate from the assortment of reptile-appropriate food that the Tech-Touched girl had provided. Wren, of course, asked the same thing I had, about what Scatters turned into. Again, Pack deferred for the moment, promising to show both of us after we talked to the girl about what we had to talk about. 

And then we did just that. Well, after asking for Fred (he’d been up in the apartment area) to come down so we could talk to both of them together. I laid out everything that happened with Braintrust, how they had approached me, their offer/request/demand, and why I thought it was for the best to appease them at the moment to avoid any problems. I promised that I was going to look into dealing with their group for good, but that that was a long ways off and I didn’t want Wren or Fred to become targets in the meantime. 

“I’m not making anything for them,” the nine-year-old blonde insisted flatly, folding her arms stubbornly across her chest while setting her chin. “They’ll hurt people with it. And I’m not helping them fix their own stuff.” 

“Yeah,” I replied with a glance toward Fred. “That’s kinda what I assumed. Which leaves the option of paying taxes to them for operating in the city. Pack and me are gonna go over there, find them, and let them know that they’ll get a small bit out of whatever you sell, and that’s it.” 

“But you can’t just beat them up and arrest them?” Wren sounded confused, staring at me with those wide sea-green eyes. “They’re bad guys, they do really bad… err…” She trailed off, glancing toward Pack as though only just realizing that the other girl was technically a villain.

Pack, for her part, sounded a little amused as she casually drawled, “Everyone’s got their reasons for doing stuff. And everyone’s got friends that do bad things sometimes. These guys aren’t your friends, and they’re demanding you give them money or toys to hurt people with.” 

“Yeah, what she said.” I agreed, before adding, “And I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to take on a whole gang of Touched-Tech-Enhanced supercriminals yet.” My fingers tapped the side of my helmet. “Not that I haven’t pissed off plenty of them already, but it feels like I should pace myself.” I did not point out that I didn’t want Wren and Fred to be targets. It felt like the younger girl wouldn’t take that very well. I wasn’t sure if she’d insist she could take care of herself, or be upset that I wasn’t fighting the bad guys just to protect her, or what. But I was pretty sure framing it as me having too much to take on right then without adding yet another gang of pissed off supervillains would play better with her.

From the way Fred looked at me, he understood the rest of what I wasn’t saying. The man offered me what was obviously a thankful nod, but let his niece do most of the talking. 

It worked. Wren still clearly didn’t like the idea of appeasing the bad guys, for sure. But she accepted that it wasn’t a fight we needed right now and that the best way to handle it was to hand money to them so they’d go away. At least until we were ready. She did, however, insist that she was going to work on ideas to deal with Braintrust while also reiterating that she was never going to build anything for them, no matter what. That was her firm line in the sand. 

After that was settled, Pack took Scatters and transformed the tiny, colorful lizard into her alternate form. Which, as it turned out, was an equally colorful large reindeer. Seriously, this thing was metallic blue along most of the body, its legs were darker blue, it had a black stripe running down the sides to offset the two blues, and its head and antlers were bright green. 

Wren lost her mind all over again, grabbing onto and hugging the incredibly beautiful reindeer-lizard while cooing about how adorable she was. 

Pack informed us that they were working on a saddle for Scatters, after helping Fred pick Wren up and set her on the animal’s back. The young inventor held on tight, squealing happily as Scatters took her for a short, slow trot around the inside of the shop. She was having the time of her life. Which made me wonder how much she’d love it if the lizard-deer could go out on the street and let loose. 

Someday, I told myself, I’m gonna show that kid how to have a really good time, without a bunch of stupid supervillain bullshit getting in the way.

Pack interrupted my thoughts about that by raising her voice to ask, “Hey, Wren, you think my new friend is cool, has Paintball over there shown you his new paint thing yet?” 

“New paint thing?” Wren, still perched atop the neon lizard-deer, echoed curiously while looking over at me. Fred, standing a bit out of the way, also looked interested. 

So, I showed them how the pink paint worked. That was as much of a hit as Scatters was, especially once I showed Wren how she could stretch her limbs out while they were pink. She thought that was the funniest thing in the world, and kept having Fred hold her hand in place while she ran the other way to pull her arm as far out as she could. 

Watching the kid goofing off like that while occasionally redoing the pink paint again, or shooting some random object she pointed out with it, I found my thoughts shifting back to what I’d seen at the casino. My parents except not my parents. They had been at the casino in some kind of… power-enhanced disguise? Except whose power? Maybe it was a Tech-Touched device. Right, that made sense. Some kind of… umm…illusion-generator that somehow didn’t work on our own family? Maybe so that they could keep track of each other and still see each other for who they–wait. 

Was that why I’d seen Simon out without any kind of mask or anything on? Was that why he’d been going around apparently without anything to protect his identity, because he was using one of those illusion devices? That made sense too. I’d wondered before about just why my brother could go around without a mask or anything to hide his face. If he was using that illusion tech, it would explain a lot. Even if it didn’t explain exactly where those illusion devices came from. At the very least, it made sense that my family would have access to them. 

Which might also explain how my father could be in two places at once, come to think of it. It could help explain how he could operate as Silversmith and appear as himself at the same function, if they used that illusion tech on someone else to look like him. That was probably part of it. 

“Hey, kid.” That was Fred, watching me curiously from nearby while Pack and Wren whispered about something over by Scatters. “You okay? Seemed kinda… lost there for a minute.” 

Forcing all those thoughts away for the time being, I made myself nod. “Oh, yeah. I’m good. I just found a couple pieces to a puzzle I’ve been working on for a long time.” 

Of course, this illusion thing meant it would be even harder for me to prove my family were the bad guys even if I found someone I could safely point that out to. What was I supposed to do, point at someone who, to everyone else looked like some random guy, and insist he was my mother? Somehow, I didn’t think that would go very well. To say nothing of all the other illusion-tricks they could pull. 

It was something, at least. As I’d told Fred, it was a couple more pieces to this puzzle. It didn’t solve the entire problem, but at least it answered a couple questions for me. True, none of those answers were to the question of what I was supposed to do with everything I knew. But hey, at least I was making progress. 

While lost in those thoughts, my normal phone buzzed in my pocket. Knowing that I had to check in case it was my parents so they didn’t send out a search party, I made sure no one was paying attention before tugging it out. It was an e-mail, and I almost put it away again before doing a double-take. The e-mail was an invitation to a birthday party on Saturday, just a few days away. That wasn’t that odd, considering how many birthdays and other things I got invited to regularly. The odd part was that it was for Paige. 

Now why the hell would Paige Banners invite me to her birthday party? 

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New Deals 13-05 (Summus Proelium)

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In case you missed it, there was a commissioned interlude focusing on a certain very special termite colony posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

I’d seen casinos in person before. Not that I’d actually stepped inside them, of course. But my family and I had stayed at hotels where casinos were, and I’d seen the rooms themselves from a distance. This one, though, was far different from those glimpses I’d had of the public versions. Emerging from the elevator, I didn’t see a massive, wide-open area full of bright, colorful slot machines loudly clanging and chiming everywhere. I didn’t see neon lights, scantily-clad women walking around with trays of snacks and drinks, or… anything I typically associated with an idea of what a casino floor looked like from my own experiences and movies. 

Instead, I mostly saw an enormous circular room, big enough to hold a full-size basketball game in. Directly in the middle of that circular room was an equally circular bar that took up maybe one-fourth of the space. There were a bunch of people sitting at the bar, and others serving them from behind it. Or within, rather, given the fact it was a circle. Either way, most of them, employees and guests alike, were wearing masks of various kinds. It wasn’t one hundred percent or anything. I did see a couple people’s faces. And some of the masks were clearly more elaborate or expensive than others. But elaborate or cheap, most people wore something that in some way obscured their identities, just as Paige had said. 

The bar itself seemed to be made entirely of glass in a way that was clearly deliberately meant to resemble ice. It was ‘frosted over’ in places, had actual buckets of ice sitting out with bottles resting in them, and so on. As if the whole thing had been carved out of a frozen block.  

The floor under my feet resembled ice-like glass as well. It was like stepping onto a skating rink, except not slippery at all. Actually, there was a tiny bit of bounce to the floor, making it soft to walk on despite its appearance. And it wasn’t just the floor that maintained that appearance. The walls, the decorations, the soft blue lighting that filled the room, it was all winter themed. 

Meanwhile, in the area immediately surrounding the bar, there were tables where people were quietly playing cards. On the far side of the room, opposite where I had come in, there were the games like roulette and craps. You had to go up a very short flight of about three steps to a vaguely raised area to reach those tables, and there was some kind of guard or bouncer posted next to the steps. What he was there for, I wasn’t exactly sure. But he was definitely a big guy, and it looked like he had a visible gun attached to his hip. So they weren’t screwing around. Like the rest of the people in here, the bouncer over there wore a mask. His was shaped like a bull’s head, with actual horns. He looked like a modern minotaur armed with a Glock or something.

Finally, there were doors scattered around the entire outside edge of the large room, even some up on the raised area where the roulette and craps tables were. Most of the doors had keypads next to them, as well as some kind of intercom. Some were labeled with numbers and names I didn’t know the meaning of, like ‘Starfall’ or ‘Viridescent.’ It was that latter door that I saw Paige pass through, giving me one last look and wave before it closed after her. 

Other doors were more simply named with obvious meanings like, ‘Slots Room 1’ or ‘Karaoke Room 3.’ I didn’t really need to think much about those ones, obviously. 

Curious, I checked the maps and GPS thing that Wren had included in my helmet display. As expected, they were offline. People like me weren’t allowed to know where this place was. 

Just as I managed to take all of that in, a voice from one side drew my attention. “Ahh, Mr. Paintball.” It was a man in a well-tailored suit, wearing a white, form-fitting mask against his face with only his mouth exposed. Even his eyes seemed to be covered, though he could clearly see through it. He was approaching me briskly, his voice quick, yet polite. “Such a pleasure to have you take a look at our establishment. I trust you have been informed of the rules here.” 

“No fighting, no trying to unmask people, no acting like you know them if they haven’t introduced themselves to you, mind your own business, basically?” I offered with a shrug. “I got the rundown, yeah.” And unless I missed my guess, this guy had probably already heard everything that had happened outside from Tell. 

“Very good, sir,” the white-masked man politely replied with a slight nod. “We take such rules quite seriously here, I assure you. That is how we remain in business. I am called Chips. Was there anyone you wished to meet, a game you might like to try? Rest assured, we also have rooms full of the finest and most advanced… ahhh… ‘video games’ if you would like to rent time by the hour.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Pack approached from around one of the nearby tables with a quick, “I’ve got it, Chips. Thanks. Paintball just needed to settle a little bet we made while all that was going on with the boss’s kid.” She had Riddles perched on one shoulder (in lizard form), but her other pets weren’t in view.   

“Very good, Miss Pack,” came the crisp response. “Please do let someone know if you require anything further. It would be our pleasure to provide for someone who was so instrumental in the protection of our princess.” 

He pivoted on one heel then, striding away. Watching him go, I lowered my voice. “So what did you want to show me? Please tell me it’s not the sick game room you rented out.” 

Instead of answering right away, Pack glanced around before turning. “This way, walk with me.” Turning, she headed around the edge of the room, counter-clockwise. Riddles, on her shoulder, turned a bit as though making sure I was following. 

So, I did. Picking up the pace to catch up with her, I spoke up. “Look at all the people around here. You wouldn’t know it was… wait, what time is it? I’ve lost track. It’s been a busy night.”

On the way, I saw some people look up from their games or drinks. They didn’t pay too much attention, given that was apparently against the rules. But my appearance obviously made them curious. Yeah, I had no idea what they were making of the fact that I was here. How well known was the fact that I had helped Blackjack with his daughter?

“It’s about one in the morning,” came the response, before Pack gestured to a table in a darker area far from any of the games. Her lizards were all spread out over the surface, happily crawling over one another as well as eating and drinking from bowls that had been laid out for them. Except… 

“Hey,” I spoke up, pointing to a tiny (seriously, it was about the length of her finger) lizard with a neon blue body and bright green head. “That one’s new.” 

Pack pulled out a chair, sitting down before kicking the leg of another for me to join her. She put her hand down close to the lizard in question, letting it run up her fingers. Then she lifted her opposite hand, watching as the beautiful thing jumped almost a foot to reach it. “This is Scatters. She’s new, yeah.” 

Taking the offered seat, I smiled behind my helmet, leaning a bit closer. “She’s really pretty.” 

“Believe me, she knows,” Pack drawled, setting the lizard back on the table near a bowl of water. “She’s a daredevil and a show-off.” Shaking her head, she focused on me, her voice low. “Okay, so my thing I can’t really show you yet. People came to talk to Blackjack.” 

“Wait.” I quickly put in. “Should we be saying anything? I mean with–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted. “No surveillance allowed in the casino. And trust me, I know how fucking weird that is. They have ways of checking for cheaters, but they don’t allow cameras, bugs, or any kind of recording devices. It’s the only way this place attracts the clientele it does, and they have lots of people come in to make sure it stays that way. No one wants to have any chance that things they say in here, or even just the fact that they were here, could get out. See those things up near the ceiling?” She gestured to what looked like loudspeakers positioned throughout the room. “They stop your phone from working, any GPS you have, cameras, audio recording equipment, whatever. None of that stuff works in here, even for us. And I had Eits check, just to be completely sure. If it ever got out that La Casa did keep any kind of surveillance here, this place would be completely dead. And everyone else in the city would probably unite to attack us.” 

“What about people with eavesdropping powers?” I pointed out quickly. “Enhanced hearing, that kind of thing.” Even if they couldn’t record what we were saying, I really didn’t want to take the chance of anyone even hearing it. There was too much at stake, too many ways someone having the slightest idea of what we were doing could totally fuck all of us over, evidence or no.

“Stand up,” Pack urged, gesturing for me to move. “Take a step over there and look at me.” 

Uncertain, I did so, rising from the chair and taking a few steps away. Again, I could see a few people glance over, some clearly more interested than they actually wanted to show. I was a young boy (as far as they knew) Star-Touched sitting in this secret casino. Obviously, they were a bit curious. Which, again, made me wonder just what they thought was really happening here.

Either way, I took those few steps away before looking at Pack. She pointedly reached up, lifting the black, featureless mask enough (revealing dark skin) that I could see her mouth open as she started to speak. And I heard… nothing. Her mouth was moving, but no sound was coming out. Or– she beckoned for me to come closer. So I did, and she held up a hand to stop me, reaching up to take my arm. Mouth still moving, she pulled me forward and down to be within a foot of her. Instantly, I heard her reciting some monologue speech. It sounded like it was from a play or a movie or something. Whatever it was, she was reciting it carefully. After another word, she gave me a push backward by the arm. The second my head was a few inches further away, the sound disappeared. Her mouth kept moving, but I heard absolutely nothing. 

Pack repeated that a couple times, pulling me forward to hear, then pushing me back to demonstrate that the sound disappeared. Finally, she gestured for me to sit down, tugging her mask back down over her mouth as she explained, “Touched-Tech attached to the tables. Makes it impossible to hear things if you’re not invited to the meeting. No eavesdropping allowed. Again, that’s how this place can function as a place for secret meetings, dude. You think we’re the only ones who would be in deep shit if our secrets got out? This whole world revolves around secrets. Nobody would trust La Casa’s casino as a place to have their meetings at if there was any chance, any chance those secrets might get out. Like I said, they have independents and people from other gangs show up to inspect the place. Blackjack isn’t gonna risk giving up the money all these people bring in just to catch a random secret or two before people figure things out and we all become public enemy number one.” 

She had a point. I knew that. Everything she said made complete logical sense. Still, I didn’t like it. It was too risky. Which maybe made me too paranoid. All the stuff Pack told me about how protected everyone’s privacy was in this place, and I still didn’t trust it. Because the real problem was, the second I trusted something like that and was wrong was the second everything fell apart. I couldn’t take that kind of risk, not with something like that. The thought of any of these bad guys, even Blackjack, finding out who my parents were was just… bad. Very bad. 

So, I wasn’t going to say anything too dangerous, just in case. But I supposed the bit about Wren wasn’t the worst possible thing for anyone to overhear if the privacy measures failed or whatever. With that in mind, I explained everything that had happened with Cavalcade and Glitch, how Braintrust wanted Wren to start paying her way in one form or another. Though I still used the kid’s chosen Touched name instead of her real one. I also made a point of not outright talking about how this was obviously related to the Ministry tax thing, but the implications between my words were obvious enough that I could tell the other girl picked up on it. 

When I was done, Pack gave a long series of muttered curses. “Those guys are pretty arrogant fucks, huh? I don’t suppose just going in there and beating their asses is an option.” 

“I don’t think I’m quite ready to challenge a gang like that, even if you helped,” I murmured dryly. “Kinda got a lot going on as it is. Besides, they’d be after Trevithick, not me. And I can’t be there to help her twenty-four seven. I don’t wanna put her under that kind of pressure.” 

Shrugging then, I added, “I mean, sure, working on getting rid of Braintrust is a noble goal and all. Probably more noble than you care about. But that’s a long term thing. Short term, keeping them happy and away from Trevithick is the best way to go.” 

“She’s not gonna make stuff for them,” Pack observed quietly, leaning back in her seat as she watched me for a moment. “All the time I spent with that kid during that whole thing… yeah, she’ll never go for that part. She is not gonna make toys for the evil, terrible supervillains.” I had a feeling her eyes were rolling a bit as she over-stressed those last few words pointedly. 

“You’re right,” I agreed. “She won’t make stuff for them and she won’t consult on any of their projects. That’s just… that’s not her. I–well, maybe she would. If she thought it would help us, if she thought her uncle or one of us was in danger, she might do what they said just to protect them. But it would… it would hurt her. She’d hate it. She’d–I don’t want to do that to her.”

“So what are you gonna do?” Pack asked curiously, fingers idly brushing the head of Mars Bar.

“I think the best thing to do is to tell her about the tax part, about paying them out of money that she makes selling her stuff,” I carefully answered. “I can help a bit.” I could help more than a bit, but I didn’t want to be too cavalier about the money I had access to. It felt like that might be a bit risky as far as maintaining my secret identity went. “But the point is, it’ll take time to set all that up. Meaning I need to make sure the Braintrust people understand they’re only getting a little bit and that it’ll be awhile before they start seeing any of it. And that if they start playing hardball, it won’t go well for them.”

“You want backup for that,” Pack realized. “You want someone to help you make sure Glitch and her people know if they pick a fight with the kid over this whole thing, they’ll be biting off a bigger piece than they think.” 

I nodded once. “Yeah. They’re playing relatively nice now, but the… implications were pretty obvious. I want them to know there’s a bigger fight than they might think if they try to push too hard, too fast. They’ll get something out of it, but they have to back off until Trevithick’s damn good and ready.” Even as I said that, a sigh escaped me. “I’m a shitty Star-Touched, huh? Look where I am. Look what I’m doing. I’m talking about getting some innocent–I’m talking about getting Trevithick to pay taxes to a fucking supervillain gang instead of just fighting them.”

“You’re talking about not throwing her under the bus to satisfy your ego,” came Pack’s retort. “You already said taking them down or whatever is a long term goal. Which is pretty damn ambitious on its own, for the record. But keeping them off Trevithick’s back for now, that’s not a bad thing. Like you said, you can’t be there twenty-four se–wait, here we go.” 

Before I could ask what that last bit meant, she urged, “Don’t look up too fast or too obviously. Use your helmet to cover it, just turn your eyes as much as you can. Like I said before, some people came to talk to Blackjack. They were in one of the private rooms over there. Very carefully, just turn your eyes to look a bit to the left, that way.” 

Uncertain, I did so. And immediately almost fell out of my chair. Because she was right, Blackjack was there. And he was standing with my parents. They were just… there. No masks or anything. Standing right in the open. 

I was so shocked in that moment, that they would be so brazen, that I didn’t say anything for a second. And with my helmet, that meant Pack couldn’t see my reaction. Which turned out to be a good thing, as she noted, “I just wish I knew who they were.” 

Wait. Wished she knew who they were? My parents were… kind of famous, especially around Detroit. It was possible she might not recognize them, but… “You don’t know who they are?” I asked carefully, trying to keep my voice even instead of letting it shake. My gaze was locked onto my parents, who were deep in conversation with Blackjack. 

“Nah,” came the response. “Do you? They seemed important when they showed up, but I’ve never seen them before.” She chuckled then. “Too bad we can’t take a picture and put it out there like, ‘Does anyone recognize these two guys?’” 

My head started to nod, then I stopped. “Two guys?” 

“Uhh, yeah, dude.” Pack sounded slightly confused. “Those two men standing right over there with Blackjack. The tall guy with the black crewcut and the red-haired guy next to him.” 

Was… was she blind? Neither of my parents had red hair, and my mother certainly wasn’t a guy. Unlike me, she could never have been mistaken for a boy. She had long black hair, while my father’s hair was dark blond with just a bit of distinguishing gray to it. They… they didn’t look a single bit like what she was describing. And yet, they were very clearly the only people standing there talking to Blackjack. 

So why the fuck was I seeing my parents talking to him, while Pack saw two entirely different people?

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Pink 12-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow was going to be a long day. 

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ready 11-07 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ready 11-06 (Summus Proelium)

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We met up with Skip and Broadway shortly after that, so I promised Pack and That-A-Way that I would talk to them about the whole mall thing later. I was tired, sore, mentally exhausted, and really just wanted to crawl into my bed and sleep for about a million years. But I was also terrified about what was going to happen when I got home. It was late, and my phones completely didn’t work so I had no idea if my parents had noticed me being gone for so long. If they’d been trying to get hold of me, if they’d panicked and called the cops… this could get complicated. And I was so done with everything right then, I was afraid of what I might say. 

The car that Skip showed up in was actually a van. Apparently she’d damaged the Scions’ car enough to leave it undriveable and then abandoned them. Given his immunity to practically anything, there was no way that she could keep Pencil contained long enough to try to call in the authorities. Especially with Cup there and the possibility that they had called in other Scion reinforcements at some point in all of that. The best thing to do was to get out of there while we could. None of us wanted to take the risk of Pencil getting the upper hand again. He’d almost managed it even with all of us there and Skip’s own selective immunities. 

Besides, I was just… again, exhausted. Falling into my seat in the van, I let my head rest against the window while listening to That-A-Way telling Skip what road to take to get out of there, and to Broadway saying something about how she would watch for anyone behind us. 

The next thing I knew, the side door of the van was being slid open and we were in a brightly lit area. I jerked awake, heart thudding its way through a Lars Ulrich drum solo while I looked around wildly, instant panic making me imagine any number of horrible scenarios just then. 

That-A-Way was right there, hand on my arm while she quickly assured me, “It’s okay. It’s alright, Paintball. Hey.” Moving a bit, she gestured to show me that we were just in some kind of illuminated parking garage. “We’re back in Detroit, it’s okay. You’re safe.” Pausing to look at me, the other girl looked for a moment like she was going to say something important. In the end, however, she just carefully asked, “Are you okay? You were… you were shifting around a lot.”

Flinching at the thought of what I could have mumbled, considering the state I was in, I gave a short nod. It took a second to come down off my panic-high, but I finally found my voice. “Y-yeah, I’m good. I’m fine. I mean I’m not fine, but I’ll get over it. You…” Biting my lip, I looked to her. “You guys really saved me. I would’ve been dead without you. I would have died.” Just saying that out loud, even now that I was safe and totally out of that situation, made my heart beat faster while my throat went dry. The memory of Pencil pointing that weapon at me… I shook a bit, shoving the thought down into the basement of my mind before locking the door.

That-A-Way gave me what I knew was a practiced reassuring smile, the kind she used for making civilians feel better about a situation without scaring them. “I’m just glad we were there,” she informed me, before her eyes narrowed. “And as soon as you feel better, I’m hitting you again. Don’t you ever do that, got it? I will not be used as an excuse to let you go off on your own and get yourself killed. If you do, I’ll find a way to bring you back just to kick your ass.” 

Quickly, I held up both hands in surrender. “I know, I know. It was stupid. In my defense, I had no idea that the Scions were involved at all. I wouldn’t have–yeah, I know. It was still stupid. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want anyone else to get hurt because of me. I didn’t want to be–ow.” The last bit was because That-A-Way put her hand out to flick my forehead with one finger. It hurt. 

“Just don’t do it again,” she flatly insisted. “You need help, ask for it. That’s why I gave you my number in the first place.” Pausing briefly, the girl added in a slightly more subdued voice. “Seriously, Paintball, I’m glad you’re okay. I don’t know what…” She shook her head. “Just don’t be that stupid anymore. I really don’t want to find out you got yourself killed after all this. Especially if that thing you were talking about…” Stopping herself, she gestured. “Come on, let’s go.” 

Sliding out of the van after her, I looked around. We were, sure enough, in one of the parking garages downtown. I could see Skip off in the distance, wearing a backpack over one shoulder and talking to what looked like a security guard while Pack and Broadway stood off the other way next to the former’s cage full of lizards. As soon as Pack saw me get out of the van, she approached, leaving her teammate with the cage. “Good,” she started, “you’re awake. So what are we gonna do about everything you said?” Lowering her voice to being barely audible, she added, “Cuz I don’t know about Compass-Power here, but I really wanna know more. Especially if it involves my team.”

“And my team,” That-A-Way agreed, arms folded. “But we can’t really talk about it right now.” 

“Yeah, there’s not time,” I pointed out after stifling a yawn. “My parents are already–” Cutting that off quickly, I blanched before settling on, “I’ll meet both of you later this week, I promise. Just let me recover from all this and we’ll talk about what I know. We’ll figure something out. Especially about that… thing I mentioned with the mall.” Saying those last few words mostly under my breath, I gestured. “But seriously, like I said, don’t tell anyone.” I looked to That-A-Way. “No one on your team, none of the adult heroes. Not even the leaders. Not Caishen, not Brumal, and especially not Silversmith.” 

That-A-Way was squinting at me. “What do you mean, ‘especially not Silversmith?’ He’s not… no.” 

I met her gaze intently. “I’ll explain more later, I swear. Just… just don’t do anything you can’t take back. Telling anyone about this is gonna open a box that none of us can close again. The more people who know about it, the worse it’ll be. Later we can figure out who to trust, but right now, just…. don’t.” 

“And especially not Silversmith,” That-A-Way repeated pointedly, her gaze still locked on me. 

“Yeah,” I murmured, “especially not Silversmith. Like I said, I’ll tell you more later. I just can’t deal with this right now. Don’t talk to anyone about it. Please. This is just a lot to put out there right now.” Looking to Pack, I added, “Check on Eits for me? Make sure he’s still getting better. And I’m sorry about… about everything.” 

Pack promised to do so, before Skip approached. The Ten Towers Touched spoke in that same eerily calm voice of hers that actually helped calm me down, all things considered. “Steven won’t tell anyone we were here. I trust him to be discreet, he has been very helpful before.” Looking to me, she added, “How are your injuries? Will you be able to make it home?” 

Everything hurt, that was for sure. But the fact that I was alive and in one piece right then after everything that happened was honestly such a freaking miracle that it felt like I could’ve danced home. Okay, not really. Ow. Still, I’d get home. I didn’t really have much of a choice, even if the idea of trying to explain to my parents where I’d been was terrifying. “I’ll make it,” I confirmed. 

We said a few more things. I thanked all of them for going the extra however-many-miles to save my stupid life from Pencil. Then I left them. We all separated, and I headed out of the parking garage and out onto the street. Honestly, right then the last thing that I wanted to do was start jumping and running around. But I had to get back home, and first I needed to get to the place I’d stored my clothes on the way over to see Pack and Eits in the first place. 

Despite what I’d said about being okay, I was limping as I left the garage. Fuck. Shit. That hurt. Everything hurt. Getting knocked out by whatever that dart had been was bad enough, but the chase through the woods, getting hit with whatever that gun had been? That was rough. If I hadn’t had my orange paint on when that gun hit me the first time, what kind of shape would I be in now? Would I even be alive? I definitely wouldn’t be walking like this. 

Then again, the only reason I was even still here at all was because of Pack and the others. The four of them had gone out of their way to save my life. The fact that Pack and That-A-Way had put aside any differences they had to save me was enough on its own, but I barely knew Skip. I’d exchanged a few words with her, that was it. And I didn’t know Broadway at all. She was there because of Pack, of course. But still. The four of them had totally saved my ass. Without them, I wouldn’t be alive. I’d be dead. Dead. The thought kept reverberating throughout my mind while I used a bit of red paint to yank myself up to a roof so I could get out of sight. 

Dead. Without them, I would have been dead. Pencil would have killed me. Everything I’d done, and absolutely none of it would have mattered anymore because I’d just be… gone forever. I was only alive because other people had come to save me. People who I still didn’t trust with all my secrets. Or even most of them. 

Was I resisting telling anyone the truth about myself and my family to protect them, or to protect myself? Or worse, to protect my family. Was I so against letting anyone know what my family was because I was still keeping their secrets? What I somehow instinctively still siding with my family even as I outwardly sided against them?

Those thoughts bothered me as I walked across the roof. My hand was rubbing my chest where I had been hit. One of my ribs felt really bad, making me flinch and wince when I touched that spot. It did, at least, distract me from all those troubling thoughts about my motivations. 

Taking a breath, I used blue paint to launch myself out toward the next building. And I instantly regretted it. A shooting rush of pain went through my side and leg, and I basically ended up falling in a heap on the next roof, sprawling out gracelessly before curling into a ball with a groan of pain. Owwww.  

Right, this might have been worse than I thought. I really needed to get home, but running and jumping just wasn’t going to cut it. So, instead, I just used red paint to pull myself from roof to roof and orange paint to ensure that I didn’t land too roughly. Even simple landings that I never would have used the orange paint for any other time needed it. I was basically limping from roof to roof just to get to the spot where I had hidden my clothes. That was all I needed. I would change clothes and then call for an Uber. 

Wait. Call. My phones were both busted as far as getting a signal went. Sighing hard when that thought popped into my head as I hit another roof, I stumbled and half bent over. Nausea welled up in me and I had to fight the urge to throw up or pass out. Or both. After catching my breath, I took out both phones to check them again. Sure enough, still no signal. I was in the middle of town and yet there was no signal. Pencil had definitely not been exaggerating about what his little toy had done. 

Okay, still not the end of the world. I would change clothes and then use the phone at a gas station or something. I’d get a ride home and come up with some kind of excuse for how late I was if it came down to it. Considering it was about four in the morning at that point, I was relatively terrified about how my parents would react if they actually knew I wasn’t in bed. 

At least I had a couple people to help me with the mall problem. I’d had no idea how I was going to get into that secret underground place to find anything else out by myself. But with That-A-Way and Pack, maybe we could actually pull it off. And maybe I would actually manage to think of how much I could tell them. I’d already taken several huge risks with all that and they had come through every time. Pack had come to save me even when she was mad about Eits. She risked her life and the lives of her beloved lizards to save me. That-A-Way had willingly worked with villains to come help me. At what point was I just going to trust them with all of this, with the whole story? What was wrong with me? Part of it, of course, was genuinely wanting to protect them from the things my family could do. But by this point, how much of that was just an excuse? And who was I protecting more, them or my family? I was kind of afraid of what the answer to that actually was. 

Finally, I reached my hidden bag and looked around to make sure things looked clear before starting to change. And damn was that just the worst clothes changing experience of my life. Everything hurt so much. Just lifting my leg to put it into the hole of my jeans made me practically whimper. It felt like I was contorting myself into a pretzel simply by pushing my arms through the sleeves of my shirt and jacket. And I had to do it quickly, because the absolute cherry on the top of this shit day would have been someone spotting me standing on the roof in my underwear and bra. 

Hiding the bag with my costume once more, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to risk taking it home when I didn’t know what the situation there was, I got myself to the ground. After managing that without dying somehow, I did one thing with my personal phone to help sell any story I came up with before walking out to look for a phone to use. Thankfully, the guy in the nearby gas station didn’t raise too much of a fuss, and I was able to call a taxi. Then, while waiting for it, I noticed a guy skating past. An idea popped into my head, so I quickly flagged him down before offering him a hundred bucks for the board and another fifty for his helmet. He took it and, once he was gone, I stepped into the alley and slammed the board against the wall a couple times until I managed to almost snap one set of wheels off. I hit the helmet a few times too. 

Giving the driver instructions to an address a short distance away from my house, I slumped into the seat and exhaled while trying to think of a story I could tell that might actually help. 

Once again, I fell asleep almost immediately. The next thing I knew, the driver in front was clearing his throat and trying to politely wake me up. When my eyes opened, he nodded. “All set.” Pausing then, he added, “You sure you’re okay, kid? You look like someone threw you into a blender.”

Somehow, I managed a slight smile while paying him. “Just need to sleep.”

He gave me a thumbs up while I was getting out. “Well, you get on home and take a nap, son.”

Son. Yeah. Because that was really what I needed right then. Mumbling something but I didn’t even follow myself, I shut the door and shoved my hands into the jacket pockets before walking off. Son. Boy. God dammit. Yes, I had much worse problems than that. That was basically a pebble in my shoe compared to everything else. And yet, it hit me at just the wrong time. I was tired and sore and so much else had happened. Dropping my head as I shuffled along, I forced back the tears. No, they weren’t tears from what he had said. I’d been mistaken for a boy plenty of times. So many people thought I was a rather pretty thirteen or fourteen-year-old boy instead of a sixteen-year-old girl that it should not even have registered anymore.  

No, the tears were mostly about everything. Getting captured, nearly dying, seeing that picture and realizing that the dead boy had obviously been a friend of mine, all of it. Even the fact that I’d clearly missed Bobby by just minutes and now had no idea where else he could be contributed. All of it contributed, until I could barely keep the tears shoved down where they belong. God dammit, I was a girl, but I wasn’t some little baby. I was not going to start sobbing again. Not now. I was going to suck it the fuck up and keep going. 

On the plus side, I was very quickly distracted from any thought of crying. On the negative side, that distraction came because I turned the corner and saw both of my parents standing out on the front walk past the security gate. There was a uniformed police officer and several people in suits standing with them. All of them were in the midst of a really intense conversation.

A brief thought popped into my head that I should try to eavesdrop. But I just stood there, too tired and sore to do anything else by that point aside from dropping the skateboard and helmet off to the side on the grass. Spying could come later. 

Mom was the first to see me. She glanced away from the man she was clearly giving orders to, spotted me, and let out a loud, startled gasp. I saw the men turn, hands going quickly to what were obviously their weapons, while my dad looked up as well.

Then they moved, and just like that, both of my parents were right in front of me. Dad had me wrapped in a tight embrace that he immediately released when I yelped. Mom, who looked as though she was about to pull me to her, came up short at that, her eyes widening. “Cassidy?” As she said my name, her hand went out to gently touch my face with trembling fingers. It was like she was convincing herself I was really there. Dad had one hand on the side of my head, I could see his chin quivering a little before he got himself under control. It was clear that both of them were barely holding themselves in any sort of order. And the only reason they hadn’t already crushed me was that quick yelp when Dad had tried the first time. 

“Cassie,” Dad started then, his voice cracking a bit. Are you okay? What happened? Where have you been? You never came home after dinner, and… and you didn’t answer your phone.”

“Yes, Cassidy,” Mom agreed, looking as though she was torn between hugging me until I couldn’t breathe or choking me to achieve the latter effect immediately.

“What happened to you?”

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Fault 10-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Eits didn’t really find anything useful enough to share (other than letting me know he was still looking into it) over the next few days. Days that I spent doing things like practicing with my paint, getting accustomed to using my spiffy new wall-sticking shoes, and trying (failing) to figure out what the damn pink paint was used for. Aside from that last part, it went pretty well. I also spent some time helping Izzy get a new phone so she could call or text me. Or anyone else. 

So, I was doing okay on the whole practicing with the powers I knew about thing, still had no idea what was going on with the pink paint, was avoiding Tomas as much as possible without looking like I was avoiding him, and remained almost completely clueless about whatever the fuck was going on with Paige and her real father living on the inescapable prison island thing. 

The point was, pretty soon, it was Wednesday afternoon. I was going to visit the Seraph HQ in a few minutes. But first, I was determined to finish up at least one more of the pictures for the people who went to Amber’s party. She was waiting patiently for them, but I really needed to put a dent in the list. Not that that took too much time, considering how easy drawing suddenly was for me. But it took longer than it could have, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to use my actual paint on the pictures. No way would I risk leaving that kind of incriminating evidence about who I was. Instead, I had a pad that I was sketching the requested pictures in before inking them later. And coloring the ones for the people who requested and paid for that extra bit, eventually. 

So there was just one more I wanted to finish right now, a sketch of the guy in the picture (his name was Alan and he was a senior) doing a, ahem ‘sick flip’ on his skateboard off one of the castle-like towers of the Grand Army of the Republic building downtown (which was where I was now so I could draw it more effectively). Apparently he’d always wanted to do that but there was no way it would ever happen. So he paid for a drawing of it rather than do anything stupid like actually try. Which, well, kudos to him for thinking it through.

I was sitting cross-legged against the side of one of a nearby building’s brick chimneys. Yes, I was using my shoes to switch my gravity so that I could sit against the side of the chimney as though it was the ground, facing downward as I worked intently, drawing on the pad. With it in my lap, the pad seemed to be affected by the same change in gravity so it didn’t go flying away from me. Of course, I was in costume. Well, mostly. It was harder to draw with gloves, so I had those off as well as the helmet, with just the mask on underneath. I wasn’t sure exactly why I was drawing like this in costume rather than doing it at home or whatever, I just didn’t want to be home. Besides, I was heading to the Seraph base pretty soon. I just needed to finish this picture with a bit more detail on Alan himself as he came off the building. After all, what was the point of buying a picture of yourself doing something awesome if you couldn’t tell it was supposed to be you?

So intent was I on getting the boy’s face right, that the sudden sound and feel of my phone buzzing made me jerk in surprise. The pad fell a few feet to land on the roof below, and I quickly reached to my pocket. The call was coming in on my ‘work’ phone, so to speak. Taking a quick look to see who was calling, I said a few quick words aloud to make sure my voice changer was working right before answering. “Yo, Wr-I mean Trevithick. What’s up? Gotta say, these shoes–”  

Before I could say anything else, Wren quickly interrupted, sounding pretty wound up about something. “Paintball! Um, are you anywhere near MLK High? That place by Larned.”

“I know where it is,” I answered while hopping off the chimney to land lightly on the roof as I glanced over toward the nearby landmark building I’d been drawing a moment earlier. “I’m a couple miles away, by Grand River Avenue. Why, what’s going on? Are you okay?”   

“Oh! Oh, they might be going that way,” the young Tech-Touched blurted. “It’s on the news, there’s this red sedan, these two guys just grabbed a girl that was outside the school and now they’re driving down, umm… Uncle Fred, where–Lafayette. They’re coming your way on Lafayette but they might turn! The cops were chasing them, but they used a sonic cannon or something that blew one of the cars like a million miles away so they don’t dare get close. I think they’re trying to call in Touched for help but if the car gets out of sight they could disappear!” 

It took me a second to put that all together, but I was already using red paint to yank my helmet up. “Red sedan speeding everywhere running from cops and trying to hide, got it. On my way.” Thanking the girl and promising to call back, I disconnected while stowing the drawing pad in my nearby bag, hiding it out of sight, and slipping my gloves on. Then I took a running start, leaping off the building with a bit of blue paint to launch myself forward and up. Red yanked me toward the next building, and then my feet hit it, the shoes allowing me to run along the side without having to worry about putting more paint down to stay there. 

I’d been grateful for the shoes already, of course. But they meant more now than before. Thinking about some girl being grabbed by guys for… whatever reason made me push harder, using my mix of red, green, and blue paints to race along the sides and tops of buildings while scanning the road below. It didn’t take long to reach Lafayette, and I kept going that way. 

The kidnappers were using at least one Tech-Touched weapon. That didn’t necessarily mean they were Tech-Touched, just that they had access to it. A sonic based cannon was one of those things that popped up in the news now and then, often enough that I knew it was a black market thing. Hopefully, whoever these guys were, they’d just bought their weapon that way. 

But why would people with the kind of cash that it took to get and keep one of those things be grabbing some random high schooler? Unless she wasn’t random. Or unless they’d just found the weapon somewhere? Whatever, there were a lot of options and guessing would get me nowhere.

Of course, while I was running, my other phone went off. It was my actual Cassidy phone. I would’ve ignored it, except I’d already set the phone not to put any calls through that weren’t from my important contacts. Sure enough, when I took a second while running along a roof to unzip the pocket and glance at it, it was Mom on the phone. 

Pausing briefly, I weighed my choices. But in the end, I didn’t want to give them any reason to wonder about me. So I quickly deactivated my voice changer and answered the phone before starting to run again. “Hi, Mom!” I chirped, trying to sound normal. 

“Cassidy,” came the warm response, “I wanted–are you running?” 

I leapt from the roof of that building, windmilling through the air while replying, “Oh, uhhh, yeah. I–” My hand snapped out, shooting a bit of red that yanked me to another wall I could run along the side of. “You know, just trying to stay in shape. Beside’s, running’s fun. Sorry, I–” I flipped sideways off the edge of the building, landing on top of a signpost before using blue paint to launch myself up and forward, “–didn’t forget something, did I?” 

There was a brief pause before the answer came. “No, no, you did not forget anything, dear. As long as you’re okay?” 

“Yup!” I replied as cheerfully and simply as I could, doing my level best not to let her know that, at that exact moment, I was flying through the air as my red paint pulled me to another roof. “You know me, just can’t sit still for very long. What’s–umm, what’s up?” I nearly misjudged that particular landing, stumbling a little before catching myself. I really hoped this wasn’t going to be a long conversation. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t. Mom just wanted to ask me if I minded dressing up and going out for dinner the next night, since there was apparently some kind of award show at the country club that Dad needed to attend. I agreed, she made me promise not to run too much, and I disconnected the call (turning the voice changer back on, of course). Then I exhaled. Talking to my mother while doing all this… Paintball running and jumping stuff was nerve wracking. It felt like she could see me while I was talking, even though she couldn’t. Shaking that off, I focused on the task at hand. Namely, finding that car before they managed to completely disappear.

In the end, I didn’t actually have to look that hard to try to find the car. All I had to do was look for the news chopper in the sky. They seemed to be staying well back, probably to avoid getting nailed by that sonic cannon. But it gave me a general area to look in as soon as I saw the chopper hovering above one of the buildings about a mile from my starting point. And sure enough, as I landed against a billboard and stared intently toward the road, I saw it. The red sedan came screaming around a slow-moving semi, racing my way with a squeal of tires. 

Okay, right, I could do this. I could do it. There was an innocent girl in that car, I had to get her out of there, even if the idea of throwing myself at guys with access to at least one extremely dangerous Tech-Touched weapon made me want to whimper. I had to forget about how dangerous it was, forget about how easily a weapon like that could probably maim or kill me, and just… jump. 

I jumped, pushing off the wall into a backflip just as the car got close. They clearly hadn’t seen me yet, and I used just a touch of yellow paint to slow my fall right before the end, timing it just right. Which, again, was something I didn’t actually think about. It was kind of like when I’d been racing through the dark forest to get to Paige the other day. I’d just stopped thinking and knew where all the trees and bushes were, even in the darkness. Just like that, I didn’t stop to think about how to time my drop to coincide with the car’s passing, I just… knew how to do it. 

It worked. With the help of that bit of yellow, I landed perfectly in the middle of the passing car’s roof, falling slowly enough at that point that it only dented the thing in a bit. Sure, they really knew I was there by that point, but at least I didn’t just go right through the roof entirely or cave it in completely. Red paint yanked my hands down to stay on the car an instant later as it swerved hard to one side. Yeah, they definitely knew I was up there. So, without thinking about it, I painted the image of a man in purple armor holding an orange shield on my chest, activating the latter part.

Rolling quickly toward the passenger side, I popped my head down near the open window. “Hey, do you guys have any idea how fast you’re going?!” Using that moment, I took stock of the car’s occupants. Three guys and a girl. The only guy in front was the driver, with two guys in the back on either side of the clearly high school-aged girl. She looked maybe fourteen or fifteen, slim with short red hair. The guys all looked… well, normal. They weren’t wearing any kind of costumes or uniforms linking them to any of the Fell-gangs in town. Both the guys in the back had guns out. Not the sonic cannon, at least. They held regular handguns. 

Before they could react to my blurted words, I quickly pointed both hands (using a tiny bit of red on my chest to keep myself in place), hitting the girl with a pair of paint blobs. One was orange, and I activated it immediately, just in case this went south in the next few seconds. Hell, I didn’t know what these guys might do, but taking away their ability to just shoot and kill her that easily felt like a pretty solid idea right then.

As it turned out, it was me they wanted to shoot at. Both men in the backseat pointed their pistols my way, opening fire. They were silenced (the good Tech-Touched silencers that made the gunshots sound like soft coughs), but being quiet made them no less dangerous. I quickly jerked myself up despite the orange paint, not wanting to get hit at all if I could help it. They adjusted quickly and were already shooting up through the roof of the car as I used green paint to speed myself up, rolling backward to get off that spot while several bullets passed through it. 

Since I was near the back of the car, I slapped one hand down with red paint to keep myself in place. The driver was swerving all over the place, and I would’ve gone flying without that. As it was, my legs slid off the side, and one of the men clearly noticed because a shot hit one of them. The orange paint was still active, so it just stung a bit, but still. This wasn’t great. 

With a grunt, I jerked my legs back up onto the roof. Then I shot two more quick red blobs of paint ahead of us to the buildings on either side of the street. Another bullet from the assholes inside the car popped through the roof and rebounded off my shoulder. Which, ow. That was starting to hurt. I needed to handle this, right now. Especially before I ran out of paint. 

With that in mind, I activated the other paint blob I’d shot onto the girl a few seconds earlier. The non-orange one. It was white, and the car was suddenly filled with a blinding flash. As the people in there reacted, the car jerking to the side, I let myself slide right to the back window while activating the purple paint of the armored figure on my chest. Then I swung one leg back and drove my knee in through that rear windshield. The impact knocked a hole in the window, and I quickly threw myself in that way while everyone was still blinded and confused. Landing in the narrow space just above and behind the rear seat, I snapped my hands out to slap against the arms of either guy there. 

They reacted quickly despite being blinded, their guns pointing my way. But I was faster, activating the red paint I’d just slapped onto both of them. Linking them to the two spots of red I’d shot at the buildings we were now just barely passing, I sent both men flying out through the mostly-broken rear windshield with a pair of twin screams. 

But things weren’t exactly free and clear yet. The driver, who, despite being at least half-blinded by the white flash, still managed to flip the car’s autodrive on. That autodrive was now taking the car down an alley while the driver himself grabbed something and turned. The ‘something’ turned out to be a high-tech weapon that looked kind of like a futuristic silver and green sawed-off shotgun with oversized barrels. The sonic cannon, probably. 

Whatever it was, I did not want to get hit by it. To that end, I threw myself off the window area and into the backseat, landing basically in the kidnapped girl’s lap while lashing out with one foot. The purple paint was still active, so my kick actually broke the driver’s seat when it collided, knocking the man forward into the steering wheel just as he was trying to aim that weapon. It went off, the sound utterly fucking deafening in those close quarters. The blast blew the passenger side front door off, crumpling it up and sending it flying. Meanwhile, the collision of the man with the steering wheel took off the autodrive and the car suddenly veered in the other direction, slamming hard into the wall of the alley. The car stopped, I fell to the floor, the driver rebounded off the suddenly triggered airbag, and the kidnapped girl bounced off the back of the front passenger seat before her seatbelt yanked her back down. She might’ve been screaming. We all might’ve been screaming. But the deafening effect of that sonic cannon made it a moot point. 

Before the man could fire that damn thing again, I forced myself to pop up, snatching it out of his dazed hand. I threw the weapon out the shattered back window, then grabbed the girl’s hand. “Come on!” I shouted, though I was pretty sure she couldn’t hear me. I couldn’t hear me. But she had the basic idea anyway, squeezing my hand like it was a lifeline as I kicked one of the back doors open and pulled her out. It was time to get this girl out of there, before the driver recovered or either of those guys I’d sent flying caught up. 

Or not. Because as soon as the two of us emerged from the car, we found ourselves facing a whole group of maybe twelve men. And these guys didn’t look like the random criminals the ones in the car had seemed to be. All of them were wearing militaristic dark body armor and full face-covering helmets with white lab coats, and they were holding what looked kind of like submachine guns. But I was pretty sure those weapons did more than fire bullets. Because these weren’t ordinary thugs. They were troops who worked for Braintrust.

Well, I didn’t have to worry about one Tech-Touched gun anymore.

Because I was facing about a dozen of them instead. 

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Friends and Enemies 8-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay, so this was a nightmare. Great, just great. After everything, all the things we had gone through to keep this a secret, it turned out that the Seraphs actually knew that we had taken their device.

Whose bright idea was it to put competent people in these organizations? It was pretty annoying when it worked against me, I could say that much. 

For a few long seconds, I said nothing. What could I say? I just sort of stood there staring at the man while my brain ran the television test pattern. I think I may have even made a strange humming sound out loud to go with it. 

Hallowed, meanwhile, didn’t say anything either. He seemed content to simply watch me for the moment. My brain did run through a quick thought of what he was capable of if it happened to come down to it. From what I knew, he basically infused objects he held or touched with power that made them stronger, tougher, sharper, that kind of thing. 

Additionally, his very presence gradually empowered an area around him that made him stronger, faster, more all-around capable the longer he spent in it. The effect extended to a lesser degree to his allies and gradually hindered his enemies. In areas he spent a lot of time in, the effect lingered even when he wasn’t there. It would fade gradually if he didn’t return, but from what I understood, in the Seraph base here in Detroit the effect was strong enough that he was basically invincible there. 

So if we ended up having to fight, the solution was to get the hell away from him. Real good, Cassidy. You had to stretch far for that plan. Run away. Excellent. Five stars. Panicky stars running in circles. 

Finally, I managed a weak, “I suppose saying I don’t know what you’re talking about would be a bad idea.”

I heard a slight chuckle in the man’s voice as he replied, “Well, it probably wouldn’t get you very far. But the thing you should notice is that I’m talking to you right now, not doing anything more drastic.”

Despite myself, I gave him an actual thumbs up. “And don’t think I don’t appreciate that talking bit. That’s much better than attacking. I’ve had enough fighting lately to last me for a while.”

His head cocked to the side a little in what looked like curiosity, but he let that pass with a quiet, “Hmm.” Then he picked up his sword and sheathed it on his back. “Like I said, we need to have a chat, but that’s it, a chat. I want to talk to you about what happened and why you did what you did. I’ve got my own suspicions, and most of them are why we’re talking instead of anything more drastic. From what I’ve seen and heard, you seem to be a pretty good kid. So let’s talk about it.”

Considering my options for a fraction of a second, I ended up nodding. “Do you mind going up onto the roof where we have more privacy? I’m just more comfortable on roofs these days.”

“I can imagine,” the man replied before glancing up to the nearby roof. Nodding, he crouched a bit before leaping a good fifteen feet straight up. His foot caught the edge of one wall and he kicked off toward the opposite one, kicking up from there to reach nearly the top of the roof before one more jump got him there.

Briefly, I wondered if him going straight up there was his way of saying that he trusted me to follow, or that he knew I wouldn’t get away if I tried. Maybe both.

Either way, I extended a hand and used red paint to yank myself up after him. Once we were both on the roof, I glanced around before sighing. “So, how long did you know about it for?”

His response was a simple, “Basically from the beginning. At least, if you define the beginning as when you broke into the Taurus facility. Let’s just say one of our security people happened to notice something getting a maintenance check that didn’t need it yet. So we had a guy watching the facility and he saw you go in with your partner in… crime, sort of? Let’s just say he was a little confused when he saw you with one of Blackjack’s people. Asked if he should make an appearance, but I told him to hold off until we had more info. Because the last time I checked, you weren’t part of that group.” 

“I’m not,” I replied. “It was–” 

“A complicated situation,” he cut in. “I kind of guessed that. Which is why we waited a bit to see what happened. I’ve got to tell you, it was pretty close for a while. Our group was going back and forth on whether we should confront you or not, but every time you appeared in public, you were doing good things. Hell, we saw you going around buying sandwiches and stuff for homeless people. Made us wonder if that was all an act, but none of what you were doing had anything to do with that thing you stole. And La Casa didn’t seem to be using it either. Then one of our people went through the system for a seventh or eighth time and found out that your little friend left a backdoor, and even had a delivery notice set up to send the equipment back to our facility. The only thing missing was a date. Which meant that you were planning on returning it. That’s what made us decide to give you more time. Part of that was curiosity. We wanted to see what you were using it for. Some of our people had their own ideas, but we were all curious. Curious enough to wait and see. Lo and behold, we eventually heard what happened with that guy who stole from Blackjack. We also heard that something seemed to be controlling his movements. As you might imagine, the pieces fell into place fairly quickly then.” 

Biting my lip behind the helmet and mask, I slowly asked, “So you worked all that out just from watching and hearing about things? You guys are really good at your jobs, you know?” 

There was a smile in the man’s voice as he replied, “That’s why we have the job. Also, because we know when to back off and see what happens instead of jumping to a confrontation. That helps too. Which is what brings you and I here right now.” 

For a moment, I just looked at him. Then I exhaled and spoke carefully. “Right, you definitely figured out why we had to borrow it, and didn’t drop the hammer. I guess this is where I say thanks for not busting us? And sorry for taking your thing, even if it was only for a little while.”

“I am curious about why you didn’t just ask for it,” the man noted, “but I suppose you have your reasons. You had help from La Casa because you were doing all that for Blackjack’s kid. I get that, sort of. But does that mean you and them are partners now or something?” 

My head shook quickly. “Not partners. We were just… it’s complicated. But… mostly I just wanted to stop the war before it got a lot of innocent people hurt. All the gangs were going to rip the city apart looking for those vials, no matter who got in the way. And whatever kind of bad guy Blackjack is, his daughter didn’t deserve to die. I was helping him for her, not him.”

Listening as I said all of that, Hallowed gave a thoughtful nod before speaking. “Yes, that’s essentially the same reasoning we came up with, particularly considering your age. I mean, no offense, it’s just easier to believe that a…  someone young would compromise like that.”

“It’s just doing the best thing in a bad situation,” I muttered before folding my arms a bit uncomfortably. “So, what now? I mean, you already decided to let us borrow the thing and now you have it back. Or you will as soon as it gets delivered. So, what are we doing? I don’t think you showed up like this just to be like, ‘neener neener, we knew you had it all along, so there.’  Something tells me you’re not the type. So, like I said, what are we doing right now?”

“Right now?” he echoed casually. “Right now, we’re having a little chat while I decide what kind of person you are. Then, we’re going to talk about how you pay for borrowing our equipment.”  

I raised an eyebrow despite myself, not that he could see it. “I thought you just said you knew why we needed it, and you let it happen. You even have it back now. We returned it.” 

Hallowed’s head bobbed once. “Right on all counts. We did decide to let you keep it without throwing you to the wolves. And we do know why it was important. And it’s pretty much back in our custody. Which is a good thing, let me tell you. But this world runs on trade and negotiation. Especially between people like you and me. Things can’t always be free, or the whole system completely falls apart. You did a very good thing, but you also did something bad in order to achieve it. We’re not turning you in. We’re definitely not going to charge you what that thing is worth, even for a short rental period. You couldn’t afford it. What we are going to do is ask for a favor.” 

Slowly, I replied, “What is it with Touched and favors? The favor thing keeps coming up.” 

He actually chuckled a little bit. “True, you’ll have that happen a lot. Turns out that a lot of people with powers end up needing specific acts or bits of help here and there more than they need money. Even the Sell-Touched, a lot of the time. See, we can get money from plenty of places. But powers are a limited resource, not to mention the skill to use them. So, being Touched,  you’re going to find that most people want you to do something for them, not give them money. You’re also going to find that when the opportunity comes to secure such a favor, most won’t let it go. Not even if they’re definitely not holding a grudge and completely understand why you did what you did.” 

Considering that for a moment, I shrugged. “So, what you’re saying is that this is basically really gentle blackmail. You know something bad I did and you’re going to want something in exchange for letting that go.” 

“I’m saying some people will flat out blackmail you,” the man replied. “But I’m also saying that I don’t think we need to go that far. I think you’re a good kid who did the best he could. And I think you already want to make up for that. I think you already felt a little guilty about what happened. So, I’m going to give you the chance to make everything even. Hell, you might even get something out of it. Contacts if nothing else. We need your help with something, and if you work with us, you’ll never hear about the… borrowed equipment again. Call it a fair exchange.” 

A few things immediately leapt to mind that I wanted to say, but the truth was that he had a point. They didn’t have to let me get away with what amounted to temporarily stealing their very expensive item, no matter what my intentions had been. I’d done it for a good reason, but in an underhanded way. It was a very slippery slope, and he was giving me a chance to pay for borrowing it without making anything worse. Whether you called it a fair exchange or gentle blackmail, the result was the same. I could pay them back for the… rental, and have a clear conscience.

While I was working through all that in my head, the man waited patiently. He didn’t seem to be in any kind of rush, simply standing there watching me with an air of curiosity. Finally, I straightened and gave a short nod. “I won’t say I’ll do anything you ask, but I think it’s fair that we work something out.”

“Excellent,” Hallowed replied. He sounded genuine. “We have some ideas in mind, but why don’t you come in next week and we’ll see what we can set up. Let’s call it…  next Wednesday evening, around this time?”

“Come in?” I echoed. “As in come to the Seraph base?”

He nodded. “No need to try to be sneaky about it. The guard at the front will let you in. Unless, of course, you want to try your hand at getting past our security. That might be fun. And it could give our guards a little exercise to keep them on their toes.”

I coughed. “You know, I think I’ll probably just use the front gate.”

With a vague and wave of agreement, the man replied, “Well, if you change your mind, it could be interesting. Either way, show up Wednesday night. Or, if you run into something that keeps you busy, call this number.” His hand produced a card that he extended toward me. “Let whoever answers know who you are and that you’ll be delayed, or whatever. Sound good?”

I agreed, of course. What else was I going to do? Taking the card, I tucked it away. After that, there didn’t seem to be much else to say. So, I thanked the man for not being drastic about things before turning to hop off the roof, using a shot of paint to pull myself to the next one. A lot of thoughts were running through my head. 

Boy, I sure hope Hallowed and Deicide don’t call in their favors at the same time for opposite reasons.

That could get awkward. 

********

Needless to say, I went home after that, before anything else could happen. I needed a break. And I needed time to think about everything that had just happened. Was I going to tell Eits about it? He should probably know that the Seraphs were able to find the stuff he did to the computers, just in case. But I also didn’t want him to worry too much about it.

Either way, I made my way close to home, changed out of my costume in the nearby park restroom, then took a short walk (about fifteen minutes or so) to get back to the house. I didn’t use my powers or anything. The walk gave me a chance to think. 

Eventually, I made it to the fence and waited there for the security camera to point another direction. Just as I was about to hop onto the grounds, the gate nearby opened. Quickly ducking back into the bushes on the other side, I watched as one of my mother’s cars started to pull through. She was driving, and there was a man in the passenger seat. It was Mr. Jackson. The car stopped there partway through the gate and I could see them talking.

Great, I had paint that could silence people. Why didn’t I have paint that could let me hear what they were saying from far away. That would be super useful right now. 

Looking around to make sure the coast was clear, I glanced to the top of the fence and used a bit of blue to launch myself up and over, landing silently on the grass right below another camera. Then I painted myself black, all of my clothes, my face, everything. Waiting for the camera to turn again, I quickly and silently moved along the fence until I reached the corner of the gate near the car. There were bushes there that would cover me from the cameras. This was all a big risk, but I needed to hear what they were saying. I had to know if they were talking about me, or about Paige. 

As I pressed my back to the fence and stayed low, the sound of my mother’s voice reached me. “Leave her alone for now. It’s too much of a risk. Until we have our experts ensure no more copies of her files exist, we can’t move on the Banners girl.”

Right, okay, good. So Paige’s plan was actually working. Whenever evidence she had over my family’s organization, it was too much for them to risk it getting out. I still had no idea what it was or what the other girl knew, unfortunately. That was going to take a lot to get out of her. But I could at least relax a little bit with the assurance that they weren’t going to be jumping her any time soon. It gave me a little breathing room that I desperately needed. Especially if I was supposed to somehow make Paige confide in me. 

Mr. Jackson was talking. “I’m sorry, Elena. Everything was under control until the boy showed up.”

“Yes,” my mother agreed slowly, “this… Paintball has complicated things now and then. He is a bit of a concern, but we don’t believe he knows that much. It’s very possible the Banners girl reached out to him for help and he noticed your men abducting her. Which may mean that he knows more about you than he should. Keep your eyes open, and if the opportunity arises to find out exactly how much he knows…”

“I’ll take it,” Mr. Jackson confirmed. “Thank you for understanding, Elena.”

My mother gave a soft chuckle. “Of course, Kent. There’s far too much history between us for one problem to drive a wedge through our relationship. We will handle it, as we always do.”

The car started to pull out then, their conversation apparently over for the moment. The last thing I heard was one last sentence from my mother, as the vehicle pulled away. 

“After you erased such a traumatic memory from Cassidy’s mind, the least we can do is forgive the occasional misstep.”

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