Elena Evans

Patreon Snippets 25 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 25th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Paige and Sierra

The sound of bladed skates sliding across ice was joined by that of a hockey stick tapping the puck back and forth a few times as it was brought forward. Then a loud crack filled the air, followed by a solid whoomph as the puck was sent flying into the net just over twenty feet away. Almost all of the lights were off, leaving the ice rink only dimly lit. There was only one person out there. 

Well, two now. 

“Good shot.” As she said those words, Paige glided across the ice from the entrance onto the rink, joining her… sister (the fact that she was using a body that looked like Cassidy was confusing on multiple levels as far as that went) in front of the remaining pucks that had been lined up across from the goal. “But then, I suppose it would be.” 

“Pittman did program us to be good at all sorts of physical stuff,” Sierra agreed without looking up. She raised the stick, judged the distance and angle, then whacked the next puck hard. It bounced off the inside of the left post and ricocheted into the net. “And don’t you still have that whole school thing going on right now? Playing hooky your first day back seems like a bad idea. Were you that paranoid about what I was doing?” 

Paige addressed the latter point first. “Free period. Which you knew when you let me know where you were going to be. And I wasn’t talking about him.” As she spoke, the girl held her hand out for the stick. 

Sierra considered that before taking her next shot. After watching the puck hit the net dead center, she handed the stick over. “You’re talking about Irelyn.” She paused briefly, then added, “About how she brought you here and tried to teach you how to skate, and how to play hockey. Just because you mentioned liking those Mighty Ducks movies.”

“Us,” Paige corrected while lining up her own shot. With another loud track, the next puck was sent into the net. “You have all my memories of those times.” 

Shaking her head, Sierra pushed off and glided around in a slow circle along the ice. “Not really the same thing, babe. I wasn’t really there. It was more like reading a book or watching a movie for me. A movie I’ve completely memorized, but still. I wasn’t actually there experiencing it.” Another pause, then, “I mean, I wasn’t here, I guess. The point is, it’s not a real memory for me. It’s just something that was uploaded when I got… eh, shot into you, literally.” 

“Is that why you’re here?” Paige asked curiously, even as she lined up the next shot and sent the puck flying that way. “Trying to get some sort of personal context for that memory you inherited? Also, considering this place isn’t even supposed to open for another hour today, how much did you bribe the guy to let you in?” While asking that, she held the stick out that way. 

“Fifty bucks for half an hour,” Sierra replied. “Why, did you want me to get a receipt so I could pay you back?” Her hand took the offered stick as she teased Paige, quickly and efficiently lining up another shot so it would bounce back and forth between the front two posts a couple times with a loud ringing sound before going in the net. 

Snorting, the other girl shook her head. “Trust me, there’s a lot more where that came from. Too much, really. And considering the source, I don’t really care what happens to it. I just wanted to make sure you got your money’s worth. You know, since you don’t exactly have a lot of experience with buying stuff.” 

Sierra gave an exaggerated gasp. “Ohh is that why the waitress looked so happy when I handed her two thousand bucks for my meal? The bill probably said twenty dollars, but I just got so confused with the period before the zeroes for the coin amount.” 

“You’re hilarious,” Paige retorted flatly. “But uhh, Sierra, huh?” 

“Sierra Nevada,” the girl confirmed. “First name, last name. If anyone asks, my parents were eccentric. Which, if you ask me, is a step up from the truth.” That time, she pushed off and did a couple slow skating circles before taking another shot. “A pretty fucking huge step up.” 

Rather than respond to that immediately, Paige was quiet for a few seconds. And when she did respond, it wasn’t directly to that. Instead, she asked, “You remember when we… when I was sitting over there, the first time Irelyn brought us to this place?” Her hand gestured over to the bench behind the entrance gate, where people would sit and tie their skates on. 

“She thought you were nervous about being out on the ice,” Sierra murmured, her own gaze moving that way. “She gave that whole pep talk about trying new things and not worrying about being laughed at.” She glanced away with a small frown. “You were only partly listening. Mostly you were worried about looking too good on the ice. You had to hide all that perfect balance, aim, enhanced strength, and everything else that Pittman programmed into us, so you’d actually look like a normal kid skating for the first time. She thought you were afraid of skating and looking bad, but you were really afraid you wouldn’t look bad enough.” 

Paige was quiet once more, her gaze locked onto that bench in the distance as she played that memory out a few times. “You’re right, especially about the part where I wasn’t really paying attention to her. But then, why would I? As far as I knew, she didn’t really care about me being here anyway. I thought she was just going through the motions, doing what was expected of her as the ‘older sister.’ She was already literally disowned, I guess maybe I thought… I dunno, I thought she was just doing that because I might bring her back into the family once her dad was gone or… something.” Saying it out loud like that made her grimace. “Or looking better for her mother. Or for the public. Whatever, I don’t know. I just never considered it as… I never thought she was…”

Sierra’s skate lightly kicked the front of hers, making her look that way. “Never thought she was doing all that stuff because she really wanted to spend time with you? Never thought she really, genuinely wanted to get to know you?” 

“Never occurred to me,” Paige confirmed in a soft voice, wincing inwardly. “I always thought she was playing the role or making an angle for something in the future. And since I never expected to actually have a future in that family, I ignored it. I ignored her. Or, I mean, I ignored the overtures she made. I played the role like I thought she was playing it and… and just assumed she didn’t care beyond that. Back when we were stuck on the couch, when I heard about the Banners disappearing, I thought she might look into that. I thought she might look for them. You know, because they’re important people. And they’re her parents, even if they did disown her. Either way, I thought she might look for them. But me? Why would she look for me?” She turned a bit, her gaze moving from the bench across the way over to where Sierra was quietly watching her. “Why would she look for me?” There was urgency to her repeated question, her voice rising slightly. 

“Because she wasn’t going through the motions,” Sierra informed her flatly. “She wasn’t faking anything, wasn’t pretending. All that stuff she was doing, or trying to do, it wasn’t an attempt to look good, or convince you to bring her back into the family, or anything like that. It was about you. It was about her wanting it to spend time with you. Because she cared about you, dipshit. She was trying to treat you like a real sister. And now she’s looking for you like a real sister.” 

Paige thought about that for a moment, turning away to gaze into the distance without actually seeing anything in front of her. Her focus was directed inward, playing through memories with a different point of view. She thought of everything Irelyn had said to her in the past, everything she’d done, all the times she had invited Paige out to eat, or to an event, or just to spend time together. And she thought of all the times she had used any excuse to get out of it. 

“Fuck,” she finally muttered. 

“Yeah, pretty much,” Sierra agreed. “And now she’s out there in trouble because she wouldn’t stop looking for you. Well, for you and for the parents who disowned her in the first place. Even after we sent her on a wild goose chase, she somehow managed to track something all the way to one of Pittman’s actual labs. Or one of his biolems found her. Or–fuck, I don’t even know. We sent her to Florida, the other side of the fucking country. How the hell did she manage to get anywhere near anything important to Pittman? How’d she manage to end up on Breakwater, for fuck’s sake?” 

Paige took in a breath before letting it out. “I guess we’ll have to ask her, once we get her away from that place. Once we….” She trailed off, words turning into a heavy sigh. 

“Once we actually have a plan for how to do that,” Sierra finished for her. “You know that’s easier said than done, right? This is Breakwater we’re talking about, not just some random prison. The whole point is that it’s supposed to be impossible to get anyone out of there. It–”

“I know!” Paige blurted. “I know it’s going to be hard. Hell, I know it’s going to be practically impossible. But we have to. I mean I have to. I’m not gonna make–I mean–” She blanched, folding her arms as she stood there on her skates. “I’m not gonna force anyone else into anything stupid. But I have to get Irelyn off that island. Her and Trivial too. They were trying to help me. They–she… Irelyn’s there because I sent her on a wild goose chase, and then she actually found real danger. Now she’s a Star-Touched in literally the worst possible place on the planet for her to be. They both are. It’s my fault they’re there, and I have to help them. I have to help her.”

“And then what?” Sierra asked. “I mean, not to completely skip past the impossible part of getting them off that island, but assuming we manage that, what will you do next?”

After a brief pause, Paige admitted, “I don’t know. Honestly, I have no idea. I know I want to talk to her. I want to ask… why. You know, why she actually cared so much, why she tried so hard to find me, and why she wanted to get to know me. I want to ask her why it mattered to her. She was already gone from the family when I was ‘adopted.’ They kicked her out, disowned her, then took me in. I was her replacement. Why wouldn’t she be angry about that? Why wasn’t she angry? Why did she want to know me? Why did… just… why?” She had unfolded her arms by that point, putting her hands up against her forehead. “I don’t understand.” 

With a loud crack, Sierra sent the last puck into the net. “Speaking as someone with a unique perspective, considering I have all those memories but it wasn’t me experiencing them, maybe she was trying to be what she wished she had.” She pushed off and started to skate over to the goal while adding, “I mean, when she was younger. She knows exactly what growing up in that family was like, how demanding her parents are. She went through it and she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Maybe she was trying to be the sister she wished she had. And maybe she kept trying so you’d always know she was there if you needed someone. Even when you barely paid attention, she still–you know, wanted to be in your memory. Just in case you ever opened up.”

Paige didn’t respond to that at first. She ran the words through her head a few times along with her own memories. Memories that she knew the other girl was running through as well. Finally, she repeated her earlier, “Fuck.” That was followed by an enthusiastic, “Damn it, damn it! She gives a shit. She really, genuinely gives a shit. And we just–I’m sorry, I mean I just wrote it off like she was playing a role. Maybe because that’s what I was doing all the time. I don’t know. But like I said, I have to get her out of there. And then tell her the truth. At least about myself. I have to tell her about me, and why all of that happened. She deserves that much. Deserves to know what was really going on, what her parents wanted, what my–yeah. And if she’s repulsed by that, if she wants nothing to do with me once she knows what I really am, then… then fine. But she needs to know.”

“Let’s focus on getting her out of there,” Sierra replied, while giving the pucks one light smack after another with the stick to send them out of the net and back that way. “We can worry about the details about what we’re going to tell her once she’s not trapped on an island full of the worst supervillains who have ever been imprisoned.” 

“We?” Paige echoed, glancing that way curiously. 

Sierra opened her mouth, then hesitated. “I mean, yeah that might get kinda complicated.” She glanced down at herself with a slight grimace. “She knows Cassidy. So this…” Her hand gestured up toward her face. “This might not work. So yeah, maybe you should talk to her yourself. But fuck it, I’m still gonna help get her off that damn island.” 

Paige nodded slowly in agreement. “That’s the part that matters right now. We can figure out the rest of it later.” She bit her lip, a guilty flush crossing the girl’s face. “Maybe you can help me come up with an idea of how to start making up for sending her on the wild goose chase that landed her and Trivial on Breakwater to begin with.” That tone of disbelief that such a thing had actually happened was still apparent in her voice. 

For a few long, silent seconds, the two of them stared at one another. Finally, Sierra broke that silence with a quiet, “She brought you here. She taught you how to skate and play hockey. Or tried to, anyway. She did all that stuff, because she really… she actually cared.” 

“She went looking for me because she cares,” Paige put in, her own voice equally soft. “She turned a total wild goose chase all the way down in Florida into a one-way trip to Breakwater just because she wouldn’t give up trying to find me. And the parents who disowned her. She did all that because she really cares about me. She was trying. She was really, genuinely trying, and I just–” Cutting herself off, the blonde girl sighed heavily once more. “Can I see that?” Raising her hand, she held it out and waited until Sierra had silently passed her the stick. Then she lined up a shot on one of the pucks, staring down at it intently for a long moment of contemplation. “When she’s off that island, I’m gonna bring her back here.” She paused, then looked over. “We. We’ll bring her back here.” 

“We?” Sierra raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that complicated?” 

“We’ll get you a better disguise or something, I dunno.” Paige shrugged. “What I do know is that you have my memories. You’re part of this too. If… if you want to be.” She waited until the other girl gave a slow nod before continuing. “We’ll figure it out. But whatever we have to do, whatever happens, we’re bringing her back to this place.” 

With that, she raised the stick and snapped it down. The puck was sent flying not into the net, but off the left bar. It rebounded backwards through the air, before Paige smacked it with the stick once more, swinging the thing like a bat. The puck was sent forward to bounce off the right bar, coming back toward her. Once again, she smacked it that way, making it rebound off the top bar that time. From there, it flipped up, end over end through the air before coming down neatly on the fat end of the hockey stick that Paige was holding out sideways. 

“And maybe we’ll be the ones teaching her some stuff next time.”

*********

Aftermath Of A Joyride (Continuing the NON-CANON storyline from chapters here, here, and here)

Most of the general public would have been disappointed to see the utter mundanity of the room that the collective leaders and second-in-commands of the various Star-Touched groups of Detroit were meeting in. Most anyone, upon hearing that such an important and powerful people were gathering together to make big decisions, would almost certainly have pictured a grand room with walls of solid steel, high-tech displays along every wall, a massive table in the center of the room projecting a holographic map of the city and surrounded by chairs with each Star-Touched’s name and symbol emblazoned across the back, and possibly even more amazing things. 

In truth, however, they met in an average conference room on the third floor of a local police precinct. The smell of old coffee and stale donuts filled the room, which itself consisted of a heavily-cracked linoleum floor, wooden walls that had seen better days, and a tiled ceiling that probably needed to be replaced soon. It was furnished simply by a couple wooden tables and an assortment of metal folding chairs, as well as an old podium near the front, next to an actual chalkboard.

Silversmith was standing at the front by that podium. Beside him was a plainclothes police detective who was murmuring a bit in his ear, while Flea stood on the opposite side, flipping through messages on her phone. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the room, Brumal and Trivial from the state-sponsored team known as the Spartans, Caishen and Skip from Ten Towers, and Hallowed and Lucent from the Seraphs were scattered and engaged in their own private conversations with one another, or looking through their own phones. 

Finally, Trivial looked up from the file she had been glancing through and cleared her throat until Silversmith looked at her. Once he did, she asked, “So are we going to get this show on the road or what?” Straightening up in her costume consisting of purple scalemail armor, a black hooded cloak, tan pants, and a purple helmet with black visor, she gestured toward the nearby (somewhat stained) window. “You know, before the bad guys out there get the idea that we’re all off the streets and start acting like kids whose parents went out of town for the weekend.” 

Beside her, Brumal (also wearing her own standard costume of blue and white camo, a tactical combat helmet with an interwoven mesh covering the rest of her face, and bright blue lenses over the eyes) gave a short nod. “She’s right. Blunt, but right. If we’re going to discuss the situation, we should get into it.” 

“You mean discuss Joyride,” Flea put in. The futuristic ninja/samurai-clad woman put her phone away while adding, “And what exactly we’re going to do about her.” 

“Ahem, what are we planning on doing?” That was Lucent, perched atop the edge of a lamp on one of the tables. “Thus far, the girl has not overtly harmed anyone. In point of fact, she has aided us by exposing a quite… negative influence within our own Minority team.” 

“Whamline,” Silversmith muttered, giving a nod toward the plainclothes man nearby. “Detective Lanner here was just filling me in on what they’ve found so far. Apparently they have enough evidence to officially charge the boy with a few different murder counts, now that they started digging. More might be coming, we’re not sure yet. I won’t give into the details right here, but I’m having him send the files to each of you.” He paused before continuing. “But of course, we’re not here to talk about Whamline. This is about Joyride herself.” 

Skip, wearing her blue-black bodysuit with a short-sleeved white robe including a hood over her hair and a black cloth mask over the bottom half of her face, spoke up in her typical calm, nearly-emotionless voice. “She exposed the boy as the dangerous psychotic that he is. In our book, that makes her more of an ally than a threat.”

Beside her, the woman in black boots, dark gold pants with black lines running down them, purple scalemail armor covered by a gold leather coat, and a black metal helmet with purple lenses shook her head. She was Caishen, Skip’s own older sister and team leader. “She also decided that Lightning Bug is her archenemy,” she pointed out quietly. Her voice was very slightly strained as she added, “And Bug is very excited about that fact.” 

Silversmith took a breath before gently pointing out, “She doesn’t seem to have any intention of harming your daughter, considering she… summoned you to help the girl rather than leave her alone out there after their… confrontation.” Though his face was sealed behind that metal armor, they could hear the smile in his voice. Everyone in the room had seen the recording of the ‘fight’ between Lightning Bug and Joyride, and how little actual danger either had been in. It was far more of an imaginative play-fight than anything else. 

Hallowed, in his bright golden armor and metallic wings, spoke up while folding his arms across his broad chest. “Can we talk about that whole ‘summoned her’ bit? Because that’s what concerns me. It sounds like this little kid managed to teleport the leader of a Star-Touched team all the way from one side of the city to the other with a snap of her fingers. She didn’t have time to set something special up at the time, so she must have had that in place already. Does that mean she could teleport anyone anywhere? Could she hit a button right now and teleport all of us in this room to Kansas? Or worse if she ever decides to be more violent? So far she hasn’t really hurt anyone, but she obviously could. She has that teleportation tech, and the…” He paused as though unable to believe what he was saying. “The giant robot dinosaur.” 

“Toto,” Lucent put in. “She called it Toto.” 

“Yes, Toto,” Brumal flatly confirmed, head shaking. “The girl has run circles around everyone who encountered her, stolen anything she wants, and demonstrated the ability to transport other people at will, as well as use a giant robotic dinosaur as a direct threat. If she intended to do real harm, we would be in trouble.” 

“But that’s the point, isn’t it?” Trivial put in. “She obviously doesn’t intend to do real harm. She’s been really gentle with everything she’s done, considering what she’s capable of. And she sent Lightning Bug’s mother to pick her up. It’s obvious that she’s intentionally holding back. She wins, but she doesn’t hurt anyone. And like we were just talking about, she exposed a murderer inside the Minority.”

“She would be an incredible asset on our side,” Silversmith pointed out, his tone curious. “If we could somehow convince her to stop stealing things, can you imagine the amount of help she’d bring to the city? Just being able to transport our people anywhere they needed to be instantly, as soon as trouble came up, all by itself, would completely revolutionize our work here in Detroit.” 

Hallowed shook his head. “Except she’s never shown any interest in helping us. Not beyond exposing Whamline or making sure Lightning Bug wasn’t left by herself with those criminals. She’s been pretty clear that her motivation is to steal things.” 

“She steals from the rich, from corporations and wealth-hoarders,” Trivial pointed out. “Should we really give that much of a shit?” 

Coughing, Caishen replied mildly, “Those corporations are a large part of why Detroit has progressed as much as we have in the past twenty years. If they begin to see the city as not safe enough, they will take their business elsewhere. We cannot have her running completely amok and doing whatever she wants.” She paused briefly, before adding, “That said, my daughter likes her. And is very… enthusiastic when it comes to the idea of being her archrival. And I do believe she does not mean to harm anyone.”

Lucent straightened up on his perch. “Thus, what we have before us is the question of what to do about a young girl who is clearly physically capable of much worse harm than she has ever engaged in. She intentionally holds back, while using the bare minimum force necessary for her to achieve her… goal of stealing from what she considers acceptable targets. What do we intend to do about that, precisely? We have proven inadequate at stopping the girl thus far, and I believe that escalating force to the level required to capture and detain her would cause more of a problem than it would solve. I, for one, would prefer to convince her to curtail her criminal efforts in exchange for compensation leading toward mutual benefit.”

“You mean you want to pay her not to steal things,” Brumal put in, giving the TONI bird a long look. “Would she be a salaried employee, or would we simply do it on a contract-basis? Say, find a list of places we would prefer her not to steal from and pay a flat fee for each?” 

“Your sarcasm is noted,” Silversmith informed her. “And yet, with some adjustments, is that such a bad idea? Surely the companies involved would be willing to pay for such… insurance against being directly attacked, and if such funds were pooled, it would be enough to pay this girl under what we could refer to as a mercenary contract for protection. Shift her from a Fell-Touched to a Sell-Touched and pay her for security against threats to these locations. We wouldn’t technically be paying her not to steal from them, we would be paying her a ‘security fee’ to… protect those locations. Including targets she herself might have hit. Those would appear to be our two options. We either escalate force beyond what she herself has demonstrated to reach a level of being able to potentially contain her, or we make an offer to cease her criminal efforts and attempt to eventually negotiate that into actual cooperation.”

“A vote then?” Lucent suggested. “A raised hand–or wing as the case may be, if you prefer escalating force against a newly-emerged juvenile Tech-Touched who has made a clear effort to avoid harming anyone.” He glanced pointedly around the room, waiting until no one had raised any hand. “Ahem, and a raised hand or wing if you prefer attempting the diplomatic approach.” 

Silversmith raised his own hand, then watched as the others all did the same, including Lucent with one of his wings. Then he smiled behind the helmet. “Okay then, now let’s get into specifics. We’ll contact each of the companies who have expressed concern and see what they’re willing to offer.” 

“Ah, how do we pass that offer onto the girl herself?” Trivial asked. “I don’t think she left her number lying around.” 

Caishen spoke flatly. “Something tells me that won’t be a problem. It won’t be long before Joyride makes a spectacle of herself again.

“And personally, I find myself… disturbingly curious to see what happens when she does.” 

*********

During The Ministry Base Incursion 

The short, unassuming man stood just a hair over five foot seven, and would have been considered very slightly underweight. His short brown hair and hazel eyes were incredibly average, and he wore glasses with thin metal frames, as well as a simple suit of moderate worth and fit. Not too expensive, yet not too cheap. His job was to blend in. He was known as Alcazar, the word for a Spanish fortress or castle. One of the top lieutenants within the Ministry, his job was to attend to the security and protection of their various facilities throughout the state of Michigan. 

At that particular moment, Alcazar was sitting at his desk in an office in downtown Detroit. It was very late at night, but that was normal for him. His typical schedule found the man sleeping during the day, as most of his work was done at night. Night was when people tended to attempt to cause problems. He would sleep from roughly eight in the morning until early to mid afternoon, then spend time with his family until seven or so before making his way to one of his offices to start his actual job. It was a little after midnight just then, and he was looking forward to the next day (or later that day, rather), when he would cut his sleep short in order to visit his youngest son’s school to watch the boy perform in a play. Eleven-year-old Karl was incredibly excited about his part, even if it wasn’t a leading role. It was still important, and he had extracted a firm promise from his father (who he believed to be an architect) about being there. 

Alcazar had made arrangements to leave the office a bit early that day, getting home by five or so just to have enough sleep so he could enjoy the play and then take his wife out to lunch. That would be in another few hours, and he needed to get all the work he could done by then. Sitting at his desk, he flipped through a folder while typing an email to one of their contractors, arranging for a new shipment of steel beams for Project Carpenter. Very few people in the Ministry were aware of the colony of Touched Termites that had been brought into the city, but he was one of those few. And he worked directly with their spokesman (spokesbug?) in gathering the proper resources, providing them what they asked for. Which, in this case, was more steel for the termites to melt down with their fog-breath and then convert into a larger amount of the stuff for building purposes. Specifically, for building the structures within the city that the Ministry was contracting them to build. 

In the midst of his work on that, his nearby cell phone, sitting silently on the desk next to a pile of folders, abruptly went off. It rang audibly rather than buzz, which meant that it was coming from one of the few numbers he had programmed into the phone to bypass his normal silent mode. And that would only happen if this was an emergency. 

A slight frown found its way to the man’s face as he reached out to answer the phone with a simple, “What happened?” 

The words he heard made the man immediately stand, almost knocking his chair over in the process. “What? Right now? How many? Lock down. Get everyone there. Alpha level priority. Have you contacted White and Gold? Do it, right now. Interrupt the play.” Even as he spoke, Alcazar was plucking a separate phone from his pocket, rapidly texting one of his contacts. “Are they still in the building? Then lock down the entire area. Get a chopper in the air. Who’s close? Yes, move that one over. Find the spot where they started from and be there to meet them when they evac. Do everything you can to hold them in that building until I get there, but be prepared to track them if they escape.”

Taking the phone away from his ear, he held the second one up to the opposite side and spoke. “Yellowbrick, I need a walkway. Yes, there.” He waited for a moment then before getting the go-ahead. Once that came, the man opened the door of his office. Beyond was what appeared to be a black void and an amber-colored path leading out into nothingness. Without missing a beat, he walked straight out onto the path. As always when doing this, the void itself felt cold, though not to the point of being a problem. It was like a chilly wind that made one hunch in on themselves a bit. Or typically did. In the current situation, he barely noticed. 

Striding quickly along the bridge through that void, the man made it precisely thirty feet. It was always thirty feet, no matter what the actual distance between the two connected doorways happened to be. Whether Yellowbrick was creating a path between two doors in the same building, from one building to another in the same city, or between two different continents, the bridge through the void was always precisely thirty feet. The void itself seemed to go on much further, as did the bridge. It extended off seemingly endlessly. But after walking that thirty feet (and only after walking, it wasn’t visible before), a new doorway appeared in front of the man. It was the door into one of the supply closets within the Ministry’s base under the local mall, and he didn’t break stride at all before reaching out to grab the knob and pull it open as he stepped through. From an outsider’s point of view, it would have looked as though he was simply stepping out of the closet, as they wouldn’t see the void and bridge behind him. Yellowbrick’s paths were only visible and accessible to people she wanted them to be visible and accessible to.

The very instant he was in the base (stepping into one of the secondary labs where an unconscious Ministry security guard lay on the floor next to an overturned chair), Alcazar activated his power. He had no idea whether the intruders were still inside or not, but there wasn’t time to waste finding out. As soon as he focused on his gift, the man could see the effects. The small lab around him shifted, the floor, walls, and ceiling turning somewhat fuzzy and wobbling like jello for a brief moment before completely transforming. The floor became beaten and cracked old wood, while the walls and ceiling were made of intricately carved stone. The door behind him, leading into the closet, became an ancient wooden type with a metal latch. The view through that half-open door revealed not the closet it was supposed to be or Yellowbrick’s void, but a set of stone stairs leading down. 

The stairs would go nowhere. Or, more to the point, they would go everywhere. They would lead to a corridor, or another room, which itself would lead to more corridors and more rooms. That, in essence, was Alcazar’s power. While he was using it, the structure he designated (the Ministry base, in this situation) would physically transform into the interior of a medieval castle or fortress. Not a specific one and never the exact same. More importantly, space itself was twisted and expanded within his affected area. Even if he only used it on a single room, the resulting castle interior would appear to stretch on forever. Every hall would lead to a new room, every new room to a new hall. No matter how far one walked, no matter how many doors they went through, there would be more and more in front of them. Eventually, they would loop back around to where they started. You could walk straight for a solid mile of corridors and rooms, go up six different flights of stairs at six different locations, then pass through a final door and find yourself right back where you had started from, height differences be damned. 

Alcazar and those he designated were the only ones who could properly navigate and leave the affected area. Now, if the intruders were still inside, they would be trapped. There would be no escape. And they would be answering questions very soon. 

The moment his power clicked into place, Alcazar walked through the opposite door, which would have led into the main hall adjacent to the stairs leading out of the base. Now it was about twice as wide as it should have been, which was right. There was also a hole in the wall near the base of the stairs, which was wrong. As soon as he saw that hole, Alcazar strode that way. It had to have been there before his power took effect. The hole wasn’t a normal part of the structure, so his power hadn’t taken it into account. It had built around it. 

Looking into the hole, he saw several of their security people attempting to dig through what had apparently been a cave-in about twenty feet in and upward. Undoubtedly intentional by the intruders to block pursuit. 

“Hold,” he ordered, before sticking his hand through the hole to touch the dirt. This tunnel wasn’t great for him. His power worked best on established buildings. With a bit of extra effort, he could affect something like this, but only within the immediate area he could see. Still, it would help somewhat. As his hand touched the dirt wall, the man released his focus on the rest of the base. Behind him, it reverted back to its normal condition (aside from the hole). Meanwhile, this area of the tunnel became another castle corridor. The area the guards were trying to dig through was transformed into a full-sized room. The dirt and rocks from the cave-in were still there, but the room was large enough for them to simply move around all of it. About ten feet past that room, the effect of his power faded and it became ordinary dirt once more. 

“Go,” he ordered the men. “Catch up with them if you can.” That was all he said, all he needed to say. Before the words had even finished leaving his mouth, the men were off and sprinting. 

Turning away from the hole, Alcazar took one of the phones from his pocket as it buzzed. “Yeah. Bring the chopper in from the east, sweep across the mall lot just in case they popped up there, but I think they started from further back.” He paused briefly, then grimaced. “The construction site across the street, where they’re building the hotel. It’s been shut down for awhile. Focus there. Send the call to get our people over there right now.” 

Without another word, he disconnected the call. At nearly the exact same instant, the phone rang in his hand. Rang, not buzzed. A single word was displayed on the screen. No number, just a name. White. Minister White. She’d gotten the message, apparently. 

“Yes, ma’am,” Alcazar answered. “Yes, I’m here. They’ve already left. The troops are in pursuit, through a tunnel leading to what I believe is the motel construction site. Yes, we have a police helicopter diverting there right now, eta twenty seconds. I have people loading up in a few of our cars to head them off above ground as well. Absolutely. We’ll have a full sitrep for you when you get here. I have no idea what they took, I was about to look into it. Yes, ma’am.” 

That was the end of the call, so he disconnected before looking back the way he had come. Unconscious figures littered the hall, and the rooms around him. Whoever this was, whoever had broken into the Ministry’s base, they had come in here for something. But what? 

More importantly, who the hell were they? This attack came out of nowhere. The Ministry was… well, not quite totally peaceful. But they were secure. Every Fell-Touched gang in the city either worked directly for them, or paid tribute to them and had enough informants within who would rat out anything like this. Well, almost every Fell-Touched gang. There were the Scions, but this wasn’t their style. Leaving everyone alive? They’d never do that. 

So again, who in this city had taken the time and care to secretly tunnel into the Ministry base, steal things while leaving everyone alive, and then leave? Whatever the answer, whoever they were, Alcazar was certain of one thing.

They were just getting started. 

*********

Sterling and Elena 

Standing on the edge of the road where the group who had invaded the Ministry base had gone sliding out of control and into the water beyond, Sterling Evans watched divers attempting to search the submerged wreck for anything useful. Raising his gaze toward the sky, he saw two helicopters combing the banks in either direction, their spotlights scouring for a sign that the intruders had come ashore. More of the Ministry’s people were searching surrounding neighborhoods, talking to potential witnesses, digging through anything and everything they could find. 

There wouldn’t be much. He knew that. This hit was too well-coordinated, too perfect. This wasn’t an amateur outfit. They knew what they were doing, and had the training, equipment, and skill to pull it off without getting caught. How long had they been working in secret, building that tunnel leading straight to the mall? Weeks? Months? They had gone completely undetected, despite the security measures the Ministry had in place. Which meant they had been quiet, somehow digging that entire tunnel without making any more vibrations than cars passing overhead. And that implied powerful Touched-Tech, a surprise considering the Ministry themselves owned the only purely Touched-Tech group in the city, as well as the company responsible for transporting it safely. If such machines had been delivered or ordered here, he would have heard about it. 

This raised… many questions. 

Stepping up beside him, Elena watched the water in silence for a moment. The two of them, to everyone else in the area, would look quite different than they appeared to themselves. Thanks to Elena’s gift, others would see him as a bald man who resembled Principal Strickland from Back To The Future, while Elena had made herself a near dead-ringer for the character of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. 

After standing there with him in contemplative silence as they watched their people work for several moments, Elena quietly spoke. “It was an excellent play, at least.” 

She was right, of course. The play had been excellent. At least, as much as they’d seen of it. The lead had been one he’d kept an eye on from back when he was still barely more than a background player, and Sterling’s early faith that the man had strong potential had not been misplaced. Through his life, even as a near-nameless accountant for the Russo mafia under his now-wife’s father, Sterling had had a way of predicting potential. To him, potential was a combination of natural talent, drive, and a bit of luck. The first two were what he looked for when it came to investments. Luck was something he could manufacture for them. A word in the ear of a basketball recruiter to visit a certain high school to see a student who would have gone unnoticed, leading to a starring role on an NCAA drive to a state championship, a moderate donation to the science lab of a university in order to ensure that a brilliant geneticist had the funding they needed to continue the research that had eventually led to saving many lives. Those and far more examples, many as subtle as bringing the right two people together at the right time, had allowed his life to progress to what it now was. 

Sterling knew he was lucky. He had no doubt about that. His brilliant, beautiful wife, his strong son, amazing daughter, and now potentially a second daughter whom he was coming to care about as much as his own biological children. A life as charmed as his had taken a lot of work and sacrifice to reach this point, but it was all worth it. As close as they had come to losing it several times, particularly when it came to Elena’s father, and yet they had come through on top. 

Whatever it took, he would protect his family. He would continue to build this empire, would continue to strengthen and solidify it. When the time came, he wanted his children, all three if Izzy agreed to be adopted, to have the best possible foundation. He would, at some point, pass the keys to this kingdom to the three of them. And then he would see just how far they could take it. As solid as the Ministry was, as strong as it had become, he had no doubt that his children could take it further. They were who he built all of it for. Together, his family would create a legacy that would shape the state of Michigan, and far beyond, for a long time to come. 

Bah, he was getting ahead of himself. And perhaps swelling too much with pride for his family. It was far too easy to let his thoughts and hopes run away, like a poor child being dragged along by an overly-excited dog on a leash. He sounded arrogant to his own thoughts, which wasn’t his intention. He simply… wanted his family to build something truly lasting, something that could be passed down through their generations. As more and more superpowers emerged, as the world grew into this new era, things would change quickly. 

The truth was, Sterling Evans believed that it would not be long (relatively speaking) before states across the country, and even countries across the world, began to break up into smaller territories. Kingdoms of a sort, smaller areas protected by powerful Touched. The militaries and governments themselves simply could not keep up with so many random citizens gaining often incredibly destructive powers. There was no test they had to take, no money to be paid, no qualification in wealth, race, gender, orientation, or any other thing that had previously been used to prevent one group or another from gaining power. It could happen to anyone anywhere. 

Thus, Sterling believed that the old rules of society, of government power, would gradually break down as more and more people who would previously have been considered ‘nobodies’ or ‘inconsequential’ gained true power. He believed that the government’s power would fail, and far more localized fiefdoms, of a sort, would rise. That was the entire point of the Ministry. That was their endgame, to have this structure in place so that when the inevitable collapse of government came, they would still be there in its place. They would keep Detroit, and Michigan beyond, safe and prosperous. 

And that goal was why he would not allow whoever this group was, whatever their intentions might have been, to escape judgment and punishment. If other groups, other organizations, saw that the Ministry could be hit like that, they would become emboldened. An example had to be made. They would be found, dealt with, and everyone would see that the status quo would be maintained. 

Whoever was behind this attack would find themselves regretting it, Sterling promised himself. Whatever their endgame, whoever they were, wherever they had come from, he would make an example of them. Every gang, every snake now poking their heads out with interest at the news that the Ministry had been attacked, would see what became of such people. 

With a nod to Elena, Sterling took the phone from his pocket, hitting the number to contact Alcazar back in the base itself. “Talk to all of our people in every gang. Find out who knows something about this. Shake the bushes, kick the trash cans, call in favors, make every threat we need to make. Do everything you can until five o’clock, then go home. Yes, Alcazar, I don’t want to hear it. Go home at five, that’s an order. Your son needs you at that play tomorrow. Karl’s been looking forward to you being there too much for you to put it off. Do the work, then go home. We have plenty of people to keep searching while you’re busy. Delegate, it’s the only way to survive in this business. And tell Karl I said hi.” 

He paused then before nodding slightly. “Yes. Yes, I do think our people will find something. There is someone in this city who knows the truth. There is a weak link somewhere, a link connected to the people responsible for this. 

“And when we find that weak link, we’ll snap the chain in half.” 

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Dig In 22-07 (Summus Proelium)

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“I hope you aren’t planning something dangerous.” 

The words from my father came at dinner the next evening as we all sat at the table. I had been lost in thought about what would be happening later that night oh, only to be drawn out of it by his voice. Jolting a little, I forced any guilt away from my expression before looking up. “Uh, what?” Smooth, Cassidy. With casual and expert deflections like that, I was practically a secret agent. Call me Double-Oh Paint, starring in No Time To Dye.

Okay, that one was bad even for me. Thankfully, I was interrupted from dwelling too much on it when my father raised an eyebrow. “You’ve barely touched your food and you keep looking at the wall with that thoughtful look that tells me I’m about two days away from getting a call from the school, the hospital, or both. Please tell me you don’t have some new trick in mind.” 

Blushing despite myself, I inwardly cursed at the fact that I’d let myself focus too much on stuff I really shouldn’t be thinking about around my family. My head shook. “No sir, no new tricks here.” 

Dad squinted at me, glanced toward my mother, then back again. “I sure hope not. After all, you’re getting closer and closer to graduating from that driver’s ed class. And from what I hear, you might just make it with a passing grade.” 

Clearing her throat, Mom pointedly put in, “A passing grade by our standards, that is. Which, you may find, is somewhat higher than the educational system.” And yet, even though she was trying to sound stern then, she clearly couldn’t help the small, proud smile that came when she looked at me. “I am certain you are up to maintaining that standard.” 

Yelling at myself that I really had to make things seem as normal as possible now that my father had noticed my distraction, I forced a casual shrug. “Yeah, well, I mean if Lite-Brite over there can pass your driving requirements, I think I’ll probably be okay.” 

While Simon made a face at me, Izzy blinked. “Lite-Brite?” 

“Sure,” I confirmed while shifting in my seat to glance at the girl next to me. “Or Monopoly, Hungry Hungry Hippo, Battleship, Guess Who, Trouble, Clue, or any other game I could think of when I was your age. You know, cuz his name’s Simon. Like Simon Says. I used to just pick a random game and call him that whenever I wanted his attention.” 

“And for the record, I still can’t believe you guys let her get away with that,” Simon complained. 

Dad chuckled, exchanging a brief look with my mother before offering Simon a shrug. “I hate to tell you this, champ, but when it comes to little sisters calling you things, you got off pretty light with board games. Besides, honestly, your mother and I had a bet going to see how long it took her to get to ones like Scattergories and Boggle. Though I will admit, she got to Candy Land faster than expected.” 

“Ahem.” Mom gave Dad a pointed squint before looking back to us. “What your father means to say is that it’s very nice to see when our children can get along and be nice to one another.” She paused deliberately, making a show of considering her words. “Rare, but nice.” 

Picking up from the table, I moved to the side where the pitchers of iced tea and juice were, pouring myself a fresh glass of the former. Then I asked if the others wanted any and ended up refilling Izzy’s juice and Simon’s iced tea as well. Placing the glass in front of my brother last, I gave him a too-sweet smile. “See? I can be nice.” 

“Oh, nice, huh?” Simon gave me a look, and I had a brief flash of danger run through my mind before he pushed back on his chair and yanked me over by the arm. Before I knew what was happening, he had me in a headlock and was running his knuckles over my hair while I yelped. “Yup, super-nice! Nice hair, nice yelping, and I bet…” His hand moved away from my hair, but he wasn’t letting me go. Instead, he started to tickle me. “Nice and squirmy!” 

“Ahh! St-aahaha-stop-ahhh stop!” Squealing and kicking my legs out, I struggled, but couldn’t find any leverage in that position. He had me half-yanked off the floor and over his chair, one arm keeping me trapped in that headlock while his other hand tickled all along my side. In the background, I could hear Mom saying something, but couldn’t pick out the actual words. It didn’t sound like she was too angry or anything though, and Simon didn’t immediately release me. 

Finally, he let me go, standing me back up before poking me in the stomach. “See that? Don’t forget, I’m still the big brother, Booster.” 

“You’re a big something, alright,” I retorted, my face flushed. “Pretty sure I can think of a few words more appropriate than brother.” 

Once again, Mom cleared her throat. “Go back to your seat, Cassidy,” she gently yet firmly chided. “This is, after all, family dinner. Not, ahh, WrestleMania?” 

Squinting first at her, then at me as I found my way to my seat, Simon asked, “Is it just me, or is Mom saying WrestleMania really weird?” 

“Definitely weird,” I agreed. “Like hearing a priest curse. Or–” Reconsidering that, I amended, “Actually, I think hearing a priest curse would be less weird.” 

Sniffing once, Mom primly informed us, “I’ll have both of you know that your father and I have attended a good number of wrestling events. I do have a life outside of lecturing my children. Even if they often do their best to make that a full career.”  

Oh boy did I want to ask what sort of life it was and what she liked to do when she wasn’t being my mother. Including a few specific time and date verifications. But that felt like it might be pushing things. 

Simon, on the other hand, lifted his chin while slyly replying, “Sure, a life. That I buy. You go to all sorts of, like, charity auctions, dances, even musicals. Maybe golf for a sport. But anything involving wrestling? Yeah, sure. If I asked you who your favorite wrestler was, you’d probably–” 

“Hmmm, from the nineties and early two thousands? Either Mick Foley or the Undertaker,” Mom informed him. “And yes, I was there for their Hell in a Cell. But as for the Touched division these days…” She considered for a moment before nodding decisively. “Definitely Iron Grimes.” 

Feeling Izzy tug at my sleeve, I looked that way before the younger girl quietly asked, “Is your mom serious, or did she just say that to mess with Simon?” 

I was just realizing that I had no idea what the answer to that was, when Dad chuckled while speaking up. “As it happens, your mother is the one who talked me into investing in the fledgling Touched division of wrestling back in the day. I was a bit skeptical, but she saw the potential.” He was smiling that way, and the two of them exchanged the sort of tender looks that would have made a younger me gag on my finger. It was the sort of look that almost always precipitated–yup there it was. They kissed. 

Simon waited what he apparently thought was an appropriate amount of time (two seconds) before speaking up. “Hey, hey, come on. Doesn’t the poor innocent child over there deserve better than to be traumatized by you two being gross?” 

While Izzy protested that she was fine, Dad reached over to lightly swat Simon on the shoulder. “Just bear in mind, boy, someday you’ll want to bring someone you care about around to the table, and I’ll remember eeeeevery moment like this.” 

Shrugging, I put in, “Well, first he’d have to get someone to come home with him who actually wants to do the kissing thing, so I’m pretty sure he’s safe on that front.” 

“Oh I think someone needs another headlock,” Simon declared, teasing as though he was going to push himself up and come around the table after me. 

Someone,” Mom pointedly declared, “needs to stay in his seat and remember that as exciting as wrestling can be, it has its time and place.” To punctuate her words, she took a sip of her wine while watching Simon with a cool gaze. She hadn’t raised her voice or anything like that. She didn’t need to. 

“You’re lucky this time,” Simon noted with a squint my way. “But watch out next time you’re in arm’s reach.” 

“Son, much as I don’t think encouraging any underhanded behavior is a good idea,” Dad put in dryly after setting his own wine glass down, “maybe you could reconsider making threats against your sister within earshot of your parents. Particularly with Izzy here.” His eyes passed back and forth between us to make sure we were paying attention. “I had hoped that both of you would set a better example.”

“It’s okay,” the younger girl quietly insisted, “I kind of like this kind of example.”  

Her words made my parents exchange glances. Some sort of silent communication passed between them before Mom turned back to us. “Yes, well, on that note, before dessert comes, perhaps it’s time to have a conversation that has been some time coming.” 

“A conversation?” I found myself echoing, glancing toward the girl next to me before turning back that way. “What conversation?” A brief spike of paranoia about what they could possibly know jumped into my mind, but I shoved it back down with some effort. Now was definitely not the right time to panic.  

Dad took a breath, offering a reassuring smile. “A good one, we hope.” His gaze turned from me to the other girl as he continued. “Izzy, I hope that you understand just how much we enjoy having you here, and how much it feels like you’ve filled a void in this household ever since you came. Whatever the circumstances behind your arrival, Elena and I are incredibly grateful that it happened. You are a brilliant, talented young woman, who deserves to succeed at everything you put your energy and mind toward.” 

Izzy’s hand was tight on her glass, before she abruptly released it and dropped both arms to her side. “You want me to leave.” Her voice was dull with resignation, as if she had been expecting something like this but was still hurt deeply that it had come. “It’s alright, I–” 

“Isidora, no.” Mom’s head shook intently. “No, nothing like that. The opposite, in fact. We don’t want you to go. Thus far, you have been living with us under temporary guardianship. Our friends in law enforcement and the foster system have been gracious enough to grant us broad leniency in that, yet now that it has been over a month with no sign of your… of your mother, they believe that a more… permanent decision needs to be made. Not immediately. You have all the time that you need.” 

“I… I have time?” Izzy was staring at my parents in confusion, clearly taken aback by all this. “Time for what?” It was obvious that she was expecting to be told that she had time to pack her bags and get out of the house. 

Dad’s voice was gentle. “Izzy, we’d like to become your permanent guardians. After what–” He stopped himself, clearly not wanting to say more in front of me. I was sure Simon already knew the whole story, even if Izzy wasn’t supposed to know he did. “After your personal situation with your mother, it’s… staggeringly doubtful that she would ever be granted custody of you again. But, we also understand that this is a lot to throw at you, and that this family itself can be… more than what anyone wants to handle sometimes.” 

While Izzy continued to stare, her hand found mine under the table and squeezed so tight it was almost painful. But I kept the reaction off my face and squeezed back. She clearly tried to speak a couple times, but couldn’t find the right words, so all that came out were a couple uncertain sounds. 

“What Sterling is saying,” Mom put in, “is that we would like to adopt you, Izzy. Legally and permanently. We would like you to be part of our family, part of this family, for the rest of all our lives. As he said, the decision is entirely up to you. Take your time, think about it, decide what is best for you. If you decide you don’t want to be here, we will find a quieter place for you. No matter what you decide, you will never be abandoned. You will never be alone. We will make certain there is always someone who can take care of you, even if you decide that you would rather that person not be us.” 

Izzy was squeezing my hand even tighter, biting her lip for a moment before managing to find her voice. “Tha–thank you. Thank you for… for everything. I–” The words caught in her throat briefly before she forced them out. “I’ll think about it. I–I have to think.” 

With a smile, Mom nodded. “Of course. Take all the time you need. Just know that whatever you decide, we all care about you. And when your mother is found, we will ensure that she gets the help she needs to become a better person. While being prosecuted for her actions, of course.” Her voice was gentle and understanding. “She is still your mother.” 

********

We all had dessert after that. But I could tell Izzy wasn’t really tasting it. She was polite and everything, and even cleared off the plate. Yet her movements were mechanical, and it was obvious that her attention wasn’t on the food. As soon as it was over, she excused herself and headed out. I waited another couple minutes to give her a little time before doing the same, muttering something about checking on her. 

She was in her room, and I quickly closed the door behind me after finding her there before checking the intercom on the wall to make certain it was off. Just to be on the safe side, I pried the thing open and flicked off the little switch inside. It was a trick I’d learned awhile back to make sure Simon couldn’t eavesdrop on me when I was on the phone. I’d long-since modified my own intercom to always chime when it was activated, no matter what. Not that it was hard to do. There was literally a setting for it once you opened the thing up and knew what to look for. Which I did, thanks to an afternoon spent reading the manual years ago. 

Or did I? Was that how I knew how to do that, or had Paige actually been the one to teach me about it, back when she taught me how to sneak out of the house? No, that didn’t make sense. I didn’t remember how I knew how to sneak out of the house, only that I did, and I had never really questioned that. But not remembering something was very different from remembering something totally different. Tomas’s father had erased my memories of Anthony, and of Paige by extension. He didn’t put specific new memories in. Especially not memories of how I knew something Paige had taught me. He didn’t know about Paige, so there was absolutely no reason he would know to give me specific memories about learning the intercom system. 

In any case, I knew how to make it chime every time and how to turn it off. I did the latter with Izzy’s so we would be left alone, before looking that way. She was sitting on her bed, legs folded with a book in her lap as she stared down at it intently. She clearly knew I was there, but hadn’t looked up or said anything since I entered. 

After a moment of hesitation, I walked over that way to sit on the bed next to her. My voice was quiet. “Are you okay?” 

She didn’t answer at first. Instead, she kept staring down at the book before closing it. When she spoke, her voice cracked slightly. “We’re still going out tonight, right? So… so we can get into that base.” 

My head bobbed slightly. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to, Izzy. We can make do.” 

“No.” Looking up to meet my gaze, Izzy insisted, “I’m going. I want to. I have to. Especially–” She flinched in mid-sentence, glancing away. “Especially now. If–I want to know more. I want to know everything your parents do. I want to know what– I want to know all of it.”

Boy did I understand that feeling. The need to know the truth, even if you were certain it was going to hurt. I had spent all this time planning how to break into that secret base, just so I could get some firm answers about what sort of people my parents were. Even if I knew the answer was going to hurt, even if I knew I would regret knowing details, I still had to do it. I had to be certain. And now my parents were asking Izzy to join the family officially. No wonder she had to know the truth too. Even if it hurt. 

“They do care about you,” I assured her, for all the good it probably did. “It’s not just about wanting your power, Izzy. They could get that in other ways. I might not know everything about them, but I know the look my mother has when she’s looking at someone she cares about. And she definitely cares about you. I know that probably doesn’t help. Trust me, I know. But they don’t just want to use you. They aren’t just manipulating you to get something. They care about you. I care about you.”  

Izzy was silent, not responding for a few seconds. Then she exhaled. “I care about you too. And them.” The latter admission came with a look of guilt as she glanced away. Which was something I understood just as much as her need to know the truth. Knowing that my parents weren’t exactly bastions of morality and righteousness, knowing that they had done some terrible things and allowed people to die, and even killed plenty themselves, didn’t make it easy to not care about them. It was like they were two separate groups, the people who were my parents and brother, and the people who did those terrible things. Yet they weren’t different groups. They were the same. And trying to accept that was hard. 

For a couple minutes after that, the two of us sat in silence. Izzy took a few long, deep breaths to steady herself before speaking in a quiet voice, “She wasn’t always bad.” 

“Your… your mom?” I hesitantly asked, unsure if she actually wanted to talk about it or not. 

Izzy nodded, clutching the book in her lap tightly before holding it up so I could see. It was Charlotte’s Web. “My mom used to read it to me,” she murmured. “Not this one. This is from your library. Ours was beaten up and had scribbles in it. My scribbles. It was the first book I remember her reading. And… and usually when I was sick, she would read it to me again. She would sit in bed with me and read it. She made the voices funny and… and…” Closing her eyes, she looked down, shoulders slumped. I could see the tears leaking out as she weakly insisted, “My mom wasn’t always bad. She wasn’t always like… like that. She got worse for awhile, but before… but–” Clamping her mouth shut, she shook her head helplessly. 

Wincing, I shifted closer and put an arm around her. “She’s your mom.” 

“But they won’t let her be again,” Izzy whispered, leaning against me. “After what she did, even if your family wasn’t… um, what they are, the authorities wouldn’t ever let my mom be my mom again. And–and I know she shouldn’t be. After what she did, she shouldn’t–she can’t–I–” A shudder escaped the girl, before she turned her head to press her face into my shoulder. “She can never be my mom again, not like it was. She broke it. She broke it, Cassidy, and she can’t put it back. She can’t fix it. It doesn’t matter what I say to your parents, it doesn’t matter what I do, it doesn’t–I can’t change it. I can’t fix it. I can’t make my mom be… I just–I just wanted her to be–I just wanted–” Unable to continue, Izzy wrapped both arms around me, clinging tightly. “I wanted to be good enough.” The weak, plaintive words snapped my heart in half. 

“Why wasn’t I good enough?” 

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Patreon Snippets 24B (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 24th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Blackjack and Melissa 

Pausing with a forkful of steak halfway to his mouth, Eric Abbot stared at his daughter for a moment. He had been doing that a lot, given his wonder and delight at the fact she was even able to leave her bed and come to this dining room in the first place. Such an incredibly simple thing on the face of it, yet a complete impossibility until very recently. He had found himself many times in these past few days staring with pride, love, and relief to see his beautiful, brilliant daughter finally able to move around and interact with the world safely for the first time since she had been infected with that horrific disease years earlier. 

But this stare was not the same as those. Now, he gazed at his daughter with disbelief, taking a moment to find his voice lest it crack mid-sentence. “I’m sorry, you want to do what?” 

Melissa, of course, didn’t need to eat. Nor did she get any benefit from it. That was the downside of her new condition. Yes, she could get up and move around without fear of breaking (at least permanently), but nor could she taste anything. Her body was entirely made of glass. She didn’t seem to need food or water, and a small test had confirmed that she had no need of oxygen. 

Despite that entire lack of needing (or getting any benefit from) food, Melissa still insisted on sitting with him at the dinner table. Even now, she was watching the food on his fork a bit distractedly before looking up to meet his gaze. “Huh? Oh, I said I want to join Paintball’s team.  Wouldn’t that be cool? I could be Stained Glass. Wait, no, there’s a better name than that. But really, Daddy, they’re all artistic and stuff and I can make things. Like a sculptor. There’s a word for someone who makes glass sculptures, right?” Shaking that thought off, she quickly added, “Anyway, I fit on their team perfectly. And Paintball’s so cool! Plus Alloy’s cool too. You want me to be with the cool people, right?” 

Oh boy was there a lot that Eric wanted to say to that. Yet, in the end, he simply cleared his throat and replied, “There are several cool groups in the city, you know.” A part of him wanted to use his power to find the right thing to say, but he had promised himself that he wouldn’t abuse that just to interact with his daughter. If he said the wrong thing, so be it. At least their relationship would be real and not guided along on rails. He wanted everything he said to Melissa to be what he chose to say, not what his power prompted him with. 

For her part, his daughter blinked a couple times before curiously asking, “Do you not want me to go onto Paintball’s team?” Her head tilted a little. “Is it because you’re afraid he might be against the Ministry?” 

Choking just a little, Eric regarded her before quietly murmuring, “Sometimes I think you’re a little too smart for your own good. Definitely too smart for my good.” He took a breath before letting it out as he continued. “It’s more about the fact that they aren’t with us. They aren’t part of the Ministry’s organization, they don’t have anyone embedded with them.” 

“And if I joined them, you would,” Melissa pointed out with a broad, clearly mischievous smile. 

Pointing with his fork, Eric retorted, “You know what I mean. I don’t want you to be their in with that group. Not mine or the Ministry’s. Besides, you like them. If something went wrong and you had to choose between being loyal to Paintball or the Ministry… you don’t want that. I don’t want that.” 

“But you don’t want me to join your team.” Melissa’s words were quiet, the faintest bit of hurt within them. 

Setting his fork down, Eric reached out to take his daughter’s glass hand. “Listen to me, okay? The reason I don’t want you to be part of La Casa is because I don’t think you would enjoy it. Sometimes we have to hurt people. We try not to hurt innocent people more than we have to, and our targets… we do our best not to be monsters. But I know you. I know you wouldn’t enjoy it. You want to be a hero. You want to help people.”

After the slightest pause, Melissa gave a short nod. She met his gaze once more, offering a very faint smile. “I mean, a real hero would probably turn you in. But I think I can deal with only being mostly a hero.” 

With a chuckle, Eric squeezed her hand. “Well, lucky me. But let’s talk about what team you can join.

“Because I think I know exactly where you can do the most good.” 

******

Rubi Nilsen

Standing in the bathroom, nineteen-year-old Rubi Nilsen stared at herself in the mirror. Her skin was pale, and her dark blonde, almost brown hair limp and stringy. There were dark circles under her eyes, and when she tried to smile, it didn’t look real. She couldn’t even convince herself. 

This was… hard. Taking care of her younger brother Roald and their little sister Emilee for the past year, basically from the moment she had turned eighteen, had been difficult enough by itself. She was barely out of high school and already couldn’t go to college the way she’d planned. She was working at a law firm, technically. Yet instead of becoming the lawyer she’d always wanted to be, she was cleaning their offices as an overnight maid. She scrubbed toilets, vacuumed the carpets, dusted their desks, emptied their trash, and anything else they needed. 

From nine-thirty pm to five-thirty am she did that, before taking the bus home and arriving just in time to make sure Roald and Emilee were up and getting ready for school. She got them breakfast and sent them on their way. Then she would crash until around three pm, get up to be present for Emilee (Roald could take care of himself much more easily) so she could help the girl with her homework, then get dinner on. The rest of the afternoons and evenings were spent trying as best as she could to be a normal human being for a couple hours, before it was time to go right back out to work and do it again. While she was at work, either Roald was in the apartment, or the neighbor lady, Mrs. Kroothers. Someone was there at all times, just in case. 

That was Monday through Friday. On the weekends, she tried to spend as much time with Emilee as possible. And Roald, when he was around, but that was less frequently ever since he actually got a job of his own. Regardless, she continued to take Emilee out to the park or to the dollar theater, anywhere they could go to give her little sister some semblance of a normal life. 

And now Murphy (no one ever called her Eleanor) needed her too. Tyson… Tyson and Rubi were never exactly super-close, but they had been friendly enough. They had to be, considering the situation their families were in. But now he was gone. He had been murdered right in his own apartment, just downstairs. And the prison system wasn’t in the habit of letting convicts out to take care of their younger child just because the one who was taking care of them happened to die. 

The social services lady had asked if Rubi thought she could take in Murphy too, or if she should put her in the system. But the tone of the woman’s voice, the thick folder of other people she was clearly already taking care of, and the very doubtful look on her face when she had brought up the possibility of getting Murphy placed somewhere had told Rubi all she needed to know. The odds of a mixed-race, teenage girl from a poor family, whose parents were in prison for selling drugs ending up in a good home were… low, to say the least. 

So, she had told the social services lady that she had it handled. The look of relief on the woman’s face had been unmistakeable, and she had left very soon after having her sign a few things taking the responsibility away from her.  

Now Murphy was living with them, sleeping in the same room as Emilee. They’d managed to convince a couple guys in the building to help them move the girl’s bed upstairs and into this apartment, and they were going to sell everything that Murphy didn’t want to keep. There was no room for it here, and they certainly couldn’t pay storage or a separate lease to keep that apartment. 

The point was, with their parents in prison and Tyson gone, Emilee, Roald, and Murphy needed Rubi to be there. Even if the latter two were more capable of functioning on their own, they still needed her to be the adult. So she was. She put aside everything in the hopes that someday… someday Roald and Murphy would be adults too, and Emilee would be older and more capable of being alone. Rubi wasn’t putting aside college and a career forever

And yet, even as she kept telling herself that, part of her wouldn’t stop whispering that it would be harder to go back to school and try to make something of herself years from now. She wouldn’t be going with her friends, she barely even saw her friends anymore. They had moved on. They were off to university, making new relationships, building their real adult lives and careers. 

There were times when Rubi couldn’t help but feel a wave of despair, of anxiousness, of anger at their parents and at her siblings. She didn’t want to. She wasn’t proud of it, and she pushed the thoughts down as soon as they appeared, but they were still there now and then. 

Was she a bad person? Was she selfish? Staring into her own eyes, Rubi tried to smile again. It didn’t look any better than the first time. 

“Rubi?” It was Roald, just outside the closed bathroom door. “Can uh, can I show you something?” 

A rush of terrified thoughts about what else could have gone wrong went through her mind, but she shoved them down, tasted what she hoped was a somewhat normal expression on her face, and opened the door. “Sorry, the milk didn’t go sour again, did it?” God, if they had to spend another four bucks on a gallon before she got paid…

Roald, however, shook his head. There was a slightly pensive, uncertain expression on his face. “No, no nothing like that. I just… um, you know how I said Murphy and me got jobs? Um. Here.” With that, he held up a wad of dollar bills. No, not dollar bills. Twenty dollar bills. 

“What–Roald, what is this?” Rubi was staring at the folded up money. 

“It’s for you–I mean for us. I mean for food and stuff,” Roald informed her. “Murphy and me both chipped in. There’s three hundred dollars there for groceries. You know, so we can get some good stuff. And uhh, here.” From his pocket, he produced another couple of twenties. “This should be enough to get a taxi or an Uber or whatever so we don’t have to try to carry a bunch of bags onto the bus. When umm, when I get back from school, I thought we could go out and pick up some stuff. We can drop Emilee off at Danielle’s to play for a couple hours and go get everything we need.” 

Rubi was still staring at the money. “Roald, that’s… that’s too much. You need to be saving for school. You can still go.” 

Shaking his head, the boy replied, “It’s okay, we’re putting money away too, I promise. We’re doing okay at the shop, and… and we wanna help. Take it, please? And say we can go out today.” 

Hesitating for another moment as she felt a wave of guilt that her brother had to contribute anything to keep them afloat, Rubi finally took the offered cash and nodded. “We’ll go as soon as you get home.” 

“Good. I–good.” Roald coughed before gesturing. “I’ll make sure Emilee’s ready for school, then we’ll head out. You should take a shower and sleep, Ru. It’s… it’s gonna be okay. Hey, maybe we can even get some KFC on the way back. Emilee’d love that. It’s… it’s been awhile.” 

With that, he headed back down the hall to the kitchen, leaving his sister to shut the door. Rubi turned back to the mirror, staring at the cash in her hand. Thoughts of cupboards that were full, of fresh milk that they didn’t have to drink past the expiration date just to make it last, of being able to give Emilee real fruit and vegetables, and even cookies that weren’t from the dollar store filled her mind. 

That time, when Rubi met her expression and smiled, it was real. 

******

Sterling and Elena 

“Yes. He’s out of the city then?” Listening to his son’s response over the phone for a few seconds, Sterling gazed out the window of his office. Well, one of his offices, in one of his buildings in the heart of the city. Watching the construction site across the street, he was silent until Simon finished confirming that Luciano Munoz had indeed been escorted safely from the city and was set up in a place to lay low.

“Good.” His reply was simple, even if the thoughts running through his mind were anything but. “Head on back, and stop by the storage unit on Tulsbee to drop off the cash with Bowers. He’ll make sure it’s clean.” Another pause as he listened to Simon confirm that, before he signed off with, “Drive safe. And son… good work out there.” 

With that, he clicked off the phone, giving a long, heavy exhale before tossing it aside. The phone landed on the desk with a clatter. 

“Do that much more and you’ll have to get a new one,” Elena observed from the doorway. She stepped inside, closing the door behind herself before crossing over to the desk to run her hand over the phone in question.

Looking that way briefly before turning his attention back to the window, Sterling replied, “It might be a stretch, but I think we can afford it.” 

Her hand left the phone as Elena stepped around the desk to be in front of him, brushing her fingers over his jaw tenderly. “I take it Simon dropped him off safely.” 

“Safely,” Sterling echoed with a slight cough. “Yes, he’s safe. Though I can’t say the same about the people that impulsive piece of shit left in his wake.” His eyes moved away from the window to meet hers. “Those people are either dead, or mourning the ones who are.” 

Gently using her hand to make her husband meet her gaze, Elena quietly spoke. “You must be upset, dear. You are generally better at controlling your language in the office.”

Sterling was silent for a moment, of course giving a heavy sigh. “This sort of thing is not why we started this. His contributions barely matter compared to what we bring in without him, and he provides nothing else of value. Sorry, provided. I doubt we’ll ever see him again.”

“Not to mention,” Elena put in, leaning up to gently kiss her husband before she continued, “his method of gathering the last payment for his extraction was a bit… attention-getting.” She glanced away to look out the window at that same construction site before turning to him. Her voice was darker. “He killed people he didn’t need to. Innocent people. That… that is not what we intended for him to do.” 

Sterling gave a flat grunt, head shaking as he almost snarled the words, “I assumed he had money stashed away. Or people in his world who owed it to him. When I gave him the price for getting him out of the city and away from his… angry business partners, I didn’t…” 

“You didn’t think he would be foolish enough to attract the attention of every law enforcement officer in the city with his wild, unhinged massacre,” Elena finished for him. “Because you are accustomed to working with people who hold more self-control than that. And more of an investment in keeping the city stable. Munoz was leaving the city. He had no reason to care about the chaos he was leaving behind, or for the damage he was doing to the people who are still here. We gave him a price and he paid it.” 

Sterling stepped over to the window, putting a hand against it as he gazed down at the traffic below. His voice was soft. “Which is why we couldn’t go back on the deal.” He echoed her words then. “We gave him a price and he paid it. Even if we don’t like how. We have a reputation to uphold.” 

Elena moved beside her husband and put a hand against his back while speaking. “Yes. This is no longer only about him. Were this an isolated situation, I would have said kill him the moment he showed his face. As you say, this is about our reputation. If others were to learn that we refused to honor the deal we made, we could very well lose our grip. Having control over this city is not something to take lightly, and if some of the people on the edges of that control were to learn that our word cannot be trusted, it could be disastrous. Which is a problem that would have spread through the entire city very quickly. We told him the price and he paid it. In the future, we will simply need to be a little more specific about limitations.”

There was silence between them for a moment, as Sterling considered his next words carefully before turning to face his wife. His hand moved to cup the side of her face gently. “Innocents have died before, many times under our watch and in response to our words. I can’t exactly say why this one bothers me as much as it does. But I know this is not why I wanted to create the Ministry, not why I wanted to do any of this.” 

Elena spoke sympathetically, leaning her face against her husband’s hand. “It’s a very harsh cost. Honoring your word is not always the easiest thing. But our word is all that we have in this situation. We both know that if word were to get out that he paid his dues, met our request, and we refused to honor it, our entire system could be disrupted. There are very bad people in this city who do as we say, and allow us to maintain some level of control, specifically because they know that our word can be trusted. Which goes both ways. When we tell them no, they understand that there is no arguing against that. But when we give them a price and they pay it, we are beholden to our word.” 

Offering her a soft smile, Sterling replied, “You keep talking about keeping our word and honoring the deal. But I know you don’t like this any more than I do. I know you, Love. You are as angry about what that man did to get the money as I am. And you know as well as I do that we didn’t even need the cash itself. This was a terrible deal on all fronts. Those people… there was no need for them to die.”

“You’re right,” Elena confirmed, “I don’t like it, and I wish it was different. That man can burn in hell for all I care about his future. As I said, were it entirely up to me and I allowed my emotions to take control, I would have told Simon to put a bullet in his head the moment he showed himself at the meeting.” She paused then before adding, “Or simply allowed Paintball and his companion to take him. Problematic as that would have been.” She sighed heavily. “But it is not about him. It is about everyone in the city who would react poorly to the Ministry breaking an agreement.” 

“He shouldn’t even have known about us,” Sterling pointed out before turning to look out the window once more. “The cop who let him know how to contact us in the first place, his name is Aemon Kraft. I want a message sent to him. He is not to give that information to anyone else.” 

Touching her fingers to his chest, Elena arched an eyebrow. “Do you want him to receive a message, or be a message?” 

The impulse to answer immediately was strong, but Sterling restrained himself. Closing his mouth, he turned back to look out the window once more. A few seconds of silence passed before he spoke, but even then his words did not address the question directly. Rather, he quietly started with, “Do you remember when I Touched, back before any of us had a firm idea of what that meant? You and I were together, in that motel where we knew your father wouldn’t be able to find us, and we spent… we spent hours sitting in that room, just working out what I could do. My shapes were smaller then. I made you a metal pony, then said I was sorry it wasn’t big enough for you to ride. But you said that you didn’t need a pony, because with the power that I had, we were going to ride that all the way to the top.” 

“I remember,” Elena confirmed quietly while tenderly running her hand along his arm. “And I remember that we spoke for a long time about what that meant. We saw other people with powers, some becoming heroes, some becoming villains.” 

“And we talked about which one I should be,” Sterling finished for her. “We had a list and everything. Pros and cons for both sides.” He smirked a bit, dropping his gaze. “Seems so quaint now.” 

“As I recall,” Elena murmured while sliding her hand down to take his gently, “we were discussing whether joining the burgeoning heroes or villains would most help us handle my father. Because whatever we wanted to become would never matter as long as he was around.” 

Sterling gave a short nod of agreement, his eyes darkening a bit at the memory of that man and the long shadow he had cast over both Detroit itself and their lives. “It really wouldn’t have. He’d never leave us alone, and with the resources he had…” Swallowing a bit, he put his free hand against the glass of the window while squeezing his wife’s hand with the other. “That was why we decided to be both, to point the villains and the heroes at his organization from different sides.” 

“Not the entire thing,” Elena pointed out. “Just the people we couldn’t turn to our side. The ones most loyal to my father. We had to remove them, or at least blunt their influence and power. We had to isolate him and create that vulnerability. And we never could have done it by ourselves, or even by siding with the heroes or the villains. We needed both of them, both sides of the law working together to break his organization while making sure there was enough left to use afterward, enough to build up from. We used both sides, even if they didn’t know they were working together. Different targets, different times, different methods. The heroes made their arrests, the villains claimed their territory, and Father’s organization was being hit from too many sides and angles for him to react. He was too mired in his ways, too accustomed to how it had always been. He couldn’t adapt to Touched emerging.” 

“And when we were done with that,” Sterling noted, “when we drove your father out of the city and took control of his organization, it felt natural to just keep doing what had gotten us so far to begin with. Instead of choosing between being heroes or villains, we became both. We sat in the middle, directing things, building a network, a web that was even more ingrained in the city than your father’s. We are both sides. Even if those sides are diametrically opposed.” 

He was quiet for a moment, but Elena didn’t speak up. She gave him time to work his way through his thoughts until the man finally exhaled. “I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to be Silversmith and nothing more than that. I think I could be proud of that.” 

“But?” Elena prompted after a moment, hearing that unspoken word at the end of his sentence. 

“But,” he replied, “I would be Silversmith in a very different city. Without the Ministry directing things, I truly believe this city would be in a much worse position than it is. We do allow crime to happen, but it is controlled. It is guided. If we did not do what we do, this city would have been a free-for-all for the past twenty years. You’ve seen what happened in other cities that were in our position. You saw what happened to Atlanta. They had the opportunity to rise or fall like we did, and they fell. Last I heard, the city was divided between five different warlords and their Conservator team can barely keep up with the absolute worst of the problems. It’s utter chaos in that city. I won’t let Detroit become another Atlanta.” 

“Even if it means you can’t just be the shining hero?” Elena murmured softly, leaning in to put her arm around him from behind as she kissed his shoulder while the two of them stood in front of the window. 

Sterling gave a slight nod. “Even if it means I can’t just be the shining hero. Still, sometimes it’s hard to separate the two. I am Silversmith, leader of the Detroit Conservators. And Minister Gold. Some people I save, and others… others die because of the crime that I allow to happen. I might as well have killed them myself. I–” He cut himself off from going down that road and sighed. “You’d think that after two decades it would be impossible to feel guilty about that anymore.”  

“You’re human,” Elena reminded him. “Whatever being Touched has done to us, it hasn’t changed that. And you’re not a monster. You’re right, people do suffer and die because of the choices we make. But if we did not make those choices, if we were not here, it’s exactly as you said, the city would be worse.” 

She continued after leaning up closer to him. “And if we didn’t allow crime, if we tried to stop it entirely instead of simply controlling and directing it, the city would explode. Like a pressure cooker with no vent or safety valve. We would be in the same position as Atlanta. Our city would not have advanced nearly as much as it has. Yes, we have done some bad things, arguably unforgivable things. But I believe the city would be worse without the Ministry.” 

Taking in a deep breath before letting it out slowly, Sterling finally spoke again. “We’re not exactly suffering either. We have made a very good living in this position. Our actions, our choices don’t come from some altruistic position. We’ve helped make Detroit what it is, and we built an empire in the process, out of the groundwork laid by your father. It’s just that… there are days, like this one, when I see the unnecessary mess created by that… piece of shit, and I just wish that all I had to do was bring him in. Or make sure no one ever sees him again.” 

“That latter option is not exactly the hero way,” Elena gently pointed out. 

With a nod, Sterling turned from the window, gathering her up against himself. “You’re right, but as we’ve established, I’m not really the sort of hero who always plays by the rules and lets the bad guys go back to a nice prison cell.” 

Producing his phone once more, the man hit a button on it and waited with it held to his ear. After a few seconds, he spoke. “Z. Luciano Munoz made himself into a problem. He caused a scene, drew attention. I’m going to give you an address. It’s out of the city. Get him out of there, take him somewhere and dump the body. Make it look like a robbery he fought back against. No trace of you, no trace of any Touched involvement. No, he doesn’t need to disappear. He needs to be found, so his victims get closure. But… maybe let it take a few days. Yes, that sounds right. And Z… thank you.” 

Disconnecting, he hit another button and was immediately connected to someone else. “Patience, it’s Gold. Lieutenant Aemon Kraft, the cop who sent Munoz our way. No, he doesn’t need to die. But I want you to make it clear that he is not to tell anyone else about our business without permission, no matter his reasoning. And Patience… make sure he understands the message.” 

Both calls done, he put the phone away and looked back to his wife. “You disagree with removing Munoz?” 

“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “I have no love or like for that man. He deserves what he gets. But does that make you feel any better right now?” 

Considering that for a moment, Sterling finally shrugged. “Ask me again after it’s done. And maybe not. Maybe ordering the death of that man won’t make me feel better about the lives he ruined or our own part in it. Maybe him dying won’t solve anything. 

“But I’ll tell you this much. I sure as hell won’t lose any sleep over it.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, okay then. Apparently there was a new member of the Minority. A pretty young one from what I could see. As murmurs came up all around the room, I stared a bit more intently at the girl in question. She wasn’t hiding her face or anything, but then again, it probably would have been hard for someone to mistake her for some other girl made of glass. The detail was incredible, even from here. She looked like an ice sculpture that had been carved by the best in the world. Well, if ice sculptures were capable of looking around, her eyes clearly shifting to scan the crowd. Again, the parts that were ‘skin,’ like her face and exposed hands, were clear, like regular glass or ice. The parts that were supposed to be her clothes were like stained glass. It was a pretty neat effect, especially the fact that she was very clearly alive and moving around. For a brief moment, I found myself caught up in just staring.

“Another child.” The voice was a murmur just above my head, and I belatedly realized that it was Lucent, muttering those two words with what sounded a bit like disappointment. Or possibly dismay. He didn’t elaborate further, however. Instead, he gave my helmet a very slight peck for attention before adding, “If you will pardon me, I have a few people to speak with. Do enjoy the party and I hope to see you soon.” Giving a short look toward Hallowed, he launched himself off my head and flew over to another side of the room. His motions got some people’s attention, but when they realized who it was, they just turned back to their business. Well, their business of staring at this new Minority girl who had so dramatically introduced herself. 

After those few seconds had passed, Silversmith raised his hand for attention before speaking up once more. “As always, we are incredibly grateful every time we are blessed with another addition to our young team. One of my greatest honors in this life has always been to see the way the youngest among us can grow and become truly remarkable heroes, protecting the innocent and vulnerable. Having this opportunity to watch their growth, and guide them into the type of stalwart champions this world deserves, is truly one of the most gratifying and humbling aspects of this job. Each and every one of these Minority kids are very special. They put their time and gifts toward helping to protect this city. And they risk far more than they have to.”

He let that hang in the air for a moment before speaking again. “But, I’m sure you’ve all heard me ramble on long enough. Well, for now anyway. I promise, you’ll be hearing more later. So much it might make some out of you consider withholding the donations you’ve pledged until they give this job to one of the other team leaders we’re fortunate enough to have with us tonight.” 

Once the scattered chuckles to that had died down, he continued. “Our new friend here has made it clear, in more than one way, that she would like to introduce herself. So, why don’t I just give her the chance to do that.” Stepping aside, he raised one hand as though to gesture for her to go ahead. At the same time, he turned a bit to look out into the crowd, and I followed his gaze before finding my parents. Yes, including my father. They were both sitting at one of the tables near the front, along with Kent and Mills Jackson, Tomas’s parents. Oh, and that Eric Abbot guy I had been introduced to right before I’d gotten the call from Pack to tell me that Eits had been attacked for looking into the name I’d asked him about. He was there too, though he didn’t have anyone else with him. All five were sitting at the table, watching what was going on intently. 

Well, that clearly answered the question of whether my dad was really in the Silversmith armor, at least. Though I still wondered if he was projecting his voice to it somehow, or just having someone else speak for him. It really could’ve gone either way. 

The urge to interrupt them and cause a distraction, just to see if anything happened to the Silversmith on stage, was incredibly strong. But somehow I doubted I could get away with that without causing suspicion. Besides, they had almost certainly already planned for anything that might take my father’s attention off his other self. I’d risk exposing myself for no real benefit. 

By that point, the new girl, Fragile, had stepped up to take center-stage. As she did so, a small tornado of glass emerged from behind the nearby curtain, flying up in front of her before transforming into a podium, and a small set of stairs for her to step up to it. So she wasn’t just made of glass, she could also manipulate it, and turn it into new things. It wasn’t like the glass shards were just vaguely in the shape of a podium. She had literally transformed them into a solid structure. 

“Wow,” Alloy murmured beside me, “that’s pretty fucking cool.”  

Her words made Hallowed, who had apparently been just as caught up as the rest of us, start a bit. I was pretty sure he had briefly forgotten that we were there in the first place. With a quick glance our way, he whispered something about showing us where to sit, then gestured for us to follow him as he started to move. Alloy and I glanced at one another before following. Meanwhile, Fragile was talking into the microphone, her voice filling the room. “Hi, everybody! It’s so cool to see you guys, and be here! Seriously, you have no idea how awesome this is. I have superpowers, isn’t it neat?!” With those words, the glass podium reformed into the shape of a horse that she was perched on top of. “And now I get to make my own pony, so I can stop bugging my dad!” That made a few people chuckle, before she shook her head. “But you know what? Horses are kind of lame. Alligators are better.” And sure enough, the glass horse transformed into a large alligator underneath her, its head swinging back and forth as its mouth opened and shut repeatedly to reveal large dagger-like teeth. 

The display of her powers made everyone clap a bit. And by then, Hallowed had led Alloy and me through the room. We were seen and recognized by a few people, who gave us whispered greetings, or just waved, to avoid interrupting. We waved back, a bit awkwardly, while keeping up with our guide. 

Soon, we found the table we were being led to. It was on the far side of the room, up closer to the stage but half-hidden by the orchestra pit. I knew it was where we were going because there were a bunch of other Touched already there. Unlike most of the tables, this one wasn’t circular and meant for only a few people. Instead, it was one of the long, rectangular tables, large enough to hold like thirty people. The Minority (or at least everyone aside from Carousel) were seated at the table, as were most of the Conservators and Spartans. 

As we approached, I could see every member of the Minority, especially Raindrop and That-A-Way, staring very intently at the girl onstage. But they weren’t the only ones. The Conservators and Spartans were pretty focused that way too. Something told me this was as much of a surprise for the people here as it had been for everyone else. Which seemed a bit odd to me. Did my dad really just put this girl on the team without telling any of the other Star-Touched in town until just now? 

Not just odd, actually. Suspicious. But… she was just a kid. She couldn’t be working for the Ministry or–fuck, I was really getting paranoid about this. Or maybe I wasn’t paranoid enough. I seriously couldn’t tell. 

When she saw us approach, Izzy whispered something to Amber before nodding subtly toward a couple seats across from them. Amber openly gestured for us to come that way. So, Alloy and I did just that. We took a second to thank Hallowed for the invitation, before moving over there. I took the seat across from Amber, while Alloy sat next to me and across from Izzy. The seats on our opposite sides were both empty for the moment. The way the table was set up, the Minority people (and the rest of us) were at one end, while the Conservators were at the other end on the side the Minority were seated on, and the Spartans were at that end on the other side (the one Alloy and I were seated on). Well, three members of the Spartans were, anyway. Brumal, Skin-Head, and Versed were there, while the large, rock-formed Boulderdash with his big armadillo/turtle-like shell was seated on a special reinforced chair at the very end of the table. He wouldn’t fit sitting in a normal seat like the others. 

Meanwhile, the Conservators who were here consisted of Dynamic, Kriegspiel, RePete, and Bokor. Four members of the Spartans and four of the Conservators were attending this thing. Also Silversmith, of course, who was still standing back on the stage to watch that Fragile girl. Or at least, the person posing as Silversmith was. Or my father’s empty armor with a voice–never mind. It was complicated. 

Either way, as soon as we sat down, I met Amber’s gaze and gave a little wave. “Looks like you guys have a new teammate, huh?” 

It was Syndicate (or at least the one who was physically sitting here) who spoke up from his spot two down from That-A-Way. “I’d say good because we need the help, but she looks a little young.” He glanced down the table toward Raindrop before adding, “Uh, no offense.”  

Whamline, seated between him and Amber, reached around the girl beside him to pat Izzy on the back. “If she’s anything like our Raindrop, our team just got a huge upgrade. The kid’ll be saving our butts in no time.” 

Wobble, seated on the far side of Syndicate, looked toward Alloy and me. “I think what my teammates are trying to say is hi, glad you could make it. Sorry, I guess we’re just a little surprised by this whole thing.” He nodded toward the stage, where Silversmith was just stepping up by Fragile to put a hand on her shoulder and guide her down off the stage. And, as it happened, toward the rest of us. The audience was applauding, while several photographers took a few pictures. The same photographers noticed Alloy and me sitting with the Minority and snapped pictures our way too. Peyton immediately made a noise deep in her throat and turned away as though afraid of being recognized, before clearly remembering that her face was covered. I felt her embarrassment and put a hand on her arm before giving the girl a quick nod, trying to be encouraging. That was probably the right thing to do, wasn’t it?

By that point, Silversmith and Fragile had reached the table. He kept his hand on her shoulder, looking at the rest of us. “Ah, sorry for the little ambush about all this. It felt like a fun surprise at the time, but in hindsight, maybe we should have let you guys meet in private.” With a self-conscious cough (or at least a put-on one), he gestured. “Anyway, everybody, this is Fragile.” To the girl herself, he added, “Fragile, meet your new teammates. And the others you’ll be learning from.” One by one, he introduced everyone on all three teams by name, while guiding the girl around to sit next to Izzy. “I’ll let you guys all get acquainted. But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other away from here. For now, just ahh, have a good time.” With that, he patted the glass-girl’s shoulder once before stepping away to go back up on stage, where one of the city’s politicians was already starting to give a speech of his own. 

Now I was getting a closer look at her face, and it was even more detailed than I had thought it was before. That really shouldn’t have surprised me, of course. Seriously, her body was literally made out of glass. Why wouldn’t it be detailed? It was her face. Still, it was kind of fascinating to see. Especially when she turned a bit to look straight at me and offered a bright smile. “Hi! You’re Paintball! You’re so cool. I was gonna ask to join your team, but I didn’t know if you were hiring or anything. Is hiring the right word? I dunno, but you’re not really open to new membership, and besides, my dad really wants me to be on the Minority, cuz he says they can keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t get in trouble. He said you have a habit of finding your way into trouble you shouldn’t be in, which is silly cuz I think the trouble really finds you. But I said that and he said that didn’t really change the point that you and trouble are really close and he wants me to be here instead, I mean on the team with–” 

In mid-sentence, she turned to look at Izzy sitting next to her, then leaned over to see the rest of the Minority watching her. “Hi, guys!” She gave a happy wave once more. “Sorry, that was probably pretty rude, huh? I didn’t mean I didn’t want to be on a team with you guys. I just meant that–uhh…” A slight red tint came over her clear glass face as she tried to find the right words.

“It’s okay,” Amber immediately assured her. “Trust me, we know how cool Paintball is. Maybe with you onboard, you can help us try to recruit him and his new partner over to the team.” She offered me a wink while saying it. Of course, Amber had to keep looking as though she was trying to get me to join. It would have been suspicious otherwise. And the last thing we wanted to do was make the Ministry at all suspicious about what she knew.

“Sorry,” I replied as casually as possible, “still just a lone wolf over here.” At a cough from Peyton, I shifted and amended, “Or a duo wolf. Dual wolves? Actually even that’s not true. We uhh–we’re a very small pack. A–never mind. Hey, look at it this way, being separate like this means that we can play back up for you guys. And vice-versa. Trust me, we’re gonna need your help a lot.” 

Syndicate focused on me. “Hey, that’s right. Way was saying that you came up with your own new team or something? Even had a name.”  

“Is that right?” The new voice was Dynamic, speaking up from further down the table. She had turned a bit to face us and was giving a little wave our way. “Hey there. Good to finally get to talk in person. I mean, after all the stuff you’ve been into, I feel like I should be asking for your autograph.” 

RePete, seated beside her, raised a hand as well. “Hey, me too. My niece would kill for a Paintball autograph, especially if it was a signed picture. Actually, I’m pretty sure she’d kill me for one, which makes me a little jealous, cuz I used to be her favorite.” 

Their words had attracted the attention of the rest of the adults down there, and now we had both the Conservators and Spartans looking at us. Which made me want to squirm a bit uncomfortably at all the attention. It was one thing to be out on the street showing off for crowds, in or out of costume. I was accustomed to doing crazy (even stupid) shit for the hell of it. But here, sitting at a table with a bunch of costumed heroes who were all looking at me like I was one of them? That was a lot to take. Beside me, I was pretty sure Peyton was feeling pretty much the same, if not worse. Probably worse. But I pushed the thought aside and embraced my role. Paintball wouldn’t be embarrassed here. 

“I’ll trade you any autographs you want, one for one,” I quickly found myself replying. “But believe me, I’m pretty sure yours is worth a lot more than mine. So really, I’m making out like a bandit.”  

That prompted a couple soft chuckles, and some actual official introductions were passed back and forth. The adults at the table were all pretty laid back, though Brumal remained a bit standoffish. Or maybe that was just my impression. She didn’t say very much and seemed distracted. But the rest of her teammates who were there made up for it. Skin-Head, Boulderdash, and Versed were all really friendly and quick to make jokes. Boulderdash in particular had a very distinctive roaring laugh that he had to muffle a few times when people from other tables shushed him because people on stage were still talking. 

And that was another thing. There were important people up there. Important as far as the city went. They were giving long speeches about donating money to the Seraphs and their related organizations, basically patting themselves and each other on the back for all the good they were doing. But no one at this table was actually paying any attention to them. We were all talking amongst ourselves (albeit in whispers) and basically ignoring that whole situation over there. It wasn’t what I had expected when we came here, but I wasn’t going to complain either. I would much rather talk to a bunch of Touched than listen to self-important rich blowhards. After all, I’d been doing the latter since… well, basically since I could talk. 

The others all wanted to know what was up with our supposed new name and all that too, so Alloy and I exchanged glances before I put my hand out onto the table. As they watched, I made the name appear there in bold red letters, just like I had on the wall of Wren’s shop. Avant-Guard

“Okay,” Versed announced while pointing to it. “That’s a cool name. You’re not accepting new members after all, are you?” She was clearly teasing, and grunted as Boulderdash nudged her. “What, I didn’t say I wouldn’t take you with me, big guy.” 

Snickering despite myself, I held up both hands. “Before any of you get eager about jumping over to this side, I should probably point out that we don’t exactly offer a salary or benefits.” 

Versed immediately made a show of grumbling. “Oh, well in that case, I think I’ll stick to this team.” She looked around, frowning. “Huh. I was going to tell the boss that he’s lucky, but he’s not here. As usual.” The last bit came in a muttered voice that made me blink that way. It sounded as though she was a little annoyed with Silversmith, which… huh. 

It also made me think of something else, and I quickly asked, “How come not everyone’s here? I mean, where’s Carousel? And uhh, Flea and Trivial. Are they around here somewhere?” I had noticed that both the Spartans and Conservators had a missing member earlier, and this felt like the best time to bring that up. 

“Flea had some personal business to take care of out of town,” Kriegspiel informed me. “She’s on leave for a few days. Not the best timing, but you know. Shit happens when it happens. Ah, sorry, stuff happens when it happens.” 

“I’ve heard the word before, it’s okay,” I assured him, before giving a double-take toward Raindrop and Fragile. “Oh. Right. I’m not the only one sitting here.” 

“I’ve heard it too,” Izzy put in, her voice dry.

“Anyway,” Brumal announced with a short clearing of her throat. “Trivial took a little time off as well, to help out with Flea’s situation. And I’m sure if they need anyone else, they will ask for it.” That was said in the direction of Skin-Head, who had started to say something. Clearly, that was a bit of a long-standing argument between the two of them.

“And Carousel just stayed home tonight,” Wobble informed me. “She needed the night off to spend with some friends who came in from out of town or something. So, you know, she’s just chilling out, playing games, while we’re stuck here watching…” He gestured up to the front. “This.” 

“I don’t know about you,” Amber corrected him, “but I haven’t been watching it for about twenty minutes now.” She looked down the table toward Fragile before adding, “And that was some entrance.” 

Giggling, the girl shifted in her seat. “Yeah? Sorry, I didn’t tell Silversmith about that, or my dad, or… anyone. I just thought it’d be cool to see everyone’s reactions.” 

“Well, it was definitely an exciting introduction,” Wobble confirmed. “I don’t think anyone will forget about it anytime soon.” 

And then it was time for yet another rich, important blowhard to talk. Specifically, my father. As the others continued to chatter, I noticed him get up from the table, give my mother a brief kiss, then start up to the stage. My eyes followed him, and I sat up a bit reflexively. 

There was a strong impulse to stand up and shout out questions about how he divided his attention between his regular business pursuits, leading the Conservators, and being the leader of the secret organization that ran all crime in the city. I didn’t do that, of course.

But boy, was it tempting. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Putting in an appearance at home for a while, I found myself being invited to the dinner party that evening. Invited as myself, that was. For just a moment, the possibility of needing to play a sitcom-style game of going as both Cassidy and Paintball while rapidly switching back and forth between them in closets jumped into my head. Which, of course, would have ended with me sitting down in my dress at the table with my parents while still wearing the helmet on my head, no matter how little sense that made. Wacky, murderous hijinks would certainly have ensued.  

But no, I simply told my parents that I wasn’t really feeling it that night and felt like going to bed pretty soon. They, in turn, let it go pretty easily. I had the feeling they weren’t very surprised about me not wanting to attend some party, even if it was hosted and attended by a bunch of Star-Touched. Maybe they were just happy to think that I wouldn’t be around just in case something went wrong and Dad had to jump into Silversmith duty. Which was a thought that in and of itself gave me pause. Would they give the green light for any Fell-Touched gang shenanigans at an event they themselves were attending? It made sense that they would, given how easy it would be for someone to notice if nothing ever happened at places they went. They were probably even making sure that their own businesses and other assets were hit repeatedly during this whole war, just to avoid any suspicion at all. 

Yeah, I really needed to look that up. Maybe even get an actual list of everything my family had any ownership in and compare it to crimes over the past twenty years to see just how that lined up. I was sure they were careful, especially with my mother making plenty of the decisions. But if I looked closely enough, knowing what sort of things to search through all twenty years, maybe I could actually find some evidence for my family overall profiting from all those crimes in the long run. Say, if they lost a token amount because one business they owned was hit, but had purchased stock in their competitor shortly beforehand. Or something. I wasn’t sure exactly how well that would work, or if it would pan out at all. But it was something to think about. 

In any case, I didn’t need to go to the party tonight. At least, not as myself. But I wasn’t going to completely rule out the possibility of any other sitcom-adjacent antics showing up while I was secretly attending the same party as my parents. I just hoped it stayed firmly in the cheap comedy realm and didn’t mosey its way into the epic drama or tragedy genres. 

Also, it was slightly possible that I was overthinking this whole thing and applying far too many tropes to it. The point was, my parents thought I was staying home. Izzy, on the other hand… well, she was supposedly going over for some tutoring or extra homework or something. That’s the story I was told, in my role as a clueless, obedient daughter who didn’t know anything. In reality, she would be appearing as Raindrop alongside the rest of the Minority. 

Come to think of it, that was probably another reason my parents were fine with me deciding not to go. They might have thought that I would somehow recognize Izzy if we spent time together. Which made me wonder when they planned on telling me about her true identity. If they ever did. Hell, maybe they wanted me to be clueless forever and would send me off to college without opening up about any of it

Bitter, me? 

“You’re brooding, aren’t you?” The words came from next to my window, where Izzy had been standing and looking out at the grounds for the past few minutes. She was ready to head out for her ‘tutoring’ session as soon as my parents were ‘ready to drop her off.’ Yes, the truth was that she would be going with them the whole way. But again, I wasn’t supposed to know any of this yet, so they carried on with the charade. 

Sitting up on my bed, I focused on her and offered a faint smile. “Maybe a little bit, but they say a little brooding now and then is pretty healthy.” 

Izzy raised an eyebrow while moving to sit on one of my nearby heavily-padded footstools. “Who says that?” 

My hand waved dismissively. “Oh, you know. They would’ve introduced themselves, but they were too busy brooding.” With a wink, I pushed myself up. “I’m okay. Sorry, I was just thinking about how long they’re going to keep me in the dark. Or, uhh, think they’re keeping me in the dark. About you, I mean. Have they said anything to you about talking to me?” 

After a brief hesitation, Izzy offered, “Yeah, they did. I mean, they said we should tell you what–um, about my extracurriculars when the time is right. They just, you know, haven’t exactly said when that time is. But your mom brought it up this afternoon. She asked how I would feel if you knew the truth and if I would be comfortable with it. I told her I was okay with telling you and she said to wait a little bit longer. But I think they plan to bring it up pretty soon. Um, do you think they’ll tell you anything… else?” 

My head shook. “If they tell me about you, it’ll be with you right there too. And it’ll probably be a test run. Think about it, they can see exactly how I’ll react to just the short time of being lied to and having Touched-related secrets kept instead of my whole life. It’s like getting to watch me dip my toes in the water, or just splash around in the shallows before they pull me to the deep end to see if I can swim.”

Taking that in, Izzy blanched. “You’re right, telling you the truth about me is gonna be their test for telling you the truth about themselves. It makes sense.” With a visible grimace, she focused on me. “So, how are you going to react when they tell you? About me, I mean.” 

“Uhhh, really convincing surprise?” I offered, before pantomiming slapping my hands against my face like the kid from Home Alone. 

Snickering, Izzy leaned out to kick my shin. “Maybe you should practice. Or, umm, maybe not?” She frowned, clearly trying to decide which way would be better. But before she could, and before I could say anything else, the intercom chimed and announced that my mother was requesting our presence downstairs so Izzy could head out and I could say goodnight. 

Wow, here went nothing, again. The two of us exchanged looks before getting up. We went down, as soon as I made sure I looked sufficiently ready for bed. I had changed into sweatpants and a tee-shirt that hopefully sold the idea that I would be falling asleep shortly after they left. The very last thing I wanted my parents to be doing that night was wondering what I was up to. Which, of course, made me feel like a little kid who was pretending to be sick or something. Only with much higher stakes than being forced to take a math test or something, in this case.  

My parents, of course, looked amazing. They were all dressed up to attend the event, my father in a dashing suit and my mother wearing an elegant gown. Standing in front of them in my bed clothes made the difference between us even more apparent. I would clearly never look the way my mother did in a dress. She was all… perfect, filling the gown out in all the right places, with long dark hair that curled slightly in a way that I could never have gotten mine to do. She was just… she was Elena Evans, a beautiful woman who had appeared on many magazine covers. 

Me? I was Cassidy. No one would ever look at me the way they looked at my mother. Not even if I dressed up the way she was, let alone while I was wearing sweats and a tee-shirt. I almost felt as though my parents should be offended that I was in the same room as them. I certainly didn’t belong there. 

Mom, however, opened her arms and pulled me into a full embrace. I felt her squeeze tight, her voice a tender murmur, “I love you, my principessa. You are everything you need to be.” 

Dad took his turn then, embracing me even more tightly before lifting me off the floor. “We probably won’t be back until after midnight, so don’t wait up. Maybe we’ll go do something fun tomorrow.” 

“Can’t wait,” I made myself say as he set me down. Stepping back, I waved. “Have a good time.” To Izzy, I added, “While you’re at the library, if you see this old lady with white hair that’s pulled back in a bun, and these big glasses with gold rims, don’t tell her you know me. I’m pretty sure she’s still holding a grudge from that whole sledding incident. Which is totally unfair, because that was like five years ago. Ancient history.” 

“Sledding?” Izzy blinked at me. “How do you annoy a librarian by sledding?” 

“When you do it inside the library,” Dad put in. Despite his put-upon sigh, he failed to hide all of his amusement. 

I offered a shrug. “Hey, those stairs were perfect for it. Four stories of steps? Come on. Besides, Noel double-dog dared me. What was I supposed to do, say no?” 

From the look my mother was giving me, saying no was exactly what I was supposed to do. But she didn’t say anything, instead settling on reaching out to gently squeeze my shoulder. “We will be home later tonight. You look very tired. Get some sleep, my beautiful girl.” 

With that, she released me and they all turned to head out. I waved once more, then pivoted and headed back upstairs, moving casually past a couple maids on their way down. As they passed, I smiled and nodded, acting as though I had nothing more interesting to do with my night.  

The facade dropped as soon as I was back in my room with the door shut behind me. Immediately, the mask of casual, bored innocence vanished from my face as I ran to the nearby sliding door and opened it to carefully peek outside. In the distance, I could hear the car engine start up, before a dark SUV with heavily tinted windows pulled into view on its way down the long driveway. There they went. Even now, Izzy was probably in the rear-most row of seats with the divider up so she could change into the costume that had been sitting there waiting for her. Meanwhile, my parents would be sitting in the middle, having a glass of wine while chatting to each other. Would they talk about Ministry business? With the divider up, Izzy wouldn’t be able to hear them, so it was possible. At the very least, I was sure the gang war was giving them plenty to talk about. And plenty of fires for the Ministry to deal with. They had to be allowing the conflict to continue and even escalate the way it was, but I had no idea how far they were willing to let it go. Or how bad it would get before they shut it down. 

Shaking those thoughts off, I moved to lock my bedroom door. Setting the computer to let people know I was asleep, I used purple paint to move the mirror out of the way in my closet, pulled the bag with my costume out, and went back to the balcony. There, I slung the bag over my shoulder, made sure the coast was clear and the cameras weren’t watching, then used red paint to zip my way to the wall. After one more quick glance around, I dropped to the other side and began to sprint through the wilderness at a diagonal toward the road. Once I was clear, I would call for a ride and head over to meet up with Alloy. And then? Well, then we would head for the same party that my parents were going to. 

Suddenly, this was seeming more and more like a bad idea. But what was I supposed to do, tell Peyton we couldn’t go because I was afraid my parents would recognize me? Besides, I’d gotten through a much closer dinner back at Caishen’s place when the Chambers and my parents had been there, without giving anything away. I could totally get through a much larger gathering. With all the other Touched there, I doubted anyone would even pay attention to me. 

Right, good thing I had some time before meeting up with Peyton. Because I was going to need every second to convince myself I wasn’t full of shit. 

*******

Showing up just outside Wren’s, I found Murphy, Roald, and Peyton out in the alley behind the shop. The other two hadn’t bothered to change out of their funeral clothes, though they were pretty dirty by that point. It looked like Murphy in particular had gone mud-sliding in hers or something. She was standing with her back to the nearby dumpster, bouncing a ball off the ground, then the wall, then back into her hand. When I dropped into view, she looked up, her eyes a bit bloodshot, voice audibly strained. “How’s it going, Boss? Heard you dropped by.” 

“I–” My voice caught a bit, before I managed a weak, “Yeah, I wanted to–I mean I thought I should–fuck. I’m sorry. I wanted to watch and be there, even if it didn’t really matter.” 

“It mattered,” Murphy informed me, her own voice cracking slightly. “Believe me, it mattered.” It looked like she was about to say something else, but in the end, she just closed her mouth tightly, gripped the ball, and looked away. 

Roald spoke instead, standing nearer to the shop door with a phone in one hand. “We were just wishing Alloy good luck at that dinner thing tonight. Sounds like it’s gonna be a real… umm, something.” 

Grimacing despite myself, I nodded emphatically. “Oh, it’s bound to be a real something, that’s for sure. Probably a bunch of rich people standing around, patting each other on the back, throwing some money around like it’s water, and giving speeches that last way too long.” 

Alloy snorted, “Listen to him, talking like he’s been to sooo many of these things.” She gave me a look. “Admit it, you’re interested in seeing how this whole thing goes too.” 

Well, at least my cover was intact. Forcing myself to sound casual, I replied, “I have a feeling we’ll be pretty bored before the night is over.” 

“By which,” Murphy put in while turning back to face me once more, “he means he really hopes he’s bored. Because the alternative is that something went wrong again and everything is on fire.” She offered a weak smile by the end of that, before immediately ducking her gaze once more with a guilty look as thoughts of her brother clearly intruded. 

“Come on,” I spoke up, gesturing toward the door. “Let’s go inside for a few minutes. You can tell us about Tyson.” 

“What?” She blinked at that, confused and uncertain. “You don’t want to hear me talk about my brother again. You’ve got that party to go to.” 

“And we will, later,” I confirmed. “But we’ve got some time right now. I’m not in a rush, believe me. That dinner will still be there later. And yes, I do want to hear you talk about your brother again.” But far more importantly, she needed to talk about him. That much was obvious. 

Giving me a long, appraising look, Murphy finally shook her head and muttered, “You’re a really weird kid, you know that?”  

With a quick, easy nod, I agreed, “People have said that now and then. Now come on. Roald, you still got those cards you’ve been playing with at the tunnel?” 

“Uhh, yeah?” He dug in his pocket to come out with the worn deck. 

“Great.” Giving him a thumbs up, I waved with the other hand for everyone to go inside. “Then let’s get in there and see if Wren wants to play. 

“If we’re going to be a dangerous influence, we might as well teach her poker while we’re at it.” 

*******

We did not have to teach Wren poker. Not only did the kid already know how to play, she cleaned our clocks. 

Honestly, I should have realized something was up as soon as Fred had a coughing fit when I brought up the idea of teaching her how to play. At the time, I’d thought that he was just stopping himself from objecting. But no, now I realized he had definitely been laughing. 

It was still worth it though. For about forty minutes, we’d sat around the table in the shop and played cards while letting Murphy tell stories about Tyson. There were good stories, bad stories, sad ones, and ones that made even Murphy laugh. At least, until she cried again. 

Wren had clearly won the games. But I was pretty sure Murphy had won a good bit too, just from being there. She had needed that far more than Peyton and I needed to get to the party. 

Still, we did need to make an appearance. So the two of us eventually said our goodbyes, left the others to play without us, and headed out together. 

Once outside, we made our way to the nearby roof and I used the handy dandy GPS mapping function that Wren had included in my helmet to tell me which way to go to the place the Seraphs were using for this whole party thing. They weren’t having it on Seraph grounds, but rather at a large convention center a mile or so away from there. I wasn’t sure exactly why, unless it had to do with the size of the crowd or something. Which itself was pretty odd. This was just a thing for rich people, right? How many rich people could there be? 

Either way, it was bound to be incredibly well-protected. But then again, the mayor’s fundraiser event across from the children’s hospital had been well-protected too, and look how that went. 

“You think something bad is gonna happen tonight?” Peyton asked, as we stood on the edge of that roof. 

“Okay, one, you are entirely too good at reading my emotions considering you can’t see my face,” I informed her with a look. 

“Body language, Boss,” she replied easily, shrugging. “I can’t help it if you’re basically an open book.” 

Snorting despite myself, I waved a hand. “That’s me, open book. Uh, anyway, two, I want us to be prepared in case it does. I don’t think anyone in any of the main gangs will try anything at an event that’s gonna have that many Star-Touched and other armed people around, but I wouldn’t put it past the Scions to try something just to lash out at people for…” 

“For what we did,” the other girl finished for me, her voice flat. 

Wincing a little, I put a hand out to touch her arm. “We did the right thing.” Yet even as I said that, I felt a pang of guilt. Jolene Iverson had been murdered specifically because she reported on the information we exposed. Right thing or not, if we hadn’t exposed Pencil and Cup’s true identities, she would still be alive. 

Yes, they would have killed people anyway, and exposing their identities was a real step toward catching them… maybe. It was the right thing to do. And yet…

And yet the pain in my stomach whenever I thought about Jolene Iverson and the people who had cared about her still remained.

Staring at me through that moment of silent introspection, Peyton quietly murmured, “Yup, definitely an open book.” It was her turn to reach out to squeeze my arm then. “I… for some reason I always forget I’m sort of the older one here. It doesn’t seem like it. You’re just so–” Cutting herself off, she sighed. “I’m sorry you have to be the mature one.” 

Oh boy was there ever a lot I wanted to say to that. Instead, I forced all of it down and simply turned to look at her once more. “I’m just glad I have people to talk to now. And someone to go with me to this party.” 

“Changing the subject?” she asked, as the extra marbles turned into question marks around her head. 

“Yup,” I confirmed. “Did it work?” 

With a quiet chuckle, Peyton gestured. “Sure. We uhh, we can talk about that later.” 

Giving her a thumbs up, I turned back to the edge of the roof. “Great, for now let’s go party. I don’t know about you, but I am starving. And if something does happen, I’d like to deal with it after eating.” 

“Didn’t you say the food thing is supposed to come after all the boring speeches?” she pointed out. “You know, as the last possible thing.” 

“Oh my God, you’re right,” I agreed. “We’re doomed.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-08 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Good,” I managed after a moment. 

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

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Kith And Kin 20-07 (Summus Proelium)

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The drive out of that place honestly wasn’t that long, though it seemed like forever. I kept having to resist the urge to look around too much. It felt like there were eyes on us constantly. Which, to be fair, there certainly were. The plants were all spies. Which was a really creepy thing to think about whenever I happened to glance at the various bushes and trees. Any of them could have been watching and listening, all the time. To say nothing of the animals, which I was pretty sure were also spies. Yeah, I had no idea how the people in here lived like this, because it was freaking me out just being there for a few minutes.  

Dad, of course, didn’t seem bothered at all. He had turned around in the seat and was asking Izzy what she thought about her new friend. Not enough to seem overly pushy or anything, but he was definitely curious about all that. Izzy, for her part, simply said that he was nice and that he’d done a lot of work on their project. Belatedly, she added that his sister was ‘intense.’ I had to bite my lip hard to avoid giving a response to that. 

Judging from the quick look that Dad gave me, I hadn’t entirely suppressed the reaction. He chuckled very faintly before giving a short nod. “Yes, I suppose intense is one word for it. And hey, I can tell you this much, from what I saw of that project of yours…” He whistled low. “That’s A-plus work right there. Really well put together, and with some nice sources. If that school isn’t careful, I might just hire the both of you right now and put you to work as research interns in one of the firms.” 

“Don’t let him make you interns,” I put in immediately. “Tell him it’s associate or no deal. Wait, no, tell him executive and then let him negotiate you down to associate.” 

“Awww.” Dad gave me a proud look. “You have been listening to your old man.” 

Forcing the lump away that tried to form in my throat, I offered a shrug. “Yeah, well, sometimes you talk louder than the television and it’s hard to tune you out.”

Dad, in turn, offered me a beaming smile, hand reaching out to squeeze my shoulder. “That’s one of my best strategies! Talk too loud for the other person to ignore. You girls should write that down, it’s a good one.” 

There were a few things I wanted to say, involving him making offers someone else couldn’t refuse, but I bit my lip and held back. That was a rabbit hole that I really didn’t want to start going down. Instead, I shifted the conversation to asking about how their trip went. Not enough to seem like I was actually fishing for real information or anything, but not asking anything about it at all would also have been suspicious. So I pushed just a little bit, as though I was slightly jealous about being left behind. Or just trying to angle for presents or a different trip sometime. 

Unsurprisingly, my dad didn’t tell me what they were really doing. He just played it off as another boring old business trip and kept changing the subject over to talking about things we had done while they were gone. Of course, we couldn’t tell him most of it, so we were all lying to each other. Though at least, hopefully, only one side actually knew that. 

On Dad’s suggestion, we stopped for some exotic ice cream on the way back. It was a new place that had apparently been getting a lot of good reviews. The guy behind the counter couldn’t have been much older than me, but he sure knew a lot about ice cream. He talked up the different processes of making it (apparently they did their own fresh on-site), and managed to make it interesting. He was a cute guy too, Asian with longish hair that had this thin green streak in it, and amber eyes. His nametag read Maki. 

In any case, he had a lot of good suggestions for flavors to try, and let us sample several. And the reviews were right, this place was great. Maki was funny, charming, and to top everything off, he could juggle. Yeah, he put on a show right there while we were deciding what flavors to get, casually tossing three pints and the ice cream scoop through the air in a circle. I even took a picture of him in the middle of that. With his permission, naturally. 

Finally, we ended up picking out flavors we all wanted, and also got a couple pints for Mom and Simon as well before heading out. On the way, as we went back to the car, I shook my head. “Wow, I haven’t even heard of that place yet. That thing says they only opened a week and a half ago, how’d you know about them already? You were out of town.” Even as the words slipped out of my mouth, I was regretting the accidental possible push against their cover story. 

Dad, however, simply replied, “From Kent Jackson, actually. He had a lot to say about the place. Apparently his son–oh.” In mid-sentence, he abruptly stopped talking. 

“What?” Blinking that way, I started to reflexively ask what was wrong. Then I realized. I remembered. Tomas had said that he was going on a date with ‘a guy who worked at an ice cream shop.’ “That guy back there, Maki. Tomas is dating him.” 

Dad was wincing. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I completely forgot that was where I heard about this place until you asked. Do you want to take the ice cream back? Or toss it and go get it from somewhere else?” 

Swallowing, I shook my head. “No, no. It’s not the ice cream’s fault. And it’s not Maki’s fault either. And it’s not Tomas’s fault. It’s nobody’s–it’s not–it’s fine. We were already broken up. We didn’t–it’s fine. It’s ice cream. Let’s go eat some ice cream.” Under my breath, I muttered, “I need it now.” 

So, we headed back for the house. And all I could think about the entire way was how differently I would have felt right now if I didn’t know the truth. If I didn’t know what was really going on, I would have a new pseudo-little sister living with me, ice cream, my parents back after a long trip, and I would be driving my dream car. It really would be perfect. Well, aside from the whole ‘getting that ice cream from my ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend’ thing, but even that wasn’t horrible. Hell, if that was the worst thing about today, it would’ve been pretty good. A pretty good day. And that was exactly what my father thought he was giving me. Because he had missed me and was trying to do something fun. He was trying to make me happy. 

He was a good dad. A good dad who did some really terrible other things. Even evil things. But that was what made this whole thing so hard. It was what made it so confusing. Well, that and the fact that the Ministry obviously did some actual good things as well. Like Peyton had said, there were positives to them. But there were a hell of a lot of negatives too. Like, for example, everything about last night. Yeah, they let the man who murdered Murphy’s brother (and several others) just get away because he paid them. That was… bad. Really bad. 

It was all so complicated, frustratingly so. But at least I had people who knew enough to help me right now. We were going to build that tunnel and get into the secret base. We would find everything we could about the Ministry’s business and figure out where to go from there. We just… had to be careful about it. And obviously try to make sure that they didn’t realize it was us doing it. That was going to be the real hard part, and something that would take a lot of time and planning.

But for now, I had to make sure my family didn’t get suspicious about anything. Which meant playing my role as the clueless daughter (and little sister) who didn’t know a damn thing about what was going on. So, as I parked the car in the garage, I put my game face on and gave Dad a sly look. “See how safe that was? In a couple more months, when I get my licence, you won’t have anything to worry about.” 

Dad, in turn, snorted. “Yeah, kid, I’m sure you’ll always drive exactly the same way you do when I’m literally sitting right next to you. Actually, you should keep that in mind. Whenever you’re out there, assuming that day ever comes, just pretend that I’m sitting right here in this seat. And you know, obviously that means you can’t have anyone else sitting here. I don’t like to share seats.” 

Snorting despite myself, I made a point of rolling my eyes at him before getting out. Then I tossed him the keys. “Believe it or not, I’m not going to make a habit of pretending my father is sitting in the car with me no matter where I go. And I’m sure as hell not going to tell my friends that they can’t sit in the front seat because my imaginary father has dibs.” 

Making a show of huffing as though offended, Dad retorted, “I don’t see why not. I’m cool. I’m hip. Your friends would be lucky to have me grace them with my presence on a trip to the juice bar.” He winked then, before laughing at my expression. “Isn’t that right, Izzy?” 

She had just gotten out of the car herself, managing a quick, “Sure, juice bar, dads sitting in the front seat of cars, imaginary something or other.” She was pretending to be very engrossed in her phone, which made a pretty convenient distraction. 

The three of us grabbed the bags of ice cream pints and headed inside. I had only just made it through the door from the garage into the long hall (it served as a buffer to keep noise and fumes from the cars from getting into any useful rooms) beyond, when my mother seemed to materialize out of nowhere, blurting my name. The next thing I knew, she had pulled me into a tight embrace. It took me a second to stop myself from freezing up, but I managed to return it. God, my mom. I had missed her so much. My dad too. Both of them. Seeing them, hugging them, hearing them, just being with them reminded me how much I loved them despite everything. Soon, I found myself clinging to her even more tightly than I intended. Sure, the revulsion of what happened last night still rolled through my stomach, but I couldn’t help my reaction to actually being around them again after they had been gone. 

“Mom,” I managed, my voice cracking just a little bit. Which just made my stomach flip over even more. I almost hated myself at that moment. I thought about what Murphy was going through and quickly released my mother before stepping back. It was all I could do not to turn around and run right back out of the house, through the garage, and just keep going. And boy would that have been fun to try to explain later. Yet, despite knowing just what a bad idea that was, it was still so tempting. And it wasn’t all because of what they had done, or what they helped do. A large part of my sudden rush of revulsion was at my own reaction to them. I missed them so much, seeing my mother like this made me so happy that I immediately felt like I was betraying my friends, like I was betraying Murphy. I was–it was–fuck. 

Mom, however, didn’t know anything about that. I wiped it off my face by the time she smiled down at me, hands on my shoulders. “My dear, sweet Principessa. I’m so happy to be home now. That was far too long to be away.” 

Somehow, I managed to stop myself from asking how long it would be if they went to prison for all the stuff they had helped do. Not that I wasn’t tempted. Forcing that thought away as well, I instead asked, “Does this mean that you’re not going away again for a while?” 

“Oh, Princess.” Smiling fondly, my mother tugged me into another embrace. “I certainly hope not. That was more than enough for me.” 

“Me too,” Dad put in, as he and Izzy came through the door. It certainly didn’t take that long for them to cross the last few feet in the garage, so they had obviously stayed back to give me a moment with Mom. Which, of course, had left Izzy alone with my father. I briefly wondered how she felt about that, which just made my stomach clench yet again. God, this whole situation from her point of view was probably just as bad as it was from mine, if not worse. 

Meanwhile, Mom was already stepping over to take Izzy’s hands, squeezing them with a fond smile before pulling the girl into an embrace too. Her voice was a gentle murmur. “Izzy, my dear, I missed you as well. I hope the staff treated you properly. How are you?” 

Looking slightly overwhelmed (which was understandable, even from my parents’ point of view), Izzy took a second to find her voice. “Thank you, ma’am. Um, Mrs. Evans. I’m okay.” 

“More than okay, I hope, since we brought ice cream.” Dad held up the bags in question, gesturing. “Now come on, let’s get to the kitchen so we can eat this before it melts all over the place and make a mess. You really don’t want to make Olivia find someone to clean up melted ice cream off the carpet at four in the afternoon.” 

Mom, of course, had a few (mostly teasing) words for Dad bringing home ice cream a couple hours before dinner. But she didn’t put a stop to it, which is what really told me just how much they had missed us. Any other time, she would have told him to put it in the freezer until later. 

In the dining room, we had just started to set the ice cream containers out on the table when another voice spoke up from the opposite doorway. “Well, if it isn’t the tiniest stranger.” 

Simon. Hearing his voice, I really had to stop myself from visibly flinching. After the fight we’d had the night before, it was hard not to jump or recoil a bit. Not that he knew anything about that. He had no way of knowing about the wave of revulsion and anger that swept through me as I thought about him actually fighting to help the man who had murdered Murphy’s brother escape. He certainly had no way of knowing that I was the one he had been fighting against to do that. And, just like Mom and Dad, he couldn’t find out or realize.

So, just as I had been doing this whole time, I shoved down my immediate reaction and turned to face him. “Oh great, they brought you back too?” My voice cracked just a little bit, but I hoped he didn’t notice. “I hope you at least had the decency to bring me a present.” 

“Sure did, the gift of my presence.” With a broad smirk, he waggled his eyebrows at me. “Get it? Gift of presence? Pres–” He grunted as I kicked him in the shin. Which, after last night, I knew for a fact he let me get away with. If he had wanted to, he could catch my foot and put me on my back without even thinking about it. 

“Now, no fighting,” Mom chided. “Come and take your seats for early dessert.” She said that with a look at my father that made it clear this was a special thing and he shouldn’t think it was okay all of the time. 

Of course, once we were all eating, Izzy and I both had to talk even more about the stuff we’d been doing while they were away. And, as far as that went, I was proud to find that we managed to make our answers sufficiently boring enough to make Simon feign falling asleep (of course, prompting Mom to give him a sharp poke). But the point was, he wasn’t suspicious. None of them were. We kept it boring without being obvious about hiding things. And pushed slightly for information about how their trip went without being obvious about trying to catch them in any lies. 

And we had decent ice cream. Okay, very good ice cream. Remarkably good. My ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend’s ice cream shop was amazing. That was the cherry on top of the whole night. Also my ice cream had cherries in it. 

In any case, we hung out for the rest of the evening like that. Dad suggested a movie in the theater, so we went there and watched this comedy western thing before dinner, which we had about an hour later than usual thanks to the whole ice cream thing. Then Mom wanted to do something together, so we played a board game in one of the dens. All of us, my parents, Simon, Izzy, and me. It was all so weirdly normal and casual. Mom and Dad acted like… Mom and Dad. Simon was Simon. We played several games, I accused my brother of cheating, jumped on his back, Mom told us to settle down, Dad laughed, we all laughed. 

And then Izzy and I went upstairs, and the second the door of my bedroom closed behind us, the smile wiped itself off my face like someone had flipped a switch. I slumped back against the door, eyes closing for a moment as I let out a long breath and let the stress of pretending everything was fine throughout the entire evening slide out of me. 

When my eyes opened once more, Izzy was standing a few feet away, watching me a bit pensively as she quietly asked, “Are you okay?” 

“Not much worse than usual,” I replied quietly before shaking my head. “I mean, wow. That was hard.” Swallowing, I moved away from the door while continuing. “I sort of… forgot what it was like to be face to face with them, knowing all these things. And after last night… after Simon–” Cutting myself off, I put my hands against my face and gave a slight shudder. “Sorry, I’m okay. I’m… I’m okay. I–” 

The next thing I knew, Izzy took both of my arms and gently pulled my hands down from my face so she could look at me. Her voice was gentle. “It’s okay… to not be okay.” 

Unable to find my voice for a moment, I settled on simply taking a small step that way and embracing her. She returned it, and we stood there like that for a few seconds before I managed a weak, “Thanks. You being here means a lot.” 

Eventually, she released me and asked, “Are you going out tonight?” 

I thought about it, but shook my head. “No, after last night, I need some extra sleep to catch up. Besides, Roald and Murphy are gonna need a couple days before they do anything else. Preferably more than that, but I don’t know how long we can stop Murphy from trying to go off to do something on her own. I need to talk to Paige and Raige about that whole Irelyn thing, but that can wait. I’m just gonna crash and try to turn everything off for awhile. I’m pretty sure there’ll be plenty to do soon enough anyway.” 

With a nod of agreement, Izzy headed out. I got ready for bed, ordered the lights to go out, and then laid down. My head was on the pillow and I started to drift off almost immediately, my thoughts winding down. 

And then I sat up. With two words, I ordered the lights to come back on, before sitting there in bed as my mind raced. Pushing myself over to the edge, I grabbed my Touched phone and quickly typed out a message to Amber, along with an attachment. 

Does this look familiar? 

After that, I waited anxiously for what felt like forever (but was really only about thirty seconds) until I saw the notification that she was typing. Soon, the message came back. 

That’s him. That’s him, how did you get that? 

Seeing that, I breathed out and slumped back. I was right. The realization that had struck me just before I was about to fall asleep was correct. I had to let that wash over me for a few seconds. 

Finally, I straightened a bit and typed out two more quick messages for Amber. 

The sex-shifting person you saw is named Maki. They work at an ice cream shop.

Tomas is dating them. 

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Patreon Snippets 22B (Summus Proelium)

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Elena and Sterling

As the door into the private hotel suite swung open, Elena Evans glanced up from the chair where she was sitting on the other side of the front living room. Two spoken words made the television pause in the middle of a news broadcast, freezing the reporter’s face while she was explaining exactly what had happened to expose the true identities of Pencil and Cup. Or at least, what was publicly known. Elena, however, had a much better source, who was coming in the room at that very moment. And a more pressing concern in that instant.

“Is she alright?” the woman asked, rising from the seat.  

Sterling, closing the door after him, gave her an immediate nod. “Izzy’s fine,” he assured her. “I spoke to her a bit as Silversmith. She’s not hurt or anything. She and Amber played the cavalry for Paintball and that new one, Alloy. Turns out they were smart enough not to all go in at once.” 

Darkly, Elena noted, “Yet not smart enough to pull in more help before investigating something like the Scions.” Taking a breath before letting it out to calm herself, the woman reached down to pick up a glass of wine, taking a sip from it before pursing her lips thoughtfully. “I know we decided it was best to leave the boy alone so long as he does not cause direct problems. But now he has taken Izzy into that sort of situation. However well-meaning he may be, he still helped put her in danger. What would we do if he had put Cassidy in that situation?”

With a grimace, Sterling shook his head. “That’s immaterial, because she would never be in a situation like that. She’s not a part of all this. Which, remember, was intentional. She gets to have a normal life for as long as possible before we involve her.” 

Elena took another sip of the wine while gazing steadily at him. “That’s not the point. If she was pulled into that sort of danger, the very first thing you would do is have a talk with that boy about responsibilities and being careful. And what can happen if he’s not.” She held up the hand that wasn’t holding the wine glass. “I’m not saying go after him too hard. I’m just saying maybe have a chat with him. Make sure he knows just how badly this could have gone and that the next time he has important information that could lead to that sort of danger, he needs to involve others. Adult others, who have the experience and resources to deal with it. And while you’re at it, maybe you should talk to Amber as well. She really should have known to involve someone else as soon as the Scions were mentioned.” 

“You’re right, but I’ll give it a few days,” Sterling replied. “Right now everything that we want to say to them is already playing through their heads. Believe me, I could hear it in their voices. Give it time to calm down a little bit. Let them work their way through all the what-ifs. Then I’ll talk to them and make sure it sticks. If we push too hard, too fast, it will just make them defensive. Let their own imaginations be the bad guys first.” 

With a very small smile, Elena set the glass down and stepped over to wrap her arms around him. “You have learned a lot over the years,” she informed her husband fondly, running her hands up his back. “Is that from running our business, or raising a couple of children?”  

“I think the correct answer is yes,” he replied with a chuckle as his arms closed around her. He held his wife close and rocked back and forth with her for a moment, both of them instinctively moving to the imagined sound of the song that had played during their first dance as a married couple. It was also the first one they had danced to while dating. Their song was “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by the band Starship. It was their thing, because their first date, all those years ago, had been… rather different. Elena’s father had sent goons after her to find out who she was breaking away to see, and if he had known that it was one of his very own junior accountants, Sterling never would have survived the night. The two of them had been forced to hide out in the attic of some old woman for hours while the men scoured the streets. There had been a television and ancient VCR up there, along with a single video tape, for the original Mannequin film. Thus, that had been their first real date, sitting in an attic, watching a VHS recording of a movie that was already over a decade old at that point on a small television. And it was still one of the best memories either of them had. 

After a few long moments of that, Elena quietly spoke up. “I don’t want anything to happen to Izzy. That girl deserves… she deserves everything. If they’d been taken by those psychopaths…” She trailed off then, though the tension was evident in her body language. 

Sterling, in turn, held her closer. “I’ll talk to them,” he promised in a gentle voice, “and make sure they know that there are people they can call for help in situations like that. If not me, then others. They did call Flea afterward, so there’s already a connection with her. As long as they talk to someone, we should find out.” He leaned back, putting both hands on her shoulders. “She’s okay, Elena. Izzy’s fine. She’s a tough kid, you know that. We both do. She’ll be okay. And if she gets close to Paintball, that’s one more in that we have with the kid when the time comes to actually do something about that whole situation.”

“Izzy’s safety comes first, before any of that,” Elena reminded him pointedly. “She’s been through too much for us to put her in deliberate danger.” 

“No deliberate danger,” Sterling agreed. “She’s too important for that. She and Cassidy both. They’ve been getting closer, you know. Always hanging out together in that game room. Selena said she saw them sleeping together in Cassidy’s bed the other morning.” 

The words made Elena smile. “Good,” she murmured, “I’m glad they’re getting along. Those two…” She exhaled thoughtfully, turning a bit to pick up her wine glass once more. “Perhaps we can tell them the truth together, explain it all to them when the time comes. Izzy is already involved in the… Touched side of things. It won’t be as hard to tell her why our way keeps the situation from spiraling too far out of control. She’s seen how terrible things can be.” 

“Maybe.” With that word, Sterling fell silent, thinking for a moment before his head shook. “Either way, in the meantime, it’s best we encourage those two to be as close as possible. Maybe she’ll be comfortable telling Cassidy about her… extracurricular activities soon.” 

“Perhaps we should encourage that, gently,” Elena noted. “She may confide things with Cassidy then, including any future possible danger. And you know how Cassidy is. 

“If she knows something, she’ll tell us.” 

******

Cup and Pencil

The newscaster’s voice was interrupted mid-speech by the sound of an enraged scream. That was immediately followed by a loud crash as a heavy lamp was hurled into the television, destroying both as the flat screen fell onto its back with a shower of broken glass. 

“Would it make you feel better if we did that to the annoying twat herself?” Pencil asked curiously, as he lounged in a recliner on the other side of the room. It was meant to be a reading corner, as this place had, at one point, been a fairly popular bookstore. But it had been closed for over a year (thanks to the mysterious death of the owner, who had dared to say something annoying), and was only one of several private and secure hideouts that the Scions had set up long ago. Now, most of the books were gone, though the shelves remained. It was on one of those that the television had been placed. 

There was a small apartment area in the back of the building where the former owner had lived, and the Scions had installed a heavy-duty freezer down in the basement. Between what was in there, and the pantry they had been sure to stock up, there were enough supplies in this place for up to ten people to live comfortably for as long as six months, without stepping foot outside. Things weren’t that bad, nowhere near. Most of the Scions’ identities were still secure, and there were always disguises for those who weren’t. But if the time came and they really had to go underground until the heat died off, it wouldn’t be a problem. At least, not as far as being fed went. 

Pivoting to face her brother as she stood, panting from the anger that still filled her even after taking it out on the news broadcast that had been reporting about their identities, Amanda retorted, “The reporter? You know, fun as that would be, since I never liked that sanctimonious cunt, I’ve got a few better targets in mind.”  

“I’m sure you do,” Nick agreed, pushing himself up from his chair. “And yet, I’m afraid they’ll be a little out of our reach for the moment. But don’t worry, I’ll make sure you have a few appetizers as a warm-up while we wait for a good opening. After all, you don’t want to be so angry that you let the poor dears go and die on us too early. You know how disappointed you were after we grabbed your old English teacher and you got too excited. You had two weeks of fun activities planned and then you just cut her throat the second she recognized you. We can do better than that. Work out your frustration on smaller fish. Then, when we have the real deal in front of us, you can have a lot more fun.” 

Stepping over that way, he took his sister’s hands and tugged her close for a long, lingering kiss. “Now, babe, why don’t you tell me exactly what happened, from the top.” He had waited until now, aside from getting the basics so that he would know how bad it was, because he wanted to give her time to calm down slightly. But he didn’t want to wait too long. 

A brief glower crossed the young woman’s face before she caught herself and sighed. “Fine. But I want you to hold me while I do. Otherwise I’ll just get worked up again and break another TV.” 

“We’ve got plenty,” Nick assured her. Still, he tugged the girl with him back over to the recliner and sat down while pulling Amanda onto his lap. “There we go. Now tell Saint Nick all about what you want for Christmas. And what happened back at the apartment.” 

“I want a paring knife and those kids strapped down to a table,” Amanda snarled before shifting against him with another sigh as she pushed on. “As for what happened, we got so fucking close to having those fucking shits. They were right…” She grimaced, forcing her anger down before it got the better of her. With some effort, she pushed through the whole story of what had happened from the moment those three had appeared on her balcony. Nick was quiet and didn’t interrupt, allowing her to go off on just a couple tangents about what she wanted to do before gently squeezing her leg as a reminder to stay on task. 

Once she had finally finished, Nick reached up to brush his hand through her hair gently. His voice was quiet. “Well, you know you really should have called in help immediately, and left with the brats as soon as you had them secure. There’s a reason we had Scions stationed so close.” 

“I know, I know,” the girl sulked. “I should have called in the others and then those other fucks wouldn’t have been able to get out so easily. Maybe we could have held on to at least one of them then.” Her voice was mournful, regretting the loss of that opportunity. “Can you imagine how much fun we’d be having right now with that Paintboy, or his new sidekick? Ooh, imagine sending pieces of her to him. Just think about his face.” A giggle escaped her, as she excited herself with the thought. 

“Such a loss,” Nick agreed. “But we’ll have our moment with them. We just have to be patient.” 

“Buuuut Nick, being patient is boring,” Amanda lamented while curling up against him with her arms around his neck. “You must have plans for something fun we can do, right?” The words came in a quiet, thoroughly distracting purr. 

A slight chuckle escaped him while he leaned back and tilted her chin up so he could kiss her once more. “You know I can’t really deny you things when you use that voice. But we do need to be careful. People know our faces right now, babe. We can’t walk around like we used to. Not yet, anyway. I’ve got some plans for that.”

“Oooh!” Shifting playfully, Amanda ran her fingers up along his cheek. “I knew you’d have something. Tell me, tell me, tell me. I wanna know all about them.” 

“Later,” he promised while catching her hand and squeezing it. “There’s still a few things to take care of. And we need to stay off the radar for a while. Paintball and those other shits get a pass for now. But their moment will come, sooner or later. You’ll get your chance with the paring knife.”

Tugging her over to lay her head back on his shoulder, the man added pointedly. “But in the meantime, why don’t we order delivery?” 

Curious, Amanda asked, “You want food right now?” 

“Actually,” he replied, “I was thinking of sending one of the boys out to grab that reporter. 

“After all, you never liked that sanctimonious cunt.” 

******* 

Melissa (Blackjack’s daughter) 

“There, drill there, use the drill there!” Sitting on the floor in Melissa Abbot’s bed/hospital room, Isaiah Coleman pointed at the screen while gesturing emphatically. In public, the man (who could have been mistaken for a young Lando Calrissian in his late twenties) was known as the Fell-Touched Hardway. But at the moment, he was dressed very casually, simply sitting on a pillow while excitedly blurting, “You can’t miss the chest, it’s got the extra component. We need that to fix the cannon on the ship so we can blow the living fudge out of that pirate lady.” 

In one life, the man was an insurance salesman with a wife and a son who was three years old. In his other life, he was one of the most versatile and effective Touched in the city (his power allowed him to manipulate motion and inertia of both himself and anything within six feet). But right now? Right now he was simply excitedly calling out directions for the room’s other occupant. The person who actually lived here. 

Melissa, meanwhile, clutched the controller in both hands, her gaze intent on the large monitor. Cassidy Inawhile (the stuffed pink crocodile on a skateboard) and Inspector Guillotine (the detective bear in the trenchcoat and deerstalker hat) sat in front of her where she had positioned them. “I know, I know!” she called out, twisting her entire body to the side while rapidly pressing buttons as she fought to deal with the enemies on-screen fast enough to use the drill properly without being interrupted. She was a slender, slight girl, a bit too small for her age of nine thanks to years of growing up while affected by the terrible Rot Bone disease. Though incredibly lucky in the sense that she had survived the disease far longer than anyone else with that level of infection, it had still hurt her growth. She looked more like a seven-year-old than her actual age, and (assuming she continued to survive), that would follow her into the future. She would always be smaller than her peers. Her light brown hair was worn in a loose braid, and the girl was dressed in a set of black sweatpants with gold lightning bolts across them, and a white tank top that had an anthropomorphic blue unicorn strumming an electric guitar. 

“I got it, I got it, I got it…” the girl chanted, her words more hope than declaration. The last enemy on the screen was being a real pain, and if her character died here, they’d have to go through a lot to find their way back to this spot. She bit her lip and hit the dodge button, gasping as a shot came close. “You do it!” she blurted as her finger found the pause. “I can’t, I can’t kill him!” 

“You can,” came the immediate response from Isaiah as he shifted his weight a bit but made no move to actually take the controller. “You’ve got this. That punk’s nothing. Not anymore. You can chew him up and spit him out for breakfast.” 

With a giggle, the girl looked that way. “You spit out your breakfast, Uncle Isaiah? That’s weird.” 

Glancing that way, the man offered her a wink. “It’s possible I mixed my metaphors.” After a brief pause, he asked, “You know what a metaphor is?”  

She, in turn, gave a short nod. “Uh huh. I read a lot,” Melissa murmured while glancing toward the nearby bed. It was a bed she had spent many, many hours of every day in, to avoid stressing her bones. She read a lot and also wrote a lot. She made up stories and told them to her father, and to anyone else who would listen. In a way, she both loved and hated that bed. It was comfort and safety, and she was so happy to still be alive. She knew how lucky she was. Even at her young age, circumstances demanded that she mature to the point of understanding what this disease meant, and how incredible her survival was. She had known what death meant for years. The bed meant she was safe. And yet, the bed was also symbolic of the fact that she had never been able to go anywhere else. She couldn’t go out of the room, she couldn’t run around and play with other kids, definitely couldn’t go to school, couldn’t really live like so many others did so casually every day. 

As much as Melissa lived her life through reading and through writing her own stories, that couldn’t entirely replace everything she wanted to do. The stories allowed her some level of escape, as did these video games. But there was only so much they could do. The girl who dreamed of flying could hardly take an unaided step too quickly without risking a fractured ankle or leg.

Seeing where she was looking, Isaiah quietly asked, “So, how are you doing lately, kid? How’s that medicine working out for you? Helping get you back to where you were?” 

After a brief hesitation, the girl gave a very short nod. “It helps,” she murmured softly. “I can walk with my crutches a little bit now. Just around the room. Dad doesn’t want me to go any further.” 

“He’s just looking out for you,” Isaiah assured her. “You know that, right?”  

Once more, her head bobbed. “I know. But I think I make him sad. Sometimes when he thinks I’m asleep, he’ll stand in the doorway over there and watch me for a long time. I think he misses my mom. But he doesn’t want to talk about her. He never wants to talk about her.” 

Swallowing hard as a flood out of his own memories passed through his mind, Isaiah forced himself to respond. “You’re wrong about that, kid. You definitely don’t make him sad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the boss happier than when he’s with you.” 

Meeting his gaze intently for a few long seconds, Melissa slowly replied, “I’m gonna get better, you know. I’m going to be able to walk out with my crutches, and then without them. I’m going to walk and then run all the way outside. I’m gonna jump on a trampoline. I’m gonna go skateboarding, like Cassidy.” She indicated the stuffed toy by her leg. “This bone stuff, it’s gonna lose. I’m gonna kick its butt. And then I’m coming for the world’s butt.” 

With a small smile, Isaiah reached out to very gently brush her hair. “I’m gonna hold you to that, kid. Pretty sure we’ll all hold you to it. Now how about we start with beating this guy right–” 

“Uncle Isaiah, what’s that?” Melissa abruptly interrupted, raising a hand to point past him. 

“What’s what?” He started to turn that way. 

She, meanwhile, leaned up and reached past him, toward something hovering directly behind the man. “That. 

“The glowing ball thingie.” 

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Commissioned Interlude 8 – The Bees And The Termites (Summus Proelium)

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At one time, a road had led all the way into Merit, Kansas. Back when there had been an actual Merit, Kansas. Before a series of mistakes, overreactions, and bonehead decisions by relatively few people had doomed not only the first contact between humans and an intelligent hive of Touched-Termites. A few paranoid, drunk types who happened to be the first people the termites attempted to contact. They, of course, lashed out and killed a lot of them. Then they went to get their friends to chase down more, trying to wipe out the ‘monsters.’ By the time anyone with actual authority (or simply a brain between their ears) knew anything about what was going on, the war had already begun. And it was a war the human citizens of Merit lost, as soon as the termites began to melt down every material object in the city with that fog stuff they could project.

It was Mayor Gilbert Sullivan (yes, he had heard all the jokes) who had made the decision to evacuate. Many in the town had wanted to stay. Now that the fighting had started in earnest, they figured it wouldn’t be hard to stomp on, poison, or otherwise kill the termites if they just stuck it out. But Gilbert, a very young mayor in his mid-twenties, had insisted that the point wasn’t whether they could wipe out the termites, but whether they should. And in his mind, there had been too much death already. Against the advice of several on the city council and his own police chief, Mayor Sullivan had the town evacuated, ordering everyone to take anything they could carry and escape. They’d had fire engines, garbage trucks, police cruisers, every vehicle either owned by the town or capable of being commandeered loaded down with everything and everyone they could carry. And then they had simply left. 

Once the place was evacuated, the military had been called in, and since that day no one had gone within several miles of the town. All access points were blocked off, and the grounds in between were patrolled both on foot and by drones. Until they had some idea of how to settle things with the termites properly, the citizens of Merit had been compensated for their losses out of the funds set up to handle large-scale Touched damages (commonly used to aid neighborhoods and cities in recovering from Collision Points), which itself was funded through a mixture of taxes and merchandise sales across every country who contributed a member to Armistice. For one year, those blockades had stood. After the first couple humans attempting to negotiate had failed to convince the now-rightfully paranoid termites of their peaceful intentions, things had been locked behind politicians debating the situation at the state and national level. 

Finally, one pencil-pusher at a desk somewhere had managed to state an obvious idea to the exact right person at the exact right time. It wasn’t the first time that idea had been bandied about, but in this as in so many other cases, it was about who heard the idea and when. 

In this particular case, the idea was heard and pushed along by the right person, until FBI Agent Izan Deans was finally appointed to follow through. Following through, in that situation, meant traveling to Eastland (soon to be Honeyland), Oregon in order to contact a hive of Touched-Insects that humans actually had pleasant contact with, to ask for their help in negotiating with the Termite hive in order to bring a fully peaceful resolution to the entire messed up scenario everyone had found themselves in. 

His trip to Oregon was successful, and now Izan himself (a Latino man in his early-to-mid thirties with crew-cut black hair and a clean-shaven face) had returned with a few friends in tow in order to have the negotiations with the termites. At least, that was the idea, anyway. In practice, things were a little more complicated. Because of course they were. 

“You need an escort, Agent Deans. I don’t know how to put it any simpler than that.” The man talking wore national guard fatigues and wore rank insignia marking him as a colonel. He was clearly close to retirement, or should have been, with a very balding head and the barest wispy hint of white hair. His pale skin was marked by several old scars, while his eyes were sharp, glaring intently at the man in front of him. “No one goes in that town without a squad of my men walking you through. I don’t care what sort of diplomatic namby pamby hakuna matata mission you’re on. You ain’t getting in there without the help of my men.” 

“Would that be the men with the flamethrowers, Colonel Rodon?” Izan asked, his eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses so the man in front of him couldn’t see them roll. “Somehow, I think that might give the locals in there the idea that we’re not serious about this being a peaceful talk.” 

Straightening up to his full, still less-than-impressive height of five feet, seven inches, Colonel Rodon gave Izan an even harder stare. “And if something happens to you and your little… friends while you’re in there, we end up in an even worse situation. I’m not saying I want to send a whole battalion in there with you. Just a little protection in case things go sideways. Cuz if they do, and those friendly insects you’ve got end up dying, we could go from having a hostile situation with one hive to a hostile situation with two of them. Diplomacy ain’t about looking or being weak.” 

“If we may, Colonel.” Those words were projected, in perfect chorus, from a small swarm of thirty bees that had flown up in formation together directly to the side of Izan’s head so they could look at Rodon. Their voices were projected from tiny speakers on the bottom of their abdomens that were connected through their brains to a chip on the back of their thoraxes. 

The colonel, for his part, still looked a little disconcerted. But he kept it together and gave a slight nod. “Yeah, what is it, ahhh, what do I call you all anyway?” 

“We are Diplomatic Swarm Alpha,” came the chorused response from all thirty. “And it would be our pleasure to explain, you would not be at war with our hive-queen should the worst happen due to our choices. We understand this is a dangerous situation, and have all volunteered for this service knowing the risks. The only thing that could lead to a strained relationship would be your refusal to abide by our requests, or those of Agent Deans, causing our deaths.” 

“Yeah, and I’d be pretty ticked off too,” Deans himself put in casually. “Now, you know what the guy who managed to set this whole thing up said. He got those termites to agree to a meeting with the bees and one human. That’s me. Not one human and a squad with flamethrowers. Not even one human with a flamethrower, before you even suggest it. Me and the bees. The bees and me.” Turning his head slightly to look at the insects hovering beside him, he added, “Which of those sounds like the better band name?” 

“The Bees And Me,” came the immediate response from all thirty insects. “Definitely that one.” 

With a nod, the agent turned back toward Rodon. “Look, if you prefer, we can take this up the line and some pencil-pusher behind a desk, or some guy just looking to get re-elected, can tell you what I already said. The risk is mine and theirs to take.” He gestured to the bees. “We know what’s at stake here, believe me, Colonel. Let us go in there and see what we can do. I’d say something stupid about the worst thing that could happen, but, I think we both know this whole situation could legitimately get a lot worse. That’s why we’re all here. You’ve been here on guard duty around this town long enough. Let us go in there, talk to these termites, and see if we can get you and your men assigned somewhere else. I’m sure you’d all like to go home and be done with this whole thing.” 

There was a long, silent pause while the man stared at him indecisively. Finally, Colonel Rodon heaved a long, heavy sigh. It sounded as though he was going against his better instinct. “Yeah, if I give up this shot at getting out of here, my husband might just kill me himself. Fine. You go in there with the bees. But if you have to come running out again without any clothes cuz those termites went and melted them off your naked tookus, don’t cry to me about it. You understand me, son?” 

“Completely, sir,” came the response. “No crying about my potentially-naked tookus to you.” 

As one, the hovering bees turned in the air to look at their companion. Their combined voices were curious. “Isn’t any body part that is not already literally naked, potentially so?” 

“Any body part that is not already naked is potentially naked.” Saying that out loud, Deans added, “And with that, you have summed up at least half of the thought process for every teenager between the ages of about thirteen to seventeen.” 

“Oh yes,” the bees droned, “puberty.” 

 On that note, the group was waved past the barricade and proceeded to move along the road. Well, for as long as the road lasted. It only went on, pavement wise, for another hundred yards. Then the concrete ended, where the termites have finished stripping it. In its place was a wide dirt path with a single narrow stone walkway that had clearly been recently added. According to the message that Deans had received, going anywhere except on that narrow path would be a bad idea. It would be seen as hostile, and there were members of the termite colony who were watching for just such a betrayal. 

So, he stayed on the path, while his companions flew, mostly silently, beside him. They continued on for another mile or so before reaching the very outskirts of the place that had once been Merit. 

At the end of that mile, a very… interesting sight waited for them. Spaced a couple feet apart all along the remains of the former road were a dozen dogs with wagons hooked to them by harnesses. In the back of each of those wagons was what looked like a small ballistae, complete with a loaded spear. A small glass orb, about five or six inches across, sat at the front of each wagon, and they could see a termite in each. They were clearly the drivers of the dog-powered wagons, waiting right there for the new arrivals.

We will have your names. 

He had been warned about the telepathic voices, but it still made Deans jump slightly. An act he regretted, but apparently the termites were either cooler headed than the humans they had first met, or they were under very strict orders not to fire unless there was a truly hostile act. Either way, he exhaled and started with, “Agent Izan Deans, with the FBI. You should be expecting me. And this… well, they speak better for themselves.” He had intended to introduce them himself, but in that moment, the man had a flash of inspiration that it might go over better if he treated his companions like equals. 

“We are Diplomatic Swarm Alpha,” the bees chorused. As a group, they flew ahead of Deans, splitting into two smaller, fifteen-member-sized swarms a moment later. One such group stayed just a few feet in front of him, while the other flew about half the distance closer to the termite-driven wagons. 

It was that second, closer group that spoke next. “It would be our pleasure to speak with you and yours about the troubles you have had with humans.” 

Troubles. That single word was filled with a mix of scorn and sorrow. Regret. There was regret there. How much of it was regret that things had gone poorly, and how much was regret that they had even tried, Deans wasn’t sure. All he knew was that this was a chance to fix that. 

Yes, we have had troubles. Those of us who were most excited to speak with humans, those who loved them the most, were slaughtered. Massacred with no mercy or thought. Those are the troubles we have had. 

“Yeah, my people can be real stupid sometimes,” Deans announced. “I know you’ve rejected everyone else who’s tried to say it, but there are plenty of us who are horrified by what happened. But then, I think you know that. That’s why you’ve let a few negotiators in now and then. You even trade with a couple people. You haven’t given up entirely. That’s why you agreed to this meeting.” 

There was no response to his words. At least, none that he heard. Instead, silence filled the air for a few long seconds before the two bee swarms, which had rejoined one another, simply said, “Yes.” At first, he thought they were agreeing with him belatedly. Then there was silence once more before they said, “No. Many people. Yes. Because they are our friends. Yes, we were fortunate.” 

He was only hearing one side of the conversation, the man realized. So, he stood silently and waited for another minute of that before a few chimes filled the air and several of the dogs abruptly began to move forward, turning in a wide circle to leave a path open. 

You will all come this way, the voice in his head instructed. Our spokesman awaits. He speaks for the queen. There was a deliberate pause, then, You will never see the queen. 

Yeah, that was fair. Especially after what had happened. Exchanging a look with the bees, Deans began to walk that way. They, or rather he, was escorted on all sides by those ballistae-armed wagons. Which made him nervous, but he kept it in check and just walked. 

There were no houses left in town, nothing the termites could have stripped down and used for their constructions. Practically all he saw that indicated where the town’s buildings had been were a few foundations here and there. 

Eventually they reached what his own studies had said was once where the city hall had stood. Now, like everything else, it was a vacant lot. In the middle was a tree stump that stood about four feet high. Under escort by the dog wagons, he approached that way before coming to a stop directly in front of it. Only then did he see the tiny figure waiting on that stump. It was another termite, though this one was different from the others. Larger than the others, with wings. Not a queen, of course. An alate, if he had the word right. Either way, it perched there, waiting for his approach. 

Agent Deans, Diplomatic Swarm Alpha, the alate’s telepathic voice spoke. Somehow, it ‘sounded’ different from the one that had been speaking in his head before. I am Horse-Spoon-Eleven. I will be speaking the negotiations on behalf of our queen. Rest assured, she is aware of all that occurs and is said here today. I speak her words. You have been escorted here today by the lead of Bird-Chair-One. 

With a simple nod, Deans replied, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Horse-Spoon-Eleven. And you too, Bird-Chair-One.” He was assuming that was the one who had been speaking before, though that didn’t really answer which wagon had held the one in question. Either way, he continued. “It was my original belief that an actual diplomat would be talking to you with my friends here today. But I was told you refused to talk to anyone except the FBI agent who brought the bees to begin with. Which is funny, because up to that point, we weren’t aware that you knew that an FBI agent was the one bringing them at all.” 

We have learned to seek out and treasure intelligence about what our… There was a brief pause before Horse-Spoon-Eleven amended, About what others whose actions may affect us are doing. And we have no desire to entertain the platitudes of those paid to argue for a living. Queen Lion-Sapphire-Zero wishes to speak to you and the emissaries from the Oregon hive. No others. 

“Okay, well–” Deans started, only to be interrupted. 

Not yet, Agent Deans. Apologies, but we are not prepared to speak with you until we hear directly from the representatives of Apis mellifera. We wish to know… why they work so closely with their own humans. And how.

Thus began another conversation the man himself was not a part of. This time, however, he was at least able to hear all of it. Standing quietly, he listened as the termite and his bee companions went back and forth about what exactly had led the Honeyland Hive to their current peaceful conditions with the humans there. Once in awhile, another termite approached and demanded to know if the bees wouldn’t be better off on their own rather than relying on ‘undependable humans.’ But the Diplomatic Swarm insisted that the benefits of cooperation outweighed the risks, and that the humans of the town were their friends. 

Finally, Horse-Spoon-Eleven summed it up as, To our queen, it is seeming that the path to peace is one of usefulness. And yet, we do not believe any level of use would make those of this place wish for our presence. Nor would we feel safe. 

After a brief pause at that until it was clear they were waiting for him, Deans managed a slow nod. “Yeah, we sort of figured that. We don’t see a peaceful resolution coming from you staying here.” 

Do tell us, Agent Deans, came the response, how do the humans see this ending? 

Oh boy was this far beyond his pay grade. With a sigh, Deans hesitated before deciding to go all in. “Well, I think it’s safe to say that nobody wins when it comes to our current situation. We know you’ve been building up a bunker, and that it would probably take a hell of a lot to punch through it if the more… trigger-happy among us ever get their way. And we know that you’ve probably got some of your own people spread out anywhere they could get to so they can do a hell of a lot of damage elsewhere if it goes that way. This whole thing goes violent and both our sides are gonna end up losing a lot. Thing is, there’s a lot more people on our side and a lot more stuff. More than you can break. You’d do a lot of damage, but you wouldn’t win. Not in the end. And us? We’re not exactly the good guys any way you slice it. Losing everything your people would wipe out just so we can kill off an intelligent species? Like I said, nobody wins in this situation. Just losers all the way around.”

Yes, that is our estimation too. The termite representative was staring intently at him, which was a disconcerting feeling. At best, such a conflict would be a matter of doing as much damage as possible before your people destroyed us. There was a long pause then, before Horse-Spoon-Eleven added, I was one of those who was most excited to meet the humans before, Agent Deans. I had many friends who were killed by the intolerant among you. A hard lesson to learn, but an important one. There are humans who will never accept us. And yet, as we have both said, this conflict will only end poorly. 

“Then let’s change it,” Deans put in. “You’re right, the Honeyland bees have a great relationship with the humans there. Those people are already accustomed to living with Touched-Insects, and they know how useful that can be. I’m sure you can all help each other out.” 

You would have us leave the place we have spent all of our time and effort to fortify, to go somewhere new? The tone of the termite’s response wasn’t exactly a refusal, more curiosity. 

Deans, in turn, nodded. “Look, I know you got burned really bad on that leap of faith before. But I don’t think you really have another option here. We’ve already been over it. If this keeps up, everyone loses. At least if you go to Honeyland, your colony has a chance of surviving.” 

The response that came was silence. The termite turned away from him, seeming to look off at nothing. He had the impression that it was conferring with others, before finally turning to the bees. Would you trust this man in our situation? 

“Agent Deans has proven himself an honorable human and worthy of respect,” Diplomatic Swarm Alpha chorused. “And the humans we live and work alongside would be happy to have a second hive–pardon, colony to work with. We believe that bees and termites could do much good together, for all of our peoples.” 

Again, there was silence for awhile as the termites conferred, before Horse-Spoon-Eleven eventually announced, We would have one request. The work that we have put into our bunker cannot be ignored or dismissed. If we are to travel to this Oregon, we would have the bunker extracted and taken with. And we would have you along for every step of that journey, Agent Deans. To avoid any… mistakes. 

Exhaling in relief, Deans gave a short nod. “Of course. Whatever it takes, I’m sure we can work up something. Especially with help from your new partners here.” He gestured to the bees. “But I’m going to have to bring some other people in and hammer out the full details.” 

One of the dog-pulled carts approached, and Horse-Spoon-Eleven seemed to gesture with one hand. Go with Bird-Chair-One to… hammer these details, as you say. We will await hearing more. 

The winged termite then sat silently upon the stump while the human and his bee companions moved off with their designated escort. Only once they were out of earshot did another voice speak. Another human voice. 

“Does this mean our deal is off?” 

Horse-Spoon-Eleven turned to where two human figures in metal armor had appeared from seemingly thin air. No. It is as I believe you humans say, do not put all of your eggs in one basket. We will send half of our colony to this Honeyland to see what the humans there have to offer. The other half will fulfill our agreement with you. We will come to your city and work as you would like, in exchange for your protection and aid. 

“Excellent,” the male figure murmured. “That’s excellent news, isn’t it, White?” 

“Indeed, Gold,” the female figure agreed. “And have no fear, Horse-Spoon-Eleven. 

“The Ministry will take very good care of you and yours. We keep our deals.”

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Building Connections 16-07 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Well, Mom, Dad, and Simon were really putting some work into their ruse of going out of town. When Izzy and I got home, the hallway was full of suitcases and boxes with various files poking out of them. It really looked like they were going off on some kind of emergency business trip. Honestly, I was almost kind of impressed. I’d basically expected them to just walk out the door without so much as a backpack. It wasn’t like the old me really would’ve questioned it very much, if at all. 

As the two of us walked in and paused to look at all that, Simon basically came flying down the main front foyer staircase, taking the steps several at a time while calling up, “Yeah, I already called them! They’re gonna round up those guys and meet–” He reached the bottom of the stairs and saw Izzy and me before finishing with, “–us at the hotel! You booked the conference room?” Standing there at the bottom of the stairs, he pretended to ignore the two of us while looking up toward the next landing. “They wanted the one facing Central Park, not the one from last time!” 

A moment later, Dad appeared at the landing, descending briskly (though he at least hit every step). “Yes, we got the right room,” he replied while adjusting his suit cufflinks. “Not making that mistake twice. And hi there, girls.” Pausing, looking just as crisp and handsome and perfect as my father always did, he asked, “My God, is it really time for you both to be home already? Your mother’s still in our room packing.”

With that, he turned toward the nearby intercom. “Broadcast now, Elena.” There was a pause before the intercom beeped to indicate it had connected to the room my mother was in. “Dear, are you aware that it’s already after three o’clock? The girls are here. We need to head out.”

There was a brief pause before Mom’s voice replied, “It’s not–oh my word, yes, I’ll be right down. Don’t you go anywhere, girls. We’re leaving in just a minute and I still have things to say to you.” 

Again, Izzy and I exchanged glances. Now I was a little confused. Did they really lose track of time? It seemed like an oddly specific ruse to add onto them going out of town. Maybe they were really just that distracted by this gang war? I also noticed that Dad used the intercom’s ability to connect to a specific person rather than saying the room she was in, despite the fact that he’d said she was in the bedroom. Did that mean he didn’t want me to know that she wasn’t there? Or was I just being paranoid and picking at every little thing no matter how inconsequential? 

Except even if I was simply being paranoid, that didn’t necessarily mean that I was wrong. 

Shaking that off after giving Izzy a very slight nod, I spoke up. “You’re staying in New York? So it’s not an out-of-the-country trip. You sure we can’t both go with you? Izzy’s never seen New York.” Of course they’d say no, but if I didn’t ask once I ‘knew’ where they were going, it’d look weird. 

As expected, Dad gave me a regretful look. “Sorry, kid. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I really want our first trip with…” Trailing off, he glanced toward the other girl as though considering what he was saying. “Izzy, we’ll absolutely take a trip with you when we get a chance. But it’s like you said earlier, school comes first, and you’re just getting started.” With a small smile, he added toward me, “And don’t think I didn’t notice your cunning attempt to get out of your school, young lady. No, I think you’ll be just fine here. Be good, don’t burn the house down or end up in the hospital, and we’ll talk about where to go for summer break when we get back, deal?” 

“So if the ambulance has to come but we don’t actually go to the hospital, it’s still good?” I asked brightly, batting my eyes a few times at him innocently while he squinted at me. In the background, I heard Izzy snerk before she caught herself and turned it into a faint cough. 

“Who needs an ambulance?” Mom asked as she descended the stairs, taking a moment to assess Izzy and me critically. “Please tell me it’s someone in another house, we haven’t even left yet.” 

“Oh please, Mom,” Simon put in, “as if she needs us to be out of the house before she does something crazy dangerous.” 

“You wanna compare whose crazy has cost the most?” I shot right back at him. “Cuz something tells me you’re not gonna come out ahead on that balance sheet, Mr. Full Contact Laser Tag Inside The House.” 

Simon, in turn, squinted at me while both our parents arched eyebrows at him with the memory clearly running through their minds. “Really? Bringing that up right before I have to sit on a plane for an hour? Uncool, Booster. Super uncool. See if I bring you back one of those skyscraper plushies you like so much.” 

“Dude,” I retorted, “they sell those online. I’ve got the whole set already, except the new one. And that doesn’t come out until next month.” 

With a heavy sigh, my brother looked to our parents as he lamented, “She was a lot easier to bribe before she figured out how internet shopping works.” 

A giggle escaped me, despite everything. Fuck. This was all so normal. This was my family, this was–they were the people I loved, the people I’d grown up with. And they were faking all of this. Okay, not faking all of it, but still hiding who they were. They weren’t going off on some kind of important-yet-normal business trip. They were staying right here in the city so they could focus on dealing with this mounting gang war that they themselves had allowed to start. 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head, I focused on looking back and forth between my parents. “You guys really need all this stuff?” The question came as I gestured toward the stack of suitcases and boxes. Even though I couldn’t exactly ask why they were bothering to go to these lengths in their deception, I could at least point out that they were taking a lot of stuff with them. 

“Unfortunately,” Dad confirmed with a grimace. “Let’s just say the clients want a lot of paperwork to hammer through this deal, and we’ll probably have to attend a few palm-greasing parties.”

“He says that as though he’s going to suffer,” Mom casually noted, “but we all know your father enjoys those things more than he lets on. And he isn’t mentioning the fact that half of these meetings will be at that country club with the caddie he has the running wager with. How much have you conned that poor man out of, Sterling?” 

“Hey now,” Dad shot back even as several of the house staff came through the hallway to start picking up the boxes and suitcases, “it’s hardly my fault if that fool keeps thinking that whatever poor schmuck I’m teeing off with that day has a chance of coming in under me on my third-favorite non-Detroit course.”

Izzy, looking uncertain and possibly a little uneasy, spoke up. “Uh, you bet money with a caddy?”  

“What?” Dad blinked that way before chuckling. “Oh, no, of course not. Believe me, Pete makes plenty of tips off our visits and I wouldn’t take those away from him. No, we gamble with something other than money.” Saying that, he was smiling fondly at the thought. 

Nudging Izzy, I explained, “Dad and Caddie Pete make bad movie bets. Whoever wins gets to make the other watch a horrible movie from start to finish and write a full report about it. Pete’s only managed to make him watch two-wait, three movies. But Dad’s made him watch… how many?”

“Thirteen,” came the answer with a broad smile. “And I’ve got a doozy in mind for the next one.” 

“Be that as it may,” Mom put in smoothly while laying a hand on his shoulder, “we are going for work. So let’s keep that in mind. Now, girls.” She focused on the two of us. “I know this is sudden, and very last-minute. I’m sorry for that, Izzy. But you’ll be okay here. The staff all know to accommodate any reasonable request, you’ll go to school in the mornings with Jefferson the same as always, and Claudio will have your meals ready at the usual times. We may or may not be able to have Skype dinner time on our usual days, but I do expect both of you to be available if it’s possible on our end, understand?” 

We nodded and murmured agreement, before both of my parents went over a few more last-minute instructions. In the background, all the luggage was being taken through the open front door to the waiting limo, and I could see Jefferson himself having a discussion with one of the security guys. Another man, whom I recognized as the chief of Dad’s security detail (a tall, blond man with cold gray eyes named Finn Wagner) was standing just inside the doorway on the phone with what sounded like airport security. 

Yeah, they really were pulling out all the stops for this. Then again, I supposed it also made sense, come to think of it. After all, they needed the rest of the city to believe they were gone, not just me. 

Finally, it was time to exchange hugs. I did so with both of my parents, and then with Simon.  Which left Izzy. And while my father may have hesitated slightly out of not wanting to make her uncomfortable, my mother was different. To be fair, she didn’t grab the girl out of nowhere. She didn’t force any kind of affection on her. Instead, she simply opened her arms slightly and extended both hands, palms outward to her in a gesture that was perfectly calculated so that the girl could choose to interpret it as either an offer of taking both hands and squeezing, or an actual embrace. 

Izzy chose the hug, which seemed to surprise both of us a little bit. She was already embracing my mother before her head turned to me with an expression that said she had no idea how it had happened. Still, she didn’t pull away too quickly, allowing the hug to linger for a few seconds. How much of that was out of not wanting to look suspicious somehow, and how much was because she desperately needed a hug from an adult was unclear. 

Either way, eventually the hug ended, and she exchanged another (slightly quicker) one with my father. Simon, apparently, did not rate a hug. Though he did get a somewhat awkward high-five. 

Then it was time for them to go. Izzy and I stood in the doorway, watching the limo pull out, escorted by three different security cars. The two of us looked at one another once they were out of sight, but didn’t say anything important, of course. Not with half-a-dozen house staff within earshot. So, we stood there for a few extra seconds before I shrugged. “You wanna go get a burger or something? Maybe some cheese tots?” 

“Ahem.” It was Dexter, the butler. Unlike other butlers I’d seen in movies, Dexter wasn’t actually old or British. He was a handsome guy in his forties or so with deeply tanned skin (which I suspected was unnatural) and coppery red hair. Honestly, aside from the suit he wore all the time, the guy almost looked more like he belonged in some kind of cover band or something rather than working as a butler. Normally, I didn’t have much direct interaction with him. But I supposed in this case he had decided that I was the closest thing to his boss currently in the house. 

“Miss Evans,” the man started easily, “if you would like Claudio to be summoned to prepare–” 

“Uh, no thanks, Dex.” My voice was a little awkward as I shrugged, my backpack shifting a bit in the process. “We’ll just head into town and get something there. You know, greasy and simple and cheesy and now I’m making myself hungry again. C’mon, Izzy.” Taking her by the hand, I pulled the girl with me. 

“Will you be requiring the services of another driver?” Dexter called after us. “I can have a car brought around.” 

Waving that off, I informed him that we’d walk for a bit before calling an Uber. It sounded like he was going to object (probably something about how the Evans should get around in their own cars or whatever), but we were already jogging down the driveway. Waving to the security guy at the gate, the two of us slipped out, made an immediate left, and kept walking down the sidewalk. We didn’t say anything until we were out of sight of the gate (it would be another minute or so before we were out of the sight of the actual house). Finally, I breathed out. “That was weird, right?” 

“It was weird to you too?!” Izzy blurted, sounding like she was about to explode to get those words out. “Are they really going anywhere? I mean, they’re not, right? Why would they–” 

“They’re not–I mean they’re clearly going somewhere in the city,” I confirmed. “But they definitely didn’t need all those suitcases. They must’ve been making it look good for… for you, I guess? It’s not like they’d have to show the rest of the world that they’re taking a bunch of extra luggage. Unless they were taking other things with them and wanted us to think it was just luggage?” 

“What would they have in the house that they had to take with them like that?” Izzy cautiously asked. 

Letting out a long breath while shifting my backpack on one shoulder, I shook my head. “I dunno. Seriously, I have no idea. Convincing us and the rest of the city that they actually left is the best suggestion I’ve got. Because there’s no way this trip to New York is real. Not with this gang war going on, and getting worse by the day. They’re shutting everything else out to focus on that. The suitcases and that whole production back there is probably just one part of their ‘make everyone think we’re gone so no one connects us to the Ministry getting more involved in things’ plan.”

We both thought about that in silence for a few minutes, before we eventually approached the main gate into the neighborhood. One of the guards was in the booth there, giving both of us a brief look before nodding as he went back to playing a game on his ipad. Between the two of us, we chorused a greeting, acting like we were nothing but two random kids going for a walk. 

Finally, we were past the gate and Izzy spoke again. “Is it bad that I’m kinda rooting for your parents to get this under control?” 

“They better get it under control,” I retorted. “Having the criminal and heroic worlds in the palm of their hands is like… their entire thing

“If they can’t stop the city from falling apart, what is the Ministry even for?” 

*******

Eventually, we did end up calling an Uber, and took the ride over to one of the malls (not the one where my family’s secret base was, of course). The two of us ate something at the food court there before splitting up. Izzy was going to see a movie or two in the theater there, while I changed into the costume in my backpack and went out to meet with marble girl (boy did I hope she had a better name in mind). 

Skating across the rooftops of the city really helped clear my mind a bit. If nothing else, at least my consolation prize for having to deal with my entire family situation were these powers. I loved my powers. The way I could leap from building to building, skate along the side of one and then blue-paint boost my way to the opposite side of the street? It was, as always, an insane rush. It made me feel alive and free in a way I had never experienced before. It was incredible, and I would never trade my powers for anyone else’s. Not really. They were mine. 

Distracted as I was with all that enjoyment, it still wasn’t hard to find the old rundown mattress store the girl had wanted to meet at. As I came in to land smoothly on the edge of the roof, I saw her below, hidden from public sight behind the building, with a tall wooden fence to one side and an alley to the other. She was in that same armor with the white helmet, talking to herself while the rest of those colored marbles floated in front of her. 

Not to herself, I realized belatedly. She was talking to the marbles. Something about telling them to show ‘him’ what they could do, but not to be nervous because she would be proud of them no matter what. 

Smiling a bit despite myself, I hopped down with a tiny bit of orange paint to cushion the drop. “Personally, I like to offer my powers treats if they behave.” 

Right, probably should’ve announced myself a bit more carefully. The moment I spoke up from behind her, the girl gave a strangled yelp of surprise, lunging out of the way. At the same time, the three hovering marbles (silver, bronze, and purple) all transformed and grew into a huge claymore, a hammer, and a spear respectively. They flew toward me, before the other girl managed to catch herself and spin around with a blurted, “Stop!” 

They stopped, hovering a foot or so away from me with the business ends still pointed my way. 

“Heh, heh, sorry.” With a nervous giggle, the girl beckoned with one hand, summoning the weapons away before they turned back into marbles. “That was almost pretty bad, huh?

“Shish Kebabing the boss is probably a pretty horrible way to start your first day as a sidekick.” 

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