Elena Evans

Friends and Enemies 8-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Showdown 7-02 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Showdown 7-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“Okay, that’s it!” Wren chirped a couple hours later while straightening up and dusting her hands off. “It’s all done.” Her tone was one of excitement and a bit of nervousness. “At least, I think so.” 

She and I, along with Fred and Pack, were standing in the middle of the lab, surrounding a mannequin wearing what looked like a set of slightly thick thermal underwear with a motorcycle helmet. The helmet itself wasn’t too unlike mine, though it was more basic. Plus, mine didn’t have all those wires coming out the inside of it that made it look really god damn creepy. 

Fred poked the suit curiously while asking, “So this thing is gonna control our friend in there?” 

Shifting from foot to foot, Wren hesitated. “Um, sort of. When we use the control box and ask him to think about where something is, like those vials, the suit will read the place he’s thinking about and translate that into movement. It only reads the thoughts connected to the question when you use the control box, so he can’t just start thinking about something else and take us to like… McDonalds for lunch or whatever. But even when he takes us to a place, we might have to keep looking around that spot for exactly where they are. I’m not sure how close it’ll be.” 

With a nod, I looked to the Tech-Touched girl. “Sounds good, except for the ‘we’ part. We don’t know where he hid these things, but it could be dangerous. Especially with people still looking for him. I think you and Fred should stay here tomorrow.” When her mouth opened to object, I quickly added, “Trust me, Wren, you’ve done more than enough. Seriously. All this wouldn’t have been possible without you. You had the idea, you built this thing, you did it. You’ve done enough. Let me take Happypants out tomorrow and find these vials to finish it up.” 

“There’s still a ‘we’ in that,” Pack pointed out, watching me with her arms folded. “Remember, this is my boss’s daughter we’re talking about. I’m going with you and taking the vials back to him when we get them.” Her voice made it clear she wasn’t taking no for an answer.

“Right, see?” I gestured to Wren. “I’ll have backup. And we’ll stay in contact with you guys back here just in case something happens.” Voice softening, I put a hand on her arm. “Wren, it’s okay. Like I said, you’ve done enough. You didn’t really have anything to make up for to begin with, because you’re not the one who sold those things to Ashton. And… and Fred didn’t know what he was going to do with them.” Saying that with a brief glance to the man in question, I added, “You guys wait here tomorrow, okay? I swear, we’ll finish this and then we can all celebrate.”  

Still looking a bit discomfited, Wren hesitated before giving a slow, reluctant nod. “Okay, I guess. We’ll stay here. But you better keep your phone on, and if something happens, we’re gonna come help.” Standing there, fists on her hips, the girl stared as if daring me to object to that.  

Knowing that was the best I was going to get, I nodded. “Great. But uhh, should we test it before tomorrow? Actually, come to think of it, is there a reason we’re waiting until tomorrow? I mean, it’s late enough now that we shouldn’t attract too much attention. And it might take more than one day to actually get to all the vials if he separated them too much.” I didn’t know that he had, since he still wasn’t exactly cooperating. But finding out that he’d left that one vial in Wren’s shop had made me nervous that the rest were all scattered in different places. That would suck. 

Unfortunately, Wren shook her head. “The suit still has to charge,” she informed me. “It won’t be ready until tomorrow. I mean, it’s all put together and everything, but now it needs power.” She indicated the cord running from the mannequin to the outlet. “I couldn’t start charging it until it was all put together. I… sorry.” Her foot kicked the floor as she looked abashed. 

“No, sorry, it’s okay,” I quickly assured her. “We said we’d do it tomorrow and that’s fine. I was just thinking we could get it started early. One day shouldn’t make a big difference. Especially since Blackjack… got that new vial from Deicide?” I looked toward Pack for confirmation of that. 

“Yeah,” she replied, “he’s got it. I mean, he’s still not extending the deadline or anything, but he’s got it. And we’ve got time before it’s up anyway. Tonight, tomorrow, it’s all good. Still got days.” 

“Right, yeah.” Nodding, I looked back to Wren. “That’s cool, because I was also kind of hoping we could talk about something else, anyway. Something a little more… uhh… after this whole thing.” Finishing that slowly and hesitantly, I glanced toward Pack, suddenly feeling awkward. 

“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” The La Casa Touched waved her hand dismissively. “Can’t have the big, bad villain hearing all about your future plans. I’ll go check on the prisoner and make sure he’s ready for his big debut tomorrow. You have your little pow wow and call me when it’s over.”  

She went over and entered the room that was functioning as Ashton’s cell, closing the door after herself. Meanwhile, Wren and Fred both looked to me with a mix of confusion and expectation. 

Taking a second to collect my thoughts (I’d been going over this in my head for awhile), I finally exhaled and nodded decisively. “Okay, so I was thinking about what was going on with you guys. You know, the bit about how you need money. Probably even more now that Cuélebre’s people got into your old shop and trashed it. I don’t know if you’re planning on going back there or what. Personally, I’d really suggest not, at least for now, because those assholes know a Tech-Touched lives there. So if you go back and they find out about it, you’ll probably be dealing with people coming after you like… constantly. I’m sorry, it’s just… they will. You’re a kid and they’ll think they can like… mold you or whatever. They’ll think they can force you to do whatever they want, so they’ll keep trying to grab you. Or grab Fred to make you do it.” 

For his part, Fred looked like he was about to say something, then just sighed and nodded. “She’s right, I really screwed the pooch with this one, kid. They know you’re out there now, and they’ll keep trying to come after you. We can’t go back to the old place anytime soon.” 

“But it’s Dad’s shop,” Wren protested, her eyes wide as she looked back and forth between us. “We can’t just abandon Dad’s shop. We have to go back and clean it up. We have to open it again. Dad wouldn’t just let it stay closed. He built it. We can’t just… just abandon it forever.” 

“No one’s saying abandon it forever,” I assured her quickly. “Just… don’t go back until you’ve got good defenses, enough to make sure people can’t just waltz in and hurt you or Fred. Trust me, I’ve heard lots of people say that the one place you don’t want to attack a Tech-Touched is their own home. But you don’t have the resources or funds yet to build up the place to be that protected.” Pausing briefly, I glanced away to ask myself if I really wanted to do this. Of course, the answer was yes. I needed to do this. It was the best chance I had, and also the best chance Wren had. 

“So I want to help. But… I also want your help. See, I have some money, and I thought if I sort of… invested in you, it could help both of us. I give you money to buy supplies and design things, then we both profit when you sell them.” Quickly, before she could object, I added, “Just the ones you choose to sell. The things that are safe. Hell, it could even be stuff that people bring to you to fix. You repair it, charge for it, we make money and put it toward getting you built up as much as you need to be to get back to your shop safely. Or whatever you decide to do.” 

Slowly, Wren pointed out, “We could build stuff for you too. A better costume, tools, and stuff like that.” Seeming to suddenly realize that what she’d said might’ve been insulting, she hurriedly added, “Not that your costume is bad or anything. I just mean, umm, you know, it’d be… better?” 

Smiling despite myself, I held up a hand. “It’s okay, I get it. Yeah, I was kinda hoping we could work out something like that. You’re an amazing inventor, Wren. You just need some cash to build your business a bit so you can really make some cool stuff. I can help with that. I could invest right now, help you get off the ground, then we both profit later. Literally, with money, and figuratively, with cool new toys and a base that you can actually protect. So, what do you think?” 

Wren was staring at me, shifting from foot self-consciously. “You really want to give money to me to build stuff? What… what if it goes wrong? What if no one wants to buy anything I build? What if I can’t get customers? What if I mess it up and you lose all your money? What if I–” 

Quickly, I interrupted, holding up both hands. “Hey, hey. First of all, you’re an amazing inventor, Wren, like I already said. It’ll be fine. And even if it takes awhile to get off the ground, I won’t really be in any worse shape than I already am. Neither will you. It’ll be okay, trust me.” 

Fred was the next to speak, sounding like he wasn’t sure he should even say anything. “How–I mean… okay, I’m not asking for actual specifics or anything here, but seriously, how do you have ‘investing’ money? You helped buy all the shit for that suit over there, and you still have cash to spend? What, did your great-grandmother recently leave you a fortune or something?” 

I’d been thinking a lot about how to answer that question, because I knew it would come up at some point. Some part of me had considered just telling them the truth. At this point, I knew I could trust them. Or… Wren at least. And despite his mistake, I was pretty sure Fred had learned his lesson and wouldn’t do something stupid. But not positive. Plus, I didn’t want to put that kind of target or responsibility on them. They had enough to deal with as it was. 

So, instead of telling the whole story, I just shrugged. “Yeah, let’s just say I inherited some cash recently and leave it at that for now.” It was a lie, of course. But a… relatively minor one. It made me feel bad, yet it also protected Wren from getting a target on her back if she knew who I really was. There was a voice telling me that she could still have a target on her back for not knowing who I was, but I wasn’t sure there was actually a really good answer to this. Later I might tell them more. But for now, I was… being cautious about the whole thing. Maybe too cautious, but as far as I was concerned, that was better than not being cautious enough. This was dangerous. 

“So,” I settled on, “I’ve got money to invest and I’d like to do it with you. Partly because it means I’d have an excuse to hang out here more after we’re done with this, and that sounds cool. And because like you said, you could make me a new costume, or pieces of it. Hell, I’m pretty sure I could use anything you put together.” Tapping the side of my helmet, I added, “This thing’s already getting banged up from me being thrown around so much. An upgrade would be cool.” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly, the girl looking eager by that point. “Oh! Yeah, yeah, for sure. That… I could…” She trailed off, eyes looking off into the distance. I was pretty sure there were ideas already rushing through her head about the kind of upgrades and toys she could work on. Her hands were fidgeting like she wanted to write something down, and without saying anything, Fred slipped a pen and a small notebook into them. She turned to scribble on it.

“She’ll be busy for a few minutes,” the man informed me, sounding both amused and proud. Then he focused on me. “Are you serious about this whole investment thing? It’s a pretty big word for someone that–I mean..” Seeming to realize he had just walked off a verbal cliff, he tried desperately to cartoon run across empty air to get back onto the safety of solid ground. “Not that you’re ‘just a kid’ or anything, but… I mean, money’s money and all that, and you’re doing plenty of dangerous stuff pretty much by yourself already. It’s just, I wasn’t…” He made a helpless gesture, looking to me for help. Or at least for an excuse to stop talking.  

So, I gave him one. “Yeah, I get it, don’t worry. And yeah, I know what I’m doing. At least, I’m pretty sure. Can’t be any worse than trying to get investment from people you don’t know anything about, right? I can put in some cash to start, help you guys get going. And you don’t have to rely on a bank loan or anything. Or outside investors who, like I said, you don’t know.” 

“We don’t know much about you either,” he pointed out mildly before nodding. “But more than we’d know strangers. Plus the kid likes you. Which says a lot. Yeah, I mean, if you want to do something like that, I don’t see why not. It’s kinda hard to have any sort of enforceable contract without knowing everyone’s identity, but…” 

Wren spoke up then. “We don’t need a contract. We promise we’ll use your money to build stuff for you or stuff to sell and share the profit. Fifty-fifty.” 

Smiling despite myself at the brief look that crossed Fred’s face, I offered, “How about we go with sixty-forty in your favor? You’re already the ones building and selling the stuff. Not to mention the fact that I already profit from you building and fixing things for me. Plus you’ll have to pay for stuff like electricity, the property tax, any other incidentals, stuff like that. I’ll help with that too anytime you need, but you know, you should still be prepared for it with the extra.” 

“The hell kind of kid are you?” Fred demanded, squinting at me. 

“The kind who knows that having a business costs money, especially when you’re getting started,” I replied coolly. “So let’s do it like that. Sixty-forty for you guys, and we make up the difference with equipment maintenance. Does that… you know, sound fair?” 

Wren spoke up quickly. “Uh huh! This is gonna be so cool!” Suddenly, she was hugging me. “We’re gonna be superhero partners, Paintball! I’ll be like your Q! Which isn’t really a superhero thing, but still!” Giddily, she bounced up and down a bit, still holding on tight. 

Restraining the giggle that tried to sneak out, I returned the embrace. “Except for the part where you’re cooler than Q, yeah, just like that. But really, we can talk about the specifics later, after we deal with this whole thing. I just wanted to find out if you guys were interested. I’ll work on putting some money together and we’ll see where we can go with it, cool?” 

They agreed, and Fred went to retrieve Pack. Honestly, she hadn’t really needed to leave, but I wasn’t sure where all that would go at the time and wanted to be safe. For both our sakes. 

“So,” the girl started as soon as she was back in the room, “you guys work out how to split your profits from Paintball’s investment?” In response to all of us staring at her, she turned to look to her lizards in their cage, her tone teasing. “See? They think I’m dumb.” 

Flushing (and glad they couldn’t see it), I started to say that we definitely didn’t think she was dumb. But in mid-sentence, my phone buzzed. Holding up a finger, I pulled it out to look at the text. It was from Mom, asking if I could come home soon because she and Dad had something to talk about. Something to talk about? We’d already had dinner and everything hours earlier before they went to their meeting. What could they want to talk about? 

Realizing there was really only one way to find out (and trying in vain to clamp down on all my paranoia surrounding it), I excused myself with the promise to come back the next evening so we could finally get those vials. Then I headed out. 

The whole way back, as I made my way to another part of the city away from where the bookshop was (just in case), I kept asking myself why my parents might want me to come home to ‘talk.’ My paranoia about the whole thing was just getting worse, and continued doing so while changing clothes, summoning an Uber, and throughout the ride. The logical part of me was almost positive that it didn’t have anything to do with my extracurricular activities. The problem with that was the almost part. 

Still, I told myself it was fine. I couldn’t panic every time my parents said my name. I’d die of a heart attack inside of the week. 

Paying the driver after being dropped off at the gate, I put in my code and headed inside as it creaked open. A minute later, I went through the front door, starting to text my mother to let them know I was there. But both Mom and Dad were already in the front foyer, seemingly waiting. That… did nothing to calm my nerves, to be honest. 

“Oh, uhhh… what’s up?” I tried to sound casual. It probably didn’t work. 

The two of them exchanged glances, doing one of their ‘silent conversations’ that, at this point, I wasn’t sure weren’t actual conversations. Who knew what kind of tech they had access to, or what other powers my dad might have as Silversmith that he didn’t advertise. 

Either way, it only lasted for a moment before Mom turned back to me. “Cassidy,” she started carefully, “your father and I understand that what we’re going to ask of you might be difficult…” 

Oh God, were they about to tell me what they were really doing, who Dad really was? Wait, why would it be about asking me something? What? 

Mom continued and I forced myself to focus. “But we’re hoping you might… open your rooms for a little while, and… accept a… house guest.” 

I stared at her, confused. My head tilted. “Uhhh… wait, what?” 

“It’s okay,” my dad called, raising his voice enough to make it clear he wasn’t talking to me. “You can come in.” 

Still clueless, I looked over as a small Latina girl slowly came in through one of the other doors. She looked even more lost than I felt, slowly shuffling her way over near my parents while staring at the floor. She peeked up once, met my gaze, then quickly looked down again. 

“Cassidy,” Mom started, “this is Izzy. 

“She’s going to be staying with us for a little while.” 

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Alliances 6-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Run, run, run! I had to get back to the hotel before my family figured out I had been gone. They were going to be freaking out as it was, and if they realized I wasn’t anywhere in the hotel, the whole damn city would shut down. I’d never be able to explain it. I had to get in there and convince them that I hadn’t gone anywhere, before my whole situation got a hell of a lot worse than it already was. 

In a blind rush, I made it to the top of the hospital while the firefighters and Raindrop were still working. From there, I made it through the next roof over and went through a quick loop to reach the back side of the hotel. It was hard, considering everyone was on high alert. I could see people all over the grounds, cops and Touched alike. It was chaos down there. Police lights, both the red and blue flashing kind and the bright spotlight variety, were so prevalent they made the parking lot almost as bright as day. 

Somehow, perhaps by a miracle I’d earned for saving those kids or something, I made it back to the balcony of the hotel. There was a spotlight coming my way, so the second I was down, I dropped and flattened myself against the floor of the balcony while the light swept by just above my head.

Landing also reminded me of the pain in both my leg and wrist. I was pretty sure the wrist wasn’t actually broken or anything. Or even sprained. It was just bruised where Pencil had stepped on it. My leg, however, had that cut in it from Fork’s quill. And my parents would undoubtedly notice both. How was I going to explain those

Wait, I knew how. Scrambling to my feet, I painted myself green for speed and rushed through the bedroom of the suite just in time to hear someone shout my name muffledly. It was coming from out in the hotel corridor, and I could see the door handle jiggle a bit. My name was shouted again, and that time I recognized my father’s voice. It sounded like he was fumbling for the key. 

Still sped up, I stretched one hand out toward the dress I’d left on the floor and shot red paint at it. At the same time, I lunged for the nearby desk. As the dress was summoned to my red glove, my other hand yanked the drawer there open and found the fancy letter opener with the hotel’s name engraved on it. 

There was an affirmative beep from the door just then, as my dad managed to get the key card in. At the last second, I threw myself sideways into the connected bathroom and yanked the door shut, locking it. 

I was still sped up, but I had to change clothes. Looking down at my arms, I painted those green. Not the suit, my actual arms. With the added speed, I stripped out of the costume probably faster than anyone had ever change clothes in the history of the universe. I could hear the door opening out in the main room, my dad‘s voice louder and clearer then as he called for me. 

Ignoring it for the moment, I grabbed the dress and yanked it on haphazardly. It was rumpled and wrinkled to hell, but that was the least of my worries. 

The bathroom doorknob jiggled, then there was a loud bang against it as my father shouted my name once more. He sounded frantic, maybe even close to tears. 

But there was one more thing I had to do. Putting black paint over my chest to silence my yelp, I used the letter opener to stab into the dress and my leg right where the wound was. I tried to be careful, but it had to look right. Even if it did make me cry out (silently thanks to the paint) and stagger.  

Dad banged on the door again, sounding like he was about to knock it down. Marshaling myself, I started to say something. Then I caught myself and yanked the helmet and mask off. It would’ve been pretty bad if my voice was still changed. Saved from making that kind of fatal mistake, I made myself sound afraid. It wasn’t honestly that hard. “Wh-who’s there?” That gave me time to yank open the cupboard under the sink, shoving the costume in there. 

There was a brief pause, and I heard my dad take a shaky breath. “Sweetie, it’s Dad. It’s okay. You can come out.”

Checking myself in the mirror, I belatedly yanked the gloves off and stashed them under the sink as well. Then I smoothed the dress down as much as I could before hesitantly stepping over by the door. Slowly, I cracked it open, peeking out with the letter opener held tightly in one hand. When I saw my father standing there, I pulled it the rest of the way. 

He was on me immediately, picking me up from the floor while crushing me against his chest. My dad hugged me tightly, so much so that it was hard to breathe. He murmured my name a couple times, voice cracking a little bit in the process. 

“Dad,” I managed to get out a bit weakly, my exhaustion from everything that it happened, including my rush to get back here, helping me sound even more out of it and afraid. “What happened? There were men with guns and they were in the hallway so I hid. I’m sorry, I was just hiding and I didn’t do anything and my phone didn’t work and—”

“Shhh, shhhh, it’s okay.” Dad still held me crushed against his chest, shuddering a little bit as he held me. “You’re safe now. They are gone, it’s over. You’re safe. You’re safe.” It sounded as though he was talking to himself as much as to me. 

I started to say something else, but was interrupted by the sound of someone else coming into the room. It was my mother. She practically flew through the doorway, eyes wild until she spotted the two of us. My name fell from her trembling lips as she came our way. Dad set me down just in time for her to scoop me up, pulling me into a new tight hug. “You’re okay, you’re safe.” She too was clearly telling herself that as much as me. Then she looked down, giving a soft gasp. “You’re bleeding!” 

Dad had clearly just noticed that too, his eyes snapping to the letter opener in my hand. “What did–” 

Flinching, I stepped back, ducking my head as if I was embarrassed. “I… I saw those guys so I took the letter opener in case they came in. It was all I could think of. But I… when I went to hide in the bathroom, I slipped and… and fell. I guess I sort of… cut myself? I might’ve sprained my wrist a little too.” 

“Let me see.” Dad already had something in his hand. It was a safe-seal bandage, one of the professional variety, meaning it had medical gel on it that would prevent infection and help the wound heal faster. He took a knee, and I lifted the dress enough for him to carefully put the bandage on my leg. It looked like a large white patch, which sealed to the skin as soon as he pressed it firmly against the wound. I could immediately feel the very slight sting, followed by a soothing cool gel. The bandage would come off on its own sometime the next day, and would either need to be replaced by another or not, depending on how bad the wound was. 

“Th-thanks, Dad,” I managed. “But… but I think I ruined the dress too. I was hiding and laying on the floor after that and it’s all bloody from the stupid knife thing and I was all curled up and I know you’re not supposed to do that, but I was afraid. And I was trying to call somebody, but the phone didn’t work and I was—”

Head shaking quickly, Mom stepped over to pull me into another hug before looking down at me. “I do not care about the stupid dress.” Her hand moved to cup my cheek tenderly, tears in her eyes. “You are safe, Principessa. You are safe, that’s all I care about. You are safe. I was afraid that… I was afraid. You are okay. The men who came, they didn’t…”

“They didn’t see me,” I confirmed. “I saw them in the hallway, so I shut the door. But then I was afraid they’d come in, so I took the letter opener and hid in the bathroom. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t hear what was going on, I wasn’t… I mean…”

She shushed me again, pulling me into another hug with her trembling arms. “You are safe. That’s all that matters.”

Simon had made it to the room by then, hearing my explanation. He too came over to hug me, without even making any kind of smartass remark. He actually looked worried, his hug genuine and firm. “Lucky you,” he managed after a few seconds of that. “Missed all the excitement. Even if you did manage to hurt yourself anyway.” Okay, maybe he couldn’t avoid every smartass remark. It was probably genetic. 

“I… I don’t want anything more exciting than that,” I murmured before stepping back to smooth the wrinkled and bloody dress down. “But what happened? Who were those guys? They look like soldiers or something, but… not.”

Dad shook his head. “Definitely not soldiers. It was…” He and Mom exchanged brief looks, some kind of silent conversation going on between them before he continued. “It was the Scions. But it’s okay. They’re gone now. They’re all gone, I promise. We’re safe.”

“Th-the Scions?” I made my voice whimper weakly. “Are you sure they’re gone? What if they come back? What if they’re still around? What if—”

Mom quieted me with another embrace, promising that all the danger was gone and that there were police and Star-Touched all over the place. Dad took me by the hand and led me out to the balcony to look down, showing me all the cops down there while telling me all about the heroes who had shown up and were scouring every inch of the hotel. “The Scions aren’t stupid enough to stick around with all this here,” he murmured. “They’re gone by now, I promise. They’re gone.”

Somehow, I stopped myself from pointing out that there had been plenty of cops and Star-Touched around when Pencil first showed up with his fanatics. It didn’t feel like that would actually accomplish anything useful. 

Instead, managing a little nod, I turned a bit to look over at the hospital. The fire was out by then, but there were still fire trucks and police. Raising my hand, I pointed. “Oh my God, what happened over there? Are they okay? That’s the kids hospital. What happened?”

Dad assured me that things were handled over there too, that from what he heard, no kids had been killed. “The fire was contained to one floor that was already evacuated. It’s okay. It could’ve been a lot worse. A lot worse.” He repeated that in a quiet, somewhat shaky voice while putting both hands on my shoulders with a gentle squeeze. He was clearly still convincing himself I was really there and I hadn’t been hurt. 

“The Scions are monsters,” I murmured before turning to look at him with wide eyes. “What about Pencil? He had to be here too, right? Did they catch him?” I was still curious about how he had gotten off the roof of this place and all the way over to the hospital. 

Dad sighed. “They took down the one pretending to be Pencil. Or being forced to pretend.”

Blinking at that, my head tilted. “Forced to pretend?”

With a grimace, Dad explained. “Someone who looked like him was on the roof, someone with his costume. He was going on the way Pencil does. But when it all went down, someone tackled him and it turned out he was just some innocent civilian under that mask. He was gagged and had a speaker system rigged up under his suit so the real Pencil could talk through it. And a bomb collar to make sure he did what he was told. They just managed to disable the thing in time.”

Mom cursed in Italian quietly before adding, “He probably thought it would be amusing if someone took a shot at the man and ended up killing an innocent civilian.”

“They would have killed more than that,” Dad pointed out. “That collar was linked to his life signs too. If he died, he would’ve blown and taken off a good chunk of the roof in the process.”

“Sterling,” Mom chastised, “that is enough. We don’t need to scare her any further.” To me, she added, “The point is, they did not find the real Pencil.”

“Of course not,” Simon muttered from the doorway onto the balcony. “Why would they do something useful like that? They oughta grab that motherfucker, bury him in concrete, and drop the whole slab into the Marianas Trench. Just be done with it. Go be invulnerable thirty-five thousand feet below sea level, dickface.”

The fact that Mom didn’t reprimand his language said more to me about how shaken up she was about this whole thing than basically anything else could have. Instead, she stepped up behind him from within the room, looking to me. “Your father and I need to take care of a few things. Can you stay right here in this room and not go anywhere until we get back? Simon can stay with you, if you need someone.”

I started to respond to that, but there was a knock against the still open doorway out in the main hall. Tomas was there, raising a hand. “Uh, I could stay if she wants. Sorry, I was coming to check on Cassidy and… I guess I interrupted.”

“It’s okay,” I quickly put in. “I’ll stay with Tomas. We’ll  just stay here in the room. We won’t go anywhere, I promise. Trust me, I… I’m not really in the mood to go wander around. And I’d be limping anyway.” Considering everything I had just been through, it was an easy promise to make. I wasn’t interested in doing anything else for a long time. And at least this way it would be Tomas staying with me. I knew he didn’t have any kind of involvement with my family’s criminal empire. Unless they had some kind of London branch, which was just me being ridiculously paranoid. 

My parents exchanged looks once more before Mom stepped out to gently kiss my forehead. “The phones are working again,” she murmured, “so if you need anything, anything at all… just call one of us, okay?”

Once I promised to do so, she, Dad, and Simon headed out to do… whatever they were going to do. I was left standing there in front of Tomas, feeling awkward. 

“So,” the boy started hesitantly, “I guess this was all a stupid game for those guys. They were just trying to get money and stuff out of all the rich people here,  threatening those kids at the hospital for it. Pretty fucked up, huh?” 

“Fucked up?” I echoed before nodding as I stepped into the room and moved to sit down on the nearby couch. “Yeah, I’d say it was really fucked up. 

“Then again, that’s kind of the Scions in a nutshell.”

*****

Things were busy through the rest of the night and most of the next day. I stayed at home, making sure my parents understood I was safe and that, as far as they knew, I had never been in any direct danger. They insisted on checking the cut in my leg, and put a fresh safe-seal bandage on it after calling in the family doctor to make sure it wasn’t infected or anything. I held my breath through the examination, but she didn’t say anything out of the ordinary. The cut I’d made with the letter opener clearly covered up the puncture wound from the quill, so the pain had been worth it. And my wrist wasn’t actually sprained, though there was still some soreness to it. 

In the end, my family thought I had hidden in that bathroom and never saw anything more of the bad guys than their backs. If they’d had the slightest clue of just how close I’d come to being killed last night, regardless of the being Touched part, they probably would have locked me into my room and not let me leave until I was in my mid-twenties. 

As it was, I waited until evening when I knew they were at some kind of big meeting for all the rich and powerful players who had been there last night before I went anywhere. Once I finally felt safe getting out of that house for awhile, I changed clothes into my costume and made a beeline for Wren’s place. 

Reaching the parking lot in front of the bookstore, I saw Fred hosing down some kind of sedan. When he saw me, the man twisted the nozzle to shut down the water before speaking. “Hey, you okay? Lizard girl said you ran into that Scion shit down at the party last night.”

Nodding, I replied, “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks mostly to her. She’s pretty cool. You know, for a villain.”

“For a villain,” he echoed quietly, frowning for a moment before heaving a sigh as he looked to me. “Hey, listen. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about before. Sorry for how I treated you and for helping that crazy asshole. I didn’t know what he was going to do with that stuff, but it’s not an excuse. I should’ve asked more questions, I shouldn’t have gotten involved. Shouldn’t have sold the kid’s stuff like that. It was wrong, and I was an asshole. So… yeah, I’m sorry.”

Blinking at that, I gave a short nod. “It’s okay. You’re working on fixing it. I’m pretty sure that’s what matters.”

“Hell yeah, we’re working on it,” he confirmed. “Speaking of which, the kid’s downstairs. You should go talk to her.”

So, I did, heading in and down. Reaching the lab, the first thing I saw was Pack. She was sitting over on the couch, legs held up to her chest in a pretty casual posture for someone in a costume. Her attention was focused solely on the phone in her hands. When I entered, she looked up and waved the phone at me. “Hey, you know what? Your friend That-A-Way is pretty cute. I see why you like playing hero with her around.”

Flushing under the helmet, I started to say that I hadn’t noticed, only to stop myself. Would a boy have noticed? Hmm. 

Shaking that off, I decided to change the subject by asking, “Is Holiday okay then?”

She nodded, pointing to the cage where all the lizards were curled up asleep in their natural forms. “Yup, giving them a break today. They put in a lot of work back there.”

“So did you,” I pointed out. “And you didn’t have to, so… thanks. Seriously, I’m pretty sure a lot of those kids would’ve died without you last night. Actually, I know they would have. Without you, there’d be a bunch of dead children in that place. And they would’ve lost a lot more of the hospital with that bomb. Seriously, you were awesome.”

The full black mask hid her expression, but I had the idea she was blushing a bit. “No big deal. I’m not some monster who’s going to let a bunch of little kids die. But it’s over. Let’s talk about the important stuff, like, for example, do you have That-A-Way’s number, or what? You know, so I can thank her for saving Holiday.”

Hesitating briefly, I carefully replied, “I better make sure it’s okay with her before letting you have it, you know? I mean, you guys are still on opposite sides. Unless you wanna join the Minority so you can see her again?”

She laughed, shaking her head. “Nice try, kid. Hey, if the Minority’s so amazing and all, why aren’t you joining them? Last time I checked, you actually were trying to play hero. And they’re kind of the big thing for teen heroes, right? You get training, support, friends, all that stuff you should be interested in. So what’s with the whole keeping them at arm’s length thing?”

Thankfully, I was spared from having to respond to that very good question by Wren, who popped her head up from the pile of junk she had been buried in, waving excitedly. “Paintball! Hiya. Good timing, we just need a little more help and poof, here you are. I got through some of this faster than I thought I would.”

“Faster?” I echoed. “Does that mean…?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “It’s almost done. Like, really close. We just need to do a couple more things, and I think you can help finish it up. With a little luck, it’ll be ready by tomorrow. And then we’ll be able to use the suit and find those vials.”

“Well then,” I replied with a smile. “What are we waiting for?

“Let’s get to work.”

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Alliances 6-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Oh boy, was this whole Reformation Ball thing a big deal. I’d always known that, of course. Even from the time that I was a little kid, I’d known the Ball was basically one of the most important events of the year in Detroit. But somehow, actually being there instead of sitting at home while my parents were out for the evening made it so much more obvious just how huge and important the whole thing was. I’d known it was a big deal before. But now I really knew. 

The location for the event bounced around a little from year to year, as each of the three biggest and most amazing hotels in the city took turns hosting it. This year, it was being held at the Cloud Regal, a twenty-five story hotel that was shaped like the letter C. In the middle of the curve was the main grounds of the hotel, an elaborate garden area with twin fountains on either side of the main path. The water from the fountains shot high into the air in a complicated series of patterns that included shooting back and forth to one another in an arch-shape over the path. 

There were technically three separate parties. The biggest one was out on those grounds, where tables of food and drink had been set up, along with a stage for a live band and other entertainers. There was an entrance fee, but it was minimal. To buy a ticket cost about twenty dollars, which got you into the grounds, allowed you to see the entertainment, and provided access to all the food and most drinks, though the higher shelf stuff was still charged for. 

The next step over being on the grounds was being inside one of the three separate banquet rooms within the hotel. It was apparently a few hundred per seat to be in there, which got you much better quality food (not that the food outside wasn’t great, but the more rare and expensive stuff was inside), and even more entertainment. It was a quieter dinner there, while outside was slightly more of a rambunctious, energetic party. 

Then there was the roof party. All the way at the top of the twenty-five story hotel was the roof garden where the true power in the city held their own dinner. The mayor, the chief of police, the governor of Michigan, the leadership of various hero organizations, business owners, community organizers, everyone who could afford a ticket or was sponsored by someone who could. Being on the roof required a minimum five thousand dollars per head. 

That was the general cost of each area. Twenty bucks to be outside, a couple hundred to be inside, five thousand to be on the roof. And every single ticket had been sold weeks ago. As happened every year, the event was completely sold out. And as always, one hundred percent of the proceeds from tonight would go to a charity. It was a different one each time. This year, all the money would go to the Gold Horizons Children’s Hospital located just across the street from the hotel. Apparently the guy who owned this hotel had built the hospital because of his own son passing away from cancer, and when some rich guy tried to have the hospital closed down because it made him feel bad, the owner had had him banned not only from this place, but from every hotel, resort, and business he owned. Which, apparently, was a lot. 

My family, of course, was on the roof. I was there, in my ungodly expensive and beautiful dress that made me feel like a mutt that had crawled into Cinderella’s gown and run off with it. The thing was so amazing and beautiful, all teal and shiny and… and… I was just… not… that. I wasn’t right for it. This dress belonged on a tall, beautiful blonde prom queen, not on a little tomboy who barely topped five feet, with black hair that just would not stay tamed and was long on one side but short on the other. 

My mother’s hand gently brushed my shoulder, and I turned a bit to see her smiling down at me. Her voice was soft against the light sound of quiet music in the background. “You are radiant this evening, my beautiful Principessa. Thank you for coming, I’m certain you could have found any number of other things to do. But having you here makes me so very proud.” 

I was still trying to work out how to respond to that, when her hand very gently brushed my face. Apparently she could still see dark circles there. “Are you alright? You look so tired.” 

Well, Mom, I haven’t been sleeping very well lately. First I found out that you and Dad are running some massive evil supervillain conspiracy. Then I became basically responsible for making sure an innocent little girl doesn’t die or the city itself doesn’t descend into war. And on top of all that, I was just recently knocked unconscious and abducted by a two-faced monster who really, really wants to torture me. Did I forget anything? Oh, right, and I owe a favor to that two-faced monster’s boss for letting me get out of there with my blood still inside my body. 

Forcing a smile, I shook my head. “I’m okay, Mom. It’s just been a long day. Thanks for letting me come tonight. This is…” My eyes glanced around the roof, at all the beautiful candles that lit various pathways through the glass sculptures, the rich and beautiful chatting amicably, and the ungodly famous musician with his funny glasses playing his Candle in the Wind song on the piano. “This is really great.” I looked back to her then. “And kind of crazy.” 

Her beautiful smile returned, and she gently touched two fingers to her lips before brushing my cheek with them. “You get used to it,” she murmured softly before glancing over my shoulder. “I have to speak to Grant for a minute. Enjoy yourself, my beautiful girl. Make yourself known here, let people see you. I will make sure Simon or someone else is available to take you home in an hour or so if you’re ready to leave then. There is no need for you to stay for the whole evening.”

Promising to mingle, I watched my mother head over to chat with ‘Grant’. Also known as one of Michigan’s senators. They started talking, and I heard Mom ask him about his son’s football scholarship. It made me shake my head, turning away. How weird was it to be a part of all this? Because I’d grown up with it, so I didn’t really have the right perspective. Even then, however, this felt pretty weird. I stepped away from the spot where I’d been talking to my mother, carefully making my way through the crowd. Here and there, I smiled to someone who recognized me (there weren’t that many), greeting them and exchanging a few words. One of the passing waitresses handed me a wine glass with ginger ale in it, which I took a sip from while standing at the edge of the roof to look down at the main party. It was in full swing, and looked like they were having a lot of fun. There was an open space on the grass where people were dancing.   

The sound of someone clearing their throat made me glance back to see Tomas standing there. He gave me a smile that made my stomach start a boxing match with my heart, before moving up beside me. His voice was casual. “Hey, Cassidy. Ahh, how are you doing?” 

I swallowed a bit. The past week had been complicated. I hadn’t avoided Tomas at all. We hung out a few times, even got lunch together once. But it was just… so… yeah, complicated. I felt like even more of an idiot every time I thought about how him being bisexual had made me feel. 

I knew he cared about me. I knew he liked me. This changed nothing. He liked me for being me, regardless of whether I was a boy or a girl. That was a good thing, right? Yes. Yes, it was. It was indisputably a good thing. Logically, I knew that. I told myself that. I even thought I’d convinced myself of it multiple times. Yet, every time I saw him, my brain whispered things like, ‘Are you sure he doesn’t just like you because you look like a cute little boy?’

Feelings were annoying, why did they have to be so complicated? I should just be able to tell my heart something and make it accept the plain stupid truth. Stupid emotions. Stupid, stupid emotions.

Quickly, I forced myself to reply dryly, “Oh, you know. Just another day.” Biting my lip, I looked at him. “I didn’t know you’d be here.” Pausing, I added, “But I really should’ve.” 

He chuckled lightly, waving vaguely over his shoulder. “Yeah, Mum and Dad are over there somewhere. I’m supposed to be here, look presentable, and not embarrass them.” 

“Sounds like we have similar jobs,” I replied. “You wanna share? Maybe it’ll be easier.”

He smiled again, and my heart did a little spin at the way it made his dimples show. “That sounds like a pretty good idea to me. We can look presentable together. My parents love you enough anyway. My dad kept asking if I talked to you yet. I think they want to have you over for dinner at some point.”

Oh. My… my ex’s parents wanted to have me over for dinner. That wasn’t as weird as it could be considering we’d only broken up because of distance, right? Wait, if he was back, did that mean that he expected… or that they expected… wait, was this—

Tomas’s hand found my arm, gently squeezing. “Hey, hey, it’s all right. None of us are dumb enough to think we’re just going to go right back to the way we were, okay? And if Dad or Mum think otherwise, they’ve got another thing coming. A year is a long time. I’m sure we’ve both changed a lot. I mean… you know about my… yeah. Maybe something else will come of it, maybe it won’t. But you’ve always been important, Cassidy. Whether we’re just friends or end up being more than that, I want to get to know you again. So, I’d love it if you came over for dinner at some point. No pressure, and if my parents start turning that on, I swear we’ll go get one of your American pizza concoctions.” 

Squinting at him, I pointed. “You can’t fool me anymore, buster. I know for a fact you guys have plenty of pizza over in the UK.”

Meeting my gaze, he gave a sage nod. “Of course, we just call it open stromboli. Or opomboli.”

He had me for just a second. I blinked, head tilting as I watched his expression. Then I frowned, punching him in the arm as subtly as possible, not wanting to cause a scene. “You do not, jerk.” 

He laughed, looking charming again before turning to look out at the people below once more. For a moment, he was quiet before speaking again. “I did miss you, Cassidy Evans. Even if you are not nearly as gullible as you were.” His gaze moved back to me with a wink. “You’ve changed too.” 

Swallowing back all the thoughts that brought up, I managed a shrug. “I guess that’s just a thing that happens. And I haven’t changed all that much.” Boy, if he only knew. “But I… umm…” Shaking off the feelings, I gestured. “We should probably go see about mingling a little bit more, huh? Pretty sure my parents–or my mom mostly, would prefer I be seen instead of hanging out in the background.” 

“We could dance, if you like,” he pointed out mildly, knowing full well that no one else was dancing. Not up here, anyway.

“I said ‘be seen’, not ‘make a complete ass of myself,’” I retorted before pulling him by the arm. “Come on, we’ll just walk and talk.” 

He obliged, and the two of us meandered our way through the crowd, making a couple circuits of the roof. We stopped now and then, chatting with various people. I tried to be as polite as possible, wanting, for some reason, to make a good impression for my supervillain parents. Weird. 

I also saw my dad twice. He was standing over with a few other rich guys, and Silversmith was right across the roof, talking to Flea and Caishen, leader of the Ten Towers corporate sponsored hero team. Other Star-Touched, including all the Minority members, were mingling with people too.  But I still had no idea how my parents were managing to make it look like Silversmith and my dad were both here. Maybe Dad had a body double? He could certainly afford one. 

In any case, it was eventually time for us to separate and rejoin our own families for dinner. I made my way over to the round table that had been set aside for us and found Simon and my parents already there. Dad took a moment to tell me how wonderful I looked, teasing me about being around Tomas again. Then he held Mom’s chair out, Simon held mine, and we sat down before they joined us. 

“Dad’s right, you actually look like you belong here, Booster,” my brother teased. “You haven’t tripped over anything or started talking about Power Rangers or Ninja Turtles yet.” 

Forcing myself to smile, I retorted, “Well, I didn’t want to take away your most educational topics, dear brother. That would be terrible. What on Earth would you talk about then?” 

Mom cleared her throat pointedly, but I could see her smothering a small smile as she looked to us. “Let’s be nice,” she murmured softly before looking up to thank the waiter who brought our drinks. Wine for the three of them and apple cider for me. Dad had said it would be okay if I had one glass with them, but that didn’t sound like a great idea to me, so I declined. Cider would be fine. 

We took our food a few minutes later, and watched as the mayor, followed by the governor, got up to give their speeches through the meal. ‘Grant’ the senator would be next, apparently. They would be going down to mingle with the other two party groups shortly, playing for future votes, of course. But first they would make nice with the rich people, like my parents. As part of that, Mayor Carter Bens would be accepting gifts on behalf of the city. It was another tradition born over the past couple decades, where the mayor would be given various presents of expensive things that would be put on display in City Hall for a few months before being donated and the proceeds given toward the city’s emergency services like police, fire, and hospitals. 

Once that started, Dad made a small noise in the back of his throat while looking to Mom. “You know, I think–” 

“We forgot our gift in the room,” she finished for him, sighing a little. She glanced around as though to flag down a waiter, but they were all busy. Finally looking to me, she added, “Cassidy, would you mind running—I mean… walking very carefully and discreetly… down to the suite we borrowed for the evening and picking up the gift. It should be in the living room beside the television.” 

I agreed quickly, taking the room key and heading to the elevator. From there, I headed for the penthouse suite that my parents had rented out to grab the gold-wrapped gift. 

Carefully managing the present with one hand, I went to open the door and began to step out when movement from the corner of my eye made me look that way. Men. There were men walking down the hall ahead of me, having just passed the room a few seconds earlier. Which wouldn’t really be a big deal, except for the assault rifles they held. Yeah. Guns. 

There were armed guards at this event, of course. To say nothing of all the Star-Touched hanging around. But the armed guards weren’t that obvious. They looked like Secret Service type people, not men in army camo carrying giant-ass automatic guns. 

No, this was obviously something different. Something bad. I quickly ducked back in the room and closed the door most of the way before they could spot me. Peeking out, I saw them heading for the elevator. They were met by a few more guys that were coming out of other rooms, and all of them headed up to the roof. 

Oh boy. Oh God, what was I supposed to do now? Quickly, I took my phone from my pocket, only to find it had no signal. That had to be purposeful, some kind of jammer or something. A check of the room phone produced no dial tone. Great. Just great. This was absolutely, definitely something bad. But what? What kind of crazy idiot would try to attack the place swarming with armed guards and heroes from every team in the city?

Maybe it was just a stunt or something. Maybe I was overreacting. But the lack of a cell signal and dial tone told me I wasn’t. I had to find out more, without getting caught. 

To that end, I headed for the closet where I had dropped my stuff when changing into my dress here. Digging deep in the backpack under the layer of other stuff I’d use to cover it, I came out with the bag that had my costume in it. I’d put it under some unmentionables, just in case. 

Taking a moment to slip the costume on after changing out of my dress, I made my way to the balcony, peeking out and around to make sure the coast was clear. Seeing nothing, I stepped out there before red painting myself up to the edge of the roof, clinging to the bottom edge of the  balcony as I listened. 

A male voice was speaking. “I’d say let’s not have anyone playing hero, but I think that’s a moot point by now with the kind of company we’ve got up here tonight, don’t you?”

Painting myself black, I hesitantly peeked up over the edge. Everyone was seated aside from the man who was speaking, and a dozen or so of those camo-dressed men with guns. 

As for the guy who was talking, I knew who he was. The sackcloth mask gave it away. Pencil. It was Pencil. 

That answered my question about who would be crazy enough to attack this place, at least. Seeing him made me shrink back a bit under the edge of the roof while he continued. “But still, let’s be smart here. No one wants a massacre, after all.” He paused before amending, “Well, none of you want a massacre. Personally, I think we’re kind of due.”

Silversmith, or rather, whoever was posing as him, spoke up. “You can’t possibly think you’re going to get away with anything here. What’s your game?”

I could hear the smile in Pencil’s voice as he looked that way. “My game? I’m so glad you asked. The game, ladies and gentlemen, is very simple. Everyone here pretends they care oh so much about all the poor sick children in that hospital across the street that you’re all donating to tonight. But let’s see how much you actually care. See, they’re being visited by a bunch of my friends right now as we speak. And unless you rich motherfuckers start giving until it literally hurts, well, let’s just say there won’t be any more kids to donate to. Which, for the record, is also what will happen if anyone here tries anything. So let’s just keep it all in our pants. 

“As for how much we need, we’re trying to break records here tonight for most stolen in one event. And I hear there’s some stiff competition, so dig deep people. Or don’t. Personally, I’m kind of curious to see if you can hear a few hundred sick kids being mowed down by machine guns all the way up here. 

“Aren’t experiments fun?”

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Interlude 5B – Lost Memories

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Five Years Ago

“Remember, Miss Evans, thank your host and be gracious,” Robert Parson, chauffeur for the Evans family, reminded his charge while opening the back door of the dark sedan. 

Eleven-year old Cassidy, dark hair cut into a short pixie style, didn’t so much step out of the backseat as lunge out of it… hands first. Landing on those hands, she gave a loud squeal while almost tipping over entirely the other way until Robert, well-accustomed to these shenanigans, casually caught her legs with one arm. 

She stood on her hands like that, upside down with her legs against the driver’s ready-arm. “Good catch, Bobby!” the girl chirped with a bright smile, turning her head to peer up at him.

“Honestly, Miss Evans,” the dark-skinned, well groomed man murmured. He was tall enough to be a power forward for the NBA, standing six feet, eight inches. Yet his manner with her was always gentle, and he was as well-dressed and spoken as anyone Cassidy had met among her parents’ hoity toity rich friends. “Must we cause a scene? This is hardly conduct becoming of a woman of your station and inheritance.” 

With a grunt, Cassidy flipped herself back over the other way, landing only slightly awkwardly on her knees before pushing up to her feet once more. Her bright smile never wavered. “That’s why I didn’t wear a skirt, Bobby. Well… that and the last time I did someone asked if I was a crossdresser.” Saying those words made the girl frown a little, looking away before she focused once more, shrugging. “Besides, I had to test your reflexes, you know. Gotta know if you can protect me.” She said it in an offhand way, the dismissive tone of youth who believe themselves invincible and don’t actually understand that while they may be floating on the surface of a very calm ocean, danger still lurked deep beneath those gentle waves. Despite their wealth and prominence, she’d never really believed there was anything for her family to be protected from. 

Robert shook his head, reaching out to put one hand on the girl’s short hair. “Miss Evans,” he began in a low voice that was not quite a whisper. “Such tests are unnecessary. You know that you are safe with me.” There was a calm, genuine affection in his words and gaze. Robert cared for the Evans’ youngest child as though she was his own. There was a reason, after all, that she was the only living person in the known world who was allowed to call him Bobby. 

Her head bobbed quickly. “Yup!” With a wink, she turned and reached back into the car to pull out a gift wrapped in bright silver and violet paper. It was… a bit of a mess, given her insistence on wrapping the present herself. “I think I’ve got it from here. Thanks for the ride!” 

With that, Cassidy bounded off across the long driveway. The place wasn’t nearly as big as her own house, but it was still pretty impressive. The driveway was a half-circle with an entrance and exit at two separate gates, while a tall fountain surrounded by flowers took up the middle. The house itself was about half the size of the one owned by her family, which still put it well above average. Her friend Anthony lived here, and it was his eleventh birthday. 

Reaching the front door, Cassidy went to ring the bell, only to notice that the door was open a crack. That was a little weird, but maybe they were just still bringing stuff in and out for the party. With a shrug, she pushed it open and stepped through, letting the door close behind her. 

“Hello?” Cassidy called, pausing a bit. Huh. Usually one of the maids would have come by now. Maybe they were really busy. And she was actually pretty early. She’d wanted to have a chance to talk to Anthony so they could come up with a plan to escape the party later and play some games in his rooms. It wasn’t like the party guests would miss the pair, considering most of them would be his parents’ friends, not his. Anthony didn’t actually have many friends. Just her, mostly. He was homeschooled by tutors, and the two of them had been all-but inseparable every day since her father had brought Cassidy along to meet his business associate’s son a couple years earlier. 

The party was supposed to be out back, so she started that way. Someone would know what was going on, and where she should put her gift. 

It took a minute for the girl to make her way through the enormous house. Even as often as she’d been over, it was still easy to get lost in the maze of rooms and corridors to reach the correct sliding door leading onto the back patio. It was attached to the (oddly empty and dark) dining room, and Cassidy had to set the present down on the nearby table to push the sliding glass door open. As soon as she did so, the girl heard voices. Oh, good! People were out here. She had started to worry. 

Turning to pick up the present with both arms, she started to head through the opening, before looking up. As she did so, the girl abruptly froze half-in and half-out of the house. The haphazardly-wrapped gift fell to the ground, forgotten in an instant at the sight in front of her. 

Bodies. Three of them lay sprawled out along the patio in various positions, clearly left where they had fallen. Blood… so much blood… coated the ground around and between them, a sticky pool of it. Two of them were faced away from the door, but one, the body of Anthony’s family’s longtime butler, was staring sightlessly straight at Cassidy. His mouth was open with mute horror, frozen in death that way as his gaze seemed to stare directly through the girl. 

Two more bodies lay further on past the first three, draped over lawn chairs. Beyond them was the pool, where yet another body floated. And beside it stood two men with guns. Before them lay a body that some barely cognizant part of Cassidy’s brain vaguely registered as Anthony’s mother. Dead. Dead, just like the others. All of them were dead. 

Except Anthony. The boy himself was sobbing over his mother’s body, clinging to her while he begged… for something. For her to come back, for them to stop shooting everyone, for his own life. His words were a jumble of terror and grief, a desperate wailing almost animal-like. 

As Cassidy stood there, frozen in shock, one of the men offered the boy a shrug. “Sorry, kid,” he muttered in a dispassionate voice. “Nothing personal, this ain’t about you.” 

With that, he raised the gun, pulling the trigger. The sound of the gunshot, muffled though it was, still echoed across the porch. It was met, in turn, by the horrified scream of an eleven-year-old girl who had just seen her best friend murdered right in front of her, as his body collapsed.

“Fuck!” the second man blurted, spinning that way, “where the fuck did that one co–” 

“It’s the kid!” The first guy waved the gun with the hand, bellowing, “Grab her, fucking grab her!” 

With a choked sob, Cassidy turned to flee. But her foot caught on the present she had dropped, and she fell to the floor in the dining room. The next thing she knew, a hand was yanking her up by the hair and arm. As she shrieked and struggled, the man hauled her around back to the porch. “Fucking bitch!” His hand lashed out to smack her across the face, and she hit the ground once more with a cry. He spat at her, snarling, “Your daddy thinks he can run us out of town? Let’s see how tough he thinks he is when he gets his little girl’s finger in the ma–” 

A new gunshot filled the air, echoing through the house. The man who had been ranting pitched forward, hitting the ground beside the still-screaming Cassidy. Nearby, the other man had been on his way over, only to jerk in surprise as his partner was shot. He had his own gun about halfway up before Robert came through the doorway, pistol raised to shoot him through the center of his forehead. He pitched over backward, while Robert smoothly leaned down to haul the sobbing girl up with one arm. “Hands over your ears,” he ordered. “Hands!” 

She obeyed, throwing her hands over her ears and dropping her face against his shoulder while her entire body shook with unrestrained tears. Holding her easily with one arm, Robert went back through the house. As he did so, more intruders appeared. A man popped into the doorway ahead of them with a raised submachine gun, only to be shot three times before he could move. His slumping body was kicked aside as Robert stepped through to the next room, calmly firing three more times, twice at a man who appeared in a doorway to the right, and once at yet another one who came from the stairs above and to the left.   

Taking three quick steps toward the doorway where the man there had fallen, Robert lashed out with his foot, catching the door with his foot. It slammed on the wrist of another man who was just coming through, making him drop his gun. Robert fired once through the door, aimed low to catch the man right in the knee. He collapsed, his head appearing in time to receive a second bullet that put his body on the ground beside the other man’s. 

Ducking back out of the way as a handful of shots came from that same hallway that the two men had tried to come through, Robert waited for a two count, then moved across the half-open doorway, pivoting to put his back to the opening in order to shield Cassidy with his body. Instantly, several more shots rang out. One clipped the man’s arm, drawing a grunt from him before he made it to the opposite side. Pointing the pistol through the doorway, he fired twice without looking, and was rewarded with a yelp and the sound of a man falling. 

The sound of running footsteps on the stairs announced the arrival of yet another attacker. This one lunged into view, submachine gun raised as he dove off the stairs to reach the landing. He was shot through the head in mid-dive, his body crashing through a display of glass figurines. 

Turning quickly, Robert strode onward through the room. As the door to his right was kicked open, he lashed out to slam his pistol into the face of the man that came through, hitting him viciously three times in rapid succession even as the man was falling. The one who came through just behind him was shot through the knee, just Robert’s gun clicked on empty. He slumped down with a scream of pain, while Robert pivoted to hurl his pistol into the face of another man who had come running in from the direction of the back patio where they had just been. In the same motion as his own weapon left his hand, the driver and bodyguard stripped the pistol from the hand of the attacker he had just shot through the knee while the man was trying to aim up at him. He turned it, shooting the kneeling man through the side of the head before taking a quick, almost contemptuously casual shot at the man on the other side of the room who was still recovering from having a pistol thrown at him. The shot took him between the eyes, and he dropped. 

With Cassidy still draped against his shoulder, supported by one arm, Robert made his way through the rest of the house. More men came, a small army having been sent into this mansion to kill everyone present and, apparently, abduct his eleven-year-old charge. But a small army wasn’t enough, as the man put down everyone who dared show themselves, shooting his way out of the building and back to the front driveway. Through it all, he was shot twice more in equally non-vital places. One grazed his right leg and another went through his left side. None did more than slightly slow the man.  

His own last shot (from his third acquired pistol) took down a man with a shotgun who had been running toward the front door from a van that had pulled up behind their car. Without breaking stride, Robert tossed the pistol away, hooking his foot under the shotgun to kick it up into his grip. One-handed, he aimed the shotgun at the van, blowing away the driver just as he tried to scramble out. He fired the second shot as the side door of the van began to slide open, taking the man who tried to lunge free in the face. 

Shotgun emptied, Robert tossed it aside and kept moving. The back door of the sedan was already open, so he all but threw Cassidy into it. She landed hard on the seat, eyes opening just in time to shriek in terror as she looked past him. 

Two more shots hit the man in the back before he could react. Pivoting, he took a third shot in the stomach, making that six bullets the man had taken in only a few minutes. He collapsed to the ground, while an older man with silver-white hair came into view, pistol still in hand. 

“Well now,” the elderly figure muttered, “my son-in-law does hire good help, I’ll give him that.” Shaking his head, he leaned down to look into the car at Cassidy, who was frozen in terror, mouth simply repeating ‘Bobby, Bobby, Bobby’ in silent desperation, her mind all-but broken. 

“Hiya, kid,” the man announced. “Let’s get out of here. You can get to know your old Grandpa Jacopo.” 

He started to reach in toward the girl, just as a gleaming silver blade was suddenly driven through his back to erupt through the front of his chest. The man choked, looking down sharply as the end of the blade formed two solid pieces to hold itself in him while being pulled back. The old man was hauled away from the car and dumped to the ground. 

And Cassidy saw her father. Her father… dressed up like Silversmith, sans helmet. Her daddy, standing there with a bloody mercury-like blade extending from his arm. Her father, glaring at the man on the ground. His voice shook with rage that felt as though it could bring down the nearby house. “You… son of a bitch!” 

The man on the ground laughed, choking on his own blood. “Really think you could kick me out of town forever, son-in-law? This is my town! She’s my daughter! It’s my organization! You’re a fucking glorified accountant! I built all of this, I own it! It’s mine!”

In response, Cassidy’s father simply shook his head. His voice was dark. “Not anymore.” With that, his hand lashed out, forming a new blade that took the old man’s head off at the neck, sending it bouncing along the driveway to the nearby flower garden. 

The next thing Cassidy knew, she was in her father’s arms, sobbing and babbling about dead people, about Bobby, about him being Silversmith. It was all a jumble, the terror and horrific realization of everything she had seen falling together to form one terrible memory. 

“Sorry… Mr. Evans,” Robert managed, having pulled his thoroughly bleeding form to a sitting position. “Tried to get her out.” 

“You did,” Sterling assured the man. “You did everything. We owe you everything. Just sit still. The ambulance is coming. It’s coming. You’re going to be okay, I promise. I swear, we’ll take care of you for the rest of your life. You saved my baby girl. Anything you ever need is yours. Anything.

“We’ll never forget this.” 

*******

“And she won’t remember any of it? You’re certain?” 

Elena Evans, standing beside her husband, was addressing the man in front of them. He was a pale figure with dark-blond hair wearing a neatly pressed white suit. His eyes were dark green. 

“Yes,” the man replied simply, in a distinct British accent. “I do know what I’m doing, Mrs. Evans. The girl will remember none of what happened that day. She will remember the boy as barely an acquaintance, who moved away before perishing in a car accident on the other side of the country. His being homeschooled is a bonus, in that regard.” 

“She barely speaks,” Elena murmured, the worry clear in her voice. “She hasn’t eaten in… in days. This… this thing, it wasn’t… she can’t find out like this. It’s destroyed her. She isn’t… she isn’t talking to us. She just keeps whispering about people dying, about… about her friend. She is not… Cassidy anymore.” 

“As I said,” the man repeated, “she will not remember any of it. What about your man on the scene?” 

Sterling grimaced. “Robert survived, thankfully. But the doctors don’t think he’ll walk again. Anything he does do will take years of physical therapy and surgeries.” 

“He’ll have it,” Elena announced firmly. “After what he did, he will have everything he needs for as long as he lives. Nothing is out of the question. Find a healer willing to work with him, use one of our Braintrust contacts, whatever it takes. That man saved our daughter. He did his job above and beyond the call of duty. We will not forget that.” 

“A sound policy,” their guest agreed. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have my own job to do.” Nodding to them both, he stepped through the nearby doorway to Cassidy’s room. 

The girl herself sat on a chair, staring at the mirror. She didn’t look up when he entered, nor did she speak. 

“Hi,” the man greeted her. “My name is Jackson. Kent Jackson. I have a son about your age, back over in London. His name is Tomas. What’s yours?” 

Silence. 

“Well,” Kent murmured, “I’m sorry to hear about what happened to your friend and his family. Luckily, you won’t have to think about that for much longer.” With that, he stepped over, raising his hand toward her. But just as his fingers brushed her hair, the girl shrieked. She smacked hand away, screaming out loud as she scrambled to her feet, lashing out to kick him in the leg. 

“Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!!!” she screamed out loud. 

Grimacing, Kent grabbed the girl by the arms. As she shrieked and fought, he hauled her off the floor, throwing the girl roughly down on her bed even as one of her hands dragged deep fingernail marks down his arm. “Stop! Stop it!” he blurted, head shaking while she scrambled, kicking and hissing like a wild cat.  

“Damn it, stop! I’m helping you, daft child!” Kent shook the girl, just as he was yanked off of her by Sterling, who put his fist in the man’s stomach to double him over. He staggered, choking out words about needing to do his job. 

“Help her.” Elena’s voice was firm, as she sat on the bed with her daughter. She reached out, but Cassidy drew back, pulling herself into a tight, whimpering ball. “Help her, not terrify her more.” 

Straightening, Kent adjusted his suit with a cough. “The girl is frightened because of the very event I’m working to take away. Give me a moment with her, and it will no longer be a problem.” He gave both of her parents a look, then exhaled while stepping over. 

“Now, let’s try this again, shall we?” 

Author’s note: The first reference to Cassidy’s memories being altered was in a short snippet at the end of 4-05 right here

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Interlude 4B – Sterling, Elena, and Blackjack (Summus Proelium)

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“I find it quite rich,” the man known as Blackjack slowly announced, “if you pardon the phrasing, that you ask me to be patient with my child’s life on the line.” He wore no costume at the moment, his handsome, if worn by worry, face revealed in this private space as he pointedly turned to look toward Elena and Sterling Evans. He met their gazes for a long moment before continuing in a low voice that fairly shook with barely restrained emotion. “Because, as I believe we all know, if it were either of your children’s lives on the line, the streets of this city would already run red with blood as its buildings burned. You would not show the restraint you ask for.” 

The three of them stood in a room that might have passed as a personal library, given the shelves of books, plush leather chairs, and an old grandfather clock in the corner. A single, large window took up almost an entire wall, and it was in front of that window that the group stood. The window overlooked a large hospital room far below, giving high overlooking view of the place where the man’s daughter lay being tended to and cared for by several physicians. 

Exchanging brief glances, Sterling and Elena each conveyed an entire conversation’s worth of thoughts in only a moment before the latter spoke up gently. “You’re quite right, Eric. Were it Simon or Cassidy in such condition, we wouldn’t have this kind of restraint. And,” she continued even as his mouth opened, “your daughter is just as important as our children. But we would hope that our allies would be there to tell us that acting impulsively would not get what we want.” 

“Are we allies, then?” Eric asked the two with a raised eyebrow. “Or are you simply here to ensure that you aren’t in danger of losing a major source of funds? Without the taxes paid by La Casa in exchange for operating in your city, just how much would your income fall?” 

“Not enough to be worth more than Melissa’s life,” Sterling answered, his head nodding toward the young girl visible through the window in the room below. “Eric, we wouldn’t be where we are today without your help. If you didn’t provide that gun, if you hadn’t–” He stopped, swallowing as memories from so long ago came swirling back through his head before he pushed them aside. Those were memories for another day. Right now, there were more important matters to handle. 

To that end, Sterling breathed out before continuing. “I know that we have grown… apart to an extent over the years. We don’t spend all that much time socializing anymore. But at one time we were close friends. I remember that, and I wouldn’t put our profits over Melissa’s life any more than I would put them over my own children’s. La Casa’s debts are not an issue right now.”

Eric’s mouth opened to retort, but he stopped himself. His own frustrations and feelings of helplessness at seeing the condition of his daughter was coloring his reaction to the Evans’, he knew that. Knowing it didn’t exactly help that much, but it let him stop and breathe for a moment. Finally, he started again. “You know that Cuélebre and the other gangs are doing everything they can to find Worthy’s vials as we speak. And they aren’t going to give them back.” 

“We have expressed to them how much better it would be for everyone involved if they return any of the medicine they happen to come across,” Sterling assured him before immediately adding, “And yes, we know they aren’t likely to listen. But we also made certain that some of their underlings heard as well. It’s possible that one of them might come seeking a reward.” 

Elena spoke then, in a gentle voice. “Eric, we put everything else on pause to come here and focus on helping Melissa. She’s what matters now, nothing else. We aren’t working on anything else this week aside from getting your daughter the help she needs. Sterling has an entire wing of Seraph Hills working on potential delaying actions to stretch this out. They’ll find something.” 

“I promised her mother I would keep her safe,” Eric murmured, putting a hand up against the glass window as he stared down at his daughter. “I promised her that Melissa would be okay.” He sighed, lowering his head before asking, “You truly think that the Seraphs can figure something out that soon?” His voice cracked just a little as he looked over to the pair. “She’s running out of time. And I swear, if we don’t find something in the next day or so, I am going–” 

In mid-sentence, there was a knock at the door. Eric paused, looking to his companions. Elena immediately made a simple gesture with one hand. In response, both she and her husband were sheathed in a holographic illusion disguising them as two completely different people, unremarkable in every way. No one would be able to pick them out of any random crowd. 

“Come,” Eric called, once his two guests were sufficiently disguised. 

At his words, the door opened and a costumed figure stepped in. The newcomer wore a black, ruffled silk shirt with dark gold piping, pants that were also dark gold to match that piping, and a mask that consisted of two diagonal bands, one black and one gold, that each covered one side of his face and the opposite eye while leaving his mouth uncovered. The boy, who looked like he was still in high school, held a phone in one hand and started to say something before pausing at the sight of the unknown people in the corner. 

“Eits,” Eric, in full Blackjack mode, spoke. “Never mind my guests. What is it?” 

“Oh, uhh,” the boy cleared his throat before focusing. “It’s the new girl, Da–I mean Pack, sir. She says that they–that she’s with that Paintball guy and they have one of the vials. And–” 

Before he could get any further, Blackjack was already there, taking the phone from his hand. “Pack,” he said sharply, “what do you have?” He wanted to hear it straight from her. 

As the man spoke quietly and quickly with his subordinate, his voice rising and falling a bit through the short, but intense conversation, Elena and Sterling looked to one another. The latter leaned closer to his wife’s ear, whispering a soft, “That boy is either extraordinarily lucky, or has some manner of access or aspect to his power that we don’t understand yet.” 

“Perhaps all three,” Elena pondered, patting her husband’s arm. “We will, eventually. No one operates in our city for long without our understanding everything we need to know about them.” 

“Not exactly true,” Sterling pointed out. “There are those we have no control over. Deicide has never opened up to us. Not to any real extent beyond paying her dues. And Pencil–” 

“Pencil,” Elena snapped, “is a complete psychopath. His entire group is bad enough. Honestly, worshipping one of the Abyssal? But Pencil… he takes it to an extreme. He needs to be put down like the rabid dog he is. The world would be better without him. Certainly more stable.” 

Sterling agreed easily. “You’re not wrong, love. The man is a monster. But that just adds to my point. We don’t control everyone in this city. Despite our best efforts.” He said the latter bit with a small smile, gently squeezing her hand against his own arm. “Some slip through the cracks.” 

“Paintball is a lone figure, some little boy playing hero,” Elena assured him. “He’s doing some good work, which is fine in the short term. Particularly now, if he’s truly found any of those vials. But we need to know more about him. We need to be ready in case any… pressure needs to be applied in the future. I don’t like having wildcards out there that we know nothing about. Particularly wildcards that have become this effective this quickly. It’s… potentially concerning.” 

Their conversation was interrupted then, as Blackjack dismissed Eits before looking to the pair, raising an eyebrow as he announced, “You’re talking about the Paintball kid? Well, he just found the guy who stole my daughter’s medicine.” 

Husband and wife gave each other brief, sharp looks, Elena dismissing the holographic illusion before Sterling spoke. “Truly? That’s quite remarkable. How did the boy pull something like that off when no one else has managed it?” 

“Apparently,” Eric replied, “he tracked down the person responsible for… unknowingly… providing some of the material that allowed this Ashton boy to rob the bank to begin with. When informed of the situation, this person assisted in tracking Ashton down. They have him now, along with one of Worthy’s vials.” 

“One?” Elena echoed in a pointedly curious voice. “They don’t have all of them?” 

“Not yet,” the man answered softly, his tone making it clear just how hard of a time he was having remaining as calm as he portrayed himself as being. “Apparently they are… working on getting the location of the rest out of Mr. Austin.”

“You’re not having him brought in to get those vials yourself?” Sterling asked. “One way or another?” His words made it quite obvious just how he would go about such a thing. 

“Oh, believe me,” Eric assured his old friend, “when the time comes, Ashton and I will be having a very long and very final conversation. But… for the time being, I see no need to ignore Paintball’s request that I show restraint. We have one vial, which will be returned shortly. That buys another month of time. Paintball has requested two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of Ashton without my… involvement.” He gave the two a sharp look. “I gave him ten days.” 

Before he could say anything else, the phone (which he had kept after dismissing Eits) buzzed. The man checked it before answering with a simple, “Blackjack.” He paused, listening briefly before replying, “Understood.” Disconnecting the call with a flick of his thumb, he pressed a couple more buttons before holding it back to his ear. After a moment, his call was apparently answered, because he spoke rapidly. “Public library on Woodward. Meet the Paintball boy there in the back alley. Take what he gives you and bring it straight here. Be subtle. Be invisible. Do not lose it, or allow anything to damage it. Your life for that vial. Do you understand? Then go.” 

Once he disconnected that call, Sterling spoke up. “Someone you trust implicitly?” 

“As much as I trust anyone in this life,” Blackjack replied simply. “They’ll bring the vial. Melissa will have another month of safety, and be one step closer to being freed from this disease.” He stepped closer to the window once more, putting his hand against the glass as he stared down at his child, voice cracking just a little. “I’ll give Paintball the ten days he asked for. He’s earned that much, being the one who found Mr. Austin and the first vial to begin with. I trust that he will find the rest.” 

******

Some time later, the vial had been delivered. Eric stood holding it carefully between two fingers, marveling at just how unimportant and simple the contents looked when his daughter’s life depended so thoroughly on it. Behind him, Sterling and Elena watched silently.

“One month,” he murmured under his breath. “This vial, this… simple vial will keep her alive for another month. A few more like it, and the disease will be gone forever.” Slowly, his hand closed fully around the vial, and he exhaled a bit shakily before speaking again. “Would you like to come with me? I’m sure Melissa would like to see you.” 

A brief smile touched Elena’s face, as her head bowed a bit. “Of course. We’d like to see her too.” Her hand gave a brief gesture, summoning a different pair of holographic disguises. These were less unremarkable than the previous ones, portraying her as an attractive blonde woman in her late thirties with piercing blue eyes, and her husband as a silver-haired slightly older man of quite distinguished looks not far from Eric’s own, actually. The two could have been brothers. Which, in this case, was the entire point. 

Together, the three descended the stairs just outside the observation area, entering the other room through a pair of sealed doors. As they did so, a small, yet excited voice called out from the bed in the middle of the room, “Daddy!” 

Dismissing the doctors for a couple minutes, Eric stepped over to smile at his daughter. The tiny, pale brunette, leaned up for a hug, which her father provided. Gently, of course. Though the Rot Bone disease had been held at bay, preventing her bones from disintegrating into a lethal poison, they were still fragile. He didn’t dare squeeze as firmly as he so desperately wanted to. 

“Here, Lissa,” the man gently urged while straightening. “You have visitors.” 

Seeing the two behind him, the young girl’s face brightened. ‘Uncle Stan! Aunt Ellen!” Soon, she was exchanging gentle embraces with the two she knew as her father’s often-distant brother and his wife. “Did you see what Dad brought?” Reaching under her blanket, she pulled out a stuffed bear. It was dark red with a white snout and white bits on the end of its paws, wearing a brown trenchcoat and Sherlock Holmes Deerstalker hat. In one of its hands was a magnifying glass. 

“His name is Inspector Guillotine,” Melissa explained. “Inspector Garrote Guillotine. He’s the best detective in the world, but he has a tortured soul over all the bad guys that he had to kill. Except for Paws Lynch. That’s his archenemy and brother-in-law. Lynch killed his own sister, Inspector Guillotine’s wife, and the inspector’s spent the past three years trying to find him.”

With a smile, Sterling (or Uncle Stan) gently took the trenchcoat-clad bear to examine him. “Wow, that’s an interesting story you’ve got for this little guy.” 

“He’s dangerous,” Melissa informed him. “He drinks too much since his wife died, and he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. But that’s okay, cuz he’s gonna meet her.” From under the blanket, the girl tugged a different stuffed animal. This one was much smaller, about half the size of the bear. It was a little pink crocodile with a cloth skateboard attached to its feet. 

“She’s gonna teach Inspector Guillotine how to love someone again,” Melissa explained. “Cuz she’s a witness to a murder, and he has to protect her. But she gets into trouble a lot.” She frowned a little. “I dunno what to name her though.” Looking up to them, the girl asked, “Do you know any good names?” 

“Well,” ‘Aunt Ellen’ replied while gently taking the stuffed, skateboard-riding crocodile. “Let’s see. A little daredevil, gets into trouble, teaches the gruff old guy how to love again…” Turning it over in her hands, she looked back to the girl. “How about Cassidy?” 

“Cassidy?” Melissa echoed, taking the toy back as she considered for a moment. “Hmm… okay. Okay, she can be Cassidy. Cassidy and Inspector Garrote Guillotine.” 

“She writes stories,” Eric quietly explained, gesturing to the stack of notebooks on a nearby table. “So many stories. She’s going to publish them, as soon as she gets better. Isn’t that right, Smelly?” Smelly, of course, was short for ‘Small Melly’, a joke between the two. Her father was the only person in the world Melissa tolerated the teasing nickname from. 

After a little more conversation, Eric produced the vial, holding it gingerly between his fingers. “Okay, Smelly Melly Bug. We’ve got some of your medicine here.” 

The girl squirmed in her bed, staring at it. “Another shot?” Her voice was a weak protest, despite knowing how much she needed it. Shots weren’t fun. Particularly these ones. 

Taking a knee in front of the bed after setting the vial down on the table, Eric took his daughter’s hands. “I know, sweet thing. I know, it sucks. But it’ll make you better.” 

“That’s what you said before,” Melissa protested. “And I felt good. But then there was no more medicine and I got sick again.” 

“Don’t you worry, baby,” Eric assured her. “You’ll get all the medicine you need, I promise. You just have to be my brave, strong girl and take it, okay? You take your medicine here, just one little shot, then we’ll watch a movie and have ice cream tonight.” 

There was a little more good-natured grumbling, but the little girl agreed. Eric called in a doctor to administer the injection. It clearly hurt, given the way the girl hissed and whimpered through it, but she stayed as still as possible. Once it was over, Eric and her ‘aunt and uncle’ all gave her hugs, promising to come back for ice cream and a movie as soon as they finished a little work. 

As the trio stepped out of the room and returned to the observation area, Elena dropped the illusion over herself and Sterling. The pair looked toward their old friend, while he announced, “This Paintball has given my daughter another month. So as I said, I’ll give him those ten days to find the rest of them.” 

“I take it,” Elena began carefully, “you will not be letting this Ashton boy go, regardless of what happens with those vials.” 

“He put my daughter’s life in danger,” Eric stated in a flat, dangerous tone. “He doesn’t get to walk away from that. No. I’ll give him a chance to do the right thing, for this Paintball. When that’s over, once Melissa is safe again, this… Ashton and I will have that conversation. 

“And perhaps his screams will reach back through time, to bring a shudder to the boy at the very moment that he first thinks of bringing harm to my child.” 

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Pursuit 4-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“You know, you’re really lucky you don’t have any actual responsibilities,” my brother announced the next afternoon as the two of us stood on one of the balconies overlooking our massive grounds behind the house. The place was basically too big to even see all of from where we were standing. Our property extended off over the hill and down into a small forested area with a stream running through it. Let’s just say that when I had read the Harry Potter books, I basically pictured the grounds as my own backyard. Actually, the school itself wasn’t that far off from my house, come to think of it. Which probably gave me a somewhat different view of good old Harry’s upgrade from cupboard to castle than most people had.

Glancing sidelong toward Simon, I resisted the urge to punch him, though it was close. “I have responsibilities,” I informed him stiffly.

Like finding those stolen vials for Blackjack before his daughter dies and he takes his grief out on the entire city, I added silently.

Yeah, that new little responsibility had been weighing on me all night long, ever since the La Casa leader had his men drive me back into the city. I got them to let me out in the back lot of one of the public libraries, since that wouldn’t give them any indication of who I was. Then I’d spent a solid half hour making sure I wasn’t being followed and that there were no tracking devices on me (as far as I could tell). In the latter case, I didn’t actually trust my own ability to find any minute trackers that might have been placed on me, so I had gone as far as dunking my entire body in a fountain (after taking out my voice changer of course) to soak myself and hopefully drown any electronics that might have been placed before finally heading home (soaking wet and cold) to crash. It might not have been necessary, but I was paranoid.

Then I’d tossed and turned for hours before finally getting to sleep. It was a good thing today was Sunday.

Simon just chuckled at me. “Oh, of course, make sure you get to class on time, do some homework, such a hard responsibilities. How do you ever manage to keep up with it all?”

There was so much I could have said to him right then that would have blown his mind. It almost felt like it would’ve been worth it. But I bit back the initial retort that came to mind, settling on just shrugging at him. “Everyone’s got their own stuff.”

Somehow, I was pretty sure that asking him if ordering people to be murdered and working out deals with the Easy Eight gangs were the extent of his responsibilities or if there were more I should know about wouldn’t go over that well. But it still would’ve been funny to see his face. For a few seconds anyway.

Giving me a little push with his elbow, Simon laughed. “Oh, don’t worry about it. I’m just giving you shit, Booster. It’s good that you don’t have to deal with too much. You’re gonna have to worry about enough stuff when you get older. No reason to be in a rush. Be happy you’re still…”

He paused then, looking very briefly troubled, a short expression of uncertainty crossing his face. Even if I hadn’t known at least some of the truth, that would have stood out. He looked, maybe not sad, but at least… somewhat regretful? Maybe scared. Or lost. Or like someone who was in way over their head. Or all of the above. Either way, it flashed across his face for just a moment.

“Are you okay?” I found myself asking. Not that I actually expected him to open up with the truth, but I was curious about what he might actually say. Especially in that moment where he looked somewhat vulnerable.

He didn’t answer at first. Instead, Simon just turned to look out over the grounds. His lips pursed a bit and he reached out to set a hand on my shoulder, squeezing it. And for just the slightest instant, I had the absurdly paranoid thought that he was going to shove me off the balcony. But of course, he just squeezed my shoulder and replied, “Sure, I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be? We live a charmed life, you know? Everything’s just fine and peachy keen.”

Hesitating slightly, I looked up to him. “Simon, you know if there’s something you want to talk about… we can—”

His fist hit my shoulder, just enough to sting. “Told you” he retorted, “it’s fine. I’m fine. Don’t be such a little girl.”

“I could stand on stilts if you want me to stop being so little,” I offered. “But I kind of like the girl part, so you’re stuck with that.” Lowering my voice, I added as masculinely as possible, “I could pretend for a little bit if it makes you feel better.”

The saddest thing about all of this was that it was only with Simon that I could feel comfortable making these kind of jokes. Most of the time I was so busy making sure people knew I actually was a girl that I’d never say something like that.

Or maybe pretending to be a boy in costume was making me more comfortable with it too. Either way, I felt a brief wave of incredible depression at the thought that one of the only people in the world whom I felt comfortable with joking about looking like a boy with was only unaware that I was the one he had nearly had killed because he thought I was a boy. There was some kind of joke in there somewhere, but I didn’t feel like finding it. This just sucked.

Apparently it was my turn for something to show on my face, because Simon looked to me and frowned. “Are you okay? You look like someone just bought you a puppy and then strangled it in front of you.”

Grimacing, I shot a look at him. “Morbid. Too morbid.”

Before I could actually answer his question, however, the sliding glass door opened and we both looked back to see Mom stepping through. She smiled beautifully at us, a radiant expression that immediately made me feel loved and protected. Damn, she was good.

“I do enjoy seeing my children spending time together without being shamed into it,” Mom announced lightly, leaning in to give Simon a quick peck on the cheek before whispering something in his ear that took a few seconds to get through. She leaned back then, giving him a nod of what looked like encouragement before gesturing. “Before dinner, please.”

Giving me a brief glance, Simon nodded. “Yeah,” he grunted, “I’ll get right on that. He turned then, heading back into the house without saying anything else to me.

Even knowing that the best I would get was a lie, I turned to Mom and asked, “What does Simon have to do?” Despite the odds against getting a real answer, it probably would have been weird if I didn’t ask, after something like that.

Sure enough, Mom just shook her head at me. “Nothing for you to worry about, dear. Now come, let me look at my little Principessa.” She stepped closer, putting her hands on my shoulders while smiling down at me. Her gaze met mine and I felt like melting against her. She was my mom. I wanted to trust her so much. Everything in me was saying that I should just grab onto my mother and tell her everything. It was so hard not to. It took a physical effort to keep my face as blank as possible. It was hard. It was so damn hard.

Mom held me like that for a few long seconds before leaning in to kiss my forehead. She ruffled my hair and then stepped back. “Come, let’s take a walk in the garden and talk.”

“Talk?” I echoed despite myself.

She gave me an easy wink. “Never fear, whatever personal secrets you have are safe. You’re not in trouble. I only wish to speak with you about good things.”

Reminding myself to act like a normal teenager, I quickly put in, “Oh, you mean we’re talking about the car I’m getting when I pass Drivers Ed?”

Mom just chuckled softly at me. “That’s your father’s department, dear. Let’s go.” With that, she turned to walk back inside. I followed, as I was expected to. She didn’t even look back to see if I was, simply knowing that I would. That was the kind of power my mother held over everyone.

We walked through the house, down the stairs, and out into the back yard. Mom led me to one of several elaborate flower gardens we had out there, and we began a stroll between the dazzling display of colors from all the blossoms.

We had been walking in silence for a minute before my mother finally spoke up once more. “You are sixteen years old now, Cassidy. You are nearly an adult. And that comes with additional privileges as well as responsibilities.” She glanced toward me then with a half smile. “Some could be considered both privilege and responsibility.”

My throat felt dry, a lump forming in it. What was this about? Was she going to tell me about the real family business? Was I about to be inducted into their criminal empire? Was she actually going to tell me the truth? How was I supposed to react? What was I supposed to do? Why were we out here in the garden?

“The Reformation Ball,” Mom announced, yanking my attention back to her.

“Huh?” I blurted, blankly. “What about it?”  The Reformation Ball was some big wig party that the leaders of the city had been throwing alongside the rich and powerful movers and shakers for the past couple decades, ever since things in Detroit started to be turned around by the emergence of Touched. It was a huge deal, which all the most important people in the city attended, including the Star-Touched teams. All of them sent at least a representative. But that didn’t have anything to do with me. I was too young to have anything to do with the— Wait a minute.

Mom must have seen the light bulb go on above my head, because she gave one nod. “Yes, you are sixteen. Your father and I believe you are old enough to participate and be seen. We would like you to attend. It is next Saturday and your father would like to make a present out of a dress for you. You will have to attend a fitting Tuesday evening. May I count on your attendance?”

My mind was reeling. I had just gone from thinking she might be opening up about all the bad things they were doing and how I should react to that, to being told that they thought I was adult enough to attend one of their most important dinner parties. How was I supposed to react? What was the appropriate level of excitement? Should I be excited? Should I be disappointed that I had to go to some party? I had completely lost all perspective or sense of balance.

In the end, I covered it as best as I could, after standing there in silence for a few seconds, by stepping over to tightly hug my mother. Maybe she would think my silence was because I was too choked up to say anything?

It seemed to work well enough, because Mom returned the embrace, brushing her hand up through my hair before holding my head against her chest as she murmured my name tenderly. That basically made me cry for real, and I clutched her tighter. God, why did this have to be so hard?

“I’ll be there,” I finally managed quietly. I would. I had to be. If they were starting to open up to me a little, maybe I could find out more about what my family was really up to and how they were involved in the Fell-Touched scene.

Also, I really wanted to know how they were going to pull off having both my father and Silversmith at this dinner.

******

Of course, first there was a much more pressing problem I had to deal with. Namely, finding those vials. Which meant finding Ashton. There wasn’t much time, and I didn’t have much in the way of ideas. I had tracked the guy down once, but he was back in the wind. How was I supposed to find him again? Especially if, despite being driven from his first hideout, he still hadn’t been found by one of the many, many people out beating the bushes for him.

I had only one idea, and it involved going back to the place where I had found him in the first place. In my costume later that day, I found myself back in front of that building. Blackjack’s men had definitely given it a thorough search after the cops who had been called to the disturbance had left, but they hadn’t found anything as far as I knew. So what made me think I would have any better luck than they had?

Blind optimism, mostly.

I hopped over the fence once more and made my way around to the right window. Glancing around to make sure no one seemed to be watching, I used red paint to yank myself up to the window and slipped inside. There, I looked around the dining room. The place was a complete disaster area. Whatever the stun grenade thing hadn’t destroyed, Blackjack’s people (or maybe the cops) had finished off. Everything had been torn out of all the cupboards, the fridge, the drawers, all of it. Things were scattered everywhere in the kitchen, and moving beyond that, I saw that the rest of the place was no better. They had cut open chairs, ripped up the couch, slashed the mattress on both sides, all of it. They’d torn apart the whole place. It looked as though a small tornado had struck the apartment, thanks to the men who had been looking for those vials.

This was insane. How was I going to find anything in here that those guys had missed? But it was my only lead. It was the only chance I had, aside from just blindly wandering the streets while looking for this guy. And that didn’t seem to be working very well for anyone else. No, this was what I had, and I needed to do something with it. Hence my one idea.

Placing myself in the same position he had been standing in, I faced the spot where I had been before, when he triggered the blast. From there, I turned on one heel, pantomiming running to the door. There, I pulled it open and stepped into the hallway where the stairs were. Across the way was the door of the opposite apartment, and straight down the stairs I could see the front door. The door where he would have known Blackjack’s men were coming. Would he really have risked running down the stairs where he could have been intercepted by someone who knew who he was? Did that really sound like the exit strategy of the guy who had pulled all this off so far? I didn’t think so.

Instead of going down the stairs, I stepped over to the next apartment and knocked. Waiting a moment, I knocked again when there was no answer. Finally, the door was pulled open and I saw a short, heavyset and balding man peek out. He stopped when he saw me, the chain on the door keeping it mostly shut. “What are you supposed to be?”

“Paintball,” I answered simply before adding a blunt, “Is he still here?”

The man didn’t try to play dumb. He sighed, lowering his gaze for a moment before shutting the door to take the chain off. Opening it once more, he gestured for me to enter. “He left, pretty soon after those guys did. I— listen, we don’t want any part of this.” His voice was shaking a bit as he led me into the living room where a woman who was obviously his wife was sitting with a young girl, barely five at a guess, on her lap.

The man waved off his wife from asking questions, looking at me. “That guy came in here with a gun. He pointed it at my little girl, and he told us to be quiet. He told us to tell them that there was no one else here. So that’s what we did. That’s all we did. We kept quiet and we let him stay until those guys left. That’s it. We’re not involved in this.”

“I understand,” I assured him. “I’m not here to cause any trouble, I promise. But there’s another little girl who is going to die if we don’t find him. He’s put her life in danger too, so I have to find him. Do you know anything else? Did he say anything while he was here about where he might be going? Anything at all?”

The parents exchanged glances, before the woman looked to me, voice cracking. “He said if we told the police or the La Casa people anything, he’d come back and kill all of us.”

“I’m not the police,” I reminded them. “And I don’t work for La Casa. I just want to stop all of this and make sure no one else dies.”

They exchanged another look before the father reached out, picked up a phone from the hook, and tossed it to me. “He made a phone call. We didn’t hear what he said, but it was a long conversation. Sounded pretty intense. It was the third to last call on there.”

Catching the phone, I checked through the outgoing call section, finding the right number. Then I took my own cell phone, the cheap throwaway one I had picked up, and put the number into that before hitting send. I wasn’t going to make the call from their number again.

It took three rings before a gruff voice answered, “Wren’s Nest Pawn. Hello?”

Thinking quickly, I asked, “Yeah, could I get a large pepperoni with extra cheese and—”

“Dude,” the man on the other end interrupted, “electronics shop, not pizza. You’ve got the wrong number.” That was followed by a click as the man disconnected the call, hanging up on me.

Looking down at my phone, I smiled to myself behind the helmet. Wren’s Nest Pawn, huh?

I officially had another lead.

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Legwork 3-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“Um.” Raising one finger, I hesitated for a second before asking, “What do you mean, after we catch the bad guys? Isn’t that when we say woo hoo or whatever and celebrate?”

Staring at me through that stylized and sleek-looking samurai bug mask, the woman dryly replied, “Woo hoo indeed. But there is more to it than that. At least, there is if you wish to be effective. Cuff the man there and we shall discuss it.”

Realizing that I had basically, however briefly, forgotten about the man lying at my feet, I quickly knelt beside him. “Sorry,” I murmured to him without really knowing why. “I’m still new at this.”

The look that he gave me seemed incredulous. “It’s okay,” he informed me. “I’ve been here a few times, we’ll get through it together.”

“See, I know you’re being sarcastic,” I replied, “but thanks.” With that, I pulled the man’s hands behind his back and put the cuffs on him. As I did so, they changed from plain silver to blue.

“Do you know what those are?” Flea asked idly. I noticed that she had already cuffed the other two guys. “And what the color means?”

Belatedly, I realized I did have an idea. I’d just been surprised that she would give me one of them. Biting my lip behind the mask and helmet, I slowly nodded. “I think so? It’s Touched tech, right? When the cuffs are hooked up to someone it makes it hard for them to move? I don’t know what the color means, though.”

“Yes,” she confirmed. “They’re called stay-downs. When they are attached to someone, that person cannot move more than a foot or so from their original position. If they do, the stay-downs will gradually magnify their weight up to many times over, dragging the person back to the ground. When they are on the ground and still, the weight will decrease. The cuffs can sense the amount of strength being used and adjust accordingly, up to a thousand pounds or so. It’s enough to keep most down once they’re applied. Not perfect, but it helps against basically all but those who are Brawn-Touched, and there’s special cuffs for them.”

“Brawn-Touched?” I echoed. “People with strength powers?”

Flea gave me a brief look of curiosity, nodding. “You really are new to this. Yes, we use the something dash touched descriptor to explain what people are. Or at least to give a very slight overview. There are eleven basic categories, including Brawn, Tech, Mind, Travel, Bang, Form, Vary, Psy, Field, Crowd, and Friend.”

“Wow.” Blinking, I thought through it. “Okay, so Brawn-Touched are strong, tough people. Tech-Touched are people who make things. Mind-Touched are… people who affect other people’s minds?”

Her head shook. “That’s Psy. Psy-Touched affect other people’s minds in some way. Mind-Touched are people with mental gifts that affect themselves, like enhanced intelligence, knowledge that just pops into their head, an understanding of people, future knowledge, things like that. Enhanced senses tend to be classified under that too, even if some people think they shouldn’t be.”

“Oh, right.” Nodding to that thoughtfully, I continued. “Travel-Touched are obviously people with like… super speed or flight or whatever. Bang-Touched… umm… I wanna say explosives but… maybe like lasers and stuff?”

“Correct,” she confirmed. “The second part, I mean. Bang-Touched are people who project any kind of obvious outward attack. Lasers, fire breath, ice blasts, they’re all Bang-Touched.”

“Got it.” Thinking for another second, I guessed, “Form-Touched are probably people who can shapeshift or, you know, alter what they look like in some way.”

At a nod from her, I winced. “But uh, I have no idea what ‘Very-Touched’ could mean. Unless it’s like… they’re very powerful.”

I heard a very slight snicker from her before she caught herself. “No, ahh, vary. As in with an A, not an E. A Vary-Touched is someone whose powers change based on… well, various things. Someone who gains different powers based on the situation, or who can change their powers a lot.”

“Lastword,” I blurted. “His powers change based on what he last said, so he’d be a Vary-Touched.”

“Exactly,” she agreed. “And that leaves Field, Crowd, and Friend.”

Those three I considered for a couple seconds before offering, “Field is someone whose powers affect the world around him?” Glancing to the woman to see her nod again, I added, “Crowd must be affecting other people in a way that’s not just like blasting them.”

“Correct,” the woman confirmed. “Crowd-Touch powers are those that affect one or more living targets in a way other than direct damage or the mental effects that Psy covers. Healing, for example. Or petrification.”

Slowly, I nodded before finishing with,  “And Friend is someone whose powers summon things, or in some way create like… minions for him to use?”

Flea gave me a thumbs up. “You got it. There’s more specifics to it, but that’s the basic idea. Also, they’re often given other descriptors or combined to make things more understood. Like, someone who can control plants might be called ‘Nature-Field-Touched.’ Or someone who can shoot lasers that change the emotions of the targets they hit would be ‘Psy-Bang-Touched’. If you see two of the categories together like that, it means they’re connected in the same power. If, say, someone had lasers and flight, there would be an ‘and’ between them. Bang-And-Travel-Touched. That’s common enough that people will use BAT as a descriptor. Or BABAT.”

“Bang-And-Brawn-And-Travel-Touched?” I guessed. “For someone with flight, lasers, and super strength.” When the woman nodded, I added, “So people like Carousel and Raindrop would be considered Field-Touched, because their powers affect the things around them.”

“Technically,” Flea amended for me, “Raindrop is Crowd-And-Field-Touched because her power can affect living people as long as they’re wet. That’s also a common enough combination that people abbreviate it to CAF-Touched, or CAFT. Carousel is only Field-Touched because her power doesn’t affect living beings.”

“What about the ones that start with the same letter?” I asked. “How do you tell the difference between, say, someone who is Bang-And-Travel-Touched or someone who is Brawn-And-Travel-Touched? Both abbreviate to BATT.”

“Good point,” she agreed. “That’s why they usually say it all out at least once to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Every group is different about how they abbreviate them, or even some of the exact terms they use. It’s a good idea to get clarification.”

As I was nodding to that, the guy I had cuffed muttered, “Spiffy, do I get credit for class attendance too?”

“Yes,” the woman informed him. “I’ll be certain to note your interest in attending academic courses to the warden of your prison.”

With that, she made sure I had the guy properly cuffed, then turned to walk back into the store while gesturing for me to follow. On the way, the woman continued. “In any case, the colors of those cuffs refer to what kind of person is authorized to properly move that person. An authorized person can touch the cuffs and they will allow the prisoner to move normally as long as they stay close to that person. Blue is the most common, and it means uniformed police officers. Or anyone above them. All members of the government sanctioned Touched teams are authorized for them as well. Or, of course, the person who applied the cuffs.”

By that point, we’d gotten into the main part of the store, and I could see the damage that had been done. There were several racks tipped over, bullet holes in the walls and shelves, a pile of discarded shopping carts, and about four or five unconscious figures lying around. Flea had been busy. Actually, her power to make people tired probably really helped with the whole ‘making sure they stayed down’ thing. She just drained them until they fell asleep.

The two of us pulled all the unconscious figures to the middle of the room, cuffing them. They were still unconscious by that point, as Flea straightened up. “Now what?” she asked while looking to me. “What do you think we do next?”

“Um.” Shrugging, I offered, “Call the cops and let them know? Just leave seems pretty bad.”

With a soft chuckle, she agreed, “Yes, pretty bad indeed. I assume you already know how to use the Doephone app from Ten Towers.”

For a very brief second, my mind instantly flashed into panic mode, as I reflexively wondered if she somehow knew that I was the person who had sent the message the other night about the dead guys back in that motel. But that was dumb. Even if she did guess that much (like, say, if she had contacts who told her about the whole paint thing), it didn’t mean anything. The Doephone was anonymous. There’d been actual court cases about keeping it anonymous. It was a whole big deal.

“I’m aware,” I confirmed simply, trying to keep it somewhat vague. “I’m pretty sure you guys don’t use it, though.”

“You’re right, we don’t,” she agreed. “But it works just fine for you. Unless you’ve changed your mind about joining up.” Letting that hang very briefly as she glanced to me, the woman then went on without making me answer. “Regardless, you can use the Doephone to report the situation, or call the number That-A-Way provided if you need assistance in containing a more… imminently volatile situation. For something like this, you use the Doephone. And then?”

Biting my lip, I offered, “I’m guessing ‘and then leave’ still isn’t the right answer.”

I had the feeling she was smiling slightly while replying, “It can be, if that’s your choice. But that also risks the people you’ve stopped being released fairly quickly, without some kind of testimony.” As I flinched, she went on a bit quicker, reassuring me, “It doesn’t require you unmask. Simply put, if you want to be more effective, set up a case logger.”

“A case logger?” Frowning a little uncertainly, I asked, “What’s that?”

She explained readily. “Basically, a case logger is a confidential voice mail system accessible by you and the DA’s office. Whenever you complete something like this, you call in and leave a voicemail giving as many details as you can about what happened. Someone in the DA’s office will listen to the logs and attach them to case files. Once a month, they will also leave you a message about various cases that they need your deposition for. If you agree to it, you can go in and do that. It means sitting in a private room in the courthouse, in costume, they won’t make you unmask. You’ll sit there with a judge, a court stenographer, and they’ll cycle through each of the attorneys for both sides of all the cases involving you. Both sides will have the chance to ask questions, just like in a courtroom. You’ll give your testimony about what happened and have it recorded for potential use at trial, then leave. That’s it.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” I murmured thoughtfully. “So they just do that once a month?”

The woman nodded. “Yes. It’s different and more involved for official government Touched, but for someone like you, that’s what they’ll do. If you want, I can help you set up your case logger and get it connected to the court.”

Smiling just a little despite myself, I agreed, “I… yeah. Thanks. That sounds nice.”

Okay, Flea was cool. I really hoped she was actually a good guy and not one of my dad’s secret minions.

That would really suck.

*******

When we were done, Flea gave me a box with a bunch of simple zip-ties, and six of those actual metal ‘stay-down’ cuffs. According to her, I could get more when I needed them from the courthouse if I showed up for those deposition things.

It was probably a pretty good sign of trust that she gave me the things. So I felt kind of bad that I didn’t trust her enough to take them home. Because despite the fact that Flea seemed nice, I didn’t know if those cuffs might have some kind of tracker on them. So there was no way I was going to take them back to the house. Instead, I put them in a safe place for the time being. Namely, back at the half-finished rec center near the school that I’d been training at.

After that, I headed home. I’d been out to practice moving around, but it was getting pretty late by then. The last thing I wanted was for my parents to notice I was gone too long and start getting curious. Besides, it may have been Saturday, but I was still supposed to meet up with Jae and Amber so we could work on our project.

It was even easier to sneak in tonight than it had been that first night. Mostly because I understood my power a lot better now. Waiting until the camera at the gate was faced the wrong way, I used a bit of blue paint to jump to the top of the wall, making sure I was in black stealth mode. Keeping low, I ran along the wall toward the house, passing all the trees, flower gardens, and the fountain on the way. Finally, I reached the spot of the wall just across from the house. I could see my bedroom window up there. All I had to do was red-paint myself there and climb in.

Except just as I was about to do that, I saw shapes moving at one of the other windows, one floor above where my room was and a few rooms down. It was one of my dad’s offices. And the people I could see through the window were him and Mom. My parents were in there, clearly talking.

Did I dare? Would I really push my luck? Was that more brave or more stupid?

Whichever one, I had to hear what they were saying. Telling myself I was being dumb, yet unable (or unwilling) to stop, I shot a glob of black paint over to the spot of roof near the window, then used red to yank myself over there, activating the black just before impact to silence my arrival.

There was a ledge there, running along the wall near the window that I could rest on without having to use my paint to stay. Thankfully, the window was open a crack, so I could hear what was going on. Pressing myself against the wall, I leaned closer and listened.

“But until then, we’ll just have to wait and see what he does,” my mother was saying.

“I don’t like being passive when it comes to new Touched,” my dad replied. “Especially new Touched who might know more than they should about our business.”

Wait, they were talking about me. Did I get here just after they said something important and relevant to my situation? What the hell? That’s not how this was supposed to work. TV lied to me.

My mother was talking then. “Of course not, but we have been over this. Spilled milk and all that. Focus on what we can affect right now. Namely, this bounty.”

“Blackjack just tripled it,” Dad replied. “It’s up to three million now. He wanted to go as high as fifty, but I convinced him to leave it at that. He’s desperate and not thinking straight.”

“Would you,” Mom asked, “if it was Cassidy’s life on the line? This is his daughter, Sterling. I’m surprised you convinced him to keep it at three million.”

Blackjack? The leader of La Casa? Dad had enough pull to convince him about what to do with the bounty on that Ashton guy? And whatever was taken from that safe deposit box had to do with the guy’s daughter? Apparently something that was worth her life, from what they were saying. But what could’ve been in a bank that put her life in danger when it was stolen?

Right, it was even more clear that I should’ve been eavesdropping earlier. Or constantly.

“Yes, his daughter,” Dad agreed. “And even if the other gangs don’t know exactly why it’s so important, they know he’s losing his mind over it. So they’re just as determined to get the vials for themselves. Which is not helping Blackjack stay calm about any of this. If we don’t find the boy or those vials, there’s going to be a war. The people of La Casa will bring hell to this city to save that girl. And you know what it means if things get too out of control.”

Mom sighed. “Attention. Which we don’t need any more of. Brumal already wants to bring more reinforcements in as it is. If a gang war breaks out in the streets, she’ll have the excuse she needs.”

Brumal. She was the leader of the local Spartans, the state-level Touched team as opposed to the Federal-level Conservators. No wonder my parents were concerned about her bringing in more people. Especially if they didn’t have a way to control her.

Wait, if they didn’t have a way to control her, could she be a good person for me to approach?

“Have our people keep an eye on her,” Dad murmured. “If there’s a problem… we’ll deal with it. We know how to bring her in line if need be.”

Never mind. Restraining the urge to sigh, I focused once more.

“Yes,” Mom was agreeing, “but let’s not tug on that particular line just yet.  There’s a better solution to this problem.”

I heard Dad chuckle darkly. “Of course there is. All we have to do is find one of the Austin boys. Or this… Paintball.” He said the last bit with distaste. “And maybe tell him to pick a better name.”

Pffft, rude. What did he know? His real name was Sterling and not only did he pick a Touched name with the word silver in it, it even fit his power. He had it easy.

“As far as we know,” Mom clearly reminded him, “neither of the Austin siblings are anywhere in the city. Which leaves the new Touched boy.”

Dad was quiet for a few seconds before muttering something I didn’t hear. He followed up with, “You think he knows anything about where the vials are?”

“Perhaps,” Mom mused softly, sounding thoughtful. “But at the very least, I think he knows more than we do about what happened to them.”

Boy was I going to disappoint her if we ever had to talk. I didn’t even know these so-called ‘vials’, whatever they were, existed until now.

That said, I really hoped we didn’t have to talk. I didn’t exactly trust myself to fool either of my parents in a straight conversation, voice changer or not. I felt like the second I started talking, they would both instantly know who I was. It wasn’t something I wanted to test.

Both my parents were quiet for a few moments, and I thought they were done. Then Dad spoke up again. “Maybe the direct approach would be best.”

“Direct soft or direct hard?” Mom asked. It sounded like she was right near the window, and I silenced the area around me with a shot of black before edging a little bit away, just in case.

“Soft,” Dad replied. “There’s no reason to put him on guard if he doesn’t know about us. But if one of the Minority approaches him and asks about the Austin brothers…”

Mom finished for him, “They could tell him about the impending gang war. They don’t need to know details, only that La Casa is going to burn the city down looking for what was stolen. If the boy wants to be a hero, he’ll want to stop that.”

Dad had moved closer by then, also standing near the window as he replied, “Yes. Which should push this Paintball to tell them what he knows about where either of the brothers went. Or where the vials are. You see, there’s no need to play the hard game just yet.”

Hearing the squeak of the window, I quickly put both hands up, shooting a burst of red paint to yank myself up from that spot to the roof. Clinging there, I looked down as my father’s head appeared. It made me tense up, but he didn’t seem to be looking for me. He was just glancing around.

Before he could happen to look up, I climbed over the edge and laid on the roof for a second. Staring at the sky, I thought about what I’d overheard.

The thing that was stolen from the La Casa bank was some kind of vial. Or vials, rather. And whatever they were, losing them put Blackjack’s daughter’s life at risk. Medicine, maybe? Probably. Either way, it was definitely a big problem. Even if Blackjack was a bad guy, I couldn’t just let his daughter die.

The problem was, despite what my parents thought, I didn’t actually know anything useful about where those vials were. I knew that Josh had a ‘friend who lived in Illinois’ that he was going to stay with. But Illinois was a whole state. It didn’t exactly narrow things down. Plus, even if we found him, he didn’t know where his brother was.  

So my parents and I were actually on the same page. They wanted the vials returned to Blackjack to save his daughter’s life and so did I.

But I didn’t have the first fucking clue about how to do that.

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