Elena Evans

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. “He’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 changed 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 looked 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 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 that I’d been training at near the school

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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Discovery 1-04 (Summus Proelium)

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I had to know more. More about my family’s… business, about all the bad things they were into. I had to know. That was the only way I was going to be able to go through with turning them in. I had to find out just how bad they were, just how deep they were into these things. Showing myself the kind of… of evil they’d done, the kind of evil they would keep doing, was the only way I’d be able to psych myself up to turn them in.

Which worked, since I needed proof anyway. There was no way I’d go to any authorities, cops, Touched, or anyone else just with my own word. A sixteen-year old kid tells them that one of the richest and most important businessmen in the newly rebuilt Detroit was a bad guy? No thanks.

So, proof. I needed proof. Which meant I needed a plan to get that proof. That was… a work in progress. Progress that was eventually stalled by the end of the school day.

I had spent the rest of that time alternating between trying to decide how to get the proof that I needed and practicing with these paint-powers. Of course, ‘practicing’ had devolved to playing with them pretty quick. But tomayto, tomahto. It also killed a third bird by helping me clear my head a little bit from all the horrible, horrible things that I couldn’t stop thinking about.

I had a few hours to add to that distraction between the end of school and family dinner, which everyone was expected to be at every Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday unless you were literally dead or in the hospital. It was Tuesday and I didn’t have an excuse (or at least not one that I could actually tell them about), so I had to be there.

But before that happened, I would distract myself from the upcoming nightmare by hiding in my room and looking up information about the various gangs in the city. Specifically, which of them was currently claiming or working the most in the area of the city where that motel was. It might give me an idea of what group my family was involved with. Or running, for all I knew.

On the way to my room, however, I was stopped by Jania. The maid was standing in front of me, a curious look on her face. “Ah, Miss Evans,” she started. “A message came from your school today, about you.”

Freezing briefly, I stared at her like a rabbit in headlights for an instant before getting myself under control. “Uh–it did?”

She nodded, a clearly knowing look on her face. “Yes, they asked that the message be passed along to your mother or father.” There was a brief moment of silence before she continued in a lamenting voice. “… but I seem to have forgotten to write it down. And with my memory… well, I am getting old. I don’t suppose you know what the message was?”

Staring at the woman, I hesitated before slowly shaking my head.

“Hm,” Jania pondered briefly before nodding. “Well, if you do recall, I trust you will inform them yourself.”

Again, I nodded, staring at her before hurriedly making my way past and to my room. There, I tried to throw myself into figuring out exactly who my family might be working with.

Dad wasn’t a small-time player. I knew that just from his personality and resources, let alone everything I’d heard last night. He was big. So I had no doubt that whatever he was into, it would have to have something to do with one of the established criminal groups. And since this was Detroit, that meant one of the Fell-Gangs.

Fell-Gangs. That’s what they called groups that were led by Fell-Touched, Touched who were villains. There were still gangs who weren’t controlled or even populated by Touched, of course. But they tended to either stay small or not get very far when put up against actual Fell-Gangs. And if I knew my dad at all, he would be involved with one of Detroit’s Fell-Gangs. Probably working as their main financer or something. Maybe that was why Simon was important enough to throw orders and threats around like that, because Dad paid their bills. I could see that.

I knew who most of the Fell-gangs around the city were, of course. You had to, if you lived in the area. But it was still good to get a refresher. The gangs changed often enough, by merging, falling apart, taking each other over by force, splitting up, or just plain dying, that I really needed to look up exactly what things looked like now.

There were smaller groups of Fell-gangs that were just a few people, or even individuals. I ignored those. Dad wouldn’t be involved in anything that inconsequential. He had the money and influence to be part of a bigger group, one that could actually do some damage.

For Detroit, that left seven possibilities right off the bat. Seven that were large enough for Dad to be involved with.

First up, Oscuro. They weren’t exactly likely, to say the least. Oscuro was the Hispanic street gang, led by a Fell-Touched who called himself Cuélebre. Like the monster he was named after, Cuélebre was basically a dragon. Or so people said. Standing at anywhere between twelve and fifteen feet tall, complete with bat-like wings and a bladed tail, he looked more like a demon than a dragon as far as I was concerned, but whatever. For awhile some people had thought that he was actually one of the Abyssal. Those were… Touched that went wrong. I didn’t really like to think about them. No one did. The point was, Cuélebre definitely wasn’t one of them, because he still communicated and showed restraint. Abyssals… didn’t.

In any case, Dad wouldn’t be working with Oscuro. They did a lot of stuff with drugs and weapons, which he could have made money off of, but they didn’t work with anyone who wasn’t one of them. Dad wasn’t Latino, so they wouldn’t have anything to do with him.

Then there was a group who called themselves Braintrust. Their leadership was basically a mixture of mad scientist/inventor types and people with charm or luck powers. And, of course, their assortment of minions and thugs, both of the living and robot variety.

Braintrust got into a lot of things, between needing to take in absurd amounts of money to keep their experiments going, to stealing material for those experiments, to just plain causing havoc with those experiments. There wasn’t much they wouldn’t do, and Dad definitely might have been working with them. They always needed money, which was basically his superpower.

Almost as unlikely as Oscuro would be the group called Sherwood. They were basically hippies and nature-fanatics who had named their organization after the forest from Robin Hood. Most of them hated technology, and they were always trying to destroy or stall it. So yeah, given how much Dad put toward the manufacturing industry… I couldn’t see them working together.

Then there were the Scions of Typhon, or Scions for short. Typhon was one of the first named Abyssal, a monstrously destructive beast who still showed up to wreak havoc every now and then. His ‘Scions’ were basically anarchy-loving chaos worshippers who reveled in causing as much destruction and misery as possible, under the guise of making everyone have ‘fun’. As far as I knew (and could find online), they had no real alliance or even interaction with the actual Typhon, they just used the name for shock value. Still, I couldn’t see Dad getting along with them. They were too wild and unpredictable.

That left three possibilities, three more groups who were large enough for my family to be working with. The first were Oscuro’s primary rivals, another street gang called Easy Eights, a collection of what had been eight individual gangs who banded together to stand against Oscuro. They amounted to basically every street gangster who wasn’t hispanic or a supremacist of whatever race they happened to be. There were gangs like that, white supremacists for example, but they tended to get smacked down pretty quick either by Oscuro or the Easy Eights.

I could see my father supplying for the Easy Eights. They were thugs, but they knew enough to organize and kept themselves together. They were an option, at least.

The next group called themselves Ninety-Niners. Basically, they were a group of people who either lived here before the year 1999, or whose family did if they weren’t born yet. They saw people who moved here after that year, when Touched started to be a thing and Detroit was brought back from the brink as freeloaders or intruders. They hated them, and used the word ‘tourist’ (incredibly derogatory to them) to refer to anyone who didn’t have firm family history in the city during the so-called bad years.

Dad… hadn’t lived here his whole life. But he did grow up here and he had family history in the city. So I was pretty sure he’d be in their good graces. But I didn’t know if he’d work with them or not. They were a maybe.

One last group out of those I thought were big enough for Dad to have any business with. And this one was probably the most likely. They were known as La Casa, Italian for The House. La Casa were basically the mafia for Detroit, though they didn’t only take Italian people or anything. That was just how they started out. Nowadays, if you could bring something they wanted, you could get in, at least at the foot soldier level. And if you came as a Touched, you could get into the leadership. As their name kind of implied, all their people used names that were in some way related to gambling or card games.

It hadn’t exactly escaped my notice that Mom was Italian. La Casa were controlled and coordinated enough that I could definitely see Dad working with them if he was going to work with any bad guys.

So those were the seven possibilities I could see, from my memory and from a little research. Oscuro, Braintrust, Sherwood, Scions of Typhon, Easy Eights, Ninety-Niners, and La Casa. Of those, I only really saw Braintrust, Easy Eights, and the Ninety-Niners as possible, and La Casa as the most likely. Oscuro wouldn’t work with people who weren’t Latino, Sherwood hated technology, and the Scions were too unpredictable.

Of course, I still hadn’t figured out what to do with my suspicions by the time the dinner chime rang through the house. Mom had insisted that every room have the chime installed. In addition to the noise itself, the lights would flicker on and off to get your attention if you were using headphones. Two chimes and two flickers meant it was time for dinner, or whatever meal. Three meant it was a family meeting or some kind of activity. Four or more, or even continuous, was an emergency.  

Summoned by the two chimes, I started to move to my door automatically, even going as far as to open it. Then I stopped short. For a moment, I just stared at the hallway beyond the door and tried not to hyperventilate. How was I supposed to do this? What was I supposed to do, just… just… sit at that dinner table with my family like nothing was wrong when I knew they were… they were… bad? Dad, Mom, Simon, they were all involved with at least two murders that I knew of. And given how Mom and Simon had been acting, I was absolutely positive that it was more than that. It was old hand to them, nothing new. They had almost certainly been responsible for a lot more deaths than that.

And now I just had to sit there and eat food with them like I didn’t know?! How?! How was I going to do that without staring at them the whole time?

They’d know. They’d take one look at me, one look at my face, and know that I knew. Mom would glance my way and then immediately say ‘you were the witness last night, weren’t you, Principessa?” And I would fold instantly.

No, no, no. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t sit down there with them.

Unfortunately, just as I decided that, Simon came past. I wasn’t sure what he was doing over here since his room was one floor up and on the other side of the house. But he passed my door, reached in, and caught my arm. “C’mon, Booster, you know how Mom gets if she has to chime for us more than once.”

Booster. It was the nickname that Simon had come up with years ago, when I was still a kid. It referred to when I had to use a booster seat whenever we went out, because I was so short. Which was just so incredibly hilarious.

“Oh, uhh…” I really tried not to flinch too much, even as my skin crawled violently under his touch. “I’m not really that hungry, so–”

“Oh no you don’t,” Simon cajoled, dragging my protesting form out of my room and down the hall. “You’re not abandoning me to keep Mom and Dad company. Have you seen how testy she is today? Hell no. I’m not putting up with that and her being pissed that you’re not at dinner. It’s Tuesday and you’re not in the hospital or the morgue. You’re coming.”

Nothing I could say would have changed anything. And I couldn’t find my voice anyway. I was too busy remembering what I’d heard last night, when he had shot one of his own men. Or one of our dad’s own men. Whatever. I remembered the sound of his voice, the way he’d spoken to those guys. It made me shiver inwardly, and I nearly stopped short in the hallway.

But Simon kept pulling me down the stairs and over to the dining room. Or one of them, anyway. We didn’t use the main dining room for these little dinners. That place could seat thirty people and we would’ve needed a megaphone to speak from one end to the other.

Instead, we ate in the secondary dining room. The table in there ‘only’ seated ten, and we all sat at one end. Dad sat at the end seat, Mom to his right, and Simon to his left. I sat next to Mom.

Our parents were already waiting as we got there. Seeing them, I felt my blood go cold. My body went straight into autopilot, moving me to my seat beside my mother even as I struggled to keep my expression as neutral as possible. I couldn’t think about what I’d seen and heard last night. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

My mom was bad enough. I loved my mother. Seeing her there, I couldn’t help but think about what she’d done last night, what she’d proven she knew. The image of her smacking Simon with the shoe jumped into my head, and I jolted just a little, my eyes flicking to the man beside her.

My father was basically movie star handsome. He wore his ever-present dark turtleneck and white slacks. Dark blonde hair with just a little bit of gray to make him look even more distinguished, a chiseled jaw and deep blue eyes that seemed to stare right into my soul. I’d had so many friends basically fall in love with my dad that I’d lost count of them. Him or Simon. It used to make me want to throw things either at my friends or my brother and father. But these days I just let it roll off me.

Or I had. Because that thought was a mistake. The thought of my friends pining (or worse) after my brother, let alone my father, was enough to bring tears of shame and revulsion to my eyes about what I knew.  

My daddy. My daddy hurt people.

“Aww, is something wrong, my little Principessa?” Mom gently teased, her hand finding its way to my shoulder to squeeze. I thought again of the way she had smacked Simon across the face with the shoe because he’d dared bring a piece of evidence back to the house. She knew what it was evidence of. She knew that those men had been murdered. My mother… my mother knew. The woman who sang me lullabies, who called me her princess specifically because I was self-conscious about being called a little boy so much, was perfectly fine with people being executed in cold blood. How could I handle that? How could I reconcile it with how I knew her?

“Cassidy?” That was Dad, his voice cutting through my panicked, rambling thoughts. “What’s wrong?”

My eyes snapped over once more, and I stared for just a second before finding my voice. “Err, nothing, I just… um, I have to… meet Rachel later,” I mumbled. “We’re going shopping.”

“Don’t let her keep you out too late,” Mom ordered before reaching out to pick up a little silver bell. She gave it a single ring, and before she had set it down, the nearby door opened. Ethan and Christiana, two of Chef Claudio’s assistants, emerged carrying a couple covered trays.

Once the food was delivered, Claudio was there at the edge of the table, taking his usual time to inform us of exactly what we were about to eat. Mom and Dad were listening intently and nodding along, while I just stared across the table at Simon, who was texting on his phone with a furrowed brow.

Mom noticed it just as Claudio left, reaching over with her spoon to smack his hand. “Simon Leonardo Evans, you know the rules. No phones. Put it down.”

He did so, looking over at our dad while clearly putting the phone in his lap so he could continue to surreptitiously look at it. “I gotta go pick up that thing tonight.”

“What time is it coming in?” Dad asked.

“Ten,” Simon answered before taking a bite from the plate that had been put in front of him.  

I was staring down at my own plate, trying as hard as I could to look like I wasn’t listening. Fork. I had to put food on my fork. Gripping it tightly, I moved my shaking fork to the plate to take a bite without actually tasting it. What thing did Simon have to go pick up? Was it a normal thing or a bad thing?

I had to find out. Which meant I had to be there. But I didn’t know where ‘there’ was, and I couldn’t exactly ask him. What was I supposed to do?

Look at his phone. I needed to see the messages. It was in his lap, and he kept glancing down to keep track of the messages coming in. How could I look at it though? How… how… how…?

I had an idea. Quickly draining the milk from my glass, I slipped my own phone from my pocket and switched the camera on, setting it to record with a single glance down. Then I stood up to fill my glass once more from the pitcher on the nearby serving table. On the way, I moved behind Simon and, with a deep breath, forced myself to wrap an arm around him while setting my chin on his shoulder. “Oh wonderful, lovely, perfect, brave, amazing big brother…” I started in a sing-song voice even as my entire body tried to turn itself inside out in revulsion.

Eyes rolling, Simon turned his head a bit to look at me. “What do you want, Booster?”

Ignoring the taunting nickname, I asked, “Would you drop me off at the mall after dinner?”

He sighed, making a big production out of it before shrugging. “Yeah, yeah, I’ve got stuff to do anyway. You need a ride home?”

“Don’t get her started with that,” Dad groaned, teasing me the same way he would have any other night. “She’ll start in on driving herself, again.”

After she passes drivers ed,” Mom quickly put in, shaking her spoon at me. “Don’t let me catch you practicing without Jefferson or Simon in the car, young lady.”

I straightened, making myself pout a little before moving to pour my glass as I informed Simon that I had another way home.

Chuckling easily, just as personable as I had ever known him to be, Dad pointed a spoon at me. “Don’t you worry, Daydreamer. Another couple months and you’ll be driving yourself all over the place. And I may have a little surprise for just that occasion.”

“If you’re good,” Mom cut in, giving Dad a brief look whose silent message was to stop spoiling me.

While they whispered briefly in the same tone I had come to associate with my parents play-fighting/flirting, I set my phone on the serving table, replaying the video I had just taken. With the sound off, of course.

There. I’d been holding the phone in my hand under the table, waving it around in the hopes of catching a glimpse of Simon’s phone in the recording. There it was. Pausing it, I glanced over my shoulder to make sure no one was paying attention to me before squinting at the thing. I could barely make out an address in Simon’s message history. That had to be where he was going tonight, since I also saw whoever he was talking to saying ‘should b there b4 10.’ Then there was a message from Simon about what would happen if they screwed up, but I couldn’t read the whole thing thanks to the angle my camera had caught the message. I was kind of okay with that, though. I had no desire to see my brother threaten someone again. And at least I knew where he was going.

Which meant it was also where I was going. Because I had to see what was going on out there, what Simon was picking up and whether it had anything to do with their… activities.

But first, I had to make sure no one would recognize me. And that meant I needed a disguise. Or, more to the point…

I needed a costume.

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Discovery 1-02 (Summus Proelium)

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I threw up while laying under that dumpster.

I tried to be quiet about it, turning my head toward the wall that was already stained with decades of much worse than my puke. My body hunched in on itself as I lost what little was left in my stomach from the dinner I’d had however many hours earlier. I wanted to curl in even tighter and close my eyes until all of this went away and I woke up safe in my bed without having to deal with… with… any of this. I wanted it to go away. I wanted it to be a dream.

It wasn’t, and I didn’t wake up. The smell of my own puke was enough to convince me of that, to say nothing of the… other glorious scents under that dumpster. I wasn’t going to magically wake up back in my bed. And if I didn’t move before those guys came back this way on their search, I’d probably never see my bed again. Unless they took me to Simon before killing me.

Simon wouldn’t kill me. Would he? I… no. No, I didn’t think he would.

But then, I didn’t think he’d kill anybody and look where that had gone. I hadn’t seen him do it himself, but he was definitely completely fine with ordering it done. And he had shot that guy just for not being able to find me. He… he… wanted them to kill whoever saw them execute those other two. He was responsible. He ordered it. My brother ordered people killed.

My brother ordered people killed.

I threw up again. Mostly dry heaving, and I did it as quietly as possible. Still, every little noise that I made made me cringe inwardly. I had to get out of here. Had to move while they weren’t looking, while they were distracted searching elsewhere. Eventually they would circle back to see if there were any more clues about where I’d gone or who I was. And when they did, I couldn’t be here.

Even knowing that, it still took me another few seconds to work up my nerve. Slowly, I inched my way out from under the dumpster, peeking with just my head for a moment to make sure things looked clear. Nobody. There was nobody in sight. Taking a breath of (slightly) fresher air, I pushed myself up to my hands and knees, staring out of the alley with the paranoid attention of a squirrel taking food from a dog’s own dish. Nothing. I could hear voices in the distance, but they were coming from far enough away that the people were probably at the front of the motel.

Right. Now I had time. But if they were up near the front of the motel, they’d probably see me going out of the alley. I had to get over this fence. And I was pretty sure they’d hear it rattling and shaking if I climbed the thing. And that would take too long anyway. I needed to be quieter and faster.

I needed that paint stuff. But I’d tried it before and it hadn’t worked. Why? Was it just because I had panicked? Because I didn’t know how to work it? Because I’d run out? I wasn’t sure. But I did know that every second I took worrying about it and fretting was another second that those guys might make their way back around, or cut off my escape some other way. I had to try.

Right, okay. Do it, Cassidy. Stepping back, I stared at the ground while hesitantly raising both hands to point toward it. Paint. Blue paint. It was the blue stuff that repelled things. So… so just make it come out. Squirt. Spray. Shoot. Make paint. Whooo paint, you can do it!

Was I seriously giving my own superpowers a pep talk?

Narrowing my eyes, I focused. Paint. Blue paint. Just a little spray of–

It came. I was paying attention that time and actually saw what happened. It didn’t come from inside my hand. Instead, I saw a tiny, spinning ball of paint appear in my palm before a spray of the stuff shot out toward the ground. A second later, there was a blue puddle there, a couple feet across. It worked. It worked! I made paint come from my hands just by willing it!

Okay, so as far as super powers went, maybe it wasn’t the flashiest. But still, it was me! I did that! I made paint! There were like a dozen people I wanted to show off for.

Then I remembered that one of those people was my brother. And… oh yeah.

That brought me back down to reality real quick. My face dropped like a stone. A stone that fell into my stomach. I took a quick glance over my shoulder, my nerves suddenly returning. I had to get out of here. To that end, I watched the paint for a moment before hesitantly picking up a little pebble from the ground. Carefully, I dropped the pebble onto the paint.

Nothing. It just sat there doing nothing. Except getting wet paint on itself. The stuff wasn’t bouncy or repellant at all. I slumped, head shaking. I wanted it to be boun–

The pebble went flying into the air. My gaze snapped up to try to follow it, but it disappeared. I looked to the paint then, testing it by putting my foot close. Just before I was about to touch it, my foot was forcefully shoved upward so hard I almost lost my balance and stumbled a little. It worked! It was working! It– it was gone. As I caught myself and eagerly looked that way, I found the puddle of blue paint fading right before my eyes.

Okay. Okay, okay, okay. I could figure this out. Later. The details could wait for later, but right now, I needed more paint. So I focused, making another puddle of blue paint. Again, I tested it with one foot. Nothing. I just stepped in blue paint. At least it was the one that still had a shoe.

Then I thought about what I wanted. I thought about it being bouncy or repelling things. Staring at it, I took a breath (ignoring how silly it felt) and jumped with both feet into the paint, like a kid hopping into a puddle.

I was thrown way up into the air, enough to clear the fence. Somehow, through what had to be a miracle, I avoided screaming. I even managed not to break my back by landing on it on the other side of the fence. It wasn’t a graceful landing at all, as I basically fell into what amounted to a half-roll, half-sprawling heap, scraping my bare foot a bit. But I was on the other side of the fence, with a minimum of noise. The first arch-enemy in my fresh career as a super-powered person, an eight foot tall fence, was thoroughly conquered.

Then I went to stand up and promptly accidentally kicked over a trash can, sending it clattering along the ground while the stray cat that had been sleeping behind it bounded off, yowling loudly.

God damn, I was really bad at this.

Panicking at the sound of voices, I looked around quickly. Above me was a balcony. No one seemed to be right there, so I pointed my hands at the ground and made another puddle of blue paint. At least I knew how to do that. Somewhat.

The paint worked, and I quickly jumped on it, bouncing myself up to the balcony. I’d just managed to haul myself up and over, ducking down behind the short brick half-wall surrounding it, when the voices I’d been hearing entered the alley.

Actually, I realized it was only one voice I’d been hearing. But it was definitely at least two sets of footsteps. They were making no effort to be quiet, the guy who was talking doing so in a normal tone without whispering. “Yeah,” he was saying while they stopped just beneath me, “I’m just gonna go ahead and guess that whoever that kid is, he’s not stupid enough to be five feet from where he was last seen and make a bunch of noise when there’s a bunch of guys with guns ten feet away.”

Oh good, they were overestimating me. Maybe they’d overestimate me over a few blocks so I could escape this one.

And speaking of being stupid, I slowly lifted my head. Telling myself it was a bad idea, yet unable to resist, I very carefully peered over the edge of the roof and looked down. Immediately, I regretted it. Because the two below me weren’t normal thugs. They weren’t any of the guys that had been working with Simon.

They were Touched. I knew that as soon as I saw them. The one who was talking wore a pair of black slacks, black combat boots, a red turtleneck with an attached matching scarf that covered the lower half of his face, a red bandana over his hair, and a black leather jacket. On the back of the jacket was an image of a red baseball bat. The same kind and color that he carried in one hand.

The other guy was dressed in a modified soldier’s combat uniform. Green camo pants and jacket, with a black balaclava, dark mirrored ski goggles that had a green trim, and heavy silver and green gauntlets on each arm. The boots that he wore were also made of metal. And he carried a complicated-looking rifle that looked like it belonged in a sci fi movie.

I knew them. I knew who they were. Both of them were Selltouched. Mercenaries, Touched who worked for the highest bidder. Selltouched varied a lot in just what they were willing to do for money, but for the most part they would work either side.

These guys were either brothers or lovers, depending on who you talked to. The one who was doing all the talking, with the red bat, was called Two-Step. His power basically gave him a sort of… semi-solid ghost he could call on at any time. The ghost would act like his shadow, copying any action he’d taken within the past hour. Usually he used it in the middle of a fight, letting his shadow follow his attacks so that anyone who fought him had to keep track of what he was doing and what he just did a second ago. Or ten seconds ago. Or thirty seconds ago. Or whatever. I’d seen interviews with heroes from the Conservators and Ten Towers alike who said that fighting him was a pain because the whole time you were doing it, his ghost-self could pop up doing anything he’d done throughout the entire fight up to that point.

The other guy, his brother or lover, was Lastword. His powers were weird. As far as anyone could tell, he sort of… changed his powers every time he spoke. Or rather, every time he stopped speaking. Whatever the… well, last word he spoke was, his power would randomly change to somehow fit that word in some way. Like if he said something about fire, he’d get fire powers. If he said something about traveling, he’d get some kind of movement power. If he said stop, he might freeze things or halt momentum. It was pretty random. But he could also get powers that let him build things. That was where his gauntlets, gun, and boots came from.

Lastword and Two-Step. Selltouched. They were obviously working with… for Simon. Or for my dad. Or… or… fuck, fuck. Touched. They were right there, and they were looking for me. Fuck!

Okay, keep it together. I had to stay… not calm, but not freak the hell out either. They didn’t believe that I was stupid enough to still be there. I just had to stay quiet.

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before the two of them started to walk off. They were heading toward one of the other buildings, Two-Step saying something about how I might’ve run for the freeway on the far side and that someone else they could talk to might’ve seen me for a better description.

Okay, I knew where I wasn’t going. Watching them head off, I finally let out the breath I’d been holding and straightened up. There was no sign of anyone else, so I could get out of there.

Now I just had to get down. And that was harder than it should’ve been. Awkwardly maneuvering myself over the wall and down to hold on by my hands, I cringed before letting go.

Ow. Dropping like that hurt. Once more, I sprawled against the ground and just laid there for a couple seconds. My eyes closed briefly before opening again hopefully.

Nope. Still not a dream. Still had to get up. Still had to escape. Still had a brother who ordered people to be murdered.

Dragging myself off the ground, I looked around quickly before starting to move as fast as I could. It wasn’t running. I couldn’t run while missing one of my shoes. Which was too bad, since running would’ve been really good right then. I liked running. I’d done track at school for awhile, and still jogged a lot. Though track meets were a pretty far cry from being hunted by guys with guns. I’d also done a lot of skating, but that wasn’t exactly helpful right now either, since I couldn’t magically make my pace-skates appear any more than I could summon any of my other shoes to replace the missing one..

Distance. I needed distance. Fast-walking away from that alley as quickly and quietly as I could, I kept an ear out for anyone. My hood was still up and my head was down. Right now, everyone who was after me thought I was a boy. The last thing I wanted was for them to get a better description. I couldn’t even pretend that it wasn’t me, since I was literally missing a shoe. I had to walk fast, keep my head down, and get enough distance to use my phone for a ride.

That’s what I did. Keeping my head down and moving as fast as my bare foot would let me, I made my way through the interconnected parking lots and alleys of several buildings. I stayed quiet, ducked out of the way whenever people came anywhere near, but otherwise tried to keep going. I had no idea what I was going to do about… about any of this. I didn’t know how to deal with it, or even how to accept it. I just knew I had to keep going.

It took forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes for me to walk what amounted to about six blocks. Far enough that I was pretty sure I was outside of their immediate search area. There was a twenty-four hour Mexican fast food place there, with a few people sitting around outside of it. But I didn’t go any closer. The last thing I wanted was witnesses to describe me if any of those guys came this way.

Instead, I lurked around the corner and used my phone to signal an Uber. Then I stood there, staring at the phone indecisively.

The cops. There were two dead bodies back there. Or at least, there had been. They were probably already moving them, but I’d seen enough cop shows to know that there might still be some kind of evidence. But if I called them with my own phone, they’d be able to track me down immediately. My dad and brother would both know that I was the witness. Could I… could I…

I couldn’t. Not yet. I had to know more. I couldn’t let them know it was me. But I also couldn’t give up without sending the cops there, even if I had to do it anonymously. But how?

Then I remembered. The Doephone. Doe as in Jane or John Doe. It wasn’t a physical thing, it was a service, an app that the Ten Towers group had put out. You download the app for your phone, use it, and it would let you call either Ten Towers itself or to any of the emergency services completely anonymously. Basically it acted like a VPN for your phone. You called through the Doephone service and Doephone itself connected you to the cops or paramedics or whatever. That way people could call in tips or report problems without exposing who they were. It was also used by solo/unaffiliated Touched who wanted to let the police know where to find bad guys they’d subdued.

Quickly, I downloaded the app and used it to report the bodies to the police. I spoke quickly and in as few words as possible, just telling them that there were two dead people back in that building and where to find it. Then I disconnected. If by some chance either Simon or my dad ever heard the recording, I didn’t want them to recognize anything about how I spoke.

After that, it was just a matter of waiting for about ten minutes. And that was ten of the longest minutes of my life. I pressed my back to the wall, praying silently as my eyes kept darting one way, then another, like a paranoid rabbit.

It was also ten minutes where I had nothing to do (aside from panicking about every little noise) besides think about everything I’d heard. Dad. Dad and Simon. They were… they were bad guys? Like… really bad guys.

I wasn’t stupid. Err, usually, anyway. I knew our family wasn’t like… normal or super nice or anything. Dad made a lot of money. We were privileged. We lived in a multi-million dollar house (and had several others), our garage held a fleet of vehicles. We went to the most expensive private schools, took unbelievable vacations, and so on. I’d always had a pretty charmed life, all things considered.

And now I had to wonder just how much of that life had been paid for in blood. In murder. In the suffering, literal suffering of innocent people. I had an ATV at one of the cabins we liked to stay at. How many people had been murdered to pay for that. Was one ATV like… a percentage of a life? Did one person’s life pay for my ATV and that trip to Italy last year? Or did that take a whole family? How many people were hurt or killed to fund my Christmases over the past few years? How… how many…

Oh God, I was going to throw up again.

The Uber came then, and I saved myself from actually heaving before climbing into the backseat. The guy, a bored Latino guy in his twenties with a Hawaiian shirt and a black driving cap. He asked where we were going, and I told him. He whistled, making some comment about me moving up in the world or something before heading out.

I slumped back in the seat and looked out the window as we drove. Detroit, Michigan. That was where we were, my home. I’d heard that, before superpowers started appearing twenty years earlier, Detroit had basically been circling the drain. Once one of the most powerful and rich cities in the country, if not the world, the whole place crashed hard. Most of the automobile factories closed and it was looking pretty bad.

Then super powers started appearing. Touched became a thing, both good and bad. And suddenly there was a demand for advanced technology. Tech that was either built by and/or built in response to super powers. The military and police forces needed equipment and vehicles built or modified quickly. The various Touched teams, as they too began to be a thing, also required equipment, vehicles, places to build their designs.

Detroit had everything that was needed. Old factories could be brought up to speed quickly. Land and property was cheap. People were desperate for jobs. It was basically the perfect storm for something like that. The past twenty years had been a huge boom for the whole city and the surrounding suburbs. The rejuvenated factories lured in other businesses, and Detroit was once more one of the most important cities in the country.

But it had only been twenty years since the near-collapse of the whole thing, and all of this newfound wealth and power had basically sprung up right on top of the old Detroit. There was still a lot of crime, a lot of bad neighborhoods that no one was supposed to go near. There were a lot of problems.

So there were also a lot of Touched, of both the Star and Fell variety. Some of the good guys, like the Conservators, were Federal government-funded groups with actual military ranks. The Conservators operated in every state, and had authority everywhere. There was a branch right here in Detroit.

Then there were the Spartans, the state-level team whose headquarters was here as well. They had smaller groups spread throughout Michigan.

There were also non-government teams, like Ten Towers. They were a corporate-sponsored group, funded by, of course, ten different companies. Ten Towers mainly operated in the midwest. They did a lot of good, though there were people who didn’t trust them because they were basically salaried employees working for big business. But, well… duh? Big companies like that could afford to pay the kind of wages that a superhero would need or want, especially when they pooled their resources like these ten had done. And they had a vested interest in keeping the cities running as smoothly as possible.

So there was the national team of Conservators, the state-level team of Spartans, the regional corporation-sponsored team of Ten Towers, and maybe three or four other individual hero groups of varying sizes. Not to mention the mercenary groups that were considered somewhat gray in morality.

All of those, and I had no idea who to talk to about what I’d heard, what I’d seen, beyond the anonymous report about the dead bodies that probably wouldn’t amount to much. Should I go to the police to tell them everything, one of those Touched groups, someone else? Should I go to a lawyer? To a teacher? To the military? To my dad and demand to know what was going on? To my mom? Did she know any of this?

While I was still trying to decide… anything at all, we reached my neighborhood on the far outskirts of town. The place had been built up in the past couple decades to accommodate the sudden influx of rich investors. Investors like my father.

It was a gated community, of course. The whole neighborhood was blocked off, and I didn’t want a record of me coming in. So I had the driver let me out about a block away. He seemed a bit disappointed that he wouldn’t get a chance to drive in and check out the rich people’s neighborhood, but he seemed to get over it after I paid the bill and left a forty-dollar tip.

I’d snuck in and out of the neighborhood enough that I knew the patrol patterns of Steve, the guard who worked this time of night during the week. He was off on his rounds right then, so I was able to just duck under the bar blocking entrance for vehicles, and make my way along the dark sidewalk.

Just as I was approaching the gate to our driveway a few minutes later, I heard a car coming up around the bend that I had just turned. And not just any car. I knew the sound. I knew the engine. It was Royal Thunder, the 71 Cuda. I knew it anywhere. It had to be Simon.

Quickly ducking out of sight behind a nearby shrub, I watched as the car passed by. It reached the gate, paused briefly while Simon entered the code into the nearby panel, then headed in as the gate rumbled open.

Waiting for another few seconds, I then quickly started running as fast as my bare foot would let me. At least now I was on a very nicely maintained sidewalk, so I wasn’t stepping on pebbles or loose concrete all the time.

I also had to watch the slowly rotating security camera on the corner of the wall. Timing my run to get there as the camera was pointed in the opposite direction, and just before the open gate started closing, I slipped through and onto the grounds of my family’s mansion. Normally there was a guard at the gate, but I knew how Henry worked. When Simon drove in, Henry would walk up from the little shack there to open the door for him in the garage. It gave me a window to get through without any questions.

Our house was huge. There was no other way to put it. The grounds were huge, the house itself was huge, the pool house around back was huge. When Dad had the place built, he spared no expense. It sat on six and a half acres, the house itself just a bit under sixteen thousand square feet. There were nine bedrooms, seven bathrooms, a full library, a whole wing for servants, a small theater, four different offices (three of which I was never allowed into), a kitchen that belonged in a five-star restaurant (the chef belonged there too, Dad had poached him from one).

It may have been been super modern on the inside, but from the outside, the place looked like an old castle even though it had been built just sixteen years ago, the same year I was born. Dad liked it that way. He said it gave it charm.

Despite its old appearance, there were other cameras around the grounds, but I knew how to avoid them. Making my way off the driveway and across the dark grass, I crept closer, slowly moving toward the open garage. I would wait until Simon headed in and started closing the garage door, then slip in myself.

Those plans vanished as soon as I heard my mother’s voice loudly announce, “Thank you, Henry. You can go now.”

My heart fell into my stomach, and I dropped flat behind the nearest tree to the driveway, right on the edge of the grass. Belly-crawling closer, I hesitantly poked my head around the low-hanging tree and stared into the open garage.

Mom was there. Elena Evans, née Russo, was a tall, strong Italian woman with long, curly dark hair and a beautiful face that people said reminded them of Marisa Tomei. She stood there, staring at my brother. My brother. Staring at him from my cover, I really looked at Simon. Like our father, he was tall (and like our mother, for that matter, where the hell did my shortness come from?), with blond hair cut short save for a longer bit up near the front that he deliberately let grow long enough to fall over his blue eyes for that dreamboat look.

Mom wasn’t impressed. She pointed to his hand, making an annoyed noise in the back of her throat.  

I looked too. And my heart fell further. My shoe. He was holding my shoe. Wait, did he know? Did he know I was there, that it was me, that I was–

“And what precisely is this?” Mom interrupted my wave of horrified panic.

“Shoe from the kid,” Simon muttered, waving it absently.

In a flash of movement, Mom snatched the shoe from his hand before using it to smack Simon across the face. My eyes widened, and I smothered the gasp that came with my hand. Simon, for his part, barely made a sound. He simply straightened sharply.

Using the shoe to point at him, Mom snapped, “Che cazzo è? You bring the shoe of a witness to two murders into my home?” She smacked him with the thing again, then threw it at him and gestured to the car. “Go! We have no evidence here, figlio mio. You know this. You are better than this.”

“Yeah, yeah, ma, I’m going.” Simon muttered. “God, it’s just a–” He took a quick step back as Mom raised her hand threateningly. “I’m going.” Striding back to the car, he got in and slammed the door after himself before peeling back out, leaving Mom shouting after him in a rush of Italian. Then she sighed and started to look toward the tree where I was, so I ducked back, hugging the grass.

It wasn’t just Dad and Simon. It wasn’t. Some part of me had held out hope that it would be, but… but Mom knew. She knew all of it. She was part of it. My dad, my mom, and my brother. They were all… criminals. They ordered people killed. They… they probably killed people themselves. They were evil. My family was evil.  

What the hell was I supposed to do now?

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