Izzy Amor

Building Connections 16-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

“Right, Cassie?” 

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter

Building Connections 16-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Throughout the entire trip to get home, the plan that had popped into my head back at Wren’s was still bouncing around in there. It seemed entirely too simple and obvious on the face of it, yet was that a bad thing? Being simple meant it was harder to fuck up, and it still might actually work. Assuming, well, everything on a long list of ways it could go wrong didn’t happen. 

Still, I didn’t exactly have time to dwell on any of that, considering that by the time I finally made it to the house, it was barely a few minutes before I would’ve been late for family dinner. If that had happened, I probably wouldn’t need to worry about this break-in plan (or any of the other myriad dangers I kept walking into) getting me killed, considering Mom would’ve done it herself. 

Okay, that was an exaggeration. Mom wasn’t going to freak out just because someone was a minute or two late. She had some more chill than that. But still, she did take this stuff seriously. Family dinner was important. And the last thing I wanted was for Mom to start paying more attention to where I was and what I was doing. If I was late, she’d start wondering why I was late. Which felt like a really good (terrible) way to end up having my secrets exposed. No, best to always be where Mom wanted me to be when she wanted me to be there, to avoid questions.

After sneaking back inside and dumping my costume in its hiding place under the floorboards of my closet, I gave myself a quick pat-down. Good, good, I was good. No costume, nothing that could stand out and give me away. Satisfied, I checked the clock on the wall. Fuck, two minutes left. Which meant I’d already missed the warning chimes and flickering lights that were supposed to tell me it was time for dinner. Right, this was cutting it very close. 

Grimacing, I sprinted out, heading down the hall and past a couple of the house staff (who casually stepped out of the way as I passed, one even calling out encouragement for me to hurry), sliding down the main stairway bannister before finally dashing right to the dining room.  

Stopping outside the doors, I took a breath and checked the nearby tall, antique clock. Ten seconds. Exhaling, I made sure it didn’t look like I was panicked, then opened the doors and stepped through barely a moment before that tall clock outside announced the hour. 

Everyone else was already there, of course. Mom, Dad, Izzy, and Simon were waiting at their spots. They all looked up as I came in, but waited until I had come to the table before speaking. 

“Everything okay?” Dad asked in a thankfully casual tone. Wait, was casual bad? Was he being intentionally casual? Did he know something? Was this a trap? Did he–did they know what–God damn it, get a grip, Cassidy. He’s just making conversation because you barely made it. It’s fine. 

“Just fine,” I immediately forced myself to reply. My hand (as I somehow managed to make it stop shaking) picked up the glass of water before taking a sip. “Why, what’s up?” Fuck, was my voice calm enough? Should it be less calm? Did I sound like a robot? Was something else wrong that I should’ve known about and been upset by? Was fine the wrong answer?!

“Whatever.” That was Simon, already changing the subject as he focused on our parents. “I talked to that guy from Montreal today. He said they’ll be ready for the trip next month.” 

“Trip?” I spoke up. This, at least, was something I could express curiosity about without attracting any suspicion. “Are we going to Canada again?” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Mom give a slight nod to Simon and mouth something to him. It looked like ‘good job’, followed by something I didn’t catch. 

Meanwhile, Dad just chuckled, drawing my attention. “Not this time, sorry, kid. This one’s about business, not pleasure. But we’ll make sure to go somewhere fun as soon as school’s out. As for where…” He glanced toward Izzy beside me, considering for a moment before adding, “That’s a decision we can all make when the time comes.” 

By that point, Mom had picked up the little silver bell and gave it a ring, prompting the doors into the kitchen to open. Christiana and Ethan entered, carrying the covered metal trays, with Chef Claudio right behind them to explain and detail everything we were about to eat. 

Okay… fine. It was fine. I was almost late, but no one really seemed to care. Probably because of that almost part. I’d made it in time, Simon was talking about some kind of trip next month, and everyone was focused on how amazing dinner looked. 

Shoving all the uncertainty out of my head, along with the rushing thoughts of my new plan to break into my own family’s secret base, I managed a small smile, thanking Claudio and his assistants before starting to dig into the food. Dinner now. Later, I would tell Izzy about the plan I had come up with. 

And hope she didn’t think it was the stupidest thing she had ever heard. 

*********

“It is pretty crazy,” Izzy was saying later as the two of us sat in the gaming room across the hall from our bedrooms. We had a game up on one of the systems just in case anyone poked their head in, yet neither of us were actually playing. “It’ll take awhile to pull off. There’s a lot of ways you could get caught. But still…” She considered for a moment before nodding. “I like it.” 

Exhaling, I managed a weak smile. “Really? So, it’s crazy but a workable sort of crazy?” 

“Workable sort of crazy,” she confirmed. “You think you can find the right place for it?” 

“I’ll head down there in a bit and look around,” I replied thoughtfully, gazing off toward the window before asking, “What about you? They still putting you back on patrol tonight?” 

With a nod, the other girl confirmed, “Yeah, I’m supposed to go out with your mom in an hour and get dropped off with Carousel and Whamline.” After a moment of hesitation, she added, “They said I didn’t have to do regular patrols for awhile, but I think it’ll be better if things look normal.” 

“Plus it’s an excuse to get out of the house for awhile besides school,” I pointed out. Then, feeling a little awkward, I added, “But umm, just be careful, okay? With that Easy Eight attack, I’m pretty sure the Niners are gonna be in the mood to retaliate. And–wait a second, I didn’t tell you about the new girl!” I’d been so obsessed with explaining the plan I’d come with, I’d forgotten the other part of what happened tonight. 

And wow did that prove my life was too fucking busy or what? 

Still, I quickly explained how that whole thing had gone, and about the armored girl. Izzy had a lot of questions, mostly revolving around what those new powers seemed to be and what sort of things she’d done with them. Which, well… I had no idea. All I knew was that she had some colored object… things she could reshape into various other objects. Like that armor. 

“You think she’ll call and get you to help her figure out how her power works?” Izzy asked, before adding, “And uhh, what’re you gonna tell her about… umm… any of this?” 

“As far as that first part goes, I hope so,” I murmured before exhaling long and hard. “For the rest, fuck, I don’t know. I can’t tell her the truth, right? There’s no way we can trust her. We don’t know anything about the girl. She could be anybody, she could side with you-know-who. She could do anything. I mean, yeah, she helped save those people, but that doesn’t mean she’s the sort of person we can trust for the rest of this. It’s sort of, you know, a lot to throw at anyone even if you do know them. With this girl, we just… don’t.” 

Izzy nodded, biting her lip. “Yeah, you’re right. But if you tell her not to join the Minority, she’ll wanna know why. And so will everyone else, especially if she actually uses her powers to help people. Are you going to start your own team? Take her on as a partner? If you do that–”

“Then we’re right back to whether we can trust her or not,” I agreed with a sigh. “Yeah. Like I said, I dunno. I just… I need to think about it. Any suggestions?” 

“Think really hard?” she offered before wincing. “Sorry. I’ll think too. I mean, there’s gotta be a good solution, right?” 

“Sure, there’s gotta be good solutions to everything going on,” I agreed. 

“I just hope we can actually figure some of them out at some point.”

********* 

“Tell me your plan doesn’t involve trying to intimidate the mall into surrender just by glaring at it.” 

A couple hours had passed, and I was crouched beside the air conditioning unit atop a fast food place across the parking lot from the mall in question. My gaze had been fixed intently on the building itself in the distance. The voice came from That-A-Way, who had just popped up a few feet behind me, deliberately coughing and shuffling her feet a bit to let me know she was there.

“Why,” I quipped without turning around, “you don’t think it’ll work? I’ll have you know, I can have a pretty intimidating stare if I really put my mind to it. That’s what my brother says, anyway.”  

“Oh, you have a brother?” Way remarked, making me curse myself inwardly for that stupid slip. “Cool, Pack was pretty convinced you were an only child. Guess I just won that ten bucks.” 

That was enough to make me turn my head a bit finally, looking toward her so I could incredulously ask, “You guys really bet ten bucks on whether I had any siblings? Seriously?”

Her response was a very slight smirk as she shrugged. “We actually bet a lot of different things when it comes to you, Paintball. Just something you’re going to have to get used to if you don’t want to give people any answers. You’re a mysterious guy. Which, you know, don’t get me wrong, if you were a few years older and also not a guy, I’d be pretty intrigued. I mean, I’m intrigued now, but in a different way. More of a, ‘hey, I just made ten bucks’ sort of way.”  

Damn it, do not say anything, do not say anything. Do not react. Do not show anything in reaction to what she just said about being the older and not a guy. Fuck, it was almost like she was intentionally setting me up. Which she wasn’t, of course. Even my overly-paranoid brain knew that. But still, the dozen different remarks that jumped to my lips the moment I heard that had to practically be physically shoved back down again. I swallowed hard before shaking my head. “I guess that’s my loss. But from what you’re saying, I could make an awful lot of money just by winning those bets myself.” Saying that thoughtfully, I tapped the side of my helmet.

With a snort at the suggestion, Way shook her head. “You’re not eligible, sorry. Just gonna have to make a few bucks some other way. Although,” she continued conspiratorially while leaning a little closer to me, “maybe if you told me some of the answers, I could cut you in for half.” 

The rattling of the nearby ladder drew our attention, as Pack leaned up over the edge to look at us. She had two of her lizards (Riddles and Scatters) on either shoulder. “And here I thought I was supposed to be one who was a disreputable cheater and overall scandalous person. Am I having a bad influence on you, Rose? And if so, is there any way I can speed up the process?” 

Beside me, I actually noticed Way blush a little bit before she cleared her throat and waved that off to very clearly change the subject. “Pack. So, he called you here too, huh?” 

“I wanted both of you to hear the idea,” I confirmed, gesturing for Pack to come closer  before turning back to look at the mall while lowering my voice a bit. “We need a way to get in there without going through their front door and dealing with all the alarms and security that’d call.” 

Moving up to stand beside That-A-Way, Pack replied, “I still say you could use that pink paint and get us right through the door pretty fast, before they could react. We could jump them.” 

“That still involves having a straight-up fight really quickly,”  I pointed out. “And we don’t know what’s in there. We’d still set off all their alarms when they saw us come through. So who knows how much time we’d actually get to look around before we’d have to retreat. Plus–” 

Way finished for me. “Plus, it would involve Paintball using his powers right out in the open, so they’d know who was there, even if he was in disguise. Which we’re trying to avoid, because I, for one, don’t want the Ministry to have any clue that I know anything about them.” 

“They already know that I know some things,” I murmured quietly before exhaling. “But yeah, I’d really prefer if they didn’t realize I was doing anything openly against them. It’s just… yeah, it’d be bad. They have all the power and influence. We can’t use our abilities in there or they’ll know exactly who we are. Which means no lizards,” I pointed out, looking directly at her. “There’s not exactly anyone else in the city who uses them. It’s a dead giveaway. And I do mean dead.” 

“I know, I know.” It sounded like Pack was making a face behind her full-covering mask. “But you’re asking us to go in there with a pretty big handicap if we can’t use any powers at all. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not exactly some kind of super-spy martial arts master. Without my little friends here, I’m basically just a girl with a gun. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a fair equalizer a lot of the time. But I don’t think it’ll be enough in that place. What’re we supposed to do?” 

“I’ve thought about that.” Turning to look at the two of them, I continued, “And I think I can put different paint colors in separate spots underneath like… whatever overcoats we wear. You know, out of sight. Then I can activate the paint separately whenever we need it in the base itself. Just don’t let them realize it’s temporary, and if we do it right, they’ll end up looking for people who are really strong and tough.” 

“Like those biolems, maybe,” Way pointed out. “Maybe they’ll think we’re some of those things. I mean, it’s not like they know there’s no more in the city, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Exactly, yeah. It’s decent cover, anyway. Might send them chasing the wrong direction, but we still have to be careful. And first, we need to get inside without going through their front door. The longer we have to look around without an army of reinforcements descending on us, the better. Even if it’s just an extra couple minutes. Every little bit helps.” 

“And you’ve got a plan for that?” Pack asked curiously, crouching down to set Riddles and Scatters on the roof so they could explore a bit. “Some idea of how to get in there quietly?” 

Nodding, I replied, “It’s all about building connections.” When that was met with blank stares, I coughed before continuing to actually explain. “Not connections like acquaintances, physical connections. It’s about building connections. Making connections. See, you’re right, my pink paint could get through the door if we were standing right in front of it, which would let them know exactly who I was. Or…” Turning a bit, I pointed down at the parking lot and began to run my finger along it. “We could find another place nearby, a building that isn’t protected by their security, and use the pink paint to start tunneling that way. It’d take awhile, but it’d basically be completely silent. We just keep painting it, ripping some out, painting more, ripping it out, and so on. If I’m just using pink paint for that, with the time it takes to actually pull the pieces out, I shouldn’t need too many breaks to recharge. You know, if I pace myself. We just find a place that’s safe to start from and take the time to patiently and quietly tunnel all the way over there. Once we’re close, we start being really careful, just poking little holes in each spot until we find where the edge of that underground base is.” 

“Sure we can keep track of exactly where we are and where we’re going if we’re in a tunnel?” Pack asked pointedly. “Sounds like a good way of getting turned in circles.” 

I, however, tapped my helmet again. “Trevithick’s upgrades, they let me know where I am in the city. Shouldn’t be too hard to keep track of my location well enough to keep going toward the mall.” With that, I shrugged. “I mean, it’s the best idea I’ve come up with. What do you guys think?” 

They, in turn, exchanged looks. There was a brief murmur of conversation before both turned back to me, Way speaking. “We’d need a safe place to start from, and you’re right, it’d take awhile. So it’d have to be a place that wouldn’t be found, and that we could go back to repeatedly.” 

Nodding, I pointed off across the lot. “See that half-built motel over there? It’s been under construction for like a year, and all the contracts are stalled right now. We should be able to find a spot that’s out of the way, and I’m pretty sure they won’t get back to building before we’re done.” 

Again, Way and Pack looked to each other to have some private conversation that was only partially verbal. Then they turned back to me. “It’s a good plan, Paintball,” Way confirmed. “I mean, still totally crazy and all, but it’s the best one we’ve got.” 

Exhaling in relief that at least they didn’t immediately see a dozen impossible problems with it, I murmured, “So I guess we just have to make sure no one ever sees us over there. We need a place to take the chunks we pull out of the tunnel so they don’t know how it was made when they investigate after it’s over. Just–you know, leave it as much of a mystery as possible.” 

“I’ll get a big van or a truck,” Pack put in. “One of us can drive the pieces away every time it’s full. Dump them in the river or something.” 

Way quietly agreed, “Sounds like a plan. Or the start of one, anyway. We can iron out details as we go.” She looked over to me then, adding, “And now that that’s settled, I’ve got a question. 

“What’s this Pack’s been saying about you having minions?”  

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Trust 15-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so I had… dinner plans, I supposed. Too bad I couldn’t tell my parents where I was going. Having dinner with Caishen, Skip, and Lightning Bug might actually have impressed them. Or maybe not, considering my whole idea that they could be connected to the Ministry. Maybe Caishen was just another one of my family’s secret minions. Hell, for all I knew, this entire thing was an elaborate ruse to pick my brain or try to figure out how much I knew about them. 

Maybe I was being a little paranoid. But wasn’t that better than being not paranoid enough? 

Either way, I was definitely going to keep my eyes open. But seriously, I did want to see the kid again, and if Ten Towers was part of the Ministry or connected to them in any way, cultivating a relationship was the best way of finding that out, right? Right. Maybe I was talking myself into a dumb idea, but at that point I couldn’t exactly refuse the invitation without looking even weirder. 

“Weird is better than exposed,” Izzy informed me as the two of us sat at an old wooden picnic table near the corner of her new school’s front yard. She’d gotten out of her final class early, since they were finishing up some kind of project she couldn’t participate in, so we were waiting for a few minutes until Jefferson showed up. Which was good, since it gave me time to explain the situation and go through my whole probably slightly-crazed thought process with her. 

This whole ‘saying the crazy things happening to me out loud instead of bottling them up forever’ thing was really something. It almost felt as though I was letting out enough pressure that sticking a balloon in my ear wouldn’t actually blow it up. Which was just crazy. 

Of course, I still felt bad about involving someone as young as Izzy in the whole thing in the first place. Which was kind of partially replacing that whole stress thing. But hey, baby steps. 

Now, she was looking at me. “I mean, better to look weird and paranoid than to actually be exposed, right? And better to look like you’re being a little rude to Caishen and them than to accidentally tell your parents exactly who you are. You can’t take something like that back.”

“No do-overs,” I agreed grimly. “The second my parents even start looking at me suspiciously…” I swallowed hard then, shaking my head. “You’re right, but I can’t just totally turn them down. I’m pretty sure that’d attract some questions too. Especially now that I agreed to it. Besides, Skip helped save my life.” And I really didn’t want her to be part of the Ministry, though I didn’t add that part out loud. From the look Izzy gave me, I didn’t need to. 

“I’ll be careful,” I finally promised. “No confiding in them, no exposing my face or anything just in case. Even with their ‘privacy measures.’ I can push the visor up and raise the mask enough to eat.” 

“New question,” Izzy put in then, “where are you gonna tell your parents you’re eating?” 

Considering that, I hesitantly started with, “Tonight’s not family dinner, so it won’t be total war for me not being there. I can come up with an excuse about eating out with friends or something, shouldn’t be a big deal. Mom’s pretty cool about that kind of thing as long as we show up when we’re supposed to.” Glancing toward the other girl, I added, “But are you gonna be okay there?” 

“You mean am I gonna be okay being there alone without you after everything you said?” With that, Izzy swallowed hard, seeming to shrink in on herself a bit. Her voice was smaller. “Yeah. I can keep it together.” She took a breath, focusing on me. “You can trust me, Cassidy. I won’t fuck up and expose you, or any of it. It’s okay. I mean, it’s not really okay, but… yeah.” 

“I know what you mean,” I assured her. “And I trust you. But there’s a difference between trusting someone and knowing that something is a lot to deal with. So believe me, if you have to walk away from dinner, just tell them it’s been a long day. I mean, brand new school and all that, after everything that happ– you know, now that I say it out loud, you probably don’t need to fake anything. How are you doing with all that? The more mundane stuff, I mean. This place.” 

Following my glance toward the school behind her, Izzy offered me a shrug. “It’s okay. I didn’t really talk to a lot of people or anything. I mean, it’s April. School’s out in a couple months. Everybody’s already got their friends and their everything. Plus, I’m not umm…” She hesitated, biting her lip. “I’m not really rich or anything. Everyone in there knows I’m just this poor nobody on a free ride.” 

Blinking at that, I scooted over on the bench and put an arm around the girl, squeezing her close to me. “You listen to me. First, you are not a nobody. You do more important things in one day than most of those kids have done all year. You’re a fucking superhero, Izz. And free ride? You do know those kids were born rich, right? Just like me. You think I did anything to earn the money my family has? Neither did they. If anyone, anyone’s going to that school on a free ride, it’s them. They’re like me. They got handed everything they ever wanted, pretty much. What the hell did they do to deserve a spot at that school, be born? That’s luck, not achievement. Everything you’ve got, you earned. You worked for it. You deserve every bit of success and help you get, and anyone who tries say you don’t can go fuck themselves, okay?” 

With a tiny smile, Izzy shook her head while leaning against me a bit while teasing, “That was really poetic. Go fuck themselves, I should write that down.”

“Damn straight you should,” I agreed, poking her side with my free arm. “Izzy, I’m the most privileged rich kid you’re ever gonna see. Seriously, think about it. My parents are billionaires and they control both the crime and the police in the city. Most of it, anyway. The point is, you can’t get much more privileged than me. So, speaking as the… Princess of all Privileged Fucks, never let anyone tell you that you don’t deserve to be in that school.” 

Before Izzy could respond to that, Jefferson pulled up. He didn’t honk or anything, because he expected us to be ready to go. With a quick glance toward one another, the two of us hopped up and headed to the car. On the way, Izzy murmured quietly, “Thanks, Cassie.” 

Then we got in and headed for home. And I spent the next few minutes wondering how this whole dinner at Ten Towers was going to go. Not to mention the Paige thing, which was an ever-present thought at the back of my mind. I still had to decide if Eits was the best person to trust with that. Or even the only person, cuz really, who else was I going to ask who was more trustworthy? Maybe a Star-Touched from another city, but then we’d have to take Paige there and explain… well, maybe that would work? Find some doctor and tech person as far from Detroit as possible, hide Paige’s actual identity, and take her to them? 

Boy, I was really grasping at straws, wasn’t I? Where the hell was I going to find someone willing to do all that work on Paige without knowing anything about her? If nothing else, anyone with the skill to help her was definitely going to have the skill to know there was a lot going on with her. So they’d probably have a lot of questions. Questions I couldn’t answer. 

Then again, I couldn’t answer questions from Eits either. And even if I did trust him, we still needed to have someone who could open the body up to get to–argh. It was a lot. I kept thinking a good answer to this whole situation would just pop into my head or something, but thus far I was getting nowhere. My only real comfort was that Paige would be okay. She was basically in a coma or whatever, just like… sleeping. So until we actually found a way to fix the girl and bring her back, she’d be fine the way she was, right? 

Yeah, that was something. But still, this was a lot to deal with. Plus there was the whole situation with the Ministry base under the mall that we still had to find a way to break into, and–yeah, I had a lot to deal with. Nothing new there. 

But hey, at least I might get a decent dinner and some interaction with Lightning Bug out of this one? 

*******

A couple hours later, I was on my way. Well, sort of. There was another stop that I had to make before heading over to Ten Towers. I’d taken some time to draw up some more pictures for the son of that guard guy at the Seraphs, Matt Orens and I wanted him to sign off on them. I hadn’t put them together into a full book yet or anything, but they were still some nice drawings. 

Seriously, it might not have been on the same level of amazing as hurling myself from roof to roof throughout the city, but being able to draw this well just by thinking about it was still pretty damn cool. It was a more mundane cool, and yet also one I could actually share with people as myself if I was careful. Amber and Jae already knew, for one, and they didn’t think it was weird. 

It was just neat to be able to picture something in my head and then make a perfect real picture on paper. Whether I did it with my paint or by literally drawing it, the pictures looked amazing. Like my imagination jumped out of my head and reproduced itself on the page. 

Orens wasn’t out there by the gate when I stopped by, but he was on duty and they said he’d come around. While I was waiting, Patchwork strolled out, shouting over her shoulder that she was going for food and if anyone felt like dying in the time she was gone, they better do it without fucking calling her. When she saw me, the woman stopped, looking at me through that green visor that matched her spiky hair. “Stopped by to do more work, kid?” 

“Uh, not exactly.” I shook my head. “But I’ll be back, promise. As soon as possible. Uh, tonight maybe. Yeah, tonight if I can swing it. Things just got… crazy.” 

“They’ve got a way of doing that,” she drawled. “Just be glad you ain’t a healer. That’s a good way of–” She turned a bit, half-shouting over her shoulder, “Never getting a goddamn minute to yourself, motherfuckers!” Then she pivoted right back to me. “Anyway, just make sure you show up and do some work soon, before Hallowed or any of the bigwigs get antsy. Plus,” she added slyly, “your dad misses you.” 

“Oh my God.” Hanging my head while fighting back a fit of giggles, I eventually managed a weak, “Is that still going on?” 

“Stronger than ever,” she informed me, sounding far more cheerful. “Especially since some completely terrible person or persons have been fanning the flames with pictures of you visiting the place and talking to him.” 

Squinting at her through the helmet, I was about to ask if she was that terrible person. But I was interrupted by a very small voice hesitantly speaking up. “Um–ahh, excuse me.” 

I blinked, looking toward Patchwork, then around behind me, then to the nearby guard, then back to Patchwork. She was pointing down, and I glanced that way to see a tiny mouse, a bit away from my foot. This was no ordinary mouse, though. She wore gold armor covering most of her body save for the head, with what looked like a tiny, also metal backpack of some kind. A pair of what looked like bluetooth earbuds were attached to either side of the mouse’s body just behind her head, which was where the voice was coming from. “I’m so sorry to ahh… umm, interrupt.” 

“Oh!” I blurted, taken aback. “It’s okay, I mean–wait, you’re… Lion.” I wasn’t dumb, of course she was a mouse. But her name was Lion. She was a fairly well-known Toni (TOuched Nonhuman Individual), but she didn’t live or work here in Detroit. Lion was based in Seattle. And she took ‘based’ to another level, because her whole thing was designing incredibly elaborate and powerful defensive structures. She made bunkers, basically. Bunkers, prisons, I’d heard she’d had a big hand in helping to design upgrades for Breakwater, actually. The point was, she was really good at creating defenses. 

The mouse’s tiny head bobbed up and down. “Yes, sir, that’s ahhh, that’s my name. It’s a umm, pleasure to umm, finally meet. I mean pleasure for me to meet you, I don’t ahhh, know if it’s a pleasure to meet me, I wouldn’t want to umm, speak for you or anything.”

“Trust me,” I assured her while crouching to be closer. “It’s definitely a pleasure. But what are you doing here in Detroit? You’re not moving here, are you?” Immediately, I regretted the phrasing, amending, “I mean, everything I’ve seen says Seattle loves you.” 

Sitting back on her haunches, Lion peered up at me while shaking her little head. “Oh, ahh, no. No, I still live in Seattle. It’s my ahh… it’s my home.” I was pretty sure I could see her gulp repeatedly before the tiny speakers behind her head continued. “I’m just visiting my ahh… my friend Lucent, to consult on something.” 

“Oh. Well, cool. Hope you work it out with dear old pops,” I couldn’t help but say. 

There was a brief pause from Lion, before I heard a sound that I belatedly realized was a giggle from the little mouse. She seemed to relax just a little, though from her voice was still obviously on-edge. From what I’d heard, that was basically how she always was. The mouse whose entire power revolved around creating incredible defenses was basically eternally nervous. 

And who could blame her? She was tiny. She had plenty of reason to be anxious within a perfectly normal, mundane world, let alone before you added in superpowers and villains and all that. 

“It’s ahh, it’s going well, I think,” her quiet and uncertain voice piped up. “But I saw you out here and just wanted to say hi. And ahh, and ask if you were okay with the umm, the… joke that’s going on. But you seem okay, because you made the same joke.” 

“Believe me, I’m fine with it,” I assured her immediately. I avoided adding that my father secretly being Lucent would, in several ways, be better than the alternative. Which was a thought that I immediately regretted for the rush of conflicting feelings of guilt that flooded in. But I pushed all that back, adding, “He seems like a pretty great guy–err bird. Guy bird? Guy still works, right?” 

“Works for the rest of us,” Patchwork put in. “Hey Lion, you wanna help me pick up some grub? Pretty sure you and Lucent have been down in your hole playing techy games all day without basic necessities.”

There was a brief pause as the tiny mouse seemed to regard the much larger woman for a moment, before she agreed with a thoughtful, “I… am rather hungry, ahh, I suppose. But are–are we being rude?” Her voice was suddenly worried as she looked back to me, nose sniffing frantically. 

Quickly, I shook my head. “Thanks, I’m good. I have dinner plans already. Over at Ten Towers, actually.” 

“Oh yeah? Tell bug-kid hi for me,” Patchwork replied before holding out a hand. “Let’s go, Nala.”

She didn’t reach all the way down to pick the mouse up. Instead, the little backpack attached to Lion’s armor opened up, and a thin metal bar, about as long as a pencil, poked out. The top of it started to glow, and what looked like an arm made of solid energy appeared. Not a little arm either, this was a full sized human arm with a hand attached. The glowing energy hand grasped Patchwork’s, then retracted to pull Lion all the way up so the woman could catch her with her free hand and put the mouse on her shoulder. 

From her perch there, the TONI waved with her big energy-form hand. Her voice squeaked, “Goodbye, Paintball. I… I hope we can talk again.” 

“Me too,” I quickly agreed, then thought quickly. “But umm, hey, could I ask you something, actually?” My mind was racing with an idea of how to get into this without giving everything away. 

The mouse tilted her head, watching me curiously and expectantly until I went on. “Um, I have this friend who helps me with a bit of Touched-Tech stuff, but they wanna stay super-anonymous. So they were wondering if there was a way to like… if there was an established method of hiring Touched-Techs where both sides stay private.” 

Yeah, hiding my actual question about whether there was a way for me to anonymously hire a Tech-Touched behind asking if there was a way for my Tech-Touched friend to anonymously hire herself out wasn’t exactly perfect, but it was the best I could think of on the spot. 

“He means without getting Glitch and her Braintrust on their ass,” Patchwork translated for me. 

“Oh.” Lion gave a quick nod. “Um, well, yes there is. If umm, if you go to the Sphere forum, search for threads with the title ‘Looking For A Carpenter’, find the most recent, and post a message there under any account, you’ll get a private message to set something up. The ahhh, umm, the first message will ask if you know a friend in metalworking and you say you know a sculptor. Then you’ll be able to ask about anything you want for your friend. It’s all very quiet.”

“Thanks.” I wasn’t sure if I’d use that or not, but it was something. And hopefully hiding it behind the Trevithick thing had covered me well enough. 

Seeing her glowing forcefield-like hand still there, I gave Lion a high-five, then waved before turning as Orens made his way out. I’d think about that whole forum thing later. For now, I had to talk to this guy, then head out. Considering how late it was getting, I was pretty sure it would be time to go visit Ten Towers once I was done with this bit. 

Honestly, I couldn’t wait to see Lightning Bug again, after that first brief visit. She was a fun kid. 

And hey, at least I didn’t have to worry about any more problems showing up while I was in the middle of one of the strongest compounds in the city and surrounded by Star-Touched and armed soldiers.

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Trust 15-05 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Dani Kalvers.”  

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Trust 15-03 (Summus Proelium)

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It was a good thing that the next morning was Sunday. Because that meant there was no maid cleaning my room, so Izzy and I were able to sleep as long as we wanted. And we wanted a lot, apparently. Both of us were completely out of it throughout the morning, neither so much as stirring until almost noon. That was the time I saw on the (local) clock when my eyes opened at the feel of the other girl shifting a bit behind me. Wow, we’d really zonked out, apparently. 

After a brief hesitation, I turned a bit, sitting up as my gaze moved to Izzy. She was staring around the room, only belatedly looking to me with a somewhat guilty expression. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to…” Trailing off, she clearly shifted her unneeded apology to a question. “How do you do it?” The guilty look turned pensive. “How do you stay in a place like this, sleep like this, live like this, while you know where all the… where a lot of it comes from? How do you live knowing what your family really does?” Her voice was a whisper, and I saw the way she clutched one of the pillows tightly in both hands, holding it against her stomach after sitting up fully. 

Boy, was that ever a hard question. Yeah, I didn’t answer at first. Instead, I turned to put my back against the headboard, staring around my room along with Izzy. A rush of thoughts went through my mind, before I forced them down and focused. “I tell myself that I grew up with it. I’ve had sixteen years like this. So acting strange about it now would be… weird. It would draw attention. And, you know, that could be bad. If my parents think I know something, if they have even the slightest reason to start paying more attention to what I’m doing or whatever…” 

Izzy finished for me, her own voice still barely audible. “It could blow everything up.” 

Her choice of words made me flinch. Blow everything up, right. Just like that building last night. My head nodded a bit. “Yeah, pretty much. That’s the point, I have to act normal or they–well, we already know they can erase memories. And Mr. Jackson is here. If they thought the best way to handle the situation was to erase everything I knew about them, they could.”

“You mean we have to act normal,” Izzy pointed out, hugging the pillow even tighter. “We have to act like nothing’s wrong, like they’re totally just what they pretend to be. Like we don’t know anything. Because they’ll erase my memory too.” There was a little bitterness to her voice. “They’ll erase my memory so they can keep molding me into being their little tool.” 

Ah, that was why she sounded bitter. Wincing a little, I hesitated before offering, “I know it doesn’t mean much after everything I told you, but I do think my parents care about you. I mean, I’m pretty sure they also like what you’re capable of and all, but it’s not just that.” Even as I said that, my face twisted a little. “I know, I know what that sounds like. Believe me, I know. But it’s true. Two semi-conflicting things can be true at the same time. My parents would like you on their side because of your powers and everything, and they care about you. They do like you, Izzy. I’ve seen the way my parents act with guests they’re just being polite to, believe me.” 

After that, I fell silent for a few long seconds, before quietly adding, “But you’re right. They would erase your memory if they found out you knew anything about them. And they wouldn’t give up on turning you to their side.” Quickly, I looked that way to meet the other girl’s gaze intently. “That’s why you have to be careful. Because if they find out, if they even get suspicious–” 

“I know,” Izzy interrupted. After speaking those two words, she sighed, heaving the pillow away before pushing herself out of bed to stand up. “I’ll be careful. I’ll act normal, I promise. Besides,” she added with a little shrug. “It’s not like me being nervous around this place would be new.” 

She had a point. Rising to my feet on the other side of the bed, I nodded. “Right, fair. I just–sorry, after everything, you’re just… Like I was saying, you’re the first person I’ve trusted with this. I mean, I know we both kind of tripped into that, but still. You’re the only person who knows about me.” I repeated that point while looking toward the girl. She held basically my entire life in her hands. And her own life too, come to think of it. Our memories, anyway. Our choices. She held our choices and future in her hands. 

Izzy, in turn, met my gaze seriously while giving one firm nod. “Trust me,” she said quietly, yet with a determination that somewhat surprised me. “I won’t give anything away. Like I said last night, I can help cover for you. I can–I can be there to talk to when you need it. I…” Her voice turned soft and small at the end. “I know what it’s like to need to talk to somebody.” 

For a moment, neither of us said anything. Then she moved away from the bed, adding, “And we can check each other’s memories once in awhile. You know, just in case something goes down and one of us… and they make one of us forget.” 

That was also a good point. “Yeah,” I agreed, “we definitely need to do that.” Heaving out a long breath, I shook off the feeling of nerves. “But now we should get dressed and all. You ahh, you can take the shower first. “Then we can go get breakfast. Err… lunch.”

“Hey,” Izzy offered a little weakly, “at least we’re still blending in. After all, we’re supposed to act normal.

“And is there anything more normal than teenagers sleeping in until noon?” 

*******

“You know you’re not technically a teenager yet, right?” It was later, after the two of us had gotten cleaned up and dressed in fresh clothes. We were back in my room, taking a moment to collect ourselves before heading down for food. I had just looked over at the other girl to blurt that. “You know, cuz you’re… twelve.” It sounded more awkward out loud than it had in my head, but I pressed on anyway. “Sorry, my point is, I’m sorry. I’m sorry all this got dumped on you. I’m sorry–I mean, there was that whole thing with your mom, and you were supposed to move to a safe place. And now…” I swallowed hard. “And now you’ve got all this dumped on you, even though you’re only twelve. You shouldn’t have to worry about all this. Any of it. So, I’m sorry.” 

For a moment, Izzy didn’t respond. She just looked at me. Seeming to consider that for a few seconds, the girl then moved over to stand in front of me. Her foot snapped out, lightly kicking me in the shin. After I yelped quietly, she pointed out, “You shouldn’t have to deal with it either. Especially by yourself. And you’re only four years older than me, Grandma.” Sniffing with that last point, Izzy added a shrug. “And it… it just is what it is. We both know, we both deal with it. Together, right?” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean, sort of together. We can help each other.” 

“We can help each other,” I agreed, offering her a tiny smile before poking her forehead. “Thanks for not pointing out the obvious, that you’re gonna be taller than me really soon.” 

Izzy just offered me a wink. “I’ll save that for if you try to keep me out of things later,” she teased a little. Then the girl sobered and added pointedly, “I’m in it, Cass. I know I can’t go out with you or be seen like that or anything without spoiling the secrets, but whatever I can do, I want to.” 

“Thanks, Izzy,” I murmured. The two of us stared at each other for another few seconds before I sighed and gestured. “Come on, if we hole up any longer, Mom and Dad might end up sending a search party after all.” 

There was a very brief flash of something on the other girl’s face before she pushed it down. It looked a bit like disappointment. Yeah. This was definitely affecting her. She’d just been opening up to us, just started to trust my parents. And now there was this, after the way her own mother had so thoroughly betrayed her. Fuck. It was so much to dump on the girl. I was surprised she was holding up as well as she was. 

Though, I supposed the real test would come in a couple minutes, as we went downstairs to face my family for the first time since Izzy had found out the truth. 

God, I really hoped this wasn’t about to go horribly wrong. 

******

The first test came before we had even made it downstairs. Just as Izzy and I emerged from the hall where our rooms were, right at the top of the stairs leading up to this floor, Mom was there. It didn’t seem like she was waiting for us or anything. Her back was to us as we came out, and she was in the middle of a conversation on her bluetooth. It was something about setting up a private viewing at one of the art museums for some of her friends next week. Apparently there was some kind of special exhibit in town for a short time, and Mom didn’t exactly want to wait in any lines. Not that it was hard for her to arrange these personal exhibits, given several of the museums in town had entire wings named after our family. Or a building, in one case. 

Apparently she was just finishing up, because Mom glanced over her shoulder as we emerged, holding up one finger before giving a few pleasantries. Then she tapped the earbud and smiled at the two of us. “Well, there you girls are. I was afraid we might have to send in a search team.” With that bit of teasing, she added, “And what are we up to today? Any adventures planned?” She sounded almost wistful with those words, as though she was so busy with her adult life and responsibilities that she had to live vicariously through our… ‘adventures.’ 

Beside me, I felt Izzy tense up for just a second before she got it under control and forced herself to relax. I was pretty sure there was nothing for Mom to notice aside from the other girl being quiet and a bit nervous. Which, as she’d said before, wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary.

Quickly, before anything could be noticed, I loudly piped up. “Well, we definitely need food before going on any adventures. It’s been like…. forever since we ate!” 

“Forever or last night,” Mom retorted affectionately, reaching out to brush my hair. I let her do it, resisting both the urge to pull my head away and the one to lean into it. Each was equally strong. God, this was complicated. It seemed even more so now that I’d told Izzy about the whole situation. Feeling her eyes on me as I stood there made me even more uncomfortable.

But I shoved it down, smiling up at my mother before adding, “You coming to lunch?” 

To my relief, Mom offered me another smile before shaking her head. “Sorry, Principessa, you two will have to eat enough for me. I have a meeting to get to in an hour and I’m nowhere near ready. But have some ice cream, will you? Claudio made some fresh last night, and someone in this house should sit and enjoy it. Promise you’ll make sure he knows he’s appreciated?”

“Promise,” I agreed, ignoring the lump in my throat as I reached out to take Izzy’s hand. “Come on, we better get to it before Simon hears about this, or we’ll never get any of that ice cream.” 

“Uh, thanks!” Izzy remembered to call back as I pulled her past my mother and headed down the stairs with her. We both took the steps two at a time, bounding that way in what I hoped looked more like eagerness to get to the kitchen rather than eagerness to get away from Mom.

Simon and Dad were already eating lunch when we got in there, though it looked like they were just about done. As Izzy and I walked in, both of them gave us the expected ribbing about taking so long to get up. Which was good. Everything being this normal helped ease my lingering paranoia that they would somehow have known what happened the night before. The fact that everyone was still being this casual, teasing us, moving on with their lives, it meant they didn’t know that Izzy knew. And with any luck (and a lot of work on her part) it would stay that way. 

Once the two of us took a moment at the intercom to order food (we were both in the mood for breakfast despite what time it was) and sat down, Dad spoke up. “So, getting pretty close to D-Day, isn’t it? Or should we put it off for another year? You know, until you’re more comfortable.” His voice was teasing, knowing exactly what kind of reaction he was drawing out.

“D-Day?” Izzy echoed, blinking over at me. I felt her hand squeeze my leg tightly as she forced her reaction to having to sit here like this to only come out through her grip while keeping her face as clear as possible. 

Putting on a quick scowl for my father, I retorted, “Driving Day. It’s when I graduate from Driver’s Ed and get to go for my actual license. And we’re not putting it off for a year. Or a month. Or a week. I’ve had this day marked in my calendar since I was like… nine.” It felt like playing a role that was unfamiliar, or wearing clothes that didn’t fit anymore. I had so many more important things to worry about than driving. But if I didn’t play it up like this, my family would know something was wrong. I had to play the part. 

“Yeah,” Dad put on a show of lamenting, his head shaking back and forth mournfully. “I’ve had it marked in my calendar too. With lots of sad faces and a note about calling the Department of Transportation so they can put some warning signs out. Maybe get a police escort arranged that can just follow along on both sides of your car like bumpers.”

First, I made a face and threw a rolled up cloth napkin at him. Then I blinked and blurted, “Hah! Haha! Your car. You said your car! As in my car. As in the car I’m getting.” 

“Figure of speech,” Dad insisted, teasing me right back. “You can drive that old station wagon Mrs. Depel’s been trying to get rid of. I hear it gets up to twenty-five on a decent straightaway.” 

“Sure that’s not too much for our little Booster?” Simon jumped in, reaching over to ruffle my hair as he got up from the table. “I was thinking like one of those little Power Wheels things would be more her speed.” 

“Alright, alright,” Dad jumped in, raising a hand to push Simon away before I could retort. “That’s enough. What about today? You ready for the meeting later?” 

With a nod, my brother replied, “It’s all set. We should be good to go by the time the Aikawas get to the hotel.” 

Before I could figure out how to press them on what that meant, Dad looked to me. “And you girls? Anything big planned?” 

My mouth opened, but Izzy spoke first. “Cassidy was going to go with me to the library.” Belatedly, she corrected, “the public library. Mr. Tutters gave me a report to write on the Salem Witch Trials for my last assignment before going back to real school.” 

Mr. Tutters was the tutor that Izzy had been seeing. But this was the first I was hearing about a trip to the library. Luckily, I had a lot of practice by this point in keeping surprise off my face. 

Dad obviously had a lot of practice too, but still looked surprised then. “The public library? Are you sure? There’s plenty of resources right here.” 

There was a brief pause before Izzy quietly replied, “I know, but… it’d be nice to get out and have some fresh air.” She met my father’s gaze, offering him an innocent, even eager smile. “And I was thinking a library would be totally safe, right? Especially if I’m actually going to school tomorrow.”

Dad seemed to think about it for a moment before giving a short nod. “Of course. I’ll have a car brought around to take you girls whenever you’re ready. Could I talk to you in the hall for a minute, Izzy?” 

Instinctively, I tensed up. But I forced that reaction down, simply nodding. “Better hurry,” I remarked, “before breakfast gets here.” 

Then the three of them left, Simon going with them. Which left me to sit alone for a couple minutes, staring tensely at the table while wondering what was going on out there. When Izzy finally came back, it was just as our food was being delivered. So, I was silent until we were alone again. Once everything was quiet, I quickly moved to peek through the doors, looking up and down the hall to make sure we were alone before closing the doors once more. Then I went back to the table. But even then, we didn’t talk about anything important. The two of us ate our breakfast and sent the plates back to be cleaned before heading outside. 

Only then, once we were out of the house, did I ask in a quiet voice, “Is everything okay? What’s this about the library?” 

Izzy, in turn, nodded. “He just wanted to give me this.” In her hand, she held up a small black remote with a button on it, about the size of a normal key fob. “He said if I push the button, it’ll send an alarm and we’ll have like a whole SWAT team show up in sixty seconds.” Pausing then, she looked at me. “How come you don’t have something like that?” 

Flushing, I admitted, “I do. It’s in my sock drawer where I left it like… years ago. Ever since I accidentally sat on it and our school field trip was ummm… interrupted.” 

The younger girl blanched at that. “I’ll be careful. Anyway, for the library thing, I said I’d cover for you, right? This way, we can go to the library and then you can go see what’s going on with Paige. I’ll let you know if anyone shows up.” She offered me a shrug. “I really do have to write that report. And I wanted to get out of the house, after… after all that. This way, no one will wonder where you are or anything.”

For a moment, I stared at her. Then I smiled just a little. “Thanks, Izzy. 

“I’m starting to think you might be pretty useful to have around after all.”

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Trust 15-02 (Summus Proelium)

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It wasn’t easy. I had been holding everything in for so long, only giving out very vague and tiny scraps of information. And even that was done incredibly seldomly, with Pack and That-A-Way, just to explain the part about the Ministry. Telling anyone the actual truth, all of it, was completely new. And hard. The words just kept… not coming. I would fall silent in mid-sentence, staring at the floor or at the wall while telling myself to keep going, to spit out the next word. 

Not helping, of course, was the fact that I felt cold. It was weird. The temperature of the house was always perfect. Especially in our individual rooms. The air was set exactly the way I liked it in here. And yet, from the moment I started to explain everything that had happened, all that I’d found out since that night I stowed away in the back of Royal Thunder, I felt progressively colder and more uncomfortable. The more I spoke, the worse it got. I drew my knees to my chest, hugging my legs as I forced myself to keep going, to keep explaining all of it. 

I was terrified. Not really of Izzy… exactly. I was pretty sure I could trust her, just–just not positive. And I was afraid of where this would go after I took this kind of leap. Up until this point, I’d had full control of what happened to my secrets, the really important ones. As long as I was the only one who knew, I was the only one who could betray me, even accidentally. But now? Now I was doubling the risk. Izzy. I was telling her my secrets. I was telling her all of it. My family were the bad guys. I was Paintball (though she already knew that part). All the stuff with my memory being erased, with Tomas’s father, with Paige, with my confusion over who the good and bad guys in the city really were given everything I knew, all of it. I was giving her all of it. 

It could go bad. It could go so, so fucking bad. If she messed up, if she said the wrong thing at the wrong time, if she even reacted emotionally to something my parents did or said, that could be it. That could be the end of everything, and I wouldn’t be able to stop it. I couldn’t control her. I couldn’t be there every second of every day just to make sure she didn’t say the wrong thing. 

I had to trust her. There was no choice. I had to believe that she could handle it. I had to tell her the truth, tell her everything I knew, and just… trust that it wouldn’t end in my parents finding out. Because if they did, I didn’t… I didn’t know what they would do. I was afraid to consider it.

Yeah, fear. That was a running theme at the moment. My throat was dry, my voice shaky, cracking repeatedly as I pushed on through the story. I tried to keep it in as close to chronological order as I could, though I had to go back and clarify things now and then. Especially when it got to the parts with Paige and Anthony. Even though I still didn’t remember the boy exactly, just talking about what my younger self had apparently experienced was almost impossible. My voice shook even more through that part, and I just… I felt terrified. More so than through the rest of it. I felt like I could remember being that little girl seeing all those dead people even though I couldn’t. It was almost like the emotions were almost there even if I couldn’t access the actual memory. I couldn’t imagine what the real thing was like. 

Through it all, Izzy didn’t interrupt. She didn’t ask questions, aside from one or two when my stammering was too confusing to interpret, or to clarify something. For the most part, she stayed completely silent, sitting there a few feet away as she listened to me spilling all of this for the first time. I didn’t look at her. I couldn’t tell how she was taking it. I was too afraid of how she would react, of what would happen if she reacted poorly. Afraid of the disgust I would see when she knew exactly what my family really was, and what they were actually capable of.

Only when I was pretty sure that I’d said as much as I could, that Izzy had as much of the full story as possible, did I look up. A sigh escaped me. “And that’s basically all of it,” I murmured softly. “That’s how I ended up here, doing this. Pretty fucked up, huh?”

For her part, Izzy didn’t respond right away. I had the feeling she needed a little more time to absorb all of that. Which was fair, given the enormity of what I was dumping on her. It was a lot. 

I had no idea how long we sat there like that. Probably not very long, though it felt like forever. The seconds dragged on like minutes while the two of us just stared at one another. Izzy’s mouth opened once or twice, but she didn’t say anything. Not at first. Finally, she tried again, and words finally came out. “Your– your dad. He’s Silversmith. He–he’s…” She trailed off, slumping back as an expression of warring emotions crossed her face. That, of course, I understood completely.  

“He saved me.” Izzy’s voice was soft and quiet, somehow making her seem even smaller than she was. She looked away from me, staring off into the distance. “He saved my life. I mean–he stopped… he saved me. Silversmith, your dad, he… he’s a… he’s a hero. He was my hero.” 

“He was my hero too,” I agreed, my own voice no louder than hers. “Both of them. Both of him, I mean. My dad and Silversmith. He was–they were… Silversmith was my favorite hero. And my dad–I loved him. I mean, I love him. He’s just… he’s always been my hero. In every way.” 

The other girl looked back to me finally, our eyes meeting. I saw the realization there, the understanding. “You’ve been dealing with that all this time. Sitting at meals, living in the same house, talking to him, hugging them?” 

“I still love them.” The admission was, in some ways, the hardest thing I’d said so far. It made me cringe with shame. “I know it’s wrong. I know it’s stupid. I just–I love them. They’re my family. My mom, my dad, my brother. I love them. I want–I don’t want it to be this way.” 

Izzy shook her head, hesitating before reaching out to barely touch my hand. “It’s not stupid,” she insisted in a quiet, yet firm voice. “They’re your family. It’s not… it’s not easy to just stop feeling those kinds of feelings. My–” She cut herself off, biting her lip before clearly forcing herself to push on. “My mom. She tried to…” Glancing away briefly, the girl steadied herself. “She tried to sell me to Oscuro. She did sell me to Oscuro.” There was an emptiness to her voice, a terrible sadness that had always been there. I’d even noticed it repeatedly. But now she was finally telling me where that sadness came from. 

Over the next few minutes, haltingly and shakily, Izzy told me about how her mother had struck the deal with Oscuro, how that Handler guy had shown up and started using his power to force her obedience, and how she had escaped. Well, mostly escaped. She told me how just before she would have been captured again after everything she’d gone through to get away, my father had swooped in as Silversmith to save her. He dealt with the bad guys and protected her. 

No wonder she saw him as a hero, even more than anyone else. Because he’d literally saved her from a life of torture and slavery, from being a mindwashed little puppet for Oscuro. He protected her. Then, though unknown to her at the time, he literally took her into his house. He told her that my dad was just a close friend, someone he trusted to protect her. My dad, Silversmith, they both took care of Izzy at a time when she was most vulnerable. Mom too. They protected her, showed her care and affection after her own mother had betrayed her so thoroughly. 

And now, after all of that, after all that Izzy had gone through, I was telling her that my family were bad guys. I was telling her that the man who had saved her from slavery, and his wife, who had taken her in and cared for her, were actually supervillains. Not just normal supervillains, but billionaire supervillains who controlled and directed most of the crime in Detroit, if not all of Michigan. 

God, no wonder she was having a hard time with the whole thing. I was surprised this wasn’t going worse, honestly. 

Once the other girl finally finished telling me her own story, I slumped back a bit to digest all of that. My mind was spinning. My… well, basically everything was spinning. This whole thing really filled in a lot of confusing gaps in what I had known. It explained why Izzy was here. She was an incredibly powerful and young Touched. So my parents wanted to raise her, teach her to be on their side. They wanted to mold her into someone who would be part of their organization. Of course they did, because how often did an opportunity this enticing come along? 

Finally, my head shook as I quietly murmured, “Boy, our lives have been pretty fucked up recently, huh?” Raising my gaze from the floor, I looked to her. “I know it’s complicated, but I’m glad my dad stopped those Oscuro guys from taking you. For whatever it’s worth, I think… I think you’re better off here than with them.” Offering a weak shrug, I added, “Low bar and all.”

Izzy, in turn, flinched a bit before setting her chin to meet my eyes. “Low,” she agreed, “but you’re right. Whatever your family is, they–they’re better than that. As long as you’re not someone who could cause trouble for them that they can’t control.” Her voice was flat as she added, “You said they would’ve had you killed if they could. I mean, without knowing who you are. They would’ve killed a kid to protect their secrets. How many people do you think they’ve killed already just to get this far, and to hold onto their power? How many people have died because your dad quietly pushed Touched to other areas so that the criminals who paid the Ministry’s fee could do their thing without being interrupted? I– wh-what about Pencil? He–”

“He’s not part of it,” I quickly insisted. “None of the Scions are, believe me. I just–I know they’re not. Everything I’ve heard, the way they talk, it’s not… they’re outliers. They don’t follow the Ministry rules, and Pencil is just one of the few who can get away with it. Believe me, my parents want the Scions stopped as much as anyone. I mean, after all, the shit they do is bad for business.” It felt gross saying it like that, but it was the truth. “And… and I know my parents aren’t that bad. They’re not like Pencil. It’s not just about business and money. I know that makes me sound like a naive little kid, but it’s true. They have done bad things. But they don’t torture and kill people just for the hell of it. They don’t slaughter innocents just to have a fun time. That’s not–it’s not who they are. It’s more complicated than that.” Letting out a breath, I stared intently at the girl. “They’re still bad, they’re just not… not that kind of monster.”

After a very slight pause, Izzy gave a short nod. “You’re right. Not all bad guys are created the same. Your parents–your family has a lot of power. They do a lot of bad things. But not things like Pencil does. They’re not that kind of monster.” 

For a minute or two, we both sat there silently contemplating that. There was more I wanted to say, but I wasn’t sure how, or what exactly. It just felt like I should be talking, should be explaining, or justifying, or planning, or… or something. Instead, I sat there in silence, staring off at my clock wall while utterly failing to find the right thing to say. 

Finally, it was Izzy who spoke. “You’re still trying to find out more about how the whole thing works? I mean, you’re still digging into it. You said there was that thing about the mall…” 

Quickly, I nodded. “Yeah, we’re gonna try to find a way to get in that secret base. We–I mean Pack and That-A-Way and me. Like I said, they’ve been helping. They know… some of it. Not about me. Not about my family. But some of it. The basics about the Ministry and that Silversmith is involved.” 

Izzy frowned thoughtfully, face twisting a bit. “No wonder Way was–” Then her eyes widened as she quickly looked at me. “Wait, you don’t know what–” Cutting herself off abruptly, she looked uncertain. 

I stared at her, confused by that strange reaction. “I don’t know what?” 

After a brief pause, her head shook. “It’s… it’s not my… I can’t say. Not yet.” Hurriedly, she looked back to me, explaining, “I can’t tell other people’s secrets. I can’t just–” 

“It’s okay,” I assured her. “Believe me, I know all about needing to juggle secrets. I won’t push you on it.” I was curious about what that was all about, of course, but seriously. Pushing her to reveal more than she was ready to would’ve been the absolute height of hypocrisy. 

“I want to help.” Izzy had pushed herself to her feet with that announcement, arms folded against her stomach as she stared at me. “Whatever happens, whatever your family is really into and how bad it is, I want to help you find out. Like that mall thing.” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “It’s not that easy. I mean, think about it, if you use your powers, my parents are going to know that you know about the Ministry. So, best case scenario, they’ll be watching you really closely. Worst case, they’ll do something about it. They’ll either figure out that I know more than I should, or separate us somehow to try and make sure I don’t.” 

For a moment, it looked like the other girl wanted to argue with that. But she stopped, sighing. “Right. Kinda hard to contribute and not give away who I am, I guess. And if you tell That-A-Way that I know the truth, it’ll give away who you are. Which, I guess you’re not ready to do?” 

Swallowing at that, I shook my head quickly. “Not yet. I mean, I know we can basically trust them. Both of them, for the most part. I just–I’m not ready for that. You’re the first– no… the second person who knows who I am, aside from Paige. You and her are the only people who know everything I do. Even Paige might not know the whole thing. We didn’t exactly have time to talk about it. And now she’s…” I trailed off, swallowing hard at the thought of what was going on with that girl.

“You really haven’t had anybody to talk to about… any of this?” Izzy was staring at me. “All this time, I mean, you just barely had that thing with Paige, so you haven’t had anyone to talk to?” 

Flushing a little uncomfortably, I pushed myself to my feet and shook my head. “It’s not that bad. I mean, lots of people have worse things to worry about.” 

“You’re wrong,” Izzy insisted before correcting herself. “I mean, you’re right, lots of people have worse things to deal with right now. But you still…” Trailing off, her eyes widened. “I can help.” The words came thoughtfully before she quickly looked up, meeting my gaze. “I can’t go with you without exposing who I am, you’re right. But I can still help. I can talk to you about all this stuff. I can… I can cover for you here. I can help hide what you know, what we know. And I can just be here so you can talk to somebody about it. I can still help.”

Hesitating uncertainly, I slowly asked, “Are you sure you wanna do something like that? You really want to sit here and listen to me babble about my issues?” 

“I want to help,” the other girl replied firmly. “Whatever I can do. Even just talking and covering for you. And… and being there if you get in trouble. Cuz if something happens, I’m gonna find a way to help, cover or no cover.” Her voice was pretty well determined for someone that young. 

Thinking about that, I slowly turned and walked over to my bed to sit on it. My own voice was far more hesitant and uncertain. I sounded (and felt) small. “I guess it would be nice to have someone to talk to about this stuff.” 

Izzy moved over to sit on the bed next to me. Her hand found its way to my back. “I’ll listen,” she promised in a gentle voice that made her sound far older than she actually was. “Whatever you need to talk about. Whatever you want to say. I promise, I’ll listen.” 

The two of us sat there together like that for a minute before she added a quiet, “I do have a question. That… Paige, she’s really like a… a cyborg?” 

Coughing despite myself, I heaved a sigh. “I don’t think cyborg is exactly the right word. It’s…” Glancing over to the other girl, I found myself smiling just a little. “Let me tell you everything I know about her.” 

So I did. And I talked about other things too, more in depth than I had in my quick runthrough before. I talked, and talked, and talked. And she listened. 

In the end, we both fell asleep there in my bed. And to be honest, it was one of the best night’s sleep I’d had in a long time.

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Trust 15-01 (Summus Proelilum)

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For those who do not read Heretical Edge, the non-canon chapter for Summus Proelium was posted over the weekend and can be found right here

That joint, blurted outburst came, followed by silence. For several eternally long moments, Izzy and I simply stared at one another. We said nothing, we did nothing. At least, not outwardly. Inwardly my mind was racing along at breakneck speed along a crowded track, plowing its way through every other thought in existence just to focus on a single, solitary realization.  

Izzy was Raindrop. Izzy Amor, the girl who had been living in our house, was Raindrop. 

Oh my God, that explained it. That–that explained–okay not all of it. But it explained why my parents wanted her protected, why people might be after her, why she might have nightmares. It explained–it explained so much. So goddamn much that I’d been completely lost on suddenly made a lot more sense. I didn’t have all the pieces yet, but this was a pretty big one. She was Touched. She was Raindrop. She-she–oh. Oh fuck. Oh fuck, she was Raindrop. 

And she knew who I was. 

That second realization struck the first, plowing into it like a semi obliterating the racecar that had been the thought that Izzy was Raindrop. Because the fact that she knew my identity could be the single most dangerous thing in the world. Did I know her? Did I really know her, how she might react, what she might do, who she might tell? How much did I really know about her, given I hadn’t even known she was Touched until now? My parents, they’d taken her in. If they–if she thought they were–if she trusted them more than me, if she even let on at all…

Whatever Izzy or I might’ve said next, whatever we might’ve done if left completely on our own, we’d never know. Because in that moment, just before one of us would have had to make a move or say something, we both heard the sound of the balcony doors directly below us opening. The instant that happened, both of my hands reflexively snapped up as I lay on my back on the roof. I shot red and black paint at Izzy before slapping my hand against the roof and applying black and red paint there. Then I activated all of it together. The girl was silenced and yanked toward me, pulled right down out of the sky. She hit the roof (fairly gently, but I really was in a rush) completely silently, just before we heard the voice of my father, apparently talking on the phone. He was speaking Japanese, so I had no idea what he was saying. But he was there. Right there, so close below the two of us. If he had the slightest reason to suspect anything and climb up to look around, it could lead to a lot of questions. It could… God, oh God. 

Izzy was lying next to me. The moment we heard Dad’s voice, both of us froze. Well, mostly. I lifted my hand very slowly, staring at the other girl while putting my finger to my lips. I couldn’t say anything. I didn’t trust even the quietest whisper. All I could do was press my finger to my lips like that while staring intently at her, pleading with my eyes for her to please, please just trust me and stay quiet. At least long enough for Dad to go back inside. 

Would she listen? Would she stay where she was and not make a sound, even after the black paint wore off? Because if she was determined to draw my father’s attention, there wasn’t much I could do about it. Any attempt to fight with her, to keep her from getting to him, would make noise anyway. He would hear us, the scraping along the roof. I could silence the area around us, could silence both of us, but could I do all that and hold her down? And what about after those ten seconds? What about the next ten minutes, the next ten hours? If Izzy was determined to make Dad notice what was going on, what could I do about it? 

The panic must’ve been written across my face, because Izzy’s hand rose. I flinched, but she was just pressing her own finger against her lips. Agreeing. She was showing me that she agreed, that she would be quiet and still. She wasn’t going to draw Dad’s attention. 

Not yet, anyway. 

My father’s voice droned on in Japanese in the background. He sounded happy about something, but maybe that was just because I couldn’t understand the actual words. Either way, he kept talking while Izzy and I just lay there, face-to-face and inches from one another. I could see the wheels working in her head. She was probably going through the same thought process I was about this whole revelation, only the other way around. I was Paintball. We’d worked together, fought together, we were at the theater dealing with Suckshot together, and helped to clean up afterward. All that time, while I’d felt like Raindrop was familiar somehow? 

God, it made so much sense. It really did. It made more sense than I could believe. Izzy was Raindrop. Of course my parents would want her to be protected. Even if she wasn’t on their side openly yet, look at what they were doing for her. They could so easily groom her to be loyal to them once she knew the truth. They could ease her into it, show her all the good things that the Ministry was able to do, before gently breaking the truth about what it cost, the bad things they had to do to get to that point. 

I had no idea what had happened to Izzy’s parents to get her here, exactly. I didn’t know what had given my parents the opportunity to take her in. I did believe that they didn’t want to hurt her, I’d figured that much out even before this whole accidental revelation. She wasn’t being held as a hostage against someone. But now? Now it made even more sense. She was a young, powerful Touched, a member of the Minority who would probably have her pick of adult teams when the time came. Fuck, getting the chance to ensure her loyalty must’ve made my parents positively dizzy with anticipation. 

As to what Izzy herself was thinking as she lay there staring at me in silence, I had absolutely no idea. I had no clue what could possibly be running through her head just then. Did she have the slightest idea why I was so terrified by the prospect of my father finding us? Did she think it was just normal secret identity stuff, me not wanting my parents to find out I was Touched? Was there an inkling in her head about just how serious it all really was? 

I didn’t know. I couldn’t read her mind. All I did know was that she stayed quiet, silently staring at me while the two of us listened to my father’s voice. For a minute, then two minutes, then three, we laid there as still as possible. I prayed that whatever deal he was making, or arrangement, or whatever it was, would be settled soon. It was the middle of the night here, but still business hours in Japan. I knew from all those clocks in my room that there was a fourteen hour difference between Detroit and Tokyo. So two-thirty AM here was four-thirty PM there. No wonder Dad was making a call so late. 

Despite everything going on with Izzy right now, I really wished I understood Japanese. Or that I’d had the forethought to grab my phone so I could record him and use the translation app. 

Instead, I lay there, staring at the younger girl until I finally heard my father wrapping things up. I still didn’t speak the language, of course, but I recognized it in his voice. He was saying a few last things, offering thanks and a couple pleasantries. It was the same thing in any language, apparently, coming from him.

He disconnected the call. Then there was silence. This, of course, was the most dangerous moment. If he got curious about any sound he might’ve heard up here, if we relaxed a little too early and accidentally allowed him to hear something… 

There was a long, heavy exhale. Dad sighing. I couldn’t tell if it was a good sigh or a bad one. Whichever it was, he tapped the railing a couple times, rapping it with his knuckles. Then I heard the creak of his feet moving back across the balcony, followed by the squeak of the sliding glass door as he closed it behind him after stepping inside. 

Still, I didn’t move. Not yet. He could have simply closed the door without going in. I waited for a few seconds, straining my ears to listen for anything, any indication that he was still there. Getting nothing didn’t make me feel any safer. So, I painted my shirt black. Doing so made Izzy’s eyes widen, but I kept my finger to my lips. Then I maneuvered myself around, very carefully peeking over the edge of the roof to look down toward the balcony while trying to show as little of myself as possible. 

Empty. It was empty. He was gone.

Which left Izzy and me laying there on the roof, staring at one another. Even with Dad gone, the two of us still didn’t say anything. Not at first, anyway. We just stared in silence, each of us clearly fighting for the right words. Or for any words, really. Because what the hell could we say?

Finally, I spoke in a very, very soft whisper. “In my room. Talk there. Not here.” I would feel at least marginally safer having this discussion in that kind of privacy, rather than out here on the roof. And it would give me a few extra precious seconds to think about what I was going to say. 

Izzy hesitated before giving me a silent nod. It looked like she was having just as much trouble as I was to find the right words. And she was probably just as grateful for the moment to think. 

So, the two of us very quietly moved off the roof and found our way back down the building to where my own balcony was. With a bit of paranoid glancing around, I hopped down before slipping into my room. Izzy was right behind me, and I turned to shut the sliding door. 

Even then, I didn’t speak right away. First, I moved to open my bedroom door, peeking out into the hall and looking both ways before shutting it. Then I turned back to Izzy, who was still standing near the balcony door. For a moment, I just watched her, our eyes meeting. This was it. No more excuses. No more waiting. I had to say something, right now. It might be one of the most important things I ever said in my life, given how easily Izzy could destroy said life. 

So, of course, the first thing that managed to pop out of my mouth was a flat, “Hi.” 

Izzy, for her part, seemed just as lost on a response. Her mouth opened and shut a few times while her expression twisted with obvious confusion before she settled on an identical, “Hi.” 

But as inadequate as that single word of unnecessary greeting might have been, it did its job of starting the conversation. As soon as the greetings were over, I blurted, “You’re Raindrop. You’re part of the Minority. You–you’re–we were…” My hands were gesturing off outside, awkwardly trying to wave off into the city where the two of us had fought together. 

“You’re Paintball.” Izzy’s voice made it clear that she was still reeling from that. Possibly even more than I was reeling from the revelation of her identity. “He’s not–I mean he’s not a he. You’re a–you’re–it’s you. All that time, all those things you–we did, and you–it was you.” 

“And you’re you,” I managed a bit awkwardly, staring at her. “This whole time, you’ve been… and my parents…” 

“They know,” Izzy quickly put in. “They know who I am. Silversmith and your dad, they’re friends or something. They–he said I’d be safe here. Silversmith, I mean. After what my mom–” She cut herself off, looking briefly stricken before her head shook. “But you–they don’t know about…” 

I was too busy reeling from what she’d said to respond immediately. Friends. She thought my dad and Silversmith were friends. So she didn’t know the truth. She didn’t know. Dad was keeping her in the dark about his true identity, at least so far. What exactly did that mean?

Finally, I got it together enough to shake my head. “They don’t know about me. They can’t. They–” Fuck. What was I supposed to say? How much could I tell her? My mind was racing, panicking. My heart was in my throat while beating so hard it might just explode. If I told her the truth–but that would mean–and if she didn’t–and if she ever–oh God. Oh God, what now? 

She must have seen the terror flashing through my eyes. The next thing I knew, Izzy had crossed the distance between us, her hand raising to take mine. “Cassidy?” Her voice was gentle, more like she was the older one between us. “What’s wrong? It’s okay, I’m not–” Something seemed to catch in her throat before she pushed on. “I’m not gonna tell your parents, I swear. If you don’t–I mean…” She trailed off again, staring at me indecisively for several long, silent seconds before finally asking, “Do they hurt you? Have they ever…” 

The implication made my eyes widen, and I quickly shook my head with a blurted, “No! No, they’d never–I mean they’re not–I mean I’m just…” Fuck. What did I say to that? They never abused me, but they still weren’t good people. They treated me like a princess, while being supervillains who ruled over almost all crime in the city? How was I supposed to tell her that? 

If I told her. If I said as much as I knew, I would be handing my entire fate over to someone else. I had spent months by this point having no one to trust, no one to really talk to about what was going on. I’d come close with Paige just today, but she was out of it for now. 

I was so tired. I was so… empty. I loved my family, but they were… they were doing evil things. And I had nobody I could trust. Nobody to vent all of this to. I had spent so long, so much time in these past couple months just entirely incapable of talking to anyone, holding all my feelings in, terrified of being found out, unable to totally relax even in my own house…

I slumped. My knees went weak, and I sat down, almost falling. My butt hit the floor as I drew my knees to my chest, hugging my legs. As my forehead pressed against my knees, I felt the tears start to come. My shoulders were shaking. Nausea, born both of terror and emotional exhaustion, rose through my body and I nearly threw up. For a little while, I couldn’t do anything other than lay my head against my legs like that and let the tears come. I was done. After everything that had happened just today, with all the Paige revelations and all that fighting, let alone the emotional trauma of the past couple months… I couldn’t do it. I needed a minute. I needed far more than that, but that at the very least. I needed… I needed…

Trust. I needed someone to trust. I needed someone to talk to. 

Izzy was there. The girl had sat herself next to me, one hand on my arm. She hadn’t said anything for awhile, just… sitting there watching me. When my eyes opened, blinking blearily through the tears, I saw her gaze meet mine. She looked confused, but patient. When our eyes met, the girl spoke quietly. “Cassidy, whatever it is, whatever happened… I won’t tell your parents. I won’t tell anyone you don’t want me to, I promise. I swear. I just–I’ll keep your secret. I won’t tell anyone about you being Paintball, or about… anything else. I know you don’t have any reason to believe me. You barely know me. But I won’t.” Her hand squeezed my arm, voice sounding firm. “I swear. No matter what happens. No matter what you tell me, I won’t tell anyone else. Whatever it is, whatever happened, I just… I just want you to know that I’ll keep your secret.”

For a moment, I didn’t say anything to that. My eyes closed briefly as a few more tears fell. The emotional exhaustion was still there. Worse than ever, really. Yet, there was something different about it, a sense that someone had thrown a life preserver into the ocean where I had spent weeks drowning. It was right there, inches away. All I had to do was reach for it. 

The boat that the preserver had been cast from could be dangerous. It was that sense of the unknown, the terror that even staying here in the cold, remorseless water could be safer than what awaited if I reached out and took the offered aid. To say nothing of the danger it could put Izzy herself in. Whether or not I trusted her wasn’t the only issue. If she knew the truth, she could be in serious trouble. Especially if my parents even suspected she might know anything damaging about them.  

And yet, she was already in danger. She was here. She had powers. My parents obviously wanted her to join them. That was why they were keeping her here, why they spent so much effort taking care of the girl. They were going to try to openly recruit her eventually. They would try twisting her to their side. 

Realizing my eyes were still closed, I opened them. I met the other girl’s gaze one more time. I felt the certainty of my decision. “Izzy,” I started. 

“I need to tell you the truth about my family.”

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Project Owl 14-09 (Summus Proelium)

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I was going to have to tell Pack something. Some of the truth, that was. She’d earned it. More than earned it. She and That-A-Way both had been there for me time after time. They knew about the Ministry and were still helping me. I owed them more than I was giving them. And at the very least, I owed them some explanation about what had happened tonight. 

But I also owed Paige. She trusted me. Trusted me to keep her safe and to find a way to fix her so she could wake up again. Wren was my best… my only idea of who might be able to deal with what had happened to her, but even that seemed like a long shot. Wren didn’t deal with… with whatever Paige was. What was I supposed to do? Who was I supposed to talk to? 

“Paintball? Earth to Paintball.” Pack’s voice interrupted my panicked and confused musings. “I said, what the fuck is going on? Who is this girl? Why’s she unconscious? What was she–” 

“Paige,” I interrupted, forcing myself to focus. “Paige Banners. And as to what’s going on, I… I can explain it, sort of. But wait until Way gets here. She deserves to hear it too, after what she…” I swallowed. “She saved my life. Our lives.” My hand gestured to the motionless blonde. “Once she gets here, after she’s done covering for us, I’ll explain everything that I can.” Everything I could, as opposed to everything. Because even now, I had to keep things to myself. 

Pack didn’t seem happy about waiting, but she didn’t push the issue too much. All she did was look past me to Paige for a moment before asking, “Doesn’t she need a doctor right now?”

“She needs a lot of things,” I murmured under my breath with a glance over my shoulder. Then my head shook. “But I don’t think any doctor can help. Trust me, it’s a long story, but there’s nothing we can do for her right this second. I… I don’t think she’ll get any worse, anyway.” 

“Any worse than… that.” Pack pointedly stared at the completely motionless girl who looked like she was sleeping. “Right. Look, I-I’m sorry I didn’t show up sooner.” There was guilt in her voice. “I was–fuck. I was busy with other things. Kind of in the middle of something and couldn’t get away. Couldn’t even check my phone. By the time things were clear enough for me to have some breathing room, you were already… shit. Just, I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner.” 

“It’s not your fault,” I insisted, turning back to look at her. “I know you’ve got your own things. I’m just glad Way showed up when she did. I don’t… I don’t think we would’ve made it out if she wasn’t there.” 

“Yeah, she’s got some good timing,” the other girl agreed before glancing away. I couldn’t see her face through that full black mask that covered even her eyes and mouth, but I was pretty sure she wasn’t thinking about me or this situation just then.  

Her silence gave me a chance to look at Paige again. God damn it, what was I going to do? I’d promised I would find someone who could help her. Again, Wren seemed the best choice, yet even she probably wouldn’t know what she was doing with something this advanced. She didn’t work with… with cyborgs or… fuck, what was the right term? Biolem? Was Paige still a biolem like the others we’d faced, even though she was so much more advanced? 

“New look?” Pack finally asked after that moment of silence, nodding to my makeshift costume. “Going for something even cheaper-looking? Blackjack was already thinking of bribing you with a nice, cool new suit with all sorts of bells and whistles, you know. Go around like that and he may just give it to you out of pity.” 

Coughing, I gestured helplessly. “I didn’t have time to get back to my real costume. I had to make do with what I could scavenge real quick. And I don’t need a handout from Blackjack.” 

“Yeah, I told him you’ve got Trevithick to handle any costume upgrades,” she informed me with a very light chuckle. She had Tuesday on one shoulder and was lightly scratching him with her other hand. “I’m not sure that actually dissuaded him that much. He likes you, Paintball. I mean, that’s the impression I get anyway. Pretty sure he’d accept you in a heartbeat if you decided to switch sides.” 

“Does he like me?” I shot back. “Or did the Ministry tell him to put out feelers to find out if I could be pulled to that side? How much of what he does is him and how much is what he’s told to do? I already know he’s really connected to them. How much, I’m not sure. But still.” 

Yeah, I was probably still a little amped up after everything that had happened. Being ‘killed,’ however temporarily, waking up to find that video from Paige explaining all that and then saying she was going to kill herself. Racing across the city, fighting through the building, finding Paige, getting a few answers about what the hell she was and what her father was up to, fighting to keep her safe, fleeing with her through the building, and finally almost being blown up before That-A-Way saved us at basically the last second? 

It had been a bit of a day, to say the least.

Before too long, my phone buzzed. It was a message from That-A-Way, wanting to know where we were. So I gave her directions, and she showed up a few minutes later, skidding to a stop after super-speeding her way up to the parking lot. “Paintball, there’s bodies in that building!” she snapped abruptly. “What the hell was–” 

“They’re not real,” I quickly informed her. “I mean, they’re not–um, they’re not real people.” 

Yeah, Pack and Way exchanged obvious looks at that before turning back to me. Pack found her voice first. “Not real people? Come on, Paintball, I think you better explain now.” 

They were right. I needed to explain some of it, as much as I could. There was no way I was going to be able to help Paige without help. Besides, they’d more than earned an explanation. So, I carefully started to tell them what happened, starting with a… well, not quite a lie, but a very deliberately presented version of the truth. I told them that Paige had left me a message telling me that she was probably going to die because she was going after her father, who was the real threat. I told them about tracking her down, finding her in that building, and the whole biolem thing. I explained the part about her dad being a Tech-Touched and his plan, or what I understood of it. And about how Paige herself was apparently an incredibly advanced prototype version, who had to obey her father’s specific commands until she managed to turn on him. 

“But what does this have to do with–” Whatever Way had been about to say, she cut herself off, shaking her head. “I mean… are you sure she’s a umm…” Hesitating, the girl stepped over to where Paige’s motionless form was. “Are you sure she’s a r-robot? Or whatever she is.” It sounded like she was freaking out a bit. Which was pretty much completely fair. I was still freaking out too. 

“That’s what she said,” I murmured, “and I believe her at this point. After everything I saw in there… yeah. Paige Banners is–well, not a robot. She’s a biolem. Somewhere inside she’s got one of those little orb things with all her memories, personality, and everything else.” 

Way muttered a curse under her breath, staring in what looked like dull shock at the figure in the van. “Oh my God. But if she… if she was… and if…” Finally, the girl seemed to shake that off, focusing a bit to ask, “What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she waking up?”

Exhaling, I explained what Paige had said, that her father’s last-second countermeasures had forced her to shut herself down and that I needed to find a tech genius who could actually help fix her. 

“A tech genius like Trevithick?” Pack put in before reconsidering. “Except this might be over the kid’s head.” 

That-A-Way gave a brief glance her way at that. I could tell she had a laundry list of her own questions, but saved them aside from one. “Can she do something about this?” 

“I don’t know. I hope so.” Sighing, I gestured to both of them. “I thought Paige Banners was some kind of threat, but she was just a victim. We have to help her, have to find someone who can fix whatever her father did. We’ll start with Trevithick, at least see what she can figure out. If she can’t do anything, I… I’ll go from there.”

“This is a lot, Paintball,” Way muttered at me while still staring at the (essentially) unconscious Paige. “Seriously, are you sure about all this? Because I don’t–I mean…” She gestured helplessly, clearly fighting for the right words before being reduced to repeating, “It’s a lot.”

“Believe me, I know.” Grimacing with that reply, I hesitated before adding, “If we can help this girl and wake her up, we can get more answers. She said that all the biolems her father had would be drawn to that building, but she could’ve been wrong. So we have to be careful. Between that and the way the Ministry is gonna look into the whole thing, especially once they find the remains of the equipment in there and realize the bodies aren’t normal people…” 

Pack spoke up then. “Right, getting this chick restarted is a pretty big priority. You said she knows a bunch of stuff about this Ministry thing anyway, so add another tally into reasons to wake her up. But can I just point out, if she’s a robot–err, okay, not a robot. If her brain and personality is all… tied into a computer, one that her father built, what’re the odds of him just being able to control her and make the girl into a killing machine with just a few words? One pointed at us. I mean, don’t programmers usually leave in backdoors and stuff like that?” 

“I know what you mean,” I confirmed quietly, heaving a sigh. “Believe me, I know. But Paige already turned against her father once. She–” I was about to say that she had rules-lawyered her way around leaving me dead, but caught myself. “She went after his entire organization here. Look what she did to the plant where he was manufacturing all these things. She’s not on his side and she’s already figured out ways to sabotage him. Now we have to help her. We find someone who can get into her programming and remove her father’s control so we can wake her up. I don’t know if that’ll be Trevithick or not, but someone. Not just because she can help with the Ministry, but because we owe it to her. I owe it to her.” 

Despite saying all that, I still realized that my feelings for Paige were complicated. I felt resentment, even anger about the past few years. Some bitter part of me wanted to know why she hadn’t found a way to violate her orders at least enough not to hit me in quite such an emotionally damaging place. If she was my friend, she should’ve known that making fun of my… of how I looked was one of the worst things she could’ve done, shouldn’t she? Had her father’s orders really made her hit me that personally when the entire point had simply been to establish conflict to make her eventually snapping and killing me believable? Did she really need to say the things she’d said? 

It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t logical. But I still wasn’t sure how I felt about Paige, even after all these revelations. However, I did know that I owed her, and that if I was ever going to work my way through those feelings, it was going to have to be with Paige herself to get answers from. Besides, if I voiced any of my doubts about Paige’s personality, it would just lead to questions I couldn’t answer without revealing a lot more about myself. Too much about myself. 

“Right, so we take her to Trevithick,” Pack announced. “And try to figure out who else might help. You know what the obvious problem with that is, right?” 

I nodded. “Yeah, basically every Tech-Touched in the area reports to Braintrust, who report to the Ministry. So we’re kind of screwed that way. There has to be someone else, someone… I don’t know. I can’t think.” I sighed again, shaking my head. “It’s… been a long day.” 

“Tell me about it.” That-A-Way’s voice sounded almost as tired as I felt. “I have to get back to give reports before someone notices how long I’ve been gone. But I want to be kept in the loop about what’s going on with this, you two.” 

We both agreed to that, and she took off. Which left Pack and me looking at each other. “To Wren’s?” I offered. 

“To Wren’s,” she agreed, gesturing. “Let’s go. I’ll drive, since you look too wiped to get there your usual way.” 

“Yeah, I might leap into the side of a building,” I muttered before moving to climb in the van. “Let’s go see how much Wren can do with this.” 

*******

“Ummmmm, I can’t do anything with this.” The words came from Wren herself some time later, once Pack and I had brought Paige into her lab in the upstairs area of the old store. We’d set the seemingly sleeping blonde girl on a convenient couch. Then, to an increasingly shocked audience of two, had explained–well we’d explained some of it anyway, the parts about Paige being a biolem whose father wanted to do bad things while leaving details about the Ministry out of it.

 “I know it’s a lot,” I quickly assured the young Tech-Touched. “Believe me, but it’s just–” 

“No, I mean I can’t.” Her head was shaking, eyes wide. “That’s blood and flesh and a person! I don’t know anything about–I mean she’s–I make things go fast, things teleport, things fly. I can’t dig into a human living person! I’m not a doctor! It’s not–I don’t get a–I mean I’m not–”

Fred, who had been staring at both Pack and me like we’d sprouted new heads throughout this entire conversation, spoke up. “Even if the kid had any chance of working on the actual mechanical part, this orb thing you said is in that girl, getting to it without killing her… ahh, the biological part of her is still a big fu–freaking problem. You need a doctor for that. A really good one. You need someone who can work the tech side of things and someone to work the biology part. Probably at least two techs. Maybe Wren can help with some of it, but come on, this is too much to put on her.”

“I-if I mess up,” Wren tentatively pointed out, voice cracking as she stared at Paige. “I could… I could…” 

Wincing, I nodded. “I know. I just–you’re right. We just don’t know who else to take her to. But I’ll find someone. I’ll find some people who can help. Can she… uhh…” 

“She can stay.” Wren’s voice was firm as she gave a quick nod. “I mean, umm, maybe I can look at her? I could maybe make a scanner or something to try to find where the orb is, exactly, so we can find out more about it. But I won’t cut into her. I won’t go that far. I can’t.” 

Pack spoke up then. “Don’t worry, kid, it’s okay. No one blames you for not wanting to risk something like that. It’s not your job, not your… power.” She shrugged. “You keep the girl here for now, Paintball and I can both reach out in our own way to find someone who might help.” She glanced to me, clearly reading my apprehension. “There’s gotta be Tech-Touched mercenaries from somewhere outside the city who might be able to do something. Though it’d probably cost a pretty penny.”

“We’ll worry about cost later,” I insisted. “Focus on being careful. No drawing attention. Don’t give details. And don’t–” 

She interrupted. “Don’t ask Blackjack about it, I know. I’m not an idiot. I’ll be subtle, Paintball, trust me.”

We talked a bit more, all four of us. It was obvious that Wren felt incredibly guilty about her immediate and firm refusal, but I tried to assure her that neither of us blamed her and that it was okay. Better she have a solid grasp of what she couldn’t do, than go for it and end up doing irreparable damage, or even killing Paige for good. 

In the end, we settled on coming back to figure out more later. Paige would be staying here at the lab for the time being, where Wren would do what little she could while we found someone who knew what they were doing. 

All of which left me heading back home after changing out of the temporary costume and into a pair of jeans and tee-shirt that I bought from the very surprised clerk in a small tourist-trap shop. Exhausted as I was, getting new clothes and making it home took about all I had. The only thing I wanted to do was take a long, hot shower and then sleep for about a week. 

Naturally, I had to go in and apologize for taking off early from Paige’s party and abandoning Izzy. Except she wasn’t there for some reason. Neither was Dad, but he at least I understood. According to my mother, Simon had taken Izzy out for ice cream and a few things. She made it clear I wasn’t in trouble, that they knew my going to Paige’s had been hard and they appreciated the effort I put in. But she also made sure I knew that leaving Izzy with other people like that without clearing it with them first wasn’t acceptable. And that I needed to make sure Izzy was okay with a situation like that. 

I promised to be careful in the future. And it was pretty obvious that Mom didn’t know how connected Paige was to the situation at the warehouse, because she was entirely too casual about the whole thing. 

In the end, I made my way upstairs, took that shower, and fell asleep while wondering what was taking Izzy so long to get back from ice cream. 

Unfortunately, despite my thoughts about sleeping for a week, I barely managed a few hours before my racing mind woke me up. It was the middle of the night, and I just… my brain was too active. All that stuff about Paige, everything I’d learned, it was just… too much. I couldn’t relax. 

It also felt like I couldn’t breathe in here. I needed some air. Making my way to my balcony after pulling on some shorts to go with my long tee shirt, I glanced around to watch the cameras before turning to point at the roof above me. A quick shot of red paint hauled me up there, where I would lay back and watch the stars. 

At least, that was the idea. But that idea shattered like glass as I landed on the roof, after being pulled that way by my red paint, as a voice from above me blurted, “Cassidy?” 

Spinning, I stared upward at a visibly damp Izzy, who floated there, hovering in mid-air. Both of us stared at the other for a long few seconds before blurting out loud, our words matching each other’s. 

“It’s you!”

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Project Owl 14-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“I think they might want us to go that way.” 

Tomas’s dry words came as our large assortment of teenagers made our way into the front foyer of Paige’s house, behind the birthday girl herself, just to find the grand room with its sweeping staircase and priceless artwork, filled with servants. There were maids blocking various doorways, what looked like a gardener standing in front of an antique grandfather clock as though to stop anyone from getting near it, a cook standing in front of those stairs, and so on. A dozen or so of the Banners’ staff stood in key positions to stop any of our group from wandering off or touching something they shouldn’t. And all of them were pointing toward the only doorway that wasn’t blocked. 

Yeah, most of them were smiling (or at least trying to), but it was still really damn creepy. Actually, it was probably even creepier with the smiles. They almost looked like robots, standing there guarding everything deemed valuable or important from the scary teenagers. Boy, I was glad my family didn’t live like that. Did Paige have to worry about being glared at by random staff for getting near a painting or a statue, or was this just for us? 

Okay, thinking back on the things I’d seen my classmates do (and that I’d done myself), this was fair. A huge group of teenagers in one area like this–yeah. It made total sense to make sure things didn’t… go wrong. Especially given how we could egg each other on into doing very stupid things. Which I could say with a considerable amount of authority, considering I was very often the one who was egged on to do those stupid things. But hey, they’d already had that Slip ‘N Slide set up in the school hallway. What was I supposed to do, say I couldn’t make it from one end to the other? 

Wait, that was another thing that ended with me being soaked while someone screamed at me. Huh. Maybe Izzy had a point. 

Shaking off those thoughts, I let myself be pulled along with the rest of the group as we moved through the doorway, finding ourselves in another hall, then a T-junction of corridors before making it to a door leading to what turned out to be the back patio. This was where the party was supposed to be, apparently, given all the balloons, decorations, tables laden with treats and presents, and so on. The nearby pool, a huge, horseshoe-shaped thing, even had ‘Happy Birthday Paige’ written above it in colorful Tech-Touched hologram lights from nearby projectors. In the distance, on the far side of the grounds, some kind of outdoor stage had been set up with curtains raised around it.

The moment we were out here, everyone spread out a bit. Paige had moved to the edge of the pool, pivoting back to face us with that smile that I’d seen her use on teachers and other adults for so many years. It was a smile that could instantly dissolve into a vindictive scowl the moment their backs were turned and I was the only one who could see her. I’d long-since learned not to trust it. And today was no different. Seeing that smile made a slight shiver run through me.  Whatever Paige was up to, I definitely wasn’t going to turn my back to her anytime soon. Otherwise I’d be likely to get a dagger shoved in it. Metaphorically, of course.

“How’re we doing today, Dynasties?!” the blonde called, her voice filling the area without even needing a microphone (her time as a cheerleader had done wonders for her ability to project). Dynasty, somehow, was the name of our school’s mascot. Yeah. We were the Cadillac Dynasties. And some of my classmates wondered why we were considered spoiled and privileged. That was a real mystery. 

And speaking of being spoiled and privileged, Paige waited until the resulting enthusiastic cheers died down before continuing. “In a couple hours, we’ll have some pizza and wings, then cake and ice cream! And after that… well, then I get my presents.” She said it casually, with a confident, yet charming and somehow self-deprecating smile that made most people chuckle.

“But after I’ve been thoroughly impressed and bribed by all the goodies you’ve brought,” she continued easily, “then we’ll all go inside to my family’s private theater, where you are all invited to watch the new Lou Devereux movie, not due out in public until next week!” 

Yeah, that definitely got cheers. I heard a lot of excited murmurs, words about how cool this was, how they knew Paige would have something good planned, and so on. Beside me, Tomas patted my back slightly, while Izzy actually touched my hand gently. I had a feeling she could tell I was uncomfortable, whatever I did to try to hide that. 

Paige was already continuing. She had adopted a clearly put-on, confused tone. “Except, there’s a problem, isn’t there? I mean, we’re not eating for a couple hours, and the movie is after that. So, what are we going to do in the meantime? It’d be boring if we just sat around, huh?” Her head tilted back and forth as though she was thinking about it, before perking up. “I know! Parties have music, right? So we should have some music.” 

The blonde raised her voice even more then, practically shouting. “Hey, boys! Think you could give us some music?!” 

With that, and as Paige pointed, the curtains around the stage in the distance suddenly dropped. Everyone turned that way to see a band already there in position. And this wasn’t just any band. No, of course not. This was–

“Zenith Renaissance?!” one of the other party guests blurted, her words quickly taken up by others. Because yes, the internationally famous Zenith Renaissance, a band that regularly sold out world tours and whose albums were some of the hottest releases of the past few years, was right there on the stage. And they were already starting to play one of their main songs. Which, of course, drew screams of delight from everyone around me as a bunch suddenly rushed that way to get closer to the stage. A stage that was, naturally, suddenly protected by several big guys in labeled security shirts. 

“How the fuck did she keep this a secret?” San Francisco blurted from a bit behind me, his tone utterly amazed. “And how did her parents convince these guys to play a private concert for a couple hundred people at best?” 

Quietly, I murmured, “You’d be surprised at how good she is at keeping secrets.” Then I quickly shook that off and added, “And money, probably. A lot of money. Probably flew them straight out here from wherever they’re touring right now.” Belatedly, I added, “Come to think of it, where are her parents?” There’d yet to be any sign of them. Paige and the household staff were the only ones we’d seen. 

Most of our classmates had already rushed to be in front of the stage. Even Amber and Jae headed that way to get a good spot, the former calling back that they’d save space for us. But Tomas was still there with Izzy and me, offering a shrug. “Probably busy. Not like they need to be down here. And from what my mum said,” he added in a somewhat quieter voice, “they don’t spend a lot of time with Paige to begin with.” 

That made me do a quick, confused double-take. “Wait, since when does your mom have anything to do with Paige or her parents?” 

That earned another shrug from the boy, who started to walk that way to join the others while answering. “They’ve been golfing together a couple times since we got back! And they do brunch.” 

Okay, now I really wanted to know more about all that. Especially given the fact that Tomas’s father had only recently tried to kill Paige to shut her up. Now his mother was friends with her adopted–uuuurgggh, this was all too goddamn confusing. 

The sound of someone clearing their throat drew my attention behind me, as I belatedly realized that Izzy and I were the only ones still standing away from the stage. Well, Izzy, me, and Paige. Yeah. She was the one clearing her throat, gazing at me with an unreadable expression. I couldn’t tell if she looked sad or smug. 

For a moment, Paige and I just stared at each other, before she casually drawled, “That can go on the table with the others.” Her head nodded toward the present that was still clutched in one of my hands. “Or in the trash if you want to spare one of the maids the time it’ll take to put it there themselves. Either way, I’m sure it’ll end up where it belongs.” A brief pause, then, “I’m sure a lot of things will end up where they belong today.” 

“Hey!” That was Izzy. “When someone brings you a present, you’re supposed to say thank you.” 

Paige, for her part, looked a little amused. “Aww, Cassidy, look. You finally found someone shorter than you to hang around with. Tell the truth, which elementary school is she from?”

“The one where they teach basic manners,” Izzy immediately shot back, surprising me a bit. “You obviously wouldn’t know it.”  

For a brief moment, Paige just stood there without saying anything. Finally, she chuckled and pivoted to walk away with a deceptively casual, “Good to see you’ve got someone to fight your battles for you, Cassie. Not like you’re any good at it yourself. Maybe try someone who’s old enough to stay up past eight o’clock next time?” 

She kept going, heading to join all her devoted fans (who were really fans now that she was giving them a private concert and advance movie screening) even as the music started up. They greeted her with a cheer, of course. Yeah, she owned this party. 

Izzy, meanwhile, looked at me. “Is she really always like that?” 

My mouth opened to confirm it, before I stopped, pausing as an important realization struck me. “No,” I murmured in surprise. “She isn’t always like that.” Quickly, I corrected myself. “I mean, yes, she’s always a bitch to me. That’s not new. But she’s usually nice to other people. Look at what she’s like with all those guys. Amber and Tomas both even said that Paige is cool to everyone except me. So…” Squinting uncertainly, I looked to the girl beside me. “Why would she act like that to you? She’s always more diplomatic with other people, or just uses them defending me as a way of turning it around on an insult to me, like she did at the end with that whole thing about me not fighting my own battles. But she insulted you. She made fun of you being short and young. That doesn’t–she doesn’t do that. Why would she do that now?” 

Izzy offered an uncertain shrug. “Because she knows I’m staying with you, maybe?” 

“Maybe,” I allowed, though it didn’t sound right. There was something off about this entire situation, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something was wrong here. Seriously, where were Paige’s adopted parents? Shouldn’t they at least make an appearance?

Speaking tentatively, Izzy asked, “Do you want to drop off the present and leave? You’ve made an appearance like your parents wanted.” 

Part of me just wanted to do just that, wanted to take off right then and say screw this whole thing. But I couldn’t. Not when this was my best chance to actually find out the truth about the whole Paige situation. This mystery had been going on long enough, and now that I was actually here in her house, I wasn’t giving that up. Something big was going on here, and I couldn’t just walk away from it. 

So, I shook my head, offering the younger girl what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “Not gonna let her being a bitch chase me away from a party. Even if it is hers and even if she’s being more of a bitch than usual. Come on, let’s drop off the gift then go see if Amber and Jae managed to save us a spot.” 

*******

We watched the concert. Outside of the fact that it was in Paige’s backyard and I still didn’t know what the hell was going on with her, it was pretty great. Especially once I let myself give up on the idea of trying to sneak into Paige’s house during the whole thing. There were way too many people around, with various house staff members standing by every entrance. I had the feeling they were there to make sure none of the guests went on an unauthorized tour. Which was exactly what I wanted to do, but not for the reasons they might have expected. 

Or maybe it was for the reasons they expected. For all I knew, the entire house staff was in on this whole thing and knew what Paige was up to. Maybe they were just there to stop a bunch of teenagers from making a mess or stealing things. Or maybe they were there to make sure that whatever was going on went off without a hitch. 

If something was going on. I still didn’t have any proof of that, and it felt like I was crazy for thinking there was. Yet there was that tickle in the back of my brain that just wouldn’t go away. Something was happening, something big. Paige was throwing this party and had invited all these people, including me, for a reason. But… why? What was her deal? 

I still didn’t have any better ideas and wasn’t any closer to answers by the time we all ate pizza, followed by cake and ice cream. It was served out on a large buffet table where you could take anything you wanted. Izzy gorged herself. Obviously, she didn’t exactly feel guilty about taking all the food she could possibly want from Paige after that whole confrontation. 

After that, Paige opened her presents. She oohed and awed dramatically over each one, making a big deal about thanking the person who gave it. Well, except for mine, of course. She opened the one from Izzy and me, producing a couple premium seating tickets to a play that was all-but impossible to get into for most people. It was a play I knew she wanted to see, because I’d heard her talking to a couple friends about it back at school. But because it was from me, she simply held them up, announced what they were, and said a simple, “Thanks so much.” Without naming me, of course. But everyone knew. 

Then it was time to head in to see this movie. I probably could’ve taken off by now. I’d more than made an appearance. But I just… I had to see this through. Something was keeping me here, some thought that this was too important for me to just give up and head home. The answers to what the hell Paige’s deal was were here somewhere, and this was my best chance to get them. 

Once more, as we made our way through the house to the Banners’ private movie theater, there were staff members standing around to make sure nobody wandered off. Good lord, I’d thought this would be a chance for me to sneak away and search the house, but that just wasn’t gonna happen. Not with all the eagle-eyed and attentive maids and such who were bound and determined to watch every step we took. It felt like if someone had so much as taken a wrong turn down a different hallway, a SWAT team would’ve descended on them. I probably would’ve had more luck searching this place by coming in the middle of a school day or something. Because this was just insane. 

But I was here now, and maybe things would calm down during the movie. Yeah. Once everyone got settled in and it was dark, I’d slip out to ‘use the bathroom’, then manage to get myself lost. That felt like my best chance. For now, I’d just wait for the movie to start and everyone to get engrossed in it. 

Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t the first thing on Paige’s mind, apparently. Once everyone was seated in the private theater (there were just barely enough seats for the entire crowd with a couple left over), she moved front and center with her hands up. “You guys all having a good time?!” 

The answer, of course, was a resounding roar of approval from most people, and I watched as Paige… well, seemed to ignore it. Most of the time she would have basked, but now it felt like she was just going through the motions. The look on her face, it wasn’t–it was wrong. It was the wrong expression for this kind of thing, even if she was really good at hiding it. There was something…

Belatedly, I realized Paige was still talking while I was trying to decipher her expression and mood. Something about giving presents to everyone who came–right. Yeah, she was going to gift a present to each and every person here, one at a time. There was a table full of colorful gift bags beside her, and she proceeded to start calling every person up, one at a time, to get their present for being a ‘wonderful guest.’ 

The gifts were either a new phone, new smart watch, or new ipad, depending on what Paige had determined each person needed or would want more. And yeah, everyone went nuts. A few people hugged her after getting their gift, before heading to their seat. 

Honestly, I expected her to skip over me. Expected it so much I almost didn’t hear her when she said my name. So she said it again. “Cassie Evans.” 

She was looking at me. They were all looking at me. Fuck. Pushing myself up while asking myself what the hell her game was, I headed to the front. Cassie. She called me Cassie. Paige never did that. It was always Cassidy. Cassie was way too familiar and friendly. And she’d called me that earlier, hadn’t she? With Izzy. Why…? 

Reaching the front, I squinted at the girl, almost silently daring her to pull something now in front of everyone. She, in turn, offered me a faint… kind of sad smile. Sad? Why was she sad? 

“I want you to know,” Paige informed me, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “I think you earned this a long time ago.” With that, she turned to pick up yet another small gift bag, this one with my name on it. She held it up, and I saw her hand dip into the bag, eyes rising to meet mine with an expression of… fear…? 

A sudden, terrifying bang filled the room. It sounded like a gunshot. Instantly, the lights went out. The whole area was suddenly pitch black and everyone started screaming, even as something was shoved against my face. A mask? No, like an oxygen mask. It was an oxygen mask, except it wasn’t pumping oxygen. It was–it smelled sweet, it smelled–

My knees went weak. I collapsed forward, caught by Paige in the darkness even as my consciousness started to fade. I felt sick, I felt wrong, everything was… everything was…

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Paige’s voice whispered in my ear as she slumped to the floor with my falling body. Her voice, her apology, was the last thing I heard. “You have to die. I don’t have a choice.

“You have to die.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right? 

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quietly, Jae pointed out, “Her too.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You came.” 

Me? Was–was she talking to–

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

“Let’s get this party started.”

********

Patreon Snippets – Raindrop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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