Izzy Amor

Kith And Kin 20-05 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

A/N – There was a commissioned chapter focusing on a SPHERE forum discussion posted yesterday. If you missed that, you might want to click the previous chapter button above.

By the time I was done with the cops and Pack, there was a message on my phone saying that Murphy and Roald were going to go back to the hospital. People were looking for them anyway, so that was a whole situation they were going to have to deal with. I told them to let me know what was going on and if they needed anything. Not that I would have known how to help, most likely, but still. I just wanted Murphy to know that I’d try if she–if there was–ugh. 

Yeah, I had nothing. The one thing I could do, help find that bastard, wasn’t going to happen right now. No matter how badly I wanted it to. And everything else within Murphy’s personal life was… out of my depth. I had no idea how to help her with any of that. But at least she had Roald, and I was pretty sure she was going to be staying with him and his family. At least, I hoped she was. The thought of her sitting at home alone with–no, that wouldn’t happen. She was a minor. They’d want her to stay with an adult. And Roald’s older sister probably fit that, if she was able to take care of him and their younger sister. Well, for a given definition of ‘take care of,’ given what they’d been doing when we first met. 

But hey, they had money now. I had made sure of that. So they would have food. Somehow, I comforted myself a little bit with that. And then immediately felt so guilty I wanted to scream. Was I patting myself on the back because I gave them money for food, after Murphy’s fucking brother just died? What–why was–I couldn’t… think. Every impulse I had was wrong, every thought that popped into my head immediately made me feel sick, like there was something wrong with me. How was I supposed to help Murphy? What was I supposed to do? 

Home. In the end, that was the only choice. I had to go home. Tomorr–later today was still going to be really big, considering my parents were officially arriving. Which would mean looking my brother in the eyes and pretending I knew nothing about what he had been doing, pretending I didn’t know that he helped a murderer escape. Hell, I was going to have to pretend I hadn’t just been in an actual physical fight with him. 

I was tired. Just the thought of sitting at home and playing nice, pretending to be clueless, was exhausting. Hard as it was to even think about, I was going to have to go home and sleep. 

So, that’s what I did. I made it home and checked on Izzy, only to find that she was still in bed. She’d slept through the whole thing, which was simultaneously completely understandable and yet also bewildering. I honestly had not been out that long, no matter what it felt like. So, I made my way back to my own bed, fell into it, and was asleep again within seconds. Seriously, it was almost immediate. I thought that I would toss and turn for hours, but it was like someone flipped a switch. My head hit the pillow, and I was completely out. The next thing I knew, several hours had passed and my alarm for school was going off. 

Blearily, I reached out and swatted at the thing a couple times before finding my phone to stop the sound. Then I rolled over and sat up, just in time to hear a quick knock at the door before the house computer informed me that it was Izzy. I told her to come in, and she quickly burst through before shutting the door behind her. In a rush, she blurted, “You went out last night?” Accompanying her words was her phone, which she held up in front of me to show me a thread on the SPHERE forums about Paintball being involved in a fight. “Was it–did it have anything to do with those shootings?” 

After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “Sorry, there were all these messages on my phone from Roald, about this whole thing with… with Murphy. Her… her brother died and it was–” Swallowing hard, aware she would see the way I flinched, I pushed on. “It was bad. But I didn’t want to wake you up and I didn’t know it was going to turn into… sorry. I need to talk about it, but not here. Later. Maybe with Amber. I–yeah. I need to talk to you and Amber about some stuff. Can you see if she’s busy? I… need to take a shower.”

“Are you okay?” Izzy’s voice was pensive as she stared at me. 

I nodded quickly. “I’m not hurt or anything. I just–I can’t talk about it right here. I just… can’t.” I couldn’t bring myself to get into that whole discussion in this house. The thought of it made my stomach clench and roll over. 

In the bathroom,  I checked my Touched phone. There are a couple messages from the others. Pack let me know that she was going to call in that favor from Blackjack to keep an eye out for Luciano or anyone associated with him. Then there was a message from Peyton to say that she got Murphy and Roald back to the hospital, and was going home as soon as she saw them leave together with Roald’s sisters. And finally, there was a message from Roald himself, telling me that they had made it home and Murphy was sleeping in his little sister’s room with her. He also asked me to let Wren know that they wouldn’t be there that afternoon. 

Right, yeah, that was another conversation I was going to have to have. I had to tell Wren just why her brand new employees were going to need a little time off. I was pretty sure the story was going to upset her as much as it did me. She really liked them. This was just… unfair. Yes, it was childish to think about it that way, but damn it, it really was unfair! Murphy’s brother deserved to be alive. She deserved to have him back. Luciano deserved to be in prison. This whole situation was fucked up and wrong and my family helped make it happen. 

Needless to say, I went through the shower very quickly. Izzy did the same, before the two of us made our way downstairs and let the kitchen know we didn’t need anything. I didn’t need to say anything to Jefferson, because he was officially focused on doing things for my parents that morning. We were supposed to take a car service anyway. So that was what we did. We just took it a little bit early, heading out to pick up some breakfast before going to the park. The same park where we had met Amber before. And, conveniently, where we would be meeting her again. Izzy had sent a message to the older girl and asked to meet her there while I was in the shower. So at least that was one less time I would have to tell this story. 

She was there waiting for us when we arrived, and I passed a breakfast sandwich to her before plopping myself down on the picnic table, with my feet on the bench. A long, heavy sigh escaped me. The other two stood there and watched silently, giving me a moment to collect myself. Finally, I started to tell them what happened the night before. Without looking up except for once or twice, I went through the whole story, from the moment I woke up to find all the messages on my phone, all the way to falling asleep again after getting home. Getting to the part about Simon helping that piece of shit escape was one of the only times I actually glanced up, only to find their expressions basically unreadable. My gaze found the grass once more as I went on. 

“Anyway, that’s all of it,” I finished after swallowing the hard lump in my throat once it was done. “Now they know… more of the truth. They know about the Ministry, and they’re going to help break into that base so we can find out where they sent Luciano.” My gaze rose once more to look at both of them intently for the first time, as I continued. “We’re going to track him down. Wherever they sent him, we’re going to find him and drag him back. He belongs in prison.”  

With a nod, Amber pushed her way to her feet and put both hands against the side of her head. “God damn it, that poor girl. That poor–god damn it.” She gave me a look then, frowning. “Just how much fucking money did that guy give your parents to make them give him a pass on killing several people? I mean, don’t they have enough already? I kind of doubt some nobody lowlife drug dealer could pull together the sort of funds to even pay your family’s gardening bills for a week.” With a long, heavy sigh, she waved both hands. “I mean, sorry, I just–”  

“No, it’s fair,” I replied flatly. “I don’t know. Seriously, I have no idea. It might just be part of maintaining their, you know, reputation or whatever. If it gets out that this guy paid his taxes and they still left him high and dry, it could wreck the whole system.” Realizing how that could be taken, I quickly added, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending it or anything. I’m just saying, that could be an explanation for why they’d go to bat for him even when his payments don’t really amount to that much in the long run. If they start picking and choosing whose payments actually buy them what they’re paying for, the whole system can fall apart. I mean, I want the system to–” My eyes closed and I shook my head. “You know what I mean.” It was really hard to talk about this from my parents’ point of view without sounding like I was agreeing with them. 

Izzy, who had been sitting on the bench, rose to her feet and looked over toward the nearby road while speaking thoughtfully. “You’re right, that’s how they would see it, probably.” She folded her arms against her stomach, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “They’re probably not looking at it the same way we do. Not even close. They don’t know any of the people he shot. They don’t… it’s not… it’s just numbers for them, you know? It doesn’t affect them. Not really.” 

“That doesn’t make it better,” I pointed out. “Actually, it makes it worse.” Pushing down the rolling nausea in my stomach, I made myself continue. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure he’s not exactly a top priority client for them. So, they probably don’t go completely nuclear if something happens to him. Actually, they’ll probably be more upset about their base being broken into than they are about someone bringing him in. But even so–” 

“They’ll probably make the connection,” Amber finished for me. “The whole point is we don’t want them to know that any of us were involved in that break-in. And if his files get stolen just before, say, Paintball finds and arrests him…” 

“It could raise a red flag or two,” I agreed dryly. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure they could put that together. So even when we take him down, we’re going to have to be careful about how it happens. Maybe we can do it anonymously or something. And as a part of a whole group of takedowns. You know, get as many files as we can and use them to bring in other people they’ve helped escape.” 

A very slight, somewhat predatory smile crossed Amber’s face. “Now that’s something I could get behind. Grab all the files we can and hit people who think they’re safe and sound. Make this Luciano guy just somewhere in the middle of the list so he doesn’t really stand out.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, that could work, if we do it right. Like you said, we’d have to be anonymous. No flashy power use or anything. Has to look like other people hitting them.”   

Agreeing with that, I added, “It will actually probably be easier to do that with more of us. We just have to be careful to hit hard and fast before getting out of there. We can’t get into some prolonged thing, or it’ll come down to either getting caught or exposing our powers. Which would kind of mess up our ability to pose as other people.” 

“Let’s focus on getting the tunnel made first,” Amber murmured thoughtfully. “Once we’re close to getting in, we can plan out exactly how we’re going to do it.” She gave me a brief glance. “You trust your new friends to help pull that off?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah. They’re definitely not connected to the Ministry at all, that’s for sure. And they’ve got reason to want to stop them. They’re with us.” 

“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean,” the other girl pointed out. “Do you trust them to help without rushing off on their own and getting hurt? They’re not exactly super-experienced.” 

“Hobbes did okay while it was the two of us,” I noted. “I mean, yeah, she was pretty motivated, but still. It looked like she could help even more.” 

Izzy spoke up then. “It’s umm, gonna take some time to make that tunnel. You know, if umm, if we’re going to do it without attracting attention. Even with help. We could probably use that time for practice.” Belatedly, she added, “For everyone, I mean.” 

“Right,” I confirmed, “We’ll practice as much as we can. I’ll put paint on the inside of our clothes and everyone can work on some drills. We need to hit the guys in that place hard, fast, put them down, grab what we need, and get out. I’ll do multiple sections of paint, and we can have like… a timer or something beep in my ear whenever I need to activate each section. But I’m pretty sure we still need to be in and out within sixty seconds. That’s six sections of paint boosts. If I do them all ahead of time, it’ll be fine.” 

“Sixty seconds,” Amber agreed. “That should be too fast for your family to get the call and react. We get what we need and get out. We escape through the tunnel and leave them with no idea who any of us are. Maybe we should have a quick way to fill in the tunnel so they can’t follow that easily?” 

Thinking about that, I gave a slow nod. “Yeah, we’ll come up with something. Fill it with water or something. Maybe not water, that’s too close to Raindrop.” I added that bit with a gesture toward Izzy. “We don’t want them thinking about her at all.” 

“Which means I can’t be there,” she pointed out. “I mean, look at me. It’s gonna be hard enough pretending you aren’t Paintball. Me? How are they gonna believe someone this small is some big commando thief? Even in black with a mask, I’d stand out.”

“We’ll all stand out,” Amber replied pointedly. “But yeah, maybe it’s best if you work behind the scenes. Cover our backs, work on sealing the tunnel behind us, something.” 

Coughing, I gestured to my phone for the time. “We’ll work on it. But we should probably get to school. Last thing we want is my parents paying more attention, and they might just do that if they hear about either of us missing classes.” 

A bit more quietly, I added, “Besides, I should probably talk to Tomas about going over to his house at some point, so I can check for anything about that sex-shifter you saw. 

“Cuz God knows, I’m super-excited about that.” 

******

Somehow, I made it through the school day. It wasn’t exactly easy. The whole thing seemed to drag on forever, as though every class took up as much time as the entire day should have. Periodically, I received text updates from Roald, letting me know what was happening on their end. They hadn’t gone to school, of course. They were dealing with the fallout of that whole situation. Apparently Tyson’s funeral was going to happen Saturday. A lot of the details were being taken care of by Roald’s sister, with assistance from a helpful cop who had shown up to investigate the drive-by. Not that there were going to be many people there. Unsurprisingly, Murphy didn’t have a lot of friends or family that would show up. It was basically just a small thing with her and Roald’s family. Which was… completely awful, to be honest. I hadn’t known the guy at all, and obviously he’d had problems, but he deserved to be remembered and mourned. Murphy deserved to have her brother’s life matter to people.

But no, they would have an almost empty funeral and then he would be put in the ground. Apparently they were setting up a donation thing to pay for all that. My first instinct was to throw a bunch of money at it myself. But I would need to be more careful than that. If I just handed them over a bunch of cash without any explanation, it might look a bit suspicious. Even more than my funds already were. Maybe I could anonymously donate? Or make it… I’d figure it out. I would make sure the guy got a decent burial. It was pretty much the least I could do. Especially considering I had failed, thus far, to bring his killer to justice. 

Bring his killer to justice. How stupid did that sound? How naive? Even the thought made me grimace to myself while standing in front of my locker at the end of the day. And yet, that was exactly what I wanted to do. Luciano belonged in prison.  And I was going to make sure he ended up there. No matter how many wheelbarrows of cash he had given my parents. 

“There she is.” Startled out of my thoughts by Tomas’s voice, I turned to see the boy approaching before he leaned against the nearby locker. “You said you wanted to talk about something?” 

Right. I’d mentioned that in passing between classes. Now it was time to actually get into it. Forcing a casual smile, I replied, “Oh, you know, I was just thinking I should come over sometime so you could show me that song you’ve been working on.”

Raising an eyebrow, he asked, “How’d you know I’ve been working on a song?” 

The question made me snort and wave my hand in a vague gesture. “When are you not working on a song, dude? It’s just been a long time since I got to hear you practice.” Slyly, I added, “And, you know, if your mom happens to be there and is anywhere near the kitchen…” 

“Ohhh,” he drawled, “I see how it is. Play to my musician ego to get your foot in the door just so you can see if Mum’s got any pies done.” 

Allowing a guilty flush to cross my face (it wasn’t hard), I coughed. “What can I say, she makes really good pies. Are you really sure she does it all by herself?” 

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” he replied while holding up his hand in a scout’s honor sign. “I’ve watched her in the kitchen. Still can’t do it like she does, but she definitely fixes them all by herself, from scratch. Not a frozen pie or restaurant delivery in sight. You trust me, right?” 

Oh boy. Forcing myself to continue meeting his gaze without flinching or looking away, I shrugged. “I mean, you’re a boy, so I trust you about that far.” 

“Ouch, my wounded soul.” Making a show of staggering backward while clutching his heart, Tomas winked. “Maybe I can pry some more trust out of you by getting pie into your face. You wanna come over today?” 

“Just my mouth is good enough, not the whole face,” I retorted. “And today’s not good. My family just got back from being out of town and all.” I was watching his face to see if he gave anything away. If he even knew anything. “So they’ll want me to be around.” 

With a shrug, Tomas replied, “Oh right, yeah, they were gone, huh? Any idea what they were doing?” 

“Business stuff,” I answered flatly, trying to pretend I didn’t care at all. “Or something. I dunno. Anyway, the point is they’ll be back. Maybe tomorrow.” 

“Oooh, kinda got a date tomorrow.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Tomas looked uncomfortable. “I mean… sorry. It’s just this… guy from an ice cream shop. We started talking and–yeah. We’re just hanging out and… boy, this got weird all of a sudden.” 

Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I shook my head. “No, no, it’s fine. It’s cool. We’ll plan something later. I umm, have fun. On your date, I mean. When it happens. I just–I uhh, I’ve gotta go.” Grabbing my bag, I shut the locker and started to head out. 

Fuck, damn it, why was I so stupid? Why did hearing about Tomas having a date make me feel queasy inside? I didn’t still feel that way about him. Hell, there was still a chance that our entire relationship had been a trick of some kind. I couldn’t–I couldn’t think about that. I had far more important things to focus on. 

Those ‘more important things’ came into clear focus as I left the school and looked to where Jefferson would be. Only he wasn’t there. Instead, Royal Thunder was parked in that spot, with my dad waiting in the driver’s seat and waving to me. 

Oh boy. Time to shove down all my emotions, pretend to be a completely clueless happy little daughter just running to meet the dad she’s been missing, and give literally nothing away about what I was actually thinking. 

If nothing else, maybe I should put in for some extra credit from the drama department. 

Previous Chapter

Winging It 19-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“Do you think Peyton’s okay?” Izzy asked the next morning while the two of us were sitting up on the roof overlooking the grounds. We both had our knees drawn to our chests while we ate a couple bowls of cereal and enjoyed the fact that we weren’t in immediate life-threatening danger. And, even though it had been most of a day since all that happened, I enjoyed the whole actually being able to move thing. Yeah, being paralyzed really wasn’t fun. 

After letting Flea know about everything yesterday (or at least as much as we could say), we had contacted Caishen too so she knew what was going on and what we had found out. Then the rest of us simply let the adult teams do their thing. We’d done quite enough by that point. And quite frankly, we all needed a break. That-A-Way and Raindrop had to go back to the Minority base to give a full, official report. And Peyton had definitely wanted to go home, shower, and recover from all that. I took a run with her across the city first, both of us stretching our legs and just making sure we could move properly, before I let her head home. Then I did the same thing, which had led to like an hour-long hot bath that I had fallen asleep in, followed by an actual nap in my bed. Then dinner, a rush of getting weekend homework done, some goofing off with Izzy once she showed up, and more sleeping. Yeah, I was exhausted, right down to my bones. 

Now I’d slept enough. God, I’d needed that though. More than I’d even known. 

It was Sunday, so most of the first staff had the day off. There were still a few weekend workers around, including one of Claudio’s peers, since he and his two assistants (Ethan and Christiana) would be gone all day. And honestly, it had practically been a fight between my parents and Claudio to get the chef to let someone else work the kitchen so he could have the day off. He had a thing against people, as he put it, bumbling around his space, fondling his instruments (that’s what he called it), and making a mess. If he’d had his way, he would’ve worked every single day. But Mom and Dad insisted he have a day off. Granted, that day off changed frequently, but he was keeping to the letter of the rule if he took one day off per week.  

In the end, he’d only even agreed to that much when they allowed him to choose his substitute. Which had amounted to going around every five-star restaurant within the entire state and making them audition for him until he found someone he was satisfied could handle coming in one day per week to work the kitchen without totally destroying it. And yes, he still wasn’t all that happy about the idea. He cursed and made threats every time someone brought up the idea of his taking two days off. Cooking was Claudio’s life. It was what made him happy. For him, it wasn’t a job, it was what he loved. 

Chewing and swallowing the cereal in my mouth, I offered a shrug. “Peyton? Yeah, I think she’s okay. I hope so. I just… I wish we could have eased her into things a little better instead of making her deal with… all that.” A grimace found its way to my face. Yeah, that definitely hadn’t been easy. But we got out of it. “We would’ve been in a lot more trouble without her.” 

“She knows that, right?” Izzy shifted a bit to look at me. “I mean, she should already, but you told her how helpful she was? You know, so she doesn’t umm, start thinking she didn’t help.” 

My head nodded vigorously. “Oh, believe me, I spent like the entire run across the city after we left you guys making sure she knew just how grateful I was that she came with us. Seriously. I think I embarrassed her a little bit.” A snort of amusement escaped me at the memory of Peyton stammering that it was no big deal, before it turned into a lump in my throat. “Still, I wish she didn’t have to be involved in all that. She’s been doing this like, what, a week and she’s already been involved with going into Paige’s brain to deal with that, plus now she’s made personal enemies out of Cup and Pencil? She’s not even getting the chance to build up at all. We just sort of picked her up and threw her in the deep end.” 

Izzy shook her head, taking another bite of cereal and swallowing before she spoke. “You didn’t throw her into anything. You didn’t throw me into anything either. Or Way, or… or Pack. We make our own decisions, and we decided to help. It’s not your responsibility to keep everyone out of danger, Cassie.” After a brief moment, she added, “Besides, it’s not like you had the chance to wade around the shallow end for a long time either. Like, your very first thing with any of this was finding out… you know.” She gestured around us. “Where all this comes from.” 

The reminder made me blanch, swallowing hard before giving a very short nod. “Right, well I don’t have to like it happening to other people too. But yeah, I umm, I think she’ll be okay. I told her to take a couple days off and recover before we do anything else stressful.” 

“You think she will?” Izzy asked, sounding curious as she tapped her spoon thoughtfully against the side of her bowl before taking another bite.   

I shrugged. “I mean, she said something about going to Wren’s to help Murphy and Roald clean up. It’s not a total ‘day off’, but at least it’s not something horribly dangerous. I guess maybe I’ll go over there a bit later too, just to check on Paige and all that. Heh, maybe she’d like to hear about what sort of things I can get up to while she’s not around.” 

“You just want to tell her what you did while she’s still paralyzed and can’t choke you,” Izzy retorted while giving me a pointed look.

Flushing a little, I admitted, “That might be part of it.” A frown found its way to my face then. “God, it’s weird to talk about Paige at all without like… thinking about needing holy water and maybe a priest to make her stay away from me.” It really did do weird things to my stomach. There was so much history there between us. Hell, no wonder her being so… so awful to me for so long had actually affected me as much as it had. If I subconsciously somehow still remembered the fact that we were supposed to be friends, it would have hurt so much more than coming from a stranger. 

Seeming to know exactly where my mind had gone, Izzy reached out to squeeze my arm. “She couldn’t control it,” the girl reminded me. “She didn’t have a choice about any of it.”  

With a sigh, I started to say that I knew she was right, but my Touched-stuff phone buzzed first. Holding the bowl in one hand, I tugged out the phone to look at it. It was not, as I had immediately feared, a message about something terrible happening. Instead, the message was a news alert about Cup and Pencil. I had set this phone to monitor that sort of thing instead of my normal one, just to keep everything in my life as separate as possible. And just in case, I really didn’t want to explain to my parents why I’d set up a news alert for Scion-related stuff. Not that I really expected them to look, nor was it really impossible for me to explain wanting to know what those psychopaths were up to after the whole attack at the hotel and hospital. But still, just… best to keep all that separate so my parents had absolutely no reason to look at me at all. 

“What is it?” Izzy asked, shifting around a bit to be closer. “Is something wrong? Did–” 

“It’s a story about Cup and Pencil,” I replied, turning the phone a bit so she could see the headline while summarizing for her. “They did it. The authorities, I mean. They put out the whole story about who they are. Their real names, their pictures, their backstory and how they faked that whole thing with their murdered parents and the ‘original Pencil.’ All of it. It’s all here. Everything we told the adults. They really put all of it out there.” 

“Oh wow.” Izzy rocked backward a bit, swallowing. “I mean, I know we expected them to, but… but still.” She hesitated before looking at me seriously. “Those guys are gonna be so pissed off.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “They sure are. But at least now they can’t operate as easily as they did before, you know? They’ll have eyes on them everywhere they go under their normal faces. They can’t… can’t… wait…” I had scrolled down by that point, my thumb moving along the screen to find the image of Pencil and Cup’s real faces. Someone had put up an image of the two of them at a school function. I knew Amanda, of course. But this was my first time seeing Nick himself. 

Except it wasn’t my first time seeing him. 

“Cass?” Izzy stared at me, clearly seeing the look on my face. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” 

With a shaking finger, I pointed at the image on the screen. “I know him. I’ve seen him. I mean obviously I know Pencil. But him. He was… he was…” A shudder ran through me. “Back when I was looking for the vials for Ashton, I umm… I went out one night and saw the umm… the aftermath of one of the Scions’ sick little games at this gas station. A bunch of people died in there, thanks to… thanks to Pencil. I was standing there, and this guy came up in a jogging suit and demanded to know why no one ever stopped Pencil. He was… he was angry because we weren’t doing enough to save people.” 

Izzy’s gaze moved from my own eyes down to the image on the screen, then back again. “Him? It… it was him?” 

My head gave a quick, jerky nod. “Definitely. It was him. He was fucking with us. He was right there, demanding to know why no one ever caught Pencil, and it was him the whole time. It was him and–and we didn’t even–I didn’t even.” My eyes squeezed shut as I resisted the urge to hurl the phone as far away as I could. He had been right there talking to me. How did I just let him walk away after all that? How could I completely fail to see anything wrong with him? He walked right up to me, right up and just started talking. Was I stupid and clueless? I should have noticed that something was wrong. I should have paid more attention to him. There had to have been some sort of giveaway. If I’d just looked at him straight on, thought more about it, done–

“Cassie,” Izzy quietly insisted while setting her bowl down so she could lean over and put her arms around me. “It’s not your fault. Nobody recognized him. How could you? People don’t recognize you in your costume and all that either. That’s like… the point of a costume, you know? It’s the whole point of wearing a disguise. You had no reason to suspect that guy. Come on, you can’t blame yourself for that too.” 

“I know,” I admitted, still shuddering. “But I just–if I had–if we had. I can’t…” Exhaling long and low, I nodded. “I get it. Believe me. I just–he was right there. He was talking to me. It makes my skin crawl.” Belatedly, I added, “My dad was right there too, as Silversmith, I mean. He was there and talked to him too.” How was he feeling right now? Did he even remember that guy showing up and talking to us, or had it just faded into the background for him? How much did he even care about that? 

Okay, that really wasn’t fair. I knew he hated the Scions, especially after what they did at the hospital. Pencil and his gang weren’t under any sort of Ministry control, so he and Mom obviously wanted them taken out as much as anyone else did. I just couldn’t help those instinctive feelings. 

“If he knew, he would have stopped the guy too.” Izzy’s voice was firm. “Your dad might be… umm, not good. But he would have stopped that.” 

With a sigh, I nodded. “You’re right. I know. I know you’re right. Dad’s a lot of things, but he’s not… he’s not like that. They have rules and stuff, we already know that much. I just…” Taking in a long, deep breath before slowly letting it out, I murmured, “I really hope someone stops them now. I don’t care who it is, which side of the law they’re on. I don’t care about any of that as long as they stop those psychopaths.” 

The other girl nodded firmly, and the two of us sat in silence for a few seconds. Then, clearly distracting me from obsessing over that, Izzy asked, “You’ve got that other thing today too, right? Before you can help at Wren’s place.” 

The reminder made me smile just a bit despite myself. “Right, yeah. The other thing. 

“I get to go hang out with Bird-Dad.” 

*******

After leaving the house and making damn sure I was nowhere near it, I made the call to the Seraph’s headquarters and had them transfer me to Lucent so we could set up the exact time to meet. Apparently he wasn’t too busy, because he said he could meet within the hour, and asked if I was still okay with him bringing his friend. I said that was fine (I was curious about who this ‘friend’ of his was and why he thought we should meet), and arranged to be at the front gates as soon as possible.  

Heading over there, I kept my eyes open just in case. I wasn’t really expecting a huge problem, considering how many people had their eyes open for Pencil and Cup. They were probably pretty busy dealing with the fallout from that, but better safe than sorry. We were going to have to be careful, because as soon as those fucks decided to turn from survival and escape to revenge, all of us were going to be right at the top of their list. Which was just peachy. 

Eventually, I made it up there and landed in front of the gate. Matthew Orens was there, and I started to ask if he had the cover for the book, but the man interrupted. “Never mind that right now. You okay, kid? I ahhh, well, everybody heard about what happened. At least, what’s semi-public. And I’ve been around long enough to know that ain’t the whole story. You got those assholes’ real identities, and that can’t have been easy.” 

Blinking a couple times, I replied, “Uh, me being involved wasn’t in the official story.” That was intentional, we didn’t want quite that much attention. The Scions were going to be pissed off enough at us without throwing more fuel on the fire. As far as the regular media was concerned, their real identities had been discovered through the work of police and the Conservators. 

Orens gave me an easy nod. “Yeah, that’s why I said semi-official. Believe me, when you work around this many Touched, things have a way of getting around.” His voice softened a bit as he added, “But seriously, that had to be pretty rough. Glad you got out of it. Everyone okay?”  

“Yeah, we’re okay,” I confirmed, painting a smiley face on the front of my helmet. “I’m just glad they’ve got those guys on the run now. It won’t be as easy for them to walk around on the street. I mean, it won’t solve every problem. And things will probably get worse before they get better. And–damn it, this was supposed to be a positive thing. I should really stop talking.”

With a very light, almost humorless chuckle, the man assured me. “It’s definitely positive, that’s for sure. Still, you be careful out there. Not just for the Scions themselves. They’ve also got fans and wannabes. If they figure out what your involvement was, they’ll try to make a name for themselves by coming after you. You know, impress their heroes to get a spot on the team.” 

Blanching at the thought that there were people who actually wanted to impress those psychopaths, I gave a short nod. “Thanks, we’ll keep our eyes open. But hey, let’s get that book done. You said Josh’s birthday was Wednesday, right? We better finish that up.” 

He already had the pages I’d given him bound properly into a cover, and I took the time to make a cool picture on the front. Then I put a brief description on the back and added the finishing touch to the inside cover, a bit that read, ‘For Josh, from Dad, Paintball, and the rest of Avant-Guard. Happy birthday.’

Reading that bit, Orens raised an eyebrow. “Avant-Guard? You know it’s spelled–”

“Yup,” I quickly assured him. “We ahhh, we’re testing out a new name. What do you think?”

Reading it over again, the man considered. “Oh, it’s definitely unique. Shouldn’t have to worry about it being taken. You know how to sign up to register your team name and membership so the authorities know who they’re dealing with?” 

I didn’t, of course, and the man gave me the name of a website to go to that would walk me through it. Of course, it wouldn’t give any real authority or anything. Nothing more than what being accepted as a Star-Touched already gave. But it was a way of giving the authorities an easy way to check team membership and know who they were working with. 

After I thanked him, the man shook his head and smiled broadly while waving the book. “No, thank you, kid. This is perfect. It’s gonna be great, he’ll love it. And I meant what I said before. You really should look into taking some extra grammar and writing classes so you can do this sort of thing for an extra living. Pretty sure it’d give you all the free time you need so you can set your own hours. Give it a thought, you’ve got a few years.” 

As my face flushed a little bit under the helmet, I thanked him profusely and promised to check in later to see how his son ended up liking his gift. With that, I turned to the gate just in time to hear a voice pipe up from just above me. 

“Sir Orens is correct, my boy. You should be thinking of the future. One never truly understands just how fast time moves until far too much of it has already passed us by.”

Blinking up that way, I brought the big smiley face back and waved. “Hey, Papa! Fancy meeting you here.” 

Hopping down from the fence to land on top of a nearby trash can, Lucent gave me what I swore was a proud bird look. “I’ve heard all about how busy you’ve been, lad. I hope you take Sir Orens’ advice. Not merely his words about planning for the future, but about being careful as well. He is very correct. The fiends will see you and yours as fine targets now. And did I hear you and your allies have settled upon a group identity?” 

So, I told him about the whole Avant-Guard thing. He thought it was amazing, and said so. He even gave some ideas for logos and such, and we spent about five minutes or so just going back and forth on those thoughts before a voice spoke up from near the ground. “Excuse me?” 

Blinking that way, I found myself looking at a familiar, very tiny figure perched there on the ground. My eyes widened a bit and I immediately blurted, “Lion!” Yeah, it was the mouse TONI (TOuched Nonhuman Individual). Pretty hard to mistake a talking mouse in golden armor for anyone else. “Hey, how’re you doing? I didn’t know you were still in town. You–” Blinking from her over to Lucent, I managed, “This is your friend?” 

“That’s right.” Lucent flew down to land next to her. “She wanted to talk to you again. Or rather, she wanted to talk to your friend.” 

“My friend?” I echoed. 

Lion hesitantly took over. “The umm, the person who has been supplying you. We… umm… we think you have a Tech-Touched helping and ahhh, umm, if it isn’t too much of an imposition, I would like to umm… talk to… them? While you and ahh, Lucent here are busy.” 

For a second, I let the thought of that work its way through my brain. Lion and Wren having a conversation, those two collaborating and… and…

A smile found its way to my face, as I translated it into an even broader one painted across my helmet. “You know what? Yeah. 

“I think that sounds like a great idea.”  

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Hostile Witness 18-04 (Summus Proelium)

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The non-canon chapters are out right now! You can find the Summus Proelium noncanon right here and the Heretical Edge noncanon right here

Talking to Paige about the Irelyn thing was going to have to wait for the time being. I wasn’t ready to go asking the girl why she hadn’t mentioned having an older sister who would start sniffing around. That was all just… complicated. I needed to deal with something else first.  

The next morning, we finally got an official update about Simon and my parents. Supposedly, they would be back in the city by Tuesday. It was now Saturday, so apparently whatever they were so busy with was going to keep them occupied for another three days. Part of me wondered if they were in that secret mall base at that very moment, and I almost wanted to go there and pink-paint my way straight through the door to ask them what was going on. That would have been unfathomably dumb, of course. And it would have accomplished basically nothing. But I still had the impulse, as much as I pushed it aside. 

In any case, worrying about what my parents were up to could wait, as we had more immediate things to focus on today. Namely, the fact that we were going to check out that Amanda girl, and hopefully come out with some information that would actually help stop Pencil and the Scions. 

Also important was the fact that this would be the first time all of us worked together in the real world, rather than in virtual reality. Much as that had seemed realistic, this was still a big step. To say nothing of the fact that it was my first time working with Alloy after telling her (most of) the truth about the Ministry, and the first time I’d be doing anything with That-A-Way after both of us had found out each other’s identities. Oh, and we were going to be letting them know that Raindrop knew what was going on and would provide back-up alongside Way if needed. Which was also bound to change things one way or another. Really, the only relationship that hadn’t changed in some way was the one with Pack. And even that wasn’t quite true, considering Way now had to hide the fact that she knew my identity from the girl she obviously liked (and that entire situation was already complicated enough as it had been). 

As far as the household staff knew, Izzy and I were going to spend the day shopping and hanging out in town. The two of us made a big deal about talking up how cool it was going to be, with Izzy making sure to ask me if I knew Simon’s shoe size so she could buy him something for his rapidly approaching birthday. Which was apparently something she really did want to do. She had some idea about buying him running shoes to go with a private joke between the two of us (oh, and Amber now too) about how he should get used to running away because we were going to stop them. Yeah, it was silly, but hey. Whatever helped her (and the rest of us) amuse ourselves a little bit sounded good to me. 

We accepted a ride from Jefferson and let him drop us off at one of the other malls. Thanking the man, the two of us made a point of walking inside together so the man could see it happen before he left. I didn’t think any of the staff were suspicious at all about what we were doing, but still. Best to be on the safe side. Besides, we actually were going to meet Amber here. 

But we were also going to be safe about the whole thing. To that end, the two of us walked through the mall and pretended to shop for about twenty minutes. Well, I pretended. Izzy actually did buy a pair of those shoes she had been talking about and carried them with us as we made our way to the arcade. Amber was already waiting there at the Skee-Ball game, but there was a younger boy actually playing on the next lane over, so we moved to the other side of the room, where the pinball machines were. Those were empty, and the three of us had a brief, whispered conversation. Even then, we didn’t say anything completely obvious. We used a lot of insinuation and talking around the actual specifics while making sure all of us were ready to head out and meet up with Alloy and Pack. 

Once outside, the three of us cut across the parking lot and found our way to the back of an old liquor store that was closed at the moment. The street was a hundred feet away, and there was no one anywhere in sight. Finally, we could actually talk.

“You doing okay?” Amber asked Izzy, while putting both hands on the younger girl’s shoulders. “You and me, we’re going to take it easy today and make the other guys do the legwork, right?” 

With a small smile, Izzy nodded. Her voice was a murmur. “I’m okay. I–I’m more than okay. I get to help. I mean, if something goes wrong I get to help.” She shot me a quick, apologetic look. “I don’t think it’s going to go wrong.” 

“It’s okay,” I assured her. “Hope for the best but plan for the worst. Trust me, I’m just glad we have both of you sitting in the background waiting to jump in. I mean, yeah, I hope this goes fine and we just get the information from her. But if something blows up, I feel a lot better knowing you two have our backs. Makes the whole idea of going in there a lot less terrifying.”  

“And I feel better knowing I’ve got Izzy next to me,” Amber put in. “Helps when we can split the weight between our shoulders.” With a wink to the other girl, she added, “That reminds me, I told Syndicate you and I would do the north-east patrol tonight so all of him could cover Whamline’s route down south, if that’s cool?” 

With a quick nod of agreement, Izzy curiously asked, “What’s Whamline doing?” 

Amber, in turn, shrugged. “I dunno. Something about another commitment that came up in his civvy life. He said he’d make it up later, but I don’t think anyone’s really worried about it except him. From what Syndicate said, he wouldn’t stop apologizing about flaking on a patrol.”  

While they talked a little more about that, I excused myself and stepped to the hidden alcove where the back door leading into the liquor store was. Sliding the backpack off my shoulders, I took a minute to change into my costume. Hell, on top of all the other advantages, it turned out that having someone (or in this case someones) who knew my identity made it convenient to have them play lookout while I changed. Which had always been a fairly nerve-wracking prospect to do by myself. 

In this case, however, I was able to change without worrying. Then I stepped out next to Amber and gave Izzy a chance to change as well, while the other girl and I watched for any interruptions. 

And there she was. It certainly was far from my first time seeing Izzy as Raindrop in general, and I’d even been around her a few times in person. Most notably when I’d run into that theater to help her and Amber/Way deal with Suckshot and Landlock. But I hadn’t really known who she was. I’d had no idea that the little girl I’d been spending so much time with at home and had already started to care about, and the badass water-gravity manipulator I fought beside, were the same person. This was really my first time being face to face with Izzy as Raindrop while knowing exactly who she was. 

For a moment, I just stared at her, looking the other girl up and down. She looked the same as Raindrop always did, in her dark blue bodysuit that had those gleaming silver armor panels, and the white cloak with a hood. Her face was hidden behind a helmet with a mirrored faceplate that just showed me my own reflection staring back at me. She was Raindrop. But she was also Izzy. And that was a weird feeling for me to try to cope with. Which made me wonder just how she felt about the situation from her point of view. She was seeing me up close as Paintball too. 

“You two okay?” Amber asked, looking back and forth between us. “You’ve been staring.” 

Both of us shook off our internal thoughts and confirmed that we were fine. So, Amber muttered something about how weird all this was before taking her turn to change while we kept watch. 

And then we were all dressed. For like the first time, the three of us were heading out together while we were all on exactly the same page. These two, they… they knew the truth. They knew about my family, the Ministry, all of it. And they had my back. Boy, was this a really different feeling or what? Seriously, I was accustomed to stuff being shoved onto my shoulders, not taken off it. This was weird. 

At least it was going to be a long time before I ever had to worry about the weight on my shoulders entirely disappearing. As evidenced by what we were about to do once we met up with the others. Going out of our way to seek information that would piss Pencil off immensely if he even had an inkling that we were trying to get it. As if he wasn’t annoyed with all of us enough as it was. And now I was dragging Izzy into the situation, when she hadn’t been on his radar before? Oh, right, there was that weight again. Like an old friend settling right back into place. This one just happened to be named guilt rather than responsibility. 

Yes, I knew it was dumb to think that way. Logically, I knew Izzy deserved to make her own choices, and that I was only a few years older than her anyway. I also knew I would be dead in the water (and maybe dead literally) without help from people like her and Amber. But no amount of firmly telling myself that would entirely erase the pit in my stomach that got bigger every time I thought about getting people I cared about anywhere near any situation involving that psychotic fucking piece of shit. He made me nervous, I couldn’t help it. 

At least the three of us could move pretty openly together whenever we were out like this. If anyone asked, Amber and Izzy would just say that they had run into me and we decided to do a little patrol together. They could even play it up as if they were trying to convince me to join. So, we would be covered there. As far as today went, meeting up with Pack would be when things got a little more complicated.

But at least for now, we were fine. And we made fast progress, considering we had deliberately set our changing point south of where we were meeting the other two. It meant Amber could grab both of us and teleport from roof to roof basically the whole way. It was even faster than my typical way of traveling, even if she could only do it in one compass direction.  

“You know,” I started while Amber was taking a breath when we were almost to the meeting point, “I could get used to this sort of traveling. Maybe bring along a lawn chair and a book so I can kick my feet up and catch up on some reading.”  

Rolling her eyes, Amb–Way. I had to think of her as That-A-Way while we were all in costume, or I was going to screw something up badly. Way rolled her eyes and retorted, “The only book I’ll let you get away with reading is our European History textbook for the next project for Mr. Dorn. And since we don’t have one of those yet, I guess you’re just going to have to suck it up and stand while I teleport with you.” 

Snickering, Izz–Raindrop spoke up. “You guys should probably get all that ‘talking about things that give away your secret identities’ stuff out of the way now, before we go any closer.” After that little bit of teasing, she sobered visibly before somewhat nervously adding, “Are you sure about the umm, about what we’re gonna tell them for, you know, me?” 

Way and I exchanged brief looks before the other girl nodded to Izzy. Her voice was gentle. “Yeah, Rain, it’ll work. Trust me, they won’t question it too much. Okay, Pack will probably give you a little crap, but most of that is just going to be screwing with you. She likes to do that just to get a reaction for the hell of it. And part of it will be a test, just in case you were a spy or something. A very young spy.” She paused briefly to consider before frowning. “Also, she might try to recruit you. Possibly repeatedly. Just uhh, laugh it off.” A thought abruptly seemed to strike her, considering the way her eyes widened. “Oh. If–listen, if she does make a crack about that, don’t take it seriously, okay? I know–I mean, that whole thing with…” She trailed off, clearly uncomfortable as the thought of how the younger girl might react to someone teasing her about joining a villain gang after what her own mother had done clearly came to mind. 

Raindrop, for her part, was quiet for a moment before giving a slight nod, her voice as firm as I had heard it. “It’s okay,” she insisted. “I… know the difference between a joke and what… and what happened before. Even a ‘haha, totally joking unless…’ sort of joke, you know? I don’t know her, but you guys do, and if Pack was like that, I don’t think you’d have anything to do with her. She’s not like that, and I don’t think that Blackjack guy is either.” From her voice, it sounded like she was giving us some approximation of a smile from behind that mirrored faceplate. “I guess there’s bad bad guys, good good guys, good bad guys, bad good guys, and like… every level of every kind. I just—I’m okay. I’m not gonna freak out just cuz she makes a joke about joining her team.” 

I may not have known much about Izzy’s mother, but I did know one thing. She had truly, royally screwed up for not recognizing just how awesome her kid was. What a bitch. 

From the look that Way gave me, I had the feeling she was thinking basically the same thing. But we didn’t say it. Instead both of us nodded to the other girl. No one said anything. Raindrop and I just joined hands with Way once more, and we all made that last teleport jump. Instead of landing on another roof, this final teleport took us inside an old gas station garage that had been directly across the street. The place had closed down a few months earlier and no one had bought the property yet. Apparently there had been some kind of meth gang trying to set up shop here, but the Minority chased them out only a few days earlier, which was how Way and Raindrop knew about it. This was where we were going to meet the others. Being in the garage would keep us safely out of sight so we could talk about everything in complete privacy. 

The others weren’t there yet, probably because we made sure to get there about half an hour early just so we could already be waiting when Pack and Alloy showed up. Then the three of us killed time by once more going over exactly what we were going to say about Raindrop being involved in the situation now. 

Pack was the first to arrive out of the other two. We heard a van pull up behind the building, and That-A-Way stepped over to push the button that made the rolling door go up so the La Casa Touched could back the vehicle  into the garage. The door was lowered once more while she got out, hopping down to the cement and brushing her hands off. “You people really need to–” 

Only then did she look up, seeing Raindrop standing a bit behind Way and me. Cutting herself off, Pack tilted her head and stared. Her expression was, of course, hidden behind that blank black mask. “Sorry, I didn’t know we were bringing friends. Maybe I should’ve brought one of my own? Eits and Broadway both looked pretty bored this morning.”

Coughing once, I shook my head. “Sorry, this was–uh, yeah. Pack, this is Raindrop. Raindrop, Pack.” 

“We’ve met a couple times,” Pack replied dryly. “You know, at work.” The way she said that made it clear that two of them had fought on opposite sides. But, she did at least follow that up with a shrug. “It was fun. Hope Twinkletoes didn’t toss you too hard. I told him to be gentle.” 

Clearly flushing a little behind her own mask, Raindrop murmured something under her breath before more audibly adding, “It’s okay. I hope the umm, bear wasn’t too scared about floating.” 

“Mars Bar,” Pack informed her. “And he doesn’t do great with heights, but he’s fine. And now that all those pleasantries are out of the way…” She looked to Way and me. “What’s she doing here?” To Raindrop, she added, “No offense. Just… what?” 

Checking the text that had just come in on my phone, I replied, “Alloy’ll be here in a minute, we should hold off and explain it together so we don’t have to do it twice. But uhh, the short version is she knows about the Ministry and she’s gonna help.” 

“She knows about the Ministry, huh?” Pack’s voice made it clear that she didn’t think it was impossible that even someone as young as Raindrop could be some kind of spy. “Interesting.” 

Yeah, we definitely needed to explain what was going on. At least, as much as we could. If we were going to work together, Pack couldn’t be focused on being suspicious about Raindrop. Especially if we were going to do anything that even remotely involved the Scions. That was too dangerous to screw around with. 

As promised, Alloy arrived just a minute or so later, coming up to knock on the side door. As I let her in (wearing the purple-silver Sentai armor version of her costume), she was already talking while panting heavily. “Sorry… Mom… wanted some help… groceries… had to…” She trailed off, having spotted Raindrop. “Uhhh…” 

“Yeah,” Pack put in, “that’s basically what I said.” 

So, without wasting any more time, Way, Raindrop, and I launched into our explanation of what had happened. Obviously, we didn’t want to outright lie too much to these two people we were supposed to be working with. To that end, the very first thing we said was that we were going to be a little vague and twist things a bit to protect certain identities, but that this was the overall gist of the situation. We were right up front about the fact that it wasn’t one hundred percent of the truth, sort of like when a news report or true crime show said that certain details were changed to protect people. And we admitted that some details were twisted more than others. 

In any case, the story we told was that Raindrop’s family had attempted to sell her to Oscuro through that Handler guy. She escaped that situation but was almost captured again before Silversmith stepped in and rescued her. From there, she was sent to live at a safe house. 

All of that, of course, was one hundred percent true, if lacking in a couple key details. 

From there, we basically just said ‘and then stuff happened that we can’t get into because there are a lot of secrets involved, but Raindrop found out about the Ministry existing and got worried that the whole thing with her parents and Handler might’ve had something to do with them, so we had to tell her more details before she snooped around on her own and ended up getting in trouble.’ 

Yeah, there was a good bit of skipping over or outright avoiding details. We yada yada’d Raindrop finding out about the Ministry in the first place with the explanation that saying how she found out would risk revealing secrets we couldn’t reveal. That-A-Way implied that it had to do with her own identity, to protect me. Without actually saying that, of course. It made enough sense, given they were on the same team. Yeah, that skirted the line of outright lying, but it was the best we could do to avoid exposing who I was to the other two, and I just… wasn’t ready for that. Good as it felt to have Way and Raindrop know the truth, I barely knew Alloy (and was already trusting her with a lot as it was), and Pack was still technically a Fell-Touched. I wasn’t ready to go as far as sharing my identity with them just yet. 

“And you’re sure she’s not a plant?” Pack flatly demanded, before looking at Raindrop. “Again, no offense. But seriously, come on, guys. How do you know she’s not a mole?” 

“She’s not,” I replied. “I just… I know it’s hard to take something like that on faith, believe me, I know. And I can’t really explain it. But just… trust me. If she was a mole, we’d all be locked up right now. She knows everything. There’s nothing for her to be a mole about anymore. If she was really just spying for the Ministry, she could’ve had all of us taken in already. I mean come on, it’s not like they have to catch us in the act of anything. If she was reporting to them, we’d already be in the black van with the hoods, or whatever they do.” 

Shifting her weight back and forth a few times as though considering that, Pack was clearly staring intently at the girl in question. Finally, she reached into her pocket and produced Holiday the skink. “What do you think?” She held the lizard out that way, allowing Holiday to almost touch Raindrop’s reflective faceplate. When the skink put a foot against it, Pack gave a nod of satisfaction. “Good enough for me.” 

Exhaling, I looked at Alloy. “You okay?” 

She, in turn, shrugged. “Dude, I’m brand new to all this too. If you say she’s okay, who am I to say you’re wrong? But… that story about what happened, I know you said some of it’s twisted a little for identity protection, but the bit about… about her family…” She looked at Raindrop directly. “Was that true?” 

Raindrop, in turn, gave a very short nod. Her voice was quiet. “It’s true.” 

“Fuck.” Clearly swallowing hard, Alloy added, “Sorry. I mean… sorry.” 

“Yeah, that sums it up,” I agreed. “The point is, she’s involved, but we have to be really careful about using her so the Ministry doesn’t find out she knows anything.”

“Right…” Thinking about that for a moment, Pack finally shrugged and looked at Way. “Guess you’ve got someone to talk to while you wait around to see if we need backup, huh?”

“That’s the plan,” Way agreed. “And speaking of plan, we should probably get into ours. 

“Cuz boy I just can’t wait to go poke the Scions with a stick. This is gonna be nifty.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-01 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, I had a lot to talk with Izzy about by the time I got home that evening. My parents were still gone, but Skyped in over a laptop placed at the head of the table so we could have an approximation of family dinner night. The room behind them in the camera just looked like any of the other hotel suites we’d stayed at, so it didn’t exactly tell me much about where they were. 

After that, Izzy and I stayed in my room and pretended to be playing video games while we discussed everything that had happened. And boy was it weird to be in my room like that after being in the virtual recreation of it when that whole thing with Paige’s father went down. Sure, it had been my room as it was decorated in the past, but still. It made me feel strange, sitting there while images of that whole fight played out in my head. 

In any case, before we started, I made it clear that there were some big things I had to tell Izzy, but wanted to do it all in order. So that was exactly what I did, going through everything that had happened inside the virtual reality space in order. God was it ever tempting to jump ahead to the really big stuff, but I felt like it was important for her to have all the actual context. 

And boy did she ever react when I eventually got to that big stuff. The controller dropped from her hand when I talked about taking my helmet and mask off in front of That-A-Way, and she was suddenly staring at me with wide eyes. I pushed on with a quick nod of understanding, explaining everything all the way up through Way eventually revealing her identity to me, and the two of us having our talk at the end. And, of course, everything that had been established about Paige and the newly dubbed Raige as far as what we needed to do to help them.

Throughout the entire remainder of the story, ever since I got to the part about taking my helmet off, Izzy had completely stopped even the pretense of paying attention to the game. She was facing me with her mouth open, as it clearly took everything she had not to suddenly interrupt. And yet, once I finally finished, she didn’t say anything at all. She just stared in silence, as though everything she’d been bursting to say simply vanished entirely from her mind in that moment.

“So yeah,” I finally announced, breaking the silence once it had dragged on for almost thirty seconds. “That was my day. How was yours? Anything interesting happen? Ooh, did Claudio make that special layered pudding? He said something about making that before, and–” 

“Are you freaking kidding me right now?!” the girl suddenly blurted out loud, flailing a bit while literally jumping to her feet. “You know about Amber and she knows about you and she knows that I know about you and also everything else that happened to you and everything about your family, and you actually think we’re gonna talk about pudding?!” 

Yeah, maybe I had a little too much fun with the whole thing. Restraining my smirk, I managed a mostly straight-faced, “Well, if he made it, I should probably know so I can run down there.” 

That earned me a kick while the younger girl rolled her eyes. “Oh please, as if your family’s personal freaking chef wouldn’t whip it up for you the second you asked for it.” After pointing that out, she focused once more. “Seriously, she really knows everything about everything?”  

I shrugged. “There might’ve been something here or there that I forgot to mention, but basically yeah. That’s why it took me so long to get home. We kind of had a lot to go over. Do you realize how busy the past… just over a month has been? I got my powers in the second week of March, and it’s April sixteenth now. At this rate, I’m gonna cram a decade worth of stuff into the rest of the year. Which is convenient, since dealing with my family is gonna age me that quick too.” 

“At least Amber knows what’s going on?” Izzy pointed out with a shrug. “That’s something.”

“Oh, it’s definitely something,” I agreed. “I mean, I don’t–I’m glad she knows. And that I know. It’s just–it’s really complicated in other ways. It’s going to take awhile for me to wrap my head around this whole thing. And honestly, I’ve got the really easy side of it. I can’t even imagine what she’s going through right now, or what sort of things she’s thinking about all of it.” 

Izzy’s response, as she glanced over toward the window, was a quiet, “I can.”  

Her words made me hesitate before looking that way to hesitantly ask. “Are you okay?” 

“Hm? Oh, yeah.” Turning to meet my gaze, Izzy tried to give an encouraging nod. “It’s just a lot, you know? I was just thinking about what it’s like to have the whole thing dumped on you at once like that. I mean, I’m glad I know, and I’m glad that we can talk about everything. Believe me, I’m really glad.” She sighed then, flopping back down into the bean bag chair as if all the strength had left her. “It feels really heavy sometimes.” Her eyes had closed briefly through that before opening to focus on me. “How do you handle it? They’re your family and all that and you have to keep lying right to their faces. You have to hide basically everything now.” 

Swallowing the thick lump that tried to form in my throat, I answered in a soft voice. “It’s not easy. But I’m not the only one with problems. Plus, I have you to talk to about it.” 

“And Amber,” she pointed out with a very small smile. 

“And Amber,” I agreed, nudging the girl. “So hey, that’s some of the pressure off you, I guess. Spread out who has to deal with Cassidy’s mental breakdown.” With that… sort of joke, I cleared my throat. “Anyway, right now, what I really want is to find out more about how their whole operation works. Not to mention separate Paige and Raige. And the way to do both of those things is to break into that mall base. So I guess that’s our next main thing to focus on. Which–hey.” I blinked a couple times as a thought occurred to me at that moment. 

“What?” Izzy asked, shifting a bit on the bean bag to stare at me curiously. 

“I just realized,” I murmured before looking over to meet her gaze. “If Amber knows that you know about everything, and you know that Amber knows, then… maybe you can be involved a little more. You know, if you want to. I mean, instead of hiding at the library or whatever when the two of us are supposed to be out together and I’m with the others, you could… come? Between you, Amber, and me, we can come up with a story about how you know about the Ministry that’s close to the truth without really exposing everything. We still have to hide that you have any knowledge of the Ministry from everyone else, obviously. Can’t take any chances about my parents getting suspicious. But when we’re just at Wren’s or doing this tunnel thing, maybe… you could be there. You know, if you want. You could meet Pack without fighting.”

Shifting in the bean bag so she could look at me, Izzy hesitated before asking, “Are you sure? I mean…” She trailed off, clearly considering all of that. “I guess you’re right. If we made up a reason for me to know about the Ministry beyond, uh, you know… living in their house.” 

“We’ll just say you had your own encounter with them or something,” I agreed. “Way–I mean Amber–I mean Way can help. God, that’s gonna take a lot to get used to. After all that stuff we did at school and–” Belatedly, my eyes widened. “You think Jae knows about her? I mean she has to, right? They’re pretty good friends, and that… that guy Amber knew from that other school with the car. Damarko? It was Damarko. Is he–wait, no. No. Don’t tell me, don’t say anything.” My head shook, hands already covering my eyes. “I’m not even gonna look at your reaction. Do not tell me anything about that. I’m gonna stop trying to guess. That’s not fair to them. Or to you, putting you in the middle like that. God, I don’t even know how you managed to keep quiet about Amber for so long. You’re really good at keeping secrets, you know that?” 

“I’m… doing my best,” came the quiet response. There was a moment of silence after that before Izzy added, “But, that means you know I’m keeping secrets right now. Still. I’m still keeping secrets. They’re not my secrets to tell, you know? I just–I don’t wanna lie to you, Cassie. You’re my friend. You’re–” She swallowed hard before reiterating, “You’re my friend. But they’re my friends too. I can’t just–” 

“Stop.” I quickly shook my head. “Izzy, it’s okay. I told you, I don’t want you to tell me anything about them. I just got caught up for a second with the whole Amber being That-A-Way thing. Really, I promise, it’s totally okay. Don’t tell me anything that isn’t yours to tell.” 

Nodding slowly, Izzy hesitated before asking, “Do you think Amber’s mad because I didn’t tell her anything about you even though we’re supposed to be teammates and everything?” Her voice trembled just a little as she squirmed, clearly feeling even more of that weight on her shoulders. 

“What? No!” I quickly insisted, setting the game controller down before turning fully to face her. “Izzy, she’s not mad at you. Seriously, she knows why you kept my thing secret, just like I know why you kept her identity secret from me. No one’s mad at you or anything. It’s okay.” Shrugging then, I added, “Actually, she kinda wants to meet tomorrow morning. We figured the three of us could go out, grab some breakfast, and talk in a park somewhere. We’ll just tell Jefferson that we’re taking an Uber so we can have breakfast with a friend and we’ll make it to school on our own. Actually, I better send him a text about that. He does better with schedule changes if he has all night to let it settle. Err, that is, if you wanna do that?” 

Izzy was already nodding quickly before I’d even finished asking that. “Yeah, I–yeah.” It looked like she wanted to say more than that, but clamped her mouth shut and simply kept bobbing her head with obvious eagerness. She definitely wanted to have the chance to talk with Amber and me together about this whole thing. 

So, I sent that message to let Jefferson know, before the two of us spent another twenty minutes or so talking about what happened and what we were going to do next. Izzy was visibly nervous about the prospect of meeting Pack and all the associated stuff that would come with that, so I did my best to calm her down. And, of course, made it clear that she didn’t have to do anything she didn’t want to. If she preferred to stay out of things and just be my alibi and confidant, that was completely fine. She, however, insisted that she wanted to help more and be involved. And now that Amber was on-side, she actually could. She was just, well, understandably nervous. 

Either way, we finished up and headed for our separate beds. Tomorrow was already promising to be a pretty big day. As I watched Izzy on her way out my door to go back to her room, I hesitated before calling, “At least you’re never bored around this place, huh?” 

She paused there, hand on the doorknob before looking over her shoulder to me. “Bored?” the girl echoed with a snort. “No, definitely not bored. But isn’t there like a Chinese curse or something about living in interesting times?” 

My head tilted. “Yeah, sounds familiar. Maybe we can ask someone over there the next time my parents decide we’re going to China.” 

“The next time–” Cutting off her own disbelieving voice, Izzy shook her head. “Wow, dude.” 

“Oh come on, I was kidding!” I called as she started through the door. “We don’t have to go there to ask, I know Google exists!” 

“You ought to,” came the response as Izzy began to close the door after herself. 

“Your parents probably own a big chunk of it.” 

*******

So, the next day (which was Friday, April 17th), Izzy and I got up a bit early, cleaning up and dressing before heading out. I had texted not only Jefferson, but Chef Claudio as well to let him know he didn’t have to make any food that morning. Not for us, anyway. They still tended to cook for the rest of the staff, of course. That was one of my parents’ firm rules. Everyone who worked in the house got to eat just as well as we did, were paid incredibly well, and received a full slate of insurance and medical assistance. It was all about maintaining loyalty. Which, now that I knew more about my family’s whole thing, made even more sense. Obviously I’d never been anywhere near that situation, but I was pretty sure there were a lot of people who would turn a blind eye to anything criminal they might’ve seen if their boss was taking that much care of them. A good salary, benefits, insurance, and retirement plan went a long way toward something like that. 

So, Izzy and I stopped in at one of the local fast food chain restaurants, meeting Amber at the door on the way in. As soon as she saw her teammate (and boy was that something that would take awhile for me to get used to thinking), the younger girl immediately froze up, stopping practically in mid-step. Despite the assurances I had given her, Izzy was clearly still afraid of how Amber would react to the revelation of the pretty major secrets she’d been keeping. 

Thankfully, Amber seemed to realize that without any prompting and immediately stepped that way before embracing the other girl. “Hey there, Izz!” Obviously, she couldn’t really say anything out in public like this, but she did the best she could with that simple and immediate hug. “It’s so good to see you again,” she announced at least partially for the benefit of anyone who might wonder why meeting at a fast food place warranted a hug. “Feels like it’s been forever.” 

After a brief hesitation, Izzy returned the embrace. I could tell even from standing nearby that she’d really needed it. Which just reminded me of why she needed it. The kid had literally been sold to a gang of supervillains to be tortured into obedience. And not just by anyone, by her mother. Her mother had done that. No wonder Izzy was afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing and making someone who was supposed to care about her completely turn. After all, if her mother had done it, anyone could do it. 

If we ever found that fucking bitch, I was gonna let her know just how annoyed I was with her.

In the interest of not making any more of a scene than we already had, the three of us went to the counter and bought a bag full of breakfast sandwiches along with juice and coffee (for Amber and me, Izzy wasn’t a coffee person yet) before heading out again. We made our way to the nearest park and sat at a table in a corner where we had a full view of everything around us in all directions. From here, no one would even be able to get within shouting distance without us seeing them, let alone close enough to hear our murmured voices. We were safe to talk. 

Which probably meant it was ironic that the three of us were completely silent for over a minute. We just sat there, staring at one another. We weren’t even eating yet, so that wasn’t a ready excuse. A few times, one of us started to say something, before falling silent. It was clear that no one really knew what to say. We had the time and privacy, but nobody had the right words.

Finally, I managed to find my voice first, somehow. Probably because I’d already talked to both of them separately, while they were still stuck staring at each other while trying to feel out how they were each feeling. I supposed that was one benefit I had in this whole situation. 

“So we’re all here,” I announced, drawing the immediate attention of the other two. “And on the same page, for once. Everyone here knows everything. Or should, unless I forgot something while I was playing exposition fairy.” Considering that briefly, I shook it off. “Yeah, same page.” 

“Two different Paiges, actually,” Amber teased before holding up both hands. “Sorry, sorry. Yeah, we’re on the same page. Everyone knows who everyone else is, and what’s going on with the Ministry.” She looked at me then, squinting a bit thoughtfully. “Your parents. I can’t believe I didn’t realize it was them. I mean, come on, they’re the most powerful unaffiliated people in the city. Supposedly unaffiliated. Everything they do is mysterious, they have lots of free time. And your dad, he’s really…” She trailed off, clearly finding it hard to finish that last sentence. 

“He’s Silversmith,” Izzy murmured in confirmation, her own voice soft enough to barely be audible. Apparently she was still struggling with that too. Which just meant that the three of us had something else in common. “He’s Silversmith and he’s a bad guy.” 

“He’s both good and bad,” I pointed out. “I mean he’s done good things and bad things. The people he saves as Silversmith really would have been worse off without him. Like you, Izzy. He saved you from those Oscuro people. He’s done a lot of good and I don’t–I’m not saying that to excuse him. Yeah, he’s my dad, but I know he’s done a lot of bad things too. They both have. I’m just saying there’s more, you know, nuance to this whole thing. That’s why I want to find out more. We can’t do anything until we know exactly how the Ministry works, who else is in on it, how it came to be a thing, all that. And to do that–”

“We need to get into that mall base,” Amber finished for me, voice flat. She was looking at me intently. “But are you sure you’ll be able to handle it if… when the time comes to actually do something about this Ministry, about your family? I mean, you’re right, there’s… more nuance to the good and bad thing.” Even as she said that, her gaze shifted off me to look off into the distance thoughtfully, before she swallowed hard and focused. “But if it comes down to it…” 

“If it comes down to it,” I answered, “I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t know what’s gonna happen or… or what I’m going to do. Or what I even could do. But I’m trying. I’m–I just have to know the truth right now. I just need to know everything I can about them, and go from there.” 

Our gazes met, holding that way for several long, somewhat tense moments before the other girl exhaled. “Good,” she announced. “If you said you were ready to lock them up and throw away the key, you’d have been lying. Either to us or to yourself. Not being sure, that’s… that’s the truth.” 

Folding my arms against my stomach as it rolled a bit queasily, I nodded. “Yeah, well, I owe you that much at least. But seriously, we have to get in that base. Not just to find information, but for Paige and…” I coughed at the name. “And Raige too. Seriously, we need her to pick a better name. Maybe when we get her a body of her own.” 

“Which we can only do by getting in that base to find the addresses,” Amber finished with a nod. “Yeah. So that’s the next big thing on the to-do list. But hey, at least it means we can finally focus?” 

Snorting at that, I pointed out, “Except for the fact that Alloy and I have to go find and talk to that Amanda chick about any potential weaknesses Pencil has, sure. Totally focused. Oh, and I have to go over to the Seraphs place so I can finish up working there. And–yeah. Point is, I’m totally focused, yup.” I gave two thumbs up to them. 

“Okay, one, Pack and I are both helping you and Alloy with the Amanda thing, you two aren’t going by yourselves,” Amber reminded me. “She’ll be right there with you and I’m playing back-up.” She paused before glancing to Izzy. “We?” 

Izzy answered with a firm nod. “We’re playing back-up.” 

“See? It’s all working out after all.” Offering them what was probably a pretty unconvincing smile, I added, “Now let’s eat this breakfast.

“I’m pretty sure the three of us getting in trouble for missing school wouldn’t help me deal with this to-do list any faster.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

In Like Flynn 17-01 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Needless to say, Izzy and I had a lot to talk about that night. The two of us took a long walk near the mall after I changed clothes and got back to her, going over everything that had happened. I told her about Peyton, about Deicide calling in her favor and what exactly she wanted, about the whole Paige situation and how that was suddenly a much bigger priority than I had thought, all of it. It was a huge dump of information, obviously, and I wanted to get all of it out before we went home. Besides, walking around helped me think a bit, and God knew I really needed to think. 

There was one good thing about Paige’s situation being so dire, at least. It meant that everything else had to wait. She was the priority. Seriously, my feelings about the girl might be complicated considering the years we’d spent at each other’s throats, but logically I knew that wasn’t her fault. It didn’t entirely help my subconscious feelings and emotions and all, but still. And after everything she’d done to try to avoid carrying out her father’s orders, I owed her. So, I was going to do this whole virtual reality thing, see inside that computer core of hers, and save her from this evil virus double. Or, well, that was the goal, at least. Here was hoping we actually pulled it off. 

In any case, talking about it with Izzy helped organize my thoughts about the whole thing. There was nothing else we could do about Paige until tomorrow evening. 

While we were walking around, I’d also texted Pack to tell her that I had to ask something important that had to do with ‘the girl we took to the shop’, and her first response had been to ask what was going on and if it was an emergency. So, I sent back a bit about the situation and said that it was important, but that we couldn’t do anything about it until the next evening. She, in turn, asked to meet me the next afternoon on the roof of some old tire shop to get details. 

So, with that much done, Izzy and I had gone home. We ate a snack in the kitchen while making a point to talk about the movies we had supposedly both seen (she told me about them while we were walking so I’d know what to say) in front of the household staff before heading to our rooms. And, once again, the two of us ended up talking even more, long into the night before falling asleep together in the same bed. All in all, it could’ve been a much worse day. 

The next morning, we were up and talking some more before it was time to get up. I’d already gotten so accustomed to splitting my sleep, getting only a few hours at night and a few here and there during the day, that it was weird sleeping almost all the way through. I was newly refreshed even before the sun finished rising. Which was probably a good thing, because I was pretty sure this whole situation with Paige tonight was going to end up being a doozy. 

Sitting cross-legged on my bed, Izzy asked, “Do you really think this umm, Pack is going to want to go in and help you save Paige? I mean, she doesn’t really know her, right? And it’s not like she’ll get anything she wants out of it. There’s no reward or anything.” She shifted a bit, clearly feeling uncomfortable just bringing it up. “I just mean, yeah, she likes you or whatever. She’s been nice to you and helped and all. And she wants to do something about the Ministry–” 

“That’s why she’ll help,” I put in. “She knows that Paige knows more about the Ministry, and that she can help us do something about them. Or at least get her a better deal. I’m pretty sure that’s what Pack’s leaning toward…” Trailing off, I sighed before adding, “So yeah, I think she’ll help, because her reward is getting more info about the Ministry and being in a better position overall.” 

“And Peyton?” she immediately asked. “Do you think she’s umm, you know, ready for this?” Once again, the younger girl looked awkward. She clearly felt weird about questioning how ready a girl several years older than her was to do this sort of thing. But it was completely fair, considering Izzy had been using her powers and working alongside a team to help people for awhile now, much longer than even I had. And Peyton, meanwhile, had been doing this for… well, about a day. Despite the difference in their ages in one direction, there was a big difference in experience in the other. 

Of course, thinking about that made me realize something that I really should’ve thought about before. Biting my lip, I looked over to the other girl. “Izzy, do you… feel bad that you’re not involved in this? I mean you are, you help me just by talking about this stuff, seriously. You make me feel like my head’s not about to explode. But… I mean, do you feel left out because I’m not taking you to help with stuff like this? I um, I mean, in some ways you’re in an even worse position than me. You have to go play good little Minority teammate and pretend you don’t know anything. It’s… it’s gotta be hard. I know it’s hard. And I’m really sorry about that. I wish there was something I could do–I mean something we could do. It’s just, you know, really complicated.”

For a moment, Izzy didn’t say anything. She seemed to be considering, her expression pensive. Finally, she gave a very slight nod and quietly spoke. “Uh huh. It’s really complicated. And yeah, part of me feels a little… bad that I don’t get to be there, and that I have to keep pretending not to know anything. It’s hard. But I know why I have to, and I know why I can’t be involved with, like, actually helping. Physically helping. I know, I get. I just… I wish I could do something. And I wish we could find my mom. I know, I know she’s bad and all. I just… I wanna make sure she’s okay.”

Wow, yeah that was rough. Wincing, I reached out to take her hand. “I know. I get it. Believe me, I do. Look at my parents, my whole family. We know what they are. But if they were missing, I’d still be worried about them. I’d be out of my mind. I’d still want them to be okay.” 

Izzy, in turn, shook her head, voice firm. “It’s not the same. Your parents love you. They didn’t try to sell you into slavery, or get pissed because they couldn’t make enough money off you, or–or hurt you like that. They’d never hurt you, Cassidy. Not on purpose. They–they really love you.”  

Oh boy. Yeah, I knew what the implied bit of that was, that her own mother didn’t love her. And why shouldn’t she think that? After everything that piece of shit had done, after what she’d tried to do to her own kid, she deserved–yeah. She deserved a lot of bad things that I shouldn’t think about.

Still, I swallowed back all those thoughts, managing a quiet response. “I know. I know my parents love me and that it’s not the same as your situation with your mom. But I still get it. You love your mom and you want to know that she’s okay. You don’t want anything bad to happen to her.” 

A very slight blush of guilt crossed the other girl’s face then, before she held up two fingers close together and whispered, “Maybe I’m okay with a little bit of a bad thing happening. I mean, prison. Jail. I think she should go to jail. She tried to do bad things to me and she might’ve done other bad things, I dunno. I think she should go to jail for it. Maybe… maybe if she does, she’ll realize what she did was wrong and umm… get better?” There was a small, very faint hint of hopefulness to her voice that really tore at me. Wow, that hurt. 

For a few seconds, I had no idea what to say. I didn’t want to tell her that her mother wasn’t likely to change, especially not from being in jail. Who was I to crush that tiny little hope she had? Especially considering all the private hopes I had about how things with my family might end up turning out. I’d be a gigantic fucking hypocrite of the worst caliber.

So, in the end, all I could do was squeeze Izzy’s hand and quietly reply, “I’ll help you find her as soon as we can. I promise. We’ll figure out where she went and… and what happened. And if we can get her back here and make her go to prison, we’ll do that, okay?” 

Izzy, in turn, met my gaze. I could see a lot of different emotions working their way through her before she finally nodded, her own voice barely audible. “Okay, Cassidy. 

“And thanks. I’m really glad I have you to talk to. Because you help me too.” 

********

School that day seemed like it would never end. It was impossible for me to focus and I even blew it more than once when a teacher wanted me to answer a question. I kept zoning out, watching the clock and imagining what the whole trip into Paige’s computer thing was going to be like. And, of course, worrying about what would happen if we couldn’t save her. Not to mention everything that was going on with Deicide’s favor and finding this Amanda girl. 

The point was, I had a lot of stuff to be distracted by. Unfortunately, I couldn’t tell my teachers the reasons I was distracted, so I just had to deal with their annoyed or disappointed looks. Oh well, I supposed I would try to make it up later when I took a few of these things off my plate. 

Hah, listen to me trying to pretend that I didn’t know full well that more things would land on the plate just as quickly as I cleared them off. It almost sounded like I was that optimistic, didn’t it?

Either way, the school day couldn’t literally drag on forever, no matter how it felt. Eventually, classes were over and I bolted, with a few quick words toward my friends on the way out. Someone said something about a party that weekend, but the best I could manage was a noise acknowledging the invitation before hitting the doors almost full-speed. There was no way I was going to be able to hang out and chat just to look sociable. Yeah, I wasn’t actually doing the Paige thing until that evening. But I still had to meet with Pack to find out if I was right about her being willing to go on this little trip. And talk to her about Peyton coming along too. I had the feeling that was going to be a fun conversation all on its own. Especially when the possibility of eventually telling the girl about the whole Ministry situation inevitably came up. I still wasn’t sure what I was going to do about that. I couldn’t worry about it right this second. There was too much else to focus on. 

Including, apparently, catching myself from plowing straight into San as I jogged down the front walk of the school. He was looking the other way and I barely managed to skid to a halt, comically flailing my arms in the process, right before I would have planted my face right into his shoulder. The hopeful part of me wanted to say I’d knock him down, but the truth was that I’d probably bounce right off. 

Noticing my flailing, last second stop, San turned my way. “Dude, what is with the girls in this school running all over the place? First I try to have a nice conversation with Dani about how awesome Amber is before she practically runs over me saying something about her aunt calling home, and now my good, wonderful, oh-so-polite friend Cassidy tries to turn me into road pizza too.” 

Barely paying attention to what he was saying, I stopped just long enough to apologize and added something about needing to get home so I could take my parents’ call from their hotel. Whatever San’s response was ended up being lost in the wind as I ran all the way off the school grounds. I’d already told Jefferson that morning that he didn’t need to pick me up because I would be hanging out with friends for awhile. So all he had to do was take Izzy home, which I was sure he was thrilled by, considering how much time it shaved off his route. Yeah, he didn’t like his schedule being unexpectedly changed. But as long as he was told early enough, I was pretty sure the prospect of saving time outweighed the annoyance of change. At least, that was the impression I’d got. Telling him in the morning or the night before that he wouldn’t have to wait around for me tended to go over a lot better than if I tried to call and cancel when he was literally on the way, or even waiting. I’d found that out the hard way. 

So, he wasn’t there waiting for me, thankfully. Instead, I simply ran off the school grounds, cutting my way through all the other cars (including a fair number of dark SUV’s and limousines) that were lined along the front waiting to pick up their own passengers, and continued across the street. My backpack bounced with each pounding step, reminding me of the heavy weight of my helmet in the very bottom. I really needed to find a better, safer way of going around with this stuff. I was probably pushing my luck every time I went to school with it. But I wasn’t sure what else I could do besides always going home to my closet to change. At times like this, when I had to change and get out there as soon as possible, I had to take the risk of carrying it. Or, again, find another way. But I couldn’t think of what that could be. 

Getting myself out of sight, making sure I wasn’t being followed or spied on, and quickly changing into my costume, I headed on my way. I had to double-check the location of the tire shop that Pack had asked to meet at. Thankfully, it was in the same general neighborhood as Wren’s place, so I had a good idea of how to paint my way there. 

Apparently I had such a good idea of how to get there that I completely beat Pack. Seriously, I was there and lounging around on the roof for a solid ten minutes before finally hearing the sound of someone climbing the ladder. I was back on my feet and facing that way, ready just in case it turned out to be someone else randomly climbing onto the roof of a closed tire shop in the middle of the afternoon. Hey, stranger things had definitely happened in my life. 

But no, it was Pack. She had the cage with her lizards in it strapped onto herself like a backpack as she climbed the rest of the way up, huffing a bit before shrugging it off and setting the cage down. Only then did she look at me. “You’re lucky… your school… gets out early.” The girl panted in between every couple words. “And you’re lucky you’re one of the good guys.” Finally, she straightened. “Because that means you can run and jump around all willy nilly through the sky and let everyone see you, no problem. I mean yeah, I’ve got Scatters here.” With that, the tiny neon-colored lizard poked her head around from the back of her neck where she was perched. “And she is amazing for getting around. Aren’t you, buddy?” Pack raised a gloved hand and let the little lizard crawl into her palm before nodding to her own question. “Yes, super-amazing. Seriously, you think your way of getting around is fun? You should try riding a lizard-deer that can jump thirty feet and stick to the walls. It’s… exciting.” 

Sobering after taking a moment to let me picture that, the girl pointedly added, “But, I couldn’t exactly ride her all the way here. You know, laying low and all. So I had to hoof it about four blocks, with my friends here. All of which is to say, why exactly am I here, Paintball? You said a little bit last night, but let’s go with details this time, huh?” 

So, over the next few minutes, I did just that. I went into detail about everything I knew as far as the new Paige situation went. I told her about Wren’s proposed virtual reality rescue mission, and how that was supposed to go. Actually, I had little to no details there, because we all had no idea how it was going to go. All we knew was that it would make us feel like we were inside Paige’s computer system, in her brain, whatever that would look like. And I told Pack about Peyton going in with us. Or rather, about Alloy going in. 

By the time I finished getting all that out, Pack had released the rest of her lizards to crawl all around the roof so they could explore. Meanwhile, the girl herself was staring at me. Yeah, her mask covered her entire expression. But I could tell she was staring. 

“You seriously don’t ever take a break, do you?” she managed in a soft mutter before sighing. “And you already picked up a sidekick. I heard about that, but I was half-convinced they were making it up.” For a moment, it looked like she was going to go on about that, before focusing. “Well, I guess we’re going in this robo-chick’s brain, huh?” 

Letting out the breath that I hadn’t even realized I was holding, I managed a smile that the other girl wouldn’t see. “So, you’re in? You’ll help with this?” Damn it, I sounded like a little kid. Wait, was that a good thing? It helped my cover and all that, right? So why should I care that it–never mind, I wasn’t going to think about that. Too many other problems. 

Pack was nodding even as I shook all that off. “Yeah, yeah, I’m in. Like hell am I gonna let our best non-Mall-related chance of finding out more about this whole Ministry thing disappear just because her psycho Daddy hit control alt delete or whatever. But seriously, you think the two of u—sorry, the three of us can deal with whatever this virus thing is?” 

I shrugged. “We’re gonna have to. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have an army I can call in to help. And I’m pretty sure Wren can’t make that many virtual reality links.” 

Pack was looking at me again, making a thoughtful sound in the back of her throat before simply asking, “What about Way? She knows what’s going on. I mean yeah, she doesn’t know exactly where the kid’s place is or anything, but she’s still involved in this. And you’ve trusted her with other things. If Wren says it’s okay, I think you should see if Minority girl wants to jump in.” 

Jeez, maybe I really was just super-accustomed to keeping secrets and compartmentalizing. I hadn’t really thought about asking That-A-Way. Still, even as Pack suggested it, a dozen thoughts of what could go wrong went running through my head. Maybe I was also a little bit paranoid. Forcing those thoughts aside with more than a little effort, I finally gave a short nod. “We can ask Wren. Then… well, it’s up to her. But if she’s okay with it, and if she has an extra slot, we can see if That-A-Way wants to go play Tron tonight.”  Pausing, I added, “Does that sound as weird out of my head as it did inside?” 

“Weirder,” Pack assured me. “But yeah, if we’re doing this, let’s do it right. We’ll go see Wren, find out what the deal is, and try to call in the Minority Babe if she doesn’t already have a date with some other Touched stuff tonight.” 

Curiously, I tilted my head. “You sound jealous about that possibility.” 

Yeah, Pack definitely shot me a dirty look at that. I could tell even through her total-face covering mask. “Let’s just do this before something more interesting comes along to distract me, huh?” 

“Well hey,” I started while moving toward the edge of the roof to head down, “if you’re looking for something interesting and this isn’t enough, I should tell you what Alloy and me are supposed to be doing for Deicide. 

“Now that’s a real doozy.”  

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Building Connections 16-06 (Summus Proelium)

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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 grounds, 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. 

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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 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 to 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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