Jae Baek

Private Affairs 9-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                         Next Chapter

It definitely wasn’t hard to have fun at this party. Amber (or her mother, rather) had seriously gone all out for it. And I knew why. A little over a year earlier was when Amber’s father had been killed by that hit-and-run driver. So, obviously, Amber hadn’t really been in much of a birthday party mood when her sweet sixteen came around. This whole thing was probably her mother’s way of trying to make up for that and help her daughter move on or something. 

The point was, there was definitely effort put into this, and it showed. The whole place had been rented out. There were batting cages, go-karts, bowling, a full arcade area with several VR stations, a room for laser tag, and so on. I knew I wasn’t the best judge as far as money went, but renting this whole place out had to cost a fair bit, right? Especially on a Saturday night.

There were also a lot of people here. It felt like a good portion of our grade had shown up, along with some other members of Amber’s family and maybe some from other schools or something. Lots of other teenagers running around, yelling to one another and visiting with the birthday girl herself. She was super-busy the whole night. I hoped she was having a good time herself. She seemed to be, it was just that every time I looked that way, she had a whole crowd of people around her. 

So yeah, it was impressive. And just a lot of fun in general. I spent a couple hours completely mostly forgetting about everything else while focusing on using the camera that Amber’s mother provided to take pictures of everyone to use as reference for the drawings later. I even saw Izzy enjoying herself. She seemed to get along with Amber, Jae, and the others pretty well, whenever they interacted. Izzy still didn’t talk very often, and she wasn’t doing much, if anything, with the debit card I’d handed her. But she was definitely having a good time, and that was the important part. 

Also, Jae was really good at the go-karts. Like, crazy good. As I stepped out of my own kart after she beat me in a best two-out-of-three contests (I was debating about whether to go for best three-out-of-five or something), I glanced that way to the other girl getting out of hers. “Where the heck did you learn to race karts like that? Are you an Indianapolis 500 driver in disguise and you’ve just been playing us this whole time?” Pointing at her, I fake-demanded, “Are there cameras around here watching me get schooled by a stunt driver?” 

With a faint but visible smile, Jae shook her head. She took the helmet off and reached out to set it back on the rack before looking to me once more. Her voice was soft. “Lots of Mario Kart?” 

“Aha!” I pointed at her. “I knew you were a ringer. I demand a new challenge at the ping pong table, where I may reclaim my lost honor, or something.” Dramatically moving my finger from the girl herself to the arcade room, I added a bit more casually, “But first, we grab more pizza?”  

She agreed, and the two of us moved to the room where the food was. There were several long tables laid out with basically all the junk food in the world on them. Finding some pizza, we loaded a couple plates. As we were finishing with that and stepping away, food in hand, Jae looked past me. Immediately, I saw the expression on her face go from casually happy and enjoying herself to incredibly guarded. It was like she’d flipped a switch and was closed off. 

Confused, I glanced over my shoulder and immediately understood her reaction. Standing there, staring at both of us with a small smirk on her face, was Elesha Carver. She was a black girl from our school, and I was pretty sure she was basically to Jae what Paige was to me. 

Okay, maybe not exactly the same. At the very least, I was really hoping Elesha wouldn’t also turn out to have some unexplained immunity to memory erasing, and be holding onto secret information that she refused to share but could potentially take down an entire underworld criminal empire. Because that kind of coincidence at this point would just be silly

But she was definitely a bitch. Which was a fact she proved an instant after opening her mouth, with a sly, “Heeeey, Jae. I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we string you up to the ceiling and then bounce strobe lights off your skin. You’d make a great party decoration, you know?” 

My mouth opened as several not-so-polite retorts leapt to mind (as well as the urge to punch her), but before I could say anything, another voice spoke. “Out of curiosity, exactly what level of lack of self-awareness does a black person have to have to talk about stringing someone up?” 

It was Paige, speak of the devil. She wasn’t paying any attention to me. She might not have even noticed me, to be honest. All of her focus was solely on Elesha, as she continued with a flat, “I mean, there’s being a completely incomprehensible moron, and then there’s being stupid enough to be black and mock someone for their fucking skin color, you ludicrous twat.”

Was this a bad time for me to speak up and say something about how it was equally stupid to hate (and spend years mocking) someone for being short and not fitting some classical idea of adult beauty? Because I felt like that was a really good opening for it. But I resisted, because this wasn’t about me. It was about making sure Jae’s night didn’t get ruined by this bitch. 

“You know what?” Elesha was retorting, “Fuck you. At least I’m not some kind of freak.” She said that, of course, while giving Jae a disgusted look, her mouth twisting hatefully in a way that made her look even nastier than she already had. “I’m not a mutant albino walking abortion.” 

“You know what else you’re not?” That was Amber, having extricated herself to come up from behind the other girl while she was talking. “Invited. As in you were never invited here.”

I could see by the expression on Elesha’s face that she’d already realized she’d made a mistake by picking this argument right now. But, of course, she didn’t back down. Shooting a glare toward Amber, she retorted a bit heatedly, “You invited everybody, remember? You put those invitations up all over the goddamn school. I’m pretty sure one of the fucking janitors is here.”  

“The janitors are cool,” Amber informed her. “And if you’ll take a quick look at any of those invitations, you’ll see that it says quite plainly, ‘All People Welcome.’ You, you’re not a person. You’re basically mucus, and I don’t want mucus at my party. It’s gross. So why don’t you leave?” 

For just a moment, I had the terrible feeling that a fight was going to break out. I had no idea if Amber would even do if Elesha took a swing at her, to be honest. Actually, I didn’t know what I would do if someone took a swing at me in here. I couldn’t exactly use my powers like I would in costume. I could paint the skin under my clothes and be careful about how obvious I was with the boosts, but even that felt risky. Honestly, the safest thing to do if something did start would probably be to let myself get hit, then just drop to the floor and stay there. 

In the end, I never did get to find out if Elesha would have backed off or not. Because just as this whole situation seemed to be right on the cusp of boiling over, someone called out from the far side of the large room, by the televisions, “Hey! Hey, shut the fuck up, it’s a Collision Point!”

That immediately shut down everything else that was going on. Everyone turned away from what they were doing. And I did mean everyone. The entire room grew completely silent, save for the televisions as we all moved closer. They were already changing the channel to match the one that the middle one was on, a channel that showed a serious-looking anchor talking. 

“Where?” Amber asked quietly, stepping up beside me while staring intently at the screen. “It’s not…?” She didn’t finish that sentence, trailing off instead. But we all knew what she had been about to say right then. Here. She had been about to ask if it was happening here in Detroit. 

Someone else, I wasn’t sure who, answered with, “Not here. Not this time. It’s Salt Lake City.” 

Sure enough, the anchor had a picture of Utah projected beside him, with a marker showing where Salt Lake was as he said something about the Collision Point starting near a library.

“Anyone know if they’re dealing with Stalkers, Wanderers, or Hidden?” Paige asked from somewhere behind me. I still didn’t know if she’d even noticed my presence yet. 

In answer, the guy who had called everyone over replied, “It’s Hollow and Grote Slang.” 

“One Hidden, one Stalker,” someone noted. “At least it’s not two Stalkers. They’re the worst.” 

Yeah, they were probably right. Two Stalkers hitting a Collision Point was bad. All Collision Points were bad, regardless. But those were bad on a whole other level. 

Collision Points. That’s what we called it when two Abyssals ran into each other and started a fight. See, when an Abyssal first… manifested or whatever, they were stuck in a single monstrous form. It was usually pretty big, between ten to twenty feet or so, and looked distinctly not human. That was what a lot of people had thought Cuélebre was at first, a new Abyssal.  They had no real intelligence at that point and just attacked everything around them. Which was also how people figured out that Cuélebre couldn’t be a new Abyssal, because he definitely had control. New Abyssals lashed out at everything and tried to do as much damage as they could. 

But it was worse if they managed to survive long enough to evolve to the second stage. First of all, second-stage Abyssals shifted back into a mostly or even entirely human-looking form. Some people said it was to recharge or something, but no one really knew. They simply went from being giant monsters down to looking like they had before their initial transformation. 

That was where the three classifications came in. Stalker, Wanderer, or Hidden. Stalkers were those who actively remembered what they were, liked it, and hunted for others of their kind. Wanderers were those kind of in the middle, the ones who had vague ideas or recollections, maybe dreams about doing bad things. They tended to… well, wander. They were drifters who went from town to town, simply staying on the move. According to a couple rare interviews that had been taken from a coherent Wanderer or two, they always felt the urge to keep going. It was like they were being pushed to look for something, but they had no idea what.  

Yeah, while Stalkers were actively malevolent and often did their best to hurt and kill people even in their human form, Wanderers could sometimes actually be spoken to, if you happened to know what they were. There were recorded interviews with Wanderers, who always just seemed… pretty out of it, like they barely understood what was going on. A lot of people dismissed them as mentally handicapped. Which hadn’t exactly done wonders for how actual mentally handicapped people were seen, that was for sure. They always spoke in a slow, somewhat dream-like voice, like they were partially in a trance. 

Then there were the Hidden. Those were the people who had absolutely no idea what they were. They went about their lives completely oblivious to the fact that they could transform into a huge monster at any given moment. 

The Hidden went about their lives as normal as possible. The Wanderers… wandered, drifting from place to place in their endless and unexplained search for whatever they were looking for. And Stalkers tried to locate any of their kind so they could trigger a fight. 

Because yeah, that’s what they did. Abyssals, when they encountered one another, fought. When two second-stage humanoid Abyssals touched one another, they would transform into their monster selves. Then they would set about doing their level best to completely fucking massacre each other. There was no love between any of them, no cooperation. There was nothing but violence and death, as they would hurl themselves at one another, doing everything they could to kill not just the other Abyssal, but anything that happened to get in their way. 

That was what we called a Collision Point. Two or more Abyssals who found one another, touched, and turned into huge (sometimes gigantic) monsters intent on beating the living shit out of each other, even if they had to rip apart buildings and massacre dozens or even hundreds to do it. At that point, they would fight either until one of them killed and absorbed the other (which basically seemed to make the winner take on some of the loser’s traits and powers while getting even bigger), or until something  (like a local Touched team) forced them to withdraw from each other. 

So yeah, to put it simply, Collision Points weren’t fun. They usually ended up with a lot of damage being done to the city they happened in, as the dueling Abyssals threw around absurd levels of destruction in their attempts to kill one another. Even Wanderers and Hidden, once shifted into their Abyssal forms, turned basically completely rabid and tried to destroy or kill everything between them and their opponent. 

Once enough damage was done by other Touched, or one of them managed to kill and absorb the other, the fight would be over. Once that happened, any of the surviving Abyssals would simply disappear. The… understanding was that they were transported somewhere else and returned to their human forms. Wanderers resumed their old mental state, while Hidden completely forgot what they had just been doing. Or maybe they had false memories. It wasn’t clear, and it was pretty hard to get that kind of information. There had been one short interview with a Hidden Abyssal who managed to be captured and locked up, but it wasn’t very enlightening. And he had vanished pretty soon after that brief discussion. 

Pencil, of course, was the leader of the Scions of Typhon. Typhon was a Stalker Abyssal, one of the largest, most violent, and most… successful in North America. He had killed and absorbed multiple other strong Abyssals. In one such fight, he’d basically leveled the majority of Waunakee, a small town in Wisconsin. A third of their roughly fifteen thousand residents were killed in that, while almost all of their buildings ended up uninhabitable. It was… bad. A lot of these Collision Points were bad. 

That was why no one was playing any more games or arguing. We all stood there, watching the news in silence as they showed footage of the local Utah Touched teams trying to deal with Hollow and Grote Slang before too much damage was done. 

Of the two, Hollow was the small one. She was pretty tiny, as far as Abyssals went, standing ‘only’ about eight feet tall. She was fairly humanoid too, though her skin was pitch black and oily. Really, her entire body seemed to be made of oil shaped like a person. She had only vague facial features, impressions where her eyes should have been. And she didn’t have permanent arms. Instead, any number of arms would extend from any point of her body whenever she happened to need them. 

Grote Slang, on the other hand, was far different. He was one of the bigger Abyssals, and definitely not humanoid. In his monster-form, he was basically a giant snake. And by giant, that was a snake a hundred feet long and as wide around as a city bus. Wicked-looking tusks came out of the snake’s mouth, curving up with venom dripping from them. Worse, he had two actual trunks, like an elephant’s, one leading off of each side of his head. The trunks were about a third as long as his body but could stretch to about half, and were used to grab prey and drag them up to his mouth. 

Yeah, like his mythological counterpart, Grote Slang was basically a cross between an elephant and a giant snake. It was bad. Really bad. 

We all watched on those screens as the news reported on the ongoing fight. None of the other guests tried to play any games or anything. We just watched as the Touched tried to stop too much damage from being done. They were… about as successful as they could be. Several full buildings and houses were still either heavily damaged or outright demolished, and a couple city blocks weren’t going to be safe to live in anytime soon. But the authorities reacted quickly enough and managed to get somewhat lucky in separating the two and doing enough damage to make them pull back. Didn’t kill either of them, but they at least managed to stop things from getting a lot worse than they could have.

At some point in all that, Izzy had found me. We stood there together and I had ended up taking her hand without really thinking about it. Once it was over, I glanced down, then looked over to where she was still staring at the television. “Sorry, we didn’t have to… watch all that. Are you okay?” 

Her head nodded slowly. “I wanted to,” she assured me quietly. “And yeah, I’m okay.” Strangely, she did sound okay. She didn’t seem too freaked out by all that. 

Glancing nearby, I could see Amber’s mom talking to her. It looked like this whole thing was about to be closed down for the night. Which was just as well. After watching all that on the news, it was clear that people weren’t just going to jump right back into playing games. Yeah, it had been almost two thousand miles away on the other side of the continent. And yes, they’d managed to contain things before too much damage was done. But even in that near-best case scenario, at least a few dozen people had still died. They wouldn’t have a real count until tomorrow, at the very least. Still, it wasn’t great. 

Abyssals were bad. When they found each other, bad things happened. Buildings and sometimes entire swaths of land were destroyed. Lots of people died. It was horrific.

And after watching something like that, even on the news from so far away, well… a lot of people didn’t feel like partying anymore. This sort of thing happened every once in awhile. Sometimes it was better and sometimes it was worse. But it was never good. 

Some of us stayed, mostly talking about either the attack or other attacks. A few drifted off to try to distract themselves with other games. From the corner of my eye, I saw Paige glance down at her phone. An annoyed look crossed her face before she turned and walked away, heading for the restroom corridor. With a quick look around to make sure no one was paying attention, I slipped away too, trying to follow her without being noticed. 

Reaching the area where the bathrooms were, I saw Paige step inside the women’s restroom. I carefully moved closer, stopping right next to the door. Through the crack, I could hear her talking. 

“Yeah, behind the library on Woodward, got it. I said I got it. When? And you better be exact, Pat, because my father’s contact windows are narrow. Specific coordinates, specific times.” 

Wait, what? What was she talking about? Paige’s mother and father were right here in the city. She talked to them every day. So… huh? 

The other girl continued. “I’ll be there. Yes, I know. Three hours and six minutes. Yeah, something tells me complaining about how late it is wouldn’t do much good. 

“After all, Breakwater’s an inescapable super-prison. It’s supposed to be hard to call out of.” 

Previous Chapter                         Next Chapter

Patreon Snippets 12B (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                 Next Chapter

Thanks once again to all $10+ Patrons. These are the two snippets that were requested for Summus Proelium. 

Standing outside his daughter’s private hospital room in their own home, Blackjack… or rather, Eric Abbot as he was known to those close to him, put a hand on the door and looked through the window. He stared at the little girl in the bed as she wrote intently in the notebook propped up against her knees. Several stuffed animals were gathered along the side of the bed as though listening while she dictated what she was writing. Her story was accompanied by grand gestures that kept interrupting her own writing. Once she apparently wrote something that she found so amusing she actually started laughing, the sound carrying through the door. It was a sight that made Eric smile, while a long, heavy shudder ran through him at the brief thought of what could have been.

For so long now, he had been terrified that his beautiful, amazing little girl would never grow up, that she would never be able to see all the things he wanted so desperately to show her. Every day when he saw how wonderful, brilliant, and effortlessly charming his child was, Eric despaired of what would happen to her without the medicine she needed. It had driven him to greater and greater heights of anger and frustration. But he never let her see it. He would not scare his little girl like that. Not when there was already so much for her to be afraid of.  

But she knew. She always knew just how upset he was. And often, it had seemed as though she was taking care of him more than the other way around. She was so strong, so brave. Disease be damned, she was one of the most amazing people he knew. Yes, he was biased. But she truly was remarkable, to handle all of this as well as she did. It inspired him more than he could ever articulate. His daughter was his everything, and if the worst had happened, if he had truly lost her…

Stepping into the room, the man looked to the two doctors who were working in the corner. Greeting them by name briefly, he asked the pair to step outside for a few minutes. Only once they were gone and he had locked the door, did Eric let his guard down a little bit and allow himself to let go of some of the rigid control with which he held himself. He felt his eyes grow a little wet as he stepped over and spoke up. “Hey, Smelly,” he greeted his daughter, a teasing nickname that was a combination of Small and Melly (for Melissa) 

“Hi, Daddy!” Melissa piped up, looking at him eagerly. Every day, Eric was amazed and humbled by his daughter’s resilience and ability to cope with this terrible situation. Sometimes it seemed as though she had been in the hospital forever, trapped in this room with her brittle bones. Bones that would have snapped from very little pressure. Bones that, without Worthy’s medicine, would have rotted away and disintegrated into a poison that would kill her. 

They’d stopped the disease from getting worse for quite a while, but they still couldn’t push things. Her bones were so fragile, and would continue being fragile until further into the treatment, that there was no way to let her live a normal life right now. They couldn’t risk allowing Melissa to run outside, play with others, or do… anything a little girl should have been able to do. She escaped through her writing into worlds of grand adventure and dashing heroes. In her stories, she could be anything, do anything. She could create universes worth of excitement that made her long days and nights spent in that single bed more tolerable.  

Sitting down on the chair that he pulled closer, Eric picked up the girl’s newest stuffed animal, the pink crocodile with the cloth skateboard attached to its feet that Sterling and Elena (or Uncle Stan and Aunt Ellen, as she knew them) had convinced her to name after their own daughter, Cassidy. 

For a moment, he just turned the toy over in his hands, staring down at it while his fingers shook. He had to take a breath and steady himself. It was so strange. He could order men to their death, could look someone like Cuélebre right in the eyes without flinching. He could stand down any threat. But the emotions he felt as he sat here with his daughter could be his undoing. He felt a shudder run through him once more as his eyes closed and a few more tears fell. 

“Daddy.” There was a small hand on his arm, and Eric opened his eyes to see that his daughter had shuffled over a bit to be next to him. She was staring at him with a wide, understanding gaze that seemed far more wise than her tender years. “If I have to stay sick, it’s okay. Please don’t be sad. I don’t want you to be sad.” 

He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t even swallow past the hard lump that formed in his throat. Rising from his own chair, the man moved over and sat on the bed, gathering the girl up into his lap and hugging her gently to his chest. “My girl,” he murmured in a voice filled with wonder and amazement at the simple truth of that statement. “You’re my baby girl. My brave little girl.” 

Kissing the top of her head tenderly, Eric finally shook his head. “I’m not sad, Smelly Melly. I’m not sad at all. I’m happy.” Swallowing, he added, “I’m happier than I’ve been for a long time.”  

Leaning her head back, Melissa gently poked at his face, her expression curious. “But you’re crying, Daddy. You aren’t supposed to cry when you’re happy. Did you get broken?” 

The question made him chuckle a little despite himself, and the man nodded once. “Maybe I did get a little broken. But you won’t be. You–” Once more, the words caught in his throat, and he had to give a light chuckle of bafflement at the absurdity of his emotions. Maybe Melissa was right, maybe he really was broken. The years of being terrified for his daughter’s life, of working so hard to keep her safe from this horrific disease, had taken its toll. Especially the past few weeks, as he dealt with the mounting desperation and panic at the possibility of losing her for real. 

“Baby, we found it,” he finally managed. His hand gently touched her face, fingers tenderly brushing along the girl’s cheek. “We found your medicine. We found all of it. You’re going to be okay. We’ve got your medicine here, right here in the house. Where it should have been the whole time. We’ve got all of it, Smelly. Every last bit.” With each word, his voice cracked with a bit more emotion, while he watched the expression on his daughter’s face. 

She was staring wide-eyed at him. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, “So I can get better?” Her voice was tentative, making it clear how hesitant she was to express even that much hope. Which he could hardly blame her for after everything that had happened. “Really better?” 

His head gave a short, jerky nod as a small, emotional laugh escaped him. It was a laugh born not of amusement, but of uncontained emotion that had to escape in that moment. “Yes, baby girl. Yes, you’re going to be okay. You’re going to have your medicine and you’ll get better just like Dr. Worthy said. You’re going to be just fine. You’re going to be safe. You’re gonna be strong, and you’re gonna grow up, and… and you’ll be okay.” 

Once the last word escaped him, Eric found himself unable to say anything else. The tears had started in earnest as soon as he saw them appear in his daughter’s eyes. He pulled her closer and the two hugged, father and daughter clinging to one another against the storm of emotion that swept through each of them. 

It took both a few minutes to collect themselves enough to speak again. Once he could finally find his voice, Eric leaned back and smiled at his daughter a bit shakily. “See, maybe you’re broken too.” 

“I’ll be broken if I can stay with you, Daddy,” Melissa informed him. Which was enough to make the man lose himself in another tight embrace with the beautiful, amazing little girl who made everything he had ever done in his life worth it just to be there with her. Nothing else in the world mattered. Nothing. Just being right there with her. 

“No, sweet thing,” the man finally managed. “You won’t be broken. You’ll be amazing. You’ll be a writer, a real writer. You’ll travel and see all the amazing things you’ve ever wanted to see. You’ll do everything you want to do, because you’re going to be okay. You’re going to be fine, my baby girl.”  

The two of them sat together like that for another minute before Melissa sniffed once and quietly announced, “I miss Dr. Worthy, Daddy.” Her voice was hesitant, and she glanced up guiltily, as though she felt bad about bringing up a sad moment right then, at a time in which they were supposed to be happy. 

Eric, however, gave a short nod. “I know, baby. I miss him too. I sure wish he could be here right now. I wish he could see just how much you’re going to grow up. But you know what we have to do to make up for him being gone?” 

The girl’s head shook slowly. “Nuh uh. What, Daddy?” Even as she said the words, she clung to him a little tighter, needing the reassurance of his physical presence to prove to herself that she wasn’t dreaming. 

“Live,” Eric informed her with a little poke to her nose that made the girl giggle. “You make Dr. Worthy’s work worth it by living the biggest, best life you can, okay, Smelly? You were the last big thing he worked on. So when you’re better, you’re gonna go out there and be whatever you want to be. You’re gonna live. That’s what you can do for Dr. Worthy. You’ll be out there telling your stories to everyone in the world.” 

“Can I tell you a story right now, Daddy?” she asked quickly, reaching out to pick up the nearest notebook, which he could see was filled with her neat, careful handwriting. “I made up a new one last night.” 

“Of course, you know I love your stories,” he assured her before settling up against the headboard of the bed. Letting his daughter adjust herself until she was comfortably resting against him, the man put an arm around her and listened while she began to read her newest story. Maybe it would have been strange to some people that she was the one who read him a story rather than the other way around. But he didn’t care. This was what his girl wanted. 

Fairly soon, it was clear that all the excitement had worn her out, and he could hear the mounting tiredness in her voice as she pushed on to get through the story. Eventually, he held the notebook and turned the pages for her while she laid back against his chest and simply read the words. Even that eventually trailed off into more and more silence between the words as her eyes would close for a few seconds, open again to read the first few words her gaze found, then close once more. 

Then she was asleep. For a while, Eric simply sat there with her, tenderly stroking the girl’s hair as he whispered soothing words to ensure she knew, even in her unconscious state, that she was safe and that he would never let anything bad happen. The thought of losing her, of being so helpless to protect his little girl…

Realizing he needed to get up before he ended up waking Melissa, Eric very carefully extracted himself and straightened. He took a moment to gently lay her on the pillow and put the blanket over her before standing up. It was okay, he had to remind himself. She was safe and she was going to stay that way. 

Quietly ordering the computer to lower the lighting, he walked out of the room. Closing the door behind him, the man was met by a friend that he’d known for exactly as long as he had known Samuel Worthy. Elarc Sorn, the former mercenary for Braintrust who had been convinced in that meeting three years earlier to switch sides, stood with a cell phone in one hand. 

“Reports are in,” he informed his boss after having waited patiently for him to be ready. “We lost a few people. Six dead, another eight arrested at the scenes. About thirty or forty thousand dollars worth of damages to a couple of our sites. Don’t have to reclaim anything cuz they backed off as soon as word got out that the vials were off the market.” 

“They were a distraction-force,” Eric replied flatly. “They never intended to hold our territory, only do enough damage to force us to split our resources to handle it. And to sow discord among our people if I didn’t address the situation properly, make them see me putting them in danger to protect my own daughter.” 

Sorn nodded once. “That does seem to have been the goal, sir. But they didn’t do nearly as much damage as they could have.” 

“They did enough,” Eric informed him. “We’ll respond in kind.” As he spoke, the man reached for the phone in his jacket pocket. Instead, he found something else. The skateboarding pink crocodile. Somehow, the stuffed toy had ended up in his pocket. Probably courtesy of his daughter wanting to share something with him. For a moment, he gazed at the creature. Cassidy. Cassidy the Crocodile. 

Somehow, his thoughts turned to the boy who had been so responsible for making this night possible. Paintball. Whoever the boy was under that mask, he was very clearly going to be important going forward. Important not only to Eric and his people, but others as well. There was more going on there, Eric knew. While his power wasn’t telling him exactly what, he knew there was something big just lurking under the surface. Something tantalizingly close. 

Exhaling, he absently put the toy away while looking back to his subordinate. “For now, let people recover. They’ve all done enough. Make sure compensation goes to the families of those we lost, and get our legal representation for the ones who were picked up. I want them out as soon as possible, and I want them eager to jump back into things. We need everyone we can get.” 

Walking down the hall, he spoke in a low, dangerous voice. “Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners think the war is over. 

“But it’s just beginning.” 

*******

The front doors of the Evans mansion closed behind Izzy, Damarko, Amber, and Jae as the four of them walked out together after watching the movie in that giant home theater. No one said anything until they reached Damarko’s car. Then Amber turned, glanced around briefly, before taking a knee and embracing Izzy. “How’re you really doing?” 

Izzy’s eyes closed, as she told herself not to stiffen up, and definitely not to push Amber away. She knew the other girl meant well. She was trying to help, trying to make her feel safer. But being touched like that, it just… she wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Not after…

Shaking that off, she gave a quick squeeze in return before stepping back in a way that she hoped wouldn’t make Amber feel bad or anything. There was a lump in her throat as she spoke with a quiet, “I could be a lot worse.” 

“A lot worse as in, ‘could be enslaved by some Fell-Gang assholes?’” Damarko asked, “Or a lot worse as in, ‘could have to stay somewhere other than the biggest house in the whole city?’” Without looking, he caught the elbow that Amber tried to shove at him before adding, “She knows I’m just trying to lighten the mood.” Pausing then, he added, “You do know that, right?” 

“Uh huh,” Izzy confirmed, glancing to Jae. “You’re really different like this, you know?” 

It was like a switch had been flipped. The quiet, demure and barely responsive Jae straightened, raised her head, and smiled. At one point, Izzy had seen the old Superman movies with Christopher Reeve, and the way Jae switched from the persona she put on in public to the way she was now or as Carousel reminded her of him going between Clark Kent and Superman in the same scene. It was that much of an immediate and thorough switch. 

“I’d rather not be the same,” the Albino Asian girl replied, “in case the flame of my fame puts my name to acclaim and this dame is fair game to shame, claim, or maim.” 

“In other words, she’d rather be really different between her civvie self and her Touched self so no one recognizes her and causes problems. And see, I told you guys she holds all of that in at school and can’t help blurting out the rhymes as soon as she gets a chance,” Amber noted before focusing on Izzy. “So, you’re really okay right now? What’s… umm… you know, what’s it like living here?” 

“What’s Cassidy like, she means,” Damarko put in. “Is she this really spoiled rich girl in private? Does she like, have servants bring her towers of ice cream the size of your head?” He blinked at Amber and Jae. “What? I’m not blaming her. I would totally do that if my family owned half the city.” 

“She doesn’t notice,” Izzy quickly piped up. She waited until they were looking at her, then shrugged. “Cassidy. She doesn’t notice that she’s rich. Not really. Not… like… like that. It’s like… her family having so much money is like most people having legs.” 

Amber frowned. “Uh… what?” 

Trying to put her thoughts (she’d had them over the past couple days all jumbled up) into some kind of order, Izzy carefully explained, “I mean, a umm… a normal person with working legs, right? They walk around all day, and if they see someone who can’t walk, they feel bad for them and maybe think about how they might be able to help. Or they feel like… how much better they have it. But most of the time, they don’t really think about it. They don’t think about how good their legs are when they get up and walk to the kitchen. That’s what Cassidy is like with money. She’s not bad because she doesn’t think about how rich she is. When she sees someone without money, she tries to help them. But most of the time, she’s just… a person with working legs. She has money, it doesn’t… register, or whatever unless it’s really pointed out. Someone with legs isn’t bad just because they don’t think about how useful that is most of the time. It’s just their life. Having so much money is her life.” 

“Do you like her?” That was Damarko, getting straight to the point. “I mean, do you think she’s cool?” 

For a brief moment, Izzy considered the question. “I don’t… know her very much,” she carefully answered. “I know she’s keeping secrets. I think she might have a boyfriend or something that she doesn’t want her mom and dad to know about. But… yeah. Yeah, she’s pretty cool. And she’s funny. I… she’s not anything like how I expected the Evans’ daughter to be.” 

“Yeah, you can say that again,” Amber agreed with a snort. “But seriously, we knew she was cool. Good project partner anyway, and that absolutely translates into other things. So if shit goes down out here, she will totally have your back.” 

Blinking, Izzy carefully pointed out, “I don’t… think she’d be able to help very much if any bad guys showed up. And hey, you guys never said you were friends with the richest girl in town.”

“I meant have your back as in she’d stand behind you,” came the grinning retort. “Which is the safest place to be, cuz you’re Izzy God Damn Amor.” With a wink, Amber added, “And we weren’t really that close until Mr. Dorn teamed us up for that school thing a few weeks ago.” She hesitated as though considering something about that before shaking it off. “Anyway, enough about Cassie. While we’re here, there’s something else we should talk about.

“Paintball. What’s that guy’s deal?” 

Previous Chapter                                 Next Chapter

Friends and Enemies 8-09 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                  Next Chapter

“You want me to break her legs?”

Jolting a bit at the question, I looked across the lunch room table at the girl who had asked it. Amber. It was the next day after my whole… complicated evening at Tomas’s, and she and I were eating lunch as we waited for Jae, who was finishing up some kind of extra credit work in the science lab. I still wasn’t exactly sure what for, but whatever, she did a lot of extra credit stuff. Either she just liked doing it, or she was pushing to get into a really good university and wanted to pad out her application. Which was fair.

Seeing my surprised expression, Amber nodded across the room. “Paige. You keep staring at her. And you’re holding that fork so tight, I’m afraid you might snap it in half.”

Yeah, Paige was here. She must have been really confident in whatever leverage she had, because she had just shown up to school as if nothing had happened. Looking at her today, you never would have guessed that she’d had a gun pointed to her head the night before. You would never know she came so close to being killed. She was effortlessly smooth and interacted with people as if she didn’t have a care in the world. 

And she definitely wasn’t any nicer to me. If anything, she was even more caustic than usual. Which, I supposed made a certain sort of sense if she knew it was my family who had nearly had her killed. That had to be why she hated me so much, didn’t it? She knew something about my family, something that made them want her dead. That had to be connected to why she’d been so intent on attacking me every chance she got. Because Tomas had been right, last night when she didn’t know who I was, she was a lot more tolerable. So that had to be related. 

Except she’d very clearly hated me for years. And I was pretty sure my family hadn’t wanted her dead for that long. So what happened? Did she just get the proof she needed? How? What was it? And how did she know about my family in the first place? Hell, was her hating me even directly connected to that? It seemed like it had to be, but what could she have found out all the way back in middle school? Also, how was she immune to Mr. Jackson’s power? 

And while we were on that subject, had he ever used it on me? The fact that my parents had someone who could erase people’s memories made it somewhat easier to understand how they got away with as much as they did. But how many of my memories had been erased or changed? Had I found out the truth about them before and they just erased it? The thought had led me to throwing up in the bathroom the night before. 

Clearly, making sure they didn’t find out that I knew the truth was even more important than I’d thought before. I couldn’t give them any reason to think they needed to fix my memory. Not until I had a better handle on this whole thing. Not until I was ready to make a much bigger move. 

The point was, I had a hell of a lot of questions, many of them revolving around Paige Freaking Banners. So yeah, I had probably been staring at her more than I should. 

Flushing a little under Amber’s stare, I shook my head. “No leg breaking.”

Raising an eyebrow at me, the dark-haired girl asked, “You sure? I’d do it pro bono. I mean, I do still owe you for that awesome movie night. And for being a pretty good project partner, I suppose.” Adding that part thoughtfully, Amber tossed a tater tot in the air, tilted her head back, and caught it in her mouth. 

“Something tells me that breaking Paige’s legs would probably complicate more things than it solves,” I replied dryly. “And I told you before, you don’t owe me anything. It was just a fun night.”

From the grin that abruptly blossomed on the other girl’s face, I realized that I had just walked into some form of trap. “Well, then I suppose the best way for me to pay you back is to give you a fun night, isn’t it?”

As I stared at her, wondering what I had just opened myself up to, she pointed at me. “It’s my seventeenth birthday party this weekend. And you’re going.”

Oh, right. Amber‘s birthday. She, like most other people in our grade, was almost a year older than me, since I’d skipped first grade. It was another thing that contributed to me always being smaller than everyone else. Not the main thing. I was small regardless. I could probably come to this school in my twenties and still look like a freshman at best. But still. 

Amber was explaining. “My mom and uncle are renting out that place on Lynnwood with the arcade and the batting cages and all that. Saturday night from six until whenever we’re done, we’ve got the whole place to ourselves. There’s gonna be dinner and games and lots of other shit. And plenty of people, including you.”

Declining at this point felt like a bad idea. Besides, I liked Amber. I liked Jae too. With everything that was going on, would it really kill me to take a night off just to help celebrate the girl’s seventeenth birthday? 

While I was working my way through that, Amber continued. “You should bring that girl that’s staying with you, too. Izzy? Arcade games, batting cages, miniature golf, there’s gotta be something she’ll like. Although now that I say it, you probably have all of those things in your house, but still. Maybe she’ll like the fresh air?”

Izzy. Getting her out of the house and letting her have fun did seem like a good idea. And I could tell from the look on Amber’s face that she knew she’d hit the mark. So, I heaved a long, put upon sigh before waving a hand vaguely. “Okay, okay, I get it. I suppose I will just suffer through an entire evening of fun and games if that’ll make you feel better, birthday girl. And I’ll see if Izzy can come.”

Grinning at me, Amber held up another tater tot between two fingers and flicked it my way. After I caught it in my mouth, she glanced past me. “Everything good?”

She was talking to Jae, who took the open seat beside me while nodding once. “Done,” she replied quietly, setting her tray of food down. Sticking a fork in her salad, the pale girl added, “Did you ask?”

Amber shrugged. “I just got through the inviting her part. Haven’t gotten to the posters part just yet. I wanted to make sure she wanted to come first.”

Blinking at that, I asked, “Posters part?”

She nodded. “See, my mom wants to do this charity thing. She had the idea to have an artist at the party taking pictures. Then everyone who donates to that children’s hospital that got attacked could get a drawing of themselves with a certain theme. You know, like pirate or ninja or anything like that. The size or the detail of the picture and all that would depend on how much they donate. They can fill out a form saying what they like to see along with a receipt of their donation. She had a guy lined up to do it, but he had to back out at the last minute. I said I knew someone who was a really good artist at school. She can find someone else if you want, but I just thought I’d ask if you’re interested. We can pay you for it, then mail the pictures ourselves once they’re done. “

Staring at her, I blinked a few times. “Drawing… oh. Oh, umm… I… yeah. Yeah, I can do that. I mean, I hope I can do that. Sure.”

Grinning widely at my agreement, Amber looked to Jae. “See, told you this was gonna be the best party ever.”

Jae, for her part, simply looked over at me, her voice soft. “Is your friend coming?”

“Friend? Oh, you mean Izzy,” I realized. “I’ll ask if she wants to. Thanks for inviting her, you guys. I know you barely know her.”

Amber shrugged. “She seemed pretty cool. 

“And this party needs all the cool people.”

******

By the time school let out, I still had no idea what I was going to do about the whole Paige situation. And I had other things to worry about for the evening. Two things in particular, each on opposite sides of the legal line. First, I needed to take those papers down to the courthouse and turn them in before the judge got too antsy. I’d been told that I would generally have a week or two, as the law didn’t exactly move fast anyway, and they knew that a lot of us were busy. But still. 

The other thing I had to do was get that device we’d… borrowed back to the maintenance place so it could be returned to the Seraph hospital before they noticed anything wrong. Wren had apparently finished extracting it and making sure the thing was okay, so I would get it where it needed to be tonight. 

That was for later, of course. Once things all closed down, I would worry about that. For the moment, the courthouse was the number one priority. 

Well, the number one priority after I visited Wren, at least. But that was related to the court house anyway. I had to take some of those papers over to her, as the person who was responsible for Ashton being confined inside her base. There were parts she had to sign and fill in under her chosen moniker of Trevithick. 

That didn’t take too long, and I promised to come back and see her again shortly before heading out again. Eventually, I was waiting in costume in front of the back door of an unlabeled, unremarkable building a block or so away from the courthouse. I’d texted That-A-Way for advice and she let me know that this was the way most Star-Touched got into the courthouse without being mobbed or anything by going in the front door. Apparently, there was a tunnel leading to the court from this building that helped keep all that stuff out of public sight. 

A second after I knocked, there was a soft whirring sound  and I saw a small camera in the upper left corner turn a little to focus on me. There was a brief pause, then the sound of a couple electric locks disengaging before the door opened to reveal a man in a police uniform. “Paintball, I assume?” 

“In the flesh,” I confirmed. Waving the papers in my hand, I added, “I was just hoping to drop off these detention things.”

The cop nodded. “Yeah, they said you’d probably be coming by. Just in case though, could you show me your power so I know I’m not letting in a stranger with your costume?”

Obligingly, I turned and held my hand out, shooting a bit of red paint to a stick on the ground before yanking it back to myself. “Good enough?”

“Yup,” the man confirmed before stepping back and gesturing for me to enter. “I’m Officer Metts. Good to meet you, kid. Pretty sure this won’t be the only time. I get stationed out here a lot.”

Stepping in, I took another look at the man. He was black, and looked to be in his thirties, very well built, with dark hair cut short and hazel eyes. His nose was maybe just a little too big for his face and had been broken at least once, but he was still pretty handsome. 

“Well,” I replied, “I’m glad the guy at the door isn’t someone who hates Touched.”

Chuckling, the man nodded. “Don’t worry, they figured out a long time ago that having someone who can’t get along with the masked types is a bad idea. Just makes things worse for everybody. Come on, I’ll take you down to the tunnel and let ‘em know you’re coming.”

We were in what looked like a simple apartment lobby area with stairs leading up, a couple apartment doors to the left, and an unlabeled door to the right. He went to the right and opened the unlabeled door, revealing another room with another set of stairs, these ones leading down, and a couple elevators. We took the stairs, heading, as promised, into the tunnel. It clearly went on a long distance, but the man simply pointed. “There’ll be a guy meeting you at the entrance to the courthouse. Just head that way and you can’t miss him. Unfortunately, I’m not gonna be here when you get off. You’ll have to be let out by one of my coworkers. But don’t worry, none of us bite.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “Maybe I’ll see you next time when I have to come in for those deposition things.”

“Maybe you will,” Officer Metts agreed. “Good luck for now, though. And hey, watch your back out there. 

“I hear Cuélebre’s really pissed off at you.”

*******

So, I turned in those papers before waiting to have a short chat with the judge. I had to sit around for about half an hour, but that wasn’t a big deal. And it was definitely understandable, considering I didn’t have any kind of appointment. Eventually, the judge had called me up out of the basement room where I had been waiting, and I had a talk with him about what happened with Ashton. He was thorough, but not too prying. He got the information he needed and said he’d make an official ruling after consulting some books, but that I shouldn’t worry. 

Eventually, that was over and I had gone home to have dinner and be visible for a little while. Not to mention hang out with Izzy. I brought up the party thing and both she and my parents were pretty accepting. I had no doubt we’d have escorts we didn’t even know about, but Mom still seemed pretty happy with the idea regardless. 

Izzy, meanwhile, seemed okay with it too. She clearly wanted to get out of the house, big as it was. And I couldn’t blame her for that. So we would definitely be going to the party. 

Of course, for that to happen, it would probably help if I wasn’t a fugitive from the Seraphs. To that end, it was time to return their device. So, I’d let Eits know to add it back into the schedule using the back door he’d built into their system, and he told me what packing label to put on it once I was in there.

And there I was, crouched on the roof of the building across the street from the Taurus repair facility. It was late enough by now that there was almost no one there. All I had to do was sneak in and drop this off. Eits was standing by to loop their cameras as soon as I gave him the signal, and he’d unloop them once I was out.

So, here went nothing. Holding the box under one hand, I sent the text his way, waiting for the acknowledgment before shoving the phone in my pocket and taking a running start. Like the last time, I used the nearby billboard and dropped in on top of the smaller building in the middle of the compound. From there, I waited for the guard to pass, then hopped down and made my way to the place we picked this thing up from it to begin with. 

Unfortunately, I had to duck back and wait there, because there were a couple guys in work overalls having a discussion about the Pistons (as in the basketball team) right in the doorway. There was some good-natured arguing back-and-forth, as one of the man apparently was more into some other team. Or maybe it was a completely different sport. Honestly, I had no idea. 

Either way, I anxiously waited, knowing the cameras couldn’t be looped for too long. But, finally, the two men left the building, walking together towards the much larger one. Watching them go from my hiding spot, I slipped around the building and in through the door. 

Once inside, I called Eits and had him talk me through printing out the right label with the number on it. It took a couple tries to get right, but finally, I stuck the label on and thanked the boy for his help. “Seriously, no way could I have pulled this off without you.”

“Don’t worry about it,” came the response. “The boss’s kid needed it. And now she’s safe, thanks to you. So we’re good. Maybe we can find another reason to hang out at some point before you have to try to arrest me.”

Snorting, I replied, “Arresting is sort of like hanging out. But we’ll figure it out later. Thanks again, I’ll put this back and then get out of here.”

Disconnecting from the call, I found the spot on the shelves where the box would wait for pick-up in the morning. Satisfied that they would find it, I quickly checked the yard to make sure it was clear before making my way out. 

Great, that was one more thing off my mind. The hospital would get its device back and no one had to be hurt or anything. Now I could focus on the important things, like finding out just what the hell was going on with Paige, how to deal with the fact that my ex-boyfriend’s father worked for my supervillain parents, what Izzy’s whole deal was… yeah, I had plenty to occupy my mind, that was for sure. 

Which, of course, was why I had barely taken two steps after landing in the alley outside of the repair facility when a voice spoke up. 

“I guess a thanks is in order.”

Spinning that way, my gaze found a man in gleaming golden armor, with metal wings and an enormous sword bigger than he was resting against the ground with his hand set casually on the pommel. 

It was Hallowed, one of the local Seraph leadership and also one of the most powerful Touched in the city. 

“After all, you returned our item without us having to go track it down ourselves,” the tall man continued casually. 

“Though I do think it’s time that the two of us had a little chat about borrowing things that don’t belong to you.”

Previous Chapter                                  Next Chapter

Friends and Enemies 8-05 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                       Next Chapter

Izzy didn’t wake up again, and the two of us slept through the rest of the night. We slept so well, in fact, that I was almost late for my ride to school. This time, however, Jania didn’t wake me up with the vacuum. Instead, she gently touched my arm and woke me carefully to avoid bothering Izzy. I quietly slipped out of bed, whispered a thank you and made sure she had seen the note about the glass in the other room, then made my way to the bathroom to get cleaned up. When I left (after grabbing the bag with my costume from its hiding place and slipping it into my backpack), the kid was still asleep. I hoped she’d stay that way for a bit. She deserved the rest.  

In any case, I made it to school. Which was good, because I was pretty sure that if I’d abandoned Amber and Jae right when we were supposed to give our projects, I’d never hear the end of it. Well, from Amber anyway. Jae would probably just look silently disappointed with me, the thought of which somehow seemed worse than anything Amber could possibly say. 

But I made it, and we presented our report on Laura Cereta, one of the first known feminist and humanist writers in the world from way back in the fourteen hundreds. Amber and I did most of the talking, but Jae filled in her part too. After the main report, the three of us took a few questions (mostly from Mr. Dorn, though a couple other students were actually interested enough to ask something) to prove we knew the material. When we were done, he said he’d let us know what our grade was tomorrow, mentioning that he was quite impressed. Then he moved on to the next group. And that was that, our whole project was over and done with. 

“Hey,” Amber muttered on the way back to our desks. “Don’t be a stranger just cuz the project’s over, got it? Seeing that movie last night was pretty awesome.” Going briefly silent with a tilted head as she took her seat, the girl belatedly added, “Oops. Guess that kinda sounds like I just want you to hang out with us for the benefits, huh?” She looked to me. “Seriously, come hang out at my place some time. It’s not a mansion, but hey. We could still have fun. Right, Jae?”

The other girl nodded, and I gave them both a thumbs up. “Sure, no worries. We’ll hang out.” It would be kind of weird, considering I hadn’t really… just gone over to a friend’s house like that since long before this whole Touched thing. Oh, sure, I had friends at school. But they were friends at school. I hung out in groups now and then, went to some parties, that kind of thing. I wasn’t a hermit. But somehow, having a close friend that I confided in and all that had felt… wrong? Dangerous. Something. I couldn’t explain it. All I knew was that whenever I started along the path of making a close friend, something in the back of my head would always tell me it was a bad idea. It made me feel… guilty, like I was betraying someone. Which was dumb. What the hell did I have to feel guilty about? Who could I possibly be betraying? 

Oh well, that whole feeling had kind of faded since I found that orb and all this started happening. Probably because I had a lot more to worry about now than some stupid paranoid thoughts that I couldn’t even actually explain to myself. There were real problems, real reasons for paranoia and to be worried about someone close to me getting hurt. I no longer needed some half-formed vague notions about ‘betraying’ someone by making a new close friend. Which, I supposed, was one thing to be grateful for. Maybe I’d send my parents a greeting card reading, ‘Thanks for being evil supervillains, at least now I’m paranoid for a reason.’  

Yeah, that probably wouldn’t go over well. But like with most of my thoughts and fantasies about the various ways I might present the fact that I knew the truth to my family, the thought of their faces in those first few seconds was almost worth it. Sort of. Until I actually stopped to think about it. Then all I could figure was that it would go one of two ways. First, they’d be angry, they’d show me their… evil side. And the thought of that was enough to make me want to die. 

The other option was that they’d be ashamed, sad that I had found out. And… and part of me didn’t want to experience that either. But another part of me did. One part of me wanted to shove it in their faces and scream that I knew they were monsters. 

But they weren’t monsters. They were my family. They were my mom, my dad, my brother. I wanted to scream at them and I wanted to hug them. I wanted them to be good, God damn it. I wanted to throw everything I knew about what they were doing right in their faces, and I also wanted to hide it, bury it deep down. I wanted to forget it, I wanted to scream it from the rooftops. I wanted to deal with it, I wanted it to disappear. I wanted to wake up in the morning and find out everything about my parents being evil was just a bad dream. 

Would I still want that if it meant giving up my powers? I loved my powers. But… but my family. Would I erase my whole identity as Paintball if it meant not just forgetting that my family were a bunch of supervillains, but actually erase that fact and make them normal people instead, the way I used to think they were? Would I choose to become normal if it would make them normal? 

Fuck. I was supposed to be able to answer that question, wasn’t I? What… what would I choose? Gun to my head, one way or the other, which would I choose? Which would I choose? 

“Cassie?” A voice interrupted my internal musing. Class was over, and Amber was standing there, looking at me curiously. “You okay? You looked kinda… lost for a minute there.” 

Clearing my throat, I nodded quickly while picking myself up and grabbing my bag. “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks. And hey, glad I got teamed up with you for the project. It’s… it was fun.” 

On my way out, Mr. Dorn spoke up. “Cassidy, please wait a second, would you?” 

So, I did. Waving to Amber and Jae, I stood by the man’s desk and watched curiously as he adjusted and stacked the papers he’d taken from everyone who presented today, then put them into a folder in his satchel. Zipping it shut, he finally looked up toward me. “It sounds as though you, Jae, and Amber are getting along beyond just doing the project together?” 

“Uh.” Blinking, I nodded. “Yes, sir, they’re cool. Jae knows a lot if you give her time to talk.” 

“Yes, she does,” he agreed with a small smile. “Most people don’t, though. Most people–” He cut himself off and just shook his head. “Not a good idea to dwell on that kind of thing. The point is, I’m glad it worked out. Jae…” He paused, seeming to consider his words. “Jae needs more friends she can count on. People who can be there for her. And you–” Again, he seemed to stop short, changing whatever he had been about to say. “Eh, never mind. I’m rambling because I’m hungry, see?” With a little smile, he gestured to me. “Go ahead–oh, you’re ahhh… friends with Tomas Jackson, yeah?” When I nodded, he continued. “Great, could you make sure to remind him that he needs to show up here after school for that exam he and I were talking about?” 

I agreed before heading out. Sure enough, I saw Tomas at lunch, and told him what Mr. Dorn had said. He, in turn, reminded me that I was supposed to go to his family’s place for dinner that night. Which was going to be interesting. I hadn’t spent a lot of time with Tomas’s family back when we were dating, but I’d spent enough to know that his father was a lot different from Tomas himself. His mother, on the other hand, was more like her son. Much more laid back than her husband. Kent Jackson had always given me the creeps for… well, reasons I couldn’t explain. He was polite enough, for the most part. He was well-spoken, he never said or did anything bad to me. Nonetheless, every time I saw the man, a weird feeling went up my spine. 

But I was just going to have to get over that, or at least shove it down while going to this dinner. Because Tomas would be pretty disappointed if I didn’t show up. Besides, his father didn’t deserve the kind of apprehension I’d felt toward him. Now that I knew my own parents were evil supervillains, I really had to let go of that old imaginary paranoia. 

I’d go to this dinner with my old boyfriend and have a good time. I would not let weird, unfounded feelings ruin that. 

******

The house the Jacksons were living in right now was the same one they’d lived in before. It was probably owned by the British government or something and given to their diplomats. The house itself was fairly large, I supposed, for a normal home. It was three stories, but still much smaller than my family’s place, more… cozy. There was a wrought iron fence all the way around the property, with a clearly armed guard just inside the gate. A couple more guards patrolled the grounds, while a fourth guy was barely visible on the roof. 

That might have seemed excessive to some, but this place was basically right near the edge of Sherwood territory. Sherwood, the Fell-Gang that was obsessed with nature, plants, wild animals, that kind of thing. Most of them hated technology, advancement, industrialization, anything like that. They didn’t hold much territory in the city from what I’d seen, but what they did have was guarded obsessively. From what I’d seen in the news, they basically had spies all over their area in the form of animals and random plants. You never knew what kind of information the grass, trees, flowers, even weeds were sending back to the Sherwood people. To say nothing of random squirrels, mice, birds… yeah. 

Not only did Sherwood violently attack any outside gangs who dared set foot in what they considered their space, but cops and Star-Touched had to be careful too. Sherwood didn’t openly attack them quite as much, but you didn’t want to be on your own if they were feeling particularly annoyed. Especially not after dark. And the people who lived there were basically always aware that what they were saying could be spied on through any plants within earshot. Not only that, but cutting plants out of your life was apparently not allowed either. You had to have a full, well-cared for lawn, flowers, the works. One of the reports I’d watched on the news a few months back had said that every once in awhile, residents would receive some kind of plant on their doorstep and were expected to put it in their house and take care of it. 

I couldn’t even imagine living under that kind of oppression and insanity, and my parents were literal supervillains. The officials and Star-Touched teams had tried to root them out (hah), but it was hard when every plant in the general area was basically spying and playing lookout. 

Thankfully, as far as I knew, the spying plants only worked within a certain radius of the Sherwood territory. That’s why they kept their claimed area relatively small, because they couldn’t expand that far without losing their main advantage that helped them keep everyone in line. They’d tried to expand now and then through various means, but got swatted back through a combined effort from the authorities and Star-Touched teams before they could take root (okay, I was sorry for that one). 

So yeah, I didn’t blame the Jacksons for having visible security. From what I remembered based on the other times I’d visited, the whole area surrounding Sherwood space also had an actual organization whose job it was to go out and kill any plant that tried to reach its way out of Sherwood territory, as well as sensors to check for root systems below the ground. It was a whole thing. 

I was planning on taking a quick trip over to check in on Wren once this dinner thing was over, so I brought the bag with my costume along. But there was no way I was going to take it into the house. Not when someone might look inside. So, I hid it on the roof of a nearby fast food place, tucked out of sight, before making my way to the actual house in question. 

The guard at the gate actually recognized me. His name was Joel, and he grinned when I approached. “Well, hey there, Miss Evans. Good to see Tomas didn’t turn into a complete idiot while he was gone and jumped right back into finding the best girl he ever brought home.” 

Feeling a deep blush spread across my face, I shook my head. “We’re not together or anything like that, Joel. His parents just wanted me to come to dinner.”

Giving me a look that was clearly doubtful while nodding unconvincingly, the man replied, “Sure thing. Whatever you say. Come on in.” He pressed his thumb against the scanner nearby and the gate opened, letting me through. More quietly, he added, “Good to see you again. Have a nice evening in there. Smells pretty good, I think they’ve been going overboard for you. Which,” he added slyly, “is clearly just because Tomas’s… parents want to make a good impression.” 

Yeah, that blush of mine definitely got worse. Mumbling something under my breath that even I didn’t follow, I headed up to the front door. It opened before I even got in there, and Tomas himself greeted me with a smile. 

“Hey, Cass,” he started, stepping back while holding the door. “Come on in, Mum and Dad are just handling a few last minute things, but they wanted me to go ahead and show you to the dining room.” He had dressed up somewhat, in black slacks and a dark red polo shirt that was just… unfair. It was unfair how good he looked. Which, of course, did absolutely nothing to help my blush. 

“Um, thanks.” Forcing the words out, I stepped through the door into the front hallway. Soft music was playing from somewhere. It was a classical music piece. Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies”, if I remembered correctly. It was one of Tomas’s parents’ favorite pieces. I wasn’t really that into classical music, but I could definitely understand liking it from time to time. This one was… soothing. It made me think of laying on a cloud somewhere. Hearing it, all I wanted to do was relax, like the tension in my muscles instantly eased and the weight on my shoulders lifted a bit, just from hearing it. 

Shaking off that feeling, I followed Tomas to the dining room. We talked for a few minutes there until his parents arrived together. His mother, Millicent (she went by Milli or Mills) Jackson was the first to step over to me. She was a tall, elegant-looking blonde whose regal bearing and gaze reminded me of my mother in some ways. But she was actually a lot different. Tomas had gotten his affinity for British punk music from her. She also tended to tell some pretty raunchy jokes when she was with just Tomas and me. However, she could also present herself just as formally as my mother did when she actually wanted to. 

“Cassidy,” the woman greeted me with an endearing smile. “It’s so good to see you again. How are you?” 

“Oh, um, I’m good, Mrs. Jackson,” I replied, only for her to quickly correct me. 

“It’s Mills, you know that. Let’s not act like strangers, hmm?” 

It was Tomas’s father’s turn then, and the man stepped my way. As always, I felt… reluctant to look at him. I couldn’t explain why, even to myself. He was normal-looking, a kind of pale guy with brownish-blond hair and dark green eyes. He’d been dressed formally every time I’d seen him, and this was no exception. There was literally nothing about him that should have been intimidating. 

But he intimidated me, and I had no idea why. 

“Indeed,” the man spoke easily, his voice sending a shiver down my spine. “we’re all glad you’re here. I trust your parents are doing well? They always had such excellent stories.” 

“Yeah, I… I don’t know enough about their stories, sir,” I managed. “But they’re doing fine.” 

“Excellent,” Mr. Jackson murmured before extending a hand to me. “And how is school going?” 

Glancing at his hand, I started to reach for it. But Tomas spoke up first, blurting, “Okay, okay, we get it. Come on, Cassidy’s great. Can we eat before she starves to death? I’m pretty sure that’s not good etiquette.” 

Chuckling, Mills waved me to a seat, leaning in to whisper something to her husband. I caught a bit that sounded like she was telling him not to be so stiff. 

So, we sat and ate dinner. It was pretty great. When it was over, Tomas and I went up to his room to talk. His mother made it clear that if she found the door closed, she’d take it off the hinges for good, which turned my face bright red. 

We talked and just sort of hung out for about an hour. Tomas was lying in his beanbag chair strumming his guitar while I sat against his dresser. Eventually, I realized the strumming had stopped, as had Tomas’s voice. Blinking over that way, I saw his chest rise and fall, head turned to the side with his eyes closed. He was asleep. 

Shit. Picking myself up off the floor, I hesitated briefly before quietly making my way out of the room. I’d tell his parents I was leaving, then head out. 

Making my way down from the third floor to the second, I glanced around curiously. I didn’t just want to take off without saying anything. So, seeing a light coming from under the door of the room I knew was Mr. Jackson’s office, I headed that way. I was about to knock, when a loud voice from inside brought me up short. 

“Yes, Sterling, I know.” 

My father? Why was Kent Jackson talking to my father? Frowning, I hesitated, looking up and down the hall before listening. 

“I’m just saying she was snooping around, that’s it,” Mr. Jackson continued, making me stare with wide eyes at the door. Me? Was he talking about me? 

“Yeah, she’s in the back of the van now, still unconscious. She’ll be out for awhile.” 

Right, so… not me. But… a girl was unconscious in a van? That didn’t sound great. And why was Mr. Jackson talking to my dad about that? Was… wait… that wasn’t right, the Jacksons couldn’t be part of–

“Yeah,” Kent’s voice replied to something my father had apparently said over the phone. “Yeah, I’ll take care of it. 

“My power may not work on the girl, but a trip to a quiet little pier and a bullet in the back of the head should do the trick.” 

Previous Chapter                                       Next Chapter

Friends and Enemies 8-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                   Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter                                   Next Chapter

Showdown 7-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                        Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter                                        Next Chapter