Jae Baek

Schooling 24-08 (Summus Proelium)

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The cops who showed up to take the would-be mugger into custody were a bit more intense about the questioning than I thought they might be as they asked me what had happened and exactly what I saw. At first I was a little confused about that, then I realized it probably had to do with where we were. The school for rich, untouchable kids (like me) was right over there. Hell, he had been trying to mug one of those kids in particular when it came to Jae. And Damarko might not have gone to our school, but some part of me hoped these cops would be upset about another teenager being targeted anyway. And even if not, it still made sense that they’d take this a bit more seriously with how close we were to the school. 

That and I was pretty sure my parents probably had some special rule when it came to anything happening here. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if the report had set off some sort of alert for them to send in people loyal to the Ministry. And that had to be a stressful report to make.

In any case, they took my explanation and then strongly encouraged me to go to school, making it clear that being Star-Touched, even one with a sanctioned team like my own was becoming, wasn’t an excuse not to attend. There were still truancy rules and all that, after all. I gave them some joke about my first period teacher being a lot scarier than Cuélebre, then took off. 

Of course, I could’ve said that my school was literally right across the street, but there was no way in hell I was gonna give them that much information. While I might not have loved being mistaken for a middle school-aged boy in my civilian life, it was entirely too useful to just throw away like that. Besides, as impossible as it was for them to identify who they thought was one random thirteen year old guy in Detroit, ‘teen person who attends the richest, most exclusive school in the city while only being this tall’ would narrow it down a lot more. 

So, I had to play it up as though it was going to be a long trip to get to class on time. Then I simply made sure no one was following me and took a quick round-about trip to come up to the school from the far side. Between that and waiting for the cops to show up and then telling them the whole story in the first place, that half hour I’d had turned into only having about five minutes before class started. Which, to be fair, the cops had probably only shown up fast enough for me to have any time before class because of the whole ‘school for rich kids’ thing. If this had taken place in a different zip code, I’d probably still be sitting around waiting for them by the time lunch rolled around. 

Obviously, there was one person in particular I was trying to look for while making my way through the halls. And I spotted her standing next to Amber and a couple other people, having a clearly animated conversation. Well, the others were animated. Jae was still very much closed in on herself and only answering their questions in a quiet voice with a couple words. It looked like Amber was doing most of the talking. I made it close enough to hear what was actually being said just in time for her to announce, “And you know Ms. Mesters wouldn’t accept that as an excuse. She’d probably try to put the cops themselves in detention.” 

“Who’s going to detention?” I asked, forcing myself not to look too interested. For just a second, I also reflexively tried not to look as tired as I was, thanks to paint-skating my way in a great big circle as fast as I could just to avoid letting the police realize I was going to the same school I had made a point of heading away from. But honestly, if these guys saw me pant a few times and realized all of that from it, they deserved to figure out the truth, because damn.

“Dude,” one of the guys informed me. “Jae was nearly killed.” It was Mike Phillin. He was a tall, lanky blond who liked to wear open flannel shirts over Looney Tunes tees, and cargo shorts. In fact, I’d never seen him wearing anything else. Even the few times we’d gone to the pool, he didn’t dress out to swim.  

Amber made a point of cutting in. “She wasn’t nearly killed, some guy just tried to mug her and our friend Damarko across the street. Probably thought he could score a better haul from rich kids.” Her eyes glanced toward me as she added. “But Paintball showed up. Right, Jae?” 

Jae, for her part, gave a short nod. She mostly looked like she didn’t want to be there at all, especially not while being the subject of attention for so many people. “It wasn’t a big deal,” she replied quietly. “We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Paintball was in the right place at the right time.”

“You got saved by a superhero, dude,” one of the other guys put in. “You gotta admit, that’s pretty damn cool.” With a heavy sigh, he lamented, “I wish I could get saved by a superhero.” 

“Keep screwing around with Angie and you’re gonna need a superhero to save you from Dustin,” Mike informed him. “You see the way he was looking at you earlier?” 

“We’re all gonna need superheroes,” I quickly pointed out, “if we don’t get to class.” 

One of the girls who was standing around near the back of the group made a show of rolling her eyes. “Oh please, you’re Cassidy Evans. What’re they gonna do, put you in detention with only one person fanning you with a palm leaf instead of two? Make you use an amateur personal masseuse instead of a professional? Serve ice spring water with one lime instead of–” 

“We get it, Lucy,” Amber retorted. “Now how about we go to class so we don’t all end up finding out how terrible one palm leaf, amateur personal masseuse detention actually is?” 

Thankfully, everyone dispersed at that point. I walked along with Jae and Amber, glancing that way. “Seriously, there really was a mugger and all that? Are you okay?” 

Her head bobbed a little, as she murmured, “I’m fine. It wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t even know anything was wrong until Paintball had it under control.” 

“Yeah,” Amber confirmed, “apparently the guy never got anywhere near them.” She paused briefly before adding, “I just hope Paintball made it to school on time. From what I’ve heard, cops look the other way for a lot of stuff Star-Touched do, but skipping class isn’t one of them. You know, unless it’s a big emergency or something.”

“Rutherford’s near here,” I pointed out with a shrug, naming the middle school we’d gone to before. It was also the one Izzy was attending. “Maybe he goes there.” 

Jae murmured an agreement with that, before splitting off to head into class. Which left Amber and me standing there. The other girl gave me a brief look, keeping her voice low enough that I could barely hear her. “Thanks for jumping in back there. Lucky you were around.” 

Blushing just a bit, I shrugged and kept my own voice low as well. “Like she said, it really wasn’t a big deal. Just some guy trying to hit a couple rich high school kids for cash. I’m pretty sure he was homeless and desperate. And now he’s in jail, so he won’t hurt anyone else.” Even as I said that, part of me wondered if I should follow up on it. If the guy was so hard-up he was trying to rob high school students in the middle of the day–okay early morning, but still. If he was that desperate, maybe I should go see if I could help him somehow. 

Yeah. The more I thought about that, the more it sounded like the right idea. I was going to find out what was up with that guy, and if I could do anything useful. I wasn’t even sure how to go about that at the moment, and yet I wanted to try. 

For now, however, we had class. So I set the thought aside and headed in. Time to put all the Touched-related thoughts on the back burner for a few hours. 

********

Though, apparently, not nearly as many hours as I’d thought. Just before my study hall-lunch combination break, I got a text on my phone from Amber, asking me to meet her and Paige near the north-east stairwell instead of heading for the cafeteria. She added a bit a few seconds later promising to have food for me. 

So, slipping away from the others when the time came, I made my way to the area in question. Sure enough, Amber was there, though I didn’t see Paige. As I approached, the dark-haired girl offered me a wrapped cheeseburger from a nearby fast food place, and gestured over her shoulder. “Come on, it’s this way.”  

“It?” I echoed while unwrapping the burger. “What’s ‘it?’ And where’s Paige?”

Rather than answer immediately, Amber led me down the hall. We went around the corner by a back stairwell, to a spot I’d never really paid much attention to before. There wasn’t much space there, and from the rest of the hall, it just looked like the corridor ended at the stairwell. You had to get really close to even see that there was a narrow area there. And a door. It was unlabeled, and had one of those keypad locks. 

“Paige checked the cameras,” Amber assured me. “None of them point back here, and she disabled the lock and alarm.” With that, she reached out to pull the door open, gesturing for me to go ahead. 

So, I stepped through the doorway and into near pitch-blackness. Reflexively adjusting myself for the steep set of cement stairs beyond, I descended a couple steps before pausing. “Huh.” 

“You knew the steps were there, didn’t you?” Amber put in from behind me. A moment later, her finger flicked a switch, making a dangling light bulb come on to illuminate the stairs themselves. “Never been here before and you were stepping into darkness, and you still knew there were steps like that.”  

Looking down the stairs toward the still pretty dark room below, I grimaced. “That was some way to test my navigation ability.” Absently, I took a bite of the burger. It was pretty good. It had extra pickles on it, which I hadn’t even realized Amber knew I liked. Belatedly, I realized it was probably Paige who had gotten it. Paige, who knew what I liked from those memories that I no longer had. It was a thought that made me swallow hard.

“Don’t worry,” Amber informed me, “I was ready to catch you if it didn’t kick in. Super speed, remember?”

Together, we went down the stairs to what turned out to be a large, open cement area. More lights came on once we were there, so I could see better. It looked like an unfinished basement, though quite a bit larger. This place must’ve taken up as much space as several classrooms above us. I could see a few boxes in one corner, along with a bench press and a couple other random things.

Paige, who was standing by the light switch, stepped away from it and nodded at me. “We thought it’d be better to talk out of sight so all the gossipers wouldn’t wonder why we aren’t at each other‘s throat‘s all of a sudden.” 

“Which,” Amber put in, “we do need to do something about. Something tells me neither of you want to go back to the way things were.” When we both nodded firmly, she shrugged. “So, we’ll figure out something. Just maybe not immediately.” 

Turning in a circle, I looked around the strangely empty cement room. “What even is this place?” 

“It was supposed to be a storage area,” Paige informed me. “At least, that’s what the blueprints said. But there’s something else that wasn’t on the blueprints.” With those cryptic words, she gestured at me. “I think you can figure it out?” 

My brow furrowed as I stared at her before slowly walking forward. I moved to the middle of the room, then turned in a circle again. They were both watching me expectantly as I frowned and tried to focus. After a moment of that, I spoke quietly. “Turn the lights off again.” Paige and Amber shrugged at one another before the former did just that, finger flicking the switch. We were cast into darkness once more aside from very dim light coming from the stairs. 

Taking a couple steps to one side, I paused, then turned and took a few steps the other way. My hand rose and then I pivoted thirty degrees before walking forward. Stopping after a few more steps, I put my hand against the wall I had stopped in front of and announced, “There’s something behind this.”

The lights came back on, as the two girls stepped up on either side of me. They looked at each other again before Amber nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. Show her.” 

Paige reached out to the wall, or rather, to a slight indent on it. Her finger found something there, and there was a click before the wall slid smoothly aside to reveal a tunnel beyond. 

Staring that way, I turned back to them. “The Ministry put this in, didn’t they?” 

Paige nodded once. “Yeah, we think so. From what I can figure out, it’s there to evacuate their important children, or to bring people in if they need to.”

Amber added, “They made it look like a storage room on the blueprints, but they don’t actually use it for that. If anyone happens to find this place, it’s just an unused room. But it’s big enough to bring some pretty heavy forces in if they need to.” 

My breath left me in a sharp exhale before I squinted at both of them. “Are you guys sure we’re not being recorded or anything right now?” 

“I promise,” Paige assured me, “I checked everything very thoroughly. They had a few alarms, but no active security. This place isn’t that important to them. I mean, the tunnel is, but even that’s not a dealbreaker. if push came to shove, this is a rich kids school and it would make sense for them to have an evacuation tunnel. It’s not like its existence reveals anything about the Ministry themselves. I checked where it goes, and it just leads to an empty lot a few blocks away. It being found would be annoying for them, but not that bad.” 

Absorbing all that, I stared down that dimly lit tunnel for another moment. “My parents really are ready for trouble, aren’t they?” 

“In a lot of ways,” Paige confirmed. “But not all of them. We just have to be careful.” She paused then, and I had the impression that she was going to say one thing before changing her mind. Instead, she asked, “You were out in costume this morning?” 

I shrugged before turning away. “Could you close that thing? I don’t feel comfortable with it open like that. And yeah, I needed to go for a run and clear my head. Turns out to be a good thing, at least as far as Jae and that Damarko guy are concerned.” 

Amber cleared her throat before nodding. “Yeah, trust me, Jae’s glad you were there. That could’ve gotten messy. The guy seemed pretty desperate, from what they said.”

Paige sighed, leaning against the wall after closing it once more. “I wonder if that’s thanks to this whole gang war thing. I mean, maybe the guy got driven out of his normal area, or someone he cares about is in the hospital, or something.” 

Since they were thinking about that sort of thing too, I told them about my plan to check in on him later. To my relief, neither of them thought it was a stupid idea. Amber even offered to come with me.

Putting that thought aside, I looked back-and-forth between them. “But, something tells me we didn’t come down here just so Paige could ask me about stuff she could’ve texted me for. And, as fun as it was, I don’t think it was just to check if my super-special navigation sense would save me from falling down the stairs.” 

“That was important though,” Paige pointed out mildly. “Think about it, you found a hidden room just by focusing. You had no idea it was there and you still found it.” 

“I mean,” I pointed out, “I had some idea there was something here from what you said. But yeah, finding out like that was kind of weird. And cool, right?”

“Very cool,” Amber agreed. “But it proves you’ve got skills you’re not really using that well. Skills that you could be honing or learning about.” 

“That’s why we’re down here,” Paige explained. “We have the virtual reality place for combat training, and will do exercises with everyone else. But right here, right now, we want to do some tests.”

Amber put in, “You’ve been doing this for a couple months, so you’ve got a pretty good basic foundation for what you’re doing. Now, it’s time to understand some of the finer details.” 

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Are you guys sure you’re not just making fun of me because it took me so long to figure out what the pink paint does?” 

Paige chuckled slightly. “Maybe a little bit, but this really is important. You only get better when you really understand your power. We need to get some hard numbers, measure things, figure out exactly how this navigation and aiming power works, see what amount of paint causes how much effect. We need to see how strong you can be, how fast, how much weight the paint can pull or project with the red and blue, all of it. We need to figure it out.” 

“And it’s probably going to take more than one lunch period,” Amber pointed out. “So why don’t we get down to business?”

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Schooling 24-07 (Summus Proelium)

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We didn’t end up running into any problems during that quick little patrol. Probably because almost everyone who would have caused trouble was still recuperating after the massive brawl from yesterday. That or, in the case of the Scions, they were apparently spending their time running God knew how many potential recruit candidates through the initiation test or… whatever it was they were doing. What it came down to was that there were more psychopaths out there besides Jennica competing to cause the most chaos and trouble in order to impress Pencil and Cup. The very thought of that brought bile to my throat, as did the positively cheerful thought of what else might happen before this audition bullshit was over. 

But, we didn’t run into any of that, or any other trouble. Which meant I was able to get home and get a solid six hours of sleep. And considering I hadn’t actually done that much physical exertion, since most of that had been inside the virtual reality, that meant I was rested long before my alarm was due to go off in the morning. Feeling restless, I left a note for Izzy and took a quick breakfast in the kitchen before heading out for what I told the staff members I passed was a run. It really was a run, of course. I just left out the fact that I would be changing into my costume and running across rooftops in the city, with my actual clothes in a backpack over my shoulder. 

It was pretty different being out here early in the morning. Well, early as far as I was concerned. It was not quite seven o’clock yet as I bounced my way from a traffic light to run along the side of an office building. My feet pounding against the brick was the most prevalent sound I could hear that early, aside from a few cars in the distance and birds calling out to one another. 

And then there was the bird who called out to me. “Ah, Paintball!” 

It was Lucent, of course, coming down from above as I stopped short at the edge of a rooftop. He landed smoothly on a nearby antenna and regarded me. “A fine morning to you, lad. Though I do hope this means you have thoroughly slept and are now out for a brisk early jog,” he announced. “Rather than the far more worrying option, that you have been out this entire time.” 

My head shook quickly. “Hey, don’t worry, Pops. I’ve definitely been asleep. I actually got more sleep all in a row last night than I have lately.” I paused to consider my words before adding, “Which isn’t really all that much, I guess. Still, I can’t sleep anymore.”

His head tilted sideways to consider me briefly before offering an understanding, “Let me guess, you’ve become accustomed to less sleep overall, and also spread out. You sleep a few hours at night, and then nap in the afternoon. Now you’ve done that enough that your body is accustomed to it. I’m told that happens to most Touched who operate that way.” 

Confirming that with a short nod, I asked, “What about you? I mean, did you get enough sleep? I heard you guys had it pretty rough the day before yesterday. Did uhh, did you get enough sleep?” 

Again, he regarded me. His expression seemed quizzical, but I couldn’t tell if that was just the ordinary raven look. After a moment, he replied, “Yes, it was a bit rough for everyone, it seems. I know you’ve heard this already, but I wished to offer my own apologies for being unable to respond to your request for aid until the situation had already been handled.” He paused then before adding, with a voice that was clearly amused and lightly teasing, “That is quite certainly not the sort of example I wished to give to any son of mine.” 

Painting a grinning smiley face across my helmet in orange paint, I gave him a thumbs up. “Don’t worry, I know you had your own problems to deal with. I’m just glad everyone got through it more or less intact.” With that, I glanced away, erasing the smile. A soft sigh escaped me. “But something tells me things are gonna get worse before they get better. Deicide’s really pissed off right now, isn’t she?” 

“She is not very happy, I’m certain,” Lucent agreed, turning his head to look out over the city around us. “I fear things will be escalating now, as soon as she and the others have regrouped. She will not allow that sort of betrayal to stand for long.” 

“Why did they betray her?” I found myself asking. “I mean, why would those guys think they could get away with switching sides like that? And to Oscuro of all groups. They’re not even Hispanic. I mean, I don’t care about that, but Oscuro is supposed to. Err, yeah, they made an exception for Grandstand. But, you know, considering she left them high and dry to go after her own vendetta, I would think they’d be less likely to make an exception like that again.” 

“Ah, we do have an answer to that, actually.” Lucent actually perked up a little at that, as though happy to be able to solve something for me. “According to intelligence our people on the street have been able to pick up, It seems that Juice, Janus, and Devil’s Due will not actually be joining Oscuro. In truth, Cuélebre has been traveling outside of the city, looking for new Touched members to recruit. He found another gang willing to come to the city themselves, whom he apparently does not mind sharing some territory with. They have their own Touched, several of whom were Hispanic and interested in joining his gang. But their own group desired a trade, so their strength wouldn’t be diminished.” 

Blinking a couple times as I absorbed that, I slowly offered, “Oh. So he recruits a few non-Hispanic Touched, then immediately trades them to this new gang so they’ll send their own Hispanic Touched to–is this fucking baseball or something? They’re trading players now?” 

Lucent chuckled softly, which was an odd sound to hear coming from a raven. “You might be surprised to learn how relatively common that sort of thing is, to be honest.” Again, his head tilted to look back at me with that seemingly quizzical expression. “Though perhaps not, as I hear you have done your own recruiting to fill up a brand new team of your own, as this Avant-Guard.” 

“Yeah,” I confirmed while giving him a thumbs up. “I mean, everyone kept telling me I shouldn’t go around by myself, so now I’m not. Errr, not as much. I have friends.” 

The TONI raven gave me what I swore was a bright smile. “And I am quite glad to hear that. Still, please ensure that you are all careful. Particularly considering what is happening in the city lately, and how those troubles are bound to escalate. There is a training facility at the Seraphs headquarters, and I have already been assured that you and your team will be welcome there.” 

No matter how much I trusted my ‘bird-dad,’ I wasn’t just going to give away exactly what we were doing with our own training. Maybe that was stupid and unnecessary, but I felt like it was best to keep that to myself. At least for now. Still, no matter how much mental training we were getting inside the VR place, we did need physical training. So, I gave a quick nod. “That sounds cool. I think we’ll probably take you up on that. Just don’t be surprised if your own members start complaining about a couple of us monopolizing your equipment. Poise and Style really want to make sure they whip us into shape.” 

“In that case,” he informed me, “I would like to meet them so that I might shake their hands for such forward thinking. And I do hope you are taking their suggestions seriously.” 

“Oh, believe me, we are.” Thinking about what we had started the night before, I added, “We’ve been working on that, but they’ll be glad to know there’s a real place we can go with some actual equipment and all that.” 

“Equipment and skilled trainers,” Lucent added, a bit pointedly. “People prepared to ensure that you and your team are ready should worse come to worst, powers or no. Which, I believe is a point of contention among some out there. There is some question of whether most of your group have any powers at all. From witness accounts and footage of that baseball field event, many are debating about the… Poise and Style you called them? Some believe they could not possibly move the way they do without some sort of gift, while others call it training or even the effect of Touched-Tech equipment. Which you would have access to, of course.”

I could tell he was gently fishing for information, probably curious about how much help I had on the actual powers front. Still, all I offered was a shrug. “They can take care of themselves.” If I wasn’t going to tell him about the virtual reality training room, I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him that those two were actually Biolems. Trust him or not, it was best to keep that to myself.

I could tell that he wanted to say something more about that, but he let it go and simply glanced up toward the sky before remarking, “I think perhaps it might be time that you made your way toward school? You wouldn’t want to be late, of course.” 

Again, I gave him a thumbs up. “Sure thing, Pops. Don’t you worry, I’ll be sitting right in class, learning all my Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. And all the rest. Just try to keep the city in one piece while I’m busy with that, deal?” 

“Deal,” he agreed with another soft chuckle. Then he regarded me seriously. “Be very careful out there, my boy. You have accomplished quite a lot in a short time span. And a great deal of that has involved making enemies. I am very glad that you have friends to aid you, but still, keep your eyes open. If you need outside aid, do not let the delay you experienced when it came to that zombie attack dissuade you from reaching out. We are all more than willing to lend a hand. Or a wing, as the case may be.” 

Promising that I would be careful and definitely reach out if I needed to, I took off running once more. I still had plenty of time before school, which didn’t start until eight-fifteen. But I wasn’t going to tell Lucent that. The public schools started closer to seven-forty-five, and between that and the difference in the middle school starting time, I didn’t want to say anything to him that might allow the Touched bird to narrow down where I went to school. 

Eesh, was I just being super-paranoid again? Like, too much so? I was almost certain he was trustworthy. But then, I couldn’t really trust my own family when it came down to it, so maybe that made sense. Either way, I didn’t feel comfortable exposing that much. Not even to my ‘bird-dad.’ 

I did make my way gradually in that direction, through a winding, looping route. I had already made sure Jefferson would know I wasn’t going to be home for him to drive, so that he only had to take Izzy. The run across the city gave me time to clear my head and really think through everything that had been happening lately. And, of course, stretching myself like that felt good. 

Eventually, I made it close to the school while still having about half an hour before classes were supposed to start. I had already eaten breakfast at home, but that run had still made me work up an appetite, so I was going to head in and grab something from the cafeteria.

However, just as I landed on the roof of a building near the school and was about to shrug off my backpack so I could change real quick, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. Paranoid as I was at that point, I dropped down low and leaned over to peer that way. There was an unlabeled door at the end of an alley far below. The building itself was just some sort of currently unused place for dental offices and the like, nothing special. But as I stared that way, I could see none other than Jae and that boy, Damarko, making their way out of it. The room behind them looked dark and rather empty, so what would they have been–oh. Right, yeah, okay then. Go, Jae. Now I was very certain that the two of them had some sort of thing going on. Why else would they have been holed up in some dark, unused room before school? Clearly, I didn’t know Jae nearly as well as I’d thought I did. But hey, at least she had someone. Even if she apparently wasn’t ready to share that fact with anyone else just yet. Either way, good for her. Damarko was definitely a catch, though I was a little worried about how her adopted step-mother would react to the whole thing, since he apparently didn’t go to the ‘rich kids school.’ Was that why Jae was keeping it a secret? Boy, was that an uncomfortable thought. 

Still, I was about to dismiss that and leave the two alone so I could change and get into school. None of that was really any of my business when you got down to it, and my stomach was starting to grumble even louder after that run. However, just as I was pulling back, something else caught my attention. There was an older guy coming out of the alley as well. He wasn’t coming out of that room the other two had emerged from, but from further back in, around the dumpsters. And he looked rather disheveled and dirty, as though he had been hanging out in the trash or something. His attention was laser-focused on the two ahead of him. That by itself would have been curious, but it turned to outright alarming when I saw him pull a pistol from his jacket pocket. What the hell?

Obviously, I didn’t wait to see what he was planning on doing with that. The moment I saw the gun, I launched myself off that roof and plummeted that way. On my way down, I shot a line of red from the gun to the nearby wall and activated it so the weapon was ripped from his grip. Before he could react to that, I painted orange on myself and a tiny bit on him as well, so he wouldn’t be killed as I slammed into him from above. We both went down, the man cursing out loud in surprise and probably a little pain despite the paint. 

Despite his obvious surprise, the man wasn’t completely done. I felt him squirm around and kick under me, the hard blow pushing me away. I rolled on the sidewalk and snapped my gaze up just in time to see him pull a dangerous-looking switchblade knife from his pocket, snap it open, and lunge at me with a scream. A flash of the training Paige and Sierra had put us through the day before went through my head, as I quickly jerked aside so the blade went past me, while snapping my hand out to smack the weapon out of his grip. It clattered along the ground nearby even as the man fell on top of me. He was still screaming in rage. Apparently he was very unhappy about me interrupting his attack on a couple of innocent teenagers. 

Yeah, I was starting to think there was something wrong with this guy. With effort, I managed to shove myself out from under him while he was rearing back for a punch and hit his chest with a bit of red paint. Another shot went to the nearby wall, then I ducked down so he could be yanked off me and sent flying that way.

Grunting, I popped to my feet behind the man. Before he could react, and before the paint could wear off, I fished a pair of ordinary handcuffs from my pocket and got them around his wrists. He was still shouting and cursing while I painted my arms purple and pushed him to the ground, but most of the fight seemed to have gone out of him. Mostly he was just rambling about how I had to let him go, the monsters had to die, or something to that effect. He wasn’t making much sense, and the fact that he was basically foaming at the mouth made me doubt he was in the best frame of mind to explain anything. Even discounting the whole ‘about to shoot a couple random teenagers’ thing. 

And speaking of those random teenagers, I looked up from getting the man on the ground just in time to see Jae and Damarko standing there staring at us. Right, shit, I had to be careful here. I couldn’t let Jae know who I was. I had to pretend I didn’t really know her at all, except for–

“Hey, you’re the girl from the grocery store, right?” Snapping my fingers, I pointed that way. “Yeah, hey, you okay? I think this guy was uhh… trying to mug you or something?” I didn’t really need to fake the confusion in my voice at that point. What was this guy’s endgame? These two had to be just targets of opportunity, right? So why was he so pissed off right now? He’d stopped verbally ranting, and was just laying there. But I could feel the rage vibrating through him. Man, this guy really wasn’t healthy. 

Jae and Damarko exchanged glances, an unspoken conversation passing between them. I was pretty sure they were feeling guilty about having done their… whatever that was in the room over there. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring that up. And neither did that. Instead, Damarko offered a hesitant, “Uh, thanks, Paintball. Lucky you were there.” 

“I couldn’t sleep,” I offered with a shrug. “Been out for a run. But what about this guy? You two know him?” When they shook their heads, I grimaced. “Guess you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But hey, you should go ahead. I’ll tell the cops what happened here and wait for them to show up.” 

For just a moment, it looked like they were both going to argue about that. Jae actually spoke up, though her voice was quiet and uncertain. “Are you sure… you don’t need help?” 

I shrugged, rising so I could keep one foot on the man. “It’s cool, I’ve got this.” I had to stop myself from making my voice unnaturally deep in response to talking to someone who actually knew me. The voice-changer itself was already doing the heavy lifting on that front. “You guys don’t wanna be late. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure this guy isn’t gonna go after anyone else anytime soon.”

Again, it looked like they were going to say something. But they both stopped themselves, aside from offering very sincere thanks. Damarko added something about needing to get my autograph, so I touched his shirt and put ‘Save you anytime you need – Paintball’ across it. Which he seemed to get a kick out of. 

With that, the two of them headed off, though they looked back several times and were holding an intense conversation on their way. Meanwhile, I reported the attack and capture via the Doephone app, before sighing as I looked down at the now-quiet man. 

“Dude, you totally owe me breakfast for this shit.” 

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Schooling 24-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Obviously, I had been through a lot of ridiculous things since I’d Touched the orb that one night a couple months ago. It was pretty hard by this point to say that any single moment definitively topped all others as far as standing out went. But I was going to have to admit, standing on a rooftop in the middle of the night, giving our made-up story about how my friends and I had been robbed by a group that was actually us to a bear and raccoon who shared the same space and kept taking turns being physically present? Yeah, that was going up near the top of the list, at the very least. 

And, to be quite frank, it was probably pretty up there as far as being terrified went. So I had to hide that reaction as much as I could. I was standing here lying to what was apparently not only one (or two) of the Ministry’s highest ranking people given they had the title of Minister, but one of them was probably capable of smacking my head clean off my shoulders. Yes, I had orange paint and all that, but still. Standing in front of a nine-foot tall bear, even if he was in an incredibly-tailored suit, while lying my ass off about something as important to the Ministry as who had robbed them… it wasn’t exactly my idea of a fun time. 

Still, at least we had planned out exactly what we were going to say about this. We’d known that there would come a time when we had to tell the story, and that we might not all get to tell it together. If they asked us separately without any warning, we wanted to have our story straight. This way, whichever of us they talked to would say the same thing. 

In short, the story we’d come up with, which I relayed to my alternatingly bear-raccoon interrogators, was that our group kept some supplies for Trevithick’s work hidden in a few old sheds around the city. Sheds which we had rigged with alarms and other protection to keep the equipment safe. One day, we had been talking and practicing outside one of those sheds when we heard something moving inside. Opening it up, we found three black-masked figures starting to pull boxes over to a hole they’d made in the floor. We were, quite understandably, surprised to see someone there. So they managed to throw some sort of flash bang thing before we could react. We chased them through the tunnel after recovering, but it simply led all the way to a large drainage ditch a couple blocks over, where we’d lost them. 

“But at least they only made off with a couple boxes worth of stuff,” I finished with a shrug. “And we put cameras in our storage places now, believe me.” 

Price, the raccoon, was perched on top of one of those small metal smokestack things, rubbing his paws together thoughtfully as he regarded me. “I don’t suppose you can show us where this other tunnel is so we can check for any other evidence?” 

Looking right back at him, I replied, “I don’t suppose you can show me where your tunnel is?” As he lifted his chin in reaction, I added, “I mean, that’s why you showed up like this to ask these questions, right? These people broke into some place that was important to you, and now you’re looking for any clues that could help you track them down. But something tells me you don’t want to let the sharing thing go both ways.”  

There was a brief pause as he seemed to consider my words, before hopping down as the smoke and light burst appeared. The bear, Fisher, was back. “You’re ahh, you’re right, we don’t have the authority or permission to take you to that place. But we did hope that–” 

“Look,” I interrupted before I could talk myself out of interrupting a bear, “I get it. I know why you all want to stop these people. I mean, I may not know the whole story, but something tells me your whole secret gang doesn’t really like the idea of another secret gang horning in on your territory. Trust me when I say you guys have a better chance of catching them than we do. But if, by some chance, we do happen to get them first, we’ll be sending them to prison, not to you people. Don’t take that the wrong way, it’s just… yeah.” It was important that I stick that bit about sending them to prison in there. It implied that I didn’t know they could get to any prisoner quite easily, and I really wanted to obfuscate just how much I knew about the Ministry. Or just let them think I was that naive. 

“We did get off on the wrong foot, didn’t we?” Fisher noted while giving me a curious glance. He stepped backward, hunching down a bit. I had the feeling he was intentionally trying not to intimidate me. “We heard our introduction to you was Squire carrying out an execution.” 

Squire. That name immediately leapt out to me, for more than one reason. First, he was obviously talking about my brother. That was Simon’s name in the Ministry, Squire? And second, I’d heard that name recently anyway. Back when we had been working out where Luciano was, Murphy had read a bit about how they were sending Squire instead of Plan Z to take care of something else, because Plan Z was busy. Simon was Squire. 

Absorbing all of that, I focused on the large bear in front of me, who was still doing his best to look unimposing. “You mean when I wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time, saw two people get shot in the heads, and then this Squire guy ordered his friends to kill me for being there? I’d say that was more than one wrong foot. That was at least a wrong leg.” 

Fisher gave a slight nod, slumping down to a seated position there on the roof in front of me. “Yes, very regrettable. We wish that had gone differently. If you like, we can answer questions, such as what exactly it was that you walked into that night.”

Questions? Oh boy, yeah, I had a lot of those. And yet, “How would I know you’re telling the truth? I mean, I hate to sound like a broken record, but again, don’t take that the wrong way. If you’re gonna say those two people were pedophile rapists who got what was coming to them, I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not.” 

With a poof of light and smoke, Price was back. “You’re right,” he agreed. “You got no reason to believe anything we say. And we’re obviously not about to be best friends here. Still, like we said before, we wanted to thank you for putting all that aside when it came to this zombie situation. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be able to laugh about all this tension.” 

“Maybe,” I allowed with a little shrug. There was no sense in being needlessly hostile. Not only did I really want to avoid a fight right now, but I needed the Ministry to continue seeing me as not a threat. They knew that I knew a bit about them, and that I wasn’t on their side. But as of right now, they also saw that I was willing to ask for their help, and I hadn’t tried to go to the cops or anything. I wasn’t an immediate problem they had to deal with, which meant I could potentially be an asset at some point in the future. I wanted them to keep thinking that. On the other hand, I was pretty sure they would be suspicious if I was too easy on them. 

To that end, I added, “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to let me take this Squire guy to the cops so he can tell them the whole story about why he killed those people. You know, as part of laughing about everything in the future, once they accept his story and give him a pat on the back for doing such a service to the community?” My head tilted one way, then the other. “No? Worth a shot.” 

There was a snort from the small raccoon, before he replied, “Sorry, that probably won’t happen. Not unless Squire… let’s say, screws up very badly.” 

Yeah, there was a lot I was tempted to say about that too, but about ninety-eight percent of it would’ve given away far too much about who I was. So, I simply shrugged once more. “In that case, I should probably get out of here. I mean, it’s been pretty cool, talking to a bear and raccoon at all, let alone a bear and raccoon who keep switching places. I feel like it’d be fun to hang out sometime. Maybe go see a movie. But right now, I’m basically asleep on my feet. Seriously, remember that whole ‘saving a stadium full of people from a bunch of fiery zombie monsters’ thing? You were there to see how awesome we were. But being awesome takes energy, so I need to go home.” 

With a slight chuckle, Price waved a paw, which gave me a nice look at his claws and reminded me that just because he wasn’t as big as his partner didn’t mean he couldn’t still be dangerous. “Sure thing, kid. And might I just say, you took talking to a raccoon and bear who keep swapping places better than a lot of people might’ve.” 

Speaking dryly, I replied, “Well, you did make it clear that my first impulse to hug you was a bad idea, and my second impulse to ask for a selfie probably wasn’t much better. You don’t seem like the type of guys who want to have your picture out there, considering I would’ve heard about you otherwise.” 

Fisher returned, swapping places with Price before giving me a short nod. “Those are some good instincts. Maybe they’ll take you a long way. But ahh, as far as hugs go, I will note that I am much more open to the concept than my partner.” 

My mouth opened, before I paused, looking him up and down. Then I shrugged, “Mmmmaybe we should hold off on the hug until a second meeting. But there’s something…. else that could be cool.” With that, I told him what I was thinking. 

Absorbing the request, Fisher made what sounded like a low chuckle. “You are an odd and fascinating boy, Paintball. And yes, perhaps we’ll see you again sometime. We know we can’t tell you not to tell any of your friends about us, if you’ve said anything about the Ministry already…” He trailed off, as though waiting briefly to see if I would react at all. When I didn’t, he just carried on. “But just know that if word gets out about us, or anything else, we know how to track it back. So be careful. And that goes for everything else you know about our group. Discretion is the better part of valor, and valor keeps everyone happy.”

Promising the bear that I would keep that in mind, I added, “About that request?” 

His eyes widened just a little. “You were serious about–ah… well yes, I believe we can accommodate that, if you are certain.” With that, he extended one arm, waiting expectantly. 

Some part of my brain was asking if I was crazy, rather vehemently. I ignored that part (it was used to that), and stepped that way. Pausing, I pointed and coated both of his arms with purple paint before turning around. Fisher reached down, and I felt his enormous paws close around either side of my waist. Without any apparent effort whatsoever, he hoisted me up in the air. “You are certain about this.” 

In response, I gave him a thumbs up while activating the paint I’d given him. “Let’s light this candle!” 

There was a brief pause, before Fisher leaned back, holding me out over his head, almost horizontal to the ground. Then he snapped upright with a roar, and hurled me out over the city. Between his natural bear strength, the Touched-based increase I was pretty sure he already had, and the boost I’d given him, I was sent flying over the rooftops with a loud scream that was half-terror and half-exhilaration escaped me. Several seconds in, and the scream turned to a laugh. I was sailing past several buildings, tumbling head over heels through the air. I was dizzy, in the middle of some terrifying mixture of flying and falling, and it was absolutely amazing. 

Just before I would have splatted against the side of a building, I managed to right myself, using orange paint on my legs, and a shot of blue against the wall so I could simply bounce off it, maintaining my momentum through another couple jumps and a shot of red that sent me sailing freely over the next roof. Fuck, fuck, fuuuuuuuuuck this was fast! 

I wanted to do it again. But I had a feeling they wouldn’t be there if I went back. So, I let my speed gradually slow so I could get my bearings once more.  

What did it mean, exactly, that Ministers Gray had shown themselves to me? Was it just that they were testing how I would react and whether word of their existence would leak out? Obviously, just like Fisher had said, if they showed themselves to me and then rumors of a bear-raccoon joint TONI started going around town, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out what happened. But was that the only reason they made a point of letting me see and talk to them, or was there something else? Were they trying to make me think there could be trust between us or something? I… I didn’t know. 

What I did know was that I needed to get home and sleep, before I ended up crashing right into a wall or falling off the edge of a roof. Though to be fair, either one would result in me not being conscious anymore. Which was sort of like sleeping. 

But hey, at least I probably wouldn’t have to worry about being turned into a murder-zombie if that happened. So we had accomplished something today. 

******

The next morning was Thursday, May 14th. When I’d gotten home the night before, Izzy had already been asleep in her bed. I took just enough time to check on her, then crashed into my own bed and slept until the alarm went off for school. Then I dragged myself through the shower and was just getting dressed in my room when the intercom buzzed to let me know she was out there. So, I let her in and the two of us took a few minutes to talk about what had happened the night before. She’d had just as much excitement as me, given the whole Cuélebre situation. 

“So now he’s pissed at you too?” I asked while nudging her as we sat on the edge of my bed. “You know you didn’t have to do that just to be like me, right? Actually, imitating me in general is just a bad idea all around.” 

Audibly snorting, the other girl lightly kicked my leg. “I wasn’t imitating you. He was gonna hurt Whamline, so I had to spray him down. You know, as a distraction.” After a brief pause, she grimaced. “But uhh, yeah, I don’t think he likes me very much right now.” That said, she turned my way and poked me in the arm harder than she had kicked me. “What about Broadway’s sister? She’s still out there, and she’s gonna be even more mad at you than Cuélebre is at… uh, both of us?” Squirming a bit, Izzy added, “Plus, she wants to get into the Scions, and they hate you too.” 

“Pretty sure they hate both of us,” I pointed out mildly, even as my face twisted a bit. “But yeah, she’s probably gonna be a problem. We know she’s out there now though, and so do the good guys. And the Ministry. It’s gonna be hard for her to show her face out there very much. Not that that solves the problem or anything, just… yeah, we’ll keep our eyes open. And uhh, keep watching for bears and raccoons.” 

She blinked at that, then stared and listened with an open mouth while I explained about meeting the Ministers Gray. When I was done, she took a moment to make sure I wasn’t pulling her leg, then sank back a bit, absorbing all of it. Finally, she murmured a soft. “Wow.” 

My head bobbed. “Wow about sums it up, yeah. I guess they want to see what I do with that sort of information. It’s definitely a test, and… I think also a sort of threat. But we can handle tests and threats, right? 

“Right,” she agreed before pushing herself up. “But you know what’s gonna be an even bigger threat if we don’t move?” 

“Jefferson,” I confirmed, hopping up after her. “Yeah, you’re right. We better get down there, or he’ll kill us before Jennica even has the chance to try.” 

So, the two of us had a quick breakfast before joining Jefferson for the drive to our schools. We talked about ordinary girl stuff on the way, to the point that I was pretty sure poor Jefferson’s ears practically started to bleed. Which I felt a little bad for, but hey, anything to make sure he’d report that there was absolutely nothing interesting going on with us. 

In any case, I eventually found myself at school, where I took a waiting Amber for a walk around the back field for her turn with the whole catching up thing. She apologized for not being able to get there, and for not even being around when the rest of the Star-Touched showed up. 

“They took us straight to the clubhouse, then had our parents pick us up,” she was saying while we studied some graffiti on the side of one of the football goalposts. “I mean, they promised your situation was already taken care of, but I still… you know.” 

“I know,” I confirmed. “It’s okay. I mean, like I said to your…” Briefly, I made a point of looking at my phone. “Seventeen text messages, we’re good. We were safe.” 

Her gaze met mine as she bumped her fist into my shoulder. “Sure, if you count adding another pissed off enemy to your ongoing list as being safe.” She tried to make it sound teasing before visibly sobering. “Look, just be careful, okay?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” I assured the girl, “I wouldn’t wanna be eaten by a bear.” Letting that hang for a moment as she stared at me trying to figure out if that was some sort of strange figure of speech, I finally snorted and explained the situation. Which meant I was treated to my second ‘person staring open-mouthed at me while trying to figure out if I was screwing with them’ of the past hour. 

Finally, Amber rocked backward on her heels. “Oh. I mean… oh. Wow. Well, either they’re sharing information with you because they don’t think you’re a problem…” 

“Or because they’re planning on making sure I’m not,” I finished, feeling a slightly queasy sensation run through me before pushing that aside. “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure it’s that first one.” 

Amber sighed. “I hope so. You’ve got enough people angry at you as it is.” 

“You know, people keep saying that,” I pointed out. “But the way I see it, if I get enough people pissed at me, when they do make a move, they’ll all run into each other, start a fight, and then I can escape unscathed. Like those cartoons where the whole group dog-piles the guy and he just crawls out from under the dust cloud and walks away.” My eyebrows waggled pointedly while she stared at me. “No?” 

“You should probably go back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan,” Amber replied flatly. Her mouth opened to add something else, before looking past my shoulder as she adjusted to call out, “Hey, Jae, what’s up?” 

Sure enough, Jae was approaching. She had on a wide-brimmed hat as well as sunglasses, and was clearly wearing sunscreen to protect her delicate skin. And even then, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t stay outside for very long. She also stayed silent until she was right next to us, before finally offering a slight smile our way while speaking softly. “Morning. Would…” She hesitated, clearly wanting to ask something but apparently uncomfortable with it. 

“What is it, Jae?” Amber prompted. “It’s okay, you can tell us. Unless you wanna just talk to one of us?” She glanced to me, looking slightly uncertain. Or possibly uncomfortable. 

“Oh yeah, sure. Sorry.” Holding up both hands to assure them it was okay, I started to say I would see them inside. For all I knew, Jae wanted to talk to Amber about stuff involving her being That-A-Way and didn’t realize that I already knew that. Hell, I didn’t know if Jae knew that. It was a weird situation. The two of them were friends, but that didn’t mean she definitely knew, and even if she did, I didn’t necessarily want her to know that I knew because that could lead to figuring out who I was, and then–yeah. It was a whole thing. 

Before I could head off, however, Jae quickly spoke up. “I–uh, actually I was… wondering if you both could take notes for me today. I have a… doctor’s appointment. I mean, Amber in the classes we have and… and Cassidy in the classes we have that I don’t have with Amber. I–that is–”

“Sure thing,” I assured her before she could fumble on with that. “No problem. Doctor’s appointment, huh? Everything cool?” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed while glancing out toward the parking lot. “Dad just wants me to get a check-up since he’s back in town. He was just working on some movie with this contagion outbreak, and… it made him paranoid. So Kella’s gonna drive me over there.” 

I rarely heard Jae say much, so this was practically a whole speech by her standards. Which made me once again think she must’ve been feeling awkward about the whole Amber being That-A-Way thing. But that wasn’t a discussion I could get into right then, so I just let it go and promised again to take notes for her. Amber did the same, and then Jae headed off. 

“She knows, doesn’t she?” I started quietly after watching the girl leave. 

Amber seemed to jump a bit, turning back my way. “Huh?” 

“About you being Touched, I mean,” I clarified. “Err, sorry, I probably shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just, that was a little awkward right there, like she wanted to say something but didn’t. Or… something.” 

There was a brief pause before Amber gave a slight nod. “Uh, yeah. She knows. But she doesn’t know anything about you.” 

“Yeah, that’s probably why it was awkward,” I noted, shaking my head before starting to walk to the school building itself. “This whole situation is just weird sometimes, you know?” 

Muttering something about me having no idea, the other girl followed. The two of us were just heading inside, when I glanced toward the parking lot. There, I saw Jae getting into the passenger seat of some random car. At first, I thought it was her stepmother giving her that ride she was talking about, but the driver was a man. One that I belatedly recognized. 

Okay, so if Jae’s stepmother was supposed to be taking her to the doctor, why was she getting into a car with that Damarko Myers guy? Wait, hold on…

Did… did Jae have a secret boyfriend? 

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Dig In 22-03 (Summus Proelium)

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“Cassidy. Psst, Cassidy. Hey–” 

A very small ball of wadded up paper bounced off my neck, making my eyes snap open as I sat up and looked around. What–where? Oh, class. I was in class. School. Somehow, I had closed my eyes for what felt like a blink only to end up completely falling asleep. At least we had a substitute today, which meant everyone was watching a movie. The room was dark, an old classic film from the late nineties I’d seen seventeen times was playing on the projector screen, and everyone was being quiet to avoid drawing the substitute’s attention. No wonder I’d fallen asleep. 

My back ached a little where I had twisted it wrong, and I had to grimace while looking around blearily for a moment before my eyes fell on the person who had thrown the paper. “Tomas?” I whispered under my breath, glancing toward the back of the room where I could see the substitute reading something on his phone. He wasn’t really paying attention. That was how subs worked, most of the time. They didn’t care as long as we weren’t too obvious about the fact that we weren’t watching the movie, or doing the worksheet, or whatever they had given out to keep us busy for the class period. Very seldom did they actually try to teach the class. 

Tomas was sitting in the aisle across from me, turned completely to face my way. “Are you okay?” he whispered. “You seemed pretty out of it right there.” 

Out of it? Well yeah, I supposed I was. It had been another week since that event with Angel Dust, meaning it had been two weeks since the dinner party and convention. Specifically, it was Friday, May 8th. And if the first week following the party had been busy, this past one had made it look positively docile. The gang war was getting even worse, particularly now that it looked like the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro were starting to splinter a bit. Some of their people were getting into fights between themselves, which just emboldened La Casa and the Easy Eights to hit them harder. Territory was changing hands by the day, and it was all the authorities could do to try to keep up and stop the situation from completely spiraling out of control.

So yeah, things were getting pretty out of control. I was out there every day doing what I could to help out alongside Alloy. We’d put a bit of time in to show that we were around, then go to the construction site to work on the tunnel a bit. I felt bad about not putting in a full shift at both, and wished I had Syndicate’s power to be in two places at once. Well, four places in his case, which would be even better. To make up for that deficiency, I had been pushing myself as hard as I could, working in the tunnel and trying to help out in the streets. It meant I was exhausted every night, and probably wasn’t getting enough sleep. But I was okay. I had to be okay. 

Well, maybe the fact that I had fallen asleep in class would tend to disagree with that assessment. I would get a real nap in later. I had promised myself that I would sleep for a few hours right after school. The idea made me feel a hard stone of guilt in my stomach, but it couldn’t be helped. If I pushed things too much harder, I was going to screw up somehow. And I was pretty sure it would be a screw-up I couldn’t come back from.

Still, I obviously couldn’t tell Tomas all of that. So I settled on shrugging a little. “I guess I haven’t been sleeping very well. You know, just one of those things.” Yeah, that wasn’t very informative, but what else was I supposed to say? I couldn’t tell him the truth. There was no way for me to know just how much he was involved in the whole Ministry thing. As much as I didn’t want to think that he was that sort of person, I also didn’t want to believe my parents were those sort of people, and look how that had turned out. It was all a mess. Not being able to trust a guy I had cared so much about for so long was one of the worst feelings I’d ever experienced. 

Tomas raised an eyebrow, glancing back to the sub briefly before giving a teasing whisper, “Oh, right, it must be that terribly lumpy bed you’ve got. What on Earth were your parents thinking? Why, that thing is barely more than a camp cot. What did it cost, a mere twenty thousand dollars? You might as well be sleeping on the ground. On a pile of nails. Fresh from the furnace.”

Blushing despite myself, I rolled my eyes and retorted, “Yeah, yeah. I didn’t say the bed wasn’t comfortable, jerk.” My finger flicked a tiny piece of eraser off my desk, which bounced off the middle of his forehead, making the boy gasp softly. 

“Good shot,” he murmured, rubbing his temple. “Bet you couldn’t do that twice in a row.” 

Wait, was that part of my power, the whole accuracy thing I’d noted when it came to using my paint? Did it extend to–oh. Realizing belatedly that I actually might’ve been able to ‘do that twice in a row’ after all, I mumbled something about being lucky once in awhile, dismissing it in the hopes that he would do the same.

It worked. Partly because he had other things on his mind. Leaning over a little, he whispered, “You’re not worried about this weekend, are you?” 

This weekend? A rush of confusion, and more than a little paranoia, filled my mind. This weekend was when we thought we would be able to finish that tunnel and make our move. But how could he possibly know anything about–wait, no. He didn’t know anything about it. He wasn’t asking about the tunnel, obviously. This was about something completely different. Namely, the fact that I was supposed to hang out with him and Maki this weekend. Which was uncomfortable all on its own, but I had to do it if we were going to learn anything about Maki themself. Amber was completely sure that they were the person she had seen get picked up by Tomas’s father after shapeshifting to change sex. So yeah, there was definitely something going on there, and hanging out with them alongside Tomas was my best chance to find out what. 

Which did indeed mean that we were going to try to break into the Ministry base the day after I hung out with my ex-boyfriend and the person he was now dating. But hey, it could have been worse. We could’ve flipped those. Somehow, I was pretty sure that breaking into the base first and then hanging out with Tomas and Maki the next day would have been even harder to deal with. At least this way, I wouldn’t have some other distraction in the back of my mind while we were supposed to be focusing on getting through that tunnel. 

Okay, that was a lie. Of course I would still have distractions. But I could try to fool myself, damn it. And I could push most of them out of my head for awhile. Getting into that Ministry base was too important, and we had spent too much time and effort on the tunnel, to let myself screw it up by being too focused on the whole Tomas thing. This way, I could get through hanging out with them, find out whatever I could about Maki, and then shift my attention to where it needed to be. 

Yeah, sure, that would definitely work.

And speaking of focusing on things, I met the boy’s curious gaze before shaking my head. Somehow, I found a smile. “Nah, don’t–ahh, don’t worry about it. It’s fine. I mean sure, it’s gonna be a little awkward. But it’ll be fine. I mean, Maki seems cool. I’m glad you umm, I’m glad you’re with someone like that. I mean, they–” I almost said ‘they’ for Maki, which would’ve been bad considering I wasn’t supposed to know about that whole situation. Instead, I quickly corrected, “They always say, if your ex is gonna get with someone new, make sure you at least get some good ice cream out of the deal.” 

Tomas gave me a doubtful look at that, his eyebrow rising. “Who says that, exactly?” 

I gave him a put-on innocent look. “I mean, I’m sure I could pay somebody to say it for me. Maybe even a lot of somebodies. What do you think the going rate for getting this entire class to repeat those words just so I don’t sound completely ridiculous might be?” 

“Oh yeah, cuz you definitely don’t sound completely ridiculous already,” Tomas shot back with a chuckle. He opened his mouth to say something else, but the bell chimed first. Unlike movies and television shows I’d seen, our between classes bell wasn’t an obnoxious buzzer, it was a pleasant chime. 

Everyone else was already getting up to leave as I gathered my things and walked next to Tomas on our way to the door. “It’s cool, really. I’ll be there tomorrow. One o’clock, right?” We were going to get a late lunch and then see a movie, or something. 

Tomas started to confirm that, as Amber joined us. “One o’clock for wha–ohhh right, Tomas’s attempt to make his ex-girlfriend get along with his current boyfriend. You are a glutton for punishment, aren’t you?” 

Giving the other girl a shove, I retorted, “Be nice. Maki’s cool. We’re cool. It’s all cool. Believe it or not, this isn’t a sitcom or a soap opera. I am more than capable of getting along with both of them. It’s fine. It’s–you know, it’s fine.” 

The other two exchanged looks as we walked down the hall together. But whatever they might’ve said in response was cut off as another chime came. This one was not the bell for class, but the start of an announcement. 

“Good morning, students,” the pleasant voice of one of the school secretaries began. “As you are well-aware, the fighting and conflict between various Fell-Touched gangs in the city has been rising in the past couple of weeks. In order to gain some control over the situation, the police force, mayor’s office, and our local Star-Touched organizations have decided that it would be for the best to institute a curfew for the time being. It will be announced on the news and official city bulletin over the next few hours, but what you need to know is that every person who does not have official work-related business keeping them out should be off the streets by eight PM until further notice.” 

Needless to say, the announcement brought about a loud chorus of groans and boos directed toward the loudspeakers. Not that it accomplished much, but everyone made sure to let their annoyance be known. Even Tomas and Amber contributed, though the look the dark-haired girl gave me behind his back made it clear that she was simply trying to blend in with everyone else. 

Of course, the whole thing made me wonder if it was supposed to apply to Star-Touched, or if we were exempt or whatever. Well, clearly all Amber and Izzy had to do was whatever the leadership told them. Alloy and I might… eh, we’d just take it as it came. Worst case scenario, someone would try to tell us to go home. 

And if we couldn’t be out on the streets, we’d just make sure the tunnel was ready to go. 

As those thoughts worked their way through my mind, Tomas focused on me. “At least we already planned on making tomorrow an early one, huh?” 

Amber shook her head. “Personally, I still think hanging out with your ex and his new boyfriend is weird. I’m just saying. Hey, Jae.” 

That last bit, of course, came as the girl in question joined us. She was looking around at the people loudly complaining before shaking her head. Her voice was quiet. “It’s like they want to be in the middle of a Fell-Touched war.”  

“You know people like that,” Tomas put in with a shrug. “They think they’re invincible.” His eyes centered on me pointedly. “Isn’t that right, Miss Can’t Resist A Dare?” 

Huffing a bit, I retorted, “I’ll have you know, I am more than capable of resisting a dare. It’s just that I usually don’t want to. If it’s something I don’t want to do, I just don’t. For example, if someone dared me to give you a hug right now, I definitely wouldn’t do that. Because you’re a jerk.” The words came out primly as I lifted my chin and harumphed at him. 

Tomas snorted. “I bet if someone dared you to do a flip off the top of the school before crashing into me for a hug you’d do i–wait.” His face twisted a little as he reconsidered what he had been saying.” 

Grinning, I gave a quick nod along with a thumbs up. “You know what? Absolutely. If you want me to do a flip off the top of the school then crash into you for a hug, I will do that.” 

Jae and Amber snickered, before the latter spoke up. “Anyway, the point is, nobody thinks they’re going to be the ones who end up getting hurt. They all think it’s gonna happen to someone else and they’ll be fine. Which, I mean, yeah, it’s a pretty big city. But it’s also a pretty big gangwar.”

While the others were reacting to that, I glanced away at the crowd of students who were reluctantly starting to move to their next classes. Everyone was talking about how annoying and unfair having a curfew was, especially one that early. Amber was right, everyone just assumed the fighting in the streets wouldn’t affect them personally. But, of course, there wasn’t exactly a way for the city to tell the gangs to only fight where people weren’t.

Oh wait, maybe not the city themselves, but that should have been exactly what the Ministry could do. If they were really trying to keep damage to a minimum and were good at maintaining control, shouldn’t they just be able to tell the gangs to take their war outside of the city, or to places where people weren’t going to be? But no, they were fighting all over the place and people were getting hurt. Innocent people who had nothing to do with any of it. Businesses were being damaged, civilians were being injured, or worse. And the war just kept escalating. Now we were on a full curfew? What was next? How bad was this going to get before it was over? And did I actually want an answer to that question? 

Regardless, one thing was clear. This whole situation was going to get worse before it got better. The gangs weren’t going to stop fighting on their own. They were just going to keep escalating until one side faltered and the other could claim some sort of victory. 

But hey, maybe we would find something useful in the Ministry base this weekend, something we could use to convince the gangs to back off. Yeah, that didn’t sound very likely, to say the least. Yet I had to give myself something to hope for. 

On the other hand, maybe I should just stick to hoping that we got through the whole thing alive, in one piece, and without losing any of our secrets. 

*******

“Still nothing from Irelyn?” 

It was a few hours later, and I was at Wren’s shop, upstairs with Paige (and Raige) to check in. Her eyes were opened again, as they both took turns speaking through the same body. 

My head shook. “No. I definitely haven’t heard from her, and no one I’ve spoken to has either.” My face twisted a little into a grimace. “I even checked with Arleigh. Tried to make it sound casual, you know? Just asked if she ever saw that woman who accosted us outside the restaurant again. She hadn’t, but she did use that as an excuse to invite me out to dinner some night, any night. She’s free whenever and I should totally check out this awesome sci-fi-themed restaurant with her. And the worst part is, it actually does sound pretty cool. But if she ever finds out that I went without her, she’s going to be even more impossible.” I groaned a bit, slumping against the far corner of the same couch Paige’s body was lying on, down by her feet. “But hey, at least she’s not–” Cutting myself off, I frowned and tilted my head. “Uh, I was gonna say at least she’s not… well, you. This is weird.”

It was clearly Raige who spoke then, sounding amused by that whole thing. “I dunno. Seems pretty fun from where I’m sitting. Can’t wait to see how you two work this whole thing out once we get separate bodies. But in the meantime, what’s this about Irelyn not checking in again? It’s been weeks. She should’ve come back to kick the rocks around some more by now. Our distraction wasn’t that good.”  Her tone through that had gradually changed from amusement to what sounded like genuine concern, though masked somewhat by projected annoyance. “The fuck is taking so long? She’s a better detective than that. She must’ve figured out that you aren’t down there by now. Don’t tell me she gave up and decided to have a quick little vacation down there.”  

“Maybe we should call her again and find out,” Paige put in, her voice uncertain. “Unless she found something in Florida that she thinks has something to do with me, she wouldn’t leave the city for so long. Not with–” She stopped, going silent for a moment before finishing with a simple, “Not without getting any actual clues.” 

“You could call her,” I agreed. “It’s been a couple weeks and if she still hasn’t come back, maybe she did find something. I mean, something she thinks is about you. Or…” I trailed off, frowning. “I dunno. But yeah, you should call her again. You don’t think she got in trouble or something, do you?” The idea that we had sent some poor, practically defenseless woman down to Florida to poke around looking for her sister was starting to sound like a bad idea in my head. 

So, Raige gave Paige a little bit of control once more and she called Irelyn. Unfortunately, that didn’t lead to answers, or to making any of us feel better. There was no response. She tried six more times over the next half hour, all to no avail. Which only made Paige even more worried. And Raige clearly wasn’t doing much better as far as that went. 

“Fuck!” I wasn’t sure which of them said that, though ‘both’ was an option. “What happened to her? What the hell is going on? Why isn’t she answering?!” Her eyes snapped toward me. “She left thirty messages on the phone since the last time we talked to her, but all those calls ended a couple weeks ago. Since then there’s been nothing. No messages, no calls, nothing. Something’s wrong. She would have–she should have–it’s wrong. Something happened.”

What was I supposed to say to that? She wasn’t wrong. Something had obviously happened. The only question was how bad that something might be. “I don’t–maybe she’s asleep or–” I cut myself off at a hard glare from her. “Yeah, probably not. Seriously, we can’t freak out. Let me take the phone and I’ll keep trying to call her. Wren says it can’t be traced, and I believe her. I’ll just use my voice changer thing if–when she answers. I’ll find out what’s going on with her.”

“And if she doesn’t answer?” Paige demanded in a voice that was attempting to be flat, but I could still hear a bit of guilt within it. “What then?” 

I honestly had no idea. We couldn’t go search all of Florida for one woman. It would be impossible. “Sunday night we’re going into the Ministry base,” I reminded them both. “We’ll find that list of your dad’s secret labs and hope there’s a body for Raige in one of them. Once you’re both on your feet, we can go from there. We’ll get hold of her, you guys. Just… just one step at a time.” 

Paige slumped back on the couch, both her and Raige clearly lost in private conversation. I wasn’t sure how long that would take, so I rose, promised to come back later to check in or if anything happened, then started downstairs with the phone in one hand. 

Right, as if there wasn’t already enough pressure riding on this whole thing, now we had a missing woman to deal with. The weekend was gonna be quite… something. First I had to go hang out with my ex and his new boyfriend tomorrow just so I could spy on both of them, and then Sunday I had to break into the secret Ministry base so I could spy on my family.  

And I honestly had no idea which one I was looking forward to least. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 20C – Jae And The Chambers Twins (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The following is the missing voter-decided interlude that was supposed to come out after Interlude 20B. After a week or so, once everyone has had a chance to read it, the chapters will be rearranged so that this fits where it belongs.

“Check the oven, check the oven! Don’t let the lasagna burn!” With that frantic cry, the bleached-blonde woman, whose drivers license would heavily disagree with her commonly stated age, bounded into the kitchen with her phone held in one hand and frantically tried to shove the other hand into an oven mitt that was sitting on the counter. “Jae?! Jae, where are you?!” Her voice grew louder and slightly more shrill. “J–

“Here,” Jae Baek announced, rising from behind the island counter with the cookie sheet with one oven mitt-covered hand holding the formerly-frozen lasagna that she had just taken from the oven. 

With a surprised shriek as the girl abruptly showed herself, Kella pitched her phone and oven mitt toward Jae defensively while jerking away and shielding her face. “Don’t shoot!” 

Before either the phone or mitt could hit her, Jae took advantage of the fact that the woman wasn’t looking to use her power. She pulled both into a quick orbit around herself before letting them land on the counter. She then quietly informed her stepmother, “Don’t worry, it’s not loaded.” 

“What–” Finally belatedly realizing who was talking, Kella focused on her. “For goodness sake, Jae, don’t skulk like that. What were you–” Seeing the tray as the girl put it down on top of the stove, she coughed. “Oh, you… ahh, you got it. Good. G–my phone!” 

Reaching down, Jae picked up the device, turned it over, then offered it back to the woman with a shrug. “I think it’s okay.” 

Quickly taking her phone back, Kella checked it over in a rush before holding it up to her ear. “Dana? Dana are you–oh thank God. Yeah? He did? Oh no. Oh no. Oh–” Abruptly, she started to laugh. “Tell me. What did he say–wait, no, what did she say? How did–you’re kidding.” 

For the next couple of minutes, Jae stood there waiting while Kella went through an entire conversation with her friend, seemingly having completely forgotten the younger girl was even in the room, let alone what she had actually gone in there for. Finally, she shook her head. “Oh no,  I couldn’t possibly. Not tonight. Yes, I know who he is. Ohhh don’t do this to me. Don’t tell me that! Maybe I can– No, of course not. It’s the girl. Yes, Jae. What? No. No, she’s having some friends over. Just a nice little party, nothing too wild. Yes, that Jae. What other–oh no. Well of course not. Yes, and I’m here to keep it rocking. Haha, you know it. Yes, I–wait, the lasagna!” 

Having worked her way back around to the reason she’d come into the room in the first place yet again (her first realization apparently not having stuck), the woman hit the disconnect button and looked up just in time to see Jae taking the foil off the pan. “Oh, right, you took it out before. What–is it…” 

“It’s not burnt,” Jae informed her before gesturing to the cheesy, tomatoey treat. “See? What did Dana want?” she asked politely. 

Making a brave face that was entirely unconvincing, Kella waved that off. “Oh, just some director who’s looking for some faces for a project, he’s down at the club on Greenfield.” 

“You should go see him,” Jae replied, reaching up into the nearby cupboard to take down a few plates. “If he might have a part for you.” 

“What? Oh, no, no, this is your night.” Kella insisted, though her voice faltered a little. “You’ve got friends coming over. Do you have any idea how seldom that–I mean–” Blanching as the realization of what she had just said came to mind, she quickly backtracked. “I promised I’d be here to help–” 

“It’s okay, Kella.” Jae gestured. “Dinner’s ready, see? They’ll be here in a few minutes and we’ll eat. There won’t be… it’s just the two of them. Nothing to worry about. I’m fine.” 

Squirming a little guiltily, unable to disguise just how much she truly wanted to leave, Kella managed one last, “Are you sure? I know what a big deal it is to have your first real party. I mean, not that this is what I would have called a party when I was your age–but… but you’re not me, and if you want me to stay–” 

“Kella, I promise, it’s fine.” Jae offered her a small smile of encouragement. “It’s not the first time they’ve visited, remember? They came for dinner a couple weeks ago.” She didn’t bother to point out that this wasn’t a party, not with only two other people. 

“Yes, and then you had to leave suddenly for your… school emergency,” Kella replied with a shake of her head. “Which, for the record, I still don’t understand how you could have a school emergency in the middle of the night. But–” Shrugging that off, she added, “You didn’t get to finish the party. They left fifteen minutes after they got here. I just… I just want to help you make sure this one goes right.” 

The words made Jae smile very faintly. Honestly, her stepmother would never be anything like Andrea Mars, the woman who had adopted Jae and several other ‘ethnic’ children over the years in the first place. But the fact that she cared at all, that she had even initially refused to leave to go see this director, no matter how reluctantly, meant… a lot, actually. Kella wasn’t a bad person, she just never intended to be a mother, and at best saw herself as a fun aunt or older sister. Being left in charge of Jae after all of the girl’s older adopted siblings had moved out, and her husband/Jae’s adopted father’s director career had been reinvigorated to run a television show all the way up in Canada, had never been on her to-do list. 

“It’ll be fine, Kella,” she repeated in a firm voice. “I promise.” 

Hemming and hawing just a little bit more, Kella finally thanked Jae and kissed her forehead. With a quick promise to bring her back something fun and a reminder not to turn the music up so loud it attracted the police, she was back on the phone to let Dana know she was coming after all, and out the door. 

Which left Jae waiting alone when the doorbell rang. She quickly looked over the lasagna one more time before heading for the entranceway. Despite her words to Kella before, she was nervous about this whole thing. As the older woman had pointed out (without knowing the whole story), the last time she had tried to have a night with Lexi Chambers and her brother, she’d ended up being called in to help out as Carousel and was forced to cancel. Hopefully no one would need her tonight and she could actually get through a full evening off. 

With that silent wish, Jae took a breath before opening the front door. She immediately saw the two in question. Lexi, the girl she knew from several other online games, was a fourteen-year-old with long dark hair, wearing baggy jeans and a hooded jacket over a tee shirt with a picture of a heavily-armed and armored female knight from one of their games. 

Her twin brother Zed, meanwhile, had blond hair that was clearly a labor of love and effort. It was spiked up with plenty of gel, and he wore black slacks, a white button-up shirt, and black vest. 

“Jae!” Lexi stepped in, embracing the slightly older girl. “It’s so cool to see you again!” 

With a tiny smirk, Zed gave a short nod. “Yeah, hope we make it longer than fifteen minutes this ti–oof.” The last bit was from his sister elbowing him in the gut. 

“You don’t have to worry about that,” Jae quietly replied, crossing her fingers behind her back that she wouldn’t be proven wrong. “I like to let people meet me just long enough to find out how much of a freak I look like, then decide if they want to come back later after all.” 

“Oh stop,” Lexi insisted. “Believe me, Zed’s a bigger freak than you are. Do you have any idea how long he spends working on his hair every day? Hint, it’s more than ten minutes. Hence, freak.” 

“C’mon, Lex, you can just admit you’re jealous and get it over with,” Zed informed her while posturing. That immediately turned to a yelp and wildly flailing arms as his twin reached over with both hands to try to muss up his beloved locks. “Stop, stop, I’ve gotta keep this for–stop–hey!” 

With a small smile, Jae gestured for them to come the rest of the way in and then shut the door after them before leaving the two over to the kitchen. On the way, Zed sniffed several times. “Mmm, lasagna? We haven’t had that since we spent that weekend with Gramps and Gran a couple months ago.” 

“Sure you don’t need a bib?” Lexi teased. “After all, you might spill cheese or tomato sauce on your fancy clothes and spontaneously combust.”  

With an affronted huffing sound, the boy retorted, “Oh please, if I didn’t know how to get food into my mouth without spilling it all over, I’d never survive in a house with you and Dad. If I can dodge the two of you, I can sure as hell handle my own food.” 

Lexi, in turn, narrowed her eyes at him. “Are you sure you can dodge me?” 

Jae, reminded of bantering between her older adopted siblings before they had moved out, smiled to herself before speaking up. “If you want, we can load up the plates here and take them to the den to watch a movie or something. Or two. Or… I uhh, don’t know how long your parents are cool with you staying. I mean, this extra meeting they had to come back to Detroit for, is it gonna keep them busy for very long?” 

The twins exchanged glances before Lexi shrugged. “Eh, don’t worry. We’re staying in town for the weekend, so it’s no big deal. We can stay until you get sick of us. Unless that’s right now?” She offered a wink. “I know we can be a lot. I mean, that’s what Mom and Dad say, and they’re pretty smart about that sort of thing. After all, they have to do a lot.” 

“Oh yeah, your mom’s a cop?” Jae asked. “And your dad’s a reporter.” 

“She’s a homicide detective,” Zed clarified, pride evident in his voice. “And a–” He coughed. “A damn good one. So’s Dad. I mean, a good reporter. He pisses people off all the time, which I’m pretty sure means he’s great at his job. He always says that if everyone likes you, you’re a shitty reporter.”

“But,” Lexi put in, “they can’t all hate you either. It’s about balance.” For a brief moment, it looked as though she was going to say something else. Then the girl shook that off and gestured. “Anyway, I’m starving. Let’s grub.” 

The three of them had just loaded their plates, and were on their way to the den to set up the first movie, when the doorbell rang once more. Hearing that, Zed asked, “What, did you invite more people?” 

“No,” Jae replied, setting her plate down before heading that way. “Ah, I’ll see who it is, you guys can go right down that hall and turn left into the second door.” With that, she continued to the front entrance and checked through the peephole. There was a man in a delivery uniform standing there, holding a tablet computer with one hand and a package tucked under his other arm. Beyond him, out on the street, was the delivery truck itself with the familiar logo over it. 

Right, obviously Kella had ordered something. That wasn’t exactly unheard of. The woman did most of her shopping online, and was always trying to find the latest thing that would keep her in-fashion, so they had packages come practically every other day. 

Wondering briefly what this latest delivery was, Jae opened the door. “Package for Kella Song?”  This particular delivery guy was unfamiliar, so she braced herself slightly for the inevitable reaction that came whenever a stranger saw an Albino Asian girl standing in front of them. 

But the man didn’t react to that at all. Instead, he simply turned the package around to offer it. “That’s right, if you could take this and then sign for it, Miss.” 

Jae went to accept the box, before everything seemed to fall into slow motion. She saw the complete lack of any surprise on the man’s face at the way she looked. She saw the very subtle hole in the front of the package, near the lid. It was too small to make out details, but at a glance (she had been trained within the Minority to pick up details very quickly) it looked as though there was a tiny hose or something similar there, the end barely visible. And the way he was offering it to her basically forced Jae to take it from both sides, as his hand was already underneath it. The sides, one of which seemed to bulge very slightly right where she would put her hand. It bulged not as though the package itself was full, but as though there was something stuck inside the cardboard. Something that would be pushed when she put her hands on it to take the package. 

All of that passed through the girl’s mind in the brief second as she went to take the box. At the very last instant, she grabbed the side that wasn’t bulging out, pushing hard to twist the box around in the man’s hand while simultaneously slapping her hand against the bulging part. 

As expected, there was a pressure sensor there. As soon as it depressed, a spray of dark green gas burst out of the hole in the front. The hole which would have been pointed directly at her face, had she taken it the way the man was trying to get her to. Instead, it was sent into his face, and the man recoiled with a yelped curse before abruptly collapsing right there on the porch, where he immediately began to snore. 

Any pride that the girl might have felt in that moment that having realized the trap was completely covered by confusion and worry. Who was that guy? Why would he–wait, did people know who she was? Was this an attack against Carousel? Because if so, that was really bad. 

Before she had time to think about that any further, the back door of the delivery truck slid open and several men hopped out. Several heavily armed men. Seeing them, Jae quickly shoved the door shut, though she still heard one of them shout, “Spread out, cover the back. Don’t give a shit what happens to that girl, but we need the twins alive!”

Twins? They were here for Zed and Lexi, not her? What the hell? 

Even as that burst of confusion filled her, Jae heard a noise and spun to find Zed standing there in the hall, his face grim. “What happened? What–” 

That was as far as he got before something heavy hit the door hard enough to make it shake. It was followed immediately by another hard slam, and a shouted, “Get the fuck out here, kids! Make it easy on yourselves!” 

Lexi had run into the hall beside her brother by that point. “What the hell is–” 

“They’re after you,” Jae informed them, already pulling her phone from her pocket to call the authorities. Only to frown at what she saw. “No signal. They’re blocking it.” Her eyes snapped up then, taking in the two. “Why? Who are they?” Her mind was already racing, thinking of how to get out of this without exposing her secret. These people were here for the Chambers kids, so they clearly had no idea that Jae was Touched. And certainly didn’t know she was part of the Minority. Unfortunately, she couldn’t take advantage of that without exposing her powers. And with the phones jammed, she couldn’t call the others for help. 

Even as those thoughts rushed through her mind, the door was hit yet again. That time, it nearly came off its hinges. The door was heavily reinforced, but it couldn’t hold under that sort of sustained abuse. But far more pressingly, from the back area of the house came the sound of breaking glass. Someone somewhere had shattered a window. They could get inside. 

In an instant, before even thinking about anything else, Jae was lunging to grab the other two by the hands. Everything else was forgotten aside from getting them to safety. While they yelped, she pulled them to the stairs and practically dragged the pair up them. If they could get to one of the rooms there and out a window, they might be able to escape this situation without–

A man was there, right at the top of the stairs. He’d clearly climbed up and broken in through one of the higher windows, just as Jae had been intending to break out. Worse, he was armed, his gun already pointed down at the trio, who were halfway up the steps. “Right, kids, why don’t you just-aaahhh!” 

He wasn’t ordering them to scream, much as it might have appeared otherwise. In mid-sentence, the man had recoiled as something flew past Jae’s shoulder. It looked like a bright silver egg that was glowing from the inside. As it struck the man, the ‘egg’ shattered. But instead of getting yolk over him, the man actually turned translucent. Like a ghost. Flailing, he had just enough time for his eyes to widen before he was abruptly catapulted through the nearby wall. His scream lingered as he was launched straight sideways, vanishing right through the painting of a sailing boat that was affixed there. All without doing any actual damage. It was like he had been turned into a ghost and was then sent flying. 

“What th–” Jae pivoted, her eyes snapping to where the twins were. Even as she did so, the front door finally gave up its fight, crashing inward. The man who had been slamming his way into it repeatedly burst through, shouting a violent threat. 

That time, Jae saw what happened. Lexi cocked her hand back, another of those glowing silver eggs appearing in her palm before she chucked it that way. Again, when the egg struck the man, it shattered and he began to glow while turning instangible. An instant later, his scream filled the foyer as he was launched backward the way he had come. Through the small, circular window above the door, Jae saw his glowing form crash down in the grass across the street before returning to normal. 

“Lexi,” Jae managed, staring at the girl even as the sound of other people rushing through the house reached them. 

“Jae, we gotta go!” That was Zed, grabbing her by the hand and yanking before adding, “Lex!” 

Lexi too began to move then, pivoting back toward them before grabbing Jae’s other hand. “We’ll explain later, come on! Zed, keep them off us, I’ve gotta have more time to cook!”

“I’m working on it!” the boy insisted. Releasing Jae, he pivoted on the stairs and held both hands up flat in front of himself, like a mime in a box. After a moment of obvious concentration, the air in front of him, from the edge of the step about halfway up, all the way to the ceiling, began to glow faintly. Forcefield. He had created a forcefield. That much was obvious as a man came around out of the nearby room, gun in hand, and ran face-first into it before rebounding backward with a broken, bleeding nose. 

“Go, go, go!” Zed blurted, pivoting to usher the other two onward. “Lex, you better cook faster!” 

“Like I don’t know that!” she retorted, pulling Jae as they raced upstairs. Behind them, the sound of more men arriving and hitting that forcefield filled the air. As did their shouts and threats. 

At the top of the stairs, Lexi pivoted to the other girl. “Where’s the nearest window? I’ve gotta see where we’re going!” 

Taken aback by all of this, Jae mutely raised a hand to point to the door they were in front of. It was actually her eldest brother’s room, or had been before he had gone off to college. Nothing had been done with it, however. The room was still just as he had left it. 

As the men below shouted that ‘this Tech shield shit’ wouldn’t stop them, the trio went through the door. Jae could hear a man who seemed to be in charge shouting for other men to get outside and block the exit out there, and to make sure ‘those little fucks’ didn’t attract anyone’s attention.

Once they were in the room, Lexi pulled away and stood with her arms folded, eyes squeezed shut and brow furrowed. 

“We’ll explain in a minute, promise,” Zed informed her, checking through the door before shutting it. As he did so, the boy pressed both hands against the door for a moment. Abruptly, a second door, this one made of solid energy like the forcefield below, appeared right there. “That should hold them for a second if they get this far. But Lex–” 

“I know, I know,” she insisted. “Just gimme a second.” A moment later, she finally opened her eyes. “Okay, that should be good.” Focusing on Jae, she hesitated before offering a weak, “I–trust me, okay? Please?” 

Jae, in turn, gave a short nod. She honestly had no idea what to say to that, clueless as to how to respond to being on this side of the situation. 

Holding both hands out, cupped together Lexi created another of those eggs. No, three of them. “Take one, break it on yourself. Now, now, now!” 

Quickly, Jae grabbed one of the glowing silver eggs. Zed took the second, leaving one for Lexi. Together, all three of them broke the eggs against themselves. Instantly, Jae felt herself turn insubstantial. She felt weightless, and her body was glowing. 

And then… then she was moving. No, moving. The entire world turned into a blur, as she shot sideways through the window that Lexi had just been looking at. There was a rush of shapes and colors, before the ground just as suddenly came up to smack into her. 

“Oogh,” Jae groaned. She was lying on the grass, and when she looked up, the girl saw the park around them. A park that was four blocks away from where they had started only a few seconds earlier. 

“Sorry, sorry. I had to make sure I cooked them long enough to get us out of the neighborhood,” Lexi was saying. She and Zed had landed on their feet, apparently more accustomed to that. The dark-haired girl was reaching down to help Jae to her feet. “Zed, call Mom and Dad. We should be out of range of those jammers now. And… and…” She stared at Jae for a moment before blanching. “Hi.” Her voice was weak. “About… what just happened. It’s a long story.” 

“We have powers,” Zed put in. “She makes those egg things that turn people or objects into light and yeets them off in a single direction really fast for a really short time. Lasts longer if she takes more time to ‘cook’ the eggs. I make solid-light copies of things I touch. Including air, like back there on the steps to make that forcefield thing. Those guys probably hate either our mom or dad, or maybe both, for cop or reporter-related things.” To Lexi, he added, “See, not that long.” 

Shooting a look at her brother, the girl retorted, “Just call Mom and Dad.” To Jae, she offered a hesitant, “I know this is probably way too much to deal with right now. And I know–I know that’s not enough and we need to talk about a lot more of it. We will, I swear. But are you okay?” 

After a brief hesitation, Jae slowly replied, “Actually, I can deal with it better than you might think. You’re right, though. 

“We do need to talk.” 

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Winging It 19-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Apologies for the mix-up and technically doubling up on chapters here. I did post a commissioned interlude over the weekend for Heretical Edge (which can be found right here), and in doing so managed to confuse myself about which story needed the regular update, so this chapter was sent to early patrons yesterday. To make up for that and ensure everything stays fair and even, this chapter will be out today, and then there will be a Heretical Edge chapter on Wednesday and Friday. I do hope you all enjoy this regardless.

So, I left Lion with Wren and the others so the Tech-Touched could compare notes, or whatever they were going to do. Part of me wished that I could stay there and hear all the things they were going to talk about, but I was sure most of it, if not all, would fly right over my head. Touched-Tech was fun, but man was it complicated. I had no idea how Wren kept herself focused long enough to do that stuff. Better if I sated my curiosity by asking for a summary later.

Besides, it wasn’t as though I was going to be bored. I had my own incredibly cool thing to do today. Namely, spend more time with Lucent. Which, jokes about my parentage aside, I really did think he was awesome. Seriously, the guy was a talking raven superhero. Silversmith might’ve been my favorite Star-Touched before I knew the truth about my dad, but Lucent had always been pretty high up on the list as well. He was just really cool, and offering to give me pointers and just generally being willing to spend time with me was… yeah, it meant a lot. Enough that I kept ignoring the repeated insistent whispering warnings in the back of my head about how wary I should be and that I should stay away from people like that. Yes, it was very unlikely that he was secretly linked to my parents, but still. It wasn’t impossible, and they could be using him to poke at ‘Paintball’ and get information. I had to be very careful about all this. 

All of that was fresh in my mind, having a duel with the part of me that just thought this whole thing was awesome, as I landed lightly on the roof of the grocery store where we had arranged to meet. Looking around, I didn’t see him, but figured he would be around shortly since I had already sent a text message that I was on my way. Being a bird, of course, he couldn’t carry a phone around with him. But I had been assured that any messages sent to that number would be relayed to him, and messages sent back were at the very least dictated by him. 

Sitting with my back to the nearby air conditioning unit, I took out my phone to see a few messages. The first was from Lucent himself, letting me know that he would be there soon. Meanwhile, the other two were from Peyton and Amber. First, my new partner said she had to help her mother with some stuff at the store and other errands before heading over to Wren’s. And also that if I let Lion leave before she could meet her, she would punch me very hard. 

The message from Amber (well technically from That-A-Way since she sent it from her Touched phone to mine), on the other hand, was all about how she had something she wanted to talk to me about. Apparently that wasn’t an emergency or anything, but she thought it was important to share whenever I had a chance. With an added bit about how she was supposed to go on patrol with Syndicate this evening, and she’d let me know how that went. I had the sneakiest suspicion that it was really hard for her to hold in talking about all the stuff that had been dumped on her. She needed someone to talk to about it, someone to unload on. 

“Jae! Jae, come on!”  

Speaking of people that Amber should have been able to talk to, the voice calling from below snapped me out of my drifting thoughts by calling that name. Carefully, I slid over and peeked down below. A woman was standing in front of the store entrance, looking back impatiently into the shop. “We don’t have all day for this, not if we want to welcome your father back properly.” 

It had to be a different Jae, right? That wasn’t–but no, even as I had that thought, the girl in question emerged into view. It was her. She was wearing a light raincoat with the hood up, and what I was pretty sure were sunglasses from the very slight bit I managed to see. All to protect herself from the bright, glaring rays of the warm sun. Oh, and she was carrying several heavy grocery bags full of what sort of looked like party supplies and treats. 

It was hard to hear her response from here, given how quietly the other girl spoke. But it must have been an apology, because the woman beside her (a very artificially bleached-blonde woman with what seemed like more plastic surgeries than sense) smiled and squeezed her shoulder (her own arms, I noticed, were almost empty aside from a couple bags in her other hand). “I know, I know, I’m sorry. I’m just overly-excited about your father coming home. We have to make it special for him, you know? He goes to so many exotic places, we have to make him enjoy being home too. You don’t want him to find more excuses to stay away, do you?”

I had always known that Jae was adopted. Her and all her siblings had been taken in from different families and situations, by a semi-famous television actress and a successful director-producer. But eventually, the woman who had actually taken Jae and the others in had passed away, and their father had remarried. To this lady, apparently. Plus, I was pretty sure her adopted siblings had all moved out by now. Did that mean that Jae spent most of her time living alone in that house with only this woman? Eesh, no wonder she spent time with Amber. 

Speaking of which, too bad the person Amber talked to about all her feelings couldn’t be Jae. They seemed like pretty good friends when we were at school. Then again, I knew a fair bit about having school friends without letting them actually get close to me. Hell, I wasn’t even sure the other girl actually knew about Amber being Touched in the first place, let alone all this extra stuff. That was one of those personal questions I didn’t feel comfortable asking about. No matter how curious I was, it just wasn’t fair to put Amber in that position.

In any case, Jae’s stepmother (adopted stepmother?) didn’t seem like the best person to spend time with. Especially considering she seemed to be treating the girl more like a pack mule than a daughter. She was barely carrying any bags, while Jae was loaded down with them. And she wondered why the other girl was moving slower. It wasn’t actually wicked stepmother vibes, but more like… thoughtless. That was the impression I got while watching the two interact below me. She wasn’t actively, intentionally bad. She was just… she wasn’t a mother, that was for sure. As I watched the two head out toward a car, it felt more like the woman saw Jae and herself as peers, as if they were both students and she was the rich, popular girl who could get the unpopular, smart girl Jae to do her work for her by being ‘nice.’ I wasn’t sure why that was the analogy that jumped into my head, but once I had the thought, it solidified pretty quickly. 

I was about to turn back to watch for Lucent, when something at the corner of my eye caught my attention. A car was coming around the corner of the parking lot aisle close to where Jae and her stepmother were walking, turning in their direction. The driver and passenger were turned around in their seats, focusing on something in the back of the car while coming smoothly around the corner without even looking. The car wasn’t exactly speeding, but it was still going too fast for the two down there to get out of the way in time. In a second, they would both be hit by it. Unless…

Activating two purple stars that I had already put on my ankles, I launched myself outward, twisting in the air while pointing down to shoot yellow paint at the car from one hand and red paint at Jae and her stepmother with the other. The yellow paint I activated immediately, slowing it down. The two women were just reacting to being hit by the red paint, as I twisted slightly more in mid-leap, sending another shot of red to hit a parked car nearby. Instantly, I activated both red bits, yanking the two of them off their feet and sending them flying over several yards before they hit the parked car, stumbling against it just as the yellow-slowed vehicle went through the spot where they had just been walking. The car slowed (this time naturally rather than from paint), the driver seeming to realize belatedly what had almost happened, then suddenly accelerated as he panicked and took off. 

Landing on the top of a nearby light pole by that point, I stared after the car briefly before focusing on the people below me as I called down, “Boy, Sunday drivers, huh? You guys okay?” 

“Oh my God, oh my God.” The woman was patting herself down, looking at Jae. “Are you okay? Did it hit you, are you–” She was still checking herself over with one hand while reaching out to pat the other girl down as well. Which, for all I could say about her not treating Jae like a daughter, at least she expressed concern for her after something like that.

Jae had been staring at me, but shook it off and quietly informed the woman that she was fine. Then she turned to look at the pavement behind them, where their bags of groceries had been dropped, scattered, and run over. 

Seeing that, I grimaced and hopped down, landing smoothly nearby. “Sorry about that, I couldn’t really figure out how to get you and the bags out of the way easily.” 

“Sorry?” the woman shook her head. “Don’t you apologize young man. You saved our lives!” Her voice squeaked a bit, the shock still clearly high in her system. “That–that–if you hadn’t–thank you. We can buy more stuff, we can buy more of it. But you–if you weren’t here… may I hug you?” She was trembling a little. 

“Uhh…” That was as much as I managed to get out before she did just that, embracing me tightly while repeatedly stammering her gratitude. Behind her, Jae stood awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot while giving me a hesitant nod. 

“Oh! Oh, how stupid of me.” Quickly releasing me from the embrace, the woman stepped back. “Ahem, I’m Kella Song. Yes, that Kella Song, from Seven’s Company. I can sign anything you like. And this is Jae Baek, my ahhh… stepdaughter.” Clearly, the word daughter had stuck in her throat. She could barely get it out, sounding like she was saying a dirty word. Not because she had anything against the girl herself, I realized. But because she was still clinging to the one bit of success she’d had in her career while acting. Yeah, I remembered Seven’s Company. Not that I’d seen more than a couple episodes, but I did know enough to realize the woman in front of me had been in her mid-teens at the time, and had barely been out of high school when it went off the air. That was her big claim to success, a show that had been done with for what had to be fifteen or sixteen years by now. She desperately wanted to hold on to what she had been back then, and acknowledging the fact that she was taking care of a daughter, even a stepdaughter, who was the same age she had been back when her career had seemed ready to skyrocket… yeah, that had to be hard, especially for someone like her.  

All those realizations had flashed through my mind while Jae awkwardly thanked me for being there. My mouth opened to tell both of them that it was no big deal, when we were interrupted by the sound of a voice calling out from the doorway. “My God, are you alright?!”

It was the manager of the store. He came rushing out, apologizing repeatedly for what had happened in his parking lot despite the fact that it definitely wasn’t his fault. The man was tall and stocky, with salt and pepper hair and a ruddy complexion. He introduced himself as Carl, thanking me over and over for being there, and offering to call the cops for Jae and Kella. 

Maybe it was bad, but I sort of expected Jae’s stepmother to lambaste the man or try to take advantage of the situation in some way. Instead, she told him they were fine and that he shouldn’t worry about it. Still, the man insisted on replacing the groceries that had been broken and scattered when the bags fell everywhere. He and Kella started inside to deal with that, apparently having forgotten that Jae was still standing there amidst the mess. 

“Uh, here, I’ll help you pick those up,” I announced, starting to collect the stuff out of the street. A few of the things had already been completely smashed from cars pulling through, though most of the vehicles pulled around. 

“Oh, you… don’t have to…” Trailing off, Jae hesitated before stooping to pick the stuff up too. One of the cart collector employees jogged over, and soon we’d picked up everything that had fallen. Most of it went in a nearby trash can, while a few things were able to be taken back inside. As the guy thanked us for the help and headed in with that, I looked to the girl beside me. Belatedly, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t supposed to know her, and cleared my throat. “Ahh, you okay then… Miss?” 

Her head bobbed quickly, voice soft. “Thank you.” Visibly hesitating, she finally added, even more quietly, “What were you doing here? Is… there a bad guy around?”

“Huh? Oh, no.” I shook my head while wondering yet again how much she knew about Amber. If she knew that her friend was That-A-Way, did she think that the other girl might be around here somewhere? “I was just, uh, you know, hanging out. You uhh…” I hesitated, stuck on thinking about what she might know already. 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted my musing to gently inform me, “you can ask.” 

Wait, what? Did she know what I was thinking somehow? Could she–how did… “Ask?” I blankly echoed, just to have actually said something while she was staring at me. 

“I’m albino,” came the response as she gestured to her own pale complexion and very light hair. “Albino Asian. I know it’s weird.” Her voice was a flat mutter, making it clear that she was just repeating what she heard all the time. I knew she heard it all the time, because I had been there many of those times. 

Oh. Oh crap, while I was trying to decide if she knew about Amber, she thought I was staring at her because of the–oh. Damn it. Quickly, I shook my head. “No, no, I mean, that’s not what I was–I mean I wasn’t–that’s not–it’s not weird. It’s different. It’s not–it’s no big deal.” Great, Cassidy, fantastic. Totally and completely smooth. You’re not biffing this interaction at all. 

The other girl raised an eyebrow, her dubious expression clear, though she seemed grateful that I wasn’t being completely hostile. Probably just figured I was more accidentally rude rather than outright antagonistic. 

Before either of us could say anything else, however, a crowd of people started to approach. They had been gradually gathering by the doors of the store, apparently trying to figure out if I was the real thing or just some normal person cosplaying. Which, for the record, was an option that still blew my mind. There were much better people than me to dress up as. 

Either way, they approached and started to ask for autographs, when a dark shadow flew down out of the sky and landed on the nearby metal bar along the side of the shopping cart corral. It was Lucent, and his presence only made people gather around us faster. They might have thought I was cool, but he was on a completely different level. Which was fair, considering he was a talking raven with superpowers. I couldn’t really compete with that. 

Unfortunately, he wasn’t there for a social call. Or even just to see what I was doing rather than waiting for him on the roof. Instead, the bird looked straight to me. “Pardon the interruption, fine people! Paintball, might I request your assistance? The car that narrowly avoided such a terrible calamity moments ago appears to be part of a… situation down the street.” 

“A situ–yeah. Sorry, guys, we’ll see you another time!” Waving to the crowd before looking at Jae, I added, “I’m glad you’re okay. And hey, good luck at your dad’s welcome home party.” With that, I used blue paint to launch myself upward, Lucent flying after me. The crowd called out an assortment of things, holding up their phones to take pictures and video. But I was mostly focused on my new companion. “What’s going on?” I managed while landing on the roof of the store with my wheels out to glide along it, not wanting to give up any momentum. 

“There is a bank at the end of the street,” Lucent informed me while gliding just overhead. “I had intended to give the driver of that vehicle a good scolding. But it appears they are waiting in the back for companions within who are engaged in, shall we say, an illicit withdrawal. Others have been alerted, yet are too far away or occupied with other situations. Tis not exactly the training I had intended for today, yet if you are amenable to a… I believe the correct term is ‘team-up?’” 

Well, that was a surprise. The car that had almost run over Jae and Kella was involved in a bank robbery? No wonder the driver was distracted and didn’t bother to stop. Though actually, come to think of it, shouldn’t that make them drive a lot more carefully so they wouldn’t attract attention? Maybe this was a bad getaway driver. 

Either way, we reached the end of the building and I used red paint on the one next door to yank myself that way. I could see the bank in question on the corner while flying through the air. There didn’t seem to be anything hinky going on from the outside. Not yet, anyway. But I trusted Lucent to know what he was talking about. He could probably see through the windows better than I could. The building itself was a three-story red brick thing, with a narrow one lane drive-through connected to the alley, and a small parking lot that wrapped around the opposite side and into the back. And sure enough, as I launched myself through the air to land on the roof of the building directly next to the bank, I could see the car from before idling right by the marked employee exit, pointed toward the next street over. They were clearly ready to bolt out of there. 

Crouching down on the edge of the roof and peering that way, I hesitated before asking, “Okay, so how do you want to play this?” Lucent had a lot more experience and seniority in the whole Star-Touched situation. I was going to follow his lead. Especially when it came to something like an actual ongoing bank robbery. 

He, in turn, landed next to me and cocked his head a bit, looking between the car and the bank. “‘Twould be best to have some measure of what is happening inside before leaping to actions that may endanger civilians. Perhaps–ah, assistance.” 

He was looking back the way we had come, and I turned to see a familiar figure. Carousel, from the Minority. She wore the same full gold, silver, and purple robe and hood, with a matching jester’s mask. Oh, and she was crossing the street in the air from the other roof, like I had. But rather than having paint pull her, she was using her own power. In this case, she had what appeared to be a park bench, a chair, and a garbage can. They were pulled in by her power, miniaturized to spin around her in orbit. She would jump, make one of the objects resume its normal size just long enough to land on it, jump off it while shrinking it back down and making the thing spin around her again, return the next object to its normal size, land on that before jumping off it, and repeat. She did that all the way through the air from the other roof to this one, crossing high above the street before landing smoothly. 

“Dude,” I managed, “you would be amazing at playing the floor is lava.” 

“I heard you were stopping a robbery,” she replied, “Not one to engage in snobbery, I thought an alliance was due. To turn a pair into few.” 

“Excellent,” Lucent agreed. “I had thought it would be only the two of us. Yes, we would quite welcome your assistance, Carousel. Your aid is as welcome as your delightful balladry. Now come…

“Let us discuss how to safely detain these scoundrels.” 

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Building Connections 16-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

“Right, Cassie?” 

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

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

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

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

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

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Trust 15-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“Cassidy Evans. Like, the billionaire princess of Detroit, perfect daughter of their lord high majesties the queen and king of the city, Elena and Sterling? They who own half the buildings in this fucking city, and probably three-quarters of the government? That Cassidy Evans?” 

That was the new girl, of course. I had just introduced myself the moment Mrs. Donnelley had walked away, leading her to give me a double-take before blurting that whole thing out. She was staring at me as though I’d just told her I was really Abraham Lincoln, raised up from the grave and set to run for another election with her on the ticket as vice-president. 

Opening my mouth, then shutting it as a blush settled across my face, I settled on a weak, “Just Cassidy is fine, we don’t usually go with the rest of the title unless it’s a really special occasion.” 

The other girl shook her head at me, insisting, “You ain’t exactly what I was expecting.” 

Coughing, I offered a slight shrug. “Yeah, I get that a lot. My parents don’t exactly encourage a lot of paparazzi photos or anything, so most people who don’t actually know us or look into it basically assume I’m like…” Scanning the front lawn of the school, I gestured to a crowd of gorgeous cheerleaders heading inside together while laughing at something. “One of them.” 

Giving a side-glance that way, the girl nodded. “Yeah, something like that. You uhh, you sure you’re not like a body-double or something? You know, someone to pull threats away from the real Cassidy Evans?” Even as she said it, I saw a grimace cross the girl’s face. “Sorry. That sounded less shitty in my head.” 

“It’s okay, I get it,” I assured her. “And if I was a body-double, I’m doing a pretty shitty job. I mean, look at me. You were told I was Cassidy Evans and you’re having trouble believing it. How many assassins are gonna take a look through a scope and be like, ‘yeah, she looks like a billionaire’s kid, let’s do this?’”

For a moment, the two of us squinted at each other, before I managed, “We’re both trying to figure out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, aren’t we?” 

Dani (that was her name, I finally remembered) laughed and shook her head. “If you’re really her, probably a good thing. Keep those assassins guessing.” 

“Damn straight.” Grinning despite myself, I tried to ask why I felt so casual with this chick. We met like thirty seconds earlier, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like… weird. Weirdly comfortable. Maybe it was still just a result of me finally being able to talk to Izzy about my family? Maybe I was just still incredibly relaxed and comfortable because I’d expressed all that stuff I had been bottling up for so long, and it was spilling over into my interaction with this new girl. That was probably it, right? It made sense. 

Either way, I gestured. “Come on, I’ll show you around. We’ll stay low in case the assassins think you’re a better candidate for Cassidy Evans than I am.” 

“I’m black,” she pointed out mildly before starting to follow. 

“I said what I said.” With that, I began to guide the new girl through the school, showing her where the main office was, where various sections of the school were, the library, study hall, the indoor tennis and basketball courts (she seemed confused about those being entirely separate rooms), our theater and auditoriums (again with the confusion), and the pools. 

“Pools,” she echoed once we turned away from that door. “As in plural. Multiple indoor pools at school.” 

“Oh, there’s a couple outdoor ones too,” I quickly assured her. “If you go around the back and head…” Trailing off, I glanced toward the girl and grimaced. “And that is totally not the point you were making, was it?” Flushing a little, I asked, “You’re really not used to this private school stuff. Did your parents win the lottery or something? I mean–I don’t mean to sound like–I don’t–you’re just obviously not used to this stuff.” 

Her eyes rolled as she gestured to the clearly very stiff and not-very-used uniform. “What gave it away? I blend in so well.” Snorting, the girl added, “No, my folks didn’t win the lottery. They ahh, took off. Well, Mom died so long ago I don’t remember anything about her. Dad vamanosed with some chick awhile ago. I got bounced through foster homes for awhile, then they found some great-aunt or something. She lives in Europe, but apparently felt just bad enough to put me up in one of her apartments with a babysitter and have me go to school here.” 

It was weird. On the surface of it, every part of that story was logical and made sense. But I had this insistent little thought that it wasn’t true. It was this little voice in the back of my head that kept poking me and insisting that there was something wrong with that story and I couldn’t figure out why. Honestly, it was probably just my paranoia. I didn’t know anything about this girl, and certainly didn’t have any reason to doubt what she was saying. Aside from… well,  everything in my life. Yeah, I did have reason to be suspicious about new people with uncertain backgrounds that popped into my orbit, especially with the whole biolem thing going on. And it wasn’t like I could just ask if she was a real person or some biological android being.

Yeah, paranoid. Absolutely and completely paranoid. This poor girl didn’t deserve that kind of shit, especially when she was walking into this brand new situation. So, I shoved all those thoughts down, locked them in a box in the back of my mind, and chucked it away for the time being. I could be paranoid later. Right now, I was just going to stick to this being a normal school thing. For fuck’s sake, I had enough problems without my brain inventing a whole new one about some random girl who just needed to be shown around for a few minutes. 

So, with a cough, I nodded. “Sorry about your dad taking off, and–uhh, all that. Sounds shitty. Decent apartment anyway?” 

She shrugged. “Entire place is probably about the size of your bedroom, Princess. But it’s good enough for me.” 

Somehow, I didn’t think informing the girl that she was probably exaggerating the size of her apartment rather than the size of my bedroom was exactly the right move. So, I snorted and nudged her as we made our way back around toward the front of the building. “Well, at least you’ve got a good school. Especially if you have any interest in swimming, inside or out!” 

“What’s this about going swimming?” It was San Francisco, the boy popping up out of nowhere, wearing his ill-fitting school uniform that was clearly a size too big for him despite his husky frame. “And who, might I ask, is your lovely new friend, Miss Evans?” He made a (very awkward) show of bowing. 

Rolling my eyes, I gestured back and forth between them. “San, this is Dani, she’s new. Dani, this is San Francisco and don’t look at me like that San, she was gonna find out your name eventually.” 

“Yeah, eventually, man. As in after I had time to make her get to know me,” the boy complained, shooting me a dirty look before turning back to the other girl. “Don’t let my parents being weird as fuck distract you from the magic fingers.” As he said it, San was holding both hands up, wiggling said fingers rapidly. 

For just a moment, I felt like slapping my own face. Instead, once the brief awkward silence had gone on long enough, I kicked San in the foot and hissed in a stage whisper, “Dude, you might wanna explain what you mean before she switches from mentally filling out a restraining order to physically doing it.” 

Poor San’s eyes had widened as he realized what he’d said, and he’d gone from wiggling his fingers to quickly holding his hands out in a stopping motion. “N-no, no, not like, I mean–piano! I play piano! Keyboard, whatever you need. That’s all I meant, you know, magic fingers, piano. I’m really good. Uh, at the piano.” 

Deciding to throw the guy a bone, I nodded while chirping, “He’s not lying about that. He is really good with the–what do they call it, tickling the ivory?” 

“As long as the ivory is part of the piano, he can tickle it all he wants,” Dani retorted before giving the boy another look. “Please stop wiggling your fingers at me.” 

“Yeah, that’s fair,” San agreed, shoving his hands behind his back. “Anyway, that was a really long and awkward way of saying, suuuuuuup girl?” 

“She’s new,” I put in quickly, before Dani had to respond to… well, that. “Obviously. I was just showing her around. She just umm, her great-aunt…” I trailed off, glancing that way since I wasn’t sure if she wanted me babbling about her own personal history and situation. 

Dani, however, seemed not to care. She offered a shrug. “Rich great-aunt, dead mom, missing dad, get to come to school here cuz of guilt or something. Who knows. I’m not sticking my head in that wooden horse. But for the record, your flirting is barking up the wrong sapphic tree.” 

San, in turn, blinked once. “Wrong sapphic–ohhh, you mean you’re–right. Have you met my friend Cassidy here?” 

My eyes rolled. “San, how many times do I have to tell you, I’m not gay?” 

“But you’d be such a good one,” he insisted teasingly, before gasping as I lightly kicked his shin. “Ow, look, I just–oh there we go. Amber!” 

Sure enough, Amber was passing by, turning our way at San’s words. She approached, asking, “Have you guys seen Paige anywhere? I don’t–um. Hi.” 

San gestured back and forth between them. “Amber, Dani. Dani, Amber. You two should do breakfast, you’ve got a lot in common. But hey, look at the time. Let’s go, Cass, we’ve got that thing at the place.” 

Before I could protest or say anything else, he was pulling me away, leaving the two girls there staring at each other. As he pulled me to the school entrance, I snorted while yanking my arm free. “Did anyone ever tell you it’s weird that you’re the one who keeps trying to set everyone up?” 

“Hey, man, being a lover of romance doesn’t mean only wanting it for yourself,” he informed me. “I just want everyone to be happy, that’s all. Is that a crime? And ahh, on a totally unrelated subject, how’s everything going with Tomas?” 

As my face turned pink, I grabbed the door and pulled it open to step inside. “Nothing’s going with Tomas. Nothing. We’re just friends, that’s it.” 

Following me, San sounded unconvinced. “Uh huh. Sure, babe, whatever you say.” He gave me a knowing look before gesturing. “I gotta head for class, but if you wanna go be ‘just friends’ with Tomas some more, I think he’s hanging in the music room auditioning people for his band.” 

With that, he headed off, and I turned to look back the way we’d come. Amber and Dani were still standing there. It looked like they were talking. Weirdly, I felt like that was a good thing. And familiar, somehow. 

Eesh, I really had to stop paying attention to San. He was clearly a bad influence. Shaking that off, I turned to head for my own locker. On the way, I glanced over to where I knew Paige’s was. Amber’s question rang in my ears. 

Yeah, I’d seen Paige. I knew where she was. I’d even taken the time to call the school from my Touched phone, using the voice changer to pose as the other girl’s adopted ‘father’ to say they were taking her out of town for a little while. The receptionist had tried to say something about signing a form, and I told her to fax it over to the number on the sheet, then hung up. I figured I’d deal with that later. After all, the least I could do was try to help make sure Paige had a life to come back here to if–when we managed to wake her up. 

Now all I had to worry about was how the hell we were going to pull that off.

********

A few hours later, in my math class before lunch, I was poring over the set of problems we’d been given to keep us busy for the last half of the period. At the same time, thoughts of what we might be able to do about Paige’s situation kept intruding, making it hard to concentrate. Normally I didn’t mind math so much, but right then I just couldn’t make my mind focus. 

That problem was very quickly made worse as a voice came over the intercom, drawing everyone’s attention that way. “Attention students and faculty,” the voice of one of the office secretaries announced, “due to altercations between members of the Easy Eight and Ninety-Niner criminal organizations taking place several blocks away, the authorities have asked that this school enter lockdown procedures. Rest assured, this action is purely taken as a measure of extreme caution, and there is no reason to believe the altercation will make its way this far. You should continue your scheduled work and lessons as planned, as class is still considered to be in session. Now, remain in your rooms and step away from all doors and windows as lockdown is initiated in five… four… three… two… one.” 

The moment the countdown finished, while all the people around me were already chattering excitedly, lockdown started. In our case, that meant steel shutters closing around all the windows, along with a larger one closing around our classroom door. It was a safety procedure. Now all the classrooms, as well as the various entrances into the school itself, would be completely shielded. 

Which meant I couldn’t go out to see what was happening in this ‘altercation’ between those two Fell-Gangs even if I wanted to. There was no way I’d be able to, say, ask the teacher if I could possibly use the restroom for twenty minutes or so just to nip out and take a peek.

Yeah, so right now I was stuck here the same as everyone else. Obviously, despite what the receptionist had requested, nobody was focused on math anymore. Not even our teacher. Everyone was chattering about what was going on down the street, trying to find details on their phones, and speculating about which gang would win the fight. 

Meanwhile, I… well, I was basically in the same position. I was trying to find out the truth about what was going on out there. Not that knowing would’ve helped me. I was stuck here in this room the same as everyone else. No rushing out to help deal with the situation for me. 

Sighing, I turned to look toward Jae, who sat behind me. Her gaze was locked intently on the nearby steel-covered window, looking almost as though she wanted to bore her way through it. Was she claustrophobic or something? It just looked like she really didn’t want to be trapped in here. 

“It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” I spoke up, trying to distract her. As the pale girl’s pink eyes blinked to me with confusion, I added, “The fighting between those gangs. The news said they’ve really started going after each other lately. Now they’re fighting close enough to get the school locked down?” 

There was a brief pause before Jae gave a slight nod, her voice quiet. “I hope someone stops them.” 

Ouch. Yeah, someone should be out there stopping them. For a moment, I wondered how much of this my parents were going to allow to happen. After all, there was no way this whole war would’ve gone on this long or escalated like this if they weren’t allowing it. Obviously, they’d signed off on Blackjack getting his revenge or whatever against the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro for trying to stop him from getting the vials to save his daughter. As for the Easy Eights, maybe he and Deicide had come to some kind of arrangement as part of the favor he owed her for giving back the vial she had? 

I wasn’t sure. Either way, it was two Fell-gangs versus two other Fell-gangs, and my parents were allowing it to go on. So how much damage was enough for them? How many people would be hurt or killed while they allowed the fighting to continue? Did they give a shit about any of those people? 

“Cassidy.” Jae’s quiet voice pulled me back, and I realized she had been staring at me with a look of concern. “Are you okay?” 

Right, apparently there’d been something in my expression while I’d thought about my family. Quickly, I nodded. “Sorry, yeah. Just thinking about how long we’re gonna be stuck in here.” Biting my lip, I glanced to the girl. “Are you okay?” 

Again, the other girl paused momentarily before admitting, “I don’t like being trapped.” 

Listening to the buzz of conversation from the rest of the class around us, I grimaced. “Yeah, I know what you mean. But hopefully it won’t be too long. I mean, the authorities should break it up soon enough, right?” 

Jae’s response to that was a noncommittal noise, before we were interrupted by the sound of our teacher getting the television in the corner of the room tuned to the right station. Abruptly, everyone saw the scene going on just a few blocks away. It looked like something out of an action movie. Cars were overturned in the middle of the street as various Prev members of either gang used them for cover while taking shots at one another. Fell-Touched were there too, like Angel Dust, Juice, and Skadi on the Easy Eights side, and Sandon and Jailtime on the Ninety-Niners side, along with some other guy I didn’t recognize, who was dressed like an old west cowboy with a demon mask.

The news was right, it was a warzone. There were people lying in the middle of the street, clearly injured or worse. The news chopper doing its best to stay above the action and out of the way while still giving a good view of what was going on. Which allowed us to see more people huddled behind buildings or in any cover they could find, just trying to stay out of the way. Seeing the people out there, clearly terrified and trapped, made me bristle. Fuck. I wanted to be out there. I wanted to go help them, but I couldn’t. I was as trapped in this room as those people were trapped where they were. 

How long would my parents let this go on? I had no idea. But I was pretty sure of one thing. 

This war was probably going to get a lot worse before it got better.

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Project Owl 14-02 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You have to die.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right? 

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quietly, Jae pointed out, “Her too.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You came.” 

Me? Was–was she talking to–

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

“Let’s get this party started.”

********

Patreon Snippets – Raindrop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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