Jae Baek

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. 

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

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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. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Trust 15-06 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“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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Pink 12-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, it was hard to concentrate on the race after that. I mean, it was a good one, for sure. Even Izzy, Jae, and Amber got into it despite not really being ‘racing’ type people. They were still totally hooked. But all I could think about throughout all the excitement was that I needed to get back to the Seraph HQ and see those folders again. Was the right one down in the area I’d been cleaning out? If I got there and looked around, would I actually find it? Would it have the answers I needed? Would the answers actually lead me to Bobby, or to something else important that he’d been trying to leave clues or something to? Would the file be something like-

“Cassie?” The small voice interrupted my racing (hah) thoughts, and I blinked over to find Izzy staring at me. “Are you okay?” she asked quietly. “You look… weird. Do your ribs hurt?” 

Before I could respond to that, Amber and Jae both looked away from the race, the former speaking up. “Why would her ribs hurt?” She frowned in confusion, adding, “What happened?”

My mouth opened, but again before I could say anything, Simon answered for me instead while reaching over to ruffle the long side of my hair. “Oh, my sweet, innocent little sister who never does anything wrong totally thought it’d be a good idea to go off on her own to try skateboarding in the middle of nowhere and hurt herself on Friday, didn’t she? Then she had to walk home.” 

Flushing a little, I managed an indignant little shrug while defensively protesting. “I… I wasn’t exactly in the middle of nowhere, I was just at that half-built water park just outside of town.” 

Simon raised an eyebrow, a smirk touching his face as he pressed. “And that place is…?” 

Shifting back and forth in my seat, I folded my arms and muttered, “In the middle of nowhere.” 

“Are you serious?” Amber exchanged a quick glance with Jae before looking back to me with obvious concern. “Are you okay? What–how did you hurt yourself? Did–what happened?” 

This was somehow just as awkward as lying to my parents had been. Maybe even more so, since these two didn’t have anything to do with the Touched stuff and were just concerned about me. I squirmed a little uncomfortably before giving them the same general story I’d told before about how I snuck into the place, skated for awhile, and then broke one of the wheels off my board while dropping into an empty pool. I mentioned that my phone broke and that I’d had to walk several miles back into the city in the middle of the night before getting a ride. 

When I was done, Jae shook her head. Her voice was quiet, yet admonishing. “Not smart.” 

Wincing, I nodded. “I know, I know. It was dumb. And I paid for it.” Glancing over my shoulder to where my dad was sitting, I quietly added, “I’m gonna keep paying for it with the lack of driving.” To the confused looks, I admitted what my punishment had been, adding, “So I will absolutely definitely not be skating in the middle of nowhere like that again. All skating in public places for this girl.” And I just had to hope that nothing like what had happened yesterday came up again. Or that I came up with a much better excuse for it.  

“Well,” Amber put in, “at least you’re okay, you know? That umm, that kind of story could end up worse.” Belatedly, the dark-haired girl blanched visibly. “Uh, sorry. That’s probably not helpful.” 

“We’re just glad she made it home,” my father insisted. “Cassidy’s safe, and only a little hurt.” Pointedly, he added, “But she’ll be very hurt if she pulls anything like that again.” His eyes were focused on me intently. “And by that, I mean you’ll be punching yourself because you won’t be able to drive until you’re eighteen.” To soften that, Dad winked. “Which is just as much of a punishment for me, because I’ve been waiting to see how good you are at playing chauffeur since you were playing with the toy cars in your diapers, so let’s not have to go that far, hmm?” 

Horrified beyond what I could even hope to articulate, I blurted a sharp, “Dad, don’t talk about diapers!” My face was red, and I was very pointedly trying not to look over at Jae, Amber, and Izzy. I really didn’t want to know how they were reacting to that. 

With a broad smirk that told me just how intentional all of that had been, Dad casually replied, “Just think of the things I can embarrass you with if you give me reason to again.”  

Blanching, I shrank back in my seat and mumbled, “Yes, sir, threat completely received.” 

With that, I turned my attention back to the race. And tried not to let myself get too lost in thoughts of what I would find in the Seraph files. 

Because I was pretty sure it was going to take awhile before I could get over there. 

*****

After the race, we went to dinner as promised. And because it was my dad, dinner was amazing. We brought Amber and Jae with us and went to a steakhouse, and Mom was at the restaurant waiting, since it was family dinner night. Both of my parents made sure everyone ate until we were stuffed beyond all comprehension. Then Mom had desserts packaged up for everyone to take home ‘to eat in a few hours when you can actually enjoy them.’ 

It was dark by the time we dropped those two at Amber’s house. Jae said she’d get a ride home from there. With Simon having taken off with Mom earlier when we left the restaurant for some reason, that just left Izzy and me there with my dad in the back of the car while Jefferson drove us back to the house. I’d never do it, but for just a second I considered what would happen if I asked my father to have me dropped off at the Seraph HQ so I could do some extra work. 

Yeah, bad idea. Just as it would be a bad idea to try to sneak out tonight. I was going to have to wait until tomorrow after school to do anything I needed to do. Which made me really antsy, but what choice did I have? None. I had no choice. All I could do was wait and hope that whatever was actually in that file could wait until I managed to get there and find it. 

Besides, I wasn’t exactly back in top shape yet. That was for sure. The whole outing today had taken a lot out of me. More than I wanted to admit. By the time we got back to the house, my side was complaining and I wanted to lay down for awhile. But no way was I going to admit that I didn’t feel very good. My parents would obviously take any excuse to have me dragged to the hospital for a full range of tests. Or worse, put me on strong painkillers that might leave me loopy enough to say something I really couldn’t afford to say. Not to mention how long my parents might hover over me. No, I was just going to suck it up and get through this, damn it. 

After thanking my dad again for the whole day out, I reassured him that I definitely felt well enough to go to school tomorrow. Because no way was I going to stay home. Not if I was going to successfully sneak out again to get over to the Seraph base. 

Then Izzy and I went upstairs to head for our rooms. She seemed fairly distracted by something, continually glancing out the windows we were passing on the way. Finally, I asked, “You got a hot boyfriend sneaking over to hang out? Cuz you know I would totally cover for you, but we might need to find a way to get him past all the cameras and the rest of the security.”

Poor Izzy did a quick double-take at that, her eyes widening as she stammered, red-faced. “Wha-what? No, I don’t–I’ve never, I wouldn’t have–that’s not, I don’t even li–that’s n–no.” She finally managed, shaking her head back and forth quickly while a sound of protest escaped her.

I couldn’t help it, a small snicker escaped me, as I took her hand. “I’m just teasing, Izzer. It’s okay. No secret boyfriend, got it. But umm, are you okay? You kinda look like you want to be somewhere else. Which I totally get, even a big place like this gets stuffy when you can’t be on your own for so long.” 

“It’s not–” After starting with those two words, Izzy stopped. She considered for a second before exhaling. “I’m sorry. I just… I miss my mom.” Her voice was very quiet, and she seemed somehow ashamed of actually saying that, as if it was the worst thing she could have said.

“Izzy, I–” Stopping myself, I stared at her for a few long seconds. What was I supposed to say to that, given how little I knew about the situation? Especially given what I suspected. Finally, all I could do was offer a hesitant, “Do you want to talk about it?” God, did I ever wish I had someone I could talk to about my own family. But I couldn’t put that on anyone else. 

With a quick headshake, Izzy too declined. “I–thanks, Cassie. Really, you’ve been so cool. But I can’t talk about it. I’m sorry. I–” Swallowing, she looked to me with an expression far more serious than I would have expected to see on a twelve-year-old’s face. “I don’t want to lie to you.”

Wow, she had absolutely no idea how well I could sympathize with that. For a moment, I just stared at her before eventually finding my voice. “It’s okay, Izzy,” I assured her. “Just… talk to me whenever you can, about whatever you can. I don’t know what’s going on, but I know you’re a really cool person. And you’d talk about things if you could. So… whenever you want to talk.” Giving her an encouraging nod, I gestured. “But come on, because in the meantime, there’s a game room up there with our names on it. And I swear, I am gonna kick your butt this time.” 

After a brief hesitation and another quick glance to the window that I noticed out of the corner of my eye, Izzy seemed to nod to herself. She muttered something I didn’t catch, before following after me.  

So, the two of us went the rest of the way up to our area and spent a couple hours in the game room. And I was wrong. Though I did win a few matches, Izzy was very clearly the superior player in most of the various games we played on any given system. I wasn’t even letting it happen, she was just that good. It was kind of amazing that her hand-eye coordination was so great. 

In any case, at least it took my focus off the fact that I couldn’t sneak out tonight. It let me distract myself for awhile from everything else that I really needed to do. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what I would’ve done without Izzy there. It would’ve been much harder to convince myself not to try to get out of there tonight, regardless of the risks, that was for sure. As it was, playing there with the other girl for hours was enough to leave me so tired, I couldn’t even think about getting out of the house. I just mumbled something about definitely beating her next time as the two of us stumbled off to our separate rooms. There, I got ready for bed and collapsed in it. It was only barely ten o’clock at night, but that was absolutely okay by that point. I needed all the sleep I could get. 

Tomorrow was going to be a long day. 

********

Hah. Long day. Boy was I right about that. I spent the entire time at school ignoring pain in my side, trying not to react every time I felt it because the absolute last thing I wanted was for my teachers to get too interested in any injuries I had. If that turned into a thing with my parents and all, I could kiss goodbye to ever being left alone long enough to be Paintball. 

Plus there was Tomas. He wanted to know what happened to me the other night, in my own words. Apparently he’d gotten a brief one-sentence answer about it Saturday after spending most of the evening before that being terrified about where I was. He’d been staying up Friday night, waiting to get any kind of word. When my parents finally let his know that I was home safe, he’d fallen asleep. On Saturday, his dad just told him I ‘hurt myself skateboarding’ and he had to wait until today to actually talk to me in person. 

I had apologized for not putting my new phone together and downloading my contacts in time to respond to his texts, but that the weekend had been crazy (to say nothing of the fact that I still needed to put my Touched phone back together). 

We sat together at lunch, along with Amber, Jae, and a few other people who were basically friends (even if I didn’t see them much outside of school) who had heard about me hurting myself from the rumor mill. Everyone wanted to know what kind of dare I’d been trying to complete that time. As if I’d gotten myself hurt because I couldn’t back down from a dare to prove how tough I was like some kind of–okay yeah I could see why they would think that. 

As school was ending, I stood at my locker putting things away. Down the hall when I glanced that way, I could see Amber talking to Paige near one of the stairwells. The two of them seemed pretty deep in conversation, which was… interesting. Finally, they broke apart and Amber headed my way. So, I closed my locker, adjusted the bag on my shoulder (the uninjured side, which still caused a brief shot of pain to run through me), and waited for the dark-haired girl to reach me. “Hey, what was all that about?” I asked curiously, trying to keep any suspicion out of my voice. Just because I had a whole thing with Paige going on didn’t mean Amber had anything to do with it. She wasn’t connected to any of what was going on. 

Sure enough, Amber blinked at me uncertainly before realizing. “Oh, you mean–no, sorry. Trust me, Paige and me aren’t suddenly friends. I just got partnered up with her for a Physics thing.” Offering me a shrug, she added, “Guess I’m gonna have to work with her for awhile. You know, in the interests of not failing.”

“I can definitely understand that kind of interest,” I agreed, as the two of us walked out of the school together. “Still, good luck dealing with…” My hand waved vaguely. “All of that.” 

With a soft chuckle, Amber nudged me. “Thanks. She doesn’t seem so bad now. Pretty sure she’s just got some kind of huge hate-on for you in particular.” There was a brief pause before she added a curious, “Sure you don’t have any idea why she’s such a bitch to you?” 

A flash of possible answers rushed through my head, none of which I could actually say, given the whole situation. “Nope,” I finally managed. “I guess it’s just one of those things.” 

“Just one of those things,” Amber echoed, not exactly sounding all that convinced. Still, she shook it off and raised a hand. “Anyway, I’ll survive. It’s not me she hates so much. Maybe I’ll–” Whatever she was about to say, the girl stopped herself. “Never mind. I’ll catch you later, Cass.” 

She waved before trotting off over to where Jae was, and I continued strolling across the sidewalk to reach the lot where Jefferson was waiting with the car. Once I was inside, he pulled smoothly away from the curb with a simple, “Your parents will be in meetings for the rest of the day. They wished me to ask how you’re feeling.” As always, his words were crisp and seemingly emotionless, speaking the bare minimum of what he needed to and nothing more. Dad had told me at one point that Jefferson had a mild form of autism. It was hard for him to understand social cues or emotions. That was a big part of why he liked his schedule so much. He was also a very good driver. 

“I’m fine,” I lied, shifting a little in my seat. “Thanks, Jefferson.” Was he a villain too? He had to know the truth about my parents, right? He was too connected to everything not to. He drove both of them all over the place and they trusted him far too much. I wasn’t sure about the entire household staff. But if any of them knew exactly what my family was and what they really did, it was Jefferson. 

For a moment, I considered asking him what he knew, if anything, about Bobby, considering the man was my family’s previous primary driver. But considering that was obviously very connected to my lost memories, bringing him up or being curious about him would probably trip a lot of alarms for my family. Alarms I couldn’t afford to trip if I was going to keep everything I knew secret. So, I kept quiet and sat back to watch the streets as we drove. 

Eventually, Jefferson dropped me off. I went in, talked to Simon and Izzy for a bit, took some meds for the pain, then told one of the servants I was going for a walk to stretch my legs and that I would have my phone with me all the time if my family needed anything. No way could I just sit around doing nothing for another afternoon. There was too much I needed to get done. 

So, that said, I headed out. I still wasn’t quite up to Paintballing my way through the entire city. I was going to have to take things slower and easier than that for a bit. 

Instead, I called for an Uber. My first stop would be getting a new cell phone for Touched work. Then I would visit Wren and see how she was doing. 

And try not to spend the whole time obsessing over how many people in my life were secretly supervillains.

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Pink 12-02 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: There was an extra commissioned interlude for Heretical Edge posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it and read that story, you might want to click here after reading this chapter

We didn’t go straight to the track or either of the museums. Instead, Dad led the three of us across the lot to a restaurant near the track. Technically, it was all owned by the same company, a company my father had a large stake in. The track, the museums, the restaurant, all of it was partially owned by my family. And that was just on the surface. Part of me wondered how much of the city my parents owned through the whole Ministry thing. Actually, come to think of it, I probably didn’t want to know right then. It would just be depressing to think about how much power they had when I was supposed to be trying to relax and show Izzy a good time. 

The restaurant was basically a hamburger place, but not exactly a McDonalds. The burgers were really thick and came named after various cars or drivers. They even did a thing where the top of the buns would have an image of a race car lightly burned into them. And the fries were the really long shoestring versions with Parmesan and truffle oil. They were amazing. I really didn’t have to fake that much enthusiasm for coming here, given how hungry I was. 

Apparently, Izzy had never been there before. Or to the track itself. As we walked in the front door of the restaurant, she gasped at the centerpiece of the foyer. It was a full-sized, actually working race car. Specifically, it was a 1967 Ford GT40 Mark IV, beautifully red with a white number 11 on the side. The Mark IV was the only model of the GT40 line that had been built here in the US, since the first three versions were built in England. It was also the only car that had been designed and built entirely here in the US to win at Le Mans in France. 

I told the other girl all of that while the two of us walked a circle around the car. Izzy nodded appreciatively at the right places, but I had the funniest feeling that she really didn’t care all that much. She was one of those people who just thought a car was a car, and that as long as it got you where you wanted to go, there really wasn’t much of a difference between them. Heathen. 

The restaurant manager was talking to Dad and Simon while I was explaining the car’s history to the younger girl. By the time I got that far, it was time to go. My father beckoned, and we followed as the manager (a really friendly man named Kevin whom I had met a few different times since he was always here ready to direct us to a table when we came in) led us to the back of the restaurant. We passed through a couple doors to reach a private dining area with huge floor to ceiling windows that provided a good look at the track off in the distance across the lot, where we could see some of the cars taking practice laps. 

Izzy and I sat on that side of the long table, so we could turn our chairs a bit to look out at the track. Menus were passed out and the manager promised he would be taking care of everything personally. He took our drink requests, assured my father that our food would be out in plenty of time for us to eat before catching the first actual race, and hurried off. Our drinks were brought in and put on the table almost before he’d actually made it out of the room. Yeah, I’d never really paid that much attention before, but I supposed my father was something of a big deal. 

Simon was tuned out again, lost in his phone. But Dad stood up, moving over to stand next to Izzy and me as he gazed out at the cars doing their practice laps. There was a fondness in his voice as he told us about the first time he’d snuck into the track to watch cars pass by. It made him sound… human and simple, just a kid who couldn’t afford a ticket to see something he loved. I glanced over to see his face, and my father looked nostalgic, lost in his memories. It made me want to ask him how so much had changed. Not only in how much money and power he now had, but where his innocence had gone. I wanted to ask him if he was happier this way, if he had any idea how much misery he brought to other people through this Ministry bullshit. 

Instead, I simply listened quietly while he told us about that first race he’d watched, and about how he’d had to run from security before it was over. His run from the security officers had been a race in and of itself, one that more than a few spectators had actually put money on, apparently. 

“Did you get away?” Izzy asked, apparently enraptured by the story. She was sitting there, arms on the back of the chair that she had turned around in and chin in her hands as she stared at my father with a wide gaze. “They didn’t catch you, did they? Otherwise you would’ve been banned from that track.” 

In response, Dad chuckled. “Well, first, you’ll find that many ‘lifetime bans’ disappear when your name shows up on a lot of the checks that pay the salaries of the people who banned you.” With a wink, he added, “But no, I wasn’t caught. Actually, I owe that to my wife. That was the day…”

Then he trailed off. A slight frown touched his face before he shook his head. “Never mind, probably not the best time. Suffice to say, Elena and I had an interesting first meeting.” Turning from the window then, as he had been staring out at the track through all that, Dad smiled broadly. “And now we’re here. See how things work out in the end when you keep at it?”  

Huh. There was something there. Actually, now that he had talked about it being his first meeting with my mother, I really wanted to hear more of that story. But I knew pushing wouldn’t work, not right now. I was going to keep that in mind and maybe ask Mom about it later. Or I’d find a way to ask Dad when we were alone. 

Either way, that was for later. Right now, I was going to focus on our little outing, and on making sure Izzy had a good time. There would be time to handle all of that other stuff. Instead, I looked at the girl beside me and nudged her before pointing. “See that car over there? The driver’s name is Pranav. He’s really cool, and he’s from Hyderabad. He’s got a lot of stories about India. When the race is over, maybe we can talk to him for a few minutes. I bet he’ll let you sit in his car.” 

“Really? Cool.” From the look on her face, I was guessing that while Izzy did think that was cool, it wasn’t nearly the kind of ecstatic feeling I’d had when I got to sit in Pranav’s car years earlier. It had been like Christmas morning for me, to the point that I’d barely been able to sit still. She thought the idea of sitting in a race car was just… cool. But at least she wasn’t against it. 

We ate our food as soon as it came, while Dad and I told Izzy stories about car races and various drivers. Simon piped up now and then, but he was mostly interested in his phone throughout all of that. Every once in awhile, he’d look at Dad when he thought I wasn’t looking and mouth something, but I could never really catch much of what it was. My best guess from what I did catch was that he was reporting numbers. Numbers of what, I had no idea. I didn’t know if it was weight, times, amounts, all of the above, something else, or anything. All I was sure of was that it had to do with Ministry stuff. And it was important enough that our father didn’t make him put his phone away during the meal. 

The food was, of course, amazing. Kevin made sure we had dessert, and then we left to head over to the track. On the way, I told Izzy about the time I’d been so excited to get to the race that I’d grabbed the hand of a stranger thinking it was my dad and dragged him toward the door. 

“It was funny,” I started, “because when I–” Then I stopped. The memory that had flashed into my head was that I’d told someone about that the day after and they–he… told me about something he did that was like that.. He told me… He… he was… he was…

A rush of pain flooded my head. I stumbled just a little before catching myself. Dad’s gaze snapped to me, hand rising. “Cassidy? Are–” 

“Sorry, sorry,” I blurted, shaking my head while doing my best to ignore the nausea-inducing pain that was still pulsing there. “I got distracted and tripped over my own feet. It’s fine, I’m fine. I just–I need to use the restroom.” 

“Take Izzy,” my father murmured. “Are you sure–” 

“Dad,” I insisted, meeting his gaze, “I’m good. Trust me, we’ll be right back.” It took everything I had not to double over and clutch my head right then. I really wished one of my paints erased pain like this. 

With that, I took Izzy’s hand and walked with her. Restroom. I knew where the restroom was. I just had to go that way, get in a stall, and sit down for a minute. Then I could get through this. The memory that kept trying to shove its way into my head was painful enough that it had nearly made me fall over back there. I had to get a handle on it, quick. Before my dad started getting more… worried about my reaction. I’d gotten lucky with the whole doctor thing yesterday, the last thing I needed now was for my parents to insist on a hospital visit. 

Izzy was watching me as we walked, her own expression pensive. I could tell she wanted to ask something about all that, which she finally did with a hesitant, “Are you okay? I mean, I know you don’t want your parents to be all worried and stuff, but if you really have a head injury…” 

“It’s totally fine,” I quickly insisted. “I mean, probably not totally fine. I’ve got bruises and all. But I don’t need any kind of doctor or anything. I’m just, you know, I need to get some water.” 

“Maybe you can use these too?” Izzy offered while holding up a bottle of Ibuprofen. When I glanced that way, she added, “I asked Mr. Jefferson if we could stop to pick up pain relief and he gave this to me when I told him it was for you. Did you know he has a whole medical kit in the car? Not just a normal emergency first aid kit, it’s like a whole ambulance supply shelf.” 

Taking the bottle, I swallowed a couple of the pills before nodding. “Thanks, and yeah, Jefferson’s really big on being prepared for anything. I…” Biting my lip, I glanced to her. “You asked him for headache medicine for me before I had a headache?” 

She managed a little smile, shrugging. “You got hurt just like… a day ago and now we’re out in bright daylight around a bunch of loud cars. Of course you’re gonna need something for pain. I just… wanted to help.”

I could hear the guilt in her voice. She still felt bad about everything that had happened. And I wasn’t sure why, exactly. Unless… if I was right about one or both of her parents being supervillains, of course she would feel guilty. Of course she would. Duh. How did I feel? How easy was it for me to feel that guilt overwhelm me? Yeah. Yeah, that was it. Again, everything fit. 

Grabbing a couple water bottles after feeding ten dollars into the nearest vending machine, I passed one to Izzy before gulping down about half of mine. For her part, Izzy stared at the bottle, her face twisting. “Five dollars for a bottle of water? It’s water! How do you make people pay five dollars for twenty ounces of something that’s seventy percent of the world?! There’s over three hundred million trillion gallons of it! Are we on Mars? Did we go to Mars after all and nobody told me?!” 

Snickering a little despite everything, I shook my head. “It’s just marked up for being in a venue like this. You should see how much a hot dog costs.” Pausing, I added, “I mean, I assume it’s supposed to be a lot. Everyone else says it’s a lot.” 

Izzy was staring at me. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, almost pleading as though hoping I could make some logical sense of it for her, “It’s water.”  

“Very expensive water, apparently,” I replied while patting her shoulder. “So you should drink it. But first, let’s do our business.” By that point we were at the restroom, which I gestured toward before heading in. 

I took my time, sitting in the stall with my head in my hands. My mind was racing, now that I’d given it the chance. The day after that whole thing at the race track years ago. I’d told… someone about it. I knew I did. I told someone the story and they told me a story about… about…

Uuuuuggggghhnnnnnn. The pain was almost too much. I had to quickly bite down hard on my knuckle to avoid giving an audible reaction. My vision swam for a second, and it was a good thing that I was already sitting down. Damn it, damn it! 

Anthony. It had to be Anthony, right? He was my age, he’d been erased from my memory. I’d told someone about taking the hand of a person I thought was my father and walking off with a stranger at the racetrack. Yes. Yes, that was right. It was clear in my head. I told that person about it, kind of laughing but also kind of scared by the memory. I told them, and she–

Wait.

She? No. No, that was wrong. That was wrong. No, the person that had been erased from my memory was Anthony. And Anthony was definitely a he. So… why did I think ‘she’? What memory had I lost that had to do with a she? That didn’t even make sense. Why would there be some other friend who was… no, no I was wrong. It had to be Anthony. This was just my erased memories playing a trick on my brain. That was the only explanation for it. The person I’d told that story to the day after was that Anthony kid, not some weird girl I couldn’t remember. 

Shaking off those feelings, I cleaned up at the sink, splashed water on my face, then met up with Izzy to leave the restroom. The two of us walked out together before I turned in a circle to orient myself about where we were going. Right, we needed–

“Cassidy?” A voice from nearby called, and I blinked that way to see a familiar guy wearing a race uniform with Ten Towers logos over it. 

“Adrian?” I blurted. It was him, the guy who had been abducted and roughed up by Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful just because he happened to drive Ashton’s brother Josh out of the city. The guy who had driven me home that first night, the night that I… the night I found out about my family.

“You know him?” Izzy piped up, blinking back and forth between us with a curious frown. 

“Sort of,” I replied. “Oh, uhh, Adrian, this is my friend Izzy. Izzy, this is Adrian. He was an Uber driver, and also a janitor at school. But then–I mean, something… happened? I don’t–” 

“It’s a long story,” he assured us. “And probably not one we should get into. But yeah, I guess I’m not really either of those things anymore.” 

I gestured to his uniform. “Yeah, I guess not. Looks like you upgraded.” 

Chuckling self-consciously, Adrian rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah well, I’m not exactly a race driver. Not yet, anyway. Gotta earn that. But they let me drive the pace car, and I get to put the Ten Towers rides through their paces. Mostly I’m a mechanic though. But hey, it’s a living. A pretty good one. Plus, it means my brothers get to live on campus.” 

I smiled a little at that. “Cool. That’s really cool. I’m glad everything–I mean, I’m glad you’re okay. You disappeared from school, and no one really knew what happened exactly.” 

“Thanks, kid–I mean Cassidy,” the guy quickly corrected. “You have a good day and all. And hey, try not to be out so late all the time. Things get pretty dangerous out there. Good to meet you too, Izzy. You guys enjoy the race.” 

Giving him a thumbs up, I headed off with the other girl, lost in thought. So, Adrian was doing okay. He was safe with Ten Towers, especially now that the whole search for the vials was over. At least there was that. I could think of a lot of worse ways that whole thing could have gone. 

“Hey, Cassidy!” Once again, I was dragged out of my thoughts as Izzy and I approached Dad and Simon. Those two were there, but there were a couple others as well. 

“Amber? Jae?” I spoke up, blinking back and forth between the two girls. 

“Your dad told us you were coming here,” Amber explained, after Jae murmured a quiet greeting. “He said we could join up with you to watch the race.” Belatedly, she added, “Hey, Izzy. What’s up?” 

While they greeted each other, I looked toward my father. He raised an eyebrow, mouthing, ‘Sorry, is that okay?’ while nodding toward my two classmates. In turn, I offered him a quick smile and nod. It was fine. Today was about relaxing and not having any problems. I needed a break from… all of that. Having a couple totally normal friends around like Amber and Jae was just what the doctor ordered. 

“Well, guys?” I pushed as soon as the greetings were over. 

“Come on, let’s go see this race.”

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