Kent Jackson

Interlude 9B – More Lost Memories

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Seven Years Ago

“Neeeeeeeeeeeeeeer! Pew, pew, pew!” Running through the front foyer of his house, nine-year-old Anthony Tate held a toy jet fighter out to one side as he imitated laserfire. The boy’s unruly mop of light brown hair matched his eyes, and a light coating of freckles dusted his face. A face that was covered by a wide smile that showed his crooked teeth as he called in his best approximation of a pilot’s commanding voice. “Target locked, dodge this, you alien scum! Missiles away! Whooosh, there they go!” With a sweep of his hand, he indicated their path.

“Weeerrbblee reebble rabble!” Anthony’s best friend, Cassidy Evans, held a toy fighter of her own. This one had started out its life looking almost identical to the one that Anthony was playing with. But the two of them had carefully painted it bright pink with purple lightning bolts (or as close as they could get to lightning bolts) on the wings, and glued a second pair of wings to the bottom of it to make the fighter look a little more alien. Granted, they easily could have asked for and received an entire fleet of alien toys within fifteen minutes. But they wanted to do it themselves. Plus, it was fun, and it gave Anthony something to do with the plane whose wings had broken off. 

“Werble rebble rabble?” the boy echoed, head tilting in obvious confusion as he watched Cassie zoom in circles around him, the ‘alien fighter’ held out beside her. “What does that mean?” 

Grinning, the short-haired girl chirped, “That’s the sound of the anti-missile shield! It’s like a tractor beam, only it pushes things away instead of pulling them in!” Quickly, she added, “But it takes all the power from the shield to push things away, so the aliens hafeta time it right, or–” 

“Pew, pew, pew!” Anthony blurted, suddenly realizing where the girl was going with that before she finished describing how the shields being down to power their anti-missile system would leave the aliens vulnerable to other attacks. He made his fighter do a quick loop and a barrel roll while indicating the path of his lasers with quick flicks from his fingers. “Pew, pew!” 

“Naaaaargh!” Cassidy cried out, making the fighter spin around while speaking in her best high-pitched alien voice. “Damage, damage! Return to mothership, return to mothership!” With that, she began racing up the nearby stairs two at a time. “Accelerating out of Earth’s atmosphere! Divert remaining power to boosters to escape gravitational pull!”  

Quickly, Anthony started up the stairs after her. “Oh no you don’t!” He called. “Come back here, you alien scum! We modified this fighter to reach space, you can’t get away that easily!” 

“Come and get us, dirty human!” Cassidy called back from the top of the stairs, still using her high-pitched alien voice, while adding a buzzing sound just because she thought it sounded better that way. “You can’t hope to stand up against the firepower of our main battle–oof!” 

That last bit came because Cassidy had run straight on into a man who had just stepped out of one of the rooms on the second floor. Just as he appeared, speaking over his shoulder, Cassidy bounced off him, landing on her backside with a yelp as the man grunted and stumbled a bit. 

“Cassie!” Anthony quickly flung himself up the last couple stairs, dropping beside his friend. His plane fell to the side, forgotten for the moment as he checked on her. “Are you okay?” 

“Uh huh,” she confirmed, staring up at the man she had run into with large doe-like eyes. She didn’t recognize him. He was in his mid-late thirties, with dark blond hair and brown eyes. “Sorry, Mister.” 

There was the slightest pause before the man offered a faint, yet genuine smile, shaking his head. “Not at all,” he assured her, holding a hand out to the girl, helping her up. “I’m afraid it was entirely my fault for getting in the middle of a…” He glanced from the modified ‘alien’ fighter on the floor, to the normal one lying nearby where both had been dropped. “spaceship dogfight?” 

“Anthony, Cassidy?” Anthony’s father appeared in the doorway behind the other man, stepping around him. “Is everything okay out here? You’re not bothering our guest too much, are you?” 

“Oh, it’s quite alright, Russell,” the man assured him. “I managed to stumble my way out into the middle of a fight to save the planet, that’s all.” He winked at the kids before turning to Anthony’s father. “No harm, no foul. Shall we continue our discussion in the other room? I have a few more examples of just how we can revolutionize the entire industry.”  

Giving a good-natured roll of his eyes at the bold claim, Mr. Tate waved for the children to be off. “Why don’t you kids play outside for a little bit and run off a little more energy? I’ll have Ricky bring you out some treats to the pavilion.” That said, he began to walk off with his guest, informing him, “You know, a lot of people claim what they have will ‘revolutionize things.’” 

“Ah,” the other man retorted while following. “But they don’t have what I have. Results.” 

Standing there, the two children watched the men leave, before Anthony turned to Cassie with a sudden grin. “Hey! I saw the truck that guy came in. It looks all funny, like a van and a truck all smooshed together. That can be the alien mothership and we can fly around it and stuff!” 

Cassidy immediately jumped at that idea, and the two of them grabbed their respective fighters before rushing down the stairs and out the door. As promised, there was what appeared to be a van-truck hybrid in the long, half-circle driveway, near the exit gate with its back end pointed toward the mansion. With gleeful whoops, the two kids raced past the fountain and to the vehicle with their ships held out to the side in flying mode, already blurting the onomatopoeia for their respective laser and missile sounds as they split up at the back of the truck-van, each racing around it in a different direction. Anthony went toward the driver’s side while Cassidy ran on the passenger side, each sprinting to reach the front of the designated ‘mothership’ first. 

Before Cassidy could reach it, however, the heavy side door of the vehicle slid open right beside her, and she stopped abruptly. Turning, the nine-year-old found herself facing another girl who had just slid the door open. This girl was perhaps a year older than the other two, a pretty blonde ten-year-old who sat cross-legged in the back of the truck-van, which turned out to be full of random crates, electrical equipment, and tools. Both girls stared at one another in silence for several long seconds. Finally, Cassidy piped up with, “Hi!” 

“Hi!” the girl echoed brightly, though she remained sitting in the same position. 

“Who are you–” Anthony, having reached the front of the vehicle, came around to join her before seeing the girl sitting there. “Oh! Uhh, hi.” 

Abruptly focusing on him, the blonde girl chirped, “Hi, Anthony!” She looked positively delighted, giving a dazzling smile. “Did my dad tell you to come get me? I was bored.” 

“Um.” Exchanging a brief, confused look with his friend, Anthony shook his head. “Not really. Your dad’s still talking to my dad. He made you stay out here by yourself? Oh, um, this is Cassidy.” He gestured that way. “How come you know who I am?” 

“Hi, Cassidy.” Smiling easily as she greeted the other girl by name that time, the girl added, “I’m Paige. My dad showed me your picture when we were coming over here. He really likes your dad.” She paused, as though only just thinking of something, before frowning. “But I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.” 

Shrugging, Anthony pointed out, “He showed you my picture and told you my name, so I’m not a stranger, right? And this is my friend, so she’s not a stranger either.” 

“She?” Paige blinked once, looking back that way. “You look like a boy.” It was a statement made not of maliciousness, but youthful innocent frankness. 

Flushing, Cassidy cupped both hands to the side of her head, covering her short black hair before stomping once. “I’m a girl!” she insisted. “I just like short hair, that’s all.” 

“Okay,” Paige replied with immediate acceptance before adding, “I’m sorry if I said something wrong.” 

Cassidy shook her head. “It’s okay, everyone thinks I’m a boy at first. Um.” She hesitated before offering, “Do you wanna play with us?” The girl reached into her pocket before tugging out a small action figure, holding it out. “We’re the ships, but you could be a Star-Touched who comes to help Anthony’s ship! Like Silversmith!” 

There was another brief pause as Paige looked blankly at the toy being offered to her. Then her hand moved, taking it from Cassidy with a small smile. “You really want to play with me?” 

“Sure!” Anthony agreed, head bobbing up and down. “Your dad’s van is the alien mothership, okay? I’m the American fighter ship and Cassie’s the aliens. So, you wanna play?” 

Finally, Paige picked herself up from her cross-legged position, hopping nimbly out of the van. “Okay!” 

With that agreement, the three children immediately began running in circles around the vehicle, loudly exclaiming about everything they were doing in the course of their battle. 

*******

Two Years Later/Five Years Ago

 

A soft tap at Cassidy’s window drew her attention that way. She was in her bedroom, sitting on the floor as she stared at Anthony’s jet fighter and her own modified ‘alien’ ship. It had been mere days since the… attack that ended with her best friend’s death and that of his family and the house employees. Days since she had learned in such a traumatic fashion that her father was Silversmith, that her grandfather had sent those men to kill her friend and his family because he wanted to get at her. Days since Bobby had saved her life nearly at the cost of his own and since she had seen her father cut her grandfather’s head off in front of her.

Days since she had spoken more than a few words to anyone, or had done much of anything aside from sit, stare at nothing, and murmur or whisper to herself. Sometimes she watched TV, but she didn’t really engage with it. She’d had books in her hand but had barely read. She took toys and sat there staring at them, remembering all the things she had done with Anthony. 

As that tap came, the girl turned her head slightly to see a familiar figure crouched there by the window. There was a brief pause before she stood up, walked over to unlatch the window, and then stepped back. 

It slid up, and Paige slipped inside. The blonde opened her mouth, shut it, then stepped over to silently embrace Cassidy. The other girl let her, and they stood in silence for a few seconds with Paige tightly hugging her while Cassidy stood with her arms at her sides. She felt… tired. Just so damn tired. She wanted her best friend back. She wanted none of this to be real. She wanted… something. She didn’t know what, but she wanted something to change. She had spent so many long hours closing her eyes, wishing that everything that had happened would be a dream, and opening them. 

The only part of her days when Cassidy wasn’t sad were the moments just after she woke up, before the memory of what had happened settled in. She slept as much as she could, not only because she was tired (though she was), but because every time she slept and woke up, Anthony was kind of… sort of alive for just a couple seconds. 

Until she remembered that he wasn’t. 

Finally releasing Cassidy, Paige stepped back with a small, worried frown knitting her forehead. “I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I’m really sorry, Cassie. I–” She stopped, head tilting slightly before she admitted, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say right now. Dad never… told me how to talk to people like this. He never told me what I’m supposed to do.” Swallowing hard, her voice trembled as she added pleadingly, “I want to know what to do.” 

At first, Cassidy didn’t respond. She simply stood and stared over the other girl’s shoulder at the window. After a few long seconds of that, her eyes moved to meet the despondent Paige’s, and she asked in a quiet, brittle voice, “How did you get inside? There’s security cameras and stuff.” It was the most outward interest she had shown in anything since that horrific day. 

“Yes,” Paige agreed. “There’s a lot of them. But it’s not really hard to get past them if you…” She paused, considering for a moment before settling on, “… if you time it right. You just have to watch the cameras and go where they’re not looking.” She said it that simply, as if talking about learning how to water the lawn rather than how to sneak past a dozen cameras on the grounds of the richest family in Michigan. 

Again, Cassidy didn’t say anything for a moment. She stood there, looking at the window in silence before finally turning back to Paige. “Can you teach me how to do that?” 

“How to–” Paige started before looking over her shoulder at the window and back again. “How to get past your house security? Why do you want to leave? It’s… “ She paused, considering her words before deciding on, “Don’t you want to stay where it’s safe?” 

“It’s not safe here,” Cassidy replied quietly, a slight tremor in her voice as her head shook. “I…” A hard lump formed in her throat, and she had to swallow repeatedly before being able to speak again. “I don’t want to be trapped here.” Her gaze found the other girl’s urgently, lower lip quivering. “Please, Paige.” 

“Okay,” the blonde agreed softly. She took Cassidy’s hand and squeezed it. “You didn’t tell your parents about me?” 

“No,” Cassidy confirmed in a barely audible voice. She was looking away. “You always said you’d get in trouble if your dad knew you were playing with us when he came over.” For the past two years, about once a month, Paige’s father would visit Anthony’s house. While he was inside having long meetings, Paige would emerge and play with Anthony and Cassidy for awhile. She always seemed to know when her dad was coming back, no matter how long he took, and would tell the other two she had to go back to the van. Actually, it was kind of fun to have a secret friend nobody knew about. It was… kind of fun… while Anthony was alive. 

Stepping over to the window while tugging Cassidy by the hand, Paige carefully asked, “Are you really sure you want me to show you how to get past the cameras?” When the other girl gave a firm nod, Paige pulled her right up to the window. “Okay. 

“First, watch that camera right… there by the corner…” 

******

For the next hour, Paige taught Cassidy how to escape her house without being noticed. She showed her where the cameras were, where various motion sensors had to be avoided, how to get across the grounds without being seen from the guard shack, how the guard patrols worked, which windows to keep an eye on while leaving or approaching, and so on. She showed the other girl everything she needed to know to escape her own house. 

Eventually, however, they both watched from the bushes as a car arrived in the driveway of the house, a pale man with dark-blond hair emerging to greet both of Cassidy’s parents as they came from the house to meet him. He wore a crisp white suit. 

“Who’s that?” Paige whispered, as the two girls crouched in the bushes. 

Cassidy’s head shook. “I… I dunno.” She sighed, looking at the ground. The past hour had been the most she’d been able to forget what happened at Anthony’s house, and that made her feel guilty. She… she didn’t quite forget Anthony, just… she hadn’t been sad about it for a few minutes. 

What was wrong with her? Was she evil too? 

“Cassidy?” Paige prompted, squeezing the girl’s arm. “Are you okay?” 

Shaking that off, Cassidy managed a weak, “No. I miss Anthony.” 

“So do I,” Paige murmured, her own voice a very soft whisper. She started to say something else, before turning to look at the front door where the adults were talking. “Cassidy,” she put in a bit urgently. “We need to get back. They’re coming to talk to you.” 

“What?” Blinking, Cassidy looked to the house, where her parents and the strange man were going inside. “How do you–” 

“Come on.” Paige pulled her by the hand, checking the cameras before leading the girl to the side of the house. She had already showed her how to climb up the wall, and did so more quickly, helping Cassidy until they reached her room. Once the other girl was safely inside, Paige started to leave again before wincing. “Guard patrol,” she whispered. Then she looked over to the door. “Your parents are coming.” 

Cassidy looked to the door as well, before pointing. “Go to my closet,” she said simply. “You can hide there.” 

Paige did so, stopping briefly to embrace her friend. “I’m really sorry about Anthony. I wish… he was here to make you feel better instead of me.”

Sniffing, Cassidy closed her eyes tightly. “I wish he was here too,” she agreed in a shaken, trembling voice. Then she looked at the girl. “But I’m still glad you’re here. You’re… you’re my friend too.” 

The two girls, united by their grief for a lost friend, looked at one another for a moment. Then the sound of the doorknob turning spurred Paige into action. She raced to the closet, slipping into it and closing the door just as Cassidy sat on a chair facing the mirror. 

“Hi,” the blond man started while Paige peered out through the crack in the closet door. 

“My name is Jackson. Kent Jackson.” 

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Friends and Enemies 8-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay, so this was a nightmare. Great, just great. After everything, all the things we had gone through to keep this a secret, it turned out that the Seraphs actually knew that we had taken their device.

Whose bright idea was it to put competent people in these organizations? It was pretty annoying when it worked against me, I could say that much. 

For a few long seconds, I said nothing. What could I say? I just sort of stood there staring at the man while my brain ran the television test pattern. I think I may have even made a strange humming sound out loud to go with it. 

Hallowed, meanwhile, didn’t say anything either. He seemed content to simply watch me for the moment. My brain did run through a quick thought of what he was capable of if it happened to come down to it. From what I knew, he basically infused objects he held or touched with power that made them stronger, tougher, sharper, that kind of thing. 

Additionally, his very presence gradually empowered an area around him that made him stronger, faster, more all-around capable the longer he spent in it. The effect extended to a lesser degree to his allies and gradually hindered his enemies. In areas he spent a lot of time in, the effect lingered even when he wasn’t there. It would fade gradually if he didn’t return, but from what I understood, in the Seraph base here in Detroit the effect was strong enough that he was basically invincible there. 

So if we ended up having to fight, the solution was to get the hell away from him. Real good, Cassidy. You had to stretch far for that plan. Run away. Excellent. Five stars. Panicky stars running in circles. 

Finally, I managed a weak, “I suppose saying I don’t know what you’re talking about would be a bad idea.”

I heard a slight chuckle in the man’s voice as he replied, “Well, it probably wouldn’t get you very far. But the thing you should notice is that I’m talking to you right now, not doing anything more drastic.”

Despite myself, I gave him an actual thumbs up. “And don’t think I don’t appreciate that talking bit. That’s much better than attacking. I’ve had enough fighting lately to last me for a while.”

His head cocked to the side a little in what looked like curiosity, but he let that pass with a quiet, “Hmm.” Then he picked up his sword and sheathed it on his back. “Like I said, we need to have a chat, but that’s it, a chat. I want to talk to you about what happened and why you did what you did. I’ve got my own suspicions, and most of them are why we’re talking instead of anything more drastic. From what I’ve seen and heard, you seem to be a pretty good kid. So let’s talk about it.”

Considering my options for a fraction of a second, I ended up nodding. “Do you mind going up onto the roof where we have more privacy? I’m just more comfortable on roofs these days.”

“I can imagine,” the man replied before glancing up to the nearby roof. Nodding, he crouched a bit before leaping a good fifteen feet straight up. His foot caught the edge of one wall and he kicked off toward the opposite one, kicking up from there to reach nearly the top of the roof before one more jump got him there.

Briefly, I wondered if him going straight up there was his way of saying that he trusted me to follow, or that he knew I wouldn’t get away if I tried. Maybe both.

Either way, I extended a hand and used red paint to yank myself up after him. Once we were both on the roof, I glanced around before sighing. “So, how long did you know about it for?”

His response was a simple, “Basically from the beginning. At least, if you define the beginning as when you broke into the Taurus facility. Let’s just say one of our security people happened to notice something getting a maintenance check that didn’t need it yet. So we had a guy watching the facility and he saw you go in with your partner in… crime, sort of? Let’s just say he was a little confused when he saw you with one of Blackjack’s people. Asked if he should make an appearance, but I told him to hold off until we had more info. Because the last time I checked, you weren’t part of that group.” 

“I’m not,” I replied. “It was–” 

“A complicated situation,” he cut in. “I kind of guessed that. Which is why we waited a bit to see what happened. I’ve got to tell you, it was pretty close for a while. Our group was going back and forth on whether we should confront you or not, but every time you appeared in public, you were doing good things. Hell, we saw you going around buying sandwiches and stuff for homeless people. Made us wonder if that was all an act, but none of what you were doing had anything to do with that thing you stole. And La Casa didn’t seem to be using it either. Then one of our people went through the system for a seventh or eighth time and found out that your little friend left a backdoor, and even had a delivery notice set up to send the equipment back to our facility. The only thing missing was a date. Which meant that you were planning on returning it. That’s what made us decide to give you more time. Part of that was curiosity. We wanted to see what you were using it for. Some of our people had their own ideas, but we were all curious. Curious enough to wait and see. Lo and behold, we eventually heard what happened with that guy who stole from Blackjack. We also heard that something seemed to be controlling his movements. As you might imagine, the pieces fell into place fairly quickly then.” 

Biting my lip behind the helmet and mask, I slowly asked, “So you worked all that out just from watching and hearing about things? You guys are really good at your jobs, you know?” 

There was a smile in the man’s voice as he replied, “That’s why we have the job. Also, because we know when to back off and see what happens instead of jumping to a confrontation. That helps too. Which is what brings you and I here right now.” 

For a moment, I just looked at him. Then I exhaled and spoke carefully. “Right, you definitely figured out why we had to borrow it, and didn’t drop the hammer. I guess this is where I say thanks for not busting us? And sorry for taking your thing, even if it was only for a little while.”

“I am curious about why you didn’t just ask for it,” the man noted, “but I suppose you have your reasons. You had help from La Casa because you were doing all that for Blackjack’s kid. I get that, sort of. But does that mean you and them are partners now or something?” 

My head shook quickly. “Not partners. We were just… it’s complicated. But… mostly I just wanted to stop the war before it got a lot of innocent people hurt. All the gangs were going to rip the city apart looking for those vials, no matter who got in the way. And whatever kind of bad guy Blackjack is, his daughter didn’t deserve to die. I was helping him for her, not him.”

Listening as I said all of that, Hallowed gave a thoughtful nod before speaking. “Yes, that’s essentially the same reasoning we came up with, particularly considering your age. I mean, no offense, it’s just easier to believe that a…  someone young would compromise like that.”

“It’s just doing the best thing in a bad situation,” I muttered before folding my arms a bit uncomfortably. “So, what now? I mean, you already decided to let us borrow the thing and now you have it back. Or you will as soon as it gets delivered. So, what are we doing? I don’t think you showed up like this just to be like, ‘neener neener, we knew you had it all along, so there.’  Something tells me you’re not the type. So, like I said, what are we doing right now?”

“Right now?” he echoed casually. “Right now, we’re having a little chat while I decide what kind of person you are. Then, we’re going to talk about how you pay for borrowing our equipment.”  

I raised an eyebrow despite myself, not that he could see it. “I thought you just said you knew why we needed it, and you let it happen. You even have it back now. We returned it.” 

Hallowed’s head bobbed once. “Right on all counts. We did decide to let you keep it without throwing you to the wolves. And we do know why it was important. And it’s pretty much back in our custody. Which is a good thing, let me tell you. But this world runs on trade and negotiation. Especially between people like you and me. Things can’t always be free, or the whole system completely falls apart. You did a very good thing, but you also did something bad in order to achieve it. We’re not turning you in. We’re definitely not going to charge you what that thing is worth, even for a short rental period. You couldn’t afford it. What we are going to do is ask for a favor.” 

Slowly, I replied, “What is it with Touched and favors? The favor thing keeps coming up.” 

He actually chuckled a little bit. “True, you’ll have that happen a lot. Turns out that a lot of people with powers end up needing specific acts or bits of help here and there more than they need money. Even the Sell-Touched, a lot of the time. See, we can get money from plenty of places. But powers are a limited resource, not to mention the skill to use them. So, being Touched,  you’re going to find that most people want you to do something for them, not give them money. You’re also going to find that when the opportunity comes to secure such a favor, most won’t let it go. Not even if they’re definitely not holding a grudge and completely understand why you did what you did.” 

Considering that for a moment, I shrugged. “So, what you’re saying is that this is basically really gentle blackmail. You know something bad I did and you’re going to want something in exchange for letting that go.” 

“I’m saying some people will flat out blackmail you,” the man replied. “But I’m also saying that I don’t think we need to go that far. I think you’re a good kid who did the best he could. And I think you already want to make up for that. I think you already felt a little guilty about what happened. So, I’m going to give you the chance to make everything even. Hell, you might even get something out of it. Contacts if nothing else. We need your help with something, and if you work with us, you’ll never hear about the… borrowed equipment again. Call it a fair exchange.” 

A few things immediately leapt to mind that I wanted to say, but the truth was that he had a point. They didn’t have to let me get away with what amounted to temporarily stealing their very expensive item, no matter what my intentions had been. I’d done it for a good reason, but in an underhanded way. It was a very slippery slope, and he was giving me a chance to pay for borrowing it without making anything worse. Whether you called it a fair exchange or gentle blackmail, the result was the same. I could pay them back for the… rental, and have a clear conscience.

While I was working through all that in my head, the man waited patiently. He didn’t seem to be in any kind of rush, simply standing there watching me with an air of curiosity. Finally, I straightened and gave a short nod. “I won’t say I’ll do anything you ask, but I think it’s fair that we work something out.”

“Excellent,” Hallowed replied. He sounded genuine. “We have some ideas in mind, but why don’t you come in next week and we’ll see what we can set up. Let’s call it…  next Wednesday evening, around this time?”

“Come in?” I echoed. “As in come to the Seraph base?”

He nodded. “No need to try to be sneaky about it. The guard at the front will let you in. Unless, of course, you want to try your hand at getting past our security. That might be fun. And it could give our guards a little exercise to keep them on their toes.”

I coughed. “You know, I think I’ll probably just use the front gate.”

With a vague and wave of agreement, the man replied, “Well, if you change your mind, it could be interesting. Either way, show up Wednesday night. Or, if you run into something that keeps you busy, call this number.” His hand produced a card that he extended toward me. “Let whoever answers know who you are and that you’ll be delayed, or whatever. Sound good?”

I agreed, of course. What else was I going to do? Taking the card, I tucked it away. After that, there didn’t seem to be much else to say. So, I thanked the man for not being drastic about things before turning to hop off the roof, using a shot of paint to pull myself to the next one. A lot of thoughts were running through my head. 

Boy, I sure hope Hallowed and Deicide don’t call in their favors at the same time for opposite reasons.

That could get awkward. 

********

Needless to say, I went home after that, before anything else could happen. I needed a break. And I needed time to think about everything that had just happened. Was I going to tell Eits about it? He should probably know that the Seraphs were able to find the stuff he did to the computers, just in case. But I also didn’t want him to worry too much about it.

Either way, I made my way close to home, changed out of my costume in the nearby park restroom, then took a short walk (about fifteen minutes or so) to get back to the house. I didn’t use my powers or anything. The walk gave me a chance to think. 

Eventually, I made it to the fence and waited there for the security camera to point another direction. Just as I was about to hop onto the grounds, the gate nearby opened. Quickly ducking back into the bushes on the other side, I watched as one of my mother’s cars started to pull through. She was driving, and there was a man in the passenger seat. It was Mr. Jackson. The car stopped there partway through the gate and I could see them talking.

Great, I had paint that could silence people. Why didn’t I have paint that could let me hear what they were saying from far away. That would be super useful right now. 

Looking around to make sure the coast was clear, I glanced to the top of the fence and used a bit of blue to launch myself up and over, landing silently on the grass right below another camera. Then I painted myself black, all of my clothes, my face, everything. Waiting for the camera to turn again, I quickly and silently moved along the fence until I reached the corner of the gate near the car. There were bushes there that would cover me from the cameras. This was all a big risk, but I needed to hear what they were saying. I had to know if they were talking about me, or about Paige. 

As I pressed my back to the fence and stayed low, the sound of my mother’s voice reached me. “Leave her alone for now. It’s too much of a risk. Until we have our experts ensure no more copies of her files exist, we can’t move on the Banners girl.”

Right, okay, good. So Paige’s plan was actually working. Whenever evidence she had over my family’s organization, it was too much for them to risk it getting out. I still had no idea what it was or what the other girl knew, unfortunately. That was going to take a lot to get out of her. But I could at least relax a little bit with the assurance that they weren’t going to be jumping her any time soon. It gave me a little breathing room that I desperately needed. Especially if I was supposed to somehow make Paige confide in me. 

Mr. Jackson was talking. “I’m sorry, Elena. Everything was under control until the boy showed up.”

“Yes,” my mother agreed slowly, “this… Paintball has complicated things now and then. He is a bit of a concern, but we don’t believe he knows that much. It’s very possible the Banners girl reached out to him for help and he noticed your men abducting her. Which may mean that he knows more about you than he should. Keep your eyes open, and if the opportunity arises to find out exactly how much he knows…”

“I’ll take it,” Mr. Jackson confirmed. “Thank you for understanding, Elena.”

My mother gave a soft chuckle. “Of course, Kent. There’s far too much history between us for one problem to drive a wedge through our relationship. We will handle it, as we always do.”

The car started to pull out then, their conversation apparently over for the moment. The last thing I heard was one last sentence from my mother, as the vehicle pulled away. 

“After you erased such a traumatic memory from Cassidy’s mind, the least we can do is forgive the occasional misstep.”

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Friends and Enemies 8-08 (Summus Proelium)

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At least there was one good thing about the fact that these woods were crawling with guys who wanted to kill us. It meant that we had to keep quiet, so I didn’t have to actually talk to Paige. I had no idea what I would have done if I’d been expected to keep up a conversation with the girl who had spent so much time and effort attacking every aspect of my existence throughout the entire time I had known her. 

We also had a bit of an advantage in that the people searching for us thought we were heading for the road or at least toward the city. They had no idea we were going for a boat instead. Still, that was something that could change in an instant, so we had to move carefully. Unlike our earlier headlong flight through the woods, this time we were more cautious. We both crept from bush to bush, keeping our eyes and ears open. 

I used black paint sparingly here and there, just whenever we thought there might be someone vaguely within earshot. We could see their flashlight beams bouncing everywhere, but not all of them were using those, so we couldn’t count on that kind of warning constantly. Slow and steady, we just had to go slow and steady.

Except not that slow, because the sound of an approaching helicopter reminded me that we had that problem too. The chopper came in low and fast from the east, its spotlight beam shining down through the trees.

“Whatever you did to piss these guys off,” I whispered under my breath, “it doesn’t look like they’re giving up any time soon.”

I heard the girl audibly gulp beside me before she muttered, “They’re trying to stop me from getting to a computer. Because if they don’t, this whole thing is over and they can’t touch me anymore.”

That made me blink at her. Squinting in the darkness, I could barely make out the other girl’s face. Not that I ever really wanted to see much of Paige to begin with. “What do you mean? What happens if you get to a computer?”

She hesitated, before replying, “If I get to a computer, I can upload the files I stole to my cloud servers. Then, if anything happens to me, the files will go out everywhere. They know that. That’s why they’re so desperate to stop us right now, because if I can upload the files, they won’t dare touch me. Their secrets are too important.”

My head shook. “You’re saying you’ve got a bunch of their secrets on some kind of USB or something and they didn’t just take it from you?”

Even in the darkness, I could see her faint, humorless smile. “They didn’t find it. The point is, if we can get out of here and to a computer, you don’t have to worry about me anymore. I upload this information and set it to go out if anything happens. Then they’ll have no choice but to leave me alone.”

“You sure they will?” I asked, thinking about the way my family had been ready to kill me (without knowing it was me) to protect their secrets.

“Trust me,” came the response, “these people care way too much about themselves to risk losing everything. As long as I make it clear that I’m not releasing the information if they leave me alone, they’ll back off. For now, anyway. It’s a short term solution.”

“And in the long term?” I asked. 

“In the long term, they’ll try to find a way to delete the files and take away my leverage,” Paige replied. “But I’m pretty good with computers. It’s how I got the files to begin with, when I was…” She trailed off, a brief look of what seemed like pain crossing her normally perfect face before she muttered, “Never mind. Just… help me get out of here and you can be done with this. Believe me, you don’t want to be any more involved than you already are.”

“You might be surprised,” I mumbled as it struck me that this was the longest conversation I’ve ever had with the girl where we didn’t insult and attack each other. I hadn’t even known that she was into computers and that stuff. Shaking it off, I looked to her. “If you’ve got this top secret information that could expose whoever these guys are, it sounds like you should go to the authorities.” That was, of course, a bad idea, at least here in Detroit. But I wanted to see how much she knew about that. 

Sure enough, Paige shook her head quickly. “No, it’s too dangerous. The second I let go of my leverage and play scorched earth, it’s over. They’ll hit me with everything they’ve got and I’ll be dead within the hour. And so will my family and everyone I care about. I’m not doing that. Not yet. There’s…” 

Again, she trailed off. It looked like she wanted to tell me something, but thought better of it. “Look, thank you for saving me. Seriously. I have no idea how you ended up out here to do it, but you’re amazing. You’re too amazing to get involved any deeper in this. I don’t want to do that to you. This isn’t stopping a purse snatching or catching some robbers. And I swear I don’t mean that as an insult. It’s just… this is more than anyone should have to deal with. I don’t want to deal with it, but they destroyed—” Catching herself in mid-sentence, Paige amended, “There’s things I need to do, things I need to find out, before I can take the next step. You don’t want to be involved in that.”

Resisting the urge to snap at the other girl, I took a breath before pointing out, “You do realize that they already know I’m involved, right? It’s kind of hard to mistake me for someone else.”

Paige gave a short nod. “We get my leverage uploaded and I’ll tell them to leave you alone, I swear. All of this… it doesn’t go away with the leverage, but it gives me time. The people behind this… they’re bad. Really bad. But they also really like their secrets. They’ll negotiate with me if I have the ability to expose them. Like I said, if anything happens to me after this stuff gets uploaded, all their secrets get blown out into the world. If it comes down to either leaving me alone or being exposed, they’ll leave me alone. And I’ll make them leave you alone. You’ll be part of the deal. After what you did for me, it’s the least I can do. We just have to get this stuff to a computer with an internet connection, that’s all.”

I wanted to ask a lot more things, such as how they hadn’t taken her evidence away from her when they had her prisoner. Or how she had found something that important to begin with. Hell, I wanted to ask her specifics about what the evidence was. I wanted to grab the girl and shake her and ask what she knew about my family. But that might not exactly be subtle. No, I had to convince her to trust and confide in me even more. And she wasn’t going to do that until she felt secure. Which meant letting her upload that information as a safety net to make my parents and their people back off.

Was it really bad that I had the brief instinct to make her stop to protect the family? Even after everything I knew they had done, some part of me wanted to destroy that evidence. It wasn’t very loud, but the fact that it existed at all was… troublesome. It made me fall silent and really think for a minute about who I was. What the hell was wrong with me? My family was evil. They deserved to go to prison. They deserved to be stopped. 

And yet… God damn it. Fuck emotions sometimes. 

Thankfully, I was distracted from that bit of terrible introspection as we reached the edge of the woods. Ahead of us was a gravel covered beach area with a small cottage that looked like it hadn’t been inhabited in years. There was a rundown little dock, with a boat tied to it. 

The area looked clear, but just as we were about to make our move, the sound of the helicopter got a lot louder. It was looping around and coming in fast, the spotlight playing out over the trees and beach. Quickly, I pulled Paige by the arm and dropped into a crouch with her. At the same time, I covered my entire body with black paint and wrapped myself around the bigger girl to shield her from the spotlight. 

Yeah, of all the places I wanted to be in the world, ‘cuddling with Paige Fucking Banners’ was right around the very bottom, bottom, bottom of that list. Please move on, Mr. Helicopter. Move on really fucking quickly. 

It did, thank God. The beam swept over us once quickly, but didn’t pause. The chopper kept going, making its way down the beach and out toward the far side of the woods. As soon as it did, I released Paige and quickly pushed back. Somehow, I avoided making a disgusted sound. 

Paige didn’t seem to notice my disgust. Her attention was solely on the boat. “My friend Edwin keeps that boat here. He bought it, but he didn’t want his parents to know so he keeps it here at his dead uncle’s place. We go joyriding in it sometimes. It should have enough gas to get us out of here, but we’ll have to row first so they don’t hear the engine too soon.”

Yeah, I knew Edwin. And I was pretty sure that the main thing he used that boat for was to go out on the water and get high. But, whatever. Of all the reasons I had to dislike Paige, the fact that she hung out with people who smoked pot (and probably did herself) wasn’t one of them. Who gave a shit? I was pretty sure Simon did plenty of that himself, though never at home. Mom would have crucified him, maybe literally. 

The two of us gave one last quick look around, then rose and sprinted, hunched over a bit, toward the boat. We would untie it, row further out into the water, then start the motor and be gone while these guys were still searching. 

At least, that was the plan. Unfortunately, just as we neared the boat, a figure stepped out from behind the house. It was Mr. Jackson, and he held the assault rifle I’d seen earlier pointed at Paige. “That is far enough,” the man announced flatly. “Paintball, I believe you call yourself? If I see you point your hand at either of us, I will open fire. Do you truly want to see if your paint is faster than a few dozen bullets?”

Fuck. He had a point. I could make the girl bulletproof, but not before he shot her. Not with him as ready as he was. If I made a move, Paige would be dead, and all three of us knew it. 

On top of that, Mr. Jackson had some kind of power that apparently didn’t work on her. But it might work on me, and I had no idea what it was because I had stupidly not asked the girl during our trip through the woods. 

I had to do something, but what? With that gun pointed at Paige and some kind of unknown superpower possibly in play, what the hell could I do? Think, Cassidy, think fast!

None of the paint I had right now would stop him from shooting her. Maybe the pink paint would have, but I still had no idea what it did. 

Wait a second. 

“I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” I informed the man while trying to make my voice much calmer than I actually felt. “If you shoot her, I’ll get mad. And if I get mad, I’ll use the pink paint.”

As far as threats went, it obviously wasn’t much of one on the surface. Sure enough, Mr. Jackson didn’t look impressed. “The pink paint,” he echoed dully, his tone making it clear that it was more repeating my statement than an actual question. 

Still, I raised my hands slowly above my head, turning the right glove pink so he could see. “You must know a lot about what I’ve been doing, the things I’ve been involved with already. But I’ve never used the pink paint. Why? Because most people don’t deserve something like that. But if you shoot that girl, trust me, you’ll deserve it.”

There was a moment of brief hesitation from the man before he slowly shook his head. “You expect me to believe that you have some kind of secret weapon that you haven’t—”

“Oh shit, ow!” I suddenly blurted, turning a bit to yank the pink glove off before throwing it to the side away from all of us with another yelp of pain. Fake pain, of course. I didn’t feel a thing. 

But Mr. Jackson didn’t know that. His gaze instinctively turned to follow the pink glove as it flew away from me, which took his gun very slightly off of Paige. And that was all I needed. Painting green along my sleeves for speed, I sent a shot of red toward his gun and a bit of blue at his feet. The rifle was torn from his grasp an instant after the man realized he’d made a mistake. Then he was launched into the air with a shout. As he started to fall, I hit him with black paint and yellow, to both silence him so he couldn’t call anyone, and to slow his fall so it would take him longer to reach the ground. 

My hand grabbed Paige, and I covered her hand in green paint as well while blurting, “Run!”

The two of us sprinted. I used a shot of red to grab my glove back, refusing to leave that behind for them to analyze. 

Mr. Jackson hit the ground, but before he could do anything, I shot a bit of red at him and another at the tree in the distance. He was yanked off his feet and flung that way, while the two of us made it to the boat. 

“No time for subtle,” I snapped. “Use the motor now, go!”

She didn’t argue, quickly starting the engine as I grabbed the rope tying the boat to the dock. Using a bit of purple paint, I ripped the rope free, and the boat took off. Both of us nearly fell out, before dropping down into the seats. We were sent, engine screaming, along the waves of the river. 

But that helicopter was still in the sky, and it was starting to circle around. Obviously, Mr. Jackson had managed to call in the instant that black paint wore off. The chopper was heading for the river, heading for us.

I had another idea, looking toward the engine while pointing my hand that way, I shot a bit of green paint at it. Suddenly, the propellers were spinning much faster than they had been, and the boat was practically flying over the water. 

Over the next thirty seconds, I used the green paint a couple more times. We were far ahead of where the helicopter expected us to be, and the river was too dark for it to easily find us. So dark, in fact, that we could barely see each other. But it worked. The chopper was much further back, sweeping its spotlight over the water as it searched for us in the wrong place.

Still, I didn’t want to push things too much. It would spread out it’s search pattern soon enough. So, as soon as we were away from the wooded area, I looked over to the other girl. All I could see was her vague shape through the darkness. “You better take us back to land. And for the record, what exactly are that guy’s powers? Cuz that would’ve been useful information back there. And why didn’t he try to use them?” 

“He screws up people’s memories,” the other girl informed me. “He can erase them, implant them, change them, anything like that. But he can only do it through physical contact.” 

“And he didn’t just do that to you in the first place because…?” 

Her answer was a flat, “Because it doesn’t work on me.” And that was all that Paige would say about it, as she brought the boat back to solid ground. It was just a random part of beach, and the two of us scrambled out of the boat, leaving it there without a word. Edwin would have to find it later. 

We were back to the city proper. The streets were busy even at this time of night, and Mr. Jackson had no idea where we ended up. But the only way to make sure that Paige was safe was to get her to a computer. 

Yet again, that small voice in the back of my head asked if I really wanted Paige Banners to have leverage over my family. Pointedly ignoring it, I grabbed her by the arm. “Come on, I know where an internet cafe is. They’ll be all over your neighborhood, no way you’re getting to your house.”

With that, I put an arm around the girl and used a shot of red to yank us to the nearest roof. Paige yelped, grabbing me tightly as we shot up toward that building. But she didn’t protest or curse me out. Nor did she complain when we had to do it again to get to the next roof. 

From there, we made our way several blocks, before eventually reaching the cafe. Landing in the parking lot, I gestured. “Do your thing, then we can talk about how much I need to know. I’ll keep an eye out.”

Once again, she hugged me. Paige Banners hugged me twice in one night. What the fuck was even my life right now? “Thanks, I’d be dead without you.”

Then the girl went inside, and I watched the street. There were a few people paying attention, a couple of whom came up and asked for actual autographs. This was weird. I indulged them as much as I could, before glancing over my shoulder toward the window where I had seen Paige move to a computer.

She wasn’t there. Quickly, I excused myself and went right to the building. The girl behind the desk started to absently tell me the price, before looking up and staring at me in surprise. I slipped past her with a murmured apology, moving through the store. Paige wasn’t anywhere in sight. But I could see a rear exit. Goddamnit, what the hell?

On the screen of the computer she had been using, Paige had left a message written in the notepad program. It read, ‘Thanks for everything Paintball. I have my leverage now, so they’ll leave me alone. But you shouldn’t be any more involved in this. I know you’ll probably be mad about me ditching you, but it really is for the best. You don’t deserve this. Good luck with your superheroing. – Paige. P.S. You’re still pretty awesome. <3’

For a moment, I just stared at the screen. Dammit, she got her leverage and split. It was obvious that she wasn’t going to confide in me. She wasn’t going to tell Paintball the secret she knew about my family, because she thought she was protecting ‘him.’ And she sure as hell wasn’t going to tell Cassidy. Somehow, I had to convince her to let me help. I had to get her to let me in on the secrets she had. 

But how in the hell was I supposed to do that?

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Friends and Enemies 8-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Why Paige? Of all the people in the entire universe I had to be saving, why Paige Banners? 

Okay, she didn’t deserve to die. That was true. As much as I didn’t like her, as much of a bitch as she had always been to me, she definitely didn’t actually deserve to die. But still. Why did I have to be the one to save her, considering all the effort she’d put into mocking and belittling me? 

Yeah, it was childish. Definitely. No question. And I was absolutely going to save her, no matter my own personal feelings. But that didn’t stop the grumbling in the back of my head, along with a lot of questions revolving around what the hell she could know about my family’s business that made her such a pressing target for being killed? Executed, really, by a literal British diplomat. 

There were a lot of things going on here that I didn’t understand. That much was obvious. And I probably wasn’t going to get any answers to those things unless I could get over myself and save the girl who had loudly and vocally hated me since we were in middle school. So… yay. 

But, oh well. I was going to save her even if the thought of doing so made me want to grind my teeth down into powder. No way was I going to let Paige get shot in the head by one of my parents’ secret evil minions just because she was a bitch to me. I wasn’t a psychopath

That said, I still had to do this right. It wouldn’t exactly do either of us any good if I showed myself and then immediately got mowed down by all of Mr. Jackson’s armed security escorts. 

Speaking of Mr. Jackson, he was raising the pistol in his hand, pointing it at the clearly sobbing girl, who was frantically pleading with him through the gag in her mouth. He looked regretful, but not regretful enough to stop or even reconsider. This whole thing was happening right now, no more time for thinking.

Moving quickly, I shot a glob of red paint over the raised pistol. At the same time, I shot another bit of red at the ground several yards past where the group was, further up the pier. Even as Mr. Jackson and the other guys with him were reacting to his gun being painted, I activated it, instantly yanking the gun from his grip and sending it to that spot behind them with a soft clapping sound from the silenced weapon firing off (hopefully harmlessly) into the woods. 

But I didn’t leave it at that, of course. Even as the gun was flying through the air to land on the ground, my hand was already snapping over to fire another shot of red to the van itself. Activating that with a thought connected it to the red paint already on the pier. The van was yanked off the ground and sent tumbling side over side right toward the clustered trio of armed security guys who had just pivoted to face my direction. Two of them dove out of the way, one dropping his gun in the process. The third was hit by the van, crying out as he was knocked off the pier into the water. Mr. Jackson and Paige were both missed entirely, the van settling into a badly damaged heap on its roof just a couple feet from where the two were still standing, frozen. 

Target, target. I had to give them another target. A more important and immediate target. To that end, I used blue paint under my feet to launch myself up and out, turning over in a somersault in the air before landing right in front of the two men who had dived out of the way. They were just picking themselves up when I caught each of them by an arm. Painting a small image of a muscular man flexing his biceps on my chest in purple, I used the strength boost to haul them off the ground before turning and hurling them off into the water near where their friend had gone. They went flying off, screaming in the process as their guns clattered to the dirt. 

So yeah, two seconds in and all three normal guys were… well, not dealt with, but at least delayed and disarmed for the moment. It would take them time to get out of the water. But that wasn’t the main problem. Mr. Jackson was. He had some kind of power that I knew nothing about. It could’ve been anything. Except he’d said that it ‘didn’t work’ on Paige, so I was assuming it wasn’t super strength or healing or anything like that. It was something else. 

But I really wasn’t in the mood to find out what that something was the hard way. Mr. Jackson was still, understandably, trying to react to his gun being yanked from his hand, then a van flying in out of nowhere to nearly run him over, and then a couple of his men being thrown over his head out into the water. It was a lot to take in over just a brief handful of seconds when he’d had no idea anyone else was even out here. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to give him time to recover. So, while the strength boost was still active, I pivoted, snatching one of the dropped guns off the ground before hurling it that way. He snapped an arm up to block it reflexively, but still staggered backward with a cry, and I heard the crack of bone where the pistol hit him. 

By that point, I had already used one more shot of red paint. This one, however, was aimed at Paige. With a startled scream, she was hauled off her feet and flung back toward my outstretched red gloves. The girl collided with me, and I stumbled a little before catching myself. A quick glance back the other way showed the men already recovering and clambering out of the water. Mr. Jackson was starting to move toward grab the gun that I’d hit him with, and there was a lot of shouting. Yeah, this whole situation was about to be really bad, really quick. 

But I couldn’t just let the guys here, or (more importantly) my parents wonder how Paintball could possibly have found out about this. Remembering what the guy a few moments earlier had said, I quickly used red paint to yank the gun away from Mr. Jackson and tossed it while taunting him with a quick, “You should tell your minions to be more subtle when they grab someone. Or at least pay attention when they’re being followed!” 

Painting my gloves purple for strength then, I grabbed the handcuff chain with both hands and ripped it apart. Luckily, they hadn’t bothered using staydown cuffs. These were the normal, old-fashioned kind. So I was able to easily break them before pointing into the woods. “Run!” 

Rather than doing what I told her to, Paige stared at me and yelled something that was muffled by the gag. Her hands reached up to try to undo the gag, and only then did I notice that it had some kind of complicated buckle system that made it hard to undo by yourself. 

“Just go!” I shot a bit of green paint at her stomach and gave the girl a push. “I’ll be right beh–” That was as far as I got before catching sight of Mr. Jackson pointing some other gun he’d grabbed. Quickly, I painted an orange hand flipping him off on my back, spinning around to grab Paige and yank her out of the way. A few quiet gunshots filled the air, and I felt them ricochet off my back, stinging a bit. Paige was screaming again. That time when I pushed her, she ran. Fucking finally. 

As soon as the girl disappeared into the treeline, I shot a wide spray of red paint all along the wooded ground just past the edge of the parking lot in front of me. Then I spun and dropped to one knee. The other men had retrieved their guns, or produced new ones, and were all taking aim. But before they could start firing, I shot another spray of red that way, coating them and Mr. Jackson. Then I connected the paints and sent a cloud of random ground debris right into their faces. Dozens of tiny pebbles, twigs, leaves, dirt, and more were sent flying that way while they recoiled and cried out. 

But we weren’t out of the woods yet. Well, technically I wasn’t even in the woods yet. The point was, there were more bad guys coming. Like, a lot more. I heard loud engines and my eyes snapped that way in time to see a couple more vans speeding along the road toward us. Shit, shit, shit. Time to go! To that end, I quickly painted green lightning bolts on my legs and used the extra speed to sprint off into the trees, while the new cars were still skidding to a stop and Mr. Jackson and his guys were recovering from having a bunch of debris thrown in their faces. 

Racing through the trees with my enhanced speed, I quickly caught up with the stumbling Paige. As soon as I was within sight of her, I activated the paint I’d shot her with earlier and she was suddenly moving faster. Apparently it was enough of a surprise that she nearly fell on her face. Which totally wasn’t my intention. Not consciously anyway. Before she could fall, I reached out to grab her arm. She jumped and spun with her fist up, before freezing upon seeing who it was. 

“You’re faster now, so use it and keep running!” Without thinking about it, I reached out and caught her by the hand. In most situations, I would sooner have picked up a hissing and spitting venomous snake. But this wasn’t a normal time. Her hand clutched onto mine with what felt like desperation and we ran together through the forested area. Behind us, we could both hear more gunshots clipping the trees around us while men shouted and car engine started back up. They were going to try to cut us off. And, considering I had no idea where we were going or what was around, they could probably pull it off. They clearly knew this area better than I did. The headstart and my powers were our only advantage, and even those wouldn’t be worth much if we were stupid about this whole thing. With numbers and weapons they could beat my powers, and if we just ran right to them, the headstart wouldn’t matter. 

Just as I was thinking that, I felt a tug at my arm. Paige was trying to lead me into running to the left, deeper into the wooded area rather than straight through. Apparently she’d had the exact same thought about being cut off. Smothering my instinctive urge to disagree with whatever she thought, I nodded, and the two of us started running that way instead. The speed boost had run out by that point, but I didn’t trigger another one, not yet at least. I wanted to save some paint and let it recharge a little bit. 

Also, I needed to save some to do things like what I did when the sound of approaching footsteps chasing us got closer. Pointing my free hand down, I shot a puddle of blue just ahead of us. We ran onward, and Paige gave me what was obviously a confused look. But she got it a second later, as the sound of running footsteps was interrupted by a quick, short scream and a crack as our nearest pursuer was launched upward to crash into a low tree branch. 

Continuing on, I used a few more traps to slow down our pursuers. There were a couple blue puddles that I activated as we passed them, and a long line of yellow paint that would slow down anyone who happened to step in it. Given it was pretty dark out here, the guys behind us had to slow down a good bit to watch the ground. Which was a good chance for us to extend our lead. I did that repeatedly, enough to hit a few more guys and keep the rest nervous. 

Unfortunately, the fact it was dark also affected us. Neither Paige, nor I could see very well, and we kept stumbling over various roots and shit, almost spraining our ankles, or worse, a few times. I was pretty sure she didn’t know where we were going any better than I did. We were just intent on getting away from all the guys with guns. 

Just ahead of us was a really big tree with a long, crooked branch growing out above the path we were on. A bit to the left was a steep hill. Seeing that, I pulled my hand free from the other girl’s and painted my arm purple for wrapping it around her. “Grab on,” I snapped quickly. I barely gave the taller girl time to put both arms quickly around my neck before using my other hand to shoot red toward the tall branch while we were still running. It yanked us upward, and I switched to a shot of blue to coat that same branch while releasing the red once we had momentum. Tightly clutching the girl I never would have willingly touched with a ten-foot pole in almost any other situation, I sent us flying to that blue spot on the branch, which launched us even higher when we landed on it. The two of us were hurled into the air, and I used the momentum and height to carry us over, landing on top of that high, steep hill. 

Flashlight beams were already cutting through the trees, and we could hear footsteps and loud voices. Paige started to move, but I use the remaining strength boost to yank her down while dropping myself. Painting myself black, I did the same to her, shooting black to silence her while holding my hand in front of the visor in a shushing motion.

Thank fuck, she seemed to get the point and laid completely still. We pressed ourselves against the ground, watching just over the edge of that hill toward the path we’d just been running along. The men were right behind us. I could see Mr. Jackson in the lead, an assault rifle in his hands by that point as he snapped orders to his subordinates and kept moving. Just as he reached the spot directly below us, he stopped and looked around. Quickly, Paige and I ducked back. But we could hear his voice as he spoke. 

“Alpha and Beta, keep moving along the streets. I want a full canvas, they don’t get back into the city. Delta and Epsilon, spread out and do a tree by tree search from here all the way to the waterline. Flush them out, whatever it takes. You find anything, you let everyone know. Gamma, come in from the west side and meet us in the middle. Where’s that helicopter? Get it out here right now. And keep blocking those cell signals.”

Oh great, they were bringing in a helicopter too. That was just fantastic. Paige and I definitely had to get out of here before that thing became an issue. And, apparently, we had to do it by getting past a whole lot more bad guys than I’d even thought. There was some other group coming in from the same direction we had been moving originally. This was just great. Not to mention, I apparently couldn’t call out for help either. Not that I was sure who I would call that could actually get out here quickly, but still. Maybe the Minority would have helped. And wouldn’t it have been fun to try to explain to Tomas why his dad was arrested by the local teen superheroes? 

The men below us had moved on by then, but they were still close, spreading out to look through the trees for where we could have gone. As I was thinking about what to do, Paige shook my shoulder. She was pointing at the gag in her mouth and making emphatic, yet quiet, noises. Apparently, she really wanted it out.

I thought about leaving it in, to be honest. This was the most I’d ever been able to stand being around the other girl, and it had everything to do with the fact that she couldn’t say anything. It seemed like a shame to throw that away and let her start talking again. 

Okay, that was bad. But seriously, she was not a nice person. At least not to me. 

But, somewhat reluctantly, I used both hands to unclip the buckle, fumbling with it a little bit before pulling the gag out of her mouth. 

She took a few seconds then, opening and shutting her mouth and making very soft gagging noises as she worked her jaw. Finally, the girl spoke. To her credit, she kept her voice very low, a whisper that barely reached my ears. 

“The water,” she murmured. “I know this area. There’s a boat we can use on the water. It’s not that far from here. I think we can make it with your paint stuff.”

Okay, apparently I’d been wrong when I assumed she didn’t know anything about this area. Hesitating slightly, I whispered back, “Are you sure?”

If she’d known it was me, Paige would have had a scathing remark then. Instead, she just gave a quick nod. “Trust me, I don’t want to be found by those guys any more than you do. They were about to kill me.”

So, I nodded back to her. “Let’s go.” 

With one more glance around to make sure we were clear for the moment, the two of us carefully stood up and started moving back toward the water. Before we’d gone more than a couple steps, however I felt Paige’s hand catch my arm. “Hey…”

Blinking, I turned that way, just in time for her to suddenly hug me tightly. I made a noise of surprise, as the girl who had hated me since we’d met and who had gone out of her way to belittle and insult me every chance she got suddenly embraced me. 

“Thanks,” she whispered. “Like I said, those…those guys were gonna kill me. Thank you. Thank you. I can’t… I…” I could hear the lump in her throat, could feel the way her fear made her entire body shake along with her voice. “You are seriously the most awesome person in the world.”

Yup, it was official. 

This was the most fucked up night of my life. 

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Friends and Enemies 8-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Note that there was a commissioned interlude for Heretical Edge focusing on Avalon and Gaia posted yesterday. If you have not read that and would like to, you can click right here

My hand was over my mouth, pressing tight to cut off the sound of my gasp. My eyes were practically bulging their way out of my head, and all I could do for that moment was stare at the door ahead of me. My God. Oh my God. My gaze, staring at that door, was distorted by the tears that suddenly leapt to my eyes. No, no, no. Please, no. Not them too. Not this, not this. Why? Why?! 

Move, move, Cassidy! Move before he catches you, or someone else does! Move! Jerking visibly to my mental scream at myself, I turned and quickly made my way down the hall as silently as I could. The whole time, I kept frantically looking over my shoulder, expecting to see the man suddenly burst out with a gun pointed at me or something. Or someone to jump out in front of me. I stumbled, almost falling before catching myself. Go, fuck, go, Cassidy! Fucking go! 

Only when I was already to the stairs and had retreated up them back to the third floor did it occur to me that I had the black silencing paint. Fuck. I could’ve–I could’ve just made it easier to get out of there. I could’ve, but I wasn’t thinking straight. I was barely thinking at all, after… that.

Mr. Jackson did work for my parents. And he was going to kill a girl. Kill a girl. What girl? What girl were they talking about? Wait, not… no, not Izzy. Of course not, why did my brain immediately go there? But who? What– He had said that the girl was snooping around. Someone was snooping around and he caught them? And now he was going to have them killed?! Wait, he also said something about his power not working on her. Power? What power? What girl? What the hell was going on?!? Why did it have to be like this? Why wasn’t he just a normal guy? Why did my ex-boyfriend’s father work for my evil parents?! Had he worked for them–he had. He’d worked for them the whole time. That was the only thing that made sense, the only–oh God, did Tomas know? Did he know? Was he involved? And if he did, if he was… had he ever actually cared about me? Or was I just an assignment? Was he supposed to babysit me or something? 

My hands were covering my ears, pressing so tight against my head it actually hurt. No, no, please. Please no, I didn’t want this. Please wake up, please. Just wake up, wake up! 

Wake up. Wake up, Cassidy. This wasn’t going away. Yes, Tomas’s father was evil. He was evil and he worked for your parents. And Tomas might have something to do with it. Maybe. That sucked. It sucked so much. But what was worse than that? Being murdered. Being dead. And some girl out there, some girl in the back of some van, was about to be just that. So just get the fuck over yourself and your issues, stand up, and do something about it before that happened. 

Just as I thought that, the sound of rapidly approaching footsteps from the direction of Mr. Jackson’s office penetrated my head. He was coming. This time, I actually remembered my black paint, making a spot of it appear on my shirt before looking both ways quickly to make sure the coast was clear. Then I shot a bit of red paint up to the ceiling and yanked myself up there, managing to get out of sight in the little overhang area just as Mr. Jackson walked by directly below. He was still on the phone, walking purposefully as he ordered someone to pull the van around. So, he wasn’t talking to my dad anymore. Instead, he was on his way out to… to do what he’d promised he would. Kill the girl. He was on his way out to kill the girl, if I didn’t do something. 

Once he was gone, heading further down the stairs to the first floor, my paint faded and I dropped, landing in a crouch before pushing myself up. Fuck it. Whatever other issues I had, whatever horrible thoughts and fears this whole revelation had spawned in me, I would deal with it later. Right now, the only thing that mattered was getting that girl, whoever she was, away from Mr. Jackson without letting him know who I was. My problems could wait. Her life couldn’t. 

First, I had to get out of the house. To that end, I made my way downstairs. There was no way I’d be able to sneak out of here the way I did my own house. I didn’t know the security well enough, and it was all much smaller, with at least one guard on the roof. I couldn’t sneak out, so I was going to have to just leave the normal way while trying not to let on… anything at all. 

Reaching the bottom of the stairs, right there by the living room, I was immediately put to the test as far as keeping myself together went, as Mrs. Jackson suddenly appeared in front of me, holding a wine glass in one hand and a plate of brownies in the other. “Oh!” A smile appeared, one that… looked awfully genuine. “I was just going to bring these up for you and Tomas.” 

Did she know? Did Mrs. Jackson know that her husband was evil, and that he was on his way out to kill some girl right now, a girl that he had in the back of a van out front? Did she know

Shaking that off, and swallowing the hard lump that had formed in my throat, I forced myself to reply, “Tomas fell asleep, Mrs. Jackson. I’ve got some homework to do anyway, so I better get home.” 

“Aww, that’s too bad. I’m sure he’ll feel bad about crashing on you.” With a conspiratorial wink, Mrs. Jackson added, “We’ll only make fun of him for it a little bit, okay? Here, take one at least.” 

Reminding myself to act as normal as possible, as hard as that was, I forced my hand to take one of the brownies. Knowing what the woman I expected, I took a bite. It felt like biting into cardboard. Not because it tasted bad, but because all I could think about was how much the woman in front of me knew about the evil things that her husband and my parents were up to. 

Still, I forced myself to swallow and brought a smile to my face. “Thanks, Mrs. Jackson.” 

She started to say something, but was interrupted by a voice from behind me. “Okay, I’m heading out.” It was Mr. Jackson. He had his phone in my hand, as I saw when I whipped around. Seeing my reaction, the man simultaneously winced and chuckled. “Sorry, Cassidy. I didn’t mean to scare you.” He paused then, seeming to think about something before adding, “You leaving already? Don’t tell me Tomas said something dumb and made things awkward.” 

“He fell asleep,” Mrs. Jackson informed him, a not-insubstantial amount of amusement in her voice. “Poor boy’s still turned around from the sudden move.” There was a hint of… maybe reprimand in her voice? Not much, just a little bit that told me maybe she wasn’t completely cool with the fact that their lives had been suddenly uprooted to bring them here. But it disappeared in her next words, as she added, “If you’re heading out, maybe you can give Cassidy a ride.” 

“That’s okay,”  I quickly put in before the man could open his mouth. “I sort of already called for a ride, and you know how much it sucks for those Uber people to get a call that cancels.” 

Quickly masking the look of relief that came to his face, the man gave a short, polite nod. “I’m going the opposite way, in any case. Good night, Cassidy. I hope to see you again soon.”  

It was clear that he wanted to stay and say something to his wife, so I quickly excused myself. Leaving out the front door, I glanced to the side. The van. There was the van that Mr. Jackson had mentioned, sitting in the driveway. It looked like any other ordinary white van. For a second, I froze, before catching myself. Forcing my feet to keep moving, I nodded to the guard at the gate and he let me out. On the way, I glanced back to say thank you. But I used that moment to check the license plate on the plain-looking van, committing it to memory as well as I could.  

Right now, there was a girl in that van. And my ex-boyfriend’s father was going to kill her unless I did something about it. I could worry about everything else that came with this revelation later, after I saved her. But I couldn’t do that as myself. I had to change, and I had to do it fast. Unfortunately, I couldn’t look like I was in a rush, so I forced myself to walk normally to the end of the street, looking down at my phone as though checking for my ride. 

As soon as I reached the end of the block, I sprinted for the building I’d left my costume on. At least I had it close. Thank God I’d been planning to visit Wren after dinner. I honestly had no idea what I would have done if I didn’t have it. Try to disguise myself some other way? 

Whatever, the costume was nearby, and it only took me a minute to get myself up onto the roof and quickly change into it. As I pulled the helmet on and secured it, my eyes looked out toward the cross street just down from the Jackson house. There it was. I saw the van. At least, I thought it was the van. It was… it was turning this way. Quickly, I dropped down, laying flat on my stomach behind the metal air conditioning unit. It was dark enough now, being past dinner, that I was pretty sure no one in the van had seen me standing up on the roof of the restaurant. 

Keeping myself low, I listened to the van as it approached. It passed beneath me and I poked my head out to look off the edge of the roof. There. I saw the license plate below, and it was definitely the right one. Okay, that was the van. Now what? I couldn’t just jump in and attack them right now. Not only were we too close to the house, but I had no idea how many people were in the van, what kind of condition the girl was in, or how the bad guys were armed. 

Right, I was going to have to follow them and try to intervene once we got there and before they killed this girl. Which meant I had to keep up with the van without letting them see me. And the only way I was going to be able to do that was by staying far enough behind, taking shortcuts, and hoping that I didn’t end up losing them. At least I knew that they were heading for the water. Mr. Jackson had said something about a pier, so that helped a little bit. Okay, Cassidy, do this right. Shove everything else about this shit aside and whatever you do, don’t lose that van

Watching the tail lights of the van as it kept going down the street, I took a running start and launched myself upward, using red paint to reach the next building on the opposite side of the street before running a few steps, popping my skates out with a quick blurted command. From there, I followed the rooftops, trying to stay low while painting my costume black so I wouldn’t stand out. My eyes stayed focused on those tail lights, doing my best not to lose track of which ones were the actual van. A couple times I had to get close enough to double-check, but for the most part I stayed as far back as I dared, using the darkness and height to my advantage, as well as the fact that whenever I saw the van at a stoplight with its turn signal on, I could move ahead and catch it further on. The whole time, we got closer and closer to Lake St. Clair. Or rather, to the Detroit river that the lake fed into. We weren’t going to the lake, we were going to the river. 

The van pulled off the main road and took some side streets. I had to abandon the roofs and make my way through the wooded park area on the side of the road on foot while doing my best not to be seen by anyone. Again, being able to make my costume completely black helped. I had no idea how people went around doing the superhero thing without being able to change the color of their costume at any given point to match the situation. It sounded much harder. 

Now I was running through the forest to the side of the road. Or rather, I started running, before realizing that was dumb. Instead, I jumped straight up to the top of the nearest tree with the aid of a bit of blue paint, then leapt to the next, using a mixture of that and my red paint now and then to yank myself onward much faster. With the help of green paint for speed, my feet barely touched each tree before I leapt to the next one. It felt like I was some super-modernized and colorful version of Tarzan or something. 

Some small part of me wondered how I could navigate the dark forest I’d never been in that well. Seriously, I jumped from tree to tree like I’d been there my whole life and knew every branch. What was that about? But there were far more important things for me to focus on. 

Finally, the van reached a rest stop or something, an open space with one small building labeled restrooms, lit by a single struggling lamp post. Sure enough, there was a path leading down to a pier overlooking the river. This was it. This was definitely it. As soon as I saw the van stop, I threw myself out of the tree, using black paint to land silently on the ground behind a bush. We were here. This was it. I had to do this right. The girl. I couldn’t let them kill her. 

Maybe she knew something about their operation. Not only was this my chance to save her, whoever she was, it was also my chance to find something out about my family’s organization. Whatever she knew, it was important enough for Mr. Jackson, a British diplomat (seriously, how did that fit into my family’s criminal empire?) to personally make sure she was dead. This wasn’t just any old victim. She knew something. I had to get her out of there, without revealing who I was. 

But Mr. Jackson had a power. He’d said that his power didn’t work on this girl. Why didn’t it work? And what was his power? Something that should have allowed him to avoid killing her? That was sure what it sounded like when he’d been on the phone. But I wasn’t sure what that meant. So, he had a power that I knew nothing about. This was going to be fun. 

The van doors opening caught my attention, and I squinted that way through the dim light to see three men get out. None of them were Mr. Jackson. But the man himself stepped out a moment later, as the first three looked around, clearly watching for any uninvited guests. They were armed with what looked like submachine guns, all of them dressed the same as his security detail. They probably were from his security detail, actually.  

Mr. Jackson turned in a slow circle after exiting the van. His gaze passed over the bush where I was hiding, but didn’t slow at all. He scanned the lot before snapping his fingers. As he did so, one of the men reached back into the van and yanked a struggling figure out before giving her a toss to the ground. 

The girl. Her head was covered by some kind of black hood, and her hands were cuffed behind her back. She started to curse as the man pulled her out of the van, but it turned to a yelp when she was thrown to the ground. 

“No one saw you grab her?” Mr. Jackson demanded of one of the men beside him. 

“No, sir,” the man replied. “No one was around and we took side streets to get her to the house.” 

“Get her up,” Mr. Jackson ordered then, speaking in a flat, bored voice that told me he just wanted to be done with this and move on. He didn’t care that he was about to kill some girl. He wanted it over with so he could go home, or whatever he was going to do. This was nothing new to him. 

One of the men yanked the girl up by the arm, setting her on her feet. She started to say something, but her words were unintelligible. She was clearly gagged somehow under the hood. Not that it mattered, as she’d barely gotten a few sounds out before Mr. Jackson pulled a pistol from his suit jacket and pressed it against her head. “Stop,” he ordered, and she fell silent. 

Just as I was building myself up to send a shot of red paint that would yank the gun away from the girl’s head, he lowered it. “Not here,” the man said simply. “Bring her to the pier so the body lands in the water.” 

That was enough to make the girl start to bolt, even with her hands still cuffed. But two of the men grabbed her by either arm. They carried the struggling girl after them while she gave some kind of muffled scream. She was fighting, struggling with everything she had. But it didn’t matter. They were stronger, bigger, and they bodily carried the girl with them, down that path. 

Okay, Cassidy. This was it. Quickly, but silently thanks to black paint, I made my way in a running crouch behind the van and over to the trees on the far side. The men were pulling their prisoner right down there. She fought the whole time, kicking and muffledly screaming. Not that any of them cared. 

Raising both hands, I focused on my red paint and got ready to yank their weapons away, while they pushed the girl right up to the edge of the pier. 

Then Mr. Jackson reached out and yanked the hood off her head, snapping, “It didn’t have to be this way, kid. But you wouldn’t stop digging, and people who keep digging… eventually they make a grave.” 

The hood was gone. I could see her face. I could see the girl they were about to kill, the one who knew enough about my family’s criminal empire that they wanted her dead. 

It was her. The girl who had spent years mocking me for looking like a boy, who had started a whole thing about ‘male cheerleaders’ when I’d been on the team in junior high, the girl who had always seemed to hate me for no reason. 

I was here to save Paige Banners. 

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Friends and Enemies 8-05 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, Sterling, I know.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 5B – Lost Memories

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Five Years Ago

“Remember, Miss Evans, thank your host and be gracious,” Robert Parson, chauffeur for the Evans family, reminded his charge while opening the back door of the dark sedan. 

Eleven-year old Cassidy, dark hair cut into a short pixie style, didn’t so much step out of the backseat as lunge out of it… hands first. Landing on those hands, she gave a loud squeal while almost tipping over entirely the other way until Robert, well-accustomed to these shenanigans, casually caught her legs with one arm. 

She stood on her hands like that, upside down with her legs against the driver’s ready-arm. “Good catch, Bobby!” the girl chirped with a bright smile, turning her head to peer up at him.

“Honestly, Miss Evans,” the dark-skinned, well groomed man murmured. He was tall enough to be a power forward for the NBA, standing six feet, eight inches. Yet his manner with her was always gentle, and he was as well-dressed and spoken as anyone Cassidy had met among her parents’ hoity toity rich friends. “Must we cause a scene? This is hardly conduct becoming of a woman of your station and inheritance.” 

With a grunt, Cassidy flipped herself back over the other way, landing only slightly awkwardly on her knees before pushing up to her feet once more. Her bright smile never wavered. “That’s why I didn’t wear a skirt, Bobby. Well… that and the last time I did someone asked if I was a crossdresser.” Saying those words made the girl frown a little, looking away before she focused once more, shrugging. “Besides, I had to test your reflexes, you know. Gotta know if you can protect me.” She said it in an offhand way, the dismissive tone of youth who believe themselves invincible and don’t actually understand that while they may be floating on the surface of a very calm ocean, danger still lurked deep beneath those gentle waves. Despite their wealth and prominence, she’d never really believed there was anything for her family to be protected from. 

Robert shook his head, reaching out to put one hand on the girl’s short hair. “Miss Evans,” he began in a low voice that was not quite a whisper. “Such tests are unnecessary. You know that you are safe with me.” There was a calm, genuine affection in his words and gaze. Robert cared for the Evans’ youngest child as though she was his own. There was a reason, after all, that she was the only living person in the known world who was allowed to call him Bobby. 

Her head bobbed quickly. “Yup!” With a wink, she turned and reached back into the car to pull out a gift wrapped in bright silver and violet paper. It was… a bit of a mess, given her insistence on wrapping the present herself. “I think I’ve got it from here. Thanks for the ride!” 

With that, Cassidy bounded off across the long driveway. The place wasn’t nearly as big as her own house, but it was still pretty impressive. The driveway was a half-circle with an entrance and exit at two separate gates, while a tall fountain surrounded by flowers took up the middle. The house itself was about half the size of the one owned by her family, which still put it well above average. Her friend Anthony lived here, and it was his eleventh birthday. 

Reaching the front door, Cassidy went to ring the bell, only to notice that the door was open a crack. That was a little weird, but maybe they were just still bringing stuff in and out for the party. With a shrug, she pushed it open and stepped through, letting the door close behind her. 

“Hello?” Cassidy called, pausing a bit. Huh. Usually one of the maids would have come by now. Maybe they were really busy. And she was actually pretty early. She’d wanted to have a chance to talk to Anthony so they could come up with a plan to escape the party later and play some games in his rooms. It wasn’t like the party guests would miss the pair, considering most of them would be his parents’ friends, not his. Anthony didn’t actually have many friends. Just her, mostly. He was homeschooled by tutors, and the two of them had been all-but inseparable every day since her father had brought Cassidy along to meet his business associate’s son a couple years earlier. 

The party was supposed to be out back, so she started that way. Someone would know what was going on, and where she should put her gift. 

It took a minute for the girl to make her way through the enormous house. Even as often as she’d been over, it was still easy to get lost in the maze of rooms and corridors to reach the correct sliding door leading onto the back patio. It was attached to the (oddly empty and dark) dining room, and Cassidy had to set the present down on the nearby table to push the sliding glass door open. As soon as she did so, the girl heard voices. Oh, good! People were out here. She had started to worry. 

Turning to pick up the present with both arms, she started to head through the opening, before looking up. As she did so, the girl abruptly froze half-in and half-out of the house. The haphazardly-wrapped gift fell to the ground, forgotten in an instant at the sight in front of her. 

Bodies. Three of them lay sprawled out along the patio in various positions, clearly left where they had fallen. Blood… so much blood… coated the ground around and between them, a sticky pool of it. Two of them were faced away from the door, but one, the body of Anthony’s family’s longtime butler, was staring sightlessly straight at Cassidy. His mouth was open with mute horror, frozen in death that way as his gaze seemed to stare directly through the girl. 

Two more bodies lay further on past the first three, draped over lawn chairs. Beyond them was the pool, where yet another body floated. And beside it stood two men with guns. Before them lay a body that some barely cognizant part of Cassidy’s brain vaguely registered as Anthony’s mother. Dead. Dead, just like the others. All of them were dead. 

Except Anthony. The boy himself was sobbing over his mother’s body, clinging to her while he begged… for something. For her to come back, for them to stop shooting everyone, for his own life. His words were a jumble of terror and grief, a desperate wailing almost animal-like. 

As Cassidy stood there, frozen in shock, one of the men offered the boy a shrug. “Sorry, kid,” he muttered in a dispassionate voice. “Nothing personal, this ain’t about you.” 

With that, he raised the gun, pulling the trigger. The sound of the gunshot, muffled though it was, still echoed across the porch. It was met, in turn, by the horrified scream of an eleven-year-old girl who had just seen her best friend murdered right in front of her, as his body collapsed.

“Fuck!” the second man blurted, spinning that way, “where the fuck did that one co–” 

“It’s the kid!” The first guy waved the gun with the hand, bellowing, “Grab her, fucking grab her!” 

With a choked sob, Cassidy turned to flee. But her foot caught on the present she had dropped, and she fell to the floor in the dining room. The next thing she knew, a hand was yanking her up by the hair and arm. As she shrieked and struggled, the man hauled her around back to the porch. “Fucking bitch!” His hand lashed out to smack her across the face, and she hit the ground once more with a cry. He spat at her, snarling, “Your daddy thinks he can run us out of town? Let’s see how tough he thinks he is when he gets his little girl’s finger in the ma–” 

A new gunshot filled the air, echoing through the house. The man who had been ranting pitched forward, hitting the ground beside the still-screaming Cassidy. Nearby, the other man had been on his way over, only to jerk in surprise as his partner was shot. He had his own gun about halfway up before Robert came through the doorway, pistol raised to shoot him through the center of his forehead. He pitched over backward, while Robert smoothly leaned down to haul the sobbing girl up with one arm. “Hands over your ears,” he ordered. “Hands!” 

She obeyed, throwing her hands over her ears and dropping her face against his shoulder while her entire body shook with unrestrained tears. Holding her easily with one arm, Robert went back through the house. As he did so, more intruders appeared. A man popped into the doorway ahead of them with a raised submachine gun, only to be shot three times before he could move. His slumping body was kicked aside as Robert stepped through to the next room, calmly firing three more times, twice at a man who appeared in a doorway to the right, and once at yet another one who came from the stairs above and to the left.   

Taking three quick steps toward the doorway where the man there had fallen, Robert lashed out with his foot, catching the door with his foot. It slammed on the wrist of another man who was just coming through, making him drop his gun. Robert fired once through the door, aimed low to catch the man right in the knee. He collapsed, his head appearing in time to receive a second bullet that put his body on the ground beside the other man’s. 

Ducking back out of the way as a handful of shots came from that same hallway that the two men had tried to come through, Robert waited for a two count, then moved across the half-open doorway, pivoting to put his back to the opening in order to shield Cassidy with his body. Instantly, several more shots rang out. One clipped the man’s arm, drawing a grunt from him before he made it to the opposite side. Pointing the pistol through the doorway, he fired twice without looking, and was rewarded with a yelp and the sound of a man falling. 

The sound of running footsteps on the stairs announced the arrival of yet another attacker. This one lunged into view, submachine gun raised as he dove off the stairs to reach the landing. He was shot through the head in mid-dive, his body crashing through a display of glass figurines. 

Turning quickly, Robert strode onward through the room. As the door to his right was kicked open, he lashed out to slam his pistol into the face of the man that came through, hitting him viciously three times in rapid succession even as the man was falling. The one who came through just behind him was shot through the knee, just Robert’s gun clicked on empty. He slumped down with a scream of pain, while Robert pivoted to hurl his pistol into the face of another man who had come running in from the direction of the back patio where they had just been. In the same motion as his own weapon left his hand, the driver and bodyguard stripped the pistol from the hand of the attacker he had just shot through the knee while the man was trying to aim up at him. He turned it, shooting the kneeling man through the side of the head before taking a quick, almost contemptuously casual shot at the man on the other side of the room who was still recovering from having a pistol thrown at him. The shot took him between the eyes, and he dropped. 

With Cassidy still draped against his shoulder, supported by one arm, Robert made his way through the rest of the house. More men came, a small army having been sent into this mansion to kill everyone present and, apparently, abduct his eleven-year-old charge. But a small army wasn’t enough, as the man put down everyone who dared show themselves, shooting his way out of the building and back to the front driveway. Through it all, he was shot twice more in equally non-vital places. One grazed his right leg and another went through his left side. None did more than slightly slow the man.  

His own last shot (from his third acquired pistol) took down a man with a shotgun who had been running toward the front door from a van that had pulled up behind their car. Without breaking stride, Robert tossed the pistol away, hooking his foot under the shotgun to kick it up into his grip. One-handed, he aimed the shotgun at the van, blowing away the driver just as he tried to scramble out. He fired the second shot as the side door of the van began to slide open, taking the man who tried to lunge free in the face. 

Shotgun emptied, Robert tossed it aside and kept moving. The back door of the sedan was already open, so he all but threw Cassidy into it. She landed hard on the seat, eyes opening just in time to shriek in terror as she looked past him. 

Two more shots hit the man in the back before he could react. Pivoting, he took a third shot in the stomach, making that six bullets the man had taken in only a few minutes. He collapsed to the ground, while an older man with silver-white hair came into view, pistol still in hand. 

“Well now,” the elderly figure muttered, “my son-in-law does hire good help, I’ll give him that.” Shaking his head, he leaned down to look into the car at Cassidy, who was frozen in terror, mouth simply repeating ‘Bobby, Bobby, Bobby’ in silent desperation, her mind all-but broken. 

“Hiya, kid,” the man announced. “Let’s get out of here. You can get to know your old Grandpa Jacopo.” 

He started to reach in toward the girl, just as a gleaming silver blade was suddenly driven through his back to erupt through the front of his chest. The man choked, looking down sharply as the end of the blade formed two solid pieces to hold itself in him while being pulled back. The old man was hauled away from the car and dumped to the ground. 

And Cassidy saw her father. Her father… dressed up like Silversmith, sans helmet. Her daddy, standing there with a bloody mercury-like blade extending from his arm. Her father, glaring at the man on the ground. His voice shook with rage that felt as though it could bring down the nearby house. “You… son of a bitch!” 

The man on the ground laughed, choking on his own blood. “Really think you could kick me out of town forever, son-in-law? This is my town! She’s my daughter! It’s my organization! You’re a fucking glorified accountant! I built all of this, I own it! It’s mine!”

In response, Cassidy’s father simply shook his head. His voice was dark. “Not anymore.” With that, his hand lashed out, forming a new blade that took the old man’s head off at the neck, sending it bouncing along the driveway to the nearby flower garden. 

The next thing Cassidy knew, she was in her father’s arms, sobbing and babbling about dead people, about Bobby, about him being Silversmith. It was all a jumble, the terror and horrific realization of everything she had seen falling together to form one terrible memory. 

“Sorry… Mr. Evans,” Robert managed, having pulled his thoroughly bleeding form to a sitting position. “Tried to get her out.” 

“You did,” Sterling assured the man. “You did everything. We owe you everything. Just sit still. The ambulance is coming. It’s coming. You’re going to be okay, I promise. I swear, we’ll take care of you for the rest of your life. You saved my baby girl. Anything you ever need is yours. Anything.

“We’ll never forget this.” 

*******

“And she won’t remember any of it? You’re certain?” 

Elena Evans, standing beside her husband, was addressing the man in front of them. He was a pale figure with dark-blond hair wearing a neatly pressed white suit. His eyes were dark green. 

“Yes,” the man replied simply, in a distinct British accent. “I do know what I’m doing, Mrs. Evans. The girl will remember none of what happened that day. She will remember the boy as barely an acquaintance, who moved away before perishing in a car accident on the other side of the country. His being homeschooled is a bonus, in that regard.” 

“She barely speaks,” Elena murmured, the worry clear in her voice. “She hasn’t eaten in… in days. This… this thing, it wasn’t… she can’t find out like this. It’s destroyed her. She isn’t… she isn’t talking to us. She just keeps whispering about people dying, about… about her friend. She is not… Cassidy anymore.” 

“As I said,” the man repeated, “she will not remember any of it. What about your man on the scene?” 

Sterling grimaced. “Robert survived, thankfully. But the doctors don’t think he’ll walk again. Anything he does do will take years of physical therapy and surgeries.” 

“He’ll have it,” Elena announced firmly. “After what he did, he will have everything he needs for as long as he lives. Nothing is out of the question. Find a healer willing to work with him, use one of our Braintrust contacts, whatever it takes. That man saved our daughter. He did his job above and beyond the call of duty. We will not forget that.” 

“A sound policy,” their guest agreed. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have my own job to do.” Nodding to them both, he stepped through the nearby doorway to Cassidy’s room. 

The girl herself sat on a chair, staring at the mirror. She didn’t look up when he entered, nor did she speak. 

“Hi,” the man greeted her. “My name is Jackson. Kent Jackson. I have a son about your age, back over in London. His name is Tomas. What’s yours?” 

Silence. 

“Well,” Kent murmured, “I’m sorry to hear about what happened to your friend and his family. Luckily, you won’t have to think about that for much longer.” With that, he stepped over, raising his hand toward her. But just as his fingers brushed her hair, the girl shrieked. She smacked hand away, screaming out loud as she scrambled to her feet, lashing out to kick him in the leg. 

“Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!!!” she screamed out loud. 

Grimacing, Kent grabbed the girl by the arms. As she shrieked and fought, he hauled her off the floor, throwing the girl roughly down on her bed even as one of her hands dragged deep fingernail marks down his arm. “Stop! Stop it!” he blurted, head shaking while she scrambled, kicking and hissing like a wild cat.  

“Damn it, stop! I’m helping you, daft child!” Kent shook the girl, just as he was yanked off of her by Sterling, who put his fist in the man’s stomach to double him over. He staggered, choking out words about needing to do his job. 

“Help her.” Elena’s voice was firm, as she sat on the bed with her daughter. She reached out, but Cassidy drew back, pulling herself into a tight, whimpering ball. “Help her, not terrify her more.” 

Straightening, Kent adjusted his suit with a cough. “The girl is frightened because of the very event I’m working to take away. Give me a moment with her, and it will no longer be a problem.” He gave both of her parents a look, then exhaled while stepping over. 

“Now, let’s try this again, shall we?” 

Author’s note: The first reference to Cassidy’s memories being altered was in a short snippet at the end of 4-05 right here

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