Mills Jackson

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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