Mills Jackson

Patreon Snippets 26B (Summus Proelium)

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Izzy and Amber

Standing on the edge of a large pond in the middle of a park, Izzy Amor held a bag of mixed chopped lettuce, cracked corn, and frozen peas. The nearby ducks chased after every handful she tossed out, and the small girl giggled to herself at the sight just how eager they were to get the food. She tried to spread out her tosses so the ducks would separate a bit and not run into each other so much. Some of it ended up out in the water, and they chased those bits just as frantically, speeding out with their motorboat-like legs before their heads dove down to get the food. Some became distracted by other things in the water. And through it all, loud, excited quacking filled the air. 

“Well they sure seem to be having fun,” Amber O’Connell noted as she stepped up beside Izzy and watched the ducks eagerly chasing the most recent tossed handful. “What about you?” 

Rather than answer that question directly, Izzy instead quietly noted, “It’s really simple like this, you know? The ducks are always here, they don’t keep the super elite ducks hidden behind some sort of pay wall. They don’t expect anything but this cheap food.” She shook the bag in her hand and then promptly threw out another batch to the grass and water as the ducks eagerly and loudly made their hunger known. “They just like being fed.”

Amber stood next to the younger girl and watched the ducks for a moment before quietly murmuring, “They don’t ask if you want to be adopted by a family of billionaires?”

Wincing visibly, Izzy gave a heavy sigh before nodding. “Yeah, they definitely don’t do that either.” Her foot kicked the ground before she added, “I’m being stupid about this, huh? I mean, anyone else would practically cut their own leg off to be adopted into the Evans family. Some literally. I mean with an axe and everything.”  

“Maybe,” Amber allowed with a mixture of a smirk and grimace at the imagery there, “but they don’t know what we do. Seriously, the family isn’t exactly normal, like, at all. Not that billionaire families are ever normal, but you know what I mean. There’s a lot more to that whole situation. It’s one thing to live there and know what you do, and another thing to actually be that connected to them. Like, totally connected. Legally connected. They’ve done bad things.” 

“But that’s what makes it even harder,” Izzy pointed out with a sigh as she threw another handful. “They’re really nice. It would be easier if they were mean and terrible, but they’re not. I know what it’s like to have a mom who treats you like a tool, like all you’re worth is what you can do for them. I know what that’s like, but they’re not like that. Mrs. Evans is nice. So is Mr. Evans.”

Her face twisted into a grimace as she let that thought run through her head. “I keep thinking I’ll realize that they’re just using me, but the more time I spend there, the more it feels like they really, actually care about me. Not just for what I can do for them, but because of me. It feels like they care… about what I want, about who I am. Not my power. Me.” 

She went silent for a moment, but Amber didn’t interrupt. The two of them simply stood there, watching the ducks. Not that it was actually quiet with all the quacking around him, but still. 

Finally, Izzy gave a new heavy sigh before continuing. “My mom, my real mom, she just wanted to use me. She sold me to the bad guys so I could be tortured into being their puppet. She did that just to get a little money for herself. Because she’s… she’s selfish. I know she is. But the Evans, who basically run all the supervillains, they’re really nice to me. Now they want to adopt me. So why…” She trailed off once more, closing her eyes as a single tear made its way down her face. “Why do I feel like I’m the one betraying her for even thinking about this at all? Why does it feel like I’m dirty and evil because part of me likes the idea of being adopted? And not by just anyone, by people who run all the supervillains in the city!”

Izzy threw the next handful of food farther than before, her other hand clenched tightly around the bag. “What’s wrong with me?”

Amber‘s hand found its way to her back and gently pressed there. “Listen to me, Izzy. Nothing is wrong with you,” she insisted. “I mean, okay, maybe there’s some stuff wrong with you. Terrible taste in cereal, you’re horrible at tying knots, can’t keep the list of state capitals straight…” She stopped as a little smile played at the other girl’s face, before squeezing her back. “But as far as this goes, nothing. You still love your mom, even if she did all those bad things. Part of you does, anyway. You love the mom you knew in between those times. You love the mom she could’ve been. And you know that accepting this adoption thing will be completely and officially cutting her off from ever being that person again. You’re not evil, Izzy. It’s not wrong to want to be around people who care about you. And yeah, the Evans being who they are makes it even more complicated than it already was. But it’s like you said, they treat you well. You’re not bad for liking that.

“Remember what Cassidy said. They’re not totally evil and monstrous. They really do care about her, and they care about you too. After what happened with your mom, of course you feel drawn to that. And it’s not a bad thing.” Her head shook firmly. “Look, I really don’t know what’s going to happen eventually with that whole thing. I don’t know how all of this is going to play out. But I know they really care about you. If someday they end up in prison or whatever, they can still care about you. Just like they’ll still love Cassidy.”

Both girls went quiet again, and Izzy handed the bag to Amber so she could throw some food for the ducks. Finally, after a minute of that, she spoke up. “I want them to…” She trailed off, clearly unsure of her words. When she spoke again, her voice was even more hesitant. “I like spending time with them. I think–no, I know I’d like it even if they didn’t have all that money. They’re nice. They’re fun. Mr. Evans makes me laugh. He’s really good with Cassidy, and I know he’s trying to include me. I just wish they weren’t… you know.” 

Amber’s hand gently rubbed her back. “Maybe the whole Ministry thing is over-complicating it, you know? You’ve already got enough to think about when it comes to this whole situation without adding that in. And yeah, someday, somehow, we’ll have to do something about that. Even Cassidy doesn’t know what, and she’s already their daughter. But whatever it is, that’ll come later. Maybe, just for now, you should think about how you’d feel about this whole thing if you didn’t know anything about that. Just try to set it aside for a minute and think about the rest of it.” 

Izzy gave a soft, yet audible laugh while shaking her head. “You say that like it makes it easier. But it’s still hard. Even if I didn’t know anything about the Ministry, I’d still be telling my mom I don’t want her to be my mom anymore.” Before Amber could say anything to that, she added, “Yeah, I know what she did. I know she started it. But if I do this, it means I’m finishing it.” Her body gave a full, visible shudder. “I know that’s stupid, okay? I know there’s no way she could ever be my mom again. It can never be the way it was before, and it shouldn’t be. She broke it. She broke it and it was her choice. She didn’t have to and she did. She made it so we can’t ever be what we were before. My mom can never be my mom again.”

Her hands clenched tightly as she fought to find the right words. “But this is still another door. It’s a door that I’m shutting. I’m telling my mom that I’m done with her. If she comes back, if they find her, I won’t be her daughter again. I’ll be one of the Evans. If I do this, it closes everything with her, forever. And that’s a choice I’m making that I can’t unmake.” 

Amber moved her hand away from the girl’s back to throw another bit of food before speaking softly. “Maybe you should think about what’s good for you. I know, I know it’s painful. I know it makes you feel dirty, believe me. It feels like being selfish is wrong, and sometimes it is. But when it comes to your life, to your future, to your… to who you are, you have to be selfish sometimes, Izzy. You can’t bend your entire life around trying to please the people who abuse you, just in case they might stop someday. You owe yourself better than that. It’s your life.” 

She swallowed audibly, clearly pushing herself to say more. “It’s like my whole thing with my dad. Every time I think about how I can be happy and make jokes and stuff while he’s still dead and we have no idea who did it, there’s this pain in my stomach, and it feels like it’ll never go away. I don’t think it ever will, not completely. It’ll always be there, to some extent. But then I have to think about how my dad wouldn’t want me to be miserable all the time. He’s my dad. He loved me. He wouldn’t want me to spend every moment of my life being sad.”  

Izzy watched the ducks for a minute before quietly asking, “What am I supposed to think about, then?” 

Amber gave a hesitant shrug. “You keep focusing on the mom you had in between and before the bad times, the mom she was and could’ve been if all this didn’t happen. Think about her again. I don’t mean in a ‘make you feel guilty and dirty’ sort of way. I mean, think about the good version of your mom and what she would want for you. You said she used to read you stories and stuff, right? Think about that version of your mom for a minute. Think about being in bed listening to her telling you those stories, reading that book. Think about how she would want you to feel as you grow up. Would she want you to be sad? Would she want you to be miserable, just to be loyal to her after what she did? Or would she want you to be with people who treat you well and care about you? Think about that version of your mom for a minute. What would she want you to do? What choice would she want you to make?”

Izzy didn’t say anything to that at first. She was silent, staring at the lake without actually seeing the water or the ducks. Instead, her mind was focused on that imaginary scenario. She thought about laying in her bed, with her mom sitting on the side of it reading stories to her. She thought about the touch of her mother’s hand against her hair and how safe she had felt in those moments. It made another tear fall slowly before she spoke through the thick lump in her throat. “My mom would want me to be happy.” It was one of the hardest things she had ever said. And yet, it was the truth.

For another few minutes, the two girls stood by the water, throwing food for the ducks while remaining silent. Both were lost in their own thoughts. Finally, when the last of the food was gone and the sun began to set, Izzy turned to the other girl. Her mouth opened, but instead of speaking immediately, she simply wrapped her arms around Amber to embrace her tightly. When her voice came, it cracked a little. “Thank you.” 

“Hey, anytime,” Amber replied, returning the hug. 

“But you know, once you’re an official billionaire’s kid, I might have to start charging you.” `

*******

Ministry Meeting Some Time Before The Raid On The Ministry Base

Sterling Evans owned several buildings throughout the city of Detroit, and had offices in even more. At the moment, the top floor of one of those main buildings had been entirely shut down for both employees and clients. The elevators were locked and would not come to that floor, or the one under it, and the doors into the stairwells were sealed tight. Between that and several Touched-Tech security measures, the place was kept as private and secure as it could be. It had to be, when the official leadership and higher ranks of the Ministry was meeting there. 

Someone might’ve said that meeting in a building he owned was too dangerous, and would have suggested something like an abandoned warehouse somewhere. But this building was one that Sterling could put all of his security measures into. He knew for a fact exactly how safe it was. And if any tried to invade or eavesdrop, they would have a lot of surprises coming their way. Besides, if there had been any planned raid of any of his offices, their contacts within every law enforcement group in the state would have said something. If anyone in any position of authority even suspected them of wrongdoing and launched the smallest investigation, the Evans would be informed of it before the task force had even finished brewing their coffee. 

Even beyond that, they would have been safe. Here, in this room at the center of the building, they were cocooned away from any possible interruption or spying. No electronic device, Touched-Tech or otherwise, could get through the security measures. The room was meant to host large meetings of his normal board of direction directors. Which meant it was also plenty large enough for this situation. 

Sterling stood at the head of the table in the center of the room, his chair slightly behind him. His wife, Elena, sat at his right side. His son, Simon, was to the left. Exchanging looks with both of them, Sterling cleared his throat. “Well, I think it’s about time we start this discussion.” 

Down the table on the right, a pale man with dark-blond hair and incredibly dark green eyes shifted in his seat. Kent Jackson, better known among this particular group under the moniker of Rook, raised one hand. “I know this is only the first official one of these I’ve attended in person since coming back to Detroit, but I remember we used to have these incredible little cakes at the old ones, and I’ve got to say, I was looking forward to that.” 

With a soft, polite chuckle, Elena assured him, “We still have those, but we moved them to the end of the meeting. I find that it helps people pay more attention, and gives everyone some reason not to drone on longer than necessary.” 

Beside Kent, his wife, Mills, patted him on the shoulder. The tall, beautiful blonde woman, who looked like a fashion model or movie star but had actually spent more time in dive bars and dirty, smoke-filled clubs than on runways, spoke with clear amusement. “Well, you’ve made his day. You should’ve seen his puppy dog sad eyes when we came in and those cakes weren’t out here.” 

Across the table from them and slightly further down, the man known as Alcazar took a sip of the water glass in front of him. As usual, the man looked completely ordinary in as many ways as possible. He was thin, but not to the point of distraction, stood just under five foot eight when he wasn’t slouched in a chair as he was now, and his brown hair and hazel eyes would do nothing to draw attention. He held his wire frame glasses in one hand, absently cleaning them with his shirt as he spoke. “There is a lot to get into today, so maybe we should start with the easiest thing.” His head turned to look at Sterling while he added, “The new superheroes in town.” 

Beside him, a gray-haired woman wearing dark jeans and a red button-up shirt that was tucked in added, “The dears have an actual name now, don’t they?” 

“Yes, Relapse,” Elena confirmed with a nod to the woman. “They call themselves Avant-Guard. Guard with a u. I think it’s cute.” 

Opposite Relapse and a bit down from Mills and Kent, a dark-skinned man drummed on the table with one hand thoughtfully, his voice quiet. “I like this Paintball kid. He’s funny. The whole being Lucent’s son joke, that’s some good stuff.” Abruptly, he tapped twice more a bit more firmly, before turning toward Sterling. He wasn’t looking that way. His sightless eyes would have made that impossible. But Hakeem Harris, known throughout the Ministry as The Tapping Man for his tendency to always… well, tap things, knew that people were more comfortable if you were facing them as you spoke. Pointless as it might have been. “But like him or not, is he going to be a problem?” 

“Yeah,” the voice from the figure at the opposite end of the table from Sterling put in, speaking loud enough to be heard by everyone else given the space between them, “that’s what we wanna know too.” 

The voice came from a raccoon, dressed in a tiny, yet perfectly tailored suit. He stood on the table itself, with his polished shoes clicking against its surface as he took a few steps forward while sipping from the miniature cup of coffee he held in one paw, while a miniature cane tapped against the table lightly a couple times. “You said he knows something about us, so does that make him a threat? And by threat, I mean one we need to take care of.” 

“Ministers Gray,” Sterling began, “you have a point, the boy does know something about the Ministry. We’re not precisely certain how much, yet he is certainly aware of our organization to some extent. But no, we don’t think he’s a threat.” 

Rather than respond to that himself, the raccoon made a noise in the back of his throat before turning to step off the side of the table. As he did so, a cloud of smoke and light encompassed his form, with a pyramid-shape in the center of it. As the light and smoke faded, a much larger form had taken his place. An enormous brown bear, nearly nine feet in height, towered over the others as he stood by the table. Like the raccoon, the bear was fully dressed in a tailored, multi-thousand dollar three-piece suit. He even wore a fancy derby hat. “Ah, I believe my partner wanted to know if ahh… if you’re certain about that,” he began in a voice that was slightly more nervous and uncertain than the confident tone of the raccoon. “After all, the ahhh, the strongest building can collapse thanks to a small flaw.” 

Some might have questioned why a shape-shifting bear/raccoon was part of the leadership of the Ministry. But, of course, it was more complicated than that. First, they were not a shapeshifter. Ministers Gray had been two separate animals when they both touched one another and the orb. Its power had bonded them together in a very particular way. Essentially, they possessed a private pocket dimension which one of them always had to be inside of, while the other remained in the outside world. They could swap back and forth at will. Beyond that, as well as the usual increase from animal intelligence to human-level, they had also gained the ability to speak properly (not always a given with TONIs) and the outside animal could create a small glowing pyramid. Any single living being who was touched by the pyramid would be sent into that pocket dimension with the inside animal. Only one being could be held like that, as any attempt to take a second one inside would eject the first.

And yet, their power was far more impressive than a simple ability to imprison a single living being indefinitely. Within the pocket dimension, the bear or raccoon could control the flow of time to equal that of the outside world, or cause it to pass much more quickly inside than it did outside. This allowed those inside to experience days and weeks within seconds or minutes for the outside world. Regardless of how time passed, those inside would never grow any older. And as long as another living being was inside the pocket dimension, the Ministers Gray could absorb any academic knowledge or physical skill that being possessed. They had taken a small army worth of brilliant academic scholars, elite soldiers, athletes, and more into the pocket dimension for what amounted to months at a time in order to absorb everything they knew and could do, before having those peoples’ memories of the event erased by Rook. 

More than that, Ministers Gray could also take others into their pocket dimension and teach those other skills much faster than they should have been able to learn them, given the time-dilation that was possible. 

In all, there was a reason why Sterling and Elena had chosen to accept them as one (well, two) of the main leaders of the Ministry, even giving them the title of Minister themselves.

“He’s a child,” Elena replied. “One who wants to do the right thing, but still a child. We think… we believe he knows there is a larger conspiracy of sorts, but is willing to… play nice. He has some experience with the Banners girl, saving her from…” She looked toward Rook. “Well, saving her. She made a deal to, ahh, leave our organization alone as long as we do the same for her and Paintball. We believe he is aware enough of that deal.” 

“In other words, let the boy be a superhero,” Sterling put in. “It’s good business. People like this Paintball kid, and his new partner, Alloy? They’re doing some great work out there. We keep an eye on them, just in case, but personally, I don’t think they’ll be that much of a problem. Relapse, you’ve had some interaction with him, what do you think?”

“Oh, he’s a sweetheart,” the woman agreed with a smile. “Came right into the Seraphs and did the work he was asked to without even grumbling about it. And he enjoyed my candy.” 

The words made Elena give the older woman a sharp look. “Tell us you didn’t–” 

“Pish posh, calm yourself,” Relapse tutted. “I am capable of simply giving people I like candy without using my–ahem, power.” The woman’s own gift, as somewhat implied by her name, allowed her to force any person she made physical contact with to be addicted to any edible or potable substance she chose. The addiction could last only a few minutes, or longer than a month, and a subject failing to feed that addiction would experience severe illness and hallucinations. They were also strongly encouraged to follow her instructions, given how easily she could magnify or lessen the effect. She would never be one to run around in tights and armor, considering she had Touched when she was fifty years old and that itself had been twenty years ago. But for a seventy-year-old, she still had her own tricks. 

And, as one of the Seraph’s most popular and beloved receptionists, Tricia had plenty of contacts who knew nothing of her loyalties or powers. It made her a valuable asset to the Ministry, as she had been from the very start. People tended to underestimate her.

“Of course you are,” Sterling interjected with an easy smile. “In any case, it’s good to hear the boy has his own real work ethic. And that he doesn’t seem to be a problem. So we’ll leave it there for now. We have the Banners girl’s reasoning for leaving them both alone for the time being, but even without that, I don’t believe he is an immediate concern. If he starts asking the wrong questions or pushing too much at the wrong thing, we’ll deal with it then. Besides, with everything going on in the city, I don’t think we can afford to be pushing more Star-Touched away at the moment.” 

“Speaking of what’s going on in the city,” Kent started, not wanting to spend any more time talking about how he’d let the Banners girl get away from him, “we need to inform the gang leaders to keep their business away from our shipment coming in on Tuesday.” 

“He’s right, the shipment can’t be delayed. Not a second time,” Hakeem noted while giving the table another soft tap. It would send out an echolocation-like pulse which gave the man a visual representation of the room and everyone in it. But more than that, the more times the ostensibly blind man ‘echolocated’ a person within the same general area and situation without an extended (roughly an hour) break, the better his minor precognition power worked to allow him to predict their physical movements in any altercation. Given enough taps, he could flawlessly know precisely how someone was going to move and how to counter them. Not that the man expected an altercation with his companions, of course. It was simply a deeply ingrained habit. 

Mills waved her fingers back and forth idly while speaking up. “Don’t worry so much. We’ll bring the shipment in and get it squared away. It won’t be a problem.” As she spoke, a glowing white feather flew back and forth across the table. Her own Touched gift allowed her to empower one pound worth of material every week. Anything that was empowered remained that way forever, allowing it to be telekinetically manipulated by Mills within her line of sight, as well as allowing her to teleport to anywhere one of those empowered objects was, or vice versa. Additionally, regardless of their actual size, empowered objects were incredibly durable and could be made to weigh almost nothing, their actual weight, or the sum total weight of every empowered object she possessed. With a thought, she could put something that weighed as much as a pencil on top of someone’s head and then make it weigh several hundred pounds.

Then there was the last part of her power. Which she idly demonstrated in an attempt to alleviate her own boredom by sending one of her feathers across the room to touch the three hundred pound desk in a corner of the room. As the feather brushed the side of it, the desk rose several feet in the air and spun in a slow circle. Any of her empowered objects were capable of extending her telekinetic abilities into any other object they touched, so long as that object, again, weighed less than the total weight of all of her empowered objects put together. And considering Mills, or Haven as she was called in these meetings, had had her power for most of the past two decades, her weight limit would have approached a thousand pounds even in a normal situation. 

And yet, her situation was far from normal. In the early days of the Ministry, her power and her skills had received a bit of a jumpstart as she spent week after week inside the Ministers Gray’s pocket dimension, while only hours and then days passed outside. It allowed the woman to go from only being able to control a single pound worth of material, to over twenty pounds, in what had been only a few days rather than half a year. These days, with additional time spent with her raccoon and bear friend whenever they could all spare it, she was up to almost three thousand pounds. 

She had a lot of random objects spread not only all over the city, but all over the world. 

“Very well,” Elena agreed. “Let’s discuss how precisely we will handle this shipment next. 

“And we should open the phone line so Yellowbrick may be included. I believe she should be finished with her last assignment by now.” 

*******

The Morning After The Raid On The Ministry Base

“Thank you, Yellowbrick,” Elena politely spoke while stepping through a door leading out of her subordinate’s void-dimension, and into the front lobby of a small, rundown doctor’s office. There were already several of the Ministry’s people poking around the corners, looking through the various observation rooms, and even breaking down a few of the walls in search of hidden safes. They paid no attention to her, as they were taught to. Not that they would have recognized the woman she was posing as under her illusion power anyway, but still. She preferred the people who worked for them be taught to ignore as much about them as possible. 

“How many?” she asked the man who had just stepped up beside her. 

“Three, we believe,” Alcazar replied. “This is the last one where the security sensors were tripped. Either they got better at avoiding them after that, or…” 

“Or they found what they were looking for,” Elena finished for him. “And all three belonged to Benjamin Pittman?” 

“That’s correct, ma’am,” he confirmed, glancing up as a couple men walked past carrying some equipment that would allow them to see through walls. “We believe the entire point of the original intrusion was to search for that list of facilities owned by Pittman when he was active. Armed with that list, they began to search them.” 

“Until they found this place, and whatever they were looking for inside.” Elena frowned slightly, considering that as a wave of thoughts passed through her mind. “Either they weren’t working for Pittman directly, or he forgot where he put the thing they needed.” 

“My guess,” Sterling put in while stepping up on the other side of her, “is that whoever these people are, they’re working for his other partners or investors. People he told enough about his project that they wanted to find something involved in it, but not enough to know specifics. Something we missed.” 

“But why wait this long?” Alcazar asked with a frown. “It’s been, what, over five years since Pittman was arrested and put on Breakwater? What changed?” 

Before Sterling could pose any guesses for that, one of the men called out from a supply closet. When the three of them moved that way, he stepped aside so they could see how the carpet was ripped away to reveal a trapdoor. 

“Alcazar,” Elena began, “do our files indicate which of our employees was tasked with searching and clearing this space five years ago?” 

“They do,” he confirmed. 

Her voice was flat. “They’re fired.” 

“The ahh, gold package, silver package, or… bronze package, ma’am?” Alcazar carefully asked. 

Studying the trap door, Elena exchanged a brief glance with her husband before answering. “We certainly aren’t setting them up for a rich life. Not gold. But I don’t believe they deserve to be killed for a mistake, either.” 

“The silver package then,” Sterling agreed. “Get Rook to erase their memories and set them up with new lives.” Another glance passed between husband and wife before he added, “Somewhere out of the city. We don’t need them here.” 

“After,” Elena put in, “you ensure that missing this wasn’t intentional. I want a full investigation into their lives. If there’s any sign that they were involved in this… bring the information to us.” 

With that established, the three descended the ladder to reach the large room below. A brief investigation later revealed the contents of the various freezers along the walls, as well as the presence of yet another, smaller hidden room at the far end. A room with a different metal tube inside, which had clearly been holding something. Another body, perhaps. 

Sterling put his hand close to the tube, eyes narrowing. “This is it. This is what they did all that for. Whatever was in this tube. A prototype for one of his creations?”  

“A dangerous weapon of some sort, whatever it is,” Elena agreed. Her gaze remained fixed on the tube, imagining what might have been kept inside. One of Pittman’s artificial bodies, certainly. They had dealt with enough of them already. Yet something about this seemed different. This was a hidden room inside of a hidden room, one that had been receiving power this whole time. From what they could tell given a brief examination of the thing, it had been active until very recently. Actively keeping its contents… well, alive probably wasn’t the right word. Unless it was. Well, yes, in fact. Even if the, for lack of a better word, brain of these creatures came from the installed cybernetic orbs, the bodies themselves were biological. 

Either way, she shook off the thought. What mattered was why this one in particular had been so special. 

“Maybe it was his,” Sterling mused. “Maybe it took Pittman this long to set up something like this to get his own new body back and transferred himself into it. Or–I don’t know how his tech works. Could he have uploaded his brain and sent it into this body?” 

The thought was enough to make Elena grimace. “If he did, he will start making a nuisance of himself very soon. Whatever was in here, we need to find it. And the people who did his bidding. But yes, I believe it’s safe to say that Pittman is behind this, at some level. Whether it is in a current, active fashion, or this is the result of someone picking up the pieces of his old work…. we need to find out.” 

Turning from Elena to Alcazar, Sterling ordered, “Have our people find out what’s happening on Breakwater. Do they know where Pittman is? What’s been going on over there lately? Just… see if anything is out of the ordinary.” 

“We don’t have the strongest contacts in Breakwater, getting any information will take a little while,” the other man carefully replied. 

Elena gave a slight nod. “We know you’ll do your best, Alcazar, thank you.” With that, she turned to her husband, gaze passing over the other equipment throughout the room. “Pittman being the source of that raid explains quite a lot. At least we know we don’t have some brand new threat to keep track of. Just an old one with some new help.” 

Sterling, meanwhile, raised a hand to press against the machine. “Have our people look into exactly what was in this thing. Or… who. We need to know whether this was Pittman or someone else. 

“And what face they’re wearing now.” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, okay then. Apparently there was a new member of the Minority. A pretty young one from what I could see. As murmurs came up all around the room, I stared a bit more intently at the girl in question. She wasn’t hiding her face or anything, but then again, it probably would have been hard for someone to mistake her for some other girl made of glass. The detail was incredible, even from here. She looked like an ice sculpture that had been carved by the best in the world. Well, if ice sculptures were capable of looking around, her eyes clearly shifting to scan the crowd. Again, the parts that were ‘skin,’ like her face and exposed hands, were clear, like regular glass or ice. The parts that were supposed to be her clothes were like stained glass. It was a pretty neat effect, especially the fact that she was very clearly alive and moving around. For a brief moment, I found myself caught up in just staring.

“Another child.” The voice was a murmur just above my head, and I belatedly realized that it was Lucent, muttering those two words with what sounded a bit like disappointment. Or possibly dismay. He didn’t elaborate further, however. Instead, he gave my helmet a very slight peck for attention before adding, “If you will pardon me, I have a few people to speak with. Do enjoy the party and I hope to see you soon.” Giving a short look toward Hallowed, he launched himself off my head and flew over to another side of the room. His motions got some people’s attention, but when they realized who it was, they just turned back to their business. Well, their business of staring at this new Minority girl who had so dramatically introduced herself. 

After those few seconds had passed, Silversmith raised his hand for attention before speaking up once more. “As always, we are incredibly grateful every time we are blessed with another addition to our young team. One of my greatest honors in this life has always been to see the way the youngest among us can grow and become truly remarkable heroes, protecting the innocent and vulnerable. Having this opportunity to watch their growth, and guide them into the type of stalwart champions this world deserves, is truly one of the most gratifying and humbling aspects of this job. Each and every one of these Minority kids are very special. They put their time and gifts toward helping to protect this city. And they risk far more than they have to.”

He let that hang in the air for a moment before speaking again. “But, I’m sure you’ve all heard me ramble on long enough. Well, for now anyway. I promise, you’ll be hearing more later. So much it might make some out of you consider withholding the donations you’ve pledged until they give this job to one of the other team leaders we’re fortunate enough to have with us tonight.” 

Once the scattered chuckles to that had died down, he continued. “Our new friend here has made it clear, in more than one way, that she would like to introduce herself. So, why don’t I just give her the chance to do that.” Stepping aside, he raised one hand as though to gesture for her to go ahead. At the same time, he turned a bit to look out into the crowd, and I followed his gaze before finding my parents. Yes, including my father. They were both sitting at one of the tables near the front, along with Kent and Mills Jackson, Tomas’s parents. Oh, and that Eric Abbot guy I had been introduced to right before I’d gotten the call from Pack to tell me that Eits had been attacked for looking into the name I’d asked him about. He was there too, though he didn’t have anyone else with him. All five were sitting at the table, watching what was going on intently. 

Well, that clearly answered the question of whether my dad was really in the Silversmith armor, at least. Though I still wondered if he was projecting his voice to it somehow, or just having someone else speak for him. It really could’ve gone either way. 

The urge to interrupt them and cause a distraction, just to see if anything happened to the Silversmith on stage, was incredibly strong. But somehow I doubted I could get away with that without causing suspicion. Besides, they had almost certainly already planned for anything that might take my father’s attention off his other self. I’d risk exposing myself for no real benefit. 

By that point, the new girl, Fragile, had stepped up to take center-stage. As she did so, a small tornado of glass emerged from behind the nearby curtain, flying up in front of her before transforming into a podium, and a small set of stairs for her to step up to it. So she wasn’t just made of glass, she could also manipulate it, and turn it into new things. It wasn’t like the glass shards were just vaguely in the shape of a podium. She had literally transformed them into a solid structure. 

“Wow,” Alloy murmured beside me, “that’s pretty fucking cool.”  

Her words made Hallowed, who had apparently been just as caught up as the rest of us, start a bit. I was pretty sure he had briefly forgotten that we were there in the first place. With a quick glance our way, he whispered something about showing us where to sit, then gestured for us to follow him as he started to move. Alloy and I glanced at one another before following. Meanwhile, Fragile was talking into the microphone, her voice filling the room. “Hi, everybody! It’s so cool to see you guys, and be here! Seriously, you have no idea how awesome this is. I have superpowers, isn’t it neat?!” With those words, the glass podium reformed into the shape of a horse that she was perched on top of. “And now I get to make my own pony, so I can stop bugging my dad!” That made a few people chuckle, before she shook her head. “But you know what? Horses are kind of lame. Alligators are better.” And sure enough, the glass horse transformed into a large alligator underneath her, its head swinging back and forth as its mouth opened and shut repeatedly to reveal large dagger-like teeth. 

The display of her powers made everyone clap a bit. And by then, Hallowed had led Alloy and me through the room. We were seen and recognized by a few people, who gave us whispered greetings, or just waved, to avoid interrupting. We waved back, a bit awkwardly, while keeping up with our guide. 

Soon, we found the table we were being led to. It was on the far side of the room, up closer to the stage but half-hidden by the orchestra pit. I knew it was where we were going because there were a bunch of other Touched already there. Unlike most of the tables, this one wasn’t circular and meant for only a few people. Instead, it was one of the long, rectangular tables, large enough to hold like thirty people. The Minority (or at least everyone aside from Carousel) were seated at the table, as were most of the Conservators and Spartans. 

As we approached, I could see every member of the Minority, especially Raindrop and That-A-Way, staring very intently at the girl onstage. But they weren’t the only ones. The Conservators and Spartans were pretty focused that way too. Something told me this was as much of a surprise for the people here as it had been for everyone else. Which seemed a bit odd to me. Did my dad really just put this girl on the team without telling any of the other Star-Touched in town until just now? 

Not just odd, actually. Suspicious. But… she was just a kid. She couldn’t be working for the Ministry or–fuck, I was really getting paranoid about this. Or maybe I wasn’t paranoid enough. I seriously couldn’t tell. 

When she saw us approach, Izzy whispered something to Amber before nodding subtly toward a couple seats across from them. Amber openly gestured for us to come that way. So, Alloy and I did just that. We took a second to thank Hallowed for the invitation, before moving over there. I took the seat across from Amber, while Alloy sat next to me and across from Izzy. The seats on our opposite sides were both empty for the moment. The way the table was set up, the Minority people (and the rest of us) were at one end, while the Conservators were at the other end on the side the Minority were seated on, and the Spartans were at that end on the other side (the one Alloy and I were seated on). Well, three members of the Spartans were, anyway. Brumal, Skin-Head, and Versed were there, while the large, rock-formed Boulderdash with his big armadillo/turtle-like shell was seated on a special reinforced chair at the very end of the table. He wouldn’t fit sitting in a normal seat like the others. 

Meanwhile, the Conservators who were here consisted of Dynamic, Kriegspiel, RePete, and Bokor. Four members of the Spartans and four of the Conservators were attending this thing. Also Silversmith, of course, who was still standing back on the stage to watch that Fragile girl. Or at least, the person posing as Silversmith was. Or my father’s empty armor with a voice–never mind. It was complicated. 

Either way, as soon as we sat down, I met Amber’s gaze and gave a little wave. “Looks like you guys have a new teammate, huh?” 

It was Syndicate (or at least the one who was physically sitting here) who spoke up from his spot two down from That-A-Way. “I’d say good because we need the help, but she looks a little young.” He glanced down the table toward Raindrop before adding, “Uh, no offense.”  

Whamline, seated between him and Amber, reached around the girl beside him to pat Izzy on the back. “If she’s anything like our Raindrop, our team just got a huge upgrade. The kid’ll be saving our butts in no time.” 

Wobble, seated on the far side of Syndicate, looked toward Alloy and me. “I think what my teammates are trying to say is hi, glad you could make it. Sorry, I guess we’re just a little surprised by this whole thing.” He nodded toward the stage, where Silversmith was just stepping up by Fragile to put a hand on her shoulder and guide her down off the stage. And, as it happened, toward the rest of us. The audience was applauding, while several photographers took a few pictures. The same photographers noticed Alloy and me sitting with the Minority and snapped pictures our way too. Peyton immediately made a noise deep in her throat and turned away as though afraid of being recognized, before clearly remembering that her face was covered. I felt her embarrassment and put a hand on her arm before giving the girl a quick nod, trying to be encouraging. That was probably the right thing to do, wasn’t it?

By that point, Silversmith and Fragile had reached the table. He kept his hand on her shoulder, looking at the rest of us. “Ah, sorry for the little ambush about all this. It felt like a fun surprise at the time, but in hindsight, maybe we should have let you guys meet in private.” With a self-conscious cough (or at least a put-on one), he gestured. “Anyway, everybody, this is Fragile.” To the girl herself, he added, “Fragile, meet your new teammates. And the others you’ll be learning from.” One by one, he introduced everyone on all three teams by name, while guiding the girl around to sit next to Izzy. “I’ll let you guys all get acquainted. But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other away from here. For now, just ahh, have a good time.” With that, he patted the glass-girl’s shoulder once before stepping away to go back up on stage, where one of the city’s politicians was already starting to give a speech of his own. 

Now I was getting a closer look at her face, and it was even more detailed than I had thought it was before. That really shouldn’t have surprised me, of course. Seriously, her body was literally made out of glass. Why wouldn’t it be detailed? It was her face. Still, it was kind of fascinating to see. Especially when she turned a bit to look straight at me and offered a bright smile. “Hi! You’re Paintball! You’re so cool. I was gonna ask to join your team, but I didn’t know if you were hiring or anything. Is hiring the right word? I dunno, but you’re not really open to new membership, and besides, my dad really wants me to be on the Minority, cuz he says they can keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t get in trouble. He said you have a habit of finding your way into trouble you shouldn’t be in, which is silly cuz I think the trouble really finds you. But I said that and he said that didn’t really change the point that you and trouble are really close and he wants me to be here instead, I mean on the team with–” 

In mid-sentence, she turned to look at Izzy sitting next to her, then leaned over to see the rest of the Minority watching her. “Hi, guys!” She gave a happy wave once more. “Sorry, that was probably pretty rude, huh? I didn’t mean I didn’t want to be on a team with you guys. I just meant that–uhh…” A slight red tint came over her clear glass face as she tried to find the right words.

“It’s okay,” Amber immediately assured her. “Trust me, we know how cool Paintball is. Maybe with you onboard, you can help us try to recruit him and his new partner over to the team.” She offered me a wink while saying it. Of course, Amber had to keep looking as though she was trying to get me to join. It would have been suspicious otherwise. And the last thing we wanted to do was make the Ministry at all suspicious about what she knew.

“Sorry,” I replied as casually as possible, “still just a lone wolf over here.” At a cough from Peyton, I shifted and amended, “Or a duo wolf. Dual wolves? Actually even that’s not true. We uhh–we’re a very small pack. A–never mind. Hey, look at it this way, being separate like this means that we can play back up for you guys. And vice-versa. Trust me, we’re gonna need your help a lot.” 

Syndicate focused on me. “Hey, that’s right. Way was saying that you came up with your own new team or something? Even had a name.”  

“Is that right?” The new voice was Dynamic, speaking up from further down the table. She had turned a bit to face us and was giving a little wave our way. “Hey there. Good to finally get to talk in person. I mean, after all the stuff you’ve been into, I feel like I should be asking for your autograph.” 

RePete, seated beside her, raised a hand as well. “Hey, me too. My niece would kill for a Paintball autograph, especially if it was a signed picture. Actually, I’m pretty sure she’d kill me for one, which makes me a little jealous, cuz I used to be her favorite.” 

Their words had attracted the attention of the rest of the adults down there, and now we had both the Conservators and Spartans looking at us. Which made me want to squirm a bit uncomfortably at all the attention. It was one thing to be out on the street showing off for crowds, in or out of costume. I was accustomed to doing crazy (even stupid) shit for the hell of it. But here, sitting at a table with a bunch of costumed heroes who were all looking at me like I was one of them? That was a lot to take. Beside me, I was pretty sure Peyton was feeling pretty much the same, if not worse. Probably worse. But I pushed the thought aside and embraced my role. Paintball wouldn’t be embarrassed here. 

“I’ll trade you any autographs you want, one for one,” I quickly found myself replying. “But believe me, I’m pretty sure yours is worth a lot more than mine. So really, I’m making out like a bandit.”  

That prompted a couple soft chuckles, and some actual official introductions were passed back and forth. The adults at the table were all pretty laid back, though Brumal remained a bit standoffish. Or maybe that was just my impression. She didn’t say very much and seemed distracted. But the rest of her teammates who were there made up for it. Skin-Head, Boulderdash, and Versed were all really friendly and quick to make jokes. Boulderdash in particular had a very distinctive roaring laugh that he had to muffle a few times when people from other tables shushed him because people on stage were still talking. 

And that was another thing. There were important people up there. Important as far as the city went. They were giving long speeches about donating money to the Seraphs and their related organizations, basically patting themselves and each other on the back for all the good they were doing. But no one at this table was actually paying any attention to them. We were all talking amongst ourselves (albeit in whispers) and basically ignoring that whole situation over there. It wasn’t what I had expected when we came here, but I wasn’t going to complain either. I would much rather talk to a bunch of Touched than listen to self-important rich blowhards. After all, I’d been doing the latter since… well, basically since I could talk. 

The others all wanted to know what was up with our supposed new name and all that too, so Alloy and I exchanged glances before I put my hand out onto the table. As they watched, I made the name appear there in bold red letters, just like I had on the wall of Wren’s shop. Avant-Guard

“Okay,” Versed announced while pointing to it. “That’s a cool name. You’re not accepting new members after all, are you?” She was clearly teasing, and grunted as Boulderdash nudged her. “What, I didn’t say I wouldn’t take you with me, big guy.” 

Snickering despite myself, I held up both hands. “Before any of you get eager about jumping over to this side, I should probably point out that we don’t exactly offer a salary or benefits.” 

Versed immediately made a show of grumbling. “Oh, well in that case, I think I’ll stick to this team.” She looked around, frowning. “Huh. I was going to tell the boss that he’s lucky, but he’s not here. As usual.” The last bit came in a muttered voice that made me blink that way. It sounded as though she was a little annoyed with Silversmith, which… huh. 

It also made me think of something else, and I quickly asked, “How come not everyone’s here? I mean, where’s Carousel? And uhh, Flea and Trivial. Are they around here somewhere?” I had noticed that both the Spartans and Conservators had a missing member earlier, and this felt like the best time to bring that up. 

“Flea had some personal business to take care of out of town,” Kriegspiel informed me. “She’s on leave for a few days. Not the best timing, but you know. Shit happens when it happens. Ah, sorry, stuff happens when it happens.” 

“I’ve heard the word before, it’s okay,” I assured him, before giving a double-take toward Raindrop and Fragile. “Oh. Right. I’m not the only one sitting here.” 

“I’ve heard it too,” Izzy put in, her voice dry.

“Anyway,” Brumal announced with a short clearing of her throat. “Trivial took a little time off as well, to help out with Flea’s situation. And I’m sure if they need anyone else, they will ask for it.” That was said in the direction of Skin-Head, who had started to say something. Clearly, that was a bit of a long-standing argument between the two of them.

“And Carousel just stayed home tonight,” Wobble informed me. “She needed the night off to spend with some friends who came in from out of town or something. So, you know, she’s just chilling out, playing games, while we’re stuck here watching…” He gestured up to the front. “This.” 

“I don’t know about you,” Amber corrected him, “but I haven’t been watching it for about twenty minutes now.” She looked down the table toward Fragile before adding, “And that was some entrance.” 

Giggling, the girl shifted in her seat. “Yeah? Sorry, I didn’t tell Silversmith about that, or my dad, or… anyone. I just thought it’d be cool to see everyone’s reactions.” 

“Well, it was definitely an exciting introduction,” Wobble confirmed. “I don’t think anyone will forget about it anytime soon.” 

And then it was time for yet another rich, important blowhard to talk. Specifically, my father. As the others continued to chatter, I noticed him get up from the table, give my mother a brief kiss, then start up to the stage. My eyes followed him, and I sat up a bit reflexively. 

There was a strong impulse to stand up and shout out questions about how he divided his attention between his regular business pursuits, leading the Conservators, and being the leader of the secret organization that ran all crime in the city. I didn’t do that, of course.

But boy, was it tempting. 

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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 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 that 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. 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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