Owen Kright

Interlude 11B – Robert and Pencil (Summus Proelium)

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Four Years Ago

With the steady sound of tires gliding across uneven pavement, a wheelchair rolled across the dark, empty parking lot toward the front of the member’s only warehouse store. Its occupant, Robert Parson, was incredibly tall when standing. At his full height, the dark-skinned man was a solidly built six feet, eight inches. Which meant that even seated as he was now, he cut quite an impressive figure, and his eye level remained higher than many even when they were standing.

The wheelchair wasn’t electric. Nor was it one of those Tech-Touched brain-operated models. No, it was an old-school, manual chair, propelled by Robert’s own heavily-muscled arms as he pushed the wheels to guide himself right up the ramp and to the front doors of the store. 

Despite being automatic doors, they were locked and didn’t open. As he sat in that wheelchair, Robert considered those stubbornly motionless doors for a moment before slowly leaning up. His hand stretched out, and he gave three firm, loud knocks against the metal part of the door. The sound rang out around him and he could hear it within the store itself through the glass.  

Instantly, the beam of a powerful flashlight appeared from inside, pointed right at his eyes. It came quickly enough that Robert had no doubt the person on the other side of it, hidden in the dark recesses just beyond the store’s entrance area, had been watching him the whole time, waiting for the man to announce himself like that. He also had no doubt that there was some kind of gun on the other side of that light as well, if he had tried to break in quietly.

For a moment, nothing else happened. There was silence, while that blinding light was shown directly into his eyes. Finally, the light dimmed slightly, and a figure appeared in front of it. The figure moved to stand in front of the door, staring at Robert. Then the seated man heard a quiet chuckle, before a hand reached out to touch a control on one side of the door. It finally slid open with a hiss, as the man within stepped aside with a grand gesture for the new arrival to enter. 

With a single push against the wheels, Robert sent the chair into the store, then made the chair turn to face the figure who had let him in. Finally, he was able to look the other man in the face.

Well, sort of. The man wore a mask, a sackcloth bag of sorts that left his eyes and mouth exposed. Beyond that, he wore a brown tweed suit that didn’t fit properly, with black gloves. In one of those gloves, the man held a heavy-duty pistol. It was already pointed at Robert. “So you’re the guy they sent in, huh? Took you fucking long enough to get here,” he complained. “What’d they do, have the cash flown in from Chicago? 

“You call yourself Pencil, right?” Robert prompted, ignoring both the complaint and the gun leveled right at his face. “That’s what people keep saying anyway. Pencil, the invincible. Or is it Pencil, the immune?”

The response from the other man was a snicker. “Tell you the truth, I prefer Pencil the humble and charming,” he drawled with obvious amusement before giving a vague wave of his free hand, the gun never wavering from its target, “but for now, we’ll go with the most important title: Pencil, the man in charge. And I’ve gotta say, when I told the Krights to send just one guy who wouldn’t make me nervous, I wasn’t expecting them to embrace the goal so much. I mean, a wheelchair? They send in a guy in a wheelchair? Now that is commitment to the cause.” 

He trailed off, lifting his chin thoughtfully. “Course, if you weren’t in that chair, big guy like you might be a bit more of a concern. But I suppose I don’t have anything to worry about, long as you’re stuck there.” Pausing, he added in a curious tone, “So which is it? You trying to trick me, or do you really need that thing? Come on, you can tell me. We can be friends and sort this out.” 

Robert spoke flatly, his words gruff as he watched the man’s reaction. “Spine injury. Paraplegic.” From everything he’d already heard, he was positive that this ‘Pencil’ wasn’t nearly as old as others thought he was. No, he wasn’t a man at all. Not in the sense of being an adult. He was a teenager. Robert was pegging him at somewhere between sixteen and seventeen, though he’d be more confident if that mask wasn’t there. Of course, a lot of things would be different without the mask, and the power that it symbolized. 

“Shit, really?” Pencil shook his head. “That sucks, man. Unless–” His free hand snapped down, a small blade somehow appearing in his grip as he stabbed it into Robert’s thigh while pushing the pistol right up against his chin expectantly. “–you’re fucking lying!” 

A brief pause followed, while he stared into Robert’s eyes, waiting for a reaction to the pain of the blade in his leg. When none came, he slowly chuckled, before straightening. The knife came free. “Well! Okay then, I guess we’re all good, huh? Glad to see we’re on the same page.” 

With that, he pivoted and started to walk. His hand moved to grab a nearby roll of gauze, which he tossed over his shoulder to the seated man. “Might wanna wrap that up, big guy.” 

The fact that this Pencil, a freak who had started playing his psychotic games through the city a few months earlier, had had gauze ready and waiting, showed that he’d always been prepared to stab whoever came through that door. Probably as a way of making a point about who was in control of the situation. Robert considered that, adding it to what he knew about this kid while pressing the gauze pad against the wound in his leg. It auto-bonded, the sides sticking to his jeans while the middle part sealed itself to the actual wound. At least that meant he wouldn’t get blood all over the chair. 

Once that was done, he gave a shove to the wheels to send himself after the waiting Pencil. “The kid,” he said flatly, “where is he?”

“See, here’s the thing,” Pencil retorted, “I’m pretty sure I demanded money in exchange for the kid. And call me crazy, but I’m just not seeing how you can keep a million dollars stashed in your pockets. What’re you doing, sitting on it? Please tell me you’re not sitting on it. Cuz this whole business venture here is just gonna seem like it’s not worth it if my money’s got your butt on it.”

In response, Robert held up one hand, then used two fingers to carefully reach into his pocket while the other man watched him intently. Slowly, he withdrew a leather bag and gave it a light toss that way. “There’s half.” 

Catching the bag, Pencil curiously opened it, pouring out a handful of diamonds with a low whistle. 

“That’s five hundred thousand worth right there,” Robert informed him. “There’s an identical bag in my other pocket. You get that after I get the boy. Then we all get out of here.” 

“Well, well, how wonderfully shiny.” Shoving the bag of diamonds in his own pocket, Pencil gave a grand gesture. “In that case, let’s not dilly dally. I’m sure the Krights want their boy back.” Clicking his heels together, he started walking deeper into the store. “And what do I call you, for being such a fine, upstanding mediator in all this?” 

“Just a man doing a favor,” Robert informed him simply, rolling after the psychotic superpowered killer. “You said no Stars, no Shields. I’m neither.” 

Giving what was obviously an amused grin over his shoulder as they moved together through the store, Pencil cracked, “Yeah, I suppose I would’ve heard about the amazing paraplegic man if you were Touched, eh?” Snickering to himself, he finally put a hand out to stop Robert. “Right here’s good.” Raising his voice, Pencil called, “Hey kid! Step out into sight, would ya?!” 

While Robert watched intently, a fourteen-year-old boy with brown hair hesitantly stepped out of one of the aisles ahead of them, maybe sixty feet away. He was gagged, and both of his wrists were handcuffed to a chain, which itself was wrapped around the thick metal pole holding up the shelves of that aisle. 

“There’s the kid, just like I promised,” Pencil announced. “Owen Kright, ready and waiting to go right back to his precious mommy and daddy. And this,” he held up a key, “goes to those cuffs. I’ll trade you for that other bag of yours, then I’ll run on out of here while you go unlock the kid. Everyone ends up happy. And, more importantly, not dead.” An obvious grin stretched across his face, visible through the hole in the mask. “What do you say, pal?” 

“What do I say…?” For a moment, Robert looked at the handcuffed, gagged boy. There was obvious terror in his eyes, even from this distance. The kid was scared shitless. It reminded Robert of another, younger child who had been frightened like that, just a year earlier. A kid who still meant an awful lot to him, even if he wasn’t her bodyguard anymore.

Finally, he looked back to the masked man and met those eyes, peering at him through the jagged holes. His voice was even as he replied, “I think you’ve been breaking the rules of this city for too long, and it’s about time that someone show you there are consequences to that.”  

Pencil’s immediate reaction was a slightly lifted chin, his gaze regarding the other man with renewed interest. “Oooh, what city rules am I breaking? Is it the kidnapping? The ransom demand? Wait, no, shit, I’ve got it. It must be the eight store employees laying in pieces in the back room over there, isn’t it?” Adopting a chagrined tone, he lamented, “I always forget about the ‘don’t chop people up and strew their bodies over the back room’ rule.” A toothy smile appeared through the hole in the mask. “One of these days, that’s gonna get me in trouble.” 

“One of these days,” Robert agreed in a dry voice, before adding, “And you broke the rules of the Ministry. That’s a bad idea.” 

“The Ministry, the Ministry, all I keep hearing about every time I try to have a little fun is the Ministry.” Pencil’s head shook with annoyance. “What’s the point of being a bad guy if you follow all these little rules, hmm? Which one was this, no kidnapping teenagers after Labor Day? Wait, is Labor Day the one in the spring or the fall? Fuck, I always mix that one up with Memorial Day. Wait, Memorial Day is Maymorial Day. May. May, I was right the first time. No kidnapping after Labor Day?” 

“Some of these rich people,” Robert informed him, “they pay what you’d call a special tax. Makes their kids safe from the Fells in the city. Because the Fells, like you, know that the second they break the rules and go after one of those protected kids, that’s when the Ministry steps in. You broke that rule. That kid over there, the Krights pay their taxes. He’s protected. You should’ve left him alone. Now, I’ve been asked to step in.” 

Clapping his hands together once with a sound of put-on fear, Pencil replied in a terribly shaking voice. “Ohh no, Paraplegic Man is gonna punish me for not playing by some asinine rules. Whatever will I do?” Snickering to himself, he leaned over a bit while taunting, “Would it help you be more intimidating if I got a little closer to that chair you’re stuck in?” 

It was Robert’s turn to offer a very faint, humorless smile. His voice was a quiet, barely audible murmur, “Now, who said I was stuck in it?” 

The moment those words reached Pencil and he started to react, Robert’s hand lashed out as he rose from the seat. He grabbed the Fell-Touched by the collar of his suit and bodily yanked him over. Before he knew what was happening, Pencil was shoved into the wheelchair while a pair of heavy shackles were yanked from Robert’s pockets and latched over the psychopath’s wrists to trap him there. It happened so quickly and smoothly that Pencil was already seated and cuffed to the chair by the time he was actually able to react to the sudden motion. Belatedly, his foot lashed out to kick at the larger man, but Robert had already stepped backward. His movement was no more hindered from the old spinal injury (which had already been addressed by the finest medical experts and equipment that money could buy) than it was by the knife stab that he had intentionally shown no reaction to in order to carry on the ruse.

Jerking against the shackles, Pencil gave a loud laugh that sounded more annoyed than amused. “Oh, you think something like this is gonna hold me, big man?” Despite his words, the psychopath couldn’t move from that spot. The chair was suddenly much more rooted to the floor than it had been, and refused to budge. 

“Nope,” Robert replied with a slight headshake. “Probably not for long. Not with all those Tech toys you’ve been stealing. I figure one of the first things you did was grab something that could get you out of a tight spot. Something to teleport away, something to phase out of those cuffs, probably both. And other bullshit tricks, more than I could shake a really big stick at. “But before you do anything drastic, tell me, you hear a click when you sat in that thing?” 

The masked boy’s head slowly tilted, while he considered the question. “If you’re saying there’s a mine in this chair, we need to have a chat about how my power works.” 

“Not a mine in the chair, no,” Robert agreed. “That wouldn’t accomplish shit. but you know how you bitched about how long it took me to get here? I could’ve made it sooner, but you see, something occurred to me before I ever came to this place. You’re not just in it for the ransom.” 

Clearly still annoyed, yet curious about where the man was going with that (and confident beyond the point of arrogance that he couldn’t be hurt thanks to his power), Pencil managed to shift a bit until he was almost lounging in the wheelchair despite being cuffed to it. “I’m not?” Another toothy smile appeared. “This sounds like a fun theory you’ve cooked up. Do tell.” He obviously wasn’t worried about actually being trapped, given his prepared defenses against similar scenarios. 

“See,” Robert informed him, “all that stuff I said a minute ago about the whole rules about not targeting rich people’s kids? You knew that already. You chose that kid over there for a reason. It wasn’t random. It wasn’t an accident. You chose that kid because you knew it would get the Ministry’s attention. Because you wanted that kid’s parents to run to the Ministry and get them involved. You like to play magician, Pencil. You like to play ‘look over here’ while your little assistant does the real trick behind the curtain.” 

“And what assistant d–” Pencil started. 

Robert interrupted with, “Seven-Three-Eight-Five Abalone Drive West. Suite Thirty-Six.” 

For the first time, Pencil did a double-take of genuine surprise, blurting, “How do you–” 

“You’ve been looking for those records for a long time, haven’t you?” Robert asked, shaking his head. “Two different kidnappings, a hostage crisis at a grocery store, and a bar brawl that escalated into mass murder, all in under two months. And during each and every one of those events, where you stayed longer than you had to, a different office that holds adoption records was broken into by a young woman who was just… so distracting. Four different offices. But they were all the wrong ones. They didn’t have the records the two of you were looking for, did they? They didn’t have the records of what happened to the baby that Collette and Shane Elbrecht gave away. Collette and Shane Elbrecht,” he added thoughtfully, “two of your first victims, from almost a year ago.” 

After a brief pause to judge the silent masked boy’s reaction, Robert continued. “But they weren’t random either, were they? You stole something out of their house. A box, one you want to get into pretty badly. But you didn’t realize it was DNA-locked until after you killed them. Can’t break into it without destroying whatever’s inside. And you can’t use a dead person to open it. You need a living relative to open that box. And you’re so desperate to get whatever’s inside, when you found out those two gave away a baby years back, you just had to get the files to find out where they ended up.” 

Obviously taken aback by how much the strange man knew, Pencil managed, “You put a lot together on your way over here, old man.” 

“Didn’t just put it together on my way over,” Robert informed him, reaching into his jacket pocket before withdrawing a manila folder with some papers, which he opened to show the masked figure a brief glimpse of. “I stopped at the office and grabbed the file before your girl could get there. Deleted the computer file too, just in case. Which makes this the only copy left.” He waved the folder idly. “I’d wager she’s still looking through all those boxes as we speak.” 

Eyes zeroing in on the file, Pencil slowly announced, “You know what, heh. Good show. But you give me that file and I’ll let you walk out of here with the kid and the gems. All I want is that file. Hell, you hand it over and we could all be friends.” 

“Friends, huh?” Robert appeared to consider that for a moment. Then he shook his head. “Nah.” With that, the man produced a lighter, holding it up to the folder. In seconds, the papers within were engulfed in flames. 

“You fucking cocksucker!” The scream of rage tore its way out of Pencil’s throat, before he blurted an obvious command word for stolen Touched-Tech, “Sideslip!” For an instant, it worked. The masked figure was abruptly standing a few feet away from the wheelchair, no longer handcuffed. But in the next instant, he was engulfed in white flames, before abruptly disappearing entirely with a scream of surprise. 

Turning on his heel while dropping the remnants of the file to the floor as they turned to ash, Robert walked to where Owen Kright was, reaching out to take the gag off the boy. 

“Wha–what just–what’d you do?!” Owen blurted, eyes wide with shock. 

“Didn’t give him diamonds, I’ll tell you that much,” Robert replied. “Serclin Stones, named after the guy who makes them. They… react volatilely to any kind of Travel powers. Even Tech-Touched-based ones. Makes them explode and screw with the Travel power that set them off. That guy could be anywhere in the state right now.” 

“But,” the boy stammered, “what was the click when he sat in the chair? You said it wasn’t a mine, but… but what was it?”

“What, that?” Robert showed the boy a small smile. “Nothing. There was no click. But he wasn’t about to admit he didn’t hear it when I implied there was one, and it made him shut up trying to figure it out long enough for me to get through what I needed to do.

“Now come on, let’s get you out of here. I’ve got a guy named Kent who’d like to have a quick word with you before you go back to your parents.” 

*******

Two hours later, fifteen-year-old Amanda Sanvers, known to the public as Cup, sat in the back of a diner, watching a couple late night news talking heads blather on about the latest Collision Point. Apparently some idiots actually worshipped those Abyssal monsters. 

She glanced over as her beloved brother made his way to the booth and slumped down in it. His voice was dark. “It was right there. We almost had it.” 

“He read the file,” Amanda assured him gently, hand moving over to squeeze Nick’s arm. “We just need to get info out of him. We’ll find out where that kid was adopted off to, and open the box. We just gotta be a little patient.” 

“What we need,” Nick informed her, “is some more help. This two person act thing isn’t cutting it. We need some more lackeys. We need partners. The Ministry, all these other gangs, even the heroes, they’ve all got gangs. We need a team. But not a boring one. We need a bunch of really fucked up people we can use for cannon fodder and entertainment, babe. But where are we gonna find people like that?” 

Lifting her chin, Amanda nodded to the television. “How about right there?” 

He looked that way, coughing once. “Typhon? Sweetness, I’m good, but I’m not ‘talk an Abyssal  into doing our bidding’ good.” 

It was Amanda’s turn to grin. “Not the Abyssal. All those dumbass fucks they’ve got lined up to worship him. Those stupid fucking Abyssal cults. They seem good for a laugh.”

For a moment, Nick didn’t respond. He watched the news going on about the people who were obsessed with the Abyssals in general, and the one called Typhon in particular. Finally, he chuckled low. “My sweet, sweet sister. 

“Sometimes, you have the most amazing ideas.”

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Fault 10-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Apparently, it wasn’t exactly easy to find out where a retired security agent slash bodyguard to the rich and powerful like Robert Parson lived. He didn’t have an address listed online, a Facebook profile, or anything like that. Probably because being in that line of work tended to introduce you to a lot of people who would do very bad things with that kind of information. 

Still, Eits promised he could get me something soon. It would just take awhile. So, for the moment, I was stuck on that front. Just like I was stuck on most fronts. Aside from getting the details about that guard guy’s son (his name was Matthew Orens, while his son was Josh) so I could make up a storybook for him. 

Other than that, I still had to find out what was up with Paige, but had no idea of how to get information out of her when she hated my civilian self and wanted to protect my Touched self. I had no idea how to sneak into that mall base without getting caught so I could find out more about my family that way. And Tomas’s dad was still holed up in meetings in their house, making snooping around there totally impossible. 

So, that was my situation as of two days (now Friday of the first week in April) after my first time at Seraph HQ. Basically, I was in a holding pattern for the moment on everything. Which was kind of okay in some ways, because I had a shit load of homework to do. And I had to do it, or Mom and Dad would wonder what was keeping me so busy that I couldn’t keep up with my classes. Which I really didn’t want them to do. They had to keep thinking that my life was completely normal, boring, safe, and all that. 

To that end, I was sitting in the library during lunch hour, poring over some notes while filling in a worksheet for math. I was so focused on the problems on the page in front of me (and the much more personal problems filling up an entire vault in the back of my head) that I didn’t notice the other problem make her way into the library until she was right up at the edge of the table. 

“Aww, look at this,” Paige announced to a couple of the random cronies who liked to follow her around looking for scraps, “a little boy wandered into school and got lost.” She adopted a tone like she was talking to a child then, leaning in with wide, expressive eyes. “Hiya, little buddy. Are you sure you shouldn’t be with the rest of the seventh grade in the other school? This…” She made an exaggerated encompassing motion with her finger. “… is the big people library.” 

I counted to three before responding, but it didn’t help. Maybe I should’ve counted longer. Or not engaged at all. Instead, I plastered a fake smile to my face and turned to look at the taller girl. “Wow! Library! That’s a big word, Paige!” My voice dropped, turning dark. “Can you spell it?” 

The glare that she shot right back at me was almost chilling. “Sure,” the girl all-but snarled. “Library. It starts with L. As in…” She reached out to poke me firmly in the forehead. “Loser.” 

Okay, I definitely should have left it alone there. I should’ve gotten up and walked away. That was the right thing to do, the mature thing to do. I, however, did not do the right, mature thing. It was just… too much. Everything I’d taken in lately, everything I’d found out and was putting up with, the stress of having no idea what to do next about any of it, was just… it was too much.

So, I did what I really shouldn’t have. I took a swing at her. Lunging up from the chair and turning, I lashed out with a wild punch. Paige, taken completely by surprise, took the punch on her cheek and reeled with a yelp. She tripped over her own feet and fell backward, her hand reflexively grabbing for something and catching my extended arm to pull me down as well. She hit the floor on her back a second before I landed on top of her, still surprised not only by that little fall, but also by the fact that I’d swung at her at all. I hadn’t meant to do that. 

Before I could recover (and while Paige herself still looked totally shocked by the whole situation), two different people grabbed me by the shoulders and arms to pull me off of the other girl. One was Mandy, one of Paige’s devoted lackeys/’friends.’ The other was just some slightly older guy, a senior who had been studying a couple tables over before all this started.

What in the hell is going on over here?” The demanding voice came from one of the senior year teachers, a pot-bellied man with short blond hair wearing a dark suit with red suspenders visible through the open jacket. He was already walking (more like stalking) our way, looking between Paige and me as her other friend helped the girl up. “Just what do you kids think you’re doing?” 

Still breathing hard, I felt a rush of embarrassment and horror wash over me. What the hell was I doing? How did I let this happen? Why would I–damn it! My only solace was that at least I hadn’t been stupid enough to use any powers in my anger, but still. Taking a swing at Paige, actually hitting her? How was that going to help anything? What the hell was wrong with me?

Before I could actually find my voice, Paige actually spoke. “Nothing,” she said flatly, drawing surprised looks not only from me, but from the teacher and both lackeys too. One of the other girls opened her mouth to say something, only to get quickly elbowed by the one next to her. 

The teacher raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me, Miss Banners? Are you really trying to tell me that you and Miss Evans here weren’t just brawling across the floor of the library a moment ago?”

Somehow, I restrained the urge to reflexively agree with the man about how baffling that claim was. The senior student, who had still been holding my arm up to that point, released me and stepped out of the way, shrugging helplessly at the teacher as though he was just as confused. 

Paige, meanwhile, simply gave a short nod. “It’s no big deal. We weren’t fighting. Cassidy over there just jumped up too fast, we collided, and fell down.” She gave me a very brief look before turning back to the man, her voice careless and disinterested. “Her head hit my face. It was a dumb accident.” Eyes shifting back toward me to squint a bit, she added pointedly, “Wasn’t it?” 

I honestly had no idea why she was doing this. It was her big chance to actually get me in trouble. She hadn’t hit me first or anything. I had totally and completely started the actual physical fight. Hell, Paige hadn’t actually hit me at all. And she had three witnesses (two of whom were her friends, but I was pretty sure she didn’t even know the older boy) to back that up. Yet, despite all that, she was claiming this wasn’t a fight at all. Why would she do that? Why? What was her angle? 

Realizing everyone was looking at me, I belatedly gave a short nod. Confused as I was (and while part of me thought this might be a trap of some kind), there was no way I was going to argue right now. My voice was tight. “Yeah,” I managed to get out. “It was just an accident.” 

From the way he looked between us, I was almost positive that the teacher didn’t actually buy that. For a moment, it seemed like he was trying to decide if this was worth pursuing when both of us were claiming it wasn’t a fight. In the end, he must’ve decided against it, because the man just gave a short nod. “Fine. It was just an accident then. But…” He looked at me, squinting. “Let’s see if we can try to avoid any more of these accidents for awhile, shall we, Miss Evans?” 

Meeting his gaze, I swallowed slightly before nodding. I definitely agreed with that. As angry and frustrated as Paige tended to make me, I couldn’t just go around attacking her. Even if she totally deserved that punch and maybe a few–no, Cassidy, stop it right now. Shutting down that line of thought, I made myself answer as politely as possible, “Yes, sir. I’ll be more careful.” 

Accepting that after watching me for a long moment, the teacher replied, “See that you do. Because if something like this comes up again, I promise you that the other faculty will know where it started. And we won’t let it go again.” With that warning, the man turned to walk out of the library, grabbing his briefcase satchel off the table where he’d dropped it on his way over. 

Once he was gone, the older student who had helped pick me up looked at me. “Uh, you…” He paused, trying to decide how much he should say before eventually settling on, “You good?” 

I nodded, not trusting my voice, and the boy turned toward Paige. “For the record, I don’t know what your game is, but you totally had that punch coming. I think–” Stopping himself, the boy finally shook his head. “Whatever, I’m not getting into the drama. Just stop being a bitch.” 

He left then as well, walking out of the room. Halfway out, however, the boy stopped and frowned before looking back at me. “Hey, you coming?” He asked me. Clearly, he’d thought twice about leaving me alone in the library with Paige and her friends after what just happened. 

Honestly, he had a point. There was no way I was going to get anywhere with Paige right now. Not after I’d just hit her and she had a couple hangers-on standing around. She might’ve not wanted to escalate things to the school authorities for some reason (maybe just to keep herself out of the spotlight), but I was under no delusion that that would suddenly make us friends. In fact, I was pretty sure she was already planning out how to get her own form of revenge. 

So, I gave a short nod, grabbed my books from the table, and started out. On the way, I glanced back to Paige and her friends. All three were staring after me. The other two were glaring, their looks making it clear that they at least wanted to pay me back. Paige, on the other hand, looked different. Her expression was basically unreadable. She didn’t seem angry, more… curious? 

Whatever, maybe that just meant she was quietly plotting. Either way, I didn’t want to be in that room, so I followed the boy out to the hall, trying not to think about what would come next with Paige. The whole way, I was silently berating myself for losing my cool and taking that swing. 

“Hey,” the boy who was walking with me started as soon as we were out, “seriously, you okay? That chick really did have it coming for that shit in there, but uhh…” He paused, glancing at the now-closed doors of the library where Paige and her friends were. “I’d watch your back from now on. She and her minions don’t really strike me as people who just let stuff like that go.” 

As he spoke, I took another look at him. He was on the handsome side of things, though not quite as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as Tomas. Much taller than me, of course, but that wasn’t saying much. My best guess was that he was maybe an inch over six feet, with long brown hair that he wore in a ponytail. The school uniform (black pants, black blazer, and blue shirt) he was wearing had been personalized with a dark pink tie instead of the normal white one. People earned the right to wear different-colored ties (though the actual color still had to be approved by a faculty member) through various school services. It was a reward sort of thing. I wasn’t sure why he’d chosen to go with pink. 

“Uhh, yeah, probably not.” There was no need to get into the whole history between Paige and me (even the public version), so I just shrugged. “I’ll keep my eyes open.” Starting to turn, I stopped, looking back with an awkward, “Thanks for, you know, jumping in back there.” 

“No worries,” he replied. “You’re uh, Cassidy Evans, right?” His chin inclined. “I’m Owen Kright.” 

“Yup, that’s me,” I confirmed. It wasn’t surprising that he knew who I was. It wasn’t like my family was exactly private. “Wait, Owen Kright, didn’t you used to drive that awesome seventy-eight Firebird? I used to wait for you to pull in just so I could see it. What happened? I haven’t seen it in the lot lately.”

With a grimace, the boy replied, “Dad. Gotta get the grades back up or the car’s not the only thing I’ll be missing. That’s why I was in the library to begin with.” 

It was my turn to grimace. “Sorry we interrupted you then. Trust me, the last thing I want is to be responsible for keeping a hot thing like that off the streets.” 

His mouth opened, then shut as he coughed before shaking his head. “Don’t worry, like I said, it wasn’t your fault. But ahh, I do have to run if I’m gonna grab food before class starts. Mr. Tanners lets us bring food into class, but I kinda need to have the food to begin with.” 

“Oh, right, yeah.” Giving a quick nod, I waved him off. “Say no more. Flee for your food.” 

He started to, before slowing to look over his shoulder. “Hey, since you’re into that kind of thing, if I get my car back, maybe you can take it for a spin once you get your license. Let me know!” 

Waving blankly at him, I frowned thoughtfully to myself for a moment before shaking it off. The hallway was pretty busy, so I stepped into the passing line of people and headed for my own locker. 

With any luck, I could get through the rest of the day without any more confrontations with Paige. 

******

Luck was with me. Sort of. Enough that I didn’t have another run-in with Paige for the rest of the day (I saw her, but we ignored each other), but not enough that I actually got answers to any of the many problems I still had to deal with. Apparently ‘not making things even worse’ was going to have to be good enough. 

After being brought home by Jefferson, I thanked him and stepped out of the car in front of the house. Hearing a sound from behind me, I turned just in time to see Dad coming out of the front door, accompanied by another man. This guy basically seemed to embody ‘distinguished handsome’. He looked like George Clooney in his prime. He and my father were deep in conversation until they both saw me, then immediately stopped talking. 

“Ah, Eric, this is my daughter, Cassidy.” Dad gestured to me, then to the man. “Cassidy, this is Eric Abbot, a business associate.” 

“I’m surprised we haven’t met before,” Mr. Abbot announced, extending a hand to me. “Your father and I have been doing business for a long time.” 

Right, so which supervillain was he? That was the first thought that popped into my head, even as I accepted the man’s offered hand. Belatedly, I found my voice. “You must be friends then.” 

“Oh, I’d like to think so,” he replied, giving my hand a firm shake before releasing it. “Good enough friends that I know you’ll be getting your license soon. Your father says you’re bouncing off the walls about it.” 

With a soft chuckle, Dad spoke up. “Normally, anyway. I think the kid’s trying to play it cool lately to convince me she’s mature.” He pointed at me then. “But I’m onto you. I see all. Remember, I know when you’ve been bad or good.” 

“That’s Santa,” I pointed out mildly. 

“Yeah?” My father gave me a look. “And if you think that proves me wrong, have I got some interesting news for you, Sparky.” 

After another minute of back and forth (that actually made me even more sad as it went on for how much it made me think of the great times I’d had with my dad), the two of them excused themselves to head out. The last thing I heard between the two was Dad telling Mr. Abbot that he and ‘Melissa’ (his wife?) would have to come over for dinner some time. Then they got in the car with Jefferson and drove off. 

Shaking my head and muttering under my breath, I had just turned back to head into the house once more when my phone buzzed. Belatedly, I realized it was my extra phone, the one I used for Touched stuff. With a brief look around to make sure I was clear, I checked the text. It was from a number I didn’t recognize, reading, ‘Wtf did you do?’ Even as I stared at that in confusion, a second message came in from the same number. ‘It’s Pack. Call.’ 

What did I do? What did I do? Confused, I hesitated before turning away from the house. I trotted off the grounds, leaving through the gate with a wave to the guard there and an explanation that I was going for a walk. 

Only when I was safely away from home did I hit the button to dial the number Pack was calling from. And only while it was ringing did I think to quickly turn on the voice changer program. It came to life just as the phone was answered. “Paintball?” 

“Pack?” I replied after giving a quick look around the empty street. “What’s going on? Are you o–” 

“What the fuck did you say to Eits? What was he doing for you?” came the quick interruption. 

“Uhh, wait, what do you–” 

That was as far as I got before Pack pushed on. “Look, I’ll give you an address. You better get your ass down here. And you better be ready to explain what the hell is going on.

“Because whatever Eits was doing for you, some motherfuckers just beat the shit out of him because of it. Paintball, it’s… you… fuck, you just better get here soon. 

“He’s in really bad shape.”

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