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New Deals 13-05 (Summus Proelium)

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In case you missed it, there was a commissioned interlude focusing on a certain very special termite colony posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

I’d seen casinos in person before. Not that I’d actually stepped inside them, of course. But my family and I had stayed at hotels where casinos were, and I’d seen the rooms themselves from a distance. This one, though, was far different from those glimpses I’d had of the public versions. Emerging from the elevator, I didn’t see a massive, wide-open area full of bright, colorful slot machines loudly clanging and chiming everywhere. I didn’t see neon lights, scantily-clad women walking around with trays of snacks and drinks, or… anything I typically associated with an idea of what a casino floor looked like from my own experiences and movies. 

Instead, I mostly saw an enormous circular room, big enough to hold a full-size basketball game in. Directly in the middle of that circular room was an equally circular bar that took up maybe one-fourth of the space. There were a bunch of people sitting at the bar, and others serving them from behind it. Or within, rather, given the fact it was a circle. Either way, most of them, employees and guests alike, were wearing masks of various kinds. It wasn’t one hundred percent or anything. I did see a couple people’s faces. And some of the masks were clearly more elaborate or expensive than others. But elaborate or cheap, most people wore something that in some way obscured their identities, just as Paige had said. 

The bar itself seemed to be made entirely of glass in a way that was clearly deliberately meant to resemble ice. It was ‘frosted over’ in places, had actual buckets of ice sitting out with bottles resting in them, and so on. As if the whole thing had been carved out of a frozen block.  

The floor under my feet resembled ice-like glass as well. It was like stepping onto a skating rink, except not slippery at all. Actually, there was a tiny bit of bounce to the floor, making it soft to walk on despite its appearance. And it wasn’t just the floor that maintained that appearance. The walls, the decorations, the soft blue lighting that filled the room, it was all winter themed. 

Meanwhile, in the area immediately surrounding the bar, there were tables where people were quietly playing cards. On the far side of the room, opposite where I had come in, there were the games like roulette and craps. You had to go up a very short flight of about three steps to a vaguely raised area to reach those tables, and there was some kind of guard or bouncer posted next to the steps. What he was there for, I wasn’t exactly sure. But he was definitely a big guy, and it looked like he had a visible gun attached to his hip. So they weren’t screwing around. Like the rest of the people in here, the bouncer over there wore a mask. His was shaped like a bull’s head, with actual horns. He looked like a modern minotaur armed with a Glock or something.

Finally, there were doors scattered around the entire outside edge of the large room, even some up on the raised area where the roulette and craps tables were. Most of the doors had keypads next to them, as well as some kind of intercom. Some were labeled with numbers and names I didn’t know the meaning of, like ‘Starfall’ or ‘Viridescent.’ It was that latter door that I saw Paige pass through, giving me one last look and wave before it closed after her. 

Other doors were more simply named with obvious meanings like, ‘Slots Room 1’ or ‘Karaoke Room 3.’ I didn’t really need to think much about those ones, obviously. 

Curious, I checked the maps and GPS thing that Wren had included in my helmet display. As expected, they were offline. People like me weren’t allowed to know where this place was. 

Just as I managed to take all of that in, a voice from one side drew my attention. “Ahh, Mr. Paintball.” It was a man in a well-tailored suit, wearing a white, form-fitting mask against his face with only his mouth exposed. Even his eyes seemed to be covered, though he could clearly see through it. He was approaching me briskly, his voice quick, yet polite. “Such a pleasure to have you take a look at our establishment. I trust you have been informed of the rules here.” 

“No fighting, no trying to unmask people, no acting like you know them if they haven’t introduced themselves to you, mind your own business, basically?” I offered with a shrug. “I got the rundown, yeah.” And unless I missed my guess, this guy had probably already heard everything that had happened outside from Tell. 

“Very good, sir,” the white-masked man politely replied with a slight nod. “We take such rules quite seriously here, I assure you. That is how we remain in business. I am called Chips. Was there anyone you wished to meet, a game you might like to try? Rest assured, we also have rooms full of the finest and most advanced… ahhh… ‘video games’ if you would like to rent time by the hour.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Pack approached from around one of the nearby tables with a quick, “I’ve got it, Chips. Thanks. Paintball just needed to settle a little bet we made while all that was going on with the boss’s kid.” She had Riddles perched on one shoulder (in lizard form), but her other pets weren’t in view.   

“Very good, Miss Pack,” came the crisp response. “Please do let someone know if you require anything further. It would be our pleasure to provide for someone who was so instrumental in the protection of our princess.” 

He pivoted on one heel then, striding away. Watching him go, I lowered my voice. “So what did you want to show me? Please tell me it’s not the sick game room you rented out.” 

Instead of answering right away, Pack glanced around before turning. “This way, walk with me.” Turning, she headed around the edge of the room, counter-clockwise. Riddles, on her shoulder, turned a bit as though making sure I was following. 

So, I did. Picking up the pace to catch up with her, I spoke up. “Look at all the people around here. You wouldn’t know it was… wait, what time is it? I’ve lost track. It’s been a busy night.”

On the way, I saw some people look up from their games or drinks. They didn’t pay too much attention, given that was apparently against the rules. But my appearance obviously made them curious. Yeah, I had no idea what they were making of the fact that I was here. How well known was the fact that I had helped Blackjack with his daughter?

“It’s about one in the morning,” came the response, before Pack gestured to a table in a darker area far from any of the games. Her lizards were all spread out over the surface, happily crawling over one another as well as eating and drinking from bowls that had been laid out for them. Except… 

“Hey,” I spoke up, pointing to a tiny (seriously, it was about the length of her finger) lizard with a neon blue body and bright green head. “That one’s new.” 

Pack pulled out a chair, sitting down before kicking the leg of another for me to join her. She put her hand down close to the lizard in question, letting it run up her fingers. Then she lifted her opposite hand, watching as the beautiful thing jumped almost a foot to reach it. “This is Scatters. She’s new, yeah.” 

Taking the offered seat, I smiled behind my helmet, leaning a bit closer. “She’s really pretty.” 

“Believe me, she knows,” Pack drawled, setting the lizard back on the table near a bowl of water. “She’s a daredevil and a show-off.” Shaking her head, she focused on me, her voice low. “Okay, so my thing I can’t really show you yet. People came to talk to Blackjack.” 

“Wait.” I quickly put in. “Should we be saying anything? I mean with–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted. “No surveillance allowed in the casino. And trust me, I know how fucking weird that is. They have ways of checking for cheaters, but they don’t allow cameras, bugs, or any kind of recording devices. It’s the only way this place attracts the clientele it does, and they have lots of people come in to make sure it stays that way. No one wants to have any chance that things they say in here, or even just the fact that they were here, could get out. See those things up near the ceiling?” She gestured to what looked like loudspeakers positioned throughout the room. “They stop your phone from working, any GPS you have, cameras, audio recording equipment, whatever. None of that stuff works in here, even for us. And I had Eits check, just to be completely sure. If it ever got out that La Casa did keep any kind of surveillance here, this place would be completely dead. And everyone else in the city would probably unite to attack us.” 

“What about people with eavesdropping powers?” I pointed out quickly. “Enhanced hearing, that kind of thing.” Even if they couldn’t record what we were saying, I really didn’t want to take the chance of anyone even hearing it. There was too much at stake, too many ways someone having the slightest idea of what we were doing could totally fuck all of us over, evidence or no.

“Stand up,” Pack urged, gesturing for me to move. “Take a step over there and look at me.” 

Uncertain, I did so, rising from the chair and taking a few steps away. Again, I could see a few people glance over, some clearly more interested than they actually wanted to show. I was a young boy (as far as they knew) Star-Touched sitting in this secret casino. Obviously, they were a bit curious. Which, again, made me wonder just what they thought was really happening here.

Either way, I took those few steps away before looking at Pack. She pointedly reached up, lifting the black, featureless mask enough (revealing dark skin) that I could see her mouth open as she started to speak. And I heard… nothing. Her mouth was moving, but no sound was coming out. Or– she beckoned for me to come closer. So I did, and she held up a hand to stop me, reaching up to take my arm. Mouth still moving, she pulled me forward and down to be within a foot of her. Instantly, I heard her reciting some monologue speech. It sounded like it was from a play or a movie or something. Whatever it was, she was reciting it carefully. After another word, she gave me a push backward by the arm. The second my head was a few inches further away, the sound disappeared. Her mouth kept moving, but I heard absolutely nothing. 

Pack repeated that a couple times, pulling me forward to hear, then pushing me back to demonstrate that the sound disappeared. Finally, she gestured for me to sit down, tugging her mask back down over her mouth as she explained, “Touched-Tech attached to the tables. Makes it impossible to hear things if you’re not invited to the meeting. No eavesdropping allowed. Again, that’s how this place can function as a place for secret meetings, dude. You think we’re the only ones who would be in deep shit if our secrets got out? This whole world revolves around secrets. Nobody would trust La Casa’s casino as a place to have their meetings at if there was any chance, any chance those secrets might get out. Like I said, they have independents and people from other gangs show up to inspect the place. Blackjack isn’t gonna risk giving up the money all these people bring in just to catch a random secret or two before people figure things out and we all become public enemy number one.” 

She had a point. I knew that. Everything she said made complete logical sense. Still, I didn’t like it. It was too risky. Which maybe made me too paranoid. All the stuff Pack told me about how protected everyone’s privacy was in this place, and I still didn’t trust it. Because the real problem was, the second I trusted something like that and was wrong was the second everything fell apart. I couldn’t take that kind of risk, not with something like that. The thought of any of these bad guys, even Blackjack, finding out who my parents were was just… bad. Very bad. 

So, I wasn’t going to say anything too dangerous, just in case. But I supposed the bit about Wren wasn’t the worst possible thing for anyone to overhear if the privacy measures failed or whatever. With that in mind, I explained everything that had happened with Cavalcade and Glitch, how Braintrust wanted Wren to start paying her way in one form or another. Though I still used the kid’s chosen Touched name instead of her real one. I also made a point of not outright talking about how this was obviously related to the Ministry tax thing, but the implications between my words were obvious enough that I could tell the other girl picked up on it. 

When I was done, Pack gave a long series of muttered curses. “Those guys are pretty arrogant fucks, huh? I don’t suppose just going in there and beating their asses is an option.” 

“I don’t think I’m quite ready to challenge a gang like that, even if you helped,” I murmured dryly. “Kinda got a lot going on as it is. Besides, they’d be after Trevithick, not me. And I can’t be there to help her twenty-four seven. I don’t wanna put her under that kind of pressure.” 

Shrugging then, I added, “I mean, sure, working on getting rid of Braintrust is a noble goal and all. Probably more noble than you care about. But that’s a long term thing. Short term, keeping them happy and away from Trevithick is the best way to go.” 

“She’s not gonna make stuff for them,” Pack observed quietly, leaning back in her seat as she watched me for a moment. “All the time I spent with that kid during that whole thing… yeah, she’ll never go for that part. She is not gonna make toys for the evil, terrible supervillains.” I had a feeling her eyes were rolling a bit as she over-stressed those last few words pointedly. 

“You’re right,” I agreed. “She won’t make stuff for them and she won’t consult on any of their projects. That’s just… that’s not her. I–well, maybe she would. If she thought it would help us, if she thought her uncle or one of us was in danger, she might do what they said just to protect them. But it would… it would hurt her. She’d hate it. She’d–I don’t want to do that to her.”

“So what are you gonna do?” Pack asked curiously, fingers idly brushing the head of Mars Bar.

“I think the best thing to do is to tell her about the tax part, about paying them out of money that she makes selling her stuff,” I carefully answered. “I can help a bit.” I could help more than a bit, but I didn’t want to be too cavalier about the money I had access to. It felt like that might be a bit risky as far as maintaining my secret identity went. “But the point is, it’ll take time to set all that up. Meaning I need to make sure the Braintrust people understand they’re only getting a little bit and that it’ll be awhile before they start seeing any of it. And that if they start playing hardball, it won’t go well for them.”

“You want backup for that,” Pack realized. “You want someone to help you make sure Glitch and her people know if they pick a fight with the kid over this whole thing, they’ll be biting off a bigger piece than they think.” 

I nodded once. “Yeah. They’re playing relatively nice now, but the… implications were pretty obvious. I want them to know there’s a bigger fight than they might think if they try to push too hard, too fast. They’ll get something out of it, but they have to back off until Trevithick’s damn good and ready.” Even as I said that, a sigh escaped me. “I’m a shitty Star-Touched, huh? Look where I am. Look what I’m doing. I’m talking about getting some innocent–I’m talking about getting Trevithick to pay taxes to a fucking supervillain gang instead of just fighting them.”

“You’re talking about not throwing her under the bus to satisfy your ego,” came Pack’s retort. “You already said taking them down or whatever is a long term goal. Which is pretty damn ambitious on its own, for the record. But keeping them off Trevithick’s back for now, that’s not a bad thing. Like you said, you can’t be there twenty-four se–wait, here we go.” 

Before I could ask what that last bit meant, she urged, “Don’t look up too fast or too obviously. Use your helmet to cover it, just turn your eyes as much as you can. Like I said before, some people came to talk to Blackjack. They were in one of the private rooms over there. Very carefully, just turn your eyes to look a bit to the left, that way.” 

Uncertain, I did so. And immediately almost fell out of my chair. Because she was right, Blackjack was there. And he was standing with my parents. They were just… there. No masks or anything. Standing right in the open. 

I was so shocked in that moment, that they would be so brazen, that I didn’t say anything for a second. And with my helmet, that meant Pack couldn’t see my reaction. Which turned out to be a good thing, as she noted, “I just wish I knew who they were.” 

Wait. Wished she knew who they were? My parents were… kind of famous, especially around Detroit. It was possible she might not recognize them, but… “You don’t know who they are?” I asked carefully, trying to keep my voice even instead of letting it shake. My gaze was locked onto my parents, who were deep in conversation with Blackjack. 

“Nah,” came the response. “Do you? They seemed important when they showed up, but I’ve never seen them before.” She chuckled then. “Too bad we can’t take a picture and put it out there like, ‘Does anyone recognize these two guys?’” 

My head started to nod, then I stopped. “Two guys?” 

“Uhh, yeah, dude.” Pack sounded slightly confused. “Those two men standing right over there with Blackjack. The tall guy with the black crewcut and the red-haired guy next to him.” 

Was… was she blind? Neither of my parents had red hair, and my mother certainly wasn’t a guy. Unlike me, she could never have been mistaken for a boy. She had long black hair, while my father’s hair was dark blond with just a bit of distinguishing gray to it. They… they didn’t look a single bit like what she was describing. And yet, they were very clearly the only people standing there talking to Blackjack. 

So why the fuck was I seeing my parents talking to him, while Pack saw two entirely different people?

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New Deals 13-04 (Summus Proelium)

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When I abruptly told the Sell-Touched that I would go with her after all, she did a quick doubletake. Obviously, she hadn’t been expecting that. For a second, the woman just looked in my direction, squinting through the goggles. “That right?” she finally settled on, before adding, “Just a quick little tip kid, if you think you can use this whole thing as a way to make a name for yourself by busting a bunch of people just having fun at this casino, I don’t know what kind of–” 

“It’s neutral ground, I know,” I quickly assured her. “Starting shit at the casino is a good way of pissing off everyone in the city who isn’t government-aligned. And even some of them. When you’re at the casino, you play nice with everyone else that’s there, or you become a target.” That much had been made clear in the documentary about Detroit Touched that I’d watched awhile back. They didn’t actually get to go to the place (or any other couple designated neutral points), but there’d been enough details from interviews and the like to make that much clear. 

After another brief moment of watching me, clearly trying to read exactly what I intended, Cavalcade gave a short nod. “Okay, kid. Let’s go to the casino. I’ll show you how independent Star-Touched like you are supposed to get there. But first…” She trailed off meaningfully. 

“Money, right.” Giving a quick nod, I reached into my pocket, producing the five one hundred dollar bills that I’d already set aside before holding them out for her. “We’re good now, yeah?” 

“Sure, kid, we’re good.” That answer came after Cavalcade had taken the money, examined it carefully as though to check for counterfeits or something, then tucked the five bills away. “We’re totally good. Now, let’s get to the games so I can be even better than good.” 

Something told me Cavalcade and Pack could have a whole conversation about how much they liked getting paid, or just money in general. Maybe between the two of them they could eventually get a big pool full of cash and swim in it. Actually, Cavalcade was still a bit of a mystery, but I really wouldn’t put it past Pack to do exactly that if she had the chance. 

In any case, the Sell-Touched led me back to her car, already explaining. “The way people like you get to the casino is a little different from people like me, or Fells. Don’t think of it as people not trusting you, but uhhh… actually yeah, yeah, think of it as people not trusting you. You’re a fine, upstanding citizen, a good guy. So you don’t get to know exactly where the casino is.” 

As we drove, she explained that there was a building for Star-Touched like me to go to, a place nowhere near the actual casino. There would be a guard whom I would tell about wanting to visit the casino. He’d do whatever he needed to in order to make sure I was on the up-and-up, then send me in to the next step. 

Cavalcade explained everything I needed to do, before pulling to a stop in front of an old three story office building across the street from a car dealership. “Here we go, kid. I don’t feel like going through all the rigamarole, so you have fun. Maybe I’ll see you in there. But just–one more time, don’t start shit just because you see a bad guy, okay? Save it for the streets.” 

Giving her a thumbs up, I stepped out of the car and walked toward the building. It had occurred to me that I could insist that Pack meet me elsewhere to avoid going in a place like this. But she’d seemed insistent that she had to show me something. Plus, I was kind of curious to see how this casino thing worked. Hell, I had a suspicion it might actually be connected to my parents after all. Neutral ground that was somehow enforced for everyone? That sounded a lot like Ministry-related stuff to me. 

So, taking a deep breath as I approached the doors, I focused on the man who was standing there. He looked like any ordinary guard, wearing a pair of brown pants and a white, ill-fitting shirt with a random security company name across the sewn-on badge. He was leaning against the doorway, straightening when I walked toward him. “Hey, there, Paintball!” His voice was cheerful, and when I got closer, I could see the smile stretched across his face. He was kind of a heavy-looking guy, with a bright, flushed face and lines that made it clear smiling was his default expression. He kind of looked like a young, brown-haired Santa Claus, to be honest. Only maybe a little more cheerful. He definitely did not look like a hardcore guard protecting a possible entrance to a place full of Fell-And-Sell-Touched, that was for sure. I was pretty sure he wasn’t even wearing a weapon aside from the heavy maglight that hung from his belt. 

“Um, hi.” I hesitated before raising a hand. Cavalcade had said this was the right place. Plus, come to think of it, they obviously wouldn’t want someone who looked like a paramilitary badass standing out in the open. So, I pushed on with the phrase the woman had given me. “I’d like to play a ginny run up to the royal flush.” Apparently the passphrase changed every once in awhile and you had to be in good standing to get the new one. But it was always something like that. 

“Well!” The man in front of me smiled even more, letting out a loud chuckle that filled the air around me. It actually made me feel a little better about the whole situation, taking some of the uncertain tension out of me. I felt like everything was going to be okay. “You’re not trying to get in there to fight or arrest anyone, are you?” His tone was light and teasing, as if I couldn’t possibly be doing anything like that. And in that moment, I knew I could trust him. He was a good guy, a friend. He was everything I’d been looking for in a confidant. 

A confidant. That was it. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? I could tell him everything I knew about the Ministry. I could tell him about my family, about the fact that I was really a girl, even about the whole situation with my memories, and about Pa–

“Paintball?” A familiar voice interrupted my rush of thoughts, making me jerk that way.

She wore a mask, a simple white cloth mask secured to her turtleneck. But I knew the voice immediately. It was the voice of a person whose name had, in that very moment, been in my mind. Paige. It was Paige Banners, in the flesh, standing a bit behind me with her arms folded. The white simple, blank white mask with eye holes in it couldn’t disguise her voice. It was her, I knew for a fact. She was squinting curiously at me. “What’re you doing here?” 

Blinking at the masked Paige, a rush of thoughts came over me. First of all, what the fuck?! Not her, this guy. I had been about to spill every possible secret I had to him if he’d asked. In that moment, I’d thought he was my best friend, someone I could trust with my life. How–what the fuck?

Power. He had to be Touched. That was the only explanation. He was Psy-Touched. That was the one that meant their power affected other people’s minds. 

No wonder he was guarding this door. Not only did he look completely non-threatening, he had a power that made people confide in him. God, what if he’d asked something that made me spill something important? 

“Tell.” Paige looked past me to the man in question, her eyes narrowing suspiciously. “You weren’t trying to get secrets out of my friend here, were you?” 

The man looked abashed, waving a hand. “Shucks, Miss Kahn, I wasn’t actually gonna make him spill anything important. I know the rules, I was just checking to see if he was here for anything bad, you know? Gotta do my job and all, and it’s my job to make sure overzealous heroes and the like don’t find their way into the casino. Keeps everyone safe and all. I know how to ask safe questions.” 

“Uh huh.” Paige (or Miss Kahn, according to the guard) didn’t sound convinced, but also didn’t push the issue. Instead, she looked at me. “You sure you wanna go in there, Paintball? It’s like the guy said, they don’t allow any funny business, and if you break up the truce, well… I’d hate to see you turn into target numero uno for everyone in the city with a grudge against heroes.”

For a second, I just stared at her. Seeing Paige like this was just… weird. She was wearing a mask like it was second nature, was interacting with the La Casa guard as if she’d done so dozens of times. And she was talking to me like a normal person, not as if she loathed my very existence. 

Had it really been like this before? Had Paige, the girl who had done everything she could to insult, belittle, and demean me for every day that I remembered her, actually been my friend once upon a time? Had we really once been so close that, upon being found surrounded by dead bodies, she pleaded with the authorities to find me? Did she really just not remember, like I didn’t? 

There were so many questions I wanted to ask. But I couldn’t. Especially not right then, in front of our onlooker. Instead, I snapped myself out of it just as my silence had dragged on almost too long, blurting, “I’ve just got somebody I need to talk to, no big deal. I’m not going to cause trouble.” 

“There, see, Tell?” Paige gestured to the guard. “He’s not about to cause trouble. He’s with me anyway, I’ll take him.” She gave me a sidelong look, her voice pointed, “I’m sure he won’t make me look bad.” 

Oh boy, were there a lot of things I almost wanted to say to that. But I bit my tongue and gave a quick nod. “No trouble here. Like I said, I just need to talk to someone–err, someone who will want to talk to me. This isn’t like a confrontation or anything.”

The guard, Tell, apparently, stepped out of the way while opening the door. “In that case, go ahead, Paintball. And it’s great to see you again, Miss Kahn. You both have a fun, safe time. And good luck at the games if you play any.” 

Paige walked past me, grabbing my sleeve on the way past. With a quick glance toward Tell, who had turned his attention back to the road, I followed her into the small lobby. The place looked empty. Paige didn’t even glance at me on her way to the nearby elevator, where she hit the button to go up. The doors immediately opened, and she stepped through. 

Right, if Cavalcade had been on the level about this, the elevator was actually connected through Touched-Tech to another building entirely somewhere else in town. It would deliver us to the casino. this way people who weren’t exactly trusted by La Casa could visit the place without actually knowing where it was physically located. There was also supposed to be jammers blocking any phone signal or other tracking devices. When you went to the casino, you had to go dark to the outside world. 

So yeah, here was hoping I didn’t end up in some kind of trouble in there, or my parents didn’t suddenly have a panic attack about not being able to reach me. Cuz I was about to be out of contact for awhile. 

With a deep breath, I stepped into the elevator, letting the doors close behind me. My voice cracked just a little. “So, come here often?” 

Instead of answering immediately, Paige reached out to hit the door stop button. Which was weird, because the elevator wasn’t moving yet anyway. She held that button down, then hit four of the floor buttons in quick succession before looking to me. “Okay, we’ve got privacy now. Seriously, Paintball, I know you said you’re not going in there to make trouble, and I believe you, but do you know what you’re getting into?” 

Whelp, there was a lot I wanted to say to that too. There was a lot I wanted to say to Paige in general. A part of me wanted to just take off the mask and ask her what the fuck happened all those years ago, if she remembered us being friends, if she thought I betrayed her or something, why she singled me out to hate so much. I just–damn it, I wanted answers. Every time I thought I was about to get some answers when it came to Paige, I just ended up with more questions. So yeah, part of me wanted to just get the whole thing over with, expose who I was and what I knew about her our apparently shared past, and just… deal with it. 

But as with everything else, that was a genie that I wouldn’t be able to put back in the bottle. The second Paige knew who I was, she’d stop treating me like Paintball and start treating me like Cassidy. And ever since I remembered knowing her, treating me like Cassidy meant bad things. Treating me like Cassidy meant I couldn’t trust her. 

I couldn’t take that risk. I couldn’t expose my identity and secrets like that. Not to her. Especially not before I knew more about her whole situation and why she had started acting this way. The danger of what would happen, of what Paige could do if she reacted poorly to the whole thing was too dangerous. 

So, I just kept things simple. “I need to talk to one of the La Casa Touched. Nothing bad or anything, just… need to tell them something I found out. We’re sort of… working on something. It’s mutually beneficial.” Yeah, something I found out, like the fact that Braintrust had their eyes on Wren and wanted her to start paying taxes. The paying part wasn’t even an issue, really. I’d work on that myself if it came down to it. But Wren deserved to know what was going on, and that Braintrust wanted either money, donations of tech, or consultation in exchange for leaving her alone. 

If it was about me, I’d tell them to fuck off and take my chances. But Wren was just a kid, and she deserved the chance to be left alone to do her work without dealing with someone whose entire schtick involved, in part, making Touched-Tech temporarily not work right. I couldn’t be there to back her up all the time. Until–unless there was a better answer, a better way of making Glitch and the rest of Braintrust back off, keeping them happy by playing along was the best thing I could think of. 

Paige was staring at me. “Mutually beneficial,” she echoed flatly. 

Clearing my throat, I gestured. “Uhh, yeah, anyway, what about you? You look pretty comfortable wearing that mask, walking into a place like this.” 

“Most people wear masks in the casino,” Paige informed me, stressing the word to make it abundantly clear. “Even the Prevs. You’d be surprised what kind of important people show up there that you’d never think would hang out in a place owned by supervillains.” I had a feeling she was smiling behind the cloth that covered everything but her eyes. “No one can attack each other, forced neutrality, full privacy, everything you could want. They even have pretty good food and entertainment. And no one bothers enforcing any kind of minimum age requirement. Not like they’re going to be raided by the cops, you know? Hell, a lot of the people in there are the cops. Dirty ones, anyway. Not that they’ll admit that. Another one of the rules is you can’t call people out on who they are if they’re trying to keep it hidden, no matter how obvious it is.”

“You sure know an awful lot about all this stuff,” I pointed out gently. And oh boy was that the understatement of the century. What the hell was her deal? What was–what was everything about Paige? Where had she come from, what happened to her memory, why was she connected to Anthony, who was her father, why did she hate me now, why had she been around those dead bodies, what was she doing

At the moment, what she was doing was offering a shrug while glancing away with a thoughtful, “Point is, it’s a good place to have secret meetings.” 

“You have a lot of secret meetings?” I asked, trying not to sound too much like I wanted to violently shake her until she gave me real answers. It was a really close call.

In response to the question, the other girl reached out to hold the door closed button again, before pushing the nine button four times and the eight button three times. Which would’ve looked kind of odd in general, given this building only had two floors. Immediately, the elevator made a humming sound. It felt sort of like we were moving, but not really. It was a strange sensation that made my stomach just a little queasy for a moment. 

Either way, while that was happening, Paige finally replied, “A girl’s gotta keep herself busy, you know? Believe me, I’m being careful. And hey–” She gave me a quick hug that left me sputtering. “–thanks for not being all pissed at me, dude. See you around, and good luck with your meeting with the lizard girl!” 

Then the elevator opened to admit us to the casino, just before Paige was through the doors and gone. 

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Pink 12-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow was going to be a long day. 

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 10B – Mariana Amor (Summus Proelium)

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Mariana Amor, biological mother of Izzy Amor (though calling her a mother in any sense other than biological would be something of a stretch), sat in a small motel room on the edge of Detroit. The room had two beds in it, one of which was covered with various clothes, bags, and suitcases, while the other was the one she had slept in for the past couple of weeks while waiting for the heat over what she had done to die down a little bit. Actually, she’d done more than sleep in the room. She’d barely left it at all aside from visits to the office to pay her bill a couple times, and the occasional trip to the ice or vending machines. All of her meals were delivered straight to the door. Five hundred thousand dollars went a long way for that. 

Five hundred thousand dollars. Half a million. She could have gotten more. Mariana knew that. For a young, easily moldable and incredibly powerful Touched like her daughter? She could have gotten two, three, or even four times that amount. But she had been in a hurry. And she could work with five hundred thousand. It was a good nest egg to start over in a decent place with a new identity and nothing tying her down. 

Or it would have been, if those Oscuro idiots had kept hold of Izzy and made sure the whole thing went as smoothly as they had promised it would. But no. They had to fuck the whole thing up. Now that Handler guy was gone, and she was being looked for by not just the cops and Star-Touched, but by the Oscuro people too. Because they wanted to clean up their mess. 

Thankfully, everyone seemed to believe she had already left town. But she was still here in Detroit, in this motel right near the freeway. For now, anyway. But she’d already arranged for a way out of this hellhole and into that new life she’d always wanted. She just had to be patient. Even if that was hard, given how many times she’d woken up in the middle of the night in this shitty place, hearing the slamming of a car door or raised voices and become convinced someone was here for her. 

It wasn’t fair. It just wasn’t fair. She wasn’t a bad person. Izzy would’ve been fine with the Oscuro people. Sure, it might’ve been a bit rough at first, but with her power, she would’ve risen to the top of the ranks really quickly. And once she did, she would have been a force to be reckoned with. She would have been a real force in the city, living the high life. Mariana had tried to give her that, had tried to put her through a little tough love so she’d come out the other side with everything she could ever want. And for that, she’d only taken a little payment. Just enough to get her own real life started. But was Izzy grateful for that? Was she even a tiny bit happy that her mother had done the legwork to get her in the door of one of the strongest Touched groups in Michigan? No. Of course not, because she was an immature brat. 

So, now Mariana had to get out of this place and get her new identity before any of those people managed to get hold of her. Luckily, she was smart. Too smart to live in some shitty condo playing nursemaid to one of the most powerful Touched in the city while the authorities squeezed them both dry. Mariana deserved better than that. After all, hadn’t she produced Izzy? She deserved to have a say in what her daughter did with her powers, not the jack booted government thugs who would never give mother or daughter what they were worth. 

That line of thought was making her angrier by the moment, to the point that Mariana was barely paying attention to the television. Which just made her more annoyed, because this was one of her favorite shows and of fucking course this dump didn’t have good enough TV’s to let you rewind a live show, like any civilized place would. With a curse, she had just started to focus more when there was a soft knock on the door. It was a single knock, followed by a brief silence, then two knocks, then a pause, then one more. A code, because she wasn’t an idiot and had wanted to make sure anyone coming to her room was actually someone she wanted to talk to.

But naturally, of course after all this time, the person who was supposed to help her get out of this shitty city would choose now to do so. Right when Mariana was trying to focus on her show. Heaving a long sigh, she grabbed the remote and flipped it off. Hopefully this person was satisfied now. Honestly, why were people so damned inconsiderate? This was why she needed that money, so she could find a decent place to live, the kind of place she’d always deserved. 

Stepping over to the door, she checked through the peephole first, just in case. Seeing a young, attractive blonde girl standing there with the shirt of a local pizzeria and two actual pizza boxes in her hands, she squinted before cracking the door a little bit (still leaving the chain in place). “I didn’t order any.” 

The response from the teenager was an easy, bright smile. “Are you sure, ma’am?” she started while lifting the lid of the top box a bit. “I think this is exactly what you ordered.” Instead of a pizza in the box, there were papers, including a California driver’s license with Mariana’s picture and a different name, a social security card, even a birth certificate. It was everything she needed to get started in a new place. This was it, this was the person she’d been waiting for.

Quickly stepping back while unhooking the chain and opening the door, she ushered the girl in before shutting it. “Come on, come on. What the hell took you so long? I paid for premium service. Ten thousand dollars should get something a lot more prompt. I expected you hours ago.” As she finished with that, Mariana was already turning to walk over to one of her suitcases. She undid the combination lock, before reaching in to find an envelope. 

In the meantime, the girl behind her spoke up. “It took a few hours to put everything together the way you wanted it. I assume you wanted quality product that’ll hold up to scrutiny, not something that would get you picked up the first time some patrolman pulls you over for a busted taillight and tries to run a five dollar job that was run off a color printer in some asshole’s basement.” 

Forgetting her annoyance entirely, Mariana eagerly stepped that way to look at the open pizza box full of her new life that the girl had set on the empty bed. “It’s really that good?” she demanded, reaching out to take one of the documents before stopping to squint at her with a very firm, “I’m not paying you a single red cent until I get to look at them for myself.” 

“Go ahead,” the girl allowed with a calm gesture while stepping back to give her all the room she needed. “I’m not worried about you taking it and running.”  

Ignoring that, Mariana set the envelope full of cash down next to the box and began to go through all the documents. A new ID, a new passport, social security card, birth certificate, credit cards, school documentation, diploma, a bachelor’s degree from some university in California, it was all here. Everything she could possibly need to start her real life far away from this place. There was even a frequent flier card, and a couple for grocery store loyalty programs. Everything that would make her new identity look one hundred percent real. 

“There’s still one thing we need to do,” the girl informed her while Mariana was eagerly examining all the documents. “These will get you a long way, but you were fingerprinted when your daughter went into the Minority system. Which means that if anyone takes your fingerprints, they’ll know you’re not who all these things say you are. But I can fix that. I can get your fingerprints out of their system. For an extra five thousand dollars.” 

Snapping her gaze up at that, Mariana squinted. “You’re trying to shake me down for more now?” 

“I’m offering you a service,” the girl replied simply. “This is what you’ve paid for. But I’m also telling you that this will fall apart if you get fingerprinted. For five thousand, I’ll remove that possibility right here so you can see for yourself. But if you don’t want that, feel free to take the risk. It’s up to you.” 

For a moment, Mariana hesitated. She didn’t want to part with any more of her money. But on the other hand, better to lose five thousand now rather than all of it and her freedom later. Besides, if she ever wanted to get a job that involved being fingerprinted, this was probably a good idea. 

“Fine,” the woman settled on. “But you better not be playing me, young lady. I’m paying for the premium service, and if I find out that this whole thing was some kind of racket, I swear…” 

Adopting one of those clone-like customer service smiles, the blonde girl cheerfully assured her, “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll get everything you’ve been asking for, cross my heart and hope to die.” 

With that announcement, she reached into the second pizza box and took out a laptop, setting it up on the nearby table. Humming briefly, the girl through several options on the screen quickly before stepping aside a bit to show her. “This is the database they use to store fingerprints for Touched and Touched relatives. As you might imagine, it’s supposed to be very secure.” A slight smile touched the girl’s face. “After all, they don’t want people finding Star-Touched identities through their fingerprints. Most of them wear gloves, but still.” 

“If it’s supposed to be secure,” Mariana demanded, feeling even more like she was being played here, “how do you have access to it from a laptop in a motel room? That seems like the opposite of secure.” 

“I’m not accessing it,” the girl replied, tilting the screen a bit to show her the view panning out to reveal that the image they had been looking at was actually being taken by a camera recording the screen of another computer inside what looked like a secure server room. “This is recorded video. I’m showing you what I already did.” As she said that, a gloved hand reached out to the now-visible keyboard, tapping at it briefly before bringing up Mariana’s entry. Navigating to the fingerprint portion, the hand hit a few more keys, replacing the recorded image of the prints and all associated markers with a different set, before saving it that way. 

“So you show me a video of you doing this in some fake server room and I’m supposed to believe it’s real?” Mariana scoffed, squinting that way. “Just how naive do you think I am?” 

“Just keep watching,” the young woman flatly insisted, her eyes not leaving the screen. The glove on the screen was pulled off to reveal her hand before apparently being put away. Then the view spun, turning to walk out of the room, past several more servers and monitors before reaching a reinforced glass door with a scanner beside it. A badge appeared and was swept past the scanner, prompting an affirmative beep before the door popped open and the view continued out into the hallway where people in uniform were walking around. A few looked up and nodded in greeting, but most were busy working. 

While Mariana watched, the recording continued all the way through the building, past plenty of police officers and Touched-related authorities before eventually leading all the way out to the sidewalk. There, the apparently hidden camera was turned to reveal the actual, publicly known Star-Touched/Detroit Police liaison building. It was the closest thing to a Conservator and Spartan (the State-level Star-Touched team) base that was known to civilians.  

Calmly while the view from the camera went dark, the blonde girl asked, “Satisfied?” 

Mariana squinted briefly, but she couldn’t really argue with the footage. She had questions, that was for sure. But something told her the girl wasn’t going to tell her how she had pulled that off. On the other hand… “Why should I pay you to do something you’ve already done?” 

She was rewarded with a smile. This one seemed more genuine. “First,” the girl informed her, “because as easy as it was to change that information, I could easily change it back again. Second, because if you tried to leave without paying me, you wouldn’t make it very far.” The flat statement came with absolute certainty, as if Mariana could no more make it past the girl than jump and touch the moon. “But those two reasons don’t matter. Only the third one does.” 

“Oh, I’m paying you, I’m paying you,” Mariana snapped dismissively. “It was just a question, don’t be dramatic.” Even as she said it, the woman was digging out the extra five thousand. No sense in pushing things. “See, it’s right here?” Pausing with the cash in her hands as though only just then realizing something, she asked, “What was the third reason, anyway?”

“The third reason,” the girl explained with that same simple smile and calm voice, “is that it doesn’t matter anyway, because I’m taking all of your money. But you won’t be alive to care.”

Just as Mariana processed those words, her eyes widening while her mouth opened to scream, the girl lashed out with a lightning-fast punch. Mariana felt sudden blinding pain, staggering as her throat collapsed from the blow. She couldn’t talk. She couldn’t breathe save for a little bit. The next thing she knew, her face was pressed down against the bed as the girl straddled her from behind, keeping her head down with one hand while ignoring all of Mariana’s panicked flailing. She was wheezing desperately, struggling to pull in the tiniest gasps of air. 

“My name is Paige Banners,” the girl informed her. “I thought you should know that first. And you… you’re a bottom-feeding piece of shit. Do you know what you are? You’re a woman who sold her own daughter. You sold your own child. You had a wonderful, brilliant, strong little kid and what did you do? You sold her into slavery.” 

Wheezing even harder, Mariana struggled desperately, head shaking as much as it could with the girl’s grip on it and her weight holding the woman down. She tried to protest, tried to give her explanation. 

“Shut up,” Paige snapped. “I don’t care how you justified it to yourself. I’m telling you what you did, not how you lied about it in your own head. You sold your own child into slavery to a bunch of supervillains. You let them hurt her. You let them hurt your own child. You knew they were going to torture her. Torture her. You stupid, evil, pathetic little bitch. You knew they were torturing her, that they were going to keep torturing her. There’s two ways you leaving her with them could have played out. One, they end up killing her because she won’t do what they want. Two, they break her and she starts serving them. Which means she kills other people. That’s what you sentenced your own child to. That’s what you sold her into. Either she would have died, or she would have become a murderer, a monster. All so you could have half a million bucks.” 

With that, Mariana found herself briefly free as Paige stepped off of her. She was still struggling to breathe, wheezing heavily and yet barely getting any air at all. Heaving herself over, she stopped short, staring at the pistol that the blonde girl was suddenly pointing at her. 

“My father did what you tried to do.” Paige’s voice was eerily calm, the barrel looming in Mariana’s vision, leaving the girl’s own face rather indistinct. “He sold me. He used me. He’s still using me. He’s making me do things I don’t want to do. Things I don’t have a choice in. 

“People who do that, people who sell their children just to get what they want, they don’t deserve to live. I hate my father. I hate him more than anything else in the world. I want him to sit on that island and rot. Unfortunately, I can’t stop him. I can’t hurt him. I can’t make him pay for what he’s done. But you? I can make you pay. I can make sure you never hurt anyone again. 

“So I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. You’re going to die. And I’m going to take your body for a ride out of state. I’ll drop you in a ditch somewhere with your new identification. Then they’ll find you and you’ll be just another dead woman from California. Because you’re never going to hurt your daughter again. You are going to disappear. Your daughter isn’t going to feel guilty about you dying. She’s not going to wonder if she could have helped you. You’re going to drop out of her life and never appear again. Mariana Amor is going to disappear forever. Because you don’t deserve to have your daughter grieve for you.”

“And that money you were so proud of? Half of it is going to become an anonymous donation to an organization devoted to supporting the survivors of domestic violence and child neglect, and the other half is going to support adoption services and people who foster children. Because you might have been a piece of shit, but there are a lot of people better than you who can put that money to something worthwhile.” 

Finally, Mariana managed to wheeze out the words, “Take… it… let… me…” 

She never finished the sentence. Paige didn’t particularly care what she was going to say, pulling the trigger to send a single Tech-Silenced round through the woman’s forehead. Stepping back to let the body fall, she stowed the pistol at its holster on her back. The shot had been quiet as a whisper, but she still needed to be quick. She would clean up here, get the body into the car under the cover of night, then make the drive to drop it off as far away as possible. It was a four and a half hour drive to Chicago. Dumping the body somewhere in that city, then getting back would take all night. But that was fine.  

Reaching into her pocket, she took out a couple latex gloves, and then got to work.

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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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Interlude 9B – More Lost Memories

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Seven Years Ago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

Two Years Later/Five Years Ago

 

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

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

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

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

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

Until she remembered that he wasn’t. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

What was wrong with her? Was she evil too? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My name is Jackson. Kent Jackson.” 

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Private Affairs 9-06 (Summus Proelium)

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The latest Patreon Snippets for Heretical Edge were posted as an extra chapter on Saturday. If you missed it, you might want to click right here to read them.

Paige didn’t end up saying much else of interest. Mostly it was just things about how she was ‘working on it’ and that the man she was talking to should give her time and stop being impatient. It didn’t really… sound like she was talking to her father, at least not one she respected or even liked that much. But on the other hand, if he was a supervillain on Breakwater, maybe I could understand that much. In any case, there was definitely something about that whole relationship I was missing. For one thing, what the hell was that about him selling her to her ‘parents?’ Because just that all by itself raised a hell of a lot of questions.

Pretty soon she left, heading back to the street and leaving me sitting there lost in thought. My brain was working a million miles an hour in every direction, but I forced it to focus on one thing. The name. The name she’d said, what was it? Tate. Anthony Tate. I knew that name… I knew…

Oh, right. I did know Anthony Tate.  All I had to do was think about it for a bit, then I remembered. He was a boy I’d known while I was back in elementary school. I hadn’t really known him very well, because he was homeschooled, but that at least explained why the name was familiar. Though it didn’t really explain why he was important. From what I could remember, I only saw him once in awhile. But he’d moved away when I was in sixth grade, in my first year of middle school. A couple months later, he died in a car accident. I remembered my dad telling me that one of the kids I used to play with had passed away down in… where was it? Texas or something. I was pretty sure it was Texas. 

Anyway, I didn’t remember that much about the kid back then. I remembered being sad about someone I kind of knew dying, but it didn’t feel that real at the time because I barely remembered him. We weren’t close or anything, he was just a boy I saw sometimes.

But none of that actually answered the question of what was so important about the kid. 

So, perched on the roof of the library, I used my phone to do an internet search. Unfortunately, I didn’t see anything about him having a sister who could have been Paige. Both his parents were killed in the accident as well. The three family members were buried together in a cemetery in… yup, I was right, Dallas. Mother, father, and their only son were buried in Dallas, Texas after a drunk driving accident. 

So how did that connect to Paige and this guy she called her father, who happened to be a supervillain imprisoned on Breakwater? How did they know this kid and what did his death in a car accident in Texas have to do with my family here? I was missing something really important, just like the whole thing about the relationship between Paige and her imprisoned father. I had some pieces of this ridiculous puzzle, but not enough to put it together. Not just yet, anyway.  

I was going to have to really look into this Anthony Tate and the rest of his family. Maybe that car accident wasn’t such an accident? At first I’d thought that it might have something to do with the memory that Mr. Jackson had apparently erased, but with the accident happening all the way down in Texas, I wasn’t sure how that could be true. I definitely couldn’t have seen the accident, if it actually was one. And as far as I could tell, it really had happened down there. There were several news reports about it, accident scene photos, everything. So… what then?

Mom had said that Mr. Jackson removed a traumatic memory. A car accident was bad, but for someone I barely knew? I was probably just trying to tie two independent things (my removed memory and this whole thing about Paige’s secrets) together when they weren’t actually related. Which seemed like a good way to end up getting utterly lost and not figure out anything at all. 

Regardless, the point remained that I had to find out more about this accident. That might help me figure out what Paige’s involvement was–wait. What if her dad was the drunk driver that hit Anthony’s family? Or the guy who was blamed for it, if my family was actually involved. But what did that have to do with Paige? Was she related to him in some way? Wait–shit, duh. Friends. What if they were friends? I hadn’t known Anthony very well, but maybe Paige had. Which… didn’t explain why her father was in prison, unless he’d known the family too. Okay, maybe that was it? Maybe Paige and her father knew Anthony’s family, and when they died in that accident, those two found out my family was involved… somehow? Hell, if they had reach all the way over in Britain, I should probably believe they had reach in Texas too. That made some kind of sense. 

Okay, wait. What if this Anthony kid and his parents found out about my family and took off to protect themselves, but my family got to them anyway even down in Texas. Then Paige and her father found out the truth, and my dad, as Silversmith, had her dad locked up on Breakwater? He probably would’ve had to actually have powers to make that work, but maybe he did. Maybe that’s why he’d been so dangerous, because he knew about my family and had powers, so they sent him to Breakwater. But why not just kill him? Maybe he’d been arrested before they could? 

Yeah, I had an awful lot of ‘maybes’ in all this. I was speculating too much. And none of that actually explained how my family wouldn’t know what Paige was doing or who she really was. They were the ones with the memory-altering guy. If she was the daughter of some guy who knew about the family business and who had been sent to the supermax Touched prison, I kind of figured they’d keep track of her. So that didn’t actually make much sense either, unfortunately.

And on top of everything else, I still didn’t know how she was immune to the memory alteration power herself. I had a ten gallon bucket worth of questions and a teaspoon full of possible answers. It wasn’t enough. I had to get more information than I could find out in a simple search.

But to do that, I had a feeling I might need a little help. Even if it was a risk. And there was one person I could think of who had already proven that I could trust him to keep my secrets. 

*******

“If this is a trick to arrest a Fell-Touched and prop up your numbers, I’m going to be simultaneously disappointed in you as a person, and impressed at your long-term strategy.”

The words were from Eits, who spoke up about an hour later as I walked up to the bench in a small, out of the way park where he’d said I could meet him to talk. He’d been sitting there in costume, doing something on one of his phones before jumping up as he saw me approach. 

“Don’t worry,” I replied dryly, “I don’t usually think that far ahead. Also, I’m pretty sure tricking you into coming out here just to arrest you would end up being bad for me in the long run anyway.” Pausing, I tilted my head. “Which, now that I say that out-loud, those first two points kind of counteract each other, don’t they? But uhh, no, seriously, I really do need your help with something. You…” Hesitantly, I asked, “You did come alone? I know I didn’t say much, but–” 

“I’m alone, yeah,” he assured me. “I mean, for the most part. I kind of told Pack I had something to do, so she’s hanging out with Broadway a couple blocks that way.” He gestured to the left. “We were… um, practicing for something when you texted, but we needed a break anyway.” 

Blinking twice, I slowly asked, “Eits, did I interrupt you and your criminal friends doing crime?” 

“Absolutely not,” he insisted firmly, holding that for a moment longer before relenting with, “Practicing for doing crime, maybe. But not actually doing it. So see, you’re totally in the clear.” 

Snorting, I replied, “Yeah, I’m not sure that’s how that works. But I guess it doesn’t matter. This is… bigger. Maybe. I don’t know. I just–” Stopping as I stared at him, I started to think this might be a bad idea. Involving him in this, even if it was only tangentially related to my family… what if they actually were involved in the Tates’ deaths? What if he found out through his digging, and tried to do something with it? Or what if my parents found out he was digging and went after him? What if I was putting him right in their crosshairs by having him look at this? What if…

“Hey, Paintball, you okay?” Apparently I’d zoned out for a second, as Eits looked worried. Well, as worried as one could look with diagonal bands covering a good part of his face. “You seem pretty freaked out right now. Did umm…” He paused, glancing around for a second before carefully asking in a quieter voice, “Did someone else find out about you being… you know.” 

“No,” I replied. “It’s not that. I just… I’m looking into something and I could use some help. But it could be dangerous, so I want you to be really careful, okay? Don’t let anyone know what you’re doing. I mean it, Eits. Don’t talk to anyone directly, just use computers, and make sure no one knows what you’re looking for. Erase your tracks when you’re done. Don’t write things down. I–” 

Holding up both hands, Eits quickly put in, “Hey, hey, I get it. I’ll be careful. But I could probably do a better job of telling you how careful I can be if you tell me what you actually need to know.” 

Okay, okay, I could do this. I had to do this. I was going in circles by myself. The only way I was going to get anywhere anytime soon was with his help. I had to take this leap. Exhaling slowly to steady myself, I nodded. “The point is, keep it quiet. But I need you to look into this kid. His name was Anthony Tate. He used to live here in Detroit, but he moved to Dallas about… five years ago or so, then died in a car accident a couple months later. He and both his parents.” 

Eits was clearly squinting at me. “Um. Okay, so… far be it from me to ask too many questions about all this, but why do you want to know about some poor kid who died five years ago in an accident a thousand miles away? Did you… did you know him or something? And why now?” 

“I can’t say why now,” I informed him. “And no, I didn’t know him. I just heard someone important say the name and what I just told you is all I could find out by myself. There’s something going on that I’m looking into and the next step is to find out more about that kid. But like I said, it’s really dangerous. I mean super dangerous, Eits. I’m not kidding. I know you think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. I shouldn’t have even involved you, I just didn’t know what else to…” I sighed, long and heavy. “Please be careful, that’s all I’m saying. Look into it quietly.” 

To his credit, Eits didn’t dismiss my caution. He watched me for a moment, clearly taking the time to think about his response before giving a short nod. “I get it. I’ll keep it quiet. My little friends can run internet searches a lot faster than I can anyway, without actually letting anyone see what they’re doing. And I’ll delete everything about it, even on my own computers. If this is as big of a deal as you seem to be implying it is, I’ll probably have to look into a few restricted databases, but I’ll make sure to grab a huge chunk of info to pour through so if anyone does happen to notice that the files were accessed, they won’t know exactly what I was looking at.” 

I wasn’t sure that would be good enough, but at this point, I was up against a brick wall. I had to find out more, and if my parents were involved in the deaths of the Tates, I wouldn’t be able to find it myself. Hard as it was, I had to let him help. So, I exhaled once more, trying to let out my own hesitation along with the breath while slowly nodding. “Okay. Oh, and while you’re at it, I need you to look into a couple more things. A couple more people. Only–okay, this is hard to explain. First, I need you to look into this girl. Her name is Paige Banners. She’s seventeen and she goes to… hold on, I wrote it down.” Digging into my pocket, I came out with a scrap of paper that I’d prepared ahead of time for this. “Cadillac Preparatory School. I need you to find out if there’s any link between her and this Anthony Tate. And if there’s any link between either of them and any supervillain from either Detroit or Dallas who was sentenced to Breakwater in the past five years and is still alive out there. I know they track that from one of those documentaries, but how?” 

He shrugged at the last part. “I’m pretty sure they use some bracelet or something that’s supposed to keep track of where you are and all your vitals, so they know if you try to escape, and can retrieve your body if you die so it doesn’t just lay there. Which is nice, I guess.”

“There’s a villain on the island called Potluck,” I informed him. “He gets random powers or boosts to powers that he has through eating people who have powers. They don’t want him to get even stronger than he already is. That’s why they retrieve the bodies. Also because eeugh.”   

Blanching as he took that in, Eits muttered something clearly disgusted under his breath before looking back to me. “Right, well, got it. I’ll definitely cross Breakwater off my list of potential vacation spots in that case. But let me see if I have this straight. You need to know about the Tate family and how they died, this Paige Banner girl, and any supervillain from Detroit or Dallas who was sent to Breakwater in the past five years? And any connection between all of them.” 

“Banners,” I corrected. “But yeah, that about sums it up. I know it’s a lot to look into, especially when I’m telling you to keep it quiet and not telling you why I need to know. But I swear, it’s important. And I wouldn’t come to you with it if there was anyone else I could, but, I mean…” 

“It’s okay, Paintball,” he put in. “You don’t have to explain. We’re good. I’ll look into it and let you know what I find out, and I’ll be careful doing it. But…” He trailed off, biting his lip as he stared at the ground before looking back up to me. “But if it’s really this dangerous, then you should be careful too, okay? I don’t know what you’ve gotten into, but it sounds like it could be pretty bad. Especially if you’re investigating some Breakwater villain. Don’t go getting yourself in trouble.” 

Managing a slight smile that he couldn’t see anyway, I tried to put him at ease by casually replying, “You’re probably just afraid that if I go away, you might have to deal with a hero who’s more competent and doesn’t make these kind of deals with big, bad supervillains like you.” 

“Yeah, that’s totally it,” he agreed with a snort before sobering. “Watch yourself out there, okay? I’ll contact you when I find out anything. Or even if I can’t. But it’ll probably take a few days.” 

“That’s okay, take your time,” I assured him. “Be careful and thorough. I’d rather get the info in a week instead of two days if it means you cover your tracks better. Or however long it takes.” 

I thought about telling him about what happened with Hallowed and the Seraphs. But in the end, I decided to keep it to myself. It wasn’t Eits’ fault, after all. Not really. At least until I found out what they wanted me to do at that meeting on Wednesday. Then I’d just… go from there, I supposed. 

So, after making him promise one more time to be careful, I left Eits to go back to his business (while hoping that said business wouldn’t end up being too bad) and made my way home. I changed out of my costume well away from the house, of course, keeping it in my backpack as I snuck past the cameras and up to my window. 

Climbing inside carefully, I switched on the light and immediately saw something wrong. There was someone in my bed. Thinking it might be Izzy, I leaned closer. But the figure wasn’t quite right. Actually, there was… Frowning, I reached out, tugging the blanket down. Pillows. There were two pillows set up under my blanket to look like a figure, and one of my larger dolls that had hair sort of like mine. 

As I was staring at that, there was a quiet knock on the door. My gaze snapped that way in time to see Izzy peek inside. Her voice was very soft. “I wanted to make sure your mom and dad would think you were there if they looked.” 

My mouth opened and shut. I dropped the bag and gestured. “Come in, Izzy. What… what do you mean?” My throat felt dry. 

She entered hesitantly, closing the door after her. She almost looked ashamed. “I didn’t want you to get in trouble for sneaking out. So I made up your bed like that. Then I thought you might really get in trouble out there, so I stayed up to make sure you got home. I was… I’m sorry.” 

“Izzy, you don’t have to be sorry,” I quickly assured her. “I just… you… you had a nightmare and I wasn’t here.” Staring as the girl gave a hesitant nod, I closed my eyes and felt a rush of shame. “C’mere.” 

She came, and I reached out to embrace the younger (yet not really that much smaller) girl tightly. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here, Izzy. You–you couldn’t find me and you still covered for me.” 

“I think that’s what friends are supposed to do, right?” she asked, blinking up at me with those wide, emotional eyes. 

“They’re also supposed to be there when you need them, and I wasn’t here for you,” I admitted. “I just…” I couldn’t tell her the truth. “I have to stretch my legs sometimes. I have to get out and just… I mean–never mind. I’m gonna give you my number so you can call or text me any time, even if I’m not here.” 

“I don’t have a phone,” she pointed out quietly, still not letting go of me. 

“Well, then we’ll have to take care of that tomorrow, won’t we?” I replied. “And hey, you can even afford it.

“After all, you do have a pretty good allowance right now.” 

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Private Affairs 9-04 (Summus Proelium)

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It definitely wasn’t hard to have fun at this party. Amber (or her mother, rather) had seriously gone all out for it. And I knew why. A little over a year earlier was when Amber’s father had been killed by that hit-and-run driver. So, obviously, Amber hadn’t really been in much of a birthday party mood when her sweet sixteen came around. This whole thing was probably her mother’s way of trying to make up for that and help her daughter move on or something. 

The point was, there was definitely effort put into this, and it showed. The whole place had been rented out. There were batting cages, go-karts, bowling, a full arcade area with several VR stations, a room for laser tag, and so on. I knew I wasn’t the best judge as far as money went, but renting this whole place out had to cost a fair bit, right? Especially on a Saturday night.

There were also a lot of people here. It felt like a good portion of our grade had shown up, along with some other members of Amber’s family and maybe some from other schools or something. Lots of other teenagers running around, yelling to one another and visiting with the birthday girl herself. She was super-busy the whole night. I hoped she was having a good time herself. She seemed to be, it was just that every time I looked that way, she had a whole crowd of people around her. 

So yeah, it was impressive. And just a lot of fun in general. I spent a couple hours completely mostly forgetting about everything else while focusing on using the camera that Amber’s mother provided to take pictures of everyone to use as reference for the drawings later. I even saw Izzy enjoying herself. She seemed to get along with Amber, Jae, and the others pretty well, whenever they interacted. Izzy still didn’t talk very often, and she wasn’t doing much, if anything, with the debit card I’d handed her. But she was definitely having a good time, and that was the important part. 

Also, Jae was really good at the go-karts. Like, crazy good. As I stepped out of my own kart after she beat me in a best two-out-of-three contests (I was debating about whether to go for best three-out-of-five or something), I glanced that way to the other girl getting out of hers. “Where the heck did you learn to race karts like that? Are you an Indianapolis 500 driver in disguise and you’ve just been playing us this whole time?” Pointing at her, I fake-demanded, “Are there cameras around here watching me get schooled by a stunt driver?” 

With a faint but visible smile, Jae shook her head. She took the helmet off and reached out to set it back on the rack before looking to me once more. Her voice was soft. “Lots of Mario Kart?” 

“Aha!” I pointed at her. “I knew you were a ringer. I demand a new challenge at the ping pong table, where I may reclaim my lost honor, or something.” Dramatically moving my finger from the girl herself to the arcade room, I added a bit more casually, “But first, we grab more pizza?”  

She agreed, and the two of us moved to the room where the food was. There were several long tables laid out with basically all the junk food in the world on them. Finding some pizza, we loaded a couple plates. As we were finishing with that and stepping away, food in hand, Jae looked past me. Immediately, I saw the expression on her face go from casually happy and enjoying herself to incredibly guarded. It was like she’d flipped a switch and was closed off. 

Confused, I glanced over my shoulder and immediately understood her reaction. Standing there, staring at both of us with a small smirk on her face, was Elesha Carver. She was a black girl from our school, and I was pretty sure she was basically to Jae what Paige was to me. 

Okay, maybe not exactly the same. At the very least, I was really hoping Elesha wouldn’t also turn out to have some unexplained immunity to memory erasing, and be holding onto secret information that she refused to share but could potentially take down an entire underworld criminal empire. Because that kind of coincidence at this point would just be silly

But she was definitely a bitch. Which was a fact she proved an instant after opening her mouth, with a sly, “Heeeey, Jae. I’ve got a great idea. Why don’t we string you up to the ceiling and then bounce strobe lights off your skin. You’d make a great party decoration, you know?” 

My mouth opened as several not-so-polite retorts leapt to mind (as well as the urge to punch her), but before I could say anything, another voice spoke. “Out of curiosity, exactly what level of lack of self-awareness does a black person have to have to talk about stringing someone up?” 

It was Paige, speak of the devil. She wasn’t paying any attention to me. She might not have even noticed me, to be honest. All of her focus was solely on Elesha, as she continued with a flat, “I mean, there’s being a completely incomprehensible moron, and then there’s being stupid enough to be black and mock someone for their fucking skin color, you ludicrous twat.”

Was this a bad time for me to speak up and say something about how it was equally stupid to hate (and spend years mocking) someone for being short and not fitting some classical idea of adult beauty? Because I felt like that was a really good opening for it. But I resisted, because this wasn’t about me. It was about making sure Jae’s night didn’t get ruined by this bitch. 

“You know what?” Elesha was retorting, “Fuck you. At least I’m not some kind of freak.” She said that, of course, while giving Jae a disgusted look, her mouth twisting hatefully in a way that made her look even nastier than she already had. “I’m not a mutant albino walking abortion.” 

“You know what else you’re not?” That was Amber, having extricated herself to come up from behind the other girl while she was talking. “Invited. As in you were never invited here.”

I could see by the expression on Elesha’s face that she’d already realized she’d made a mistake by picking this argument right now. But, of course, she didn’t back down. Shooting a glare toward Amber, she retorted a bit heatedly, “You invited everybody, remember? You put those invitations up all over the goddamn school. I’m pretty sure one of the fucking janitors is here.”  

“The janitors are cool,” Amber informed her. “And if you’ll take a quick look at any of those invitations, you’ll see that it says quite plainly, ‘All People Welcome.’ You, you’re not a person. You’re basically mucus, and I don’t want mucus at my party. It’s gross. So why don’t you leave?” 

For just a moment, I had the terrible feeling that a fight was going to break out. I had no idea if Amber would even do if Elesha took a swing at her, to be honest. Actually, I didn’t know what I would do if someone took a swing at me in here. I couldn’t exactly use my powers like I would in costume. I could paint the skin under my clothes and be careful about how obvious I was with the boosts, but even that felt risky. Honestly, the safest thing to do if something did start would probably be to let myself get hit, then just drop to the floor and stay there. 

In the end, I never did get to find out if Elesha would have backed off or not. Because just as this whole situation seemed to be right on the cusp of boiling over, someone called out from the far side of the large room, by the televisions, “Hey! Hey, shut the fuck up, it’s a Collision Point!”

That immediately shut down everything else that was going on. Everyone turned away from what they were doing. And I did mean everyone. The entire room grew completely silent, save for the televisions as we all moved closer. They were already changing the channel to match the one that the middle one was on, a channel that showed a serious-looking anchor talking. 

“Where?” Amber asked quietly, stepping up beside me while staring intently at the screen. “It’s not…?” She didn’t finish that sentence, trailing off instead. But we all knew what she had been about to say right then. Here. She had been about to ask if it was happening here in Detroit. 

Someone else, I wasn’t sure who, answered with, “Not here. Not this time. It’s Salt Lake City.” 

Sure enough, the anchor had a picture of Utah projected beside him, with a marker showing where Salt Lake was as he said something about the Collision Point starting near a library.

“Anyone know if they’re dealing with Stalkers, Wanderers, or Hidden?” Paige asked from somewhere behind me. I still didn’t know if she’d even noticed my presence yet. 

In answer, the guy who had called everyone over replied, “It’s Hollow and Grote Slang.” 

“One Hidden, one Stalker,” someone noted. “At least it’s not two Stalkers. They’re the worst.” 

Yeah, they were probably right. Two Stalkers hitting a Collision Point was bad. All Collision Points were bad, regardless. But those were bad on a whole other level. 

Collision Points. That’s what we called it when two Abyssals ran into each other and started a fight. See, when an Abyssal first… manifested or whatever, they were stuck in a single monstrous form. It was usually pretty big, between ten to twenty feet or so, and looked distinctly not human. That was what a lot of people had thought Cuélebre was at first, a new Abyssal.  They had no real intelligence at that point and just attacked everything around them. Which was also how people figured out that Cuélebre couldn’t be a new Abyssal, because he definitely had control. New Abyssals lashed out at everything and tried to do as much damage as they could. 

But it was worse if they managed to survive long enough to evolve to the second stage. First of all, second-stage Abyssals shifted back into a mostly or even entirely human-looking form. Some people said it was to recharge or something, but no one really knew. They simply went from being giant monsters down to looking like they had before their initial transformation. 

That was where the three classifications came in. Stalker, Wanderer, or Hidden. Stalkers were those who actively remembered what they were, liked it, and hunted for others of their kind. Wanderers were those kind of in the middle, the ones who had vague ideas or recollections, maybe dreams about doing bad things. They tended to… well, wander. They were drifters who went from town to town, simply staying on the move. According to a couple rare interviews that had been taken from a coherent Wanderer or two, they always felt the urge to keep going. It was like they were being pushed to look for something, but they had no idea what.  

Yeah, while Stalkers were actively malevolent and often did their best to hurt and kill people even in their human form, Wanderers could sometimes actually be spoken to, if you happened to know what they were. There were recorded interviews with Wanderers, who always just seemed… pretty out of it, like they barely understood what was going on. A lot of people dismissed them as mentally handicapped. Which hadn’t exactly done wonders for how actual mentally handicapped people were seen, that was for sure. They always spoke in a slow, somewhat dream-like voice, like they were partially in a trance. 

Then there were the Hidden. Those were the people who had absolutely no idea what they were. They went about their lives completely oblivious to the fact that they could transform into a huge monster at any given moment. 

The Hidden went about their lives as normal as possible. The Wanderers… wandered, drifting from place to place in their endless and unexplained search for whatever they were looking for. And Stalkers tried to locate any of their kind so they could trigger a fight. 

Because yeah, that’s what they did. Abyssals, when they encountered one another, fought. When two second-stage humanoid Abyssals touched one another, they would transform into their monster selves. Then they would set about doing their level best to completely fucking massacre each other. There was no love between any of them, no cooperation. There was nothing but violence and death, as they would hurl themselves at one another, doing everything they could to kill not just the other Abyssal, but anything that happened to get in their way. 

That was what we called a Collision Point. Two or more Abyssals who found one another, touched, and turned into huge (sometimes gigantic) monsters intent on beating the living shit out of each other, even if they had to rip apart buildings and massacre dozens or even hundreds to do it. At that point, they would fight either until one of them killed and absorbed the other (which basically seemed to make the winner take on some of the loser’s traits and powers while getting even bigger), or until something  (like a local Touched team) forced them to withdraw from each other. 

So yeah, to put it simply, Collision Points weren’t fun. They usually ended up with a lot of damage being done to the city they happened in, as the dueling Abyssals threw around absurd levels of destruction in their attempts to kill one another. Even Wanderers and Hidden, once shifted into their Abyssal forms, turned basically completely rabid and tried to destroy or kill everything between them and their opponent. 

Once enough damage was done by other Touched, or one of them managed to kill and absorb the other, the fight would be over. Once that happened, any of the surviving Abyssals would simply disappear. The… understanding was that they were transported somewhere else and returned to their human forms. Wanderers resumed their old mental state, while Hidden completely forgot what they had just been doing. Or maybe they had false memories. It wasn’t clear, and it was pretty hard to get that kind of information. There had been one short interview with a Hidden Abyssal who managed to be captured and locked up, but it wasn’t very enlightening. And he had vanished pretty soon after that brief discussion. 

Pencil, of course, was the leader of the Scions of Typhon. Typhon was a Stalker Abyssal, one of the largest, most violent, and most… successful in North America. He had killed and absorbed multiple other strong Abyssals. In one such fight, he’d basically leveled the majority of Waunakee, a small town in Wisconsin. A third of their roughly fifteen thousand residents were killed in that, while almost all of their buildings ended up uninhabitable. It was… bad. A lot of these Collision Points were bad. 

That was why no one was playing any more games or arguing. We all stood there, watching the news in silence as they showed footage of the local Utah Touched teams trying to deal with Hollow and Grote Slang before too much damage was done. 

Of the two, Hollow was the small one. She was pretty tiny, as far as Abyssals went, standing ‘only’ about eight feet tall. She was fairly humanoid too, though her skin was pitch black and oily. Really, her entire body seemed to be made of oil shaped like a person. She had only vague facial features, impressions where her eyes should have been. And she didn’t have permanent arms. Instead, any number of arms would extend from any point of her body whenever she happened to need them. 

Grote Slang, on the other hand, was far different. He was one of the bigger Abyssals, and definitely not humanoid. In his monster-form, he was basically a giant snake. And by giant, that was a snake a hundred feet long and as wide around as a city bus. Wicked-looking tusks came out of the snake’s mouth, curving up with venom dripping from them. Worse, he had two actual trunks, like an elephant’s, one leading off of each side of his head. The trunks were about a third as long as his body but could stretch to about half, and were used to grab prey and drag them up to his mouth. 

Yeah, like his mythological counterpart, Grote Slang was basically a cross between an elephant and a giant snake. It was bad. Really bad. 

We all watched on those screens as the news reported on the ongoing fight. None of the other guests tried to play any games or anything. We just watched as the Touched tried to stop too much damage from being done. They were… about as successful as they could be. Several full buildings and houses were still either heavily damaged or outright demolished, and a couple city blocks weren’t going to be safe to live in anytime soon. But the authorities reacted quickly enough and managed to get somewhat lucky in separating the two and doing enough damage to make them pull back. Didn’t kill either of them, but they at least managed to stop things from getting a lot worse than they could have.

At some point in all that, Izzy had found me. We stood there together and I had ended up taking her hand without really thinking about it. Once it was over, I glanced down, then looked over to where she was still staring at the television. “Sorry, we didn’t have to… watch all that. Are you okay?” 

Her head nodded slowly. “I wanted to,” she assured me quietly. “And yeah, I’m okay.” Strangely, she did sound okay. She didn’t seem too freaked out by all that. 

Glancing nearby, I could see Amber’s mom talking to her. It looked like this whole thing was about to be closed down for the night. Which was just as well. After watching all that on the news, it was clear that people weren’t just going to jump right back into playing games. Yeah, it had been almost two thousand miles away on the other side of the continent. And yes, they’d managed to contain things before too much damage was done. But even in that near-best case scenario, at least a few dozen people had still died. They wouldn’t have a real count until tomorrow, at the very least. Still, it wasn’t great. 

Abyssals were bad. When they found each other, bad things happened. Buildings and sometimes entire swaths of land were destroyed. Lots of people died. It was horrific.

And after watching something like that, even on the news from so far away, well… a lot of people didn’t feel like partying anymore. This sort of thing happened every once in awhile. Sometimes it was better and sometimes it was worse. But it was never good. 

Some of us stayed, mostly talking about either the attack or other attacks. A few drifted off to try to distract themselves with other games. From the corner of my eye, I saw Paige glance down at her phone. An annoyed look crossed her face before she turned and walked away, heading for the restroom corridor. With a quick look around to make sure no one was paying attention, I slipped away too, trying to follow her without being noticed. 

Reaching the area where the bathrooms were, I saw Paige step inside the women’s restroom. I carefully moved closer, stopping right next to the door. Through the crack, I could hear her talking. 

“Yeah, behind the library on Woodward, got it. I said I got it. When? And you better be exact, Pat, because my father’s contact windows are narrow. Specific coordinates, specific times.” 

Wait, what? What was she talking about? Paige’s mother and father were right here in the city. She talked to them every day. So… huh? 

The other girl continued. “I’ll be there. Yes, I know. Three hours and six minutes. Yeah, something tells me complaining about how late it is wouldn’t do much good. 

“After all, Breakwater’s an inescapable super-prison. It’s supposed to be hard to call out of.” 

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Interlude 8 – Paige (Summus Proelium)

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Leaving Paintball waiting outside, the girl known as Paige Banners walked into the internet cafe. The distracted clerk idly muttered what the cost per hour was, and Paige produced a folded twenty dollar bill on her way past, leaving it on the counter while the clerk took it and told her which computer to use. All without looking up from the phone she was busy texting on. 

Pulling the seat out, the girl perched on the edge of it, hands finding the keyboard and mouse. She clicked a couple times to bring up the cafe’s internet services, fingers dancing across the keys as she disabled their site limitations and the monitoring service that would allow them to track what she was doing. Logging in as an administrator after a couple of attempts, she brought up the control screen for the cameras in the cafe and set them to erase everything from five minutes before she arrived to roughly ten minutes from the current time. That would be enough to ensure that the Ministry couldn’t get anything useful from watching what she did. 

And it was incredibly important that they not see the things she was doing. As far as the Ministry was concerned, Paige Banners was an ordinary teenage girl who happened to have tripped over information she shouldn’t have. It was important that they keep believing that. 

Once she was convinced that the cameras were taken care of, the girl navigated to a private and incredibly secure cloud server that had been set up much earlier. Then Paige paused. Casually, she turned slightly to let her gaze pass over the room. The cameras were no longer a problem, but the need for being careful was practically hard-wired into her by that point. She took that moment to make sure no one was paying attention, eyes scanning the room while she produced the small USB drive from its hiding place and inserted it into the computer. 

The files were there. Taking only a second to assure herself that everything seemed to be intact, Paige set them to copy onto the cloud server. From there, the service itself would automatically copy them onto a dozen other servers, some equally private and some known to the public. The services all had their own redundancies and security, which included checking on the status of their companion clouds every few minutes. If anything went wrong with one service, Paige would be alerted. From there, several possible events could happen depending on what she did, what exactly was wrong with the suspect cloud server, and whether or not she responded. 

Paintball was busy dealing with people who wanted autographs. Watching that for a moment while the files uploaded, Paige waited for the confirmation beep. Then she tugged the USB out, returned it to its hiding place, and quickly typed up a note for the Star-Touched waiting outside. At the last moment, she used her administrator access into the building’s security to disable the alarm on the back door, quit out of everything save for the note she’d left, and pushed up from the chair. With one last glance to make sure Paintball wasn’t looking, Paige moved through the room, passing a few other people on the way. No one looked up, assuming, if they noticed her at all, that she was going to the restroom. But she moved straight past, heading quietly through the back door into the alley. It was dark, and she immediately pivoted to the right, heading to the exit and onto another street before turning left to move away from the building. 

She didn’t go far, at least right away. First, Paige had to make sure Paintball wouldn’t easily find her if he chose to try. He was awesome, and even if he hadn’t exactly saved her life (maybe… probably), he had made it so that Paige didn’t have to expose more of her secrets. And that was important. The Ministry could not find out what was really going on with her. That was beyond vital. They couldn’t even suspect she might be more than they thought, or find the link back to…

The point was, the more clueless they were, the better. And to make sure they stayed as clueless as possible, Paige was going to make them think that all she wanted was to be left alone. They wouldn’t totally abandon their efforts to silence her, she knew. Being caught in the first place had been a mistake that she was going to have to scramble to make up for. But if she could make them believe that she wouldn’t go to the authorities unless they forced her hand, they would at least turn to more subtle routes of getting what they wanted. That would give her time, and time was important right then. Part of that whole ‘making them think she wasn’t going to push further on this’ involved keeping Paintball out of anything else. Having a superhero hanging around wasn’t exactly conducive to making a bunch of supervillains think you were going to leave them alone. 

So, instead of continuing down the street where the boy could possibly spot her, she turned almost immediately to step into a nearby Chinese restaurant. Smiling politely at the nice woman by the front, Paige asked, “Xǐ shǒu jiān zài nar?” In response to the question of where the toilet was, the restaurant host turned to point toward the back of the restaurant, and Paige quickly thanked her with a nod before walking on through. 

Moving through the room full of people, she kept her eyes out before finally spotting something useful about three-quarters of the way. Slowing by a table with a group of teenage boys, she put on a bright, somewhat embarrassed smile before speaking up. “Um, sorry, excuse me?” 

She was attractive enough that none of the boys minded the interruption. Paige waited for them to give her the brief once-over that every interested person did before pushing on. “Hi, sorry, again. This is kinda dumb, but umm… I’m sort of on a scavenger hunt with my idiot… idiot friends right now, and the next thing on my list is a used jacket for any sports team that is not in Michigan. Like that.” She pointed to the New York Jets coat draped over one boy’s chair. “And I know, this is stupid and everything. But I swear, I really have to beat Tina this time. So if I could just get that jacket, you can have this.” With one hand, she held up two hundred dollar bills. “That should cover getting a new one, shipping, everything.” 

Thankfully, the jacket apparently wasn’t some important keepsake, because the boy readily agreed to trading it for the two hundred dollars she’d offered. And two minutes later, Paige emerged from the restaurant, flipping the hood of the jacket up over her head before continuing down the street. She saw no sign of Paintball, or anyone else watching her. But the jacket wasn’t just for staying out of the Star-Touched hero’s sight. There was more than one reason to want a disguise right now. The Ministry wouldn’t give up that easily, until they knew it was too late. She had to contact them. But she would do it on her terms, not theirs.

Three blocks later, Paige made one more stop inside a convenience store to pick up a disposable phone and added minutes to it. On the way out, she used the phone to connect to a different cell phone on the other side of the city. The second cell would forward the call, making it impossible for the people she was contacting to trace where her signal was actually coming from. 

That done, Paige dialed a number from memory, turning to continue walking along the sidewalk as it rang. Her eyes scanned the road ahead of her, taking in everyone in the area. No one was paying attention. There were no familiar faces. She turned right, crossed the street, and moved down an alley. By that point, the other end of the line was finally picked up, as a voice spoke with a simple, “How may I direct your call?” 

Taking a breath before letting it out, Paige turned to slump against the nearby wall. She let fear, uncertainty, and confusion enter her voice. “I… I got this number. I think… I think I need to talk to… to one of the Ministers? I–that’s what the files that I–” Cutting herself off, she forced a soft, barely audible choked sound out of her throat to make it sound as though she was barely holding herself together. Then she gave it a three-count of silence before continuing with, “One of the Ministers. Please. I need to talk to them. This is Pa–I mean… I don’t think I should say.”  

There was a pause from the other end of the line, before the simple voice replied, “Please hold.” The line was then filled with soft, pleasant piano music. Just like any ordinary company. But Paige knew they would still be listening and recording. So she made herself breathe rapidly, exhaling in repeated shudders. Once, she murmured a very soft, “Please, God.” Not too much. She didn’t want to overdo it and make them suspicious. But she did want them to believe that she was right on the edge and terrified. That way they would think they were still in control. 

Eventually (and long after he had actually begun listening to her, Paige assumed), a male voice answered. “Hello, Miss Banners. This is Minister Gray. You don’t seem to be with your rescuer.” 

He was making a guess based on what he’d heard through the phone, she knew. The Ministry was good, but not good enough to track her down just like that. Not given the measures she had taken to redirect her call. Certainly not in a way that would let them see her without her seeing them. And if they had seen the girl who had given them so much trouble, they would have tried to grab her by that point. So he was absolutely bluffing. 

Still, she couldn’t react as though she knew that. So Paige adopted an even more fearful voice. “Wh-what–how do you…” Holding that to let the man on the phone think that she was looking around while terrified, she instead drew a P in the dirt on the ground beside herself before deciding that was long enough. “Pl-please, just… just… listen, you can’t… I have the files I found. I have the files.” Don’t push it. Don’t be too eager or competent. Not straight off. 

“Yes,” Minister Gray replied smoothly, sounding far more in control than Paige did. Good. He was calm and collected, already dismissing her as a real threat. “You have the files, and we want the files. I’m sure we can all come to an understanding and no one else has to get hurt.” 

“Y-you people tried to shoot me in the head!” Paige squeaked indignantly, making a show of her voice rising to a high pitch before shushing herself. “Yo-you tried to kill me. You–your people, you were–y-you were going to–you can’t just–I–you–I don’t want t–you were going to… you–” She made herself babble completely incoherently, as though she was barely holding on. The whole time, she idly checked the dirt on her nails from tracing her finger on the ground and made a face. Gross. Would this guy interrupt her already? 

Finally, he did. “Now, Miss Banners, calm yourself. I’m sure we can come to a suitable arrangement. After all, you still have our files, don’t you?” A dangerous, yet still calm, note entered his voice. “I do hope you haven’t shared them with the boy who saved you.” 

“N-no, sir.” Paige included the honorific, waited a second as though just then realizing what she had said to a villain, then amended, “I mean… no… no. He’s gone. He’s gone, he’s not i-involved anymore. I have the files.” 

“Good, good,” Minister Gray praised. “That’s very good. So we can still work this out. How about you bring the files to a neutral location, let us take them off your hands, and then we can all go back to living our lives without this terrible complication?” 

Afraid, innocent, but not stupid, Paige reminded herself. The character she was playing might have been a normal, though snoopy, teenage girl. But she was not stupid. No one that wasn’t a complete idiot would fall for that. And given how far she had gotten to get their files, they’d never believe she was a complete idiot. Playing this as someone with a mixture of luck and intelligence who was still in way over her head was the way to go. 

And it wasn’t that far from the truth. She was in over her head, in many ways. If only her father wasn’t–

Okay, that was a long enough pause. Stopping the silent count in her head, Paige hesitantly answered the man. “I… I’m not doing that. I’m not going to give you back the files. If I do that, you’ll just… you’ll just kill me.” 

There was a brief pause before Minister Gray carefully replied, “We can’t let you keep them, Miss Banners.” 

“Yes, you can,” she said quickly, injecting her voice with a note of urgency. “Because I won’t go to the cops. You know what’ll happen if I do. By the time anyone believes me, one of your people’ll be able to get to me. And you’ll have no reason not to kill me. Not if I’ve already blown your secret. L-look, I know how this works. I’ve seen the… the files, remember? If I try to tell anyone, no one will believe me in time. You people will kill me and–and it won’t accomplish anything. Even if it does, I’ll be dead. And I don’t wanna die.” 

“You may find this hard to believe, Miss Banners,” the man informed her, “but we would prefer not to kill you. Still, it seems we are at an impasse.” 

“I’m not going to the cops,” Paige reiterated. “Or anyone else. All Paintball knows is that he saved me from some dressed up thugs. I’m not–” She exhaled, again making herself shudder to inject the fear and sense that she was barely keeping it together into her voice. “I’m not stupid. It’s called Mutually Assured Destruction. If I tell anyone, you’ll find out and kill me. But I uploaded those files and if I don’t check in and give a password to all the servers I uploaded them to at the right times, they’ll be sent to every news station in the country. Even you can’t lock that down. You kill me, your secrets get out. I put your secrets out, you kill me. Mutually Assured Destruction.” 

Another pause came, one that lasted almost thirty seconds before Ministry Gray spoke again. “Your suggestion then, Miss Banners, is that we agree to leave one another alone?” 

Making a point of exhaling hard with a choked sob that must have sounded like relief, Paige hurriedly agreed. “Yes, yes. I saw the–the files, I know what you can do. I know–just… just leave me and my family alone. And Paintball. He doesn’t know anything. I didn’t tell him about any of this. Leave us alone, your secrets stay secret, and… and we can all just… just…” 

“Just be happy,” the Minister finished for her, sounding thoughtful. “Agreed, for the moment. You can rest easy, Miss Banners. You have proven yourself quite capable, despite your lack of powers or resources. We will monitor the situation. As you say, should you attempt to contact any authorities, we will execute a scorched Earth policy. Keep what you know to yourself, and you will live a long and quite happy life.” 

“Just leave me alone,” Paige replied, using a voice of mixed terror and relief before she disconnected the call. Taking the phone in both hands, she snapped it in half, tossing both halves to either side of the alley before straightening up. That was done. Now to get out of here. 

Unfortunately, she’d barely dusted herself off and turned before finding herself facing six men. Not Ministry people. These were random thugs. Ninety-Niner people, from the look of them. Not even that high up either, just street toughs, lowest of the low. In more than one way. 

“See, boys?” The clear leader of the group announced slyly while strolling closer. “I told you there was some hot bitch hanging out back here. Is it our lucky day or what?” To Paige, he added, “Lemme guess, you got separated from the tour group. But that’s okay, cuz we have got a fun tour for you.” 

Shaking her head as her shoulders hunched, Paige fearfully replied, “I d-don’t want any trouble. I was just–I just had to make a phone call. I’ll leave you alone now.” 

A switchblade appeared in front of her face, clicking into position as the man (a tall, pale figure with a thin build and one of those gross porn mustaches) sneered. “I sure hope you didn’t tell whoever you called that you’d be home soon. Cuz we play rough with our toys.” 

Paige went still. Her eyes rose to meet the man’s, and every ounce of fear and hesitation in her gaze vanished, as she replied flatly, “So do I.” 

There was a flash of confusion in the face of the man she was facing, before her foot collided hard with his knee. It was a sharp enough blow that he stumbled forward. In the same motion, Paige stripped the knife from his grip, driving it up through his throat in a long vertical slice that sent blood spraying everywhere. Blood that missed her face entirely as her head snapped to the side while pulling the knife free. 

The man fell forward as she pivoted on one foot to let it pass. Behind him, his five friends were in the initial second of realizing something was wrong. Before even that much could fully settle on them, her hand snapped out, hurling the knife end over end until it embedded itself in the forehead of a second man. 

Four left, all of whom were caught between reacting to their leader’s prone form on the ground in front of them, and the other man’s falling body right beside them. All had been caught entirely flat-footed. Two managed to start pulling pistols from their pants, one producing a baseball bat, and the fourth just started bull-rushing toward Paige with a scream. 

She juked right, then leapt to the left as the charging man fell for that. In the same motion, she stripped off the jacket she had bought, throwing it into the face of the man who managed to get his pistol out first, making him flail and curse. By that point, the one who was charging swept right past her, grasping fingers missing the girl by inches. 

Paige continued her pivot, the motion carrying her to the opposite wall of the alley just as the second man had managed to get his gun out. Her hand caught hold of a trash can lid and she flung it, frisbee-like, into his face as he was trying to aim. His head snapped backward, gun firing twice into the ground by reflex. It was silenced, of course. With all the prevalence of Touched-Tech, you could practically get silencers in cereal boxes by that point. 

The metal trash can lid rebounded backward, and Paige was there, catching it with one hand before swinging it hard enough into the face of the man a second time to put a dent in the thing (and probably one in his forehead). Now she was standing between the two men with guns. In front of her was the man she had just hit twice. Behind her was the one still flailing with the coat over his face. To her left was the entrance of the alley, where the man with the bat was. To her right was the one who had charged at her, who was already turning around. 

Flipping the lid sideways, Paige slammed it hard enough into the throat of the man in front of her, who had already been hit twice, that he instantly collapsed to the ground while making frantic, desperate choking sounds. His pistol dropped from his hand, but Paige caught it in mid-fall with her left hand, snapping it down and backwards. At the same time, she flung the badly mangled lid toward the ground to her right. 

The charging man was on his way back, just as the sliding lid caught his descending foot and took it out from under him. He hit the ground hard. 

Meanwhile, the man with the jacket over his face had just managed to fling it off. But by that point, Paige felt the barrel of the pistol she had liberated contact his leg, and she pulled the trigger. A scream erupted from him as he took the bullet into his upper thigh. Still, the man brought his gun up, intending to blow her head off. At the same time, the one with the bat lunged in, swinging for the fences. 

Paige ducked and turned, pivoting so that the man with the gun fired a shot that went right over her head. Both of her hands went up, one with the gun and one without. With her free hand, she gave the first gunman’s extended arm a hard shove. With the pistol, she fired a shot into the knee of the man with the bat. 

The bat collided with the extended (and adjusted) arm of the gunman with a sickening crunch. That pistol went flying while the man screamed. His scream was joined by one from the guy with the bat as the bullet from Paige’s liberated pistol went through his knee. 

Free hand snapping out, Paige caught the second pistol in mid-air, before snapping both up in near-opposite directions. She fired a shot into the face of either man, then watched as their bodies fell. With barely a glance, she put the dying man whose throat she had collapsed out of his misery by shooting him in the head as well. 

Straightening, Paige pointed one of the pistols back the way she had come, firing a single shot that killed the man who had slipped on the trash can lid and had just been picking himself up. 

The alley was quiet. From the moment she had kicked the first man to make him trip until the flurry of violence was ended, less than fifteen seconds had passed. Stooping, Paige took the coat back from the ground and grabbed the knife she had touched, prying it from the forehead of the man it had killed. She put both pistols and the knife in the pockets while slipping it onto her shoulders. 

Then she walked away, her small form quickly swallowed up by the darkness of the city streets, leaving the dead gangsters behind without a second glance.

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