Ryder Towling

Exhibition 25-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Okay, this was bad. But on the plus side, one benefit of these guys being so good at drawing attention was that no one happened to be looking my way. They were very focused on the two Fell-Touched (three? two and a half?) who had just made themselves known alongside all their Prev gang buddies. I took advantage of that by dropping the tray of nachos and water bottles onto a nearby table before throwing myself sideways toward one of the nearby tents. I dropped down and rolled under it to get inside and out of sight.  

This was one of the refreshment tents. There were stacks of coolers full of ice and soda in the corner, and I managed to drop behind that spot while taking my phone out. Immediately, I sent an SOS text to Wren, Paige, and the others, before also sending an emergency alert via the Doephone with the new recognition code that Silversmith had given us, along with sending a text to the phone number he’d given me too. I figured others were already doing that, but it couldn’t hurt, especially with that code. I also called Amber, while sticking my earbud in. While the call was connecting, I was already tugging the bag that Wren had given me out of my pocket. In the background, there was a lot of shouting. It sounded like the gang assholes were spreading out to start forcing people together into a group. Juice was bellowing demands, and there were a couple shots. But it sounded like they were just shooting into the air. 

Abruptly, the call connected. “–gonna get away with any of this, you know?” Amber’s voice was saying. 

“Uh huh, sure,” another voice replied. “Now shut up and sit there before you get hurt, babe.” 

Okay, great. Amber, and presumably Izzy and the others in the VIP tent, were already being held. Which meant they couldn’t reveal their powers without exposing their identities. For now, at least, they couldn’t help. Not until someone helped get them away from those prying eyes.

I also couldn’t talk to Amber, since I was pretty sure she had just hit the accept call button on her phone and left it in her pocket. At the very least, I would’ve been very surprised if these guys had willingly allowed her to answer it the normal way. They didn’t strike me as that polite. 

Leaving the call connected so I could keep listening, I shook out the bag and made it restore the contents of the other one. Specifically, my costume. While everyone outside the tents were shouting and running past, I hurriedly changed into that. It was almost the fastest change I’d pulled off in my life, topped probably only by that time I’d had to get out of my costume and into my dress back at that hotel while my dad was about to come through the door. 

From what I could hear through the phone connection, these guys weren’t robbing Amber and the others. They didn’t seem interested in anything other than keeping them under control, which seemed strange. If they weren’t here to rob the people in the VIP tent at the very least, why had they come in the first place? Between that and the fact that they were openly attacking a skating demonstration, none of this made any sense. There had to be something else going on. 

At least one of my questions about what they were doing was answered as a voice spoke up from just outside the tent I was in. A voice that made me freeze up in the midst of pulling my helmet on. It was Mister Harmful, snarling an order to one of his subordinates about ‘finding that Ukrainian cunt before the Stars arrive and this whole thing goes tits up.’ 

Wait, Inessa? They were here for Inessa? Why? Just because she was famous? Did they think they could hold her hostage for some sort of payout or something? What the fuck? She was pretty important, and several companies had a lot of money invested in her, so maybe it was that simple? 

One thing was for sure, like hell was I just going to sit around and let them take her. Yeah, I’d been ready to stop these guys before when I thought they were just here to rob people or whatever. But now? Now it was personal. They wanted to hurt the girl I’d idolized since I was in second grade? Fuck every single part of that. Now I was really gonna make these guys regret ever showing up here. 

I uhh… just wasn’t exactly sure how to do that. Especially considering I was all by myself out here, for the moment. But I definitely couldn’t just wait until help arrived. Wherever Inessa was, these guys would’ve found her by that point. I had to make sure that didn’t happen. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t know where she was either. But I did know where these guys were, which meant my best way of dealing with this was to distract them long enough for reinforcements to show up. 

To that end, I took a few seconds to put as much paint over myself as I could manage. If I was going to do this without getting myself or anyone else killed, I had to be ready. Before long, my entire suit and helmet were covered inside and out. I also reached down and found a few small rocks on the ground. I was going to paint them white and maybe use them as a distraction. But at the last second I realized it would probably be a good idea if they flew faster too. Green and white together. Fast rocks that would glow. That had to be useful, right? At least to catch someone’s attention. So, just as I was focusing on making white paint appear, I also thought about adding some green lines. 

It worked. Most of the rocks were white, but they had some green swirls mixed in. Weirdly, however, when I looked closely it seemed like the green was sort of bleeding into the white. They weren’t smooth lines, it was more like they were blending together. 

Weird, but whatever. I didn’t have time to focus on that. Not when I could already hear more and more complaints and demands. It sounded like they were rounding up all the civilians and making them stand together in the middle of the skate park’s bowl. Which was a pretty good choice, all things considered. The ‘bowl’ was actually four impressions in the cement, each about ten feet deep and shaped like a four-leafed clover all together. With everyone down there, squeezed into that space, they would be easy for just a few people to watch over. While, presumably, everyone else looked for Inessa. 

Seriously, how had she managed to stay hidden for so long? Was she actually part of that crowd, blending in somehow? She was famous, but it was possible. It wasn’t like she was a movie star or whatever. If she had a hat on to hide her distinctive blue hair, maybe she could stay incognito for awhile. Or maybe she was hiding somewhere like I was. 

Before I could focus too much on that, I heard another voice. It was Juice, snapping something to one of his subordinates about securing the perimeter, and that ‘the others’ wouldn’t be able to delay the Stars for that long, so they better hurry the hell up. Their voices faded as they kept moving. 

Locking my fully-painted helmet into place, I pushed myself up just as my phone buzzed a few times. The first was an answering text from Peyton, letting me know she was grabbing the others. The second and third were responses from the authorities and my dad (as Silversmith), confirming that they were sending reinforcements. Unfortunately, that didn’t include an ETA, and at least according to what I had just overheard, they were going to be delayed. 

The fourth thing wasn’t a text. It was an incoming call from… from Ryder? Seeing that, I blinked before disconnecting from Amber’s phone. It wasn’t like she could talk to me anyway, not without people noticing. Ryder on the other hand, if he could do something with his mites…

Sure enough, as soon as I connected, an electronically-generated voice spoke. “Paintball. Can help direct you through cameras, tell you when someone is behind you or where to move. Can hear you through connection with Mite if you speak.”

Eits. Eits could help me. He was here, he knew who I was. Even standing in a group, he could still use his mites to control the electronics that he’d already infected, and apparently he’d done so with the cameras surrounding the park. Honestly, I couldn’t blame him that much. Especially not now.  

“Got it,” I whispered mostly under my breath, hoping the phone would pick it up. Janus had moved on from being right outside, but I knew there had to be other guys relatively close at any given point as they ran around searching the place for stragglers. 

So, I had Eits in my corner, playing… well, the Eye in the Sky. He was gonna be doing the same role he did as a member of La Casa, only he’d be doing it for me this time. I was just going to have to hope that between the two of us, we could pull this off. If I screwed it up…

Pushing aside that thought, I focused. If I needed their attention on me for a while in order to protect Inessa from whatever bullshit they had planned, then by God, I was going to get their attention. Which meant I was going to have to piss them off. Thankfully, I was pretty good at pissing people off. Especially when it came to my old pals Janus. Would they remember me? I was pretty sure they remembered me. 

And hey, if they didn’t, I’d be glad to remind them. 

******

“Wait, two guys talking to your right.” The electronic voice was talking in my ear as I crouched by the exit to the refreshments tent. Eits was apparently able to track my phone well enough to know exactly where I was, and coordinate that with the view he could see through the mix of various security cameras and the ones that had been set up to broadcast the event. 

Closing my eyes, I focused on what I could feel. There were three tents in this area, including the one I was in. The one straight across from this one was fifteen feet away, with an opening flap that was about four feet further to the right than this one. The other, smaller tent was next door. I could feel tables and chairs in that one, and figured it was some sort of autograph tent or something. Or maybe a command tent for the organizers. The opening flap of that one was perpendicular to these tents, facing the skating area itself, where most of the people were. Which made sense. These were the supply tents, they didn’t need everyone to see them. Whether the smaller one was a command tent or a place for Inessa to sit and sign autographs, facing the public area was just logical. 

All that passed through my mind, before the voice spoke up again. “One guy left, twenty feet to your right. Still looking your way, so wait. Wait… Go.” 

Immediately, I rolled out of the tent, staying low to avoid any other attention. Sure enough, one of the Prev thugs was there. He was faced away from me, as promised, with a shotgun held to one side. He was holding the thing loosely by the barrel, with his hand nowhere near the trigger. 

Bringing both hands up, I hit the guy with a shot of black paint from one and red paint from the other. While he started to turn upon feeling the impact of the paint, I hit the ground in front of me with a spot of red, yanking the guy off his feet. The black paint kept him silent, and I hit the gun with another shot of red as he dropped it, yanking it to my red glove. 

The man hit the ground in front of me, still flailing and trying in vain to shout. I quickly tapped the guy’s shoulder to plant a red star there, then held the tent flap aside while activating that bit of red, plus the one I’d left on the ground in there. Immediately, the guy was sent flying that way, landing between a couple of the stacked coolers. Looking both ways to make sure nobody had noticed, I took the gun with me and quickly moved to the guy, hitting him with another small shot of black to keep him quiet a bit longer. Then I went for the longer way of keeping him quiet. Namely, by grabbing one of the many Inessa-themed merch bandanas from a nearby box. Activating a line of purple stars down my arms, I drew back my foot before kicking the guy as he tried to scramble to his feet. As he went down, I dropped on top of him and stuffed the bandana in his mouth, then wrapped another around the back of his head to keep it in place. He was struggling, but I had leverage and strength over him. Enough, in this case, to flip the guy over and use several more tied-together bandanas I had prepared to secure his wrists and then his ankles. I left him there, shoved back behind the same boxes I had been hiding behind earlier. He was still making a little bit of noise, but it was doubtful that anyone would hear him. At least, not until it was too late anyway. And Eits would be able to tell me if anyone came this way.

Speaking of whom, according to him, Juice and Janus were mostly playing overseers. They were simply standing out of the way, ordering their thugs this way and that to search for Inessa. They were too important (or lazy) to do the searching for themselves. And I could use that right now. Instead of following my first instinct and just throwing myself into plain view to draw their attention, I was going to even the odds a little bit by dealing with as many of the separated Prev thugs as I could. Then we’d see just how much I could piss off my old pals. 

As I reached the entrance to the tent once more, I spoke quietly. “Positions?” 

There was about a five second pause, before the electronic voice returned. “J and J still by the pit. Three armed guys around that. One guy by soda and hot dog truck three hundred feet behind tent, past more trucks. Watching road for anyone coming. Two guys together one hundred and seventy feet ahead of tent, searching in and under staff vehicles. One guy one hundred feet to the left side of tent, looking through port-a-potties.” 

He kept going like that, giving me detailed locations for every person here. The guy by the bathrooms was the nearest, so I focused on him. Telling Eits to warn me if anyone else came close, I grabbed some more bandanas, shoved them in my pocket, and activated a bit of black on my shoes before running that way. 

Twice, Eits warned me about passing guards who could have looked over and seen me. Each time, I managed to duck down out of sight before they could. Then he warned me not to go one way because two guys were standing in plain view together. So I slipped around behind a parked trailer, heading the long way around toward the back of the port-a-potties, where my target was still carefully opening each door in succession. I was close enough by that point to hear him muttering to himself as he closed another door none-too-gently. 

Pressing my back up against the side of the one he was moving to next, I waited until I could hear the door open. Then I stepped around, putting myself directly behind the man as he scanned the empty space within. A shot of black paint into his back assured that no one would hear him, as I activated a series of purple X shapes across my stomach and gave the guy a hard shove from behind. He fell forward, while I snatched the gun out of his grip. Before he could recover, I hit each of his shoulders with a shot of red paint, then added two quick shots to either side of the toilet hole. Activating those meant he was yanked down hard onto his knees with his face basically over the hole. Probably not the nicest position to be in, but on the other hand, these guys were assaulting innocent civilians at an Inessa skating event, so fuck them. 

The guy was still flailing, but the paint was holding him down. Before any of it could wear off, I grabbed one of my strings of bandanas and wrapped it around his neck, before pushing one end through one small air hole in the back of the port-a-potty and back through another one, tying both ends off like that to hold him in place. 

By that point, the black paint was about to wear off, but before his shouts could attract anyone, I shoved another makeshift gag into his mouth and tied that off as well. Then I whispered, “How popular do you think you’ll be with your buddies if they find you facedown in a port-a-potty like this, dude? Think you’d ever live that down? Or would your nickname be Port-A-John from now on?” 

He froze briefly, clearly considering that as I went on. “And just so you know, if I start hearing you make a bunch of noise, I’ll just have to tip this whole thing over. You wanna think about how that’ll go for you in this position?” 

Again, the man didn’t seem eager to find out. So I patted his shoulder a couple times. “Hang out here for a bit.” Then I stepped out, closing the door behind me. From the outside, everything looked fine. I took the man’s pistol and hid it under the john for the moment. 

From there, using Eits’ directions, I made my way to the parking lot where a couple more guys were searching vehicles. Rolling underneath a truck, I watched until they separated to go around either side of one aisle. While their backs were to each other, I hit one in one foot with black paint, and the other foot with red. A second later, he was yanked down and hauled all the way over to the truck where I was waiting with active purple paint to pull him out of sight. Soon, he was tied and gagged as well, with his wrists secured to the exhaust pipe of the truck as he lay on his face. 

The next guy eventually came around the side, looking for his buddy. Before he could find anything, I hit him as well and had him in the same position under the opposite truck. The two men could see each other, grunting with annoyance through the gags. 

And so it continued. One by one, I made my way through the outskirts of the skating park, securing as many of these random goons as I could. It would’ve been impossible without Ryder’s help, telling me exactly where and when to go to avoid being seen. All the while, I could hear the Fell-Touched guys growing more and more annoyed by the lack of progress. They had not, however, noticed that their men were disappearing. Not yet, anyway. 

Finally, there were no more I could easily get to without being seen by others. Which meant it was time to move on to phase two. Or rather, phase three. Phase two had been getting Inessa out of sight, but she seemed to have handled that on her own, because I still couldn’t find her and Ryder had no idea where she was even with his camera view. 

Just as I had that thought, Mister Harmful bellowed in the distance, “Okay, enough of this! Hey cunt! You either come out now, or lose some fans. Let’s say six to start, huh? That sounds fair! You got five seconds to show yourself! One… two…” 

Without missing a beat, I went sprinting that way, using green paint to speed myself up. Just as I came around the corner, I used a blue square on the ground to launch myself high into the air, activating a pair of orange criss-crossed sword shapes on my back for protection. At the same time, I aimed down, sending a spray of orange protective paint over the assembled hostages just as I went sailing past them. 

“Dude, you can count to five?!” The blurted words escaped me as I landed in a crouch on top of a lamp post that was meant to illuminate the skating area. “Well, that’s one bet I lost. If you can multiply, I might have to get a part-time job to pay off those losses.”

Quivering with rage as he glared up at me. Mister Harmful snarled, “Ohhh you little fuck.” But it was both him and Uncle Friendly who shouted together, 

“Kill that piece of shit!”  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Exhibition 25-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Thankfully, the curfew had been relaxed somewhat. Now we were able to stay out until nine pm without getting in trouble. I wanted to think that that was because the streets were safer now, but honestly it was probably the product of a lot of people and businesses complaining about losing money by having to shut down so early. There was no way Deicide was going to let this gang war end like that, and between that and this whole Scions business, I had absolutely no doubt that things would get a whole lot worse before they got better. But for now, there was nothing any of us could do about it. Besides, it wasn’t like we didn’t have our own situations to deal with.

And speaking of situations to deal with, Paige and Sierra weren’t done editing those pictures to their satisfaction by the time the evening rolled around. So, after sending them a text to let me know if they wanted to meet up later to look at their work (not that I would’ve been able to contribute anything more than an encouraging thumbs up), I went to the park with Izzy. The two of us left without letting my parents know where we were going, mostly because none of them, Simon included, had been home at all the whole day. They were busy, apparently. Something told me it had to do with the attempted attacks on Fragile as well as Carousel and Syndicate. Which, good, the Ministry ought to do something about that. Or maybe it had something to do with whoever had planted those bombs at the party Amber went to. She’d told me about that too, though it felt like she had been leaving something out. 

Either way, we were here now. I had my board with me, because there was no way I would be able to resist the urge to get some of my own skating in either before or after watching the master. And I definitely wasn’t alone with that. As Izzy and I walked through the park toward the main attraction, I could see at least half the onlookers had boards of their own. 

There was also a stand near the road selling both full boards as well as separate wheels, trucks (the metal t-shaped piece that goes on the bottom to keep the wheels attached), and decks. Most were the usual tourist trap garbage marked up to get suckers. But there were a few good ones in there. We stopped and I looked over the selection to help Izzy find a board that would work for her to start out. I had her take a couple options out to roll along the pavement to see which one felt the most natural. Once she settled on something, I picked up the board to look at it. The deck was pretty cool. The centerpiece was a dark-haired angel, with one of her intricately-detailed feathery wings spread out over the bottom half of the board, while she held a gleaming sword out over the top half. 

Izzy tried to pay for it, but I stopped her. It was my idea for her to try this out, so I gave the guy a couple hundred for the board, plus another hundred for the protective gear, and we started to walk away. Just as we were turning, however, I heard a guy nearby snort, “Stupid chicks, man.” 

Looking that way, I saw a guy about an inch or two under six feet, with a thin blond goatee and long hair. He looked to be maybe two years older than me, and was wearing a black tank top with dark baggy shorts. A couple other guys were around him. 

“What?” I asked, unable to stop myself. 

Looking me up and down, the guy gave a soft, derisive laugh before shaking his head. “Nothing. You go have fun pretending you know anything about real skating. I’m sure your TikTok fans think you’re totally cool.” 

I blinked a couple times. “Dude, what the fuck are you talking about?” 

The guy had started to turn back to say something to his friends, and now seemed annoyed that I had asked any follow-up questions. He gave me a dirty look. “Look, all you babes are the same. You see Inessa getting famous cuz she’s like the one fucking chick in a million who knows which side of the skateboard goes on the ground, and you want in on it. You roll around on a board for a few minutes, do some slick editing to make it look like you’re not total ass, and put it online so all the simps out there can drool all over it and throw donations at you for doing jack squat.” 

Absorbing that for a moment, I retorted, “Well, when it comes to things that are total ass you are probably the expert.”

“Oh fuck off, kid,” he shot back. “What’re you, like thirteen? Mommy bought you a skateboard instead of an Easy Bake Oven and now you think you’re cool? Every little bit of space we guys have, girls think they have to barge in and take over. How’d you like it if we started barging into your spaces?” 

The words blurted out of me before I even thought about it. “If our spaces includes the shower, I think everyone stuck in your immediate vicinity would be A-Okay with you spending some time there.” 

Yeah, the guy didn’t like that. He snapped, “Why don’t you come back and talk again once you figure out if you’re a guy or a girl.” 

That… that made me rock backward on my heels, confusion flooding me. Wait, he didn’t know about–wait. “What?” I managed, feeling Izzy touch my back. 

His hand waved, gesturing to my head. “Long hair on one side, short hair on the other. Are you a girl or a guy? At least in a few years once you grow more than bumps there you won’t be able to pretend anymore.” 

His words, especially as he gestured toward my chest, made his buddies snicker. I was already balling up my fist and starting to move, when Izzy caught my arm somewhat subtly, stepping next to me. “We should go,” she murmured before adding, “Looks like you scared him enough already.” That was added with a not-so-subtle gesture downward. 

“Scared? Who’s sca–what?” The guy looked down, his eyes widening as he saw the large wet spot across the front of his shorts that Izzy had just surreptitiously put there while everyone was distracted. His hands moved to cover it, even as the others around him, including his buddies, started laughing. “That’s not–fuck–shut up, I didn’t piss my–fuck you!” 

Izzy and I both used that opening to leave, even as the guy’s words about me choosing to be male or female played through my head. He was an asshole and a moron, obviously, so I should’ve just ignored him. There were always going to be people like that. It didn’t… it didn’t mean anything.

“Thanks,” I murmured toward Izzy. 

She hesitated, then just squeezed my hand. “He had it coming.”

Thankfully, I was quickly distracted as we slipped through the crowd by the sound of a gasp going up around us. It made my whole body tense as my gaze jerked around to see what was wrong. My brain immediately leapt to all sorts of possibilities. Including the not-so-terrible thought that the guy back there had just spontaneously combusted. 

In this case, however, there was no threat. Instead, I saw Inessa emerge from the crowd. Seeing her, my heart leapt. God, she was so cool. Even now, walking through the crowd full of people staring at her, she was cool. And the way she grinned when she saw me was just… god, what was wrong with me? Was it weird that I just wanted to stand there and giggle like an idiot when she smiled at me like that? 

Well it definitely would’ve been weird if I didn’t say something pretty quick. So, I forced myself to take a step that way while speaking up. “Hey, Inessa. This is Izzy, my sister.” I gestured that way before adding, “We were just getting her a board.” 

“Izzy, hey!” Inessa stepped over to join us. “You mind if I take a look?” 

Wordlessly handing it over, the younger girl looked at me. Her mouth opened like she was going to say something, but then she stopped and just stared. The look she was giving me made me think I had done something weird. Maybe she just noticed how I was acting around Inessa. Stupid fangirl instincts. Yeah, she definitely noticed something. But what was I supposed to do? It was Inessa Sidorov! I couldn’t just ignore that! I couldn’t–I–it was Inessa Sidorov!

Speaking of whom, the woman in question finished looking over the board and then started to talk to Izzy herself about how to take care of it, how she should start learning about riding, and all that stuff. There had to be a couple hundred people standing around, craning to look at her, but Inessa was solely focused on talking to Izzy about learning how to skate properly. It was like Izzy was the only person in the world for her right then. She even convinced the younger girl to give her her phone number so she could call and check in. Then she talked to me for a minute, sharing a couple jokes with both of us (and the crowd) about the first time she started to learn how to skate in her own backyard back in Ukraine and how stupid she had been for not wearing protective gear until she broke her wrist. Then she took it seriously. She made Izzy promise to wear all the right equipment every time she did anything on the board. And got me to double-promise to make sure we both did. 

After that, she made sure we had the tickets to get into the ‘backstage’ tent, then headed off into the crowd once more, talking to someone else she had met. The group moved with her, since the people, thankfully, still didn’t know who I was. I had a lot of problems with what my parents were and what they did, but the fact that I was able to be anonymous in this crowd still meant a lot. Looking at the way everyone followed Inessa around, at how famous she was amongst other skaters and all that, it was just… it made me think about how different my life would’ve been if my parents didn’t make sure I could live my life as normally as possible. 

Finally shaking my head, I turned to ask Izzy if she wanted to get a drink, only to stop as she was still staring at me. Outside of the distraction when Inessa had been talking directly to her, I didn’t think she had stopped staring. But I didn’t understand why. She’d been looking at me weirdly for the past few minutes, basically ever since I introduced her to Inessa. But all I’d said was–

Oh. 

Eyes widening a bit, I blurted, “Uh, right, sister. I said you were my sister. I mean–I’m–that wasn’t–I wasn’t trying to assume you–I mean I know you really aren’t sure if you–I–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted, though she sounded a bit confused. “You weren’t… trying to pressure me or anything, I get it. You just said it. Like you weren’t even thinking about that.” 

My head shook quickly. “Yeah, I definitely wasn’t thinking, you’re right on that one. I just–I don’t wanna push you or anything. I was distracted because it’s Inessa Sidorov and I wanted to introduce you guys and–uhh, yeah.” My face was a bit flushed. “Are you okay?” 

Thankfully, now that she’d had a moment to recover from what had obviously been a surprise, Izzy seemed more amused by my reaction than anything else. She smiled just a little before nodding. “It’s okay, Cassie. You just… I wasn’t… it was new.” 

Part of me thought I shouldn’t push things, but the impulsive part took over and asked, “New, but maybe not terrible?” 

There was the slightest moment of hesitation as Izzy considered that before she smiled once more and agreed, “New, but not terrible.” She leaned closer, lowering her voice. “You really like her, huh?” 

“Inessa?” I felt my blush deepen while shifting on my feet. “She’s been my hero basically forever. I mean, the non-Touched hero.” My face darkened a little. “Let’s hope this one turns out better than my favorite Touched hero did.” I had told her about the whole Silversmith thing and how much I’d liked him before finding out the truth. It was still a bit of a painful thought. Especially when I considered the Silversmith sheets and pillowcases I’d had, and the action figures, and the–yeah. Boy, how had my dad really felt when I’d asked for all that stuff as a kid? 

Izzy seemed to read the expression on my face and changed the subject to talk about the board she had just done. Together, we walked over to one of the open skating areas and I walked her through a little bit of early practice. Before we were done there, Amber joined us. She wasn’t a huge skater herself, but she did know a few things. Together, the three of us messed around by one of the ramps. I showed them a couple simple tricks, they acted like it was a much bigger deal than it actually was and made a show of cheering just to make me blush even more, that sort of thing. It was fun. It was… nice, and it had nothing to do with any Touched stuff. I could almost pretend I was a normal person again for a few minutes. 

Okay, that wasn’t right. I didn’t want to be normal. I had no desire to be average. I loved my powers. I loved the freedom they offered, the… I loved being Paintball. But the stuff about my family, the stress over what they were and what they did, that part wasn’t exactly fun. It was nice to just shove that out of my head for a little while and focus on something normal and dumb. Even with people like that jackass back there, who really deserved a good kick in the–fuck, no, I was pushing that out of my mind and focusing on fun things. 

Of course, that couldn’t last forever. Though in this case, the reminder of my other life wasn’t exactly the worst. It came in the form of Ryder. I caught a glimpse of the boy standing off to the side, next to a much worse reminder of everything, Arleigh. He didn’t exactly look comfortable being there, and hadn’t noticed me yet. Instead, his focus seemed to be on Errol, who had just come into view through the crowd holding a couple corndogs, one of which he offered to the older boy.

Seeing Ryder had reminded me of what happened the night before, and the fact that he now knew who I was. Seeing Errol, on the other hand, reminded me of the whole Scions situation. My family had to know Errol was the one Pencil and Cup were looking for, right? So how many of the people around us were secretly guarding him? 

Aaand so much for not thinking about my family situation. That had been a pleasant few minutes. 

Still, I shook that off as best as I could. There was nothing to be done about it right now, and assuming my family did have people watching him, they might wonder why I was staring that way so intently when I was supposed to be here relaxing and having fun. So, I forced my gaze away and walked with Izzy and Amber toward the tent. Halfway there, we were met by Dani, who emerged from the crowd before stopping as she noticed the girl beside me. “Oh, hey… guys.” 

Clearing her throat, Amber shifted her weight. I could hear the uncertainty in her voice. “Hey, Dani. What’s uhh…” She coughed, again sounding strange. “What’s going on?” 

Yeah, something had definitely happened between the two of them. Maybe they kissed and now it was all awkward? That was the only thing I could think of. It definitely made sense, considering the way they kept flipping between avoiding eye contact, then seeking it out, then avoiding it. Between that and the fact that they’d clearly started to develop a thing for each other since Dani joined the school, it made sense. 

Of course, I also knew about the other complication to this situation. Pack. Pack obviously had a thing for That-A-Way. She’d made that abundantly clear. So no wonder Amber was confused about the whole thing. She probably felt guilty about having a thing for Dani too. Dani was the safe option, since she wasn’t an active criminal. But having feelings for Dani made Amber feel guilty about having feelings for Pack, and vice versa. That had to be hard to sort out. 

Boy, wasn’t it good that I didn’t have any problems like that? I might’ve had every other possible complication on the planet, but my love life was just completely nonexistent. Go me. 

It turned out that Dani had a backstage pass too, so the four of us made our way into the tent. There were refreshments, coffee, iced tea, and other stuff laid out along a table, as well as comfortable chairs to sit in facing the skating area where Inessa would be giving her show. And if that wasn’t enough, there were huge television monitors to either side providing footage from people on the sidelines, and a couple drones. So you could see the whole show from multiple angles instead of just what was right in front of you. 

Inessa was back here too, joking around with one of the event organizers. She was making a point of talking up all the dangerous tricks she was going to do, including a lot of hand gestures to show off spins and flips. I could almost see the terror in his face as he thought about what would happen if Inessa Sidorov got hurt during an event he had helped put together. Then they were joined by, of all people, Richard Mornes, the guy from Ten Towers who had given me the tour. Which, I supposed made sense. They probably had a good bit invested in this event, now that I thought about it.

Mornes was clearly easing the event guy’s nerves, while also joking back and forth with Inessa. He was good at his job, that much was obvious. He was wearing a different Hawaiian shirt than I’d seen him in before. This one was purple with yellow suns and black palm trees. 

Turning away from that whole thing, I joined the others in finding our seats, putting my skateboard on the floor so I could rest my feet on it to stop the thing from rolling away. Then I turned to Izzy, Dani, and Amber and started to regale them with one of my earliest memories of watching Inessa’s videos back when I was seven years old. It basically involved scrolling through YouTube on my tablet while laying inside a blanket fort on the outside patio, looking for something fun to watch. 

“It was funny,” I was saying, “cuz when I first saw the video list, I wasn’t even gonna click on it, but then…” I trailed off, my voice going silent. But my brain wasn’t. I knew what I was about to say. The words that had been on the tip of my tongue. ‘But then he told me to look at them.’ 

He. Anthony. The name wasn’t there, not inside that particular memory anyway. It wasn’t that specific. But I knew it had to be him. I had a fuzzy memory of a boy who had been laying with me inside that blanket fort reaching out to poke at the screen, insisting I should check out the video I had been about to scroll past. I saw his hand, heard his voice. I heard myself joke that he just didn’t want me to look at another rollercoaster video. My head, in my own memory, turned to say something else to him. I saw his face starting to come into view. 

Suddenly, I was doubled over in real life. A sharp, shocking rush of pain was filling my head as I groaned aloud and clutched it. Izzy and Amber were both saying something, but I couldn’t hear them. All I could focus on was the blinding pain that left me almost whimpering. 

It was gone as soon as it arrived. I found myself blinking a few times before looking up. Izzy and Amber were there, the latter kneeling on the ground right in front of me. Dani was looking over from her own seat, seeming just as concerned, and there were a few other people paying attention. 

“I–I’m fine, sorry.” Shaking my head, I swallowed. “I just need to get some air. Maybe some water. You want some water?” Even as they asked questions, I pushed myself up, waving off the concern. “Just a little migraine, it’s gone now. I’ll get some water and be right back.” To demonstrate that I was fine, I did a quick little spin with my arms out. None of them looked all that convinced, but I waved them off again and headed out of the tent. What was I supposed to say, that every time I started to get memories of Anthony back, my head felt like it was going to explode? 

Well, I could’ve told Amber and Izzy, but Dani was right there and she wasn’t involved in any of this. Plus someone else might’ve overheard. So that would have to wait. Instead, I took a short walk, passing the regular refreshments table inside the VIP tent to instead walk out to one of the vendor trailers near the parking lot. There, I stood in line, got a tray with a few bottled waters and a large plate of nachos for all of us to share, then started to head back. No way did I wanna be late for the actual show, headache or no headache. 

Unfortunately, I was only about halfway back to the VIP tent, making my way through the crowd, when a frantic shout from the sidelines made my gaze whip that way. I was just in time to see an enormous pair of hands, each bigger than the semi-trailer they were covering, lift that trailer into the air and hurl the thing toward a group of assembled onlookers. The people scattered in every direction while the trailer slammed into the ground there and went tumbling side-over-side. 

“We didn’t get our invitation!” the Uncle Friendly side of Janus shouted as their massive arms went back to normal size. The literal two-faced man (men?) stood there, accompanied by the large black man I was going to guess was Juice, given the electricity he was projecting into a ball between his hands. He was wearing a different costume than I was used to. This one was mostly black armor, with several gold lightning bolt-like designs randomly across it, and a metal bullet-shaped helmet with gold lenses over his eyes. 

“Yeah,” Juice was saying, even as a couple dozen other guys with a mix of guns, chains, and knives spread out from behind them. “But don’t worry about entertaining us. 

“We know how to make our own fun.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Schooling 24-14 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – The non-canon for this story was posted and is available for everyone right here

For a few long seconds after that, I stared at the boy. My mouth hung open. I had no idea how I was supposed to respond to that. Hell, I’d just started to get over the shock of having found out who he really was, and having exposed my identity to him. What was I supposed to say to him somehow figuring out the rest of it? Finally, I managed a squeak, which sounded a bit like an old screen door slowly opening. That sound snapped me out of my reaction enough to find words. “H-how did you–what–huh?” Yeah, I said I found words, I didn’t say they were eloquent ones. 

Ryder quickly held up his hands. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t spying. I mean, I was spying, but not on you. I mean my spying on them didn’t have anything to do with figuring out your thing. I mean–” He stopped, taking a breath. “I should probably start over.” 

Taking a breath, I gave a quick nod. “Uh huh, uh huh, probably a good idea.” I had no idea what he meant by spying–wait, no, yes I did. Arleigh’s family, duh. He had been sneaking around their place and breaking into their fathers office. Why he was doing that, I had no idea. He’d said it wasn’t for Blackjack or La Casa, that he was working on his own. Which… yeah, I still had no idea what that was about. But my main focus was on how he knew about my family. 

Still keeping his hands up, as though he was either trying to calm me down or surrender, Ryder started again. “Okay, so I didn’t know the whole truth until we were in the closet–actually it was after that. I mean–right. After we got out of the closet downstairs in the kitchen, I was thinking a lot. I mean, about everything. If you were Paintball, that meant… I didn’t know what it meant, not at first. But I was thinking about it that whole time we were finishing dinner, and right up until you showed up here on the roof. And I realized that your parents running the Ministry makes everything else make sense. Everything about how you reacted to everything, I mean.

“You’re so desperate to keep your identity secret. I know you don’t really like it when people think you’re a boy at your school. That’s what the others were saying, anyway. When we were at the skatepark, I mean. Even Arleigh said you don’t like that, and if she notices something, it’s either wrong or really obvious. And I was pretty sure she wasn’t wrong. So you definitely don’t like it when people at your school call you a boy, but you pretend to be a boy in costume? That didn’t make any sense to me, unless… unless hiding your identity was more important than that. And the people you’d be most likely to want to hide your identity from are your parents. They’d probably be the first to figure out who you were without the boy thing. And why would you want to hide from your parents that much? Because they’re the Ministry, the people you’ve been trying to investigate. Which I uhh, picked up from some of the things Pack said or asked about before.” He finished up with a slightly awkward smile and shrug. “See, not spying. Just… thinking all that through.” 

Oh boy, how was I supposed to react to that? Wait, I knew. “How did you know about the Ministry?” I asked that flatly, watching his expression for any sign of lying or making up a response. “I’m pretty sure that’s not the sort of information Blackjack gives out to every member of his gang.” 

Snorting audibly, Ryder shook his head “No, trust me, he doesn’t.” He took a moment to glance away, a myriad of emotions playing out across his face, before he slumped against the wall. Then he told me the full story about the mysterious group who had helped him get through his transition. It wasn’t just Blackjack or La Casa responsible for that. Some guy from this mysterious group, who went by Squire (Simon, of course, though I kept my mouth shut), had actually saved him from a few assholes and made sure he was safe. Later they asked for help with something else. Something that had made Ryder pay attention to them. Apparently the Ministry (not that he’d known what they were called at that point), were trying to stop Pencil and Cup from finding a specific name within some sealed adoption records. What name? Errol Fosters, as in Arleigh’s adopted little brother. Ryder didn’t know exactly why the Scions were so obsessed with finding this kid, or why the group who had helped him out and clearly had all that power were trying to stop them. But he did want to find out, so he investigated by getting himself hired as Arleigh’s tutor so he could snoop around. 

With an audible sigh, the boy waved a hand. “I knew it was going to be dangerous trying to look around that place in the middle of Sherwood territory, but I didn’t know I’d be going right into the middle of the lion’s den.” 

“Middle of the lion’s den?” I echoed blankly, before my brain caught up with my mouth. Everything he had said so far, everything he’d implied. Wait a minute–my eyes widened. “Hold on, wait, wait. What–are you trying to say that–do you mean those guys–” I shut my mouth, inhaling sharply through my nose while staring at him. Instinctively, I lowered my voice. “Are you trying to say that Arleigh’s family are part of Sherwood?! But they–her father runs one of the biggest technological–they–Sherwood attacks Taurus trucks! Taurus delivers technology all over the–” Then I stopped, still reeling. “Aaaand that would probably be one of the best possible covers they could have. Who would ever think that the people behind a Touched-Tech delivery company were also the violently anti-technology Fell-gang?! You just told me they were, basically, and I still didn’t believe it.” 

“Yeah, pretty much,” he agreed. “It was a lot for me to take in too, I promise. Arleigh being Clime–” 

Okay, that made me do another double-take. “She’s who?! But–but Clime is this total nature-loving girl who–she’s–and–ohhh she’s good. Wow, she’s better at pretending to be someone else than I ever thought she’d be. What the hell?” My poor brain was taking a battering from all these shocking revelations. I felt like they were going to give me a concussion or something. 

Ryder was shaking his head, putting a palm against his face. “I probably shouldn’t have said that. Damn it, there’s a whole thing about not–look, you can’t act on that, okay? I mean you can’t tell the cops or anything. If you do they’ll–” 

“They’ll backtrack everything to figure out where the leak is, which means they’ll double-check everyone they’ve had contact with,” I finished for him. “And you’ll be one of the first people they hone in on, especially if they check with the Ministry and find out who you really are. Or the Ministry just does the work for them. And if the Ministry checks in and finds out you started investigating the Fosters right after that–oh my dad knows.” 

“What?” Ryder blinked at me, then realized. “Oh. Oh he was there with you when you guys were in the driveway. He saw me there with–oh.” It was his turn to rock backward in obvious shock before adjusting. “I mean–I mean I’m not dead yet. No one’s said anything to me. He had to figure out why I was there, right? I mean, there’s no way that could be a coincidence. As soon as he saw me there, he had to have figured out that I knew the name and was investigating, so why haven’t the Ministry or Blackjack said anything to me about backing off?” 

“Maybe they’re thinking about hiring you?” I offered. When he gave me a look, I pushed on. “No, I’m serious. You did all this on your own, so maybe they’re waiting to see if they can trust you with more stuff. You know, seeing what you do with this information, how effective you are at dealing with it, that sort of thing. They’re probably ready to jump in if you do something they don’t like, but for now they’re sort of giving you slack on the leash or whatever so they can see what happens. See how effective you are at the whole thing and how much you can find out.”

He was still absorbing that while I pushed on. “And don’t worry, I’m not about to call the cops on Arleigh. As fun as that would be in some ways, especially now that I know she’s literally a villain and not just annoying and rude, it’d be just as bad for me. Because if they start looking into people who have interacted with her lately, I’ll get attention too. Remember, you’ve been at their house multiple times, and you have no reason to expose her. Not considering what you’re actually there for, I mean.  If I was over to their house and the very next day Paintball suddenly knew who she really was, I think they might be able to add two and two. I kind of try to avoid letting anyone connect Paintball and Cassidy. So yeah, I’m not gonna tell anyone.” 

Visibly relaxing a little bit, Ryder met my gaze. “Thanks. I mean seriously, thank you. I can’t–” He stopped, giving an audible chuckle of disbelief. “This whole situation is a lot to take in, isn’t it?“

Snorting, I retorted, “You think? I’m pretty sure if I get one more shocking reveal tonight, I’ll fill up my punch card and get another shocking reveal for free.” 

The remark made him snicker before he looked me up and down for a moment. “You really have been through a lot the last couple months, haven’t you? I’ve been dealing with this Errol thing, and it’s been hard enough to keep secrets from the rest of La Casa. But you… you’ve been keeping secrets from your family. I mean, that wouldn’t be hard for me, but you seem like you have a pretty good relationship with them.” Right after saying that, he blanched. “Shit, sorry. That’s both none of my business, and not necessarily true. Outward appearances don’t–I mean that–” He stopped short and gave a sigh. “Sorry, I’m just gonna shut up about it.” 

I glanced away, pulling my arms across my stomach. “Yeah, I kind of freaked out when I found out who they really are, and the stuff they do. The first hint I had that my family weren’t exactly on the up and up was finding out my brother was responsible for executing two people.” As Ryder reacted to that, I went on to give him a quick summary of how that first night had gone. 

“But ever since then, I’ve found out they’re responsible for some good things too,” I added while giving a helpless shrug. “You know, like what happened with you. Or how they stop some crime. But that doesn’t–my family still profits from all of it. Sure they do good stuff with it, but they do bad stuff too. They let bad things happen and then excuse it if the people pay the right fine or tax or whatever. It’s not–” I sighed heavily. “It’s complicated. The whole thing is so complicated.” 

There was a moment of silence before I felt Ryder reach out and put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m really sorry,” he murmured. “ I mean, like I said before, your family’s group really helped me out. If it wasn’t for them, and Blackjack, I… I don’t know where I’d be right now. I don’t know who I’d be. But I get what you mean about it being complicated. If you really found out about them by seeing a couple people get murdered, and then found out your brother was responsible, I don’t…” He swallowed audibly. “Yeah, I kind of get why you feel that way. I wouldn’t know how to react to all that either. I’m basically on the outside of it and even I don’t know how to react.” 

A strained and slightly high-pitched giggle escaped me for some reason. “I guess it’s kind of a lot, isn’t it? I still don’t know what I’m going to do about all of it. I keep telling myself I just need to find out more, but I don’t know how much I need to know before I do something, or what I should even do. I’ve got other things to deal with, like helping… helping a couple of my teammates with their own problems. And there’s the gangwar, and the whole Scions recruiting people thing, and–” I stopped, realizing there was already another distraction. “Wait, what are you gonna do about the Scions thing? Errol, I mean. Did you ever find out why they’re looking for him? Or why the leader of Sherwood adopted him? Wait, is that a coincidence? I’m pretty sure it’s not a coincidence.”

Ryder dropped his hand from my shoulder and slumped back a bit. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s not either. They adopted him to like… keep an eye on him or something, I guess? I dunno. But it seems pretty obvious, you know?” He glanced away then while adding, “And… yeah, I do know what the Scions want him for. I stole some files from the house before, and I heard… I heard Mr. Fosters talking to someone he called Minister Gold. Actually that whole thing is what led to me figuring out they were called the Ministry. That and some other things.” 

He shook that off before pushing on. “Like I said, I know why they’re so desperate to find him. So desperate, actually, that that Cup chick had a really intense program running to sort through all the adoption files. It was running on a laptop that was pretty damn hard to get into. Seriously, this thing needed a numerical passcode, a fingerprint, and a voice print to get into. She did not want anyone opening the damn thing.” 

“Okay,” I announced, “after all of the experiences I’ve had with Cup, and that’s way more than I ever wanted, there’s a lot of things I would call her. But ‘careful’ isn’t one of them. If she went through all that trouble to lock that laptop up that securely and keep that program running, it has to be something huge. And it can’t just be something like the kid knew their real identities or whatever, because the Ministry wouldn’t be having you go through all that trouble to get into the laptop just to hide the information. Not after Pencil and Cup were already exposed. At first I thought maybe it had something to do with my own family’s identities, but that can’t be it either. They have nothing to do with this Errol kid, either before or after he was adopted. I mean, I don’t think they did…” 

“They didn’t, not as far as I can tell,” Ryder assured me. 

That made me look at him once more, realizing, “Wait, you said you did know why Pencil and Cup want to find Errol so badly, and why the Ministry is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. What–what’s so important about him?” 

So, he told me. Over the next couple minutes, Ryder explained that Errol’s birth parents were apparently college roommates and friends of the man named Rodney Barlow. Or, as he was known throughout the rest of the world, Overseer. Which was a name I recognized immediately. Actually I knew the name Rodney Barlow too, but Overseer even more so. Seven years back, he had been a big problem in Wisconsin. Basically, any time he touched a piece of someone’s body, like their hair, blood, or even their sweat, he could ‘charge,’ it. When he did that, he could see through that person’s eyes, hear everything they heard, and even control them like puppets. 

But it didn’t end there. It got worse. When he had enough pieces of someone, he could fashion those pieces into these little dolls. And anyone could use those dolls, not just him. Yeah, any random person, you didn’t even have to be Touched. If you picked up someone’s doll and held it, you could control them. 

“Oh… oh I don’t like that,” I managed, my eyes widening as I stared at the boy. “I don’t like that at all. This sounds really bad already.” 

“It doesn’t exactly get better,” he warned me before continuing. “Anyway, from what I’ve been able to find out, Cup and Pencil have this DNA-locked safe that used to belong to Errol’s parents. They killed them, but they didn’t realize the safe was DNA-locked. And everyone’s pretty sure Overseer left dolls in that safe. Dolls of Touched here in Detroit, because he was planning on coming here and taking over before he was arrested.” 

I absorbed that. “So, there could be dolls inside that safe of anyone who was Touched seven years ago. Maybe even everyone, knowing how Overseer worked. And Cup and Pencil have that safe. But they can’t get into it because they need Errol, except they don’t know who he is… yet. Hold on, I don’t wanna sound morbid–I mean I’m not pushing for this–I mean–” 

“You wanna know why the Ministry hasn’t just killed Errol, don’t you?” Ryder finished for me, his expression grim. “Yeah, I sorta had the same thought, believe me. I don’t want them to kill him either, it just seems like the obvious solution for a group that’s already willing to kill.” 

I nodded slowly at that. “So… why haven’t they? Do they really not want to kill a kid? Is that–” It sounded too naive to my own ears to think it could be that simple. “I don’t get it.” 

“I don’t either,” he replied. “That’s why I’ve been trying to sneak around there a bit more, to try to figure out if they’ve got plans for Errol or something. You know, plans they need him for. I was working on getting into some of Hemlock’s more secure files tonight, but then… you know.”

My head bobbed. “I interrupted. But if I hadn’t, Micah would’ve found you.” 

“Yeah, I let myself get too distracted,” he agreed, blanching visibly at the thought before focusing on me. “Thanks again. And thanks for, you know… trusting me not to tell anyone.” 

“Yeah, right back at you,” I replied as casually as I could manage. My voice still cracked a bit anyway, making me flush visibly. “Look, I’ll see if I can find out anything about this situation too. My team and I just stole a bunch of files from the Ministry. I’ll look for anything involving Errol, or Overseer, or his parents. You know, anything like that. Maybe we accidentally grabbed something relevant and didn’t even notice.” 

“That was–” Ryder stared at me before giving a low whistle. “Right, you guys are pretty impressive.” He smiled before sobering. “Right, I guess we just… keep each other’s secrets and keep looking into this, huh?”

My head bobbed once more. “I guess so. But Eits–I mean Ryder… seriously, be careful. I know the Ministry helped you out, but they can be very dangerous too. Especially if they start to think you might be a threat. And if Pencil thinks you might know something…” I blanched, thinking briefly about how badly Ryder had been hurt the last time he had information the Scions wanted. 

He promised he would, and we made a plan to meet up sometime soon, after I had a chance to go through that stuff. As if I didn’t already have enough to deal with. Finally, I put my mask and helmet back on and left the boy there so I could start heading home. There was a lot I had to think about.

As I started to leave, my phone buzzed. It was Amber. Answering, I leapt off the roof and let my red paint carry me to the next building. “Hey, what’s up?” 

“Just uhh… checking in. Sorry, I got kinda busy at the party and… Never mind, everything okay?” Her voice sounded a little odd, strained maybe. Or I could’ve been imagining it. “Your text wasn’t exactly clear, but if you still need–” 

“Nah, I’m good,” I replied. “It’s just been one of those nights, you know?” 

There was a brief pause before she replied, “Dude, trust me. 

“I know exactly what you mean.”  

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Schooling 24-13 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Unsurprisingly, there was clearly a lot running through both of our minds. Not to mention a lot we needed to say as well. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to get into it. Even as I saw the boy open his mouth, I put my hand up to stop him. My voice was a hissed whisper. “Not now. They’re gonna figure out we’re missing really soon. I don’t know about you, but I don’t exactly want to start explaining to Arleigh and her brothers why we’re hiding up here in their dad’s office.”

A visible blush crossed his face and I saw his mouth open to say one thing, but he thought better of it and simply gave a short nod. He kept his own voice below as well, barely a whisper. “We’ve got to get back down there, without letting Micah see us. Hang on.” His head tilted a bit as though he was–oh, he was seeing through one of his mites. “Okay, he’s in his room and the door is mostly shut. The plants are still taken care of–” He saw the look on my face and explained quickly. “They’ve got cameras and plant spies in here. The cameras aren’t any issue, but I’ve been working on the plants for awhile. They were a problem until I got this stuff from a… friend.” In one hand, he held up what looked like a small pocket-sized spray tube of perfume. “It makes those plants, uhh… hallucinate is the best word. Mostly it makes them see what they’ve been seeing recently instead of what’s really there. So if they’ve been seeing an empty room–” 

“They keep seeing an empty room,” I finished. “That seems pretty specialized. And probably expensive. Where–never mind.” Interrupting myself, I shook my head. “Later. So it’s still working? And just how many plants do the Sherwood people have spying on this house?”

For a brief moment, he looked confused. “Wait, you don’t–” It was his turn to interrupt himself, shaking that off. “Right, no time. Here.” Standing up, he moved to the door leading into the hallway and carefully poked the bottle through the doorway before giving it a quick spray. Then he counted to ten before opening the door and stepping out. “We’re good,” he whispered while heading through.

On our way out of there and back downstairs, the boy kept glancing at me. I could tell he wanted to say something else, or maybe a lot of something elses. But as we had both established, there was no time. All that would have to come later. Instead, we quickly made our way back down and split up. He went into the kitchen with the others first, and I heard them start teasing him about getting lost. 

I waited another fifteen seconds before heading in after him, making a show of saying goodbye to my mother before shoving the phone into my pocket. Then I looked up and rolled my eyes. But I didn’t talk about anything she supposedly said to me. I thought about it. Hell, I thought about coming up with a whole story about what my mother had said. But honestly, why would I talk to Arleigh about a phone call with my mom? There was no way that wouldn’t come off as making up a story. So, I left it at the rolled eyes and looked toward Inessa before asking, “How long are you in town for? And please tell me you’re doing another show. I have got to be there.” 

The blue-haired girl offered me a grin. “Well, if what Arleigh here has been saying is true, perhaps I should invite you to come up with me to help make the show even more impressive. It sounds as though you could teach me a thing or two.” 

A deep flush crossed my face, for more than one reason. First, I didn’t really need to think about Arleigh talking about me at all, and I definitely didn’t want her to talk about me being a good skater. That was just… yeah, I didn’t want that to be on her mind. Letting Ryder/Eits find out my real identity was one thing–and yeah even that was freaking me out pretty bad right now. But the very thought of goddamn Arleigh finding out about me was enough to make me want to vomit. I could barely handle having to play nice with her as it was. If she had that sort of leverage, there was no way I would survive for very long. Or possibly no way she would. One way or the other, one of us wouldn’t get through it. 

And yet, I still had to play it cool. This was my skating idol talking about me going to a show with her. No, not just going, actually performing with her. It was like a rock star inviting one of their biggest fans up on stage with them. What kind of person wouldn’t jump at that? Even if it did mean letting Arleigh act like she had done me some sort of favor. A favor I would owe her for. 

Again, I felt the urge to vomit. But I kept it down, and simply offered a weak giggle, as though I was totally overwhelmed. It wasn’t exactly a hard thing to fake. Actually, I wasn’t really faking it at all. “Oh, haha, uhh, no, I–I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I could ever teach you.” Even as I said that, I could see Ryder staring at me from the corner of the room where he had moved to get a soda. He was out of sight from everyone else, so they couldn’t see the way he was staring. But I could, slightly. It made my blush deepen a bit, which I played off as just being about the Inessa thing. “You’re like, the best in the world, dude.” My voice cracked a bit embarrassingly with that. 

A cheerful, charming laugh escaped the older girl, which sent a tingle through my stomach for some reason. She gave me a wink before replying with that clear Eastern European accent. “Trust me, nobody is so good at something that they can’t learn from somebody else. That’s something I figured out a long time ago. Actually, I’m pretty sure I learn something new from every big skater I talk to. And if Arleigh is to be believed, you are a very big skater.” 

“I’m not a big anything,” I immediately pointed out reflexively. My blush was back and wouldn’t go away. I honestly couldn’t figure out whether it was more from her praise, or the way Ryder was looking at me. He wasn’t being completely obvious about it after sitting back down at the table, but since everyone else’s attention was on us, he had an excuse to stare a little bit. Under all that attention, I shifted in my seat before coughing. “Seriously, it’s no big deal. I just like to skate. And I learned a lot of it from watching you. So, you know, I’m pretty sure anything I could teach somebody would be what I learned from you.” 

For her part, Inessa seemed to consider me briefly while taking a bite of pizza. Then she nodded and spoke casually. “You should definitely come to my next show. It’s tomorrow night at the park on… what was the street?” 

“Riverside.” That was actually Errol. I’d almost completely forgotten the boy was there until he piped up right then. “I mean, the Riverside Skate Park on Jefferson. It’s a really cool pla–” He started to say something else, before jolting a little. 

“Eat your pizza,” Arleigh, who I realized had just kicked her brother under the table, ordered before turning back to us. “So you’re going tomorrow, right, Cassie?” 

Some part of me was tempted to say that I had way too much to deal with right then, but that would have made her ask what I could possibly need to do that was more important than going to a live performance from my idol. An idol who happened to be sitting right there looking at me. Though, to be honest, I did consider what it would be like to outright tell Inessa my secret and get help from an international skating star, the part of my brain that wasn’t completely enamored with her knew that was incredibly stupid. Even if I could talk to her about all that without Arleigh being around, what on Earth was she supposed to do about it? Yeah, she had been my hero for a good portion of my life. But, in the end, she was just a skater. I couldn’t dump something like the Ministry on her, nor did I want to. 

And, when I got right down to it, there was no way to know for sure that I could even trust her. It was a painful thought to have, but if I couldn’t trust my parents, there was no way I could just blindly trust some superstar skater I happened to like. It couldn’t happen. 

That was, obviously, just a fleeting thought before I pushed it out of my mind, a wild and completely ridiculous impulse. Maybe because I’d already exposed myself to Ryder? Was that why the idea jumped into my head? Whatever, the point was, it couldn’t happen. 

So, I forced myself to look back at Arleigh while casually replying, “Oh believe me, if I have any say in it, I’ll totally be there.” 

With that, we went back to eating. I hung out with them for another hour or so while trying not to look or act as though my entire world had been upended. I could not look like I was panicking or freaking out. Calm. I had to pretend I was calm. Hell, I had to pretend I was having a great time. Which–yeah, to be fair that much wasn’t hard. Arleigh would probably never be someone I voluntarily hung out with (though I was starting to think her older brother and possibly her dad were a really big influence on how she acted), but Inessa more than made up for that. It was just so cool to be there, eating dinner and talking to her as though she was a normal person. And yeah, I knew she really was, but this was… it was special for me. Even if I did have that voice screaming in the back of my head to panic about the real situation. 

I had to talk to Ryder. I had to make sure he wasn’t going to tell anybody. Yeah, he’d kept my secret about being a girl, but this was even bigger. Unfortunately, there was no way for me to pull him aside without being obvious about it. And I had Jefferson coming to pick me up. Hell, even if he wasn’t coming, Ryder and I couldn’t exactly go somewhere else in this neighborhood to chat. Not with the Sherwood spies all over the place. 

To that end, before the dinner was over, I got a text on my phone. It was from Ryder himself, giving me an address elsewhere in the city, followed by a time, ten pm, and a question mark. He was asking if I was good with meeting up then and there. Hesitating slightly, I glanced across the table that way. Obviously he wasn’t using his phone. He could control it with one of his mites without even taking the thing out of his pocket. Our gazes met briefly, and I gave a short nod without actually responding on my phone. That, I slipped back into my pocket. Then I turned my attention back to Inessa and tried to postpone freaking out until later, after all this. 

And hey, at the very least, Ryder was probably the least terrible person in this house who could’ve found out my secret. Except maybe Errol, he seemed cool. But I wouldn’t want to shove this sort of secret on him. He already had enough to deal with, having Arleigh and Micah as siblings. Inessa–yeah I couldn’t even imagine having her find out the truth about me. She didn’t even live here. How would I deal with some international star knowing my secret identity? Probably panic all the time. Even more than usual. 

The point was, if Micah or Arleigh had found out who I was, my life would basically be over. This whole thing could’ve been so much worse. 

Now all I had to do was wait until ten pm, so I could talk to Ryder and find out just how bad it was. 

*********

I ended up having to promise Inessa that I would be there for her show the next evening. She gave me a couple ‘backstage’ passes (there wasn’t really a stage or anything since it was at a skatepark, but there was a VIP area that would be roped and curtained off for privacy) for me and any friend I wanted to bring. 

But all that was something I would have to think about later. For now, I was in costume and perched on the side of the building across the street from where Ryder wanted to meet. I’d thought about bringing Izzy with me, but that would have required me to tell her exactly what happened. Which I didn’t want to do until Ryder and I actually talked. How could I expect him to keep my secret if I went and blabbed about his immediately? 

I’d also tried texting Amber just to see if she was available to play backup if something went wrong. But there was no answer. I had belatedly remembered she was going to some special costume party with Dani tonight. Hopefully she was having a good time there. Or at least a less crazy one than I was having.

Shaking those thoughts off, I watched as a figure emerged from the stairwell access door. It was hard to make out in the darkness, but I spoke quietly. “Night vision engage.” Immediately, my Wren-provided helmet switched my viewing mode so I could see better. Sure enough, Ryder was standing on that roof, also in costume as he nervously fidgeted around. 

Obviously, I wasn’t stupid enough to jump right over there. I looked around from where I was, scanning every area I could see. I didn’t expect to find out that he had told the Ministry or Blackjack, just because… well, if my parents knew my identity, I was pretty sure they wouldn’t show that with an ambush in the middle of the night like this. And it didn’t seem to be Blackjack’s style, if he’d even do anything with it at all aside from possibly use it to force favors out of me. But I wasn’t going to take that for granted. I checked for any sign of an ambush for the next couple minutes, letting Eits wait for me. 

Finally, I couldn’t put it off any longer. As certain as I could be that he was alone, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, landing a few feet away from the boy as he jumped at my arrival. 

“Hey, Eits,” I managed to sound vaguely casual while turning that way. “What’s up? Read any good books lately? Seen a fun movie?”  

He, in turn, coughed and looked embarrassed. “Hey, Paintball. I mean…” Pausing, the boy kicked the roof before meeting my gaze. “Are we good? I mean, good to talk for real.” 

I knew what he was asking. He wanted to know if we could talk about our identities, or if I had someone watching. Meeting his gaze, I asked evenly, “We’re good on my end. Are we good on yours?” 

The question made him pause before he nodded once. “I’m alone, I swear. I haven’t talked to anybody about it. Hell, I haven’t talked to anybody about any of that. Nobody even knows I’ve been going into Sherwood territory at all. It’s kind of my own private investigation.”  

Private investigation? Well, I definitely wanted to know more about that. Why would he be investigating Arleigh’s house? Pushing that out of my head for the moment, or at least to the back of it, I gestured. “Stairwell’s safe, right? I don’t really wanna risk people looking out windows.” 

He confirmed it was safe, and we went through the door he had come out a few minutes earlier. Now we were standing in the stairwell, with no cameras or witnesses. This was as safe as we could possibly be. Reaching up, I hesitated very slightly, then pulled my helmet off, followed by the mask. My fingers were shaking a little bit as I did so, but I forced myself to look at him straight on. “Hi.” 

Eits reached up to take the X-shaped mask off his own face, slipping it free. Then he was just Ryder again, holding the mask in one hand while staring back at me. “Hi.” There was silence for a moment, before he finally offered a weak, “This is awkward, isn’t it?” 

“Little bit,” I agreed, dropping my gaze briefly. Then I took a breath and looked up again. “Thanks. You know, for not telling anyone about me being a girl before. I’m pretty sure if you had said anything to anybody, it would’ve gotten around by now. Even Pack doesn’t know, and I… I know she’s your friend. So, yeah, thanks.”

“I’m not gonna tell anybody about this either,” he assured me quickly, his eyes staring right into mine. “I won’t tell Blackjack, or Pack, or anybody else. I just–I won’t say anything, I swear.” 

“You know, I… I believe you,” I slowly replied. “You kept me being a girl secret, now this is just sort of… the next step?” Shrugging self-consciously, I sighed. “I won’t tell anybody about you either. I mean, yeah you’re sort of… a bad guy?” Even that felt wrong to say. The lines between good and bad were so blurred they seemed practically nonexistent sometimes. “My point is, I won’t use this to help anyone catch you, or follow you to find out any secret La Casa bases or plans, or… or anything like that.” 

He offered me a faint smile. “I’m pretty sure if you were the type to do that, you could’ve followed Pack one of those times. Even if you… don’t know who she is?” His voice turned questioning. 

“I don’t,” I replied. “Trust me, that whole situation is already awkward enough as it is. I don’t know who she is and I’m not trying to find out. You…” Oh boy was there still a lot I needed to say. “Look, before we get into anything else, I just… I know you just said you wouldn’t tell. And like I said, I believe you. But you really can’t tell. You can’t even let anyone know that you know. You can’t hint. You can’t–” My eyes squeezed shut as I tried to think of how to make sure he understood how vital this was. “It’s… it’s more important than you know. I mean, life and death important. You have to keep it a secret. I can’t– I can’t get into why it’s so–” 

“Because of the Ministry, right?” the boy immediately put in. 

“And because your parents are the people in charge of it.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Schooling 24-12 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

I had been through a lot of surreal things in the past couple of months. But I really couldn’t think of anything more surreal in that moment than making dinner in Arleigh’s kitchen alongside her, Ryder, and the skater I had been fangirling over since I could walk. 

Well, obviously there were things, like going into a virtual reality controlled by the girl who had apparently once been one of my best friends turned enemy because her psychotic supervillain father reprogrammed the computer her computer-brain and– yeah, the list of crazy things was actually pretty long. But, the point was, this was completely about my civilian life. It had nothing to do with being a Touched. If you took out all the Paintball situations, standing in the kitchen helping Arleigh, Ryder, and Inessa make pizza for dinner while we talked about skating was definitely pretty high up there. Even better, there was no real danger about it. This was a weird situation, but it wasn’t a life and death weird one. Well, there was danger of wanting to stab myself for spending more time in this particular house, but still. I could resist that urge. 

Obviously, Arleigh didn’t know anything about the skating scene, either board or blades. But, equally obviously, she didn’t want to admit that. She kept talking like she knew everything there was to know, and just made things up when she had to. Whenever any of us made it clear we didn’t know what she meant, she just waved it off as having learned ‘different terms’ when visiting places like California, and claimed that ‘the coast people talk different.’ Because God forbid she just say she didn’t know something and listen to others who did. 

I could see Inessa roll her eyes a couple times as she glanced toward me. But she didn’t speak up too directly, and neither did I. I guess because neither of us wanted to be rude inside Arleigh’s own house. That and I didn’t particularly want to give her even more reason to talk. 

Ryder, for his part, seemed equally clueless. But he was far more willing to admit that fact. He kept asking questions and seemed genuinely interested in what we were saying. And not just for Inessa either. He was interested in the stuff I was talking about too, as far as skating went. And, even more amazing, so was she. They both actually listened to my stories. Inessa freaking Sidorov listened to my stories about skating! It was like I’d died and gone to some sort of paradise. I honestly wasn’t sure which of their attentions made me blush more. But either way, it helped make up for the fact that I was stuck here in this particular house. 

Before the pizzas were done cooking, but after they had started to smell good, Errol came wandering down. From the way his mess of blond hair was sticking in every direction, I would’ve thought he had just woken up from a nap or something. But apparently this was just what he looked like all the time. I was pretty sure Arleigh was going to tell him to go away, but before she could, Inessa started chatting with him cheerfully, and mentioned missing her own brother with all these long trips she kept going on. Obviously, Arleigh did a complete one-eighty and started talking at the boy as though they were really close, and how he was just the best little brother anyone could have. None of us were buying that, of course, but I wasn’t going to give her any reason to stop treating her brother like a human being. 

Beyond that, I also found out that Ryder was apparently a vegetarian. He just spoke up about it to make sure we had a pizza that didn’t have any meat on it. Surprisingly, Arleigh didn’t say anything bad about that or even seem annoyed. When he brought it up, she immediately confirmed that they had a pizza that would suit him, and even asked, unprompted, if he had any other dietary needs. It was unexpected, to say the least, but still, good for her. It was one of the very few times that I noticed her act like a real human being who thought about others without it being forced or fake. For just a moment, I actually forgot about what sort of person she was. Then, of course, she had to go and ruin it by very clearly and obnoxiously faking interest in the video game her little brother mentioned, just because her special celebrity skating guest showed actual interest in it. Arleigh was a lot of things, but a good actress was not one of them. Given her apparently genuine acceptance of the food thing, it was even easier to tell when she was putting on an act. Or maybe she didn’t care enough to put in an actual acting effort. Either way, she clearly didn’t want to hear more about the game, yet (poorly) pretended she did just to impress Inessa. Which made me wonder why she bothered. I knew she didn’t like skating, so why would she care about a celebrity skater? Was it just the celebrity part, or did her father push for her to show off for her? But if he cared that much, why wasn’t he here? What was keeping him too busy to show up for this? And was I just being paranoid again about that whole thing? Yeah, I was probably just being paranoid. So, with some effort, I tried to push that thought aside. Whatever Trey Fosters was up to, it didn’t affect me. 

With Inessa’s suggestion, since Ryder was vegetarian, we dug through the large fridge and managed to put together something akin to a decent salad to go with the pizza. Arleigh didn’t seem interested in that sort of thing at all, but Errol knew enough to find the dressing to go with it. We chopped up some tomatoes and cucumbers to go with the fresh spinach leaves, and even found some pepperoncini on the door. In the end, it was a pretty decent salad. Nothing that even would’ve come close to matching anything Claudio or his assistants could make, of course. But then again, we weren’t Michelin Star-rated chefs. At least, I wasn’t, and I was willing to go out on a limb and say Arleigh, Ryder, and Errol weren’t. On the other hand, as talented and incredible as Inessa was, it really wouldn’t have surprised me to find out she actually did have that sort of skill. 

Finally, the food was ready. No sooner had we set it all out on the table and began to take plates and forks for the salad, than their other brother showed up. Micah came in through the back door, having apparently either been outside the whole time, or he just walked home and came in that way. Whatever it was, he grunted an uncaring greeting to us, reached out and shoved his sister none-too-gently out of the way so he could take the plate she had been about to use right out of her hand, and loaded it with pizza before grabbing a beer out of the fridge as he headed upstairs to his room. I could see Arleigh grimace painfully while rubbing her shoulder a bit where she had hit the wall from the hard shove, and felt a wave of confusing feelings pass through me. If that was an example of how her own big brother treated her when there was company around, especially famous company, who knew what he was like when they were alone? Was this the sort of environment she had grown up in? Weird thoughts passed through me about what that would do to a person. If he was that casually cruel in front of us, the things he could get up to in private… eesh. Yes, obviously she was still absolutely terrible to hang out with, and not exactly a caring person herself. Especially to her own younger brother. But now that it seemed like there was a reason for that, it felt a little different. Hell, maybe the fact that her dad wasn’t even here for any of this was another indicator of the environment she had grown up in. Yeah, my parents ran the Ministry and all that, but I had never gotten the impression they didn’t care about me. Even Simon had made it clear, despite the teasing and everything, that he cared about me. This whole thing was just… wrong and uncomfortable. 

I could tell the others felt the same way, especially Ryder, who sat next to me and kept glancing toward the doorway where Micah had gone. Something told me he was tempted to go after him and say something, but stopped himself. Which was a good thing, because I was pretty sure the older boy could have pounded him into a thick paste, and this probably wasn’t the best time or way to show off my fledgling self-defense lessons. To say nothing else my powers. Oh God, the thought of having to convince Arleigh to keep my secret made my entire body shudder. 

Inessa, of course, noticed, looking over at me from across the table. “Hey, are you all right? There’s nothing wrong with the pizza, is there?” She asked that while inspecting her own slice curiously. 

My head shook quickly as I took a bite to demonstrate. “No, no! It’s fine. It’s cool.” I shrugged, searching my brain for excuses that would work. “Sorry, I was just thinking of something else.” A quick thought came to mind, and I launched into a story about one time when I had misjudged a jump and ended up breaking my ankle. It distracted everyone from my previous reaction, especially when I talked about how gross it had looked while all bent out of shape. That made Inessa eventually jump into her own story about one of her bad injuries, and soon no one was thinking about my weird shudder. 

And yet, through all that, I saw Ryder glance at the door a couple more times, as if he couldn’t stop thinking about Micah and that whole situation. Eventually, he excused himself to use the restroom. I immediately felt a slight flare of alarm go through me. Was he really going to the restroom, or was he going to go find Micah and say something to him about that whole situation? This could be bad. I might’ve barely met the boy a couple times, but I liked him well enough. I sure as hell didn’t want to find Micah punching him in the face next time we saw him. Call me crazy, but I really didn’t think Arleigh’s big brother was the sort to take criticism very well. My own brother teased me and even wrestled with me now and then, but the way Micah treated his siblings seemed different. There was no love there, no care. It wasn’t that he was teasing them in a way that sometimes got out of hand, he genuinely did not seem to care if Arleigh was hurt by him shoving her into the wall. No way did I want Ryder to go find him on his own and have any sort of confrontation.That could only end poorly. 

Thinking quickly, I pretended I was getting a phone call and said it was my mom, so I excused myself to the other room while pretending to talk to her. As soon as I was out of sight from the kitchen, I looked around quickly just in time to hear footsteps disappearing up the stairs. Yeah, Ryder was definitely heading up there. This could turn really bad, really quickly.

Grimacing to myself, I painted black on the inside of my clothes just in case there were cameras (or spying plants) that would’ve seen me put it in any more obvious places, and made my way up after him. I wanted to get up there as quickly and quietly as possible, grab the boy, and get out before Micah noticed we were around. And before the others paid any attention to how long we had been gone. Reaching the top of the stairs, I looked around in time to see a shape disappear through a doorway at the end of the hall. Was that Micah’s room? Did Ryder just barge in there? Oh God, if I started to hear shouting, I was going to yell at myself for taking so long. Quickly, yet quietly, I made my way down that hall to the doorway. I stopped just outside it, hesitated, then peeked through the crack. I expected to see Ryder and Micah about to have a confrontation. But what I saw was… different. Very different indeed.

The first thing I saw was that this wasn’t a bedroom at all, and it certainly wasn’t Micah’s. It looked like a personal office. An expensive one at that, judging by the furnishings. Most relevantly, there was a desk there with a computer, which was where Ryder was standing. He was next to the desk, holding his hand out. Just as I peeked that way, my mouth opening to hiss that we had to get out of there, something happened to make the words die in my throat. A small, glowing figure appeared on the boy’s palm. It cackled softly before jumping from his hand to the computer. I recognized it immediately, and had to cover my own mouth to stop the gasp of shock.

Eits. Ryder was Eits. Oh God. Oh fuck. Ryder was Eits! No wonder he had seemed somewhat familiar! Had he recognized me? Did he remember my voice? I was pretty sure he didn’t, or he probably wouldn’t have tried something like this right now. But what was he even trying? Why was he here right now? Was he pulling off a job? Was this about stealing from the Taurus shipping company after he’d been embarrassed about being caught before? Trey Fosters was one of their primary owners, and this place was easier to hit than my own family’s home. Was that what this whole thing was about? Something told me that wasn’t quite right, especially considering where this place was.

We were in the middle of Sherwood territory. Would he really risk pulling a job like that around here? Especially with a gang like Sherwood, who were so good at spying on everyone. 

Needless to say, there were a lot of thoughts rushing through my head. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to sort my way through any of them. And I definitely didn’t have time to focus on what Ryder/Eits was actually doing. Before I could even start to wrap my head around any of that, a sound from behind me made my gaze snap that way. Another door was starting to open. That had to be the room Micah was in, and he was about to come out. Eyes widening, I shoved the office door open the rest of the way and burst through before pushing it shut. 

Ryder looked up, mouth opening to stammer some excuse or another. But before he could, I rushed that way. The footsteps were approaching, and given the stairs were the other direction, this seemed like the only place Micah could be going. So, without another thought, I grabbed Ryder by the arm, and yanked him sideways toward the nearby closet. He heard the footsteps as well by that point, and didn’t resist. The two of us managed to get the door open and slip inside, shutting it behind us just as the other boy came into the office itself.

We could barely make him out through the cracks in the closet door, enough to see that he didn’t seem to be trying to find us or anything. He didn’t appear to have any idea we were there. Instead, the older boy walked to the desk and opened a couple different drawers, apparently looking for something. The boy was muttering curses under his breath as he rifled through the contents of the desk, then angrily shoved it shut. He straightened, apparently still annoyed about not finding whatever he was looking for. Then he turned to look at the closet. 

Uh oh. 

Yeah, he was definitely heading this way. And this closet wasn’t big enough to hide in. There were a few stacked boxes and two filing cabinets in there, but that was about it. There were no hanging clothes to hide behind, no deep corners to squeeze into. If he opened that door, which he was clearly about to do, Micah would find us instantly. And how in the hell would we ever explain being all the way up here, hiding inside the closet of his father’s private office? That… that would be bad. 

There was only one area in this closet that had any room where we could hide and possibly not be seen. As Micah approached and reached for the door, I looked up. Oh God. What was I about to do? Was I really going to–could I really–was this the only way to… my mind raced, going through what seemed like a million thoughts in those brief couple of seconds. 

I could feel Ryder tense beside me, obviously ready for some sort of fight. But before he could do anything, Micah was right there, just on the other side of the door. There was no more time, none. I had to make a decision right then and there, about whether I trusted him or not. Which was worse, exposing a secret to him, or letting Micah find us like that? Which was more dangerous? 

I made my choice. Reaching out, I shot Ryder, Eits, with a bit of black paint to silence the gasp I knew would be coming. Then I hit him with red paint as well as myself, before pointing upward. Just as the door started to open, we were yanked to the ceiling and held there. Next to me, I could feel Ryder’s jerk of surprise, and saw his mouth open to blurt something, only to react with even more surprise as no sound came out. His gaze snapped to me, as I held a finger to my lips. 

Below us, Micah poked his head in. His focus was on the boxes, Which he dug through for a moment. I had to renew the red paint on Ryder and myself as the boy below seemed to take his sweet time. But he never looked up. He rummaged a bit, found something he had apparently been looking for, and celebrated with an annoyed, “There you are, fuck.” It was a choice of words that obviously made me tense up, but he wasn’t talking to us. Instead, he had some sort of folder in his hands, which he tucked under his arm before straightening up. The closet door closed, and then he was heading out of the office. 

I managed to put black paint on the two of us again, as well as the floor, just before Ryder and I both crashed back down. We landed within the small space before I shoved the closet door open and both of us fell out together, landing in a tangled heap on the floor of the office. The two of us lay there, staring at one another for a solid five seconds before we both hiss-blurted the same thing. 

“You!” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Schooling 24-11 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

There were plenty of other things we needed to do now that we had the location of the prison island. Most importantly, we needed to get pictures of a broken boat on water that we could pretend was the ocean. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to help with much of that before I had to go to dinner. Which, of course, gave me yet another reason to curse the fact that I couldn’t find a way out of that. Famous skater who had been a personal hero of mine since I could barely walk or not, I really wanted to help with this. And, of course, I really didn’t want to go over to Arleigh’s house. Which, to be fair, I couldn’t honestly say which of those made me want to do this less. 

Either way, while I was busy with my dinner thing, the others would be going with Paige over to check out her boat and try to find a spot where they could safely wreck it and take pictures. I felt bad about not being involved in that part, because it also sounded fun. But then again, considering the fact that the situation was literally life or death, I wasn’t going to ask them to wait for me. The sort of person who would have been selfish enough for that was… well, to be honest, I was pretty sure I was going to the house of a girl exactly that selfish. 

Was there really no way I could grab Ryder and Inessa and run away with them somewhere better? 

I was honestly still considering that pipe-dream solution when Jefferson dropped me off in front of the house. I would’ve taken an Uber, but most of them refused to come in this housing development thanks to the whole Sherwood thing. Which I obviously couldn’t blame them for. Sherwood was, of course, another reason I really didn’t want to come here tonight. Even if they apparently had strict orders to stay away from me, I wanted to avoid as much gang attention as I could. I really, super-duper did not want to let people who were adept at spying get too much practice watching how I moved, stood, talked, anything that could make them connect me to Paintball. 

Then again, if my own parents hadn’t figured it out yet, I must’ve been doing something right. 

Thanking Jefferson for the ride and promising that I would be waiting for him to pick me up in a few hours, I turned and looked at the house. I supposed it was pretty large for what it was. Four stories tall, it was definitely the biggest house in the whole neighborhood. There was a large tree taking up a decent portion of one side of the front lawn, and I had to force myself not to stare at it. Something told me that if the Sherwood people really did spy through plants, that tree would be the one they would be using right now to keep an eye on the intruder. Did whoever was looking at me through it know who I was already? Surely they did. I had no doubt that my parents had let Sequoia and Hemlock, the leaders of the gang, know I was coming tonight so they could tell their people to leave me alone. 

Actually, the Sequoia leader thing was weird. As far as I knew, almost no one had ever actually seen him. He made his presence known by infusing various plants with effects that gave people powers, or caused explosions, or poisoned them, or whatever. But for everyone aside from the top leadership of the gang, he was a total mystery. The rank and file members never saw him, not even in a costume. The day-to-day leadership was accomplished by Hemlock, a hydrokinetic who, while not as strong as Izzy, could transform water into poisons and venoms and such. Some people thought Hemlock was the leader and had just made up Sequoia, but that didn’t explain the power-imbued plants. Or why he would do that rather than accept the credit himself. 

Whatever, the main point was, I just had to go inside and get through this dinner. Shoving all other thoughts out of my head, I took a breath before starting to walk up the front path toward the entrance. 

Before I could get even halfway there, The door flew open and Arleigh came charging out with her arms raised. “Cassidy! There you are!” I barely had time to look up before she was suddenly embracing me. Yeah, without so much as another word, she was grabbing onto me and holding me tightly, like we were best friends. It took me completely by surprise, so I couldn’t even muster a protest or any comment at all before it was over. She stepped back, beaming that entirely insincere, yet somehow practically blinding, smile. “Dad is gonna be so happy when he finds out you came.” 

Weirdly, in that moment, I thought of something. She said her dad was going to be happy about me coming, but nothing about her mother. Which made sense, because Arleigh’s mother had died like… thirteen or something years ago. It was a long time. So of course she wouldn’t have mentioned her mother. And yet, when she first invited me over here for this whole thing, she had said that her parents, plural, would love to have me. 

Arleigh was only a year or two older than me. She was still seventeen, I was pretty sure. She had to have been a toddler at best when her mother died. So why would she have made a mistake like that? Why would she have said parents? I knew her dad had never remarried or anything. He’d adopted Errol, her younger brother, but as far as I knew, Arleigh had grown up in the house with only one parent. 

So why had she used the plural? Was it just a slip of the tongue? Was this whole double-life making me paranoid? Well, yes to that last one, but did me being paranoid mean I was wrong to zero in on that detail in particular? 

Honestly, I had no idea. But I didn’t have time to think about it any longer. Arleigh was standing there watching me expectantly, and I couldn’t exactly just flat-out ask her what she’d meant. Well, I could, but the Sherwood people were probably still watching, and I didn’t want to look like someone who paid more attention than I should to minor details. I didn’t want them to have any reason to think there was more to me than what appeared on the surface. And I definitely didn’t want them to tell my parents that I seemed to be a little snoopy. No, for the rest of this whole dinner thing, I really had to project myself as clueless, innocent Cassidy. 

So, I offered a faint smile, as sincere of one as I could manage. “Hey, Arleigh. I’m not late, am I?” Of course I wasn’t. Jefferson had dropped me off exactly on time, like he always did. 

“Oh, no, no, course not.” Arleigh rolled her eyes at the very idea, gesturing for me to accompany her as she turned back to head up the steps. “You are absolutely right on time, Cass. It’s my dad who’s late. But we’ll just have to entertain ourselves with our other guests until he shows up.” 

It was those other guests I was thinking about as I followed the other girl through the door. And I didn’t have to look far for them. Ryder was standing right there in the front hall, facing a girl who was only a couple inches taller than me, with short electric blue hair, artfully-torn jeans, and a yellow tee over a gray, very light long-sleeved shirt. The girl had her back to me, but that didn’t matter. I knew who she was immediately, and stopped short to gasp. 

Sure enough, she turned to face me, and I found myself looking at Inessa Sidorov. Twenty-five years old now, she had been a teenager when she first got involved with the international skating scene. Originally from Ukraine, she made a bunch of Youtube videos where she did tricks and stunts throughout the city and surrounding smaller villages. She was completely fearless and did a lot of crazy things anyone else would’ve said was too dangerous. And she did it all while laughing gleefully. That was one of the things her videos were known for, her cackling while doing something ridiculously cool and stupid. 

Really, was it any wonder she was my idol? 

All of that flashed through my mind, along with a reminder that lunging to hug her would’ve been just as rude and terrible as when Arleigh had done that to me. So, I forced myself to stop short and simply managed, “Y-you’re Inessa Sidorov.” I’d thought I was ready to meet her, but there was a difference between planning for something and the reality of being there. I felt a little giddy. Was it weird that I felt giddy? I definitely no longer cared about what house I was at. 

Flashing a quick grin that was instantly more believable than any I’d ever seen from Arleigh, Inessa replied, with a clear Eastern European accent, “And you are the other guest tonight. I have been looking forward to meeting you, Cassidy Evans.” 

Oh God, she knew my name. She knew my name! Resisting the urge to bounce up and down as my inner fangirl desperately tried to club my common sense over the head and take over, I forced myself to respond as casually as possible. “Oh yeah, you probably know my parents, huh? I heard they’ve been helping with some sponsorship stuff.” Largely because of my practically screaming her name into my dad’s ear for years, but still. 

“What?” Her face was blank, before she shook that off. “No. I mean perhaps. I don’t really know who the sponsors are. Lavra takes care of that. What I mean is this.” She dug into the pocket of those jeans before coming out with a piece of lined paper that had been folded over several times. Still smiling, she offered it to me. 

Confused, I took the paper and unfolded it, only to find that it was actually several pages. Once I got them all sorted, I took a look. And then I nearly died on the spot. Staring me right in the face, written in blue magic marker, were the scribblings of a probably seven-year-old Cassidy going on and on about how cool I thought Inessa was, how much I liked watching her Youtube videos, that I’d convinced my dad to get me my own skateboard, and so on. I talked about specific tricks she did in her videos, rambled a bit (or a lot) about how much I liked seeing the old yellow cat who sometimes appeared in the background, or how pretty her city was. And because I was, again, about seven at the time, all these thoughts came out jumbled amongst themselves and others. It was a mess. An enthusiastic mess, sure, but a mess. “Y-you… I–um.” What was I supposed to say? “You still have this?” 

With a laugh, the woman replied, “Are you kidding? It was the first piece of physical fanmail I ever got from the States. I have it framed in my trailer most of the time, but when I found out I was coming to the same Detroit that the letter came from, I had to bring it with me. I was hoping we’d get a chance to meet. Having dinner, that is just a bonus.” 

Arleigh, who had been standing behind me, leaned over to see part of the letter. “Wow, you wrote to her when you were a kid? That’s awesome. I probably would’ve just sent an email or something. Or got my father to find her cell number.” She paused then before looking at me. “Err, couldn’t you have just done that?” 

Before I could respond to her, Ryder stepped in from where he had been hanging back. “Eh, you know what they say, sometimes a physical message means more than tapping a few keys. I mean, she could’ve sent a text too, and just said ‘I Heart U,’ then been done with it in four taps. Five counting sending it. But that? That’s a physical letter. She took the time to write all that. It just–you know, it means something.” 

Inessa grinned and flashed a thumbs up that way. “Yes, exactly. I got emails and comments on my videos, but this was a letter all the way from the United States. And it wasn’t just any letter. It was from a little girl. It meant a lot to me.” Her gaze found mine and I felt my face turn pink. “It was very encouraging, Cassidy Evans. In times when I thought this was too hard and I should stop, I looked to many influences to assure myself that I belong in this life. Your letter was one of them. It helped get me to where I am today, in many ways. So, thank you.” 

“Duuude, I did not expect that,” Arleigh announced with a low whistle. “I just thought you’d get, like, an autograph or something.” 

She might have said something else after that, I definitely wasn’t listening. I was too busy staring at the woman who had been my skating hero for so long. It was all I could do not to show a lot more emotion than I already was. “P-please, it’s Cassidy,” I managed. “Just Cassidy. And whatever made you stay in skating, I’m really glad you did.” She was staring at me, so I had to look down as my blush deepened. My gaze found the letter in my hand as I murmured, “You’re the best skater I’ve ever… uh…” I trailed off as my eyes spotted something in particular in the letter. It was just a single sentence, and very little made it stand out from the rest. Except for one thing. The sentence read, ‘Anthony (my bff) said you couldn’t make that roof jump with the ramp but I said you could and you did so he had to let me pick the movie for our sleepover and I picked Cool Runnings cuz I heard it was your favorite movie if it isn’t please let me know so I can make him watch a different one and have you ever tried bobsledding oh did you try speed skating they go really fast but I mean the one on ice do you think they have a regular wheelie speed skate and my dad says I can’t try the roof jump but I think I can make it did you ever go sledding?’ 

Yeah, okay, I said it was a single sentence. I didn’t say it should have been a single sentence. I was seven, give me a break. 

But obviously, that wasn’t the actual point. The point was the mention of Anthony. This was real, tangible evidence of Anthony’s existence and my knowledge of him. It had escaped my parents’ attempts to rewrite history. If I hadn’t already known about him, this obviously would’ve hit me really hard. Or maybe it would’ve just confused me. I wasn’t sure. As it was, I found myself staring at that name. 

Apparently there was something in my expression, because Ryder spoke up. “You okay?” 

“Huh? Oh, yeah, sorry. It’s just… crazy, seeing something you wrote when you were a little kid.” Waving the letter, I looked toward Inessa and asked, “Do you mind if I take pictures of this so I have them? I’d sorta like to show my friends.” 

She considered that for a moment before gesturing. “You know what? You keep it. I have had it for these years and it brought me luck. But perhaps it is time it brings you luck instead. There is no one I would rather give the letter to than the girl who sent it to me.” After a brief pause, she added, “And for the record, you were right. My favorite movie is Cool Runnings. ‘Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it’s bobsled time!’” By the time she was halfway through it, I was saying the quote with her, and when it was done, we both laughed and high-fived. 

Oh God, I high-fived Inessa Sidorov. Would I ever wash my hand again? Wait, could I get some sort of special skintight clear glove so I wouldn’t have to? Could my parents–

Forcing that thought out of my mind, I swallowed hard, still blushing. “Thanks. It’s really cool that you kept this letter for so long. I–I can barely remember sending it, but you’re still my favorite skater in the whole world. You’re like… the best.” I was grinning goofily by that point, but I didn’t care. 

“Damn straight I am,” Inessa replied with clear confidence. “And do you know what else I am? Her eyes moved to Arleigh while she added, “Extremely hungry. Do we know when your father will be arriving yet? I do not wish to be rude, of course. But it was a very long plane ride, and they had no meals because of some malfunction in the cooler.”  

At that moment, Arleigh looked up from her phone with a curse. “Fuck. Okay so Dad’s running late. He said there’s some frozen pizzas in the freezer that we can just heat up. But uhh, the cook already went home, so do any of you guys know how to work the oven?” 

The three of us around her exchanged glances, before Ryder gestured. “I think we can work it out. But what about your brothers?” 

“Who cares where Micah is?” Arleigh retorted. “And I think Errol’s up in his room. I guess he can eat something once it’s ready.” 

“Well then,” Inessa freaking Sidorov announced, “Let us see how complicated this oven is, hmm? And hope that we can figure out how to turn it on before I’m forced to simply eat the whole frozen thing as it is. 

“I fear that even my number one fan could not see me the same after that.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Patreon Snippets 27B (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Pack Trying To Figure Out Why Sierra Looks Like Cassidy 

The following takes place during the recent commissioned interlude focusing on Amber and Dani, after the first scene (at school) but before the second scene (in the costume shop).

Benjamin Pittman was a creep. That much was patently obvious, and Dani didn’t exactly need to do any deep thinking on the subject to come to that conclusion. He was clearly a power-hungry asshole who shouldn’t have been put in charge of flipping burgers at a fast food joint, let alone determining the immortal future of the human race or whatever it was he called his biolem project. The man was just plain bad news, and anything terrible he did shouldn’t have been surprising. It felt like assuming the worst was probably the best way to go whenever it came to the question of, ‘why did Pittman do a thing?’

And yet, Dani was still confused on one particular point. Why Cassidy Evans? The secret biolem body that old Benny had had stored away in a secret room within a secret room, kept safe through all this time, given nutrients and power and allowed to grow for the years he had been locked up on Breakwater happened to be one that looked like Cassidy Evans? Why? What was the point of that? Sure, she came from a rich family, but why her specifically? Wouldn’t it make more sense to replace one of her parents, or even her older brother? When he’d made the body originally, it would have been Cassidy as a like… what, eleven-year-old? What was that going to accomplish as far as Pittman’s goals went? 

She had been thinking about that basically off and on ever since she first saw Sierra and realized what was happening. How she had avoided blurting Cassidy’s name at that moment, she’d probably never know. It had been a close thing, that was for sure. A couple times she’d considered bringing it up, but that was impossible to do without explaining how she knew the Evans chick well enough to recognize her even through the hair change and all that. Maybe they wouldn’t press her too much on it with the distraction of just who Sierra’s body looked like, but still. 

No, she would need to find out for herself what Pittman’s plan had been. And since he was… out of reach, to say the least, that left finding out more about Cassidy herself. Maybe there was something about the girl, or access she might have through her family, or something, that would cause all this to start to make sense. But to find that, she was going to have to be a little underhanded. 

It was weird that she actually felt bad about that. Cassidy should have been, on paper, a typical spoiled rich girl who deserved to get a little comeuppance for once in her life. But having gotten to know the girl at least a little bit, she just… wasn’t like that. Dani mused on that fact while sitting in an old sedan she had borrowed from the fleet of vehicles available to La Casa Touched. Some were more eye-catching than others, but there were plenty that were meant to blend in anywhere. Those were what she preferred. Having an awesome car sounded good on paper, but it also got eyes on you. Cop eyes. And given she was already operating under a penalty for existing while black in the first place, speeding around in an eighty-thousand-dollar sports car probably wasn’t a great idea. 

Yes, Cassidy wasn’t what she would’ve pictured when someone brought up ‘teenage daughter of billionaires.’ And she wasn’t the only one. There were plenty of examples of students at that school who did fit the stereotype of worthless rich fuck no one would ever miss if they fell down a well without a Lassie to bring help, but not as many as she thought there would’ve been. There were cool people there, and annoying people, and–yeah, it was complicated. 

As she thought about all that, another car pulled up beside her, as Eits stepped out in his civilian clothes. “Yo,” the boy started, holding out his phone, “you ready?” 

Dani confirmed she was, and a moment later her own phone showed that it was receiving a file. She watched it downloading before asking, “Did you get all of it?” 

“I mean, you won’t tell me exactly what you’re looking for,” Ryder pointed out while leaning against the hood of her car so he could talk to her through the open window. “So it’s not like I can say if what you need is in there or not, you know?” His hand gestured vaguely. “But yeah, I got all the student files from that school of yours, plus like three different middle schools that feed into it. That’s report cards, parental notes, stuff the teachers scribbled in the margins of their grade books about them, any medical files that were added to the school records, police reports filed with the schools, all of it. Plus passwords for their school email accounts, locker combinations, and some other stuff. Now uhh, if you want me to help you narrow all that down…” 

Smiling just a bit at his fishing attempt, Dani shook her head. “Thanks, if I change my mind I’ll let you know. Right now this is just something I have to do myself.” After saying that, she gave him a look before turning to glance into the backseat, where all her lizards were crawling around. Including Mars Bar, the iguana, sunning himself up against the rear window. “Believe me, I recognize the irony of me, the girl whose name literally means I don’t work alone, saying that. And uhh, saying it to the guy who just got all this stuff so I wouldn’t hit a dead end.” A grimace found its way to her face before she added, “Thanks, seriously. I owe you. Both for doing this and for putting up with me not telling you why I needed it.”

Ryder shrugged. “No big deal. I mean, you already helped me with that other thing, so I’d say we’re even.” 

“Yeah,” Dani replied while staring at him. “And are you ever gonna tell me why you needed me to help you steal stuff to get around those Sherwood spying plants? You thinking about pulling off a job in their territory?” 

Ryder’s immediate response was to ask, “You thinking about pulling off a job inside your school?” When she didn’t answer, he shook his head. “I’ll tell you more when I can.” 

“Right back at you,” Dani agreed. “Seriously, be careful, okay? Don’t do anything too stupid.” 

“And you take that right back at yourself,” the boy retorted before coughing. “Or… you know, something like that.” He sobered then. “Let’s both be careful. And promise to ask for help if we need it. 

“Something tells me, between the two of us, we’re gonna find all new ways to get in trouble.” 

——

Once he left, Dani sat back in her seat with Riddles, the bearded dragon, sitting in her lap. She scratched under the grateful lizard’s chin while flipping through the newly arrived files on her phone with the other hand. Of course she didn’t care about the vast majority of it, but she couldn’t have told Eits that she only wanted Cassidy Evans’ file without giving him a lot more info than she wanted to at that moment. Not that she didn’t trust the boy, but… it just felt like keeping this to herself was a good idea. 

First, she tried to search for the name Pittman in any of the files connected to Cassidy. Maybe he had been one of her substitute teachers, or a guest speaker, or… something. But no, his name didn’t come up anywhere. Not just in the high school records, but the middle school ones as well. As far as she could tell, Cassidy Evans had never had any official, school-related connection with Benjamin Pittman. 

So, that was a dead end. She tried a few other words and names, including simply looking for the names of any teacher or substitute who worked with Cassidy at any point, then using her own phone to look up that person online to find out if they were real or if they had mysteriously disappeared around the same time Pittman went to prison. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out either. It turned out that any person who taught at one of those schools, even on a temporary basis, was thoroughly vetted and had quite the impressive resume. If only Cassidy was poor. But then, that would sort of make this entire thing pointless, wouldn’t it? Dani wasn’t sure what the connection between Pittman and Cassidy was just yet, but she was pretty confident that it had to do with Cassidy’s family being… well, rich as fuck. 

Hold on, Cassidy’s family. The obvious reason for Pittman wanting a Cassidybot was to infiltrate them, and possibly spy on them. Which still didn’t explain why he wouldn’t just replace one of the adults if he actually wanted to accomplish something, but maybe it was more about getting eyes (and hands) inside their house? But why? Dani was relatively certain Cassidy wouldn’t be able to transfer any significant amount of money out of their accounts or anything, so robbing them (to any real degree) couldn’t be the answer. 

Maybe she was looking at this the wrong way. Switching things up, Dani started looking through Paige’s school files. She was the one created by Pittman. And there was that whole business with Paige and Cassidy arguing and fighting all the time. Given the way Paige was with everyone else, as far as Dani had heard, it was odd that she had constantly been at odds with Cassidy. 

Searching for all references to Cassidy in Paige’s files turned up a lot of results. Mostly about how much they really didn’t get along. Even though Dani was certain most of the incidents between them weren’t reported, what there was in the file painted a pretty thorough picture of Paige hating Cassidy. Which was definitely Pittman’s doing. Between knowing how Paige acted on her own, and knowing the man had built a robot replacement for Cassidy, that much was obvious. 

But it was something else that made Dani stop short with her scrolling. Another time that the name Cassidy came up in Paige’s file. She had to read the thing a couple times. Buried deep in a clearly forgotten part of the girl’s original middle school file was a photocopied report about a young blonde girl being found in an alley next to three dead bodies. There was a scribbled note from one doctor or another to the middle school counselor about how they should monitor Paige, the girl in question, for lingering psychological issues from being around dead bodies and apparently being in some sort of fugue state when they found her. But most importantly, the file noted that when she was finally able to talk, the young Paige had specifically asked them to ‘find Cassidy’ and that ‘Cassidy will help me.’ 

It was the same Cassidy, obviously. But then… why would Paige believe Cassidy would help her? Or that she could help her? 

Before she could think more about that, her phone beeped with a reminder. Reading it, Dani put the phone away and started the car once more. “Sorry guys,” she informed the lizards, “we’ll have to play detective a bit more later. 

“Time to go meet KD and find a decent costume for my date tonight.” 

*******

What Were Jae And Damarko Doing When The ‘Mugger’ Tried To Ambush Them Before Being Stopped By Paintball? 

“Are you absolutely sure you told your parents about being attacked and almost kidnapped when you were at Jae’s house?” As Damarko (or the currently-solid version of him that called himself Armadillo) said those words, his gaze flicked back and forth between the two fourteen-year-old twins who sat together on an old wooden crate in the middle of this old junkyard. “Cuz, you know, seems like they’d want you to be… oh, literally anywhere but back in Detroit if they knew about that.” 

“He has a point,” Jae agreed from where she was standing a few feet away with her arms folded. “Your mother is a police detective and your father is a crime reporter. They know how dangerous this sort of thing can be.” 

Lexi immediately shook her head, that long dark hair flailing in every direction. “Okay, first of all, we were totally not almost kidnapped. Those guys didn’t know what hit ‘em.” As she spoke, the girl grabbed an abandoned bottle from the ground and tilted it back and forth as though mimicking someone walking. “They were like, ‘oh hello helpless children, we’re gonna throw bags over your heads and take you in our vaaaaaaaaaayyee!’” The exaggerated scream was accompanied by Lexi touching the bottle with a silver ‘egg’ from her other hand. The egg broke and the bottle turned translucent before flying off like it had been shot out of a cannon. The effect wore off just as it was over a dumpster, allowing the bottle to shatter against the wall and fall into the trash where it belonged. 

“Only less murdery than that looked,” Zed, her blond, well-dressed and coiffed brother, noted. “Anyway, Mom thinks she’s handling the situation. She got a few of her cop buddies up here to look into it and they arrested the guys who were at the house. Even took a couple of those Spartans with them for Touched backup. And they found out those guys were hired by someone down in LA, which is what her and Dad are looking into right now. Apparently he’s some dangerous guy, so they were pretty happy to send us up here for a few days when we said we wanted to visit Jae some more. Especially when her stepmom said it was okay for us to stay there.”

“Except we don’t think the bad guy in LA is the only problem,” Lexi put in. “We think he’s got a partner here still. You know, a partner of the non-nameless thug variety. So we wanna find out who that guy is while Mom and Dad deal with the bigger threat down in California.” 

“And school isn’t an issue?” Armadillo couldn’t believe he was asking that, but still. 

“We’re on a year-round schedule,” came the casual reply from Lexi. “Sixty days on, twenty days off. We just started the twenty days off. Which means we have that long to find out what’s really going on with those guys.” 

Exchanging a look with Jae before turning back to them, Armadillo nodded. “Yeah, I gotta admit, when Jae said she needed help skipping school to go deal with some bad guys under the radar yesterday, we thought she was messing with us.” He gestured to the three other versions of himself, all intangible, who were standing up on the roofs or down at the end of the alley playing lookouts. “And we seriously did not expect you guys to show up this morning playing backup.” 

“Technically we showed up last night,” Zed pointed out with a shrug. “We just didn’t have time to talk about anything till now. And Jae said you guys found a list of names in that place after you dealt with the stragglers who were still hanging around.” 

Jae nodded once. “At the address you sent, the one the man who rented one of the cars that was at my house used. The place was almost cleaned out, and the bad guys who ran away when we showed up took more stuff with them. But this was under one of the trash cans. Rabbit found it.” She looked down the alley toward the Damarko duplicate who stood there before turning back to them while holding up a piece of paper with about seventeen names, first and last, scrawled across it. 

“None of them are the guys who were arrested for being at Jae’s house trying to kidnap you,” Armadillo noted. “We don’t know if they’re part of it or also targets. We’ll have to find out by looking into them.” 

“And we’ll help,” Lexi put in. “As soon as we know for sure what they wanted, we’ll call our parents and they can handle the heavy lifting. We just… we just wanna prove we’re not helpless, that we can take care of ourselves and… and contribute.” 

Letting out a sigh, Armadillo gestured. “Right, well, we’re definitely calling in help as soon as we’ve got something substantial. But for now, Jae and me, we’ve gotta get to school. Some of us aren’t on a break, and skipping two days in a row is just begging for attention I don’t think we want. Just promise–”

“We won’t look into the names without you,” Zed assured him without needing to be told. “We swear. We’re just gonna get breakfast and look around a bit, then go back to Jae’s house and wait for you. Her stepmom said she’d take us out to lunch later. Nothing dangerous.” 

“If you want to avoid danger,” Jae put in, “don’t let Kella drive you anywhere. 

“There is no one more terrifying behind the wheel.” 

*****

After leaving the Chambers twins for the time being, Jae and three of the Damarkos (Puma was staying with the twins to keep an eye on them) started making their way to school. They went to different ones, but the Damarkos wanted to keep talking to Jae about what was going on, so they stuck with her for the moment. To make the trip quicker, they took a shortcut through one of the many doors across the city that had been set up by the Ten Towers Tech-Touched Switchshift to allow them to have easy access into the Minority base from almost anywhere. In this case, they simply passed through the base briefly, chose an exit near Jae’s school, and left again. On the way out, Armadillo and Rabbit stayed behind to take a different exit, one nearer to Damarko’s school. After Colt dropped the girl off, they would switch which of them was solid in time for Armadillo or Rabbit (whichever lost their paper-rock-scissors match) to head in for class. 

They didn’t talk about things inside the Clubhouse, considering they really had no idea who might be listening in. But as soon as they were in the alley across from Jae’s school, she and Colt whispered intently about the situation. Neither of them liked the idea of not telling anyone about what was going on, but they did know that the moment the authorities found out the truth, they would contact Zed and Lexi’s parents, who would immediately pull them back to Los Angeles. The twins just wanted a chance to prove they weren’t helpless, that they could use their powers and join their own local Minority. And, Jae and Colt were both pretty sure, they wanted to prove to themselves that they could do it. 

Still, the second there was a real threat, they would absolutely be calling in help. Giving the twins the chance to prove themselves against a few random thugs was one thing, but as soon as any other Touched were involved, Jae and the Damarkos were going to call in the cavalry, no matter what. 

They had both just agreed to that as they heard movement behind them. Both spun that way, just in time to see some… random guy with a gun. But before they could react, Paintball came flying in out of nowhere. A shot of red paint announced his presence, before the gun was yanked out of the man’s hand while Paintball himself collided with the man. 

Colt made as though to take a step that way, but Jae quickly put a hand against his chest, keeping her voice low. “He’s got it, and he doesn’t know about us.” Instead, she quickly looked around to see if there were any other attackers. The area looked clear. Just an ordinary mugger? 

No. No, she doubted that very much.

By that point, Paintball had the man… well, basically in hand. The guy was ranting and rambling something about monsters, which was even more confusing. Jae really wanted to ask him what he meant, but that felt like a bad idea right now. 

“Hey, you’re the girl from the grocery store, right?” Paintball snapped his fingers and pointed at Jae before asking if they were okay.

She and Colt looked at one another. Jae could see the unspoken question in the boy’s gaze, whether they should say anything to let Paintball know the truth. She gave a very slight, almost imperceptible shake of her head. Paintball was cool, but he wasn’t part of the team. Besides, they still had that ranting guy on the ground as an unwanted audience. 

So, Colt turned back that way and replied, “Uh, thanks, Paintball. Lucky you were there.” 

Paintball shrugged and said something about being out for a run. Something about that felt weird, but Jae was more focused on trying to figure out who this guy was who had tried to attack them. Was he one of the people on the list of names they’d found? Was there any way she could get his name out of him? 

Unfortunately, Paintball had just told them they should head out and leave him to talk to the cops. Hesitantly, Jae asked, “Are you sure… you don’t need help?” Yeah, there was no way to do this without telling the boy more than she wanted to, and he insisted they didn’t need to stay. 

So, they left, after Damarko got his shirt signed by Paintball. The two of them headed out, looking back repeatedly. Jae was trying to commit the ‘mugger’s’ face to memory so she’d recognize him if they saw his picture later. 

“You think this is connected to the Chambers?” Colt asked just as they passed out of sight from where Paintball was. “Pretty weird timing if it’s not.” 

“Yeah, weird timing,” Jae quietly murmured, frowning thoughtfully to herself. “Was he waiting there for us? Was he after us? How would he know we were coming out of that door? There’s nothing–how would he know?” 

Colt shrugged. “Dude, I dunno. But I’ll tell you one thing. Okay, two things. First, we need to find out what that guy’s name is. 

“And second, the other Damarkos are totally jealous of my new Paintball shirt.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 22C – Double-Oh Eits (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

This whole thing had always been stupid. It was so stupid, and dangerous. Ryder Towling knew that. He had known from the start just how bad it would be for him if he was caught doing something like this. Going into Sherwood territory undercover as a tutor so he could find out why Cup and Pencil wanted to find this Errol Fosters kid so badly? It was ludicrous. He’d come in here repeatedly with no backup, no one who even had the slightest clue where he was, doing his best to snoop around without getting caught. If the Sherwood people realized that there was a member of La Casa in their territory… Yet what choice did he have? If he was going to get the answers he’d been looking for, he had to take a few risks. 

But he had never expected those risks to come to this.

“Last chance. Either tell the truth right now, or… well, you should just tell the truth. Trust me, you don’t want to face the consequences. I can get pretty creative.” 

Facing his interrogator, Ryder closed and opened his hands a couple times. He could feel sweat on his palms, and had to restrain himself from shaking them out or wiping them against his legs. To show fear would give them what they wanted, and he couldn’t do that. Not if he wanted to get through this. 

“Okay, fine,” he finally managed, speaking through a throat that had threatened to close up on him. “I’ll tell you… I’ll tell you the truth.” He took a deep breath, bracing himself before forcing himself to speak the words that his tormentor was waiting for so expectantly. 

“The first time I ever kissed someone was when I was fourteen. She was a girl in my bio class who wanted to see if I umm… if I kissed like a boy. It was while I was still, um, pre-op.” 

Hearing that, Arleigh Fosters whooped and thrust both arms in the air while leaning back in her seat at the kitchen table right next to him. “Hah, told you losers, earlier than both of you! That’s two points for answering the question, and two more points for beating you guys. Dude’s first kiss truth was worth four points. Suck it.”

Across the table, Micah Fosters, Arleigh’s twenty-year-old brother who had actually asked the question before ‘teasing’ Ryder about facing the consequences, smirked a little. “I don’t think that fourth point counts.” He gestured to the thirteen-year-old boy beside him. “Errol’s not even fourteen yet. If he gets a kiss before his next birthday, that’ll be an illegal point.”  

Glancing to the scrawny, stringy-haired blond boy with glasses, then back to Micah, Arleigh snorted in clear disbelief while waving a hand. “Yeah, sure, dude. I’m shaking in my boots at the possibility. Errol, when was the last time you physically, in-person spoke to a girl your own age outside of school?” Belatedly, she added, “And off the school grounds. Truth or Dare, E. I’ll spot you six points, minus one for every day it’s been. Or you can go for a six point dare, your choice.” 

From the dangerous smile she gave then, the dare would probably have been a bad idea. 

Shrinking back in his seat slightly, Errol hesitated before slowly answering, “Away from school and off school grounds? An hour ago.” 

While Micah guffawed, Arleigh let the front of the chair she had been tipping back on come back down with an audible thump. “What? When did you talk to a girl?” 

“Izzy,” Errol replied promptly. “We had to talk about our project so we met at the library. You said away from school, you didn’t say it couldn’t be about school.” 

“Oh come on!” Arleigh protested. “It was implied! The whole point was, when was the last time you had a real conversation with a girl that she didn’t have to have because of school.” 

With some effort, Ryder managed to resist the urge to elbow the girl beside him. Honestly, he didn’t even think she was thinking about how she was treating her little brother. She wasn’t intentionally trying to make fun of or embarrass him, it was just… how she was. Not that that made it any better, really. And it made him wonder just how nasty she could be when she was trying. 

Micah, by that point, was shaking his head. “Nuh uh, no take-backs. You said what you said. That’s six points for Errol here. Not his fault you suck at phrasing things. It was an easy six points for your side. All you had to say was, ‘when was the last time a girl chose to speak to you outside of school and for no school-related reason.’”

Yeah, okay, maybe they both just sucked, Ryder decided. Not that this was a new revelation. It hadn’t taken him very long to decide that both of the older siblings were the sort of people whom he would quite gladly never have anything to do with if it wasn’t absolutely necessary. 

And yet, was it absolutely necessary? The thought drifted through his mind briefly before he dismissed it. Yes. If he wanted real answers about the whole Errol situation, and he did, then it was necessary. He had to keep sitting here, playing their stupid points-based Truth or Dare game for as long as it took to get his other work done. Work that would have been finished already in most houses, but for this one he had to be extra careful. He has spent several visits over these past few weeks mapping out the house as best as he could. Specifically mapping out not only the cameras he’d been able to spot, but every plant as well. Here in Sherwood territory, all flowers, cacti, vines, potted plants of every variety could be a spy. He’d had to come here multiple times, using secret cameras in his backpack he could study the video in an attempt to find a route through the house that didn’t involve passing any plants that could’ve spotted an intruder.

Luckily, the intruders he had in mind were only about five inches tall. 

Even with all his planning, walkthroughs, and the videos of his time in the house, this whole thing would’ve been impossible if it wasn’t for one thing. The Roomba. Every time he’d visited, stood in the kitchen to talk to one of the others, gone upstairs to tutor Arleigh, every time he was around, Ryder had noticed a Roomba busily doing its work somewhere in the house. It was one of the newer models with the ability to hover so it could more easily get around obstacles or go upstairs. Which was pretty important when it came to his plan.

Unfortunately, the only time the Roomba went upstairs, as far as he had seen, was right when he was normally leaving. Which really didn’t work for him, and was what led to this whole situation. Managing to maneuver himself an invitation to stay for dinner without being obvious about it had taken some time and a bit of luck, but now he was here. Even better, their father wasn’t here. He’d told them to order a couple pizzas and not to stay up too late or turn the music up so loud that it would bother ‘them.’ The Sherwood people, obviously. How the Fosters managed to maintain even relatively calm relations with the infamously technology-hating gang when their dad was so deeply tied to the tech-delivering company Taurus was still a mystery. 

Well, actually, money. The answer was probably money. No matter how much Sherwood hated technology, Ryder was willing to bet they put it aside for a certain amount of cash. And lord knew the Fosters had cash. Not Evans-level cash, but then again, who else was that loaded? 

Either way, the Roomba was the key. While he and the Fosters had been sitting around the table playing the stupid game as they waited for the pizza to be delivered, Ryder listened and watched for the little robot vacuum to buzz by on its way under the table. That was the only totally clear spot here in the dining room. There were two cameras that could each keep the entire area they were sitting at in view, and no less than five potential spy plants. He didn’t know that they were being watched by the plants, but it was a possibility. And that was too dangerous. Even if the Sherwood people weren’t on good enough terms with the Fosters to say anything about seeing the innocent, nobody tutor snooping around using tiny energy gremlins, they sure as hell would have a few words to say to Ryder about it. He’d be throwing his secret identity away, letting Sherwood know who he was, and exposing himself to all sorts of trouble. 

Thus, waiting until the Roomba went under the table. As it did, he shifted his position just a little as though turning to look at Arleigh. In the process, the boy summoned four of his so-called mites (miniature invaluable technology elves). The quartet of tiny figures were crowded on his hand, but they knew to stay silent rather than make their normal cackling shrieks. This was a stealth mission. As soon as the Roomba passed by beneath his outstretched hand, they leapt off and fell onto the thing, disappearing inside it right before the robot exited out the far side of the table and back in view of everyone. 

So far so good. Managing not to let his relieved exhale be too obvious, Ryder spoke up. “Are you sure the pizza guy’s gonna be okay coming through this area? I mean… you know.” Even as he was saying that, he was also viewing things through the eyes of his mites. Or rather, through the Roomba they were possessing. 

He may have been just this side of useless in a direct physical confrontation, but if there was one thing Ryder actually was good at, it was multitasking. It was literally a superpower, allowing him to carry on his own actions and engage in full conversations with the people around him while also seeing and directing his mites off on their own things. He couldn’t really describe what it was like to see things through multiple sets of eyes at once, let alone how it felt to direct multiple different actions at the same time. It felt like acting as himself but multiple times and all at once. 

Yes, it was weird. But it was also quite useful. During official missions with the rest of La Casa, he could monitor multiple possessed cameras, doors, vehicles, and more all at once with no problems of having to divide his attention. Every mite he had active was another completely separate focus that he could keep track of all at once. 

While the Roomba slowly made its way out of the kitchen (he couldn’t exactly just take control and direct it straight where he wanted the thing to go without being too obvious), Arleigh snickered. “You mean those nature-loving pussies? Don’t worry, they know better than to mess with our food.” Turning a bit as though looking at one of the nearby flowers, she added, “They’re not as tough as they think they are.” 

With a sigh, Micah muttered, “Don’t antagonize the gang, Arleigh.” 

“Oh please, they’re not always watching.” Arleigh rolled her eyes before glancing to the boy beside her. “They just want people to think they are. They love to make everyone paranoid.” 

While all that was going on, the Roomba with its stowaways trundled along out of the kitchen and did several passes through the small area in front of the stairs. Much as he wanted to send the thing straight to where he needed it now, what Ryder absolutely did not want was for Mr. Fosters or anyone else who happened to review the camera footage from today for any reason to notice something amiss. Everything had to look as normal and mundane as possible. Still, he couldn’t help but hurry it along a bit. The thing still followed its normal route, but did so faster than usual. He really doubted anyone paid quite that much attention. 

So, before long, the Roomba made its way up the stairs, hovering onto each one to vacuum it in turn. Speeding the thing up slightly without running out the motor or attracting attention, Ryder continued to focus his own physical body’s attention on the others, offering a shrug. “I guess if you think it’s okay. Pizza guy wouldn’t agree to make the delivery if it was that dangerous, right?” 

Errol spoke up a bit hesitantly, “Yeah, they know what sort of rules to follow. They come in, deliver things, then leave. There’s um, a list of license plates and people who aren’t allowed to deliver in this area anymore because they broke the rules.” 

“And the place we order from has a good rep,” Micah put in. “So don’t worry your little head off, my man. It’s all gonna be fine.” 

At that point, it was Errol’s turn to offer a truth or dare to one of the two sitting across from him. After giving his sister a brief look while she stared him down, the boy instead focused on Ryder. “Truth, what do you want to be when you grow up? I mean, when you graduate and all.” 

While Arleigh made a noise that was halfway between a groan and a laugh, Micah spoke up. “Oh come on, dude. You can do better than that. That’s the wussiest question ever. We’re not five years old. Here.” He leaned over and whispered something in the younger boy’s ear. 

Errol hesitated after hearing it before sighing. Focusing on Ryder once more, he tried again. “Okay, okay. What do you want to be when you grow up for one point, and for one point each, name three jobs you’d rather die than take.”

With a visible smirk, Micah shrugged while drawling, “Kid still really doesn’t seem to get the point of Truth or Dare, but we try to keep things light for him. Consider this a freebie. But be warned, next time it comes back to us it’ll be my turn again and I will make up for my brother taking it easy on you.” 

Right, this wasn’t that hard. And even if it had been, there was no way that Ryder was going to request a dare. Not when everyone in the room was allowed to make suggestions. He already knew that the older two Foster siblings had plenty of what they would consider interesting ideas on that front. So, he hesitated only slightly before replying, “Well, as far as what I want to be when I grow up…” Several thoughts ran through his mind, most of which he couldn’t say without exposing too much about his true extracurricular activities. “I kinda want to be a chef. Like, a pastry chef. I want to make super-delicious treats that people pay a lot of money for. You know, the kind they serve in five-star restaurants and charge ridiculous rates for. Not really for the money or fame or anything. I don’t think pastry chefs get famous no matter how good they are. But because I want to make those obscenely rich people pay absurd amounts of money for my cakes and things, then turn around and sell stuff that’s just as good to completely normal public high schools for like… pennies. Just because I can.” 

While saying that, he was also focusing on the Roomba. It had made it up the stairs and was heading into Micah’s room. The door opened for the little robot automatically, allowing the thing to get in there and do its work. Ryder had only been in that room once, so he had to be careful. Watching through the Roomba’s camera, he waited until it went under the bed, then made one of his mites hop out. The thing would only have a few seconds of life before vanishing, so he had to be quick. On the way through, he’d taken note of the two plants in the room. One was a small flower up on a shelf by the door, while the other was a cactus sitting in one corner. As long as he had the mite stay under the bed until it reached the end, then use the desk for cover, he could get it around to the back of that desk and up into the computer without being spotted. 

At the same time, the Roomba had finished its work and went out into the hallway. From there, it went through Arleigh and Errol’s rooms, and he did pretty much the same thing. Getting his mites into the computers of all three Foster siblings, all while continuing on to detail the three jobs he’d rather die than take (veterinarian, police officer, pest control). 

Then it was his turn to ask a question. Honestly, he’d rather just pass and focus more on what he was doing, but he had to keep up the ruse. So, after thinking about it for a moment, Ryder looked at Micah. “Truth, if you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?” 

Rather than respond immediately, the older boy seemed to consider for a few seconds. Then he offered a slow smile before replying, “Dare.” 

Well that was a little surprising. Why would the boy rather do a dare, one he had to know his sister would jump on, then answer the question of where he’d like to live? 

Sure enough, Arleigh was already bouncing up and down, delighted about getting a chance to do a dare against her older brother. As soon as the boy confirmed he would be going with that, she bolted off the seat and began to prepare some sort of concoction in the kitchen that she was going to make him drink. 

Yeah, that sounded gross, but whatever. It gave Ryder a moment of peace, and he took full advantage of that. The Roomba had made it to its main target, the office that he had never been allowed to go into. It was Trey Fosters’ office. Arleigh, Errol, and Micah’s father. And here, he had to be even more careful, using the Roomba’s camera to watch for anything that could spot his last mite. From what he could tell, there was only one spot under the desk that would be out of sight of the large floor to ceiling plant in the corner by the window (which itself had a large tree visible through the glass). He waited for it to be there, then had the mite hop out, shimmy along the corner of that desk, then slip through a hole for a cord and into the actual computer. 

He had done it. All four of the computers had his mites in them,  and he was pretty sure no one knew about it. Now all he had to do was have them download all the files from those computers to the beefy ten terabyte USB drive in his pocket. He doubted he’d need that much, but he’d wanted to come prepared. 

While his mites did their work, Ryder focused on making as queasy a face as he could. It wasn’t that hard, considering he could see some of the things Arleigh was putting in that drink. “Are you sure you want to taste that?” 

“I think you underestimate me, tutor-guy,” Micah retorted. “Believe me, if there’s one thing you should know, it’s this. 

“I play for keeps.” 

*******

He should have brought a bigger USB drive. As it was, Ryder ended up having to focus mostly on the files from Trey Fosters’ computer. That by itself had ended up being a full six and a half terabytes. The rest of the space he’d split up among the other three as evenly as possible, getting all the files he could with a focus on anything that mentioned Touched, the Scions, Errol’s name, and so on. 

He didn’t really look at what he’d gotten in the process. Even his multitasking ability only went so far, and he didn’t trust himself to keep a poker face if he found something important. So, he waited until he was safely done eating, out of that house, in his car, and far from the Sherwood neighborhood before pulling over in a parking lot next to a bookstore. Then he used a cord to plug the USB drive into his phone and started to look at what he’d found. It would take a long time to sort through it all, of course, but he wanted to get at least a first glance. 

Using one of his mites for help, Ryder searched through the video files from all the security footage that had been on Trey’s computer. He had his little buddy search specifically for any moments in the audio that mentioned Errol and the Scions within thirty seconds of each other. 

There, a conversation had been recorded inside the office about a week earlier. Quickly, after glancing around reflexively to ensure that he was still alone in the dark parking lot, Ryder told it to play on his phone screen from a point a few seconds before those keywords were mentioned.

Two people were standing in the office when the video started. One was Trey Fosters himself, a dark-haired man in his early forties who clearly spent a lot of time working out. The other, meanwhile, was a nondescript red-haired man with a neatly trimmed goatee and dark eyes. 

“You know why Cup and Pencil are after my son?” Trey was asking, standing behind his desk with his attention laser-focused that way. “Then don’t keep me in suspense. Or do I have to say pretty please, Minister Gold, tell me why the Scion psychopaths have been trying to find my son all this time?” 

Minister Gold? That was a weird–shaking that off, Ryder focused on listening. 

“Yes, Hemlock, we do,” came the response.  

Despite his resolve to focus, Ryder quickly paused the video. Hemlock?! Arleigh’s father was Hemlock, second-in-command of Sherwood? Did she–did they–of course they knew. That was… that was why they–oh. The man who was so big in the technology delivery game was second-in-command of the gang that hated technology? What the fuck was that about? Why–how would–oh.

Oh. Big oh. He hadn’t just stolen information and files from some random family inside rival gang territory. He’d accidentally stolen identity-revealing information from the gang itself. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. He didn’t mean to. Could he–no. No, he couldn’t apologize. They didn’t know what he’d done, and if they found out, they weren’t going to listen to him try to claim he hadn’t done it on purpose. Oh God. Wait, did that mean Arleigh was–she couldn’t–wait.

Shaking those thoughts off for the moment, he hit play once more. However reluctant he was to do so, after he’d done all this already he might as well get the answers he’d been looking for. 

“It took some digging,” that Minister Gold was saying, “but it turns out Errol’s birthparents, Colette and Shane Elbrecht, were old college roommates and friends of Rodney Barlow. AKA Overseer.” 

Overseer. Ryder had heard that name before. He’d been a huge threat in Wisconsin about seven years earlier. Wisconsin to start anyway, but with enormous potential to become a national problem, with his power to touch anything that came off a person’s body, like their hair, blood, sweat, and so on, and ‘charge’ it. When a body part was charged, Overseer could see through that person’s eyes, hear what they heard, and even control them like they were an extension of himself. But even worse than that was the fact that if he got enough body parts, he was able to fashion them into small dolls. And those dolls could be used by anyone, even someone without powers, to control the person in question. 

Needless to say, Overseer had been a real target. He’d risen up the Fell-Touched ranks, been a problem for awhile, and then disappeared. There were a lot of rumors about Touched on both sides of the fence banding together to get rid of him before he became too much of a threat, given he could control all of them if he’d gotten his hands on enough of their hair and other bits. 

“From what we’ve been able to put together,” Minister Gold was saying, “Cup and Pencil have gotten their hands on a DNA-locked safe from the Elbrechts. We believe that inside that safe are various… dolls their old friend left in their care.” 

“Dolls,” Hemlock echoed. “You mean Overseer’s dolls, the ones he was making on his way to come play in this town before you sent your dogs after him.” 

“Yes,” Gold replied. “Which means if Pencil and Cup manage to open that safe, they’ll have access to every doll he stored in there. 

“And they’ll be able to control potentially every Detroit Touched who existed back then.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

A/N – There was a non-canon for this story posted a couple days ago which is now available for EVERYONE to read right here

So, I skated for a while, both blades and board. A lot of people liked to stick with one or the other, and saw switching back and forth as not being loyal or whatever. They got really into that sort of thing, with huge arguments about which was better. But I tended to go with whatever I was in the mood for at the time. If that actually made me worse at both than I would have been if I focused on one, the way some people thought, so be it. I didn’t feel worse than I could have been, plus I had fun. And wasn’t having fun kind of the point of the entire thing? 

Anyway, once I’d had enough of that fun for a while, I found myself grabbing a couple bottles of water from the cooler and standing in front of that guy from before, Ryder. As promised, he hadn’t set foot on anything with wheels. He was just sitting off to the side, watching everyone else. He didn’t seem to know anybody except Dani, and something made me want to make sure that he wasn’t lonely or whatever. I couldn’t explain it, I just didn’t want to let him feel ignored. 

Twisting the caps off the water bottles, I extended one to him before speaking up. “So, you’re absolutely sure there’s no way we could talk you onto one of those boards? It’s seriously not as scary as it looks from the outside. Just takes some practice.”  

After a moment of hesitation, he took the bottle while shaking his head. “Sorry, I like having all my bones intact. I have enough trouble walking around without killing myself. Adding wheels into the mix just seems like a bad idea altogether.” Belatedly, he added, “But, you know, you seem pretty good on them. You sure you weren’t born with wheels?” 

Snorting despite myself, I plopped down next to him and took a long gulp from my own bottle. “I’ve seen baby pictures, no wheels attached. Though maybe they had them surgically removed first?” Pretending to consider that, I finally shook it off. “Nah, I’m pretty sure my family would have told me. They lie about plenty of stuff, but that seems like it would’ve come up.” 

Looking away from me, Ryder murmured, “I guess all families lie, even the super-rich ones.” 

“Maybe especially the super-rich ones,” I found myself replying before grimacing. Why would I even say that? Or any of this? I didn’t know anything about this guy. Like, absolutely nothing aside from the fact that he was tutoring Arleigh and was friends with Dani, whom I also didn’t know very well. I had to be careful not to open up too much. Saying the wrong thing, even to a completely random person who didn’t know me at all, could seriously backfire. 

Ryder, meanwhile, had looked over to me. “I guess money doesn’t solve everything. Just makes it easier to deal with a lot of things.” He hesitated briefly, seeming to consider something before speaking again. “Though in a way, you’re really lucky as far as the rich and powerful parents thing goes. Err, I mean obviously you’re lucky. But for a different reason. I just–” Shaking his head as though clearing it, he pushed on. “What I mean is, people don’t know you. They don’t recognize you. Do you have any idea how strange that is, for the daughter of people as big as your family to be completely invisible on the street? You can walk into any store and nobody will recognize you. Most girls in your position would be going around getting constantly mobbed. You know, by paparazzi and people like that.”

Flushing a little, I folded my arms across my stomach. “Trust me,” I murmured, “they’ve got much better things to photograph than me. I don’t exactly take after my mother. If I did, maybe more people would want pictures.”

“And if more people wanted pictures, you wouldn’t be able to sit out here doing the things you like,” Ryder pointed out with a shrug. “I mean, do you want to be a model?” 

“I dunno,” I answered honestly. “I mean no, not like that. I don’t want to be chased around and like, yeah. I still want to do my own thing most of the time. You’re right about that, having anonymity is really good. It means I can do stuff like this.” Biting my lip, I slumped back a bit and sighed. “But sometimes I do like to feel pretty. I like to dress up. I like feeling… I dunno, feminine? Sometimes I feel like this stuff suits me better, the skating, running around, screwing off with the guys, that sort of thing. And other times… other times I really wish I could fill out a dress better than I do. It’s like I can’t make up my mind if I’d rather be more of a girl or more of a guy.” Grimacing, I gave a quick shake of my head while trying to make it sound like this stuff didn’t really matter. “Forget it. Believe me, I know it’s stupid.” 

Before I could tell myself to shut the fuck up and stop talking about this with someone I barely knew, Ryder’s hand touched my shoulder. His voice was quiet. “It’s not stupid, Cassidy. I know a lot of stupid things, and that? That’s definitely not one of them. What you’re talking about, it–” He stopped, seeming to consider his words for a moment. “It just sounds like you’re your own person. And that’s a good thing. Don’t let anyone try to force you into a box. Sometimes you feel more like this.” He gestured over to where the others were shouting at one another while skating through the various concrete ramps. “And other times you feel more like… you know, a traditional sort of girl. There’s nothing wrong with either of those, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be both. Whatever you are, just make sure it’s what you chose to be. Not what someone said you should be just because it fits their own personal understanding of the world.”

I couldn’t–I had no idea what to say to that. Or how to deal with the feelings that kept twisting their way up through me. My stomach felt weird. I wasn’t sure why this whole thing had come up, or why I felt like talking about it with him of all people made sense. Again, I didn’t know anything about Ryder Towling. There was absolutely no reason at all for me to feel comfortable talking about this sort of sensitive, personal thing with him. Part of me wondered if he was a Touched, like that Tell guy. But no, that didn’t seem right either. I just… felt comfortable with him. 

Yeah, it didn’t make any sense. And it sort of scared me a little bit. But not as much as it probably should have. The thought that I could say the wrong thing to a guy I barely knew should have terrified me into immediately excusing myself and walking away. Instead, I sat there and considered his words for a long, silent moment before replying, “Probably a good thing that people don’t depend on me to be a certain type of person. I’d end up disappointing them.” 

Ryder gave a soft snort at that. “Now that I really doubt,” he informed me before taking a long pull from his bottle. His voice turned quieter. “You are an awful lot of things, Cassidy Evans. But I’m pretty sure one thing you could never be is disappointing.” 

A deep blush rose within me, and I turned slightly that way, trying to find the right words to ask what would make him say that just because I did a little skating around him. But before any words could come out, we were rejoined by Dani once more. She had a couple others with her, including Amber, whom I had not seen arrive. 

“Not having any luck getting this guy on wheels, huh?” Dani teased lightly while gesturing. “Well come on, maybe we can interest you in a different sort. You know, the kind attached to a car.”

One of the boys, a tall red-head named Clyve, spoke up. “We’re gonna go get ice cream from that new place. Some of us keep hearing people babble on and on about how good it is and haven’t had a chance to go yet.” 

New ice cream place. Maki’s place. The thought of going to see my ex-boyfriend’s new love interest immediately made me want to give excuses and leave. But there was that voice in the back of my head reminding me that I really did need to find out more about… them if I was going to figure out what that whole deal was. And to be quite honest, going in a big group like this was undoubtedly the very best cover I would get. Even if it made me uncomfortable, going was the best choice. Which, of course, was a realization that made my stomach twist. 

I found myself looking over toward Amber, who met my gaze with an understanding expression. She raised both eyebrows before clearing her throat to casually ask. “Oh uhh, didn’t you say something about having a thing with your parents this weekend? Is that today?”

I knew what Amber was doing. She was giving me a way out of this. She knew how uncomfortable it would be, and was letting me know that she would be there to find out more about Maki herself. She was telling me that I didn’t have to be there if I didn’t want to be. 

Except I still felt like I needed to. Sure, she could find out stuff on her own, and could almost certainly do as much if not more than I could. Okay, definitely more than I could in some ways. But if I let my discomfort with the situation keep me away from it, even with this excuse, it would open the door to allowing such feelings to keep me away from other uncomfortable situations. Which, given that the whole thing with my family, felt like a very bad precedence to set. Yes, I didn’t really want to be there, but I wasn’t going to let my personal feelings get in the way. Finding out what was going on with the sex-shifter person who had some connection to the Ministry was more important, and if having one of us there was good, having two had to be better, right? 

Forcing back a sigh at my own annoying logic, I gave her a thankful look before shaking my head. “Nah, not today. I’m up for some ice cream. And believe me,” I added in Clyve’s direction, “they haven’t been overselling it. This stuff is just as good as everyone keeps saying. Better, even.” With a wink, I added, “But uhh, I don’t think all of us can fit in one car.” Saying that, I glanced around at the roughly fifteen or so people who were still hanging around. 

“Well, I brought Ryder here for a reason beyond coaxing him out of his comfort zone,” Dani noted. “Namely, he has a car. So ahh, come on.” Pivoting, she waved both hands around her head. “Everyone heading for ice cream, load up and move out!” To Amber and me, she added, “Come on, it may not be the limousine the princess there is used to, but I’ll see if I can scrounge out a chauffeur’s hat to make you feel more at home.” 

Her words very easily could have been taken as rude or… taunting coming in the wrong tone. Yeah, they could have come off poorly from someone else. But somehow, I wasn’t offended. I knew she was teasing, it was just her way of doing that. I wasn’t sure how I knew that, but maybe she was just good at expressing herself. Or… or something. 

Shaking that off, I started to move after her and Ryder. But Amber gently caught my arm, her voice low. “How… how was the funeral?” 

Of course she knew I had gone. Biting my lip, I looked back to her before glancing around quickly to make sure no one was in earshot. Then I whispered, “Simon was there.” As her eyes widened, I gave a quick two sentence summary for her about what I had seen. Through it, Amber seemed to reel a bit. Yeah, it was a lot to take in. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times as she tried to find the right words to respond to the news, before finally settling on a simple yet effective, “Motherfucker.” 

“Yeah, pretty much,” I murmured, frowning at the uncomfortable, confusing thoughts in my head. I still had no idea why he had been there, or what his whole deal was. It just raised a bunch of questions that I had no way to answer right then. So, I shoved them down and gestured. “We better get over there before everyone starts yelling at us for holding up ice cream.” 

The other girl looked like she was going to say something else for a moment, but in the end she just gave a short nod. “Yeah,” she murmured, “don’t wanna keep everyone waiting.” 

So, we started off that way, after I gave a quick glance back to the spot where Ryder and I had been talking. That weird feeling rose up in me once more before I made myself quash it for the moment. 

Today was just… really weird all around. 

******

“So uhh, I owe you an apology.” 

The words came as I was stepping away from the toppings station at the ice cream parlor with my cup of the frozen treat heavily laden with caramel syrup and sprinkles. Turning, I found myself looking at none other than Maki himself. Themself. Damn it, I still didn’t know what the right term was. I was going to mentally stick with them for the moment. 

“Uhh,” I managed uncertainly, “an apology?” 

They nodded, meeting my gaze a bit sheepishly. “I probably should have said that I knew who you were before. And then I went and talked to Tom about you visiting. It’s ahh…” Raising a hand to rub the back of their neck with obvious discomfort, they glanced away while murmuring, “It was kind of rude. So yeah, I’m sorry about that. It wasn’t fair. Not with the whole… ex thing going on.” With a grimace, they added, “I think I’m probably making the whole thing worse.” 

My head shook quickly. “It’s okay. I mean, it was already pretty awkward before you said anything. But I swear I didn’t know who you were before we came. My dad just mentioned ice cream and I didn’t put it together with what Tomas said about how–yeah.” Shaking myself slightly, I focused on adding, “Let’s just say there’s been plenty of awkwardness to go around. But hey, it’s still really good ice cream. And trust me, I’ve tasted a lot in my time. This stuff is basically perfect.” 

To my confusion, Maki glanced away with a muttered, “Yeah, well, it would be.” As I blinked uncertainly, they seemed to realize what they had said and visibly blanched. “I mean, sorry. It’s just been a long few days. Long couple weeks, really. My family just moved here and all.” 

Well that was as good of an opening as I was going to get. Bracing myself inwardly, I tried to sound as casual as possible while asking, “So uhh, how’d you and Tomas meet, anyway? I mean, if it’s not too personal or whatever. And even as I say that, I realize I sound like a crazy ex. Don’t worry about it. I mean, I may be crazy in a lot of ways, but I’m not that sort of crazy. And I–I’m making it worse again. So you know what, I’m just gonna shut up.”

With a tiny smirk, Maki replied, “Believe me, I’ve been on your side of the whole thing before. With a lot more confusion and weirdness than you could possibly imagine. So yeah, I get it. But the truth is there’s not really much of a story to tell. We met because our fathers introduced us. His dad had some history with mine, and when we were going to move over here to the States to start up our business, Mr. Jackson suggested we come to Detroit. So, we did, and I met Tom. I dunno how that’s going to go, but uhh, he’s… nice. I mean, more than nice, I just–” They made a face. “It was my turn to make it awkward.” 

“Well, I appreciate you giving me a break from the job,” I found myself casually replying. The two of us met each other’s gazes and both snickered a bit. Okay, yeah, putting aside the mystery around their whole… thing, I could see why Tomas would like them. 

Still, I did have questions that I needed to get answers to if I was ever going to figure out what was going on. So, trying to sound as casual as possible, I asked, “Ahh, where did you move over here from? I mean, you said your family came to the States and all. Are you uhh, I’m not sure how to… your English is really good. I mean, you don’t really have much of an accent at all.” 

Offering me a faint smile and a lifeline, Maki replied, “We’re originally from Hamamatsu, in Japan. It’s a couple hundred kilometers south of Tokyo. Ahh, sorry, about a hundred and fifty miles for Americans. But I only spent the first seven or eight years of my life there. My family moves around a lot. It’s–” Clearly stopping themself from whatever they had been about to say, Maki instead finished with, “I’ve spent most of the past eight years or so bouncing through Western Europe. I guess that’s how my dad met Tom’s.” 

“Is your dad a diplomat too?” I asked, before amending, “I mean, was he, before you guys did the whole ice cream shop thing? Which seems sort of like a weird career move, but hey.” 

Maki chuckled slightly, offering me a perfect smile that made me see even more why Tomas would be interested in them. “He just likes to start up businesses, run them for awhile, then hand them off to other people so he can do something new. I guess he gets bored easily or something. He–” Stopping, they clearly mentally corrected something they were about to say. “He’s got a lot of irons in the fire. And now we’re here doing this. He promised we could visit America the next time he made a big change, and that I could pick the business. So, ice cream.” 

“Well,” I replied while gesturing with my full spoon, “judging from the taste of this, it was the right move. Whoever your supplier is, they’re a genius.” 

With a mysterious smile, they replied, “It has a lot to do with the storage and preparation too. But thanks, my parents will be glad to hear you enjoyed it so much. I umm, I’m glad I could meet you. You know, officially. If it wouldn’t be too awkward or bad for you, maybe we could all go hang out sometime. I wouldn’t mind hearing some stories about Tom. And it’s even more fun if we’re talking while he’s right there.” They added that last bit with a wink. 

Well, as far as getting opportunities to snoop on their life and find out what was going on went, this was going incredibly well. Better than I really could have hoped. I pushed aside my personal feelings and nodded. “Sure, ahh, that sounds good. Here, why don’t I give you my number. Then we can keep talking about him and set up a time to do it in person.” 

In the end, we both exchanged numbers and texted one another to make sure we had them right. Then I went back to join the others, who were just about done anyway. I was teased a little bit about ‘stalking’ Tomas’s new boyfriend by a few people, but they moved on pretty quick. And soon, everyone decided to disperse and head out to do their own thing. Which was just as well, considering I really needed to go home and put in an appearance before escaping to go to that party. And boy did that sound like completely ordinary teenager things when I thought about it like that. Funny how that worked. 

As I was heading out, Ryder caught my attention at the door and raised an eyebrow. “That guy over there is your ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend?” 

Flushing a little, I replied, “Yeah well, what can I say? I live an exciting and interesting life.” 

Ryder chuckled softly, holding the door for me. “You know what, Cassidy Evans? That I can definitely believe. 

“I’m pretty sure you live a more interesting life than anyone could guess.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The next morning was Saturday. It was also the day of Tyson’s funeral. Some part of me had had the wild thought that even if I couldn’t appear as Paintball because of the connection it would draw to Murphy, maybe I could at least go as myself. Except that was a bad idea too. Even if people didn’t recognize me (and to be honest, most wouldn’t because I didn’t fit what they assumed the daughter of Elena and Sterling Evans would look like), they would still wonder why I was there. After all, this clearly wasn’t going to be some big crowded event. If I attended, I would be noticed. Especially by Murphy and Roald, who would wonder why some girl they had never seen before was sitting in on the funeral. 

Not for the first time, I wondered if I should just come straight out and tell all of them exactly who I was, and the full truth about this entire situation. But there were things still holding me back. I trusted them, of course. But if I let them know who I was, I didn’t know how it would change… everything. How they thought about me, how they–but no. No, that wasn’t the important thing. The most important thing was that I was afraid of what would happen if my identity happened to somehow get further than that. Or if my parents found out they knew something and… talked to them. If they didn’t know who I was, they would have no way of telling– but that put them in danger too. If they couldn’t tell my parents what they wanted to know, if they–so I should tell them. But if I told them, I didn’t have control over who found out. Or even less control than I already had, given Izzy and Amber knew. But they didn’t–but if my parents–

God damn it. I had no idea what to do, or what the best move was. Every time I thought that I was bound and determined to just tell them all the truth, my stomach twisted in on itself and I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t even sure exactly why not. I just couldn’t make myself take that step. Something in my head kept telling me that it was something I couldn’t take back. If I told Murphy, Roald, Wren, Peyton, and Fred all who I really was, I just… Something about that felt like too big of a step. It was so dangerous. Even telling them as much as I had was dangerous, of course. But totally revealing all of my secrets was just… I felt queasy at the thought. Was that stupid? Was I being dumb about this whole thing? Should I just bite the bullet and go for it? Maybe… maybe later. Yeah, I just had to let them process what I had already told them. It was too much to dump on all of them all at once. Later, maybe I would see what–how they dealt with it. 

Telling myself that made sense helped somewhat. But then, it didn’t actually solve my original problem. I wanted to do something for Tyson’s funeral. I couldn’t just sit around and ignore it. Of course I didn’t know the guy, and what little I did know about him didn’t paint a very flattering picture. But he didn’t deserve to die, and Murphy had said that he was trying to turn his life around. Except now he would never have that chance. Just ignoring his funeral, when my family was the reason that his murderer was still free, was wrong. I couldn’t do that. 

In the end, I had to do something for it. Even if I couldn’t actually attend the funeral itself, I could at least be nearby. So, I found myself taking a seat on the roof of a building across the street from the cemetery where the funeral was being performed. Well, we kept calling it a funeral. It was more of a simple graveside service. They couldn’t afford some big event at a church. And it seemed like they didn’t have the family or friends to fill such a thing anyway. That part didn’t surprise me, given everything I had heard and already knew about the Murphys. 

The building was really too far away to make out much of the funeral. Which was kind of the point, given I didn’t want to be seen attending it. But that was what high-powered binoculars were for. Nestled in a sitting position with my back to an air conditioning unit, I lifted the front of the helmet so I could put the binoculars against my eyes and scan that way. Now I could see what was going on more clearly. They were all standing around the open grave with the casket ready to be lowered into it. Murphy was there, in an ill-fitting suit that looked as though it had been patched several times. Roald was standing next to her in a suit of his own, which didn’t look much better. There was a smaller girl right beside him whom I assumed was his younger sister. The older sister, if I guessed right, was standing a little further away talking to what looked like the man who would be giving the service once they got started in a few minutes.

My eyes scanned over the rest of the people, not that there were many beyond that. I did, however, catch sight of a van approaching through the winding cemetery road that had the Detroit Department of Corrections logo on it. Which gave me pause for a moment before I realized. It was Murphy’s parents. That had to be it, right? If they were going to be given leave from prison for anything, it would be the funeral of their son. Somehow, I hadn’t even considered the fact that they would be there. How would they react to the whole thing? How would Murphy react to them being there? Suddenly, I felt more like a creepy voyeur than I had ever intended. This was wrong. I had felt so strongly that I needed to be here, but now I was questioning that whole thing. Maybe the truth was that while being here might make me feel better, I was actually just spying on things I didn’t deserve to see. This service wasn’t for me. It was– 

A sound nearby interrupted my inner turmoil, and I quickly lowered the binoculars and turned to see a familiar figure landing on the roof nearby. Peyton, in her newest purple and black armor configuration. As the hoverboard transitioned back into her bronze and gold marbles, she spoke up. “You couldn’t stay away either, huh?” 

Grateful, for more than one reason, that I still had my ski mask to hide my face even with the front of the helmet lifted up, I hesitated before giving a short nod. “But now I’m starting to rethink that. It feels weird to spy on them, you know? LIke I’m being a shady creep.”

“We’ll tell them we were there,” Peyton offered with a hesitant shrug. “I mean, we’ll tell them you were there. I already said I would try to find a way to watch. I was looking around for a decent place when I saw you down here. It umm…” She trailed off before sighing while taking a seat next to me, both of our backs to the metal box. “This whole thing sucks, doesn’t it?” 

“It’s definitely not fun,” I replied simply before raising the binoculars again. The van had stopped by that point, a couple hundred feet from where the burial was happening. I could see a couple of prison guards opening it up to help the occupants out. I didn’t recognize them, of course. But I could tell that they were Murphy’s parents. One was an average-height slender black man with long, incredibly luxurious-looking hair. The other was a somewhat tall caucasian woman with brownish-blonde hair and a nervous look about her. She kept glancing around constantly, as though convinced they were being watched. Which… well, yeah. Both of them were wearing prison jumpsuits and were still handcuffed as the guards helped them down from the van and then started to escort them over to where the service was happening. All of which seemed stupid to me. They were in prison for simple drug offenses. Couldn’t they be given normal clothes to wear so they could attend their own son’s funeral without looking like Hannibal Lector? I mean, yeah sure it wasn’t that bad, but still. This was ridiculous. Just unchain them and let them say goodbye to their son, for fuck’s sake. 

I was so focused on my annoyance about that whole situation while following the moving parents with the binoculars, that I almost jumped when Peyton nudged me while saying something. I’d half-forgotten she was there in my distraction. “Huh–what?” 

“I said,” she repeated, “Doesn’t it seem fucked up that they think they need four armed guards just to watch over a couple grieving parents, who are still chained up? They just sold some drugs to willing people, it’s not like they murdered the pope or something.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed in a flat voice, “it’s a bit of overkill.” Even as I said that, I realized what she had said. Four guards? I had counted three, the driver and two helping the Murphys down. Looking back that way once more without the binoculars zooming me in so much, I finally caught sight of the fourth guy. He was a bit further back, having apparently gotten out the far side of the van before trailing behind. From this distance, I could barely make out anything about him. And yet, there was something immediately familiar about–

Raising the binoculars quickly once more, I focused that way. And then almost cursed vehemently out loud. Of course the fourth guard looked familiar. It was Simon. My brother. The person who was the entire reason Murphy’s brother’s murderer had escaped unscathed. He was dressed up like a prison guard, escorting their parents to the funeral. What–why? What the fuck? Why the hell was he here? What did he think he was doing? Was this some sort of sick joke or something? Why would he ever come to a funeral like this? I knew he wasn’t a real prison guard. He had to be using one of those hologram things or something. But either way, why? What the hell did he get out of being here? What was–why–what? 

“Uh,” Peyton spoke up curiously. “You okay? You’re holding those binoculars so tight it looks like you might snap them in half. And they look pretty fancy, so you probably don’t want to do that.” 

Forcing myself to lower them and look back to her, I kept my voice as even as I could. “Yeah, I’m good. I mean, no I’m not. I’m really pissed off about this whole situation. But I’m about as good as you could expect.” After a brief pause, I added quietly, “I’m doing better than Murphy.” 

With a sigh, the other girl slumped back a bit next to me and reached into a compartment she had added to her armor, pulling out some binoculars of her own. Lifting them up, she looked that way and murmured, “This whole situation is pretty fucked up, isn’t it?” 

Wincing inwardly, I nodded. “Pretty fucked up indeed.” She had no idea just how much. Even as that thought came to mind, I was adjusting the binoculars to check on Simon again. He was standing at the edge of the funeral, playing the role of a guard watching over their prisoners even as Murphy’s parents embraced her. There was… there was a lot of emotion going on there. I quickly moved the view back over to Simon, not wanting to intrude on a family thing like that. He was staring intently, not at the Murphys, but at the casket. He looked… not happy. 

I had no idea what to make of that. I have no idea why he was here, what was going through his mind, why he looked angry while staring at the casket containing the body of the guy whose murderer he had helped esca–okay, when I put it like that, It sort of sounded like he felt guilty. But did he? I didn’t trust my own judgment about that whole thing. I couldn’t think of any other reason why he would be here. Was he going to all the funerals? Or was there something special about this one? Was I being incredibly naive? Maybe there was a valid reason beyond guilt for a member of the Ministry to come here. Maybe he was making sure there were no more loose ends. And the anger was because he had something else he wanted to do more, and blamed Murphy’s brother for making him miss it. 

Okay that felt a little too far to the other end of the naive/cynical line. Both of those felt wrong, but I had no idea what the actual answer could be. Why was Simon here, and why did he look so upset when he looked at that casket? 

Unfortunately, I was pretty sure that, short of marching down there and demanding answers from him in person, I wasn’t going to get any right now. And, come to think of it, that probably wouldn’t help either. Even if it was really tempting just to see the look on his face if I had actually confronted him. Maybe being taken by surprise like that would make him give something away that he wouldn’t have otherwise. But no, this wasn’t the right time for that sort of desperate move. Especially not now. I wasn’t going to ruin the funeral just because I wanted to violently shake my brother until he spat out real answers. 

Instead, I made myself put that thought away and focus on the funeral as a whole. For around an hour while people spoke and said their goodbyes, Peyton and I both sat there watching. Every once in a while we spoke quietly to each other, but for the most part we just sat silently and observed. It still felt a bit like we were intruding, yet this was the best we could do. Now that I saw Simon there, I knew not physically attending the funeral properly was the right way to go. A terrifying thought of what he would have done if I had been down there as myself raced through my mind, and I shuddered inwardly. That could have been really bad. 

Eventually, the service was over, and Tyson’s casket was in the ground. Several of the people, including Murphy and Roald, had each shoveled some dirt over it, then watched as a backhoe did the rest of the work. Once he was completely buried, goodbyes were said. That lasted for about five minutes or so, while Murphy and her parents had a whole… thing. It felt awful just sitting here, my emotions twisting inside my stomach. Again, they were only in prison on drug offenses. Couldn’t they be released for a couple days to help their daughter get through this whole thing? 

If they were rich, they would have been. It was no question. Hell, their prison would have been a country club, and they would have been given at least two weeks leave from it to handle funeral arrangements and everything else. But they weren’t rich. So they were fucked over by the system that was supposed to protect them. 

As those thoughts worked their way through my mind, and made it even harder to avoid snapping the binoculars, I watched Simon and the real guards lead their charges back to the van. Meanwhile, the rest of the (rather small) crowd was dispersing as Roald’s older sister led the others across to another lot where a beat-up sedan was waiting. From what Murphy herself had said, they would now go to get some lunch at a buffet somewhere. Obviously, I wasn’t going to follow them. I was tempted to follow the prison van just to see what Simon did, but that was probably a pretty bad idea too. 

Which left me sitting next to Peyton as the two of us looked at each other. With a heavy sigh, I muttered, “Well, that pretty much sucked, huh?” 

“Hoover-level sucking,” she agreed. “Can we go find some bad guys to beat up? I need to get it out of my system, and the people I really wanna punch, I… can’t. Not yet, anyway.”

“Good idea,” I agreed, pushing myself up. “Let’s take a bite out of crime.” 

*****

Unfortunately, McGruff the Crime Dog would have starved that day. No matter where Peyton and I went, we couldn’t find any criminals to deal with. It even looked like the always-rampaging gang war had decided to take a timeout for the day. Which was just typical, really. The one time we wanted to find bad guys, they had all decided to go on vacation. Or maybe we just sucked at finding them. It was, after all, a pretty big city. 

Whatever the reason, we finally gave up after a couple hours. We both had other things we wanted to take care of before that big dinner thing tonight. So, after warning the other girl again that she had better show up to the event hungry given how much food there would be, I headed off. My brain was full of thoughts that I didn’t want to have, yet wouldn’t go away. Mostly revolving around what the hell was going on with Simon going to the funeral. Yeah, that was clearly a whole thing. There was no way I was going to be able to figure it out just based on what little information I had, but that wouldn’t stop my brain from obsessing about it. Because brains were stupid like that and often refused to listen to common sense. 

I was hungry, but after all of that, there was no way I was going home just yet. So, I changed clothes to avoid attracting attention, and found a small, out-of-the-way Indian place to eat at. It was pretty incredible, even distracted as I was. So, I made a mental note to come back another time, and to bring the others.  

As I was getting up to leave, my phone buzzed with a text. The one for Cassidy Evans, rather than Paintball. So, I took a look. It was from that Dani girl, inviting me out to that skatepark on Grand River. Right, that whole thing about people from school talking me into doing dangerous shit for fun. For a moment, I squinted and considered asking for a raincheck. But no, I needed some way of distracting myself from everything. Later tonight, I was going to have to play nice in public while my father and others gave their big speeches and all that. Going while I was still tense about the whole situation with Tyson probably wasn’t a good idea. If I couldn’t let off steam by finding crime to fight, maybe I could do it this way. 

So, in the end, I sent back a text saying I would be there as soon as possible. I just needed to grab my stuff from home. I would head in, grab it, and head out again. No reason to stick around. With any luck, I would avoid Simon and my parents altogether. Sure, it was Saturday, but they had plenty of their own stuff to do before that party.

*****

For once, I wasn’t completely proven wrong about my assumptions. My family was occupied with their own things, and I was able to get in, grab my stuff, order a ride, and get out without any interruptions. A short while later, I arrived at the skatepark, paid the driver, and headed over to where I could see a bunch of people from my school already hanging out. 

Dani was there, talking to someone with their back to me. As I approached, she gestured and called out, “There she is. Told you the richest teenager in Detroit wouldn’t blow us off.” 

Rolling my eyes, I retorted, “Maybe I bought the place and came to kick everyone off it.” 

“What–” Turning quickly to face me, the person Dani had been talking to came up short. “Oh, uh, hey.”

“Hey yourself, I know you,” I put in, realizing belatedly where from. “You’re–” 

“Ryder Towling,” Dani interrupted, gesturing back and forth between us. “this is Cassidy Evans. Ryder–wait, did you say you know him?” 

“He’s tutoring… uh, someone from school, Arleigh,” I replied. “Right?” 

Ryder, for his part, squinted briefly before belatedly extending a hand. “Oh, yeah. We met at her house the other day.  She uhh, talks about you a lot. Are you guys–” 

“We’re nothing,” I immediately cut in. “Nothing at all.” With a gesture, I added, “So, you skate?” 

“Me?” The boy blanched. It was pretty cute, and I couldn’t help the quick smile even as he continued. “Nope, no sir. I’m just here as emotional support. Dani’s an… old friend. I get to watch. Believe me, if I step on one of those things, I’ll find a way to break my leg and at least three limbs from an assortment of other people.” 

“He’s not exaggerating much,” Dani remarked with a small smirk. “You definitely don’t want him on a board anywhere near you. But he’s pretty good at watching. So, let’s get to it. I wanna see what you can really do. Surprise me.” 

Yeah, I was pretty sure if I showed them what I could really do, she’d be plenty surprised. It was a bad idea, of course. And one that I would never actually indulge. 

But boy, was it ever tempting. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter