San Francisco Cavers

Trust 15-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“Cassidy Evans. Like, the billionaire princess of Detroit, perfect daughter of their lord high majesties the queen and king of the city, Elena and Sterling? They who own half the buildings in this fucking city, and probably three-quarters of the government? That Cassidy Evans?” 

That was the new girl, of course. I had just introduced myself the moment Mrs. Donnelley had walked away, leading her to give me a double-take before blurting that whole thing out. She was staring at me as though I’d just told her I was really Abraham Lincoln, raised up from the grave and set to run for another election with her on the ticket as vice-president. 

Opening my mouth, then shutting it as a blush settled across my face, I settled on a weak, “Just Cassidy is fine, we don’t usually go with the rest of the title unless it’s a really special occasion.” 

The other girl shook her head at me, insisting, “You ain’t exactly what I was expecting.” 

Coughing, I offered a slight shrug. “Yeah, I get that a lot. My parents don’t exactly encourage a lot of paparazzi photos or anything, so most people who don’t actually know us or look into it basically assume I’m like…” Scanning the front lawn of the school, I gestured to a crowd of gorgeous cheerleaders heading inside together while laughing at something. “One of them.” 

Giving a side-glance that way, the girl nodded. “Yeah, something like that. You uhh, you sure you’re not like a body-double or something? You know, someone to pull threats away from the real Cassidy Evans?” Even as she said it, I saw a grimace cross the girl’s face. “Sorry. That sounded less shitty in my head.” 

“It’s okay, I get it,” I assured her. “And if I was a body-double, I’m doing a pretty shitty job. I mean, look at me. You were told I was Cassidy Evans and you’re having trouble believing it. How many assassins are gonna take a look through a scope and be like, ‘yeah, she looks like a billionaire’s kid, let’s do this?’”

For a moment, the two of us squinted at each other, before I managed, “We’re both trying to figure out if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, aren’t we?” 

Dani (that was her name, I finally remembered) laughed and shook her head. “If you’re really her, probably a good thing. Keep those assassins guessing.” 

“Damn straight.” Grinning despite myself, I tried to ask why I felt so casual with this chick. We met like thirty seconds earlier, but it didn’t feel like it. It felt like… weird. Weirdly comfortable. Maybe it was still just a result of me finally being able to talk to Izzy about my family? Maybe I was just still incredibly relaxed and comfortable because I’d expressed all that stuff I had been bottling up for so long, and it was spilling over into my interaction with this new girl. That was probably it, right? It made sense. 

Either way, I gestured. “Come on, I’ll show you around. We’ll stay low in case the assassins think you’re a better candidate for Cassidy Evans than I am.” 

“I’m black,” she pointed out mildly before starting to follow. 

“I said what I said.” With that, I began to guide the new girl through the school, showing her where the main office was, where various sections of the school were, the library, study hall, the indoor tennis and basketball courts (she seemed confused about those being entirely separate rooms), our theater and auditoriums (again with the confusion), and the pools. 

“Pools,” she echoed once we turned away from that door. “As in plural. Multiple indoor pools at school.” 

“Oh, there’s a couple outdoor ones too,” I quickly assured her. “If you go around the back and head…” Trailing off, I glanced toward the girl and grimaced. “And that is totally not the point you were making, was it?” Flushing a little, I asked, “You’re really not used to this private school stuff. Did your parents win the lottery or something? I mean–I don’t mean to sound like–I don’t–you’re just obviously not used to this stuff.” 

Her eyes rolled as she gestured to the clearly very stiff and not-very-used uniform. “What gave it away? I blend in so well.” Snorting, the girl added, “No, my folks didn’t win the lottery. They ahh, took off. Well, Mom died so long ago I don’t remember anything about her. Dad vamanosed with some chick awhile ago. I got bounced through foster homes for awhile, then they found some great-aunt or something. She lives in Europe, but apparently felt just bad enough to put me up in one of her apartments with a babysitter and have me go to school here.” 

It was weird. On the surface of it, every part of that story was logical and made sense. But I had this insistent little thought that it wasn’t true. It was this little voice in the back of my head that kept poking me and insisting that there was something wrong with that story and I couldn’t figure out why. Honestly, it was probably just my paranoia. I didn’t know anything about this girl, and  certainly didn’t have any reason to doubt what she was saying. Aside from… well,  everything in my life. Yeah, I did have reason to be suspicious about new people with uncertain backgrounds that popped into my orbit, especially with the whole biolem thing going on. And it wasn’t like I could just ask if she was a real person or some biological android being.

Yeah, paranoid. Absolutely and completely paranoid. This poor girl didn’t deserve that kind of shit, especially when she was walking into this brand new situation. So, I shoved all those thoughts down, locked them in a box in the back of my mind, and chucked it away for the time being. I could be paranoid later. Right now, I was just going to stick to this being a normal school thing. For fuck’s sake, I had enough problems without my brain inventing a whole new one about some random girl who just needed to be shown around for a few minutes. 

So, with a cough, I nodded. “Sorry about your dad taking off, and–uhh, all that. Sounds shitty. Decent apartment anyway?” 

She shrugged. “Entire place is probably about the size of your bedroom, Princess. But it’s good enough for me.” 

Somehow, I didn’t think informing the girl that she was probably exaggerating the size of her apartment rather than the size of my bedroom was exactly the right move. So, I snorted and nudged her as we made our way back around toward the front of the building. “Well, at least you’ve got a good school. Especially if you have any interest in swimming, inside or out!” 

“What’s this about going swimming?” It was San Francisco, the boy popping up out of nowhere, wearing his ill-fitting school uniform that was clearly a size too big for him despite his husky frame. “And who, might I ask, is your lovely new friend, Miss Evans?” He made a (very awkward) show of bowing. 

Rolling my eyes, I gestured back and forth between them. “San, this is Dani, she’s new. Dani, this is San Francisco and don’t look at me like that San, she was gonna find out your name eventually.” 

“Yeah, eventually, man. As in after I had time to make her get to know me,” the boy complained, shooting me a dirty look before turning back to the other girl. “Don’t let my parents being weird as fuck distract you from the magic fingers.” As he said it, San was holding both hands up, wiggling said fingers rapidly. 

For just a moment, I felt like slapping my own face. Instead, once the brief awkward silence had gone on long enough, I kicked San in the foot and hissed in a stage whisper, “Dude, you might wanna explain what you mean before she switches from mentally filling out a restraining order to physically doing it.” 

Poor San’s eyes had widened as he realized what he’d said, and he’d gone from wiggling his fingers to quickly holding his hands out in a stopping motion. “N-no, no, not like, I mean–piano! I play piano! Keyboard, whatever you need. That’s all I meant, you know, magic fingers, piano. I’m really good. Uh, at the piano.” 

Deciding to throw the guy a bone, I nodded while chirping, “He’s not lying about that. He is really good with the–what do they call it, tickling the ivory?” 

“As long as the ivory is part of the piano, he can tickle it all he wants,” Dani retorted before giving the boy another look. “Please stop wiggling your fingers at me.” 

“Yeah, that’s fair,” San agreed, shoving his hands behind his back. “Anyway, that was a really long and awkward way of saying, suuuuuuup girl?” 

“She’s new,” I put in quickly, before Dani had to respond to… well, that. “Obviously. I was just showing her around. She just umm, her great-aunt…” I trailed off, glancing that way since I wasn’t sure if she wanted me babbling about her own personal history and situation. 

Dani, however, seemed not to care. She offered a shrug. “Rich great-aunt, dead mom, missing dad, get to come to school here cuz of guilt or something. Who knows. I’m not sticking my head in that wooden horse. But for the record, your flirting is barking up the wrong sapphic tree.” 

San, in turn, blinked once. “Wrong sapphic–ohhh, you mean you’re–right. Have you met my friend Cassidy here?” 

My eyes rolled. “San, how many times do I have to tell you, I’m not gay?” 

“But you’d be such a good one,” he insisted teasingly, before gasping as I lightly kicked his shin. “Ow, look, I just–oh there we go. Amber!” 

Sure enough, Amber was passing by, turning our way at San’s words. She approached, asking, “Have you guys seen Paige anywhere? I don’t–um. Hi.” 

San gestured back and forth between them. “Amber, Dani. Dani, Amber. You two should do breakfast, you’ve got a lot in common. But hey, look at the time. Let’s go, Cass, we’ve got that thing at the place.” 

Before I could protest or say anything else, he was pulling me away, leaving the two girls there staring at each other. As he pulled me to the school entrance, I snorted while yanking my arm free. “Did anyone ever tell you it’s weird that you’re the one who keeps trying to set everyone up?” 

“Hey, man, being a lover of romance doesn’t mean only wanting it for yourself,” he informed me. “I just want everyone to be happy, that’s all. Is that a crime? And ahh, on a totally unrelated subject, how’s everything going with Tomas?” 

As my face turned pink, I grabbed the door and pulled it open to step inside. “Nothing’s going with Tomas. Nothing. We’re just friends, that’s it.” 

Following me, San sounded unconvinced. “Uh huh. Sure, babe, whatever you say.” He gave me a knowing look before gesturing. “I gotta head for class, but if you wanna go be ‘just friends’ with Tomas some more, I think he’s hanging in the music room auditioning people for his band.” 

With that, he headed off, and I turned to look back the way we’d come. Amber and Dani were still standing there. It looked like they were talking. Weirdly, I felt like that was a good thing. And familiar, somehow. 

Eesh, I really had to stop paying attention to San. He was clearly a bad influence. Shaking that off, I turned to head for my own locker. On the way, I glanced over to where I knew Paige’s was. Amber’s question rang in my ears. 

Yeah, I’d seen Paige. I knew where she was. I’d even taken the time to call the school from my Touched phone, using the voice changer to pose as the other girl’s adopted ‘father’ to say they were taking her out of town for a little while. The receptionist had tried to say something about signing a form, and I told her to fax it over to the number on the sheet, then hung up. I figured I’d deal with that later. After all, the least I could do was try to help make sure Paige had a life to come back here to if–when we managed to wake her up. 

Now all I had to worry about was how the hell we were going to pull that off.

********

A few hours later, in my math class before lunch, I was poring over the set of problems we’d been given to keep us busy for the last half of the period. At the same time, thoughts of what we might be able to do about Paige’s situation kept intruding, making it hard to concentrate. Normally I didn’t mind math so much, but right then I just couldn’t make my mind focus. 

That problem was very quickly made worse as a voice came over the intercom, drawing everyone’s attention that way. “Attention students and faculty,” the voice of one of the office secretaries announced, “due to altercations between members of the Easy Eight and Ninety-Niner criminal organizations taking place several blocks away, the authorities have asked that this school enter lockdown procedures. Rest assured, this action is purely taken as a measure of extreme caution, and there is no reason to believe the altercation will make its way this far. You should continue your scheduled work and lessons as planned, as class is still considered to be in session. Now, remain in your rooms and step away from all doors and windows as lockdown is initiated in five… four… three… two… one.” 

The moment the countdown finished, while all the people around me were already chattering excitedly, lockdown started. In our case, that meant steel shutters closing around all the windows, along with a larger one closing around our classroom door. It was a safety procedure. Now all the classrooms, as well as the various entrances into the school itself, would be completely shielded. 

Which meant I couldn’t go out to see what was happening in this ‘altercation’ between those two Fell-Gangs even if I wanted to. There was no way I’d be able to, say, ask the teacher if I could possibly use the restroom for twenty minutes or so just to nip out and take a peek.

Yeah, so right now I was stuck here the same as everyone else. Obviously, despite what the receptionist had requested, nobody was focused on math anymore. Not even our teacher. Everyone was chattering about what was going on down the street, trying to find details on their phones, and speculating about which gang would win the fight. 

Meanwhile, I… well, I was basically in the same position. I was trying to find out the truth about what was going on out there. Not that knowing would’ve helped me. I was stuck here in this room the same as everyone else. No rushing out to help deal with the situation for me. 

Sighing, I turned to look toward Jae, who sat behind me. Her gaze was locked intently on the nearby steel-covered window, looking almost as though she wanted to bore her way through it. Was she claustrophobic or something? It just looked like she really didn’t want to be trapped in here. 

“It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” I spoke up, trying to distract her. As the pale girl’s pink eyes blinked to me with confusion, I added, “The fighting between those gangs. The news said they’ve really started going after each other lately. Now they’re fighting close enough to get the school locked down?” 

There was a brief pause before Jae gave a slight nod, her voice quiet. “I hope someone stops them.” 

Ouch. Yeah, someone should be out there stopping them. For a moment, I wondered how much of this my parents were going to allow to happen. After all, there was no way this whole war would’ve gone on this long or escalated like this if they weren’t allowing it. Obviously, they’d signed off on Blackjack getting his revenge or whatever against the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro for trying to stop him from getting the vials to save his daughter. As for the Easy Eights, maybe he and Deicide had come to some kind of arrangement as part of the favor he owed her for giving back the vial she had? 

I wasn’t sure. Either way, it was two Fell-gangs versus two other Fell-gangs, and my parents were allowing it to go on. So how much damage was enough for them? How many people would be hurt or killed while they allowed the fighting to continue? Did they give a shit about any of those people? 

“Cassidy.” Jae’s quiet voice pulled me back, and I realized she had been staring at me with a look of concern. “Are you okay?” 

Right, apparently there’d been something in my expression while I’d thought about my family. Quickly, I nodded. “Sorry, yeah. Just thinking about how long we’re gonna be stuck in here.” Biting my lip, I glanced to the girl. “Are you okay?” 

Again, the other girl paused momentarily before admitting, “I don’t like being trapped.” 

Listening to the buzz of conversation from the rest of the class around us, I grimaced. “Yeah, I know what you mean. But hopefully it won’t be too long. I mean, the authorities should break it up soon enough, right?” 

Jae’s response to that was a noncommittal noise, before we were interrupted by the sound of our teacher getting the television in the corner of the room tuned to the right station. Abruptly, everyone saw the scene going on just a few blocks away. It looked like something out of an action movie. Cars were overturned in the middle of the street as various Prev members of either gang used them for cover while taking shots at one another. Fell-Touched were there too, like Angel Dust, Juice, and Skadi on the Easy Eights side, and Sandon and Jailtime on the Ninety-Niners side, along with some other guy I didn’t recognize, who was dressed like an old west cowboy with a demon mask.

The news was right, it was a warzone. There were people lying in the middle of the street, clearly injured or worse. The news chopper doing its best to stay above the action and out of the way while still giving a good view of what was going on. Which allowed us to see more people huddled behind buildings or in any cover they could find, just trying to stay out of the way. Seeing the people out there, clearly terrified and trapped, made me bristle. Fuck. I wanted to be out there. I wanted to go help them, but I couldn’t. I was as trapped in this room as those people were trapped where they were. 

How long would my parents let this go on? I had no idea. But I was pretty sure of one thing. 

This war was probably going to get a lot worse before it got better.

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Project Owl 14-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“I think they might want us to go that way.” 

Tomas’s dry words came as our large assortment of teenagers made our way into the front foyer of Paige’s house, behind the birthday girl herself, just to find the grand room with its sweeping staircase and priceless artwork, filled with servants. There were maids blocking various doorways, what looked like a gardener standing in front of an antique grandfather clock as though to stop anyone from getting near it, a cook standing in front of those stairs, and so on. A dozen or so of the Banners’ staff stood in key positions to stop any of our group from wandering off or touching something they shouldn’t. And all of them were pointing toward the only doorway that wasn’t blocked. 

Yeah, most of them were smiling (or at least trying to), but it was still really damn creepy. Actually, it was probably even creepier with the smiles. They almost looked like robots, standing there guarding everything deemed valuable or important from the scary teenagers. Boy, I was glad my family didn’t live like that. Did Paige have to worry about being glared at by random staff for getting near a painting or a statue, or was this just for us? 

Okay, thinking back on the things I’d seen my classmates do (and that I’d done myself), this was fair. A huge group of teenagers in one area like this–yeah. It made total sense to make sure things didn’t… go wrong. Especially given how we could egg each other on into doing very stupid things. Which I could say with a considerable amount of authority, considering I was very often the one who was egged on to do those stupid things. But hey, they’d already had that Slip ‘N Slide set up in the school hallway. What was I supposed to do, say I couldn’t make it from one end to the other? 

Wait, that was another thing that ended with me being soaked while someone screamed at me. Huh. Maybe Izzy had a point. 

Shaking off those thoughts, I let myself be pulled along with the rest of the group as we moved through the doorway, finding ourselves in another hall, then a T-junction of corridors before making it to a door leading to what turned out to be the back patio. This was where the party was supposed to be, apparently, given all the balloons, decorations, tables laden with treats and presents, and so on. The nearby pool, a huge, horseshoe-shaped thing, even had ‘Happy Birthday Paige’ written above it in colorful Tech-Touched hologram lights from nearby projectors. In the distance, on the far side of the grounds, some kind of outdoor stage had been set up with curtains raised around it.

The moment we were out here, everyone spread out a bit. Paige had moved to the edge of the pool, pivoting back to face us with that smile that I’d seen her use on teachers and other adults for so many years. It was a smile that could instantly dissolve into a vindictive scowl the moment their backs were turned and I was the only one who could see her. I’d long-since learned not to trust it. And today was no different. Seeing that smile made a slight shiver run through me.  Whatever Paige was up to, I definitely wasn’t going to turn my back to her anytime soon. Otherwise I’d be likely to get a dagger shoved in it. Metaphorically, of course.

“How’re we doing today, Dynasties?!” the blonde called, her voice filling the area without even needing a microphone (her time as a cheerleader had done wonders for her ability to project). Dynasty, somehow, was the name of our school’s mascot. Yeah. We were the Cadillac Dynasties. And some of my classmates wondered why we were considered spoiled and privileged. That was a real mystery. 

And speaking of being spoiled and privileged, Paige waited until the resulting enthusiastic cheers died down before continuing. “In a couple hours, we’ll have some pizza and wings, then cake and ice cream! And after that… well, then I get my presents.” She said it casually, with a confident, yet charming and somehow self-deprecating smile that made most people chuckle.

“But after I’ve been thoroughly impressed and bribed by all the goodies you’ve brought,” she continued easily, “then we’ll all go inside to my family’s private theater, where you are all invited to watch the new Lou Devereux movie, not due out in public until next week!” 

Yeah, that definitely got cheers. I heard a lot of excited murmurs, words about how cool this was, how they knew Paige would have something good planned, and so on. Beside me, Tomas patted my back slightly, while Izzy actually touched my hand gently. I had a feeling she could tell I was uncomfortable, whatever I did to try to hide that. 

Paige was already continuing. She had adopted a clearly put-on, confused tone. “Except, there’s a problem, isn’t there? I mean, we’re not eating for a couple hours, and the movie is after that. So, what are we going to do in the meantime? It’d be boring if we just sat around, huh?” Her head tilted back and forth as though she was thinking about it, before perking up. “I know! Parties have music, right? So we should have some music.” 

The blonde raised her voice even more then, practically shouting. “Hey, boys! Think you could give us some music?!” 

With that, and as Paige pointed, the curtains around the stage in the distance suddenly dropped. Everyone turned that way to see a band already there in position. And this wasn’t just any band. No, of course not. This was–

“Zenith Renaissance?!” one of the other party guests blurted, her words quickly taken up by others. Because yes, the internationally famous Zenith Renaissance, a band that regularly sold out world tours and whose albums were some of the hottest releases of the past few years, was right there on the stage. And they were already starting to play one of their main songs. Which, of course, drew screams of delight from everyone around me as a bunch suddenly rushed that way to get closer to the stage. A stage that was, naturally, suddenly protected by several big guys in labeled security shirts. 

“How the fuck did she keep this a secret?” San Francisco blurted from a bit behind me, his tone utterly amazed. “And how did her parents convince these guys to play a private concert for a couple hundred people at best?” 

Quietly, I murmured, “You’d be surprised at how good she is at keeping secrets.” Then I quickly shook that off and added, “And money, probably. A lot of money. Probably flew them straight out here from wherever they’re touring right now.” Belatedly, I added, “Come to think of it, where are her parents?” There’d yet to be any sign of them. Paige and the household staff were the only ones we’d seen. 

Most of our classmates had already rushed to be in front of the stage. Even Amber and Jae headed that way to get a good spot, the former calling back that they’d save space for us. But Tomas was still there with Izzy and me, offering a shrug. “Probably busy. Not like they need to be down here. And from what my mum said,” he added in a somewhat quieter voice, “they don’t spend a lot of time with Paige to begin with.” 

That made me do a quick, confused double-take. “Wait, since when does your mom have anything to do with Paige or her parents?” 

That earned another shrug from the boy, who started to walk that way to join the others while answering. “They’ve been golfing together a couple times since we got back! And they do brunch.” 

Okay, now I really wanted to know more about all that. Especially given the fact that Tomas’s father had only recently tried to kill Paige to shut her up. Now his mother was friends with her adopted–uuuurgggh, this was all too goddamn confusing. 

The sound of someone clearing their throat drew my attention behind me, as I belatedly realized that Izzy and I were the only ones still standing away from the stage. Well, Izzy, me, and Paige. Yeah. She was the one clearing her throat, gazing at me with an unreadable expression. I couldn’t tell if she looked sad or smug. 

For a moment, Paige and I just stared at each other, before she casually drawled, “That can go on the table with the others.” Her head nodded toward the present that was still clutched in one of my hands. “Or in the trash if you want to spare one of the maids the time it’ll take to put it there themselves. Either way, I’m sure it’ll end up where it belongs.” A brief pause, then, “I’m sure a lot of things will end up where they belong today.” 

“Hey!” That was Izzy. “When someone brings you a present, you’re supposed to say thank you.” 

Paige, for her part, looked a little amused. “Aww, Cassidy, look. You finally found someone shorter than you to hang around with. Tell the truth, which elementary school is she from?”

“The one where they teach basic manners,” Izzy immediately shot back, surprising me a bit. “You obviously wouldn’t know it.”  

For a brief moment, Paige just stood there without saying anything. Finally, she chuckled and pivoted to walk away with a deceptively casual, “Good to see you’ve got someone to fight your battles for you, Cassie. Not like you’re any good at it yourself. Maybe try someone who’s old enough to stay up past eight o’clock next time?” 

She kept going, heading to join all her devoted fans (who were really fans now that she was giving them a private concert and advance movie screening) even as the music started up. They greeted her with a cheer, of course. Yeah, she owned this party. 

Izzy, meanwhile, looked at me. “Is she really always like that?” 

My mouth opened to confirm it, before I stopped, pausing as an important realization struck me. “No,” I murmured in surprise. “She isn’t always like that.” Quickly, I corrected myself. “I mean, yes, she’s always a bitch to me. That’s not new. But she’s usually nice to other people. Look at what she’s like with all those guys. Amber and Tomas both even said that Paige is cool to everyone except me. So…” Squinting uncertainly, I looked to the girl beside me. “Why would she act like that to you? She’s always more diplomatic with other people, or just uses them defending me as a way of turning it around on an insult to me, like she did at the end with that whole thing about me not fighting my own battles. But she insulted you. She made fun of you being short and young. That doesn’t–she doesn’t do that. Why would she do that now?” 

Izzy offered an uncertain shrug. “Because she knows I’m staying with you, maybe?” 

“Maybe,” I allowed, though it didn’t sound right. There was something off about this entire situation, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something was wrong here. Seriously, where were Paige’s adopted parents? Shouldn’t they at least make an appearance?

Speaking tentatively, Izzy asked, “Do you want to drop off the present and leave? You’ve made an appearance like your parents wanted.” 

Part of me just wanted to do just that, wanted to take off right then and say screw this whole thing. But I couldn’t. Not when this was my best chance to actually find out the truth about the whole Paige situation. This mystery had been going on long enough, and now that I was actually here in her house, I wasn’t giving that up. Something big was going on here, and I couldn’t just walk away from it. 

So, I shook my head, offering the younger girl what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “Not gonna let her being a bitch chase me away from a party. Even if it is hers and even if she’s being more of a bitch than usual. Come on, let’s drop off the gift then go see if Amber and Jae managed to save us a spot.” 

*******

We watched the concert. Outside of the fact that it was in Paige’s backyard and I still didn’t know what the hell was going on with her, it was pretty great. Especially once I let myself give up on the idea of trying to sneak into Paige’s house during the whole thing. There were way too many people around, with various house staff members standing by every entrance. I had the feeling they were there to make sure none of the guests went on an unauthorized tour. Which was exactly what I wanted to do, but not for the reasons they might have expected. 

Or maybe it was for the reasons they expected. For all I knew, the entire house staff was in on this whole thing and knew what Paige was up to. Maybe they were just there to stop a bunch of teenagers from making a mess or stealing things. Or maybe they were there to make sure that whatever was going on went off without a hitch. 

If something was going on. I still didn’t have any proof of that, and it felt like I was crazy for thinking there was. Yet there was that tickle in the back of my brain that just wouldn’t go away. Something was happening, something big. Paige was throwing this party and had invited all these people, including me, for a reason. But… why? What was her deal? 

I still didn’t have any better ideas and wasn’t any closer to answers by the time we all ate pizza, followed by cake and ice cream. It was served out on a large buffet table where you could take anything you wanted. Izzy gorged herself. Obviously, she didn’t exactly feel guilty about taking all the food she could possibly want from Paige after that whole confrontation. 

After that, Paige opened her presents. She oohed and awed dramatically over each one, making a big deal about thanking the person who gave it. Well, except for mine, of course. She opened the one from Izzy and me, producing a couple premium seating tickets to a play that was all-but impossible to get into for most people. It was a play I knew she wanted to see, because I’d heard her talking to a couple friends about it back at school. But because it was from me, she simply held them up, announced what they were, and said a simple, “Thanks so much.” Without naming me, of course. But everyone knew. 

Then it was time to head in to see this movie. I probably could’ve taken off by now. I’d more than made an appearance. But I just… I had to see this through. Something was keeping me here, some thought that this was too important for me to just give up and head home. The answers to what the hell Paige’s deal was were here somewhere, and this was my best chance to get them. 

Once more, as we made our way through the house to the Banners’ private movie theater, there were staff members standing around to make sure nobody wandered off. Good lord, I’d thought this would be a chance for me to sneak away and search the house, but that just wasn’t gonna happen. Not with all the eagle-eyed and attentive maids and such who were bound and determined to watch every step we took. It felt like if someone had so much as taken a wrong turn down a different hallway, a SWAT team would’ve descended on them. I probably would’ve had more luck searching this place by coming in the middle of a school day or something. Because this was just insane. 

But I was here now, and maybe things would calm down during the movie. Yeah. Once everyone got settled in and it was dark, I’d slip out to ‘use the bathroom’, then manage to get myself lost. That felt like my best chance. For now, I’d just wait for the movie to start and everyone to get engrossed in it. 

Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t the first thing on Paige’s mind, apparently. Once everyone was seated in the private theater (there were just barely enough seats for the entire crowd with a couple left over), she moved front and center with her hands up. “You guys all having a good time?!” 

The answer, of course, was a resounding roar of approval from most people, and I watched as Paige… well, seemed to ignore it. Most of the time she would have basked, but now it felt like she was just going through the motions. The look on her face, it wasn’t–it was wrong. It was the wrong expression for this kind of thing, even if she was really good at hiding it. There was something…

Belatedly, I realized Paige was still talking while I was trying to decipher her expression and mood. Something about giving presents to everyone who came–right. Yeah, she was going to gift a present to each and every person here, one at a time. There was a table full of colorful gift bags beside her, and she proceeded to start calling every person up, one at a time, to get their present for being a ‘wonderful guest.’ 

The gifts were either a new phone, new smart watch, or new ipad, depending on what Paige had determined each person needed or would want more. And yeah, everyone went nuts. A few people hugged her after getting their gift, before heading to their seat. 

Honestly, I expected her to skip over me. Expected it so much I almost didn’t hear her when she said my name. So she said it again. “Cassie Evans.” 

She was looking at me. They were all looking at me. Fuck. Pushing myself up while asking myself what the hell her game was, I headed to the front. Cassie. She called me Cassie. Paige never did that. It was always Cassidy. Cassie was way too familiar and friendly. And she’d called me that earlier, hadn’t she? With Izzy. Why…? 

Reaching the front, I squinted at the girl, almost silently daring her to pull something now in front of everyone. She, in turn, offered me a faint… kind of sad smile. Sad? Why was she sad? 

“I want you to know,” Paige informed me, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “I think you earned this a long time ago.” With that, she turned to pick up yet another small gift bag, this one with my name on it. She held it up, and I saw her hand dip into the bag, eyes rising to meet mine with an expression of… fear…? 

A sudden, terrifying bang filled the room. It sounded like a gunshot. Instantly, the lights went out. The whole area was suddenly pitch black and everyone started screaming, even as something was shoved against my face. A mask? No, like an oxygen mask. It was an oxygen mask, except it wasn’t pumping oxygen. It was–it smelled sweet, it smelled–

My knees went weak. I collapsed forward, caught by Paige in the darkness even as my consciousness started to fade. I felt sick, I felt wrong, everything was… everything was…

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Paige’s voice whispered in my ear as she slumped to the floor with my falling body. Her voice, her apology, was the last thing I heard. “You have to die. I don’t have a choice.

“You have to die.”

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Project Owl 14-01 and Patreon Snippets 17B (Summus Proelium)

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The single requested snippet for Summus Proelium this month follows the end of this regular chapter. Thank you very much to the patron who requested it! 

The morning started out like most others did these days. In other words, it started by me being woken up by Jania Estrada, our elderly-yet-eternally-energetic maid from Panama, turning on the vacuum cleaner a few feet away from the bed I was snoring on. As usual, the sudden loud noise sent me tumbling out of bed with a yelp, which made Jania’s cheerful laugh overwhelm the sound of the machine itself. She wasn’t malicious about it, of course. Jania was one of the nicest people I knew. But she had a job to do and I tended to sleep in on non-school days, for reasons that should have been fairly obvious (not that I could give them to her). She wasn’t waking me up for the hell of it, even if my reaction did give her some amusement. She did other work upstairs and waited as long as she could before Olivia, our head housekeeper, would have had harsh words for her tardiness. 

Still, whether by choice or not, Jania did find waking me up with the vacuum and my subsequent reactions to be ever-so-amusing. Sometimes I managed to wake up first, but others, like now, she would put the vacuum close enough to give me a minor heart attack when it flipped on. 

Lying in a heap on the floor, I turned my head just enough to stare at the gray-haired woman who was currently giving an entirely-too-innocent expression while vacuuming back and forth. “Oh, Miss Evans!” Her mock surprise wasn’t the least bit convincing, and she obviously knew it. “I did not see you there. Were you not downstairs already eating?” Her head tilted, and then she made a sound of put-on realization. “Oh, that must have been Miss Amor who was at the table.”  

With a groan, I rolled backward and managed to pull myself to my feet somewhat awkwardly. “Yeah, sure,” I retorted, “simple mistake. We look so much alike.” Picking up one of my pillows, I chucked it lightly at her. She, of course, smoothly ducked without paying much attention. For an old lady, she was pretty spry and had good reflexes to go along with her good mood and sense of humor. 

Checking the time, I grimaced. It was almost eleven o’clock. God, I really had needed sleep. Worse, Paige’s party was supposed to start at two, so that was only three hours away. Urgh. Once again, I considered just pleading off. But not only was there that whole ‘keeping up appearances for the family’ thing, I also really wanted to know what the hell was going on with her, and this was basically my best (if not only) chance to find out. 

As far as the first bit went, I did wonder just what my parents were thinking about all this. They knew that Paige knew at least something about their business, that she had enough information to make them back off and leave her alone. Yet they still wanted me to go to this party. Was I some kind of unwitting spy? Were they going to ask me all kinds of things about her when it was all over? Was this just their way of getting someone in Paige’s house? Were they using the whole party thing as a way to find out how much Paige really knew, as some kind of test or… something? I had no idea. All I knew was that my mother said that it would be rude for our family to turn down an invitation from her family, but that I was free to leave once I’d made an appearance. Which was an offer I still wasn’t sure if I’d take or not. Sure, I was wary of going, but once I was there, it made sense to stick around and see what happened. Again, it wasn’t as though this kind of opportunity came around a lot. 

Still, with only three hours to go, all sorts of doubts and insecurities were popping up in my head. Anything could go wrong over there. And by that, I meant anything. Paige could be planning some kind of humiliating, nasty attack against me, or this could end up being some big Touched/Ministry-related thing. Or it could be nothing at all, just both sides (her and my parents) feeling each other out to see what the other would do. 

It was fucking complicated, and I had no idea how it was all going to play out. What I did know was that I was hungry, and that at least was something I could take care of immediately. Well, almost immediately. First, I headed into the bathroom, took a nice, hot shower, then dressed before heading downstairs. 

The others were obviously long-since done with breakfast by then, with Dad already off to some meeting, Mom having a conversation in the front hall with some florist or dressmaker or something who had stopped by (I wasn’t sure, as I kept hearing both words about flowers and fabric), and Simon paused on his way out the door of the kitchen as I was going in just long enough to give me a noogie before he headed for the garage. 

Izzy was still sitting there, looking at the comic strips in the newspaper. After ordering food at the intercom, I took a seat next to her. “How’s Garfield today?” 

“Fat and lazy,” she replied, looking over at me. “Are you really going to that girl’s birthday party? Isn’t she, umm… not very nice?” 

Yeah, I may have said a thing or two about Paige while Izzy and I were playing video games before. Plus, she’d seen her back at Amber’s own party. Grimacing, I shook my head. “Don’t really have much of a choice. It’s a whole ‘rich people’ thing. Her family’s rich, mine is rich, we have to play nice at times like this. According to Mom, it wasn’t even Paige who wanted to invite me. It was more ‘her family inviting our family’, with me as the proxy.” Rolling my eyes, I added, “Fun, huh?” 

“Super,” came the simple response, before Izzy turned a bit more to face me directly. “Your umm, your mom asked if I wanted to go, cuz there’s supposed to be a lot of different kids there, even my age. It’s a whole thing. The Banners invited half the people in the city, it seems like. But I… I told her I wasn’t sure if you wanted company. Or, you know… some kid tagging along.” 

That made me do a double-take, blinking at her. “Wasn’t sure I wanted–sure, Izzy. I mean, I’ll take all the back-up I can get. And you’re not just some kid, you’re–” Realizing I had no idea how to finish that sentence, I settled on doubling down with, “You’re not just some kid. Besides, if Paige is awful, I’ll just retreat to the tweens area and hang out with you.” 

“You don’t think that’ll just give her more ammo about you being too young?” Izzy pointed out, clearly trying to sound diplomatic about the whole thing. 

I, in turn, shrugged. “It’s not like she needs any excuse. I’m not gonna live my life by what might give Paige Banners a way to make fun of me. She’ll do that regardless. I’d rather have fun. And if I’ve got to make an appearance there, I’d rather have someone else to hang out with, like you.” 

“And Amber and Jae,” the other girl pointed out. “They’ll be there too, right?” 

“Right, yeah, them too.” I gave a slow nod before giving her a quick wink. “You guys really hit it off before, huh?” 

A brief, vaguely odd look crossed the girl’s face before vanishing. It could’ve been my imagination. Either way, she gave a quick nod. “Uh huh, they’re nice.” The curt answer was followed up by a curious, “What’s a birthday party for the rich like?” 

“Oh, you’ll see,” I informed her with a cough. “It’s always different, and I haven’t exactly been invited to many of Paige’s, so I don’t know what she does.” Or did I? At some point, I’d clearly been close enough to Paige to know a lot more about her than I did now. Did I visit for her birthday? Had I–

“Cassidy?” Izzy’s voice interrupted, as she touched my arm. “Are you okay?” 

“Oh, uhh, yeah, sorry.” Flushing despite myself, I nodded. “I’m fine. The point is, birthdays are extravagant. But then, I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out a lot of things around here are extravagant by now.” 

Even as I said that, the kitchen door opened and Christiana, one of Chef Claudio’s assistants, emerged with the tray holding my breakfast. After thanking her for setting it in front of me, I quickly dug into it, while glancing at the girl next to me, “So, you’re gonna come, right?” 

“Um, okay.” Izzy still sounded unsure about the whole thing, but gave me a little nod. “If you want me to.” 

Honestly, I really wasn’t sure how all this was going to go down. Would having Izzy there put her in danger? I’d basically figured out and accepted by that point that my parents didn’t mean her any harm, whatever reason they had for her being here. But taking her out to where Paige’s house was, when I wasn’t sure why I had even been invited? Was it stupid? 

Maybe. But there would be a lot of people there, as Izzy herself had noted. No one was going to pull something obvious with so many witnesses and bodyguards around. 

Right? 

********

“Holy shit, Evans, you actually showed up?” 

Izzy and I had just been dropped off in the front drive of the Banners mansion. Like my family’s place, the ‘driveway’ was long enough to have several school buses park along it. There weren’t exactly school buses parked there now, though there were several cars all letting out an assortment of teenagers. Most looked pretty damn impressed by the massive house in front of them. 

That obviously surprised exclamation had come from a short (well, taller than me but only by about four inches or so), vaguely heavyset black guy with glasses and an ever-present red baseball cap worn backwards. San Francisco Cavers. Yeah, his first name was San and his middle name was Francisco. His parents really thought they were clever, I supposed. 

“Hey, San,” I greeted him. He’d gone by Frank (as in San Francisco) for awhile back in junior high before deciding he hated that worse than just San. “What’s up?” 

Whether his name was cool or weird, San was a friend. Sort of. Mostly he was a ‘hang out at school or go do something dangerous and crazy afterward’ sort of buddy. Not that we’d exactly hung out any time recently. Mostly because I hadn’t hung out with… any of my school friends. How could I? Either I’d be putting innocent people in danger by being around them, or I’d be spending time with people who were planted by my parents to keep an eye on me. Any of my ‘friends’ at school could’ve been secretly reporting to my parents. Or collateral damage if something happened to me. 

Paranoid? Sure, definitely, no question. But didn’t I have reason to be? Yeah, I’d avoided most of my school friends since that night. It hadn’t been all that hard, given how much I’d tended to keep them at a distance anyway. For… reasons I was starting to understand, with this whole Anthony Tate thing. He’d been a really close friend and he died. Whatever happened back then had obviously been traumatizing enough that my parents erased it from my memory. But I had a feeling that some of it had stuck around. Between that and Paige apparently being erased and–

Actually, was it possible that… if Paige and I had been friends, even if she was also somehow erased from my memory, when she’d showed up again and acted like such a bitch to me, I’d subconsciously taken that as some kind of betrayal? Could that have helped my whole… avoiding close friendships thing too? 

Huh. 

San was shaking his head. “What’s up? What’s up is I’m surprised you came. I mean, it ain’t like you and Princess Peach in there are all that close.” 

Grimacing, I nodded. “Yeah, well, it’s a family sort of thing. You know, gotta keep up appearances.” 

With that, I started to introduce Izzy as a girl who was staying with us for awhile, just as Tomas approached. Of course he was there too, speaking of people whom I still didn’t know if I could trust at all or not. I wanted to, naturally. But I kept flipping back and forth between just how involved he was with his father. The fact that he’d been my boyfriend for awhile after Mr. Jackson erased my memory back in the day… yeah, it made me uncomfortable. But Tomas was just so… decent, so cool. He made me feel like I was special. 

Then again, so had my parents. And look at that whole situation. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, I focused as Tomas was saying, “You know Cass isn’t going to let someone being a hellbeast stop her from doing anything.” His hand patted my back as he added, “I mean, come on, this is the same girl who, according to some very interesting stories people were telling the other day, jumped into Maggie DeLeano’s pool from the roof just because someone said she was too chicken to do it from the balcony. She didn’t just beat the dare, she upped the ante. And freaked out Mr. DeLeano when he saw her fall past the window, so he came out and started yelling.” 

“You did?” That was Izzy, staring at me with wide eyes. “Wait, how big was the DeLeano house?” Clearly, she was trying to figure out just what level of crazy I actually was. 

“Just a few stories, no big deal,” I insisted. “They have a deep pool too. Trust me, it was nothing.” 

“Nothing?” Tomas chuckled, giving me a look. “From what I heard, no one else was ready to go jumping off after her.” 

“That’s because they’re all sissies,” I pointed out mildly, poking him in the chest. “And so are you.” 

“Sissy and proud of it, ma’am,” he replied with a grin that made my heart twist itself into knots. Even now, even with everything I knew and all the things about that whole situation that terrified me, Tomas could make my knees shake and my mouth go dry with a single look. How was that fair? 

With some effort, I shoved all those thoughts away before looking at San. “Anyway, can we stop telling Izzy all about the dumb things I used to do when I was young and stupid?” 

Lowering his head, the boy stared at me over the top of his glasses, looking entirely unimpressed. “Dude, it was like…. four months ago.” 

“Four month–” Izzy looked at her fingers, doing the mental math. “Wasn’t it still winter then?” 

“Pshh, their pool was heated,” I pointed out, as if that actually solved anything. Still, my face flushed a little. “And yeah, four months ago. Like I said, young and dumb. I wasn’t even sixteen yet. Totally not worth ever bringing up again.”

“What’s not worth bringing up again?” Amber, approaching with Jae (who was heavily done up in a hat, sunscreen, and dark shades to protect her sensitive albino skin), asked. She exchanged a fist bump with San, while looking toward me. “You sure you wanna be here?” 

Despite myself, I rolled my eyes. “Come on, guys. I didn’t accidentally have the driver drop us off here thinking it was the mall. And I didn’t bring this for my health.” From my pocket, I produced a small, red-wrapped present to wave at them. “Believe me, if it was my choice, I’d rather be almost anywhere else. But her family and mine just–we have to play nice.” 

Quietly, Jae pointed out, “Her too.” 

“Right, that should mean she plays nice too, especially with all these people here,” Amber agreed. “But shouldn’t we go in to find out? What’s everyone standing outside like this for anyway?” By that point, there had to be over a hundred teenagers out here, all talking in small groups or pairs. 

San shrugged, looking around at the rest of the mingling groups. “One of the butlers was out here before. He said something about the party being prepared and that we’ve all gotta wait.” 

Tomas gave a short nod of confirmation. “Yeah, and he didn’t look too happy about all the people out here either. Pretty sure if it was up to him, he’d turn the hose on all of us.”

That, of course, was the perfect opening for San to start talking about the time I’d managed to get Mrs. Kormish to turn her hose on me after one too many times running through her backyard to get the balls that ended up back there. Her yard was right on the edge of the park where I took my skates and board to use the ramps and rails, and some of the guys played baseball on the nearby diamond. I didn’t really play, but every time a ball went in mean old Mrs. Kormish’s yard, the boys all looked to me to go get it. Apparently I was the only one who wasn’t chicken, given how much she yelled at and threatened anyone who got near her grass. 

Anyway, one time I’d gone too close to her back porch, and she came running out from the side of the house (apparently she’d been working in the flower garden there), spraying me with the hose and screaming bloody murder. That was a fun time. 

Izzy was squinting at me. “How come so many of your stories end with ‘and then I got soaked while someone screamed at me?’” 

San laughed. “Oh, kid, you think that’s bad, you should’ve heard about the time we were out on the beach, and–” 

He was interrupted (and I was spared hearing that story again), by the arrival of Paige herself. Several people quickly spoke up, pointing her out as the birthday girl stood at the front door. Her gaze swept over the crowd and… I swore she looked right at me. Our gazes locked, holding steady for a solid couple of seconds before she spoke up. 

“You came.” 

Me? Was–was she talking to–

By that point, her gaze had swept on, taking in everyone with a very faint smile. Whatever had been there on her face earlier was gone now. It had been replaced by a polite smile, that of a gracious host. “Thank you all. I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. But believe me, it’s going to be worth it. Come on inside.” She turned, gesturing as two maids there opened the large front doors, holding them wide for everyone to follow as Paige herself walked back into her house. 

“Let’s get this party started.”

********

Patreon Snippets – Raindrop

“Does this hurt?” With that question, the paramedic who stood in front of Raindrop gently turned her arm, testing the range of motion. “You said a brick clipped it right here? Or was it higher?”

It had been a few minutes since the fight with Suckshot and Landlock. Izzy was still standing in the theater, though no longer up on the stage. Still in full-costume, of course, the girl was holding her arm out absently for the medic to check over while her gaze remained centered on the spot where Paintball was waving off a medic of his own, insisting he was fine. 

Realizing belatedly that she had been asked a question, Izzy flushed under her mirrored faceplate and quickly turned her attention back. “Huh? Oh-um, no, it’s just a little sore. Um, bruised, I guess?” Her gloved hand moved to gingerly touch the spot where she had been clipped by the brick before Paintball showed up. Before Paintball helped save them. Helped save her

She was blushing again. Forcing herself to focus once more, she listened as the medic finished up with making sure she wasn’t injured even worse, and told her what to do if she did find that it was more than a bruise. 

Finally, he left. Paintball, meanwhile, had already started to head for the exit after seeing that the authorities had Suckshot and Landlock in hand. After giving a quick glance around herself to make sure she wasn’t ignoring anyone, Izzy jogged after, catching up with the boy. For a second, she hesitated. What was she going to say? The first thing that sprang to mind was to ask how he was already so good at this stuff when he’d just started out a short time ago and wasn’t working with a group. He was her age. Her age, but he did all this stuff alone, or even came to help when they needed it even though he wasn’t part of their team.

And that was another question Izzy wanted to ask. Why? Why didn’t he want to work with them? Actually, it was pretty obvious that he was just fine working with them, as long as it wasn’t official. So… so what was his deal? 

Ugh, he was so mysterious. He came out of nowhere, was super-good at this stuff even if he made mistakes, and he just… he just helped. She’d even heard that he was giving out sandwiches and stuff to the homeless. Again, what was his deal

But she couldn’t bring herself to ask any of that. It was too confrontational, too direct. And after everything he’d done, after the way he’d jumped in and–

Blushing again. Good mask. Very good mask. Izzy had never been so thankful for–

“After you.” Paintball was holding the door open leading out to the street. Holding the door and waiting for her expectantly. 

“Thanks,” Izzy quickly piped up before starting to move through. The minor voice changer she used, just enough to make it so people wouldn’t be able to put her voice online to figure out who she was, picked up the squeak in her words, making the girl blush even more as she quickly stepped through the doorway. Then she turned back, facing Paintball. “Um. Thanks for all of that, I mean. Thanks for helping.”

For a second, Paintball seemed to be confused. “Thanks–oh. Uh, no problem. It’s what we do, right?” 

“Right,” Izzy agreed hurriedly, bobbing her head. It was just what they did. Never mind that Paintball managed to be funny and cool about it while not having a team with him or anything. Never mind any of that. Stop thinking about that. Yeah. 

Clearly, whatever else Paintball was, he was not telepathic. Because he gave no indication that he had any hint of anything Izzy was thinking. Instead, his helmeted head turned as he took in the sight of various cops rounding up mostly-injured and only slightly resisting gang members all around them. “I guess we should help clean up a bit, huh?”  

Once again, Izzy found herself nodding. Right, they should help clean up. She and Paintball should help. 

Her blush was going to burn through the mirrored faceplate, she just knew it. 

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