Simon Evans

Dig In 22-07 (Summus Proelium)

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“I hope you aren’t planning something dangerous.” 

The words from my father came at dinner the next evening as we all sat at the table. I had been lost in thought about what would be happening later that night oh, only to be drawn out of it by his voice. Jolting a little, I forced any guilt away from my expression before looking up. “Uh, what?” Smooth, Cassidy. With casual and expert deflections like that, I was practically a secret agent. Call me Double-Oh Paint, starring in No Time To Dye.

Okay, that one was bad even for me. Thankfully, I was interrupted from dwelling too much on it when my father raised an eyebrow. “You’ve barely touched your food and you keep looking at the wall with that thoughtful look that tells me I’m about two days away from getting a call from the school, the hospital, or both. Please tell me you don’t have some new trick in mind.” 

Blushing despite myself, I inwardly cursed at the fact that I’d let myself focus too much on stuff I really shouldn’t be thinking about around my family. My head shook. “No sir, no new tricks here.” 

Dad squinted at me, glanced toward my mother, then back again. “I sure hope not. After all, you’re getting closer and closer to graduating from that driver’s ed class. And from what I hear, you might just make it with a passing grade.” 

Clearing her throat, Mom pointedly put in, “A passing grade by our standards, that is. Which, you may find, is somewhat higher than the educational system.” And yet, even though she was trying to sound stern then, she clearly couldn’t help the small, proud smile that came when she looked at me. “I am certain you are up to maintaining that standard.” 

Yelling at myself that I really had to make things seem as normal as possible now that my father had noticed my distraction, I forced a casual shrug. “Yeah, well, I mean if Lite-Brite over there can pass your driving requirements, I think I’ll probably be okay.” 

While Simon made a face at me, Izzy blinked. “Lite-Brite?” 

“Sure,” I confirmed while shifting in my seat to glance at the girl next to me. “Or Monopoly, Hungry Hungry Hippo, Battleship, Guess Who, Trouble, Clue, or any other game I could think of when I was your age. You know, cuz his name’s Simon. Like Simon Says. I used to just pick a random game and call him that whenever I wanted his attention.” 

“And for the record, I still can’t believe you guys let her get away with that,” Simon complained. 

Dad chuckled, exchanging a brief look with my mother before offering Simon a shrug. “I hate to tell you this, champ, but when it comes to little sisters calling you things, you got off pretty light with board games. Besides, honestly, your mother and I had a bet going to see how long it took her to get to ones like Scattergories and Boggle. Though I will admit, she got to Candy Land faster than expected.” 

“Ahem.” Mom gave Dad a pointed squint before looking back to us. “What your father means to say is that it’s very nice to see when our children can get along and be nice to one another.” She paused deliberately, making a show of considering her words. “Rare, but nice.” 

Picking up from the table, I moved to the side where the pitchers of iced tea and juice were, pouring myself a fresh glass of the former. Then I asked if the others wanted any and ended up refilling Izzy’s juice and Simon’s iced tea as well. Placing the glass in front of my brother last, I gave him a too-sweet smile. “See? I can be nice.” 

“Oh, nice, huh?” Simon gave me a look, and I had a brief flash of danger run through my mind before he pushed back on his chair and yanked me over by the arm. Before I knew what was happening, he had me in a headlock and was running his knuckles over my hair while I yelped. “Yup, super-nice! Nice hair, nice yelping, and I bet…” His hand moved away from my hair, but he wasn’t letting me go. Instead, he started to tickle me. “Nice and squirmy!” 

“Ahh! St-aahaha-stop-ahhh stop!” Squealing and kicking my legs out, I struggled, but couldn’t find any leverage in that position. He had me half-yanked off the floor and over his chair, one arm keeping me trapped in that headlock while his other hand tickled all along my side. In the background, I could hear Mom saying something, but couldn’t pick out the actual words. It didn’t sound like she was too angry or anything though, and Simon didn’t immediately release me. 

Finally, he let me go, standing me back up before poking me in the stomach. “See that? Don’t forget, I’m still the big brother, Booster.” 

“You’re a big something, alright,” I retorted, my face flushed. “Pretty sure I can think of a few words more appropriate than brother.” 

Once again, Mom cleared her throat. “Go back to your seat, Cassidy,” she gently yet firmly chided. “This is, after all, family dinner. Not, ahh, WrestleMania?” 

Squinting first at her, then at me as I found my way to my seat, Simon asked, “Is it just me, or is Mom saying WrestleMania really weird?” 

“Definitely weird,” I agreed. “Like hearing a priest curse. Or–” Reconsidering that, I amended, “Actually, I think hearing a priest curse would be less weird.” 

Sniffing once, Mom primly informed us, “I’ll have both of you know that your father and I have attended a good number of wrestling events. I do have a life outside of lecturing my children. Even if they often do their best to make that a full career.”  

Oh boy did I want to ask what sort of life it was and what she liked to do when she wasn’t being my mother. Including a few specific time and date verifications. But that felt like it might be pushing things. 

Simon, on the other hand, lifted his chin while slyly replying, “Sure, a life. That I buy. You go to all sorts of, like, charity auctions, dances, even musicals. Maybe golf for a sport. But anything involving wrestling? Yeah, sure. If I asked you who your favorite wrestler was, you’d probably–” 

“Hmmm, from the nineties and early two thousands? Either Mick Foley or the Undertaker,” Mom informed him. “And yes, I was there for their Hell in a Cell. But as for the Touched division these days…” She considered for a moment before nodding decisively. “Definitely Iron Grimes.” 

Feeling Izzy tug at my sleeve, I looked that way before the younger girl quietly asked, “Is your mom serious, or did she just say that to mess with Simon?” 

I was just realizing that I had no idea what the answer to that was, when Dad chuckled while speaking up. “As it happens, your mother is the one who talked me into investing in the fledgling Touched division of wrestling back in the day. I was a bit skeptical, but she saw the potential.” He was smiling that way, and the two of them exchanged the sort of tender looks that would have made a younger me gag on my finger. It was the sort of look that almost always precipitated–yup there it was. They kissed. 

Simon waited what he apparently thought was an appropriate amount of time (two seconds) before speaking up. “Hey, hey, come on. Doesn’t the poor innocent child over there deserve better than to be traumatized by you two being gross?” 

While Izzy protested that she was fine, Dad reached over to lightly swat Simon on the shoulder. “Just bear in mind, boy, someday you’ll want to bring someone you care about around to the table, and I’ll remember eeeeevery moment like this.” 

Shrugging, I put in, “Well, first he’d have to get someone to come home with him who actually wants to do the kissing thing, so I’m pretty sure he’s safe on that front.” 

“Oh I think someone needs another headlock,” Simon declared, teasing as though he was going to push himself up and come around the table after me. 

Someone,” Mom pointedly declared, “needs to stay in his seat and remember that as exciting as wrestling can be, it has its time and place.” To punctuate her words, she took a sip of her wine while watching Simon with a cool gaze. She hadn’t raised her voice or anything like that. She didn’t need to. 

“You’re lucky this time,” Simon noted with a squint my way. “But watch out next time you’re in arm’s reach.” 

“Son, much as I don’t think encouraging any underhanded behavior is a good idea,” Dad put in dryly after setting his own wine glass down, “maybe you could reconsider making threats against your sister within earshot of your parents. Particularly with Izzy here.” His eyes passed back and forth between us to make sure we were paying attention. “I had hoped that both of you would set a better example.”

“It’s okay,” the younger girl quietly insisted, “I kind of like this kind of example.”  

Her words made my parents exchange glances. Some sort of silent communication passed between them before Mom turned back to us. “Yes, well, on that note, before dessert comes, perhaps it’s time to have a conversation that has been some time coming.” 

“A conversation?” I found myself echoing, glancing toward the girl next to me before turning back that way. “What conversation?” A brief spike of paranoia about what they could possibly know jumped into my mind, but I shoved it back down with some effort. Now was definitely not the right time to panic.  

Dad took a breath, offering a reassuring smile. “A good one, we hope.” His gaze turned from me to the other girl as he continued. “Izzy, I hope that you understand just how much we enjoy having you here, and how much it feels like you’ve filled a void in this household ever since you came. Whatever the circumstances behind your arrival, Elena and I are incredibly grateful that it happened. You are a brilliant, talented young woman, who deserves to succeed at everything you put your energy and mind toward.” 

Izzy’s hand was tight on her glass, before she abruptly released it and dropped both arms to her side. “You want me to leave.” Her voice was dull with resignation, as if she had been expecting something like this but was still hurt deeply that it had come. “It’s alright, I–” 

“Isidora, no.” Mom’s head shook intently. “No, nothing like that. The opposite, in fact. We don’t want you to go. Thus far, you have been living with us under temporary guardianship. Our friends in law enforcement and the foster system have been gracious enough to grant us broad leniency in that, yet now that it has been over a month with no sign of your… of your mother, they believe that a more… permanent decision needs to be made. Not immediately. You have all the time that you need.” 

“I… I have time?” Izzy was staring at my parents in confusion, clearly taken aback by all this. “Time for what?” It was obvious that she was expecting to be told that she had time to pack her bags and get out of the house. 

Dad’s voice was gentle. “Izzy, we’d like to become your permanent guardians. After what–” He stopped himself, clearly not wanting to say more in front of me. I was sure Simon already knew the whole story, even if Izzy wasn’t supposed to know he did. “After your personal situation with your mother, it’s… staggeringly doubtful that she would ever be granted custody of you again. But, we also understand that this is a lot to throw at you, and that this family itself can be… more than what anyone wants to handle sometimes.” 

While Izzy continued to stare, her hand found mine under the table and squeezed so tight it was almost painful. But I kept the reaction off my face and squeezed back. She clearly tried to speak a couple times, but couldn’t find the right words, so all that came out were a couple uncertain sounds. 

“What Sterling is saying,” Mom put in, “is that we would like to adopt you, Izzy. Legally and permanently. We would like you to be part of our family, part of this family, for the rest of all our lives. As he said, the decision is entirely up to you. Take your time, think about it, decide what is best for you. If you decide you don’t want to be here, we will find a quieter place for you. No matter what you decide, you will never be abandoned. You will never be alone. We will make certain there is always someone who can take care of you, even if you decide that you would rather that person not be us.” 

Izzy was squeezing my hand even tighter, biting her lip for a moment before managing to find her voice. “Tha–thank you. Thank you for… for everything. I–” The words caught in her throat briefly before she forced them out. “I’ll think about it. I–I have to think.” 

With a smile, Mom nodded. “Of course. Take all the time you need. Just know that whatever you decide, we all care about you. And when your mother is found, we will ensure that she gets the help she needs to become a better person. While being prosecuted for her actions, of course.” Her voice was gentle and understanding. “She is still your mother.” 

********

We all had dessert after that. But I could tell Izzy wasn’t really tasting it. She was polite and everything, and even cleared off the plate. Yet her movements were mechanical, and it was obvious that her attention wasn’t on the food. As soon as it was over, she excused herself and headed out. I waited another couple minutes to give her a little time before doing the same, muttering something about checking on her. 

She was in her room, and I quickly closed the door behind me after finding her there before checking the intercom on the wall to make certain it was off. Just to be on the safe side, I pried the thing open and flicked off the little switch inside. It was a trick I’d learned awhile back to make sure Simon couldn’t eavesdrop on me when I was on the phone. I’d long-since modified my own intercom to always chime when it was activated, no matter what. Not that it was hard to do. There was literally a setting for it once you opened the thing up and knew what to look for. Which I did, thanks to an afternoon spent reading the manual years ago. 

Or did I? Was that how I knew how to do that, or had Paige actually been the one to teach me about it, back when she taught me how to sneak out of the house? No, that didn’t make sense. I didn’t remember how I knew how to sneak out of the house, only that I did, and I had never really questioned that. But not remembering something was very different from remembering something totally different. Tomas’s father had erased my memories of Anthony, and of Paige by extension. He didn’t put specific new memories in. Especially not memories of how I knew something Paige had taught me. He didn’t know about Paige, so there was absolutely no reason he would know to give me specific memories about learning the intercom system. 

In any case, I knew how to make it chime every time and how to turn it off. I did the latter with Izzy’s so we would be left alone, before looking that way. She was sitting on her bed, legs folded with a book in her lap as she stared down at it intently. She clearly knew I was there, but hadn’t looked up or said anything since I entered. 

After a moment of hesitation, I walked over that way to sit on the bed next to her. My voice was quiet. “Are you okay?” 

She didn’t answer at first. Instead, she kept staring down at the book before closing it. When she spoke, her voice cracked slightly. “We’re still going out tonight, right? So… so we can get into that base.” 

My head bobbed slightly. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to, Izzy. We can make do.” 

“No.” Looking up to meet my gaze, Izzy insisted, “I’m going. I want to. I have to. Especially–” She flinched in mid-sentence, glancing away. “Especially now. If–I want to know more. I want to know everything your parents do. I want to know what– I want to know all of it.”

Boy did I understand that feeling. The need to know the truth, even if you were certain it was going to hurt. I had spent all this time planning how to break into that secret base, just so I could get some firm answers about what sort of people my parents were. Even if I knew the answer was going to hurt, even if I knew I would regret knowing details, I still had to do it. I had to be certain. And now my parents were asking Izzy to join the family officially. No wonder she had to know the truth too. Even if it hurt. 

“They do care about you,” I assured her, for all the good it probably did. “It’s not just about wanting your power, Izzy. They could get that in other ways. I might not know everything about them, but I know the look my mother has when she’s looking at someone she cares about. And she definitely cares about you. I know that probably doesn’t help. Trust me, I know. But they don’t just want to use you. They aren’t just manipulating you to get something. They care about you. I care about you.”  

Izzy was silent, not responding for a few seconds. Then she exhaled. “I care about you too. And them.” The latter admission came with a look of guilt as she glanced away. Which was something I understood just as much as her need to know the truth. Knowing that my parents weren’t exactly bastions of morality and righteousness, knowing that they had done some terrible things and allowed people to die, and even killed plenty themselves, didn’t make it easy to not care about them. It was like they were two separate groups, the people who were my parents and brother, and the people who did those terrible things. Yet they weren’t different groups. They were the same. And trying to accept that was hard. 

For a couple minutes after that, the two of us sat in silence. Izzy took a few long, deep breaths to steady herself before speaking in a quiet voice, “She wasn’t always bad.” 

“Your… your mom?” I hesitantly asked, unsure if she actually wanted to talk about it or not. 

Izzy nodded, clutching the book in her lap tightly before holding it up so I could see. It was Charlotte’s Web. “My mom used to read it to me,” she murmured. “Not this one. This is from your library. Ours was beaten up and had scribbles in it. My scribbles. It was the first book I remember her reading. And… and usually when I was sick, she would read it to me again. She would sit in bed with me and read it. She made the voices funny and… and…” Closing her eyes, she looked down, shoulders slumped. I could see the tears leaking out as she weakly insisted, “My mom wasn’t always bad. She wasn’t always like… like that. She got worse for awhile, but before… but–” Clamping her mouth shut, she shook her head helplessly. 

Wincing, I shifted closer and put an arm around her. “She’s your mom.” 

“But they won’t let her be again,” Izzy whispered, leaning against me. “After what she did, even if your family wasn’t… um, what they are, the authorities wouldn’t ever let my mom be my mom again. And–and I know she shouldn’t be. After what she did, she shouldn’t–she can’t–I–” A shudder escaped the girl, before she turned her head to press her face into my shoulder. “She can never be my mom again, not like it was. She broke it. She broke it, Cassidy, and she can’t put it back. She can’t fix it. It doesn’t matter what I say to your parents, it doesn’t matter what I do, it doesn’t–I can’t change it. I can’t fix it. I can’t make my mom be… I just–I just wanted her to be–I just wanted–” Unable to continue, Izzy wrapped both arms around me, clinging tightly. “I wanted to be good enough.” The weak, plaintive words snapped my heart in half. 

“Why wasn’t I good enough?” 

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Equal And Opposite 21-02 (Summus Proelium)

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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. 

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Kith And Kin 20-07 (Summus Proelium)

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The drive out of that place honestly wasn’t that long, though it seemed like forever. I kept having to resist the urge to look around too much. It felt like there were eyes on us constantly. Which, to be fair, there certainly were. The plants were all spies. Which was a really creepy thing to think about whenever I happened to glance at the various bushes and trees. Any of them could have been watching and listening, all the time. To say nothing of the animals, which I was pretty sure were also spies. Yeah, I had no idea how the people in here lived like this, because it was freaking me out just being there for a few minutes.  

Dad, of course, didn’t seem bothered at all. He had turned around in the seat and was asking Izzy what she thought about her new friend. Not enough to seem overly pushy or anything, but he was definitely curious about all that. Izzy, for her part, simply said that he was nice and that he’d done a lot of work on their project. Belatedly, she added that his sister was ‘intense.’ I had to bite my lip hard to avoid giving a response to that. 

Judging from the quick look that Dad gave me, I hadn’t entirely suppressed the reaction. He chuckled very faintly before giving a short nod. “Yes, I suppose intense is one word for it. And hey, I can tell you this much, from what I saw of that project of yours…” He whistled low. “That’s A-plus work right there. Really well put together, and with some nice sources. If that school isn’t careful, I might just hire the both of you right now and put you to work as research interns in one of the firms.” 

“Don’t let him make you interns,” I put in immediately. “Tell him it’s associate or no deal. Wait, no, tell him executive and then let him negotiate you down to associate.” 

“Awww.” Dad gave me a proud look. “You have been listening to your old man.” 

Forcing the lump away that tried to form in my throat, I offered a shrug. “Yeah, well, sometimes you talk louder than the television and it’s hard to tune you out.”

Dad, in turn, offered me a beaming smile, hand reaching out to squeeze my shoulder. “That’s one of my best strategies! Talk too loud for the other person to ignore. You girls should write that down, it’s a good one.” 

There were a few things I wanted to say, involving him making offers someone else couldn’t refuse, but I bit my lip and held back. That was a rabbit hole that I really didn’t want to start going down. Instead, I shifted the conversation to asking about how their trip went. Not enough to seem like I was actually fishing for real information or anything, but not asking anything about it at all would also have been suspicious. So I pushed just a little bit, as though I was slightly jealous about being left behind. Or just trying to angle for presents or a different trip sometime. 

Unsurprisingly, my dad didn’t tell me what they were really doing. He just played it off as another boring old business trip and kept changing the subject over to talking about things we had done while they were gone. Of course, we couldn’t tell him most of it, so we were all lying to each other. Though at least, hopefully, only one side actually knew that. 

On Dad’s suggestion, we stopped for some exotic ice cream on the way back. It was a new place that had apparently been getting a lot of good reviews. The guy behind the counter couldn’t have been much older than me, but he sure knew a lot about ice cream. He talked up the different processes of making it (apparently they did their own fresh on-site), and managed to make it interesting. He was a cute guy too, Asian with longish hair that had this thin green streak in it, and amber eyes. His nametag read Maki. 

In any case, he had a lot of good suggestions for flavors to try, and let us sample several. And the reviews were right, this place was great. Maki was funny, charming, and to top everything off, he could juggle. Yeah, he put on a show right there while we were deciding what flavors to get, casually tossing three pints and the ice cream scoop through the air in a circle. I even took a picture of him in the middle of that. With his permission, naturally. 

Finally, we ended up picking out flavors we all wanted, and also got a couple pints for Mom and Simon as well before heading out. On the way, as we went back to the car, I shook my head. “Wow, I haven’t even heard of that place yet. That thing says they only opened a week and a half ago, how’d you know about them already? You were out of town.” Even as the words slipped out of my mouth, I was regretting the accidental possible push against their cover story. 

Dad, however, simply replied, “From Kent Jackson, actually. He had a lot to say about the place. Apparently his son–oh.” In mid-sentence, he abruptly stopped talking. 

“What?” Blinking that way, I started to reflexively ask what was wrong. Then I realized. I remembered. Tomas had said that he was going on a date with ‘a guy who worked at an ice cream shop.’ “That guy back there, Maki. Tomas is dating him.” 

Dad was wincing. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I completely forgot that was where I heard about this place until you asked. Do you want to take the ice cream back? Or toss it and go get it from somewhere else?” 

Swallowing, I shook my head. “No, no. It’s not the ice cream’s fault. And it’s not Maki’s fault either. And it’s not Tomas’s fault. It’s nobody’s–it’s not–it’s fine. We were already broken up. We didn’t–it’s fine. It’s ice cream. Let’s go eat some ice cream.” Under my breath, I muttered, “I need it now.” 

So, we headed back for the house. And all I could think about the entire way was how differently I would have felt right now if I didn’t know the truth. If I didn’t know what was really going on, I would have a new pseudo-little sister living with me, ice cream, my parents back after a long trip, and I would be driving my dream car. It really would be perfect. Well, aside from the whole ‘getting that ice cream from my ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend’ thing, but even that wasn’t horrible. Hell, if that was the worst thing about today, it would’ve been pretty good. A pretty good day. And that was exactly what my father thought he was giving me. Because he had missed me and was trying to do something fun. He was trying to make me happy. 

He was a good dad. A good dad who did some really terrible other things. Even evil things. But that was what made this whole thing so hard. It was what made it so confusing. Well, that and the fact that the Ministry obviously did some actual good things as well. Like Peyton had said, there were positives to them. But there were a hell of a lot of negatives too. Like, for example, everything about last night. Yeah, they let the man who murdered Murphy’s brother (and several others) just get away because he paid them. That was… bad. Really bad. 

It was all so complicated, frustratingly so. But at least I had people who knew enough to help me right now. We were going to build that tunnel and get into the secret base. We would find everything we could about the Ministry’s business and figure out where to go from there. We just… had to be careful about it. And obviously try to make sure that they didn’t realize it was us doing it. That was going to be the real hard part, and something that would take a lot of time and planning.

But for now, I had to make sure my family didn’t get suspicious about anything. Which meant playing my role as the clueless daughter (and little sister) who didn’t know a damn thing about what was going on. So, as I parked the car in the garage, I put my game face on and gave Dad a sly look. “See how safe that was? In a couple more months, when I get my licence, you won’t have anything to worry about.” 

Dad, in turn, snorted. “Yeah, kid, I’m sure you’ll always drive exactly the same way you do when I’m literally sitting right next to you. Actually, you should keep that in mind. Whenever you’re out there, assuming that day ever comes, just pretend that I’m sitting right here in this seat. And you know, obviously that means you can’t have anyone else sitting here. I don’t like to share seats.” 

Snorting despite myself, I made a point of rolling my eyes at him before getting out. Then I tossed him the keys. “Believe it or not, I’m not going to make a habit of pretending my father is sitting in the car with me no matter where I go. And I’m sure as hell not going to tell my friends that they can’t sit in the front seat because my imaginary father has dibs.” 

Making a show of huffing as though offended, Dad retorted, “I don’t see why not. I’m cool. I’m hip. Your friends would be lucky to have me grace them with my presence on a trip to the juice bar.” He winked then, before laughing at my expression. “Isn’t that right, Izzy?” 

She had just gotten out of the car herself, managing a quick, “Sure, juice bar, dads sitting in the front seat of cars, imaginary something or other.” She was pretending to be very engrossed in her phone, which made a pretty convenient distraction. 

The three of us grabbed the bags of ice cream pints and headed inside. I had only just made it through the door from the garage into the long hall (it served as a buffer to keep noise and fumes from the cars from getting into any useful rooms) beyond, when my mother seemed to materialize out of nowhere, blurting my name. The next thing I knew, she had pulled me into a tight embrace. It took me a second to stop myself from freezing up, but I managed to return it. God, my mom. I had missed her so much. My dad too. Both of them. Seeing them, hugging them, hearing them, just being with them reminded me how much I loved them despite everything. Soon, I found myself clinging to her even more tightly than I intended. Sure, the revulsion of what happened last night still rolled through my stomach, but I couldn’t help my reaction to actually being around them again after they had been gone. 

“Mom,” I managed, my voice cracking just a little bit. Which just made my stomach flip over even more. I almost hated myself at that moment. I thought about what Murphy was going through and quickly released my mother before stepping back. It was all I could do not to turn around and run right back out of the house, through the garage, and just keep going. And boy would that have been fun to try to explain later. Yet, despite knowing just what a bad idea that was, it was still so tempting. And it wasn’t all because of what they had done, or what they helped do. A large part of my sudden rush of revulsion was at my own reaction to them. I missed them so much, seeing my mother like this made me so happy that I immediately felt like I was betraying my friends, like I was betraying Murphy. I was–it was–fuck. 

Mom, however, didn’t know anything about that. I wiped it off my face by the time she smiled down at me, hands on my shoulders. “My dear, sweet Principessa. I’m so happy to be home now. That was far too long to be away.” 

Somehow, I managed to stop myself from asking how long it would be if they went to prison for all the stuff they had helped do. Not that I wasn’t tempted. Forcing that thought away as well, I instead asked, “Does this mean that you’re not going away again for a while?” 

“Oh, Princess.” Smiling fondly, my mother tugged me into another embrace. “I certainly hope not. That was more than enough for me.” 

“Me too,” Dad put in, as he and Izzy came through the door. It certainly didn’t take that long for them to cross the last few feet in the garage, so they had obviously stayed back to give me a moment with Mom. Which, of course, had left Izzy alone with my father. I briefly wondered how she felt about that, which just made my stomach clench yet again. God, this whole situation from her point of view was probably just as bad as it was from mine, if not worse. 

Meanwhile, Mom was already stepping over to take Izzy’s hands, squeezing them with a fond smile before pulling the girl into an embrace too. Her voice was a gentle murmur. “Izzy, my dear, I missed you as well. I hope the staff treated you properly. How are you?” 

Looking slightly overwhelmed (which was understandable, even from my parents’ point of view), Izzy took a second to find her voice. “Thank you, ma’am. Um, Mrs. Evans. I’m okay.” 

“More than okay, I hope, since we brought ice cream.” Dad held up the bags in question, gesturing. “Now come on, let’s get to the kitchen so we can eat this before it melts all over the place and make a mess. You really don’t want to make Olivia find someone to clean up melted ice cream off the carpet at four in the afternoon.” 

Mom, of course, had a few (mostly teasing) words for Dad bringing home ice cream a couple hours before dinner. But she didn’t put a stop to it, which is what really told me just how much they had missed us. Any other time, she would have told him to put it in the freezer until later. 

In the dining room, we had just started to set the ice cream containers out on the table when another voice spoke up from the opposite doorway. “Well, if it isn’t the tiniest stranger.” 

Simon. Hearing his voice, I really had to stop myself from visibly flinching. After the fight we’d had the night before, it was hard not to jump or recoil a bit. Not that he knew anything about that. He had no way of knowing about the wave of revulsion and anger that swept through me as I thought about him actually fighting to help the man who had murdered Murphy’s brother escape. He certainly had no way of knowing that I was the one he had been fighting against to do that. And, just like Mom and Dad, he couldn’t find out or realize.

So, just as I had been doing this whole time, I shoved down my immediate reaction and turned to face him. “Oh great, they brought you back too?” My voice cracked just a little bit, but I hoped he didn’t notice. “I hope you at least had the decency to bring me a present.” 

“Sure did, the gift of my presence.” With a broad smirk, he waggled his eyebrows at me. “Get it? Gift of presence? Pres–” He grunted as I kicked him in the shin. Which, after last night, I knew for a fact he let me get away with. If he had wanted to, he could catch my foot and put me on my back without even thinking about it. 

“Now, no fighting,” Mom chided. “Come and take your seats for early dessert.” She said that with a look at my father that made it clear this was a special thing and he shouldn’t think it was okay all of the time. 

Of course, once we were all eating, Izzy and I both had to talk even more about the stuff we’d been doing while they were away. And, as far as that went, I was proud to find that we managed to make our answers sufficiently boring enough to make Simon feign falling asleep (of course, prompting Mom to give him a sharp poke). But the point was, he wasn’t suspicious. None of them were. We kept it boring without being obvious about hiding things. And pushed slightly for information about how their trip went without being obvious about trying to catch them in any lies. 

And we had decent ice cream. Okay, very good ice cream. Remarkably good. My ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend’s ice cream shop was amazing. That was the cherry on top of the whole night. Also my ice cream had cherries in it. 

In any case, we hung out for the rest of the evening like that. Dad suggested a movie in the theater, so we went there and watched this comedy western thing before dinner, which we had about an hour later than usual thanks to the whole ice cream thing. Then Mom wanted to do something together, so we played a board game in one of the dens. All of us, my parents, Simon, Izzy, and me. It was all so weirdly normal and casual. Mom and Dad acted like… Mom and Dad. Simon was Simon. We played several games, I accused my brother of cheating, jumped on his back, Mom told us to settle down, Dad laughed, we all laughed. 

And then Izzy and I went upstairs, and the second the door of my bedroom closed behind us, the smile wiped itself off my face like someone had flipped a switch. I slumped back against the door, eyes closing for a moment as I let out a long breath and let the stress of pretending everything was fine throughout the entire evening slide out of me. 

When my eyes opened once more, Izzy was standing a few feet away, watching me a bit pensively as she quietly asked, “Are you okay?” 

“Not much worse than usual,” I replied quietly before shaking my head. “I mean, wow. That was hard.” Swallowing, I moved away from the door while continuing. “I sort of… forgot what it was like to be face to face with them, knowing all these things. And after last night… after Simon–” Cutting myself off, I put my hands against my face and gave a slight shudder. “Sorry, I’m okay. I’m… I’m okay. I–” 

The next thing I knew, Izzy took both of my arms and gently pulled my hands down from my face so she could look at me. Her voice was gentle. “It’s okay… to not be okay.” 

Unable to find my voice for a moment, I settled on simply taking a small step that way and embracing her. She returned it, and we stood there like that for a few seconds before I managed a weak, “Thanks. You being here means a lot.” 

Eventually, she released me and asked, “Are you going out tonight?” 

I thought about it, but shook my head. “No, after last night, I need some extra sleep to catch up. Besides, Roald and Murphy are gonna need a couple days before they do anything else. Preferably more than that, but I don’t know how long we can stop Murphy from trying to go off to do something on her own. I need to talk to Paige and Raige about that whole Irelyn thing, but that can wait. I’m just gonna crash and try to turn everything off for awhile. I’m pretty sure there’ll be plenty to do soon enough anyway.” 

With a nod of agreement, Izzy headed out. I got ready for bed, ordered the lights to go out, and then laid down. My head was on the pillow and I started to drift off almost immediately, my thoughts winding down. 

And then I sat up. With two words, I ordered the lights to come back on, before sitting there in bed as my mind raced. Pushing myself over to the edge, I grabbed my Touched phone and quickly typed out a message to Amber, along with an attachment. 

Does this look familiar? 

After that, I waited anxiously for what felt like forever (but was really only about thirty seconds) until I saw the notification that she was typing. Soon, the message came back. 

That’s him. That’s him, how did you get that? 

Seeing that, I breathed out and slumped back. I was right. The realization that had struck me just before I was about to fall asleep was correct. I had to let that wash over me for a few seconds. 

Finally, I straightened a bit and typed out two more quick messages for Amber. 

The sex-shifting person you saw is named Maki. They work at an ice cream shop.

Tomas is dating them. 

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Kith And Kin 20-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – If you don’t read Heretical Edge and thus missed this note, the first non-canon for Summus Proelium this month was just released for everyone right here

Damn it, why did my brother have to show up now? I already had enough to deal with. Why did it have to turn out that my family was protecting the guy who had killed Murphy’s brother? Seriously, this guy? They had to protect this guy? Fuck. Now this whole situation had suddenly become a lot more complicated. And it came just when we had the guy dead to rights. Because of course it had. We couldn’t just finish this thing just by chasing Luciano down and sending him to prison that easily. Something like this had to happen. 

That rush of annoyed and worried thoughts flooded through my head even as I pivoted that way. I saw my brother, of course. He was standing there in a pair of designer jeans, with a gleaming silver shirt, red leather jacket, and thin red leather gloves. Though I was pretty sure that wouldn’t be what the other two saw. He was almost certainly using one of those illusion devices, or whatever they were. The point was, I highly doubted he was actually standing here in the open looking just like himself. 

Murphy was already snapping her shotgun back and forth between the man who had killed her brother, and the new arrival. She was clearly right on the edge of losing it entirely. “Who the hell are you? Back off! Just get the fuck away, this doesn’t have anything to do with you.” 

With his hands raised, Simon gave a slow shake of his head. “Two things. One, I’m afraid this does concern me. See that guy there has paid an awful lot of money to make it concern me. Not saying I’m his biggest fan, but money is money, and we have a reputation to keep. And two, I really don’t like people pointing guns at me. Especially jumpy people with their finger way too close to the trigger.” 

Even as he said that, Simon made a grasping motion with his right hand. A sudden silvery glowing rope or cable (actually not too dissimilar from Silversmith’s power) extended from that leather glove, catching hold of the shotgun barrel. With a sudden yank, he tore the weapon from her hands as Murphy yelped, tossing it over to the side about twenty feet away, where it clattered to the ground.

She made a motion as though to go after it, but abruptly Simon’s other hand snapped out and a pistol suddenly appeared in it, jumping out of the sleeve of his jacket. “Uh uh,” he called out. “Just stay there. Trust me, I know why you’re so pissed, and I don’t blame you. I really don’t. He’s a piece of shit. But just stay there.” His eyes moved to me then, squinting as though trying to figure out why I had remained rooted to the ground. “If you’re planning something, kid, it’s a bad idea.” 

Planning something? No, not really. At that very moment I was still mostly reeling from having my brother this close. It cut through a lot of the confidence I’d built up over these past weeks. All I could think about at that moment was how nervous I was about keeping my identity from him. I’d managed it back when I was first starting out, of course. But I wasn’t sure how much of that was luck. And I hadn’t really stayed and talked to him. Actually standing here and interacting with him? Even with my changed voice, I was terrified that he would immediately figure out who I really was. This whole situation had become a lot more dangerous. 

And yet, what was I supposed to do? I could not and would not let the guy who had killed Murphy’s brother just walk away, no matter how worried I was about my brother and my secret identity. That wouldn’t happen. It was wrong, and she’d never forgive me, no matter how much I explained. I had to do something about it, but I still had no idea what. Could I actually fight my brother? I’d seen how easily he dismantled that guy back at the mall. Yes, I had powers, but could I actually deal with him when he had his skill, the pistol, and those clearly Touched-Tech gloves? A small voice in the back of my head was insisting that I had faced much worse threats. And yet, I couldn’t stop telling myself that he was my big brother and I didn’t stand a chance. 

“Paintball?” Murphy spoke up in a confused, worried, helpless tone. And it was hearing that, the obvious pain and loss in the voice of a girl I cared about, which snapped me out of my moment of being completely paralyzed by indecision and panic. 

“Sorry,” I found myself blurting without thinking about it, “I was just trying to figure out what makes you think you’re going to walk in here and stop this worthless fuck from going to prison where he belongs. He’s a murderer. You really wanna walk in here and defend a murderer?” I tried to keep my voice more casual than it wanted to be. I did not want Simon wondering why Paintball would be emotionally upset about that. I didn’t want him wondering anything about me at all, if I could help it. God, this whole thing was so dangerous. In more ways than one. 

“Fuck you, cocksucker!” Luciano snapped. “You think you can judge me just cuz I capped a few assholes? You’re just a–” 

He was interrupted by Murphy making a noise of outrage in the back of her throat, starting to throw herself at him. Which made Simon snap his gun that way to warn her. But I moved first, before he could speak. Besides being frozen by indecision, I had spent the past few moments painting designs across the back of my costume. I activated green, orange, and purple spots while lunging that way. Speed, toughness, and strength boosts, all at once. 

It wasn’t enough. Even moving a little under twice as fast as I would have normally, Simon still had quicker reflexes. He pivoted aside smoothly, snatching the outstretched pistol away from my grasping fingers as his other hand snapped out to catch hold of my wrist. In an instant, his foot collided with my ankle while he gave my arm a yank. The next thing I knew, I was tumbling head over heels and landing on my back on the cement. It didn’t hurt, but the sudden rush of being knocked around like that was enough to leave me briefly disoriented. 

Simon was standing over me, starting it to point his gun down to tell me not to move. But before he could get more than a single word of it out, I managed to lash out and up with one foot. A foot that had a blue spot on the bottom of my shoe. Just as my foot made contact with his pistol, I activated the paint. Between the purple strength that was still running through me, and the added boost from the blue push, the gun was sent flying away from him. 

Instantly, I lashed out again in a kick toward his stomach. But Simon caught my ankle under his arm and twisted so that the force I was trying to use to kick him was instead spent in spinning myself sideways along the ground. 

In the process of that, I caught a glimpse of Murphy. She wasn’t having much more luck. She had jumped on Luciano’s back, but he yanked her off and was about to throw her bodily to the ground. My hand snapped out in the midst of being yanked around by my ankle, shooting orange paint, then a quick burst of purple that way. Both hit, a pair of orange and purple splotches across the side of her shirt, activating just before she was slammed to the cement. 

Hoping that that would be enough to help her get out of that, I slapped my own hand against the cement and painted the palm blue. The sudden force from that, as my hand rebounded away from the sidewalk, shoved my foot out of Simon’s grasp and up, kicking his stomach. It wasn’t nearly as hard as I was trying for, given the way he twisted aside at the last second, but it was still enough to make him stumble backward while reflexively releasing my leg. 

I was able to spring back to my feet by that point, before he could recover. A quick glance to the side showed that Murphy had taken advantage of the paint I gave her. She grabbed Luciano’s foot with both hands and yanked it out from under him, sending the man to the ground with a blurted curse. 

Meanwhile Simon was already lunging at me, giving a muttered curse of his own about me being a stupid asshole or something to that effect. Quickly, I activated another picture across my costume, this one of an orange demon face with a wide grinning face of purple teeth and green eyes. 

Again, purple strength, green speed, and orange toughness. Sure, it wasn’t a huge picture, I was still trying to conserve paint as much as I could. But still, it made me about as strong as an adult man, about half again as fast as I should have been, and tough enough to tank a bullet. 

And it still wasn’t enough. Not really. My brother was too fast, too skilled. He had been doing this for a long time, that much was patently obvious. Despite having no powers, and not even using those gloves of his, he evaded every single punch I threw at him over those few seconds. He wasn’t even actually trying to hit me back or anything, aside from a few light taps as though he was testing me. Or maybe taunting me. Whichever the case, what mattered was that I couldn’t actually hit him. I needed more speed. But that would mean using more paint. 

I had to. I could either conserve paint and keep being too slow to actually hit him until I ran out of everything anyway, or I could expend it and maybe manage something useful in the process. It was the only real shot I had with this. Especially with Murphy struggling against Luciano right behind me. I needed to change things up and take a risk. I needed to end this fight right now. But I also had to make it count. I needed to create an opening that I could take advantage of. 

With that in mind, I lunged backward away from Simon to create a little distance between us. Thankfully, the fact that Simon was busy showing off meant that he didn’t press me too much. He clearly thought that there was nothing I could do. And now I was (hopefully) going to make him choke on that assumption. That’s what I told myself, anyway. This whole thing reminded me of all the times I had wrestled with my brother. I hadn’t won any of those either. At least, not without cheating. 

So, cheating it was. With a blurted curse, I threw myself that way, letting loose with a completely wild punch that Simon easily evaded before pivoting back around to grab my arm so he could casually throw me to the ground. 

At least… that was what he attempted to do. But just as his hands closed on my arm, I painted it pink. The force of his grip made my arm completely collapse under his hands, squeezing out both sides of his tightened fists. It didn’t hurt, of course. But boy was it weird. Luckily, I had been ready for it. Simon, on the other hand, wasn’t. As my arm, bone and all, collapsed as though he had squeezed a large tube of toothpaste or frosting too hard, Simon made a noise of confusion. 

He had just enough time for his gaze to snap down to see what happened to my arm before I dismissed the paint early. Instantly, my arm snapped back to the way it should be, with enough force that Simon’s hands were snapped back away from me. And in that very instant, I painted almost my entire body green, save for purple on my fists. I thought about going with a bit of orange protection, but no, I needed every bit of speed I could get. I spent all the paint I had left in that moment to make myself as fast as possible. Then I lashed out with a punch. Even with that speed, Simon nearly avoided it. Not because he was anywhere near as fast as I was, not really. But because he was such a good fighter that he actually anticipated what was about to happen and was already moving almost before I did. His head twisted, but my fist was just a hair faster. Fast enough, in this case, to nail him right in the chin. It made his head snap back. My fist hurt after that, but I couldn’t think about it. I had to follow up. I only had seconds of speed. Eight now. Then I would be completely out, at least for a few seconds.

Simon still hadn’t recovered entirely from the force of his hands being thrust away from my arm. He was reeling backward thanks to a combination of that, and being punched in the chin. And I was already moving to follow up. With a grunt and lunge, I buried both fists into his stomach. The force staggered him, even as he dropped his hands to grab onto my shoulders. But again, I was still faster. Before he could finish grabbing me, I ducked and pivoted to get out from under his left arm. At the same time, I caught his extended wrist with my own left hand, and held it out to full extension while simultaneously lashing out with one foot to kick the back of his knee. As that buckled under the force of the blow thanks to my still slightly enhanced strength, I brought my right hand up to collide hard with the middle of his back. With his hand captured in my grip and his knee kicked out from under him, Simon couldn’t stop himself from falling face-first to the ground. 

The instant he was on the ground, before he could recover, I grabbed a set of handcuffs from my jumpsuit pocket, latching one side around the wrist I was still holding and the other around a nearby pipe that extended out from the building. They weren’t the special stay-down type, but at least they would hold him for a minute. 

A quick glance up showed that Murphy had managed to get Simon’s gun, the one I had kicked out of his hand, and was pointing it at Luciano while he lay on the ground. She was shaking a bit, staring intently down at him while keeping the pistol pointed that way. Immediately, I stumbled that way, the paint already wearing off. “Get him up, let’s go, let’s go!” I blurted. We had to hurry. I did not want to think about what would happen when Simon got out of that–

Something hit me in the back, colliding with enough force that I was sent sprawling to the ground. Nearby, I saw Murphy hit the pavement as well. And I also saw what had hit her. It was one of those silver cable things that Simon’s gloves could make. They were sort of like a mix between one of Silversmith’s constructs, and Whamline’s… lines. Either way, we had each been hit by one of them hard enough to knock us down. A second later, both lines grabbed onto the prone Luciano’s arms, yanking him up and away from us. 

With a blurted curse, I managed to jerk myself over onto my side and look that way. Sure enough, in those brief couple of seconds, Simon had already managed to free himself from the handcuffs. He was back on his feet and had used those cable things to knock both of us down and then yank Luciano over to him. He wrapped one cable tightly around the man and then extended his hand. Even as I shouted out for him to stop, my own voice lost in the furious scream from Murphy, Simon sent the other cable out toward the roof of a nearby building and let it yank him that way. Luciano was pulled after him. 

“Paintball, stop them! Stop him!” Murphy screamed at me, already scrambling to her feet. 

I tried, lunging up and extending my hand. Red paint. Just a little bit of red paint. Just enough to yank that guy away from my brother. It wouldn’t take much, right? I just needed a bit. But nothing came. It hadn’t been long enough yet, and I was still out of paint. 

Cursing, I shook my head. “Fuck, fuck, I can’t, I don’t have paint! I’m out!” 

An inarticulate bellow of rage escaped the other girl as she grabbed the pistol she had dropped and pointed it that way. She was about to start blindly firing after them when I grabbed her arm. “Stop!” 

“Get off me!” Murphy shoved me away, making me almost stumble and fall. “He’s not getting away!” She turned back, gun raised. But they were gone. Simon and Luciano had disappeared off the opposite side of the roof. Murphy, in turn, screamed out and pivoted to drop the gun. Her fist punched the wall, then she hit it again, and again. She was cursing and crying all at once, punching the wall repeatedly as she ranted about hating everyone and everything. With a choked sob, she collapsed to her knees and clutched her stomach. One hand yanked the mask off and dropped it before she doubled over and threw up. 

I stood there, staring, as Murphy fell onto her side, curling up in the fetal position while her entire body shook. She was crying so hard she couldn’t breathe, while a jumble of words that didn’t make a lot of sense escaped her. I can only catch some of it. She was saying something about McDonald’s, a bus, and a rehab center. She kept saying rehab over and over again, and clothes. No, close. She kept repeating ‘close, so close,’ and that she just wanted him to eat. She brought him food, she wanted him to eat. She wanted him to sit down. Something about laying on the couch. If he’d been laying on the couch, he wouldn’t have been hit. And that she was sorry. She was so sorry. All of that mixed into cursing about everyone she hated. At that moment, I was pretty sure I was on that list. Not that I blamed her. 

Looking around briefly, I took a seat next to her and was silent for the moment. I had no idea what to do, but I wanted her to know that she wasn’t alone right then, even if I wasn’t the person she wanted to be with her. Swallowing hard, I reached out to touch her shoulder very gently. Immediately, she jerked away with a blurted curse. But I kept my hand there, shifting a bit closer. She stopped, slumping a bit more against the ground. All the energy seemed to have left her body. She was exhausted, having been running on fumes for a long time. Her rage was a fire that lit the fuel of her grief. And now the rage had run out. There was no more target for her to attack, so the anger had fallen away for the moment. The fire of rage was gone, leaving only the fuel of the grief. And the fumes of that were choking her. 

Scooting closer, I put my back to the wall and slipped an arm around the other girl, pulling her into an embrace. She didn’t fight it. Instead, the girl just leaned against me, shaking uncontrollably. 

“Gone,” Murphy finally murmured in a broken voice, once we had sat there like that for a couple minutes. “He’s gone. He’s gone.” 

I knew she wasn’t talking about Luciano. It was Tyson. Her brother was gone. He had been murdered in cold blood, and the man responsible had just gotten away. 

For now. 

“We’ll find the piece of shit,” I quietly assured her. “I promise. I swear, Murphy. We’ll find him. He won’t get away. We’ll find him.” 

Her head shook a little, as she made a noise deep in her throat that sounded like a cross between confusion and anger. Finally, she pulled back, staring at me. Without the mask, I could see the tears that ran freely down her face. “Who the fuck was that?! Who–what the fuck did that–what did he mean about paying a lot of money to make it his concern? W-was that a Sell-Touched? What was he–I never–who–” Her words were all jumbled together into a nearly incoherent ramble. But I understood. I knew what she was asking. She wanted to know who Simon was, where he had come from, and what that whole situation with Luciano ‘paying for protection’ was about. 

“Murphy,” I spoke quietly, my voice just the right tone to make her look at me, staring through the tears that had half-blinded her as I continued. “I think… I think we need to talk. 

“I need to tell you the truth about what happens in this city.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-02 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – If you missed it, the Heretical Edge noncanon chapter was posted over the weekend right here. There will be two Summus Proelium noncanon chapters posted over the next week.

This obviously wasn’t the best position to be in, crouched behind a car with my very Prev min–employee, while a bunch of guys with guns on the other side of the car rapidly approached to surround it. And yet, on the other hand, at least none of these guys were Touched. As far as I was aware, anyway. Not that that completely eliminated the potential danger the guns themselves presented if we weren’t careful, but at least I knew what we were dealing with. 

After taking a few precious seconds for preparation and explanation, I peeked through the window of the vehicle. Five guys were approaching, three moving toward the front of the car and two moving toward the back. There were more standing up by the laundromat, and what looked like a couple lingering in the doorway of the bar with their own weapons ready. This whole shopping center was obviously their hangout. 

“Count of three,” I whispered to the girl next to me. “Remember what I told you about the gun.” Once she gave a short, reluctant nod, I counted off. “One… two… three.” On that last number, I abruptly activated the blue paint I had sprayed beneath both of the tires on this side of the car, front and back. Instantly, the vehicle flipped up on its side before tipping over to its roof. As it fell that way, I heard a few yelps and curses from the guys there who had just been reaching the front and back. They dove out of the way, landing hard on their stomachs to avoid the vehicle as it fell all the way over onto its roof.  

At the same time, Murphy aimed high with the shotgun, firing a blast that took out the neon sign above the laundromat. The terrifying crash of the car falling onto its roof, accompanied by the even more terrifying boom of the shotgun and shattering glass from the neon sign being blown apart made the guys right in front of the place recoil, a couple of them literally falling on their backsides or crashing into each other in their reflexive urge to escape. 

Before any of them could recover, I activated the green and purple paint I had put on myself and Murphy. Then I was right there in front of the three guys who had been near the front of the car. My foot lashed out to kick one in the face hard enough that he collapsed fully, while I reached down to grab the weapons from their hands and threw them as far as I could off into the distance. As I leapt over their sprawled forms, my fist hit another guy in the side of the head so he wouldn’t get any bright ideas, foot snapping backward to hit the last guy just in case he felt left out. All three were left disarmed and groaning in pain. And all of it happened too quickly for them to react. 

Meanwhile, a quick glance to one side showed that Murphy had done her part. Both guys that had been at the back of the car were curled up on their stomachs, clutching themselves in pain while she hurled their guns far off to the opposite side of the lot. 

Just like that, these five were dealt with. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to sit back and congratulate myself, considering how many other guys were waiting for us. To that end, I focused on the group up by the shop, as well as the ones by the bar. Thanks to the green paint, all of that had happened so quickly, they were still recoiling from the shotgun blast. But they were recovering quickly, so I threw myself that way in a sprint. They saw me coming and tried to snap their weapons up in time. But I activated blue paint just under my shoes, launching myself upward to hit the wall just above the doorway, where the neon sign had been. My gravity-shoes kept me there, looking down at the men below me. 

They, of course, started to look up and adjust their aim. But I gave a sharp whistle and pointed back the way I had come with one hand, and toward their feet with the other. The guys looked that way reflexively, immediately noticing two things. First, the blob of red paint that I had put against the side of the overturned car while dashing toward them. And second, the identical bit of red on the cement right in front of them. 

Yeah, they processed what was about to happen very quickly, all of them screaming as they dove back through with the broken windows and doorway of the laundromat. At the same time, I activated the paint to yank the car over. It slammed into the spot where they had just been, crashing partway into the laundromat with a loud, thunderous bang. 

Okay, I did feel bad about the person this car actually belonged to before Murphy had stolen it. I was going to have to make sure they had good insurance, and maybe send an anonymous donation to help. 

But for the moment, I had to focus. A glance toward the bar showed that the two guys there had started to lean their way out and take aim. But I sent a quick shot of blue paint at their feet, launching them into the top of the doorway hard enough that they immediately collapsed once they hit the ground once more. 

In the meantime, Murphy was already sprinting toward the far end of the hair salon on the opposite side of the laundromat than the bar. There was a narrow alley-like area there to reach the back of the buildings. As she neared it, I quickly activated another blotch of green paint I had given her, speeding the girl up once more. Then I did the same for myself, and used red paint to reach the roof, sprinting my way straight across the top of the laundromat to reach the back as well.

Murphy beat me there by about two seconds, and the gang guys themselves by one. Just as I skidded to a halt on the edge of the roof, I heard her voice snap, “Drop it!” Looking down, I saw one guy who had started to push his way out the rear exit of the laundromat. He had a pistol in one hand. But Murphy was there on one side of the door, shotgun pointed at his head. 

The guy clearly considered his options for a moment, before Murphy snapped, “I reloaded before I got back here. Which means I’ve got five shells in this thing. It’ll only take one to put you down, then I’ve got four more for your friends back there behind you. And you’re all lined up like a nice turkey shoot. So I’ll tell you one more time. Drop. It.” 

While she was saying that, I had already taken a few steps back and sprayed pink along the roof. I made a large enough circle for myself to fit through. Then I listened until the clatter of the pistol hitting the ground announced the man’s choice. 

That prompted a wave of curses and shouts from the people behind him who thought he was being a chickenshit. Which was my cue. Activating a line of purple stars along both of my legs, as well as an orange moon on my back, I jumped up and then stomped down as hard as I could on the pink circle. Instantly, I broke through, crashing down through the ceiling to land right in the middle of the gathered group. Before they could react, I snapped my hand toward the floor behind me, where several guys were, and shot blue paint to launch them into the ceiling. At the same time, I grabbed the guy in front of me by the arm, hurling him into the wall with my purple-strength with enough force that he rebounded off it and collapsed, in no mood to do anything else.  

The guy at the door had started to turn to see what the hell was going on with the rest of his buddies, just as Murphy slammed the butt of the shotgun into the back of his head, knocking him stumbling into the next guy. Which was the one I had just reached, grabbing him by his shoulders as he stumbled from the other guy crashing into him so I could yank him down closer to my level, headbutting him hard with my helmet. 

That last guy, the one who had tossed his pistol at Murphy’s order, immediately dropped to his knees as soon as he saw the situation behind him. And just like that, they were all down. It worked. The plan that Murphy and I had come up with in just those few seconds had been very simple. We stop the guys right by the car, then use the car to block the front of the laundromat so they would have no choice but to flee toward the back. Then Murphy would catch them at the door there, where they could only come out one at a time, and while she had them distracted, I would break in through the ceiling to take them by surprise as they were all bunched up like that. Again, a very simple plan. But it had worked. Thank God, it actually worked. 

Well, sort of. Unfortunately, Murphy looked around frantically, a curse escaping her. “Fuck! He’s not here! Fuck, fuck, where is he?!” Her foot lashed out to kick the nearest guy really hard, enough to make me wince a bit for him. “Where the fuck is Luciano?! Where’d he go, motherfucker?!” Only then did she remember that she had the shotgun in one hand, and quickly pointed it, tracking the barrel across all the guys while still demanding that they tell her where their boss had disappeared to. 

It didn’t take much threatening for several of the guys to point back through the main room toward the manager’s office, insisting that their boss went that way. The two of us glanced at one another, then I quickly sprayed red along the guys before activating it. They were all yanked together and would be stuck like that for ten seconds. It gave us a head start. Which we used, sprinting toward the manager’s office even as I activated a bit more orange on both of us, just in case the guy we were running for decided to start shooting. I was still trying to figure out why he would have gone for his office rather than trying to get out like the rest of his men. Even as I had that thought, however, a realization of the probable explanation struck me, and I muttered a curse, hoping I was wrong. 

But no, I was very right. Even as we got to the office and shoved our way in, we could both see a hole in the floor. A trapdoor. There was a trapdoor there, and no sign of the man in question. He had sent those other guys to the back door as a distraction, while he went out through his secret exit. Apparently he had been in too much of a rush to even bother closing the door, which was a boon for us not having to look for it, but still.  

“Fuck,” I muttered while skidding to a stop just above the hole and looking down. “Another tunnel. I’m really starting to hate these things.” 

“Paintball,” Murphy snapped at me, her voice high and stressed, “if he escapes again…” Her tone made it clear just how unacceptable that was, as did the way she was tightly gripping the gun. She gave me a sharp look, expression hidden behind the mask. But I didn’t need to see her face to know just how angry she was at the whole situation. Before I could respond, she started to lean down to jump into the escape tunnel herself, intent on not allowing the man who had just murdered her brother to get away. 

Quickly, I caught her arm. “Wait, let me go first.” Making sure I still had orange active on me, just in case the bastard was hiding right there, I activated the headlamps on my helmet before dropping down through the hole. Once I was sure there was no guy there with a gun waiting for us, I waved for the other girl to join me. She did, dropping down. But unlike Luciano, she took the time to yank the trap door shut. I, in turn, used a quick, small shot of pink paint to bend part of the trapdoor out and over the ceiling it was snug against. That way, if anyone tried to open it from above, they wouldn’t be able to. We had enough problems right now without ending up with bad guys coming up behind us in this narrow tunnel. So that was one potential problem out of the way. 

That done, I was able to look around a bit more. Unlike the one I had been in a couple days earlier, this tunnel had clearly been professionally made. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all made of cement rather than dirt, making it clear this had been set up a long time ago. Probably for a situation similar to this, or if the cops made an appearance. Whatever problem showed up on his doorstep, Luciano wanted a way to escape. And unless we moved quickly, he was going to do just that. Who knew where this tunnel came out, or how impossible it would be to find him again if we didn’t get there before he vanished. I didn’t even want to think about how Murphy would react then, or what she would be going through. We had to find this guy right now. 

To that end, I started sprinting down the tunnel, reaching back to grab Murphy’s hand so I could yank her after me. Then I actually flipped off the headlamps to avoid giving away our presence any further, simply trusting my mysterious navigation power. If the other girl objected to moving through the darkness, she didn’t say anything. She might’ve been too enraged to even think about it, honestly. Together, the two of us sprinted blindly down the tunnel as fast as we could. 

The tunnel was fairly straight, but there were a couple turns involved. Turns that I just… somehow knew were there. With no visible warning and no idea how I would know about them, I instinctively turned us to the right just before we would have crashed headlong into the wall. A fact that was confirmed as I reached out with my free hand to feel it there. Without missing a step, I kept running, turning left just as unexpectedly a few moments later. I didn’t know how this navigation power worked, but I sure as hell was not going to argue with the results. 

On the way, I used green paint to speed us up, hoping to counter the head start our quarry had. I also used a bit of black so he wouldn’t hear us charging down the tunnel like a herd of elephants. Please, please let us get there in time. This son of a bitch just killed Murphy’s brother. Whatever problems the guy had, he didn’t deserve to die. And Murphy didn’t deserve to lose him. This shitface was going to pay for what he did. We just had to catch up with him. 

There. After one more sharp right turn, we could see a bright shaft of light ahead. There was an exit, and we could both see the man in question starting to climb a ladder right there. At least, I assumed it was him. It was hard to make out details, and I didn’t really know what he looked like anyway. 

Murphy did, however. And she immediately confirmed my assumptions by shoving past me, sprinting full-tilt that way. As she passed, I sent two shots of paint into her back. One was green, the other orange. She was a quick little missile, still silenced for the next couple seconds by the black paint that was already on her hand. 

Still, silent or not, she was a shape rapidly approaching through the darkness. The climbing man noticed her, looking over. But it was too late, as she slammed into him with enough force, despite their size differences, to knock the man off the ladder, where he fell hard onto the tunnel floor with a yelp. 

He recovered quickly, firing a shot from that pistol of his. But the orange paint meant it only stunned Murphy a little bit, making her recoil. That, however, was enough for him to lash out with his foot. Again, it didn’t hurt her, but the force knocked the girl off him as he fired twice more. Luckily, the gun was silenced, or we all would have been completely deafened from the sound echoing through this tight space. Doubly-luckily, the paint was still holding strong, so Murphy wasn’t hurt. From personal experience, I knew it would sting, and she would have bruises. But that was a hell of a lot better than being shot several times and bleeding out. 

By that point, I was already there. Before he could fire again, I painted part of my arm purple, snapping a hand out to take the gun away from him while simultaneously kicking the man in the leg, making him stagger while yelping in pain. 

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough. I saw the man’s hand grab something and hold it out. The next thing I knew, a blast of light and concussive force slammed into me. I was sent staggering to the floor next to Murphy, who had fallen as well. It was some sort of Touched-Tech flashbang or whatever, strong enough to put me on the ground. 

It didn’t keep me there for long, thankfully. Still, it cost us precious seconds. Even as I pushed myself up and looked around, I could see the man already disappearing up the ladder. My hand snapped out to shoot red paint at him, but it was too late. He pushed himself up and out of the hole just as my paint splattered against the ladder rung where his foot had been an instant earlier.

No, no. Fuck no. I wasn’t going to let this happen. Shoving myself up just as Murphy did the same, I grabbed her arm and yanked her close to me while putting blue paint underneath us right at the bottom of the ladder. Looking up, I activated the paint, sending both of us flying upward. We didn’t bother with the ladder at all, instead launching straight toward the hole above us. On the way, I made sure we both had a bit more orange paint, just in case this asshole was waiting to shoot us rather than running. 

But no, he wasn’t sticking around, apparently. We shot out of the hole and landed in a small parking lot across the street from the shopping center itself. At first, there was no sign of the man we were chasing. Then I saw him disappearing around the corner of the nearest building. He was running like his ass was on fire. Which, to be honest, sounded like a really good idea right then. 

Murphy started to sprint after him, but I caught her hand and pulled her with me. Instead of running after the guy, I used blue and red paint to get us to the roof of the building he was running around. Together, we sprinted across it to the far side, before I gave us both orange paint to soften the landing as we jumped off, falling straight to the ground below. 

The shortcut worked. We landed together right in front of the man, giving me my first decent look at him. He was a fairly big Latino guy, both in height and girth (fitting through the trapdoor must have been a tight squeeze), with long dreadlocks that had been dyed bright blond. He wore a long, oversized (even for him) Pistons jersey and loose sweatpants, and gripped a pistol in one hand. Yeah, that I used red paint to rip away from him.  

As that gun disappeared from his grip, Luciano staggered backward in shock. Well, that and the fact that Murphy and I had basically just dropped out of the sky right in front of him. That was probably pretty surprising too. He started to blurt something, then stopped. His eyes moved past us as he snapped, “Well, it’s about fucking time. What the hell am I paying you assholes for if you can’t get these shits off my back?”

Yeah, my instinct was to say it was a trick. But the specific thing he said put a sinking sensation into my stomach. Which only got worse as a voice spoke up behind us. A very familiar voice. 

“Oh, don’t you worry. You do pay pretty well. And we’re going to take care of this right now.”

Well, I may not have been sure whether my parents were actually in town at this point or not. 

But at least I knew exactly where my brother was. 

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Interlude 18B – Eits and Simon (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Thanks to all members of the Patreon who voted for this interlude. And don’t forget, in addition to all the interlude voting, snippets, and non-canon choices you can get as members, you also get every chapter a day early and if we hit various milestones, the minimum length of chapters goes up, so you get more to read! If you have questions or comments, or just want to hang out, we also have a Discord server right here

Also also, if you missed it, the non-canon chapters were posted over the weekend. You can find the Summus Proelium non-canon right here and the Heretical Edge non-canon right here

At one time, the place had been an old clock shop, catering to those with far more money than they knew what to do with. It had not been in business for a couple years by that point. But a few of the old clocks were still sitting around, waiting for customers who would probably never come. And yet, there was no dust anywhere. The place had been meticulously and regularly cleaned. Between that and the heavy duty security system on the door and windows, Ryder Towling (or Eits, considering he was there in-costume) was starting to think that this place might be a bit more than it appeared to be. 

Well, that and the fact that he had been asked to come here and wait for a certain old friend. An old friend he had only really met once, but still. Given who that friend was, and the way he had met him before, Eits was pretty confident that whatever was going on wasn’t just a casual social call. This was something big enough for them to go through Blackjack for help. 

Whatever they needed, Ryder was ready to give them. It was only because of them that he was capable of being comfortable in his own skin. They, whoever they were, had helped him become the person he was always supposed to be. He owed them a lot for that, and he was ready to pay them back if they asked for it. Sure, there were lines he wouldn’t cross, even for the people who had helped him so much. But up to a certain point, yeah. He was ready to help. 

He had been told that he wouldn’t have to wait long, and they weren’t lying. The boy had only been sitting in the old rocking chair near the back of the shop for about ten minutes when he heard several beeps from the keypad at the front door, followed by the sound of the bell as it was opened to let someone walk inside. That someone stopped just within, letting the door shut behind him before calling out, “It’s okay, it’s just me. I’m alone, you can come out.” 

Despite that, Ryder glanced at his tablet. He had already used his mites to break through the security in this place, and took over the cameras (whose presence was another thing making it clear that this place was more than it appeared to be). Sure enough, the guy he was waiting for was standing at the front of the store, patiently waiting all by himself with a briefcase in one hand. And a quick check of the two cameras positioned on the outside of the building showed no one suspicious. 

It was good enough for him. So, Eits took a few steps out, putting himself in view. At the same time, he directed the mite he had put in control of the computers to stop messing with their security feed and allow the system to show him. He’d shut them down before coming into the building, allowing the feed to work properly only for his own personal tablet. Everyone else had been seeing nothing but old looped footage up to that point, since he’d come within view of the place. Probably unnecessary, but ever since that whole thing where Paintball had let him know that the Seraphs had detected his intrusion, he was being a lot more careful.  

“Hey, Squire. Still using the same hologram, huh?” he asked. Yeah, he remembered that the tall, actor-level handsome black guy wasn’t the person’s real appearance. He’d already told Ryder that he was using an illusion of some form, right after he’d saved the boy from a bunch of transphobic pricks. But hey, at least he was using the same hologram. It might’ve been hard to figure out if it was really him otherwise. 

Come to think of it, what if it wasn’t really him? What if this was just some other member of that group who knew what happened back then and was using the same cover identity to–

“Just Simon’s fine,” the guy replied, interrupting his thoughts. “We’re both… sort of friends here and all. Might as well use the name I already gave you. And speaking of names, still using my old one, huh?” Squire–or Simon replied in turn. “They said you went with Ryder. Or do you prefer Eits?” 

“Whatever works. And yeah, Ryder was… I needed a name that I admired,” Ryder admitted with a little shrug. “And uhh, you sort of saved me. You really saved me. If you hadn’t been there, those guys would’ve–” He stopped himself, unwilling to follow that train of thought. “I like the name Ryder. I umm, I hope you don’t mind.” It had seemed like a good idea at the time, and he’d immediately come to enjoy people referring to him by it. But being here, suddenly face to face with the guy he had ‘borrowed’ the name from, made him feel weirdly awkward about the whole thing. 

“Whatever, it’s fine,” came the casual response as the holographically-disguised man waved that off. “I’ve got plenty of names. Squire, Simon, Benny, Calvin, Ricky. Maybe one of them’s even real.” That last bit was added with a wink before he squinted at Eits, his tone turning somewhat interested. “I also hear you’ve been making new friends. Of the independent sort.” 

“You’re independent too,” Ryder pointed out. “I mean–okay not independent cuz you’re obviously with a group. But you guys aren’t connected to any of the main groups in town. At least, I’m pretty sure you’re not. Seems like… you work with everybody now and then.” He eyed the older boy, taking a moment to consider his words (though he’d done a lot of that considering over the time since he’d last seen Squire) before finally adding, “Both good and bad guys.” 

“We’re pretty mercenary,” Simon allowed. “But we also get things done. Not being officially connected to anyone helps with that.” 

“You’re a Sell-Touched group then?” Ryder guessed. “A secret one that works with Stars and Fells. One with enough influence for Blackjack to feel safe taking advice from you.” There was more to it than that, he was sure. But that much he was pretty confident about. 

Simon, in turn, gave a short nod. “Something like that. And right now, we need your help with this little thing.” He held up the briefcase, gesturing for the other boy to join him at the counter next to the register while he set the thing up there and began to unlock it. 

Moving that way, Ryder asked, “So what is it? All Blackjack said was that it has to do with that uhh, Scions thing.” That had been fun to find out after-the-fact. Dani had gone off with a couple Minority girls and Paintball to get info about the Scions and ended up right in front of Cup herself. All to pay back Deicide for that whole vials favor thing. Yeah, part of Ryder really wanted to give the Easy Eight computers a virus to make them play annoying music or something for that one. Sure, Deicide hadn’t actually known what she was sending them into, but still. Dani was his friend, and he also felt a little responsible for Paintball, knowing what he did about his…or rather, her (he had trained himself not to think of Paintball as a girl) secret. 

“This…” Simon explained while starting to open the case, “was found in a safe inside that apartment, hidden under the floorboards. Let me tell you, it was a real pain in the ass getting it out of there without setting off any of her traps. She had a lot of them. Bitch really likes traps.” 

By that point, Eits was able to see into the case itself, revealing a small, closed-down laptop. There was a fingerprint scanner at the clasp, as well as some sort of small keypad, and what was clearly a small microphone. You didn’t just need a passcode to get into the thing. You needed the fingerprint, a numerical code, and a voice password. Between all three of those things and the fact that it had been found hidden in a safe behind a bunch of protective traps? No wonder Simon and whoever he worked with figured it was pretty important. 

After giving the thing a once-over, he glanced to the boy next to him. “Should I ask how you people managed to get something this important out of there past all the Conservators, other Stars, and cops that swarmed the place?” He paused briefly before deciding to go for it. “Or did you just pay one of them to hand it to you?” Sure, it might be a bit dangerous being that bold with the question, but Ryder figured if he was going to be helping them get the laptop open, he might as well go for broke and find out how much Simon would share about the whole thing. 

Simon, for his part, didn’t answer at first. He simply squinted at Ryder and seemed to be considering the response for a few seconds before simply replying, “We have ways of getting what we need. People who owe us favors.” 

“Sort of like the way I owe you?” Ryder asked, raising both eyebrows behind the diagonal black and gold bands that criss-crossed his face and eyes. 

“Little bit different from that, in most cases,” Simon replied. “But word of advice, don’t try to figure it out. Don’t look too deep into that. Just live your life and don’t worry about it. You don’t, ahh, you know how you don’t want to stare too close to the sun? Think of it like that.” He exhaled then, turning to look at the other boy seriously. “Right now, all you need to focus on is that we’re trying to find out everything we can about the Scions, so we can stop them. Just like everyone else. We just need to be more quiet about it. And if we’re gonna get anywhere with stopping them, we need to get into this laptop without losing everything that’s on it. Do you think that’s something you can manage? Be honest, this is important.” 

Eits opened his mouth to say it was, before hesitating. “I uhh, I’ll give it the best shot I’ve got. But if you want it to come without the whole setting off booby traps thing, I’m gonna need some time. And also some coffee and pastry-type things? There’s a shop across the street.” 

Turning to glance over his shoulder to the door, Simon gave a short nod. “Yeah, I can do that. You ahh… wait here. And take your time. We’ve only got one of those things. No do-overs.” With that, he rapped the counter with his knuckles twice. “How do you take yours?” 

Once Ryder told him what he liked, the boy promised to be right back, then walked to the door, used the code to open it, and stepped out to head to the shop. Which left Ryder standing in front of the open briefcase. He very carefully took it out, setting the thing on the counter without touching any of the locks, keypad, or the fingerprint scanner. “Okay, guys,” he murmured, squinting at the thing while leaning one way, then the other to get a good look, “what do we have here?” 

Over the next few minutes, he examined the laptop from every possible angle, carefully picking it up and turning it over to check the bottom. He brought a few of his mites to very gently probe the surface of the thing without trying to break through any of the security. He wasn’t ready to go that far. Not yet, anyway. Because Simon was right. They only had one shot at this. If he screwed up and made the laptop wipe itself, there would be no second chances. Which was making him sweat a little bit, to be honest. Especially given how much he really wanted to contribute to bringing down those sociopaths. Preferably before they did anything to Dani or Paintball in retaliation for being exposed. There would be no rushing this. He would take it slow and steady, no matter how much he desperately wanted to get it done.

Eventually, Simon returned with the coffees and a bag of pastries. By that time, Eits had moved several old clocks off a nearby table, set the laptop in the middle of it, and was sitting on a padded chair, leaning forward enough to bring the back legs off the floor as he ran his hand close to the side of the computer without actually touching it. One of his tiny, five-inch-tall glowing blue-green ghost-gremlin buddies was perched there, hissing threateningly at the laptop while its long, rabbit-like ears twitched and all four arms waved through the air. The hands got close to the thing, but just like Eits himself, never actually touched it. 

“So ahh, what’s going on here?” Simon asked, raising an eyebrow as he looked between Ryder and his mite. “You figure anything out yet?” While speaking, he handed over one of the cups.

Taking the coffee, Ryder sipped it. Not for the first time, he was glad that his particular mask didn’t cover his mouth. Other Touched had to figure out how to deal with eating food, even if it was as simple as pulling a mask up. And if it came to something like gas or smoke, well, he had something for that. 

“Not much,” he finally replied after another sip. “I mean, nothing as far as the contents go. Haven’t gotten that far. I think I can safely get it open and get us to the desktop in another fifteen minutes or so. I uhh, don’t wanna screw it up.” 

“Yeah, let’s stick with the slow method,” Simon agreed, pulling up a chair on the other side of the table. “Just let me know if you need something. I’ve got nothing but time.” As if suiting action to words, the boy took the phone from his pocket and began to play a game on it while biting into one of the pastries. He made it clear that he was in no rush and was ready to settle in for hours.

Hoping that the whole thing wouldn’t take quite that long, Eits settled in and got to work once more. He felt a bit more comfortable with the older boy there to keep an eye on things just in case he ended up accidentally triggering some sort of ‘come find me’ signal on the computer. As much as he wanted to help take down the Scions, he really didn’t want to do that while face-to-face with them. He was more of a long distance fighter. Long distance as in somewhere in another county, preferably. Direct confrontation was not something he handled very well.

But this? This was something he could do. Getting into a locked-down computer, past all the security and traps some crazy bitch had left on it? That was totally his speed. Especially with Simon here to watch his back, given he’d already seen how well the other boy dealt with direct confrontation. 

As promised, within fifteen minutes, they had the computer open and were at the desktop without setting off any problems. At least, as far as he could see. He had three different mites monitoring the various security programs they’d found, essentially making sure each one stayed nice and quiet. The way Eits explained it to Simon when the question came up was that the mites were basically singing very soft lullabies to the security programs. An incredibly simplified way of putting it, but close enough. 

Tempting as it was to be excited about actually being in the system after all that, now really wasn’t the time to get cocky and screw up. So, to calm himself, Eits leaned away from the computer and took a bite out of another pastry before letting out a breath. “You think this thing will actually have something useful on it?” He glanced toward the other boy. “I mean, sure it’s gotta have something good with all this security, but you think it’ll be useful? Or just like… a list of all the people she wants to skin alive or something.”

“Even that could be somewhat useful,” Simon pointed out, “if the list had people we didn’t know about on it.” He took a slow sip of his coffee before adding, “we’re pretty sure it’s more than that, though. We would have had our own people go over it, but, you know, time is probably of the essence. Every minute we take trying to break into this thing the old fashioned way is another minute that the information on it becomes less useful. Plus, Blackjack’s been talking up how useful you are to have around.” 

A blush found its way to Ryder’s face, only partially hidden by the mask (not covering his mouth area did have another downside after all). “I–ahh, he did?” The boy tried not to trip over his words, shoving another bite into his mouth and swallowing before managing a weak, “I didn’t know he talked about me to you–or to anyone from your… uhh… mercenary guild?” 

“Let’s call it that,” Simon amicably replied, still not taking the bait to talk any more about his group. “Anyway, yeah, your boss really likes the job you’re doing. Congratulations. Now let’s impress him and my people even more by getting into the good stuff from this computer, huh?” 

With a short nod, Eits went back to work. He brought out a couple more mites, sending them into the computer through the safe passages the others were keeping open away from the security programs. Letting his eyes close, he focused on what they could ‘see,’ though that wasn’t exactly the right term for it. They didn’t really see things within the computer. It wasn’t like Tron or anything like that. It was more that they read through data and his brain could understand what they were processing, converting it to something approximating vision. Or something like that. It was hard for him to put the process into words. The point was, he could sense what they found on the computer itself. In this case, that meant identifying each and every trap that had been left on the computer to stop anyone from reading what was on it. 

“It’s like… untangling a thick knot,” he murmured aloud for Simon’s benefit. “All these little security measures she left behind are tangled together. If I tug too hard at one, it can set the others off. I need to follow each of them back to the source and hold or snip them without making the whole system crash. If I miss just one of them, it uhh, could be catastrophic.” 

“Then don’t miss any,” Simon advised. “Like I said, take your time. You break it, you buy it. And I don’t think you can afford to replace ‘priceless laptop with secrets about the Scions.’”

When Eits blinked over to look at him, the other boy winked. “That’s a joke. But seriously, be careful.” 

Ryder followed the advice. For the next forty-five minutes, he very carefully worked his way through disconnecting and disabling every single security program. For someone with his power that was an eternity. He could get through most systems near-instantly. Cup, for whatever other issues she had, was clearly very paranoid about keeping unauthorized people off this computer. 

Finally, he leaned back and cracked his knuckles. “That’s it,” he murmured with a glance to the guy beside him. “If I did my job right, you should be able to log on with no problems and look through the whole thing. Her security measures should be disabled. And uhh, if I didn’t do my job right, you’ll find out real quick when the whole thing wipes itself. So, you know, here’s hoping.” He made a point of holding up both hands with crossed fingers. 

“Wonderfully inspiring,” Simon muttered before shaking his head. “Sure, buddy. And thanks.”  

“So uhh, you wanna check it out together?” Eits asked, tilting his head toward the screen. 

Simon, however, shook his head. “Nice try. We’ll take it from here. Go on and head out. Oh and uhh, can you get your little friends out of the computer?”

Summoning his mites back, Ryder gestured. “You ever need anything else…” 

“We know where to find you,” came the response. “Your payment is with the guy out back, in the alley. Thanks.” 

Eits had not exactly been expecting any payment. But he silently turned and headed out the door. Sure enough, there was a nondescript-looking man in a long green coat standing there with an envelope, which he passed over. In the envelope was a thick wad of cash. Ryder tucked it away, murmured his thanks to the man, and walked to the sedan that he had arrived in. 

Only once he had pulled out of the lot and was on the street did the boy let two of his little friends take over the car. While they drove, he leaned over to open his glovebox. Reaching inside, he took out an extra phone he had stashed there. A phone that was connected to the one in his pocket. Both of which already had mites in them that were communicating with each other and with the ones he had sent into the computer. 

There they were. Not all the files that had been on it, but a lot of them. Of course Eits wasn’t sure exactly who Simon worked for, or if they could be trusted. He knew he owed them a lot, and he was grateful. More grateful than he could say. But he was also careful. Not to mention curious. He was going to look through the files himself, and see if anything stood out. Particularly one section of the hard drive, which had been blocked by three times as much security as any other parts. 

Bringing up that section, Ryder leaned back and squinted. A list of adoption records, it looked like. Sealed adoption records. From what he could tell, Cup had had some sort of program running to sort through every adoption within the entire state of Michigan, and several of the bordering states covering the previous fifteen years. He wasn’t sure exactly how the program had been sorting through the records, but it seemed like it was set up to identify a single person with very specific criteria. And, from the look of things, it had found a match only very recently. It was within the past day, so he had no idea if the Scions had seen the results yet or not. 

Either way, Ryder frowned as he brought up the file itself, reading the name of the adopted person the Scions had clearly been obsessively trying to locate.

“Who the hell is Errol Fosters?” 

A/N – You can find the part where it was established that Pencil and Cup were obsessively looking through adoption records (and a bit of why) right here, just search for the term ‘adoption’ on that page to find the exact spot. And for those who need the reminder, Errol Fosters is Arleigh’s little brother, the youngest member of the Sherwood gang leadership family.

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Building Connections 16-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, Mom, Dad, and Simon were really putting some work into their ruse of going out of town. When Izzy and I got home, the hallway was full of suitcases and boxes with various files poking out of them. It really looked like they were going off on some kind of emergency business trip. Honestly, I was almost kind of impressed. I’d basically expected them to just walk out the door without so much as a backpack. It wasn’t like the old me really would’ve questioned it very much, if at all. 

As the two of us walked in and paused to look at all that, Simon basically came flying down the main front foyer staircase, taking the steps several at a time while calling up, “Yeah, I already called them! They’re gonna round up those guys and meet–” He reached the bottom of the stairs and saw Izzy and me before finishing with, “–us at the hotel! You booked the conference room?” Standing there at the bottom of the stairs, he pretended to ignore the two of us while looking up toward the next landing. “They wanted the one facing Central Park, not the one from last time!” 

A moment later, Dad appeared at the landing, descending briskly (though he at least hit every step). “Yes, we got the right room,” he replied while adjusting his suit cufflinks. “Not making that mistake twice. And hi there, girls.” Pausing, looking just as crisp and handsome and perfect as my father always did, he asked, “My God, is it really time for you both to be home already? Your mother’s still in our room packing.”

With that, he turned toward the nearby intercom. “Broadcast now, Elena.” There was a pause before the intercom beeped to indicate it had connected to the room my mother was in. “Dear, are you aware that it’s already after three o’clock? The girls are here. We need to head out.”

There was a brief pause before Mom’s voice replied, “It’s not–oh my word, yes, I’ll be right down. Don’t you go anywhere, girls. We’re leaving in just a minute and I still have things to say to you.” 

Again, Izzy and I exchanged glances. Now I was a little confused. Did they really lose track of time? It seemed like an oddly specific ruse to add onto them going out of town. Maybe they were really just that distracted by this gang war? I also noticed that Dad used the intercom’s ability to connect to a specific person rather than saying the room she was in, despite the fact that he’d said she was in the bedroom. Did that mean he didn’t want me to know that she wasn’t there? Or was I just being paranoid and picking at every little thing no matter how inconsequential? 

Except even if I was simply being paranoid, that didn’t necessarily mean that I was wrong. 

Shaking that off after giving Izzy a very slight nod, I spoke up. “You’re staying in New York? So it’s not an out-of-the-country trip. You sure we can’t both go with you? Izzy’s never seen New York.” Of course they’d say no, but if I didn’t ask once I ‘knew’ where they were going, it’d look weird. 

As expected, Dad gave me a regretful look. “Sorry, kid. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and I really want our first trip with…” Trailing off, he glanced toward the other girl as though considering what he was saying. “Izzy, we’ll absolutely take a trip with you when we get a chance. But it’s like you said earlier, school comes first, and you’re just getting started.” With a small smile, he added toward me, “And don’t think I didn’t notice your cunning attempt to get out of your school, young lady. No, I think you’ll be just fine here. Be good, don’t burn the house down or end up in the hospital, and we’ll talk about where to go for summer break when we get back, deal?” 

“So if the ambulance has to come but we don’t actually go to the hospital, it’s still good?” I asked brightly, batting my eyes a few times at him innocently while he squinted at me. In the background, I heard Izzy snerk before she caught herself and turned it into a faint cough. 

“Who needs an ambulance?” Mom asked as she descended the stairs, taking a moment to assess Izzy and me critically. “Please tell me it’s someone in another house, we haven’t even left yet.” 

“Oh please, Mom,” Simon put in, “as if she needs us to be out of the house before she does something crazy dangerous.” 

“You wanna compare whose crazy has cost the most?” I shot right back at him. “Cuz something tells me you’re not gonna come out ahead on that balance sheet, Mr. Full Contact Laser Tag Inside The House.” 

Simon, in turn, squinted at me while both our parents arched eyebrows at him with the memory clearly running through their minds. “Really? Bringing that up right before I have to sit on a plane for an hour? Uncool, Booster. Super uncool. See if I bring you back one of those skyscraper plushies you like so much.” 

“Dude,” I retorted, “they sell those online. I’ve got the whole set already, except the new one. And that doesn’t come out until next month.” 

With a heavy sigh, my brother looked to our parents as he lamented, “She was a lot easier to bribe before she figured out how internet shopping works.” 

A giggle escaped me, despite everything. Fuck. This was all so normal. This was my family, this was–they were the people I loved, the people I’d grown up with. And they were faking all of this. Okay, not faking all of it, but still hiding who they were. They weren’t going off on some kind of important-yet-normal business trip. They were staying right here in the city so they could focus on dealing with this mounting gang war that they themselves had allowed to start. 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head, I focused on looking back and forth between my parents. “You guys really need all this stuff?” The question came as I gestured toward the stack of suitcases and boxes. Even though I couldn’t exactly ask why they were bothering to go to these lengths in their deception, I could at least point out that they were taking a lot of stuff with them. 

“Unfortunately,” Dad confirmed with a grimace. “Let’s just say the clients want a lot of paperwork to hammer through this deal, and we’ll probably have to attend a few palm-greasing parties.”

“He says that as though he’s going to suffer,” Mom casually noted, “but we all know your father enjoys those things more than he lets on. And he isn’t mentioning the fact that half of these meetings will be at that country club with the caddie he has the running wager with. How much have you conned that poor man out of, Sterling?” 

“Hey now,” Dad shot back even as several of the house staff came through the hallway to start picking up the boxes and suitcases, “it’s hardly my fault if that fool keeps thinking that whatever poor schmuck I’m teeing off with that day has a chance of coming in under me on my third-favorite non-Detroit course.”

Izzy, looking uncertain and possibly a little uneasy, spoke up. “Uh, you bet money with a caddy?”  

“What?” Dad blinked that way before chuckling. “Oh, no, of course not. Believe me, Pete makes plenty of tips off our visits and I wouldn’t take those away from him. No, we gamble with something other than money.” Saying that, he was smiling fondly at the thought. 

Nudging Izzy, I explained, “Dad and Caddie Pete make bad movie bets. Whoever wins gets to make the other watch a horrible movie from start to finish and write a full report about it. Pete’s only managed to make him watch two-wait, three movies. But Dad’s made him watch… how many?”

“Thirteen,” came the answer with a broad smile. “And I’ve got a doozy in mind for the next one.” 

“Be that as it may,” Mom put in smoothly while laying a hand on his shoulder, “we are going for work. So let’s keep that in mind. Now, girls.” She focused on the two of us. “I know this is sudden, and very last-minute. I’m sorry for that, Izzy. But you’ll be okay here. The staff all know to accommodate any reasonable request, you’ll go to school in the mornings with Jefferson the same as always, and Claudio will have your meals ready at the usual times. We may or may not be able to have Skype dinner time on our usual days, but I do expect both of you to be available if it’s possible on our end, understand?” 

We nodded and murmured agreement, before both of my parents went over a few more last-minute instructions. In the background, all the luggage was being taken through the open front door to the waiting limo, and I could see Jefferson himself having a discussion with one of the security guys. Another man, whom I recognized as the chief of Dad’s security detail (a tall, blond man with cold gray eyes named Finn Wagner) was standing just inside the doorway on the phone with what sounded like airport security. 

Yeah, they really were pulling out all the stops for this. Then again, I supposed it also made sense, come to think of it. After all, they needed the rest of the city to believe they were gone, not just me. 

Finally, it was time to exchange hugs. I did so with both of my parents, and then with Simon.  Which left Izzy. And while my father may have hesitated slightly out of not wanting to make her uncomfortable, my mother was different. To be fair, she didn’t grab the girl out of nowhere. She didn’t force any kind of affection on her. Instead, she simply opened her arms slightly and extended both hands, palms outward to her in a gesture that was perfectly calculated so that the girl could choose to interpret it as either an offer of taking both hands and squeezing, or an actual embrace. 

Izzy chose the hug, which seemed to surprise both of us a little bit. She was already embracing my mother before her head turned to me with an expression that said she had no idea how it had happened. Still, she didn’t pull away too quickly, allowing the hug to linger for a few seconds. How much of that was out of not wanting to look suspicious somehow, and how much was because she desperately needed a hug from an adult was unclear. 

Either way, eventually the hug ended, and she exchanged another (slightly quicker) one with my father. Simon, apparently, did not rate a hug. Though he did get a somewhat awkward high-five. 

Then it was time for them to go. Izzy and I stood in the doorway, watching the limo pull out, escorted by three different security cars. The two of us looked at one another once they were out of sight, but didn’t say anything important, of course. Not with half-a-dozen house staff within earshot. So, we stood there for a few extra seconds before I shrugged. “You wanna go get a burger or something? Maybe some cheese tots?” 

“Ahem.” It was Dexter, the butler. Unlike other butlers I’d seen in movies, Dexter wasn’t actually old or British. He was a handsome guy in his forties or so with deeply tanned skin (which I suspected was unnatural) and coppery red hair. Honestly, aside from the suit he wore all the time, the guy almost looked more like he belonged in some kind of cover band or something rather than working as a butler. Normally, I didn’t have much direct interaction with him. But I supposed in this case he had decided that I was the closest thing to his boss currently in the house. 

“Miss Evans,” the man started easily, “if you would like Claudio to be summoned to prepare–” 

“Uh, no thanks, Dex.” My voice was a little awkward as I shrugged, my backpack shifting a bit in the process. “We’ll just head into town and get something there. You know, greasy and simple and cheesy and now I’m making myself hungry again. C’mon, Izzy.” Taking her by the hand, I pulled the girl with me. 

“Will you be requiring the services of another driver?” Dexter called after us. “I can have a car brought around.” 

Waving that off, I informed him that we’d walk for a bit before calling an Uber. It sounded like he was going to object (probably something about how the Evans should get around in their own cars or whatever), but we were already jogging down the driveway. Waving to the security guy at the gate, the two of us slipped out, made an immediate left, and kept walking down the sidewalk. We didn’t say anything until we were out of sight of the gate (it would be another minute or so before we were out of the sight of the actual house). Finally, I breathed out. “That was weird, right?” 

“It was weird to you too?!” Izzy blurted, sounding like she was about to explode to get those words out. “Are they really going anywhere? I mean, they’re not, right? Why would they–” 

“They’re not–I mean they’re clearly going somewhere in the city,” I confirmed. “But they definitely didn’t need all those suitcases. They must’ve been making it look good for… for you, I guess? It’s not like they’d have to show the rest of the world that they’re taking a bunch of extra luggage. Unless they were taking other things with them and wanted us to think it was just luggage?” 

“What would they have in the house that they had to take with them like that?” Izzy cautiously asked. 

Letting out a long breath while shifting my backpack on one shoulder, I shook my head. “I dunno. Seriously, I have no idea. Convincing us and the rest of the city that they actually left is the best suggestion I’ve got. Because there’s no way this trip to New York is real. Not with this gang war going on, and getting worse by the day. They’re shutting everything else out to focus on that. The suitcases and that whole production back there is probably just one part of their ‘make everyone think we’re gone so no one connects us to the Ministry getting more involved in things’ plan.”

We both thought about that in silence for a few minutes, before we eventually approached the main gate into the neighborhood. One of the guards was in the booth there, giving both of us a brief look before nodding as he went back to playing a game on his ipad. Between the two of us, we chorused a greeting, acting like we were nothing but two random kids going for a walk. 

Finally, we were past the gate and Izzy spoke again. “Is it bad that I’m kinda rooting for your parents to get this under control?” 

“They better get it under control,” I retorted. “Having the criminal and heroic worlds in the palm of their hands is like… their entire thing

“If they can’t stop the city from falling apart, what is the Ministry even for?” 

*******

Eventually, we did end up calling an Uber, and took the ride over to one of the malls (not the one where my family’s secret base was, of course). The two of us ate something at the food court there before splitting up. Izzy was going to see a movie or two in the theater there, while I changed into the costume in my backpack and went out to meet with marble girl (boy did I hope she had a better name in mind). 

Skating across the rooftops of the city really helped clear my mind a bit. If nothing else, at least my consolation prize for having to deal with my entire family situation were these powers. I loved my powers. The way I could leap from building to building, skate along the side of one and then blue-paint boost my way to the opposite side of the street? It was, as always, an insane rush. It made me feel alive and free in a way I had never experienced before. It was incredible, and I would never trade my powers for anyone else’s. Not really. They were mine. 

Distracted as I was with all that enjoyment, it still wasn’t hard to find the old rundown mattress store the girl had wanted to meet at. As I came in to land smoothly on the edge of the roof, I saw her below, hidden from public sight behind the building, with a tall wooden fence to one side and an alley to the other. She was in that same armor with the white helmet, talking to herself while the rest of those colored marbles floated in front of her. 

Not to herself, I realized belatedly. She was talking to the marbles. Something about telling them to show ‘him’ what they could do, but not to be nervous because she would be proud of them no matter what. 

Smiling a bit despite myself, I hopped down with a tiny bit of orange paint to cushion the drop. “Personally, I like to offer my powers treats if they behave.” 

Right, probably should’ve announced myself a bit more carefully. The moment I spoke up from behind her, the girl gave a strangled yelp of surprise, lunging out of the way. At the same time, the three hovering marbles (silver, bronze, and purple) all transformed and grew into a huge claymore, a hammer, and a spear respectively. They flew toward me, before the other girl managed to catch herself and spin around with a blurted, “Stop!” 

They stopped, hovering a foot or so away from me with the business ends still pointed my way. 

“Heh, heh, sorry.” With a nervous giggle, the girl beckoned with one hand, summoning the weapons away before they turned back into marbles. “That was almost pretty bad, huh?

“Shish Kebabing the boss is probably a pretty horrible way to start your first day as a sidekick.” 

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Building Connections 16-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Throughout the entire trip to get home, the plan that had popped into my head back at Wren’s was still bouncing around in there. It seemed entirely too simple and obvious on the face of it, yet was that a bad thing? Being simple meant it was harder to fuck up, and it still might actually work. Assuming, well, everything on a long list of ways it could go wrong didn’t happen. 

Still, I didn’t exactly have time to dwell on any of that, considering that by the time I finally made it to the house, it was barely a few minutes before I would’ve been late for family dinner. If that had happened, I probably wouldn’t need to worry about this break-in plan (or any of the other myriad dangers I kept walking into) getting me killed, considering Mom would’ve done it herself. 

Okay, that was an exaggeration. Mom wasn’t going to freak out just because someone was a minute or two late. She had some more chill than that. But still, she did take this stuff seriously. Family dinner was important. And the last thing I wanted was for Mom to start paying more attention to where I was and what I was doing. If I was late, she’d start wondering why I was late. Which felt like a really good (terrible) way to end up having my secrets exposed. No, best to always be where Mom wanted me to be when she wanted me to be there, to avoid questions.

After sneaking back inside and dumping my costume in its hiding place under the floorboards of my closet, I gave myself a quick pat-down. Good, good, I was good. No costume, nothing that could stand out and give me away. Satisfied, I checked the clock on the wall. Fuck, two minutes left. Which meant I’d already missed the warning chimes and flickering lights that were supposed to tell me it was time for dinner. Right, this was cutting it very close. 

Grimacing, I sprinted out, heading down the hall and past a couple of the house staff (who casually stepped out of the way as I passed, one even calling out encouragement for me to hurry), sliding down the main stairway bannister before finally dashing right to the dining room.  

Stopping outside the doors, I took a breath and checked the nearby tall, antique clock. Ten seconds. Exhaling, I made sure it didn’t look like I was panicked, then opened the doors and stepped through barely a moment before that tall clock outside announced the hour. 

Everyone else was already there, of course. Mom, Dad, Izzy, and Simon were waiting at their spots. They all looked up as I came in, but waited until I had come to the table before speaking. 

“Everything okay?” Dad asked in a thankfully casual tone. Wait, was casual bad? Was he being intentionally casual? Did he know something? Was this a trap? Did he–did they know what–God damn it, get a grip, Cassidy. He’s just making conversation because you barely made it. It’s fine. 

“Just fine,” I immediately forced myself to reply. My hand (as I somehow managed to make it stop shaking) picked up the glass of water before taking a sip. “Why, what’s up?” Fuck, was my voice calm enough? Should it be less calm? Did I sound like a robot? Was something else wrong that I should’ve known about and been upset by? Was fine the wrong answer?!

“Whatever.” That was Simon, already changing the subject as he focused on our parents. “I talked to that guy from Montreal today. He said they’ll be ready for the trip next month.” 

“Trip?” I spoke up. This, at least, was something I could express curiosity about without attracting any suspicion. “Are we going to Canada again?” 

From the corner of my eye, I saw Mom give a slight nod to Simon and mouth something to him. It looked like ‘good job’, followed by something I didn’t catch. 

Meanwhile, Dad just chuckled, drawing my attention. “Not this time, sorry, kid. This one’s about business, not pleasure. But we’ll make sure to go somewhere fun as soon as school’s out. As for where…” He glanced toward Izzy beside me, considering for a moment before adding, “That’s a decision we can all make when the time comes.” 

By that point, Mom had picked up the little silver bell and gave it a ring, prompting the doors into the kitchen to open. Christiana and Ethan entered, carrying the covered metal trays, with Chef Claudio right behind them to explain and detail everything we were about to eat. 

Okay… fine. It was fine. I was almost late, but no one really seemed to care. Probably because of that almost part. I’d made it in time, Simon was talking about some kind of trip next month, and everyone was focused on how amazing dinner looked. 

Shoving all the uncertainty out of my head, along with the rushing thoughts of my new plan to break into my own family’s secret base, I managed a small smile, thanking Claudio and his assistants before starting to dig into the food. Dinner now. Later, I would tell Izzy about the plan I had come up with. 

And hope she didn’t think it was the stupidest thing she had ever heard. 

*********

“It is pretty crazy,” Izzy was saying later as the two of us sat in the gaming room across the hall from our bedrooms. We had a game up on one of the systems just in case anyone poked their head in, yet neither of us were actually playing. “It’ll take awhile to pull off. There’s a lot of ways you could get caught. But still…” She considered for a moment before nodding. “I like it.” 

Exhaling, I managed a weak smile. “Really? So, it’s crazy but a workable sort of crazy?” 

“Workable sort of crazy,” she confirmed. “You think you can find the right place for it?” 

“I’ll head down there in a bit and look around,” I replied thoughtfully, gazing off toward the window before asking, “What about you? They still putting you back on patrol tonight?” 

With a nod, the other girl confirmed, “Yeah, I’m supposed to go out with your mom in an hour and get dropped off with Carousel and Whamline.” After a moment of hesitation, she added, “They said I didn’t have to do regular patrols for awhile, but I think it’ll be better if things look normal.” 

“Plus it’s an excuse to get out of the house for awhile besides school,” I pointed out. Then, feeling a little awkward, I added, “But umm, just be careful, okay? With that Easy Eight attack, I’m pretty sure the Niners are gonna be in the mood to retaliate. And–wait a second, I didn’t tell you about the new girl!” I’d been so obsessed with explaining the plan I’d come with, I’d forgotten the other part of what happened tonight. 

And wow did that prove my life was too fucking busy or what? 

Still, I quickly explained how that whole thing had gone, and about the armored girl. Izzy had a lot of questions, mostly revolving around what those new powers seemed to be and what sort of things she’d done with them. Which, well… I had no idea. All I knew was that she had some colored object… things she could reshape into various other objects. Like that armor. 

“You think she’ll call and get you to help her figure out how her power works?” Izzy asked, before adding, “And uhh, what’re you gonna tell her about… umm… any of this?” 

“As far as that first part goes, I hope so,” I murmured before exhaling long and hard. “For the rest, fuck, I don’t know. I can’t tell her the truth, right? There’s no way we can trust her. We don’t know anything about the girl. She could be anybody, she could side with you-know-who. She could do anything. I mean, yeah, she helped save those people, but that doesn’t mean she’s the sort of person we can trust for the rest of this. It’s sort of, you know, a lot to throw at anyone even if you do know them. With this girl, we just… don’t.” 

Izzy nodded, biting her lip. “Yeah, you’re right. But if you tell her not to join the Minority, she’ll wanna know why. And so will everyone else, especially if she actually uses her powers to help people. Are you going to start your own team? Take her on as a partner? If you do that–”

“Then we’re right back to whether we can trust her or not,” I agreed with a sigh. “Yeah. Like I said, I dunno. I just… I need to think about it. Any suggestions?” 

“Think really hard?” she offered before wincing. “Sorry. I’ll think too. I mean, there’s gotta be a good solution, right?” 

“Sure, there’s gotta be good solutions to everything going on,” I agreed. 

“I just hope we can actually figure some of them out at some point.”

********* 

“Tell me your plan doesn’t involve trying to intimidate the mall into surrender just by glaring at it.” 

A couple hours had passed, and I was crouched beside the air conditioning unit atop a fast food place across the parking lot from the mall in question. My gaze had been fixed intently on the building itself in the distance. The voice came from That-A-Way, who had just popped up a few feet behind me, deliberately coughing and shuffling her feet a bit to let me know she was there.

“Why,” I quipped without turning around, “you don’t think it’ll work? I’ll have you know, I can have a pretty intimidating stare if I really put my mind to it. That’s what my brother says, anyway.”  

“Oh, you have a brother?” Way remarked, making me curse myself inwardly for that stupid slip. “Cool, Pack was pretty convinced you were an only child. Guess I just won that ten bucks.” 

That was enough to make me turn my head a bit finally, looking toward her so I could incredulously ask, “You guys really bet ten bucks on whether I had any siblings? Seriously?”

Her response was a very slight smirk as she shrugged. “We actually bet a lot of different things when it comes to you, Paintball. Just something you’re going to have to get used to if you don’t want to give people any answers. You’re a mysterious guy. Which, you know, don’t get me wrong, if you were a few years older and also not a guy, I’d be pretty intrigued. I mean, I’m intrigued now, but in a different way. More of a, ‘hey, I just made ten bucks’ sort of way.”  

Damn it, do not say anything, do not say anything. Do not react. Do not show anything in reaction to what she just said about being older and not a guy. Fuck, it was almost like she was intentionally setting me up. Which she wasn’t, of course. Even my overly-paranoid brain knew that. But still, the dozen different remarks that jumped to my lips the moment I heard that had to practically be physically shoved back down again. I swallowed hard before shaking my head. “I guess that’s my loss. But from what you’re saying, I could make an awful lot of money just by winning those bets myself.” Saying that thoughtfully, I tapped the side of my helmet.

With a snort at the suggestion, Way shook her head. “You’re not eligible, sorry. Just gonna have to make a few bucks some other way. Although,” she continued conspiratorially while leaning a little closer to me, “maybe if you told me some of the answers, I could cut you in for half.” 

The rattling of the nearby ladder drew our attention, as Pack leaned up over the edge to look at us. She had two of her lizards (Riddles and Scatters) on either shoulder. “And here I thought I was supposed to be one who was a disreputable cheater and overall scandalous person. Am I having a bad influence on you, Rose? And if so, is there any way I can speed up the process?” 

Beside me, I actually noticed Way blush a little bit before she cleared her throat and waved that off to very clearly change the subject. “Pack. So, he called you here too, huh?” 

“I wanted both of you to hear the idea,” I confirmed, gesturing for Pack to come closer  before turning back to look at the mall while lowering my voice a bit. “We need a way to get in there without going through their front door and dealing with all the alarms and security that’d call.” 

Moving up to stand beside That-A-Way, Pack replied, “I still say you could use that pink paint and get us right through the door pretty fast, before they could react. We could jump them.” 

“That still involves having a straight-up fight really quickly,”  I pointed out. “And we don’t know what’s in there. We’d still set off all their alarms when they saw us come through. So who knows how much time we’d actually get to look around before we’d have to retreat. Plus–” 

Way finished for me. “Plus, it would involve Paintball using his powers right out in the open, so they’d know who was there, even if he was in disguise. Which we’re trying to avoid, because I, for one, don’t want the Ministry to have any clue that I know anything about them.” 

“They already know that I know some things,” I murmured quietly before exhaling. “But yeah, I’d really prefer if they didn’t realize I was doing anything openly against them. It’s just… yeah, it’d be bad. They have all the power and influence. We can’t use our abilities in there or they’ll know exactly who we are. Which means no lizards,” I pointed out, looking directly at her. “There’s not exactly anyone else in the city who uses them. It’s a dead giveaway. And I do mean dead.” 

“I know, I know.” It sounded like Pack was making a face behind her full-covering mask. “But you’re asking us to go in there with a pretty big handicap if we can’t use any powers at all. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not exactly some kind of super-spy martial arts master. Without my little friends here, I’m basically just a girl with a gun. Which, don’t get me wrong, is a fair equalizer a lot of the time. But I don’t think it’ll be enough in that place. What’re we supposed to do?” 

“I’ve thought about that.” Turning to look at the two of them, I continued, “And I think I can put different paint colors in separate spots underneath like… whatever overcoats we wear. You know, out of sight. Then I can activate the paint separately whenever we need it in the base itself. Just don’t let them realize it’s temporary, and if we do it right, they’ll end up looking for people who are really strong and tough.” 

“Like those biolems, maybe,” Way pointed out. “Maybe they’ll think we’re some of those things. I mean, it’s not like they know there’s no more in the city, right?” 

My head bobbed quickly. “Exactly, yeah. It’s decent cover, anyway. Might send them chasing the wrong direction, but we still have to be careful. And first, we need to get inside without going through their front door. The longer we have to look around without an army of reinforcements descending on us, the better. Even if it’s just an extra couple minutes. Every little bit helps.” 

“And you’ve got a plan for that?” Pack asked curiously, crouching down to set Riddles and Scatters on the roof so they could explore a bit. “Some idea of how to get in there quietly?” 

Nodding, I replied, “It’s all about building connections.” When that was met with blank stares, I coughed before continuing to actually explain. “Not connections like acquaintances, physical connections. It’s about building connections. Making connections. See, you’re right, my pink paint could get through the door if we were standing right in front of it, which would let them know exactly who I was. Or…” Turning a bit, I pointed down at the parking lot and began to run my finger along it. “We could find another place nearby, a building that isn’t protected by their security, and use the pink paint to start tunneling that way. It’d take awhile, but it’d basically be completely silent. We just keep painting it, ripping some out, painting more, ripping it out, and so on. If I’m just using pink paint for that, with the time it takes to actually pull the pieces out, I shouldn’t need too many breaks to recharge. You know, if I pace myself. We just find a place that’s safe to start from and take the time to patiently and quietly tunnel all the way over there. Once we’re close, we start being really careful, just poking little holes in each spot until we find where the edge of that underground base is.” 

“Sure we can keep track of exactly where we are and where we’re going if we’re in a tunnel?” Pack asked pointedly. “Sounds like a good way of getting turned in circles.” 

I, however, tapped my helmet again. “Trevithick’s upgrades, they let me know where I am in the city. Shouldn’t be too hard to keep track of my location well enough to keep going toward the mall.” With that, I shrugged. “I mean, it’s the best idea I’ve come up with. What do you guys think?” 

They, in turn, exchanged looks. There was a brief murmur of conversation before both turned back to me, Way speaking. “We’d need a safe place to start from, and you’re right, it’d take awhile. So it’d have to be a place that wouldn’t be found, and that we could go back to repeatedly.” 

Nodding, I pointed off across the lot. “See that half-built motel over there? It’s been under construction for like a year, and all the contracts are stalled right now. We should be able to find a spot that’s out of the way, and I’m pretty sure they won’t get back to building before we’re done.” 

Again, Way and Pack looked to each other to have some private conversation that was only partially verbal. Then they turned back to me. “It’s a good plan, Paintball,” Way confirmed. “I mean, still totally crazy and all, but it’s the best one we’ve got.” 

Exhaling in relief that at least they didn’t immediately see a dozen impossible problems with it, I murmured, “So I guess we just have to make sure no one ever sees us over there. We need a place to take the chunks we pull out of the tunnel so they don’t know how it was made when they investigate after it’s over. Just–you know, leave it as much of a mystery as possible.” 

“I’ll get a big van or a truck,” Pack put in. “One of us can drive the pieces away every time it’s full. Dump them in the river or something.” 

Way quietly agreed, “Sounds like a plan. Or the start of one, anyway. We can iron out details as we go.” She looked over to me then, adding, “And now that that’s settled, I’ve got a question. 

“What’s this Pack’s been saying about you having minions?”  

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Trust 15-03 (Summus Proelium)

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It was a good thing that the next morning was Sunday. Because that meant there was no maid cleaning my room, so Izzy and I were able to sleep as long as we wanted. And we wanted a lot, apparently. Both of us were completely out of it throughout the morning, neither so much as stirring until almost noon. That was the time I saw on the (local) clock when my eyes opened at the feel of the other girl shifting a bit behind me. Wow, we’d really zonked out, apparently. 

After a brief hesitation, I turned a bit, sitting up as my gaze moved to Izzy. She was staring around the room, only belatedly looking to me with a somewhat guilty expression. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to…” Trailing off, she clearly shifted her unneeded apology to a question. “How do you do it?” The guilty look turned pensive. “How do you stay in a place like this, sleep like this, live like this, while you know where all the… where a lot of it comes from? How do you live knowing what your family really does?” Her voice was a whisper, and I saw the way she clutched one of the pillows tightly in both hands, holding it against her stomach after sitting up fully. 

Boy, was that ever a hard question. Yeah, I didn’t answer at first. Instead, I turned to put my back against the headboard, staring around my room along with Izzy. A rush of thoughts went through my mind, before I forced them down and focused. “I tell myself that I grew up with it. I’ve had sixteen years like this. So acting strange about it now would be… weird. It would draw attention. And, you know, that could be bad. If my parents think I know something, if they have even the slightest reason to start paying more attention to what I’m doing or whatever…” 

Izzy finished for me, her own voice still barely audible. “It could blow everything up.” 

Her choice of words made me flinch. Blow everything up, right. Just like that building last night. My head nodded a bit. “Yeah, pretty much. That’s the point, I have to act normal or they–well, we already know they can erase memories. And Mr. Jackson is here. If they thought the best way to handle the situation was to erase everything I knew about them, they could.”

“You mean we have to act normal,” Izzy pointed out, hugging the pillow even tighter. “We have to act like nothing’s wrong, like they’re totally just what they pretend to be. Like we don’t know anything. Because they’ll erase my memory too.” There was a little bitterness to her voice. “They’ll erase my memory so they can keep molding me into being their little tool.” 

Ah, that was why she sounded bitter. Wincing a little, I hesitated before offering, “I know it doesn’t mean much after everything I told you, but I do think my parents care about you. I mean, I’m pretty sure they also like what you’re capable of and all, but it’s not just that.” Even as I said that, my face twisted a little. “I know, I know what that sounds like. Believe me, I know. But it’s true. Two semi-conflicting things can be true at the same time. My parents would like you on their side because of your powers and everything, and they care about you. They do like you, Izzy. I’ve seen the way my parents act with guests they’re just being polite to, believe me.” 

After that, I fell silent for a few long seconds, before quietly adding, “But you’re right. They would erase your memory if they found out you knew anything about them. And they wouldn’t give up on turning you to their side.” Quickly, I looked that way to meet the other girl’s gaze intently. “That’s why you have to be careful. Because if they find out, if they even get suspicious–” 

“I know,” Izzy interrupted. After speaking those two words, she sighed, heaving the pillow away before pushing herself out of bed to stand up. “I’ll be careful. I’ll act normal, I promise. Besides,” she added with a little shrug. “It’s not like me being nervous around this place would be new.” 

She had a point. Rising to my feet on the other side of the bed, I nodded. “Right, fair. I just–sorry, after everything, you’re just… Like I was saying, you’re the first person I’ve trusted with this. I mean, I know we both kind of tripped into that, but still. You’re the only person who knows about me.” I repeated that point while looking toward the girl. She held basically my entire life in her hands. And her own life too, come to think of it. Our memories, anyway. Our choices. She held our choices and future in her hands. 

Izzy, in turn, met my gaze seriously while giving one firm nod. “Trust me,” she said quietly, yet with a determination that somewhat surprised me. “I won’t give anything away. Like I said last night, I can help cover for you. I can–I can be there to talk to when you need it. I…” Her voice turned soft and small at the end. “I know what it’s like to need to talk to somebody.” 

For a moment, neither of us said anything. Then she moved away from the bed, adding, “And we can check each other’s memories once in awhile. You know, just in case something goes down and one of us… and they make one of us forget.” 

That was also a good point. “Yeah,” I agreed, “we definitely need to do that.” Heaving out a long breath, I shook off the feeling of nerves. “But now we should get dressed and all. You ahh, you can take the shower first. “Then we can go get breakfast. Err… lunch.”

“Hey,” Izzy offered a little weakly, “at least we’re still blending in. After all, we’re supposed to act normal.

“And is there anything more normal than teenagers sleeping in until noon?” 

*******

“You know you’re not technically a teenager yet, right?” It was later, after the two of us had gotten cleaned up and dressed in fresh clothes. We were back in my room, taking a moment to collect ourselves before heading down for food. I had just looked over at the other girl to blurt that. “You know, cuz you’re… twelve.” It sounded more awkward out loud than it had in my head, but I pressed on anyway. “Sorry, my point is, I’m sorry. I’m sorry all this got dumped on you. I’m sorry–I mean, there was that whole thing with your mom, and you were supposed to move to a safe place. And now…” I swallowed hard. “And now you’ve got all this dumped on you, even though you’re only twelve. You shouldn’t have to worry about all this. Any of it. So, I’m sorry.” 

For a moment, Izzy didn’t respond. She just looked at me. Seeming to consider that for a few seconds, the girl then moved over to stand in front of me. Her foot snapped out, lightly kicking me in the shin. After I yelped quietly, she pointed out, “You shouldn’t have to deal with it either. Especially by yourself. And you’re only four years older than me, Grandma.” Sniffing with that last point, Izzy added a shrug. “And it… it just is what it is. We both know, we both deal with it. Together, right?” Belatedly, she amended, “I mean, sort of together. We can help each other.” 

“We can help each other,” I agreed, offering her a tiny smile before poking her forehead. “Thanks for not pointing out the obvious, that you’re gonna be taller than me really soon.” 

Izzy just offered me a wink. “I’ll save that for if you try to keep me out of things later,” she teased a little. Then the girl sobered and added pointedly, “I’m in it, Cass. I know I can’t go out with you or be seen like that or anything without spoiling the secrets, but whatever I can do, I want to.” 

“Thanks, Izzy,” I murmured. The two of us stared at each other for another few seconds before I sighed and gestured. “Come on, if we hole up any longer, Mom and Dad might end up sending a search party after all.” 

There was a very brief flash of something on the other girl’s face before she pushed it down. It looked a bit like disappointment. Yeah. This was definitely affecting her. She’d just been opening up to us, just started to trust my parents. And now there was this, after the way her own mother had so thoroughly betrayed her. Fuck. It was so much to dump on the girl. I was surprised she was holding up as well as she was. 

Though, I supposed the real test would come in a couple minutes, as we went downstairs to face my family for the first time since Izzy had found out the truth. 

God, I really hoped this wasn’t about to go horribly wrong. 

******

The first test came before we had even made it downstairs. Just as Izzy and I emerged from the hall where our rooms were, right at the top of the stairs leading up to this floor, Mom was there. It didn’t seem like she was waiting for us or anything. Her back was to us as we came out, and she was in the middle of a conversation on her bluetooth. It was something about setting up a private viewing at one of the art museums for some of her friends next week. Apparently there was some kind of special exhibit in town for a short time, and Mom didn’t exactly want to wait in any lines. Not that it was hard for her to arrange these personal exhibits, given several of the museums in town had entire wings named after our family. Or a building, in one case. 

Apparently she was just finishing up, because Mom glanced over her shoulder as we emerged, holding up one finger before giving a few pleasantries. Then she tapped the earbud and smiled at the two of us. “Well, there you girls are. I was afraid we might have to send in a search team.” With that bit of teasing, she added, “And what are we up to today? Any adventures planned?” She sounded almost wistful with those words, as though she was so busy with her adult life and responsibilities that she had to live vicariously through our… ‘adventures.’ 

Beside me, I felt Izzy tense up for just a second before she got it under control and forced herself to relax. I was pretty sure there was nothing for Mom to notice aside from the other girl being quiet and a bit nervous. Which, as she’d said before, wasn’t exactly out of the ordinary.

Quickly, before anything could be noticed, I loudly piped up. “Well, we definitely need food before going on any adventures. It’s been like…. forever since we ate!” 

“Forever or last night,” Mom retorted affectionately, reaching out to brush my hair. I let her do it, resisting both the urge to pull my head away and the one to lean into it. Each was equally strong. God, this was complicated. It seemed even more so now that I’d told Izzy about the whole situation. Feeling her eyes on me as I stood there made me even more uncomfortable.

But I shoved it down, smiling up at my mother before adding, “You coming to lunch?” 

To my relief, Mom offered me another smile before shaking her head. “Sorry, Principessa, you two will have to eat enough for me. I have a meeting to get to in an hour and I’m nowhere near ready. But have some ice cream, will you? Claudio made some fresh last night, and someone in this house should sit and enjoy it. Promise you’ll make sure he knows he’s appreciated?”

“Promise,” I agreed, ignoring the lump in my throat as I reached out to take Izzy’s hand. “Come on, we better get to it before Simon hears about this, or we’ll never get any of that ice cream.” 

“Uh, thanks!” Izzy remembered to call back as I pulled her past my mother and headed down the stairs with her. We both took the steps two at a time, bounding that way in what I hoped looked more like eagerness to get to the kitchen rather than eagerness to get away from Mom.

Simon and Dad were already eating lunch when we got in there, though it looked like they were just about done. As Izzy and I walked in, both of them gave us the expected ribbing about taking so long to get up. Which was good. Everything being this normal helped ease my lingering paranoia that they would somehow have known what happened the night before. The fact that everyone was still being this casual, teasing us, moving on with their lives, it meant they didn’t know that Izzy knew. And with any luck (and a lot of work on her part) it would stay that way. 

Once the two of us took a moment at the intercom to order food (we were both in the mood for breakfast despite what time it was) and sat down, Dad spoke up. “So, getting pretty close to D-Day, isn’t it? Or should we put it off for another year? You know, until you’re more comfortable.” His voice was teasing, knowing exactly what kind of reaction he was drawing out.

“D-Day?” Izzy echoed, blinking over at me. I felt her hand squeeze my leg tightly as she forced her reaction to having to sit here like this to only come out through her grip while keeping her face as clear as possible. 

Putting on a quick scowl for my father, I retorted, “Driving Day. It’s when I graduate from Driver’s Ed and get to go for my actual license. And we’re not putting it off for a year. Or a month. Or a week. I’ve had this day marked in my calendar since I was like… nine.” It felt like playing a role that was unfamiliar, or wearing clothes that didn’t fit anymore. I had so many more important things to worry about than driving. But if I didn’t play it up like this, my family would know something was wrong. I had to play the part. 

“Yeah,” Dad put on a show of lamenting, his head shaking back and forth mournfully. “I’ve had it marked in my calendar too. With lots of sad faces and a note about calling the Department of Transportation so they can put some warning signs out. Maybe get a police escort arranged that can just follow along on both sides of your car like bumpers.”

First, I made a face and threw a rolled up cloth napkin at him. Then I blinked and blurted, “Hah! Haha! Your car. You said your car! As in my car. As in the car I’m getting.” 

“Figure of speech,” Dad insisted, teasing me right back. “You can drive that old station wagon Mrs. Depel’s been trying to get rid of. I hear it gets up to twenty-five on a decent straightaway.” 

“Sure that’s not too much for our little Booster?” Simon jumped in, reaching over to ruffle my hair as he got up from the table. “I was thinking like one of those little Power Wheels things would be more her speed.” 

“Alright, alright,” Dad jumped in, raising a hand to push Simon away before I could retort. “That’s enough. What about today? You ready for the meeting later?” 

With a nod, my brother replied, “It’s all set. We should be good to go by the time the Aikawas get to the hotel.” 

Before I could figure out how to press them on what that meant, Dad looked to me. “And you girls? Anything big planned?” 

My mouth opened, but Izzy spoke first. “Cassidy was going to go with me to the library.” Belatedly, she corrected, “the public library. Mr. Tutters gave me a report to write on the Salem Witch Trials for my last assignment before going back to real school.” 

Mr. Tutters was the tutor that Izzy had been seeing. But this was the first I was hearing about a trip to the library. Luckily, I had a lot of practice by this point in keeping surprise off my face. 

Dad obviously had a lot of practice too, but still looked surprised then. “The public library? Are you sure? There’s plenty of resources right here.” 

There was a brief pause before Izzy quietly replied, “I know, but… it’d be nice to get out and have some fresh air.” She met my father’s gaze, offering him an innocent, even eager smile. “And I was thinking a library would be totally safe, right? Especially if I’m actually going to school tomorrow.”

Dad seemed to think about it for a moment before giving a short nod. “Of course. I’ll have a car brought around to take you girls whenever you’re ready. Could I talk to you in the hall for a minute, Izzy?” 

Instinctively, I tensed up. But I forced that reaction down, simply nodding. “Better hurry,” I remarked, “before breakfast gets here.” 

Then the three of them left, Simon going with them. Which left me to sit alone for a couple minutes, staring tensely at the table while wondering what was going on out there. When Izzy finally came back, it was just as our food was being delivered. So, I was silent until we were alone again. Once everything was quiet, I quickly moved to peek through the doors, looking up and down the hall to make sure we were alone before closing the doors once more. Then I went back to the table. But even then, we didn’t talk about anything important. The two of us ate our breakfast and sent the plates back to be cleaned before heading outside. 

Only then, once we were out of the house, did I ask in a quiet voice, “Is everything okay? What’s this about the library?” 

Izzy, in turn, nodded. “He just wanted to give me this.” In her hand, she held up a small black remote with a button on it, about the size of a normal key fob. “He said if I push the button, it’ll send an alarm and we’ll have like a whole SWAT team show up in sixty seconds.” Pausing then, she looked at me. “How come you don’t have something like that?” 

Flushing, I admitted, “I do. It’s in my sock drawer where I left it like… years ago. Ever since I accidentally sat on it and our school field trip was ummm… interrupted.” 

The younger girl blanched at that. “I’ll be careful. Anyway, for the library thing, I said I’d cover for you, right? This way, we can go to the library and then you can go see what’s going on with Paige. I’ll let you know if anyone shows up.” She offered me a shrug. “I really do have to write that report. And I wanted to get out of the house, after… after all that. This way, no one will wonder where you are or anything.”

For a moment, I stared at her. Then I smiled just a little. “Thanks, Izzy. 

“I’m starting to think you might be pretty useful to have around after all.”

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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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