Simon Evans

Friends and Enemies 8-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                   Next Chapter

So, we had our family dinner with Izzy. I wanted to say that it was full of tension, fear, and thinly veiled ominous words. But the truth was worse. Because there weren’t any of those things. It was fun. It was a great meal and both of my parents were clearly out to impress Izzy. Dad joked a lot and Mom told some stories about when she was a little girl and had to sit around a boring hotel room while her father was on business. 

Mom had other stories too, but they were ones that she didn’t share as much anymore. Specifically, they were stories about all the beauty pageants she had to go to as a kid and teenager. She used to tell me those stories all the time, but stopped when it became clear I was… developing differently. I was too small and too… yeah. The only way I would ever be a model is if I stayed in the children’s category. 

So, Mom had stopped telling those stories when that kind of thing started bothering me. She didn’t make some announcement about it or anything, they just gradually stopped. I knew why, but we never really talked about it. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t mind hearing more of those stories now that I was a little older and not quite as bothered by my development. 

Except that my mother was evil and dammit, I kept forgetting that. Seriously, I would be sitting there listening to my parents talk and it would entirely slipped my mind that they were villainous masterminds who actively controlled the criminal underworld in the entire city. They were just my mom and dad, for God’s sake. It was so easy to let myself stop thinking about the truth for short lapses. 

But that was kind of the point, wasn’t it? My parents were incredibly good at fooling everyone, especially me. Actually, no, not especially me. Especially all the people they interacted with who weren’t me. Of course I didn’t suspect that my own father was both a supervillain and the leader of one of the preeminent superhero teams at the same time. Who would actually suspect that of their own father? But the fact that they managed to keep all this secret from so many much smarter and much stronger people for so long showed just how good at this they were. 

So yeah, they were clearly laying on the charm for dinner. Simon even brought up a sci-fi movie coming out soon that he and Izzy both wanted to see. The two of them talked about that for a few minutes, equally engaged with each other despite the age difference. 

Well, Simon did most of the talking. Though she was coming out of her shell a little bit, Izzy still didn’t say much. I could tell she was interested in what he was saying, and she did speak up a couple times, but mostly she just listened and nodded. 

Eventually, dinner was over, along with dessert. Dad leaned back in his seat and checked his watch. “Well, I’ve got a Skype interview in a few minutes with that Lincoln Chambers guy from the LA Times about Elon’s latest stunt, but you kids should do something fun. What about that movie you were talking about?”

Izzy hesitated before quietly speaking up. “It doesn’t come out for another week.”

Dad simply shrugged, taking his cell phone out. “Not for most people. Let me make a call real quick.”

So, he was on the phone for a minute while Izzy looked to me a bit incredulously. I shrugged back at her before Dad clicked off the phone. “Right, it’s all set. They’re bringing over one of the drives with the movie on it and you can all watch it in the theater.”

Izzy stared at him. “Theater? What theater?”

With a grin, Simon teased, “Haven’t explored that much around here yet, have you?”

Quickly, I spoke up. “It’s not a full theater, we just call it that. There’s just a few rows of seats and a screen that’s like half the size of what you might find in a real theater.”

From the way Izzy stared at me, I was pretty sure that hadn’t really made her find the whole thing any less ridiculous. Which was fair. 

Dad was talking again. “It’s gonna take them an hour or so to bring the drive over for the projector. Why don’t you three run out and pick up some treats in the meantime? Make a big night of it, that’ll do you all some good.”

If only he knew just what I’d been up to lately and how busy my recent nights had been. Then he’d really think I needed a break. Though how literal that was, I couldn’t be sure. 

That particular fun thought made me blanch inwardly,  though I fought like hell to keep the reaction off my face. I might have tried to find a way to decline, except for two things. One, it definitely would’ve raised suspicions that I didn’t want raised. And two, if I didn’t do this, it would leave Izzy alone with Simon. Which… yeah, while I really didn’t expect him to hurt her or anything, leaving them alone like that felt like a bad idea for reasons I couldn’t really explain even to myself. It felt wrong and I didn’t want to do it. 

Plus, Izzy actually looked a little bit excited about something and like hell was I going to crush that by naysaying things. No, thank you. 

So, the three of us went to the garage. Izzy stood there for a moment, mouth falling open as she stared wide-eyed at all the vehicles. A sound of disbelief and amazement escaped the younger girl. 

Laying a hand on her shoulder, I murmured, “Dad likes to collect cars.” And up until very recently, I loved spending time in here going over every single one of them with a fine-tooth comb. God, I’d loved these cars and the idea of soon driving them. Now being in here was a reminder of just where our money came from and how much blood was on it. And I didn’t even know the full truth about how much blood that happened to be, just that it was a lot. 

Of course, Simon went straight to the 71 Cuda. “Come on, we’ll take Royal Thunder. That’s Cassidy‘s favorite.” 

Glancing to me, Izzy questioned, “Royal Thunder?”

Biting my lip, I explained, “The first car Dad had when he was younger was a 67 Barracuda. He said it was practically junk when he got it. He had to rebuild almost the whole thing. And the muffler didn’t work perfectly, so he nicknamed it Thunder. When he got this one, it was a lot more expensive and all that, so it became Royal Thunder.”

The words felt hollow in my throat, while they had always previously made me feel really close to my father. The stories he would tell me about putting that old car back together and all his frustration and joys in finally making it work meant so much to me. That was why Royal was my favorite. It was a connection to my father. And now… sigh. 

Pushing that back, I got into the car. Izzy and I both slipped into the back, leaving Simon in the front. As he pulled the car out of the garage and headed down the long driveway, Simon spoke over his shoulder. “How much longer you got left until you get through Drivers Ed anyway?” 

“A month,” I murmured, though I couldn’t keep a smile entirely off of my face. I had been looking forward to driving for basically my entire life. Even with everything that I had found out, not to mention just how crazy and fun my paint method of travel already was, the idea of finally driving still made me grin. It was one part of my old self that I didn’t have to fake enthusiasm for, even if it was a bit subdued. I was pretty sure Simon just took that as me trying to hide it and play cool. 

In any case, we drove out to the mall and picked up a bunch of treats. The whole time we were walking around, I noticed Izzy constantly looking around. She tried to be subtle about it, but she was definitely watching for anything bad. It was almost like she expected to get jumped. Which, of course, made me even more curious about what her deal was. She definitely wasn’t being held hostage, at least as far as she knew. She wasn’t upset about being with my family. But they still could have done something to her without her knowing it was them. Or maybe she was collateral damage from one of their things and they felt guilty? That could be it. 

Leaving the mall with our arms full of packages, we still haven’t encountered anything like what Izzy could have been afraid of. However, I had noticed a couple of Simon’s friends standing around basically anywhere we went. They were clearly keeping an eye on us. Though exactly why, I wasn’t sure. But it couldn’t have been a coincidence. I saw too many of them too often for that. And I was sure there were others watching us that I didn’t actually recognize. 

Izzy was still staring down at the bags in her arms with a look of disbelief. “Do we really need all this for one movie?”

With a wink, Simon asked, “What makes you think we’ll stop with one movie? We’ve got a whole theater over there. I’m sure we can find something else you want to watch. Besides, this is just restocking the place. Don’t have to eat all of it in one night, even if it’d be fun to try.” He added a wink that made Izzy blush. 

My mouth had just opened to retort when I was interrupted by a familiar voice. “Cassidy?” It was Amber. She was with Jae and that Damarko guy I had met the other day. The three of them were just going into the same mall we had been coming out of. As I looked that way, I heard Izzy give a noise of surprise. Shit, as jumpy as she was, I needed to introduce these guys before she started thinking they were a problem. 

Quickly, I raised one of my free hands to just gesture back-and-forth between them. “Hey, guys. Izzy, this is Amber and Jae. They go to school with me. And this is their friend Damarko. He doesn’t go to our school, but Amber uses him as a chauffeur.”

“Pfffffft,” the black-haired girl retorted, “don’t you start too.”

Snorting, I nodded back to our young companion. “This is Izzy. She’s staying with us.” I almost said for a little while, but a voice in the back of my head told me that would sound too much like I wanted her to leave soon or something. I didn’t want to say anything that might make her feel like an imposition or whatever. 

Jae was the first to extend a hand to the younger girl, her voice quiet. “Good to… meet you.” 

Soon the four of them had exchanged greetings and all that. Which was when I had a great idea. “Hey, why don’t you guys come to our place if you’re not doing anything? We’re gonna watch that new Outlanders movie.”

Damarko gave a double take. “Outlanders of Reach Three? That doesn’t even come out in theaters until next week, how are you supposed to—”

Amber interrupted. “Told you, she’s filthy stinking rich. You don’t have to worry about silly things like actual release dates when your parents probably own a big chunk of the studio that made the movie.”

Blushing a little, I waved my full arms. “You guys wanna come, or what? We’ve got enough snacks for basically the whole school.”

“Not that the whole school is invited,” Simon put in. “But I suppose it wouldn’t be too bad to have a few more. You’ll have to bring your own car though. Royal Thunder doesn’t have that many seats.”

It didn’t take long for the trio to agree, and they made plans to follow us back home in Damarko’s car. Only once we were walking away did I blink and cringe with a look toward Izzy. “Shit. Sorry, are you okay with this? I know they’re basically strangers, but—”

Her head bobbed quickly, as the girl blushed for some reason. “Uh huh. It’s okay. They’re… they seem cool.”

So, we led the other three back to the house and let them through the gate so Damarko could park right up near the front door. As we all went inside, the others looked around with wide eyes. Amber gave a low whistle of amazement. “So, where’s the grandfather clock that we go through to get to the Batcave?”

Laughing maybe a little more than I really should have in an act of overcompensation, I shook my head. “Sorry, no batcaves here. Unless you count Simon’s closet. Who knows what kind of animals are living in there. It’s probably a whole ecosystem.”

Kicking the back of my leg, Simon retorted, “I’ll have you know I have names for everything living in my closet, thank you very much. Now come on, let’s see if they dropped off the drive with the movie yet. Theater’s at the other end of the house.”

Damarko asked, “So, how do we get there? Is there like a tram that runs back and forth, or did your parents splurge and put in literal teleporters?”

Rolling my eyes, I turned to walk. “Come on, the house isn’t that huge. We go to school every day in a bigger place.”

“You know,” Amber put in, “as far as defenses against having too big of a house go, ‘the school for two thousand students is bigger’ isn’t really much of one.”

I pointedly pretended I didn’t hear that, and we all went to the theater room. Sure enough, the movie had already been set up, and the man who had delivered it was waiting there for us to sign his non-disclosure forms saying that we wouldn’t talk about the movie in public until after it officially released. Those all signed, we divvied up the snacks before settling in. I sat next to Izzy and Jae ended up on the other side. To my relief, they and the others seemed to be getting along. I even saw Izzy whisper something to Jae now and then. She didn’t seem put off or surprised by the girl being albino, which clearly put her above certain other people in our actual grade. 

We watched the movie. It was actually pretty good, though Simon, Damarko, and Izzy got more out of it. The three of them knew all these extra names and people from the expanded books and comics and stuff that I didn’t know the slightest thing about. But whatever, they were happy.

After that, we watched two more movies, until it was way too late to be up on a school night. But I don’t think any of us cared. It was just fun sitting there talking and enjoying the films. It was… nice. Seriously, I stopped thinking about Touched stuff basically all night long. I was just there with my friends… and brother. A brother who had…

Yeah. Maybe I didn’t forget about all of that entirely. But pretty much. All in all, it was a fun evening, and Izzy even spent a few minutes with the other three out in front of the house talking a little bit while Simon and I cleaned things up and sealed the movie up to be sent back. 

Once we saw the others off, Izzy and I headed back upstairs to our rooms. On the way, I glanced to the younger girl. “So, that was pretty good, huh?”

The smile that she turned toward me with was pure radiance, but it faded quickly, as if she was starting to remember why she wasn’t supposed to be happy or something. “I… thanks, Cassidy. You’re right, it was fun.”

Part of me wanted to ask what she had just thought of, but I suppressed the urge. Instead, I teased, “Seriously though, I call dibs on the shower first. It’s already so late, I don’t know how I’m gonna get up in the morning.”

Or you could try not reminding her that you’re going to school and she’s stuck here in the house for some reason, Cassie, what the fuck is wrong with you?

While I was flinching at my internal voice, Izzy just waved a hand. “Go ahead,” she replied quietly. “I’m too tired to shower.” As if to prove that, she yawned wide and long.

“You had a good time though, right?” I asked. 

Her smile returned. It was a little more subdued than it had been in that instance before she started thinking about whatever it was she was thinking, but definitely there. “Uh huh. It was the best.”

Leaving the girl to head for her room, I went in and took a shower. I hadn’t been exaggerating about needing to sleep. There may have been no fights or anything that day, but I was still tired as hell. This was a break that I had needed. And I was sure things would pick up again very soon. Plus, I had that project to turn in the next day with the others. Not to mention figuring out what the hell that pink paint did, and how to get into the base under the mall. 

Maybe I should ask Wren if she had any ideas about either of those. I wouldn’t tell her how I knew about the base, of course. I didn’t want her that involved. But she could have ideas about how to sneak in there, or even just how to see what was there. And maybe having another person’s input on what the pink paint could be for would be good. 

Either way, all of that would wait until tomorrow. Right now, the only thing I wanted to do was fall into my bed and sleep for as long as possible. 

Before I made it back to my room after the shower, however, there was a muffled scream from the other room, along with a crash. I bolted that way, only to find Izzy sitting up in bed, sweating profusely while looking around in confusion. The end table next to the bed had been tipped over and there was a broken glass on the floor next to it. 

“I… I think I had a nightmare,” she murmured weakly before noticing the glass on the floor as I turned on the light. Her eyes widened, and she started to quickly stammer apologies. 

My head shook, and I walked around the glass. “No, no, it’s okay. Just… I’m not sure how the table tipped over.”

“I think I was holding onto the edge of it when I flopped over and pushed it,” the other girl murmured weakly with another apology. “I shouldn’t have had water by the bed.”

“It’s okay,” I repeated. “Come on, we’ll pick up the big pieces carefully, then put a note up on the door so the maids know it’s there. And maybe you shouldn’t sleep in here alone tonight until it’s all cleaned up. Wouldn’t want you want to end up with little bits of glass in your feet.”

She blinked at me, shaking her head. “Where should I sleep?”

With an easy smile, I replied, “You can come in with me if you want. Believe me, it’s a really big bed. 

“Besides, it’s been awhile since I had a sleepover.”

Previous Chapter                                   Next Chapter

Interlude 7B – Molly and Ryder (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                                  Next Chapter

A/N: Molly was Eits’ real name before he transitioned, as mentioned in 6-03.

Just Over One Year Ago

“A one month shifting process, Miss Travers.” The heavyset man with the white bushy beard who looked like Santa Claus in a doctor’s outfit spoke definitively as he sat behind his large oak desk in the wood paneled office. There were no windows in the room. Behind him was an array of certificates and diplomas. To his right were a few animal trophy heads, and a gently crackling fireplace was to his left. The room itself was fairly small, intended to feel like a nice cozy place. 

Except for the animals, Molly Travers supposed. Those heads on the wall probably didn’t find it all that cozy or nice. It also honestly kind of seemed a little weird to have animal head trophies on the wall in a doctor’s office. Let alone an active fireplace. But then again, this wasn’t exactly a normal doctor’s office. 

“One month?” she echoed belatedly, suddenly realizing that she’d been staring at the deer head in silence for a few long seconds. Quickly returning her gaze to the man in question, she added, “Are you sure that’s the best timeframe, Doctor Dyers?” Yeah, her doctor’s name was Dyers. It could’ve been worse though. He could’ve been Doctor Losesallhispatients. 

Dr. Dyers was nodding. “Yes, one month. As I told you when we started, permanent transition like this is different for each individual. The process is easier than it has been in the past with the technology we have access to thanks to Tech-Touched individuals, but that same technology requires a very specialized selection of treatments. We have to account for a lot of things. The process typically varies between two weeks and two and a half months. For you, one month is on the low end. But you know what I mean when I say one month, what that entails?” 

“Taking a bunch of pills every twelve hours and visiting this place every other day without missing once,” Molly confirmed with a firm nod as she met the man’s gaze. “Don’t worry, I know. I’ve wanted this since I was a kid. Since before I knew what this was. I won’t blow it off.” 

“Our new techniques are far less invasive and easier,” Dyers carefully reminded her. “Instead of full surgeries, you’ll simply spend hours every other day inside the tank I showed you. You can sleep through most of it, or listen to an audio book or podcast if you’d like. We have a selection, or you can bring your own and one of my assistants will be glad to set it up for you. Throughout the treatment, assuming you come every day, your body will gradually shift into its… new and permanent form.” He offered a smile before sighing. “All of that knowledge and agreement on your part does bring us to the unfortunately more… mercenary part of the discussion.” 

“Money,” she finished for him. “You can’t start the treatment until you get paid in full.” 

“It’s for your benefit as well,” he assured her. “There can be very bad reactions to starting this process and not finishing it. It’s best that we have all those details in hand before day one.” 

“I’ve got the money,” Molly quickly informed him. She reached down to the duffle bag beside her chair, lifting it up with both hands to set on her lap. It was filled with cash. Cash she’d managed to get over the course of the past couple of months thanks to her new little friends. 

She didn’t know what to call them yet. Ever since she’d touched that orb and gained her powers in the wake of her parents… deciding they didn’t want her to live with them anymore, she’d worked her way through various ideas of what to call the tiny poltergeist-like creatures which allowed her to take over machinery and electronics. Gremlins, ghosts, geists, imps, none of that seemed right. 

All Molly knew for certain was that she made them with her power, and they were basically the only friends she had right now. With Grandpa Warner gone, the rest of her family had… well, they’d always made it clear how they felt about her declarations that she wasn’t… she. 

“Not here,” Dyers informed her. “We don’t keep that kind of cash on hand, Miss Travers. Here.” He took a card from his desk and slid it over to her. “Go to the address here and ask to meet with Ryder. Give him the cash, he’ll make sure it’s right and give you a receipt. Bring that here tomorrow and we’ll get started, okay?” 

Molly agreed, standing up before shaking the man’s hand with her own shaky, clammy one. Then she made her way out of the office and into the small hospital-like area beyond. She’d been here often enough that she knew the route to the exit without help, moving through a short maze of corridors, then heading down a narrow set of stairs and out an unlabeled metal door. 

Rather than a real hospital parking lot or anything, that put her in a narrow alley. Because this wasn’t a regular hospital. It was far less official, a place that didn’t mind taking her stolen money. Money she had stolen from ATM’s and things like that over the past few weeks in order to pay for this procedure. A procedure that would finally let her… him… her be him. 

And wasn’t that confusing enough? Even standing here, right on the cusp of paying for a process that would finally… finally allow her to look like the person she had always felt like, the years of her parents’ violent, vitriolic reactions to her attempts to change her own pronoun had done its damage. The idea of thinking of herself–himself as himself was… scary. It was what she wanted more than anything else in the world, but it was so scary. Even thinking ‘him’ in her own head was enough to make her flinch, expecting her father’s bellowing voice or raised hand. 

So, she’d made a deal with herself. She would stick with ‘her’ until her outside matched her inside. She would answer to her, she would… try to think of herself as her, even if… even if that was wrong. But as soon as her change was far enough along to be noticeable, she would… she would be he from then on. He would be the way he was supposed to be. Maybe she’d have a party for herself then. Heh. Maybe she’d have a party for himself was probably the better way to put that. 

That was stupid. She was stupid. Why was she stupid? Why didn’t she feel the way she was supposed to feel? Her parents were convinced that she was doing this for attention, like dyeing her hair or getting a piercing or a tattoo. They thought she was just acting out to act out, or to betray them, or something like that. 

But the thing her parents had never understood was that she wasn’t trying to be different. She was trying to be normal. That was it, that was the entire thing. They wanted her to be normal and she was trying to be. She was trying to look the way she felt. For her entire life, her body had felt wrong. Looking in the mirror had felt wrong. It had felt like she was puppeting her own body, like she was some foreign entity inside her own head. Her fingers didn’t feel right. Her hair didn’t feel right. Nothing fit the way it was supposed to. She was all just… not right. Wrong. 

Her father was wrong. She didn’t want to turn herself into a freak. She wanted to take the freak and make it normal. She wanted to be the person she was. That was it. She wanted to take the person she was on the inside and make that the person she was on the outside. She wanted… she wanted to feel as though she belonged in her own body. 

Why couldn’t she say that in a way her parents could understand? Why was she too stupid to find the right words? For years she had tried. For years she had failed. They had to exist. There had to be one perfect set of words in one perfect order said in just the right way that would make her parents finally understand. One set of words that would penetrate their fog of stubbornness and hatred. 

Then they’d understand.

Then they’d take her back. 

Then they’d love her. 

With a sigh, she started toward the end of the alley, throwing one of her helpers ahead to start the car that was already waiting there. Technically, she was only sixteen and had not passed her driver’s exam. But that was far from the first of the crimes she’d committed over the past few weeks. Particularly considering the car wasn’t actually hers. She’d return it later. She already knew that the owner never used it during the time he was at his office. By the time he came out, the car would be back in the same parking garage she’d taken it from an hour earlier. Her little friends had already disabled all the trackers on the car and any other security system it had. 

Checking the address on the card Dyers had provided, she used her power to direct the car that way while closing her eyes and leaning back a bit in the seat. It took about ten minutes to drive there. There, in this case, turned out to be an old apartment building. The front was boarded over, but there was a note on the card that said to go around back. So, she drove the car around that way, stopping in a spot close to the rear door and out of sight of the street. 

Unfortunately, she barely stepped out of the car before a truck came pulling up right in the same lot. Belatedly, she realized the truck had been back near the doctor’s office too. Was this some kind of escort that hadn’t been mentioned?

No. No, it was not. She realized that immediately, as soon as the three men in the truck hopped out. One held a shotgun pointed at her, while the other two had metal baseball bats. 

“Hey, bitch,” one of the guys with the bat snapped while taking a couple steps her way with the end of his weapon pointed at her. “We keep seeing you going in and talking to that fucking piece of shit doctor. That fucking butcher. You going to him to get your tits cut off, you fucking freak? Because I’ll tell you one thing. You want a cock where your cunt is? I can help you with that. For a few minutes anyway.”

The door into the apartment building was close. But not close enough to escape that shotgun. And she had no idea what was on the other side. Maybe nothing for all she knew. That Ryder guy might not even be there. The door could be locked. 

“Well?” The spokesman for the trio demanded while stepping even closer. He put the bat up under her chin. “You’re pretty cute. What do you say we show you what you’re supposed to do with,” he used the bat to gesture all over her, “all of this before you go getting all hasty and shit? Who knows, you might change your mind. What do you think, boys? You up for a little education? Maybe we won’t break this one.”

Powers. She had powers. But she’d never use them offensively before. Not like this. And what good could they be right now? The guy was pointing a gun at her and would shoot her before she sent any of her friends out. And the one that was still in the car behind her wasn’t going to be any help. It wouldn’t be able to get anywhere before she was shot or beaten down. She wasn’t a fighter. But she had to do something. She could scream. There could be people around. Screaming could help. Except for that gun. He’d shoot her. She could already see it in his eyes. He was disgusted by her. He wanted to shoot her. He was just waiting for the word. 

If only they’d waited one more month, her obituary could have listed her as the correct gender. 

Somehow, she found her voice. The words came as she looked into the eyes of the man with the bat close to her chin. “I should warn you. You’re right, I’ve been looking for a good penis. But they’re pretty hard to get. So if you put that thing anywhere near me, don’t expect to get it back.”

Rage and hate twisted the man’s face as he reared back with the bat. She jerked backward but tripped, falling on her backside with a yelp. Her wide eyes jerked upward in time to see the bat descending toward her. 

A hand caught the end of the descending bat. Eyes snapping that way, Molly saw a new guy standing there. He was a few years older than her, a fairly tall black guy that stood a bit over six feet, with movie star good looks. 

“Yo, asshole,” the guy with the gun snapped while pointing it toward the new arrival. “This ain’t got nothing to do with you. Fuck off.”

“Yeah, fuckknob,” the man whose bat had been caught snapped while trying to jerk the weapon away, “take a fucking hike, we’re busy.”

If the guy who had caught the bat was bothered by the other man desperately trying to yank his weapon back, he didn’t show it. The muscles in his arm tensed a little bit, but he held firm. “No, see, that’s where you’re wrong. This has got a lot to do with me. Cuz you know all those people who just stand there and bite their tongue while you spout it off all that stupid bullshit you were just saying to this person right here? You know all those people who pretend they didn’t hear anything, all the people who embolden you worthless fucking cocksuckers by going conveniently blind and deaf while you get away with all the shit you’ve gotten away with your entire life?

“I’m not one of those people.”

With that simple declaration, the new guy snatched the bat fully away from its owner before instantly snapping it forward so that the handle hit the man in the throat. As he doubled over with a panicked wheeze, the guy pivoted, hurling the bat into the face of the man with the gun just as it went off. But the new guy had already kicked the doubled-over man backward into the path of the shot, and he took the brunt of it. 

Molly realized belatedly that she was screaming. Everything else happened in a blur that was too fast to follow. The guy who had been threatening her was down, bleeding out all over the pavement. The one with the gun had only gotten off that one shot before this stranger was right there, disarming him and putting him down just as quickly and efficiently. 

The man was… was dead. Or dying. The man who had been threatening to… to… Yeah, somehow, she couldn’t muster a whole lot of sympathy. These guys wanted to rape and kill her. And from the way they’d talked, it wouldn’t have been their first time. Yeah, not much sympathy. Yet, despite that, she also couldn’t bear to look at him. 

But there had been three guys, right? Realizing that, Molly heard running footsteps. Her eyes snapped that way in time to see the third guy leaping into the truck. And he had something in his hands. Her bag. The bag with all her money that she’d dropped when the men first arrived. 

“No!” Molly shouted, scrambling to her feet. She held her hand out, reflexively summoning one of her little ghost friends to fly after the truck as it peeled out. But it wasn’t fast enough. The truck roared out into the street and pulled away with a squeal of tires. 

With another almost animal scream, she started to throw herself after the departing truck. But the stranger caught her arm. “Hey, hey. Bad idea. You’ll never catch up.”

Turning to stare at the black guy who had saved her, Molly opened and shut her mouth a few times. Her voice was a tiny whimper. “He took my money. He took everything. I needed that. They won’t help me. They won’t help me without that.”

The guy studied her for a moment. “You’re Molly, right? Yeah, I’m Ryder. And that guy just took all the money you were supposed to give me. I’d say we’re both kind of screwed, but I’m pretty sure you’re in worse shape than me.” 

Obviously seeing the look in her eyes as she all-but collapsed inward on herself, the guy exhaled long and low. “Fuck. I’m sorry. I was trying to lighten the mood, and… sorry. Look, maybe we can still work this out.”

She stared at him, shaking her head. “I can try to get more money, but it’s gonna take a lot longer. They’ve already started extra security procedures from me getting what I had before. I can try other things, but I… I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t… I’m not…”

Holding up a hand to stop her, Ryder interrupted. “You’re Touched. You did that thing with your little ghost gremlin thing. That’s how you got all that money before, right? Yeah. Yeah, we can help each other. See, I happen to know about a certain group that’s hiring people like you, with a finders fee. I think you’ll do pretty well there, and they’ll… they’ll take care of you.”

“Who?” Molly asked hesitantly. 

Turning, Ryder beckoned for her to go around to the passenger side of the car she had arrived in while he stepped down into the driver seat. “Let’s go. There’s gonna be cops on the way with that shotgun going off. I’ll take you over to meet Blackjack and give you an introduction.”

Molly had just gotten in when he said that name, her eyes snapping wide open. “B-Blackjack? La Casa?”

Ryder nodded. “Don’t worry. Like I said, they’ll take care of you. He’s a good guy to have in your corner. Let me do the talking when we get there. I’ll make sure your signing bonus includes that procedure you want.”

For a couple minutes as the guy drove, Molly just stared at him. Her voice, when she found it, quivered a little. “Thank you. Thank you for saving me, and for all of this. Thank you. I just… I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. I just wanted to be myself. I just wanted to feel… right. So… so… thank you, Ryder. And that’s… that’s a pretty good name, by the way,” she added a bit awkwardly. “I like it, Ryder. I mean, don’t worry, I’m not gonna take your name or anything just because–I mean. Um.” 

Another sigh came from the man. “Look, don’t thank me, okay? I just know how to get both of us a bit of what we want, and those guys back there…” He paused before muttering something under his breath that she didn’t catch. “And do whatever you want with the name. It’s not my real one. Just like this…” His hand waved in front of himself. “This isn’t my real face. It’s an illusion. So don’t get any ideas about tracking me down later or whatever. That’s not how this works. Just–” He stopped, eyes rolling up toward the ceiling of the car while they pulled into a lot. “We’re here, I–” There was a buzzing sound, and he took a phone from his pocket. “Fuck. Yeah, I’ve gotta handle this. You’ll be good here, I promise. Get out, go inside, tell the guy at the front in there that the Squire sent you to talk to Jack B. Got it? Jack B. When you get to Blackjack, tell him your story, what you can do, all that. And tell him I get credit for picking you up.” 

Molly was silent for a moment. “I… um. Thanks. I know, I know, you just did it for the finders fee and all that and… just… thanks, Squire. Or whatever your name is.” She started to get out. 

“Simon,” the guy quietly informed her. “It’s Simon. Here.” His hand flicked a card toward her. It was blank except for a phone number hand written on it. “You get in trouble again, or this doesn’t work out… call me. But only if you really have to, you got it? I don’t want you whining at me because you don’t like your hair cut or whatever.” 

“I got it,” she agreed while holding the card tightly. She stepped back after telling him where the car belonged, then shut the door and watched as it sped off with a squeal of tires. 

Looking up at the building in front of her, she swallowed hard. Blackjack? La Casa? Was this… could she really…? 

Slowly, she walked to the door, starting inside. Honestly, she had no idea if Molly could actually do this, be a part of La Casa and actually use her powers for more than very petty crime. 

But maybe Ryder could.

Previous Chapter                                                  Next Chapter

Showdown 7-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                        Next Chapter

“I’m really sorry,” Izzy was saying about fifteen minutes later as I walked with her through the house. The kid looked like she was trying to disappear into the too-large hooded sweatshirt she was wearing, her voice a quiet mumble. “I didn’t mean to barge into your home and take over.” 

Blinking sidelong at her, I shook my head. “Trust me, you’re not taking over anything. We could put up a whole football team here and not run out of room. And I’m including the coaches and support staff in that.” With a wink, I added, “Seriously, it’s no big deal. I just, um, are you okay?” 

The answer really seemed like no, though she just offered me a clearly self-conscious shrug while murmuring an almost inaudible, “I’m fine.” There was no conviction behind her words. Whatever else she might be, the girl was not a very good liar. Something was wrong, but I had no idea how to ask what exactly.

Seriously, how did I bring up, ‘So is my family putting you up because they killed your parents in their supervillain personas or something?’ It was hard to carefully segue into something like that. 

All my parents had said was that there were some private issues involving Izzy’s family and that the authorities had asked if we could put her up in the safety of our place for a bit while it was sorted out. And that Simon and I were not to let anyone know there was anyone new living with us. We were strictly ordered to stay quiet about Izzy. Dad had also made it clear that I shouldn’t push too far or be very nosey about it. Which, of course, just made me even more curious. 

“Technically, there are nine bedrooms,” I informed the girl while walking up the stairs. “But that’s pretty misleading, because almost every bedroom has a couple other rooms attached to it. My rooms are up here on the third floor, east wing. There’s the main bedroom where I sleep, the bathroom attached to it, a playroom right across the hall, a study room next to the playroom, and this other room next to the bathroom that isn’t really used for anything. I’m not sure what it was supposed to be for, but it’s empty. That’s the room Dad said they were bringing in a bed to.” 

As I explained that much, we passed my own bedroom, and I had a moment of paralyzed indecision. Would showing her my room come off as showing off when she clearly wasn’t accustomed to anything like that? Would not showing her come off as if I wanted to keep her out? I had no idea what to do about it or how to be a good tour guide of my own home. 

My parents’ home, I reminded myself. I’d done nothing to earn a place in this house. And, given I had some vague idea of how we’d gotten it, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to do anything to earn a place in it. That was why I’d started up with the idea of investing the money I had both from my (rather absurd) allowance and savings into Wren’s business. At least then, even if the source of the money was still bad, it would be going to a good cause. And I wouldn’t have to feel quite as bad about the money that came out of it. It might help me become a little more self-sufficient. Which… I had a feeling might be important at some point in the future. 

Finally, I decided that ignoring it and acting like I didn’t want her in there or seeing it was worse, even if barely. So, I pushed open the door and gestured. “This is my room. You can come in any time I’m not, you know, sleeping or changing or whatever.” I wasn’t worried about her finding my costume or anything, considering I already had to be careful not to let Jania or one of the other maids find it. When I was at home, the costume was hidden in a bag under a couple floorboards I had pried up with the help of some purple paint. The floorboards were themselves under a big heavy mirror in my (enormous) closet, which I also had to use purple paint to even move out of the way so I could get my costume out. The odds of Izzy accidentally finding it were… okay, I wasn’t going to tempt the universe by thinking anything else. But still, it was pretty safe. 

I showed the girl through my room, then over to the ‘playroom’ so I could show her how to work the remote for the TV and game systems if she wanted. After that, I took her through the bathroom and showed her the whirlpool tub and separate shower before continuing on to the far door. “And your room,” I announced while tugging it open. “It’s ahhh… there’s not much.” 

Sure enough, the room was still empty. It was about half the size of my bedroom, which still left it pretty good sized, as far as I knew. My bedroom was a little smaller than one of my classrooms at school. So yeah, pretty big. 

“Oh.” Izzy’s voice was small and quiet, the girl slowly stepping into the room to look around in obvious awe. “It’s… it’s….” 

“It’s kinda empty, I know,” I managed as she trailed off. “But like my dad said, they’re bringing in a bed right now. And we’ll get some… I…” Pausing, I stared at her. The girl was looking away from me, arms crossed over her stomach as if it hurt. A single tear had fallen partway down her cheek, though from the look of the wetness in her eyes, there were a lot more she was holding back.

“I… um, I know we don’t know each other,” I started a bit awkwardly and uncertainly. “But if there’s anything you want to… I don’t know, talk about or even just have someone listen. I can do that.” Boy did it sound dumb and condescending coming out of my mouth. I had no idea what else to say, though. What was going on? Who was this girl? Why was she here? What happened? I had all these questions, but no way to ask them. At least, not without being rude. And seeing this girl standing there, valiantly trying not to cry as she stared at a blank wall, made the idea of being even a little bit rude to her seem utterly repugnant.

There was a brief pause as Izzy just stared at that wall before she slowly turned her head to glance at me. For a second, I thought she might actually say something important. It looked like she wanted to. But in the end, the girl just gave a short shake of her head, mumbling, “Thanks.” 

Right, she had absolutely no reason to actually trust me. Before I could say anything, the sound of heavy footsteps approaching made me poke my head out the doorway. Sure enough, a couple workers (they normally did gardening stuff outside, I was pretty sure) were headed this way carrying the empty bed frame. Still, even empty, it was a pretty big frame. These guys were strong. 

Stepping back, I motioned for Izzy and the two of us moved so the guys could haul the frame into the room on its side (it barely fit through the doorway, which said something about how big the doorway was considering the frame wasn’t exactly small). They brought it in, set the bed down near the far wall, then went out to grab the mattress and box springs. Meanwhile, I looked to the other girl. “Hey, you wanna get some ice cream while they do that?” 

She seemed to perk up a little bit, before an obvious flash of guilt and uncertainty crossed her face. There was a brief hesitation before she seemed to set her chin, giving a slight nod. I had no idea what had been going through her mind just then, and pushing felt wrong. So, I just led her out, waving to the men and calling a thank you to them (Izzy did the same) before heading back down to the kitchen. There, I showed her where the ice cream was kept. There were eight different flavors kept in gallon buckets, along with the toppings. We made a couple sundaes before going to sit at the table in the smaller dining room, the one that only sat ten people. The two of us sat next to each other, eating our ice cream in silence for a minute before I spoke up. “You see that button over there? That’s the intercom to the kitchen. You press that and you can ask the cooks for food during the day. There’s someone in there from about six in the morning until about eight at night. If you don’t know what’s available, there’s a menu on the wall there next to it. They update it once every couple weeks. And if you want something special, they’ll usually get it for you if you ask nicely. 

The girl was just staring at me, spoon with mostly-melted ice cream halfway to her lips. “You order food in your own house like a restaurant?” Her voice was a hushed whisper, clearly baffled. 

Blushing self-consciously, I offered her a helpless shrug. “I–um, I guess so? Sorry, it’s weird, huh?” 

“A little weird,” the girl agreed, before she too blushed deeply. “I mean, not that you’re wrong or… or…” Sighing, she looked at her bowl while offering a mumbled, “I don’t know what’s right or wrong anymore.” 

That sounded like a potential opening to ask her what had happened to bring her here. But before I could, Simon came in. “Hey, munchkin and guest munchkin,” he started, taking a chair out and turning it around to sit in the wrong way. “You get all sorted out?” 

“They’re putting the bed in,” I answered when it was obvious that Izzy was hesitating. “We’ll have to get more stuff tomorrow when the stores are open. I–” Pausing, I glanced to the girl beside me. “Do you have… uhh, more clothes or anything?” 

It was the wrong thing to say. I saw her cringe, head dropping a bit before she offered a weak, “Not really.” 

“We will have more clothes brought tomorrow.” That was Mom, coming into the room briskly before gently touching Izzy’s shoulder. I saw the girl flinch before the hand was quickly removed, and Mom continued. “They will have everything you need, and you may pick from as many styles as you like. For the time being…” Lifting a bag in her other hand, she extended it to Izzy. “I had Sterling run a quick errand. You should find something in here that will fit for you to sleep in this evening and another to wear tomorrow.” 

There was a little more back and forth, but it was obvious that Izzy was tired and kind of… lost. She didn’t want to talk very much. So, I took our bowls back to the kitchen when we were done, sprayed them out in one of the sinks, and headed back upstairs with her. Gesturing once we were up there, I offered, “You can use the shower first. And don’t worry about taking all the hot water or anything, you could run the shower all day long and be fine.” With a little smile of encouragement (I hoped it was encouraging anyway), I added, “Or you could use the tub. Whichever you want. I could show you how to set up the jets. They’re pretty great.” 

Again, I saw a tiny smile start to appear before she cringed, clearly at the thought of actually smiling. Whatever had happened, it really messed this kid up. I wanted to ask her about it, especially if my parents were involved. But all I could do was tell her that I was there if she wanted to talk, which I’d done already. Saying anything further would be pushing things. 

So, I just left her to use the shower or bath and walked into my own room, taking the time to close the connecting door into the bathroom before heading over to fall into my bed face first. 

What the hell was going on? Who was this girl, why was she here, and why were my parents taking care of her? It was like she was in some kind of witness protection program or something. Hell, for a second, I’d thought she might be Blackjack’s daughter. But I was pretty sure she wasn’t. For one thing, she didn’t seem sick at all. Sad and alone, yes, but not sick. 

The point was, I had a lot of questions. And no real way of getting answers without pushing the girl in the next room far more than was probably safe or polite. But hey, at least I would be going out to get those vials tomorrow. That would, hopefully, finish up at least one of the problems I was dealing with.  

I just had to hope that nothing went wrong. Because I was pretty sure things were going to get even more busy around here than I could imagine. 

******

Right, it was the next day. Which meant it was finally time to use that suit to find the rest of the vials, so Blackjack’s daughter could be safe and I could be done with all of that. Or at least, it would be time, once I got through the actual school part of the day. Being the first school day after everything that had happened at the Reformation Ball, I didn’t dare skip it. No matter how much I wanted to. And I really wanted to. But skipping school at this point, even after calling in an excuse, felt like courting trouble. No, I had to be patient, even if it was excruciating. 

At least I managed to be somewhat distracted by the fact that Jae, Amber and I were finishing up the last of our project. We would be presenting it the next day, so hopefully we were ready. We’d done as much work as we could, even if I felt a bit guilty about being so distracted. School was important, and I didn’t want to let down my project partners. It was just… yeah. Lots of things going on. But I was pretty sure it was okay. We’d finished writing up the report, and tomorrow we would present it to the class. And by then, with any luck, I’d be done with Blackjack’s thing as well because his daughter would have all her medicine. 

Fingers crossed, anyway. I’d been literally doing that all day, every time I thought about what I was going to be doing after school. I was doing it then, as I walked out of the building. Which was when the phone that I used for Touched stuff buzzed. I’d kept it on me all day just in case there was a problem with the suit. But when I dug it out quickly, fumbling a bit, the message wasn’t from Wren or Fred. Or even Pack. Instead, it was a picture from Eits, of that baseball that he’d taken back from his asshole father set up in a glass box on a fireplace mantle. Under the box was a metal plaque with words etched into it, reading, ‘The Third Ball My Parents Never Wanted Me To Have.’ 

Snorting despite myself, I almost tripped. With a smile, I sent back, ‘You should e-mail that to them.’ 

A moment later, he started typing. I was walking slow down the front walk, glancing up to make sure I didn’t bump into anyone. Then the message came in. ‘E-mail hell, I’m putting a copy in their mailbox.’ 

Sending back a laughing emoticon, I blinked up just in time to see Jae and Amber standing out on the sidewalk next to the student parking lot. They were talking to some black guy I didn’t recognize. He was tall and thin, wearing a red sweatshirt and some ratty old jeans. When I got nearer, Amber glanced to me before saying, “With her.” 

“With her what?” I piped up. “What’d I do?” 

It was Jae who answered, after giving Amber a brief look. “Our project.” 

“Right, yeah.” Amber’s head was bobbing as she gestured to the boy. “We were just telling Damarko here why I can’t blow off school tomorrow. The project. Oh and uhh, Cassidy, this is Damarko Myers. Damarko, this is Cassidy Evans. Of that Evans. Careful, she could probably buy your house with what she finds in her couch cushions.” 

Flushing despite myself, I shook my head. “We’re not that rich, knock it off.” Then I extended a hand to the boy. “You don’t go here, I take it?” 

He shook my hand with a smile showing a row of perfect white teeth. “Nah,” Damarko replied casually, “Amber and I did some work together over the summer, so we’re kind of friends. You know, as long as I drive her wherever she needs to go.” He was clearly teasing, adding an easy, “And Jae’s here because she makes it so much easier to deal with Amber.” 

“You’re a jerk, you know that?” Amber informed him, huffing a little before glancing to the girl beside her. “Jae, tell him he’s a jerk.” 

Jae, however, was looking at me. The Albino girl asked, “Are you okay?” 

For a second, I almost told them about Izzy and how confusing it was to have someone else living in my house. But I stopped myself. No one was supposed to know she was there. Instead, I just nodded. “Oh, you mean… with the… the party thing.” They all stared at me, clearly interested and worried. I tried to shrug it off. “Like I said earlier, I mostly just hid in the bathroom down in the suite the whole time. I didn’t… I saw a couple of them from behind and then hid.” 

“Smart,” Damarko noted. He glanced to Amber and Jae, the former of whom asked, “So we’re okay for tomorrow?” 

“Yup,” I confirmed. “We’re all good. I’ll be here and we can do our thing. And get an A, damn it.” 

“Hell yeah, we will,” Amber agreed. “After all the work we’ve put into that damn thing, we better get an A.” Belatedly, she added, “Seriously, you need a ride home, Cass? Cuz trust me, Damarko doesn’t have aaaaaaaanything better to do. Like, at all. Ever.” 

“You know,” the boy retorted, “at some point, I will have something better to do. Then you’ll be sorry.” 

“Yeah,” she agreed with a sly smile, “sorry for whoever you’re busy with.” 

Shaking my head at them, I replied, “Nah, I’m good. Got some stuff to do. You guys take care. See you tomorrow.” 

I turned, and as I walked away, the three started talking again. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw Jae looking at me before she turned back to the others. What were they talking about? Why had my name really come up? Because something told me it wasn’t just the project. And it wasn’t about the party thing either, because we’d already talked about that earlier that day. It was something else. Or maybe the past couple weeks had simply left me utterly paranoid. 

Yeah, it was probably just that. And now I had to stop obsessing over something trivial like what three random teenagers were talking about. Because it was time to go meet up with Wren and Pack, and finish this whole vial business once and for all. 

And hope that we didn’t have to pry the vials out of the hands of any more supervillains.

Previous Chapter                                        Next Chapter

Alliances 6-09 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                        Next Chapter

Run, run, run! I had to get back to the hotel before my family figured out I had been gone. They were going to be freaking out as it was, and if they realized I wasn’t anywhere in the hotel, the whole damn city would shut down. I’d never be able to explain it. I had to get in there and convince them that I hadn’t gone anywhere, before my whole situation got a hell of a lot worse than it already was. 

In a blind rush, I made it to the top of the hospital while the firefighters and Raindrop were still working. From there, I made it through the next roof over and went through a quick loop to reach the back side of the hotel. It was hard, considering everyone was on high alert. I could see people all over the grounds, cops and Touched alike. It was chaos down there. Police lights, both the red and blue flashing kind and the bright spotlight variety, were so prevalent they made the parking lot almost as bright as day. 

Somehow, perhaps by a miracle I’d earned for saving those kids or something, I made it back to the balcony of the hotel. There was a spotlight coming my way, so the second I was down, I dropped and flattened myself against the floor of the balcony while the light swept by just above my head.

Landing also reminded me of the pain in both my leg and wrist. I was pretty sure the wrist wasn’t actually broken or anything. Or even sprained. It was just bruised where Pencil had stepped on it. My leg, however, had that cut in it from Fork’s quill. And my parents would undoubtedly notice both. How was I going to explain those

Wait, I knew how. Scrambling to my feet, I painted myself green for speed and rushed through the bedroom of the suite just in time to hear someone shout my name muffledly. It was coming from out in the hotel corridor, and I could see the door handle jiggle a bit. My name was shouted again, and that time I recognized my father’s voice. It sounded like he was fumbling for the key. 

Still sped up, I stretched one hand out toward the dress I’d left on the floor and shot red paint at it. At the same time, I lunged for the nearby desk. As the dress was summoned to my red glove, my other hand yanked the drawer there open and found the fancy letter opener with the hotel’s name engraved on it. 

There was an affirmative beep from the door just then, as my dad managed to get the key card in. At the last second, I threw myself sideways into the connected bathroom and yanked the door shut, locking it. 

I was still sped up, but I had to change clothes. Looking down at my arms, I painted those green. Not the suit, my actual arms. With the added speed, I stripped out of the costume probably faster than anyone had ever change clothes in the history of the universe. I could hear the door opening out in the main room, my dad‘s voice louder and clearer then as he called for me. 

Ignoring it for the moment, I grabbed the dress and yanked it on haphazardly. It was rumpled and wrinkled to hell, but that was the least of my worries. 

The bathroom doorknob jiggled, then there was a loud bang against it as my father shouted my name once more. He sounded frantic, maybe even close to tears. 

But there was one more thing I had to do. Putting black paint over my chest to silence my yelp, I used the letter opener to stab into the dress and my leg right where the wound was. I tried to be careful, but it had to look right. Even if it did make me cry out (silently thanks to the paint) and stagger.  

Dad banged on the door again, sounding like he was about to knock it down. Marshaling myself, I started to say something. Then I caught myself and yanked the helmet and mask off. It would’ve been pretty bad if my voice was still changed. Saved from making that kind of fatal mistake, I made myself sound afraid. It wasn’t honestly that hard. “Wh-who’s there?” That gave me time to yank open the cupboard under the sink, shoving the costume in there. 

There was a brief pause, and I heard my dad take a shaky breath. “Sweetie, it’s Dad. It’s okay. You can come out.”

Checking myself in the mirror, I belatedly yanked the gloves off and stashed them under the sink as well. Then I smoothed the dress down as much as I could before hesitantly stepping over by the door. Slowly, I cracked it open, peeking out with the letter opener held tightly in one hand. When I saw my father standing there, I pulled it the rest of the way. 

He was on me immediately, picking me up from the floor while crushing me against his chest. My dad hugged me tightly, so much so that it was hard to breathe. He murmured my name a couple times, voice cracking a little bit in the process. 

“Dad,” I managed to get out a bit weakly, my exhaustion from everything that it happened, including my rush to get back here, helping me sound even more out of it and afraid. “What happened? There were men with guns and they were in the hallway so I hid. I’m sorry, I was just hiding and I didn’t do anything and my phone didn’t work and—”

“Shhh, shhhh, it’s okay.” Dad still held me crushed against his chest, shuddering a little bit as he held me. “You’re safe now. They are gone, it’s over. You’re safe. You’re safe.” It sounded as though he was talking to himself as much as to me. 

I started to say something else, but was interrupted by the sound of someone else coming into the room. It was my mother. She practically flew through the doorway, eyes wild until she spotted the two of us. My name fell from her trembling lips as she came our way. Dad set me down just in time for her to scoop me up, pulling me into a new tight hug. “You’re okay, you’re safe.” She too was clearly telling herself that as much as me. Then she looked down, giving a soft gasp. “You’re bleeding!” 

Dad had clearly just noticed that too, his eyes snapping to the letter opener in my hand. “What did–” 

Flinching, I stepped back, ducking my head as if I was embarrassed. “I… I saw those guys so I took the letter opener in case they came in. It was all I could think of. But I… when I went to hide in the bathroom, I slipped and… and fell. I guess I sort of… cut myself? I might’ve sprained my wrist a little too.” 

“Let me see.” Dad already had something in his hand. It was a safe-seal bandage, one of the professional variety, meaning it had medical gel on it that would prevent infection and help the wound heal faster. He took a knee, and I lifted the dress enough for him to carefully put the bandage on my leg. It looked like a large white patch, which sealed to the skin as soon as he pressed it firmly against the wound. I could immediately feel the very slight sting, followed by a soothing cool gel. The bandage would come off on its own sometime the next day, and would either need to be replaced by another or not, depending on how bad the wound was. 

“Th-thanks, Dad,” I managed. “But… but I think I ruined the dress too. I was hiding and laying on the floor after that and it’s all bloody from the stupid knife thing and I was all curled up and I know you’re not supposed to do that, but I was afraid. And I was trying to call somebody, but the phone didn’t work and I was—”

Head shaking quickly, Mom stepped over to pull me into another hug before looking down at me. “I do not care about the stupid dress.” Her hand moved to cup my cheek tenderly, tears in her eyes. “You are safe, Principessa. You are safe, that’s all I care about. You are safe. I was afraid that… I was afraid. You are okay. The men who came, they didn’t…”

“They didn’t see me,” I confirmed. “I saw them in the hallway, so I shut the door. But then I was afraid they’d come in, so I took the letter opener and hid in the bathroom. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t hear what was going on, I wasn’t… I mean…”

She shushed me again, pulling me into another hug with her trembling arms. “You are safe. That’s all that matters.”

Simon had made it to the room by then, hearing my explanation. He too came over to hug me, without even making any kind of smartass remark. He actually looked worried, his hug genuine and firm. “Lucky you,” he managed after a few seconds of that. “Missed all the excitement. Even if you did manage to hurt yourself anyway.” Okay, maybe he couldn’t avoid every smartass remark. It was probably genetic. 

“I… I don’t want anything more exciting than that,” I murmured before stepping back to smooth the wrinkled and bloody dress down. “But what happened? Who were those guys? They look like soldiers or something, but… not.”

Dad shook his head. “Definitely not soldiers. It was…” He and Mom exchanged brief looks, some kind of silent conversation going on between them before he continued. “It was the Scions. But it’s okay. They’re gone now. They’re all gone, I promise. We’re safe.”

“Th-the Scions?” I made my voice whimper weakly. “Are you sure they’re gone? What if they come back? What if they’re still around? What if—”

Mom quieted me with another embrace, promising that all the danger was gone and that there were police and Star-Touched all over the place. Dad took me by the hand and led me out to the balcony to look down, showing me all the cops down there while telling me all about the heroes who had shown up and were scouring every inch of the hotel. “The Scions aren’t stupid enough to stick around with all this here,” he murmured. “They’re gone by now, I promise. They’re gone.”

Somehow, I stopped myself from pointing out that there had been plenty of cops and Star-Touched around when Pencil first showed up with his fanatics. It didn’t feel like that would actually accomplish anything useful. 

Instead, managing a little nod, I turned a bit to look over at the hospital. The fire was out by then, but there were still fire trucks and police. Raising my hand, I pointed. “Oh my God, what happened over there? Are they okay? That’s the kids hospital. What happened?”

Dad assured me that things were handled over there too, that from what he heard, no kids had been killed. “The fire was contained to one floor that was already evacuated. It’s okay. It could’ve been a lot worse. A lot worse.” He repeated that in a quiet, somewhat shaky voice while putting both hands on my shoulders with a gentle squeeze. He was clearly still convincing himself I was really there and I hadn’t been hurt. 

“The Scions are monsters,” I murmured before turning to look at him with wide eyes. “What about Pencil? He had to be here too, right? Did they catch him?” I was still curious about how he had gotten off the roof of this place and all the way over to the hospital. 

Dad sighed. “They took down the one pretending to be Pencil. Or being forced to pretend.”

Blinking at that, my head tilted. “Forced to pretend?”

With a grimace, Dad explained. “Someone who looked like him was on the roof, someone with his costume. He was going on the way Pencil does. But when it all went down, someone tackled him and it turned out he was just some innocent civilian under that mask. He was gagged and had a speaker system rigged up under his suit so the real Pencil could talk through it. And a bomb collar to make sure he did what he was told. They just managed to disable the thing in time.”

Mom cursed in Italian quietly before adding, “He probably thought it would be amusing if someone took a shot at the man and ended up killing an innocent civilian.”

“They would have killed more than that,” Dad pointed out. “That collar was linked to his life signs too. If he died, he would’ve blown and taken off a good chunk of the roof in the process.”

“Sterling,” Mom chastised, “that is enough. We don’t need to scare her any further.” To me, she added, “The point is, they did not find the real Pencil.”

“Of course not,” Simon muttered from the doorway onto the balcony. “Why would they do something useful like that? They oughta grab that motherfucker, bury him in concrete, and drop the whole slab into the Marianas Trench. Just be done with it. Go be invulnerable thirty-five thousand feet below sea level, dickface.”

The fact that Mom didn’t reprimand his language said more to me about how shaken up she was about this whole thing than basically anything else could have. Instead, she stepped up behind him from within the room, looking to me. “Your father and I need to take care of a few things. Can you stay right here in this room and not go anywhere until we get back? Simon can stay with you, if you need someone.”

I started to respond to that, but there was a knock against the still open doorway out in the main hall. Tomas was there, raising a hand. “Uh, I could stay if she wants. Sorry, I was coming to check on Cassidy and… I guess I interrupted.”

“It’s okay,” I quickly put in. “I’ll stay with Tomas. We’ll  just stay here in the room. We won’t go anywhere, I promise. Trust me, I… I’m not really in the mood to go wander around. And I’d be limping anyway.” Considering everything I had just been through, it was an easy promise to make. I wasn’t interested in doing anything else for a long time. And at least this way it would be Tomas staying with me. I knew he didn’t have any kind of involvement with my family’s criminal empire. Unless they had some kind of London branch, which was just me being ridiculously paranoid. 

My parents exchanged looks once more before Mom stepped out to gently kiss my forehead. “The phones are working again,” she murmured, “so if you need anything, anything at all… just call one of us, okay?”

Once I promised to do so, she, Dad, and Simon headed out to do… whatever they were going to do. I was left standing there in front of Tomas, feeling awkward. 

“So,” the boy started hesitantly, “I guess this was all a stupid game for those guys. They were just trying to get money and stuff out of all the rich people here,  threatening those kids at the hospital for it. Pretty fucked up, huh?” 

“Fucked up?” I echoed before nodding as I stepped into the room and moved to sit down on the nearby couch. “Yeah, I’d say it was really fucked up. 

“Then again, that’s kind of the Scions in a nutshell.”

*****

Things were busy through the rest of the night and most of the next day. I stayed at home, making sure my parents understood I was safe and that, as far as they knew, I had never been in any direct danger. They insisted on checking the cut in my leg, and put a fresh safe-seal bandage on it after calling in the family doctor to make sure it wasn’t infected or anything. I held my breath through the examination, but she didn’t say anything out of the ordinary. The cut I’d made with the letter opener clearly covered up the puncture wound from the quill, so the pain had been worth it. And my wrist wasn’t actually sprained, though there was still some soreness to it. 

In the end, my family thought I had hidden in that bathroom and never saw anything more of the bad guys than their backs. If they’d had the slightest clue of just how close I’d come to being killed last night, regardless of the being Touched part, they probably would have locked me into my room and not let me leave until I was in my mid-twenties. 

As it was, I waited until evening when I knew they were at some kind of big meeting for all the rich and powerful players who had been there last night before I went anywhere. Once I finally felt safe getting out of that house for awhile, I changed clothes into my costume and made a beeline for Wren’s place. 

Reaching the parking lot in front of the bookstore, I saw Fred hosing down some kind of sedan. When he saw me, the man twisted the nozzle to shut down the water before speaking. “Hey, you okay? Lizard girl said you ran into that Scion shit down at the party last night.”

Nodding, I replied, “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks mostly to her. She’s pretty cool. You know, for a villain.”

“For a villain,” he echoed quietly, frowning for a moment before heaving a sigh as he looked to me. “Hey, listen. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about before. Sorry for how I treated you and for helping that crazy asshole. I didn’t know what he was going to do with that stuff, but it’s not an excuse. I should’ve asked more questions, I shouldn’t have gotten involved. Shouldn’t have sold the kid’s stuff like that. It was wrong, and I was an asshole. So… yeah, I’m sorry.”

Blinking at that, I gave a short nod. “It’s okay. You’re working on fixing it. I’m pretty sure that’s what matters.”

“Hell yeah, we’re working on it,” he confirmed. “Speaking of which, the kid’s downstairs. You should go talk to her.”

So, I did, heading in and down. Reaching the lab, the first thing I saw was Pack. She was sitting over on the couch, legs held up to her chest in a pretty casual posture for someone in a costume. Her attention was focused solely on the phone in her hands. When I entered, she looked up and waved the phone at me. “Hey, you know what? Your friend That-A-Way is pretty cute. I see why you like playing hero with her around.”

Flushing under the helmet, I started to say that I hadn’t noticed, only to stop myself. Would a boy have noticed? Hmm. 

Shaking that off, I decided to change the subject by asking, “Is Holiday okay then?”

She nodded, pointing to the cage where all the lizards were curled up asleep in their natural forms. “Yup, giving them a break today. They put in a lot of work back there.”

“So did you,” I pointed out. “And you didn’t have to, so… thanks. Seriously, I’m pretty sure a lot of those kids would’ve died without you last night. Actually, I know they would have. Without you, there’d be a bunch of dead children in that place. And they would’ve lost a lot more of the hospital with that bomb. Seriously, you were awesome.”

The full black mask hid her expression, but I had the idea she was blushing a bit. “No big deal. I’m not some monster who’s going to let a bunch of little kids die. But it’s over. Let’s talk about the important stuff, like, for example, do you have That-A-Way’s number, or what? You know, so I can thank her for saving Holiday.”

Hesitating briefly, I carefully replied, “I better make sure it’s okay with her before letting you have it, you know? I mean, you guys are still on opposite sides. Unless you wanna join the Minority so you can see her again?”

She laughed, shaking her head. “Nice try, kid. Hey, if the Minority’s so amazing and all, why aren’t you joining them? Last time I checked, you actually were trying to play hero. And they’re kind of the big thing for teen heroes, right? You get training, support, friends, all that stuff you should be interested in. So what’s with the whole keeping them at arm’s length thing?”

Thankfully, I was spared from having to respond to that very good question by Wren, who popped her head up from the pile of junk she had been buried in, waving excitedly. “Paintball! Hiya. Good timing, we just need a little more help and poof, here you are. I got through some of this faster than I thought I would.”

“Faster?” I echoed. “Does that mean…?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “It’s almost done. Like, really close. We just need to do a couple more things, and I think you can help finish it up. With a little luck, it’ll be ready by tomorrow. And then we’ll be able to use the suit and find those vials.”

“Well then,” I replied with a smile. “What are we waiting for?

“Let’s get to work.”

Previous Chapter                                        Next Chapter

Alliances 6-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

Oh boy, was this whole Reformation Ball thing a big deal. I’d always known that, of course. Even from the time that I was a little kid, I’d known the Ball was basically one of the most important events of the year in Detroit. But somehow, actually being there instead of sitting at home while my parents were out for the evening made it so much more obvious just how huge and important the whole thing was. I’d known it was a big deal before. But now I really knew. 

The location for the event bounced around a little from year to year, as each of the three biggest and most amazing hotels in the city took turns hosting it. This year, it was being held at the Cloud Regal, a twenty-five story hotel that was shaped like the letter C. In the middle of the curve was the main grounds of the hotel, an elaborate garden area with twin fountains on either side of the main path. The water from the fountains shot high into the air in a complicated series of patterns that included shooting back and forth to one another in an arch-shape over the path. 

There were technically three separate parties. The biggest one was out on those grounds, where tables of food and drink had been set up, along with a stage for a live band and other entertainers. There was an entrance fee, but it was minimal. To buy a ticket cost about twenty dollars, which got you into the grounds, allowed you to see the entertainment, and provided access to all the food and most drinks, though the higher shelf stuff was still charged for. 

The next step over being on the grounds was being inside one of the three separate banquet rooms within the hotel. It was apparently a few hundred per seat to be in there, which got you much better quality food (not that the food outside wasn’t great, but the more rare and expensive stuff was inside), and even more entertainment. It was a quieter dinner there, while outside was slightly more of a rambunctious, energetic party. 

Then there was the roof party. All the way at the top of the twenty-five story hotel was the roof garden where the true power in the city held their own dinner. The mayor, the chief of police, the governor of Michigan, the leadership of various hero organizations, business owners, community organizers, everyone who could afford a ticket or was sponsored by someone who could. Being on the roof required a minimum five thousand dollars per head. 

That was the general cost of each area. Twenty bucks to be outside, a couple hundred to be inside, five thousand to be on the roof. And every single ticket had been sold weeks ago. As happened every year, the event was completely sold out. And as always, one hundred percent of the proceeds from tonight would go to a charity. It was a different one each time. This year, all the money would go to the Gold Horizons Children’s Hospital located just across the street from the hotel. Apparently the guy who owned this hotel had built the hospital because of his own son passing away from cancer, and when some rich guy tried to have the hospital closed down because it made him feel bad, the owner had had him banned not only from this place, but from every hotel, resort, and business he owned. Which, apparently, was a lot. 

My family, of course, was on the roof. I was there, in my ungodly expensive and beautiful dress that made me feel like a mutt that had crawled into Cinderella’s gown and run off with it. The thing was so amazing and beautiful, all teal and shiny and… and… I was just… not… that. I wasn’t right for it. This dress belonged on a tall, beautiful blonde prom queen, not on a little tomboy who barely topped five feet, with black hair that just would not stay tamed and was long on one side but short on the other. 

My mother’s hand gently brushed my shoulder, and I turned a bit to see her smiling down at me. Her voice was soft against the light sound of quiet music in the background. “You are radiant this evening, my beautiful Principessa. Thank you for coming, I’m certain you could have found any number of other things to do. But having you here makes me so very proud.” 

I was still trying to work out how to respond to that, when her hand very gently brushed my face. Apparently she could still see dark circles there. “Are you alright? You look so tired.” 

Well, Mom, I haven’t been sleeping very well lately. First I found out that you and Dad are running some massive evil supervillain conspiracy. Then I became basically responsible for making sure an innocent little girl doesn’t die or the city itself doesn’t descend into war. And on top of all that, I was just recently knocked unconscious and abducted by a two-faced monster who really, really wants to torture me. Did I forget anything? Oh, right, and I owe a favor to that two-faced monster’s boss for letting me get out of there with my blood still inside my body. 

Forcing a smile, I shook my head. “I’m okay, Mom. It’s just been a long day. Thanks for letting me come tonight. This is…” My eyes glanced around the roof, at all the beautiful candles that lit various pathways through the glass sculptures, the rich and beautiful chatting amicably, and the ungodly famous musician with his funny glasses playing his Candle in the Wind song on the piano. “This is really great.” I looked back to her then. “And kind of crazy.” 

Her beautiful smile returned, and she gently touched two fingers to her lips before brushing my cheek with them. “You get used to it,” she murmured softly before glancing over my shoulder. “I have to speak to Grant for a minute. Enjoy yourself, my beautiful girl. Make yourself known here, let people see you. I will make sure Simon or someone else is available to take you home in an hour or so if you’re ready to leave then. There is no need for you to stay for the whole evening.”

Promising to mingle, I watched my mother head over to chat with ‘Grant’. Also known as one of Michigan’s senators. They started talking, and I heard Mom ask him about his son’s football scholarship. It made me shake my head, turning away. How weird was it to be a part of all this? Because I’d grown up with it, so I didn’t really have the right perspective. Even then, however, this felt pretty weird. I stepped away from the spot where I’d been talking to my mother, carefully making my way through the crowd. Here and there, I smiled to someone who recognized me (there weren’t that many), greeting them and exchanging a few words. One of the passing waitresses handed me a wine glass with ginger ale in it, which I took a sip from while standing at the edge of the roof to look down at the main party. It was in full swing, and looked like they were having a lot of fun. There was an open space on the grass where people were dancing.   

The sound of someone clearing their throat made me glance back to see Tomas standing there. He gave me a smile that made my stomach start a boxing match with my heart, before moving up beside me. His voice was casual. “Hey, Cassidy. Ahh, how are you doing?” 

I swallowed a bit. The past week had been complicated. I hadn’t avoided Tomas at all. We hung out a few times, even got lunch together once. But it was just… so… yeah, complicated. I felt like even more of an idiot every time I thought about how him being bisexual had made me feel. 

I knew he cared about me. I knew he liked me. This changed nothing. He liked me for being me, regardless of whether I was a boy or a girl. That was a good thing, right? Yes. Yes, it was. It was indisputably a good thing. Logically, I knew that. I told myself that. I even thought I’d convinced myself of it multiple times. Yet, every time I saw him, my brain whispered things like, ‘Are you sure he doesn’t just like you because you look like a cute little boy?’

Feelings were annoying, why did they have to be so complicated? I should just be able to tell my heart something and make it accept the plain stupid truth. Stupid emotions. Stupid, stupid emotions.

Quickly, I forced myself to reply dryly, “Oh, you know. Just another day.” Biting my lip, I looked at him. “I didn’t know you’d be here.” Pausing, I added, “But I really should’ve.” 

He chuckled lightly, waving vaguely over his shoulder. “Yeah, Mum and Dad are over there somewhere. I’m supposed to be here, look presentable, and not embarrass them.” 

“Sounds like we have similar jobs,” I replied. “You wanna share? Maybe it’ll be easier.”

He smiled again, and my heart did a little spin at the way it made his dimples show. “That sounds like a pretty good idea to me. We can look presentable together. My parents love you enough anyway. My dad kept asking if I talked to you yet. I think they want to have you over for dinner at some point.”

Oh. My… my ex’s parents wanted to have me over for dinner. That wasn’t as weird as it could be considering we’d only broken up because of distance, right? Wait, if he was back, did that mean that he expected… or that they expected… wait, was this—

Tomas’s hand found my arm, gently squeezing. “Hey, hey, it’s all right. None of us are dumb enough to think we’re just going to go right back to the way we were, okay? And if Dad or Mum think otherwise, they’ve got another thing coming. A year is a long time. I’m sure we’ve both changed a lot. I mean… you know about my… yeah. Maybe something else will come of it, maybe it won’t. But you’ve always been important, Cassidy. Whether we’re just friends or end up being more than that, I want to get to know you again. So, I’d love it if you came over for dinner at some point. No pressure, and if my parents start turning that on, I swear we’ll go get one of your American pizza concoctions.” 

Squinting at him, I pointed. “You can’t fool me anymore, buster. I know for a fact you guys have plenty of pizza over in the UK.”

Meeting my gaze, he gave a sage nod. “Of course, we just call it open stromboli. Or opomboli.”

He had me for just a second. I blinked, head tilting as I watched his expression. Then I frowned, punching him in the arm as subtly as possible, not wanting to cause a scene. “You do not, jerk.” 

He laughed, looking charming again before turning to look out at the people below once more. For a moment, he was quiet before speaking again. “I did miss you, Cassidy Evans. Even if you are not nearly as gullible as you were.” His gaze moved back to me with a wink. “You’ve changed too.” 

Swallowing back all the thoughts that brought up, I managed a shrug. “I guess that’s just a thing that happens. And I haven’t changed all that much.” Boy, if he only knew. “But I… umm…” Shaking off the feelings, I gestured. “We should probably go see about mingling a little bit more, huh? Pretty sure my parents–or my mom mostly, would prefer I be seen instead of hanging out in the background.” 

“We could dance, if you like,” he pointed out mildly, knowing full well that no one else was dancing. Not up here, anyway.

“I said ‘be seen’, not ‘make a complete ass of myself,’” I retorted before pulling him by the arm. “Come on, we’ll just walk and talk.” 

He obliged, and the two of us meandered our way through the crowd, making a couple circuits of the roof. We stopped now and then, chatting with various people. I tried to be as polite as possible, wanting, for some reason, to make a good impression for my supervillain parents. Weird. 

I also saw my dad twice. He was standing over with a few other rich guys, and Silversmith was right across the roof, talking to Flea and Caishen, leader of the Ten Towers corporate sponsored hero team. Other Star-Touched, including all the Minority members, were mingling with people too.  But I still had no idea how my parents were managing to make it look like Silversmith and my dad were both here. Maybe Dad had a body double? He could certainly afford one. 

In any case, it was eventually time for us to separate and rejoin our own families for dinner. I made my way over to the round table that had been set aside for us and found Simon and my parents already there. Dad took a moment to tell me how wonderful I looked, teasing me about being around Tomas again. Then he held Mom’s chair out, Simon held mine, and we sat down before they joined us. 

“Dad’s right, you actually look like you belong here, Booster,” my brother teased. “You haven’t tripped over anything or started talking about Power Rangers or Ninja Turtles yet.” 

Forcing myself to smile, I retorted, “Well, I didn’t want to take away your most educational topics, dear brother. That would be terrible. What on Earth would you talk about then?” 

Mom cleared her throat pointedly, but I could see her smothering a small smile as she looked to us. “Let’s be nice,” she murmured softly before looking up to thank the waiter who brought our drinks. Wine for the three of them and apple cider for me. Dad had said it would be okay if I had one glass with them, but that didn’t sound like a great idea to me, so I declined. Cider would be fine. 

We took our food a few minutes later, and watched as the mayor, followed by the governor, got up to give their speeches through the meal. ‘Grant’ the senator would be next, apparently. They would be going down to mingle with the other two party groups shortly, playing for future votes, of course. But first they would make nice with the rich people, like my parents. As part of that, Mayor Carter Bens would be accepting gifts on behalf of the city. It was another tradition born over the past couple decades, where the mayor would be given various presents of expensive things that would be put on display in City Hall for a few months before being donated and the proceeds given toward the city’s emergency services like police, fire, and hospitals. 

Once that started, Dad made a small noise in the back of his throat while looking to Mom. “You know, I think–” 

“We forgot our gift in the room,” she finished for him, sighing a little. She glanced around as though to flag down a waiter, but they were all busy. Finally looking to me, she added, “Cassidy, would you mind running—I mean… walking very carefully and discreetly… down to the suite we borrowed for the evening and picking up the gift. It should be in the living room beside the television.” 

I agreed quickly, taking the room key and heading to the elevator. From there, I headed for the penthouse suite that my parents had rented out to grab the gold-wrapped gift. 

Carefully managing the present with one hand, I went to open the door and began to step out when movement from the corner of my eye made me look that way. Men. There were men walking down the hall ahead of me, having just passed the room a few seconds earlier. Which wouldn’t really be a big deal, except for the assault rifles they held. Yeah. Guns. 

There were armed guards at this event, of course. To say nothing of all the Star-Touched hanging around. But the armed guards weren’t that obvious. They looked like Secret Service type people, not men in army camo carrying giant-ass automatic guns. 

No, this was obviously something different. Something bad. I quickly ducked back in the room and closed the door most of the way before they could spot me. Peeking out, I saw them heading for the elevator. They were met by a few more guys that were coming out of other rooms, and all of them headed up to the roof. 

Oh boy. Oh God, what was I supposed to do now? Quickly, I took my phone from my pocket, only to find it had no signal. That had to be purposeful, some kind of jammer or something. A check of the room phone produced no dial tone. Great. Just great. This was absolutely, definitely something bad. But what? What kind of crazy idiot would try to attack the place swarming with armed guards and heroes from every team in the city?

Maybe it was just a stunt or something. Maybe I was overreacting. But the lack of a cell signal and dial tone told me I wasn’t. I had to find out more, without getting caught. 

To that end, I headed for the closet where I had dropped my stuff when changing into my dress here. Digging deep in the backpack under the layer of other stuff I’d use to cover it, I came out with the bag that had my costume in it. I’d put it under some unmentionables, just in case. 

Taking a moment to slip the costume on after changing out of my dress, I made my way to the balcony, peeking out and around to make sure the coast was clear. Seeing nothing, I stepped out there before red painting myself up to the edge of the roof, clinging to the bottom edge of the  balcony as I listened. 

A male voice was speaking. “I’d say let’s not have anyone playing hero, but I think that’s a moot point by now with the kind of company we’ve got up here tonight, don’t you?”

Painting myself black, I hesitantly peeked up over the edge. Everyone was seated aside from the man who was speaking, and a dozen or so of those camo-dressed men with guns. 

As for the guy who was talking, I knew who he was. The sackcloth mask gave it away. Pencil. It was Pencil. 

That answered my question about who would be crazy enough to attack this place, at least. Seeing him made me shrink back a bit under the edge of the roof while he continued. “But still, let’s be smart here. No one wants a massacre, after all.” He paused before amending, “Well, none of you want a massacre. Personally, I think we’re kind of due.”

Silversmith, or rather, whoever was posing as him, spoke up. “You can’t possibly think you’re going to get away with anything here. What’s your game?”

I could hear the smile in Pencil’s voice as he looked that way. “My game? I’m so glad you asked. The game, ladies and gentlemen, is very simple. Everyone here pretends they care oh so much about all the poor sick children in that hospital across the street that you’re all donating to tonight. But let’s see how much you actually care. See, they’re being visited by a bunch of my friends right now as we speak. And unless you rich motherfuckers start giving until it literally hurts, well, let’s just say there won’t be any more kids to donate to. Which, for the record, is also what will happen if anyone here tries anything. So let’s just keep it all in our pants. 

“As for how much we need, we’re trying to break records here tonight for most stolen in one event. And I hear there’s some stiff competition, so dig deep people. Or don’t. Personally, I’m kind of curious to see if you can hear a few hundred sick kids being mowed down by machine guns all the way up here. 

“Aren’t experiments fun?”

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

 

 

Collectors 5-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter

First up on the available-but-expensive side was… I had no idea. Seriously, it looked like gibberish letters and numbers. Apparently it was a model or serial number or something. I had to make Wren read each bit off to me as I looked at it just to make sure I didn’t misread part of her handwriting. Not that it was that bad (better than mine, actually), but with something like this I really didn’t want there to be any mistakes. Just to be on the safe side, I made her read it again while typing it in my phone. Then I read what I recorded back to her to triple-check. 

So I had a bunch of names, model numbers, and some vague idea of where I might go. And then I had a question. The same question I’d had back at Wren’s place, actually. Should I go to these places as myself, or as Paintball? A new Touched flashing around a bunch of money to buy expensive, semi-niche things might grab certain people’s attention. 

On the other hand, the daughter of Sterling Evans doing so would definitely get attention. So even if I didn’t actually go in full costume, I still couldn’t go as myself. It just came down to, ‘in costume’ or ‘in disguise.’ And the fact that there was a distinct difference between the two really helped to show just how weird my life had become in such a very short time. 

So, I decided to go with a disguise. But if I was going to do that, I had to go all the way with it. Making a brief trip to the mall, I picked up a few things as quickly as I could. Baggy jeans, a chain with a wallet, basketball sneakers, a couple loose-fitting shirts, and a levi jacket to start. Then I went through the cosmetics and found myself some temporary blonde hair dye that would wash out. To cap the whole thing off, I took a pair of non-prescription glasses and a hat. 

With all my bags in hand, I headed to the restrooms. There, I stopped short. Wait. Hold on. I was… Okay, so the point was that I needed to disguise myself (even more) as a boy. That way, if it came back that the things that had been bought by me ended up used by Paintball, I wouldn’t give away my secret. But there was a catch. I wanted to change into my ‘boy disguise’ here at the mall. So did I go into the women’s restroom, where I belonged, and come out as a boy? Or did I go into the men’s room, where I didn’t belong, and come out of there as a boy?

I’d never been to superhero school, but if I had, I was pretty sure this still wouldn’t have been covered.

In the end (after clearly overthinking it for too long), I decided to go with the male restroom. Mostly because I figured people already mistook me for a boy as I was, so when I came out looking even more like one, being in the male restroom was probably the way to go. 

With all that in mind, I waited around, pretending to window shop and check out the nearby food court until I was pretty sure the restroom was empty. Then I quickly made my way in, went to the handicapped stall in the far corner, and set my bags down before hurriedly getting to work.

The stall was one of those with its own small sink, which was part of the plan. I used the sink, washing my hair quickly, then ran the hair dye into it before scrubbing it in thoroughly. The dye was meant to go with Halloween or cosplay outfits, so it would set in after about ten minutes, then wash out the next time I took a shower. Which I would be doing as soon as this was over.

Once my hair was colored and I was waiting for it to dry, I moved over to the next stall. It was a tighter fit, but I really didn’t want to take up the handicapped spot for ten minutes. Then I just… tried to pretend I was anywhere but there. I also prayed that no one would come in. It was a prayer that sadly went unanswered, though the second I heard the door open, I quickly took my headphones out, shoved them in, and turned my music up loud so I wouldn’t hear… anything. 

Finally, the hair was done. I hurriedly ran a comb through it, then put on the new clothes including both layers of shirts and the levi jacket before slipping my feet into the new shoes and stepped out to the mirror. The glasses went on, and I tied my hair back into a loose ponytail, hoping that would look sufficiently ‘guy-like.’ That done, I threw on the hat and checked myself out. 

Okay, I definitely looked like a boy. I looked like I belonged in one of those boy bands, actually. The kind that made little girls squeal. Wincing at how easy that had been, I grabbed my stuff and made my way out. 

Aaaand immediately almost ran into Simon. Yeah. He was on his way into the restroom, looking back at one of his friends. Seeing him, my eyes went wide, like a deer in headlights. Instinct kicked in, and I slipped past him. In my hurry, I kind of brushed up against his shoulder, muttering an apology under my breath with as deep a voice as I could manage before hurrying off. I had to tell myself not to look back. I really didn’t want to know if he was looking. 

Seriously, what were the odds that Simon would be right there right then? Sure, he spent a lot of time at the mall (or I’d thought he did before knowing he was basically employed as a goon for our parents), but still. Once I was far enough away, I sat down at one of the food court tables and took a second to glance back toward the bathrooms. Was he looking for me? The real me.

It didn’t look like it. A few of his friends that I recognized were there (were they part of our parents’ group too?) hanging around outside the restroom. A moment later, Simon and another of his friends emerged. He wasn’t looking around or anything, and he didn’t even glance toward the female restroom. Instead, the group briefly conferred, Simon checked his watch, and then he and a couple others walked off together, leaving the rest behind. 

Wait a minute. Wait. Yeah, maybe this was a bad idea. Okay, maybe it was a very stupid idea. But I might’ve just tripped over a way to find out… well, anything at all about my family’s situation. I just happened to be in disguise and almost tripped over Simon at the mall? Right, maybe he was just hanging out and not doing anything untoward. Maybe this was a waste of time, a waste that I really couldn’t afford given our time constraints. But if he was doing anything here…

I had to know. I wouldn’t take too long with it, but this was just too good of a chance to waste. Picking myself up from the table, I followed my brother and the friends who had joined him. I’d just take a few minutes to see what they were doing. If they were just doing ordinary shopping things, then there was no problem. I’d take off and focus on getting those supplies for Wren. 

The mall was busy enough that it wasn’t that hard to trail Simon. I stayed back far enough that I wouldn’t stand out, stopping now and then to pretend to window shop while keeping half an eye on the trio. They didn’t really seem to be in a hurry, and I was quickly starting to think the whole thing had been a waste of time. Simon was just hanging out at the mall, not doing anything nefarious. It was time to leave him alone and focus on the whole reason I’d donned this disguise.

Then it happened. As I was pretending to study a turtleneck on a very confident-looking mannequin, I saw Simon look at his watch once more. He said something to one of his friends, then beckoned with a finger while moving to a nearby employee’s only door midway between two different shops. Producing a ring of keys, he unlocked the door and headed through. The guy he beckoned to followed, while the other guy simply turned around, put his back to the wall beside the door, and waited. A lookout, apparently. 

Okay, now something was going on. Managing to stop staring before the guy by the door glanced my way, I straightened up and turned to meander that way, crossing the aisle to look at the opposite store. In reality, I was using the reflection in the window there to stare at that door. Approved Employees Only. That’s all it said. What were Simon and the other guy doing there? Why did they need someone to stand by the door and wait? And how could I get through it to find out? 

Right, first, I needed to distract the guy by the door. I… thought his name was Derrick, but I could’ve been something like Devon or Darius. I was going to go with Derrick for the moment. Derrick was checking his phone, idly looking up now and then but mostly just focused on texting or whatever he was doing. My guess was that his sole job was just to make sure no one else went through the door, so he didn’t have to pay attention to much beyond that. And I needed to make him stop doing even that much. This would be interesting. 

Thinking quickly, I looked down the mall to see a group of teen girls coming, arms loaded with bags. From the corner of my eye, I could see Derrick watching them too, with obvious approval at what he saw. Okay. Maybe I could use that. Yeah. Yeah, I could definitely use it. 

Pointing at my feet, I checked to make sure no one was watching before shooting a small blotch of red paint there. Leaving it, I casually walked that way, toward the incoming girls. As I passed them, a few more tiny shots of red paint hit the bags they were carrying. Then I just kept walking, passing a cart full of teddy bears for sale in the middle of the corridor before using that for cover. Picking up a bear, I watched as the girls neared Derrick and the spot of paint I’d left. Just as they were about to pass it, I activated the paint both there and on their bags. 

The result was immediate. The bags were ripped from the girls’ hands as they yelped in surprise. With a loud crash, they hit the floor, spilling their contents everywhere. The girls cried out, cursing even as Derrick jumped. 

I stood there, holding the bear in my hands as I watched the girls quickly drop to start gathering things. Under my breath, I murmured, “Go for it, Hot Shot. Come on, they’re cute girls. Help them. Do it. Come on.” 

“Dude.” A voice nearby cut in, and I blinked over to see the guy who was actually selling the bears staring at me. “Are you okay?” 

Jumping a bit, I saw Derrick moving to help the girls. Quickly, I pushed a twenty dollar bill into the man’s hand. “Thanks,” I murmured, “my girl’ll love it.” Then I moved around the cart, glancing over my shoulder to see the guy shrug and turn his attention down the hall to ask a passing couple if they wanted one. 

Derrick was still helping the girls pick up their things. His back was to the door, so I moved quickly past them. Giving one last quick look that way to make sure he wasn’t looking, I tried the door while praying silently. It was still unlocked. Breathing out, I quietly slipped through, closing it gently behind me before slowly looking around to see where it had led me. 

I was in a narrow corridor, with a gray floor and puke green walls. Ahead were a few closed doors, with another one at the end that had a little window in it. I moved that way, listening. 

Dumb, dumb. This was so dumb. What the hell was I doing? I was going to get caught. I was going to be in so much trouble. This was going to backfire. I needed to get the hell out of there, like right now before the whole thing completely blew up in my face. I had to leave. 

I went forward, carefully checking the side doors. They were locked, and I was pretty sure no one was in them. Quickly and quietly moving to the end of the hall, I chanced a peek through the small window to see what was there. Stairs. It was a landing, with stairs leading down. 

Biting my lip, I hesitated for a second before trying the door. Locked. And now I noticed the single white button beside the door. Was it a doorbell? A button to open the door? Something else? I didn’t know. I had no idea what might happen if I pushed the thing. The whole thing was seeming like more of a bad idea by the second. 

This was all so confusing. What the hell was my brother doing down there? Why were there stairs leading down in the first place? What could possibly be there? And why was I stalling instead of trying harder to get down there to find out? 

Because the last couple times I’d found my brother doing criminal things hadn’t gone too well, that’s why. The first time I’d seen two people get viciously executed, and the second time I’d found out that my dad was both a villain and my favorite superhero. So yeah, maybe I was a little hesitant to go through that door and see what new revelation popped up this time. 

Either fortunately or unfortunately, the decision about finding a way through the door was taken out of my hands then, as the sound of feet on the stairs made me look through that little window. People. My brother and some other guy, different from the one he’d gone in with. I could see the back of their heads as they came up the stairs toward the landing right before they would turn to come up the last set right to this door. 

Grimacing, I pivoted and looked around quickly. I couldn’t go out the door I’d come in. Derrick had to be right there by now. Instead, I moved to one of the side doors, the ones that were locked. Making my arm purple and activating the paint, I murmured a quiet prayer before shoving at the knob. 

It worked. The door popped open, and I quickly slipped through, giving a quick glance around to find myself in what looked like an old supply closet full of cleaning stuff that seemed like it hadn’t been touched in months, at least. There was a lot of dust, anyway. Hearing those footsteps reach the top of the stairs beyond the other door, I quickly and quietly closed the one for this room most of the way, leaving just a crack to see through. Then I paused, frowning. Hadn’t I been in a very similar situation just recently? When I went to save Ashton’s brother, I’d gone in a short hallway full of doors, then had to hide as one of the guys came back through the one at the end. Yeah, definite deja vu. 

I was really hoping this one wouldn’t end with me in a fight. 

Holding the door so that it stayed mostly closed, I listened as the one that had been locked beeped. There was a weird sound of rushing air from the other side as it opened before the footsteps came through, then the sound of air stopped as the door was closed. That was followed by a definitive sounding beep, then a metallic thunk that probably meant the door was fully locked again.

As soon as that was done, I heard my brother’s voice. “I don’t have time for this, man. You know the rules. Ten percent of the take from any job you do in the city just for permission to operate here. You’re operating here, that’s ten. You asked for the patrol schedules of the Spartans and Conservators for that day. That’s another twenty. Thirty percent. We know exactly how much you took and what it was worth. Thirty percent is forty-six thousand. Just be glad you didn’t ask for our direct intervention. That’s even more. Stop acting like this is some kind of surprise.” 

While I was taking that in, Simon and the other guy came into view. The latter was a tall, heavy-set guy with bulging muscles, a leather vest, and copious tattoos along his exposed arms. He looked like a biker. 

“It’s bullshit, man,” the guy was complaining as he stopped walking to look to my brother. “Why am I even talking to some punk bitch like you anyway?” He made a dismissive snorting sound, reaching up to catch him the shoulder. “Spoiled fucking rich kid. You ever even been in a fight, huh? You ain’t Touched, that’s for sure.” 

I saw my brother stiffen a bit at that. He went completely still, then pushed the man’s hand off his arm, voice turning a bit cold. “Tell you what. Hit me.” 

“Excuse you?” The man was staring at him. So was I, to be fair. 

“Hit me,” Simon repeated. “Just once. You hit me once, and I’ll call the entire debt clear.” 

“Bullshit you will,” his companion spat. 

Simon smiled, shrugging. “What’ve you got to lose? I mean, haven’t you wanted to hit me for awhile now? It’s kind of your best chance.” He spread his arms, taking a step back from the man that put him almost out of my sight. Then he closed his eyes and stood there, arms apart, eyes shut. “You’ll never get a better shot.” 

The man hesitated just for a second, then took a step that way and threw a vicious haymaker at my brother’s face. I very nearly blurted out a warning reflexively, but it died in my throat as Simon’s head turned just a little. The punch whiffed through the air. The guy threw another punch, and Simon did the same thing, his head snapping the other way. 

Frustrated by that point, the other man lashed out in a wild roundhouse swing, followed by a hard kick. Simon’s entire body tipped backward first, letting the punch sail just above his head. In the same motion, he pivoted and side-stepped a bit, allowing the kick to pass through the air where he had just been standing. It threw the man off balance, and he stumbled forward. With a roar of frustration, he produced a knife and spun to drive it toward Simon’s face before I even knew what was happening. But Simon just jerked his head backward out of the way, seeming to know that the blade had been brought into play. 

The man swiped with the blade twice more. Each time, Simon avoided it by stepping backward. His opponent was getting frustrated, and it showed, as he lunged at my brother with a shout, driving the knife toward his stomach. 

Pivoting away from the incoming knife, Simon’s hand snapped out to catch the man’s arm just as the blade slid past his chest. Gripping the man’s arm, he kicked out to knock his legs out from under him, then let the man fall while stripping the knife from his hand. 

Tossing the knife aside with a clatter, Simon breathed out. Only then did he open his eyes, having kept them closed through all of that. He stared down at the man on the ground, a long moment of tense silence passing before my brother eventually spoke. His voice was calm. “Looks to me like you have something in common with super powers.” He turned on his heel then, heading for the exit.

“I haven’t been touched by either of you.”

Previous Chapter                                      Next Chapter