Simon Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right? 

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quietly, Jae pointed out, “Her too.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You came.” 

Me? Was–was she talking to–

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

“Let’s get this party started.”

********

Patreon Snippets – Raindrop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Deals 13-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Izzy needed help getting ready. She was nervous about going to dinner with this reporter guy, obviously afraid that she was going to say or do something to embarrass my parents. I tried to reassure her while helping the girl get dressed and put her hair up, but I wasn’t sure how much good it did. That probably wasn’t helped by the fact that the poor kid seemed pretty tired. She kept yawning while we were getting our hair taken care of in the bathroom. Watching her open mouth in the mirror for the third time, I gently asked, “Are you still having nightmares?” 

Immediately, the poor kid flinched, mouth snapping shut as she looked down at the sink before shaking her head. “Not as much,” she murmured quietly. “It’s getting better.” 

“It’s okay, either way,” I hurriedly assured her. “I just mean, you know, if you need umm… anything.” This was really awkward and I finally shrugged helplessly. “Whatever I can do.” 

What I really wanted to do, of course, was tell her that she should talk to me about what was actually going on, what had happened to traumatize her, why my parents were putting her up, what… all of it. I wanted to know what her whole deal was, if I was right about at least one of her parents being a supervillain or what. I was really leaning heavily on that assumption, but I couldn’t be positive. Not without more information, but I was pretty sure pushing her would backfire. 

So, instead, I just helped her get ready and the two of us started out. On the way to the stairs, Izzy glanced at me. “Have you ever met these people? Your mom is, um, really intense about making a good impression.” Clearly afraid she had said something wrong, the girl quickly amended, “I mean, she didn’t do anything bad, or–or say anything, it was just–she’s umm…” 

“Intense, yeah.” Giving the poor kid a small smile (while inwardly lamenting that we were basically the same size) I assured her, “Don’t worry, I get it. She gets it too. And no, we haven’t met this reporter guy, or his family. Mom just always gets really into these kinds of dinner plans, especially when it’s someone who could hurt the family name, like… well, like a fancy reporter.”

Silently, I thought again about what kind of impression I could make on this guy if I wanted to make that kind of insane, family-ending leap. But how stupid would that be? If this guy was on my parents’ payroll, he wouldn’t do anything useful or helpful at all. And if he wasn’t, they’d kill him, and probably his family too, before they could even get up from the table. Either way, I wouldn’t accomplish anything at all other than blowing the fact that I knew the truth. Which would put both Izzy and me in danger. I didn’t believe for a second that I could take my dad in a fight if it came right down to it. Either physically or emotionally, come to think of it. I had no idea what would happen, but it would be bad. Nothing good could possibly come from taking that leap right now. 

Mentally pushing that aside, I reached out to touch the other girl lightly on the arm. “It’ll be okay. Trust me, we just have to play nice through dinner, be polite and all that. Then, after dessert, Mom will excuse us so they can talk business. We’ll probably have to entertain their kids, and I’m not sure how old they are. Either way, it’s bound to be more exciting than listening to the adults blab on and on, you know?” 

And boy, what I wouldn’t give to go back to a time when I actually believed that, when I really didn’t want to know everything my parents were talking about. Well, no. Even as I had that thought, I realized it was wrong. I didn’t actually want to go back to a time when I was completely clueless. I’d like to slide into a time when it was the truth, if that had been an actual option. But I did not want to be ignorant about what my family was really up to. I wanted my parents to stop being supervillains, yet I didn’t want to forget that they actually were. Complicated as this entire situation was, I would always choose to know the truth and move on from that, not erase my memories. 

The truth was a painful thing to stand on, but lies crumbled under your feet. 

Simon was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, all dressed up as well. He grinned at the two of us as we descended. “Well, well, someone looks all fancy and nice now. Oh, and I guess you’ll do in a pinch too, Booster.” He reached out to poke me in the forehead, laughing as I swatted his hand away before turning. “Come on, they got here a little early, so everyone’s in the dining room already.” Glancing over his shoulder, he teased, “Guess it was my job to make sure you didn’t go skateboarding into the room or something equally likely to make Mom’s head explode.” 

Scoffing at him, I retorted, “As if that’s the only way I could be embarrassing at this dinner. Please, give me a second and I’ll come up with something really good.” It was nothing but light banter, the kind my brother and I would have had at any time. But it brought a hard lump to my throat and a deep knot to my stomach. It hurt. It hurt because I could tease back and forth with him like this while knowing what he was really capable of, what he had really done. Hell, I didn’t even actually know all the things he had done, not for certain. I just knew some of what he was capable of. Even that was enough to make a shudder run through me at the thought. 

Simon didn’t notice, of course. By that point we had reached the doors to the dining room, and he stepped up, pulled the door open, and grandly gestured for the two of us to enter. “Presenting the princesses of the kingdom!” he announced in a loud voice, “Miss Izzy and Miss Cassidy.” 

Rolling my eyes at him, I gently took the other girl’s hand and stepped through into the dining room. We were still using the smaller one, with the table that sat ten (rather than the full-sized room suitable for thirty people), but for once we would actually be using the whole thing. Almost, anyway. There were supposed to be nine of us, between both my parents, Simon, Izzy, Lincoln Chambers, his wife, their twins, and me. 

Immediately after stepping into the room, I saw Mom and Dad sitting at their usual spots, with Dad at the end chair and Mom to his right. Simon’s chair was next to Dad, while mine was next to Mom. Izzy would sit next to me. 

But this time, of course, there were other people here. The first of whom drew my attention immediately. It looked like an old mountain man or lumberjack had wandered into our house. Seriously, he was a huge guy, taller than Dad, with long hair and a very thick beard. It looked like he should be galavanting around with a big blue ox or something. Was this the reporter? 

Apparently so, because the man turned to us and smiled. Any intimidation I might have felt at his initial appearance disappeared as I saw how gentle his eyes were. I didn’t know how else to explain it other than he looked kind and intelligent. Wow, no wonder he was such a good reporter. He was big enough to intimidate the people he needed to, and yet somehow immediately made me feel like I could trust him with that single look.

I couldn’t, of course, for all the reasons I’d already thought of. But still, that was really effective. If he really was on my parents’ payroll, they’d done an excellent job when they recruited him.  

Dad was already standing up. “Ah, Lincoln, this is my daughter, Cassidy. And this is the girl I told you about, Izzy Amor. Girls, this is Lincoln Chambers, and his wife, Joselyn.” 

My eyes moved then, finally looking away from the enormous figure to see the smaller woman seated next to him. She was blonde, with her hair cut short, and a slim yet athletic build. Her eyes seemed to evaluate me quickly, looking me up and down as though assessing… something, before she smiled. Just like her husband, it looked incredibly genuine and inviting. 

“Hello, Cassidy, Izzy,” Mrs. Chambers greeted us, rising immediately to extend her hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you. I feel as though half of my husband’s articles about your father have been little details about his son and daughter.” To Izzy, she added, “And then we end up visiting at the perfect time to meet you too.” 

The two of us shook her hand, then her husband’s, before the latter gestured. “And, lest we forget about our own kids long enough for them to make a break for the nearest pizza place…” 

My attention was drawn to the twins. A boy and a girl. They looked to be between Izzy and me in age, maybe fourteen or so. The boy had blond hair like his mother, thought it was kind of spiked up with what had to be a lot of gel. His sister’s hair was more like their father’s, dark and full, falling a little past her shoulders. 

“Cassidy, Izzy,” Mrs. Chambers announced, “this is Zed and Lexi. Kids, come say hi.” 

What followed, of course, was the always awkward forced meeting between teenagers in front of their parents. It was obvious that none of us really knew what to say, but I tried to push past that by telling them we could go check out the game room once dinner was over. That usually did the trick as far as breaking the ice went. This time was no different, though it was Lexi who seemed more interested in the games. Zed, on the other hand, asked about the full-sized basketball court he’d heard about. Which Simon took great joy in confirming the existence of and promised to take him to check out while ‘the girls played with the kid games.’ 

Leaning closer to Lexi, I stage-whispered, “He’s just jealous because he can’t beat Izzy or me in any of those ‘kid games’ no matter how much he tries.”

“And you can’t beat Izzy yourself,” Simon shot back pointedly. 

We bantered a little bit more, before sitting down to have dinner. Lexi, who was seated across from Izzy, started asking both of us if we’d ever played the competitive mode of one of those online first-person shooter/survival games. We hadn’t, but apparently she was really into it. She went on for a little bit about how she really wanted to join this tournament but they only allowed people who were at least sixteen. Apparently, she was afraid that the game would be out of style by that point. But she was still practicing all the time. Aaaalll the time, according to her mother’s teasing interjection. 

So yeah, between us talking about games, Simon and Zed having their whole sports discussion, and our parents talking back and forth from one end of the table to the other about other things, the dinner actually went pretty quickly. It was delicious, of course. My parents wouldn’t have stood for anything less in this kind of situation. But even disregarding that, Chef Claudio, Ethan, and Christiana had outdone themselves. They’d really pulled out all the stops, making me wonder just how much Mom and Dad had impressed on them how important this dinner was. 

Either way, we had dessert and then our parents dismissed us for the time being. They needed to talk about their own things. Simon took Zed off to check out all the gym stuff, while Izzy and I headed upstairs to play some games with Lexi. 

The girl wasn’t exactly exaggerating about training to join a professional e-sports team. She really was that good. I couldn’t touch her if my life had depended on it. Izzy had more luck, but even she only managed to win one out of every three games or so. 

Eventually, I told the other two that I was going to step out for some air for a minute, and that I’d bring back some drinks. I left them in the middle of their latest, even more intense match and headed into the hall. Being around my family like this, seeing the Chambers and having no idea if they were actually this nice and just being used by my family, or if they were secretly part of this whole thing… it was too much. I had to step outside, had to clear my head. 

In this case, going outside just meant walking to the end of the hallway and stepping out onto one of the many balconies overlooking the grounds. Letting the cooler evening air wash over me, I put my hands on the railing and leaned over to glance down before exhaling long and hard. So many thoughts, worries, and questions were running through my head, and I didn’t have a real answer for any of them. Honestly, what I wanted to do in that moment was fall into my bed and sleep for a good long while. Maybe a month or so. Not that it would help, though. I’d still have the same problems to deal with whenever I finally woke up. Closing my eyes and waiting, astonishingly, wasn’t going to make everything better. 

Hearing someone behind me, I turned to see Mr. Chambers stepping up to the sliding door. He offered me a smile, tapping the side of the door as though knocking. “Hey, mind if I join you for a minute? Your dad took a phone call and the women are busy.” 

“Oh, uhh, no, go ahead, sir.” Stepping back to give him room to step out onto the balcony, I asked, “How’s your trip so far? Getting any good stories?” 

“Working on it,” was his casual response, before the man put his own hands on the railing with an added, “Very nice place your family has here. You’re probably too young to really remember, but Detroit… it used to be a lot worse.” 

“Yeah, I’ve… you’re right,” I confirmed, “I’m too young, I never knew that Detroit. But we’ve learned about it in class, and some older people talk about what the city used to be like.” 

That earned me a raised eyebrow from the man, as he turned slightly. “You listen to older people? What kind of kid are you?” 

Flushing a little at that, I shrugged. “The kind who likes getting better than failing grades in history class and who doesn’t want my mom to throw a shoe at me for ignoring people.” 

Mr. Chambers chuckled, though it was almost more of a groan. “Don’t tell me that hard times Detroit is something you learn about in History. It makes me feel old, and that’s not fair. My own kids do that to me enough as it is.” 

“Okay,” I found myself teasing, “it was totally in current events class.” 

“Better.” With a small smile, the man looked at me a bit more seriously. “Your dad tells me you’re really into a lot of this extreme sport stuff.” When I nodded, he grimaced. “See, I’m safe with Lexi. The most dangerous thing she’s aiming toward is carpal tunnel. But I don’t know what I’d do if Zed was into that stuff instead of his precious basketball.” He winked at me, adding, “Guess that means you’ve got a pretty cool dad.”

A lot of thoughts running through my head at that point. But I pushed them all down, with some effort, and simply offered the man a small smile that I hoped looked genuine enough. “Don’t worry, he gets a little crazy at some of the risks I take too.”

“Oh yeah? Are you the one that’s the bad influence around here?” Mr. Chambers teased before adding, “Believe me, I don’t need the kids adding more gray hairs to my head. Their mother does that plenty enough on her own working for the LAPD.”

That made me do a quick double take, looking at the man suddenly. “Your wife’s a cop?”

“Why,” Mr. Chambers retorted, “you got active warrants?” He grinned at that before watching me, squinting very slightly. “You okay?”

Now I had even more thoughts running through my head. If his wife was a cop, did that make it more or less likely that they were working for my parents? Or that one of them was. Could she be working for them without him knowing? Or the other way around? What did it mean?

Somehow, I forced all of that down and focused on shrugging at the man. “Sure, I was just wondering how you could worry about one of your kids getting into extreme sports when your wife has a job like that. Seems like you’d be inoculated against it.”

There was a very brief pause where I felt like the man was examining me more thoroughly. Then he seemed to shake away whatever he’d been thinking and chuckled. “Yeah, you’d think so. Guess I’m just a worrywart.”

“Well, while you’re warting,” I very hesitantly asked, “do you ever worry about something happening to your kids because of what you and your wife do? I mean, with all the criminals you piss off.” 

That, obviously, made the man give a doubletake. “Well, damn, Miss Evans,” he managed, “you don’t go for the easy, weather and traffic-type questions, do you?” 

Blanching a bit, I shook my head. “Sorry. You don’t have to answer. It’s just… my parents don’t do anything dangerous like that and even I get worried about them, like when they go on long trips. It sounds like you and your wife do some dangerous things.” 

For a moment, Mr. Chambers just looked at me. It seemed like he was sorting through his thoughts and also trying to decide just how real to be. Finally, the man exhaled. “Believe me, we take precautions. But when it comes down to it, we help people. People who wouldn’t have that help. We look at our kids and yeah, it scares us to think about something happening to them. But it also makes us think about all the other kids out there who don’t have someone looking out for them, and all the parents who can’t. We’re lucky. A lot of people aren’t. Every time I worry about what might happen to my children or wife, it reminds me of all the stuff that has happened to other children and wives. Stuff that won’t get dragged into the light if someone doesn’t do the dragging.” 

“He’s right.” That was Joselyn Chambers, his wife. She stood in the doorway to the balcony, offering me a small, yet genuine smile. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop. I was just looking to see where my husband wandered off to.” Focusing on me after reaching up to affectionately rub the man’s shoulder, she added, “We do worry about our children, just as yours do when they have to leave you to go on their business trips. Or even just when they send you off to school in the morning. Watching you walk out there while they know the kind of things that can happen, even with all their money and protection… I promise, it’s one of the hardest things in the world. And seeking out so many of those terrible things, seeing them with our own eyes? It’s terrifying. But we can’t leave it alone. Because leaving it alone wouldn’t make it better. When you see that someone is in danger, turning your back and walking away doesn’t solve anything. Turning off the light so you don’t have to watch only gives evil the ability to work in the dark. I didn’t become a cop to put my family in danger. I did it because that danger exists, regardless of what or where I am. It’ll always be there, lurking in the shadows. So you take away the shadows. You turn on the lights. You expose the evil. You face it. And you deal with it.” 

A long, silent moment passed then, before Mr. Chambers coughed. “Little heavy for the sixteen-year-old, babe.” 

Blinking twice, with a look that made it seem as though she had forgotten just who she was talking to, Mrs. Chambers gave a short nod. “Ah, sorry. Got lost in my own head there.” Offering me a slightly self-conscious smile, she amended, “The point is, we’re working to make the world better for our kids. Just like yours are.” 

“Well,” I murmured while turning to look away, staring up at the sky while her words about exposing evil rang through my head. “Not just like…” Belatedly, I added, “My dad’s not a reporter. And my mom is definitely not a cop.” 

The three of us stayed out there for another minute or two, just watching the grounds. Then Dad came to find them so they could finish their conversation, and I headed down to get the drinks I had promised the others.

Before long, this whole thing would be over and I would take a little nap before heading out to meet Murphy and Roald so I could tell them about working for Wren. 

Wait, did that technically make them minions? Was… was I press-ganging a couple desperate teenagers into being my minions?

I might be a worse hero than I thought. 

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Pink 12-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow was going to be a long day. 

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pink 12-01 (Summus Proelium)

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It was a good thing that the next day was Saturday, because there was no way I was going to be able to go to school. I was completely out of it, dead to the world (metaphorically rather than literally thanks to Pack and the others) until almost noon. Even then, it felt as though only a few minutes had passed from the time I closed my eyes to the time I woke up staring blearily at the outline of bright, middle-of-the-day sunlight coming in through my closed blinds. 

For another couple minutes, I just lay there, staring at the hints of light while trying to get my mind around everything that had happened the day before. After being abducted and nearly killed by the Scions, rescued by Pack, That-A-Way, Broadway, and Skip working together, having to lie to my parents by making up a story about where I’d been all night (and subsequently being examined by a doctor), being punished by having the time it would take me to get an actual car extended, and what else…? Oh right, telling Pack and That-A-Way about the secret organization running both the good and bad guys in the city without actually mentioning that the people at the head of that organization were my own freaking parents

Yeah. It was a lot. I’d had a busy day. No wonder I’d slept so long. It was a wonder I wasn’t some gibbering wreck in the corner, to be honest. And I still hadn’t been able to find Bobby, even though that had been the entire point of that endeavor. Though I did have that code off the toys that I’d found in the cabin. A code for something I didn’t know anything about. Oh, and of course, Eits was still hurt. Eits had been hurt because I asked him to look into that for me. 

That thought, of Eits lying there in that bed, made my eyes close. I shuddered a little, terrified just at the memory of seeing him like that. Knowing that he was there because of me was just… too much. I couldn’t stand it. And I couldn’t lay there anymore. I had to distract myself from that. 

A sudden weight shift on the bed made me jump. Izzy was there, picking herself up from the bottom of my bed, where she had apparently laid down. “Sorry,” she managed, blushing a little. “I was waiting for you to wake up but I guess I… fell asleep.”

Even as she said it, the girl was yawning. Which made me realize, “Wait, you were… you were up for a long time waiting for me, weren’t you?” Saying that, I felt a renewed rush of guilt go through me. The thought of Izzy sitting up, worried for so long without any way of knowing where I was or what had happened, somehow it made me feel even worse than I had about making my parents worry. Izzy hadn’t asked to be involved with any of this, she was innocent. 

A slight flinch crossed the younger girl’s face before she admitted hesitantly, “I tried to cover for you, but it umm… it didn’t work.” Looking guilty, she stared at me with wide eyes. “I’m sorry.” 

“You’re…” I had to do a double-take at that, staring right back at her. “You’re sorry? What–Izzy, no.” Quickly, I scooted down to that end of the bed to sit next to the other girl. “You don’t have to be sorry about anything. It was my fault.” Technically it was the Scions’ fault, but I’d never say that to her. “I’m the one who made a mistake. I’m the one who–never mind. It’s okay. You don’t have to feel guilty just because you couldn’t stop my parents from realizing I never came home. I promise, it’s okay.” With that, I put a hand on her shoulder. “So knock it off, alright?”

Izzy hesitated, looking at me with a surprisingly intense stare for someone who wasn’t even quite yet a teenager. Finally, she gave a short nod. “But you’re not in too much trouble?” 

I made myself shrug. “Yeah, I sorta have to wait longer before I finally get to drive once I pass my test and all that. I’ve been looking forward to it basically since I was old enough to know what a car was, and now it’s further away.” It wasn’t all that hard to make it sound like the punishment was as bad as it was supposed to be, because driving really had been incredibly important to me up until recently. I still wanted to, of course. I just… had bigger things to worry about. Much bigger things. But I could still make that sound pretty convincing. 

“I’m sorry,” Izzy quietly said once more, this time adding, “I hope your parents weren’t super mad.” 

“We worked it out,” I assured her. “But I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to go anywhere today. So, you wanna play some more of that game from before?” 

There was a moment of hesitation before she nodded. “Uhh, okay.”

“Great. But breakfast first,” I insisted. 

“I don’t like to get my butt kicked on an empty stomach.” 

******

So, I basically played games and watched movies with her all day. It was pretty much all I could stand to do with the pain in my side and how exhausted I felt. Not to mention how much my parents kept either checking up on us or having one of the staff do so. They also had me take several special pills that were supposed to help my body heal faster. It wasn’t like an instant cure or anything, but still. It also made me a little woozy and sleepy, another thing stopping me from going out or doing much. 

But that was okay, I needed the break. I would get back to everything else soon enough. For that one day, I just spent time with Izzy. That was good enough. 

Then it was Sunday, and I felt a little more like myself. After getting up, showering, and dressing, I emerged from the bathroom to find my dad there. He enthusiastically told me that he was taking Simon, Izzy, and me out to visit the racetrack just outside the city, and that we would make a day of it. We were going to get lunch, see some cars and races, tour the track, then get dinner. It was going to be a whole thing. And, of course, it would allow him to keep an eye on me to make sure I didn’t have any kind of lingering effects from that whole head injury thing. He didn’t actually say that part, but I picked up on it pretty easily. 

I also couldn’t really argue. Of course the old me would be ecstatic about going to see the cars at the track with my dad. If I tried to demur or wasn’t into it, he’d know something was wrong. He’d be even more suspicious. Hell, he might try to find out if I was some kind of shapeshifter  Touched who had stolen his real daughter, given the circumstances. So I had to do this, and make it seem like everything was just hunky-dory. No matter how much I really didn’t want to. 

Besides, Izzy was going, and there was no way I’d abandon her like that. I wasn’t going to leave her to go out with my father. Especially not when I still didn’t know what that whole situation was. If something happened to that girl while she was out with Dad and I wasn’t there, I… I’d feel even worse than I did about Eits getting hurt. 

So, I was going. I made a point of thanking my father, hugging him, promising that I would never do anything as stupid as skating alone in a construction zone again, then hurried into my bedroom. As soon as I was out of sight with the door closed, I turned off the excited act, the bright smile melting from my face as I turned to look in the mirror. Yeah, I was going to have to keep that up all day, wasn’t I? That was just great. 

“Cassidy?” The sound of Izzy’s voice from over by my window, where the other girl had been standing, made me jolt with surprise. That was the second time in less than twenty-four hours that she’d startled me. When my gaze jerked that way, her face was scrunched up uncertainly. “Are you really okay? You…” Again, there was a brief hesitation, as if she wasn’t sure she should actually say anything. “You looked sad.”

Quickly, I bobbed my head. “Yeah, sorry, I was just thinking about… stupid things. No big deal. Seriously, how could I be sad when we’re going on this awesome little daytrip, right? You–wait, do you even like cars?” It only occured to me at that moment that this whole thing might not actually be much of a fun event for her if she wasn’t actually into this stuff the way I was. 

Sure enough, the other girl offered me a helpless shrug, looking self-conscious. “They’re okay,” she offered weakly. “I mean, your parents have a lot of really pretty cars, but I don’t know what the big deal is about engines and models and all that. It goes vroom and takes people places.” 

“Goes vroom and–” Adopting a scandalized look, I poked her. “Yeah, trust me, there’s a lot more to it than that. Good thing we’ve got today to get you into it.” Winking then, I added, “It’s okay if you’re really not though. Maybe it’ll still be nice to get out of the house and walk around? Plus, they have some pretty good snacks at those places. Suuuuper buttery popcorn. And the places my dad’s gonna take us to for lunch and dinner… oh believe me, you don’t wanna miss that.”

“Okay, okay,” Izzy retorted with a little snicker, clearly realizing how much I was trying to play it up for her. “You’re right, I do want to get out of this place. I want–” She stopped abruptly, though it had been clear that she’d been about to say something important. But then something flashed across her face. It was a weird expression, like… sad and lost, but also furious. Then it went away just as quickly as it had appeared. 

“Izzy?” I pressed just a little bit, not even thinking about my own things in that moment. Not after the brief flash of whatever that was that I’d seen in her eyes at that moment. Izzy was really upset about something. Not an immediate thing, but… but something. Even though I’d only known her for a very short time, seeing her look like that made me want to find whoever made her feel that way and… and do bad things. “Are you okay?” Now I felt like our positions had flipped. It was me asking her if she was alright after I’d seen an expression on her face. 

Wait, did that mean that whatever she was going through was similar to what I was going through? Did… was one of Izzy’s parents or another family member a supervillain? Maybe Izzy had found out and that was why she was here, being kept safe from Touched on either side and the authorities. Could that explain the vulnerable, yet angry look I’d seen, and everything else? 

It could. It really could. I couldn’t really think of any part that it didn’t cover. Izzy finding out that someone really close to her, my guess was one or both parents, was a supervillain and then being ‘protected’/hidden away… it would make sense. It gelled with everything I’d seen and answered a lot of questions. Especially about why she seemed so open sometimes, but also guarded. And why she would be especially sensitive to any relationship I had with my own parents. That made a disturbing amount of sense. 

Yeah, I was pretty sure that was it. But who? Who was Izzy’s supervillain parent or parents? That was all I could think about as the two of us left my bedroom and headed downstairs to where Dad and Simon were already waiting in the main foyer by the front door. I was distracted from those thoughts as both of them loudly and (clearly intentionally) obnoxiously complained about how long it had taken for us to finally join them, making a whole production out of it. 

“See?” I started conversationally while looking at the younger girl beside me. “This is why going to someplace with a lot of noise like a racetrack is a good idea. Because it’s so loud you can’t hear the boys whining all the time.” Saying that, I winked, pointedly ignoring the wounded sounds and looks while Izzy snickered.

“Okay, okay,” Dad began with a shake of his head. “Let’s get this show on the road. Jefferson’s bringing Big Sal around, and you know how much of a bad idea it is to make that man wait.” 

Yeah, apparently even my own father didn’t like to take our time-obsessed driver off his schedule. Obviously most of that was just playing with us around, but still. Jefferson was not a man who enjoyed surprises or things that made him late once his day was planned. 

We moved out of the house to the front drive, where Big Sal (our imposing black SUV with heavily tinted windows) pulled up just in time for Jefferson to step out, walk around to briefly open and walk away from the back door for the rest of us who didn’t literally sign his paycheck, then open the front passenger door and hold it for my father to get in. 

Izzy and I climbed in the back, while Simon took the middle seat and immediately shoved his earbuds in before losing himself in music. Once Dad was in his seat, Jefferson closed that door, closed our door, then walked around to the driver’s side. A moment later, we pulled out. 

We were driving away from the house in Big Sal. I’d asked my dad about the SUV before, and he’d told me that this thing had enough armored plating and reinforced glass to take multiple tank rounds while barely showing a scratch. It was rated to keep presidents and royalty safe. 

I wondered if he had any reason for us to travel in this today other than just wanting to have enough seats for Izzy. We had plenty of cars. Was there another reason for having this particular one? Was it just that we were taking her away from home and Dad wanted to be safe, or something else? Was there more to this whole trip today? Or was I just being paranoid? 

Either way, I would keep my eyes open. And just hope that nothing crazy happened while we were out on this little trip. I could really use a break, after everything that happened the day before yesterday. And I also needed to sneak away at some point and buy a new phone so I could contact Pack to find out how Eits was doing. Not to mention checking in with Wren, actually meeting with Pack and That-A-Way to figure out how the three of us were going to sneak into that secret base under the mall, piece together what the code on those toys was for, find Bobby, piece together my missing memories, find out what Paige’s whole deal was and how she was connected to that Anthony kid who had apparently been my friend, and, and…

I had a lot to do. Too much. But I needed a break right now. Besides, if I bailed on this trip, Dad really would be suspicious. So I was stuck here, cooling my heels, metaphorically speaking. I had to act like I didn’t have anything important to do, no matter how much stuff was piling up waiting for me to get on with it. I had to reassure my father that everything was just fine first. 

On the way, I thought about my whole theory about Izzy’s family member being Fell-Touched. It still all fit as far as I could tell. She was Latina. Did that mean that one of her parents was a member of Oscuro? It basically had to, right? The odds were really high that way, in any case. If Izzy had a family member who was part of Oscuro, that would explain why my parents were keeping her secreted away. Despite my (totally understandable, damn it) paranoia, I was increasingly certain that they really did care about Izzy and were protecting her. They might have been horrible people in many ways, who did a lot of horrible things, but in this case, I was fairly certain they weren’t the bad guys. So they had to be protecting her from someone else who was dangerous, and Cuélebre was pretty high up that list. 

Except did they really have to protect her? Everything else I knew about their organization, this ‘Ministry’, said that all they’d have to do was tell Cuélebre to leave her alone. So what else was I missing? There was some really obvious thing that would immediately fill in all the blanks here, but I was just missing it. 

I was distracted then, as Dad passed something back to Simon, and he passed it to me. It was a new phone, just like the old one. At least, on the surface. I was going to go over it with a fine tooth comb to make sure it wasn’t reporting anything back to my parents after the scare I’d given them. Not that I’d done Touched stuff on my normal phone in the first place, but I didn’t want it telling them where I was all the time. Any more than normal phones did, anyway. The point was, I was going to make sure this phone hadn’t been tampered with before I took it with me anywhere sensitive. Actually, it was probably safest to just leave that phone wherever I left my clothes from now on. I could easily set up a thing to forward calls from that to my Touched-business phone. Yeah. If Pencil hadn’t destroyed my phone’s ability to connect to the towers and my parents had checked where I was? That would have been really bad. 

Well, it also might’ve been good, if it had helped Dad dump a whole bunch of troops on top of the Scions. But bad in other ways. 

Eventually, we reached the racetrack. It was an enormous facility, the arena itself enclosed behind heavy walls with a retractable ceiling for bad weather, a giant garage along the side opposite the entrance where extra work could be done, and two whole car museums attached to either end. The western museum was dedicated to ‘normal’ vehicles throughout history, while the eastern museum was dedicated to showcasing vehicles created, inspired, and/or used by Touched. There was a lot of Tech-Touched stuff in the eastern museum, special stuff developed throughout the past twenty years. I’d spent a lot of time in both museums ever since I was a little kid. Not to mention all the time I’d spent in the stands, watching the eclectic assortment of souped up vehicles speeding past. Tech-Touched liked to bring their vehicles here from all over the world during open-powers races to show off what they could do. It was a lot of fun to watch, and I was excited to see another one now despite my own reservations about everything else. 

Jefferson parked, and we got out. Dad made a broad gesture. “Alright, come on then. Let’s show Izzy how we like to have a good time.” 

And at that moment, I was so into this whole thing that I managed to resist the urge to ask how many teenagers we’d have to kill before Dad and Simon would start enjoying themselves.

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Ready 11-07 (Summus Proelium)

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There was a commissioned interlude posted on Monday covering a look at the in-universe Sphere Online Forum. If you have not seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

At one point when I was younger, before I was even in high school, Simon had told me that the best way to tell a lie was to make it one that still made you look bad. Basically, if you wanted someone to believe the lie, you couldn’t make yourself come out looking perfect. The best lies, according to my brother, were the ones that made the person telling them look at least somewhat in the wrong or bad. You could avoid telling the very damaging truth by telling a less damaging lie. But never try to get off scot-free. That just made people suspicious. People tended to believe you when you confessed to doing something wrong. 

Of course, these days I knew just why my brother was such a connoisseur of lying. But it was still sound advice, nonetheless. Even if the thought of what kind of things he’d needed to hide from me at the time made my stomach turn itself into knots and brought bile to my throat. 

Ignoring that, I focused on the advice itself. I’d been thinking about what lie I was going to tell my parents the whole time that I was on my way home, and preparing for it. Sure, I’d hoped I could get into the house without my absence being noted, but hoping for the best and preparing for the worst was a good motto. So, I’d rehearsed what I could say if this moment actually came, and here it was. 

Shifting and fidgeting on my feet like a little kid who was afraid of getting in trouble, but also scared in general (an easy role to play, given the circumstances), I rubbed my hand against my arm. “I umm… I was just…” Swallowing, I peeked up at the two of them, quickly blurting, “I’m sorry, I know it was stupid and everything. But I really wanted to try and I thought I could do it and it’d look really cool but then I screwed up and it hurt and I didn’t mean to stay out so long but–” I made sure to ramble almost but not quite incoherently, as though I was trying to tell the story from three or four different points and jumbling everything together. It would sound far less rehearsed that way. Which was the exact reason why I’d thought up what I would claim happened without rehearsing specifics. I was pretty sure that was my only chance to make it work. 

Mom quickly shook her head, moving her hands to my shoulders while kneeling right there in front of me. “Principessa, we’re not angry with you. My beautiful girl, we were afraid. We were so afraid. We…” She hesitated, exchanging a brief look with my father before looking back to me, her voice that same gentle, caring tone that made it so hard for me to see her as this merciless, evil supervillain. “Just tell us where you’ve been. We’ve had the police look for you, we had Simon–oh dear, call Simon.” She added that last bit with a nod toward Dad. “We asked the Jacksons if they’d heard from you. No one had. No one knew where you were.” Her voice was trembling a bit, and I immediately felt guilty about making my mother that upset. Which… was a weird feeling, given what I knew about them. What about all the people she’d upset? 

Still, I had to press on. So, I gave them the story that I’d come up with to explain my absence, in a halting, nervous, almost shell-shocked voice. “I was skating out where they’re building that water park on the north-west end of town. You know, the one that umm, the one that’s been on hold with all that union stuff or whatever?” I knew damn well they knew which one I meant, considering my father was one of the financers for that particular development. I’d heard the two of them talking about it a few times here and there. From what I knew, they weren’t exactly happy about the delays. Which made me worry about the people who were opposing it. 

Sure enough, my parents exchanged brief looks before Dad nodded. “Yes, we know it. And we also know that that’s not the north-east part of town, that’s out of town. A couple miles out of town.” 

Cringing a little (again, not a hard thing to fake), I nodded. “Yeah, I… I took an Uber out there. They dropped me off.” 

Dad was squinting at me with narrowed eyes, finally starting to get over his initial relief that I was in one piece. “You had them drop you off to skate in a construction zone outside of the city? Cassidy, you…” He exhaled. “Didn’t we talk about skating in established areas? And being safe. I swear the words ‘be safe’ have come out of my mouth.” 

Wincing visibly under their stares, I nodded and squirmed before reaching down to grab the skateboard with the partially broken wheel that I’d bought from that guy while waiting for my cab. “I-I’m sorry, I just really thought it looked cool. You know, there’s all kinds of equipment and partially filled pool foundations, the cement pieces where the slides are supposed to go, stuff like that. It was empty and quiet, so I thought I could just skate around for awhile and clear my head. I just… wanted to try it. I’m sorry, it was stupid.” 

Mom’s mouth opened, and the way her expression twisted just a little made me think she was going to yell at me. In the end, however, she caught herself, hissing out a wordless sound of annoyance and distress instead. A few long seconds of that passed before she managed to form a coherent response. “Cassidy Sofia Evans, do you have any idea how–what… What happened?” She finally settled on the last bit after Dad put a hand gently on her back. 

“I’m not sure,” I managed, turning the skateboard over so they could see the broken wheel. Then I leaned over to pick up the dented helmet. “I was skating and then I dropped down into one of the pool foundations and… and the wheel snapped or something. I just… I just laid there for awhile. It hurt. Then I got up and tried to call for a ride, but…” After a moment of hesitation, I showed them the phone that I had smashed. “I had to walk back to the city. I used the phone at a gas station to call for a ride once I was close enough, but… but it takes a lot longer to walk back than driving, and that development is way out there so I was kinda going through the middle of nowhere.” 

Biting my lip hard, I glanced up to look at them with an added, “I’m really sorry. I know it was dumb, I just didn’t think it would be that bad. I was…” My face twisted a little as I repeated, even more weakly, “I’m really sorry.” 

My parents didn’t respond at first. Dad just brushed his hand over my hair, staring at the helmet and the board in my hands while looking almost like he wanted to snap both in half. Finally, he exhaled sharply. “That’s… that’s all? You had an accident, broke your phone, and had to walk back to the city?” 

“That’s all?” Mom started incredulously, looking at him like he’d just transformed into a green and purple bunny before hopping around on a pogo stick. 

Dad, in turn, gave her a brief, silent look. I wasn’t supposed to know what he was saying with it, but I did. He was reminding my mother that there were far worse situations I could have been in, given the things they were into. He’d clearly thought up all sorts of nasty things that could’ve happened to me. So getting this (hopefully believable) answer that I’d just been a dumb kid and hurt myself actually was a relief. 

Once they’d exchanged those looks, Dad looked at me. “Are you okay?” His voice cracked just a little as he asked that, clearly remembering the way I’d yelped when he tried to hug me, his fingers very gingerly feeling along my head for a knot or a bruise. 

Wincing a little when he did that, I nodded. “I’m okay, I swear. I’m bruised and everything, but I can remember my name. I remember what day it is, what the president’s name is, our address, all that stuff. I can say the alphabet backwards even though I think that’s more a drunk test than a damaged brain test. I’m okay. Nothing’s broken.” 

“We’re still calling Dr. Roev to examine you,” Mom declared. She gave me a look when I started to protest. “We are calling Dr. Roev, end of discussion. He’ll tell us if you need to go to the hospital. And then we’ll go from there. Don’t argue, you’re already in trouble, young lady. Big trouble.” 

“That’s right,” Dad agreed. “We know grounding doesn’t exactly hold much weight. Not with your room being everything it is, the two of us being so busy, and everything else. And you’re sixteen years old, you shouldn’t need to be grounded. But how’s this? A one month extension onto getting your car. That means instead of getting a car and driving as soon as you get your license, now you wait one month past that.” 

Wow. Not so long ago, getting my licence and my car had been basically everything in the world to me. Now, the reminder that it would be coming up fairly soon was actually surprising. Of course, I still wanted to drive. I wanted my own car and now I was being told that I would have to wait a full month longer than I was supposed to. If things had still been normal for me, that one month extension would have been one of the worst possible (still reasonable) punishments my parents could give me. But in the wake of everything, it just seemed like such small potatoes. 

Still, I had to play it up, so I made my expression fall as if that crushed me. “Whaaat? But I–” 

“No.” Mom quickly cut me off, putting a finger to my lips. “No arguing. Not now. Not…” Trailing off, she leaned in to hug me as tightly as she dared. “Oh, my beautiful girl. You’re okay. You’re safe. Grazie a Dio.” Her voice was shaking just a bit before she straightened and took my hand to lead me to the gate. “Come, we’ll call Dr. Roev and make sure you’re actually safe.” 

Unfortunately, there still wasn’t much I could do to argue about that idea. If I pushed too hard not to have the doctor examine me, I’d just make them more suspicious again. Thankfully, they were having him come to check me out and not going into the hospital for a full-on battery of tests. I’d just have to be satisfied that they weren’t doing blood work or anything like that. 

Dad stayed back to say something to the police officer and the guys in suits. I just assumed that all of them were on my family’s payroll. They’d probably been mobilizing to find out if any of their (our?) enemies had actually grabbed me. Which made me wonder briefly what they’d actually do if that ever happened. Actually, what would I do? Would I find a way to escape from someone who knew me as Cassidy without revealing my powers? Or would I wait to be rescued? 

On our way up the long walk toward the house, Mom was quiet at first before finally asking me in a gentle voice, “Do you… resent having another girl around right now?” When I looked at her, she put a hand on my shoulder to squeeze, expression worried. “If having Izzy here is upsetting you, if it makes you feel as though you can’t be here and have to go out to have privacy…” 

“What?” My eyes widened and I quickly shook my head. “No! No, that’s not it at all, I swear. I like having Izzy around. Seriously, don’t–don’t send her away or anything. I promise, that’s not it. I mean it’s nothing. There’s nothing to be ‘it.’ I just thought it’d be cool to practice my skating in a place like that. You know, with all those huge empty pools and ramps and stuff. I thought I could try some new tricks out there, that’s all. I thought it’d be fun.” 

Only after I’d said all that did I have the thought that telling them I didn’t want Izzy around might have been the better way to go for the girl herself. It might’ve gotten her out of this place and over to… to… where? I still didn’t know what that exact situation was or why she was here. If my parents had her here because they were protecting her from some other enemy of theirs or… something, having her sent away was worse than having her here. God, this was complicated.

Mom’s eyes studied me for a moment through that, clearly trying to see if I was hiding some deep-seated resentment of the girl they had taken in. Finally, she gave a short nod, her expression softening considerably as she touched the side of my face once more. “My beautiful girl. If there is anything you ever want to talk about, anything at all, you can come to me. Or to your father. We love you, Cassidy. Tell us if you need anything, do you understand?” 

“Yes, Mom,” I quietly agreed, shifting a little on my feet before adding, “I’m sorry. I… I didn’t mean to make you worry so much. I won’t go skating in a place where no one can find me like that again.” And I was really hoping I wouldn’t end up in a situation where I needed another excuse for disappearing for hours (or even longer) again. Because if it did, I was pretty sure I’d end up chained to my bedroom or something, which might make being Paintball somewhat harder to pull off. 

We made it inside, Dad joining us at the door after giving his instructions to the men. Once there, we went to the kitchen and my parents insisted that I eat something while we waited for the doctor. So, I had a sandwich. Then another one. I was actually famished after everything that had happened. Having actual food in my stomach made me feel a bit better, though I was still worried about what the doctor would say. All I could do was hope that he wouldn’t find anything that completely blew my entire story out the window. If he did, I didn’t know what I’d do.

For the moment, all I could do was sit there, eat my sandwiches, and wait to see what happened. Throughout all that, Mom and Dad asked me questions about how I felt, where it hurt most, how tired I was, and more. Part of me wondered how much of that was them reassuring themselves that I was here and safe, and how much was them wanting to keep me awake until that doctor of theirs could give me that full check-up. Probably equal parts of both, really. 

Finally, Dr. Roev showed up. He was a tall guy, almost six and a half feet, with pale skin dotted with freckles, a cheerful face with bright red cheeks, and a full head of bushy brown hair. He asked me to stand up, used his little penlight thing on my eyes while asking me to look various directions, checked my heart rate with his stethoscope, felt along my ribs, and used some kind of Tech-Touched imaging device along my head to check for any concussion or brain bleeding or whatever. He also used the same imaging device along my chest to check for broken bones or internal bleeding there, all while having me talk to him. First it was just about what happened, then about myself. He wanted me to tell him my favorite movies, books, what games I liked to play, about people I knew at school, things like that. 

Finally, the doctor straightened and addressed both me and my parents. “No concussions. She’s lucky. She’s clearly taken a bit of a head injury, but she should be okay there. Looks like she cracked a couple ribs and has a lot of bruising. Whatever she hit impacted the most right about here.” He indicated the left side of my sternum, where it hurt the most. “Ice it, get plenty of sleep, and make sure you take a really deep breath and let it out, or cough really hard at least once an hour while you’re awake. When you’re lying down, if you sleep on your side, lay on the injured one. I know, I know, that sounds odd. But lay on your injured side so you can breathe better. Don’t tape it up or anything, that’s bad. Just ice it now and then and make sure you take some ibuprofen or something for the pain. Don’t try to be a hero.” 

Oh, now he told me that last part. I managed a short nod. “Thank you, sir.” 

“Any time, kid.” He winked at me before turning to my parents. “She’ll be okay other than that. Make sure those ribs heal properly. I’d give it a few weeks before she does anything too strenuous again, just to be on the safe side.” 

Dad ruffled my hair, saying something about how I would never be skating by myself in a vacant development again. Then he escorted the doctor to the door while Mom stayed with me. She asked me how I was feeling, then told me to get some sleep and that no one would bother me. Which sounded great to me. All I wanted to do was fall down and stay unconscious for a few weeks. A few hours would have to be enough. 

When Dad came back, he had Simon with him. My brother gave me a hug, called me an idiot, and then Mom told him to take me up to bed. I resisted the impulse to argue that I didn’t need an escort. Instead, I hugged both my parents, promised repeatedly never to do anything that stupid again, and went with Simon. On the way, we grabbed a bottle of heavy-duty pain meds. 

Once we were upstairs, Simon shook his head at me. “You know, if you pull something like that again, Mom and Dad are gonna duct tape you to a chair and just have me wheel you to school. Which is gonna suck, cuz I’ve got my own shit to take care of. So don’t put me through that.” 

Flushing a bit despite myself, I nudged him with my foot. “Thanks, Simon. Love you too.” 

He left me there, and I checked on Izzy next door. She was asleep in her bed, so I went back to my own room, downed a couple Ibuprofen without bothering to turn the lights on, and then sighed while flopping down onto my bed. 

Ow, that was a mistake. There were things in my pockets. Reaching down, I tugged out those two toy planes and the action figure. I’d shoved them in there while changing clothes without even thinking about it. Now, I pulled them out before blinking a bit. In the dark like this, a bit on each toy was glowing. It was glow-in-the-dark paint. Just a little bit on each toy, enough for two small numbers. On the action figure was a six and a two. On the normal fighter jet was a three and a nine, and on the alien-painted fighter was a four and a weird, yet somehow familiar symbol. It looked like a capital E with a diagonal line from the right end of the top horizontal line down to the inside of the bottom corner, crossing through the middle horizontal line on its way. I knew that symbol, but I couldn’t remember from what. I had seen it before, and recently, but… where? Six, two, three, nine, four, and then a weird symbol. It was a combination or a code, or something like that. 

But… a code for what? And why was that crossed through E symbol so familiar? I knew I’d seen it recently. But where?

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Friends and Enemies 8-04 (Summus Proelium)

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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.”

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Interlude 7B – Molly and Ryder (Summus Proelium)

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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.

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Showdown 7-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“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.

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Alliances 6-09 (Summus Proelium)

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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.”

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