Simon Evans

Kith And Kin 20-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For now. 

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter

Kith And Kin 20-02 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But at least I knew exactly where my brother was. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 18B – Eits and Simon (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who the hell is Errol Fosters?” 

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Building Connections 16-07 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Building Connections 16-05 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********* 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Trust 15-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right? 

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quietly, Jae pointed out, “Her too.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You came.” 

Me? Was–was she talking to–

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

“Let’s get this party started.”

********

Patreon Snippets – Raindrop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

New Deals 13-10 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

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 realthly 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, though 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. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Pink 12-04 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter                                   Next Chapter

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 I’d gotten myself hurt because I couldn’t back down from a dare to prove how tough I was like 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.

Previous Chapter                                   Next Chapter