Sterling Evans

Trust 15-10 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

I couldn’t breathe. There was a loud, tinny sound flooding my ears, a whistle that seemed to get worse the longer I stared at my parents. For just a moment, I forgot I had the mask and helmet on and almost blurted, ‘Dad, Mom?’ only to stop myself at literally the very last possible instant. I had to bite my lip hard enough that I almost yelped. Which would’ve been another thing to explain. For all I knew, that dull whine in the back of my head was actually audible, and coming from me. Wouldn’t that be a fantastic demonstration of keeping my cool under pressure, by standing in front of my parents literally audibly whining in some mix of terror and anxiety. It was perfect, they’d definitely never guess that I knew things I shouldn’t then! My poker face was a steel vault! 

But apparently I was better at hiding my reaction than I thought, because my mother and father never hesitated. Slowing only once they neared, Dad extended a hand and offered me his trademark winning smile that had graced so many magazine covers. “Hey there, it’s Paintball, right? Nice to meet you. Sounds like you’ve been making a real splash out there lately.” 

Oh God, he was still holding his hand out. What was I gonna do? What was I supposed to do?!

You’re supposed to shake his hand, idiot, I thought, snapping out of my shock just enough to raise my hand and accept his firm grip. Fuck, fuck, don’t shake his hand like Cassidy would. 

Cassidy doesn’t shake his hand, she’s his daughter, you maroon. Just shake his hand normally!

Shoving all those thoughts (and more) away and doing my best to focus, I moved to shake my own father’s hand, only to freeze briefly as another rush of panic ran through me. What the fuck was I supposed to say to either of them? Were they using that illusion thing? Was I supposed to be seeing them as who they really were, or under some kind of disguise? If I greeted them as who they were, and they were using an illusion, that would… yeah, that would be really bad. 

Fortunately, I was saved by Richard Mornes, whose departure had been interrupted by their arrival. With a chuckle, the man spoke up. “Not sure how much attention the kid pays to old fogey rich folks. Or to money in general. He’s got terrible financial sense.” With that, he stepped over, gesturing. “Paintball, this is Sterling and Elena Evans.” 

Oh, thank God. At least that answered that. A weird rush of relief mixed with even more terror (it was still my parents and I had to pretend I didn’t know them) washed through me while I took my dad’s hand and managed a belated, “Uh–right, sorry, Mr. Evans. It’s just, when my fortune teller said I’d have dinner with someone incredibly rich this week, I was really hoping for Scrooge McDuck.” 

That was good, right? That was sort-of good? I was making a joke, just like Paintball would. Sure, it was a bit lame, but so were a lot of my jokes. At least I was trying. And I was a little distracted by all the my parents were standing right in front of me. The fact that I’d actually managed to pull out a rich figure’s name, even a fictional duck, was pretty much a miracle.

Dad’s grip was firm, though not painfully so. It was the handshake of a man who made hundred million dollar deals regularly, the handshake of someone who knew exactly how strong he was (both literally and figuratively) and didn’t need to show off by crushing someone’s hand or jerking them back and forth. He kept it up for just a moment, barely long enough to make the person (me, in this case) feel like they had his full attention and focus, like they mattered. Then he released and moved his other hand out to guide Mom forward by the shoulder. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. Please, call me Sterling, you’ve earned far more than that. And as our friend Richard here said, this is my wife, Elena. Elena, this is the newest defender of our beautiful city.” 

Our beautiful city. The words taken by themselves might have been innocent, of course. People said them all the time. It just meant you lived there. It was ‘your city.’ And yet, coming specifically from my Dad, they meant something else. They were literal. This really was their city, in a way that probably hadn’t been true in hundreds of years. This was the city of the Ministry, and they ran the Ministry. They owned it. They owned the cops, the media, the Star-Touched, the Fell-Touched, the courts, all of it. Not every last piece, of course. They didn’t own literally every person. But they might as well have. They had control unlike anything in modern times. Detroit, and probably all of Michigan itself as an extension, was their kingdom. 

Mom was smiling beautifully at me. It almost made me whimper again. Seeing her, contrasting what I knew she felt for me and what I definitely felt for her against the thoughts I’d just had about what sort of empire she and my father were running was completely screwing up my brain. I loved my mother and my father. But seeing them here, while I was dressed in my costume, was fucking with my head. It made it impossible for me to mentally separate them from the Ministry. Just as it was equally impossible for me to separate the Ministry from them. They were criminals, villains, people who let so many bad things happen in exchange for money and power. But they were my parents. They were my mom and dad. I loved them. I couldn’t–I couldn’t separate the people I loved from the crimes they were responsible for. 

Not that I’d been very successful at doing that before (nor should I be given how important it was to remember what my parents were capable of), but this was hitting me hard in a way I hadn’t expected. I wasn’t prepared to face them like this, and I’d had no time to brace myself. I’d been completely and utterly blindsided by their presence here. It twisted the two worlds I’d been trying to keep separate as much as I could for my own personal sanity. God, how was I going to get through the next few minutes like this, let alone an entire dinner? They’d figure it out. They’d realize something was wrong. They’d know, they’d pull something, they’d summon help, they’d–

Mom spoke then, her voice rising over the steadily droning buzz in the back of my head as I fought back that rush of panic. “I’ve seen the news. You’ve truly been a blessing for this city, young man. We’re all quite proud.” 

My throat was dry. It felt like I was going to throw up. If I threw up in the mask and helmet, would I drown? Would that save me from having to deal with any of this shit? Why did that seem preferable right now? God damn it, what was wrong with me? 

Somehow, I forced the words to come past the hard, thick lump that had formed. “I’m just trying to do my best. Sometimes it helps.” I had to mentally kick myself not to say anything else. Keep it light, keep it simple. Don’t babble. There was more chance of them figuring out who I was the more I talked. But I didn’t want to say too little, because then they’d know something was wrong. But–yeah, it felt like I was screwed no matter what I did. And that left me practically petrified. Be cool, I kept trying to tell myself. Calm down, just be Paintball. You can do this. You can keep it under control. Please, please don’t fuck this up. 

“Oh, he helps a lot more than just sometimes.” That was Mornes, whom I had somehow forgotten was still there despite him speaking up only a few moments earlier to ‘introduce’ us. Him and Lightning Bug, who had emerged once more from the apartment with two of her insects to see what was going on. “This guy here, he’s a real hero. We’re doing our best to make him realize he can do even more good with Ten Towers.” The way he said it was like a joke that wasn’t really a joke. His hand patted my shoulder briefly as he added. “Nice to see you again, Sterling, Elena. You both look wonderful tonight.” 

“Thank you, Richard,” Mom (Damn it, think of her as Mrs. Evans or you’ll fuck this up!) gracefully replied, granting the man a small, yet beautiful smile. How did she do that? How did she always manage to look so perfect, poised, and… and gorgeous? And why was I such a clod next to her? Each of them, both my parents, always looked so perfect. Dad was handsome, with a movie-star smile and million dollar hair, while Mom was just… just… Mom. She was Elena Evans, gorgeous and graceful, like some kind of queen. 

Meanwhile, I was just… Cassidy. The very best anyone could say about me was that I looked cute for a twelve-year-old boy. 

It was just slightly possible that running into my parents like this was seriously screwing with my head. With effort, I shoved all those thoughts into a box, forcing myself to focus. 

Mornes was still talking. “And now, since you made it here without my intervention, I suppose it’s time I headed out. Please, enjoy your dinner. I hear it’s going to be delightful. See ya, kiddo.” That last was directed toward Lightning Bug, as he headed off toward the elevator. Leaving me with the younger girl, her bugs, and my parents. Abandoning me with my parents. Jerk. 

For a moment, I was saved then, as the kid herself scampered past me and ran to embrace my father. He knelt, hugging her tightly in a way that made those conflicted feelings of mine a hell of a lot more conflicted. God damn it, just seeing my dad hugging Bug, laughing as she showed her giant insects to him in a way that made it clear he knew them quite well (he even asked about Simminin by name), brought that thick knot of bile back to my throat. I felt cold. I felt itchy. I felt–I felt helpless. I couldn’t do anything about this. And even if I could have, I didn’t know what I would do. Fuck, this was all so complicated. 

It was obvious, so very obvious, that Mom and Dad had a good relationship with Bug. Where she had been fairly shy with me, particularly when we first met, there was no such reaction here. She laughed loudly, proudly babbling on about something her insect friends had done, and excitedly told them all about how ‘Mr. Ball’ made them pretty. 

Were they being nice to her because they cared about her, or because having someone with her power at full strength once she was older would be incredibly useful? That was the thought that I couldn’t stop from worming its way into my head. Just like with Izzy. It made sense, didn’t it? If they were going to stay in control and keep the kind of power they already had, or even expand it, they were going to need to jump on the next generation. Getting powerful Touched on their side right now, while they were young? That was basic-level common sense. But how much of how they were treating Bug right now, how much of how friendly they were, was from that? 

Fortunately, I was distracted from that dark pit of obsessive thought when a voice spoke up from the doorway. “Well, I didn’t expect the rest of our guests to arrive at the same time.” The electronically-distorted voice came from Caishen, dressed in her full costume of dark gold pants with black lines down the sides that ran all the way to her matching black boots, and a dark purple scale mail-like shirt with a gold leather coat. Her usual black metal helmet with purple lenses where her eyes were hid the woman’s face. 

She greeted me first, extending a hand to shake just like my father had while telling me how glad she was that I’d accepted her sister’s invitation. Then she held her arms out. With no further prompting, her daughter leapt from where she had been hugging my mother, beating her wings twice before landing in her own mother’s grasp to embrace her. 

“Mama!” Lightning Bug blurted happily, “See? Mr. Ball came! Is he really gonna eat dinner with us?” 

“Well, Bunny, I think you should ask him, shouldn’t you?” Caishen prompted while shifting her grip to hold her daughter up a bit more comfortably. 

Suddenly turning a bit shy again, Bug turned to wrap both arms around her mother’s neck fully, burying her face against the woman’s shoulder. After a moment, she turned just enough for me to see one big, compound eye. “Are you really gonna eat dinner with us, Mr. Ball?” 

Screaming no and then throwing myself out the nearest window was probably a bad idea, huh?

Not only would it be slightly upsetting to the poor kid, I was pretty sure my parents might regard it as vaguely suspicious as far as ‘does that guy actually know anything about us’ went. No, I had to play dumb and cool, pretend any reactions I had were about being starstruck by the presence of super-rich people, and push on through this entire dinner. Sure, this would be fun. What a fantastic way to spend my evening, because I definitely hadn’t been paranoid enough. 

My head was already nodding, as I tried to keep my voice as cool as possible. “Sure, I mean, I kinda skipped out on dinner with my family already, so I better eat here while I’ve got a chance.” 

“Skipping out on dinner sounds dangerous.” 

It was a new voice. Yet not new. There was something familiar about it, and even as my head turned toward the doorway that Caishen had just come through, I realized why. 

Lincoln Chambers. It was him, the reporter guy from before. He stepped through, still looking more like a giant mountain man than someone who worked for a newspaper. Hell, the guy looked like he should be chopping down the trees that became the newspaper rather than writing on it. 

“Mr. Chambers,” Dad greeted the guy, extending a hand that way as well. “Glad to see you made it after all. And I hope your wife did as well?” 

With a nod, the big, heavily-bearded guy gestured over his shoulder. “Oh yeah, we couldn’t miss an invitation like this. Joselyn’s inside with that ahhh, Skip. And was it… Cinnamon?” He looked toward Bug, who was hiding behind her mother’s leg but leaned out just enough to nod before ducking back again. 

Belatedly, I realized the guy was staring at me. And that he wasn’t supposed to know me. So, I quickly blurted, “Oh, uh, hi. I’m Paintball. Nice to meet you, Mr… uh… it was Chambers, he said?” I gave a quick glance toward my father and back again. “Are you ahh, new in town?” 

For a long moment, the man watched me. It almost looked like he was staring through me, like he could see through the helmet and mask. Like he could read my mind. His gaze bore into me, practically picking me apart without saying a single word. Yet, in the end, he simply extended a hand. “Please, Lincoln’s just fine. Just visiting from Los Angeles for a bit. Always nice to meet someone trying to do some good in the world. And, from what I hear, you’ve been doing a lot of good.”

My head tilted a little. “You’ve heard of me even in LA? That seems a little crazy.” Eyes widening behind the helmet, I stammered, “I mean, not that you’re crazy, or that LA isn’t–I mean–” 

With a chuckle, Mr. Chambers shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, kid. Believe me, I get it. But yeah, I’ve been up here interviewing some people for the Times and every time I ask about you, they’ve got nothing but good things to say. Well, aside from the criminals. Most of them don’t like you as much. But I’d take that as a good thing, if I was you.” 

“You interview criminals?” I asked a bit blankly. 

That earned me another light chuckle before the man nodded. “I interview whoever will let me. Gotta be careful about a lot of that stuff, but sure. If you want the whole story, you’ve gotta take a look at it from every angle. You have to consider every side.” There was a brief pause then before he looked over to my father. “Isn’t that right, Sterling?” 

“Absolutely,” Dad replied smoothly. “But right now, I’m afraid the only sides I’m considering are those potatoes and broccoli I smell.” 

“Yeah, Joselyn’s been helping them out in there,” Lincoln agreed. “And banning me from the kitchen, just to make sure the whole place doesn’t burn down. I think everything’s about ready though.” 

Caishen gave a nod, gesturing. “It sounds like everyone could do with getting this dinner started. In that case, won’t you all please come inside?” She stepped out of the way then, still holding her daughter while gesturing for us to go ahead. 

Right, great, fantastic. I was about to have dinner with my parents and this reporter guy whom I already knew was really good at his job. And I had to do it all while pretending I didn’t know any of them, especially my parents. Was this what I got for accepting these kinds of invitations? 

Fuck. Suppressing the worried sigh that tried to escape, I took a breath and then moved toward the door. 

Whatever happened next, this was definitely going to be a meal I would never forget.

Previous Chapter

Trust 15-09 (Summus Proelium)

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They were expecting me at Ten Towers, of course. Tours of the place had shut down for the day by then, but the guards at the gates to the complex were ready. As soon as I showed up, two of the uniformed men greeted me before sending for my guide. While we were waiting, one of the men asked if it was true that I was making a picture book for ‘that Orens guy over at Seraphs.’ When I confirmed it, he quickly said his own daughter would love something like that too and asked if he could give me his phone number to call when I was done with the first one. Of course, I agreed, and soon had a paper with his number stuffed deep in my zipped-up pocket. 

A moment after that, while I was still reeling from the thought that all these people apparently wanted me to draw pictures for them, the sound of footsteps drew my attention. My guide was approaching, and I immediately recognized him. It was Richard Mornes, the same guy that had shown me around before. He wasn’t wearing the exact same clothes, but it was the same style and easy to pick out. Before, he’d had a white suit over a black hawaiian shirt with red and pink flowers. Today, it was a light purple suit with an open jacket over a bright pink shirt. He wore the same dark pink Aviator shades and comfortable tennis shoes. He definitely stood out from the dark-suited guards that were standing nearby or patrolling the grounds. They almost could’ve been clones. Or, come to think of it, biolems. Which was a thought that made me shudder. 

“Paintball!” Richard greeted, extending a hand. “Glad to see you again. It’s been too long.” 

Accepting his hand, I replied, “Mr. Mornes, I see they still haven’t adopted your fashion sense.” 

The man chuckled while giving my hand a shake. At the same time, he pointed at me with the other one. “I’m wearing them down on that one, believe me. And please, call me Richard.” 

“In that case, you can call me…” I trailed off, head tilting to the side as I made a show of thinking quickly. “Uhhh, Paintball, I guess.” Coughing, I shrugged. “Sorry. But hey, I can’t believe you’re still here. Shouldn’t you be home by now? You’d think the vice president of outreach would have plenty of lackeys he could make stay around to escort me to wherever dinner’s supposed to be.” 

“Believe me,” Richard promised, “I have no shortage of lackeys. One of the perks of the position. But another perk is getting to choose the things you do want to do. Err, to an extent, anyway. And I definitely wanted to be involved with this one.” He offered me a smile, taking his sunglasses off to tuck them away. “You’re a pretty intriguing figure, you know that? I mean, you were already, but the way you’ve been going… a lot of people already look up to you. Saving the girl in that car chase was pretty damn impressive. And showing up to help at the theater? You’ve got some of the teams angling to find a way to recruit you, Minority or no Minority.” 

Feeling myself flush a bit under the mask and helmet, I shook my head. “It’s no big deal. Seriously, it’s really not. And um, that whole ‘finding a way to recruit me’ includes you, I take it?” 

With a chuckle, the man turned, gesturing for me to accompany him. “Come on, I’ll get you up to the residence. And yeah, of course I’d love to have a young, hotshot Star-Touched with a long career ahead of him sign up for the Towers. Trust me, kid, you’d be an amazing get. Everyone knows you turned down the Minority, yet you keep working with them. It adds an air of mystery. You’re great on-camera, the public has fun watching you, and you’re not dark and edgy. You have any idea how many grim and gritty assholes there are who think the way to popularity is lurking in shadows and growling at people like they’ve got a mouthful of glass or something?” 

Wincing, I shook my head. “Sorry you’ve gotta deal with all that. But I’m still not interested in joining any team.” Especially not now that I’d worked through in my head just how likely it was that Ten Towers was in some way, either directly or indirectly, controlled by my parents. 

If he was offended or upset or anything, Richard didn’t show it at all. Of course, he probably had a lot of experience with disguising that sort of thing. He simply smiled as we approached the door of the same building from before. The doors opened automatically to let us through. “Don’t you worry, I’ll find a way to make you an offer you like. Might take awhile. Might take a year or two, but… just promise me if you do decide to join up with some people, you give me a chance to show you what we can provide? I’d hate to make the board think I’m not doing my job.”

“I’ll totally vouch that you’re definitely doing outreach,” I assured the man. “And yeah, if I change my mind about the team-joining thing, I’ll give you a chance to woo me.” God, it felt weird to say that. The whole idea that there were multiple groups angling to get me to sign on the metaphorical line was strange. And, given what I knew about my family, a bit uncomfortable. 

But, I pushed all that aside and followed Mornes onto the elevator. He used a key to unlock a panel next to the regular buttons. Behind that panel was what looked like a small camera. It projected a green laser light thing that ran over the man’s face as he spoke. “Richard Mornes. One guest. Starlight.” To me, he added, “Please stand as still as possible.” 

After scanning the man himself, the green light moved over me. It scanned me from head to toe before flickering off. Then the elevator began to rise smoothly. 

“Starlight?” I asked, glancing at him curiously. “That’s not some kind of nickname for me, is it?” 

With a chuckle, Mornes shook his head. “Don’t worry. We just have a special password to let the computer know we’re not acting under duress. It changes a few times a day. Makes a couple of the bigwigs who can’t remember anything crazy when they get locked in until someone comes to check on them, but you know. Better safe than sorry. Especially in this line of work.”

It made sense, of course. Dad had taken me on tours of places that had similar, or even stricter security measures. A lot of those people tended to squint at me until they found out who my father was, then they were suddenly a lot more accommodating. Which, now that I thought about it, made me even more uncomfortable. It was… yeah. Yeah, it was a whole thing I didn’t want to think about right then. Or anytime, really. But especially not right then. I was just going to shove all of that out of my mind and focus on what I was doing here. 

To that end, I quickly piped up with, “So Caishen and her family really just live on the grounds?” 

“All the Ten Towers Touched do,” he informed me. “Most live in the apartments belowground. Don’t take that the wrong way though. Those apartments are pretty damn spiffy. And safe. But yeah, Caishen, Skip, and Lightning Bug live up here in one of the penthouses. There’s a few for the board members and other VIPs when they show up, but the main one in this building is for the Star-Touched boss lady and her family.” 

Right, yeah, there were other Star-Touched who worked for Ten Towers here in town beyond just Caishen and her family. A lot of them tended to be focused on protecting corporate interests rather than patrolling in the city the way the Conservators, Minority, and Spartans did. Well, they did help out in the city, of course. When Fells attacked places or caused trouble nearby, the Ten Towers people would jump in and help deal with the situation. They just didn’t tend to actively patrol for the most part. Kind of like the Seraphs, come to think of it. 

By that point, we had arrived. The doors of the elevator slid open soundlessly, revealing a wide, long corridor beyond. The floor was made of white polished marble, while the entire wall opposite the elevator was a floor to ceiling window looking out over the grounds of Ten Towers and the city beyond. 

“Impressive view, huh?” With a little smile at his own words, Mornes stepped out of the elevator with me, gesturing. “Go ahead, take a look.” 

Resisting the urge to reply that my father’s office in the city had a better view, I stepped out to join him and stared out across the scene below. Identity-revealing jokes aside, it was a really nice view. I could see why he was proud of it. Across the way I could see the other two skyscrapers that had formed the original Three Towers Plaza. With the way the grounds themselves were lit up and the rest of the city stretched out beyond… yeah. He definitely had plenty to be proud of. And I was going to do my level best to ignore my questions of exactly how connected this place was with the Ministry. Because those kinds of questions might just interfere with my enjoyment of dinner tonight. 

Before I could actually say anything else, what appeared to be the sound of several people running filled the air. Except, as I pivoted that way reflexively, it turned out not to be several people at all. It was one thing. One giant, neon-green beetle with a small figure perched on its hardshell back. The sound I’d heard was the beetle’s multiple feet all hitting the floor in a rapid rush as it came running for me. 

“Snugglebug, stop!” the beetle’s rider blurted, making it suddenly halt just a few feet from me. Which gave me a chance to see said rider a bit better. It was, of course, Lightning Bug herself. The five-year-old looked the same as the last time I’d seen her, with that red skin, shockingly white hair that hung loose and wild around her face, and compound eyes that were both incredibly bright blue and also about twice as big as average human eyes. Oh, and the insect-like wings that sprouted from her back. Wings that made me think of Wren’s flight pack, though these were natural. 

With a squeak as she realized how close they were, the kid slipped backwards off her mount and half-crouched behind him. All I could see was the top of her big eyes and a bit of her hair as she peeked over the shell to stare at me. 

Exchanging a brief look with Mornes, I offered the girl a smile. Then I remembered that was idiotic because she couldn’t see my face. Whoops. Quickly, I spoke aloud. “Hey there, ahh you like to be called LB, right?” 

There was a brief pause before the hesitant response came. “Or Bug. Bug is okay too, Mr. Ball.” 

“In that case, you can just call me Ball,” I assured her. “And that’s Snugglebug. Is it okay if I come closer?” I really didn’t want to freak the beetle out if he was in protective mode with Lightning Bug suddenly being nervous and shy. 

Again, there was a brief pause, before Lightning Bug slowly stepped out from behind the beetle. Her wings fluttered uncertainly while she gave a short nod. “Uh huh. Y-you can come say hi if you want to. That’s… that’s what Snugglebug wanted. He wasn’t tryin’ tah… attack you or anything.” Her foot kicked nervously at the floor as she squirmed. 

Stepping that way, I took a knee in front of the beetle. “It’s okay, I know. Hi there, buddy. You remember me, right?” Staying still, I let the pony-sized bug lean closer, its antennae working over the front of my helmet. Snugglebug made a sort of chittering noise, his enormous green mandibles looking like they could chomp right through my arm if he wanted to. But he didn’t. Mostly he looked like an oversized, armored puppy pleading for attention. 

Carefully reaching out, I ran my hand over the beetle’s outstretched leg, feeling the hard exoskeleton. “Yeah, you remember me. I made you pretty. You’re a great boy, huh?” 

By that point, Lightning Bug had stepped the rest of the way around to nervously stand next to her buddy’s head, one hand on the shell. “He liked being pretty,” she offered hesitantly, voice quiet while shifting back and forth on her feet. “A-and we wanted tah give you… this.” 

I looked up to see the red-skinned girl nervously holding out a brown paper bag. There was a smiley face drawn on the front. Actually, four smiley faces. One was a normal human circle face, another had antennae poking out the top, the third had crudely drawn praying mantis claws and big bulbous eyes, and the last one had big eyes too, along with wings sticking out behind it. 

“Oooh,” I took the bag, turning it to point at each of them in turn. “So this is you, right Bug? And this one here is Snuggle. This one with the pincers is Simminin. And who’s this right here?” 

The kid hesitated before moving her finger to point to the last picture while replying, “Kenobee.” 

“Kenobee?” I echoed. “Wait, is that a joke about–” 

Then I heard it. A loud buzzing sound filled the air, and I turned to see… well, a giant bee. But not just any ordinary bee, even discounting its size (the thing was as big as a large housecat). It was also bright metallic purple, a gorgeous coloration that made me gasp.

As the bee flew, Bug held out her arms and it basically fell right into them, allowing the girl to hug the insect against her chest. It looked basically like a little kid holding a cat that was almost too big for her to do so. “Kenobee!” She announced happily. “See, he’s already pretty!”  Quickly, as though afraid she had offended me, the girl added, “But he’d like tah be even more pretty.” 

“Aww, well we’ll have to see what we can do about that.” Carefully, to avoid startling the insect, I reached out and rubbed over the fuzzy shell while his head tilted to consider me. “Hey, buddy. How’d you get to be so pretty all by yourself?” 

“He’s a orchard bee!” Lightning Bug informed me brightly, clearly incredibly proud of her (sort of) little friend. 

“Orchid Bee,” Mornes gently and quietly informed me with a small smile. “The third and newest of Miss LB’s companions.” 

Gently petting the insect, I made a bright white and pink flower appear on the back of his purple shell (using the white to allow the pink to stand out). “Well you are definitely a handsome guy.” 

“Flower!” Bug chirped happily, turning the bee in her arms a bit to see better. “See, Kenny? I knew Mr. Ball could make you more pretty!” With that, she clutched the bee even tighter before holding him out. “Could… could he give you a hug?” 

Well, how would I ever say no to that? Gently taking the offered insect, I hugged him as best as could while the kid watched with delight. Once Kenobee started squirming, wings pushing against my arms, I released him and let the bee hover up into the air between us. 

Of course, giving one insect some paint meant I couldn’t exactly ignore the other one. Especially when Snugglebug started bumping against my side, managing to look almost anxious despite being, well, a huge bug. So, I gave him (my version of) a rainbow across his shell along with some various colored stars. He seemed happy with that (probably because Lightning Bug was happy with it), and we started down the hall toward the actual penthouse, passing a few other doors that apparently led into the apartments of other VIPs. 

On the way, I asked, “Speaking of Simminin, where is she?” 

“Protecting Mommy,” Bug piped up immediately and solemnly, head bobbing as she sat on Snugglebug, who was walking alongside me. Kenobee was flying nearby, clearly quite interested in Mornes’ bright pink shirt. “And helping.” 

“They’re in here,” Mornes informed me, gesturing to the door of the penthouse ahead of us. “Simminin likes to help in the kitchen when Caishen cooks.” 

I wasn’t sure what the protecting Mommy bit was about. Hopefully it was just a little kid not wanting to leave her mother alone and not something actually dangerous she had picked up on. Either way, I nodded. “Right, well I can’t wait to see what’s for dinner. Are you coming in?” 

Mornes shook his head. “Nope, I’m just your escort to the door tonight. Go right ahead, they’re expecting you. I should go make sure the other guests are on their way.” 

“Bye, Mr. Mornes!” Lightning Bug called while excitedly pushing the door open to rush in, followed by her two insects. Within, I heard her excitedly babbling to her mother about ‘Mr. Ball’ showing up and making her friends pretty again. 

Before going through, I glanced toward the man who had brought me up here. “Thanks again. Hope you can go home and take a break now.” 

The man’s expression was mostly hidden behind his large colored aviators as he offered me a simple, basically humorless smile. “I don’t think anyone’s getting much of a break while this gang war keeps escalating. But I’ll do my best. Enjoy your dinner, kid.” 

He headed off then, while I took a deep breath and faced the open door. Well, time to see how this dinner thing was gonna pan out. 

But before we could step in, a voice called out from behind us, near the elevator. “Are we late?” 

I knew that voice.

I knew it incredibly well. 

My heart had already stopped, but my body was still turning. My head was still twisting. My gaze was still rising. 

“Oh good, we made it,” my dad spoke as he and Mom approached together. 

“This is one dinner I definitely didn’t want to miss.”

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Trust 15-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Deals 13-10 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I might be a worse hero than I thought. 

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New Deals 13-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Things mostly calmed down pretty quickly after that. The Star-Touched adults had managed to regroup a bit and sent a couple of their people to help the Minority. By that point, the warring gangs had basically separated and gone to their respective corners, so to speak. So it was just a bit of cleanup.

The other Fell-Touched, like Janus, had managed to escape. But we kept hold of Suckshot and Landlock, eventually seeing them both hauled into the back of two separate special armored containment vans. 

Through most of that cleanup, I worked with Raindrop. I had the feeling that the people around us assumed we were about the same age. Actually, come to think of it, maybe she was an incredibly small sixteen-year-old too. Wouldn’t that have been just perfect?

Either way, she was pretty fun to hang out with once things calmed down a bit. She didn’t say a lot, but the things she did say tended to be insightful or just funny in a very simple, straightforward way. I would say something and she’d have a one or two word response, in a totally serious tone, that made me snicker. For whatever reason, it felt like I knew her a lot better than I did. We’d only just really met, and yet I couldn’t shake the feeling like we’d interacted a lot more. It was weird. But then, maybe she was just one of those people who made friends easily. 

While we were doing that, I noticed some of the cops and reporters in the distance talking. I couldn’t make out most of what they were saying, but I did hear both of our names come up and saw some of them pointing our way. They were clearly talking about the fact that Raindrop and I were working together, but what… what were they saying? And why were some of them taking pictures? 

Eventually, That-A-Way approached and asked to speak to me privately. We stepped out of the way, over by a corner of the theater building while both of us watched the assortment of cops, reporters, and other Touched milling around. 

“Thanks,” Way murmured quietly. “You know, for showing up. You really helped turn things around.” She glanced toward me, lowering her voice even more. “I heard a few of those gang guys talking. This whole thing, it’s just a skirmish. Just the opening salvo. Apparently things are going to get a lot more heavy pretty soon. They’re going to war with each other.” 

Grimacing, I shook my head. ”If this was just a few opening shots, I don’t want to see what their idea of a full war is.”

“Neither do I,” she agreed, “but I have a feeling that we don’t really have a choice. This whole thing is gonna escalate really fast. And more civilians are going to be caught in the crossfire.” 

There was another brief pause while she clearly thought about her next words before quietly asking, “Those people you were talking about, shouldn’t they keep this kind of thing shut down? Seems like having a bunch of pissed off gang members at war with each other would be bad for business. If they really have that much control over every criminal in the city, shouldn’t they snap their fingers and make these guys back down? I mean, if there’s going to be one benefit to a group like that, you’d think it would be them stopping all-out war like this.”

Yeah, she had a point. I had no idea just how much my parents knew about this situation. But I refused to believe they were clueless. From everything I had seen, there was no way the gangs here would do something like this without at least mentioning it to my family, to the Ministry. Which meant they had to have at least partially approved this sort of thing. But why? What did they get out of it? Was it just not worth the hassle of trying to contain these guys constantly? Did they have to let them get their aggression out now and then before things blew up too much to control at all? I had no idea how that worked. 

With a sigh, I shook my head. “I dunno. But something tells me that if we want to find out how all this works, we need to get into that place. The sooner the better. There’s got to be some answers in there.”

Of course, there was also the possibility that those answers would lead toward my family. But that was a bridge I would cross when we came to it. I still had no idea exactly what I was going to do if and when Way and Pack, the people I had brought into this, found out that the Ministry was led by the Evans. I just… didn’t know. 

Way was looking at me again. “We have to come up with a plan and get in there,” she murmured quietly. “I’m pretty sure you’re right. That’s where we’re going to find answers. That’s where we’re going to…” She trailed off, grimacing for a moment before finding her voice once more. “It’s where we’re going to find out more about who we can’t trust.” There was a somewhat dark grimness to her voice, and it made me think for a moment about what all of this must have been like for her. She didn’t know who on her own team she could trust. She didn’t know which of her mentors she could look up to. What was it like from her side? Especially considering I wasn’t telling her everything I knew, a fact she was no doubt totally aware of. 

I started to agree with her, that we would get into that secret mall base as soon as possible. But before I could say more than a couple words, someone approached. It was, in no uncertain terms, the worst person I could think of to potentially overhear what we were talking about. Yeah, my dad, as Silversmith. He approached, offering each of us a nod while speaking up. “It seems we owe you another debt of gratitude, Paintball.” His hand extended toward me. “Thanks for stepping in and helping out today. Not sure how this would have gone without you.” 

Desperately fighting back the impulse to give any suspicious reaction whatsoever, I forced myself to accept the offered hand while shaking my head. “Way asked for help. I wasn’t just going to tell her to jump off a bridge.”  

He chuckled lightly, an encouraging sound that almost made me smile. How did he do that? How did he disarm me so easily when I knew who he was and what he did? Was it just because he was my dad? No, it had to be more than that. He was just that good at talking to people. He was just that good at convincing them that he was a friend, someone they could trust and confide in. It was scary seeing it from this side of things. 

While I was still fighting those reactions in my head, Dad put his hand on That-A-Way’s shoulder, squeezing slightly. “We owe just as much congratulations and thanks to you. Knowing when to call for help is important. Not trying to go at it alone, not showboating and getting people killed in the process, that’s what makes for a real hero. You did great today. All of you did.” 

“People still got hurt,” Way quietly pointed out. “Some still died. We didn’t save everyone.” 

Dad gave a short nod of agreement, as a long, heavy sigh escaped him. It sounded like he bore  the weight of each and every one of those injuries and deaths on his shoulders. Which was funny (in a totally not funny at all way), because I was pretty sure he really did bear the weight of them. He let it happen. He let this war get started. The Ministry allowed it. So yeah, the weight of it should have been on his shoulders. But he was still standing, and I was going to bet somehow getting even richer off of this whole thing. Yeah, I wasn’t exactly sure how, but the only thing I could think of that would make the Ministry allow something like this was if they were somehow making more money from it than if they hadn’t. Money or power, one or the other. Or both. I wasn’t sure of the specifics, not yet. But I did know that my father and mother had given the go-ahead for all of this to happen. They allowed it, so they were responsible. 

“You’re right,” Dad spoke up. For a crazy, horrifying second, I thought he had somehow read my thoughts. Then I realized he was responding to the girl beside me. “We didn’t save everyone. But you can’t always. All you can do is try. Put the effort in. Save everyone you can. Because, and I want both of you to listen to this right now, it isn’t about how many you fail to save. It’s about how many would have died if you weren’t there at all. And believe me, there would have been a lot more people hurt or even dead today if the two of you weren’t here. All those people in that theater, you saved them. You and Raindrop.” 

He said the last bit while stepping aside a bit and gesturing for the girl in question to join us. Which she did, moving up between Way and me while staring at my dad, at Silversmith. I couldn’t see her face, of course, hidden as it was behind that faceplate. But from the way she held her head, her body language, and everything else, I had the distinct impression that she basically hero-worshiped him. I had no idea what was going on there, but it was pretty obvious that she really looked up to him. Again, not surprising, considering how well my dad played the role of champion for the masses. He should have won an Oscar or two by now. Still, it made me feel sick in my stomach. Actually, the thought that he was fooling Raindrop in particular seemed to raise my hackles more than it really should have. I barely knew the kid. Maybe it was just because she was a kid? Maybe it reminded me of how much I had looked up to Silversmith before I knew the truth. 

Either way, Dad held his arm out, pantomiming looking at a watch. “Unfortunately, no matter how impressive you guys are, I have a feeling none of you can quite stop time just yet. And since everything seems calm enough now, I should get going. There’s going to be a lot of paperwork about all this. Be glad you guys only have to deal with a bit of that. And hey, you even get to avoid most of the reporters.”

Reporters… Oh damn, right, that dinner with the guy from the Times. It was getting close. No wonder Dad was making his excuses to leave. He congratulated us again, then offered to walk That-A-Way and Raindrop back to their base with the rest of their team. Way declined, saying she’d catch up after talking to me for a minute, claiming she still had to thank me herself. 

So, Raindrop headed off with him by herself. And I tried to figure out why the sight of her walking with my evil dad made me want to throw myself after them to stop it. Well, besides the obvious reasons. There was something else making it hit me more than I thought it should have. 

“It pisses you off too, doesn’t it?” Way spoke quietly with a glance toward me. “Seeing the way everyone loves him. Especially Rain.” She sighed, turning my way fully, as though to put her back to that whole thing. “I know you said you can’t say everything you know, but you made it pretty clear that he’s one of the ones that can’t be trusted. You said especially don’t tell him anything. So yeah, I’m pretty sure he’s one of your big conspiracy people. But he’s such… I mean…” She exhaled, slumping over a bit. “Fuck.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “fuck. Trust me, I know. It’s a whole thing. But you’re doing a good job of hiding it.”

She snorted at that. “You just couldn’t hear all the nasty thoughts I was having when he was here.” 

“Yeah, and neither could he,” I pointed out. “Look, we’ll get answers, okay? We just can’t rush it. They already know that I know some of what they’re up to. They just don’t know how much. Not even close. But they know that I know some of it. So we have to be careful.”

Way paused, then chuckled. “You know, the way you act about all this, sometimes I forget you’re younger than me. You seem a lot older than you should be.”

Shit, getting her off the train of thought was probably a good idea. But I wasn’t sure exactly what to say. So, I just shrugged. ”I’ve had to grow up quick lately. But if I don’t get out of here now, I’m going to end up grounded. Then we’ll see how grown up I am.”

With that, I excused myself and took off, using a shot of red paint to a nearby building to hoist myself out of there. Right, I hadn’t really been exaggerating that much. If I missed this dinner, Mom would never let me hear the end of it. She’d made it clear that it was important that we present ourselves as a family tonight. Which gave me a lot of other thoughts I felt like saying, but kept to myself for obvious reasons.

As I raced home, I did my best to push those thoughts out of my head. This guy was an award-winning investigative reporter. It would probably be a bad thing if I gave him a reason to be suspicious of my family. For him as well as us. He may have been a big shot, but I was pretty sure my parents wouldn’t hesitate to have him killed if it came down to protecting themselves and the family. And I was also willing to bet that my family’s resources trumped whatever he could come up with. 

It had, of course, occurred to me to try talking to the guy about everything. I had the random, crazy impulse to just spill my guts to him and have everything out in the open. He was a reporter, after all. But again, that would be stupid. He’d never be able to publish an article like that, not with the contacts my parents had. The only real option to get it out before they erased it would have been some kind of online thing, but that would probably be dismissed as a conspiracy theory. Even if I was involved, I’d just be the rebellious kid. There was no doubt in my mind that my family could quash the whole thing. Hell, it wasn’t as though it would be anything all that new. People claimed enormous criminal conspiracies against the rich and famous all the time. A lot of it was even true. And this was one of those times. But it would be dismissed like all those others. No, if… when I went public about all this, it had to be perfect. I would only get a single shot at that kind of thing. I would only be able to take my family by surprise once. It was going to have to be a silver bullet situation. Proof. I needed proof of everything, and I needed to understand exactly how the organization worked, who was a part of it, who could be trusted and who couldn’t. I needed all of it.

Of course, the other big reason for not telling this Chambers guy the truth? For all I knew, he was on my family’s payroll. Yeah, he was all the way down in LA, but did that really mean anything? After all, Mr. Jackson had been in the UK for a long time. And it really would be within my family’s interest to have one of the best investigative reporters from one of the biggest news outlets on their side.

No, clearly for a lot of reasons, I couldn’t open up now. Not to anybody, let alone a reporter who may or may not be working for my parents on the down low. 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head firmly, I focused on getting home. That meant changing clothes in a public restroom at the edge of a park and taking an Uber the rest of the way. I was cutting it fairly close, considering I still needed to shower and all. But at least I wasn’t late. 

Paying the driver after he stopped in front of the gate, I hopped out, grabbed my bag, and headed in. On the way past, I greeted the guard waiting there, who teasingly informed me that I’d better hurry. 

Mom and Dad were in the front foyer as I passed through the door. Mom stepped over, looking like she was going to embrace me, but thought better of it. She was already dressed up for dinner and wrinkled her nose a little at how sweaty I was. So sue me, running across the city was a bit of a work out, even with powers. 

She settled on gently touching the side of my face. “I’m glad you made it, Principessa. Thank you for remembering. Now please, go and get cleaned up. We will be eating in thirty minutes.”

“Yeah, kid,” Dad spoke up, “and see if you can help Izzy with whatever she needs? She should just be about done getting cleaned up herself. The clothes she helped pick out are on her bed.”

God, he really had no idea that I had just been talking to him a short time earlier. Hell, he didn’t look like he’d been out doing anything at all. I was sweaty and all that from rushing home. My hair was a mess from being under the helmet and mask.  But Dad? He was perfectly put together. Not a single hair was out of place and it looked as though the biggest workout he’d had in the past couple hours was pushing a few papers. 

Shoving that thought aside, I promised that Izzy and I would be right down. Then I headed up the stairs two steps at a time. Yeah, I’d go get cleaned up so we could get this whole thing over with.

Time to meet Lincoln Chambers and his family.

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New Deals 13-06 (Summus Proelium)

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For a few long seconds, I just sat there, frozen from confusion. Pack saw two guys standing there talking to Blackjack. But I saw my parents. Was I being affected by some kind of power that made me see things differently? No. That didn’t make sense, did it? No one in here knew enough about me to make me see my family members over there. Plus, if it was some kind of ‘see people you know’ power or something, Pack wouldn’t just be seeing two random guys. 

Okay, so it wasn’t that. My flash of panic that someone in here knew about my identity and my family and was fucking with me only lasted a brief moment before I got it under control. There was another explanation, one that didn’t involve all my secrets suddenly being out, thank God.

“Dude.” Pack sounded confused and maybe a little exasperated. “Are you okay over there?” 

Was I okay? Hah. Not really, considering the way my heart had just been trying to claw its way out of my chest so it could escape. “Sorry,” I quickly muttered, resisting the urge to stare at Blackjack and the people who were either my parents or looked exactly like them. “It’s been a long day.” And from the looks of it, getting longer by the minute. Wait, all days got longer by the minute. Fuck, I knew what I meant. “You were talking about those… guys.”

Guys, she saw guys. It had to be a power of some kind, right? My parents–wait, was that how they hid their identities? By appearing as different people to others–but why would I see them for who they were? Was I immune to the power or something? Why would I be–hold on…

“Like I said,” Pack was in the middle of replying in a low voice, “they came in to talk to Blackjack. I didn’t hear a lot before they went into the other room, but I heard a name. Tate.” 

That made me do a double-take, looking at her while seeing my mother and father still in the middle of what seemed to be an intense conversation. “Tate? You definitely heard that?” 

“Yeah, as in the name of that kid you were talking to Way about,” she confirmed. “What was it–Andy? Tate, that was right, wasn’t it?” For a brief moment, she sounded uncertain. 

“Anthony,” I corrected in a much lower voice. I still wasn’t comfortable here like this. “Anthony Tate, yeah. So those two came in and talked to your boss, and they said something about Tate.”

“I told you,” she reiterated, “I didn’t hear much. They went into the other room pretty quick. I heard something about Tate, and then something about someone’s father being dead.”

Blinking a couple times, I echoed, “Someone’s father being dead? Whose?” 

Snorting, Pack retorted, “The fuck should I know? I wasn’t exactly in a position to ask for clarification, dude. They said something about someone’s father being dead–oh, I kind of got the impression this wasn’t something new. The way they said it, he’s been dead for awhile.” 

Someone’s father had been dead for awhile. Biting my lip, I tried to sound as casual as possible. “Which one of them said it? What’d they say, exactly? I mean, as much as you can remember.”   

The other girl took a moment, clearly focused on recalling as best as she could. “The guy with the red hair said, ‘The Tate situation was supposed to be over and done with. We put it behind us.’ Then Blackjack said, ‘At least the father’s dead.’ Wait. Wait, did he say ‘the father’ or ‘your father?’ Shit. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure. He either said ‘At least the father’s dead’ or ‘At least your father’s dead.’ Then they went into the other room.” 

Sinking back in my seat, I thought about that for a few seconds. The Tate situation, my parents were annoyed because something about it was coming back to bother them after they thought it was handled. But what? Was it something about Paige? Paige had been erased from my memory around the same time that Anthony was, and I’d heard her talking about how whatever she was doing had something to do with him. She’d specifically said that my mom and dad had no idea where she came from or why she was doing… whatever she was doing because they hadn’t thought about the name Anthony Tate in years. So of course they were connected, but how much of that did my parents know? Was this whole conversation about the Tate situation not being over because of Paige, or because of something else? What prompted that? 

“You sure you’re okay?” Pack was asking, her voice clearly uncertain as she absently scratched one of her lizards. “Do you know those guys over there or something?” 

Boy, talk about being simultaneously very wrong and very right. For a moment, brief as it was, I almost considered telling her about how I wasn’t seeing those two the way she was. But that would’ve led to her asking who I was actually seeing. And even if I just described them instead of saying they were my parents, she’d definitely start looking into those details. And if that led her to who they really were… well, was that really bad? Did I think it was bad because it would put her in danger, or because it would put my family in danger? Which one was I really bothered more by? God damn it, what was wrong with me? 

Finally, after shaking myself, I nodded. “I’ll be fine. And no, I’ve never seen those two guys.” Hell, those words were the literal truth, I had most certainly never seen the two guys she was talking about, not even when I looked right at the two who were supposed to be them. 

And yet it was still a lie. A lie that made me feel like shit after saying it. Pack was a villain, but she’d also been my friend. She’d helped me, had gone out of her way to come save me from Pencil. She had put her lizards in danger to help me, and how was I paying her back? 

Fuck. This whole thing was just so complicated. Too god damn complicated. I had no idea how to make it better. I couldn’t tell her the truth. Not… not yet, right? But no matter how many times I said ‘not yet,’ it was becoming increasingly obvious that I was going to have to make that kind of leap at some point. Once I did, it would be a leap I couldn’t take back. And it felt like the longer I waited, the harder the fall after that leap was going to be. 

I couldn’t see her face, of course, but I had the feeling that Pack was squinting at me uncertainly. After a moment of that, she shook her head. “Well, keep an eye out for them. Sounds like they’re connected to this Anthony Tate thing you’ve been looking into. And…” She hesitated before offering a shrug. “And that other thing you were talking about.” Apparently even Pack didn’t actually want to mention the Ministry out loud right here in the casino. 

“I’ll see what I can find out,” I promised, before adding, “Thanks, Pack. Seriously, I know this whole thing is hard for you after everything La Casa’s done.” 

“Yeah, well, I’m not doing anything against La Casa,” she insisted firmly. “Just looking out for my own interests on top of that. I wanna get to the bottom of this whole thing. I–” In mid-sentence, she glanced over before squinting. “And there they go.” 

Sure enough, my parents and Blackjack were walking away together, heading for one of the exits. Not the one I had come through, of course. 

After we both watched the trio head off, Pack turned back to me. “Right, so, about this whole Trevithick thing. You want help getting Braintrust to play nice.” 

“I want to make sure they know that pushing any harder is going to end up being more of a pain than it’s worth,” I confirmed. “I know we can’t get away with telling them to fuck off completely. Not like that. But giving them something so they feel like they’re walking away the winners, while making sure they know they can’t get anything more than that without a bigger fight? That sounds doable. I mean, with help, yeah.” 

Pack was quiet for another few seconds, before she gave a short nod. “I like the kid. Not just gonna sit around and let her be exploited. So yeah, I’ve got your back. Just tell me when and where so we can make an impression.” 

Thanking her, I added, “Speaking of making an impression, you’ve gotta tell me. What does the new lizard turn into?” 

“Scatters?” There was sly amusement to the girl’s voice. “Oh, I’m not telling you yet. 

“You’ll just have to wait and find out.”

*****

I couldn’t just leave Wren out of the situation entirely, much as I might’ve liked to. That wasn’t fair to her, given the fact that the whole thing was about Braintrust wanting to use her talents in one way or another. She deserved to know what was going on and be included in this situation.

So, Pack and I went there next. Actually, we called to arrange a meeting the next day, but Fred said the kid tended to work through the night and sleep in the mornings (being home-schooled through the afternoon). So, we headed over right then. To keep things subtle and avoid drawing attention to the girl, we used her car (or at least, a car that La Casa allowed her to use), with heavily tinted windows, heading for Wren’s shop. 

The girl herself met us on the main shop floor, literally (with the help of her little winged jetpack thing) throwing herself clear from the elevator to the entrance to half-crash into the girl beside me for a tight hug while squealing, “Pack! You’re okay! Hi! Are the lizards okay?! Can I see ‘em? Are they sleeping? Can I pet ‘em? Are they hungry? Can I feed ‘em? Did you really get a new one? Is it a boy or a girl? Did you bring her? Wait, did you eat already? Are you hungry? We could get pizza. For us, not for the lizards. But I have crickets and worms and stuff for them just in case! Hey, maybe they could put those on a pizza!” 

The words all came in a rush, blurted out as soon as Wren thought of them, without any pause to allow Pack to actually respond. And through it all, she clung tightly to the other girl as if she was a long-lost best friend who had only just returned. It reminded me of the fact that these two had bonded for days while Pack stayed around Wren when the whole situation with the vials was going on. Pack wasn’t some criminal to Wren. She was a friend. 

Then again, she wasn’t some criminal to me either. It was a lot more complicated than that. More complicated than even she knew, really. I didn’t exactly have that much right to judge her given who my family was and the fact that I still hadn’t told anyone about it. Yeah, it was dangerous, but it was also… fuck. It was complicated. All of it was just so complicated. 

Shaking that off for the moment, I watched as Pack introduced Scatters to Wren, who basically lost her mind over the adorable little neon gecko. Pack pulled the rest of her lizards out of their cage and carried them to the nearby table, where they ate from the assortment of reptile-appropriate food that the Tech-Touched girl had provided. Wren, of course, asked the same thing I had, about what Scatters turned into. Again, Pack deferred for the moment, promising to show both of us after we talked to the girl about what we had to talk about. 

And then we did just that. Well, after asking for Fred (he’d been up in the apartment area) to come down so we could talk to both of them together. I laid out everything that happened with Braintrust, how they had approached me, their offer/request/demand, and why I thought it was for the best to appease them at the moment to avoid any problems. I promised that I was going to look into dealing with their group for good, but that that was a long ways off and I didn’t want Wren or Fred to become targets in the meantime. 

“I’m not making anything for them,” the nine-year-old blonde insisted flatly, folding her arms stubbornly across her chest while setting her chin. “They’ll hurt people with it. And I’m not helping them fix their own stuff.” 

“Yeah,” I replied with a glance toward Fred. “That’s kinda what I assumed. Which leaves the option of paying taxes to them for operating in the city. Pack and me are gonna go over there, find them, and let them know that they’ll get a small bit out of whatever you sell, and that’s it.” 

“But you can’t just beat them up and arrest them?” Wren sounded confused, staring at me with those wide sea-green eyes. “They’re bad guys, they do really bad… err…” She trailed off, glancing toward Pack as though only just realizing that the other girl was technically a villain.

Pack, for her part, sounded a little amused as she casually drawled, “Everyone’s got their reasons for doing stuff. And everyone’s got friends that do bad things sometimes. These guys aren’t your friends, and they’re demanding you give them money or toys to hurt people with.” 

“Yeah, what she said.” I agreed, before adding, “And I’m pretty sure I’m not ready to take on a whole gang of Touched-Tech-Enhanced supercriminals yet.” My fingers tapped the side of my helmet. “Not that I haven’t pissed off plenty of them already, but it feels like I should pace myself.” I did not point out that I didn’t want Wren and Fred to be targets. It felt like the younger girl wouldn’t take that very well. I wasn’t sure if she’d insist she could take care of herself, or be upset that I wasn’t fighting the bad guys just to protect her, or what. But I was pretty sure framing it as me having too much to take on right then without adding yet another gang of pissed off supervillains would play better with her.

From the way Fred looked at me, he understood the rest of what I wasn’t saying. The man offered me what was obviously a thankful nod, but let his niece do most of the talking. 

It worked. Wren still clearly didn’t like the idea of appeasing the bad guys, for sure. But she accepted that it wasn’t a fight we needed right now and that the best way to handle it was to hand money to them so they’d go away. At least until we were ready. She did, however, insist that she was going to work on ideas to deal with Braintrust while also reiterating that she was never going to build anything for them, no matter what. That was her firm line in the sand. 

After that was settled, Pack took Scatters and transformed the tiny, colorful lizard into her alternate form. Which, as it turned out, was an equally colorful large reindeer. Seriously, this thing was metallic blue along most of the body, its legs were darker blue, it had a black stripe running down the sides to offset the two blues, and its head and antlers were bright green. 

Wren lost her mind all over again, grabbing onto and hugging the incredibly beautiful reindeer-lizard while cooing about how adorable she was. 

Pack informed us that they were working on a saddle for Scatters, after helping Fred pick Wren up and set her on the animal’s back. The young inventor held on tight, squealing happily as Scatters took her for a short, slow trot around the inside of the shop. She was having the time of her life. Which made me wonder how much she’d love it if the lizard-deer could go out on the street and let loose. 

Someday, I told myself, I’m gonna show that kid how to have a really good time, without a bunch of stupid supervillain bullshit getting in the way.

Pack interrupted my thoughts about that by raising her voice to ask, “Hey, Wren, you think my new friend is cool, has Paintball over there shown you his new paint thing yet?” 

“New paint thing?” Wren, still perched atop the neon lizard-deer, echoed curiously while looking over at me. Fred, standing a bit out of the way, also looked interested. 

So, I showed them how the pink paint worked. That was as much of a hit as Scatters was, especially once I showed Wren how she could stretch her limbs out while they were pink. She thought that was the funniest thing in the world, and kept having Fred hold her hand in place while she ran the other way to pull her arm as far out as she could. 

Watching the kid goofing off like that while occasionally redoing the pink paint again, or shooting some random object she pointed out with it, I found my thoughts shifting back to what I’d seen at the casino. My parents except not my parents. They had been at the casino in some kind of… power-enhanced disguise? Except whose power? Maybe it was a Tech-Touched device. Right, that made sense. Some kind of… umm…illusion-generator that somehow didn’t work on our own family? Maybe so that they could keep track of each other and still see each other for who they–wait. 

Was that why I’d seen Simon out without any kind of mask or anything on? Was that why he’d been going around apparently without anything to protect his identity, because he was using one of those illusion devices? That made sense too. I’d wondered before about just why my brother could go around without a mask or anything to hide his face. If he was using that illusion tech, it would explain a lot. Even if it didn’t explain exactly where those illusion devices came from. At the very least, it made sense that my family would have access to them. 

Which might also explain how my father could be in two places at once, come to think of it. It could help explain how he could operate as Silversmith and appear as himself at the same function, if they used that illusion tech on someone else to look like him. That was probably part of it. 

“Hey, kid.” That was Fred, watching me curiously from nearby while Pack and Wren whispered about something over by Scatters. “You okay? Seemed kinda… lost there for a minute.” 

Forcing all those thoughts away for the time being, I made myself nod. “Oh, yeah. I’m good. I just found a couple pieces to a puzzle I’ve been working on for a long time.” 

Of course, this illusion thing meant it would be even harder for me to prove my family were the bad guys even if I found someone I could safely point that out to. What was I supposed to do, point at someone who, to everyone else looked like some random guy, and insist he was my mother? Somehow, I didn’t think that would go very well. To say nothing of all the other illusion-tricks they could pull. 

It was something, at least. As I’d told Fred, it was a couple more pieces to this puzzle. It didn’t solve the entire problem, but at least it answered a couple questions for me. True, none of those answers were to the question of what I was supposed to do with everything I knew. But hey, at least I was making progress. 

While lost in those thoughts, my normal phone buzzed in my pocket. Knowing that I had to check in case it was my parents so they didn’t send out a search party, I made sure no one was paying attention before tugging it out. It was an e-mail, and I almost put it away again before doing a double-take. The e-mail was an invitation to a birthday party on Saturday, just a few days away. That wasn’t that odd, considering how many birthdays and other things I got invited to regularly. The odd part was that it was for Paige. 

Now why the hell would Paige Banners invite me to her birthday party? 

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New Deals 13-05 (Summus Proelium)

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In case you missed it, there was a commissioned interlude focusing on a certain very special termite colony posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

I’d seen casinos in person before. Not that I’d actually stepped inside them, of course. But my family and I had stayed at hotels where casinos were, and I’d seen the rooms themselves from a distance. This one, though, was far different from those glimpses I’d had of the public versions. Emerging from the elevator, I didn’t see a massive, wide-open area full of bright, colorful slot machines loudly clanging and chiming everywhere. I didn’t see neon lights, scantily-clad women walking around with trays of snacks and drinks, or… anything I typically associated with an idea of what a casino floor looked like from my own experiences and movies. 

Instead, I mostly saw an enormous circular room, big enough to hold a full-size basketball game in. Directly in the middle of that circular room was an equally circular bar that took up maybe one-fourth of the space. There were a bunch of people sitting at the bar, and others serving them from behind it. Or within, rather, given the fact it was a circle. Either way, most of them, employees and guests alike, were wearing masks of various kinds. It wasn’t one hundred percent or anything. I did see a couple people’s faces. And some of the masks were clearly more elaborate or expensive than others. But elaborate or cheap, most people wore something that in some way obscured their identities, just as Paige had said. 

The bar itself seemed to be made entirely of glass in a way that was clearly deliberately meant to resemble ice. It was ‘frosted over’ in places, had actual buckets of ice sitting out with bottles resting in them, and so on. As if the whole thing had been carved out of a frozen block.  

The floor under my feet resembled ice-like glass as well. It was like stepping onto a skating rink, except not slippery at all. Actually, there was a tiny bit of bounce to the floor, making it soft to walk on despite its appearance. And it wasn’t just the floor that maintained that appearance. The walls, the decorations, the soft blue lighting that filled the room, it was all winter themed. 

Meanwhile, in the area immediately surrounding the bar, there were tables where people were quietly playing cards. On the far side of the room, opposite where I had come in, there were the games like roulette and craps. You had to go up a very short flight of about three steps to a vaguely raised area to reach those tables, and there was some kind of guard or bouncer posted next to the steps. What he was there for, I wasn’t exactly sure. But he was definitely a big guy, and it looked like he had a visible gun attached to his hip. So they weren’t screwing around. Like the rest of the people in here, the bouncer over there wore a mask. His was shaped like a bull’s head, with actual horns. He looked like a modern minotaur armed with a Glock or something.

Finally, there were doors scattered around the entire outside edge of the large room, even some up on the raised area where the roulette and craps tables were. Most of the doors had keypads next to them, as well as some kind of intercom. Some were labeled with numbers and names I didn’t know the meaning of, like ‘Starfall’ or ‘Viridescent.’ It was that latter door that I saw Paige pass through, giving me one last look and wave before it closed after her. 

Other doors were more simply named with obvious meanings like, ‘Slots Room 1’ or ‘Karaoke Room 3.’ I didn’t really need to think much about those ones, obviously. 

Curious, I checked the maps and GPS thing that Wren had included in my helmet display. As expected, they were offline. People like me weren’t allowed to know where this place was. 

Just as I managed to take all of that in, a voice from one side drew my attention. “Ahh, Mr. Paintball.” It was a man in a well-tailored suit, wearing a white, form-fitting mask against his face with only his mouth exposed. Even his eyes seemed to be covered, though he could clearly see through it. He was approaching me briskly, his voice quick, yet polite. “Such a pleasure to have you take a look at our establishment. I trust you have been informed of the rules here.” 

“No fighting, no trying to unmask people, no acting like you know them if they haven’t introduced themselves to you, mind your own business, basically?” I offered with a shrug. “I got the rundown, yeah.” And unless I missed my guess, this guy had probably already heard everything that had happened outside from Tell. 

“Very good, sir,” the white-masked man politely replied with a slight nod. “We take such rules quite seriously here, I assure you. That is how we remain in business. I am called Chips. Was there anyone you wished to meet, a game you might like to try? Rest assured, we also have rooms full of the finest and most advanced… ahhh… ‘video games’ if you would like to rent time by the hour.” 

Before I could say anything to that, Pack approached from around one of the nearby tables with a quick, “I’ve got it, Chips. Thanks. Paintball just needed to settle a little bet we made while all that was going on with the boss’s kid.” She had Riddles perched on one shoulder (in lizard form), but her other pets weren’t in view.   

“Very good, Miss Pack,” came the crisp response. “Please do let someone know if you require anything further. It would be our pleasure to provide for someone who was so instrumental in the protection of our princess.” 

He pivoted on one heel then, striding away. Watching him go, I lowered my voice. “So what did you want to show me? Please tell me it’s not the sick game room you rented out.” 

Instead of answering right away, Pack glanced around before turning. “This way, walk with me.” Turning, she headed around the edge of the room, counter-clockwise. Riddles, on her shoulder, turned a bit as though making sure I was following. 

So, I did. Picking up the pace to catch up with her, I spoke up. “Look at all the people around here. You wouldn’t know it was… wait, what time is it? I’ve lost track. It’s been a busy night.”

On the way, I saw some people look up from their games or drinks. They didn’t pay too much attention, given that was apparently against the rules. But my appearance obviously made them curious. Yeah, I had no idea what they were making of the fact that I was here. How well known was the fact that I had helped Blackjack with his daughter?

“It’s about one in the morning,” came the response, before Pack gestured to a table in a darker area far from any of the games. Her lizards were all spread out over the surface, happily crawling over one another as well as eating and drinking from bowls that had been laid out for them. Except… 

“Hey,” I spoke up, pointing to a tiny (seriously, it was about the length of her finger) lizard with a neon blue body and bright green head. “That one’s new.” 

Pack pulled out a chair, sitting down before kicking the leg of another for me to join her. She put her hand down close to the lizard in question, letting it run up her fingers. Then she lifted her opposite hand, watching as the beautiful thing jumped almost a foot to reach it. “This is Scatters. She’s new, yeah.” 

Taking the offered seat, I smiled behind my helmet, leaning a bit closer. “She’s really pretty.” 

“Believe me, she knows,” Pack drawled, setting the lizard back on the table near a bowl of water. “She’s a daredevil and a show-off.” Shaking her head, she focused on me, her voice low. “Okay, so my thing I can’t really show you yet. People came to talk to Blackjack.” 

“Wait.” I quickly put in. “Should we be saying anything? I mean with–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted. “No surveillance allowed in the casino. And trust me, I know how fucking weird that is. They have ways of checking for cheaters, but they don’t allow cameras, bugs, or any kind of recording devices. It’s the only way this place attracts the clientele it does, and they have lots of people come in to make sure it stays that way. No one wants to have any chance that things they say in here, or even just the fact that they were here, could get out. See those things up near the ceiling?” She gestured to what looked like loudspeakers positioned throughout the room. “They stop your phone from working, any GPS you have, cameras, audio recording equipment, whatever. None of that stuff works in here, even for us. And I had Eits check, just to be completely sure. If it ever got out that La Casa did keep any kind of surveillance here, this place would be completely dead. And everyone else in the city would probably unite to attack us.” 

“What about people with eavesdropping powers?” I pointed out quickly. “Enhanced hearing, that kind of thing.” Even if they couldn’t record what we were saying, I really didn’t want to take the chance of anyone even hearing it. There was too much at stake, too many ways someone having the slightest idea of what we were doing could totally fuck all of us over, evidence or no.

“Stand up,” Pack urged, gesturing for me to move. “Take a step over there and look at me.” 

Uncertain, I did so, rising from the chair and taking a few steps away. Again, I could see a few people glance over, some clearly more interested than they actually wanted to show. I was a young boy (as far as they knew) Star-Touched sitting in this secret casino. Obviously, they were a bit curious. Which, again, made me wonder just what they thought was really happening here.

Either way, I took those few steps away before looking at Pack. She pointedly reached up, lifting the black, featureless mask enough (revealing dark skin) that I could see her mouth open as she started to speak. And I heard… nothing. Her mouth was moving, but no sound was coming out. Or– she beckoned for me to come closer. So I did, and she held up a hand to stop me, reaching up to take my arm. Mouth still moving, she pulled me forward and down to be within a foot of her. Instantly, I heard her reciting some monologue speech. It sounded like it was from a play or a movie or something. Whatever it was, she was reciting it carefully. After another word, she gave me a push backward by the arm. The second my head was a few inches further away, the sound disappeared. Her mouth kept moving, but I heard absolutely nothing. 

Pack repeated that a couple times, pulling me forward to hear, then pushing me back to demonstrate that the sound disappeared. Finally, she gestured for me to sit down, tugging her mask back down over her mouth as she explained, “Touched-Tech attached to the tables. Makes it impossible to hear things if you’re not invited to the meeting. No eavesdropping allowed. Again, that’s how this place can function as a place for secret meetings, dude. You think we’re the only ones who would be in deep shit if our secrets got out? This whole world revolves around secrets. Nobody would trust La Casa’s casino as a place to have their meetings at if there was any chance, any chance those secrets might get out. Like I said, they have independents and people from other gangs show up to inspect the place. Blackjack isn’t gonna risk giving up the money all these people bring in just to catch a random secret or two before people figure things out and we all become public enemy number one.” 

She had a point. I knew that. Everything she said made complete logical sense. Still, I didn’t like it. It was too risky. Which maybe made me too paranoid. All the stuff Pack told me about how protected everyone’s privacy was in this place, and I still didn’t trust it. Because the real problem was, the second I trusted something like that and was wrong was the second everything fell apart. I couldn’t take that kind of risk, not with something like that. The thought of any of these bad guys, even Blackjack, finding out who my parents were was just… bad. Very bad. 

So, I wasn’t going to say anything too dangerous, just in case. But I supposed the bit about Wren wasn’t the worst possible thing for anyone to overhear if the privacy measures failed or whatever. With that in mind, I explained everything that had happened with Cavalcade and Glitch, how Braintrust wanted Wren to start paying her way in one form or another. Though I still used the kid’s chosen Touched name instead of her real one. I also made a point of not outright talking about how this was obviously related to the Ministry tax thing, but the implications between my words were obvious enough that I could tell the other girl picked up on it. 

When I was done, Pack gave a long series of muttered curses. “Those guys are pretty arrogant fucks, huh? I don’t suppose just going in there and beating their asses is an option.” 

“I don’t think I’m quite ready to challenge a gang like that, even if you helped,” I murmured dryly. “Kinda got a lot going on as it is. Besides, they’d be after Trevithick, not me. And I can’t be there to help her twenty-four seven. I don’t wanna put her under that kind of pressure.” 

Shrugging then, I added, “I mean, sure, working on getting rid of Braintrust is a noble goal and all. Probably more noble than you care about. But that’s a long term thing. Short term, keeping them happy and away from Trevithick is the best way to go.” 

“She’s not gonna make stuff for them,” Pack observed quietly, leaning back in her seat as she watched me for a moment. “All the time I spent with that kid during that whole thing… yeah, she’ll never go for that part. She is not gonna make toys for the evil, terrible supervillains.” I had a feeling her eyes were rolling a bit as she over-stressed those last few words pointedly. 

“You’re right,” I agreed. “She won’t make stuff for them and she won’t consult on any of their projects. That’s just… that’s not her. I–well, maybe she would. If she thought it would help us, if she thought her uncle or one of us was in danger, she might do what they said just to protect them. But it would… it would hurt her. She’d hate it. She’d–I don’t want to do that to her.”

“So what are you gonna do?” Pack asked curiously, fingers idly brushing the head of Mars Bar.

“I think the best thing to do is to tell her about the tax part, about paying them out of money that she makes selling her stuff,” I carefully answered. “I can help a bit.” I could help more than a bit, but I didn’t want to be too cavalier about the money I had access to. It felt like that might be a bit risky as far as maintaining my secret identity went. “But the point is, it’ll take time to set all that up. Meaning I need to make sure the Braintrust people understand they’re only getting a little bit and that it’ll be awhile before they start seeing any of it. And that if they start playing hardball, it won’t go well for them.”

“You want backup for that,” Pack realized. “You want someone to help you make sure Glitch and her people know if they pick a fight with the kid over this whole thing, they’ll be biting off a bigger piece than they think.” 

I nodded once. “Yeah. They’re playing relatively nice now, but the… implications were pretty obvious. I want them to know there’s a bigger fight than they might think if they try to push too hard, too fast. They’ll get something out of it, but they have to back off until Trevithick’s damn good and ready.” Even as I said that, a sigh escaped me. “I’m a shitty Star-Touched, huh? Look where I am. Look what I’m doing. I’m talking about getting some innocent–I’m talking about getting Trevithick to pay taxes to a fucking supervillain gang instead of just fighting them.”

“You’re talking about not throwing her under the bus to satisfy your ego,” came Pack’s retort. “You already said taking them down or whatever is a long term goal. Which is pretty damn ambitious on its own, for the record. But keeping them off Trevithick’s back for now, that’s not a bad thing. Like you said, you can’t be there twenty-four se–wait, here we go.” 

Before I could ask what that last bit meant, she urged, “Don’t look up too fast or too obviously. Use your helmet to cover it, just turn your eyes as much as you can. Like I said before, some people came to talk to Blackjack. They were in one of the private rooms over there. Very carefully, just turn your eyes to look a bit to the left, that way.” 

Uncertain, I did so. And immediately almost fell out of my chair. Because she was right, Blackjack was there. And he was standing with my parents. They were just… there. No masks or anything. Standing right in the open. 

I was so shocked in that moment, that they would be so brazen, that I didn’t say anything for a second. And with my helmet, that meant Pack couldn’t see my reaction. Which turned out to be a good thing, as she noted, “I just wish I knew who they were.” 

Wait. Wished she knew who they were? My parents were… kind of famous, especially around Detroit. It was possible she might not recognize them, but… “You don’t know who they are?” I asked carefully, trying to keep my voice even instead of letting it shake. My gaze was locked onto my parents, who were deep in conversation with Blackjack. 

“Nah,” came the response. “Do you? They seemed important when they showed up, but I’ve never seen them before.” She chuckled then. “Too bad we can’t take a picture and put it out there like, ‘Does anyone recognize these two guys?’” 

My head started to nod, then I stopped. “Two guys?” 

“Uhh, yeah, dude.” Pack sounded slightly confused. “Those two men standing right over there with Blackjack. The tall guy with the black crewcut and the red-haired guy next to him.” 

Was… was she blind? Neither of my parents had red hair, and my mother certainly wasn’t a guy. Unlike me, she could never have been mistaken for a boy. She had long black hair, while my father’s hair was dark blond with just a bit of distinguishing gray to it. They… they didn’t look a single bit like what she was describing. And yet, they were very clearly the only people standing there talking to Blackjack. 

So why the fuck was I seeing my parents talking to him, while Pack saw two entirely different people?

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Interlude 12B – Raindrop (Summus Proelium)

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The first time that Izzy Amor had worn her official Minority costume, she had felt like a little kid playing dress-up. Largely because that was essentially what she had been. Eleven years old at the time, she’d had her powers for only a little over a week. A week since the night she had climbed out her window and onto the roof of their condo in the middle of the night to escape the sound of her mother’s tryst with some man she had never met. Izzy had been wishing for the chance to find her real father. Instead, she found one of the Summus Proelium orbs hovering there. In a daze, feeling like the whole thing was a dream, she had touched the orb. 

The week that followed had passed in a rush. Her mother had negotiated everything about Izzy’s joining the Minority. The rules stated that, young as she was, she had to have specific parental approval to join the team in the field. Usually, people under fourteen, even after being approved to be part of the team, did not participate in field exercises. They focused on training. 

But Izzy’s mother had believed that her daughter would only make a name for herself in order to join one of the good teams if she got started right away. She’d wanted Izzy to stand out, the same way an enthusiastic parent might push their kid too hard to make a name for themselves in their chosen sport in order to attract colleges and pro teams. So, she had signed contracts approving Izzy’s deployment into the field under controlled circumstances. Even with contracts, Izzy still couldn’t go out in costume by herself, of course. You had to be at least sixteen to do solo patrols, and even then you had to earn (and request) the privilege. 

In any case, Izzy had been eleven years old and approved, thanks to her mother, for supervised, team-centered field work. After several days of adjustments and tests, her costume had fit perfectly, yet somehow still felt too big for her. Standing in front of the cameras in that dark blue bodysuit with silver armor panels, a white cloak and hood, and a mirrored faceplate that completely obscured her appearance, Izzy had felt like a fraud. She’d felt as though any minute, one of the reporters was going to laugh at the idea of eleven-year-old Izzy Amor being some kind of hero. The fact they didn’t actually know her name or anything about her hadn’t helped calm her nerves. She had been a little kid playing dress-up with a costume that, by itself, had been more expensive than basically everything she had ever owned all put together. 

She’d gone out with the team over those few months, growing slightly more comfortable with what she could do. The others had helped a lot, keeping her calm, making her feel like part of the team despite her uncertainty and misgivings. Her power was helpful not only in combat situations, but for a lot of other uses. She could put out fires, could lift heavy objects off or away from people by getting them wet and then making them float. She could even help stop some entire fights in their tracks just by bringing an intense torrential downpour of cold water. A lot of the time, people who were soaking wet from heavy rain that kept getting in their eyes stopped wanting to fight. It was especially useful for breaking up random brawls on the street between Prev gang members. 

The point was, doing all that made Izzy feel useful. She had still felt as though she didn’t really belong in the expensive, incredibly cool-looking costume she’d been given. After all, she hadn’t done anything to earn her powers. She’d just gone up to hide on the roof away from the sound of her mother having sex with some random guy. The orb came to her and suddenly she had powers she had done nothing to earn. Powers she was pretty sure she didn’t actually deserve. 

But deserve them or not, she’d had them. And, for those few months (during which she had turned twelve years old), she’d gradually started to feel like she might be able to actually be a real part of something. She’d started to feel attached to the team… to her team. She’d even felt as though she might be able to make her mother proud of her, might be able to give her mom the better life that Izzy knew she wanted. Things were looking up. 

Then… then her mother had sold her to Oscuro. Her mother had sold her, had taken money in exchange for her, knowing that Izzy was going to be hurt. Worse than hurt, tortured. Her madre had sold Izzy to be tortured and trained, forced to do bad things for bad people just so she could have money. And not even that much money. The ultimate, indescribable act of betrayal, and her mother had done it for half a million dollars. Five hundred thousand for selling her daughter. 

Now, weeks later, here she was, a guest at the Evans’ obscenely spacious and well-adorned house. Playing video games with their daughter, eating at their kitchen table, sleeping in a bed that, like her Minority costume, was clearly worth more than anything else she had ever owned.  

And again, just like her powers, Izzy had done nothing to earn it. She didn’t deserve any of this, didn’t deserve to be treated like one of Mr. and Mrs. Evans’ children. She was just… Izzy. Why should she be in this virtual palace, being treated like some kind of… of important person? 

She didn’t. She didn’t deserve that. Which was part of what convinced Izzy that she had to go back out again as Raindrop. She didn’t deserve this kind of life at all, but maybe she could at least give some of it back by helping people again. Even if the thought of dressing up in that suit and playing hero made her feel even more like she was just pretending. She could still try. She could put the suit on, go out, and try to help as many people as possible. And if she did that enough, maybe someday she wouldn’t feel like such a fraud. 

That day wasn’t now, however. Izzy stood in costume, staring at herself in the mirror. She was in the bedroom she’d been allowed to use in the Evans’ house. Cassidy was at school, and Simon was off on some kind of family business. Still, the house was busy enough that Izzy had locked the door and stuck a chair up under the knob, just to be on the safe side. The blinds and curtains were also drawn across the windows. She was definitely alone, watching herself in costume while thoughts of her mother ran through her head. The mirrored faceplate stopped Izzy from seeing her own expression, but she already knew what it looked like. Small, pale, nervously biting her lip, her dark hair a mess. Eyes that perpetually looked too wide and too wet. Not brave. Not strong. Not heroic. Just Izzy. 

Abruptly, Izzy’s thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a knock at the door. She jumped, gasping reflexively as her gaze snapped that way in time to hear Mr. Evans call, “Izzy, you okay?” 

Finally breathing (a bit too rapidly), Izzy pulled the hood down and reached behind her head to undo the straps of the face plate, pulling that off as well as she blurted, “Sorry, Mr. Evans! Umm, uhh, is it just you?” The question came out awkwardly, making her flush a bit at the sound of her own voice.

There was a brief pause before the man answered, “Yeah, Izzy, it’s just me. Is everything alright?” 

Stepping over, Izzy undid the lock, pulling the chair away from the door before opening it for him. Both Mr. Evans and his wife knew all about her Touched identity. It was part of them allowing her to stay with them, as they’d had to know what they were getting into. But Silversmith had assured her that he trusted the Evanses and that she would be safe with them. 

Now, she stepped away from the door, in full costume save for the faceplate and hood, the former of which was held under one arm. She was also flushed from embarrassment. “Sorry, Mr. Evans,” she repeated, “I just didn’t want one of your… umm, people to walk in.” 

The man held a hand up to stop her, while stepping through. He closed the door behind him after checking the hall. “It’s okay, Izzy, I promise. You’re fine. Superhero or not, you’re entitled to your privacy, kid, believe me.” He paused before offering her a small smile that she supposed many would have found handsome and charming. “So, you’re about ready to go out there again, huh?” 

Even more self-conscious, she shrugged at the question while ducking her gaze. But something made her take a deep breath before looking back to meet his eyes. “Yes, sir,” she informed the man as steadily as she could. “I’m ready.” 

********

“Wham, Rain, the truck!” Syndicate (Or one of him, anyway) shouted a couple hours later, as his fist slammed into the side of a tatted-up Easy Eights gang member, knocking the guy staggering backward. The Prev lashed out with his knife, but that version of Syndicate turned insubstantial, allowing the blade to pass harmlessly through him. 

At the same time, a second version of the boy, on the opposite side of their opponent, turned solid and lashed out with a kick to the small of the man’s back. He was knocked forward just as the two Syndicates swapped solidity once more so the first could strip the knife from the stumbling man’s hand, tossing it aside. In that second, a third Syndicate took a running leap, turning solid in mid-lunge (as the other two turned ghost-like) in time to crash into the man and take him to the ground. 

Of course, despite her own self-assurances that she was prepared to back out on the streets, Izzy was still under sixteen. Which meant she still had to go out with a group. No solo patrolling. And that was just fine with her. Ready as she might’ve been to ease back into this whole thing and work to earn the things she’d been given (including her powers), Izzy didn’t want to do it alone. A part of her was still afraid of what would happen if she ran into any of the Oscuro people, people who had been ready and willing to abduct her right out of her own home. According to Silversmith, who had visited the Evanses shortly after her arrival there, Cuélebre and most of the gang had been unaware of what Handler was doing. He was, supposedly, working on his own. But that didn’t change much for Izzy, even if it was true. The emotions that came whenever she thought about those people… she was afraid of what she felt in those moments. 

But here, now? She was with her team, all of them. They had all wanted to come out for her first night back on the job. Which was apparently a good thing, as the six of them had managed to stumble across some kind of Easy Eights job. A group of Prev thugs, led by two Fell-Touched known as Juice and Pivotal, had been loading some kind of shipment out of a warehouse and into a couple semi trucks. A night watchman had managed to call out an alert, and Raindrop’s team was close enough to intercede. 

They had shown up in time to catch the gang right before they’d been about to pull out. Now, Carousel, Wobble, and That-A-Way were busy with Juice (a very heavy-set black guy wearing a silver, entirely featureless and smooth helmet that covered his whole head and a black tank top that showed off his arms with their stormcloud and lightning bolt tattoos whose powers allowed him to control electricity and granted him incredible strength), near one of the trucks. 

The other truck, as Syndicate had just pointed out, was rapidly speeding through the lot. It had just turned the corner around the nearest warehouse building when Izzy snapped her gaze that way. Out of sight. 

But not for long. Even as Izzy saw the taillights of the truck disappear, Whamline jogged to her, extending a hand. “Ready, kid?” he blurted, clearly ready to abort and go after the truck by himself if she declined. Because everyone here, all night, had been treating her with child-gloves, acting like she might break the moment anything bad happened. Even Syndicate had very obviously almost declined this whole situation the moment he heard it involved an actual Fell-Gang with powers. Not to mention the fact that, now that they were in the midst of it, the team had been going out of their way to make sure Izzy didn’t even get close to any bad guys. They were trying to help, she knew, surrounding her with as much protection as possible after what happened (they were aware that her mother had tried to sell her to Oscuro), but it wasn’t helpful. She wanted to prove, at least to herself, that she belonged here, not act like a little kid going bowling with the stupid rubber things in the gutters. 

Now, in this moment, Syndicate and Whamline were offering her that chance. In the midst of combat, seeing that truck about to get away, they had both either forgotten or dismissed the whole ‘keep Raindrop away from the action.’ They were giving her a chance to contribute. 

She took it, grabbing Whamline’s hand before he could change his mind. The instant she did so, the older boy extended his other hand, shooting off one of his energy-coils, which caught hold of the roof of the nearby warehouse. A second later, they were being yanked up toward it. 

They’d done this before, mostly in training, but part of Izzy was nervous about actually pulling it off in the field like this. Still, she shoved those doubts away and focused. An orb of water appeared in the air in front of them, soaking the two as they passed through it. And the second they were wet, she cancelled the effects of gravity on them, blurting, “Now!” 

Whamline’s coil disappeared, no longer yanking them toward the roof. Yet, thanks to the lack of gravity, the pair were still hurling up and forwards. Their momentum carried them clear over the roof, passing above the warehouse and to the other side just in time to see the semi-truck below heading for the street. 

There it was. Seeing it down there, Izzy focused on increasing the effect of gravity on herself and her teammate. They dropped like a pair of heavy stones, crashing straight down while she restrained the urge to scream. Trust. Trust herself. She had to trust herself and her partner. 

Whamline sent out two coils as they dropped, which latched onto the back of the truck and hauled them both that way. They were still dropping so fast Izzy’s stomach felt like it was somewhere up around her throat. Still, she waited, waited…

Just in time, at the last possible second before it would have been too late, she cancelled and then reversed the effect of gravity on them. Momentum carried the pair forward, until the reversed gravity worked to negate it. Izzy had practiced this enough that, while there was a slightly painful jerk, it wasn’t too bad. The reversed gravity and Whamline’s coils worked together to catch them almost like a parachute, just as the two landed on top of the speeding truck. 

“You got this?!” Whamline called, using one arm to hold onto Izzy while the other maintained one of his coils to hold them against the truck. 

“Got it!” she confirmed. All her fears, nerves, and everything else seemed to wash away as she focused on her power. Ahead of the speeding truck, a ball of water appeared. It began as an orb that was only a few feet across, but very quickly grew larger. By the time the truck hit it, unable to stop, the ‘bubble’ was almost as large as the truck itself. 

Izzy and Whamline threw themselves flat against the roof of the trailer, just as the truck crashed through the water. The instant it did and soaked itself, Izzy threw every bit of her power into cancelling its gravity. 

It worked. The truck floated up off the ground, leaving the engine screaming and tires spinning uselessly. They couldn’t go anywhere. 

Strong as her power might’ve been, it took effort to make it work over something as big as a truck. More effort than Izzy was capable of keeping up for long. Still, she didn’t have to keep it going. A couple seconds after making the truck lift a few feet off the ground, she increased gravity on the cab part alone. The trailer continued floating, while the truck itself slammed downward, hitting the pavement with enough force to crumple the hood and front-end and shatter the windshield. The truck definitely wasn’t going anywhere anymore. 

The doors of the truck were thrown open, as two figures launched themselves out of either side. One was a random thug with a gun, who landed on his side on the ground, already pointing his pistol up toward them. But Whamline was on top of that, one of his coils smacking the weapon out of the man’s hand while another lifted him up and threw him out of the way. 

The man who dove out of the driver’s side of the truck, however, was Pivotal, a small, thin guy in a green bodysuit with white highlights and a white ski mask. His power allowed him to designate any point of any non-living object as a pivot and make more of that object rotate or revolve around that point. Which he used right then by making a section of the ground rotate upward even as he jumped from the truck, landing on that vertically twisted bit of pavement. 

Izzy sent a geyser of water at the man, but he backflipped away from his raised platform while simultaneously making a larger section pivot upward to block the spray of water. At the same moment, the truck split in half under herself and Whamline as Pivotal obviously designated the spot beneath their feet as a pivot point and bent the trailer to the side away from them. 

They fell, but Izzy lowered gravity, allowing the pair to land lightly, facing the large section of pavement (it was about nine feet high and six feet wide) blocking them from Pivotal. 

Whamline threw three quickly summoned energy coils at the raised ground, making them explode to send a shower of debris in every direction. Izzy was already sending a new wave of water that way, just in time to catch…

Nothing. The area behind the raised ground was empty. No one was there. Pivotal had disappeared. 

“The ground,” Izzy realized a second after she and Whamline had stood there in confusion. She pointed. “He lifted the ground out of the way to get down under it. Now he’s tunnelling… somewhere. He just umm, he just has to rotate sections of ground out of his way, see?” 

“He’s running,” Whamline muttered, looking in every direction. “Shit–I mean…” He coughed, turning in a circle. “Guess you don’t really think about ‘power to rotate things’ being that impressive, but…”

That-A-Way appeared beside them, teleporting into view before looking around. “What–Juice took off, what about you guys?” 

“Ours got away too,” Izzy admitted, folding her arms across her chest while adding an explanation of how Pivotal had escaped. 

“Well, we got most of the Prev thugs.” That was one of the Syndicates, approaching while still in his ghost-form. “And stopped them from escaping with the trucks. The Fell-Touched might’ve escaped, but they didn’t get what they were after. Which… what were they–” 

“Guns,” Carousel called, approaching with a shrunken object revolving around her. She sent it forward and let it resume its full size as an open crate that landed on the ground between them. “Guns by the tons.” 

She was right, Izzy realized. The crate was full of firearms. And all the crates that had fallen out of the split-open trailer nearby also had weapons in them. Guns, shields, ammunition, grenades of all sorts, explosives…

“God damn,” That-A-Way muttered, “what the hell is all this for?” 

“They’re prepping for a war,” Carousel noted, “but to even what score?” 

Syndicate swallowed hard, speaking up. “Let’s call it in and get people here to clean the place up before those guys come back with reinforcements to get all this stuff. But I think you’re right, Carousel. 

“The Easy Eights are getting ready for war.”

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Pink 12-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow was going to be a long day. 

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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