Sterling Evans

Center Of Attention 26-02 (Summus Proelium)

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The answer to the question of how pissed Pittman was, as it turned out, was very. Apparently it wasn’t that hard for the man to put together that we were the ones behind this sudden revelation in the news (more confirmation that he had contact with the outside world that he shouldn’t have had). He spent a good minute ranting to me about what was going to happen to the two Star-Touched on that island now that we had fucked him over. Nor was he particularly happy when I let him know that we were already aware that he didn’t have them anyway, so his threats were meaningless. 

But you know what probably pissed him off the most? The fact that, while he was gearing up for another rant about how we could have worked together and made everyone happy, I disconnected. And boy was that a satisfying click. Putting the phone away, I looked up to Paige, Sierra, Murphy, Roald, Fred, and Wren staring at me. Their looks made me shrug. “The dude already plotted my death for years from inside the most secure prison on the planet. What else is he gonna do, exactly, if I annoy him as Paintball too? He can go suck an egg.” Pausing briefly, I added, “Whatever that means. Seriously, what kind of egg–never mind. The point is, he’s already pissed off and I didn’t particularly feel like standing there and letting him yell at me all day.” 

“I wish I could’ve hung up on him like that,” Paige murmured before shaking that off. “Anyway, we’ve got the list of equipment he wanted us to put together, and we still have the address in Utah to check out at some point. Some of us, anyway. Maybe some of that’ll help figure out his backup plans. But either way, those government groups better motivate the hell out of Breakwater to cough up Irelyn and the others.” 

“Yeah,” Sierra agreed while hopping up to perch on the counter next to Wren. “Cuz if government agencies wagging their fingers at you isn’t good motivation to do what they say, what is?” 

“It’s more than that,” I pointed out, dragging a stool around so I could drop myself onto it. “They’ve got official eyes on them now, and if I know anything about ordinary prisons from the stuff I’ve read, they don’t really like that. I’d bet a place like Breakwater is even more averse to it. They’re gonna want to make the public and government people happy as fast as they can. Which means playing along with our little story.” 

“Are you sure they won’t just say, ‘nope, never heard of those people, that’s totally made up?’” Murphy put in, before grimacing. “I mean, sorry to be the Debbie Downer.” 

Roald, standing beside her, shrugged. “It’s possible, isn’t it? They could just pretend this whole thing is a prank or something and ride it out.” Glancing to his friend, he added, “I guess we can be Debbie Downers together. Or, wait, is it Debbies Downer? That always confuses me.” 

It was Fred who addressed the actual point, still sitting on his normal seat behind the register. “The ball’s already rolling. The public thinks it’s true, and you can’t put a genie back in the bottle that easily. If they try to say it’s all a lie, they’ll still have a bunch of those people sniffing around. Hell, it’ll probably threaten their budget. That’s the real way to get those types to piss their pants. Easier for them all around if they just play along, hand the three of them over, and act like it was all part of the plan. Still makes them look a little bad considering a random civilian accidentally ended up on their prison island and then try to keep it secret, but it’s better than the alternative.” 

“Uh, yeah, what he said,” I agreed with a gesture that way. “This was our best chance to pull that off anyway. And I don’t exactly feel bad about putting that sort of pressure on them, since I refuse to believe they didn’t know those guys were on the island. They were willing to just leave them there to protect their precious reputation, so we took that option away from them.” 

Paige straightened up, moving to pluck a random piece of a vacuum off one of the shelves. “It was the best move. The only move. No way would our dad actually keep his end of that deal and help get them off the island. And even if he did, getting him off wouldn’t be worth it. He’s too dangerous. Look at what he’s been able to do while he’s in there. Giving him free rein to go anywhere in the world and get all the resources he could–” Cutting herself off, she sighed. “That can’t happen.” 

“It won’t!” That was Wren, looking up from some weird machine she was putting together in the corner. I had no idea if it was something special, or just the girl randomly tinkering with nothing in particular in mind. The way she worked, it could go either way. Maybe it was a sandwich baggie dispenser. It kind of looked like one of those. “They’re gonna let all three of them off that jail place.” Before we could say anything to that, she added, “And I’m not just being a dumb kid who doesn’t know how the world works or anything. Things are really scary around here right now, cuz of the gang war, and the stupid people trying out for the Scions, and… and all sorts of stuff. But the Ministry wants to keep things in control, right? They need superheroes here for that. So they’ll put all the power and like, uh, resources and stuff they’ve got into making the jail people play nice.” 

“Kid’s got a point,” Sierra muttered, sounding grudgingly admiring. “But now there’s nothing else we can do except wait and see what happens.” 

Paige, however, shook her head. “Oh yes there is.” Her gaze turned to me, eyes narrowing pointedly in a way that weirdly reminded me of just how horrible she had been to me for so long. It was a thought that I pushed aside as firmly as I could. “You can tell us exactly what you did yesterday with that whole ‘combining paint’ thing. The whole story. 

“And this time, you don’t get to blurt a few confusing words and then run off.” 

******

So, I spent the next little while getting into all that. Needless to say, Paige and the others were all pretty curious about the whole thing. The options that even just the combined paints I had already figured out opened up were pretty incredible. And who knew what other combinations I could put together?

Unfortunately, it was going to be awhile before we got into that. Paige really wanted me to spend the next couple hours going through all of it, but I had barely finished going through the paints I’d already used when my mother called and asked me to come home early so I could clean up and get dressed to go out. We were having family dinner at a restaurant that night to celebrate the Izzy adoption thing. And apparently Mom wanted to make sure we got through all that and made it back home before, as she put it, those violent psychopaths wake up from their naps and decide to start fighting again.

Part of me wondered briefly what the real reason was for why she wanted to get this dinner done with earlier than usual. Then I realized it almost certainly had to do with the Breakwater thing. That situation was probably moving about as fast as they could manage, but the big stuff wouldn’t happen until later. Mom wanted to keep our normal dinner, especially with Izzy. But things were also probably going to start happening pretty quickly tonight. At least, I hoped that was the reason. I really wanted to see the news report that Flea and Trivial were on a plane back here. I kept glancing at my phone, praying for a social media blow-up about it. Of course there was nothing so far. Stuff didn’t happen that quickly. Even if the Breakwater people had already gotten them off the island, they would be… laying down the strict rules about what they were allowed to say once they were out in public. 

Yeah, I had no idea how they were going to enforce that sort of thing. And thinking about it made me nervous, to say the least. But right now all that mattered was getting them off that island and back here. We would deal with anything else when the time came.

So, I had to tell the others that we have to pick this up another time. Promising to keep checking in and that they should tell me if they found out anything else, I headed out. As far as my mother knew, I was practicing some tricks at a smaller, out-of-the-way park that wasn’t currently blanketed with law-enforcement investigation people. Which meant I had a perfect excuse for paint-racing home. Mom expected me to be all sweaty. That’s why she made a point of calling for me to come home early and get cleaned up. Honestly, if I had shown up still all clean and fresh, she would’ve known something was up. Which was why I not only paint-ran most of the way home, but also took care to get myself dirty once I’d gotten close enough to change into my regular clothes. I quite literally rolled myself in the dirt and grass to sell the illusion. 

Well, that and also because it was fun. How often do you have a really good excuse to roll in the dirt? Especially in clothes that were bought with supervillain money. I may have gotten just a little too much enjoyment out of that. 

Once I made my way inside, suitably dirty and disheveled, along with the skateboard I had hidden on the far side of the wall surrounding our property, Mom took one look at me and made a noise that was part chuckle and part groan. “I see I didn’t make a mistake by pulling you in early.” Her hand reached out to gently brush over the dirt I had painstakingly put on my cheek. “Please tell me you had a good time, at least. Better than yesterday. I know it must have been as disappointing as it was frightening, considering how you feel about that girl.”

I made myself shrug, playing the part of a kid who didn’t want her mother to worry so much. “Sure, it was pretty scary, I guess. But like I said, I didn’t really see that much. I just hid.” With that, I made a point of injecting annoyance and self-recrimination into my voice. If I acted like a terrified child the whole time, Mom would never buy it. But she would believe that I had been scared in the moment but now wanted to move past it and was annoyed at myself for not actually doing anything to help. 

It worked. Mom used two fingers to tilt my head up to look at her. “And we are very glad for that. You are not a soldier or a police officer. If you ever see anything like that, hiding is exactly what you should do. It stops the bad guys from hurting you, and keeps you out of the way for the people who are actually trained to help. Hiding under that car was the best thing you could have done, okay?”

Oh boy was there an awful lot I wanted to say to that. But, of course, I kept myself under control and simply offered my mother a small smile. “Sure, I guess. Izzy’s the real superhero around here anyway. Where is she?” Right after saying that, I made a noise of realization. “Ohhh she’s probably doing Minority stuff, huh?”

“She’ll be home soon enough,” Mom assured me with a smile. “For now, perhaps you should go get cleaned up. We’ll be leaving within the hour. Oh, and I do hope you worked up an appetite while you were out.” She winked. “Your father really wants to spoil Izzy tonight, so I have a feeling he’ll be pulling out all the stops to make this a memorable meal.”

I could think of a few ways it could be memorable, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to suggest any of them. Instead, I simply promised to be ready soon, before jogging upstairs with my skateboard tucked under one arm. On the way, I passed Simon coming down while talking on the phone with one of his friends. Or maybe it was one of the Ministry people. Or both. Hell, maybe he was talking to a girl. It wasn’t like every last thing he did had to revolve around the Ministry. 

Yeah, okay, I’d rather think about my brother plotting mysterious things with a secret criminal underworld than about him being romantic with a girl. Blech. Honestly, there were a lot of things I’d rather think about than that. My brother’s love life wasn’t exactly on my top one thousand list of stuff I had any interest in. 

Pushing that thought far, far out of my mind, I grabbed a set of nice clothes (a teal silk shirt and black slacks) from my room before taking a long, hot shower. Partly because it helped me relax a bit, and partly because it took awhile to get clean. Maybe I had overdone the whole rolling in the dirt thing just a little bit. But at least it was sufficiently convincing for my mother so she didn’t ask any uncomfortable questions.

In any case, we had dinner at an out-of-the way restaurant. It was a nice place on the edge of town where they were very discreet. But more than that, their owner and head chef was a genius when it came to food. Seriously, that wasn’t hyperbole. Her name was Nadia Campbell and she was literally a Tech-Touched with a focus on cooking rather than building machines or weapons or whatever. 

Technically I wasn’t supposed to know that she was Touched, it wasn’t like she went around advertising it to everyone. But I’d heard my parents talking about her even before I’d found out about the Ministry. Nadia used to be the teacher for our own chef, Claudio. Dad tried to hire her to come to the house, but she didn’t go for it so he hired Claudio, her protege. 

If he was good at cooking, Nadia was the master. And she made certain everyone who worked in her kitchen followed her instructions. I had had a meal that was prepared by her personally a couple times before, though it wasn’t a regular occurrence by any means. She didn’t seem to care about my family‘s money, or any money really, aside from what it took to keep her restaurant afloat and allow her to do her work. 

No, despite all the money and influence they had, Nadia only agreed to personally cook for my family on very special occasions. The most recent one had been my sweet sixteen, back in January. But apparently she had agreed to this meal after finding out about Izzy agreeing to be adopted. And boy was that ever a good way to make this time memorable. 

Izzy, for her part, didn’t really understand what the big deal was. Not at first, anyway. And she was even more confused when there didn’t turn out to be any menus to look at. We just sat down in the private room at the back of the restaurant and one of Nadia’s assistants came out to talk to everyone. It wasn’t her, but that wasn’t surprising either. The small, deceptively young-looking black woman rarely directly spoke to any customers. Or anyone else, as far as I knew. She wasn’t the most sociable person, which was probably another reason why she turned down my family‘s offer. 

Instead of menus, Nadia‘s assistant, a man named Tumaini, talked with all of us. Some of it was about what sort of food we liked, but it was also seemingly random conversation. It went on for just a few minutes before the man smiled, thanked us for coming, and went out again.

After he left, Izzy hesitantly asked what that was all about. With a chuckle, Dad replied, “The woman here, Nadia, let’s just say she’s very special. She was listening to all that, and she’ll use the conversation to design a meal for everyone here. It’s what she does, and she’s quite good at it.”

Izzy was able to find out just how good Nadia was pretty soon, as our meals were eventually brought back to the table. My own food was an Italian pasta dish with semi-spicy meatballs and a creamy sauce that made my taste buds want to jump onto the table and start dancing. Izzy, meanwhile, had some sort of salmon dish with fingerling potatoes, which were apparently good enough to leave her completely shocked after just one bite. Though the shock didn’t last long, probably because it would have meant taking longer before actually eating the stuff.

Mom, Dad, and Simon had their own meals that were clearly just as good. We dug into the meals in earnest, while occasionally talking. The main subject was, naturally, Izzy. She blushed a lot and mumbled, apparently not sure how to handle being the center of attention like this. But I could tell she was having a good time regardless. We all were. 

Mom insisted we not have phones at the table while we were eating, so despite my anxiousness to know what was happening with the Breakwater thing, I couldn’t keep checking up on it. 

When we left the restaurant and all piled into the back of the limousine, however, I immediately dug the phone out of my pocket and checked. It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for, and a lot of it. Fourteen messages from Paige and the others, along with nine news alerts, and a couple phone calls. All of which amounted to the same thing.

Flea and Trivial had been found and would be coming home soon. 

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Interlude 25A – Sterling And Elena (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There is a non-canon focusing on a young Paige actually attending poor Anthony’s birthday party back in the day, available for everyone right here

“Well that was almost a disaster,” Sterling noted as he sank into the jacuzzi attached to the master suite that he and his wife shared. A low, pleased groan escaped him as the jets went to work massaging his strained muscles. His eyes closed and he tilted his head back to stretch out. Thankfully, he had all the room in the world to do so. The tub was large enough for twelve people to sit in comfortably, though it only ever saw two. 

The Jacuzzi’s other user, Elena, joined him a moment later. Sitting next to her husband, she gently and fondly rubbed one of his shoulders. “Better a near disaster than a certain tragedy. You made the right choice, don’t question it now.” She was well aware of what that tone of voice meant, and wanted to head it off at the pass. “These things happen sometimes. We know that.”

Opening his eyes, Sterling glanced that way. “It could have been a hell of a lot worse. If Paintball hadn’t helped Amber and Izzy get away from that crowd so they could call in the rest of the Minority, and if the rest of his team didn’t show up…” He trailed off before a heavy sigh escaped him. “The entire point was for the Conservators to arrive and drive those people off before they could actually hurt anyone.” 

Elena’s head shook slightly. “To be precise, the actual point was for Miss Sidorov to believe she was in danger so she would accept the presence of our people to keep her safe. To make her believe that, the danger had to be realistic. I believe our newest Fell-Team accomplished that quite well.” There was a slight edge to her voice, despite her actual words, however. It was obvious that she, like the man himself, was thinking about the far more personal risk that had been involved with that whole situation. 

“Quite well indeed,” Sterling pointedly replied with a nod of agreement. “And yet, somehow Cassidy ended up hiding ten feet away from danger again. It was bad enough at the hotel when she had to hide in the bathroom. But with this? This was our fault. Those people attacked the park because we wanted them to. If they’d killed anyone there, or if any of them had hurt Cassidy…” His face twisted a bit at the thought, hand clenching into a fist. 

Taking that fist and smoothing it out gently, Elena gently kissed his fingers. “They would all pay, quite harshly. But she is not hurt, Sterling. You remember the rules that were laid out for them in the first place. None of their hostages were to be seriously harmed. Cassidy may have been in more actual danger by hiding and potentially surprising one of the men than she would have been had she simply stayed with the others throughout the ordeal. Amber and Izzy would have kept her safe.” She considered briefly before adding, “I believe that situation might have actually prompted Izzy to reveal her powers to Cassidy. So she knows she can be safe with her.” 

Shaking off that thought, she focused on her husband once more. “In a perfect world, the plan would have worked flawlessly, with no adjustments or issues. But this world is very imperfect, my love. Of course I would rather you not have had to choose between following our plan as written, or interceding in the fight between Deicide’s people and Cuélebre’s at the mall. I am not saying otherwise. What I am saying is that I believe you made the best possible choice. Again, Janus, Juice, and the others had their instructions about not harming the people there. They know the penalties for violating those hard rules when we give them. But the fight at the mall was not our doing. It occurred entirely naturally, with none of our rules in place. If you had not taken the Conservators there and put an end to it, many more people would have died. Children, Sterling. Children would have died. To say nothing of the situation with Miss Rafferty at the police station. Both of those had to be brought back into some semblance of control.” 

Once again, Sterling sighed. “You’re right. It was the only thing that made sense. We had to trust that Janus and the rest of that gang would follow the rules. But half of them are new to the city. We don’t know them as well as we know the rest of the gangs. I wasn’t sure how much we could trust them to follow our rules. No matter how daunting of a first impression we made on them. That’s why this whole thing was supposed to be a test. A test with safety bumpers.” 

“Instead, it was a test without the bumpers,” Elena finished for him. “One we all survived. You made the right choice in going to the mall. And, while a bit… I believe scruffy would be the right word, the situation at the park did resolve itself correctly. Miss Sidorov has accepted our aid. We will take what we learn from that and use it to remove Errol’s connection to that safe so he can never be used to open it.”

“And you still think I made the right choice?” Sterling pointed out with a glance that way. “If this whole thing had gone wrong, we would’ve lost our best chance of doing that. If the Scions figure out who Errol is and manage to get to him before we can deal with that, a hell of a lot more people will die than anyone who was at that mall. Can you imagine the horrors Pencil and his sister would inflict on this entire city–hell, the entire state— if they had control of all the puppets in that safe? To say nothing of what they could do if they used that to find out about the Ministry. I saw the children at the mall in the middle of that gang war and I chose to save them. It worked out this time, but if it hadn’t, if–” He cut himself off, grimacing visibly for a moment before his voice continued a bit more softly. “It was a risk, and it could have backfired spectacularly.”   

“It could have,” Elena agreed. “But it did not. And if we spent minutes reexamining every way in which moments could have gone differently, we would lose years to our doubts. You saw children in danger and chose to save them, Sterling. If you continue to berate yourself about that choice, I shall have to find a way to hurt you. Perhaps by informing Simon about that gray hair–” 

“Don’t,” Sterling quickly interjected, holding up his free hand in surrender. “You win. I’ll let it go, promise.” Shifting a bit to look at her better, he offered a slight smile. “And I suppose things did work out after all. Thanks to Paintball, again. Maybe we should put that boy on the payroll, considering how much help he’s been.”

“Don’t think I haven’t considered something like that,” Elena shot back, poking the man in his nose. “It’s not the first time I’ve wished we could go back and start off our relationship with the boy on the right foot. Not that I blame Simon for what happened. He did what he was supposed to do, given what he knew. And yet…” It was her turn to sigh. 

With a chuckle as he took hold of her still-extended hand and squeezed it, Sterling pointed out, “Don’t forget, no spending minutes reexamining moments. You said yourself how quickly that can get out of hand. We keep moving forward as best as we can, making the choices we have to make and living with them. Now, where’s the remote for the tub? 

“I want to see just how good those upgrades to the massager setting are.” 

******

Several hours later, after getting a bit of sleep, Sterling was roused from his slumber by the buzzing of his personal cell phone on the desk next to their bed. He glanced toward his still-sleeping wife before quietly slipping out from under the blanket. Picking up the phone, the man rose as stealthily as possible and began to make his way to the door while glancing at the screen. There were only a few people whose calls his phone would actually vibrate for while he was asleep, so the list of who this could be was short. And sure enough, the name on the screen was Alcazar’s civilian identity. Face twisting slightly at the thought of what could have prompted this call, he carefully stepped out of the room and allowed it to close behind him. Only then did Sterling answer the phone, speaking in normal voice rather than a whisper considering the soundproofing would ensure Elena wasn’t disturbed. 

“What happened?” 

The answer came immediately, in a completely flat voice that told Sterling nothing about what was actually happening. “One of our friends at Channel Nine sent over an early copy of the report they’re working on that’s supposed to go out in a couple hours. I’m shooting it to your system right now. Believe me, you’ll want to see this.” 

Slowing very slightly, Sterling took that in. This clearly wasn’t a worst case scenario. There were code words for that, ways to sound the alarm. Whatever was happening, the Ministry hadn’t been exposed, neither–none of his children were in mortal peril, the city wasn’t burning down. But it was important enough to call like this, and public enough that it would be on the news. 

Without saying anything else for the moment, given he was certain Alcazar wanted to wait until he knew what was going on, Sterling took a few steps to the next room. It was one of his offices. He stepped inside and told the television to switch over to the private system they used for this sort of thing. Immediately, a picture of a shipwreck in front of an island came into view, along with a voice over that was clearly some sort of aid or production assistant reading off a script. This was a half-finished piece, not quite ready for actual air.

So, why was he watching the rehearsal of a news story about a boat crash? Why would Alcazar have woken him up for this? Frowning a bit, Sterling kept watching. And in a few moments, he had his answer. 

“Fuck,” he murmured under his breath while staring that way. Breakwater? If the claims in this unfinished report were true, then that was where the long-missing Trivial and Flea had ended up. Which… did make a sort of sense considering how impossible it had become to track them down, but still.

Irelyn Banners. Not that she was named in the report, but he was able to read between the lines. There were only so many sufficiently important women in the city who were currently missing and whose locations he wasn’t aware of. The list was short to begin with, and the very few details the report gave would have been enough to narrow it down even if the whole Flea thing hadn’t been included. The fact that it was meant there was never any question in his mind about who they were talking about. 

And yet, much of the report was utter nonsense. Flea and Trivial had not been sent to secretly rescue Irelyn. If they had been, he would have heard about it from about three or four different directions and identities. It didn’t matter how secretive the supposed mission had been, he would have known. So his first instinct was to dismiss this entire thing. 

And yet, why? Why would someone make this up out of nothing? Obviously the news that an innocent person had accidentally ended up stranded on Breakwater, and that two Star-Touched had gone in to rescue her before disappearing as well, would be big news, putting it mildly. People wouldn’t just take the word of an anonymous source. The media outlet wouldn’t be getting ready to run the story, not without some confirmation of their own. The picture on the screen had just shown some boat wreckage near a random island that could have been anywhere. The only reason the news would have actually run with the story was if they had some reason to believe it was true. And that meant–

“There’s more,” he noted simply. 

“Yes, sir,” Alcazar confirmed. “Whoever sent all that to about four different news stations, and posted it on a few different websites, also sent a more… detailed bit of evidence to the Conservators and the Spartans public relations boxes, and to Ten Towers as well. I took the liberty of pulling the files from all three, but they’re identical. The most important bit is that the files include the GPS location of the wreck, and it fits the location for Breakwater.” 

Sterling was quiet for a moment as he absorbed that. The people behind this knew where Breakwater was, and that wasn’t a secret that was easy to get. So there must have been at least some element of truth to it. 

How in the hell had something like this happened? Obviously, the news didn’t have the full story. There was no way that Flea and Trivial had actually gone to Breakwater to save Irelyn after she accidentally ended up there during a shipwreck. Among several other reasons for why that was impossible was the fact that Irelyn was Flea.

She had gone to find her missing parents. Trivial went with her, and the two of them had made it to Florida before disappearing. And now, according to this, they had somehow ended up on Breakwater. How? What was the connection? 

Wait. Pittman. Pittman’s little bio-machines were running around while he was still on Breakwater. He had to have had some sort of help here in town, someone providing resources. Could that have been the Banners? Hold on… Paige. Paige had ended up with a lot of information about the Ministry. That had always been a mystery, but what if the Banners had been working with Pittman, providing him resources? Then he, in turn, provided them with information about the Ministry. Information that was in their house for Paige to stumble across, considering how much time she spent in that place. That would explain how she’d found out enough about the Ministry to start digging deeper, how she’d gained access to those files. 

That answered a lot, actually. 

In any case, if this was true, Irelyn and Trivial had ended up on that island together somehow. And now whoever had leaked these pictures and the story to the news was trying to get public attention on the situation, without exposing Irelyn’s identity. 

But why only avoid spoiling her identity? Was it because they didn’t know who Trivial really was? No, that couldn’t be it, because there was no reason to claim that there should be three people to be rescued from the island instead of two. That just complicated matters. It would have made far more sense to simply refer to Flea and Trivial without ever mentioning Irelyn. 

For a moment, Sterling was baffled. Then he realized. There had to be more than one person involved in this, and at least one of them didn’t know that Irelyn and Flea were the same person. Whoever was actually behind this was trying to thread the needle of getting help for Flea and Trivial without exposing to the world that Flea was Irelyn, and without exposing that same fact to whoever they were working with. This other person or people must have known that Flea was there and that Irelyn was there, but didn’t know they were one and the same. That sounded complicated and dangerous, so why wouldn’t they simply tell these other people the truth? 

Was this Paige? It was clear by this point that the girl knew her way around computers and was good at the spying game. Better than she should’ve been. Especially if he was right about her finding out about the Ministry from her parents. If she had found out the truth about what happened to her adopted sister and had recruited someone to help to expose that fact, but didn’t want her new allies to know the whole truth… but who would she have gone to for help? Most of the groups in the city would have reached that information back to the Ministry long before it ever got this far.

There were a few options, of course. Paintball’s new group, Avant-Guard, was a possibility. But Sterling didn’t think they could pull something like this off. Not on such short notice. If Paige had gone to them for help–why would she? What could they give her when it came to getting anyone off of Breakwater? Not to sell them short, but nothing, really. If Paige had discovered the truth of where her sister was, why would she go to them for help? 

Then there was the fact that, when asked about what she knew when it came to Irelyn’s disappearance only recently, she’d claimed that the only information she had was that Irelyn had left to go find their parents. Parents whom Paige herself had only left shortly before that. Their father had taken her and his wife to go hide from some mysterious enemy. A mysterious enemy that Sterling was beginning to believe was supposed to be the Ministry itself. He and Elena were the enemies the Banners were hiding from, and they didn’t even know it. Then Paige convinced him to let her come back here to go to school again, but by the time she arrived, Irelyn was already gone. 

The simplest answer, of course, was that she was lying about some or all of that. But the agent who had been sent to speak with her was very good at picking up lies, and they believed she was telling the truth. It didn’t completely prove anything, but did muddy the waters a bit. 

Maybe it wasn’t Paige. But his instincts told him she was involved. This whole thing was meant to force Breakwater to admit they had Flea and Trivial, and send them home. That wasn’t necessarily one hundred percent proof that Paige was part of it, but… yeah, he thought she was. In some way or another, at least. 

Maybe he was thinking about this from the wrong direction. What if it wasn’t that Paige had learned what happened to Irelyn and had then gone to another group, but the other way around? What if some other group had gone to her with that information? If they knew that Irelyn was on that island and that Flea and Trivial were as well, but thought that Irelyn and Flea were different people… hmm, that was possible. They might have recruited Paige with that, but… why? And who would have found out where Flea and Trivial were, and that Irelyn was ‘there as well,’ but didn’t know two of those were the same person, and would have recruited Paige to help them? And help them what? Hold on, he was missing something here. 

Wait a moment. Another thought came to Sterling, and he told the computer to shift away from the frozen half-finished news footage in order to bring up a few files and memos he wasn’t exactly supposed to have access to. Sure enough, there it was. One of the principle investors in three of Ten Towers’ member companies was Aaron Banners, Irelyn and Paige’s father. He was still something of an outsider from the group itself, preferring to build his own legacy. But he had access others didn’t. Access that could give someone very important information, such as everything they knew about the murder of that reporter, Jolene Iverson. 

Grandstand. She could have accessed the information about what happened to Flea and Trivial at any of the little hideaways Pittman probably still had around here. She and Broadway were working together. But they also had help from Eits and Pack. Those four had shown up to the police station today to stop Jennica, so they were clearly in close contact. Between Grandstand’s power and Eits’, they could have discovered just about anything.

Obviously, they found out the truth and decided to pull Paige into things in order to get access to her and Irelyn’s father. Which, by extension, would grant them his access to all the information Ten Towers had about the murder of Setrea’s friend. It made sense and fit this situation. Or at least as much as anything did.

“Minister?” Alcazar prompted, interpreting his intake of breath. “Do you have something?” 

“Maybe,” Sterling replied. “I’m going to wake my wife and explain what’s going on. Do something for me in the meantime, would you? 

“Send messages to Cuélebre and Blackjack to give us everything they know about Grandstand, Broadway, Eits, and Pack.”

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Exhibition 25-10 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – We have an adorable Cassidy emoji commissioned by Celeste and created by the artist known as Alba found right here

Obviously, my parents wanted me to tell them the whole story about what happened while I was at the skatepark, more than once. The uber-paranoid part of me almost thought it was because they were trying to trip me up, but the more rational part knew they were just worried. They needed to hear that I was okay, that I hadn’t actually been confronted by any of the bad guys directly. So, I just repeated the same thing I’d told my mother on the phone. I saw the gang members show up, so I hid under a car in the parking lot until things calmed down. I wasn’t a great fan of how it made me sound like a coward who couldn’t even check on Izzy, but that was probably better than giving my family any reason to think I was up to anything else. Better a coward than a secret superhero who knew all about their criminal activities. 

I would’ve preferred the chance to get away from them sooner so I could talk with the rest of my team about everything I’d overheard, but there was absolutely no way that was going to happen for awhile. Izzy and I were sitting in one of the dens back home, drinking hot chocolate and eating fresh cookies while my parents took turns talking to us. It was almost amusing seeing the way they kept juggling being present, worried parents and running damage control as the Ministry. One of them kept stepping out of the room to use the phone. The excuse was that they were dealing with fallout from the attack considering our family helped sponsor the exhibition. 

While the two of them stood in the doorway, whispering to each other, I glanced toward Izzy. The story I’d been given, of course, was that she had simply run off with Amber and the rest of the hostages after Paintball appeared and distracted the bad guys. The two of them stayed together, but had no idea where I was. Eventually (supposedly) they were both extricated from the group of freed hostages by my father shortly before he found me. We’d dropped Amber off at her own house before coming back here. 

Seeing me look that way, Izzy gave me a tiny smile and nod before starting to talk about, of all things, how cool and amazing it had been when Paintball showed up. She really poured on the gushing over ‘him.’ Seriously, it sounded like me talking about Inessa. Actually, she might’ve been inspired by that, come to think of it. She was totally using my own rambling, enthusiastic praise as inspiration for this bit, which was totally unfair and she knew it. I just had to sit there and play along with how cool the guy obviously was. 

“Ahem.” That was my mother, coming back over before sitting on the chair next to the couch where Izzy and I were. “Yes, we are all very grateful for Paintball and all the Star-Touched in the city right now. This whole situation could have been so much worse without them. Not only at the park, but other places too.” 

“What–um–” I started before coughing. “I heard something about that girl who attacked the baseball stadium the other day going after a police station? Is she crazy?” 

“She is…” Mom hesitated, clearly trying to find the right words. 

“She’s someone who belongs in prison,” Dad finished for her, coming over to sit in the other chair. “But from what one of my cop buddies was saying, she was just trying to do as much damage as possible. It didn’t seem like she was there for anything in particular. Just…” He trailed off, but I was pretty sure that was mostly because Mom glanced at him. She didn’t want him speculating about that stuff in front of us. Or in front of me. The two of them exchanged a silent look, obviously communicating so much without saying a word.

“But the Conservators stopped her, right?” I put in, pretending I hadn’t noticed that. It was getting really hard to guess how oblivious my parents thought I was supposed to be. At least in this case I had the excuse of having gone through something crazy and distracting. “Did they, you know, catch her?” 

With a heavy sigh that obviously had a lot behind it, Dad shook his head. “Unfortunately, it sounds like she managed to take control of about half the police force in the station and kept using them as distractions, making them try to hurt themselves or others if any of the Stars stepped in. But uhh… it could’ve been worse, if the others hadn’t shown up.” 

“Others?” I echoed, shifting a bit in the seat with a glance toward Izzy. 

Mom chuckled softly. “Yes, odd as it may be to hear, apparently the day was saved by, of all people, that Grandstand woman. Well, she and those three members of La Casa. The lizard girl, the sound girl, and the ahh, computer boy?” 

Right, sure Mom, I totally believe you’re unaware of their actual names. Excellent work. A-plus acting.  

Pushing that feeling of sarcasm as far from my voice as I could manage, I hesitantly spoke up. “Wait, what were they doing there?” 

“That’s… probably something for the police to determine,” Mom carefully replied. “All we can say for certain is that they interfered with that girl’s attack. Hopefully before she could take whatever it was she was after.” 

“I’m still not sure if she was after anything in particular,” Dad put in. “Seems to me like she just wanted to cause as much pain and suffering as she could in an area that was supposed to be safe.” He said that in a low, dangerous voice that told me just how angry he was about that whole situation. And if I could actually hear it, that probably said something about how close my father was to putting his fist through a wall. 

That made sense, of course. If my family had this big plan about how to scare Inessa just enough to accept protection from people who worked for the Ministry so they could figure out how the DNA lock removal thing worked, then obviously they’d be pissed off about Jennica choosing that moment to come in and start screwing things up. And it was more than that. She went against the control they had established over the city, just like the psychopaths she was trying to impress. And, I was sure, my dad was upset about the people she had hurt and killed in that police station.

It was a mess, a total and complete mess. To the point that I was kind of surprised they were still making even the token effort to be here with us. I mean, sure, they’d thought I was in danger. But it turned out I wasn’t, at least as far as they knew. By this point, shouldn’t they have given me the last couple hugs and then headed off to take care of actual Ministry stuff? This had to be a huge deal for them, too big to just handle over a few furtive phone calls in the hallway.

While I was still thinking about that, Izzy actually spoke up, sounding tentative and uncertain. “Um, Cassidy?” 

Her voice made me blink a couple times. I’d been so focused on a mix between trying to keep my reactions to my parents reasonable and figuring out what was going on with them that I hadn’t really thought too much about the fact that she was sitting there too. “What?” I managed blankly after turning that way. 

Izzy shifted uncomfortably, biting her lip before meeting my gaze. “I decided to say, umm… y-yes. I mean, to your parents. To your family. I mean not that–” Her face was flushed. “About the adoption thing, I mean.” She sat up a bit straighter and locked eyes with me. We both knew what she was saying with this, what it really meant. “I decided to say yes, I’d like to be adopted. I um, I told your dad that when he found me.” 

“Oh.” Taking that in, I smiled reflexively. Yes, there were so many ways this was dangerous, especially for Izzy. She would’ve been so much safer in the long run if she just went with some other family. Preferably far away from here. 

Or would she? Obviously the Ministry was dangerous and all, but Mom and Dad clearly cared about her, and–fuck. It was complicated. 

Still, I had to say something before my parents started to wonder what was going on with me, so I forced all those thoughts out of my head and simply leaned over to embrace the other girl. “That’s amazing, Izzy!” I didn’t even have to fake that enthusiasm. I really enjoyed having her around. Not to mention how much better it was to have someone in the house I could absolutely trust and who knew all my secrets. Which did make me feel a little selfish considering how much trouble those secrets could get her in, but still. 

Simon, who had just come in through the doorway while I was reacting to that, spoke up. “Yeah, it’ll be cool to have an annoying little sister I can still stuff into a suitcase.” Immediately after saying that, he snapped his fingers. “Oh wait, I can totally still do that with the first one.” 

“Yeah, try it and see what happens, jerk,” I sent right back at him while baring my teeth like a raccoon. Wait, raccoon? Why was that the first image that stuck in my hea–oh yeah, Price, duh. “Izzy, if he tries anything, his hair’s a weak point. That includes pulling it or putting something sticky in it.”

Mom cleared her throat. “As much as I might enjoy listening to our children discussing how to torment one another more effectively, I believe there are more productive uses of our time.” 

“Uh, yeah.” Izzy shifted again, her gaze going back to me. “There’s something else, Cassie. Something I need to tell you about me and… and what I was really doing during the attack today.” 

Oh–oh, we were doing this right now? Wait, we were really doing this now? Izzy was going to tell me the truth about her identity in front of my–our parents (and boy did that ever send a tickle down my spine). At first I wondered why she hadn’t warned me ahead of time, but then realized this way was probably better. The sense of surprise would be more genuine and nothing would sound rehearsed. I was definitely mentally on the backfoot right now. “I–uh, what?” 

So, she told me. Or rather, showed me. Rising from the couch, Izzy summoned water from the glass on the nearby table and made it spin in circles in front of me. Then she soaked down the expensive vase sitting in the corner and made that float through the room (while Mom winced just a little). She told me she was Raindrop, and that she had been living with us because her birth mother tried to sell her to Oscuro before Silversmith saved her. 

I sat there through the whole story, pretending I didn’t know any of it. And, dare I say, I put on the performance of a lifetime. It helped that I was surprised that this was happening right now, of course. But the other thing that helped was the fact that I was still extremely pissed off whenever I thought about what her birth mother had done. There had been no easing of emotions when it came to that. If I ever found out where that bitch was…

In any case, that all helped make my reactions very real even though I knew all this stuff already. By the end, as Izzy stood there awkwardly, I pushed myself off the couch, grabbed her hands, and jumped up and down. “A superhero! My sister’s a superhero! Dude, that’s fu–” My eyes darted briefly to my mother. “–freaking awesome! You’re Raindrop, you have superpowers, you can fly, you can–oh my God, you’ve got action figures! I’ve gotta get your action figures and your cups and your posters and–” In mid-sentence, I grabbed my phone and quickly checked something. “Sheets and blankets! I can sleep on Raindrop sheets and blankets!”  

Yeah, maybe this was payback for the way she had been gushing over Paintball earlier. And I wasn’t done yet. 

“Wait, hold on, you can make other things fly too!” I made a point of overly dramatically widening my eyes with that ‘realization’ as I started to focus on the younger girl once more. 

“I think we can talk about anything else regarding that later,” Mom immediately put in with a pointed tone as she squinted at me knowingly. “Izzy, I trust you are careful enough not to listen to any wild fancies Cassidy might have about flying skateboards or the like.” 

“Aww Mom,” I pretended to complain, “We’ll be careful, you know that.” 

“I’m not sure you could define the word ‘careful,’” Dad informed me with a chuckle. “Or that you wouldn’t hiss and recoil from it like a vampire if you saw it written down.” He stepped over, putting one hand on Izzy’s shoulder and one on mine. “But does this mean you’re okay with this? We didn’t want to keep a secret this important from you like that for so long, but there were reasons.” He said that carefully, and I knew what it meant. This whole thing was a rehearsal for when they eventually told me the truth about everything. He was obviously playing that out in his head and watching my reaction now. 

Taking a breath, I grinned at Izzy. “Okay? Dude, did you hear that? My sister is a freaking superhero! She has superpowers. She helps people in trouble. She puts bad guys in jail. She helped save all those people today! And she helped put out those fires the other day, and–” I cut myself off and just embraced Izzy again, because I didn’t want Dad to see my face in that second. “This isn’t just okay, it’s awesome!” 

“Ah, awesome as it is,” Mom spoke up, “I trust you know how important it is to keep it secret?” 

Squeezing Izzy one more time, I released her and turned to face my mother–our mother. I knew this was a bit I couldn’t joke my way through or blow off. It was serious and important enough right on the face of it, and my parents would be paying extra special attention for other reasons. They weren’t going to accept a dismissive response. 

So, I faced her and gave a short nod. “I’m not gonna go blabbing about it to impress people at school or online, Mom. I’m not a complete idiot. If those bad guys like the ones who were at the park today ever found out who she was, they might try to hurt her. Or one of us. It’s cool knowing she’s a superhero, that’s all. I don’t need to brag about it to anybody else.” Pointedly, I added, “I mean, if Simon can keep it a secret, I can.” 

“Oh come on,” he shot back at me, “your mouth’s about the only thing big about you, Booster.” 

With a sigh, Mom interjected before I could retort. “Please be nice. I mean that at all times, naturally, but especially today. This is a time to celebrate, not bicker.” She poked me with one finger, then used the same one to poke Simon. “You are both about to have a new younger sibling. You shouldn’t be looking to her to set the best example.” 

“Yeah, but she’s a superhero,” Simon pointed out with a sly shrug. “How’re we supposed to match up to that?” 

“Just do your best,” Dad replied before adding, “It shouldn’t take being a superhero to get along with your sibling.” Before either of us could respond, he quickly pushed on. “Now, there’s a lot of stuff your mother and I still need to take care of tonight, after everything that happened. But you three go on into the kitchen and you’ll find a special sundae bar Claudio whipped up before he retired for the evening. We’ll get the adoption papers filed with the court as soon as they open.

“And something tells me, it won’t take long to be approved.” 

*****

“Sorry about that,” Izzy murmured to me while the two of us were sitting in my room with our sundaes a bit later. We had gone over the intercom system again just to make sure we weren’t being eavesdropped on, but I was pretty sure my parents had other things to focus on right now. 

“You mean the being ambushed thing?” I teased while nudging her. “Nah, I figure that was probably the best way to make me sound genuinely surprised about it.” When she still looked a little guilty and uncertain, I insisted. “No, seriously, it’s okay. You meant to take me by surprise and you did. But you also trusted me to run with it and not screw up. That… that means a lot. And so–” I hesitated, setting my bowl down for the moment so I could focus on her. “So does the fact that you want to be my sister.” 

Izzy blushed a little, also putting her bowl down. She shifted awkwardly, hands squeezing one another as she played with her fingers. “Whatever happens, I’m all in with you, Cassie. I… I don’t know what we’re gonna do, but we can figure it out together.” 

Biting my lip, I took both her hands while she was still worryingly squeezing and twisting her own fingers. “You’re right, we will figure it out together. One step at a time. And–” As I was about to continue with that, my phone buzzed from its place on the bed next to me. Glancing that way, I read the message that popped up. “Oh.” 

“Oh what?” Izzy asked, leaning over a bit. 

“It’s Paige,” I replied. “They finished the photoshop for those pictures, so she and Sierra really want to get the next bit going. You know, cuz they’re worried about Irelyn. 

“Which means the news stations are gonna get a late delivery tonight.” 

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Exhibition 25-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Before we got into any of that, I told Caishen and the others that I had to check on my team. Not to mention make sure Inessa was okay. They informed me that the Spartans had already arrived and helped either chase off or capture all the other guys. Poise, Style, Hobbes, and Calvin were being interviewed at the moment, as were the Minority people. Which also made me want to go rescue them from that, of course. But it wasn’t nearly as good of an excuse. So, I had to deal with this first. Or rather, we did, since a quick call to Alloy had her bring Inessa back so she could help. Peyton also confirmed that the others were okay. 

Between both of us (once she was back), Inessa and I explained everything as best as we could. The other girl did most of the ‘why’ explanation, since she was the one who could get into the whole story about the vault and her brother. Mostly I just told Caishen and the others about what I had done, though I left out the part about working with Eits. Considering how much he helped with making sure I could free the hostages, it probably would’ve been fine, but I didn’t want the Ten Towers people to know that he had my phone number and had been connected to me through that for so long. It just felt like a bad idea to give them that sort of information. Especially when I still wasn’t sure who on their team might be connected to the Ministry. I just had to give them as little information as possible, without looking like I was holding back information. Which was a delicate balancing act.

Once we were done explaining that whole thing, Caishen let out a long breath. “Okay, I think it’s obvious that we need to cancel the rest of this exhibition.” She spoke up over Inessa’s objections. “Everyone is scattered and most of them went home or to the police already anyway. And if the gangs here know about your situation, these guys might not be the only ones who come after you.” She paused to consider for a moment before adding, “How long until you finish that experiment?”

“Not long,” came the answer. “I am certain that it will be done within the week.” A small smile played across her face. “I have been waiting for this weight to be lifted for some time. This attack was not the first of its kind. It will be nice to not have to think about that.” She paused, a visible grimace crossing her face. “Though I can never forget what sort of person my brother turned out to be.” 

Ohhh boy. Yeah, I wanted to say something to that, but what? How was I supposed to respond? I couldn’t even tell her about my own brother and he at least hadn’t been responsible for making what were apparently a bunch of dangerous super weapons that got him sent to Breakwater. And now, not only did she have to deal with having a brother like that, but also had random nasty pieces of shit trying to use her to open that vault so they could kill more people. How could I possibly respond to that in any meaningful way? 

While I was still trying to figure that out, Caishen continued. “Do you really think you can turn off your ability to open that vault?”

“Yeah,” Bunglebotch put in, “isn’t that sort of thing impossible? I mean, it’s your DNA. How exactly do you alter your DNA without changing who you are? Messing with that sort of thing just uhh, seems dangerous? And by seems dangerous, I mean incredibly, stupidly dangerous.” Quickly, she added, “Not that you’re stupid. I mean–yeah, I mean, just… you know.” 

“Eloquently put, Bungle,” Stick dryly murmured before focusing on the girl next to me. “Landmines of speaking indelicately aside, my friend there is right about it seeming dangerous. Are you certain you know what this scientist of yours is doing?“

“Yeah,” Alloy piped up from where she had been standing quietly in the background, “they’re not about to turn you into a frog-person or something, are they?” When everyone looked at her, she shrank back a bit reflexively while one of her marbles turned into a shield and attached itself to her arm protectively.

Inessa nodded. “It is… it is fine, it’s not really changing my DNA. It is more…” She paused as though considering how to explain properly. “It’s more like adding a little something to it which disguises my DNA whenever it’s read by something like the vault scanner. When it detects me being scanned that way, it throws some added… stuff in there, which makes it look as though I am not the right one after all. That’s… that’s the layman’s version that was explained to me anyway. I am afraid a more technical explanation would have to be given by my friend, and I am not ready to give up their identity. Though I could give you a phone number to call.” 

“Yeah, please do,” Caishen agreed. “I’m not sure I could understand a ‘more technical’ explanation, but it’d still be nice to have.” She looked toward me then. “I think everyone owes you a real debt, Paintball. Whatever weapons might be in that secret vault, I’m pretty sure we don’t want those guys to have them.” 

Ephemera, who was in a male form at the moment (they shifted into new bodies constantly, with the only constant being their very simple costume of red pants, red shoes, white turtleneck, and white ski mask), spoke up. “Yeah, dude, that was awesome. We only saw a little bit on the security cameras when we were gearing up to get over here, but seriously.” They gave me a thumbs up. “You really kicked ass out there. With and without your team.”

“Ahem,” Linesight put in, “I believe what my teammate means is simply that we’re glad you’re safe, and that you managed to help the civilians around here.”   

Blushing a little under the mask and helmet, I offered a helpless shrug. “No big deal. I mean, I just happened to be around, and what was I supposed to do, let those guys hurt people? I didn’t even know what was going on, not really. I was just…” Trailing off, I kicked the ground lightly. “I was just in the right place at the right time. And anyway, we would’ve been caught if it wasn’t for Skip.” Quickly looking toward the girl, I added, “Thanks for jumping in like that. I don’t think I could’ve gotten out of that without you. Devil’s Due was about to make me call Alloy back when you jumped in.” Under my breath, I muttered, “Next time I see that guy I’m gonna punch him so hard he’ll never wanna tell me to do anything again.” 

Skip, in turn, simply spoke in that same flat voice that made it unclear what she was feeling. “I’m glad I was able to help. But as you said, it was simply a matter of being in the right place at the right time. I was scanning the park for the source of the disturbance and was about to move on to where your team was fighting when someone told me where you were.” 

That made Caishen look at her. “Someone told you? One of the civilians?” 

Her head shook. “I have no idea. The voice came from one of the loudspeakers meant for announcing events through the park. I could make out no details about it, but they told me where you were and that Devil’s Due was going to make you do something terrible.” 

At first I was confused. Then I realized, Eits. Our call had disconnected when he left, but apparently he was back. Or maybe he’d simply kept control of the cameras or something. Either way, he’d sent help as soon as I was in trouble. It was a thought that made me blush even more, and I was yet again glad that these guys couldn’t see that reaction. 

“A mysterious helper,” Caishen mused before focusing on me. “Any idea who that could be?” 

Oh boy, how was I supposed to answer that? A few dozen increasingly stupid possibilities ran through my head in the next second, before I simply replied, “I might, but I’m not sure. And it’s kind of a personal thing anyway.” 

To my relief, the woman accepted that, though she did look like she wanted to dig deeper. She resisted the urge, however, and simply moved on. So, I did a little more talking with them about what happened. There wasn’t much else to say, but I did make sure Inessa was okay yet again before heading out. Caishen reminded me to make an official report when I did my periodic check-in with the cops, and noted that I should probably take my entire team with me, since they hadn’t done that part yet. 

Finally, Inessa gave me a hug (leaving me standing there staring blankly and trying not to giggle like an idiot), before Alloy and I headed off together. The Ten Towers people were going to take over the job of keeping Inessa safe until she could finish that whole vault removal thing. Which was good, since I was pretty sure they’d do a much better job than I could have at that moment. After everything that had happened, I was so tired I could barely stand upright, let alone get involved in another fight. All I wanted to do was fall down and sleep for a bit, though that wouldn’t happen for awhile. 

At the last second, as Alloy started to lift us off together on one of her marble boards, I turned back and called toward Caishen, “Oh! There’s a guy in the port-a-potties over there! You uhh… you might wanna get him out of there before the dude dies from the smell. 

“I really don’t want to get in trouble with violating the Geneva Conventions or something.” 

*****

Unfortunately, I barely had time to check in with the others for a few minutes near one of the side exits from the park. I had just made sure everyone was okay, and thanked them for showing up, when I got a text on my phone from Eits. Glancing at it, I saw the message, ‘Arleigh and brothers looking for you. Seem really worried. You might want to have an excuse ready for where you were.’ 

Yeah, that made me do a double-take. They were looking for me? Why? What– okay, no time to think about that. If they looked too hard and started wondering how I’d disappeared so effectively… fuck. That could be bad. 

“Sorry, gotta go play at being me for awhile,” I interrupted while Paige was starting to talk about Banneret. “The Cassidy me, I mean. I uhh, thanks again, guys. Seriously. I would’ve been pretty screwed without you. And so would Inessa.” 

“Yeah, and we definitely wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to your idol,” Sierra replied a bit slyly, looking me up and down. “Did you get her autograph? Or give her yours?” 

“I–that’s not–” I was blushing even more, waving that off with both hands. “Never mind, I’ve gotta go. I’ll check in with you guys as soon as I don’t have a bunch of people wondering where the hell I am.” With that, I extended my arm to use a bit of paint to pull myself to a roof where I could change. But then I paused and glanced back toward Paige. “Oh, and I’ll have to tell you about how I was combining paint colors to get new effects.” 

The blonde girl started to nod absently before her gaze snapped toward me as she actually processed what I’d said properly. “Wait, you did what? Paintball, you did what?! Damn it, Paintball!” 

But I was already gone, leaving the others behind for the moment as I sent myself flying across the street, over several parked police cars and an ambulance. A few random civilians scattered around shouted up at me, and I waved but didn’t slow down. Now was not the time to get caught up with something else. 

Instead, I made sure I was out of sight before hurriedly summoning my normal clothes back in the back. I did a quick change, glanced around once more, then lowered myself to the ground in the alley. Finally, I took my civilian phone out and looked at it. Oh, right, about twenty-seven missed calls and texts. Fantastic. 

Scanning through them, I saw that three different calls were from my parents, along with a text. Another call was from Simon, and the rest were all from Arleigh. She sounded increasingly frantic to know where I was and that I was okay, which might have been sweet if it wasn’t Arleigh. Obviously something was going on. I really didn’t believe she cared about me enough to check in that many times. Why would she be that upset at the idea of me being hurt?

Shaking that off, I quickly called my mother back. As the call went through, I took a deep breath and composed myself. Or rather, uncomposed myself. Was that even a word? I sure wasn’t decomposing. Either way, I jumped up and down a few times and shook my head back and forth. Time to play this up. 

It only rang once before my mother’s voice immediately came through as the call connected. “Cassidy? Cassidy, are you alright?” She didn’t sound completely freaked out or anything, but there was a definite uncertainty and worry in her voice. Weirdly, I felt a flash of guilt about making her upset. That was stupid, right? She had helped hurt plenty of other people much worse than just being worried about me for a few minutes. And yet, the feeling was there anyway. Stupid unreasonable and illogical feelings. 

“I’m okay! I’m fine, Mom!” I was talking too loudly, intentionally making myself sound even more upset and confused than I was. After all, this was supposed to be one of the first times I’d been in any sort of situation like this. The first time since I’d hid in the bathroom at the hotel to avoid the Scion troops back. I injected embarrassment and confusion into my voice. “I saw those guys show up while I was getting nachos, so I hid under one of the cars in the parking lot. But I dropped my phone when I was… when I was…” I swallowed hard, giving it a three count before quietly finishing, “When I was running away. I dropped my phone and I couldn’t get to it. There were guys all around and I didn’t want to–I mean I was trying to–I mean–” 

“Shh, it’s alright.” Mom sounded relieved. “It’s okay, principessa, you did just fine. Have you spoken to the police yet? Your father will be there soon. Where are you?” 

“I’m… I’m gonna talk to the cops in a second. I’ll be near the skate entrance,” I informed her, already walking that way. “Mom, my battery’s getting really low. I’ll talk to Dad as soon as he gets here. I’m okay. I’m fine.” Even as I said that, I made sure to sound like I was anxious and jumpy, but not enough to make her even more worried. I needed my mother to be convinced I was fine, but not suspicious about how fine I actually was. 

Boy was this a hard tightrope to walk. So I just told my mother I loved her and would see her soon, then disconnected. By that point, I had reached the park. There were cops all around, but they were focused on getting the bad guys I had tied down all loaded into cars to be taken in. No one paid much attention to me as I looked around before spotting Ryder standing by himself. He saw me at the same time and made a point of lifting his phone to his ear, then nodded to one side. Following the direction he was indicating with my gaze, I finally found Arleigh. She was with her dad, standing off by themselves away from everyone else. From the look of things, they were deep in conversation. 

So, I took my Paintball phone out, holding it to my ear after glancing around once. Immediately, I could hear voices. Arleigh and her father’s voices. 

“–told you, I tried to find her,” the girl was saying.

In the distance, I could see Trey Fosters hold up a hand with a single finger raised. “One job, Arleigh. In this whole operation we gave you one single job. When everything went down, you were supposed to make Cassidy Evans see you protect her. You were supposed to be the one who kept her safe. I thought you could handle that much, at least. Everyone else was doing the important things. The Ministry has their agents in place now. They can do their jobs. The Sidorov girl’s worried now. She’ll accept protection. Their protection. So we can find out exactly how this DNA-lock removal works and get it off your little brother. Everyone else succeeded at their parts in this despite unexpected interference.” 

Wait, hold on, was that what this entire thing was about? I found myself rocking back on my heels a little bit and that revelation. The Ministry had approved this entire thing just so they could get some guards close enough to Inessa to figure out how she was getting rid of her own ability to open her brother’s vault, so they could do the same with Errol? That was… that was…

I didn’t have time to think about what that was. Arleigh’s voice suddenly filled my ear through the phone. “There she is!” 

Oh, me. She had spotted me. Quickly putting the phone away, I looked around as though I had just heard a hint of her raised voice in the distance. Finally ‘spotting’ her as she shouted my name, I waved a bit awkwardly and took a few steps that way. 

Before I could reach them, however, my dad was there. He came racing across the grass, taking just a second to shout a greeting toward Mr. Fosters before taking a knee in front of me. The next thing I knew, he was pulling me up against his chest in a tight embrace. “Cassidy, oh, Cassidy. You’re alright.” 

“Yeah, I… I’m okay, Dad,” I managed, returning the hug after a second. “I’m just really confused right now. But… but wait.

“Where’s Izzy?”  

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Interlude 23C – Ministry (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Just in case you don’t read Heretical Edge and thus both didn’t get the announcement in the previous chapter of that story and missed this over the weekend, there was a commissioned interlude for this story, focusing on a look at a group of Civ-Touched, posted a few days ago. It can be found attached to the previous chapter button above. we

As she strolled down the hall of one of their main office buildings in the middle of downtown Detroit, Elena Evans spoke on the Bluetooth device in her ear. Her voice was crisp and no-nonsense. “Tell me precisely how many of the Easy Eight switched sides. No, just the Touched.” She paused then to listen to the response before exhaling. “Three. Which ones?” Again, she paused to listen while standing directly outside the office door. It had opened at her approach thanks to the sensors above which scanned her identity, but she didn’t go through yet. “How did he manage that without anyone hearing about negotiations? Find out.” 

Finally walking into the office, she shook her head while heading for the desk. “No, there’s no need to sanction them. It’s not against the rules to switch sides, I just want to know how we were surprised. Somehow I doubt those three kept their intentions to themselves, or that it was spur of the moment. Are we certain that Grandstand leaving him wasn’t a ploy to allow her to operate in secret for this?” Reaching the desk, she checked through a few files that had been left on top. “Yes, I have the address for that theater right here. Are you ready? Ten Seventeen Wagontrail. Find out if they’re still living there or how long ago they left. Yes, now, there’s nothing you can contribute to this fight that someone else isn’t already doing. Take a small squad, just in case. Pearson’s people should be ready. Minister Gold will be… occupied for the time being, and Squire is following up on another–” 

She stopped at a knock on the door, turning to see Alcazar standing there. The expression on the utterly average-looking man’s face told Elena that whatever he had come for wouldn’t wait. So, she gave a couple more quick instructions over the phone, before disconnecting the call so she could turn her full attention that way. “What happened? More betrayals?” 

The man’s mouth opened before he paused. “Ah, well I was on my way to inform you that Braintrust’s move against the lab you wanted checked for any connection to Pittman has begun. Given the distractions through the rest of the city, it’s doubtful that anything unexpected will happen, but we’re keeping an eye on it. But just before I got here, one of our people informed me that we just received a phone call from the Banners girl.” 

That confused Elena, though more out of curiosity about why he would be bringing that up right now, or look so confused by it. There are other things happening which were far more important at this particular moment than some lone girl calling them, even if she was someone they had an agreement with to leave one another alone. “Don’t tell me she’s trapped somewhere downtown and needs–wait.” Amending herself, Elena asked, “Is this about her missing sister?” Flea, and Trivial with her, had both gone missing at one of the worst possible times. The Ministry had reached out to Paige to find out what she knew about it, but the girl claimed it had something to do with business enemies her father was paranoid about and that he had taken his wife and adopted daughter on an extended ‘vacation’ of sorts to avoid them. Apparently she had convinced him to finally let her come home to finish the school year, but had no idea where they were now, and hadn’t known that Irelyn had left Detroit already to go look for them. 

It was all quite the mess, but still didn’t quite explain why Alcazar would be bringing it up now, considering everything that was already happening. He knew better than that, so what–

“No,” came his flat response. “Actually, she was… ahh, calling on behalf of Paintball.” 

Well, that certainly got Elena’s attention. Of course they knew that the boy had some interaction with Paige, after he’d rescued her from Kent. Part of her deal with the Ministry in exchange for not doing anything with the information she had collected was that they would leave both her and Paintball alone. Granted, if Elena had wanted to push that issue she could have, but for now it was an arrangement that suited them well enough. Paintball was a potential asset to be recruited later, once he had more experience and more understanding of what the city was like. And as for Paige, the very fact that she had managed to collect that information in the first place made her an intriguing potential resource all on her own. She was clearly far more than a simple spoiled rich girl, and even as a non-Touched, her resourcefulness and quick wit already meant she would be more useful with the Ministry than against them. Adding in the fact that she had actually resisted Kent’s attempt to erase her memory, something very few were capable of, and it all added up to Elena being quite willing to accept a deal to leave the two of them alone for the time being. 

And yet, she had certainly not expected Paintball to reach out to them like this. Not so soon, anyway. “What was this message concerning?” 

Over the next few moments, Elena stood and listened while Alcazar gave her a quick rundown of the situation. Apparently Paintball and his new team had managed to track down the source of the fire-zombies that had been cropping up around the city. Which was good, except the person responsible was about to unleash an army of them on a stadium full of innocent people, on opening night, no less. 

“Paintball and his troupe are on their way into the stadium now,” Alcazar finished. “They have called for assistance from all avenues, but…” 

“Yes, the city is rather involved right now,” Elena agreed. Her mind was racing through possibilities. If Paintball was willing to call for their help, the situation must be quite bad indeed. Or he was an even better potential recruit than she had thought. Either way, stopping a massacre like that was absolutely one of the things the Ministry was meant for. 

“There is something else,” Alcazar added. “One of our VIPs is attending the game. Candid Panther.” Even now, just between the two of them, he used the secret code name for one of the Ministry’s most important clients rather than say the real name aloud. It was simply a good habit to be in. “I’ve attempted to reach him, but there’s no response. I believe he turned his phone off.” 

Repressing the urge to curse, Elena was already tapping the Bluetooth device as she spoke the name, “Ministers Gray.” The phone dialed, ringing through to the office several buildings down the street where they would be working. 

“I don’t have it yet,” Price, the raccoon, announced immediately by way of greeting. “I told you, Ms. Evans, we will call as soon as we’ve tracked down th–” 

“This isn’t about that,” she interrupted. “I have another job for you, of more immediate importance.” With that, she quickly gave him the information. “Use Yellowbrick and get to the stadium. Candid Panther is there, in Box…” She paused, then passed along the details as Alcazar provided them. “Get there and extract him right now. And while you’re there, provide any assistance you can to Paintball and his people. Quietly, of course. We may wish to have a discussion with the boy later, about this as well as the report that his group was robbed by the same people who hit us.” She considered her own words before nodding thoughtfully. “Yes, a discussion would be good. But until then, there’s no need to cause more of a scene. I’ll give you a mask. I would send others, but–”

“We’re stretched thin right now, yeah, yeah, got it,” Price confirmed. “On our way, but you might wanna light a fire under the actual authorities out there, or scrounge up someone who can do something more official.” 

With that, he disconnected. Elena didn’t mind. The situation was too important right now to waste time with niceties. Instead, she focused on giving the Grays each ‘a mask.’ In her case, the term didn’t mean a literal, physical mask. Instead, she focused on both Price and Fisher, using her power to cloak both of them in an illusion. Another thought added herself, Sterling, Simon, Alcazar, and several others to the ‘white-list’ for that illusion. Whenever anyone other than those people looked at the Ministers Gray, they would see a large, heavy-set man in Fisher’s case, and a dog in Price’s case. Having a bear and raccoon running around the stadium would have caused far too much of a problem, otherwise. 

Once she was satisfied, Elena immediately turned her attention back to Alcazar. “Call the local police precinct in that area. I believe the person you want to talk to is Captain Lemar Callan. He’s one of ours, and he will listen. Have them send everything they have to the stadium, right now.” 

That done, she turned and walked around to sit at the desk, finger tapping the keyboard there to bring the computer to life. Part of Elena wanted to call her husband and tell him what was happening, but he was entirely too busy at the moment. A quick glance at the computer screen told her that much. The secret video camera he wore hidden within his helmet as Silversmith was broadcasting to one of several windows she had open, revealing a rather intense fight against Cuélebre happening right at that moment. For just a moment, she watched the screen, before reminding herself that watching things like that only made her more anxious. Much better to distract herself with other things, and there were plenty of distractions to be had. 

So, pushing those thoughts out of her mind, Elena simply sent a non-emergency message to let her husband know she had something of importance to talk about. Then she switched windows to bring up another live video feed. This one showed Glitch and several of her people, broadcast from the Braintrust leader’s own costume, as they carried out their raid on the lab. It was one of the best possibilities of where Pittman could have been getting assistance to create his little automatons. Of course, as far as most of the Braintrust people (Touched and Prev alike) knew, they were there to steal equipment. Only Glitch was aware of the Ministry’s request. While her people were busy looting supplies, she would be taking the records Elena had asked her to procure. 

Soon, she was as satisfied as she could be in that moment that the raid was going off as well as it could. Unsurprisingly, the security guards on-site were no match for a full-scale Fell-Touched invasion, and the police and Star-Touched response would be… a long time coming. 

Looking up, she focused on Alcazar, having tuned out his own murmured conversation while she was assessing these situations. She said nothing, simply meeting his gaze with one eyebrow raised questioningly. 

“The authorities are on their way,” he informed her. “Or will be shortly. And–” Holding up one hand to ask for a moment, he turned his head and clearly listened to something on his own Bluetooth, before nodding. “Good to know.” That said, he turned back to Elena. “Candid Panther has been extracted. Or, well, he’s in Gray’s pocket dimension, in any case. They’re still working on the rest of it. But it seems Fisher would like to give Paintball a brief glimpse of himself, to begin to prepare him for any future encounters. If you wouldn’t mind removing the boy from the illusion for a moment?”

Pausing briefly, Elena considered before nodding. It wasn’t a bad thought. Potentially allowing Paintball to meet with Fisher and Price had its benefits. They could test the boy’s ability to keep a secret, for one. Any attempt to tell anyone about a bear and raccoon Touched in the city, or any whisper about their existence at all, would tell the Ministry a lot. And preparing by giving him a glimpse or two ahead of time so that it might not be a complete shock… yes. “Have him tell you when.” For a moment, she waited, until Alcazar gave her the go-ahead nod. With that, Elena added Paintball to the exceptions list, allowing him to see Fisher for what he was for several seconds, until Alcazar nodded again. Then she removed the boy and murmured, “What interesting lives we lead.” 

“That is an understatement,” Alcazar informed her. With a sigh, he shook his head. “And what a time for Z to be out of town, right?” 

Elena gave a very soft snort at that. “Yes, well, that does seem to be how these things go, doesn’t it? But her mission is still important. We need to know where Flea and Trivial went after they were last seen in Florida. There is a trail, and she will find it.” After a brief pause then, she sighed. “That said, yes, it would be nice if she were here right now. As she is not, we will simply have to make do.” 

The two of them considered that for another moment, before Elena again turned her attention back to Paintball. For some reason, the fact that the boy had reached out to them still gave her pause. It made her reconsider a few things. For a time after the situation at the motel with the escaped witness, who turned out to have Touched, she had thought the boy would become a problem. But as he made it clear that he had no intention of going to the local authorities, she had assumed he simply knew that such a thing would be pointless, and might even have been searching for a higher authority to go to. 

But this? His willingness to request their aid when the situation called for it… yes, that bore further thought. Perhaps a direct conversation would not be a bad idea. Fisher had already made–well, not first contact exactly, but a first look, anyway. If the boy–

Her musings were interrupted, however, as Alcazar abruptly turned away, hand rising to touch his earpiece. “What? Are you sure? Yes.” Without another word, he focused on Elena. “Would you allow the Alloy girl to see Price for a moment?” 

Given his tone of voice, Elena didn’t question it. She simply did as requested, focusing on the girl in question until Alcazar nodded to show it was enough. Then she turned the illusion back on for her before asking, “And what was that about?” 

She then listened while Alcazar informed her that the boy Paintball’s people were after wasn’t the actual villain after all. Price had located the girl in question, too late to stop her. But at that moment, they had needed to draw Paintball and his partner to the room where the girl had secured people who could tell the pair what was happening. The quickest way to do that had been to catch Alloy’s attention with a glimpse of a raccoon so they would investigate. Which was a bit of a crude method, but seemed to have worked, at least. 

“Do you want the Grays to take more direct action?” Alcazar asked then, clearly passing that question along from the two themselves. “Given the situation.” 

Elena considered that for a moment with a thoughtful frown. Before she could answer, a ping from her computer drew her attention that way. It was a response from Sterling. The situation with Cuélebre had been contained, and he was ready to hear what was happening. 

So, she called him. Hearing his voice as he answered, she immediately started with, “I do hope you and your people weren’t too exhausted by that little exercise. 

“There is a situation which requires your attention.” 

*******

“So, the boy contacted us of his own volition.” Sterling noted that some time later, after the situation had been thoroughly resolved. Well, as resolved as it could be with the Jennica girl escaping. She would certainly be a problem later, as would these others who were supposedly competing for a spot on the Scions. 

Elena nodded once. She and her husband were standing on the patio outside their own bedroom back at home. Both were exhausted from the long, complicated day. It had been far past time to rest. Everything else, including the fallout from the explosion of gang violence, would wait until the next day. But this was a conversation they needed to have. “Through the Banners girl, no less. Which means both of them are willing to ask for our help if the situation warrants.” 

Sterling considered that while taking a sip of his drink. Setting the glass down on the railing, he looked out over the grounds while murmuring, “That is quite interesting. Maybe you’re right, they’ll both be assets in the future.” 

“I do hope so,” Elena noted as she glanced up toward the sky and put an arm around her husband. “They are both quite talented in their own ways. And you know how I hate to waste talent.” 

Giving an audible snort, Sterling smiled fondly. “Yes, you are quite opposed to the concept. Does that mean you’re giving the Grays the go-ahead on their request?” 

Elena thought about that for a moment. Doing something like this would be a big step. And yet, Paintball had taken the first of those when he asked for their help. Drumming her fingers along the railing, she watched the sky briefly before coming to a decision. “Yes. I think we should tell them to go ahead. And you?” 

Sterling’s mouth pursed as he considered before agreeing, “Yeah. I’ll tell them to make contact. If Paintball does anything with that he’s not supposed to, we’ll find out. And if he doesn’t… well, we can go from there.” 

Once he had sent that message along, the man returned to his spot next to his wife, hand finding its way to her back to rub there tenderly. “I suppose we’ll see how that goes. But in the meantime, I think I’ve had just about enough of Ministry and Conservator time for the day. 

“And not nearly enough of beautiful, brilliant wife time.” 

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Patreon Snippets 26B (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 26th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Izzy and Amber

Standing on the edge of a large pond in the middle of a park, Izzy Amor held a bag of mixed chopped lettuce, cracked corn, and frozen peas. The nearby ducks chased after every handful she tossed out, and the small girl giggled to herself at the sight just how eager they were to get the food. She tried to spread out her tosses so the ducks would separate a bit and not run into each other so much. Some of it ended up out in the water, and they chased those bits just as frantically, speeding out with their motorboat-like legs before their heads dove down to get the food. Some became distracted by other things in the water. And through it all, loud, excited quacking filled the air. 

“Well they sure seem to be having fun,” Amber O’Connell noted as she stepped up beside Izzy and watched the ducks eagerly chasing the most recent tossed handful. “What about you?” 

Rather than answer that question directly, Izzy instead quietly noted, “It’s really simple like this, you know? The ducks are always here, they don’t keep the super elite ducks hidden behind some sort of pay wall. They don’t expect anything but this cheap food.” She shook the bag in her hand and then promptly threw out another batch to the grass and water as the ducks eagerly and loudly made their hunger known. “They just like being fed.”

Amber stood next to the younger girl and watched the ducks for a moment before quietly murmuring, “They don’t ask if you want to be adopted by a family of billionaires?”

Wincing visibly, Izzy gave a heavy sigh before nodding. “Yeah, they definitely don’t do that either.” Her foot kicked the ground before she added, “I’m being stupid about this, huh? I mean, anyone else would practically cut their own leg off to be adopted into the Evans family. Some literally. I mean with an axe and everything.”  

“Maybe,” Amber allowed with a mixture of a smirk and grimace at the imagery there, “but they don’t know what we do. Seriously, the family isn’t exactly normal, like, at all. Not that billionaire families are ever normal, but you know what I mean. There’s a lot more to that whole situation. It’s one thing to live there and know what you do, and another thing to actually be that connected to them. Like, totally connected. Legally connected. They’ve done bad things.” 

“But that’s what makes it even harder,” Izzy pointed out with a sigh as she threw another handful. “They’re really nice. It would be easier if they were mean and terrible, but they’re not. I know what it’s like to have a mom who treats you like a tool, like all you’re worth is what you can do for them. I know what that’s like, but they’re not like that. Mrs. Evans is nice. So is Mr. Evans.”

Her face twisted into a grimace as she let that thought run through her head. “I keep thinking I’ll realize that they’re just using me, but the more time I spend there, the more it feels like they really, actually care about me. Not just for what I can do for them, but because of me. It feels like they care… about what I want, about who I am. Not my power. Me.” 

She went silent for a moment, but Amber didn’t interrupt. The two of them simply stood there, watching the ducks. Not that it was actually quiet with all the quacking around him, but still. 

Finally, Izzy gave a new heavy sigh before continuing. “My mom, my real mom, she just wanted to use me. She sold me to the bad guys so I could be tortured into being their puppet. She did that just to get a little money for herself. Because she’s… she’s selfish. I know she is. But the Evans, who basically run all the supervillains, they’re really nice to me. Now they want to adopt me. So why…” She trailed off once more, closing her eyes as a single tear made its way down her face. “Why do I feel like I’m the one betraying her for even thinking about this at all? Why does it feel like I’m dirty and evil because part of me likes the idea of being adopted? And not by just anyone, by people who run all the supervillains in the city!”

Izzy threw the next handful of food farther than before, her other hand clenched tightly around the bag. “What’s wrong with me?”

Amber‘s hand found its way to her back and gently pressed there. “Listen to me, Izzy. Nothing is wrong with you,” she insisted. “I mean, okay, maybe there’s some stuff wrong with you. Terrible taste in cereal, you’re horrible at tying knots, can’t keep the list of state capitals straight…” She stopped as a little smile played at the other girl’s face, before squeezing her back. “But as far as this goes, nothing. You still love your mom, even if she did all those bad things. Part of you does, anyway. You love the mom you knew in between those times. You love the mom she could’ve been. And you know that accepting this adoption thing will be completely and officially cutting her off from ever being that person again. You’re not evil, Izzy. It’s not wrong to want to be around people who care about you. And yeah, the Evans being who they are makes it even more complicated than it already was. But it’s like you said, they treat you well. You’re not bad for liking that.

“Remember what Cassidy said. They’re not totally evil and monstrous. They really do care about her, and they care about you too. After what happened with your mom, of course you feel drawn to that. And it’s not a bad thing.” Her head shook firmly. “Look, I really don’t know what’s going to happen eventually with that whole thing. I don’t know how all of this is going to play out. But I know they really care about you. If someday they end up in prison or whatever, they can still care about you. Just like they’ll still love Cassidy.”

Both girls went quiet again, and Izzy handed the bag to Amber so she could throw some food for the ducks. Finally, after a minute of that, she spoke up. “I want them to…” She trailed off, clearly unsure of her words. When she spoke again, her voice was even more hesitant. “I like spending time with them. I think–no, I know I’d like it even if they didn’t have all that money. They’re nice. They’re fun. Mr. Evans makes me laugh. He’s really good with Cassidy, and I know he’s trying to include me. I just wish they weren’t… you know.” 

Amber’s hand gently rubbed her back. “Maybe the whole Ministry thing is over-complicating it, you know? You’ve already got enough to think about when it comes to this whole situation without adding that in. And yeah, someday, somehow, we’ll have to do something about that. Even Cassidy doesn’t know what, and she’s already their daughter. But whatever it is, that’ll come later. Maybe, just for now, you should think about how you’d feel about this whole thing if you didn’t know anything about that. Just try to set it aside for a minute and think about the rest of it.” 

Izzy gave a soft, yet audible laugh while shaking her head. “You say that like it makes it easier. But it’s still hard. Even if I didn’t know anything about the Ministry, I’d still be telling my mom I don’t want her to be my mom anymore.” Before Amber could say anything to that, she added, “Yeah, I know what she did. I know she started it. But if I do this, it means I’m finishing it.” Her body gave a full, visible shudder. “I know that’s stupid, okay? I know there’s no way she could ever be my mom again. It can never be the way it was before, and it shouldn’t be. She broke it. She broke it and it was her choice. She didn’t have to and she did. She made it so we can’t ever be what we were before. My mom can never be my mom again.”

Her hands clenched tightly as she fought to find the right words. “But this is still another door. It’s a door that I’m shutting. I’m telling my mom that I’m done with her. If she comes back, if they find her, I won’t be her daughter again. I’ll be one of the Evans. If I do this, it closes everything with her, forever. And that’s a choice I’m making that I can’t unmake.” 

Amber moved her hand away from the girl’s back to throw another bit of food before speaking softly. “Maybe you should think about what’s good for you. I know, I know it’s painful. I know it makes you feel dirty, believe me. It feels like being selfish is wrong, and sometimes it is. But when it comes to your life, to your future, to your… to who you are, you have to be selfish sometimes, Izzy. You can’t bend your entire life around trying to please the people who abuse you, just in case they might stop someday. You owe yourself better than that. It’s your life.” 

She swallowed audibly, clearly pushing herself to say more. “It’s like my whole thing with my dad. Every time I think about how I can be happy and make jokes and stuff while he’s still dead and we have no idea who did it, there’s this pain in my stomach, and it feels like it’ll never go away. I don’t think it ever will, not completely. It’ll always be there, to some extent. But then I have to think about how my dad wouldn’t want me to be miserable all the time. He’s my dad. He loved me. He wouldn’t want me to spend every moment of my life being sad.”  

Izzy watched the ducks for a minute before quietly asking, “What am I supposed to think about, then?” 

Amber gave a hesitant shrug. “You keep focusing on the mom you had in between and before the bad times, the mom she was and could’ve been if all this didn’t happen. Think about her again. I don’t mean in a ‘make you feel guilty and dirty’ sort of way. I mean, think about the good version of your mom and what she would want for you. You said she used to read you stories and stuff, right? Think about that version of your mom for a minute. Think about being in bed listening to her telling you those stories, reading that book. Think about how she would want you to feel as you grow up. Would she want you to be sad? Would she want you to be miserable, just to be loyal to her after what she did? Or would she want you to be with people who treat you well and care about you? Think about that version of your mom for a minute. What would she want you to do? What choice would she want you to make?”

Izzy didn’t say anything to that at first. She was silent, staring at the lake without actually seeing the water or the ducks. Instead, her mind was focused on that imaginary scenario. She thought about laying in her bed, with her mom sitting on the side of it reading stories to her. She thought about the touch of her mother’s hand against her hair and how safe she had felt in those moments. It made another tear fall slowly before she spoke through the thick lump in her throat. “My mom would want me to be happy.” It was one of the hardest things she had ever said. And yet, it was the truth.

For another few minutes, the two girls stood by the water, throwing food for the ducks while remaining silent. Both were lost in their own thoughts. Finally, when the last of the food was gone and the sun began to set, Izzy turned to the other girl. Her mouth opened, but instead of speaking immediately, she simply wrapped her arms around Amber to embrace her tightly. When her voice came, it cracked a little. “Thank you.” 

“Hey, anytime,” Amber replied, returning the hug. 

“But you know, once you’re an official billionaire’s kid, I might have to start charging you.” `

*******

Ministry Meeting Some Time Before The Raid On The Ministry Base

Sterling Evans owned several buildings throughout the city of Detroit, and had offices in even more. At the moment, the top floor of one of those main buildings had been entirely shut down for both employees and clients. The elevators were locked and would not come to that floor, or the one under it, and the doors into the stairwells were sealed tight. Between that and several Touched-Tech security measures, the place was kept as private and secure as it could be. It had to be, when the official leadership and higher ranks of the Ministry was meeting there. 

Someone might’ve said that meeting in a building he owned was too dangerous, and would have suggested something like an abandoned warehouse somewhere. But this building was one that Sterling could put all of his security measures into. He knew for a fact exactly how safe it was. And if any tried to invade or eavesdrop, they would have a lot of surprises coming their way. Besides, if there had been any planned raid of any of his offices, their contacts within every law enforcement group in the state would have said something. If anyone in any position of authority even suspected them of wrongdoing and launched the smallest investigation, the Evans would be informed of it before the task force had even finished brewing their coffee. 

Even beyond that, they would have been safe. Here, in this room at the center of the building, they were cocooned away from any possible interruption or spying. No electronic device, Touched-Tech or otherwise, could get through the security measures. The room was meant to host large meetings of his normal board of direction directors. Which meant it was also plenty large enough for this situation. 

Sterling stood at the head of the table in the center of the room, his chair slightly behind him. His wife, Elena, sat at his right side. His son, Simon, was to the left. Exchanging looks with both of them, Sterling cleared his throat. “Well, I think it’s about time we start this discussion.” 

Down the table on the right, a pale man with dark-blond hair and incredibly dark green eyes shifted in his seat. Kent Jackson, better known among this particular group under the moniker of Rook, raised one hand. “I know this is only the first official one of these I’ve attended in person since coming back to Detroit, but I remember we used to have these incredible little cakes at the old ones, and I’ve got to say, I was looking forward to that.” 

With a soft, polite chuckle, Elena assured him, “We still have those, but we moved them to the end of the meeting. I find that it helps people pay more attention, and gives everyone some reason not to drone on longer than necessary.” 

Beside Kent, his wife, Mills, patted him on the shoulder. The tall, beautiful blonde woman, who looked like a fashion model or movie star but had actually spent more time in dive bars and dirty, smoke-filled clubs than on runways, spoke with clear amusement. “Well, you’ve made his day. You should’ve seen his puppy dog sad eyes when we came in and those cakes weren’t out here.” 

Across the table from them and slightly further down, the man known as Alcazar took a sip of the water glass in front of him. As usual, the man looked completely ordinary in as many ways as possible. He was thin, but not to the point of distraction, stood just under five foot eight when he wasn’t slouched in a chair as he was now, and his brown hair and hazel eyes would do nothing to draw attention. He held his wire frame glasses in one hand, absently cleaning them with his shirt as he spoke. “There is a lot to get into today, so maybe we should start with the easiest thing.” His head turned to look at Sterling while he added, “The new superheroes in town.” 

Beside him, a gray-haired woman wearing dark jeans and a red button-up shirt that was tucked in added, “The dears have an actual name now, don’t they?” 

“Yes, Relapse,” Elena confirmed with a nod to the woman. “They call themselves Avant-Guard. Guard with a u. I think it’s cute.” 

Opposite Relapse and a bit down from Mills and Kent, a dark-skinned man drummed on the table with one hand thoughtfully, his voice quiet. “I like this Paintball kid. He’s funny. The whole being Lucent’s son joke, that’s some good stuff.” Abruptly, he tapped twice more a bit more firmly, before turning toward Sterling. He wasn’t looking that way. His sightless eyes would have made that impossible. But Hakeem Harris, known throughout the Ministry as The Tapping Man for his tendency to always… well, tap things, knew that people were more comfortable if you were facing them as you spoke. Pointless as it might have been. “But like him or not, is he going to be a problem?” 

“Yeah,” the voice from the figure at the opposite end of the table from Sterling put in, speaking loud enough to be heard by everyone else given the space between them, “that’s what we wanna know too.” 

The voice came from a raccoon, dressed in a tiny, yet perfectly tailored suit. He stood on the table itself, with his polished shoes clicking against its surface as he took a few steps forward while sipping from the miniature cup of coffee he held in one paw, while a miniature cane tapped against the table lightly a couple times. “You said he knows something about us, so does that make him a threat? And by threat, I mean one we need to take care of.” 

“Ministers Gray,” Sterling began, “you have a point, the boy does know something about the Ministry. We’re not precisely certain how much, yet he is certainly aware of our organization to some extent. But no, we don’t think he’s a threat.” 

Rather than respond to that himself, the raccoon made a noise in the back of his throat before turning to step off the side of the table. As he did so, a cloud of smoke and light encompassed his form, with a pyramid-shape in the center of it. As the light and smoke faded, a much larger form had taken his place. An enormous brown bear, nearly nine feet in height, towered over the others as he stood by the table. Like the raccoon, the bear was fully dressed in a tailored, multi-thousand dollar three-piece suit. He even wore a fancy derby hat. “Ah, I believe my partner wanted to know if ahh… if you’re certain about that,” he began in a voice that was slightly more nervous and uncertain than the confident tone of the raccoon. “After all, the ahhh, the strongest building can collapse thanks to a small flaw.” 

Some might have questioned why a shape-shifting bear/raccoon was part of the leadership of the Ministry. But, of course, it was more complicated than that. First, they were not a shapeshifter. Ministers Gray had been two separate animals when they both touched one another and the orb. Its power had bonded them together in a very particular way. Essentially, they possessed a private pocket dimension which one of them always had to be inside of, while the other remained in the outside world. They could swap back and forth at will. Beyond that, as well as the usual increase from animal intelligence to human-level, they had also gained the ability to speak properly (not always a given with TONIs) and the outside animal could create a small glowing pyramid. Any single living being who was touched by the pyramid would be sent into that pocket dimension with the inside animal. Only one being could be held like that, as any attempt to take a second one inside would eject the first.

And yet, their power was far more impressive than a simple ability to imprison a single living being indefinitely. Within the pocket dimension, the bear or raccoon could control the flow of time to equal that of the outside world, or cause it to pass much more quickly inside than it did outside. This allowed those inside to experience days and weeks within seconds or minutes for the outside world. Regardless of how time passed, those inside would never grow any older. And as long as another living being was inside the pocket dimension, the Ministers Gray could absorb any academic knowledge or physical skill that being possessed. They had taken a small army worth of brilliant academic scholars, elite soldiers, athletes, and more into the pocket dimension for what amounted to months at a time in order to absorb everything they knew and could do, before having those peoples’ memories of the event erased by Rook. 

More than that, Ministers Gray could also take others into their pocket dimension and teach those other skills much faster than they should have been able to learn them, given the time-dilation that was possible. 

In all, there was a reason why Sterling and Elena had chosen to accept them as one (well, two) of the main leaders of the Ministry, even giving them the title of Minister themselves.

“He’s a child,” Elena replied. “One who wants to do the right thing, but still a child. We think… we believe he knows there is a larger conspiracy of sorts, but is willing to… play nice. He has some experience with the Banners girl, saving her from…” She looked toward Rook. “Well, saving her. She made a deal to, ahh, leave our organization alone as long as we do the same for her and Paintball. We believe he is aware enough of that deal.” 

“In other words, let the boy be a superhero,” Sterling put in. “It’s good business. People like this Paintball kid, and his new partner, Alloy? They’re doing some great work out there. We keep an eye on them, just in case, but personally, I don’t think they’ll be that much of a problem. Relapse, you’ve had some interaction with him, what do you think?”

“Oh, he’s a sweetheart,” the woman agreed with a smile. “Came right into the Seraphs and did the work he was asked to without even grumbling about it. And he enjoyed my candy.” 

The words made Elena give the older woman a sharp look. “Tell us you didn’t–” 

“Pish posh, calm yourself,” Relapse tutted. “I am capable of simply giving people I like candy without using my–ahem, power.” The woman’s own gift, as somewhat implied by her name, allowed her to force any person she made physical contact with to be addicted to any edible or potable substance she chose. The addiction could last only a few minutes, or longer than a month, and a subject failing to feed that addiction would experience severe illness and hallucinations. They were also strongly encouraged to follow her instructions, given how easily she could magnify or lessen the effect. She would never be one to run around in tights and armor, considering she had Touched when she was fifty years old and that itself had been twenty years ago. But for a seventy-year-old, she still had her own tricks. 

And, as one of the Seraph’s most popular and beloved receptionists, Tricia had plenty of contacts who knew nothing of her loyalties or powers. It made her a valuable asset to the Ministry, as she had been from the very start. People tended to underestimate her.

“Of course you are,” Sterling interjected with an easy smile. “In any case, it’s good to hear the boy has his own real work ethic. And that he doesn’t seem to be a problem. So we’ll leave it there for now. We have the Banners girl’s reasoning for leaving them both alone for the time being, but even without that, I don’t believe he is an immediate concern. If he starts asking the wrong questions or pushing too much at the wrong thing, we’ll deal with it then. Besides, with everything going on in the city, I don’t think we can afford to be pushing more Star-Touched away at the moment.” 

“Speaking of what’s going on in the city,” Kent started, not wanting to spend any more time talking about how he’d let the Banners girl get away from him, “we need to inform the gang leaders to keep their business away from our shipment coming in on Tuesday.” 

“He’s right, the shipment can’t be delayed. Not a second time,” Hakeem noted while giving the table another soft tap. It would send out an echolocation-like pulse which gave the man a visual representation of the room and everyone in it. But more than that, the more times the ostensibly blind man ‘echolocated’ a person within the same general area and situation without an extended (roughly an hour) break, the better his minor precognition power worked to allow him to predict their physical movements in any altercation. Given enough taps, he could flawlessly know precisely how someone was going to move and how to counter them. Not that the man expected an altercation with his companions, of course. It was simply a deeply ingrained habit. 

Mills waved her fingers back and forth idly while speaking up. “Don’t worry so much. We’ll bring the shipment in and get it squared away. It won’t be a problem.” As she spoke, a glowing white feather flew back and forth across the table. Her own Touched gift allowed her to empower one pound worth of material every week. Anything that was empowered remained that way forever, allowing it to be telekinetically manipulated by Mills within her line of sight, as well as allowing her to teleport to anywhere one of those empowered objects was, or vice versa. Additionally, regardless of their actual size, empowered objects were incredibly durable and could be made to weigh almost nothing, their actual weight, or the sum total weight of every empowered object she possessed. With a thought, she could put something that weighed as much as a pencil on top of someone’s head and then make it weigh several hundred pounds.

Then there was the last part of her power. Which she idly demonstrated in an attempt to alleviate her own boredom by sending one of her feathers across the room to touch the three hundred pound desk in a corner of the room. As the feather brushed the side of it, the desk rose several feet in the air and spun in a slow circle. Any of her empowered objects were capable of extending her telekinetic abilities into any other object they touched, so long as that object, again, weighed less than the total weight of all of her empowered objects put together. And considering Mills, or Haven as she was called in these meetings, had had her power for most of the past two decades, her weight limit would have approached a thousand pounds even in a normal situation. 

And yet, her situation was far from normal. In the early days of the Ministry, her power and her skills had received a bit of a jumpstart as she spent week after week inside the Ministers Gray’s pocket dimension, while only hours and then days passed outside. It allowed the woman to go from only being able to control a single pound worth of material, to over twenty pounds, in what had been only a few days rather than half a year. These days, with additional time spent with her raccoon and bear friend whenever they could all spare it, she was up to almost three thousand pounds. 

She had a lot of random objects spread not only all over the city, but all over the world. 

“Very well,” Elena agreed. “Let’s discuss how precisely we will handle this shipment next. 

“And we should open the phone line so Yellowbrick may be included. I believe she should be finished with her last assignment by now.” 

*******

The Morning After The Raid On The Ministry Base

“Thank you, Yellowbrick,” Elena politely spoke while stepping through a door leading out of her subordinate’s void-dimension, and into the front lobby of a small, rundown doctor’s office. There were already several of the Ministry’s people poking around the corners, looking through the various observation rooms, and even breaking down a few of the walls in search of hidden safes. They paid no attention to her, as they were taught to. Not that they would have recognized the woman she was posing as under her illusion power anyway, but still. She preferred the people who worked for them be taught to ignore as much about them as possible. 

“How many?” she asked the man who had just stepped up beside her. 

“Three, we believe,” Alcazar replied. “This is the last one where the security sensors were tripped. Either they got better at avoiding them after that, or…” 

“Or they found what they were looking for,” Elena finished for him. “And all three belonged to Benjamin Pittman?” 

“That’s correct, ma’am,” he confirmed, glancing up as a couple men walked past carrying some equipment that would allow them to see through walls. “We believe the entire point of the original intrusion was to search for that list of facilities owned by Pittman when he was active. Armed with that list, they began to search them.” 

“Until they found this place, and whatever they were looking for inside.” Elena frowned slightly, considering that as a wave of thoughts passed through her mind. “Either they weren’t working for Pittman directly, or he forgot where he put the thing they needed.” 

“My guess,” Sterling put in while stepping up on the other side of her, “is that whoever these people are, they’re working for his other partners or investors. People he told enough about his project that they wanted to find something involved in it, but not enough to know specifics. Something we missed.” 

“But why wait this long?” Alcazar asked with a frown. “It’s been, what, over five years since Pittman was arrested and put on Breakwater? What changed?” 

Before Sterling could pose any guesses for that, one of the men called out from a supply closet. When the three of them moved that way, he stepped aside so they could see how the carpet was ripped away to reveal a trapdoor. 

“Alcazar,” Elena began, “do our files indicate which of our employees was tasked with searching and clearing this space five years ago?” 

“They do,” he confirmed. 

Her voice was flat. “They’re fired.” 

“The ahh, gold package, silver package, or… bronze package, ma’am?” Alcazar carefully asked. 

Studying the trap door, Elena exchanged a brief glance with her husband before answering. “We certainly aren’t setting them up for a rich life. Not gold. But I don’t believe they deserve to be killed for a mistake, either.” 

“The silver package then,” Sterling agreed. “Get Rook to erase their memories and set them up with new lives.” Another glance passed between husband and wife before he added, “Somewhere out of the city. We don’t need them here.” 

“After,” Elena put in, “you ensure that missing this wasn’t intentional. I want a full investigation into their lives. If there’s any sign that they were involved in this… bring the information to us.” 

With that established, the three descended the ladder to reach the large room below. A brief investigation later revealed the contents of the various freezers along the walls, as well as the presence of yet another, smaller hidden room at the far end. A room with a different metal tube inside, which had clearly been holding something. Another body, perhaps. 

Sterling put his hand close to the tube, eyes narrowing. “This is it. This is what they did all that for. Whatever was in this tube. A prototype for one of his creations?”  

“A dangerous weapon of some sort, whatever it is,” Elena agreed. Her gaze remained fixed on the tube, imagining what might have been kept inside. One of Pittman’s artificial bodies, certainly. They had dealt with enough of them already. Yet something about this seemed different. This was a hidden room inside of a hidden room, one that had been receiving power this whole time. From what they could tell given a brief examination of the thing, it had been active until very recently. Actively keeping its contents… well, alive probably wasn’t the right word. Unless it was. Well, yes, in fact. Even if the, for lack of a better word, brain of these creatures came from the installed cybernetic orbs, the bodies themselves were biological. 

Either way, she shook off the thought. What mattered was why this one in particular had been so special. 

“Maybe it was his,” Sterling mused. “Maybe it took Pittman this long to set up something like this to get his own new body back and transferred himself into it. Or–I don’t know how his tech works. Could he have uploaded his brain and sent it into this body?” 

The thought was enough to make Elena grimace. “If he did, he will start making a nuisance of himself very soon. Whatever was in here, we need to find it. And the people who did his bidding. But yes, I believe it’s safe to say that Pittman is behind this, at some level. Whether it is in a current, active fashion, or this is the result of someone picking up the pieces of his old work…. we need to find out.” 

Turning from Elena to Alcazar, Sterling ordered, “Have our people find out what’s happening on Breakwater. Do they know where Pittman is? What’s been going on over there lately? Just… see if anything is out of the ordinary.” 

“We don’t have the strongest contacts in Breakwater, getting any information will take a little while,” the other man carefully replied. 

Elena gave a slight nod. “We know you’ll do your best, Alcazar, thank you.” With that, she turned to her husband, gaze passing over the other equipment throughout the room. “Pittman being the source of that raid explains quite a lot. At least we know we don’t have some brand new threat to keep track of. Just an old one with some new help.” 

Sterling, meanwhile, raised a hand to press against the machine. “Have our people look into exactly what was in this thing. Or… who. We need to know whether this was Pittman or someone else. 

“And what face they’re wearing now.” 

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Patreon Snippets 25 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 25th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Paige and Sierra

The sound of bladed skates sliding across ice was joined by that of a hockey stick tapping the puck back and forth a few times as it was brought forward. Then a loud crack filled the air, followed by a solid whoomph as the puck was sent flying into the net just over twenty feet away. Almost all of the lights were off, leaving the ice rink only dimly lit. There was only one person out there. 

Well, two now. 

“Good shot.” As she said those words, Paige glided across the ice from the entrance onto the rink, joining her… sister (the fact that she was using a body that looked like Cassidy was confusing on multiple levels as far as that went) in front of the remaining pucks that had been lined up across from the goal. “But then, I suppose it would be.” 

“Pittman did program us to be good at all sorts of physical stuff,” Sierra agreed without looking up. She raised the stick, judged the distance and angle, then whacked the next puck hard. It bounced off the inside of the left post and ricocheted into the net. “And don’t you still have that whole school thing going on right now? Playing hooky your first day back seems like a bad idea. Were you that paranoid about what I was doing?” 

Paige addressed the latter point first. “Free period. Which you knew when you let me know where you were going to be. And I wasn’t talking about him.” As she spoke, the girl held her hand out for the stick. 

Sierra considered that before taking her next shot. After watching the puck hit the net dead center, she handed the stick over. “You’re talking about Irelyn.” She paused briefly, then added, “About how she brought you here and tried to teach you how to skate, and how to play hockey. Just because you mentioned liking those Mighty Ducks movies.”

“Us,” Paige corrected while lining up her own shot. With another loud track, the next puck was sent into the net. “You have all my memories of those times.” 

Shaking her head, Sierra pushed off and glided around in a slow circle along the ice. “Not really the same thing, babe. I wasn’t really there. It was more like reading a book or watching a movie for me. A movie I’ve completely memorized, but still. I wasn’t actually there experiencing it.” Another pause, then, “I mean, I wasn’t here, I guess. The point is, it’s not a real memory for me. It’s just something that was uploaded when I got… eh, shot into you, literally.” 

“Is that why you’re here?” Paige asked curiously, even as she lined up the next shot and sent the puck flying that way. “Trying to get some sort of personal context for that memory you inherited? Also, considering this place isn’t even supposed to open for another hour today, how much did you bribe the guy to let you in?” While asking that, she held the stick out that way. 

“Fifty bucks for half an hour,” Sierra replied. “Why, did you want me to get a receipt so I could pay you back?” Her hand took the offered stick as she teased Paige, quickly and efficiently lining up another shot so it would bounce back and forth between the front two posts a couple times with a loud ringing sound before going in the net. 

Snorting, the other girl shook her head. “Trust me, there’s a lot more where that came from. Too much, really. And considering the source, I don’t really care what happens to it. I just wanted to make sure you got your money’s worth. You know, since you don’t exactly have a lot of experience with buying stuff.” 

Sierra gave an exaggerated gasp. “Ohh is that why the waitress looked so happy when I handed her two thousand bucks for my meal? The bill probably said twenty dollars, but I just got so confused with the period before the zeroes for the coin amount.” 

“You’re hilarious,” Paige retorted flatly. “But uhh, Sierra, huh?” 

“Sierra Nevada,” the girl confirmed. “First name, last name. If anyone asks, my parents were eccentric. Which, if you ask me, is a step up from the truth.” That time, she pushed off and did a couple slow skating circles before taking another shot. “A pretty fucking huge step up.” 

Rather than respond to that immediately, Paige was quiet for a few seconds. And when she did respond, it wasn’t directly to that. Instead, she asked, “You remember when we… when I was sitting over there, the first time Irelyn brought us to this place?” Her hand gestured over to the bench behind the entrance gate, where people would sit and tie their skates on. 

“She thought you were nervous about being out on the ice,” Sierra murmured, her own gaze moving that way. “She gave that whole pep talk about trying new things and not worrying about being laughed at.” She glanced away with a small frown. “You were only partly listening. Mostly you were worried about looking too good on the ice. You had to hide all that perfect balance, aim, enhanced strength, and everything else that Pittman programmed into us, so you’d actually look like a normal kid skating for the first time. She thought you were afraid of skating and looking bad, but you were really afraid you wouldn’t look bad enough.” 

Paige was quiet once more, her gaze locked onto that bench in the distance as she played that memory out a few times. “You’re right, especially about the part where I wasn’t really paying attention to her. But then, why would I? As far as I knew, she didn’t really care about me being here anyway. I thought she was just going through the motions, doing what was expected of her as the ‘older sister.’ She was already literally disowned, I guess maybe I thought… I dunno, I thought she was just doing that because I might bring her back into the family once her dad was gone or… something.” Saying it out loud like that made her grimace. “Or looking better for her mother. Or for the public. Whatever, I don’t know. I just never considered it as… I never thought she was…”

Sierra’s skate lightly kicked the front of hers, making her look that way. “Never thought she was doing all that stuff because she really wanted to spend time with you? Never thought she really, genuinely wanted to get to know you?” 

“Never occurred to me,” Paige confirmed in a soft voice, wincing inwardly. “I always thought she was playing the role or making an angle for something in the future. And since I never expected to actually have a future in that family, I ignored it. I ignored her. Or, I mean, I ignored the overtures she made. I played the role like I thought she was playing it and… and just assumed she didn’t care beyond that. Back when we were stuck on the couch, when I heard about the Banners disappearing, I thought she might look into that. I thought she might look for them. You know, because they’re important people. And they’re her parents, even if they did disown her. Either way, I thought she might look for them. But me? Why would she look for me?” She turned a bit, her gaze moving from the bench across the way over to where Sierra was quietly watching her. “Why would she look for me?” There was urgency to her repeated question, her voice rising slightly. 

“Because she wasn’t going through the motions,” Sierra informed her flatly. “She wasn’t faking anything, wasn’t pretending. All that stuff she was doing, or trying to do, it wasn’t an attempt to look good, or convince you to bring her back into the family, or anything like that. It was about you. It was about her wanting it to spend time with you. Because she cared about you, dipshit. She was trying to treat you like a real sister. And now she’s looking for you like a real sister.” 

Paige thought about that for a moment, turning away to gaze into the distance without actually seeing anything in front of her. Her focus was directed inward, playing through memories with a different point of view. She thought of everything Irelyn had said to her in the past, everything she’d done, all the times she had invited Paige out to eat, or to an event, or just to spend time together. And she thought of all the times she had used any excuse to get out of it. 

“Fuck,” she finally muttered. 

“Yeah, pretty much,” Sierra agreed. “And now she’s out there in trouble because she wouldn’t stop looking for you. Well, for you and for the parents who disowned her in the first place. Even after we sent her on a wild goose chase, she somehow managed to track something all the way to one of Pittman’s actual labs. Or one of his biolems found her. Or–fuck, I don’t even know. We sent her to Florida, the other side of the fucking country. How the hell did she manage to get anywhere near anything important to Pittman? How’d she manage to end up on Breakwater, for fuck’s sake?” 

Paige took in a breath before letting it out. “I guess we’ll have to ask her, once we get her away from that place. Once we….” She trailed off, words turning into a heavy sigh. 

“Once we actually have a plan for how to do that,” Sierra finished for her. “You know that’s easier said than done, right? This is Breakwater we’re talking about, not just some random prison. The whole point is that it’s supposed to be impossible to get anyone out of there. It–”

“I know!” Paige blurted. “I know it’s going to be hard. Hell, I know it’s going to be practically impossible. But we have to. I mean I have to. I’m not gonna make–I mean–” She blanched, folding her arms as she stood there on her skates. “I’m not gonna force anyone else into anything stupid. But I have to get Irelyn off that island. Her and Trivial too. They were trying to help me. They–she… Irelyn’s there because I sent her on a wild goose chase, and then she actually found real danger. Now she’s a Star-Touched in literally the worst possible place on the planet for her to be. They both are. It’s my fault they’re there, and I have to help them. I have to help her.”

“And then what?” Sierra asked. “I mean, not to completely skip past the impossible part of getting them off that island, but assuming we manage that, what will you do next?”

After a brief pause, Paige admitted, “I don’t know. Honestly, I have no idea. I know I want to talk to her. I want to ask… why. You know, why she actually cared so much, why she tried so hard to find me, and why she wanted to get to know me. I want to ask her why it mattered to her. She was already gone from the family when I was ‘adopted.’ They kicked her out, disowned her, then took me in. I was her replacement. Why wouldn’t she be angry about that? Why wasn’t she angry? Why did she want to know me? Why did… just… why?” She had unfolded her arms by that point, putting her hands up against her forehead. “I don’t understand.” 

With a loud crack, Sierra sent the last puck into the net. “Speaking as someone with a unique perspective, considering I have all those memories but it wasn’t me experiencing them, maybe she was trying to be what she wished she had.” She pushed off and started to skate over to the goal while adding, “I mean, when she was younger. She knows exactly what growing up in that family was like, how demanding her parents are. She went through it and she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Maybe she was trying to be the sister she wished she had. And maybe she kept trying so you’d always know she was there if you needed someone. Even when you barely paid attention, she still–you know, wanted to be in your memory. Just in case you ever opened up.”

Paige didn’t respond to that at first. She ran the words through her head a few times along with her own memories. Memories that she knew the other girl was running through as well. Finally, she repeated her earlier, “Fuck.” That was followed by an enthusiastic, “Damn it, damn it! She gives a shit. She really, genuinely gives a shit. And we just–I’m sorry, I mean I just wrote it off like she was playing a role. Maybe because that’s what I was doing all the time. I don’t know. But like I said, I have to get her out of there. And then tell her the truth. At least about myself. I have to tell her about me, and why all of that happened. She deserves that much. Deserves to know what was really going on, what her parents wanted, what my–yeah. And if she’s repulsed by that, if she wants nothing to do with me once she knows what I really am, then… then fine. But she needs to know.”

“Let’s focus on getting her out of there,” Sierra replied, while giving the pucks one light smack after another with the stick to send them out of the net and back that way. “We can worry about the details about what we’re going to tell her once she’s not trapped on an island full of the worst supervillains who have ever been imprisoned.” 

“We?” Paige echoed, glancing that way curiously. 

Sierra opened her mouth, then hesitated. “I mean, yeah that might get kinda complicated.” She glanced down at herself with a slight grimace. “She knows Cassidy. So this…” Her hand gestured up toward her face. “This might not work. So yeah, maybe you should talk to her yourself. But fuck it, I’m still gonna help get her off that damn island.” 

Paige nodded slowly in agreement. “That’s the part that matters right now. We can figure out the rest of it later.” She bit her lip, a guilty flush crossing the girl’s face. “Maybe you can help me come up with an idea of how to start making up for sending her on the wild goose chase that landed her and Trivial on Breakwater to begin with.” That tone of disbelief that such a thing had actually happened was still apparent in her voice. 

For a few long, silent seconds, the two of them stared at one another. Finally, Sierra broke that silence with a quiet, “She brought you here. She taught you how to skate and play hockey. Or tried to, anyway. She did all that stuff, because she really… she actually cared.” 

“She went looking for me because she cares,” Paige put in, her own voice equally soft. “She turned a total wild goose chase all the way down in Florida into a one-way trip to Breakwater just because she wouldn’t give up trying to find me. And the parents who disowned her. She did all that because she really cares about me. She was trying. She was really, genuinely trying, and I just–” Cutting herself off, the blonde girl sighed heavily once more. “Can I see that?” Raising her hand, she held it out and waited until Sierra had silently passed her the stick. Then she lined up a shot on one of the pucks, staring down at it intently for a long moment of contemplation. “When she’s off that island, I’m gonna bring her back here.” She paused, then looked over. “We. We’ll bring her back here.” 

“We?” Sierra raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that complicated?” 

“We’ll get you a better disguise or something, I dunno.” Paige shrugged. “What I do know is that you have my memories. You’re part of this too. If… if you want to be.” She waited until the other girl gave a slow nod before continuing. “We’ll figure it out. But whatever we have to do, whatever happens, we’re bringing her back to this place.” 

With that, she raised the stick and snapped it down. The puck was sent flying not into the net, but off the left bar. It rebounded backwards through the air, before Paige smacked it with the stick once more, swinging the thing like a bat. The puck was sent forward to bounce off the right bar, coming back toward her. Once again, she smacked it that way, making it rebound off the top bar that time. From there, it flipped up, end over end through the air before coming down neatly on the fat end of the hockey stick that Paige was holding out sideways. 

“And maybe we’ll be the ones teaching her some stuff next time.”

*********

Aftermath Of A Joyride (Continuing the NON-CANON storyline from chapters here, here, and here)

Most of the general public would have been disappointed to see the utter mundanity of the room that the collective leaders and second-in-commands of the various Star-Touched groups of Detroit were meeting in. Most anyone, upon hearing that such an important and powerful people were gathering together to make big decisions, would almost certainly have pictured a grand room with walls of solid steel, high-tech displays along every wall, a massive table in the center of the room projecting a holographic map of the city and surrounded by chairs with each Star-Touched’s name and symbol emblazoned across the back, and possibly even more amazing things. 

In truth, however, they met in an average conference room on the third floor of a local police precinct. The smell of old coffee and stale donuts filled the room, which itself consisted of a heavily-cracked linoleum floor, wooden walls that had seen better days, and a tiled ceiling that probably needed to be replaced soon. It was furnished simply by a couple wooden tables and an assortment of metal folding chairs, as well as an old podium near the front, next to an actual chalkboard.

Silversmith was standing at the front by that podium. Beside him was a plainclothes police detective who was murmuring a bit in his ear, while Flea stood on the opposite side, flipping through messages on her phone. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the room, Brumal and Trivial from the state-sponsored team known as the Spartans, Caishen and Skip from Ten Towers, and Hallowed and Lucent from the Seraphs were scattered and engaged in their own private conversations with one another, or looking through their own phones. 

Finally, Trivial looked up from the file she had been glancing through and cleared her throat until Silversmith looked at her. Once he did, she asked, “So are we going to get this show on the road or what?” Straightening up in her costume consisting of purple scalemail armor, a black hooded cloak, tan pants, and a purple helmet with black visor, she gestured toward the nearby (somewhat stained) window. “You know, before the bad guys out there get the idea that we’re all off the streets and start acting like kids whose parents went out of town for the weekend.” 

Beside her, Brumal (also wearing her own standard costume of blue and white camo, a tactical combat helmet with an interwoven mesh covering the rest of her face, and bright blue lenses over the eyes) gave a short nod. “She’s right. Blunt, but right. If we’re going to discuss the situation, we should get into it.” 

“You mean discuss Joyride,” Flea put in. The futuristic ninja/samurai-clad woman put her phone away while adding, “And what exactly we’re going to do about her.” 

“Ahem, what are we planning on doing?” That was Lucent, perched atop the edge of a lamp on one of the tables. “Thus far, the girl has not overtly harmed anyone. In point of fact, she has aided us by exposing a quite… negative influence within our own Minority team.” 

“Whamline,” Silversmith muttered, giving a nod toward the plainclothes man nearby. “Detective Lanner here was just filling me in on what they’ve found so far. Apparently they have enough evidence to officially charge the boy with a few different murder counts, now that they started digging. More might be coming, we’re not sure yet. I won’t give into the details right here, but I’m having him send the files to each of you.” He paused before continuing. “But of course, we’re not here to talk about Whamline. This is about Joyride herself.” 

Skip, wearing her blue-black bodysuit with a short-sleeved white robe including a hood over her hair and a black cloth mask over the bottom half of her face, spoke up in her typical calm, nearly-emotionless voice. “She exposed the boy as the dangerous psychotic that he is. In our book, that makes her more of an ally than a threat.”

Beside her, the woman in black boots, dark gold pants with black lines running down them, purple scalemail armor covered by a gold leather coat, and a black metal helmet with purple lenses shook her head. She was Caishen, Skip’s own older sister and team leader. “She also decided that Lightning Bug is her archenemy,” she pointed out quietly. Her voice was very slightly strained as she added, “And Bug is very excited about that fact.” 

Silversmith took a breath before gently pointing out, “She doesn’t seem to have any intention of harming your daughter, considering she… summoned you to help the girl rather than leave her alone out there after their… confrontation.” Though his face was sealed behind that metal armor, they could hear the smile in his voice. Everyone in the room had seen the recording of the ‘fight’ between Lightning Bug and Joyride, and how little actual danger either had been in. It was far more of an imaginative play-fight than anything else. 

Hallowed, in his bright golden armor and metallic wings, spoke up while folding his arms across his broad chest. “Can we talk about that whole ‘summoned her’ bit? Because that’s what concerns me. It sounds like this little kid managed to teleport the leader of a Star-Touched team all the way from one side of the city to the other with a snap of her fingers. She didn’t have time to set something special up at the time, so she must have had that in place already. Does that mean she could teleport anyone anywhere? Could she hit a button right now and teleport all of us in this room to Kansas? Or worse if she ever decides to be more violent? So far she hasn’t really hurt anyone, but she obviously could. She has that teleportation tech, and the…” He paused as though unable to believe what he was saying. “The giant robot dinosaur.” 

“Toto,” Lucent put in. “She called it Toto.” 

“Yes, Toto,” Brumal flatly confirmed, head shaking. “The girl has run circles around everyone who encountered her, stolen anything she wants, and demonstrated the ability to transport other people at will, as well as use a giant robotic dinosaur as a direct threat. If she intended to do real harm, we would be in trouble.” 

“But that’s the point, isn’t it?” Trivial put in. “She obviously doesn’t intend to do real harm. She’s been really gentle with everything she’s done, considering what she’s capable of. And she sent Lightning Bug’s mother to pick her up. It’s obvious that she’s intentionally holding back. She wins, but she doesn’t hurt anyone. And like we were just talking about, she exposed a murderer inside the Minority.”

“She would be an incredible asset on our side,” Silversmith pointed out, his tone curious. “If we could somehow convince her to stop stealing things, can you imagine the amount of help she’d bring to the city? Just being able to transport our people anywhere they needed to be instantly, as soon as trouble came up, all by itself, would completely revolutionize our work here in Detroit.” 

Hallowed shook his head. “Except she’s never shown any interest in helping us. Not beyond exposing Whamline or making sure Lightning Bug wasn’t left by herself with those criminals. She’s been pretty clear that her motivation is to steal things.” 

“She steals from the rich, from corporations and wealth-hoarders,” Trivial pointed out. “Should we really give that much of a shit?” 

Coughing, Caishen replied mildly, “Those corporations are a large part of why Detroit has progressed as much as we have in the past twenty years. If they begin to see the city as not safe enough, they will take their business elsewhere. We cannot have her running completely amok and doing whatever she wants.” She paused briefly, before adding, “That said, my daughter likes her. And is very… enthusiastic when it comes to the idea of being her archrival. And I do believe she does not mean to harm anyone.”

Lucent straightened up on his perch. “Thus, what we have before us is the question of what to do about a young girl who is clearly physically capable of much worse harm than she has ever engaged in. She intentionally holds back, while using the bare minimum force necessary for her to achieve her… goal of stealing from what she considers acceptable targets. What do we intend to do about that, precisely? We have proven inadequate at stopping the girl thus far, and I believe that escalating force to the level required to capture and detain her would cause more of a problem than it would solve. I, for one, would prefer to convince her to curtail her criminal efforts in exchange for compensation leading toward mutual benefit.”

“You mean you want to pay her not to steal things,” Brumal put in, giving the TONI bird a long look. “Would she be a salaried employee, or would we simply do it on a contract-basis? Say, find a list of places we would prefer her not to steal from and pay a flat fee for each?” 

“Your sarcasm is noted,” Silversmith informed her. “And yet, with some adjustments, is that such a bad idea? Surely the companies involved would be willing to pay for such… insurance against being directly attacked, and if such funds were pooled, it would be enough to pay this girl under what we could refer to as a mercenary contract for protection. Shift her from a Fell-Touched to a Sell-Touched and pay her for security against threats to these locations. We wouldn’t technically be paying her not to steal from them, we would be paying her a ‘security fee’ to… protect those locations. Including targets she herself might have hit. Those would appear to be our two options. We either escalate force beyond what she herself has demonstrated to reach a level of being able to potentially contain her, or we make an offer to cease her criminal efforts and attempt to eventually negotiate that into actual cooperation.”

“A vote then?” Lucent suggested. “A raised hand–or wing as the case may be, if you prefer escalating force against a newly-emerged juvenile Tech-Touched who has made a clear effort to avoid harming anyone.” He glanced pointedly around the room, waiting until no one had raised any hand. “Ahem, and a raised hand or wing if you prefer attempting the diplomatic approach.” 

Silversmith raised his own hand, then watched as the others all did the same, including Lucent with one of his wings. Then he smiled behind the helmet. “Okay then, now let’s get into specifics. We’ll contact each of the companies who have expressed concern and see what they’re willing to offer.” 

“Ah, how do we pass that offer onto the girl herself?” Trivial asked. “I don’t think she left her number lying around.” 

Caishen spoke flatly. “Something tells me that won’t be a problem. It won’t be long before Joyride makes a spectacle of herself again.

“And personally, I find myself… disturbingly curious to see what happens when she does.” 

*********

During The Ministry Base Incursion 

The short, unassuming man stood just a hair over five foot seven, and would have been considered very slightly underweight. His short brown hair and hazel eyes were incredibly average, and he wore glasses with thin metal frames, as well as a simple suit of moderate worth and fit. Not too expensive, yet not too cheap. His job was to blend in. He was known as Alcazar, the word for a Spanish fortress or castle. One of the top lieutenants within the Ministry, his job was to attend to the security and protection of their various facilities throughout the state of Michigan. 

At that particular moment, Alcazar was sitting at his desk in an office in downtown Detroit. It was very late at night, but that was normal for him. His typical schedule found the man sleeping during the day, as most of his work was done at night. Night was when people tended to attempt to cause problems. He would sleep from roughly eight in the morning until early to mid afternoon, then spend time with his family until seven or so before making his way to one of his offices to start his actual job. It was a little after midnight just then, and he was looking forward to the next day (or later that day, rather), when he would cut his sleep short in order to visit his youngest son’s school to watch the boy perform in a play. Eleven-year-old Karl was incredibly excited about his part, even if it wasn’t a leading role. It was still important, and he had extracted a firm promise from his father (who he believed to be an architect) about being there. 

Alcazar had made arrangements to leave the office a bit early that day, getting home by five or so just to have enough sleep so he could enjoy the play and then take his wife out to lunch. That would be in another few hours, and he needed to get all the work he could done by then. Sitting at his desk, he flipped through a folder while typing an email to one of their contractors, arranging for a new shipment of steel beams for Project Carpenter. Very few people in the Ministry were aware of the colony of Touched Termites that had been brought into the city, but he was one of those few. And he worked directly with their spokesman (spokesbug?) in gathering the proper resources, providing them what they asked for. Which, in this case, was more steel for the termites to melt down with their fog-breath and then convert into a larger amount of the stuff for building purposes. Specifically, for building the structures within the city that the Ministry was contracting them to build. 

In the midst of his work on that, his nearby cell phone, sitting silently on the desk next to a pile of folders, abruptly went off. It rang audibly rather than buzz, which meant that it was coming from one of the few numbers he had programmed into the phone to bypass his normal silent mode. And that would only happen if this was an emergency. 

A slight frown found its way to the man’s face as he reached out to answer the phone with a simple, “What happened?” 

The words he heard made the man immediately stand, almost knocking his chair over in the process. “What? Right now? How many? Lock down. Get everyone there. Alpha level priority. Have you contacted White and Gold? Do it, right now. Interrupt the play.” Even as he spoke, Alcazar was plucking a separate phone from his pocket, rapidly texting one of his contacts. “Are they still in the building? Then lock down the entire area. Get a chopper in the air. Who’s close? Yes, move that one over. Find the spot where they started from and be there to meet them when they evac. Do everything you can to hold them in that building until I get there, but be prepared to track them if they escape.”

Taking the phone away from his ear, he held the second one up to the opposite side and spoke. “Yellowbrick, I need a walkway. Yes, there.” He waited for a moment then before getting the go-ahead. Once that came, the man opened the door of his office. Beyond was what appeared to be a black void and an amber-colored path leading out into nothingness. Without missing a beat, he walked straight out onto the path. As always when doing this, the void itself felt cold, though not to the point of being a problem. It was like a chilly wind that made one hunch in on themselves a bit. Or typically did. In the current situation, he barely noticed. 

Striding quickly along the bridge through that void, the man made it precisely thirty feet. It was always thirty feet, no matter what the actual distance between the two connected doorways happened to be. Whether Yellowbrick was creating a path between two doors in the same building, from one building to another in the same city, or between two different continents, the bridge through the void was always precisely thirty feet. The void itself seemed to go on much further, as did the bridge. It extended off seemingly endlessly. But after walking that thirty feet (and only after walking, it wasn’t visible before), a new doorway appeared in front of the man. It was the door into one of the supply closets within the Ministry’s base under the local mall, and he didn’t break stride at all before reaching out to grab the knob and pull it open as he stepped through. From an outsider’s point of view, it would have looked as though he was simply stepping out of the closet, as they wouldn’t see the void and bridge behind him. Yellowbrick’s paths were only visible and accessible to people she wanted them to be visible and accessible to.

The very instant he was in the base (stepping into one of the secondary labs where an unconscious Ministry security guard lay on the floor next to an overturned chair), Alcazar activated his power. He had no idea whether the intruders were still inside or not, but there wasn’t time to waste finding out. As soon as he focused on his gift, the man could see the effects. The small lab around him shifted, the floor, walls, and ceiling turning somewhat fuzzy and wobbling like jello for a brief moment before completely transforming. The floor became beaten and cracked old wood, while the walls and ceiling were made of intricately carved stone. The door behind him, leading into the closet, became an ancient wooden type with a metal latch. The view through that half-open door revealed not the closet it was supposed to be or Yellowbrick’s void, but a set of stone stairs leading down. 

The stairs would go nowhere. Or, more to the point, they would go everywhere. They would lead to a corridor, or another room, which itself would lead to more corridors and more rooms. That, in essence, was Alcazar’s power. While he was using it, the structure he designated (the Ministry base, in this situation) would physically transform into the interior of a medieval castle or fortress. Not a specific one and never the exact same. More importantly, space itself was twisted and expanded within his affected area. Even if he only used it on a single room, the resulting castle interior would appear to stretch on forever. Every hall would lead to a new room, every new room to a new hall. No matter how far one walked, no matter how many doors they went through, there would be more and more in front of them. Eventually, they would loop back around to where they started. You could walk straight for a solid mile of corridors and rooms, go up six different flights of stairs at six different locations, then pass through a final door and find yourself right back where you had started from, height differences be damned. 

Alcazar and those he designated were the only ones who could properly navigate and leave the affected area. Now, if the intruders were still inside, they would be trapped. There would be no escape. And they would be answering questions very soon. 

The moment his power clicked into place, Alcazar walked through the opposite door, which would have led into the main hall adjacent to the stairs leading out of the base. Now it was about twice as wide as it should have been, which was right. There was also a hole in the wall near the base of the stairs, which was wrong. As soon as he saw that hole, Alcazar strode that way. It had to have been there before his power took effect. The hole wasn’t a normal part of the structure, so his power hadn’t taken it into account. It had built around it. 

Looking into the hole, he saw several of their security people attempting to dig through what had apparently been a cave-in about twenty feet in and upward. Undoubtedly intentional by the intruders to block pursuit. 

“Hold,” he ordered, before sticking his hand through the hole to touch the dirt. This tunnel wasn’t great for him. His power worked best on established buildings. With a bit of extra effort, he could affect something like this, but only within the immediate area he could see. Still, it would help somewhat. As his hand touched the dirt wall, the man released his focus on the rest of the base. Behind him, it reverted back to its normal condition (aside from the hole). Meanwhile, this area of the tunnel became another castle corridor. The area the guards were trying to dig through was transformed into a full-sized room. The dirt and rocks from the cave-in were still there, but the room was large enough for them to simply move around all of it. About ten feet past that room, the effect of his power faded and it became ordinary dirt once more. 

“Go,” he ordered the men. “Catch up with them if you can.” That was all he said, all he needed to say. Before the words had even finished leaving his mouth, the men were off and sprinting. 

Turning away from the hole, Alcazar took one of the phones from his pocket as it buzzed. “Yeah. Bring the chopper in from the east, sweep across the mall lot just in case they popped up there, but I think they started from further back.” He paused briefly, then grimaced. “The construction site across the street, where they’re building the hotel. It’s been shut down for awhile. Focus there. Send the call to get our people over there right now.” 

Without another word, he disconnected the call. At nearly the exact same instant, the phone rang in his hand. Rang, not buzzed. A single word was displayed on the screen. No number, just a name. White. Minister White. She’d gotten the message, apparently. 

“Yes, ma’am,” Alcazar answered. “Yes, I’m here. They’ve already left. The troops are in pursuit, through a tunnel leading to what I believe is the motel construction site. Yes, we have a police helicopter diverting there right now, eta twenty seconds. I have people loading up in a few of our cars to head them off above ground as well. Absolutely. We’ll have a full sitrep for you when you get here. I have no idea what they took, I was about to look into it. Yes, ma’am.” 

That was the end of the call, so he disconnected before looking back the way he had come. Unconscious figures littered the hall, and the rooms around him. Whoever this was, whoever had broken into the Ministry’s base, they had come in here for something. But what? 

More importantly, who the hell were they? This attack came out of nowhere. The Ministry was… well, not quite totally peaceful. But they were secure. Every Fell-Touched gang in the city either worked directly for them, or paid tribute to them and had enough informants within who would rat out anything like this. Well, almost every Fell-Touched gang. There were the Scions, but this wasn’t their style. Leaving everyone alive? They’d never do that. 

So again, who in this city had taken the time and care to secretly tunnel into the Ministry base, steal things while leaving everyone alive, and then leave? Whatever the answer, whoever they were, Alcazar was certain of one thing.

They were just getting started. 

*********

Sterling and Elena 

Standing on the edge of the road where the group who had invaded the Ministry base had gone sliding out of control and into the water beyond, Sterling Evans watched divers attempting to search the submerged wreck for anything useful. Raising his gaze toward the sky, he saw two helicopters combing the banks in either direction, their spotlights scouring for a sign that the intruders had come ashore. More of the Ministry’s people were searching surrounding neighborhoods, talking to potential witnesses, digging through anything and everything they could find. 

There wouldn’t be much. He knew that. This hit was too well-coordinated, too perfect. This wasn’t an amateur outfit. They knew what they were doing, and had the training, equipment, and skill to pull it off without getting caught. How long had they been working in secret, building that tunnel leading straight to the mall? Weeks? Months? They had gone completely undetected, despite the security measures the Ministry had in place. Which meant they had been quiet, somehow digging that entire tunnel without making any more vibrations than cars passing overhead. And that implied powerful Touched-Tech, a surprise considering the Ministry themselves owned the only purely Touched-Tech group in the city, as well as the company responsible for transporting it safely. If such machines had been delivered or ordered here, he would have heard about it. 

This raised… many questions. 

Stepping up beside him, Elena watched the water in silence for a moment. The two of them, to everyone else in the area, would look quite different than they appeared to themselves. Thanks to Elena’s gift, others would see him as a bald man who resembled Principal Strickland from Back To The Future, while Elena had made herself a near dead-ringer for the character of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. 

After standing there with him in contemplative silence as they watched their people work for several moments, Elena quietly spoke. “It was an excellent play, at least.” 

She was right, of course. The play had been excellent. At least, as much as they’d seen of it. The lead had been one he’d kept an eye on from back when he was still barely more than a background player, and Sterling’s early faith that the man had strong potential had not been misplaced. Through his life, even as a near-nameless accountant for the Russo mafia under his now-wife’s father, Sterling had had a way of predicting potential. To him, potential was a combination of natural talent, drive, and a bit of luck. The first two were what he looked for when it came to investments. Luck was something he could manufacture for them. A word in the ear of a basketball recruiter to visit a certain high school to see a student who would have gone unnoticed, leading to a starring role on an NCAA drive to a state championship, a moderate donation to the science lab of a university in order to ensure that a brilliant geneticist had the funding they needed to continue the research that had eventually led to saving many lives. Those and far more examples, many as subtle as bringing the right two people together at the right time, had allowed his life to progress to what it now was. 

Sterling knew he was lucky. He had no doubt about that. His brilliant, beautiful wife, his strong son, amazing daughter, and now potentially a second daughter whom he was coming to care about as much as his own biological children. A life as charmed as his had taken a lot of work and sacrifice to reach this point, but it was all worth it. As close as they had come to losing it several times, particularly when it came to Elena’s father, and yet they had come through on top. 

Whatever it took, he would protect his family. He would continue to build this empire, would continue to strengthen and solidify it. When the time came, he wanted his children, all three if Izzy agreed to be adopted, to have the best possible foundation. He would, at some point, pass the keys to this kingdom to the three of them. And then he would see just how far they could take it. As solid as the Ministry was, as strong as it had become, he had no doubt that his children could take it further. They were who he built all of it for. Together, his family would create a legacy that would shape the state of Michigan, and far beyond, for a long time to come. 

Bah, he was getting ahead of himself. And perhaps swelling too much with pride for his family. It was far too easy to let his thoughts and hopes run away, like a poor child being dragged along by an overly-excited dog on a leash. He sounded arrogant to his own thoughts, which wasn’t his intention. He simply… wanted his family to build something truly lasting, something that could be passed down through their generations. As more and more superpowers emerged, as the world grew into this new era, things would change quickly. 

The truth was, Sterling Evans believed that it would not be long (relatively speaking) before states across the country, and even countries across the world, began to break up into smaller territories. Kingdoms of a sort, smaller areas protected by powerful Touched. The militaries and governments themselves simply could not keep up with so many random citizens gaining often incredibly destructive powers. There was no test they had to take, no money to be paid, no qualification in wealth, race, gender, orientation, or any other thing that had previously been used to prevent one group or another from gaining power. It could happen to anyone anywhere. 

Thus, Sterling believed that the old rules of society, of government power, would gradually break down as more and more people who would previously have been considered ‘nobodies’ or ‘inconsequential’ gained true power. He believed that the government’s power would fail, and far more localized fiefdoms, of a sort, would rise. That was the entire point of the Ministry. That was their endgame, to have this structure in place so that when the inevitable collapse of government came, they would still be there in its place. They would keep Detroit, and Michigan beyond, safe and prosperous. 

And that goal was why he would not allow whoever this group was, whatever their intentions might have been, to escape judgment and punishment. If other groups, other organizations, saw that the Ministry could be hit like that, they would become emboldened. An example had to be made. They would be found, dealt with, and everyone would see that the status quo would be maintained. 

Whoever was behind this attack would find themselves regretting it, Sterling promised himself. Whatever their endgame, whoever they were, wherever they had come from, he would make an example of them. Every gang, every snake now poking their heads out with interest at the news that the Ministry had been attacked, would see what became of such people. 

With a nod to Elena, Sterling took the phone from his pocket, hitting the number to contact Alcazar back in the base itself. “Talk to all of our people in every gang. Find out who knows something about this. Shake the bushes, kick the trash cans, call in favors, make every threat we need to make. Do everything you can until five o’clock, then go home. Yes, Alcazar, I don’t want to hear it. Go home at five, that’s an order. Your son needs you at that play tomorrow. Karl’s been looking forward to you being there too much for you to put it off. Do the work, then go home. We have plenty of people to keep searching while you’re busy. Delegate, it’s the only way to survive in this business. And tell Karl I said hi.” 

He paused then before nodding slightly. “Yes. Yes, I do think our people will find something. There is someone in this city who knows the truth. There is a weak link somewhere, a link connected to the people responsible for this. 

“And when we find that weak link, we’ll snap the chain in half.” 

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Dig In 22-07 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why wasn’t I good enough?” 

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Patreon Snippets 24B (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 24th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Blackjack and Melissa 

Pausing with a forkful of steak halfway to his mouth, Eric Abbot stared at his daughter for a moment. He had been doing that a lot, given his wonder and delight at the fact she was even able to leave her bed and come to this dining room in the first place. Such an incredibly simple thing on the face of it, yet a complete impossibility until very recently. He had found himself many times in these past few days staring with pride, love, and relief to see his beautiful, brilliant daughter finally able to move around and interact with the world safely for the first time since she had been infected with that horrific disease years earlier. 

But this stare was not the same as those. Now, he gazed at his daughter with disbelief, taking a moment to find his voice lest it crack mid-sentence. “I’m sorry, you want to do what?” 

Melissa, of course, didn’t need to eat. Nor did she get any benefit from it. That was the downside of her new condition. Yes, she could get up and move around without fear of breaking (at least permanently), but nor could she taste anything. Her body was entirely made of glass. She didn’t seem to need food or water, and a small test had confirmed that she had no need of oxygen. 

Despite that entire lack of needing (or getting any benefit from) food, Melissa still insisted on sitting with him at the dinner table. Even now, she was watching the food on his fork a bit distractedly before looking up to meet his gaze. “Huh? Oh, I said I want to join Paintball’s team.  Wouldn’t that be cool? I could be Stained Glass. Wait, no, there’s a better name than that. But really, Daddy, they’re all artistic and stuff and I can make things. Like a sculptor. There’s a word for someone who makes glass sculptures, right?” Shaking that thought off, she quickly added, “Anyway, I fit on their team perfectly. And Paintball’s so cool! Plus Alloy’s cool too. You want me to be with the cool people, right?” 

Oh boy was there a lot that Eric wanted to say to that. Yet, in the end, he simply cleared his throat and replied, “There are several cool groups in the city, you know.” A part of him wanted to use his power to find the right thing to say, but he had promised himself that he wouldn’t abuse that just to interact with his daughter. If he said the wrong thing, so be it. At least their relationship would be real and not guided along on rails. He wanted everything he said to Melissa to be what he chose to say, not what his power prompted him with. 

For her part, his daughter blinked a couple times before curiously asking, “Do you not want me to go onto Paintball’s team?” Her head tilted a little. “Is it because you’re afraid he might be against the Ministry?” 

Choking just a little, Eric regarded her before quietly murmuring, “Sometimes I think you’re a little too smart for your own good. Definitely too smart for my good.” He took a breath before letting it out as he continued. “It’s more about the fact that they aren’t with us. They aren’t part of the Ministry’s organization, they don’t have anyone embedded with them.” 

“And if I joined them, you would,” Melissa pointed out with a broad, clearly mischievous smile. 

Pointing with his fork, Eric retorted, “You know what I mean. I don’t want you to be their in with that group. Not mine or the Ministry’s. Besides, you like them. If something went wrong and you had to choose between being loyal to Paintball or the Ministry… you don’t want that. I don’t want that.” 

“But you don’t want me to join your team.” Melissa’s words were quiet, the faintest bit of hurt within them. 

Setting his fork down, Eric reached out to take his daughter’s glass hand. “Listen to me, okay? The reason I don’t want you to be part of La Casa is because I don’t think you would enjoy it. Sometimes we have to hurt people. We try not to hurt innocent people more than we have to, and our targets… we do our best not to be monsters. But I know you. I know you wouldn’t enjoy it. You want to be a hero. You want to help people.”

After the slightest pause, Melissa gave a short nod. She met his gaze once more, offering a very faint smile. “I mean, a real hero would probably turn you in. But I think I can deal with only being mostly a hero.” 

With a chuckle, Eric squeezed her hand. “Well, lucky me. But let’s talk about what team you can join.

“Because I think I know exactly where you can do the most good.” 

******

Rubi Nilsen

Standing in the bathroom, nineteen-year-old Rubi Nilsen stared at herself in the mirror. Her skin was pale, and her dark blonde, almost brown hair limp and stringy. There were dark circles under her eyes, and when she tried to smile, it didn’t look real. She couldn’t even convince herself. 

This was… hard. Taking care of her younger brother Roald and their little sister Emilee for the past year, basically from the moment she had turned eighteen, had been difficult enough by itself. She was barely out of high school and already couldn’t go to college the way she’d planned. She was working at a law firm, technically. Yet instead of becoming the lawyer she’d always wanted to be, she was cleaning their offices as an overnight maid. She scrubbed toilets, vacuumed the carpets, dusted their desks, emptied their trash, and anything else they needed. 

From nine-thirty pm to five-thirty am she did that, before taking the bus home and arriving just in time to make sure Roald and Emilee were up and getting ready for school. She got them breakfast and sent them on their way. Then she would crash until around three pm, get up to be present for Emilee (Roald could take care of himself much more easily) so she could help the girl with her homework, then get dinner on. The rest of the afternoons and evenings were spent trying as best as she could to be a normal human being for a couple hours, before it was time to go right back out to work and do it again. While she was at work, either Roald was in the apartment, or the neighbor lady, Mrs. Kroothers. Someone was there at all times, just in case. 

That was Monday through Friday. On the weekends, she tried to spend as much time with Emilee as possible. And Roald, when he was around, but that was less frequently ever since he actually got a job of his own. Regardless, she continued to take Emilee out to the park or to the dollar theater, anywhere they could go to give her little sister some semblance of a normal life. 

And now Murphy (no one ever called her Eleanor) needed her too. Tyson… Tyson and Rubi were never exactly super-close, but they had been friendly enough. They had to be, considering the situation their families were in. But now he was gone. He had been murdered right in his own apartment, just downstairs. And the prison system wasn’t in the habit of letting convicts out to take care of their younger child just because the one who was taking care of them happened to die. 

The social services lady had asked if Rubi thought she could take in Murphy too, or if she should put her in the system. But the tone of the woman’s voice, the thick folder of other people she was clearly already taking care of, and the very doubtful look on her face when she had brought up the possibility of getting Murphy placed somewhere had told Rubi all she needed to know. The odds of a mixed-race, teenage girl from a poor family, whose parents were in prison for selling drugs ending up in a good home were… low, to say the least. 

So, she had told the social services lady that she had it handled. The look of relief on the woman’s face had been unmistakeable, and she had left very soon after having her sign a few things taking the responsibility away from her.  

Now Murphy was living with them, sleeping in the same room as Emilee. They’d managed to convince a couple guys in the building to help them move the girl’s bed upstairs and into this apartment, and they were going to sell everything that Murphy didn’t want to keep. There was no room for it here, and they certainly couldn’t pay storage or a separate lease to keep that apartment. 

The point was, with their parents in prison and Tyson gone, Emilee, Roald, and Murphy needed Rubi to be there. Even if the latter two were more capable of functioning on their own, they still needed her to be the adult. So she was. She put aside everything in the hopes that someday… someday Roald and Murphy would be adults too, and Emilee would be older and more capable of being alone. Rubi wasn’t putting aside college and a career forever

And yet, even as she kept telling herself that, part of her wouldn’t stop whispering that it would be harder to go back to school and try to make something of herself years from now. She wouldn’t be going with her friends, she barely even saw her friends anymore. They had moved on. They were off to university, making new relationships, building their real adult lives and careers. 

There were times when Rubi couldn’t help but feel a wave of despair, of anxiousness, of anger at their parents and at her siblings. She didn’t want to. She wasn’t proud of it, and she pushed the thoughts down as soon as they appeared, but they were still there now and then. 

Was she a bad person? Was she selfish? Staring into her own eyes, Rubi tried to smile again. It didn’t look any better than the first time. 

“Rubi?” It was Roald, just outside the closed bathroom door. “Can uh, can I show you something?” 

A rush of terrified thoughts about what else could have gone wrong went through her mind, but she shoved them down, tasted what she hoped was a somewhat normal expression on her face, and opened the door. “Sorry, the milk didn’t go sour again, did it?” God, if they had to spend another four bucks on a gallon before she got paid…

Roald, however, shook his head. There was a slightly pensive, uncertain expression on his face. “No, no nothing like that. I just… um, you know how I said Murphy and me got jobs? Um. Here.” With that, he held up a wad of dollar bills. No, not dollar bills. Twenty dollar bills. 

“What–Roald, what is this?” Rubi was staring at the folded up money. 

“It’s for you–I mean for us. I mean for food and stuff,” Roald informed her. “Murphy and me both chipped in. There’s three hundred dollars there for groceries. You know, so we can get some good stuff. And uhh, here.” From his pocket, he produced another couple of twenties. “This should be enough to get a taxi or an Uber or whatever so we don’t have to try to carry a bunch of bags onto the bus. When umm, when I get back from school, I thought we could go out and pick up some stuff. We can drop Emilee off at Danielle’s to play for a couple hours and go get everything we need.” 

Rubi was still staring at the money. “Roald, that’s… that’s too much. You need to be saving for school. You can still go.” 

Shaking his head, the boy replied, “It’s okay, we’re putting money away too, I promise. We’re doing okay at the shop, and… and we wanna help. Take it, please? And say we can go out today.” 

Hesitating for another moment as she felt a wave of guilt that her brother had to contribute anything to keep them afloat, Rubi finally took the offered cash and nodded. “We’ll go as soon as you get home.” 

“Good. I–good.” Roald coughed before gesturing. “I’ll make sure Emilee’s ready for school, then we’ll head out. You should take a shower and sleep, Ru. It’s… it’s gonna be okay. Hey, maybe we can even get some KFC on the way back. Emilee’d love that. It’s… it’s been awhile.” 

With that, he headed back down the hall to the kitchen, leaving his sister to shut the door. Rubi turned back to the mirror, staring at the cash in her hand. Thoughts of cupboards that were full, of fresh milk that they didn’t have to drink past the expiration date just to make it last, of being able to give Emilee real fruit and vegetables, and even cookies that weren’t from the dollar store filled her mind. 

That time, when Rubi met her expression and smiled, it was real. 

******

Sterling and Elena 

“Yes. He’s out of the city then?” Listening to his son’s response over the phone for a few seconds, Sterling gazed out the window of his office. Well, one of his offices, in one of his buildings in the heart of the city. Watching the construction site across the street, he was silent until Simon finished confirming that Luciano Munoz had indeed been escorted safely from the city and was set up in a place to lay low.

“Good.” His reply was simple, even if the thoughts running through his mind were anything but. “Head on back, and stop by the storage unit on Tulsbee to drop off the cash with Bowers. He’ll make sure it’s clean.” Another pause as he listened to Simon confirm that, before he signed off with, “Drive safe. And son… good work out there.” 

With that, he clicked off the phone, giving a long, heavy exhale before tossing it aside. The phone landed on the desk with a clatter. 

“Do that much more and you’ll have to get a new one,” Elena observed from the doorway. She stepped inside, closing the door behind herself before crossing over to the desk to run her hand over the phone in question.

Looking that way briefly before turning his attention back to the window, Sterling replied, “It might be a stretch, but I think we can afford it.” 

Her hand left the phone as Elena stepped around the desk to be in front of him, brushing her fingers over his jaw tenderly. “I take it Simon dropped him off safely.” 

“Safely,” Sterling echoed with a slight cough. “Yes, he’s safe. Though I can’t say the same about the people that impulsive piece of shit left in his wake.” His eyes moved away from the window to meet hers. “Those people are either dead, or mourning the ones who are.” 

Gently using her hand to make her husband meet her gaze, Elena quietly spoke. “You must be upset, dear. You are generally better at controlling your language in the office.”

Sterling was silent for a moment, of course giving a heavy sigh. “This sort of thing is not why we started this. His contributions barely matter compared to what we bring in without him, and he provides nothing else of value. Sorry, provided. I doubt we’ll ever see him again.”

“Not to mention,” Elena put in, leaning up to gently kiss her husband before she continued, “his method of gathering the last payment for his extraction was a bit… attention-getting.” She glanced away to look out the window at that same construction site before turning to him. Her voice was darker. “He killed people he didn’t need to. Innocent people. That… that is not what we intended for him to do.” 

Sterling gave a flat grunt, head shaking as he almost snarled the words, “I assumed he had money stashed away. Or people in his world who owed it to him. When I gave him the price for getting him out of the city and away from his… angry business partners, I didn’t…” 

“You didn’t think he would be foolish enough to attract the attention of every law enforcement officer in the city with his wild, unhinged massacre,” Elena finished for him. “Because you are accustomed to working with people who hold more self-control than that. And more of an investment in keeping the city stable. Munoz was leaving the city. He had no reason to care about the chaos he was leaving behind, or for the damage he was doing to the people who are still here. We gave him a price and he paid it.” 

Sterling stepped over to the window, putting a hand against it as he gazed down at the traffic below. His voice was soft. “Which is why we couldn’t go back on the deal.” He echoed her words then. “We gave him a price and he paid it. Even if we don’t like how. We have a reputation to uphold.” 

Elena moved beside her husband and put a hand against his back while speaking. “Yes. This is no longer only about him. Were this an isolated situation, I would have said kill him the moment he showed his face. As you say, this is about our reputation. If others were to learn that we refused to honor the deal we made, we could very well lose our grip. Having control over this city is not something to take lightly, and if some of the people on the edges of that control were to learn that our word cannot be trusted, it could be disastrous. Which is a problem that would have spread through the entire city very quickly. We told him the price and he paid it. In the future, we will simply need to be a little more specific about limitations.”

There was silence between them for a moment, as Sterling considered his next words carefully before turning to face his wife. His hand moved to cup the side of her face gently. “Innocents have died before, many times under our watch and in response to our words. I can’t exactly say why this one bothers me as much as it does. But I know this is not why I wanted to create the Ministry, not why I wanted to do any of this.” 

Elena spoke sympathetically, leaning her face against her husband’s hand. “It’s a very harsh cost. Honoring your word is not always the easiest thing. But our word is all that we have in this situation. We both know that if word were to get out that he paid his dues, met our request, and we refused to honor it, our entire system could be disrupted. There are very bad people in this city who do as we say, and allow us to maintain some level of control, specifically because they know that our word can be trusted. Which goes both ways. When we tell them no, they understand that there is no arguing against that. But when we give them a price and they pay it, we are beholden to our word.” 

Offering her a soft smile, Sterling replied, “You keep talking about keeping our word and honoring the deal. But I know you don’t like this any more than I do. I know you, Love. You are as angry about what that man did to get the money as I am. And you know as well as I do that we didn’t even need the cash itself. This was a terrible deal on all fronts. Those people… there was no need for them to die.”

“You’re right,” Elena confirmed, “I don’t like it, and I wish it was different. That man can burn in hell for all I care about his future. As I said, were it entirely up to me and I allowed my emotions to take control, I would have told Simon to put a bullet in his head the moment he showed himself at the meeting.” She paused then before adding, “Or simply allowed Paintball and his companion to take him. Problematic as that would have been.” She sighed heavily. “But it is not about him. It is about everyone in the city who would react poorly to the Ministry breaking an agreement.” 

“He shouldn’t even have known about us,” Sterling pointed out before turning to look out the window once more. “The cop who let him know how to contact us in the first place, his name is Aemon Kraft. I want a message sent to him. He is not to give that information to anyone else.” 

Touching her fingers to his chest, Elena arched an eyebrow. “Do you want him to receive a message, or be a message?” 

The impulse to answer immediately was strong, but Sterling restrained himself. Closing his mouth, he turned back to look out the window once more. A few seconds of silence passed before he spoke, but even then his words did not address the question directly. Rather, he quietly started with, “Do you remember when I Touched, back before any of us had a firm idea of what that meant? You and I were together, in that motel where we knew your father wouldn’t be able to find us, and we spent… we spent hours sitting in that room, just working out what I could do. My shapes were smaller then. I made you a metal pony, then said I was sorry it wasn’t big enough for you to ride. But you said that you didn’t need a pony, because with the power that I had, we were going to ride that all the way to the top.” 

“I remember,” Elena confirmed quietly while tenderly running her hand along his arm. “And I remember that we spoke for a long time about what that meant. We saw other people with powers, some becoming heroes, some becoming villains.” 

“And we talked about which one I should be,” Sterling finished for her. “We had a list and everything. Pros and cons for both sides.” He smirked a bit, dropping his gaze. “Seems so quaint now.” 

“As I recall,” Elena murmured while sliding her hand down to take his gently, “we were discussing whether joining the burgeoning heroes or villains would most help us handle my father. Because whatever we wanted to become would never matter as long as he was around.” 

Sterling gave a short nod of agreement, his eyes darkening a bit at the memory of that man and the long shadow he had cast over both Detroit itself and their lives. “It really wouldn’t have. He’d never leave us alone, and with the resources he had…” Swallowing a bit, he put his free hand against the glass of the window while squeezing his wife’s hand with the other. “That was why we decided to be both, to point the villains and the heroes at his organization from different sides.” 

“Not the entire thing,” Elena pointed out. “Just the people we couldn’t turn to our side. The ones most loyal to my father. We had to remove them, or at least blunt their influence and power. We had to isolate him and create that vulnerability. And we never could have done it by ourselves, or even by siding with the heroes or the villains. We needed both of them, both sides of the law working together to break his organization while making sure there was enough left to use afterward, enough to build up from. We used both sides, even if they didn’t know they were working together. Different targets, different times, different methods. The heroes made their arrests, the villains claimed their territory, and Father’s organization was being hit from too many sides and angles for him to react. He was too mired in his ways, too accustomed to how it had always been. He couldn’t adapt to Touched emerging.” 

“And when we were done with that,” Sterling noted, “when we drove your father out of the city and took control of his organization, it felt natural to just keep doing what had gotten us so far to begin with. Instead of choosing between being heroes or villains, we became both. We sat in the middle, directing things, building a network, a web that was even more ingrained in the city than your father’s. We are both sides. Even if those sides are diametrically opposed.” 

He was quiet for a moment, but Elena didn’t speak up. She gave him time to work his way through his thoughts until the man finally exhaled. “I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to be Silversmith and nothing more than that. I think I could be proud of that.” 

“But?” Elena prompted after a moment, hearing that unspoken word at the end of his sentence. 

“But,” he replied, “I would be Silversmith in a very different city. Without the Ministry directing things, I truly believe this city would be in a much worse position than it is. We do allow crime to happen, but it is controlled. It is guided. If we did not do what we do, this city would have been a free-for-all for the past twenty years. You’ve seen what happened in other cities that were in our position. You saw what happened to Atlanta. They had the opportunity to rise or fall like we did, and they fell. Last I heard, the city was divided between five different warlords and their Conservator team can barely keep up with the absolute worst of the problems. It’s utter chaos in that city. I won’t let Detroit become another Atlanta.” 

“Even if it means you can’t just be the shining hero?” Elena murmured softly, leaning in to put her arm around him from behind as she kissed his shoulder while the two of them stood in front of the window. 

Sterling gave a slight nod. “Even if it means I can’t just be the shining hero. Still, sometimes it’s hard to separate the two. I am Silversmith, leader of the Detroit Conservators. And Minister Gold. Some people I save, and others… others die because of the crime that I allow to happen. I might as well have killed them myself. I–” He cut himself off from going down that road and sighed. “You’d think that after two decades it would be impossible to feel guilty about that anymore.”  

“You’re human,” Elena reminded him. “Whatever being Touched has done to us, it hasn’t changed that. And you’re not a monster. You’re right, people do suffer and die because of the choices we make. But if we did not make those choices, if we were not here, it’s exactly as you said, the city would be worse.” 

She continued after leaning up closer to him. “And if we didn’t allow crime, if we tried to stop it entirely instead of simply controlling and directing it, the city would explode. Like a pressure cooker with no vent or safety valve. We would be in the same position as Atlanta. Our city would not have advanced nearly as much as it has. Yes, we have done some bad things, arguably unforgivable things. But I believe the city would be worse without the Ministry.” 

Taking in a deep breath before letting it out slowly, Sterling finally spoke again. “We’re not exactly suffering either. We have made a very good living in this position. Our actions, our choices don’t come from some altruistic position. We’ve helped make Detroit what it is, and we built an empire in the process, out of the groundwork laid by your father. It’s just that… there are days, like this one, when I see the unnecessary mess created by that… piece of shit, and I just wish that all I had to do was bring him in. Or make sure no one ever sees him again.” 

“That latter option is not exactly the hero way,” Elena gently pointed out. 

With a nod, Sterling turned from the window, gathering her up against himself. “You’re right, but as we’ve established, I’m not really the sort of hero who always plays by the rules and lets the bad guys go back to a nice prison cell.” 

Producing his phone once more, the man hit a button on it and waited with it held to his ear. After a few seconds, he spoke. “Z. Luciano Munoz made himself into a problem. He caused a scene, drew attention. I’m going to give you an address. It’s out of the city. Get him out of there, take him somewhere and dump the body. Make it look like a robbery he fought back against. No trace of you, no trace of any Touched involvement. No, he doesn’t need to disappear. He needs to be found, so his victims get closure. But… maybe let it take a few days. Yes, that sounds right. And Z… thank you.” 

Disconnecting, he hit another button and was immediately connected to someone else. “Patience, it’s Gold. Lieutenant Aemon Kraft, the cop who sent Munoz our way. No, he doesn’t need to die. But I want you to make it clear that he is not to tell anyone else about our business without permission, no matter his reasoning. And Patience… make sure he understands the message.” 

Both calls done, he put the phone away and looked back to his wife. “You disagree with removing Munoz?” 

“No,” she replied, shaking her head. “I have no love or like for that man. He deserves what he gets. But does that make you feel any better right now?” 

Considering that for a moment, Sterling finally shrugged. “Ask me again after it’s done. And maybe not. Maybe ordering the death of that man won’t make me feel better about the lives he ruined or our own part in it. Maybe him dying won’t solve anything. 

“But I’ll tell you this much. I sure as hell won’t lose any sleep over it.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Equal And Opposite 21-07 (Summus Proelium)

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Dad’s speech didn’t go on for very long. Which made sense, he was kind of an expert at reading a room and knowing just how much to talk. This audience consisted of a bunch of people who were all important in their own rights, and were also waiting to eat. If he had gone on too much, he would’ve annoyed them. So, he just propped up their egos a bit with a few words about how special they were and how wonderful it was that they gave so much back to the city. And, of course, a bit about how vital the Seraph’s work was when it came to protecting the hospitals. Soothe the sense of self-importance the rich people in this place had by talking about how the city was only doing as well as it was because of them, and then make it clear (in a subtle, encouraging way) that the Seraphs and other Star-Touched teams were largely responsible for keeping the city safe so the investments these people put into it could pan out.

He said all that in very few words, while somehow making it sound and look as though he was talking to each person individually. He didn’t call anyone by name, but he met people’s gazes and gave that… that special smile that made it seem like he knew everything about you, like you were both sharing some sort of private moment even though there were plenty of other people around. The room was full of men and women who were accustomed to being the most important people around, yet my father’s speech, short as it was, made them feel it in a totally different way. And he did it while actually being the richest person in the room himself. 

I had seen my father’s speeches before, but never exactly like this. Not from this perspective, and not… not knowing what I knew. It made the whole thing even more impressive somehow. My father wasn’t just obscenely rich, he was also one of the most powerful Touched in the country and ran an organization that controlled all crime in one of that country’s biggest cities. He was, inarguably, the most powerful man in the room. But no one would know that just from listening to the way he spoke just then. He made everyone else seem important without putting anyone down. He built people up, he–yeah. No wonder my dad was such a successful businessman.

In any case, the point was that he didn’t talk for too long. Soon, there were waiters going around asking what people wanted to eat, while the band started up in the background. A few couples started to dance, but mostly people got ready for food. Especially at this table. Not that we saw very much of each other. As the waiters began to spread out and take people’s orders, privacy screens rose around us. There was the main privacy screen, a square that rose up around the table blocking any of the other people from seeing us, while remaining transparent from our side so that we could see others. Then there were also the individual privacy screens that rose up around each of our spots so we couldn’t see each other and could eat without giving away our identities. They were like the ones back at Caishen’s place, extending back a bit off the table on either side. You could put the screen back down if you wanted to, or combine them so that the people immediately surrounding you who knew your identity already were included. Obviously, I left mine up. Then again, I also didn’t remove the mask entirely. I just slid the front of the helmet up and pulled the mask high enough to uncover my mouth so I could eat. 

Call me paranoid, but I wasn’t going to take that sort of risk around here. Not with my parents and undoubtedly plenty of their minions in the room. And that wasn’t even counting anyone else who might have interest in finding out people’s real identities. 

Beside me, Peyton didn’t totally uncover herself either. She looked around a bit and considered, before simply reshaping the helmet around her face so that her mouth could be seen. Then she leaned closer to me while whispering, “They aren’t gonna serve food with like fifteen different forks and then tar and feather us for not knowing which one goes with the salad, are they?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” Dynamic spoke up from where she was sitting, hidden behind her own screen, “we’ve been going to plenty more of these than you and we still don’t know which fork goes with what. But the secret is, they’re all too afraid of us to actually speak up and say anything about it.” 

Clearing her throat a bit, Brumal put in, “I believe the more important thing is that they can’t see how you’re eating, so there’s no complaint to make. But either way, don’t worry about it.” Her voice softened slightly, as I saw just enough of the top of her head to know that she was looking toward Alloy and me. “No one who matters is going to give you a hard time about what utensils you use.” 

“And if they try,” Amber put in, “just tell them where to shove it.” 

“Please don’t tell the financial backers to shove anything into any place,” Brumal pleaded, her head turning to give a look toward That-A-Way. “They are not that hard to ignore without causing a scene, believe me.” 

By that point, the waitress had arrived at our table (standing far enough back that she wouldn’t be able to see anyone’s face over the screens) and listed what was available. She proceeded to take everyone’s order, and even spent a minute explaining what different foods were past the fancy names for the benefit of the others. And technically mine too, since I wasn’t supposed to know what they were either. I tried to play as clueless as possible, asking easy questions. 

Once everything was ordered and the waitress had stepped away, the conversation turned toward the gang war. It seemed like everyone sitting there had a particular story to tell about something bad that had happened through it. They had saved plenty of people, of course. But there were others who had died or at least been injured, had their property destroyed, and so on. Every Touched sitting at that table had a story about watching someone lose, if not their life, then things that mattered deeply to them. 

Peyton and I glanced toward one another. I had lowered the screen between the two of us, since I still had most of my face covered anyway. Our eyes met, and I could see how troubled she was. It probably reflected back from my own gaze to her. We were both thinking about the Ministry, and how they could stop this war if they really wanted to. And about Pack. Yes, she was right about the fact that she couldn’t do anything to stop the war, but she also helped participate in it. Even if she personally avoided hurting innocent people, how much did her teammates? How much–urgh. Between her and Eits, I felt very uncomfortable about the whole situation. Hell, even Broadway. From what I’d seen of the girl, I liked her. That was my biggest problem with this whole situation. So many of the people I would have thought I was adamantly against were more likable than they should have been. It was my problem with my family, with Blackjack and the rest of La Casa, even with Deicide. 

It was all just so complicated. If only they could all be more like Cuélebre. At least I could be pretty sure that he didn’t have some special backstory that would make me sympathize with him or anything. Although, now that I actually thought that, it would probably turn out that his entire criminal Empire was built up to take care of a hospital full of injured orphan puppies or something.

Okay, yeah, that wasn’t very likely. But still, I was starting to think that everyone had their own understandable reasons for being involved in bad stuff. Well, except for the Scions. I was pretty sure there was no amount of tragic backstory or mitigating circumstances that could come close to excusing the things they had done. 

By that point, the waitress was coming back with a tray of drinks. As she approached, the privacy shield extended up and over our heads making it totally cover the table so she couldn’t see anyone’s face. Which made me wonder briefly how she would put the drinks down without dropping them, but maybe there was some sort of… thing? Curious, I stood a bit and looked down. Sure enough, the table was visible. The screen specifically only scrambled the appearances of people within it. Looking at the table itself was a bit like looking through an actual window screen. A bit distorted, but still plenty visible. But when I looked over at Peyton, her face (with the helmet still covering most of it anyway) was incredibly blurry and smudged. 

“Is everything alright?” A familiar voice spoke up nearby, and my head snapped that way. Immediately, I realized two things. First, this was not the same waitress who had taken our order. The one who would come with the drinks was different. And second, I knew her. Actually, I knew her fairly well, considering I saw her practically every day. 

Christiana Diaz. The thin, young Latina woman who worked as one of Chef Claudio’s assistants. I’d recognize her anywhere, considering one of the things we had in common was our height. She was only an inch taller than my five foot zero. And that wasn’t the end of our similarities. Christiana had the same ‘look younger than she really was’ thing I did, given she was actually twenty-two but looked more like she was in her late teens. She wore her hair short on the sides with a mop of curls on top. 

So, I recognized her instantly. A rush of thoughts went through my mind, and it took basically everything I had not to blurt her name in surprise. Boy would that have been hard to explain. But somehow, I managed to shove the reaction down and simply put all my surprise into a gasp before giving a sharp exhale that turned into as much of a laugh as I could manage. “Oh! Damn, sorry. You uhh, you sure you’re not a ninja? You kinda snuck up there.” 

There was a very brief pause before Christiana giggled and shook her head. “No, no, sorry. It’s my fault. I keep saying I should put some little bells on this outfit.” With a wink, she added, “Can I help you with anything, sir?” 

The lower half of my face was exposed. She could see my mouth. Did she know my face well enough to recognize me from not? No, of course not. That was ridiculous. And yet, I almost couldn’t stop myself from reaching up to pull the mask down. That would have been even more suspicious, of course. But it was still almost impossibly tempting. 

Shoving that impulse down as hard as I could, I gave a quick shake of my head. “Nah, nah.  It’s all good. I was just seeing how the–you know, what the screen–what it looked like.” I was babbling, and I was saying too much. I needed to stop talking. The more things I said, the more likely she would figure out who I really was. I had to give her as little to work with as possible. So, my mouth snapped shut after saying all that. Then I reached out. “Oh, uh, I’ll take ours.” 

There was a brief pause before Christiana nodded, carefully turning the tray and extending it so I could take the glasses meant for Alloy and me. Mumbling a thanks, I sat down and gave my partner her drink. 

Peyton, of course, was staring at me. “Are you okay?” she asked in a whisper that was barely audible. “You seemed a little… uhh, not.” 

Taking a gulp of my drink, I quickly shook my head. “It’s fine, I’m fine. It’s just … different being in a place like this, you know?” 

That seemed to do the trick. The other girl achieved a sigh while nodding almost frantically. “Believe me, I know what you mean. It’s so weird being here with all these rich people who wouldn’t even notice if they ran over me in the street.” 

Amber made a noise in the back of her throat, and I winced at Peyton’s choice of words. But I couldn’t exactly explain why it was the wrong thing to say. Instead, I simply replied in a low voice, “Some of them would notice.” 

That started even more discussion around the table, centered around celebrities and rich people they had worked with, saved, or whatever. It was a mix of horror stories and nice ones, even a couple bits about celebrities who I thought would be real pains in the ass ending up actually sounding pretty cool. Which didn’t exactly prove they were nice to everyone, given who these people were, but still. 

Honestly, once I got past my surprise of being served by Christiana (she also brought our food), and the fact that my parents were on the other side of the room, it was… nice. I was able to just sit there and listen to more experienced Touched tell stories and exchange inside jokes. Sure, I didn’t get all their references, but they tried to explain it as much as they could. And even aside from that, it was just cool to sit and listen to these guys talk about fights they’d been in, people they had saved, villains they fought, it was… it was actually one of the first times I really felt like a part of this community.  

That wasn’t exactly a good thing, of course. I wasn’t a part of their community. I couldn’t be. I couldn’t trust all of them. For all I knew, half the people at this table worked for the Ministry in one way or another, even if they didn’t really know it. No matter how welcoming they seemed, I couldn’t let myself forget that fact. I could talk with them, even work with them, but I couldn’t entirely trust every single one of them. And that meant I couldn’t entirely trust any of the people here aside from Peyton. 

Well, and aside from Amber and Izzy, of course. They were a different story, and I was incredibly lucky that I had them as a connection to the Minority. For a brief moment, I tried to think of how this whole situation would have played out if I didn’t know who those two really were. It wasn’t a very fun thought. Actually, come to think of it, I might have been too paranoid to even come if I didn’t have those two helping. 

In any case, I was silent through most of the rest of the meal, content to simply sit there and listen as the others went on. And from the looks that Peyton gave me once in awhile,  she was enjoying herself too. We both sat there listening to the stories, feeling a bit like we had been given a backstage pass or something. Which was weird, given we were technically, like, one of the bands, to stretch the analogy. But still, it was just different somehow. Sitting here, listening to the far-more-experienced people trade war stories, made the whole thing more real. 

It helped that the food was pretty good. Or, if you listened to Peyton go on, it was completely amazing. She finished off her entire plate, and then a second one when Christiana came by to ask if anyone wanted more. It honestly just tasted like the food we had at home, but then, I supposed that made sense. If Christiana was here, maybe Claudio was too. He had, after all, been the head chef of a five star restaurant before my parents snatched him up. 

As dinner was winding down, we had another speech to sit through, but this one I didn’t mind too much. It was Radiant, standing right up there on stage to talk about how important Detroit and its Touched-Tech factories were to the nation at large, and how proud everyone here should be about how much the city had been turned around in the past couple of decades. It was no secret that Detroit hadn’t been in the best of shape before the whole Touched thing came around, but now we were one of the strongest, most economically sound cities in the country. Not to mention one of the fastest growing, to an absurd degree. The people who had come to the city and invested in that growth had a lot to do with that, and most of them were sitting in this room. Radiant basically told them to give themselves a pat on the back for that. 

At least, that’s how it started. And clearly it was where the rich people in the room expected it to stay. But before long, the woman shifted her focus a bit. She went from talking about these important, wealthy people giving so much to the city to talking about the city itself, and the people in it. And almost before anyone realized the subject had changed at all, suddenly Radiant was talking about how the people in the city were the ones who really changed it. The people here had benefited a lot, and their influx of money helped give the place the jumpstart it needed. But no amount of money-fueled jumpstarts would have accomplished anything if it wasn’t for the people who lived here, the ones out on the street doing the work every day. 

It was kind of amazing to sit there and watch, because it wasn’t that she insulted or demeaned the rich people in the room. No, she propped them up just fine. She gave them their dues. But she also pulled other people up, putting them on an equal level with the millionaires and billionaires (and even the Touched) in this room. She lifted everyone up, noting the importance of each contribution. She wasn’t denouncing the rich people while making some stand for the little guy. She had started by propping up the people in this room, making it that much harder for them to disagree or be offended when she brought the rest of the population up to the same level. 

Leaning a bit closer to Peyton without taking my eyes off the woman on stage, I whispered, “If I was the type of person to be interested in someone older than me, I might be in love.”

“Oh, believe me,” she replied in a hushed voice, also without looking away from Radiant, “you’re not the only one.”

With a chuckle, Wobble spoke up. “Sorry, you guys. We’re pretty sure she’s already spoken for.” 

Amber was nodding. “We’re not sure by who, but we’ve seen her with a wedding ring. So, you know, you’re kind of late for that train.” After a brief pause, she added, “And I don’t think you meet the age requirement.” 

After Peyton and I both made a show of snapping our fingers in disappointment, our attention turned back to the woman in question as we listened to the rest of her spiel. She made it clear through all of it that the people in this room needed to keep contributing to the overall benefit of the city if they wanted it to continue to thrive, pointing out the forces that were already trying to drag it down. She talked about how Star-Touched chose to use our powers to help people, and that those with resources like these people possessed had the same responsibility. And yet, it wasn’t like she was shaming them or anything. The way she phrased it made it sound as though she was proud of the opportunity these people had, going on a bit about how they could have everything they wanted while still contributing to raising the standard of living for everyone in the city. 

It was more than a little impressive, made even more so for how relatively short it was. She didn’t talk for very long before simply promising that she would be keeping an eye on things here to see how California could incorporate the incredible ideas that they came up with, and bring some of those ideas…. and the people involved, to projects in her own state. 

So there it was, the biggest crux of her speech. She wasn’t just praising these people for the work they could do here, she was essentially saying that she would be keeping an eye on the city and the people she liked would get her recommendation for all-new projects in California. How much money would that be worth? A lot, to say the least. Without actually shaming anyone, Radiant told these people that she expected them to look after the regular population, and that those who did would be rewarded with enormous new contracts. 

As she left the stage and the music picked up, we watched more couples move to the dance floor. Including my parents. I was focused on staring at them while trying not to look like I was staring at them, when Amber reached over to touch my hand through the privacy screen. “Hey,” she started, “you wanna go down with us to check out the convention floor? I’ve gotta see if there’s more people dressed up as you or Whamline. 

“And it better be you, or I owe him fifty bucks.” 

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