Sterling Evans

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 work the Seraphs did 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, I want my mouth shut after saying all that, before reaching 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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Equal And Opposite 21-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, okay then. Apparently there was a new member of the Minority. A pretty young one from what I could see. As murmurs came up all around the room, I stared a bit more intently at the girl in question. She wasn’t hiding her face or anything, but then again, it probably would have been hard for someone to mistake her for some other girl made of glass. The detail was incredible, even from here. She looked like an ice sculpture that had been carved by the best in the world. Well, if ice sculptures were capable of looking around, her eyes clearly shifting to scan the crowd. Again, the parts that were ‘skin,’ like her face and exposed hands, were clear, like regular glass or ice. The parts that were supposed to be her clothes were like stained glass. It was a pretty neat effect, especially the fact that she was very clearly alive and moving around. For a brief moment, I found myself caught up in just staring.

“Another child.” The voice was a murmur just above my head, and I belatedly realized that it was Lucent, muttering those two words with what sounded a bit like disappointment. Or possibly dismay. He didn’t elaborate further, however. Instead, he gave my helmet a very slight peck for attention before adding, “If you will pardon me, I have a few people to speak with. Do enjoy the party and I hope to see you soon.” Giving a short look toward Hallowed, he launched himself off my head and flew over to another side of the room. His motions got some people’s attention, but when they realized who it was, they just turned back to their business. Well, their business of staring at this new Minority girl who had so dramatically introduced herself. 

After those few seconds had passed, Silversmith raised his hand for attention before speaking up once more. “As always, we are incredibly grateful every time we are blessed with another addition to our young team. One of my greatest honors in this life has always been to see the way the youngest among us can grow and become truly remarkable heroes, protecting the innocent and vulnerable. Having this opportunity to watch their growth, and guide them into the type of stalwart champions this world deserves, is truly one of the most gratifying and humbling aspects of this job. Each and every one of these Minority kids are very special. They put their time and gifts toward helping to protect this city. And they risk far more than they have to.”

He let that hang in the air for a moment before speaking again. “But, I’m sure you’ve all heard me ramble on long enough. Well, for now anyway. I promise, you’ll be hearing more later. So much it might make some out of you consider withholding the donations you’ve pledged until they give this job to one of the other team leaders we’re fortunate enough to have with us tonight.” 

Once the scattered chuckles to that had died down, he continued. “Our new friend here has made it clear, in more than one way, that she would like to introduce herself. So, why don’t I just give her the chance to do that.” Stepping aside, he raised one hand as though to gesture for her to go ahead. At the same time, he turned a bit to look out into the crowd, and I followed his gaze before finding my parents. Yes, including my father. They were both sitting at one of the tables near the front, along with Kent and Mills Jackson, Tomas’s parents. Oh, and that Eric Abbot guy I had been introduced to right before I’d gotten the call from Pack to tell me that Eits had been attacked for looking into the name I’d asked him about. He was there too, though he didn’t have anyone else with him. All five were sitting at the table, watching what was going on intently. 

Well, that clearly answered the question of whether my dad was really in the Silversmith armor, at least. Though I still wondered if he was projecting his voice to it somehow, or just having someone else speak for him. It really could’ve gone either way. 

The urge to interrupt them and cause a distraction, just to see if anything happened to the Silversmith on stage, was incredibly strong. But somehow I doubted I could get away with that without causing suspicion. Besides, they had almost certainly already planned for anything that might take my father’s attention off his other self. I’d risk exposing myself for no real benefit. 

By that point, the new girl, Fragile, had stepped up to take center-stage. As she did so, a small tornado of glass emerged from behind the nearby curtain, flying up in front of her before transforming into a podium, and a small set of stairs for her to step up to it. So she wasn’t just made of glass, she could also manipulate it, and turn it into new things. It wasn’t like the glass shards were just vaguely in the shape of a podium. She had literally transformed them into a solid structure. 

“Wow,” Alloy murmured beside me, “that’s pretty fucking cool.”  

Her words made Hallowed, who had apparently been just as caught up as the rest of us, start a bit. I was pretty sure he had briefly forgotten that we were there in the first place. With a quick glance our way, he whispered something about showing us where to sit, then gestured for us to follow him as he started to move. Alloy and I glanced at one another before following. Meanwhile, Fragile was talking into the microphone, her voice filling the room. “Hi, everybody! It’s so cool to see you guys, and be here! Seriously, you have no idea how awesome this is. I have superpowers, isn’t it neat?!” With those words, the glass podium reformed into the shape of a horse that she was perched on top of. “And now I get to make my own pony, so I can stop bugging my dad!” That made a few people chuckle, before she shook her head. “But you know what? Horses are kind of lame. Alligators are better.” And sure enough, the glass horse transformed into a large alligator underneath her, its head swinging back and forth as its mouth opened and shut repeatedly to reveal large dagger-like teeth. 

The display of her powers made everyone clap a bit. And by then, Hallowed had led Alloy and me through the room. We were seen and recognized by a few people, who gave us whispered greetings, or just waved, to avoid interrupting. We waved back, a bit awkwardly, while keeping up with our guide. 

Soon, we found the table we were being led to. It was on the far side of the room, up closer to the stage but half-hidden by the orchestra pit. I knew it was where we were going because there were a bunch of other Touched already there. Unlike most of the tables, this one wasn’t circular and meant for only a few people. Instead, it was one of the long, rectangular tables, large enough to hold like thirty people. The Minority (or at least everyone aside from Carousel) were seated at the table, as were most of the Conservators and Spartans. 

As we approached, I could see every member of the Minority, especially Raindrop and That-A-Way, staring very intently at the girl onstage. But they weren’t the only ones. The Conservators and Spartans were pretty focused that way too. Something told me this was as much of a surprise for the people here as it had been for everyone else. Which seemed a bit odd to me. Did my dad really just put this girl on the team without telling any of the other Star-Touched in town until just now? 

Not just odd, actually. Suspicious. But… she was just a kid. She couldn’t be working for the Ministry or–fuck, I was really getting paranoid about this. Or maybe I wasn’t paranoid enough. I seriously couldn’t tell. 

When she saw us approach, Izzy whispered something to Amber before nodding subtly toward a couple seats across from them. Amber openly gestured for us to come that way. So, Alloy and I did just that. We took a second to thank Hallowed for the invitation, before moving over there. I took the seat across from Amber, while Alloy sat next to me and across from Izzy. The seats on our opposite sides were both empty for the moment. The way the table was set up, the Minority people (and the rest of us) were at one end, while the Conservators were at the other end on the side the Minority were seated on, and the Spartans were at that end on the other side (the one Alloy and I were seated on). Well, three members of the Spartans were, anyway. Brumal, Skin-Head, and Versed were there, while the large, rock-formed Boulderdash with his big armadillo/turtle-like shell was seated on a special reinforced chair at the very end of the table. He wouldn’t fit sitting in a normal seat like the others. 

Meanwhile, the Conservators who were here consisted of Dynamic, Kriegspiel, RePete, and Bokor. Four members of the Spartans and four of the Conservators were attending this thing. Also Silversmith, of course, who was still standing back on the stage to watch that Fragile girl. Or at least, the person posing as Silversmith was. Or my father’s empty armor with a voice–never mind. It was complicated. 

Either way, as soon as we sat down, I met Amber’s gaze and gave a little wave. “Looks like you guys have a new teammate, huh?” 

It was Syndicate (or at least the one who was physically sitting here) who spoke up from his spot two down from That-A-Way. “I’d say good because we need the help, but she looks a little young.” He glanced down the table toward Raindrop before adding, “Uh, no offense.”  

Whamline, seated between him and Amber, reached around the girl beside him to pat Izzy on the back. “If she’s anything like our Raindrop, our team just got a huge upgrade. The kid’ll be saving our butts in no time.” 

Wobble, seated on the far side of Syndicate, looked toward Alloy and me. “I think what my teammates are trying to say is hi, glad you could make it. Sorry, I guess we’re just a little surprised by this whole thing.” He nodded toward the stage, where Silversmith was just stepping up by Fragile to put a hand on her shoulder and guide her down off the stage. And, as it happened, toward the rest of us. The audience was applauding, while several photographers took a few pictures. The same photographers noticed Alloy and me sitting with the Minority and snapped pictures our way too. Peyton immediately made a noise deep in her throat and turned away as though afraid of being recognized, before clearly remembering that her face was covered. I felt her embarrassment and put a hand on her arm before giving the girl a quick nod, trying to be encouraging. That was probably the right thing to do, wasn’t it?

By that point, Silversmith and Fragile had reached the table. He kept his hand on her shoulder, looking at the rest of us. “Ah, sorry for the little ambush about all this. It felt like a fun surprise at the time, but in hindsight, maybe we should have let you guys meet in private.” With a self-conscious cough (or at least a put-on one), he gestured. “Anyway, everybody, this is Fragile.” To the girl herself, he added, “Fragile, meet your new teammates. And the others you’ll be learning from.” One by one, he introduced everyone on all three teams by name, while guiding the girl around to sit next to Izzy. “I’ll let you guys all get acquainted. But don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other away from here. For now, just ahh, have a good time.” With that, he patted the glass-girl’s shoulder once before stepping away to go back up on stage, where one of the city’s politicians was already starting to give a speech of his own. 

Now I was getting a closer look at her face, and it was even more detailed than I had thought it was before. That really shouldn’t have surprised me, of course. Seriously, her body was literally made out of glass. Why wouldn’t it be detailed? It was her face. Still, it was kind of fascinating to see. Especially when she turned a bit to look straight at me and offered a bright smile. “Hi! You’re Paintball! You’re so cool. I was gonna ask to join your team, but I didn’t know if you were hiring or anything. Is hiring the right word? I dunno, but you’re not really open to new membership, and besides, my dad really wants me to be on the Minority, cuz he says they can keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t get in trouble. He said you have a habit of finding your way into trouble you shouldn’t be in, which is silly cuz I think the trouble really finds you. But I said that and he said that didn’t really change the point that you and trouble are really close and he wants me to be here instead, I mean on the team with–” 

In mid-sentence, she turned to look at Izzy sitting next to her, then leaned over to see the rest of the Minority watching her. “Hi, guys!” She gave a happy wave once more. “Sorry, that was probably pretty rude, huh? I didn’t mean I didn’t want to be on a team with you guys. I just meant that–uhh…” A slight red tint came over her clear glass face as she tried to find the right words.

“It’s okay,” Amber immediately assured her. “Trust me, we know how cool Paintball is. Maybe with you onboard, you can help us try to recruit him and his new partner over to the team.” She offered me a wink while saying it. Of course, Amber had to keep looking as though she was trying to get me to join. It would have been suspicious otherwise. And the last thing we wanted to do was make the Ministry at all suspicious about what she knew.

“Sorry,” I replied as casually as possible, “still just a lone wolf over here.” At a cough from Peyton, I shifted and amended, “Or a duo wolf. Dual wolves? Actually even that’s not true. We uhh–we’re a very small pack. A–never mind. Hey, look at it this way, being separate like this means that we can play back up for you guys. And vice-versa. Trust me, we’re gonna need your help a lot.” 

Syndicate focused on me. “Hey, that’s right. Way was saying that you came up with your own new team or something? Even had a name.”  

“Is that right?” The new voice was Dynamic, speaking up from further down the table. She had turned a bit to face us and was giving a little wave our way. “Hey there. Good to finally get to talk in person. I mean, after all the stuff you’ve been into, I feel like I should be asking for your autograph.” 

RePete, seated beside her, raised a hand as well. “Hey, me too. My niece would kill for a Paintball autograph, especially if it was a signed picture. Actually, I’m pretty sure she’d kill me for one, which makes me a little jealous, cuz I used to be her favorite.” 

Their words had attracted the attention of the rest of the adults down there, and now we had both the Conservators and Spartans looking at us. Which made me want to squirm a bit uncomfortably at all the attention. It was one thing to be out on the street showing off for crowds, in or out of costume. I was accustomed to doing crazy (even stupid) shit for the hell of it. But here, sitting at a table with a bunch of costumed heroes who were all looking at me like I was one of them? That was a lot to take. Beside me, I was pretty sure Peyton was feeling pretty much the same, if not worse. Probably worse. But I pushed the thought aside and embraced my role. Paintball wouldn’t be embarrassed here. 

“I’ll trade you any autographs you want, one for one,” I quickly found myself replying. “But believe me, I’m pretty sure yours is worth a lot more than mine. So really, I’m making out like a bandit.”  

That prompted a couple soft chuckles, and some actual official introductions were passed back and forth. The adults at the table were all pretty laid back, though Brumal remained a bit standoffish. Or maybe that was just my impression. She didn’t say very much and seemed distracted. But the rest of her teammates who were there made up for it. Skin-Head, Boulderdash, and Versed were all really friendly and quick to make jokes. Boulderdash in particular had a very distinctive roaring laugh that he had to muffle a few times when people from other tables shushed him because people on stage were still talking. 

And that was another thing. There were important people up there. Important as far as the city went. They were giving long speeches about donating money to the Seraphs and their related organizations, basically patting themselves and each other on the back for all the good they were doing. But no one at this table was actually paying any attention to them. We were all talking amongst ourselves (albeit in whispers) and basically ignoring that whole situation over there. It wasn’t what I had expected when we came here, but I wasn’t going to complain either. I would much rather talk to a bunch of Touched than listen to self-important rich blowhards. After all, I’d been doing the latter since… well, basically since I could talk. 

The others all wanted to know what was up with our supposed new name and all that too, so Alloy and I exchanged glances before I put my hand out onto the table. As they watched, I made the name appear there in bold red letters, just like I had on the wall of Wren’s shop. Avant-Guard

“Okay,” Versed announced while pointing to it. “That’s a cool name. You’re not accepting new members after all, are you?” She was clearly teasing, and grunted as Boulderdash nudged her. “What, I didn’t say I wouldn’t take you with me, big guy.” 

Snickering despite myself, I held up both hands. “Before any of you get eager about jumping over to this side, I should probably point out that we don’t exactly offer a salary or benefits.” 

Versed immediately made a show of grumbling. “Oh, well in that case, I think I’ll stick to this team.” She looked around, frowning. “Huh. I was going to tell the boss that he’s lucky, but he’s not here. As usual.” The last bit came in a muttered voice that made me blink that way. It sounded as though she was a little annoyed with Silversmith, which… huh. 

It also made me think of something else, and I quickly asked, “How come not everyone’s here? I mean, where’s Carousel? And uhh, Flea and Trivial. Are they around here somewhere?” I had noticed that both the Spartans and Conservators had a missing member earlier, and this felt like the best time to bring that up. 

“Flea had some personal business to take care of out of town,” Kriegspiel informed me. “She’s on leave for a few days. Not the best timing, but you know. Shit happens when it happens. Ah, sorry, stuff happens when it happens.” 

“I’ve heard the word before, it’s okay,” I assured him, before giving a double-take toward Raindrop and Fragile. “Oh. Right. I’m not the only one sitting here.” 

“I’ve heard it too,” Izzy put in, her voice dry.

“Anyway,” Brumal announced with a short clearing of her throat. “Trivial took a little time off as well, to help out with Flea’s situation. And I’m sure if they need anyone else, they will ask for it.” That was said in the direction of Skin-Head, who had started to say something. Clearly, that was a bit of a long-standing argument between the two of them.

“And Carousel just stayed home tonight,” Wobble informed me. “She needed the night off to spend with some friends who came in from out of town or something. So, you know, she’s just chilling out, playing games, while we’re stuck here watching…” He gestured up to the front. “This.” 

“I don’t know about you,” Amber corrected him, “but I haven’t been watching it for about twenty minutes now.” She looked down the table toward Fragile before adding, “And that was some entrance.” 

Giggling, the girl shifted in her seat. “Yeah? Sorry, I didn’t tell Silversmith about that, or my dad, or… anyone. I just thought it’d be cool to see everyone’s reactions.” 

“Well, it was definitely an exciting introduction,” Wobble confirmed. “I don’t think anyone will forget about it anytime soon.” 

And then it was time for yet another rich, important blowhard to talk. Specifically, my father. As the others continued to chatter, I noticed him get up from the table, give my mother a brief kiss, then start up to the stage. My eyes followed him, and I sat up a bit reflexively. 

There was a strong impulse to stand up and shout out questions about how he divided his attention between his regular business pursuits, leading the Conservators, and being the leader of the secret organization that ran all crime in the city. I didn’t do that, of course.

But boy, was it tempting. 

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Equal And Opposite 21-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Putting in an appearance at home for a while, I found myself being invited to the dinner party that evening. Invited as myself, that was. For just a moment, the possibility of needing to play a sitcom-style game of going as both Cassidy and Paintball while rapidly switching back and forth between them in closets jumped into my head. Which, of course, would have ended with me sitting down in my dress at the table with my parents while still wearing the helmet on my head, no matter how little sense that made. Wacky, murderous hijinks would certainly have ensued.  

But no, I simply told my parents that I wasn’t really feeling it that night and felt like going to bed pretty soon. They, in turn, let it go pretty easily. I had the feeling they weren’t very surprised about me not wanting to attend some party, even if it was hosted and attended by a bunch of Star-Touched. Maybe they were just happy to think that I wouldn’t be around just in case something went wrong and Dad had to jump into Silversmith duty. Which was a thought that in and of itself gave me pause. Would they give the green light for any Fell-Touched gang shenanigans at an event they themselves were attending? It made sense that they would, given how easy it would be for someone to notice if nothing ever happened at places they went. They were probably even making sure that their own businesses and other assets were hit repeatedly during this whole war, just to avoid any suspicion at all. 

Yeah, I really needed to look that up. Maybe even get an actual list of everything my family had any ownership in and compare it to crimes over the past twenty years to see just how that lined up. I was sure they were careful, especially with my mother making plenty of the decisions. But if I looked closely enough, knowing what sort of things to search through all twenty years, maybe I could actually find some evidence for my family overall profiting from all those crimes in the long run. Say, if they lost a token amount because one business they owned was hit, but had purchased stock in their competitor shortly beforehand. Or something. I wasn’t sure exactly how well that would work, or if it would pan out at all. But it was something to think about. 

In any case, I didn’t need to go to the party tonight. At least, not as myself. But I wasn’t going to completely rule out the possibility of any other sitcom-adjacent antics showing up while I was secretly attending the same party as my parents. I just hoped it stayed firmly in the cheap comedy realm and didn’t mosey its way into the epic drama or tragedy genres. 

Also, it was slightly possible that I was overthinking this whole thing and applying far too many tropes to it. The point was, my parents thought I was staying home. Izzy, on the other hand… well, she was supposedly going over for some tutoring or extra homework or something. That’s the story I was told, in my role as a clueless, obedient daughter who didn’t know anything. In reality, she would be appearing as Raindrop alongside the rest of the Minority. 

Come to think of it, that was probably another reason my parents were fine with me deciding not to go. They might have thought that I would somehow recognize Izzy if we spent time together. Which made me wonder when they planned on telling me about her true identity. If they ever did. Hell, maybe they wanted me to be clueless forever and would send me off to college without opening up about any of it

Bitter, me? 

“You’re brooding, aren’t you?” The words came from next to my window, where Izzy had been standing and looking out at the grounds for the past few minutes. She was ready to head out for her ‘tutoring’ session as soon as my parents were ‘ready to drop her off.’ Yes, the truth was that she would be going with them the whole way. But again, I wasn’t supposed to know any of this yet, so they carried on with the charade. 

Sitting up on my bed, I focused on her and offered a faint smile. “Maybe a little bit, but they say a little brooding now and then is pretty healthy.” 

Izzy raised an eyebrow while moving to sit on one of my nearby heavily-padded footstools. “Who says that?” 

My hand waved dismissively. “Oh, you know. They would’ve introduced themselves, but they were too busy brooding.” With a wink, I pushed myself up. “I’m okay. Sorry, I was just thinking about how long they’re going to keep me in the dark. Or, uhh, think they’re keeping me in the dark. About you, I mean. Have they said anything to you about talking to me?” 

After a brief hesitation, Izzy offered, “Yeah, they did. I mean, they said we should tell you what–um, about my extracurriculars when the time is right. They just, you know, haven’t exactly said when that time is. But your mom brought it up this afternoon. She asked how I would feel if you knew the truth and if I would be comfortable with it. I told her I was okay with telling you and she said to wait a little bit longer. But I think they plan to bring it up pretty soon. Um, do you think they’ll tell you anything… else?” 

My head shook. “If they tell me about you, it’ll be with you right there too. And it’ll probably be a test run. Think about it, they can see exactly how I’ll react to just the short time of being lied to and having Touched-related secrets kept instead of my whole life. It’s like getting to watch me dip my toes in the water, or just splash around in the shallows before they pull me to the deep end to see if I can swim.”

Taking that in, Izzy blanched. “You’re right, telling you the truth about me is gonna be their test for telling you the truth about themselves. It makes sense.” With a visible grimace, she focused on me. “So, how are you going to react when they tell you? About me, I mean.” 

“Uhhh, really convincing surprise?” I offered, before pantomiming slapping my hands against my face like the kid from Home Alone. 

Snickering, Izzy leaned out to kick my shin. “Maybe you should practice. Or, umm, maybe not?” She frowned, clearly trying to decide which way would be better. But before she could, and before I could say anything else, the intercom chimed and announced that my mother was requesting our presence downstairs so Izzy could head out and I could say goodnight. 

Wow, here went nothing, again. The two of us exchanged looks before getting up. We went down, as soon as I made sure I looked sufficiently ready for bed. I had changed into sweatpants and a tee-shirt that hopefully sold the idea that I would be falling asleep shortly after they left. The very last thing I wanted my parents to be doing that night was wondering what I was up to. Which, of course, made me feel like a little kid who was pretending to be sick or something. Only with much higher stakes than being forced to take a math test or something, in this case.  

My parents, of course, looked amazing. They were all dressed up to attend the event, my father in a dashing suit and my mother wearing an elegant gown. Standing in front of them in my bed clothes made the difference between us even more apparent. I would clearly never look the way my mother did in a dress. She was all… perfect, filling the gown out in all the right places, with long dark hair that curled slightly in a way that I could never have gotten mine to do. She was just… she was Elena Evans, a beautiful woman who had appeared on many magazine covers. 

Me? I was Cassidy. No one would ever look at me the way they looked at my mother. Not even if I dressed up the way she was, let alone while I was wearing sweats and a tee-shirt. I almost felt as though my parents should be offended that I was in the same room as them. I certainly didn’t belong there. 

Mom, however, opened her arms and pulled me into a full embrace. I felt her squeeze tight, her voice a tender murmur, “I love you, my principessa. You are everything you need to be.” 

Dad took his turn then, embracing me even more tightly before lifting me off the floor. “We probably won’t be back until after midnight, so don’t wait up. Maybe we’ll go do something fun tomorrow.” 

“Can’t wait,” I made myself say as he set me down. Stepping back, I waved. “Have a good time.” To Izzy, I added, “While you’re at the library, if you see this old lady with white hair that’s pulled back in a bun, and these big glasses with gold rims, don’t tell her you know me. I’m pretty sure she’s still holding a grudge from that whole sledding incident. Which is totally unfair, because that was like five years ago. Ancient history.” 

“Sledding?” Izzy blinked at me. “How do you annoy a librarian by sledding?” 

“When you do it inside the library,” Dad put in. Despite his put-upon sigh, he failed to hide all of his amusement. 

I offered a shrug. “Hey, those stairs were perfect for it. Four stories of steps? Come on. Besides, Noel double-dog dared me. What was I supposed to do, say no?” 

From the look my mother was giving me, saying no was exactly what I was supposed to do. But she didn’t say anything, instead settling on reaching out to gently squeeze my shoulder. “We will be home later tonight. You look very tired. Get some sleep, my beautiful girl.” 

With that, she released me and they all turned to head out. I waved once more, then pivoted and headed back upstairs, moving casually past a couple maids on their way down. As they passed, I smiled and nodded, acting as though I had nothing more interesting to do with my night.  

The facade dropped as soon as I was back in my room with the door shut behind me. Immediately, the mask of casual, bored innocence vanished from my face as I ran to the nearby sliding door and opened it to carefully peek outside. In the distance, I could hear the car engine start up, before a dark SUV with heavily tinted windows pulled into view on its way down the long driveway. There they went. Even now, Izzy was probably in the rear-most row of seats with the divider up so she could change into the costume that had been sitting there waiting for her. Meanwhile, my parents would be sitting in the middle, having a glass of wine while chatting to each other. Would they talk about Ministry business? With the divider up, Izzy wouldn’t be able to hear them, so it was possible. At the very least, I was sure the gang war was giving them plenty to talk about. And plenty of fires for the Ministry to deal with. They had to be allowing the conflict to continue and even escalate the way it was, but I had no idea how far they were willing to let it go. Or how bad it would get before they shut it down. 

Shaking those thoughts off, I moved to lock my bedroom door. Setting the computer to let people know I was asleep, I used purple paint to move the mirror out of the way in my closet, pulled the bag with my costume out, and went back to the balcony. There, I slung the bag over my shoulder, made sure the coast was clear and the cameras weren’t watching, then used red paint to zip my way to the wall. After one more quick glance around, I dropped to the other side and began to sprint through the wilderness at a diagonal toward the road. Once I was clear, I would call for a ride and head over to meet up with Alloy. And then? Well, then we would head for the same party that my parents were going to. 

Suddenly, this was seeming more and more like a bad idea. But what was I supposed to do, tell Peyton we couldn’t go because I was afraid my parents would recognize me? Besides, I’d gotten through a much closer dinner back at Caishen’s place when the Chambers and my parents had been there, without giving anything away. I could totally get through a much larger gathering. With all the other Touched there, I doubted anyone would even pay attention to me. 

Right, good thing I had some time before meeting up with Peyton. Because I was going to need every second to convince myself I wasn’t full of shit. 

*******

Showing up just outside Wren’s, I found Murphy, Roald, and Peyton out in the alley behind the shop. The other two hadn’t bothered to change out of their funeral clothes, though they were pretty dirty by that point. It looked like Murphy in particular had gone mud-sliding in hers or something. She was standing with her back to the nearby dumpster, bouncing a ball off the ground, then the wall, then back into her hand. When I dropped into view, she looked up, her eyes a bit bloodshot, voice audibly strained. “How’s it going, Boss? Heard you dropped by.” 

“I–” My voice caught a bit, before I managed a weak, “Yeah, I wanted to–I mean I thought I should–fuck. I’m sorry. I wanted to watch and be there, even if it didn’t really matter.” 

“It mattered,” Murphy informed me, her own voice cracking slightly. “Believe me, it mattered.” It looked like she was about to say something else, but in the end, she just closed her mouth tightly, gripped the ball, and looked away. 

Roald spoke instead, standing nearer to the shop door with a phone in one hand. “We were just wishing Alloy good luck at that dinner thing tonight. Sounds like it’s gonna be a real… umm, something.” 

Grimacing despite myself, I nodded emphatically. “Oh, it’s bound to be a real something, that’s for sure. Probably a bunch of rich people standing around, patting each other on the back, throwing some money around like it’s water, and giving speeches that last way too long.” 

Alloy snorted, “Listen to him, talking like he’s been to sooo many of these things.” She gave me a look. “Admit it, you’re interested in seeing how this whole thing goes too.” 

Well, at least my cover was intact. Forcing myself to sound casual, I replied, “I have a feeling we’ll be pretty bored before the night is over.” 

“By which,” Murphy put in while turning back to face me once more, “he means he really hopes he’s bored. Because the alternative is that something went wrong again and everything is on fire.” She offered a weak smile by the end of that, before immediately ducking her gaze once more with a guilty look as thoughts of her brother clearly intruded. 

“Come on,” I spoke up, gesturing toward the door. “Let’s go inside for a few minutes. You can tell us about Tyson.” 

“What?” She blinked at that, confused and uncertain. “You don’t want to hear me talk about my brother again. You’ve got that party to go to.” 

“And we will, later,” I confirmed. “But we’ve got some time right now. I’m not in a rush, believe me. That dinner will still be there later. And yes, I do want to hear you talk about your brother again.” But far more importantly, she needed to talk about him. That much was obvious. 

Giving me a long, appraising look, Murphy finally shook her head and muttered, “You’re a really weird kid, you know that?”  

With a quick, easy nod, I agreed, “People have said that now and then. Now come on. Roald, you still got those cards you’ve been playing with at the tunnel?” 

“Uhh, yeah?” He dug in his pocket to come out with the worn deck. 

“Great.” Giving him a thumbs up, I waved with the other hand for everyone to go inside. “Then let’s get in there and see if Wren wants to play. 

“If we’re going to be a dangerous influence, we might as well teach her poker while we’re at it.” 

*******

We did not have to teach Wren poker. Not only did the kid already know how to play, she cleaned our clocks. 

Honestly, I should have realized something was up as soon as Fred had a coughing fit when I brought up the idea of teaching her how to play. At the time, I’d thought that he was just stopping himself from objecting. But no, now I realized he had definitely been laughing. 

It was still worth it though. For about forty minutes, we’d sat around the table in the shop and played cards while letting Murphy tell stories about Tyson. There were good stories, bad stories, sad ones, and ones that made even Murphy laugh. At least, until she cried again. 

Wren had clearly won the games. But I was pretty sure Murphy had won a good bit too, just from being there. She had needed that far more than Peyton and I needed to get to the party. 

Still, we did need to make an appearance. So the two of us eventually said our goodbyes, left the others to play without us, and headed out together. 

Once outside, we made our way to the nearby roof and I used the handy dandy GPS mapping function that Wren had included in my helmet to tell me which way to go to the place the Seraphs were using for this whole party thing. They weren’t having it on Seraph grounds, but rather at a large convention center a mile or so away from there. I wasn’t sure exactly why, unless it had to do with the size of the crowd or something. Which itself was pretty odd. This was just a thing for rich people, right? How many rich people could there be? 

Either way, it was bound to be incredibly well-protected. But then again, the mayor’s fundraiser event across from the children’s hospital had been well-protected too, and look how that went. 

“You think something bad is gonna happen tonight?” Peyton asked, as we stood on the edge of that roof. 

“Okay, one, you are entirely too good at reading my emotions considering you can’t see my face,” I informed her with a look. 

“Body language, Boss,” she replied easily, shrugging. “I can’t help it if you’re basically an open book.” 

Snorting despite myself, I waved a hand. “That’s me, open book. Uh, anyway, two, I want us to be prepared in case it does. I don’t think anyone in any of the main gangs will try anything at an event that’s gonna have that many Star-Touched and other armed people around, but I wouldn’t put it past the Scions to try something just to lash out at people for…” 

“For what we did,” the other girl finished for me, her voice flat. 

Wincing a little, I put a hand out to touch her arm. “We did the right thing.” Yet even as I said that, I felt a pang of guilt. Jolene Iverson had been murdered specifically because she reported on the information we exposed. Right thing or not, if we hadn’t exposed Pencil and Cup’s true identities, she would still be alive. 

Yes, they would have killed people anyway, and exposing their identities was a real step toward catching them… maybe. It was the right thing to do. And yet…

And yet the pain in my stomach whenever I thought about Jolene Iverson and the people who had cared about her still remained.

Staring at me through that moment of silent introspection, Peyton quietly murmured, “Yup, definitely an open book.” It was her turn to reach out to squeeze my arm then. “I… for some reason I always forget I’m sort of the older one here. It doesn’t seem like it. You’re just so–” Cutting herself off, she sighed. “I’m sorry you have to be the mature one.” 

Oh boy was there ever a lot I wanted to say to that. Instead, I forced all of it down and simply turned to look at her once more. “I’m just glad I have people to talk to now. And someone to go with me to this party.” 

“Changing the subject?” she asked, as the extra marbles turned into question marks around her head. 

“Yup,” I confirmed. “Did it work?” 

With a quiet chuckle, Peyton gestured. “Sure. We uhh, we can talk about that later.” 

Giving her a thumbs up, I turned back to the edge of the roof. “Great, for now let’s go party. I don’t know about you, but I am starving. And if something does happen, I’d like to deal with it after eating.” 

“Didn’t you say the food thing is supposed to come after all the boring speeches?” she pointed out. “You know, as the last possible thing.” 

“Oh my God, you’re right,” I agreed. “We’re doomed.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-07 (Summus Proelium)

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The drive out of that place honestly wasn’t that long, though it seemed like forever. I kept having to resist the urge to look around too much. It felt like there were eyes on us constantly. Which, to be fair, there certainly were. The plants were all spies. Which was a really creepy thing to think about whenever I happened to glance at the various bushes and trees. Any of them could have been watching and listening, all the time. To say nothing of the animals, which I was pretty sure were also spies. Yeah, I had no idea how the people in here lived like this, because it was freaking me out just being there for a few minutes.  

Dad, of course, didn’t seem bothered at all. He had turned around in the seat and was asking Izzy what she thought about her new friend. Not enough to seem overly pushy or anything, but he was definitely curious about all that. Izzy, for her part, simply said that he was nice and that he’d done a lot of work on their project. Belatedly, she added that his sister was ‘intense.’ I had to bite my lip hard to avoid giving a response to that. 

Judging from the quick look that Dad gave me, I hadn’t entirely suppressed the reaction. He chuckled very faintly before giving a short nod. “Yes, I suppose intense is one word for it. And hey, I can tell you this much, from what I saw of that project of yours…” He whistled low. “That’s A-plus work right there. Really well put together, and with some nice sources. If that school isn’t careful, I might just hire the both of you right now and put you to work as research interns in one of the firms.” 

“Don’t let him make you interns,” I put in immediately. “Tell him it’s associate or no deal. Wait, no, tell him executive and then let him negotiate you down to associate.” 

“Awww.” Dad gave me a proud look. “You have been listening to your old man.” 

Forcing the lump away that tried to form in my throat, I offered a shrug. “Yeah, well, sometimes you talk louder than the television and it’s hard to tune you out.”

Dad, in turn, offered me a beaming smile, hand reaching out to squeeze my shoulder. “That’s one of my best strategies! Talk too loud for the other person to ignore. You girls should write that down, it’s a good one.” 

There were a few things I wanted to say, involving him making offers someone else couldn’t refuse, but I bit my lip and held back. That was a rabbit hole that I really didn’t want to start going down. Instead, I shifted the conversation to asking about how their trip went. Not enough to seem like I was actually fishing for real information or anything, but not asking anything about it at all would also have been suspicious. So I pushed just a little bit, as though I was slightly jealous about being left behind. Or just trying to angle for presents or a different trip sometime. 

Unsurprisingly, my dad didn’t tell me what they were really doing. He just played it off as another boring old business trip and kept changing the subject over to talking about things we had done while they were gone. Of course, we couldn’t tell him most of it, so we were all lying to each other. Though at least, hopefully, only one side actually knew that. 

On Dad’s suggestion, we stopped for some exotic ice cream on the way back. It was a new place that had apparently been getting a lot of good reviews. The guy behind the counter couldn’t have been much older than me, but he sure knew a lot about ice cream. He talked up the different processes of making it (apparently they did their own fresh on-site), and managed to make it interesting. He was a cute guy too, Asian with longish hair that had this thin green streak in it, and amber eyes. His nametag read Maki. 

In any case, he had a lot of good suggestions for flavors to try, and let us sample several. And the reviews were right, this place was great. Maki was funny, charming, and to top everything off, he could juggle. Yeah, he put on a show right there while we were deciding what flavors to get, casually tossing three pints and the ice cream scoop through the air in a circle. I even took a picture of him in the middle of that. With his permission, naturally. 

Finally, we ended up picking out flavors we all wanted, and also got a couple pints for Mom and Simon as well before heading out. On the way, as we went back to the car, I shook my head. “Wow, I haven’t even heard of that place yet. That thing says they only opened a week and a half ago, how’d you know about them already? You were out of town.” Even as the words slipped out of my mouth, I was regretting the accidental possible push against their cover story. 

Dad, however, simply replied, “From Kent Jackson, actually. He had a lot to say about the place. Apparently his son–oh.” In mid-sentence, he abruptly stopped talking. 

“What?” Blinking that way, I started to reflexively ask what was wrong. Then I realized. I remembered. Tomas had said that he was going on a date with ‘a guy who worked at an ice cream shop.’ “That guy back there, Maki. Tomas is dating him.” 

Dad was wincing. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I completely forgot that was where I heard about this place until you asked. Do you want to take the ice cream back? Or toss it and go get it from somewhere else?” 

Swallowing, I shook my head. “No, no. It’s not the ice cream’s fault. And it’s not Maki’s fault either. And it’s not Tomas’s fault. It’s nobody’s–it’s not–it’s fine. We were already broken up. We didn’t–it’s fine. It’s ice cream. Let’s go eat some ice cream.” Under my breath, I muttered, “I need it now.” 

So, we headed back for the house. And all I could think about the entire way was how differently I would have felt right now if I didn’t know the truth. If I didn’t know what was really going on, I would have a new pseudo-little sister living with me, ice cream, my parents back after a long trip, and I would be driving my dream car. It really would be perfect. Well, aside from the whole ‘getting that ice cream from my ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend’ thing, but even that wasn’t horrible. Hell, if that was the worst thing about today, it would’ve been pretty good. A pretty good day. And that was exactly what my father thought he was giving me. Because he had missed me and was trying to do something fun. He was trying to make me happy. 

He was a good dad. A good dad who did some really terrible other things. Even evil things. But that was what made this whole thing so hard. It was what made it so confusing. Well, that and the fact that the Ministry obviously did some actual good things as well. Like Peyton had said, there were positives to them. But there were a hell of a lot of negatives too. Like, for example, everything about last night. Yeah, they let the man who murdered Murphy’s brother (and several others) just get away because he paid them. That was… bad. Really bad. 

It was all so complicated, frustratingly so. But at least I had people who knew enough to help me right now. We were going to build that tunnel and get into the secret base. We would find everything we could about the Ministry’s business and figure out where to go from there. We just… had to be careful about it. And obviously try to make sure that they didn’t realize it was us doing it. That was going to be the real hard part, and something that would take a lot of time and planning.

But for now, I had to make sure my family didn’t get suspicious about anything. Which meant playing my role as the clueless daughter (and little sister) who didn’t know a damn thing about what was going on. So, as I parked the car in the garage, I put my game face on and gave Dad a sly look. “See how safe that was? In a couple more months, when I get my licence, you won’t have anything to worry about.” 

Dad, in turn, snorted. “Yeah, kid, I’m sure you’ll always drive exactly the same way you do when I’m literally sitting right next to you. Actually, you should keep that in mind. Whenever you’re out there, assuming that day ever comes, just pretend that I’m sitting right here in this seat. And you know, obviously that means you can’t have anyone else sitting here. I don’t like to share seats.” 

Snorting despite myself, I made a point of rolling my eyes at him before getting out. Then I tossed him the keys. “Believe it or not, I’m not going to make a habit of pretending my father is sitting in the car with me no matter where I go. And I’m sure as hell not going to tell my friends that they can’t sit in the front seat because my imaginary father has dibs.” 

Making a show of huffing as though offended, Dad retorted, “I don’t see why not. I’m cool. I’m hip. Your friends would be lucky to have me grace them with my presence on a trip to the juice bar.” He winked then, before laughing at my expression. “Isn’t that right, Izzy?” 

She had just gotten out of the car herself, managing a quick, “Sure, juice bar, dads sitting in the front seat of cars, imaginary something or other.” She was pretending to be very engrossed in her phone, which made a pretty convenient distraction. 

The three of us grabbed the bags of ice cream pints and headed inside. I had only just made it through the door from the garage into the long hall (it served as a buffer to keep noise and fumes from the cars from getting into any useful rooms) beyond, when my mother seemed to materialize out of nowhere, blurting my name. The next thing I knew, she had pulled me into a tight embrace. It took me a second to stop myself from freezing up, but I managed to return it. God, my mom. I had missed her so much. My dad too. Both of them. Seeing them, hugging them, hearing them, just being with them reminded me how much I loved them despite everything. Soon, I found myself clinging to her even more tightly than I intended. Sure, the revulsion of what happened last night still rolled through my stomach, but I couldn’t help my reaction to actually being around them again after they had been gone. 

“Mom,” I managed, my voice cracking just a little bit. Which just made my stomach flip over even more. I almost hated myself at that moment. I thought about what Murphy was going through and quickly released my mother before stepping back. It was all I could do not to turn around and run right back out of the house, through the garage, and just keep going. And boy would that have been fun to try to explain later. Yet, despite knowing just what a bad idea that was, it was still so tempting. And it wasn’t all because of what they had done, or what they helped do. A large part of my sudden rush of revulsion was at my own reaction to them. I missed them so much, seeing my mother like this made me so happy that I immediately felt like I was betraying my friends, like I was betraying Murphy. I was–it was–fuck. 

Mom, however, didn’t know anything about that. I wiped it off my face by the time she smiled down at me, hands on my shoulders. “My dear, sweet Principessa. I’m so happy to be home now. That was far too long to be away.” 

Somehow, I managed to stop myself from asking how long it would be if they went to prison for all the stuff they had helped do. Not that I wasn’t tempted. Forcing that thought away as well, I instead asked, “Does this mean that you’re not going away again for a while?” 

“Oh, Princess.” Smiling fondly, my mother tugged me into another embrace. “I certainly hope not. That was more than enough for me.” 

“Me too,” Dad put in, as he and Izzy came through the door. It certainly didn’t take that long for them to cross the last few feet in the garage, so they had obviously stayed back to give me a moment with Mom. Which, of course, had left Izzy alone with my father. I briefly wondered how she felt about that, which just made my stomach clench yet again. God, this whole situation from her point of view was probably just as bad as it was from mine, if not worse. 

Meanwhile, Mom was already stepping over to take Izzy’s hands, squeezing them with a fond smile before pulling the girl into an embrace too. Her voice was a gentle murmur. “Izzy, my dear, I missed you as well. I hope the staff treated you properly. How are you?” 

Looking slightly overwhelmed (which was understandable, even from my parents’ point of view), Izzy took a second to find her voice. “Thank you, ma’am. Um, Mrs. Evans. I’m okay.” 

“More than okay, I hope, since we brought ice cream.” Dad held up the bags in question, gesturing. “Now come on, let’s get to the kitchen so we can eat this before it melts all over the place and make a mess. You really don’t want to make Olivia find someone to clean up melted ice cream off the carpet at four in the afternoon.” 

Mom, of course, had a few (mostly teasing) words for Dad bringing home ice cream a couple hours before dinner. But she didn’t put a stop to it, which is what really told me just how much they had missed us. Any other time, she would have told him to put it in the freezer until later. 

In the dining room, we had just started to set the ice cream containers out on the table when another voice spoke up from the opposite doorway. “Well, if it isn’t the tiniest stranger.” 

Simon. Hearing his voice, I really had to stop myself from visibly flinching. After the fight we’d had the night before, it was hard not to jump or recoil a bit. Not that he knew anything about that. He had no way of knowing about the wave of revulsion and anger that swept through me as I thought about him actually fighting to help the man who had murdered Murphy’s brother escape. He certainly had no way of knowing that I was the one he had been fighting against to do that. And, just like Mom and Dad, he couldn’t find out or realize.

So, just as I had been doing this whole time, I shoved down my immediate reaction and turned to face him. “Oh great, they brought you back too?” My voice cracked just a little bit, but I hoped he didn’t notice. “I hope you at least had the decency to bring me a present.” 

“Sure did, the gift of my presence.” With a broad smirk, he waggled his eyebrows at me. “Get it? Gift of presence? Pres–” He grunted as I kicked him in the shin. Which, after last night, I knew for a fact he let me get away with. If he had wanted to, he could catch my foot and put me on my back without even thinking about it. 

“Now, no fighting,” Mom chided. “Come and take your seats for early dessert.” She said that with a look at my father that made it clear this was a special thing and he shouldn’t think it was okay all of the time. 

Of course, once we were all eating, Izzy and I both had to talk even more about the stuff we’d been doing while they were away. And, as far as that went, I was proud to find that we managed to make our answers sufficiently boring enough to make Simon feign falling asleep (of course, prompting Mom to give him a sharp poke). But the point was, he wasn’t suspicious. None of them were. We kept it boring without being obvious about hiding things. And pushed slightly for information about how their trip went without being obvious about trying to catch them in any lies. 

And we had decent ice cream. Okay, very good ice cream. Remarkably good. My ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend’s ice cream shop was amazing. That was the cherry on top of the whole night. Also my ice cream had cherries in it. 

In any case, we hung out for the rest of the evening like that. Dad suggested a movie in the theater, so we went there and watched this comedy western thing before dinner, which we had about an hour later than usual thanks to the whole ice cream thing. Then Mom wanted to do something together, so we played a board game in one of the dens. All of us, my parents, Simon, Izzy, and me. It was all so weirdly normal and casual. Mom and Dad acted like… Mom and Dad. Simon was Simon. We played several games, I accused my brother of cheating, jumped on his back, Mom told us to settle down, Dad laughed, we all laughed. 

And then Izzy and I went upstairs, and the second the door of my bedroom closed behind us, the smile wiped itself off my face like someone had flipped a switch. I slumped back against the door, eyes closing for a moment as I let out a long breath and let the stress of pretending everything was fine throughout the entire evening slide out of me. 

When my eyes opened once more, Izzy was standing a few feet away, watching me a bit pensively as she quietly asked, “Are you okay?” 

“Not much worse than usual,” I replied quietly before shaking my head. “I mean, wow. That was hard.” Swallowing, I moved away from the door while continuing. “I sort of… forgot what it was like to be face to face with them, knowing all these things. And after last night… after Simon–” Cutting myself off, I put my hands against my face and gave a slight shudder. “Sorry, I’m okay. I’m… I’m okay. I–” 

The next thing I knew, Izzy took both of my arms and gently pulled my hands down from my face so she could look at me. Her voice was gentle. “It’s okay… to not be okay.” 

Unable to find my voice for a moment, I settled on simply taking a small step that way and embracing her. She returned it, and we stood there like that for a few seconds before I managed a weak, “Thanks. You being here means a lot.” 

Eventually, she released me and asked, “Are you going out tonight?” 

I thought about it, but shook my head. “No, after last night, I need some extra sleep to catch up. Besides, Roald and Murphy are gonna need a couple days before they do anything else. Preferably more than that, but I don’t know how long we can stop Murphy from trying to go off to do something on her own. I need to talk to Paige and Raige about that whole Irelyn thing, but that can wait. I’m just gonna crash and try to turn everything off for awhile. I’m pretty sure there’ll be plenty to do soon enough anyway.” 

With a nod of agreement, Izzy headed out. I got ready for bed, ordered the lights to go out, and then laid down. My head was on the pillow and I started to drift off almost immediately, my thoughts winding down. 

And then I sat up. With two words, I ordered the lights to come back on, before sitting there in bed as my mind raced. Pushing myself over to the edge, I grabbed my Touched phone and quickly typed out a message to Amber, along with an attachment. 

Does this look familiar? 

After that, I waited anxiously for what felt like forever (but was really only about thirty seconds) until I saw the notification that she was typing. Soon, the message came back. 

That’s him. That’s him, how did you get that? 

Seeing that, I breathed out and slumped back. I was right. The realization that had struck me just before I was about to fall asleep was correct. I had to let that wash over me for a few seconds. 

Finally, I straightened a bit and typed out two more quick messages for Amber. 

The sex-shifting person you saw is named Maki. They work at an ice cream shop.

Tomas is dating them. 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Kith And Kin 20-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“There’s my baby girl.” With a broad smile as I approached, my father opened his arms before yanking me up into them once I got close enough. He lifted me clear off the ground and hugged me tight. “Now, who said you were allowed to grow so much while we were gone?” he demanded. “I thought I made it clear that you’re supposed to stay exactly the same while I can’t see you.”  

God, some part of me really wished that it was easier to only be disgusted by what my father was really like. It would have made this whole situation less agonizing, if I could stick to just seeing him as the leader of a criminal organization, who hurt and killed people. 

But that was the whole problem. He wasn’t just that. He was my father too. And beyond that, the Ministry had done some good things. It was all so complicated, the whole thing. He was my father and I loved him, just like I loved my brother and my mom. But they were all criminals. They all did bad things, along with some good. They were… it was… complicated. So complicated. Seeing him right now, being embraced by him, just made all those conflicted feelings come rushing back into me even more than ever. Especially after that whole thing with them helping Luciano escape. That was wrong. It was horrible. I had to do something about it. I had to get that piece of shit put in prison where he belonged. And I couldn’t excuse the part that my family had played in helping him escape. And yet… and yet… my father was here. I hadn’t seen him in what felt like forever, even if it hadn’t actually been that long. Despite all the terrible feelings deep in my stomach, I found myself returning the embrace tightly. Which only made me feel even more conflicted about the whole thing. 

Finally, I found my voice while making my head shake. “I didn’t grow at all! It’s only been a couple weeks, you know.” Belatedly, I added in a mutter under my breath, “Besides, you could have left for five years and I wouldn’t have grown at all.”   

“Couple weeks?” Dad gasped as though completely confused by that. “I tell you, it felt like that five years.” With a smile, he set me down and ran his hand through my uneven hair. “Ever decide if you want that to be long or short?” he teased, tugging a bit at the longer side. 

“More fun to be both,” I retorted, poking him in the stomach. “I didn’t know you were going to be here. Let me guess, you drove Jefferson over the edge and he quit to go work for Uber.” 

With a snort at that absurd thought, my father shook his head and turned to open the front passenger side of Royal Thunder. “Actually, I thought we could get some practice in. You’ve got your training license, right?” As he said that, Dad stepped down in the passenger side of the car, leaving… leaving the… the…driver… side…

As that realization slowly filled my head, I gaped, eyes widening. “Wha–you, you mean it?” 

Chuckling with amusement as my reaction, Dad gestured. “Come on then, get in before I change my mind. Let’s see what you can do.” Abruptly, he grimaced before quickly amending, “And by that, I mean let’s see how many rules of the road you can follow while being extremely careful. Speed limits are fine things, but let’s pretend it’s like five miles per hour lower. Or ten. Ten is good too. Hey, parking lots are fun, how about we do circles around one of those?”

“Too late!” I chirped, dashing around the front of the car to jump in the driver’s side. Once there, I found that my father had already arranged the seat to be higher and more forward, specifically ready for me to use. The pedals had also been extended a bit forward so I could reach them more easily. Finding all that, I turned a bit to stare at my dad.

He, in turn, winked. “Well? You’ve been going on about wanting to drive for so long. Let’s see what you can do. I need to figure out if I can put you to work once you get that real license.” 

Despite myself, despite everything, I leaned over and gave him a side-hug. Then I started the car, checked everything over, and pulled away from the curb after making sure the road was clear. I didn’t peel out or anything, tempting as it was with the power of the machine I was controlling. I kept myself under control and brought it up to just under the speed limit as we cruised out to the regular street to join up with traffic. 

Dad watched me the whole time, his head shaking with disbelief. “I can’t believe you’ll be seventeen in under a year.” His voice was a thoughtful murmur. “You were only nine a couple years ago, weren’t you? Where’d the time go?” 

Snorting, I carefully took a right turn at the light. “Yeah, and a couple years ago, you were only thirty.” 

Making a strangled noise in the back of his throat, Dad retorted, “Just how old do you think I am, kid?” 

Pretending to think about that for a few seconds while drumming my fingers along the steering wheel, I offered, “I dunno, fifty-seven?” 

“Fifty-se–” That strangled sound was back as my father choked, giving me a look. “Okay, you know what, maybe you can wait another ten years before driving.” 

A laugh escaped me. Which just made the whole situation worse. God, it was so easy to fall into this routine, so incredibly easy to forget the truth, even for just a few minutes. Yet in the back of my head, I couldn’t completely stop thinking about what Murphy and Roald were doing right now, and how their lack of justice was in large part the fault of my family. 

Clearly noticing the way my expression changed, Dad reached out to touch the side of my face while we were waiting at the red light. His voice was concerned. “Hey, what’s wrong? Did something happen? Whatever it is, you know you can talk about it.” 

Oh God, if only that was true. For just a split-second, I seriously imagined what would happen if I actually told him everything. How crazy would it be if I just unloaded the whole thing and told my father everything I knew and everything I thought about what they really did? What if I actually told him about how their bullshit allowed the murderer of my friend’s brother to escape? How would he react? Would he be ashamed? Would he offer to fix it? Would he apologize? Or would he just find a way to excuse it? Would he simply erase my memory again? How would he really react? I was so tempted, in that brief moment, to actually go through with it and see what happened. Maybe it was partially because of just how upset I was about the Murphy situation in general. Or maybe it was because of the actual fight I’d had with Simon the night before. Or because they’d been gone for awhile and this was my first time being close to my dad in a couple weeks. Either way, whatever the reason, the words were right on the tip of my tongue.  

And yet, I suppressed the urge and simply shook my head while looking at him. “I just missed you,” I found myself easily lying straight to his face, even as my stomach turned itself into knots. “Did you guys finish your business, or are you leaving again?” There, it was easy to make it look and sound as though the reaction he had seen was about being upset that they had been gone. Manipulative, yes. But I had to give him some legitimate explanation for the look he had seen, so he didn’t wonder about it too much. Because the last thing I needed was my father to spend too much time wondering about what I was doing and why I might be upset about something.

Thankfully, it seemed to work. Dad gave a low sigh and reached over to brush my hair fondly. “We’re back for awhile now, I promise. Pretty sure your mom will kill me if we have any more business interruptions anytime soon.”  

Again, I was tempted to say several things to that. Thankfully, the light turning green distracted me, and I was able to shove those impulses down along with pushing my foot against the accelerator. As the car pulled away, I found my voice. “Maybe she’d just maim you a little bit.” 

Dad, in turn, chuckled once more. “Oh sure, maiming sounds better.” Shaking his head, he focused on giving me driving advice for the next thirty minutes or so, telling me where to turn and asking how I felt about freeway driving, parallel parking, downtown traffic, and more. Through it all, I pushed aside my troubled thoughts about the whole situation and tried to focus on just being there in the moment. But the whole time, a voice in the back of my head wouldn’t stop talking about how I was betraying my friends by not confronting my father about what happened, even though I knew it wouldn’t actually help anything if I did. It would, almost certainly, make everything worse. So, I shoved the impulse down and lost myself in the driving lesson. 

Eventually, we stopped to pick up Izzy, who had stayed after to work on some project. As I brought the car to a halt in front of the school, she approached alongside a boy who looked familiar. He was blond and scrawny, with messy hair and glasses. Where had I–oh! 

Yeah, the realization of where I had seen the boy before came to me even as Izzy spoke up. “Uh, is it okay if we give Errol a ride home? His sister… didn’t want to wait.” 

Right, his sister. Arleigh Fosters. Somehow, the fact that she refused to wait around to give her little brother a ride home didn’t exactly surprise me. And I was pretty sure Izzy was giving a sanitized, polite version of her likely reaction to being asked. 

Dad gestured. “Sure thing, as long as you don’t mind getting a lift from the speed demon over here. Why don’t you guys both hop in the back? How’s it going, Errol? How’s your dad?” 

Oh right, Errol’s (and by extension, Arleigh’s) dad was another rich businessman. Specifically, he owned a pretty big stake in that Taurus Touched-Tech shipping company. Not as much as my parents did, but still quite a bit. Enough that my parents did have the occasional meeting with him. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure we had even had Arleigh over to the house once or twice years back. It would have been while I was still in first or second grade, so I barely remembered it, but I was pretty sure she had been there. 

Gee maybe we were best friends too and then my parents erased that. 

While I was thinking about that, Errol gave some light remark about how his dad was fine, then he and Izzy started to talk some more about their project. I tuned them out after a minute and focused on driving. Despite everything I already knew about my family, I bizarrely didn’t want to disappoint my father with my skills. My father killed people and ran a Mafia-like organization to control all crime in the city, and I was worried about him thinking I was a bad driver. How absurd was that? 

Whatever it was, I drove carefully (but not too carefully) back out to the main street before asking Errol to remind me of where he lived. He, in turn, tried to demur by telling me that I could drop him off at a nearby library and he would take the bus. 

“Nonsense,” Dad objected. “It’ll be just fine, Errol. We’ll drop you off right at your house. Believe me, nobody’s going to try anything.” 

Well, that was confusing. Looking over at my father and then to the back seat while we were at a stop sign, I echoed, “Try anything?” 

Errol, in turn, sighed and told me where to take him. Only then did I realize why he’d had that reaction. Apparently, he lived smack in the middle of Sherwood territory. Yeah, no wonder he was a bit nervous about bringing strangers into an area controlled by a bunch of psychotic anti-technology Fell-Touched. Hell, I was certainly curious as to how a family like his could continue to live there, given everything. Their entire business revolved around transporting, repairing, and selling super advanced technology. So how could they afford to live in a place that was literally run by a gang that wanted to destroy technology? Did the gang not really know who they were or what they did? Or… or…

“Yo, Earth to Evans Junior.” Dad’s hand touched my shoulder, making me snap out of what had apparently been an extended moment of staring off at nothing. “Did you forget you’re the one piloting this craft?” 

Flushing a bit, I checked both ways before pulling away from the stop sign. “Right, sorry. One taxi ride home coming right up. We’ll be there in ten minutes.” 

“Fifteen minutes,” Dad corrected me with a raised eyebrow. “We’ll take the scenic route, no need to get on the freeway with our guest.” 

There it was again, the total cognitive disconnect. My father was both one of the biggest superheroes in the entire state, and one of the biggest criminals. And yet, he was worried about me having a fender bender or something while one of his business colleagues’ kids was in the car. Trying to comprehend him in both ways (or rather, all three) was making my brain twist itself into knots. Hell, I wasn’t even sure that thought made any sense at all. It was just words, thoughts about how strange this whole situation was. My dad was a hero, a villain, and my father. He ran a Star-Touched team, helped Fell-Touched do bad things for money, and he was worried about his daughter getting the son of one of his business partners hurt. It was so hard to make all that fit together into one person all at the same time. 

The point was, being around my dad like this was confusing. It made my brain and my stomach hurt. But I pushed all that down and focused on driving. I liked driving. I could lose myself in that for the time being. 

So, that was exactly what I did. For the next fifteen minutes, I focused on driving to the gated community that had once been known as Pinewood Hollow. Now, the graffitied sign at the front had had the Pine part crossed out and had ‘Sher’ put in front of it. Meanwhile, ‘Enter, all ye who are’ was written in front of the Hollow part. 

“Dad, can objects turn into Touched?” I asked, staring that way. 

“I don’t think so, kid, why?” Dad replied, sounding curious. 

I pointed to the sign. “Because whoever made that was obviously some kind of giant anime sword, to have all that edge.” 

Even as I said that, a bird that was sitting on a rock next to the sign gave a sharp caw before flying away, making me jump a bit before silently cursing myself for it. Right, angry birds, spy-plants, wonderful. It was just so welcoming. I definitely couldn’t see any reason why going in here, let alone living here, was a bad idea. 

Dad’s hand found my shoulder once more, squeezing it. He chuckled at what I’d said, even as he reassured me. “It’ll be okay, trust me. We’re not doing anything wrong, just dropping off someone who lives here. You can’t let people like that control everything you do. Don’t be stupid about it, but don’t surrender to them entirely either. They’re not stupid, they’re not going to pick a fight with every car that drives through their territory.” 

Some part of me wondered if this was some sort of test somehow. But I shook that off and gave a distracted nod while pulling the car into official Sherwood territory. 

Nothing happened, of course. It wasn’t like simply entering their area was instantly going to make the whole gang descend on us. Though some part of me wondered what my father would do if there was some sort of confrontation. After all, most of the bad guys had no idea who he really was. Either of his identities, come to think of it. How would he react if some of their people got a little ambitious and tried something? The thought made me just curious enough to almost want it to happen. Part of me was morbidly interested in how he would handle something like that without giving away any of his secrets to the three of us. 

But, of course, it was like he’d said. Nothing happened. No one approached us at all as we drove through the subdivision to the large house that Errol had directed me to. The whole place just looked like any other quiet, fairly upscale neighborhood. 

Except, of course, for all the flora. Seriously, there were exotic plants all over the place. The grass was deep green and cut perfectly on each yard, there were bright, colorful flowers and bushes everywhere (some of them clearly tropical or just rare), the trees were larger and fuller than any other place in the city. It was like driving out of Detroit and into a well-maintained rain forest or something. Say what you would about these guys’ methods, but they kept some pretty homes. 

No. They forced everyone else in this place to keep pretty homes. The correction immediately came to mind, while a knot formed in my stomach once more. Everywhere I looked, all these pretty bushes, tall trees, the vines along some of the houses, even those perfectly manicured lawns, were all reminders that the people who lived here were essentially being occupied by a hostile force that made them do all that. 

Okay, granted, there were worse tortures than being forced to have pretty plants in your yard. But still. The plants also served to help spy on these people. They were all basically cameras and microphones. 

That little tidbit stayed in my head while my father walked Errol into the house, with Izzy following after to be polite. Apparently Dad wanted to visit with Errol’s dad for a few minutes, to talk about something that was going on at Taurus. 

Unless, of course, what he really wanted to talk to the man about was Ministry stuff. That would explain how the family could afford to stay here, surrounded by that gang, right? If they actually were connected to the Ministry, the Sherwood people would be told to leave them alone. And it would explain why my father wasn’t worried about being confronted in this place. Not because they knew who he was, but because they knew Errol and his family were off-limits. That made sense. Plus, of course my family would have Ministry-connected people in the high positions at Taurus. It all fit. 

Also, it was possible that part of me just thought that Arleigh having supervillain connections, even if it wasn’t her fault and she didn’t know about it, made sense. Meanwhile, another part of me chastised myself and said that wasn’t fair to the girl. Even if I didn’t really like her. 

Speaking of whom, while lost in those thoughts, I heard Arleigh’s voice call out my name.  Quickly, I looked that way to see her approaching from the front door of the house. There was someone else with her, a somewhat lanky guy with light, somewhat curly brown hair that was cut fairly short. He wore jeans and a long, green shirt that was unbuttoned over a black tee with a local band’s name on it. 

“Hey there, Cass!” Arleigh cheerfully greeted. Again, like we were best friends. “Cool ride. You get your license after all? Dad pull a few strings?” She added that last bit conspiratorially. 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Just having a practice ride with him, that’s all. Hey Arleigh. And umm…” I looked to the boy. 

“Oh, this is my new college prep tutor.” Arleigh gestured back and forth between us. “Cassidy Evans, this is Ryder Towling. Ryder, this is Cassidy Evans.” 

Offering me a slightly self-conscious smile, the boy extended a hand as he and Arleigh stood by the driver’s side of the car (it was parked in the driveway). “Cassidy Evans, huh?” 

I felt a strange sense of familiarity in that moment, but shook it off and turned to shake his hand. “Yeah, I know, disappointing in the flesh, huh?” 

“Oh don’t be silly!” That was Arleigh, laughing a bit too much. “The last thing you could be is disappointing. Actually, you should come to this party we’re having Friday night. It’s gonna be at Sonya Deckermire’s lakehouse, and I swear to god, they’re gonna have jet skis.” 

“Oh, well, jet skis make that really tempting,” I managed to reply. “I’ll see what’s going on.” Quickly changing the subject, I looked back to Ryder. “College prep tutor?” 

“It’s really not a big deal,” he claimed. “I’m just making sure she’s ready to apply for different schools next year, that she’s got her extracurriculars all worked out, her applications look nice and tidy, that sort of thing.” 

“You should let him help you at some point,” Arleigh noted. “You know, after he gets me all squared away.” That was accompanied by an almost convincing laugh. “You don’t get to steal him until I’m done.” 

“Oh, uh, sure.” Ryder dug in his pockets, coming out with a card, which he handed me. It had his name and a phone number on it, along with a note about what he charged for various tutoring services. 

Tucking it away, I thanked him. Again, there seemed to be something familiar there. But before I could focus on it, my father returned with Izzy. He took a moment to talk to Arleigh and her new tutor, before getting in. As Izzy tucked herself alone into the backseat, Dad gestured. “Home, Jeeves. And you better make it snappy. If your mother doesn’t get to see you in the next few minutes, she might just kill all of us.” 

All thoughts of Arleigh and her tutor left my head as I pulled the car out of the driveway and began to head for the house. Right, time to see my mother. 

And hey, the good news was that my stomach was getting a lot of exercise today with all those jumping jacks it was doing. 

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Kith And Kin 20-05 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a commissioned chapter focusing on a SPHERE forum discussion posted yesterday. If you missed that, you might want to click the previous chapter button above.

By the time I was done with the cops and Pack, there was a message on my phone saying that Murphy and Roald were going to go back to the hospital. People were looking for them anyway, so that was a whole situation they were going to have to deal with. I told them to let me know what was going on and if they needed anything. Not that I would have known how to help, most likely, but still. I just wanted Murphy to know that I’d try if she–if there was–ugh. 

Yeah, I had nothing. The one thing I could do, help find that bastard, wasn’t going to happen right now. No matter how badly I wanted it to. And everything else within Murphy’s personal life was… out of my depth. I had no idea how to help her with any of that. But at least she had Roald, and I was pretty sure she was going to be staying with him and his family. At least, I hoped she was. The thought of her sitting at home alone with–no, that wouldn’t happen. She was a minor. They’d want her to stay with an adult. And Roald’s older sister probably fit that, if she was able to take care of him and their younger sister. Well, for a given definition of ‘take care of,’ given what they’d been doing when we first met. 

But hey, they had money now. I had made sure of that. So they would have food. Somehow, I comforted myself a little bit with that. And then immediately felt so guilty I wanted to scream. Was I patting myself on the back because I gave them money for food, after Murphy’s fucking brother just died? What–why was–I couldn’t… think. Every impulse I had was wrong, every thought that popped into my head immediately made me feel sick, like there was something wrong with me. How was I supposed to help Murphy? What was I supposed to do? 

Home. In the end, that was the only choice. I had to go home. Tomorr–later today was still going to be really big, considering my parents were officially arriving. Which would mean looking my brother in the eyes and pretending I knew nothing about what he had been doing, pretending I didn’t know that he helped a murderer escape. Hell, I was going to have to pretend I hadn’t just been in an actual physical fight with him. 

I was tired. Just the thought of sitting at home and playing nice, pretending to be clueless, was exhausting. Hard as it was to even think about, I was going to have to go home and sleep. 

So, that’s what I did. I made it home and checked on Izzy, only to find that she was still in bed. She’d slept through the whole thing, which was simultaneously completely understandable and yet also bewildering. I honestly had not been out that long, no matter what it felt like. So, I made my way back to my own bed, fell into it, and was asleep again within seconds. Seriously, it was almost immediate. I thought that I would toss and turn for hours, but it was like someone flipped a switch. My head hit the pillow, and I was completely out. The next thing I knew, several hours had passed and my alarm for school was going off. 

Blearily, I reached out and swatted at the thing a couple times before finding my phone to stop the sound. Then I rolled over and sat up, just in time to hear a quick knock at the door before the house computer informed me that it was Izzy. I told her to come in, and she quickly burst through before shutting the door behind her. In a rush, she blurted, “You went out last night?” Accompanying her words was her phone, which she held up in front of me to show me a thread on the SPHERE forums about Paintball being involved in a fight. “Was it–did it have anything to do with those shootings?” 

After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “Sorry, there were all these messages on my phone from Roald, about this whole thing with… with Murphy. Her… her brother died and it was–” Swallowing hard, aware she would see the way I flinched, I pushed on. “It was bad. But I didn’t want to wake you up and I didn’t know it was going to turn into… sorry. I need to talk about it, but not here. Later. Maybe with Amber. I–yeah. I need to talk to you and Amber about some stuff. Can you see if she’s busy? I… need to take a shower.”

“Are you okay?” Izzy’s voice was pensive as she stared at me. 

I nodded quickly. “I’m not hurt or anything. I just–I can’t talk about it right here. I just… can’t.” I couldn’t bring myself to get into that whole discussion in this house. The thought of it made my stomach clench and roll over. 

In the bathroom,  I checked my Touched phone. There are a couple messages from the others. Pack let me know that she was going to call in that favor from Blackjack to keep an eye out for Luciano or anyone associated with him. Then there was a message from Peyton to say that she got Murphy and Roald back to the hospital, and was going home as soon as she saw them leave together with Roald’s sisters. And finally, there was a message from Roald himself, telling me that they had made it home and Murphy was sleeping in his little sister’s room with her. He also asked me to let Wren know that they wouldn’t be there that afternoon. 

Right, yeah, that was another conversation I was going to have to have. I had to tell Wren just why her brand new employees were going to need a little time off. I was pretty sure the story was going to upset her as much as it did me. She really liked them. This was just… unfair. Yes, it was childish to think about it that way, but damn it, it really was unfair! Murphy’s brother deserved to be alive. She deserved to have him back. Luciano deserved to be in prison. This whole situation was fucked up and wrong and my family helped make it happen. 

Needless to say, I went through the shower very quickly. Izzy did the same, before the two of us made our way downstairs and let the kitchen know we didn’t need anything. I didn’t need to say anything to Jefferson, because he was officially focused on doing things for my parents that morning. We were supposed to take a car service anyway. So that was what we did. We just took it a little bit early, heading out to pick up some breakfast before going to the park. The same park where we had met Amber before. And, conveniently, where we would be meeting her again. Izzy had sent a message to the older girl and asked to meet her there while I was in the shower. So at least that was one less time I would have to tell this story. 

She was there waiting for us when we arrived, and I passed a breakfast sandwich to her before plopping myself down on the picnic table, with my feet on the bench. A long, heavy sigh escaped me. The other two stood there and watched silently, giving me a moment to collect myself. Finally, I started to tell them what happened the night before. Without looking up except for once or twice, I went through the whole story, from the moment I woke up to find all the messages on my phone, all the way to falling asleep again after getting home. Getting to the part about Simon helping that piece of shit escape was one of the only times I actually glanced up, only to find their expressions basically unreadable. My gaze found the grass once more as I went on. 

“Anyway, that’s all of it,” I finished after swallowing the hard lump in my throat once it was done. “Now they know… more of the truth. They know about the Ministry, and they’re going to help break into that base so we can find out where they sent Luciano.” My gaze rose once more to look at both of them intently for the first time, as I continued. “We’re going to track him down. Wherever they sent him, we’re going to find him and drag him back. He belongs in prison.”  

With a nod, Amber pushed her way to her feet and put both hands against the side of her head. “God damn it, that poor girl. That poor–god damn it.” She gave me a look then, frowning. “Just how much fucking money did that guy give your parents to make them give him a pass on killing several people? I mean, don’t they have enough already? I kind of doubt some nobody lowlife drug dealer could pull together the sort of funds to even pay your family’s gardening bills for a week.” With a long, heavy sigh, she waved both hands. “I mean, sorry, I just–”  

“No, it’s fair,” I replied flatly. “I don’t know. Seriously, I have no idea. It might just be part of maintaining their, you know, reputation or whatever. If it gets out that this guy paid his taxes and they still left him high and dry, it could wreck the whole system.” Realizing how that could be taken, I quickly added, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending it or anything. I’m just saying, that could be an explanation for why they’d go to bat for him even when his payments don’t really amount to that much in the long run. If they start picking and choosing whose payments actually buy them what they’re paying for, the whole system can fall apart. I mean, I want the system to–” My eyes closed and I shook my head. “You know what I mean.” It was really hard to talk about this from my parents’ point of view without sounding like I was agreeing with them. 

Izzy, who had been sitting on the bench, rose to her feet and looked over toward the nearby road while speaking thoughtfully. “You’re right, that’s how they would see it, probably.” She folded her arms against her stomach, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “They’re probably not looking at it the same way we do. Not even close. They don’t know any of the people he shot. They don’t… it’s not… it’s just numbers for them, you know? It doesn’t affect them. Not really.” 

“That doesn’t make it better,” I pointed out. “Actually, it makes it worse.” Pushing down the rolling nausea in my stomach, I made myself continue. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure he’s not exactly a top priority client for them. So, they probably don’t go completely nuclear if something happens to him. Actually, they’ll probably be more upset about their base being broken into than they are about someone bringing him in. But even so–” 

“They’ll probably make the connection,” Amber finished for me. “The whole point is we don’t want them to know that any of us were involved in that break-in. And if his files get stolen just before, say, Paintball finds and arrests him…” 

“It could raise a red flag or two,” I agreed dryly. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure they could put that together. So even when we take him down, we’re going to have to be careful about how it happens. Maybe we can do it anonymously or something. And as a part of a whole group of takedowns. You know, get as many files as we can and use them to bring in other people they’ve helped escape.” 

A very slight, somewhat predatory smile crossed Amber’s face. “Now that’s something I could get behind. Grab all the files we can and hit people who think they’re safe and sound. Make this Luciano guy just somewhere in the middle of the list so he doesn’t really stand out.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, that could work, if we do it right. Like you said, we’d have to be anonymous. No flashy power use or anything. Has to look like other people hitting them.”   

Agreeing with that, I added, “It will actually probably be easier to do that with more of us. We just have to be careful to hit hard and fast before getting out of there. We can’t get into some prolonged thing, or it’ll come down to either getting caught or exposing our powers. Which would kind of mess up our ability to pose as other people.” 

“Let’s focus on getting the tunnel made first,” Amber murmured thoughtfully. “Once we’re close to getting in, we can plan out exactly how we’re going to do it.” She gave me a brief glance. “You trust your new friends to help pull that off?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah. They’re definitely not connected to the Ministry at all, that’s for sure. And they’ve got reason to want to stop them. They’re with us.” 

“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean,” the other girl pointed out. “Do you trust them to help without rushing off on their own and getting hurt? They’re not exactly super-experienced.” 

“Hobbes did okay while it was the two of us,” I noted. “I mean, yeah, she was pretty motivated, but still. It looked like she could help even more.” 

Izzy spoke up then. “It’s umm, gonna take some time to make that tunnel. You know, if umm, if we’re going to do it without attracting attention. Even with help. We could probably use that time for practice.” Belatedly, she added, “For everyone, I mean.” 

“Right,” I confirmed, “We’ll practice as much as we can. I’ll put paint on the inside of our clothes and everyone can work on some drills. We need to hit the guys in that place hard, fast, put them down, grab what we need, and get out. I’ll do multiple sections of paint, and we can have like… a timer or something beep in my ear whenever I need to activate each section. But I’m pretty sure we still need to be in and out within sixty seconds. That’s six sections of paint boosts. If I do them all ahead of time, it’ll be fine.” 

“Sixty seconds,” Amber agreed. “That should be too fast for your family to get the call and react. We get what we need and get out. We escape through the tunnel and leave them with no idea who any of us are. Maybe we should have a quick way to fill in the tunnel so they can’t follow that easily?” 

Thinking about that, I gave a slow nod. “Yeah, we’ll come up with something. Fill it with water or something. Maybe not water, that’s too close to Raindrop.” I added that bit with a gesture toward Izzy. “We don’t want them thinking about her at all.” 

“Which means I can’t be there,” she pointed out. “I mean, look at me. It’s gonna be hard enough pretending you aren’t Paintball. Me? How are they gonna believe someone this small is some big commando thief? Even in black with a mask, I’d stand out.”

“We’ll all stand out,” Amber replied pointedly. “But yeah, maybe it’s best if you work behind the scenes. Cover our backs, work on sealing the tunnel behind us, something.” 

Coughing, I gestured to my phone for the time. “We’ll work on it. But we should probably get to school. Last thing we want is my parents paying more attention, and they might just do that if they hear about either of us missing classes.” 

A bit more quietly, I added, “Besides, I should probably talk to Tomas about going over to his house at some point, so I can check for anything about that sex-shifter you saw. 

“Cuz God knows, I’m super-excited about that.” 

******

Somehow, I made it through the school day. It wasn’t exactly easy. The whole thing seemed to drag on forever, as though every class took up as much time as the entire day should have. Periodically, I received text updates from Roald, letting me know what was happening on their end. They hadn’t gone to school, of course. They were dealing with the fallout of that whole situation. Apparently Tyson’s funeral was going to happen Saturday. A lot of the details were being taken care of by Roald’s sister, with assistance from a helpful cop who had shown up to investigate the drive-by. Not that there were going to be many people there. Unsurprisingly, Murphy didn’t have a lot of friends or family that would show up. It was basically just a small thing with her and Roald’s family. Which was… completely awful, to be honest. I hadn’t known the guy at all, and obviously he’d had problems, but he deserved to be remembered and mourned. Murphy deserved to have her brother’s life matter to people.

But no, they would have an almost empty funeral and then he would be put in the ground. Apparently they were setting up a donation thing to pay for all that. My first instinct was to throw a bunch of money at it myself. But I would need to be more careful than that. If I just handed them over a bunch of cash without any explanation, it might look a bit suspicious. Even more than my funds already were. Maybe I could anonymously donate? Or make it… I’d figure it out. I would make sure the guy got a decent burial. It was pretty much the least I could do. Especially considering I had failed, thus far, to bring his killer to justice. 

Bring his killer to justice. How stupid did that sound? How naive? Even the thought made me grimace to myself while standing in front of my locker at the end of the day. And yet, that was exactly what I wanted to do. Luciano belonged in prison.  And I was going to make sure he ended up there. No matter how many wheelbarrows of cash he had given my parents. 

“There she is.” Startled out of my thoughts by Tomas’s voice, I turned to see the boy approaching before he leaned against the nearby locker. “You said you wanted to talk about something?” 

Right. I’d mentioned that in passing between classes. Now it was time to actually get into it. Forcing a casual smile, I replied, “Oh, you know, I was just thinking I should come over sometime so you could show me that song you’ve been working on.”

Raising an eyebrow, he asked, “How’d you know I’ve been working on a song?” 

The question made me snort and wave my hand in a vague gesture. “When are you not working on a song, dude? It’s just been a long time since I got to hear you practice.” Slyly, I added, “And, you know, if your mom happens to be there and is anywhere near the kitchen…” 

“Ohhh,” he drawled, “I see how it is. Play to my musician ego to get your foot in the door just so you can see if Mum’s got any pies done.” 

Allowing a guilty flush to cross my face (it wasn’t hard), I coughed. “What can I say, she makes really good pies. Are you really sure she does it all by herself?” 

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” he replied while holding up his hand in a scout’s honor sign. “I’ve watched her in the kitchen. Still can’t do it like she does, but she definitely fixes them all by herself, from scratch. Not a frozen pie or restaurant delivery in sight. You trust me, right?” 

Oh boy. Forcing myself to continue meeting his gaze without flinching or looking away, I shrugged. “I mean, you’re a boy, so I trust you about that far.” 

“Ouch, my wounded soul.” Making a show of staggering backward while clutching his heart, Tomas winked. “Maybe I can pry some more trust out of you by getting pie into your face. You wanna come over today?” 

“Just my mouth is good enough, not the whole face,” I retorted. “And today’s not good. My family just got back from being out of town and all.” I was watching his face to see if he gave anything away. If he even knew anything. “So they’ll want me to be around.” 

With a shrug, Tomas replied, “Oh right, yeah, they were gone, huh? Any idea what they were doing?” 

“Business stuff,” I answered flatly, trying to pretend I didn’t care at all. “Or something. I dunno. Anyway, the point is they’ll be back. Maybe tomorrow.” 

“Oooh, kinda got a date tomorrow.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Tomas looked uncomfortable. “I mean… sorry. It’s just this… guy from an ice cream shop. We started talking and–yeah. We’re just hanging out and… boy, this got weird all of a sudden.” 

Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I shook my head. “No, no, it’s fine. It’s cool. We’ll plan something later. I umm, have fun. On your date, I mean. When it happens. I just–I uhh, I’ve gotta go.” Grabbing my bag, I shut the locker and started to head out. 

Fuck, damn it, why was I so stupid? Why did hearing about Tomas having a date make me feel queasy inside? I didn’t still feel that way about him. Hell, there was still a chance that our entire relationship had been a trick of some kind. I couldn’t–I couldn’t think about that. I had far more important things to focus on. 

Those ‘more important things’ came into clear focus as I left the school and looked to where Jefferson would be. Only he wasn’t there. Instead, Royal Thunder was parked in that spot, with my dad waiting in the driver’s seat and waving to me. 

Oh boy. Time to shove down all my emotions, pretend to be a completely clueless happy little daughter just running to meet the dad she’s been missing, and give literally nothing away about what I was actually thinking. 

If nothing else, maybe I should put in for some extra credit from the drama department. 

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Patreon Snippets 22B (Summus Proelium)

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Elena and Sterling

As the door into the private hotel suite swung open, Elena Evans glanced up from the chair where she was sitting on the other side of the front living room. Two spoken words made the television pause in the middle of a news broadcast, freezing the reporter’s face while she was explaining exactly what had happened to expose the true identities of Pencil and Cup. Or at least, what was publicly known. Elena, however, had a much better source, who was coming in the room at that very moment. And a more pressing concern in that instant.

“Is she alright?” the woman asked, rising from the seat.  

Sterling, closing the door after him, gave her an immediate nod. “Izzy’s fine,” he assured her. “I spoke to her a bit as Silversmith. She’s not hurt or anything. She and Amber played the cavalry for Paintball and that new one, Alloy. Turns out they were smart enough not to all go in at once.” 

Darkly, Elena noted, “Yet not smart enough to pull in more help before investigating something like the Scions.” Taking a breath before letting it out to calm herself, the woman reached down to pick up a glass of wine, taking a sip from it before pursing her lips thoughtfully. “I know we decided it was best to leave the boy alone so long as he does not cause direct problems. But now he has taken Izzy into that sort of situation. However well-meaning he may be, he still helped put her in danger. What would we do if he had put Cassidy in that situation?”

With a grimace, Sterling shook his head. “That’s immaterial, because she would never be in a situation like that. She’s not a part of all this. Which, remember, was intentional. She gets to have a normal life for as long as possible before we involve her.” 

Elena took another sip of the wine while gazing steadily at him. “That’s not the point. If she was pulled into that sort of danger, the very first thing you would do is have a talk with that boy about responsibilities and being careful. And what can happen if he’s not.” She held up the hand that wasn’t holding the wine glass. “I’m not saying go after him too hard. I’m just saying maybe have a chat with him. Make sure he knows just how badly this could have gone and that the next time he has important information that could lead to that sort of danger, he needs to involve others. Adult others, who have the experience and resources to deal with it. And while you’re at it, maybe you should talk to Amber as well. She really should have known to involve someone else as soon as the Scions were mentioned.” 

“You’re right, but I’ll give it a few days,” Sterling replied. “Right now everything that we want to say to them is already playing through their heads. Believe me, I could hear it in their voices. Give it time to calm down a little bit. Let them work their way through all the what-ifs. Then I’ll talk to them and make sure it sticks. If we push too hard, too fast, it will just make them defensive. Let their own imaginations be the bad guys first.” 

With a very small smile, Elena set the glass down and stepped over to wrap her arms around him. “You have learned a lot over the years,” she informed her husband fondly, running her hands up his back. “Is that from running our business, or raising a couple of children?”  

“I think the correct answer is yes,” he replied with a chuckle as his arms closed around her. He held his wife close and rocked back and forth with her for a moment, both of them instinctively moving to the imagined sound of the song that had played during their first dance as a married couple. It was also the first one they had danced to while dating. Their song was “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” by the band Starship. It was their thing, because their first date, all those years ago, had been… rather different. Elena’s father had sent goons after her to find out who she was breaking away to see, and if he had known that it was one of his very own junior accountants, Sterling never would have survived the night. The two of them had been forced to hide out in the attic of some old woman for hours while the men scoured the streets. There had been a television and ancient VCR up there, along with a single video tape, for the original Mannequin film. Thus, that had been their first real date, sitting in an attic, watching a VHS recording of a movie that was already over a decade old at that point on a small television. And it was still one of the best memories either of them had. 

After a few long moments of that, Elena quietly spoke up. “I don’t want anything to happen to Izzy. That girl deserves… she deserves everything. If they’d been taken by those psychopaths…” She trailed off then, though the tension was evident in her body language. 

Sterling, in turn, held her closer. “I’ll talk to them,” he promised in a gentle voice, “and make sure they know that there are people they can call for help in situations like that. If not me, then others. They did call Flea afterward, so there’s already a connection with her. As long as they talk to someone, we should find out.” He leaned back, putting both hands on her shoulders. “She’s okay, Elena. Izzy’s fine. She’s a tough kid, you know that. We both do. She’ll be okay. And if she gets close to Paintball, that’s one more in that we have with the kid when the time comes to actually do something about that whole situation.”

“Izzy’s safety comes first, before any of that,” Elena reminded him pointedly. “She’s been through too much for us to put her in deliberate danger.” 

“No deliberate danger,” Sterling agreed. “She’s too important for that. She and Cassidy both. They’ve been getting closer, you know. Always hanging out together in that game room. Selena said she saw them sleeping together in Cassidy’s bed the other morning.” 

The words made Elena smile. “Good,” she murmured, “I’m glad they’re getting along. Those two…” She exhaled thoughtfully, turning a bit to pick up her wine glass once more. “Perhaps we can tell them the truth together, explain it all to them when the time comes. Izzy is already involved in the… Touched side of things. It won’t be as hard to tell her why our way keeps the situation from spiraling too far out of control. She’s seen how terrible things can be.” 

“Maybe.” With that word, Sterling fell silent, thinking for a moment before his head shook. “Either way, in the meantime, it’s best we encourage those two to be as close as possible. Maybe she’ll be comfortable telling Cassidy about her… extracurricular activities soon.” 

“Perhaps we should encourage that, gently,” Elena noted. “She may confide things with Cassidy then, including any future possible danger. And you know how Cassidy is. 

“If she knows something, she’ll tell us.” 

******

Cup and Pencil

The newscaster’s voice was interrupted mid-speech by the sound of an enraged scream. That was immediately followed by a loud crash as a heavy lamp was hurled into the television, destroying both as the flat screen fell onto its back with a shower of broken glass. 

“Would it make you feel better if we did that to the annoying twat herself?” Pencil asked curiously, as he lounged in a recliner on the other side of the room. It was meant to be a reading corner, as this place had, at one point, been a fairly popular bookstore. But it had been closed for over a year (thanks to the mysterious death of the owner, who had dared to say something annoying), and was only one of several private and secure hideouts that the Scions had set up long ago. Now, most of the books were gone, though the shelves remained. It was on one of those that the television had been placed. 

There was a small apartment area in the back of the building where the former owner had lived, and the Scions had installed a heavy-duty freezer down in the basement. Between what was in there, and the pantry they had been sure to stock up, there were enough supplies in this place for up to ten people to live comfortably for as long as six months, without stepping foot outside. Things weren’t that bad, nowhere near. Most of the Scions’ identities were still secure, and there were always disguises for those who weren’t. But if the time came and they really had to go underground until the heat died off, it wouldn’t be a problem. At least, not as far as being fed went. 

Pivoting to face her brother as she stood, panting from the anger that still filled her even after taking it out on the news broadcast that had been reporting about their identities, Amanda retorted, “The reporter? You know, fun as that would be, since I never liked that sanctimonious cunt, I’ve got a few better targets in mind.”  

“I’m sure you do,” Nick agreed, pushing himself up from his chair. “And yet, I’m afraid they’ll be a little out of our reach for the moment. But don’t worry, I’ll make sure you have a few appetizers as a warm-up while we wait for a good opening. After all, you don’t want to be so angry that you let the poor dears go and die on us too early. You know how disappointed you were after we grabbed your old English teacher and you got too excited. You had two weeks of fun activities planned and then you just cut her throat the second she recognized you. We can do better than that. Work out your frustration on smaller fish. Then, when we have the real deal in front of us, you can have a lot more fun.” 

Stepping over that way, he took his sister’s hands and tugged her close for a long, lingering kiss. “Now, babe, why don’t you tell me exactly what happened, from the top.” He had waited until now, aside from getting the basics so that he would know how bad it was, because he wanted to give her time to calm down slightly. But he didn’t want to wait too long. 

A brief glower crossed the young woman’s face before she caught herself and sighed. “Fine. But I want you to hold me while I do. Otherwise I’ll just get worked up again and break another TV.” 

“We’ve got plenty,” Nick assured her. Still, he tugged the girl with him back over to the recliner and sat down while pulling Amanda onto his lap. “There we go. Now tell Saint Nick all about what you want for Christmas. And what happened back at the apartment.” 

“I want a paring knife and those kids strapped down to a table,” Amanda snarled before shifting against him with another sigh as she pushed on. “As for what happened, we got so fucking close to having those fucking shits. They were right…” She grimaced, forcing her anger down before it got the better of her. With some effort, she pushed through the whole story of what had happened from the moment those three had appeared on her balcony. Nick was quiet and didn’t interrupt, allowing her to go off on just a couple tangents about what she wanted to do before gently squeezing her leg as a reminder to stay on task. 

Once she had finally finished, Nick reached up to brush his hand through her hair gently. His voice was quiet. “Well, you know you really should have called in help immediately, and left with the brats as soon as you had them secure. There’s a reason we had Scions stationed so close.” 

“I know, I know,” the girl sulked. “I should have called in the others and then those other fucks wouldn’t have been able to get out so easily. Maybe we could have held on to at least one of them then.” Her voice was mournful, regretting the loss of that opportunity. “Can you imagine how much fun we’d be having right now with that Paintboy, or his new sidekick? Ooh, imagine sending pieces of her to him. Just think about his face.” A giggle escaped her, as she excited herself with the thought. 

“Such a loss,” Nick agreed. “But we’ll have our moment with them. We just have to be patient.” 

“Buuuut Nick, being patient is boring,” Amanda lamented while curling up against him with her arms around his neck. “You must have plans for something fun we can do, right?” The words came in a quiet, thoroughly distracting purr. 

A slight chuckle escaped him while he leaned back and tilted her chin up so he could kiss her once more. “You know I can’t really deny you things when you use that voice. But we do need to be careful. People know our faces right now, babe. We can’t walk around like we used to. Not yet, anyway. I’ve got some plans for that.”

“Oooh!” Shifting playfully, Amanda ran her fingers up along his cheek. “I knew you’d have something. Tell me, tell me, tell me. I wanna know all about them.” 

“Later,” he promised while catching her hand and squeezing it. “There’s still a few things to take care of. And we need to stay off the radar for a while. Paintball and those other shits get a pass for now. But their moment will come, sooner or later. You’ll get your chance with the paring knife.”

Tugging her over to lay her head back on his shoulder, the man added pointedly. “But in the meantime, why don’t we order delivery?” 

Curious, Amanda asked, “You want food right now?” 

“Actually,” he replied, “I was thinking of sending one of the boys out to grab that reporter. 

“After all, you never liked that sanctimonious cunt.” 

******* 

Melissa (Blackjack’s daughter) 

“There, drill there, use the drill there!” Sitting on the floor in Melissa Abbot’s bed/hospital room, Isaiah Coleman pointed at the screen while gesturing emphatically. In public, the man (who could have been mistaken for a young Lando Calrissian in his late twenties) was known as the Fell-Touched Hardway. But at the moment, he was dressed very casually, simply sitting on a pillow while excitedly blurting, “You can’t miss the chest, it’s got the extra component. We need that to fix the cannon on the ship so we can blow the living fudge out of that pirate lady.” 

In one life, the man was an insurance salesman with a wife and a son who was three years old. In his other life, he was one of the most versatile and effective Touched in the city (his power allowed him to manipulate motion and inertia of both himself and anything within six feet). But right now? Right now he was simply excitedly calling out directions for the room’s other occupant. The person who actually lived here. 

Melissa, meanwhile, clutched the controller in both hands, her gaze intent on the large monitor. Cassidy Inawhile (the stuffed pink crocodile on a skateboard) and Inspector Guillotine (the detective bear in the trenchcoat and deerstalker hat) sat in front of her where she had positioned them. “I know, I know!” she called out, twisting her entire body to the side while rapidly pressing buttons as she fought to deal with the enemies on-screen fast enough to use the drill properly without being interrupted. She was a slender, slight girl, a bit too small for her age of nine thanks to years of growing up while affected by the terrible Rot Bone disease. Though incredibly lucky in the sense that she had survived the disease far longer than anyone else with that level of infection, it had still hurt her growth. She looked more like a seven-year-old than her actual age, and (assuming she continued to survive), that would follow her into the future. She would always be smaller than her peers. Her light brown hair was worn in a loose braid, and the girl was dressed in a set of black sweatpants with gold lightning bolts across them, and a white tank top that had an anthropomorphic blue unicorn strumming an electric guitar. 

“I got it, I got it, I got it…” the girl chanted, her words more hope than declaration. The last enemy on the screen was being a real pain, and if her character died here, they’d have to go through a lot to find their way back to this spot. She bit her lip and hit the dodge button, gasping as a shot came close. “You do it!” she blurted as her finger found the pause. “I can’t, I can’t kill him!” 

“You can,” came the immediate response from Isaiah as he shifted his weight a bit but made no move to actually take the controller. “You’ve got this. That punk’s nothing. Not anymore. You can chew him up and spit him out for breakfast.” 

With a giggle, the girl looked that way. “You spit out your breakfast, Uncle Isaiah? That’s weird.” 

Glancing that way, the man offered her a wink. “It’s possible I mixed my metaphors.” After a brief pause, he asked, “You know what a metaphor is?”  

She, in turn, gave a short nod. “Uh huh. I read a lot,” Melissa murmured while glancing toward the nearby bed. It was a bed she had spent many, many hours of every day in, to avoid stressing her bones. She read a lot and also wrote a lot. She made up stories and told them to her father, and to anyone else who would listen. In a way, she both loved and hated that bed. It was comfort and safety, and she was so happy to still be alive. She knew how lucky she was. Even at her young age, circumstances demanded that she mature to the point of understanding what this disease meant, and how incredible her survival was. She had known what death meant for years. The bed meant she was safe. And yet, the bed was also symbolic of the fact that she had never been able to go anywhere else. She couldn’t go out of the room, she couldn’t run around and play with other kids, definitely couldn’t go to school, couldn’t really live like so many others did so casually every day. 

As much as Melissa lived her life through reading and through writing her own stories, that couldn’t entirely replace everything she wanted to do. The stories allowed her some level of escape, as did these video games. But there was only so much they could do. The girl who dreamed of flying could hardly take an unaided step too quickly without risking a fractured ankle or leg.

Seeing where she was looking, Isaiah quietly asked, “So, how are you doing lately, kid? How’s that medicine working out for you? Helping get you back to where you were?” 

After a brief hesitation, the girl gave a very short nod. “It helps,” she murmured softly. “I can walk with my crutches a little bit now. Just around the room. Dad doesn’t want me to go any further.” 

“He’s just looking out for you,” Isaiah assured her. “You know that, right?”  

Once more, her head bobbed. “I know. But I think I make him sad. Sometimes when he thinks I’m asleep, he’ll stand in the doorway over there and watch me for a long time. I think he misses my mom. But he doesn’t want to talk about her. He never wants to talk about her.” 

Swallowing hard as a flood out of his own memories passed through his mind, Isaiah forced himself to respond. “You’re wrong about that, kid. You definitely don’t make him sad. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the boss happier than when he’s with you.” 

Meeting his gaze intently for a few long seconds, Melissa slowly replied, “I’m gonna get better, you know. I’m going to be able to walk out with my crutches, and then without them. I’m going to walk and then run all the way outside. I’m gonna jump on a trampoline. I’m gonna go skateboarding, like Cassidy.” She indicated the stuffed toy by her leg. “This bone stuff, it’s gonna lose. I’m gonna kick its butt. And then I’m coming for the world’s butt.” 

With a small smile, Isaiah reached out to very gently brush her hair. “I’m gonna hold you to that, kid. Pretty sure we’ll all hold you to it. Now how about we start with beating this guy right–” 

“Uncle Isaiah, what’s that?” Melissa abruptly interrupted, raising a hand to point past him. 

“What’s what?” He started to turn that way. 

She, meanwhile, leaned up and reached past him, toward something hovering directly behind the man. “That. 

“The glowing ball thingie.” 

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Commissioned Interlude 8 – The Bees And The Termites (Summus Proelium)

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At one time, a road had led all the way into Merit, Kansas. Back when there had been an actual Merit, Kansas. Before a series of mistakes, overreactions, and bonehead decisions by relatively few people had doomed not only the first contact between humans and an intelligent hive of Touched-Termites. A few paranoid, drunk types who happened to be the first people the termites attempted to contact. They, of course, lashed out and killed a lot of them. Then they went to get their friends to chase down more, trying to wipe out the ‘monsters.’ By the time anyone with actual authority (or simply a brain between their ears) knew anything about what was going on, the war had already begun. And it was a war the human citizens of Merit lost, as soon as the termites began to melt down every material object in the city with that fog stuff they could project.

It was Mayor Gilbert Sullivan (yes, he had heard all the jokes) who had made the decision to evacuate. Many in the town had wanted to stay. Now that the fighting had started in earnest, they figured it wouldn’t be hard to stomp on, poison, or otherwise kill the termites if they just stuck it out. But Gilbert, a very young mayor in his mid-twenties, had insisted that the point wasn’t whether they could wipe out the termites, but whether they should. And in his mind, there had been too much death already. Against the advice of several on the city council and his own police chief, Mayor Sullivan had the town evacuated, ordering everyone to take anything they could carry and escape. They’d had fire engines, garbage trucks, police cruisers, every vehicle either owned by the town or capable of being commandeered loaded down with everything and everyone they could carry. And then they had simply left. 

Once the place was evacuated, the military had been called in, and since that day no one had gone within several miles of the town. All access points were blocked off, and the grounds in between were patrolled both on foot and by drones. Until they had some idea of how to settle things with the termites properly, the citizens of Merit had been compensated for their losses out of the funds set up to handle large-scale Touched damages (commonly used to aid neighborhoods and cities in recovering from Collision Points), which itself was funded through a mixture of taxes and merchandise sales across every country who contributed a member to Armistice. For one year, those blockades had stood. After the first couple humans attempting to negotiate had failed to convince the now-rightfully paranoid termites of their peaceful intentions, things had been locked behind politicians debating the situation at the state and national level. 

Finally, one pencil-pusher at a desk somewhere had managed to state an obvious idea to the exact right person at the exact right time. It wasn’t the first time that idea had been bandied about, but in this as in so many other cases, it was about who heard the idea and when. 

In this particular case, the idea was heard and pushed along by the right person, until FBI Agent Izan Deans was finally appointed to follow through. Following through, in that situation, meant traveling to Eastland (soon to be Honeyland), Oregon in order to contact a hive of Touched-Insects that humans actually had pleasant contact with, to ask for their help in negotiating with the Termite hive in order to bring a fully peaceful resolution to the entire messed up scenario everyone had found themselves in. 

His trip to Oregon was successful, and now Izan himself (a Latino man in his early-to-mid thirties with crew-cut black hair and a clean-shaven face) had returned with a few friends in tow in order to have the negotiations with the termites. At least, that was the idea, anyway. In practice, things were a little more complicated. Because of course they were. 

“You need an escort, Agent Deans. I don’t know how to put it any simpler than that.” The man talking wore national guard fatigues and wore rank insignia marking him as a colonel. He was clearly close to retirement, or should have been, with a very balding head and the barest wispy hint of white hair. His pale skin was marked by several old scars, while his eyes were sharp, glaring intently at the man in front of him. “No one goes in that town without a squad of my men walking you through. I don’t care what sort of diplomatic namby pamby hakuna matata mission you’re on. You ain’t getting in there without the help of my men.” 

“Would that be the men with the flamethrowers, Colonel Rodon?” Izan asked, his eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses so the man in front of him couldn’t see them roll. “Somehow, I think that might give the locals in there the idea that we’re not serious about this being a peaceful talk.” 

Straightening up to his full, still less-than-impressive height of five feet, seven inches, Colonel Rodon gave Izan an even harder stare. “And if something happens to you and your little… friends while you’re in there, we end up in an even worse situation. I’m not saying I want to send a whole battalion in there with you. Just a little protection in case things go sideways. Cuz if they do, and those friendly insects you’ve got end up dying, we could go from having a hostile situation with one hive to a hostile situation with two of them. Diplomacy ain’t about looking or being weak.” 

“If we may, Colonel.” Those words were projected, in perfect chorus, from a small swarm of thirty bees that had flown up in formation together directly to the side of Izan’s head so they could look at Rodon. Their voices were projected from tiny speakers on the bottom of their abdomens that were connected through their brains to a chip on the back of their thoraxes. 

The colonel, for his part, still looked a little disconcerted. But he kept it together and gave a slight nod. “Yeah, what is it, ahhh, what do I call you all anyway?” 

“We are Diplomatic Swarm Alpha,” came the chorused response from all thirty. “And it would be our pleasure to explain, you would not be at war with our hive-queen should the worst happen due to our choices. We understand this is a dangerous situation, and have all volunteered for this service knowing the risks. The only thing that could lead to a strained relationship would be your refusal to abide by our requests, or those of Agent Deans, causing our deaths.” 

“Yeah, and I’d be pretty ticked off too,” Deans himself put in casually. “Now, you know what the guy who managed to set this whole thing up said. He got those termites to agree to a meeting with the bees and one human. That’s me. Not one human and a squad with flamethrowers. Not even one human with a flamethrower, before you even suggest it. Me and the bees. The bees and me.” Turning his head slightly to look at the insects hovering beside him, he added, “Which of those sounds like the better band name?” 

“The Bees And Me,” came the immediate response from all thirty insects. “Definitely that one.” 

With a nod, the agent turned back toward Rodon. “Look, if you prefer, we can take this up the line and some pencil-pusher behind a desk, or some guy just looking to get re-elected, can tell you what I already said. The risk is mine and theirs to take.” He gestured to the bees. “We know what’s at stake here, believe me, Colonel. Let us go in there and see what we can do. I’d say something stupid about the worst thing that could happen, but, I think we both know this whole situation could legitimately get a lot worse. That’s why we’re all here. You’ve been here on guard duty around this town long enough. Let us go in there, talk to these termites, and see if we can get you and your men assigned somewhere else. I’m sure you’d all like to go home and be done with this whole thing.” 

There was a long, silent pause while the man stared at him indecisively. Finally, Colonel Rodon heaved a long, heavy sigh. It sounded as though he was going against his better instinct. “Yeah, if I give up this shot at getting out of here, my husband might just kill me himself. Fine. You go in there with the bees. But if you have to come running out again without any clothes cuz those termites went and melted them off your naked tookus, don’t cry to me about it. You understand me, son?” 

“Completely, sir,” came the response. “No crying about my potentially-naked tookus to you.” 

As one, the hovering bees turned in the air to look at their companion. Their combined voices were curious. “Isn’t any body part that is not already literally naked, potentially so?” 

“Any body part that is not already naked is potentially naked.” Saying that out loud, Deans added, “And with that, you have summed up at least half of the thought process for every teenager between the ages of about thirteen to seventeen.” 

“Oh yes,” the bees droned, “puberty.” 

 On that note, the group was waved past the barricade and proceeded to move along the road. Well, for as long as the road lasted. It only went on, pavement wise, for another hundred yards. Then the concrete ended, where the termites have finished stripping it. In its place was a wide dirt path with a single narrow stone walkway that had clearly been recently added. According to the message that Deans had received, going anywhere except on that narrow path would be a bad idea. It would be seen as hostile, and there were members of the termite colony who were watching for just such a betrayal. 

So, he stayed on the path, while his companions flew, mostly silently, beside him. They continued on for another mile or so before reaching the very outskirts of the place that had once been Merit. 

At the end of that mile, a very… interesting sight waited for them. Spaced a couple feet apart all along the remains of the former road were a dozen dogs with wagons hooked to them by harnesses. In the back of each of those wagons was what looked like a small ballistae, complete with a loaded spear. A small glass orb, about five or six inches across, sat at the front of each wagon, and they could see a termite in each. They were clearly the drivers of the dog-powered wagons, waiting right there for the new arrivals.

We will have your names. 

He had been warned about the telepathic voices, but it still made Deans jump slightly. An act he regretted, but apparently the termites were either cooler headed than the humans they had first met, or they were under very strict orders not to fire unless there was a truly hostile act. Either way, he exhaled and started with, “Agent Izan Deans, with the FBI. You should be expecting me. And this… well, they speak better for themselves.” He had intended to introduce them himself, but in that moment, the man had a flash of inspiration that it might go over better if he treated his companions like equals. 

“We are Diplomatic Swarm Alpha,” the bees chorused. As a group, they flew ahead of Deans, splitting into two smaller, fifteen-member-sized swarms a moment later. One such group stayed just a few feet in front of him, while the other flew about half the distance closer to the termite-driven wagons. 

It was that second, closer group that spoke next. “It would be our pleasure to speak with you and yours about the troubles you have had with humans.” 

Troubles. That single word was filled with a mix of scorn and sorrow. Regret. There was regret there. How much of it was regret that things had gone poorly, and how much was regret that they had even tried, Deans wasn’t sure. All he knew was that this was a chance to fix that. 

Yes, we have had troubles. Those of us who were most excited to speak with humans, those who loved them the most, were slaughtered. Massacred with no mercy or thought. Those are the troubles we have had. 

“Yeah, my people can be real stupid sometimes,” Deans announced. “I know you’ve rejected everyone else who’s tried to say it, but there are plenty of us who are horrified by what happened. But then, I think you know that. That’s why you’ve let a few negotiators in now and then. You even trade with a couple people. You haven’t given up entirely. That’s why you agreed to this meeting.” 

There was no response to his words. At least, none that he heard. Instead, silence filled the air for a few long seconds before the two bee swarms, which had rejoined one another, simply said, “Yes.” At first, he thought they were agreeing with him belatedly. Then there was silence once more before they said, “No. Many people. Yes. Because they are our friends. Yes, we were fortunate.” 

He was only hearing one side of the conversation, the man realized. So, he stood silently and waited for another minute of that before a few chimes filled the air and several of the dogs abruptly began to move forward, turning in a wide circle to leave a path open. 

You will all come this way, the voice in his head instructed. Our spokesman awaits. He speaks for the queen. There was a deliberate pause, then, You will never see the queen. 

Yeah, that was fair. Especially after what had happened. Exchanging a look with the bees, Deans began to walk that way. They, or rather he, was escorted on all sides by those ballistae-armed wagons. Which made him nervous, but he kept it in check and just walked. 

There were no houses left in town, nothing the termites could have stripped down and used for their constructions. Practically all he saw that indicated where the town’s buildings had been were a few foundations here and there. 

Eventually they reached what his own studies had said was once where the city hall had stood. Now, like everything else, it was a vacant lot. In the middle was a tree stump that stood about four feet high. Under escort by the dog wagons, he approached that way before coming to a stop directly in front of it. Only then did he see the tiny figure waiting on that stump. It was another termite, though this one was different from the others. Larger than the others, with wings. Not a queen, of course. An alate, if he had the word right. Either way, it perched there, waiting for his approach. 

Agent Deans, Diplomatic Swarm Alpha, the alate’s telepathic voice spoke. Somehow, it ‘sounded’ different from the one that had been speaking in his head before. I am Horse-Spoon-Eleven. I will be speaking the negotiations on behalf of our queen. Rest assured, she is aware of all that occurs and is said here today. I speak her words. You have been escorted here today by the lead of Bird-Chair-One. 

With a simple nod, Deans replied, “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Horse-Spoon-Eleven. And you too, Bird-Chair-One.” He was assuming that was the one who had been speaking before, though that didn’t really answer which wagon had held the one in question. Either way, he continued. “It was my original belief that an actual diplomat would be talking to you with my friends here today. But I was told you refused to talk to anyone except the FBI agent who brought the bees to begin with. Which is funny, because up to that point, we weren’t aware that you knew that an FBI agent was the one bringing them at all.” 

We have learned to seek out and treasure intelligence about what our… There was a brief pause before Horse-Spoon-Eleven amended, About what others whose actions may affect us are doing. And we have no desire to entertain the platitudes of those paid to argue for a living. Queen Lion-Sapphire-Zero wishes to speak to you and the emissaries from the Oregon hive. No others. 

“Okay, well–” Deans started, only to be interrupted. 

Not yet, Agent Deans. Apologies, but we are not prepared to speak with you until we hear directly from the representatives of Apis mellifera. We wish to know… why they work so closely with their own humans. And how.

Thus began another conversation the man himself was not a part of. This time, however, he was at least able to hear all of it. Standing quietly, he listened as the termite and his bee companions went back and forth about what exactly had led the Honeyland Hive to their current peaceful conditions with the humans there. Once in awhile, another termite approached and demanded to know if the bees wouldn’t be better off on their own rather than relying on ‘undependable humans.’ But the Diplomatic Swarm insisted that the benefits of cooperation outweighed the risks, and that the humans of the town were their friends. 

Finally, Horse-Spoon-Eleven summed it up as, To our queen, it is seeming that the path to peace is one of usefulness. And yet, we do not believe any level of use would make those of this place wish for our presence. Nor would we feel safe. 

After a brief pause at that until it was clear they were waiting for him, Deans managed a slow nod. “Yeah, we sort of figured that. We don’t see a peaceful resolution coming from you staying here.” 

Do tell us, Agent Deans, came the response, how do the humans see this ending? 

Oh boy was this far beyond his pay grade. With a sigh, Deans hesitated before deciding to go all in. “Well, I think it’s safe to say that nobody wins when it comes to our current situation. We know you’ve been building up a bunker, and that it would probably take a hell of a lot to punch through it if the more… trigger-happy among us ever get their way. And we know that you’ve probably got some of your own people spread out anywhere they could get to so they can do a hell of a lot of damage elsewhere if it goes that way. This whole thing goes violent and both our sides are gonna end up losing a lot. Thing is, there’s a lot more people on our side and a lot more stuff. More than you can break. You’d do a lot of damage, but you wouldn’t win. Not in the end. And us? We’re not exactly the good guys any way you slice it. Losing everything your people would wipe out just so we can kill off an intelligent species? Like I said, nobody wins in this situation. Just losers all the way around.”

Yes, that is our estimation too. The termite representative was staring intently at him, which was a disconcerting feeling. At best, such a conflict would be a matter of doing as much damage as possible before your people destroyed us. There was a long pause then, before Horse-Spoon-Eleven added, I was one of those who was most excited to meet the humans before, Agent Deans. I had many friends who were killed by the intolerant among you. A hard lesson to learn, but an important one. There are humans who will never accept us. And yet, as we have both said, this conflict will only end poorly. 

“Then let’s change it,” Deans put in. “You’re right, the Honeyland bees have a great relationship with the humans there. Those people are already accustomed to living with Touched-Insects, and they know how useful that can be. I’m sure you can all help each other out.” 

You would have us leave the place we have spent all of our time and effort to fortify, to go somewhere new? The tone of the termite’s response wasn’t exactly a refusal, more curiosity. 

Deans, in turn, nodded. “Look, I know you got burned really bad on that leap of faith before. But I don’t think you really have another option here. We’ve already been over it. If this keeps up, everyone loses. At least if you go to Honeyland, your colony has a chance of surviving.” 

The response that came was silence. The termite turned away from him, seeming to look off at nothing. He had the impression that it was conferring with others, before finally turning to the bees. Would you trust this man in our situation? 

“Agent Deans has proven himself an honorable human and worthy of respect,” Diplomatic Swarm Alpha chorused. “And the humans we live and work alongside would be happy to have a second hive–pardon, colony to work with. We believe that bees and termites could do much good together, for all of our peoples.” 

Again, there was silence for awhile as the termites conferred, before Horse-Spoon-Eleven eventually announced, We would have one request. The work that we have put into our bunker cannot be ignored or dismissed. If we are to travel to this Oregon, we would have the bunker extracted and taken with. And we would have you along for every step of that journey, Agent Deans. To avoid any… mistakes. 

Exhaling in relief, Deans gave a short nod. “Of course. Whatever it takes, I’m sure we can work up something. Especially with help from your new partners here.” He gestured to the bees. “But I’m going to have to bring some other people in and hammer out the full details.” 

One of the dog-pulled carts approached, and Horse-Spoon-Eleven seemed to gesture with one hand. Go with Bird-Chair-One to… hammer these details, as you say. We will await hearing more. 

The winged termite then sat silently upon the stump while the human and his bee companions moved off with their designated escort. Only once they were out of earshot did another voice speak. Another human voice. 

“Does this mean our deal is off?” 

Horse-Spoon-Eleven turned to where two human figures in metal armor had appeared from seemingly thin air. No. It is as I believe you humans say, do not put all of your eggs in one basket. We will send half of our colony to this Honeyland to see what the humans there have to offer. The other half will fulfill our agreement with you. We will come to your city and work as you would like, in exchange for your protection and aid. 

“Excellent,” the male figure murmured. “That’s excellent news, isn’t it, White?” 

“Indeed, Gold,” the female figure agreed. “And have no fear, Horse-Spoon-Eleven. 

“The Ministry will take very good care of you and yours. We keep our deals.”

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Building Connections 16-07 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Building Connections 16-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Hey guys, the non-canon chapters for this month came out! You can find the Summus Proelium chapter here and the Heretical Edge chapter here

There was a text waiting on my Touched phone the next morning, from an unknown number. Or rather, several texts. Apparently they were from the girl with the marbles, because the messages amounted to several bits rambling about how she hoped she had the right number and if she didn’t, it was really screwed up. Then some apologies about how she wasn’t saying I was screwed up, but that she had screwed up taking down the number or something. Then there was a bit about ignoring everything if I wasn’t the right person, followed by another one that finally let me know who she was by saying she was ‘the girl with the special marbles.’  

Only then, by about the sixth text (all sent in the span of about five minutes) did she finally say that she wanted to meet that afternoon. She told me to send back proof that the person she was sending these messages to was who I was supposed to be by sending back the answer to why she’d had to cut our meeting short before, then she would give me a location to meet her. 

Well, I could say this much for her. At least she had the right idea about being careful. Not perfect (and then, neither was I), but still. She had the spirit of things, well enough not to go blabbing important things over a phone before it was confirmed that the right person was getting them. Maybe we could do something with that, if I wanted to–

Damn it, Cassidy, no. Don’t go thinking of recruiting poor innocent girls who don’t have anything to do with this situation. She didn’t deserve to have to deal with this Ministry stuff at all. Getting her involved wasn’t fair. Not for anyone really, let alone someone as brand new to this as she was. 

And yet, what was the alternative? That question had already been brought up. Could I send her to the Minority, knowing what I knew? What if she was–what if they used her? What if–fuck. I wished there was an easy answer to this, but there wasn’t. There just wasn’t an easy answer to any of it. Because of course there wasn’t. When had there ever been an easy answer to anything since the moment I saw those people being killed? 

Actually, that thought brought something to mind. I still didn’t know who those people were. Clearly they were a threat to the Ministry, a big enough one to warrant sending Simon himself to execute them. No, even bigger than that, because my father had been there too. Simon had said that, the next night when I saw him with our dad as Silversmith. He’d said that Dad was there that night, I just hadn’t seen him. So who were those people? Who were the two people who had been executed in cold blood and were important enough for both Simon and our dad to be there to make sure it happened correctly? That felt like an important thing to look into, but how would I even do that? Yeah, speaking of impossible questions, there was that whole thing. 

After reading the messages and going through all that in my head while I sat in my bedroom that morning, I sent back the answer to the mystery marble girl. Specifically, that she’d had to leave because her mother would’ve locked her in the house for a year if she found out anything about her daughter being near what had happened. Then I asked if her mother found out anything anyway. It was a good, casual way of finding out how good this girl was at keeping her secrets. 

I didn’t see any immediate typing response, so I put the phone away and moved to take my shower before checking on Izzy. She was already up and ready to take her own by the time I came out, so I told the girl I’d wait for her and we could head downstairs together. While waiting, I checked the phone again. Still nothing. So I went back to my room and used the laptop there to try checking out any news stories about the thing at the shopping center the night before. 

Right, yeah, there was a lot about it. That whole event was basically frontpage news. While they didn’t have a lot of the specific details, the journalists had been able to piece together a general idea from the people who had been kept as hostages or prisoners. According to them, the Easy Eights under Juice showed up and would’ve burned down the whole place if Paintball hadn’t shown up with his new sidekick–wait. 

Yeah, that one made me do a double-take, sputtering as I almost fell backward off my desk chair. Sidekick?! What–why would–what did they–how did they even–

A knock at my door suddenly interrupted my brain bluescreen, and I quickly shut the laptop before jumping that way to open the door. “Yeah?” 

It was one of the cleaning ladies, who asked if I needed my room spruced up. She also let me know that my father had asked for my presence at one of his home offices before I went to school.  So, I thanked her and said she didn’t need to do anything with my room. Then I waited for Izzy to be out and dressed before both of us headed for the office, whispering to one another about what my father could possibly want. Not that we talked about anything important out in the public halls where someone could overhear, of course. Mostly we talked about whether it was something to do with school, or something else. We were trying to talk in a bit of code about extracurriculars, but I’m not sure either of us were that good at doing it on the fly yet. We really needed to come up with appropriate codewords to use in this sort of situation, ways of talking about things without giving anything away. I’d add that to the list of things to work on. And then collapse under the sheer weight of said list. 

Either way, eventually we made it to the office Dad was using. The door was closed, so I spoke the code for the intercom to connect into the room and announced that Izzy and I were there. After a very brief pause, the door clicked and Dad’s voice said we could come in. The two of us exchanged looks before stepping through into an office that was about the same size as my bedroom. So, pretty big. Most of the walls were taken up by various bookcases, which practically sagged under the weight of their contents. One window overlooked the grounds, next to a wooden door that would step out onto a patio. There was another door on the opposite side of the room that led to a full bathroom complete with its own whirlpool tub, while Dad’s very large, ornate wooden desk sat closer to that wooden patio door. 

“Well hey there, girls,” my father greeted us with a smile as we stepped in. He rose, waving a hand at a pile of folders and random papers that were spread across his desk. “Don’t suppose either of you would like to trade, so you can worry about all this financial mumbo-jumbo and I’ll go deal with your schoolwork?” Waggling his eyebrows briefly, he made a show of pausing to consider. “On second thought, I just remembered I’ve dealt with middle and high schoolers before. So I changed my mind, I’ll take predatory bankers, investment firms, and hungry shark lawyers over that. Actually, come to think of it, I might just take actual hungry sharks over that.” 

“Gee thanks, Dad,” I muttered, “you’re really making both of us super-eager to get to school.” 

With a chuckle, Dad waved that off. “Sorry, never mind that. Actually, I’m glad you two came together, since this involves both of you.” Meeting our gazes one at a time, he finally focused on me before explaining, “Your mother and I need to take a little trip, and Simon’s coming with us. Which means it’ll be the two of you here with just the house staff for… probably about a week. Do you think you girls can be okay with that?” 

Raising an eyebrow despite myself, I pointed out, “You know that still leaves like fifteen adults in the house at all times, right? And a full security system. I’m pretty sure we’re not about to burn the place down just because you guys aren’t here.” Belatedly, I added, “Where’re you going anyway?” Not that I expected a real, truthful answer, but it made sense for me to ask. 

“Just some work stuff, and your mother wants Simon to get his feet wet,” Dad informed me casually. “And believe me, I know how easy it is for you to get yourself in trouble, staff or no staff, little missy.” To Izzy, he added, “Don’t let her talk you into skateboarding off the roof or something.” 

“Oh come on, I only did that the one time,” I protested. “And there was a stunt airbag right there. I was fine.” 

“You may have been fine,” Dad noted, “but I seem to recall that your mother came out of the house just in time to see you sliding off the other end and didn’t know about the airbag.” 

Flushing a bit despite myself, I kicked at the floor and squirmed. “Yeah, she screamed pretty loud. And then she said a lot of words she doesn’t usually say, most of them in Italian.” 

“Yeah, so let’s not make your mother curse in Italian again, if we can help it.” 

Giving my father a thumbs up and promising not to do dumb things like that again, I added, “When are you guys going, anyway? Next week?” 

With a visible grimace, Dad shook his head. “This afternoon, actually. It’s kind of a last minute emergency set of meetings. Gotta talk some of our partners back off the ledge. Believe me, it’s all boring stuff. Boring, but important, and I have to say, you would be shocked how often those two things intersect in the adult world.” Adding a faint smile, he focused on Izzy. “You’ll be okay here? If you’d prefer to go with and wait in the hotel…” 

Izzy, of course, shook her head quickly. “It’s okay, Mr. Evans. I’ll stay with Cassidy and keep going to school. I mean, I just started, you know? Probably not a good thing to take off for a week.” 

“Fair point,” Dad agreed. “Anyway, we’ll be heading out about an hour after you’re out of school, Cassidy. So both of you come home so we can go over a few last minute things, okay?” 

Both of us agreed easily, before I gave my dad a brief hug when he made the motion for it. For a second I thought he was going to do the same for Izzy, but in the end he seemed to reconsider pushing that quickly, and simply squeezed her shoulder before sending us off with a warning not to be late for our ride to school.

Still, we didn’t go straight to breakfast. The two of us went to my room instead. Once we were safely locked up in there, I spoke in a lowered voice. “What do you think that’s all about?” 

“You mean why are they really going away?” Izzy murmured thoughtfully. “You don’t think they’re actually leaving the city, do you?” 

My head shook quickly. “Not on your–both of our lives. There’s too much going on right now. I think they need to focus on this gang war after the Eights just pulled that shit yesterday, so they’re giving an excuse not to be around the house playing normal, happy family for a few days. But if they’re taking Simon too, it must be really big.” 

Sitting down on the edge of my bed, Izzy gave a slow nod. Her voice was quiet. “Yeah, really big. That gang war’s escalating and affecting businesses.” After a momentary pause, she added a bit hesitantly, “I guess you can’t just go ask Blackjack to maybe tone it down a little? I mean, since you went through all that to save his daughter’s life. He does kinda, you know, owe you.”

Grimacing, I shook my head. “Believe me, I’ve thought about it. But I’m pretty sure he feels that he owes those guys pain and suffering for putting his daughter in danger more than he owes me for helping to get her out of it. If I asked him, he’d probably say something about how he owes me a lot, but he can’t let the other gangs get away with what they did or they’ll try that shit again. Or something like it. And how that would be putting his daughter and the rest of his people in even more danger by showing weakness, so as much as he’d love to cease hostilities, it would do more damage in the long-run. So is there any other way he can help me?”

Izzy stared at me for a moment before offering a very faint smile. “You’ve put a lot of thought into that, huh?”  

Snorting, I gestured, “I might’ve had a lot of time to consider it, yeah.” Then I sighed, looking away toward the window. “If I thought it’d do any good, I’d say something. But it wouldn’t. That’s his daughter, and those people put her in danger, could’ve killed her, just to try to weaken his position. He’s not going to back off and leave them alone now. I already convinced him not to take out his revenge on Ashton. There’s no way that’ll stretch to the rest of his enemies.” 

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” the other girl murmured thoughtfully before sighing. “This is gonna get worse before it gets better, isn’t it?” 

With a wince, I offered, “Maybe my family can get it under control before the whole city starts burning? And boy is that a weird thing to come out of my mouth. I mean, they’re bad, right? They’re bad. but in this case, the one thing they might be good for is stopping this from going too far. This gang war escalating too much has gotta be pretty bad for business, doesn’t it?” 

“That’s probably why they’re ‘leaving’ to focus on it,” Izzy agreed. “But if they really are gone, you know that gives you time to work on your plan about breaking into the mall without having to check in as much.” She brightened a bit. “And I can cover for you here with anyone else.” 

Staring at the other girl for a moment, I had to swallow back the lump in my throat. My hand rose to touch the side of her face before I knew what I was doing. “Thanks, Izzy,” I finally managed. “Seriously, I really… I don’t know what I’d be like right now if I didn’t have you to talk to. I was… I was getting pretty bad back there.” 

A moment of awkward silence passed between us, before we were both embracing. I wasn’t even sure which of us had started it. We hugged there on the bed, and I held the younger girl tightly, my voice soft. “There’s something else we can do while they’re gone too.” 

“There is?” she asked, pulling back a little to blink at me. 

I nodded firmly. “We can try to find out what happened to your mom. I mean, if you want to. I know–I know it’s probably a hard thing to… yeah. If you want closure or… or just to know where she went or if she…” This was awkward, and not at all how I’d intended the whole thing to go.

For her part, Izzy was quiet for a moment. Then she exhaled and gave a very slight nod. “I want to know the truth. What… whatever it is. I wanna know where my mom is.” 

Returning the nod, I promised, “We’ll find out. Whatever it takes, we’ll figure out where she went and what happened to her.” With that, I glanced over to the wall of clocks and winced. “But right now, we’ve gotta take a quick breakfast and get outside before Jefferson makes himself our new archenemy for being late.

“Cuz I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure we’ve got enough problems without adding an annoyed driver onto the pile.” 

********

In the end, I didn’t get a response from the mystery marble girl until lunch time. I was sitting in the cafeteria with Dani, Amber, Jae, Tomas, and San when it buzzed soundlessly in my pocket. San and Dani were going on about something that had to do with politics, so I tuned them out and carefully slipped the phone out to glance at it in my lap. The message said to meet her behind this old mattress store a few blocks away from where that whole thing had gone down last night. Which was fine. Unfortunately, she was asking to meet at the same time that Dad wanted Izzy and me to be home to tell them goodbye. 

So, I sent back a message asking to extend that to an hour and a half later, because of a ‘family thing.’ There was a brief pause before I saw the notification that she was typing. 

“Right, Cassie?” 

Wait, that was my name. Blinking up, I realized Amber was the one who had spoken, but they were all looking at me. “Uhhh…” I managed oh-so-eloquently. “What?” 

That prompted entirely too much snickering from everyone, before Tomas shook his head. “Sorry, you sorta walked right into a ‘Cassidy is so bored she’s tuning you out completely’ question.” With an easy, charming grin that made my heart flip over a few times, he added, “The point is, nobody wants to talk about the shite that’s going on with my country’s politicians, let alone yours.”

There was a general murmur of agreement, and the conversation moved slightly to what was going on with the Fell-Gangs who were at war. And boy could I have contributed to that one more than anyone understood. But, I bit my lip and forced myself to act like I knew as little as they did. 

Through that, the message from the marble girl came in. She was okay with waiting until then. So, I sent a confirmation before exhaling while putting my phone away. Today, I’d have my conversation with her, where she’d probably ask what she should be doing with her powers, what team she should join, where she should go, or whatever. 

And I still had no idea what I was going to say to her. 

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