Sterling Evans

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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Building Connections 16-05 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********* 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trust 15-11 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we all started to head inside. But before I could go through the door, Mom turned my way. “And do your parents know what you’re…” She trailed off, clearly considering her words before amending, “Do they know about all this?” 

Why? I wanted to ask. Do you want to know if you need to get their permission to turn me into one of your obedient little thugs? Is that something you’d need to draw up a special parental permission slip for, or do you already have those for the other minors you’ve probably twisted?  

I didn’t say anything of the sort, of course. I wasn’t nearly that stupid or suicidal. Tempting as it was just to see the look on her face, on both of their faces actually, I resisted the urge. Instead, staring right back at her, thankful that my face was hidden by two separate layers, I flatly replied, “No, I’m pretty sure my folks would be pretty surprised if they found out anything about this.” 

Yeah, they’d be super-surprised alright. Especially if I took my helmet and mask off right now.  Which, yet again, was almost tempting just for the reaction it would spark. I really had to shove every thought of shocking my parents tonight out of my head before they got me in trouble.  

I saw the look of concern on Mom’s face, her voice lowering a little. “I know you don’t need to be told to be careful, but… you should think about letting your parents know what you’re doing. I know it can seem like a bad idea, and I assume that’s why you’ve refused to join the Minority. Because you don’t want them to know about this, and having a guardian who is aware of your position is a requirement to be a part of them. Maybe you’re afraid they’ll make you stop. But they’re your family. They’re your parents. They deserve to know if you’re in trouble. If… if anything happens to you and they find out like that, they’ll probably blame themselves.” 

If my parents found out that I got hurt doing this, they would blame themselves? Oh boy was that just begging for me to have a fun response. I literally had to bite my lip to stop from saying the first thing that popped into my head. Because it definitely wouldn’t have been anything good as far as keeping my secret identity went. 

Mom might have interpreted my moment of silence as awkwardness, because she spoke up again. “I’m sorry. You can do as you wish, of course. I just hope that you give it a thought. It’s important to have people on your side. Especially those who love you, as I’m sure your parents do.” 

Dad spoke up then, hand on the side of the doorway as he looked over to me. “She’s right, Paintball. Whatever your reasons for keeping your family out of it, I think it’s safe to say they care about you. You seem like a pretty well-adjusted kid, all things considered. And the stuff you’re doing, it’s dangerous. That’s why being part of the Minority–or any team is a good idea. Having friends, having people watching your back, from everything I’ve heard, it’s pretty huge.” His gaze was locked on me, voice a little quieter as he pointedly added, “As my lovely wife said, it’s important to have people you can trust watching your back.” 

God damn it, they kept setting me up perfectly. There was… a lot I wanted to say to every last bit of that. So many immediate retorts sprang to mind and nearly leapt out. But all of them were a really bad idea, as much as they might have given me a very brief moment of satisfaction. Seeing the look in my parents’ faces would’ve been amazing for about ten, maybe fifteen seconds. Then I’d definitely regret it as my entire world came crashing down around me. 

So, I pushed all that deep into the back of my mind, smothering my reflexive responses under a metaphorical pillow before simply replying, “Don’t worry, I have people I can trust.” Not my family, but people. Belatedly, I added, “Thanks.” 

With that, we headed inside. The penthouse was–well, a penthouse. It looked a lot like the hotels that my family went to, or maybe one of our vacation homes. In fact, judging from the paintings on the wall of the main living area, I thought the place might’ve been decorated by the same guy who did the villa in Geneva. The place had his same sense of flair and style. 

On the way to the kitchen, we moved through the main living area, passing a series of huge floor to ceiling windows that looked out over the grounds on the way, similar to the ones in the main hall outside. These ones, however, were also clearly television screens as one of them was displaying an image of the news rather than a view outside. And another a few panels down showed a completely different view of what looked like the New York City skyline. 

Seeing the way my gaze moved as I paused there, Dad spoke up. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?” He stepped next to me briefly, as I struggled not to tense up. His hand moved to gesture as he started to explain all about the technology behind the joint window/video screens, telling me all sorts of stuff I already knew but had to pretend I didn’t. It was pretty clear he thought this was a good way of bonding, by talking all about the fancy toys that a ‘boy’ like me would definitely be super into. 

I did my best to play the part, asking questions for a minute or so before we made our way into the kitchen. Skip was there, taking something out of the oven without bothering to use any kind of mitts. Obviously, she just ‘skipped’ the effect of being burned. Useful, that. 

Mrs. Chambers was there too, as promised. The blonde woman had just finished chopping up some mushrooms and was spreading them over several plates of salad. When we entered, she pivoted with a smile. “I have to say, a dinner party with so many superheroes is fun.” Her gaze found me, and she extended a hand. “Paintball, right?” 

“Uhh, yeah,” I managed, mentally kicking myself for the hesitation while accepting her hand. I kept having to remind myself that I wasn’t supposed to know her yet. “You’re Mrs. Chambers?”  

She gave a short nod to that. “That’s what they tell me. But please, just Joselyn. After all, we’re all having dinner, there’s no need to stand on formality. Here.” With that, she picked up the tray full of salads. “Would you mind taking these into the dining room? I–oh, what’ve you got there?” 

For a second I had no idea what she was talking about. Then I glanced down, realizing I still had the little paper bag from Lightning Bug, the one with the cute faces drawn on it. I’d been holding it through all of that, somehow. “Oh, I–” Looking to the girl in question, I asked, “Is it okay if I open this now?” 

She gave a hurried, excited nod. “Uh huh! But you can’t eat any until after dinner. Those are the rules.” The kid recited that last part firmly, squinting at me with those compound eyes as though letting me know that she was going to be watching to make sure I didn’t cheat. 

“I’ll be good,” I promised before opening the sack to glance in. Cupcakes. The sack had several cupcakes, all sealed up in ziplocks to keep them fresh and safe. Each cupcake had clearly been hand-decorated by Bug herself, with frosting and little candy pieces to make it look like the faces on the bag itself. Four cupcakes, one decorated to look like her face and three more decorated like Cinnamon, Kenobee, and Snugglebug. 

Suddenly sounding nervous again, Bug quietly piped up. “I did them myself. Um, sort of. Mom helped with the oven part.” 

“That’s right,” Caishen agreed, laying a hand on her daughter’s white hair. “She did it herself.” 

“Yum!” I enthusiastically intoned. “You sure we have to wait til after dinner?” 

With a giggle, the kid nodded. “No cheating!” she insisted while shaking her finger at me. “No dessert til you eat your veg-ih-tuls.” 

“Well, if you insist,” I finally agreed, rolling the top of the bag shut again before adding, “Thanks, Bug. They look great.” 

Her response to that was to give a little squeak of embarrassment and hide behind her mother again. Giving her a break, I turned back to take the tray from Joselyn. She easily handed it over with a smile that reminded me of my own mother, before asking, “Oh, and are you allergic to anything?” 

My head shook as I took the tray. “Not as far as I know, thanks. I’ll ahh, take this in…” I trailed off before looking toward Caishen and Skip for help. 

The latter had already put the glass dish from the oven down, and was stepping over to a nearby door next to the gleaming metal fridge. “This way,” she instructed flatly. 

So, we made our way into the actual dining room. There was a large glass table in there, big enough to easily seat ten on each side, where place settings had been arranged in what was clearly a carefully planned way. At one end nearest the door were two settings next to each other, one on the very end and one beside it to the right. A bit further up, about a quarter of the way up the long table, were two settings next to each other. Meanwhile, across from them and another quarter of the way (so halfway up the table) was another setting by itself. Finally, there were three settings at the far end of the table, one on the actual end opposite the one set here, and the other two to the right of it. The first seat to the right had a booster chair in it. 

We found our seats easily enough. Mom and Dad were at this end, with Joselyn and Lincoln up from them at the next two spots. Obviously, mine was the one by itself on the opposite side. Setting the tray of salads down in the middle, I stepped around to head that way. 

As soon as I sat, Caishen stepped over and showed me where there was a dial and button on the side. When I turned it on, a glowing forcefield of sorts appeared out of the glass. It was U-shaped, the sides of it continuing past me on either side to form a couple short walls near either shoulder. The field was semi-translucent, like frosted glass so that it was impossible to make out details through, and high enough that it would cut off all view of me while we were eating. Since I was all alone on this side of the table, with the way the forcefield continued onto either side of me to block off the view, all they would see was a frosted-glass sort of image if they looked my way. There was one at the other end too, where Caishen, Lightning Bug, and Skip were, so that they could block any view of their faces as we all ate. 

“It won’t block any sound,” the woman informed me. “We can carry on normal conversation. And you can see through it just fine from this side. Is that okay?” 

Nodding quickly, I assured her, “Thanks, it’s great. And–and thanks for having me over. This is all really cool.” 

For a moment, the woman regarded me. It looked like she was about to say something, possibly about how I could have this all the time if I signed up. But in the end, she clearly pushed the recruitment speech aside and simply replied, “I’m glad you’re here tonight. Buggy likes you a lot.” 

With that, she went back to help Skip bring out the rest of the food, carefully laying out trays. One by one, we each took salad first before settling into our seats. 

Despite the cover afforded by the forcefield thing, I was still careful. I was going to be careful regardless, but with my parents here (let alone an LA Times reporter)? Yeah, no way was I taking even the slightest risk. I opened the front of the helmet and lifted my mask up to my nose so I could actually put food in my mouth. Even without the shield, there was still no way to identify me that way. I also made sure the bluetooth in my ear wasn’t disturbed when I pushed the mask up, so it would continue changing my voice as I spoke. 

Even then, all of dinner was horribly nerve-wracking. I’m sure it was delicious, but I barely tasted it. Technically, I was pretty confident that given another hour I would completely forget what it even was. I was too paranoid about every last thing I said, every movement anyone made. Between that worry and trying to act like I wasn’t worried, we could’ve been eating broiled shoes for all I knew. 

Thankfully, Lightning Bug drew a lot of attention. She clearly loved having visitors around, shy as she might’ve been, and knew my parents enough to ask questions about… well, about Simon and me. She’d met Simon, apparently, and kept asking when ‘Cassie’ was going to visit. To which my parents promised they’d think about seeing if I wanted to come visit, which apparently made Bug happy. It sounded like they’d been telling her stories about me, which was… odd to hear about.  

And boy, wouldn’t that be an interesting time? I could hardly wait for my parents to bring that up to me. 

The kid also asked about the Chambers’ kids, Zed and Lexi. Apparently they were visiting another friend’s place for dinner that night, someone Lexi knew from her online games. That prompted a whole lot of discussion about Ten Towers sponsoring certain competitors in those kinds of games, and the fact that Lexi herself was angling for something like that. 

In any case, I was soon distracted by the fact that Caishen started talking to me directly. Paintball me, that was. She was talking about how I should think about joining Ten Towers if I wasn’t interested in the Minority, how they had specific rules that would help soothe things over if my parents ended up objecting to what I was doing, rules that would help them feel better. And, of course, very good benefits packages. 

She still wasn’t overly pushy about it or anything, but yeah, it was clear that a large part of this whole thing was about testing the waters for potentially recruiting me, with my parents chiming in now and then about their own donations and investments. In Mom and Dad’s case, it was obvious that they wanted to test just how much I was devoted to working alone. Whether Caishen was actively in on that or just a convenient way to probe, I couldn’t say. 

Thankfully, every once in awhile, Joselyn or Lincoln would speak up and turn the conversation away from me. I really owed both of them for that. They seemed to almost instinctively know when I really didn’t want to talk anymore, and always had the right thing to say to pull attention to them. Especially Joselyn, actually. I’d expected her husband to be the one who could command people’s focus that easily. But she seemed to effortlessly draw attention, regaling all of us (me included) with stories about what it was like to be a police officer (homicide detective, to be specific) in Los Angeles. Apparently she worked as a liaison with one of their local Star-Touched groups, which helped explain why she and her husband were so casual with this sort of thing, come to think of it. She basically worked right alongside Touched every day. 

God, I really hoped the Chambers weren’t part of the Ministry. Please, I liked them a lot, even as little as I knew. They were cool, and it would’ve sucked to know that they were just more minions of my parents, possibly extending their reach all the way down into California. Hell, Mr. Jackson had been stationed in Britain, so the Ministry having people in Los Angeles wasn’t exactly far-fetched. But fuck, I really hoped not. 

In any case, whether they were part of the bad guys or not, dinner eventually ended. I had just fixed my mask and helmet before Lightning Bug hopped out of her seat, pleading with me to come play with her friends and make them pretty again. I agreed, partly because who could say no to her? And partly because it would get me away from my parents so I could breathe again. 

As I said my goodbyes to the Chambers and to my own parents before starting to follow the girl while she pulled my hand, my father spoke up. “Whatever you choose to do, stay solo or join a team, make sure you have people who can watch your back. Make sure people you trust know where you are. What you’re doing, this whole life, I haven’t been there but I’ve heard about how dangerous it can be. Like we said before, you need people you can depend on out there.” 

“And think about telling your parents,” Mom put in. “They would want to know, and as I said, finding out the hard way would be so much worse. For them and for you. If there’s anyone you can trust with this Touched stuff, it should be them.” 

I was quiet for a moment, squeezing Lightning Bug’s hand while she stood there gazing at me with obvious impatience tempered by trying to be as polite as a little kid could be. Finally, I nodded. “I’ll think about that. Thanks. I guess you’re right. 

“Families really should be able to trust each other.” 

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Trust 15-10 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Skipping out on dinner sounds dangerous.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trust 15-09 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knew that voice.

I knew it incredibly well. 

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

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

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

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Trust 15-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Deals 13-10 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I might be a worse hero than I thought. 

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New Deals 13-09 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to meet Lincoln Chambers and his family.

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