Sterling Evans

New Deals 13-10 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I might be a worse hero than I thought. 

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New Deals 13-09 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to meet Lincoln Chambers and his family.

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New Deals 13-06 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New Deals 13-05 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interlude 12B – Raindrop (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Easy Eights are getting ready for war.”

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Pink 12-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tomorrow was going to be a long day. 

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pink 12-02 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N: There was an extra commissioned interlude for Heretical Edge posted yesterday. If you haven’t seen it and read that story, you might want to click here after reading this chapter

We didn’t go straight to the track or either of the museums. Instead, Dad led the three of us across the lot to a restaurant near the track. Technically, it was all owned by the same company, a company my father had a large stake in. The track, the museums, the restaurant, all of it was partially owned by my family. And that was just on the surface. Part of me wondered how much of the city my parents owned through the whole Ministry thing. Actually, come to think of it, I probably didn’t want to know right then. It would just be depressing to think about how much power they had when I was supposed to be trying to relax and show Izzy a good time. 

The restaurant was basically a hamburger place, but not exactly a McDonalds. The burgers were really thick and came named after various cars or drivers. They even did a thing where the top of the buns would have an image of a race car lightly burned into them. And the fries were the really long shoestring versions with Parmesan and truffle oil. They were amazing. I really didn’t have to fake that much enthusiasm for coming here, given how hungry I was. 

Apparently, Izzy had never been there before. Or to the track itself. As we walked in the front door of the restaurant, she gasped at the centerpiece of the foyer. It was a full-sized, actually working race car. Specifically, it was a 1967 Ford GT40 Mark IV, beautifully red with a white number 11 on the side. The Mark IV was the only model of the GT40 line that had been built here in the US, since the first three versions were built in England. It was also the only car that had been designed and built entirely here in the US to win at Le Mans in France. 

I told the other girl all of that while the two of us walked a circle around the car. Izzy nodded appreciatively at the right places, but I had the funniest feeling that she really didn’t care all that much. She was one of those people who just thought a car was a car, and that as long as it got you where you wanted to go, there really wasn’t much of a difference between them. Heathen. 

The restaurant manager was talking to Dad and Simon while I was explaining the car’s history to the younger girl. By the time I got that far, it was time to go. My father beckoned, and we followed as the manager (a really friendly man named Kevin whom I had met a few different times since he was always here ready to direct us to a table when we came in) led us to the back of the restaurant. We passed through a couple doors to reach a private dining area with huge floor to ceiling windows that provided a good look at the track off in the distance across the lot, where we could see some of the cars taking practice laps. 

Izzy and I sat on that side of the long table, so we could turn our chairs a bit to look out at the track. Menus were passed out and the manager promised he would be taking care of everything personally. He took our drink requests, assured my father that our food would be out in plenty of time for us to eat before catching the first actual race, and hurried off. Our drinks were brought in and put on the table almost before he’d actually made it out of the room. Yeah, I’d never really paid that much attention before, but I supposed my father was something of a big deal. 

Simon was tuned out again, lost in his phone. But Dad stood up, moving over to stand next to Izzy and me as he gazed out at the cars doing their practice laps. There was a fondness in his voice as he told us about the first time he’d snuck into the track to watch cars pass by. It made him sound… human and simple, just a kid who couldn’t afford a ticket to see something he loved. I glanced over to see his face, and my father looked nostalgic, lost in his memories. It made me want to ask him how so much had changed. Not only in how much money and power he now had, but where his innocence had gone. I wanted to ask him if he was happier this way, if he had any idea how much misery he brought to other people through this Ministry bullshit. 

Instead, I simply listened quietly while he told us about that first race he’d watched, and about how he’d had to run from security before it was over. His run from the security officers had been a race in and of itself, one that more than a few spectators had actually put money on, apparently. 

“Did you get away?” Izzy asked, apparently enraptured by the story. She was sitting there, arms on the back of the chair that she had turned around in and chin in her hands as she stared at my father with a wide gaze. “They didn’t catch you, did they? Otherwise you would’ve been banned from that track.” 

In response, Dad chuckled. “Well, first, you’ll find that many ‘lifetime bans’ disappear when your name shows up on a lot of the checks that pay the salaries of the people who banned you.” With a wink, he added, “But no, I wasn’t caught. Actually, I owe that to my wife. That was the day…”

Then he trailed off. A slight frown touched his face before he shook his head. “Never mind, probably not the best time. Suffice to say, Elena and I had an interesting first meeting.” Turning from the window then, as he had been staring out at the track through all that, Dad smiled broadly. “And now we’re here. See how things work out in the end when you keep at it?”  

Huh. There was something there. Actually, now that he had talked about it being his first meeting with my mother, I really wanted to hear more of that story. But I knew pushing wouldn’t work, not right now. I was going to keep that in mind and maybe ask Mom about it later. Or I’d find a way to ask Dad when we were alone. 

Either way, that was for later. Right now, I was going to focus on our little outing, and on making sure Izzy had a good time. There would be time to handle all of that other stuff. Instead, I looked at the girl beside me and nudged her before pointing. “See that car over there? The driver’s name is Pranav. He’s really cool, and he’s from Hyderabad. He’s got a lot of stories about India. When the race is over, maybe we can talk to him for a few minutes. I bet he’ll let you sit in his car.” 

“Really? Cool.” From the look on her face, I was guessing that while Izzy did think that was cool, it wasn’t nearly the kind of ecstatic feeling I’d had when I got to sit in Pranav’s car years earlier. It had been like Christmas morning for me, to the point that I’d barely been able to sit still. She thought the idea of sitting in a race car was just… cool. But at least she wasn’t against it. 

We ate our food as soon as it came, while Dad and I told Izzy stories about car races and various drivers. Simon piped up now and then, but he was mostly interested in his phone throughout all of that. Every once in awhile, he’d look at Dad when he thought I wasn’t looking and mouth something, but I could never really catch much of what it was. My best guess from what I did catch was that he was reporting numbers. Numbers of what, I had no idea. I didn’t know if it was weight, times, amounts, all of the above, something else, or anything. All I was sure of was that it had to do with Ministry stuff. And it was important enough that our father didn’t make him put his phone away during the meal. 

The food was, of course, amazing. Kevin made sure we had dessert, and then we left to head over to the track. On the way, I told Izzy about the time I’d been so excited to get to the race that I’d grabbed the hand of a stranger thinking it was my dad and dragged him toward the door. 

“It was funny,” I started, “because when I–” Then I stopped. The memory that had flashed into my head was that I’d told someone about that the day after and they–he… told me about something he did that was like that.. He told me… He… he was… he was…

A rush of pain flooded my head. I stumbled just a little before catching myself. Dad’s gaze snapped to me, hand rising. “Cassidy? Are–” 

“Sorry, sorry,” I blurted, shaking my head while doing my best to ignore the nausea-inducing pain that was still pulsing there. “I got distracted and tripped over my own feet. It’s fine, I’m fine. I just–I need to use the restroom.” 

“Take Izzy,” my father murmured. “Are you sure–” 

“Dad,” I insisted, meeting his gaze, “I’m good. Trust me, we’ll be right back.” It took everything I had not to double over and clutch my head right then. I really wished one of my paints erased pain like this. 

With that, I took Izzy’s hand and walked with her. Restroom. I knew where the restroom was. I just had to go that way, get in a stall, and sit down for a minute. Then I could get through this. The memory that kept trying to shove its way into my head was painful enough that it had nearly made me fall over back there. I had to get a handle on it, quick. Before my dad started getting more… worried about my reaction. I’d gotten lucky with the whole doctor thing yesterday, the last thing I needed now was for my parents to insist on a hospital visit. 

Izzy was watching me as we walked, her own expression pensive. I could tell she wanted to ask something about all that, which she finally did with a hesitant, “Are you okay? I mean, I know you don’t want your parents to be all worried and stuff, but if you really have a head injury…” 

“It’s totally fine,” I quickly insisted. “I mean, probably not totally fine. I’ve got bruises and all. But I don’t need any kind of doctor or anything. I’m just, you know, I need to get some water.” 

“Maybe you can use these too?” Izzy offered while holding up a bottle of Ibuprofen. When I glanced that way, she added, “I asked Mr. Jefferson if we could stop to pick up pain relief and he gave this to me when I told him it was for you. Did you know he has a whole medical kit in the car? Not just a normal emergency first aid kit, it’s like a whole ambulance supply shelf.” 

Taking the bottle, I swallowed a couple of the pills before nodding. “Thanks, and yeah, Jefferson’s really big on being prepared for anything. I…” Biting my lip, I glanced to her. “You asked him for headache medicine for me before I had a headache?” 

She managed a little smile, shrugging. “You got hurt just like… a day ago and now we’re out in bright daylight around a bunch of loud cars. Of course you’re gonna need something for pain. I just… wanted to help.”

I could hear the guilt in her voice. She still felt bad about everything that had happened. And I wasn’t sure why, exactly. Unless… if I was right about one or both of her parents being supervillains, of course she would feel guilty. Of course she would. Duh. How did I feel? How easy was it for me to feel that guilt overwhelm me? Yeah. Yeah, that was it. Again, everything fit. 

Grabbing a couple water bottles after feeding ten dollars into the nearest vending machine, I passed one to Izzy before gulping down about half of mine. For her part, Izzy stared at the bottle, her face twisting. “Five dollars for a bottle of water? It’s water! How do you make people pay five dollars for twenty ounces of something that’s seventy percent of the world?! There’s over three hundred million trillion gallons of it! Are we on Mars? Did we go to Mars after all and nobody told me?!” 

Snickering a little despite everything, I shook my head. “It’s just marked up for being in a venue like this. You should see how much a hot dog costs.” Pausing, I added, “I mean, I assume it’s supposed to be a lot. Everyone else says it’s a lot.” 

Izzy was staring at me. Her mouth opened and shut a couple times before she managed a weak, almost pleading as though hoping I could make some logical sense of it for her, “It’s water.”  

“Very expensive water, apparently,” I replied while patting her shoulder. “So you should drink it. But first, let’s do our business.” By that point we were at the restroom, which I gestured toward before heading in. 

I took my time, sitting in the stall with my head in my hands. My mind was racing, now that I’d given it the chance. The day after that whole thing at the race track years ago. I’d told… someone about it. I knew I did. I told someone the story and they told me a story about… about…

Uuuuuggggghhnnnnnn. The pain was almost too much. I had to quickly bite down hard on my knuckle to avoid giving an audible reaction. My vision swam for a second, and it was a good thing that I was already sitting down. Damn it, damn it! 

Anthony. It had to be Anthony, right? He was my age, he’d been erased from my memory. I’d told someone about taking the hand of a person I thought was my father and walking off with a stranger at the racetrack. Yes. Yes, that was right. It was clear in my head. I told that person about it, kind of laughing but also kind of scared by the memory. I told them, and she–

Wait.

She? No. No, that was wrong. That was wrong. No, the person that had been erased from my memory was Anthony. And Anthony was definitely a he. So… why did I think ‘she’? What memory had I lost that had to do with a she? That didn’t even make sense. Why would there be some other friend who was… no, no I was wrong. It had to be Anthony. This was just my erased memories playing a trick on my brain. That was the only explanation for it. The person I’d told that story to the day after was that Anthony kid, not some weird girl I couldn’t remember. 

Shaking off those feelings, I cleaned up at the sink, splashed water on my face, then met up with Izzy to leave the restroom. The two of us walked out together before I turned in a circle to orient myself about where we were going. Right, we needed–

“Cassidy?” A voice from nearby called, and I blinked that way to see a familiar guy wearing a race uniform with Ten Towers logos over it. 

“Adrian?” I blurted. It was him, the guy who had been abducted and roughed up by Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful just because he happened to drive Ashton’s brother Josh out of the city. The guy who had driven me home that first night, the night that I… the night I found out about my family.

“You know him?” Izzy piped up, blinking back and forth between us with a curious frown. 

“Sort of,” I replied. “Oh, uhh, Adrian, this is my friend Izzy. Izzy, this is Adrian. He was an Uber driver, and also a janitor at school. But then–I mean, something… happened? I don’t–” 

“It’s a long story,” he assured us. “And probably not one we should get into. But yeah, I guess I’m not really either of those things anymore.” 

I gestured to his uniform. “Yeah, I guess not. Looks like you upgraded.” 

Chuckling self-consciously, Adrian rubbed the back of his neck. “Yeah well, I’m not exactly a race driver. Not yet, anyway. Gotta earn that. But they let me drive the pace car, and I get to put the Ten Towers rides through their paces. Mostly I’m a mechanic though. But hey, it’s a living. A pretty good one. Plus, it means my brothers get to live on campus.” 

I smiled a little at that. “Cool. That’s really cool. I’m glad everything–I mean, I’m glad you’re okay. You disappeared from school, and no one really knew what happened exactly.” 

“Thanks, kid–I mean Cassidy,” the guy quickly corrected. “You have a good day and all. And hey, try not to be out so late all the time. Things get pretty dangerous out there. Good to meet you too, Izzy. You guys enjoy the race.” 

Giving him a thumbs up, I headed off with the other girl, lost in thought. So, Adrian was doing okay. He was safe with Ten Towers, especially now that the whole search for the vials was over. At least there was that. I could think of a lot of worse ways closer over that whole thing could have gone. 

“Hey, Cassidy!” Once again, I was dragged out of my thoughts as Izzy and I approached Dad and Simon. Those two were there, but there were a couple others as well. 

“Amber? Jae?” I spoke up, blinking back and forth between the two girls. 

“Your dad told us you were coming here,” Amber explained, after Jae murmured a quiet greeting. “He said we could join up with you to watch the race.” Belatedly, she added, “Hey, Izzy. What’s up?” 

While they greeted each other, I looked toward my father. He raised an eyebrow, mouthing, ‘Sorry, is that okay?’ while nodding toward my two classmates. In turn, I offered him a quick smile and nod. It was fine. Today was about relaxing and not having any problems. I needed a break from… all of that. Having a couple totally normal friends around like Amber and Jae was just what the doctor ordered. 

“Well, guys?” I pushed as soon as the greetings were over. 

“Come on, let’s go see this race.”

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Pink 12-01 (Summus Proelium)

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It was a good thing that the next day was Saturday, because there was no way I was going to be able to go to school. I was completely out of it, dead to the world (metaphorically rather than literally thanks to Pack and the others) until almost noon. Even then, it felt as though only a few minutes had passed from the time I closed my eyes to the time I woke up staring blearily at the outline of bright, middle-of-the-day sunlight coming in through my closed blinds. 

For another couple minutes, I just lay there, staring at the hints of light while trying to get my mind around everything that had happened the day before. After being abducted and nearly killed by the Scions, rescued by Pack, That-A-Way, Broadway, and Skip working together, having to lie to my parents by making up a story about where I’d been all night (and subsequently being examined by a doctor), being punished by having the time it would take me to get an actual car extended, and what else…? Oh right, telling Pack and That-A-Way about the secret organization running both the good and bad guys in the city without actually mentioning that the people at the head of that organization were my own freaking parents

Yeah. It was a lot. I’d had a busy day. No wonder I’d slept so long. It was a wonder I wasn’t some gibbering wreck in the corner, to be honest. And I still hadn’t been able to find Bobby, even though that had been the entire point of that endeavor. Though I did have that code off the toys that I’d found in the cabin. A code for something I didn’t know anything about. Oh, and of course, Eits was still hurt. Eits had been hurt because I asked him to look into that for me. 

That thought, of Eits lying there in that bed, made my eyes close. I shuddered a little, terrified just at the memory of seeing him like that. Knowing that he was there because of me was just… too much. I couldn’t stand it. And I couldn’t lay there anymore. I had to distract myself from that. 

A sudden weight shift on the bed made me jump. Izzy was there, picking herself up from the bottom of my bed, where she had apparently laid down. “Sorry,” she managed, blushing a little. “I was waiting for you to wake up but I guess I… fell asleep.”

Even as she said it, the girl was yawning. Which made me realize, “Wait, you were… you were up for a long time waiting for me, weren’t you?” Saying that, I felt a renewed rush of guilt go through me. The thought of Izzy sitting up, worried for so long without any way of knowing where I was or what had happened, somehow it made me feel even worse than I had about making my parents worry. Izzy hadn’t asked to be involved with any of this, she was innocent. 

A slight flinch crossed the younger girl’s face before she admitted hesitantly, “I tried to cover for you, but it umm… it didn’t work.” Looking guilty, she stared at me with wide eyes. “I’m sorry.” 

“You’re…” I had to do a double-take at that, staring right back at her. “You’re sorry? What–Izzy, no.” Quickly, I scooted down to that end of the bed to sit next to the other girl. “You don’t have to be sorry about anything. It was my fault.” Technically it was the Scions’ fault, but I’d never say that to her. “I’m the one who made a mistake. I’m the one who–never mind. It’s okay. You don’t have to feel guilty just because you couldn’t stop my parents from realizing I never came home. I promise, it’s okay.” With that, I put a hand on her shoulder. “So knock it off, alright?”

Izzy hesitated, looking at me with a surprisingly intense stare for someone who wasn’t even quite yet a teenager. Finally, she gave a short nod. “But you’re not in too much trouble?” 

I made myself shrug. “Yeah, I sorta have to wait longer before I finally get to drive once I pass my test and all that. I’ve been looking forward to it basically since I was old enough to know what a car was, and now it’s further away.” It wasn’t all that hard to make it sound like the punishment was as bad as it was supposed to be, because driving really had been incredibly important to me up until recently. I still wanted to, of course. I just… had bigger things to worry about. Much bigger things. But I could still make that sound pretty convincing. 

“I’m sorry,” Izzy quietly said once more, this time adding, “I hope your parents weren’t super mad.” 

“We worked it out,” I assured her. “But I don’t think I’ll be in a rush to go anywhere today. So, you wanna play some more of that game from before?” 

There was a moment of hesitation before she nodded. “Uhh, okay.”

“Great. But breakfast first,” I insisted. 

“I don’t like to get my butt kicked on an empty stomach.” 

******

So, I basically played games and watched movies with her all day. It was pretty much all I could stand to do with the pain in my side and how exhausted I felt. Not to mention how much my parents kept either checking up on us or having one of the staff do so. They also had me take several special pills that were supposed to help my body heal faster. It wasn’t like an instant cure or anything, but still. It also made me a little woozy and sleepy, another thing stopping me from going out or doing much. 

But that was okay, I needed the break. I would get back to everything else soon enough. For that one day, I just spent time with Izzy. That was good enough. 

Then it was Sunday, and I felt a little more like myself. After getting up, showering, and dressing, I emerged from the bathroom to find my dad there. He enthusiastically told me that he was taking Simon, Izzy, and me out to visit the racetrack just outside the city, and that we would make a day of it. We were going to get lunch, see some cars and races, tour the track, then get dinner. It was going to be a whole thing. And, of course, it would allow him to keep an eye on me to make sure I didn’t have any kind of lingering effects from that whole head injury thing. He didn’t actually say that part, but I picked up on it pretty easily. 

I also couldn’t really argue. Of course the old me would be ecstatic about going to see the cars at the track with my dad. If I tried to demur or wasn’t into it, he’d know something was wrong. He’d be even more suspicious. Hell, he might try to find out if I was some kind of shapeshifter  Touched who had stolen his real daughter, given the circumstances. So I had to do this, and make it seem like everything was just hunky-dory. No matter how much I really didn’t want to. 

Besides, Izzy was going, and there was no way I’d abandon her like that. I wasn’t going to leave her to go out with my father. Especially not when I still didn’t know what that whole situation was. If something happened to that girl while she was out with Dad and I wasn’t there, I… I’d feel even worse than I did about Eits getting hurt. 

So, I was going. I made a point of thanking my father, hugging him, promising that I would never do anything as stupid as skating alone in a construction zone again, then hurried into my bedroom. As soon as I was out of sight with the door closed, I turned off the excited act, the bright smile melting from my face as I turned to look in the mirror. Yeah, I was going to have to keep that up all day, wasn’t I? That was just great. 

“Cassidy?” The sound of Izzy’s voice from over by my window, where the other girl had been standing, made me jolt with surprise. That was the second time in less than twenty-four hours that she’d startled me. When my gaze jerked that way, her face was scrunched up uncertainly. “Are you really okay? You…” Again, there was a brief hesitation, as if she wasn’t sure she should actually say anything. “You looked sad.”

Quickly, I bobbed my head. “Yeah, sorry, I was just thinking about… stupid things. No big deal. Seriously, how could I be sad when we’re going on this awesome little daytrip, right? You–wait, do you even like cars?” It only occured to me at that moment that this whole thing might not actually be much of a fun event for her if she wasn’t actually into this stuff the way I was. 

Sure enough, the other girl offered me a helpless shrug, looking self-conscious. “They’re okay,” she offered weakly. “I mean, your parents have a lot of really pretty cars, but I don’t know what the big deal is about engines and models and all that. It goes vroom and takes people places.” 

“Goes vroom and–” Adopting a scandalized look, I poked her. “Yeah, trust me, there’s a lot more to it than that. Good thing we’ve got today to get you into it.” Winking then, I added, “It’s okay if you’re really not though. Maybe it’ll still be nice to get out of the house and walk around? Plus, they have some pretty good snacks at those places. Suuuuper buttery popcorn. And the places my dad’s gonna take us to for lunch and dinner… oh believe me, you don’t wanna miss that.”

“Okay, okay,” Izzy retorted with a little snicker, clearly realizing how much I was trying to play it up for her. “You’re right, I do want to get out of this place. I want–” She stopped abruptly, though it had been clear that she’d been about to say something important. But then something flashed across her face. It was a weird expression, like… sad and lost, but also furious. Then it went away just as quickly as it had appeared. 

“Izzy?” I pressed just a little bit, not even thinking about my own things in that moment. Not after the brief flash of whatever that was that I’d seen in her eyes at that moment. Izzy was really upset about something. Not an immediate thing, but… but something. Even though I’d only known her for a very short time, seeing her look like that made me want to find whoever made her feel that way and… and do bad things. “Are you okay?” Now I felt like our positions had flipped. It was me asking her if she was alright after I’d seen an expression on her face. 

Wait, did that mean that whatever she was going through was similar to what I was going through? Did… was one of Izzy’s parents or another family member a supervillain? Maybe Izzy had found out and that was why she was here, being kept safe from Touched on either side and the authorities. Could that explain the vulnerable, yet angry look I’d seen, and everything else? 

It could. It really could. I couldn’t really think of any part that it didn’t cover. Izzy finding out that someone really close to her, my guess was one or both parents, was a supervillain and then being ‘protected’/hidden away… it would make sense. It gelled with everything I’d seen and answered a lot of questions. Especially about why she seemed so open sometimes, but also guarded. And why she would be especially sensitive to any relationship I had with my own parents. That made a disturbing amount of sense. 

Yeah, I was pretty sure that was it. But who? Who was Izzy’s supervillain parent or parents? That was all I could think about as the two of us left my bedroom and headed downstairs to where Dad and Simon were already waiting in the main foyer by the front door. I was distracted from those thoughts as both of them loudly and (clearly intentionally) obnoxiously complained about how long it had taken for us to finally join them, making a whole production out of it. 

“See?” I started conversationally while looking at the younger girl beside me. “This is why going to someplace with a lot of noise like a racetrack is a good idea. Because it’s so loud you can’t hear the boys whining all the time.” Saying that, I winked, pointedly ignoring the wounded sounds and looks while Izzy snickered.

“Okay, okay,” Dad began with a shake of his head. “Let’s get this show on the road. Jefferson’s bringing Big Sal around, and you know how much of a bad idea it is to make that man wait.” 

Yeah, apparently even my own father didn’t like to take our time-obsessed driver off his schedule. Obviously most of that was just playing with us around, but still. Jefferson was not a man who enjoyed surprises or things that made him late once his day was planned. 

We moved out of the house to the front drive, where Big Sal (our imposing black SUV with heavily tinted windows) pulled up just in time for Jefferson to step out, walk around to briefly open and walk away from the back door for the rest of us who didn’t literally sign his paycheck, then open the front passenger door and hold it for my father to get in. 

Izzy and I climbed in the back, while Simon took the middle seat and immediately shoved his earbuds in before losing himself in music. Once Dad was in his seat, Jefferson closed that door, closed our door, then walked around to the driver’s side. A moment later, we pulled out. 

We were driving away from the house in Big Sal. I’d asked my dad about the SUV before, and he’d told me that this thing had enough armored plating and reinforced glass to take multiple tank rounds while barely showing a scratch. It was rated to keep presidents and royalty safe. 

I wondered if he had any reason for us to travel in this today other than just wanting to have enough seats for Izzy. We had plenty of cars. Was there another reason for having this particular one? Was it just that we were taking her away from home and Dad wanted to be safe, or something else? Was there more to this whole trip today? Or was I just being paranoid? 

Either way, I would keep my eyes open. And just hope that nothing crazy happened while we were out on this little trip. I could really use a break, after everything that happened the day before yesterday. And I also needed to sneak away at some point and buy a new phone so I could contact Pack to find out how Eits was doing. Not to mention checking in with Wren, actually meeting with Pack and That-A-Way to figure out how the three of us were going to sneak into that secret base under the mall, piece together what the code on those toys was for, find Bobby, piece together my missing memories, find out what Paige’s whole deal was and how she was connected to that Anthony kid who had apparently been my friend, and, and…

I had a lot to do. Too much. But I needed a break right now. Besides, if I bailed on this trip, Dad really would be suspicious. So I was stuck here, cooling my heels, metaphorically speaking. I had to act like I didn’t have anything important to do, no matter how much stuff was piling up waiting for me to get on with it. I had to reassure my father that everything was just fine first. 

On the way, I thought about my whole theory about Izzy’s family member being Fell-Touched. It still all fit as far as I could tell. She was Latina. Did that mean that one of her parents was a member of Oscuro? It basically had to, right? The odds were really high that way, in any case. If Izzy had a family member who was part of Oscuro, that would explain why my parents were keeping her secreted away. Despite my (totally understandable, damn it) paranoia, I was increasingly certain that they really did care about Izzy and were protecting her. They might have been horrible people in many ways, who did a lot of horrible things, but in this case, I was fairly certain they weren’t the bad guys. So they had to be protecting her from someone else who was dangerous, and Cuélebre was pretty high up that list. 

Except did they really have to protect her? Everything else I knew about their organization, this ‘Ministry’, said that all they’d have to do was tell Cuélebre to leave her alone. So what else was I missing? There was some really obvious thing that would immediately fill in all the blanks here, but I was just missing it. 

I was distracted then, as Dad passed something back to Simon, and he passed it to me. It was a new phone, just like the old one. At least, on the surface. I was going to go over it with a fine tooth comb to make sure it wasn’t reporting anything back to my parents after the scare I’d given them. Not that I’d done Touched stuff on my normal phone in the first place, but I didn’t want it telling them where I was all the time. Any more than normal phones did, anyway. The point was, I was going to make sure this phone hadn’t been tampered with before I took it with me anywhere sensitive. Actually, it was probably safest to just leave that phone wherever I left my clothes from now on. I could easily set up a thing to forward calls from that to my Touched-business phone. Yeah. If Pencil hadn’t destroyed my phone’s ability to connect to the towers and my parents had checked where I was? That would have been really bad. 

Well, it also might’ve been good, if it had helped Dad dump a whole bunch of troops on top of the Scions. But bad in other ways. 

Eventually, we reached the racetrack. It was an enormous facility, the arena itself enclosed behind heavy walls with a retractable ceiling for bad weather, a giant garage along the side opposite the entrance where extra work could be done, and two whole car museums attached to either end. The western museum was dedicated to ‘normal’ vehicles throughout history, while the eastern museum was dedicated to showcasing vehicles created, inspired, and/or used by Touched. There was a lot of Tech-Touched stuff in the eastern museum, special stuff developed throughout the past twenty years. I’d spent a lot of time in both museums ever since I was a little kid. Not to mention all the time I’d spent in the stands, watching the eclectic assortment of souped up vehicles speeding past. Tech-Touched liked to bring their vehicles here from all over the world during open-powers races to show off what they could do. It was a lot of fun to watch, and I was excited to see another one now despite my own reservations about everything else. 

Jefferson parked, and we got out. Dad made a broad gesture. “Alright, come on then. Let’s show Izzy how we like to have a good time.” 

And at that moment, I was so into this whole thing that I managed to resist the urge to ask how many teenagers we’d have to kill before Dad and Simon would start enjoying themselves.

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Ready 11-07 (Summus Proelium)

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There was a commissioned interlude posted on Monday covering a look at the in-universe Sphere Online Forum. If you have not seen that yet, you might want to use the Previous Chapter button above. 

At one point when I was younger, before I was even in high school, Simon had told me that the best way to tell a lie was to make it one that still made you look bad. Basically, if you wanted someone to believe the lie, you couldn’t make yourself come out looking perfect. The best lies, according to my brother, were the ones that made the person telling them look at least somewhat in the wrong or bad. You could avoid telling the very damaging truth by telling a less damaging lie. But never try to get off scot-free. That just made people suspicious. People tended to believe you when you confessed to doing something wrong. 

Of course, these days I knew just why my brother was such a connoisseur of lying. But it was still sound advice, nonetheless. Even if the thought of what kind of things he’d needed to hide from me at the time made my stomach turn itself into knots and brought bile to my throat. 

Ignoring that, I focused on the advice itself. I’d been thinking about what lie I was going to tell my parents the whole time that I was on my way home, and preparing for it. Sure, I’d hoped I could get into the house without my absence being noted, but hoping for the best and preparing for the worst was a good motto. So, I’d rehearsed what I could say if this moment actually came, and here it was. 

Shifting and fidgeting on my feet like a little kid who was afraid of getting in trouble, but also scared in general (an easy role to play, given the circumstances), I rubbed my hand against my arm. “I umm… I was just…” Swallowing, I peeked up at the two of them, quickly blurting, “I’m sorry, I know it was stupid and everything. But I really wanted to try and I thought I could do it and it’d look really cool but then I screwed up and it hurt and I didn’t mean to stay out so long but–” I made sure to ramble almost but not quite incoherently, as though I was trying to tell the story from three or four different points and jumbling everything together. It would sound far less rehearsed that way. Which was the exact reason why I’d thought up what I would claim happened without rehearsing specifics. I was pretty sure that was my only chance to make it work. 

Mom quickly shook her head, moving her hands to my shoulders while kneeling right there in front of me. “Principessa, we’re not angry with you. My beautiful girl, we were afraid. We were so afraid. We…” She hesitated, exchanging a brief look with my father before looking back to me, her voice that same gentle, caring tone that made it so hard for me to see her as this merciless, evil supervillain. “Just tell us where you’ve been. We’ve had the police look for you, we had Simon–oh dear, call Simon.” She added that last bit with a nod toward Dad. “We asked the Jacksons if they’d heard from you. No one had. No one knew where you were.” Her voice was trembling a bit, and I immediately felt guilty about making my mother that upset. Which… was a weird feeling, given what I knew about them. What about all the people she’d upset? 

Still, I had to press on. So, I gave them the story that I’d come up with to explain my absence, in a halting, nervous, almost shell-shocked voice. “I was skating out where they’re building that water park on the north-west end of town. You know, the one that umm, the one that’s been on hold with all that union stuff or whatever?” I knew damn well they knew which one I meant, considering my father was one of the financers for that particular development. I’d heard the two of them talking about it a few times here and there. From what I knew, they weren’t exactly happy about the delays. Which made me worry about the people who were opposing it. 

Sure enough, my parents exchanged brief looks before Dad nodded. “Yes, we know it. And we also know that that’s not the north-east part of town, that’s out of town. A couple miles out of town.” 

Cringing a little (again, not a hard thing to fake), I nodded. “Yeah, I… I took an Uber out there. They dropped me off.” 

Dad was squinting at me with narrowed eyes, finally starting to get over his initial relief that I was in one piece. “You had them drop you off to skate in a construction zone outside of the city? Cassidy, you…” He exhaled. “Didn’t we talk about skating in established areas? And being safe. I swear the words ‘be safe’ have come out of my mouth.” 

Wincing visibly under their stares, I nodded and squirmed before reaching down to grab the skateboard with the partially broken wheel that I’d bought from that guy while waiting for my cab. “I-I’m sorry, I just really thought it looked cool. You know, there’s all kinds of equipment and partially filled pool foundations, the cement pieces where the slides are supposed to go, stuff like that. It was empty and quiet, so I thought I could just skate around for awhile and clear my head. I just… wanted to try it. I’m sorry, it was stupid.” 

Mom’s mouth opened, and the way her expression twisted just a little made me think she was going to yell at me. In the end, however, she caught herself, hissing out a wordless sound of annoyance and distress instead. A few long seconds of that passed before she managed to form a coherent response. “Cassidy Sofia Evans, do you have any idea how–what… What happened?” She finally settled on the last bit after Dad put a hand gently on her back. 

“I’m not sure,” I managed, turning the skateboard over so they could see the broken wheel. Then I leaned over to pick up the dented helmet. “I was skating and then I dropped down into one of the pool foundations and… and the wheel snapped or something. I just… I just laid there for awhile. It hurt. Then I got up and tried to call for a ride, but…” After a moment of hesitation, I showed them the phone that I had smashed. “I had to walk back to the city. I used the phone at a gas station to call for a ride once I was close enough, but… but it takes a lot longer to walk back than driving, and that development is way out there so I was kinda going through the middle of nowhere.” 

Biting my lip hard, I glanced up to look at them with an added, “I’m really sorry. I know it was dumb, I just didn’t think it would be that bad. I was…” My face twisted a little as I repeated, even more weakly, “I’m really sorry.” 

My parents didn’t respond at first. Dad just brushed his hand over my hair, staring at the helmet and the board in my hands while looking almost like he wanted to snap both in half. Finally, he exhaled sharply. “That’s… that’s all? You had an accident, broke your phone, and had to walk back to the city?” 

“That’s all?” Mom started incredulously, looking at him like he’d just transformed into a green and purple bunny before hopping around on a pogo stick. 

Dad, in turn, gave her a brief, silent look. I wasn’t supposed to know what he was saying with it, but I did. He was reminding my mother that there were far worse situations I could have been in, given the things they were into. He’d clearly thought up all sorts of nasty things that could’ve happened to me. So getting this (hopefully believable) answer that I’d just been a dumb kid and hurt myself actually was a relief. 

Once they’d exchanged those looks, Dad looked at me. “Are you okay?” His voice cracked just a little as he asked that, clearly remembering the way I’d yelped when he tried to hug me, his fingers very gingerly feeling along my head for a knot or a bruise. 

Wincing a little when he did that, I nodded. “I’m okay, I swear. I’m bruised and everything, but I can remember my name. I remember what day it is, what the president’s name is, our address, all that stuff. I can say the alphabet backwards even though I think that’s more a drunk test than a damaged brain test. I’m okay. Nothing’s broken.” 

“We’re still calling Dr. Roev to examine you,” Mom declared. She gave me a look when I started to protest. “We are calling Dr. Roev, end of discussion. He’ll tell us if you need to go to the hospital. And then we’ll go from there. Don’t argue, you’re already in trouble, young lady. Big trouble.” 

“That’s right,” Dad agreed. “We know grounding doesn’t exactly hold much weight. Not with your room being everything it is, the two of us being so busy, and everything else. And you’re sixteen years old, you shouldn’t need to be grounded. But how’s this? A one month extension onto getting your car. That means instead of getting a car and driving as soon as you get your license, now you wait one month past that.” 

Wow. Not so long ago, getting my licence and my car had been basically everything in the world to me. Now, the reminder that it would be coming up fairly soon was actually surprising. Of course, I still wanted to drive. I wanted my own car and now I was being told that I would have to wait a full month longer than I was supposed to. If things had still been normal for me, that one month extension would have been one of the worst possible (still reasonable) punishments my parents could give me. But in the wake of everything, it just seemed like such small potatoes. 

Still, I had to play it up, so I made my expression fall as if that crushed me. “Whaaat? But I–” 

“No.” Mom quickly cut me off, putting a finger to my lips. “No arguing. Not now. Not…” Trailing off, she leaned in to hug me as tightly as she dared. “Oh, my beautiful girl. You’re okay. You’re safe. Grazie a Dio.” Her voice was shaking just a bit before she straightened and took my hand to lead me to the gate. “Come, we’ll call Dr. Roev and make sure you’re actually safe.” 

Unfortunately, there still wasn’t much I could do to argue about that idea. If I pushed too hard not to have the doctor examine me, I’d just make them more suspicious again. Thankfully, they were having him come to check me out and not going into the hospital for a full-on battery of tests. I’d just have to be satisfied that they weren’t doing blood work or anything like that. 

Dad stayed back to say something to the police officer and the guys in suits. I just assumed that all of them were on my family’s payroll. They’d probably been mobilizing to find out if any of their (our?) enemies had actually grabbed me. Which made me wonder briefly what they’d actually do if that ever happened. Actually, what would I do? Would I find a way to escape from someone who knew me as Cassidy without revealing my powers? Or would I wait to be rescued? 

On our way up the long walk toward the house, Mom was quiet at first before finally asking me in a gentle voice, “Do you… resent having another girl around right now?” When I looked at her, she put a hand on my shoulder to squeeze, expression worried. “If having Izzy here is upsetting you, if it makes you feel as though you can’t be here and have to go out to have privacy…” 

“What?” My eyes widened and I quickly shook my head. “No! No, that’s not it at all, I swear. I like having Izzy around. Seriously, don’t–don’t send her away or anything. I promise, that’s not it. I mean it’s nothing. There’s nothing to be ‘it.’ I just thought it’d be cool to practice my skating in a place like that. You know, with all those huge empty pools and ramps and stuff. I thought I could try some new tricks out there, that’s all. I thought it’d be fun.” 

Only after I’d said all that did I have the thought that telling them I didn’t want Izzy around might have been the better way to go for the girl herself. It might’ve gotten her out of this place and over to… to… where? I still didn’t know what that exact situation was or why she was here. If my parents had her here because they were protecting her from some other enemy of theirs or… something, having her sent away was worse than having her here. God, this was complicated.

Mom’s eyes studied me for a moment through that, clearly trying to see if I was hiding some deep-seated resentment of the girl they had taken in. Finally, she gave a short nod, her expression softening considerably as she touched the side of my face once more. “My beautiful girl. If there is anything you ever want to talk about, anything at all, you can come to me. Or to your father. We love you, Cassidy. Tell us if you need anything, do you understand?” 

“Yes, Mom,” I quietly agreed, shifting a little on my feet before adding, “I’m sorry. I… I didn’t mean to make you worry so much. I won’t go skating in a place where no one can find me like that again.” And I was really hoping I wouldn’t end up in a situation where I needed another excuse for disappearing for hours (or even longer) again. Because if it did, I was pretty sure I’d end up chained to my bedroom or something, which might make being Paintball somewhat harder to pull off. 

We made it inside, Dad joining us at the door after giving his instructions to the men. Once there, we went to the kitchen and my parents insisted that I eat something while we waited for the doctor. So, I had a sandwich. Then another one. I was actually famished after everything that had happened. Having actual food in my stomach made me feel a bit better, though I was still worried about what the doctor would say. All I could do was hope that he wouldn’t find anything that completely blew my entire story out the window. If he did, I didn’t know what I’d do.

For the moment, all I could do was sit there, eat my sandwiches, and wait to see what happened. Throughout all that, Mom and Dad asked me questions about how I felt, where it hurt most, how tired I was, and more. Part of me wondered how much of that was them reassuring themselves that I was here and safe, and how much was them wanting to keep me awake until that doctor of theirs could give me that full check-up. Probably equal parts of both, really. 

Finally, Dr. Roev showed up. He was a tall guy, almost six and a half feet, with pale skin dotted with freckles, a cheerful face with bright red cheeks, and a full head of bushy brown hair. He asked me to stand up, used his little penlight thing on my eyes while asking me to look various directions, checked my heart rate with his stethoscope, felt along my ribs, and used some kind of Tech-Touched imaging device along my head to check for any concussion or brain bleeding or whatever. He also used the same imaging device along my chest to check for broken bones or internal bleeding there, all while having me talk to him. First it was just about what happened, then about myself. He wanted me to tell him my favorite movies, books, what games I liked to play, about people I knew at school, things like that. 

Finally, the doctor straightened and addressed both me and my parents. “No concussions. She’s lucky. She’s clearly taken a bit of a head injury, but she should be okay there. Looks like she cracked a couple ribs and has a lot of bruising. Whatever she hit impacted the most right about here.” He indicated the left side of my sternum, where it hurt the most. “Ice it, get plenty of sleep, and make sure you take a really deep breath and let it out, or cough really hard at least once an hour while you’re awake. When you’re lying down, if you sleep on your side, lay on the injured one. I know, I know, that sounds odd. But lay on your injured side so you can breathe better. Don’t tape it up or anything, that’s bad. Just ice it now and then and make sure you take some ibuprofen or something for the pain. Don’t try to be a hero.” 

Oh, now he told me that last part. I managed a short nod. “Thank you, sir.” 

“Any time, kid.” He winked at me before turning to my parents. “She’ll be okay other than that. Make sure those ribs heal properly. I’d give it a few weeks before she does anything too strenuous again, just to be on the safe side.” 

Dad ruffled my hair, saying something about how I would never be skating by myself in a vacant development again. Then he escorted the doctor to the door while Mom stayed with me. She asked me how I was feeling, then told me to get some sleep and that no one would bother me. Which sounded great to me. All I wanted to do was fall down and stay unconscious for a few weeks. A few hours would have to be enough. 

When Dad came back, he had Simon with him. My brother gave me a hug, called me an idiot, and then Mom told him to take me up to bed. I resisted the impulse to argue that I didn’t need an escort. Instead, I hugged both my parents, promised repeatedly never to do anything that stupid again, and went with Simon. On the way, we grabbed a bottle of heavy-duty pain meds. 

Once we were upstairs, Simon shook his head at me. “You know, if you pull something like that again, Mom and Dad are gonna duct tape you to a chair and just have me wheel you to school. Which is gonna suck, cuz I’ve got my own shit to take care of. So don’t put me through that.” 

Flushing a bit despite myself, I nudged him with my foot. “Thanks, Simon. Love you too.” 

He left me there, and I checked on Izzy next door. She was asleep in her bed, so I went back to my own room, downed a couple Ibuprofen without bothering to turn the lights on, and then sighed while flopping down onto my bed. 

Ow, that was a mistake. There were things in my pockets. Reaching down, I tugged out those two toy planes and the action figure. I’d shoved them in there while changing clothes without even thinking about it. Now, I pulled them out before blinking a bit. In the dark like this, a bit on each toy was glowing. It was glow-in-the-dark paint. Just a little bit on each toy, enough for two small numbers. On the action figure was a six and a two. On the normal fighter jet was a three and a nine, and on the alien-painted fighter was a four and a weird, yet somehow familiar symbol. It looked like a capital E with a diagonal line from the right end of the top horizontal line down to the inside of the bottom corner, crossing through the middle horizontal line on its way. I knew that symbol, but I couldn’t remember from what. I had seen it before, and recently, but… where? Six, two, three, nine, four, and then a weird symbol. It was a combination or a code, or something like that. 

But… a code for what? And why was that crossed through E symbol so familiar? I knew I’d seen it recently. But where?

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