Sterling Evans

Ready 11-06 (Summus Proelium)

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We met up with Skip and Broadway shortly after that, so I promised Pack and That-A-Way that I would talk to them about the whole mall thing later. I was tired, sore, mentally exhausted, and really just wanted to crawl into my bed and sleep for about a million years. But I was also terrified about what was going to happen when I got home. It was late, and my phones completely didn’t work so I had no idea if my parents had noticed me being gone for so long. If they’d been trying to get hold of me, if they’d panicked and called the cops… this could get complicated. And I was so done with everything right then, I was afraid of what I might say. 

The car that Skip showed up in was actually a van. Apparently she’d damaged the Scions’ car enough to leave it undriveable and then abandoned them. Given his immunity to practically anything, there was no way that she could keep Pencil contained long enough to try to call in the authorities. Especially with Cup there and the possibility that they had called in other Scion reinforcements at some point in all of that. The best thing to do was to get out of there while we could. None of us wanted to take the risk of Pencil getting the upper hand again. He’d almost managed it even with all of us there and Skip’s own selective immunities. 

Besides, I was just… again, exhausted. Falling into my seat in the van, I let my head rest against the window while listening to That-A-Way telling Skip what road to take to get out of there, and to Broadway saying something about how she would watch for anyone behind us. 

The next thing I knew, the side door of the van was being slid open and we were in a brightly lit area. I jerked awake, heart thudding its way through a Lars Ulrich drum solo while I looked around wildly, instant panic making me imagine any number of horrible scenarios just then. 

That-A-Way was right there, hand on my arm while she quickly assured me, “It’s okay. It’s alright, Paintball. Hey.” Moving a bit, she gestured to show me that we were just in some kind of illuminated parking garage. “We’re back in Detroit, it’s okay. You’re safe.” Pausing to look at me, the other girl looked for a moment like she was going to say something important. In the end, however, she just carefully asked, “Are you okay? You were… you were shifting around a lot.”

Flinching at the thought of what I could have mumbled, considering the state I was in, I gave a short nod. It took a second to come down off my panic-high, but I finally found my voice. “Y-yeah, I’m good. I’m fine. I mean I’m not fine, but I’ll get over it. You…” Biting my lip, I looked to her. “You guys really saved me. I would’ve been dead without you. I would have died.” Just saying that out loud, even now that I was safe and totally out of that situation, made my heart beat faster while my throat went dry. The memory of Pencil pointing that weapon at me… I shook a bit, shoving the thought down into the basement of my mind before locking the door.

That-A-Way gave me what I knew was a practiced reassuring smile, the kind she used for making civilians feel better about a situation without scaring them. “I’m just glad we were there,” she informed me, before her eyes narrowed. “And as soon as you feel better, I’m hitting you again. Don’t you ever do that, got it? I will not be used as an excuse to let you go off on your own and get yourself killed. If you do, I’ll find a way to bring you back just to kick your ass.” 

Quickly, I held up both hands in surrender. “I know, I know. It was stupid. In my defense, I had no idea that the Scions were involved at all. I wouldn’t have–yeah, I know. It was still stupid. I’m sorry. I just didn’t want anyone else to get hurt because of me. I didn’t want to be–ow.” The last bit was because That-A-Way put her hand out to flick my forehead with one finger. It hurt. 

“Just don’t do it again,” she flatly insisted. “You need help, ask for it. That’s why I gave you my number in the first place.” Pausing briefly, the girl added in a slightly more subdued voice. “Seriously, Paintball, I’m glad you’re okay. I don’t know what…” She shook her head. “Just don’t be that stupid anymore. I really don’t want to find out you got yourself killed after all this. Especially if that thing you were talking about…” Stopping herself, she gestured. “Come on, let’s go.” 

Sliding out of the van after her, I looked around. We were, sure enough, in one of the parking garages downtown. I could see Skip off in the distance, wearing a backpack over one shoulder and talking to what looked like a security guard while Pack and Broadway stood off the other way next to the former’s cage full of lizards. As soon as Pack saw me get out of the van, she approached, leaving her teammate with the cage. “Good,” she started, “you’re awake. So what are we gonna do about everything you said?” Lowering her voice to being barely audible, she added, “Cuz I don’t know about Compass-Power here, but I really wanna know more. Especially if it involves my team.”

“And my team,” That-A-Way agreed, arms folded. “But we can’t really talk about it right now.” 

“Yeah, there’s not time,” I pointed out after stifling a yawn. “My parents are already–” Cutting that off quickly, I blanched before settling on, “I’ll meet both of you later this week, I promise. Just let me recover from all this and we’ll talk about what I know. We’ll figure something out. Especially about that… thing I mentioned with the mall.” Saying those last few words mostly under my breath, I gestured. “But seriously, like I said, don’t tell anyone.” I looked to That-A-Way. “No one on your team, none of the adult heroes. Not even the leaders. Not Caishen, not Brumal, and especially not Silversmith.” 

That-A-Way was squinting at me. “What do you mean, ‘especially not Silversmith?’ He’s not… no.” 

I met her gaze intently. “I’ll explain more later, I swear. Just… just don’t do anything you can’t take back. Telling anyone about this is gonna open a box that none of us can close again. The more people who know about it, the worse it’ll be. Later we can figure out who to trust, but right now, just…. don’t.” 

“And especially not Silversmith,” That-A-Way repeated pointedly, her gaze still locked on me. 

“Yeah,” I murmured, “especially not Silversmith. Like I said, I’ll tell you more later. I just can’t deal with this right now. Don’t talk to anyone about it. Please. This is just a lot to put out there right now.” Looking to Pack, I added, “Check on Eits for me? Make sure he’s still getting better. And I’m sorry about… about everything.” 

Pack promised to do so, before Skip approached. The Ten Towers Touched spoke in that same eerily calm voice of hers that actually helped calm me down, all things considered. “Steven won’t tell anyone we were here. I trust him to be discreet, he has been very helpful before.” Looking to me, she added, “How are your injuries? Will you be able to make it home?” 

Everything hurt, that was for sure. But the fact that I was alive and in one piece right then after everything that happened was honestly such a freaking miracle that it felt like I could’ve danced home. Okay, not really. Ow. Still, I’d get home. I didn’t really have much of a choice, even if the idea of trying to explain to my parents where I’d been was terrifying. “I’ll make it,” I confirmed. 

We said a few more things. I thanked all of them for going the extra however-many-miles to save my stupid life from Pencil. Then I left them. We all separated, and I headed out of the parking garage and out onto the street. Honestly, right then the last thing that I wanted to do was start jumping and running around. But I had to get back home, and first I needed to get to the place I’d stored my clothes on the way over to see Pack and Eits in the first place. 

Despite what I’d said about being okay, I was limping as I left the garage. Fuck. Shit. That hurt. Everything hurt. Getting knocked out by whatever that dart had been was bad enough, but the chase through the woods, getting hit with whatever that gun had been? That was rough. If I hadn’t had my orange paint on when that gun hit me the first time, what kind of shape would I be in now? Would I even be alive? I definitely wouldn’t be walking like this. 

Then again, the only reason I was even still here at all was because of Pack and the others. The four of them had gone out of their way to save my life. The fact that Pack and That-A-Way had put aside any differences they had to save me was enough on its own, but I barely knew Skip. I’d exchanged a few words with her, that was it. And I didn’t know Broadway at all. She was there because of Pack, of course. But still. The four of them had totally saved my ass. Without them, I wouldn’t be alive. I’d be dead. Dead. The thought kept reverberating throughout my mind while I used a bit of red paint to yank myself up to a roof so I could get out of sight. 

Dead. Without them, I would have been dead. Pencil would have killed me. Everything I’d done, and absolutely none of it would have mattered anymore because I’d just be… gone forever. I was only alive because other people had come to save me. People who I still didn’t trust with all my secrets. Or even most of them. 

Was I resisting telling anyone the truth about myself and my family to protect them, or to protect myself? Or worse, to protect my family. Was I so against letting anyone know what my family was because I was still keeping their secrets? What I somehow instinctively still siding with my family even as I outwardly sided against them?

Those thoughts bothered me as I walked across the roof. My hand was rubbing my chest where I had been hit. One of my ribs felt really bad, making me flinch and wince when I touched that spot. It did, at least, distract me from all those troubling thoughts about my motivations. 

Taking a breath, I used blue paint to launch myself out toward the next building. And I instantly regretted it. A shooting rush of pain went through my side and leg, and I basically ended up falling in a heap on the next roof, sprawling out gracelessly before curling into a ball with a groan of pain. Owwww.  

Right, this might have been worse than I thought. I really needed to get home, but running and jumping just wasn’t going to cut it. So, instead, I just used red paint to pull myself from roof to roof and orange paint to ensure that I didn’t land too roughly. Even simple landings that I never would have used the orange paint for any other time needed it. I was basically limping from roof to roof just to get to the spot where I had hidden my clothes. That was all I needed. I would change clothes and then call for an Uber. 

Wait. Call. My phones were both busted as far as getting a signal went. Sighing hard when that thought popped into my head as I hit another roof, I stumbled and half bent over. Nausea welled up in me and I had to fight the urge to throw up or pass out. Or both. After catching my breath, I took out both phones to check them again. Sure enough, still no signal. I was in the middle of town and yet there was no signal. Pencil had definitely not been exaggerating about what his little toy had done. 

Okay, still not the end of the world. I would change clothes and then use the phone at a gas station or something. I’d get a ride home and come up with some kind of excuse for how late I was if it came down to it. Considering it was about four in the morning at that point, I was relatively terrified about how my parents would react if they actually knew I wasn’t in bed. 

At least I had a couple people to help me with the mall problem. I’d had no idea how I was going to get into that secret underground place to find anything else out by myself. But with That-A-Way and Pack, maybe we could actually pull it off. And maybe I would actually manage to think of how much I could tell them. I’d already taken several huge risks with all that and they had come through every time. Pack had come to save me even when she was mad about Eits. She risked her life and the lives of her beloved lizards to save me. That-A-Way had willingly worked with villains to come help me. At what point was I just going to trust them with all of this, with the whole story? What was wrong with me? Part of it, of course, was genuinely wanting to protect them from the things my family could do. But by this point, how much of that was just an excuse? And who was I protecting more, them or my family? I was kind of afraid of what the answer to that actually was. 

Finally, I reached my hidden bag and looked around to make sure things looked clear before starting to change. And damn was that just the worst clothes changing experience of my life. Everything hurt so much. Just lifting my leg to put it into the hole of my jeans made me practically whimper. It felt like I was contorting myself into a pretzel simply by pushing my arms through the sleeves of my shirt and jacket. And I had to do it quickly, because the absolute cherry on the top of this shit day would have been someone spotting me standing on the roof in my underwear and bra. 

Hiding the bag with my costume once more, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to risk taking it home when I didn’t know what the situation there was, I got myself to the ground. After managing that without dying somehow, I did one thing with my personal phone to help sell any story I came up with before walking out to look for a phone to use. Thankfully, the guy in the nearby gas station didn’t raise too much of a fuss, and I was able to call a taxi. Then, while waiting for it, I noticed a guy skating past. An idea popped into my head, so I quickly flagged him down before offering him a hundred bucks for the board and another fifty for his helmet. He took it and, once he was gone, I stepped into the alley and slammed the board against the wall a couple times until I managed to almost snap one set of wheels off. I hit the helmet a few times too. 

Giving the driver instructions to an address a short distance away from my house, I slumped into the seat and exhaled while trying to think of a story I could tell that might actually help. 

Once again, I fell asleep almost immediately. The next thing I knew, the driver in front was clearing his throat and trying to politely wake me up. When my eyes opened, he nodded. “All set.” Pausing then, he added, “You sure you’re okay, kid? You look like someone threw you into a blender.”

Somehow, I managed a slight smile while paying him. “Just need to sleep.”

He gave me a thumbs up while I was getting out. “Well, you get on home and take a nap, son.”

Son. Yeah. Because that was really what I needed right then. Mumbling something but I didn’t even follow myself, I shut the door and shoved my hands into the jacket pockets before walking off. Son. Boy. God dammit. Yes, I had much worse problems than that. That was basically a pebble in my shoe compared to everything else. And yet, it hit me at just the wrong time. I was tired and sore and so much else had happened. Dropping my head as I shuffled along, I forced back the tears. No, they weren’t tears from what he had said. I’d been mistaken for a boy plenty of times. So many people thought I was a rather pretty thirteen or fourteen-year-old boy instead of a sixteen-year-old girl that it should not even have registered anymore.  

No, the tears were mostly about everything. Getting captured, nearly dying, seeing that picture and realizing that the dead boy had obviously been a friend of mine, all of it. Even the fact that I’d clearly missed Bobby by just minutes and now had no idea where else he could be contributed. All of it contributed, until I could barely keep the tears shoved down where they belong. God dammit, I was a girl, but I wasn’t some little baby. I was not going to start sobbing again. Not now. I was going to suck it the fuck up and keep going. 

On the plus side, I was very quickly distracted from any thought of crying. On the negative side, that distraction came because I turned the corner and saw both of my parents standing out on the front walk past the security gate. There was a uniformed police officer and several people in suits standing with them. All of them were in the midst of a really intense conversation.

A brief thought popped into my head that I should try to eavesdrop. But I just stood there, too tired and sore to do anything else by that point aside from dropping the skateboard and helmet off to the side on the grass. Spying could come later. 

Mom was the first to see me. She glanced away from the man she was clearly giving orders to, spotted me, and let out a loud, startled gasp. I saw the men turn, hands going quickly to what were obviously their weapons, while my dad looked up as well.

Then they moved, and just like that, both of my parents were right in front of me. Dad had me wrapped in a tight embrace that he immediately released when I yelped. Mom, who looked as though she was about to pull me to her, came up short at that, her eyes widening. “Cassidy?” As she said my name, her hand went out to gently touch my face with trembling fingers. It was like she was convincing herself I was really there. Dad had one hand on the side of my head, I could see his chin quivering a little before he got himself under control. It was clear that both of them were barely holding themselves in any sort of order. And the only reason they hadn’t already crushed me was that quick yelp when Dad had tried the first time. 

“Cassie,” Dad started then, his voice cracking a bit. Are you okay? What happened? Where have you been? You never came home after dinner, and… and you didn’t answer your phone.”

“Yes, Cassidy,” Mom agreed, looking as though she was torn between hugging me until I couldn’t breathe or choking me to achieve the latter effect immediately.

“What happened to you?”

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Fault 10-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Apparently, it wasn’t exactly easy to find out where a retired security agent slash bodyguard to the rich and powerful like Robert Parson lived. He didn’t have an address listed online, a Facebook profile, or anything like that. Probably because being in that line of work tended to introduce you to a lot of people who would do very bad things with that kind of information. 

Still, Eits promised he could get me something soon. It would just take awhile. So, for the moment, I was stuck on that front. Just like I was stuck on most fronts. Aside from getting the details about that guard guy’s son (his name was Matthew Orens, while his son was Josh) so I could make up a storybook for him. 

Other than that, I still had to find out what was up with Paige, but had no idea of how to get information out of her when she hated my civilian self and wanted to protect my Touched self. I had no idea how to sneak into that mall base without getting caught so I could find out more about my family that way. And Tomas’s dad was still holed up in meetings in their house, making snooping around there totally impossible. 

So, that was my situation as of two days (now Friday of the first week in April) after my first time at Seraph HQ. Basically, I was in a holding pattern for the moment on everything. Which was kind of okay in some ways, because I had a shit load of homework to do. And I had to do it, or Mom and Dad would wonder what was keeping me so busy that I couldn’t keep up with my classes. Which I really didn’t want them to do. They had to keep thinking that my life was completely normal, boring, safe, and all that. 

To that end, I was sitting in the library during lunch hour, poring over some notes while filling in a worksheet for math. I was so focused on the problems on the page in front of me (and the much more personal problems filling up an entire vault in the back of my head) that I didn’t notice the other problem make her way into the library until she was right up at the edge of the table. 

“Aww, look at this,” Paige announced to a couple of the random cronies who liked to follow her around looking for scraps, “a little boy wandered into school and got lost.” She adopted a tone like she was talking to a child then, leaning in with wide, expressive eyes. “Hiya, little buddy. Are you sure you shouldn’t be with the rest of the seventh grade in the other school? This…” She made an exaggerated encompassing motion with her finger. “… is the big people library.” 

I counted to three before responding, but it didn’t help. Maybe I should’ve counted longer. Or not engaged at all. Instead, I plastered a fake smile to my face and turned to look at the taller girl. “Wow! Library! That’s a big word, Paige!” My voice dropped, turning dark. “Can you spell it?” 

The glare that she shot right back at me was almost chilling. “Sure,” the girl all-but snarled. “Library. It starts with L. As in…” She reached out to poke me firmly in the forehead. “Loser.” 

Okay, I definitely should have left it alone there. I should’ve gotten up and walked away. That was the right thing to do, the mature thing to do. I, however, did not do the right, mature thing. It was just… too much. Everything I’d taken in lately, everything I’d found out and was putting up with, the stress of having no idea what to do next about any of it, was just… it was too much.

So, I did what I really shouldn’t have. I took a swing at her. Lunging up from the chair and turning, I lashed out with a wild punch. Paige, taken completely by surprise, took the punch on her cheek and reeled with a yelp. She tripped over her own feet and fell backward, her hand reflexively grabbing for something and catching my extended arm to pull me down as well. She hit the floor on her back a second before I landed on top of her, still surprised not only by that little fall, but also by the fact that I’d swung at her at all. I hadn’t meant to do that. 

Before I could recover (and while Paige herself still looked totally shocked by the whole situation), two different people grabbed me by the shoulders and arms to pull me off of the other girl. One was Mandy, one of Paige’s devoted lackeys/’friends.’ The other was just some slightly older guy, a senior who had been studying a couple tables over before all this started.

What in the hell is going on over here?” The demanding voice came from one of the senior year teachers, a pot-bellied man with short blond hair wearing a dark suit with red suspenders visible through the open jacket. He was already walking (more like stalking) our way, looking between Paige and me as her other friend helped the girl up. “Just what do you kids think you’re doing?” 

Still breathing hard, I felt a rush of embarrassment and horror wash over me. What the hell was I doing? How did I let this happen? Why would I–damn it! My only solace was that at least I hadn’t been stupid enough to use any powers in my anger, but still. Taking a swing at Paige, actually hitting her? How was that going to help anything? What the hell was wrong with me?

Before I could actually find my voice, Paige actually spoke. “Nothing,” she said flatly, drawing surprised looks not only from me, but from the teacher and both lackeys too. One of the other girls opened her mouth to say something, only to get quickly elbowed by the one next to her. 

The teacher raised an eyebrow. “Excuse me, Miss Banners? Are you really trying to tell me that you and Miss Evans here weren’t just brawling across the floor of the library a moment ago?”

Somehow, I restrained the urge to reflexively agree with the man about how baffling that claim was. The senior student, who had still been holding my arm up to that point, released me and stepped out of the way, shrugging helplessly at the teacher as though he was just as confused. 

Paige, meanwhile, simply gave a short nod. “It’s no big deal. We weren’t fighting. Cassidy over there just jumped up too fast, we collided, and fell down.” She gave me a very brief look before turning back to the man, her voice careless and disinterested. “Her head hit my face. It was a dumb accident.” Eyes shifting back toward me to squint a bit, she added pointedly, “Wasn’t it?” 

I honestly had no idea why she was doing this. It was her big chance to actually get me in trouble. She hadn’t hit me first or anything. I had totally and completely started the actual physical fight. Hell, Paige hadn’t actually hit me at all. And she had three witnesses (two of whom were her friends, but I was pretty sure she didn’t even know the older boy) to back that up. Yet, despite all that, she was claiming this wasn’t a fight at all. Why would she do that? Why? What was her angle? 

Realizing everyone was looking at me, I belatedly gave a short nod. Confused as I was (and while part of me thought this might be a trap of some kind), there was no way I was going to argue right now. My voice was tight. “Yeah,” I managed to get out. “It was just an accident.” 

From the way he looked between us, I was almost positive that the teacher didn’t actually buy that. For a moment, it seemed like he was trying to decide if this was worth pursuing when both of us were claiming it wasn’t a fight. In the end, he must’ve decided against it, because the man just gave a short nod. “Fine. It was just an accident then. But…” He looked at me, squinting. “Let’s see if we can try to avoid any more of these accidents for awhile, shall we, Miss Evans?” 

Meeting his gaze, I swallowed slightly before nodding. I definitely agreed with that. As angry and frustrated as Paige tended to make me, I couldn’t just go around attacking her. Even if she totally deserved that punch and maybe a few–no, Cassidy, stop it right now. Shutting down that line of thought, I made myself answer as politely as possible, “Yes, sir. I’ll be more careful.” 

Accepting that after watching me for a long moment, the teacher replied, “See that you do. Because if something like this comes up again, I promise you that the other faculty will know where it started. And we won’t let it go again.” With that warning, the man turned to walk out of the library, grabbing his briefcase satchel off the table where he’d dropped it on his way over. 

Once he was gone, the older student who had helped pick me up looked at me. “Uh, you…” He paused, trying to decide how much he should say before eventually settling on, “You good?” 

I nodded, not trusting my voice, and the boy turned toward Paige. “For the record, I don’t know what your game is, but you totally had that punch coming. I think–” Stopping himself, the boy finally shook his head. “Whatever, I’m not getting into the drama. Just stop being a bitch.” 

He left then as well, walking out of the room. Halfway out, however, the boy stopped and frowned before looking back at me. “Hey, you coming?” He asked me. Clearly, he’d thought twice about leaving me alone in the library with Paige and her friends after what just happened. 

Honestly, he had a point. There was no way I was going to get anywhere with Paige right now. Not after I’d just hit her and she had a couple hangers-on standing around. She might’ve not wanted to escalate things to the school authorities for some reason (maybe just to keep herself out of the spotlight), but I was under no delusion that that would suddenly make us friends. In fact, I was pretty sure she was already planning out how to get her own form of revenge. 

So, I gave a short nod, grabbed my books from the table, and started out. On the way, I glanced back to Paige and her friends. All three were staring after me. The other two were glaring, their looks making it clear that they at least wanted to pay me back. Paige, on the other hand, looked different. Her expression was basically unreadable. She didn’t seem angry, more… curious? 

Whatever, maybe that just meant she was quietly plotting. Either way, I didn’t want to be in that room, so I followed the boy out to the hall, trying not to think about what would come next with Paige. The whole way, I was silently berating myself for losing my cool and taking that swing. 

“Hey,” the boy who was walking with me started as soon as we were out, “seriously, you okay? That chick really did have it coming for that shit in there, but uhh…” He paused, glancing at the now-closed doors of the library where Paige and her friends were. “I’d watch your back from now on. She and her minions don’t really strike me as people who just let stuff like that go.” 

As he spoke, I took another look at him. He was on the handsome side of things, though not quite as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as Tomas. Much taller than me, of course, but that wasn’t saying much. My best guess was that he was maybe an inch over six feet, with long brown hair that he wore in a ponytail. The school uniform (black pants, black blazer, and blue shirt) he was wearing had been personalized with a dark pink tie instead of the normal white one. People earned the right to wear different-colored ties (though the actual color still had to be approved by a faculty member) through various school services. It was a reward sort of thing. I wasn’t sure why he’d chosen to go with pink. 

“Uhh, yeah, probably not.” There was no need to get into the whole history between Paige and me (even the public version), so I just shrugged. “I’ll keep my eyes open.” Starting to turn, I stopped, looking back with an awkward, “Thanks for, you know, jumping in back there.” 

“No worries,” he replied. “You’re uh, Cassidy Evans, right?” His chin inclined. “I’m Owen Kright.” 

“Yup, that’s me,” I confirmed. It wasn’t surprising that he knew who I was. It wasn’t like my family was exactly private. “Wait, Owen Kright, didn’t you used to drive that awesome seventy-eight Firebird? I used to wait for you to pull in just so I could see it. What happened? I haven’t seen it in the lot lately.”

With a grimace, the boy replied, “Dad. Gotta get the grades back up or the car’s not the only thing I’ll be missing. That’s why I was in the library to begin with.” 

It was my turn to grimace. “Sorry we interrupted you then. Trust me, the last thing I want is to be responsible for keeping a hot thing like that off the streets.” 

His mouth opened, then shut as he coughed before shaking his head. “Don’t worry, like I said, it wasn’t your fault. But ahh, I do have to run if I’m gonna grab food before class starts. Mr. Tanners lets us bring food into class, but I kinda need to have the food to begin with.” 

“Oh, right, yeah.” Giving a quick nod, I waved him off. “Say no more. Flee for your food.” 

He started to, before slowing to look over his shoulder. “Hey, since you’re into that kind of thing, if I get my car back, maybe you can take it for a spin once you get your license. Let me know!” 

Waving blankly at him, I frowned thoughtfully to myself for a moment before shaking it off. The hallway was pretty busy, so I stepped into the passing line of people and headed for my own locker. 

With any luck, I could get through the rest of the day without any more confrontations with Paige. 

******

Luck was with me. Sort of. Enough that I didn’t have another run-in with Paige for the rest of the day (I saw her, but we ignored each other), but not enough that I actually got answers to any of the many problems I still had to deal with. Apparently ‘not making things even worse’ was going to have to be good enough. 

After being brought home by Jefferson, I thanked him and stepped out of the car in front of the house. Hearing a sound from behind me, I turned just in time to see Dad coming out of the front door, accompanied by another man. This guy basically seemed to embody ‘distinguished handsome’. He looked like George Clooney in his prime. He and my father were deep in conversation until they both saw me, then immediately stopped talking. 

“Ah, Eric, this is my daughter, Cassidy.” Dad gestured to me, then to the man. “Cassidy, this is Eric Abbot, a business associate.” 

“I’m surprised we haven’t met before,” Mr. Abbot announced, extending a hand to me. “Your father and I have been doing business for a long time.” 

Right, so which supervillain was he? That was the first thought that popped into my head, even as I accepted the man’s offered hand. Belatedly, I found my voice. “You must be friends then.” 

“Oh, I’d like to think so,” he replied, giving my hand a firm shake before releasing it. “Good enough friends that I know you’ll be getting your license soon. Your father says you’re bouncing off the walls about it.” 

With a soft chuckle, Dad spoke up. “Normally, anyway. I think the kid’s trying to play it cool lately to convince me she’s mature.” He pointed at me then. “But I’m onto you. I see all. Remember, I know when you’ve been bad or good.” 

“That’s Santa,” I pointed out mildly. 

“Yeah?” My father gave me a look. “And if you think that proves me wrong, have I got some interesting news for you, Sparky.” 

After another minute of back and forth (that actually made me even more sad as it went on for how much it made me think of the great times I’d had with my dad), the two of them excused themselves to head out. The last thing I heard between the two was Dad telling Mr. Abbot that he and ‘Melissa’ (his wife?) would have to come over for dinner some time. Then they got in the car with Jefferson and drove off. 

Shaking my head and muttering under my breath, I had just turned back to head into the house once more when my phone buzzed. Belatedly, I realized it was my extra phone, the one I used for Touched stuff. With a brief look around to make sure I was clear, I checked the text. It was from a number I didn’t recognize, reading, ‘Wtf did you do?’ Even as I stared at that in confusion, a second message came in from the same number. ‘It’s Pack. Call.’ 

What did I do? What did I do? Confused, I hesitated before turning away from the house. I trotted off the grounds, leaving through the gate with a wave to the guard there and an explanation that I was going for a walk. 

Only when I was safely away from home did I hit the button to dial the number Pack was calling from. And only while it was ringing did I think to quickly turn on the voice changer program. It came to life just as the phone was answered. “Paintball?” 

“Pack?” I replied after giving a quick look around the empty street. “What’s going on? Are you o–” 

“What the fuck did you say to Eits? What was he doing for you?” came the quick interruption. 

“Uhh, wait, what do you–” 

That was as far as I got before Pack pushed on. “Look, I’ll give you an address. You better get your ass down here. And you better be ready to explain what the hell is going on.

“Because whatever Eits was doing for you, some motherfuckers just beat the shit out of him because of it. Paintball, it’s… you… fuck, you just better get here soon. 

“He’s in really bad shape.”

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Private Affairs 9-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“Oh, don’t you even think about it! Don’t you think about going after that star. That star is mine!” 

Even as I blurted those words, my fingers worked frantically over the controller. I shot a quick glance toward Izzy, who sat beside me in the game room (the one that was directly across the hall from our bedrooms, not the main one with the billiards tables and all that). “All I need is one more and this game is over! You’re going down, Little Missy Izzy!” I declared confidently. 

That confidence took a pretty big hit a second later as I sent my character around the corner in the virtual maze only for them to trip over a wire that had been strung up. My yelp in real life almost matched the sound of the star that popped out of the character’s flashing body from the impact. 

“Thanks!” Izzy called, as her avatar popped out of hiding and grabbed the star. She hadn’t been going after the one I thought she had been after all. She’d simply made me think she was and laid a trap. A trap that I had blundered right into, instantly losing my advantage. Now she had two stars and only needed to find one more. Then she’d be the one who ended the match. 

Quickly hitting the buttons to get my character back on her feet, I glanced toward the other girl once more. We were both wearing a pair of special glasses. They had come with the game. One pair was red, the other blue. The gimmick was that what the red glasses let you see on the screen was different from what the blue glasses let you see. The screen itself was divided into two halves and when I looked at the half that was Izzy’s side, all I saw was a static image of her character that showed her current amount of life, how many stars she had, and a few other details. When she looked at my side of the screen, she’d see the same for me. It let us play a split-screen game without either of us being able to cheat by watching what the other person was doing.

Unsurprisingly, I hadn’t really gotten that far with either of my goals earlier. Tomas said something about how his dad was apparently going to be holed up in meetings inside his home office for the next few days with a bunch of other people. Snooping around that place in the best of times wasn’t going to be easy. If his father had other probable bad guys around? Yeah, forget about it. He was probably dealing with the aftermath of letting Paige get away alive and intact with the information she stole. 

Either way, going over there wasn’t going to work right now. And as far as Paige herself went, I hadn’t had any luck on that end either. She’d disappeared shortly after the last class, and I hadn’t been able to track her down as myself or as Paintball. She might’ve been at her house, but the place was almost as big as ours and just as protected (and I didn’t know where all the cameras were there like I did here). I’d waited around a bit, but never saw her. I was going to have to try again another day. And didn’t the idea of spending multiple days actively trying to spend time with Paige Banners just fill me with absolute joy and giddiness? No. No, it did not. 

Anyway, the point was that I couldn’t do anything with either of those at the moment. And I’d needed a break. More importantly, Izzy needed someone to spend time with her. I already felt bad about leaving her alone in the house for so long. Not alone. Worse, leaving her in a house that I knew for a fact was full of evil, evil people who were fine with killing innocent teenagers. 

Yes, despite our many issues, I was still counting Paige as innocent. I didn’t know everything that was going on there, but I had no reason to think she was actually evil. A mean bitch who went out of her way to mock and insult me, sure. Someone I would gladly punch in the face? Undoubtedly. But not someone who deserved to be shot in the head. There were levels of bad.

So I was here, playing a game with Izzy. And currently getting my butt kicked as I was unable to catch up with her before she managed to grab the last star. As I groaned and fell onto my back, she dropped the controller and cheered while pumping her hands into the air a few times. On the screen, we could finally see each other’s sides, as my own character slumped and shook her head, while hers jumped up and down with the three stars spinning around her triumphantly.

“Sounds like someone’s having fun in here.” That was my father’s voice as he stepped into the room and smiled down at the two of us. “How’re we doing, girls?” he asked, giving a brief glance toward the screen. “Ooh, this one. You should see the next game, it looks pretty good.”  

Izzy’s head shook. “The next one isn’t gonna be out for another few months, Mr. Evans.” 

With a wink, Dad replied, “You’d be surprised what’s ‘out’ when you invested in their start-up ten years ago. But you’re right, it’s not ready for the public. Too many glitches. Just saying, you’re definitely gonna love it.” He let those words trail off teasingly while reaching down to rub the top of my head affectionately, his fingers gently stroking through the side that had long hair.  

A memory flashed through my mind, the memory of hearing Mr. Jackson on the phone telling my father that he would handle the situation with Paige by shooting her in the head. While I haven’t heard Dad’s side of the conversation, he obviously hadn’t objected. Plus, I’d heard him talk with Simon about killing ‘me.’ Or rather, the person who had witnessed those murders. 

It took everything I had not to freeze up or show much visible reaction as the wave of revulsion swept through me. It was joined by a rush of confused feelings. How could my awesome dad be like that? How could he be okay with killing people?  How could he be a supervillain? All of which was combined with my feelings about the fact that the man who had been my favorite superhero for so long was both my father and actually a villain, an evil psychopath. Damn it, why? Why?! That was the single word I wanted to scream at him in that moment. I wanted to demand that he explain himself and it took everything in me to stay outwardly calm. 

Swallowing back that reaction, I took a breath before turning to look up at him. Somehow, I managed to keep my voice from shaking or cracking too much as I slowly held up the controller. “You want a chance to try to beat the champion over there? Maybe you’ll have more luck.” 

“Oooh, wish I could,” Dad lamented with a shake of his head. “But I’ve got too much to do right now. Got a meeting to run to. Just wanted to make sure you guys were okay up here. All good?” 

A meeting? What kind of meeting? Was he going out to see Mr. Jackson?  Was this related to the fact that Tomas had said his dad was going to be busy for the next few days? Or was my father going out as Silversmith? Hell, I wouldn’t even be able to tell for sure if I saw that Silversmith had been out later, considering Dad clearly had a way of having someone else appear in his place. And how did he do that, anyway? How was he able to appear on the roof at that party that Pencil had interrupted both in his civilian guise and as Silversmith? Was the fake Silversmith just a body double who didn’t actually have any of his powers, or had some kind of tech to fake it, or did Dad somehow share his powers with the other person, or… or… what? 

Yeah, I had no idea. Somehow, I managed to tell my father good luck and he dismissed himself a moment later, heading out of the room with an added promise that he would be back at some point to beat both of us at the game. He said he’d take both of us on, so we should practice. 

After he was gone, Izzy looked at me with a slight frown. She’d taken the glasses off and there was concern in her eyes. “Cassie?” she started slowly. “Are you okay? You seem a little weird.” 

Shit, right. My father hadn’t been able to see my face from his position behind me, but she had, and had clearly picked up something in the split second before I had gotten control of myself. Thankfully, I didn’t think she’d noticed too much. I’d kept it together for the most part. 

“Sorry,” I replied, forcing myself to smile just a bit. “Maybe I’m just hungry. You wanna go grab a snack real quick? Then we’ll get right back up here and play another game. But I warn you, it might get pretty violent up in here, so you better be ready. Suddenly, I feel like I really–” 

*****

“–need to punch something in the face!” 

It was a few hours later, and I was out as Paintball. The words that blurted out of my mouth were accompanied by my actual fist slamming into the side of a man’s mouth as I threw myself away from the wall where I had been clinging, watching him and his partner corner some poor girl in the alley. They had just shoved her to the ground when I made my presence known. 

Yeah, I couldn’t do anything about the Jacksons or Paige just yet. But I could still do some good for random people. Hopefully, that would take my mind off of… everything else. That was the idea, at least. And right now, it was working. Hitting a couple thugs who were trying to rob (and maybe do worse things to) some innocent woman? Yeah, I could definitely handle that. 

Thanks to the purple paint boosting my strength, the guy I punched was knocked to the ground with a yelp. His buddy quickly raised the pistol in his hand that he had been threatening their victim with, but I used a shot of red paint to yank it from his hand and tossed it down the alley. He let out a cry and lunged my way with a wild swing. As he did so, I used green paint to speed myself up, ducking under his arm and stepping behind him, pivoting before using the last of the purple strength to lash out with a kick into his back that knocked him down on top of his friend. 

Still sped up by the green paint, I moved quickly while the men were tangled up with each other. Producing a pair of normal handcuffs I’d picked up, I clicked one shut around the wrist of the man I had kicked to the ground, and the other around part of the nearby dumpster to trap him. 

The first guy was scrambling on his hands and knees towards the gun that I had tossed away. With a sigh, I used blue paint to throw myself into a leap, turning over in the air to land on the ground between the man and the gun, facing him. “Tell you what, dude. Let’s play red light, green light. Red light!” With that, I shot two bits of red to his shoulders, yanking him off the ground and toward me. As he was pulled my way, I blurted, “Green light!” Then I dismissed the red paint while simultaneously speeding myself up once more with green paint so I could quickly dodge out of the way just before the man slammed face first into the wall behind me. 

Before he could recover, I used another pair of handcuffs on him. This was a set of stay-down cuffs, so he definitely wouldn’t be going anywhere. He lay on the ground groaning and cursing.

“Hey,” I informed him, “just be glad our red light-green light game didn’t involve an actual car.” 

Turning away from them both, I stepped over to where the girl was. She looked to be a few years older than me, probably in college. Her eyes were wide, her breath coming in deep, rapid gasps as she stared up at me while working her mouth repeatedly. No sound was coming out.

“It’s okay,” I promised, extending a hand to her. “Trust me, those guys aren’t going to hurt you.”

Tentatively, she took my offered hand, letting me help her to her feet. Still, it took her another moment to find her voice. “I–you…they…” The girl finally managed before giving a violent shudder. Then she was suddenly hugging me tightly. “Thanks. Thank you so much. Oh, my God. They were going to–they were–and you were–but they–” Her voice cracked again, and she was hugging me even tighter than before. “Oh God, if you weren’t here, y–you’re amazing!”  

A deep blush spread out over my face and I hesitantly returned the hug. What else was I supposed to do? Even as a brief flash of guilt about the fact that I still couldn’t do anything about my evil family washed over me, I pushed it away firmly. This girl didn’t care about any of that stuff. All that mattered right now, in this moment, was that she was safe. That was enough.  

Once the girl was calmed down as much as I could manage, I used the doephone app to let the authorities know where to pick these guys up and what had happened. Then I waited with her for another few minutes until the patrol car showed up. As soon as the cop stepped out and the girl (her name was Macy, apparently) ran up to him, I excused myself, using a shot of red paint to yank myself all the way up to the roof of the building we were next to. 

Clambering up onto the roof, I spoke immediately. “So, how did I do? Good enough to pass?” 

A guy in a military camouflage suit (black and brown), along with a ski mask and heavy-looking gauntlets stood a few feet away. It was the Minority guy, Whamline. He tilted his head a little at my words, before curiously asking, “So you knew I was up here watching the whole time?”  

My head shook as I admitted, “Not the whole time. I saw you looking down back when I jumped over that guy partway through.” Idly gesturing over my shoulder, I added, “Figured you were getting ready to hand out my score. So, like I said, how’d I do? Did the Russian judge screw me over on points again? I swear he never gives out anything higher than a five, the stingy jerk.”  

Snorting a bit at that, the Minority Touched replied, “Looked pretty good from up here. You definitely saved that girl. I’m just still a little confused about the whole good guy or bad guy thing. Like I said the other day, you’re all buddy buddy with a few villains, but you’re also helping people. Most Star-Touched aren’t palling around with the people who are hurting the city.” 

Oh boy, would he ever have been surprised. Or maybe he wouldn’t be. Honestly, for all I knew, he was working with my father and trying to sniff out what I actually knew. There was just no way to tell right now. I definitely couldn’t trust him. I couldn’t trust anybody. Look at what happened with the whole Tomas situation. I had thought that his family was at least somewhat safe considering they’d been out of the city for so long, and it turned out that his father was one of my family’s top enforcers or agents or whatever. So yeah, confiding in Whamline (or anyone else) right now just wasn’t going to happen. It wasn’t worth the risk. 

So, I just shrugged at the boy. “I help people who need help,” I informed him. “Blackjack’s daughter needed help. That girl back there needed help. I wasn’t going to say that Blackjack’s kid could rot in hell just because of who her father is. There’ll be other chances to bring him in.”

“Yeah, that’s fair,” Whamline agreed. “But you’re still a little confusing. I don’t know what it is, I just feel like there’s a lot more to this whole situation that you’re not talking about. And something tells me that something is gonna end up exploding in a lot of our faces. Not saying I don’t like you, or that you’re bad… just… something’s dangerous about you. About all of this.” 

What was I supposed to say to that? He wasn’t exactly wrong. There was a good chance that, even if he wasn’t knowingly working with my evil father, the whole situation would still end up going bad. It was just… too fragile. Someone was going to get hurt at some point. 

In the end, all I could do was reply, “I have my reasons, my own issues. But those are my issues. The point is, I really do want to help people. That’s important, right?” 

He nodded once. “Yeah, it’s definitely important. And that’s what bugs me. Because you’re just… you’re helping people. But every time I look at you, I just get this… feeling that–” Cutting himself off, he sighed out loud. “I’m sorry. Look, I’m sorry, okay? I’m just paranoid. I’m glad you’re out here helping people. I’m glad you helped Blackjack’s daughter, no matter who her father is. I’ve seen a bit of what Rot-Bone can do, and it’s not–no one should go through it. So, good job, seriously. And thanks for helping Way before, at the hospital.” 

I assured him that it wasn’t a big deal, but he disagreed. Thanking me again, while still being clear in his body language is that he thought there was more to me, the boy held his hand out. A glowing energy coil shot from it to a nearby billboard and he used it to swing himself over to the next building. From there, a second energy coil lashed out to catch the taller building beyond so the boy could swing himself out and around it. Then he was gone. 

For a moment, I continued to stand there, watching after his departing form. A long, slow sigh escaped me, as my head shook. Right. As much as I might’ve wanted to explain everything to someone, I couldn’t. Certainly not him. I had to keep all this under control.  And, for the moment, I had to distract myself. 

Maybe I could find another bad guy who needed to be punched.

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Friends and Enemies 8-04 (Summus Proelium)

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So, we had our family dinner with Izzy. I wanted to say that it was full of tension, fear, and thinly veiled ominous words. But the truth was worse. Because there weren’t any of those things. It was fun. It was a great meal and both of my parents were clearly out to impress Izzy. Dad joked a lot and Mom told some stories about when she was a little girl and had to sit around a boring hotel room while her father was on business. 

Mom had other stories too, but they were ones that she didn’t share as much anymore. Specifically, they were stories about all the beauty pageants she had to go to as a kid and teenager. She used to tell me those stories all the time, but stopped when it became clear I was… developing differently. I was too small and too… yeah. The only way I would ever be a model is if I stayed in the children’s category. 

So, Mom had stopped telling those stories when that kind of thing started bothering me. She didn’t make some announcement about it or anything, they just gradually stopped. I knew why, but we never really talked about it. Honestly, I probably wouldn’t mind hearing more of those stories now that I was a little older and not quite as bothered by my development. 

Except that my mother was evil and dammit, I kept forgetting that. Seriously, I would be sitting there listening to my parents talk and it would entirely slipped my mind that they were villainous masterminds who actively controlled the criminal underworld in the entire city. They were just my mom and dad, for God’s sake. It was so easy to let myself stop thinking about the truth for short lapses. 

But that was kind of the point, wasn’t it? My parents were incredibly good at fooling everyone, especially me. Actually, no, not especially me. Especially all the people they interacted with who weren’t me. Of course I didn’t suspect that my own father was both a supervillain and the leader of one of the preeminent superhero teams at the same time. Who would actually suspect that of their own father? But the fact that they managed to keep all this secret from so many much smarter and much stronger people for so long showed just how good at this they were. 

So yeah, they were clearly laying on the charm for dinner. Simon even brought up a sci-fi movie coming out soon that he and Izzy both wanted to see. The two of them talked about that for a few minutes, equally engaged with each other despite the age difference. 

Well, Simon did most of the talking. Though she was coming out of her shell a little bit, Izzy still didn’t say much. I could tell she was interested in what he was saying, and she did speak up a couple times, but mostly she just listened and nodded. 

Eventually, dinner was over, along with dessert. Dad leaned back in his seat and checked his watch. “Well, I’ve got a Skype interview in a few minutes with that Lincoln Chambers guy from the LA Times about Elon’s latest stunt, but you kids should do something fun. What about that movie you were talking about?”

Izzy hesitated before quietly speaking up. “It doesn’t come out for another week.”

Dad simply shrugged, taking his cell phone out. “Not for most people. Let me make a call real quick.”

So, he was on the phone for a minute while Izzy looked to me a bit incredulously. I shrugged back at her before Dad clicked off the phone. “Right, it’s all set. They’re bringing over one of the drives with the movie on it and you can all watch it in the theater.”

Izzy stared at him. “Theater? What theater?”

With a grin, Simon teased, “Haven’t explored that much around here yet, have you?”

Quickly, I spoke up. “It’s not a full theater, we just call it that. There’s just a few rows of seats and a screen that’s like half the size of what you might find in a real theater.”

From the way Izzy stared at me, I was pretty sure that hadn’t really made her find the whole thing any less ridiculous. Which was fair. 

Dad was talking again. “It’s gonna take them an hour or so to bring the drive over for the projector. Why don’t you three run out and pick up some treats in the meantime? Make a big night of it, that’ll do you all some good.”

If only he knew just what I’d been up to lately and how busy my recent nights had been. Then he’d really think I needed a break. Though how literal that was, I couldn’t be sure. 

That particular fun thought made me blanch inwardly,  though I fought like hell to keep the reaction off my face. I might have tried to find a way to decline, except for two things. One, it definitely would’ve raised suspicions that I didn’t want raised. And two, if I didn’t do this, it would leave Izzy alone with Simon. Which… yeah, while I really didn’t expect him to hurt her or anything, leaving them alone like that felt like a bad idea for reasons I couldn’t really explain even to myself. It felt wrong and I didn’t want to do it. 

Plus, Izzy actually looked a little bit excited about something and like hell was I going to crush that by naysaying things. No, thank you. 

So, the three of us went to the garage. Izzy stood there for a moment, mouth falling open as she stared wide-eyed at all the vehicles. A sound of disbelief and amazement escaped the younger girl. 

Laying a hand on her shoulder, I murmured, “Dad likes to collect cars.” And up until very recently, I loved spending time in here going over every single one of them with a fine-tooth comb. God, I’d loved these cars and the idea of soon driving them. Now being in here was a reminder of just where our money came from and how much blood was on it. And I didn’t even know the full truth about how much blood that happened to be, just that it was a lot. 

Of course, Simon went straight to the 71 Cuda. “Come on, we’ll take Royal Thunder. That’s Cassidy‘s favorite.” 

Glancing to me, Izzy questioned, “Royal Thunder?”

Biting my lip, I explained, “The first car Dad had when he was younger was a 67 Barracuda. He said it was practically junk when he got it. He had to rebuild almost the whole thing. And the muffler didn’t work perfectly, so he nicknamed it Thunder. When he got this one, it was a lot more expensive and all that, so it became Royal Thunder.”

The words felt hollow in my throat, while they had always previously made me feel really close to my father. The stories he would tell me about putting that old car back together and all his frustration and joys in finally making it work meant so much to me. That was why Royal was my favorite. It was a connection to my father. And now… sigh. 

Pushing that back, I got into the car. Izzy and I both slipped into the back, leaving Simon in the front. As he pulled the car out of the garage and headed down the long driveway, Simon spoke over his shoulder. “How much longer you got left until you get through Drivers Ed anyway?” 

“A month,” I murmured, though I couldn’t keep a smile entirely off of my face. I had been looking forward to driving for basically my entire life. Even with everything that I had found out, not to mention just how crazy and fun my paint method of travel already was, the idea of finally driving still made me grin. It was one part of my old self that I didn’t have to fake enthusiasm for, even if it was a bit subdued. I was pretty sure Simon just took that as me trying to hide it and play cool. 

In any case, we drove out to the mall and picked up a bunch of treats. The whole time we were walking around, I noticed Izzy constantly looking around. She tried to be subtle about it, but she was definitely watching for anything bad. It was almost like she expected to get jumped. Which, of course, made me even more curious about what her deal was. She definitely wasn’t being held hostage, at least as far as she knew. She wasn’t upset about being with my family. But they still could have done something to her without her knowing it was them. Or maybe she was collateral damage from one of their things and they felt guilty? That could be it. 

Leaving the mall with our arms full of packages, we still haven’t encountered anything like what Izzy could have been afraid of. However, I had noticed a couple of Simon’s friends standing around basically anywhere we went. They were clearly keeping an eye on us. Though exactly why, I wasn’t sure. But it couldn’t have been a coincidence. I saw too many of them too often for that. And I was sure there were others watching us that I didn’t actually recognize. 

Izzy was still staring down at the bags in her arms with a look of disbelief. “Do we really need all this for one movie?”

With a wink, Simon asked, “What makes you think we’ll stop with one movie? We’ve got a whole theater over there. I’m sure we can find something else you want to watch. Besides, this is just restocking the place. Don’t have to eat all of it in one night, even if it’d be fun to try.” He added a wink that made Izzy blush. 

My mouth had just opened to retort when I was interrupted by a familiar voice. “Cassidy?” It was Amber. She was with Jae and that Damarko guy I had met the other day. The three of them were just going into the same mall we had been coming out of. As I looked that way, I heard Izzy give a noise of surprise. Shit, as jumpy as she was, I needed to introduce these guys before she started thinking they were a problem. 

Quickly, I raised one of my free hands to just gesture back-and-forth between them. “Hey, guys. Izzy, this is Amber and Jae. They go to school with me. And this is their friend Damarko. He doesn’t go to our school, but Amber uses him as a chauffeur.”

“Pfffffft,” the black-haired girl retorted, “don’t you start too.”

Snorting, I nodded back to our young companion. “This is Izzy. She’s staying with us.” I almost said for a little while, but a voice in the back of my head told me that would sound too much like I wanted her to leave soon or something. I didn’t want to say anything that might make her feel like an imposition or whatever. 

Jae was the first to extend a hand to the younger girl, her voice quiet. “Good to… meet you.” 

Soon the four of them had exchanged greetings and all that. Which was when I had a great idea. “Hey, why don’t you guys come to our place if you’re not doing anything? We’re gonna watch that new Outlanders movie.”

Damarko gave a double take. “Outlanders of Reach Three? That doesn’t even come out in theaters until next week, how are you supposed to—”

Amber interrupted. “Told you, she’s filthy stinking rich. You don’t have to worry about silly things like actual release dates when your parents probably own a big chunk of the studio that made the movie.”

Blushing a little, I waved my full arms. “You guys wanna come, or what? We’ve got enough snacks for basically the whole school.”

“Not that the whole school is invited,” Simon put in. “But I suppose it wouldn’t be too bad to have a few more. You’ll have to bring your own car though. Royal Thunder doesn’t have that many seats.”

It didn’t take long for the trio to agree, and they made plans to follow us back home in Damarko’s car. Only once we were walking away did I blink and cringe with a look toward Izzy. “Shit. Sorry, are you okay with this? I know they’re basically strangers, but—”

Her head bobbed quickly, as the girl blushed for some reason. “Uh huh. It’s okay. They’re… they seem cool.”

So, we led the other three back to the house and let them through the gate so Damarko could park right up near the front door. As we all went inside, the others looked around with wide eyes. Amber gave a low whistle of amazement. “So, where’s the grandfather clock that we go through to get to the Batcave?”

Laughing maybe a little more than I really should have in an act of overcompensation, I shook my head. “Sorry, no batcaves here. Unless you count Simon’s closet. Who knows what kind of animals are living in there. It’s probably a whole ecosystem.”

Kicking the back of my leg, Simon retorted, “I’ll have you know I have names for everything living in my closet, thank you very much. Now come on, let’s see if they dropped off the drive with the movie yet. Theater’s at the other end of the house.”

Damarko asked, “So, how do we get there? Is there like a tram that runs back and forth, or did your parents splurge and put in literal teleporters?”

Rolling my eyes, I turned to walk. “Come on, the house isn’t that huge. We go to school every day in a bigger place.”

“You know,” Amber put in, “as far as defenses against having too big of a house go, ‘the school for two thousand students is bigger’ isn’t really much of one.”

I pointedly pretended I didn’t hear that, and we all went to the theater room. Sure enough, the movie had already been set up, and the man who had delivered it was waiting there for us to sign his non-disclosure forms saying that we wouldn’t talk about the movie in public until after it officially released. Those all signed, we divvied up the snacks before settling in. I sat next to Izzy and Jae ended up on the other side. To my relief, they and the others seemed to be getting along. I even saw Izzy whisper something to Jae now and then. She didn’t seem put off or surprised by the girl being albino, which clearly put her above certain other people in our actual grade. 

We watched the movie. It was actually pretty good, though Simon, Damarko, and Izzy got more out of it. The three of them knew all these extra names and people from the expanded books and comics and stuff that I didn’t know the slightest thing about. But whatever, they were happy.

After that, we watched two more movies, until it was way too late to be up on a school night. But I don’t think any of us cared. It was just fun sitting there talking and enjoying the films. It was… nice. Seriously, I stopped thinking about Touched stuff basically all night long. I was just there with my friends… and brother. A brother who had…

Yeah. Maybe I didn’t forget about all of that entirely. But pretty much. All in all, it was a fun evening, and Izzy even spent a few minutes with the other three out in front of the house talking a little bit while Simon and I cleaned things up and sealed the movie up to be sent back. 

Once we saw the others off, Izzy and I headed back upstairs to our rooms. On the way, I glanced to the younger girl. “So, that was pretty good, huh?”

The smile that she turned toward me with was pure radiance, but it faded quickly, as if she was starting to remember why she wasn’t supposed to be happy or something. “I… thanks, Cassidy. You’re right, it was fun.”

Part of me wanted to ask what she had just thought of, but I suppressed the urge. Instead, I teased, “Seriously though, I call dibs on the shower first. It’s already so late, I don’t know how I’m gonna get up in the morning.”

Or you could try not reminding her that you’re going to school and she’s stuck here in the house for some reason, Cassie, what the fuck is wrong with you?

While I was flinching at my internal voice, Izzy just waved a hand. “Go ahead,” she replied quietly. “I’m too tired to shower.” As if to prove that, she yawned wide and long.

“You had a good time though, right?” I asked. 

Her smile returned. It was a little more subdued than it had been in that instance before she started thinking about whatever it was she was thinking, but definitely there. “Uh huh. It was the best.”

Leaving the girl to head for her room, I went in and took a shower. I hadn’t been exaggerating about needing to sleep. There may have been no fights or anything that day, but I was still tired as hell. This was a break that I had needed. And I was sure things would pick up again very soon. Plus, I had that project to turn in the next day with the others. Not to mention figuring out what the hell that pink paint did, and how to get into the base under the mall. 

Maybe I should ask Wren if she had any ideas about either of those. I wouldn’t tell her how I knew about the base, of course. I didn’t want her that involved. But she could have ideas about how to sneak in there, or even just how to see what was there. And maybe having another person’s input on what the pink paint could be for would be good. 

Either way, all of that would wait until tomorrow. Right now, the only thing I wanted to do was fall into my bed and sleep for as long as possible. 

Before I made it back to my room after the shower, however, there was a muffled scream from the other room, along with a crash. I bolted that way, only to find Izzy sitting up in bed, sweating profusely while looking around in confusion. The end table next to the bed had been tipped over and there was a broken glass on the floor next to it. 

“I… I think I had a nightmare,” she murmured weakly before noticing the glass on the floor as I turned on the light. Her eyes widened, and she started to quickly stammer apologies. 

My head shook, and I walked around the glass. “No, no, it’s okay. Just… I’m not sure how the table tipped over.”

“I think I was holding onto the edge of it when I flopped over and pushed it,” the other girl murmured weakly with another apology. “I shouldn’t have had water by the bed.”

“It’s okay,” I repeated. “Come on, we’ll pick up the big pieces carefully, then put a note up on the door so the maids know it’s there. And maybe you shouldn’t sleep in here alone tonight until it’s all cleaned up. Wouldn’t want you want to end up with little bits of glass in your feet.”

She blinked at me, shaking her head. “Where should I sleep?”

With an easy smile, I replied, “You can come in with me if you want. Believe me, it’s a really big bed. 

“Besides, it’s been awhile since I had a sleepover.”

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Showdown 7-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“Okay, that’s it!” Wren chirped a couple hours later while straightening up and dusting her hands off. “It’s all done.” Her tone was one of excitement and a bit of nervousness. “At least, I think so.” 

She and I, along with Fred and Pack, were standing in the middle of the lab, surrounding a mannequin wearing what looked like a set of slightly thick thermal underwear with a motorcycle helmet. The helmet itself wasn’t too unlike mine, though it was more basic. Plus, mine didn’t have all those wires coming out the inside of it that made it look really god damn creepy. 

Fred poked the suit curiously while asking, “So this thing is gonna control our friend in there?” 

Shifting from foot to foot, Wren hesitated. “Um, sort of. When we use the control box and ask him to think about where something is, like those vials, the suit will read the place he’s thinking about and translate that into movement. It only reads the thoughts connected to the question when you use the control box, so he can’t just start thinking about something else and take us to like… McDonalds for lunch or whatever. But even when he takes us to a place, we might have to keep looking around that spot for exactly where they are. I’m not sure how close it’ll be.” 

With a nod, I looked to the Tech-Touched girl. “Sounds good, except for the ‘we’ part. We don’t know where he hid these things, but it could be dangerous. Especially with people still looking for him. I think you and Fred should stay here tomorrow.” When her mouth opened to object, I quickly added, “Trust me, Wren, you’ve done more than enough. Seriously. All this wouldn’t have been possible without you. You had the idea, you built this thing, you did it. You’ve done enough. Let me take Happypants out tomorrow and find these vials to finish it up.” 

“There’s still a ‘we’ in that,” Pack pointed out, watching me with her arms folded. “Remember, this is my boss’s daughter we’re talking about. I’m going with you and taking the vials back to him when we get them.” Her voice made it clear she wasn’t taking no for an answer.

“Right, see?” I gestured to Wren. “I’ll have backup. And we’ll stay in contact with you guys back here just in case something happens.” Voice softening, I put a hand on her arm. “Wren, it’s okay. Like I said, you’ve done enough. You didn’t really have anything to make up for to begin with, because you’re not the one who sold those things to Ashton. And… and Fred didn’t know what he was going to do with them.” Saying that with a brief glance to the man in question, I added, “You guys wait here tomorrow, okay? I swear, we’ll finish this and then we can all celebrate.”  

Still looking a bit discomfited, Wren hesitated before giving a slow, reluctant nod. “Okay, I guess. We’ll stay here. But you better keep your phone on, and if something happens, we’re gonna come help.” Standing there, fists on her hips, the girl stared as if daring me to object to that.  

Knowing that was the best I was going to get, I nodded. “Great. But uhh, should we test it before tomorrow? Actually, come to think of it, is there a reason we’re waiting until tomorrow? I mean, it’s late enough now that we shouldn’t attract too much attention. And it might take more than one day to actually get to all the vials if he separated them too much.” I didn’t know that he had, since he still wasn’t exactly cooperating. But finding out that he’d left that one vial in Wren’s shop had made me nervous that the rest were all scattered in different places. That would suck. 

Unfortunately, Wren shook her head. “The suit still has to charge,” she informed me. “It won’t be ready until tomorrow. I mean, it’s all put together and everything, but now it needs power.” She indicated the cord running from the mannequin to the outlet. “I couldn’t start charging it until it was all put together. I… sorry.” Her foot kicked the floor as she looked abashed. 

“No, sorry, it’s okay,” I quickly assured her. “We said we’d do it tomorrow and that’s fine. I was just thinking we could get it started early. One day shouldn’t make a big difference. Especially since Blackjack… got that new vial from Deicide?” I looked toward Pack for confirmation of that. 

“Yeah,” she replied, “he’s got it. I mean, he’s still not extending the deadline or anything, but he’s got it. And we’ve got time before it’s up anyway. Tonight, tomorrow, it’s all good. Still got days.” 

“Right, yeah.” Nodding, I looked back to Wren. “That’s cool, because I was also kind of hoping we could talk about something else, anyway. Something a little more… uhh… after this whole thing.” Finishing that slowly and hesitantly, I glanced toward Pack, suddenly feeling awkward. 

“Yeah, yeah, I get it.” The La Casa Touched waved her hand dismissively. “Can’t have the big, bad villain hearing all about your future plans. I’ll go check on the prisoner and make sure he’s ready for his big debut tomorrow. You have your little pow wow and call me when it’s over.”  

She went over and entered the room that was functioning as Ashton’s cell, closing the door after herself. Meanwhile, Wren and Fred both looked to me with a mix of confusion and expectation. 

Taking a second to collect my thoughts (I’d been going over this in my head for awhile), I finally exhaled and nodded decisively. “Okay, so I was thinking about what was going on with you guys. You know, the bit about how you need money. Probably even more now that Cuélebre’s people got into your old shop and trashed it. I don’t know if you’re planning on going back there or what. Personally, I’d really suggest not, at least for now, because those assholes know a Tech-Touched lives there. So if you go back and they find out about it, you’ll probably be dealing with people coming after you like… constantly. I’m sorry, it’s just… they will. You’re a kid and they’ll think they can like… mold you or whatever. They’ll think they can force you to do whatever they want, so they’ll keep trying to grab you. Or grab Fred to make you do it.” 

For his part, Fred looked like he was about to say something, then just sighed and nodded. “She’s right, I really screwed the pooch with this one, kid. They know you’re out there now, and they’ll keep trying to come after you. We can’t go back to the old place anytime soon.” 

“But it’s Dad’s shop,” Wren protested, her eyes wide as she looked back and forth between us. “We can’t just abandon Dad’s shop. We have to go back and clean it up. We have to open it again. Dad wouldn’t just let it stay closed. He built it. We can’t just… just abandon it forever.” 

“No one’s saying abandon it forever,” I assured her quickly. “Just… don’t go back until you’ve got good defenses, enough to make sure people can’t just waltz in and hurt you or Fred. Trust me, I’ve heard lots of people say that the one place you don’t want to attack a Tech-Touched is their own home. But you don’t have the resources or funds yet to build up the place to be that protected.” Pausing briefly, I glanced away to ask myself if I really wanted to do this. Of course, the answer was yes. I needed to do this. It was the best chance I had, and also the best chance Wren had. 

“So I want to help. But… I also want your help. See, I have some money, and I thought if I sort of… invested in you, it could help both of us. I give you money to buy supplies and design things, then we both profit when you sell them.” Quickly, before she could object, I added, “Just the ones you choose to sell. The things that are safe. Hell, it could even be stuff that people bring to you to fix. You repair it, charge for it, we make money and put it toward getting you built up as much as you need to be to get back to your shop safely. Or whatever you decide to do.” 

Slowly, Wren pointed out, “We could build stuff for you too. A better costume, tools, and stuff like that.” Seeming to suddenly realize that what she’d said might’ve been insulting, she hurriedly added, “Not that your costume is bad or anything. I just mean, umm, you know, it’d be… better?” 

Smiling despite myself, I held up a hand. “It’s okay, I get it. Yeah, I was kinda hoping we could work out something like that. You’re an amazing inventor, Wren. You just need some cash to build your business a bit so you can really make some cool stuff. I can help with that. I could invest right now, help you get off the ground, then we both profit later. Literally, with money, and figuratively, with cool new toys and a base that you can actually protect. So, what do you think?” 

Wren was staring at me, shifting from foot self-consciously. “You really want to give money to me to build stuff? What… what if it goes wrong? What if no one wants to buy anything I build? What if I can’t get customers? What if I mess it up and you lose all your money? What if I–” 

Quickly, I interrupted, holding up both hands. “Hey, hey. First of all, you’re an amazing inventor, Wren, like I already said. It’ll be fine. And even if it takes awhile to get off the ground, I won’t really be in any worse shape than I already am. Neither will you. It’ll be okay, trust me.” 

Fred was the next to speak, sounding like he wasn’t sure he should even say anything. “How–I mean… okay, I’m not asking for actual specifics or anything here, but seriously, how do you have ‘investing’ money? You helped buy all the shit for that suit over there, and you still have cash to spend? What, did your great-grandmother recently leave you a fortune or something?” 

I’d been thinking a lot about how to answer that question, because I knew it would come up at some point. Some part of me had considered just telling them the truth. At this point, I knew I could trust them. Or… Wren at least. And despite his mistake, I was pretty sure Fred had learned his lesson and wouldn’t do something stupid. But not positive. Plus, I didn’t want to put that kind of target or responsibility on them. They had enough to deal with as it was. 

So, instead of telling the whole story, I just shrugged. “Yeah, let’s just say I inherited some cash recently and leave it at that for now.” It was a lie, of course. But a… relatively minor one. It made me feel bad, yet it also protected Wren from getting a target on her back if she knew who I really was. There was a voice telling me that she could still have a target on her back for not knowing who I was, but I wasn’t sure there was actually a really good answer to this. Later I might tell them more. But for now, I was… being cautious about the whole thing. Maybe too cautious, but as far as I was concerned, that was better than not being cautious enough. This was dangerous. 

“So,” I settled on, “I’ve got money to invest and I’d like to do it with you. Partly because it means I’d have an excuse to hang out here more after we’re done with this, and that sounds cool. And because like you said, you could make me a new costume, or pieces of it. Hell, I’m pretty sure I could use anything you put together.” Tapping the side of my helmet, I added, “This thing’s already getting banged up from me being thrown around so much. An upgrade would be cool.” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly, the girl looking eager by that point. “Oh! Yeah, yeah, for sure. That… I could…” She trailed off, eyes looking off into the distance. I was pretty sure there were ideas already rushing through her head about the kind of upgrades and toys she could work on. Her hands were fidgeting like she wanted to write something down, and without saying anything, Fred slipped a pen and a small notebook into them. She turned to scribble on it.

“She’ll be busy for a few minutes,” the man informed me, sounding both amused and proud. Then he focused on me. “Are you serious about this whole investment thing? It’s a pretty big word for someone that–I mean..” Seeming to realize he had just walked off a verbal cliff, he tried desperately to cartoon run across empty air to get back onto the safety of solid ground. “Not that you’re ‘just a kid’ or anything, but… I mean, money’s money and all that, and you’re doing plenty of dangerous stuff pretty much by yourself already. It’s just, I wasn’t…” He made a helpless gesture, looking to me for help. Or at least for an excuse to stop talking.  

So, I gave him one. “Yeah, I get it, don’t worry. And yeah, I know what I’m doing. At least, I’m pretty sure. Can’t be any worse than trying to get investment from people you don’t know anything about, right? I can put in some cash to start, help you guys get going. And you don’t have to rely on a bank loan or anything. Or outside investors who, like I said, you don’t know.” 

“We don’t know much about you either,” he pointed out mildly before nodding. “But more than we’d know strangers. Plus the kid likes you. Which says a lot. Yeah, I mean, if you want to do something like that, I don’t see why not. It’s kinda hard to have any sort of enforceable contract without knowing everyone’s identity, but…” 

Wren spoke up then. “We don’t need a contract. We promise we’ll use your money to build stuff for you or stuff to sell and share the profit. Fifty-fifty.” 

Smiling despite myself at the brief look that crossed Fred’s face, I offered, “How about we go with sixty-forty in your favor? You’re already the ones building and selling the stuff. Not to mention the fact that I already profit from you building and fixing things for me. Plus you’ll have to pay for stuff like electricity, the property tax, any other incidentals, stuff like that. I’ll help with that too anytime you need, but you know, you should still be prepared for it with the extra.” 

“The hell kind of kid are you?” Fred demanded, squinting at me. 

“The kind who knows that having a business costs money, especially when you’re getting started,” I replied coolly. “So let’s do it like that. Sixty-forty for you guys, and we make up the difference with equipment maintenance. Does that… you know, sound fair?” 

Wren spoke up quickly. “Uh huh! This is gonna be so cool!” Suddenly, she was hugging me. “We’re gonna be superhero partners, Paintball! I’ll be like your Q! Which isn’t really a superhero thing, but still!” Giddily, she bounced up and down a bit, still holding on tight. 

Restraining the giggle that tried to sneak out, I returned the embrace. “Except for the part where you’re cooler than Q, yeah, just like that. But really, we can talk about the specifics later, after we deal with this whole thing. I just wanted to find out if you guys were interested. I’ll work on putting some money together and we’ll see where we can go with it, cool?” 

They agreed, and Fred went to retrieve Pack. Honestly, she hadn’t really needed to leave, but I wasn’t sure where all that would go at the time and wanted to be safe. For both our sakes. 

“So,” the girl started as soon as she was back in the room, “you guys work out how to split your profits from Paintball’s investment?” In response to all of us staring at her, she turned to look to her lizards in their cage, her tone teasing. “See? They think I’m dumb.” 

Flushing (and glad they couldn’t see it), I started to say that we definitely didn’t think she was dumb. But in mid-sentence, my phone buzzed. Holding up a finger, I pulled it out to look at the text. It was from Mom, asking if I could come home soon because she and Dad had something to talk about. Something to talk about? We’d already had dinner and everything hours earlier before they went to their meeting. What could they want to talk about? 

Realizing there was really only one way to find out (and trying in vain to clamp down on all my paranoia surrounding it), I excused myself with the promise to come back the next evening so we could finally get those vials. Then I headed out. 

The whole way back, as I made my way to another part of the city away from where the bookshop was (just in case), I kept asking myself why my parents might want me to come home to ‘talk.’ My paranoia about the whole thing was just getting worse, and continued doing so while changing clothes, summoning an Uber, and throughout the ride. The logical part of me was almost positive that it didn’t have anything to do with my extracurricular activities. The problem with that was the almost part. 

Still, I told myself it was fine. I couldn’t panic every time my parents said my name. I’d die of a heart attack inside of the week. 

Paying the driver after being dropped off at the gate, I put in my code and headed inside as it creaked open. A minute later, I went through the front door, starting to text my mother to let them know I was there. But both Mom and Dad were already in the front foyer, seemingly waiting. That… did nothing to calm my nerves, to be honest. 

“Oh, uhhh… what’s up?” I tried to sound casual. It probably didn’t work. 

The two of them exchanged glances, doing one of their ‘silent conversations’ that, at this point, I wasn’t sure weren’t actual conversations. Who knew what kind of tech they had access to, or what other powers my dad might have as Silversmith that he didn’t advertise. 

Either way, it only lasted for a moment before Mom turned back to me. “Cassidy,” she started carefully, “your father and I understand that what we’re going to ask of you might be difficult…” 

Oh God, were they about to tell me what they were really doing, who Dad really was? Wait, why would it be about asking me something? What? 

Mom continued and I forced myself to focus. “But we’re hoping you might… open your rooms for a little while, and… accept a… house guest.” 

I stared at her, confused. My head tilted. “Uhhh… wait, what?” 

“It’s okay,” my dad called, raising his voice enough to make it clear he wasn’t talking to me. “You can come in.” 

Still clueless, I looked over as a small Latina girl slowly came in through one of the other doors. She looked even more lost than I felt, slowly shuffling her way over near my parents while staring at the floor. She peeked up once, met my gaze, then quickly looked down again. 

“Cassidy,” Mom started, “this is Izzy. 

“She’s going to be staying with us for a little while.” 

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Alliances 6-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Run, run, run! I had to get back to the hotel before my family figured out I had been gone. They were going to be freaking out as it was, and if they realized I wasn’t anywhere in the hotel, the whole damn city would shut down. I’d never be able to explain it. I had to get in there and convince them that I hadn’t gone anywhere, before my whole situation got a hell of a lot worse than it already was. 

In a blind rush, I made it to the top of the hospital while the firefighters and Raindrop were still working. From there, I made it through the next roof over and went through a quick loop to reach the back side of the hotel. It was hard, considering everyone was on high alert. I could see people all over the grounds, cops and Touched alike. It was chaos down there. Police lights, both the red and blue flashing kind and the bright spotlight variety, were so prevalent they made the parking lot almost as bright as day. 

Somehow, perhaps by a miracle I’d earned for saving those kids or something, I made it back to the balcony of the hotel. There was a spotlight coming my way, so the second I was down, I dropped and flattened myself against the floor of the balcony while the light swept by just above my head.

Landing also reminded me of the pain in both my leg and wrist. I was pretty sure the wrist wasn’t actually broken or anything. Or even sprained. It was just bruised where Pencil had stepped on it. My leg, however, had that cut in it from Fork’s quill. And my parents would undoubtedly notice both. How was I going to explain those

Wait, I knew how. Scrambling to my feet, I painted myself green for speed and rushed through the bedroom of the suite just in time to hear someone shout my name muffledly. It was coming from out in the hotel corridor, and I could see the door handle jiggle a bit. My name was shouted again, and that time I recognized my father’s voice. It sounded like he was fumbling for the key. 

Still sped up, I stretched one hand out toward the dress I’d left on the floor and shot red paint at it. At the same time, I lunged for the nearby desk. As the dress was summoned to my red glove, my other hand yanked the drawer there open and found the fancy letter opener with the hotel’s name engraved on it. 

There was an affirmative beep from the door just then, as my dad managed to get the key card in. At the last second, I threw myself sideways into the connected bathroom and yanked the door shut, locking it. 

I was still sped up, but I had to change clothes. Looking down at my arms, I painted those green. Not the suit, my actual arms. With the added speed, I stripped out of the costume probably faster than anyone had ever change clothes in the history of the universe. I could hear the door opening out in the main room, my dad‘s voice louder and clearer then as he called for me. 

Ignoring it for the moment, I grabbed the dress and yanked it on haphazardly. It was rumpled and wrinkled to hell, but that was the least of my worries. 

The bathroom doorknob jiggled, then there was a loud bang against it as my father shouted my name once more. He sounded frantic, maybe even close to tears. 

But there was one more thing I had to do. Putting black paint over my chest to silence my yelp, I used the letter opener to stab into the dress and my leg right where the wound was. I tried to be careful, but it had to look right. Even if it did make me cry out (silently thanks to the paint) and stagger.  

Dad banged on the door again, sounding like he was about to knock it down. Marshaling myself, I started to say something. Then I caught myself and yanked the helmet and mask off. It would’ve been pretty bad if my voice was still changed. Saved from making that kind of fatal mistake, I made myself sound afraid. It wasn’t honestly that hard. “Wh-who’s there?” That gave me time to yank open the cupboard under the sink, shoving the costume in there. 

There was a brief pause, and I heard my dad take a shaky breath. “Sweetie, it’s Dad. It’s okay. You can come out.”

Checking myself in the mirror, I belatedly yanked the gloves off and stashed them under the sink as well. Then I smoothed the dress down as much as I could before hesitantly stepping over by the door. Slowly, I cracked it open, peeking out with the letter opener held tightly in one hand. When I saw my father standing there, I pulled it the rest of the way. 

He was on me immediately, picking me up from the floor while crushing me against his chest. My dad hugged me tightly, so much so that it was hard to breathe. He murmured my name a couple times, voice cracking a little bit in the process. 

“Dad,” I managed to get out a bit weakly, my exhaustion from everything that it happened, including my rush to get back here, helping me sound even more out of it and afraid. “What happened? There were men with guns and they were in the hallway so I hid. I’m sorry, I was just hiding and I didn’t do anything and my phone didn’t work and—”

“Shhh, shhhh, it’s okay.” Dad still held me crushed against his chest, shuddering a little bit as he held me. “You’re safe now. They are gone, it’s over. You’re safe. You’re safe.” It sounded as though he was talking to himself as much as to me. 

I started to say something else, but was interrupted by the sound of someone else coming into the room. It was my mother. She practically flew through the doorway, eyes wild until she spotted the two of us. My name fell from her trembling lips as she came our way. Dad set me down just in time for her to scoop me up, pulling me into a new tight hug. “You’re okay, you’re safe.” She too was clearly telling herself that as much as me. Then she looked down, giving a soft gasp. “You’re bleeding!” 

Dad had clearly just noticed that too, his eyes snapping to the letter opener in my hand. “What did–” 

Flinching, I stepped back, ducking my head as if I was embarrassed. “I… I saw those guys so I took the letter opener in case they came in. It was all I could think of. But I… when I went to hide in the bathroom, I slipped and… and fell. I guess I sort of… cut myself? I might’ve sprained my wrist a little too.” 

“Let me see.” Dad already had something in his hand. It was a safe-seal bandage, one of the professional variety, meaning it had medical gel on it that would prevent infection and help the wound heal faster. He took a knee, and I lifted the dress enough for him to carefully put the bandage on my leg. It looked like a large white patch, which sealed to the skin as soon as he pressed it firmly against the wound. I could immediately feel the very slight sting, followed by a soothing cool gel. The bandage would come off on its own sometime the next day, and would either need to be replaced by another or not, depending on how bad the wound was. 

“Th-thanks, Dad,” I managed. “But… but I think I ruined the dress too. I was hiding and laying on the floor after that and it’s all bloody from the stupid knife thing and I was all curled up and I know you’re not supposed to do that, but I was afraid. And I was trying to call somebody, but the phone didn’t work and I was—”

Head shaking quickly, Mom stepped over to pull me into another hug before looking down at me. “I do not care about the stupid dress.” Her hand moved to cup my cheek tenderly, tears in her eyes. “You are safe, Principessa. You are safe, that’s all I care about. You are safe. I was afraid that… I was afraid. You are okay. The men who came, they didn’t…”

“They didn’t see me,” I confirmed. “I saw them in the hallway, so I shut the door. But then I was afraid they’d come in, so I took the letter opener and hid in the bathroom. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t hear what was going on, I wasn’t… I mean…”

She shushed me again, pulling me into another hug with her trembling arms. “You are safe. That’s all that matters.”

Simon had made it to the room by then, hearing my explanation. He too came over to hug me, without even making any kind of smartass remark. He actually looked worried, his hug genuine and firm. “Lucky you,” he managed after a few seconds of that. “Missed all the excitement. Even if you did manage to hurt yourself anyway.” Okay, maybe he couldn’t avoid every smartass remark. It was probably genetic. 

“I… I don’t want anything more exciting than that,” I murmured before stepping back to smooth the wrinkled and bloody dress down. “But what happened? Who were those guys? They look like soldiers or something, but… not.”

Dad shook his head. “Definitely not soldiers. It was…” He and Mom exchanged brief looks, some kind of silent conversation going on between them before he continued. “It was the Scions. But it’s okay. They’re gone now. They’re all gone, I promise. We’re safe.”

“Th-the Scions?” I made my voice whimper weakly. “Are you sure they’re gone? What if they come back? What if they’re still around? What if—”

Mom quieted me with another embrace, promising that all the danger was gone and that there were police and Star-Touched all over the place. Dad took me by the hand and led me out to the balcony to look down, showing me all the cops down there while telling me all about the heroes who had shown up and were scouring every inch of the hotel. “The Scions aren’t stupid enough to stick around with all this here,” he murmured. “They’re gone by now, I promise. They’re gone.”

Somehow, I stopped myself from pointing out that there had been plenty of cops and Star-Touched around when Pencil first showed up with his fanatics. It didn’t feel like that would actually accomplish anything useful. 

Instead, managing a little nod, I turned a bit to look over at the hospital. The fire was out by then, but there were still fire trucks and police. Raising my hand, I pointed. “Oh my God, what happened over there? Are they okay? That’s the kids hospital. What happened?”

Dad assured me that things were handled over there too, that from what he heard, no kids had been killed. “The fire was contained to one floor that was already evacuated. It’s okay. It could’ve been a lot worse. A lot worse.” He repeated that in a quiet, somewhat shaky voice while putting both hands on my shoulders with a gentle squeeze. He was clearly still convincing himself I was really there and I hadn’t been hurt. 

“The Scions are monsters,” I murmured before turning to look at him with wide eyes. “What about Pencil? He had to be here too, right? Did they catch him?” I was still curious about how he had gotten off the roof of this place and all the way over to the hospital. 

Dad sighed. “They took down the one pretending to be Pencil. Or being forced to pretend.”

Blinking at that, my head tilted. “Forced to pretend?”

With a grimace, Dad explained. “Someone who looked like him was on the roof, someone with his costume. He was going on the way Pencil does. But when it all went down, someone tackled him and it turned out he was just some innocent civilian under that mask. He was gagged and had a speaker system rigged up under his suit so the real Pencil could talk through it. And a bomb collar to make sure he did what he was told. They just managed to disable the thing in time.”

Mom cursed in Italian quietly before adding, “He probably thought it would be amusing if someone took a shot at the man and ended up killing an innocent civilian.”

“They would have killed more than that,” Dad pointed out. “That collar was linked to his life signs too. If he died, he would’ve blown and taken off a good chunk of the roof in the process.”

“Sterling,” Mom chastised, “that is enough. We don’t need to scare her any further.” To me, she added, “The point is, they did not find the real Pencil.”

“Of course not,” Simon muttered from the doorway onto the balcony. “Why would they do something useful like that? They oughta grab that motherfucker, bury him in concrete, and drop the whole slab into the Marianas Trench. Just be done with it. Go be invulnerable thirty-five thousand feet below sea level, dickface.”

The fact that Mom didn’t reprimand his language said more to me about how shaken up she was about this whole thing than basically anything else could have. Instead, she stepped up behind him from within the room, looking to me. “Your father and I need to take care of a few things. Can you stay right here in this room and not go anywhere until we get back? Simon can stay with you, if you need someone.”

I started to respond to that, but there was a knock against the still open doorway out in the main hall. Tomas was there, raising a hand. “Uh, I could stay if she wants. Sorry, I was coming to check on Cassidy and… I guess I interrupted.”

“It’s okay,” I quickly put in. “I’ll stay with Tomas. We’ll  just stay here in the room. We won’t go anywhere, I promise. Trust me, I… I’m not really in the mood to go wander around. And I’d be limping anyway.” Considering everything I had just been through, it was an easy promise to make. I wasn’t interested in doing anything else for a long time. And at least this way it would be Tomas staying with me. I knew he didn’t have any kind of involvement with my family’s criminal empire. Unless they had some kind of London branch, which was just me being ridiculously paranoid. 

My parents exchanged looks once more before Mom stepped out to gently kiss my forehead. “The phones are working again,” she murmured, “so if you need anything, anything at all… just call one of us, okay?”

Once I promised to do so, she, Dad, and Simon headed out to do… whatever they were going to do. I was left standing there in front of Tomas, feeling awkward. 

“So,” the boy started hesitantly, “I guess this was all a stupid game for those guys. They were just trying to get money and stuff out of all the rich people here,  threatening those kids at the hospital for it. Pretty fucked up, huh?” 

“Fucked up?” I echoed before nodding as I stepped into the room and moved to sit down on the nearby couch. “Yeah, I’d say it was really fucked up. 

“Then again, that’s kind of the Scions in a nutshell.”

*****

Things were busy through the rest of the night and most of the next day. I stayed at home, making sure my parents understood I was safe and that, as far as they knew, I had never been in any direct danger. They insisted on checking the cut in my leg, and put a fresh safe-seal bandage on it after calling in the family doctor to make sure it wasn’t infected or anything. I held my breath through the examination, but she didn’t say anything out of the ordinary. The cut I’d made with the letter opener clearly covered up the puncture wound from the quill, so the pain had been worth it. And my wrist wasn’t actually sprained, though there was still some soreness to it. 

In the end, my family thought I had hidden in that bathroom and never saw anything more of the bad guys than their backs. If they’d had the slightest clue of just how close I’d come to being killed last night, regardless of the being Touched part, they probably would have locked me into my room and not let me leave until I was in my mid-twenties. 

As it was, I waited until evening when I knew they were at some kind of big meeting for all the rich and powerful players who had been there last night before I went anywhere. Once I finally felt safe getting out of that house for awhile, I changed clothes into my costume and made a beeline for Wren’s place. 

Reaching the parking lot in front of the bookstore, I saw Fred hosing down some kind of sedan. When he saw me, the man twisted the nozzle to shut down the water before speaking. “Hey, you okay? Lizard girl said you ran into that Scion shit down at the party last night.”

Nodding, I replied, “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks mostly to her. She’s pretty cool. You know, for a villain.”

“For a villain,” he echoed quietly, frowning for a moment before heaving a sigh as he looked to me. “Hey, listen. I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about before. Sorry for how I treated you and for helping that crazy asshole. I didn’t know what he was going to do with that stuff, but it’s not an excuse. I should’ve asked more questions, I shouldn’t have gotten involved. Shouldn’t have sold the kid’s stuff like that. It was wrong, and I was an asshole. So… yeah, I’m sorry.”

Blinking at that, I gave a short nod. “It’s okay. You’re working on fixing it. I’m pretty sure that’s what matters.”

“Hell yeah, we’re working on it,” he confirmed. “Speaking of which, the kid’s downstairs. You should go talk to her.”

So, I did, heading in and down. Reaching the lab, the first thing I saw was Pack. She was sitting over on the couch, legs held up to her chest in a pretty casual posture for someone in a costume. Her attention was focused solely on the phone in her hands. When I entered, she looked up and waved the phone at me. “Hey, you know what? Your friend That-A-Way is pretty cute. I see why you like playing hero with her around.”

Flushing under the helmet, I started to say that I hadn’t noticed, only to stop myself. Would a boy have noticed? Hmm. 

Shaking that off, I decided to change the subject by asking, “Is Holiday okay then?”

She nodded, pointing to the cage where all the lizards were curled up asleep in their natural forms. “Yup, giving them a break today. They put in a lot of work back there.”

“So did you,” I pointed out. “And you didn’t have to, so… thanks. Seriously, I’m pretty sure a lot of those kids would’ve died without you last night. Actually, I know they would have. Without you, there’d be a bunch of dead children in that place. And they would’ve lost a lot more of the hospital with that bomb. Seriously, you were awesome.”

The full black mask hid her expression, but I had the idea she was blushing a bit. “No big deal. I’m not some monster who’s going to let a bunch of little kids die. But it’s over. Let’s talk about the important stuff, like, for example, do you have That-A-Way’s number, or what? You know, so I can thank her for saving Holiday.”

Hesitating briefly, I carefully replied, “I better make sure it’s okay with her before letting you have it, you know? I mean, you guys are still on opposite sides. Unless you wanna join the Minority so you can see her again?”

She laughed, shaking her head. “Nice try, kid. Hey, if the Minority’s so amazing and all, why aren’t you joining them? Last time I checked, you actually were trying to play hero. And they’re kind of the big thing for teen heroes, right? You get training, support, friends, all that stuff you should be interested in. So what’s with the whole keeping them at arm’s length thing?”

Thankfully, I was spared from having to respond to that very good question by Wren, who popped her head up from the pile of junk she had been buried in, waving excitedly. “Paintball! Hiya. Good timing, we just need a little more help and poof, here you are. I got through some of this faster than I thought I would.”

“Faster?” I echoed. “Does that mean…?”

Her head bobbed quickly. “It’s almost done. Like, really close. We just need to do a couple more things, and I think you can help finish it up. With a little luck, it’ll be ready by tomorrow. And then we’ll be able to use the suit and find those vials.”

“Well then,” I replied with a smile. “What are we waiting for?

“Let’s get to work.”

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Alliances 6-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Oh boy, was this whole Reformation Ball thing a big deal. I’d always known that, of course. Even from the time that I was a little kid, I’d known the Ball was basically one of the most important events of the year in Detroit. But somehow, actually being there instead of sitting at home while my parents were out for the evening made it so much more obvious just how huge and important the whole thing was. I’d known it was a big deal before. But now I really knew. 

The location for the event bounced around a little from year to year, as each of the three biggest and most amazing hotels in the city took turns hosting it. This year, it was being held at the Cloud Regal, a twenty-five story hotel that was shaped like the letter C. In the middle of the curve was the main grounds of the hotel, an elaborate garden area with twin fountains on either side of the main path. The water from the fountains shot high into the air in a complicated series of patterns that included shooting back and forth to one another in an arch-shape over the path. 

There were technically three separate parties. The biggest one was out on those grounds, where tables of food and drink had been set up, along with a stage for a live band and other entertainers. There was an entrance fee, but it was minimal. To buy a ticket cost about twenty dollars, which got you into the grounds, allowed you to see the entertainment, and provided access to all the food and most drinks, though the higher shelf stuff was still charged for. 

The next step over being on the grounds was being inside one of the three separate banquet rooms within the hotel. It was apparently a few hundred per seat to be in there, which got you much better quality food (not that the food outside wasn’t great, but the more rare and expensive stuff was inside), and even more entertainment. It was a quieter dinner there, while outside was slightly more of a rambunctious, energetic party. 

Then there was the roof party. All the way at the top of the twenty-five story hotel was the roof garden where the true power in the city held their own dinner. The mayor, the chief of police, the governor of Michigan, the leadership of various hero organizations, business owners, community organizers, everyone who could afford a ticket or was sponsored by someone who could. Being on the roof required a minimum five thousand dollars per head. 

That was the general cost of each area. Twenty bucks to be outside, a couple hundred to be inside, five thousand to be on the roof. And every single ticket had been sold weeks ago. As happened every year, the event was completely sold out. And as always, one hundred percent of the proceeds from tonight would go to a charity. It was a different one each time. This year, all the money would go to the Gold Horizons Children’s Hospital located just across the street from the hotel. Apparently the guy who owned this hotel had built the hospital because of his own son passing away from cancer, and when some rich guy tried to have the hospital closed down because it made him feel bad, the owner had had him banned not only from this place, but from every hotel, resort, and business he owned. Which, apparently, was a lot. 

My family, of course, was on the roof. I was there, in my ungodly expensive and beautiful dress that made me feel like a mutt that had crawled into Cinderella’s gown and run off with it. The thing was so amazing and beautiful, all teal and shiny and… and… I was just… not… that. I wasn’t right for it. This dress belonged on a tall, beautiful blonde prom queen, not on a little tomboy who barely topped five feet, with black hair that just would not stay tamed and was long on one side but short on the other. 

My mother’s hand gently brushed my shoulder, and I turned a bit to see her smiling down at me. Her voice was soft against the light sound of quiet music in the background. “You are radiant this evening, my beautiful Principessa. Thank you for coming, I’m certain you could have found any number of other things to do. But having you here makes me so very proud.” 

I was still trying to work out how to respond to that, when her hand very gently brushed my face. Apparently she could still see dark circles there. “Are you alright? You look so tired.” 

Well, Mom, I haven’t been sleeping very well lately. First I found out that you and Dad are running some massive evil supervillain conspiracy. Then I became basically responsible for making sure an innocent little girl doesn’t die or the city itself doesn’t descend into war. And on top of all that, I was just recently knocked unconscious and abducted by a two-faced monster who really, really wants to torture me. Did I forget anything? Oh, right, and I owe a favor to that two-faced monster’s boss for letting me get out of there with my blood still inside my body. 

Forcing a smile, I shook my head. “I’m okay, Mom. It’s just been a long day. Thanks for letting me come tonight. This is…” My eyes glanced around the roof, at all the beautiful candles that lit various pathways through the glass sculptures, the rich and beautiful chatting amicably, and the ungodly famous musician with his funny glasses playing his Candle in the Wind song on the piano. “This is really great.” I looked back to her then. “And kind of crazy.” 

Her beautiful smile returned, and she gently touched two fingers to her lips before brushing my cheek with them. “You get used to it,” she murmured softly before glancing over my shoulder. “I have to speak to Grant for a minute. Enjoy yourself, my beautiful girl. Make yourself known here, let people see you. I will make sure Simon or someone else is available to take you home in an hour or so if you’re ready to leave then. There is no need for you to stay for the whole evening.”

Promising to mingle, I watched my mother head over to chat with ‘Grant’. Also known as one of Michigan’s senators. They started talking, and I heard Mom ask him about his son’s football scholarship. It made me shake my head, turning away. How weird was it to be a part of all this? Because I’d grown up with it, so I didn’t really have the right perspective. Even then, however, this felt pretty weird. I stepped away from the spot where I’d been talking to my mother, carefully making my way through the crowd. Here and there, I smiled to someone who recognized me (there weren’t that many), greeting them and exchanging a few words. One of the passing waitresses handed me a wine glass with ginger ale in it, which I took a sip from while standing at the edge of the roof to look down at the main party. It was in full swing, and looked like they were having a lot of fun. There was an open space on the grass where people were dancing.   

The sound of someone clearing their throat made me glance back to see Tomas standing there. He gave me a smile that made my stomach start a boxing match with my heart, before moving up beside me. His voice was casual. “Hey, Cassidy. Ahh, how are you doing?” 

I swallowed a bit. The past week had been complicated. I hadn’t avoided Tomas at all. We hung out a few times, even got lunch together once. But it was just… so… yeah, complicated. I felt like even more of an idiot every time I thought about how him being bisexual had made me feel. 

I knew he cared about me. I knew he liked me. This changed nothing. He liked me for being me, regardless of whether I was a boy or a girl. That was a good thing, right? Yes. Yes, it was. It was indisputably a good thing. Logically, I knew that. I told myself that. I even thought I’d convinced myself of it multiple times. Yet, every time I saw him, my brain whispered things like, ‘Are you sure he doesn’t just like you because you look like a cute little boy?’

Feelings were annoying, why did they have to be so complicated? I should just be able to tell my heart something and make it accept the plain stupid truth. Stupid emotions. Stupid, stupid emotions.

Quickly, I forced myself to reply dryly, “Oh, you know. Just another day.” Biting my lip, I looked at him. “I didn’t know you’d be here.” Pausing, I added, “But I really should’ve.” 

He chuckled lightly, waving vaguely over his shoulder. “Yeah, Mum and Dad are over there somewhere. I’m supposed to be here, look presentable, and not embarrass them.” 

“Sounds like we have similar jobs,” I replied. “You wanna share? Maybe it’ll be easier.”

He smiled again, and my heart did a little spin at the way it made his dimples show. “That sounds like a pretty good idea to me. We can look presentable together. My parents love you enough anyway. My dad kept asking if I talked to you yet. I think they want to have you over for dinner at some point.”

Oh. My… my ex’s parents wanted to have me over for dinner. That wasn’t as weird as it could be considering we’d only broken up because of distance, right? Wait, if he was back, did that mean that he expected… or that they expected… wait, was this—

Tomas’s hand found my arm, gently squeezing. “Hey, hey, it’s all right. None of us are dumb enough to think we’re just going to go right back to the way we were, okay? And if Dad or Mum think otherwise, they’ve got another thing coming. A year is a long time. I’m sure we’ve both changed a lot. I mean… you know about my… yeah. Maybe something else will come of it, maybe it won’t. But you’ve always been important, Cassidy. Whether we’re just friends or end up being more than that, I want to get to know you again. So, I’d love it if you came over for dinner at some point. No pressure, and if my parents start turning that on, I swear we’ll go get one of your American pizza concoctions.” 

Squinting at him, I pointed. “You can’t fool me anymore, buster. I know for a fact you guys have plenty of pizza over in the UK.”

Meeting my gaze, he gave a sage nod. “Of course, we just call it open stromboli. Or opomboli.”

He had me for just a second. I blinked, head tilting as I watched his expression. Then I frowned, punching him in the arm as subtly as possible, not wanting to cause a scene. “You do not, jerk.” 

He laughed, looking charming again before turning to look out at the people below once more. For a moment, he was quiet before speaking again. “I did miss you, Cassidy Evans. Even if you are not nearly as gullible as you were.” His gaze moved back to me with a wink. “You’ve changed too.” 

Swallowing back all the thoughts that brought up, I managed a shrug. “I guess that’s just a thing that happens. And I haven’t changed all that much.” Boy, if he only knew. “But I… umm…” Shaking off the feelings, I gestured. “We should probably go see about mingling a little bit more, huh? Pretty sure my parents–or my mom mostly, would prefer I be seen instead of hanging out in the background.” 

“We could dance, if you like,” he pointed out mildly, knowing full well that no one else was dancing. Not up here, anyway.

“I said ‘be seen’, not ‘make a complete ass of myself,’” I retorted before pulling him by the arm. “Come on, we’ll just walk and talk.” 

He obliged, and the two of us meandered our way through the crowd, making a couple circuits of the roof. We stopped now and then, chatting with various people. I tried to be as polite as possible, wanting, for some reason, to make a good impression for my supervillain parents. Weird. 

I also saw my dad twice. He was standing over with a few other rich guys, and Silversmith was right across the roof, talking to Flea and Caishen, leader of the Ten Towers corporate sponsored hero team. Other Star-Touched, including all the Minority members, were mingling with people too.  But I still had no idea how my parents were managing to make it look like Silversmith and my dad were both here. Maybe Dad had a body double? He could certainly afford one. 

In any case, it was eventually time for us to separate and rejoin our own families for dinner. I made my way over to the round table that had been set aside for us and found Simon and my parents already there. Dad took a moment to tell me how wonderful I looked, teasing me about being around Tomas again. Then he held Mom’s chair out, Simon held mine, and we sat down before they joined us. 

“Dad’s right, you actually look like you belong here, Booster,” my brother teased. “You haven’t tripped over anything or started talking about Power Rangers or Ninja Turtles yet.” 

Forcing myself to smile, I retorted, “Well, I didn’t want to take away your most educational topics, dear brother. That would be terrible. What on Earth would you talk about then?” 

Mom cleared her throat pointedly, but I could see her smothering a small smile as she looked to us. “Let’s be nice,” she murmured softly before looking up to thank the waiter who brought our drinks. Wine for the three of them and apple cider for me. Dad had said it would be okay if I had one glass with them, but that didn’t sound like a great idea to me, so I declined. Cider would be fine. 

We took our food a few minutes later, and watched as the mayor, followed by the governor, got up to give their speeches through the meal. ‘Grant’ the senator would be next, apparently. They would be going down to mingle with the other two party groups shortly, playing for future votes, of course. But first they would make nice with the rich people, like my parents. As part of that, Mayor Carter Bens would be accepting gifts on behalf of the city. It was another tradition born over the past couple decades, where the mayor would be given various presents of expensive things that would be put on display in City Hall for a few months before being donated and the proceeds given toward the city’s emergency services like police, fire, and hospitals. 

Once that started, Dad made a small noise in the back of his throat while looking to Mom. “You know, I think–” 

“We forgot our gift in the room,” she finished for him, sighing a little. She glanced around as though to flag down a waiter, but they were all busy. Finally looking to me, she added, “Cassidy, would you mind running—I mean… walking very carefully and discreetly… down to the suite we borrowed for the evening and picking up the gift. It should be in the living room beside the television.” 

I agreed quickly, taking the room key and heading to the elevator. From there, I headed for the penthouse suite that my parents had rented out to grab the gold-wrapped gift. 

Carefully managing the present with one hand, I went to open the door and began to step out when movement from the corner of my eye made me look that way. Men. There were men walking down the hall ahead of me, having just passed the room a few seconds earlier. Which wouldn’t really be a big deal, except for the assault rifles they held. Yeah. Guns. 

There were armed guards at this event, of course. To say nothing of all the Star-Touched hanging around. But the armed guards weren’t that obvious. They looked like Secret Service type people, not men in army camo carrying giant-ass automatic guns. 

No, this was obviously something different. Something bad. I quickly ducked back in the room and closed the door most of the way before they could spot me. Peeking out, I saw them heading for the elevator. They were met by a few more guys that were coming out of other rooms, and all of them headed up to the roof. 

Oh boy. Oh God, what was I supposed to do now? Quickly, I took my phone from my pocket, only to find it had no signal. That had to be purposeful, some kind of jammer or something. A check of the room phone produced no dial tone. Great. Just great. This was absolutely, definitely something bad. But what? What kind of crazy idiot would try to attack the place swarming with armed guards and heroes from every team in the city?

Maybe it was just a stunt or something. Maybe I was overreacting. But the lack of a cell signal and dial tone told me I wasn’t. I had to find out more, without getting caught. 

To that end, I headed for the closet where I had dropped my stuff when changing into my dress here. Digging deep in the backpack under the layer of other stuff I’d use to cover it, I came out with the bag that had my costume in it. I’d put it under some unmentionables, just in case. 

Taking a moment to slip the costume on after changing out of my dress, I made my way to the balcony, peeking out and around to make sure the coast was clear. Seeing nothing, I stepped out there before red painting myself up to the edge of the roof, clinging to the bottom edge of the  balcony as I listened. 

A male voice was speaking. “I’d say let’s not have anyone playing hero, but I think that’s a moot point by now with the kind of company we’ve got up here tonight, don’t you?”

Painting myself black, I hesitantly peeked up over the edge. Everyone was seated aside from the man who was speaking, and a dozen or so of those camo-dressed men with guns. 

As for the guy who was talking, I knew who he was. The sackcloth mask gave it away. Pencil. It was Pencil. 

That answered my question about who would be crazy enough to attack this place, at least. Seeing him made me shrink back a bit under the edge of the roof while he continued. “But still, let’s be smart here. No one wants a massacre, after all.” He paused before amending, “Well, none of you want a massacre. Personally, I think we’re kind of due.”

Silversmith, or rather, whoever was posing as him, spoke up. “You can’t possibly think you’re going to get away with anything here. What’s your game?”

I could hear the smile in Pencil’s voice as he looked that way. “My game? I’m so glad you asked. The game, ladies and gentlemen, is very simple. Everyone here pretends they care oh so much about all the poor sick children in that hospital across the street that you’re all donating to tonight. But let’s see how much you actually care. See, they’re being visited by a bunch of my friends right now as we speak. And unless you rich motherfuckers start giving until it literally hurts, well, let’s just say there won’t be any more kids to donate to. Which, for the record, is also what will happen if anyone here tries anything. So let’s just keep it all in our pants. 

“As for how much we need, we’re trying to break records here tonight for most stolen in one event. And I hear there’s some stiff competition, so dig deep people. Or don’t. Personally, I’m kind of curious to see if you can hear a few hundred sick kids being mowed down by machine guns all the way up here. 

“Aren’t experiments fun?”

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Alliances 6-03 (Summus Proelium)

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I was still coming to terms with how I felt about that conversation with my father a couple minutes later when the phone I used for Touched stuff buzzed in my pocket. Blinking down, I plucked it out and gazed over the city from the roof of the building I was on while answering. “Hello?”

“Paintball?” A vaguely familiar voice spoke, and I belatedly realized who it was just as he introduced himself. “It’s Eits. You know, we… uhhh… yeah. We did that thing.”

Immediately put on guard, I asked, “What’s wrong? Did something happen to the computers at—”

He interrupted quickly. “No, no. That’s all fine. The computers are good. We’re great, with that, anyway. Sorry, I just… I didn’t know who to… um.” There was a brief, distinctly awkward pause before he managed a weak, “I know it’s weird, but I kinda need some help.”

Taking my phone away from my ear, I stared at it for a moment before moving it back. “Help? What could I possibly help you with? And don’t you have basically a whole army of people already behind you? I might not be an expert at this whole team thing, but I am pretty sure that’s the entire point of having one. You know, to get help from.”

I could hear the wince in his voice. He hesitated before slowly replying, “This really isn’t something I want to involve them in or even have them know about at all. I swear, I’m not asking you to do anything illegal or whatever. Not… really, anyway. I just… need a little help. I’m stuck.”

That made me blink. “You’re stuck? Not like Winnie the Pooh in Piglet’s backdoor, right?”

“It was Rabbit’s,” he corrected me. “And no, more like stuck on top of the roof of a building. I’m up here and the door is really heavy and deadbolted. I think there might be some kind of bar on the other side too. Anyway, I don’t have any way to get down.”

Tilting my head, I asked, “You and your friends didn’t happen to get really drunk for a bachelor party, did you? Do you see a tiger anywhere?”

There was a snort from the other end of the line. “They were drugged with Rohypnol in the movie, not just drunk. And no, definitely no tiger and no drugs. Just me sitting up here alone on the roof waiting for someone to call the cops. Or for a wonderful, friendly, oh-so-helpful and incredibly understanding—”

“Okay, okay, stop.” Taking in a breath and letting it out, I asked, “You’re sure that I’m not helping you get away with something really bad? Because I am going to be really ticked off if it turns out you just stole like a million dollar computer chip or something and I’m helping you escape. I don’t think we could be phone buddies after that.” 

“I swear,” came the reply. “I didn’t break in here to steal things. I mean, technically, I did. But it’s personal, not like… I mean…” he trailed off, very clearly trying to decide how much to tell me. “Like I said, it’s personal. I did break in here. I was trespassing. Am trespassing, technically. I did break in here to steal something. But it’s personal family heirloom type thing. It belongs to me. And it’s not some huge expensive computer stuff. It’s just… mine. It was left for me and taken away from me. I had to get it back. If you don’t want to help with that, I… I get it. I’ll just call one of the others and try to—”

Sighing inwardly, I shook my head. “Give me the address. I’ll get you off the roof. But like I said, if it turns out that you’re playing me right now…”

“I’m not,” he assured me. “Cross my heart and fall in rye.”

“Err, fall in rye?”

Now he really sounded embarrassed. “Sorry, it’s an inside family thing. I… anyway, here’s the address.

“And Paintball… thanks.”

******

The building that Eits was stuck on top of was a twelve story high office place. So I really couldn’t blame the poor guy for not being able to get down. Whether I ended up being able to blame him for getting stuck in the first place was not yet decided. 

I saw him sitting on one of those metal boxes on top of the roof as I yanked myself over from the place next-door. His feet were kicking idly back-and-forth while he looked at his phone. When I landed, he jerked in surprise, nearly falling off the box. Quickly, I shot a thing of red paint that way and yanked him toward me before he could fall, letting the paint fade before catching him by the arms. 

“Whoa,” I teased, “I know you’re glad to see me, but I’m pretty sure a simple thank you suffices between dudes.”

He looked embarrassed, the exposed parts of his face flushing a little while the boy waved a hand. “Uh, thanks. Seriously, I didn’t know what I was going to do until I realized I could try calling you. I was this close to having to suffer the embarrassment of asking one of La Casa for help.”

“Yeah.” I replied dryly, “imagine having to ask for help from your own teammates. That would be horrific.”

He coughed. “Like I said, this isn’t any of their business. And it’s not really their kind of thing anyway. I just had to get something.”

“And you promised this thing isn’t a million dollar computer chip,” I reminded him pointedly. 

In response, the boy reached into his pocket to produce what turned out to be a baseball. There was a signature scrawled across it, which he held up for me to see. 

“Warner Towling?” I read aloud. “Sorry, I’m not much of a baseball guy. Doesn’t sound familiar.”

Eits shook his head. “It probably wouldn’t anyway. He never got out of the minors. He was uhh…” There was a brief pause then as he realized how much he would have to say if he wanted to explain. “Fuck it. He was my grandpa. And yeah, you could probably find out a lot from that, but please don’t. That’s all I can really say. He was my grandfather and he was basically the only guy in my entire family who accepted my situation.”

The words made me tilt my head. “That you’re a super villain?”

He coughed. “No, that I… uhhh, shit.” Again, the boy paused, somehow looking even more nervous and uncomfortable than before. Even though I couldn’t see all of his face, he definitely seemed… afraid? “Grandpa Warner was the only guy in my family who accepted that I wasn’t… comfortable the way I was born. He’s the guy who said it would be okay if I… if I transitioned, and that he’d still be there for me.” His voice cracked a little with the words, speaking the last few quickly while looking away from me. 

“If you transi—” I stopped suddenly as it occurred to me. “Oh. Oh. So you’re… I mean…”

He nodded once. “Let’s just say I was born Molly. But that’s not who I am. That’s not who I ever was, not inside. But my parents could never accept that. This ball was mine. It was the last ball Grandpa Warner ever used in the minors. He signed it and he gave it to me. He… he s-said that he wanted me to have it so I’d know that no matter what happened, he was on my side. And that when I transitioned, maybe I could play on his… his old team someday.” His voice was cracking a little as the boy fought against strong emotions while rolling the ball between his hands. He could barely say the words. 

“But my dad took it when they kicked me out. That’s why I had to get it back, when I found out he was keeping it in his office. It’s not really worth anything. But… it’s worth everything. Everything.”

“It’s okay,” I assured him. “I get it. Kind of. I’m glad you got your ball back. But… your parents really didn’t… they don’t accept you? Even with Baldur out there?” 

Baldur, the world’s most powerful superhero. They were part of the world-wide hero team known as Armistice. Basically, the US, Canada, Japan, Germany, the UK, Brazil, Australia, and France all contributed their most powerful Star-Touched to the team. The one from the US was a woman called Radiant. Baldur was Germany’s, and they were absolutely the strongest Star-Touched in the world. Mostly because they had the power to change their power. No one I knew of was sure how it worked, just that Baldur switched bodies with… other versions of themselves or something. Each version had different powers that they could use. Some of those bodies were male, some were female. Baldur considered themselves genderfluid. The fact that the biggest superhero in the world switched seemingly randomly between being male and female had really put a bright light on that whole thing, and changed some people’s minds about it. 

“No,” Eits replied. “I guess for some people, Baldur’s more of a target for hate than an inspiration. Funny how having one example doesn’t magically erase their disgust, huh?” 

Wincing, I nodded. “Yeah, sorry, I guess that…” My head shook. “How did you get stuck out here in the first place?”

He sighed. “I managed to get all the way up through the building, into Dad’s office, and got the ball. Then when I was leaving, this big security guy started on his patrols. I had to hide, so I came out here and left the door open a tiny crack. He noticed, aaaand closed and locked it. So here we are.”

Chuckling a bit despite myself, I looked to him. “So the big bad super villain gets his uhh… wait, is umm… he and his… is that what you…” He nodded quickly, and I pushed on. “So the big bad super villain gets his ass kicked by a locked door. What would the grand league of evil say?”

“If there was a grand league of evil,” Eits informed me, “they’d tell me, ‘That will be two sugars and one cream. And while you’re at it, fetch me the newspaper and my slippers.’” 

My head tilted. “That accent, while you were turning yourself into some kind of dog fetching slippers, did you also make your hypothetical master supervillain British?”

He coughed. “Maybe. I blame Star Wars, and basically every other movie that made the bad guys British.” 

“Hey,” I pointed out, “you didn’t have him ask for tea, so you didn’t go totally stereotypical.”

“Good point.” Eits chuckled under his breath. ”Hey, maybe to completely avoid stereotype, and confuse people, he should keep the accent but be named something like Billy Bob or Jimbo.”

I snickered a little. “Jim-Bob the maniacal and despotic leader of the Grand League of Evil, with a British accent and a fondness for slippers and coffee.”

“Evil Villains International League,” he corrected me solemnly. “That’s the name they’ve got to go with.”

Checking the acronym on that, I laughed. “EVIL, that’s great. Jim-Bob the grand inquisitor of EVIL. I like it.”

The two of us smiled for a moment before I thought about the thing I had just walked away from, and cringed a bit. What was wrong with me?

Frowning a bit, the boy asked, “Something wrong?”

“No, I… it’s just… Pencil.”

That got his attention, the boy quickly demanding, “What? Did you see him? Are you okay? What were—”

“I didn’t see him,” I interrupted. “Don’t worry, it’s just…” Hesitantly, I informed him of what I’d seen back at the convenience store. “And they were just carrying out all those body bags while people wanted to know why we let stuff like that happen.”

He winced. “And then we were just making jokes about… sorry. But seriously, stay away from that guy. He’s super bad news and I don’t want to think about you being anywhere near him or his freaks.”

“Neither do I,”  I assured him. “At least he’s not the one who caught me earlier. That would’ve ended up a hell of a lot worse.”

He gave me a sharp look at that. “Caught you?”

“It’s a long story, your boss knows the important bit.”  I paused then before hesitantly offering, “But I’ve still got a couple sandwiches from earlier If you want to go somewhere and be bribed with food so I can talk about it. You know, unless you’re busy with more roofs to get trapped on top of. I heard there’s some really good ones over on the northeast side, with a great view of that police station with all those pillars out in front. And when you get tired of being stuck, you could wave to the cops down there to see if they’ll let you down.”

“Nah, I think this was the last one on my schedule.” Eits smiled a little. “Sandwich sounds great. You get pretty hungry being stuck up on roofs like this. They don’t exactly have a McDonalds.”

“You mean Dominos doesn’t deliver here?” I gave a scandalized gasp before nodding. “Sure, we can eat. Just let me get you down from here first. We’ll find some other place to sit and I’ll tell you what happened earlier. 

“Then, when I’m done, maybe you can tell me more about Grandpa Warner the baseball player. Because he sounds like a pretty great guy.”

******

The next few days passed fairly uneventfully. Except, of course, for the fact that I didn’t sleep very well. I kept having nightmares about being trapped with Janus, so I ended up sleeping three or four hours in the afternoon and three or four hours in the middle of the night. Which was probably good for the whole superhero thing, but it really wasn’t the way I wanted to get onto that kind of schedule. 

I spent my days at school, helping with the history project, or seeing what I could do for Wren’s work. The answer to the latter one was not much. I fetched things, held things, basically did whatever grunt work she needed that Fred and Pack weren’t already doing. 

The point was, the days basically flew by, while nights (or anytime I was trying to sleep) dragged as I kept waking up in a cold sweat. I was glad there was a lot of space between my rooms and Simon’s, because I cried out a few times and that really wasn’t something I wanted to try to explain. Although the thought of the look on his face if I did tell him exactly what was wrong was almost amusing. Almost. 

But finally, it was Saturday, the day of the Reformation Ball. It was a huge deal. I’d always known that to some extent, but actually needing to be a part of it made me realize just how big it was. Mom had me go to a stylist basically the second she and Dad had returned the day before, and checked on me about thirty times that morning to make sure everything was fine. I was pretty sure she was afraid I would find a puddle of mud or something to splash around in while she wasn’t looking. 

At the moment, I was eating lunch in the smaller dining room, carefully cutting away a bite sized piece of roast duck when my father entered and put a hand on my shoulder. It took everything I had not to tense up. 

“There’s my girl. I thought you would’ve found a hole to hide in by now to get away from your mother’s last minute adjustments and checks.”

It was so tempting to respond to that by asking what hole he and Mom had been hiding in when they were pretending to have left the city. I could even follow that up by asking if he’d had any luck tracking down Pencil after that horrific scene at the shop. But I was pretty sure that wouldn’t really go over very well. Just like with Simon though, it might’ve been nice for a few seconds just to see his reaction.

Instead, I shook my head. Swallowing the bit of duck, I replied, “It’s not so bad. We’re only on visit thirty-two.”

Smiling, Dad took a seat at the table across from me and turned to press an intercom nearby, informing the cook in the kitchen what he would like for lunch. Then he looked to me. “Wait until this afternoon, it’ll probably get up into the hundreds. But don’t take it personally, she still has to check on me all the time too. Can’t go around embarrassing the family.”

He really was setting me up for all those things I really shouldn’t say or ask. I had to shove a bite of caramelized parsnips into my mouth to buy time to collect myself. Finally, I managed a smile, looking over at him. “I’m pretty sure that’s why she checks on you so much. She just loves me.”

Making an affronted face and noise at the teasing, Dad retaliated by reaching across to steal a bit of my duck. “Mmmm, now that is good stuff. I hope you said thank you.”

My head bobbed obediently. “Of course, who would get food this good delivered straight to their table and not say thank you?”

Dad gave me a look before reaching over to ruffle the left (short) side of my hair before moving over to the right (long) side. “You might be surprised. But I really shouldn’t be by now. You’re a good kid.”

Setting my fork down, I squinted at him. “Ahem, a good teenager. That is, a good teenager who is very close to passing driver’s ed. And you know what that means.”

He gave me a blank look while replying in a monotone voice, “That it’s time to raise the driving age to twenty-three?”

I gave him a light kick under the table. “Simon isn’t even twenty-three yet.”

He made a show of brightening. “You’re right, it’s an even better idea than I thought. I’ll have the lawyers get right on that.”

That earned him a raspberry. “Fine, no more duck for you,” I retorted while using my arm to shield the plate. “You’re cut off.”

He gave a low laugh at that, raising an eyebrow. “Oh, I’m cut off, is that right?”

His words made me shrink a little bit in my seat, playing it up a bit as I kept one hand over my plate. “That’s gonna backfire on me, isn’t it?” I asked in a small voice. 

His response was simply a slow, patient smile while he remained otherwise silent and motionless and kept staring at me pointedly. 

Yeah, I couldn’t take much of that. After a couple seconds of it, I shivered and moved my hand so he could take another bit of meat. “Fine fine, go wild. Have all the duck you want, just stop looking at me like that. Turn that look onto someone else, geez.”

He grinned, promptly taking another bite before informing me, “You know, in a normal family, it would be the daughter who gets the Dad to give her anything she wants with a look.”

His words made me nod slowly, staring at my plate for a moment before managing a smile that I really wish it was genuine as I looked up to him once more. “Sure, Dad, but we’re not exactly a normal family. 

“We’re not normal at all.”

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Interlude 5B – Lost Memories

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Five Years Ago

“Remember, Miss Evans, thank your host and be gracious,” Robert Parson, chauffeur for the Evans family, reminded his charge while opening the back door of the dark sedan. 

Eleven-year old Cassidy, dark hair cut into a short pixie style, didn’t so much step out of the backseat as lunge out of it… hands first. Landing on those hands, she gave a loud squeal while almost tipping over entirely the other way until Robert, well-accustomed to these shenanigans, casually caught her legs with one arm. 

She stood on her hands like that, upside down with her legs against the driver’s ready-arm. “Good catch, Bobby!” the girl chirped with a bright smile, turning her head to peer up at him.

“Honestly, Miss Evans,” the dark-skinned, well groomed man murmured. He was tall enough to be a power forward for the NBA, standing six feet, eight inches. Yet his manner with her was always gentle, and he was as well-dressed and spoken as anyone Cassidy had met among her parents’ hoity toity rich friends. “Must we cause a scene? This is hardly conduct becoming of a woman of your station and inheritance.” 

With a grunt, Cassidy flipped herself back over the other way, landing only slightly awkwardly on her knees before pushing up to her feet once more. Her bright smile never wavered. “That’s why I didn’t wear a skirt, Bobby. Well… that and the last time I did someone asked if I was a crossdresser.” Saying those words made the girl frown a little, looking away before she focused once more, shrugging. “Besides, I had to test your reflexes, you know. Gotta know if you can protect me.” She said it in an offhand way, the dismissive tone of youth who believe themselves invincible and don’t actually understand that while they may be floating on the surface of a very calm ocean, danger still lurked deep beneath those gentle waves. Despite their wealth and prominence, she’d never really believed there was anything for her family to be protected from. 

Robert shook his head, reaching out to put one hand on the girl’s short hair. “Miss Evans,” he began in a low voice that was not quite a whisper. “Such tests are unnecessary. You know that you are safe with me.” There was a calm, genuine affection in his words and gaze. Robert cared for the Evans’ youngest child as though she was his own. There was a reason, after all, that she was the only living person in the known world who was allowed to call him Bobby. 

Her head bobbed quickly. “Yup!” With a wink, she turned and reached back into the car to pull out a gift wrapped in bright silver and violet paper. It was… a bit of a mess, given her insistence on wrapping the present herself. “I think I’ve got it from here. Thanks for the ride!” 

With that, Cassidy bounded off across the long driveway. The place wasn’t nearly as big as her own house, but it was still pretty impressive. The driveway was a half-circle with an entrance and exit at two separate gates, while a tall fountain surrounded by flowers took up the middle. The house itself was about half the size of the one owned by her family, which still put it well above average. Her friend Anthony lived here, and it was his eleventh birthday. 

Reaching the front door, Cassidy went to ring the bell, only to notice that the door was open a crack. That was a little weird, but maybe they were just still bringing stuff in and out for the party. With a shrug, she pushed it open and stepped through, letting the door close behind her. 

“Hello?” Cassidy called, pausing a bit. Huh. Usually one of the maids would have come by now. Maybe they were really busy. And she was actually pretty early. She’d wanted to have a chance to talk to Anthony so they could come up with a plan to escape the party later and play some games in his rooms. It wasn’t like the party guests would miss the pair, considering most of them would be his parents’ friends, not his. Anthony didn’t actually have many friends. Just her, mostly. He was homeschooled by tutors, and the two of them had been all-but inseparable every day since her father had brought Cassidy along to meet his business associate’s son a couple years earlier. 

The party was supposed to be out back, so she started that way. Someone would know what was going on, and where she should put her gift. 

It took a minute for the girl to make her way through the enormous house. Even as often as she’d been over, it was still easy to get lost in the maze of rooms and corridors to reach the correct sliding door leading onto the back patio. It was attached to the (oddly empty and dark) dining room, and Cassidy had to set the present down on the nearby table to push the sliding glass door open. As soon as she did so, the girl heard voices. Oh, good! People were out here. She had started to worry. 

Turning to pick up the present with both arms, she started to head through the opening, before looking up. As she did so, the girl abruptly froze half-in and half-out of the house. The haphazardly-wrapped gift fell to the ground, forgotten in an instant at the sight in front of her. 

Bodies. Three of them lay sprawled out along the patio in various positions, clearly left where they had fallen. Blood… so much blood… coated the ground around and between them, a sticky pool of it. Two of them were faced away from the door, but one, the body of Anthony’s family’s longtime butler, was staring sightlessly straight at Cassidy. His mouth was open with mute horror, frozen in death that way as his gaze seemed to stare directly through the girl. 

Two more bodies lay further on past the first three, draped over lawn chairs. Beyond them was the pool, where yet another body floated. And beside it stood two men with guns. Before them lay a body that some barely cognizant part of Cassidy’s brain vaguely registered as Anthony’s mother. Dead. Dead, just like the others. All of them were dead. 

Except Anthony. The boy himself was sobbing over his mother’s body, clinging to her while he begged… for something. For her to come back, for them to stop shooting everyone, for his own life. His words were a jumble of terror and grief, a desperate wailing almost animal-like. 

As Cassidy stood there, frozen in shock, one of the men offered the boy a shrug. “Sorry, kid,” he muttered in a dispassionate voice. “Nothing personal, this ain’t about you.” 

With that, he raised the gun, pulling the trigger. The sound of the gunshot, muffled though it was, still echoed across the porch. It was met, in turn, by the horrified scream of an eleven-year-old girl who had just seen her best friend murdered right in front of her, as his body collapsed.

“Fuck!” the second man blurted, spinning that way, “where the fuck did that one co–” 

“It’s the kid!” The first guy waved the gun with the hand, bellowing, “Grab her, fucking grab her!” 

With a choked sob, Cassidy turned to flee. But her foot caught on the present she had dropped, and she fell to the floor in the dining room. The next thing she knew, a hand was yanking her up by the hair and arm. As she shrieked and struggled, the man hauled her around back to the porch. “Fucking bitch!” His hand lashed out to smack her across the face, and she hit the ground once more with a cry. He spat at her, snarling, “Your daddy thinks he can run us out of town? Let’s see how tough he thinks he is when he gets his little girl’s finger in the ma–” 

A new gunshot filled the air, echoing through the house. The man who had been ranting pitched forward, hitting the ground beside the still-screaming Cassidy. Nearby, the other man had been on his way over, only to jerk in surprise as his partner was shot. He had his own gun about halfway up before Robert came through the doorway, pistol raised to shoot him through the center of his forehead. He pitched over backward, while Robert smoothly leaned down to haul the sobbing girl up with one arm. “Hands over your ears,” he ordered. “Hands!” 

She obeyed, throwing her hands over her ears and dropping her face against his shoulder while her entire body shook with unrestrained tears. Holding her easily with one arm, Robert went back through the house. As he did so, more intruders appeared. A man popped into the doorway ahead of them with a raised submachine gun, only to be shot three times before he could move. His slumping body was kicked aside as Robert stepped through to the next room, calmly firing three more times, twice at a man who appeared in a doorway to the right, and once at yet another one who came from the stairs above and to the left.   

Taking three quick steps toward the doorway where the man there had fallen, Robert lashed out with his foot, catching the door with his foot. It slammed on the wrist of another man who was just coming through, making him drop his gun. Robert fired once through the door, aimed low to catch the man right in the knee. He collapsed, his head appearing in time to receive a second bullet that put his body on the ground beside the other man’s. 

Ducking back out of the way as a handful of shots came from that same hallway that the two men had tried to come through, Robert waited for a two count, then moved across the half-open doorway, pivoting to put his back to the opening in order to shield Cassidy with his body. Instantly, several more shots rang out. One clipped the man’s arm, drawing a grunt from him before he made it to the opposite side. Pointing the pistol through the doorway, he fired twice without looking, and was rewarded with a yelp and the sound of a man falling. 

The sound of running footsteps on the stairs announced the arrival of yet another attacker. This one lunged into view, submachine gun raised as he dove off the stairs to reach the landing. He was shot through the head in mid-dive, his body crashing through a display of glass figurines. 

Turning quickly, Robert strode onward through the room. As the door to his right was kicked open, he lashed out to slam his pistol into the face of the man that came through, hitting him viciously three times in rapid succession even as the man was falling. The one who came through just behind him was shot through the knee, just Robert’s gun clicked on empty. He slumped down with a scream of pain, while Robert pivoted to hurl his pistol into the face of another man who had come running in from the direction of the back patio where they had just been. In the same motion as his own weapon left his hand, the driver and bodyguard stripped the pistol from the hand of the attacker he had just shot through the knee while the man was trying to aim up at him. He turned it, shooting the kneeling man through the side of the head before taking a quick, almost contemptuously casual shot at the man on the other side of the room who was still recovering from having a pistol thrown at him. The shot took him between the eyes, and he dropped. 

With Cassidy still draped against his shoulder, supported by one arm, Robert made his way through the rest of the house. More men came, a small army having been sent into this mansion to kill everyone present and, apparently, abduct his eleven-year-old charge. But a small army wasn’t enough, as the man put down everyone who dared show themselves, shooting his way out of the building and back to the front driveway. Through it all, he was shot twice more in equally non-vital places. One grazed his right leg and another went through his left side. None did more than slightly slow the man.  

His own last shot (from his third acquired pistol) took down a man with a shotgun who had been running toward the front door from a van that had pulled up behind their car. Without breaking stride, Robert tossed the pistol away, hooking his foot under the shotgun to kick it up into his grip. One-handed, he aimed the shotgun at the van, blowing away the driver just as he tried to scramble out. He fired the second shot as the side door of the van began to slide open, taking the man who tried to lunge free in the face. 

Shotgun emptied, Robert tossed it aside and kept moving. The back door of the sedan was already open, so he all but threw Cassidy into it. She landed hard on the seat, eyes opening just in time to shriek in terror as she looked past him. 

Two more shots hit the man in the back before he could react. Pivoting, he took a third shot in the stomach, making that six bullets the man had taken in only a few minutes. He collapsed to the ground, while an older man with silver-white hair came into view, pistol still in hand. 

“Well now,” the elderly figure muttered, “my son-in-law does hire good help, I’ll give him that.” Shaking his head, he leaned down to look into the car at Cassidy, who was frozen in terror, mouth simply repeating ‘Bobby, Bobby, Bobby’ in silent desperation, her mind all-but broken. 

“Hiya, kid,” the man announced. “Let’s get out of here. You can get to know your old Grandpa Jacopo.” 

He started to reach in toward the girl, just as a gleaming silver blade was suddenly driven through his back to erupt through the front of his chest. The man choked, looking down sharply as the end of the blade formed two solid pieces to hold itself in him while being pulled back. The old man was hauled away from the car and dumped to the ground. 

And Cassidy saw her father. Her father… dressed up like Silversmith, sans helmet. Her daddy, standing there with a bloody mercury-like blade extending from his arm. Her father, glaring at the man on the ground. His voice shook with rage that felt as though it could bring down the nearby house. “You… son of a bitch!” 

The man on the ground laughed, choking on his own blood. “Really think you could kick me out of town forever, son-in-law? This is my town! She’s my daughter! It’s my organization! You’re a fucking glorified accountant! I built all of this, I own it! It’s mine!”

In response, Cassidy’s father simply shook his head. His voice was dark. “Not anymore.” With that, his hand lashed out, forming a new blade that took the old man’s head off at the neck, sending it bouncing along the driveway to the nearby flower garden. 

The next thing Cassidy knew, she was in her father’s arms, sobbing and babbling about dead people, about Bobby, about him being Silversmith. It was all a jumble, the terror and horrific realization of everything she had seen falling together to form one terrible memory. 

“Sorry… Mr. Evans,” Robert managed, having pulled his thoroughly bleeding form to a sitting position. “Tried to get her out.” 

“You did,” Sterling assured the man. “You did everything. We owe you everything. Just sit still. The ambulance is coming. It’s coming. You’re going to be okay, I promise. I swear, we’ll take care of you for the rest of your life. You saved my baby girl. Anything you ever need is yours. Anything.

“We’ll never forget this.” 

*******

“And she won’t remember any of it? You’re certain?” 

Elena Evans, standing beside her husband, was addressing the man in front of them. He was a pale figure with dark-blond hair wearing a neatly pressed white suit. His eyes were dark green. 

“Yes,” the man replied simply, in a distinct British accent. “I do know what I’m doing, Mrs. Evans. The girl will remember none of what happened that day. She will remember the boy as barely an acquaintance, who moved away before perishing in a car accident on the other side of the country. His being homeschooled is a bonus, in that regard.” 

“She barely speaks,” Elena murmured, the worry clear in her voice. “She hasn’t eaten in… in days. This… this thing, it wasn’t… she can’t find out like this. It’s destroyed her. She isn’t… she isn’t talking to us. She just keeps whispering about people dying, about… about her friend. She is not… Cassidy anymore.” 

“As I said,” the man repeated, “she will not remember any of it. What about your man on the scene?” 

Sterling grimaced. “Robert survived, thankfully. But the doctors don’t think he’ll walk again. Anything he does do will take years of physical therapy and surgeries.” 

“He’ll have it,” Elena announced firmly. “After what he did, he will have everything he needs for as long as he lives. Nothing is out of the question. Find a healer willing to work with him, use one of our Braintrust contacts, whatever it takes. That man saved our daughter. He did his job above and beyond the call of duty. We will not forget that.” 

“A sound policy,” their guest agreed. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have my own job to do.” Nodding to them both, he stepped through the nearby doorway to Cassidy’s room. 

The girl herself sat on a chair, staring at the mirror. She didn’t look up when he entered, nor did she speak. 

“Hi,” the man greeted her. “My name is Jackson. Kent Jackson. I have a son about your age, back over in London. His name is Tomas. What’s yours?” 

Silence. 

“Well,” Kent murmured, “I’m sorry to hear about what happened to your friend and his family. Luckily, you won’t have to think about that for much longer.” With that, he stepped over, raising his hand toward her. But just as his fingers brushed her hair, the girl shrieked. She smacked hand away, screaming out loud as she scrambled to her feet, lashing out to kick him in the leg. 

“Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Leave me alone!!!” she screamed out loud. 

Grimacing, Kent grabbed the girl by the arms. As she shrieked and fought, he hauled her off the floor, throwing the girl roughly down on her bed even as one of her hands dragged deep fingernail marks down his arm. “Stop! Stop it!” he blurted, head shaking while she scrambled, kicking and hissing like a wild cat.  

“Damn it, stop! I’m helping you, daft child!” Kent shook the girl, just as he was yanked off of her by Sterling, who put his fist in the man’s stomach to double him over. He staggered, choking out words about needing to do his job. 

“Help her.” Elena’s voice was firm, as she sat on the bed with her daughter. She reached out, but Cassidy drew back, pulling herself into a tight, whimpering ball. “Help her, not terrify her more.” 

Straightening, Kent adjusted his suit with a cough. “The girl is frightened because of the very event I’m working to take away. Give me a moment with her, and it will no longer be a problem.” He gave both of her parents a look, then exhaled while stepping over. 

“Now, let’s try this again, shall we?” 

Author’s note: The first reference to Cassidy’s memories being altered was in a short snippet at the end of 4-05 right here

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