Tomas Jackson

Project Owl 14-02 (Summus Proelium)

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“I think they might want us to go that way.” 

Tomas’s dry words came as our large assortment of teenagers made our way into the front foyer of Paige’s house, behind the birthday girl herself, just to find the grand room with its sweeping staircase and priceless artwork, filled with servants. There were maids blocking various doorways, what looked like a gardener standing in front of an antique grandfather clock as though to stop anyone from getting near it, a cook standing in front of those stairs, and so on. A dozen or so of the Banners’ staff stood in key positions to stop any of our group from wandering off or touching something they shouldn’t. And all of them were pointing toward the only doorway that wasn’t blocked. 

Yeah, most of them were smiling (or at least trying to), but it was still really damn creepy. Actually, it was probably even creepier with the smiles. They almost looked like robots, standing there guarding everything deemed valuable or important from the scary teenagers. Boy, I was glad my family didn’t live like that. Did Paige have to worry about being glared at by random staff for getting near a painting or a statue, or was this just for us? 

Okay, thinking back on the things I’d seen my classmates do (and that I’d done myself), this was fair. A huge group of teenagers in one area like this–yeah. It made total sense to make sure things didn’t… go wrong. Especially given how we could egg each other on into doing very stupid things. Which I could say with a considerable amount of authority, considering I was very often the one who was egged on to do those stupid things. But hey, they’d already had that Slip ‘N Slide set up in the school hallway. What was I supposed to do, say I couldn’t make it from one end to the other? 

Wait, that was another thing that ended with me being soaked while someone screamed at me. Huh. Maybe Izzy had a point. 

Shaking off those thoughts, I let myself be pulled along with the rest of the group as we moved through the doorway, finding ourselves in another hall, then a T-junction of corridors before making it to a door leading to what turned out to be the back patio. This was where the party was supposed to be, apparently, given all the balloons, decorations, tables laden with treats and presents, and so on. The nearby pool, a huge, horseshoe-shaped thing, even had ‘Happy Birthday Paige’ written above it in colorful Tech-Touched hologram lights from nearby projectors. In the distance, on the far side of the grounds, some kind of outdoor stage had been set up with curtains raised around it.

The moment we were out here, everyone spread out a bit. Paige had moved to the edge of the pool, pivoting back to face us with that smile that I’d seen her use on teachers and other adults for so many years. It was a smile that could instantly dissolve into a vindictive scowl the moment their backs were turned and I was the only one who could see her. I’d long-since learned not to trust it. And today was no different. Seeing that smile made a slight shiver run through me.  Whatever Paige was up to, I definitely wasn’t going to turn my back to her anytime soon. Otherwise I’d be likely to get a dagger shoved in it. Metaphorically, of course.

“How’re we doing today, Dynasties?!” the blonde called, her voice filling the area without even needing a microphone (her time as a cheerleader had done wonders for her ability to project). Dynasty, somehow, was the name of our school’s mascot. Yeah. We were the Cadillac Dynasties. And some of my classmates wondered why we were considered spoiled and privileged. That was a real mystery. 

And speaking of being spoiled and privileged, Paige waited until the resulting enthusiastic cheers died down before continuing. “In a couple hours, we’ll have some pizza and wings, then cake and ice cream! And after that… well, then I get my presents.” She said it casually, with a confident, yet charming and somehow self-deprecating smile that made most people chuckle.

“But after I’ve been thoroughly impressed and bribed by all the goodies you’ve brought,” she continued easily, “then we’ll all go inside to my family’s private theater, where you are all invited to watch the new Lou Devereux movie, not due out in public until next week!” 

Yeah, that definitely got cheers. I heard a lot of excited murmurs, words about how cool this was, how they knew Paige would have something good planned, and so on. Beside me, Tomas patted my back slightly, while Izzy actually touched my hand gently. I had a feeling she could tell I was uncomfortable, whatever I did to try to hide that. 

Paige was already continuing. She had adopted a clearly put-on, confused tone. “Except, There’s a problem, isn’t there? I mean, we’re not eating for a couple hours, and the movie is after that. So, what are we going to do in the meantime? It’d be boring if we just sat around, huh?” Her head tilted back and forth as though she was thinking about it, before perking up. “I know! Parties have music, right? So we should have some music.” 

The blonde raised her voice even more then, practically shouting. “Hey, boys! Think you could give us some music?!” 

With that, and as Paige pointed, the curtains around the stage in the distance suddenly dropped. Everyone turned that way to see a band already there in position. And this wasn’t just any band. No, of course not. This was–

“Zenith Renaissance?!” One of the other party guests blurted, her words quickly taken up by others. Because yes, the internationally famous Zenith Renaissance, a band that regularly sold out world tours and whose albums were some of the hottest releases of the past few years, was right there on the stage. And they were already starting to play one of their main songs. Which, of course, drew screams of delight from everyone around me as a bunch suddenly rushed that way to get closer to the stage. A stage that was, naturally, suddenly protected by several big guys in labeled security shirts. 

“How the fuck did she keep this a secret?” San Francisco blurted from a bit behind me, his tone utterly amazed. “And how did her parents convince these guys to play a private concert for a couple hundred people at best?” 

Quietly, I murmured, “You’d be surprised at how good she is at keeping secrets.” Then I quickly shook that off and added, “And money, probably. A lot of money. Probably flew them straight out here from wherever they’re touring right now.” Belatedly, I added, “Come to think of it, where are her parents?” There’d yet to be any sign of them. Paige and the household staff were the only ones we’d seen. 

Most of our classmates had already rushed to be in front of the stage. Even Amber and Jae headed that way to get a good spot, the former calling back that they’d save space for us. But Tomas was still there with Izzy and me, offering a shrug. “Probably busy. Not like they need to be down here. And from what my mum said,” he added in a somewhat quieter voice, “they don’t spend a lot of time with Paige to begin with.” 

That made me do a quick, confused double-take. “Wait, since when does your mom have anything to do with Paige or her parents?” 

That earned another shrug from the boy, who started to walk that way to join the others while answering. “They’ve been golfing together a couple times since we got back! And they do brunch.” 

Okay, now I really wanted to know more about all that. Especially given the fact that Tomas’s father had only recently tried to kill Paige to shut her up. Now his mother was friends with her adopted–uuuurgggh, this was all too goddamn confusing. 

The sound of someone clearing their throat drew my attention behind me, as I belatedly realized that Izzy and I were the only ones still standing away from the stage. Well, Izzy, me, and Paige. Yeah. She was the one clearing her throat, gazing at me with an unreadable expression. I couldn’t tell if she looked sad or smug. 

For a moment, Paige and I just stared at each other, before she casually drawled, “That can go on the table with the others.” Her head nodded toward the present that was still clutched in one of my hands. “Or in the trash if you want to spare one of the maids the time it’ll take to put it there themselves. Either way, I’m sure it’ll end up where it belongs.” A brief pause, then, “I’m sure a lot of things will end up where they belong today.” 

“Hey!” That was Izzy. “When someone brings you a present, you’re supposed to say thank you.” 

Paige, for her part, looked a little amused. “Aww, Cassidy, look. You finally found someone shorter than you to hang around with. Tell the truth, which elementary school is she from?”

“The one where they teach basic manners,” Izzy immediately shot back, surprising me a bit. “You obviously wouldn’t know it.”  

For a brief moment, Paige just stood there without saying anything. Finally, she chuckled and pivoted to walk away with a deceptively casual, “Good to see you’ve got someone to fight your battles for you, Cassie. Not like you’re any good at it yourself. Maybe try someone who’s old enough to stay up past eight o’clock next time?” 

She kept going, heading to join all her devoted fans (who were really fans now that she was giving them a private concert and advance movie screening) even as the music started up. They greeted her with a cheer, of course. Yeah, she owned this party. 

Izzy, meanwhile, looked at me. “Is she really always like that?” 

My mouth opened to confirm it, before I stopped, pausing as an important realization struck me. “No,” I murmured in surprise. “She isn’t always like that.” Quickly, I corrected myself. “I mean, yes, she’s always a bitch to me. That’s not new. But she’s usually nice to other people. Look at what she’s like with all those guys. Amber and Tomas both even said that Paige is cool to everyone except me. So…” Squinting uncertainly, I looked to the girl beside me. “Why would she act like that to you? She’s always more diplomatic with other people, or just uses them defending me as a way of turning it around on an insult to me, like she did at the end with that whole thing about me not fighting my own battles. But she insulted you. She made fun of you being short and young. That doesn’t–she doesn’t do that. Why would she do that now?” 

Izzy offered an uncertain shrug. “Because she knows I’m staying with you, maybe?” 

“Maybe,” I allowed, though it didn’t sound right. There was something off about this entire situation, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. Something was wrong here. Seriously, where were Paige’s adopted parents? Shouldn’t they at least make an appearance?

Speaking tentatively, Izzy asked, “Do you want to drop off the present and leave? You’ve made an appearance like your parents wanted.” 

Part of me just wanted to do just that, wanted to take off right then and say screw this whole thing. But I couldn’t. Not when this was my best chance to actually find out the truth about the whole Paige situation. This mystery had been going on long enough, and now that I was actually here in her house, I wasn’t giving that up. Something big was going on here, and I couldn’t just walk away from it. 

So, I shook my head, offering the younger girl what I hoped was a reassuring smile. “Not gonna let her being a bitch chase me away from a party. Even if it is hers and even if she’s being more of a bitch than usual. Come on, let’s drop off the gift then go see if Amber and Jae managed to save us a spot.” 

*******

We watched the concert. Outside of the fact that it was in Paige’s backyard and I still didn’t know what the hell was going on with her, it was pretty great. Especially once I let myself give up on the idea of trying to sneak into Paige’s house during the whole thing. There were way too many people around, with various house staff members standing by every entrance. I had the feeling they were there to make sure none of the guests went on an unauthorized tour. Which was exactly what I wanted to do, but not for the reasons they might have expected. 

Or maybe it was for the reasons they expected. For all I knew, the entire house staff was in on this whole thing and knew what Paige was up to. Maybe they were just there to stop a bunch of teenagers from making a mess or stealing things. Or maybe they were there to make sure that whatever was going on went off without a hitch. 

If something was going on. I still didn’t have any proof of that, and it felt like I was crazy for thinking there was. Yet there was that tickle in the back of my brain that just wouldn’t go away. Something was happening, something big. Paige was throwing this party and had invited all these people, including me, for a reason. But… why? What was her deal? 

I still didn’t have any better ideas and wasn’t any closer to answers by the time we all ate pizza, followed by cake and ice cream. It was served out on a large buffet table where you could take anything you wanted. Izzy gorged herself. Obviously, she didn’t exactly feel guilty about taking all the food she could possibly want from Paige after that whole confrontation. 

After that, Paige opened her presents. She oohed and awed dramatically over each one, making a big deal about thanking the person who gave it. Well, except for mine, of course. She opened the one from Izzy and me, producing a couple premium seating tickets to a play that was all-but impossible to get into for most people. It was a play I knew she wanted to see, because I’d heard her talking to a couple friends about it back at school. But because it was from me, she simply held them up, announced what they were, and said a simple, “Thanks so much.” Without naming me, of course. But everyone knew. 

Then it was time to head in to see this movie. I probably could’ve taken off by now. I’d more than made an appearance. But I just… I had to see this through. Something was keeping me here, some thought that this was too important for me to just give up and head home. The answers to what the hell Paige’s deal was were here somewhere, and this was my best chance to get them. 

Once more, as we made our way through the house to the Banners’ private movie theater, there were staff members standing around to make sure nobody wandered off. Good lord, I’d thought this would be a chance for me to sneak away and search the house, but that just wasn’t gonna happen. Not with all the eagle-eyed and attentive maids and such who were bound and determined to watch every step we took. It felt like if someone had so much as taken a wrong turn down a different hallway, a SWAT team would’ve descended on them. I probably would’ve had more luck searching this place by coming in the middle of a school day or something. Because this was just insane. 

But I was here now, and maybe things would calm down during the movie. Yeah. Once everyone got settled in and it was dark, I’d slip out to ‘use the bathroom’, then manage to get myself lost. That felt like my best chance. For now, I’d just wait for the movie to start and everyone to get engrossed in it. 

Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t the first thing on Paige’s mind, apparently. Once everyone was seated in the private theater (there were just barely enough seats for the entire crowd with a couple left over), she moved front and center with her hands up. “You guys all having a good time?!” 

The answer, of course, was a resounding roar of approval from most people, and I watched as Paige… well, seemed to ignore it. Most of the time she would have basked, but now it felt like she was just going through the motions. The look on her face, it wasn’t–it was wrong. It was the wrong expression for this kind of thing, even if she was really good at hiding it. There was something…

Belatedly, I realized Paige was still talking while I was trying to decipher her expression and mood. Something about giving presents to everyone who came–right. Yeah, she was going to gift a present to each and every person here, one at a time. There was a table full of colorful gift bags beside her, and she proceeded to start calling every person up, one at a time, to get their present for being a ‘wonderful guest.’ 

The gifts were either a new phone, new smart watch, or new ipad, depending on what Paige had determined each person needed or would want more. And yeah, everyone went nuts. A few people hugged her after getting their gift, before heading to their seat. 

Honestly, I expected her to skip over me. Expected it so much I almost didn’t hear her when she said my name. So she said it again. “Cassie Evans.” 

She was looking at me. They were all looking at me. Fuck. Pushing myself up while asking myself what the hell her game was, I headed to the front. Cassie. She called me Cassie. Paige never did that. It was always Cassidy. Cassie was way too familiar and friendly. And she’d called me that earlier, hadn’t she? With Izzy. Why…? 

Reaching the front, I squinted at the girl, almost silently daring her to pull something now in front of everyone. She, in turn, offered me a faint… kind of sad smile. Sad? Why was she sad? 

“I want you to know,” Paige informed me, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “I think you earned this a long time ago.” With that, she turned to pick up yet another small gift bag, this one with my name on it. She held it up, and I saw her hand dip into the bag, eyes rising to meet mine with an expression of… fear…? 

A sudden, terrifying bang filled the room. It sounded like a gunshot. Instantly, the lights went out. The whole area was suddenly pitch black and everyone started screaming, even as something was shoved against my face. A mask? No, like an oxygen mask. It was an oxygen mask, except it wasn’t pumping oxygen. It was–it smelled sweet, it smelled–

My knees went weak. I collapsed forward, caught by Paige in the darkness even as my consciousness started to fade. I felt sick, I felt wrong, everything was… everything was…

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Paige’s voice whispered in my ear as she slumped to the floor with my falling body. Her voice, her apology, was the last thing I heard. “You have to die. I don’t have a choice.

“You have to die.”

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Project Owl 14-01 and Patreon Snippets 17B (Summus Proelium)

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The single requested snippet for Summus Proelium this month follows the end of this regular chapter. Thank you very much to the patron who requested it! 

The morning started out like most others did these days. In other words, it started by me being woken up by Jania Estrada, our elderly-yet-eternally-energetic maid from Panama, turning on the vacuum cleaner a few feet away from the bed I was snoring on. As usual, the sudden loud noise sent me tumbling out of bed with a yelp, which made Jania’s cheerful laugh overwhelm the sound of the machine itself. She wasn’t malicious about it, of course. Jania was one of the nicest people I knew. But she had a job to do and I tended to sleep in on non-school days, for reasons that should have been fairly obvious (not that I could give them to her). She wasn’t waking me up for the hell of it, even if my reaction did give her some amusement. She did other work upstairs and waited as long as she could before Olivia, our head housekeeper, would have had harsh words for her tardiness. 

Still, whether by choice or not, Jania did find waking me up with the vacuum and my subsequent reactions to be ever-so-amusing. Sometimes I managed to wake up first, but others, like now, she would put the vacuum close enough to give me a minor heart attack when it flipped on. 

Lying in a heap on the floor, I turned my head just enough to stare at the gray-haired woman who was currently giving an entirely-too-innocent expression while vacuuming back and forth. “Oh, Miss Evans!” Her mock surprise wasn’t the least bit convincing, and she obviously knew it. “I did not see you there. Were you not downstairs already eating?” Her head tilted, and then she made a sound of put-on realization. “Oh, that must have been Miss Amor who was at the table.”  

With a groan, I rolled backward and managed to pull myself to my feet somewhat awkwardly. “Yeah, sure,” I retorted, “simple mistake. We look so much alike.” Picking up one of my pillows, I chucked it lightly at her. She, of course, smoothly ducked without paying much attention. For an old lady, she was pretty spry and had good reflexes to go along with her good mood and sense of humor. 

Checking the time, I grimaced. It was almost eleven o’clock. God, I really had needed sleep. Worse, Paige’s party was supposed to start at two, so that was only three hours away. Urgh. Once again, I considered just pleading off. But not only was there that whole ‘keeping up appearances for the family’ thing, I also really wanted to know what the hell was going on with her, and this was basically my best (if not only) chance to find out. 

As far as the first bit went, I did wonder just what my parents were thinking about all this. They knew that Paige knew at least something about their business, that she had enough information to make them back off and leave her alone. Yet they still wanted me to go to this party. Was I some kind of unwitting spy? Were they going to ask me all kinds of things about her when it was all over? Was this just their way of getting someone in Paige’s house? Were they using the whole party thing as a way to find out how much Paige really knew, as some kind of test or… something? I had no idea. All I knew was that my mother said that it would be rude for our family to turn down an invitation from her family, but that I was free to leave once I’d made an appearance. Which was an offer I still wasn’t sure if I’d take or not. Sure, I was wary of going, but once I was there, it made sense to stick around and see what happened. Again, it wasn’t as though this kind of opportunity came around a lot. 

Still, with only three hours to go, all sorts of doubts and insecurities were popping up in my head. Anything could go wrong over there. And by that, I meant anything. Paige could be planning some kind of humiliating, nasty attack against me, or this could end up being some big Touched/Ministry-related thing. Or it could be nothing at all, just both sides (her and my parents) feeling each other out to see what the other would do. 

It was fucking complicated, and I had no idea how it was all going to play out. What I did know was that I was hungry, and that at least was something I could take care of immediately. Well, almost immediately. First, I headed into the bathroom, took a nice, hot shower, then dressed before heading downstairs. 

The others were obviously long-since done with breakfast by then, with Dad already off to some meeting, Mom having a conversation in the front hall with some florist or dressmaker or something who had stopped by (I wasn’t sure, as I kept hearing both words about flowers and fabric), and Simon paused on his way out the door of the kitchen as I was going in just long enough to give me a noogie before he headed for the garage. 

Izzy was still sitting there, looking at the comic strips in the newspaper. After ordering food at the intercom, I took a seat next to her. “How’s Garfield today?” 

“Fat and lazy,” she replied, looking over at me. “Are you really going to go see that girl’s birthday? Isn’t she, umm… not very nice?” 

Yeah, I may have said a thing or two about Paige while Izzy and I were playing video games before. Plus, she’d seen her back at Amber’s own party. Grimacing, I shook my head. “Don’t really have much of a choice. It’s a whole ‘rich people’ thing. Her family’s rich, mine is rich, we have to play nice at times like this. According to Mom, it wasn’t even Paige who wanted to invite me. It was more ‘her family inviting our family’, with me as the proxy.” Rolling my eyes, I added, “Fun, huh?” 

“Super,” came the simple response, before Izzy turned a bit more to face me directly. “Your umm, your mom asked if I wanted to go, cuz there’s supposed to be a lot of different kids there, even my age. It’s a whole thing. The Banners invited half the people in the city, it seems like. But I… I told her I wasn’t sure if you wanted company. Or, you know… some kid tagging along.” 

That made me do a double-take, blinking at her. “Wasn’t sure I wanted–sure, Izzy. I mean, I’ll take all the back-up I can get. And you’re not just some kid, you’re–” Realizing I had no idea how to finish that sentence, I settled on doubling down with, “You’re not just some kid. Besides, if Paige is awful, I’ll just retreat to the tweens area and hang out with you.” 

“You don’t think that’ll just give her more ammo about you being too young?” Izzy pointed out, clearly trying to sound diplomatic about the whole thing. 

I, in turn, shrugged. “It’s not like she needs any excuse. I’m not gonna live my life by what might give Paige Banners a way to make fun of me. She’ll do that regardless. I’d rather have fun. And if I’ve got to make an appearance there, I’d rather have someone else to hang out with, like you.” 

“And Amber and Jae,” the other girl pointed out. “They’ll be there too, right?” 

“Right, yeah, them too.” I gave a slow nod before giving her a quick wink. “You guys really hit it off before, huh?” 

A brief, vaguely odd look crossed the girl’s face before vanishing. It could’ve been my imagination. Either way, she gave a quick nod. “Uh huh, they’re nice.” The curt answer was followed up by a curious, “What’s a birthday party for the rich like?” 

“Oh, you’ll see,” I informed her with a cough. “It’s always different, and I haven’t exactly been invited to many of Paige’s, so I don’t know what she does.” Or did I? At some point, I’d clearly been close enough to Paige to know a lot more about her than I did now. Did I visit for her birthday? Had I–

“Cassidy?” Izzy’s voice interrupted, as she touched my arm. “Are you okay?” 

“Oh, uhh, yeah, sorry.” Flushing despite myself, I nodded. “I’m fine. The point is, birthdays are extravagant. But then, I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out a lot of things around here are extravagant by now.” 

Even as I said that, the kitchen door opened and Christiana, one of Chef Claudio’s assistants, emerged with the tray holding my breakfast. After thanking her for setting it in front of me, I quickly dug into it, while glancing at the girl next to me, “So, you’re gonna come, right?” 

“Um, okay.” Izzy still sounded unsure about the whole thing, but gave me a little nod. “If you want me to.” 

Honestly, I really wasn’t sure how all this was going to go down. Would having Izzy there put her in danger? I’d basically figured out and accepted by that point that my parents didn’t mean her any harm, whatever reason they had for her being here. But taking her out to where Paige’s house was, when I wasn’t sure why I had even been invited? Was it stupid? 

Maybe. But there would be a lot of people there, as Izzy herself had noted. No one was going to pull something obvious with so many witnesses and bodyguards around. 

Right? 

********

“Holy shit, Evans, you actually showed up?” 

Izzy and I had just been dropped off in the front drive of the Banners mansion. Like my family’s place, the ‘driveway’ was long enough to have several school buses park along it. There weren’t exactly school buses parked there now, though there were several cars all letting out an assortment of teenagers. Most looked pretty damn impressed by the massive house in front of them. 

That obviously surprised exclamation had come from a short (well, taller than me but only by about four inches or so), vaguely heavyset black guy with glasses and an ever-present red baseball cap worn backwards. San Francisco Cavers. Yeah, his first name was San and his middle name was Francisco. His parents really thought they were clever, I supposed. 

“Hey, San,” I greeted him. He’d gone by Frank (as in San Francisco) for awhile back in junior high before deciding he hated that worse than just San. “What’s up?” 

Whether his name was cool or weird, San was a friend. Sort of. Mostly he was a ‘hang out at school or go do something dangerous and crazy afterward’ sort of buddy. Not that we’d exactly hung out any time recently. Mostly because I hadn’t hung out with… any of my school friends. How could I? Either I’d be putting innocent people in danger by being around them, or I’d be spending time with people who were planted by my parents to keep an eye on me. Any of my ‘friends’ at school could’ve been secretly reporting to my parents. Or collateral damage if something happened to me. 

Paranoid? Sure, definitely, no question. But didn’t I have reason to be? Yeah, I’d avoided most of my school friends since that night. It hadn’t been all that hard, given how much I’d tended to keep them at a distance anyway. For… reasons I was starting to understand, with this whole Anthony Tate thing. He’d been a really close friend and he died. Whatever happened back then had obviously been traumatizing enough that my parents erased it from my memory. But I had a feeling that some of it had stuck around. Between that and Paige apparently being erased and–

Actually, was it possible that… if Paige and I had been friends, even if she was also somehow erased from my memory, when she’d showed up again and acted like such a bitch to me, I’d subconsciously taken that as some kind of betrayal? Could that have helped my whole… avoiding close friendships thing too? 

Huh. 

San was shaking his head. “What’s up? What’s up is I’m surprised you came. I mean, it ain’t like you and Princess Peach in there are all that close.” 

Grimacing, I nodded. “Yeah, well, it’s a family sort of thing. You know, gotta keep up appearances.” 

With that, I started to introduce Izzy as a girl who was staying with us for awhile, just as Tomas approached. Of course he was there too, speaking of people whom I still didn’t know if I could trust at all or not. I wanted to, naturally. But I kept flipping back and forth between just how involved he was with his father. The fact that he’d been my boyfriend for awhile after Mr. Jackson erased my memory back in the day… yeah, it made me uncomfortable. But Tomas was just so… decent, so cool. He made me feel like I was special. 

Then again, so had my parents. And look at that whole situation. 

Pushing those thoughts aside, I focused as Tomas was saying, “You know Cass isn’t going to let someone being a hellbeast stop her from doing anything.” His hand patted my back as he added, “I mean, come on, this is the same girl who, according to some very interesting stories people were telling the other day, jumped into Maggie DeLeano’s pool from the roof just because someone said she was too chicken to do it from the balcony. She didn’t just beat the dare, she upped the ante. And freaked out Mr. DeLeano when he saw her fall past the window, so he came out and started yelling.” 

“You did?” That was Izzy, staring at me with wide eyes. “Wait, how big was the DeLeano house?” Clearly, she was trying to figure out just what level of crazy I actually was. 

“Just a few stories, no big deal,” I insisted. “They have a deep pool too. Trust me, it was nothing.” 

“Nothing?” Tomas chuckled, giving me a look. “From what I heard, no one else was ready to go jumping off after her.” 

“That’s because they’re all sissies,” I pointed out mildly, poking him in the chest. “And so are you.” 

“Sissy and proud of it, ma’am,” he replied with a grin that made my heart twist itself into knots. Even now, even with everything I knew and all the things about that whole situation that terrified me, Tomas could make my knees shake and my mouth go dry with a single look. How was that fair? 

With some effort, I shoved all those thoughts away before looking at San. “Anyway, can we stop telling Izzy all about the dumb things I used to do when I was young and stupid?” 

Lowering his head, the boy stared at me over the top of his glasses, looking entirely unimpressed. “Dude, it was like…. four months ago.” 

“Four month–” Izzy looked at her fingers, doing the mental math. “Wasn’t it still winter then?” 

“Pshh, their pool was heated,” I pointed out, as if that actually solved anything. Still, my face flushed a little. “And yeah, four months ago. Like I said, young and dumb. I wasn’t even sixteen yet. Totally not worth ever bringing up again.”

“What’s not worth bringing up again?” Amber, approaching with Jae (who was heavily done up in a hat, sunscreen, and dark shades to protect her sensitive albino skin), asked. She exchanged a fist bump with San, while looking toward me. “You sure you wanna be here?” 

Despite myself, I rolled my eyes. “Come on, guys. I didn’t accidentally have the driver drop us off here thinking it was the mall. And I didn’t bring this for my health.” From my pocket, I produced a small, red-wrapped present to wave at them. “Believe me, if it was my choice, I’d rather be almost anywhere else. But her family and mine just–we have to play nice.” 

Quietly, Jae pointed out, “Her too.” 

“Right, that should mean she plays nice too, especially with all these people here,” Amber agreed. “But shouldn’t we go in to find out? What’s everyone standing outside like this for anyway?” By that point, there had to be over a hundred teenagers out here, all talking in small groups or pairs. 

San shrugged, looking around at the rest of the mingling groups. “One of the butlers was out here before. He said something about the party being prepared and that we’ve all gotta wait.” 

Tomas gave a short nod of confirmation. “Yeah, and he didn’t look too happy about all the people out here either. Pretty sure if it was up to him, he’d turn the hose on all of us.”

That, of course, was the perfect opening for San to start talking about the time I’d managed to get Mrs. Kormish to turn her hose on me after one too many times running through her backyard to get the balls that ended up back there. Her yard was right on the edge of the park where I took my skates and board to use the ramps and rails, and some of the guys played baseball on the nearby diamond. I didn’t really play, but every time a ball went in mean old Mrs. Kormish’s yard, the boys all looked to me to go get it. Apparently I was the only one who wasn’t chicken, given how much she yelled at and threatened anyone who got near her grass. 

Anyway, one time I’d gone too close to her back porch, and she came running out from the side of the house (apparently she’d been working in the flower garden there), spraying me with the hose and screaming bloody murder. That was a fun time. 

Izzy was squinting at me. “How come so many of your stories end with ‘and then I got soaked while someone screamed at me?’” 

San laughed. “Oh, kid, you think that’s bad, you should’ve heard about the time we out on the beach, and–” 

He was interrupted (and I was spared hearing that story again), by the arrival of Paige herself. Several people quickly spoke up, pointing her out as the birthday girl stood at the front door. Her gaze swept over the crowd and… I swore she looked right at me. Our gazes locked, holding steady for a solid couple of seconds before she spoke up. 

“You came.” 

Me? Was–was she talking to–

By that point, her gaze had swept on, taking in everyone with a very faint smile. Whatever had been there on her face earlier was gone now. It had been replaced by a polite smile, that of a gracious host. “Thank you all. I’m sorry for keeping you waiting. But believe me, it’s going to be worth it. Come on inside.” She turned, gesturing as two maids there opened the large front doors, holding them wide for everyone to follow as Paige herself walked back into her house. 

“Let’s get this party started.”

********

Patreon Snippets – Raindrop

“Does this hurt?” With that question, the paramedic who stood in front of Raindrop gently turned her arm, testing the range of motion. “You said a brick clipped it right here? Or was it higher?”

It had been a few minutes since the fight with Suckshot and Landlock. Izzy was still standing in the theater, though no longer up on the stage. Still in full-costume, of course, the girl was holding her arm out absently for the medic to check over while her gaze remained centered on the spot where Paintball was waving off a medic of his own, insisting he was fine. 

Realizing belatedly that she had been asked a question, Izzy flushed under her mirrored faceplate and quickly turned her attention back. “Huh? Oh-um, no, it’s just a little sore. Um, bruised, I guess?” Her gloved hand moved to gingerly touch the spot where she had been clipped by the brick before Paintball showed up. Before Paintball helped save them. Helped save her

She was blushing again. Forcing herself to focus once more, she listened as the medic finished up with making sure she wasn’t injured even worse, and told her what to do if she did find that it was more than a bruise. 

Finally, he left. Paintball, meanwhile, had already started to head for the exit after seeing that the authorities had Suckshot and Landlock in hand. After giving a quick glance around herself to make sure she wasn’t ignoring anyone, Izzy jogged after, catching up with the boy. For a second, she hesitated. What was she going to say? The first thing that sprang to mind was to ask how he was already so good at this stuff when he’d just started out a short time ago and wasn’t working with a group. He was her age. Her age, but he did all this stuff alone, or even came to help when they needed it even though he wasn’t part of their team.

And that was another question Izzy wanted to ask. Why? Why didn’t he want to work with them? Actually, it was pretty obvious that he was just fine working with them, as long as it wasn’t official. So… so what was his deal? 

Ugh, he was so mysterious. He came out of nowhere, was super-good at this stuff even if he made mistakes, and he just… he just helped. She’d even heard that he was giving out sandwiches and stuff to the homeless. Again, what was his deal

But she couldn’t bring herself to ask any of that. It was too confrontational, too direct. And after everything he’d done, after the way he’d jumped in and–

Blushing again. Good mask. Very good mask. Izzy had never been so thankful for–

“After you.” Paintball was holding the door open leading out to the street. Holding the door and waiting for her expectantly. 

“Thanks,” Izzy quickly piped up before starting to move through. The minor voice changer she used, just enough to make it so people wouldn’t be able to put her voice online to figure out who she was, picked up the squeak in her words, making the girl blush even more as she quickly stepped through the doorway. Then she turned back, facing Paintball. “Um. Thanks for all of that, I mean. Thanks for helping.”

For a second, Paintball seemed to be confused. “Thanks–oh. Uh, no problem. It’s what we do, right?” 

“Right,” Izzy agreed hurriedly, bobbing her head. It was just what they did. Never mind that Paintball managed to be funny and cool about it while not having a team with him or anything. Never mind any of that. Stop thinking about that. Yeah. 

Clearly, whatever else Paintball was, he was not telepathic. Because he gave no indication that he had any hint of anything Izzy was thinking. Instead, his helmeted head turned as he took in the sight of various cops rounding up mostly-injured and only slightly resisting gang members all around them. “I guess we should help clean up a bit, huh?”  

Once again, Izzy found herself nodding. Right, they should help clean up. She and Paintball should help. 

Her blush was going to burn through the mirrored faceplate, she just knew it. 

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Friends and Enemies 8-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Izzy didn’t wake up again, and the two of us slept through the rest of the night. We slept so well, in fact, that I was almost late for my ride to school. This time, however, Jania didn’t wake me up with the vacuum. Instead, she gently touched my arm and woke me carefully to avoid bothering Izzy. I quietly slipped out of bed, whispered a thank you and made sure she had seen the note about the glass in the other room, then made my way to the bathroom to get cleaned up. When I left (after grabbing the bag with my costume from its hiding place and slipping it into my backpack), the kid was still asleep. I hoped she’d stay that way for a bit. She deserved the rest.  

In any case, I made it to school. Which was good, because I was pretty sure that if I’d abandoned Amber and Jae right when we were supposed to give our projects, I’d never hear the end of it. Well, from Amber anyway. Jae would probably just look silently disappointed with me, the thought of which somehow seemed worse than anything Amber could possibly say. 

But I made it, and we presented our report on Laura Cereta, one of the first known feminist and humanist writers in the world from way back in the fourteen hundreds. Amber and I did most of the talking, but Jae filled in her part too. After the main report, the three of us took a few questions (mostly from Mr. Dorn, though a couple other students were actually interested enough to ask something) to prove we knew the material. When we were done, he said he’d let us know what our grade was tomorrow, mentioning that he was quite impressed. Then he moved on to the next group. And that was that, our whole project was over and done with. 

“Hey,” Amber muttered on the way back to our desks. “Don’t be a stranger just cuz the project’s over, got it? Seeing that movie last night was pretty awesome.” Going briefly silent with a tilted head as she took her seat, the girl belatedly added, “Oops. Guess that kinda sounds like I just want you to hang out with us for the benefits, huh?” She looked to me. “Seriously, come hang out at my place some time. It’s not a mansion, but hey. We could still have fun. Right, Jae?”

The other girl nodded, and I gave them both a thumbs up. “Sure, no worries. We’ll hang out.” It would be kind of weird, considering I hadn’t really… just gone over to a friend’s house like that since long before this whole Touched thing. Oh, sure, I had friends at school. But they were friends at school. I hung out in groups now and then, went to some parties, that kind of thing. I wasn’t a hermit. But somehow, having a close friend that I confided in and all that had felt… wrong? Dangerous. Something. I couldn’t explain it. All I knew was that whenever I started along the path of making a close friend, something in the back of my head would always tell me it was a bad idea. It made me feel… guilty, like I was betraying someone. Which was dumb. What the hell did I have to feel guilty about? Who could I possibly be betraying? 

Oh well, that whole feeling had kind of faded since I found that orb and all this started happening. Probably because I had a lot more to worry about now than some stupid paranoid thoughts that I couldn’t even actually explain to myself. There were real problems, real reasons for paranoia and to be worried about someone close to me getting hurt. I no longer needed some half-formed vague notions about ‘betraying’ someone by making a new close friend. Which, I supposed, was one thing to be grateful for. Maybe I’d send my parents a greeting card reading, ‘Thanks for being evil supervillains, at least now I’m paranoid for a reason.’  

Yeah, that probably wouldn’t go over well. But like with most of my thoughts and fantasies about the various ways I might present the fact that I knew the truth to my family, the thought of their faces in those first few seconds was almost worth it. Sort of. Until I actually stopped to think about it. Then all I could figure was that it would go one of two ways. First, they’d be angry, they’d show me their… evil side. And the thought of that was enough to make me want to die. 

The other option was that they’d be ashamed, sad that I had found out. And… and part of me didn’t want to experience that either. But another part of me did. One part of me wanted to shove it in their faces and scream that I knew they were monsters. 

But they weren’t monsters. They were my family. They were my mom, my dad, my brother. I wanted to scream at them and I wanted to hug them. I wanted them to be good, God damn it. I wanted to throw everything I knew about what they were doing right in their faces, and I also wanted to hide it, bury it deep down. I wanted to forget it, I wanted to scream it from the rooftops. I wanted to deal with it, I wanted it to disappear. I wanted to wake up in the morning and find out everything about my parents being evil was just a bad dream. 

Would I still want that if it meant giving up my powers? I loved my powers. But… but my family. Would I erase my whole identity as Paintball if it meant not just forgetting that my family were a bunch of supervillains, but actually erase that fact and make them normal people instead, the way I used to think they were? Would I choose to become normal if it would make them normal? 

Fuck. I was supposed to be able to answer that question, wasn’t I? What… what would I choose? Gun to my head, one way or the other, which would I choose? Which would I choose? 

“Cassie?” A voice interrupted my internal musing. Class was over, and Amber was standing there, looking at me curiously. “You okay? You looked kinda… lost for a minute there.” 

Clearing my throat, I nodded quickly while picking myself up and grabbing my bag. “Yeah, I’m good. Thanks. And hey, glad I got teamed up with you for the project. It’s… it was fun.” 

On my way out, Mr. Dorn spoke up. “Cassidy, please wait a second, would you?” 

So, I did. Waving to Amber and Jae, I stood by the man’s desk and watched curiously as he adjusted and stacked the papers he’d taken from everyone who presented today, then put them into a folder in his satchel. Zipping it shut, he finally looked up toward me. “It sounds as though you, Jae, and Amber are getting along beyond just doing the project together?” 

“Uh.” Blinking, I nodded. “Yes, sir, they’re cool. Jae knows a lot if you give her time to talk.” 

“Yes, she does,” he agreed with a small smile. “Most people don’t, though. Most people–” He cut himself off and just shook his head. “Not a good idea to dwell on that kind of thing. The point is, I’m glad it worked out. Jae…” He paused, seeming to consider his words. “Jae needs more friends she can count on. People who can be there for her. And you–” Again, he seemed to stop short, changing whatever he had been about to say. “Eh, never mind. I’m rambling because I’m hungry, see?” With a little smile, he gestured to me. “Go ahead–oh, you’re ahhh… friends with Tomas Jackson, yeah?” When I nodded, he continued. “Great, could you make sure to remind him that he needs to show up here after school for that exam he and I were talking about?” 

I agreed before heading out. Sure enough, I saw Tomas at lunch, and told him what Mr. Dorn had said. He, in turn, reminded me that I was supposed to go to his family’s place for dinner that night. Which was going to be interesting. I hadn’t spent a lot of time with Tomas’s family back when we were dating, but I’d spent enough to know that his father was a lot different from Tomas himself. His mother, on the other hand, was more like her son. Much more laid back than her husband. Kent Jackson had always given me the creeps for… well, reasons I couldn’t explain. He was polite enough, for the most part. He was well-spoken, he never said or did anything bad to me. Nonetheless, every time I saw the man, a weird feeling went up my spine. 

But I was just going to have to get over that, or at least shove it down while going to this dinner. Because Tomas would be pretty disappointed if I didn’t show up. Besides, his father didn’t deserve the kind of apprehension I’d felt toward him. Now that I knew my own parents were evil supervillains, I really had to let go of that old imaginary paranoia. 

I’d go to this dinner with my old boyfriend and have a good time. I would not let weird, unfounded feelings ruin that. 

******

The house the Jacksons were living in right now was the same one they’d lived in before. It was probably owned by the British government or something and given to their diplomats. The house itself was fairly large, I supposed, for a normal home. It was three stories, but still much smaller than my family’s place, more… cozy. There was a wrought iron fence all the way around the property, with a clearly armed guard just inside the gate. A couple more guards patrolled the grounds, while a fourth guy was barely visible on the roof. 

That might have seemed excessive to some, but this place was basically right near the edge of Sherwood territory. Sherwood, the Fell-Gang that was obsessed with nature, plants, wild animals, that kind of thing. Most of them hated technology, advancement, industrialization, anything like that. They didn’t hold much territory in the city from what I’d seen, but what they did have was guarded obsessively. From what I’d seen in the news, they basically had spies all over their area in the form of animals and random plants. You never knew what kind of information the grass, trees, flowers, even weeds were sending back to the Sherwood people. To say nothing of random squirrels, mice, birds… yeah. 

Not only did Sherwood violently attack any outside gangs who dared set foot in what they considered their space, but cops and Star-Touched had to be careful too. Sherwood didn’t openly attack them quite as much, but you didn’t want to be on your own if they were feeling particularly annoyed. Especially not after dark. And the people who lived there were basically always aware that what they were saying could be spied on through any plants within earshot. Not only that, but cutting plants out of your life was apparently not allowed either. You had to have a full, well-cared for lawn, flowers, the works. One of the reports I’d watched on the news a few months back had said that every once in awhile, residents would receive some kind of plant on their doorstep and were expected to put it in their house and take care of it. 

I couldn’t even imagine living under that kind of oppression and insanity, and my parents were literal supervillains. The officials and Star-Touched teams had tried to root them out (hah), but it was hard when every plant in the general area was basically spying and playing lookout. 

Thankfully, as far as I knew, the spying plants only worked within a certain radius of the Sherwood territory. That’s why they kept their claimed area relatively small, because they couldn’t expand that far without losing their main advantage that helped them keep everyone in line. They’d tried to expand now and then through various means, but got swatted back through a combined effort from the authorities and Star-Touched teams before they could take root (okay, I was sorry for that one). 

So yeah, I didn’t blame the Jacksons for having visible security. From what I remembered based on the other times I’d visited, the whole area surrounding Sherwood space also had an actual organization whose job it was to go out and kill any plant that tried to reach its way out of Sherwood territory, as well as sensors to check for root systems below the ground. It was a whole thing. 

I was planning on taking a quick trip over to check in on Wren once this dinner thing was over, so I brought the bag with my costume along. But there was no way I was going to take it into the house. Not when someone might look inside. So, I hid it on the roof of a nearby fast food place, tucked out of sight, before making my way to the actual house in question. 

The guard at the gate actually recognized me. His name was Joel, and he grinned when I approached. “Well, hey there, Miss Evans. Good to see Tomas didn’t turn into a complete idiot while he was gone and jumped right back into finding the best girl he ever brought home.” 

Feeling a deep blush spread across my face, I shook my head. “We’re not together or anything like that, Joel. His parents just wanted me to come to dinner.”

Giving me a look that was clearly doubtful while nodding unconvincingly, the man replied, “Sure thing. Whatever you say. Come on in.” He pressed his thumb against the scanner nearby and the gate opened, letting me through. More quietly, he added, “Good to see you again. Have a nice evening in there. Smells pretty good, I think they’ve been going overboard for you. Which,” he added slyly, “is clearly just because Tomas’s… parents want to make a good impression.” 

Yeah, that blush of mine definitely got worse. Mumbling something under my breath that even I didn’t follow, I headed up to the front door. It opened before I even got in there, and Tomas himself greeted me with a smile. 

“Hey, Cass,” he started, stepping back while holding the door. “Come on in, Mum and Dad are just handling a few last minute things, but they wanted me to go ahead and show you to the dining room.” He had dressed up somewhat, in black slacks and a dark red polo shirt that was just… unfair. It was unfair how good he looked. Which, of course, did absolutely nothing to help my blush. 

“Um, thanks.” Forcing the words out, I stepped through the door into the front hallway. Soft music was playing from somewhere. It was a classical music piece. Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies”, if I remembered correctly. It was one of Tomas’s parents’ favorite pieces. I wasn’t really that into classical music, but I could definitely understand liking it from time to time. This one was… soothing. It made me think of laying on a cloud somewhere. Hearing it, all I wanted to do was relax, like the tension in my muscles instantly eased and the weight on my shoulders lifted a bit, just from hearing it. 

Shaking off that feeling, I followed Tomas to the dining room. We talked for a few minutes there until his parents arrived together. His mother, Millicent (she went by Milli or Mills) Jackson was the first to step over to me. She was a tall, elegant-looking blonde whose regal bearing and gaze reminded me of my mother in some ways. But she was actually a lot different. Tomas had gotten his affinity for British punk music from her. She also tended to tell some pretty raunchy jokes when she was with just Tomas and me. However, she could also present herself just as formally as my mother did when she actually wanted to. 

“Cassidy,” the woman greeted me with an endearing smile. “It’s so good to see you again. How are you?” 

“Oh, um, I’m good, Mrs. Jackson,” I replied, only for her to quickly correct me. 

“It’s Mills, you know that. Let’s not act like strangers, hmm?” 

It was Tomas’s father’s turn then, and the man stepped my way. As always, I felt… reluctant to look at him. I couldn’t explain why, even to myself. He was normal-looking, a kind of pale guy with brownish-blond hair and dark green eyes. He’d been dressed formally every time I’d seen him, and this was no exception. There was literally nothing about him that should have been intimidating. 

But he intimidated me, and I had no idea why. 

“Indeed,” the man spoke easily, his voice sending a shiver down my spine. “we’re all glad you’re here. I trust your parents are doing well? They always had such excellent stories.” 

“Yeah, I… I don’t know enough about their stories, sir,” I managed. “But they’re doing fine.” 

“Excellent,” Mr. Jackson murmured before extending a hand to me. “And how is school going?” 

Glancing at his hand, I started to reach for it. But Tomas spoke up first, blurting, “Okay, okay, we get it. Come on, Cassidy’s great. Can we eat before she starves to death? I’m pretty sure that’s not good etiquette.” 

Chuckling, Mills waved me to a seat, leaning in to whisper something to her husband. I caught a bit that sounded like she was telling him not to be so stiff. 

So, we sat and ate dinner. It was pretty great. When it was over, Tomas and I went up to his room to talk. His mother made it clear that if she found the door closed, she’d take it off the hinges for good, which turned my face bright red. 

We talked and just sort of hung out for about an hour. Tomas was lying in his beanbag chair strumming his guitar while I sat against his dresser. Eventually, I realized the strumming had stopped, as had Tomas’s voice. Blinking over that way, I saw his chest rise and fall, head turned to the side with his eyes closed. He was asleep. 

Shit. Picking myself up off the floor, I hesitated briefly before quietly making my way out of the room. I’d tell his parents I was leaving, then head out. 

Making my way down from the third floor to the second, I glanced around curiously. I didn’t just want to take off without saying anything. So, seeing a light coming from under the door of the room I knew was Mr. Jackson’s office, I headed that way. I was about to knock, when a loud voice from inside brought me up short. 

“Yes, Sterling, I know.” 

My father? Why was Kent Jackson talking to my father? Frowning, I hesitated, looking up and down the hall before listening. 

“I’m just saying she was snooping around, that’s it,” Mr. Jackson continued, making me stare with wide eyes at the door. Me? Was he talking about me? 

“Yeah, she’s in the back of the van now, still unconscious. She’ll be out for awhile.” 

Right, so… not me. But… a girl was unconscious in a van? That didn’t sound great. And why was Mr. Jackson talking to my dad about that? Was… wait… that wasn’t right, the Jacksons couldn’t be part of–

“Yeah,” Kent’s voice replied to something my father had apparently said over the phone. “Yeah, I’ll take care of it. 

“My power may not work on the girl, but a trip to a quiet little pier and a bullet in the back of the head should do the trick.” 

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Friends and Enemies 8-02 (Summus Proelium)

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We didn’t end up presenting our project that day after all. Not that we weren’t ready, but Mr. Dorn didn’t end up picking us. Privately, after class was over, he told me that all of us looked so tired he didn’t choose our group because he was afraid we’d pass out in front of the class. Which was fair, considering I kept half-dozing off while watching other people present theirs. 

On the other hand, I had no idea why Jae and Amber seemed so tired. Amber in particular kept jolting a bit every now and then, as if she’d actually drifted unconscious before catching herself. Maybe she’d gone to a party and taken Jae with her? That was probably it. People liked Amber. 

Oh well, it worked out well enough for me. I wasn’t planning on getting into anymore Touched business at least until my body stopped being quite so sore and my costume was fixed. I had to spend some time getting a new helmet and probably a new set of coveralls altogether. I didn’t have much of a chance to go over the old suit with a fine-toothed comb the night before, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to salvage much of it after that near-direct lightning strike.

Near-direct lightning strike. I’d been almost perfectly hit by one of Cuélebre’s lightning bolts and walked away a few minutes later. Sure, it hurt like hell. I still hurt, even with the orange paint that had saved my life. But regardless of how sore I happened to be, I was alive. I survived. And somehow that fact kept hitting me more today, at random points during school, than it had last night. I’d just be sitting in class or walking down the hall and it would suddenly hit me just how close I came to being killed. Once, that fact hit me hard enough in the middle of class that I had to run to the restroom and throw up, with the called back excuse of stomach problems. Which, of course, prompted a couple remarks about my finally reaching puberty. Ha fucking ha. 

Anyway, the day went on like that. I had lunch with Tomas and the two of us talked about music for awhile. It was kind of nice, actually. I didn’t think about Touched stuff for a few minutes, like about how close I’d come to dying, or the fact that Eits now knew I was a girl, or any of that. I just focused on talking about random British punk bands and how Tomas wanted to start something up here in Detroit. He wanted to know if I had any idea who he could try to recruit, which… pffft, like I had a clue. The best I could do was point him in a general direction. But even that was still fun. It was relaxing, simple, and… inconsequential. After everything that happened the night before with desperately fighting to get those vials, inconsequential was pretty nice. 

We were just dumping our trays and walking to the lockers as Tomas remarked, “So, remember that supper thing we talked about? My parents would like you to come over tomorrow night.” He glanced toward me, adding, “They know you’ve got your whole family meal thing tonight and all that. So, you know, tomorrow. If you’re not busy. And I really hope you’re not, cuz Mum’s planning something pretty special and if I tell her she has to push it back…” He whistled long and low, head shaking as if awe at the storm that would cause. “So please with the RSVP.” 

I was about to respond, when another voice spoke up. “Oh, hey, guys.” It was Paige Banners, a tall, blonde girl with perfect hair, a perfect smile (when she chose to use it), and according to every guy in our grade, perfect everything else. Her family was the second richest one in the city, and I don’t think she ever forgave me for that. She was also the one who started joking about male cheerleaders when I’d been on the team back in junior high and had been the first to make that puberty comment earlier when I ran to the restroom. Her smile now was like a viper, as she gave a tiny, insincere wave. “So what’s going on? Are you two starting up a boy band?” She gave a casual nod toward the guitar case held loosely in Tomas’s hand before adopted a faux understanding tone. “Or were you waiting for Evans to hit puberty first? If so, have I got great news for you.” 

“Well, you know,” I replied shortly, “for some of us, puberty is a long-awaited, beautiful and patient biological process that makes us all the individuals we’re supposed to be. And for others, it’s a plastic surgeon in the islands who never quite got over losing his job as a Barbie designer.” 

Oh boy, Paige didn’t like that one little bit. That was for sure. A snarl twisted that perfect face, as she snapped back, “You think your family’s so perfect? Well guess what, you–” 

Tomas stepped in, moving between us with a pointedly cleared throat. “Okay, I think that’s about enough. Let’s keep the claws in and go about our days. Nice seeing you, Paige, as always. We’ll have to catch up later. Just make sure your broomstick and cauldron are nice and put away so nobody trips over them, yeah?” With that, he pulled me by the arm past the glaring girl. 

“Well, that was fun,” I muttered as we reached his locker. “Aren’t you glad you came back now?” 

Snorting, he shook his head at me while opening the locker. “You know the worst thing? She’s not that bad to everyone else.” When my mouth opened, he held up a hand quickly. “I know, I know, she’s the wicked witch of the west and all. I get it. I’m with you. I’m just saying, call her an evil Barbie all you want, she’s not an awful person with other people. I’ve seen her around when you’re not there. She’s even stood up for some guys that were being pushed around, believe it or not. It’s just…” He offered a helpless shrug. “I dunno, something about you sets her off. And that’s totally her problem, not yours. I just wish I knew why she’s always hated you so much.” 

“So do I,” I muttered under my breath, frowning as unwanted thoughts about my own family bounced through my head for a moment before I shoved them aside to look at him. “Anyway, I was about to say, sure. I can come over tomorrow for dinner. Wouldn’t want you to have to tell your mom she’s doing all that work for nothing. Especially if she’s near any sharp objects.”

Laughing, Tomas shook his head. “Okay, she’s not that bad about it. Still, good. They’ll be glad to see you, Cassidy.” He offered me that winning smile once more, the one that made my knees weak and drove my heart up into my throat. “I think they’ve missed you even more than I did.” 

“Gee, thanks,” I muttered, blushing a little while kicking his foot lightly. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be there for dinner. I better get to class now though. You know, before that nice, sweet, oh-so-helpful Paige tells the teacher that I joined the Peace Corps and moved to Eswatini or something.”  

“Oh, right, you’ve got another class with her.” Wincing, Tomas offered a weak, “Good luck with that?”

Murmuring a thanks, I headed off to class, stopping by my own locker just long enough to grab the right book. On the way, my phone buzzed. My actual phone, as I hadn’t retrieved the one that Eits gave me. If I didn’t trust the boy enough to have it in my home, I certainly wasn’t going to bring it to class with me. No, it was still safe in its hiding spot for the time being. Eventually I would get my own new burner and return that one to him with a word of thanks. He had saved me from exposing my little secret to his boss, after all. That was… worth something. Worth a lot.

In any case, the text on my actual phone was from Dad. He was letting me know that our own family dinner would be one hour later than usual because there was some big important meeting that he absolutely couldn’t get out of, but that we should definitely be ready for it.

A big meeting that Dad couldn’t get out of on family dinner night? Wow. It wasn’t exactly unheard of to have a late dinner as long as we actually had it any time they weren’t out of town (or ‘out of town’ as I’d recently figured out), but still. It wasn’t common. Something big must’ve come up to keep Dad busy. I wondered if it was an actual business thing, something to do with his Silversmith hero work, or something to do with his evil psychotic monstrous villain work. Christ, my family was complicated, weren’t they? And I really had to find out just how this whole ‘running the city’s villainy’ thing of theirs worked. But how? I knew they had a place under the mall, and there was probably something in one of Dad’s offices (both the ones at home and the ones I knew he kept in the city itself) that might point me in the right direction. And… and I didn’t know. The problem was that I was terrified of my parents finding out or even suspecting that I knew what kind of things they were up to. The only advantage I had right now was that they didn’t know I knew anything. If they did…

“Hey!” Paige voice cut through my musings as she stood impatiently nearby, gesturing until I realized I was standing in the doorway. “I know you think your family owns this entire school. But could you maybe let other people use it still? If it’s not too much to ask.”

Sighing, I headed into class with a dismissive wave. “Sure thing, Princess. Knock yourself out.

“With a bat, preferably.” 

******

After taking a little nap once school was out to recharge my batteries, I took an Uber ride to the mall and picked up a new burner phone. Yeah, I was probably being overly paranoid about what Eits could’ve done to the other phone. Okay, I was definitely being paranoid. But still, I got a new phone and transferred the numbers into it.

I also walked past that door that lead into my family’s… what? What was down there? I had no idea, aside from the fact that it was a place where they apparently did business. I had to get a look inside, but how the hell was I going to pull that off? Unless the pink paint offered me some kind of shapeshifting or shape copying powers…

Wait a second…

Ten minutes later, it was official. The pink paint did not offer me shapeshifting or copying powers. I had tried spraying it on myself in the bathroom and thinking really hard about looking like someone else, and nothing happened. I’d also sadly sprayed someone else who came into the bathroom on their back, only for nothing to happen then either. Which, come to think, it was probably a good thing the paint wasn’t some kind of dissolve your enemies stuff. 

In any case, minor wishful thinking brainstorm proven wrong, I still had no idea what the pink paint did. And I still had no way of getting into the mall basement. So I was basically just striking out all over the place. 

Thankfully, I didn’t have problems with my next two errands, which amounted to buying a new helmet that was almost identical to my old one from a sporting goods store and a couple more coveralls. As before, I covered the purchases by also picking up other things like a whole bunch of painting supplies with the coveralls and some motorcycle maintenance stuff with the helmet. Along with other things to keep it looking as mundane as possible. Of course, in both places I was able to pay at the self checkout, so I didn’t even really matter that much. But still, paranoia was the name of the game. 

That done, I had something approaching a normal costume again. So, after finding a private place to pull the new costume and helmet on, I threw myself into the air, used red paint to hit the top of the building, and lost myself in a quick run across the city. I doubled around a few times and kept an eye out for anyone watching before slipping my way through a couple alleys to reach the store. And only part of that was because of how much I enjoyed using my paint to get around. 

Nearing Wren’s place, I went into that little hiding spot in the alley to retrieve the phone that Eits had given me. There were a few missed messages on it, which I read through. There were a couple from Wren, mostly checking to make sure I was okay after last night, and something about needing to talk to me something but that it wasn’t an emergency. There were also a couple from Eits of about the same variety, along with reassurance that he wasn’t going to tell anyone about my grandmother’s recipe. Which was a pretty good way of hiding what he really meant, as far as that kind of thing went. 

First, I sent a message back to him, letting the boy know that I would tell my grandmother she didn’t have to worry. My thumbs hovered over the keypad indecisively for a second before I added, ‘is the kid ok?’

I was just about to let Wren know I was on my way in, when the message from Eits came back. ‘All meds good. Boss says owes u.’

Shaking my head, I sent back a quick message that he’d already paid, then sent a message to Wren saying I was basically right at her doorstep.

As soon as I walked in and down the stairs, Wren jumped up from the couch where she had been watching cartoons. “Paintball! Hi, I… oh, hey, you got a new costume.”

Giving her a thumbs up, I replied, “Sure, can’t go around looking all ripped to pieces, can I? What would people think about the Paintball brand?”

Snickering a little, the girl agreed, “Yeah, I guess you did look kind of scruffy last night. But a good scruffy. A triumphant scruffy.”

“Triumphant scruffy, huh?” I echoed with a smile she couldn’t see. “I’ll take it. But hey, you said you wanted me to come over? And where’s Fred?”

“He had some things to do,” she replied easily before adding, “He wants me to do school stuff again, so he’s picking up some books. He said he was a bad student and he’d be a worse teacher, but that he can at least follow the instructions in the book. Except he said it with more curse words and stuff.”

Shaking that off, she pressed on more excitedly, “But yeah, I wanted you to come over because I need your shoe size. And all your other sizes too, while we’re at it. You know, because I’m gonna be making things for you.” Her grin was wide and contagious. “Right now I had ideas about your skates, so that’s what I’m gonna focus on. If that’s okay?” At the last bit, her smile faltered, as if afraid that I would object. 

“Dude,” I replied, “you do what sounds best to you. I’m sure it’ll be great.”

Her smile returned in full force, and she grabbed my arm to pull me. “C’mon, I sorta need to take plaster casts of your feet. Having the sizes is all well and good, but I need casts if they’re going to fit perfectly.”

So, with a silent thanks that I wasn’t wearing any toenail polish to muddy the waters, I let the kid take casts of my feet with my socks on and socks off. It felt weird, but hey, if I was going to get new Tech-Touched skating toys out of it, I wasn’t going to object. 

Eventually, that was all done and I excused myself. Now that I had a functioning costume again, it was time to pay a visit to Ten Towers to see about picking up that detainment application thing before the judge in Ashton’s case got too annoyed with me. I just hoped Caishen had meant it when she said someone would help me figure out how to fill it out, because the last thing I wanted to do was screw something like that up. 

Anyway, I made it to Towers Plaza. Originally, it was called Three Towers Plaza, back when the founding group was known as Three Towers. Three major international companies who had decided back when Detroit first began to get a name for itself as a major Touched manufacturing city that they would work together and invest into a group to protect their assets from Fell-Touched. Tocher Pharmaceuticals, Saito Automotive, and Autry Media Technologies. They were the founding trio, the companies who constructed the original plaza, consisting of three massive office buildings surrounding a large central… well, plaza. One building housing each company.

But more companies had signed into their deal over the years. Patterson Insurance, the Konners And Bell law firm, Rheese Technologies, Gallop Fuel, Fetchings Grocery, En Route Delivery Services, and Aether Airlines. 

Ten companies. They didn’t build more office buildings for each additional company, of course. The other companies just took up residence in various parts of the established buildings as their local headquarters, buying out entire floors from the original founders. And the name went from being called Three Towers Plaza, to Four Towers Plaza, then Six Towers, and finally they gave up and just went with Towers Plaza. 

That’s where I was, standing on the street staring up the three giant office towers set up at the three sides of this place. The plaza itself was enormous all on its own, with a dozen different well-maintained walkways leading in various directions, a tall black memorial in the center with the names of all fallen Star-Touched from the past twenty years, a restaurant for employees and guests, a small square where street performances were put on, and more. 

Taking a breath, I shoved aside my nervousness and stepped off the sidewalk, officially entering Ten Towers territory. 

I just hoped this wouldn’t take too long, because it was family dinner night. And while I may have been okay with driving Cuélebre into a frothing mad rage, I did not want to face my mother if I was late to that. 

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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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Collectors 5-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Stopping next to the door leading into the band room after school was over, I listened for a moment. Sure enough, the sound of the guitar portion of The Who’s ‘My Generation’ came from within. Smiling a little to myself, I took a breath before giving the door a little push as I stepped in. 

He was there. Tomas Jackson. He looked… basically like I remembered, though a couple inches taller. He had naturally pale skin that had always made him look almost like a vampire or something, coupled with eyes that were a piercing dark green, and dark blonde, almost brown hair that was worn down to his shoulders. His build was fairly slender, though his arms had filled out somewhat since I’d seen him last. As always (whenever he could get away with it by not being specifically in class), he wore a leather jacket with the name of some British punk band on it instead of his actual school uniform jacket. 

Mostly faced away from me, his attention seemingly focused entirely on the guitar he was strumming, Tomas nonetheless stopped once I had fully entered. He turned to glance over his shoulder, giving me an easy smile as my name slipped from his lips. “Cassidy Evans.” 

“Hi, Tomas,” I managed. My heart was beating hard, despite the fact that our relationship was supposed to be over. But we’d broken up out of necessity. He’d had to leave. Being boyfriend and girlfriend from across an ocean might’ve seemed romantic in some respects, but we’d both known it was a bad idea. So we broke up. I’d… well, I hadn’t exactly moved on, considering I didn’t have another boyfriend after him. But we’d definitely gone our separate ways. 

But he was here now. And seeing him brought back all those old feelings. Stupid as it might’ve been, part of me just wanted to go kiss him right then. I remembered kissing him, what it was like. I remembered the feeling of Tomas actually finding me attractive, and how much it helped me deal with the people who kept calling me a boy. I remembered that feeling. I missed it. 

And yet, I also didn’t want to look like a desperate idiot. Shoving those thoughts and feelings down, I did my best to look and sound as casual as possible. “Someone told me you were back. Figured you’d come check this place out again. You ahh, you spent a lot of time here before.” 

“We both did,” he reminded me, giving a brief strum to the guitar before setting it aside as he moved to sit down on the nearby carpeted step that led onto the small stage. “You ahh, you wanna sit down? I was hoping you’d show up. Missed you in class this morning.” 

“I had a doctor’s appointment,” I murmured under my breath before moving to join him on the stair, perching myself at the opposite side of it (so maybe four feet away). Part of me wondered if I should sit closer, then I rethought. Unfortunately, once I finally did sit down, I suddenly reconsidered. Would he take it as an insult that I didn’t sit closer? Was he hoping I would? Was I hoping that he hoped I would? Did I–was I–what in the hell was I even thinking right then? 

Of course, Tomas didn’t look like he even noticed. He just gave me a brief look and smile as he pulled out his phone. “You remember what I said I’d do?” Holding up the phone, he showed me a picture of himself standing in front of the London Eye, holding a green balloon with a face drawn on it. Under the face was a name. Cassidy. 

“Oh, my God! You total dick!” Shoving him with a laugh, I blurted, “I told you not to use a balloon for that because of the whole ‘airhead’ thing, remember!?” 

Grinning back at me, he replied, “Yeah, see, that just made me want to use a balloon even more.” Ignoring my sputtering, he started flipping through more pictures, showing me how he had taken the Cassidy balloon to every conceivable British tourist trap. “And here’s the airhead at Big Ben. Here we are at the Tower Bridge, at Buckingham. I wasn’t gonna do that one, but you know, balloon you insisted. Then we have the London Dungeon. Almost left you there.” 

Flushing deeply, I kicked his ankle with my foot. “You’re a jerk, Tomas. I can’t believe you even took all these pictures. What, just in case you came back someday?”

“Okay, actually, I did this like… the day we left to come here,” he confessed with a snicker. “Once I knew we were coming back.” 

“So how long are you back for, anyway?” I asked, trying not to sound too much like I was prying. “And wait, you only found out you were coming here right before you came? Was your dad keeping it a secret, or…” 

“Apparently it was a last second thing,” Tomas informed me. “Something about the last ambassador having some kind of conflict. As for how long we’re saying, the assignment’s supposed to keep him here at least until next Christmas. So… most of a year, I guess? Not sure what’s coming after that. But hey,” he added with a shrug, “it means I get to be here for  awhile, so I’m dead chuffed, you know?” 

Winking at me, Tomas flicked through a couple more pictures on his phone before asking, “So what’ve you been up to, Miss Cassidy Evans? Jumped off any tall buildings lately?” 

The words made me do a quick double-take despite myself as I blurted, “Wh-what?” 

Raising an eyebrow, the boy clarified. “Remember, we were watching the video of those pillocks jumping off those buildings with the parachutes and wingsuits? I said it was stupid as fuck and you said you wanted to do it someday. So, you still think it’s something you want to do?” 

It was stupid, but I almost told him the truth. Seriously, next to my family, Tomas had been basically one of my favorite people for a long time. I’d confessed a lot of things to him that I hadn’t told anyone else, not even my family. Add other things we’d done and… well, experimented with… yeah, I really trusted him. It was so easy to fall into this natural rhythm. It felt like he’d never left. If I could actually talk to someone I knew as well as Tomas about this… maybe it would help. 

Or maybe it would just get him in trouble. What if he tried to tell his father the truth about my parents, thinking that his dad’s diplomatic connections could do something? What if something bad happened, either to him or his father. Or… my family. How did I feel about either of those? 

“Cassidy?” Tomas asked gently, a slight frown touching his forehead as he watched me with obvious concern. “Sorry, I–are you alright? You… you look kind of–” 

Quickly, I nodded. “I’m fine. I–I just wasn’t expecting to see you today. It’s kinda surprising.” 

Pushing on from that, I told him a bit of the… innocent stuff that I could say. I kept it casual, still uncertain of how much I should confide in him. I’d trusted him for a long time. But then, I trusted my family too, and look where that ended up. If I couldn’t trust my mom and dad, was there anyone I actually could? 

“Oh, and I started doing this.” Reaching into my bag, I took out my notebook. I’d been experimenting ever since lunch, drawing everything that popped into my head. I had sketch after sketch of monsters, people skateboarding, a ninja with a sword running along the top of a fighter jet that itself was shooting at some kind of giant flying squid… yeah. And they all looked good. Like, really good. I just pictured the image in my head and my hand automatically transferred it to the paper, like I was xeroxing it straight from my brain to the page. 

“Good holy shite, Cassidy,” Tomas blurted, taking the notebook as I extended it. His eyes were wide. “When did you start drawing? This… this is really you? No fooling?” 

“No fooling,” I replied, already blushing despite myself. “I uhh, I just started messing around with it and… and I guess I’m pretty good?” 

“Pretty good?” he echoed, using the notebook to swat me lightly. “This is professional stuff, you daft girl. You taking art classes? Cuz you should be.” 

“I, umm… not yet.” How could I explain that I’d only just found out I could draw like that this morning? Or that it was probably some kind of side effect that came from the superpower involving paint. That was… a whole other deep conversation. “I haven’t really put too much thought into it as more than a hobby.” Mostly because it had only even been that for a couple hours by this point. 

“You need to do more with this,” Tomas urged me, gesturing to the artwork. “Really. Hell, maybe I’ll contract you to do the art for my band when–.” 

“You have a–” I started. 

“–when I actually get a new band,” he finished with a self-depreciating snort. 

We smiled at each other for a moment. I was about to say something else, when my eyes happened to glance down toward the phone in his hand. There was a really hot guy on his lock screen. It wasn’t Tomas. This one had short black hair and blue eyes. Seeing him there, I asked curiously, “Hey, who’s that guy?” 

“Hmm? Oh, I meant to change that.” Tomas shrugged. “That’s Charlie. He’s uhh, he was my boyfriend for awhile.” 

That made me do a double-take, my eyes snapping from the phone (though I couldn’t see the picture anymore) up to him. “I’m sorry, your what?” 

He wasn’t looking at me. His attention was on the phone screen, a fond look in his eyes. “Yeah, I ahhh…” Blinking up at me, Tomas winced. “No, sorry. I know what you’re thinking, Cassidy, but I’m not gay. I’m bi. Kinda figured it out like… six months ago. I like girls and boys. And believe me, I like you for all kinds of girl-related reasons.” 

“The people here literally teased you about being gay for dating me,” I pointed out. “Just like they did Peter Fauning the year before that. And now you’re saying that you actually are into guys? I mean, that’s not–it’s not a problem or… or it’s just not a… it’s not any of my… I mean..” My stammering cut off as I sighed. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m being stupid.” 

“Cassidy, you are not being stupid,” Tomas assured me. “I don’t–ahh, I don’t blame you for having feelings about it. You’re right, those morons did say a lot of stupid shite. I don’t pay it any more mind now than I did then. I like you cuz I like you. Boy, girl, it doesn’t rightly matter. But ahhh, that said, I know that you’ll need time. It’s easy for me to say it doesn’t matter to me, but you’re different. It matters to you, and that part of it matters to me.”

Wincing a little, I managed a weak, “Damn it, Tomas, you’re making it really hard to be a drama queen about this.” 

He gave me one of his patented perfect smiles then, shrugging one shoulder. “If it makes you feel any better, we can pretend I said something stupid so you get to storm off. I’ll even do the dramatic, ‘Cassidy, wait, I’m sorry!’ and you can slam the door right in my face.” 

“Right in your face?” I echoed, pretending to consider it. 

“Boom, right there,” he agreed, pantomiming with his hand. “So what do you say? Shall we put on our dramatic faces?” 

“I think I’m good without the drama,” I informed him with a little shudder. Despite our little banter right then, however, I still hesitated. “But… I do need a little time to think about everything.” 

He nodded once. “I thought you might. Just know that whatever people say, I like you for you, Cassidy Evans. You think through everything you need to. My number’s the same. Give me a ring when you feel like it.” 

I couldn’t help it. Leaning in, I gave him a hug, holding on for just a moment before pushing myself up. “I… I’ll talk to you later, Tomas. I’m glad you’re back and that you’re… doing okay.” Feeling suddenly even more awkward, confused, and out of my depth, I fumbled my way to the door and slipped out. 

I felt like an idiot. An overly emotional idiot. Yes, being with Tomas last year had done wonders for my confidence, the fact that he found me attractive and didn’t think of me as a prepubescent boy had been huge. So finding out that he was attracted to both boys and girls was… it was… 

It should have been nothing. I shouldn’t care. He still liked me for me, so why did I have to make a big deal out of it? 

Emotions were stupid. I needed some kind of distraction. 

*******

“He’s ours, you son of a bitch!” a guy in a red jacket with a black claw mark design across the back of it blurted. Arrayed around him, other guys (and a few girls) dressed similarly echoed the sentiment. All of them backed up the words by pointedly brandishing the guns and knives they were holding.

An equal number of people faced them, holding weapons of their own and looking not the least bit intimidated by their opponents. One of those snarled, “He came into our turf, cocksuckers. You come into our turf, you’re ours. Just like him.” 

The two opposing groups were Fell-gang members, of course, though none were Touched, as far as I could tell. The first, led by the guy in the red jacket at the front, were members of the Easy Eights. These ones in particular were under one of the other lieutenants, not my old friend(s) Janus. Easy Eights, eight gangs, eight lieutenants. Going by the claw mark designs on their clothing, their particular leader was the woman known as Skadi, a Fell-Touched focused on hunting and wild animals. The group facing them, meanwhile, were more members of the Ninety-Niners. Between them, the object of their argument, was some random guy cowering on the ground with his arms over his head. 

“We fucking chased him out here,” one of the Skadi-gang members snapped. “We found him, we chased him, he’s ours. That reward is ours. You get in the way, we’ll put you down like dogs.” 

This was getting out of hand really fast. Any second now, these idiots were going to start shooting at each other. From my perch on the edge of the building where I had been watching this, I carefully aimed both hands before shooting off a spray of red paint from each. Quickly, I adjusted my aim so that the paint went over all of their guns. I tried to get any knives too, but mostly it was the guns. 

As the red paint sprayed over their weapons, the gang members all blurted out curses of surprise and confusion. Their gazes were already snapping my way for the source of the paint, even as I activated all of it, yanking all of the guns out of their hands and toward each other to collide before crashing into one big pile. 

By that point, even as a couple of the guys tried to lunge for the weapons, I had already hopped down to land on the sidewalk in front of them. “Hey, don’t do that.” The two who were scrambling that way each got hit with a spot of blue paint at their feet to send them flying. “No guns until after you eat all your vegetables and clean up your bedrooms.” 

“Hey, it’s that Paintball shit!” One of the guys blurted, pointing his knife at me. “The hell you want? This guy right here, he’s our fucking bounty. Blackjack wants him and we’re gonna fleece that motherfucker dry.” 

“Ahh, good luck with that,” I replied with as casual a shrug as I could manage given the situation, “cuz that’s not Ashton Austin. Hey, you. Your name Ashton Austin?” 

“N-no!” the man squeaked out, clearly terrified. “My name’s Tony Bastmer, these guys just started yelling and chasing me, so I ran away!” Now that he was looking up at me, I could see where they might make the mistake. He and Ashton were similar enough that that might have been related. 

“Course he’s gonna say that!” one of the Ninety-Niners snapped. “He’d be an idiot to admit who he is. Look at him. That’s the guy.” 

“You got some kind of ID?” I pressed, watching all of them looking back and forth between me and the guy on the ground. 

“Oh like that fucking matters,” another guy retorted even as the one on the ground gave a frantic nod. “Of course he’ll have a fake ID. How stupid do you think we–” 

“What’s going on here?” A new voice spoke up then, as a female figure emerged from the alley nearby. She gave me a passing glance, and I recognized her immediately. Skadi, the Easy Eight lieutenant over the group with the red jackets. She was a lithe woman with white tiger-print pants that tightly hugged her legs, black combat boots, a black leather jacket with the emblem of a tiger’s face on the front of it and that familiar claw mark on the back (both in red), and a hard metal mask over the front of her face with holes in it for her eyes and mouth. The mask itself was silver, with a tiger’s face emblazoned on it in red. Well, tiger for now. I happened to know that the woman could change the image on the mask at any point, between various predatory animals. 

Changing her mask image wasn’t her power. That was just some kind of tech thing. Skadi’s actual power had something to do with anticipating the actions, choices, and whatnot of anyone whose blood she… well… tasted. Yeah. She also had some other things like metal claws and maybe some kind of strength, speed, and other general enhancements. But mostly it was that whole ‘taste someone’s blood and then be able to predict what they do and just generally know things about them’ thing. 

Seeing one of their enemy’s Touched arrive made the handful of Ninety-Niners even less eager to pursue this. Several of them were already taking off, a couple more trying to seem strong but clearly ready to join their companions at any second. 

“We got that Ashton guy,” one of the Easy Eight guys claimed, gesturing to the whimpering man. “Then this asshole shows up and says it’s not him.” 

Without saying anything, Skadi glanced to me, then stepped over to the man. I tensed as she held up a hand, producing a metal claw from the dark glove she wore. But the woman wasn’t attacking anyone. She poked the man in the arm, watching me the whole time as she took a bit of his blood and touched it to her lips for a taste. 

“He’s right,” the woman murmured while still staring at me. “It’s not him. Let the man go.” 

There was a collection of mutters of disbelief and annoyance, but they did. The Ninety-Niners didn’t pursue him either, as the man took off running. 

“Right,” I started, “now that we’ve resolved that peacefully–” 

“You, on the other hand…” Skadi interrupted, “you clearly know more than you should. I wouldn’t be surprised if you know exactly where our missing man is right now. And even if you don’t, there are others who would like a conversation with you.” 

Too late, I realized that the woman had been glancing somewhat past me at the last bit of that. I tried turning, but something grabbed me first. Something… huge. A hand as big as I was. Suddenly, I was yanked around, given a brief glimpse of Mister Harmful’s face as he snarled at me, before his giant hand abruptly slammed me face first into the wall of the building. 

Everything went dark. 

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