The text message that had destroyed Ixchel's world was still on her phone, read but unanswered.
"They found out somehow. I'm sorry." From Ellie. With a photo of a tabloid cover, a shot of her and Ellie kissing under the stairs outside the crime scene they'd just been assisting with. The headline - "AEON CAPTURES VILLAIN... 'S HEART" burns into her eyes. The subhead makes her stomach turn "Chlorothorn's Daughter Caught In Illicit Kiss With Young Aeon".
She's not even named. She's just "Chlorothorn's Daughter". Or... "Villain."
She wants to throw up. She's worked so hard to keep her identity a secret. To make sure no one finds out who her mother is. And now... now the world knows.
But that's not the worst part. The worst part is that there's only one possible way that after all this time working as a small-time superheroine, her identity has suddenly come out now. The worst part is that she trusted Ellie with her deepest, darkest secret...
... and now the world knows. Just thinking about it makes her throat tight all over again.
She needs to leave. Just slip away in the night, before anyone can say anything. She can't look Ellie in the eye again. She starts shoving clothes into a backpack.
"Going somewhere?" Cygirl asks, leaning against the door.
"You were right. I screwed up," Chel says, her voice choked. "I can't stay here."
"You did screw up. And I was right. But we're not kicking you out." Cygirl's voice is calm and even. "So I repeat. Going somewhere?"
"I-" Chel draws in a deep breath. "It hurts. I tried so hard to hide it, and now everyone knows, all because I told El-"
"Slow down, Glimmer," Cygirl says, walking into the room and closing the door behind her. "Get your facts straight."
"I have my facts straight," Chel says, her temper rising. "I told Ellie last night, when she... when we... when I kissed her. And now the world knows. I trusted her, and I was wrong to."
"Aeon is extremely trustworthy," Cygirl says. "If you're accusing her of something so serious, I hope you have proof other than coincidental timing."
"I-" Chel falls silent, her gaze dropping to the floor.
Cygirl sits beside her. "It wasn't her."
"How would you know?" Chel spits. "You barely know her. You just know her mother, and don't think knowing a person's parents means you know them."
"I don't need to know her to be sure."
Chel's eyes go wide, and then her eyebrows drop. "It was you."
Cygirl's response is immediate and blunt. "It wasn't me."
Chel narrows her eyes. "Then how-"
"We take the safety of our young heroes very seriously. As soon as it was clear we had a breach of sensitive information, an investigation was launched." Cygirl pulls up a screen hovering above her wrist, entering some commands into the keyboard built into her right gauntlet.
Chel falls silent, watching the screen.
A map appears, with a trail of circles following along a path that brushes against the crime scene where the picture was taken. "These are the signal areas of the towers that the photographer who took that photo was captured on. The camera has a built-in SIM card to allow it to automatically back up photos in case of the camera being destroyed."
"Right." Chel can't help feeling chastised, despite Cygirl's silence. She'd just made an accusation, and Cygirl just brushed it off like nothing. It feels terrible. Like she's not even being taken seriously.
Cygirl rotates a virtual knob that is holoprojected off her suit. "Turning the timetable back two days, we see this anomalous path."
"That... they went to my mother's garden," Chel says. Her mouth is dry, but her mind is confused. "Why would they go to my mother's garden?"
Cygirl doesn't answer. "Here, a record retrieved from the computer of that same photographer."
"That's... me. I don't remember ever taking a photo like that," Chel says numbly.
Cygirl loads up a table of metadata. "You didn't. It's artificially created, the result of running an age-increase neural network on this still image."
It's her, age 10, looking on in anger as the elder Aeon battles with her mother.
"Part of this video," Cygirl says, and that hateful YouTube video titled "BRING YOUR DAUGHTER TO LURK DAY" pops up. "Specifically, frame-"
"I got it, yeah, I remember," Chel says, looking away from the screen.
Cygirl retracts the screen. "The photographer went to your mother's garden acting on an anonymous tip, then returned from that trip and aged-up the video of you. Then rushed to every scene you and Aeon were at together. Then wrote this article. Most of which happened before, as you tell it, you let slip to Aeon the truth of your history."
Chel's mouth is suddenly very dry. "I- my mother...? I don't understand. I thought... she said she didn't want people in my life to know about her..."
"She changed her mind, then." Cygirl gets to her feet, turning to face Chel. "You can still trust Aeon. But I do not know if I can still trust you. You promised me you would break this off when I warned you that you were taking an unnecessary risk."
I do not know if I can still trust you. Yeah, that sounds about right. Chel curls inward. "I tried."
"Try harder." Cygirl opens the door, hesitating in the threshold. Her face softens a bit. "Chel."
"This isn't the end of the world. Things will be difficult for a while. But you were starting to do some good. Don't let this setback take you off that road."
Chel looks up at Cygirl wearily. "Yeah... thanks..."
"As I understand it, Aeon has spent the day getting reamed out by her mother. Not to send mixed signals, but... you may want to reach out to her." Cygirl gives a sympathetic smile. "At least the part of your history that came out isn't about your hacking phones to download nudes."
"Good night, Chel." Cygirl closes the door, laughing as she walks down the hall.
"Remind me to look that up later," Chel mutters to herself as she picks up the phone. Hard day, El? Want me to sneak by and talk about it?
You have no idea what my mom is like right now...
Chel smiles, lays back in bed. You can trust Aeon. That's a good feeling, being able to trust someone. Being trusted in return.