“So I guess I’m a superhero now,” I announced to my unicorn.
Right, backing up. I didn’t have an actual unicorn. My parents were rich and powerful, but not that rich and powerful. They couldn’t magically produce things that didn’t really exist. At least, I was pretty sure they couldn’t. If it turned out I could have had an actual unicorn this whole time, I was going to be even more ticked off about my parents being secretly evil supervillains.
Ugh. Bad time to joke. Bad thing to joke about in general.
The point was, the thing I was talking to was my toy unicorn. It was a little plastic thing that fit in my hand, pink with a couple white stars along its side. His name was Felony, because I’d been a precocious seven year old when I got him and had thought that was hilarious. Felony the unicorn. I’d actually made up stories about myself and Felony running around having adventures. Only where most girls that imagined meeting a unicorn had magical princess fantasies in an enchanted forest, Felony was a thug unicorn. Bright pink with white sparkling stars… and a leather jacket (as much as a unicorn could wear a jacket) who spoke with a thick Brooklyn accent, cursed a lot, and took me through the streets of New York.
I was a weird kid.
It was the next night after my not-so-little fight with Janus and his men. A fight I had survived mostly thanks to a lot of help from a few members of the Minority, but still. And now I was standing on the roof of a building downtown, talking to my toy unicorn that was sitting on the air conditioning unit near me.
Sue me, I’d needed something to talk to and Felony sounded like a better idea than my dad.
“I’m sort of a superhero. I saw my name in the news this morning. I mean, not my name. Not Cassidy. Paintball. I called myself Paintball.” My gaze slid over to the toy. “What do you think? Good, bad? I guess whatever it is, it’s me now. So I’m just going with it.”
After that whole business that had taken me through lunch and into part of sixth period, the rest of the day had been pretty normal. I’d told my teacher that I was late because of ‘girl things’, which was an excellent way of avoiding any further follow-up questions. It meant I had to endure the mock-surprised exclamations from people upon ‘learning that I was a girl’, which never ever got fucking old, let me tell you. But beyond that, everything was fine. I’d gone to Thursday night family dinner and even managed to make something resembling conversation.
Just a few days into this whole thing and I was already getting depressingly good at pretending my family didn’t leave me violently shaking while I clutched a pillow and cried into it at night.
Adrian hadn’t been at school today, which was pretty much what I’d expected. The authorities probably had him and his siblings deep in protective custody, or whatever. He wouldn’t be coming back to work here at least until they sorted out this whole situation with the bounty.
Would he be fired for missing work? Would he get paid for going through all this? I’d wondered that all day. Actually thinking about money was a pretty new experience, and it made me wonder if I should do other things besides just be a superhero. Like… volunteer at a soup kitchen or something. Smacking around bad guys was all well and good, but how much did it help regular people who were hungry and had bills to pay? Could I do something more for them?
I was still thinking about that (and discussing it with Felony), when a figure caught my eye. A figure on the roof across from me, in fact. As I watched, the figure drew close enough to make out details. I saw loose-fitting pale blue pants, a black chainmail-like top that was mostly covered by a long, light blue cloak with very faint goldish trim, just enough to offset it a bit. A long katana was sheathed across her back, and she had two more much shorter swords, one against each hip. Her head was covered by a samurai helmet with slight mandible-like protrusions across the front of the metal mask, almost like the head of a bug.
I knew her at a glance. It was Flea, one of the members of the local Conservators. Any other time, before I’d known the truth, I would have been positively giddy at just seeing her. Now the first thing that sprang to my mind was, ‘Did she know her boss was an evil, murdering monster?’
Reaching the end of the roof, the female figure didn’t even miss a step before springing easily across the gap that separated the two buildings. It was that jumping ability (she could literally leap a tall building in a single bound), combined with her power to drain people’s stamina and make them tired if she was within a few feet of them, that made the ‘Flea’ name stick. I thought she was also strong and had some kind of speed boost too, but I wasn’t sure. Mostly people knew about the jumping and the stamina-drain.
In the midst of gaping at the woman’s easy leap, I remembered my unicorn sitting nearby and quickly shoved Felony away into the bag that lay at my feet. In the next second, Flea landed smoothly a few feet away. “Good evening,” she started politely, her voice clearly feminine, yet also slightly electronically distorted, like it was coming through a faulty intercom.
Oh, right, she was talking to me. Shaking myself, I managed a weak, “Um, hi.” I’d been standing around with the front of my helmet up, so only the ski mask was covering my face. Thankfully, my voice changer was still active, so I didn’t accidentally give myself away by letting her hear a girl talking.
Her brown eyes, the only part of the woman’s face I could actually see (they were very clearly Asian), watched me carefully before she spoke again. “You are the one who calls himself Paintballs.”
“Err, just the one,” I corrected quickly. “Paintball. But uh, yeah, that’s me.” Clearing my throat a little, I added, “I’m not doing anything wrong here or whatever, am I?”
Her head tilted, eyes never leaving me. “I don’t know,” she replied coolly, “are you?”
Eyes widening a little behind my mask and helmet, I quickly shook my head. “N-no, no. I mean, I’m not–I wasn’t–” Taking a breath, I managed, “I’m just standing up here.”
“Then you’re not doing anything wrong,” she pointed out simply, voice very matter-of-fact. The woman’s head tilted slightly as she regarded me for a moment before adding, “Are you okay?”
“Uh huh,” I assured her, letting my head bob up and down. “I’m fine. I’m just–um, thinking. And talking to myself. I do that sometimes.”
Her response was a nod. “Most do.” Slowly, she raised a black-gloved hand, extending it to me. “I’m told you did very well yesterday, that you risked yourself to save that man and his siblings.”
Blushing a bit despite myself, I accepted the offered hand. “Oh, um, I was just… trying to help.”
Her hand squeezed mine firmly, before she replied, “You certainly did that.” I saw those eyes focus intently on me then. “And you painted a target on your own back in the process.”
“I–um, did you just make a joke?” I asked uncertainly. “I mean, with the whole ‘painted’ thing.”
I couldn’t see her mouth, but I was pretty sure the woman smiled just a little bit before ignoring the question as she spoke in that same careful, even tone. “That bounty is still active. Without either access to the original thief, his brother, or the man who drove the latter out of town, the only visible target left to get any information out of is the person who somehow happened to save both the brother and the driver.”
Swallowing hard, I shifted my weight a bit nervously. “Um, right. Me. I guess you’re right about that whole painted target thing, huh?” Managing a weak smile, I added, “At least I’m making a name for myself?”
“You are certainly doing that,” Flea agreed before glancing away. She turned, facing the edge of the building to look out over the street below. We stood there in silence for a moment that she seemed far more comfortable with than I did. Finally, after that had dragged on for a minute or two, she spoke again. “That-A-Way said that you seemed less than enthused by her invitation.”
Wincing inwardly, I offered a weak, “It’s complicated. It’s just… um, better if I’m by myself now.”
Her head turned to glance at me, clearly trying to read my body language or something before she replied, “If you cannot be convinced to join the Minority for safety, I will not waste my breath or our time. But perhaps I can still offer other suggestions and advice. You are new to this life.”
Again, my head bobbed. “Yes, ma’am. I am very, very new to this.” But apparently it’s old hat to my family, I added silently.
She returned her gaze to the street below. “Then if you would like, I will offer what advice I can.”
“I, um, I’d like that, ma’am,” I agreed. I didn’t know if she was part of my dad’s whole secretly a villain thing, but I was going to guess that most of the Star-Touched on the Conservators were really good guys who didn’t have anything to do with that stuff. Besides, I didn’t really have a good reason to refuse without drawing even more attention. And I really did need advice.
“Flea will work just fine,” she informed me. “And perhaps we can start with that.”
Belatedly, I realized she was looking at something. My gaze followed hers, and I saw the lights on in some kind of electronics store. There were people in there, long after hours. A blue van had been pulled up to the side door in the alley next to the building.
“Would you like to stay and watch, or assist?” the samurai-clad woman asked without taking her eyes off the store below, where we could both see shadowy figures moving through the windows. From their motions, they were clearly in a hurry, not that it would do them much good.
“Oh, I’ll go with you,” I quickly replied, not wanting to miss any of this. Seeing a full-on Conservator member like Flea do her thing, from a front-row seat? I would’ve been all-in just from that. But to actually be part of the whole thing, to help her? That thought made me giddy, though I tried to keep it out of my voice. “Ahem, I mean, I’d like to help.”
Her head gave a single nod. “Then you are welcome to come. Please be careful. You may not wish to join the Minority, but all Star-Touched are appreciated.” She looked toward me, eyes softening just a little as she added, “And you seem nice. I would hate to lose you so soon.”
With that, Flea took a quick step forward, right off the edge of the roof. As I watched, she fell all the way to the ground several stories below before landing as smoothly as though she had just stepped off a curb. There wasn’t even a hesitation as she started walking to the building.
Be professional, I told myself, just be calm and professional, like her.
In this case, being calm and professional meant putting both hands over my already ski-masked covered mouth while muffledly ranting about how amazing and cool that was for a second or two. Then I collected myself, reached up to shove the front of the helmet down to lock into place, and jumped from the roof myself. Painting my legs orange, I fell to the ground and landed in a crouch just a few feet from where the other woman had dropped.
She was waiting for me, I realized. Her slight (she was only about five foot four inches, which also contributed to the whole ‘Flea’ thing) figure stood in the middle of the empty road, turned sideways so she could glance back my way without taking her gaze entirely off the store.
“There is a lookout,” the woman informed me as I quickly joined her. She nodded toward the alley where the van was parked. “Near the side door. Can you handle him?”
I had no idea how she knew that, unless she’d seen him while jumping down from above. But I knew she wasn’t wrong, nodding quickly. “Oh, uh huh. I mean… um, I think so?” My eagerness to impress the woman was at war with the fact that I was still nervous about actual fights. Still, I didn’t want to look like a baby, so I made myself stand up a little straighter as the woman’s gaze snapped to me questioningly at my first response. “I can do it.”
She watched me a little closely for a second then before simply telling me, “Be careful. Get into position, then wait for me to make myself known. When he reacts, take him by surprise. If you get into trouble, shout ‘green grass’ and I will be there to help you.”
“Green grass,” I echoed, giving her a thumbs up. “Got it.” With that, I painted myself black (yay for working stealth mode at night!) and quickly moved to the parked van. Pressing myself against the wall, I gave the waiting woman a thumbs up. Rather than return it, she simply strode steadily toward the front of the store, and I ducked to peek under the van.
Sure enough, there was a guy there. He was standing next to the door, partially hidden by a some kind of stylistic outcropping of brick wall there. Which made me even more uncertain about how the Conservator woman had managed to spot him so easily. But hey, she was right.
Okay, now I just had to wait for the–
“Oh shit, shit, shit!” The shout came from in the store, and was accompanied by the sound of three quick gunshots.
Right, that was probably the sign. Staring under the van, I saw the lookout quickly spin that way, almost falling over himself as he grabbed a shotgun resting against the wall. Before he could do more than take a step toward the door, I extended a hand, shooting a bit of red paint at the barrel of the gun while using my other hand to put a matching crimson blob on the ground beneath the van. The paint activated, and the shotgun was torn from his grasp as the man yelped in surprise, flying over to land out of his sight.
“What the fuck?!” I heard the man blurt, before he came running over to the van. There were already more gunshots coming from inside, and I silently hoped Flea was okay. But right now, I had to deal with this guy.
To that end, I waited until he got close, then shot a bit of black paint onto the van to silence it so the thing wouldn’t groan as I painted my legs purple and hopped from the ground to the top of the van itself. My timing was perfect, as I landed on the roof just as the lookout dropped to his knees to look under the vehicle.
“How the…” I heard him mutter while stretching out to grab the gun. As he was focused on that, I quickly moved to his side of the van, looking down to shoot out two spots of red paint, one at his left boot, and the other at the the ground about ten feet away. Then I activated them.
Apparently I managed to do that before he could get hold of the gun he’d been reaching for, because it wasn’t in his hands as he went sailing backwards with a strangled cry, yanked by his own boot.
He saw me then, crouched there on top of the roof. As his confused, then angry gaze snapped up to me, I waved. “Hi!” My voice was a pleasant, cheerful chirp, as I hopped off the van to drop in front of him. “You know, I’m pretty sure you don’t want to go in there.” My thumb jerked a bit toward the store, while I cupped my other hand against the side of my mouth, stage-whispering, “They’re having a bad day.” My words were accompanied by the sound of more shooting, more shouting, and more crashing sounds.
“You–” The guy jerked backward, then stopped upon realizing, “You’re that paint kid! Ohhh, they’ll pay good money for you!”
Oh God, oh God, there really is a bounty on me too. This is fucked up. What am I doing? What the hell am I doing? I’m gonna die. I am going to die. This is so stupid. I’m so stupid. What am I doing?
That was inward, of course. Outwardly, my head tilted. “Really? Maybe I should go for it. I could use a new iPhone, have you seen what they’re charging for that thing? If you ask me, they’re the real crimi–”
That was as far as I got before the man was suddenly hurling himself at me. He was a pretty big guy, and probably thought he could hold me by himself. So he came charging straight in, arms swinging.
It was a bad move for a lot of reasons. But mainly because I simply threw myself to the side. As I went, both of my hands snapped out. From one, I shot a ball of green paint at the man. Suddenly, he was going much faster than he meant to. Before he even knew what was happening, the man sailed right past the spot where I had been and crashed into the van.
Which was where my other hand had shot a blob of blue paint. Running full-tilt, his speed about twice as fast as it should have been, the man hit the blue splotch and was suddenly airborne, flying backwards in the opposite direction before crashing into the far wall. I was pretty sure he even did that yell that Goofy does when he’s falling.
He hit the wall, sliding down it with a groan before collapsing on the ground. Before he could get his bearings, I announced, “So, I can ping pong you back and forth off the walls for awhile if you want, or you can lay on your stomach with your hands behind your head and take a break. Your call.”
He went for the latter, interlacing his fingers while shifting onto his front with a grumbled curse about how screwed I was going to be. Before I could respond, however, there was a sudden rush of movement from the doorway, as two guys in ski masks and carrying guns came rushing out. One of them saw me, spinning with his gun up. But before either of us could do anything, a short sword was hurled through the open door, colliding with the gun and knocking it from his hand.
The second man pivoted back that way, just as Flea strode into view. His own gun snapped up to take a shot at her, but she jumped just as he opened fire. A simple hop launched the woman a good thirty feet in the air, as she threw her second short sword, knocking the gun from the second man’s grip before he could adjust.
Both men were still reacting to their weapons being knocked from their hands as the samurai-clad figure dropped to land between them. The first guy took a wild swing at her from behind, which she ducked, driving her elbow into his stomach to double him over while simultaneously catching hold of the katana on her back, snapping it up just enough to make the hilt hit the guy hard in the chin. His mouth snapped shut, and he stumbled back, clearly dazed.
Meanwhile, the second guy tried to sucker-punch her as well, this one from the front. Her head twisted away from the first swing, before she sidestepped the second one, then pivoted to avoid his follow-up kick. She treated it like a dance, as if she knew every move he was going to make.
By that point, the first guy had recovered enough to try to grab her from behind. But she somehow anticipated that, ducking out from under his grasping arms and stepping away to make the two men collide with each other.
They took a few more swings, but they were half-hearted at best. The men were moving more slowly with each passing second. Their punches were sluggish, and each of them were stumbling like they were drunk.
Then they collapsed, and I realized, it was her stamina-draining power. She tired them out within a few seconds just from being within a few feet. The guys couldn’t manage more than a few swings like that before they hit the ground, completely unconscious.
Once the two men were down, she turned my way. “Under control?”
A brief moment of silence passed, before the thug on the ground whispered, “Dude, she’s talking to you.”
Oh, right. Snapping out of it and forcing my mouth to stop gaping, I made myself nod quickly. “Uh… uh huh. Uh huh. He surrendered.”
“Smart man,” Flea replied, stooping to pick up her short swords before sheathing them. “Here.” She threw me something. A pair of metal handcuffs. “Put those on him.
“Then I’ll show you what you’re supposed to do after you catch the bad guys.”