I was still coming to terms with how I felt about that conversation with my father a couple minutes later when the phone I used for Touched stuff buzzed in my pocket. Blinking down, I plucked it out and gazed over the city from the roof of the building I was on while answering. “Hello?”
“Paintball?” A vaguely familiar voice spoke, and I belatedly realized who it was just as he introduced himself. “It’s Eits. You know, we… uhhh… yeah. We did that thing.”
Immediately put on guard, I asked, “What’s wrong? Did something happen to the computers at—”
He interrupted quickly. “No, no. That’s all fine. The computers are good. We’re great, with that, anyway. Sorry, I just… I didn’t know who to… um.” There was a brief, distinctly awkward pause before he managed a weak, “I know it’s weird, but I kinda need some help.”
Taking my phone away from my ear, I stared at it for a moment before moving it back. “Help? What could I possibly help you with? And don’t you have basically a whole army of people already behind you? I might not be an expert at this whole team thing, but I am pretty sure that’s the entire point of having one. You know, to get help from.”
I could hear the wince in his voice. He hesitated before slowly replying, “This really isn’t something I want to involve them in or even have them know about at all. I swear, I’m not asking you to do anything illegal or whatever. Not… really, anyway. I just… need a little help. I’m stuck.”
That made me blink. “You’re stuck? Not like Winnie the Pooh in Piglet’s backdoor, right?”
“It was Rabbit’s,” he corrected me. “And no, more like stuck on top of the roof of a building. I’m up here and the door is really heavy and deadbolted. I think there might be some kind of bar on the other side too. Anyway, I don’t have any way to get down.”
Tilting my head, I asked, “You and your friends didn’t happen to get really drunk for a bachelor party, did you? Do you see a tiger anywhere?”
There was a snort from the other end of the line. “They were drugged with Rohypnol in the movie, not just drunk. And no, definitely no tiger and no drugs. Just me sitting up here alone on the roof waiting for someone to call the cops. Or for a wonderful, friendly, oh-so-helpful and incredibly understanding—”
“Okay, okay, stop.” Taking in a breath and letting it out, I asked, “You’re sure that I’m not helping you get away with something really bad? Because I am going to be really ticked off if it turns out you just stole like a million dollar computer chip or something and I’m helping you escape. I don’t think we could be phone buddies after that.”
“I swear,” came the reply. “I didn’t break in here to steal things. I mean, technically, I did. But it’s personal, not like… I mean…” he trailed off, very clearly trying to decide how much to tell me. “Like I said, it’s personal. I did break in here. I was trespassing. Am trespassing, technically. I did break in here to steal something. But it’s a personal family heirloom type thing. It belongs to me. And it’s not some huge expensive computer stuff. It’s just… mine. It was left for me and taken away from me. I had to get it back. If you don’t want to help with that, I… I get it. I’ll just call one of the others and try to—”
Sighing inwardly, I shook my head. “Give me the address. I’ll get you off the roof. But like I said, if it turns out that you’re playing me right now…”
“I’m not,” he assured me. “Cross my heart and fall in rye.”
“Err, fall in rye?”
Now he really sounded embarrassed. “Sorry, it’s an inside family thing. I… anyway, here’s the address.
“And Paintball… thanks.”
The building that Eits was stuck on top of was a twelve story high office place. So I really couldn’t blame the poor guy for not being able to get down. Whether I ended up being able to blame him for getting stuck in the first place was not yet decided.
I saw him sitting on one of those metal boxes on top of the roof as I yanked myself over from the place next-door. His feet were kicking idly back-and-forth while he looked at his phone. When I landed, he jerked in surprise, nearly falling off the box. Quickly, I shot a thing of red paint that way and yanked him toward me before he could fall, letting the paint fade before catching him by the arms.
“Whoa,” I teased, “I know you’re glad to see me, but I’m pretty sure a simple thank you suffices between dudes.”
He looked embarrassed, the exposed parts of his face flushing a little while the boy waved a hand. “Uh, thanks. Seriously, I didn’t know what I was going to do until I realized I could try calling you. I was this close to having to suffer the embarrassment of asking one of La Casa for help.”
“Yeah.” I replied dryly, “imagine having to ask for help from your own teammates. That would be horrific.”
He coughed. “Like I said, this isn’t any of their business. And it’s not really their kind of thing anyway. I just had to get something.”
“And you promised this thing isn’t a million dollar computer chip,” I reminded him pointedly.
In response, the boy reached into his pocket to produce what turned out to be a baseball. There was a signature scrawled across it, which he held up for me to see.
“Warner Towling?” I read aloud. “Sorry, I’m not much of a baseball guy. Doesn’t sound familiar.”
Eits shook his head. “It probably wouldn’t anyway. He never got out of the minors. He was uhh…” There was a brief pause then as he realized how much he would have to say if he wanted to explain. “Fuck it. He was my grandpa. And yeah, you could probably find out a lot from that, but please don’t. That’s all I can really say. He was my grandfather and he was basically the only guy in my entire family who accepted my situation.”
The words made me tilt my head. “That you’re a super villain?”
He coughed. “No, that I… uhhh, shit.” Again, the boy paused, somehow looking even more nervous and uncomfortable than before. Even though I couldn’t see all of his face, he definitely seemed… afraid? “Grandpa Warner was the only guy in my family who accepted that I wasn’t… comfortable the way I was born. He’s the guy who said it would be okay if I… if I transitioned, and that he’d still be there for me.” His voice cracked a little with the words, speaking the last few quickly while looking away from me.
“If you transi—” I stopped suddenly as it occurred to me. “Oh. Oh. So you’re… I mean…”
He nodded once. “Let’s just say I was born Molly. But that’s not who I am. That’s not who I ever was, not inside. But my parents could never accept that. This ball was mine. It was the last ball Grandpa Warner ever used in the minors. He signed it and he gave it to me. He… he s-said that he wanted me to have it so I’d know that no matter what happened, he was on my side. And that when I transitioned, maybe I could play on his… his old team someday.” His voice was cracking a little as the boy fought against strong emotions while rolling the ball between his hands. He could barely say the words.
“But my dad took it when they kicked me out. That’s why I had to get it back, when I found out he was keeping it in his office. It’s not really worth anything. But… it’s worth everything. Everything.”
“It’s okay,” I assured him. “I get it. Kind of. I’m glad you got your ball back. But… your parents really didn’t… they don’t accept you? Even with Baldur out there?”
Baldur, the world’s most powerful superhero. They were part of the world-wide hero team known as Armistice. Basically, the US, Canada, Japan, Germany, the UK, Brazil, Australia, and France all contributed their most powerful Star-Touched to the team. The one from the US was a woman called Radiant. Baldur was Germany’s, and they were absolutely the strongest Star-Touched in the world. Mostly because they had the power to change their power. No one I knew of was sure how it worked, just that Baldur switched bodies with… other versions of themselves or something. Each version had different powers that they could use. Some of those bodies were male, some were female. Baldur considered themselves genderfluid. The fact that the biggest superhero in the world switched seemingly randomly between being male and female had really put a bright light on that whole thing, and changed some people’s minds about it.
“No,” Eits replied. “I guess for some people, Baldur’s more of a target for hate than an inspiration. Funny how having one example doesn’t magically erase their disgust, huh?”
Wincing, I nodded. “Yeah, sorry, I guess that…” My head shook. “How did you get stuck out here in the first place?”
He sighed. “I managed to get all the way up through the building, into Dad’s office, and got the ball. Then when I was leaving, this big security guy started on his patrols. I had to hide, so I came out here and left the door open a tiny crack. He noticed, aaaand closed and locked it. So here we are.”
Chuckling a bit despite myself, I looked to him. “So the big bad super villain gets his uhh… wait, is umm… he and his… is that what you…” He nodded quickly, and I pushed on. “So the big bad super villain gets his ass kicked by a locked door. What would the grand league of evil say?”
“If there was a grand league of evil,” Eits informed me, “they’d tell me, ‘That will be two sugars and one cream. And while you’re at it, fetch me the newspaper and my slippers.’”
My head tilted. “That accent, while you were turning yourself into some kind of dog fetching slippers, did you also make your hypothetical master supervillain British?”
He coughed. “Maybe. I blame Star Wars, and basically every other movie that made the bad guys British.”
“Hey,” I pointed out, “you didn’t have him ask for tea, so you didn’t go totally stereotypical.”
“Good point.” Eits chuckled under his breath. ”Hey, maybe to completely avoid stereotype, and confuse people, he should keep the accent but be named something like Billy Bob or Jimbo.”
I snickered a little. “Jim-Bob the maniacal and despotic leader of the Grand League of Evil, with a British accent and a fondness for slippers and coffee.”
“Evil Villains International League,” he corrected me solemnly. “That’s the name they’ve got to go with.”
Checking the acronym on that, I laughed. “EVIL, that’s great. Jim-Bob the grand inquisitor of EVIL. I like it.”
The two of us smiled for a moment before I thought about the thing I had just walked away from, and cringed a bit. What was wrong with me?
Frowning a bit, the boy asked, “Something wrong?”
“No, I… it’s just… Pencil.”
That got his attention, the boy quickly demanding, “What? Did you see him? Are you okay? What were—”
“I didn’t see him,” I interrupted. “Don’t worry, it’s just…” Hesitantly, I informed him of what I’d seen back at the convenience store. “And they were just carrying out all those body bags while people wanted to know why we let stuff like that happen.”
He winced. “And then we were just making jokes about… sorry. But seriously, stay away from that guy. He’s super bad news and I don’t want to think about you being anywhere near him or his freaks.”
“Neither do I,” I assured him. “At least he’s not the one who caught me earlier. That would’ve ended up a hell of a lot worse.”
He gave me a sharp look at that. “Caught you?”
“It’s a long story, your boss knows the important bit.” I paused then before hesitantly offering, “But I’ve still got a couple sandwiches from earlier If you want to go somewhere and be bribed with food so I can talk about it. You know, unless you’re busy with more roofs to get trapped on top of. I heard there’s some really good ones over on the northeast side, with a great view of that police station with all those pillars out in front. And when you get tired of being stuck, you could wave to the cops down there to see if they’ll let you down.”
“Nah, I think this was the last one on my schedule.” Eits smiled a little. “Sandwich sounds great. You get pretty hungry being stuck up on roofs like this. They don’t exactly have a McDonalds.”
“You mean Dominos doesn’t deliver here?” I gave a scandalized gasp before nodding. “Sure, we can eat. Just let me get you down from here first. We’ll find some other place to sit and I’ll tell you what happened earlier.
“Then, when I’m done, maybe you can tell me more about Grandpa Warner the baseball player. Because he sounds like a pretty great guy.”
The next few days passed fairly uneventfully. Except, of course, for the fact that I didn’t sleep very well. I kept having nightmares about being trapped with Janus, so I ended up sleeping three or four hours in the afternoon and three or four hours in the middle of the night. Which was probably good for the whole superhero thing, but it really wasn’t the way I wanted to get onto that kind of schedule.
I spent my days at school, helping with the history project, or seeing what I could do for Wren’s work. The answer to the latter one was not much. I fetched things, held things, basically did whatever grunt work she needed that Fred and Pack weren’t already doing.
The point was, the days basically flew by, while nights (or anytime I was trying to sleep) dragged as I kept waking up in a cold sweat. I was glad there was a lot of space between my rooms and Simon’s, because I cried out a few times and that really wasn’t something I wanted to try to explain. Although the thought of the look on his face if I did tell him exactly what was wrong was almost amusing. Almost.
But finally, it was Saturday, the day of the Reformation Ball. It was a huge deal. I’d always known that to some extent, but actually needing to be a part of it made me realize just how big it was. Mom had me go to a stylist basically the second she and Dad had returned the day before, and checked on me about thirty times that morning to make sure everything was fine. I was pretty sure she was afraid I would find a puddle of mud or something to splash around in while she wasn’t looking.
At the moment, I was eating lunch in the smaller dining room, carefully cutting away a bite sized piece of roast duck when my father entered and put a hand on my shoulder. It took everything I had not to tense up.
“There’s my girl. I thought you would’ve found a hole to hide in by now to get away from your mother’s last minute adjustments and checks.”
It was so tempting to respond to that by asking what hole he and Mom had been hiding in when they were pretending to have left the city. I could even follow that up by asking if he’d had any luck tracking down Pencil after that horrific scene at the shop. But I was pretty sure that wouldn’t really go over very well. Just like with Simon though, it might’ve been nice for a few seconds just to see his reaction.
Instead, I shook my head. Swallowing the bit of duck, I replied, “It’s not so bad. We’re only on visit thirty-two.”
Smiling, Dad took a seat at the table across from me and turned to press an intercom nearby, informing the cook in the kitchen what he would like for lunch. Then he looked to me. “Wait until this afternoon, it’ll probably get up into the hundreds. But don’t take it personally, she still has to check on me all the time too. Can’t go around embarrassing the family.”
He really was setting me up for all those things I really shouldn’t say or ask. I had to shove a bite of caramelized parsnips into my mouth to buy time to collect myself. Finally, I managed a smile, looking over at him. “I’m pretty sure that’s why she checks on you so much. She just loves me.”
Making an affronted face and noise at the teasing, Dad retaliated by reaching across to steal a bit of my duck. “Mmmm, now that is good stuff. I hope you said thank you.”
My head bobbed obediently. “Of course, who would get food this good delivered straight to their table and not say thank you?”
Dad gave me a look before reaching over to ruffle the left (short) side of my hair before moving over to the right (long) side. “You might be surprised. But I really shouldn’t be by now. You’re a good kid.”
Setting my fork down, I squinted at him. “Ahem, a good teenager. That is, a good teenager who is very close to passing driver’s ed. And you know what that means.”
He gave me a blank look while replying in a monotone voice, “That it’s time to raise the driving age to twenty-three?”
I gave him a light kick under the table. “Simon isn’t even twenty-three yet.”
He made a show of brightening. “You’re right, it’s an even better idea than I thought. I’ll have the lawyers get right on that.”
That earned him a raspberry. “Fine, no more duck for you,” I retorted while using my arm to shield the plate. “You’re cut off.”
He gave a low laugh at that, raising an eyebrow. “Oh, I’m cut off, is that right?”
His words made me shrink a little bit in my seat, playing it up a bit as I kept one hand over my plate. “That’s gonna backfire on me, isn’t it?” I asked in a small voice.
His response was simply a slow, patient smile while he remained otherwise silent and motionless and kept staring at me pointedly.
Yeah, I couldn’t take much of that. After a couple seconds of it, I shivered and moved my hand so he could take another bit of meat. “Fine fine, go wild. Have all the duck you want, just stop looking at me like that. Turn that look onto someone else, geez.”
He grinned, promptly taking another bite before informing me, “You know, in a normal family, it would be the daughter who gets the Dad to give her anything she wants with a look.”
His words made me nod slowly, staring at my plate for a moment before managing a smile that I really wished was genuine as I looked up to him once more. “Sure, Dad, but we’re not exactly a normal family.
“We’re not normal at all.”