No, no, no, please no. Oh God, please, no, no.
That single word of denial, repeated and mixed with other words of emphasis, played through my head in a nonstop loop the entire time I was retrieving my costume and setting out to get to the address that Pack had sent me. As I raced through the city in what amounted to a blind panic, barely paying attention to where I was going, the word ‘no’ echoed in my mind over and over again.
He was hurt. Eits was hurt really bad. I didn’t know how. I didn’t know who hurt him or what exactly they’d done. But I did know one horrible thing for sure. It was my fault. He was working for me. He was trying to help me, and someone found out. Eits was hurt because of me. According to Pack, it was really bad. Because of me. It was my fault.
Unfortunately, paint-running through the city like that without paying attention was a bad idea. Which I could’ve already guessed, but was driven even more firmly into me about halfway into my run. Landing on a rooftop the wrong way, I stumbled, slipped, and rolled hard. I nearly went off the edge before two hands suddenly caught my wrist and halted my momentum.
A sharp gasp came as the person who had caught me was nearly yanked off the roof herself. But she managed to stop us both, and I was left with just one leg and a foot dangling over the edge as I lay mostly on my back staring up at the sky and panting as the panicked rush of the last couple of seconds since I’d landed washed over me. Oh God, I needed to throw up. Not that I hadn’t kind of needed to since the moment Pack let me know what was going on, but still.
In that position, my arm was fully extended as it was held in the grasp of the person who had caught me. First, I saw her hands. They were covered by dark blue, almost black gloves with intricate, almost runic lines that ran up through both sides of the arms and across the palms and back of the gloves themselves. My eyes moved further up, seeing a figure who was probably around my age. The blue-black bodysuit she wore was partially covered by a white short-sleeved robe with an attached hood that mostly hid her dark hair. The bottom half of her face was concealed by a black cloth mask, but I could see enough of the top half to know she was Asian. Her eyes were dark, and in that moment, had widened dramatically.
I also knew exactly who she was at that first glance, reflexively blurting, “Skip?!”
Yeah, it was definitely her. I hadn’t had any direct run-ins with the girl until now, but I did know two members of her family. Caishen was her older sister, which made Lightning Bug her niece. Despite being a teenager, she wasn’t part of the Minority, instead sticking with her sister’s Ten Towers team. Which was somewhat rare, but not unheard of. And given what I knew about how much control Silversmith, aka my father, had over the Minority, it was definitely a good thing.
As soon as I said her name, she released my arm and stepped back. Her voice, when she spoke, was an eerily calm murmur. “You should be careful.” The words were almost, but not quite, emotionless. It was more like she was noting that the weather would be rainy the next day than an actual reprimand. She was stating a simple fact. “You could have been hurt.”
“I…” The terrible rush of fear about what was happening with Eits came back full force in that moment, along with brand new guilt to layer on top of what was already there. “Right, sorry. I was distracted. I… I’ll be careful. But I ahh, I’ve really gotta go.” Weakly, I gestured. “I’ve got a… umm, a friend, sort of. He’s hurt, and I need to get there just in ca–I need to be there to help.”
Again, Skip spoke in a simple, emotionless and matter-of-fact voice. “Why are you telling me then? If it’s important, you should go.” Just like before, despite the actual words, I had the sense that she didn’t intend any kind of admonishment. She was simply stating the blatant fact that if I had an important place to be like that, I should already be going there instead of talking to her.
“Right, uhh, yeah.” Quickly pushing myself up, I swallowed back the tidal rush of feelings that came with the thought of Eits being hurt. “Thanks for your help, I… I’ve gotta go.”
It felt awkward, but I turned, using red paint to yank myself away from that roof while resolving to be more careful. Upset as I was, it wouldn’t exactly do any good if I managed to put myself into a coma by falling off a building because I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going.
Continuing on my way, I let myself think briefly about the girl I’d just met. Skip. From what I’d read about her and seen online, her whole deal was… well, skipping things. This came out in two main ways. First, she could ‘skip’ any effect on herself she wanted to. That included everything from skipping the effects of a poison she drank, to skipping the effect of being shot in the head, or even skipping the need to sleep and being instantly rejuvenated. The only thing that was required was that she be aware of the effect and actively use her power on it. Other than that, anything that directly affected her in some way, she could skip.
The other way her power (and source of her name) manifested was in movement. Whenever the girl wanted, she could instantly appear anywhere she’d been at any point in the previous twenty-four hours. Basically, she could rewind herself, ‘skipping’ backwards and forwards along the history of her own movement. She used it long-range in order to effectively teleport anywhere in the city (and, as I understood it, into other cities across the state), and short-range by constantly changing her exact location in the middle of a fight. Bad guys facing her didn’t just have to deal with a crazy-good fighter (which she was), but also one who could literally instantly disappear and reappear in any location she’d been in at any point throughout that fight. Between that and being able to make herself immune to any effect she was aware of… yeah, I could see how Fell-Touched would see fighting her as a pain in the ass. And why her sister wanted her right where she was, as part of Ten Towers.
The plus side of being distracted thinking about Skip instead of obsessing over Eits for the next few minutes was that I was able to reach the address I’d been given without any more issues. I stopped on top of a bakery roof, half-hiding behind the chimney there as I looked down at the place I was supposed to go. It looked like an ordinary house, with nothing special to make it stand out. The driveway had a couple cars in it, with a van parked along the curb. There was a man smoking out front, watching the street with an air like he’d been there for awhile.
According to Pack’s message, they were expecting me. So, I hesitated just for a moment before taking a running start, and blue painting myself into the air so I could land in front of the man. I made sure to give him some space so that he wouldn’t freak out too much. Even then, he reached for something in his jacket. Probably a gun. But he stopped partway, squinting at me for a moment before stepping aside from the door. His voice was flat, and carried an air of resignation. “You can go inside. Third door on the left. But just so you know, we move all the time. So there’s no point to bringing your hero friends here to start shit later. Cuz we’ll be gone.”
Yeah, call me crazy, but I had the feeling this guy didn’t much like having a Star-Touched hanging around what was apparently a secret underground field hospital thing for Fell-Touched. I also didn’t want to argue with him or try to reassure the guy. All I wanted was to see what was going on with Eits. So, I nodded and walked past him. Moving through the front door and into what turned out to be the living room of the house, I was greeted by a new man sitting on the nearby couch, who pointed through the room to the same door that the man outside had mentioned. Following both instructions, I walked across the room, heading for that door.
The door opened as I approached, and Pack appeared. She stared at me through her featureless mask for a moment before beckoning as she stepped inside. I followed, and found myself in what was obviously a converted bedroom. Now it looked like a hospital room.
Eits was… there. He was there on the bed, and just as promised, he… he looked bad. He wasn’t wearing his mask, But I wouldn’t have recognized him anyway through all the bruising. Pack had not been exaggerating. Whoever attacked Eits had… they hurt him really bad. His nose was broken, his lips were all puffy and bloodied, there was a large bruise along one full side of his face. His eyes were closed, showing signs of being bruised as well, and the rest of his body hadn’t fared much better. It was all… bad. No matter where I looked, some part of him was hurt. It was so bad. My stomach seized up in worse knots just looking at him.
Pack was speaking quietly behind me. “The doctor’ll be back in a few minutes. He’s stabilized for now and they’ve got him drugged up to sleep. Soon as the doc says he’s good enough to move, they’ll take him to one of Blackjack’s own places. But I thought you’d like to know. I thought you’d like to–” She stopped herself from saying whatever it was she’d been about to say, voice cracking a bit before looking over to me. “He called for help. Broadway and me, we got there and the guys attacking him took off. We didn’t… get a good look, cuz we couldn’t leave him. He was pretty delirious, pretty…” Again, she choked a little, arms folding tightly over her stomach before forcing out, “He was pretty out of it.”
Hearing her words, I barely processed them. All I could do was stare at Eits in that condition and think about the fact that him being there was my fault. I’d involved him, and now he was hurt because of me. There was a dull roaring in the back of my mind.
Pack was continuing. “He wanted me to give you this.” In one hand, she held up a folded piece of paper. “It’s an address. He said… he said it’s something you needed, but that those guys who attacked him wanted it. The guys who attacked him, the guys who did that, were trying to get the same address out of him that you wanted. Paintball, what the fuck was Eits doing for you that made a bunch of guys beat him up this badly? They almost killed him! Doc Tanns is pretty sure he’ll be okay now that he’s through the worst of it, but–but… what the fuck is going on?!” Her voice was a fierce stage-whisper, as she clearly stared intently at me. “Don’t you dare fucking blow me off. Do you see him right there? Do you care?”
Eyes widening, I blurted, “Of course I care!” Quickly lowering my voice, I hissed, “I didn’t know it would–I thought he’d–” My mouth shut and I shook my head. “Pack, I didn’t know he’d be in that much danger. He was just looking up some information for me, I didn’t know it’d–” Cutting myself off once more, I swallowed hard and tried to steady myself. My fault. The whole way over here, I’d repeated it to myself and now that voice was even louder. This was all my fault. All of it. Eits being hurt, lying there in that hospital bed like that was my fault. If he… if he died, that would be my fault too. All of it was my fault. Because I tried to let someone else help me. Because I passed the responsibility of this to someone else. Now he was hurt. Because of me. My fault.
It took me a few moments to find my voice. Finally, I looked up to the other girl. “I’m sorry. I should have handled this myself. I never should’ve–I was wrong. I shouldn’t have asked Eits to help me. I won’t… I won’t do that again, I swear. Tell him I’m sorry. Please. Just tell him I’m sorry. I’ll take the address. Please. He wanted me to have it. I’ll deal with it. I’ll handle it.”
She didn’t answer at first. Instead, she looked at the paper in her hand, then turned back to me. Her voice was pained. “That’s not what I meant, Paintball. I didn’t want to make you go–I was just… Look what they did to him. You can’t handle this all on your own!”
“I don’t have to,” I pointed out. “You know I have an in with the Minority. And if they’re involved, you can’t be. They won’t work with you, Pack. You can stay here with Eits. Someone should be here with him if he wakes up. I’ll take care of the address, and I’ll tell you what happens. I swear, I’ll make them pay for what they did.”
Pack was staring at me, her fist tight. “You really think you and the Minority people can handle this?” Her voice shook a little. “Paintball, what the hell did you get involved with?”
“I’ll handle it,” I promised her, swallowing hard. “Stay here with Eits. Please. Just tell him I’m sorry, and that I never should have gotten him involved.”
“Do you have any idea how pissed Eits would be if I just let you go without help?” Pack demanded. “After what happened…”
“After what happened, you need to be here with him,” I reiterated. “And like I said, I know That-A-Way. I have her number. I can contact the Minority for help. Stay here. I’ll take care of it.”
For a few seconds, it looked like Pack wouldn’t agree. She sighed, looking over to a nearby cage where her lizards were all watching us. Finally, she opened her hand and held out the paper. “If you’re going with the Minority, fine. But only because I know it’s not where those cocksuckers who attacked him are. They were looking for the same address, so they’re obviously not there now. But still, they’re involved. They’re connected to whatever this is. So Paintball, whatever happens, if you get to the point of actually fighting those guys… Look right there. Look what they did to Eits. I want to help. Call me, Paintball. You call me and tell me when you find the guys that did this. I don’t know if you’ll find out who they are at that address, or what’s going on. But when you find them, you let me know, got it?”
“I got it,” I replied quietly, taking the paper. “Be here for Eits. He needs you more than I do right now. I’ll handle this.”
“You and the Minority,” she reminded me.
I nodded once. “Like I said, I’ve got the number. And yours. I’ll find out what the address leads to, then let you know if I find the guys responsible for… for that.” I didn’t–couldn’t look at the room where Eits was. “You’ll get your turn with them.”
With that, I gave one last look toward the injured Eits before pivoting on my heel to leave the house. Clutching the paper in my hand, I moved quickly past the guy in front. He repeated his earlier remark that they’d be gone before I could bring heroes over, and I just muttered something about having more important things to worry about than helping a Star-Touched shut down a private hospital. I wasn’t even sure what I said exactly. The words just came before I thought about them. My focus was elsewhere. Without thinking about it, I used red paint to yank myself up to another building, already running as I landed. My eyes finally glanced down at the address, taking it in.
I knew where this was. Not the exact building, but the neighborhood. It was a place on the north side of town, near the zoo. A pretty nice neighborhood, if I remembered right. Either way, I knew where I was going now.
For a moment, I slowed near the edge of the roof. My hand felt my phone in my pocket. The Minority. I’d told Pack that I’d be okay because I could contact them for help.
And I could. But I wouldn’t. I’d never actually promised that I would contact them, only that I could do it. But after what I saw with Eits, and everything I already knew about my family… no. I couldn’t involve them. I couldn’t–wouldn’t let anyone else get hurt because of me. This was my responsibility. Eits getting hurt was my fault, because I tried to let him help. That was a mistake, and I refuse to repeat it. Whatever happened next, I wouldn’t let anyone else suffer because of me. Every time I thought about doing so, I pictured Eits on that hospital bed. Then I pictured it being Pack, or That-A-Way, or one of the other Minority. Or Wren. No. No, I couldn’t… I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t let that happen again. I could never let that happen again.
So, I wasn’t calling the Minority. I wasn’t calling Wren. I wasn’t calling anyone. Leaving the phone in my pocket, I took a running start and jumped, heading for the address. I would handle this the way I should have in the first place.