After reaching the Seraph base, I paid a brief visit with Matt Orens, the guard whose son I had agreed to make a storybook for. I let him know that I was still working on that after a bit of an interruption, but that I would get it to him as soon as possible. He said he understood how busy Touched could get, and that I should take my time to make sure it was good rather than rush it just to get it to him sooner. He wanted a good present for his son, not something haphazard. So, I promised to make sure it was as good as possible before excusing myself to head inside.
Tricia Peppernickle, the elderly lady who had been behind the desk of the administrative building, wasn’t there. Actually, it didn’t look like anyone was behind the desk when I entered.
“One moment, please!” a male voice called through one of the open doorways nearby. As I glanced that way, the voice added, “Apologies, I shall be prepared to assist you forthwith!”
“Oh umm.” I shrugged. “It’s okay, take your time. It’s not urgent or anything.” Right, I was only there to help clean up a mess to work off my own crime, and also to secretly snoop around to find out the meaning of that file number that had secretly been written on those toys in Bobby’s cabin. Nothing all that important. Also, forthwith? Who the heck used language like ‘forthwith’?
As promised, it didn’t take long for the voice in the other room to finish up whatever he was doing. I heard a filing cabinet slide closed, then there was a rush of sound that made me look that way in time to see a small black shape come flying out of there in a flurry of rapidly flapping wings that made me jump back in surprise, a soft gasp escaping me.
The shape landed on the counter, and I realized what was going on. Duh. It was Lucent, the Touched-Raven who was part of the Seraph. He’d been a normal bird before, just as any Touched-Human, he’d touched one of those special orbs. Any animal who became Touched automatically got human-level intelligence along with their powers. The level of that intelligence seemed to vary somewhat both randomly and based on the animal itself (as did their resulting personalities). In Lucent’s case, from what I’d heard, he was very intelligent. Probably as a result of being part of a species that was pretty fucking smart to begin with.
It was the first time I’d seen him up close, given he tended to try to avoid the cameras. He looked like a normal (though quite handsome as far as they went) raven with sleek black feathers and a piercing dark gaze as he perched there on the counter and stared at me. A small anklet was attached to one of his feet, and he had what looked like a sort of white… sheath over his beak, with a couple lights on it. As he stared at me, the lights glowed a bit while that same voice emerged from a couple small speakers at the end of the beak sheath. “Aha! You are the hero known as Paintball, yes? It is a fine pleasure and honor to converse with you at last!”
Everything that came out of him sounded so… excited. He seemed genuinely happy and enthusiastic. It was pretty charming, and I found myself smiling immediately behind my helmet. “Oh, uhh, hi. Lucent, can I–is it okay if I call you Lucent?” I asked a bit awkwardly, unsure of how this sort of thing was supposed to go. Was it rude that I kept staring at him like this? Probably. But come on, he was a talking (even if the Tech-device was doing that part) bird!
“I quite hope you will, Sir Paintball!” came the crowed (ravened?) response. Somehow, I could almost see the amusement in those dark eyes as the bird gave a sharp, human-like nod. “It is, after all, my name. ‘Twould be quite the inconvenience to have to recall some other moniker to respond to for every person who wished to call my attention.” There was a brief, clearly thoughtful pause before he added, “Though I have been referred to by a good number of far less dignified monikers before and after my ascension, I prefer this one by a substantial margin, I must say.”
Quickly nodding, I promised, “Oh, I wouldn’t call you anything bad or–I mean, yeah, Lucent. It’s Lucent, got it. Um.” Hesitating, I reached out carefully, raising my hand and extending a single finger toward him, trying to somehow make it look like the offered shake I intended it as and not just like I was pointing at him. Which wasn’t easy. “It’s nice to meet you, sir.”
The raven’s head tilted sideways, then I heard a sound that I belatedly realized was a soft chuckle. He leaned forward, beak parting to take my finger gently in it. I felt very slight pressure as he bobbed down once before releasing my finger. “Quite!” came the enthusiastic agreement, punctuated by an actual cawing sound directly from the bird rather than the beak device. “I’ve heard such impressive things for a new young hero such as yourself. You have already become a true inspiration in such a short time, particularly to still-maturing hatchlings.”
Finding myself blushing under the raven’s praise, I shrugged helplessly. “It’s not a big deal. Plus, you know, I did sort of break the law and temporarily steal from you guys. That’s why I’m here.”
“A small crime for the greater good,” Lucent assured me. “While you should certainly be prepared to make your token payment for it, your intentions were sound and just. I, for one, thank you for the work you did to save that child’s life, regardless of her father’s actions and choices.”
“Oh, umm… thanks.” Shifting on my feet awkwardly, I asked, “Are you sure I didn’t pull you away from anything important? I just came to do some more of that whole working off my crimes thing.” Honestly, I was torn right then. I really did need to get in there and find that file. But talking to an intelligent bird was also pretty damn cool. I had a lot of questions about bird things and how wild animals worked, but all of them sounded way too personal to get into right away.
From the way his head tilted the opposite direction from before, I had a feeling Lucent was quite aware of all the questions I wanted to ask. He assured me, “Oh, I’ve done quite enough in there for now. Come, I shall escort you. Ah, that is, if you don’t mind my presence on your arm?”
After a brief hesitation, I belatedly realized what he meant, and quickly held my arm out, elbow turned to offer a perch for him to land on. “Oh! Yeah, sure.” I tried to sound casual about the whole thing, while inwardly squealing about the handsome and brilliant raven, and how awesome this entire situation was turning out to be. Seriously, I was talking to a freaking raven! An intelligent raven, who was charming and noble and everything. There were some definite upsides to this entire Touched situation, that was for sure.
With a quick hop and one brief flap, Lucent landed on my outstretched arm. “Tally-ho!” he called before his head turned to look at me. “Ahem, apologies, Sir Paintball. I occasionally excite myself.” He said it with a hint of amusement and self-deprecation. “It is quite thrilling to meet new people whom I have immediate respect for.”
Shaking my head, I hurriedly assured him while turning to walk, “Oh, it’s really not a big deal. Really. It’s just cool to meet someone like you. I mean a bird that–” And then, in my distraction through all that, I accidentally walked almost directly into the side of the open doorway I’d been trying to pass through. It wasn’t hard or anything, just a bit of a bump. But it was right on my injured side, and still enough to make me yelp, doubling over a bit as my hand quickly moved to grab my ribs. It was the same arm that I’d been using to hold Lucent, forcing him to fly up and away to land on top of the open door. Oww, oww. For a second, I didn’t even think about anything else. I couldn’t think about anything else. The only thing I could focus on was the rush of pain through my side. I hadn’t braced myself for that or anything. God damn it, ow.
It passed fairly soon. But not soon enough. When I lowered my hand and blinked up to the top of the door, Lucent announced, “Sir Paintball, I have requested the presence of medical personnel. Please take a seat there until they arrive to look you over.” His head bobbed to indicate the nearby chairs.
“What?” I blinked that way before hurriedly shaking my head. “Oh, no, it’s okay. I’m okay. I mean I’ve already seen a doctor with my family. My ribs got hurt, but it’ll be fine.”
Those piercing, dark eyes seemed to stare through me as Lucent flatly asked, “And are your parents aware of your clandestine heroic activities? Do they know precisely how you were injured, by what, and if there may be additional complications due to it?”
Hidden behind the helmet and mask, my mouth fell open, then shut, as a blush creeped across my face. “Um. Not exactly,” I admitted weakly, staring at the dark bird perched above my head.
Lucent gave a quick nod, a firm caw escaping him before the lights on the beak-cover flashed along with his voice. “As I suspected. And even if the injury has been adequately looked after despite the vast chasm between what that poor physician knows and the truth, you are still out and about in your Touched identity. Best to have it taken care of right now, before something happens to exacerbate it.”
“Taken care o–” Belatedly, I blurted, “Patchwork! I–she said I could pay for healing and she’d do it. How…” I felt like slapping my own forehead through the helmet, but that didn’t seem like a good idea. Especially given the way the pain in my side kept flaring up with every small motion I made. “How’d I forget about that?” Seriously, it had entirely slipped my mind that I could have called her for help. Hell, I might’ve been able to get her to fix me up before I even went home the other night. Though, on the other hand, being injured had sold my story about what happened, and might’ve stopped my parents from throwing a harsher punishment at me. Hmm.
Before the bird could respond to that, a Latino guy in a blue medic uniform with short sleeves and intricate arm tattoos came through the other door, the one leading outside that I had entered through. “Alrighty, what do we have here?” He gave a winning smile before gesturing. “Hey there, Paintball. Heard there was some kinda medical alert up here?”
Oh. At that moment, the thought occurred to me that I might not want some guy I didn’t know feeling up my side to check how my ribs were. I didn’t exactly have the world’s largest chest, to say the least. As plenty of people at school, including Paige, had always been more than happy to remind me. As evidenced by my ability to pose as a boy wearing these coveralls. But I wasn’t totally flat either, and if some guy started pushing his hand against my stomach and side, pushing the costume flat against my–right. Yeah. That was probably a bad idea for my secret.
Somewhat awkwardly, I stammered, “O-oh, no, it’s okay. I um, I had a doctor look at it before, but I forgot about Patchwork. She said I could pay her to fix me up sometimes and I don’t–um, I don’t mind doing that. You know, if she’s not busy. Or I could just wait. No big, I mean I made it here, and I really doubt I’m gonna suddenly get into a big fight or something in the middle of Seraph headquarters, right? Haha… ha…” Trailing off, I squirmed a little, telling myself to shut it.
From the look that the medic guy and Lucent exchanged, they definitely noticed something strange about how I was acting. Which was totally strange, because I’d been so cool and smooth about the whole thing. How ever did they pick up on my super-subtle reaction?
Still, the medic didn’t push things when I was obviously uncomfortable. He did introduce himself as Max, asked me what happened (I told him a bad guy hit me with some kind of Tech weapon) and said that Patchwork was on her way up. He asked how it felt, if I was having trouble breathing or had been having such trouble earlier, where exactly it hurt, what the doctor who had looked at me had said, and so on. But he didn’t touch me, and stayed perfectly respectful. I had a feeling these guys were accustomed to dealing with people with plenty of secrets and/or trauma.
It didn’t take long for Patchwork to arrive. As before, she came through one of the interior doors, dressed, as always, in her costume of a black mesh shirt over green chest armor, black leather pants, motorcycle boots, and a green visor that covered the upper half of her face. Her hair was still short, spiky, and green.
“The fuck, man?” she demanded upon seeing me. “You go and get yourself busted up already? What, were you just waiting for an excuse to go a few rounds with Cuélebre or something?” As soon as she said it, the woman smacked her own forehead. “The fuck am I saying, you went after that cocksucker twice before we even met. I must’ve been outta my goddamn mind when I offered to play hero bandaid for you.” Despite her words, she was clearly teasing. At least, I was pretty sure she was teasing. Mostly.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, flushing a bit. “I didn’t mean to get hurt, trust me. And I can totally pay you. Or wait if you’re busy, or–”
“Shut the fuck up,” she interrupted. “Don’t you know how hard it is to bitch about having to do my job when you’re so fucking ‘nice’ about it? Takes all the fun out of the situation.”
Blinking a couple times, I hesitantly asked, “You… have fun yelling at people about healing them?”
The toothy grin she gave me was almost feral. “Everyone’s gotta get their jollies somehow.” Sobering, the woman added, a touch more quietly, “I see plenty of bad shit out there, kid. Fucking with people like you, the ones who don’t have half their body ripped open, that’s how I keep going. Like I said, everyone’s got their own ways. But seriously, don’t be such a fucking martyr about it, kid. Someone’s giving you shit you don’t deserve, you throw right back at ‘em. You got hurt being a hero, out there helping people. Someone like me starts giving you shit, don’t be a meek little bitch about it, tell that piece of shit to fuck off.” She punctuated those last two words by smacking the back of her right hand against her left palm hard enough to make the sound echo through the room. “Get it?”
“I think you just called yourself a piece of shit,” I pointed out a bit mildly before nodding. “But uh, other than that, sure. Got it. Stand up for myself.”
“Damn straight.” Stepping over to me then, Patchwork asked what was wrong. When I told her, she touched my side. I tensed a bit, but her hand was fairly low. After feeling the injury gently, she agreed with Dr. Roev, but said she could fix it easily. Which she did, simply by calling Max the medic over. Touching one hand against his chest, she copied the healed state of his ribs, then touched my side once more and transferred it to mine.
Oh my God. The relief was instantaneous. I almost cried. Only when the pain was gone did I fully realize just how much it had lowkey been omnipresent. Sure, it had only actively and consciously hurt when I moved too fast, twisted around, or whatever. But there had been a constant low-ache that made it impossible to be fully comfortable no matter what I was doing. Now, that was gone. I felt totally normal again.
“Holy shit,” I blurted, “I could kiss you.”
“Try it, and I’ll triple your fucking fee,” came the snapped retort, followed belatedly by, “… make that quadruple.”
“Ouch,” I managed.
“Now, now,” Lucent piped up, “be nice to the poor lad, Lady Patch.”
“Told you before, bird, I ain’t no lady.” Squinting up at the intelligent corvid briefly, Patchwork then turned her attention back to me. “Back to my payment. You ahhh… shit, you got twenty bucks, kid? Cool if you need to get back to–”
I immediately unzipped one of the coverall pockets, dug around inside to find the wad of cash there, carefully extracted a single bill from what I’d brought along for getting a new phone and costume pieces (without showing just how much was in there), and handed it over. “Wouldn’t want you to have to come break my legs for not paying. Then I’d have to pay you even more for healing them.”
For a moment, the woman squinted at me. Then she gave a short, sharp laugh before shaking her head. “You’re okay, kid. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got other shit to do.”
She left, taking Max with her. After that, Lucent hopped from the door to my offered arm once more, and we walked together down the hall. I input the guest code that Patchwork had given me, thanked Lucent for the escort (and for talking to me), then got to work in the room once more.
Or at least, I started to work. I did that just long enough to make sure I was really being left alone for the time being. Then I took a moment to quickly and quietly look through the large stacks of files and folders I’d already put together before that were waiting to go into the cabinets.
Okay, so first I had to locate a folder with a name ending with that original Ten (Three at the time) towers symbol. Right before that would be a four. And the first four digits were either six, two, three, nine, or three, nine, six, two. One of the toys had had a six and a two on it, the other had had a three and a nine. So that was what I needed. A folder with those five digits, in one of those two potential orders, followed by the Three Towers symbol.
Granted, there was always the possibility that I’d run into both of those. But somehow I doubted it. And if I did, I’d just figure out through context which one was right. Hopefully.
It wasn’t an issue, as it turned out. After about forty minutes of looking (mixed with actually doing the job I was supposed to be doing), I found the folder in question, with Six-Two-Three-Nine-Four, followed by the symbol. As soon as I found it, a sound of excitement escaped me, before I hurriedly glanced around. Nothing. No one was here. Sobering, I took a moment to collect myself before opening the folder to see what the hell Bobby had left that secret code for.
The folder was fairly thin. There wasn’t much in there. It looked like a medical file for an incident five years earlier. The patient was a Jane Doe, an estimated twelve-year-old girl who was brought into Seraph medical by a couple Ten Towers Star-Touched for immediate care. According to the handwritten notes in the file, the girl was found unresponsive next to three dead bodies in an alley. She was alive and conscious, but in some kind of vegetative state, likely a result of trauma. The doctor noted that within ten minutes of her arrival, she apparently snapped out of the state… sort of. Apparently she kept repeating two sentences over and over again, one with two words, the other with four words.
The first sentence was ‘Find Cassidy.’
The second was ‘Cassidy will help me.’
Staring at the words on the file, I felt a chill run through me. Cassidy. Me. There was no question. None. With a shaking hand, I turned the paper to look behind it. Nothing. Wait, no, there was a photograph, like a Polaroid or whatever. It was stuck to the back of the paper. Gingerly, I tugged the photo away and looked at it. The picture was of the patient who had repeatedly begged these doctors to ‘find Cassidy’ and that ‘Cassidy will help me.’ And the girl in that picture was instantly recognizable, even if she was several years younger than she was now.
It was Paige.