Needless to say, Angel Dust wasn’t exactly happy about being tricked into bringing me (and Alloy by extension) straight to the truck that had worked so hard to escape us in the first place. I saw her absorbing that realization for a moment before her shoulders straightened. There was a wave of annoyance coming off the woman, head tilting to glance over her shoulder toward Alloy, then back to me. Her voice was tight. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you, boy?”
In reply, I shrugged. “It’s not about which of us is smarter. It’s about which one managed to trick the other this time. Look at the facts. That trailer is broken. You can’t get it back on the truck. You guys don’t have a chance to get out of here with all that stuff. You should cut your losses and walk away before more authorities show up.” Even after I said that, I was keeping an eye on the Prev thugs from the truck itself as they popped down and gave uncertain looks our way. They were clearly waiting to see what their Touched lieutenant chose to do about this whole thing, not willing to make the first move themselves.
It was very clear that the woman didn’t want to walk away. What she wanted to do, no doubt, was teach me a lesson. I could see the rainbow-colored dust swirling around her as she took a moment to collect herself, clearly running through the pros and cons of keeping this fight going. But, in the end, her common sense won out over her annoyance. The dust that had been swirling around her like a swarm of angry hornets seemed to vanish into thin air before she spoke in a cool voice. “I suppose we’ll have to give this one to you, kid. But don’t think this is over. We need those supplies, and we’ll get them one way or another. And you…” I could feel her gaze staring at me hard from behind that bronze mask. “Get in the way again and next time I might have to smack you a little harder.”
“Fair enough,” I managed, trying to sound casual about the whole thing. “Though I don’t suppose it would help to point out that you guys wouldn’t need these supplies so bad if you would just back off this entire gang war thing?” Pausing, I gave her a look before shrugging. “Worth a shot.”
Surprisingly, Angel Dust gave an audible chuckle before bowing her head in acknowledgment. “Yeah, maybe so. But this is the world we live in. Gotta take it as it comes, not as you wish it would go. Which is the exact attitude that’s stopping me from grabbing you and keeping this whole fight going. You won this round. Next time, maybe it’ll be different. Hell, maybe next time you’ll be the one wishing you never met me.”
With that, she gave a loud whistle while raising her hand to spin her finger around in the air. “Wrap it up!” Her words were clearly directed toward the uncertain goons waiting nearby for orders. “Let’s roll on out of here before we end up with even more interruptions.” Through all that, she hadn’t taken her gaze off me. And once her men began to retreat, she addressed me one more time. “It was a good trick, kid. You really had me going there. Even kept throwing paint at me so I couldn’t take the time to call ahead to check in. Too bad you didn’t come over to our side. We could’ve had a lot of fun together. But then, from what I’ve heard, you’re more likely to join La Casa if anything.” She considered that briefly before gesturing. “At least we would’ve been allies in this whole thing. That… that might’ve been fun. Now ahh, you and your sidekick might wanna dive out of the way.”
That was all the warning she gave us before a pair of nausea dust clouds went flying out in both directions. The clouds were thick, and came at me so fast I barely had time to throw myself backwards and to the ground in an awkward roll to get out of range. On the far side of the woman, I could hear Alloy curse and yelp as she barely escaped her own cloud.
Once I finally picked myself up from the ground and managed to orient myself, I saw Alloy hovering up on her board a good fifteen feet in the air and further back than she had been. It looked like she had barely picked herself up too. The colored clouds were gone, and so was Angel Dust herself, and her men. They had all seemingly disappeared, leaving the two of us with the truck and trailer.
“Well,” I muttered while walking that way and brushing the dirt off my costume, “that was fun.”
“Sure, fun,” Alloy retorted as she landed, marbles spinning around her. “Tell you what, next time, you can take the puke dust to the face and I’ll chase her down. Deal?”
Coughing, I offered a shrug. “Personally, I’d prefer it if neither of us had to throw up. That’s, you know, my ideal scenario.” Then I grimaced, adding, “Are you okay? It sounded pretty bad.”
I could see the way she shuddered at the memory, head shaking. “Well, it wasn’t fun, I’ll tell you that much. But I’ll live. Besides, we won.” With that, she offered her fist to me.
Bumping my own fist against hers, I nodded. “Yeah, we won. Though I’m pretty sure we also managed to make even more enemies in the process. Well, one more in particular. Angel Dust isn’t going to forget that. She might’ve been smart enough to walk away for now, and… you know, fairly gracious in losing. But she won’t forget it. Next time, she’s going to be a lot more careful. And a lot more intent on winning. So umm, let’s be careful and keep our eyes open, huh? I really don’t feel like being ambushed by her when she decides it’s a good time to prove a point.”
Alloy agreed, just before both of us turned in time to see a small squad of police cars arriving. They were accompanied by a car with Ten Towers labeling on it, which stopped to allow two of their Touched to step out. The first was Stick, a short man (just five inches taller than me) wearing loose gray pants, a sleeveless black shirt with the faded gray Ten Towers logo, spiked wristbands, combat boots, and a dark bandana mask that covered the lower half of his face. His black hair was worn long, clear to his shoulders. Meanwhile, the other Touched who had just arrived was Bunglebotch. Her own costume looked a lot more professional (and expensive) than his, amounting to a form-fitting black bodysuit with purple highlights over the arms and legs, and a matching purple Ten Towers logo over the front. Her gloves and boots were purple too, and she had a cape with an attached hood that were each black on the outside and purple on the inside. She also wore a black helmet with a large purple visor that went all the way from her chin to just above her eyes.
Yeah, that was the thing about Bunglebotch. Her costume made her look amazing, one of the coolest costumes in the city as far as I was concerned. But her power was… well, essentially she could do basically any physical action that a human being was capable of, but it would always look goofy, uncoordinated, and accidental. Like an old slapstick movie. Oh, and she could focus on anyone to make them screw up a physical action they were trying to do. It was a whole thing. She was one of the most physically gifted and coordinated Touched in the city, but no matter what she did, she would end up looking goofy and incompetent. Or, well, accidentally competent. I supposed that having one of the coolest-looking costumes in the city was her tradeoff for looking like such a clown whenever she did anything.
Come to think of it, clown was probably the exact right term. Clowns were really good at being incredibly physically coordinated while making you think they were the exact opposite. Maybe that should’ve been her codename. But then she would’ve had to go with a very different physical look, because no way could someone use the name Clown and dress up the way she did.
In any case, the two Star-Touched approached us, standing there by the trailer, and started to ask what had happened. So, Alloy and I jumped into an explanation about how we had been patrolling together when we saw the Easy Eights goons holding the driver of the truck at gunpoint. We intervened, then Angel Dust had shown up. From there, I went on to talk about the chase that came after Alloy had been… briefly indisposed. She, in turn, talked about getting my message about where to go to find us. Then we summed up with how the whole thing had ended.
Stick exchanged a brief look with Bumblebotch, before gesturing for her to go ahead and check the trailer. Then he turned back to us. “Sounds like you did good today. But I wouldn’t take what Dust said lightly. She’s not really one of the hardcore dangerous Fells out there, but she’s not a pushover either. She won’t come find your families and stab you in bed. But she very well might work out a plan to get one over on you in the field.”
I nodded once. “So what you’re saying is that she’s not a psychotic murderer, but she’s still going to want to hurt us within reason. And probably embarrass us. You know, pull out a win that makes herself look good. Restores her rep.”
Bunglebotch called over while opening the back of the truck. “Yeah, that’s about right! She’s not a wannabe-Scion, but she’s still got an image to uphold. And you embarrassed her today.” Hauling herself up into the truck, she added, “But then, you guys seem pretty good at racking up enemies.”
Grimacing, I offered a helpless shrug. “So I’ve been told. I guess she’ll have to get in line with everyone else.”
Stick spoke solemnly. “Just hope that that line doesn’t turn into a mob. And know that if you need it, you’ve got as much help as you want.” His hand reached out to settle on my shoulder, squeezing firmly while he glanced between Alloy and me. “You two may not be in any of our teams, But you’re still part of the community. If you need anything, just speak up, any time. You got that?”
The two of us agreed and then stepped away while the Ten Towers Touched began to take inventory of the truck, and the cops secured the scene. There were some onlookers gathered by that point, though they were staying well enough back. I nudged the girl beside me and we went over there to interact with the crowd. Part of me thought that was weird and maybe self-indulgent. But on the other hand, a bigger part pointed out that I wanted the civilians to be more likely to believe me if things ever came to a head with this whole Ministry thing. If I avoided and ignored the crowds, the moment my family decided to start trying to shift the narrative against Paintball, it would be a lot more likely to work in their favor. But if I could make sure that the public liked our little group, it would be harder for my parents to make us look bad.
Was that manipulative? Okay, maybe. But it felt like the sort of game that I had to play. It left something of a bad taste in my mouth when I thought about it that way, yet if I ignored it, things would end up being a lot worse. And besides, I really did enjoy talking to people as Paintball, showing off and goofing around–okay, I enjoyed showing off and goofing around as Cassidy too. So I wasn’t exactly suffering when it came to that. Still, I couldn’t shake that slightly awkward feeling at the back of my mind, even if I was getting pretty good at ignoring it.
I also made a point of telling the people that we were part of a new team called Avant-Guard, even spraying the logo onto the nearby wall, as well as giving a few people who asked for it a version of the logo on their clothes. That proved to be pretty popular and even more people showed up asking for me to paint their shirts or jackets. Not all of them with our team name either. Some just wanted my name, or Alloy’s with an image of her marbles. One person asked if I could do a picture across the back of his jacket that amounted to myself on one side, the roof of a building below, and Cuélebre chasing me on the opposite side. Once I did and they saw how detailed it was, everyone wanted something like that. They all had different images in mind, and it took about twenty minutes for me to get through all of it in between talking to them and letting my paint recharge now and then. I let them know that it could be scrubbed off if they wanted to, but most of them said they would stop by the store to buy this spray stuff that was supposed to seal paint to fabric or something. I wasn’t sure about the details. All I knew was that they wanted to keep my images on their clothes, which was… wow.
Finally, Alloy and I managed to extract ourselves. She had been entertaining other people by turning her marbles into various things, even allowing some of them to step up on the different shapes for brief rides up and down the street. She managed to hide it pretty well, but I could tell that she was even more overwhelmed than I was.
So, once we got out of there and landed on a roof a couple streets over, I looked toward the girl and raised an eyebrow. Then I realized she wouldn’t see that, so I painted a face on the front of my helmet with a raised eyebrow there. “You doing okay?”
Coughing, she gave me a look, retracting most of her helmet so I could see her face. “Am I doing okay? What about you? You uhh, you seemed right at home back there. You sure you’re not a celebrity or something in your real life? Oh my God, are you a child actor? Jason Highward?”
The guess made me choke, shaking my head quickly. “I promise, I’m not the star of Bending Backwards. Or any other TV star,” I added quickly before she could say anything else. “I’m not a celebrity. I mean, my other self isn’t a celebrity. Not–” I was about to say ‘not really,’ but that felt like the wrong thing to say. So I just settled on, “Not as a civilian. I uhh, I guess I just like attention at school and it translates?” That was basically the truth, so I didn’t feel guilty about saying it. But then I felt guilty all over again for being relieved that I could manipulate the truth like that. It was… complicated, to say the least.
From the look the other girl was giving me, I had a feeling she thought there was something else to what I was saying, and what I wasn’t saying. But she let it go and simply replied, “At least we managed to save that truck, huh? Even if we did end up making another enemy.” A slight frown crossed her face before she shook it off. “But then, I guess you don’t do this sort of stuff for long without banging heads with the bad guys.”
“Yeah, that’s pretty easy in my experience,” I admitted. Then I changed the face that I had painted on the front of my helmet to make it smile. “But hey, it’s nice to have someone else to share the bullseye with.”
Giving me a look, Peyton dryly replied, “Gee, thanks, boss. Glad to be able to help, I guess. And speaking of help, we should probably get over to the Nest.”
The Nest was Wren’s Nest, of course. The pawn shop. I gave a quick nod. “Right, they’ve been waiting for us. Come on, let’s head over there. Though… you think we should stop and grab some pizza on the way?”
“You mean bribe them with food so they’re not annoyed about waiting so long for us?” Peyton offered me a very faint, knowing smirk. “But while we’re at it, we better grab some cheesy bread too.”
“Isn’t that your favorite?” I teased, already turning to walk to the edge of the roof.
“What can I say?” she shot back. “I’m very annoyed at us and it’s going to take some strong bribery to make me forgive us.”
Eventually, after taking a long route to make sure we weren’t being followed or observed, we made it back to the shop. As we went in the back door, Wren and Fred were already waiting, along with Murphy and Roald. When they saw us, the latter two let out audible sighs of relief, Roald speaking up, “We saw the bit on the news about you chasing Angel Dust.”
“Yeah, are you okay?” Murphy demanded. “First it looked like she was chasing you, but then you were chasing her. It was weird. What the hell happened?” Glancing toward Wren, she amended. “Heck. What the heck happened?”
For their part, Wren and Fred simply watched this, clearly just as curious as the other two but content to let them talk. Wren did hover upwards on her wings, basically bouncing excitedly in the air. I could tell that she had her own news to share, but was trying to be good.
So, the two of us explained what had happened and how it ended. Including the bit about telling everyone about the team name and signing autographs/painting shirts. “Which means,” I finished up, “we should be getting the name out there pretty well by now. So I hope nobody really hated it after all, because it looks like it’s gonna stick.”
“It’s a cool name!” Wren insisted. Finally unable to hold herself back any longer, she flew forward to hover right in front of us. “But guess what, guess what, guess what! They’re ready to test.”
“The suits you’ve been working on?” I straightened up a bit. “You’re sure?”
Murphy immediately piped up, “Seriously, we really get to try them?”
Wren nodded toward both of us, her head snapping back and forth between Murphy and me. “Uh huh, huh huh! They’re pretty basic right now, but… Uncle Fred?”
On that cue, the man reached behind himself and brought out two jumpsuits. They looked pretty simple, like mechanics coveralls. Not too dissimilar from my own costume, though these were black. At the wrists and ankles of the jumpsuits there were silver bands, along with a bit of visible circuitry on the inside of the jumpsuits.
As Fred held them out to Murphy and Roald, Wren urged the two to pull them on and zip them up, adding, “I promise I’ll make them look better and stuff in the final version. But I wanted to, you know, let you try them and make sure it worked.”
“Make sure what worked?” I asked, watching as the pair slipped the jumpsuits on over their clothes.
“Well, uhh, first, the kinetic decelerator,” she explained. “Uh, guys, take these.” She reached out to a table, taking two pairs of gloves before tossing them that way. “Put them on, then umm, put your hands together like this.” She pushed her hands flat together, like she was praying.
Shrugging uncertainly, the other two did that. After a second or two, a very faintly audible hum could be heard, and I saw an outline of barely visible energy, like an aura around each of them.
“Yay!” Wren cheered, then picked up a baseball from the nearby table full of junk. “Watch.” With that, she threw the ball as hard as she could at Roald’s head. The ball got most of the way there before there was a blue-green flash. Then the ball just sort of… stopped and fell to the floor.
“It’s not a constant thing yet,” Wren explained. “It’d draw way too much power for the little batteries in the pockets. You have to activate it by putting your hands together like that, or by saying ‘shield me,’ and then it’ll work for about thirty seconds. Right now it’s got enough power for about fifteen of those before it has to be recharged. Plus about thirty jumps.”
“Jumps?” Peyton echoed, sounding just as curious as I felt.
“Remember that uhh, teleporter?” Wren asked, looking to me. “The one you used before. It was super-dangerous, like, lucky you made it one piece. So I took it apart. But I split it into two things and linked the–here.” Turning back to the other two, she urged, “Uh, Roald, snap your fingers and point at Murphy.”
The boy did just that, snapping with the gloves. As he did so and pointed, there was a sudden flash, and he was abruptly standing right next to the girl. Both of them yelped, half-falling in surprise.
Wren, however, cheered. “It worked! When one of you snaps and points at the other, you’ll teleport over to them. Or if you both snap and point at each other, you’ll switch places. You just have to be within line of sight. I umm, haven’t figured out how to make you teleport somewhere else safely yet. I have this idea for these discs, but… but they’re not ready.”
“Duuuude, that’s amazing!” Murphy gave Roald a shove, telling him to run over to the far side of the shop. Once he was there, she snapped and pointed. With a flash of light, she was suddenly standing next to him. Both of them cheered and leapt up and down a few times.
“I think they like it,” I murmured with a smile, before looking over at Wren. “You’re pretty amazing yourself, you know that?”
Visibly blushing, the blonde girl squirmed while still hovering in the air. “I just wanna help.”
“Oh believe me,” I assured her, “you are definitely helping.” Glancing back to Murphy and Roald, who were testing the ‘switch places’ teleport by snapping and pointing at each other, I added, “Without you, we all would’ve been screwed a long time ago. I couldn’t have saved Blackjack’s daughter without you, and we certainly wouldn’t have been able to help Paige. As for getting into the Ministry base? Yeah, we’d probably be screwed there.
“But with you, we might just have a shot at this whole thing.”