Summus Proelium

Interlude 20B – Grandstand (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

Nine Years Ago 

“I excuses.” 

At first, when the small blonde girl spoke up, there was no response from the assortment of people in front of her. More than a dozen of them all crowded ahead, their backs to the girl as they yammered on excitedly, none paying her any mind. Whether they didn’t hear her at all or just assumed that the child belonged to someone else and was thus that person’s problem was up for debate. Whatever the truth, the result was that none even turned around. 

So, the twelve-year-old cleared her throat a bit pointedly. This, again, accomplished nothing. A brief look of consternation crossed her face. With a sigh, she took a breath, focusing on summoning the spirit of Alistae, the cheerful entertainer turned assassin from her own world. The world where this girl, Setrea, had spent the first eleven years of her life, before finding herself accidentally transported to this place one year earlier. 

Though no one here beyond Setrea herself would see it, the violet intangible form of Alistae appeared around the girl for a brief moment. Arms crossed, with his twin daggers held in reversed grip so that their blades were just visible sticking out from under either elbow, he gave a half-bemused, half-disbelieving stare at the crowd while shaking his head. 

The nearest translation of what her people called this that she had been able to find in the past year was ‘manifesting.’ Sixteen heroes had fought to save her people from the monsters that plagued their world. They were frozen as giant metallic statues now. Statues upon which her civilization had built entire cities. But their power was able to be called upon by certain people. People like Setrea, even if Alistae was the only one she could manage so far. She had tried for others, of course (especially after arriving in this strange place), to no avail. 

She could manage this pretty well though. Alistae’s ghostly form vanished a moment after appearing, but his effect remained. She could feel his strength, his confidence, his intense desire to protect others and make them laugh. But most importantly, she could feel his gift. 

It was that gift that she used right then, the ability to draw the attention of people either toward or away from her. In this case, she drew attention toward herself, though only exercising a tiny amount of it. Just enough to affect the people immediately in front of her. 

The effect was instantaneous, all of them abruptly pivoting to stare at the young girl. So, with their eyes on her, she dropped the Manifestation and spoke very carefully. “I excuses. You are people moving away for my please seeing.” 

From the way they were staring at Setrea, she had the sinking feeling that her mostly self-taught Anglesh lessons weren’t going nearly as well as she had hoped. Thinking the sentence through once more, she tried again. “Excuses, I am not seeing. You are people please moving?” 

Behind her, someone cleared their throat a bit more dramatically than Setrea herself had. “The kid wants you to scoot over, she can’t see the giraffes.” 

Turning at that, the girl found herself staring at a tall, red-haired woman in her early twenties. The woman closed and then opened one eye quickly. “Come on, I like the giraffes too. They’re pretty neat.” Then she held a hand out, even as the people ahead of them made room as requested. 

For a moment, Setrea hesitated. She understood… about every other word or so, enough to put the woman’s meaning together. Her grasp of this Anglesh had progressed quite rapidly over the past year, though she still heavily struggled when it came to putting together sentences herself in a way that was understandable to the people who spoke it. Their rules for which words went where were so confusing. She had no idea how they kept it straight. 

Still, she did want to see the giraffes. She came to this… zoo, that was the word for it. She had come to this zoo every few days for the past several months, just to walk around and marvel at the simple fact that people on this world had so many different sorts of animals to look at. On her world, they had the few animals they could keep on the statue, or the birds they could see flying around, and that was it. Sure, there were others down on the ground, but she had never been on the ground. It was far too dangerous. 

But here, on this world? There had to be hundreds of different types of animals across the entire planet. It was amazing. Terrified as she was to be in this situation, so far from home and with no one who could help her, Setrea did love to come and see the creatures in this zoo. 

So, she accepted the woman’s hand and stepped that way, eyes widening with delight at the vision of the long-necked animals in front of her. A noise of amazement escaped her. 

“They’re pretty cool, huh?” the woman, still holding her hand, noted with a smile. “Giraffes have always been my favorite. Are they yours?”

Taking a few seconds to process those words, translate the ones she didn’t understand as much as possible, and fill in the blanks, Setrea finally replied, “I knowing not. Animals are being many for choosing.”

For a moment, the older woman regarded her, clearly trying to decide how to respond to that. “I… suppose there are a lot of them to choose from. Maybe… you could walk around with me so we can see more?

“My name is Jolene Iverson. What’s yours?” 

********  

Present Day 

An attractive blonde woman sitting atop a sleek motorcycle across the street from a bar known to be a hangout for extremely unsavory types, and watching the place for an extended time, almost certainly would have been a bad idea in any given case. Adding in the fact that this particular attractive blonde was immediately identifiable, through her circus ringmaster outfit (including the black top hat rather than a helmet) and Zorro-like bandana mask, as one of that particular gang’s primary enemies took away that ‘almost’ and made it a dead certainty. 

Or it would have, had Setrea, now more commonly known as Grandstand, not had the ability to simply manifest Alistae’s power to divert everyone’s attention away from herself. No one would pay her any mind no matter how long she sat there watching the bar. 

At least, not until she wanted them to pay attention to her. And that moment was rapidly approaching.

The bar wasn’t technically officially linked to either La Casa or the Easy Eights. Rather, the gang who made their base here was a minor one only loosely affiliated with the Eights. A minor league, triple A team rather than part of the Majors. Still, they were armed and dangerous. Well, so was she. And she had one thing they didn’t have at that moment.

She was fucking pissed. 

Stepping off her bike, Grandstand made her way across the street, heading for the bar while still diverting the attention of several people who remained in her line of sight. She had become so accustomed and experienced at Manifesting Alistae that the ghostly figure simply appeared at random times around her own form or nearby. When his form appeared, he would visibly react to what he was seeing, expressing amusement, disbelief, or any range of emotions. But he never really communicated, and she couldn’t tell if he was actually watching what happened for real, or if his reactions were a manifestation of her own subconscious. Either way, it made her feel a tiny bit more connected to her home. 

A heavy-set bouncer lounging beside the door gazed right past her, fingers drumming lazily along the shotgun that lay across his lap. Once she grabbed the shotgun, the man’s eyes finally focused on her. Powerful as it was, her gift couldn’t compensate for directly affecting someone like that. He noticed her, eyes widening a bit. Yet as he started to hoist his considerable bulk off the chair, the man found himself immediately aborting that attempt and freezing as the barrel of his own shotgun was pointed at his neck. 

“You know who I am?” she asked him, voice flat. When his head bobbed as much as it could without choking himself on the barrel of the gun, she nodded to the side. “Run.” 

As soon as she moved the gun, he did just that. Without sparing her a glance, the man took off, sprinting as fast as he could. Which, considering his size, was pretty fast. Or maybe he was just that motivated. 

In any case, she only watched long enough to make sure he was really leaving. Then, shotgun still in hand, Setrea took a breath before stepping through the doorway. 

The bar was essentially a large oval, with the actual bar part in the middle and booths along the walls. At one end were a couple pool tables and a door to the restrooms and employee area, while a jukebox stood next to the entrance she had just come through. The place was fairly crowded, with nearly every table and bar seat full. Including the pool tables, each of which was in use. Every person there was either a member of this gang (they called themselves Cross Vipers), or somehow connected to them enough to be allowed to stay here. The bar didn’t serve outsiders. 

Letting her gaze pass over the room while the power of Alistae ensured that they ignored her (Alistae’s spirit form itself appeared to examine the jukebox curiously), Setrea considered for a moment before abruptly switching that power. Now, rather than pushing their attention away, she pulled it to herself. At the same time, she took aim at the nearby jukebox and pulled the trigger. The resulting shotgun blast echoed throughout the room while the music itself was murdered mid-song. Alistae’s ghost gave her a disappointed look before vanishing.

Now she really had everyone’s attention. Tossing the shotgun aside, Grandstand faced the assembled group. Almost fifty people, all staring at her. A few started to rise, only to stop as their companions put hands on their arms or shoulders. 

“I’m looking for the people who pulled the job to attack the reporter lady on the freeway!” she called, eyes scanning everyone for reactions. 

The bartender spoke up. “Hey, look, you got the wrong place! That was Scion shit, ain’t nobody here part of that–” 

“They were fake Scions,” Grandstand interrupted, her eyes narrowing in on a booth against the right-hand wall, about halfway to the back. She took a step that way before immediately shifting Alistae’s power to make everyone ignore her for the time it took to cross the distance. For those brief couple of seconds, she might as well have been invisible, because no one could focus on her. Once she was in front of the table, she reversed the effect again to draw everyone’s attention while simultaneously drawing the pistol from its holster at her hip to point at the head of the red-haired, lanky man sitting there. From the point of view of him and everyone else in the room, they would have completely lost interest in her for about five seconds, then suddenly regained it as she practically disappeared from the doorway and reappeared next to that table. 

“Whoa, whoa, hey!” The red-haired man jerked a bit with the gun pointed at him. “I don’t know what–” He stopped as she pressed the barrel harder against his temple. “Okay, okay, okay, chill out! We didn’t kill the reporter, god! We weren’t supposed to, just supposed to chase her down, attack them, make it look good. Play the role, okay? The dude paid super well and we were just supposed to make it look like the Scions were attacking her. Fuck, I thought it was the chick trying to make herself look important for some follow-up story or something.” 

Shifting the power yet again so that everyone in the room aside from the people at this table would forget about her, Grandstand narrowed her eyes, voice dangerous. “Who paid you?” 

“Li-like I said, I thought it was her, til she got killed for real!” the man stammered. “It–fuck, fuck just– Miles! Miles Boyd, he’s the one who sent the invite, he’ll know more, I swear! He divied up the cash too! It was all him, you wanna talk to him!”

“Just two more questions.” With that, the blonde woman lowered the pistol from his forehead down past his nose, over his mouth, and to his throat. “Where is this Miles Boyd? And what does he look like?”

*******

A short time later, with the Alistae manifestation ensuring no one even thought to follow her (the effect would wear off soon after she left), Setrea threw a leg over her motorcycle, started it up, and took off with a roar of the engine and squeal from the tires. Minor Touched-Tech linking the black top hat to an actual hairband she wore kept it perfectly positioned on her head despite the speed of the bike. 

Once she was a couple blocks from the bar, Setrea ordered the bluetooth attached to her motorcycle to call Cuélebre, her attention focused on weaving the motorcycle between a couple cars that happened to be going entirely too slowly for her liking. 

After several rings, the voice of her Fell-Touched boss came through. “Grandstand, what is it?” 

She could picture him now, a fifteen-foot-tall demon-like figure sitting in that meditative pose in his dojo room. Few people had the number of his private cell, and fewer still would call him without going through the proper channels first. He probably hadn’t even needed to check the number to know who this one was coming from. 

“Miles Boyd,” she announced. “He’s some low-level fuck attached to the Ninety-Niners. I really need you to have them cut him loose so he and I can have a conversation without causing an incident. Shouldn’t be too bad, but since we’re supposed to be allies with them for the moment, I thought it might be a good idea to go through the proper channels.”

There was a brief pause before Cuélebre replied, “Am I supposed to know who this guy is, or why you want to talk to him?” 

“He’s the guy I need to talk to so I can find out who ordered the hit on Jolene Iverson,” Setrea informed him, gunning the motorcycle off the street and through a narrow alley. A shortcut on the way to the right area, which was clear across the city. Plenty of time for her boss to make the necessary arrangements. 

Cuélebre was silent for a moment, clearly digesting that before speaking again. “Ah, and why, precisely, would you be looking for the person who murdered a reporter? Don’t get me wrong, doing a favor for the Scions is a bad idea. He deserves whatever he gets. But why exactly does it involve you?” 

“She…” For a moment, Setrea paused. She thought of the weeks and months Jolene had worked with her, helping the then-new and scared girl to learn proper English and Spanish. She’d had questions, of course. Plenty of them. And Setrea had told her the story. Jolene was the only person she had told her story to. Yet, despite being a reporter, the woman had kept that secret. She objected to Setrea joining Oscuro, of course. And tried to talk her out of it repeatedly. But she never exposed the truth about her, despite what a huge story it would have been. Jolene had kept her secret.  

And now she was dead. 

“She was my friend,” Setrea finally settled on. “And this guy knows who killed her. I’m going to get answers out of him about who was responsible for that. And then I’m going to kill them, whoever they are.”

“Give me ten minutes before you do anything. Let me check on some things,” came the response, before Cuélebre disconnected the call. 

Which left Setrea to mindlessly cruise along on her way to the Ninety-Niner’s territory. No, not mindlessly. Her thoughts continuously drifted back to moments she’d had with Jolene, from that first time at the zoo, all the way up to brunch a couple weeks earlier. That was the last time she had seen the woman in person, though she did watch many of her broadcasts. Jolene was her friend. Was. Until someone killed her. 

With those thoughts swirling through her mind, she almost jumped at the sound of her phone alert going off. It was Cuélebre. Or ‘Boss’ as her audio alert announced. After taking a second to collect herself, she answered. “Yeah? Where are they sending him?” 

There was a brief pause before Cuélebre spoke. “There is a little bit of a complication. Turns out this Miles Boyd might be fairly low on the totem pole himself, but his brother is one of their Touched. Jailtime.” 

“I’m not interested in his family history,” Setrea retorted, even though she knew exactly why that was being brought up. She was simply ignoring it. “I want him.” 

“And I made an attempt to make them let you talk to him,” Cuélebre informed her. “I even said that I would guarantee his safety if he told you what he knows. He declined. And they’re backing him up.” 

“What do you–” Setrea stopped, measuring her response. “What do you mean he declined and they’re backing him up?” 

“I mean, he refuses to talk to you, and they aren’t going to make him,” Cuélebre explained. 

“So, I’ll talk to him without their permission and find out what he knows,” she replied flatly. 

There was another pause before the response came, Cuélebre speaking very carefully. “I’m sorry, but you can’t do that. Just… think for a minute, amiga. We are in the middle of a war which is escalating by the day. Things are going to get worse before they get better. And the one thing we can’t afford right now is to lose our allies. The Ninety-Niners aren’t our best friends, but they are the only friends we have to hold against both the Easy Eights and La Casa. Jailtime is an important piece of the Ninety-Niners. His powers are pretty essential, so the last thing Sandon is going to do is piss him off. And forcing his brother to talk to you would piss him off.” 

Stopping her motorcycle in a small parking lot overlooking a slightly lower street, Setrea replied in a low voice. “She was my friend, Cuélebre.” 

“That I understand,” he replied. “And I sympathize. I do. You will get your chance at answers, I promise. But you need to think strategically and put it on the back burner for now. I’m telling you, we cannot afford to fight two gangs alone. Let alone three, if this vendetta against Miles Boyd makes the Ninety-Niners turn against us too.” 

“By the time this war is over, the trail that Miles could lead me to, the trail that could point to the person who killed my friend, could be completely cold,” Setrea retorted. “Whoever hired him wasn’t one of the Scions. They wouldn’t want her dead, they’d want her captured so they could… kill her themselves. Slowly.”

“Is that part of why you’re so angry?” Cuélebre carefully (but not carefully enough) asked. “Because you didn’t think to be there to watch over her after she did that story?” 

Rather than respond immediately with what she wanted to say, Setrea took a breath and forced herself to wait a moment before speaking in a tight voice. “Yes, I stupidly thought an entire group of Ten Towers Touched would be able to protect her. A failure on my part. But one I aim to make amends for, by finding the person responsible. And Miles Boyd is the only person who can help me do that.” 

“And he will,” Cuélebre promised her pointedly. “After we get through this war.” He took a brief moment before adding, “Let me make myself perfectly clear. When the time comes, you will have my full support in tracking down the person responsible for your friend’s death. But we cannot push the Ninety-Niners on the issue right now. Doing so would risk making them our enemies instead of our allies, and that is something we cannot afford while we are in the middle of this war. You have to be patient. I’m sorry.”

Rather than respond verbally, Setrea did something she had never done to Cuélebre. She reached up and hit the button to disconnect the call. She hung up on him, her boss, her… the man she had chosen to serve as the right-hand to, in her quest to retrieve the resources she needed to eventually find a way back to her own world. He was her best ticket to finding a way back home, to her friends, her family, her papa. 

For several long, mentally-torturous minutes, she sat there on the motorcycle, staring at passing traffic indecisively. Every once in awhile through that long, silent period, she would close her eyes and picture Jolene. She would remember the woman’s face that first day at the zoo. 

Abruptly, Setrea felt a presence behind her. Turning slightly, she expected to see that Cuélebre had come to speak with her directly. Instead, the woman saw a form that was at once familiar and utterly foreign. Another ghostly figure, but this was not Alistae’s purple form. Instead, she was looking at the dark green figure of Deunmar. Deunmar, the Protector, was another of the sixteen heroes. She was a Marked, one of those descendants of humans who had been mutated into a partial animal form. In this case, Deunmar was Scale-Marked, related to reptiles. The nearest Earth animal to what she looked like was a turtle. Her thick shell protected her back, assisted by the heavy armor she wore, and an enormous shield that was taller than the woman herself. 

Manifesting Deunmar allowed the person to make any object they were touching completely invulnerable to any physical damage for a limited time. Including the clothes or armor they were wearing, or weapons they were holding. It began at only what amounted to two seconds for beginners, with a twenty second cooldown. But that would improve with use. 

All those realizations and memories passed through Setrea’s mind as she stared at the ghostly figure. A new Manifestation. Another connection to her homeworld. Deunmar stared right back at her, before giving a short nod. A nod that said everything it needed to. 

Once more, Setrea closed her eyes. She thought of Jolene. She thought of the zoo. 

She remembered the giraffes. 

*****

It was a solid door, very well-built and meant to prevent police from kicking it in very easily. What it was not prepared to stand up to, was a motorcycle literally driving straight into it. A motorcycle that, for that single instant, had been rendered entirely invulnerable to all damage thanks to Setrea’s new Manifestation of Deunmar. The door folded like cardboard, as she brought the bike to a halt in the middle of the small office building’s front lobby. The assorted handful of people sitting in the room stared at her incredulously, not even thinking to grab for their guns just yet. By the time one thought of it and went to grab the weapon from the nearby table, her whip had lashed out to catch his wrist, yanking him off his chair to the floor. At the same time, she pointed her pistol at one of the other men, sliding off her bike. 

“Miles Boyd. He’s staying here. What room?” 

“You’re not supposed to be here,” the man with the pistol pointed at him snarled. “Your boss told you to back off.” 

“I’m sorry,” Setrea started, before using her far-more-familiar Manifestation to make them forget about her. Alistae’s ghostly form was sitting on a chair, curiously looking at the cover of a magazine that was lying there. He made a motion as though to pick it up before grimacing as his hand went through it.

Meanwhile, Setrea moved those few steps from the bike until she was standing directly behind the man she had been talking to, then dropped the power while smacking him with the butt of the gun in the back of the head. “Was that a room number?!” 

“Ahhh, fuck!” Holding the back of his head, the man blurted, “He ain’t here! He took off half an hour ago!” 

The man who had been whipped to the ground spoke up then. “You have any idea how bad you just fucked up? Our boss is gonna make your boss put you out to dry. You come into our home and fuck with our people? You just fucked up this alliance for your boss. So what do you think he’s gonna do?” 

“Probably be pretty pissed off,” Setrea agreed in a quiet, almost thoughtful voice, before narrowing her eyes. “So I guess I better convince one of you to tell me where Miles went pretty quick. Not that I needed the extra motivation. I’ve got plenty. 

“Let me give you some.” 

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Patreon Snippets 23 (Summus Proelium)

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Shortly Before 20-06

He was definitely being watched. Ryder Towling knew that much even as he stepped out of his car, parked in front of the Fosters’ house. Of course, he could have said as much before ever coming into Sherwood territory. Everyone knew how the gang operated. Feeling eyes on him as he closed his door and walked around to open the back was hardly surprising. It took a lot of effort for him to resist the urge to look around. The hair on the back of his neck stood up as he grabbed his satchel from the backseat, hoisted it over his shoulder, and closed the door. 

Yes, there were definitely plenty of eyes on him. Which was why he had to be very careful not to let anyone know the real reason he was here. Or anything about his other identity. Something told him that if the Sherwood people found out that he had any connection to another gang, let alone that he was Eits, someone who primarily used their hated technology, they wouldn’t be too happy. He might not even get a chance to explain the situation. 

And even if he did get that chance, what would he say? Was he supposed to tell them that he had been repaying a favor to a secret organization that had helped him… become who he really was inside, and had actually kept information they probably didn’t want him to have? Information which revealed that Cup and Pencil were desperately trying to find someone who had been adopted years earlier. Someone who now lived in Sherwood territory, in this house. Errol Fosters. 

The Fosters themselves shouldn’t even have been living in this area. The family was rich specifically thanks to a business involving transporting technology. Ryder had no idea how they managed to convince the Sherwood people to leave them alone. It was one of many questions he had about this whole situation. Some of which he might even be able to get answers to. 

As he walked away from his car and approached the front door, the boy asked himself for about the thousandth time why he didn’t just go to Blackjack, explain everything he knew, and ask for help. Seriously, what was he doing here? He wasn’t a fighter. He was a behind-the-scenes sort of guy. And he sure as hell wasn’t some sort of secret agent James Bond type. If he ran into trouble here, deep in another gang’s territory, what was he going to do?

It was stupid. Not asking for help was stupid, the whole thing was stupid. Yet something made him stop every time he thought about going to Blackjack. He had no idea what that whole situation was, how close his boss was to the people who had helped him. For fuck’s sake, they had helped him, so he didn’t even know for certain why he wasn’t going straight to them with this, or just letting them handle it. He just… he couldn’t explain it. He owed them so much, but he wasn’t blind to possible problems. 

He needed to find out more about what was going on, why the Scions wanted to find this kid so much, why his family was living here of all places given what they did for a living, what–all of it. He just had to be careful and find out as much as possible before he made any real decisions. Because once he told anyone about what he knew, there would be no going back. 

With that thought firmly in mind, the boy reached out to push the doorbell. Here went nothing. If this whole thing went wrong, he was totally going to tell himself that he had said so. 

He only had to wait a few seconds after pressing the button for the bell before hearing the sound of several deadbolts and chains being unlocked. Finally, the door was pulled open, and he found himself looking at a beautiful, tall blonde girl who was probably incredibly popular at her school. She wasn’t exactly his type, but he could tell at a glance that the girl was accustomed to being ogled. More than accustomed, she expected it, pausing there with the door open and a knowing smirk on her face. “Hey there,” she greeted him, looking the boy up and down. “Arleigh Fosters. You my new college prep buddy?” 

Yes, this was how he had decided to get into the house and find out more about Errol. Searching through posts from the family online, he had found out that they were looking for a tutor, and a little bit of electronic trickery thanks to his little Mites meant that he was given the job. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to go from working with the girl to learning exactly what was going on with Errol, but at least this gave him a foot in the door. He had even gone through the trouble of making some fake business cards for his supposed services, as well as giving himself a mixture of reviews online. Most good, a few middling based on personality differences, even a couple bad ones. He’d wanted it to look as realistic as possible. 

“Ryder Towling,” he confirmed, extending a hand reflexively even while berating himself for the gesture inwardly. “It’s uhh, nice to meet you.” 

Gazing briefly at his hand as though trying to decide how to react, Arleigh finally offered a very faint, somewhat amused smile before reaching out to gently squeeze it. She didn’t exactly shake his hand as much as… grasp the back of it briefly, but at least she didn’t leave him hanging entirely. 

With that, she pivoted and beckoned. “Come on in. Dad’s back in his office, and my little brother hasn’t gotten home yet. My big brother… who the fuck cares, he’s not here, that’s what matters. Are you hungry? Carol’s probably still in the kitchen.” Without waiting for a response, she raised her voice to call, “Carol, bring some snacks up to my room! Something fun!” 

“Ah, it’s okay, I–” Stopping himself from objecting too much, Ryder shifted his focus to the other thing the girl had said. “Your room? I mean, you want to go up there to study?” 

Giving him a light, clearly teasing glance, Arleigh replied, “Don’t worry, we’ll leave the door open. For now.” With that, she pivoted, flicking her hair over her shoulder as she walked to the nearby stairs and began to ascend. The way she walked made it clear that she wanted him to watch her. This was a girl accustomed to having everyone in a room be attracted to her. More than that, she encouraged it. Which… was kind of cool for her, actually. He wasn’t interested, at least not beyond the obvious biological sense. But still, he wasn’t going to fault her for owning it. She seemed, well, certainly not modest in any sense of the word, but sociable enough so far. 

Shaking off those thoughts, he followed her up the stairs. Spending several long seconds trying to think of a casual way to bring it up, he finally settled on a simple, “So you’ve got two brothers, huh?” 

“That’s right,” the girl replied without looking back. “One younger, one older.” She paused by an open door and gestured. “That’s Errol’s room. My little brother. He should be home soon, but you know, if he bugs us too much I’ll just throw shit at him until he leaves. It’s usually not hard to make him fuck off. Micah’s the one that’s the real pain in the ass.” 

They had reached what was obviously her bedroom by that point, as the door was shut and had a big whiteboard hung on it with the words, ‘Stay The Fuck Out Micah’ written on it. Before opening the door, Arleigh spoke clearly. “Xanah, disable the alarm on my door, code Eulogy Kermit Piggy Grover.” 

After a brief pause, a female voice coming from a nearby speaker acknowledged, “Alarm disabled, Miss Fosters. Have a pleasant afternoon.” 

“You put an alarm on your door?” Ryder asked, raising an eyebrow. 

With a snort, the girl pulled it open. “Like I said, Micah’s a pain in the ass. And I mean that with a capital P and A. I can’t give him any opening.” 

This all felt… like a very awkward and strange house to live in. But Ryder pushed those thoughts aside for the moment, following the girl into her quite large bedroom. He was pretty sure the place was bigger than his whole apartment, actually. She had her own bathroom, accessible only through this room, with what looked like a full whirlpool tub inside, and a separate enclosed shower. The bed itself, on the opposite side of the room from the entrance to the bathroom, was big enough for about six people to sleep on, yet it didn’t even take up half the room. 

Looking around briefly, he finally stepped over to where the desk with her computer was. There were already a couple chairs there. “But you ahh, you don’t think your other brother’s such a pain?” 

Shrugging, Arleigh replied, “He’s little, I can kick his ass. I mean, I can kick Micah’s ass too, sometimes. It just–” She stopped, seeming to consider her words once more before simply finishing with, “Micah can go fuck himself. Errol’s not bad. Annoying sometimes, but… you know, not a big deal.”

Looking to a picture on the wall, Ryder stepped that way. “This them?” He focused on the younger boy in the photo, who looked nothing like the other two. He was little and scrawny, with glasses and a very awkward appearance. 

“Yeah, that’s my brothers,” Arleigh confirmed with a dismissive roll of her eyes. “But come on, you’re not here to tutor them, remember? Micah’s already in college and Errol’s like, really smart anyway. He’ll be fine.” 

Turning away from the picture, Ryder started to step over that way, when a sight through the nearby window made him pause. “Someone just pulled in.” 

“What?” Arleigh jumped to her feet, moving next to him to look out. “If Micah’s back already, I swear–oh. Hey, that’s Cassidy.” 

“Uh, Cassidy?” Ryder looked again. There was a small girl behind the wheel of the car. From that distance, she looked pretty, in a way much more understated than Arleigh’s in-your-face hotness. Her hair was cut short on one side and long on the other, with pink-tinted bangs. Standing at the window, he found himself staring intently that way before noticing the older man sitting next to her, and the two kids in the backseat. Including a very familiar sight. The boy whose picture he had just been looking at, and who was the very reason he was here. 

“Cassidy Evans, she’s the one driving, next to her dad,” Arleigh announced, already pivoting to head for the door. “And that’s Errol in the back. Come on, let’s say hi. We can get to the tutoring thing in a minute.” 

Well, that was strange. She was really eager to run downstairs and greet this Cassidy. Even as he followed her, Ryder asked himself why that would be. Did she have a crush on the girl or something? 

Forget it, that didn’t matter. Whatever her deal with the Evans girl was–wait, that Evans girl? The realization struck him suddenly, making the boy stop briefly. He had… never thought that–okay he hadn’t really put a lot of thought into what Sterling and Elena Evans’ daughter would look like, but from that brief glimpse he’d gotten, that wasn’t it. She… wow. 

Shaking that off, he told himself to focus on being pleasant and getting through this whole thing. Then he could try to push for more information about Errol, maybe even talk to the boy himself a bit if an opportunity presented itself. 

After all, he was here for answers, and he probably wouldn’t get any by focusing on Cassidy Evans. 

*************

Immediately After 20-09

As the video call from her adopted little sister ended, Irelyn found herself staring at the phone in her hand. A wide assortment of thoughts were running through her mind, many of them involving a lot of curse words. Of course, the very first thing she did was hit the button to call the girl back, ready to launch into a diatribe about what exactly Paige thought she was doing. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, there was no response. The call went to an automatic voicemail after a few rings, and Irelyn left… not quite (anywhere near) the full list of things she wanted to say in that moment, but enough to make it clear that she needed Paige to call her back immediately. 

Not that she expected that to work, of course. Paige was incredibly stubborn when she wanted to be. So, Irelyn turned away from the grocery store she had been about to walk into, thoughts of preparing dinner that evening completely gone in the moment. She called a different number while striding toward her car, sticking the bluetooth device in her ear to talk as the person on the other end picked up. “Hazel? Yeah, listen, can you get hold of your brother for me? I need him to trace a phone number. Yes, I could go through the official system, but I don’t want to for this. And you both owe me for making those introductions. Yeah, you guys love it here and you know it. Right, here’s the number. Thanks, let me know what he comes up with.” 

Reading it off for the girl, Irelyn got into her car and started it up before realizing that she had no idea where she was driving. She had been in such a rush to move somewhere and feel like she was accomplishing something after that frustrating call from her sister that she had briefly forgotten that she had nowhere to move to just yet. 

Instead of pulling out and driving aimlessly, she took a moment to replay everything that had been said on the phone. Then she paused, a frown touching her face. Paige had stopped her from bringing up the fact that she was Touched, that she was a member of the Conservators. Irelyn had been about to remind the girl that she had experience with this sort of danger specifically because of that, but Paige had spoken up quickly to cut her off. 

Someone else was there with her. Someone had been with Paige and the other girl hadn’t wanted them to overhear Irelyn give away her secret identity. But who? And why hadn’t Paige said anything about someone else listening in? Why–was she captured? Was she being held prisoner? Fuck. Fuck, fuck. That made sense. Of course, that was why she had refused to say anything more. They probably heard about Irelyn asking around and had forced Paige to make that call, likely at gunpoint. This was all bad, so bad. Unless she was jumping to conclusions. It was possible, possible, that there had simply been someone there who wasn’t a threat, but whom Paige didn’t want to hear about Irelyn’s secret. She had to find out more. 

It wasn’t long before Hazel called back, her voice coming through the car’s speaker system that time. 

“Okay, Bryson says this thing’s coming from Florida. Down just a little north of Miami. You wanna tell us what this is all about? Or do we have to play twenty questions? Is it a person? I bet it’s a person. My second guess is animal.” 

Frowning inwardly, Irelyn muttered, “Florida, who do they know in Florida?” The answer, of course, was a lot of people. Her parents were rich and had contacts all over the place. But maybe the Miami part could narrow it down a little. Finally, she shook off those thoughts and focused on what the girl on the phone was saying. “I don’t know exactly. My parents and little sister disappeared a little while ago. And now Paige called me to say they were looking into one of Dad’s businesses, but they got in trouble somehow and she was going to get them out of it.” 

There was a brief pause at that before Hazel replied, “Uh, is your sister some sort of super-ninja secret agent or something? Wait, is she–” 

“She’s not Touched,” Irelyn assured her. “And she’s not–I mean she knows self-defense, Dad made sure of that. So did I. But she’s not–no. I don’t know what she’s thinking. But I have to find her, and our parents, before something terrible happens. There’s something going on around here, and I’m pretty sure Paige knows all about it. She’s the one I need to get answers from.” 

“Well, let Bryson keep working at this on our end,” Hazel tentatively replied. She sounded uncertain, yet curious. “He says there are a few weird things about that signal, like they were trying to mask it or something. But he’s pretty good with this stuff, so he can probably work it out eventually. I’ll make him keep digging a little deeper, let you know what we find out. If anything.” 

“Hazel Ruthers, you and your brother be careful,” Irelyn cautioned. 

“Ew, don’t use my full name, it makes you sound like my mother,” the girl on the other end retorted. “And the last thing I need is to be reminded of my mother. It ruins the mood.” 

Snorting, Irelyn shot back, “Right, right, sorry. Consider me chastised. And… do me a favor, keep all of this off the official record on your end too? Don’t take it to your boss just yet. I don’t know why, it just feels like the right thing to do. I’ve got a weird feeling about all this.” 

“You always have a weird feeling,” Hazel lightly teased before sobering a bit to add, “Seriously, we’ll keep it on the downlow, sure. It’s the least we can do. Well, that and help you find your family. Give Bry a little more time to pick through this thing and see what’s so weird about it, then we’ll get back to you.”

After agreeing with that, Irelyn disconnected before heaving a sigh. She still had no idea what to do about this. Well, she did. The call had come from Florida. She could go there and look around in person. Was that the right thing to do? There was a war going on right here in Detroit, yet her sister and parents… Fuck, what was the right call here? If something happened to her family because she stayed here, she wouldn’t be able to forgive herself. But on the other hand, if she left and this war kicked into even higher gear and people died because she wasn’t around…

Cursing once more under her breath, Irelyn reached out to hit the button on her dash to call Silversmith. Once he picked up several rings later, she tersely spoke, explaining a bit about the situation as succinctly as possible while trying to keep any emotion out of her voice. She didn’t want him to think she wasn’t being professional about this whole thing. Mostly she simply said that her parents and sister had gone off the grid and she needed to go check on them. 

Once she finished, there was a brief pause before the man replied, “I’m sorry to hear about your family, Flea. Of course you can take the time out to go down and look for them. I have a few contacts in the Conservators down there who can help out.” 

“What about the–” she started to bring up the gang war. 

“Don’t worry about us,” he assured her. “Finding your parents and your sister is the important thing right now. Make sure they’re safe. If I need to, I’ll call in some help up here to fill in for you. We’ll be fine, I promise. You head to the airport right–wait, no. I’m going to call in some favors and get you a rapid-transit. Head for–here.” He paused briefly before reading off an address. “Go there, I’ll have a teleporter meet you in twenty minutes or so. They’ll take you straight to Miami where you can meet with the Conservators and get the ball rolling to figure out where your parents and sister went.” 

Still taking a bit aback by the man’s quick reaction to all of this, Irelyn finally found her voice. “Right, thanks, Smith. I’ll get this done, find them, and get back here as soon as possible.” 

“Don’t worry about us,” the man insisted. “Take care of your family. And let me know if you need anything else while you’re down there. We’ll be ready to back you up if we need to. That’s what a team is for.”  

After hesitantly agreeing and thanking the man, Irelyn disconnected once more and began heading for the address. She set the car into autodrive before rolling her seat back to change into her costume. The whole time, a multitude of thoughts were running through her head about what she would find in Florida when she got there. What had her father gotten himself involved in now? And why was Paige so insistent on dealing with it herself? There was something incredibly suspicious about the whole situation, even if she couldn’t quite put her finger on it. 

Whatever this was, whatever was really going on, she was going to find out the truth. And then she and Paige were going to have a long talk about not running off on her own. 

Florida though? Really? Why the hell did it have to be Florida

A few minutes later, she pulled up in front of what looked like a disused warehouse. Parking her car, Irelyn stepped out, now fully-clad in her costume as she looked around. Catching a glimpse of a man waving toward her from the doorway, she strode that way. 

The man stood just under seven feet tall, heavily muscled under a black bodysuit with a silver cloak and hood. His face was covered by a dark red metal mask with holographic white numbers displayed across the front. Currently, the numbers simply read zero point zero zero. 

“Snapback?” Flea, now that she was in costume, asked. “He called you over from Chicago?” 

“I don’t mind,” came the surprisingly gentle and cheerful response given the man’s size and build. “Good luck finding your family though. You let me know if you need anything, yeah?” 

Agreeing, Flea reached out to take the man’s hand. Immediately, she felt the air twist around them. It was a disturbing sensation, making her stomach flip over. The view around her distorted to the point that it hurt to look at it, and she closed her eyes before the nausea would have taken over. 

And with a popping noise, they were abruptly standing elsewhere. As her eyes opened, she found herself still grasping the man’s hand, as they stood in the middle of an alley. The beach was visible in the distance, and the ocean beyond that. 

“Miami Conservator base is about two blocks north,” her ‘lift’ informed the woman. The zero point zero zero previously displayed across the front of his red metal mask had changed to one thousand, three hundred and ninety six. “Thought you might want to get your bearings a little bit before heading that way to check in. But ahh, this is a pretty big jump so you might want to let go before I snap you back with me.”

Snapback was well-named. Essentially, he was capable of transporting himself to any location he had a decent understanding of, no matter how far away. But he could only stay in that location for a limited time. The further the distance, the shorter his time there. When he released his grip on the second location, the man instantly returned to his starting point and gained a brief moment of total invulnerability, as well as a level of super strength depending on how far away he had transported and how long he held it for. Like a stretched rubber band. The strength and invulnerability only lasted a couple of seconds, but it allowed him to hit someone or something with utterly devastating force simply by making a jump to somewhere very far away, holding the teleport for a few seconds until he could stand it no longer, then transporting back and lashing out. He could smack ordinary people around incredibly effectively just by teleporting several miles away and then ‘snapping back’ to swat them. Even better, if he wanted to, the man could expend his temporary strength in a single concussive blast from his hands rather than a physical blow, if his target had moved. 

Alternatively, he could choose to ‘snap’ the connection entirely and stay in the location he had teleported to. Doing that would send a concussive wave out at both his starting and ending locations, though he could choose exactly how to divide that force, giving his starting location the brunt of it and the ending point only a minimal amount, vice versa, or anywhere in between. When he was making a long trip and trying to stay there, the man had to find starting and ending areas that wouldn’t be damaged in the process. 

Thanking the man for the lift, Flea watched him vanish with a rush of expanding air that made a popping sound, before turning. Florida. Time to go visit the local Convervators, and–

“So,” a voice abruptly interrupted. “We heading out?” 

Jumping a bit, Flea pivoted, finding herself facing a familiar figure in a costume consisting of what looked like purple scalemail body armor over her chest, a black hooded cloak, purple metal helmet with black visor, and tan pants over dark brown boots.

Hazel?” she blurted. “What the hell are you doing here? I just–I told you to help your brother look for–how did you–” 

“Hey, you’re not the only one who can call in teleport assistance when you need to,” the other girl retorted. “I’ve still got friends from my old Minority squad in Nebraska. And I had time-off to take. I told you, I wanna help. 

“And hey, don’t call me by my real name. It’s not Hazel Ruthers while we’re in costume. 

“It’s Trivial.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Interlude 20A – Jolene Iverson (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

“I’m telling you guys, I really don’t think this is necessary at all.” As the tall, red-haired woman said those words, she was striding out of an elevator into the below-ground parking garage of one of the local news stations, flanked on both sides and followed by several figures. “Don’t you have better things to do? Actually, scratch that. I’m a reporter. I know you have better things to do. So, why don’t you go ahead and focus on one of those other things. I’ll be fine. The report went out over the air days ago.” 

“Sorry, Ms. Iverson.” The apology came from the man on her left. He was a fairly short guy at just a hair over five foot five. In his late twenties, the Latino figure who wore somewhat baggy, loose-fitting gray pants that allowed him to move quite well, with a sleeveless black shirt that had a faded gray Ten Towers logo (a ten-pointed star around the skyline of the city they were a part of, Detroit in this case) on the front, spiked wristbands, combat boots, and a bandana-like mask that left the lower half of his face, and his long dark hair, uncovered. “With the threat on your life, we have orders to escort you straight to the Plaza.” 

The Plaza, in this case, was their term for the headquarters of Ten Towers in Detroit, where the main three towers themselves were located. It was also a thought that made Jolene Iverson grimace, head shaking. “Come on, Stick. I get threats all the time. All reporters do. Especially the ones who talk about Touched stuff. That’s why we use these.” She pointedly withdrew a small black box that fit within the palm of her hand, with a single silver button on it. To demonstrate, she pushed her thumb against that button and stopped walking. As she did so, there was a shimmer of energy in the air, and the woman abruptly looked quite different. Her long red hair had shortened and turned blond. Various features of her face had shifted around, eye shape widening slightly, nose turning up and narrowing, skin color itself darkening just a bit as though she had much more of a tan, and so forth. Within a few seconds, she looked like a completely different person other than the specific height. “Tell me exactly how someone who saw this person give a report about the identities of Pencil and Cup is going to be mistaken for–” She hit the button again, returning to her normal appearance. “–this person? The entire point of using the Incogniter and false names is so that none of those psychopaths out there know what the people reporting on them actually look like. At least, that’s how it was sold to me.” 

“That’s the general idea,” Stick confirmed, watchful eyes glancing around as they stood in the parking garage. “But when there’s a specific threat, we have to take it seriously. Our boss told us the intel they picked up was detailed enough that there is a concern for your safety. So she told us to come here and escort you straight to the plaza while she and Skip check out the source. Once they determine whether the threat is real or not, they’ll decide how soon you can leave.” With a shrug, he added, “It’s in your contract. Your station is a subsidiary of Ten Towers. When there’s a threat like this, we have to deal with it. And you have to let us.” 

“Yeah,” the person on her right-hand side put in. “Believe me, Caishen would be super-pissed if we let you go off on your own. And quite frankly, she’s scarier than you are.” 

Glancing that way, Jolene took in the male form. Well, male for the moment anyway. Ephemera wore a costume that was just as simple as Stick’s, amounting to red pants with matching shoes, a white turtleneck, and a white ski mask with red trim. A belt around their waist held two pistols, a knife, and a collapsible baton. 

Jolene exhaled. A part of her still wanted to argue, but there was little point. They were right. Ten Towers held ultimate authority over the station she worked for, and if Caishen said there was a real threat, nothing Jolene could say would change anyone’s mind. Finally, she settled on, “Okay, fine. I get it. Believe me, if there’s actually a threat, I have no desire to face it myself.” She put the Incogniter back in her pocket. “But do we really need five of you?” Turning a bit, she gestured to the three figures who had been trailing behind. “Five Touched just to protect me?” 

“It’s not so much to protect you as it is to catch them,” came the casual reply from one of those figures. He was a decidedly taller man than Stick, standing about six foot two. None of his skin was exposed, as he wore long black pants, heavy boots, a dark blue shirt under a white trench coat, and a blue helmet that had no visible visor. Instead, the front was covered by the white insignia of a crosshair. Jolene had absolutely no idea how he saw out of that thing.

“Linesight,” Stick chastised slightly with a look that way. 

“What?” The other man offered a shrug. “I didn’t say we wanted anything bad to happen to her. But she’s right, all of us being here would be overkill to protect a single person from some vague threat. We’re here just in case there’s a chance to catch any of the Scions, and you know it. She knows it. We all know it. She reported on Cup and Pencil’s real identities. Even if those two are laying low, any other Scions could be out there looking to impress their bosses by making an example out of her. That’s why we’re here, and why Caishen and Skip took a whole contingent of Towers security to check out the apartment they traced that phone call to. It’s common sense. Ain’t that right, Bungle?”

Beside him, a young woman gave a quick, hurried nod. Her costume consisted of a black bodysuit with purple highlights along the legs and arms, along with the Ten Towers logo, also in purple, across the front. She also wore purple gloves and boots, along with a cape that was black on the outside and purple on the inside, with a connected matching hood that rose up over her head. Under the hood, her head was encased in a black helmet with a large purple visor, which covered the entirety of her face from chin to just above her eyes. The visor appeared to be made of glass, but was actually quite durable to the point of being bulletproof. 

As the woman known to the public as Bunglebotch put it, considering how goofy and uncoordinated her power made her look, the very least she could do was have a cool costume. Besides, she found it infinitely more amusing to show up to a place and make people think they were about to see something incredibly cool and inspiring before, in her own words, ‘drastically disappointing them.’ 

Yet despite her self-disparaging words, Bunglebotch loved her Touched gift. It was a power which allowed her to accomplish essentially any physical task any human being was capable of with enough training and skill. But doing so would always appear to be a completely uncoordinated, comical accident. She could perform incredible athletic stunts of hand to hand combat, acrobatics, sharpshooting, piloting, parkour, and more, yet anyone watching her do so would swear she was about to kill herself simply by taking a step. Watching her in action was akin to viewing an old slapstick-style movie, or even cartoon. She would constantly appear to be tripping, sliding, slipping, stumbling, accidentally yanking down curtains, and more in the course of a simple chase. But no matter how uncoordinated her actions seemed to be, they always accomplished her task and left her relatively unharmed. 

The gift extended beyond uncoordinated-looking-yet-incredible physical prowess as well. Simply by focusing on a single person, Bungle could force that person to comically fail at any physical task they were attempting to accomplish at the time, regardless of how trivial it was. Including simply taking a step, sitting down in a chair, or tearing a sheet of paper in half. That last one she had demonstrated to great effect on a particularly annoying middle management type who annoyed her one day. He ended up giving himself a fat lip. 

“Uh huh, uh huh,” Bungle agreed with Linesight. “No offense, Miss Iverson, but yeah. We’re definitely supposed to try to catch at least one of those Scions. The boss-lady thinks they might try something stupid because they’re so pissed off right now. You’re a visible target for them to take their anger out on, you know? Even if you do have that disguise thing, which is super-duper cool by the way, they might still figure out who you are. You know, by having an inside person or something. But if they do try something, we’re here.”

“And the Minority kid?” Jolene asked, focusing on the fifth and final person who had been accompanying her as he stood a bit back from the others. “What’s he doing here?” 

“Oh, Whamline?” Stick waved a hand. “He’s here for a ridealong.” A ridealong, as it was called, was simply when one of the younger Star-Touched would accompany an adult team, both for some on-the-job training, and to see how they got along with the team. And, of course, how the team got along with them. It helped everyone involved decide where the young Touched should go once they were of age. “Technically it wasn’t supposed to be until next week, but he has a… thing?” 

“School project,” Whamline replied with a shrug before adding a bit apologetically, “I’ve been getting behind a little bit, and they don’t like that.” With a low whistle, he added, “They really don’t like it.” 

“I remember school,” Bungle noted. “School sucked.” As Linesight nudged her pointedly, she gestured defensively. “What? I’m pretty sure he knows that already. I mean, come on, he already said he was behind.” The continued pointed stare made her protest, “What’d I say?” 

Clearing his throat, Stick spoke up. “Okay, speaking of ridealong, I think we can set a good example by keeping our attention on the task at hand.” With that, he looked at Jolene. “Whamline, Linesight, and I will be with you in our van over here. In the back, please.” 

“In the van?” Jolene started to protest. “But my car’s right there. What about–” She stopped then, as a flash nearby drew her attention to Ephemera. Or at least, where Ephemera had been. Their body had abruptly disintegrated to ashes, blowing away in the wind. A foot or so to the side, their new body had appeared. A body which looked completely identical to Jolene in every way. It was like looking into a mirror.

Ephemera’s power was, on the surface, somewhat similar to that of Baldur, leader of Armistice and the strongest Touched in the world. But where Baldur’s power allowed them to shift their own body through various differently-powered versions of themselves and thus come up with practically any gift they needed, Ephemera was far more limited… at least as far as powers went. With a thought, they were capable of making their current body disintegrate. At which point, they would reappear in a new body, which could be any age, sex, gender, and appearance they wished. Which included creating a new costume/set of clothes, though the materials for that would disintegrate once removed. Rather than having any powers they wanted, they could simply infuse the new body with any set of skills possessed by any person they had spent at least one hour with in the past. They often shifted rapidly throughout any given situation, going from an innocent-looking child who could walk through a crowded street without drawing attention, to a man with computer hacking skills to break into a secure building, to a woman with intense combat training to fight their way through that building. And so on. They could last within a single body for twenty-four hours, but very seldom went longer than an hour or so without changing. As they had to put it, staying in the same body with the same skills for too long made them feel antsy. 

“Okay,” the reporter slowly murmured as her head shook. “No offense, but that’s really creepy.”  

“Sorry,” they replied. “I’ll be taking your car and playing human target.” 

Bunglebotch was already moving to the front passenger’s side. “Yeah, and I get to play bodyguard. Don’t worry, we’ve done this before. You’d be surprised how many fancypants executives get their underoos in a twist and need us to run interference.” 

Before Jolene could (somewhat reluctantly) move to the unmarked van instead of her car, Linesight put a hand up to stop her, staring intently at a pair of glasses in his hand for a moment before nodding in satisfaction. “It’s set.” With that, he handed them to her. 

Realizing what the man had done, Jolene gave a soft gasp. Linesight’s power allowed him to mark up to four different spots, including moving objects. Any person who looked at that spot or object, who wasn’t included within a list of mental exceptions the man set at the time that he marked them, would be hit by a powerful concussive beam for as long as they looked at it. 

“Keep the glasses on until we get to the plaza,” he instructed. “They’re only a last-second defense, but if shit actually goes down, you’ll be glad you have them, believe me. And if worst comes to worst and you lose them…” He held up a coin, intently staring at that as well for a moment before passing it to her. “Put that in your pocket. If you’re in real trouble, wait for an opening, then hold that up and use it to get away.”  

Stick spoke up then. “We don’t expect to run into that much trouble, if any. But in this line of work, it’s better to be overly prepared.” To Whamline, he added, “You should probably make a note of that yourself. Always be prepared.” 

Whamline, for his part, gave a thumbs up. “Be prepared, got it. Like that song from the Lion King.”  

“Sure,” Bunglebotch replied from the side of the car. “Except for basically every word in it, and the fact that it’s sung by a villain. But sure, just like that.” 

“Still a good song,” Whamline murmured with a shrug, humming it to himself a bit as he moved to get in the back of the van. 

Jolene followed suit, with Stick getting in the back with the two of them. Linesight took the driver’s seat, and they waited for Ephemera and Bunglebotch to pull out of the lot ahead of them before following suit a moment later. It would only be about a ten minute drive, and the woman found herself leaning back in the seat to look out the heavily tinted, and no doubt bulletproof, window as they progressed. She had actually driven this same route multiple times, going from the station to Ten Towers for interviews or the like. Despite her outward dismissal of the threat to her life, the woman was a bit nervous. Especially once they left the safety of the news station’s parking garage. And yet, as they drove most of the route with no apparent issues, the anxiety that had started to rise up in her stomach quickly began to fade. In another couple of minutes, they would be at Ten Towers Plaza, and she could thank them for the help before finding someone in charge to insist she be given some space to do her work in for as long as this protection detail was supposed to last. Come to think of it, she needed to call Mrs. Morson, who lived in the apartment next door, and ask her to take poor Jitters the cat over to her place and feed him. He had to be yowling at the door by now, confused about why Jolene hadn’t–

“Eph, on your left!” Linesight’s voice suddenly bellowed a warning to Ephemera in the car ahead. 

Just as Jolene’s gaze snapped that way to look through the front windshield, she saw a heavy pickup truck driving alongside her car swerve sideways in an attempt to ram into it. But Ephemera reacted too quickly, slowing the car and twisting it just out of reach as the truck went skidding past. Immediately, one of the men in the truck twisted to point a gun out the back window, opening fire. Yet he had only fired one or two shots before two pale blue beams of energy lashed out from the side of Jolene’s car, slamming into the gunman and knocking him backward out of the truck, where he rolled and sprawled along the road. 

Linesight, Jolene realized that the Touched ahead of her had marked her car right then, even as another pair of beams lashed out toward a second gunman in the truck. Unfortunately, the vehicle swerved that time, and they missed. 

By that point, Ephemera had stopped the car, while Bunglebotch hopped out. As the truck spun around to come back to them, Bungle focused on him. Abruptly, the driver completely failed at the task of driving, sending the truck into a wild spin that ended with a violent slam into the nearby guard rail. 

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it, as men were already clambering out of the truck. Worse, there was another truck full of them coming up fast from behind the van. They all wore normal clothing, but everyone knew why they were here. Whether they were officially members of the Scions or just wannabes, they were there to impress Pencil and Cup by making an example of the reporter who had exposed their identities over the air.

With the van stopped, Stick yanked the side door open, reaching down to grab a tire iron from the floor before hurling it out ahead of the oncoming truck. In mid-air, the man used his power to make things he touched stay where they were put no matter what force was exerted on them. The tire iron abruptly froze, just as the truck’s front left tire slammed into it. Instantly, the tire was demolished from hitting the immobile object at that speed, and the truck went spinning wildly out of control. 

Hopping out of the van, Stick shouted back to Linesight. “Get Iverson to the Plaza, go!” Then he produced an extendable metal staff from his belt, snapped it out to full length, and ran toward the second truck. 

Without wasting another second, Linesight hit the gas, accelerating around the stopped vehicles while shouting, “You two get down back there. Stay down! Whamline, cover her!” 

Obliging immediately, the Minority hero quickly apologized before pushing Jolene to the floor as he crouched beside her in the narrow space between seats. “Don’t worry, Miss,” he assured her in a tense voice, “we’re almost there.” 

He was right, she knew. They were less than a minute away from the Ten Towers headquarters. In another few seconds, they’d be safe. Part of her was still reeling from the fact that she had actually been attacked. There had been so many false alarms and fake threats over the years that a group of people actually, truly trying to kill her was–

Something hit the truck. Or… or exploded the truck. All she knew was that there was a sudden deafening boom, her vision went blindingly white, and she had the sensation of the van flying. Or falling. Something hit the side of her head, then the back of her head. Spinning. The van was flipping over and over, crashing along the ground. Then everything went dark. 

Seconds, or possibly minutes later, the woman blinked her eyes open blearily. She was lying on the sidewalk somewhere beyond the van, where she had been thrown. The vehicle itself was on its side, the slumped figure of Linesight barely visible through the shattered windshield. Not that she could make out any details. Her vision was still fuzzy, fading in and out. 

She did, however, see the figure walking purposefully toward her. Immediately, she shifted so they would face the glasses Linesight had marked. Unfortunately, only then did the woman realize the glasses were actually gone, having flown off her face at some point in all of that. 

The blurry figure was right in front of her, even as she remembered the coin in her pocket. With fumbling fingers, she yanked it out and held the coin up. 

Nothing happened. No, did it–did it only work if Linesight was conscious? What–

Finally, her eyes focused on the figure who had been standing over her. “Wait… oh.” It was so hard to talk. Something was wrong with her throat, and her stomach had twisted itself into knots. “You… help…” 

“Sorry,” came the flat response, even as the figure raised their hand. A pistol was gripped in it, aimed that way. “But I did this whole thing to impress Cup, and I can’t stop now.” 

With that, the figure pulled the trigger, and Jolene Iverson would never think of anything else again. 

“I mean, come on, can you blame me?” Whamline finished while lowering the gun. “She’s so hot.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-10 (Summus Proelium)

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I was in for a bit of a surprise when I made it to the alley (really it was more of the space between one half-finished office building and an old self-service car wash that barely got any use) where I was supposed to be meeting Amber, Izzy, and the others. Two surprises, actually, named Murphy and Roald. They were both standing next to a dumpster with the others, and were the only two besides Fred not wearing any sort of mask. As I dropped down from the roof to land casually on my feet (thanks to orange soles), both looked up from the ground they had been intently staring at. No one had been talking, aside from Amber and Pack, who were in a whispered conversation until I arrived. 

Focusing on Murphy and Roald first, I stepped that way after catching myself. “Wha–you guys–” 

“Don’t say it,” Murphy interrupted. Her eyes were bloodshot and had dark circles under them, voice sounding hoarse and strained. “Don’t say we don’t need to be here.” She opened her mouth, then stopped as the only thing that escaped her was an almost keening sound for a moment before she caught herself. Visibly swallowing, she tried again. “I need to be here.” 

How was I supposed to argue with that? Instead, I simply asked, “No masks?” 

They both shrugged, Murphy asking, “What difference does it make? Not like they couldn’t figure out who we were if they actually put the slightest effort into it. If we’re gonna work at the pawn shop, they could all just… you know, walk in and shop there.” Belatedly, she added, a bit darkly, “Besides, what’s Pack over there gonna do, tell all her supervillain friends how to track us down and steal our three-dollar lamp and fifty-dollar television?” 

For her part, Pack offered a casual, “I asked Blackjack and he said the market for fifth-hand goods held together with duct tape and prayers dried up last week. So I guess their stuff is safe.” With a glance toward those two, she added a belated, “I mean, fuck. Sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound like–I mean–” 

“Don’t worry about it.” That was Murphy, her voice flat. “I don’t care if you think our shit is shit. I care if you’re gonna help drag the secrets out of these motherfuckers so we can find the guy.” 

“That I can definitely do,” Pack agreed. “Luciano’s a worthless fuckbag. And he definitely doesn’t deserve to ride off into the sunset after that shit he pulled. I’m in for bringing him down.” Looking at me, she added, “And not for betraying people.” 

My head gave a quick nod. “I didn’t think you were. Just… wanted to make sure they were comfortable with this. It’s not just about you. It’s about showing their faces to everyone here.”  

Clearing his throat, Roald spoke up finally. “We couldn’t sit around the apartment anymore. My sister’s taking care of all the big picture stuff, so we just…” He trailed off, though it was obvious that he was going to say something about feeling useless. Instead, he finished with, “… decided it’d be a good thing for you guys to have people who can stand around and play lookout, or go over to the mall itself. And trying to do all that while constantly putting ski masks on whenever you guys come out or we go in was, you know, more trouble than it’s worth.” He offered a weak shrug. “We’re not important enough to disguise.” 

Oh boy was there ever a lot I wanted to say to that. But I wasn’t sure where to start, or what good it would do. Still, I felt like I needed to say something. It was just that everything that came to mind felt wrong, trite, or worse. In the end, all I managed to say was, “Any time you guys need to leave to… to focus on other things, do it. And if you need anything–” 

“I’ll tell you what we need,” Murphy put in. “We need to do something about those fuckers who let–who helped Luciano escape. And we need to find out where they sent him. Both of which we do by getting inside that fucking base. Which isn’t gonna happen by standing around here.” 

Alloy, standing behind the two with her arms folded tightly as though trying to restrain herself from doing… something (probably punching the nearest wall), spoke up. “Yeah, we all wanna contribute. See?” Her head nodded over to several of her marbles as they transformed into a shovel, a drill, and a pick-axe. “Even these guys. We’re raring to go.” 

Fred, who had instinctively put his hands over Wren’s… helmet where her ears would have been every time Murphy cursed, spoke up. “We’ll be heading back to the shop to get to work on the tech stuff. Okay, she’ll get to work on the tech stuff and I’ll hold stuff. But the kid wanted to be a part of this whole… thing.” He waved a hand around as though encompassing all of us. 

Bobbing her head quickly, Wren added, “It’s important! But don’t worry, I already have ideas about how to make some stuff to protect you guys. But seeing you together, it helps me, uhh, visualize, and visualizing is important.” With a heavy sigh, she mumbled, “I wish I could ask Lion for advice.” Even as she said that, however, the girl was already holding up both hands. “I won’t, I won’t, I swear. I won’t talk about it at all. I won’t say a word.” She mimed zipping her lips, running fingers across the front of the helmet. “I know how to keep secrets.” 

“We’re all gonna have to be the biggest secret-keepers in the world,” I pointed out, glancing around at everyone. “If we don’t want the Ministry to figure out what’s going on.” 

“He’s right,” That-A-Way agreed, before gesturing in the direction of the mall. “This isn’t a simple, quick thing. Even with help, it’s gonna take days, even weeks of digging to make this tunnel, considering we have to be so careful about doing it while also doing all the other stuff we have to do. We don’t rush. We don’t screw it up. Cuz we won’t get a second chance if they even get a hint about what we’re doing. As soon as they do, as soon as they even have a reason to start checking around, we’re screwed. Our main advantage here is them being complacent. So, as much as we all want to get to the part where we break through to the base, let’s try not to get in a rush and end up captured and exposed.” 

Pack grunted. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time. But I still don’t want to spend months doing this thing, and the longer we take the more chance of something going wrong anyway. So let’s get busy, huh?”  

“Well that’d be a completely new situation for me,” I muttered without thinking. As the others all looked at me, I found myself flushing under the helmet and mask. “You know, the ‘get busy’ thing. I mean. Because I’m always busy, and I have a to-do list the size of a–never mind.” Waving them off, I quickly changed the motion into urging them to move. “Let’s get insi–wait, Pack?” Before we all went running out into the open, I looked to her. Sure, the alley was only a short distance across what amounted to a dirt road (used for construction crews)  leading to the unfinished motel across from the mall, but still. There was always the slim chance that someone could be nearby, and given how close we were to that Ministry base, we were going to have to be really careful.

She, in turn, took a moment to lean out and look up at the sky before turning back to me. “Coast is clear. Riddles doesn’t see anything.” 

Taking the opportunity, we all ran across the dirt road, trying to be quick and low. It was only about a twenty yard dash to get from the alley to the cover of the construction site, which itself was down in what amounted to a pit lower than the level of the road. Once at the edge, there was a dirt slope we kind of half-slid down (aside from Alloy, who rode one of her marbles in board-form) about fifteen feet to the ground level. We could’ve followed the road around and into the lot, but that would have taken us into plain view of the nearby busy street, which would’ve defeated the purpose of being stealthy right then. 

Once we were all down and hidden from the back by the raised dirt, and from the front by the half-finished building itself, I spoke up. “Okay so most of the time when we come out here, we’ll make sure it’s after dark.” 

Way gave a quick nod, before focusing on me as she put in, “And never come out here alone, anybody. Sure, we all wanna get this done as soon as we can, but digging by yourself isn’t a good idea. You need at least one lookout.” 

Alloy raised a hand. “Hey, uhh, sorta speaking of lookout, how exactly are we gonna make sure no one finds this tunnel in the days or weeks it’s gonna take to dig far enough? I mean, sure, the construction isn’t active right now, but can we count on that lasting? And besides, there could be inspections, or just people who come up and screw around. If any of them find a big long tunnel leading toward the mall, they might, you know, say something.” 

“We’ll hide it,” I immediately answered. “We’re not gonna, like, start the tunnel right in the middle of the main office or whatever. We’ll find an out-of-the-way room, dig a hole down, and then cover it up whenever we’re done. We need to dig down first anyway to make sure we’re close to the level of the secret base itself. So we go down, widen it out a bit so we have some space to work with, then start tunneling over. And whenever we’re not digging, we’ll make sure it’s hidden.” 

By that point, we found our way to the building itself. The place was in varying stages of completion, with the main office and the nearest rooms to it being basically done except for paint and moving furniture in, while some of the rooms further away were little more than framework. We chose one of the near-completed rooms so we would be as hidden as possible. There was a wooden pallet just outside, and we looked around before finding a handful of heavy bags of cement mix. And Roald found a ratty old rug. That seemed like as good as anything for hiding the hole. Whenever we weren’t digging, we would put the rug over it, pull the pallet over top of that, then put the cement bags on top of the pallet. As long as we just did all that in a corner, it would hopefully stop anyone from finding our hole. At least accidentally. Assuming we could get this done before construction started again. If we didn’t, that was a whole new bag of worms. 

But we’d deal with that when and if the time came. For now, we had a plan. After finding the spot we wanted to start in, and gathering the stuff to cover the hole when it was made, we all met up once more in that room. 

Wren, hovering up off the floor on her dragonfly wings, was already cheerfully insisting, “This place is great! It’s perfect, you can dig down and over, you can see if anyone’s coming, but you’re out of the way.” 

“She’s right, you can see the main road from here,” Way was saying, as she stood over by a window (there was no glass in it) and pointed. “Right down that way is where the dirt road leading up here starts, so you should be able to see if any cars start heading this way.” 

“And over there,” Pack put in from the doorway, “You can see clear over the whole site. That way goes to the slope we came down, and that way is… pretty wide open.” She glanced to Murphy and Roald. “If one of you, or whoever’s standing guard, sits here by the door and the other sits over there by the charming and lovely That-A-Way’s window, you should be able to give us a heads-up if anyone heads this direction.” 

“Sure, whatever,” Murphy replied simply, glancing away from everyone as she muttered, “As long as we contribute. Standing guard, digging holes, kicking mother–” She caught herself, eyes shifting toward Wren before amending, “Kicking people who deserve it in the junk. Whatever.” 

“You’ll help,” I agreed. “You all will. You…” Hesitating, I swallowed, completely overwhelmed as I glanced around for a moment to take all this in. “Thanks, guys. I didn’t expect to have all this help when I came up with the plan before. It’s–you’re…thanks.” Yeah, it felt awkward. I had no idea how to say what I was feeling right then. Hell, I didn’t even know how to describe what I was feeling. Seeing these guys, realizing they were actually… helping, that they all wanted to do something about the Ministry (even if it was for varying reasons), it was big. It meant more than I could say. 

Thankfully, Izzy seemed to realize that I was floundering, and spoke up. “We should see how well the digging thing works. And the dirt plan.” 

“Dirt plan?” Roald echoed before giving a quick double-take. “Wait, what are you gonna do with all the dirt? I mean, you’re digging a tunnel all the way to the mall, that’s… a lot of dirt.” 

“Thankfully,” Amber replied, “we actually do have a plan for that part, like Raindrop said. We’ll put the dirt in buckets, then she’ll use water to make them weightless and float them up out of the hole to dump in one of the dirt piles that’s already out there from the construction work. Which means she’ll be focused on that, while Paintball has to be down there to do the whole pink thing.” 

“I can do both,” Alloy put in. “Whatever’s helpful. My little friends can be shovels, axes, buckets to carry dirt, and probably more things I can’t think of right now. And they can dig without anyone holding them.” 

My head was bobbing a bit. “I think the best thing for your friends to do, besides giving us a break on the digging sometimes, is to turn into scoops that can pull the dirt out of the way and carry it over to the buckets. And possibly even be buckets themselves. I mean, you and Raindrop can work out the specifics with each other. I’m pretty sure you can both carry out dirt and rocks faster than we can dig. We’ll figure out a system as we go.” 

“Yeah, and speaking of breaks and a system,” Pack noted, “we can trade off and on.” She glanced over to Murphy and Roald. “Me and Rose, we’ll switch back and forth with you minions between standing watch and doing the digging part. It’ll go faster that way. One pair gets tired of digging, the other pair switches in. If you think you’re good for that.” 

“I’m good for whatever helps find Luciano,” Murphy informed her. “I’ll dig twenty tunnels if that’s what it takes. Whatever. Let’s just get this show on the road.” 

Clearing his throat, Fred spoke up. “Yeah, I think that’s our cue. We’ll head back to the shop so the kid can get to work with her designs or whatever.”

Those two headed off, quickly followed by Pack, who went to get the van with the supplies she had picked up, and Amber, who went to get the supplies that she and Izzy had bought. Which left me standing in the half-finished motel room with Alloy, Raindrop, Murphy, and Roald. The four of us just looked at each other in silence for a moment, before I cleared my throat and moved over to the spot we had picked out for the hole. “Okay, so let’s see how this works. Here.” Extending my hand, I painted a pink circle onto the floor, about three feet wide. Then I stepped back and gestured for Alloy to go ahead. 

She, in turn, waved a couple of her marbles that way. They transformed into a pair of shovels, then shoved their way down into the pink floor. The effect of my paint extended down about ten inches, so they were able to easily pull up big pieces of the floor and some of the dirt beneath, all of it like… thick foam or playdough. Very easy to rip away in solid chunks. Well, solid chunks for about five more seconds, before it turned back into a mix of dirt and broken pieces of cement. 

“How often do you think you can do that before you have to take a break to recharge?” Raindrop asked, stepping over to look at the hole. “For the actual tunnel, I mean.” 

Without thinking about it, I crouched down to run my hand over the dirt. “If I’m only doing that, and say the tunnel is… let’s say six feet high and four feet wide… I’ll probably need to take about sixty seconds to refill around every… maybe fourth time? Depends on how quick we are about digging into it and pulling the dirt out of the way. Probably get more efficient as we go. You know, work out a rhythm. Maybe we can get to the point of timing our speed so I don’t have to actually stop completely.”

Roald spoke up, his voice curious. “How do you know how much paint you have?” 

“I–” My mouth opened, before I stopped, head tilting. “I didn’t used to. It was more of a whole, ‘shit I’ve used a lot of paint recently, I’m about to run out.’ But now I can just… sort of sense it a bit? I know when I’m low.  I guess I’ve just gotten better at estimating after using it for awhile?” 

“Powers get better as you use them,” Raindrop informed us. “Sometimes that comes as ‘make them stronger’ and sometimes it’s things like knowing how much paint you have. When I started, I couldn’t umm, I couldn’t summon water. I mean, I could pull it and move it and stuff, but I couldn’t summon it from somewhere else.”

“Is that what you do?” That was Alloy. “I always wondered why you weren’t like, solving people’s water problems all over the place. You don’t make it out of nothing?” 

Raindrop shook her head. “Nuh uh. It’s pulled from other water sources. We did a test awhile back. The water I… ‘make’ gets pulled from places like one of the lakes or rivers around here. Whichever one is closest. It’s like… it’s like I can sense water in the air, you know? Humidity, I guess. And I can umm… feel all the way through that humidity to big sources of water, and then I just… think about it and put the big sources of water where the humidity right in front of me is.” Frowning, she sighed. “I guess that doesn’t make sense. But I can’t think of a better way to explain it.”

“You did just fine,” I assured her. “I mean, it makes about as much sense as a lot of powers do. They get pretty weird. Teleporting water to yourself through the connection of humidity in the air is about as good of an explanation as any.” 

By that point, Roald spoke up from the window where he had been idly watching. “They’re coming.” 

He was right. A couple minutes later, both Pack’s van and a truck that Way had apparently borrowed from someone were parked close to the room, the backs opened up so we could all carry the tools, lights, chains, and other supplies inside. 

“Okay, I think we should focus on digging down and widening it out at the bottom enough to stick all this stuff down there,” I murmured. “You know, so we don’t just have all this sitting here in plain sight. I don’t think anyone will come through the area tonight, but just in case.” 

So, we got started on that. And as we did, I took another look out through the window. The mall was visible in the distance. From here, it looked like way too much distance. It was definitely too far for me to do this by myself. I never would’ve gotten anywhere near the place. 

But I wasn’t by myself. Not anymore. I had people I could talk to, people who knew varying amounts of the truth. I had Amber and Izzy, who knew all of it. And I had Pack, Murphy, Roald, Alloy, even Wren and Fred. I had all of them here to help. 

I had… friends. 

I had a team.

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Kith And Kin 20-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The new Summus Proelium non-canon, continuing the story of Flea and Cassidy running into each other during the events of Project Owl and then teaming up with Paige, can be found and read by EVERYONE right here

We didn’t go immediately, of course. There were still a few things that needed to be done. First of all, we needed shovels, pick-axes, that sort of thing. Sure, once we got closer to the base itself, we were going to have to be a lot more careful and quiet (likely using my black paint as much as possible), but at least early on, we could use ordinary tools to move faster. Wren initially said she was going to look into putting together some sort of quiet debris mover/digging device, but I told her that she should focus on ways to protect everyone once we eventually got through to the base, so we didn’t have to use our powers quite as much. Protective equipment, especially for those who didn’t have any powers like Murphy and Roald, was the priority. For the moment, we could just dig the old-fashioned way. Well, as ‘old-fashioned’ as it could get while I was literally using pink paint to make the dirt and rocks easy to move. 

Yeah, I was trying to psych myself up. This was going to be long, hard work. Even I knew that much, inexperienced as I was. It was going to take us a long time to dig a tunnel all the way through to the mall. But it was the best plan we had. There wasn’t really a better option, aside from the crazy thought I’d had about finding a way to bribe or trick Undermine into digging the tunnel for us. But somehow, I didn’t think that would work out very well. 

So, Fred and Pack were both going to get tools. Separately, that was. They both had their own ideas about where to get the stuff we needed. Alloy ended up going with Fred to help carry stuff. Meanwhile, Amber and Izzy were going to get other supplies. Lights so we could see what we were doing down there, chains to hang them off of through the tunnel once it got going, a generator for those lights, and anything else they could think of. Not all of it was super necessary right at this second, given how long it was going to take to actually get far enough into the tunnel for it to be relevant, but still. Better to have it. 

Meanwhile, I went upstairs to see Paige and Raige. After everything else that had happened, I still needed to get answers from them about what was going on with her sister. Their sister? I wasn’t sure. The point was, I needed to find out more about how to deal with the Irelyn situation.

So, I grabbed the control box thing, sending the word ‘aardvark’ as Raige had requested. Then I sat back and waited for a few minutes, gazing out the nearby window while thinking about everything that was going on. Fortunately, I didn’t have to be left to my own thoughts for very long before Paige’s voice abruptly spoke up. “Paintball?” 

Quickly, I shoved everything else out of my mind and turned that way. “Paige?”

Just as before, her eyes were still closed. She was just lying there, completely motionless on the couch aside from moving her mouth to speak. “Yeah,” she replied flatly. “It’s me. And her. Both of us.” 

Immediately, her mouth moved again, and I knew it was Raige this time. “We both want to know what’s going on. Had any more encounters with the Banners’ real daughter?”

Reflexively, I started to insist that Paige was their real daughter too if they had adopted her. Then I rethought. I had no idea what sort of relationship they’d had. They’d literally bought her, so maybe I shouldn’t insist that she was their daughter. Maybe I should just leave it alone for now. Instead, I replied, “No, I haven’t seen her since that one time. But I did hear at…” Pausing, I looked around a bit to make sure we were still alone, then sat next to her (them) and lowered my voice. “I heard she’s been at the school asking about you. Trying to find out if anyone there knows where you or your parents went. I’m pretty sure she’s doing the same at their offices or whatever. She’s talking to anyone who might know anything.” Swallowing, I quietly murmured, “She’s not just going to let this go.” 

There was no response from either of them for a few seconds. But I could see her mouth open and shut a couple times without any sound, as though she was repeatedly starting to say something before stopping. Finally, Paige very hesitantly spoke with a somewhat weak, “But I’m not her sister. I never was. Everything she did was just playing a role, like they did. She came around once in awhile and took me to dinner or a show, but it didn’t really mean anything.” 

Biting my lip, I offered a hesitant, “Maybe it meant more to her than you thought?” 

“No,” came the quick response, almost too quick. Like she was telling herself the same thing and had to quickly quash it before her hopes rose too much. “No, she’s probably just looking for her parents. That’s… the important thing, finding out where her parents are.” 

Before I could even say anything to that, she spoke again. Or rather, her voice spoke again. It was Raige this time. “That’s bullshit and you know it. They disowned her, threw her out because she wouldn’t be their obedient little puppet, the thing they were literally gonna turn us into. Yeah, she might try to find out what happened to them, cuz that’s just the sort of person she is. But going to the school, asking people like… Paintball over there about it? That’s for you. She’s looking for you, cuz she like… gives a flying fuck about you or something.” 

“I think she’s right,” I put in. “Seriously, Paige, that was the impression I got. She wants to find you because she’s worried that something bad happened. I mean, I think she’s worried about her parents, of course, at least somewhat. But it’s you too. Or you mainly. I dunno. The point is, she’s not gonna let it go. She’s going to keep looking and asking around. And even if she doesn’t find out the truth, if she keeps pushing…” 

“She might get into something dangerous,” Paige finished for me, voice grim. “She can–” There was a pause as she considered her next words. “She can take care of herself, but she doesn’t know what she’s walking into. She could turn over the wrong stone and find a snake under it.” 

Hesitating, I quietly asked, “What do you want me to do?” God, this whole situation was so weird. I was trying to help Paige Banners, who was really one of my oldest friends, after having spent years as the girl who treated me like shit because her Tech-Touched father forced her to in a long-term plan to get himself out of Breakwater and take down my parents’ supervillain organi–yeah. If I sat there and thought about it for too long, my head was going to explode. 

Paige was already answering. “I don’t know. I don’t–we have to make her slow down and…” She paused. “I have to talk to her. I have to call her, video chat, something she can look at and hear me and let me… tell her… something.” 

“What?” Raige put in. “You really think I’m just going to hand over control of the body so you can make a video call and then shove me down into a dark pit? The second I hand you that much control, you’ll make me disappear.” 

“No, I won’t,” Paige insisted. Which, yeah, it was really weird to sit here and watch what appeared from the outside to be a girl literally arguing with herself. If I didn’t actually know better already, I might have thought she was doing a skit or something. “I’m–you don’t want anything bad to happen to Irelyn either. I know you don’t. We–we both know how it could go, what sort of trouble she could get into. She–we have to stop her.” 

“Yeah, we. We have to stop her,” came the response immediately. 

“But we can’t both control the body at the same time. We can barely manage this much,” Paige insisted. “We have to let one of us talk to her. Otherwise we’re going to screw something up and she’ll notice something’s wrong. Which is just going to make things worse.” 

They were both silent for a few seconds then. It felt like I should say something, but I had no idea what. This felt like something they were going to have to work out with each other while I just sat there and listened. It made the whole thing pretty awkward. 

Finally, Paige spoke. “Raige, listen. I’m saying this in front of Paintball so… he hears it too. I am not going to abandon you. I’m not going to shove you away. I’m not going to make you disappear. Let me talk to Irelyn and try to calm her down. Then I’ll let go of the body until they bring us a second one for you. I swear to you. I swear on…” There was a brief pause before, “I swear on Anthony. I swear on our memories of Anthony, I will not try to get rid of you and I will not shove you away. Let me help Irelyn so she doesn’t get in trouble, please. Then we can go back to this.” 

Her words were met with silence, while I felt a twisting in my stomach when Anthony’s name was brought up. I still didn’t actually have my memories of him, but that didn’t stop my emotions entirely just based on what I did know. Which… really raised the question of how bad this would be if I ever did get my memories of him back fully. Hell, just seeing his house–or rather, a virtual replica of it, had hit me really hard back when we went into Paige’s computer. So if I ever got my actual memories back, it was… it wasn’t going to be fun. And yet, I wanted them. They were my memories. I knew it was going to hurt, that it was going to suck. I knew it would be incredibly painful. But he was my friend. I wanted… I wanted to remember him. I wanted the pain. Because it was mine. Was that selfish? Was it dumb? Was it stupid to want the pain of losing my best friend back just because it was mine

Finally, I was drawn out of my own thoughts when Raige spoke up. “Okay, fine. I’ll give you the time to talk to her. But don’t make me regret it. I seem to recall the last person I trusted and tried to help immediately tried to erase me.” Her voice was hard, but I could hear a bit of vulnerability behind it too. She really had been loyal to their father. She thought he cared about her because she was… because she was doing what he wanted. She had been all-in on his side, and he destroyed that. No wonder she was hesitant to actually trust anyone else right now, no matter what we said.

Paige spoke then. “It’s a deal. But we need to come up with a good excuse that will make her back off until we can… until we get you a body.” Something in the way she paused there made me think she had been about to suggest that they meet her in person, but she stopped. Whether that was because she didn’t believe the other girl would go for that after how reluctant she was to even allow a few minutes for a video call, or because she was afraid of meeting Irelyn face-to-face like that, I wasn’t sure. Maybe a bit of both. 

Realizing they were waiting for me to say something on the whole ‘how to explain things to Irelyn’ front, I coughed. “Uhh, I’m not sure. You guys know her better than I do. Wait, would it be better to try to tell her that you’re completely okay and just busy with something, or to send her on a wild goose chase for a few days?” 

There was a brief pause before Paige asked, “What sort of wild goose chase?” 

Oh boy. Wincing, I offered a helpless shrug before remembering that her eyes were closed. They couldn’t see me. So, I spoke up. “I don’t know. Just something that can take her out of the city for a few days so she isn’t poking the hornets’ nest too much. You know, convince her to go look somewhere else where she won’t get in trouble. Though…” I sighed. “It’s gonna take longer than a few days to actually get into that base so we can find your new body. And I’m pretty sure there’s nothing we could say that would send her somewhere for a couple weeks.” 

“No,” Raige put in. “But maybe we can convince her that Paige is somewhere else for those couple weeks, looking into something else. Come on, the whole point is that we want her to stop digging around here, right? If she thinks Paige is hundreds or thousands of miles away, then she’s got no reason to keep poking around Detroit.” 

“Keep it vague,” Paige added thoughtfully. “Maybe give her a reason to start trying to figure out exactly where I am, so she puts all her energy into that instead of pushing over potential snake-rocks here. But it has to be enough of a push to make her focus on it, without being an obvious trick. Irelyn isn’t stupid. And…” There was another pause before she admitted somewhat more quietly, “And I don’t want to lie to her too much. But it’s too dangerous to let her keep digging around here. Between our father and your parents, it’s… we have to distract her.” 

“Fair enough,” I agreed. “But what exactly do we say to give her that distraction? What’s gonna make her think you’re somewhere else but not know exactly where? It has to be something pretty convincing, you know?”

None of us had an immediate answer to that. We sat there in silence, trying to think of the exact right thing. If we screwed this up, we’d just be putting Irelyn in even more danger. And while I was sure she was plenty capable for who she was, this was the Touched sort of danger. Not something she was exactly prepared for. 

Raige started to speak up slowly, obviously still considering. “What if we tell her that you think her parents got into something dangerous. They disappeared, but you think you can find them.” 

“And,” Paige took over (how I could tell the difference between them that easily when it was the same mouth speaking, I wasn’t sure), “we promise to keep checking in, but refuse to tell her exactly where we are because it’s too dangerous. We could set up a whole thing of… a whole story of trying to find our–no. No, that’s lying to her. It’s lying too much.” 

“Do we have a choice?” Raige insisted. “I mean, it’s a lie to stop her from getting herself between the rock of Daddy dearest and the hard place of the Ministry. Neither of them would hesitate to get rid of her if she was a problem, and you know it. If she keeps poking around like she is, she’s going to say the wrong thing to the wrong person and they’ll put a stop to it. Either permanently, or by fucking with her memories. They could go as far as making her forget about any feelings she might have for you enti–”

Abruptly, the mouth stopped moving, contorting slightly as Paige yanked control back to interrupt. “No, we won’t let that happen. Okay. We can lie to her, as long as it keeps her out of their crosshairs. Just… let me think of the best thing to say. I mean, let… us think.” 

So, the three of us sat there for a while longer, batting ideas back and forth as we planned out exactly what to say. Eventually, I went downstairs and asked Wren if she still had one of those untraceable phones, like the one Fred had sold to Ashton. When I explained the general idea of why we needed it, she went digging in a box and found an upgraded version. Apparently this one was supposed to make it look like your call was coming from anywhere you wanted. Something about moving the signal or whatever. The point was, it would look completely convincing if Irelyn tried to have it traced. 

Thanking the girl, I went back upstairs and we talked a little bit more about exactly what would be said. Then it was time. We couldn’t delay any longer. Any minute now, Irelyn might ask the wrong question to the wrong person and see the wrong reaction. It could be bad. 

Instead of moving immediately when I held out the phone, however, Paige was silent and still. Belatedly, I realized she and Raige were having their own private conversation, one that I wasn’t privy to. That was fair. I had felt a bit like an eavesdropper earlier. So, I just sat there and waited. They had their own issues to work through. Obviously, Raige still wasn’t eager to let go of the death grip she had on stopping Paige from controlling the body. Not even for a few minutes. She had been burned so hard by their father that even a little bit of trust was almost impossible now. She was still afraid that Paige was going to use that control to shove her into a hole for good. And could I really blame her for having those worries after everything Paige had–no. No, that wasn’t her. She had no choice. Paige had only acted that way toward me because of her father. I had to keep telling myself that. And yet, that by itself proved my point. After Raige had been burned so hard by the man she had clearly trusted the most, no wonder she was hesitant to trust the girl she had literally been sent to replace. Yeah, that was a whole thing. 

Finally, Paige’s eyes opened. She met my gaze while slowly pushing herself into a sitting position. “We’re ready.” 

Handing over the phone, I murmured, “Good luck.” Then I stood back and watched. 

Paige held the phone in one hand, taking a breath before letting it out as she brushed her finger over the screen a couple times to select where she wanted the call to appear to be coming from. Florida, in this case. Then she dialed the number for the video call as I made sure that neither I, nor any windows could be seen from the camera’s point of view. It would have been pretty bad to go through all of this trouble of pretending Paige was somewhere else, only to have her sitting right in front of a window showing the Detroit skyline. 

The phone rang a couple times before I heard Irelyn’s voice answer. “Hey, what–Paige!” She sounded completely shocked. Which was fair. 

“Hey, Irelyn,” Paige replied tiredly. “Heard you’ve been looking for us. I mean, your parents.” 

“And you. I–where are you? Paige, what’s going on?” the woman demanded. “Are you okay? What–” 

“I’m fine. I mean, I…” There was a brief pause before Paige pushed on. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before, but there’s something going on. Your parents were… they were looking into something in one of your father’s businesses somewhere in–” Cutting herself off with a very convincing look of nervousness, she shook her head. “I can’t–I don’t want to–” 

“Paige, you know who I am. You know what I do,” Irelyn put in. “If you’re in some sort of trouble, I can help. I mean, I’m–” 

“It’s okay!” the other girl blurted quickly. “I mean, it’s not–you should focus on what you’re doing. I don’t know what’s going on with your parents, but I’m pretty sure they got in over their heads.” 

“Your parents too, Paige,” Irelyn insisted. “And what do you mean, in over their heads? What business were they looking into? Where are you? Where are they?” 

“I’m sorry, I–I can’t say anything else,” Paige informed her, stumbling a bit over the words. “I’ll call you later, I promise. Just… I’ll find your parents, okay? I’ll find out what happened and call you.” 

With that, she disconnected the call and sat back with a heavy sigh. It wasn’t much at all, but then, we had decided that not saying very much was the right way to go. Now if Irelyn traced that call, she’d get a result of somewhere in Florida. Which, quite intentionally, was nowhere near Detroit. So, with any luck, she would start poking around there instead of here. 

“Are you okay?” I finally managed to ask after a few moments of silence. 

Paige, in answer, slowly laid back on the couch. Her hand moved toward mine, and I accepted it. Squeezing firmly, she looked to me. “Find Raige a body, please. And be careful, okay?” 

“We will,” I promised, returning the squeeze before straightening up once more. “We’ll get you both in your own bodies.” 

With that, I said goodbye to both of them, released her hand, and turned to walk out of the room. On the way, my phone buzzed. It was Amber, who spoke as soon as I answered. “We’ve got the stuff on our end, how’s it going over there?” 

Glancing back toward Paige’s motionless form, I replied, “We’re good. And…” Checking the texts on my phone, I confirmed, “The others have their stuff. So I guess I’ll meet you guys over by the mall. 

“Time to start digging.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Kith And Kin 20-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Needless to say, the next day at school was awkward. I kept wanting to talk to Tomas, but had no idea how to start with all that. I needed to ask about Maki, clearly. Tomas was my best chance to actually find out what was going on with that situation, yet the whole thing was just… so complicated. Seriously, even if Tomas had no connection to the Ministry and didn’t know anything about them, which I was seriously doubting, how was I supposed to press him for information about his new boyfriend without looking like I was jealous or something? 

And yes, being mistaken as being jealous was basically at the bottom of the list of priorities, but still. I couldn’t just start pressing Tomas for answers without likely looking at least somewhat suspicious. I had to be careful and delicate about the whole thing. Which wasn’t helped by the fact that every time I started to think about going up to the boy and talking to him, a lump formed in my throat and I felt like I was going to throw up. Not really because of the new boyfriend thing, but because of my increasing thoughts that he was somehow involved in the Ministry stuff. It sucked, but I couldn’t make my brain shut up with its paranoia that Tomas had only been dating me to keep an eye on me or something. Just the thought that any part of our relationship had been a product of my parents’ meddling was awful. 

To that end, it wasn’t until I was walking out of school at the end of the day and I saw him ahead of me that I finally actually did something. Taking a deep breath, I picked up the pace to move alongside the boy. He glanced my way and smiled, making my heart clench in on itself. “Hey there, Cassie,” Tomas greeted me with a completely unfair wink. “Fancy meeting you here.” 

Snorting, I replied, “Yeah, I know, it’s weird, huh?” It wasn’t the best segue, but I continued with, “And let me guess, you’re running off to spend time with your mysterious new boyfriend?” 

The words made Tomas almost double over, snorting with amusement. “Dude, Maki is a lot of things, but mysterious? Nah, he’s basically an open book.” Glancing my way once more, he slyly added, “But then, you probably know a lot about him, after getting ice cream over there.” 

“You know about that?!” I blurted unthinkingly, before flushing deeply. “I mean, of course you do. Dad’s kinda–and he was–and we were–” My blush was even worse. “I swear I didn’t know who he was when Dad said we should go there. I wasn’t trying to check up on your–I mean I wasn’t–I mean–” 

Snickering at my reaction, Tomas patted my back. “Easy, easy there. I know, but it was worth seeing your expression. God, Cass, at some point you’re gonna have to get more of a poker face. You gotta figure out how to hide things a little better, you know?” 

The fact that I managed to keep a mostly straight face in response to that proved him wrong. Well, not exactly a straight face. I covered my reaction by exaggeratedly rolling my eyes and giving him a goofy expression. Was it cheating to deliberately have such an over-the-top reaction that there was no way to pick out the subtleties of it? Whatever, it was enough to hide how I really felt, and that was what mattered. “Yeah,” I managed, “I’ll get right on that. Maybe my dad can show me how he bluffs people at work.” Despite everything, I made sure to keep an eye on the boy’s expression when I mentioned my father’s work. But either he didn’t know anything, or he was really good at the poker face thing he had just been talking about. Whatever it was, he didn’t give any reaction that I could read. 

“Anyway, Maki’s cool,” he went on with a shrug. “We really should hang out sometime when he’s not at work. I think you’d like him.” His voice softened a little as he rubbed the back of his neck a bit awkwardly. “But, you know, if that’s too–I mean…” 

“Sounds good,” I made myself say. No matter how I felt about it, having this open invitation to talk directly to the boy again and possibly find out more about what was going on with his (or her/their) situation with the Ministry was too important to pass up. My family would have no reason to wonder why I was spending time with Maki if it came through Tomas. “We’ll hang out sometime. I’ll umm… yeah, just lemme know. I’ve got stuff to do today, so I suppose you’re free to spend time with your boyfriend by yourself.” With those teasing words, I nudged his shoulder. By that point, we had reached the front of the school and I saw Jefferson there with the car. “Text me about it!” 

Tomas agreed casually, as I started heading off. Before I could reach Jefferson, however, someone else fell into step beside me. It was that new girl, Dani. She was already speaking casually. “Heard you like skating. Actually, I heard you’re pretty good at it.”  

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” My head bobbed quickly. “I guess. I do it enough, anyway. Why?” 

She offered me a shrug. “Oh, you know, I’m just trying to put something together. A bunch of us are hanging out at that skatepark on Grand River sometime this weekend. Still working out the details. But somebody said if I want to get a lot of people there, you’re the one to talk to.” 

That made me stop and blink at her. “People don’t care where I go,” I replied with confusion. “Why would me being there have anything to do with how many people show up?” 

Dani shrugged. “I dunno, babe. I think it has something to do with people wanting to see what crazy stunts they can get you to do or something. Whatever, the point is, it could be pretty cool. I’m ahh, not a bad skater myself. Be kinda fun to see what Miss Rich Girl can really do.” 

Snorting despite myself, I replied, “Yeah, maybe. Give me a text whenever you figure out when it’s actually supposed to be, and I’ll see what’s going on.” I gave her the number of my regular phone, before waving as I headed off to join Jefferson at the car. 

“Was that something important?” he asked once I got in the back. 

“Just an invitation to hang out sometime, I guess,” I replied with a shrug, leaning back in the seat. “Sorry for taking a couple minutes, I should’ve told her I’d talk later.” 

There was a brief moment of silence from the front seat, before Jefferson turned a bit to face me. He wasn’t an especially tall man. Actually, everything about him was unassuming. He had a very plain, pale face, thin glasses, and average cut dark blond hair. He didn’t stand out in a crowd. Hell, he barely stood out all by himself. 

“Miss Evans,” he began after that brief pause, “I am aware of my reputation for preferring punctuality. It is one I encourage. But I do not fault you a moment after school to speak with your peers. Time is allotted for that before we pick up Miss Amor. There is a marked difference between lagging behind in the morning and being late for school than there is in taking a few minutes to speak with your… friends when classes are over. Do not… feel that you must apologize for that. It is never my intention to force you to abandon all social niceties to placate my desire for haste.” 

That was all he said. And honestly, it might have been the most words I’d heard him say in a single go the entire time I’d known him. I was still sitting there in silent surprise as he turned back around and began to pull the car away from the curb. I had no idea what to say to that. Finally, I managed a somewhat weak and awkward, “Thanks.” 

From there, we picked up Izzy and headed home. It had been tempting to simply say that we didn’t need a ride so I could go straight to working on that whole tunnel thing finally, but I didn’t want to give my parents any reason whatsoever to think anything was up. They had just gotten home the day before, so I was going to play things as cool as possible. We would go home, make an appearance for my mother, and then make our exit with an excuse about hanging out somewhere. That was the best way to handle this, no matter how much I just wanted to jump into it. 

On the way, I talked to Izzy about completely innocuous things. Mostly about how her school stuff was going. Apparently, she was settling into classes pretty well. She said that she’d already made some friends there, which didn’t really surprise me considering how cool she was. It was just too bad her mother didn’t give her the chance to show her that. 

With effort, I pushed that thought out of my head and focused on keeping things casual. Even disregarding the whole secrecy thing, pretty much the last thing Izzy needed was me bringing up her mother right then. Or any time, really.

Soon, we made it home, and the two of us were met at the front door by my mother. She’d had snacks prepared by the kitchen and wanted to sit with us out in one of the gardens. There, she talked to both of us about how our days went, and her own as well. At least, as much as she was actually willing to tell us. Obviously, she didn’t get into any of the Ministry stuff. Though I had to admit, that would have been a good way of completely shocking me into giving something away if she ever wanted to. As far as Tomas’s earlier mention of poker faces went, I definitely wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face through my mother just randomly starting to talk about this stuff. 

Actually, that was something to think about. At some point, my parents probably were going to want to start telling me about this stuff. I wasn’t sure when, but it would happen. And what was I going to do when they did? How was I going to react? How was I going to pretend that I didn’t know what they were talking about? How much could I think about any of that without making my reaction seem rehearsed? Would it be a long time from now? God, would it be soon? How much of the whole Paintball situation would have changed by then? 

Of course, I had to force myself to focus mainly on actually carrying on a real conversation so my mother didn’t get suspicious. Thankfully, she was a busy woman and couldn’t sit with us for too long. We were only out there for about twenty minutes or so before she got a call and had to excuse herself. Which left Izzy and me sitting together out at the table, surrounded by gorgeous and exotic flowers, with a small fountain burbling away next to us. 

Clearing my throat, I glanced to her. Just in case Mom had anything nearby that might overhear us, I simply said, “Hey, you wanna go hang out at the mall?” 

“Sure,” she replied easily, pushing herself up. “We could probably get food there too, huh?” 

Making a show of snickering, again just in case, I nodded. “Yeah, we can do that. Come on.” I was already pulling my phone from my pocket to text the kitchen staff so they’d know not to worry about dinner for the two of us, then I ordered an Uber. 

Soon, we were close to the alley that led to Wren’s shop. The two of us found an isolated area to change into our costumes out of sight, and then quickly made our way to the store itself. It was really Izzy’s first time there, but we had both agreed that the time had come to stop tiptoeing around this whole thing. I’d called ahead to make sure Wren was okay with me bringing Raindrop. Given the loud squeal of excitement that came through the phone, I was assuming she was fine with it. 

Someone was waiting for us by the back door as we approached. Seeing her, I immediately reflexively took a step back, only to belatedly realize it was Alloy. She wore a new set of armor made out of her black and purple marbles. This one had a purple base body-suit-like structure that ran from her toes all the way up over her head in a ski-mask sort of thing. It was fairly thin. Meanwhile, the black marble had turned into armored plating around her chest, knees, hands, and across her face. 

“Wha–oh, jeeze, hey, warn me next time you’re dressed up in something new,” I managed after that initial reaction. Beside me, Raindrop had tensed up as well, only to turn slightly to blink at me. 

Alloy, for her part, made a chastised sound and stammered, “Ahh, sorry. Sorry, I forgot I wasn’t–I mean I was–I mean… sorry.” Seeing the other girl with me, she quickly stepped forward and extended her hand. “Hi again! I mean, hey. Nice to see you without the, you know, whole life and death Scion situation going on.” Belatedly, she seemed to realize just how different she looked in her new armor and stammered a quick, “Oh, it’s me! It’s Peeeaaaaayntball’s assistant. Partner. Friend. Sidekick. Alloy. I’m still Alloy, just a new costume. I like to switch it up.” In a quieter voice, she half-hissed, “I have your action figure.” 

It was clearly Raindrop’s turn to blush, though it was hidden behind her reflective mask. “Uh, hi.” She accepted the other girl’s hand and shook it somewhat awkwardly, as if uncertain how to go about this whole thing in meeting another Touched who was also apparently a super-fan. “I’m umm, uh, glad you’re okay.” 

Shaking my head at the two of them, I looked to Alloy and quietly asked, “How’s Hobbes doing?” 

She gave a heavy sigh and offered a weak shrug. “She’s still with Calvin and his family. They’re taking care of funeral arrangements and… and all that. Or trying to. Do you have any idea how expensive something like that is if you don’t want them to just dig a hole in the woods somewhere and drop them in? Seriously, it’s like ten thousand dollars. They’re setting up a crowdfunding thing, but you know, who really cares enough about him to help with that? People don’t even know him. All they know is–” She stopped, clenching her fists. From behind her, the other marbles rose up into view, contorting themselves into boxing gloves as though they wanted to hit something too. “Never mind. People suck. It all sucks. There’s some other fundraising going on and they’ll get part of it, I just–I wanna do more, but I can’t. I can’t do anything. I can’t help her. I can’t help any of them.”

Reaching out, I put my hand on her shoulder and squeezed it. “People will help,” I insisted. “Don’t worry, they’ll get the money they need for the funeral.” Even if I had to make sure it happened myself. I couldn’t do much to help Murphy with her pain and loss, but I could damn sure get the money for the funeral and all that. 

Izzy and I exchanged brief knowing looks, just before another figure appeared nearby. It was That-A-Way. She popped into view near the wall before turning to us. “Hey. I guess I’m not late, huh?” 

My head shook. “Nope, you’re right on time. And you definitely beat–” 

Before I could finish that sentence, a loud squawk interrupted. We all looked over to see Riddles fly down from above, landing on a nearby dumpster. She squawked at us again, clearly informing everyone that we should wait.

We didn’t have to wait long. Within the next thirty seconds, a van came into view through the alley. It rolled to a stop, before Pack stepped out. She had her lizard backpack with her. “Fancy seeing you guys again. Think we can avoid a running gunfight with the Scions this time?” As she spoke, Riddles flew down to land on the backpack itself, perching there while giving a watchful look all around. 

“Let’s hope so,” I muttered. “We’ve got enough to deal with. Now come on, let’s get in there.” With a look around at the rest of the group, I exhaled before reaching out to grab the door. One by one, the other four filed inside before I brought up the rear and let the door close behind me. 

We had been in the shop for approximately two and a half seconds before a loud squeal of excitement filled the air. Wren–or Trevithick, as she was in the same costume she’d worn when Lion had visited, the black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels over her arms, legs, and chest, with a black helmet and pink visor. Her rapidly-moving dragonfly wings were buzzing as she flew straight down from the ceiling to land right in front of Raindrop, talking a mile a minute. “Ohhh you’re here you’re really here I can’t believe you’re really here and you made it and it’s really you and you’re so cool I watched you on the news forever well really only a few times cuz the news is boring but you’re not boring you’re awesome and I saw you fight that mean Janus guy and the other guy with the big hammer but you said I don’t think so and made it float away and you hit him with a tidal wave and I have a hat with your name on it but I couldn’t find it and Uncle Fred said it might be at the other shop but we didn’t have time to go over there and I have a backpack too and that’s over there and it’s got your picture on it that’s why I said I had a backpack and I made a birthday cake I mean Uncle Fred did but I helped and it had all the Minority on it and you were my favorite piece and–” 

Coughing, I quickly stepped in and put a hand on the brilliant little girl’s shoulder. “She’s pretty awesome, yeah. You both are. Raindrop, this is the awesome Trevithick. Trevithick, this is the awesome Raindrop. It’s about time we all started working together to deal with the real problems around here. Which means getting everyone on the same page. Almost everyone else is already. Just uhh…” I hesitated, then looked to Wren. “Where’s Fred? I need to talk to both of you about something important. That’s why we’re all here together. It’s why I brought Raindrop too.” 

“Did someone say–oh.” That was Fred himself, coming out of the doorway leading to the stairs. As he saw everyone, the man came up short. I saw his Adam’s apple bob as he gulped before stepping forward. “Ah, well, I guess it’s ahh, yeah. You’re all here.” 

Introducing Raindrop to him, and vice versa, I gestured. “Would you and Trevithick mind sitting down?” After a brief hesitation to gather myself, I added, “There’s some really important stuff we need to talk about. Secret stuff that you need to know. It’s time.” 

Fred and Alloy gathered a few chairs and everyone took a seat. Everyone except me, anyway. For my part, I stood in front of them and let out a long breath before focusing on Fred himself. “I don’t mean to single you out. I’m sorry for that, for this. But I have to, right now, in front of everyone. You know what you did before was a mistake. But what I’m about to tell you and Trevithick is a lot bigger than anything else. It’s… it’s big, and you could f–screw over all of us, everyone, if you wanted to after I tell you about it.” 

Fred, for his part, was quiet for a moment. He saw everyone looking at him, but didn’t react. He stared at the floor, then shifted his weight to meet my gaze. “I’m not that guy anymore.” His voice was firm. “I–I did–what I did before, trying to get money the cheap way, the illegal way, that’s not–I won’t do that again. I don’t know how to promise that any better than–than just saying it. I give you my word, I swear. I won’t screw you over.” 

I had to believe him. If this whole thing was going to go on, he needed to know the truth. They both did. We needed Wren’s help going forward. Which meant getting everyone on as close to the same page as possible. Scary as the whole prospect was, it was time. The encounter with Simon and that whole situation had convinced me of that much. 

So, after taking one more deep breath to brace myself, I launched into the whole thing. The others piped up now and then to give their own perspective, but mostly it was me. I explained what the Ministry was, and how much control they really had over everything. And I explained how that related to what had happened to Murphy’s brother and those other people who had died. 

By the time I was done, Fred had stood up and was pacing back and forth, listening while covering his face with his hands. Once in a while, he muttered something about how much sense that all made. But mostly he was quiet. 

Wren, meanwhile, absorbed it all in silence, aside from shifting a bit in her seat now and then or asking a clarifying question. She seemed far more mature in those moments than her actual age and appearance would have suggested. 

Finally, in the end, she asked, “What… what are we gonna do about it?” 

“What are we going to do?” I echoed, glancing to the others. “We have a plan. I mean, not a full plan. But a start. We have an idea of how to get into one of the Ministry’s bases, to get more information. That’s where we’re going to get our friend upstairs the info we need to find her a new body. And it’s where we’re going to find out as much as we can about how they operate and any more of their secrets we can get a hold of. That much we can do. But if we’re going ahead with this, if we’re actually going to go up against the Ministry, we… I need help. We all do. I know it’s a lot to put on you, Trevithick.” 

“Wren.” She pulled off the helmet, facing the others. “I’m Wren. And… and yeah. Yes. I wanna help.” With that declaration, she straightened up, fists clenched. “They hurt Hobbes. If… if you think you can find out where that bad guy went by breaking into their secret base, then I’m gonna help.”  

Giving one short nod, I replied, “And you, Fred?” 

He, in turn, continued to face away from me for a few seconds before turning to face us. “I can’t do much. Just watch over Wren there, really. Maybe drive a car if you need it. Be an innocuous face. Fetch things. But if that helps–whatever you need. I’m… I’m in. I’m in for whatever this is, wherever it goes.” 

“Good,” I managed after a moment. 

“Then let’s talk about what we need to get this tunnel started.” 

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Kith And Kin 20-07 (Summus Proelium)

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The drive out of that place honestly wasn’t that long, though it seemed like forever. I kept having to resist the urge to look around too much. It felt like there were eyes on us constantly. Which, to be fair, there certainly were. The plants were all spies. Which was a really creepy thing to think about whenever I happened to glance at the various bushes and trees. Any of them could have been watching and listening, all the time. To say nothing of the animals, which I was pretty sure were also spies. Yeah, I had no idea how the people in here lived like this, because it was freaking me out just being there for a few minutes.  

Dad, of course, didn’t seem bothered at all. He had turned around in the seat and was asking Izzy what she thought about her new friend. Not enough to seem overly pushy or anything, but he was definitely curious about all that. Izzy, for her part, simply said that he was nice and that he’d done a lot of work on their project. Belatedly, she added that his sister was ‘intense.’ I had to bite my lip hard to avoid giving a response to that. 

Judging from the quick look that Dad gave me, I hadn’t entirely suppressed the reaction. He chuckled very faintly before giving a short nod. “Yes, I suppose intense is one word for it. And hey, I can tell you this much, from what I saw of that project of yours…” He whistled low. “That’s A-plus work right there. Really well put together, and with some nice sources. If that school isn’t careful, I might just hire the both of you right now and put you to work as research interns in one of the firms.” 

“Don’t let him make you interns,” I put in immediately. “Tell him it’s associate or no deal. Wait, no, tell him executive and then let him negotiate you down to associate.” 

“Awww.” Dad gave me a proud look. “You have been listening to your old man.” 

Forcing the lump away that tried to form in my throat, I offered a shrug. “Yeah, well, sometimes you talk louder than the television and it’s hard to tune you out.”

Dad, in turn, offered me a beaming smile, hand reaching out to squeeze my shoulder. “That’s one of my best strategies! Talk too loud for the other person to ignore. You girls should write that down, it’s a good one.” 

There were a few things I wanted to say, involving him making offers someone else couldn’t refuse, but I bit my lip and held back. That was a rabbit hole that I really didn’t want to start going down. Instead, I shifted the conversation to asking about how their trip went. Not enough to seem like I was actually fishing for real information or anything, but not asking anything about it at all would also have been suspicious. So I pushed just a little bit, as though I was slightly jealous about being left behind. Or just trying to angle for presents or a different trip sometime. 

Unsurprisingly, my dad didn’t tell me what they were really doing. He just played it off as another boring old business trip and kept changing the subject over to talking about things we had done while they were gone. Of course, we couldn’t tell him most of it, so we were all lying to each other. Though at least, hopefully, only one side actually knew that. 

On Dad’s suggestion, we stopped for some exotic ice cream on the way back. It was a new place that had apparently been getting a lot of good reviews. The guy behind the counter couldn’t have been much older than me, but he sure knew a lot about ice cream. He talked up the different processes of making it (apparently they did their own fresh on-site), and managed to make it interesting. He was a cute guy too, Asian with longish hair that had this thin green streak in it, and amber eyes. His nametag read Maki. 

In any case, he had a lot of good suggestions for flavors to try, and let us sample several. And the reviews were right, this place was great. Maki was funny, charming, and to top everything off, he could juggle. Yeah, he put on a show right there while we were deciding what flavors to get, casually tossing three pints and the ice cream scoop through the air in a circle. I even took a picture of him in the middle of that. With his permission, naturally. 

Finally, we ended up picking out flavors we all wanted, and also got a couple pints for Mom and Simon as well before heading out. On the way, as we went back to the car, I shook my head. “Wow, I haven’t even heard of that place yet. That thing says they only opened a week and a half ago, how’d you know about them already? You were out of town.” Even as the words slipped out of my mouth, I was regretting the accidental possible push against their cover story. 

Dad, however, simply replied, “From Kent Jackson, actually. He had a lot to say about the place. Apparently his son–oh.” In mid-sentence, he abruptly stopped talking. 

“What?” Blinking that way, I started to reflexively ask what was wrong. Then I realized. I remembered. Tomas had said that he was going on a date with ‘a guy who worked at an ice cream shop.’ “That guy back there, Maki. Tomas is dating him.” 

Dad was wincing. “I’m sorry, sweetie. I completely forgot that was where I heard about this place until you asked. Do you want to take the ice cream back? Or toss it and go get it from somewhere else?” 

Swallowing, I shook my head. “No, no. It’s not the ice cream’s fault. And it’s not Maki’s fault either. And it’s not Tomas’s fault. It’s nobody’s–it’s not–it’s fine. We were already broken up. We didn’t–it’s fine. It’s ice cream. Let’s go eat some ice cream.” Under my breath, I muttered, “I need it now.” 

So, we headed back for the house. And all I could think about the entire way was how differently I would have felt right now if I didn’t know the truth. If I didn’t know what was really going on, I would have a new pseudo-little sister living with me, ice cream, my parents back after a long trip, and I would be driving my dream car. It really would be perfect. Well, aside from the whole ‘getting that ice cream from my ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend’ thing, but even that wasn’t horrible. Hell, if that was the worst thing about today, it would’ve been pretty good. A pretty good day. And that was exactly what my father thought he was giving me. Because he had missed me and was trying to do something fun. He was trying to make me happy. 

He was a good dad. A good dad who did some really terrible other things. Even evil things. But that was what made this whole thing so hard. It was what made it so confusing. Well, that and the fact that the Ministry obviously did some actual good things as well. Like Peyton had said, there were positives to them. But there were a hell of a lot of negatives too. Like, for example, everything about last night. Yeah, they let the man who murdered Murphy’s brother (and several others) just get away because he paid them. That was… bad. Really bad. 

It was all so complicated, frustratingly so. But at least I had people who knew enough to help me right now. We were going to build that tunnel and get into the secret base. We would find everything we could about the Ministry’s business and figure out where to go from there. We just… had to be careful about it. And obviously try to make sure that they didn’t realize it was us doing it. That was going to be the real hard part, and something that would take a lot of time and planning.

But for now, I had to make sure my family didn’t get suspicious about anything. Which meant playing my role as the clueless daughter (and little sister) who didn’t know a damn thing about what was going on. So, as I parked the car in the garage, I put my game face on and gave Dad a sly look. “See how safe that was? In a couple more months, when I get my licence, you won’t have anything to worry about.” 

Dad, in turn, snorted. “Yeah, kid, I’m sure you’ll always drive exactly the same way you do when I’m literally sitting right next to you. Actually, you should keep that in mind. Whenever you’re out there, assuming that day ever comes, just pretend that I’m sitting right here in this seat. And you know, obviously that means you can’t have anyone else sitting here. I don’t like to share seats.” 

Snorting despite myself, I made a point of rolling my eyes at him before getting out. Then I tossed him the keys. “Believe it or not, I’m not going to make a habit of pretending my father is sitting in the car with me no matter where I go. And I’m sure as hell not going to tell my friends that they can’t sit in the front seat because my imaginary father has dibs.” 

Making a show of huffing as though offended, Dad retorted, “I don’t see why not. I’m cool. I’m hip. Your friends would be lucky to have me grace them with my presence on a trip to the juice bar.” He winked then, before laughing at my expression. “Isn’t that right, Izzy?” 

She had just gotten out of the car herself, managing a quick, “Sure, juice bar, dads sitting in the front seat of cars, imaginary something or other.” She was pretending to be very engrossed in her phone, which made a pretty convenient distraction. 

The three of us grabbed the bags of ice cream pints and headed inside. I had only just made it through the door from the garage into the long hall (it served as a buffer to keep noise and fumes from the cars from getting into any useful rooms) beyond, when my mother seemed to materialize out of nowhere, blurting my name. The next thing I knew, she had pulled me into a tight embrace. It took me a second to stop myself from freezing up, but I managed to return it. God, my mom. I had missed her so much. My dad too. Both of them. Seeing them, hugging them, hearing them, just being with them reminded me how much I loved them despite everything. Soon, I found myself clinging to her even more tightly than I intended. Sure, the revulsion of what happened last night still rolled through my stomach, but I couldn’t help my reaction to actually being around them again after they had been gone. 

“Mom,” I managed, my voice cracking just a little bit. Which just made my stomach flip over even more. I almost hated myself at that moment. I thought about what Murphy was going through and quickly released my mother before stepping back. It was all I could do not to turn around and run right back out of the house, through the garage, and just keep going. And boy would that have been fun to try to explain later. Yet, despite knowing just what a bad idea that was, it was still so tempting. And it wasn’t all because of what they had done, or what they helped do. A large part of my sudden rush of revulsion was at my own reaction to them. I missed them so much, seeing my mother like this made me so happy that I immediately felt like I was betraying my friends, like I was betraying Murphy. I was–it was–fuck. 

Mom, however, didn’t know anything about that. I wiped it off my face by the time she smiled down at me, hands on my shoulders. “My dear, sweet Principessa. I’m so happy to be home now. That was far too long to be away.” 

Somehow, I managed to stop myself from asking how long it would be if they went to prison for all the stuff they had helped do. Not that I wasn’t tempted. Forcing that thought away as well, I instead asked, “Does this mean that you’re not going away again for a while?” 

“Oh, Princess.” Smiling fondly, my mother tugged me into another embrace. “I certainly hope not. That was more than enough for me.” 

“Me too,” Dad put in, as he and Izzy came through the door. It certainly didn’t take that long for them to cross the last few feet in the garage, so they had obviously stayed back to give me a moment with Mom. Which, of course, had left Izzy alone with my father. I briefly wondered how she felt about that, which just made my stomach clench yet again. God, this whole situation from her point of view was probably just as bad as it was from mine, if not worse. 

Meanwhile, Mom was already stepping over to take Izzy’s hands, squeezing them with a fond smile before pulling the girl into an embrace too. Her voice was a gentle murmur. “Izzy, my dear, I missed you as well. I hope the staff treated you properly. How are you?” 

Looking slightly overwhelmed (which was understandable, even from my parents’ point of view), Izzy took a second to find her voice. “Thank you, ma’am. Um, Mrs. Evans. I’m okay.” 

“More than okay, I hope, since we brought ice cream.” Dad held up the bags in question, gesturing. “Now come on, let’s get to the kitchen so we can eat this before it melts all over the place and make a mess. You really don’t want to make Olivia find someone to clean up melted ice cream off the carpet at four in the afternoon.” 

Mom, of course, had a few (mostly teasing) words for Dad bringing home ice cream a couple hours before dinner. But she didn’t put a stop to it, which is what really told me just how much they had missed us. Any other time, she would have told him to put it in the freezer until later. 

In the dining room, we had just started to set the ice cream containers out on the table when another voice spoke up from the opposite doorway. “Well, if it isn’t the tiniest stranger.” 

Simon. Hearing his voice, I really had to stop myself from visibly flinching. After the fight we’d had the night before, it was hard not to jump or recoil a bit. Not that he knew anything about that. He had no way of knowing about the wave of revulsion and anger that swept through me as I thought about him actually fighting to help the man who had murdered Murphy’s brother escape. He certainly had no way of knowing that I was the one he had been fighting against to do that. And, just like Mom and Dad, he couldn’t find out or realize.

So, just as I had been doing this whole time, I shoved down my immediate reaction and turned to face him. “Oh great, they brought you back too?” My voice cracked just a little bit, but I hoped he didn’t notice. “I hope you at least had the decency to bring me a present.” 

“Sure did, the gift of my presence.” With a broad smirk, he waggled his eyebrows at me. “Get it? Gift of presence? Pres–” He grunted as I kicked him in the shin. Which, after last night, I knew for a fact he let me get away with. If he had wanted to, he could catch my foot and put me on my back without even thinking about it. 

“Now, no fighting,” Mom chided. “Come and take your seats for early dessert.” She said that with a look at my father that made it clear this was a special thing and he shouldn’t think it was okay all of the time. 

Of course, once we were all eating, Izzy and I both had to talk even more about the stuff we’d been doing while they were away. And, as far as that went, I was proud to find that we managed to make our answers sufficiently boring enough to make Simon feign falling asleep (of course, prompting Mom to give him a sharp poke). But the point was, he wasn’t suspicious. None of them were. We kept it boring without being obvious about hiding things. And pushed slightly for information about how their trip went without being obvious about trying to catch them in any lies. 

And we had decent ice cream. Okay, very good ice cream. Remarkably good. My ex-boyfriend’s new boyfriend’s ice cream shop was amazing. That was the cherry on top of the whole night. Also my ice cream had cherries in it. 

In any case, we hung out for the rest of the evening like that. Dad suggested a movie in the theater, so we went there and watched this comedy western thing before dinner, which we had about an hour later than usual thanks to the whole ice cream thing. Then Mom wanted to do something together, so we played a board game in one of the dens. All of us, my parents, Simon, Izzy, and me. It was all so weirdly normal and casual. Mom and Dad acted like… Mom and Dad. Simon was Simon. We played several games, I accused my brother of cheating, jumped on his back, Mom told us to settle down, Dad laughed, we all laughed. 

And then Izzy and I went upstairs, and the second the door of my bedroom closed behind us, the smile wiped itself off my face like someone had flipped a switch. I slumped back against the door, eyes closing for a moment as I let out a long breath and let the stress of pretending everything was fine throughout the entire evening slide out of me. 

When my eyes opened once more, Izzy was standing a few feet away, watching me a bit pensively as she quietly asked, “Are you okay?” 

“Not much worse than usual,” I replied quietly before shaking my head. “I mean, wow. That was hard.” Swallowing, I moved away from the door while continuing. “I sort of… forgot what it was like to be face to face with them, knowing all these things. And after last night… after Simon–” Cutting myself off, I put my hands against my face and gave a slight shudder. “Sorry, I’m okay. I’m… I’m okay. I–” 

The next thing I knew, Izzy took both of my arms and gently pulled my hands down from my face so she could look at me. Her voice was gentle. “It’s okay… to not be okay.” 

Unable to find my voice for a moment, I settled on simply taking a small step that way and embracing her. She returned it, and we stood there like that for a few seconds before I managed a weak, “Thanks. You being here means a lot.” 

Eventually, she released me and asked, “Are you going out tonight?” 

I thought about it, but shook my head. “No, after last night, I need some extra sleep to catch up. Besides, Roald and Murphy are gonna need a couple days before they do anything else. Preferably more than that, but I don’t know how long we can stop Murphy from trying to go off to do something on her own. I need to talk to Paige and Raige about that whole Irelyn thing, but that can wait. I’m just gonna crash and try to turn everything off for awhile. I’m pretty sure there’ll be plenty to do soon enough anyway.” 

With a nod of agreement, Izzy headed out. I got ready for bed, ordered the lights to go out, and then laid down. My head was on the pillow and I started to drift off almost immediately, my thoughts winding down. 

And then I sat up. With two words, I ordered the lights to come back on, before sitting there in bed as my mind raced. Pushing myself over to the edge, I grabbed my Touched phone and quickly typed out a message to Amber, along with an attachment. 

Does this look familiar? 

After that, I waited anxiously for what felt like forever (but was really only about thirty seconds) until I saw the notification that she was typing. Soon, the message came back. 

That’s him. That’s him, how did you get that? 

Seeing that, I breathed out and slumped back. I was right. The realization that had struck me just before I was about to fall asleep was correct. I had to let that wash over me for a few seconds. 

Finally, I straightened a bit and typed out two more quick messages for Amber. 

The sex-shifting person you saw is named Maki. They work at an ice cream shop.

Tomas is dating them. 

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Kith And Kin 20-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“There’s my baby girl.” With a broad smile as I approached, my father opened his arms before yanking me up into them once I got close enough. He lifted me clear off the ground and hugged me tight. “Now, who said you were allowed to grow so much while we were gone?” he demanded. “I thought I made it clear that you’re supposed to stay exactly the same while I can’t see you.”  

God, some part of me really wished that it was easier to only be disgusted by what my father was really like. It would have made this whole situation less agonizing, if I could stick to just seeing him as the leader of a criminal organization, who hurt and killed people. 

But that was the whole problem. He wasn’t just that. He was my father too. And beyond that, the Ministry had done some good things. It was all so complicated, the whole thing. He was my father and I loved him, just like I loved my brother and my mom. But they were all criminals. They all did bad things, along with some good. They were… it was… complicated. So complicated. Seeing him right now, being embraced by him, just made all those conflicted feelings come rushing back into me even more than ever. Especially after that whole thing with them helping Luciano escape. That was wrong. It was horrible. I had to do something about it. I had to get that piece of shit put in prison where he belonged. And I couldn’t excuse the part that my family had played in helping him escape. And yet… and yet… my father was here. I hadn’t seen him in what felt like forever, even if it hadn’t actually been that long. Despite all the terrible feelings deep in my stomach, I found myself returning the embrace tightly. Which only made me feel even more conflicted about the whole thing. 

Finally, I found my voice while making my head shake. “I didn’t grow at all! It’s only been a couple weeks, you know.” Belatedly, I added in a mutter under my breath, “Besides, you could have left for five years and I wouldn’t have grown at all.”   

“Couple weeks?” Dad gasped as though completely confused by that. “I tell you, it felt like that five years.” With a smile, he set me down and ran his hand through my uneven hair. “Ever decide if you want that to be long or short?” he teased, tugging a bit at the longer side. 

“More fun to be both,” I retorted, poking him in the stomach. “I didn’t know you were going to be here. Let me guess, you drove Jefferson over the edge and he quit to go work for Uber.” 

With a snort at that absurd thought, my father shook his head and turned to open the front passenger side of Royal Thunder. “Actually, I thought we could get some practice in. You’ve got your training license, right?” As he said that, Dad stepped down in the passenger side of the car, leaving… leaving the… the…driver… side…

As that realization slowly filled my head, I gaped, eyes widening. “Wha–you, you mean it?” 

Chuckling with amusement as my reaction, Dad gestured. “Come on then, get in before I change my mind. Let’s see what you can do.” Abruptly, he grimaced before quickly amending, “And by that, I mean let’s see how many rules of the road you can follow while being extremely careful. Speed limits are fine things, but let’s pretend it’s like five miles per hour lower. Or ten. Ten is good too. Hey, parking lots are fun, how about we do circles around one of those?”

“Too late!” I chirped, dashing around the front of the car to jump in the driver’s side. Once there, I found that my father had already arranged the seat to be higher and more forward, specifically ready for me to use. The pedals had also been extended a bit forward so I could reach them more easily. Finding all that, I turned a bit to stare at my dad.

He, in turn, winked. “Well? You’ve been going on about wanting to drive for so long. Let’s see what you can do. I need to figure out if I can put you to work once you get that real license.” 

Despite myself, despite everything, I leaned over and gave him a side-hug. Then I started the car, checked everything over, and pulled away from the curb after making sure the road was clear. I didn’t peel out or anything, tempting as it was with the power of the machine I was controlling. I kept myself under control and brought it up to just under the speed limit as we cruised out to the regular street to join up with traffic. 

Dad watched me the whole time, his head shaking with disbelief. “I can’t believe you’ll be seventeen in under a year.” His voice was a thoughtful murmur. “You were only nine a couple years ago, weren’t you? Where’d the time go?” 

Snorting, I carefully took a right turn at the light. “Yeah, and a couple years ago, you were only thirty.” 

Making a strangled noise in the back of his throat, Dad retorted, “Just how old do you think I am, kid?” 

Pretending to think about that for a few seconds while drumming my fingers along the steering wheel, I offered, “I dunno, fifty-seven?” 

“Fifty-se–” That strangled sound was back as my father choked, giving me a look. “Okay, you know what, maybe you can wait another ten years before driving.” 

A laugh escaped me. Which just made the whole situation worse. God, it was so easy to fall into this routine, so incredibly easy to forget the truth, even for just a few minutes. Yet in the back of my head, I couldn’t completely stop thinking about what Murphy and Roald were doing right now, and how their lack of justice was in large part the fault of my family. 

Clearly noticing the way my expression changed, Dad reached out to touch the side of my face while we were waiting at the red light. His voice was concerned. “Hey, what’s wrong? Did something happen? Whatever it is, you know you can talk about it.” 

Oh God, if only that was true. For just a split-second, I seriously imagined what would happen if I actually told him everything. How crazy would it be if I just unloaded the whole thing and told my father everything I knew and everything I thought about what they really did? What if I actually told him about how their bullshit allowed the murderer of my friend’s brother to escape? How would he react? Would he be ashamed? Would he offer to fix it? Would he apologize? Or would he just find a way to excuse it? Would he simply erase my memory again? How would he really react? I was so tempted, in that brief moment, to actually go through with it and see what happened. Maybe it was partially because of just how upset I was about the Murphy situation in general. Or maybe it was because of the actual fight I’d had with Simon the night before. Or because they’d been gone for awhile and this was my first time being close to my dad in a couple weeks. Either way, whatever the reason, the words were right on the tip of my tongue.  

And yet, I suppressed the urge and simply shook my head while looking at him. “I just missed you,” I found myself easily lying straight to his face, even as my stomach turned itself into knots. “Did you guys finish your business, or are you leaving again?” There, it was easy to make it look and sound as though the reaction he had seen was about being upset that they had been gone. Manipulative, yes. But I had to give him some legitimate explanation for the look he had seen, so he didn’t wonder about it too much. Because the last thing I needed was my father to spend too much time wondering about what I was doing and why I might be upset about something.

Thankfully, it seemed to work. Dad gave a low sigh and reached over to brush my hair fondly. “We’re back for awhile now, I promise. Pretty sure your mom will kill me if we have any more business interruptions anytime soon.”  

Again, I was tempted to say several things to that. Thankfully, the light turning green distracted me, and I was able to shove those impulses down along with pushing my foot against the accelerator. As the car pulled away, I found my voice. “Maybe she’d just maim you a little bit.” 

Dad, in turn, chuckled once more. “Oh sure, maiming sounds better.” Shaking his head, he focused on giving me driving advice for the next thirty minutes or so, telling me where to turn and asking how I felt about freeway driving, parallel parking, downtown traffic, and more. Through it all, I pushed aside my troubled thoughts about the whole situation and tried to focus on just being there in the moment. But the whole time, a voice in the back of my head wouldn’t stop talking about how I was betraying my friends by not confronting my father about what happened, even though I knew it wouldn’t actually help anything if I did. It would, almost certainly, make everything worse. So, I shoved the impulse down and lost myself in the driving lesson. 

Eventually, we stopped to pick up Izzy, who had stayed after to work on some project. As I brought the car to a halt in front of the school, she approached alongside a boy who looked familiar. He was blond and scrawny, with messy hair and glasses. Where had I–oh! 

Yeah, the realization of where I had seen the boy before came to me even as Izzy spoke up. “Uh, is it okay if we give Errol a ride home? His sister… didn’t want to wait.” 

Right, his sister. Arleigh Fosters. Somehow, the fact that she refused to wait around to give her little brother a ride home didn’t exactly surprise me. And I was pretty sure Izzy was giving a sanitized, polite version of her likely reaction to being asked. 

Dad gestured. “Sure thing, as long as you don’t mind getting a lift from the speed demon over here. Why don’t you guys both hop in the back? How’s it going, Errol? How’s your dad?” 

Oh right, Errol’s (and by extension, Arleigh’s) dad was another rich businessman. Specifically, he owned a pretty big stake in that Taurus Touched-Tech shipping company. Not as much as my parents did, but still quite a bit. Enough that my parents did have the occasional meeting with him. Actually, come to think of it, I was pretty sure we had even had Arleigh over to the house once or twice years back. It would have been while I was still in first or second grade, so I barely remembered it, but I was pretty sure she had been there. 

Gee maybe we were best friends too and then my parents erased that. 

While I was thinking about that, Errol gave some light remark about how his dad was fine, then he and Izzy started to talk some more about their project. I tuned them out after a minute and focused on driving. Despite everything I already knew about my family, I bizarrely didn’t want to disappoint my father with my skills. My father killed people and ran a Mafia-like organization to control all crime in the city, and I was worried about him thinking I was a bad driver. How absurd was that? 

Whatever it was, I drove carefully (but not too carefully) back out to the main street before asking Errol to remind me of where he lived. He, in turn, tried to demur by telling me that I could drop him off at a nearby library and he would take the bus. 

“Nonsense,” Dad objected. “It’ll be just fine, Errol. We’ll drop you off right at your house. Believe me, nobody’s going to try anything.” 

Well, that was confusing. Looking over at my father and then to the back seat while we were at a stop sign, I echoed, “Try anything?” 

Errol, in turn, sighed and told me where to take him. Only then did I realize why he’d had that reaction. Apparently, he lived smack in the middle of Sherwood territory. Yeah, no wonder he was a bit nervous about bringing strangers into an area controlled by a bunch of psychotic anti-technology Fell-Touched. Hell, I was certainly curious as to how a family like his could continue to live there, given everything. Their entire business revolved around transporting, repairing, and selling super advanced technology. So how could they afford to live in a place that was literally run by a gang that wanted to destroy technology? Did the gang not really know who they were or what they did? Or… or…

“Yo, Earth to Evans Junior.” Dad’s hand touched my shoulder, making me snap out of what had apparently been an extended moment of staring off at nothing. “Did you forget you’re the one piloting this craft?” 

Flushing a bit, I checked both ways before pulling away from the stop sign. “Right, sorry. One taxi ride home coming right up. We’ll be there in ten minutes.” 

“Fifteen minutes,” Dad corrected me with a raised eyebrow. “We’ll take the scenic route, no need to get on the freeway with our guest.” 

There it was again, the total cognitive disconnect. My father was both one of the biggest superheroes in the entire state, and one of the biggest criminals. And yet, he was worried about me having a fender bender or something while one of his business colleagues’ kids was in the car. Trying to comprehend him in both ways (or rather, all three) was making my brain twist itself into knots. Hell, I wasn’t even sure that thought made any sense at all. It was just words, thoughts about how strange this whole situation was. My dad was a hero, a villain, and my father. He ran a Star-Touched team, helped Fell-Touched do bad things for money, and he was worried about his daughter getting the son of one of his business partners hurt. It was so hard to make all that fit together into one person all at the same time. 

The point was, being around my dad like this was confusing. It made my brain and my stomach hurt. But I pushed all that down and focused on driving. I liked driving. I could lose myself in that for the time being. 

So, that was exactly what I did. For the next fifteen minutes, I focused on driving to the gated community that had once been known as Pinewood Hollow. Now, the graffitied sign at the front had had the Pine part crossed out and had ‘Sher’ put in front of it. Meanwhile, ‘Enter, all ye who are’ was written in front of the Hollow part. 

“Dad, can objects turn into Touched?” I asked, staring that way. 

“I don’t think so, kid, why?” Dad replied, sounding curious. 

I pointed to the sign. “Because whoever made that was obviously some kind of giant anime sword, to have all that edge.” 

Even as I said that, a bird that was sitting on a rock next to the sign gave a sharp caw before flying away, making me jump a bit before silently cursing myself for it. Right, angry birds, spy-plants, wonderful. It was just so welcoming. I definitely couldn’t see any reason why going in here, let alone living here, was a bad idea. 

Dad’s hand found my shoulder once more, squeezing it. He chuckled at what I’d said, even as he reassured me. “It’ll be okay, trust me. We’re not doing anything wrong, just dropping off someone who lives here. You can’t let people like that control everything you do. Don’t be stupid about it, but don’t surrender to them entirely either. They’re not stupid, they’re not going to pick a fight with every car that drives through their territory.” 

Some part of me wondered if this was some sort of test somehow. But I shook that off and gave a distracted nod while pulling the car into official Sherwood territory. 

Nothing happened, of course. It wasn’t like simply entering their area was instantly going to make the whole gang descend on us. Though some part of me wondered what my father would do if there was some sort of confrontation. After all, most of the bad guys had no idea who he really was. Either of his identities, come to think of it. How would he react if some of their people got a little ambitious and tried something? The thought made me just curious enough to almost want it to happen. Part of me was morbidly interested in how he would handle something like that without giving away any of his secrets to the three of us. 

But, of course, it was like he’d said. Nothing happened. No one approached us at all as we drove through the subdivision to the large house that Errol had directed me to. The whole place just looked like any other quiet, fairly upscale neighborhood. 

Except, of course, for all the flora. Seriously, there were exotic plants all over the place. The grass was deep green and cut perfectly on each yard, there were bright, colorful flowers and bushes everywhere (some of them clearly tropical or just rare), the trees were larger and fuller than any other place in the city. It was like driving out of Detroit and into a well-maintained rain forest or something. Say what you would about these guys’ methods, but they kept some pretty homes. 

No. They forced everyone else in this place to keep pretty homes. The correction immediately came to mind, while a knot formed in my stomach once more. Everywhere I looked, all these pretty bushes, tall trees, the vines along some of the houses, even those perfectly manicured lawns, were all reminders that the people who lived here were essentially being occupied by a hostile force that made them do all that. 

Okay, granted, there were worse tortures than being forced to have pretty plants in your yard. But still. The plants also served to help spy on these people. They were all basically cameras and microphones. 

That little tidbit stayed in my head while my father walked Errol into the house, with Izzy following after to be polite. Apparently Dad wanted to visit with Errol’s dad for a few minutes, to talk about something that was going on at Taurus. 

Unless, of course, what he really wanted to talk to the man about was Ministry stuff. That would explain how the family could afford to stay here, surrounded by that gang, right? If they actually were connected to the Ministry, the Sherwood people would be told to leave them alone. And it would explain why my father wasn’t worried about being confronted in this place. Not because they knew who he was, but because they knew Errol and his family were off-limits. That made sense. Plus, of course my family would have Ministry-connected people in the high positions at Taurus. It all fit. 

Also, it was possible that part of me just thought that Arleigh having supervillain connections, even if it wasn’t her fault and she didn’t know about it, made sense. Meanwhile, another part of me chastised myself and said that wasn’t fair to the girl. Even if I didn’t really like her. 

Speaking of whom, while lost in those thoughts, I heard Arleigh’s voice call out my name.  Quickly, I looked that way to see her approaching from the front door of the house. There was someone else with her, a somewhat lanky guy with light, somewhat curly brown hair that was cut fairly short. He wore jeans and a long, green shirt that was unbuttoned over a black tee with a local band’s name on it. 

“Hey there, Cass!” Arleigh cheerfully greeted. Again, like we were best friends. “Cool ride. You get your license after all? Dad pull a few strings?” She added that last bit conspiratorially. 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Just having a practice ride with him, that’s all. Hey Arleigh. And umm…” I looked to the boy. 

“Oh, this is my new college prep tutor.” Arleigh gestured back and forth between us. “Cassidy Evans, this is Ryder Towling. Ryder, this is Cassidy Evans.” 

Offering me a slightly self-conscious smile, the boy extended a hand as he and Arleigh stood by the driver’s side of the car (it was parked in the driveway). “Cassidy Evans, huh?” 

I felt a strange sense of familiarity in that moment, but shook it off and turned to shake his hand. “Yeah, I know, disappointing in the flesh, huh?” 

“Oh don’t be silly!” That was Arleigh, laughing a bit too much. “The last thing you could be is disappointing. Actually, you should come to this party we’re having Friday night. It’s gonna be at Sonya Deckermire’s lakehouse, and I swear to god, they’re gonna have jet skis.” 

“Oh, well, jet skis make that really tempting,” I managed to reply. “I’ll see what’s going on.” Quickly changing the subject, I looked back to Ryder. “College prep tutor?” 

“It’s really not a big deal,” he claimed. “I’m just making sure she’s ready to apply for different schools next year, that she’s got her extracurriculars all worked out, her applications look nice and tidy, that sort of thing.” 

“You should let him help you at some point,” Arleigh noted. “You know, after he gets me all squared away.” That was accompanied by an almost convincing laugh. “You don’t get to steal him until I’m done.” 

“Oh, uh, sure.” Ryder dug in his pockets, coming out with a card, which he handed me. It had his name and a phone number on it, along with a note about what he charged for various tutoring services. 

Tucking it away, I thanked him. Again, there seemed to be something familiar there. But before I could focus on it, my father returned with Izzy. He took a moment to talk to Arleigh and her new tutor, before getting in. As Izzy tucked herself alone into the backseat, Dad gestured. “Home, Jeeves. And you better make it snappy. If your mother doesn’t get to see you in the next few minutes, she might just kill all of us.” 

All thoughts of Arleigh and her tutor left my head as I pulled the car out of the driveway and began to head for the house. Right, time to see my mother. 

And hey, the good news was that my stomach was getting a lot of exercise today with all those jumping jacks it was doing. 

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Kith And Kin 20-05 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a commissioned chapter focusing on a SPHERE forum discussion posted yesterday. If you missed that, you might want to click the previous chapter button above.

By the time I was done with the cops and Pack, there was a message on my phone saying that Murphy and Roald were going to go back to the hospital. People were looking for them anyway, so that was a whole situation they were going to have to deal with. I told them to let me know what was going on and if they needed anything. Not that I would have known how to help, most likely, but still. I just wanted Murphy to know that I’d try if she–if there was–ugh. 

Yeah, I had nothing. The one thing I could do, help find that bastard, wasn’t going to happen right now. No matter how badly I wanted it to. And everything else within Murphy’s personal life was… out of my depth. I had no idea how to help her with any of that. But at least she had Roald, and I was pretty sure she was going to be staying with him and his family. At least, I hoped she was. The thought of her sitting at home alone with–no, that wouldn’t happen. She was a minor. They’d want her to stay with an adult. And Roald’s older sister probably fit that, if she was able to take care of him and their younger sister. Well, for a given definition of ‘take care of,’ given what they’d been doing when we first met. 

But hey, they had money now. I had made sure of that. So they would have food. Somehow, I comforted myself a little bit with that. And then immediately felt so guilty I wanted to scream. Was I patting myself on the back because I gave them money for food, after Murphy’s fucking brother just died? What–why was–I couldn’t… think. Every impulse I had was wrong, every thought that popped into my head immediately made me feel sick, like there was something wrong with me. How was I supposed to help Murphy? What was I supposed to do? 

Home. In the end, that was the only choice. I had to go home. Tomorr–later today was still going to be really big, considering my parents were officially arriving. Which would mean looking my brother in the eyes and pretending I knew nothing about what he had been doing, pretending I didn’t know that he helped a murderer escape. Hell, I was going to have to pretend I hadn’t just been in an actual physical fight with him. 

I was tired. Just the thought of sitting at home and playing nice, pretending to be clueless, was exhausting. Hard as it was to even think about, I was going to have to go home and sleep. 

So, that’s what I did. I made it home and checked on Izzy, only to find that she was still in bed. She’d slept through the whole thing, which was simultaneously completely understandable and yet also bewildering. I honestly had not been out that long, no matter what it felt like. So, I made my way back to my own bed, fell into it, and was asleep again within seconds. Seriously, it was almost immediate. I thought that I would toss and turn for hours, but it was like someone flipped a switch. My head hit the pillow, and I was completely out. The next thing I knew, several hours had passed and my alarm for school was going off. 

Blearily, I reached out and swatted at the thing a couple times before finding my phone to stop the sound. Then I rolled over and sat up, just in time to hear a quick knock at the door before the house computer informed me that it was Izzy. I told her to come in, and she quickly burst through before shutting the door behind her. In a rush, she blurted, “You went out last night?” Accompanying her words was her phone, which she held up in front of me to show me a thread on the SPHERE forums about Paintball being involved in a fight. “Was it–did it have anything to do with those shootings?” 

After a brief hesitation, I nodded. “Sorry, there were all these messages on my phone from Roald, about this whole thing with… with Murphy. Her… her brother died and it was–” Swallowing hard, aware she would see the way I flinched, I pushed on. “It was bad. But I didn’t want to wake you up and I didn’t know it was going to turn into… sorry. I need to talk about it, but not here. Later. Maybe with Amber. I–yeah. I need to talk to you and Amber about some stuff. Can you see if she’s busy? I… need to take a shower.”

“Are you okay?” Izzy’s voice was pensive as she stared at me. 

I nodded quickly. “I’m not hurt or anything. I just–I can’t talk about it right here. I just… can’t.” I couldn’t bring myself to get into that whole discussion in this house. The thought of it made my stomach clench and roll over. 

In the bathroom,  I checked my Touched phone. There are a couple messages from the others. Pack let me know that she was going to call in that favor from Blackjack to keep an eye out for Luciano or anyone associated with him. Then there was a message from Peyton to say that she got Murphy and Roald back to the hospital, and was going home as soon as she saw them leave together with Roald’s sisters. And finally, there was a message from Roald himself, telling me that they had made it home and Murphy was sleeping in his little sister’s room with her. He also asked me to let Wren know that they wouldn’t be there that afternoon. 

Right, yeah, that was another conversation I was going to have to have. I had to tell Wren just why her brand new employees were going to need a little time off. I was pretty sure the story was going to upset her as much as it did me. She really liked them. This was just… unfair. Yes, it was childish to think about it that way, but damn it, it really was unfair! Murphy’s brother deserved to be alive. She deserved to have him back. Luciano deserved to be in prison. This whole situation was fucked up and wrong and my family helped make it happen. 

Needless to say, I went through the shower very quickly. Izzy did the same, before the two of us made our way downstairs and let the kitchen know we didn’t need anything. I didn’t need to say anything to Jefferson, because he was officially focused on doing things for my parents that morning. We were supposed to take a car service anyway. So that was what we did. We just took it a little bit early, heading out to pick up some breakfast before going to the park. The same park where we had met Amber before. And, conveniently, where we would be meeting her again. Izzy had sent a message to the older girl and asked to meet her there while I was in the shower. So at least that was one less time I would have to tell this story. 

She was there waiting for us when we arrived, and I passed a breakfast sandwich to her before plopping myself down on the picnic table, with my feet on the bench. A long, heavy sigh escaped me. The other two stood there and watched silently, giving me a moment to collect myself. Finally, I started to tell them what happened the night before. Without looking up except for once or twice, I went through the whole story, from the moment I woke up to find all the messages on my phone, all the way to falling asleep again after getting home. Getting to the part about Simon helping that piece of shit escape was one of the only times I actually glanced up, only to find their expressions basically unreadable. My gaze found the grass once more as I went on. 

“Anyway, that’s all of it,” I finished after swallowing the hard lump in my throat once it was done. “Now they know… more of the truth. They know about the Ministry, and they’re going to help break into that base so we can find out where they sent Luciano.” My gaze rose once more to look at both of them intently for the first time, as I continued. “We’re going to track him down. Wherever they sent him, we’re going to find him and drag him back. He belongs in prison.”  

With a nod, Amber pushed her way to her feet and put both hands against the side of her head. “God damn it, that poor girl. That poor–god damn it.” She gave me a look then, frowning. “Just how much fucking money did that guy give your parents to make them give him a pass on killing several people? I mean, don’t they have enough already? I kind of doubt some nobody lowlife drug dealer could pull together the sort of funds to even pay your family’s gardening bills for a week.” With a long, heavy sigh, she waved both hands. “I mean, sorry, I just–”  

“No, it’s fair,” I replied flatly. “I don’t know. Seriously, I have no idea. It might just be part of maintaining their, you know, reputation or whatever. If it gets out that this guy paid his taxes and they still left him high and dry, it could wreck the whole system.” Realizing how that could be taken, I quickly added, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m not defending it or anything. I’m just saying, that could be an explanation for why they’d go to bat for him even when his payments don’t really amount to that much in the long run. If they start picking and choosing whose payments actually buy them what they’re paying for, the whole system can fall apart. I mean, I want the system to–” My eyes closed and I shook my head. “You know what I mean.” It was really hard to talk about this from my parents’ point of view without sounding like I was agreeing with them. 

Izzy, who had been sitting on the bench, rose to her feet and looked over toward the nearby road while speaking thoughtfully. “You’re right, that’s how they would see it, probably.” She folded her arms against her stomach, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “They’re probably not looking at it the same way we do. Not even close. They don’t know any of the people he shot. They don’t… it’s not… it’s just numbers for them, you know? It doesn’t affect them. Not really.” 

“That doesn’t make it better,” I pointed out. “Actually, it makes it worse.” Pushing down the rolling nausea in my stomach, I made myself continue. “Anyway, I’m pretty sure he’s not exactly a top priority client for them. So, they probably don’t go completely nuclear if something happens to him. Actually, they’ll probably be more upset about their base being broken into than they are about someone bringing him in. But even so–” 

“They’ll probably make the connection,” Amber finished for me. “The whole point is we don’t want them to know that any of us were involved in that break-in. And if his files get stolen just before, say, Paintball finds and arrests him…” 

“It could raise a red flag or two,” I agreed dryly. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure they could put that together. So even when we take him down, we’re going to have to be careful about how it happens. Maybe we can do it anonymously or something. And as a part of a whole group of takedowns. You know, get as many files as we can and use them to bring in other people they’ve helped escape.” 

A very slight, somewhat predatory smile crossed Amber’s face. “Now that’s something I could get behind. Grab all the files we can and hit people who think they’re safe and sound. Make this Luciano guy just somewhere in the middle of the list so he doesn’t really stand out.” Her head bobbed quickly. “Yeah, that could work, if we do it right. Like you said, we’d have to be anonymous. No flashy power use or anything. Has to look like other people hitting them.”   

Agreeing with that, I added, “It will actually probably be easier to do that with more of us. We just have to be careful to hit hard and fast before getting out of there. We can’t get into some prolonged thing, or it’ll come down to either getting caught or exposing our powers. Which would kind of mess up our ability to pose as other people.” 

“Let’s focus on getting the tunnel made first,” Amber murmured thoughtfully. “Once we’re close to getting in, we can plan out exactly how we’re going to do it.” She gave me a brief glance. “You trust your new friends to help pull that off?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah. They’re definitely not connected to the Ministry at all, that’s for sure. And they’ve got reason to want to stop them. They’re with us.” 

“Yeah, but that’s not what I mean,” the other girl pointed out. “Do you trust them to help without rushing off on their own and getting hurt? They’re not exactly super-experienced.” 

“Hobbes did okay while it was the two of us,” I noted. “I mean, yeah, she was pretty motivated, but still. It looked like she could help even more.” 

Izzy spoke up then. “It’s umm, gonna take some time to make that tunnel. You know, if umm, if we’re going to do it without attracting attention. Even with help. We could probably use that time for practice.” Belatedly, she added, “For everyone, I mean.” 

“Right,” I confirmed, “We’ll practice as much as we can. I’ll put paint on the inside of our clothes and everyone can work on some drills. We need to hit the guys in that place hard, fast, put them down, grab what we need, and get out. I’ll do multiple sections of paint, and we can have like… a timer or something beep in my ear whenever I need to activate each section. But I’m pretty sure we still need to be in and out within sixty seconds. That’s six sections of paint boosts. If I do them all ahead of time, it’ll be fine.” 

“Sixty seconds,” Amber agreed. “That should be too fast for your family to get the call and react. We get what we need and get out. We escape through the tunnel and leave them with no idea who any of us are. Maybe we should have a quick way to fill in the tunnel so they can’t follow that easily?” 

Thinking about that, I gave a slow nod. “Yeah, we’ll come up with something. Fill it with water or something. Maybe not water, that’s too close to Raindrop.” I added that bit with a gesture toward Izzy. “We don’t want them thinking about her at all.” 

“Which means I can’t be there,” she pointed out. “I mean, look at me. It’s gonna be hard enough pretending you aren’t Paintball. Me? How are they gonna believe someone this small is some big commando thief? Even in black with a mask, I’d stand out.”

“We’ll all stand out,” Amber replied pointedly. “But yeah, maybe it’s best if you work behind the scenes. Cover our backs, work on sealing the tunnel behind us, something.” 

Coughing, I gestured to my phone for the time. “We’ll work on it. But we should probably get to school. Last thing we want is my parents paying more attention, and they might just do that if they hear about either of us missing classes.” 

A bit more quietly, I added, “Besides, I should probably talk to Tomas about going over to his house at some point, so I can check for anything about that sex-shifter you saw. 

“Cuz God knows, I’m super-excited about that.” 

******

Somehow, I made it through the school day. It wasn’t exactly easy. The whole thing seemed to drag on forever, as though every class took up as much time as the entire day should have. Periodically, I received text updates from Roald, letting me know what was happening on their end. They hadn’t gone to school, of course. They were dealing with the fallout of that whole situation. Apparently Tyson’s funeral was going to happen Saturday. A lot of the details were being taken care of by Roald’s sister, with assistance from a helpful cop who had shown up to investigate the drive-by. Not that there were going to be many people there. Unsurprisingly, Murphy didn’t have a lot of friends or family that would show up. It was basically just a small thing with her and Roald’s family. Which was… completely awful, to be honest. I hadn’t known the guy at all, and obviously he’d had problems, but he deserved to be remembered and mourned. Murphy deserved to have her brother’s life matter to people.

But no, they would have an almost empty funeral and then he would be put in the ground. Apparently they were setting up a donation thing to pay for all that. My first instinct was to throw a bunch of money at it myself. But I would need to be more careful than that. If I just handed them over a bunch of cash without any explanation, it might look a bit suspicious. Even more than my funds already were. Maybe I could anonymously donate? Or make it… I’d figure it out. I would make sure the guy got a decent burial. It was pretty much the least I could do. Especially considering I had failed, thus far, to bring his killer to justice. 

Bring his killer to justice. How stupid did that sound? How naive? Even the thought made me grimace to myself while standing in front of my locker at the end of the day. And yet, that was exactly what I wanted to do. Luciano belonged in prison.  And I was going to make sure he ended up there. No matter how many wheelbarrows of cash he had given my parents. 

“There she is.” Startled out of my thoughts by Tomas’s voice, I turned to see the boy approaching before he leaned against the nearby locker. “You said you wanted to talk about something?” 

Right. I’d mentioned that in passing between classes. Now it was time to actually get into it. Forcing a casual smile, I replied, “Oh, you know, I was just thinking I should come over sometime so you could show me that song you’ve been working on.”

Raising an eyebrow, he asked, “How’d you know I’ve been working on a song?” 

The question made me snort and wave my hand in a vague gesture. “When are you not working on a song, dude? It’s just been a long time since I got to hear you practice.” Slyly, I added, “And, you know, if your mom happens to be there and is anywhere near the kitchen…” 

“Ohhh,” he drawled, “I see how it is. Play to my musician ego to get your foot in the door just so you can see if Mum’s got any pies done.” 

Allowing a guilty flush to cross my face (it wasn’t hard), I coughed. “What can I say, she makes really good pies. Are you really sure she does it all by herself?” 

“Cross my heart and hope to die,” he replied while holding up his hand in a scout’s honor sign. “I’ve watched her in the kitchen. Still can’t do it like she does, but she definitely fixes them all by herself, from scratch. Not a frozen pie or restaurant delivery in sight. You trust me, right?” 

Oh boy. Forcing myself to continue meeting his gaze without flinching or looking away, I shrugged. “I mean, you’re a boy, so I trust you about that far.” 

“Ouch, my wounded soul.” Making a show of staggering backward while clutching his heart, Tomas winked. “Maybe I can pry some more trust out of you by getting pie into your face. You wanna come over today?” 

“Just my mouth is good enough, not the whole face,” I retorted. “And today’s not good. My family just got back from being out of town and all.” I was watching his face to see if he gave anything away. If he even knew anything. “So they’ll want me to be around.” 

With a shrug, Tomas replied, “Oh right, yeah, they were gone, huh? Any idea what they were doing?” 

“Business stuff,” I answered flatly, trying to pretend I didn’t care at all. “Or something. I dunno. Anyway, the point is they’ll be back. Maybe tomorrow.” 

“Oooh, kinda got a date tomorrow.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Tomas looked uncomfortable. “I mean… sorry. It’s just this… guy from an ice cream shop. We started talking and–yeah. We’re just hanging out and… boy, this got weird all of a sudden.” 

Swallowing the hard lump in my throat, I shook my head. “No, no, it’s fine. It’s cool. We’ll plan something later. I umm, have fun. On your date, I mean. When it happens. I just–I uhh, I’ve gotta go.” Grabbing my bag, I shut the locker and started to head out. 

Fuck, damn it, why was I so stupid? Why did hearing about Tomas having a date make me feel queasy inside? I didn’t still feel that way about him. Hell, there was still a chance that our entire relationship had been a trick of some kind. I couldn’t–I couldn’t think about that. I had far more important things to focus on. 

Those ‘more important things’ came into clear focus as I left the school and looked to where Jefferson would be. Only he wasn’t there. Instead, Royal Thunder was parked in that spot, with my dad waiting in the driver’s seat and waving to me. 

Oh boy. Time to shove down all my emotions, pretend to be a completely clueless happy little daughter just running to meet the dad she’s been missing, and give literally nothing away about what I was actually thinking. 

If nothing else, maybe I should put in for some extra credit from the drama department. 

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Commissioned Interlude 9 – Sphere Online Forum 2

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A/N – The following is a commissioned interlude, separate from the ordinary schedule.

Welcome, MagicalMagellan (click here to log-out) to the Summus Proelium HERE forums, or SPHERE. It has been (nine hours four minutes) since your previous log-in, and there have been (1/One) rule clarifications or updates and (0/Zero) administrator announcements. Click here to read them, and be aware that the system will not allow you to post any replies or make any new topics until you click the button at the bottom of any announcement(s) and rule update(s) acknowledging you have read and understand them. 

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<> Topic — Touched Identities (Boards – Announcements – Rule Clarifications)

Razoev (Administrator – Original Poster)

Posted on April 21, 2020: 

Hey guys, just a quick clarification on something the staff have been noticing that skirts close to the line. As you know, we at Sphere do not allow any discussion about the private identities of any Touched, Star or Fell. That means no trying to figure out who they really are, ever. As we have said many times before, even accidentally outing someone through that sort of guessing can have drastic and terrible consequences. The easiest thing for us to do is a blanket ban on any of those discussions. What you do in your private life is up to you, but it won’t be allowed here. 

Most of you are good about following that rule. But, as I mentioned, there is something that comes close without technically violating it up to this point. I’m referring to the increasingly popular roleplaying forum, where many of you have enthusiastically joined one of several ongoing Touched games. As per the sticky at the top of that forum, all characters played there must be one hundred percent fictional. We do not allow anyone on this forum to roleplay as existing, living people. You must make up your own Touched and play as them. We’ve noticed a few… let’s call them very thinly-veiled expies of real people, both Touched and otherwise. And a few that weren’t veiled at all. So let this be extremely clear. You must make up your own character. You may use existing Touched as a baseline/starting point, but you cannot simply palette-swap a few colors around and call it good. Yes, Radiant is cool. No, you cannot make up a character who looks exactly the same except for a red costume and call her Luminous. Get creative, combine her powers with someone else’s and mix things up. 

The staff will be monitoring these threads closely. Anyone who attempts to play a real person will have their posts deleted and receive a warning for a first offense. Continued violations will result in a ban from the games forum. If you are unsure if your created character is sufficiently different, feel free to message a games forum moderator and they will be happy to tell you. 

Thanks for reading, and as always, if you have any questions, feel free to message a staff member for clarification. 

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Click here to acknowledge that you have read and understand this rule clarification. This thread has been closed to further replies. You will be unable to post new replies or topics until this clarification has been acknowledged.

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<> Topic — Minority Thread Forty-Four (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Touched-Teams – Heroes)

Berryonalake (Moderator – Original Poster)

Posted on April 2, 2020

Okay, now that the joke thread is done with, back to our regularly scheduled monthly thread change. As always, the prior threads can be found archived here. Go ahead and resume discussion, and remember to follow the rules. These are minors, as you should be reminded of every time you see the name of the team. Keep that in mind and ask yourself if you should really say what you’re about to before you hit the post button. 

The current membership details of the Detroit Minority can be found here

(Showing page 49 of 51, displaying ten posts per page)

—> ASilentPersian 

Replied on April 21, 2020: 

So, do we have any idea who the next person to move up to one of the adult teams is? I know they don’t share real ages or anything for obvious reasons, but I could have sworn there was a list somewhere about which people were next up to leave the team to go somewhere else and now I can’t find it anywhere. 

Oh, and while we’re at it, someone really needs to update the membership list over on the main website. It still lists Kermode as a member and he went to Texas ages ago. 

—>  Mach3 

Replied on April 21, 2020: 

The website isn’t actually connected to the forum anymore. Not since the split a few years ago. I don’t think any of the admins here have anything to do with that, and the site itself isn’t really maintained very well. That’s why the list is so old. People have tried emailing the owner, but nothing really happens. You’re better off just using the member list linked in the pinned post at the top of the thread. 

Anyway, trying to guess who the next person to leave the team might be gets too close to trying to guess their identities. That was the reason I got for why that list you were talking about was removed, anyway. It was all just educated guessing, nothing official. The fact is, we don’t know who might leave and when. Sometimes they keep Minority members for months past their actual birthday, and sometimes they graduate them months early. It’s all to obfuscate who they actually are. Face it, if you knew someone who missed class a lot, always had excuses to disappear, and showed up with bruises sometimes, then found out they had a birthday at the same time that one of the Minority members (who fit their general description) graduated, you’d be a bit suspicious. So, they try to hide it with that sort of thing. 

—>  LivelyAnteater

Replied on April 21, 2020: 

I miss Kermode, he was fun. And I’m pretty sure the team could use someone with that sort of super strength right about now. They’re sort of limited on that front, aside from the strength of Whamline’s energy coils. Too bad Paintball still hasn’t joined. I’m pretty sure one of his paints makes people strong, right? He could really buff the whole team that way. Come to think of it, he’d be better on a team all around. What’s his deal? 

Just saying, I can’t be the only one who wants to see just how crazy-effective Paintball could be if he took advantage of his support capabilities to buff everyone else on a team. 

—>  MagicalMagellan (You)

Replied on April 21, 2020

Purple paint makes people strong. And I bet he just doesn’t want to deal with any rules or team drama. Maybe he’s afraid That-A-Way is the jealous type. After all, she’s the one that has powers with weird rules and conditions attached to them. Her powers change based on what direction she’s looking, his paints do different things based on what color they are? Maybe he thinks she’ll be weird about it. 😉 

—>  RingAroundARosie

Replied on April 21, 2020

Magellan, her powers change based on which way she’s moving, not which way she’s looking. It’s an important distinction. But I bet you’re right. She probably told him to stay away. She seems like the jealous type. 

—>  Sickstalker 

Replied on April 21, 2020

You guys are kidding, right? TAW never struck me as that kind of person. She’s always been approachable when they make appearances. Which is kind of weird given how simple her mask is. You’d think someone from her school would’ve recognized her by now. 

Edit: Mods this is not actually trying to guess anything about who she really is, only an observation about her costume. 

—>  Darth01110 

Replied on April 21, 2020

They’re kidding. At least I’m pretty sure. And maybe the whole thing is one big mask, like the full face things from Mission Impossible.

—>  RingAroundARosie

Replied on April 21, 2020

This whole thing has gone completely off-topic anyway. We’ve lost sight of the most important question. If Syndicate is the next one to leave, who gets to be the leader next? My vote is for Raindrop, she seems like the one with the most level head. The others would all fall apart without her. 

—>  MagicalMagellan (You)

Replied on April 21, 2020

Oh for sure. Raindrop’s the keystone of their entire team. Can you imagine if Raindrop and Kermode were on the team at the same time? They would’ve cleaned every gang out of Detroit by now. We’d be living in Paradise right now. But nooo, Kermode had to graduate and go be an adult hero in Texas. So Raindrop has to try to pull everyone’s weight. It’s sad, really. 

—>  Flaboran

Replied on April 21, 2020

Okay, but now I really want to see what it would look like if the youngest member of a Minority was the leader. Maybe default or something, if they Touched really early. Hm. Ideas. *zoops off to the writing forum*

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<> Topic — War In Detroit Thread Six (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Events)

4D-Daniel (Moderator – Original Poster)

Posted on April 16th, 2020

Thread number six as the last one was getting unwieldy! Remember, if you want to look at one of the previous threads for information or to find a conversation, there’s an archive right here

You can also find a roughly up-to-date map of the current gang-claimed territories here. Do note that the lines are constantly shifting with this war going on, and nothing stays the same for very long. If you live, work, or spend any time around the front lines, be very careful and try not to be out there at night if you can help it. That’s when things tend to blow up more. The city instituted a rolling curfew for civilians whenever they think something bad is about to happen. If you are in these areas, you will receive a text notification on your phone and/or hear an announcement from a passing police car. That will tell you whether to return to your home or shelter in place. Listen to these warnings. You do not want to be caught in the middle of one of these fights. The bad guys won’t care about going through you to get to their enemies, and the good guys will have to spend far too much effort trying to help you instead of actually dealing with those bad guys. Just stay out of the way. 

Various emergency numbers and contact information if you see a fight starting or need assistance beyond standard 911 can be found right here. User Constructicon has been helpful enough to create a list of businesses in the area who have agreed to create shelters within where those caught in an area of effect can hunker down, and Sqornshellous Zeta turned that data into an app that you can download here. It will both alert you when there is an incident within a customizable area of where you are, and direct you to the nearest safe zone. 

(Showing page 43 of 46, displaying ten posts per page)

—>  Ravenjoy

Replied on April 19, 2020

No, I really don’t think this is some kind of trick from Braintrust. You guys are getting way out there in the conspiracy theories. Why would they have anything to do with what’s going on? The war is between Oscuro/Ninety-Niners and La Casa/Easy Eights. Braintrust has nothing to do with it. 

—>  StarOfImps

Replied on April 19, 2020

Are you sure? Because think about it. Who do we know who could make that medicine that Blackjack was using to make his super soldiers or fix his sick mother or whatever? That Doctor Worthy guy. And he used to be part of Braintrust before totally disappearing. I’m telling you, this could be a long con. Braintrust sent Worthy to create these vials, manufactured a war between all these gangs, and then Braintrust can pick up the pieces when it’s over. Is it really that far-fetched? 

—>  SpeakerOfFables 

Replied on April 19, 2020

What I want to know is what those vials actually do. It has to be something big. And it can’t just be simple medicine. I mean, maybe they do help someone who’s sick, but it has to be more than that. Otherwise why would the other gangs have been after them so much? I’m fairly certain there’s more to that whole story. Something just doesn’t sit right about what they said. Maybe the vials give you some sort of super-regeneration. 

Paintball and the Minority helped Blackjack get the vials, so you have to assume he at least convinced them that it was for a good cause. But that can’t be the end of it. Why would the Easy Eights come in on La Casa’s side in this war? Have they ever been friendly before? It just feels like there’s something really important that we’re all missing. And it’s probably going to bug me forever. 

 —>  MagicalMagellan (You)

Replied on April 19, 2020

Maybe they’re just opportunists. Blackjack was going to go after Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners for fucking with him anyway, maybe Deicide saw an opportunity to do some damage to the other gangs and jumped on board. I don’t think she’s ever expressed any real problem with La Casa, even if they haven’t been allies. But when Cuélebre showed up, Oscuro basically tore through all the different gangs in that area until the ones that were left allied into the Easy Eights. They’ve been enemies basically forever. She probably saw La Casa as a good ally to let the Eights go to war against their real enemy. 

—>  SpeakerOfFables 

Replied on April 19, 2020

That is a good point. I had forgotten that they had that history. It was sort of before I moved here. Still, even with that, it feels like there is something more to it. I just can’t shake the thought that those vials are still going to be important somehow. They just sort of disappeared at the end of that one big fight, but I’m pretty sure they’ll pop up again. They just seem too important to not come up later. 

—>  AlmanditeSerpent

Replied on April 19, 2020

Well if it was multiple files (edit: vials, damn autocorrect!), they probably wouldn’t all be given at once, right? So there’s still the chance they could be stolen again. I mean, if they were taken once… OK, maybe it’s not that likely because Blackjack would be an idiot not to really protect them this time, and we all know he isn’t an idiot. But hey, anything could happen.

—>  GuruOfZeal 

Replied on April 19, 2020

Everyone be advised, there is a skirmish going on over on 87th and Dane between Coverfire, Yahui, and about a dozen Oscuro troops versus Skadi, Pivotal, and some of their people. Seems to be mostly contained to the construction area on the corner there, and authorities are on the way. But it could always escalate. Stay out of the area and follow instructions at the top of the post. 

—>  VotMoon 

Replied on April 19, 2020

MagicalMagellan Weren’t you talking up one of the restaurants in that area like an hour ago? You’re not around there, are you? But if so, see if you can get a Star-Touched autograph. When it’s all over and they’re cleaning up, I mean. Be safe!

—>  MarsSpider

Replied on April 19, 2020

I don’t think she’s going to be getting any autographs anytime soon, if she is around here. That whole situation just got worse. I’m up in one of the apartments across the street and it looks like a brawl between Cardsharp and Silbón just crossed over with this fight and now it’s a whole thing. Most of the Minority just got here too, but I don’t know how much they can do. 

—>  OnceWereWarriors

Replied on April 19, 2020

It’ll be OK, I’m a few blocks down the street, and I just saw the Spartans go past. They’ll get this under control pretty soon. Everyone stay safe and hunker down until it’s done. 

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<> Topic — La Casa Thread Twenty-Eight (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Touched-Teams – Villains)

4D-Daniel (Moderator – Original Poster)

Posted on April 10th, 2020

The last thread got up over two hundred pages, so it was time for a new one. Use it to discuss La Casa (the Fell-Touched team founded and currently led by Blackjack) as a team and individual members. Everything about the group as a whole that is not covered by a current events thread (such as the thread on the ongoing gang war located here) should be kept within this thread. 

The archive of previous discussion threads can be found here, and the Sphere-Wiki entry for the gang is here

Showing page 24 of 24, displaying ten posts per page)

—>  SirAnthonyWatcher 

Replied on April 22, 2020

I don’t see any of them splitting off into a new group, honestly. They all seem pretty loyal to Blackjack. Wasn’t there an anonymous former rank and file gang member who said everyone loves that guy over there? Somehow, I don’t think they’re all going to turn on him just because of this war. I mean, it’s not like it’s going terrible for them. 

But if someone did leave, it would be one of the newer people. Eits, Pack, or Broadway. The others have been with Blackjack too long. So if one of those younger Touched left, they wouldn’t really draw a big group to go with them. There’s no way La Casa splits apart over this. Not a chance in hell. 

—> Gepetto’s Lad  

Replied on April 22, 2020

Yeah, Anthony’s right. If it was one of the other gangs, then maybe. Depends. But everything I can find online talks about what a good boss Blackjack is to have. I mean, if you’re a criminal. If they had the kind of problem you guys are talking about with what’s going on, they’d probably just talk to him about it. 

—> MagicalMagellan (You)

Replied on April 22, 2020 

Oh, I’m sure he’s a fantastic boss. Just lovely. Probably gives vacation days and stock options. But you know what one drawback of being a good little employee for such a good boss might be? 

Jail. Prison. The big house. The slammer. The gulag. The clink. Up the river. 

It doesn’t matter how good your boss is if you end up in prison doing the things he wants you to do. The luck for these people tends to run out. And when it does, it’s not the leaders who take the fall. It’s the little guys. Especially the people who just got there. Even if he isn’t the type to throw his little guys under the bus, that’s just the way these things work. He’ll escape and the people who aren’t as important get taken down. 

—> Marconi’s S

Replied on April 22, 2020

Good point, it’s always the little people who take the fall. But that’s pretty much true wherever you go. You think the Star-Touched aren’t getting screwed over? It’s the people in charge who use and abuse them no matter what side they’re on. Touched, Prev, Fell, Star, whatever. Doesn’t matter. Everyone’s getting fucked by the aristocracy. They’re the real bad guys in this. You know what happens to them when everyone fights like this? They get even richer. This whole gangwar? You think it hurts the people in charge? Nah. It hurts the little people, and the elite just find more ways to profit off it. If those Touched were smart, they’d all join up together and do something about the people exploiting everyone. They could make some real change in the world, instead of just maintaining the status quo. 

—> Obscurist 

Replied on April 22, 2020

Marconi if you think the world isn’t better than the status quo used to be before Touched came along, you should really look into some history about Detroit. This place was going down the tubes a few decades ago. Twenty years back when Touched started showing up, everything turned around. Yeah, the rich get richer, but they’ve done a lot of good for the city, and the world. I’m not saying it’s all fantastic and perfect or anything, but it’s definitely not nothing. So Touched have helped a lot. Hell, look at all the manufacturing jobs that popped up in the city. Actually, just find a picture of Detroit from the mid-90s and compare it to a picture today. It’s absurd. Touched-Tech basically rebuilt this whole city and added a hell of a lot more to it. Now we’re one of the biggest, richest, most advanced cities on the planet. All because of Touched stuff. 

—> MagicalMagellan (You)

Replied on April 22, 2020 

I wasn’t trying to start the communist manifesto or whatever Marconi is talking about. My point is that someone has to take the fall for this war, and it usually isn’t the actual people in charge who go to prison. It’s the little people, and usually the newest little people. Just don’t be surprised if Eits and the others are the ones who end up getting the shaft when it’s all said and done. 

—> Gepetto’s Lad  

Replied on April 22, 2020

That’d be a good thing though, wouldn’t it? I mean, Eits is a bad guy. They’re all bad guys. They should go to prison or whatever. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? 

 —> 98Pontiac 

Replied on April 22, 2020

Have you seen the prison system around here? We’re supposed to hope they become better people. I mean, there’s some that can just go straight to Breakwater, do not pass Go. Those murderous fucks like the Scions or whatever. But people like Eits and Pack? They just steal things. Sending them to prison isn’t going to fix anything. It’s just going to make them worse. Especially prisons around here.  

 —> WontHave 

Replied on April 22, 2020

I’m sure glad you clarified that, because yeah, people like Pencil and Cup don’t deserve any more chances. Not after all the damage they’ve done and lives they’ve destroyed. They need to throw people like that in a hole and never open it again. 

But to stay on the La Casa topic, let’s get the name game going again. Remember, write ‘Name Gamble’ at the top of your post and highlight it in red so it’s easy to find. Then list what you think the next La Casa name is gonna be. They all have something to do with gambling/casinos/that sort of thing. You get up to three choices before the next La Casa Touched shows up, and everyone who guesses correct (or close enough by our panel of judges’ determination) wins (or splits if multiple people guess correctly) a one year premium membership here on Sphere and an assortment of candy and other treats shipped from the online store here

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<> Topic — Paintball  (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Individual Touched Discussion)

Berryonalake (Moderator – Original Poster)

Posted on March 9, 2020:

There’s been a few different sightings of him now, so here’s an official thread for the newest Touched in Detroit. As soon as there’s a known name for him, the title will be fixed (edit: there we go, apparently it’s Paintball). But for now, feel free to discuss him, his powers, what he gets up to, whether he’s going to join a team, whatever. Just keep things civilized and remember this is an obviously underaged Touched we’re talking about. I already had to banhammer three different people in the That-A-Way thread between last night and this morning. 

(Showing page 87 of 90, displaying ten posts per page)

 —> EnemyOfTheGoose 

Replied on April 20, 2020

Wait, wait, go back. When did we find out what that pink paint did??? Are people just making something up and running with it or… I don’t know if I’m missing a joke or something. What’s this about bending things? Did Paintball turn into Aang?!

 —> LivelyAnteater

Replied on April 20, 2020

Not that kind of bending EnemyOfTheGoose. And it happened yesterday, at that bank robbery. Some people saw Paintball use pink paint to make a piece of a car bendable so he could wrap it around the bad guys. From that and what some of the cops and paramedics said when they showed up, it looks like the pink paint makes objects malleable or something. Or more like taffy. It stretches and bends. 

 —> SPB Disciple

Replied on April 20, 2020

It’s more than that. I saw a video somewhere, have to try to find it now, that showed Paintball use the pink paint to get around. He sprays something and then bounces off it like it’s a trampoline. Or bends it back and then makes it snap forward. The video showed him do it to a telephone pole. It bent over completely in half, then snapped upright and sent him flying. Then the pole was just fine. 

Edit: Found it! There’s the video I was talking about. 

 —> MostAmazingFinalGuiderOfCults 

Replied on April 20, 2020

Holy crap! How does that work?! I mean, the other stuff is all pretty basic. Cool and useful, but simple. Easy to understand. But the pink stuff makes things bend and snap and then go right back to normal? What the heck??? What are the limits of it? How far can it bend things? Do they always snap right back to what they were? Can he use it on people, or just objects? Could he maim someone with it? Did Paintball jump up a bunch of places on the most dangerous Detroit Touched list? I mean, if he could spray someone and then pull their arms out, or take their head off… I’m not saying he should, but could he? Cuz that whole thing has some pretty huge implications.  

 —> ButcherOfBujold

Replied on April 20, 2020

We don’t know exactly how it works yet. Paintball hasn’t exactly sat down and explained it. Actually, I’m pretty sure he only started figuring out how to use it himself pretty recently. Otherwise, he probably would have used it before, like when Cuélebre was chasing him. Give him some time and he’ll figure out how to do more tricks with it. But just to put it up front, I really doubt he could kill someone with it like that. It just doesn’t seem like it would work that way. I could be wrong, but I’m just saying, it seems pretty unlikely that he could just spray someone with pink paint and permanently maim them. And even if he could, he’s like twelve. I don’t think he would do something like that. Not to mention the personality we’ve seen doesn’t fit. 

  —> CultureClubber

Replied on April 20, 2020

He could change a lot though, he’s still a tiny little kid. Maybe when he gets older, he’ll be vicious. He could even join one of the Fell teams. Like you said, he’s twelve. That’s practically a baby. A lot can change between now and whenever he grows up. Wait til he gets a little more experience under his belt. Or at least gets out of 7th grade. In another year, he might totally switch sides. 

  —> RobertR

Replied on April 20, 2020

Guys, guys you’re all missing the most important part here. Paintball was working with his dad! He was at the bank with Lucent (and Carousel). Obviously his Dad was testing him to see if he’s ready to join the Seraphs! That’s where he’ll go if he joins any team at all. No way would Lucent let his son be a bad guy. He raised the boy better than that!

—>  OnceWereWarriors

Replied on April 20, 2020

Hey, I don’t know, Lucent is obviously a really good dad. But doesn’t that mean letting his son make his own mistakes? He’d definitely try to guide him the right way and all, but he’s not going to control his life. Hell, That’s probably why they’re having him act on his own like this, so he can make a name for himself out of his dad’s shadow. And, you know, make his own decisions, become his own person. That must be why they’re hiding the beak too. 

If Paintball goes bad, Lucent will guide him back to the right side. He won’t give up on him, no matter how evil the boy turns. 

—>  FullBass

Replied on April 20, 2020

Bird dad best dad! Father-son bonding time. Wait, how did this topic turn to Paintball being evil????

—> MagicalMagellan (You)

Replied on April 21, 2020 

FullBass – Internet (™)

CultureClubber –  I’m pretty sure Paintball isn’t going to change that much when he gets older. I bet you anything that he’ll be the same person when he’s sixteen as he is right now. He just seems like the type. Look how much fun he has playing for the crowd. He signs autographs and all that. You can’t do that as much if you’re a Fell. I mean, you could try, but you’d get caught pretty quick. And it’s not as fun if a bunch of sirens keep going off every time you try to entertain people. 

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<> Topic — Multiple Shootings (Boards – Places – United States – Michigan – Events)

Hermetican Beer (Original Poster)

Posted on April 20

Okay, I’ve been given permission from the mods to make the post for this. There have been at least three confirmed drive-by shootings here in Detroit in the past thirty minutes. The authorities believe all the shootings are from the same guy, but they aren’t releasing a name yet. Please, if you are anywhere in Detroit, especially anywhere within a mile of Mack Avenue and Helen Street, stay inside and away from the windows until this is taken care of. Authorities are already responding, but there are multiple scenes to deal with and the shooter is still at large. The Baptist church there on the corner is taking in anyone who needs shelter, as is the nursing home just a couple blocks down Grand Boulevard. Again, stay down until the all-clear signal is given. This post will be updated at that time. 

Edit: Police have given the official all-clear signal as of 1:00 am. The shootings appear to have stopped. They do not have a suspect in custody, but believe he is no longer an imminent threat. According to the news reports here, his name is Luciano Munoz, the leader of a minor gang. His motives are unclear, but seem to be money-related. That news report includes a picture of him. If you see the man, do not try to confront him. Alert the authorities immediately. 

(Showing page 9 of 10, displaying ten posts per page)

—> Asian14

Replied on April 21, 2020 

I don’t live in that area now, but I used to. I know the apartments where that one guy got shot, used to ride by them on my bike all the time. It’s kind of a shitty neighborhood. Nothing wrong with the people who live there. Well, most of them anyway. Let’s just say it’s the sort of place where if you hear gunshots, nobody’s that surprised. People just mind their own business over there. 

—> GearK

Replied on April 21, 2020 

So, let me get this straight. He just killed several people in multiple shootings and got away? How does that happen? He didn’t have any powers or anything, right? How does a guy like that just up and vanish when basically the entire city is looking for him? There has to be more to this. Maybe he had help or something. People can’t just GTA their way through a city and then bounce without getting caught. The whole internet knows what this guy looks like, and there’s no sign of him? I don’t buy it. And why would the authorities give the all clear if they hadn’t caught him yet? This whole situation stinks like my brother’s gym bag at the end of the school year.

—> Dehny 

Replied on April 21, 2020  

He could be holed up somewhere. It probably isn’t that hard to hide if you just get in an apartment and stay in it. People didn’t really know to start looking for him until this morning when they woke up. Remember, not everyone is online overnight. People have jobs. They go to sleep. If he got out of the initial search area and went to ground, he could stay out of sight for a long time. Hell, with food and grocery delivery services and the option to leave it at the door so he doesn’t have to see them, he could stay out of sight for weeks or longer. I think the biggest chance of finding him would be if one of his friends rats him out. 

Needless to say, I’m rooting for the rats.  

—> GujaratiSugar

Replied on April 21, 2020  

What about what people were saying about Paintball and that masked guy fighting with those gangbangers over by the Tipsy Beaver? That was right in the same general area and everyone knows it’s full of nasty types. You don’t go over there unless you’re either connected or you’ve got a death wish. Pretty sure that Luciano guy hangs out there too. That’s what somebody on the Forum Which Must Not Be Named was saying. 

—> MercurialGumball

Replied on April 21, 2020  

Does anyone have the updated list of how many people were hurt or killed last night? That’s probably something that should be added to the top post. And speaking of things that should be added, several people have started charity drives for the victims. There was a list of some of them here. Just make sure you give to a reputable site. Lots of greedy fucks come out of the woodwork and try to take advantage of stuff like this. If you’re gonna donate, make sure it’s to one of the official sites, and that the charity has one of those little checkmarks next to it. That means the site has confirmed the charity owner is legit and has some connection to the victims. 

 —>  Marconi’s S

Replied on April 21, 2020  

Isn’t this what the Fund is supposed to be for? They charge buttloads for all that Star-Touched merch. I thought that and the taxes were supposed to pay for people’s bills when shit like this happens. What happened to that? 

 —> Cthuwood 

Replied on April 21, 2020  

Technically this doesn’t follow under the Fund. Because even if some Touched end up getting involved in trying to find him, the dude isn’t Touched himself. He didn’t use any Tech-Touched stuff either. So by the way that law is written, they can’t really pull money from it for this. As far as the law is concerned, this is just ordinary crime. Sucks, but they can’t just decide to move money around like that willy nilly. And there’s nothing the local people can do about it. That stuff is written in international law. It’s a pretty huge deal. If they tried to appropriate it for this, they’d set off a lot of problems. 

Oh and that list of victims you were asking for Mercurial should be here. As far as I know, that’s the most up-to-date one.  

—> MercurialGumball

Replied on April 21, 2020  

Yeah, I know why they can’t use it. Trust me, I looked it up before I posted. That’s why I really think people needed to donate if they can. These people are going through the worst time of their lives, and we don’t need to add to it by making them sell their souls trying to pay for the funerals and medical costs. 

—> Threeb4

Replied on April 21, 2020  

Thanks for the list, I’m definitely jumping on that. I moved away from Detroit about a year and a half ago, but I know that area. Like Asian14 said, it’s pretty rough. Those people don’t have the cash to spare for an extra large popcorn at the movies, let alone a funeral. This whole thing is so fucked up. Still can’t believe that piece of shit got away. Hope they find him and nail his ass to the wall. 

—> Spaghetti Citizen

Replied on April 21, 2020  

In addition to the list that’s already been shared, everyone should be aware that you can go straight to local hospitals and donate directly to funds there. All you have to do is tell them you want the money to go to victims of the shootings and they’ll add it into the general fund that gets divided up as much as it’s needed. 

Anyway, as everyone else has said, this whole thing is totally fucked up and I hope someone grabs this guy. I can’t imagine him getting very far though. Everyone knows what he looks like now. 

But seriously, how does a guy without any Touched powers or help completely disappear without anyone knowing where he is after pulling something like that? Yeah, yeah, he could just hole up in an apartment or whatever. But still. He’s got the everybody after him and nobody knows where the hell he is? I swear there’s gotta be something else going on. #paranoid

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<> Private Messages From DancingInIt

DancingInIt: Cass went for a walk last night.

MagicalMagellan: I heard about it from Lizzie. Cass didn’t wake you up? 

DancingInIt: No, wanted to let me sleep. Pillow talk?

MagicalMagellan: Don’t YOU start about that. You’re too young. She has my number for emergencies. :sigh: She uses it for more than emergencies. 

DancingInIt: I mean we all knew she had your number. 😉 Srsly what’s going on with the employees? 

MagicalMagellan: Not sure yet. Cassie’s folks get home today, don’t they? 

DancingInIt: Yeah, later. She wants to meet for breakfast this morning b4 school. You game? 

MagicalMagellan: Same park as before? I’ll head over there.  

DancingInIt: :waves:

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