Summus Proelium

Schooling 24-10 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter

As promised, Wren had the tracking device done by the time we met over there when school was over. In this case, ‘we’ meant Paige, Sierra, and me. Well, aside from Fred and Wren themselves, of course. Murphy, Roald, and Peyton all weren’t going to be able to make it for a while thanks to things they had to do at home. The last thing we wanted was for their families to get annoyed or upset about them being gone too much. Especially in Murphy and Roald’s case. With Murphy’s brother… dead, and their parents still in prison, Roald’s older sister had a lot of pressure on her. She needed all the help she could get, which meant those two had to be around when she needed them. Obviously, that was understandable. 

But, the three of us were here, so we watched as Wren put her hand on top of what looked like an ancient Apple 2e computer, the kind from like forty years earlier with the tiny horizontal main part attached to a keyboard with a tiny monitor set on top. Seriously, this thing looked positively archaic. If you counted Sierra as having only been alive for like a month (or less, if you went by how long she’d actually had her body), I was pretty sure the computer was just about as old as her, Paige, Wren, and me all put together. Somewhere in there anyway. 

But of course, it didn’t look like that under the hood anymore. Wren had done a lot of upgrading and changing things. When she hit the spacebar button, an incredibly detailed color map of the world appeared. At the moment, it showed the whole planet slowly rotating around in a circle while small words under it said to input coordinates and that it was waiting for connection. While we were watching, the young Tech-Touched took a cell phone and connected it via cord to the back of the computer. The ‘waiting for connection’ line on the screen changed to ‘actively tracking.’ There was even a smiley face emoji after that, as well as what I thought were supposed to be randomly colored firework splashes. 

“Um, if… if it works,” Wren started to explain, “it’ll track any connection no matter how they try to hide it. But it’ll take longer the more they’re protecting it. And I’m pretty sure they’ve got a lot of blocking stuff over there. I mean, I would, and they’re a lot smarter than me. And they have more money, more resources, more time, more–” She stopped herself in mid-sentence, shaking her head. “Anyway, uh, we should try it with something else first. I mean, I tried it already, but you should see for yourself. You know, before we actually try the big thing.” 

Yeah, she was obviously nervous about this whole situation. And who could blame her? I was basically shaking in my pace-skates as it was, and I wasn’t the one responsible for building this thing that we were trying to use to beat Breakwater security. The kid had a lot of pressure on her. Too much, really. It wasn’t fair. But then, not much about this entire situation was.  

Reaching out, I squeezed her shoulder so she would look at me. “Wren, trust me, each of these people by themselves is not smarter than you. You’re right that they’ve got more resources, more time, and all that. But they’re not ready for you.” With a smile, I gestured. “So, how do we want to test this thing first? Would it work if we tried calling the phone we used to call the island in the first place? You said that thing physically moves the signal to other towers, so… wait, would this thing still work then? What if that’s what they do?” 

Paige spoke up before Wren could. “There’s no way that’s what they do. They use signal jammers, not signal movers. They don’t want any signal getting out at all. Our father must be using some sort of direct-link satellite phone. My guess is that he’s built something on the island that points out into space, and when a satellite comes into range, he gets a connection.” 

“It’s probably too big and unwieldy to move around,” Sierra put in. “Plus it would have to be hidden so the guards over there can’t see it on their monitors. Which means he can only use it when the satellite moves into range.” 

I nodded slowly. “Right, so when we do this, we’re gonna have to just leave a message and tell him to call us. Like at ten pm, the exact time he told me to have Paige ready to answer the phone before. I’ll be done with dinner at Arleigh’s by then.” After saying that, I grimaced and held up my crossed fingers. “At least I really, super-duper hope so.” 

We agreed to tell him to call back at ten, then moved on to the actual testing the tracker part. As it turned out, Wren had a jammer of her own. It wasn’t as good as her actual untraceable phone, because it didn’t move the signal so much as… move… pieces of junk data into the–yeah, I had no idea. She explained it, but there were a lot of technical words. The basic gist seemed to be that it obscured the signal source by throwing a bunch of false data in there. Whatever it was, she said it would work to block most tracking systems, but it would be obvious what was happening. There was no subtlety to it, or anything. The ‘move the signal somewhere else’ solution was like a magician deftly using misdirection, whereas this one was like throwing down a flashbang. Everyone who saw it would know exactly what happened. 

She showed us how it worked using an ordinary, over the counter tracking device. Which, apparently, was something she had one of her online Tech-Touched friends send over. The thing was essentially used by city and state-level authorities to track people past most low-to-mid level blockers. Essentially, it was meant to bypass the security measures local gangs used to hide where they were calling from. As with most situations like this, that whole thing was an arms race between what criminals could get their hands on, and how easily police could counter it. This was an older model that was only sold to complete rubes. Useless for evading any but the lowest type of search. But, it would work for demonstration and testing purposes. 

To that end, Wren activated the jammer on another phone and called the one attached to the commercial tracking system. We all watched that small, hand-held screen as Wren showed us the way dozens of different addresses, some on other continents, flashed across it. The jammer was doing its job. Next, she called the blocked phone using her own brand new system. Again, the jammer was working, at least at first. The pointer on the world map kept dancing around for a moment, going from the United States over to Europe then down to Africa and up to Canada. It jerked almost violently, before moving to the United States again. Only it ended up in California, starting to focus in there. My mouth opened to say something, but Wren held a finger up to stop me, staring intently at it while whispering, “Come on, come on…” 

Sure enough, only about ten more seconds of that followed before the pointer on the screen abruptly spun sideways, the view pulling out of the San Francisco neighborhood it had previously been zooming in on. It went north-east, all the way to Michigan, then zoomed in on Detroit. It took the thing another ten seconds or so to get that far, but finally it was pointing straight at a satellite view of this neighborhood. 

As soon as that happened, Wren jumped up and down, pumping her fist into the air while cheering. “I knew you could do it! Good boy!” She bounced over and hugged the machine. “Who’s a good boy? Who’s gonna get a treat today? You’re getting a polish and a cleaning and you can be plugged into the best outlet for electricity. Yummy yum yum, power.” 

Okay, that was both amusing and adorable. A very slight giggle escaped me before I clamped down on it and cleared my throat. “Thanks, Wren. That’s pretty awesome. And yeah, if this thing does its job, we’ll make sure it gets all the yummy electricity it could ever need.” That said, I paused before exhaling slowly. “So, uh, I guess since it’s about as working as we’re gonna get it, we should call and leave that message?” 

Sierra spoke up. “Use the special phone with the tracker anyway. Even if you don’t expect him to answer, there’s always a chance. And I don’t think he’ll accept it if we just tell him ‘oops, hang on, let us call you right back. We weren’t expecting to be able to get a hold of you this easily.’” Her eyes met mine before she pointedly added, “We can’t screw this up. Not now.” 

“We won’t,” I promised her. It was still strange looking straight into my own eyes like that. It probably always would be, and made me wonder briefly if this is what it would’ve been like to be born with a twin sister. But I focused on the main point. “I promise, we’re gonna use him to find out where Irelyn, Flea, and Trivial are, and get them off that island.” 

Fred, who was busy doing some paperwork again, looked up from it and put in, “You’re sure that whole thing isn’t gonna lead them right to our door? I really don’t want to test these defenses you’ve been putting in against people like that, kid.” 

Wren’s head bobbed rapidly. “It’s safe, Uncle Fred, I promise. I mean, as safe as I can make it. I mean…” She trailed off, biting her lip before visibly shaking off her insecurity. “It’s okay. We can do this.” Her gaze moved to me, and she gave a little nod of encouragement. 

So, making sure the system was still active, I picked up the phone connected to that ancient looking computer and found the number Pittman had called from. It had come in as unknown, but Wren had done something that had to do with checking call logs, or some such thing, and managed to get the actual number itself. We were hoping it still worked. 

Just before I hit the button, Paige half-swatted me upside the shoulder and gestured to my ear. “Voice,” she pointed out. 

Right, just in case he answered, I couldn’t sound like myself. Hitting the bit on my phone to turn the voice changer on my earbud back on before adjusting it to the same random male voice I’d used before, I gave her a thumbs up. And with that, I  called Pittman while everyone, even Fred, stared in complete silence. They were all watching my face, waiting to see what would happen. I would’ve switched it to speaker, but we were still a bit afraid of any special voice commands the man might end up having. So, I was just going to relay anything he said. 

As it turned out, it was a good thing that Sierra said we should use the tracker just in case, and that Paige had made me turn on my voice changer. There was a click, then another click, then a beep, and finally I heard what sounded like the ocean before a familiar man’s voice spoke, “I’m a little shocked you actually managed to track down this number, even with my daughter’s aid.” 

My expression, combined with faint sounds from the man speaking, must’ve been obvious, because the others immediately reacted. Sierra’s mouth opened as a flash of rage came across her face, but Paige was faster, slapping a hand over it before she could say anything. I saw Fred and Wren react with surprise too, but I forced myself to sound as casual as possible. “I’m full of all sorts of surprises. And so are you, it seems like. I didn’t expect you to have phone privileges right now. Thought I’d have to leave a message.” 

“You’re lucky you called within one of the satellite windows,” he informed me flatly. “Now, is my daughter there? Are you all finished having your childish tantrums and prepared to make a deal for Irelyn and the other one?” 

I was barely listening to him. My attention was on the screen. The tracking system was clearly having trouble. It was moving around the Pacific ocean at the moment, which didn’t exactly narrow it down. Wren, for her part, looked a bit anxious but not upset. She waved a hand for me to keep talking. 

So, I made a noise deep in my throat. “Are you still trying to play that game? As if we don’t know that you don’t actually have them?” I knew being so dismissive and arrogant right back to him would piss the man off. But I was hoping it would make him want to rant at me rather than hang up. It was a tough line to balance. Quickly, I pushed on before he could think about it too much. “Let’s not lie to each other. You want to get off that island and we want to get them off that island. You had a way to do it when you were going to get Paige over there, so why is that impossible now?”

It was a stupid question, of course. Paige wasn’t there, and I was pretty sure his plan heavily involved using her. But it being a stupid question was the point. I hoped it would prompt him to spout off at me a little bit, which would give the tracker more time to do its thing.

To my relief, the man took the bait. He gave a long, heavy sigh before snidely retorting, “She’s not here, is she? But, if you truly wish to do something that will get all of us what we want, you should listen very carefully. I don’t know who you are, or why my daughter brought you into this, but I assume you are not entirely incompetent. To that end, you will need to collect a few things if we are going to safely transport off of this island. Do that, pick up what I need, and I will ensure both Star-Touched know where to meet so that we can all leave the island together.” He gave a tired sigh then, and I could imagine him waving his hand dismissively. “With, of course, proof of life before you transport all of us.” 

For some strange reason, I didn’t really believe that he intended to let them get off the island safely. Call me crazy. But, a glance toward the monitor showed that the cursor was starting to narrow in on something. It was still covering far too much territory in the ocean to be usable, but at least it was working. So, I waited for just a moment to make the man think I was considering it before replying, “No promises, but what exactly do you need me to get?” 

The man began to give me a list of equipment I was going to need to go find if I followed his little plan, whatever it ended up being. Honestly, I really did write it down. If nothing else, it would help us understand what he intended to do, and that was always a good thing. But I was also keeping an eye on that monitor while Wren’s machine did its best to narrow down the location. It was taking a long time (or maybe it just felt like it given the stakes), but it was definitely getting closer and closer. The girl herself looked even more anxious, as did Paige and Sierra. Even Fred, still sitting over by the counter, had completely abandoned all pretense of doing paperwork and was staring at the monitor along with the rest of us. 

It looked like the thing had gotten to within five hundred miles. Which wasn’t perfect, but it was definitely a lot better than we had before. It was dancing around erratically, still trying to hone in on the exact spot. All I could do was keep him talking for as long as possible. And to that end, I did my best to ask clarifying questions that he would expect to hear without getting suspicious about me dragging the call out. Playing on his need to lecture me about how much smarter he was and all that seemed to do the trick. This was not a man who was averse to gloating, or demeaning others. Especially since I’d been so rude to him before. 

After getting through what was apparently the normal part of the list, the man paused before speaking very intently. Once you have those items, you need to go to this address in Tooele, Utah. That’s T-O-O-E-L-E. There is a house there–” 

“Whoa, whoa,” I found myself interrupting reflexively. “What’s this about going to Utah?  Did you recruit the Mormons into helping you escape from death-prison island? I knew you were a piece of work, but I thought you had standards.”  

I swore I could hear the man growling a little under his breath before he pushed on, ignoring my comment entirely. “You need to go to that address and find the equipment in the basement. Take my daughter there. She will know what to do with it, especially if you have the other pieces I just told you to pick up. Fix the machine properly, call if you are both too incompetent to manage that much and I will talk you through it. When it’s done, we will talk about how to ensure we all get what we want.” 

My mouth opened to try to say something else to keep him on the line, but he had already disconnected. Quickly, I snapped my gaze back over to the monitor while blurting, “Did we get it? Please tell me we got it, because I don’t think he’ll accept another call any time soon. He is not a patient man.”

Even as I was saying that, I could see the cursor. It was blinking steadily on one specific spot, with latitude and longitude coordinates displayed next to it. 

“It’s okay,” Paige flatly replied, her gaze laser-focused on that spot. “We’ve got him. He can play all the games he wants now. It doesn’t matter. 

“We know exactly where that son of a bitch is.” 

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Schooling 24-09 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – as a reminder, this chapter takes place slightly before the events of the recent Commissioned Interlude. And if you haven’t read that, which came out a couple days ago, you can find it right here

Through the rest of the free period and all of lunch, Amber and Paige helped me run through a bunch of tests with my various paints. They wanted to help me get firm numbers on exactly how the paints affected things. Or at least as firm as we could manage. Which basically meant writing a lot of things down while using varying amounts of paint. And measuring a lot. 

First, however, they tested my ability to navigate a dark room. Paige brought in some chairs and the two of them blindfolded me while moving the chairs to various positions. I was able to navigate my way through the room from chair to chair perfectly. Somehow I knew exactly where they were. On the other hand, I had no idea where Paige and Amber themselves were. If they were in my way, I would bump right into them without any clue. My extra-special navigation sense only extended to objects and things like plants, not to people. And, apparently, not to the clothes they were wearing or anything. Furniture, walls, that sort of thing I could sense just fine. I had no idea why it worked that way, but it did. We tried multiple variations of that with the same results. I could sense my way through perfect darkness as long as there wasn’t a person blocking me. Paige also borrowed a couple frogs from the biology room, with basically the same result. I couldn’t sense them. I could sense the flowers Amber set up, but not people or animals. 

Both of them also wanted to test my aiming ability. Under Paige’s direction, I put multiple targets on the wall of varying sizes. Then I marked lines on the floor at different distances that she measured out. No matter how far back I moved or how small the target was, I was able to hit dead center with shots of my paint. Then Paige handed me a baseball, and I did the exact same thing. I could chuck the ball from the far side of the room, roughly thirty meters away, and hit a target the size of a dime. I could do the same thing with that blindfold on, as long as I looked at the target first and had the image of it in my head. Nor did anything change when Paige had me try with a paintball (hah) gun. I could still hit every target just fine with little effort.

“Okay, that’s not fair,” Amber noted while shaking her head. “Super accuracy and navigating in the dark would be like… main powers for some people. For you it’s just extra.” 

“Yeah, but I still don’t get to teleport or phase through walls,” I retorted. “So you’re ahead of me on that. Plus your super speed is a lot faster than mine. And I’m pretty sure your invulnerability tops my orange toughness.” 

We teased each other a little more like that before getting to the actual paint testing. Starting with purple, since that was relatively easy to measure. Basically, Paige brought us over to that bench press and we tested how much each of us could lift without any help at all. In my case, it was… not great. But in my defense, I was small and–yeah. I could do like forty-five pounds. Which felt pretty sad, but that wasn’t anything new. There was a reason I’d gotten into skating and running rather than something like the hammer toss or discus throw.

Amber was a bit better than me on that front, getting up to about eighty pounds. Then there was Paige, who, without any help at all, was able to lift five hundred pounds. The bench press, which she had brought in before I even arrived, was one of the special Touched-Tech variety. Rather than have a bunch of heavy discs on it that had to be moved on and off, the bar itself simply increased its own apparent weight (really just how much it resisted being lifted up from the resting position) based on what you input into the little display thing on the side. This one could go all the way up to about eight thousand pounds of resistance, though you had to input a special code to go that high and basically promise that you were Touched and had a Touched spotter. 

Once we had a baseline for how much we could lift, I started with the paint. Rather than just painting our hands or anything like that, Paige had all of us measure ourselves and then worked out how much of our bodies I would need to paint to do five percent of the body, then ten percent, and so on. She had me mark lines on our bodies with a different paint color, starting from our feet and going up. Then all I had to do was fill in that amount and activate it while we were lifting. 

After a lot of testing, we found that, at least in the smaller amounts, it didn’t really matter how much paint someone had on them. Anywhere up to about ten percent did the same thing. Namely, it tripled someone’s strength. So I went from being able to lift forty five pounds to being able to lift a hundred and thirty-five. Over that, the strength increase went up more for every ten percent of the body that was covered. At twenty percent of coverage, strength was increased by four times, thirty percent increased it by five times, forty by six, fifty by seven, sixty by eight, and so on. It continued that way all the way up to full body coverage strength, which increased strength by twelve times. With basically my full body covered in paint except for my eyes and mouth, I could lift five hundred and forty pounds. 

All of which also meant that Amber went from lifting eighty pounds to lifting nine hundred and sixty, and Paige increased from five hundred to six thousand. Which was a bit more impressive than Amber and me. 

So after testing all three of us multiple times, that was what we came out with. From a tiny bit all the way up to ten percent coverage, it was a flat three times increase. Adding more increased that all the way up to a twelve times increase for full body coverage. That was a good enough test for me to call it definitive, though Paige wanted me to try it on the others eventually so we’d have more data points. I was also pretty sure she drooled a little when she said ‘data points.’ Which was kinda weird, to be honest. 

In any case, from there we tested speed by running from one end of the room to the other. We did that a few times without any paint in order to get a baseline. The distance was, according to Paige, exactly thirty meters, or slightly over the length of a professional basketball court by a few feet. We ran from one end to the other, then back again, which was about sixty meters. That time, I actually beat Amber. She was able to run that distance in nine seconds, while I made it in eight. In my case, that was a speed of seven point five meters per second. Paige, of course, beat both of us with a six second run, or ten meters per second. She was really fast when she wanted to be. 

Again, we did the same ‘add paint five percent at a time’ thing. Every percent of our bodies I covered in paint increased our speed by two percent. So, with half of our bodies covered, our speed was increased by one hundred percent, making us twice as fast. I was able to make the run in four seconds, boosting my speed to fifteen meters per second. Amber did it in about four and a half seconds, raising her speed from six point six to thirteen point two meters per second. Then there was Paige, whose time dropped from six seconds to three. She was doing twenty meters per second. 

Once I covered our entire bodies in green paint, our speed was increased by two hundred percent. Which dropped my sixty meter run time down to about two point six seconds, or twenty-two point five meters per second. Amber got down to about three seconds, and Paige could now run it in two seconds, given her speed increased from ten meters per second with no paint, to thirty meters per second with her entire body covered. 

Of course, I was also able to simply paint a green line on the floor and speed people up that way. I’d already tested that once when I first got my powers, and had clocked myself at about a thirty mile per hour run that way. That was a speed of thirteen point four meters per second, or just slightly under how fast I was with half my body painted. 

The results were basically the same in this case. Our sixty meters was just under four percent of a mile. With the green line down and active, I was able to run the sixty meters in just about four point five seconds, as opposed to my four second time while half-covered. The other two got similar results, so I was willing to go out on a limb and estimate that running on a green line was roughly equivalent to having half our bodies covered. Close enough, anyway. 

Then there was the yellow paint, which we tested the same way. And the effect of that was about the same as the green, only in reverse. In other words, half our bodies being covered lowered our speed to about fifty percent of what it should have been. I went from being able to run sixty meters in eight seconds, to needing sixteen seconds. Or it would have, if my paint lasted that long. Paige took how far I’d gotten in that ten seconds and extrapolated from there. She did the same thing with the full coverage. There appeared to be a hard cut-off of ten percent of normal speed with full coverage. When I was running flat-out, or trying to, I was actually only able to move about three quarters of a meter per second. After the full ten seconds of the effect, I had only moved a bit under eight meters. Ten seconds to run twenty-five feet. At that rate, it would’ve taken me almost a minute and a half to run the full sixty meters. If, again, my paint lasted that long or I kept renewing it. 

Again, the other two had similar results, and yellow paint on the floor was roughly equivalent to having fifty percent of our bodies covered. 

And it wasn’t just personal speed that was slowed. Everything slowed down. Or sped up, depending on the paint color. We timed how long it took various objects to fall without any paint, with green paint, and with yellow paint. Again, all that seemed to matter was what percentage of the object was covered. If it was completely covered, even if the object was small, it got one hundred percent of the effect. Dropping a coin completely covered in yellow paint made it fall at ten percent of its normal speed. 

Of course, those were the relatively easy colors to test. Strength increase, speed increase, and speed decrease. We knocked those ones out of the park. We still had orange toughness, red pulling, blue pushing, black silencing, white light, and the pink…. bouncy/stretchy bit. Those were going to require a bit more creativity.

For multiple reasons, they were going to have to wait. Not only did we need more equipment for testing those, but we were also out of time. Both our free and lunch periods were about over, and none of us wanted to deal with having to explain ourselves for skipping class. Not to mention the attention all three of us doing it would attract. Besides, Paige said she had some ideas for testing the red and blue paints, but we were going to have to go somewhere else to do it. Still, it was nice to have some actual numbers to go with some of my paint. The fact that they definitely increased things by a percentage rather than a set amount was… very interesting. It made me wonder how much I could end up helping someone who already had significantly enhanced strength or speed. 

Before we left, however, Amber asked, “And you’re absolutely sure you don’t have any other colors you haven’t found? Pink was the last one?” 

My head bobbed. “I’ve tried every color I can think of, and nothing else comes out. That’s it. Red, blue, green, purple, yellow, orange, pink, black, and white. I can adjust the shades of them and all that, especially when I’m making instant-pictures. But it doesn’t change the effect. Light purple does the same as dark purple as long as it’s covering the same amount. Surface area is all that matters, not shade.” 

“But where does the navigation-sense come in?” the dark-haired girl demanded. “I mean, I have the ability to sense what direction I’m facing or moving because that’s tied directly into my power. I can even understand why you have the artistic power. That’s linked to the whole making paint thing, sort of. Like, you can subconsciously sense and control exactly where the colors are going, to the point of making perfect pictures. I guess that makes sense. But how are you sensing where objects are in the darkness?” 

“Are you sensing colors?” Paige asked. “I mean, maybe it is basically the same thing. If you can make perfect images because you control exactly where the colors are going that perfectly, maybe you can sense colors in the environment. Colors you’re not even responsible for making.” 

I shrugged helplessly. “If that’s true, how come I can’t sense the colors on your shirt, or the color of your eyes, or anything like that. Remember, my navigation sense poops out completely when it comes to living things. Or anything you’re wearing, anything in your pockets, and so on. If it’s on you or connected to you, I can’t sense it. And that’s a lot of colors to just be blind to if this is right.” 

“Maybe that’s just a weakness you have,” Amber offered. “Your power doesn’t work on living beings or up to a certain distance around their bodies.” 

“It works on plants though,” Paige put in. “You used it to get around the dark forest when we were… you know.”

I nodded. “Right, so it’s just animals that block it. Wait, hang on, is that the source of my aiming power too? I mean, if I’m subconsciously sensing where colors are and all that, maybe I’m just sensing exactly how to get one color to another. The color of the ball to the color on the wall, or whatever. Or the specific part of that color. I dunno. Shapes, colors, all that. Maybe that’s it? Is it as simple as just ‘my ability to create images is so good it extends all the way to knowing where every color and thus every object in the environment around me is, and exactly how to move one color slash object to another?’”

We needed to get to class, but Paige had me do one more test for that. Namely, I threw a tennis ball at both of them while they were standing still and also while they were moving. Including while they were moving with green paint speed boost. My aim was good, especially for the standing still part, but not nearly as perfect as it was for non-animal targets. I was generally able to hit them, just not very specific parts of them if they were moving too quickly. 

“Okay, so I think you guys are right,” Paige finally decided. “Somehow, you have some sort of ‘shape and color’ sense or whatever. That’s allowing you to navigate and aim things, as well as draw perfectly. It seems to get disrupted a bit by animals. But it still works somewhat even then, since you can hit us. I think you just have a hard time consciously using it that way. It works enough for you to make one color hit another, like when you throw the ball, but not specifically enough to hit a certain part of that color. The whole animal slash human thing disrupts your sense, for some reason.” 

I was still thinking about that, and what it meant as we carefully left our secret room (or the Ministry’s secret room, rather) and made our way back to the regular school area. 

Honestly, I knew that Paige had thrown herself into this so firmly specifically to distract herself from worrying about Irelyn. But that was okay, it was past time for me to actually understand how all my powers worked. If I was going to get better at all this, I needed to understand exactly what I could do. Especially when it came to things like my navigation sense and accuracy, which were apparently derived from the same thing, if our theory was right. 

So yes, Paige was obviously worried. And I was sure Sierra was as well. But hopefully, we would be onto the next stage of the rescue plan by the time school was over. Assuming nothing went wrong, Wren should have the location tracker thing ready by then, and we could use that to find out exactly where Breakwater was, then use that to make them get Irelyn and Trivial off the island. 

But of course, tracking down the location of the world’s most secure and dangerous supervillain prison, and then forcing the leaders of that prison to do what we wanted them to was hardly the most dangerous thing on my agenda today.

After all, I still had to go over to Arleigh’s for dinner. 

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Commissioned Interlude 12 – Amber and Dani/That-A-Way and Pack (Summus Proelium)

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The following is a special commissioned interlude that is not part of the main schedule. It IS canon, but takes place shortly after where the story is right now.

Standing at her locker at the end of a long day of school, Amber O’Connell stared down at her phone, but she wasn’t really paying attention to it. Her actual focus lay on listening to what several students just down the hall were saying. One, a boy named Ricardo Esteban, had been going on for the past few minutes about some party that he and his parents were going to the next evening. A costume party, with a Touched theme. You didn’t have to show up as any specific Touched, though that would probably get you more points in the contest. Ricardo was bragging about the Hefesto (a Spanish Tech-Touched hero) costume his parents had gotten personally commissioned for him, and how it was going to blow everyone else’s out of the water. 

Amber, naturally, didn’t care about any costume contest. She was, however, laser-focused on something else the boy had said in the course of bragging to his audience. Well, two things, actually. First, there were no phones allowed on the floor. You had to check them with your coats. Something about the hosts not wanting people to be distracted. And second, a man named Derek Meyers was going to be attending the party. Ricardo had name-dropped him as one of his parents’ personal guests for the evening. Of course, the whole ‘name-dropping’ thing had only worked once he explained to his friends exactly who Derek Meyers was. And even then they hadn’t cared all that much. After all, why would they find it so fascinating that some random detective on the Detroit police force was a friend of Ricardo’s parents? Even hearing about the litany of impressive arrests the man had made didn’t really sway them that much. Sure, it was kind of cool and all, but they wanted to hear more about the costume. 

In most cases, Amber would’ve been in about the same boat. Why would she care if one detective or another wanted to go to a party? Yet this one mattered. This specific name was one she had read about for over a year now, and had been intently researching ever since she had found out about the existence of the Ministry. He was connected to them, she just knew it. Obviously, the Ministry had police in their pockets, and Amber was convinced that Detective Derek Meyers was one such asset. 

He had been the lead investigator on her father’s case, the man responsible for determining what had actually happened to her dad. And, as far as Amber could determine, all the evidence had gone through him. If there was a cover-up, if the Ministry had given her father’s killer a free pass, it almost certainly had to have come from Derek Meyers. He had hidden one piece of evidence or another, had intentionally ignored something important, had done something to make sure the investigation didn’t find the actual culprit. She knew he had to have done something. A random person just stealing a car, hitting her father, and getting away without leaving any fingerprints or hair or anything they could use to find him? Especially these days? It didn’t make any sense. There had to have been something, which meant someone had hidden it. Meyers was her biggest suspect, since he’d had the most control over the investigation. 

And now he was going to be at that party, distracted by all those people, with his phone stowed away in a back room. She would never get a better chance than this to look at his contacts, his messages, all of it. Even if he didn’t actually keep records of what he had done on her father’s case on it (and she would’ve been very surprised if he did), she could find something connecting him to the Ministry. And from there, she could… well, she didn’t know, exactly. Find a way to make him tell the truth without giving away who she was? That part was shaky, at best. 

But the fact was, she couldn’t just give up on it. She’d figure out the details later. For now, she just had to get that information. She had to get proof that he worked for the Ministry, then she’d work her way through an actual plan of what to do with that. She’d take his phone, get the battery out of it, then take it over to ask that Wren girl to help her get into it. Or maybe someone else. The point was, getting the phone was the important part. 

“We should go to that thing.” 

The voice made Amber jump a bit. She’d been so intently focused on thinking her way through this rather haphazard plan (it was more of a goal), that she hadn’t noticed Dani come up behind her. Turning that way, she blinked a couple times. “What?” 

Arching an eyebrow, the black girl nodded past her toward the group nearby. “That party thing he’s talking about. We should go to it. I mean, why not? My aunt says I’m supposed to ‘spend time with the class of people I’ve been brought into,’ whatever that means. Me going to this party will score major brownie points. And if I’m going with you, it won’t even be that bad.” 

Amber felt a slight flush cross her neck and cheeks, but most of her attention was on the idea itself. Of course she wanted to go to this party, that was her entire plan. Well, that and getting into that back room. She’d had no idea of exactly how to invite herself into that group to go, and knew that attending by herself would probably stand out. Sure, it wouldn’t be hard to get an invitation, but just showing up alone would have made people wonder about her. It would have made people notice her, and she didn’t want that. But this? Dani had just come up out of nowhere and offered her the perfect cover and excuse. Amber practically could have kissed her. 

Okay, now she really was blushing. Clearing her throat, the girl offered a shrug while managing to keep her voice as casual as possible. “You asking me out on a date or something?” 

“Don’t start planning the wedding already, O’Connell,” Dani teased. “I just thought it’d be fun. If you don’t wanna do it, I’ll see if that Melody girl has anything going on.” 

Shaking her head while doing her best to not sound too eager about the whole situation, Amber replied, “Nah, I’ll go. Sounds like it could be fun, I guess. It’s better than going by myself, that’s for sure.” She took a moment to glance at the other girl, judging her reaction before adding, “Are you sure you don’t have anything else going on? I mean, a girl like you has to have a pretty full schedule.”

Dani, in turn, smirked just a little. “I think I can clear my calendar for it.” She grimaced then, as though something had just occurred to her. “They’re gonna want us to dress up, aren’t they? You going in costume?”

Oh boy, did that question have implications that Dani couldn’t possibly have known. Resisting the urge to cough at that, Amber tilted her head as though considering it. “I mean, I guess I could throw something together. Maybe I can find something simple at the mall.” No way in hell would she go as her actual Touched identity, of course. While very vaguely tempting in a dangerous sort of way, it was an incredibly bad idea. Even if she went with her own hair color and everything rather than turning it blonde, she would still look far too close to the real thing. Thanks to, well, literally being the real thing. She needed to keep as much distance between Amber O’Connell and That-A-Way as she could. Letting anyone’s thoughts drift toward connecting the two was a recipe for disaster. Though, granted, this whole idea was also a disaster recipe, she could at least do her best not to make it even worse. She would find a costume that was both simple and very different from her real secret identity. 

With that in mind, the two of them talked for another couple of minutes about what they were going to do, before promising to text each other more plans for the next evening. They agreed to keep their costumes a secret so the other person could be surprised when they met up for the party. Then they separated, with Amber walking away from her locker while smiling to herself about how she had ended up with the perfect cover to hide her true intentions for being at that party. 

She had no idea that, as Dani watched her go, the other girl was thinking the exact same thing. 

*******

“I thought you were into that Minority chick.” Several hours later, KD made that comment while she and Dani were looking through an assortment of costumes in an old shop. Outside of her Touched identity as Broadway, KD was a pale girl with bright blue hair tied into pigtails. She stood barely five feet tall, another thing separating her from her costumed self, given the Broadway suit boosted her height a fair bit. With all that in mind, it was doubtful that anyone would ever connect her to the La Casa Touched. 

The two girls were keeping their voices low, though it didn’t really matter considering the elderly lady who ran the place was engrossed in watching television at the front counter. “You know, the one you keep flirting with.”

Dani, flipping through several possible outfits hanging on the rack, replied easily. “Sure, she’s great. But I can’t exactly ask her to go with me like this, can I? And I definitely can’t ask her to go with me as Pack. I think she might have a few questions about what I’m actually doing there, and she might get all goody two-shoes about it. 

KD scoffed under her breath. “Come on, it’s not like you’re going there just to steal things. You have legitimate business in that place.” She lowered her voice even more, pointedly adding, “Jennica business.” 

Giving up on finding what she wanted on that particular rack, Dani nodded at her friend. “Yeah, but I’m not sure Way would see the good side of stealing your sister’s social worker’s keys so we can get into her office and find Jennica’s file to figure out if there’s anything in there about where she might hide. That’s a lot of stealing and breaking and entering for someone on the Minority.” She paused a little before adding a bit more quietly, “And I’m not sure I want to get her involved in that.” 

KD put a hand on her arm. “You’re worried about Jennica hurting her, aren’t you?” 

With a sigh, Dani moved to the next rack to check through the clothes there. “She’s already got enough to deal with. I don’t want to throw her into Jennica’s sights. I know she’s trained and all that, just–” She hesitated before giving a soft sigh. “If she did get involved in this whole thing and then got hurt, I’d feel like shit. I already feel like shit because Jennica’s your sister and you–fuck. You know what I mean.” 

“Yeah,” KD murmured. “It’s pretty screwed up. I guess I can’t blame you for not wanting to get her involved.” She looked that way, adding, “But you’re okay getting this other girl involved?” 

Dropping the suit she had been examining back onto the hook, Dani looked at her intently. “She’s not going to be involved. The two of us are gonna go and hang out a little bit there, then I’ll disappear for awhile to get what we need before finding her again. She’ll never know anything was going on. It’s just gonna be a nice, normal, ordinary date. Nothing weird.” 

Raising an eyebrow at the declaration, KD shrugged. “Sure, babe. If you say so. I’ve just got one question. She was at the top of your list to take with you to this thing, so you obviously like this girl too. But which one do you like more, the one who knows you as Pack, or the one who knows you as Dani?” 

The question was met with silence, as Dani frowned. Who did she like more? It was an impossible thing to answer. That-A-Way knew one side of her, but Amber knew another side. She knew Way liked her, in plenty of ways, even if she didn’t approve of all the things Pack did. But then, Amber had no idea she was a criminal. She knew Dani the girl from school, not Pack. Amber or That-A-Way, That-A-Way or Amber? One girl knew her costumed self, one knew her civilian self. 

“You know,” she finally muttered, “It’s too bad I can’t find a way to squish them together.

“I’m pretty sure that would be my perfect girl.” 

*******

It was five o’clock the next evening when Amber and Dani met just in front of the school. That wasn’t where the party was being held, but it was an easy place for the two of them to join up before heading that way. The two of them looked each other up and down for a moment, taking in their costumes. 

Dani, for her part, had settled on wearing what amounted to Caishen’s costume. Black boots with dark gold pants that had black lines running up them, along with a dark purple scalemail-like shirt, and a gold leather coat. The real Caishen had a hard metal black helmet with glowing purple lenses over the eyes, though Dani’s was clearly plastic. Decent plastic, but still. The costume looked expensive, if not incredibly so. There was even a bluetooth device built into the helmet for phone calls.

Amber, meanwhile, wore dark green pants with what looked somewhat like fish scales running down them, with a gold-scaled long sleeve shirt and a simple pair of goggles. It was a cheap version of a costume belonging to Freedive, a water-based Star-Touched from California. Her costume came complete with tall metal-looking boots that were close approximations of the real thing. Not that she had really cared all that much about being accurate, but there was another reason she’d wanted to have the boots. 

Giving a low whistle, Dani added a thumbs up. “Boy, am I glad I didn’t go with that Melody girl.” 

Feeling her blush deepen, Amber waved that off. “Yeah, yeah, you look great too. So, are we heading over there, or would you rather just stand here and stare at each other a little longer?” Even as the words left her she was regretting saying them. She’d meant it to sound teasing, but now that she’d actually gotten it out…

From the way Dani leaned back on her heels, it was obvious she was trying to decide exactly how to react. There was amusement in her voice as she looked the other girl up and down briefly. “Well, to tell you the truth, I’d be just fine with another couple hours of this. But, I suppose we should probably head over there. Don’t wanna make the poor people at the party miss out on all of this.” She waved her hand down herself and then over toward Amber. “That’d be a real crime.” With that, she turned to gesture toward the car she had driven up in, given her date had been dropped off by an Uber. “Your carriage for the evening, milady?” 

Smiling just a little, Amber gave a little bow before stepping that way. She still hoped she would be able to get into that back room and find the detective’s phone. But even if she couldn’t, this date might not be a waste after all. 

Dani, watching the other girl get in the car, had quite similar thoughts. She closed the passenger side door, glanced to the sky while thinking about the other things she needed to do that night, then walked around the other side to get in the driver’s seat. 

Whatever came next, one thing was for sure. This was going to be a date she would remember for a long time. 

*****

The party itself was actually being held at a local hotel, in one of the large banquet halls. After parking in the underground lot, the two of them made their way up the elevator before following the posted signs to the room in question. Not that they really needed signs, considering there was a small flood of other people in costumes heading that way. It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go. 

There was a man standing by the entrance to the banquet room. Like all the other serving staff at his event, he wore a crisp white coat, blue pants, and a blue mask that covered most of his face. He was the person responsible for checking invitations. As expected, neither of the girls had had a hard time getting one. They presented them, waited for the man to scan the invitation with his handheld device to make sure they were real, then waved them in. On their way past, they heard the man informing people behind them that if they needed masks or other costume pieces, they would be provided for them. 

The door didn’t open straight into the banquet room itself. Instead, there was a small entryway with a desk to one side where the coat and phone check woman sat. She took Amber and Dani’s devices, put them in small boxes with their names, then took them into the room behind her before giving them a couple receipts. Both girls watched that intently, neither noticing the attention of the other. 

In any case, once they had their receipts for their stowed phones, the two headed through the next door into the actual banquet hall. This was where the party was, where they would be spending most of their time for the next few hours. 

And boy was it an impressive room in that regard. Or rather, three rooms. The banquet hall, such as it was called, was three enormous chambers linked together through several doorways at either end. The room they entered first was the central chamber, shaped like a half-circle with the door they had just come through at the center of the flat line, while the curved side opposite them was taken up with a stage where a live band was playing. Most of the rest of the room consisted of a dance floor for couples, along with tables to sit and rest to either side. There was a series of enormous floor-to-ceiling curtains against the walls, either to muffle how much sound reached beyond the room, or for some decorative purpose. Perhaps both. A full-service bar waited to the right, while the tables of punch and other nonalcoholic drinks were to the left. 

The door on that left side led into a quieter room where people could sit at an assortment of circular tables to have real food and listen to the music being piped in from this room, while the door on the opposite side led to a room with card tables, billiards, and more. Only adults were allowed to gamble at these things, of course. But Amber and Dani could wander through and watch if they wanted to.

“What a place, huh?” Amber finally remarked, after the two of them had taken all that in for a few long seconds. 

“Oh, it’s definitely a place,” Dani agreed, before grabbing the other girl’s hand. “Come on, let’s show these rich old fogeys how to really dance.” 

She had a job to do, of course. But that would come later, once things had settled in, and everyone who was going to attend the party was here. Then the coat and phone-check girl would sit down and relax, giving Dani a chance to get in there and find what she was actually there for. 

But at the moment, this was a perfectly fine way to spend the next hour or so. 

It felt a little surreal for Amber to be dancing out on a floor full of people dressed up in costumes of other Touched, including several examples of her teammates and mentors. To say nothing of how it felt when she saw a couple people who were dressed up like her. Well, her Touched identity anyway. Seeing someone who looked just like That-A-Way was… weird. It was like going through one of those weird movie plots where the person meets themselves in order to have some grand realization or something. Only in this case, the other versions of herself had no idea she even existed. Which was, in some ways, even more weird. 

On the other hand, she didn’t have much time to think about that. Not with her particular dance partner. Dani was very intense, and clearly didn’t care about attracting attention. It was fun, but it was also exhausting. Amber was very glad for her years of cheerleading practice, followed by over a year of work with the Minority. The two of them danced together, ignoring everyone around them save for the slightest effort to avoid running into anyone. But for the most part, Amber and Dani’s full awareness was focused on one another, and how they were moving. The music in the air, the excitement, the rush of motion, of being the center of one another’s attention, it… it was a lot. But it was also good. It was fun. It was… nice. 

She did, however, pay attention to the doors where everyone was coming in. So, she noticed when Detective Derek Meyers made his way in. The man wasn’t hard to spot, even in costume. He was tall and somewhat heavyset, with long red hair that was currently tied back in a ponytail. He wore a simple costume of a black suit with a green coat and a domino mask. Amber wasn’t sure who he was dressed up as, or if it actually was anyone in particular. But either way, he was here. Which meant his phone was here. 

Dani, meanwhile, already knew her own target was here. She’d actually passed the woman in question on her way in. The social worker whose keys she needed to borrow was working the front phone-coat check alongside a couple other people. Dani had handed the woman her phone (well, one of them anyway) and even told her to have a nice evening. 

Finally, in a break between songs, the two of them make their way off the dance floor. There were a few scattered bits of applause from people nearby who had apparently been taken in by the display. But for the most part, the space filled up again quickly, as the others went back to dancing. Dani and Amber stepped over by the refreshments table, each taking a glass of punch while looking around at the people surrounding them. 

“Boy,” Dani remarked, “you rich people sure know how to party.” 

Rolling her eyes, Amber retorted, “You know, from everything you’ve said about your great-aunt, I’m pretty sure you’re richer than I am.” 

“Not me,” Dani pointed out, “my aunt. I’m just sort of taking advantage of her assets or whatever. Not like it’s my money.” 

Gesturing at that, Amber replied, “I mean, then you’re basically the same as ninety-nine percent of the ‘rich’ kids at that school. They’re all there on their family’s money too.” 

Mouth opening behind her plastic helmet, Dani paused to consider before giving a nod of acceptance. “You know, that’s fair. But that doesn’t stop a lot of them from acting like they personally made that money with their own sweat and blood. Not that most of them would have any idea what it’s like to sweat.”

Snorting to spite herself, Amber glanced around the room to take in all the costumes once more before speaking up. “You know, I think I need to visit the little rich girl’s room. Would you mind seeing what they have on the menu tonight? I bet it’s something decent.”  

Dani, who had been trying to think of how she was going to separate herself from the other girl to do what she needed to do, tried not to sound relieved. “Oh, yeah, I guess I could do that. If you don’t need company.” 

“I think I can manage,” Amber replied dryly. “Don’t worry, I’ll find you. Your costume stands out.” 

“So does yours, babe,” Dani shot back while pointedly looking her up and down. “But then, you don’t need a costume to stand out.” 

Amber quickly turned away to hide her blush while making her way through the crowd. She still really wanted to get into that coatroom to find the phone so she could figure out exactly how much that detective guy knew, but she actually was having a good time so far. A small part of the girl wondered if she should just put that plan out of her mind and focus on having a good time with her date. But even as that thought came to mind, she saw her father’s face and felt a wave of guilt wash over her for even entertaining it. His murder still wasn’t solved, the person responsible for his death was running around free. There was no way she could let that go. No, it didn’t matter how much fun she was having with Dani. She had to get in there and find out if Derek Meyers knew anything he wasn’t putting in the official report. 

To that end, she made her way to the restroom as promised, stepping into the stall at the end of the room before locking it behind her. Crouching to make sure she was alone in this place, she carefully stepped out of the metal boots, revealing dark slippers, before positioning the boots so that anyone glancing under the stall would think someone’s feet were there. It would do for the short time she planned on being away, in any case. But now she had to move quickly, before Dani started to wonder where she was. 

Pushing both of her gold-scaled sleeves upward, Amber watched as the shirt itself lost the scales and turned black. The sleeves easily pushed all the way up to the shoulders, seeming to vanish in the process so her arms were left bare. A touch of the belt buckle turned her dark green pants black as well. From there, she simply tugged the That-A-Way mask out of her pocket and exchanged the goggles for it. The mask would change her hair color, facial features, and voice. If anyone did see her snooping around, she would make an excuse about investigating something. The most important part was that she definitely didn’t want to get caught using That-A-Way’s powers while wearing a costume as Amber O’Connell. Her plan was to not be seen at all, but better safe than sorry. 

Amber had actually come into this place a few hours earlier while people were still setting up to look around and to get the lay of the rooms so she would know exactly where to go. Now, she turned to face the wall behind her. The coat room where she would find that cell phone was to the north from this spot. Which meant her teleportation was in play. 

Focusing on the far rear corner of the room in question, which she had seen while innocently looking around earlier, Amber instantly vanished from the restroom stall, and reappeared in that dark area. Rows and rows of coats and shelves full of locked phone boxes lay around her, and she could hear muffled voices from the people up front. It was late enough by this point that there weren’t many people arriving to have their stuff put away, yet too early for others to start leaving. Which was the point, of course. Amber knew she had to be careful about the timing here. And, well, careful about everything else as well. 

Taking her extra phone out after peeking to make sure the door leading up front was shut, Amber turned the light on dim and began to check all the names on the cell phone lock boxes as she searched for the one she needed. Meyers, Meyers, where was the one labeled Meyers? Come on, she had to look faster. 

Unfortunately, she’d barely started to look before a sound made Amber’s gaze snap toward the door. The knob was turning. Fuck, someone was coming in! Quickly, she ducked back behind the furthest shelf. Hopefully, they would just toss another box or phone into the room and then leave again. She really had to get done with this and go find Dani. 

******

Dani, meanwhile, had also checked this place out earlier. But she had not focused on the restrooms or their relative position. Instead, she made her way into the game room, where people were sitting around playing cards or pool. The din of conversation, clinking glasses, and the clack of balls bouncing around the felt table top was incredibly familiar for the girl given she spent so much time in La Casa’s base. But still, she couldn’t let that lull her into a false sense of security. What she was doing here was very dangerous, and she had to get in and out quickly before anyone noticed. And, with any luck, before Amber started wondering where she had gone. 

So, walking through the dimly lit room, Dani moved to the far corner. There were more heavy, floor-to-ceiling curtains here as well, and she glanced around to make sure she wasn’t being watched before slipping behind one of them. Once she was safely out of sight behind the curtain, Dani quickly stripped the gold coat off and flipped it inside out. The interior of the coat was white. When she pulled it on and zipped the thing up, it matched the jackets the staff of this place were wearing, at least close enough for casual inspection. 

From there, the girl ran her hands down her gold pants until she found the small buttons on either side of her pockets. At a touch, the pants shifted until they were blue, also matching the wait staff uniform. It hadn’t been hard to get color-changing clothes in that costume shop. It was, after all, one of the best-selling Touched-Tech clothing in the city. Especially with Paintball around. The only real difficult part had been getting the woman they bought the costume from to understand that they didn’t want a bunch of random colors or wild designs like most people who were trying to imitate the boy in question. They just wanted simple gold to blue. 

Once her clothes were properly changed, Dani plucked the helmet off and hid it there behind the curtain. She couldn’t put that in her pocket, but it should be fine here for a few minutes. Then she took a mask from her pocket. At a touch of the button on the side, it expanded outward to match the ones the staff were wearing. Now, as she stepped out from behind the curtain, she would look (at least to most who didn’t inspect her too closely), like she was just another servant there to help the party go smoothly. 

As she expected, the uniform practically made her invisible. Which wasn’t as good as if Grandstand had just come in here with her own power to make people not pay attention to her, but apparently she had her own thing to deal with. Besides, there could have been various bits of electronic security that would identify an extra person who wasn’t supposed to be there. 

And, of course, Dani still wasn’t sure she trusted the woman. Better that she or KD do this part, and she’d had an easy way in. 

Speaking of having an easy way in, the girl made her way through the crowd to the front desk in the main room. Everyone else ignored her, even the other servers. The two women in charge of the coat and phone check barely glanced her way as she walked over holding a phone up. “Someone missed theirs, got another box?” 

Taking the time to absently pass one of the lock boxes her way, the woman in charge, who happened to be the very woman whose keys Dani needed, mumbled something about making sure she put the right name on it, then went back to the conversation she was having with her partner. Just in case, Dani carefully wrote out a name on the side, but she was pretty sure she could’ve completely ignored that part and the chicks wouldn’t have noticed. A moment later, she slipped past them and walked right through the door to ‘put the box away.’ Given how distracted they were, she would have all the time she needed to find where Sue Pascal, the woman right outside, had hung her coat. The coat she apparently always kept her keys inside of. 

It had taken a good bit of research to figure out exactly what sort of security they were dealing with, and how to bypass it. The agency took privacy very seriously, and the only way to enter that office (without getting a whole lot more help than they wanted to ask for), was to actually physically have the key. It wasn’t just a bit of metal, it had a special piece of electronic something or other in it that would both get them through the door and prevent various alarms from going off. Alarms which would, in turn, transfer and wipe the very information they were trying to get. 

Again, they took privacy very seriously. These were the type of people who arranged adoptions for the very rich, and very private. 

But give her just a minute in here, and she would find the coat and the keys. She already had a fake one ready to exchange it for, which would give them plenty of time to get in the office, find what they needed, and get out again before Sue even noticed anything was wrong when she went in the next day. 

*******

Even as the other girl came into the room to start looking around, Amber was silently cursing. She couldn’t see the person very well in the dimly lit room, but it was obvious that she was looking for something. Did someone come back to ask for their stuff back already? Never mind, never mind. This couldn’t take that long. And this was a large party. If Dani wondered where she’d been, she would just tell her she’d gotten lost and they must’ve missed each other. 

Unfortunately, things didn’t get any easier or less complicated. Just as she saw the shadowy figure start to lift up a coat that had been hung in one corner, there was another sound, this one coming from the far side of the room. It sounded like a low creak. As she, and the girl in the corner, both turned that way, one of the shelves there literally slid aside. Seeing that, Amber shoved herself even more firmly back into the corner. Weirdly, she could see the other figure duck down as well, clearly hiding. 

Well, maybe not so weirdly. If she was a staff member for this place, seeing someone come in through a hidden door would probably make her hide too. At least long enough to see what was going on. 

********

Dani was cursing under her breath as she hid behind one of the shelves, squinting out between a couple boxes at the sight of the male figure coming into the room. A secret door? What the hell? If she’d known there was a secret door, she wouldn’t have gone through all this trouble. And what was this guy doing? 

What he was doing, apparently, was talking on the phone. His voice was low. “Yeah, he said they’re all in position. Trust me, we are definitely gonna make an impression. Give it another hour, and this place won’t be more than a memory.” He chuckled then. “A very hot memory.” 

Oh, what the hell? Was this asshole planning an attack on this place or something? What did he mean by something or someone being in position? Was he with one of the other gangs? This definitely wasn’t a La Casa job. It didn’t fit anything like what Blackjack would do with that ‘hot memory’ comment, and she would’ve heard about it. 

Sure enough, the man kept talking. “All ten of them. Yeah, he said they’re hidden real good. In the walls and floor.  I’m just gonna finish up here, then I’ll get out of this place before it goes boom.” 

Okay, no, Dani couldn’t let this happen. She might’ve been a thief, but she sure as hell wasn’t just going to let this piece of shit blow up a building full of people. Even as she had that thought, the girl reached down into her pocket and started to straighten up. Her fingers found Holiday in her tiny skink form, while she focused on her power. 

*****

Bombs?! Fucking seriously? Before the man had even finished saying those words about the place ‘going boom,’ Amber was already using her phone to text the Minority base for help. Or she tried to. The message went undelivered, and she managed to glance down at her phone, just to see that she had no service. Great, just great. Obviously, this guy was blocking calls beyond his own phone, or something. Well, all she had to do was get that phone. And, if it meant hitting him a few times, she was good with that. 

With another thought, she vanished from where she was, and reappeared behind the man, already pivoting. Facing south like this would make her intangible, which she planned to take advantage of by making him jump through her. So, she quickly began to blurt, “Hey ass—” 

But in that moment, something else showed up right in front of the man. He started to turn at her words, yet the thing that jumped out of the shadows demanded his attention much more thoroughly and immediately. it crashed into the man and both of them went straight through Amber, making her spin that way as the man yelped out loud, his phone dropping from his hand. 

In a panic about what the hell had just happened, Amber started to grab for the shadowy monster that had just tackled the man, only to stop short, hiss-blurting, “Holiday?!” 

Sure enough, the panther-lizard pivoted, front paws still firmly holding the man down, before leaning up to purr and lick at Amber’s face. 

“Way?” That was Pack herself, coming out of the shadowy corner. That was the girl Amber had seen coming to the room. She was dressed up like one of the servants, with the same blue mask covering her face. That had to be how she got into the party. “What’re you doing here?” 

“I– I had something I had to do,” she found herself stammering, only to catch herself. “Wait, what are you doing here? You–wait.” This wasn’t the time. It really wasn’t the time. Instead, she dove to the floor and grabbed the man’s phone. Dammit, it had gone to the lock screen, and needed a code. Quickly, she moved to the man and grabbed his hair. “What’s the code for your phone?! How do I call out? Where are the bombs?” She spoke to Pack without looking that way. “Pull the fire alarm, get these people out!” 

The man, a guy in his late forties with short blonde hair and a thin mustache, gave a little chuckle. “I wouldn’t do that if I was you. Unless you want my buddy outside to trigger those bombs as soon as he sees people take off.” His eyes narrowed at them. “People start leaving, he’ll set them off. He gets any sign that the cell blocker is disabled, he’ll set them off. He hears or sees cops or Touched start coming, he’ll set them off. So, ya know…” He sneered. “Maybe you two should just run for it. Two of you, one that can teleport? I bet you can get out in time.” 

Amber wanted to ask who this guy was, why he was doing this, who his partner was, and plenty of other things, but none of that seemed to matter at the moment. The most important– the only important thing right then, was taking care of the bombs themselves. So, grabbing the man’s collar, she held it tightly while demanding, “Where are they? How do we disable them?” When he simply scowled at her, she leaned back and spoke flatly. “Pack, would you tell Holiday to bite one of his fingers off?” 

The man started to scoff, only for his eyes to widen as Pack gestured and the lizard-panther grabbed his hand in her teeth. “Okay okay! Look, the passcode for the phone is four four two one, but it won’t help you get your friends involved. It can only call my partner outside, that’s it. I don’t even know where he set up, just somewhere he could see the entrance. But if you unlock the phone, open the ‘find boom’ app right there and it’ll detect the bombs. The–fuck, the person who made the bombs gave us that shit to control them if we had to. You get close enough with the phone and you can disable them, okay? Just tell this thing not to bite my fucking fingers off, fuck!”

“Why don’t you just tell us where they are?” Pack demanded, putting a hand on Holiday’s back while the lizard kept the man’s hand between her teeth threateningly. 

The man hissed before sighing. “I dunno, okay? I paid someone else to put them in cuz I couldn’t get them through security. He works with the security team. You’ve just gotta track them down yourselves. Ten bombs, you got…. fifty-two minutes. You can make that work, right?”

“You better hope we can,” Amber informed him, already reaching out to grab a nearby scarf from a hanging coat. “Cuz if we go up in flames, you’ll be right there with us.” With that, she tied the man’s hands, gagged him with another scarf, and hauled him back to the corner of the room. Seriously? Bombs? There were fucking bombs in here? How–what–no. No, she couldn’t panic. She couldn’t freak out. Not right now. Later. She could freak out later. Right now she had to stop the bombs and save all these people. And… and she couldn’t do it alone.

With that in mind, Amber straightened and looked at Pack. “Look, I don’t know why you’re here, or what you were here to steal, but I don’t care. Would you please help me find these bombs?” If the guy who had brought these bombs in worked with security, there was no way she could even contact them to do something. Whoever he was, he’d hear about it and set off the bombs. She couldn’t contact the authorities, couldn’t even get help from anyone in here. It was up to her and the La Casa Touched who… who she felt very complicated about. 

“Like you had to ask.” Pack had already picked up the man’s phone, taking a cord from her pocket. “Blackjack gave me this for… something else, but it should work. Here.” She plugged the cord into that phone, then into her own before waiting a moment. There was a ding, and she yanked the cord out. “Okay, now I’ve got the same app our friend there was talking about. So we split up, find all ten bombs, and disable them without causing a panic, right?” Even as she said that, the girl had already started to shrink Holiday back into her normal form, catching the skink to put into her pocket. 

Amber hesitated, then gave a quick nod, looking down at her own phone. “Right, and we’ve got forty-nine minutes to do it. So we better hurry.” There were a lot of other things she wanted to say at that moment, but she settled on, “Thanks. And be careful.” 

“Forty-nine minutes to find ten bombs?” Pack waved that off. “We can do it. 

“At least, I really hope we can.” 

******

After leaving That-A-Way for the moment, Pack made her way out of the coatroom and hesitated. Part of her wanted to start warning people immediately. But that wouldn’t do any good. It would just start a panic and make everyone run for the exits, which would make the guy outside set off the bombs. No, she had to find and disarm them with this little phone app thing. So, she began moving through the crowd, glancing down at the screen in the palm of her hand. Unfortunately, within twenty seconds, three different people had asked her to do different things for them. It was the uniform. They thought she worked here, which was just going to make this whole thing take even more time. Time she didn’t have. So, the girl went back to those curtains and switched to her first costume. Now at least she would blend in with the rest of the guests.

She had no idea why That-A-Way was here to begin with, or why she had been hiding in that room. Or, for that matter, why she wasn’t dressed as herself aside from the mask. She was dressed all in black, like some sort of… well, thief. 

It raised a lot of questions, but she wasn’t going to get answers to any of them just yet. The bombs were more important. Fortunately, this app thing didn’t seem hard to use. As far as she could tell, any time she got near one of the bombs, it would light up with a red circle in the middle of the screen. Then all she had to do was get close enough for it to turn green, and she could press ‘detonate’ or ‘disarm.’ It really was a bomb app for dummies. There was even a little number ten in the top right corner to tell her how many were left. Why it didn’t just have a single button to disarm all the bombs at once from anywhere… well, that would’ve been too easy, wouldn’t it? 

There, the light was flickering. She had to move closer to the–

“Dani?” 

Oh shit, it was Amber. Quickly hiding the phone up her sleeve, Dani turned that way. Sure enough, her date had just emerged from the crowd. “Oh, hey. There you are. I was… looking for you.” Fuck, she wanted to warn the girl to get out, but… but… fuck. She just had to disarm the bombs. There was no way to warn her, not in a way she’d understand. 

******

Shit! Of course Dani had to be right here, the way the bomb detector was telling her to go. Amber cursed inwardly. Could she find a way to tell the other girl she should take off? No. No, even if she could make her leave casually, that might still make the guy outside get antsy enough to set off the bombs. And… and… fuck. Okay, she just had to play it cool. Just had to keep moving and disarm the bombs without letting Dani know what was going on. 

Forcing a smile to her face while adjusting the goggles she had put on after changing into the old costume since she hadn’t wanted to draw anyone’s attention by wearing the mixed That-A-Way and blatant thief outfit, Amber shrugged. “Oh, well it’s a big place. Big crowd. Come on, let’s uh, take a walk so we’re out of the way.” Yeah, that didn’t make much sense, but she had to keep moving. To her relief, Dani didn’t question it. The two of them began to move through the sea of people. Every once in awhile, Amber managed to glance down at the phone she had hidden partway up her sleeve. They were getting closer. It was flickering…. there, it was green. Her thumb quickly moved to hit the disarm button, and she let out a silent sigh of relief when the number in the corner switched from ten to nine.

“Uhh, so, having a good time?” 

*******

Nine? That-A-Way must’ve disabled this one. Quickly turning, Dani scanned the rest of the room. Was the other girl anywhere in sight? She had to be, but would she still look like she had in the coat room, or–

Shaking that off, she forced a casual shrug, trying her best not to sound like there were nine more bombs she was trying to disarm before they killed her and everyone else in the building. “Sure, I guess. You know, the dip’s pretty great.” What the hell was she even saying? She was distracted, trying to subtly glance at her phone to see where she should try to maneuver the other girl to next. 

“Oh, really?” Amber sounded genuinely intrigued, weirdly. “I haven’t seen any yet. Ahhh, you wanna grab some?” 

Thank God, a ready-made excuse. Jumping on that, Dani nodded. “Sure, I’ll get the dip and find you. Uhh, keep heading that way.” She gestured toward the gambling room before starting to slip away. Right, now all she had to do was–

***** 

Keep looking for those bombs. With Dani out of the way, Amber could search for the next one without worrying about the other girl seeing her constantly checking a phone she wasn’t even supposed to have at the moment. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t hard to find the second one. Within two minutes of making her way through the crowd, she had already gotten the green light and disabled it. Reaching up to stick an earbud in, she used her own phone rather than the piece of shit bomber guy’s to call Pack so they could check in. Outside calls were still jammed, but within the same general area they could use what amounted to a short-range radio signal. 

The phone rang three times before the La Casa Touched picked up. “Hang on… There.” On the asshole’s phone, Amber saw the number tick down to seven, even as Pack spoke. “Three down?” 

There was something about the other girl’s voice, but Amber couldn’t focus on it. She started walking while checking the phone again. “Yeah, and I think I’m getting close to another one. We’ve got thirty-eight minutes to find seven more.” 

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve got the timer going too,” Pack replied. “Look, assuming we get through this, you’ve gotta tell me–wait a minute.” 

There was a pause, before the number on the phone ticked down to six. Amber heard a hiss of triumph from the other end of the line. “Fuck yeah,” Pack murmured. “Another one down. When we get through this, you’ve gotta tell me what you were doing in there.” 

“Sure, right after you tell me what you were doing,” Amber shot back, before giving a polite smile to the man who glanced her way curiously. “And how much it’s being fenced for.” 

******

Scoffing as she made her way down one side of the refreshments table, Dani spoke smoothly into the bluetooth built into her plastic Caishen helmet while keeping her voice low enough not to carry to others in the crowd. “Babe, I’ll have you know, I’m here for… okay, not entirely legitimate reasons, but pretty good ones. We’re still looking for Jennica, okay?” 

There was a brief pause before That-A-Way sighed. “Fuck, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t just assume, I just–” 

“Don’t worry about it,” Dani promptly interrupted. The light was flashing again, very faintly, so she tried going one way, only for it to stop flashing. Wrong direction. Turning back the other way, she kept moving. “I’m a thief and there’s a bunch of rich people here. I don’t blame you for… you know, adding two and two.” 

Okay, okay, just a bit further this way and… shit, not that way. Turning slightly, she started to move forward only to run into two heavyset guys loudly talking to one another. When gesturing for them to step aside didn’t work, Dani made a point of shoving her way through them, ignoring the annoyed curses that prompted. She didn’t have time to worry about them. Six more bombs, they had to disarm six more. And then maybe she could try to salvage the rest of her actual mission and this date with Amber. 

Oh shit, speaking of Amber, there she–

*****

“Hey!” Trying not to sound surprised as she quickly disabled the bluetooth in her ear and tugged it out in one smooth motion, Amber stepped up to where she had just seen Dani. “Uhh, no luck with the dip?” God, she was a dip. There wasn’t time for this. Why didn’t she just tell the girl to… to… what? What could she tell her? Nothing, there was no way to explain it, and no time to try. 

“Yeah, the guy with the tray must’ve moved,” Dani replied, turning a bit to look around. “I swear he was right here, but uhh. Wait, I think he’s over there. You stay right here, I’ll get it.”

“Oh, right, yeah.” Already thinking of an excuse she could have for not staying right there, Amber gestured. “M-must be pretty good dip if you’re chasing this guy down for it.” God damn it, why did she say that? Was she trying to make the other girl give up on finding it? What the hell was wrong with her? 

Sure enough, just as she had been afraid of, Dani hesitated and turned back to her. “Look, I’m not trying to avoid you or anything. I mean–” 

“It’s okay,” Amber quickly put in, trying not to think of the ticking clock. Half an hour for six bombs, she could do that. With Pack’s help, she could do it. Fuck, had the other girl already found another one? She couldn’t look at the phone to check. “I promise, it’s all good. We don’t have to be attached at the hip to be here together, right?” 

“Right.” Giving her a thumbs up, Dani seemed to be smiling behind that helmet. “Lemme chase this guy down, then we can dance again or something.” With that, she disappeared into the crowd once more. 

*****

As she moved away from Amber, Dani touched the button on her helmet to unmute her call. “You find any more yet?” Her gaze glanced down to the phone, only to see it still said five out of ten, after she’d managed to disable the fifth one surreptitiously while talking to Amber. 

“Not yet,” came the response after a moment. “I’m uh, I’m looking, one second. Think I’ve got another one right–” And then the number ticked down to four. Dani could hear the relief in the other girl’s voice, tinted as it was with continued worry about the rest. “Six down. We’ve still got time.” 

“Yeah, we’ve got time,” Dani agreed, following the intermittent flashing light in the app to track down the next one. “But… if we run out, what–” 

“We won’t run out,” came the immediate response. “Four more, we can do this. Just… just keep looking. And–” There was a brief hesitation. “And thanks.” 

“Not like I want to see a bunch of innocent people… you know.” Dani didn’t want to say that out loud, even if she was pretty sure no one was close enough to hear, or understand. “Just keep looking, we’ve got thirty minutes to find four more.” 

So, they continued to search the rooms, following the flashing light on the app. Dani found another relatively soon, then That-A-Way found two more over the next fifteen minutes. With about ten left on the clock, they only had one bomb to find. Unfortunately, that one proved to be the problem. Time was ticking away, and there was no sign of it. That little number ‘one’ continued to flash in the corner of the screen, while the minutes rapidly vanished. 

“Where the fuck is this thing?” Dani had stopped worrying about what Amber was going to think. She’d think about how to apologize to the other girl for seemingly ditching her once she made sure everyone survived the next few minutes. 

“We can’t do this,” came Way’s response over the phone. “We’ve gotta take the chance to start teleporting these people out.” 

“There’s no way,” Dani immediately put in. “Look, even when this whole thing started, you couldn’t have–hang on. Wait.” There had been a very faint flicker from the app. She stopped, turning until it flickered again. Looking up, she saw a stairwell access door and muttered a curse. “It’s upstairs, I got it.” Quickly, without even bothering to look around to see if anyone was looking, she moved through the door and began to run up the steps, looking at the phone the whole time. The flickering light was getting brighter. Just a bit more, a bit closer, and she’d be able to–

As she passed a stairwell, someone, a dark shape, stepped out of the corner to one side. Before Dani could finish registering what was going on, a taser was shoved into her side and triggered. She cried out, as the linoleum came up and smacked her. Fuck, fuck, her body wouldn’t cooperate. She could feel Holiday squirm out from under her, but she had to focus to make the lizard grow. 

A man in a security uniform stood over her. “Knew someone was disarming those fucking bombs,” he snarled, holding that taser in one hand and a pistol in the other. “Should’ve known it was a hero wannabe.” 

A hero wannabe? Oh, this guy was so dead. Snarling, Dani rolled over, trying to force her body to stop twitching so much. “Y-you wanna see–” 

“Uh uh,” he interrupted. The guy was tall, several inches over six feet. His skin was dark, with a shaven head. “You move again, I’ll put a bullet in your head. I don’t think that plastic helmet’ll save you, whoever you are. Now–” 

Behind them and down the stairs a bit, the door banged open, as someone came through. The figure stopped short abruptly, clearly staring that way. “What–” 

****

“–the fuck?” Amber had heard Pack cry out, and ran for the stairs access. Now she stood there, seeing the man standing in front of a fallen figure she couldn’t see very well up on the next stairwell. It was Pack, it had to be. She was lying on the floor with this piece of shit standing over her with… with a gun. Immediately, Amber forgot about everything else. She forgot about hiding her identity, about… about all of it. “Get the fuck away from her.” 

“Oh, you think you can tell me what to do, bitch?” The man snapped those words testily, already raising the pistol. “You think you matter? You think she matters? Lemme show you how much she matters.” His finger started to pull the trigger. 

No. No! Amber wouldn’t let that happen. Only one thought filled her mind. She was facing west. Instantly, she hurled herself that way. The whole world slowed down, as her super speed kicked in. She was up the stairs before the man had finished pulling the trigger. She dove, catching hold of the girl lying there. The impact carried both of them in a slide across the floor of the stairwell. 

The gun was silenced, but she still heard the ping of the bullet ricocheting off the linoleum. Before the man could adjust his aim, Holiday was suddenly full-sized, roaring as she leapt that way to tackle him down the stairs. 

On top of Pack but not looking at her, Amber scrambled around, her gaze snapping that way. Holiday had the man down. His gun was already several feet away from him, as the panther-lizard kept the man’s throat in her mouth without biting down. He, in turn, was remaining very still. 

But as soon as she saw that that was in hand, Amber looked at her phone. She was talking to Pack, not caring about the fact that she wasn’t in costume. She wasn’t even thinking about that. The clock was ticking down to almost one minute. Yet the light was green. With a sigh of relief, she hit the disarm button, not daring to breathe until the one flickered and then switched to zero. 

“We did it,” she murmured. “Holy shit, we did it.” 

“Uhhh yeah,” came the response from the figure under her, the figure she had used her superspeed to save. It was Pack, of course. But her voice…. her voice was…

Slowly, Amber turned her head to look at the figure in the slightly dented plastic Caishen helmet, voice catching in her throat. Her thoughts… stopped. No… wait… could… could…

Raising her hand, the pinned figure pushed the helmet aside to reveal Dani’s face staring up at her. 

“Holy shit pretty much sums it up.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Schooling 24-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

The cops who showed up to take the would-be mugger into custody were a bit more intense about the questioning than I thought they might be as they asked me what had happened and exactly what I saw. At first I was a little confused about that, then I realized it probably had to do with where we were. The school for rich, untouchable kids (like me) was right over there. Hell, he had been trying to mug one of those kids in particular when it came to Jae. And Damarko might not have gone to our school, but some part of me hoped these cops would be upset about another teenager being targeted anyway. And even if not, it still made sense that they’d take this a bit more seriously with how close we were to the school. 

That and I was pretty sure my parents probably had some special rule when it came to anything happening here. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if the report had set off some sort of alert for them to send in people loyal to the Ministry. And that had to be a stressful report to make.

In any case, they took my explanation and then strongly encouraged me to go to school, making it clear that being Star-Touched, even one with a sanctioned team like my own was becoming, wasn’t an excuse not to attend. There were still truancy rules and all that, after all. I gave them some joke about my first period teacher being a lot scarier than Cuélebre, then took off. 

Of course, I could’ve said that my school was literally right across the street, but there was no way in hell I was gonna give them that much information. While I might not have loved being mistaken for a middle school-aged boy in my civilian life, it was entirely too useful to just throw away like that. Besides, as impossible as it was for them to identify who they thought was one random thirteen year old guy in Detroit, ‘teen person who attends the richest, most exclusive school in the city while only being this tall’ would narrow it down a lot more. 

So, I had to play it up as though it was going to be a long trip to get to class on time. Then I simply made sure no one was following me and took a quick round-about trip to come up to the school from the far side. Between that and waiting for the cops to show up and then telling them the whole story in the first place, that half hour I’d had turned into only having about five minutes before class started. Which, to be fair, the cops had probably only shown up fast enough for me to have any time before class because of the whole ‘school for rich kids’ thing. If this had taken place in a different zip code, I’d probably still be sitting around waiting for them by the time lunch rolled around. 

Obviously, there was one person in particular I was trying to look for while making my way through the halls. And I spotted her standing next to Amber and a couple other people, having a clearly animated conversation. Well, the others were animated. Jae was still very much closed in on herself and only answering their questions in a quiet voice with a couple words. It looked like Amber was doing most of the talking. I made it close enough to hear what was actually being said just in time for her to announce, “And you know Ms. Mesters wouldn’t accept that as an excuse. She’d probably try to put the cops themselves in detention.” 

“Who’s going to detention?” I asked, forcing myself not to look too interested. For just a second, I also reflexively tried not to look as tired as I was, thanks to paint-skating my way in a great big circle as fast as I could just to avoid letting the police realize I was going to the same school I had made a point of heading away from. But honestly, if these guys saw me pant a few times and realized all of that from it, they deserved to figure out the truth, because damn.

“Dude,” one of the guys informed me. “Jae was nearly killed.” It was Mike Phillin. He was a tall, lanky blond who liked to wear open flannel shirts over Looney Tunes tees, and cargo shorts. In fact, I’d never seen him wearing anything else. Even the few times we’d gone to the pool, he didn’t dress out to swim.  

Amber made a point of cutting in. “She wasn’t nearly killed, some guy just tried to mug her and our friend Damarko across the street. Probably thought he could score a better haul from rich kids.” Her eyes glanced toward me as she added. “But Paintball showed up. Right, Jae?” 

Jae, for her part, gave a short nod. She mostly looked like she didn’t want to be there at all, especially not while being the subject of attention for so many people. “It wasn’t a big deal,” she replied quietly. “We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and Paintball was in the right place at the right time.”

“You got saved by a superhero, dude,” one of the other guys put in. “You gotta admit, that’s pretty damn cool.” With a heavy sigh, he lamented, “I wish I could get saved by a superhero.” 

“Keep screwing around with Angie and you’re gonna need a superhero to save you from Dustin,” Mike informed him. “You see the way he was looking at you earlier?” 

“We’re all gonna need superheroes,” I quickly pointed out, “if we don’t get to class.” 

One of the girls who was standing around near the back of the group made a show of rolling her eyes. “Oh please, you’re Cassidy Evans. What’re they gonna do, put you in detention with only one person fanning you with a palm leaf instead of two? Make you use an amateur personal masseuse instead of a professional? Serve ice spring water with one lime instead of–” 

“We get it, Lucy,” Amber retorted. “Now how about we go to class so we don’t all end up finding out how terrible one palm leaf, amateur personal masseuse detention actually is?” 

Thankfully, everyone dispersed at that point. I walked along with Jae and Amber, glancing that way. “Seriously, there really was a mugger and all that? Are you okay?” 

Her head bobbed a little, as she murmured, “I’m fine. It wasn’t a big deal. We didn’t even know anything was wrong until Paintball had it under control.” 

“Yeah,” Amber confirmed, “apparently the guy never got anywhere near them.” She paused briefly before adding, “I just hope Paintball made it to school on time. From what I’ve heard, cops look the other way for a lot of stuff Star-Touched do, but skipping class isn’t one of them. You know, unless it’s a big emergency or something.”

“Rutherford’s near here,” I pointed out with a shrug, naming the middle school we’d gone to before. It was also the one Izzy was attending. “Maybe he goes there.” 

Jae murmured an agreement with that, before splitting off to head into class. Which left Amber and me standing there. The other girl gave me a brief look, keeping her voice low enough that I could barely hear her. “Thanks for jumping in back there. Lucky you were around.” 

Blushing just a bit, I shrugged and kept my own voice low as well. “Like she said, it really wasn’t a big deal. Just some guy trying to hit a couple rich high school kids for cash. I’m pretty sure he was homeless and desperate. And now he’s in jail, so he won’t hurt anyone else.” Even as I said that, part of me wondered if I should follow up on it. If the guy was so hard-up he was trying to rob high school students in the middle of the day–okay early morning, but still. If he was that desperate, maybe I should go see if I could help him somehow. 

Yeah. The more I thought about that, the more it sounded like the right idea. I was going to find out what was up with that guy, and if I could do anything useful. I wasn’t even sure how to go about that at the moment, and yet I wanted to try. 

For now, however, we had class. So I set the thought aside and headed in. Time to put all the Touched-related thoughts on the back burner for a few hours. 

********

Though, apparently, not nearly as many hours as I’d thought. Just before my study hall-lunch combination break, I got a text on my phone from Amber, asking me to meet her and Paige near the north-east stairwell instead of heading for the cafeteria. She added a bit a few seconds later promising to have food for me. 

So, slipping away from the others when the time came, I made my way to the area in question. Sure enough, Amber was there, though I didn’t see Paige. As I approached, the dark-haired girl offered me a wrapped cheeseburger from a nearby fast food place, and gestured over her shoulder. “Come on, it’s this way.”  

“It?” I echoed while unwrapping the burger. “What’s ‘it?’ And where’s Paige?”

Rather than answer immediately, Amber led me down the hall. We went around the corner by a back stairwell, to a spot I’d never really paid much attention to before. There wasn’t much space there, and from the rest of the hall, it just looked like the corridor ended at the stairwell. You had to get really close to even see that there was a narrow area there. And a door. It was unlabeled, and had one of those keypad locks. 

“Paige checked the cameras,” Amber assured me. “None of them point back here, and she disabled the lock and alarm.” With that, she reached out to pull the door open, gesturing for me to go ahead. 

So, I stepped through the doorway and into near pitch-blackness. Reflexively adjusting myself for the steep set of cement stairs beyond, I descended a couple steps before pausing. “Huh.” 

“You knew the steps were there, didn’t you?” Amber put in from behind me. A moment later, her finger flicked a switch, making a dangling light bulb come on to illuminate the stairs themselves. “Never been here before and you were stepping into darkness, and you still knew there were steps like that.”  

Looking down the stairs toward the still pretty dark room below, I grimaced. “That was some way to test my navigation ability.” Absently, I took a bite of the burger. It was pretty good. It had extra pickles on it, which I hadn’t even realized Amber knew I liked. Belatedly, I realized it was probably Paige who had gotten it. Paige, who knew what I liked from those memories that I no longer had. It was a thought that made me swallow hard.

“Don’t worry,” Amber informed me, “I was ready to catch you if it didn’t kick in. Super speed, remember?”

Together, we went down the stairs to what turned out to be a large, open cement area. More lights came on once we were there, so I could see better. It looked like an unfinished basement, though quite a bit larger. This place must’ve taken up as much space as several classrooms above us. I could see a few boxes in one corner, along with a bench press and a couple other random things.

Paige, who was standing by the light switch, stepped away from it and nodded at me. “We thought it’d be better to talk out of sight so all the gossipers wouldn’t wonder why we aren’t at each other‘s throat‘s all of a sudden.” 

“Which,” Amber put in, “we do need to do something about. Something tells me neither of you want to go back to the way things were.” When we both nodded firmly, she shrugged. “So, we’ll figure out something. Just maybe not immediately.” 

Turning in a circle, I looked around the strangely empty cement room. “What even is this place?” 

“It was supposed to be a storage area,” Paige informed me. “At least, that’s what the blueprints said. But there’s something else that wasn’t on the blueprints.” With those cryptic words, she gestured at me. “I think you can figure it out?” 

My brow furrowed as I stared at her before slowly walking forward. I moved to the middle of the room, then turned in a circle again. They were both watching me expectantly as I frowned and tried to focus. After a moment of that, I spoke quietly. “Turn the lights off again.” Paige and Amber shrugged at one another before the former did just that, finger flicking the switch. We were cast into darkness once more aside from very dim light coming from the stairs. 

Taking a couple steps to one side, I paused, then turned and took a few steps the other way. My hand rose and then I pivoted thirty degrees before walking forward. Stopping after a few more steps, I put my hand against the wall I had stopped in front of and announced, “There’s something behind this.”

The lights came back on, as the two girls stepped up on either side of me. They looked at each other again before Amber nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. Show her.” 

Paige reached out to the wall, or rather, to a slight indent on it. Her finger found something there, and there was a click before the wall slid smoothly aside to reveal a tunnel beyond. 

Staring that way, I turned back to them. “The Ministry put this in, didn’t they?” 

Paige nodded once. “Yeah, we think so. From what I can figure out, it’s there to evacuate their important children, or to bring people in if they need to.”

Amber added, “They made it look like a storage room on the blueprints, but they don’t actually use it for that. If anyone happens to find this place, it’s just an unused room. But it’s big enough to bring some pretty heavy forces in if they need to.” 

My breath left me in a sharp exhale before I squinted at both of them. “Are you guys sure we’re not being recorded or anything right now?” 

“I promise,” Paige assured me, “I checked everything very thoroughly. They had a few alarms, but no active security. This place isn’t that important to them. I mean, the tunnel is, but even that’s not a dealbreaker. if push came to shove, this is a rich kids school and it would make sense for them to have an evacuation tunnel. It’s not like its existence reveals anything about the Ministry themselves. I checked where it goes, and it just leads to an empty lot a few blocks away. It being found would be annoying for them, but not that bad.” 

Absorbing all that, I stared down that dimly lit tunnel for another moment. “My parents really are ready for trouble, aren’t they?” 

“In a lot of ways,” Paige confirmed. “But not all of them. We just have to be careful.” She paused then, and I had the impression that she was going to say one thing before changing her mind. Instead, she asked, “You were out in costume this morning?” 

I shrugged before turning away. “Could you close that thing? I don’t feel comfortable with it open like that. And yeah, I needed to go for a run and clear my head. Turns out to be a good thing, at least as far as Jae and that Damarko guy are concerned.” 

Amber cleared her throat before nodding. “Yeah, trust me, Jae’s glad you were there. That could’ve gotten messy. The guy seemed pretty desperate, from what they said.”

Paige sighed, leaning against the wall after closing it once more. “I wonder if that’s thanks to this whole gang war thing. I mean, maybe the guy got driven out of his normal area, or someone he cares about is in the hospital, or something.” 

Since they were thinking about that sort of thing too, I told them about my plan to check in on him later. To my relief, neither of them thought it was a stupid idea. Amber even offered to come with me.

Putting that thought aside, I looked back-and-forth between them. “But, something tells me we didn’t come down here just so Paige could ask me about stuff she could’ve texted me for. And, as fun as it was, I don’t think it was just to check if my super-special navigation sense would save me from falling down the stairs.” 

“That was important though,” Paige pointed out mildly. “Think about it, you found a hidden room just by focusing. You had no idea it was there and you still found it.” 

“I mean,” I pointed out, “I had some idea there was something here from what you said. But yeah, finding out like that was kind of weird. And cool, right?”

“Very cool,” Amber agreed. “But it proves you’ve got skills you’re not really using that well. Skills that you could be honing or learning about.” 

“That’s why we’re down here,” Paige explained. “We have the virtual reality place for combat training, and will do exercises with everyone else. But right here, right now, we want to do some tests.”

Amber put in, “You’ve been doing this for a couple months, so you’ve got a pretty good basic foundation for what you’re doing. Now, it’s time to understand some of the finer details.” 

Raising an eyebrow, I asked, “Are you guys sure you’re not just making fun of me because it took me so long to figure out what the pink paint does?” 

Paige chuckled slightly. “Maybe a little bit, but this really is important. You only get better when you really understand your power. We need to get some hard numbers, measure things, figure out exactly how this navigation and aiming power works, see what amount of paint causes how much effect. We need to see how strong you can be, how fast, how much weight the paint can pull or project with the red and blue, all of it. We need to figure it out.” 

“And it’s probably going to take more than one lunch period,” Amber pointed out. “So why don’t we get down to business?”

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Schooling 24-07 (Summus Proelium)

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We didn’t end up running into any problems during that quick little patrol. Probably because almost everyone who would have caused trouble was still recuperating after the massive brawl from yesterday. That or, in the case of the Scions, they were apparently spending their time running God knew how many potential recruit candidates through the initiation test or… whatever it was they were doing. What it came down to was that there were more psychopaths out there besides Jennica competing to cause the most chaos and trouble in order to impress Pencil and Cup. The very thought of that brought bile to my throat, as did the positively cheerful thought of what else might happen before this audition bullshit was over. 

But, we didn’t run into any of that, or any other trouble. Which meant I was able to get home and get a solid six hours of sleep. And considering I hadn’t actually done that much physical exertion, since most of that had been inside the virtual reality, that meant I was rested long before my alarm was due to go off in the morning. Feeling restless, I left a note for Izzy and took a quick breakfast in the kitchen before heading out for what I told the staff members I passed was a run. It really was a run, of course. I just left out the fact that I would be changing into my costume and running across rooftops in the city, with my actual clothes in a backpack over my shoulder. 

It was pretty different being out here early in the morning. Well, early as far as I was concerned. It was not quite seven o’clock yet as I bounced my way from a traffic light to run along the side of an office building. My feet pounding against the brick was the most prevalent sound I could hear that early, aside from a few cars in the distance and birds calling out to one another. 

And then there was the bird who called out to me. “Ah, Paintball!” 

It was Lucent, of course, coming down from above as I stopped short at the edge of a rooftop. He landed smoothly on a nearby antenna and regarded me. “A fine morning to you, lad. Though I do hope this means you have thoroughly slept and are now out for a brisk early jog,” he announced. “Rather than the far more worrying option, that you have been out this entire time.” 

My head shook quickly. “Hey, don’t worry, Pops. I’ve definitely been asleep. I actually got more sleep all in a row last night than I have lately.” I paused to consider my words before adding, “Which isn’t really all that much, I guess. Still, I can’t sleep anymore.”

His head tilted sideways to consider me briefly before offering an understanding, “Let me guess, you’ve become accustomed to less sleep overall, and also spread out. You sleep a few hours at night, and then nap in the afternoon. Now you’ve done that enough that your body is accustomed to it. I’m told that happens to most Touched who operate that way.” 

Confirming that with a short nod, I asked, “What about you? I mean, did you get enough sleep? I heard you guys had it pretty rough the day before yesterday. Did uhh, did you get enough sleep?” 

Again, he regarded me. His expression seemed quizzical, but I couldn’t tell if that was just the ordinary raven look. After a moment, he replied, “Yes, it was a bit rough for everyone, it seems. I know you’ve heard this already, but I wished to offer my own apologies for being unable to respond to your request for aid until the situation had already been handled.” He paused then before adding, with a voice that was clearly amused and lightly teasing, “That is quite certainly not the sort of example I wished to give to any son of mine.” 

Painting a grinning smiley face across my helmet in orange paint, I gave him a thumbs up. “Don’t worry, I know you had your own problems to deal with. I’m just glad everyone got through it more or less intact.” With that, I glanced away, erasing the smile. A soft sigh escaped me. “But something tells me things are gonna get worse before they get better. Deicide’s really pissed off right now, isn’t she?” 

“She is not very happy, I’m certain,” Lucent agreed, turning his head to look out over the city around us. “I fear things will be escalating now, as soon as she and the others have regrouped. She will not allow that sort of betrayal to stand for long.” 

“Why did they betray her?” I found myself asking. “I mean, why would those guys think they could get away with switching sides like that? And to Oscuro of all groups. They’re not even Hispanic. I mean, I don’t care about that, but Oscuro is supposed to. Err, yeah, they made an exception for Grandstand. But, you know, considering she left them high and dry to go after her own vendetta, I would think they’d be less likely to make an exception like that again.” 

“Ah, we do have an answer to that, actually.” Lucent actually perked up a little at that, as though happy to be able to solve something for me. “According to intelligence our people on the street have been able to pick up, It seems that Juice, Janus, and Devil’s Due will not actually be joining Oscuro. In truth, Cuélebre has been traveling outside of the city, looking for new Touched members to recruit. He found another gang willing to come to the city themselves, whom he apparently does not mind sharing some territory with. They have their own Touched, several of whom were Hispanic and interested in joining his gang. But their own group desired a trade, so their strength wouldn’t be diminished.” 

Blinking a couple times as I absorbed that, I slowly offered, “Oh. So he recruits a few non-Hispanic Touched, then immediately trades them to this new gang so they’ll send their own Hispanic Touched to–is this fucking baseball or something? They’re trading players now?” 

Lucent chuckled softly, which was an odd sound to hear coming from a raven. “You might be surprised to learn how relatively common that sort of thing is, to be honest.” Again, his head tilted to look back at me with that seemingly quizzical expression. “Though perhaps not, as I hear you have done your own recruiting to fill up a brand new team of your own, as this Avant-Guard.” 

“Yeah,” I confirmed while giving him a thumbs up. “I mean, everyone kept telling me I shouldn’t go around by myself, so now I’m not. Errr, not as much. I have friends.” 

The TONI raven gave me what I swore was a bright smile. “And I am quite glad to hear that. Still, please ensure that you are all careful. Particularly considering what is happening in the city lately, and how those troubles are bound to escalate. There is a training facility at the Seraphs headquarters, and I have already been assured that you and your team will be welcome there.” 

No matter how much I trusted my ‘bird-dad,’ I wasn’t just going to give away exactly what we were doing with our own training. Maybe that was stupid and unnecessary, but I felt like it was best to keep that to myself. At least for now. Still, no matter how much mental training we were getting inside the VR place, we did need physical training. So, I gave a quick nod. “That sounds cool. I think we’ll probably take you up on that. Just don’t be surprised if your own members start complaining about a couple of us monopolizing your equipment. Poise and Style really want to make sure they whip us into shape.” 

“In that case,” he informed me, “I would like to meet them so that I might shake their hands for such forward thinking. And I do hope you are taking their suggestions seriously.” 

“Oh, believe me, we are.” Thinking about what we had started the night before, I added, “We’ve been working on that, but they’ll be glad to know there’s a real place we can go with some actual equipment and all that.” 

“Equipment and skilled trainers,” Lucent added, a bit pointedly. “People prepared to ensure that you and your team are ready should worse come to worst, powers or no. Which, I believe is a point of contention among some out there. There is some question of whether most of your group have any powers at all. From witness accounts and footage of that baseball field event, many are debating about the… Poise and Style you called them? Some believe they could not possibly move the way they do without some sort of gift, while others call it training or even the effect of Touched-Tech equipment. Which you would have access to, of course.”

I could tell he was gently fishing for information, probably curious about how much help I had on the actual powers front. Still, all I offered was a shrug. “They can take care of themselves.” If I wasn’t going to tell him about the virtual reality training room, I sure as hell wasn’t going to tell him that those two were actually Biolems. Trust him or not, it was best to keep that to myself.

I could tell that he wanted to say something more about that, but he let it go and simply glanced up toward the sky before remarking, “I think perhaps it might be time that you made your way toward school? You wouldn’t want to be late, of course.” 

Again, I gave him a thumbs up. “Sure thing, Pops. Don’t you worry, I’ll be sitting right in class, learning all my Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic. And all the rest. Just try to keep the city in one piece while I’m busy with that, deal?” 

“Deal,” he agreed with another soft chuckle. Then he regarded me seriously. “Be very careful out there, my boy. You have accomplished quite a lot in a short time span. And a great deal of that has involved making enemies. I am very glad that you have friends to aid you, but still, keep your eyes open. If you need outside aid, do not let the delay you experienced when it came to that zombie attack dissuade you from reaching out. We are all more than willing to lend a hand. Or a wing, as the case may be.” 

Promising that I would be careful and definitely reach out if I needed to, I took off running once more. I still had plenty of time before school, which didn’t start until eight-fifteen. But I wasn’t going to tell Lucent that. The public schools started closer to seven-forty-five, and between that and the difference in the middle school starting time, I didn’t want to say anything to him that might allow the Touched bird to narrow down where I went to school. 

Eesh, was I just being super-paranoid again? Like, too much so? I was almost certain he was trustworthy. But then, I couldn’t really trust my own family when it came down to it, so maybe that made sense. Either way, I didn’t feel comfortable exposing that much. Not even to my ‘bird-dad.’ 

I did make my way gradually in that direction, through a winding, looping route. I had already made sure Jefferson would know I wasn’t going to be home for him to drive, so that he only had to take Izzy. The run across the city gave me time to clear my head and really think through everything that had been happening lately. And, of course, stretching myself like that felt good. 

Eventually, I made it close to the school while still having about half an hour before classes were supposed to start. I had already eaten breakfast at home, but that run had still made me work up an appetite, so I was going to head in and grab something from the cafeteria.

However, just as I landed on the roof of a building near the school and was about to shrug off my backpack so I could change real quick, I spotted something out of the corner of my eye. Paranoid as I was at that point, I dropped down low and leaned over to peer that way. There was an unlabeled door at the end of an alley far below. The building itself was just some sort of currently unused place for dental offices and the like, nothing special. But as I stared that way, I could see none other than Jae and that boy, Damarko, making their way out of it. The room behind them looked dark and rather empty, so what would they have been–oh. Right, yeah, okay then. Go, Jae. Now I was very certain that the two of them had some sort of thing going on. Why else would they have been holed up in some dark, unused room before school? Clearly, I didn’t know Jae nearly as well as I’d thought I did. But hey, at least she had someone. Even if she apparently wasn’t ready to share that fact with anyone else just yet. Either way, good for her. Damarko was definitely a catch, though I was a little worried about how her adopted step-mother would react to the whole thing, since he apparently didn’t go to the ‘rich kids school.’ Was that why Jae was keeping it a secret? Boy, was that an uncomfortable thought. 

Still, I was about to dismiss that and leave the two alone so I could change and get into school. None of that was really any of my business when you got down to it, and my stomach was starting to grumble even louder after that run. However, just as I was pulling back, something else caught my attention. There was an older guy coming out of the alley as well. He wasn’t coming out of that room the other two had emerged from, but from further back in, around the dumpsters. And he looked rather disheveled and dirty, as though he had been hanging out in the trash or something. His attention was laser-focused on the two ahead of him. That by itself would have been curious, but it turned to outright alarming when I saw him pull a pistol from his jacket pocket. What the hell?

Obviously, I didn’t wait to see what he was planning on doing with that. The moment I saw the gun, I launched myself off that roof and plummeted that way. On my way down, I shot a line of red from the gun to the nearby wall and activated it so the weapon was ripped from his grip. Before he could react to that, I painted orange on myself and a tiny bit on him as well, so he wouldn’t be killed as I slammed into him from above. We both went down, the man cursing out loud in surprise and probably a little pain despite the paint. 

Despite his obvious surprise, the man wasn’t completely done. I felt him squirm around and kick under me, the hard blow pushing me away. I rolled on the sidewalk and snapped my gaze up just in time to see him pull a dangerous-looking switchblade knife from his pocket, snap it open, and lunge at me with a scream. A flash of the training Paige and Sierra had put us through the day before went through my head, as I quickly jerked aside so the blade went past me, while snapping my hand out to smack the weapon out of his grip. It clattered along the ground nearby even as the man fell on top of me. He was still screaming in rage. Apparently he was very unhappy about me interrupting his attack on a couple of innocent teenagers. 

Yeah, I was starting to think there was something wrong with this guy. With effort, I managed to shove myself out from under him while he was rearing back for a punch and hit his chest with a bit of red paint. Another shot went to the nearby wall, then I ducked down so he could be yanked off me and sent flying that way.

Grunting, I popped to my feet behind the man. Before he could react, and before the paint could wear off, I fished a pair of ordinary handcuffs from my pocket and got them around his wrists. He was still shouting and cursing while I painted my arms purple and pushed him to the ground, but most of the fight seemed to have gone out of him. Mostly he was just rambling about how I had to let him go, the monsters had to die, or something to that effect. He wasn’t making much sense, and the fact that he was basically foaming at the mouth made me doubt he was in the best frame of mind to explain anything. Even discounting the whole ‘about to shoot a couple random teenagers’ thing. 

And speaking of those random teenagers, I looked up from getting the man on the ground just in time to see Jae and Damarko standing there staring at us. Right, shit, I had to be careful here. I couldn’t let Jae know who I was. I had to pretend I didn’t really know her at all, except for–

“Hey, you’re the girl from the grocery store, right?” Snapping my fingers, I pointed that way. “Yeah, hey, you okay? I think this guy was uhh… trying to mug you or something?” I didn’t really need to fake the confusion in my voice at that point. What was this guy’s endgame? These two had to be just targets of opportunity, right? So why was he so pissed off right now? He’d stopped verbally ranting, and was just laying there. But I could feel the rage vibrating through him. Man, this guy really wasn’t healthy. 

Jae and Damarko exchanged glances, an unspoken conversation passing between them. I was pretty sure they were feeling guilty about having done their… whatever that was in the room over there. But I sure as hell wasn’t going to bring that up. And neither did that. Instead, Damarko offered a hesitant, “Uh, thanks, Paintball. Lucky you were there.” 

“I couldn’t sleep,” I offered with a shrug. “Been out for a run. But what about this guy? You two know him?” When they shook their heads, I grimaced. “Guess you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. But hey, you should go ahead. I’ll tell the cops what happened here and wait for them to show up.” 

For just a moment, it looked like they were both going to argue about that. Jae actually spoke up, though her voice was quiet and uncertain. “Are you sure… you don’t need help?” 

I shrugged, rising so I could keep one foot on the man. “It’s cool, I’ve got this.” I had to stop myself from making my voice unnaturally deep in response to talking to someone who actually knew me. The voice-changer itself was already doing the heavy lifting on that front. “You guys don’t wanna be late. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure this guy isn’t gonna go after anyone else anytime soon.”

Again, it looked like they were going to say something. But they both stopped themselves, aside from offering very sincere thanks. Damarko added something about needing to get my autograph, so I touched his shirt and put ‘Save you anytime you need – Paintball’ across it. Which he seemed to get a kick out of. 

With that, the two of them headed off, though they looked back several times and were holding an intense conversation on their way. Meanwhile, I reported the attack and capture via the Doephone app, before sighing as I looked down at the now-quiet man. 

“Dude, you totally owe me breakfast for this shit.” 

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Schooling 24-06 (Summus Proelium)

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The first place we found ourselves in once we had arrived within the virtual reality space just looked like an ordinary dojo. There were mirrors on every wall, and the floor was padded enough to be a little springy under our feet. Only after looking around for a minute did I notice what made this place not just a normal dojo, besides the obvious. There was no door. The whole thing was just this one room. We also appeared wearing simple shorts and tee shirts. Even now, knowing everyone here knew who I was, it still made me reflexively tense up to see myself in clothing that made me being a girl blatantly obvious. 

Okay, not that blatantly. I wasn’t exactly packing melons under my shirt. But still. It was clear that I was a girl, and that by itself was still an odd sensation for me. 

Seeing me looking around, Paige immediately realized what I was thinking and spoke up. “This way there’s no distractions. You know, random cars driving by, pedestrians, other buildings in view, whatever. We don’t need to make anything else except for this place. It means we can put more of our effort and energy toward the actual training. It felt like the best way to do this.”

“That is,” Sierra put in, “if you all think you can focus without feeling claustrophobic just because you’re in a room with no door.” After visibly considering that, she added, “Come to think of it, getting over distractions like that should probably be part of your training anyway, so yeah.” 

Murphy was grimacing as she slowly turned her head to look at every wall. “You know, I probably wouldn’t even have noticed if you guys hadn’t pointed it out.” She exchanged with Roald before adding, “But whatever, what I really want to know is… is this shit for real?!” After blurting that out, she patted down her own face, then poked Roald in both shoulders with a gasp before turning to the nearest wall. She ran that way, bouncing off the mirror before running her hands over it. Then she knelt down and punched the padded floor, staring at everything in complete wonder. “Seriously, is this place for real?!” Her gaze snapped from Paige and Sierra to me and then back again. “We really didn’t just teleport somewhere?” Belatedly, she made a face. “Not that that wouldn’t be fucking cool too, but like, I mean… this whole thing is all in our heads?”

Paige made a waving so-so motion with her hand. “Basically, yeah. The machine is projecting this into your minds from our orb-cores. That’s the really basic version. Anyway, your physical bodies are still out there just sitting in those chairs. But, as you can tell, your brain interprets what you should feel in here into actual sensation.” With that, she reached out to poke the girl in the forehead. “Up to a certain point,” she added quickly. “I mean, if you take too much pain, there’s a certain cut-off where it won’t let you feel it anymore. And you can’t really be physically injured. Otherwise there’s no point to doing this stuff in here instead of out in the real world.” 

Sierra quickly piped up with, “But you’ve got to feel some pain as we do this, or you won’t learn from it. You know what they say, no pain no gain. And we’ve really gotta make you gain a lot if we’re gonna keep helping Cassidy over there get through the shit she gets herself into.” 

Making an exaggerated harrumphing noise under my breath, I pulled myself up to my full (totally pathetic and inconsequential) height and squinted that way. “You know most of–some of–there are parts of that stuff that are absolutely not my fault. Besides, you say that as though you wouldn’t be incredibly bored out of your mind if you didn’t have all this stuff to help all of us deal with.”

Audibly snorting, my doppelgänger retorted, “If I thought you were all being boring, it’d be because you weren’t planning on doing something about dear old dad. And that would mean I’d be out of here so fast your heads would spin. Let’s just keep that in mind, huh? He’s a lying, traitorous piece of shit, and I don’t want my–I don’t want Irelyn or the others anywhere near him. But I know I can’t do this by myself.” She squirmed just a little, the admission of any weakness clearly making her uncomfortable before she pushed on. “I need help. I mean, we do.” Her gaze toward Paige briefly. “As fucking badass as we might be–and the answer to that is very, we still can’t just swim over there and take on everyone ourselves before ripping Dad’s head off and playing soccer with it. We need you people. Not just for the whole photoshopped blackmail plan, but in case we need to do more than that. And the only way you’re going to be able to really help us if shit goes down is with some actual training. You need to learn how to fight. So, are we gonna do this, or what?”

I shrugged despite myself. “You really didn’t have to talk me into it. I know what the stakes are, and yeah, we need some help. Even without this whole thing with Breakwater–which is super-important, don’t get me wrong. But even without that, stuff in the city is just getting more and more dangerous. Sure, I’ve been doing sort-of okay with the basic few self-defense lessons my parents made me get. I mean, that and my powers. But it’ll be nice to have something better to fall back on. Something tells me just expecting to fall back on luck all the time is gonna backfire sooner or later.” 

“Yeah!” Murphy immediately put in. “And some of us don’t have powers to rely on anyway.” 

Peyton, who had been quietly looking around the room while taking in everything we were saying, slowly nodded while turning back to us. There was a small smile on her face, as though she could barely contain herself. “Dude? We’re in a fucking virtual reality. I mean, sure, I was here before. But it wasn’t exactly–I didn’t get a chance to savor it that much. We were sorta busy. And now you’re talking about letting these badass ninja android girls teach us how to fight? I am all-in. All-fucking-in, okay? Let’s do this thing.” 

Smirking despite myself, I gestured to Paige and Sierra. “You heard the girl. We’re, ahem, all-fucking-in.” 

“Good to know,” Paige replied flatly, exchanging a look with her sister before turning back to us. That slowly spreading smile seemed somewhat serpentine. It was a vaguely dangerous look. A look that told me she was going to enjoy putting us through our paces. “In that case, everybody line up right here in the middle of the room. Give yourselves a few feet between each of you. 

“Time to start whipping you people into shape.” 

*******

There weren’t any actual whips involved, of course. Not yet, anyway. Though I was pretty sure Sierra might’ve been tempted. We weren’t even doing anything that intense to start out. Mostly because we started out covering very basic things. Stuff like how to make a fist, how to throw a very normal punch, how to hold your arm, how to position yourself, even how to breathe properly. They spent a decent amount of time just on that last part, teaching us to keep our breathing steady to get enough oxygen in the middle of a fight. It was all stuff I’d heard before, but going over it again didn’t hurt. Besides, the others needed to hear it. We had to get through the basic stuff like that before anyone would be ready to learn more. I was just glad Paige and Sierra weren’t moving too quickly on that. I’d been a little worried that they might jump straight into the advanced training, leaving Roald, Murphy, and Peyton (and let’s be honest, me) completely lost. But no, they were actually pretty good teachers. Which made me wonder if they’d been given programming for that, or just–yeah, I had no idea how that worked. Apparently Pittman had programmed their fighting ability into them, which was just confusing on another level. Did he know how to fight that well? Did he have someone else work on that programming and then add it? Did he just download a bunch of instruction manuals and videos into them? I–eh. It was confusing when I got right down to it. But either way, they knew how to fight and they knew how to teach the rest of us. 

As I had heard before, and as they reiterated when this whole instruction thing started, one of the biggest, most important things to do was to make these motions be instinctive. We needed to be able to do them immediately without thinking about it. We had to see the attack coming, or the opportunity for our own attack, and react instantly. Because, as Sierra put it, the moment we had to stop and think about what we were doing would be the moment we were either maimed or killed. She wasn’t the sort of person to sugarcoat things like that. She made the whole thing very blunt, standing right in front of Roald as she repeated the word killed while poking his chest hard enough to make the boy wince just a bit. 

So, we went through the motions as they taught us, straight from the simplest, most basic movements and positions. Once they had us to the point where we could all stand properly, make fists without looking stupid, and more importantly, without doing it in a way that could have broken our fingers the moment we hit anything, we… did that some more. But in this case, they made a game of it. Basically, they had us stand around talking to each other or watching a television screen they’d put up on the wall, or any number of other distracting things. Randomly and without warning, one of them would shout one of our names and tell us where the threat was coming from, using clock positions. We had to spin that way and get into a decent position to defend ourselves within a certain amount of time before they would set off a loud buzzer and say we were dead. 

They were lenient on how much time they allowed at first, but as the hours wore on, they grew less and less so. Eventually, they got to the point of throwing a ball at us immediately, as soon as they called out the threat. We had to spin that way and react to it, either dodging the attack or blocking before it hit us. In some ways, it was fun. Which, I was pretty sure, was the point. But it was also stressful, and definitely took a lot of practice. We all got hit with plenty of balls, enough that I was glad I wouldn’t be carrying any of these bruises out of this virtual reality with me. We might not have been going totally nuts on how we used this place just yet, but even that was incredibly helpful. Maybe I could’ve explained away any minor injuries from this sort of thing with some story about falling on my skates, but this was just easier in the long run. 

Plus, the fact that we were in virtual reality meant it took a lot longer to get tired. It was still there, in its own way. Learning things and actively using our brains like this wore us out too, but it took much more time. Which meant we could train for a lot longer than we would’ve been able to otherwise. Long enough, in fact, that I finally had to ask how long we had been doing this whole thing. Upon finding out how late it was, I insisted that we had to stop. I wanted to do a quick patrol to make sure nothing in the city was on fire before heading home, and it was already getting late enough that Murphy, Roald, and Peyton might end up with people wondering where they were. 

So, with promises that what we had just done was only the very beginning, we exited the program and found ourselves back in the real world. I groaned while picking myself up from the chair and staggered a bit. Plucking the visor and headphones off, I sighed and shook my head. To one side, Paige and Sierra were pulling themselves out of the machine, while the others were in the same position as me, staggering a few steps one way or the other while shaking off the weird feeling of having not moved at all for hours, despite what our brains thought. 

Fred was there, eating some of the leftover pizza while watching us with a raised eyebrow. “How’d it go with Sensei Morpheuses? Wait, would that be Senseis Morpheus? Morphesei? Wait–” 

Coughing, I gestured. “It’s good. I think ahh–I think this is gonna be a really important advantage. Especially once we get to the point of doing more than learning basic motions.” Before Paige and Sierra could say anything, I quickly added, “Not that that stuff isn’t important. I know, believe me. You have to learn how to walk before you can run. I’m just saying, once we get to the point where we can use that place like a real-world virtual reality training ground, and take advantage of the sort of scenarios we can run through… it’s gonna be big. Yeah, I’m pretty sure some other groups have their own virtual reality training rooms of one sort or another, but I don’t think it’s anything like ours. And, they won’t expect us to have it. Which means they won’t expect us to be able to train like this.” 

“Being underestimated is a big deal,” Peyton chimed in while rubbing the back of her neck. “I really like being underestimated.” With those words, she added a smile that looked almost feral.

“Dude, as useful as you’ve been with those marbles, I don’t think people are gonna underestimate you any time soon,” Murphy pointed out. 

“That’s the point though,” Roald put in. “If everyone thinks she’s reliant on the marbles, they’ll think she depends on them. So they won’t be ready when she can actually fight without them.” 

“Exactly,” I agreed, before turning my attention back to Fred. “What’s going on with Wren? Is she–” 

“Still working on the tracker thingamabob,” he confirmed. “She locked herself up in the room over there so she can work without any distractions. Told me to tell you that she’s gonna be busy with it for the rest of the night and that it’ll be ready by the time you come back from school tomorrow. Assuming you’re planning on coming?” 

My head bobbed. “Yeah, I’ve got–” A grimace found itself to my face. “I’ve got plans for dinner, but I’ll be here first.” Seeing them all stare at me, I sighed before explaining what was going on. 

“Dude,” Murphy put in, “you’re going to dinner to hang out with Inessa Sidorov? What the fuck? I mean like, this is normal for you? God, you’re lucky.” She grunted as Roald nudged her. “Err, yeah, there’s all the other complicated stuff and–yeah, but still!” 

“If I could invite you and have more people on my side, I would, believe me,” I assured her, before grimacing.

Paige, of course, grimaced just as much as me. “You really have to go over to Arleigh’s house? Couldn’t just make an excuse not to?” 

“Like Murphy said, Inessa Sidorov is gonna be there,” I immediately shot back. “If my dad ever found out I gave up the chance to meet her, he’d immediately have my head examined to make sure I didn’t have a mind-controlling slug or a little cybernetic ball inside my head.”

Meeting my gaze, the taller, blonde girl gave a very tiny smirk. “Yeah, that’s true. You always were a little obsessed. I used to think you had a bit of a crush or something.” 

Blushing at that, and at the weird feelings I had from having this sort of casual conversation with someone I had seen as a nasty, vindictive bitch for so long, I mumbled, “She’s just a really good skater. And she’s cool, and she’s got great fashion–shut up. Just shut up, all of you.” 

Ignoring their snickers, I gestured. “I’m gonna head out for that quick patrol, just to see what’s going on. The rest of you should head home.” 

“We’ll go with you,” Paige insisted, gesturing to Sierra and back to herself. “We don’t exactly have people waiting around for us, and I don’t think anyone should be going around on their own right now. I don’t know what Deicide is going to do about that betrayal, and it might take her a few days, but something tells me her retaliation is gonna be pretty loud. Between that and Jennica still being out there…” 

“Right, sure.” Nodding a bit, I glanced to the others. “Speaking of which, you gonna be okay?” 

They confirmed that they would be sticking together on the way back. Peyton would drop the other two off at their apartment before going to her own, which wasn’t that much further away. Especially not the way she traveled. 

So, we talked a little bit more about what we had done and what we were going to do, then separated. I found myself back in costume, mask and helmet firmly in place, while standing on the roof of the shop. Paige and Sierra were stretching a bit behind me, as I looked out over the neighborhood below, and at the much taller skyscrapers in the distance. “Things are gonna get worse before they get better, aren’t they?” I found myself murmuring. 

Paige, stepping up beside me, confirmed, “That’s why we’re doing this training. It’s important. We all have to be better, we have to be ready.” 

“Not just for this whole gang war thing,” Sierra pointed out while stepping up on my other side. “I know we’re all hoping this plan with the edited picture and all that is gonna work. We let everyone know where Irelyn and Trivial are, give Breakwater a way to come out of it looking like they’re not completely incompetent, an excuse that gives them a reason to keep those two alive, and… and then it’ll be over. But in case it’s more complicated than that–” 

“In case, we need to be ready,” I agreed. “And that means we need a lot more training than we’ve already got. You’re right. Don’t worry, we’re with you. Whatever happens, we’ll figure out a way to get Irelyn and Trivial out of there. If it’s not this plan, it’ll be another one. But at least this is a start.” 

Paige gave a short nod of agreement, her own voice soft. “It’s definitely a start. In a lot of ways.” 

For another moment, the three of us stood there together, looking out over the city. Then I cleared my throat. “Well? Let’s go for a run so I can get home and sleep. 

“Something tells me I’m gonna need all the rest I can get if I’m gonna survive visiting Arleigh’s house tomorrow.” 

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Schooling 24-05 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – I have started to post this story over on Royal Road. Only the first few chapters so far, but they will start coming out a couple chapters a day until we catch up. For anyone who would like to start following it on there, you can find it right here

Everyone was hungry right after that, so we ordered some pizza and were in the middle of eating it. “Okay,” I announced while perched on the edge of the glass counter, “since Paige wants to be a total spoilsport and actually plan out what we’re gonna do about the Irelyn thing…” I gave the girl in question a quick look, just to make sure I wasn’t going too far with the teasing her bit. I was trying to keep things light so she wouldn’t obsess too much about Irelyn, but it would’ve been easy to go too far. 

Thankfully, she seemed okay, simply raising an eyebrow at me before replying, “I would like us all to not die or get sent to prison ourselves, yes. And I definitely don’t want to underestimate my father.” After a glance toward Sierra, she amended, “Our father.”  

Before Sierra could respond to that, Peyton put in, “There’s no chance he’ll even be involved in this, right? If the plan to blackmail the Breakwater people works, you’ll never even see your dad. Wren’s machine will track where the island is, then we just tell them to get those three off the island if they want to continue keeping its location a secret. And, you know, hopefully they do that. Why overcomplicate it?”

“And what if they don’t?” Sierra asked pointedly. “What if they call our bluff? Because if you guys don’t want to kill a murdering, betraying piece of shit like our dad, something tells me you don’t actually want to give away the location of a prison full of murdering pieces of shit to the public and have a bunch of Fell-Touched raising armies to go free their old buddies.” 

I grimaced at that. She was right, of course. If they called our bluff, we weren’t about to actually expose the location of the prison to everyone. What else could we do, though? The only people who would be interested in taking that information from us were bad guys, and if these people realized that there was no way we’d actually give that information to that sort of person, then we would have no actual leverage. Sure, they’d probably be unhappy that we had the info ourselves, but still. We wouldn’t be able to do anything with it. And they’d just be able to keep trying to track us down. To say nothing of what they might do with Flea and Trivial. We had to have a plan B, if they didn’t go for that. Hopefully a plan B that was good enough to be upgraded to plan A, because I still wasn’t sure that blackmailing the leadership of the world’s biggest and most inescapable supervillain prison should have been anything above plan Q, for Quite Stupid. Or possibly T, for Totally Moronic. 

Seeing the look on Wren’s face, I quickly shook my head. “Whatever we do with it, having the information is good. Trust me, we’ll totally use the tracker. Besides, something tells me having the ability to track someone via phone no matter how they try to hide it would be a good thing anyway. It seems like something that will come up again later.” 

We all considered that for a moment, before Roald spoke up. “What if you give them an out, so they don’t have to look bad?” When we all looked that way, he continued. “I mean, what if you let them play it off like those girls are there on some sort of special assignment? You know, as a favor to the Breakwater people. Like, they found out something bad was going on over there, a potential escape, and sent a couple Star-Touched in to deal with it. Or maybe that Irelyn lady shipwrecked or crashed there and they went in to find and save her.”

My fingers snapped. “Hang on, that last bit isn’t bad. Yeah, none of it’s bad. But that last bit, that one might actually be the best. Look, what if we find out where the island is, and then we fake some sort of nearby shipwreck or balloon evidence and claim that Irelyn washed up there and that those two went to save her? All we need is boat or hot air balloon wreckage, and images of the island. We don’t have to actually show people where the island is, we can strip all that information out of it. Just make a public thing about some innocent woman getting lost on the island by a freak accident, and that two Star-Touched went to save her.” 

Paige looked like she was considering that for a moment before giving a slow nod. “Maybe if you play it more like congratulating Breakwater for being on top of the situation and helping out. So they could see it as a PR win on their side. But it would have to come off like more of a leak. Something no one was going to find out about, but still doesn’t make them look that bad.” 

While I was thinking about that, Peyton put in, “I thought we were afraid that if the public found out about that, the Breakwater people would just deny everything and make the girls disappear. Isn’t that why we weren’t just telling the authorities where they are?” 

“If it was something that made them look bad, they probably would,” I agreed. “Admitting that someone was able to teleport on or off of the island would compromise every claim they make about how safe the place is. But if Irelyn just ended up there by a complete freak accident, and then the Breakwater people made a deal to send a couple local Star-Touched in quietly to get her out of there safely… that could maybe work. Especially if we make it seem like she’s already been rescued and they’re on their way back.” 

Sierra gave a short laugh at that. “Right, that way they can’t turn around and claim the three were lost. Make it seem like it’s a done deal and they’re just being checked over before being released. Then they’ll have no choice but to pull them off there ASAP. Well, maybe they will have some other choices. But not very good ones.” 

We all considered that for a few moments before Paige offered a shrug. “It’s probably a better plan than blackmailing those guys, and we don’t have a lot of extra options.” 

“Uh, hello?” Murphy waved a hand. “You guys do realize that you’re talking about faking something like that as though it’s no big deal, right? You just said all we have to do is fake ship or balloon wreckage and put it up against an image of the island. How exactly are we supposed to fake a shipwreck? I mean, I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t exactly have an intact yacht to mess around with, let alone a broken one that–oh it’s Cassidy Evans.” In mid-sentence, she amended herself while staring at me. Which made me self-conscious again about the fact that I wasn’t wearing my mask and helmet. I still wasn’t accustomed to that, to say the least. “You probably have a full-sized yacht in your bathtub.” 

The words made me flush, head shaking quickly. “Come on, it’s not that bad. My boat is on the lake, just like everyone else’s.” 

“Just like everyone else’s, she says,” Peyton retorted with a snort. 

Blushing a bit more, I waved that off. “You know what I mean. Everyone around here who has a boat. I mean–never mind. Anyway, we can’t use that boat anyway. Trust me, my parents will see this footage, and they’d recognize anything of mine out there.” 

“I have a boat we can use,” Paige noted. “We can break it up into pieces and partially sink it. Make it look real good.” 

“Right, I’m hanging out with more than one obscenely rich teenager,” Murphy muttered while shaking her head. “Seriously, if Tyson ever–” She stopped then, her face twisting with realization. For just a second, the girl had forgotten that her brother was dead. I saw the way it hit her again, the full impact making her physically recoil just for a moment before she recovered. “He would’ve been jealous.” Visibly swallowing, the girl pushed on. “Anyway, even if you’ve got a boat we can destroy, how are we supposed to get it out to the ocean like that? I don’t know about you guys, but my parents would notice if I was gone for that long. Even if we could take one of those guys’ private planes.” She added that with a gesture toward Paige and me. 

“One, I do not have a private plane,” I pointed out. “And two, we don’t have to take it all the way out to the ocean. We’ll just shoot some footage on the lake and make it look like the ocean. You know, superimpose images of the boat wreckage with images of the island.” 

It was Roald’s turn to speak up, asking, “So uhh, how are we supposed to get images of the island to mix with images of the boat? They don’t exactly allow photo tours of the place.”

I grinned. “That’s where Wren’s thing comes in.” 

The girl in question perked up, head tilting. “It is?” 

Nodding, I explained, “Sure, obviously it’d be impossible for us to actually get an image of the island. So we just have to make it look like we did. We put an image of any island in there, cover it in fog so it’s hard to make out details, and claim it’s Breakwater. Then in the file we add the latitude and longitude of the place Wren finds out with the tracker thing.” 

“But we don’t want to actually give the location away,” Murphy pointed out. 

“That’s why we block that information out in anything the public sees,” Paige realized with a look my way. “But the part the Breakwater people get–” 

“And the authorities,” I confirmed. “They get the version that has the location in it, so they take us seriously. That way, they’ll know we know where it is, but we aren’t telling anybody.” 

Peyton’s eyes widened. “The Conservators. They’ll know you’re telling the truth about where those three are, because it’s the only way we could have the location. And they’ll all be able to save face so no one looks bad, as long as Irelyn and the others show up here safe and sound.”

“Pretty much.” With that, I looked toward Paige and Sierra. “What do you guys think? We mock up and then leak a file about how Flea and Trivial were sent to save your sister and how they succeeded and all. So now they’re about to get medals or something. Include some pictures of the crash site and all that, block out the parts that have the location of Breakwater for the public release but leave it in the part that gets sent to the Conservators and whoever else, and let those people get the three of them off the island in time for their welcome home party.” 

The other girls seemed to be turning the idea over in their heads a bit before nodding. Sierra spoke first. “I mean, I don’t have a better plan. Maybe we can work out some more details before we actually go for it, but other than that… yeah, it’s a start. Honestly, probably better than the straight up blackmail thing. Giving them a way to save face is a good idea.”

“Well, we went from that to this,” I agreed. “Maybe by the time it becomes relevant, we’ll have an even better plan. But yeah, we should get started on setting up that boat footage, and getting someone who can do the Photoshop stuff to make it look like it’s in front of the island.” 

“I can do that part,” Paige informed me. “I’ve got plenty of experience and… uh, training with making fake pictures.” She cleared her throat, looking a little uncomfortable before pushing on. “But none of that is relevant until we track the location so they take the whole thing seriously and don’t just write us off as conspiracy theorists.” 

“You’re right,” I agreed. “The only way to make sure they take us seriously is if we have the location, and the only way to make sure they don’t just make Irelyn and the others disappear and pretend they were never actually there is if the public knows about it. We’ve gotta hit them with both at the same time, and do it in a way where those three disappearing is the worst thing that could happen. Come on, we play this up right and we can make everyone see Flea and Trivial as total heroes. Err, they’re already heroes, but you get it. Yeah, we’ll have to hammer out the details or whatever, but I think we can work with it.” 

“I… I think I can finish the tracker by tomorrow,” Wren vowed. “Like I said before, it’s almost done. I just have to double-check some things and… umm, make sure it works the first time. Uncle Fred helped me get the last of the stuff I needed last night. I mean, he had a friend who–uh, it’s almost done.” She rubbed the back of her neck while floating in midair with pizza stains over her face, looking self-conscious (but not about the pizza stains). “Anyway, the stuff we got is important and expensive, and I have to make sure it works right before plugging it into my thing. But I think I can finish it. Err.. I  can. I can get it done, I promise.” 

She started to apologize for taking so long and being uncertain about the parts Fred had helped procure, but Paige cut her off. “It’s okay. Sure, yeah, I’m worried about Irelyn. But we just have to roll with it. We’ve got something resembling a plan now, and I know she can take care of herself. Especially with a couple Star-Touched to help out. They’ll be okay. We just have to make sure they have a way off the island so they’re not stuck there forever. As soon as you get the tracker done, we’ll work on the next part of that, now that we have an actual–err, something resembling a plan. And we should probably make the image of the boat wreckage be at night or… maybe around dawn, so there’s a reason for all the fog we need to put over the island. Which means we can’t do it right now anyway. We’ll work on that part later.”

Sierra coughed. “What my dear sorta-fraternal-twin is saying is that we don’t have anything we can do right now that’s actually useful as far as saving Irelyn goes. So we’d really like it if the rest of you let us distract ourselves by starting this whole training thing.” 

“That’s not the only reason I want to get into this,” Paige pointed out with a look that way. 

“Well, of course not,” Sierra retorted. “There’s also the fact that these guys are going to get slaughtered like cream puffs if they ever have to actually get into a real hand-to-hand fight without extra help, but I was trying to be nice and not say it like that.” 

Shaking her head slowly, Paige let out a long sigh before focusing on us. “I would’ve put it a little more gently than that, but yeah, you all need the extra training. Or any training, really.” 

“Right.” Nodding, I looked at the others. “So, do uhh… do we have space to do this somewhere?” 

“Actually,” Paige informed me, “Sierra and I had another idea.  

“How do you all feel about going into that virtual reality machine again?” 

******* 

A few minutes later, we were all standing upstairs around the MRI-like machine in question. It had been moved over to a corner of the lab, and now had a couple extra chairs sitting around it. Peyton, Murphy, Roald, and I were staring intently at the thing, while Paige and Sierra gestured like they were prize girls on the Price Is Right. Wren, meanwhile, was hovering over the thing with her legs folded under herself. She looked quite proud (maybe partly because she’d washed off the pizza stains), and cheerfully announced, “See? You can totally use this thing to train as much as you want to and not even get hurt!” 

“She’s right,” Paige informed us. “With both of our orbs linked into the machine, we can create any landscape we want. Any scenario, any enemies. If you take too much damage, you’ll just wake up out here, no problem. Much safer than trying to do the amount of actual real-world training you all need if we’re gonna keep up with the sort of problems Cassidy keeps finding.”

My mouth opened to object to that, before realizing I didn’t have much of a leg to stand on. Or a torso, or arms, really. As far as objecting to Paige claiming I tended to get in trouble a lot went, I was basically just a head. A head that got in a lot of trouble. 

Instead, I asked, “You’re sure this thing is stable after we went in there before and, you know… ran into that copy of your dad? Cuz, I’m just saying, that wasn’t a heap of fun.”

“He’s gone. We erased him,” Sierra reminded me flatly, a dark scowl crossing her face. Which, given it was also my face, still threw me. That whole situation threw me. It was like staring into a mirror that did things you weren’t doing. Or something. Every time I thought I was over being surprised by seeing her, it hit me all over again. 

Murphy, meanwhile, spoke up. “Like, gone for good and ever? He’s not sitting in a recycle bin waiting for someone to click ‘restore,’ right?” When Roald nudged her, she gave a dramatic shrug. “What? I don’t know how it works. I’m just saying, that would be bad.” 

Paige gave a short nod, arms folded tight against her stomach. I could tell the discussion made her uncomfortable too, given her much longer history with that asshole. “It would be bad. But no, he’s gone. It’s just too bad we can’t do the same thing to the real deal that easily.” 

“I dunno,” Sierra pointed out, “you point and click to delete something on a computer. You point a gun and click the trigger to delete Dad in real life. Seems pretty similar to me.” 

“Hang on, hang on,” I piped up quickly, even as Wren gave a double-take. “No one’s killing anyone. Yeah, he’s a piece of shit who deserves to be on Breakwater forever, but this whole thing is about getting Flea and the others out of that place, not killing your dad.” 

Wren’s head was bobbing rapidly. “Yeah! I’m not gonna help kill anybody, you’ve just gotta save your sister and the heroes!” She pointed at Sierra while adding, “No killing, not even bad guys.” 

“Don’t worry,” my doppelganger replied smoothly, “like the chick over there said, if all goes to plan, we’ll never even see him.” 

Paige audibly coughed before putting a hand on Sierra’s shoulder as she spoke up. “Whatever ends up happening, we need training for it. And this is still the best way to do it. Sure, it won’t actually build your muscles or anything. You’ll need to do other exercises for that. Exercises in the real world. But it can help muscle memory and just, you know, actual knowledge of how to fight and defend yourselves.” 

“Dude, you wanna train us in the Matrix, I am all up for it.” Murphy punched her fist into her palm. “Let’s get on that shit.” 

“Okay,” Paige agreed. “But let’s get one rule straight right off the bat. 

“The first person to say ‘I know Kung Fu’ is getting kicked off a virtual skyscraper.” 

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Schooling 24-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Obviously, part of me wanted to immediately start asking Amber about the situation. But on the other hand, I didn’t want to expose Jae’s secret like that. It wasn’t up to me to kick her into the spotlight. If she didn’t want to tell Amber and me about having a boyfriend (if that’s what that whole thing was), then blabbing about what I had seen to the other girl was probably pretty rude. It had to be her choice if she wanted to share something like that. Besides, the idea of bringing it up felt way too much like I would be turning into one of those weird gossiping girls. 

So, I pushed the thought out of my mind and continued on through the school day. Though obviously curious about just what was so important about Jae’s maybe-boyfriend that she had to skip classes for the day, I still took down the notes she had requested. Maybe she’d explain it later. Especially if I poked her strategically for answers. 

Either way, beyond needing to pay extra attention for those notes, school itself was relatively normal. I sat with San and Dani at lunch, answering a bunch of questions peppered at me from the latter about what sort of doctors I’d been to whenever I was hurt doing one stunt or another. It was kind of a weird conversation, starting around her talking about healthcare and hospitals and stuff, before she started asking about what doctors I, as a rich kid, had visited. It could easily have turned… well, not hostile but at least uncomfortable. I knew I was privileged in so many ways, that especially. I had access to top of the line medicine, including Touched-Tech stuff. I thought that’s where Dani was taking it, to be honest, that she wanted to start an argument about how terrible it was that people without money couldn’t get that sort of care. 

It wouldn’t be much of an argument, given I agreed with her. But still, that’s not what she was doing. At least, it didn’t feel like it was. It felt more like she was genuinely curious about the hospitals I’d been in and who my doctors were. 

San noticed too, swallowing a bite of his pizza before asking, “Dude, are you writing a book about rich doctors or something?” 

With a snort, Dani waved a hand dismissively. “Nah, I just–like I said, I grew up dirt fucking poor, okay? I’m not used to having any money. Like, a few months ago I was digging in the couch cushions to get change for lunch. And now my great-aunt’s sorta-kinda talking about how I need to get a check-up or something. I just thought if I could figure out what doctors the richest parents in town send their accident-prone kid to, that’d be the one to try. Since the old lady’s the one footing the bill for it, might as well go to a good one.” She mumbled the last bit, poking at her plate with a fork before sighing. “Never mind, it’s stupid.” 

My head shook quickly at that. “Hey, it’s not stupid. I uhh, I mean, if you want, I can give you a list of the doctors my family goes to who are still, you know, available. There’s a couple who don’t have public practices anymore, but–err, sorry, that sounds way too braggy. I wasn’t–sorry.” 

“Sure, whatever,” the other girl replied with a shrug. “You wanna make a list of the people your parents trust with their precious baby girl, I guess that’ll be enough to make my aunt happy.” 

So, I did just that. Well, I didn’t write a note. I went through my phone to find the names and texted them to her. 

When I was done with that, San gave a blow whistle as he stared at his own phone. “Man, you guys see what that Paintball kid and his new team were up to yesterday? That shit’s crazy.”

“Pretty sure the whole city was crazy yesterday,” I pointed out with a little shrug. “Didn’t like, every gang in the city explode or something? I heard a bunch of people switched sides.” 

Dani gave a short nod, rocking back on her seat with a muttered, “Yeah, there were a bunch of traitors.” That was followed by a shrug. “But then, I mean, they’re criminals. What can you expect?” 

San was giving a dismissive wave. “Yeah, yeah, it was fucking nuts. They had, like, everything locked down, cops patrolling every neighborhood, the works. It was crazy. But, like, this other thing was different from that. They were up at that Whitecap stadium and a bunch of those fucking fire zombies attacked the place. You–” 

Dani laughed. “Dude, are you kidding me? Of course we saw it. It’s only, like, the top six videos on the SPHERE threads and all over the YouTube homepage.” 

That made me do a double-take. “It is? I mean they are? What?” 

So, both of them made me watch several cell phone videos taken by various people in the stadium while that whole thing was going on. Or from the security cameras. There were a lot of comments from people who were there, or people who knew people who were. They were going on and on about what it was like, especially when it came to the rest of the team. I–or Paintball, was still a pretty big topic, but most of the focus was on the others. They got our name right, and someone had put the names we used under screenshots of each of us. There was a bit of arguing over which was Calvin and which was Hobbes, or which was Style and which was Poise. But still, for the most part they had it right. Everyone in the comments was going on about what would’ve happened in that stadium if no one showed up. Of course, some of the comments were raising conspiracy theories about how we happened to get there right in time. But for the most part, everyone was pretty positive. And to be fair, I couldn’t really blame the distrustful people. It was weird that we’d made it right in time, or would’ve been if I didn’t know the truth.

In any case, by then, it was time to head back to class. But as I stood up, San caught my hand. “Hey, I gotta ask you something. You remember when we went to that farm with the sheep and Deborah thought it’d be a good idea to try dying their fur with food coloring and water. And–” 

“San,” I started, “what are you talking about? What farm? Who’s Deborah?” 

His voice grew more distracted as he leaned around me to look that way. “You know, the farm with the–okay, that’s probably enough.” 

“Enough of–what are you doing?” Turning to look for myself, I saw Dani walking to the exit just as Amber and Tomas came from another part of the cafeteria. At the last second, Tomas split off from Amber, disappearing into the crowd just as she ended up at the exit with Dani. The two of them stopped there and started to talk. 

“You guys planned that?” I demanded, turning to squint at San. 

It was Tomas who answered, coming out of the crowd. “Sort of. Well, mostly through a few looks and a text or two while you were busy.” 

San nodded. “Yeah, I mean you were talking about doctors or whatever and Amber was over there. We just sort of made sure they ended up in the same spot at the same time. Tiny nudge. I mean, come on, they’re cute together, right?” 

“He’s right,” Tomas agreed, “they are cute together.” 

“You guys are so weird,” I informed them, shaking my head. “Incredibly weird. But if you two matchmakers are done for the moment, I need to actually go to class.” 

Tomas pretended to consider. “You know, speaking of people who are cute together–” 

“Okay, that’s enough of that!” Red-faced, I pivoted and started to walk away quickly. I really did not want to think about who Tomas thought I would be cute with. Considering he was my ex and–wait, was he talking about him? Did he–no, wait, did I even want–no, wait–

I was so busy focusing on that whole issue, that I ended up walking right into someone who had stopped in the doorway ahead of me. There was a grunt of surprise, before the girl in question spun to blurt, “Watch where you’re going, you fucking–Cassidy!” 

It was Arleigh, of course. Because that was just how my luck went. She immediately plastered a smile over her face and laughed unconvincingly. “Sorry, I guess I shouldn’t stop right in the doorway, huh?” Another laugh came before she snapped her fingers. “Hey, you know, while you’re here, I was talking to your dad at my internship the other day–” 

“You have an internship with my dad?” I asked bluntly. 

She laughed again. “Not exactly with your dad. I’m just interning at one of the offices where he shows up sometimes. Anyway, the point is, he was talking about how you love that skater chick, ahh, Inessa Sidorov?” 

Blinking at that, I found myself nodding in confusion. “Sure, she’s awesome. Inessa’s basically been my hero for years. Why?” As soon as I said that, I felt like it was probably a mistake. 

With a grin that was almost shark-like, Arleigh pounced on my reaction. “Oh, well that’s cool, because she’s staying at our house right now. Just a little something with her agent screwing up a hotel booking while she’s here for some video, and my father happened to be at the hotel when they told her there weren’t any rooms. He offered her a place at our house, so she’s staying with us. You know, if you want to meet her.”

Oh crap. Shit. First of all, there was a big part of me who really did want to meet her. I had been watching her videos on skating for as long as I can remember. And beyond that, another part pointed out that if I declined, it could cause trouble. My dad knew just how obsessed with Inessa I was. If I turned down the opportunity to meet her, he was going to ask why. He was going to ask what else I had to do. And those were things I really couldn’t afford to have my parents asking. I needed them to ignore me. Finding out that I had turned down the opportunity to meet this girl would make them do the opposite of that. They would start paying attention. They would worry about me. They would look into what else I was up to. 

There was absolutely no choice. I was going to have to agree to go over to Arleigh’s house. That thought by itself was almost enough to make me reconsider. But my parents knew too much about how much of a fan of Inessa I was to think that I would let avoiding Arleigh keep me from meeting her. 

Pushing down all my conflicted thoughts about the situation, I forced myself to smile as much as I could. “I mean, are you sure your dad really wants people coming by just to gawk at his guest? Hell, what about Inessa? She probably just wants to relax and–” 

With another laugh, Arleigh punched my shoulder lightly. Sort of lightly. “Don’t be silly. You’re not just any ordinary lame-o person. Besides, my parents would totally love to have you over for dinner. Come by tomorrow. Ryder’ll be there too. We’ll have a whole, like, little party thing. Just don’t invite anyone else. Little party. Just us.” 

Ryder was going to be there? Okay, sure, maybe this whole thing wouldn’t be a complete waste. If Inessa and Ryder were there, at least I wouldn’t be stuck with just Arleigh and her parents. Or maybe I was just telling myself that. Either way, I had to go to this thing. Which was going to be interesting. 

Finding the words to mutter a thanks to the other girl and promising to text her later, I quickly made my way down the hall. With thoughts of Jae’s possibly secret boyfriend, the whole Dani and Amber situation, and the fact that I was going to have to visit Arleigh’s place tomorrow filling my head, I made my way to class. One thing was for sure. 

My civilian life was starting to be just as ridiculous as the Touched one. 

******

Eventually, school was over, and I took the ride home with Izzy and Jefferson. I had homework that I really had to get done. It wouldn’t exactly help my ability to keep my activities secret if my parents started getting calls about failing classes. So, I locked myself in my room and tore through that as quickly as I could. I’d already made arrangements to go over and visit the others at the shop for a real discussion about everything that had happened the day before. But for now, I had to stick around home and go to our normal family dinner. 

Thankfully, I didn’t really need to say much throughout the dinner. Simon took up most of the talking, going on and on about a trip that he and his friends were taking next week. Apparently, they were heading to Yellowstone to do some camping. Or at least, that’s the story Izzy and I were being given. Maybe it was even true. I sort of doubted that everything my brother did was for the Ministry. Still, there was no way for me to know for sure. Was this a real camping trip, or was he off to do something else and we were just being given an excuse for why he wasn’t around? Given his outward enthusiasm, my brother was either a very good actor, or it was the truth. Or maybe he really was doing something secret, but was just as excited about that as he would have been about camping with his friends in Yellowstone. 

Whatever the truth was, it meant I didn’t have to talk very much. Still, I tried to make things seem as nice and normal as I could, teasing Simon about being eaten by bears. Which, of course made me think about that little visit I’d had with the Minsters Gray. They had obviously reported everything I said to my parents, so I wondered briefly what they thought about that. Too bad I couldn’t just ask them. Even if the thought of how amusing it would be to suddenly pipe up with that in the midst of Simon going on about some sort of special meat they would be barbecuing out there was enough to make me have to bite my lip. 

Eventually, dinner was over, and I was able to excuse myself. Izzy had another night of patrol to get to, but we took a few minutes up in my room to talk a bit more about everything that happened. I thought about bringing up my idea about Jae having a boyfriend, but decided against it. First, that was way too close to being one of those weird gossiping people. And second, why would Izzy care? She barely knew who Jae was, outside of just being Amber’s friend. She’d met her like once here at the house, as far as I knew. 

Pushing that thought out of my head, I made sure she promised to be careful out there, considering how crazy the city had become. Granted, things might have calmed down a bit after yesterday, but it was just as likely that they would get worse. Not to mention the fact that Jennica was still out there and wanted to make a name for herself. She agreed, before going to what my parents were claiming was a study date. Because, of course, I still wasn’t supposed to know about her powers. I wondered how long they would keep that up if this adoption thing happened. Was that entirely up to Izzy herself? Would my parents let her tell me the truth about that much at least? And how was I supposed to react when it happened? 

Thinking about that while I made my way out of the house, I headed for the shop. The others were there already, and once I was inside, I took a few minutes to explain again about my encounter with the bear-and-raccoon Ministers. Needless to say, everyone had a lot of questions. Not to mention how openly (and loudly) vindicated Peyton felt about finding out she really had seen a raccoon at the stadium. There was dancing and jumping up and down involved. 

I fielded their questions for a few minutes before finally shaking my head. “Guys, I swear, I don’t know more than that. It’s a little weird that they let me see them. I think it’s some sort of test. You know, to see just how much I can keep secret. Like they said, it’s not like it’ll be some big mystery about who exposes them, if they start hearing rumors about a bear and raccoon TONI. So, you know–” 

“Don’t go blabbing about it,” Sierra interrupted. My doppelganger was sitting on one of the tables full of junk in the middle of the pawn shop main floor, eating a very large burrito. “Not if we wanna avoid more Ministry attention for the moment. Which sounds like a good idea to me. Especially since we’re supposed to be focusing on Breakwater now.” 

“Yeah,” Murphy put in from where she and Roald were sitting in a couple metal folding chairs, “now that the zombie distraction is taken care of. Which, for the record, I’d rather never see any of them again. I am done with zombies for the rest of my life.” She paused briefly before adding in a dark, muttered voice, “Especially the Luciano kind.” 

Peyton, who was sitting cross-legged on one of her hovering marbles that had transformed into a simple disc, spoke up. “Yeah, let Broadway and Grandstand look for that crazy bitch. And Pack, I guess. It’s not like we don’t have important things to focus on.” 

Jumping on that, Wren piped up from the glass counter where she was perched. “I’m almost done with the thing to track the location of the place when you call that jerk. But I wanna make sure it works the first time, you know? Because if we try it and it doesn’t work, they’ll probably notice and make it even harder.” 

“Good idea,” I agreed. “We need to know where that place is so we can convince him to do the right thing. But I’d rather they not realize where we are in the process.” 

The younger girl quickly bobbed her head to that, promising that she would get it done as soon as possible. “I’m working as hard as I can, I swear.” 

“Don’t hurt yourself,” Peyton put in. “You’re only one person. Don’t forget, you’ve got us to help. We might not be Tech-Touched, but we can be extra hands.” 

Fred grunted from the cash register, where he had been working on counting cash and paying bills. “Don’t worry, I’m making her take breaks.”

“Good.” That was Paige, who was standing nearby with her arms folded. “But in the meantime, we should probably talk about the actual plan for what we’re gonna do after we have the island’s location. Personally, I don’t think that’s something we should just leave for the last minute.” 

“Oh come on,” I found myself teasing. “Are you seriously saying you don’t want to totally wing blackmailing the world’s most secure and secretive supervillain prison into doing our bidding? 

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Schooling 24-03 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Obviously, I had been through a lot of ridiculous things since I’d Touched the orb that one night a couple months ago. It was pretty hard by this point to say that any single moment definitively topped all others as far as standing out went. But I was going to have to admit, standing on a rooftop in the middle of the night, giving our made-up story about how my friends and I had been robbed by a group that was actually us to a bear and raccoon who shared the same space and kept taking turns being physically present? Yeah, that was going up near the top of the list, at the very least. 

And, to be quite frank, it was probably pretty up there as far as being terrified went. So I had to hide that reaction as much as I could. I was standing here lying to what was apparently not only one (or two) of the Ministry’s highest ranking people given they had the title of Minister, but one of them was probably capable of smacking my head clean off my shoulders. Yes, I had orange paint and all that, but still. Standing in front of a nine-foot tall bear, even if he was in an incredibly-tailored suit, while lying my ass off about something as important to the Ministry as who had robbed them… it wasn’t exactly my idea of a fun time. 

Still, at least we had planned out exactly what we were going to say about this. We’d known that there would come a time when we had to tell the story, and that we might not all get to tell it together. If they asked us separately without any warning, we wanted to have our story straight. This way, whichever of us they talked to would say the same thing. 

In short, the story we’d come up with, which I relayed to my alternatingly bear-raccoon interrogators, was that our group kept some supplies for Trevithick’s work hidden in a few old sheds around the city. Sheds which we had rigged with alarms and other protection to keep the equipment safe. One day, we had been talking and practicing outside one of those sheds when we heard something moving inside. Opening it up, we found three black-masked figures starting to pull boxes over to a hole they’d made in the floor. We were, quite understandably, surprised to see someone there. So they managed to throw some sort of flash bang thing before we could react. We chased them through the tunnel after recovering, but it simply led all the way to a large drainage ditch a couple blocks over, where we’d lost them. 

“But at least they only made off with a couple boxes worth of stuff,” I finished with a shrug. “And we put cameras in our storage places now, believe me.” 

Price, the raccoon, was perched on top of one of those small metal smokestack things, rubbing his paws together thoughtfully as he regarded me. “I don’t suppose you can show us where this other tunnel is so we can check for any other evidence?” 

Looking right back at him, I replied, “I don’t suppose you can show me where your tunnel is?” As he lifted his chin in reaction, I added, “I mean, that’s why you showed up like this to ask these questions, right? These people broke into some place that was important to you, and now you’re looking for any clues that could help you track them down. But something tells me you don’t want to let the sharing thing go both ways.”  

There was a brief pause as he seemed to consider my words, before hopping down as the smoke and light burst appeared. The bear, Fisher, was back. “You’re ahh, you’re right, we don’t have the authority or permission to take you to that place. But we did hope that–” 

“Look,” I interrupted before I could talk myself out of interrupting a bear, “I get it. I know why you all want to stop these people. I mean, I may not know the whole story, but something tells me your whole secret gang doesn’t really like the idea of another secret gang horning in on your territory. Trust me when I say you guys have a better chance of catching them than we do. But if, by some chance, we do happen to get them first, we’ll be sending them to prison, not to you people. Don’t take that the wrong way, it’s just… yeah.” It was important that I stick that bit about sending them to prison in there. It implied that I didn’t know they could get to any prisoner quite easily, and I really wanted to obfuscate just how much I knew about the Ministry. Or just let them think I was that naive. 

“We did get off on the wrong foot, didn’t we?” Fisher noted while giving me a curious glance. He stepped backward, hunching down a bit. I had the feeling he was intentionally trying not to intimidate me. “We heard our introduction to you was Squire carrying out an execution.” 

Squire. That name immediately leapt out to me, for more than one reason. First, he was obviously talking about my brother. That was Simon’s name in the Ministry, Squire? And second, I’d heard that name recently anyway. Back when we had been working out where Luciano was, Murphy had read a bit about how they were sending Squire instead of Plan Z to take care of something else, because Plan Z was busy. Simon was Squire. 

Absorbing all of that, I focused on the large bear in front of me, who was still doing his best to look unimposing. “You mean when I wandered into the wrong place at the wrong time, saw two people get shot in the heads, and then this Squire guy ordered his friends to kill me for being there? I’d say that was more than one wrong foot. That was at least a wrong leg.” 

Fisher gave a slight nod, slumping down to a seated position there on the roof in front of me. “Yes, very regrettable. We wish that had gone differently. If you like, we can answer questions, such as what exactly it was that you walked into that night.”

Questions? Oh boy, yeah, I had a lot of those. And yet, “How would I know you’re telling the truth? I mean, I hate to sound like a broken record, but again, don’t take that the wrong way. If you’re gonna say those two people were pedophile rapists who got what was coming to them, I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not.” 

With a poof of light and smoke, Price was back. “You’re right,” he agreed. “You got no reason to believe anything we say. And we’re obviously not about to be best friends here. Still, like we said before, we wanted to thank you for putting all that aside when it came to this zombie situation. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll be able to laugh about all this tension.” 

“Maybe,” I allowed with a little shrug. There was no sense in being needlessly hostile. Not only did I really want to avoid a fight right now, but I needed the Ministry to continue seeing me as not a threat. They knew that I knew a bit about them, and that I wasn’t on their side. But as of right now, they also saw that I was willing to ask for their help, and I hadn’t tried to go to the cops or anything. I wasn’t an immediate problem they had to deal with, which meant I could potentially be an asset at some point in the future. I wanted them to keep thinking that. On the other hand, I was pretty sure they would be suspicious if I was too easy on them. 

To that end, I added, “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to let me take this Squire guy to the cops so he can tell them the whole story about why he killed those people. You know, as part of laughing about everything in the future, once they accept his story and give him a pat on the back for doing such a service to the community?” My head tilted one way, then the other. “No? Worth a shot.” 

There was a snort from the small raccoon, before he replied, “Sorry, that probably won’t happen. Not unless Squire… let’s say, screws up very badly.” 

Yeah, there was a lot I was tempted to say about that too, but about ninety-eight percent of it would’ve given away far too much about who I was. So, I simply shrugged once more. “In that case, I should probably get out of here. I mean, it’s been pretty cool, talking to a bear and raccoon at all, let alone a bear and raccoon who keep switching places. I feel like it’d be fun to hang out sometime. Maybe go see a movie. But right now, I’m basically asleep on my feet. Seriously, remember that whole ‘saving a stadium full of people from a bunch of fiery zombie monsters’ thing? You were there to see how awesome we were. But being awesome takes energy, so I need to go home.” 

With a slight chuckle, Price waved a paw, which gave me a nice look at his claws and reminded me that just because he wasn’t as big as his partner didn’t mean he couldn’t still be dangerous. “Sure thing, kid. And might I just say, you took talking to a raccoon and bear who keep swapping places better than a lot of people might’ve.” 

Speaking dryly, I replied, “Well, you did make it clear that my first impulse to hug you was a bad idea, and my second impulse to ask for a selfie probably wasn’t much better. You don’t seem like the type of guys who want to have your picture out there, considering I would’ve heard about you otherwise.” 

Fisher returned, swapping places with Price before giving me a short nod. “Those are some good instincts. Maybe they’ll take you a long way. But ahh, as far as hugs go, I will note that I am much more open to the concept than my partner.” 

My mouth opened, before I paused, looking him up and down. Then I shrugged, “Mmmmaybe we should hold off on the hug until a second meeting. But there’s something…. else that could be cool.” With that, I told him what I was thinking. 

Absorbing the request, Fisher made what sounded like a low chuckle. “You are an odd and fascinating boy, Paintball. And yes, perhaps we’ll see you again sometime. We know we can’t tell you not to tell any of your friends about us, if you’ve said anything about the Ministry already…” He trailed off, as though waiting briefly to see if I would react at all. When I didn’t, he just carried on. “But just know that if word gets out about us, or anything else, we know how to track it back. So be careful. And that goes for everything else you know about our group. Discretion is the better part of valor, and valor keeps everyone happy.”

Promising the bear that I would keep that in mind, I added, “About that request?” 

His eyes widened just a little. “You were serious about–ah… well yes, I believe we can accommodate that, if you are certain.” With that, he extended one arm, waiting expectantly. 

Some part of my brain was asking if I was crazy, rather vehemently. I ignored that part (it was used to that), and stepped that way. Pausing, I pointed and coated both of his arms with purple paint before turning around. Fisher reached down, and I felt his enormous paws close around either side of my waist. Without any apparent effort whatsoever, he hoisted me up in the air. “You are certain about this.” 

In response, I gave him a thumbs up while activating the paint I’d given him. “Let’s light this candle!” 

There was a brief pause, before Fisher leaned back, holding me out over his head, almost horizontal to the ground. Then he snapped upright with a roar, and hurled me out over the city. Between his natural bear strength, the Touched-based increase I was pretty sure he already had, and the boost I’d given him, I was sent flying over the rooftops with a loud scream that was half-terror and half-exhilaration escaped me. Several seconds in, and the scream turned to a laugh. I was sailing past several buildings, tumbling head over heels through the air. I was dizzy, in the middle of some terrifying mixture of flying and falling, and it was absolutely amazing. 

Just before I would have splatted against the side of a building, I managed to right myself, using orange paint on my legs, and a shot of blue against the wall so I could simply bounce off it, maintaining my momentum through another couple jumps and a shot of red that sent me sailing freely over the next roof. Fuck, fuck, fuuuuuuuuuck this was fast! 

I wanted to do it again. But I had a feeling they wouldn’t be there if I went back. So, I let my speed gradually slow so I could get my bearings once more.  

What did it mean, exactly, that Ministers Gray had shown themselves to me? Was it just that they were testing how I would react and whether word of their existence would leak out? Obviously, just like Fisher had said, if they showed themselves to me and then rumors of a bear-raccoon joint TONI started going around town, it wouldn’t be hard to figure out what happened. But was that the only reason they made a point of letting me see and talk to them, or was there something else? Were they trying to make me think there could be trust between us or something? I… I didn’t know. 

What I did know was that I needed to get home and sleep, before I ended up crashing right into a wall or falling off the edge of a roof. Though to be fair, either one would result in me not being conscious anymore. Which was sort of like sleeping. 

But hey, at least I probably wouldn’t have to worry about being turned into a murder-zombie if that happened. So we had accomplished something today. 

******

The next morning was Thursday, May 14th. When I’d gotten home the night before, Izzy had already been asleep in her bed. I took just enough time to check on her, then crashed into my own bed and slept until the alarm went off for school. Then I dragged myself through the shower and was just getting dressed in my room when the intercom buzzed to let me know she was out there. So, I let her in and the two of us took a few minutes to talk about what had happened the night before. She’d had just as much excitement as me, given the whole Cuélebre situation. 

“So now he’s pissed at you too?” I asked while nudging her as we sat on the edge of my bed. “You know you didn’t have to do that just to be like me, right? Actually, imitating me in general is just a bad idea all around.” 

Audibly snorting, the other girl lightly kicked my leg. “I wasn’t imitating you. He was gonna hurt Whamline, so I had to spray him down. You know, as a distraction.” After a brief pause, she grimaced. “But uhh, yeah, I don’t think he likes me very much right now.” That said, she turned my way and poked me in the arm harder than she had kicked me. “What about Broadway’s sister? She’s still out there, and she’s gonna be even more mad at you than Cuélebre is at… uh, both of us?” Squirming a bit, Izzy added, “Plus, she wants to get into the Scions, and they hate you too.” 

“Pretty sure they hate both of us,” I pointed out mildly, even as my face twisted a bit. “But yeah, she’s probably gonna be a problem. We know she’s out there now though, and so do the good guys. And the Ministry. It’s gonna be hard for her to show her face out there very much. Not that that solves the problem or anything, just… yeah, we’ll keep our eyes open. And uhh, keep watching for bears and raccoons.” 

She blinked at that, then stared and listened with an open mouth while I explained about meeting the Ministers Gray. When I was done, she took a moment to make sure I wasn’t pulling her leg, then sank back a bit, absorbing all of it. Finally, she murmured a soft. “Wow.” 

My head bobbed. “Wow about sums it up, yeah. I guess they want to see what I do with that sort of information. It’s definitely a test, and… I think also a sort of threat. But we can handle tests and threats, right? 

“Right,” she agreed before pushing herself up. “But you know what’s gonna be an even bigger threat if we don’t move?” 

“Jefferson,” I confirmed, hopping up after her. “Yeah, you’re right. We better get down there, or he’ll kill us before Jennica even has the chance to try.” 

So, the two of us had a quick breakfast before joining Jefferson for the drive to our schools. We talked about ordinary girl stuff on the way, to the point that I was pretty sure poor Jefferson’s ears practically started to bleed. Which I felt a little bad for, but hey, anything to make sure he’d report that there was absolutely nothing interesting going on with us. 

In any case, I eventually found myself at school, where I took a waiting Amber for a walk around the back field for her turn with the whole catching up thing. She apologized for not being able to get there, and for not even being around when the rest of the Star-Touched showed up. 

“They took us straight to the clubhouse, then had our parents pick us up,” she was saying while we studied some graffiti on the side of one of the football goalposts. “I mean, they promised your situation was already taken care of, but I still… you know.” 

“I know,” I confirmed. “It’s okay. I mean, like I said to your…” Briefly, I made a point of looking at my phone. “Seventeen text messages, we’re good. We were safe.” 

Her gaze met mine as she bumped her fist into my shoulder. “Sure, if you count adding another pissed off enemy to your ongoing list as being safe.” She tried to make it sound teasing before visibly sobering. “Look, just be careful, okay?” 

“Oh, don’t worry,” I assured the girl, “I wouldn’t wanna be eaten by a bear.” Letting that hang for a moment as she stared at me trying to figure out if that was some sort of strange figure of speech, I finally snorted and explained the situation. Which meant I was treated to my second ‘person staring open-mouthed at me while trying to figure out if I was screwing with them’ of the past hour. 

Finally, Amber rocked backward on her heels. “Oh. I mean… oh. Wow. Well, either they’re sharing information with you because they don’t think you’re a problem…” 

“Or because they’re planning on making sure I’m not,” I finished, feeling a slightly queasy sensation run through me before pushing that aside. “Yeah, but I’m pretty sure it’s that first one.” 

Amber sighed. “I hope so. You’ve got enough people angry at you as it is.” 

“You know, people keep saying that,” I pointed out. “But the way I see it, if I get enough people pissed at me, when they do make a move, they’ll all run into each other, start a fight, and then I can escape unscathed. Like those cartoons where the whole group dog-piles the guy and he just crawls out from under the dust cloud and walks away.” My eyebrows waggled pointedly while she stared at me. “No?” 

“You should probably go back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan,” Amber replied flatly. Her mouth opened to add something else, before looking past my shoulder as she adjusted to call out, “Hey, Jae, what’s up?” 

Sure enough, Jae was approaching. She had on a wide-brimmed hat as well as sunglasses, and was clearly wearing sunscreen to protect her delicate skin. And even then, I was pretty sure she wouldn’t stay outside for very long. She also stayed silent until she was right next to us, before finally offering a slight smile our way while speaking softly. “Morning. Would…” She hesitated, clearly wanting to ask something but apparently uncomfortable with it. 

“What is it, Jae?” Amber prompted. “It’s okay, you can tell us. Unless you wanna just talk to one of us?” She glanced to me, looking slightly uncertain. Or possibly uncomfortable. 

“Oh yeah, sure. Sorry.” Holding up both hands to assure them it was okay, I started to say I would see them inside. For all I knew, Jae wanted to talk to Amber about stuff involving her being That-A-Way and didn’t realize that I already knew that. Hell, I didn’t know if Jae knew that. It was a weird situation. The two of them were friends, but that didn’t mean she definitely knew, and even if she did, I didn’t necessarily want her to know that I knew because that could lead to figuring out who I was, and then–yeah. It was a whole thing. 

Before I could head off, however, Jae quickly spoke up. “I–uh, actually I was… wondering if you both could take notes for me today. I have a… doctor’s appointment. I mean, Amber in the classes we have and… and Cassidy in the classes we have that I don’t have with Amber. I–that is–”

“Sure thing,” I assured her before she could fumble on with that. “No problem. Doctor’s appointment, huh? Everything cool?” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed while glancing out toward the parking lot. “Dad just wants me to get a check-up since he’s back in town. He was just working on some movie with this contagion outbreak, and… it made him paranoid. So Kella’s gonna drive me over there.” 

I rarely heard Jae say much, so this was practically a whole speech by her standards. Which made me once again think she must’ve been feeling awkward about the whole Amber being That-A-Way thing. But that wasn’t a discussion I could get into right then, so I just let it go and promised again to take notes for her. Amber did the same, and then Jae headed off. 

“She knows, doesn’t she?” I started quietly after watching the girl leave. 

Amber seemed to jump a bit, turning back my way. “Huh?” 

“About you being Touched, I mean,” I clarified. “Err, sorry, I probably shouldn’t have said anything. It’s just, that was a little awkward right there, like she wanted to say something but didn’t. Or… something.” 

There was a brief pause before Amber gave a slight nod. “Uh, yeah. She knows. But she doesn’t know anything about you.” 

“Yeah, that’s probably why it was awkward,” I noted, shaking my head before starting to walk to the school building itself. “This whole situation is just weird sometimes, you know?” 

Muttering something about me having no idea, the other girl followed. The two of us were just heading inside, when I glanced toward the parking lot. There, I saw Jae getting into the passenger seat of some random car. At first, I thought it was her stepmother giving her that ride she was talking about, but the driver was a man. One that I belatedly recognized. 

Okay, so if Jae’s stepmother was supposed to be taking her to the doctor, why was she getting into a car with that Damarko Myers guy? Wait, hold on…

Did… did Jae have a secret boyfriend? 

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Schooling 24-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Once we made our way out of there and over to the van that, as promised, was waiting, the driver took us back into the city. We had the man drop us off a few blocks away from the shop, and thanked him for the lift. Then, once he drove off, we moved into the nearby alley and all of us practically collapsed against the nearby walls to look at each other. The drive had been a nice chance to sit for a bit, but we hadn’t really relaxed there, not with that guy around.

“Man,” Murphy announced while slumping down to sit on the ground, “I feel like I could sleep for a week. And my hand won’t stop shaking. Is that normal?” 

Sitting next to her, Roald shook his head. “My hands are just fine, but my knee won’t stop moving. See?” He gestured as his leg bounced erratically. “Seriously, it’s like I’m exhausted, but I sort of feel like I want to run a marathon. I could close my eyes and fall asleep right here, or my brain could keep me up all night. My body’s ready to fall apart, but…” 

“It’s adrenaline,” Paige advised him. “That’ll wear off. You’ll want to get back home and in your bed before that happens. Otherwise you really might end up sleeping in an alley. And that’s not as fun as it sounds, believe me.” 

With a nod, Peyton put in, “Yeah, and speaking of sleeping in an alley, if I don’t get home, my mom is really gonna freak out.” She looked over at Murphy and Roald. “I’ll give you guys a ride if you want.”

They agreed with that, and we arranged to meet and talk about things the next day. Then those three headed off together, while I focused on Sierra and Paige. “Well,” I started, “at least we stopped that whole thing. I mean, sure, that evil chick is still running around out there trying to impress the Scions, but this whole thing could’ve been a hell of a lot worse.”  

The two of them exchanged glances before Sierra spoke up. “Yeah, it sure could’ve.” Turning back toward me, she added, “Which is why we decided something on the way back here.”

“You decided something?” I asked while looking back-and-forth between them. “I didn’t think you guys even said a single word to each other that whole drive.” 

“We didn’t have to physically talk,” Paige informed me. “Remember, we have Wi-Fi. We set up our own private chat server and talked there. We can add you guys in, so you can join the chat room on your phone or computer. That way, we can all stay in contact.” 

“Wait hold on,” I interrupted, “is that whole ‘we have Wi-Fi’ thing a joke? Because I’m pretty sure that’s not the most secure thing for you guys to be talking about private stuff on. Especially if it was Wi-Fi inside a government van.” 

“Yes and no,” Sierra informed me. “It’s not a joke because we really can connect to Wi-Fi if we want to. But we also have our own private network. Trust me when I say, it’s secure. The version we were using in the van is short-range, line of sight communication. The signal went from me to her and back again. On top of that, it’s all encrypted. They’d have to literally be one of us to understand it. We’ll have to fix up your devices so they can connect to it, and when you do, you won’t exactly find a bunch of fun websites. But at least we’ll all be able to use our little chat room to stay in contact.” 

“Okay, right, cool.” Nodding slowly, I murmured, “So you’ve got this secure little chat room for just the two of you, and you’re gonna let us into your clubhouse so we can all keep up with each other in a way that doesn’t involve normal texting.” 

Paige straightened while looking down the alley as she confirmed, “That’s about the size of it. Obviously, when you guys use it, you’ll be going through the regular internet. But it’ll still be secure. A hell of a lot more secure than ordinary phone texting, anyway. Add that into using phones your parents don’t know about and that’s about as safe as we can be. We’ll make sure the program we add to your stuff looks like something innocent, and wipes anything incriminating if anyone pokes at it.”

“Right, sounds good to me,” I managed. Hell if I knew anything about the details. If they said it would be safe, I believed them. Which was an odd feeling coming from the whole Paige direction. But I shoved that thought out of my mind and asked, “So, what was this decision you guys were talking about before we got off on that little tangent?” 

Once more, the two of them exchanged glances before turning back to me. Paige started, “Like you said, that situation could’ve gone a lot worse. And there’s going to be more like it. Jennica is still out there. She’s trying to hook up with the Scions, who don’t really like you very much. So they won’t like any of us very much. To say nothing of all the other bad guys out there.”

“Including our father,” Sierra put in. “We still have to get Irelyn and that Trivial chick out of there.” 

“Exactly,” Paige agreed. “But if we’re– that is if you’re all going to survive all that, you need real training. Or you’re just gonna die.” 

“Don’t get us wrong,” Sierra put in, “with your powers, you’re pretty awesome. And, you know, it’s obvious you’ve had a little self-defense practice. You know how to punch someone. But you need more than that. A lot more. And so do the others. I just started to like you guys a little bit, so I’d rather not watch you get murdered. You’re all a lot more fragile than we are. And we can’t exactly go shoving the lot of you into more biolem orbs and bodies… yet.” 

“So,” Paige finished while I was giving Sierra a double-take, “we’re going to start teaching all of you how to fight. Really fight, I mean. We’re going to train you so that you’re not completely helpless without your powers.” 

Sierra coughed. “Well, let’s be honest, you’d still be in pretty bad shape without any power. I mean, come on, look at us, you and me. We’re like five foot nothing and, what, a hundred pounds? If I didn’t have enhanced biolem-strength, I’m not completely sure my foot wouldn’t snap off if I kicked a ball.”  

Grimacing, I retorted, “It’s not that bad. But yeah, you’ve got a point. I mean, about us needing to train. Do you really think you two can help with that?” 

Paige gestured pointedly. “We might as well put what Pittman programmed into us to good use. And the very best use I can think of for it is teaching all of you how to survive long enough to kick his ass and get Irelyn and Trivial off that island.” With a shrug, she added, “Besides,  with the way you make a habit of pissing people off in this city, you need all the survival training you can get. And so does anyone who’s planning on spending time with you.” 

My mouth opened as I raised a finger, before pausing. “I… yeah, okay, that’s fair. So, sure, that sounds like a plan to me. Or a goal, at least. If you guys want to designate yourselves our official trainers or whatever, feel free. You’re right about us needing all the help we can get. Seems like everything out there is getting more dangerous, not less. And you’re not the only ones who don’t want to see anything happen to anyone else in this team now that we just started to–uh, be a team.” 

“We’ll work something up,” Paige informed me. “But right now, you should get some rest. Do you want help getting home?” 

My head shook. “No, that’s cool. I’ll be fine. You guys head back to the shop.” She had been staying there with Sierra, even though they were both mobile and in separate bodies now. 

“Actually,” the girl who was my doppelganger under that mask informed me, “we’re gonna head to the Banners’ house, considering no one’s there right now. Not even any staff. And since the Ministry already interrogated Paige–” 

That made me do an almost violent double-take, while reflexively painting half a dozen question marks across my chest and helmet. “I’m sorry, the Ministry did what?” 

Sierra gave a look toward Paige, her voice reproachful. “I thought you said you were going to tell her.”

“I was,” Paige confirmed, “but then we got a little busy. The zombie baseball apocalypse was distracting.” Looking at me, she insisted, “It wasn’t a big deal. One of their agents talked to me earlier today, before we met up for all this. He wanted to know where I’ve been, and if I knew anything about Irelyn’s disappearance. I told him my dad was paranoid about something and took my mother and me on a bunch of increasingly stupid retreats. And I said that I finally convinced him to let me come home so I could go back to school, but when I got here, Irelyn had already left to go find us. I don’t know where they are now, and I don’t know where she is either.” 

Absorbing all that quietly, I finally asked the most important question, “Do you think he believed you?” 

Paige considered, though I was absolutely certain it was something she’d already thought about a lot. “If I didn’t, I would have brought it up sooner. They’re covering their bases. They know I was adopted by the Banners, and that I disappeared with them, then two of the local Star-Touched, one of whom happens to be the daughter the Banners bought me to replace after she pissed them off, disappeared too. Between that and me knowing about the Ministry, I would’ve thought something was wrong if they didn’t have a discussion with me. Mostly they wanted to know if Aaron Banners knew anything about them. So I told them I was pretty sure that’s not why he’s paranoid, and that he said something about business competitors and maybe Japan, or China or something. I kept it vague enough.” 

“Besides,” Sierra put in, “they’ve got other things to worry about right now.” 

“Right, our break-in secret is conveniently distracting them from peering too hard at our other secrets.” Snorting at that, I added, “Speaking of which, we need to decide what gang to hit next as our other-selves. Err, our other-other-selves. You know what I mean. If we’re gonna keep up the facade about there being some other group out there robbing them, we need to do it again.” 

“We’ll workshop that,” Paige agreed before flatly adding, “later. Right now, you really need to sleep. You’re swaying a lot more than you think you are right now.” 

She had a point, as much as I hated to admit it. It felt like there were still a dozen things I should be doing right then, but I really was incredibly tired after everything that had happened. So, with a heavy sigh, I nodded. “Fine, fine, I’ll head home and get some sleep. Just promise me that you guys are going to be careful.” 

Sierra coughed again and smirked at me after taking the mask off. “I’m not gonna get caught by your parents, trust me. It’s all cool, twin.” Her head tilted as she looked at Paige, then back to me. “Have you guys ever thought about how weird it is that I’m technically the twin of both of you in different ways?” 

Staring right back at her, I replied dryly, “Believe me, it’s come to mind.”

With that, I left the two of them and began to race-paint my way across the city. The chaos had thoroughly died down by the time we got back here in the van, as the gangs had all gone back to their own respective corners to lick their wounds and reassess their current situations. So, I had the city pretty much to myself. It was after curfew, and the emergency services were busy cleaning up various messes, or just recuperating themselves. I saw a few faces in windows waving or calling out greetings at me as I passed, so I waved back. One guy leaned out a nearby window entirely and shouted my name. Well, my Touched name anyway. When I stopped and looked, he waved a baseball bat while cupping his other hand against his mouth to shout, “Could you sign this!? Come on, I wanna give it to my kid!”

Well, what was I supposed to say to that? I launched myself that way and planted my knees against the wall next to his window after landing. “Hey there! What’s your name? And your kid’s name?” 

The man, a blonde guy in his forties with a neatly trimmed beard, beamed cheerfully. “Name’s Kyle. My son’s name is Edgar. Yeah, I know, but it was his mom‘s choice. She named him after her great uncle. Tried to go with Eddie, but the kid insists it’s Edgar. He’s nine. Just starting Little League.” 

Taking the bat as he offered it to me, I touched the side and instantly inscribed the words, ‘Hey Edgar, hope you smash a homerun so hard the bat breaks and I have to sign another one – Paintball.’ It took up most of the length of one side. 

Grinning as he saw what I had written, Kyle thanked me profusely and asked if I minded if he took a quick picture so he could prove it was real to his son. I agreed, and he leaned back in the window while holding the phone up so he could take a picture of us together. 

With that done, I gave him a thumbs up before launching myself away from the wall once more. As I was flying through the air, he called after me, “Oh, shit, thanks for what your new team did at that ballgame! I meant to say that!” 

Laughing, I turned over in the air to wave at him, using yellow paint to slow myself for that long. Then I landed on a lamppost and immediately used blue to hurl myself upward once more. The adrenaline was running low. I needed to get home, fall into my bed, and just die for awhile. 

Which, of course, was the thought that I had just as another figure caught my eye. This one was waving too, as I launched myself over another building. But it was waving from the roof, rather than from a window. And that wasn’t the only odd thing about it. The waiting figure wore a nice suit that looked like it belonged at one of those fancy millionaire dinner parties my parents liked to go to. It definitely wasn’t the suit of a man who would normally have been standing on top of an old used tire shop. Oh, then there was the fact that the man wasn’t a man at all. It was a bear. A literal bear, as in the furry animal, stood on its hind legs, wearing a perfectly tailored suit, waving at me. 

Okay, either I had been dosed with something, I was even more tired than I thought I was, to the point of being delirious, or that was a TONI. Wait, a bear in a suit. I’d thought I saw a bear in a suit back at the stadium! Wait a minute, was this… was this someone new? I wasn’t sure. I’d definitely never heard of a bear TONI in Detroit. But either way, it certainly got my attention. Especially since it meant I hadn’t been seeing things back when all that was going on. 

So, making sure I had enough paint on me to protect myself and get out of there if something went wrong, I used a shot of red to yank myself down that way. Landing smoothly, I straightened up and stared at the bear. Yeah, nothing had changed. From up close, that suit looked even more expensive. I’d seen a lot of fancy clothing in my time, even if I didn’t tend to wear much of it myself. I’d been in the sort of stores where these suits were sold, and I knew this one was top of the line. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had its own Touched-Tech enhancements for protection. Those expensive ones tended to have bullet-proofing and even fire-protection, that sort of thing. 

And this wasn’t just any bear. He was enormous, standing what had to be nine feet tall and impressively built, a fact that was apparent even under that suit. He looked like he could take my head off with a casual swat. 

After looking the bear up and down briefly, I hesitantly started by raising my hand in a wave. “Uh, hello? Did I… did I see you earlier? Back at the stadium. I thought I saw… but then…” 

“Ah, good evening, Paintball,” the bear replied. His voice seemed to literally come from him, rather than an electric translator. Which wasn’t always the case. Some TONIs could speak normally, others couldn’t. “Do you mind if we call you that?” 

“Uh, to be honest, I’m still not sure I’m conscious right now and didn’t just plow into a building to give myself a concussion,” I informed him with a shrug. “But sure, I guess. If this is real, you should probably call me the same thing as everyone else.” 

The bear smiled, and it took me a moment to realize that he was trying to reassure me rather than be intimidating. Those teeth were very sharp. “Don’t worry, “ he rumbled politely, “you’re not in a coma and you’re not dreaming. Or hallucinating. And yes, to answer your question, we were at the stadium earlier, attempting to provide what aid we could given the circumstances. I am called Fisher. We are Minister Gray.” 

Okay, that made me do a double-take. “Wait, Minister? As in–” 

“Part of the Ministry, yes,” came the response, while he held up both paws. “But please, relax yourself, we are not here with any ill-intention. Rather, we wish to offer our thanks for your aid in maintaining relative peace within the city.”

Regardless of his words, I reflexively took a step back and glanced around. “Okay, you keep saying we, but I only see one of you. Wait, sorry, are you–” 

“We are not plural,” the bear informed me. “Not in the way you are thinking, anyway. But–ah, it is a bit complicated. Please, this is not a threat or an attack, though it will be a bit of a surprise.” 

Even as I opened my mouth to question that, there was a sudden burst of smoke right where the bear was, along with a glowing pyramid shape right in the center. I jumped backwards and brought my hands up despite his warning, but the smoke cleared to reveal that the bear was gone. Then a voice spoke up sharply. “Hey, down here.” 

My gaze lowered promptly, until I saw a raccoon. Just like the bear, he was in a clearly-tailored suit. And yes, it looked completely goddamn adorable. The bear had been intimidating, but seeing this little raccoon in a suit made me want to pick him up and squeeze him. 

“Don’t even think about it, kid,” the raccoon snapped, clearly interpreting my body language. “No hugging me, no picking me up. The name’s Price. Like my partner was saying, we’re Minister Gray. The short version is we Touched together, now we share space and take turns being on the outside. You don’t get to know any more than that.” 

This was a lot for me to take in. My mouth opened and shut a couple times as I fought to work my way through the confusion before I managed, “Wait, you were at the–I mean of course you were at the stadium too, but Alloy saw you!” 

“She sure did,” Price the Raccoon retorted, “cuz I wanted her to. How else were you supposed to find those hostages in time?” 

Absorbing that, I fumbled for a response before landing on, “You guys are part of the Ministry?” Yeah, it was dumb, but I had to say something

“That’s right, and we came to thank you for putting aside any differences of opinion you might have with us. Getting that girl to call for help was the right thing to do,” he informed me. “The situation back at that ballpark could’ve been an outright massacre. But you accepted help from people others would call villains, and you requested help from us. That showed both initiative and forward thinking. It shows we might need to reevaluate a few things about you.” 

“I uhh… well, thanks, I guess.” What the hell was I supposed to say to that? “But you could’ve sent that message with someone who wouldn’t attract this much attention. Don’t take this the wrong way, but something tells me you’re not just here to say thank you. I don’t think you would’ve revealed yourself if that was it.” 

The raccoon smiled, showing his own teeth. “Well, no, not exactly. But that was at the top of the list. We also hear you’ve experienced a bit of a break-in from a set of masked… intruders. We’d like you to tell us exactly what happened, in detail.” 

“Oh, uh, right.” We had mentioned that to Glitch, of course, as part of maintaining our cover and making it look like Avant-Guard and the black-masked people who broke into the Ministry were different people. “That might take awhile.” 

“It’s quite alright,” came the response. “We’ve got all the time in the world.” 

“And we’re not going anywhere until we hear that story.” 

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