Back when the fact that Seraph Hills had the piece of equipment Wren needed to complete that suit had come up, I’d completely dismissed the idea of actually breaking into the place. Because while it was a ‘university’ in the strictest sense (with attached teaching hospital), it was also the Detroit headquarters of the Seraphs themselves. Hence the name. And the Seraphs were… dangerous. Private security team or army, whichever one wanted to call them. The point was, they were not ones to be fucked with. There was a reason they were able to keep their appointed locations safe and enforce neutral zones around medical places.
Except for that children’s hospital that Pencil and his people attacked, but that was one of the biggest reasons the Scions had been sure to block all communication out of the area. It kept the Seraphs from noticing what was happening and responding. And apparently the ones who were stationed at the hospital itself were drawn away somehow. I still wasn’t sure on the specifics, but it was clearly a big deal behind the scenes that the public was only seeing a tiny hint about. I’d heard my dad on the phone defending the Seraphs to the mayor and pointing out that it was her decision to have minimal Seraph forces in the hospital at the time. Something about having protection for the route the VIP’s would be taking on their way in and out of the area.
So yeah, the point was, I chose not to even attempt to break into that place at the time. Now here I was, about to go in there willingly… and I still wasn’t going to try to sneak in. Nope. Sure, Hallowed had made a comment about me maybe giving it a shot, but without having recorded evidence of him saying that? I wasn’t going to play that kind of game. No, thank you. Especially not right after I’d just gone through all that shit with those idiot kidnappers and Braintrust.
Instead, I just strolled right up to the front gate (the medical school was surrounded by a well-guarded wall that looked like stone but was obviously something stronger) and looked at the guard in the little hut there while he watched me over the top of his ipad. “Hiya,” I started when it was clear the man wasn’t going to speak first, “appointment for Paintball with Hallowed? I know I’m late, but you would not believe the traffic.”
The man didn’t smile. He just stared at me for another few seconds, like he was sizing me up. Then he set down the ipad and announced in a flat, emotionless voice, “Prove you’re him.”
That was the same thing the cop on my way into the courthouse had said. Did bad guys or nut jobs dress up as established Touched a lot and try to fake their way into places? That sounded dangerous for everyone involved. In any case, I did so, touching my hand against the nearby wall and insta-painting a cartoonish rendition of the guard himself. “Good enough?” I asked. “Or would you prefer a whole comic page? I could make you fight Dracula or something.”
“My kids would like that,” the man replied, apparently taking it entirely seriously. “Not on the wall, but a book. Think it over and let me know what you charge. I can give you a fair price for it.”
Taken aback that my joke had been treated like an actual offer, I stumbled a bit over my words. “Oh, umm, I–yeah, I can–I mean I’ll think about… right, yeah. Wait, are you being serious?”
“My son likes that sort of thing,” the man informed me. “In fact, if I bring you a picture of him, could you involve him in the story? His birthday’s coming up and I didn’t know what to get him.”
Quickly, I nodded. “Um, uh, sure, yeah, I mean… let me–yeah. I can totally whip something up for you.”
“Don’t whip it up,” the man retorted, taking my words literally once more. “If I’m paying you for it, I want you to spend some time to make it right. Come visit after your appointment, we can hash out the details. I’ll talk to my ex and find out what kind of things Josh might like in a story.”
After I hurriedly agreed and promised to come back to talk to him about the details of the picture book for his son’s birthday, the man buzzed me through the gate, with instructions to follow the sidewalk beyond to a labeled waiting area, where I would be met and taken to my meeting.
Stepping through the open gate, I looked around. It looked like… well, a university campus. There were several clearly school-related buildings arranged in a vague U shape straight ahead of me, with a grassy area in the middle where students were walking around, sitting under trees, or on benches that lined the twin brick paths. To the right were a line of what looked mostly like administrative and faculty buildings.
Off in the distance to the left I could see the actual teaching hospital. They took real patients and everything there, it was just that a lot of the medical personnel were still learning. Or something like that. The hospital was set away from the rest of the campus, with a whole small park area separating them. I was still near the school part, and the guard’s directions sent me even further away from the hospital, to the right along the sidewalk where those administrative buildings were. Ahead, I saw the promised sign pointing me into a small, two-story structure with a lot of windows.
On the way to that building, I passed a few groups of students. A few looked up, but no one said anything. They were all either too absorbed in hurrying to their next class, or they were just so accustomed to seeing Touched around there, given it was the Seraph base, that it just didn’t phase them at all. Probably a bit of both.
Either way, no one bothered me. Though I did get a couple distracted waves before making it to the labeled welcoming center. Stepping through the doors, I saw a lot of posters and informational fliers about new student acclimation, applying for scholarships, registration, that kind of thing. Crazy stuff for a Welcome Center to have, for sure.
The elderly woman behind the nearby counter looked up as I came in and offered me a smile. I’d never actually met my grandparents, but it still made me think of a grandmotherly expression. “Oh, hello, dear. I hope that poor girl you were trying to help is safe now?”
“Yup,” I replied easily, “she’s fine. Ticked off at the guy who thought ‘no you’re a gross old pervert’ meant ‘throw me in the back of your car to woo me’, but other than that… yeah.” I was trying to play it off a bit, but seriously, that whole situation just gave me the heebie jeebies. To say the least. Outside of the Touched-Tech gun, that had all just been a normal creep kidnapping the teenage girl who told him to buzz off after he catfished her online. In some ways, that was worse than the totally outlandish stuff I’d already seen. Because it was just… normal. In a totally skeevy, horrible way.
Making a tutting sound at that news, the old lady primly announced, “Young men like that need a stern talking to. And a good visit from a wooden spoon on their knuckles. You remember that, yes? Doesn’t matter how famous and popular you get in the course of all this superheroing and such, you treat your young ladies with respect. Or young men, if that’s your fancy. Don’t make no never-mind to old Tricia.”
My small smile was hidden behind the mask and helmet, as I nodded. “Don’t worry, ma’am, if I ever acted like that guy, I might just break my own jaw. I’d sure deserve it. And trust me, he’s gonna have a good long time to think about what he did. Well,” I amended thoughtfully, “a long time anyway. I don’t know about good.”
Picking up a nearby glass bowl full of hard candy, the woman insisted, “That’s good to hear. Now, you take a handful of these and have them later, you hear me? Miss Patchwork will be here to see you soon. Until she makes it, feel free to have a seat right over there.” With the bowl, she pointed toward some leather chairs arranged in the corner near a television that was playing some news station. That was probably how the lady here had seen what I’d been up to earlier.
“Patchwork?” I echoed while obediently taking a few pieces of candy. I knew who that was, but… “I guess that means I’m not seeing Hallowed today?”
“I’m afraid he’s a bit busy at the moment,” Tricia informed me. “Don’t you worry, Miss Patchwork will take very good care of you. She’s a sweet girl.”
That, apparently, was the cue for one of the nearby interior doors to basically slam open. The costumed girl who emerged seemed to be in her late teens or early twenties. She wore black leather pants, motorcycle boots, a black mesh shirt over dark green body armor that covered her upper half, black motorcycle gloves, and a green visor that matched the armor across the top of her face, between her nose and forehead. Her hair was dyed green and cut short and spiky.
“Hey you!” the new arrival demanded, pointing my way. “You’re that fucking… guest newbie guy I’m supposed to put to work or whatever, right? Come on, I’ve got shit to do, let’s go.” She whistled while making a ‘round up’ gesture with her finger, pivoted on her heel, and headed back the way she’d come. “Move your ass, we don’t have all day!”
“Don’t worry, dear,” Tricia assured me in a low voice, “she’s really quite pleasant when you get to know her.”
So, I followed, of course. We passed out of the waiting area and into a narrow corridor. As the two of us approached some kind of laser grid security system, the older girl glanced at me. “So, I know you’re Paintball. You know who I am?”
“Patchwork,” I replied simply. “You heal people. Um, sort of.”
She snorted at that while stopping by the laser grid and looking at me once more. “Heal people, sort of. Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. I touch anything that’s alive, focus on one specific part of them like their leg, their lungs, their eyes, and then I can copy the state of that part onto anyone else I touch within five minutes. Say Billy Bob has a busted leg, I can touch Susie-Q’s perfectly intact leg, copy that perfect intactness, and then touch Billy Bob and heal the leg. You know what my two limitations for that are?”
I hesitated before answering slowly. “Um, you can’t copy your own physical state, you need someone else to touch for the healing to work. Plus it’s really specific, like, you can’t copy someone’s left leg to heal someone’s right leg. And um, it’s really temporary if the person doesn’t have powers.”
“Two hours,” Patchwork confirmed. “If the person I’m healing isn’t Touched, everything I do disappears in two hours and they go back to the way they were. Works pretty well for stabilizing them to get to a hospital, but it’s no miracle cure.”
“It’s still really cool,” I assured her. “Plus, maybe you can’t copy your own physical state, but you still do that cool transformation thing.”
That earned me a toothy smile. Very toothy. She literally showed wolf fangs before winking. “It is pretty cool, huh?”
It was. She wasn’t limited to just copying the physical state of things when she touched people (or animals). She could also copy the parts themselves and then make them appear on herself any time she wanted after that. Like the wolf fangs she was showing me. Or a giant turtle shell I’d seen her manifest in a video once. Apparently, if she used her power on something enough times and manifested all the different parts at once, she could do full shape-shifting. Animal or human. Between that and the healing aspect of her power, yes, it was very cool.
When I nodded, she continued. “Great, so here’s the deal. You, unlike all those ninnies running around out there, are Touched. So, if you’re doing your superhero thing and you get hurt, you gimme a call and next time I’ve got space and energy to squeeze you in, I’ll see what I can do. Fair?”
“Uhh… yeah, fair.” I quickly nodded, a bit overwhelmed by all that. “Call you if I need healing.”
“Not all the fucking time,” she was quick to snap. “I mean if you really need it. I ain’t your own personal fucking medic. Got lots of people who need it, and I don’t fucking relish being anyone’s living band-aid. And if it’s not life or death, you sure as shit better be ready to pay for it, either with cash or some kind of trade, favor, whatever. But yeah, if you need it and you’re ready to pay, give a shout and I’ll see what I can do. Especially if it helps keep your identity secret. We all know what a bitch that can be.”
That much said, Patchwork tapped some kind of code into the nearby console, and the laser grid deactivated. Then she waved me through and we walked on. “Anyway, you’re here to do something useful to make up for taking our shit without permission. And that starts right in here.”
With that, she stopped at a door, pushing it open to reveal a place that looked… well, it looked like a tornado had hit it. The room was maybe a hundred feet by forty feet, rectangular, and a total and complete disaster area. Seriously, the walls were peeling and looked ugly, there were some holes in them, the whole floor was covered in various bits of debris, overturned chairs, broken desks, a half dozen filing cabinets were overturned and had papers strewn everywhere, and more. It looked like a tornado hit the place.
“Yeah, looks like shit, huh?” the girl beside me bluntly remarked. “We had some… issues in here. It’s been like this for awhile. Long story and I ain’t getting into it. Point is, you’re gonna clean it up. See all those papers and folders and shit? Get all that off the floor. Move the filing cabinets into the room across the hall, fill them with the folders in alphabetical order. Take the broken furniture, rubble, and everything else that can’t be fixed down the hall to the freight elevator and then down to the bottom floor and stack it on the loading dock you’ll see there. Then use the phone in the hall, dial zero and ask for Bernard. Tell him you need help fixing up the holes. When that’s done, you can paint the floor and walls something nice and pleasant for kids to be around. This place is gonna be some kinda playroom or something. You can go elaborate with images they’ll like, or just keep it basic. Whatever, I don’t care.”
That all said, the woman watched me for a moment before dryly adding, “And don’t worry, we don’t expect you to do all that in one day. Come in whenever you get some time, do a bit of work, then leave again.”
“And the umm, the lasers?” I asked, glancing into the hall.
“I’ll give you a guest code to get past them,” she replied. “It’ll let you on this floor, into the freight elevator to go straight down, and give you phone access. Do I really have to–”
“Don’t wander, got it,” I confirmed, giving her a thumbs up. “Just clean this place up, make it pretty for the kids, and I can come whenever I get some free time.”
“Just don’t make us wait months without seeing progress,” Patchwork retorted, before pivoting on her heel. “There’s one more thing when you’re done with all this, but his royal highness told me to wait until then. You need anything else?” Even as she asked it, the woman was almost out the door.
“Um, no, I think I get the–” I started.
“Two, one, zero, nine,” she called back. “Two, ten, nine. That’s your guest pass to get in, got it? Shouldn’t be an issue because Tricia won’t let anyone past her who isn’t supposed to be here. But still, redundancies. Check in with her anytime you come in, put in the guest pass at the security system there whenever you pass through it, then check out with Tricia or whoever happens to be sitting there whenever you fuck off, got it? Oh, and our regular working hours start at six and end at midnight, so don’t show up outside of those hours.”
With that, she was gone, off to do… whatever her next job was. Watching the empty doorway for a moment, I finally shrugged and turned to the room in front of me.
Right… well, time to get to work. A little manual labor wouldn’t be too bad, right?
Fuck manual labor.
Okay, okay, it wasn’t that bad. And God knew I could use the actual work. It definitely wouldn’t kill me. I just… definitely wasn’t accustomed to this sort of thing. At least having my purple paint for strength and red paint to move things around (with orange to protect it from damage) helped with the heavier stuff. But still, a lot of it was just… boring. It took most of the first couple hours just to start getting some kind of organization and to get most of the folders and bits of paper that I could see (moving some of the furniture pieces to get at buried piles), and to move the filing cabinets themselves into the other room. Never mind sorting through all those files to put them in alphabetical order in the cabinets.
Yeah, this was going to take awhile. I would have to go back soon. But for the moment, I was done. As I was on my way out the door, however, my work phone buzzed. I checked, and the message was from Eits. It read, ‘Got bit 4 thing we talked about. U good 2 read? What did u help me get from roof?’
Right, he wanted me to tell him that it was safe to send sensitive information, and proof I was the right person. Glancing around, I sent back, ‘Yes. Baseball.’
A moment later, the next message came in. ‘Got records from middle school on Banners, link to file at bottom. Adopted age twelve, earlier records heavy sealed. Need physical access 2 get further. No link 4 Banners/Anthony Tate. No link 4 Banners/supervillain. No Tate school records. Homeschooled. Need info on crash that killed Tate family, check survivor.’
Frowning, I sent back a quick, ‘Survivor?’
The response came, ‘Security consultant. Went with Tate family to Texas. Was in car at crash. Survived. Gave witness testimony. Retired. Picture coming.’
A moment later, the promised image came in, and I did a double-take. I knew the guy I was looking at! I knew him! It was Robert Parson, this guy who used to drive me around when I was younger. He was basically a bodyguard, then he just sort of… disappeared. I remembered really liking Rob–Bobby. I called him Bobby.
But what did my old bodyguard have to do with Anthony Tate? Why was he with the family when they crashed down in Texas? I.. did he kill them? The thought made my blood go cold. Did my old bodyguard, the guy I remember thinking was so cool and brave… kill that little boy and his family?
One thing was for sure… I was going to find out.