Summus Proelium

Center Of Attention 26-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Giving Murphy and Roald a second to catch their breath, Paige and I turned to Sierra. She offered a shrug. “They did pretty well, all things considered. Kept a couple of those guys off my back.”

“What’s going on upstairs?” I asked tensely while looking around at the fallen figures. Before they could recover too much and cause more problems, I started red-painting their weapons, radios, and equipment belts over to where we were, making a small pile. “Please tell me they have stuff under control by now.” 

Paige shook her head. “We have no idea. Most of the cameras have been destroyed already. The only ones left are outside and a couple in this stairwell here. So we can tell you if anyone’s coming, but that’s about it.”

The answer made me grimace and curse a few times under my breath. Now, what were we supposed to do? Should we just sit tight like we’d been told? What if they sent more people down here to find out what had happened to their friends? Would it be better to wait here and meet them? Well, obviously, yes. We could prepare this area. Better than if we went looking for them. But on the other hand, what if there were people up there being hurt right now? What if people died while we were sitting around down here doing nothing? 

Sierra moved over to the nearest guy, and began to drag him by his ankle while he was still groaning in pain. “Oh shush, you big baby. I didn’t hit you that hard. Just be glad I didn’t get to bring my new taser cane. Then you’d really have something to whine about.” With that, she unceremoniously kicked open the door into the room across from where we had left Banneret with Peyton and Wren, shoving him inside.

Page and I quickly started to help, and soon we had all of them shoved into that room. Sierra shut the door and locked it, leaving those guys in there. It wasn’t perfect, obviously. But it would hold them for a minute. And hopefully we’d hear if they started trying to break out.

“Okay,” I started, “so now we have a whole pile of weapons here, and we’ll know if they start coming down the stairs. But we have no idea what’s going on up there in the rest of the courthouse. We’ve gotta find some way to check on things.” 

“I can help!” That was Wren, coming out of the other room. She bounced up and down a little while, reaching into her pocket before producing a tiny thing that I had to lean closer to see. It looked like a bumblebee made of metal, like some sort of tiny ornament, or something. 

“It’s a drone!” the girl announced proudly, as we all stared. “See?” She touched the top of its head, and the thing floated up in the air. Then she turned her phone around to show us the screen, where we could see our own faces from the view of the drone itself. “It can fly around and show us what’s going on! I was building it to help with security at the shop. Cuz Uncle Fred said we needed more cameras and the ones that just sit there and don’t do anything are boring.” 

“Kid’s got a point,” Sierra agreed. “Bee cam is much more interesting than boring old do-nothing cameras. Plus, you wouldn’t be able to send one of those upstairs to snoop around.”

Nodding slowly, I painted a smiley face on the front of my helmet. “Good job, Trev. Why don’t you send your little buddy up there and we’ll see if the good guys have this under control yet.” 

She did just that, while Peyton stood in the doorway of the other room so she could watch while also keeping an eye on the still-cursing Banneret. Together, we all stared at Wren’s phone while she controlled the bee with it, sending the thing up the stairs. 

“Why isn’t there an elevator to come down here, anyway?” Peyton demanded with her arms folded. “Isn’t that like, the law or something? You’d think a courthouse of all places would have to be accessible to the handicapped.”

“There is an elevator,” Paige informed her. “It’s just hidden over by the western wall that way, near the stairs. You can sort of see the seam where the doors are. I guess they only let certain people use it, or only open it when someone comes in who needs it.” 

“But why is it hidden in the first place?” I pointed out. “What’s the point of hiding an elevator?” 

“Dude, this whole underground place isn’t supposed to be here at all,” Sierra reminded me. “The lawyers who get brought down here have to be blindfolded first so they don’t know where it is, and the entrance is labeled as a supply closet.” 

Right, no wonder Banneret and her people had thought they found a secret exit when they started coming down those stairs. And, actually, they had. I kind of doubted that big metal security door would have stopped them forever. So if we hadn’t been here, they eventually could have gone all the way down the tunnel to that house, where we still had no idea what was going on with Officer Metts and the others. Part of me wanted to pink-paint my way through the vault door and run down that way to check on them, but there wasn’t time. They were probably fine and just locked down this place to stop anyone from escaping that way. Which I would obviously mess up by doing just that. 

Either way, by that point, the bee drone had flown all the way to the top of the stairs, where it found the aforementioned empty ‘supply closet.’ Wren carefully sent it through the open doorway, peeking first one direction, then the next. It was in a very large open corridor somewhere on the ground floor of the courthouse. To the right was the front rotunda with the welcome desk (where no one was sitting at the moment), while the corridor went on to the left past an assortment of doors into various offices. It looked like there was another corridor past the rotunda leading to even more doors, with a sign above the entrance to it listing various courtroom locations. From here, we couldn’t see any signs of people, aside from the fact that several doors had clearly been kicked in, and there were random bits of debris lying around. 

Wait, scratch that, there was a sign of people. Namely, the gunfire. It came from the rotunda area abruptly, making me jump. The sound was followed by a view of three armed guys backing up into frame from where they had apparently been right by the front windows of the building. They were pointing their guns outward, one of them shouting, “Yeah, you want your precious legal eagles to stay alive, keep the fuck back!” 

Okay great, so now we knew they had hostages, and they were using them. No wonder the authorities hadn’t stormed this place yet. But that made our whole situation even more complicated. What were we supposed to do now? Obviously, rushing up there when they could kill innocent people was a bad idea, to say the least. But should we just sit tight and wait like the people outside were apparently doing? I really wished we still had all the cameras so we really knew what was going on everywhere in the building, but at least there was Wren’s little bee drone. We just had to be patient and watch.

Wren asked where she should send the thing next, and I thought about it for a moment while the others looked at me expectantly. Finally, I gestured. “Send it higher up so we can get a better view of everything going on. Then I guess we should check out the court rooms on the far side of the front area. They probably put everyone in one place so it’s easier to keep an eye on them, and one of those places is probably the best for that.”

Murphy sighed. “Why don’t they just make a run for it? They’ve gotta know the longer this goes on, the more screwed they are, you know? It’s not like they’ll actually be able to negotiate their way out of this. What’re they gonna do, demand a fleet of helicopters?”

“That’s what our friends down here were dealing with,” I replied. “They were looking for a secret way out. I’m not sure if they actually knew where the tunnel went or that the cops probably know about it, or even how they had any idea it could be here. But that’s definitely what they were doing.”

Paige nodded. “And they’re probably not the only ones. Believe me, this isn’t the only tunnel this place has, and there’s plenty of rumors about them and where they might be. Some more secret than others.”

By that time, the drone had reached the ceiling and gave us a good view of what turned out to be seven guys spread out in the rotunda. They were staying mostly behind cover and keeping a close eye on whoever was outside. I had no doubt that they had more guys at the other entrances, but this was the main one. All of the men were armed, and clearly had radios on so they could warn everyone else in their little gang. I didn’t see any of the Fell-Touched, but there was no doubt they were somewhere around here. I didn’t believe Banneret would be the only one to come on this rescue mission of theirs. And knowing those guys were around somewhere, but not exactly where they were or what they were up to made me nervous.

Shaking that thought off for the moment, I continued to stare at the screen while the drone flew over all those guys’ heads. Their focus was centered on the front windows, so none of them even thought of looking up, even if that would have helped. Given the size of the drone, they might not have noticed it even then. 

The doors leading into the various court rooms were all closed, aside from one. A man with some sort of automatic rifle slung over his shoulder was standing there playing lookout. So, that was obviously where Wren sent the drone. 

We had to be more careful with this. The man was actually watching the hallway at least part of the time, though he turned to glance inside at what I presumed were the hostages now and then. Considering he didn’t have his eyes on them all the time, I doubted he was the only guard. Not to mention the fact that he occasionally seemed to mumble something under his breath as though talking to somebody nearby. We had to get the drone low enough to make it into the room without actually letting him see it, and without flying directly into the view of whoever he was talking to on the other side.

To that end, Wren carefully made the drone land on top of the doorjamb just over the guy’s head.  From that position, we could see his balding spot, and finally hear what he was saying. Basically, he was annoyed that the others hadn’t checked in yet, and wanted to know how long they were supposed to stand around and wait. He also mentioned that he wasn’t sure whether he trusted their new Fell-Touched yet. Apparently Mister Harmful had said something to him that was rude or whatever and he didn’t appreciate it.

After that, we heard another voice, female this time, say that she didn’t care how rude any of them were, because moving to this city was the best thing she’d done. She had some sort of excellent sign-up bonus for agreeing to come here with ‘Gregory,’ whom I was taking to be her son through context. Apparently she’d even been set up with a decent cover job. 

Working extremely carefully, Wren moved the drone to the corner of the doorway and made it peek down. Thankfully, we didn’t have the extremely horrible luck of the woman staring right at the thing. Her back was to the other man as she watched what was very clearly a large group of hostages. The woman had blonde hair that was mostly buzzed. Aside from a ponytail-sized bit on one side that was long enough to fall to her shoulders. She also had a tattoo of something on the back of her neck that I couldn’t really make out but looked like a flower with something in it. Like her partner, she had a gun slung over her shoulder.

As for the hostages, it looked like there were a couple hundred of them, a mix of court employees, disarmed police officers, lawyers, even defendants. They were all sitting down in the audience area of the courtroom.  We couldn’t see the whole area, and everything was upside down from this point of view, making us tilt our heads around to try to make sense of it. Paige and I even managed to slightly bang our heads together in the process, making the other girl flush as she murmured an apology. 

Wren made the bug slip fully into the room, inverted itself, and fly up toward the ceiling once more. Now we could make everything out better, and see that there were a couple more armed thugs spread throughout the room. And perched up in the judge’s seat was Fogwalker. He was probably there so that if any of the hostages tried to make a run for it, he could fill the place in his power and make it impossible for anyone aside from their own people to see what was going on. Which would probably also work if any authorities tried to break in. Before they could actually handle everything, the place would be dark, and any number of the hostages could be killed. Come to think of it, the cops and Stars outside probably knew that. I was pretty sure these guys had made that much clear to them. It made sense that they would want those people to know what a bad idea it was to try to break in here and stop this by force.

Or maybe I was just overthinking it. Either way, we knew where at least these hostages and one of the Fell-Touched were. Now we just had to figure out what to do about that, if anything. We had already dealt with one group that came down here. Was it a good idea to just sit tight now or not?

While I was still trying to decide the best move, a voice came over the radios on both of their hips. I hadn’t heard it much, but still recognized it as Theory. “Has anyone heard from Banneret? She’s not picking up on our channel.”

The rest of us exchanged quick looks before Sierra pivoted and grabbed one of the radios from the pile of equipment on the floor. Holding it up, she spoke in a perfect imitation of Banneret’s voice. “Yeah, well, maybe you should try being on the right channel. It was supposed to be one zero four nine.”

There was a brief pause before the man’s voice came back with a sigh. “No, it was one three one five. How the hell did you get the wrong one?” 

“Whatever, why’re you bothering me right now?” Sierra replied as Banneret once more. “Don’t we all have jobs to do?” 

“Yeah,” came the response, “and I’ve gotta make sure you’re actually doing yours. So, what the hell’s going on down there? Did you find that tunnel or what? Part A of the plan is pointless if we don’t get enough attention with Part B. For that, we need the tunnel. Or we won’t have time for part C.” 

Injecting annoyance into her voice, Sierra retorted, “Yeah, we found it. And the chupapollas blocked it off. They sealed the tunnel with some sorta vault door. We’re working on it.” 

I had no idea what that word she’d said meant, or why she was saying it right now while trying to pose as Banneret. But I also couldn’t ask. Paige, clearly interpreting my body language, put a hand on my shoulder and nodded reassuringly. 

And boy, how much had my life changed when Paige Banners could do anything that reassured me? 

Fortunately, Theory didn’t seem to object or question that particular phrasing. He simply replied, “Hold there, I’ll send a couple down with one of the laser cutters we brought for Part C. They’ll get through it. Looks like the Stars are still regrouping outside, but you know how their type is. They’ll decide to breach sooner or later. I’d rather be onto the next phase by the time that happens.”

I tensed up a bit, but Sierra only hesitated for a second before replying, “Yeah whatever. Give my guys enough time and they’d find a way through this. But sure, if you’re worried about a few Stars, go ahead and send your little toy down here. Or maybe I’ll grab one of those hostages and try using their head as a battering ram.” 

The response was a little chuckle before the man signed off. Meanwhile, on the screen, the two guards in the courtroom were bantering with each other about which lawyer or judge they might send downstairs as a living battering ram if it came down to it. 

“What’s a chupapolla?” Peyton asked. “And how’d you know to say that?” 

“Let’s just say it’s a bad word,” Paige put in. “And we heard her use it twice while we were listening over the security cameras, so it was a safe call. But now they’re sending a couple guys with a big laser down, so what do we do?” 

“We let them bring it, then we take it from them,” I replied slowly, looking toward the stairs once more. “I think we can–” 

“Uh, Paintball!” That was Trevithick, blurting the words out fearfully as she pointed at the screen where the bee drone was still monitoring the courtroom. “Look!” 

We all did, just in time to see one of the hostages, a red-haired guy in a fancy suit, lying on the ground with one of the other Prev bad guys standing over him. The thug was breathing hard, a slight bruise forming under his eye, while the hostage’s nose looked like it was broken. Something had just happened. 

“You think you’re tough, huh?!” The Prev gang member snapped, aiming his gun at the man on the floor. “Cheap-shotting piece of shit, let’s see how tough you are with–” 

“No.” That was Fogwalker, jumping down from the judge’s stand to perch on the nearby railing. “You shoot him, he doesn’t learn anything. Neither does anyone else who wants to be a hero.” He looked around the room, a small smirk seeming to cross his feline face. “No, if you wanna really teach them a lesson, you hurt the ones they care about.” 

With that, he nodded to the blonde woman from before, who reached down and tugged a wallet out of the fallen man’s pocket. Opening it up, she held it out for the TONI to see while flipping through it. Fogwalker almost purred. “Nice pictures? These your kids? Oooh and a wife too. Excellent.” 

The man started to respond, but the blonde woman put a foot on his throat while taking out her radio. Tuning to some other channel, she held the radio out for her boss. The lynx immediately began to speak again. “Amos, Terrence, you guys still cruising out there? Need you to make a quick stop.” His head turned once more to look at the license his subordinate was holding up for him, reading off the address for Amos and Terrence. 

“Head over there right now and kill everyone you find in that house. Then burn it down.”

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Center Of Attention 26-07 (Summus Proelium)

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According to Sierra and Paige, we had a dozen members of the Trendscendents coming our way. Fortunately, almost all of them were the ordinary Prev-type soldiers. There were eleven of those, though heavily-armed and ready for trouble, and only one of the Touched. That was the good news, such as it was. The bad news was that the single Touched who was coming was Banneret, and she had already taken the time to put some boosts on her people. So even though they might not have had any powers of their own, they were still enhanced by hers. Which was just great.

But hey, if she could boost her friends, I could boost mine. Over the next few seconds, I quickly put plenty of paint on everyone as we got ready for what was about to happen.

The other bit of good news was that it didn’t sound like these guys actually knew what they were about to walk into. They were just checking every corner of the building and had found this basement. So they were exploring it. Paige said it seemed like they thought this might be a secret escape tunnel they could use to get out of here without running into any cops or Stars.

Boy were they in for a surprise. 

To get ready for their arrival, I silenced the door just in case before letting Paige go ahead and force it open. That would undoubtedly set off alarms, but I didn’t think anyone cared by that point. We were able to see out through the open doorway toward a room across from us that was probably identical to this one, aside from the fact that that door was already open. 

Oh, and there was one very important thing that hadn’t been here before. Covering the entire width of the corridor just past these rooms, was a heavy steel vault-like door. It was blocking the way down the tunnel toward the safe house we had come in through. 

“Security measure,” Paige noted quietly. “The authorities don’t want anyone getting out that way. Or starting a fight with the people in the house.”

Right, of course they’d have something like that. But could the good guys come in that way? I pondered that before shaking it off for the moment. The point was that there was no one in that other room across the hall from us. At least, there wasn’t anyone in it, until Calvin, Hobbes, and Style darted that way. The three of them crouched down behind the door on that side of the hall. 

What the hell was I doing? Murphy and Roald didn’t even have their Wren-tech guns with them. Fuck, why didn’t I put them in my special bag before we came in here? What was I thinking? That this place was safe and we wouldn’t need them? How stupid was I? And now I was actually going to let them try to fight these guys without those Touched-Tech weapons? This was stupid. Not to mention Wren. She was here too, and involving her seemed practically inexcusable.

And yet, what other choice did we have? There was no way in hell these people would listen if we just told them we weren’t fighting today. We had absolutely already pissed them off plenty at the park when we interrupted their mission. When they saw us here, and they would definitely check the rooms, there would be trouble. We just had to be as ready for that as we could.

But still, I could keep Wren as far out of the fight as possible. Which I did by telling her to stay in the corner of the room out of the way until her moment came. She kept trying to apologize for not having one thing or another ready yet, including more of the bags like I had or some system she was working on to instantly transport weapons and equipment around. Obviously, we all told her not to worry about it. She was already doing more than enough as it was, and she would still have a part to play in this situation. But I was pretty sure she still felt guilty. 

Boy, good thing I didn’t know anything about what that felt like.

After giving Trevithick one last glance to make sure she was safely out of the way and ready to do her thing when the time came, I left Poise and Alloy crouched by the first door and stepped out into the hall. It was about twelve feet wide, with a fifteen foot ceiling. The tunnel we’d come through to get here was fifty feet to my right, past more doors, and the open doorway leading to the stairs the gang members were already stampeding down was thirty feet to the left. 

Judging from the sound of those footsteps and voices, the bad guys were almost here. They would be within view any second. So, I activated black paint to silence myself while running that direction. On the way, I leaned down and trailed my finger along the floor, leaving large blue lettering with yellow outlines, feeding the latter into the former. 

Once I was three-quarters of the way there, I straightened up and used red paint to yank myself up to the ceiling right above the entrance from the stairwell. Thanks to my special boots, I was able to crouch against the wall there indefinitely. Just as our soon-to-be guests were coming around the final turn in the stairs, I covered the floor under me with more blue and yellow paint, making a semicircle shape that time, as though it was an intentional design on the floor. Then I glanced back at the letters I had drawn along the floor on my way. From here, they read ‘Proceed With Caution’ one letter at a time, with the P starting right at the edge of the semicircle I had just made, and the N just in front of the doors where the rest of my team were waiting. 

Then I waited. From here, I couldn’t see the others, just the doors that were slightly open with the darkened rooms beyond to make it look like there was no one down here. For a second, I glanced at the big steel vault door and wondered what was going on with Officer Metts and the others over there. 

Then I didn’t have time to wonder anymore. Because the bad guys were here. The first couple Prev troops came through carefully, weapons raised as they looked around them. But they didn’t look up. Nor did they seem to wonder about the blue and yellow tiles they were walking on. Really, they had this whole thing coming. 

I didn’t hit them right away though. I let them keep coming. One of them called over his shoulder while continuing through, “More office shit! Probably stick the peons down here to do research or something for the judges.” Belatedly, he added, “But there’s a vault door here too! Think we found that tunnel!” That set off a chorus of cheers amongst the others in the group, and I heard a few mutters about winning some sort of bet with some other group as more of them continued on through the doorway and began to move down that hall toward the door to check it out. 

Through all that, I waited as patiently as possible. I couldn’t make a move yet. The last thing I wanted to do was go too soon and end up with half these guys still in the stairwell where they could use the doorway for cover and start shooting. I had to wait until they all came through, even if it was incredibly nerve racking to just crouch here and hope no one thought to look up. 

Nine people were through, ten, a few had moved to the sides, off the area I had painted to check the corners of the room. Hell, they were so close to seeing me out of the corner of their eyes, but their focus was on the walls themselves, searching for, I supposed, any cops hiding within the completely open and clearly empty space there. 

Okay, to be fair, that wasn’t completely impossible with Touched-Tech and stuff. But still, you’d think they would–

“Oh shit!” 

Ah, there it was. One of the men who stepped over toward the corner of the hall had turned back to say something to his buddies, which gave him a clear view of me, crouched above them. His hand was already rising to point, which was better than if he had lifted the gun in his other hand. But either way, the time for waiting was over. 

By that point, all eleven of the Prev troops had come fully into the hall, with four of them already off the paint I had put down. The other seven were still at least partway on one of the letters or the semicircle. Including Banneret, who had just stepped through. Her head snapped straight up to look at me, following the line of sight of her minion. 

“Hi!” I called cheerfully, waving that way even as all those guns immediately started to swing up toward me. In that instant, I activated the paint. Instantly, those seven guys plus Banneret were launched off the floor. Only, of course, they were launched slowly. It kept them in the air longer while also slowing their movements down to about half speed right as they were trying to bring their weapons in line with me.  

Unfortunately, that left a couple problems. First, the guys who weren’t on the paint obviously weren’t affected at all. And second, there was Banneret. Oh sure, she was slowly rising through the air, right toward me, actually. But she also had about a dozen guns floating around her, and those were all suddenly pointed my way just as they opened fire. 

Or at least, they were pointed where I had been a second earlier. I’d already activated green paint on my shoes, catapulting myself off the wall and away from the incoming bullets. On the way, I managed to blurt, “Lemme guess, you’re having trouble with this escape room too!” 

While still flying down the corridor thanks to that paint, I pointed back the way I’d come with both hands, sending a shot of red from one and a shot of purple from the other. Both hit Banneret. Flipping over, I landed on the floor near the vault door, skidding backwards a bit on the tile from my momentum. At the same time, I held my hand up, revealing the purple-red combination paint on my glove as I activated both that and the same mix I’d hit Banneret with. She had still been floating, but now she was immediately yanked toward me. The purple boosted the strength of the red’s pull, yanking her straight toward me until I canceled both that and the yellow-blue effect, allowing her to drop just a few feet away from me. 

She probably would’ve liked to lunge at me right then. But the second her feet touched the floor, two things happened. Or rather, two doors opened, the ones on either side of her, where the others were. Alloy and Poise came out of the left door, facing the still-recovering Banneret. Meanwhile, Calvin, Hobbes, and Style came through the other door. But they didn’t turn our way. Instead, they immediately pivoted to head back down the corridor toward where I had left the rest of those guys. The second I laid eyes on those three, I activated the orange, purple, and green paints I had given them. 

As soon as they had taken just a couple steps that way, Alloy made her white, gold, and black marbles combine together into a literal wall. It wasn’t very thick, but it covered the entire space from floor to ceiling and out to either wall. The silver marble transformed into a large hammer and hovered there in front of her, while she continued to use the purple and bronze marbles as her suit (it made her look like a ninja, with purple as the base and bronze padding). 

Poise, right beside her, had produced two knives from somewhere and had one held out the normal way while the other was backwards. Both were raised and ready for any move the Fell-Touched woman made. 

And just like that, we had cut her off from basically all of her resources and aid. The guns she had put under her control and her minions were both back on the other side of the wall, where she couldn’t see to direct them, and they couldn’t get through to help her. That was the whole point of this plan: ambush them before they knew what was happening, then drag the main threat and force multiplier down here, separating her from everyone she had empowered and the weapons she was controlling.

This was the major reason I felt so guilty about the Murphy and Roald situation. They barely had any training and no special guns, and I was sending them into the other side of the hall with a bunch of armed and pissed off bad guys, who were going to be rather intent on going through them and finding a way past this wall. The biggest advantage they had was Style, who was almost certainly enough of a badass to handle ordinary guys. But those weren’t ordinary guys, they had been boosted by Banneret and we didn’t know if she needed line of sight to keep those boosts active once they were placed. 

I just had to hope that between Style and the boosts I had given my people, the trio could deal with those guys for a bit. Banneret was the one we really had to deal with, and right now while she was cut off like this was our best (possibly only) chance. 

All of that, and my associated doubts had been playing through my mind ever since we came up with the plan. But now we were in the thick of it, and I shoved them down hard while addressing the woman right in front of me. “Yeah see, like I said, we’ve been trying to beat this escape room for practically the full hour now, but the puzzles are ridiculous. I swear, you practically need a law degree to figure this place out.” My voice adopted an even more cheerful tone. “You wanna team up?” 

Apparently, the answer was no, because the woman extended her arms to either side, pointing toward Paige and Peyton with one and me with the other. A very slight humming sound was the only other warning we had before a pair of concussive blasts, like the ones from the bracelets and guns that Theory and Praxis used, shot out. 

Thankfully, we didn’t need much of a warning. Honestly, at this point, if an obvious bad guy like that pointed at you, it was probably a good idea to hit the dirt just in case. Who knew what sort of power or tech they had? 

In my case, I used renewed blue paint on my shoes to launch myself upward toward the ceiling so the blast could pass by underneath me. Paige and Peyton, meanwhile, dove to either side and let it go between them. It hit the marble wall, which held, fortunately. But we couldn’t let her do too much of that or we’d risk losing the biggest advantage we’d been able to set up with this ambush. 

Even as I bounced off the ceiling, I was sending two shots of paint toward the woman. One was red, which I used to pull myself toward her, while the other was yellow to slow her down so she couldn’t easily grab me and use her power to make me slower or weaker or whatever. There was an advantage to being able to debuff from a range. Inverting in the air, I managed to slam both feet into her shoulders, knocking the woman over to land hard on her back. Going down with her, I rolled over Banneret’s head. Her hands grasped for me, but the yellow paint slowed her down just enough that I was able to get out of her reach. 

Meanwhile, Poise took advantage of the woman’s extended hands as she tried to grab me, throwing those two knives with expert precision. Each cut through something on Banneret’s armored wrists, sending a spray of sparks out. The weapons she had just used to send those concussive blasts at us. She wouldn’t be doing that again any time soon. 

While she was still reacting to that (which involved sputtered cursing), Alloy sent her remaining marble, the silver one, flying that way in its hammer form. The woman flinched just slightly, but Peyton wasn’t hitting her with it. Instead, the marble transformed into a pair of shackles, attaching themselves to Banneret’s wrists while her arms were still extended over her head as she lay on her back from me knocking her over. 

As soon as her wrists were secured, the marble-shackles hoisted her up. At the same time, Poise grabbed her feet. Then she and the marble worked together to quickly carry the struggling, cursing, wildly threatening woman straight through the open doorway into the room where we had been having our whole meeting not so long ago. 

Trevithick was there waiting. The second the other two got Banneret into the room, she ran up with her flightpack held in both hands. The marble-shackles hoisted the woman upright while Poise released her legs. But before she could get her feet under herself and react properly, Wren stuck the pack up against her back. It latched on immediately, the wings extending to fly her up halfway to the ceiling. 

And now she was stuck like that. The flightpack kept her off the floor so she couldn’t get any leverage or go anywhere because it would only listen to Wren’s orders. And the silver marble in its shackles form kept the woman’s hands extended outward so she couldn’t reach around to touch the flightpack and control it. 

We’d done it. The crazy plan worked. We had separated Banneret from her troops and put her in a position where she couldn’t use her power on anything. Now we just had to hope the others had–

Oh shit, the others! All of us had the same thought, exchanging glances. “Watch her!” I shouted toward Wren and Alloy. Sure, we believed she was safe now, but we weren’t taking stupid chances. They would keep an eye on the woman. Meanwhile, Poise and I sprinted out of the room and raced for the marble wall, which split apart so we could pass through as Alloy poked her head out to watch us go. 

The two of us made it to the other end of the hall just in time to see Style hurl what appeared to be the last of the Prev troops into the wall hard enough to make him bounce off it and fall to the floor with a groan of pain. Nor was he the only one making that sound. All eleven of them were lying in various states of ‘I have no desire to do anything aside from lay here and contemplate my life choices.’ 

Calvin and Hobbes were down too, but not in pain. They both just seemed exhausted, lying side by side on their backs where they had apparently slumped down to breathe hard. When they saw us arrive, both looked up, Murphy speaking through several long, deep breaths. “So… are… we winning?

“And if so… can we call for a five minute timeout?” 

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Center Of Attention 26-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There was a non-canon for this story (sort of, it’s a pretty big crossover with the setting of Heretical Edge) posted a few days ago right here

When we got to the neighborhood near the courthouse, I showed the others where the right building was. According to Paige, several of the other nearby houses and buildings were either empty, or used as anonymous safe houses, homes for people with the authority to know about this place, that sort of thing. And they had cops whose job it was to ensure no one was lurking around for too long. As well as a few other measures, all of which was meant to make it even harder for anyone to notice the Touched who went in and out of the place. 

I was pretty sure that also meant the small camera above the door was unnecessary, given how many other people we undoubtedly had watching us the entire time we were in the neighborhood. But it was probably mostly for show. Or to give the person at the door somewhere to look when whoever was inside spoke to them over the intercom if they didn’t open it immediately. 

Either way, I showed everyone how to get to the building, then reached out and knocked. “Okay everybody, wave and try not to look like Fell-Touched impersonators.” I informed them before raising my hand to do just that for the camera. I even painted a big smiley face on my helmet. There was a slight pause before the door opened, revealing my old friend, Officer Metts, the guy I’d met the first time I came here to drop off the detainment paperwork for that whole Ashton situation. Upon seeing me, the man raised an eyebrow. “My, you’ve been busy, haven’t you?” 

“Yeah well,” I replied, “I figured out there’s less work to do when I have more people to help.”

“Not to mention more targets for the enemies to shoot at,” Style put in. She casually evaded my attempt to step on her foot while adding, “I’m surprised he doesn’t make us wear bullseye costumes, really.” 

Trevithick, wearing that costume consisting of the black bodysuit, bright pink armored panels over the chest, arms, and legs, and a matching black helmet with pink visor, bounced up and down excitedly. “I could make matching costumes like that!” Her voice made it decidedly unclear if she was kidding or not.

Flushing a bit behind the helmet and mask, I shook my head, “Uh, thanks, I think we’ll find another way to show team unity.” To Style, I added, “And sure, because I definitely don’t make a big enough target of myself as it is. That’s me, always keeping my head down and avoiding any trouble.”

Snorting at us, Officer Metts gestured. “Okay, I still need your leader here to demonstrate his power so we can prove it’s really him. Then he takes responsibility for the rest of you being who you say you are. It’s faster than making all of you demonstrate, and I’m pretty sure you aren’t all Touched anyway.” He added that last bit slyly, clearly curious if we’d confirm or deny anything. 

Of course, we did nothing of the sort. I demonstrated my power, and Alloy showed off her transforming marbles as well just to add to the evidence. The officer accepted that and stepped aside so we could go in. Soon, we were led through the building and down the stairs to the tunnel. Officer Metts waved and then headed back upstairs while we went through the tunnel to meet the guy at the other end, who let us into the basement of the courthouse.

From there, we sat in a few different rooms, being moved around into different combinations as well as sitting by ourselves now and then, all while giving depositions about everything that had happened throughout the past little while. We had already planned out exactly how to talk about that stuff, as well as what we weren’t going to talk about. I knew it was incredibly unlikely that they would suddenly start asking about the Ministry or the Breakwater situation. The idea that my parents would ambush us with something like that wasn’t completely impossible, however, so we had practiced what to do if anything like that happened. The only person I was maybe a little worried about was Wren, just because she was so young. I’d already told her what to do if they pushed her too hard while she was by herself. She was just supposed to shut down and tell them that she wanted Poise or me to be with her. She had that right. Technically we all had the right to leave or refuse to answer whenever we wanted. But as an obvious child, they were on even stricter rules with her. As a Touched involved in this sort of thing, she could voluntarily come in and discuss these things. But the moment she said she didn’t want to talk about it anymore, or that she wanted one of her older teammates to be there, they had to acquiesce. 

But nothing like that happened. The whole thing went pretty smoothly, aside from a couple defense lawyers who pressed us on a few different points. They didn’t really seem to get anywhere, however, and it was all done before long. I had the impression that most of the people involved were just going through the motions and wanted to get done with it as soon as possible. They also kept checking their phones as well as whispering to one another in the hallways. I heard Flea and Trivial’s names come up a couple times, so it was obvious what they were distracted by. There didn’t seem to be any news yet. They, like the rest of us, were simply hanging on the edge of their seats, waiting to see what happened. 

Everything seemed completely fine to me, even somewhat boring, really. Until we started to leave the main conference room. After the last bit of testimony, there was a sudden, sharp, chiming sound that made me jump. The armed bailiff guy held up a hand and asked us to wait a minute, adding that something was going on in the courthouse. Then he escorted the two lawyers, stenographer, and judge out into the hall. The door shut behind them, and we all looked at one another as the alarm went quiet. Obviously, I had the sudden, somewhat paranoid thought that this was some sort of trick. Maybe my parents really were trying something after all. This did seem a little bit obvious, but honestly, it wouldn’t be that hard. The only people we knew had heard that alarm besides ourselves were two lawyers and a few court people. It wouldn’t have been hard for the Ministry to have those few people in their pockets.

Still, I didn’t actually think it was them. It didn’t seem right. But I didn’t say anything. At least not until Paige and Sierra both turned back to us and nodded. “We’re good,” Paige announced. “The security system here is just going to think we’re standing around talking about what that alarm could be.” 

“It’s not the cheapest system in the world,” Sierra added idly. “I mean, I don’t think I would’ve been able to get through it on my own with the primitive-ass hardware my new orb is made of.” 

Rolling her eyes, Paige put in, “Oh stop complaining. It’s not that far behind. You’re more advanced than any of Dad’s other work. It’s pretty obvious that body was one of the last things he put together. Besides, I’m sure Trevithick could–” 

“Nuh uh.” That was Wren, head shaking rapidly. “I’m not gonna mess with those things until you guys find an intact one, or like, several so I can mess around with them without, uh, you know…” She shifted uncomfortably. “Without breaking you. I want some orbs I can play with and take apart so I can see how they work.” 

“Thanks, kid,” Sierra replied while giving her a thumbs up. “Glad to hear you don’t wanna break me. If we can find some more of dear old Dad’s toys for you to tinker with, maybe we’ll see if you can make any improvements.” 

Wincing a bit, I raised a hand. “I know you guys say it’s safe and all that, but can we just not talk about any of that stuff while we’re in this place, please? Now what’s going on out there?” 

Murphy, standing near the door, offered a shrug. “I can’t hear a damn thing out there. Pretty sure they made this place soundproof on purpose. Probably every room down here, just so they can gossip in the hall and not let the rest of us hear any of it. Assholes.” 

Paige shook her head, focusing on me as she explained, “It looks like there’s some sort of attack going on in the courthouse. Some of those guys you helped catch at the park the other day, they’re here for arraignments and their gang showed up to rescue them.” 

That made me do a double-take. “Wait, you mean like, Janus and the rest of that group? Wait, what the hell does that gang call themselves anyway? I forgot to ask when we were all punching each other in the face.” 

“Trendscendents.” That was Roald, actually. He shrugged when we looked that way. “You know, like transcendence and trend put together. I was, um, you know, curious after all that. They were called the Trendscendents in their old city and I guess they kept the name after moving here.” 

“That is a stupid fucking name,” Sierra noted. “But fine, whatever. The Trendscendents are attacking the courthouse to save the rest of their people. And yeah, that means the Touched people too, if you’re that eager for round two.” 

“I don’t think it matters how eager I am,” I pointed out while gesturing to the door. “Something tells me that thing isn’t exactly gonna be easy to open if we tried. And if the court house is under attack, they probably wouldn’t react that well to us breaking out of here, even if we’re trying to help.” 

Peyton started to say something, but Paige interrupted. “That bailiff is coming back, maybe he’ll ask for help.” 

Sure enough, after another second or two, the door opened and the uniformed guy stepped in. “Ah, apologies, we’re having a bit of a situation in the courthouse.” 

“We–” Catching myself before I would have given too much away, I amended what I had been about to say. “We can help get people out if there’s a fire or something.” 

Wren caught on immediately and piped up, “Yeah, we’re really good at saving people like that! I mean, theoretically, you know? Fires, floods, gas leaks, or if there’s some old guy who won’t shut up and thinks everyone wants to hear his opinion about something that doesn’t actually affect him. Those guys are the worst.”

As I was giving the younger girl a look for that odd, seemingly rehearsed statement, Murphy and Sierra both snickered a little behind me. Oh, of course it was them. When had they planned that

The man paused briefly before shaking his head. “I don’t wanna just leave you in the dark. It’s not a fire, or a flood, or… anything like that. There’s some people attacking the courthouse. And yeah, I’m sure you’d love to help. But it’s against protocol. Y’all need to stay here and wait. We’ve got plenty of help already as it is, with more on the way. There’s just… security measures to keep in mind.” He visibly grimaced. “Might not be what you wanna hear, but it’s the rules. You stay in this place and wait for the all-clear. I’ll come back and check on ya soon enough.” 

Before any of us could say anything, he offered another apology and stepped out, pushing the door closed behind him. It wasn’t surprising, obviously, but still. The idea that there were bad guys right upstairs in the rest of the courthouse and we were just supposed to sit here and wait was… uncomfortable, to say the least. Especially when those bad guys were the very people we had all just helped fight a few days earlier. 

“Can you see what’s going on up there?” I quickly asked Paige as soon as she gave the signal that they had once again stopped the security system from observing and recording us. “How bad is it?” I was really hoping that this whole thing was already all-but over and that the bad guys would be handled without anyone else getting hurt. I didn’t actually believe that was possible, but I still hoped. 

Unsurprisingly, however, Paige shook her head. “We don’t have the full picture. They keep destroying the cameras up there or just blocking them. But from what I can see, it’s nowhere near being under control yet.” 

“That’s for sure,” Sierra added. “I mean don’t get me wrong, looks like they’ve got some solid Touched-Tech defenses up there, but things are still pretty wild. If you were seeing what we’re seeing, uhh, well you’d probably want to find a way out of this room to get up there even more than you already do.” 

“They had to know this was a possibility, right?” That was Peyton. “I mean, the courthouse has to be one of the biggest targets every day, let alone when they’ve got a bunch of gang members here who just got picked up a couple days ago. You’d think they’d have extra security. Like, some big guns just to make sure everything went smoothly. Unless they–wait this is the Ministry again, isn’t it?”

Everyone looked at me, and I grimaced behind my costume. I still didn’t want to talk about this stuff here. But Paige insisted it was safe. They couldn’t overhear us on the security system. Which, to be fair, if she had been wrong about that, we all would’ve been fucked back when she and Amber took me down into that special room in the school’s basement to train. If Paige said she had control of the system and no one could use it to spy on us, I had to take her word for it. Even if it did make me incredibly uncomfortable. And I still wasn’t going to say anything that could potentially give away my identity. 

All of that ran through my head before I nodded. “You’re probably right. I mean, they did make a deal with this gang to help them with that Inessa situation. Setting up a scenario where they could break out the ones who got captured doing that is… probably fair, as far as they’re concerned.”

Even as I said that, I was straining to listen, trying to hear some evidence of what was apparently an intense fight going on. But Murphy was right, we couldn’t pick up anything beyond the door. They had gone through a lot of trouble to make this place soundproof. Honestly, a big part of that was probably for the opposite reason. They didn’t want people in the hall to be able to hear depositions being given by people with secret identities. Then again, there were multiple rooms like this, so maybe it was just as much about making sure people in one of them couldn’t overhear what was being said in one of the others. 

Whatever the reasoning, it did its job, and we were stuck here waiting in silence. Well, most of us were. Paige and Sierra could keep track of what was going on, and for a moment I envied them. Then I thought about the father they had to deal with and decided I didn’t envy them anymore. My own family situation was weird and complicated enough, but at least I knew my parents loved me. 

None of that mattered right now, however. What mattered was dealing with what was happening upstairs. According to our resident two Biolems, every Touched member of that gang (the… Trendscendents) was here. They were all fighting up there while we just sat here. Damn it, why couldn’t that bailiff just let us out so we could help? Protocol or not, damn that, and damn the rules, we could be in there, helping to make sure those guys didn’t escape. After all, we were a big part of the reason they had been arrested in the first place. Yes, yes, we weren’t cleared through their security measures and could end up being targeted by them too. Logically, I knew all that. But it didn’t help me feel any less anxious and annoyed about this whole thing.

Pushing all that out of my mind, with some effort, I focused on what we could affect right now. Namely, planning what to do if that fight made it all the way down here. Rules or not, if those guys came to this room and picked a fight, we were going to show them one. Unfortunately, I couldn’t decide if I actually wanted that to happen so I’d have an excuse to get involved or not. 

So, we talked quickly about what the Touched on their side were capable of, how their Prev troops seemed to act the other day at the park, and how we could possibly counter them. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot to say on that point. We hadn’t had time to create any big new strategies or countermeasures. Give Wren equipment, tools, and time, and I was sure she could come up with something good. But it had only been a couple days since we first found out half these people existed. We needed more time to put something real together. At the very least, however, we could talk it out a bit. Besides, it gave us something to focus on besides just waiting for Paige and Sierra to tell us whether the situation was resolved or if we had trouble coming our way. 

In the midst of that, however, Sierra cocked her head to the side. “Well that’s odd,” she murmured. “Isn’t it?” 

Paige frowned. “Yeah, definitely weird.” 

“What?” Murphy blurted. “What’s so weird? Is Janus wearing a tutu? Please tell me Janus is wearing a tutu. Are wearing? I’m not sure what the right word would be. But tell me a tutu is involved.” 

“Please stop saying tutu,” I pleaded before focusing on the Biolem girls. “But she’s right, what’s happening?” 

The two of them glanced at one another before Paige answered. “The Trendscendents aren’t the only Fell-Touched here right now. We only caught a glimpse of them before they broke the camera, but it looks like Pack and Broadway are here too, with a couple others I didn’t recognize. Just kids in ski masks. Whatever they’re doing here, they were headed for one of the archive rooms, with the paper files.” 

That news made me blink in confusion. “Wait, what’re they doing–” 

As I was in the midst of questioning that, the lights in the room went out. We were plunged into darkness. Just as Sierra put in, “Uh, I don’t know how to tell you guys this, but we’ve got bad guys coming our way after all. 

“Things are about to get pretty violent.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Over the next couple of days, people got louder and more insistent about wanting to see Flea and Trivial come back from Breakwater. Not just people in Detroit, but all over. The story about two Touched going onto that island to save a missing woman had worldwide attention. Not only did the mayor of Detroit and governor of Michigan put out public statements urging their safe and timely return, but the president of the whole United States did too. That congressional inquiry was proceeding along, with several representatives on multiple sides of the political spectrum giving soundbites about it. So did my father, both as himself and as Silversmith. It was a whole thing. Flea and Trivial were both made out to be a couple of the biggest heroes around. The news played various clips from across both of their careers, including Flea as one of the first Minority members way back when the whole Touched situation was just getting off the ground.

Needless to say, the more this went on and the bigger it became, the more nervous I was about it potentially blowing up in our faces. We had known it would be a big deal. That was the whole point after all, we had to make it loud and public enough that the people behind Breakwater couldn’t just sweep it under the rug and ignore it. But this was even more than I had expected. If anyone found out we were the ones responsible for it, I didn’t know what would happen. 

Breakwater, of course, had already officially acknowledged that the two were there and that they had safely recovered the missing civilian woman (who would remain ‘anonymous’) from the island. According to those people, the three were simply being examined to make certain they were safe. As public voices grew louder about wanting to see them back where they belonged, Breakwater put out another statement basically saying they would be on the next available plane and would touch down here in Detroit on Friday afternoon. Then they would be able to answer questions and show everyone they were safe.

At the moment, it was Thursday, two full days after Peyton and I had done that whole thing with the homeless camp. The past couple days had been spent mostly helping to keep Paige and Sierra from totally losing their minds while we all waited. There had been a couple more calls from their dad, but we ignored them. None of us wanted to deal with him right now. 

A lot of the job of distracting them came down to training. Not just with my new paint combinations, but all of us doing more to learn how to protect ourselves. The two of them really threw themselves into that whole thing, making us spend hours every day getting our butts kicked and stretching our muscles both in virtual reality and in real life. They insisted that it was more important to train and to be ready than it was to be out on the street right at that moment. Sierra in particular took great pleasure in describing all the ways she could think of that we could end up hurt or crippled. Paige, on the other hand, took the tack of explaining just how bad we would feel if we went out to help people and ended up making things worse. So, for those couple days, we mostly stayed inside and worked on that whole training thing. Though we did keep an eye on local social media in case something big happened. But, for the most part, the city was quiet through those days. It was like all the gangs were collectively taking a breath and evaluating their next moves. 

Finally, on Thursday afternoon, we had something other than training planned. It was time for me to take my whole team in to do the court deposition things. I had called ahead to set up an appointment for that, so they knew we were coming. Obviously, I was nervous about how that would go. Not that I expected anything bad to happen, and yet. We would all be in the underground court place giving our depositions and talking to the lawyers for all the people we had fought against. I had no idea how that was going to go. Especially considering I had only done it myself once before. If the lawyers pushed Murphy or Sierra too much about one thing or another, I had no idea how they would react. Murphy in particular was still getting through her emotions about her brother’s death, and I really could not imagine how she would react if any lawyer for one of Luciano’s thugs pressured her on what had happened with them. It probably wouldn’t be pretty, that was for sure. I had warned her that the subject might come up, but still.

But all of that would be settled later. At the moment, I was still in school. It was right before my last class of the day, and I was exchanging books from my bag to the locker. As I grabbed the last book I needed from the shelf, a voice spoke up behind me. “Cassidy Evans?” 

Glancing over my shoulder, I saw a familiar Asian face, though one I hadn’t expected to see around this place. “Maki?” Turning fully, I blinked that way and closed my locker with one foot. “What’re you doing here? I mean, not that you’re not allowed to be here, I just–I thought you were homeschooled or whatever.” Okay, I really had to stop talking right then, or I might just accidentally blurt out something about them changing sexes randomly and that would be hard to explain knowing about. Even if I was incredibly curious about how that worked. 

Maki, for their part, offered an easy smile. “Oh, I am. My parents rather insist on it, particularly given how much we move around. But there are certain subjects even they are not as versed in as they wish to be, so I tend to come to one school or another for extra tutoring during a teacher’s free hour. They are compensated quite well for it. Which I would normally say the teachers compensate for their criminally low regular pay, but from what Tomas says, this school is an exception to that rule.” 

Coughing slightly, I nodded. “Yeah, we’re a private academy so the teachers are pretty, ahhhh, well-compensated already, I guess.” I ignored the fact that my parents were one of the biggest reasons for that, along with my own question of how many of the staff around here were spying for them in one way or another. It was a bad idea to get into that line of thought around anyone, let alone a near-stranger whom I knew had some sort of Touched powers that I didn’t understand. 

Granted, it was unlikely that ‘shapeshifting sex and maybe possibly making things taste really good’ would translate into being able to magically know what I was thinking about, but I was pretty sure weirder things had happened. And I still had no idea how those two things worked together. 

Yeah, this whole situation and things like it would sure be a hell of a lot easier if I could just come out and ask people what I wanted to know. Come to think of it, that would solve a lot of my issues. Granted, it would almost certainly create even more, but it was still somewhat tempting. 

If they noticed anything weird about my expression, Maki didn’t comment on it. Instead, they replied, “They do seem happier here than in other schools I have seen.” They give me a curious look then. “Do you mind if I ask you a rather personal question? You are free to simply tell me that it’s none of my business if you don’t wish to answer.” 

“I uhh, sure, go ahead.” Shrugging, I added, “I’ll do my best, but no promises that any answer I give will actually be worth anything. You know, even if I do feel comfortable with it.”

Giving a nod of acceptance of that, they asked, “I know that the only reason you and Tomas broke up was his move back to England. But do you still have feelings for him? I mean, feelings you wish to pursue, if I was not in the picture.” 

Ohhhh boy. Couldn’t they just ask me if I knew anything about this big criminal organization known as the Ministry, or if I had ever seen these biological robot things around, or something easier to get into like that? This was so much harder to think about than those things. 

Blanching when they saw the expression on my face, Maki quickly held up a hand. “Don’t worry, forget about it. You don’t have to answer. I didn’t mean to put you on the spot or cause any problems. Pretend I didn’t say anything, it’s–” 

“No, it’s okay,” I interrupted before glancing around. Not for the first time, I was glad my school wasn’t exactly super-crowded. Even though we were between classes right now, there weren’t too many people near enough to overhear this whole personal conversation. “Believe me, I get why you were asking. I do. I’d probably wonder about it too if I was in your situation. I just–” Taking a deep breath, I pushed on. “If he hadn’t moved, I think we’d still be together. I like him a lot. He’s fun and talented, and all those things you already know. But he did move. And because he was gone, we broke up. Now he’s with you. And I know he likes you. You two are together, that’s what matters. Not what it is. He’s with you, and I’m happy for both of you. Trust me, I just…” A sigh escaped me. “I don’t really have time for that sort of thing right now anyway.” 

“You don’t?” Maki blinked. “Your friend, ah, San Francisco, he made me believe that you were actively looking for someone to go out with.” 

“He did wh–” Catching myself, I felt my face flush a bit. “Yeah well, San tends to read into things that aren’t there. And he has a bit of a one track mind sometimes. Trust me, I’ve got plenty of stuff to keep me busy. You know, schoolwork and… just trying to stay on top of things.” It was a lame response, I knew immediately. But what was I supposed to do, tell them most of my free time went into either being a Star-Touched or training to become a better one? 

Shoving those thoughts out of my head, I forced myself to continue. “And I’m definitely not looking to get back with Tomas, I swear. You guys are cool together.” 

Maki started to say something else, but the bell rang. They looked up before turning their attention back to me. “Thank you, Miss–I mean Cassidy. I am very sorry for putting you on the spot. I just thought it was best to be open about these things.” 

“Oh no, sure, yeah, no problem.” Realizing I was babbling, I flushed a bit before stepping away from the locker. “I get it. And hey, good luck with your whole tutoring thing. I’m sure you’ll be perfect at it.” 

I turned to head to my own class then, but not before seeing the weird way Maki’s head snapped around to stare at me in what looked like disbelief and uncertainty. 

Was it something I said? 

******

“This is bullshit!” Those words were accompanied by a loud bang as Sierra punched the wall upstairs in Wren’s lab. She was dressed in a pair of long black slacks and a purple silk shirt with a black tie, her dyed blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. Even then, and with her having sunglasses on as well, I could still see the deep similarities between us. But I had no idea if that was just because I already knew we were physically identical. Nor did I know if that was really what I looked like when I was exasperated and angry. 

“Friday?” she continued. “If they already got them off that stupid island, why would it really take them until Friday to send them back here? It doesn’t take that long to get a plane over there. especially not with the sort of pressure they’re under. Official, government-level pressure.” Her expression tightened, as she took the sunglasses off and tucked them into the front pocket of the shirt. “They’re up to something, I just know it.” Her voice was dangerous, making it clear just how much she wanted to show her displeasure about the delay to the people responsible for it. 

Before responding to that, I glanced around. The others were all up here too, as we got ready to go deal with that court thing. Everyone was standing around, looking anxious. Understandable, really. Even if we didn’t have the depositions to do, there was the obvious Breakwater situation. Everyone else might not be as open about their feelings on the subject as Sierra was, but we were all feeling the pressure from the delay. Still, I was trying to remain optimistic. If nothing else, the others really needed me to. 

So, I took a breath before starting with, “Yeah, it’s possible they’re up to something. I wouldn’t really put it past them to be doing everything they can to cover their butts. But honestly, they already acknowledged that Flea and Trivial were there, and they claimed that they got them off the island. If those two disappear now, it’ll be a lot worse for Breakwater’s people. They already have all the attention on them. In the long run, it’s best if those two just show up back here in Detroit following the same story we gave them. That’s probably what they’re spending these couple days on, making sure they’re on the same page and that they’ll stick to the story. I mean, besides the whole medical evaluation thing, which they probably really are doing too. I mean, that’s an exotic island full of super villains who could be doing anything. It’s not really surprising that they’d need to go through a whole evaluation period.” 

Paige spoke up with clearly forced calmness, though I could hear the tension behind her voice too. “They’re probably also scouring the info we sent in, trying to figure out if it was someone in their own ranks who exposed the situation.”

Oh right, that made sense. I hadn’t even really thought about it that way, but yeah. Of course Breakwater would think it was one of their own people who had sent that information out, rather than it actually having come from here in Detroit. After all, their own people would be the ones who knew that Flea and Trivial were on the island. They probably thought that whoever it was had a soft heart or something and had simply made it look like the information came from here. It did make more sense from their perspective for it to be one of their own people. It was a thought that made me wince a little bit at the idea of what the employees there were probably going through as their bosses struggled to identify the leaker. 

“That’s probably part of the reason for the delay too,” Roald put in while raising his hand. “Maybe they want to see if they can figure out who was responsible for exposing the situation before they actually send them home.”  

Murphy snorted. “In that case, it’s gonna be a pretty long time before we see them.” As soon as the words were out of her mouth, the girl visibly blanched and focused on Paige and Sierra. “I mean, shit, sorry. I didn’t mean to make it sound like–I mean… sorry.” 

Wren quickly piped up from where she was busy using her wrench on some big metal box-like thing she had been working on. “They’ll be home soon, I know they will. And they’ll bring your sister with! But uhh…” She looked up, pulling the goggles off her face to stare at Sierra in particular. “What’re you gonna tell her about… you?” 

“Hey, that’s a good question,” Peyton agreed. She popped up next to Wren, holding the box of tools the other girl kept asking for items from. “How are you gonna introduce yourself to her? Or explain any of–you know.” She gestured back and forth between the other girl and me. 

Sierra hesitated before shaking her head. “I’m not. I mean, I’m not gonna introduce myself. How could I? I’d have to get into that whole thing, all of it.“

“Would that be a bad thing?” I pointed out. “Seriously, she’s probably our best chance at getting an adult involved in this. We can be pretty damn sure she’s not involved in the Ministry herself by this point, and she’ll trust Paige.” 

“Will she?” Paige put in, shaking her head. “I’m the reason she ended up on Breakwater to begin with. Whatever she’s been through over there, whatever–” She stopped, giving a heavy sigh before pushing on. “Maybe she’ll want nothing to do with me. I just want to know she’s safe, and… and I don’t know. But if she wants me to leave her alone forever after all that, I’d completely understand.” Even as she said that, the girl glanced in my direction. I knew what she was thinking. She’d expected me to not want anything to do with her after years of being forced to treat me like shit. But that was the key point, she was forced to do that. Even if I still had some lingering uncertainty and emotional… issues with the whole thing, logically I knew it wasn’t her fault. 

“We’ll handle it,” I managed after taking a second to collect myself. “When she gets here, we’ll figure out how she’s feeling and… and all the rest of it. Then we’ll go from there. But for now–” As I said that, the alarm on my phone chimed, and I looked down to check. “Uh, right, for now, it’s time to go to court. You guys ready to head out?”

Raising his hand, Roald asked, “Is it too late to call in sick? Because I think I might ralph.” 

“Oh don’t worry,” I assured him, “I’m pretty sure that’s a normal feeling. But if it happens, do us all a favor and please don’t aim for the lawyers.  

“No matter how tempting it is.” 

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Center Of Attention 26-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Sierra wasn’t kidding. When Paige showed up, after a quick run-through of everything that had happened with my parents (if it was really them), she insisted we find a place to start testing my paint combination powers. We couldn’t really go back to the secret room in the school without drawing attention, so we went down to the store’s unfinished basement. Half of it was taken up by stacks of boxes that Wren swore she still needed to go through at some point, but the other half was basically an open room with cement floor and walls. It would work for some testing. 

Before getting into that, however, I focused on Paige. Sierra was down here too, along with Wren and Peyton. Fred was upstairs to deal with any customers who came in, though he made us promise to tell him what we found out, and show him anything ‘neat.’ Of course I told him that would take a while since everything I did was neat. 

Now, facing Paige, I asked, “Do you think my parents believed everything you were saying?”

She, in turn, shrugged. “Probably not all of it. At the very least they knew I was holding some things back and not telling them the whole story. The real question is whether they believed enough of it. And yeah, I think they did. At the very least, they don’t think I’m an immediate threat. I actually think they believe I could be useful.” 

That made me blink. “Useful? Because you could lead them to this mysterious group who contacted you for this whole thing?” 

She nodded. “That and because they want to recruit me.” 

Needless to say, that made me choke a little, while Sierra snickered in the background at my reaction. Finally, I stared at Paige. “You think my parents want to recruit you into the Ministry?” 

“Well they don’t want to recruit me to plan your birthday party next January,” she informed me with a tiny smile. “But yeah, they know I can lie to them. They know I’ve got some skill in manipulation and infiltration, since I stole those documents and managed to get away from them. You know, with Paintball’s help. They don’t know everything, not even a quarter of it. They definitely don’t know what I really am. But they know enough to think I could possibly make a decent early recruit. I wouldn’t be surprised if they reach out soon enough and try to make an offer. After waiting what they deem an appropriate amount of time from when they tried to kill me.” 

That was… yeah, that was a lot to take in. She had a point, of course. Naturally my parents would be looking for anyone they could recruit with the skills they needed. And even if they didn’t know anywhere close to the real story, Paige had demonstrated that sort of skill and she already knew about the Ministry. From what she’d told me about how she’d handled that whole situation, they probably also believed she was still malleable enough to be guided and trained the way they might want. 

So yeah, it made sense. But it still left me uncertain about exactly how I felt about that. I was worried about what would happen if my family paid too much attention to Paige (not that it was easy to avoid that given the whole Irelyn thing, to say nothing of them already knowing about her having Ministry information), and about everything that could come crashing down because of that if one of us said the wrong thing. And beyond that, I knew my family was aware that I didn’t really get along with Paige, to say the least. What would they do about that? Try to get us to work through our issues? That was an image that made me blanch. My family, trying to counsel Paige and me on how to get along so we could work together within their criminal enterprise.

Well we had been trying to figure out how we could get away with Paige and me hanging out without attracting suspicion. Wouldn’t it be convenient if my parents worked toward explaining that completely on their own? 

Yeah, that was going to be a whole thing, if it came up. Which would probably also mean that they would at least move closer to telling me what was going on. And boy oh boy was I looking forward to that just ever so much. I couldn’t wait to go through that and try to figure out how to react. If I said the wrong thing once they did reveal the Ministry to me, would they just erase my memory of the whole situation again? Would I know if they did? I still had no idea how to tell when that happened, or if there was any way to defend against it if you weren’t a Biolem like Paige. That Kent guy hadn’t seemed completely and utterly shocked beyond all belief by the fact that his power hadn’t worked on her, so maybe there was a way to resist? I wasn’t sure, nor did I know how we could go about testing it.

Shaking all that off for the moment, I focused on the issue at hand. “Well, if they do try to recruit you, make sure to hold out for a decent salary and benefits. You know my family can afford it.” 

Paige, who actually seemed a little nervous about how I would react to that, offered me a quick smile. “Yeah, for sure. I know what I’m worth, can’t take any lowball offers.” 

“I’d take a lowball offer,” Peyton put in while raising her hand. “But only because I’m pretty sure you guys have no real concept about what anything costs, so their idea of a lowball offer might just pay my entire way through university.” 

We all snickered at that, even Wren. It helped ease the mood a little, which was nice. Then we got into the actual testing. I had already shown them what I could do when it came to the paint combinations I used at the park, but now it was time to get into seeing what else I could do, and how exactly the combinations worked.

Clearly, whatever effect the main paint possessed remained the center of any combination, and was simply twisted or adjusted by the color I fed into it. When I’d added green to white, it sped up the effect and made the entire ten seconds worth of light go off in an instant, creating a blinding flash grenade. And when I had added green to red, it made the whole pulling thing happen much faster. I had been hauled incredibly quickly toward Uncle Friendly when I did that before. We tested it with a couple empty boxes down in the basement now, just to see for sure. Paige used a stopwatch app on her phone, and made me experiment with adding different amounts of red and green. In the end, it turned out that the more green I added into it, the faster the pulling happened. But the more red I used, the heavier the object that could be moved. And beyond that, the more green I added, the less time the red would pull and hold for. Adding too much green would move things very quickly, yet also detracted from the normal ten seconds that the pull should have lasted for normally, similar to the whole green with white thing. It was a balancing act. Beyond that, I also couldn’t feed more paint into something than the original color had. Any image I made had to be made of at least fifty-one percent of the base color and only up to forty-nine percent of whatever was fed into it. Which made sense, given it was supposed to be the base color, so if there was more of the other, it wouldn’t really make sense.

Anyway, it seemed like that same ‘speed up’ principle applied to green being added to other colors. Like when I had fed green paint into that blue circle to launch Fogwalker away from me at incredibly high speed. The green made the effect faster and stronger, but at the cost of lasting for less time. But how would that translate into powers that weren’t so easily ‘sped up?’ 

Under Paige’s direction, we tried orange with that. But of course, we needed a baseline for how much orange protected on its own. We used cardboard boxes, which Paige and Sierra took turns hitting, because they could be certain to use the exact same amount of force every time, and at regular intervals. Or they could simply apply a steady amount of pressure to the box the entire time the paint was active, so we knew exactly when the defense wore off. All of which meant we could get useful data. And the way Paige said ‘useful data’ was a little weird. Like me when I was talking about an awesome ramp. 

Between that system and a bit of ‘how much do you feel this poke, how about this one’ we were able to figure out that, by itself, the orange paint protected against something like ninety percent of the damage that would have been done, even at the smallest, most basic amount of paint. As long as it was a notable amount to begin with (more than just a speck of paint, it had to be something real), roughly ninety percent of the damage done would be negated. That increased by one percent for every added ten percent of the item in question that I covered with orange, up to a max of ninety-eight percent. Whatever I did, two percent of the damage would always get through. 

Once we had that baseline, we tried green mixed into orange, because we were all curious about what that would do. How would speeding up ‘being invulnerable’ actually help at all? 

As it turned out, the answer was closer to the white paint. Adding green into the orange made the invulnerability stronger for a shorter time. After a bit of testing, it seemed like for roughly every ten percent of a total image that was taken up with green instead of orange, the amount of time the defense lasted for was dropped by two seconds, but the amount of protection it provided was raised by two percent. 

Due to the limit of only making up to about forty-nine percent of an image green instead of orange, that meant I could, at most, raise the total protection ten percent. And doing so would decrease the orange defensive time from ten seconds down to essentially nothing, just a brief one second at most burst of protection. But that was where it got interesting. Because unlike orange paint by itself, which could only get up to ninety-eight percent protection no matter how much I added, with the maximum amount of green mixed in, that level of protection could get up to one hundred percent. Sure, it only lasted for an instant, but it would completely protect me or anyone else from all damage if I timed it right. 

Again, there was a balance to be struck with how much of the base paint I used versus how much of the other color I added into it. It wouldn’t be useful or practical all the time, but in a few specific cases… yeah, I could do something with that. 

Once we did that, Peyton brought up the question of what purple added to orange would do. If green already made the paint stronger at the cost of making it last for a shorter amount of time, what would the paint that was meant for increasing strength do?

The answer ended up being that it still raised the amount of defense, and without shortening the amount of time the orange paint lasted. But it only raised it by one percent for every ten percent of purple that was added to the orange, so it reached a max of ninety-five percent protection. That, of course, was something I could reach with just orange by itself. So maybe not every single paint combination was useful. I just had to find the ones that worked the best. Which was exactly what we were doing here. Paige wanted me to be prepared for whatever happened. 

Well, that and she was really anxious about what was going on with Irelyn and needed to distract herself. 

To that end, I looked toward Peyton. “You wanna see what happens with black and green?”

She gave me a look at that. “You mean do I want to be your guinea pig so you can hit me with that combination and see if anything weird happens?”

Grinning at her I gave a thumbs up. “See, you’re already on top of things. That’s the best partner slash lab rat.”

She rolled her eyes, but acquiesced. We had her start reading aloud from a random book that was in one of the boxes down here, while I put black paint across her back along with a strip of green and fed the latter into the former. Then we all watched while I activated it. 

“Andwhenwewalkedupthehilltherewereelevensoldiersin—“ The words all came out of the other girl in a nearly completely indecipherable rush that sounded like one of the cartoon Chipmunks talking very quickly. She stopped short after that, eyes widening as she looked back at us. Then she took a breath and tried again. But again, the words came out all together and high-pitched like that. She was visibly trying to slow her voice down, but it wouldn’t work. Not until the paint had worn off. 

Bouncing up and down, which in her case involved using her wing pack to reach the ceiling, Wren blurted, ”Ooh, I wanna try, I wanna try! Please can I try?!”

Of course I let her. We tried that a couple more times to the same result. It didn’t make the person physically faster, it just forced them to speak very quickly and somewhat squeakily. Anything that was affected by the paint would produce any sound much faster than it normally would have. I wasn’t exactly sure when or how that would be useful, but at least we knew what it did.

Then there was green with yellow, which brought anyone who was affected by it to a complete halt, expending the yellow’s entire charge, but only for that instant. It would stop someone, then immediately wear off. I could definitely see where that would be useful, and filed it away.

Green with purple was the same idea. It wore off immediately, but gave a very momentary incredible burst of strength. 

Then there was pink. If that one did anything, we couldn’t figure it out. Then again, it was hard to say what making something affected by pink faster could even look like. Suffice to say, it wasn’t terribly interesting at the moment. 

While we were at it, we also checked what would happen when I added purple paint to a couple other colors. It made red paint able to pull larger, heavier things and do more damage if they collided. It also made the glow from the white paint notably brighter. And it made both green and yellow stronger with their respective powers. Not as dramatic of an increase as green gave yellow, or purple for that matter, but it also didn’t wear off immediately. It was simply a boost.  

After the green with black incident, we naturally checked purple with black. How would it make muting things stronger? 

As it turned out, adding purple to black made the muting affect extend outward a bit from the thing that was painted. For every ten percent of a picture that I made purple, the effect extended in a two feet diameter circle. Again, only up to just under half of a picture could be the second color. So at most, I could make a circle that was ten feet in diameter where no sound could emerge. Now that would be very useful. 

We knew from my whole artificial stilts and whip-arms trick at the park that adding purple into pink made the stretchy bits stronger. But if going the other way around and adding pink to purple did anything, we couldn’t figure it out right then.

That was about as far as we got before I called a halt to the testing. It was already starting to get late, and I wanted to take a lap around the city to stretch my legs and check in on things. After all, we were supposed to be helping people, not just playing with my paint combinations.

Paige and Sierra stayed to help Wren get some other work done, but promised to join us if we found anything big. Meanwhile, Peyton and I took to the streets. We didn’t exactly find a big fight, but as we were making our way across the rooftops, I spotted what I initially thought was some sort of gang gathering in a field near a freeway overpass. It turned out to be a bunch of homeless people all camping out. As we watched them from a nearby building, I felt my stomach twist itself over. This, this was how we should have been helping the city. 

So, that was exactly what we did. Similar to that time when I had been by myself, the two of us went to a nearby store and bought a couple carts full of supplies. Which was going to attract attention, but it wasn’t like I could go there without my costume. If this situation got out and my parents checked the cameras of the store to see me buying a bunch of stuff that Paintball eventually gave the people out there, they might just be able to do the math.

And yes, there were still people in the store. It was barely before curfew, which had been extended to ten pm. Again, not out of any real connection to how dangerous it was, but because people couldn’t stand to be locked in that early. 

In any case, we attracted attention, and the two of us tried to play it off and joke around with the crowd as best as we could.

I bought every premade sandwich the store had, along with a dozen loaves of bread and peanut butter with honey. Then I bought various boxes of cookies, crackers, cans with easy pull-tops that had fruit or meat inside, anything I could find while we went through the store with a couple different grocery carts.

Needless to say, people wanted to know what we were doing. One even jokingly asked if we had turned to a life of crime and we’re going to steal all this stuff. So we just told them that we’d gotten anonymous donations so we were going to provide food for the homeless. A few people scoffed at that, but others actually donated money of their own, which I really wanted to tell them not to bother with, but had no idea how to do so. I couldn’t exactly tell them I was actually paying for all this myself without risking my identity.

By the time we left the store, we didn’t just have money donations. There were also a dozen other people with their own carts full of not just food, but other supplies. They went to the back of the store and got sleeping bags and blankets, as well as flashlights and lanterns. Seeing that, I bought a bunch of clothing that could be passed around as well. 

Together, our small army made our way back to that freeway overpass a couple blocks over. Peyton and I helped distribute everything, and hung out with the people there for a while. It was… interesting, considering how many wild stories the people had. Not that it was all fun and games. They definitely needed every bit of help they could get, but they were doing their best. And hopefully this stuff would help. 

When I asked one of the guys there if they were worried about the cops making them disperse or chasing them off, he informed me that the land they were on was owned by ‘those Evans people’ and that they… my family… had designated it and about half a dozen other places throughout the city as a safe place for them to set up homeless camps. They also had a few shelters and a couple apartment buildings set up to be temporary homes for people who were trying to get work and needed a place to get back on their feet while they waited for a solid paycheck. So they did help put roofs over peoples’ heads, but also had these bits of land where anyone could sleep without being harassed by the police. Apparently this was one of the newest places like that. Others had port-a-potties and a few other needed amenities. 

So my family did… all that. Yeah, I had a lot of thinking to do. Not that that was anything new. 

Eventually, the two of us slipped away and left together. We were back on that first building where we had seen them before, as I spoke in a low voice. “Sorry we didn’t get into any cool, dramatic superpowered showdowns.” 

Peyton, in turn, shrugged. “Meh. This was fine. In fact, it kind of feels like we should make this a regular thing, you know?”

Watching the people in the distance, I smiled to myself behind the mask and helmet. “You know what? I think you’re right. 

“This should definitely be a regular thing.”

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Center Of Attention 26-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Obviously, they weren’t just going to fly the missing Star-Touched right back here to Detroit, pat them on the head, and let them go immediately. We didn’t even get any current video of them, so there was no way to know for sure what sort of condition they were in. Instead, there were simply reports from the prison itself that they had picked all three women up and would be bringing them home as soon as they went through various debriefings and medical examinations to ensure they were safe. But according to the report, there are no serious injuries. 

That was reassuring, to say the least. Now that they had publicly acknowledged that the women were with them, it would be much harder for Breakwater to just make them disappear and pretend they had no idea what anyone was talking about. It took an enormous load off my shoulders. 

And if I felt better about it, Paige and Sierra were like totally new people judging by the conversations we had online and over texts that night. Oh, there was still suspicion there, of course. Especially on Sierra’s part. Neither of them would be exactly satisfied until Irelyn was right in front of them. But still, this was pretty positive and we all knew it.

At the very least, it helped me get to sleep that night without feeling too guilty and anxious. Which was a real treat, for sure. I had school the next morning, and the whole weekend had been long and draining. Getting good news to cap it off was just the thing I’d needed, so I decided to crash before anything could happen to ruin that. It was basically a ‘stick my fingers in my ears and pretend there’s nothing bad going on so I can fall asleep’ defense. 

As for school itself the next day, it was, well, busy. There were a lot of people talking about the Flea and Trivial thing, and how they had gone in to save ‘the unknown woman.’ And boy was there a lot of speculation about who that was. People weren’t sure if Breakwater was covering up her identity, or the news, or the government, or all of the above. The fact that she was someone who lived here in Detroit prompted everyone to start asking one another which important people in the city they hadn’t seen in awhile. And yes, my mother’s name came up. As did a few others I recognized. But no one could agree on whether they’d been seen, or even seen closely enough to be certain they were that person and not some sort of double. To say nothing of all the talk of holograms or shapeshifters or whatnot. When that subject came up, I felt like the living embodiment of the awkward look monkey puppet meme. 

In any case, Amber and I spent some time out on the bleachers by the football field, well away from anyone else. We talked a lot about what had happened Saturday at the park, as well as the whole Breakwater thing. She seemed distracted, but when I asked about it, she just said it was a personal situation and she’d be fine. So I asked if Jae was doing okay after that whole weird situation with the maybe homeless guy. According to Amber, she was also fine, but there was a little bit of hesitation there that made me think she wasn’t completely sure. 

Or maybe she just didn’t want to talk about Jae having a boyfriend in Damarko. I had seen the two of them (Jae and Damarko, that was) talking again at the edge of the school grounds when I was dropped off, and whatever it was about, they seemed pretty close. But I still didn’t know if Amber was aware of that situation or not. Or if she was pointedly ignoring it. He was already their friend, so I could see how that might be a little weird. But it definitely wasn’t my place to push. I had enough stuff going on as it was anyway. Not to mention how dangerously close I was veering toward being a gossip. So, I just let it go. 

On the other hand, Amber did want to talk a lot about Izzy agreeing to be adopted. Obviously, we both knew that entire situation was a lot more complicated than it was even on the surface, and it was already complicated there. Izzy knew what she was getting into, and had apparently talked it over with Amber a bit as she was coming to her own decision. As for Amber, she wasn’t sure how she felt about Izzy being adopted by the people in charge of the Ministry, considering she still thought they might have been responsible (at least in some way) for the guy who killed her dad getting away. That made things even more complicated, and I promised if there was any chance to find out if they were involved or knew anything about it, I would help her find answers. 

After all that business at school, I spent a little time at home with Izzy as we made a whole big deal about playing games together to celebrate the adoption. Mom and Dad had already put the paperwork in the day before (it being Sunday didn’t matter at all for various obvious reasons), and the judge would be going through it over the next couple days. It wouldn’t take long at all before Izzy was officially and legally my sister. Not that I needed anyone to tell me anything ‘officially and legally’ for that to be true at this point. I’d only known the other girl for a short time, but it still felt like she’d been around for much longer. Was that just because I had needed someone in my family I could completely trust and confide in? 

That was part of it, sure. But not the whole thing. Izzy was amazing all on her own, no matter what my own situation was. Her being here, knowing things, and me being able to confide in her was clearly one of the luckiest things that had ever happened to me. And, to be quite clear, my life was already pretty damn lucky to begin with, despite its complications. 

So, Izzy and I made our appearances in the house to make sure we looked appropriately giddy about the situation. Not that it really mattered all that much given Mom and Dad weren’t even home (but I was sure Mom would ask the staff how we were and if we seemed okay). Then she went off to do Minority stuff, and I made my way to the shop to check in. 

Peyton was already there when I arrived, apologizing for being stuck with her mother the day before. I tried to tell her it was fine, but she informed me, with a slightly haunted look, that her mother had dragged her through something called a ‘craft fair,’ whatever that was, and that it definitely wasn’t fine. She looked like she had just been through a war. When Fred asked if she’d rather spend a few more hours at one of those, or fight more super-heated zombies, she had to think about it. 

Unfortunately, it was Murphy and Roald who wouldn’t be joining us today. They were stuck babysitting at home, since Roald’s sister Rubi had an important meeting at work to try to get a raise while his little sister was having friends over for some sort of party. 

All of which meant it was just Fred, Wren, Peyton, and me waiting there when Sierra showed up on her own. She came in the front door, just like a customer, holding up this silver-topped cane she had apparently found lying around the Banners house. The girl was going on about how it had a taser in the tip that she could either poke someone with or shoot out a full fifty feet if needed, and wasn’t that cool? 

“Sierra,” I finally interrupted my blonde doppelganger once I could get a word in edgewise. “Where’s Paige? We thought she was with you.” She had come in all by herself, and considering how long she had been talking about the cane without the other girl coming through the door behind her, seemed to be alone. 

“Huh?” Looking up from the cane, Sierra made a dismissive noise. “Oh, that, she’s talking to people from the Ministry over at the house.” 

Needless to say, that provoked a reaction. Especially from Wren, who was sitting cross-legged on top of the glass counter. Even as the rest of us were jerking a bit in surprise, the younger girl fell over backwards with a yelp. There was a crashing sound behind the counter that sounded like a bunch of metal pans falling over, and Fred gave a visible flinch. 

“I’m okay!” Wren called out, popping back to her feet with her hands up. “I’m okay!” Only then did she notice the metal colander on her head, quickly taking it off with a blush. “Uncle Fred’s showing me how to cook!” She added that bit while holding up the colander proudly. 

Ignoring the fact that that didn’t really explain why there was all that stuff downstairs behind the counter, I focused on the much more important and immediate situation. Which was Sierra, who happened to be curiously poking through a shelf full of random stuff with her new cane. My mouth opened, but before I could actually say anything, Peyton beat me to the punch. 

“What do you mean, she’s talking to the Ministry?!” All of her marbles were spinning in circles around her head like a multicolored halo or something. In most cases, it would have been distracting. But now? Now I barely noticed. 

Sierra, still looking completely unconcerned, shrugged. “Uh, after what we did, are you that surprised? I mean, even if they don’t know it was us, obviously they’d want to see if she knew anything about it. Or how she feels about Irelyn coming home. Or if she has any idea where the Banners are. You know, all that stuff. Of course they sent someone over to talk. We were expecting that. Even if…” She trailed off, glancing toward me. 

“Even if what?” I prompted, my stomach already twisting itself into knots. Yes, it made sense that the Ministry would want to talk to Paige after that. But still, the idea that she was out there with them… it made me anxious. Anything could happen. How was Sierra so calm about this? 

Looking like she wasn’t sure if she should say anything or not, the other girl finally sighed while leaning on the cane. “Well, we’re pretty sure the people who are over there talking to her right now are your parents. You know, using their disguise holograms or whatever they are.” 

Now I kind of wished I had a bunch of pots and pans to fall off a counter onto. As it was, I made a choking sound in the back of my throat, eyes widening as I grabbed hold of the nearby shelf. “My what?! What? What?!” It was tempting to just keep shouting that single word at her, but I restrained myself to just three times. 

“Right, I was supposed to say that when I first got here.” Sierra frowned thoughtfully. “Sorry, I got distracted when I figured out this thing could shoot the taser darts too. Anyway, yeah, we think your parents stopped by for a two-on-one conversation. They’re in disguise, like I said. They’re not saying they’re the leaders of the Ministry or anything, it’s just… sort of the impression we’ve got.” 

“So why are you here?” That was Fred, asking the very good questions. “Why aren’t you back there, just in case things go wrong?” 

“Well, one, we’re in contact up here.” Sierra tapped the side of her head. “She’s letting me know how it’s going. So if that whole situation does go sideways, I’ll know. And now, since I’m here, so will you guys. Which brings me to point three, if the Ministry decided to abduct Paige, I’d sort of need you guys to help stop it. And if it comes down to that and I had to have a confrontation, it might be a little awkward to just be there as myself.” Her finger twirled around her face demonstrably. “They might have some questions, you know?” 

Okay yeah, that made sense. Still, I took a moment to breathe out and try to calm myself just a little bit before asking, “You said you’re still in contact and she’s fine? What’s going on?” It was all I could do to convince myself that changing into my costume and charging out there right this second was probably a bad idea. My parents, if they really were the ones over there (and even if they weren’t) would also have questions if Paintball suddenly showed up. 

Clearly realizing we were anxious about this whole thing and enjoying dragging it out, Sierra took a moment to make herself comfortable leaning against one of the shelves. Then she shrugged. “They’re just asking about what she knew and if she had anything to do with this information getting out. She’s telling them that someone she doesn’t know came to ask her what she knew and she told them the same thing. Then they told her about the Breakwater thing and asked if she wanted to help. So she gave them the boat and let them break it to make those pictures and send them. We figured they might be able to figure out what the boat was somehow, and that it was actually sitting at the marina here. So we might as well give them that one. They wanted to know why she didn’t come to them, and she pointed out the whole ‘trying to shoot her in the head thing.’ They seem to be accepting that.” 

Taking that in, I tried to make my heart slow down. It didn’t really help. My stomach was still all twisted up. I was paranoid about what else could happen. My parents were at Paige’s house right now. What if they decided she needed to be disappeared and put that into play before we could actually do anything about it? Yes, it made sense that they would want to talk to her, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t really thought about that too much. With everything that had happened over the weekend, I just didn’t consider that part of it. 

Sierra was already continuing. “She’s telling them that she doesn’t know who these people are, just that they contacted her in person. She’s giving them a couple descriptions that won’t lead anywhere, and telling them that she’s pretty sure those people were intermediaries. Plus the usual other ways this sort of thing happens. You know, meeting in dark warehouses with people she couldn’t see, that sort of thing. Real interesting spy stuff. The point is, she can’t identify them. She did say they might have worked with Mr. Banners, so that might lead them down the wrong rabbit hole.” 

“But she’s okay?” I pressed. “I mean, they aren’t calling for a van to take her away, or giving her any dangerous vibes? Does she want us to suit up and be ready? I mean we could–” 

Pushing off the shelf, Sierra walked over to stand in front of me, putting her hands on my shoulders. And boy did it ever feel weird to have this happen with someone whose face looked like my mirror double. “Dude,” she pointedly intoned. “It’s gonna be fine. We knew they’d want to talk to her, so we planned this out. I mean, we didn’t know it’d be your parents exactly, but still. If she’s in trouble, she’ll let me know. And we’ve got plenty of emergency measures just in case. I mean, it’s not perfect and foolproof, but it’s better than you losing your mind and rushing over there.”

Okay, if having my near-twin talk to me face to face like that was weird, having her tell me the same thing I had been telling myself was even more so. It was like my inner monologue was given physical form. And she was right, of course. Just like I had been right when I thought the same thing. So, I exhaled and gave a little nod. “Right, sure. Just tell us if anything goes wrong. Maybe we should suit up and be ready anyway, just in case? We could get–” 

“They’re leaving,” Sierra interrupted. “They said they’ll report to their ‘superiors’ and let her know if they find out anything important. And that she should call the number they gave her if she remembers anything else about the people who came to her. See? No big deal.” 

“No big deal?!” Peyton blurted before I could. “It’s a very big deal! The Ministry leaders–her parents–just went to talk to Paige in person about all this! Of course it’s a big deal!” 

“What she said,” I muttered with a gesture that way. “But at least it’s just ‘big deal’ and not ‘giant, immediate, blaring emergency.’” 

“Weren’t you worried at all?” Wren pressed. She had put the colander on her head like a helmet. 

Holding the cane up, Sierra replied, “Why do you think I was distracting myself with my cool new toy? Yeah, I was worried too, kid.” She sounded like it was hard for her to admit that. “But seriously, everybody just breathe. Paige is gonna be here soon.” Her eyes found me with a tiny smirk. “And then you’re really gonna be in trouble.” 

“Me?” I blinked at that. “Why would I be in trouble?” 

With a small chuckle, the blonde version of myself poked me with the cane. “Because Paige really needs a distraction right now. And you told her about those new paint combination things. So you better be ready when she gets here. 

“Cuz she is gonna put you through so many tests you might as well change your name to Guinea Pig.”  

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Center Of Attention 26-02 (Summus Proelium)

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The answer to the question of how pissed Pittman was, as it turned out, was very. Apparently it wasn’t that hard for the man to put together that we were the ones behind this sudden revelation in the news (more confirmation that he had contact with the outside world that he shouldn’t have had). He spent a good minute ranting to me about what was going to happen to the two Star-Touched on that island now that we had fucked him over. Nor was he particularly happy when I let him know that we were already aware that he didn’t have them anyway, so his threats were meaningless. 

But you know what probably pissed him off the most? The fact that, while he was gearing up for another rant about how we could have worked together and made everyone happy, I disconnected. And boy was that a satisfying click. Putting the phone away, I looked up to Paige, Sierra, Murphy, Roald, Fred, and Wren staring at me. Their looks made me shrug. “The dude already plotted my death for years from inside the most secure prison on the planet. What else is he gonna do, exactly, if I annoy him as Paintball too? He can go suck an egg.” Pausing briefly, I added, “Whatever that means. Seriously, what kind of egg–never mind. The point is, he’s already pissed off and I didn’t particularly feel like standing there and letting him yell at me all day.” 

“I wish I could’ve hung up on him like that,” Paige murmured before shaking that off. “Anyway, we’ve got the list of equipment he wanted us to put together, and we still have the address in Utah to check out at some point. Some of us, anyway. Maybe some of that’ll help figure out his backup plans. But either way, those government groups better motivate the hell out of Breakwater to cough up Irelyn and the others.” 

“Yeah,” Sierra agreed while hopping up to perch on the counter next to Wren. “Cuz if government agencies wagging their fingers at you isn’t good motivation to do what they say, what is?” 

“It’s more than that,” I pointed out, dragging a stool around so I could drop myself onto it. “They’ve got official eyes on them now, and if I know anything about ordinary prisons from the stuff I’ve read, they don’t really like that. I’d bet a place like Breakwater is even more averse to it. They’re gonna want to make the public and government people happy as fast as they can. Which means playing along with our little story.” 

“Are you sure they won’t just say, ‘nope, never heard of those people, that’s totally made up?’” Murphy put in, before grimacing. “I mean, sorry to be the Debbie Downer.” 

Roald, standing beside her, shrugged. “It’s possible, isn’t it? They could just pretend this whole thing is a prank or something and ride it out.” Glancing to his friend, he added, “I guess we can be Debbie Downers together. Or, wait, is it Debbies Downer? That always confuses me.” 

It was Fred who addressed the actual point, still sitting on his normal seat behind the register. “The ball’s already rolling. The public thinks it’s true, and you can’t put a genie back in the bottle that easily. If they try to say it’s all a lie, they’ll still have a bunch of those people sniffing around. Hell, it’ll probably threaten their budget. That’s the real way to get those types to piss their pants. Easier for them all around if they just play along, hand the three of them over, and act like it was all part of the plan. Still makes them look a little bad considering a random civilian accidentally ended up on their prison island and then try to keep it secret, but it’s better than the alternative.” 

“Uh, yeah, what he said,” I agreed with a gesture that way. “This was our best chance to pull that off anyway. And I don’t exactly feel bad about putting that sort of pressure on them, since I refuse to believe they didn’t know those guys were on the island. They were willing to just leave them there to protect their precious reputation, so we took that option away from them.” 

Paige straightened up, moving to pluck a random piece of a vacuum off one of the shelves. “It was the best move. The only move. No way would our dad actually keep his end of that deal and help get them off the island. And even if he did, getting him off wouldn’t be worth it. He’s too dangerous. Look at what he’s been able to do while he’s in there. Giving him free rein to go anywhere in the world and get all the resources he could–” Cutting herself off, she sighed. “That can’t happen.” 

“It won’t!” That was Wren, looking up from some weird machine she was putting together in the corner. I had no idea if it was something special, or just the girl randomly tinkering with nothing in particular in mind. The way she worked, it could go either way. Maybe it was a sandwich baggie dispenser. It kind of looked like one of those. “They’re gonna let all three of them off that jail place.” Before we could say anything to that, she added, “And I’m not just being a dumb kid who doesn’t know how the world works or anything. Things are really scary around here right now, cuz of the gang war, and the stupid people trying out for the Scions, and… and all sorts of stuff. But the Ministry wants to keep things in control, right? They need superheroes here for that. So they’ll put all the power and like, uh, resources and stuff they’ve got into making the jail people play nice.” 

“Kid’s got a point,” Sierra muttered, sounding grudgingly admiring. “But now there’s nothing else we can do except wait and see what happens.” 

Paige, however, shook her head. “Oh yes there is.” Her gaze turned to me, eyes narrowing pointedly in a way that weirdly reminded me of just how horrible she had been to me for so long. It was a thought that I pushed aside as firmly as I could. “You can tell us exactly what you did yesterday with that whole ‘combining paint’ thing. The whole story. 

“And this time, you don’t get to blurt a few confusing words and then run off.” 

******

So, I spent the next little while getting into all that. Needless to say, Paige and the others were all pretty curious about the whole thing. The options that even just the combined paints I had already figured out opened up were pretty incredible. And who knew what other combinations I could put together?

Unfortunately, it was going to be awhile before we got into that. Paige really wanted me to spend the next couple hours going through all of it, but I had barely finished going through the paints I’d already used when my mother called and asked me to come home early so I could clean up and get dressed to go out. We were having family dinner at a restaurant that night to celebrate the Izzy adoption thing. And apparently Mom wanted to make sure we got through all that and made it back home before, as she put it, those violent psychopaths wake up from their naps and decide to start fighting again.

Part of me wondered briefly what the real reason was for why she wanted to get this dinner done with earlier than usual. Then I realized it almost certainly had to do with the Breakwater thing. That situation was probably moving about as fast as they could manage, but the big stuff wouldn’t happen until later. Mom wanted to keep our normal dinner, especially with Izzy. But things were also probably going to start happening pretty quickly tonight. At least, I hoped that was the reason. I really wanted to see the news report that Flea and Trivial were on a plane back here. I kept glancing at my phone, praying for a social media blow-up about it. Of course there was nothing so far. Stuff didn’t happen that quickly. Even if the Breakwater people had already gotten them off the island, they would be… laying down the strict rules about what they were allowed to say once they were out in public. 

Yeah, I had no idea how they were going to enforce that sort of thing. And thinking about it made me nervous, to say the least. But right now all that mattered was getting them off that island and back here. We would deal with anything else when the time came.

So, I had to tell the others that we have to pick this up another time. Promising to keep checking in and that they should tell me if they found out anything else, I headed out. As far as my mother knew, I was practicing some tricks at a smaller, out-of-the-way park that wasn’t currently blanketed with law-enforcement investigation people. Which meant I had a perfect excuse for paint-racing home. Mom expected me to be all sweaty. That’s why she made a point of calling for me to come home early and get cleaned up. Honestly, if I had shown up still all clean and fresh, she would’ve known something was up. Which was why I not only paint-ran most of the way home, but also took care to get myself dirty once I’d gotten close enough to change into my regular clothes. I quite literally rolled myself in the dirt and grass to sell the illusion. 

Well, that and also because it was fun. How often do you have a really good excuse to roll in the dirt? Especially in clothes that were bought with supervillain money. I may have gotten just a little too much enjoyment out of that. 

Once I made my way inside, suitably dirty and disheveled, along with the skateboard I had hidden on the far side of the wall surrounding our property, Mom took one look at me and made a noise that was part chuckle and part groan. “I see I didn’t make a mistake by pulling you in early.” Her hand reached out to gently brush over the dirt I had painstakingly put on my cheek. “Please tell me you had a good time, at least. Better than yesterday. I know it must have been as disappointing as it was frightening, considering how you feel about that girl.”

I made myself shrug, playing the part of a kid who didn’t want her mother to worry so much. “Sure, it was pretty scary, I guess. But like I said, I didn’t really see that much. I just hid.” With that, I made a point of injecting annoyance and self-recrimination into my voice. If I acted like a terrified child the whole time, Mom would never buy it. But she would believe that I had been scared in the moment but now wanted to move past it and was annoyed at myself for not actually doing anything to help. 

It worked. Mom used two fingers to tilt my head up to look at her. “And we are very glad for that. You are not a soldier or a police officer. If you ever see anything like that, hiding is exactly what you should do. It stops the bad guys from hurting you, and keeps you out of the way for the people who are actually trained to help. Hiding under that car was the best thing you could have done, okay?”

Oh boy was there an awful lot I wanted to say to that. But, of course, I kept myself under control and simply offered my mother a small smile. “Sure, I guess. Izzy’s the real superhero around here anyway. Where is she?” Right after saying that, I made a noise of realization. “Ohhh she’s probably doing Minority stuff, huh?”

“She’ll be home soon enough,” Mom assured me with a smile. “For now, perhaps you should go get cleaned up. We’ll be leaving within the hour. Oh, and I do hope you worked up an appetite while you were out.” She winked. “Your father really wants to spoil Izzy tonight, so I have a feeling he’ll be pulling out all the stops to make this a memorable meal.”

I could think of a few ways it could be memorable, but I sure as hell wasn’t about to suggest any of them. Instead, I simply promised to be ready soon, before jogging upstairs with my skateboard tucked under one arm. On the way, I passed Simon coming down while talking on the phone with one of his friends. Or maybe it was one of the Ministry people. Or both. Hell, maybe he was talking to a girl. It wasn’t like every last thing he did had to revolve around the Ministry. 

Yeah, okay, I’d rather think about my brother plotting mysterious things with a secret criminal underworld than about him being romantic with a girl. Blech. Honestly, there were a lot of things I’d rather think about than that. My brother’s love life wasn’t exactly on my top one thousand list of stuff I had any interest in. 

Pushing that thought far, far out of my mind, I grabbed a set of nice clothes (a teal silk shirt and black slacks) from my room before taking a long, hot shower. Partly because it helped me relax a bit, and partly because it took awhile to get clean. Maybe I had overdone the whole rolling in the dirt thing just a little bit. But at least it was sufficiently convincing for my mother so she didn’t ask any uncomfortable questions.

In any case, we had dinner at an out-of-the way restaurant. It was a nice place on the edge of town where they were very discreet. But more than that, their owner and head chef was a genius when it came to food. Seriously, that wasn’t hyperbole. Her name was Nadia Campbell and she was literally a Tech-Touched with a focus on cooking rather than building machines or weapons or whatever. 

Technically I wasn’t supposed to know that she was Touched, it wasn’t like she went around advertising it to everyone. But I’d heard my parents talking about her even before I’d found out about the Ministry. Nadia used to be the teacher for our own chef, Claudio. Dad tried to hire her to come to the house, but she didn’t go for it so he hired Claudio, her protege. 

If he was good at cooking, Nadia was the master. And she made certain everyone who worked in her kitchen followed her instructions. I had had a meal that was prepared by her personally a couple times before, though it wasn’t a regular occurrence by any means. She didn’t seem to care about my family‘s money, or any money really, aside from what it took to keep her restaurant afloat and allow her to do her work. 

No, despite all the money and influence they had, Nadia only agreed to personally cook for my family on very special occasions. The most recent one had been my sweet sixteen, back in January. But apparently she had agreed to this meal after finding out about Izzy agreeing to be adopted. And boy was that ever a good way to make this time memorable. 

Izzy, for her part, didn’t really understand what the big deal was. Not at first, anyway. And she was even more confused when there didn’t turn out to be any menus to look at. We just sat down in the private room at the back of the restaurant and one of Nadia’s assistants came out to talk to everyone. It wasn’t her, but that wasn’t surprising either. The small, deceptively young-looking black woman rarely directly spoke to any customers. Or anyone else, as far as I knew. She wasn’t the most sociable person, which was probably another reason why she turned down my family‘s offer. 

Instead of menus, Nadia‘s assistant, a man named Tumaini, talked with all of us. Some of it was about what sort of food we liked, but it was also seemingly random conversation. It went on for just a few minutes before the man smiled, thanked us for coming, and went out again.

After he left, Izzy hesitantly asked what that was all about. With a chuckle, Dad replied, “The woman here, Nadia, let’s just say she’s very special. She was listening to all that, and she’ll use the conversation to design a meal for everyone here. It’s what she does, and she’s quite good at it.”

Izzy was able to find out just how good Nadia was pretty soon, as our meals were eventually brought back to the table. My own food was an Italian pasta dish with semi-spicy meatballs and a creamy sauce that made my taste buds want to jump onto the table and start dancing. Izzy, meanwhile, had some sort of salmon dish with fingerling potatoes, which were apparently good enough to leave her completely shocked after just one bite. Though the shock didn’t last long, probably because it would have meant taking longer before actually eating the stuff.

Mom, Dad, and Simon had their own meals that were clearly just as good. We dug into the meals in earnest, while occasionally talking. The main subject was, naturally, Izzy. She blushed a lot and mumbled, apparently not sure how to handle being the center of attention like this. But I could tell she was having a good time regardless. We all were. 

Mom insisted we not have phones at the table while we were eating, so despite my anxiousness to know what was happening with the Breakwater thing, I couldn’t keep checking up on it. 

When we left the restaurant and all piled into the back of the limousine, however, I immediately dug the phone out of my pocket and checked. It didn’t take long to find what I was looking for, and a lot of it. Fourteen messages from Paige and the others, along with nine news alerts, and a couple phone calls. All of which amounted to the same thing.

Flea and Trivial had been found and would be coming home soon. 

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Center Of Attention 26-01 (Summus Proelium)

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My–our parents weren’t home the next morning (Sunday) when Izzy and I got up. Which was just fine with us, given we had plenty to do that day as it was. Especially considering what the others had put into place overnight. Between that and the whole thing with Inessa and her brother’s vault, it really was no wonder that the Ministry was busy. Part of me wondered if our parents had gotten any sleep at all the night before, but I pushed that feeling of guilt away as firmly as I could. After everything that had happened and the sort of things they were responsible for, they could deal with a busy night. Hell, for all I knew, Dad had a super-energy pill or something to help with it. That would explain how he managed to be a superhero, successful businessman, and help run a criminal conspiracy at the same time. Actually, come to think of it, that was probably still too much even if he never slept at all. 

Izzy and I watched the news on our phones in the dining room while we were eating our breakfast. Of course, they were talking about the biggest story of the day, or possibly of the whole year. The news that someone had ended up trapped on Breakwater before two Star-Touched had secretly been sent in to save her wasn’t exactly going to fly under the radar.

Oh sure, there were plenty who doubted the story. They had news consultants and experts on every channel it seemed like, all of them arguing about whether something like this was possible or not. There was discussion about security measures, about the sort of paperwork that would have to have been filed with the local governments, about this being an elaborate prank, and about it being completely real. The arguments ran across the political spectrum. There were plenty who were using it as an excuse to show why Breakwater was a bad idea to begin with, while others crowed about this being the first problem of its kind and how that proved how incredibly secure and safe the place was. After all, if one person getting accidentally stuck there, a one in a billion chance, ended up being such a pain in the ass to retrieve, then of course it meant it would be impossible for anyone who was supposed to be there to actually escape. 

Of course people had reached out to Breakwater itself, but they weren’t giving any statements yet. There was talk about several governments investigating, including a congressional committee here in the States. Some of that was just politicians trying to jump on something that would make a name for themselves, but still. All of this meant that Breakwater couldn’t just sweep it under the rug. Which was the entire point. We’d intentionally pointed as big of a spotlight as we could at the place to keep everyone’s eyes on it long enough to pull this off.

As planned, the news stories the others had dropped off weren’t about pointing fingers and being accusatory, even if some of the analysts took it that way. For the most part, we had made it look as so we were praising Breakwater for their quick action and incredible competence. This whole thing was about making it look as though Flea and Trivial had already rescued Irelyn, and now they were just in debrief with the Breakwater people. That way, they couldn’t just make the pair disappear and shrug their shoulders.

To that end, Paige and Sierra hadn’t simply delivered some photoshopped pictures of the broken boat. No, they had gone far above and beyond that. Some of the papers they had dropped off at the various news organizations looked like photocopies of actual orders and memos from Breakwater. Stuff about gathering information about the intruder on the island, about where she had come from, her movements, and how to recruit a couple Star-Touched from her own home city to help handle the situation without causing a panic. We didn’t make them look perfect, of course. That wouldn’t have been realistic, and we still wanted them to squirm at least a little bit. There were notes in there about how bad this would look if it got out, and that they needed to handle it quickly and quietly. But for the most part, they came off looking competent, at the very least. Especially considering we had made it look as though their plan had worked. There were notes in the end about how the two Star-Touched had successfully retrieved the lost woman without suffering any fatalities. 

Of course this whole thing would blow up in everyone’s face if there had already been a major, obvious problem on the island that wasn’t covered in the notes. But we were trying not to focus on that possibility. All that mattered was getting them off that island, and now we had given Breakwater the best excuse they could possibly have to just pick them up and let them go. Of course they would have to convince the pair to go along with the cover story that we had given them, but that was also something we couldn’t affect right now. We just had to hope Flea and Trivial would go with it.

This was undoubtedly the hardest part of this whole thing. We’d pulled the trigger on everything we could do, and now we just had to sit here and wait. We couldn’t affect anything else, not when it came to this. We were stuck watching to see how Breakwater would handle it. 

And if this was hard for me, I couldn’t even imagine what it was like for Paige and Sierra. They had lit the dynamite and tossed it out into the world. Now they had to sit around waiting to see what happened.

Or, apparently not. At least as far as the sitting around bit went. I learned the truth about that after Izzy went off for a meeting with the Minority people and I made my way to the shop. According to Wren, who was eating fried chicken at ten o’clock in the morning, the other two were out again already. Something about sneaking into a couple of these news and government places to eavesdrop on what was actually being said in the background. They wanted to get a better idea of how things were going beyond what was actually being reported on the news.

Yeah, I should’ve known better than to assume that Paige would be patiently sitting around the shop. I just hoped that whatever they were doing to sneak into these places wouldn’t end up with my parents being called to come pick up their daughter. Sure, Sierra had changed her hair color and stuff like that, but still. The whole idea made me even more anxious.

Gnawing on a chicken leg while perching cross-legged on one of the glass counters near the register, Wren beamed my way. “It’s okay, we did the hard part already. Now it’s up to them. We just have to wait and see what happens, you know?” With that, she took a big gulp of lemonade and made a sound of contentment. She had done her part, at least as far as that went. Now there was nothing else she could do to affect the situation, so she wasn’t worrying about it. Boy, wouldn’t that have been nice? 

My head shook as I gave a soft sigh. “Yeah, I’m not exactly sure that’s what I would call the easy part. It’s hard to just sit around and hope things work out. Especially when it comes to something like this. I keep feeling like I should be out there doing something to help, you know?” 

“Like what?” That was Fred, who settled back in an easy chair next to the register with his own plate of chicken. They’d offered me some when I came in, but I was still full from breakfast, so I’d declined. “Do you have some super-special color paint that can take you all the way to that prison island that you’ve just been holding back this whole time for the heck of it?” When I shook my head, he gestured. “Well, there you go. You can’t do anything about it right now. Heck, you’ve even got Paige and Sierra out there doing the sneaky-sneak parts to find out what the people who do have some authority are doing. Just wait to find out what they come back with. Maybe there’ll be something you can actually contribute to.” He gave a self-depreciating snort then, eyes rolling. “Maybe that will even be something I can do besides sit around and be the denmoth–uncle, denuncle. Is that a thing? Eh, it is now. Even if it does sound like a freaking Pokemon.” 

He had a point, of course. Er, about the me not being able to affect the situation thing. I couldn’t do anything important right then, so I simply moved to a corner and started working on my homework for the next day. I could’ve done that at home, but I felt the need to be here at the shop, just in case.

The sound of the bell ringing by the door as someone came in startled me, and my gaze snapped up, body reflexively tensing and ready for trouble. But, lo and behold, it was just a customer. An actual real life customer for the pawn/repair shop. In this case, he was there for the repair side, having brought in an old broken betamax player. Apparently it had belonged to his grandmother and he wanted to be able to watch some of her old videos. I watched from the corner as Fred made a show of turning the thing over to examine it from every angle before telling the man he could come back for it in an hour. The guy seemed surprised that it would be that fast, and Fred asked if he’d prefer it take a week. The man quickly apologized, thanked him and promised to be back in the hour before making his way out. He barely even glanced my way through the whole thing. Still, part of me wondered if I should go upstairs if customers were going to start visiting. 

Pushing myself up, I stepped over that way and asked, “You think Wren can fix that thing in an hour? She hasn’t even looked at it.” 

He snorted at me, setting the thing down on the counter gently before reaching out to pick up a screwdriver and a small flashlight. “The kid isn’t coming anywhere near this little beauty. She’d probably put a rocket pack on it and send the thing to the moon or something.”

Wren, for her part, bobbed her head in quick agreement. “I do like rockets, they’re fun!” 

“I’ve fixed plenty of these in my time,” Fred informed me while starting to work on the betamax player. “It’s no big deal. I may not be a superpowered genius, but I can work on this.” 

More customers did come in over that hour, and I ended up not going upstairs after all. Instead, I took down their information, helped them find things they were looking for, and generally lost myself in working as a random, anonymous employee. It was nice, especially considering I doubted any of the people who had come in would remember my face two seconds after leaving. I was just a nobody, someone who helped sell them whatever they needed (or failed to do so). Between that and getting my actual homework done, it helped take my mind off worrying about the Breakwater situation, the Inessa one, the one where someone was possibly targeting the Minority–yeah, all of it. I was able to clear my head pretty well. Not that it would last, but still. 

Eventually, Murphy and Roald came in, and they started helping out too. Not just with customers, but with some of the minor repairs. Fred and Wren supervised that, simply giving instructions about what to do, while we did the grunt work. 

After several hours of that, things finally slowed down. The three of us who were actually high school students did our homework together, even though we didn’t have the same classes. It still helped to bounce things off each other. Besides, the other two were weirdly interested in what sort of classes and lessons I had in what they called my spoiled rich shit school. 

It turned out most of the stuff they were currently working on was at least a grade level or two behind what I had been assigned when I was in their grade. Not because I was smarter, to say the least. It was because my teachers focused on more advanced stuff, because they had the support and supplies needed to teach it properly. Not to mention the way the parents, including my own, would push for that. The more I heard about Murphy and Roald’s school, the more clear it was that I really needed to push my parents to contribute some real funds to schools like that. They deserved more than they were getting, and it wasn’t like doing so would be hard. I was relatively certain we could double their annual budget with what was in our couch cushions. 

I also spent part of that time texting back-and-forth with Ryder about that whole situation. And no, I was still not even close to being accustomed to the idea that fucking Arleigh and her family were actually Sherwood. Out of all the things I’ve had to deal with and accept, that one was coming close to breaking my brain. Not the idea that she was a villain, naturally. No, the part I couldn’t accept was her being a nature-loving villain. Or at least pretending to be one. I couldn’t even believe that she was able to fake something like that so well. She was incredibly good at playing both roles, to the point that part of me wondered which was the real her. Because Clime was just… a flower girl hippy type. A violent flower girl hippy, but still. 

In any case, the two of us caught each other up as best as we could, while also joking around a fair bit. That, probably more than anything else, helped calm me down. Talking to Ryder, even simply by texting over the phone, was just… nice. Even though we were talking about very serious and dangerous things, it was easy to talk to him. Now that he knew who I was, and vice versa, it had removed a wall between us. We were able to just chat about everything, and about nothing. Was it weird that I could spend ten minutes talking about various jelly bean flavors and what the absolute worst, yet still edible type would be? And did the fact that that was mixed in with also talking about things like Jennica make that better or worse?

We also had the news on throughout the day, just in case. Not that there was anything new to hear about. The bomb was still gradually exploding. Or maybe this was more like the aftershocks. Either way, they weren’t saying anything that I hadn’t heard already. They were just going over the facts again in the end, about how long ago Flea and Trivial had last been active, who the mystery woman who had ended up on the island in the first place could be, and everything else. There were people who reported having seen the two Star-Touched long after I knew they wouldn’t have been around. Part of me wondered if that was a cover-up from the Ministry or from the law enforcement themselves to help hide their identities. Honestly, did the difference really matter at that point?

Finally, Paige and Sierra showed up. They had a little more news than what was being reported. Apparently the Star-Touched organizations were taking it incredibly seriously and had actually confirmed via back channels with Breakwater that there were indeed a couple on the island who matched Flea and Trivial’s descriptions. They also assured them that all efforts were being taken to ensure a safe exit for everyone involved. Of course, all of that led to discussions and arguments about whose fault this whole thing was and who bore ultimate responsibility. Not just for the initial situation, but also for the leaking of the information. There was a lot of finger-pointing going on, but thankfully, none of it seemed to be coming anywhere near us. Not that that was all that surprising, considering how much care we had taken to cover our tracks, but still. Things could easily have gone wrong with that whole thing. Part of me had half-expected the people in charge to figure out it was us within an hour or two. 

Still, it seemed like it was going to take more time for the people in charge to work all that out. But, things were moving in the right direction. The fact that Breakwater admitted those two were there in the first place and weren’t trying to lie about it was a pretty good sign. Hopefully this whole thing would be resolved without us needing to lift another finger. 

On the other hand, now that she couldn’t do anything else about that situation, Paige was fully focused on what I had been doing at the park the day before. Specifically, all the paint combinations. She had me walk her through exactly what it happened and what I did. And she had a few choice words to say about my way of experimenting, making it clear that we were going to do some very in-depth testing in safer conditions. And yes, I was pretty sure she drooled a little when saying words like testing and experiments. No way was I going to get out of that now. 

But we didn’t have time to get into it too much before the phone rang. The phone, the one we used for talking to Pittman. 

Sure enough, it was him. The system told us he was coming from the same location we’d tracked before. It had to be him. Staring at the phone as it rang, I picked it up and looked at the others. “Well, I’m guessing he’s heard the news and knows we don’t have to work with him after all. 

“So, let’s see just how pissed off he is, shall we?” 

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Interlude 25B – A Fortuitous Meeting (Summus Proelium)

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“Look, all I’m saying is this better not be our public debut.” The boy saying that, Zed Chambers, made the announcement while gesturing up and down to indicate the very simple black jumpsuit and ski mask he wore. “There is no way we’ll ever live down the shame of being this basic.” 

His twin, Lexi, was dressed identically (something they had grown out of ages ago). She stood next to the boy, giving him an appraising look. “You know, what you should really be worried about is what happens if one of us takes that mask off your head so we can see what your hair looks like when it’s actually messed up.” 

The fourteen-year-old twins, as well as the other two (or five depending on how one counted) in their little group were standing across the street from a dive bar near a truck stop about thirty miles south of Detroit. The city of Monroe, Michigan was a few miles further on, but this place had the fueling station, diner, motel, and the aforementioned bar. It was essentially the middle of the night, definitely past curfew time back in Detroit. But this wasn’t Detroit, and both the bar and diner were still hopping. From the dirt lot behind the motel where they were gathered, the group could quite easily hear the music blaring out from the bar despite the fact that it was clear across the street. How the people in there could spend more than five minutes without going deaf permanently was anyone’s guess. 

“Oh please,” Zed shot back with an audible scoff. “I’ll have you know, I get the good stuff for my hair. I could stand in the middle of a wind tunnel and it wouldn’t move. See?” He reached up as though to pull the mask up. 

One of their companions, Damarko (or the version who called himself Rabbit) quickly caught the younger boy’s hand. His voice was slightly pained. “Ah, let’s try to keep the masks on, huh? I don’t think you really wanna explain to your parents how some random person happened to get a picture of you behind a motel in the middle of nowhere at one in the morning when you’re supposed to be safe and sound asleep in Jae’s guest room.” He gestured toward the identical jumpsuit and mask he and his duplicates (who were spread out to keep an eye on things in case anyone approached) wore as well, rather than their usual Syndicate costume. “Especially not while we’re all dressed like we’re about to rob the place.” 

“Yes, please,” Jae put in while shifting from foot to foot. “I’d rather not have to explain any of this.” 

“What, no rhyme?” Lexi asked, looking that way. 

“I’m not Carousel,” Jae reminded her easily while waving a hand demonstrably in front of her ski mask-clad face. “No jester’s mask. We can’t be here as other selves. We have to be… other other selves.” Her eyes, visible through the holes, squinted slightly. “You get the point.” 

Rabbit gave a quick nod. “Exactly. We’re not here as the Minority, which means Jae pretends her power is normal telekinesis and I keep my other selves out of sight and stick to turning intangible and invisible. As for you guys… well you don’t have any public identities anyway, but like I said, you don’t want to explain to your parents what you were doing here. None of us want to have to do any explaining.” 

“Yeah, you’re right,” Zed agreed. “Mom and Dad can be pretty scary when they wanna be. But come on, are we gonna get in there and find this guy or what?” He waved a hand toward the loud bar in the distance. “There’s no way that party’s chilling out any time soon. So the only people in that motel should be the guy we’re looking for and his buddies or bodyguards or whatever.” 

Lexi’s head bobbed. “Yeah, we already came this far. If this is really the dude who sold phony IDs to guys who tried to kidnap us from Jae’s house, he’s gotta know who they really were. He’s the only lead we’ve got. So let’s get in there and find out what he knows!” She punctuated the last couple words by slamming her gloved fist into her hand. 

Instead of responding immediately, Rabbit held a hand up for them to wait while cocking his head to the side. “Okay,” he finally murmured after getting a report from his other selves, “looks like the entire back is clear. They’ve got one guy in the night manager’s office watching wrestling in front, the first floor is empty, then two guys on the second floor playing cards by the stairs on the east side. Our guy’s door is three down from them, and he’s watching TV with some girl.” 

“At least he’s not doing something else with the girl,” Lexi noted. “We’re not even old enough to legally watch R-rated movies without adult supervision yet.” She waited for the others to look at her before snickering. “And I don’t think Mom would understand if I called to ask her permission to go in that room.” 

Snorting despite himself, Rabbit agreed, “Yeah, that might turn into a whole special conversation none of us want to have. So let’s be grateful for small favors, and try to avoid any extra attention, okay?” He waited until the other three nodded, before turning back to look at the motel. “Quick and easy, without letting anyone know who we really are. Let’s do thi–what the–?!” 

Those words came as his head snapped around toward the motel. They were staring at the back of the building, but the loud roar that suddenly filled the air a second later came from the front. As did the loud crashing sound, and the following high-pitched scream. 

“What–what the hell’s going on?!” Zed blurted, spinning to stare that way with the others. 

“Oh shit,” Rabbit started, “Colt says it’s–” 

That was as far as he managed to get, before the sound of breaking glass interrupted the boy as a chair was thrown through one of the windows in the motel’s second floor. Another roar came, before a figure hurled himself out through the opening, sprawling out in the dirt. 

Behind the panicked, window-diving figure, an enormous reptilian figure came crashing through the same opening. Or rather, part of the opening. The figure was too large for the actual size of the window frame, so it took out part of the wall on every side as well. The ground seemed to violently shake as it landed heavily, sending dirt and debris flying. Then it loomed up, its form illuminated in the glow from the distant lights. 

With a blurted curse, Lexi reared back her hand with one of her glowing ‘eggs’ that would transform anything hit by it into light and send them flying off in a direction of her choosing cupped in it. She started to throw, before Jae stopped her. 

“Wait! That’s… that’s…” 

******

“Mars Bar!” Up inside the motel room where the identity forger had been a second earlier, Pack grimaced at the enormous hole where most of the wall had been a moment earlier. The bear-lizard would be fine, of course. It was only a one story drop. But still, seeing her reptilian partner slam through like that was enough to make her wince. 

Broadway, straightening up from where she had just finished ensuring that the man’s two bodyguards weren’t about to cause any problems, spoke brightly. “Well hey, the job was to chase him out of the motel, and I think we managed that. Thumbs up to us.” Even as she said that, the sound of someone whimpering in the corner caught her attention. Looking that way, toward the woman their quarry had been watching the movie with as she huddled on the far side of the bed, Broadway waved. “Hey, don’t worry. We’ll bring your boyfriend back safe and sound. We’ve just gotta talk to him about a fake ID he sold to some shit-ass murderer, that’s all. I know he looks scary, but Mars Bar is a big old softie. Your guy’ll be fine.”

Despite her efforts, the reassurances probably weren’t very helpful, coming from a figure in dark-purple power armor with a helmet that had a V-shaped visor across the front with multi-colored lines that danced wildly whenever she spoke.

“Guys!” That was Eits, coming through the open doorway at a sprint, out of breath. He blurted, “There’s people down there with Mars and the guy! People in masks!” 

“What?!” Both girls blurted that together, looked at each other, then ran to the broken wall to see what the hell was going on down there. What they saw was Mars Bar calmly standing with one paw holding their quarry gently yet firmly against the ground, while four people in masks stood around him clearly arguing with each other. Mars Bar wasn’t attacking them, but he was growling low, making it clear that any attempt to approach would be a bad idea. 

On top of that, the bear-lizard was joined just then by Holiday, who had been prowling through the bushes as backup just in case they chased the guy in the wrong direction. Now, the panther-lizard stalked up next to her friend and bared her teeth at the strangers. 

“Hey!” Without wasting another second after shouting that, Pack jumped through the hole. As she did so, Scatters came charging up in her reindeer form and leapt, catching the girl on her back before landing smoothly. Perched on her mount, Pack came up on the opposite side of Mars Bar from Holiday. Her attention was focused on the four masked figures. “Who the hell are you guys? Cuz if you’re trying to rob our little friend here, boy do you have shitty timing.”

With a sharp whistle, Broadway used the sound waves to teleport down next to them. “Yeah, dudes. All you had to do was wait like thirty minutes and we would’ve been done with him so you could clean out his wallet or whatever. We’re not trying to horn in on your territory.” 

“Our territory?” one of the figures, clearly male and young, blurted. “Wait, we’re not–” He stopped as one of the female figures stepped on his foot. 

“What are you guys doing here?” the other male figure quickly put in. He stood there, gaze snapping back and forth between the lizard-animals and the two Fell-Touched. “Aren’t you usually up in Detroit?” 

“Hey, they do know who we are!” Broadway exclaimed brightly. “Look, like I said, we’re not trying to barge over your territory or anything. This isn’t an expansion. We just need to chat with this guy here for a few minutes, find out what he knows about something pretty important, then we’ll be out of your hair.” The last thing any of them wanted to do was accidentally start some sort of gang war with an unknown group down here and have them blame Blackjack for it. 

The second girl, who hadn’t stepped on the boy’s foot, took a small step forward. “We need to talk to him too. It’s…” She paused as though considering how much to say. “It’s important.” 

“Is it, now?” The new voice came from directly behind the four black-masked figures, as Grandstand revealed herself. When they twisted around and separated to try to look at both her and the group in front of them at the same time, she continued. “Believe me when I say, whatever you want to get out of this guy isn’t nearly as important as what we want to get out of him. But we can all come to an arrangement. Just back off for a minute, let us have a–”  

“Wait!” The new interruption came from Eits, his second in the past couple of minutes. Rather than jump from the second floor, he had run out and around to come down the outside stairs, and was now stumbling into sight while panting even more. “There’s guys coming! Lots of guys, they just pulled up! Guns, big guns, maybe powers too. They’re still getting organized but there’s a lot of them!” 

Producing a shotgun seemingly from nowhere, Grandstand pointed it at the group in front of them. “Friends of yours?” 

“What?” the girl who had stepped on the boy’s foot to stop him from talking earlier blurted in disbelief. “No, they’re not with us! We’re not–I mean we’re really–uh.” 

“It doesn’t matter,” the second boy, who seemed to be in charge, immediately put in. “Your friend over there is right.” He nodded toward Eits. “There’s about three or four truckloads of guys out there, and they’re all armed to the teeth. And before you say it, there’s guys back that way too.” He gestured toward the dark woods behind them. “They parked on the dirt road over there and they’re spreading out to come this way. They’re trying to trap us between them. And don’t ask how I know all that.” 

From his place on the ground, the man they had all been after started to laugh. “Yeah, you stupid fucks! Thought I was just a helpless little bitch, huh? Well I’ve got friends too, people I hook up with anything they need, and they’re about to whip the shit outta you cocksuckers!” He got that much out before his words turned to a terrified noise as Mars Bar pressed very slightly down on his back and growled to remind the man of his immediate situation. 

Without hesitating even for a moment, Grandstand spoke up. “Okay, sounds like they’re here for all of us. So we’ll just have to work together. We can figure out who gets first dibs to talk to our friend here later.” She nodded over her shoulder. “I can handle the guys coming up behind us before they get close. Will uhh…” She paused, frowning just a little while looking at the three La Casa Touched. “Will you guys be okay with this side?” 

“Oh, we’re good,” Pack assured her. “Especially with our new friends here. Err…” Blinking that way, she slowly asked, “Do you guys have… any weapons at all?” 

Before the others could respond, the first girl piped up. “We’ll be okay. Actually, can you explain something to your lizards so they won’t freak out too much?” She asked that while raising both hands, holding two glowing silver egg-shapes. 

“Cuz I know how we can scare the shit out of those guys.” 

******

From his position up on the roof of the motel, Colt-Syndicate stood in plain sight to look down at the people who had just shown up in the parking lot. He was invisible at the moment, so they couldn’t see him anyway, and standing up like this gave him a good view of the whole group. They didn’t look like any organized gang he had ever seen, given the random assortment of flannel, army camo, or just random sweatshirts. But they were definitely working together, and they were heavily armed. Whatever or whoever they were, these guys meant business. 

He was relaying all the information he could to Rabbit, while Armadillo did the same for what he could see of the group coming up through the woods behind the motel. Puma was on the far side of the street, watching the group below from behind while keeping an eye out for anyone who might come out of the bar.

If they had to, all four Syndicates would reveal themselves. It would give away who they really were, even though they all wore the same masks and black jumpsuits. The fact that three of them were always intangible, and could only be seen as blue-gray ghost forms, would make that obvious. But if necessary, they would do it. Making sure they all got out of this alive was more important than keeping their involvement secret, no matter what that meant. 

Colt’s main job right now, however, wasn’t to reveal himself and the others. No, at the moment, his job was to aim. Well, he and Rabbit working together. They judged the exact distance needed, the appropriate angle, everything necessary to have the best… impact. 

After one more minor adjustment, Rabbit announced, Okay, I think we’re good. 

Holding his index fingers and thumbs out in the shape of a rectangle together, Colt slowly nodded. The group of whoever they were had just finished having whatever very brief discussion they were having, and were turning to head up to the motel. All good, but they’re coming, so do it now, now! 

On the far side of the motel, the others did their part. An instant later, two streaks of light came flying through the motel. They were intangible, doing no damage to the building itself. But immediately after clearing the building, Lexi’s power wore out as planned. Which sent Mars Bar and Holiday flying into the assembled group before they could so much as register the sudden appearance of bright lights. The panther-lizard crashed into two of the men, knocking them to the ground before catching hold of another man’s waistband in her teeth to yank him down as well. 

And yet, those three were the lucky ones. A dozen more went down as a flailing Mars Bar slammed into them. Six of those were sent flying into the side of one of their trucks before collapsing in a heap, while the other six were scattered along the ground. 

Just like that, of the roughly thirty men who had rolled up and started to head into the motel, fifteen were on the ground and had absolutely no interest in getting up again. Which left another fifteen still standing, for the moment. 

But that moment didn’t last long. Even as the men who hadn’t been knocked over reacted to the sudden arrival of Mars Bar and Holiday, the others all came flying through the building as well. Lexi had given everyone an egg and told them to crack it against their chest. Now they were right in the midst of the suddenly-overwhelmed group. 

One man pivoted and raised his gun, only to take the butt of a shotgun to the face as Pack struck him hard. As he stumbled, she fired the gun at a second man, hitting him in the chest with a beanbag round. 

A third guy was trying to lift his own shotgun, just before Zed lunged at him from behind and managed to trail a hand down the man’s arm and leg. As he did so, his power activated, creating a solid-light duplicate of the guy’s shirt and pants. In this case, however, the duplications didn’t move. They remained frozen in place, trapping the man in solid hologram copies of his clothes so he couldn’t raise the weapon or move at all. 

The fourth and fifth men were sent flying across the street and off into the next field as Lexi hit them each with another couple eggs. At the same time, the sixth man flinched as Zed reared back, only to blink as he realized it was only a rock in his hand. Yet the boy used his power again just as he released it. And in this case, he didn’t create only a single copy, nor did that copy stay where it was. Instead, he created fifty copies at once, sending all of them flying into the man until he was practically buried under solid-light rocks. 

By that point, the seventh and eighth men had managed to figure out they were under attack, and even brought their weapons up properly. But Rabbit materialized behind them (he had shifted his solid-form over to Puma briefly so he could turn invisible and get in position), catching first one, then the other with one of the Minority-issued tasers that would actually put people on the ground. 

All of which left three men out of the initial thirty still standing. But before they could do anything else, a cloud of dirt, rocks, bricks, chunks of asphalt, and other bits of debris crashed into them. They were blinded and pummeled repeatedly until they dropped to the ground and covered their heads. Jae, making sure she sent objects flying before they had time to expose her identity by shrinking down and orbiting her, walked forward with her hand outstretched. 

Finally, as the whole group of suddenly-ambushed men were trying to decide if they wanted to risk clambering back up to make a real fight of it now that their opponents had lost the element of surprise, Broadway stepped right into the middle of them before pointing both hands toward the trucks they had shown up in. A near-deafening crack of thunder blasted from the speakers on her suit, and all four vehicles were torn off the ground by the kinetic blast before being sent flying a good fifty feet through the air. They crashed down into an assortment of broken parts, several wheels rolling off out of sight. 

The men, those who were conscious enough to make any decisions, chose to stay on the ground. 

We still good, guys? Rabbit checked in with his other three selves. Only once he had gotten the affirmative did he exhale. “Okay, I think we’re–” 

“Well, I took care of my targets,” Grandstand announced while coming around the corner of the motel. “I sure hope you’re all–ah. I’m impressed.” 

She was here before, Colt noted. She has no idea we’re here so she didn’t use her power on us. She’s pretending to be surprised, but she was watching just in case something went wrong. 

Yeah, Armadillo confirmed from his own position in the woods. She was done with these guys right when you all started your thing. Pretty sure she ran back there to keep an eye on her friends. Wait, are they friends now? Is Grandstand part of La Casa? 

That started a whole discussion amongst the others. But Rabbit was focused on the people who weren’t his duplicates. “Is uhh, is everyone okay?” 

“I’m not.” A small, weak voice announced as a shaky hand rose. It was one of the men who had shown up. He was pinned underneath one of Mars Bars’ paws. “I think… I th-think I need to change my pants.” 

“Might wanna think about that the next time you start shit,” Pack informed him. “Mars Bar, Holiday, if any of them try to get up, bite them somewhere they’ll remember it.” 

“And how’s our other friend doing?” Grandstand asked, gaze focused that way. 

“Twinkletoes has him,” Pack assured her. “All we’ve gotta do is grab him and get out of here before more of these chucklefucks show up.” She glanced over her shoulder toward the still-loud bar. “Or they stop serving alcohol over there.” 

“Great,” the woman replied before turning her attention to Rabbit, Lexi, Zed, and Jae. “Well, I dunno who you guys are, but you were pretty useful. And a promise is a promise. So, let’s get out of here together. 

“Then we can take turns smacking answers out of that asshole. It’ll be a blast.” 

This storyline will be continued at the end of the next arc. 

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Interlude 25A – Sterling And Elena (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – There is a non-canon focusing on a young Paige actually attending poor Anthony’s birthday party back in the day, available for everyone right here

“Well that was almost a disaster,” Sterling noted as he sank into the jacuzzi attached to the master suite that he and his wife shared. A low, pleased groan escaped him as the jets went to work massaging his strained muscles. His eyes closed and he tilted his head back to stretch out. Thankfully, he had all the room in the world to do so. The tub was large enough for twelve people to sit in comfortably, though it only ever saw two. 

The Jacuzzi’s other user, Elena, joined him a moment later. Sitting next to her husband, she gently and fondly rubbed one of his shoulders. “Better a near disaster than a certain tragedy. You made the right choice, don’t question it now.” She was well aware of what that tone of voice meant, and wanted to head it off at the pass. “These things happen sometimes. We know that.”

Opening his eyes, Sterling glanced that way. “It could have been a hell of a lot worse. If Paintball hadn’t helped Amber and Izzy get away from that crowd so they could call in the rest of the Minority, and if the rest of his team didn’t show up…” He trailed off before a heavy sigh escaped him. “The entire point was for the Conservators to arrive and drive those people off before they could actually hurt anyone.” 

Elena’s head shook slightly. “To be precise, the actual point was for Miss Sidorov to believe she was in danger so she would accept the presence of our people to keep her safe. To make her believe that, the danger had to be realistic. I believe our newest Fell-Team accomplished that quite well.” There was a slight edge to her voice, despite her actual words, however. It was obvious that she, like the man himself, was thinking about the far more personal risk that had been involved with that whole situation. 

“Quite well indeed,” Sterling pointedly replied with a nod of agreement. “And yet, somehow Cassidy ended up hiding ten feet away from danger again. It was bad enough at the hotel when she had to hide in the bathroom. But with this? This was our fault. Those people attacked the park because we wanted them to. If they’d killed anyone there, or if any of them had hurt Cassidy…” His face twisted a bit at the thought, hand clenching into a fist. 

Taking that fist and smoothing it out gently, Elena gently kissed his fingers. “They would all pay, quite harshly. But she is not hurt, Sterling. You remember the rules that were laid out for them in the first place. None of their hostages were to be seriously harmed. Cassidy may have been in more actual danger by hiding and potentially surprising one of the men than she would have been had she simply stayed with the others throughout the ordeal. Amber and Izzy would have kept her safe.” She considered briefly before adding, “I believe that situation might have actually prompted Izzy to reveal her powers to Cassidy. So she knows she can be safe with her.” 

Shaking off that thought, she focused on her husband once more. “In a perfect world, the plan would have worked flawlessly, with no adjustments or issues. But this world is very imperfect, my love. Of course I would rather you not have had to choose between following our plan as written, or interceding in the fight between Deicide’s people and Cuélebre’s at the mall. I am not saying otherwise. What I am saying is that I believe you made the best possible choice. Again, Janus, Juice, and the others had their instructions about not harming the people there. They know the penalties for violating those hard rules when we give them. But the fight at the mall was not our doing. It occurred entirely naturally, with none of our rules in place. If you had not taken the Conservators there and put an end to it, many more people would have died. Children, Sterling. Children would have died. To say nothing of the situation with Miss Rafferty at the police station. Both of those had to be brought back into some semblance of control.” 

Once again, Sterling sighed. “You’re right. It was the only thing that made sense. We had to trust that Janus and the rest of that gang would follow the rules. But half of them are new to the city. We don’t know them as well as we know the rest of the gangs. I wasn’t sure how much we could trust them to follow our rules. No matter how daunting of a first impression we made on them. That’s why this whole thing was supposed to be a test. A test with safety bumpers.” 

“Instead, it was a test without the bumpers,” Elena finished for him. “One we all survived. You made the right choice in going to the mall. And, while a bit… I believe scruffy would be the right word, the situation at the park did resolve itself correctly. Miss Sidorov has accepted our aid. We will take what we learn from that and use it to remove Errol’s connection to that safe so he can never be used to open it.”

“And you still think I made the right choice?” Sterling pointed out with a glance that way. “If this whole thing had gone wrong, we would’ve lost our best chance of doing that. If the Scions figure out who Errol is and manage to get to him before we can deal with that, a hell of a lot more people will die than anyone who was at that mall. Can you imagine the horrors Pencil and his sister would inflict on this entire city–hell, the entire state— if they had control of all the puppets in that safe? To say nothing of what they could do if they used that to find out about the Ministry. I saw the children at the mall in the middle of that gang war and I chose to save them. It worked out this time, but if it hadn’t, if–” He cut himself off, grimacing visibly for a moment before his voice continued a bit more softly. “It was a risk, and it could have backfired spectacularly.”   

“It could have,” Elena agreed. “But it did not. And if we spent minutes reexamining every way in which moments could have gone differently, we would lose years to our doubts. You saw children in danger and chose to save them, Sterling. If you continue to berate yourself about that choice, I shall have to find a way to hurt you. Perhaps by informing Simon about that gray hair–” 

“Don’t,” Sterling quickly interjected, holding up his free hand in surrender. “You win. I’ll let it go, promise.” Shifting a bit to look at her better, he offered a slight smile. “And I suppose things did work out after all. Thanks to Paintball, again. Maybe we should put that boy on the payroll, considering how much help he’s been.”

“Don’t think I haven’t considered something like that,” Elena shot back, poking the man in his nose. “It’s not the first time I’ve wished we could go back and start off our relationship with the boy on the right foot. Not that I blame Simon for what happened. He did what he was supposed to do, given what he knew. And yet…” It was her turn to sigh. 

With a chuckle as he took hold of her still-extended hand and squeezed it, Sterling pointed out, “Don’t forget, no spending minutes reexamining moments. You said yourself how quickly that can get out of hand. We keep moving forward as best as we can, making the choices we have to make and living with them. Now, where’s the remote for the tub? 

“I want to see just how good those upgrades to the massager setting are.” 

******

Several hours later, after getting a bit of sleep, Sterling was roused from his slumber by the buzzing of his personal cell phone on the desk next to their bed. He glanced toward his still-sleeping wife before quietly slipping out from under the blanket. Picking up the phone, the man rose as stealthily as possible and began to make his way to the door while glancing at the screen. There were only a few people whose calls his phone would actually vibrate for while he was asleep, so the list of who this could be was short. And sure enough, the name on the screen was Alcazar’s civilian identity. Face twisting slightly at the thought of what could have prompted this call, he carefully stepped out of the room and allowed it to close behind him. Only then did Sterling answer the phone, speaking in normal voice rather than a whisper considering the soundproofing would ensure Elena wasn’t disturbed. 

“What happened?” 

The answer came immediately, in a completely flat voice that told Sterling nothing about what was actually happening. “One of our friends at Channel Nine sent over an early copy of the report they’re working on that’s supposed to go out in a couple hours. I’m shooting it to your system right now. Believe me, you’ll want to see this.” 

Slowing very slightly, Sterling took that in. This clearly wasn’t a worst case scenario. There were code words for that, ways to sound the alarm. Whatever was happening, the Ministry hadn’t been exposed, neither–none of his children were in mortal peril, the city wasn’t burning down. But it was important enough to call like this, and public enough that it would be on the news. 

Without saying anything else for the moment, given he was certain Alcazar wanted to wait until he knew what was going on, Sterling took a few steps to the next room. It was one of his offices. He stepped inside and told the television to switch over to the private system they used for this sort of thing. Immediately, a picture of a shipwreck in front of an island came into view, along with a voice over that was clearly some sort of aid or production assistant reading off a script. This was a half-finished piece, not quite ready for actual air.

So, why was he watching the rehearsal of a news story about a boat crash? Why would Alcazar have woken him up for this? Frowning a bit, Sterling kept watching. And in a few moments, he had his answer. 

“Fuck,” he murmured under his breath while staring that way. Breakwater? If the claims in this unfinished report were true, then that was where the long-missing Trivial and Flea had ended up. Which… did make a sort of sense considering how impossible it had become to track them down, but still.

Irelyn Banners. Not that she was named in the report, but he was able to read between the lines. There were only so many sufficiently important women in the city who were currently missing and whose locations he wasn’t aware of. The list was short to begin with, and the very few details the report gave would have been enough to narrow it down even if the whole Flea thing hadn’t been included. The fact that it was meant there was never any question in his mind about who they were talking about. 

And yet, much of the report was utter nonsense. Flea and Trivial had not been sent to secretly rescue Irelyn. If they had been, he would have heard about it from about three or four different directions and identities. It didn’t matter how secretive the supposed mission had been, he would have known. So his first instinct was to dismiss this entire thing. 

And yet, why? Why would someone make this up out of nothing? Obviously the news that an innocent person had accidentally ended up stranded on Breakwater, and that two Star-Touched had gone in to rescue her before disappearing as well, would be big news, putting it mildly. People wouldn’t just take the word of an anonymous source. The media outlet wouldn’t be getting ready to run the story, not without some confirmation of their own. The picture on the screen had just shown some boat wreckage near a random island that could have been anywhere. The only reason the news would have actually run with the story was if they had some reason to believe it was true. And that meant–

“There’s more,” he noted simply. 

“Yes, sir,” Alcazar confirmed. “Whoever sent all that to about four different news stations, and posted it on a few different websites, also sent a more… detailed bit of evidence to the Conservators and the Spartans public relations boxes, and to Ten Towers as well. I took the liberty of pulling the files from all three, but they’re identical. The most important bit is that the files include the GPS location of the wreck, and it fits the location for Breakwater.” 

Sterling was quiet for a moment as he absorbed that. The people behind this knew where Breakwater was, and that wasn’t a secret that was easy to get. So there must have been at least some element of truth to it. 

How in the hell had something like this happened? Obviously, the news didn’t have the full story. There was no way that Flea and Trivial had actually gone to Breakwater to save Irelyn after she accidentally ended up there during a shipwreck. Among several other reasons for why that was impossible was the fact that Irelyn was Flea.

She had gone to find her missing parents. Trivial went with her, and the two of them had made it to Florida before disappearing. And now, according to this, they had somehow ended up on Breakwater. How? What was the connection? 

Wait. Pittman. Pittman’s little bio-machines were running around while he was still on Breakwater. He had to have had some sort of help here in town, someone providing resources. Could that have been the Banners? Hold on… Paige. Paige had ended up with a lot of information about the Ministry. That had always been a mystery, but what if the Banners had been working with Pittman, providing him resources? Then he, in turn, provided them with information about the Ministry. Information that was in their house for Paige to stumble across, considering how much time she spent in that place. That would explain how she’d found out enough about the Ministry to start digging deeper, how she’d gained access to those files. 

That answered a lot, actually. 

In any case, if this was true, Irelyn and Trivial had ended up on that island together somehow. And now whoever had leaked these pictures and the story to the news was trying to get public attention on the situation, without exposing Irelyn’s identity. 

But why only avoid spoiling her identity? Was it because they didn’t know who Trivial really was? No, that couldn’t be it, because there was no reason to claim that there should be three people to be rescued from the island instead of two. That just complicated matters. It would have made far more sense to simply refer to Flea and Trivial without ever mentioning Irelyn. 

For a moment, Sterling was baffled. Then he realized. There had to be more than one person involved in this, and at least one of them didn’t know that Irelyn and Flea were the same person. Whoever was actually behind this was trying to thread the needle of getting help for Flea and Trivial without exposing to the world that Flea was Irelyn, and without exposing that same fact to whoever they were working with. This other person or people must have known that Flea was there and that Irelyn was there, but didn’t know they were one and the same. That sounded complicated and dangerous, so why wouldn’t they simply tell these other people the truth? 

Was this Paige? It was clear by this point that the girl knew her way around computers and was good at the spying game. Better than she should’ve been. Especially if he was right about her finding out about the Ministry from her parents. If she had found out the truth about what happened to her adopted sister and had recruited someone to help to expose that fact, but didn’t want her new allies to know the whole truth… but who would she have gone to for help? Most of the groups in the city would have reached that information back to the Ministry long before it ever got this far.

There were a few options, of course. Paintball’s new group, Avant-Guard, was a possibility. But Sterling didn’t think they could pull something like this off. Not on such short notice. If Paige had gone to them for help–why would she? What could they give her when it came to getting anyone off of Breakwater? Not to sell them short, but nothing, really. If Paige had discovered the truth of where her sister was, why would she go to them for help? 

Then there was the fact that, when asked about what she knew when it came to Irelyn’s disappearance only recently, she’d claimed that the only information she had was that Irelyn had left to go find their parents. Parents whom Paige herself had only left shortly before that. Their father had taken her and his wife to go hide from some mysterious enemy. A mysterious enemy that Sterling was beginning to believe was supposed to be the Ministry itself. He and Elena were the enemies the Banners were hiding from, and they didn’t even know it. Then Paige convinced him to let her come back here to go to school again, but by the time she arrived, Irelyn was already gone. 

The simplest answer, of course, was that she was lying about some or all of that. But the agent who had been sent to speak with her was very good at picking up lies, and they believed she was telling the truth. It didn’t completely prove anything, but did muddy the waters a bit. 

Maybe it wasn’t Paige. But his instincts told him she was involved. This whole thing was meant to force Breakwater to admit they had Flea and Trivial, and send them home. That wasn’t necessarily one hundred percent proof that Paige was part of it, but… yeah, he thought she was. In some way or another, at least. 

Maybe he was thinking about this from the wrong direction. What if it wasn’t that Paige had learned what happened to Irelyn and had then gone to another group, but the other way around? What if some other group had gone to her with that information? If they knew that Irelyn was on that island and that Flea and Trivial were as well, but thought that Irelyn and Flea were different people… hmm, that was possible. They might have recruited Paige with that, but… why? And who would have found out where Flea and Trivial were, and that Irelyn was ‘there as well,’ but didn’t know two of those were the same person, and would have recruited Paige to help them? And help them what? Hold on, he was missing something here. 

Wait a moment. Another thought came to Sterling, and he told the computer to shift away from the frozen half-finished news footage in order to bring up a few files and memos he wasn’t exactly supposed to have access to. Sure enough, there it was. One of the principle investors in three of Ten Towers’ member companies was Aaron Banners, Irelyn and Paige’s father. He was still something of an outsider from the group itself, preferring to build his own legacy. But he had access others didn’t. Access that could give someone very important information, such as everything they knew about the murder of that reporter, Jolene Iverson. 

Grandstand. She could have accessed the information about what happened to Flea and Trivial at any of the little hideaways Pittman probably still had around here. She and Broadway were working together. But they also had help from Eits and Pack. Those four had shown up to the police station today to stop Jennica, so they were clearly in close contact. Between Grandstand’s power and Eits’, they could have discovered just about anything.

Obviously, they found out the truth and decided to pull Paige into things in order to get access to her and Irelyn’s father. Which, by extension, would grant them his access to all the information Ten Towers had about the murder of Setrea’s friend. It made sense and fit this situation. Or at least as much as anything did.

“Minister?” Alcazar prompted, interpreting his intake of breath. “Do you have something?” 

“Maybe,” Sterling replied. “I’m going to wake my wife and explain what’s going on. Do something for me in the meantime, would you? 

“Send messages to Cuélebre and Blackjack to give us everything they know about Grandstand, Broadway, Eits, and Pack.”

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