Amber O’Connell

Exhibition 25-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay, this was bad. But on the plus side, one benefit of these guys being so good at drawing attention was that no one happened to be looking my way. They were very focused on the two Fell-Touched (three? two and a half?) who had just made themselves known alongside all their Prev gang buddies. I took advantage of that by dropping the tray of nachos and water bottles onto a nearby table before throwing myself sideways toward one of the nearby tents. I dropped down and rolled under it to get inside and out of sight.  

This was one of the refreshment tents. There were stacks of coolers full of ice and soda in the corner, and I managed to drop behind that spot while taking my phone out. Immediately, I sent an SOS text to Wren, Paige, and the others, before also sending an emergency alert via the Doephone with the new recognition code that Silversmith had given us, along with sending a text to the phone number he’d given me too. I figured others were already doing that, but it couldn’t hurt, especially with that code. I also called Amber, while sticking my earbud in. While the call was connecting, I was already tugging the bag that Wren had given me out of my pocket. In the background, there was a lot of shouting. It sounded like the gang assholes were spreading out to start forcing people together into a group. Juice was bellowing demands, and there were a couple shots. But it sounded like they were just shooting into the air. 

Abruptly, the call connected. “–gonna get away with any of this, you know?” Amber’s voice was saying. 

“Uh huh, sure,” another voice replied. “Now shut up and sit there before you get hurt, babe.” 

Okay, great. Amber, and presumably Izzy and the others in the VIP tent, were already being held. Which meant they couldn’t reveal their powers without exposing their identities. For now, at least, they couldn’t help. Not until someone helped get them away from those prying eyes.

I also couldn’t talk to Amber, since I was pretty sure she had just hit the accept call button on her phone and left it in her pocket. At the very least, I would’ve been very surprised if these guys had willingly allowed her to answer it the normal way. They didn’t strike me as that polite. 

Leaving the call connected so I could keep listening, I shook out the bag and made it restore the contents of the other one. Specifically, my costume. While everyone outside the tents were shouting and running past, I hurriedly changed into that. It was almost the fastest change I’d pulled off in my life, topped probably only by that time I’d had to get out of my costume and into my dress back at that hotel while my dad was about to come through the door. 

From what I could hear through the phone connection, these guys weren’t robbing Amber and the others. They didn’t seem interested in anything other than keeping them under control, which seemed strange. If they weren’t here to rob the people in the VIP tent at the very least, why had they come in the first place? Between that and the fact that they were openly attacking a skating demonstration, none of this made any sense. There had to be something else going on. 

At least one of my questions about what they were doing was answered as a voice spoke up from just outside the tent I was in. A voice that made me freeze up in the midst of pulling my helmet on. It was Mister Harmful, snarling an order to one of his subordinates about ‘finding that Ukrainian cunt before the Stars arrive and this whole thing goes tits up.’ 

Wait, Inessa? They were here for Inessa? Why? Just because she was famous? Did they think they could hold her hostage for some sort of payout or something? What the fuck? She was pretty important, and several companies had a lot of money invested in her, so maybe it was that simple? 

One thing was for sure, like hell was I just going to sit around and let them take her. Yeah, I’d been ready to stop these guys before when I thought they were just here to rob people or whatever. But now? Now it was personal. They wanted to hurt the girl I’d idolized since I was in second grade? Fuck every single part of that. Now I was really gonna make these guys regret ever showing up here. 

I uhh… just wasn’t exactly sure how to do that. Especially considering I was all by myself out here, for the moment. But I definitely couldn’t just wait until help arrived. Wherever Inessa was, these guys would’ve found her by that point. I had to make sure that didn’t happen. 

Unfortunately, I didn’t know where she was either. But I did know where these guys were, which meant my best way of dealing with this was to distract them long enough for reinforcements to show up. 

To that end, I took a few seconds to put as much paint over myself as I could manage. If I was going to do this without getting myself or anyone else killed, I had to be ready. Before long, my entire suit and helmet were covered inside and out. I also reached down and found a few small rocks on the ground. I was going to paint them white and maybe use them as a distraction. But at the last second I realized it would probably be a good idea if they flew faster too. Green and white together. Fast rocks that would glow. That had to be useful, right? At least to catch someone’s attention. So, just as I was focusing on making white paint appear, I also thought about adding some green lines. 

It worked. Most of the rocks were white, but they had some green swirls mixed in. Weirdly, however, when I looked closely it seemed like the green was sort of bleeding into the white. They weren’t smooth lines, it was more like they were blending together. 

Weird, but whatever. I didn’t have time to focus on that. Not when I could already hear more and more complaints and demands. It sounded like they were rounding up all the civilians and making them stand together in the middle of the skate park’s bowl. Which was a pretty good choice, all things considered. The ‘bowl’ was actually four impressions in the cement, each about ten feet deep and shaped like a four-leafed clover all together. With everyone down there, squeezed into that space, they would be easy for just a few people to watch over. While, presumably, everyone else looked for Inessa. 

Seriously, how had she managed to stay hidden for so long? Was she actually part of that crowd, blending in somehow? She was famous, but it was possible. It wasn’t like she was a movie star or whatever. If she had a hat on to hide her distinctive blue hair, maybe she could stay incognito for awhile. Or maybe she was hiding somewhere like I was. 

Before I could focus too much on that, I heard another voice. It was Juice, snapping something to one of his subordinates about securing the perimeter, and that ‘the others’ wouldn’t be able to delay the Stars for that long, so they better hurry the hell up. Their voices faded as they kept moving. 

Locking my fully-painted helmet into place, I pushed myself up just as my phone buzzed a few times. The first was an answering text from Peyton, letting me know she was grabbing the others. The second and third were responses from the authorities and my dad (as Silversmith), confirming that they were sending reinforcements. Unfortunately, that didn’t include an ETA, and at least according to what I had just overheard, they were going to be delayed. 

The fourth thing wasn’t a text. It was an incoming call from… from Ryder? Seeing that, I blinked before disconnecting from Amber’s phone. It wasn’t like she could talk to me anyway, not without people noticing. Ryder on the other hand, if he could do something with his mites…

Sure enough, as soon as I connected, an electronically-generated voice spoke. “Paintball. Can help direct you through cameras, tell you when someone is behind you or where to move. Can hear you through connection with Mite if you speak.”

Eits. Eits could help me. He was here, he knew who I was. Even standing in a group, he could still use his mites to control the electronics that he’d already infected, and apparently he’d done so with the cameras surrounding the park. Honestly, I couldn’t blame him that much. Especially not now.  

“Got it,” I whispered mostly under my breath, hoping the phone would pick it up. Janus had moved on from being right outside, but I knew there had to be other guys relatively close at any given point as they ran around searching the place for stragglers. 

So, I had Eits in my corner, playing… well, the Eye in the Sky. He was gonna be doing the same role he did as a member of La Casa, only he’d be doing it for me this time. I was just going to have to hope that between the two of us, we could pull this off. If I screwed it up…

Pushing aside that thought, I focused. If I needed their attention on me for a while in order to protect Inessa from whatever bullshit they had planned, then by God, I was going to get their attention. Which meant I was going to have to piss them off. Thankfully, I was pretty good at pissing people off. Especially when it came to my old pals Janus. Would they remember me? I was pretty sure they remembered me. 

And hey, if they didn’t, I’d be glad to remind them. 

******

“Wait, two guys talking to your right.” The electronic voice was talking in my ear as I crouched by the exit to the refreshments tent. Eits was apparently able to track my phone well enough to know exactly where I was, and coordinate that with the view he could see through the mix of various security cameras and the ones that had been set up to broadcast the event. 

Closing my eyes, I focused on what I could feel. There were three tents in this area, including the one I was in. The one straight across from this one was fifteen feet away, with an opening flap that was about four feet further to the right than this one. The other, smaller tent was next door. I could feel tables and chairs in that one, and figured it was some sort of autograph tent or something. Or maybe a command tent for the organizers. The opening flap of that one was perpendicular to these tents, facing the skating area itself, where most of the people were. Which made sense. These were the supply tents, they didn’t need everyone to see them. Whether the smaller one was a command tent or a place for Inessa to sit and sign autographs, facing the public area was just logical. 

All that passed through my mind, before the voice spoke up again. “One guy left, twenty feet to your right. Still looking your way, so wait. Wait… Go.” 

Immediately, I rolled out of the tent, staying low to avoid any other attention. Sure enough, one of the Prev thugs was there. He was faced away from me, as promised, with a shotgun held to one side. He was holding the thing loosely by the barrel, with his hand nowhere near the trigger. 

Bringing both hands up, I hit the guy with a shot of black paint from one and red paint from the other. While he started to turn upon feeling the impact of the paint, I hit the ground in front of me with a spot of red, yanking the guy off his feet. The black paint kept him silent, and I hit the gun with another shot of red as he dropped it, yanking it to my red glove. 

The man hit the ground in front of me, still flailing and trying in vain to shout. I quickly tapped the guy’s shoulder to plant a red star there, then held the tent flap aside while activating that bit of red, plus the one I’d left on the ground in there. Immediately, the guy was sent flying that way, landing between a couple of the stacked coolers. Looking both ways to make sure nobody had noticed, I took the gun with me and quickly moved to the guy, hitting him with another small shot of black to keep him quiet a bit longer. Then I went for the longer way of keeping him quiet. Namely, by grabbing one of the many Inessa-themed merch bandanas from a nearby box. Activating a line of purple stars down my arms, I drew back my foot before kicking the guy as he tried to scramble to his feet. As he went down, I dropped on top of him and stuffed the bandana in his mouth, then wrapped another around the back of his head to keep it in place. He was struggling, but I had leverage and strength over him. Enough, in this case, to flip the guy over and use several more tied-together bandanas I had prepared to secure his wrists and then his ankles. I left him there, shoved back behind the same boxes I had been hiding behind earlier. He was still making a little bit of noise, but it was doubtful that anyone would hear him. At least, not until it was too late anyway. And Eits would be able to tell me if anyone came this way.

Speaking of whom, according to him, Juice and Janus were mostly playing overseers. They were simply standing out of the way, ordering their thugs this way and that to search for Inessa. They were too important (or lazy) to do the searching for themselves. And I could use that right now. Instead of following my first instinct and just throwing myself into plain view to draw their attention, I was going to even the odds a little bit by dealing with as many of the separated Prev thugs as I could. Then we’d see just how much I could piss off my old pals. 

As I reached the entrance to the tent once more, I spoke quietly. “Positions?” 

There was about a five second pause, before the electronic voice returned. “J and J still by the pit. Three armed guys around that. One guy by soda and hot dog truck three hundred feet behind tent, past more trucks. Watching road for anyone coming. Two guys together one hundred and seventy feet ahead of tent, searching in and under staff vehicles. One guy one hundred feet to the left side of tent, looking through port-a-potties.” 

He kept going like that, giving me detailed locations for every person here. The guy by the bathrooms was the nearest, so I focused on him. Telling Eits to warn me if anyone else came close, I grabbed some more bandanas, shoved them in my pocket, and activated a bit of black on my shoes before running that way. 

Twice, Eits warned me about passing guards who could have looked over and seen me. Each time, I managed to duck down out of sight before they could. Then he warned me not to go one way because two guys were standing in plain view together. So I slipped around behind a parked trailer, heading the long way around toward the back of the port-a-potties, where my target was still carefully opening each door in succession. I was close enough by that point to hear him muttering to himself as he closed another door none-too-gently. 

Pressing my back up against the side of the one he was moving to next, I waited until I could hear the door open. Then I stepped around, putting myself directly behind the man as he scanned the empty space within. A shot of black paint into his back assured that no one would hear him, as I activated a series of purple X shapes across my stomach and gave the guy a hard shove from behind. He fell forward, while I snatched the gun out of his grip. Before he could recover, I hit each of his shoulders with a shot of red paint, then added two quick shots to either side of the toilet hole. Activating those meant he was yanked down hard onto his knees with his face basically over the hole. Probably not the nicest position to be in, but on the other hand, these guys were assaulting innocent civilians at an Inessa skating event, so fuck them. 

The guy was still flailing, but the paint was holding him down. Before any of it could wear off, I grabbed one of my strings of bandanas and wrapped it around his neck, before pushing one end through one small air hole in the back of the port-a-potty and back through another one, tying both ends off like that to hold him in place. 

By that point, the black paint was about to wear off, but before his shouts could attract anyone, I shoved another makeshift gag into his mouth and tied that off as well. Then I whispered, “How popular do you think you’ll be with your buddies if they find you facedown in a port-a-potty like this, dude? Think you’d ever live that down? Or would your nickname be Port-A-John from now on?” 

He froze briefly, clearly considering that as I went on. “And just so you know, if I start hearing you make a bunch of noise, I’ll just have to tip this whole thing over. You wanna think about how that’ll go for you in this position?” 

Again, the man didn’t seem eager to find out. So I patted his shoulder a couple times. “Hang out here for a bit.” Then I stepped out, closing the door behind me. From the outside, everything looked fine. I took the man’s pistol and hid it under the john for the moment. 

From there, using Eits’ directions, I made my way to the parking lot where a couple more guys were searching vehicles. Rolling underneath a truck, I watched until they separated to go around either side of one aisle. While their backs were to each other, I hit one in one foot with black paint, and the other foot with red. A second later, he was yanked down and hauled all the way over to the truck where I was waiting with active purple paint to pull him out of sight. Soon, he was tied and gagged as well, with his wrists secured to the exhaust pipe of the truck as he lay on his face. 

The next guy eventually came around the side, looking for his buddy. Before he could find anything, I hit him as well and had him in the same position under the opposite truck. The two men could see each other, grunting with annoyance through the gags. 

And so it continued. One by one, I made my way through the outskirts of the skating park, securing as many of these random goons as I could. It would’ve been impossible without Ryder’s help, telling me exactly where and when to go to avoid being seen. All the while, I could hear the Fell-Touched guys growing more and more annoyed by the lack of progress. They had not, however, noticed that their men were disappearing. Not yet, anyway. 

Finally, there were no more I could easily get to without being seen by others. Which meant it was time to move on to phase two. Or rather, phase three. Phase two had been getting Inessa out of sight, but she seemed to have handled that on her own, because I still couldn’t find her and Ryder had no idea where she was even with his camera view. 

Just as I had that thought, Mister Harmful bellowed in the distance, “Okay, enough of this! Hey cunt! You either come out now, or lose some fans. Let’s say six to start, huh? That sounds fair! You got five seconds to show yourself! One… two…” 

Without missing a beat, I went sprinting that way, using green paint to speed myself up. Just as I came around the corner, I used a blue square on the ground to launch myself high into the air, activating a pair of orange criss-crossed sword shapes on my back for protection. At the same time, I aimed down, sending a spray of orange protective paint over the assembled hostages just as I went sailing past them. 

“Dude, you can count to five?!” The blurted words escaped me as I landed in a crouch on top of a lamp post that was meant to illuminate the skating area. “Well, that’s one bet I lost. If you can multiply, I might have to get a part-time job to pay off those losses.”

Quivering with rage as he glared up at me. Mister Harmful snarled, “Ohhh you little fuck.” But it was both him and Uncle Friendly who shouted together, 

“Kill that piece of shit!”  

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Exhibition 25-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Thankfully, the curfew had been relaxed somewhat. Now we were able to stay out until nine pm without getting in trouble. I wanted to think that that was because the streets were safer now, but honestly it was probably the product of a lot of people and businesses complaining about losing money by having to shut down so early. There was no way Deicide was going to let this gang war end like that, and between that and this whole Scions business, I had absolutely no doubt that things would get a whole lot worse before they got better. But for now, there was nothing any of us could do about it. Besides, it wasn’t like we didn’t have our own situations to deal with.

And speaking of situations to deal with, Paige and Sierra weren’t done editing those pictures to their satisfaction by the time the evening rolled around. So, after sending them a text to let me know if they wanted to meet up later to look at their work (not that I would’ve been able to contribute anything more than an encouraging thumbs up), I went to the park with Izzy. The two of us left without letting my parents know where we were going, mostly because none of them, Simon included, had been home at all the whole day. They were busy, apparently. Something told me it had to do with the attempted attacks on Fragile as well as Carousel and Syndicate. Which, good, the Ministry ought to do something about that. Or maybe it had something to do with whoever had planted those bombs at the party Amber went to. She’d told me about that too, though it felt like she had been leaving something out. 

Either way, we were here now. I had my board with me, because there was no way I would be able to resist the urge to get some of my own skating in either before or after watching the master. And I definitely wasn’t alone with that. As Izzy and I walked through the park toward the main attraction, I could see at least half the onlookers had boards of their own. 

There was also a stand near the road selling both full boards as well as separate wheels, trucks (the metal t-shaped piece that goes on the bottom to keep the wheels attached), and decks. Most were the usual tourist trap garbage marked up to get suckers. But there were a few good ones in there. We stopped and I looked over the selection to help Izzy find a board that would work for her to start out. I had her take a couple options out to roll along the pavement to see which one felt the most natural. Once she settled on something, I picked up the board to look at it. The deck was pretty cool. The centerpiece was a dark-haired angel, with one of her intricately-detailed feathery wings spread out over the bottom half of the board, while she held a gleaming sword out over the top half. 

Izzy tried to pay for it, but I stopped her. It was my idea for her to try this out, so I gave the guy a couple hundred for the board, plus another hundred for the protective gear, and we started to walk away. Just as we were turning, however, I heard a guy nearby snort, “Stupid chicks, man.” 

Looking that way, I saw a guy about an inch or two under six feet, with a thin blond goatee and long hair. He looked to be maybe two years older than me, and was wearing a black tank top with dark baggy shorts. A couple other guys were around him. 

“What?” I asked, unable to stop myself. 

Looking me up and down, the guy gave a soft, derisive laugh before shaking his head. “Nothing. You go have fun pretending you know anything about real skating. I’m sure your TikTok fans think you’re totally cool.” 

I blinked a couple times. “Dude, what the fuck are you talking about?” 

The guy had started to turn back to say something to his friends, and now seemed annoyed that I had asked any follow-up questions. He gave me a dirty look. “Look, all you babes are the same. You see Inessa getting famous cuz she’s like the one fucking chick in a million who knows which side of the skateboard goes on the ground, and you want in on it. You roll around on a board for a few minutes, do some slick editing to make it look like you’re not total ass, and put it online so all the simps out there can drool all over it and throw donations at you for doing jack squat.” 

Absorbing that for a moment, I retorted, “Well, when it comes to things that are total ass you are probably the expert.”

“Oh fuck off, kid,” he shot back. “What’re you, like thirteen? Mommy bought you a skateboard instead of an Easy Bake Oven and now you think you’re cool? Every little bit of space we guys have, girls think they have to barge in and take over. How’d you like it if we started barging into your spaces?” 

The words blurted out of me before I even thought about it. “If our spaces includes the shower, I think everyone stuck in your immediate vicinity would be A-Okay with you spending some time there.” 

Yeah, the guy didn’t like that. He snapped, “Why don’t you come back and talk again once you figure out if you’re a guy or a girl.” 

That… that made me rock backward on my heels, confusion flooding me. Wait, he didn’t know about–wait. “What?” I managed, feeling Izzy touch my back. 

His hand waved, gesturing to my head. “Long hair on one side, short hair on the other. Are you a girl or a guy? At least in a few years once you grow more than bumps there you won’t be able to pretend anymore.” 

His words, especially as he gestured toward my chest, made his buddies snicker. I was already balling up my fist and starting to move, when Izzy caught my arm somewhat subtly, stepping next to me. “We should go,” she murmured before adding, “Looks like you scared him enough already.” That was added with a not-so-subtle gesture downward. 

“Scared? Who’s sca–what?” The guy looked down, his eyes widening as he saw the large wet spot across the front of his shorts that Izzy had just surreptitiously put there while everyone was distracted. His hands moved to cover it, even as the others around him, including his buddies, started laughing. “That’s not–fuck–shut up, I didn’t piss my–fuck you!” 

Izzy and I both used that opening to leave, even as the guy’s words about me choosing to be male or female played through my head. He was an asshole and a moron, obviously, so I should’ve just ignored him. There were always going to be people like that. It didn’t… it didn’t mean anything.

“Thanks,” I murmured toward Izzy. 

She hesitated, then just squeezed my hand. “He had it coming.”

Thankfully, I was quickly distracted as we slipped through the crowd by the sound of a gasp going up around us. It made my whole body tense as my gaze jerked around to see what was wrong. My brain immediately leapt to all sorts of possibilities. Including the not-so-terrible thought that the guy back there had just spontaneously combusted. 

In this case, however, there was no threat. Instead, I saw Inessa emerge from the crowd. Seeing her, my heart leapt. God, she was so cool. Even now, walking through the crowd full of people staring at her, she was cool. And the way she grinned when she saw me was just… god, what was wrong with me? Was it weird that I just wanted to stand there and giggle like an idiot when she smiled at me like that? 

Well it definitely would’ve been weird if I didn’t say something pretty quick. So, I forced myself to take a step that way while speaking up. “Hey, Inessa. This is Izzy, my sister.” I gestured that way before adding, “We were just getting her a board.” 

“Izzy, hey!” Inessa stepped over to join us. “You mind if I take a look?” 

Wordlessly handing it over, the younger girl looked at me. Her mouth opened like she was going to say something, but then she stopped and just stared. The look she was giving me made me think I had done something weird. Maybe she just noticed how I was acting around Inessa. Stupid fangirl instincts. Yeah, she definitely noticed something. But what was I supposed to do? It was Inessa Sidorov! I couldn’t just ignore that! I couldn’t–I–it was Inessa Sidorov!

Speaking of whom, the woman in question finished looking over the board and then started to talk to Izzy herself about how to take care of it, how she should start learning about riding, and all that stuff. There had to be a couple hundred people standing around, craning to look at her, but Inessa was solely focused on talking to Izzy about learning how to skate properly. It was like Izzy was the only person in the world for her right then. She even convinced the younger girl to give her her phone number so she could call and check in. Then she talked to me for a minute, sharing a couple jokes with both of us (and the crowd) about the first time she started to learn how to skate in her own backyard back in Ukraine and how stupid she had been for not wearing protective gear until she broke her wrist. Then she took it seriously. She made Izzy promise to wear all the right equipment every time she did anything on the board. And got me to double-promise to make sure we both did. 

After that, she made sure we had the tickets to get into the ‘backstage’ tent, then headed off into the crowd once more, talking to someone else she had met. The group moved with her, since the people, thankfully, still didn’t know who I was. I had a lot of problems with what my parents were and what they did, but the fact that I was able to be anonymous in this crowd still meant a lot. Looking at the way everyone followed Inessa around, at how famous she was amongst other skaters and all that, it was just… it made me think about how different my life would’ve been if my parents didn’t make sure I could live my life as normally as possible. 

Finally shaking my head, I turned to ask Izzy if she wanted to get a drink, only to stop as she was still staring at me. Outside of the distraction when Inessa had been talking directly to her, I didn’t think she had stopped staring. But I didn’t understand why. She’d been looking at me weirdly for the past few minutes, basically ever since I introduced her to Inessa. But all I’d said was–

Oh. 

Eyes widening a bit, I blurted, “Uh, right, sister. I said you were my sister. I mean–I’m–that wasn’t–I wasn’t trying to assume you–I mean I know you really aren’t sure if you–I–” 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted, though she sounded a bit confused. “You weren’t… trying to pressure me or anything, I get it. You just said it. Like you weren’t even thinking about that.” 

My head shook quickly. “Yeah, I definitely wasn’t thinking, you’re right on that one. I just–I don’t wanna push you or anything. I was distracted because it’s Inessa Sidorov and I wanted to introduce you guys and–uhh, yeah.” My face was a bit flushed. “Are you okay?” 

Thankfully, now that she’d had a moment to recover from what had obviously been a surprise, Izzy seemed more amused by my reaction than anything else. She smiled just a little before nodding. “It’s okay, Cassie. You just… I wasn’t… it was new.” 

Part of me thought I shouldn’t push things, but the impulsive part took over and asked, “New, but maybe not terrible?” 

There was the slightest moment of hesitation as Izzy considered that before she smiled once more and agreed, “New, but not terrible.” She leaned closer, lowering her voice. “You really like her, huh?” 

“Inessa?” I felt my blush deepen while shifting on my feet. “She’s been my hero basically forever. I mean, the non-Touched hero.” My face darkened a little. “Let’s hope this one turns out better than my favorite Touched hero did.” I had told her about the whole Silversmith thing and how much I’d liked him before finding out the truth. It was still a bit of a painful thought. Especially when I considered the Silversmith sheets and pillowcases I’d had, and the action figures, and the–yeah. Boy, how had my dad really felt when I’d asked for all that stuff as a kid? 

Izzy seemed to read the expression on my face and changed the subject to talk about the board she had just done. Together, we walked over to one of the open skating areas and I walked her through a little bit of early practice. Before we were done there, Amber joined us. She wasn’t a huge skater herself, but she did know a few things. Together, the three of us messed around by one of the ramps. I showed them a couple simple tricks, they acted like it was a much bigger deal than it actually was and made a show of cheering just to make me blush even more, that sort of thing. It was fun. It was… nice, and it had nothing to do with any Touched stuff. I could almost pretend I was a normal person again for a few minutes. 

Okay, that wasn’t right. I didn’t want to be normal. I had no desire to be average. I loved my powers. I loved the freedom they offered, the… I loved being Paintball. But the stuff about my family, the stress over what they were and what they did, that part wasn’t exactly fun. It was nice to just shove that out of my head for a little while and focus on something normal and dumb. Even with people like that jackass back there, who really deserved a good kick in the–fuck, no, I was pushing that out of my mind and focusing on fun things. 

Of course, that couldn’t last forever. Though in this case, the reminder of my other life wasn’t exactly the worst. It came in the form of Ryder. I caught a glimpse of the boy standing off to the side, next to a much worse reminder of everything, Arleigh. He didn’t exactly look comfortable being there, and hadn’t noticed me yet. Instead, his focus seemed to be on Errol, who had just come into view through the crowd holding a couple corndogs, one of which he offered to the older boy.

Seeing Ryder had reminded me of what happened the night before, and the fact that he now knew who I was. Seeing Errol, on the other hand, reminded me of the whole Scions situation. My family had to know Errol was the one Pencil and Cup were looking for, right? So how many of the people around us were secretly guarding him? 

Aaand so much for not thinking about my family situation. That had been a pleasant few minutes. 

Still, I shook that off as best as I could. There was nothing to be done about it right now, and assuming my family did have people watching him, they might wonder why I was staring that way so intently when I was supposed to be here relaxing and having fun. So, I forced my gaze away and walked with Izzy and Amber toward the tent. Halfway there, we were met by Dani, who emerged from the crowd before stopping as she noticed the girl beside me. “Oh, hey… guys.” 

Clearing her throat, Amber shifted her weight. I could hear the uncertainty in her voice. “Hey, Dani. What’s uhh…” She coughed, again sounding strange. “What’s going on?” 

Yeah, something had definitely happened between the two of them. Maybe they kissed and now it was all awkward? That was the only thing I could think of. It definitely made sense, considering the way they kept flipping between avoiding eye contact, then seeking it out, then avoiding it. Between that and the fact that they’d clearly started to develop a thing for each other since Dani joined the school, it made sense. 

Of course, I also knew about the other complication to this situation. Pack. Pack obviously had a thing for That-A-Way. She’d made that abundantly clear. So no wonder Amber was confused about the whole thing. She probably felt guilty about having a thing for Dani too. Dani was the safe option, since she wasn’t an active criminal. But having feelings for Dani made Amber feel guilty about having feelings for Pack, and vice versa. That had to be hard to sort out. 

Boy, wasn’t it good that I didn’t have any problems like that? I might’ve had every other possible complication on the planet, but my love life was just completely nonexistent. Go me. 

It turned out that Dani had a backstage pass too, so the four of us made our way into the tent. There were refreshments, coffee, iced tea, and other stuff laid out along a table, as well as comfortable chairs to sit in facing the skating area where Inessa would be giving her show. And if that wasn’t enough, there were huge television monitors to either side providing footage from people on the sidelines, and a couple drones. So you could see the whole show from multiple angles instead of just what was right in front of you. 

Inessa was back here too, joking around with one of the event organizers. She was making a point of talking up all the dangerous tricks she was going to do, including a lot of hand gestures to show off spins and flips. I could almost see the terror in his face as he thought about what would happen if Inessa Sidorov got hurt during an event he had helped put together. Then they were joined by, of all people, Richard Mornes, the guy from Ten Towers who had given me the tour. Which, I supposed made sense. They probably had a good bit invested in this event, now that I thought about it.

Mornes was clearly easing the event guy’s nerves, while also joking back and forth with Inessa. He was good at his job, that much was obvious. He was wearing a different Hawaiian shirt than I’d seen him in before. This one was purple with yellow suns and black palm trees. 

Turning away from that whole thing, I joined the others in finding our seats, putting my skateboard on the floor so I could rest my feet on it to stop the thing from rolling away. Then I turned to Izzy, Dani, and Amber and started to regale them with one of my earliest memories of watching Inessa’s videos back when I was seven years old. It basically involved scrolling through YouTube on my tablet while laying inside a blanket fort on the outside patio, looking for something fun to watch. 

“It was funny,” I was saying, “cuz when I first saw the video list, I wasn’t even gonna click on it, but then…” I trailed off, my voice going silent. But my brain wasn’t. I knew what I was about to say. The words that had been on the tip of my tongue. ‘But then he told me to look at them.’ 

He. Anthony. The name wasn’t there, not inside that particular memory anyway. It wasn’t that specific. But I knew it had to be him. I had a fuzzy memory of a boy who had been laying with me inside that blanket fort reaching out to poke at the screen, insisting I should check out the video I had been about to scroll past. I saw his hand, heard his voice. I heard myself joke that he just didn’t want me to look at another rollercoaster video. My head, in my own memory, turned to say something else to him. I saw his face starting to come into view. 

Suddenly, I was doubled over in real life. A sharp, shocking rush of pain was filling my head as I groaned aloud and clutched it. Izzy and Amber were both saying something, but I couldn’t hear them. All I could focus on was the blinding pain that left me almost whimpering. 

It was gone as soon as it arrived. I found myself blinking a few times before looking up. Izzy and Amber were there, the latter kneeling on the ground right in front of me. Dani was looking over from her own seat, seeming just as concerned, and there were a few other people paying attention. 

“I–I’m fine, sorry.” Shaking my head, I swallowed. “I just need to get some air. Maybe some water. You want some water?” Even as they asked questions, I pushed myself up, waving off the concern. “Just a little migraine, it’s gone now. I’ll get some water and be right back.” To demonstrate that I was fine, I did a quick little spin with my arms out. None of them looked all that convinced, but I waved them off again and headed out of the tent. What was I supposed to say, that every time I started to get memories of Anthony back, my head felt like it was going to explode? 

Well, I could’ve told Amber and Izzy, but Dani was right there and she wasn’t involved in any of this. Plus someone else might’ve overheard. So that would have to wait. Instead, I took a short walk, passing the regular refreshments table inside the VIP tent to instead walk out to one of the vendor trailers near the parking lot. There, I stood in line, got a tray with a few bottled waters and a large plate of nachos for all of us to share, then started to head back. No way did I wanna be late for the actual show, headache or no headache. 

Unfortunately, I was only about halfway back to the VIP tent, making my way through the crowd, when a frantic shout from the sidelines made my gaze whip that way. I was just in time to see an enormous pair of hands, each bigger than the semi-trailer they were covering, lift that trailer into the air and hurl the thing toward a group of assembled onlookers. The people scattered in every direction while the trailer slammed into the ground there and went tumbling side-over-side. 

“We didn’t get our invitation!” the Uncle Friendly side of Janus shouted as their massive arms went back to normal size. The literal two-faced man (men?) stood there, accompanied by the large black man I was going to guess was Juice, given the electricity he was projecting into a ball between his hands. He was wearing a different costume than I was used to. This one was mostly black armor, with several gold lightning bolt-like designs randomly across it, and a metal bullet-shaped helmet with gold lenses over his eyes. 

“Yeah,” Juice was saying, even as a couple dozen other guys with a mix of guns, chains, and knives spread out from behind them. “But don’t worry about entertaining us. 

“We know how to make our own fun.” 

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Exhibition 25-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“And then we got to smash it all to bits with hammers!” Wren enthusiastically informed me the next morning. “It was so fun. I got to break the glass windows, but Uncle Fred said I had to wear gloves and long pants and stuff, but it was still fun! We smashed everything and then drove it out in this U-Haul truck that Uncle Fred rented, and we dumped all the pieces out on the lake!” 

It was just a little bit before lunchtime on Saturday, May 16th. Which meant I didn’t have to go to school. I did need to go see Inessa’s show that night, but for now, I was free. Well, Cassidy was free. Paintball had plenty to do. Starting with catching up with how everything had gone for the others the night before. I had just shown up at the shop a few minutes earlier, so Wren was excitedly telling me everything in between bites of a ham and cheese sandwich and chips. Her hand was waving around wildly, apparently to illustrate the way she had swung that hammer.

“Always fun to break things,” I agreed, boosting myself up with my hands to perch on the glass counter as I watched the girl with amusement. “Sorry I missed it. But you think it was convincing?” The important part was to make enough people who saw the pictures believe that it was the wreckage of a boat out on the ocean. I knew we wouldn’t fool everyone, and of course the people in charge of the island would know it was complete bullshit. But we just needed public opinion to believe that the wrecked boat was how Irelyn had gotten to the island. 

“Uncle Fred!” Wren called, waving that half-eaten sandwich. “Can you show him–err, sorry, her the pictures?!” 

“Him is fine,” I reminded her. “Let’s not get in the habit of calling me her too much. It’ll just confuse everything and risk making a mistake in public. I–” Hesitating as a weird feeling passed through me at the thought of telling someone it was okay to refer to me as a boy, I shook that off. “Whatever, it’s cool.” Talking about that made me think about the fact that Eits knew my secret, my full secret, now. And I knew his. Which was a whole complicated situation that I really couldn’t think about too much right now. Not when I really had to focus. 

Fred, who had already finished eating his own lunch/breakfast, stepped over and handed me a digital camera. “The girls, Paige and Sierra, they said they could clean them up and do the editing to put an island in the pictures. This is just for the wreckage part.” 

Looking through the images on the screen, I nodded slowly. They really had done a number on what had apparently been a pretty impressive boat at one point. I could tell that even from the shape it was in. It was barely recognizable as a boat at this point. Most of the thing was in a dozen or more different pieces, floating on water. They had taken the pictures with a drone of some sort, first from high enough up to make it clear that they weren’t being taken from another boat, and then up close enough to make out details. The base shape of the boat was still there, with the name visible in a couple of the pictures. Orcastra. Yeah, spelled like that. Totally hilarious. 

“Well you guys sure put that thing through its paces. How did Paige feel about smashing it apart?” Something told me she wouldn’t be too bothered about it, considering the reason we were doing all this to begin with and where the money for the boat had come from. But on the other hand, maybe she had good memories involved with it.

“She did most of the damage,” Fred informed me. “Her and Sierra both, really. They really went to town on the thing. I think they were working through some stuff.” 

Yeah, that made sense. I had a feeling they had probably been picturing Pittman’s face whenever they swung those hammers or whatever they used. I knew I would’ve. 

“Right, so they’re probably busy with that over at the Banners house,” I murmured thoughtfully. “I’m sure they’re good at that sort of thing, but Paige is gonna want these to be perfect before we show them to anyone. I just… I wish we could talk to Irelyn or one of the others ourselves and make sure they’re okay. And uhh, you know, let them know someone’s working on getting them out of there.” I couldn’t even imagine how bad it must’ve been to be trapped there, realize the people in charge had to know you were there, and that they weren’t going to actually help. 

Wilting a little, Wren sank back on her seat and gave a quick nod. “I’m sorry, I–I really wanna try to talk to them too, but I can’t figure out–” 

“Oh, oh no, no, it wasn’t–it’s okay.” Scooting off the counter before moving that way, I sat next to the girl on another folding chair and reached out to take her hand. “I wasn’t saying you should’ve done something. You’ve done enough, Wren. You’ve done more than–more than anyone could’ve expected. You’re amazing, really. It’s not your fault Pittman got Irelyn’s phone.”

She nodded slowly, giving me a hesitant smile before it quickly blossomed into a more genuine one. “Oh! I have something for you!” While saying that, she hopped off the chair, shoving the last quarter of her sandwich into her mouth before darting off toward the elevator. She said something about being right back, but it was hard to make out through her full mouth. 

Glancing toward Fred, I raised an eyebrow. Which just reminded me again about the fact that I was able to have my mask and helmet off in here so he could see my eyebrow. He, in turn, offered me a confused shrug. “Don’t look at me, the kid builds what she wants. I didn’t think she even had time to make anything else, considering how busy she’s been.”

Both of us sat there, waiting for a minute until Wren came back from the second floor. She used the stairs that time, bounding down them several at a time before literally using her wing-pack to fly off the last one. There was something in one of her hands, but I couldn’t make it out yet. “I made it when I was fixing the teleporting thingie for Murphy and Roald!” 

With that, she landed in front of me, grinning widely while holding up what looked like a small leather bag with a drawstring. It was like one of those bags to hold a marble or dice collection. “Open it, look inside!” The kid was practically vibrating with excitement. “I fixed the last parts last night after I helped beat up the boat! Look, look, look! Er, I mean, please look.” 

Well, okay then. Taking the bag, I pulled the drawstrings apart and peeked inside. Then I blinked. “Uh, I don’t know how to tell you this, Wren, but the bag’s empty.” I held it out for her to see too. 

Rather than seeming distressed or confused by that, the girl giggled. “Pull it shut again and then push the little button thing on the end of the string for three seconds.” She was definitely vibrating with excitement, her eyes eagerly snapping back and forth between the bag and me. 

As instructed, I pulled the drawstrings to shut the bag. Then I inspected them more closely. Sure enough, what I had thought was a simple bead on the end of one of the strings had a tiny button on it. I pressed that in and held it. “What’s supposed t–oof!” 

That last part was because the bag was suddenly larger, and heavier. Not dramatically heavier, but still. It went from being completely empty and maybe five by seven inches, to being a couple feet and clearly not empty. 

“It stretches!” the kid helpfully informed me. “I uhh, I didn’t make that, I bought some material from somebody else for it. But the other part is me. The stuff is inside the fabric, I sewed it in! You can probably find it if you pull it apart. Uhh, don’t pull it apart, please.” She added the last bit quickly. “Then I’d have to fix it.” 

While she was saying all that, I squinted at the larger bag and pulled it open. Inside was… a pair of pants, a shirt, two old mismatched shoes, and a baseball cap. “Hold on, is this–” 

Clearly unable to hold it in anymore, Wren clapped happily. “It’s a teleport bag! I made the basic parts when I was testing the teleport system on the suits for Murphy and Roald. It’s easier to teleport stuff that isn’t alive, especially if one of the locations is always the same!” Her hands waved wildly as she almost tripped over her own words in her rush to explain. “There’s two bags, they’re connected. When you hold the button like that, it swaps contents. See, you can leave your costume in one bag so you don’t have to carry it around with you. Take the empty bag in your pocket. When you need your costume, you hold the button, and poof! Your costume shows up. You can change, then put your normal clothes in the bag and hold the button again, and they’ll show up in the other bag until you’re ready to change back into them!” 

Okay… okay, wow. My eyes widened a bit as I took all that in, staring at the random clothes in the bag before looking back to Wren. She was staring at me so excitedly, so proudly, that I couldn’t help but giggle as I grinned right back at her. “Dude, that’s awesome. That would’ve been so useful when… well, a few times. Now I don’t have to try to finagle a way to go home to get it, or carry it around in my backpack.” And boy was that a load off my mind. The fear I’d felt whenever I carried the costume with me, that someone would look in my bag, never really went away. But if I had this thing and anyone looked at it, they wouldn’t think anything about it. This was amazing. 

“I’ll make some for the others too,” Wren quickly put in. “That was just the first one, and I thought you should have it. Cuz, you know…” She squirmed a bit on her feet. “It’d be really bad if your family found your costume. Worse than it would be for the others.” 

“Well, I’m not sure Peyton would survive her mom finding out what she does,” I pointed out mildly. “But she kind of manifests her own costume with her powers anyway.” 

I went into the bathroom to change from my costume, which I was still wearing aside from the mask and helmet, into my street clothes. Then Wren showed me where the other bag was, up in a safe area in her lab. We put the costume inside that one, and I spent a couple minutes practicing with moving it back and forth between the two bags. Well, I guess it wasn’t really practice after the first time. It was more playing with it. But hey, it was really cool.

Tucking the currently-empty bag into the pocket of my jeans (seriously, the thing could just fold up very small when it didn’t have anything inside), I gave the kid a thumbs up. “Seriously dude, that’s amazing. I can’t even–thanks.” 

Now Wren looked self-conscious, shaking her head. “I-it’s no big deal. I just wanna help and that was–it was sort of extra. Like I said, I was mostly just working on making the suits teleport with people inside them and I had to practice with things that weren’t alive. I umm, I thought it’d be useful for this sort of thing.” 

“It definitely is,” I confirmed with a smile as I patted my pocket. “But I guess I should head out for now. Paige just texted to say they’re gonna be at that for the rest of the day before they’ll be satisfied that it’ll pass inspection. 

“And apparently That-A-Way wants to tell me something pretty important.”  

******

“Somebody tried to kill Fragile.” 

Absorbing the ‘pretty important’ thing Amber had wanted to tell me as the two of us sat in the back of a diner, far from anyone who could overhear, I stared at the other girl. “I–what?” I couldn’t have heard her right. Unless–my eyes widened. “One of the Scion–” 

“We’re not sure,” she admitted in a quiet voice. There were dark circles under her eyes. “All we do know is that someone convinced the guy who was hired to drive her home to plant some sort of device in the car that…. uhh, let’s just say it got really, really hot in there. Industrial grade furnace-level hot.” 

That made me gape some more, barely comprehending what she was saying. “You mean someone was trying to melt her?” The shock of that made me physically reel backward a bit. 

Amber grimaced, glancing away. “We don’t know if it would’ve worked, but yeah. They tried. And something tells me it wasn’t just idle curiosity about her defenses.” 

“They were literally trying to kill her,” I managed. “What–that has to be Pencil and Cup, or one of their auditions. No way would the Ministry okay something like that. Never.” I flat out refused to believe that my parents would give the go-ahead for Fragile to potentially be burned to death in a furnace. That absolutely had to be someone operating without their permission, and the Scions were the only ones I could think of like that. Besides, it just sounded like their sort of thing. 

“That’s definitely what we’re thinking,” Amber confirmed with a heavy sigh. For a moment, she started to say something else, then seemed to catch herself. Instead, she shook her head and muttered a curse. “There was another attempted attack, this one on Carousel and Syndicate. We weren’t sure if it was intentional or not, but considering this attack…”

“Whoever’s behind this, the Scions or wannabe Scions, they’re targeting the Minority.” Finishing that for her, I dropped my gaze to stare at the half-eaten food on my plate. “That’s bad.” 

“Tell me about it,” the other girl muttered before adding, “But I’m also supposed to tell you to be careful. Well, you and everyone on your team. They don’t know if this is someone targeting the Minority or someone targeting juvenile Touched. Either way, just… watch out, okay?” 

My head bobbed before something else occurred to me. “I’ll add it to the list of things I’m paranoid about. But wait, you said they tried to kill Fragile in an impromptu car furnace. How’d she get out of it, blind luck?” 

Coughing, Amber shook her head. She couldn’t respond yet, however, as the waitress came by to ask if we needed anything and to refill our drinks. Only once the lady was gone and we were sufficiently alone did Amber meet my gaze and whisper, “Deicide saved her.” 

Okay, that made me do a double-take, shifting in my seat before hissing, “Did you just say–” 

“Deicide, yeah,” Amber confirmed. “Apparently they were like… talking or something before that. Somehow Deicide figured out what was going on and stopped Fragile from getting in the car.” 

“Uh, does that sound suspicious or am I just paranoid?” I pointed out a bit weakly. 

Amber’s head shook. “No, you’re right, it probably would be suspicious. But we know Deicide is on the good side of the Ministry. She plays by the rules. No way would she risk that by pretending to put Fragile in mortal danger. For what purpose? What would be the point?” 

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But she has to be pretty pissed off right now about what happened with her own people betraying her right when they were about to beat Cuélebre. She really seems to have it out for that guy. Maybe that pushed her over the edge?”

Amber considered that before shaking her head. “I don’t think so. What does putting Fragile in danger and then saving her get her, really? Maybe the Ministry would forgive her for overstepping a little if she goes after her traitors, but… I’m pretty sure they’d already do that, and they’ve okayed her war against Oscuro.”   

“Fair,” I agreed thoughtfully. “Maybe I am just a little too paranoid. But how did she figure out Fragile was in danger?” 

“Apparently the guy had a note in his pocket about it,” Amber informed me. “Seems like Deicide… read it before she could see it?” 

Absorbing that, I made a face. “That would fit with her making books talk, but if that means she can read things around her from a distance, I… we probably shouldn’t keep anything written down when we’re around her.” 

“I don’t plan on being around her at all if I can help it,” Amber pointed out. “But yeah. That could be dangerous.”

Great, another thing for me to worry about. With a sigh, I poked at my food. “Okay so she just talked to Fragile for some reason, noticed the attempted attack, and saved her. That still leaves the problem of who started targeting the Minority and knows enough about them to do something like that. If it’s one of the Scion wannabes, does that mean they’re someone with connections into the Minority base? Like one of the cops or security people, or an officer worker, or–” 

“There’s a few options, yeah,” Amber muttered, looking out the nearby window with a frown. “They’re working on figuring that out. And I’m pretty sure your parents are throwing their own stuff at it. This can’t be good for their business.” 

We talked a bit more about that, though she seemed a little distracted, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t just the Scions/Deicide/Fragile thing. Finally, I asked, “Are you okay? I mean, besides all this stuff.” 

Looking up from her phone, Amber flushed guiltily before nodding. “No, yeah, no, I’m good. I’m fine. I just–I uhh, it was a long night. Long day. Long everything. I…” She shifted in her seat. “It feels like I’m keeping a lot of secrets lately.” 

Wincing, I gestured. “I’m sorry. I mean, you’ve gotta keep the whole Ministry thing away from the rest of your team. That’s gotta be hard.” And speaking of secrets, I was keeping the one about who Ryder was from her and everyone else. 

“Yeah, it…” Amber looked away, swallowing visibly before turning back to me. “Let’s talk about something else. You’re going to that Inessa show tonight at the park, right?” 

My head bobbed. “Yup. I promised Izzy I’d take her with. Should be pretty cool, as long as we don’t get stuck near Arleigh again.

“And hey, speaking of cool, wait til I show you the bag Wren gave me…”  

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Interlude 24B – Dani And Amber (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The following continues directly from Commissioned Interlude 12, where Amber and Dani learned one another’s true identities. 

The second after Amber took in the revelation of just who Pack was under that mask, and before she had really processed it (considering that part would take quite a bit longer), voices just outside the stairwell made her shove the helmet she was wearing as part of her costume at this party back down. She wasn’t sure why exactly, given no one else would necessarily connect her to Pack, unless– “Get Holiday out of here!” She hissed. Now wasn’t the time to focus on any of that. “Downstairs, that way, go!” 

There was a brief second of hesitation, as Pack–Dani–Pa–as she looked like she might object, considering the dangerous man still lying there nearby. But the approaching voices were getting louder, so she scrambled up and ran down the stairs. Holiday chased after her, and before the man could get up again, Amber was there. She had grabbed a steak knife from a table, and practically fell on top of him, putting the knife up to his neck. “Don’t move.” 

In that moment, as Dani and her lizard companion vanished further down the stairwell, the nearby door opened and two police officers, clearly assigned to keep an eye on the party, came in. They stopped short, one of them blurting a curse while grabbing for his radio, while the other demanded to know what Amber was doing. He also ordered her to drop the knife, starting to pull the pistol from its holster. 

“It’s okay!” Amber blurted. “I mean, Therapists Appreciate Westerns.” As soon as she gave the code, the man’s radio informed him that Amber was connected to the Star-Touched in some way. It wouldn’t necessarily mean that she was Touched, just that she was trusted by them. The abbreviation being TAW wouldn’t even prove she was That-A-Way, because every person given one of those codes was provided one using the abbreviation for a team or person they were most likely to be linked to. In other words, many girls who fit her general description of ‘older teen female’ and were given an emergency code like that used the TAW abbreviation for it. 

The second they had confirmation that she could be trusted, the two men relaxed marginally. “What happened here?” one demanded. 

“It’s a long story,” Amber replied, pushing herself up a bit. She took the knife away from the man’s throat now that he wouldn’t have a chance to escape. “We need to get everyone out of here, but first, you need to get people out on the nearby roofs and buildings. Look for a sniper, or… or something.” 

“A sniper?” The older cop repeated, staring at her in surprise. 

“Like I said, it’s a long story.” Amber looked down at the man on the floor. “It’s been one of those nights.

“And it’s not over yet.” 

******

As it turned out, it really wasn’t over. Amber spent the next two hours working with the police and the Ten Towers Touched who showed up to deal with the situation once they used a remote that turned out to be in the pocket of the man in the stairwell to disable the cell phone jammer. They found one guy on a nearby roof with a rifle, but were pretty sure he wasn’t the ringleader. That particular person seemed to have gotten away for the moment. 

On the other hand, everyone was safe. That whole situation could’ve been a hell of a lot worse. The bombs had apparently been implanted inside the walls using some sort of device to turn those walls intangible for a brief time, at some point before guests started arriving. The guy she and Dani had caught in the coat and phone room had been making the rounds to ensure they were all still primed and ready before detonation, considering the whole ‘embedded inside the wall’ thing was kind of sketchy technology. And if those things had actually detonated… Amber didn’t even want to think about it. 

What she did want to think about, on the other hand, was… Dani. The other girl had vanished from the party completely as far as Amber could tell. Which was okay, because she really didn’t want her to end up being picked up by some cop who couldn’t look the other way. Amber had told them that she didn’t know who was behind the mask, just that Pack had shown up, probably to steal something, but changed her mind when she found out about the danger everyone was in and ended up helping. That should’ve been enough to give the girl a pass for this situation, but there was always the chance that someone might be a dick. 

And… and wow. She really, truly did not want Dani to be arrested. Yes, she was a thief. She had stolen things, but… fuck. It was complicated. Or maybe she just wanted it to be? Dani broke the law, she was actively a member of a Fell-Touched gang, damn it. Was Amber’s reluctance to see her as a bad person because of some actual gray area, or her own personal feelings for the girl, or because of the whole Ministry situation? 

Most likely, all of the above. But the main question was, did that actually matter? Was it enough to excuse not saying anything to anyone about Dani being Pack? For fuck’s sake, she had just helped save a whole hotel full of people. And before that, the very first time they’d worked together, she’d helped save most of a children’s hospital. Those bits by themselves should earn her some leeway, right? 

Everything had already been so confusing. Now this? The revelation that Dani from school and Pack from… from everything that wasn’t school were actually the same person left Amber feeling like she was floundering out in the ocean. Her legs were kicking, she was treading water, but she could sink at any moment. She needed something to hold onto, something to be certain of, and she just didn’t know what that could be. Every thought she had could have been wrong, every time she thought she’d come to a decision, she dismissed it. She couldn’t trust her own feelings or thoughts. She couldn’t trust… anything. 

“Well, that was an event, wasn’t it?” 

The voice came from behind Amber, as she stood on the roof of an old tire shop several blocks away from the hotel where the party had been. That place was still being swarmed by the authorities, but she’d eventually managed to excuse herself, claiming she was going to go home and rest. Instead, she had come here, sending a text to Dani’s phone about where she was going to be. 

And now, here was Dani herself, just stepping off Scatters the lizard-reindeer. She was in her actual costume rather than the one she’d worn to the party. Amber, meanwhile, had simply changed into street clothes. 

For a few long seconds, the two of them stood there staring at one another. It was clear that neither of them knew exactly what to say to the other. A couple of times, one of them made a noise as though to speak, but no actual words came out. There was so much going through their minds that was impossible to sort through, even now, hours after the fact. Both of them had thought that they were ready for this, but being here in the moment was different than thinking about or planning for it. This was… a lot. 

Finally, Dani reached up to push her hood down and pulled the mask off. She blinked that way a couple times before pushing the mask into her pocket. Still, she said nothing, simply looking at Amber with an expression that was more uncertain than any the other girl had seen on her face before. Her voice when she had first arrived had been casual, but it was the faux sort of casual. It was rehearsed, and now everything else she had planned to say had completely vanished, from the moment their eyes met. 

It was Amber who eventually broke the silence. “An event? Do you mean the part where me, a bunch of other people, and a girl I… liked sort of almost got blown up? Or the part where another girl I liked showed up and helped me stop the bomb even though she’s a criminal? 

“Or maybe you mean the part where both those girls turned out to be the same person.” 

Swallowing, Dani kicked her toe against the building roof before offering a weak shrug. “Yeah, take that whole thing, flip it around a little bit, and that’s basically where I’m at right now. You know, the whole, one girl you like, another girl you like, and poof they’re the same person. Which, in most cases, you’d think would simplify the whole situation, but not here.” She snorted and leaned back to stare up at the sky with a muttered, “I guess we’re just special that way.” 

“Special,” Amber echoed, following the other girl’s lead in staring upwards. The two stood there in silence for a moment before she spoke again. “Yeah, we’re special. So special that I’m supposed to arrest you. I mean, you’re a criminal. You’ve helped a lot with–with all that other stuff, but you still rob places, you steal things. You help Blackjack and all your other teammates. And you’re not gonna stop doing that.” 

Another couple seconds of silence passed before Dani lowered her gaze from the sky to look at Amber directly. Her voice was quiet. “No, I’m not. I don’t mind helping out when it matters. You know, stopping the real bad stuff from happening. But I’m no hero. I’m a criminal. I’m a thief.” 

“And I’m stuck trying to figure out if that even matters anymore,” Amber replied before taking a few steps over to the raised portion of the wall around the edge of the roof. Slumping down to perch on that, she added, “Sure seems like it doesn’t, considering I’m basically already working for criminals. The Ministry decides whether to let crime happen, and how much of it we’re going to be allowed to stop. Maybe not every single thing, but enough of it. The big things. It’s all a big game or something. And if I play the game the way I’m supposed to, by the rules, I have to turn you in. Which is something I should want to do.” 

Dani waited for a few seconds, then moved over to sit down as well, several feet away. “Because I’m a thief and you’re a hero. I steal from people and you protect them. And now you know who I really am, so you could definitely get me arrested. It wouldn’t take that much, not with the record you’ve got. They’d take your word for it, enough to take me in and do a search of everything I own and everywhere I’ve been.”

A derisive snort escaped Amber, as she turned a bit to look out over the parking lot below them. “You know why it’s so hard for me to see ‘little crimes’ as not that big of a deal? I mean, yeah, you’re not actively murdering people or kidnapping children for ransom or whatever. But do you know why it’s been… difficult for me to agree with your, ‘not that bad’ sort of criminal thing?” 

“Because of your dad,” Dani immediately confirmed. “He was hit by a joyrider, someone who stole that guy’s car and rode around in it. The cops told you they were pretty sure it was just an accident. Whoever did it wasn’t targeting your father, or anybody. They stole the car to screw around in and your dad just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.” 

Amber’s eyes closed briefly before she nodded, turning slightly to meet the other girl’s gaze once more. “When you say you don’t hurt people, I always hear a ‘yet’ in the back of my head. You don’t want to, you don’t mean to, you don’t… you aren’t setting out to kill anyone. But neither was the person who hit my dad. Whoever they were, they were just out stealing a car to have fun, and they still killed someone, a completely innocent person.” 

Once again, silence reigned between the two for a few long seconds. Each was lost in their own thoughts, sitting several feet apart while considering the truth of that. Finally, Dani shifted around, sitting on the edge of the roof with her feet dangling off. “You’re right,” she agreed. “Just because I’m not planning on hurting people like that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. But there is a difference between me and whoever hit your dad. If it was me, I’d fess up to it. Killing an innocent person like that, I…” She trailed off, shoulders lumping a bit before her voice softened. “I couldn’t live with myself. I wouldn’t be able to let that go and run away from it. I know it’s easy to say that, but–” 

“I believe you,” Amber interrupted before Dani could push on. “I know you, Dani. I mean, maybe I didn’t know everything. I didn’t know you were Pack. But I know Dani, and I know Pack. And now I know you’re the same person. But the most important thing is, I know you wouldn’t be okay with killing someone like that. You’re not a monster. If you accidentally killed somebody, you would turn yourself in, because you wouldn’t be able to ignore it. You’re a thief, but you have a conscience. And that’s part of the problem.” 

Her words made Dani blink in confusion. “Me having a conscience is a problem?” 

“No, I mean yes, I mean–” Stopping herself, Amber sighed while running both hands back through her hair so she could clutch the back of her neck with interlaced fingers. “If you accidentally kill someone, you’ll turn yourself in, and I won’t be able to… I won’t be able to help you. You’ll be gone, and I don’t want–I don’t want you to be gone.” 

“And that makes you feel even more guilty,” Dani guessed. 

“It does!” Amber blurted with a quick, emphatic nod. “It’s stupid, I mean, it’s just… every time I think about turning you in, or doing anything I’m supposed to do, I feel sick in my stomach. They’d take you away, they’d lock you up. I don’t want that. I don’t want you to accidentally kill anyone, and I don’t want to turn you in, and I don’t want you to–damn it. I don’t want you to go away. And on top of all those feelings, I still know that this whole thing doesn’t really matter. We can’t stop all the crime in the city, the Ministry won’t let that happen. And right now the one specific criminal I could stop from doing more crime is a girl I like!” 

After those last stammered words, Amber stopped talking. She sat there, a few feet away from Dani, while both of them looked out at the cars below. When she finally spoke again, her voice was soft enough that it was almost inaudible. “I kind of expected you to make a joke about this whole thing by now.” 

“No,” Dani replied flatly. “Not right now. Not about this.” She folded her arms against her stomach. “It makes me feel sick too, you know. Thinking about you not talking to me anymore, or me having to go away. Not just to prison, but… but just not spending time around you anymore. I thought about what would happen if ‘Dani’ had to disappear. If I told Blackjack you knew my identity, he’d pull me out of that school so fast both our heads would spin. He’d get me a new civilian identity. There’s millions of people in this city, it wouldn’t be that hard to disappear. All I’d have to do is say the word and I’d be safe, as a completely new person. But…”

“But you wouldn’t go to our school anymore,” Amber finished for her. 

Dani took in a long breath before letting it out slowly. “Yeah, I wouldn’t go to your school anymore. I wouldn’t be able to hang out with you. And that would suck.” She smiled very ruefully, glancing sidelong toward the other girl. “This shit is complicated, you know?” 

Amber, for her part, made a noise deep in her throat. “Tell me about it. I wish there was a simple answer, but I’m pretty sure there’s not. It’s just messy. It seems like no matter what I do–no matter what we do, we’ll be messing something up. Or a lot of things.” 

“Yeah, it does.” Dani kicked her heels against the side of the building a few times, lost in her own mind. Eventually, she added, “Maybe we should just put a pin in it and… call a truce for now. We can figure out what to do later. This was a lot, you know?” 

Amber shifted to look at her. “You mean agree not to do anything drastic either way and make the bigger decision later? I… guess we could do that. Kick the can down the road?”

“Yeah,” Dani agreed. She hesitated again, then pushed herself up and swung her legs back around to stand on the roof once more. “I should probably let you get back before somebody misses you or wonders where you went or whatever.”  

Standing up as well, Amber nodded once. “Sure, yeah. That’s probably best. I’ll uh, I’ll head out then. I won’t say anything about–you know. I won’t tell anyone. We can talk about the rest of it later.” 

The two stared at one another for another moment, before turning away by silent agreement. Dani moved over to where Scatters was patiently waiting, while Amber headed for the other side of the roof to teleport away. 

“Could’ve gone worse, huh?” Dani whispered to her lizard-reindeer, rubbing her head a bit before scratching under her chin. “We should take off. I’ll get all you guys some treats, and–” Her gaze caught sight of Scatters looking past her, and she turned reflexively. 

Amber’s hands caught her shoulders, pulling her forward as she leaned in. Their lips met in a desperate, hungry kiss, before those same hands slipped off the other girl’s shoulders so her arms could wrap around Dani’s back tightly. And for several long, precious seconds, the two were locked together like that. The strength in their legs left them both simultaneously, and they slumped down together, still kissing while they fell to their knees. 

Finally, they parted, though only by a few centimeters. Their lips were still almost touching, as both girls opened their eyes to stare at one another. Dani’s voice was a whisper. “I… I don’t… what are you… Why?”

“Because fuck it,” Amber replied simply. “I thought it was hard, but it’s not. I know what I want right now. It’s you. Everything else, we can figure it out later. Right now, right here, I choose you.” Her voice cracked slightly through those last words. “You got a problem with that?” 

When Dani’s answer came, it wasn’t in words. And yet the meaning was clear. 

She did not have a problem with that.  

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Schooling 24-14 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – The non-canon for this story was posted and is available for everyone right here

For a few long seconds after that, I stared at the boy. My mouth hung open. I had no idea how I was supposed to respond to that. Hell, I’d just started to get over the shock of having found out who he really was, and having exposed my identity to him. What was I supposed to say to him somehow figuring out the rest of it? Finally, I managed a squeak, which sounded a bit like an old screen door slowly opening. That sound snapped me out of my reaction enough to find words. “H-how did you–what–huh?” Yeah, I said I found words, I didn’t say they were eloquent ones. 

Ryder quickly held up his hands. “Don’t worry, I wasn’t spying. I mean, I was spying, but not on you. I mean my spying on them didn’t have anything to do with figuring out your thing. I mean–” He stopped, taking a breath. “I should probably start over.” 

Taking a breath, I gave a quick nod. “Uh huh, uh huh, probably a good idea.” I had no idea what he meant by spying–wait, no, yes I did. Arleigh’s family, duh. He had been sneaking around their place and breaking into their fathers office. Why he was doing that, I had no idea. He’d said it wasn’t for Blackjack or La Casa, that he was working on his own. Which… yeah, I still had no idea what that was about. But my main focus was on how he knew about my family. 

Still keeping his hands up, as though he was either trying to calm me down or surrender, Ryder started again. “Okay, so I didn’t know the whole truth until we were in the closet–actually it was after that. I mean–right. After we got out of the closet downstairs in the kitchen, I was thinking a lot. I mean, about everything. If you were Paintball, that meant… I didn’t know what it meant, not at first. But I was thinking about it that whole time we were finishing dinner, and right up until you showed up here on the roof. And I realized that your parents running the Ministry makes everything else make sense. Everything about how you reacted to everything, I mean.

“You’re so desperate to keep your identity secret. I know you don’t really like it when people think you’re a boy at your school. That’s what the others were saying, anyway. When we were at the skatepark, I mean. Even Arleigh said you don’t like that, and if she notices something, it’s either wrong or really obvious. And I was pretty sure she wasn’t wrong. So you definitely don’t like it when people at your school call you a boy, but you pretend to be a boy in costume? That didn’t make any sense to me, unless… unless hiding your identity was more important than that. And the people you’d be most likely to want to hide your identity from are your parents. They’d probably be the first to figure out who you were without the boy thing. And why would you want to hide from your parents that much? Because they’re the Ministry, the people you’ve been trying to investigate. Which I uhh, picked up from some of the things Pack said or asked about before.” He finished up with a slightly awkward smile and shrug. “See, not spying. Just… thinking all that through.” 

Oh boy, how was I supposed to react to that? Wait, I knew. “How did you know about the Ministry?” I asked that flatly, watching his expression for any sign of lying or making up a response. “I’m pretty sure that’s not the sort of information Blackjack gives out to every member of his gang.” 

Snorting audibly, Ryder shook his head “No, trust me, he doesn’t.” He took a moment to glance away, a myriad of emotions playing out across his face, before he slumped against the wall. Then he told me the full story about the mysterious group who had helped him get through his transition. It wasn’t just Blackjack or La Casa responsible for that. Some guy from this mysterious group, who went by Squire (Simon, of course, though I kept my mouth shut), had actually saved him from a few assholes and made sure he was safe. Later they asked for help with something else. Something that had made Ryder pay attention to them. Apparently the Ministry (not that he’d known what they were called at that point), were trying to stop Pencil and Cup from finding a specific name within some sealed adoption records. What name? Errol Fosters, as in Arleigh’s adopted little brother. Ryder didn’t know exactly why the Scions were so obsessed with finding this kid, or why the group who had helped him out and clearly had all that power were trying to stop them. But he did want to find out, so he investigated by getting himself hired as Arleigh’s tutor so he could snoop around. 

With an audible sigh, the boy waved a hand. “I knew it was going to be dangerous trying to look around that place in the middle of Sherwood territory, but I didn’t know I’d be going right into the middle of the lion’s den.” 

“Middle of the lion’s den?” I echoed blankly, before my brain caught up with my mouth. Everything he had said so far, everything he’d implied. Wait a minute–my eyes widened. “Hold on, wait, wait. What–are you trying to say that–do you mean those guys–” I shut my mouth, inhaling sharply through my nose while staring at him. Instinctively, I lowered my voice. “Are you trying to say that Arleigh’s family are part of Sherwood?! But they–her father runs one of the biggest technological–they–Sherwood attacks Taurus trucks! Taurus delivers technology all over the–” Then I stopped, still reeling. “Aaaand that would probably be one of the best possible covers they could have. Who would ever think that the people behind a Touched-Tech delivery company were also the violently anti-technology Fell-gang?! You just told me they were, basically, and I still didn’t believe it.” 

“Yeah, pretty much,” he agreed. “It was a lot for me to take in too, I promise. Arleigh being Clime–” 

Okay, that made me do another double-take. “She’s who?! But–but Clime is this total nature-loving girl who–she’s–and–ohhh she’s good. Wow, she’s better at pretending to be someone else than I ever thought she’d be. What the hell?” My poor brain was taking a battering from all these shocking revelations. I felt like they were going to give me a concussion or something. 

Ryder was shaking his head, putting a palm against his face. “I probably shouldn’t have said that. Damn it, there’s a whole thing about not–look, you can’t act on that, okay? I mean you can’t tell the cops or anything. If you do they’ll–” 

“They’ll backtrack everything to figure out where the leak is, which means they’ll double-check everyone they’ve had contact with,” I finished for him. “And you’ll be one of the first people they hone in on, especially if they check with the Ministry and find out who you really are. Or the Ministry just does the work for them. And if the Ministry checks in and finds out you started investigating the Fosters right after that–oh my dad knows.” 

“What?” Ryder blinked at me, then realized. “Oh. Oh he was there with you when you guys were in the driveway. He saw me there with–oh.” It was his turn to rock backward in obvious shock before adjusting. “I mean–I mean I’m not dead yet. No one’s said anything to me. He had to figure out why I was there, right? I mean, there’s no way that could be a coincidence. As soon as he saw me there, he had to have figured out that I knew the name and was investigating, so why haven’t the Ministry or Blackjack said anything to me about backing off?” 

“Maybe they’re thinking about hiring you?” I offered. When he gave me a look, I pushed on. “No, I’m serious. You did all this on your own, so maybe they’re waiting to see if they can trust you with more stuff. You know, seeing what you do with this information, how effective you are at dealing with it, that sort of thing. They’re probably ready to jump in if you do something they don’t like, but for now they’re sort of giving you slack on the leash or whatever so they can see what happens. See how effective you are at the whole thing and how much you can find out.”

He was still absorbing that while I pushed on. “And don’t worry, I’m not about to call the cops on Arleigh. As fun as that would be in some ways, especially now that I know she’s literally a villain and not just annoying and rude, it’d be just as bad for me. Because if they start looking into people who have interacted with her lately, I’ll get attention too. Remember, you’ve been at their house multiple times, and you have no reason to expose her. Not considering what you’re actually there for, I mean.  If I was over to their house and the very next day Paintball suddenly knew who she really was, I think they might be able to add two and two. I kind of try to avoid letting anyone connect Paintball and Cassidy. So yeah, I’m not gonna tell anyone.” 

Visibly relaxing a little bit, Ryder met my gaze. “Thanks. I mean seriously, thank you. I can’t–” He stopped, giving an audible chuckle of disbelief. “This whole situation is a lot to take in, isn’t it?“

Snorting, I retorted, “You think? I’m pretty sure if I get one more shocking reveal tonight, I’ll fill up my punch card and get another shocking reveal for free.” 

The remark made him snicker before he looked me up and down for a moment. “You really have been through a lot the last couple months, haven’t you? I’ve been dealing with this Errol thing, and it’s been hard enough to keep secrets from the rest of La Casa. But you… you’ve been keeping secrets from your family. I mean, that wouldn’t be hard for me, but you seem like you have a pretty good relationship with them.” Right after saying that, he blanched. “Shit, sorry. That’s both none of my business, and not necessarily true. Outward appearances don’t–I mean that–” He stopped short and gave a sigh. “Sorry, I’m just gonna shut up about it.” 

I glanced away, pulling my arms across my stomach. “Yeah, I kind of freaked out when I found out who they really are, and the stuff they do. The first hint I had that my family weren’t exactly on the up and up was finding out my brother was responsible for executing two people.” As Ryder reacted to that, I went on to give him a quick summary of how that first night had gone. 

“But ever since then, I’ve found out they’re responsible for some good things too,” I added while giving a helpless shrug. “You know, like what happened with you. Or how they stop some crime. But that doesn’t–my family still profits from all of it. Sure they do good stuff with it, but they do bad stuff too. They let bad things happen and then excuse it if the people pay the right fine or tax or whatever. It’s not–” I sighed heavily. “It’s complicated. The whole thing is so complicated.” 

There was a moment of silence before I felt Ryder reach out and put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m really sorry,” he murmured. “ I mean, like I said before, your family’s group really helped me out. If it wasn’t for them, and Blackjack, I… I don’t know where I’d be right now. I don’t know who I’d be. But I get what you mean about it being complicated. If you really found out about them by seeing a couple people get murdered, and then found out your brother was responsible, I don’t…” He swallowed audibly. “Yeah, I kind of get why you feel that way. I wouldn’t know how to react to all that either. I’m basically on the outside of it and even I don’t know how to react.” 

A strained and slightly high-pitched giggle escaped me for some reason. “I guess it’s kind of a lot, isn’t it? I still don’t know what I’m going to do about all of it. I keep telling myself I just need to find out more, but I don’t know how much I need to know before I do something, or what I should even do. I’ve got other things to deal with, like helping… helping a couple of my teammates with their own problems. And there’s the gangwar, and the whole Scions recruiting people thing, and–” I stopped, realizing there was already another distraction. “Wait, what are you gonna do about the Scions thing? Errol, I mean. Did you ever find out why they’re looking for him? Or why the leader of Sherwood adopted him? Wait, is that a coincidence? I’m pretty sure it’s not a coincidence.”

Ryder dropped his hand from my shoulder and slumped back a bit. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it’s not either. They adopted him to like… keep an eye on him or something, I guess? I dunno. But it seems pretty obvious, you know?” He glanced away then while adding, “And… yeah, I do know what the Scions want him for. I stole some files from the house before, and I heard… I heard Mr. Fosters talking to someone he called Minister Gold. Actually that whole thing is what led to me figuring out they were called the Ministry. That and some other things.” 

He shook that off before pushing on. “Like I said, I know why they’re so desperate to find him. So desperate, actually, that that Cup chick had a really intense program running to sort through all the adoption files. It was running on a laptop that was pretty damn hard to get into. Seriously, this thing needed a numerical passcode, a fingerprint, and a voice print to get into. She did not want anyone opening the damn thing.” 

“Okay,” I announced, “after all of the experiences I’ve had with Cup, and that’s way more than I ever wanted, there’s a lot of things I would call her. But ‘careful’ isn’t one of them. If she went through all that trouble to lock that laptop up that securely and keep that program running, it has to be something huge. And it can’t just be something like the kid knew their real identities or whatever, because the Ministry wouldn’t be having you go through all that trouble to get into the laptop just to hide the information. Not after Pencil and Cup were already exposed. At first I thought maybe it had something to do with my own family’s identities, but that can’t be it either. They have nothing to do with this Errol kid, either before or after he was adopted. I mean, I don’t think they did…” 

“They didn’t, not as far as I can tell,” Ryder assured me. 

That made me look at him once more, realizing, “Wait, you said you did know why Pencil and Cup want to find Errol so badly, and why the Ministry is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen. What–what’s so important about him?” 

So, he told me. Over the next couple minutes, Ryder explained that Errol’s birth parents were apparently college roommates and friends of the man named Rodney Barlow. Or, as he was known throughout the rest of the world, Overseer. Which was a name I recognized immediately. Actually I knew the name Rodney Barlow too, but Overseer even more so. Seven years back, he had been a big problem in Wisconsin. Basically, any time he touched a piece of someone’s body, like their hair, blood, or even their sweat, he could ‘charge,’ it. When he did that, he could see through that person’s eyes, hear everything they heard, and even control them like puppets. 

But it didn’t end there. It got worse. When he had enough pieces of someone, he could fashion those pieces into these little dolls. And anyone could use those dolls, not just him. Yeah, any random person, you didn’t even have to be Touched. If you picked up someone’s doll and held it, you could control them. 

“Oh… oh I don’t like that,” I managed, my eyes widening as I stared at the boy. “I don’t like that at all. This sounds really bad already.” 

“It doesn’t exactly get better,” he warned me before continuing. “Anyway, from what I’ve been able to find out, Cup and Pencil have this DNA-locked safe that used to belong to Errol’s parents. They killed them, but they didn’t realize the safe was DNA-locked. And everyone’s pretty sure Overseer left dolls in that safe. Dolls of Touched here in Detroit, because he was planning on coming here and taking over before he was arrested.” 

I absorbed that. “So, there could be dolls inside that safe of anyone who was Touched seven years ago. Maybe even everyone, knowing how Overseer worked. And Cup and Pencil have that safe. But they can’t get into it because they need Errol, except they don’t know who he is… yet. Hold on, I don’t wanna sound morbid–I mean I’m not pushing for this–I mean–” 

“You wanna know why the Ministry hasn’t just killed Errol, don’t you?” Ryder finished for me, his expression grim. “Yeah, I sorta had the same thought, believe me. I don’t want them to kill him either, it just seems like the obvious solution for a group that’s already willing to kill.” 

I nodded slowly at that. “So… why haven’t they? Do they really not want to kill a kid? Is that–” It sounded too naive to my own ears to think it could be that simple. “I don’t get it.” 

“I don’t either,” he replied. “That’s why I’ve been trying to sneak around there a bit more, to try to figure out if they’ve got plans for Errol or something. You know, plans they need him for. I was working on getting into some of Hemlock’s more secure files tonight, but then… you know.”

My head bobbed. “I interrupted. But if I hadn’t, Micah would’ve found you.” 

“Yeah, I let myself get too distracted,” he agreed, blanching visibly at the thought before focusing on me. “Thanks again. And thanks for, you know… trusting me not to tell anyone.” 

“Yeah, right back at you,” I replied as casually as I could manage. My voice still cracked a bit anyway, making me flush visibly. “Look, I’ll see if I can find out anything about this situation too. My team and I just stole a bunch of files from the Ministry. I’ll look for anything involving Errol, or Overseer, or his parents. You know, anything like that. Maybe we accidentally grabbed something relevant and didn’t even notice.” 

“That was–” Ryder stared at me before giving a low whistle. “Right, you guys are pretty impressive.” He smiled before sobering. “Right, I guess we just… keep each other’s secrets and keep looking into this, huh?”

My head bobbed once more. “I guess so. But Eits–I mean Ryder… seriously, be careful. I know the Ministry helped you out, but they can be very dangerous too. Especially if they start to think you might be a threat. And if Pencil thinks you might know something…” I blanched, thinking briefly about how badly Ryder had been hurt the last time he had information the Scions wanted. 

He promised he would, and we made a plan to meet up sometime soon, after I had a chance to go through that stuff. As if I didn’t already have enough to deal with. Finally, I put my mask and helmet back on and left the boy there so I could start heading home. There was a lot I had to think about.

As I started to leave, my phone buzzed. It was Amber. Answering, I leapt off the roof and let my red paint carry me to the next building. “Hey, what’s up?” 

“Just uhh… checking in. Sorry, I got kinda busy at the party and… Never mind, everything okay?” Her voice sounded a little odd, strained maybe. Or I could’ve been imagining it. “Your text wasn’t exactly clear, but if you still need–” 

“Nah, I’m good,” I replied. “It’s just been one of those nights, you know?” 

There was a brief pause before she replied, “Dude, trust me. 

“I know exactly what you mean.”  

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Schooling 24-09 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We should go to that thing.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At least, I really hope we can.” 

******

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

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

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

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

“Dani?” 

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

******

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

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

“Uhh, so, having a good time?” 

*******

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

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

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

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

***** 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

Oh shit, speaking of Amber, there she–

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy shit pretty much sums it up.” 

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Schooling 24-08 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Schooling 24-04 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s your sense of adventure?” 

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Schooling 24-03 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did… did Jae have a secret boyfriend? 

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