Amber O’Connell

Schooling 24-09 (Summus Proelium)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We should go to that thing.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*******

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

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

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

********

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“At least, I really hope we can.” 

******

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

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

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

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

“Dani?” 

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

******

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

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

“Uhh, so, having a good time?” 

*******

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

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

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

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

***** 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

Oh shit, speaking of Amber, there she–

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Holy shit pretty much sums it up.” 

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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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Patreon Snippets 26B (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 26th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Izzy and Amber

Standing on the edge of a large pond in the middle of a park, Izzy Amor held a bag of mixed chopped lettuce, cracked corn, and frozen peas. The nearby ducks chased after every handful she tossed out, and the small girl giggled to herself at the sight just how eager they were to get the food. She tried to spread out her tosses so the ducks would separate a bit and not run into each other so much. Some of it ended up out in the water, and they chased those bits just as frantically, speeding out with their motorboat-like legs before their heads dove down to get the food. Some became distracted by other things in the water. And through it all, loud, excited quacking filled the air. 

“Well they sure seem to be having fun,” Amber O’Connell noted as she stepped up beside Izzy and watched the ducks eagerly chasing the most recent tossed handful. “What about you?” 

Rather than answer that question directly, Izzy instead quietly noted, “It’s really simple like this, you know? The ducks are always here, they don’t keep the super elite ducks hidden behind some sort of pay wall. They don’t expect anything but this cheap food.” She shook the bag in her hand and then promptly threw out another batch to the grass and water as the ducks eagerly and loudly made their hunger known. “They just like being fed.”

Amber stood next to the younger girl and watched the ducks for a moment before quietly murmuring, “They don’t ask if you want to be adopted by a family of billionaires?”

Wincing visibly, Izzy gave a heavy sigh before nodding. “Yeah, they definitely don’t do that either.” Her foot kicked the ground before she added, “I’m being stupid about this, huh? I mean, anyone else would practically cut their own leg off to be adopted into the Evans family. Some literally. I mean with an axe and everything.”  

“Maybe,” Amber allowed with a mixture of a smirk and grimace at the imagery there, “but they don’t know what we do. Seriously, the family isn’t exactly normal, like, at all. Not that billionaire families are ever normal, but you know what I mean. There’s a lot more to that whole situation. It’s one thing to live there and know what you do, and another thing to actually be that connected to them. Like, totally connected. Legally connected. They’ve done bad things.” 

“But that’s what makes it even harder,” Izzy pointed out with a sigh as she threw another handful. “They’re really nice. It would be easier if they were mean and terrible, but they’re not. I know what it’s like to have a mom who treats you like a tool, like all you’re worth is what you can do for them. I know what that’s like, but they’re not like that. Mrs. Evans is nice. So is Mr. Evans.”

Her face twisted into a grimace as she let that thought run through her head. “I keep thinking I’ll realize that they’re just using me, but the more time I spend there, the more it feels like they really, actually care about me. Not just for what I can do for them, but because of me. It feels like they care… about what I want, about who I am. Not my power. Me.” 

She went silent for a moment, but Amber didn’t interrupt. The two of them simply stood there, watching the ducks. Not that it was actually quiet with all the quacking around him, but still. 

Finally, Izzy gave a new heavy sigh before continuing. “My mom, my real mom, she just wanted to use me. She sold me to the bad guys so I could be tortured into being their puppet. She did that just to get a little money for herself. Because she’s… she’s selfish. I know she is. But the Evans, who basically run all the supervillains, they’re really nice to me. Now they want to adopt me. So why…” She trailed off once more, closing her eyes as a single tear made its way down her face. “Why do I feel like I’m the one betraying her for even thinking about this at all? Why does it feel like I’m dirty and evil because part of me likes the idea of being adopted? And not by just anyone, by people who run all the supervillains in the city!”

Izzy threw the next handful of food farther than before, her other hand clenched tightly around the bag. “What’s wrong with me?”

Amber‘s hand found its way to her back and gently pressed there. “Listen to me, Izzy. Nothing is wrong with you,” she insisted. “I mean, okay, maybe there’s some stuff wrong with you. Terrible taste in cereal, you’re horrible at tying knots, can’t keep the list of state capitals straight…” She stopped as a little smile played at the other girl’s face, before squeezing her back. “But as far as this goes, nothing. You still love your mom, even if she did all those bad things. Part of you does, anyway. You love the mom you knew in between those times. You love the mom she could’ve been. And you know that accepting this adoption thing will be completely and officially cutting her off from ever being that person again. You’re not evil, Izzy. It’s not wrong to want to be around people who care about you. And yeah, the Evans being who they are makes it even more complicated than it already was. But it’s like you said, they treat you well. You’re not bad for liking that.

“Remember what Cassidy said. They’re not totally evil and monstrous. They really do care about her, and they care about you too. After what happened with your mom, of course you feel drawn to that. And it’s not a bad thing.” Her head shook firmly. “Look, I really don’t know what’s going to happen eventually with that whole thing. I don’t know how all of this is going to play out. But I know they really care about you. If someday they end up in prison or whatever, they can still care about you. Just like they’ll still love Cassidy.”

Both girls went quiet again, and Izzy handed the bag to Amber so she could throw some food for the ducks. Finally, after a minute of that, she spoke up. “I want them to…” She trailed off, clearly unsure of her words. When she spoke again, her voice was even more hesitant. “I like spending time with them. I think–no, I know I’d like it even if they didn’t have all that money. They’re nice. They’re fun. Mr. Evans makes me laugh. He’s really good with Cassidy, and I know he’s trying to include me. I just wish they weren’t… you know.” 

Amber’s hand gently rubbed her back. “Maybe the whole Ministry thing is over-complicating it, you know? You’ve already got enough to think about when it comes to this whole situation without adding that in. And yeah, someday, somehow, we’ll have to do something about that. Even Cassidy doesn’t know what, and she’s already their daughter. But whatever it is, that’ll come later. Maybe, just for now, you should think about how you’d feel about this whole thing if you didn’t know anything about that. Just try to set it aside for a minute and think about the rest of it.” 

Izzy gave a soft, yet audible laugh while shaking her head. “You say that like it makes it easier. But it’s still hard. Even if I didn’t know anything about the Ministry, I’d still be telling my mom I don’t want her to be my mom anymore.” Before Amber could say anything to that, she added, “Yeah, I know what she did. I know she started it. But if I do this, it means I’m finishing it.” Her body gave a full, visible shudder. “I know that’s stupid, okay? I know there’s no way she could ever be my mom again. It can never be the way it was before, and it shouldn’t be. She broke it. She broke it and it was her choice. She didn’t have to and she did. She made it so we can’t ever be what we were before. My mom can never be my mom again.”

Her hands clenched tightly as she fought to find the right words. “But this is still another door. It’s a door that I’m shutting. I’m telling my mom that I’m done with her. If she comes back, if they find her, I won’t be her daughter again. I’ll be one of the Evans. If I do this, it closes everything with her, forever. And that’s a choice I’m making that I can’t unmake.” 

Amber moved her hand away from the girl’s back to throw another bit of food before speaking softly. “Maybe you should think about what’s good for you. I know, I know it’s painful. I know it makes you feel dirty, believe me. It feels like being selfish is wrong, and sometimes it is. But when it comes to your life, to your future, to your… to who you are, you have to be selfish sometimes, Izzy. You can’t bend your entire life around trying to please the people who abuse you, just in case they might stop someday. You owe yourself better than that. It’s your life.” 

She swallowed audibly, clearly pushing herself to say more. “It’s like my whole thing with my dad. Every time I think about how I can be happy and make jokes and stuff while he’s still dead and we have no idea who did it, there’s this pain in my stomach, and it feels like it’ll never go away. I don’t think it ever will, not completely. It’ll always be there, to some extent. But then I have to think about how my dad wouldn’t want me to be miserable all the time. He’s my dad. He loved me. He wouldn’t want me to spend every moment of my life being sad.”  

Izzy watched the ducks for a minute before quietly asking, “What am I supposed to think about, then?” 

Amber gave a hesitant shrug. “You keep focusing on the mom you had in between and before the bad times, the mom she was and could’ve been if all this didn’t happen. Think about her again. I don’t mean in a ‘make you feel guilty and dirty’ sort of way. I mean, think about the good version of your mom and what she would want for you. You said she used to read you stories and stuff, right? Think about that version of your mom for a minute. Think about being in bed listening to her telling you those stories, reading that book. Think about how she would want you to feel as you grow up. Would she want you to be sad? Would she want you to be miserable, just to be loyal to her after what she did? Or would she want you to be with people who treat you well and care about you? Think about that version of your mom for a minute. What would she want you to do? What choice would she want you to make?”

Izzy didn’t say anything to that at first. She was silent, staring at the lake without actually seeing the water or the ducks. Instead, her mind was focused on that imaginary scenario. She thought about laying in her bed, with her mom sitting on the side of it reading stories to her. She thought about the touch of her mother’s hand against her hair and how safe she had felt in those moments. It made another tear fall slowly before she spoke through the thick lump in her throat. “My mom would want me to be happy.” It was one of the hardest things she had ever said. And yet, it was the truth.

For another few minutes, the two girls stood by the water, throwing food for the ducks while remaining silent. Both were lost in their own thoughts. Finally, when the last of the food was gone and the sun began to set, Izzy turned to the other girl. Her mouth opened, but instead of speaking immediately, she simply wrapped her arms around Amber to embrace her tightly. When her voice came, it cracked a little. “Thank you.” 

“Hey, anytime,” Amber replied, returning the hug. 

“But you know, once you’re an official billionaire’s kid, I might have to start charging you.” `

*******

Ministry Meeting Some Time Before The Raid On The Ministry Base

Sterling Evans owned several buildings throughout the city of Detroit, and had offices in even more. At the moment, the top floor of one of those main buildings had been entirely shut down for both employees and clients. The elevators were locked and would not come to that floor, or the one under it, and the doors into the stairwells were sealed tight. Between that and several Touched-Tech security measures, the place was kept as private and secure as it could be. It had to be, when the official leadership and higher ranks of the Ministry was meeting there. 

Someone might’ve said that meeting in a building he owned was too dangerous, and would have suggested something like an abandoned warehouse somewhere. But this building was one that Sterling could put all of his security measures into. He knew for a fact exactly how safe it was. And if any tried to invade or eavesdrop, they would have a lot of surprises coming their way. Besides, if there had been any planned raid of any of his offices, their contacts within every law enforcement group in the state would have said something. If anyone in any position of authority even suspected them of wrongdoing and launched the smallest investigation, the Evans would be informed of it before the task force had even finished brewing their coffee. 

Even beyond that, they would have been safe. Here, in this room at the center of the building, they were cocooned away from any possible interruption or spying. No electronic device, Touched-Tech or otherwise, could get through the security measures. The room was meant to host large meetings of his normal board of direction directors. Which meant it was also plenty large enough for this situation. 

Sterling stood at the head of the table in the center of the room, his chair slightly behind him. His wife, Elena, sat at his right side. His son, Simon, was to the left. Exchanging looks with both of them, Sterling cleared his throat. “Well, I think it’s about time we start this discussion.” 

Down the table on the right, a pale man with dark-blond hair and incredibly dark green eyes shifted in his seat. Kent Jackson, better known among this particular group under the moniker of Rook, raised one hand. “I know this is only the first official one of these I’ve attended in person since coming back to Detroit, but I remember we used to have these incredible little cakes at the old ones, and I’ve got to say, I was looking forward to that.” 

With a soft, polite chuckle, Elena assured him, “We still have those, but we moved them to the end of the meeting. I find that it helps people pay more attention, and gives everyone some reason not to drone on longer than necessary.” 

Beside Kent, his wife, Mills, patted him on the shoulder. The tall, beautiful blonde woman, who looked like a fashion model or movie star but had actually spent more time in dive bars and dirty, smoke-filled clubs than on runways, spoke with clear amusement. “Well, you’ve made his day. You should’ve seen his puppy dog sad eyes when we came in and those cakes weren’t out here.” 

Across the table from them and slightly further down, the man known as Alcazar took a sip of the water glass in front of him. As usual, the man looked completely ordinary in as many ways as possible. He was thin, but not to the point of distraction, stood just under five foot eight when he wasn’t slouched in a chair as he was now, and his brown hair and hazel eyes would do nothing to draw attention. He held his wire frame glasses in one hand, absently cleaning them with his shirt as he spoke. “There is a lot to get into today, so maybe we should start with the easiest thing.” His head turned to look at Sterling while he added, “The new superheroes in town.” 

Beside him, a gray-haired woman wearing dark jeans and a red button-up shirt that was tucked in added, “The dears have an actual name now, don’t they?” 

“Yes, Relapse,” Elena confirmed with a nod to the woman. “They call themselves Avant-Guard. Guard with a u. I think it’s cute.” 

Opposite Relapse and a bit down from Mills and Kent, a dark-skinned man drummed on the table with one hand thoughtfully, his voice quiet. “I like this Paintball kid. He’s funny. The whole being Lucent’s son joke, that’s some good stuff.” Abruptly, he tapped twice more a bit more firmly, before turning toward Sterling. He wasn’t looking that way. His sightless eyes would have made that impossible. But Hakeem Harris, known throughout the Ministry as The Tapping Man for his tendency to always… well, tap things, knew that people were more comfortable if you were facing them as you spoke. Pointless as it might have been. “But like him or not, is he going to be a problem?” 

“Yeah,” the voice from the figure at the opposite end of the table from Sterling put in, speaking loud enough to be heard by everyone else given the space between them, “that’s what we wanna know too.” 

The voice came from a raccoon, dressed in a tiny, yet perfectly tailored suit. He stood on the table itself, with his polished shoes clicking against its surface as he took a few steps forward while sipping from the miniature cup of coffee he held in one paw, while a miniature cane tapped against the table lightly a couple times. “You said he knows something about us, so does that make him a threat? And by threat, I mean one we need to take care of.” 

“Ministers Gray,” Sterling began, “you have a point, the boy does know something about the Ministry. We’re not precisely certain how much, yet he is certainly aware of our organization to some extent. But no, we don’t think he’s a threat.” 

Rather than respond to that himself, the raccoon made a noise in the back of his throat before turning to step off the side of the table. As he did so, a cloud of smoke and light encompassed his form, with a pyramid-shape in the center of it. As the light and smoke faded, a much larger form had taken his place. An enormous brown bear, nearly nine feet in height, towered over the others as he stood by the table. Like the raccoon, the bear was fully dressed in a tailored, multi-thousand dollar three-piece suit. He even wore a fancy derby hat. “Ah, I believe my partner wanted to know if ahh… if you’re certain about that,” he began in a voice that was slightly more nervous and uncertain than the confident tone of the raccoon. “After all, the ahhh, the strongest building can collapse thanks to a small flaw.” 

Some might have questioned why a shape-shifting bear/raccoon was part of the leadership of the Ministry. But, of course, it was more complicated than that. First, they were not a shapeshifter. Ministers Gray had been two separate animals when they both touched one another and the orb. Its power had bonded them together in a very particular way. Essentially, they possessed a private pocket dimension which one of them always had to be inside of, while the other remained in the outside world. They could swap back and forth at will. Beyond that, as well as the usual increase from animal intelligence to human-level, they had also gained the ability to speak properly (not always a given with TONIs) and the outside animal could create a small glowing pyramid. Any single living being who was touched by the pyramid would be sent into that pocket dimension with the inside animal. Only one being could be held like that, as any attempt to take a second one inside would eject the first.

And yet, their power was far more impressive than a simple ability to imprison a single living being indefinitely. Within the pocket dimension, the bear or raccoon could control the flow of time to equal that of the outside world, or cause it to pass much more quickly inside than it did outside. This allowed those inside to experience days and weeks within seconds or minutes for the outside world. Regardless of how time passed, those inside would never grow any older. And as long as another living being was inside the pocket dimension, the Ministers Gray could absorb any academic knowledge or physical skill that being possessed. They had taken a small army worth of brilliant academic scholars, elite soldiers, athletes, and more into the pocket dimension for what amounted to months at a time in order to absorb everything they knew and could do, before having those peoples’ memories of the event erased by Rook. 

More than that, Ministers Gray could also take others into their pocket dimension and teach those other skills much faster than they should have been able to learn them, given the time-dilation that was possible. 

In all, there was a reason why Sterling and Elena had chosen to accept them as one (well, two) of the main leaders of the Ministry, even giving them the title of Minister themselves.

“He’s a child,” Elena replied. “One who wants to do the right thing, but still a child. We think… we believe he knows there is a larger conspiracy of sorts, but is willing to… play nice. He has some experience with the Banners girl, saving her from…” She looked toward Rook. “Well, saving her. She made a deal to, ahh, leave our organization alone as long as we do the same for her and Paintball. We believe he is aware enough of that deal.” 

“In other words, let the boy be a superhero,” Sterling put in. “It’s good business. People like this Paintball kid, and his new partner, Alloy? They’re doing some great work out there. We keep an eye on them, just in case, but personally, I don’t think they’ll be that much of a problem. Relapse, you’ve had some interaction with him, what do you think?”

“Oh, he’s a sweetheart,” the woman agreed with a smile. “Came right into the Seraphs and did the work he was asked to without even grumbling about it. And he enjoyed my candy.” 

The words made Elena give the older woman a sharp look. “Tell us you didn’t–” 

“Pish posh, calm yourself,” Relapse tutted. “I am capable of simply giving people I like candy without using my–ahem, power.” The woman’s own gift, as somewhat implied by her name, allowed her to force any person she made physical contact with to be addicted to any edible or potable substance she chose. The addiction could last only a few minutes, or longer than a month, and a subject failing to feed that addiction would experience severe illness and hallucinations. They were also strongly encouraged to follow her instructions, given how easily she could magnify or lessen the effect. She would never be one to run around in tights and armor, considering she had Touched when she was fifty years old and that itself had been twenty years ago. But for a seventy-year-old, she still had her own tricks. 

And, as one of the Seraph’s most popular and beloved receptionists, Tricia had plenty of contacts who knew nothing of her loyalties or powers. It made her a valuable asset to the Ministry, as she had been from the very start. People tended to underestimate her.

“Of course you are,” Sterling interjected with an easy smile. “In any case, it’s good to hear the boy has his own real work ethic. And that he doesn’t seem to be a problem. So we’ll leave it there for now. We have the Banners girl’s reasoning for leaving them both alone for the time being, but even without that, I don’t believe he is an immediate concern. If he starts asking the wrong questions or pushing too much at the wrong thing, we’ll deal with it then. Besides, with everything going on in the city, I don’t think we can afford to be pushing more Star-Touched away at the moment.” 

“Speaking of what’s going on in the city,” Kent started, not wanting to spend any more time talking about how he’d let the Banners girl get away from him, “we need to inform the gang leaders to keep their business away from our shipment coming in on Tuesday.” 

“He’s right, the shipment can’t be delayed. Not a second time,” Hakeem noted while giving the table another soft tap. It would send out an echolocation-like pulse which gave the man a visual representation of the room and everyone in it. But more than that, the more times the ostensibly blind man ‘echolocated’ a person within the same general area and situation without an extended (roughly an hour) break, the better his minor precognition power worked to allow him to predict their physical movements in any altercation. Given enough taps, he could flawlessly know precisely how someone was going to move and how to counter them. Not that the man expected an altercation with his companions, of course. It was simply a deeply ingrained habit. 

Mills waved her fingers back and forth idly while speaking up. “Don’t worry so much. We’ll bring the shipment in and get it squared away. It won’t be a problem.” As she spoke, a glowing white feather flew back and forth across the table. Her own Touched gift allowed her to empower one pound worth of material every week. Anything that was empowered remained that way forever, allowing it to be telekinetically manipulated by Mills within her line of sight, as well as allowing her to teleport to anywhere one of those empowered objects was, or vice versa. Additionally, regardless of their actual size, empowered objects were incredibly durable and could be made to weigh almost nothing, their actual weight, or the sum total weight of every empowered object she possessed. With a thought, she could put something that weighed as much as a pencil on top of someone’s head and then make it weigh several hundred pounds.

Then there was the last part of her power. Which she idly demonstrated in an attempt to alleviate her own boredom by sending one of her feathers across the room to touch the three hundred pound desk in a corner of the room. As the feather brushed the side of it, the desk rose several feet in the air and spun in a slow circle. Any of her empowered objects were capable of extending her telekinetic abilities into any other object they touched, so long as that object, again, weighed less than the total weight of all of her empowered objects put together. And considering Mills, or Haven as she was called in these meetings, had had her power for most of the past two decades, her weight limit would have approached a thousand pounds even in a normal situation. 

And yet, her situation was far from normal. In the early days of the Ministry, her power and her skills had received a bit of a jumpstart as she spent week after week inside the Ministers Gray’s pocket dimension, while only hours and then days passed outside. It allowed the woman to go from only being able to control a single pound worth of material, to over twenty pounds, in what had been only a few days rather than half a year. These days, with additional time spent with her raccoon and bear friend whenever they could all spare it, she was up to almost three thousand pounds. 

She had a lot of random objects spread not only all over the city, but all over the world. 

“Very well,” Elena agreed. “Let’s discuss how precisely we will handle this shipment next. 

“And we should open the phone line so Yellowbrick may be included. I believe she should be finished with her last assignment by now.” 

*******

The Morning After The Raid On The Ministry Base

“Thank you, Yellowbrick,” Elena politely spoke while stepping through a door leading out of her subordinate’s void-dimension, and into the front lobby of a small, rundown doctor’s office. There were already several of the Ministry’s people poking around the corners, looking through the various observation rooms, and even breaking down a few of the walls in search of hidden safes. They paid no attention to her, as they were taught to. Not that they would have recognized the woman she was posing as under her illusion power anyway, but still. She preferred the people who worked for them be taught to ignore as much about them as possible. 

“How many?” she asked the man who had just stepped up beside her. 

“Three, we believe,” Alcazar replied. “This is the last one where the security sensors were tripped. Either they got better at avoiding them after that, or…” 

“Or they found what they were looking for,” Elena finished for him. “And all three belonged to Benjamin Pittman?” 

“That’s correct, ma’am,” he confirmed, glancing up as a couple men walked past carrying some equipment that would allow them to see through walls. “We believe the entire point of the original intrusion was to search for that list of facilities owned by Pittman when he was active. Armed with that list, they began to search them.” 

“Until they found this place, and whatever they were looking for inside.” Elena frowned slightly, considering that as a wave of thoughts passed through her mind. “Either they weren’t working for Pittman directly, or he forgot where he put the thing they needed.” 

“My guess,” Sterling put in while stepping up on the other side of her, “is that whoever these people are, they’re working for his other partners or investors. People he told enough about his project that they wanted to find something involved in it, but not enough to know specifics. Something we missed.” 

“But why wait this long?” Alcazar asked with a frown. “It’s been, what, over five years since Pittman was arrested and put on Breakwater? What changed?” 

Before Sterling could pose any guesses for that, one of the men called out from a supply closet. When the three of them moved that way, he stepped aside so they could see how the carpet was ripped away to reveal a trapdoor. 

“Alcazar,” Elena began, “do our files indicate which of our employees was tasked with searching and clearing this space five years ago?” 

“They do,” he confirmed. 

Her voice was flat. “They’re fired.” 

“The ahh, gold package, silver package, or… bronze package, ma’am?” Alcazar carefully asked. 

Studying the trap door, Elena exchanged a brief glance with her husband before answering. “We certainly aren’t setting them up for a rich life. Not gold. But I don’t believe they deserve to be killed for a mistake, either.” 

“The silver package then,” Sterling agreed. “Get Rook to erase their memories and set them up with new lives.” Another glance passed between husband and wife before he added, “Somewhere out of the city. We don’t need them here.” 

“After,” Elena put in, “you ensure that missing this wasn’t intentional. I want a full investigation into their lives. If there’s any sign that they were involved in this… bring the information to us.” 

With that established, the three descended the ladder to reach the large room below. A brief investigation later revealed the contents of the various freezers along the walls, as well as the presence of yet another, smaller hidden room at the far end. A room with a different metal tube inside, which had clearly been holding something. Another body, perhaps. 

Sterling put his hand close to the tube, eyes narrowing. “This is it. This is what they did all that for. Whatever was in this tube. A prototype for one of his creations?”  

“A dangerous weapon of some sort, whatever it is,” Elena agreed. Her gaze remained fixed on the tube, imagining what might have been kept inside. One of Pittman’s artificial bodies, certainly. They had dealt with enough of them already. Yet something about this seemed different. This was a hidden room inside of a hidden room, one that had been receiving power this whole time. From what they could tell given a brief examination of the thing, it had been active until very recently. Actively keeping its contents… well, alive probably wasn’t the right word. Unless it was. Well, yes, in fact. Even if the, for lack of a better word, brain of these creatures came from the installed cybernetic orbs, the bodies themselves were biological. 

Either way, she shook off the thought. What mattered was why this one in particular had been so special. 

“Maybe it was his,” Sterling mused. “Maybe it took Pittman this long to set up something like this to get his own new body back and transferred himself into it. Or–I don’t know how his tech works. Could he have uploaded his brain and sent it into this body?” 

The thought was enough to make Elena grimace. “If he did, he will start making a nuisance of himself very soon. Whatever was in here, we need to find it. And the people who did his bidding. But yes, I believe it’s safe to say that Pittman is behind this, at some level. Whether it is in a current, active fashion, or this is the result of someone picking up the pieces of his old work…. we need to find out.” 

Turning from Elena to Alcazar, Sterling ordered, “Have our people find out what’s happening on Breakwater. Do they know where Pittman is? What’s been going on over there lately? Just… see if anything is out of the ordinary.” 

“We don’t have the strongest contacts in Breakwater, getting any information will take a little while,” the other man carefully replied. 

Elena gave a slight nod. “We know you’ll do your best, Alcazar, thank you.” With that, she turned to her husband, gaze passing over the other equipment throughout the room. “Pittman being the source of that raid explains quite a lot. At least we know we don’t have some brand new threat to keep track of. Just an old one with some new help.” 

Sterling, meanwhile, raised a hand to press against the machine. “Have our people look into exactly what was in this thing. Or… who. We need to know whether this was Pittman or someone else. 

“And what face they’re wearing now.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-08 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

My parents had really freaked out about the invasion of their base. How did I know that? Because the next morning, Tuesday, my mother informed Izzy and I while we were eating breakfast that there would not be a family dinner that night. Considering we’d even had it for the most part while they were out of town and only able to appear via video chat, that was pretty big. Though, of course, she didn’t tell us why. She just said that something had come up at the office and they were going to be very busy with that. 

So yeah, canceling family dinner was a big deal. I did my best to seem genuinely surprised and curious in a normal way without looking like I was pushing to see what sort of answer she would come up with. I had to make my reaction come off as completely clueless, yet with the right balance of teenaged not caring that much but being accustomed to the dinners happening. 

Honestly, I really shouldn’t have bothered. My mother was so distracted that I don’t think she heard half of what I said. She just accepted that I was mildly curious about what was going on, gave me some excuse about being busy, then went back to talking on the phone using what was obviously careful language to avoid saying anything dangerous in front of me. I was pretty sure I could have said something like, ‘hope you catch the people who broke into your mall base and stole everything that wasn’t nailed down,’ and there would only be like a twenty percent chance of her actually processing what I was saying properly. 

But, of course, tempting as that was, I resisted the urge. Mom left after giving both Izzy and me a hug, promising to make it up to us later. Then she was out the door and on her way downtown. I exchanged a look with the younger girl beside me, but neither of us said anything about it. Well, actually we did. But we kept our comments limited to what we would have said if we didn’t know the truth. I was absolutely certain that anything we said in here would be heard by someone we didn’t want to hear it. So we played our role as clueless teenagers. 

We also wouldn’t be getting a ride from Jefferson that morning. He was fully occupied helping my parents out, which had to be doing a number on his dislike of schedule changes. And that all by itself told me how big of a deal this was for them. This whole situation was obviously all hands on deck. It made me feel anxious for the fact that we couldn’t eavesdrop on what they were saying. I had no idea how much information they actually had right now, or what they would be able to find out over the next few days. I was pretty sure we hadn’t left anything that could expose us, but not knowing for sure what they were doing made me nervous. 

It was sort of like the opposite of the situation we’d been in before. They’d had no idea we were even a thing, let alone what we were planning. Now they did know about us, at least in general terms, and we had no way of finding out how much they would be able to figure out. It was our turn to not know what they were planning. 

But, we were just going to have to suck that up and move on. We had other things to deal with right now. Mainly the fact that we were supposed to go out as a group later tonight and meet with Glitch. I had no idea how that was going to go, and it was making me nervous. But I knew it was the right thing. The others finally knew the truth about me, and we could work together properly. It was the right time for us to make an appearance as a team. Doing so by meeting with Glitch and letting her know what we were going to do about the whole Tech-Touched tax thing was just… well, as good of a moment as any. 

I had also told Izzy and Amber late the night before about what happened, both with the Luciano thing and later at the shop. They knew about the zombie-man, and that the others were aware of my identity and all that. Though I promised them I hadn’t given away their own identities. I wasn’t sure exactly how long those could remain secret if they kept working with our fledgling group, but it was up to them to decide what to do about it. 

In any case, both Izzy and Amber thought I’d done the right thing by telling the others who I was, given how much trust they’d earned. We were in this whole thing together now. We were a team, and they had deserved to know the truth about me and my connection to the Ministry. 

Eventually, the two of us finished our breakfast. I’d already called for an Uber, and it pulled up outside the house as we made our way there. We weren’t going to be skipping school today. Distracted as my parents were, I really didn’t want to give them any reason whatsoever to think something might be up with me. Sure, connecting the base invasion with me skipping school would be a huge stretch, but still. We needed them not focused on us at all. Thus, not giving them any reason to even think about us. 

Besides, after the insanity of the past couple of days, and what was coming up soon, I needed the break of just going to school and being normal for a few hours. Was it weird that I saw sitting in class listening to teachers and doing work as a break from my extracurriculars? Yeah, probably. But hey, I’d never claimed to be normal. 

I was dropped off at my school first, and I made sure the driver was paid with a substantial tip before sending him on to drop off Izzy at her own school. Then I turned to face the school itself and took a deep breath. Time to go inside and pretend to be a completely normal teenager for a few hours. 

“You’re not fooling anyone, you know.” 

The words made me turn abruptly, just in time to see that Dani girl approach from the direction of the student parking lot. Blinking a couple times, I found my voice finally. “Eh, what?” 

Stopping there, she raised an eyebrow at me before gesturing at the departing Uber. “You really think people will buy this whole ‘oh I have to be driven around in a normal car like everyone else, I totally don’t have a personal private rocket ship and teleportation technology I can use to go anywhere I want’ business?” She winked then, giving a pointed and overly dramatic sigh. “I mean, it’s either believe that you have access to all that and are trying to hide it, or that you actually are stuck driving around in a wheeled car like the rest of us schlubs.” 

A very tiny smirk found its way to my face as I offered a shrug. “I mean, when it comes down to it, whether I have to use a normal car to hide my vast technological sci-fi toys or don’t have access to that at all, the end-result is the same, isn’t it?” 

Dani, in turn, shook her head. “It’s not the same at all. If you had access to that stuff, you could cruise around in a spaceship on your off days. I mean, for all we know, you’re out there flying to new planets and hobnobbing with alien diplomats on the weekend.” 

Dramatically raising my finger to my lips, I gave her a sharp, “Shhh. If everyone hears about that, they’ll all want a ride to Alpha Centauri. Believe me, political relations are already tenuous enough without adding a bunch of extra galavanting teenagers who want to cruise the galaxy.” 

With a laugh, the other girl retorted, “Oh yeah, and everything I’ve heard about you makes you the perfect diplomatic representative for humanity. No way would you ever do something dramatic on a dare that made the aliens panic.” 

“I’ll have you know, I am on my best behavior whenever I’m on an alien world.” With a grin, I added, “That’s why I act up around here, to get it out of my system.” 

“Oh, is that why?” Amber put in while joining us. “Sorry, what was that about aliens?” 

With a shrug, Dani replied, “Just working out exactly what our local richest teenager in the state likes to do in her off-hours.” 

Amber looked me over as though appraising for a moment. “Last time I checked, it was a lot of putting herself in physical peril, right? Skiing down death-trap mountains, skating off skyscrapers downtown, bungee jumping into the Grand Canyon?” 

“Sometimes all in the same day!” I chirped with a broad smile. “Play your cards right and maybe I’ll bring both of you along sometime. We might even take the rocket ship.” 

Dani gave me a thumbs up. “Sounds good, just let me know when and where. Hope I get to wrestle an alien.” With that, she glanced at her phone and said something about needing to talk to someone before class. Then she headed off, leaving me standing there with Amber.  

“You good?” the other girl asked after we watched her walk away. 

Nodding a little, I replied, “Yeah, I’m okay. Still kind of coming to terms with the fact that the others know the truth now. Like… it kind of freaks me out a bit, you know?” 

“You mean because now there’s five extra people who know exactly who you are and who your parents are?” Amber put in before exhaling. “Yeah, that’s pretty big. You’ve been keeping this secret for a long time now. I mean, relatively speaking for how big it is and how much you’ve been doing. And now it’s sort of out of your hands. You can’t control what they do with it. If they fuck up and give away your secret, you can’t undo it. You just… have to trust them. It’s scary, huh?” 

Swallowing hard, I murmured, “Absolutely terrifying. The more people who know about me, the bigger chance of this getting out. You’re right, I can’t control them. I can’t be there every minute of every day. I have no idea what they’re doing right now. I mean, I trust them, or I wouldn’t have told them the truth. It was the right thing to do. But still, it just… it’s a lot. And I keep having waking daymares about one of them saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and…” I shuddered. 

Her hand patted me on the back. “Don’t worry, I get it. Believe me, I know it’s a big deal. But you’re right, it was the right thing to do. If you guys are going to be a real team and work together, they needed to know what they were dealing with. The whole story. Especially if Luciano’s turned into some superpowered zombie monster. That seems like a problem that’s gonna get worse before it gets better.” 

“Well, Paige was supposed to be siccing the Ministry on him,” I pointed out quietly, glancing around to make sure no one was anywhere nearby. “Which could kind of be a two birds with one stone situation if it distracts them from focusing on us. But I guess we’ll see what happens.” 

“Yeah,” Amber agreed, “You could say the same thing about this whole situation. We just have to see how it goes. But whatever happens, just remember you’re not alone. You’ve got people you can trust.”  

Nodding slowly, I took a breath before starting to head for the building. There was no sense in being late to class. “Sure,” I murmured on the way. “I just hope that we can find a way to help Trivial and Flea.

“Because as much danger as we might be in right now, I’m pretty sure they’re in a lot worse.” 

******

School that day passed through a time distortion that made it simultaneously take forever and yet finish in the blink of an eye. While I was sitting in every class, I couldn’t stop looking at the clock, which seemed frozen every time I glanced that way. Given what I had to do that evening, I was anxious to be done with all this. But when the final bell rang and it was time to leave, it somehow felt like I’d barely spent any time there at all. Brains were weird sometimes.

I was at my locker when Dani approached alongside San Francisco. The latter spoke up. “Yo, we’re gonna go catch a movie, you wanna come? It’s that special fifteen year anniversary release of Duskrunners. You know they’re counting ticket sales to decide if they’re finally gonna do a second one.”

“Yeah,” Dani put in, “I haven’t seen it yet, but San here keeps saying I should’ve been there at the first release.” 

Raising an eyebrow, I pointed out, “San wasn’t there at the first release. Or if he was, he wouldn’t remember. He would’ve been two.” 

“All the more reason for us to go to this one and get the movie the sequel it deserves,” San insisted. “Come on, I promise, seeing that movie on the big screen is gonna blow your mind. When I went the first time–” 

“First time?” I interrupted. “You mean you already went to see it in the theater?” 

“Opening night, dude,” he retorted. “It’s been out since last Friday, and I’ve seen it three times. Today’s lucky number four. Even with the curfew, which didn’t make that easy. But I need reinforcements, just in case my tickets aren’t getting the job done. Plus, you know, maybe if you really like the movie, you can poke your dad about throwing some funding toward the sequel.” He waggled his eyebrows at me pointedly. 

Snorting despite myself, I gestured. “I’ve sorta got plans today, but I promise I’ll look at my calendar and see when I can get free for a couple hours.” I wouldn’t have minded going to see a movie that day, especially one San was so excited about. But I’d already promised Wren that I would come by and talk some more about funding for the shop, some toys she wanted to try out, and how that night was going to go when we went to talk to Glitch. She was pretty nervous about the whole thing, understandably. 

“Gotta make it at least three hours,” San informed me. “Gonna need extra time after the movie so we can talk all about the tie-in comics and books and about what’s canon and not canon. It gets a little confusing sometimes.”

“Can’t wait,” I dryly replied before glancing toward Dani. She had been watching me curiously the whole time. “Maybe you can help him narrow down how to explain this stuff to a clueless newcomer. Or just tell me to run if it’s impossible.” 

With a visible smirk, the other girl shrugged. “Hey, if it’s impossible and I have to sit through it, I’d be more likely to tie you down so you have to suffer too. Sure you’re too busy today though? Cuz I could do with some reinforcements. And if there were two of us, we could tie him down if it gets too bad.” 

Snickering a little after giving San a look as though I was considering the ‘tying him up’ part, I finally shook my head. “Like I said, sorry. I’ll try to get some free time soon so we can see just how cool this fifteen-year-old movie actually is and how much it holds up. But hey, let me know how it goes. At the very least, so I’ll know if I need to cut and run whenever I see San here again.” 

“Pfft.” Dani gave me a pointed look. “Trust me, babe, even if it’s terrible, I’m definitely going to talk it up just so you can suffer as much as me.” 

San made a sharp harumphing sound, straightening as he looked back and forth between both of us. “I’m telling you guys, it’s not gonna be bad. It’s awesome, and you’re both gonna love it whenever you get to see it.” Muttering something under his breath about how he still couldn’t believe that we hadn’t seen it at any point in the past fifteen years, he shook that off before gesturing toward the nearby doors. “But if we’re gonna get there in time to get decent seats and snacks, we gotta go.” 

With an added promise (or threat) to make sure I made it to the movie next time, Dani headed out with him. I watched them go, then turned back to my locker while my head shook with amusement. At some point I really was going to have to go see that. San wasn’t the type of person to just let that go. And the last thing I wanted was for him to start wondering why I was so busy all the time. And hey, if I did like it, maybe I really could push my parents toward helping to fund a sequel. 

After all, if they were going to profit so much off a criminal enterprise, they could at least make people happy with it. 

*****

“Speaking of profiting off a criminal enterprise,” I muttered under my breath awhile later, once I’d made it to Wren’s shop. 

“What?” the girl herself asked, popping up from behind a counter where she had been digging through a pile of what looked like random junk. 

Coughing, I shook my head. “Nothing, never mind. I just–I’m glad I get to help get this place running properly.” I had my helmet and mask off since everything was closed up, which was a really odd feeling. Standing here with my face exposed while the rest of me was in costume, it felt… well, it almost felt like I was naked, honestly. It was weird and uncomfortable. I felt exposed. Which was the point, really. Everyone here knew who I really was. I just… wasn’t accustomed to that. 

Coming down the stairs with an armload of supplies, Paige flatly put in, “We don’t have to get this place running to pay Glitch, you know. Cassidy and I can both help with that. In more than one way.” 

Wren, however, shook her head. Her chin was set stubbornly. “If she wants money from me, it’s gonna be from my stuff. I mean–uhh…” She paused, frowning uncertainly. “I guess you’re already paying to help get us off the ground and all, but that’s… uhh, different? I think… somehow. Sorta.” 

“Don’t worry,” I assured her, “we get it. And you won’t have to give them stuff forever. We’re gonna deal with the whole thing eventually. Just… probably not a good idea to make too many enemies right now. Especially not when they obviously know about the shop.” Saying that made me shift a little uncomfortably. 

Then I looked over at Paige, trying to change the subject for a moment while we still could. “Did you get to talk to the Ministry about Luciano?” 

“Yeah,” she confirmed. “I mean, I left an anonymous message about him, and the stuff you guys saw. I don’t know how seriously they’ll take it, but hopefully they’ll at least look into it.” 

A grimace found its way to my face. “Yeah, well, we’ll see. Maybe when they start getting other reports about him, they’ll do something. Cuz I kinda doubt he’s the type to lay low and not draw attention to himself. But you know that ‘drawing attention’ thing is probably gonna involve hurting people. Or… or killing them.”

“I’m working on something to trap him too!” Wren quickly put in. “Something he can’t burn his way out of, or whatever he did to escape from the dumpster.” She frowned thoughtfully. “You said he didn’t burn out of that one, right?”  

“Yup.” The memory made me frown as well. “Still have no idea how he managed that, unless he got teleportation powers too. Which is patently unfair. And speaking of an unfair situation,” I looked back to Paige once more. “What about school? Are they uhh, bringing up stuff about your parents being gone?” 

Paige started to shake her head, but it was Sierra who answered, on her way down the stairs behind the other girl. “As far as the school and his company’s concerned, Mr. and Mrs. Banners are on an extended retreat still. They’ve called in a few times to let people know they’re still alive, thanks to voice changers and Paigey baby’s memories of how he talks to people.” 

“Don’t call me Paigey baby,” the other girl retorted, before focusing on me. “But yeah, like she said, everyone still thinks the Banners are just being eccentric rich people on safari or whatever. The company’s still making money without his help, so there’s not too much concern yet. But that won’t last forever. And… I do want to find out what happened to them. Even if they did buy me to replace the daughter they threw out. Plus we have to get Irelyn off that island. Not to mention Flea and Trivial.” 

She was saying it that way in front of Wren rather than give away that Flea was Irelyn, I knew. It was a trick that only worked because everyone thought Flea herself was Asian, and Trivial hadn’t been in the city long enough. Not to mention she was too young. Those were the only reasons the others hadn’t figured out that Irelyn was one of those two. 

And yeah, it felt awkward and kind of bad to lie like that still. But again, it wasn’t our place to expose Irelyn’s identity. I just hoped that when and if it came up later, the others would understand. They’d been more than understanding so far. 

“We will,” I found myself assuring her after that moment of silence. “We’ll find out what happened to all the Banners. I mean, we’ve still got that blackmailing the Breakwater people plan, right?” 

Wren’s head bobbed rapidly. “Uh huh! I’m building the thing to track where the island is so you can tell them to get them off it or else.” She paused briefly. “Uh, does that make us sound like the bad guys?” 

Smiling a bit, I reached out to squeeze her shoulder. “Don’t worry, we are definitely still the good guys around here. They’re the ones not getting a couple superheroes off their prison island because they don’t want bad publicity. I promise, we’re still solidly on the right side of this.

“And speaking of being on the right side of things, let’s finish putting this stuff together so we can go pay a gang of supervillains to leave us alone.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Enkindle 23-01 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Things hadn’t changed at all after I slept for a few hours. Nor did they after I splashed water on my face rather aggressively three or four times, or after I took a long hot shower. Even after all of that, as I got dressed, the situation was the same. Raige had her new body, and it looked identical to my body. She looked like me. Well, a blonde me with glasses and all, but still. How was I supposed to deal with that? What was I even supposed to do with it? I had no idea. I just–I couldn’t even think about it without my brain showing one of those old television test patterns. I thought I had been prepared for her to look like another Paige, even a younger Paige. It had occurred to me that a prototype body might look like a kid version of Paige. Or some random person. But a body that looked like me? It had never even crossed my mind as a vague possibility. I was completely dumbfounded by that whole situation, even now that I had gotten some sleep. If anything, I felt even more flummoxed by it. I just… couldn’t deal. 

Once I was in the hall outside the bathroom once more, Izzy was there waiting. She glanced toward me, then down the hall where the stairs were before shaking her head. She didn’t need to say anything. I knew what that meant. There was no sign of my parents. They were either still upstairs and hadn’t come down yet, or they had yet to come home. Given the situation we had left them with, I was going to bet on the latter. I was pretty sure it had been a long time since someone–anyone actually struck a blow against them at all, let alone got away with it. And given my parents weren’t standing in front of me demanding I tell them what the hell I was doing, they clearly hadn’t gotten any actual answers from their investigation so far. So, yeah, they were probably still out there working on it. 

Okay, was it weird that I felt a little bad about costing them sleep? Sure, part of me was glad for it, a little vindictively. But another part felt guilty. Why did I feel guilty about that? It was a tiny cost for them, basically inconsequential. And yet, I couldn’t entirely shut it out, even after telling myself how stupid it was. My brain wouldn’t listen to itself. Which felt unfair, though unsurprising.

Shaking that off, I nodded at Izzy before starting to walk that way. We didn’t go upstairs, of course. Those rooms were for my parents, and I had no reason to be there for the moment. The very last thing–okay one of the last things I wanted right then was for Mom and Dad to be told by the staff that I was snooping around. Given how paranoid they were bound to be after last night, I felt like they weren’t likely to dismiss anything like that. So, tempting as it had always been for me to go looking through their rooms for anything important and then just say that I was looking for them if anyone found me, now was probably not the best time. They would be on hyper-alert for anything out of the ordinary. 

Which was why we were going down to eat breakfast and then go to school. Even though I really didn’t want to, there was no choice. I’d rather curl up in bed for another three hours or so, and then get started dealing with all the everything that was waiting for us at Wren’s shop. But if my parents got a call that I had skipped school, that would be something out of the ordinary for them to pay attention to. Again, we had to avoid any suspicion right now. While they were dealing with the break-in, I needed my parents to think that everything back here at home was perfectly normal. We couldn’t give them any reason whatsoever to suspect that there might be something going on here, or just with us in general. There was too big of a chance that the whole house of cards would fall apart. 

So, we ate breakfast and took the ride from Jefferson to school. On the way, I checked the news on my phone. I wasn’t expecting to see anything about what had happened and I didn’t end up being surprised. There was a lot of stuff about the gang war and all that, even a bit about a car chase involving a van and several vehicles that had ended with the van in the water. But it didn’t go into any details other than that, and was stuck in the middle of an article about general violence in the city. Obviously, my parents weren’t going to let any details about what they knew get reported in the public news. So I checked for any social media posts about it, and got a couple vague ones that mentioned the ‘police chopper’ chasing the van. Other than that, it was all pretty much the same. 

Putting my phone away, I glanced toward Izzy before looking to the front. The partition was up, giving us privacy back here. And, well, giving Jefferson privacy up there. Shifting in my seat to use the intercom button, I waited for the beep before asking, “So how late did the play go last night? Should I feel bad that I wasn’t there, or glad that I can actually sit through school today without getting in trouble for falling asleep?” Boy, was it hard to get through that with a straight face. But it was even harder to get through it without yawning, which would’ve been even worse. 

There was a very brief pause before Jefferson’s voice replied, “It was nearly two in the morning when the play ended. I can hardly believe your parents would actually have allowed either of you to attend on a school night.” 

“Yeah, I think that was mostly Dad not thinking,” I replied easily. Again, I had to stifle a yawn. “But hey, maybe he would’ve convinced Mom that we should all stay home and sleep this morning. You think he’ll get up before noon?” I figured that was innocuous enough, a way of looking more like I was teasing my dad rather than probing for information. 

Again, there was a brief pause before he responded. “I believe your father was up and leaving for the office slightly before you appeared for breakfast, Miss Evans. He is very punctual when he wants to be.” There was a note of pride in his voice then, given his own preference for punctuality. Then he added, “Though I cannot say for certain what he will do once he arrives at the office, and he does have a quite comfortable couch.” 

Making a show of giggling a little, I let go of the intercom and leaned back to glance at Izzy. Neither of us said anything. We weren’t that stupid. We had talked a little bit before sleeping, and some more when the alarm dragged us out of far too little sleep. Now, all we did was nod very slightly before starting to talk about utterly inconsequential things. If anyone had actually been eavesdropping, I was pretty sure they would either give themselves a concussion falling asleep, or claw out their own ears to get away from the mundane teenage girl talk. 

Eventually, we reached the high school and I said goodbye to both Izzy and Jefferson  before hopping out. Without looking back, I started walking to the front door, as though it was just another ordinary day like any other. Some people waved and greeted me with a word or two, and I returned it before heading inside. Normal. I had to look normal. No seeming paranoid, no jumping every time someone said my name, no acting like that guy walking past was sent by my parents to grab me because they had figured everything out and wanted to have a discussion about it in person. Normal. Totally normal. 

“Cass!” Amber called out, nearly giving me a heart attack as she popped into view. “Come on, I’ve gotta show you something.” With a flick of her finger as though beckoning, she pivoted and walked toward the entrance of the library. “There’s no way we’re not getting those bonus points.” 

The two of us made our way through the library, heading upstairs and back to the reference section. This early in the day, there was no one back there. Well, almost no one. 

“Hey,” Paige spoke up, rubbing the back of her neck as she turned away from the large encyclopedia she had been looking at. “Uh, well I guess the first thing I should say is that Raige went for a walk.” 

That made me do a quick double-take. “I–she what? She went for a walk? As in out in public?” 

Paige shrugged a little, lowering her voice. “She said she had to get out and look around, stretch her legs, that sort of thing. And that she was going to get some more things to disguise herself, like colored contacts and spray tan. She had to get out of there. After all that time stuck on the couch, I can’t really blame her. And I’ve actually been free to walk around before. It’s her first time outside of sharing my memories.”

“Yeah, it’s her first time. Do you really think she–” Stopping myself, I exhaled. “Sorry. I’m just… kinda paranoid, I guess.”

“You have reason to be,” Amber put in, gesturing back and forth between the two of us. “And Paige has reason to want to trust her–you know, sister? Sort of? Even if she looks like–this is weird.” Her face twisted a little as she thought that through before settling on, “Really weird.” 

“You can say that again,” I muttered. With a sigh, I added, “But I get it. She’s not a prisoner, and we can’t treat her like one if we want to keep this whole allies thing going. Your dad already fucked her over and made her turn on him, I don’t want to be the same as that creep. Or even vaguely similar. I’m just a little weirded out by the idea that there’s some girl out in the city right now who looks like me. Even if she’s in disguise. It’s just… I guess it is like having a twin. And right now, my parents seeing a twin of me would be a real fucking disaster.” 

“They won’t,” Paige assured me. “Raige knows better than to go anywhere near them. Your parents are gonna be too busy dealing with everything that happened last night to go eat breakfast in some random dive, or walk through a completely different mall. Or whatever else Raige does. It’s a big city with a lot of people. As long as she doesn’t do anything to draw a bunch of attention to herself, she will practically be invisible. And I know how it sounds when I say that, but even Raige knows how to be subtle, believe me. She’ll be fine.” 

It kind of sounded like she was trying to fully convince herself of that, but I left it alone. There was no use worrying about something I couldn’t affect right now anyway. Instead, I took a breath before focusing on Paige herself. “You know this whole thing is going to be weird too, right? I mean, you being back at school and all that. People are going to wonder if the two of us aren’t at each other’s throats all of a sudden. It’ll be something weird and different, and stuff that’s weird and different might get back to my parents. It’s a little more complicated than two plus two to figure out what’s actually going on, but I feel like them knowing that you know something about their business and all of a sudden the two of us are all buddy buddy might just… give them too much to work off of. They might not get all the way to four, but I don’t particularly want them to know that there’s any addition to be doing at all.” 

Grimacing a bit, Paige nodded. “Yeah, that’s fair. I just–yeah, we’ll have to fake it. I mean, I was always faking it, so that won’t change for me. But–” She stopped, giving a low sigh. “You’re right, it’s weird. I always thought that… that at least after my birthday, I wouldn’t have to act like that anymore.” 

“You thought that because you were planning on being dead,” I shot back. “I’m gonna go out on a limb and say pretending to hate me and act like a psycho cunt who picks apart my insecurities is at least better than being dead.” 

Paige, in turn, coughed. “I do prefer being alive. I just–I hate that my dad’s bullshit still has to affect me even now. I just want to shove him out of my mind, but I–he’s… I still have to act the way he wanted me to act, just so your parents don’t get suspicious about things. And we still have to deal with him because Irelyn and Trivial are stuck out there. Which, for the record, I looked up everything I could find about Breakwater, and no one has said anything about anyone being there who shouldn’t be, let alone a couple Star-Touched.” 

My mouth opened, before I stopped and looked toward Amber. “Uh, wait, you know what–” 

“I told her,” Paige confirmed. “Earlier this morning. I don’t– I’m going to try not to tell anyone else in the group, if possible. Not yet, anyway. That’s just too many people to spill Irelyn’s secret to. But I thought having Amber involved would help. Four heads are better than three, or something.” She raised one shoulder in an absent half-shrug, clearly focusing mostly on the actual problem itself, her missing adopted sister. 

“Right, I know about that. But my question is, how is that even possible?” Amber demanded. “Them being trapped there, I mean. They have to have people watching the island, right? How could they have two Star-Touched running around there and not notice them?” 

“Maybe they did notice and just don’t care, or think it’d be a bigger controversy to get them off it,” I muttered a bit darkly. “The big thing about that place is that no one who isn’t supposed to be there can find it, and no one imprisoned there can get off, right? It’d probably be a pretty major hit to the place’s reputation if people found out that someone managed to send a couple Star-Touched there. Or anyone there. Which–how did they get there? We still don’t know. We don’t know anything about all that.” 

While Paige grimaced, Amber spoke up. “We’ll find out what happened. I, uhh, I’m not sure how yet, but we will. We just have to take this whole thing one step at a time. Getting Raige her own body was a step. Now we’ll figure out what the next one is. If they are hiding the fact that there’s two people stranded on Breakwater, maybe we can get the word out about that. You know, anonymously.” 

I wasn’t sure how that would work, or why anyone would believe rumors like that. But instead of naysaying, I nodded. “We’ll think about it. And we’ve got all those papers and files to go over still. Probably won’t help with this thing directly, but maybe they’ll have something about your dad from when they caught him, you know?” I looked to Paige then. “Something we can use.” 

“What about your pare–I mean your adopted parents?” Amber asked the other girl. “We still have no idea where they are, right? What’s the school gonna say?” 

Paige shrugged. “Not much. As far as they’re concerned, they already talked to Mr. Banners over the phone and he apologized for keeping me away for so long. But… yeah, we don’t know where they are. I never knew what my father was going to do after all that went down. They haven’t… found their bodies or anything, so…” She shifted, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t know. I wish I did.” 

We talked a little bit more about all that, and other stuff, but hadn’t come up with anything substantially useful by the time we had to go to class. Amber and I let Paige go first so we wouldn’t be seen walking together. After she headed out, I looked at the other girl. “I kinda feel like I could fall over and die for ten hours or so. And thinking about all the things we still need to deal with isn’t helping.” 

“Tell me about it,” she replied, “I almost threw my alarm clock out the window this morning. You have no idea how tempting it was to just call in sick. Err, well I guess you do.”

“I definitely do,” I agreed, yawning. “I’m gonna take a nap this afternoon. I don’t want to, but I don’t think I have a choice. I’ll be worthless sitting at the shop staring at those files if I don’t sleep for a couple more hours.

“If Raige really wanted to walk around and experience her new body, I should’ve had her take my place today so I could sleep in.” 

******

Thankfully, nothing much happened through the rest of the school day. I saw Paige a couple more times from a distance, or in the classes we shared, but we avoided having any direct contact for the moment. Neither of us were exactly eager to get back to playing things out the way they were supposed to go, so I supposed we were avoiding it. Paige was with all her school friends every time I saw her, laughing it up and going on about her long vacation and how her dad had insisted on some sort of spiritual retreat to ‘get back to basics’ or something. Whatever her cover story was, it had her audience enthralled. 

She did apparently talk to Amber a bit more, specifically about Raige. Who had apparently chosen a different name to go by. 

Now it was later that evening. As promised, I had gone home and taken a nap for a little bit. When I got up, my parents still weren’t around. They were really busy with this whole break-in thing. So Izzy and I ate a quick early dinner before heading out. She and Amber had to do Minority stuff, which left me standing here on the roof of Wren’s shop with Paige and the girl formerly known as Raige. Or rather now…

“Sierra, was it?” I asked the girl in question while looking her up and down. She did look somewhat different from me here in the daylight. Well, the resemblance was still there, obviously. But with slightly darker tanned skin, different-colored eyes with the contacts, glasses, long hair on both sides, and the fact it was blonde… yeah, she was different. Then there were the clothes. She was wearing a tummy-baring shirt and tight pants that I just could not pull off. 

Well, I supposed technically there was–that is–I wasn’t… huh. Now I felt even weirder.

On top of all that, she was a couple inches taller than me, somehow. All put together, while I was sure my family and those really close to me would recognize her–or rather me, most others would probably at worst notice a weird resemblance. Hopefully we could do more to shift her appearance eventually, but this was a fairly decent start for the time being. 

Inclining her head a bit, the girl nodded. “That’s right. Raige was a little over-the-top and not really… me. So you know, my solution for being too over-the-top was to name myself after a mountain range. Sierra Nevada. First name, last name. We’ll be working on paperwork and identification.” She gave me a sly smirk. “On top of all the trust issues and psychological trauma, Pittman did give us a pretty good understanding of how to go about that. You should see all the fake IDs Paige has.” 

Clearing her throat, Paige gestured. “At least she pulled off looking pretty different.” 

“Even took a page out of your books and got a few different shoes with lifts in them,” Ra–Sierra drawled idly, gesturing down at them. “Not huge ones, just a couple inches. Enough that your pals down there probably won’t look at the two of us and see that we’re the exact same height.” 

“Right, uhh, thanks for that.” Biting my lip thoughtfully, I looked her up and down once more. “I don’t suppose you came up with any genius ideas for getting Irelyn and Trivial off Breakwater while you were at it?” 

“Sorry, babe,” she replied with a shrug. “I thought about it, but kinda came up empty. I think we’ll have to get the kid involved. If anyone’s gonna have an idea about how to move a couple people off an island we can’t find, it’s her.” 

She had a point. And, as I was thinking about that, we all heard voices from below. Peyton was arriving at the store, along with Murphy and Roald. 

“Well,” I started with a gesture toward the ladder leading down, “I guess we should get down there and start talking it over with her, huh? And while we’re at it, we can officially introduce you to the others, Sierra.

“But for the record, if any of them immediately says ‘hey that’s Cassidy Evans with blonde hair,’ I quit.” 

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Dig In 22-14 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so we weren’t quite done for the night yet. At least, some of us weren’t. Pack, Alloy, Murphy, and Roald might’ve gone home, but Amber, Izzy, and I were still going to go along with Paige and Raige to check out those secret labs. Part of me felt a little worried about going out again this soon, but it really was the best time. The Ministry would be occupied trying to figure out what the hell had just happened to them and who was responsible. They certainly wouldn’t be reinforcing these other places. Not yet, anyway. They might have been talking about refurbishing Pittman’s labs for other things, but I was pretty sure that that would be one of the furthest things from their minds right now. Later, of course, it would become a problem. Especially once they decided that they needed to put a heavier security on all of their properties. It would become a hell of a lot harder to get in those places and take what we needed then. That was why we needed to go tonight, while they were still reeling and distracted. 

I was telling myself all of that while putting the hated stuffed bra back on along with the suit itself. Seriously, I did not like doing this. But if we went in there as ourselves and found out too late that the Ministry had put up cameras, we would be screwed. I was going to go ahead and assume my parents could look at their mall base being invaded and then Pittman’s old labs being searched a couple hours later and put two and two together. 

So, we were suited up once more as we crouched in an alley across the street from what looked like an old dive bar that hadn’t been open for ages. It was sandwiched between a pawn shop and a tiny Chinese restaurant. From what we had been able to put together, the last time the bar was open was over ten years earlier. Pittman had bought it and used the place as one of his smaller labs. Which, given there was an entire basement area beneath the shop, made it possible that there was a hidden area somewhere in there that my family’s people hadn’t found. 

Sure, it wasn’t likely that we’d get super-lucky with the first place we checked. Hell, there was a good chance that we wouldn’t find anything at all in any of these places. The Ministry had to have gone over them pretty thoroughly. But we had to try, and trying meant starting somewhere. So, this seemed like as good of an option as any. 

The area we were in wasn’t exactly the best part of town, to put it mildly. Even with the curfew, there were still some people out walking in small groups. Probably because the cops didn’t patrol here that often. The place wasn’t rich enough to have constant security, and it wasn’t right in the middle of disputed gang territory. Not those sort of gangs anyway. There were just a lot of poor people around, and homeless, and… yeah. It wasn’t a good neighborhood. 

Still, eventually the way was clear. There was no one in sight at the moment, after a couple very clearly drunk guys managed to find their keys and stumble into an apartment a few doors down. We exchanged glances before collectively nodding. With one more quick glance around to make sure no one was looking, we darted from the alley and crossed the street to the doorway of the old bar. Paige was in front, and she ignored the visible deadbolt, instead turning to what looked like one of those intercom systems on the front of apartment buildings where you hit the button to contact one of the places inside so they could buzz you in. Despite being for a single place, there were about twenty buttons spread across the thing, all of them unlabeled. Paige didn’t hesitate at all, her fingers dancing across the console to put in the eight digit code. There was an immediate corresponding beep, and then a click as the door opened. She gave the rest of us a brief look, her expression unreadable under the mask. With a muttered reminder to be careful, she opened the door the rest of the way, and we all slipped inside. 

Yeah, this had definitely been a bar at one point, though it was clear that almost everything of value had been taken out of it. The only things left were the booths along one side and the bar itself. The shelves were bare, there were no tables or chairs, and I could see a spot where there had clearly been a jukebox at one point. It was all gone now. It had been emptied out, either by Pittman himself, or the Ministry, or people who managed to break in somehow before the place was secured. Whatever it was, that didn’t matter. We didn’t care about any of that stuff. We were there for far more important things than a jukebox or some random alcohol. 

Quickly, we scanned the room, but couldn’t see any cameras. It was possible the Ministry didn’t have any set up here yet, given they would have taken out everything they could find in this place and didn’t have any reason to keep it under constant surveillance. Not this long after Pittman had been sent to Breakwater. As far as they would be concerned, he had no way of getting out of there, so why spend the effort and resources to watch over his random properties constantly years after he had been dealt with? They were talking about converting his spaces to new labs, but until that happened, they probably didn’t care too much. Not yet, anyway. Which, again, was why we needed to do this right now.

It didn’t take long to find the door to the basement, and we carefully descended the cement stairs while keeping our eyes open for cameras or traps. But the place was empty. We got down there to find a wide-open space, like an unfinished basement in a house. It was all cement, with a heavy sink in one corner, and clear markings where there had once been equipment. But now all of it was gone. There was nothing in here. At least, not that we could easily see. 

“We should spread out,” Amber murmured, “check for any hidden doors or anything.” 

Raige, who had apparently taken control of Paige’s body in that moment, snarled, “If we have to check the quick way by knocking down some of these walls, so be it.”  

We scoured every wall, even going over the floor for trapdoors. And yes, we put a couple small holes in the walls where there might be something. We even found one promising bit, a hidden space in one corner. But it turned out to just be the size of a closet (one in a normal house, not mine), and held little more than some random science equipment and tools, like scalpels and flasks. There might have been something useful within that stuff, but it wasn’t what we were looking for. We took some of it in a bag, looking around the place for another minute or so, then made our way out. This was our first try, and it was basically a bust. Which wasn’t surprising or anything, but still. A part of me had hoped that we would get lucky. 

At least we had several more options to go. So, we made our way out, returned to the alley, and headed for the next spot. All these labs were close enough together, in this part of town, that we could get there by moving through alleys, keeping our heads down, and watching out for anyone. Which meant I didn’t have to keep changing back into my Paintball costume to play lookout. Pittman had probably intentionally kept his places close enough to quickly move back and forth between. Far enough apart that they all wouldn’t be found if one was (if you didn’t have the addresses already), but close enough that he could walk to any of them within about fifteen minutes.  

Or maybe I was overthinking it, and he chose these places because it was an area he could afford to buy property in, and set up a shop without attracting a lot of attention. 

The second place we checked looked like it had once been a clothing shop. There were still metal racks sitting around, but that was about it. We didn’t even find any secret rooms in that one, no matter how much we searched. It was even more of a dead end than the first place. 

The third place we checked, on the other hand, didn’t look like it had been anything of note before. It was just a smallish, one-story building sitting in one corner of a parking lot near a much larger pharmacy and medical supply center, the sort of place you would drive past your entire life without really noticing. At most, you might idly wonder what the place was as you drove past, then forget about it immediately as soon as you turned the corner. The building was just there, amounting to little more than scenery in the neighborhood. 

After once more taking the time to make sure the coast was clear, we made our way over there and into the building, using the code to unlock the door. Inside, the place was a maze of small offices, with a waiting room out front. It looked like this had once been a doctor’s office or something. Which made sense given the nearby pharmacy. And it was obvious why setting up in a place like this would be good for someone like Pittman, who would need ready access to a lot of medical stuff in order to build his bodies. This place was looking somewhat promising. But on the other hand, it also meant that the Ministry would have gone over everything very thoroughly too. We still had to get lucky and hope that they hadn’t taken everything useful in here. 

A search through the main floor revealed little of consequence. A few empty pill bottles, some dusty medical tools that hadn’t been taken lying here or there, that sort of thing. Most of it was picked clean by one group or another. But just as I was starting to think this would be a dead end as well, Raige kicked open a supply closet, and a thorough search revealed a trapdoor in the floor under the carpet. The four of us (five, actually, given Paige and Raige both counted) exchanged looks. Then I went first, struggling very slightly with my fake chest (and yes, I did mutter and curse the entire time about it) before climbing down the ladder to the room below. 

Upon arriving in the room below, the place was filled with a steady humming sound. It was also pitch-dark. But I was able to run my hand along the nearby wall and find a light switch, which I flipped up. As I did so, a long row of overhead lights began to turn on one after another, starting almost directly above me and leading down the length of what turned out to be a room roughly the size of a basketball court. 

As the others joined me, we could immediately tell that this place was different. It was readily apparent that the Ministry had not found that secret door. It reminded me a little bit of Wren’s lab for the fact that there were tables along the room full of tools and random bits of machinery. But there were also large floor to ceiling freezers all along both walls to either side of us. Those were the source of the humming sound that filled the room. As I looked at them, I could see a clipboard hanging next to each door. With a glance to the others, I walked toward the nearest and carefully pulled the board up to look at it. There were notes there, listing what appeared to be names, dates, ethnicities, diseases, and causes of death. There were two dates actually. One generally between fifteen and forty years earlier than the second. 

I wasn’t dumb. I knew what this was. My eyes selected to the freezer then to the clipboard and I grimaced while stepping away. “Bodies,” I announced. “He’s got dead bodies in all these freezers. Or parts of them, I don’t know. Either way, it looks like this is the place where he was doing a lot of his dissection to figure out how to make new bodies or whatever.” 

Sounding a bit sick, Izzy weakly noted, “I guess that means we’re in the right place? I mean… not really the right place, but…” She trailed off, shaking her head. 

“Yeah, doesn’t feel like a place we really want to be,” I agreed, “But it’s probably the best shot we’ve got. So let’s look around.” Even as I said that, my eyes were widening. “We’ve gotta check all these freezers, don’t we?” 

“Check the clipboards,” Paige advised, already moving to the opposite side of the room to start working her way down the line there. See if you can find any that don’t sound like a person who was alive before.” 

“We’ll work on that,” Amber put in before nudging Izzy. “You should check the tables for anything useful. We still need one of those orbs.” 

We all knew what she was doing, making it so Izzy didn’t have to go down the row of freezers and potentially have to open some of them to check inside. And I was glad for that. Izzy had been through more than enough emotional turmoil tonight. She didn’t need to deal with… that. I wasn’t exactly thrilled about doing it myself, obviously, but still. She deserved a break. 

So, we searched down at the line of freezers on either side. Unfortunately, none of the clipboards said anything about a newly built body or anything like that. They all listed birth and death dates as well as causes. Some of them had the information crossed off in red ink, followed by a third date and either a checkmark or the word ‘disposed.’ My best guess was that that meant he had either used that body or discarded it. 

This whole situation was incredibly morbid, to say the least. And I was desperately hoping that we wouldn’t have to actually open the freezers. But I was starting to worry that we wouldn’t have another choice. We couldn’t risk walking away from this place without checking if there was the slightest chance he had simply stuffed one of his prototype biolem bodies inside one of them. And it was looking more and more like we wouldn’t find one conveniently labeled as such. 

We started with the freezers that were labeled as the bodies having been used, of course. Amber and I both stood in front of one, looking at the clipboard announcing that the body had been ‘disposed’ about six years earlier. Exchanging glances, the two of us sighed heavily together, then reached out to grab the heavy metal bar on the door. Neither of us wanted to do it alone. With a pair of grunts, we hauled the door open, bracing ourselves for… 

Nothing. There was nothing in that freezer, just as the clipboard had promised. Well, almost nothing. The space within the freezer was basically coffin-sized (which just made the whole thing even worse, and the walls were covered in blood and… and probably other body stuff that I really didn’t want to think about. It also smelled so bad that I instantly recoiled and gagged against the mask, barely keeping my stomach under control. Amber was in much the same boat, but managed to shove the door shut first. 

“Don’t you–ugh, love being a superhero?” she asked while half-doubled over and clearly doing her level best not to lose her dinner. 

Grimacing, I gave a short nod, breathing heavily. “Yeah, it’s fantastic. Nothing but glory and sunshine for this job.” Even as I said that, my eyes were scanning the row of freezers. Oh god. If an empty one smelled that bad, how was it going to be when we had to open one with an actual dead body in it? The freezers–damn it, this was not my idea of a good time. 

Unlike Amber and me, Paige–no wait, that was Raige– was on the other side of the room opening one door after another, looking inside before muttering a curse, and moving on. Somehow that made me feel worse, like I was making such a big deal out of this while she was just fine with it. She was looking for a body she could use, a body she could live in. And here I was just being a baby about smelling some–okay yeah it was still awful. But still. 

Before I could think too much more about that, Izzy abruptly called out from the far end of the room where she had been sorting through a pile of stuff in a large crate there. “Hey! Hey, I think I–look.” She turned as the rest of us looked that way, holding up something in one hand. It was a small metal ball about–oh. 

Raige was there in a second, literally shoving one of the other tables out of the way and sending a small pile of tools crashing to the floor in the process. “Wait, is that–holy fuck, kid, I could kiss you right now.” Even as she said that, the girl was taking the orb from Izzy’s hand. “This is–this is it. I mean it’s not perfect, it’s not the most advanced version, but I can definitely use it.” 

Amber and I arrived then, looking at the thing. Just like the one I had seen back in the warehouse when Paige cut open that biolem’s head, the orb was baseball-sized and had a series of various-colored flashing lights along it. I could see a collection of short, maybe three-inch wires sticking out of the bottom, which probably extended when the orb was… inserted. I remembered the other one had had those wires leading down through the body to control various parts. 

“So you can use that?” Amber asked, giving the thing a long look. 

Shifting just a bit as she stared down at it, Raige gave a short nod. “Yeah, get me a body to plug it into and we’re in business. But this is a great start, pipsqueak.” She reached out to give Izzy a light punch in the shoulder. 

“Probably shouldn’t call her that.” That was Paige, clearly. “I think she’s earned a better name than pipsqueak.” Even as she said that, the girl was clearly examining the ball in her hand. 

“It’s a term of affection,” Raige announced. “Anyway, this looks like the start of home sweet home. Now let’s find an actual–” 

“Hey, look at this.” Amber, who had stepped away to the other side of the table where Izzy had found the orb, put her hand against the wall. “This bit here looks a little–” Her hand pushed hard against that bit of wall, and it abruptly shoved inward. Hidden door. There was a hidden door in this already-hidden room. Whatever was in there, Pittman definitely didn’t want anyone to find it.

One by one, we slipped through that hidden door, and found ourselves in a much smaller room. This one was barely large enough for the four of us to stand in along with the large metal tube taking up most of the space. It was about four feet across and six feet high, and had a large computer console next to it that seemed to be displaying a bunch of information that I couldn’t even keep track of. But the gist I got from it was that this might be exactly what we were looking for. 

Sure enough, Paige smiled. “This is it. This is what we need.” 

Her face shifted then, as Raige spoke. “Could uhh, could the rest of you wait outside for a minute, huh?” I could tell she felt a little awkward, which was strange to see coming from her. “This bit’s a little personal. Like changing clothes.” 

Amber, Izzy, and I exchanged glances before collectively shrugging. Then we moved back to the larger room, stepping away while talking a bit to each other about what was going on. Not that we had very productive things to say. We were all exhausted by this point. All I wanted to do was go back home and sleep. Especially knowing that I was going to have to get up in a few hours and go to school if I didn’t want my parents to suspect anything. And now it was even more crucial that they didn’t. 

Eventually, Paige stepped out of the room. She grimaced a bit when we looked that way. 

“You okay?” Amber asked. “I mean, are you… you?” 

“I’m me. Just me,” Paige confirmed. “We made the transfer, but uh, we’ve got a umm, maybe a slight… uncomfortable… a uhh, issue with–” 

“Fuck it, I’ll show ‘em!” A voice called from in the room. Something about it made me blink. Something very famili–

And then Raige stepped into view in her new body. Only she didn’t look like Paige. And she certainly didn’t look like any random person. 

The hair was different, long on both sides rather than short on one, and without the dyed tips. But other than that, her new body… was me. 

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Dig In 22-06 (Summus Proelium)

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“That son of a bitch!” Amber’s words were accompanied by the sound of her fist slamming down into the wooden table that she, Izzy, and I were sitting at in a corner of the random park I had brought them to so I could explain the whole situation with Benjamin Pittman. We were all dressed in our civilian clothes so we wouldn’t attract attention, though I was pretty sure it wouldn’t matter what we were dressed in if too many people heard that sort of outburst. Thankfully, the park was basically empty at this point. Probably because so many people didn’t feel safe being out on the streets with the war going on. 

Izzy, meanwhile, slumped back on the bench, staring intently off into the distance with her brow furrowed. “Do… do you think he has her? Or did he just get the phone number? Can they tell where the call came from, or from what phone?” 

My head shook. “According to Wren, that’s being blocked on their end just like it’s blocked on ours. Well, not just like. She went into some long technical explanation, but the end result is the same. We don’t know where it’s coming from. It could be the same phone or a different one. She said that maybe she can do something more with the call that comes in tomorrow, but she’s not sure. Depends on how well he or his people are blocking the signal or whatever.” 

Amber was sighing heavily. “I can’t believe after everything you guys did to get Paige’s sister out of danger, now she’s suddenly right in the middle of it.” 

“Yeah…” Trailing off, I looked back and forth between the two of them. I was wondering if either or both of them knew that Irelyn Banners was Flea. So far, they hadn’t reacted as though they did, but maybe they were just extraordinarily good at hiding it. Which I didn’t blame them for. If they did know, they probably saw it as not their place to expose the woman’s identity. Even though it was important information. I was having that same problem. They worked alongside her all the time and if they didn’t know who she was, it was because she didn’t want them to. But on the other hand, if I asked about it, they would know, and I would be taking that choice away from her. Yet on the third hand, knowing who she was could end up being incredibly important in the future if we had to help her. 

I just… I had no idea. Just like talking about my family, bringing up the subject wasn’t something I could do over. It almost makes me wish that my power included the ability to rewind in case I did something wrong. What color paint would that be? 

“Cass?” Amber was looking at me curiously. “Is something wrong? Err, I mean something beyond the obvious.” 

No, I couldn’t talk about it right now. It wasn’t my place to expose who Irelyn really was if they didn’t know. At least not right at this moment. Maybe once we knew more about what was going on, I could make a better decision. If Benjamin Pittman just had the phone number or the phone itself and Irelyn was free, that would be a very different sort of situation than if he or his men had her. Yeah, that was my best move. I would hold off on telling these two the truth about her until I knew more. Which sounded a bit like a cop-out in my head, but what else was I supposed to do? If I flat out told them when I didn’t need to, I would be exposing someone else’s secret identity, and I knew for sure how I would feel if someone did that to me. 

It might turn out that I didn’t have a choice, but for the moment, I wasn’t going to leap that far. So, I shrugged. “There’s a lot of things wrong. And I’m nervous about this whole tunnel thing. It’s a lot more important now, you know? I mean, not that it wasn’t important before, but we need to get done with this. We need to get in there and find a new body for Raige.” 

“She wants to help?” Amber asked, frowning thoughtfully. “I thought she was gonna take her new body and run off on her own.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “I’m pretty sure that was her original plan, but now she wants to deal with their dad. Honestly, I don’t know how much of that is because she cares about Irelyn, and how much is because she’s pissed at Benjamin for betraying and trying to kill her. Maybe six of one, half a dozen of another. But either way, she wants to be involved now. And I’m not going to argue against that, considering we could use all the help we can get.” 

Izzy picked herself up from the table, arms folded against her chest as she turned to look out at the distant street. “Do you think we should move up the plan to get in the base? I mean, we don’t know how long their sister might have, or how much trouble she’s in.” 

I thought about it briefly before shaking my head. “Wren needs all the time she can get to run the suits through last minute checks. She’s already working her butt off. I think she said something about expecting a shipment of important stuff for this sometime today. Whatever it is, I don’t want to stress her out even more by taking a full day away from her. The poor kid needs more time, you know? Tomorrow night is already soon enough.” Wincing at my own words, I amended, “At least, I hope it is.” Thoughts about how guilty I would feel if it turned out that that time had been crucial when this was over ran through my head, but I stuck to it. I was worried about Irelyn, yet if we went rushing in there without everything being ready, we stood a good chance of losing everything. So, hard as it was, we had to just wait, and hope that the woman was okay.

Shaking off those thoughts, I took a deep breath. “And now I have to go spend time with my ex and his new boyfriend so I can try to figure out what either or both of them have to do with my family’s criminal empire.” A brief pause followed before my face twisted. 

“On second thought, maybe going straight into that tunnel and getting into a fight with a bunch of murderers isn’t such a bad plan after all.” 

*******

In the end, of course, I went with the smarter plan, no matter how much it made my stomach twist itself into knots. Part of me wished I could justify making excuses to not show up, but Wren really did need time to finish her thing. And we weren’t even sure if Pack would be able to get away from La Casa today. Not to mention I didn’t want to attract any new problems by changing plans at the last second. Going in half-cocked was a recipe for disaster. 

So, I showed up at the mall food court as planned. I was a few minutes early, and yet I could see Tomas and Maki sitting together at one of the tables, talking and laughing together. It was a sight that made me pause, my stomach trying to do a three-sixty pop shove-it (skateboarding trick) inside my torso. 

I was early. They probably wanted more time alone. I would be interrupting if I went over there. This whole thing was a bad idea, a terrible idea. I should just turn around and walk out. I could call on my way through the parking lot and tell Tomas I couldn’t make it. Even if I didn’t go into the tunnel today, obviously there was other stuff I could do. I could go back and help Wren at the shop. That was even more important than spending time figuring out what was up with Maki, wasn’t it? At the very least, it was of more immediate importance. I wasn’t a technical genius or anything, but I could hold stuff or fetch things for Wren. I could totally help out around there. Yeah, that made sense. Getting everything ready to go into the tunnel was a lot more important right now. There was no need for me to be here, no need for me to–

“Cassie!” Tomas, of course, had noticed me as I stood there indecisively, and was now waving to get my attention. “Over here!” 

Well fuck, now I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t exactly turn around and walk away before calling to make excuses. That probably wouldn’t go over very well. Even if–no, Cassidy. Pushing all such thoughts out of my mind, I took a deep breath and walked that way while forcing a smile that I hoped was at least vaguely convincing. “There you guys are. I thought you’d be a lot harder to find. This place isn’t very busy, huh?” 

Maki had already stood up and turned, tugging a chair out for me. Their gaze met mine with a smile that seemed both genuine and curious. “Good to see you again, Miss Evans.” 

My face twisted once more and I gave a quick, almost frantic headshake while sliding into the chair they had pulled out. “Cassidy. Just Cassidy. Or Cass. Or–whatever. Call me Dumbo for all I care. Just not Miss Evans, nothing like that.” 

“Hey, is that D–” Tomas started. 

“Dumbo is not open to you too,” I retorted before he could continue. “That offer is only open to your better half here.” My head nodded toward Maki before I added, “Maybe I should call him your better three-quarters? How much would you say you’re contributing to this whole thing?” 

“Ouch.” Putting a hand against his heart, Tomas made a show of groaning. “A mortal wound, and only five seconds into the outing. However will I survive the hours ahead of us?” 

“Maybe you won’t,” I primly replied. “Maybe you’ll die, and then your boyfriend and I can have all the fun we were all gonna have today but for two-thirds of the cost.” 

Yeah, I had no idea how I managed to sound so casual and even tease him like that. Inwardly, I was a mess. Maybe it just came from the practice I had with hiding my real feelings from my family and acting normal around them. Was that a good thing or a bad thing? I genuinely wasn’t sure. 

Tomas interrupted my musings by rapping his fist against the table. “Okay, well, until I keel over and give both of you a cheaper outing, why don’t we get this show on the road? I know we said we’d get lunch first, but I was thinking we should work up an appetite. And, as I recall, you were saying a lot of big words about how you were going to check my arse at the mini-golf in this place. So let’s see if you can put your rented club where your mouth is.”  

“Ew,” I retorted, “I’m not putting one of those clubs anywhere near my mouth. Do you have any idea what sort of people hold them? That’s disgusting.” 

“She has a point,” Maki confirmed, looking at Tomas with a shrug. “That is pretty gross, and I have to say, if you let one of those clubs anywhere near your mouth, we might have to break up.” 

“No licking rented sports equipment, got it.” Pantomiming checking that off an invisible list, Tomas added, “It’s important to know the do’s and don’ts of any relationship.” He glanced toward me, mouth opening as though he was going to say something. But then he caught himself and gave a slight headshake, clearly thinking better of it. Instead, the boy simply rose to his feet. “But that doesn’t change the fact that Cass over here has been talking a lot of shite about her golfing, and it’s time for her to put up or… well, put up.” He winked at me. “Sorry, can’t let you get away with just shutting up. Not now.” 

“Good,” I shot back, pushing myself up as well before poking him in the chest. “Cuz I wasn’t planning on it. In fact, I may kick your butt so bad that our next stop will be the hospital so you can get some ointment.” 

Maki, looking back and forth between us, asked, “Were you two this competitive while you were dating?” 

“Worse,” Tomas informed him. “She’s mellowed out lately.” With a wink my way, the boy gestured. “And she’ll mellow out even more once she loses, so let’s get that over with.

“After all, how good could she be at mini-golf?” 

******

As it happened, the answer to Tomas’s question was apparently ‘very good.’ Which, yes, was partly because I had practiced at our home course. But I was also pretty sure that my spatial awareness power or whatever the hell it was helped a lot. Not that I was trying to cheat or anything, but I just… knew where to hit the ball to be most efficient. It wasn’t perfect, and I did my best not to overly exploit it, even going so far as to intentionally miss a few times. But still, I scored the best on the mall course I ever had.

I wasn’t the only one who did really well either. Maki actually kept pace with me, their own score remaining neck and neck with mine throughout the course. I had no idea what being able to shapeshift from male to female and back again had to do with being good at mini-golf. But then again, I didn’t know what projecting paint that provided various effects had to do with being good at mini-golf either. Maybe Touched were just naturals at it. Or–yeah, I had no idea. 

Even Tomas wasn’t having a terrible day, but he couldn’t keep up with the two of us, and the whole match rapidly became a two-person race. I was even fine with letting Maki win, shoving  down the competitive spirit that tried to take over once or twice. But when I started intentionally doing worse, Maki still didn’t pull ahead. It was like they were matching their own game to mine, or something. I started to think they were trying to do the same thing I was trying to do, let the other person win by just a little bit. While still beating Tomas, of course. I wasn’t feeling that uncompetitive. 

In the end, I managed to let Maki take the lead on the last hole, close as it was. At that point we still weren’t that hungry, so the three of us went to see a movie in the mall theater before heading back to the food court for lunch. Obviously, I didn’t get much of a chance to talk during the show, so that was basically a wash as far as finding out more about Maki went. Thankfully, golfing and eating were a different story. I had to talk a fair bit about myself and my family, of course, so it didn’t come off like an interrogation. But that still gave me an excuse to ask questions as well. I managed to find out things like Maki’s parents’ names, general ages, a few dates of when they had lived in different places that I could maybe use to check against stuff I might end up finding in my family’s secret base–the one just under our feet, actually– and a couple other things that probably weren’t important. 

This was hard. I couldn’t even act like I knew that Maki was both male and female, let alone ask the sort of questions I really wanted to. I came close a couple of times to just grabbing them by the shoulders and demanding to know what they knew about everything. Especially about why they had been arguing with what was presumably their family before Tomas’s dad showed up and took them away in his own car. But something told me being that open about it wouldn’t lead to anything good, or useful. Or even if it did, I probably wouldn’t like dealing with the cost. 

“Now see, this is what confuses me.” That was Tomas, lounging in his seat in the food court where we had our food spread out over the table. “My chips?” He picked up one of his french fries, studied it, then popped it into his mouth and considered. “They’re okay. Cassie’s chips?” His hand sneaking out, grabbing one of mine before I could stop him from eating that as well. “Better than mine. Probably because they’re stolen and everyone knows how much better crime food tastes. But still…” His hand moved to Maki’s tray then, taking one of their fries. That one he put in his mouth and savored with a murmur. “But these ones? These ones are perfect. Plump, crispy, hot, just the right amount of salt, just… perfect. How does that happen? We all got our food from the same place at the same time. So how does he end up with chips that are so much better than either of us?”

Visibly blushing, Maki squirmed a bit in their seat before offering a shrug. “Pretty sure it’s just in your head. You know, that stolen food being better thing. Is that an actual thing, or did you make it up?” 

“It’s definitely a thing,” Tomas confirmed. “Criminal food always tastes better.” He stopped to think about that before musing, “Not that I’ve had a lot of it, but I do remember sneaking into my family’s fridge after midnight to eat a Scotch egg after I was supposed to be in bed, and they always tasted better then.” 

Blinking at him, I asked, “I’m sorry, eating a what?” 

“Scotch egg?” He looked at me, head tilting. “Don’t tell me you people don’t even know what those are.” 

Maki spoke up then, taking pity on my confusion. “It’s a boiled egg that’s been wrapped in sausage and then covered with breading before being baked or deep-fried. You might’ve heard of it as a bird’s nest or something like that.” 

My head shook. “Nope, I am pretty sure I’ve never heard of anything like that.” 

“Your loss,” Tomas informed me. “Well, I could say they taste better stolen in the middle of the night when you’re supposed to be asleep. So maybe you could get your parents to buy some, then sneak downstairs and take them in the middle of the night. Pretty sure that’s the only way you’ll get the full effect.” 

I started to tell the boy that I would get right on that, but before I could, Maki abruptly stood up while blurting what sounded like a curse in Japanese. Immediately, they flushed a bit self-consciously before apologizing. “This has been a lot of fun, really. We should do it again. But I’ve got to go help my family deal with something.” They waved their phone vaguely, as though that explained anything.” 

Tomas blinked that way. “You haven’t finished your food yet? And–” 

“Sorry,” Maki interrupted. Their face twisted a little. Partly with guilt about taking off so unexpectedly, I was sure, but also something else. It looked like they were almost in pain, like they were barely holding themselves together. 

Or stopping themselves from shifting, I realized. I didn’t know if Tomas knew about their power, but I certainly wasn’t supposed to. Not to mention anyone else who might notice in the middle of this food court. The place was even less busy than it had been earlier, but it wasn’t exactly empty. What if Maki couldn’t control their shifts that well? Were they running off and making weak excuses about it because they were about to shift sex from male to female? 

While I was still realizing what was probably going on, Maki had already made another apology before heading off. They were walking quickly, slipping between a couple crowded tables on their way to what looked like the exit. Which made me wonder just how long they could hold off their shift, if that was what the issue was. 

“I promise, it wasn’t you.” That was Tomas, noticing the way my gaze was following Maki. “He’s just like that sometimes. You know, has to run off and take care of one thing or another. I think he gets overwhelmed. Just don’t take it personally. He liked you. Likes you, I mean.” 

Shaking off all the thoughts running through my head, I managed a smile. “That’s cool. I like him too. I mean… you did well. You did good. You’re good. You’re–this is awkward.” Wincing, I took a breath before letting it out. “I’m glad you found someone that’s cool to be with. It would’ve sucked to lose you to someone who was terrible.” 

“So I shouldn’t date Arleigh or Paige, got it,” the boy remarked with a wink before considering. “Speaking of which, how long do you think Paige is gonna be gone? I know it was her birthday and her parents are rich and all, but even they can’t keep her out of school for the rest of the semester.” 

Coughing despite myself, I shrugged. “Who knows? I mean, I’m not a fortune teller or anything. 

“But something tells me we’ll be seeing Paige again pretty soon.” 

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