Amber O’Connell

Legwork 3-03 (Summus Proelium)

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“Man, I still can’t believe you get to come here whenever you want.”

Amber was the one talking, and ‘here’ was the White Pines Country Club. It was a pretty exclusive place. A pretty exclusive place that my parents happened to be on the board of directors of. We’d been members basically my whole life.

I wondered how many of the other important members were also supervillains.

Feeling self-conscious (for a few reasons), I shrugged at both Amber and Jae, who sat next to her. The three of us were out on one of the balconies overlooking the golf course, sitting on some admittedly incredibly plush and comfortable chairs. “It’s not a big deal. Your families could probably join up if they wanted to. I mean, we all go to the same school, you know.”

Taking a sip of her virgin strawberry daiquiri, Amber shook her head. “No, see, our families are comfortable. High end of comfortable. Yours is filthy stinking rich. There’s a difference.”

“It’s not just filthy stinking rich people who come here,” I pointed out. “If it was, there’d be like, four members.” Shifting in my seat as I tried to push my thoughts away from that one about how many of the people I saw here all the time might be evil, I looked to the quiet Jae. “Besides, with how cool she looks, I bet you guys could get in all on your own.”

“It’s true,” Amber agreed with a wink at her friend, “she is pretty cool.”

Jae, who was wearing dark shades and a large sun hat to help keep her sensitive skin from burning so easily while we were out here in the open, flushed a little and took a drink from her iced tea. Her voice was very soft as she suggested, “We should probably start.”

“She’s got a point.” Looking to Amber, I added, “We should get to it. I just figured coming out here might be a nice change of pace from holing up the library or whatever. But we can still work on the project without too many distractions.”

Clearly distracted, the dark-haired girl stared at a passing woman in a short tennis skirt. “Uh huh, not too many distractions. Sounds yummy–I mean good.” She looked back to me. “Good.”

Giving her a disbelieving stare, I shook my head while muttering, “Has anyone ever told you that you’re as bad as a guy?”

Her response was a Cheshire grin. “Bad wasn’t the word they used.” Before I could respond to that, her eyes glanced over my shoulder as she added a quiet, “Heads up.”

I turned, just in time to see basically the last person I wanted to run into (okay, there were a few lower on that list, like Janus). It was Simon, dressed in his own tennis outfit as he smiled broadly while sidling up to the table. “Well, if it isn’t my little sister and her friends. And here I thought you didn’t like watching golf.”

“I don’t,” I retorted. “I like playing it, but it’s boring to watch. Thankfully, it looks like a lot of people agree with me.” I gestured around the mostly empty balcony to illustrate that fact. “So this is a quiet place to work.” Pausing pointedly before making my voice sound as lightly teasing as possible, I added, “Or at least, it used to be.”

“Psst,” Simon stage-whispered toward Jae with a slight smile. “I think she’s talking to you. There’s already been noise complaints about the racket you’re making out here.”

Jae, in turn, sank a bit in her seat while apparently trying to hide behind her iced tea glass. Her reply was a very quiet, “They must have very sensitive hearing.”

“Ears like rabbits, I tell you,” Simon agreed, winking before he looked to me. “Anyway, I just thought I’d see if my little sister was bored.”

“Bored? Not until you showed up,” I tried to tease before giving him a firm pushing motion with both hands. “So why don’t you let us get back to work before you put us to sleep?”

Snorting, he gave me a light jab at the shoulder before stepping back. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’ll stop crowding you guys and let you work. You don’t need a ride home, do you?”

The thought of being alone in a car with him made me repress an almost violent shudder. It was all I could do to keep the revulsion off my face while quietly replying, “I think I can manage.”

With a nod to the other two, he headed off. Amber, watching him go, murmured, “Something about him bugs me.” She jolted a little then, as I caught the slight motion of Jae subtly kicking her under the table, eyes finding me. “I mean… um, sorry.” Flushing as she clearly just realized she’d been talking out loud, the girl gestured. “I guess we should work, huh?”

“Yup. And don’t worry, I uhh, I get it.” Leaving it at that, I reached down to grab the bag at my side, taking a book out to set on the table. “Right, so… Laura Cereta.

“Let’s see what history has to say about you.”

******

Hours later, we’d done enough on the project for the day, so Jae and Amber had gone off to do… whatever they were going to do. I, meanwhile, was standing on the roof of a building downtown, dressed in my costume. Because it was time for me to started on my other project. Namely, finding either Ashton himself, or at least those vials, so Blackjack’s daughter didn’t die.

Yeah, I had a feeling this project was going to be harder than the other one.

Face covered by the ski mask but with the helmet hanging loosely from one hand, I tried to think. What did I know? Or at least, what could I be pretty sure of?

I was pretty sure that Ashton guy was still in the city. Mostly because what he took had to be useless for him personally. It was valuable only as a way of getting money out of Blackjack, or one of the other gangs. Unless I was really off, my guess was that he was going to lie low until it was clear they couldn’t find him in time, then find a way to start auctioning it off. He’d try to get money out of Blackjack, or out of one of the other gang leaders who wanted to take the vial to get control and concessions out of the man. Or just to fuck with him. Either way, it was only worthwhile to Ashton as something to sell. And the only people interested in buying it would be the ones here in this city. So he was probably hiding out somewhere within it.

But where? He had basically the entire city looking for him. Cops, heroes, villains, entire gangs were going to be roving the city, turning over every stone they could to find this guy. He wouldn’t be able to hide anywhere they could find out about. Every family member, every friend, they’d tear through every clue to drag him out. They’d be going through showing his picture at every motel, homeless shelter, bed and breakfast, taxi driver, bar, everywhere. And yet, despite all the people out scouring the city, apparently he was still safely hidden.  

So how was he doing it? Why had no one been able to find him, even with what had to be incredibly intense motivation? And how was I going to do any better than they were?

I needed to think outside the box. I needed to figure out where to look that everyone else wasn’t already looking. Obviously, Ashton wasn’t stupid enough to stay somewhere he could easily be noticed. My guess was that, wherever he was, he hadn’t left for a long time. Probably since he stole the vials to begin with. He’d most likely set the place up far ahead of time, so he had food, water, everything he needed to stay holed up without venturing out to be recognized.

Also, I realized belatedly, he’d probably only ever gone there in disguise. There was too big of a chance of someone noticing a new person fitting his description. So, be it a wig and glasses or… or whatever, anyone around where he was staying had probably never seen the real him.

Right, unless I was wrong, this guy was holed up somewhere he wouldn’t have to come out of for a long time and was disguised so that no one around would recognize him.

How the hell was I supposed to work with that?

“You got any ideas, Pinky?” My question was addressed not to a cartoon mouse, but toward the blob of pink paint that I had sprayed out onto the nearby wall. Glancing to it, I waited until it was painfully clear that no answer was forthcoming. “Right, so you’re not ‘magically instill answers’ paint. Got it.” Scratch that off the list of possible powers the pink stuff could’ve been hiding.

“I guess I’ll have to do this myself then. Hmm.” Frowning behind the mask, I moved to the edge of the roof and looked down. I’d come to a place across the street from the bank in question, hoping it would give me some ideas to work with. But even looking at it now, I still wasn’t sure.  

Unless… apartments. Right, so I could guess that he’d set up an apartment ahead of time, and that it was stocked with everything he needed. But I was also pretty sure that it would be somewhere within walking distance of the bank. Because he wouldn’t want to take his car there to be found, and there was no way he’d risk a cab or Uber driver remembering him. So he’d walk. Beyond that, he’d also probably want to change into his disguise on the way, rather than doing so at the bank where his disguise would be seen, or at the apartment where his real self would be seen. He’d want to leave the bank as his real self, change somewhere along the way, and show up at his hideout in his disguise. That made sense, right? Yeah, totally made sense.

So apartments within walking distance of the bank, preferably with a place he could stop and change at. Either a fast food or gas station bathroom, some other store, an alley, something. There were probably a few that fit that bill, depending on how far he’d want to walk. Not longer than ten to fifteen minutes or so, I was guessing, since he would want to get out of sight quick. But not much less or he’d be too close to the bank. He’d want a sweet middle ground where he felt safely distant from them, but close enough to get to and hide in time.

Okay, then step one in this plan that was slowly taking shape in my head was to identify potential apartments that could fit that bill.

With that in mind, I put the helmet on my head, adjusted it, and then took a few steps back. Taking a breath to brace myself, I ran forward, painted my legs purple, and leapt as high and far off the roof as I could before extending a hand to shoot a burst of red paint toward the antennae sticking off the edge of the next roof over. Using that to yank myself across the distance before disabling the red paint on my hand, I tucked myself into a flip to fall just under that antennae, landing on the roof on both feet before sprinting once more.

I was going apartment hunting.

******

Cripes, there were a lot of apartments in Detroit.

Yeah, a lot. Even narrowing it down the way I had still left more than I’d thought there would be. Being incredibly picky about it, I ended up with six strong possibilities. Six apartment complexes that were within the right distance, that seemed private and quiet enough, and generally fit the idea I’d had in my head. If none of those six panned out, I’d have to expand. But I’d start there.

To that end, I was crouched on the roof of yet another building (I was becoming very acquainted with roofs already), watching the nearest possibility. It was a small complex that amounted to four main buildings, all in a line, with dog paths between the first two and a pool between the others. There was a high fence all the way around the whole place, with a gated parking lot.

It was late enough that the windows of the main office were dark. They’d been closed up for a few hours by that point, the employees long gone aside from possibly a night manager, who didn’t work in the main office itself.

So the main office was clear. Exactly as I wanted. Looking around briefly to make sure I wasn’t being watched, I used a purple strength boost combined with a blue springboard to fling myself high into the air, then red-paint-yanked myself across the street and down toward the building in question. A shot of black made sure my landing would be silent, as I came down in a crouch.

Waiting there for a minute just to see if anyone had seen anything, I couldn’t hear any reactions. So I slid over to the far side of the roof, leaning over to carefully look through the window.

Nothing. It was dark aside from the light from the screen savers on a couple computer monitors. Which was just perfect for me. Aside from the fact that I was about to technically break into a place illegally. Yeah, I probably needed to work on that whole ‘hero’ thing. But this was important. Plus, I wouldn’t actually be stealing anything. Nor would I be really be breaking.

Nope, no breaking here. Instead, I boosted myself back up onto the roof and took a phone from my pocket. This one wasn’t mine, it was a pay-as-you-go phone I’d picked up from a gas station. I’d already taken it from the package and made sure it worked, and now I used it to look up the number of the after-hours office for this place. Dialing it in before lifting the front of my helmet and mask, I carefully moved the slider on my voice changer over to the first option.

“Yeah?” aman release voice grumpily spoke up. “I mean, ahh, Four Pines Apartments, how can I help you?”

“Yes, hello,” I started. My voice sounded like an old woman. Mostly because I was pretty sure no one on the other end of the phone would have listened to either my regular voice or the one I used that sounded like a fourteen year old boy. “I think someone might’ve made a mistake at your office, young man.”

There was a brief pause before the guy replied, a little uncertainly. “Sorry, ma’am, if you have a problem with your bill, I’m sure you can–”

“Oh, no, no, no,” I interrupted. “This isn’t a complaint. I’m just calling to warn you that someone left the door to the main office open. My little Posey almost ran right in there after the squirrel. I shut the door so no one else would go rooting through your things, but it’s still there. The squirrel, that is.”

The man on the phone clearly had to take a second at that, realizing he wasn’t about to be sworn out by an angry tenant. “Oh–I–right, thank you, Miss…?”

“You’re quite welcome, young man. Have a good evening.”

With those words, I disconnected. There, that should do it. Laying on my stomach, I carefully watched the path leading up to the main door into the office.

I didn’t have to wait long. Within a couple minutes, I spotted a figure moving quickly along the sidewalk from one of the other buildings. Laying flat, my costume painted black, I watched as a man in his late twenties approached, grumbling to himself. Slowing as he approached, I heard the man mutter about people not locking the door, just as he went to open it.

“What…” There was a brief pause, then a jangle of keys as the man unlocked the door before carefully stepping inside. “Hello? Squirrel? Are there any squirrels in here?”

Leaning carefully over the edge of the roof, I peered down and watched. The man made his way into the office. As soon as he was through the door, I activated the black paint to silence myself, dropping behind him before quickly and carefully scooting through the doorway. There was a small lobby, with several private offices attached to it. The man was standing in the middle, looking around for the supposed squirrel. Quickly, I slipped to the right, through the open doorway of one of the offices to slip out of sight.

The man looked around a little bit more, but it was pretty half-hearted now that he’d found the door locked. I heard him talking to himself as he tried calling the number of the phone that had called him, but I’d already turned it off.

Finally, he gave up and stomped out, locking the door behind him. Once he was definitely gone, I straightened up and moved to the nearby computer.

Password locked. And no convenient password written down anywhere. Damn. But there were still several more computers. I moved quickly to the next office.

They were apparently pretty security conscious here, at least as far as computers went. Or they were used to other employees trying to snoop on them. All the computers were locked, but I was able to find a password written on a post-it note inside one of the desk drawers of the last office. That opened the computer, and I went through the files, looking for resident information.

There it was. They had it in an Excel file, which I brought up and sorted by date, looking for anyone who had rented an apartment within the past six months. Ashton might’ve started this further back than that, but I was kind of doubting it.

Once I had that list of nine possibilities, I looked at other criteria. Anyone with more than one person living there was immediately dismissed. I also looked at birthdates, mentally crossing out anyone who was definitely too old to be Ashton in a simple disguise.

Doing all that left three possibilities. Three different apartments. Noting where they were on the handy map posted on the wall, I turned everything back off, then carefully opened a nearby window and slipped out to climb back on the roof. Three apartments to play peeping tom at, just to see if any of the people in there looked like they could be Ashton.

They didn’t. One was a black guy, and the other two were Hispanic. None were white, and none looked anything like the picture I’d looked up of the man I was looking for. While he could have been in disguise even in the confines of his safe apartment, I kind of doubted it. And it wouldn’t have been that much of a disguise.

So, unless I’d missed something, these apartments were a bust. But that still left another five possibilities to check.

Yeah, it was gonna be a long night.

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Interlude 2C – Carousel (Summus Proelium)

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“Jae!” The shouted name was accompanied by a series of increasingly loud knocks against the wooden door. “Come on! Get up! I’m gonna be late for work, and you know what happens then? They don’t hire me for another episode and you’ll have single-handedly destroyed my career! Come on!” The cajoling words were punctuated by two more quick bangs against the door, and a heavy, audible sigh.

Sitting up in bed, Jae Baek opened her eyes, glancing around the small room. The bed itself took up about half the space, while her dresser and desk occupied a substantial portion of what was left. The albino-Asian girl slipped her legs off the bed into the single bit of open space right between her desk chair, her bed, and the door. Just as another knock started to come, she opened the door (very nearly taking a fist to the forehead in the process). Standing there in her pajama bottoms and tee shirt, she faced the woman outside the door. Or rather, she faced the woman’s shoes. Jae’s gaze remained low, as usual, while her voice was also soft and polite. “Good morning, Kella. I’ll be ready in ten minutes, as soon as I shower.”

“Hurry,” the overly botoxed and heavily bleached blonde woman urged, annoyance clear in her voice. “I don’t have time to wait around while you sleep in to all hours. Some of us have responsibilities, you know.” With that, she spun on a heel and walked away, high heels clicking on the hardwood floor.

With a quiet sigh, Jae turned to take clothes from the nearby dresser before heading for the bathroom across the hall. She could hear the woman making as much noise as possible in the kitchen, just to make it absolutely and perfectly clear how annoyed she was at having to wait.

With a soft sigh, as the things she could have said to the woman flooded her mind, Jae stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. It wasn’t worth the fight, even if she had been brave enough. Kella Song was her… step-adopted mother, of sorts. It was complicated. Jae, along with six other ‘ethnic’ children of varying ages (Jae being the youngest), had first been adopted by Timothy Wallace and Andrea Mars. The former was producer and director of various television shows, while the latter was an actress who had served as lead or co-lead of a couple movies and one long running drama series, the latter of which she had received awards and great accolades for.

A couple decades earlier, an award-winning television actress and her director-producer husband might have seemed very… out of place in Detroit, of all places. At least if they wanted to have any kind of career. But with the resurging economy in these past twenty years, and a rebuilt infrastructure, the city had become a good stand-in for other larger cities such as New York. It was useful when shows lacked the funding to actually film where they were supposed to be set.

In any case, Jae and her adopted siblings had been taken in by Andrea Mars and Timothy Wallace as part of a… giving back to the community or… something. With their wildly varying and nicely photogenic ethnicities (especially Jae hitting the mark of both Asian and albino), the two could parade their children around to show how much they cared about minorities.

That wasn’t fair. Timothy (she had never and would never refer to him as father) may have mostly seen the children for what they could do for his image, but Andrea had been the opposite of what Jae thought a vapid actress would be. She had genuinely cared for all of them, and spent as much time as she could with the group. It was Andrea who helped pull Jae at least a little out of the shell she had spent so long in before being adopted at the age of nine.

For a few years, things had been nice. Jae got to know her new siblings and mother, learned not to expect anything from Timothy, and actually began to enjoy herself. Even her small room was a personal choice rather than anything forced on her. Jae preferred not having a lot of space. That was the way she had grown up, in foster home after foster home. It was what felt natural.

But the time with her new family didn’t last. When Jae was thirteen, Andrea suffered a traumatic ruptured brain aneurysm and passed away before even reaching the hospital. Within a couple years of that, each of her adopted siblings had moved on to college or other things (Andrea had been the glue that kept them together), leaving Jae the only child in the house, and often the only person in the house, as Timothy took more jobs that kept him away.

It was that feeling of being abandoned, of having had a real (if unconventional) family for such a brief time before it was snatched away to leave her alone in a silent, dark house that had driven Jae to such emotional extremes that her Touched-sphere had appeared. The sphere which had given Jae her powers and introduced her to a new unconventional family, the Minority.  

Then Kella happened. Though she was younger than Andrea had been (and much younger mentally), the woman had already used enough plastic surgery to qualify for some kind of frequent patient award. She was a thirty-something clinging to her teens and the very short-lived success she’d had as an actress back then. And she was certainly in no mood or mindset to actually help raise a teenager when she herself had never truly grown beyond being one.

Kella and Timothy were married just before the man himself found great success once more on another show. That kept him very busy, so he was rarely home. Which left Kella and Jae alone most of the time. Kella, at Jae’s request, knew nothing about her being Touched or a member of the Minority. Timothy did, but he said nothing to Kella. For all the faults he may have had as far as actually spending much time with his adopted children went, he did keep his promises. And he had promised not to tell Kella until or unless Jae asked him to.

Besides, it wasn’t as though the woman ever expressed that much interest in anything Jae did.

What she was interested in was drinking. And also taking as many roles as she could. Even if those roles were almost exclusively either commercials or extremely minor ‘day player’ roles on an established show.

The drinking part was what had gotten her license revoked. Which meant that with her husband gone so often, the woman either took cabs or other ride sharing services to get to her roles, or she relied on Jae to drive her. Most of the time it was that second one, as it didn’t cost money.

Showering quickly before dressing, Jae made her way back out to find Kella waiting for her in the kitchen. The woman held out a bagel with sausage, egg, and cheese stuffed into it that she had taken from a box and heated in the microwave. “I made you breakfast,” she announced. “Come on, let’s go. If I’m late for this shoot, do you have any idea what that’ll do to my career?”

With a quiet, “Thank you,” Jae took the breakfast sandwich. It was nice of Kella, even if she was still acting so incredibly impatient. The woman wasn’t horrible (aside from that whole drinking problem), just… self-centered and not really the type of person to raise or care for a minor. She didn’t know how to handle Jae. Microwaving breakfast for her while demanding she be driven to her work because she’d lost her license for driving under the influence was par for the course.

She wasn’t abusive. She was… complicated. And unreliable. Complicated and unreliable, that summed up Kella Song well enough. She had never intended to be any kind of mother.

Heading outside while taking a bite of the bagel sandwich, Jae silently opened the back door and waited for Kella to get in, the woman making a muttered production about how much the director was going to chew her out for being late. Then Jae got in the front, starting the car before checking the time. She still had about forty minutes before classes started. Plenty of time to drop Kella off and get to school.

Did Kella even remember that Jae had school to go to after this? She genuinely wasn’t sure.

But hey, at least today would hopefully be less exciting than yesterday and last night had been. Jae just hoped no one lit any fuses on the powderkeg today. Or at least that they would wait until after school to do it.

It would just sort of be nice to get through all of her classes without having to go fight any supervillains.

******

On second thought, supervillains would have been nice. At least she could hit those problems.

That was the thought that occured to Jae a short time later, as she stood facing her locker. The actual lock part had been broken (not for the first time), and the door stood open to reveal an exciting collection of hate and vile.

First, there was the fact that everything in the locker reeked beyond belief, as what seemed to be a combination of sour cream, old milk, and rotten eggs had been thrown inside at some point the day before. It also looked like there were some mushed bananas in there for some reason.

On the door of the locker was a taped bit of paper that read, ‘Just in case you want to be even whiter, freak.’ Below that, written in marker on the door itself, were a series of notes, some barely legible. They reached all the way to the bottom of the locker, most written in different handwriting. Among other things, they read,  ‘Fuck off, mutant’, ‘Get out of our school’, ‘Eat shit and die’, and ‘Are you cuntagis? Cuz I’ll still fuck you if you put a bag over your head.’

It went on like that, with other fun misspellings and bits of horrific grammar.  And dicks. Lots of dicks. They were drawn all over the inside of her locker. One enterprising person had even gone beyond drawing to tape up an actual photograph of a penis.

Quietly, to the point of barely being audible, Jae whispered to herself, “For people who think that I’m such an untouchable freak, they sure are eager to let me know they have penises ready to go.”

It made her smile just a little bit, though it was a smile touched with resignation. With a sigh, she closed the locker door and turned to find the nearest janitor. In the process, she nearly ran right into Amber, the two of them both jerking back at the last second.

“Jae!” the dark-haired girl blurted. “God, do you smell that?” Her nose wrinkled. “What the hell is it?”

Quietly, Jae replied, “I think someone’s lunch went bad.” Leaving it at that, the girl started to walk. She was not going to have her teammate and friend feeling sorry for her. Or worse, trying to take care of it herself. Jae knew Amber well enough to be certain she would start throwing people around until someone talked. And as much as the girl would have appreciated the gesture, this was something she needed to deal with herself, or not at all.

The two of them walked together, talking for a few minutes until Jae said that she’d forgotten something. They were near Amber’s first class (a purposeful move), so she said goodbye to the other girl before heading back the way she’d come. On the way, she felt her friend’s eyes on her, but resisted the urge to look back. It only would have confirmed Amber’s obvious suspicions.

Instead, Jae made her way to one of the janitorial closets. There was usually at least one of the custodial staff around there right as school was about to start.

Sure enough, Frank Harrington was there, just filling one of his mop buckets. When Jae approached, the man looked up, smiling broadly. “Well, if it isn’t the only kid in this school who ever beats me at Scrabble. You up for a tie-breaker match later?”

“Maybe,” Jae agreed before adding, “Could I borrow some cleaner and a rag? I spilled some of my lunch in my locker yesterday and didn’t notice.”

Raising an eyebrow, Frank gave her an unconvinced look. “You spilled it?”

She met his gaze, pausing briefly before giving a single short nod. Her voice was even softer than usual. “I’m sorry.”

For a moment, it looked as though he might push things further. The man knew something else was wrong, and was clearly wondering if he should take this to the administration. In the end, he handed over a spray bottle, several rags, and some kind of air freshener. As Jae took them, he hesitated before speaking up. “You come back for that rematch, you hear? I’m gonna take the crown.”

“What crown?” the girl found herself asking.

“I’ll make a crown,” he declared, “and then I’ll take it.” Pointing at her, he added, “Next Monday. Lunch. You bring that thesaurus you call a brain and I’ll bring a crown. Got it?”

She agreed before taking the cleaning supplies and heading back to her locker. The bell would ring in the next few minutes, but she had time to at least start cleaning things out.

The books that were covered in the… stuff were all put in a plastic bag after being wiped off as well as she could. Several notebooks and loose bits of paper were thrown away, but she was able to salvage her favorite pencil case that she’d had since the first day of school after being adopted. Andrea had given it to her, with a note written on the inside about being part of a family.

Taking the case, Jae smiled while opening it, only for her smile to fall immediately. It hadn’t gotten away unscathed after all. Over the note that her now-deceased adopted mother had written, someone had used marker to scrawl, ‘Ghost Slut.’

Clutching the box tightly with both hands, Jae closed her eyes. She was breathing harder, the rage boiling up before she could get a handle on it. Of all the things to ruin, of all the things they could have destroyed, they chose to scrawl those hateful words over a beautiful note written by the woman who had adopted her. A woman who was no longer around.

No. No. She would have stood for other things. She would have gritted her teeth and bore it, for the most part. But this? This was too far. This was something she would not just ignore.

First, Jae finished cleaning the locker as well as she could, including scrubbing off the vile marker scribblings. She hesitated over the writing in her box, but was afraid that any attempt to clean off that ink would also wipe away what remained of Andrea’s note. In the end, she pushed the box into her bag and straightened up.

The rest of the vandalism could have been anyone. But the specific note in her pencil box? She knew who had done that. One person had started calling her Ghost Slut, Casper The Friendly Whore, and other variations of that theme. There were others who used it now and then, but she knew this was the work of the person who had started it.

And she knew what to do about it.

******

Jae’s chance didn’t come until fourth period. That was the first time she shared a class with…  Arleigh Fosters. At the beginning of the school year, Arleigh’s then-boyfriend, Price, had made the mistake of saying that he thought Jae was cute and exotic. It had been a stupid thing to say to someone as prone to jealousy as Arleigh was, but he hadn’t actually meant anything that bad by it. To Price, it had been an offhand comment that he immediately forgot about. But it had boiled up and blossomed into a full on rage fit from the Arleigh, who became convinced that Jae was sleeping with him. She had all-but attacked her at the end of September, until Price stepped in. He’d broken up with her then, while making it clear that he and Jae were not a thing.

But that hadn’t helped. Arleigh was utterly certain that Jae had been the one to break them up, and ever since that day, all of incredibly-rich girl’s hangers on and friends had made it their life’s mission to make Jae feel like a freak.

Now that she thought about it, Jae knew what today had been about. It was around this time the year before when Arleigh and Price had become a thing. This must have been the day that would’ve been their anniversary, renewing the hatred in the girl enough to make her lash out again.

As luck would have it, Jae’s desk was situated directly behind Arleigh. The tall, blonde girl was already there, staring at Jae with a smug, self-satisfied look that made it even more clear she was the one responsible. With her phone in one hand, the girl made a point of typing out some kind of text, glancing up at Jae once more, smirking again, then typed some more.

“Alright, alright, alright, people!” Mr. Hughes announced while coming into the room. “You know the rules. Phones away. That includes you, Miss Fosters.”

With a sickly sweet smile, Arleigh replied, “Of course, Mr. Hughes.” She then set the phone down on top of the book bag at her side, giving the girl behind her one last glare.

Jae ignored her, sitting down with her gaze on the desk. Or at least, it would appear to be to everyone else. In reality, she was watching Arleigh’s phone, and keeping a look out for anyone paying too much attention. Luckily, everyone was too busy listening to Hughes as the man began to go over the results of a quiz they’d just taken the day before.

Once Jae was certain the coast was clear, she focused on the phone on top of Arleigh’s bag. Stretching out her power, she felt it pick up the phone, shrinking it down to about the size of a marble before it floated up under her desk. Jae was able to grab hold of it and put the phone in her lap without anyone noticing.

From there, she divided her attention between Mr. Hughes and the phone, making sure it was silenced before opening up the messaging app and scrolling through. As expected, Arleigh spent a pretty big portion of her conversations with people insulting other people, many of whom she was also having conversations with insulting the people she was having the first conversations with. She was talking behind everyone’s back.

Taking as many screenshots of the various conversations as she could, Jae then went about sending those screenshots to the people who were being talked about. All of the insults, all of the catty remarks about their personal problems, all the times that Arleigh had spilled some close personal secret to someone else just so they could mock the person in question, all of it. She screenshotted all of it and sent dozens of messages to as many contacts as she could.

Already, the phone was starting to blow up with responses demanding to know what the hell was going on. Still, as one last measure, Jae opened up Arleigh’s Facebook account and proceeded to upload all the screenshots there as well, posting them publicly.

Finally done, she looked around once more. By that point, Mr. Hughes was deep into his lecture for the day, and everyone was taking notes. Using her power again, she sent the phone back out, carefully letting it spin around her desk until it was positioned just above the other girl’s bag. Then she let it fall back into place. One of the students beside her noticed something, glancing over as if he’d seen the tiny marble-sized phone out of the corner of his eye. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, he shrugged and went back to paying attention to the teacher.

After that, Jae focused on class. When it was over, she straightened from her desk and headed out without sparing a glance toward the girl in front of her.

She was all the way to the door before hearing the shrill, panicked, “What the fuck!?

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Interlude 2B – That-A-Way (Summus Proelium)

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“Paint powers, seriously?”

The somewhat dubious question came from Laki Sefo, the tall boy that most in the city knew better as Wobble. Though they wouldn’t have recognized him as he was now, lounging in a recliner in the Minority’s headquarters without his iconic emerald battle armor. They might recognize him as the boy who had led his public high school basketball team to become state champions as a junior the year before. He’d quit the team this year, earning as much enmity from the people who had cheered him on through three previous years as they had given him praise before. His fans were decidedly not happy about Laki’s decision to stop playing.

But it wasn’t as though he could tell them that he didn’t have time to play basketball with all the superheroing he was doing. Even if Amber would have liked to see the looks on their faces.

As for the dark-haired girl herself, she was sprawled over the couch on her stomach, with her chin resting on one end and her feet propped up at the other. Her eyes were fixed on the television several feet away that was facing the end of the couch rather than the front of it. A game controller was held tightly in her hands, while she focused on the screen. “Uh huh,” she replied to Laki, squinting a little in concentration, tongue poking its way out of her mouth briefly.

Amber and Laki were the only two current occupants of the Minority base as it was their night to be on duty. At the moment, being ‘on duty’ wasn’t so bad, since they were spending it in the lounge part of the base. The lounge amounted to a large room filled with several couches and chairs surrounded by televisions and game systems, with a pool table on one end and a foosball table at the other. A couple well-stocked refrigerators and a microwave were along one wall. They may constantly put their lives on the line, but at least they had entertainment and snacks.

Besides, it may have been only the two of them officially on duty, but if anything important happened, the others would be called in.

Anything, that was, beyond Amber’s seventh straight attempt at a particularly difficult fight in her game. Her fingers moved quickly over the controls, as she struggled to pull it out that time. “Come on… come on…” The music abruptly turned dour, and she cursed. “Oh, fuck you! Really? What kind of cheating bullshit is that?!” Muttering a few choice words under her breath, she looked over to the boy, who was waiting patiently with one eyebrow raised.

“Maybe,” Laki offered, “you need some more advice from Izzy?” He was referring, of course, to Isabel Amor/Raindrop, the youngest member of their team.

“I do not need advice from Izzy,” Amber retorted while pushing herself up from the couch. “I can totally beat that guy. I just need to clear my head first.”

“And you don’t want to admit that a twelve-year-old is better than you at a game,” Laki lightly teased while remaining in his relaxed position, one leg up over the arm of the chair.

Amber squinted at him, but ended up dutifully echoing, “And I don’t want to admit that a twelve-year-old is better than me at a game.” She stuck her tongue out at him then while tossing the controller back onto the couch, her expression quickly changing to one of eagerness. “But yeah, dude! Apparently he calls himself Paintball. Which is cool. We couldn’t really see much with that helmet and all, but I’m pretty sure he’s like… fourteen? Probably a freshman. Hey, maybe he goes to your school. You should keep an eye out for people that changed a lot, or keep skipping, or… you know, whatever. Just keep an eye out.”

Shrugging, Laki straightened in his seat finally. “Why? If he doesn’t want to join, he doesn’t want to join. We can’t force him. That’d be a bad idea anyway.”

“I know that,” Amber informed him. “I’m not saying force him to do anything. I’m not even saying go out of our way to figure out who he is. I’m just saying keep your eyes open. You know, cuz new Touched tend to not exactly be great at hiding their identities. And this kid really pissed off Janus. So he’s probably gonna piss off other people too. And if he’s not good at hiding, he might just get in more trouble than he can handle. We keep our eyes open and if we figure out who it is, we can help him if he gets in trouble. Right?”

“Right,” Laki confirmed, giving her a thumbs up. “That’s a lot of ifs, but sure.” Pausing briefly, he added, “You already went through everything in the debriefing, right?”

She nodded. “Yeah, this afternoon. Had to sit down with ‘Smith, Brumal, and Caishen and give them all the details we could remember.” Smith was the Conservator leader Silversmith, while Brumal and Caishen were the leaders of the state-level team of Spartans and the corporate-sponsored team of Ten Towers, respectively. All three adult teams took responsibility for training and preparing the Minority teens in exchange for having first dibs of recruiting them later, once they were eighteen. Laki had once joked that he couldn’t play basketball because he was already going to go through one draft once he graduated high school, and he didn’t want to do that twice.

“What’d they say about this new guy?” Laki asked while moving to the other side of the lounge area, opening the fridge there to root around inside.

“We said,” Silversmith (fully dressed in his metal armor and helmet, as always) abruptly announced while stepping into the room from one of the doors, “that everyone should keep an eye out for him. If he’s this new to everything, he’s bound to piss off the wrong people. Which would be bad. So if you see him, try to convince him to at least come in and talk to us. Even if he doesn’t want to join, we can offer a lot of advice for rookies.”

Both teens quickly turned to face the man, Laki offering something resembling a salute. “Evening, sir. Is something going on?”

“Actually, yeah,” Silversmith confirmed. “We’ve got Adrian Perez and his siblings in a safehouse. Kriegspiel and a couple of the Spartans are keeping an eye on them. Flea and RePete are trying to track down where this Josh guy went from the bus station Perez dropped him off at. And Bokor’s got some of his zombies looking through the guy’s home since we cleared the gangs off it earlier. Dynamic’s still patrolling the street, but even with the other teams out there–”

“Things are getting nasty, aren’t they?” Amber quickly put in. “From the bounty.”

Silversmith nodded. “Yes. Whatever this thing is that got stolen, it’s got everyone going nuts. Especially La Casa. They want it back, bad. And they’re tearing up the streets to get it. Everyone’s tense out there. We’ve already dealt with half a dozen brawls just in the past couple days. And it’s getting worse. Frankly, I hate to involve any of you with this…”

“Anything we can do, sir,” Laki quickly assured the man. “You know that.”  

Offering the taller boy a clearly grateful nod, Silversmith looked to Amber. “Any time you need to leave, you just speak up. And we don’t want you working past eleven. It’s still a school day tomorrow. That said, thank you for the help. We’re going to call the others in. Except for Raindrop. She’s still young enough, I don’t… want her involved right now. Unless things get really desperate.” He sighed at the thought before pressing on. “Anyway, we’ll get the others to meet you both. We’ve got an area we need you to patrol. It shouldn’t be too bad, but things are tense and it’s a good idea to have some visible Touched presence out there. Hopefully that’ll be enough to calm things down. If not, try to control them as much as possible and call in backup.”

The two teens agreed before splitting up to head for their respective locker rooms in order to change into their costumes. Amber found her own labeled locker, barely sparing a glance for the picture of Gluegirl she had taped up there. She’d always had the hots for that chick. Not only was Gluegirl really hot, she was also constantly mocking and taunting her enemies. She treated the whole superhero thing like a game, refusing to grant the villains the respect they wanted by taking it seriously. It also helped that her dark blue and white costume looked like it was painted on. Which, considering it seemed to be made of the same adhesive stuff that she used with the rest of her powers, was probably pretty much the truth.

Actually, she seemed to have a decent amount in common with this new guy, though they were from totally opposite sides of the country. Gluegirl had started out with the Minority in Florida before eventually being taken in by the New York Conservators a couple years earlier. Either way, the powers were vaguely similar enough (Gluegirl created and manipulated purely different types and colors of adhesive rather than paints that provided different effects, but still) that Amber briefly wondered in that glance at the poster if there was any connection.

Probably not. After all, there were a lot of people with strength-based powers and nobody thought all of them were related. It wasn’t like this guy was her brother or anything. Even if getting to meet Gluegirl through her brother if he was would pretty much be the coolest thing ever, and– Focus, Amber.

Hurriedly changing into her purple costume before grabbing the mask that would change her hair from black to blonde when she put it on, as well as adjusting her facial features slightly, the girl headed back out to the lounge. Laki was already there, in his armor, helmet in hand. He and Silversmith were talking quietly.

“Hey, guys,” she quickly spoke up, drawing their attention. “Did I miss anything?”

“Nope.” Shaking his head, Silversmith gestured to the door. “The lift’s prepped to take you to the patrol area. Syndicate, Carousel, and Whamline should meet you there as soon as they get checked in. Remember what I said, just be a visible presence so people know you’re around. Anything happens, call it in and then try to defuse it. If it gets bad, withdraw and wait for reinforcements. No unnecessary risks, okay?”

Saluting along with Laki (though hers was slightly more sarcastic), Amber headed for the hall, and from there to the transport lift that could instantly take them to various prepared spots around the city. On the way, she affixed the mask to her face, grimacing through the shifting of her nose and cheeks. It didn’t exactly hurt so much as it… mostly tingled. But it still felt funny either way. She’d never get used to it.

“So,” she started once the two of them were in the lift and waiting for the room to shift, “you think we’ll run into trouble out there?”

“Hope not,” Laki replied easily while putting his helmet on and fastening it into place. “I could do with a quiet night. Especially if it’s such a powderkeg. Any chance people might’ve gotten it out of their systems?” He barely paused before adding, “Yeah, I didn’t think so either.”

The doors opened once more, revealing an alleyway behind a local fast food diner. Stepping out of the unmarked building that would look, to any outside observer, like a random shed, the two glanced around for a moment to get their bearings.

“Right,” Amber (That-A-Way, she reminded herself. She had to think of herself as That-A-Way in costume) started, “Let’s just step out here and take a look around until the others show up. I mean, Smith did say to be a visible presence.”

The two costumed teens took a short walk to the nearby sidewalk, keeping the transport shed in view so the others would know where they were. There, they looked around. The street was still busy enough, even though it was almost nine o’clock at night, that they had a couple dozen people looking at them. A few waved, but no one approached. Civilians had long-since been conditioned not to immediately mob costumed Touched on patrol. It was too easy to end up in the line of fire, or be mistaken for a threat.

Not that being approached sometimes would be all bad, That-A-Way thought to herself while her eyes followed a couple of very attractive women who were walking past in clubbing clothes. She could totally enjoy a conversation with–

The women stepped out of the way, and That-A-Way found herself looking at the car idling at the nearby traffic light. A dark green Ford sedan. The same kind of car that had hit and killed her father.

It wasn’t the same car. She knew that. That car was long gone, the owner having it dismantled for parts because he couldn’t stand to keep it around after what it had been part of.

Greg Fardspar. That was the name of the man who owned the car that had killed her father. Amber knew that, because she had tracked the man down back when it happened. Grieving and lost after her father’s death, she had thrown herself into, as she called it, doing the cop’s jobs for them. She had interviewed people who had either seen the accident or lived and worked in the area (some would have called it stalking, threatening, and interrogating), had taken pictures, had run down leads. She worked for weeks, ignoring basically everything else to the point of breaking up with her girlfriend at the time.  

Then she had found him. She found the car in question in his driveway. It even had the damage to the front end. It had been all the girl could do not to… not to take matters into her own hands even more than she already had.

Justice. Her father would finally have justice. She’d called the police. They took her seriously eventually, and came to check out the house and the damage to the car there in the driveway. Then they had gone in to first interview, then arrest Greg Fardspar.

But then they released him. Because Greg wasn’t involved. His car had been stolen that night, and it was that person, whoever they were, who had caused the damage. Greg had an airtight alibi, plus a police report about the theft. The cops had even brought his car back a couple days later when it was found in an old parking lot.

She’d had nothing. Everything she had done to get justice for her father had meant nothing. There was no way of knowing who stole Fardspar’s car and took it for a joyride. A joyride in which they had killed a man, then driven off. They would get away with it. They would get away with it.

It was while she had been dealing (or not dealing) with that realization that Amber’s Touched-sphere had shown up. Then that she had heard the words ‘Summus Proelium’, and had gained her powers. And now… well, now she was still grieving for her father, even over a year later. But she was getting there. Except for times like this, when she was unexpectedly reminded in a way that struck her like a physical blow.

“Way?” Wobble’s voice finally penetrated the thick cloud that had surrounded her mind as she stared at the car, and she realized that he’d been trying to get her attention for a minute.

Her head quickly shook, just as the light changed at the sedan pulled away. “I–sorry, what?”  

Wobble was looking at her, and though she couldn’t see his face, she could tell he was concerned. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I’m fine,” she insisted, flushing a little bit from embarrassment. “Sorry, I just… zoned out.” Leaving it at that, she looked around. “Did I miss anything?”

There was a brief pause before Wobble replied, “No, no. I just wanted to make sure you were all right. You looked really freaked out there for a second.”

Swallowing, That-A-Way forced herself to smile. “Trust me, I’m cool. Or I’ll be cool, anyway.” Admitting that much, she offered her fist to the boy. “All good.”

“All good,” Wobble echoed, touching his fist to hers. The two of them continued to look up and down the street, watching for anything suspicious. There were a few things that stood out (it was a Detroit street at night, after all), but nothing that demanded immediate attention.

They were only waiting for about five minutes before the shed opened up again, letting their three teammates out. Well, six counting the three ghostly duplicates that accompanied their leader.

“Hey guys,” Syndicate greeted as he, Carousel, and Whamline approached. “Looks like you didn’t start the party without us.”

“Technically, they did,” Whamline pointed out with a snicker in his voice. “You know, cuz a party is a group of people, and since they were already-ow.” He stopped, rubbing his leg where one of the ghostly Syndicates had briefly become the solid one just long enough to kick him.

“Ahem,” the first Syndicate, returning to his solid form once more, continued, “things look pretty calm so far.”

“Calm things may appear,” Carousel chimed in, “but very tense, I fear. Everyone around here is very upset. Many would grab that bounty in a net.”

That-A-Way nodded. “She’s right. Things are calm enough right now, but there’s a whole lot of gasoline on this pile of wood. If something sets it off…”

“So let’s see what we can do about making sure no one throws any matches,” Syndicate announced. “You know what Silversmith said, be a visible deterrent. How about we split up. Two groups. Two of me will go with That-A-Way and Wobble since you guys were supposed to be on patrol to start, and the other two can go with Carousel and Whamline. We’ll take a long walk in opposite directions and then circle in to meet a few blocks over. Then go from there.”

They agreed, before heading out. As she walked with the two insubstantial versions of Syndicate and Wobble, That-A-Way thought one more time about the paint-based Touched they’d met earlier. It sure would be nice if he ended up joining the team after all.

Though it would’ve been even better if he’d been a girl instead of another guy.

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Becoming 2-05 (Summus Proelium)

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“Well, if the project didn’t specify only one person to focus on, I’d say the Medici family would be good.” After saying that, Amber shoved half of a chocolate-covered éclair into her mouth while making noises of delight. That was quickly followed by the other half of the treat, and more happy sounds, as the other girl half-collapsed against Jae while smiling with delight. “Mmmm…”

The three of us were sitting in the school cafeteria the next morning. We’d staked out a small table far away from everyone else so we wouldn’t be disturbed, and were going over project possibilities.  

“Medici?” I asked absently while flipping through one of the history books we’d taken from the library. Not that we really needed books when there was the whole internet, but still. Having hard copy sources tended to make teachers happy.

“Super rich family in Florence,” Amber explained. “They were basically this like… banking dynasty for a long ass time from back in the fifteenth century. They… hold on.” She glanced at her phone. “Yeah, four different popes came from them. So did two French queens. They funded the invention of the piano and the opera, and Leonardo, Michelangelo, and maybe some other ninja turtles. Oh, and Galileo. Seriously, dude, they were like… the money behind everything for a long time.”

Boy, did that ever ring a few bells. If I didn’t know better, I would’ve thought she chose that one on purpose. It took me a second to clear my throat. “Oh, uh, well yeah. If we could do it on a group or something, that’d work. But Mr. Dorn definitely said ‘single person’. Maybe we could ask him if that’s okay… or keep looking.”

“Let’s keep looking,” Amber agreed, looking over to Jae. “What do you think, any ideas?”

As she spoke, I took another quick look at my former cheerleading teammate. I still felt bad about how she’d quit the team back when her dad was killed in that hit and run. Apparently the coach had said she could come back this year and just pick up where she’d left off, but Amber refused, saying she was too busy. Personally, I was pretty sure cheerleading had been a big thing with her and her dad, and she didn’t want to do it without him around. Too many memories. Which was too bad, really, since she’d been one of the team’s best tumblers. Seriously, that girl could do some pretty crazy stuff.

Jae, by then, had answered the question about whether she had any ideas by passing over a piece of paper that she’d written a list of names on. Amber and I leaned closer to look at it while I read the names. “Laura Bassi – female physicist in the eighteenth century, Nicolas Steno – father of geology, Cleisthenes – father of democracy, Lucius Vellutus – successfully led a secession in Rome of the plebeians to advocate better treatment and actual representation…” Blinking up at the incredibly pale girl, I remarked, “Hey, these are all pretty good. I don’t think I’ve heard of any of them. Or if I have, I don’t really remember them very well.”

Amber nodded. “Yeah, and they sound important enough to fit Mr. Dorn’s request. Which one should we focus on?”

Biting my lip, I mused, “Laura Bassi sounds interesting, but so do the rest of them. This Steno guy is the father of geology? Cleisthenes is the father of democracy? This Vellutus guy basically took the working class on strike and actually changed things for the better? How do we pick out of options like those?”

Jae shifted in her seat a little before reaching out to point to a name that I hadn’t gotten to yet. Her voice was quiet as she read it aloud. “Laura Cereta.”

Exchanging a brief look with Amber, I asked, “Who?”

“Writer,” Jae answered softly. She fidgeted for a moment, clearly uncomfortable with the attention before pressing on. Despite her shyness, I could tell this was a subject she really cared about. There was obvious excitement and passion in her voice, quiet as it was. “She was a humanist and feminist writer… in the fourteen hundreds. She was one of the first people to actually write about female friendships. She wrote about how women should be educated, and how marriage should be a partnership. And she was smart. Like, one of the leading scholars in Italy smart.”

After saying all that, the girl hesitated. She was obviously embarrassed and wanted to return to her silence. But her love of this Cereta woman pushed her to add, a little more quickly, “In one of her letters, she wrote, ‘I am a scholar and a pupil who has been lulled to sleep by the meager fire of a mind too humble. I have been too much burned, and my injured mind has accumulated too much passion; for tormenting itself with the defending of our sex, my mind sighs, conscious of its obligation. For all things — those deeply rooted inside us as well as those outside us — are being laid at the door of our sex.’

As she finished that, I swallowed. “Wow… umm… yeah. Yeah. I mean, I guess she didn’t really go discovering new continents or conquering other peoples. But she sounds pretty important. And I doubt she’s at the top of anyone else’s list.” Looking to Amber, I added, “What do you think?”

Her nose scrunched up a little thoughtfully. “I think she sounds cool. Come on, let’s see if we can catch Mr. Dorn before first period.” Picking up the books we’d spread out, she stepped away from the table, while Jae joined her. I started to follow too, but stopped to grab something from the table that Amber hadn’t picked up. “Oh, hey, you left your… pen?” I was blinking at it in my hand, not because a pen was so surprising, but because of the words written on it. Stamped across the simple white pen was, ‘Prime International Enterprise’. PIE. The bank that had been… well, almost robbed the other day.

Okay, it wasn’t really that weird that Amber had a pen from the bank. This was a private school. Private school often meant money, and money meant bank. PIE had a lot of clients, most of them not evil or anything. Still, seeing it like that made me do a little double-take.

“Oh, thanks.” Amber took the pen, blinking at me. “Uh, you okay?”

The bank thing wasn’t really a secret, so I just shrugged. “Yeah, I just–didn’t someone just try to rob that place the other day?”

“Huh?” The other girl glanced at the pen, taking in what it said before clearing her throat. “Oh, right. Yeah, sorry, my dad used to collect pens and there’s this whole big… jar of…” She paused, swallowing. “I just grabbed one. That was pretty screwed up though, huh? I mean, what kind of idiot tries to steal from the Super-Mafia?”

I thought of Josh’s brother, muttering, “A pretty big one, apparently. Come on, let’s go tell Mr. Dorn who we’re doing our project on.”

I really wanted to get this project done. Because I was pretty sure being a Star-Touched to make up for the horrible things the rest of my family was doing would take up most of my remaining free time.

******

As it turned out, all three of us had study hall right before lunch. Well, they called it study hall. There wasn’t really an assigned place to go, which made it pretty much a free period. So, since Mr. Dorn had agreed to let us do our project on Laura Cereta, we’d decided to meet at the library at the start of that study hall to get started. I was there now, scanning through some old news stories about Silversmith on my phone while desperately trying not to throw up in my mouth at the thought that he was both a villain and my father. He had been my hero, and now I tasted bile just from looking at a picture of him standing triumphantly in front of a group of Scions of Typhon grunts and acolytes (their term for regular foot soldiers or Touched) he’d helped bring down.

Yes, it had been a pretty big deal to stop Trolley and Hammock (The Scions had some kind of weird thing about Touched names. They always chose completely random, ordinary words that were often unrelated to their powers and had nothing to do with anything else. Their leader was named Pencil). They were nasty, horrible people who had been in the middle of a murder spree. Stopping those two and bringing them in was good. They weren’t just thrown in regular jail after being caught. They were sent to Breakwater, some kind of inescapable prison for the worst of the worst. According to the rumors I’d heard, it was an isolated island somewhere that the most dangerous Touched were left on to fight things out amongst themselves where they couldn’t hurt any innocent people.

It sounded a little fucked up, to be honest. And I was pretty sure there were like a dozen different movies about why that kind of thing was a bad idea. But it was what it was. And as far as I knew, no one had ever escaped from it once they were seen as bad enough to be sent there. Which, Trolley and Hammock definitely fit the bill on that. They’d been responsible for about sixty-seven murders just in that two week period where they’d been on their main rampage.

So… so my dad had put an end to that.

But he had also sanctioned other murders. Enough that it wasn’t a big deal to him at all. So… so…

My head hurt. And so did my stomach.

“Hey, Cassidy!”

Oh, thank God. Amber and Jae were here to distract me from what had quickly been turning into entirely too much obsessive brooding. Closing the news story on my phone, I quickly turned in the seat, only to find that it was actually only Amber. “Hey, I–”

“Miss O’Connell.” That was one of the librarians, Mrs. Mossing. She looked like she had been hand-picked from a casting department to play a stern librarian. She was old, with gray hair pulled into a severe bun, and she always wore frumpy clothes. “How many times do I have to tell you, keep your voice down in here?”

We both apologized to the woman, before I quietly asked, “Err,  isn’t Jae with you?”

Raising an eyebrow, the other girl snorted. “Gee, thanks. Now I know which of us is more popular. But actually, I just stopped by to see if she was here already. And to uhh, tell you that we’ll have to take a rain check.” She looked apologetic. “Really sorry. Something came up.”

“Something came up?” I echoed, blinking at her. “At school?”

Wincing, the other girl nodded slowly. “Like I said, sorry. It’s umm, it’s kind of a personal thing. I mean…” She looked at her phone then, giving a visible grimace. “Shit. Um. When Jae shows up, could you please tell her that Uncle Don is sick? You, uh, you got that?”

“Uncle Don is sick,” I repeated back to her. “Sure, no problem. I can do that. And sorry to hear about your uncle.”

“Great, thanks!” Giving me a thumbs up, Amber turned to head back out of the library. She stopped to say something else to Mrs. Mossing before leaving.

Watching her go, I shrugged. Well, if nothing else, maybe I could use this time to practice with my power. God knew I needed all I could get. I just had to wait for Jae so I could tell her about Amber’s uncle.

Or I could get bored after like two minutes of that and wander out into the hallway to look around for her. Yeah, I went with that one. Turning in a circle in the hallway, I looked around and ended up asking a few people who hadn’t seen her before finally looking to one of the school’s baseball players. “Hey, Pat, you seen Jae Baek anywhere?”  

“Oh, hey, Cass,” Patrick Aaron, a skinny black guy who was a star shortstop, shrugged. “Not really. Hang on. Hey, Francesca, you seen Jae around?”

The girl he was addressing, a slightly hefty brunette whom I’d never shared a class with, looked over from her locker. “What? Oh, yeah, she’s in the ladies room over there.”  

Thanking the two of them, I headed that way. The hall was pretty empty by that point, since everyone who didn’t have study hall/free period was either in class or late. I stepped through the door, already starting to talk. “Hey, Jae, you–”

I stopped then, because the albino girl was there. She was standing by one of the sinks, and as I came in the room, she jumped, quickly starting to shove things from the sink into her bag. But not quick enough that I didn’t notice what they were. Self-tanner, dark hair dye, and some crumpled paper.

“Wh-what?” Flushing with obvious embarrassment, Jae stared at me, only seeming to belatedly realize who I was. “Cassidy?”

Oh. Oh God. There were tears. She was quick to recover and had already blinked them away, but the girl had definitely been crying. She wasn’t just embarrassed because I’d seen those things on the sink, she was upset.

“Yeah, I, um… are you…” Remembering why I was there, I quickly pressed on. “It’s Amber, she wanted me to tell you that she can’t make it. Apparently her Uncle Don is sick?”

“Uncle Don?” Snapping out of her embarrassment, Jae looked to me. “She said that? I–thank… thank you.” She shifted the bag back up onto her shoulder then, seeming to shrink in on herself as she mumbled, “I better go see if she… if she needs anything.”

Stepping out of the way, I let her start to walk past before speaking up. “Um, Jae? I know this is like… really none of my business. And I’m probably overstepping like…a thousand different bounds. But I still wanna say, whether you use those things or not, I think you’re really cool.”

For a moment, I didn’t think she would actually respond. The other girl was quiet, biting her lip as she seemed to debate back and forth with herself for a couple seconds. Then she looked to me, and asked something I hadn’t been expecting. “Why did you stop being a cheerleader?”

“Um. I… guess because the whole reason I joined was so that people would stop seeing me as a prepubescent little boy,” I answered honestly. “But it didn’t really work.”

It looked like she really wanted to say something to that. But she didn’t. Instead, the other girl hesitated briefly before nodding to me. Then she headed for the door, leaving me standing there in the restroom by myself.

I was about to leave, before noticing something on the floor next to the sink. Stepping over, I knelt to pick it up. It was a crumpled note. The same crumpled note that Jae had been putting into her bag with the tanner and hair dye. She’d missed the bag with the paper.

It was an incredible invasion of privacy, but I wanted to know if it was something I should chase her down for. Telling myself that if it looked personal, I’d stop reading, I uncrumpled the paper and gave it a quick glance. I’d just read a couple words, not the whole thing. Just enough to see if it was important.

As it turned out, a few words were all I needed to read. And far more than I actually wanted to. There were only four words on the paper, written in big bold letters with a red marker.

It read, ‘Kill yourself, albino freak.’

Okay, now I actually wanted to hurt someone. I wanted to find whoever had written this note and beat them into a fucking coma. What the actual fuck?

Crumpling the note even more, I shoved it into my pocket. My first instinct was to throw it away, but then I figured I’d keep it. If I ever found out who wrote the thing, I might be able to make them eat it.

Leaving the restroom a minute later, I looked around before heading down the hall. I figured that I could stop by the cafeteria to grab a sandwich from one of the machines, then head out for some practice over what was left of study hall and lunch.

That was the plan, anyway. It was derailed partway there, as I was passing one of the janitors talking on his cell phone. “Yeah, I told you, I’m sorry,” he announced with a sigh. “What can I say, Adrian never showed. Which means I’ve gotta stay. Look, Judy, I know. I know what I said, but that was before–I can’t just take off. I can’t just–damn it, we’ll talk about it later. Yes. Yes, later. Goodbye. Good–” Sighing, the man hit the disconnect on his phone before cursing under his breath.

“Um, excuse me?” I spoke up, waiting until the guy looked to me with an expression that made it clear he was surprised a student was talking to him. “Did you say Adrian didn’t show up today? Did he… call in sick, or…”

“Nope,” the man, whose nametag read Eugene, replied. “Just a no-call, no-show. Which, for the record, looks really fu–really bad on him. Unless he’s got a pretty good excuse, he might as well not bother coming in anymore at all. Little piece of advice, you get a job you give a crap about, don’t blow it off. Especially when you’ve only been there a couple days.” Muttering something about being left to clean the locker room by himself, the guy glanced to me once more as though just remembering who he was talking to. “Wait, you know Adrian?”

“Uh, we’ve talked a couple times,” I murmured. “If he didn’t show up or call or anything, did anyone call him? Or, you know, check his house?”

“Sorry, kid, we’re not his babysitters,” Eugene informed me. “If he can’t bother to show up or let us know what’s going on, there’s not much else we can do. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a bunch of piss to wipe up from fifteen year olds who haven’t figured out how to hit the toilet.”

He left then, and I let him go. My gaze was on the floor, as my mind reeled. Adrian had never shown up. He never made it to work, never called…

It could be a lot of things. But from what little I knew about the guy, he seemed responsible. Hell, he mentioned taking care of four little brothers. I was pretty sure he wouldn’t just blow off work like this. Not without a good reason.

Or a very bad reason. And the last time I’d seen Adrian, he had been driving Josh out of town. Josh, the guy all those bounty hunting assholes had been after, so they could go through him to get to his brother, Ashton. Adrian had been driving Josh out of town, and now he was missing.

I had a really bad feeling about this.

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Becoming 2-04 (Summus Proelium)

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A little bit of toast bounced off my forehead. When that failed to get a reaction, it was followed by an orange wedge.

“You know,” Simon remarked from the other side of the kitchen island where the two of us were  eating (supposedly, in my case, as I hadn’t actually touched my food), “if you keep not reacting, I might just transfer my entire breakfast over to your side.” Squinting then, he leaned closer and whispered, “That’s your plan, isn’t it? Just stare mindlessly until I give you all my food.” He straightened, flashing me a knowing (and probably charming, to others) smile. “I see riiight through you, Booster. You might think you’re cunning, but you can’t keep secrets from me.”

I swear, it took every ounce of self-control I could dredge out of the pits of my soul not to look him right in the eyes and say, “Wanna bet?” Although, thinking on it, that kind of would have proved his point to begin with. Huh.  

In any case, I kept quiet, staring down at my own plate of food without touching it. Not that I wasn’t hungry. I was. After finally getting home so late that everyone else had already gone to sleep, including Simon, I’d had just enough energy to crawl into my own bed and pass out. Now I was famished. But every time I thought about eating anything on my plate, I just ended up thinking about how it had been paid for. The thought of shoveling blood-money food into my mouth made me want to throw up, regardless of how hungry I may have been. I knew it was stupid. The food was already bought. And what was I going to do, starve myself? That would accomplish nothing. Even so, I just couldn’t make myself get past it that easily.

And yet, I also couldn’t let Simon know anything was wrong. So I took a drink of my juice before mumbling, “I guess you caught me.”

Caught me? Okay, I really needed to think about what I was saying before blurting out things like that. Saying those words made me blink up at him. Luckily, he wasn’t even looking at me. His eyes were on his phone, as he texted something while muttering, “Like I said, can’t get anything past me. At least, not without getting up pretty early in the morning. And from all that yawning, I’m pretty sure getting up earlier isn’t really in the cards for you.”

He looked up then, smirking a little. “What time did you finally get to bed, anyway?”

“Well, what do we have here?” The deep baritone of my father’s voice suddenly and unexpectedly speaking up from the  doorway behind me meant I was spared from answering Simon’s question. But it also made my body jerk upright, just before Dad’s hand came down on my shoulder. Then he was there, hand squeezing my shoulder as he kissed the top of my head. “Why, I’m pretty sure it’s my little oompa loompas.”

Trying not to let Simon see the reaction on my face was hard. The only thing I could think of to cover it up was to grab the orange piece he’d thrown at me and stuff it into my mouth. That at least gave my face something to do. And spared me from responding for a second or two.

“She’s sulking for some reason,” Simon informed Dad. “I think it’s about a boy. Or a girl.” He winked at me. “Did we ever decide where you fall on that scale?”

At least they were giving me other reasons to be mortified by them beyond the fact that they were murderous monsters whose money was tainted by the blood of innocent people.

Swallowing the orange in my mouth, I forced out a weak, “I better meet Jefferson before he gets all antsy about being late. You know how he is about his schedule.”

Dad ruffled my hair affectionately, his tone light. “Have fun at school, babygirl. But not too much fun, I’ve got a lot of meetings today. Can’t really be pulled out of them to talk to your principal about whatever stunt you think is funny. Have a non-authority-intervention amount of fun.”

Somehow, I managed to give him a thumbs up while slipping out of my seat. I even hugged him. Yeah, it was a one-armed awkward sort of half-hug, but I was counting it. Then I grabbed my bag and retreated from the room, while Simon called after me, “Does this mean you don’t want your bacon!?”

I went back, grabbed it off my plate, and left again. Yes, my entire family was a bunch of murdering psychopaths, and I still didn’t know what to do about that. But bacon was bacon.

*******

“Alright, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to a new day!” Mr. Dorn, my European history teacher, announced while coming into the room and crossing to his desk. He was a short, squat man who basically looked like a slightly taller body double for Danny DeVito. But he was also incredibly enthusiastic about teaching, and about history. It was pretty infectious, even for those who didn’t care that much.

Yeah, I was in class. Part of me had wanted to skip out again to go practice with my power. But that felt like a bad idea, especially after Jania had already intercepted one call from the school. Missing two in a row might make them actually step in for something more than a phone call. So I was here, trying not to think about what kind of things my family was probably doing in the meantime.

Laying his briefcase on the desk, Mr. Dorn continued, “I see we’re all here except for Tommy B. Let’s hope he feels better soon, or that he enjoys his day off. Either way, he’s going to be sorry that he missed today. Because it’s now March, which means that it’s time for us to start…” As he was talking, the man clicked open his briefcase, reaching inside before pulling out a sheet of paper while triumphantly finishing with, “Term projects!”

A series of groans met his words, and the man repeated the sound right back at us. “Yeah, yeah, it’s horrible, I know. But you just wait, because this project has a twist. Are you ready for it? That’s right, it’s a group project. Each of you will work with two other people to write a six page paper, which you will present to the class in three weeks. You will have fifteen minutes of each class period for those three weeks to work on it in here, but you will also need to work out of class if you expect to get an A.”

One of the other students raised her hand. “A project on what, Mr. Dorn? What’re we supposed to be writing about?”

“Very good question, Amber,” Mr. Dorn replied with a smile. “The answer is… whoever you want. I want each group to pick one person from the entire history of Europe and write about how their existence and actions shaped the world as we know it. I want you to write this in a way that explains how things would have been different without that person. There are people throughout history who have changed the entire direction of this world. I want you to write about them.”

One of the boys raised his hand then. “Like King Arthur?”

Mr. Dorn coughed, shaking his head. “Sorry, Ben. Real people only. Fun as it might be to pretend, King Arthur was never a real person. Let’s stick with historical figures.”

Another boy asked, after being called on, “Can we pick our own groups?”

Again, Mr. Dorn shook his head. “Sorry. For some reason, people tend to turn these things into either popularity contests, or a fight over who gets the genius. You’ve all been randomly assigned two partners. Right here.” He shook the paper he’d taken from his briefcase earlier. “First, we have…  Menna Blaese, Cole Whitney, and Evan Guthrie.” He nodded to each student in turn, letting them react to being put together before continuing on to the next trio. There were thirty-three people in the class, which meant eleven groups. One of whom would only have two today, with Tommy B absent.

Eventually, Mr. Dorn came to my name. “And now we have… Cassidy Evans with…” He pointed to the girl who had asked what we were supposed to write about. “Amber O’Connell and Jae Baek.”

Oh, wow. Jae Baek. She was an albino girl. An Asian albino. Which meant she kind of stood out. That was probably bad for her, considering she was also one of the shyest people I’d ever met. I didn’t think I’d heard her exchange more than a handful of words all semester that she didn’t have to say.

Amber, on the other hand, was pretty outgoing. She had black hair that was tied into a loose ponytail, and blue-green eyes that seemed to shift whether they were more blue or more green depending on the lighting. She’d also been a cheerleader for a long time, even back when I’d done it in junior high. We were on the same team for awhile. But she’d stuck with it for longer, only really stopping around winter break a year earlier.

We weren’t close or anything, but I did know that she’d quit the team about a month after her dad had been killed by a hit and run driver. Which was… understandable. She was better now, but for awhile there, even I knew that she’d been pretty messed up. Not coming to class, getting in trouble, lashing out at teachers. She’d nearly gotten herself kicked out entirely. But the school gave her some leeway, let her make up a few classes over the previous summer, and she stayed on track.

I also kind of suspected that these groupings weren’t completely random. Because as far as I knew, Amber was one of the few people that Jae actually seemed to interact much with. As shy and quiet as she was, it wouldn’t have surprised me to find out that Mr. Dorn had at least somewhat helped things along by making sure the two of them were put in a group together.

“Now that you’ve got your groups,” the man announced after listing the last set of names, “go ahead and get together to talk about your plans. I’ll give you all about fifteen minutes to either figure out who to start your project on, or, you know, when to get together and talk about it later. Oh, and don’t forget, first come first serve. Once your group knows who you want to write about, make sure to tell me, because we can’t have any repeats.”

Amber and I pulled chairs over to where Jae was, the former cheerleader waving to me. “Hey, Cass. Long time no work together. But hey, at least we don’t have to do the frog squats or reverse to high knee lunges this time.”

“You know you’re not fooling anybody,” I shot back to her. “You loved those exercises.”

She just grinned. “You’re right, I still do them. But they probably won’t help with this.” Looking to the girl we were sitting by, she asked, “So, Jae, got any thoughts about who we should write about?”

The pale, white-haired girl peeked up from her desk, looking to me briefly before answering. Her voice was quiet. “Maybe not an obvious one.”

“Right,” I agreed. “Mr. Dorn would probably like it better if it’s not someone he’s heard about over and over again every year. Someone a little more obscure, but still really important. Not like Churchill, or Columbus, or Napoleon, or… whoever. Someone important but different.

“Anyone got any ideas?”

*****

We didn’t. Not yet, anyway. We’d made plans to decide later. Each of us was supposed to come up with a few options and compare notes to pick one the next morning. We’d meet at breakfast in the cafeteria, which meant I’d have to ask Jefferson to drive me over half an hour early. He’d probably love that.

Actually, I genuinely didn’t know how he’d feel. It was different from his strict schedule, but it was also early. Hmm. Maybe his annoyance at the first and delight with the second would cancel each other out.

Either way, I’d texted him to let the man know that he didn’t have to pick me up after school ended, because I was getting a ride with friends. In reality, of course, I was busy with something else. A few things, actually. The first of which had involved making a trip to the nearest specialty electronics store to pick up a couple essentials.

With my new toys safely stowed away, it had been time to focus on the things that would take up the rest of the afternoon. Namely, practicing with my power and, with any luck at all, actually deciding on a name that I could use that didn’t sound dumb.

So far, I was having more luck with the former than the latter. I was back in that unfinished skating rink place again, where I’d set up targets along the wall by painting various sized circles in pink, since I still didn’t know what that color did. Using the circles as targets, I was alternately running and skating through the place while shooting different colors of paint, trying to hit the center of the circle as much as I could, with only a small amount of paint.

It was a work in progress, that was for sure. I was missing the center of even the bigger targets most of the time, and missing the smaller targets entirely if I was moving at any kind of speed when I shot my paint at them. Running was easier than skating, but either way it was hard to hit the targets without slowing down. Especially when I used the green speed boost paint on myself. Hitting a target at that point with anything less than a hurled gallon’s worth was basically an exercise in futility unless it came as utter blind luck.

I needed practice. A lot of it. But fine. I was willing to put in the work. One time after another, I raced from one end of the large open room to the other, shooting paint at targets on both sides, as well as some on the floor that I had set up. Shot of paint after shot of paint flew from my hands, while my earbuds blared heavy rock music in my ears. Again and again, I would check my progress, erase all the paint aside from my pink targets, then do it again. I took breaks only to let my paint recharge.

It was during those breaks that I thought about a possible name. That was… well, hard. I’d thought of several possibilities, and even painted some of them across wall just to see what they looked like. Some were… dumber than others.

Paintjob

Paint

Paintball

Brushstroke

Easel

Canvas

Palette

Artisan

Graffiti

Technicolor

Chroma/Chromatic

I’d already crossed out a few of those. Paintjob, Paint, and Brushstroke didn’t sound right. Neither did Easel, so it was crossed out as well.

But the others… I kind of liked both Canvas and Palette, for the same reason. I would be putting paint over myself a lot. Graffiti was good too, for the opposite reason. I’d be painting other things. Technicolor and Chroma or Chromatic sounded cool, but might be too complicated for a name. Artisan sounded pretentious.

In all, I just couldn’t decide. I kept wavering back and forth, and I probably needed to make a decision eventually. It would be pretty bad if I went out in costume again, only to hem and haw the second anyone asked what they were supposed to call me. It didn’t seem like it would be very heroic to be like, ‘here’s a few options, which one do you guys like best?’

Oh well. After two hours of practicing my aim (and getting gradually somewhat vaguely better toward the end), that was probably enough. I needed to get home and at least put in an appearance, since the last thing I wanted was for anyone to get too curious about where I was spending time.

But first, I needed to do something. Reaching into my bag, I took out the ski mask and helmet, pulling both on. Then I pushed the ski mask off my mouth, and shoved the front of the helmet up as well. Taking off my pace-skates next, I found the concealed button on the bottom of both and pressed them in together. Holding the buttons in, I spoke in a clear voice. “Cassidy Evans voice code addition.”

The skates beeped twice, and I quickly pulled the mask and helmet down. With my voice muffled by them, I spoke again. “Cassidy Evans voice code addition. Code to deploy: skate out now. Code to retract: skate in now.”

I tested it afterward. Sure enough, the skates responded, extending or retracting the wheels whenever I said the appropriate code.

That was good, but it was only part of things. I wasn’t going to rely entirely on the muffled effect of the mask and helmet to hide my identity, especially when it came to my family. They’d see through that so quick my head would spin.

I already knew that, though. That was why I’d made that trip to the electronics store. Digging into my bag, I took out what I’d bought: a tiny microphone attached to a piece that hooked over and onto an ear. The earpiece had a very small display on it with just a number and a slider. Moving the slider raised or lowered the number.

Holding up the earpiece, I turned it on and started moving the slider through the numbers that appeared on the tiny screen. Stopping on one, I held the little microphone close to my mouth and spoke clearly into it. “Test, this is a test. This is a big, old, fat test. It’s just a giant stinky test.”

It worked. My voice was shifted by the microphone to sound like an old woman. Flipping to another option on the box, I tried again and sounded like a little kid. Another option made me sound like Elmo from Sesame Street. Then it was an incredibly deep voice that sounded like it should have been coming from a guy with tree trunks for arms.

Then I found one that sounded right. It sounded like a guy who was maybe fourteen. That was it. That was exactly what I wanted. I slipped the earpiece on, then added the mask and helmet once more. The way it was designed, the small microphone part extended down under my ear, which prevented the helmet from digging into it too much.

Clearing my throat then, I switched my phone to record, then started. “Testing. New test. How’s about a test? One, two, three, four, five four three two one.”

Playing it back, I listened carefully. Yeah. Yeah, it worked. I definitely sounded different with that thing. It would work. I could add this voice to my pace-skates too. With that, no one would know I was a girl just by listening to me. And my family wouldn’t recognize my voice.

Which was good, because them not knowing that I knew about their real lives was basically the only advantage I had right now. And I was in no hurry to give that up.

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