Ashton Austin

Showdown 7-10 (Summus Proelium)

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“So that was how my night went,” That-A-Way informed Wobble and me a short while later, as the three of us stood just inside one of the store bathrooms. She and the other Minority Cape were watching carefully as I took the special suit off of Ashton. He had clothes on underneath, of course (none of us back at Wren’s place had wanted to have anything to do with putting the suit on him otherwise), which must’ve made wearing this thing pretty warm. Oh well. 

Wobble, taking up basically the entire doorway with his massive body and green medieval-like armor, stood with his arms folded. “Sounds like this Jailtime guy’s a real piece of work.” As he said it, the guy cracked his knuckles, each audible pop making clear, without words, just what he’d like to do to that particular piece of work. “Glad you made it out of his funhouse, Way.” 

I nodded. “Yeah, me too.” Unsnapping a couple of the clasps in the back of the suit after using the control box to retract the wires that were controlling Ashton’s muscles, I added, “You and Pack.” Maybe I shouldn’t have brought up the fact that, technically, another villain had been involved in that whole situation. But I was sore and both mentally and physically exhausted. Besides, That-A-Way had just finished describing all the ways being with Pack had helped get her out of there. 

Speaking of Pack, she and the rest of La Casa had left along with their boss. I was sure I’d talk to her soon (not to mention Eits, given… given what he now knew about me), but for the moment, no one on either side had wanted to exactly… push things. There was a brief truce to sort all this out, sure. Flea and Dynamic had both agreed to let Blackjack and his people go to avoid escalating things tonight, but had made it clear that the truce would not extend past that. Now they were outside with the rest of the Minority (aside from Raindrop, whose absence I still wasn’t quite clear on beyond her apparently needing a vacation), making sure all the civilians were okay and sorting out the members of the Oscuro and Ninety-Niners who hadn’t escaped. All the Touched were gone, unfortunately. Which made sense, considering how important they were. Of course people with powers would be the priority when extracting and escaping. Given Longhaul’s presence, it was probably somewhat more surprising that there were any regular guys left behind to be arrested at all, honestly.

Disconnecting the last of the suit, I pulled it down and off of Ashton, lifting his legs one at a time before taking the body part of the suit off and balling it up. Tucking the suit under one arm, I reached up, unclasped the helmet, and took it off his head with a muttered, “There we go.” 

As soon as the helmet was disconnected from the guy, he took off running. Yeah, we’d expected that. He got about three feet before stopping short as he saw Wobble standing in his way. 

“Hiya, Sunshine,” the large boy greeted him, before flicking a finger to send a small, lazy pulse of force that knocked Ashton back several feet and to the floor, where he landed with a curse. 

“That son of a bitch had me locked up, dumbasses!” Ashton blurted from where he was sprawled. “False fucking imprisonment, kidnapping! He and his friends locked me in a little room until they could build that thing, shove wires and needles inside my fucking body, and parade me all over town just to get stuff for one of the worst villains in the city! Fucking arrest him! Cuz I’ll tell you this much, I am going to press charges until he can’t afford to put shoes on his fe–ohhh… oh God.” In mid-rant, the man suddenly stopped. I could see very faint distortion waves in the air, going from Wobble’s finger. It wasn’t enough to knock Ashton down or anything, but he did abruptly turn, grab the nearby trash can, and throw up into it. 

“He’s right though,” That-A-Way put in a bit tiredly from where she was leaning against the wall. “I mean, not the arresting you part. But there is something you’ll have to do if you don’t want the whole… complicated issue of finally turning him in to come back and bite you in the ass.”  

Right, the detaining him thing. I’d known that would come up, but it was always sort of just pushed out of my mind. Now that it was here and Ashton was making a fuss (because of course he was), all I could do was blink at That-A-Way and slowly ask, “Something I have to do?” 

“Ahem.” Behind Wobble, a voice spoke up. “I believe I may be able to assist with this.” 

Wobble stepped out of the way and turned, revealing the woman in the doorway. She wore dark gold pants with black lines running down the sides to meet black boots. Her belt was black, and she wore what looked like a shirt of dark purple scale mail armor with a gold leather coat over it. Her face and head were covered by a black metal helmet with faintly glowing purple lenses where her eyes were. The voice that came out whenever she spoke was clearly projected, with a very faint electronic distortion that probably served to make it harder to identify.

Caishen. It was Caishen, leader of the corporate-sponsored Star-Touched team known as Ten Towers. As the three of us (four once Ashton looked up from the trash can he had been heaving into) looked that way, she used her thumb to gesture back the way she’d come. “They’re ready for Mr. Austin, if you two would like to take him out there? I’ll stay with Paintball and talk him through the detainment application process. Believe me, I’ve written enough of them to do it in my sleep.” 

“Uh, she’s got a point,” That-A-Way agreed with a shrug toward me. “The Towers do that sort of thing all the time. You should talk to her about it. She’ll help.” To the woman herself, she added, “But don’t make him fill it out right now, he’s suffered enough today and we’re all tired.”

With a soft chuckle, Caishen promised to be nice. She then moved, allowing That-A-Way and Wobble to pull Ashton up by the arms and escort him out. He was, of course, ranting the whole way about how we were all going to hate ourselves as soon as Blackjack killed someone again. Which might’ve been fair to an extent, but he didn’t have any room out on that moral ledge. 

Left standing there with the rolled up control suit under one arm and the helmet to it in that hand, I reached out to pick up my own broken helmet from the sink. “Uh, detainment application? Sorry, context aside, that kind of sounds like I’d be applying to be detained.” 

“I suppose it does, doesn’t it?” the woman agreed easily, offering me a very slight nod. “Actually, it’s the opposite. You see, as a recognized Star-Touched, you are, in your identity as Paintball, allowed to temporarily detain prisoners whom you have probable cause to believe committed a crime or were in the midst of doing so. You should know that much by now. Flea gave you cuffs for that very purpose, I believe.” 

When I nodded, she went on. “Now, where it gets a little complicated is in the question of how long you can detain someone for before turning them over. It has become remarkably clear over the past two decades of Touched actions that there are times when it is simply unwise or even impossible to immediately turn over a captured Fell-Touched or Fell-Adjacent prisoner to the authorities. There could be any number of reasons for this, from an ongoing and current threat making travel to the authorities difficult or even dangerous, to the authorities being ill-equipped at that particular time to hold the prisoner, to more… varied reasons. The point is, it was decided that each instance of such detainment would be judged on a case-by-case basis, so long as the one or ones doing the detaining were still in good standing with the local authorities. In other words, as long as the locals see you as generally good, you get a bit of leeway as far as exactly when you turn someone over. Normally this is only up to a couple of days on average, but there are extenuating circumstances that push it further. As I said, case by case basis. That’s where the detainment application comes in. You submit the paperwork explaining why you detained this Mr. Austin guy, detail your reasoning in why turning him in immediately would have presented a threat and that you turned him over as soon as reasonably possible. You’ll have to report in to explain to a judge that he was treated well, that he was not injured, starved, or anything else under your care and the judge will make the decision about whether it was proper.”

This was all really complicated. I’d never known that people out there doing the hero thing had to do all this other stuff too. I already knew from Flea that I’d need to go to court once a month to give depositions about the people I’d helped catch, and now there was this too. Not that it was a bad thing. Actually, in this case, the fact that they had a system like that set up to let independent Touched explain why they detained someone was indisputably a good thing. It was just… a lot to get used to. 

Apparently interpreting my brief silence as worry, Caishen assured me, “In this case, I’m fairly confident that you’ll be fine. The threat presented by the bounty against Mr. Austin made keeping him safe from gang reprisal or capture quite important. In addition, the possibility of Blackjack and La Casa becoming a much greater threat to the populace should his daughter’s medicine not be recovered, as well as the threat to the girl herself, are strong contributing factors. Just include all of that in your paperwork, tell the judge in person when they call you in, and you should be okay. I’m assuming you fed the prisoner and didn’t mistreat him?” 

I nodded once. “I–yeah, he’s fine. I mean, still kinda crazy and all because of… his friend dying and all.” Swallowing at the thought, I pushed on. “But still, he’s physically okay.” 

“Excellent,” Caishen replied simply, “then there shouldn’t be an issue. The threat to his life was obvious, the threat his actions presented to both the city as a whole and to Blackjack’s unidentified daughter is well-documented, and you turned him over in good condition. Just fill out the form and turn it in. Ah, I’m assuming you don’t have the form itself handy. Come to the Ten Tower offices first chance you get and one of our people will have a stack for you. If you like, someone will even help you fill it out.” 

“Why would you do all that for me when I don’t even–” I hesitated. “I mean, when I’m not even working for you or anything. Hell, I just barely met you and I don’t actually have any kind of history with your people or–” 

“I like to cultivate positive relationships with important people,” she interrupted. “Or people who could become important. And from what I’ve seen, you’re well on your way. Look what you’ve done in just the past couple of weeks. And at the people you’ve managed to annoy. Like Cuélebre.” For a moment, the woman paused as though considering before adding, “So, let’s just say I believe in helping to raise up and encourage people who are going to do good for this city. That’s just good business. The more stable things are, the better it is for the companies that Ten Towers represents. They make money. We make money. Everyone’s happy. Instability is bad for business, and bad for profits.” 

“That’s… good, I guess.” Biting my lip behind the mask, I asked, “So just show up and someone will know what I’m talking about?” 

“I’ll make sure of it,” she confirmed. “But for now, I suggest you get home. You look dead on your feet, and I’m pretty sure you have school tomorrow, wherever you go. And hey, good job tonight. You may not know just how much, but you saved a lot of people by heading off that little gang war.

“And on another note, you should really think about applying to Ten Towers when you’re old enough. This whole painting stuff across your costume thing would be a gold mine for advertisers.” 

********

Right as Caishen might have been about me being tired, I didn’t go home after leaving the scene at the store. Instead, I made my way back to Wren’s place. No way was I just going to go home and crash without talking to the others first. Not after everything that we’d all gone through. Besides, I still had to give Wren back the suit and helmet so she could extract the Seraph thing from it. Then I’d return it and this whole thing would be over. 

Except for the part where Eits knew I was a girl. Yeah, we’d talked it through and he promised not to use it against me or anything. And I was almost positive I could even trust him to do what he said. But it… it still made me nervous. Was that bad? Was I bad for not just… completely and one hundred percent believing him even after we had that whole conversation in the car? I did believe him. I did. Mostly. But that tiny hint of doubt that sat in the pit of my stomach was just… I couldn’t stop poking at it. 

My parents lied to me my whole life about what kind of people they were. Could I really trust Eits to not just change his mind and end up using what he knew at some point? Was it dumb to keep dwelling on it when I couldn’t change anything? What else was I going to do about it besides hope that he was telling the truth and didn’t change his mind? 

Shaking off those thoughts as I landed in the parking lot of Wren’s place (after making sure no one was following me this time), I headed in. The door buzzed to unlock as I approached, and I opened it. 

Wren and Pack were down there. I could hear Fred in the room we’d used as a cell for Ashton, apparently cleaning it out. As I appeared at the bottom of the stairs, Wren flung herself at me, hugging tight. “You did it!” she blurted. “You got all the medicine!” 

Coughing, I returned the hug before releasing her to step back with a look toward Pack. “So, it’s all good then?” 

She nodded. “Blackjack’s got all the vials and he’ll be keeping them right at home now. The girl’s gonna be fine. And ahhh, he said this was for you.” Reaching into a bag at her side, she pulled out a black fanny pack-sized pouch and tossed it to me. 

Catching it, I looked inside. Cash. A hundred thousand in cash, just as he’d promised. At least, I was assuming it was a hundred thousand. It was all in a mix of fifties and hundreds, and I wasn’t going to stand there and count all of it right then. From everything I’d heard and experienced, Blackjack was a man of his word. If he said he would pay a hundred thousand, I believed him. 

Holding the pouch in one hand, I managed a very faint smile as I looked to Pack. Her lizards were all in a cage nearby. “I guess this is it then, huh? At least until I catch you doing something bad out there.” 

“Yeah, then we’ll just have to fight for real,” she replied casually. “I’ll try to take it easy on you, since you’ve been pretty cool.” 

“Gee, thanks,” I retorted, shrugging one shoulder. “And I’ll do my best not to let the cuffs hurt too much when I put them on.” Pausing then, I grimaced. “This is gonna be awkward when it comes up, isn’t it?” 

“Probably,” she agreed easily. “Guess we’ll take it as it comes.” To Wren, she added, “Good luck with everything, kid. Err, sorry, guess I should call you Trevithick, huh?” Sobering, she nodded seriously. “Good luck. I’ll see you around.”

With that, Pack picked up her lizard cage and headed out. I watched her go, listening to the sound of the door opening and shutting before looking to Wren. “Maybe she’ll miss all this and get tired of being a bad guy. But hey, we did good anyway.”

“Really good!” Wren agreed enthusiastically. “They got the vials and… and the suit worked. And you didn’t die!” 

Chuckling, I murmured, “That last one’s definitely a bonus. Anyway, here.” Extending the suit and helmet to her, I informed the girl, “Extract the thing whenever you can. I’ll get it back to the Seraphs first chance after you do that.” Even as I finished saying it, an audible yawn escaped me. It had been a long evening. 

“Sounds like Wren isn’t the only one who needs to get some sleep,” Fred noted as he emerged from the other room with a mop in one hand. “I hate to pull the adult card given my track record, but isn’t it about time for that?” 

“Yeah, I’m on my way,” I agreed before opening up the pouch once more. “But first…” Carefully, I extracted some of the bills from the pouch. About ten thousand dollars for an emergency fund, just in case. I would put it somewhere safe. The rest of the pouch I tossed to Wren. “Should be about ninety thousand in there. That’s your sixty percent plus my first investment.” 

“Ninety… ninety thousand dollars?” For a moment Fred looked like he might faint, stepping over to look at the pouch in Wren’s hands. 

“Like I said, we’re in this business together,” I reminded them. “Use that to start getting set up. I know it’s not like… unlimited funds or anything, but it should help get off the ground a little bit. We’ll figure out what you can put together that we can sell and go from there.” 

“You… you really believe what you said,” Wren murmured in an awed voice that cracked just a little as she looked up to me. “You just… you just gave us all this money because you think we can really do it.” 

“I know we can,” I corrected. “I know you can. It’ll be great. Just… worry about it tomorrow. For now, Fred’s right, we need to get some sleep.” 

After exchanging a few more brief pleasantries, I headed out. Leaving Wren’s place, I looked around before finding a nearby alley with a loose brick. Pulling it out, I hid the phone that Eits had given me in it. I… mostly trusted him, but taking a phone that a guy who could manipulate technology had given me back to my home felt like a bad idea in general. Just in case, I wasn’t going to risk it. So, I hid the phone there for the time being, to deal with later. I’d have to get a real new phone of my own. 

But for the moment, I simply stepped out of the alley, stood by the street, and breathed in. 

It was over. Well, for the most part. Ashton was with the authorities. Blackjack had his vials so his daughter would be safe. And sure, Cuélebre was definitely even more pissed off at me, I still didn’t know enough about my family’s evil empire to do anything about it, I still owed Deicide that favor, Eits knew I was a girl, I wasn’t sure why Izzy was living with us, I was going to have to prove to a judge that I’d done the right thing in keeping Ashton locked up… and probably something else I was forgetting. 

But that was stuff to worry about another day. For the moment, I was going home, where I was going to fall into bed and sleep for… oh. For a few hours, apparently, considering there was still school in the morning. School where I would have to somehow be conscious enough to give my part of that big project Jae, Amber, and I had been working on. And that was something I definitely couldn’t miss. Mostly because I’d never be able to explain to the other two why I wasn’t there. 

But it was kind of fun to imagine the looks on their faces if I tried. 

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Showdown 7-09 (Summus Proelium)

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Citing exhaustion after everything that had happened, which wasn’t exactly a stretch, I let Eits drive me back to the store where all that fighting had happened. The two of us sat in that car, staying quiet for the first part of the drive before he looked to me. “You believe me when I say I won’t tell anybody about you, right?”

I shrugged a bit. “I don’t really have much of a choice, do I? My black paint only lasts ten seconds, and I can’t exactly follow you around constantly reapplying it just to keep you quiet.”

He gave me a brief look, coughing once. “Why do I feel like you actually considered that for a second back there?”

Flashing under the mask, I retorted, “I was panicking, sue me. My identity is kind of sensitive.” With that, I turned a bit to stare at him. “So when you promise you won’t tell anybody, you really have to not tell anybody. I mean it. Not even Pack. Nobody. Don’t even write it down. It could… it could get both of us in deep trouble.”

Because I was pretty sure if my parents found out who I was and even suspected that I knew about them, they’d work to shut up anyone else who might know. That included anyone who had found out any hints of my identity. They wouldn’t take chances.

Eits looked uncertain for a moment, but finally nodded. “I’m not sure what you mean by that, but I think I’ll just take your word for it. Like I said, I’m not going to tell anybody about you. And I won’t write it down or anything. I’ll even try not to dream about it if that helps. No promises on that front though, subconscious Eits kind of has a mind of his own.”

Another moment of silence passed before he offered, “I guess we both know more about each other than we intended, huh? Funny how that works when you’re not even trying.”

I nodded. “I haven’t done anything to try to find out who you are from that whole baseball thing. Now, I guess we both sort of have power over each other. We don’t look into each other‘s pasts or identities, right?”

“Right,” he agreed readily. “Just… I swear this isn’t me trying to pry, but when you talk about how dangerous it would be if anybody found out who you were, it doesn’t sound like you’re talking in general. You’re afraid of someone specific. So, I just want to ask… are you okay? Sorry, you don’t have to talk about it. I just… yeah, if you need anything or whatever…”

Blinking in a bit of a surprise, I quickly shook my head. “I’m okay. I mean, you’re not wrong about it being dangerous, but it’ll be fine.” Pausing, I added a somewhat awkward, “Thanks. But you know what? This is going to make having to come after you once we’re on opposite sides again really awkward.”

He shrugged. “Like we said, you have ways of finding out who I am if I go too far looking into you, or give away any of your secrets. Besides, I am fully prepared to cool my heels in a cell if you grab me doing something bad. It’s not like Blackjack won’t get me out.” 

He paused then, head tilting. “Err, did that sound like I was taunting you? Cuz I wasn’t trying to taunt you. It’s just… uhh, yeah. La Casa look after their own. Blackjack has these strict rules about how much force we’re allowed to use if we’re actually caught, depending on by who, the situation, and everything else. The point is, we play nice and spend a little time in jail if we have to until the others resolve the situation.”

“So what you’re saying is,” I started slowly, “you’re not going to start screaming about me being a girl the second I catch you breaking into someone’s system and lock you down for the cops.”

He gave me a serious look then. “Like I said, your secret is safe with me. I’m not gonna tell anybody. I mean, I wouldn’t exactly be happy about it, but I trust Blackjack. Besides, if you catch me breaking in somewhere, I deserve to be caught.”

Snorting at that, I retorted, “Pretty big words for someone who had to call me for help to get him off a roof, dude.”

He was clearly blushing a little while waving that off with his hand. “A crazy fluke. Totally not gonna happen again.” Sobering a bit then, the boy looked to me once more. “You and me, we’re good. I know the risks of what I’m doing, and I’m ready for the consequences if they come. You catch me fair and square, I’m not gonna say anything. I swear. But you do have to catch me first.”

Hesitating, I took a breath before pointing out, “You could always just stop being a bad guy. Seriously, you seem really cool. It’d be a lot easier to avoid any problems if you weren’t stealing things anymore.”

He sounded honestly regretful while replying, “Sorry. I owe Blackjack, not to mention the rest of La Casa.  Without them, I’d… let’s just say I’d be in much worse shape.” Shrugging, he added, “Besides, I hate to tell you this, but stealing things is kind of a rush. Beating security systems, finding a way around the guards, even dealing with Star-Touched like you. Some of the other Fell take it way too seriously, or they’re just fucking monsters. Me, I just want to see if I can do it. And, like I said, I owe Blackjack more than I could ever describe.”

There was a lot I wanted to say to that, but I wasn’t sure how to phrase it. I also kind of wanted to ask the boy if he knew anything about a secret group who were paid by villains for the right to operate in the city. He was probably one of my best ways of getting more information about my family’s organization. But I couldn’t bring that up yet. I didn’t want to endanger him if he went looking for information, and I still wasn’t exactly positive about how much I should tell him anyway. I wouldn’t be able to unring that bell once I brought it up, and I was pretty sure he would be able to figure out that there was a connection between me talking about how dangerous it was if someone found out too much about me, and this random mysterious shadowy organization. He could put two and two together. 

So, I just stayed quiet as we pulled into the back lot behind the store. There were a lot of people there. Mainly I saw La Casa troops of both the Touched and Prev variety grouped up on one side, and the four Minority people on the other. There was obvious tension in the area, and I hoped things didn’t boil over. Quickly getting out of the car with a last look back toward Eits, I moved to Carousel and the others. “They’re not back yet?”

Syndicate (or the one of him who was standing there) spoke up. “No. According to those guys, this Jailtime asshole takes you into his own private prison and you have to find your way out.” He paused before muttering under his breath, “Way better get out of there.” 

Unable to help myself, I asked, “So where’s Raindrop? I figured she’d be with you guys, or at least show up by now.”

Syndicate quietly answered, “She’s… on vacation. She needed a break.”

Okay, there was definitely something more to that, but before I could think about it too much, Carousel looked to me. “Seems like you went many miles. Tell us you got the vials. All the danger this has fraught, it’d suck to be for naught.”

Wobble nodded, the huge guy looking to me. “She’s right,” he rumbled in a deep voice, “if we went through all this and those vials are still out there…”

“Almost,” I assured them. “We’ve got all but one of them. And that last one… well, it’s with Pack and That-A-Way.” Looking back to the spot where the two had disappeared, I quietly added, “So I guess that’s another reason to hope they make it out.”

Whamline spoke up. “You’re a pretty hard little guy to figure out, you know? You’re obviously trying to help people, but you’re also on friendly terms with villains like Blackjack and Pack. Not to mention that Eits guy. You’re not a villain, but you say you don’t want to join us either. So what’s the deal? Do we have cooties or something?”

Turning away from where he had been staring at the La Casa people, Syndicate agreed. “Yeah, we’ve been trying to figure out why you’re so adamant about staying on your own. I mean, you’ve seen how dangerous it is out there. Look at your helmet. That was Cuélebre, right? He nearly killed you. And let me guess, you still don’t want to join.”

Blanching a bit out their interrogation, I gave a quick shake of my head while holding the broken helmet tighter. “I’m sorry, guys. I’m just not a team player right now. You’re right, I’m not a bad guy. I just want to help people. But I have my own way of doing it. I don’t mind helping out, I just can’t join up with you.

“And I was helping Blackjack save his daughter. That’s it. I don’t agree with the guy or anything. I just don’t think his kid should pay for what Blackjack does. I get why Ashton is pissed at him. But he took it too far.”

The four of them exchanged looks, a silent conversation of some kind passing between them before Syndicate looked back to me. “I guess that’s fair enough for now. But we’ve still got a lot of questions. Sorry, I’m just pretty sure there’s still something more behind your whole situation than you’re saying.”

Inwardly, I blanched while trying not to show any reaction in my body language. How could I just tell them to leave well enough alone without piquing their curiosity even more? If I acted like it was a big deal and tried to warn them, they’d definitely dig deeper. And that could be really bad for everyone, considering my supervillain/hero father was basically their boss. 

So, I just did my best to shrug it off, deliberately changing the subject. “Are you guys gonna be okay after all this? I mean, you were technically fighting alongside La Casa tonight too.”

Carousel was the one who replied. “They’ll just have to let us explain. With that kind of danger, we couldn’t abstain.”

“What she said, only less rhymey,” Syndicate agreed. “At least for tonight, the truce was the best way to go. Two other gangs to fight, nobody’s going to blame us for not jumping straight into fighting La Casa too. And like you said, in this case it was about saving a little girl. Even if she was the daughter of a supervillain.”

Everyone stopped talking then, because the car with Blackjack himself had shown up. He stepped out of it, glanced over to us, and then said something to his men. After a brief back and forth, he approached, watching our reactions before speaking. “I owe all of you a debt of gratitude for what you’ve done tonight, and the risks you took to secure my daughter’s medicine.”

Wobble quickly asked, “Don’t suppose we could all trade in those debts of gratitude and get you to turn yourself in?” After a brief pause, he shrugged. “It was worth a shot.”

Chuckling in what sounded like genuine amusement, Blackjack nodded. “It certainly was. But no, I’m afraid tonight will not be the time you manage to talk a Fell-gang leader into surrendering. Given what I’ve seen of you all, however, I would hardly be surprised to see you manage it at some point. I’ll even wish you luck, given how my own organization could profit from such an event.”

He was still nervous. I could tell that much just from watching the man. He was trying to play things off, but there was a certain tenseness to him. Probably because he was so close to finally saving his daughter. There was only one vial left, and he could do absolutely nothing about getting it back. He just had to stand here and wait to see if… no, when Pack and That-A-Way got out of there. They had the last vial, and his daughter wouldn’t be safe until they were here. But he could do nothing to influence it and clearly felt completely helpless. I knew the feeling. 

Before anyone else could say anything, there was a rush of motion from above and to the side, I quickly looked that way with the others, just in time to see Flea come leaping down to land between the Minority Touched (as well as me) and Blackjack. She was joined a second later by another female figure in a purple and white skin tight suit with a helmet not too dissimilar from mine. Dynamic, the Conservator speedster who could temporarily drain the powers from people she ran past in order to create energy constructs. She came skidding to a stop beside the other woman, both of them standing with their attention fully centered on Blackjack. 

“Problem here?” Flea asked flatly, her voice full of warning. She had a sword in one hand, though she hadn’t actually raised it. The tip was pointed at the ground. But her intent was clear. 

Syndicate quickly spoke up. “It’s okay. Nothing’s changed since we reported in a few minutes ago. We’re still waiting for That-A-Way.”

Blackjack gave a slight nod. If he was at all intimidated or worried about the two adult Star-Touched, he gave no sign of it. I even saw him suddenly wave his hand back to motion for his own men to stay away. His voice was as calm as possible given the situation. “Your protege is correct. We have all held to a truce this evening to focus on more important matters. I hope that can be maintained through these last few minutes.”

Flea made a noise of curiosity. “Few minutes? The way I understood it, we have no way of knowing when our people will get out of that prison. Unless you’re privy to something the rest of us aren’t?”

She was trying to find out if his words had anything to do with his power, I realized. No one knew exactly how it worked, or how much information the guy could get. 

From the way he chuckled, the La Casa leader was just as aware of what she was doing. He bowed his head, seemingly in acknowledgment and approval of it before replying, “Let’s just say I have a certain level of optimism. Assuming our disagreements can wait until later?”

Dynamic spoke up, her voice bright and cheerful. “Oooh, by disagreements, you mean the fact that you’re a super villain who keeps robbing and hurting people and we’re supposed to take you to prison? Those disagreements?” She gave him a clearly embellished thumbs up. “Sure, we can wait to bring you to justice. It’s not like you’re suddenly going to disappear. Though, you know, that would probably be the best super villain move ever. Just completely vanish so no one ever finds you? I wonder if—” 

She stopped as Flea nudged her. I didn’t know a lot about Dynamic, except for the fact that she was the youngest member of the Conservators. She’d been part of the Minority only a year earlier. Not our Minority, but the one in the Utah/Wyoming area. On graduation, she’d been picked up by none other than Silversmith himself. 

Did that definitely make her one of the bad guys, or was I just being paranoid? Dad would obviously want good Star-Touched in the city, or he wouldn’t have anything to threaten people who didn’t pay up with. But was she just a good recruit to have, or actually part of the shadow organization? Having a loyal person on the Conservators besides himself, and one who could actually drain people’s powers at that, would be really useful for him.

“Paintball?” With a start, I realized that Flea had been trying to get my attention. When I looked that way, she gestured to the broken helmet in my hand. “Are you okay?”

“I…” Pausing, I swallowed before nodding. The brief memory flash of that lightning made my throat dry. I was really trying to focus on anything other than that. “I’m fine,” I claimed in a voice that I was proud to say was only shaking a little bit. “I just need a shower and a nap.”

With an audible giggle, Dynamic blurted, “Tell me about it, little dude. After all the shit that’s been going around tonight, I could use a spa day.” She didn’t seem nearly as tense as Flea was for standing in front of Blackjack. A sign that she was part of my parents’ organization after all, or just her personality? I wished I knew for sure. 

Belatedly, I looked to the two Conservator Star-Touched. “I… I saw Silversmith fighting Cuélebre. Is he–I mean, are they still–” God, how stupid was this? My dad was an actual secret supervillain and I was still worried about his safety. What was wrong with me? 

For her part, Flea simply offered me a short nod, clearly having no idea what was behind my question. “He’s fine. Cuélebre escaped, but I promise, Smith made him regret coming out tonight.” 

With that, she turned her attention to the La Casa leader. “It sounds like you treated these guys right.” She nodded to the Minority and me. “So thanks. Still, I have to say, this truce only lasts until you get that vial and get out of here. We see you again tonight, this whole thing is gonna go differently, got it?” 

Blackjack started to respond, but before he could say anything, there was a sudden flash of light nearby. Everyone’s eyes snapped there, as the light began to resolve into a figure. Or two figures. That-A-Way and Pack. The latter had all her lizards clinging to her arms and shoulders. 

As everyone stared, both girls staggered and stumbled a bit. They looked pretty haggard, worn out, and generally like they’d been through a lot. Finally, they looked up to find everyone watching. 

“Oh, hey, boss.” Pack’s words were light, though she was clearly barely able to keep standing. “Special delivery?”

Then she held up the final vial. The last one. She held it out, letting her employer take it from her with a somewhat shaking hand. Clutching it, he turned and nodded to someone. A moment later, Ashton was brought out and sent stumbling to me. 

It was over. Blackjack finally had what he needed to save his daughter. After all that, we’d actually pulled it off. 

And you know what, whether Dynamic was a secret bad guy or not, she was absolutely right about one thing. 

A spa day sounded really fucking good right about now.

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Showdown 7-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Apparently the Minority communications worked despite the jammer. Probably because they were all within the same area the jammer was affecting or something. Either way, the Syndicate with us was able to talk with the rest of his team outside, including his other selves. They coordinated what was about to happen, doing so with what amounted to a thirty second explanation. And given that we were about to have Cuélebre and Sandon dropped on our heads, even that felt like too long. We needed to get the hell out of here right freaking now.

First, I had to go grab Ashton. Vaguely tempting as it might’ve been to leave him here, I wasn’t going to do that. Instead, I moved up to where I’d left him in the ice cream aisle. He was… uhh, yeah, definitely losing his mind. When he saw me, his wild eyes focused and he shouted something that was muffled by the currently transparent visor. 

“Let me guess,” I dryly replied, “you need to scratch your nose like a son of a bitch.” Even as I said it, my hand was pulling the remote out and I quickly hit a couple buttons on it that Wren had told me about. “There, you can move now. But before you try running away, there’s a couple things you should know. First, there’s a whole bunch of guys out there from two different gangs who would love to torture you if you can’t convince them that you don’t have what they want. Or just for fun, because you wasted their time. Not to mention the fact that one of those gangs is the one whose people you used to piss off La Casa in the first place. And second, you definitely can’t get that suit off without Wren’s help, which means that anytime I hit the recall button, you’ll come marching right back to me anyway. I’m not going to unmute you, because we really don’t have time for any more bullshit. But I’m not leaving you here either, so come on.”

There was the briefest of hesitations, before he seemed to deflate a little bit and moved to follow me. I led him to the back of the store quickly, while giving him a brief explanation of what we were going to do. If he had any input on the plan, his facial expression and body language didn’t really depict it. Not to mention the fact that after all the times that he had said he was fine with a little girl dying for his revenge, I wasn’t really interested in his strategy ideas anyway. 

The two of us reached the back storeroom, passing a bunch of heavily-laden shelves before finding the others. As soon as we came into view, Pack put a hand on Mars Bar and pointed to Ashton. “See him? He stays with you. If he tries to go anywhere else besides with you until I say otherwise, rip one of his arms off and try beating him with it.”

While the bearguana growled, Syndicate cleared his throat. “Can we avoid openly discussing criminal acts like torture for a little while? I know I said we’d catch you guys another time, but you really shouldn’t go out of your way to make me regret that. And who are you anyway?”

“He’s on vocal timeout,” I replied. “But this is Ashton Austin, the guy behind that bank robbery that you guys have all been looking for. When this is over, you can have him. So, you see? You’re not getting out of this totally empty-handed after all.”

He looked back-and-forth between us briefly before simply noting, “If we get out of it. And if we do, we’re gonna have a lot more questions for you.”

“If we do, I’ll see about answering them.” With that, I looked over to the nearby closed loading dock doors. “So, are we doing this, or what?”

Syndicate nodded. “Remember the plan. All we need to do is get everyone to That-A-Way and she’ll teleport us out of here. We don’t need to stay and fight. We don’t need to win anything. We just need to get out. And we need them to know we’re gone so they leave everyone in the store alone. We make a break for it, go through any forces we need to, and teleport away. That’s it.”

Eits gave him a thumbs up. “Yeah, trust me chief, some of us aren’t interested in fighting at all. Running away sounds pretty good.”

For a second, it looked as though Syndicate was going to say something about that, before he just shook his head and asked, “Anything else?”

I quickly spoke up. “Yeah, this.” Raising my hands, I shot some orange paint at everyone in turn, including the lizard creatures. Two at a time (one with each hand), I hit everyone with a circle of the paint. “There, as soon as I activate this, which I will once we get out there, you’ll be tougher for about ten seconds. Bulletproof tough. And here.” For good measure, I added a spot of green paint to everyone as well. “Now you’ll all be faster too. Again, just for ten seconds. You’ll be faster and tougher than they expect. Just use it to get to That-A-Way.”

“Dude,” Eits intoned in what sounded embarrassingly like awe. “Support classes kick ass.”

Flushing under the helmet, I shook my head. “It’s no big deal, really. If we had more time, I’d do more, but we’re sort of pressed right now.”

Syndicate looked like he might say something to that, but in the end he just snorted and used his com. “We good out there? Okay. Other me going on three, the rest of us hold until he’s got their attention at the front. One, two, three.”

Even knowing it was coming, I didn’t hear anything at first. I was listening for the reaction and there was nothing. Which made sense, we wouldn’t get anything overt until he made them think he was—

Aaaand the gunfire started. Suddenly we could hear all those guns coming from outfront. It was like someone had unleashed a swarm of monsters from hell. And those monsters were really pissed off. 

“Wait,” Syndicate cautioned, holding up a hand. “Wait for it. Wait for them to really commit to it. He’s in the store. Now they’re trying to break through that security shield. They’re breaking it, and… and they’re in! They’re moving through the front! Go, go!” 

We went. Eits had control of the security system, and he instantly opened the sealed doors. As planned, he opened all of them, the big rolling doors on all of the loading docks, and the regular-sized doors as well. They all opened as one, and we booked it through the loading door furthest to the left. We weren’t going to take the time to go through one of the regular doors. This way, we could all flood out and run for it. Hopefully, that way this would be less of a shooting gallery for the guys facing us. 

The second the doors were up and we were moving, I hung back just enough to let the others get ahead of me, and activated the orange and green paint I had to put over everyone. Suddenly, we were all moving even faster than our fear and adrenaline had been managing to make us move already. Which, honestly, was saying something. 

It was safe to say that the guys out back were pretty surprised by our appearance. They had been looking around toward the sides at the sound of gunfire from the front, when we suddenly came pouring out of the now open door right in front of them. Only a few of the many who were there managed to start firing immediately. And for that, the orange paint did its job. I saw several of the others take a couple hits that did little more than sting them thanks to the paint. Mars Bar by himself, probably thanks to his size and sheer intimidation factor, was hit a good six or seven times in those first couple seconds. He barely reacted, aside from opening his mouth to give a loud, pants-wetting roar while slamming into three guys at once. They went flying like bowling pins, while a fourth guy tried to open up on the bear with a shotgun. But Mars simply snatched it out of his hand, crumbling the gun like it was made of tissue paper with one paw, before grabbing him in the other and sending the man flying a good twenty or thirty feet with a dispassionate shove that way. 

Holiday grabbed a guy’s leg and ran off with him, dragging the poor bastard along with her as he screamed. Two other guys tried to shoot at her, but Tuesday and Twinkletoes wrecked them pretty thoroughly on their way past. One was walloped in the back of the head by a nearly invisible gorilla-lizard, while the other took a small, yet really dangerous monkey-lizard fist to the privates. The former was left completely unconscious, while the latter just really wished that he was. 

The first thing I did upon emerging and taking all this in was shoot a spray of blue paint as wide as I could make it around the feet of the group in front of us. Activating it sent them flying in every direction with a collection of screams. Which worked nicely to clear the path of the guys that Mars hadn’t already trampled through. 

Ashton was just behind the bear, apparently having taken Pack’s warning to heart. Or maybe he really didn’t want to be left to deal with all the angry Ninety-Niners after he’d used them in his revenge scheme and figured being behind the giant beast was his best shot. Either way, he was sticking really close to Mars Bar. 

Two guys with guns popped up toward the right. Both were taken down by Syndicate with a quick flurry of motion that I couldn’t even follow that left them on the ground, disarmed. On the opposite side, a guy who popped up with a rifle raised was literally run over by a car that came screaming through the lot, accompanied by the familiar sound of one of Eits’ mites cackling. The car proceeded to spin around, hitting another guy with its tail end during the skid. 

Just ahead, on the far side of the small rear lot where they had been able to crouch out of sight, That-A-Way appeared with another Syndicate, Whamline, Wobble, and Carousel. Not Raindrop though. Maybe she had the night off. Those five, however, were right there, and the path to them was clear for the moment, thanks in large part to the blue paint flinging the vast majority of people out of the way. Unfortunately, just as they came into view and I had a second to think this might be easy after all, there was a blinding flash of light. It faded quickly, but what didn’t fade was the new group of combined Oscuro and Ninety-Niner troops that had suddenly appeared. Long Haul. That had to be Long Haul, the Ninety-Niner Touched teleporter. He’d just dumped a bunch more problems right in front of us. 

Get to That-A-Way. Get everyone to That-A-Way. That’s all we had to do. Two guys who had recovered from their paint-assisted trip were picking themselves and their guns up and turning our way. I sprayed blue again, this time at my own feet, to launch myself up and forward. Twisting in the air just as the pair finished rising and turning, I passed by over their heads. One arm pointed down and one pointed up and back, I sprayed red paint from both. The first hit both men, while the other hit the back of the store we’d just left. Activating it sent them flying up and toward it with a couple screams, just as I landed in a crouch behind where they had been. 

Only then did the green paint run out. And we were almost there. Eits was just reaching the spot where I was, while his mite-controlled car ran down yet another guy that was coming around the corner of the building. I hit him with another bit of green to help him keep moving. “Go, go!” I blurted, hitting as many of our side as I could with orange paint to keep them safe while scanning the lot. Ashton was right there with Mars Bar. The Syndicates who were out here were fine, working together to disable a couple more guys who didn’t even know what hit them. More people were shooting, but the orange paint was doing its job. It meant we could focus on moving instead of fighting. Move instead of fight, that was the entire point.

Most of the people Long Haul had sent in after us were dealing with the Minority. There was a rush of motion and fighting I couldn’t even follow. One of the new arrivals took deliberate aim at me, but I dropped to the ground just before he fired, throwing my hand out to send a shot of white paint onto his arm. Activating it to blind the guy, I used blue paint to launch myself that way, shifting purple onto my arms as I slammed into him to take the guy to the ground. A quick smack to the face knocked him out of the fight. 

But that was just one guy. What had started as a quick run to That-A-Way was quickly devolving into total chaos. I could see the girl herself, trying to help Wobble, Whamline, and Carousel.

Another flash of white announced the arrival of more bad guys. One was directly behind me, and I spun that way just in time to duck the bat he was swinging at my head. A quick shot of yellow at his chest, accompanied by activating part of the green I’d already prepared on the portrait across my uniform meant that he was suddenly a lot slower, while I was a lot faster. And, thanks to a bit of purple that I also activated, stronger. My hand snatched the bat from his grip in mid-swing, tearing it away from him while my foot lashed out to kick his leg. It was enough to make him start to stumble, before I drove the bat into his stomach and put him fully on the ground. 

Damn it, damn it, just get to That-A-Way! This shouldn’t be that hard, right? We’d cleared the way, we had the advantage of surprise and a distraction up front. All we had to do was get everyone across the parking lot to meet up with her and she could teleport us the hell away. And it was close. Pack and her animals were all-but there, crashing right into the back of the group of newcomers with Ashton on their heels. Eits was using his borrowed car as his own bodyguard to clear a path. We were almost there. Almost there! 

Which, of course, was the moment that something dropped from above. A lithe figure with great eagle-like wings slammed down behind That-A-Way. Yahui, the Oscuro woman who mixed and matched various animal parts. Apparently she’d decided to throw herself into the fight instead of just watching. 

In addition to the eagle wings, she also had a scorpion tail, which lashed out toward That-A-Way. But it went straight through the Minority girl, who was moving south and was therefore intangible. Unfortunately, that didn’t help Wobble, who was smacked by the tail moving sideways and thrown to the ground. And given he stood six and a half feet tall, that tail had to be pretty damn strong to knock him down that easily. Yahui tried to follow up by driving the blade of the tail down into him, but Wobble snapped his hand up and I saw a distortion in the air as he sent a wave of vibrations into the tail that knocked it out of the way. That was followed by two of Whamline’s energy ropes, which wrapped around her arms, flinging her into the air before exploding with a burst of kinetic energy that flung her senseless to the ground somewhere off on the other side of the lot. She was down. 

Carousel, meanwhile, had managed to disarm basically all the guys in our path, yanking the guns from their hands as she passed close to them. She also had two cars (miniaturized by her power) floating in orbit around her, which she sent flying at them. The cars regained their full size just in time to crash into the group, scattering everyone that remained. 

Clear, we were clear! 

“Go!” I blurted, sending a wide spray of red paint at all the bad guys I could see, before activating it so they were all slammed into one another, crashing into one big heap. Long Haul? Where was Long Haul? I hadn’t seen him at all, aside from the troops he kept sending in. But whatever, he didn’t matter, we just had to get the hell out of here. That’s all, we just had to go!

“Grab on!” That-A-Way was blurting. There, we were there. Everyone was there. We’d made it. The bad guys behind us were still picking themselves up, and we… everyone… yes, everyone was here, even Pack’s creatures. We all grabbed any part of each other we could, my left hand finding Eits’, while my right was grabbed by Ashton. The latter looked at me sharply, fear and relief in his eyes. I knew the feeling. But at least we were…

Nothing happened. That-A-Way was there, we were all holding onto each other and her, but… nothing happened. She frowned. “Wait, hold on. I–” 

“Did you truly think it would be that easy?” The voice. It was familiar. It was terrifyingly familiar. Cuélebre. He came floating down out of the air on his wings, gliding in to land with disconcerting grace considering his enormous fifteen-foot size. “Did you think I wouldn’t have prepared for a teleportation escape after the way you insulted and embarrassed me last time?” He made a tutting sound, while more of the Ninety-Niners and Oscuro troops, both of the Prev and Touched varieties, appeared on all sides of our suddenly surrounded group. 

Before I could move, before any of us could move, that bladed tail lashed out. I had time to yelp, just before it cut straight through my pocket. The vial and my phone fell out. I grabbed the latter, but the vial was caught on Cuélebre’s tail and smacked right into his waiting hand.

“No, no, no,” the giant demon taunted with the vial held gingerly between two massive fingers.  “You’re not leaving this time. We have too much to talk about.” 

“Talk about?” another voice echoed, and everyone spun in place to find Blackjack, surrounded by an assortment of his own people (Touched and Prevs alike). 

“I think we’re pretty much done talking.” 

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Showdown 7-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Okay. Okay. So, what was my current situation? Well, I was inside a grocery store with a few random customers and employees. Pack and her lizards were outside, working on shifting into a more combat-capable force. Also outside were a combined force of Oscuro and Ninety-Niners, who had apparently banded together in an attempt to hurt Blackjack and the rest of La Casa. Meanwhile, the bulk of the La Casa people were under attack by more of those combined forces to keep them busy. Which would also undoubtedly draw the attention of any authorities and Star-Touched who were out to keep them busy as well, so the guys here would have… privacy. 

I’d just finished my terse explanation to That-A-Way and was waiting for her to say something when the line suddenly went dead. Blinking at it, I saw there was no signal. Someone out there was using a jammer, just like the Scion people had back during the party. What the hell, did they start handing out those things as prizes in cereal boxes or something? 

Abruptly, the phone buzzed in my hand with a call coming through, despite having no signal. It surprised me so much that I almost dropped the damn thing, and actually gasped. The ID on the screen said it was Wren, so I answered it. “Wren? How are you calling me, there’s–” 

“No signal, I know,” she interrupted. “I had to use the signal booster I built into the suit Ashton’s wearing. It’ll only work within a few feet, so don’t get too far away yet, okay? Plus I’m not sure how long it’ll last before that jammer overloads it. Are you…” 

“I’m fine, so far,” I replied, looking to Ashton himself. He was standing there, looking torn between fear and delight. Fear at what might happen to him, of course (particularly given the fact he was frozen), along with delight because he thought we wouldn’t get away with the last vial now. “But those guys are gonna start coming inside any minute, as soon as they’ve got this place surrounded. And call me crazy, but I’m pretty sure they’re not here to pick up milk and bread.” 

“Crap, crap, crap!” Wren blurted. “I should’ve put that teleport marker on the suit so I could pull you guys out! I meant to, I did, but I was so excited that it was done, and we wanted to get–” 

“It’s okay, Wren,” I interrupted while dragging Ashton with me toward the end of the aisle. I peeked out. The front of the store looked clear. None of the bad guys had come in yet. But I kept watching. I needed to get out there, but first things first. “What about the car? Can you, I dunno, use any kind of security feature to keep those guys out of it, just in case? One of the vials is still in there.” 

“I can drive the car out with remote control,” she quickly informed me. “But I’m not–” 

“Do it. Take the car and the vial out of here, Wren. Keep it safe. Pack and I can handle this and keep these guys busy until That-A-Way brings reinforcements. We’ve got it, I promise. But I have to go now. There’s other people in this store, and those guys are gonna break in any second. We’ll deal with this. You focus on getting that car out of here with the vial, okay?”

Reluctantly, she agreed, making me promise to be careful. I did so before disconnecting,  hoping that everything I’d just said wouldn’t end up being wrong. Because despite all my assurances to try to keep the other girl calm, I had no idea what was going to happen here. Pack and her friends were still outside, and there was no way of knowing how long it would take That-A-Way to get anyone here. For the moment, Ashton and I were basically alone in this building, aside from all the innocent people those guys would plow through in order to get to us.

Just as I tucked the phone and vial deep in my pocket, zipping it shut, one of the store employees came into view. “Uh, hey, something’s going on outside.” 

And here it went. Glancing to Ashton, I hesitated before dragging him back a few feet down the aisle out of sight. Then I simply told him, “Hang out here.” As if he had a choice, given the suit wouldn’t let him move. But at least I didn’t have to worry about him running off. The suit worked as well for that as stay-down cuffs would have.

Quickly turning to the store guy, I walked that way while asking, “Those guys outside, the gangs, what’re they doing now?” Reaching the end of the aisle, I peeked toward the front doors once more. Nothing. Aside from several customers and employees standing there staring out at something. 

His head shook quickly. “Nothing, not yet. They’re just standing out there, but they’ve got guns and… and there’s Touched with them. But there’s two different gangs, and they’re not fighting.” 

“Yeah, cuz we’re a more popular target right now,” I muttered, before looking back to him. “Look, grab those people there, and anyone else you can find, somewhere safe to hide for awhile, like the manager’s office or something. Lock the doors and stay there until the cops come. Go!” 

It must’ve been the costume or something, but the guy actually listened. He ran off toward the front, saying something to those people, who quickly followed him. Meanwhile, I looked down at myself, summoning more drawings in various colors to the suit. Over the next brief handful of seconds, the images appeared. Images of two guys fighting with swords across my torso, with mountains in the background and a bird flying through the sky overhead. A coiled snake wrapped around a spear decorated my left leg, while a man with a javelin riding a motorcycle took up the right one. My arms were covered in multicolored flames and lightning bolts. Every image had multiple colors involved, multiple paints I could activate when the time came. An entire involved mural of images stretching across my suit. 

By that point, I had walked all the way to the front of the store, where the civilians had been watching from. Sure enough, through the doors I could see a bunch of vehicles out in the lot, blocking the way through. Dozens of gang members stood out there, mostly normal guys armed with guns, but with several Touched mixed in. When the group saw me, they stiffened a bit and a few said something to one another. A couple brought their guns up. Other than that, none of them moved or tried to come after me. They seemed to be waiting for something, or someone.

Pack was probably lying low for the moment, waiting for a good chance to show herself. Letting out a breath, I took a few slow steps that way, watching the guys outside as they stared at me. The door whooshed open when I was close enough, and I stopped there, lifting my chin while watching for anyone who looked like they were about to shoot. My heart was trying to beat its way out of my chest, and I had to focus for a moment to stop my voice from shaking too much.

“Hey guys, you think you could have your tailgate party somewhere else? I don’t think this store really appreciates you blocking their entrance that much. Kinda scares off the customers.” 

Two figures stepped forward, one guy and one girl. The man was instantly recognizable with his red trench coat and welding mask. Coverfire, the guy who had come to Wren’s place before. The woman was another obvious Touched that I recognized from news reports. She wore a costume that consisted of a gray bodysuit with black armor panels and a black metal mask covering the bottom half of her face. She was part of the Ninety-Niners, named Ringside. As I understood it, she was a super-strong and tough Touched (A Brawn-Touched, as Flea had taught me) with a twist. Basically, her power allowed her to summon these glowing red rings and throw them. If they hit a person, they would be teleported close to Ringside herself, and both she and the target would be surrounded by a domed forcefield cage of sorts. Within the forcefield cage, Ringside’s own strength depended on how much of their own powers she allowed her opponent to have. She could weaken their powers, remove them, or leave them the same. The weaker or more non-existent they were, the less strength she had. If she left them with all their powers, she would stay at full-strength too, and for her, that was enough to bench press a small car. But even with people who were much stronger than she was, locking them in the ‘ring’ with her and cancelling all their powers meant they couldn’t rely on any of it. 

Ringside was part of the Ninety-Niners. So I supposed these two were representing each of their groups. Two groups that, as far as I knew, didn’t exactly get along all that well. Unfortunately, I probably wasn’t lucky enough for them to start fighting each other right now. 

“Seems to me you keep ending up in this kind of situation,” Coverfire informed me flatly, his voice somewhat muffled by the welder’s mask. “Should we bother telling you to surrender?” 

“I’d do it if I was you, kid,” Ringside put in. “Otherwise, soon as the bosses show up, you’ll wish you had. Cuz I don’t think their leader’s gonna be in the mood to play around.” 

Their bosses. That’s why these guys hadn’t charged in yet. They were waiting for their respective leaders to arrive. Hell, the gangs probably didn’t trust each other enough to start something without Cuélebre and Sandon (the Ninety-Niner leader) around. Though I had no doubt that if I tried to leave, they’d get over that really quick. For the moment, they were content to stand out there and just make sure I didn’t go anywhere. But when their leaders showed up…

Swallowing at the thought of just how pissed off Cuélebre was at me, I forced myself to reply, “You know, if it’s milk you guys are after, I’m pretty sure they’re having a great sale at the place just three blocks down. But you better hurry before it’s all gone. You know how crazy everyone in this town gets over milk sales.” The fuck was I even talking about?

“The fuck are you even talking about?” Coverfire demanded. 

“Language,” Ringside snapped primly. “There’s no need to be crude.” To me, she added, “Tell you what, you surrender to me and I’ll make sure that these goons and their psychotic master don’t tear you apart. I’ll even go one step further and promise that when we get what we want, you can go completely free. Scout’s honor.”

Growling angrily at that, Coverfire glared at her. “We have a deal, remember?”

She gave a short nod, dark eyes flicking to him as she calmly replied, “Our deal is to work together to hurt Blackjack and La Casa. Personally, I don’t have anything against this kid. Not yet, anyway. Besides, watching him make your boss chase him all over town for nothing was pretty funny.”

Coverfire flared up his force field briefly at that, but didn’t make a move toward her. I had an idea to maybe try saying something that could make them argue some more or even fight, but before I could, the automatic door suddenly closed between us. A second later, the metal security shield came down. 

For a second, I just stared at it, wondering what the hell was going on. I could hear the guys shouting on the other side that some dinky little metal door wouldn’t stop them, just before a voice came over the intercom system. 

“Paintball, get to the security office. Hurry, I’m pretty sure we don’t have much time.”

It was Eits. Oh God, it was Eits! Spinning on my heel, I ran back through the store, looking around until I saw a sign pointing to the employees area. Booking it that way, I saw Holiday pop her head out of a doorway and look at me, so I headed there. 

Sure enough, Eits was there along with Pack and her animals. They were all in the rather large  security office, and as soon as I entered, Eits turned from the computer screen to stare at me. “Whoa, you fancied up your costume. That’s a pretty cool— wait, that’s all your paint stuff, isn’t it?”

I stared at the boy. “How did you get here so fast? Hell, how did all of you get in the store?”

Pack answered. “I texted him as soon as we saw the bitch in the sky. We’re, uh, let’s just say we’re not too far away from his place.”

Eits gave a short nod. “I made it over here and messed with the lights on a couple cars in the back to distract the guys back there long enough for the lizard gang to deal with them so we could get in through the loading dock.”

Brightening at that, I asked, “Great, so we can get everyone out that way?”

He winced, gesturing to the nearby security screen where I could see a view of the back lot. It was full of bad guys. “Turns out they had reinforcements. A lot of them. We just managed to get inside. And now we’re stuck here with you.” As soon as he said it, the boy instantly began fumbling over his words, “I mean, not that being anywhere with you feels like being stuck, or like it sucks, or… I mean, that wasn’t—”

Raising a hand to stop him, I interrupted. “Believe me, dude, being offended is basically the last thing on my mind right now. What about all the customers and employees?”

“Manager’s office,” Pack replied. “They all locked themselves in there. It’s kind of cramped, but I don’t think they’ll go anywhere anytime soon.” She looked to me then. “What about That-A-Way? You were trying to call her, right? Tell me she’s got cavalry on the way.”

“I dunno,” I admitted. “We got cut off before she could say anything after I told her what was going on. Hopefully. But either way, it could take them some time to get here, especially if all those guys are really causing so much trouble in the city. And our friends right outside are just waiting for Cuélebre and Sandon to show up.”

Pack cursed. “Right, so the only reason they haven’t come in yet is because they’ve got two of the biggest of the big guns heading here to finish the job themselves. And we can’t go anywhere because they’re all standing guard. At least the car took off with the other vial. That had to be the kid, right?”

Confirming that, I exhaled. “So, we’re stuck in here, waiting to see who shows up first, our help or theirs. And call me crazy, but that’s not exactly a bet that I’m super eager to make. Not when losing means facing down a giant demon dragon thing with lightning powers.”

Pack shook her head. “Unless you’ve got a teleporter in your pocket no one bothered to tell me about, what else can we do? Make a run at them wherever there’s the least amount of Touched, break through the line, and run for it?” 

Eits grimaced. “I uhh, don’t think that’ll work. I’ve been watching these guys on the cameras and they are amped and ready to go. No way we break through one line before the rest dogpile on top. Not without some kind of distraction.” 

Thinking quickly, I replied, “Then we distract them, by getting them to come in here after us.” They both stared at me like I’d lost my mind, while I pushed on. “We get them to come in before their leaders get here. We get them to break the line and try to catch us in the store. Then we get out, and we make sure they know we got out so they chase us and leave the people here alone.”

“Fantastic, as long as the random civilians will be safe while we’ve got half the members of two different gangs chasing us,” Pack muttered darkly. “If you don’t stop making me do heroic shit, I’m gonna get hives.”

Eits looked back and forth between us briefly before asking, “How do we get them to come in here and break their little line before their leaders show up? Cuz I don’t think we’ve got much time.”

I was about to confess that I wasn’t really sure, when a figure abruptly stepped through the nearby wall. Everyone spun that way, Pack snapping a new shotgun up while Eits also produced a pistol. The lizard creatures were up and moving too. 

“Wait, wait!” I blurted, belatedly recognizing the figure. It was Syndicate, leader of the Minority. Or one of his four bodies, anyway. 

He turned solid once it was clear no one was going to shoot him. Or maul him, in the case of the animals. His voice was tense. “Way said you needed help.” He glanced to Pack. “And that you helped at the hospital. She didn’t say anything about him though.”

“He’s helping and we need him,” I said flatly. “Are you guys really…”

He nodded. “We’re set up outside, just beyond the lot. Most of us, anyway.”

Pack asked, “Why isn’t That-A-Way popping in here? No offense, she’s just a lot nicer to look at than you. And, you know, she could just teleport us all right on out of here, problem solved.”

Syndicate shook his head. “She and the others came in from the wrong direction. This place is south of them, she can’t teleport, or use speed. She was going to try to work her way far enough around and down, but I told her to wait, because I wanted to see what was going on in here myself. And on the way in, I heard a couple of the guys out there saying that Cuélebre and Sandon should both be here in ten minutes. So, more explanations can come later. I also heard you talking just now about luring them in and then booking it. You think they’d break ranks if they thought the thing they were after was about to disappear? It’s those supersoldier vials, right? You’re trying to stop the war on the streets from getting worse by getting them back for Blackjack. I get it, whatever. The point is, we make them think they’re about to lose their chance. They didn’t see me when I came in, but if they saw another of me come running, especially if I pretended to say something in my comm about getting the vials…”

“They’d chase you in,” I realized. 

He nodded. “I can have the other me come in through the front entrance. The others are around the back. Soon as the guys out front break ranks and chase the other me in, my team outside and everyone in here all hit the ones in the back from both sides and book it. With the guys out front already coming into the building, there’ll be confusion all over the place about what’s happening. At least for a few seconds. Should be enough chaos to get everyone to Way so she can teleport. Then we’ll be gone, and they won’t have any reason to stick around here, so the civvies’ll be safe.”

“I’m surprised you’re not insisting that we stand here and fight the bad guys,” Pack observed.

“Two gangs including their leaders are about to descend on this spot,” Syndicate reminded her. “Having a fight here would be stupid both for us, because they’re a lot stronger than the group we can put together, and for the civilians in this store who would be caught in the crossfire. The smartest thing to do is get the thing they want out of the store, make sure they know it’s not here anymore, and get away.” 

Eits, who had been silent up to that point, raised a hand. “Uh, just one thing. Once we get out of here, we get to leave.” He gestured to himself, Pack, and the lizards. 

“Yeah, don’t worry,” Syndicate assured him with a note of sarcasm, “I’m sure we’ll catch you another time. But right now, we don’t have much left before the situation gets a hell of a lot worse. So, are we doing it or what?”

Glancing to the others until they nodded, I turned back to the boy. “Okay then. 

“Let’s do it.”

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Showdown 7-03 (Summus Proelium)

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We waited until after dark to go out with Ashton. That was just the easiest way to avoid as many issues as possible with people seeing what we were doing. Of course, we tested it on him first, getting him into the suit (against his will) and getting him to walk to various places in the room by asking him to think about the couch, or the television, or his cell, that kind of thing. He wasn’t happy, which he made very vocally clear in the course of cursing us out. Especially once it became apparent that the suit actually worked and that he couldn’t stop himself from walking to the thing we used the control box to tell him to think about. The suit wasn’t fast or anything. He kind of walked at what felt like a snail’s pace, though that was at least partly my impatience. 

In any case, it worked. After that, we just sort of hung out until well after dark, when things had settled down as much as possible. We didn’t want to wait too long (not that we were running out of time just yet, it was just very hard to sit still and be patient when we were so close), so as soon as we felt like it was late enough, we started suiting Ashton up again (we’d taken it off him while waiting so there would be less chance of him being able to damage it somehow). It took me using purple paint along with both Pack and Fred to get it on the guy without hurting either him or the suit itself too much. Tempting as it might’ve been to be rougher, we couldn’t do that.

Finally, I pushed his leg down into the thing while Fred zipped it up in the back. Once the suit part, which still looked like thick thermal underwear, was securely on him, I nodded to Wren. She pushed a button on the control box, and I heard the snapping sound as dozens of tiny needle-like wires poked through his skin to find his nerves and muscles. It sounded awful the first time I saw it, but Wren had promised that it would only feel like a series of little pinches for him. She’d even put her own arm in the suit and let it clamp down on her to show that it wasn’t that bad, and all she’d done is gasp a little when it happened. I’d tried it then, and she was right. It wasn’t super-fun or anything, but it definitely wasn’t like getting dozens of shots. You could barely feel the wires. The suit did some kind of numbing process when it poked you. So yeah, there was absolutely a series of pinches all the way through the suit, but nothing that bad. 

Not that that stopped Ashton from bellowing and cursing like we’d literally set him on fire, of course. He jerked, struggling to free himself while ranting about how we were torturing him and what kind of hero did I think I was. He also did a whole chorus about how my helping Blackjack meant I was just as much of a villain and that every person he killed or helped kill in the future would be my fault because I encouraged him by saving his daughter and yada yada yada. 

“Dude,” I reminded him once the suit was attached and linked up with him, “I told you before, you have no high ground here, none. You want to let an innocent little girl die just to hurt her dad. That is the opposite of the high ground. You’re under water, down in the Marianas trench.” 

“And what about all the people it could save?” the man all-but spat at me. “If Blackjack loses his nerve, if losing his kid makes him think about all the other people he’s hurt, what if that makes him stop being an evil piece of shit, huh? What about all the people that might survive if he stops being a villain? Isn’t that worth losing one little kid if it saves a bunch of others? What–” 

Whatever he was going to say next was cut off, as Fred of all people punched him in the face. His head rocked backward with an audible yelp, and I saw blood coming from his nose. He also had a bit of a bruise under his eye. Fred, meanwhile, was rubbing his hand and wincing. “Shit, ow,” he mumbled, walking over to the bathroom to run some water over his knuckles. 

Pack and I looked at each other before shrugging. I looked to Ashton. “You had that coming. Now shut up, before someone else loses their temper and hits you. I can’t promise it won’t be me.” Reaching down for a box of tissues on the nearby table, I used a few to wipe off his face as gingerly as possible. Yeah, he was a dick, but I knew what had driven him to be like this. Even if I didn’t agree, I could still somewhat sympathize with how losing his friend had broken him. 

Pack and I put the helmet on him, securing it in place. Again, Wren hit the button on the control box, and there was a snapping sound as the helmet linked into his brain. The bit inside the helmet was the most important part, the one we’d taken from the Seraphs. Ahem, the one we’d borrowed from the Seraphs and would absolutely be returning once this was over. Yeah. 

Fred came back, looking embarrassed by his outburst. “You about ready to take this jackass out and finish this so we can all move on?” He muttered the words, clearly about as done with this whole situation as I was. We had to get those vials and then turn Ashton in to the police for everything he’d done. I still didn’t know how Blackjack was going to handle Ashton being in police custody. After the guy endangered his daughter, could he possibly just let him sit in prison?

I had my doubts. But I would just make sure to warn the authorities that Blackjack would want to kill him. After that… well, I’d warn them, that was all I could do. 

“We’re ready,” I announced, holding out a hand for the control box. Wren passed it over, and I smiled at her for a second before remembering that she couldn’t actually see the smile. Nor could she see the subsequent blush, as I quickly spoke aloud. “Thanks. You guys gonna monitor things back here?” 

Wren’s head bobbed up and down quickly, and she held up a cell phone. “Stay in contact, Paintball. Tell us everything that’s going on.” 

“Soon as we get started,” I assured her before nodding to Pack. “Okay, let’s do this.” With that, the two of us guided Ashton up and out of the basement. He couldn’t just go on his own for a couple reasons. First, we definitely didn’t trust him with knowing where this place was. There was too big of a chance of him ending up talking to a bad guy about it. So, his helmet was also currently blinding him. That made it somewhat harder for us to expect him to be able to walk anywhere. Plus, the suit wouldn’t actually let him move very well on his own. It severely limited his range of motion so he couldn’t just run off or attack us. 

Similar to the special staydown cuffs, however, if other people were guiding him, he could move slowly. So I led him up the stairs, announcing each step on the way so he wouldn’t trip, while Pack followed behind to help with that. 

On the way up, the man kept talking. His voice, muffled by the helmet, alternated between pleading and threatening. I really don’t think he expected us to take it this far. But what else were we supposed to do? I refused to let a kid die just so he could stick it to Blackjack. If that meant strong-arming him to this extent to force him into showing us where the vials were hidden, so be it. Yeah, it made me a bit uncomfortable. But I’d take feeling uncomfortable over letting a kid die just so he could spite someone he hated. How justified that hate happened to be was irrelevant when it came to letting a child die, period. To paraphrase a certain cop show I’d seen before, having a cool motive to murder was still murder.

To give us some peace and quiet without Ashton bitching the whole time (and also to make sure he didn’t try to play any games with alerting passersby or claiming we were abducting him, Wren had included a mute function in the helmet. It wouldn’t let any sound escape. I enabled that, silencing the man before we reached the parking lot. 

Once there, Pack and I looked around, making sure the lot was still empty before I murmured, “I guess keeping where Wren’s place is secret from you kind of went down the tubes awhile ago. But still, I hope–” 

“I’m not going to go blabbing about it,” she informed me flatly. “I like the kid too, Paintball. Blackjack isn’t in the habit of forcing anyone, let alone kids and even further Tech-Touched, to work for him. It’s a seriously bad idea on several levels. But even if he was, like I said, I like the kid. She’s safe, okay?” 

“Okay.” I felt like I could trust Pack by that point. Especially when it came to something like that. She might’ve been okay with stealing from people, but hurting kids was totally beyond her level of villain. And, for that matter, I thought she was probably right about Blackjack. 

Letting it go at that, I asked, “Got your friends?” 

“In the car.” She nodded toward the nearby red sedan that Wren had apparently fixed up for her to use. The lizards were in there, apparently. I saw the one I recognized as Riddles the bearded dragon sitting up on the dash, staring at me through the window. I waved, before the other girl and I guided Ashton that way. It took a few seconds to get him situated in the back seat, then I took the front passenger side (Riddles dropped down into my lap and I scratched her head), while Pack took the driver’s side. A moment later, we were pulling away. 

The spot we drove to wasn’t too far away, but we did drive for a longer time than we needed to. In order to throw off any chance of Ashton being able to figure out where Wren’s place was, Pack took a few random turns, drove in circles a bit, doubled back, went through a few parking lots, stopped in the middle of an open street (when no one was behind us) as if waiting for a stop sign or traffic light that didn’t exist, and so on. When we finally stopped, it was technically only a few blocks from where we’d started, but we took about ten minutes or so to get there. 

Pulling Ashton out of the car, I disabled the blinding effect and let his visor turn clear once more. His eyes were wide as they darted around, taking in his new location. We were in the parking lot of a self-serve car wash. Actually, at the moment we were actually in the car wash. It was a good way of being out of sight for the moment. 

Pack and I put a long coat on him to cover up the suit. Then I nodded to her. “Right, I’ll keep you updated,” I promised, looking over at our guide for the evening. “Let’s do it.” 

She got back in the car, already calling Wren. A moment later, my own phone buzzed, and I accepted the conference call. I already had the phone linked to the mic I was using to alter my voice, so that was all set. “Wren, you good back there?” 

“Trevithick,” she informed me. Before I could ask what the hell that meant, the girl amended, “My name. You should call me Trevithick. If everyone else gets a cool codename, I do too.” 

Blinking at that, I looked over to Pack, who shrugged at me. “Err, sure. Does the word mean something, or…” 

There was a giggle from the other end of the line, before she explained, “Trevithick was the name of the guy who created the steam locomotive. He basically invented the train. Plus, it’s a funny name. And he was really cool. He said that people called him insane and that he deserved to hang for what he created, but that even if that was the only reward he ever got from the public, he’d still be satisfied by the pleasure and pride he felt just from knowing that his invention would push everything forward so much. He said no matter how poor he might end up being, no one could take away the honor he felt at being useful.” 

“Wow.” I blinked again, that time from being impressed rather than confused. “Okay then, Trevithick it is. You ready back there?” 

“All good,” she assured us. “Right, Fred? He nodded. He has chicken in his mouth, so he can’t talk. I don’t think I was supposed to say that. Oh, right, just, uhh, keep telling us what’s going on.” 

Snickering despite myself, I nodded to Pack, then looked to Ashton. “Right, dude, here we go. See, walking all over town with you would take too long. So we’re going to shortcut this whole thing.” To that end, I first told him exactly where we were, the address and a description of the area just in case he wasn’t that great with directions. Once he knew the location, I took the control box, hitting the button. “Now, think of where the nearest vial is.”

He was clearly struggling not to. But it was no use. Wren did good work, and he immediately turned to start walking out of the car wash. I gave Pack a thumbs up, heading after the guy while she got back in the car. “Okay,” I announced for both her and Wren over the phone, “he’s heading… south on Rosa Parks. Making the jump.” 

Using the control box, I told Ashton to stop. Then I put one arm around him, gave myself a bit of extra strength with purple paint, and used my other hand to shoot a spray of red paint off toward the roof of a building across the street. With a grunt, I let it yank both of us up that way. Once we were in almost there, I cancelled the paint before shooting another bit toward a metal bit that stuck up further onto the roof and let that yank us the rest of the way.

After landing, I did the same thing across the next couple rooftops, going about six blocks that way while keeping the others updated. Once I saw a decent, mostly empty parking lot behind an old apartment building, I brought us down. Then I used the control box and told Ashton exactly where we were before repeating the order to think about the same vial he’d been focused on before. 

Again, he began walking immediately. And again, he clearly wasn’t happy about it. But I was done pleading with him to do the right thing. So, we were doing it this way. 

I kept doing that, narrowing down just where this first vial was by going several blocks at a time, setting him down, and seeing where he started walking next. At one point, we overshot, because he started walking back the way we’d come from. Which narrowed it down even more. It was like playing hot and cold, sort of. 

Eventually, we ended up in front of an old coin operated twenty-four hour laundromat. There was no one inside, so Pack pulled in and we had Ashton lead us right in. He went to one of the machines before I stopped him. Then Pack and I searched around the thing for a couple minutes until she found the vial duct taped to the back of it, up underneath a bit. 

“Another one down,” she announced, holding it up with what sounded like a grin behind her featureless black mask. “Blackjack has two, this makes three. We’re halfway there.” 

“And we’re getting the rest tonight,” I murmured with a glance toward Ashton. “See, we can do this just like we got that one. Or you can make the whole thing easier by just telling us where the rest are. Then we can be done with this. You hurt Blackjack, man. You scared him. Give it up now.” 

I unmuted him, and he stared at me for a few long seconds. His mouth stayed closed, but his lips kept moving, like he was working himself up to reply. But in the end, after waiting through it, all he said was, “Fuck you.” 

“He said no, didn’t he?” Wren’s voice asked through the phone. 

Sighing, I nodded. “Yeah, he said no. So, we keep going.” 

And we did. For the next couple hours, I took Ashton all around the freaking city just to get two more. He’d hidden the vials as far as he could while staying within Detroit, it seemed. They were all in out-of-the-way spots that he could easily get to at any time of day. 

Finally, we only had to get the last one. Pack had one of the vials in the car jockey box and the other in her hand, toying with it curiously, as we stopped in front of what was apparently the last place. It was a supermarket, one open twenty-four hours. Apparently the last vial was in there somewhere. Pack and I looked at each other while standing at the back of the lot next to the car. “We could wait until no one’s there,” I pointed out. “It’s not that busy now. We hold off for like an hour, it’ll be empty except a few employees. Then me and our buddy here can go in and grab it.” 

She started to nod, then looked past me and cursed. “Motherfucker. Isn’t that–shit!” 

“What?” I blurted, confused. “What–” Reflexively, I whipped that way, just in time to see movement in the sky across the street. A figure there was flying away out of sight, carried on enormous wings. “The hell was–” 

“Yahui,” Pack replied shortly, already shoving the vial she had into her pocket before yanking out a different phone from the one we were using to keep in contact with Wren. “It was Yahui. She was watching us. Probably been following us for awhile.” 

Yahui. That was one of Cuélebre’s people, one of Oscuro. She had the ability to manifest basically any animal part on herself at any point, mixing and matching as much as she wanted to and gaining the abilities related to those particular animal parts. If she was following us, she could have seen or heard anything depending on what animal eyes and ears she was manifesting at the time. This was bad. This was really bad. 

“Go!” Pack gave me a shove. “I’m calling in reinforcements. Go get the vial.” 

“I’m coming!” Wren called through the phone. 

“No!” Quickly, I shook my head, using the control box to order Ashton to go to the vial before addressing Wren again. “Stay there, we’ll get this and get out of here. Just wait. We’re almost done.” 

Rather than let Ashton stall by walking, I grabbed him and painted us right up to the store. A guy coming out stopped and stared, while I shoved Ashton through. “Sorry, sir,” I blurted, “but I really suggest you get out of here, fast!” That was called over my shoulder while I dragged Ashton through the front of the store, pausing just long enough to see where he started moving before dragging him again. 

We attracted attention. Because of course we did. But I managed to get to the ice cream aisle, finding the vial itself hidden way in the back, taped up under the top shelf. Yanking it out, I felt a surge of triumph. 

Then I heard Pack through the phone. “Problems,” she informed me. “More problems. A bunch of Oscuro vans just pulled up. I barely got out of sight. I’m working on getting my pals in fighting shape.” 

“How long til your other friends get here?” I asked. 

“That’s another part of the problems,” came the terse response. “Double Down says one of our main safe houses just got attacked by other Oscuro troops, right out of the blue. Oscuro troops and Ninety-Niners, working together. And… yeah, some Ninety-Niners just showed up outside here. They’re talking in the lot. Definitely working together. And… shit. There’s people in the back too. They’ve got you cut off and pinned in there. And–” 

“And your people are busy,” I finished, thinking fast. “Hold on. I’ll call back, just wait.” Disconnecting, I quickly fumbled through my coveralls until I found the card That-A-Way had given me, frantically dialing the number on it. 

“It’s That-A-Way,” the by-now familiar voice greeted me a couple rings later. “I always love saying th–” 

“This is Paintball,” I quickly interrupted. “Our old trucy ally and me, we’re at the Huey’s on Park West. Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners are about to come in guns blazing to get the stuff Blackjack’s been tearing apart the city looking for. So, you know, I don’t know if you’re busy or anything, but a little help would be great.

“And, uhhh, you probably better hurry.” 

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Interlude 4A – Wren (Summus Proelium)

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“Hey, kid.” A foot nudged Wren Donovan’s leg as the nine-year-old lay on a wheeled creeper board underneath a sedan. With a flashlight in her mouth and tools in both hands, the girl hesitated. She really didn’t like to interrupt her work when she was on a roll. Especially when the person interrupting her was someone she wasn’t exactly super-happy with at the moment. 

The nudge came again. “Come on, kid, I’ve got pizza inside. You’ve gotta eat.” 

That did it. She might’ve been upset with Uncle Fred for giving that bad guy the stuff he needed to hurt that girl, but pizza was pizza. Besides, he didn’t mean for things to go that way. Pushing her feet down, she rolled herself out from under the car and blinked up at the man while spitting out the flashlight. “Pepperoni?”

“Extra pepperoni with more pepperoni on the side just in case they don’t get the message, just the way you like it,” Uncle Fred assured her, reaching down to offer both hands to the girl. She took them with her own grease-covered fingers, and he grimaced a little before pulling her up to her feet. They were standing in the back alley area behind the ‘bookstore’ that served as the entrance to her back-up lab. The rear door into the store itself was standing open, and she could already smell the promised pizza beyond. It was quickly making her mouth water. 

“Uh uh,” Uncle Fred stopped her with a hand. “You go wash your hands first. Soap and water.” 

“Yeaaaah yeah,” Wren grumbled a bit. Not because she actually wanted to taste oil and grease while she was eating, but for the principle of the thing. Heading off quickly, she thoroughly scrubbed her hands in the small restroom attached to the store before going back. Fred had taken the pizza downstairs to the lab by that point, and she followed her nose that way.

Once the girl had filled a plate with food, she made her way to the couch to watch cartoons, switching the channel away from whatever daytime courtroom drama had been playing as she settled in to scarf hungrily at the food. Watching Pearl, Amethyst, and the other Gems was much more interesting than people complaining about someone stealing their dog or breaking their window or whatever. She could see her uncle watching her from nearby, but waited until a commercial before she addressed him. “Are you mad at me, Uncle Fred?” 

“Mad at–” The man sighed, moving around to sit on the nearby chair. “Kid, I was trying to figure out how angry you were at me. I mean, I did sort of really fu–screw things up back there.” 

He was right. He had screwed things up, and a girl was in trouble because of Wren’s inventions. But… she supposed he hadn’t meant to make that happen. Thinking through all that as she silently munched her pizza, Wren finally swallowed and looked back to him. “Yes. I’m mad at you. You were a jerk and you did what I said not to just because you thought you knew better. A girl is really in trouble, Uncle Fred, cuz of my stuff.” 

The man winced. “I… I know. I’m sorry, kid. You’re right. I didn’t think it–I didn’t think. That’s not an excuse. I royally screwed up.” 

Meeting his gaze, Wren slowly nodded. “Everyone messes up sometimes.” Her brow furrowed, and she added pointedly, “But no more selling any of my stuff without telling me, okay? If my stuff gets someone killed, I couldn’t…” She stopped, biting her lip while staring at the food on her plate before finishing with an awkward, “Just tell me. And no means no. You’re the adult, but they’re my inventions.” 

“You got it,” Fred promised, taking a slice of pizza for himself from the nearby table before asking, “You ahh, mind telling me what you’re planning to do with that car out there?” 

“I’m not sure yet,” Wren admitted. “Mostly just trying to get it running again. Then I was thinking about making a Transformer.” She said that just to watch her uncle choke on his food, snickering to herself before amending, “Or maybe I’ll just make it go faster.” 

While Uncle Fred was still trying to react to that, the phone rang. Dropping her plate next to herself on the couch, Wren dove for it, grabbing the receiver before hitting the button. “Mllohn?” 

Right, food. Chewing her pizza hurriedly before swallowing, she tried again. “Hello?” 

There was a brief pause, before she heard a by-now-familiar voice, “Wren, that you?” 

“Hi, Paintball!” Grinning at the sound of the boy’s uncertain words, Wren found herself nodding pointlessly while hurriedly blurting, “Did you find that guy you were looking for? Did he have the things he stole? Oh, oh, did you save that girl? Is she okay? Did her dad say thank you? Is he still a bad guy? Are you gonna–”

A hand touched the back of her head, as Uncle Fred stood behind the couch. “Maybe let the kid answer one of the questions at a time, huh?” he suggested before taking a bite of his pizza. 

“Oh, right.” Turning her attention back to the phone, Wren settled on a simple, “What’s up?”  

She could hear Paintball chuckle just a little. “Hi, Wren. Yeah, um, we sort of–yeah, we have the guy and one of the medicine vials. But I was kind of wondering if we could bring him over there for awhile so we can figure out how to get the location of the rest of the stuff out of him. I know it’s a lot to ask, but your place is hidden and I don’t exactly have much in the way of options.” 

As he finished saying that, another voice spoke up, saying something that Wren couldn’t catch. Then Paintball’s voice came back, “Yeah, I know your boss would take him off my hands. Call me crazy, I don’t really want to be responsible for sending this guy to be tortured and executed.” 

“Uh,” Wren had to put in, “tortured and executed?” From the corner of her eye, she saw Uncle Fred do a double-take while silently echoing her last words. His face looked funny that way, and she had to restrain a giggle. Giggling after saying tortured and executed was probably bad.

“Sorry, sorry,” Paintball quickly replied. “That wasn’t–never mind. The point is, could we bring him over to your place until we figure this out? The um, one of… ahh, one of Blackjack’s people wants to come with to make sure he won’t get away and to see how we might get the truth out of him without her boss taking fingers and toes.” 

The person with Paintball spoke again, and that time Wren clearly heard, “Ehh, mood he’s in, I’m pretty sure he’d start with a full hand and just work his way out from there.” 

“Yeah, sure, bring him.” Wren said those words while giving her uncle a brief glance and an exaggerated thumbs up together with a wide smile to show him that it was all okay. “Wait, can you get him here?” 

“That’s actually the other thing,” Paintball reluctantly replied. “Things could get pretty nuts out here if people see this guy, so I don’t exactly want to go walking down the street with him.” 

Before the boy could continue, Wren brightly put in, “That’s okay, Uncle Fred can come get you.”

“He can?” The exact same words came from both Paintball over the phone and Fred himself from right beside the girl. 

“Uh huh.” Wren covered the receiver and gave her uncle a sharp look. “Dead. Little. Girl.” 

The man sighed, slumping a bit before waving his hand acceptingly. “Just tell me where to go.”

“Hey, Paintball? He’ll be there. Just tell us where you guys are.” Wren grinned. “See? You totally found the bad guy. I knew you would. Did the remote thing help a lot? Where was he? Did he fight you when you found him? Did you hit him really hard? Did he run away? Did you–” 

The phone was plucked from her hand, as Uncle Fred spoke. “Where are you? Huh? Yeah, got it. Bring a what? And–is there room in the car for a cage? A cage of lizards, as in multiple lizards? What kind of–never mind. I’ll be there.” Disconnecting, the man dropped the phone and heaved a sigh while heading for the exit, grumbling, “Car full of lizards, gonna ruin the upholstery. Never gonna get the smell out. Could’ve moved to Florida, but nooo.” 

As he left, Wren helpfully called, “I’m pretty sure they have lizards in Florida too, Uncle Fred!” 

*******

“Wait, so you weren’t kidding about your tech expert being a nine-year-old?” The girl who stood there in the main room of the upstairs bookstore, staring at Wren, wore a black and green leather jacket with a hood that covered her hair, her face hidden by a full black mask that didn’t even have any eye or mouth holes. 

Wren wasn’t offended. She was pretty used to that kind of reaction from anyone who found out that she was the one who built things back at the shop. Instead, she focused on the cage in the girl’s hands, blurting, “Oh wow, you really do have lizards! They’re so cute!” 

Head tilting, the lizard girl paused briefly before nodding. “Yeah, okay, I like her.” Setting the cage down, she extended a hand. “Name’s Pack. So you’re the genius, huh?” 

“I just like building really cool things,” Wren informed her while accepting the hand with both of hers. She shook it excitedly before blurting, “How come you’re a bad guy?” That time, it was both Paintball and Uncle Fred who choked and gave her surprised looks. Which was silly. Why did adults act so weird about actually asking the important questions or just saying what they meant? 

If she was offended or whatever, Pack didn’t act like it. She just shrugged. “Law never really did anything for me, so I don’t see why I should care that much about it. All the authorities have ever done is break up my family, take away my friends, repossess my stuff, throw us out in the street because we couldn’t pay rent, shit–I mean stuff like that. Not like I’m going around getting innocent little girls killed like some people.” With those words, she shot a look toward the handcuffed man nearby. “There’s levels of bad, y’know?” 

Wren blinked twice, thinking that through for a moment. It sounded wrong, but she wasn’t sure how to say it. Instead, the girl simply turned to Paintball with a grin. “You really found him!” 

“Yeah, thanks to your thing,” the boy replied before gesturing to the man in question. “So first up, any idea where we can keep him for the time being?” 

“You dumb shits know this is false imprisonment, right?” the man demanded. “Some heroes.” 

“Some of us don’t claim to be heroes,” Pack pointed out. Her expression was hidden behind that full mask, but her voice was dangerous. “And some of us have a boss that would really rather we take you to him instead of leaving you here. If you’d prefer that, it can be arranged.” 

Wren was pretty sure the guy didn’t want that, considering how quick he stopped talking. She looked back to Paintball, pointing to the stairs. “Come on, I’ll show you! There’s a room. I was setting it up for another lab, a uhh, soundproof one for little explosions and stuff. But it’ll work. Wait, he doesn’t have any powers, does he?” 

“Other than being a giant pain in the ass to track down?” the boy replied before shaking his head. “Nope. Not as far as we know, anyway. And I’m pretty sure he would’ve used them by now if he had anything. We searched him pretty thoroughly. No more weapons or tools. And no phones besides the one I was tracking.” 

“Don’t forget, also no vials,” the man pointed out with a tiny sneer. “And you’re not getting them.” 

Ignoring him, Wren led the group, with Uncle Fred bringing up the rear, down the stairs to the private area, then to a mostly-hidden door in the back. She fumbled in her pockets briefly, managing to bring out a small remote, which she pointed at the door. There was a beep as she pressed a button on it, and the door slid open. 

“It worked!” Wren blurted despite herself. Oh boy, that was perfect timing. The thing had been sticking for the past–The girl stopped, blinking over her shoulder at the assembled group. “I mean… he can go inside there.” She pointed into the room, which was basically a twenty-foot by twenty-foot square with blank walls, since she hadn’t moved anything in there yet. “We can get a mattress and a blanket or something for him, and some books. Oh, and we have pizza, and–” 

Paintball guided the man past Wren into the room, looking around for himself before pointing. “Just stay put, Ashton. Like she said, we’ll get you some stuff to take care of you. And you know, you could make this whole thing a hell of a lot easier if you just told us where the vials are. Do that, and I think I could probably talk Blackjack into letting you walk away from all this.” He paused, looking over to Wren and the others before turning back to amend, “Or at least give you a head start.” 

Paintball closed the door before giving the man a chance to reply, letting out an audible breath before looking over to Wren. “Thanks for helping take care of that guy. And um, I really hate to impose even more, but–” 

“You want something that can make him tell you where the stuff is, right?” Wren blurted, unable to keep quiet any longer. “I can’t make a telepathy thing. I mean, I’m pretty sure I can’t. I’ve never really tried, but I thought about it for awhile and I couldn’t think of anything. Usually it’s really easy to think of things. So I don’t think I can do mind reading stuff.” 

Setting the cage with her lizards down, Pack asked, “Can you do something to make sure that whatever he says is the truth?” 

“Like a Poliwag?” Wren started before frowning to herself. “Wait, that’s not right. That’s–polygraph!” She blurted that while raising a hand in triumph. “Nailed it! Polygraph. I… maybe can make a polygraph? I think. Wait, hold on. Gimme a second.” She spun on her heel to start away, stopping in mid-step to look back over her shoulder. “I mean, gimme a sec to plan something, not to actually make the thing. I’m not that fast. Okay, just a sec.” 

With that, Wren sprinted over to one of her tables of junk, dumping out a box before frantically moving parts and tools around. “Uncle Fred!” she called, “where’s Linus?” 

The man didn’t need to be told any more than that. He simply stepped over to one of the other tables, dug around in a box until he had a tiny screwdriver with tape over the handle and a happy face drawn on that tape, and handed it to her. 

“Hi, Linus!” Wren held the tool up so she could see the bright smile she had drawn on it. “We’re gonna figure out how to make somethin’, okay?” 

She set to work then, mumbling to herself as she moved parts around, undoing pieces of equipment with the help of Linus, Charlie, and Marcie. The latter two were her favorite wrench and pliers, respectively. 

It took about fifteen minutes. From the corner of her eye, she could see Paintball and Pack sit down to watch the TV, while Uncle Fred went to get that mattress, a blanket, and a few other things. Once that stuff was in the room with the prisoner guy, Paintball stepped in and came out a minute later with the cuffs that had been on him before returning to her seat. 

Through it all, Wren kept working. She didn’t want to tell them she knew what to make until it was definitely clear that she could do it. Grabbing a sheet of blueprint paper and a pencil, she scrawled on it for a few minutes, crossing things out and erasing until she had the right idea. It was a bit of a mess, but she’d clean it up later. 

Finally, she had enough. Checking her calculations one last time, Wren grinned excitedly while pumping her fist. “Gardyloo!” 

“Gardy-what?” Pack, jumping from her seat at the sound, stared at her. 

“Um, gardyloo,” Wren hesitantly explained while blushing a little. “It’s um, it’s something they used to say a long time ago in Scotland when they were throwing the, umm, slop from the windows out to the street. I just think it’s a funny word, so when I figure things out, I say it instead of eureka. Everyone says eureka. Nobody says gardyloo.” 

“Huh.” Shrugging, the lizard girl gave her a thumbs up. “Well gardyloo to you too. You figured out what to do, then?” 

Head bobbing quickly, Wren explained, “Uh huh. I can totally make something that’ll work. See?” She held up the sketch she had made of an armored suit. 

“What am I looking at?” Paintball asked, stepping that way to squint at the drawing of the armor. “You… uhh, you want us to build a suit that can beat the information out of him? Because that’s not exactly the way I was hoping we’d go.” 

In response, Wren grinned at him, tapping the paper. “Nah, silly. The suit is for him.” 

Paintball stared at her. “Okay, um, I think you might’ve been confused on the goal here. The point is to get him to tell us where he hid the vials, not give him a suit of armor.” 

Giggling, Wren glanced toward the snickering Pack before shaking her head. “The suit isn’t about protecting him, it’s about making him move around. See, the helmet there plugs into his neck and his head. If he’s wearing the suit and you make him start thinking about where the vials are, the helmet will translate his thoughts into movement, and make him go that way. All you have to do is follow.” She was grinning brightly. “See, it’s like trying not to think of a pink elephant. He doesn’t have to tell you where the medicine is. Just make him think about where it is and his body’ll go there. He can’t stop it.” 

“Oh. That…” Paintball trailed off. “That’s really cool, Wren. Yeah, you know, I think that just might work. And hey, you made it fit into that whole ‘movement’ theme.” 

Blushing, Wren kicked at the floor and shrugged self-consciously. “It makes things a lot easier to build if I design them around that. But it’ll take me about a week to make it. And I’ll need some special supplies. I’m not sure what yet, but… definitely things I don’t have here.” 

“I’ll take care of anything you need,” Paintball quickly assured her. “And a week… should be okay, right?” He looked over at Pack. 

She, in turn, shrugged. “Dunno. I’m gonna have to call the boss and clear all this just to be sure. We’ve got the one vial, so that should keep the kid okay for a month, but he’s not gonna wait that long.” 

“Two weeks,” Paintball replied. “Like I said before, just tell him we need two weeks to get the truth out of Ashton. If Wren can build something to make him talk, we can get the rest of the medicine before she’s ever in danger again.” 

Once more, Pack shrugged. “Like I said, gotta call the boss. He’s the final say on all this.” 

“Use this phone.” Standing beside her, Fred offered the girl one. “It can’t be tracked, so they won’t know where you’re calling from. Just like you don’t know where you are.” 

“Gotcha.” Taking the phone, the girl stepped away, stopping by the cage to take one of her lizards out, setting him on her shoulder. Then she dialed the phone and moved to a corner of the room, murmuring quietly. After a minute of that, she turned and held the phone out to Paintball. “Boss wants to talk to you.” 

As the boy took the phone and had his own conversation, Pack returned to stand by Wren. “A week, huh?” 

“I can do it,” she assured the older girl. 

“If they come to a… an agreement on this,” Pack informed her, “it sounds like the boss is gonna want me to stick around here and keep an eye on that jacka–that guy. You mind if my little friends and me crash in the corner?” 

Brightening, Wren shook her head. “Nope, that sounds fun! It can be like a sleepover. I haven’t had any of those in a long time.” 

“Huh. A sleepover, huh?” Pack considered before shrugging. “Yeah, aight.”

Apparently finished with his call, Paintball disconnected. “Okay,” he announced, “ten days. Blackjack wouldn’t agree to two weeks. He said ten days. We’ve got that long to build this thing and get the rest of the vials out of Ashton. Then we ca–” There was a chime from the boy’s costume, and he dug around inside before coming out with a phone. His face was hidden behind the helmet, but his eyes very clearly widened as he blurted, “Oh shit! I’ve gotta go.” 

“Go?” Pack echoed, the frown evident in her voice. 

“Yeah, I’m gonna be late getting my dr…” Trailing off, Paintball coughed. “Late getting my drums.” 

Dryly, Pack gave him a thumbs up. “Smooth, totally saved it.” 

Looking awkward and fidgety, Paintball cleared his throat. “I–uh, whatever, I’m gonna be late. Call your boss back and tell him to send a car with someone he trusts completely to the public library on Woodward. I’ll give them the vial there. But they better be there quick.” 

With that, he was gone, hurrying up the stairs and leaving the building like his pants were on fire. 

Watching the boy go, Wren asked, “Uncle Fred, could you go to the store and get some marshmallows, chocolate, and graham crackers? We’re gonna make s’mores! And then we’ll tell ghost stories, and watch silly movies, and play music, and truth or dare, and, and, and–”

Her excited rambling was interrupted once more by Pack. “Y’know, I’ve thought a lot about how my first official mission as part of La Casa would go.

“Gotta say, I did not see this coming.” 

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Pursuit 4-07 (Summus Proelium)

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My orange paint could stand up to a good bit of damage. Unfortunately, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t stand up to eight guys all shooting me at the same time. That seemed slightly out of its range. And I for sure didn’t want to chance it right now. 

On the other hand, I also couldn’t let these guys take Ashton. If I did, it would basically be handing a death sentence to Blackjack’s daughter and probably him as well. Or giving the Ninety-Niners the ability to force La Casa to do anything they said in order to save her life. Either one was unacceptable. 

To buy myself time to think, I did the only thing that came to mind. I snarked. 

“Hey, guys! Good job following the scavenger hunt so far. But, you know, I kinda already claimed this ‘guy named Ashton’ so you’re kind of going to have to go find your own. I’m pretty sure there’s a country club like five blocks that way, and there should be like five of them there.”

The guy who had spoken before raised his pistol a bit to point at my head, making me gulp slightly. “I’ve got a better idea, how about you bounce on out of here and we take our prize?” 

So much for buying time to think. I had to do something, and I had to do it right now. But what? How was I supposed to—

Without warning, two of the guys were suddenly yanked off the ground. They yelped, as a figure became partially visible behind them, holding both up by their necks. The thing holding them wasn’t easy to make out. It seemed to blend in pretty well with the area around it, like some kind of super camouflage. But from what I could see, it didn’t look human. 

With a roar that pretty well cemented the not human bit, the strange figure hurled the two men in opposite directions to collide with either wall of the alley. They fell and didn’t get up again.

Meanwhile, the other six guys all rounded toward the almost invisible figure, their weapons going up. Before they could shoot, however, something dove out of the sky with a loud, terrifying screech. I barely caught a glimpse of the thing as it crashed into one of the men and yanked his gun away. It looked like some kind of lizard with feathered wings. 

Then something rushed past me, I just had time to jerk aside reflexively, my eyes snapping down to see another terrifying shape. This one stood about three feet tall at the shoulder, and looked like a sort of hairless, scaled cat. Or, more to the point, like a tiger with scales instead of fur. 

The men were still reacting to the sudden appearance of the half invisible tall figure and the bird. So they were taken completely by surprise as the hairless cat thing leapt at them from behind, knocking the leader to the ground with a petrifying roar. 

Then it all stopped. The six men who were still conscious were all clumped up in a circle, while the lizard-cat and the half-invisible thing still at on either side of them. The ‘bird’ was perched up on the end of a fire escape, giving a sharp screech while the thugs all looked in every direction in a panic, clearly unsure if they should start shooting or not. 

“You know,” a voice drawled, as a figure (this one actually human) stepped into view from around the corner, “I think they want you to drop your weapons.” She stopped then, giving me a good look at the newcomer. She wore a leather jacket that was black at the bottom, gradually shifting into green toward the top. The jacket had a hood attached to it, which was up, covering her hair, while her face was hidden behind some kind of black full mask that left no apparent holes for her eyes or mouth, making me wonder how well she could see through it. The effect almost made it look like there was nothing but a black void within the hood. The sleeves of the jacket were almost entirely black with a tiny bit of green at the ends to go with the green gloves she wore. Beyond that, she wore black cargo pants and combat boots. A sawed-off shotgun was in her hands. 

“I suggest you do what they want,” the masked and hooded girl informed the group while pointing that sawed-off at the men. “Before they get mad.” 

As if to add emphasis to her words, a much larger figure suddenly loomed up behind her. It looked like… well, like a goddamn enormous grizzly bear. Only, just like the other creatures, it scales instead of fur, and a sort-of… mohawk. Like an iguana, I realized. It looked like a bear crossed with an iguana. A Bearguana. 

If the men hadn’t already been freaked out, seeing the enormous fuck-off grizzly lizard (Grizzlizard?) rising into view from behind the girl with the shotgun did the trick. There was a sudden clattering of weapons as they quickly put them down, hands rising into the air. 

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” the new girl noted. I couldn’t see her expression through the dark void that was her blank black mask, but I could hear the smirk in her voice. “Tell you what, you start running and don’t stop until you’ve gone ten blocks, and my friends here won’t eat you. Riddles, keep ‘em honest.” 

In response to her words, the bird-lizard thing leapt from its perch with a loud screech. That was echoed by a roar from the bear-lizard, which sent the men scrambling in a blind panic to pick up their unconscious companions before they fled out of the alley and down the street. In a second, they were out of sight, while the bird-lizard flew after them. 

Slowly, I turned my gaze (and my own thankfully hidden open mouth) to the girl. She stood there, watching me before giving a wave as my eyes found her. “Hiya. Name’s Pack. That the guy?” She nodded past me, to where Ashton was still thankfully trapped by the stay-down cuffs.

Shit. Quickly, I moved to stand between the girl and the prone man. As I stepped that way, the bear-lizard growled. It was joined by another bipedal creature that seemed to come out of nowhere. Belatedly, I realized it was the thing that had been semi-cloaked before. This new creature looked more like a gorilla. One which, as with all the others, had been crossed with a lizard. 

“I–I–thanks,” I somehow managed to stammer past all my confusion. “Thanks for chasing them off. But you still can’t take this guy. I…” Thinking quickly, I offered, “There’s a reward for him. I’ll let you have it if you help me get the stuff he stole back t–” 

“To Blackjack?” Pack cut me off. “Dude, he’s my boss. I work for him.” 

Of all the things she could have said right then (and given how utterly random and strange her sudden appearance had been to begin with, my bar was set pretty high), that was probably the most surprising. I stopped short, head tilting. “You… do? But Pack isn’t– err… wait, you mean Pack as in–”

“As in pack of cards,” she confirmed. “Or pack of animals. See how it works both ways? Seriously, do you? Because it was really hard to come up with a name that actually fit La Casa’s whole gambling term shtick, and I seriously hope it wasn’t too much of a stretch.” 

“Hey, bitch,” Ashton called from where he was trapped, “anyone ever tell you your boss is a murdering bag of jizz?!” 

Rather than respond to the man directly, Pack looked to me. “So yes, that is him.” 

“How… how did you… I mean…” I was trying to come up with the right way to ask the most important question that sprang to mind. 

“Find you?” she finished for me. “I mean, you weren’t exactly subtle. We’ve been searching the city, and Blackjack said that if you looked like you were onto something, we should give you a hand. I saw you, ahh, jump over my head, so I tried to catch up. You’re really fast, you know.”

She nodded past me, to Ashton once more. “If that’s him, we need to get the guy to Blackjack.” 

Unthinkingly, I blurted, “No!” Which was enough to make the tiger-lizard take a step toward me before Pack put a hand up to stop it. “Wait, Holiday.” To me, she spoke more carefully. “Excuse me? Hey, look, if this is about not sharing the reward–” 

It was my turn to interrupt her. “It’s not about that,” I put in quickly. “It’s about…” Sighing, I lowered my voice a bit. “If Blackjack gets him, he’s going to kill him for endangering his daughter. I can’t do that. I can’t just sentence a man to death. Not even that guy. He’s trying to avenge his dead friend.” As she made a noise as though to object, I pushed on quickly. “I’m not saying Blackjack won’t get the medicine. But that’s all he’s getting. I told him that when we… when we spoke. He’ll get the medicine, but not the man.” 

As the girl quietly considered that, another lizard poked his head out from where it had apparently been hiding inside her jacket. This one was a regular-looking gecko, head tilting curiously at me before scrambling up onto her shoulder with a quiet little chirp. 

“You’re right, Tuesday,” Pack murmured before focusing on me. “You get the vials out of that cocksucker and you can mail him to Siberia for all we care. Not like the boss couldn’t get to him wherever he gets sent anyway.” 

“That’s basically what he said,” I muttered under my breath before turning on my heel. Walking over, I picked up the first vial from where it had fallen. Turning the thing over in my hand to make sure it was intact, I stepped over to Ashton and checked through his pockets carefully. Nothing. Well, no vials. He had money, a wallet, a few keys, and some other assorted odds and ends. No more vials. 

“Right,” I started, “you heard the nice lady. Where’s the rest of them? You know, if you want to go to the nice comfy jail cell instead of being taken by the guy whose daughter you put in danger.” 

With a snarl, the guy retorted, “You mean the guy who’s gonna kill me anyway? Him or one of his lackeys. Her maybe, or one of the others. Nah, I’m not important enough to waste a Touched on. He’ll just tell one of his normal old thugs to put a bullet in me, just like they put a bullet in Carlos. That’s what’ll happen, and I’ll be just as dead as he is.”

“Dude,” I snapped, “I’m sorry about your friend. Seriously. But you can’t just let an innocent little girl die because you’re grieving. She didn’t do anything to you. You know what’s going to happen if you let her die? You’ll hurt Blackjack, yeah. But then he’ll take it out on the city, and a hell of a lot more people will die. Do you really want that? Come on. What happened to Carlos was a tragedy. It was. It’s horrible. Don’t make a bunch of other people die in some doomed attempt to settle some kind of vendetta. It won’t help. You won’t feel better. And all the people that die in the war you start will be worse.” 

After saying all that, I crouched there by the man. “So come on. Let’s just be done with all this. You don’t want to let all those people die. You’re better than that. I’m sure Carlos would want you to be better than that. He wouldn’t want you to do this, Ashton. Let’s stop this war before it starts and before a lot of people die. What do you say?” 

Swallowing visibly, the man met my gaze, softly echoing, “What do I say?” For a moment, he was quiet, before lifting his chin, gaze hardening. 

“I say fuck ‘em.” 

His words made my mouth fall open, as I stared at him. “What… you can’t–” 

“Holiday,” Pack started, “why don’t you bite his leg off. See what he thinks then.” 

Immediately, the large lizard-cat thing stalked toward the man while giving a low growl. As it came, Ashton’s gaze shot back to me. “You see? That’s the kind of people he works with.” 

“Dude,” I snapped, “you just said ‘fuck ‘em’ about both a little girl and an entire city full of innocent people. The moral high ground is pretty much Mount Everest to you right now.” 

I did, however, hold up my hand to the nearby girl. “But wait, just wait a second, please.” 

Her face was still entirely hidden, of course. There was nothing visible under that hood save for that black void. But she finally exhaled and spoke a single word of, “Wait.” At that, the lizard-cat stopped just a foot or so from the man, letting out a low, dangerous growl. 

“We have one vial,” I started, once it was clear that Ashton wasn’t about to have his leg gnawed on just yet. “How many are left?” 

“Five,” Pack replied. “There were six in that box. The girl needs all of them.” 

“How long can she last with one of these?” I asked then while holding up the vial. 

There was a brief pause before the girl slowly answered, “A month.” She was clearly looking straight at me. “You’re going to suggest we take the vial and use the month to convince Cheerful here to give up the other five.” Before I could say anything to that, she pointed out, “You know Blackjack could get it out of him a lot faster than you or the cops could.” 

My head shook. “Could he, though? He hates your boss enough that knowing how much it hurts him, he could probably stand a lot.” And I don’t want to think about just what Blackjack would put him through in the process, I thought to myself silently, with a little shudder. 

Flatly, Pack asked, “Do you have a better idea?” She was very clearly staring intently at me, even from behind that featureless mask. Not only that, but all her lizard-creature things were staring at me too, including Riddle, who had returned after making sure the other guys kept running. 

Heaving a long sigh, I looked at the prone, captured man for a moment. “We have the first vial. That… that buys time. What we need is…” I paused before smiling. “What we need is something that can make him tell the truth.” 

I could practically hear her raised eyebrow. “Do you have something like that?” 

“No,” I replied, “but I know a certain inventor that might be able to whip something up, given a little time. And… I’m also pretty sure they can help me keep him contained for awhile.” 

“You mean away from Blackjack,” the girl pointed out. 

I sighed. “And away from the cops.” There was no choice. Not only did I have serious concerns about the actual state of the authorities themselves with my father posing as one of the biggest heroes in the city, but even if they weren’t compromised, I couldn’t see them just handing over that medicine to Blackjack without trying to get something out of him. Like, say, his surrender. As much as I hated to think it, I didn’t trust them not to play games with the girl’s life. Even if they thought it was for the greater good. 

Shaking that off, I continued. “Like I said, he can have the first vial. I’ll tell him… I’ll tell him to give me two weeks to get the rest of the vials out of this guy. Two weeks. That’s half the time this single vial buys us.” Looking over to Pack, I added, “I found the guy in just a couple days, and one of the vials. Your boss can give me two weeks with him to get the rest of them.” 

She didn’t offer an opinion on that. Instead, the girl held a hand out. “I’ll take it to him.” 

I started to hand it over, then stopped. “You know, I don’t actually have any proof that you really work for Blackjack, do I? Not to call you a liar or anything, but you’ve gotta admit, it would be pretty dumb of me to hand this over when I’ve never seen you do anything with La Casa. I’ve never even heard of you before.” 

She coughed, offering a shrug and a muttered, “I’m pretty new.” 

“All the same,” I replied, “I think I’ll give the vial to Blackjack myself, after we get this guy somewhere safe and out of the way.” 

“Fine.” Pack took a step toward me, while both the big bear-lizard and gorilla-lizard things flanked her. With those two on either side of the girl and the predatory cat-thing in front of her, I really didn’t want to piss her off. She stopped there, looking my way while repeating, “Fine. But I’m going with you. I want to see this inventor so I can tell my boss myself that they can pull off this whole ‘getting the truth out of him’ thing. That’s the deal. I go with you, we see this inventor, and then we take that vial to Blackjack. Then I can tell my boss that I did my… you know, due diligence, or… whatever.” 

I couldn’t really argue with that too much, so I instead offered a shrug. “They might have something to say about all that, but let’s find out.” 

Wren had told me before I left her earlier that she wanted to do anything she could to help save that little girl, and that I should call the number she gave me if I needed anything. Praying that she really meant all that (while wondering just how bad this whole ‘illegal imprisonment’ thing was going to look if it got out), I took the phone from my pocket and hit the contact number on it. As it rang, I glanced over to Pack. “Oh, and uhhh… just for the record…

“It’s your turn to wear a bag over your head.”

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Pursuit 4-06 (Summus Proelium)

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Apparently Ashton was allergic to making phone calls or something, because the device that Wren had given me didn’t make a peep throughout the rest of that day. I basically sat on a roof alternately playing with my own phone and staring intently at the silent tracker, silently (and not-so-silently) willing it to light up. But there was nothing. This guy was really laying low. He wasn’t making any calls, and until he did, I had no way to find him. One van somewhere in the city? Yeah, the odds of tracking that down just by randomly looking were basically zero. 

So, I had to wait. And wait. And wait some more. I ended up going home with the thing in my pocket, not wanting to take the chance that he might trigger it if I left it behind. I even slept with it under my pillow, one hand on the device so that I would feel it go off. 

And yet, the next morning… nothing. Nothing at all. I went through breakfast with Simon (our parents had ‘left’ the day before) and then let Jefferson drive me to school. Instead of going in, however, I called from my cell and used an ‘adult male’ setting on the voice changer to pose as my own father pulling me out of classes for being sick. It was somewhat risky, but being stuck in school when the tracker eventually went off would’ve been even worse. I just had to hope that it would actually go off today, because I couldn’t keep doing that all week. 

All of which led to me hanging out on a roof again, waiting hours for something to happen. I didn’t dare get myself involved in anything else and risk not being able to immediately run off the instant the tracker (please God) went off, so I mostly just sat there doing work in my textbooks or watching people and cars passing by on the street below. 

Right now, being a superhero basically amounted to a lot of boredom. I sat against the wall, I laid on my back, I stood on my hands and practiced walking upside down like that, I did somersaults, cartwheels, and the odd flip or two to pass the time. I even tried (unsuccessfully, of course) to figure out what the pink paint was supposed to do. And I prepped my costume by adding an assortment of paint to it for when the time actually came to chase down my rabbit. 

But mostly I stared at that tracker and prayed that it would do something. 

Then it happened. I was laying on my back, legs draped over the raised lip on the edge of the roof, while listening to music on my phone and daydreaming, when the song was suddenly interrupted by an abrupt, persistent beeping. For a second, I thought something was wrong with the phone. Then I realized the truth and abruptly bolted upright with a yelped curse, falling over myself in a rush to grab the tracker from where it was lying next to me. 

Yes. Yes, yes, yes. The tracker was beeping. The dot had become an arrow, just like Wren said. It was pointing off into the distance, and was… pretty small. So I had a lot of distance to cover. 

I didn’t waste any time with that. Grabbing my helmet and pulling it on (I’d had the mask on the whole time, not wanting to take the chance of someone noticing me), I shoved my backpack out of sight before taking a quick hop up onto the edge of the roof. From there, I checked the tracker once more, then leapt off, shooting out a wad of red paint to yank myself through the air. 

Moving as fast as I could, I rushed across the rooftops, pausing every now and then to check the tracker. The arrow was still flashing, and getting steadily larger. So the phone was still in use. For now. But I had to keep moving. He could hang up any second, and while the tracker would continue to point toward his last position, I didn’t want to take the chance that he’d abandon that spot. This was my best chance to find him again, after I’d screwed up by not having the stay-down handcuffs with me before. If I’d had them, he never would have gotten out of there. 

I wasn’t going to make that mistake again, that was for sure. I had two of the cuffs right with me. The second I found Ashton, he was going to end up wearing a pair of them so he didn’t pull another disappearing act. And I was going to make damn sure there were no more stun bombs.

Racing across the edge of the roofs, leaping between buildings, running along the side of billboards, I used every trick and power I had to follow the way the arrow was pointing. Unfortunately, after a few minutes, the thing beeped again and the light stopped blinking, indicating that the call had been ended. I cursed, but the arrow was still there, and I pushed myself to run faster. Maybe I could still get there before he went anywhere. Please, please let me get there before he disappeared again. Damn it, damn it, I had to be faster! 

Then the thing started beeping again. I did a quick double-take after landing on the edge of a windowsill. Sure enough, it was active. He was making another call. We were still in business!

Pushing myself harder, I basically pinballed my way between several close buildings, bouncing from one to the other with a mix of blue and red paint before throwing myself out over a busy street. I came down on top of the trailer for a semi, ran across to the other side, then used red paint to yank myself to a nearby bridge. Landing there just long enough to startle the woman feeding a few squirrels, I blurted an apology while glancing at the scanner, then kept going.

With every passing block, the arrow was steadily getting bigger. I was close, so close. The second call ended before I reached my target, but a third started not long after. Whoever the guy was talking to, he was making several calls to do it. Maybe shopping the vials around? He could be trying to get more money from the other gangs by offering the medicine to them, so they could sell it to Blackjack themselves. Or maybe he was arranging a trip out of the city, or… anything. There were a whole host of reasons he could be making so many calls, and I was letting myself get too distracted thinking about them. Right now, one thing mattered: getting to him. 

Finally, the arrow took up almost the entire screen. I skidded to a stop at the edge of a supermarket roof, before glancing at the tracker. Yeah, this had to be the place, so I started looking around, scanning the parking lot below as quickly as I could, checking the direction the arrow was pointing and trying to match it to a van. 

Then I saw it. A red van parked about halfway across the lot. My eyes had just centered on it, when I got absolute confirmation in the form of Ashton himself. He was just coming around the side of the van, phone held up to his ear as he was clearly in the middle of an intense conversation on his way into the store.

Or at least, he was in the middle of an intense conversation… until he looked up. Just as I was reacting to the fact that I had finally found the slippery bastard after losing him the first time, he happened to glance up to the edge of the roof, right where I was standing. His eyes stared right at me, and I saw his mouth move in the approximation of an exaggerated curse of surprise, before clicking off the phone without another word to the person he had been talking to. 

“Ashton!” I blurted out loud, attracting the attention of a few passersby while shoving the tracker into the pocket of the coveralls that made up the base of my costume, “stop!” 

He, ahh, didn’t. Very much so, in fact. He didn’t stop so much that he actually turned and ran the other way, back to his van. With a curse, I leapt from the roof, shooting a ball of red paint at him. Unfortunately, the paint narrowly missed, hitting the ground at his feet while the man dodged around it and leapt for the van. I tried to shoot another bit of red at the van itself after landing easily on my orange shoes, but nothing happened. Even with the paint that I’d added to my costume earlier, I’d used a lot getting over here. I was drained, at least for a few seconds. 

Worse, Ashton had the van started and was already starting to reverse out of the spot. There was a couple there, however, forcing him to stop short and switch gears to pull forward, up and over the small median there with a loud thunk while the people he’d nearly hit shouted angrily.

Oh shit, oh shit! He was right there and I was out of paint. But I couldn’t let him get away, paint or no paint. Even as the van’s tires screeched on the pavement, I was running. Not toward the van itself, but in the direction he had to go in order to exit the lot. I sprinted, leaping to slide across the hood of a parked car while several people shouted. On the way over the car, I blurted the command to pop my skates out, landing on my wheels while smoothly pushing off. 

From the corner of my eye, I could see the van tearing off for the exit, cutting off a truck, which blared its horn. He had to swerve around a handful of pedestrian shoppers, leaning on his own horn then before clearly mashing the pedal to the floor. The tires were squealing, and he hit a stray shopping cart on the way, sending it clattering up against the nearby wall. 

I was skating hard for the sidewalk between the parking lot and the street. To the right of the exit was a long wall, and ahead was another building. The only way he could go was left, and that was the direction I was angling, trying to get ahead of the man even as the van tore its way out of the lot and onto the street, tearing up the edge of the grass as he cut the corner. 

Hitting the sidewalk just as Ashton’s van passed straight ahead of me, I opened my mouth to shout at him. Then I saw the gun he was pointing out the window, and hurled myself to the side and down as he opened fire. Bullets. Actual bullets (would I ever stop being terrified of them?) went over my head, several ricocheting off the concrete where I had been standing. 

Fortunately, even as I found myself sprawled out on the grass, Ashton couldn’t adjust his aim. First, because he’d already driven too far past me to have anything resembling a decent angle. And second, because he had to swerve around two more cars who had been trying to turn onto this street. He had to slam on the brakes enough to jerk the wheel, narrowly avoiding one of their hoods as both drivers leaned on their horns. I was pretty sure people in Detroit were not that jaded and the men simply hadn’t seen him using the gun a moment earlier. It was pretty quiet, after all. 

In any case, that moment where he had to slow down to get around them gave me a chance. Scrambling to my feet, I started skating after him once more, just as the van made it past the other cars. Praying silently, I snapped my hand up, focusing on the nearest of the two other vehicles. And in a moment that I swore should have been heralded by trumpets blaring from on high, a wad of red paint shot straight at it. I let the paint hit the hood of the car, using it to yank myself that way, retracting my skates on the way. 

The poor driver had only just looked away from flipping off the rapidly fleeing van as I landed on his hood. I heard him make a sort-of strangled yelp/curse, before putting blue paint under my feet to propel myself high into the air. Extending my hand toward a sign extending out from the nearby roof, I flew that way, releasing the paint in time to shoot past the sign, landing on the edge of the next roof over. 

I was running then, turning my legs green for speed as I raced along the roof after the van. Three steps and I brought my skates out once more, needing every last edge I could get. Ashton was quickly pulling away, but he was at least somewhat slowed by other cars that kept getting in the way, forcing the man to pull onto the wrong side of the street or up onto the sidewalk to get around them. It wasn’t much, but at least it kept him in sight. I was hoping he wouldn’t panic too much if he didn’t see me coming, hence the running and jumping along the roofs. 

Left. He was going left. From the height I had, I could see road construction up ahead. There were cones and workers blocking off that whole area, so he had to go left. Taking a chance, I used blue paint to hurl myself from the roof I was on (which happened to be along the right side of the street), all the way over to the opposite side. Skating diagonally along that roof, I dodged around a random air conditioning unit, hopped a couple pipes, and narrowly ducked under an electrical antennae. But mostly I just kept skating, reaching the corner of that roof and leaping off without even bothering to check where I was going. There wasn’t time. I had one chance to catch up with him enough to make this work. 

Flailing as I dropped through the air, I saw that my guess had been right. The van squealed its way around the corner just as I was falling. If I’d dropped down just a few seconds later, I would’ve landed on the roof of it instead of directly in its path.

But hey, superpowers. Turning my arms yellow, I made myself fall slower for a moment before cancelling it. The van sped right beneath me as I let myself fall the rest of the way at full speed, changing the yellow sleeves for orange shoes. 

I landed in a crouch, coming down hard on the roof of the van. But, to the credit of the girl who had put it together, there was no apparent damage. I very nearly flew right off the roof, but a quick shot of red paint from both gloves anchored me to it even as Ashton swerved wildly from one side of the street to the other. Which, given the fact that there were no immediate cars in sight, I was going to assume meant he knew I was up here. 

Well, good. Because I wasn’t exactly planning on being subtle about it. This whole thing had gone on long enough. I felt bad for what had happened to Ashton’s friend, but he was taking it too far. 

To that end, I flipped myself up and over just as the red paint ran out, dropping down onto the hood of the van while grabbing onto the space near the windshield. I could see Ashton there, staring at me with wide eyes as he shouted a furious, violent curse about what I could do to myself. His gun came up, and I rolled to the opposite side of the hood as he fired three quick shots through the windshield. Catching myself there, I shot a spray of black paint right across the windshield to block the man’s sight before letting myself slip off the top of the hood, using a bit of red on my gloves to hold myself against the side of it, just above the wheel.

The van simultaneously swerved back and forth while slowing dramatically, tires screeching in protest. I heard a few more bullets go through the windshield as Ashton tried to shoot it out so he could see, but that wasn’t working very well. He was just putting little holes in it, not enough to see through. 

While he was busy with that, I turned my arm purple and used the strength it provided to grab hold of the passenger side door, breaking the lock as I yanked it open. The door was torn completely free, and I dropped it to crash along the ground before swinging myself into the passenger seat.  

Ashton snapped the gun toward me, but I grabbed the weapon and tore it from his hand. Just as I did, he slammed hard on the brakes, sending me flying backward against the dashboard while my head slammed into the already-damaged windshield. But hey, at least I was wearing a helmet. The gun fell from my grip, and I yelped while the van spun. There was chaos for a moment as the world went wild before finally coming to a dizzying halt. The van had stopped completely, and Ashton was grabbing for the gun on the floor. Just as his fingers closed on it, I recovered enough to grab the nearest thing available, which happened to be the steering wheel. My purple strength was still very much in effect, so when I yanked, the whole wheel came off, snapping away from the steering column. With a grunt, I smacked Ashton in the face with it. The steering wheel hit him hard enough to make the man drop the gun once more, but I still hit him again before grabbing the gun myself with a blurted, “I’m getting really sick of you trying to shoot me, diphthong!” 

On the plus side, he didn’t try to grab the gun again. Unfortunately, he didn’t surrender either. Instead, Ashton hurled himself out of the van, landing on all fours before kicking the door shut behind him to slow me down as he started to run. 

“Help! Help!” he shouted to a few passersby, “he’s trying to kill me! He’s gonna kill me, help!” There was blind terror in his voice, enough to make the people turn back to me as I finished scrambling out the other side of the van and made my way around the back of it. 

Running. Ashton was running. So he either had the medicine on him, or knew where it was. Either way, I had to catch him. Ignoring the people blurting questions my way, I sprinted that way, using green paint on my shoes for speed. Ashton was disappearing into an alley, but I got there a couple seconds later, just as he was turning back to me. 

“Stop!” he blurted, holding up a vial of some kind in one hand. “I swear, you take one more step, and I’ll throw this against that wall. Then that little brat won’t have a chance! You want that on your shoulders?! Back off! Just back off, damn it!” 

I didn’t even slow down. My hand snapped up, and I shot a spray of orange paint, catching Ashton himself, as well as the vial he was holding. It dropped from his hand, but was already invulnerable, bouncing twice on the pavement while the man gasped. Reflexively, he grabbed for the fallen vial, but I was there, launching myself into a full jump kick that planted both of my feet into his stomach. He doubled over with a cry while I landed on my side, panting. 

Recovering as fast as he could, Ashton stumbled to his knees before grabbing for the fallen vial once more. But I was ready, using green paint to speed myself up enough to slap the stay-down handcuffs across his wrists. 

The cuffs activated instantly, yanking the man fully to the ground as he screamed in a mixture of what sounded like terror, frustration, and hatred. He was cursing and spitting, struggling to stand up again even as the cuffs rooted him down. He was a normal guy, there was no way he could fight against them. 

“Let me go, you stupid cocksucker!” the man shouted. “Do you have any idea what you’re doing, who you’re helping?! He killed my friend! He killed him! It was his fault! He has to pay, God damn it! He has to pay!” 

He was practically foaming at the mouth, struggling and jerking against the cuffs. His face was red, his eyes wild. I… I actually almost felt sorry for him. 

“What happened to your friend matters,” I told the man quietly. “But you can’t just let a little girl die because you’re angry. You–” 

My words were interrupted by a loud voice. “You see guys, I toldja.” As my gaze snapped up, I saw the whole mouth of the alley full of men. Armed men. There were at least seven or eight of them, all pointing guns my way. They were dressed like members of the Ninety-Niners. The man who was talking was near the front, his pistol pointed my way. “We follow the paint guy, we find the vials. Just like I said. Piece o’cake.” 

The man was a black guy just under six feet tall, with a shaved head aside from a thin strip of hair right down the middle of his head. His mouth was full of silver and gold teeth, which he showed off while smiling at me. “So, you gonna hand over that little prize? 

“Or do we have to get naughty?” 

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Legwork 3-04 (Summus Proelium)

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I was right about it being a long night. It took me another two and a half hours to actually check the next four places on the list I’d put together. Five of the six were as thoroughly searched as I could, and I still hadn’t managed to find Ashton. Not that it being hard to find this guy was that surprising. He’d managed to stay hidden from what amounted to an entire city searching for him.

But I had one more place to look. It was the smallest of the apartments I’d picked out, consisting of what amounted to large house separated into a few separate units. Part of me thought that might be too small and put him too close to nosy neighbors. But on the other hand, if he had developed a reputation for keeping to himself… it could work.

As small as the place was, it also meant there was no on-site manager’s office to check or anything. Which was another part of why I’d saved it for last. I was going to have to go peeping in all the windows to check for my quarry, which I had been really hoping to avoid. Oh well. Finding Ashton to stop the gang war and save a little girl, no matter whose daughter she might have been, was worth it. I’d just be quick and try not to… pay attention to anything private.

Repeating that silent mantra to myself as I stood by a dumpster in the alley beside the building in question, I took a few more deep breaths. Making sure I was all painted black aside from a bit of purple on my legs, I finally turned and stepped around the dumpster. Activating that bit of purple as well as the black that was on my shoes, I leapt up and over the tall wooden fence there. Landing silently, I crouched, watching the building. There were lights on in three of the four apartments, including the nearest one. That was the one I moved toward, staying low.

The building itself was a tall Victorian-style place. There were two apartments on the bottom floor, each taking up half of the level, and a matching two on the top floor. It was the lower-right apartment that I was heading for. The fence around the property kept me from being seen by passersby, so all I had to worry about was someone seeing me through one of the windows.

There were bushes lining the windows I was heading for, so I stayed low and carefully stepped around them. Knowing how bad this would look if I was seen, I kept going anyway. Very slowly inching through the back of the bushes, I leaned up to take a quick peek through the window.

It was a kitchen. There was an open pizza box there on the table, and I could see a television on through the open doorway. There was also the back of someone’s head sitting on the couch, but I couldn’t see a face.

Thankfully, I only had to wait a few seconds while racking my brain before the person sitting there stood up. They were a black guy. Definitely not the one I was looking for. Just as he turned to head for the kitchen (and probably that pizza), I quickly ducked out of sight.

One down, three to go. Debating about whether I should go straight up to the next one, or work my way around the building to check the other lower one (the far upper side was the one where the lights were off), I eventually decided on the former. The upper apartment was right there. So, renewing a bit of black silencing paint on my shoes to keep my costume nicely dark, I sent a bit of red up to a spot just under the window above this one, then let myself be yanked that way. The ten seconds that my red paint lasted would hopefully be enough to look for the inhabitant.

As it turned out, ten seconds was more than enough. Because the instant I hit the wall and peeked through that window, I saw the apartment’s occupant. And that was the end of my search.

It was him. It was Ashton. I knew that from the instant I saw him, in a side-on profile as the man was standing in front of the microwave. He’d dyed his hair and had cut the beard he used to have, but it was definitely him.

It was also a really good thing that I’d used the black paint to silence myself, because I actually gasped out loud, which probably would’ve given me away. As it was, something seemed to catch the guy’s attention, because he started to turn just as I ducked out of sight.

Him. It was him. He was right there. All this time and the guy was–

My paint ran out. Realizing that at the last second, I started to fall. There was only one thing I could do to avoid attention. I activated the rest of the black paint on my costume, as well as a bit of orange to protect myself. Silent and safe from damage, I crashed into the bush.

Yeah, that would’ve sucked without my paint. As it was, I still made a bit of noise. Or rather, the bush itself did. I snapped off a couple small branches and lay there, half-sprawled for a second before quickly scrambling off and ducking myself as low as possible under the shrubbery, just as I caught the sound of the window above me sliding open.

Pizza guy stood by the open window, just above me. I lay there, just a few feet under him, as the man leaned out the window and looked left, then right. The two of us stayed like that for a moment, me not even daring to breathe. My eyes were wide as I stared up at him while staying as still as possible. I willed myself to be smaller, trying to press down into the dirt.

Finally, the man grunted, withdrawing back into the room. I heard him slide the window shut, then walk away. Listening to the floor creak, I finally exhaled, closed my eyes, and let my head fall back into the dirt. Taking a couple deep breaths to steady myself, I finally opened my eyes once more.

Just in time to see Ashton leaning out the upper story window, staring right down at me.

The guy must’ve seen my head move or something, because he withdrew back into the apartment instantly. Cursing frantically under my breath, I quickly jerked my hand up and shot a wad of red paint up to the edge of the roof, above that window. Letting it yank me off the ground and up, I shifted my legs purple. Just as I reached the red spot, hand clapping against the wall, my other hand shot a short spray of black paint at the window to silence it. Then I drew my legs back and quickly kicked out while dismissing the red paint on my first hand. Kicking through that window with a spray of shattered (silent) glass, I landed in the kitchen on my knees.

Ashton was there. Right there. He had grabbed a pistol off the counter, and was turning back toward me. Just as he brought it up, I threw myself to the left, behind the table there. There was a quick series of soft whuff whuff whuff sounds from the clearly specially silenced weapon, as he shot three times, each bullet striking the windowsill right behind where I had been crouching.

Before he could recover and check his aim, both of my hands snapped up. I shot a bit of red paint at the man’s chest, while slapping my other palm onto the table to leave more red there. Activating both sent the table up into the air, as it flipped over to slam into the man with a crash.

His gun dropped to the floor with a clatter, as I sprang back to my feet. The table had already fallen, as the guy grabbed a nearby carving knife from the wooden holder and came after me with it. He swung wildly twice, both of which I quickly dodged before I snapped a hand up to intercept the third swing. My glove turned orange for protection, just as I caught the blade.

Ashton stared at me for an instant. Which was all the time I needed to shift one of my arms purple. Yanking the weapon from his grasp, I caught his arms and gave him a hard yank up and around. His feet left the floor, as I threw him backward against the far wall. He hit it hard, slumping down with a grown.

Below us, pizza guy banged on his ceiling a few times, clearly annoyed by the noise. Which was probably good. If he felt safe enough to bang instead of calling the cops, he must not have thought anything too bad was going on.

Maybe it was stupid to not want the cops to show up, but I had a feeling they wouldn’t be quick to give whatever vial Ashton had stolen straight to Blackjack. And bad guy or not, I wasn’t going to condemn his daughter to death for what he did. The cops could have Ashton after I got what he stole.

Dazed as he might’ve been, Ashton didn’t stay down. His hand grabbed a loose plate from floor, which he chucked at me like a frisbee. Seeing his motion, I’d already painted a green image of a stick figure running onto my chest, using it to speed myself up. My hand snapped out to catch the plate in midair, and I tossed it to the side while blurting, “Stop that, asshole!”

Instead of stopping, the man dove for his gun. With a sigh, I shot a bit of red at it, yanking the weapon from the floor to my grasp before he could get it. Then I set it on the counter behind me, snapping, “Are you done now? Knock it–”

In mid-sentence, I was interrupted by the man scrambling off the floor to throw himself at me. My green paint had worn off by then, but he came at me so wildly, it was easy to sidestep him. Catching his arm and back, I put purple around myself once more before turning to hurl him again. He went crashing face-first into the fridge. And that time, he stayed down, groaning.

“Okay,” I announced, “now you’re done.” Grumbling to myself, I sent a bit of red paint to the man’s foot, and another to the floor somewhat near me. I wasn’t going to step over there and risk him somehow taking me by surprise. So I just used the paint to yank him out into the open where I could see him better.

He lay there, dazed, while I quickly checked the man for more weapons or anything else. I was ready for him to make a move, but he just stayed still (aside from the occasional groan), while I ran my hands over his pants, up across his chest, then under to check his back. He was clear. Which was both good, bad, and good again. Good because he didn’t have any weapons. Bad because the vials weren’t on him. And good again because that meant they weren’t broken from that whole little thing where I kept throwing the guy around or tossing tables into him.

That done, before he could recover too much, I hesitated. Part of me wanted to use a pair of those cuffs Flea had given me on him. But I hadn’t actually brought them with me. They were still in the box that I’d hidden at the half-finished skating place where I’d been training because I’d forgotten to grab them before coming out here to do all this.

So I didn’t have any way to cuff him. I did however, yank the cord out of a nearby blender and the attached wall socket. Kneeling down, I tied the man’s hands behind his back as quickly and tightly as I could before quickly stepping back. By that time, he seemed to have settled a bit, rolling over to stare up at me. “So who sent you, kid?” he demanded. “Blackjack? You tell that–”

“He didn’t send me,” I interrupted. “Nobody did. And I’m not after you for the reward. Tell me where the vials you took are.”

Glaring my way, he shook his head. “I dunno who you think you are, kid. But you–”

He grunted in surprise as I shot a small ball of red paint at his chest. It didn’t hurt, but seeing the blob fly from my hand to hit him made him jerk a bit.

“Paintball,” I informed him. “That’s who I am. And I want to know where the vials are. Do you have any idea what’s going to happen if Blackjack doesn’t get them back?”

“Yeah,” he snapped, “I do. Which means I know that bastard has all the motivation he needs to pay me for them. Give it another day or so and he’ll write me a blank check.”

For a moment, I just stared at the man. “What the hell are you– you’re endangering a girl’s life!”

“Yeah?” Ashton echoed, his words a snarl. “What about the life of my friend?! That fight between La Casa and Oscuro last year? One of the La Casa fucks took a few shots and missed. But they hit my best friend. His name was Carlos, and he’s dead. He died because of them. He wasn’t even involved. He was just walking by when the La Casa bastards started shooting. He’s dead, and no one gives a shit! So yeah, I’m gonna fuck Blackjack over. I got nothing against his kid, and I’ll give the vials over if he pays me. But if he doesn’t and worse comes to worst, that’s on him.”

Swallowing, my head shook. “I’m sorry about your friend. I am. But you can’t just use a tragedy as an excuse to be an evil asshole. That kid, she… she didn’t do anything to you.” Softening my voice (and hoping the voice changer itself was good enough to pick that up), I added, “I didn’t know your friend, but do you really think he would’ve wanted you to put some innocent kid’s life in danger just to get a payday out of Blackjack? Which, for the record, doesn’t sound much like justice to me. You’re not trying to stop him, you’re not trying to bring him to justice. You’re just threatening his kid to get money out of him. That’s selfish. You’re using your friend’s death for your own profit.”

“I’m using it as motivation!” he snapped right back at me, glare blazing hotly. “Carlos is dead because of that cocksucker. I’m gonna need money to get out of this town and make a new life. The one Carlos and I always said we were gonna live. And doing it with Blackjack’s money, that’s just fucking poetic justice.”

“No it’s not,” I murmured. “It’s an excuse.”

I don’t care!” he all-but thundered, pushing himself into a sitting position with his hands still tied. “That son of a bitch is going to feel afraid! He’s gonna feel the same thing I felt when I heard Carlos was shot! He’s gonna be scared of losing someone he cares about, and then he’s going pay out the ass to stop it! And then–”

He stopped, but my head snapped to him, as I finished his words. “And then he’ll lose her anyway. That’s right, isn’t it? You were lying before. You aren’t going to give the vials back. You have no intention of giving them over. Even if he pays, you want him to lose her. You want to take his daughter away from him, just like he helped take Carlos away from you.”

Now he was really glaring. Sitting there, staring at me as if I was the one who killed his friend, his mouth opened to say something. But that was when the sudden creak of a gate outside caught my attention. Turning, I glanced out the broken window.

Touched. There were Touched there. Two La Casa Touched, and several of their non-Touched minions. They were coming through the gate, pointing up at the building, at this apartment. How had they–

A sound made me spin back the other way in time to see Ashton pull something from one of the drawers, fumbling with it with his hands behind his back. Before I could react, he pressed something on whatever he’d grabbed, and the world exploded.

Or at least, it seemed to. There was a sudden deafening and blinding… explosion of sorts. A flashbang with a shockwave that knocked me to the ground. The table and chairs went flying, glasses shattered, and I was left lying there, completely out of it. My vision went in and out, I heard a loud buzzing sound, and it was all I could do not to throw up. I couldn’t move, couldn’t focus, couldn’t… couldn’t make myself… do anything but… close my eyes.

“–not here, damn it!”

The voice snapped me awake, and I saw men in the room. They were the same ones I’d seen before, the ones from La Casa. Staring up through bleary, barely conscious vision, I saw one of the Fell-Touched standing over me. His name was Double Down, and he wore black chainmail-like armor over his lower half, and a black leather bomber jacket with two face cards, a king and an ace of spades, printed across the front. The top half of his face was covered by a form-fitting white mask, leaving his mouth and short blond hair exposed.

“If he’s not here, our new friend here knows something about where he went,” Double Down was saying to someone I couldn’t make my eyes focus on. “Grab him and let’s get out of here before company shows.

“Blackjack is gonna want to talk to this kid.”

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