Bunglebotch

Dig In 22-02 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, Angel Dust wasn’t exactly happy about being tricked into bringing me (and Alloy by extension) straight to the truck that had worked so hard to escape us in the first place. I saw her absorbing that realization for a moment before her shoulders straightened. There was a wave of annoyance coming off the woman, head tilting to glance over her shoulder toward Alloy, then back to me. Her voice was tight. “You think you’re pretty smart, don’t you, boy?” 

In reply, I shrugged. “It’s not about which of us is smarter. It’s about which one managed to trick the other this time. Look at the facts. That trailer is broken. You can’t get it back on the truck. You guys don’t have a chance to get out of here with all that stuff. You should cut your losses and walk away before more authorities show up.” Even after I said that, I was keeping an eye on the Prev thugs from the truck itself as they popped down and gave uncertain looks our way. They were clearly waiting to see what their Touched lieutenant chose to do about this whole thing, not willing to make the first move themselves. 

It was very clear that the woman didn’t want to walk away. What she wanted to do, no doubt, was teach me a lesson. I could see the rainbow-colored dust swirling around her as she took a moment to collect herself, clearly running through the pros and cons of keeping this fight going. But, in the end, her common sense won out over her annoyance. The dust that had been swirling around her like a swarm of angry hornets seemed to vanish into thin air before she spoke in a cool voice. “I suppose we’ll have to give this one to you, kid. But don’t think this is over. We need those supplies, and we’ll get them one way or another. And you…” I could feel her gaze staring at me hard from behind that bronze mask. “Get in the way again and next time I might have to smack you a little harder.” 

“Fair enough,” I managed, trying to sound casual about the whole thing. “Though I don’t suppose it would help to point out that you guys wouldn’t need these supplies so bad if you would just back off this entire gang war thing?” Pausing, I gave her a look before shrugging. “Worth a shot.” 

Surprisingly, Angel Dust gave an audible chuckle before bowing her head in acknowledgment. “Yeah, maybe so. But this is the world we live in. Gotta take it as it comes, not as you wish it would go. Which is the exact attitude that’s stopping me from grabbing you and keeping this whole fight going. You won this round. Next time, maybe it’ll be different. Hell, maybe next time you’ll be the one wishing you never met me.” 

With that, she gave a loud whistle while raising her hand to spin her finger around in the air. “Wrap it up!” Her words were clearly directed toward the uncertain goons waiting nearby for orders. “Let’s roll on out of here before we end up with even more interruptions.” Through all that, she hadn’t taken her gaze off me. And once her men began to retreat, she addressed me one more time. “It was a good trick, kid. You really had me going there. Even kept throwing paint at me so I couldn’t take the time to call ahead to check in. Too bad you didn’t come over to our side. We could’ve had a lot of fun together. But then, from what I’ve heard, you’re more likely to join La Casa if anything.” She considered that briefly before gesturing. “At least we would’ve been allies in this whole thing. That… that might’ve been fun. Now ahh, you and your sidekick might wanna dive out of the way.”

That was all the warning she gave us before a pair of nausea dust clouds went flying out in both directions. The clouds were thick, and came at me so fast I barely had time to throw myself backwards and to the ground in an awkward roll to get out of range. On the far side of the woman, I could hear Alloy curse and yelp as she barely escaped her own cloud. 

Once I finally picked myself up from the ground and managed to orient myself, I saw Alloy hovering up on her board a good fifteen feet in the air and further back than she had been. It looked like she had barely picked herself up too. The colored clouds were gone, and so was Angel Dust herself, and her men. They had all seemingly disappeared, leaving the two of us with the truck and trailer. 

“Well,” I muttered while walking that way and brushing the dirt off my costume, “that was fun.” 

“Sure, fun,” Alloy retorted as she landed, marbles spinning around her. “Tell you what, next time, you can take the puke dust to the face and I’ll chase her down. Deal?” 

Coughing, I offered a shrug. “Personally, I’d prefer it if neither of us had to throw up. That’s, you know, my ideal scenario.” Then I grimaced, adding, “Are you okay? It sounded pretty bad.” 

I could see the way she shuddered at the memory, head shaking. “Well, it wasn’t fun, I’ll tell you that much. But I’ll live. Besides, we won.” With that, she offered her fist to me. 

Bumping my own fist against hers, I nodded. “Yeah, we won. Though I’m pretty sure we also managed to make even more enemies in the process. Well, one more in particular. Angel Dust isn’t going to forget that. She might’ve been smart enough to walk away for now, and… you know, fairly gracious in losing. But she won’t forget it. Next time, she’s going to be a lot more careful. And a lot more intent on winning. So umm, let’s be careful and keep our eyes open, huh? I really don’t feel like being ambushed by her when she decides it’s a good time to prove a point.” 

Alloy agreed, just before both of us turned in time to see a small squad of police cars arriving. They were accompanied by a car with Ten Towers labeling on it, which stopped to allow two of their Touched to step out. The first was Stick, a short man (just five inches taller than me) wearing loose gray pants, a sleeveless black shirt with the faded gray Ten Towers logo, spiked wristbands, combat boots, and a dark bandana mask that covered the lower half of his face. His black hair was worn long, clear to his shoulders. Meanwhile, the other Touched who had just arrived was Bunglebotch. Her own costume looked a lot more professional (and expensive) than his, amounting to a form-fitting black bodysuit with purple highlights over the arms and legs, and a matching purple Ten Towers logo over the front. Her gloves and boots were purple too, and she had a cape with an attached hood that were each black on the outside and purple on the inside. She also wore a black helmet with a large purple visor that went all the way from her chin to just above her eyes. 

Yeah, that was the thing about Bunglebotch. Her costume made her look amazing, one of the coolest costumes in the city as far as I was concerned. But her power was… well, essentially she could do basically any physical action that a human being was capable of, but it would always look goofy, uncoordinated, and accidental. Like an old slapstick movie. Oh, and she could focus on anyone to make them screw up a physical action they were trying to do. It was a whole thing. She was one of the most physically gifted and coordinated Touched in the city, but no matter what she did, she would end up looking goofy and incompetent. Or, well, accidentally competent. I supposed that having one of the coolest-looking costumes in the city was her tradeoff for looking like such a clown whenever she did anything. 

Come to think of it, clown was probably the exact right term. Clowns were really good at being incredibly physically coordinated while making you think they were the exact opposite. Maybe that should’ve been her codename. But then she would’ve had to go with a very different physical look, because no way could someone use the name Clown and dress up the way she did.

In any case, the two Star-Touched approached us, standing there by the trailer, and started to ask what had happened. So, Alloy and I jumped into an explanation about how we had been patrolling together when we saw the Easy Eights goons holding the driver of the truck at gunpoint. We intervened, then Angel Dust had shown up. From there, I went on to talk about the chase that came after Alloy had been… briefly indisposed. She, in turn, talked about getting my message about where to go to find us. Then we summed up with how the whole thing had ended. 

Stick exchanged a brief look with Bumblebotch, before gesturing for her to go ahead and check the trailer. Then he turned back to us. “Sounds like you did good today. But I wouldn’t take what Dust said lightly. She’s not really one of the hardcore dangerous Fells out there, but she’s not a pushover either. She won’t come find your families and stab you in bed. But she very well might work out a plan to get one over on you in the field.”

I nodded once. “So what you’re saying is that she’s not a psychotic murderer, but she’s still going to want to hurt us within reason. And probably embarrass us. You know, pull out a win that makes herself look good. Restores her rep.” 

Bunglebotch called over while opening the back of the truck. “Yeah, that’s about right! She’s not a wannabe-Scion, but she’s still got an image to uphold. And you embarrassed her today.” Hauling herself up into the truck, she added, “But then, you guys seem pretty good at racking up enemies.” 

Grimacing, I offered a helpless shrug. “So I’ve been told. I guess she’ll have to get in line with everyone else.”

Stick spoke solemnly. “Just hope that that line doesn’t turn into a mob. And know that if you need it, you’ve got as much help as you want.” His hand reached out to settle on my shoulder, squeezing firmly while he glanced between Alloy and me. “You two may not be in any of our teams, But you’re still part of the community. If you need anything, just speak up, any time. You got that?”  

The two of us agreed and then stepped away while the Ten Towers Touched began to take inventory of the truck, and the cops secured the scene. There were some onlookers gathered by that point, though they were staying well enough back. I nudged the girl beside me and we went over there to interact with the crowd. Part of me thought that was weird and maybe self-indulgent. But on the other hand, a bigger part pointed out that I wanted the civilians to be more likely to believe me if things ever came to a head with this whole Ministry thing. If I avoided and ignored the crowds, the moment my family decided to start trying to shift the narrative against Paintball, it would be a lot more likely to work in their favor. But if I could make sure that the public liked our little group, it would be harder for my parents to make us look bad. 

Was that manipulative? Okay, maybe. But it felt like the sort of game that I had to play. It left something of a bad taste in my mouth when I thought about it that way, yet if I ignored it, things would end up being a lot worse. And besides, I really did enjoy talking to people as Paintball, showing off and goofing around–okay, I enjoyed showing off and goofing around as Cassidy too. So I wasn’t exactly suffering when it came to that. Still, I couldn’t shake that slightly awkward feeling at the back of my mind, even if I was getting pretty good at ignoring it. 

I also made a point of telling the people that we were part of a new team called Avant-Guard, even spraying the logo onto the nearby wall, as well as giving a few people who asked for it a version of the logo on their clothes. That proved to be pretty popular and even more people showed up asking for me to paint their shirts or jackets. Not all of them with our team name either. Some just wanted my name, or Alloy’s with an image of her marbles. One person asked if I could do a picture across the back of his jacket that amounted to myself on one side, the roof of a building below, and Cuélebre chasing me on the opposite side. Once I did and they saw how detailed it was, everyone wanted something like that. They all had different images in mind, and it took about twenty minutes for me to get through all of it in between talking to them and letting my paint recharge now and then. I let them know that it could be scrubbed off if they wanted to, but most of them said they would stop by the store to buy this spray stuff that was supposed to seal paint to fabric or something. I wasn’t sure about the details. All I knew was that they wanted to keep my images on their clothes, which was… wow. 

Finally, Alloy and I managed to extract ourselves. She had been entertaining other people by turning her marbles into various things, even allowing some of them to step up on the different shapes for brief rides up and down the street. She managed to hide it pretty well, but I could tell that she was even more overwhelmed than I was. 

So, once we got out of there and landed on a roof a couple streets over, I looked toward the girl and raised an eyebrow. Then I realized she wouldn’t see that, so I painted a face on the front of my helmet with a raised eyebrow there. “You doing okay?” 

Coughing, she gave me a look, retracting most of her helmet so I could see her face. “Am I doing okay? What about you? You uhh, you seemed right at home back there. You sure you’re not a celebrity or something in your real life? Oh my God, are you a child actor? Jason Highward?” 

The guess made me choke, shaking my head quickly. “I promise, I’m not the star of Bending Backwards. Or any other TV star,” I added quickly before she could say anything else. “I’m not a celebrity. I mean, my other self isn’t a celebrity. Not–” I was about to say ‘not really,’ but that felt like the wrong thing to say. So I just settled on, “Not as a civilian. I uhh, I guess I just like attention at school and it translates?” That was basically the truth, so I didn’t feel guilty about saying it. But then I felt guilty all over again for being relieved that I could manipulate the truth like that. It was… complicated, to say the least. 

From the look the other girl was giving me, I had a feeling she thought there was something else to what I was saying, and what I wasn’t saying. But she let it go and simply replied, “At least we managed to save that truck, huh? Even if we did end up making another enemy.” A slight frown crossed her face before she shook it off. “But then, I guess you don’t do this sort of stuff for long without banging heads with the bad guys.” 

“Yeah, that’s pretty easy in my experience,” I admitted. Then I changed the face that I had painted on the front of my helmet to make it smile. “But hey, it’s nice to have someone else to share the bullseye with.”  

Giving me a look, Peyton dryly replied, “Gee, thanks, boss. Glad to be able to help, I guess. And speaking of help, we should probably get over to the Nest.” 

The Nest was Wren’s Nest, of course. The pawn shop. I gave a quick nod. “Right, they’ve been waiting for us. Come on, let’s head over there. Though… you think we should stop and grab some pizza on the way?” 

“You mean bribe them with food so they’re not annoyed about waiting so long for us?” Peyton offered me a very faint, knowing smirk. “But while we’re at it, we better grab some cheesy bread too.” 

“Isn’t that your favorite?” I teased, already turning to walk to the edge of the roof. 

“What can I say?” she shot back. “I’m very annoyed at us and it’s going to take some strong bribery to make me forgive us.” 

********

Eventually, after taking a long route to make sure we weren’t being followed or observed, we made it back to the shop. As we went in the back door, Wren and Fred were already waiting, along with Murphy and Roald. When they saw us, the latter two let out audible sighs of relief, Roald speaking up, “We saw the bit on the news about you chasing Angel Dust.” 

“Yeah, are you okay?” Murphy demanded. “First it looked like she was chasing you, but then you were chasing her. It was weird. What the hell happened?” Glancing toward Wren, she amended. “Heck. What the heck happened?” 

For their part, Wren and Fred simply watched this, clearly just as curious as the other two but content to let them talk. Wren did hover upwards on her wings, basically bouncing excitedly in the air. I could tell that she had her own news to share, but was trying to be good. 

So, the two of us explained what had happened and how it ended. Including the bit about telling everyone about the team name and signing autographs/painting shirts. “Which means,” I finished up, “we should be getting the name out there pretty well by now. So I hope nobody really hated it after all, because it looks like it’s gonna stick.” 

“It’s a cool name!” Wren insisted. Finally unable to hold herself back any longer, she flew forward to hover right in front of us. “But guess what, guess what, guess what! They’re ready to test.” 

“The suits you’ve been working on?” I straightened up a bit. “You’re sure?” 

Murphy immediately piped up, “Seriously, we really get to try them?” 

Wren nodded toward both of us, her head snapping back and forth between Murphy and me. “Uh huh, huh huh! They’re pretty basic right now, but… Uncle Fred?” 

On that cue, the man reached behind himself and brought out two jumpsuits. They looked pretty simple, like mechanics coveralls. Not too dissimilar from my own costume, though these were black. At the wrists and ankles of the jumpsuits there were silver bands, along with a bit of visible circuitry on the inside of the jumpsuits.

As Fred held them out to Murphy and Roald, Wren urged the two to pull them on and zip them up, adding, “I promise I’ll make them look better and stuff in the final version. But I wanted to, you know, let you try them and make sure it worked.” 

“Make sure what worked?” I asked, watching as the pair slipped the jumpsuits on over their clothes. 

“Well, uhh, first, the kinetic decelerator,” she explained. “Uh, guys, take these.” She reached out to a table, taking two pairs of gloves before tossing them that way. “Put them on, then umm, put your hands together like this.” She pushed her hands flat together, like she was praying. 

Shrugging uncertainly, the other two did that. After a second or two, a very faintly audible hum could be heard, and I saw an outline of barely visible energy, like an aura around each of them. 

“Yay!” Wren cheered, then picked up a baseball from the nearby table full of junk. “Watch.” With that, she threw the ball as hard as she could at Roald’s head. The ball got most of the way there before there was a blue-green flash. Then the ball just sort of… stopped and fell to the floor. 

“It’s not a constant thing yet,” Wren explained. “It’d draw way too much power for the little batteries in the pockets. You have to activate it by putting your hands together like that, or by saying ‘shield me,’ and then it’ll work for about thirty seconds. Right now it’s got enough power for about fifteen of those before it has to be recharged. Plus about thirty jumps.” 

“Jumps?” Peyton echoed, sounding just as curious as I felt. 

“Remember that uhh, teleporter?” Wren asked, looking to me. “The one you used before. It was super-dangerous, like, lucky you made it one piece. So I took it apart. But I split it into two things and linked the–here.” Turning back to the other two, she urged, “Uh, Roald, snap your fingers and point at Murphy.” 

The boy did just that, snapping with the gloves. As he did so and pointed, there was a sudden flash, and he was abruptly standing right next to the girl. Both of them yelped, half-falling in surprise. 

Wren, however, cheered. “It worked! When one of you snaps and points at the other, you’ll teleport over to them. Or if you both snap and point at each other, you’ll switch places. You just have to be within line of sight. I umm, haven’t figured out how to make you teleport somewhere else safely yet. I have this idea for these discs, but… but they’re not ready.” 

“Duuuude, that’s amazing!” Murphy gave Roald a shove, telling him to run over to the far side of the shop. Once he was there, she snapped and pointed. With a flash of light, she was suddenly standing next to him. Both of them cheered and leapt up and down a few times. 

“I think they like it,” I murmured with a smile, before looking over at Wren. “You’re pretty amazing yourself, you know that?” 

Visibly blushing, the blonde girl squirmed while still hovering in the air. “I just wanna help.” 

“Oh believe me,” I assured her, “you are definitely helping.” Glancing back to Murphy and Roald, who were testing the ‘switch places’ teleport by snapping and pointing at each other, I added, “Without you, we all would’ve been screwed a long time ago. I couldn’t have saved Blackjack’s daughter without you, and we certainly wouldn’t have been able to help Paige. As for getting into the Ministry base? Yeah, we’d probably be screwed there.

“But with you, we might just have a shot at this whole thing.” 

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Interlude 20A – Jolene Iverson (Summus Proelium)

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“I’m telling you guys, I really don’t think this is necessary at all.” As the tall, red-haired woman said those words, she was striding out of an elevator into the below-ground parking garage of one of the local news stations, flanked on both sides and followed by several figures. “Don’t you have better things to do? Actually, scratch that. I’m a reporter. I know you have better things to do. So, why don’t you go ahead and focus on one of those other things. I’ll be fine. The report went out over the air days ago.” 

“Sorry, Ms. Iverson.” The apology came from the man on her left. He was a fairly short guy at just a hair over five foot five. In his late twenties, the Latino figure who wore somewhat baggy, loose-fitting gray pants that allowed him to move quite well, with a sleeveless black shirt that had a faded gray Ten Towers logo (a ten-pointed star around the skyline of the city they were a part of, Detroit in this case) on the front, spiked wristbands, combat boots, and a bandana-like mask that left the lower half of his face, and his long dark hair, uncovered. “With the threat on your life, we have orders to escort you straight to the Plaza.” 

The Plaza, in this case, was their term for the headquarters of Ten Towers in Detroit, where the main three towers themselves were located. It was also a thought that made Jolene Iverson grimace, head shaking. “Come on, Stick. I get threats all the time. All reporters do. Especially the ones who talk about Touched stuff. That’s why we use these.” She pointedly withdrew a small black box that fit within the palm of her hand, with a single silver button on it. To demonstrate, she pushed her thumb against that button and stopped walking. As she did so, there was a shimmer of energy in the air, and the woman abruptly looked quite different. Her long red hair had shortened and turned blond. Various features of her face had shifted around, eye shape widening slightly, nose turning up and narrowing, skin color itself darkening just a bit as though she had much more of a tan, and so forth. Within a few seconds, she looked like a completely different person other than the specific height. “Tell me exactly how someone who saw this person give a report about the identities of Pencil and Cup is going to be mistaken for–” She hit the button again, returning to her normal appearance. “–this person? The entire point of using the Incogniter and false names is so that none of those psychopaths out there know what the people reporting on them actually look like. At least, that’s how it was sold to me.” 

“That’s the general idea,” Stick confirmed, watchful eyes glancing around as they stood in the parking garage. “But when there’s a specific threat, we have to take it seriously. Our boss told us the intel they picked up was detailed enough that there is a concern for your safety. So she told us to come here and escort you straight to the plaza while she and Skip check out the source. Once they determine whether the threat is real or not, they’ll decide how soon you can leave.” With a shrug, he added, “It’s in your contract. Your station is a subsidiary of Ten Towers. When there’s a threat like this, we have to deal with it. And you have to let us.” 

“Yeah,” the person on her right-hand side put in. “Believe me, Caishen would be super-pissed if we let you go off on your own. And quite frankly, she’s scarier than you are.” 

Glancing that way, Jolene took in the male form. Well, male for the moment anyway. Ephemera wore a costume that was just as simple as Stick’s, amounting to red pants with matching shoes, a white turtleneck, and a white ski mask with red trim. A belt around their waist held two pistols, a knife, and a collapsible baton. 

Jolene exhaled. A part of her still wanted to argue, but there was little point. They were right. Ten Towers held ultimate authority over the station she worked for, and if Caishen said there was a real threat, nothing Jolene could say would change anyone’s mind. Finally, she settled on, “Okay, fine. I get it. Believe me, if there’s actually a threat, I have no desire to face it myself.” She put the Incogniter back in her pocket. “But do we really need five of you?” Turning a bit, she gestured to the three figures who had been trailing behind. “Five Touched just to protect me?” 

“It’s not so much to protect you as it is to catch them,” came the casual reply from one of those figures. He was a decidedly taller man than Stick, standing about six foot two. None of his skin was exposed, as he wore long black pants, heavy boots, a dark blue shirt under a white trench coat, and a blue helmet that had no visible visor. Instead, the front was covered by the white insignia of a crosshair. Jolene had absolutely no idea how he saw out of that thing.

“Linesight,” Stick chastised slightly with a look that way. 

“What?” The other man offered a shrug. “I didn’t say we wanted anything bad to happen to her. But she’s right, all of us being here would be overkill to protect a single person from some vague threat. We’re here just in case there’s a chance to catch any of the Scions, and you know it. She knows it. We all know it. She reported on Cup and Pencil’s real identities. Even if those two are laying low, any other Scions could be out there looking to impress their bosses by making an example out of her. That’s why we’re here, and why Caishen and Skip took a whole contingent of Towers security to check out the apartment they traced that phone call to. It’s common sense. Ain’t that right, Bungle?”

Beside him, a young woman gave a quick, hurried nod. Her costume consisted of a black bodysuit with purple highlights along the legs and arms, along with the Ten Towers logo, also in purple, across the front. She also wore purple gloves and boots, along with a cape that was black on the outside and purple on the inside, with a connected matching hood that rose up over her head. Under the hood, her head was encased in a black helmet with a large purple visor, which covered the entirety of her face from chin to just above her eyes. The visor appeared to be made of glass, but was actually quite durable to the point of being bulletproof. 

As the woman known to the public as Bunglebotch put it, considering how goofy and uncoordinated her power made her look, the very least she could do was have a cool costume. Besides, she found it infinitely more amusing to show up to a place and make people think they were about to see something incredibly cool and inspiring before, in her own words, ‘drastically disappointing them.’ 

Yet despite her self-disparaging words, Bunglebotch loved her Touched gift. It was a power which allowed her to accomplish essentially any physical task any human being was capable of with enough training and skill. But doing so would always appear to be a completely uncoordinated, comical accident. She could perform incredible athletic stunts of hand to hand combat, acrobatics, sharpshooting, piloting, parkour, and more, yet anyone watching her do so would swear she was about to kill herself simply by taking a step. Watching her in action was akin to viewing an old slapstick-style movie, or even cartoon. She would constantly appear to be tripping, sliding, slipping, stumbling, accidentally yanking down curtains, and more in the course of a simple chase. But no matter how uncoordinated her actions seemed to be, they always accomplished her task and left her relatively unharmed. 

The gift extended beyond uncoordinated-looking-yet-incredible physical prowess as well. Simply by focusing on a single person, Bungle could force that person to comically fail at any physical task they were attempting to accomplish at the time, regardless of how trivial it was. Including simply taking a step, sitting down in a chair, or tearing a sheet of paper in half. That last one she had demonstrated to great effect on a particularly annoying middle management type who annoyed her one day. He ended up giving himself a fat lip. 

“Uh huh, uh huh,” Bungle agreed with Linesight. “No offense, Miss Iverson, but yeah. We’re definitely supposed to try to catch at least one of those Scions. The boss-lady thinks they might try something stupid because they’re so pissed off right now. You’re a visible target for them to take their anger out on, you know? Even if you do have that disguise thing, which is super-duper cool by the way, they might still figure out who you are. You know, by having an inside person or something. But if they do try something, we’re here.”

“And the Minority kid?” Jolene asked, focusing on the fifth and final person who had been accompanying her as he stood a bit back from the others. “What’s he doing here?” 

“Oh, Whamline?” Stick waved a hand. “He’s here for a ridealong.” A ridealong, as it was called, was simply when one of the younger Star-Touched would accompany an adult team, both for some on-the-job training, and to see how they got along with the team. And, of course, how the team got along with them. It helped everyone involved decide where the young Touched should go once they were of age. “Technically it wasn’t supposed to be until next week, but he has a… thing?” 

“School project,” Whamline replied with a shrug before adding a bit apologetically, “I’ve been getting behind a little bit, and they don’t like that.” With a low whistle, he added, “They really don’t like it.” 

“I remember school,” Bungle noted. “School sucked.” As Linesight nudged her pointedly, she gestured defensively. “What? I’m pretty sure he knows that already. I mean, come on, he already said he was behind.” The continued pointed stare made her protest, “What’d I say?” 

Clearing his throat, Stick spoke up. “Okay, speaking of ridealong, I think we can set a good example by keeping our attention on the task at hand.” With that, he looked at Jolene. “Whamline, Linesight, and I will be with you in our van over here. In the back, please.” 

“In the van?” Jolene started to protest. “But my car’s right there. What about–” She stopped then, as a flash nearby drew her attention to Ephemera. Or at least, where Ephemera had been. Their body had abruptly disintegrated to ashes, blowing away in the wind. A foot or so to the side, their new body had appeared. A body which looked completely identical to Jolene in every way. It was like looking into a mirror.

Ephemera’s power was, on the surface, somewhat similar to that of Baldur, leader of Armistice and the strongest Touched in the world. But where Baldur’s power allowed them to shift their own body through various differently-powered versions of themselves and thus come up with practically any gift they needed, Ephemera was far more limited… at least as far as powers went. With a thought, they were capable of making their current body disintegrate. At which point, they would reappear in a new body, which could be any age, sex, gender, and appearance they wished. Which included creating a new costume/set of clothes, though the materials for that would disintegrate once removed. Rather than having any powers they wanted, they could simply infuse the new body with any set of skills possessed by any person they had spent at least one hour with in the past. They often shifted rapidly throughout any given situation, going from an innocent-looking child who could walk through a crowded street without drawing attention, to a man with computer hacking skills to break into a secure building, to a woman with intense combat training to fight their way through that building. And so on. They could last within a single body for twenty-four hours, but very seldom went longer than an hour or so without changing. As they had to put it, staying in the same body with the same skills for too long made them feel antsy. 

“Okay,” the reporter slowly murmured as her head shook. “No offense, but that’s really creepy.”  

“Sorry,” they replied. “I’ll be taking your car and playing human target.” 

Bunglebotch was already moving to the front passenger’s side. “Yeah, and I get to play bodyguard. Don’t worry, we’ve done this before. You’d be surprised how many fancypants executives get their underoos in a twist and need us to run interference.” 

Before Jolene could (somewhat reluctantly) move to the unmarked van instead of her car, Linesight put a hand up to stop her, staring intently at a pair of glasses in his hand for a moment before nodding in satisfaction. “It’s set.” With that, he handed them to her. 

Realizing what the man had done, Jolene gave a soft gasp. Linesight’s power allowed him to mark up to four different spots, including moving objects. Any person who looked at that spot or object, who wasn’t included within a list of mental exceptions the man set at the time that he marked them, would be hit by a powerful concussive beam for as long as they looked at it. 

“Keep the glasses on until we get to the plaza,” he instructed. “They’re only a last-second defense, but if shit actually goes down, you’ll be glad you have them, believe me. And if worst comes to worst and you lose them…” He held up a coin, intently staring at that as well for a moment before passing it to her. “Put that in your pocket. If you’re in real trouble, wait for an opening, then hold that up and use it to get away.”  

Stick spoke up then. “We don’t expect to run into that much trouble, if any. But in this line of work, it’s better to be overly prepared.” To Whamline, he added, “You should probably make a note of that yourself. Always be prepared.” 

Whamline, for his part, gave a thumbs up. “Be prepared, got it. Like that song from the Lion King.”  

“Sure,” Bunglebotch replied from the side of the car. “Except for basically every word in it, and the fact that it’s sung by a villain. But sure, just like that.” 

“Still a good song,” Whamline murmured with a shrug, humming it to himself a bit as he moved to get in the back of the van. 

Jolene followed suit, with Stick getting in the back with the two of them. Linesight took the driver’s seat, and they waited for Ephemera and Bunglebotch to pull out of the lot ahead of them before following suit a moment later. It would only be about a ten minute drive, and the woman found herself leaning back in the seat to look out the heavily tinted, and no doubt bulletproof, window as they progressed. She had actually driven this same route multiple times, going from the station to Ten Towers for interviews or the like. Despite her outward dismissal of the threat to her life, the woman was a bit nervous. Especially once they left the safety of the news station’s parking garage. And yet, as they drove most of the route with no apparent issues, the anxiety that had started to rise up in her stomach quickly began to fade. In another couple of minutes, they would be at Ten Towers Plaza, and she could thank them for the help before finding someone in charge to insist she be given some space to do her work in for as long as this protection detail was supposed to last. Come to think of it, she needed to call Mrs. Morson, who lived in the apartment next door, and ask her to take poor Jitters the cat over to her place and feed him. He had to be yowling at the door by now, confused about why Jolene hadn’t–

“Eph, on your left!” Linesight’s voice suddenly bellowed a warning to Ephemera in the car ahead. 

Just as Jolene’s gaze snapped that way to look through the front windshield, she saw a heavy pickup truck driving alongside her car swerve sideways in an attempt to ram into it. But Ephemera reacted too quickly, slowing the car and twisting it just out of reach as the truck went skidding past. Immediately, one of the men in the truck twisted to point a gun out the back window, opening fire. Yet he had only fired one or two shots before two pale blue beams of energy lashed out from the side of Jolene’s car, slamming into the gunman and knocking him backward out of the truck, where he rolled and sprawled along the road. 

Linesight, Jolene realized that the Touched ahead of her had marked her car right then, even as another pair of beams lashed out toward a second gunman in the truck. Unfortunately, the vehicle swerved that time, and they missed. 

By that point, Ephemera had stopped the car, while Bunglebotch hopped out. As the truck spun around to come back to them, Bungle focused on him. Abruptly, the driver completely failed at the task of driving, sending the truck into a wild spin that ended with a violent slam into the nearby guard rail. 

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of it, as men were already clambering out of the truck. Worse, there was another truck full of them coming up fast from behind the van. They all wore normal clothing, but everyone knew why they were here. Whether they were officially members of the Scions or just wannabes, they were there to impress Pencil and Cup by making an example of the reporter who had exposed their identities over the air.

With the van stopped, Stick yanked the side door open, reaching down to grab a tire iron from the floor before hurling it out ahead of the oncoming truck. In mid-air, the man used his power to make things he touched stay where they were put no matter what force was exerted on them. The tire iron abruptly froze, just as the truck’s front left tire slammed into it. Instantly, the tire was demolished from hitting the immobile object at that speed, and the truck went spinning wildly out of control. 

Hopping out of the van, Stick shouted back to Linesight. “Get Iverson to the Plaza, go!” Then he produced an extendable metal staff from his belt, snapped it out to full length, and ran toward the second truck. 

Without wasting another second, Linesight hit the gas, accelerating around the stopped vehicles while shouting, “You two get down back there. Stay down! Whamline, cover her!” 

Obliging immediately, the Minority hero quickly apologized before pushing Jolene to the floor as he crouched beside her in the narrow space between seats. “Don’t worry, Miss,” he assured her in a tense voice, “we’re almost there.” 

He was right, she knew. They were less than a minute away from the Ten Towers headquarters. In another few seconds, they’d be safe. Part of her was still reeling from the fact that she had actually been attacked. There had been so many false alarms and fake threats over the years that a group of people actually, truly trying to kill her was–

Something hit the truck. Or… or exploded the truck. All she knew was that there was a sudden deafening boom, her vision went blindingly white, and she had the sensation of the van flying. Or falling. Something hit the side of her head, then the back of her head. Spinning. The van was flipping over and over, crashing along the ground. Then everything went dark. 

Seconds, or possibly minutes later, the woman blinked her eyes open blearily. She was lying on the sidewalk somewhere beyond the van, where she had been thrown. The vehicle itself was on its side, the slumped figure of Linesight barely visible through the shattered windshield. Not that she could make out any details. Her vision was still fuzzy, fading in and out. 

She did, however, see the figure walking purposefully toward her. Immediately, she shifted so they would face the glasses Linesight had marked. Unfortunately, only then did the woman realize the glasses were actually gone, having flown off her face at some point in all of that. 

The blurry figure was right in front of her, even as she remembered the coin in her pocket. With fumbling fingers, she yanked it out and held the coin up. 

Nothing happened. No, did it–did it only work if Linesight was conscious? What–

Finally, her eyes focused on the figure who had been standing over her. “Wait… oh.” It was so hard to talk. Something was wrong with her throat, and her stomach had twisted itself into knots. “You… help…” 

“Sorry,” came the flat response, even as the figure raised their hand. A pistol was gripped in it, aimed that way. “But I did this whole thing to impress Cup, and I can’t stop now.” 

With that, the figure pulled the trigger, and Jolene Iverson would never think of anything else again. 

“I mean, come on, can you blame me?” Whamline finished while lowering the gun. “She’s so hot.” 

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