Caishen

Schooling 24-01 (Summus Proelium)

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So, as it had turned out, the entire situation was even more complicated than we already thought it was. What had been an incredibly thin hope that Jason wasn’t responsible for his own actions and was being framed somehow ended up being the truth. But that didn’t help Broadway that much, because their foster sister was the person who framed him. And she had done it specifically because she was actually trying out to join the fucking Scions herself. Broadway had gone from feeling sick about her brother being that kind of psycho malicious piece of shit, to feeling sick about it being her sister instead. Again, not much of an upgrade. 

On the other hand, the zombies had all fallen apart as soon as that Jennica girl had stopped controlling Jason and fled. Which at least meant we didn’t have to deal with them. But, of course, that still left the boy himself. And a whole lot of explanations to give to the authorities. 

Broadway and Pack left with Grandstand as soon as the cops and other Star-Touched started showing up. I couldn’t blame any of them for not wanting to stick around. If Broadway wanted to keep her identity secret, she couldn’t really explain what she was doing here. She did, however, make me promise that I would give the authorities the whole story about what really happened with Jason so he wouldn’t end up being blamed for everything. It was pretty obvious that she had considered taking him with her, but in the end, decided against it. It was a better idea for us to explain things so he wouldn’t have to go on the run for the rest of his life, hopefully. But then again, if he had his evil sister still trying to use his power… Yeah, that was complicated. 

As it turned out, Caishen had finally shown up, along with like half the Star-Touched in Detroit. Including my father, as Silversmith, of course. It may have taken them a while to get our messages and have time to do something about it, but now they were here. Too bad it was too late to matter. 

Still, it led to our whole team standing in front of Silversmith, Caishen, and Brumal in one of the executive offices. Meanwhile the rest of the authorities were going over this place with a fine tooth comb just to make sure there were no more surprises left behind. Jason, still unconscious from the drug he’d been injected with, was lying on the floor nearby with someone’s jacket set under his head as a pillow. 

“Okay,” Silversmith started while looking right at me, “let me see if I’ve got this right. That boy over there really does have the power to animate dead things and give them fire powers. He really did create and control the zombies we saw. But he wasn’t actually responsible for what he did because his adopted sister also has powers, one of which allows her to control anyone she hits with one of her stone things, which she has attached to rings on her hand. She’s the one who wants to join the Scions, and part of her initiation, or test, or…  whatever you might want to call it, was framing her brother for all of this.”

Glancing to the others before turning my attention back to my father, I gave a short nod. “That’s right, sir. Like I said, we were desperate for help, so I reached out to Pack since I, you know, helped them before with–”

Before I could finish, Brumal spoke up. “You helped save his daughter. An understandable goal, but what’s this about you having her phone number?”

“I didn’t really expect it to work,” I replied. “I figured they would’ve disconnected that number by now. And no, I’m not giving it to you.” I saw the way they looked at each other at that, and quickly pressed on. “Come on, you know what would happen if I did. You wouldn’t be able to get anything out of it anyway, and they wouldn’t trust me again. Which would be bad if something like this happened.”

“They are criminals,” Caishen pointed out mildly. She didn’t really sound upset about any of this, more curious about how I would react to her words. 

“Yeah, I know,” I replied. “But there’s criminals and then there’s criminals. As evidenced right here. We asked for help stopping an atrocity here, and they helped. We couldn’t have found that guy and saved all the people in the stadium without them. Pack and Broadway came to help make sure there wasn’t a complete massacre here.”

Brumal sounded curious. “And you say Grandstand was just tagging along and you didn’t even know about it?”

I coughed before shrugging. There was no reason not to tell the full truth on that front. “She said she’s trying to find someone who killed a friend of hers, and she thinks that one of the people who was trying out for the Scions is that person. I guess she thought Jason could give her more information. You know, since they’re both supposedly trying out. Now she’s after that Jennica girl.”

There was a moment of silence as the three adults turned to look at one another. Only belatedly did I realize they weren’t just looking. They were conferring with some sort of Touched-Tech that was silencing their voices so we couldn’t hear, but they could. Convenient, that. 

Once more, I looked at the rest of the group. They were clearly exhausted. I knew I sure was. But this whole thing could’ve ended up a lot worse. It had been sheer luck that Peyton had started to follow me when I followed Riddles, and another bit of luck that I had decided not to push the issue to send her back. And her randomly spotting what she thought was a raccoon but turned out to be a dog, leading us to the room where those managers were tied up so they could tell us about Jennica and how she had to have line of sight to use her powers… yeah, we had gotten lucky. A bit too lucky, honestly. It felt like that dog had led us there, but I couldn’t think of who would have been responsible for that. 

In any case, all of that led to us being able to set our trap to catch Jennica. Which, even if it hadn’t lasted, was probably the only reason the situation had ended as well as it did. Not that her getting away was great, but still. Now we knew she was a threat, and had an idea of what she could do for the most part. And boy was it a lot. She had kind of struck gold when it came to powers. If she did end up joining the Scions, we would all be in deep trouble. As bad as she already was all by herself, I had no doubt that Pencil could put her to even worse things. We had to find her and make sure that didn’t happen. 

Well, in this case, I supposed that would be up to Grandstand and Broadway, and maybe Pack if she helped out. And who was I kidding? Of course she was going to help out. 

Shaking that off, I looked back to the trio of adults just as Silversmith spoke again. “Right, first of all, apologies are in order. While we had no way of knowing that this would happen just as everything in the city… ahh, went wrong, we did fail in one major way.” 

“That’s right,” Brumal put in, “we didn’t provide you with an authorization code. It’s a phrase you can speak to a 911 operator, or anyone like that, to prove that you are who you say you are. All sanctioned teams have them, and Paintball should have had it a long time ago. We dropped the ball there.” 

Caishen made a noise in the back of her throat. “I should have pressed the issue before. I never thought everything would happen at once, and I should have anticipated it.” She heaved a long sigh before looking at my father. “You’re going to rectify that now?” 

He gave a firm nod. “Of course.” Looking straight at me once more, he added, “Your code is going to be ‘pandas are always green.’ That’s the first letters from Paintball And Avant-Guard. PAAG. Pandas Are Always Green.” He repeated that again before having us repeat it as well. 

“Memorize it, and make sure you always know what it is. Test each other on it. From now on, if any of you contact the authorities, even if you’re not in costume, you can use that code.”  

Roald raised his hand until they were all looking at him. He sounded incredibly nervous to have all that attention from three of the most powerful and important Touched in the city focused on him, but forced out the words, “Um, does that mean that every 911 operator is going to know that code and not just think we’re saying gibberish things at them?”  

It was Brumal who answered. “Not exactly. When we program that into the system, saying those words over a phone line will automatically transfer you to someone who does know what’s going on. Then you can tell that person what you need and what’s wrong, and they’ll take you seriously.” 

Dad gave a short nod. “And if you say them in person, the officer’s own radio will alert him that a Star-Touched pass phrase has been used, and that he needs to take you seriously.” 

I could tell that Paige wanted to say something then, as did Sierra. But they were being quiet for the moment. I wasn’t sure exactly how it would go if they started drilling these guys with more questions, but it was probably a good idea for us to get through this as fast as possible. If nothing else, the sooner we got out of this place, the sooner we could all fall over. So, I turned back to my dad while carefully replying, “Thanks for that.” 

“As I said, we should’ve done it before,” he replied. “But at this point, I’d say your team has more than earned it. That and a lot more. All those people who were stuck in the stadium today are alive because you acted. And yes, you worked with villains to do it, but sometimes that’s what we have to do. Just like when they volunteer to help at a Collision Point. They receive temporary amnesty during that sort of encounter. I’d say the same thing could easily apply here. You had no other recourse.” 

“Does that mean we’re not going to jail?” Murphy sounded like she was only half-kidding. I was pretty sure she expected to get in trouble, even after all we’d done. Maybe even because of what we’d done. She’d muttered something earlier about how the authorities would probably be pissed about being shown up and blame us for it. 

Brumal gave an incredulous chuckle. “Kid, after what you guys did here, we’re the ones who should be in trouble, and you should be getting medals. Believe me, no one’s going to hold working with those three against you. Especially not when it ended up with these results.” She paused then before clearly grimacing at a private thought. “No one who matters, anyway.” 

Before I could respond to that, Paige raised her hand to point at Jason. “What’s going to happen to him now?” 

The others looked that way as well, before Silversmith replied, “He won’t be charged with what happened. There are provisions in the law for being controlled in some way by Touched powers when you commit a crime. But he’s not going to be able to go home either. Even if that girl decides to leave him alone, which I doubt, it’s pretty obvious that Pencil would see him as a resource. So he’ll need to go somewhere else.” 

I blinked a couple times before asking, “Are you going to put him in witness protection or something?” 

Caishen nodded. “Something like that. Don’t worry, he’ll be safe. We know how to make someone disappear.” 

Boy, oh boy, could I have said a lot of things to that. But, I kept my mouth shut. I still wasn’t sure if she was connected to the Ministry or not, so I had no idea if she knew just how good they really were at making people disappear. Dad misinterpreted my moment of silence, giving a soft chuckle once more. “Okay, I think you’ve had enough excitement for one day, all of you. Now, what was that code again?” 

We repeated it back to him, and he nodded. “I’ll be testing you once in a while. But right now, I’ve got some very confused and upset people to talk to.” He glanced at Caishen and added, “You wanted to talk to them yourself?” 

She confirmed that, then the three of them had another silent conversation before my father created a silver stretcher under Jason and lifted him up with it so it could float behind them as they walked out, leaving just Caishen standing there. When the door closed, she exhaled long and hard. “I know it was said before, but I am truly sorry that I wasn’t able to answer your call. And that it took so long to get your messages. After everything I said to you about not going off on your own, and then I gave you no choice but to do just that.” 

I shrugged a bit awkwardly. “It’s not like you were maliciously ignoring us or anything. You had to deal with what was happening in the city.” 

Alloy immediately raised her hand. “And, about that, what actually did happen in the city? What’s going on back there?” 

So, after taking a deep breath, the woman told us what had been keeping everyone so busy. And boy had we missed a lot. Apparently Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners, whose alliance had been starting to fall apart, called a truce again and launched a full-scale attack against the Easy Eights in an attempt to split their territory down the middle. Except not really, because the Easy Eights had actually agreed to a truce with the Ninety-Niners. Which the latter had agreed to because they were angry at Oscuro for various not-very-well explained reasons. 

Basically, it meant that Cuélebre and his gang had attempted to drive deep into enemy territory, only to be ambushed not only by the people they were attacking and the gang that was supposed to be on their side, but also by a large portion of La Casa, as Blackjack wasn’t about to give up the opportunity to get revenge on at least one of the gangs who pissed him off by trying to take advantage of his dying daughter situation. 

All of that would have been complicated enough, but then things apparently had gotten worse. Three of the Easy Eight lieutenants, Juice, Janus (Uncle Friendly and Mister Harmful), and Devil’s Due, switched sides to join Oscuro. And they took a decent portion of their own people with them. Which meant that suddenly instead of being three gangs against one, it was two and a half gangs against one and a half. Which obviously wasn’t enough to completely change things, but it wasn’t good either. Especially given the fact that Devil’s Due had announced his betrayal by using his power (the one that allowed him to focus on someone and make anything he said sound completely reasonable) to tell Sockinit to use his power to fuck with the guns and powers on their own side. It was hard to win a fight when your guns randomly wouldn’t fire, or your powers suddenly stopped working. Not to mention someone had apparently set off some sort of teleportation bomb that sent Deicide halfway across the state, if the reports of her vanishing from the battlefield and then randomly showing up in Grand Rapids were accurate.

And on top of everything else, Braintrust had attacked some science lab on the far side of the city, apparently taking advantage of the already stressed system. It sounded like the only gang who hadn’t started or participated in World War Three the night before was Sherwood. And I honestly didn’t trust that they wouldn’t feel left out and decide to blow some stuff up themselves pretty soon. After all, the day wasn’t over just yet.

“Holy shit,” Murphy finally managed once the story was done. “No wonder you guys were busy.” 

Caishen coughed. “Yes, well, that happens sometimes. As it stands now, the fighting seems to have run its course. We’ll have to see how the territory changes go, but it seems that Oscuro has not only managed to gain three new Touched to replace the two they’ve lost recently in Handler and Grandstand, but also drove the Easy Eights to retreat. We have no idea how that squares with Oscuro’s rule of only allowing Hispanic gang members, but they already made an exception for Grandstand, so… who knows.” 

She offered a shrug to go with her uncertain words before continuing. “The civil war that those three lieutenants splitting off caused screwed up the rest of their people pretty badly. They never did manage to rally. Seems whoever was left to take control after Deicide was teleported away decided backing off after that happened was the best call. Which left La Casa and the Ninety-Niners facing Cuélebre and his new, bigger gang. That was a mess. But it seems to have calmed down for the moment. Now, who the hell knows what’s going to happen over the next few days? If I had to guess, I’d say the Easy Eights–or should that be Easy Fives? Either way, they’ll probably lose half their territory and about that many of their people by the time it all shakes out.” 

“I’m surprised Blackjack agreed to a truce with the Ninety-Niners to begin with,” I murmured. “He was as pissed at them as he was at Oscuro, last I knew.” 

“Apparently Sandon apologized for what happened with his daughter,” Caishen informed us. “She wanted to end the fighting. That’s what our people were able to piece together, anyway. And as part of that, she agreed to monetary compensation as well as a deal with Blood Covenant.” 

That made me do a double-take. “Blood Covenant? They’re here?” 

“One of their representatives was,” came the flat reply. “As we said, today was very eventful.” 

The others were all reacting with just as much surprise as me. Which was understandable, given what we’d just heard. Blood Covenant was an international Sell-Touched organization. Their leader and founder was a man named Solon, whose power was… well, the blood covenant. Essentially, his blood itself had power. Whenever someone wrote something using that blood, Solon was able to tell from that point forward if that person ever violated what they wrote. If they wrote that they would jump three times every morning at precisely eight am, and three years later they didn’t jump right then, Solon would know. He didn’t even have to be there for his power to be used that way. It just required his blood. 

Yeah, it was a weird power. And there were several other things he could do with his blood. But either way, it had allowed him to create one of the largest and most successful Sell-Touched organizations in the world. His people knew that anyone who signed up with them couldn’t turn around and backstab them without Solon knowing about it. They tended to send representatives with vials of his blood to write up short contracts for this sort of thing. If you violated your agreement, you’d end up with a Blood Covenant detachment showing up to express their displeasure. 

“What was the contract she signed?” Paige asked, clearly just as curious as I was. If not more. 

“We don’t know,” Caishen informed us. “Not exactly. But it sounds like it was enough to make Blackjack agree to a truce with her and the rest of the Ninety-Niners. Probably something about working together and never trying to fuck him over again. Pardon me, screw him over again.” She shook her head. “It’s been a long day. And now I feel that yours should be over. All of you head home. You’ve done far more than enough. We’ll contact you again later. And thank you. Thank all of you for making sure this wasn’t a hell of a lot worse than it ended up being. There’s a van on the east side of the parking lot that will take you anywhere you’d like to go back in the city.”

So, we left. Together, our little group made our way out of the stadium. Before we could look for that van, however, a certain noise caught our attention. It was some sort of roar. All of us snapped upright and turned, only to find ourselves facing a mob of people. They were being held back by police tape and uniformed officers, but as soon as they spotted us, the shouting began. 

No, not shouting. Cheering. The people were applauding, screaming, waving their hands, clapping… They were cheering. They were thanking us, all of us. 

“Guys,” I found myself murmuring dully as we all just stood flatfooted staring at the enormous crowd of cheering onlookers, “I think it just hit me. 

“We’re sorta superheroes.” 

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Enkindle 23-12 (Summus Proelium)

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With the body–or man–or whatever he was completely gone, we all just stood there staring at the spot where the last of the ashes had blown away. Three or four full seconds of complete silence passed, where you probably could’ve heard a pin drop. And then that silence was interrupted, rather abruptly, by a distant voice shouting from the rooftop. 

“What the fuck was that?!”

It was Murphy, of course. Or Hobbes. She was standing there next to Roald/Calvin, both of them staring past us at the spot where the man had been. Her voice came again, but it was quieter. She was saying something about what happened to the guy. I could guess the gist of it. But I certainly didn’t have any answers for her. I was too busy asking the exact same questions.

Wren, landing beside me, spoke in a far quieter, more subdued voice. “Did… did he just die?” 

“No,” Peyton immediately answered, before catching herself. “I mean, I don’t think so? I mean, he looked like he was already–but we didn’t actually–I mean…” Her head shook helplessly as she looked around at the rest of us. “What just happened?” 

Finally, I found my voice. “I don’t know,” I murmured. “But it was nothing we did. I mean, we caught him. We had him. And then he just…” 

“Disintegrated,” Paige put in flatly. “Whether that was some form of teleportation or just suicide, I have no idea. But the latter seems a little bit dramatic given the circumstances.” 

“The other dude disappeared like that too,” Sierra pointed out. “I mean, that has to be it, right? He was out of our sight in that dumpster and when we took it off, he was just gone. Like this. It has to be the same thing. So did they both burn up forever and… I mean did they just–I… huh.” 

My head nodded slowly as a grimace crossed my face. “Yeah, huh is about right. Part of me really wants to freak out right now, but the other part is too confused to do any freaking. Whatever all that was, it was really screwed up. This whole situation is screwed up.” Even as I said that, I was turning to where Murphy and Roald were, extending a hand to send a shot of orange paint that way before calling out, “It’s safe, you can bring them down!” 

Murphy, who took the bulk of the paint, immediately hopped down. She landed fairly smoothly on the ground below, then stood still and waited while Roald got the two people who had been hiding behind the bench before they rescued them. They held onto him, while he snapped his fingers and pointed at Murphy, teleporting down to her with passengers in tow. The two civilians were staring at the spot where that guy had disappeared with as much shock and confusion as I was feeling right then. Maybe even more, considering some of us had already encountered something like that.  

Speaking of which, I forced my gaze away from that spot and focused on the two people he had been attacking. Making my voice as calm as possible, I spoke up. “Um, did either of you know that guy? Do you know who he was, or what the hell that was about?” 

Rather than answer right away, the woman of the pair, a dark-skinned girl in her early to mid twenties with long braided hair, quickly blurted, “Y-you saved us. Oh my God, you saved us. You all-you all–Dash was gonna–” With that, she promptly turned and bent over at the knees to throw up in the nearby ditch. 

“Dash,” Paige jumped on. “His name is Dash?” 

The man, a Latino around the same age as his companion, gave a quick, almost frantic nod. “Fuck, yeah, that’s him. Dash Cooper. He was–we were–he died, okay? We were at a party a couple weeks ago. We were driving home and he had a little too much in his system, so he totaled it against a stoplight. He was dead, totally and completely dead. We buried that motherfucker. We fucking buried him, dude! There was a funeral a-a-and he was dead!” 

The woman straightened up, spitting once before giving a shaky nod of agreement. “We were just out here picking up some food, and then… then h-he popped up out of nowhere and started like… fucking repeating our words, echoing what we were saying. Only it sounded like us, like our voices in his mouth! He was like–he was mocking us and trying to… fuck, fuck, fuck!” 

Okay, yeah, this was getting more disturbing by the moment. This was definitely the same sort of thing as the other zombie. But what did that say about the Luciano version? Were there really two zombie guys with heat powers and–fuck, I had no idea. Nothing. None of this made any sense. How could there be two dead guys who both happened to get the same power to keep them in a half-alive state? It had to be something else, the coincidence was too absurd otherwise. There had to be some other person doing this, right? This was all–the whole thing was just–what? We had more information now than before, but none of it helped. In fact, it made the whole situation even more confusing. 

“I-is he like… dead and gone now?” The man looked between all of us as he asked that. “I mean, he’s not… he’s not coming back, right? He fucking disintegrated.” 

“He was dead before and came back, Carlos!” the girl blurted those words while almost hyperventilating. “What the fuck’s gonna stop him from coming back again?! I don’t know what the hell happened, why he–what–” She looked straight to me, pleading desperately, “Just fucking tell me, what the hell is going on?” 

Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “We don’t know, exactly. I’m sorry, I wish we did. I’m pretty sure he’s not gone forever though. Whatever this is, that seems too… easy.” I was grimacing even as I said that. Part of me wanted to tell them that he wasn’t the only one, but I was afraid that they would get interviewed by people working for the Ministry, which could potentially lead to my parents learning that Paintball and company had encountered this zombie thing before. Which could lead to them realizing that we were the same people who encountered Luciano earlier, and that… yeah, it could potentially give them too much information. So I kept quiet about that. 

Before anyone else could say anything, a glimpse of movement from one side made my gaze snap toward one of the surrounding buildings. A figure came running across the rooftop there, before leaping down from the top of the six story building. She landed as lightly on the pavement as if she had just stepped off a curb before straightening up. 

Caishen. It was Caishen, apparently having used her power to reduce the ‘value’ of that fall damage down to being negligible. She stood there in her usual costume of dark purple scale mail armor, a gold leather coat, black boots, and a black helmet with glowing purple lenses over the eyes. The coat itself billowed a bit too perfectly in the breeze, making her look even cooler. I was very tempted to ask if that was some sort of Touched-Tech enhancement, but it felt like the wrong time. 

“Was there another one?” the woman demanded, looking us over. “Another… zombie?” It sounded like she was already regretting even saying that out loud, but couldn’t think of another, better word for it. 

“Another one?” I found myself demanding despite myself, giving her a quick double-take. “What do you mean, another one?” 

Her gaze locked onto me as she flatly replied, “There’s been a few of them all over the city. We’ve been dealing with them, but they keep disappearing.” After saying that, she focused on the two civilians. “Here, you two should go sit down with the medics.” 

I was about to ask what medics she was talking about, but even as the words came to my mouth, an ambulance with its lights on but no siren came around the corner and screeched to a halt. She must’ve been in contact with them or had their location marked inside her helmet or something. Whatever it was, the medics were already out and guiding our two witnesses over to sit down and get looked over. 

Once they were on their way, Caishen focused on us. “Okay, first of all, should I assume that all of you are together?” Her gaze moved over each of us before she added, “This seems new. You’re all–what was it you said your ahh, team was called back at the convention? Avant-Guard with a u?” 

Hopping once, I nodded. “Yeah, this is us. We’re still working out the details and all that. But uhh, you know me, Paintball. You should probably know Alloy. And uhh, this is Trevithick.” 

“Hi!” Wren blurted, hovering up on those wings to be on the same level as Caishen. “Does your daughter really make giant bugs?” 

“She does,” Caishen confirmed, giving her a curious once-over. “Maybe you should visit sometime.” 

While Wren hurriedly agreed to that idea, I gestured to the others. “This is Calvin and Hobbes, and that’s Style and Poise.” The first two waved a bit awkwardly, while Sierra and Paige simply saluted in unison before glancing at one another and making uncomfortable noises in the back of their throats. 

“I suppose those all fit your team name theme, in one way or another,” Caishen mused thoughtfully. Her gaze moved over all of us intently, and I could tell she was filing away every detail. I could also tell that she wanted to ask about powers and such, but for whatever reason decided not to. Instead, she asked, “Are you all okay?” 

“Physically, sure,” I confirmed. “Pretty perfect, really. But mentally? That’s a different story. What the hell was going on with that guy? What do you mean there were others like him? Was he really a zombie? Those guys over there said he was their friend and he died a couple weeks ago. Died and was buried. Then he just popped up a few minutes ago and started going after them, taunting them with their own voices or whatever. So what the hell?”  

“Yeah, dude,” Peyton put in, “I mean, supervillains and stopping robberies and stuff is one thing, but a zombie apocalypse? That’s like, the completely wrong genre. Every time they try to stick zombies into a superhero thing, it’s cash grab nonsense. Or like, an alternate universe. And quite frankly, I really don’t feel like thinking that I’m an alternate version of myself, because those usually get killed for not being important enough to carry a monthly book.” 

My mouth opened and then shut as I stared at the girl for a moment before turning back to Caishen. “Uh, yeah, basically what she said. We’d really like to know what’s actually going on. And, you know, I’m not that eager to be considered a disposable alternate universe version of myself either.” 

“Yes,” Paige agreed simply, her tone sounding completely serious. “We’d all prefer not to be killed off just to prove the situation is serious. So would you please explain how this is not an actual zombie apocalypse? I’m sure we’d all appreciate it. Or just anything you know.”

“Well, ahh, Poise?” Caishen started before continuing when Paige nodded in confirmation. “I wish I could tell all of you exactly what’s going on here. But the fact is, we don’t know the details. We have no idea how this started, where the… people are coming from, or what’s controlling them. It does not seem to be a… ahem, apocalypse, because there are only a few of them. Well, so far, at least.” She held up her hand so we could see her crossed fingers. “They all seem to have the same regenerative and fire-related powers, along with having been dead at one point. Our best guess is that this is a single Touched who has gained the power to reanimate and enhance dead people. How they have memories enough to attack people connected to them or… whatever is still up in the air. But we do believe it’s being done by a single person who has not revealed themselves yet. They may still be testing their power, finding out what they’re truly capable of. Either way, we will track them down. Don’t any of you worry. If you see another attack like this, try to get any civilians out of the way, and delay the… reanimated beings. From what we’ve seen, they have some sort of time limit that they can be active. It seems like they keep going for a relatively short time before… falling apart or needing to rest. So far there’s no information on whether they can come back a second time after falling apart. We need you to keep your eyes open for that too. If you see this same guy back again, let us know, okay? We’re all flying pretty blind right now and could use all the information we can get for how to deal with this.” 

I was nodding quickly even as she finished saying that. “Sure, yeah, if we find out anything else, I will personally let you know. And I guess it goes without saying that if we find out who is actually behind all this…” 

“Report that too,” Caishen confirmed, her gaze locking onto mine. “I mean it. Whoever’s behind this is incredibly dangerous. If you find out anything, and I mean anything at all that could help track them down or identify them, you call. Even if you don’t think it’s that important, even if it’s minor. You have no idea what tiny clue could give the rest of us answers. And you do not, under any circumstances, find out where this person is and go after them alone. Do you hear me? I don’t know what half of you are capable of, but I do know that you’re all really new and very young. So if you find something out, you call it in. If I find out that you’re going after this person by yourselves or knew something you didn’t report, I will make it my mission to ground all of you. And in case you didn’t know, a grounding in Touched life means you will not go out on the streets. Police will not tolerate your actions. I am positive that all of you are technically under age. So you can be grounded if it comes down to it. If you know something, report it so we can all work together to stop this person. Have I made myself clear?” 

Swallowing, I gave a short nod. “Completely crystal. Anything we find out, we’ll let you know. Believe me, none of us have any desire to go after whoever could do something like this all by ourselves. It was bad enough dealing with one zombie. If this person can make several of them all at once…” I made a noise in the back of my throat. “I promise, we’ll let you know if we have something solid.” 

Accepting that with a nod, the woman promised to talk to us some more later, but explained that she had other things to deal with. Mostly revolving around handling all the other zombie appearances. Then she took a moment to hand each of us a card with a number we could call if we found out anything or just wanted to talk, adding that this whole life could be very dangerous and complicated. That was mostly directed to the five of us she had never seen before. Especially Wren. She stressed that she had been serious about having the girl visit her daughter, even if she was several years older, reminding her to call and set something up. 

Something told me that Caishen tried to have any and all of the young Touched visit Lightning Bug whenever she could. Even if there were several years worth of difference in their ages, it wasn’t like there was an abundance of Touched that young. As far as I knew, Lightning Bug was the only one in the entire state who was under the age of eight or nine. And even those were pretty rare. Most Touched were either adults or in their mid-teens at the youngest. Which made me feel a little sad for LB herself. It had to feel weird, being that openly Touched and having no one else her own age like that. To say nothing of the fact that she couldn’t go to normal schools or anything like that. Yeah, she had her family, and everyone at Ten Towers loved her. But… well,  I knew just a little bit about how it could feel isolating to be in a situation similar to that, considering my parents were… who they were. Even discounting the Ministry stuff. Yet I had been incredibly lucky when it came to that. I didn’t fit the physical profile of what the daughter of the richest people in the state should look like, or even act like. I was mostly left alone thanks to that, as well as my family’s efforts to keep me from being a spectacle. I didn’t experience even a quarter of what someone in my position probably normally would have. And yet even then, I knew how weird it could feel. 

For someone like Lightning Bug, who couldn’t hide herself unless she used a hologram creator, whose entire life was built around her powers even though she was only five years old? I couldn’t imagine being in that sort of situation. So yeah, it was no wonder that Caishen clearly tried to have other kids in similar situations come over and visit. She was probably trying to help them as much as her daughter, knowing how they felt. 

And yet, even as those thoughts came through my mind, I also couldn’t help but wonder how much she was getting information for the Ministry. After all, as much sense as all that other stuff made, she could just as easily be using it as an excuse to find out as much as she could for my parents. Just because she wasn’t the one in charge didn’t mean she had no connection to them, after all. We still had to dig through that data we’d stolen to find out if there was anything connecting her to them. At that moment, I made that a priority in my mind. I was going to triple-check everything and see if there was even the slightest sliver connecting her to the Ministry before Wren went over there. 

“Yo, Earth to Paintball!” I was suddenly brought out of my musings when Sierra snapped her fingers in front of my face. “You okay?” 

Jerking a bit, I looked around. They were all staring at me, clearly waiting. “I uhh, yeah, sorry. I was just thinking.” Even as I said that, my gaze caught sight of a couple cops approaching after having secured the area. “Here, you guys should head out. See that roof over there? Head that way. I’ll tell our friends here what happened, then meet you there.” 

“You sure?” Paige asked. “We could all stick around.” 

“No,” I quickly replied while shaking my head. “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. I mean, there’s no reason to make all of you sit here and talk to the cops. Go ahead, I’ll be there when it’s over.”  

With varying degrees of reluctance, they headed out, and I took a deep breath before turning to face the officers, raising my hand. “Hey guys,” I started slowly. 

“How’re your days going?” 

******

After leaving the cops about fifteen minutes later once I’d given them all the information I could (and found in turn that there had been five other separate sightings over the past couple hours), I had just red-painted my way up to the nearby roof where I’d sent the others. No sooner had I landed and started to tell them how it went, than something caught my eye. It was Riddles, flying close to me before looping around to head toward a lower building. When I glanced that way, I could see Pack standing there, clearly waiting. 

With a shrug to myself, I pointed her out to the others before giving them some paint protection. Once they were safe, I created a wide blue line to shoot all of us over to the other roof. Landing smoothly, I tried to sound cheerful. “Hey, what’s up? Birdwatching?” Behind and around me, the others landed.

Rather than joke back with me, or even address the rest of the group, Pack spoke flatly. “I need your help. You saw one of those zombie things, right?” 

My head bobbed immediately. “Sure, I–wait, why do you need help with it? Is something wrong? Did you see one of them?” 

Pack didn’t answer at first. Instead, she let out a breath, hand idly scratching Tuesday in his small form on her shoulder. “It’s more than that. It’s–” 

“It’s me.” The new voice came from one side, as Broadway stepped into view. She sounded nervous, not at all the way I’d seen her before. “She wants you to help me. Because I think I know who’s behind these zombies. 

“I’m pretty sure it’s my brother.” 

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Patreon Snippets 25 (Summus Proelium)

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The following is the 25th edition of Patreon Snippets (or at least the Summus Proelium-related ones). Each month, every Patreon supporter who donates at least ten dollars per month is able to request at least five hundred words toward any subject they would like to see written about (within reason), join their idea to others to make it longer, or hold it for future installments. Thanks go to them, as well as to all supporters, and to all readers. Remember, as little as 5 dollars per month gets you every single chapter one day early. In addition, donators get to vote on end-of-arc interludes, non-canon chapters, and have discounts for commissions. And hey, don’t forget that everyone, Patron or not, can join us in the Discord channel right here

Paige and Sierra

The sound of bladed skates sliding across ice was joined by that of a hockey stick tapping the puck back and forth a few times as it was brought forward. Then a loud crack filled the air, followed by a solid whoomph as the puck was sent flying into the net just over twenty feet away. Almost all of the lights were off, leaving the ice rink only dimly lit. There was only one person out there. 

Well, two now. 

“Good shot.” As she said those words, Paige glided across the ice from the entrance onto the rink, joining her… sister (the fact that she was using a body that looked like Cassidy was confusing on multiple levels as far as that went) in front of the remaining pucks that had been lined up across from the goal. “But then, I suppose it would be.” 

“Pittman did program us to be good at all sorts of physical stuff,” Sierra agreed without looking up. She raised the stick, judged the distance and angle, then whacked the next puck hard. It bounced off the inside of the left post and ricocheted into the net. “And don’t you still have that whole school thing going on right now? Playing hooky your first day back seems like a bad idea. Were you that paranoid about what I was doing?” 

Paige addressed the latter point first. “Free period. Which you knew when you let me know where you were going to be. And I wasn’t talking about him.” As she spoke, the girl held her hand out for the stick. 

Sierra considered that before taking her next shot. After watching the puck hit the net dead center, she handed the stick over. “You’re talking about Irelyn.” She paused briefly, then added, “About how she brought you here and tried to teach you how to skate, and how to play hockey. Just because you mentioned liking those Mighty Ducks movies.”

“Us,” Paige corrected while lining up her own shot. With another loud track, the next puck was sent into the net. “You have all my memories of those times.” 

Shaking her head, Sierra pushed off and glided around in a slow circle along the ice. “Not really the same thing, babe. I wasn’t really there. It was more like reading a book or watching a movie for me. A movie I’ve completely memorized, but still. I wasn’t actually there experiencing it.” Another pause, then, “I mean, I wasn’t here, I guess. The point is, it’s not a real memory for me. It’s just something that was uploaded when I got… eh, shot into you, literally.” 

“Is that why you’re here?” Paige asked curiously, even as she lined up the next shot and sent the puck flying that way. “Trying to get some sort of personal context for that memory you inherited? Also, considering this place isn’t even supposed to open for another hour today, how much did you bribe the guy to let you in?” While asking that, she held the stick out that way. 

“Fifty bucks for half an hour,” Sierra replied. “Why, did you want me to get a receipt so I could pay you back?” Her hand took the offered stick as she teased Paige, quickly and efficiently lining up another shot so it would bounce back and forth between the front two posts a couple times with a loud ringing sound before going in the net. 

Snorting, the other girl shook her head. “Trust me, there’s a lot more where that came from. Too much, really. And considering the source, I don’t really care what happens to it. I just wanted to make sure you got your money’s worth. You know, since you don’t exactly have a lot of experience with buying stuff.” 

Sierra gave an exaggerated gasp. “Ohh is that why the waitress looked so happy when I handed her two thousand bucks for my meal? The bill probably said twenty dollars, but I just got so confused with the period before the zeroes for the coin amount.” 

“You’re hilarious,” Paige retorted flatly. “But uhh, Sierra, huh?” 

“Sierra Nevada,” the girl confirmed. “First name, last name. If anyone asks, my parents were eccentric. Which, if you ask me, is a step up from the truth.” That time, she pushed off and did a couple slow skating circles before taking another shot. “A pretty fucking huge step up.” 

Rather than respond to that immediately, Paige was quiet for a few seconds. And when she did respond, it wasn’t directly to that. Instead, she asked, “You remember when we… when I was sitting over there, the first time Irelyn brought us to this place?” Her hand gestured over to the bench behind the entrance gate, where people would sit and tie their skates on. 

“She thought you were nervous about being out on the ice,” Sierra murmured, her own gaze moving that way. “She gave that whole pep talk about trying new things and not worrying about being laughed at.” She glanced away with a small frown. “You were only partly listening. Mostly you were worried about looking too good on the ice. You had to hide all that perfect balance, aim, enhanced strength, and everything else that Pittman programmed into us, so you’d actually look like a normal kid skating for the first time. She thought you were afraid of skating and looking bad, but you were really afraid you wouldn’t look bad enough.” 

Paige was quiet once more, her gaze locked onto that bench in the distance as she played that memory out a few times. “You’re right, especially about the part where I wasn’t really paying attention to her. But then, why would I? As far as I knew, she didn’t really care about me being here anyway. I thought she was just going through the motions, doing what was expected of her as the ‘older sister.’ She was already literally disowned, I guess maybe I thought… I dunno, I thought she was just doing that because I might bring her back into the family once her dad was gone or… something.” Saying it out loud like that made her grimace. “Or looking better for her mother. Or for the public. Whatever, I don’t know. I just never considered it as… I never thought she was…”

Sierra’s skate lightly kicked the front of hers, making her look that way. “Never thought she was doing all that stuff because she really wanted to spend time with you? Never thought she really, genuinely wanted to get to know you?” 

“Never occurred to me,” Paige confirmed in a soft voice, wincing inwardly. “I always thought she was playing the role or making an angle for something in the future. And since I never expected to actually have a future in that family, I ignored it. I ignored her. Or, I mean, I ignored the overtures she made. I played the role like I thought she was playing it and… and just assumed she didn’t care beyond that. Back when we were stuck on the couch, when I heard about the Banners disappearing, I thought she might look into that. I thought she might look for them. You know, because they’re important people. And they’re her parents, even if they did disown her. Either way, I thought she might look for them. But me? Why would she look for me?” She turned a bit, her gaze moving from the bench across the way over to where Sierra was quietly watching her. “Why would she look for me?” There was urgency to her repeated question, her voice rising slightly. 

“Because she wasn’t going through the motions,” Sierra informed her flatly. “She wasn’t faking anything, wasn’t pretending. All that stuff she was doing, or trying to do, it wasn’t an attempt to look good, or convince you to bring her back into the family, or anything like that. It was about you. It was about her wanting it to spend time with you. Because she cared about you, dipshit. She was trying to treat you like a real sister. And now she’s looking for you like a real sister.” 

Paige thought about that for a moment, turning away to gaze into the distance without actually seeing anything in front of her. Her focus was directed inward, playing through memories with a different point of view. She thought of everything Irelyn had said to her in the past, everything she’d done, all the times she had invited Paige out to eat, or to an event, or just to spend time together. And she thought of all the times she had used any excuse to get out of it. 

“Fuck,” she finally muttered. 

“Yeah, pretty much,” Sierra agreed. “And now she’s out there in trouble because she wouldn’t stop looking for you. Well, for you and for the parents who disowned her in the first place. Even after we sent her on a wild goose chase, she somehow managed to track something all the way to one of Pittman’s actual labs. Or one of his biolems found her. Or–fuck, I don’t even know. We sent her to Florida, the other side of the fucking country. How the hell did she manage to get anywhere near anything important to Pittman? How’d she manage to end up on Breakwater, for fuck’s sake?” 

Paige took in a breath before letting it out. “I guess we’ll have to ask her, once we get her away from that place. Once we….” She trailed off, words turning into a heavy sigh. 

“Once we actually have a plan for how to do that,” Sierra finished for her. “You know that’s easier said than done, right? This is Breakwater we’re talking about, not just some random prison. The whole point is that it’s supposed to be impossible to get anyone out of there. It–”

“I know!” Paige blurted. “I know it’s going to be hard. Hell, I know it’s going to be practically impossible. But we have to. I mean I have to. I’m not gonna make–I mean–” She blanched, folding her arms as she stood there on her skates. “I’m not gonna force anyone else into anything stupid. But I have to get Irelyn off that island. Her and Trivial too. They were trying to help me. They–she… Irelyn’s there because I sent her on a wild goose chase, and then she actually found real danger. Now she’s a Star-Touched in literally the worst possible place on the planet for her to be. They both are. It’s my fault they’re there, and I have to help them. I have to help her.”

“And then what?” Sierra asked. “I mean, not to completely skip past the impossible part of getting them off that island, but assuming we manage that, what will you do next?”

After a brief pause, Paige admitted, “I don’t know. Honestly, I have no idea. I know I want to talk to her. I want to ask… why. You know, why she actually cared so much, why she tried so hard to find me, and why she wanted to get to know me. I want to ask her why it mattered to her. She was already gone from the family when I was ‘adopted.’ They kicked her out, disowned her, then took me in. I was her replacement. Why wouldn’t she be angry about that? Why wasn’t she angry? Why did she want to know me? Why did… just… why?” She had unfolded her arms by that point, putting her hands up against her forehead. “I don’t understand.” 

With a loud crack, Sierra sent the last puck into the net. “Speaking as someone with a unique perspective, considering I have all those memories but it wasn’t me experiencing them, maybe she was trying to be what she wished she had.” She pushed off and started to skate over to the goal while adding, “I mean, when she was younger. She knows exactly what growing up in that family was like, how demanding her parents are. She went through it and she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Maybe she was trying to be the sister she wished she had. And maybe she kept trying so you’d always know she was there if you needed someone. Even when you barely paid attention, she still–you know, wanted to be in your memory. Just in case you ever opened up.”

Paige didn’t respond to that at first. She ran the words through her head a few times along with her own memories. Memories that she knew the other girl was running through as well. Finally, she repeated her earlier, “Fuck.” That was followed by an enthusiastic, “Damn it, damn it! She gives a shit. She really, genuinely gives a shit. And we just–I’m sorry, I mean I just wrote it off like she was playing a role. Maybe because that’s what I was doing all the time. I don’t know. But like I said, I have to get her out of there. And then tell her the truth. At least about myself. I have to tell her about me, and why all of that happened. She deserves that much. Deserves to know what was really going on, what her parents wanted, what my–yeah. And if she’s repulsed by that, if she wants nothing to do with me once she knows what I really am, then… then fine. But she needs to know.”

“Let’s focus on getting her out of there,” Sierra replied, while giving the pucks one light smack after another with the stick to send them out of the net and back that way. “We can worry about the details about what we’re going to tell her once she’s not trapped on an island full of the worst supervillains who have ever been imprisoned.” 

“We?” Paige echoed, glancing that way curiously. 

Sierra opened her mouth, then hesitated. “I mean, yeah that might get kinda complicated.” She glanced down at herself with a slight grimace. “She knows Cassidy. So this…” Her hand gestured up toward her face. “This might not work. So yeah, maybe you should talk to her yourself. But fuck it, I’m still gonna help get her off that damn island.” 

Paige nodded slowly in agreement. “That’s the part that matters right now. We can figure out the rest of it later.” She bit her lip, a guilty flush crossing the girl’s face. “Maybe you can help me come up with an idea of how to start making up for sending her on the wild goose chase that landed her and Trivial on Breakwater to begin with.” That tone of disbelief that such a thing had actually happened was still apparent in her voice. 

For a few long, silent seconds, the two of them stared at one another. Finally, Sierra broke that silence with a quiet, “She brought you here. She taught you how to skate and play hockey. Or tried to, anyway. She did all that stuff, because she really… she actually cared.” 

“She went looking for me because she cares,” Paige put in, her own voice equally soft. “She turned a total wild goose chase all the way down in Florida into a one-way trip to Breakwater just because she wouldn’t give up trying to find me. And the parents who disowned her. She did all that because she really cares about me. She was trying. She was really, genuinely trying, and I just–” Cutting herself off, the blonde girl sighed heavily once more. “Can I see that?” Raising her hand, she held it out and waited until Sierra had silently passed her the stick. Then she lined up a shot on one of the pucks, staring down at it intently for a long moment of contemplation. “When she’s off that island, I’m gonna bring her back here.” She paused, then looked over. “We. We’ll bring her back here.” 

“We?” Sierra raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that complicated?” 

“We’ll get you a better disguise or something, I dunno.” Paige shrugged. “What I do know is that you have my memories. You’re part of this too. If… if you want to be.” She waited until the other girl gave a slow nod before continuing. “We’ll figure it out. But whatever we have to do, whatever happens, we’re bringing her back to this place.” 

With that, she raised the stick and snapped it down. The puck was sent flying not into the net, but off the left bar. It rebounded backwards through the air, before Paige smacked it with the stick once more, swinging the thing like a bat. The puck was sent forward to bounce off the right bar, coming back toward her. Once again, she smacked it that way, making it rebound off the top bar that time. From there, it flipped up, end over end through the air before coming down neatly on the fat end of the hockey stick that Paige was holding out sideways. 

“And maybe we’ll be the ones teaching her some stuff next time.”

*********

Aftermath Of A Joyride (Continuing the NON-CANON storyline from chapters here, here, and here)

Most of the general public would have been disappointed to see the utter mundanity of the room that the collective leaders and second-in-commands of the various Star-Touched groups of Detroit were meeting in. Most anyone, upon hearing that such an important and powerful people were gathering together to make big decisions, would almost certainly have pictured a grand room with walls of solid steel, high-tech displays along every wall, a massive table in the center of the room projecting a holographic map of the city and surrounded by chairs with each Star-Touched’s name and symbol emblazoned across the back, and possibly even more amazing things. 

In truth, however, they met in an average conference room on the third floor of a local police precinct. The smell of old coffee and stale donuts filled the room, which itself consisted of a heavily-cracked linoleum floor, wooden walls that had seen better days, and a tiled ceiling that probably needed to be replaced soon. It was furnished simply by a couple wooden tables and an assortment of metal folding chairs, as well as an old podium near the front, next to an actual chalkboard.

Silversmith was standing at the front by that podium. Beside him was a plainclothes police detective who was murmuring a bit in his ear, while Flea stood on the opposite side, flipping through messages on her phone. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the room, Brumal and Trivial from the state-sponsored team known as the Spartans, Caishen and Skip from Ten Towers, and Hallowed and Lucent from the Seraphs were scattered and engaged in their own private conversations with one another, or looking through their own phones. 

Finally, Trivial looked up from the file she had been glancing through and cleared her throat until Silversmith looked at her. Once he did, she asked, “So are we going to get this show on the road or what?” Straightening up in her costume consisting of purple scalemail armor, a black hooded cloak, tan pants, and a purple helmet with black visor, she gestured toward the nearby (somewhat stained) window. “You know, before the bad guys out there get the idea that we’re all off the streets and start acting like kids whose parents went out of town for the weekend.” 

Beside her, Brumal (also wearing her own standard costume of blue and white camo, a tactical combat helmet with an interwoven mesh covering the rest of her face, and bright blue lenses over the eyes) gave a short nod. “She’s right. Blunt, but right. If we’re going to discuss the situation, we should get into it.” 

“You mean discuss Joyride,” Flea put in. The futuristic ninja/samurai-clad woman put her phone away while adding, “And what exactly we’re going to do about her.” 

“Ahem, what are we planning on doing?” That was Lucent, perched atop the edge of a lamp on one of the tables. “Thus far, the girl has not overtly harmed anyone. In point of fact, she has aided us by exposing a quite… negative influence within our own Minority team.” 

“Whamline,” Silversmith muttered, giving a nod toward the plainclothes man nearby. “Detective Lanner here was just filling me in on what they’ve found so far. Apparently they have enough evidence to officially charge the boy with a few different murder counts, now that they started digging. More might be coming, we’re not sure yet. I won’t give into the details right here, but I’m having him send the files to each of you.” He paused before continuing. “But of course, we’re not here to talk about Whamline. This is about Joyride herself.” 

Skip, wearing her blue-black bodysuit with a short-sleeved white robe including a hood over her hair and a black cloth mask over the bottom half of her face, spoke up in her typical calm, nearly-emotionless voice. “She exposed the boy as the dangerous psychotic that he is. In our book, that makes her more of an ally than a threat.”

Beside her, the woman in black boots, dark gold pants with black lines running down them, purple scalemail armor covered by a gold leather coat, and a black metal helmet with purple lenses shook her head. She was Caishen, Skip’s own older sister and team leader. “She also decided that Lightning Bug is her archenemy,” she pointed out quietly. Her voice was very slightly strained as she added, “And Bug is very excited about that fact.” 

Silversmith took a breath before gently pointing out, “She doesn’t seem to have any intention of harming your daughter, considering she… summoned you to help the girl rather than leave her alone out there after their… confrontation.” Though his face was sealed behind that metal armor, they could hear the smile in his voice. Everyone in the room had seen the recording of the ‘fight’ between Lightning Bug and Joyride, and how little actual danger either had been in. It was far more of an imaginative play-fight than anything else. 

Hallowed, in his bright golden armor and metallic wings, spoke up while folding his arms across his broad chest. “Can we talk about that whole ‘summoned her’ bit? Because that’s what concerns me. It sounds like this little kid managed to teleport the leader of a Star-Touched team all the way from one side of the city to the other with a snap of her fingers. She didn’t have time to set something special up at the time, so she must have had that in place already. Does that mean she could teleport anyone anywhere? Could she hit a button right now and teleport all of us in this room to Kansas? Or worse if she ever decides to be more violent? So far she hasn’t really hurt anyone, but she obviously could. She has that teleportation tech, and the…” He paused as though unable to believe what he was saying. “The giant robot dinosaur.” 

“Toto,” Lucent put in. “She called it Toto.” 

“Yes, Toto,” Brumal flatly confirmed, head shaking. “The girl has run circles around everyone who encountered her, stolen anything she wants, and demonstrated the ability to transport other people at will, as well as use a giant robotic dinosaur as a direct threat. If she intended to do real harm, we would be in trouble.” 

“But that’s the point, isn’t it?” Trivial put in. “She obviously doesn’t intend to do real harm. She’s been really gentle with everything she’s done, considering what she’s capable of. And she sent Lightning Bug’s mother to pick her up. It’s obvious that she’s intentionally holding back. She wins, but she doesn’t hurt anyone. And like we were just talking about, she exposed a murderer inside the Minority.”

“She would be an incredible asset on our side,” Silversmith pointed out, his tone curious. “If we could somehow convince her to stop stealing things, can you imagine the amount of help she’d bring to the city? Just being able to transport our people anywhere they needed to be instantly, as soon as trouble came up, all by itself, would completely revolutionize our work here in Detroit.” 

Hallowed shook his head. “Except she’s never shown any interest in helping us. Not beyond exposing Whamline or making sure Lightning Bug wasn’t left by herself with those criminals. She’s been pretty clear that her motivation is to steal things.” 

“She steals from the rich, from corporations and wealth-hoarders,” Trivial pointed out. “Should we really give that much of a shit?” 

Coughing, Caishen replied mildly, “Those corporations are a large part of why Detroit has progressed as much as we have in the past twenty years. If they begin to see the city as not safe enough, they will take their business elsewhere. We cannot have her running completely amok and doing whatever she wants.” She paused briefly, before adding, “That said, my daughter likes her. And is very… enthusiastic when it comes to the idea of being her archrival. And I do believe she does not mean to harm anyone.”

Lucent straightened up on his perch. “Thus, what we have before us is the question of what to do about a young girl who is clearly physically capable of much worse harm than she has ever engaged in. She intentionally holds back, while using the bare minimum force necessary for her to achieve her… goal of stealing from what she considers acceptable targets. What do we intend to do about that, precisely? We have proven inadequate at stopping the girl thus far, and I believe that escalating force to the level required to capture and detain her would cause more of a problem than it would solve. I, for one, would prefer to convince her to curtail her criminal efforts in exchange for compensation leading toward mutual benefit.”

“You mean you want to pay her not to steal things,” Brumal put in, giving the TONI bird a long look. “Would she be a salaried employee, or would we simply do it on a contract-basis? Say, find a list of places we would prefer her not to steal from and pay a flat fee for each?” 

“Your sarcasm is noted,” Silversmith informed her. “And yet, with some adjustments, is that such a bad idea? Surely the companies involved would be willing to pay for such… insurance against being directly attacked, and if such funds were pooled, it would be enough to pay this girl under what we could refer to as a mercenary contract for protection. Shift her from a Fell-Touched to a Sell-Touched and pay her for security against threats to these locations. We wouldn’t technically be paying her not to steal from them, we would be paying her a ‘security fee’ to… protect those locations. Including targets she herself might have hit. Those would appear to be our two options. We either escalate force beyond what she herself has demonstrated to reach a level of being able to potentially contain her, or we make an offer to cease her criminal efforts and attempt to eventually negotiate that into actual cooperation.”

“A vote then?” Lucent suggested. “A raised hand–or wing as the case may be, if you prefer escalating force against a newly-emerged juvenile Tech-Touched who has made a clear effort to avoid harming anyone.” He glanced pointedly around the room, waiting until no one had raised any hand. “Ahem, and a raised hand or wing if you prefer attempting the diplomatic approach.” 

Silversmith raised his own hand, then watched as the others all did the same, including Lucent with one of his wings. Then he smiled behind the helmet. “Okay then, now let’s get into specifics. We’ll contact each of the companies who have expressed concern and see what they’re willing to offer.” 

“Ah, how do we pass that offer onto the girl herself?” Trivial asked. “I don’t think she left her number lying around.” 

Caishen spoke flatly. “Something tells me that won’t be a problem. It won’t be long before Joyride makes a spectacle of herself again.

“And personally, I find myself… disturbingly curious to see what happens when she does.” 

*********

During The Ministry Base Incursion 

The short, unassuming man stood just a hair over five foot seven, and would have been considered very slightly underweight. His short brown hair and hazel eyes were incredibly average, and he wore glasses with thin metal frames, as well as a simple suit of moderate worth and fit. Not too expensive, yet not too cheap. His job was to blend in. He was known as Alcazar, the word for a Spanish fortress or castle. One of the top lieutenants within the Ministry, his job was to attend to the security and protection of their various facilities throughout the state of Michigan. 

At that particular moment, Alcazar was sitting at his desk in an office in downtown Detroit. It was very late at night, but that was normal for him. His typical schedule found the man sleeping during the day, as most of his work was done at night. Night was when people tended to attempt to cause problems. He would sleep from roughly eight in the morning until early to mid afternoon, then spend time with his family until seven or so before making his way to one of his offices to start his actual job. It was a little after midnight just then, and he was looking forward to the next day (or later that day, rather), when he would cut his sleep short in order to visit his youngest son’s school to watch the boy perform in a play. Eleven-year-old Karl was incredibly excited about his part, even if it wasn’t a leading role. It was still important, and he had extracted a firm promise from his father (who he believed to be an architect) about being there. 

Alcazar had made arrangements to leave the office a bit early that day, getting home by five or so just to have enough sleep so he could enjoy the play and then take his wife out to lunch. That would be in another few hours, and he needed to get all the work he could done by then. Sitting at his desk, he flipped through a folder while typing an email to one of their contractors, arranging for a new shipment of steel beams for Project Carpenter. Very few people in the Ministry were aware of the colony of Touched Termites that had been brought into the city, but he was one of those few. And he worked directly with their spokesman (spokesbug?) in gathering the proper resources, providing them what they asked for. Which, in this case, was more steel for the termites to melt down with their fog-breath and then convert into a larger amount of the stuff for building purposes. Specifically, for building the structures within the city that the Ministry was contracting them to build. 

In the midst of his work on that, his nearby cell phone, sitting silently on the desk next to a pile of folders, abruptly went off. It rang audibly rather than buzz, which meant that it was coming from one of the few numbers he had programmed into the phone to bypass his normal silent mode. And that would only happen if this was an emergency. 

A slight frown found its way to the man’s face as he reached out to answer the phone with a simple, “What happened?” 

The words he heard made the man immediately stand, almost knocking his chair over in the process. “What? Right now? How many? Lock down. Get everyone there. Alpha level priority. Have you contacted White and Gold? Do it, right now. Interrupt the play.” Even as he spoke, Alcazar was plucking a separate phone from his pocket, rapidly texting one of his contacts. “Are they still in the building? Then lock down the entire area. Get a chopper in the air. Who’s close? Yes, move that one over. Find the spot where they started from and be there to meet them when they evac. Do everything you can to hold them in that building until I get there, but be prepared to track them if they escape.”

Taking the phone away from his ear, he held the second one up to the opposite side and spoke. “Yellowbrick, I need a walkway. Yes, there.” He waited for a moment then before getting the go-ahead. Once that came, the man opened the door of his office. Beyond was what appeared to be a black void and an amber-colored path leading out into nothingness. Without missing a beat, he walked straight out onto the path. As always when doing this, the void itself felt cold, though not to the point of being a problem. It was like a chilly wind that made one hunch in on themselves a bit. Or typically did. In the current situation, he barely noticed. 

Striding quickly along the bridge through that void, the man made it precisely thirty feet. It was always thirty feet, no matter what the actual distance between the two connected doorways happened to be. Whether Yellowbrick was creating a path between two doors in the same building, from one building to another in the same city, or between two different continents, the bridge through the void was always precisely thirty feet. The void itself seemed to go on much further, as did the bridge. It extended off seemingly endlessly. But after walking that thirty feet (and only after walking, it wasn’t visible before), a new doorway appeared in front of the man. It was the door into one of the supply closets within the Ministry’s base under the local mall, and he didn’t break stride at all before reaching out to grab the knob and pull it open as he stepped through. From an outsider’s point of view, it would have looked as though he was simply stepping out of the closet, as they wouldn’t see the void and bridge behind him. Yellowbrick’s paths were only visible and accessible to people she wanted them to be visible and accessible to.

The very instant he was in the base (stepping into one of the secondary labs where an unconscious Ministry security guard lay on the floor next to an overturned chair), Alcazar activated his power. He had no idea whether the intruders were still inside or not, but there wasn’t time to waste finding out. As soon as he focused on his gift, the man could see the effects. The small lab around him shifted, the floor, walls, and ceiling turning somewhat fuzzy and wobbling like jello for a brief moment before completely transforming. The floor became beaten and cracked old wood, while the walls and ceiling were made of intricately carved stone. The door behind him, leading into the closet, became an ancient wooden type with a metal latch. The view through that half-open door revealed not the closet it was supposed to be or Yellowbrick’s void, but a set of stone stairs leading down. 

The stairs would go nowhere. Or, more to the point, they would go everywhere. They would lead to a corridor, or another room, which itself would lead to more corridors and more rooms. That, in essence, was Alcazar’s power. While he was using it, the structure he designated (the Ministry base, in this situation) would physically transform into the interior of a medieval castle or fortress. Not a specific one and never the exact same. More importantly, space itself was twisted and expanded within his affected area. Even if he only used it on a single room, the resulting castle interior would appear to stretch on forever. Every hall would lead to a new room, every new room to a new hall. No matter how far one walked, no matter how many doors they went through, there would be more and more in front of them. Eventually, they would loop back around to where they started. You could walk straight for a solid mile of corridors and rooms, go up six different flights of stairs at six different locations, then pass through a final door and find yourself right back where you had started from, height differences be damned. 

Alcazar and those he designated were the only ones who could properly navigate and leave the affected area. Now, if the intruders were still inside, they would be trapped. There would be no escape. And they would be answering questions very soon. 

The moment his power clicked into place, Alcazar walked through the opposite door, which would have led into the main hall adjacent to the stairs leading out of the base. Now it was about twice as wide as it should have been, which was right. There was also a hole in the wall near the base of the stairs, which was wrong. As soon as he saw that hole, Alcazar strode that way. It had to have been there before his power took effect. The hole wasn’t a normal part of the structure, so his power hadn’t taken it into account. It had built around it. 

Looking into the hole, he saw several of their security people attempting to dig through what had apparently been a cave-in about twenty feet in and upward. Undoubtedly intentional by the intruders to block pursuit. 

“Hold,” he ordered, before sticking his hand through the hole to touch the dirt. This tunnel wasn’t great for him. His power worked best on established buildings. With a bit of extra effort, he could affect something like this, but only within the immediate area he could see. Still, it would help somewhat. As his hand touched the dirt wall, the man released his focus on the rest of the base. Behind him, it reverted back to its normal condition (aside from the hole). Meanwhile, this area of the tunnel became another castle corridor. The area the guards were trying to dig through was transformed into a full-sized room. The dirt and rocks from the cave-in were still there, but the room was large enough for them to simply move around all of it. About ten feet past that room, the effect of his power faded and it became ordinary dirt once more. 

“Go,” he ordered the men. “Catch up with them if you can.” That was all he said, all he needed to say. Before the words had even finished leaving his mouth, the men were off and sprinting. 

Turning away from the hole, Alcazar took one of the phones from his pocket as it buzzed. “Yeah. Bring the chopper in from the east, sweep across the mall lot just in case they popped up there, but I think they started from further back.” He paused briefly, then grimaced. “The construction site across the street, where they’re building the hotel. It’s been shut down for awhile. Focus there. Send the call to get our people over there right now.” 

Without another word, he disconnected the call. At nearly the exact same instant, the phone rang in his hand. Rang, not buzzed. A single word was displayed on the screen. No number, just a name. White. Minister White. She’d gotten the message, apparently. 

“Yes, ma’am,” Alcazar answered. “Yes, I’m here. They’ve already left. The troops are in pursuit, through a tunnel leading to what I believe is the motel construction site. Yes, we have a police helicopter diverting there right now, eta twenty seconds. I have people loading up in a few of our cars to head them off above ground as well. Absolutely. We’ll have a full sitrep for you when you get here. I have no idea what they took, I was about to look into it. Yes, ma’am.” 

That was the end of the call, so he disconnected before looking back the way he had come. Unconscious figures littered the hall, and the rooms around him. Whoever this was, whoever had broken into the Ministry’s base, they had come in here for something. But what? 

More importantly, who the hell were they? This attack came out of nowhere. The Ministry was… well, not quite totally peaceful. But they were secure. Every Fell-Touched gang in the city either worked directly for them, or paid tribute to them and had enough informants within who would rat out anything like this. Well, almost every Fell-Touched gang. There were the Scions, but this wasn’t their style. Leaving everyone alive? They’d never do that. 

So again, who in this city had taken the time and care to secretly tunnel into the Ministry base, steal things while leaving everyone alive, and then leave? Whatever the answer, whoever they were, Alcazar was certain of one thing.

They were just getting started. 

*********

Sterling and Elena 

Standing on the edge of the road where the group who had invaded the Ministry base had gone sliding out of control and into the water beyond, Sterling Evans watched divers attempting to search the submerged wreck for anything useful. Raising his gaze toward the sky, he saw two helicopters combing the banks in either direction, their spotlights scouring for a sign that the intruders had come ashore. More of the Ministry’s people were searching surrounding neighborhoods, talking to potential witnesses, digging through anything and everything they could find. 

There wouldn’t be much. He knew that. This hit was too well-coordinated, too perfect. This wasn’t an amateur outfit. They knew what they were doing, and had the training, equipment, and skill to pull it off without getting caught. How long had they been working in secret, building that tunnel leading straight to the mall? Weeks? Months? They had gone completely undetected, despite the security measures the Ministry had in place. Which meant they had been quiet, somehow digging that entire tunnel without making any more vibrations than cars passing overhead. And that implied powerful Touched-Tech, a surprise considering the Ministry themselves owned the only purely Touched-Tech group in the city, as well as the company responsible for transporting it safely. If such machines had been delivered or ordered here, he would have heard about it. 

This raised… many questions. 

Stepping up beside him, Elena watched the water in silence for a moment. The two of them, to everyone else in the area, would look quite different than they appeared to themselves. Thanks to Elena’s gift, others would see him as a bald man who resembled Principal Strickland from Back To The Future, while Elena had made herself a near dead-ringer for the character of Marion Ravenwood in Raiders Of The Lost Ark. 

After standing there with him in contemplative silence as they watched their people work for several moments, Elena quietly spoke. “It was an excellent play, at least.” 

She was right, of course. The play had been excellent. At least, as much as they’d seen of it. The lead had been one he’d kept an eye on from back when he was still barely more than a background player, and Sterling’s early faith that the man had strong potential had not been misplaced. Through his life, even as a near-nameless accountant for the Russo mafia under his now-wife’s father, Sterling had had a way of predicting potential. To him, potential was a combination of natural talent, drive, and a bit of luck. The first two were what he looked for when it came to investments. Luck was something he could manufacture for them. A word in the ear of a basketball recruiter to visit a certain high school to see a student who would have gone unnoticed, leading to a starring role on an NCAA drive to a state championship, a moderate donation to the science lab of a university in order to ensure that a brilliant geneticist had the funding they needed to continue the research that had eventually led to saving many lives. Those and far more examples, many as subtle as bringing the right two people together at the right time, had allowed his life to progress to what it now was. 

Sterling knew he was lucky. He had no doubt about that. His brilliant, beautiful wife, his strong son, amazing daughter, and now potentially a second daughter whom he was coming to care about as much as his own biological children. A life as charmed as his had taken a lot of work and sacrifice to reach this point, but it was all worth it. As close as they had come to losing it several times, particularly when it came to Elena’s father, and yet they had come through on top. 

Whatever it took, he would protect his family. He would continue to build this empire, would continue to strengthen and solidify it. When the time came, he wanted his children, all three if Izzy agreed to be adopted, to have the best possible foundation. He would, at some point, pass the keys to this kingdom to the three of them. And then he would see just how far they could take it. As solid as the Ministry was, as strong as it had become, he had no doubt that his children could take it further. They were who he built all of it for. Together, his family would create a legacy that would shape the state of Michigan, and far beyond, for a long time to come. 

Bah, he was getting ahead of himself. And perhaps swelling too much with pride for his family. It was far too easy to let his thoughts and hopes run away, like a poor child being dragged along by an overly-excited dog on a leash. He sounded arrogant to his own thoughts, which wasn’t his intention. He simply… wanted his family to build something truly lasting, something that could be passed down through their generations. As more and more superpowers emerged, as the world grew into this new era, things would change quickly. 

The truth was, Sterling Evans believed that it would not be long (relatively speaking) before states across the country, and even countries across the world, began to break up into smaller territories. Kingdoms of a sort, smaller areas protected by powerful Touched. The militaries and governments themselves simply could not keep up with so many random citizens gaining often incredibly destructive powers. There was no test they had to take, no money to be paid, no qualification in wealth, race, gender, orientation, or any other thing that had previously been used to prevent one group or another from gaining power. It could happen to anyone anywhere. 

Thus, Sterling believed that the old rules of society, of government power, would gradually break down as more and more people who would previously have been considered ‘nobodies’ or ‘inconsequential’ gained true power. He believed that the government’s power would fail, and far more localized fiefdoms, of a sort, would rise. That was the entire point of the Ministry. That was their endgame, to have this structure in place so that when the inevitable collapse of government came, they would still be there in its place. They would keep Detroit, and Michigan beyond, safe and prosperous. 

And that goal was why he would not allow whoever this group was, whatever their intentions might have been, to escape judgment and punishment. If other groups, other organizations, saw that the Ministry could be hit like that, they would become emboldened. An example had to be made. They would be found, dealt with, and everyone would see that the status quo would be maintained. 

Whoever was behind this attack would find themselves regretting it, Sterling promised himself. Whatever their endgame, whoever they were, wherever they had come from, he would make an example of them. Every gang, every snake now poking their heads out with interest at the news that the Ministry had been attacked, would see what became of such people. 

With a nod to Elena, Sterling took the phone from his pocket, hitting the number to contact Alcazar back in the base itself. “Talk to all of our people in every gang. Find out who knows something about this. Shake the bushes, kick the trash cans, call in favors, make every threat we need to make. Do everything you can until five o’clock, then go home. Yes, Alcazar, I don’t want to hear it. Go home at five, that’s an order. Your son needs you at that play tomorrow. Karl’s been looking forward to you being there too much for you to put it off. Do the work, then go home. We have plenty of people to keep searching while you’re busy. Delegate, it’s the only way to survive in this business. And tell Karl I said hi.” 

He paused then before nodding slightly. “Yes. Yes, I do think our people will find something. There is someone in this city who knows the truth. There is a weak link somewhere, a link connected to the people responsible for this. 

“And when we find that weak link, we’ll snap the chain in half.” 

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

Trust 15-11 (Summus Proelium)

Previous Chapter / Next Chapter

So, we all started to head inside. But before I could go through the door, Mom turned my way. “And do your parents know what you’re…” She trailed off, clearly considering her words before amending, “Do they know about all this?” 

Why? I wanted to ask. Do you want to know if you need to get their permission to turn me into one of your obedient little thugs? Is that something you’d need to draw up a special parental permission slip for, or do you already have those for the other minors you’ve probably twisted?  

I didn’t say anything of the sort, of course. I wasn’t nearly that stupid or suicidal. Tempting as it was just to see the look on her face, on both of their faces actually, I resisted the urge. Instead, staring right back at her, thankful that my face was hidden by two separate layers, I flatly replied, “No, I’m pretty sure my folks would be pretty surprised if they found out anything about this.” 

Yeah, they’d be super-surprised alright. Especially if I took my helmet and mask off right now.  Which, yet again, was almost tempting just for the reaction it would spark. I really had to shove every thought of shocking my parents tonight out of my head before they got me in trouble.  

I saw the look of concern on Mom’s face, her voice lowering a little. “I know you don’t need to be told to be careful, but… you should think about letting your parents know what you’re doing. I know it can seem like a bad idea, and I assume that’s why you’ve refused to join the Minority. Because you don’t want them to know about this, and having a guardian who is aware of your position is a requirement to be a part of them. Maybe you’re afraid they’ll make you stop. But they’re your family. They’re your parents. They deserve to know if you’re in trouble. If… if anything happens to you and they find out like that, they’ll probably blame themselves.” 

If my parents found out that I got hurt doing this, they would blame themselves? Oh boy was that just begging for me to have a fun response. I literally had to bite my lip to stop from saying the first thing that popped into my head. Because it definitely wouldn’t have been anything good as far as keeping my secret identity went. 

Mom might have interpreted my moment of silence as awkwardness, because she spoke up again. “I’m sorry. You can do as you wish, of course. I just hope that you give it a thought. It’s important to have people on your side. Especially those who love you, as I’m sure your parents do.” 

Dad spoke up then, hand on the side of the doorway as he looked over to me. “She’s right, Paintball. Whatever your reasons for keeping your family out of it, I think it’s safe to say they care about you. You seem like a pretty well-adjusted kid, all things considered. And the stuff you’re doing, it’s dangerous. That’s why being part of the Minority–or any team is a good idea. Having friends, having people watching your back, from everything I’ve heard, it’s pretty huge.” His gaze was locked on me, voice a little quieter as he pointedly added, “As my lovely wife said, it’s important to have people you can trust watching your back.” 

God damn it, they kept setting me up perfectly. There was… a lot I wanted to say to every last bit of that. So many immediate retorts sprang to mind and nearly leapt out. But all of them were a really bad idea, as much as they might have given me a very brief moment of satisfaction. Seeing the look in my parents’ faces would’ve been amazing for about ten, maybe fifteen seconds. Then I’d definitely regret it as my entire world came crashing down around me. 

So, I pushed all that deep into the back of my mind, smothering my reflexive responses under a metaphorical pillow before simply replying, “Don’t worry, I have people I can trust.” Not my family, but people. Belatedly, I added, “Thanks.” 

With that, we headed inside. The penthouse was–well, a penthouse. It looked a lot like the hotels that my family went to, or maybe one of our vacation homes. In fact, judging from the paintings on the wall of the main living area, I thought the place might’ve been decorated by the same guy who did the villa in Geneva. The place had his same sense of flair and style. 

On the way to the kitchen, we moved through the main living area, passing a series of huge floor to ceiling windows that looked out over the grounds on the way, similar to the ones in the main hall outside. These ones, however, were also clearly television screens as one of them was displaying an image of the news rather than a view outside. And another a few panels down showed a completely different view of what looked like the New York City skyline. 

Seeing the way my gaze moved as I paused there, Dad spoke up. “Pretty cool, isn’t it?” He stepped next to me briefly, as I struggled not to tense up. His hand moved to gesture as he started to explain all about the technology behind the joint window/video screens, telling me all sorts of stuff I already knew but had to pretend I didn’t. It was pretty clear he thought this was a good way of bonding, by talking all about the fancy toys that a ‘boy’ like me would definitely be super into. 

I did my best to play the part, asking questions for a minute or so before we made our way into the kitchen. Skip was there, taking something out of the oven without bothering to use any kind of mitts. Obviously, she just ‘skipped’ the effect of being burned. Useful, that. 

Mrs. Chambers was there too, as promised. The blonde woman had just finished chopping up some mushrooms and was spreading them over several plates of salad. When we entered, she pivoted with a smile. “I have to say, a dinner party with so many superheroes is fun.” Her gaze found me, and she extended a hand. “Paintball, right?” 

“Uhh, yeah,” I managed, mentally kicking myself for the hesitation while accepting her hand. I kept having to remind myself that I wasn’t supposed to know her yet. “You’re Mrs. Chambers?”  

She gave a short nod to that. “That’s what they tell me. But please, just Joselyn. After all, we’re all having dinner, there’s no need to stand on formality. Here.” With that, she picked up the tray full of salads. “Would you mind taking these into the dining room? I–oh, what’ve you got there?” 

For a second I had no idea what she was talking about. Then I glanced down, realizing I still had the little paper bag from Lightning Bug, the one with the cute faces drawn on it. I’d been holding it through all of that, somehow. “Oh, I–” Looking to the girl in question, I asked, “Is it okay if I open this now?” 

She gave a hurried, excited nod. “Uh huh! But you can’t eat any until after dinner. Those are the rules.” The kid recited that last part firmly, squinting at me with those compound eyes as though letting me know that she was going to be watching to make sure I didn’t cheat. 

“I’ll be good,” I promised before opening the sack to glance in. Cupcakes. The sack had several cupcakes, all sealed up in ziplocks to keep them fresh and safe. Each cupcake had clearly been hand-decorated by Bug herself, with frosting and little candy pieces to make it look like the faces on the bag itself. Four cupcakes, one decorated to look like her face and three more decorated like Cinnamon, Kenobee, and Snugglebug. 

Suddenly sounding nervous again, Bug quietly piped up. “I did them myself. Um, sort of. Mom helped with the oven part.” 

“That’s right,” Caishen agreed, laying a hand on her daughter’s white hair. “She did it herself.” 

“Yum!” I enthusiastically intoned. “You sure we have to wait til after dinner?” 

With a giggle, the kid nodded. “No cheating!” she insisted while shaking her finger at me. “No dessert til you eat your veg-ih-tuls.” 

“Well, if you insist,” I finally agreed, rolling the top of the bag shut again before adding, “Thanks, Bug. They look great.” 

Her response to that was to give a little squeak of embarrassment and hide behind her mother again. Giving her a break, I turned back to take the tray from Joselyn. She easily handed it over with a smile that reminded me of my own mother, before asking, “Oh, and are you allergic to anything?” 

My head shook as I took the tray. “Not as far as I know, thanks. I’ll ahh, take this in…” I trailed off before looking toward Caishen and Skip for help. 

The latter had already put the glass dish from the oven down, and was stepping over to a nearby door next to the gleaming metal fridge. “This way,” she instructed flatly. 

So, we made our way into the actual dining room. There was a large glass table in there, big enough to easily seat ten on each side, where place settings had been arranged in what was clearly a carefully planned way. At one end nearest the door were two settings next to each other, one on the very end and one beside it to the right. A bit further up, about a quarter of the way up the long table, were two settings next to each other. Meanwhile, across from them and another quarter of the way (so halfway up the table) was another setting by itself. Finally, there were three settings at the far end of the table, one on the actual end opposite the one set here, and the other two to the right of it. The first seat to the right had a booster chair in it. 

We found our seats easily enough. Mom and Dad were at this end, with Joselyn and Lincoln up from them at the next two spots. Obviously, mine was the one by itself on the opposite side. Setting the tray of salads down in the middle, I stepped around to head that way. 

As soon as I sat, Caishen stepped over and showed me where there was a dial and button on the side. When I turned it on, a glowing forcefield of sorts appeared out of the glass. It was U-shaped, the sides of it continuing past me on either side to form a couple short walls near either shoulder. The field was semi-translucent, like frosted glass so that it was impossible to make out details through, and high enough that it would cut off all view of me while we were eating. Since I was all alone on this side of the table, with the way the forcefield continued onto either side of me to block off the view, all they would see was a frosted-glass sort of image if they looked my way. There was one at the other end too, where Caishen, Lightning Bug, and Skip were, so that they could block any view of their faces as we all ate. 

“It won’t block any sound,” the woman informed me. “We can carry on normal conversation. And you can see through it just fine from this side. Is that okay?” 

Nodding quickly, I assured her, “Thanks, it’s great. And–and thanks for having me over. This is all really cool.” 

For a moment, the woman regarded me. It looked like she was about to say something, possibly about how I could have this all the time if I signed up. But in the end, she clearly pushed the recruitment speech aside and simply replied, “I’m glad you’re here tonight. Buggy likes you a lot.” 

With that, she went back to help Skip bring out the rest of the food, carefully laying out trays. One by one, we each took salad first before settling into our seats. 

Despite the cover afforded by the forcefield thing, I was still careful. I was going to be careful regardless, but with my parents here (let alone an LA Times reporter)? Yeah, no way was I taking even the slightest risk. I opened the front of the helmet and lifted my mask up to my nose so I could actually put food in my mouth. Even without the shield, there was still no way to identify me that way. I also made sure the bluetooth in my ear wasn’t disturbed when I pushed the mask up, so it would continue changing my voice as I spoke. 

Even then, all of dinner was horribly nerve-wracking. I’m sure it was delicious, but I barely tasted it. Technically, I was pretty confident that given another hour I would completely forget what it even was. I was too paranoid about every last thing I said, every movement anyone made. Between that worry and trying to act like I wasn’t worried, we could’ve been eating broiled shoes for all I knew. 

Thankfully, Lightning Bug drew a lot of attention. She clearly loved having visitors around, shy as she might’ve been, and knew my parents enough to ask questions about… well, about Simon and me. She’d met Simon, apparently, and kept asking when ‘Cassie’ was going to visit. To which my parents promised they’d think about seeing if I wanted to come visit, which apparently made Bug happy. It sounded like they’d been telling her stories about me, which was… odd to hear about.  

And boy, wouldn’t that be an interesting time? I could hardly wait for my parents to bring that up to me. 

The kid also asked about the Chambers’ kids, Zed and Lexi. Apparently they were visiting another friend’s place for dinner that night, someone Lexi knew from her online games. That prompted a whole lot of discussion about Ten Towers sponsoring certain competitors in those kinds of games, and the fact that Lexi herself was angling for something like that. 

In any case, I was soon distracted by the fact that Caishen started talking to me directly. Paintball me, that was. She was talking about how I should think about joining Ten Towers if I wasn’t interested in the Minority, how they had specific rules that would help soothe things over if my parents ended up objecting to what I was doing, rules that would help them feel better. And, of course, very good benefits packages. 

She still wasn’t overly pushy about it or anything, but yeah, it was clear that a large part of this whole thing was about testing the waters for potentially recruiting me, with my parents chiming in now and then about their own donations and investments. In Mom and Dad’s case, it was obvious that they wanted to test just how much I was devoted to working alone. Whether Caishen was actively in on that or just a convenient way to probe, I couldn’t say. 

Thankfully, every once in awhile, Joselyn or Lincoln would speak up and turn the conversation away from me. I really owed both of them for that. They seemed to almost instinctively know when I really didn’t want to talk anymore, and always had the right thing to say to pull attention to them. Especially Joselyn, actually. I’d expected her husband to be the one who could command people’s focus that easily. But she seemed to effortlessly draw attention, regaling all of us (me included) with stories about what it was like to be a police officer (homicide detective, to be specific) in Los Angeles. Apparently she worked as a liaison with one of their local Star-Touched groups, which helped explain why she and her husband were so casual with this sort of thing, come to think of it. She basically worked right alongside Touched every day. 

God, I really hoped the Chambers weren’t part of the Ministry. Please, I liked them a lot, even as little as I knew. They were cool, and it would’ve sucked to know that they were just more minions of my parents, possibly extending their reach all the way down into California. Hell, Mr. Jackson had been stationed in Britain, so the Ministry having people in Los Angeles wasn’t exactly far-fetched. But fuck, I really hoped not. 

In any case, whether they were part of the bad guys or not, dinner eventually ended. I had just fixed my mask and helmet before Lightning Bug hopped out of her seat, pleading with me to come play with her friends and make them pretty again. I agreed, partly because who could say no to her? And partly because it would get me away from my parents so I could breathe again. 

As I said my goodbyes to the Chambers and to my own parents before starting to follow the girl while she pulled my hand, my father spoke up. “Whatever you choose to do, stay solo or join a team, make sure you have people who can watch your back. Make sure people you trust know where you are. What you’re doing, this whole life, I haven’t been there but I’ve heard about how dangerous it can be. Like we said before, you need people you can depend on out there.” 

“And think about telling your parents,” Mom put in. “They would want to know, and as I said, finding out the hard way would be so much worse. For them and for you. If there’s anyone you can trust with this Touched stuff, it should be them.” 

I was quiet for a moment, squeezing Lightning Bug’s hand while she stood there gazing at me with obvious impatience tempered by trying to be as polite as a little kid could be. Finally, I nodded. “I’ll think about that. Thanks. I guess you’re right. 

“Families really should be able to trust each other.” 

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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 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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Alliances 6-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Oh boy, was this whole Reformation Ball thing a big deal. I’d always known that, of course. Even from the time that I was a little kid, I’d known the Ball was basically one of the most important events of the year in Detroit. But somehow, actually being there instead of sitting at home while my parents were out for the evening made it so much more obvious just how huge and important the whole thing was. I’d known it was a big deal before. But now I really knew. 

The location for the event bounced around a little from year to year, as each of the three biggest and most amazing hotels in the city took turns hosting it. This year, it was being held at the Cloud Regal, a twenty-five story hotel that was shaped like the letter C. In the middle of the curve was the main grounds of the hotel, an elaborate garden area with twin fountains on either side of the main path. The water from the fountains shot high into the air in a complicated series of patterns that included shooting back and forth to one another in an arch-shape over the path. 

There were technically three separate parties. The biggest one was out on those grounds, where tables of food and drink had been set up, along with a stage for a live band and other entertainers. There was an entrance fee, but it was minimal. To buy a ticket cost about twenty dollars, which got you into the grounds, allowed you to see the entertainment, and provided access to all the food and most drinks, though the higher shelf stuff was still charged for. 

The next step over being on the grounds was being inside one of the three separate banquet rooms within the hotel. It was apparently a few hundred per seat to be in there, which got you much better quality food (not that the food outside wasn’t great, but the more rare and expensive stuff was inside), and even more entertainment. It was a quieter dinner there, while outside was slightly more of a rambunctious, energetic party. 

Then there was the roof party. All the way at the top of the twenty-five story hotel was the roof garden where the true power in the city held their own dinner. The mayor, the chief of police, the governor of Michigan, the leadership of various hero organizations, business owners, community organizers, everyone who could afford a ticket or was sponsored by someone who could. Being on the roof required a minimum five thousand dollars per head. 

That was the general cost of each area. Twenty bucks to be outside, a couple hundred to be inside, five thousand to be on the roof. And every single ticket had been sold weeks ago. As happened every year, the event was completely sold out. And as always, one hundred percent of the proceeds from tonight would go to a charity. It was a different one each time. This year, all the money would go to the Gold Horizons Children’s Hospital located just across the street from the hotel. Apparently the guy who owned this hotel had built the hospital because of his own son passing away from cancer, and when some rich guy tried to have the hospital closed down because it made him feel bad, the owner had had him banned not only from this place, but from every hotel, resort, and business he owned. Which, apparently, was a lot. 

My family, of course, was on the roof. I was there, in my ungodly expensive and beautiful dress that made me feel like a mutt that had crawled into Cinderella’s gown and run off with it. The thing was so amazing and beautiful, all teal and shiny and… and… I was just… not… that. I wasn’t right for it. This dress belonged on a tall, beautiful blonde prom queen, not on a little tomboy who barely topped five feet, with black hair that just would not stay tamed and was long on one side but short on the other. 

My mother’s hand gently brushed my shoulder, and I turned a bit to see her smiling down at me. Her voice was soft against the light sound of quiet music in the background. “You are radiant this evening, my beautiful Principessa. Thank you for coming, I’m certain you could have found any number of other things to do. But having you here makes me so very proud.” 

I was still trying to work out how to respond to that, when her hand very gently brushed my face. Apparently she could still see dark circles there. “Are you alright? You look so tired.” 

Well, Mom, I haven’t been sleeping very well lately. First I found out that you and Dad are running some massive evil supervillain conspiracy. Then I became basically responsible for making sure an innocent little girl doesn’t die or the city itself doesn’t descend into war. And on top of all that, I was just recently knocked unconscious and abducted by a two-faced monster who really, really wants to torture me. Did I forget anything? Oh, right, and I owe a favor to that two-faced monster’s boss for letting me get out of there with my blood still inside my body. 

Forcing a smile, I shook my head. “I’m okay, Mom. It’s just been a long day. Thanks for letting me come tonight. This is…” My eyes glanced around the roof, at all the beautiful candles that lit various pathways through the glass sculptures, the rich and beautiful chatting amicably, and the ungodly famous musician with his funny glasses playing his Candle in the Wind song on the piano. “This is really great.” I looked back to her then. “And kind of crazy.” 

Her beautiful smile returned, and she gently touched two fingers to her lips before brushing my cheek with them. “You get used to it,” she murmured softly before glancing over my shoulder. “I have to speak to Grant for a minute. Enjoy yourself, my beautiful girl. Make yourself known here, let people see you. I will make sure Simon or someone else is available to take you home in an hour or so if you’re ready to leave then. There is no need for you to stay for the whole evening.”

Promising to mingle, I watched my mother head over to chat with ‘Grant’. Also known as one of Michigan’s senators. They started talking, and I heard Mom ask him about his son’s football scholarship. It made me shake my head, turning away. How weird was it to be a part of all this? Because I’d grown up with it, so I didn’t really have the right perspective. Even then, however, this felt pretty weird. I stepped away from the spot where I’d been talking to my mother, carefully making my way through the crowd. Here and there, I smiled to someone who recognized me (there weren’t that many), greeting them and exchanging a few words. One of the passing waitresses handed me a wine glass with ginger ale in it, which I took a sip from while standing at the edge of the roof to look down at the main party. It was in full swing, and looked like they were having a lot of fun. There was an open space on the grass where people were dancing.   

The sound of someone clearing their throat made me glance back to see Tomas standing there. He gave me a smile that made my stomach start a boxing match with my heart, before moving up beside me. His voice was casual. “Hey, Cassidy. Ahh, how are you doing?” 

I swallowed a bit. The past week had been complicated. I hadn’t avoided Tomas at all. We hung out a few times, even got lunch together once. But it was just… so… yeah, complicated. I felt like even more of an idiot every time I thought about how him being bisexual had made me feel. 

I knew he cared about me. I knew he liked me. This changed nothing. He liked me for being me, regardless of whether I was a boy or a girl. That was a good thing, right? Yes. Yes, it was. It was indisputably a good thing. Logically, I knew that. I told myself that. I even thought I’d convinced myself of it multiple times. Yet, every time I saw him, my brain whispered things like, ‘Are you sure he doesn’t just like you because you look like a cute little boy?’

Feelings were annoying, why did they have to be so complicated? I should just be able to tell my heart something and make it accept the plain stupid truth. Stupid emotions. Stupid, stupid emotions.

Quickly, I forced myself to reply dryly, “Oh, you know. Just another day.” Biting my lip, I looked at him. “I didn’t know you’d be here.” Pausing, I added, “But I really should’ve.” 

He chuckled lightly, waving vaguely over his shoulder. “Yeah, Mum and Dad are over there somewhere. I’m supposed to be here, look presentable, and not embarrass them.” 

“Sounds like we have similar jobs,” I replied. “You wanna share? Maybe it’ll be easier.”

He smiled again, and my heart did a little spin at the way it made his dimples show. “That sounds like a pretty good idea to me. We can look presentable together. My parents love you enough anyway. My dad kept asking if I talked to you yet. I think they want to have you over for dinner at some point.”

Oh. My… my ex’s parents wanted to have me over for dinner. That wasn’t as weird as it could be considering we’d only broken up because of distance, right? Wait, if he was back, did that mean that he expected… or that they expected… wait, was this—

Tomas’s hand found my arm, gently squeezing. “Hey, hey, it’s all right. None of us are dumb enough to think we’re just going to go right back to the way we were, okay? And if Dad or Mum think otherwise, they’ve got another thing coming. A year is a long time. I’m sure we’ve both changed a lot. I mean… you know about my… yeah. Maybe something else will come of it, maybe it won’t. But you’ve always been important, Cassidy. Whether we’re just friends or end up being more than that, I want to get to know you again. So, I’d love it if you came over for dinner at some point. No pressure, and if my parents start turning that on, I swear we’ll go get one of your American pizza concoctions.” 

Squinting at him, I pointed. “You can’t fool me anymore, buster. I know for a fact you guys have plenty of pizza over in the UK.”

Meeting my gaze, he gave a sage nod. “Of course, we just call it open stromboli. Or opomboli.”

He had me for just a second. I blinked, head tilting as I watched his expression. Then I frowned, punching him in the arm as subtly as possible, not wanting to cause a scene. “You do not, jerk.” 

He laughed, looking charming again before turning to look out at the people below once more. For a moment, he was quiet before speaking again. “I did miss you, Cassidy Evans. Even if you are not nearly as gullible as you were.” His gaze moved back to me with a wink. “You’ve changed too.” 

Swallowing back all the thoughts that brought up, I managed a shrug. “I guess that’s just a thing that happens. And I haven’t changed all that much.” Boy, if he only knew. “But I… umm…” Shaking off the feelings, I gestured. “We should probably go see about mingling a little bit more, huh? Pretty sure my parents–or my mom mostly, would prefer I be seen instead of hanging out in the background.” 

“We could dance, if you like,” he pointed out mildly, knowing full well that no one else was dancing. Not up here, anyway.

“I said ‘be seen’, not ‘make a complete ass of myself,’” I retorted before pulling him by the arm. “Come on, we’ll just walk and talk.” 

He obliged, and the two of us meandered our way through the crowd, making a couple circuits of the roof. We stopped now and then, chatting with various people. I tried to be as polite as possible, wanting, for some reason, to make a good impression for my supervillain parents. Weird. 

I also saw my dad twice. He was standing over with a few other rich guys, and Silversmith was right across the roof, talking to Flea and Caishen, leader of the Ten Towers corporate sponsored hero team. Other Star-Touched, including all the Minority members, were mingling with people too.  But I still had no idea how my parents were managing to make it look like Silversmith and my dad were both here. Maybe Dad had a body double? He could certainly afford one. 

In any case, it was eventually time for us to separate and rejoin our own families for dinner. I made my way over to the round table that had been set aside for us and found Simon and my parents already there. Dad took a moment to tell me how wonderful I looked, teasing me about being around Tomas again. Then he held Mom’s chair out, Simon held mine, and we sat down before they joined us. 

“Dad’s right, you actually look like you belong here, Booster,” my brother teased. “You haven’t tripped over anything or started talking about Power Rangers or Ninja Turtles yet.” 

Forcing myself to smile, I retorted, “Well, I didn’t want to take away your most educational topics, dear brother. That would be terrible. What on Earth would you talk about then?” 

Mom cleared her throat pointedly, but I could see her smothering a small smile as she looked to us. “Let’s be nice,” she murmured softly before looking up to thank the waiter who brought our drinks. Wine for the three of them and apple cider for me. Dad had said it would be okay if I had one glass with them, but that didn’t sound like a great idea to me, so I declined. Cider would be fine. 

We took our food a few minutes later, and watched as the mayor, followed by the governor, got up to give their speeches through the meal. ‘Grant’ the senator would be next, apparently. They would be going down to mingle with the other two party groups shortly, playing for future votes, of course. But first they would make nice with the rich people, like my parents. As part of that, Mayor Carter Bens would be accepting gifts on behalf of the city. It was another tradition born over the past couple decades, where the mayor would be given various presents of expensive things that would be put on display in City Hall for a few months before being donated and the proceeds given toward the city’s emergency services like police, fire, and hospitals. 

Once that started, Dad made a small noise in the back of his throat while looking to Mom. “You know, I think–” 

“We forgot our gift in the room,” she finished for him, sighing a little. She glanced around as though to flag down a waiter, but they were all busy. Finally looking to me, she added, “Cassidy, would you mind running—I mean… walking very carefully and discreetly… down to the suite we borrowed for the evening and picking up the gift. It should be in the living room beside the television.” 

I agreed quickly, taking the room key and heading to the elevator. From there, I headed for the penthouse suite that my parents had rented out to grab the gold-wrapped gift. 

Carefully managing the present with one hand, I went to open the door and began to step out when movement from the corner of my eye made me look that way. Men. There were men walking down the hall ahead of me, having just passed the room a few seconds earlier. Which wouldn’t really be a big deal, except for the assault rifles they held. Yeah. Guns. 

There were armed guards at this event, of course. To say nothing of all the Star-Touched hanging around. But the armed guards weren’t that obvious. They looked like Secret Service type people, not men in army camo carrying giant-ass automatic guns. 

No, this was obviously something different. Something bad. I quickly ducked back in the room and closed the door most of the way before they could spot me. Peeking out, I saw them heading for the elevator. They were met by a few more guys that were coming out of other rooms, and all of them headed up to the roof. 

Oh boy. Oh God, what was I supposed to do now? Quickly, I took my phone from my pocket, only to find it had no signal. That had to be purposeful, some kind of jammer or something. A check of the room phone produced no dial tone. Great. Just great. This was absolutely, definitely something bad. But what? What kind of crazy idiot would try to attack the place swarming with armed guards and heroes from every team in the city?

Maybe it was just a stunt or something. Maybe I was overreacting. But the lack of a cell signal and dial tone told me I wasn’t. I had to find out more, without getting caught. 

To that end, I headed for the closet where I had dropped my stuff when changing into my dress here. Digging deep in the backpack under the layer of other stuff I’d use to cover it, I came out with the bag that had my costume in it. I’d put it under some unmentionables, just in case. 

Taking a moment to slip the costume on after changing out of my dress, I made my way to the balcony, peeking out and around to make sure the coast was clear. Seeing nothing, I stepped out there before red painting myself up to the edge of the roof, clinging to the bottom edge of the balcony as I listened. 

A male voice was speaking. “I’d say let’s not have anyone playing hero, but I think that’s a moot point by now with the kind of company we’ve got up here tonight, don’t you?”

Painting myself black, I hesitantly peeked up over the edge. Everyone was seated aside from the man who was speaking, and a dozen or so of those camo-dressed men with guns. 

As for the guy who was talking, I knew who he was. The sackcloth mask gave it away. Pencil. It was Pencil. 

That answered my question about who would be crazy enough to attack this place, at least. Seeing him made me shrink back a bit under the edge of the roof while he continued. “But still, let’s be smart here. No one wants a massacre, after all.” He paused before amending, “Well, none of you want a massacre. Personally, I think we’re kind of due.”

Silversmith, or rather, whoever was posing as him, spoke up. “You can’t possibly think you’re going to get away with anything here. What’s your game?”

I could hear the smile in Pencil’s voice as he looked that way. “My game? I’m so glad you asked. The game, ladies and gentlemen, is very simple. Everyone here pretends they care oh so much about all the poor sick children in that hospital across the street that you’re all donating to tonight. But let’s see how much you actually care. See, they’re being visited by a bunch of my friends right now as we speak. And unless you rich motherfuckers start giving until it literally hurts, well, let’s just say there won’t be any more kids to donate to. Which, for the record, is also what will happen if anyone here tries anything. So let’s just keep it all in our pants. 

“As for how much we need, we’re trying to break records here tonight for most stolen in one event. And I hear there’s some stiff competition, so dig deep people. Or don’t. Personally, I’m kind of curious to see if you can hear a few hundred sick kids being mowed down by machine guns all the way up here. 

“Aren’t experiments fun?”

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