Cassidy Evans

Winging It 19-08 (Summus Proelium)

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Needless to say, that wasn’t exactly how I expected my time with Lucent to go. But then, since when had anything gone the way that I had thought it would since the night I decided to play around in Royal Thunder? The expected thing happening would be completely unexpected. Which was–never mind. I really couldn’t look at that too closely or I’d go cross-eyed. 

In any case, we were going to have to try that again another time. For the moment, I put it aside along with thoughts about Carousel and her whole deal as I pressed the buzzer at the back door of Wren’s shop. There were plenty of other things for me to focus on as it was. Like talking to Paige (and Raige, come to think of it), or figuring out what was up with that sex-shifting Asian person Amber had been talking about, and–

Wait, hold on. Back when Izzy and I had first found out about each other, my father had been right below us, talking with someone on the phone in Japanese. Was that related to this? It… could be, right? Not for the first time, I wished one of us spoke Japanese. 

Shaking off that thought, I focused on the other question. Namely, why Mr. Jackson had been there in the first place. Yeah, that was going to bug me for awhile. My best idea for getting information about that was to go hang out with Tomas at his house for awhile and try to sneak off to snoop around. Yes, that would probably be dangerous. And yet, if I didn’t start taking a few risks to get answers, I’d never get anywhere. 

I was still debating back and forth with myself about that when Murphy (still masked) opened the door. “Hey, boss,” she greeted me. “You’ve got to come in here and see this meeting of the minds shit. I have no idea what the fuck is going on, but damn if it’s not fascinating to watch.” 

So, I followed her in there and got my first glimpse of the, as she put it, ‘meeting of the minds shit.’ Wren was seated cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the shop, down in the slightly lower area next to the four counters that formed the rectangle. She was perched next to one of those counters. In front of her was what looked like a cardboard diorama of the shop itself,  made out of repurposed individual size cereal boxes. There were three different dioramas, actually. One that showed the outside, one of the shop floor, and one of the upper floor. They had everything in there, the shelves, the tables, the very same counters Wren was sitting next to, the fire hydrants and benches outside, the rooms upstairs, and so on. All of it represented in cardboard. 

Lion was there too, of course. She was perched right in the middle of the diorama of the outside area, using one paw to point at a park bench while going on at length about some sort of pneumatic system they could… do something with. Which sent Wren off on a whole three-hundred word spiel, of which I understood maybe half the words and about a tenth of how they actually fit together in the way she was saying. 

Okay yeah, this was confusing. I had no idea what they were talking about. Which really, for the first time, really drove home how Wren wasn’t a normal kid. Yes, yes, I’d already known that of course. The stuff she made proved it quite well. But I supposed that up to that point, somewhere in my head, I just saw what she did as something like magic, like she just touched something and poof, it became her inventions. Which was dumb, because I’d already helped her with collecting stuff for the suit that we made Ashton wear so he would lead us to the vials against his will. I’d even helped put it together, in the sense of doing exactly what she told us to do. I’d seen her power in action and knew, for a fact, how it worked. At least, to an extent. 

But this was really my first time seeing it put this way. Probably because it was the first time I’d had a chance to see the girl talk to someone who was on her level. Which was about fifty stories above my level, apparently. The two of them were babbling back and forth at each other in what might as well have been a completely different language for all that I could follow it. 

Murphy, who had been watching as I stared that way, gestured emphatically. “See what I mean? No freaking clue what they’re on about, but it seems pretty spiffy.” Belatedly, she added, “You like the dioramas? Calvin and me did those. See, we do contribute.” 

Calvi–oh, right. She’d given fake names for Roald and herself as Calvin and Hobbes. Which, to be honest, I was pretty sure it would have fit better if she flipped the names. At least, character-wise. She was much more of a Calvin to me. 

In any case, I wasn’t going to go judging her pseudonym choices at the moment. Instead, I gave a slow nod, before blinking. “Where is R–Calvin, anyway? And Fred.” 

“Shopping,” came the easy reply. “They had to go out and get some stuff that these guys asked for. They told me what it was, but you know.” She made a motion and whistled low to illustrate the information going in one ear and out the other. “No idea. They took the list with them. It was a long list.” She pulled her phone out to look at the time. “They only left about twenty minutes ago, so… yeah, probably gonna be awhile before they come back. I–hey.” 

Squinting at something on her phone, Murphy looked at me, then to the screen and back again. I couldn’t read her expression through the ski mask, but her body language made it clear she was confused. Finally, the girl tapped the phone pointedly before asking, “You stopped a bank robbery? I thought you were like, doing Master Splinter Miyagi shit with Captain Corvid.” 

I started to correct the other girl that it was Lucent, not Captain Corvid, then reconsidered. Given everything I’d seen of him, he’d probably actually be amused by the title. So I let that go before shrugging. “It was a little more complicated than that. We stopped one set of bank robbers, but there was…” I trailed off, my instinct to say as little as possible kicking in while the girl stared at me in anticipation. My whole deal of compartmentalizing information for so long meant that it was just instinct to not actually explain what had happened back there. But why shouldn’t I? Seriously, nothing in what had happened actually gave away anything I didn’t want to share. Why was I being so hesitant to talk about it? Was it just because I was pretty sure the entire event was connected to my family, considering all the Star-Touched patrols had been moved away from the area? Was even the slightest hint of a connection to my family enough to make me instinctively clam up? 

Apparently so, but I forced the impulse down and held up a hand for Murphy to wait a moment while I looked back to where Wren and Lion were. The two of them didn’t even seem to have noticed my arrival, considering how engrossed in their discussion they were. Another few seconds of listening proved entirely fruitless, as I was pretty sure they weren’t even using real words by that point. They were, however, finishing each other’s sentences and laughing a lot. It wasn’t… quite mad scientist laughter, but pretty close to the edge of it.

Yeah, I was going to let them keep doing the, uh, whatever they were doing. Turning away, I gestured for Murphy to come with as I moved away from that area and closer to the elevator. Stopping there, I quietly told her what actually happened, at least as far as someone without any of my extra knowledge would know from being there. I told her about the extra bad guys, the tunnel, finding our way to where Sandon and her men were waiting to back up Undermine, and about the agreement to back off and let them go rather than start a big fight right there.

“So,” I finally finished, “does that totally destroy your vision of me as a hero for letting the bad guys escape with everything they took?” 

A snort escaped the girl as she gave me a look. “Yeah, you’ve shattered my poor, delicate and bright-eyed naivety and opened me up to the harsh, gray world.” Clasping her hands, she gave a heavy, dramatic sigh. “Gone forever are my dreams of Paintball, stalwart champion of the people, unwavering protector of all that is good as he stands alone against the forces of–Ow! Did you just kick me?” 

Painting an innocent face across my helmet (complete with halo), I replied, “I have no idea what you’re talking about. You know how it is around Tech-Touched bases. Lots of weird half-finished inventions lying around. Maybe we set something off.” 

“Oh, we set something off alright,” she retorted, squinting at me before snickering. “Anyway, come on, you can’t honestly think that shit would change anything as far as me and R–” She leaned up on her toes to stare in the direction of Lion and Wren. Apparently Murphy didn’t trust that the mouse couldn’t hear, because she amended, “–Calvin are concerned. We didn’t go looking to work for some dumb Star-Touched paragon, you know? You asked us to work for you. That’s what we’re doing, it’s what we wanna do. At least you’re smarter than some of those wannabes out there. Gotta know when to fold your cards and walk away.”

Biting my lip, I watched her for a moment before shaking my head. “Right, at least it hasn’t changed your opinion of me or anything.” 

She, in turn, offered a wide, exaggerated shrug. “You’re the boss, boss. I uh, I know we joke about the whole minions thing, but seriously. You’re giving us a chance to make some cash and sorta, you know, move up a bit. You’re the one we’re loyal to. I mean, you and Trevithick over there. Long as you don’t start doing evil shit, or really fucking stupid shit, or… a few other kinds of shit, we’re here. Not starting a stupid, pointless fight you probably couldn’t win just to save some random rich fucks’ stolen goodies? Come on. If anything, my opinion of you just went up a little bit. But uh, don’t let that go to your head.”

“I’ll do my best to keep my ego under control,” I replied dryly. “And thanks, Hobbes. Glad to know I didn’t just lose Trev’s very best new sweeper and mopper for her.” 

“And duster, don’t forget that,” she retorted before lowering her voice into a faintly distressed, “Seriously, there is so much dust.” 

Smirking despite myself behind the helmet, I gave her a thumbs up. “I’ll try to remember to include that on your new job plaque. But uh, think you could stick around down here and keep an eye on what’s going on over there while I go upstairs for a few?” 

“Whatever,” came her response. “Trust me, boss, I’ve got plenty of shit down here to keep myself busy.  I’m pretty sure those two are going to be just fine without any help from me or anyone else. But you go do your thing. I’ll feel better with you here, anyway. If they manage to send this building into another universe or something with their super-science shit, at least you’ll be around to do something about all the alien monsters trying to lay eggs in our brains.” 

Painting a weirded-out face on my helmet squinting at her, I slowly replied, “Yeah, I’ll uhh, keep an eye out for that.” My head shook as I gave a soft chuckle before starting to turn to the elevator. Then I stopped and pivoted back. “What’s going on with Tyson? That was your brother’s name, right? The one who gave you that cut on the head because you wouldn’t run drugs for him. You still staying with Calvin or did you go back there?” 

Folding her arms defensively across her chest, the girl muttered, “I couldn’t stay with his family forever. It’s fine, it’s–whatever. Tyson’s fine. I’m here, ain’t I? I told you I wouldn’t let shit with my brother fuck this up, and I won’t.  You don’t have to worry about him. It’s fine. He took me out to get some lunch and apologized and all that. Not a big deal.” 

“Not a big deal?” I echoed incredulously despite myself. “I know you care about him, but he cut your face because you wouldn’t take a bunch of drugs over to his friend. Now it’s okay because he took you out to lunch?” 

“Fuck no,” she snapped, “it’s not okay. None of that is okay. Like I said, his friend got him hooked on the shit. He used to be totally cool, just a normal stoner, you know? Little weed now and then. Maybe a little more than now and then, but still. Weed. Nothing hard. He was funny when he got the munchies. Used to send Calvin and me out to pick up shit from the gas station in the middle of the night. Then that fuckface got him on the harder shit and… and he changed. But he’s still my brother. He’s fine most of the time. I can deal with it. So just, you know, do whatever shit you need to do upstairs and let me worry about my brother.” 

I had the distinct impression that trying to say anything else about it wouldn’t go very well. Still, I made a mental note to ask Roald for a little more information about that whole thing when I had the chance. Then I nodded to her before stepping on the elevator. All I said to the girl before the doors closed was, “Let me know if anything happens down here. Especially if those two manage that whole going to another universe thing. You have blanket permission to interrupt anything I’m doing if that happens.” 

With that, I hit the button to head upstairs, before stepping off a moment later once we were there. After giving a brief glance up and down the hall, I headed for the lab workshop area. Paige was still there, though she had been moved out of the MRI-like machine and was laying on a couch nearby. Someone had put a pillow under her head, and a blanket over her, so it looked like she was just sleeping. Which at least made the whole thing look a little less creepy. 

I needed to get this done, of course. And yet, for a moment, I just stood there and hesitated. A rush of thoughts ran through my mind as I stared at the motionless and silent form of the girl who had been forced by her father to treat me like shit for so long, but I pushed them aside to focus on the important thing. Which was asking Paige about this Irelyn chick. 

I wasn’t sure how to run the whole virtual reality thing, of course. And I sure wasn’t going to attempt it by myself. But there was still the other way of communicating with Paige. I picked up the Gameboy-like device and carefully wrote in the question, one word at a time, about ten minutes apart. 

SISTER

LOOKING

4PAIGE

That simple thing took about thirty minutes to send. It definitely wasn’t as convenient as the VR system. But on the other hand, I could use it without help and not risk blowing the whole building up or something. Now I just had to settle in and wait for however long it took Paige to send back a response. 

Not that long, apparently. The response came within about thirty seconds. But it didn’t come through the Gameboy-Atari thing like I had expected. Instead, Paige’s actual voice abruptly spoke up. “What’s going on?” 

Yeah, I’m not too proud to admit that I jumped. I had been sitting on one of the nearby chairs while thinking about what I should do while I was waiting, and damn near leapt out of my skin when the frozen girl started talking. A yelp actually escaped me before I got it under control and looked that way. Her eyes were still closed and she clearly still wasn’t moving. “Uh, Paige?” 

“She’s letting me talk directly to you right now, for this,” came the response. “Talk and listen, no moving. Slight control. So tell me what’s going on.” 

Before I could respond, she abruptly spoke again. Only it clearly wasn’t Paige this time. “Yeah, babe, just a little slack in the agreement since this seems like something we might want to nip in the bud before it turns into a problem. But I don’t exactly trust this one to hold even this little bit of power for very long without abusing it, so get to the explaining part.” 

So, I did just that, carefully explaining everything that I knew. I told them both about being stopped outside the restaurant by that Irelyn woman, though I left out the whole thing about Arleigh and her brothers being there, since it didn’t seem relevant. I explained that the woman was clearly looking pretty intently for Paige if she was asking me about it, and that it didn’t seem like something she was just going to walk away from, satisfied with half-answers. 

“So, I’ve gotta ask,” I finally put in once the actual explanation was over, “How come you never mentioned that you still had a sister who was going to start poking around asking questions about you and your parents disappearing? Cuz that whole fake vacation thing can hold up to some outside poking, but I’m pretty sure it won’t last long with someone like that looking into it.”

There was no response at first. And given the position Paige was in with the whole laying completely motionless with her eyes closed thing, I honestly wasn’t sure for a moment that she had even heard what I said.  

Finally, however, Paige spoke once more. “She didn’t really care.” Her voice was odd, like… well, I couldn’t really place it at first. There was something in her tone that didn’t sound like her. For as long as I remembered knowing Paige, she had almost always sounded confident. Whether it came to tormenting me as much as possible, being the popular girl everyone else looked up to, or handling a bunch of biolems sent by her father to kill both of us, she was self-assured. But now? This almost sounded like… vulnerability? Uncertainty? Confusion? All of the above. And more. There was a lot in her voice. But none of it was confidence. 

“She was their real daughter, before they got pissed and disowned her because she didn’t want to be the exact person they wanted her to be. She did her own thing, so they threw her out of the family and bought me instead. I was the replacement. I wasn’t–I’m not her real sister. Why would she start going around looking for me? That doesn’t–I can’t…” 

She trailed off for several long moments before her voice finally spoke again. But once more, it wasn’t Paige. “Uhh yeah, you’re gonna have to give us some time with this. I think you got the gist of her reaction though. We’ve got no clue why a girl who was disowned from the family and replaced like that would give two shits about what happened to the parents or the adopted sister. Give that some time to digest and come back in a couple days, maybe we’ll be able to tell you something else. Send the word Aardvark to let us know you’re back and want to talk about that whole thing and we’ll do this again.”

I really hadn’t expected Paige to be quite that stunned by the news that Irelyn had been out there looking for her. But, I supposed that was fair. She deserved the chance to think about that for a bit. It was clearly a lot to dump on her, especially if she was so taken aback and lost in her own thoughts that Raige was talking. 

So, I straightened up. “Yeah, I’ll give you some time. I just–” Pausing, I shifted indecisively, unsure if I should ask. Finally, I went for it. “What actually happened to your parents? I mean, where… I mean, did they… I mean…”

“We don’t know what happened to them, exactly,” came Raige’s response. “I mean, it’s not hard to make a guess that Daddy dearest wanted them out of the way, but how he went about that, how… permanent it is, all that, no idea. They weren’t there when the party thing got started, that’s all we know.” 

That didn’t exactly make me feel better about the Banners’ fates in general. But at least I could trust that Paige herself hadn’t killed them. Still, I frowned before rising to leave. “Thanks. I’ll let you guys talk about that whole sister thing amongst yourselves, and come back later.” 

With that, I left the room and headed down the stairs rather than use the elevator that time. Paige had clearly been completely shocked by the revelation that this Irelyn woman was out there looking for her, to the point that she completely stopped responding and left Raige to do the talking. That… that was… I didn’t know what that was. I may have had my… whole complicated situation with my family, but at least I would never be surprised that they wanted to find me if I went missing. Paige, on the other hand, had been so shocked that Irelyn was actually looking for her that she actually went silent. She had been completely stupefied by the simple fact that someone cared enough about her to look when she disappeared. Which was pretty big. And, I supposed, went with the fact that she hadn’t brought it up as a possibility, if she was that stunned by it. 

In any case, I’d go back and talk to both of them some more about that in a day or two. For now, I was going to set that aside and focus on other things. Namely, what was up with the sex-shifting Asian person Tomas’s dad had driven off with. Which meant I was going to have to go over there. 

Was it bad that I wasn’t sure which made my stomach feel worse about spending time around, the guy who had used his superpower to literally erase my memory, or my ex-boyfriend whom I still had feelings for and whose loyalties I had no idea about. Tomas still could’ve been nice to me, even dated me to begin with, just because of orders from his dad. That was… it was a thought that made me feel like curling into a ball and not doing anything for a long time. Instead, I was going to shove that deep down into a hole, then call him up and ask if he wanted to hang out at his place sometime. I was going to bury all my doubts and insecurities, all my feelings in general, and convincingly put myself around one guy who had already fucked around in my memories, and another who might have been manipulating my emotions for years.

You know what? I was starting to wish I had started that fight with Sandon. 

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Winging It 19-07 (Summus Proelium)

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We split up almost immediately after that. Lucent had to cut our practice time short so he could go back and report in about what had happened. And Carousel went off with That-A-Way to tell her teammates the story while heading in to give her own report. Because of course it made sense for Way to go with Carousel, at least at first. She did shoot me a look before heading off, mouthing for me to meet her here and that she would be right back. Clearly, she still wanted to get into whatever she’d sent the earlier message about, before all this happened. 

I did have one thing to do while she was gone, though. Heading back to the bank, I helped the cops in the lot release the guys I had trapped with pink paint. Not that the would-be robbers were exactly happy about being arrested, but hey. At least we hadn’t completely failed to catch everyone.

Once that was done and I had sent in a statement about what happened with the Ten Towers Doephone app so it would be officially logged, I went back to the other roof and took a seat with my back to one of the air conditioning units. I needed a moment to catch my breath after everything that had happened. Part of me really still felt like shit for just letting those guys walk away with the stuff they stole, no matter how much I told myself that Lucent was right. Not getting into a brawl right there had been the right call. No matter how much the whispering voice in the back of my head went on about it being a mistake. 

But no, backing off had been the right call. Maybe, maybe we could’ve handled the regular thugs who were surrounding us. Carousel might have stopped the bullets and even pulled some of their guns away. And I had my protective paint. Maybe between the three of us, even surrounded like that, we could’ve taken the Prevs. A group of ordinary guys with weapons against the three of us? We probably could have handled it. Probably. 

But Sandon’s presence threw all that out the window. She was right there close to us, flanked by all those armed troops while already being one of the strongest and toughest Touched around. We just didn’t have anything that could have straight-up hurt her. And while we could’ve gotten creative, having to deal with her and her men was a bad combination. And that was before you added in the new Touched. Between the armed thugs, Sandon, and not knowing much of anything about the new guy’s power… yeah, starting a fight while surrounded by all that would have been one of the worst ideas imaginable. It would’ve gone horribly. 

And yet… Yeah, I couldn’t shut out my traitorous little voice, no matter what sort of logic I tried to silence it with. Which made a heavy sigh escape me. 

“Letting them get away sucks, doesn’t it?” That-A-Way spoke up while approaching from the other side of the roof. Clearly she had heard my sigh. “Believe me, I know what you’re feeling right now. And it never really goes away. I mean, it shouldn’t, right?” By that point, she had reached the spot where I was sitting, and plopped down next to me, drawing her legs up while looking out over the neighborhood below. “It should always feel wrong to let bad guys leave with what they stole, no matter how many times you tell yourself it was the only way.” 

Snorting despite myself, I shifted a bit to look over at the other girl from behind my helmet. “Yeah, I guess you’ve probably been in that position a few times before, huh?” 

I could see a very slight, humorless smile cross her face briefly. “Once or twice. The fact is that sometimes we’re outnumbered or outpowered, and we have to walk away. Silversmith always says–” She caught herself, face twisting into a slight grimace before pushing on. “Yeah, I know, but he’s not wrong here. He always says that it’s better to fight another day. Especially when all they have is material goods. If they kidnapped someone or whatever, it’s usually a different story. But if all they’ve got is money or something like that? Yeah, just let them go if you need to. He says money can be replaced, but we can’t be.” 

My father’s advice, delivered through Amber, made a lump form in my throat. It wasn’t any different than the advice that my bird-dad had given. And yet, I just… somehow the thought of why he would be fine with letting bad guys escape with what they stole made the whole thing feel worse. 

“I didn’t exactly help with that, did I?” Way was grimacing as she looked at me, shaking her head. “Sorry. I just… I’ve looked up to him for a long time. And like I said, he’s not wrong here. Even if he might have some ulterior motives sometimes about letting them walk away, it’s still not wrong. You guys made the right choice. Sandon would’ve chewed you up and spat you out. You’re not ready for her. Hell, I’m pretty sure I’m not ready for her. That’s… she’s too strong. And that’s coming from someone who can be invulnerable a quarter of the time and intangible another quarter.”

Finally finding a slight smile, I reached out and squeezed her arm. “Thanks,” I murmured before adding, “I just… you know, she outright said that they stole those things to help fund this gangwar. So every bit of fighting that goes on now, I’m going to wonder if it happened because we let them get away with the money to pay for it. If anything happens to Pack–I mean… La Casa are the ones fighting the Ninety-Niners, you know? If anything happens to her because they took the money I let them get away with to keep the war going…” 

I could hear the way the other girl gulped. Her hand found mine, squeezing it firmly. “I know,” she murmured in a soft voice. “Believe me, I think about that a lot. Not just when it comes to this thing today. I think about it all the time.” Her tone made it clear that was an understatement. “But it’s her choice, and she puts herself in that position. She chooses to do this stuff, just like we choose our own way, you know?” She gave a long, heavy sigh before adding in an even softer voice, “Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t try to make sure she doesn’t get hurt if I get the chance.” 

With my face hidden, I watched the other girl for a moment. There were a few things I almost wanted to ask about her whole thing with Pack, but I held off on the basis of it not being any of my business. Instead, I simply replied, “Sorry, I… I know you’re right. But knowing that doesn’t really… umm, help, you know? Doesn’t matter how logical it is, everything the Ninety-Niners do from now on, as far as this war goes, I won’t… I won’t be able to stop thinking ‘they can do this because I didn’t stop them from stealing the funds they needed to keep this whole thing going.’”

“I know,” she murmured, giving a heavy sigh. “I get it. It would be a hell of a lot easier to talk her out of being on the bad guy’s team if we didn’t already know for a fact that there are bad guys on every team.” Pausing, she grimaced before amending, “Okay, maybe it wouldn’t exactly be easy. She does like her money and freedom. But still, maybe like.. a Sell-Touched? Wait.” Her expression shifted as thoughts of that ran through her mind. She was obviously considering whether it would be a good idea to suggest that Pack become a Sell-Touched as a sort-of midway point between her current villain alignment and something better. After all, Sell-Touched could play both sides of the field, as Cavalcade had made clear. It just took a little extra work. 

Both of us thought about that for a minute, before I offered a hesitant, “I’m pretty sure she has friends over there that she wouldn’t want to walk away from that easily. Unless you’re thinking about–” I coughed, giving her a look of realization. “You’re not thinking about her walking away from her friends, you’re thinking about her taking them with her and making La Casa lose like… several Touched all at once.”  

“It would be a pretty big deal, huh?” Way opened her mouth and then stopped, heaving a sigh. “But, if I bring it up, it’ll just make her think I’m trying to get credit for taking a bunch of La Casa Touched away all at once. I mean–I thought about that but it’s… it’s backwards, you know? I don’t care about that sort of credit–I don’t even… “ She closed her eyes and drew her legs closer to her chest, going quiet for a moment before murmuring, “I just want to know she’s okay. If she gets arrested, if she goes to prison for everything, I just–I mean I should want that, right? She’s a thief, she’s a villain. Outside of these deals we have, I should want her to get caught. But every time I think about what I would do if it came down to choosing to take her in or let her go, even outside of our whole situation with the Ministry, I just… I can’t figure it out. I try. Believe me, I seriously sat there for hours trying to figure out how I would react if we didn’t have to deal with this Ministry stuff and I had to choose whether to take her in or not. Part of that whole… ‘figuring out how I feel’ thing. But I just can’t extricate it like that. It’s–damn it. You know.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “I know. I mean, even without anything else, she’s… she’s a friend.” There was clearly more to it than that, but I didn’t want to make assumptions or push the other girl to admit anything she didn’t want to. “You care about her. And it sucks to think that someone you care about might need help. And–oh, uhh, Jae might need help.” It clearly wasn’t the best or smoothest topic shift, but the thought had just popped into my head while talking. 

Giving a sudden double-take at that, Amber cough-sputtered a bit. It was kind of a weird reaction to have to something like that, if I was being honest. But maybe the sudden topic shift had thrown her off more than I thought. Or maybe she just wasn’t used to me bringing up civilian stuff while we were in costume. Which was totally fair, given how weird that whole thing was. 

Either way, she gave me a sharp look, asking, “What do you mean? When did you talk to Jae? When did you even see Jae? She hasn’t–I mean, when did she–what did–what?” Yeah, definitely a weird reaction. 

Setting that aside, given I had no idea what was going on there (maybe Jae really didn’t know about Amber being Touched and she felt guilty about that?), I simply told her what I had seen back at the grocery store. I explained the whole interplay between Jae and her step-adopted mother (or whatever the proper term for that would be), the welcome home party for her adopted father, all of it. 

“It’s just father, you know,” Amber informed me. “Once someone is adopted, you don’t have to stick the word on the front as a qualifier. He’s her father. She’s her stepmother. Her siblings are her siblings, not her adopted siblings. They’re a family, like any other.” 

“Right.” Coughing, I gave a little nod. “Got it, sorry. I just–yeah. The point is, I think Jae might need a friend today. Plus, you might want to make sure she’s really okay after that close call.  Like I said, you don’t have to tell me if she actually knows about you being… you, but if she does, you can tell her that you heard about what happened from me and, you know, figured out who she was from the description. Or… whatever. I just mean you should check on her.” 

“I will,” Amber assured me, without getting into any details. “Pretty sure she’ll be alright, but I’ll go over there later, before my patrol with Syndicate. And–” Abruptly, she snapped her fingers. “I can tell you about that thing now! Okay, no more distractions or interruptions. You’re not allowed to have some huge thing come up and take up all our attention for the next few minutes.” 

“Uh, I’ll do my best?” I offered a bit weakly while glancing around. “I mean, I don’t see anything coming up, and I’ll try not to answer my phone or anything. But I really can’t–never mind. Ahem.” Shifting, I faced her directly. “You have my full and undivided attention. Go ahead.” 

Giving me a look as though half-convinced that she was going to be interrupted anyway, Amber still hesitated before launching into an explanation. She told me about how a little while back she had been out jogging and saw some Asian people arguing outside of a sedan. There was one girl, around her age or maybe slightly older, who had been having an argument with the other three, older people. Maybe her relatives. They were all yelling in their own language, so Amber couldn’t tell what they were saying. And just when Amber had been thinking about stepping in, another car had shown up. A car with diplomatic plates. Yeah, it was Tomas’s father. At the time, Amber hadn’t actually known there was anything wrong with the man. She just thought it was strange that he was there. He had talked to the Asian people, calmed down the situation, then had the younger girl get in his car with him. 

“And that’s where it got really… uh, different,” Amber informed me. “She became he. I mean, just before the girl got in the car, she shifted. Her hair, her face, her whole body. She turned into a boy like it was nothing. Just that easy, that casual. Believe me, I know transitioning has gotten easier with Touched-Tech, but this was more than that. She–I mean they’re either a shapeshifter, or a…. maybe they have their own personal Touched-Tech disguise, or–I don’t know. But I thought it was weird at the time, and now that you told me about Mr. Jackson, it–it feels even more weird. Something… strange was going on with that, you know?” 

Nodding slowly as I ran that through my head, I tried to think and came up with nothing. “Yeah, I don’t know. I never heard my parents talking about anything like that. At least, I don’t think so. It doesn’t ring any bells. And I don’t– huh.” Frowning, I thought again before heaving a sigh. “God, I don’t know. Maybe we’ll find out more once we dig that tunnel to get into the mall base? Which, you know, having that Undermine guy’s power would sure help out a lot with that.” 

Snorting, clearly despite herself, Amber retorted, “Sure would. All you have to do is go convince him to help. Shouldn’t be that hard, right? I mean, you can trust a total stranger, who happens to be an active villain and not in any way a friend with all your secrets. Easy peasy.”

My eyes rolled and I covered the front of my helmet with my hands. “Yeah, yeah, I get it. I’m just saying, if they’d been using a tech thing, we could’ve grabbed it. Would’ve made it easier. But hey, we don’t get to do things the easy way. We still need to do them. At least we’ve got help.” 

“Yeah,” the girl agreed, “it’ll be easier with Raindrop and Pack there. And will your minions be there too?” The last bit was said teasingly as she nudged me, clearly going for a reaction. 

“Uuuughh,” I groaned, shaking my head. “Don’t even–I don’t know. Maybe… maybe if I tell them we need to dig a tunnel somewhere but we can’t really tell them why or let them know where it is? I don’t–that doesn’t sound very fair, does it?” 

“They’re minions,” she pointed out, “they’re probably used to not being treated fairly or being given all the information.” A small smile played across her face before she focused. “Anyway, the other option is that you tell them what’s actually going on. I mean, maybe not your real identity if you don’t want to. But about this Ministry stuff. At least then they’d be going into it–all of it with open eyes and all. They could choose to walk away before they end up getting in the sort of trouble that the Ministry could put them in just by working with you.” 

Blanching, I shifted back and exhaled long and low before admitting, “Right, yeah, you have a point. I just don’t know if it’s a good idea to tell them more than–to tell them–I mean…” My face, still hidden, twisted a little as I tried to sort through my thoughts. “You’re right. I know you’re right. If they get involved in this and get hurt specifically because they didn’t know what they were getting into or how to protect themselves from it, I’ll never forgive myself. Hell, by that standard I should make sure Fred and Wren know the whole story too. I should–” I swallowed hard. “There’s a lot of things I should do. I’ll think about it. I’ll think about how to talk about it and how much I can tell them.” Pausing, I murmured, “Or if I should just tell them not to have anything to do with me. But something tells me that won’t come off very well. They’re already working with Wren. I–I gave them a chance. I told them they could have real jobs, and a chance to make their lives better. I can’t take that away from them. Maybe I could have them only work for Wren and have nothing to do with me, but you know that won’t work. If bad things go down, it isn’t hard to connect Trevithick to me. I just–it’s so intertwined and complicated.” 

My eyes had closed by that point as I slumped backward against the air conditioning unit and let a heavy sigh escape me once more. “I have to think about all that. But I will. I’ll figure it out.” 

“I know, it’s a pain in the ass,” Amber sympathized before adding, “And uhh, I’m probably not about to make it any better. Which–sorry. But I just want to let you know next I’m going to be looking into something else while we’re searching for information about the whole Ministry thing. More than just general information. It’s–it’s important.” Her voice cracked a little as she said that, making it clear how much of an understatement it was. “I just–I have to know.” 

After looking at her briefly, I realized, “Your dad. You want to find out if they had anything to do with the guy who hit your dad getting away. You want to know if they accepted money from him to disappear and that’s why no one ever found out who–” Grimacing, I shook my head. “You know that could all be completely normal. A lot of hit-and-runs go completely unsolved. Especially with a stolen car, and–” 

“I know!” the other girl blurted, before giving me an apologetic look. “I know all that, believe me. But I got the idea stuck in my head and now I can’t let it go until I know for sure. I have to find out if your parents deliberately let my father’s killer walk away. I just–I have to know for sure. Whatever it takes. So I’m gonna be looking for anything that has to do with him. My dad, I mean. They might’ve kept files or… or some other record, or someone else might’ve known and–and… Ugh. Someone will know the truth. I have to check. I just… have to.”

It was my turn to reach out and squeeze her arm. “I understand. I… I’ll help any way I can, I promise. But be careful, okay? Just–be careful. And don’t do anything drastic. We’ll figure it out.” 

She murmured what was something close to an agreement, before the two of us sat there in silence for a minute or two. A minute or two which felt much longer, as we gradually turned away to look out over the neighborhood once more, lost in our own thoughts. 

Finally, I pushed myself up. “Thanks for talking me through all that. I–it’s good to have someone to talk to.” Boy was that ever an understatement. I had no idea how I would’ve even kept as sane as I was right then without having her and Izzy. It really made a difference. 

Rising after me, Amber offered a small smile. “Any time. I uhh, guess I should head back in now. Like you said, I should check on Jae and make sure she’s okay.” 

“Yeah,” I agreed before turning to start walking to the edge of the roof. “And I need to get over to Wren’s to see how they’re doing with Lion. Can’t let my employees have all the fun. Besides, it’s probably about time I had a talk with Paige. 

“I really need to ask her why she never mentioned that she has a sister who would come looking for her.”  

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Winging It 19-06 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – You can find the newest Summus Proelium non-canon, released over the past weekend, available for ALL readers right here.

Well, so much for an easy training day with my bird-dad. First I had joined up with him and Carousel to stop what was supposed to be a simple bank robbery, only for that to turn out to be far more complicated than it appeared when we had to follow more of the bad guys down a super-efficiently built tunnel underground. And because it obviously wasn’t enough that they would just be a few ambitious thugs with a tunnel-digging gun or something, it turned out that they (or the one who had escaped) had led us straight to Sandon and more of the Ninety-Niners. Who were now completely surrounding the three of us with their weapons raised and ready, because of course they were. This whole situation was just going truly swimmingly.

Even while we were absorbing all that and taking in the situation, one of the men sputtered about how we’d chased them all the way through the tunnel, how he barely escaped, and so on. He kept urging the rest of his gang to shoot us. My eyes centered on him, only to find a figure in brown pants, boots, a long brown jacket over a black shirt, and a brown helmet that left his lower face exposed while thick goggles covered his eyes. Oh yeah, and his hands were encased in heavy gauntlets with long metal claws on them, sort of like badger paws. He kept pointing those claws at us while stammering about how they all needed to do something. 

Yeah, I was getting the sneakiest suspicion that the men had not been using Touched-Tech to dig that tunnel. I had never seen or heard of this guy before, so he was clearly a new player. Or maybe he had come over from somewhere else. Either way, he was Touched himself in some way. Though whether digging was his power, or if he was Tech-Touched and the gauntlets were his invention, I wasn’t sure. There was too much we didn’t know. Which wasn’t great, since everything I had read and seen said going up against Touched whose powers you knew nothing about was a bad idea. 

“Undermine, shut up for a minute,” Sandon snapped, silencing the man instantly without even looking at him. Her gaze was locked on the rest of us as we stood there (well, Carousel and I stood there, while Lucent perched on my helmet). She seemed to be considering for a moment, even as the rest of her men kept their weapons pointed at us. They were clearly just waiting for the order to start firing. But wouldn’t do so without their boss’s direct orders. Lucky us. 

Even more lucky for us, one of the other men to one side tossed some kind of silver ball into the hole behind us. My gaze snapped that way just in time to see the ball give a popping sound before expanding into a concrete plug that completely sealed up the hole, blocking it.

Well, that was just great. So much for any plan involving jumping right back into the tunnel. Damn bad guys and their ability to look ahead and anticipate the most patently obvious things. 

My eyes drifted back from the digger guy (Undermine, apparently, which seemed like an odd name to give a subordinate) to Sandon herself. She looked the same as the last time I had been around her, back during the big fight for the vials. She had a modernized, sort of science fiction-ish suit of armor with a lion’s pelt attached to the back. There was no actual real head connected to it. Instead, Sandon’s helmet/mask was lion-shaped to function as the head of the pelt, with the open mouth surrounding a black-tinted visor. The visor itself even had metal teeth along the edges, to really sell the effect. Beyond that, I couldn’t see any details about what she looked like. I certainly couldn’t see the bones that were attached to the inside of her armor, built into it. Every bone she touched gave her the strength of the person that bone belonged to. And since she made a point of getting pieces of bone from every person with enhanced strength that she could find… yeah. Sandon was literally one of the strongest Touched in… well, the state for sure. And she was pretty up there in the national rankings. 

“You’re very annoying, you know that?” the woman informed us with a flat voice. While speaking, she rubbed at the visor where her forehead would be. “This was supposed to be a simple in-and-out. Make it look like a normal bank robbery on the outside while our new friend Undermine here takes a few men in to grab everything we need out of the vault. Wars are expensive, especially a war against people like Blackjack with his damn near unlimited funding. My people have mouths to feed. Wouldn’t even have hurt anyone, really. But then you three had to go charging in and complicate the whole fucking business.” 

“Ahem, language, please,” Lucent put in, his voice slightly chiding. “Just because we happen to be on opposite sides of this issue is no excuse for creating such a hostile verbal environment for the youth. We should, after all, strive to show them a better example than that.” 

I couldn’t see her expression through the black visor, but from the way Sandon stared in silence at him for a moment, I had the feeling she was trying to decide if he had completely lost his mind. Which was fair, considering I had the same thought. I truly had no idea what he was thinking, or why he thought chastising the woman for her language was a good idea. Then I realized he wasn’t actually that crazy. He was stalling, buying time. Not to mention distracting Sandon and throwing her off. 

“Yeah,” the woman finally muttered darkly while giving a look toward her crew, “I’ll be sure to watch my language while we decide exactly how fu–pardon, screwed the three of you are.”  That, of course, prompted a round of the derisive chuckles from the men, who were still pointing weapons at us, clearly itching to start this fight. They were watching for the moment either their boss gave the signal, or one of us made a move. I had the feeling that if I were to so much as lift my hand, they would instantly start shooting before I could give a thumbs up. 

“Are we though?” That was Carousel, her voice piping up into the silence that had followed those chuckles. She made a point of looking around, like she was searching for the bags that had been left in the tunnel beneath us. “Where’s your dough? This has been quite the show, but your funds are still low.” With an exaggerated shrug, she finished, “Perhaps there is mining equipment you can borrow. Like a dozer, trencher, or backhoe.” 

Before Sandon could respond to that, the Undermine guy blurted, “Fuck your rhymes, the second we’re done with you, I’ll open up the hole again and go right back down there to get the bags and my buddies. You got nothing we can’t deal with.” 

“Undermine,” Sandon half-snarled, “I told you to shut your mouth. Don’t make me say it a third time.” Her gaze snapped that way, the implication clear. She waited until the man gave a short, contrite nod before turning back to us. “Never let it be said that I can’t be reasoned with. I will give the three of you this one chance to walk away. Leave, and allow us to collect our spoils.” 

That prompted a low round of grumbling from the men who were pointing their weapons at us and clearly wanted a fight, but the woman that silenced that with a sharp look. Her words were flat. “Let’s just say I have bigger fish to fry than you. So take the offer. Turn around and walk away. Or fly, whatever you choose. Take the mulligan and try this whole fighting thing another time. Believe me, there will be plenty of chances for it.” Her chin rose as she focused on Lucent. “You know it’s a good offer, bird. You’ve got two kids here with you and I have you surrounded. We have weapons, I’m stronger than any of you, and you don’t know what Undermine is capable of. Walking away and fighting another day is the best offer you’re going to get.” 

Yeah, I couldn’t say that she was exactly wrong about that. I had been spending these tense moments painting the inside of my costume as much as I could. Between that and the paint that had already been there, if a fight started, I would be at least mostly protected for a bit. And Carousel still had some paint I could activate if it came down to it. We weren’t nearly as flat-footed as it might have appeared, even if this wasn’t the best circumstance. If a fight started, we wouldn’t be instantly taken apart. And yet, Sandon made some good points. She was stronger than any of us. My purple paint at its best probably couldn’t do much against her. And she had Undermine, who could–well, who knew what he could do besides dig a tunnel. Which by itself could be pretty nasty, if he could use that to, like, put the holes directly under us while we were standing there or something. Again, we had no idea what he was capable of. Which was all before you even brought in all the extra armed troops she had with her. Troops who were just waiting to open fire. Yeah, this whole situation was pretty… dangerous was a good word. It was pretty dangerous, preparation be damned. We might win a fight, but it wasn’t guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination. 

And yet, if we walked away, we’d just be leaving them to take off with everything they’d taken out of that vault, and the other members of their gang we had left down there. It felt wrong to just let them win like that. Walking away without even trying to stop them? Yeah, the thought made my stomach roll a bit. But then, so did the idea of starting a fight right now. There were no good options, and it was clear that Sandon knew that. She wasn’t directing her men to attack or anything. She was waiting, giving the three of us a few seconds to really consider everything. Which itself made me wonder. Was she just as hesitant about being able to easily win a fight too? Or was she really just trying to save effort and resources by giving us a chance to walk away? She was, after all, in the middle of a war against two different Fell-Gangs. And probably had to pay my family for the privilege of conducting it. No wonder she needed more funds. 

Finally, I managed to find my voice. “I don’t suppose you’d be willing to be the ones who walked away from this and let us take those stolen things back where they belong?” Looking back and forth between the troops and their leader, I offered a shrug. “No? Just checking.”  

Sandon took a step closer to me. I felt Lucent ready himself on my helmet, a sound of what I interpreted as a warning to the woman escaping him. She stopped, holding up both hands placatingly. “Easy, bird. No one’s starting anything. Not yet, anyway.” She focused on me then, voice lowering a bit dangerously. “You’ve had some success over the past couple of months, kid. Don’t let it go to your head. Hell, you helping expose Pencil and Cup? That’s some good stuff. They’re fu–pardon, freaking psychopaths. No one likes those two, or their sycophants. I enjoyed you pulling the rug out from under them. That’s one of the reasons I’m willing to let you walk away. But don’t push your luck.” Her gaze moved over all three of us as she very pointedly added, “All of you, turn around and walk, before I change my mind. You don’t want to see what happens if I decide you’re being too annoying.”

Carousel’s voice immediately filled the air on the heels of Sandon’s words. “They say the better part of valor is discretion. Leaving may cause some depression. But it is my greatest impression our soundest move is egression.” 

“Sure,” Sandon agreed with a small, humorless chuckle. “However the poet girl wants to put it. But any minute now one of your do-gooder friends is going to show up. Then everything gets complicated again. So let’s say you have ten–five seconds to make up your minds. Four, three-” 

“Ahem,” Lucent put in, “Your point is made. Come, little ones, we shall find our way out of this place and leave our friends here to… conduct their business. There will be other moments, other confrontations.” He was clearly staring at Sandon, who gave him a simple nod. I wondered how much history there was between them, because it seemed like there was at least something. Especially given the tone she used whenever she called him ‘bird.’ She clearly didn’t like him. And yet, she was still willing to let him, and the rest of us, walk away from this. 

That was exactly what we did. We left, walking backward to keep the troops in sight for as long as possible, just in case one of them decided to try something after all. But though it was clear that they were pretty unhappy about it, none of them made a move. Not with Sandon right there. They were obviously far too afraid of her to risk doing something stupid right then. 

As for the three of us, we didn’t say anything until we had stepped backward into an alley on the far side of the parking lot, getting out of their sight. Immediately, I pivoted toward Carousel, while Lucent flew off my head and toward the nearby roof. Reaching out, I took the other girl’s hand and launched us upward with a mix of blue and red paint. We reached the top of the building, and I released Carousel while blurting, “Are you sure we can’t take them? They’re right there, we can still–” 

“Easy, lad,” Lucent cautioned while landing on a nearby bit of machinery sticking out of the roof. “There is nothing embarrassing about walking away to fight another day. There will be other moments, better moments. You need more training before you’re ready to go up against someone like Sandon in a straight fight. As it is, she would demolish you in such a confrontation. Don’t forget, she is capable of holding her own in a fight against Cuélebre, and your success against that man hinged on running away from him.” 

Remembering what it had been like to catch just a portion of the lightning bolt he had summoned, and how terrifying it had been to run away from him to begin with, I gave a reluctant nod. “Yeah, I know. But… but they’re over there and they’re going to get that money back. Or whatever they stole from the vault. They’ll get the people we left down there, all of it. We might as well not have even been there if they just get away with all of it.” It was probably childish, but still. I didn’t like the idea of just letting them walk away with everything they stole. 

“Perhaps this is the best lesson you could have learned today,” Lucent considered, his gaze on me. “Oft times it is better to take the hit to your pride or sense of justice, if it means avoiding needless conflict that can only result in more problems. Twas nothing to be truly gained by engaging with Sandon and her people right then. What they have stolen may be recovered in other ways, at other times. And if it is not, all that has been lost is material goods. But if we were to fight that woman directly and lose… such could be disastrous in many ways.” 

Exhaling, I gave a slow, reluctant nod. “Yeah, okay, you’re right. But still, we could stop them if we had more help. Where is everybody? What’s taking them so long to show up? I mean, you told them what was going on, right? You’ve got that tracker thing on you, so they should’ve made it here by now.” I wasn’t trying to be judgy or anything, but seriously, we should’ve had help back there. We’d kept Sandon talking long enough for other members of the Seraphs or Minority/Conservators to show up. But there had been nothing. What was up with that? 

“Unfortunately,” Lucent replied, “It seems that all active patrols from various teams were too far away from the situation to step in. And they were… otherwise engaged in their own problems at the time. A case of poor luck and timing. Or generous luck, on the Ninety-Niners’ parts, one may suppose.” 

Right, generous luck called, ‘they probably paid off my parents to keep anyone who could stop them away.’ Because that was a thing the Ministry did. It was one of the main reasons they existed. Criminals paid them extra fees to push patrols away from what they were targeting. I knew that from that bit I’d overheard between my brother and that guy just outside the mall base. Obviously that was what had actually happened here. Not that I could explain it to the other two. Even if the idea of just blurting out the whole thing did jump into my head. 

While I was pushing that thought out of my head, Carousel spoke up. “I’ve sent a message of my own. Though she may show up alone, Way will be among us soon. Best she not come to high noon.” 

Right, yeah, Amber was on her way and it was probably a good thing that she wouldn’t be walking into a full-on duel. Especially if she was by herself. My mouth opened to agree with that, only to stop as I hesitated and blinked at the other girl. “Come to think of it, if there wasn’t any patrols nearby, how did you happen to show up?” I knew that wasn’t the sort of oversight my family would have made. If they had been paid to move patrols away from the bank, Carousel really shouldn’t have been anywhere near the place. At least, not officially. 

Sure enough, she shrugged. “I was not on any sort of patrol. In truth, I was out for a stroll. I saw you passing overhead, and though it could have been misread, it seemed you needed aid. Thus from my path, I strayed.” 

“Someday,” I retorted while pointing at her, “I’m going to find a way to make you say something that doesn’t rhyme. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but your poetry reckoning is coming.” 

I could feel the smile on her face as she casually replied, “You are not the first to make such a claim. Truly, I enjoy that sort of game. Yet I must disclaim, lest annoyance grow aflame, that it is not truly a fair fight. After all, with words I am quite erudite.” 

Opening and shutting my mouth a couple times, I leaned closer to Lucent and murmured, “I think I’m in over my head.” 

The exchange prompted a chuckle from the raven TONI, before he cleared his throat. “In any case, neither of you should feel poorly about what transpired. As I said, it is always better to walk away and find a better avenue for attack, than to let stubbornness force you into an uneven conflict. We walked into that without knowing who was on the other end of the tunnel. Facing one as powerful and dangerous as Sandon without any plan, while surrounded by her people and with an unknown Touched in play on her side? There was no shame in backing out of that conflict. That is what you should truly take away from this. Never be afraid to admit you are not prepared for something. Better to leave and try again another time, from a better direction, than insist on fighting right at the moment.”

He definitely had a point, as much as it has made my stomach twist itself to just walk away from that after everything we had done to try to stop them from getting away. Which made another thought come to me, as I looked at Carousel. “What about those cuffs? Are you gonna get in trouble for uhh, losing them?” I had no doubt that Sandon had a way to break them. Even if it only amounted to literally doing so. Those particular cuffs weren’t the ones rated for that level of enhanced strength. They would keep a certain amount down, but she was far beyond that. 

“When I present the whole story,” the other girl informed me, “of how they left my inventory, I’m sure they’ll understand why I have fewer cuffs on hand.” 

I was about to say something to that, when there was a whistle from nearby. The three of us turned, in time to see That-A-Way on the opposite roof. She was clearly warning us before just showing up, just in case we were still a bit tense (which was fair). As soon as we looked that way, she vanished from that roof and appeared next to us. 

“So,” the girl started while looking around. 

“What’d I miss?” 

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Winging It 19-05 (Summus Proelium)

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Two things happened right after I said the thing about the rotten egg. First, Lucent totally snaked any chance I had of beating him by simply dropping straight through the hole, wings tucked tight to his sides as he dove before catching himself in the air within the vault itself, calling up that the coast was clear. And second, I looked at the girl next to me and realized, “Oh yeah, you’d probably like some help getting down there, huh?” 

“Thanks so much, but no,” came her melodic reply, “I’ll see you below.” With that, three nearby desk chairs came flying over to her, shrinking down before entering a tight orbit around the girl in miniature form. Then she simply hopped down through the hole, shooting one chair at a time downward, allowing it to grow to its normal size just long enough to step on before bringing it back into her orbit in mini-form. She slowed her fall repeatedly that way. The chair would be falling downward, but when she used her power to pull it back up into her orbit, there was a brief instant where it was still full-sized and traveling upward. That gave Carousel a chance to repeatedly land on chairs that were coming upward rather than falling downward, slowing her fall enough to drop through the hole in the vault ceiling and land smoothly within. 

“Okily dokily,” I managed, shaking my head before painting my legs orange as I dropped through the hole. “I guess I’m the rotten egg then.” 

I fell through the hole into the vault, and caught myself right on the edge of the hole at the bottom, which led deeper underground. Perched there and looking down, I could see the way it immediately curved into a tunnel leading out from the bank. The tunnel was tall and wide enough, once it went down and leveled out, for a full grown man of slightly over average size to walk through it. 

Meanwhile, a quick glance around showed that the vault had been ransacked. There were dozens of metal doors leading to separate boxes within the vault. Most of them had been broken open. Whatever contents had been inside them was gone. 

Carousel spoke up, voice curious. “Those responsible here were quite creative, though I doubt their friends are appreciative.” 

I nodded, already moving to peer down into the tunnel. “Yeah, I’m gonna guess they used those guys as a distraction. Probably hired them or something.” Looking up then, I added, “So, are we going after them, or what?” Even as I said that, my hand moved up to activate the lights on the side of my helmet. Yeah, I had literal headlights thanks to Wren’s forethought. I needed to thank that kid, yet again. 

The answer, of course, was that we were going after them. Especially since I had demonstrated that I had light. The three of us dropped into the hole. Lucent perched on top of my helmet so he wouldn’t have to keep trying to fly in the narrow, enclosed tunnel. 

I was in the lead ahead of Carousel, thanks to those headlights. Together, with my bird-dad on my helmet, we trotted down the tunnel. I wanted to run faster, but Lucent insisted we be more careful. We didn’t know what was going to be ahead of us, so we took it one step at a time. 

“Won’t they know they have to hurry?” Carousel pressed in a whisper. “With that hole, they’d need to worry.”

“They won’t know that it has been found so soon,” Lucent informed us, his voice equally quiet. “Before he was rendered unconscious, one of the uncouth men back there said something about covering the hole. I believe they intended to seal up the tunnel behind them in some way. Thus, I believe once they are a short distance away, the gentlemen will slow their retreat.”

I nodded before adding, “Besides, they’re carrying all the crap they got out of the vault back there. That’s got to slow them down a bit, right?”

We all silently hoped I was correct about that while picking up the pace a little bit. Not outright running, but still moving faster. I dimmed the lights on my helmet down to just barely enough to see where we were going, not wanting to give the guys ahead of us too much warning. 

I had to say this much, whatever (or whoever) these guys were using to carve out their tunnel, it was really effective. This place was solid, and really long. I had been expecting it to take us barely outside of the bank property, but the tunnel just kept going. We had to have traveled at least a couple city blocks by this point. Was it just their attempt to get out of range of any police search above ground? 

At least we had oxygen. Every once in awhile, we would find a narrow hole leading upward at an angle. They were just wide enough to allow air into the tunnel, and probably looked like snake holes or something from the surface. So apparently these guys didn’t want to suffocate either.  

Either way, we kept going. I was getting to the point of wondering if they were going to go all the way out of town or something, when we all abruptly heard voices ahead. Instantly, I turned off the headlights entirely, as we stopped to listen intently. It sounded like they were arguing about which way to go. A couple of the voices were saying that it was time to turn right, going by some sort of device they were using. They insisted that the thing, whatever it was, wanted them to make the turn. Meanwhile, several other voices argued that the thing was wrong and they still needed to go another hundred yards or so. The argument was getting pretty heated. Knowing how narrow the tunnel was, I could picture the five (or more) men in a line somewhere ahead of us. This was going to be complicated. After all, they probably had guns. And, come to think of it, they had something that could casually dig out hundreds of feet of dirt and rock. I didn’t want to think about what something like that could do to a person it was turned onto. And I wasn’t sure if my paint would protect against that. Not to mention, there wasn’t much down here for Carousel to work with, beyond the three desk chairs she’d pulled with us and whatever the men themselves had. 

Lucent’s voice was a barely audible whisper, hopefully not carrying far enough for the arguing group further down the tunnel to hear anything. “Allow me to proceed first and set several of my stationery companions in the place. While I am gone, Paintball, you should prepare yourself and Carousel with as many applications of paint enhancements as you can. If you have anything you may use to prepare flash effects with your white paint, that would be advisable as well.” 

He paused very briefly then before adding, “I understand that this likely feels unnecessary, given we are almost certainly only facing a handful of what you would call Prevs, men without powers. But I assure you, even the most mundane of people can get a lucky shot with a gun, particularly when potential Touched-Tech is added into the equation. It is always best to proceed with more care and planning rather than less. Prepare for a fight and force your opponents to operate on your terms, not theirs. Better to be too ready rather than not ready enough.” 

With that, he hopped off my helmet and glided ahead. At least, I assumed he did. With the light off, I couldn’t actually see, well, anything. It was completely pitch-black down here. Which was another reason I was pretty sure we weren’t close enough for the arguing men to hear us, considering we couldn’t see any light source they were using. They were just talking really loud. And why not? As far as they knew, they had no reason to be quiet. Which was a mistake we were hopefully going to make them choke on. 

Before I could wonder how I was going to paint Carousel when I couldn’t see her, the girl put a hand on my shoulder. Apparently she had had the same thought and already solved it. And, judging from the sensation of something spinning past above my head, she’d raised the orbit of the miniaturized chairs so they wouldn’t crash into me. 

I spent the next few moments carefully painting orange, purple, and green spots over both of our costumes, covering every bit of space that I could. All of which went fine except for when I got to her jester’s mask. When I went to touch that, she caught my wrist. Her grip wasn’t painful, but it was firm. Dark as it was, I imagined I could almost actually see the mask itself as she stared at me. Then, with a grunt, she released my wrist and quietly murmured, “Sorry, I guess I dislike being grabbed. Though it’s not as bad as being stabbed.”

I had a weird feeling there was more to it than that, but I couldn’t exactly ask her right then. Hell, I didn’t know how I would ever actually ask. But for the moment at least, we had to focus. 

So, I set that bit of strangeness aside and went back to putting on the paint. The whole time, I kept my ears open just in case the guys out there noticed Lucent setting up his statues. But their arguing continued unabated. Apparently a few of them didn’t exactly believe the device they were using was infallible, while the other two trusted it implicitly. I wondered why they weren’t just outvoted, but apparently this group didn’t work off democracy rules. Or maybe there was someone else on their side we weren’t hearing? Hell, maybe they were just better-armed. Whatever the reason, the arguing went on. Which was fine, because it gave us time to set things up. I finished putting the paint on both of us before Carousel made each chair grow and set it in front of me so I could add a bit of white to them. They could be our flash bombs.

By that point, the arguing seemed to have finally come to a conclusion. They were going to turn right. Apparently those two had been more persuasive. Or just more stubborn. Whatever the reason, they were already starting to work on that. We could both hear a faint humming sound, accompanied by what sort of sounded like steam hissing. It was clearly whatever they had been using to make this tunnel, because the sound gradually started to get further away. They were moving on.

The next thing we knew, Lucent was giving a very soft throat-clearing to announce himself before flap-hopping up to land on my helmet once more. His voice was quiet. “Now is the time, I believe. Carousel, draw them into following you by stealing what they have stolen. There is a short tunnel beyond their new turn, where they began to move on before coming back to that spot. Paintball and I shall move there and prepare to engage them from behind when they reenter this part of the tunnel. Draw them into a chase, then Paintball should use the blinding bombs he has hopefully created?”

I nodded. “She’s got the chairs painted with it.” To Carousel, I added, “As soon as you’re ready to toss them once the guys are in the main tunnel, just shout something about bats. As soon as I hear that, I’ll activate the paint and everyone should close their eyes for a second.” Even while saying that, I kept listening to the sound of the men and their humming-hissing tunneling device. They were moving pretty quickly, as far as tunneling went. Still close enough to hear, but we had to do this right now. 

Still not wanting to give away our presence with a light, I reached out to grab the other girl by the hand, whispering for her to come with me. Then I began to move completely blindly down the tunnel. It kept winding seemingly randomly back and forth, like whoever had made the tunnel had been drunk or something. But I moved just as quickly through the pitch-black tunnel as I had through the forest the other day. Soon, I was practically outright sprinting after activating a bit of black paint I had already put on both my feet and Carousel’s so the men ahead of us wouldn’t hear anything. For her part, the other girl seemed briefly surprised as I immediately began to move so quickly through the pitch-black tunnel while pulling her by the hand. But she didn’t resist, and soon the two of us were catching up to where the men were, our approach completely silent. 

They certainly weren’t being silent, though. With each step, the sound of the thieves bitching at each other (or just friendly ribbing, it was hard to tell) got louder, and soon we could see their lights in the distance. The glow illuminated where they had turned, playing off the corner of that new tunnel. Between their own voices and that of whatever they were using to tunnel, they probably would have had a hard time hearing me moving closer to begin with. Add in the black paint silencing our footsteps and they didn’t have the slightest chance. 

Stopping on one side of the second tunnel entrance, I listened briefly before peeking. They were about sixty feet down. I could see all five men huddled up close in a narrow, single-file line. It was impossible to see what they were using to make the actual tunnel, but it looked like the person at the head of the line was holding something up, which was sending off… vibrations or something. That was the source of the humming sound. The dirt and rock ahead of him was gradually disintegrating. That was the source of the steam-like hissing sound. The other four men were carrying very large duffle bags over their shoulders and clearly full backpacks. The spoils of their vault-heist, clearly. 

The main point was that none of them were looking this way. So I turned back to Carousel, squeezing her hand before leaning in very close to whisper, “I’ll make my headlights flash very dimly as soon as we’re in position. That’s when you go. As soon as I see you move, I’ll give you some orange protection and green speed, just in case.” 

Even with the very dim light from the nearby men, I couldn’t really see her face very well. Not that I would’ve been able to see it anyway, given the mask (and that still somehow creeped me out a little bit). But she squeezed my hand in what I assumed was agreement. So I released her, renewed the black paint on myself, and gave one last peek to make sure no one was looking back toward the tunnel entrance before dashing silently across it to the other side. There was no cry of alarm, or reaction at all, so they hadn’t noticed. 

Lucent was right, of course. There was a short tunnel continuing onward this way that went back maybe fifteen feet. Just enough for me to get fully out of sight. Apparently the men had started to continue on before the two who wanted to turn had gone back a bit. 

“You are very good at operating in darkness,” Lucent whispered to me from his perch on my head. “Does your helmet afford you special vision?” He was probably confused as to why I would have both visible lights and some form of dark vision in my helmet. 

Hesitating slightly, I shook my head. Now wasn’t the right time to get into talking about my weird, secondary navigation power. It was more subtle here than in the forest, since there weren’t a bunch of trees and boulders to run into. But I had still felt its influence helping me avoid tripping while dashing through the tunnel. Not to mention somehow knowing where every curve in the winding tunnel was. Maybe I should ask him sometime, given how much he probably knew about testing powers and such. Later though, we were kind of occupied at the moment. 

Crouching down here, I felt something by my foot. My hand reached out and I found one of Lucent’s statues. Clearly, he had made it over here before and set up his little friends already.  I wasn’t sure where the rest were, but I had no doubt they were lined up perfectly to hit these guys once they were in position. 

Here went nothing. Reaching up, I turned the lights on my helmet up just barely enough to be visible, an incredibly faint glow that hopefully wouldn’t give the men in the other tunnel any warning. Then I turned it back off after a brief second and scrunched myself even tighter into the rear wall of the tunnel, willing myself to be as invisible as possible. 

Just as I was self-consciously wondering if I should use the light again just in case the other girl had not seen it, Carousel made her move. I caught a glimpse of her form moving before she entered the other tunnel. In that moment, I activated two spots of orange stars I had left on her shoulders. 

Abruptly, the girl’s sing-song voice called out loudly. “I don’t think you should have those! Stealing is wrong, as every kid knows.” 

Her words were accompanied by several gasps and curses. Those same curses returned even louder as several of the bags the men had been carrying went flying back to where Carousel was, just before she dashed back into the other tunnel, out of their sight. 

“Fucking–what’re you waiting for, get her!” One of the men shouted. “Get that shit back, god damn it!” That was accompanied by confused words from the others about how she had followed them, whether there were others, and so on. But they didn’t take the time to really think about that, being too intent on getting their stolen stuff back. Instead, they fell for the trap, running right out to chase after Carousel without even glancing in the direction of where Lucent and I were. Oh, and they definitely had guns, already raising them up as they came into view. 

Just as they entered the tunnel and turned, Carousel shouted, “A hearty congrats, you’re blind as bats!” 

In the illumination from the men’s lights (they had them attached to their heads), I could see two different white-painted chairs go flying at them. Immediately, I activated the paint, sending out a blinding flash that made the men stagger backward while crying out in surprise. They fired off a few shots, but Carousel was still protected by the last couple seconds of the orange paint, even if they had gotten lucky enough to hit her. And the guns were mostly-silenced, so none of us were deafened in this narrow tunnel. Which was definitely a plus. 

With the men staggering and half-blind, Lucent made all of his statues (there were a half-dozen of them) spread throughout this section of tunnel open up with concussive blasts. Then I activated the purple, green, and orange paint on both myself and Carousel before the two of us really went to work. 

These guys? Yeah, they really didn’t stand a chance. Hit from both sides, blinded, struck repeatedly by concussive blasts from little bird statues they couldn’t even see, and so on? They collapsed like one of those cheap tents I had seen in the movies. 

Within what seemed like seconds, we had all the men on their stomachs, their weapons taken away while their wrists were either secured by a couple more stay-down cuffs that Carousel had left, or simply tied with strips torn from the straps of the backpacks and duffle bags they themselves had carried. They weren’t going anywhere. 

Unfortunately, that was when the three of us collectively realized that we didn’t have all of them.  There had been five men in that tunnel. But we only had four of them. With my headlights on, I looked toward Lucent and Carousel, all of us clearly having the same thought. Then we spun and raced to that side tunnel. It wasn’t any deeper, and for a second I was afraid the man had somehow gotten around us and disappeared back the way we came. Then Carousel pointed upward, and I saw the hole in the corner of the ceiling. The guy didn’t go further in, he went up with the tunneling machine, making a shaft upward. Which raised the question of how he actually climbed it, but we were going to ask him once we caught up. 

“What do we do about those guys?” I asked, quickly looking back toward where we had left the other four trussed up. The two with stay-down cuffs wouldn’t be going anywhere, of course. But the other two were simply tied at the wrists and ankles with straps. 

“We shall return for them,” Lucent declared. “For the time being, best to see where our remaining quarry has gone.” Belatedly, he added, “I shall leave two of my statues present, to… warn them should they attempt to flee. And should all else fail, the tracker I carry will bring allies to this place.” 

Okay, yeah, that worked. Looking toward Carousel, I quickly announced, “I’ll get up there, then yank you up with me as soon as I’m high enough. Here, raise your arms, hands upward, palms out.” As she did that, I painted both her hands red. “Be ready to be yanked,” I warned.  

With that, I painted blue under my feet and activated it to send myself flying upward into the chimney-like shaft. The gravity-boots kicked, sticking me against the wall of the shaft before I started crawling upward, staring ahead. In the distance, I could see what looked like sunlight, and crawled faster. Just a bit more, just a little bit further…

There. The end of the shaft was right in view. Focusing downward, I slapped red paint against the wall just under my feet, before triggering both that and the paint I had left on Carousel’s hands. Instantly, she was yanked upward, flying up the tunnel before catching herself against the walls of the shaft. Lucent was perched on her shoulder, curled in close to avoid being squished. 

“Okay guys,” I murmured, “here goes nothing.” 

With that, I flung myself up out of the shaft, activating a bit of orange paint once more, just in case. Carousel and Lucent were right behind me, as we landed in…  the middle of a parking lot? 

Oh yeah, and there was both good news and bad news. The good news was that we’d found the guy we were after. 

The bad news was that he wasn’t alone, and we were surrounded by what appeared to be over a dozen armed troops, all pointing their weapons at us. 

“Well now,” a voice announced as a figure came to the head of the group. It was Sandon, leader of the Ninety-Niners. And these were her people. 

“Ain’t this a kick in the pants.” 

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Winging It 19-04 (Summus Proelium)

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Right, so there was some sort of bank robbery going on, and I was supposed to help stop it alongside Lucent and Carousel. Talk about an eclectic group, huh? One independent Star-Touched alongside one of the Minority, and a TONI from the Seraphs. The three of us were going to go in there and stop this bank robbery. It sounded like the setup for a weird joke. 

I said as much to the other two while we were quickly planning what to do, and Carousel immediately replied, “As we give them a poke, they’ll think it’s a joke. But they’ll see their mistake, when in jail they awake. I don’t have my team, but this…” She gestured around in a circle to indicate the three of us. “Helps my esteem.”

“I could not have said it better myself,” Lucent announced. “At least, not without a thesaurus or a rhyming dictionary. Bravo, my dear. But for now, I believe our best way forward is to carefully prepare the field out here. Paintball, would you mind quietly laying several spots of your wonderful yellow paint onto the vehicle down there without alerting anyone within? In case they flee, it would be good to be able to slow them down. Meanwhile, I shall fly closer and get a look at what is happening within, before preparing to hasten their retreat. Carousel, position yourself there, on the narrow section of roof just above the exit where they are sure to pass under you. Be ready to remove their weapons as they come within range, to prevent any unfortunate incidents as they endeavor to make their escape. And perhaps a… bouncy section of sorts on the way to the car?” He looked at me then. “As well as anything else you can think of to slow them down or disrupt their escape. Once everything is in place, I shall see about driving them out toward the two of you, safely away from any civilians within the bank.”

“A sign of when to commence,” Carousel noted, “would make a good sort of sense.” 

“Yeah, what she said,” I agreed. “Should we give you a signal or something when we’re ready?” 

Lucent gave a short, sharp nod, before looking at the spot of the roof next to me. A moment later, a statue copy of the raven appeared there, perched right on the edge. “I shall watch through my friend here,” the TONI announced. “Once you are both prepared for the men inside to be driven toward you, raise both hands in the, ahh, I believe it is referred to as the touchdown position. But be sure you are ready.”

“Right, prepping the battlefield,” I agreed. “Or, you know, hopefully not an actual battle. A small, simple skirmishfield.” Squinting then, I turned to Lucent before remembering that he couldn’t see my expression. So I painted a squinting emoticon-face across my helmet. “Just answer me one thing. Is this bank owned by La Casa? Because the last time someone robbed a La Casa bank, it set something off, and I’d really rather not go through that again.”

I could hear the faint amusement in the bird’s voice as he replied, “I assure you, as far as I am aware, the bank is not owned or operated by any Fell-Touched.” 

“The other sort of knaves,” Carousel murmured, “who turn poor to slaves from birth to graves.” 

“Someday,” I informed her, “I’m going to figure out why you do that.” It obviously wasn’t a priority right that second with the actual bank robbery going on, but seriously. I had no idea how she pulled out those rhymes so easily and quickly. Or why she did so in the first place. She stuck to it very firmly. I didn’t recall ever hearing the girl talk without rhyming. In most cases, I’d say that would be a detriment for team communication, but it didn’t seem to slow her down at all. 

Carousel, in turn, simply stared at me with that broadly smiling jester’s mask. I had no idea if the girl behind it was actually smiling or not, but I had the feeling she was. 

“A mystery to be pondered another time, I fear,” Lucent reminded us. “Be swift in your preparations, I shall endeavor to drive the foes your way once you raise the sign.” With that, he took off, flying around to the front of the building. 

Okay, yeah, time to focus. We needed to get down there and set things up before those guys came out on their own. Trying to play catch-up with them already outside would be a huge pain.

Looking over to the Minority girl, I offered, “Want a lift? It’ll probably be a bit quicker and more subtle. Not that your way isn’t super cool, believe me.” She had been making the bench and other things revolve around her in miniature form (they were about the size of matchbooks) the whole time we were standing there. Which I supposed meant she didn’t have to focus on them at all once they were in place. Again, pretty cool. But I had a feeling the guys waiting in the car below might notice her unique way of getting across the gap to the other building. This whole plan of ours wouldn’t work nearly as well if they had advance warning. It could devolve into a real clusterfuck pretty quick if we weren’t careful. The best advantage we had here (well, besides our powers) was the element of surprise. It’d be pretty dumb to throw that away before the fight even started. 

She agreed, so I painted my arm purple and put it around her. She held onto me a bit awkwardly given our height discrepancy, and I silently hoped she didn’t notice anything she shouldn’t. Not that I had much for her to notice, but still. After checking to see what her orbiting items did (they expanded their revolution to encircle both of us), I used a blue puddle to launch high into the air to get above the field of view for the guys below, then red painted us over to the other roof. On the way down, I shot a black owl symbol at the bricks and tiles just before we landed there, our arrival completely silent. There was even a pigeon perched nearby that didn’t react to our landing. Though it did happen to turn its head a second later and launch itself into the air as soon as it saw us so close. I think we gave the poor thing a little pigeon heart attack.

From this position, on the narrow section of roof just above the door, we could see the car a bit better. Sure enough, there were two guys sitting in it. The driver had one hand on the wheel while his other was resting out the open window with a cigarette in it. The other guy was in the front passenger seat, tapping a pistol against the roof rhythmically with the music they were listening to. They both had ski masks on, but other than that they seemed pretty casual about the whole thing. Well, beyond the fact that they were looking around a lot. They just weren’t looking up. Which seemed like a pretty big oversight in a city like this. Or really any city, these days. Not that I was going to complain about their mistake.  

Either way, the point was, they weren’t paying enough attention to notice our arrival. Carousel and I took a moment to make sure of that, peeking over the edge and watching them carefully until it was clear they had no clue we were there. Then the two of us exchanged nods before I got to work. With Carousel watching my back, I leaned out and pointed, sending a shot of paint toward the car. But it wasn’t yellow. Not that first shot. Instead, I hit the car with a bit of black. I figured it would be better to make only one audible shot, activate the silencing effect, and then hit the car with as many spots of yellow as I could. Not that my paint was exactly loud to begin with, especially considering the music they were listening to. But still, better safe than sorry. 

I lined the roof of the car with yellow circles and triangles, as well as a bit on the tires. Then I rethought things a little and put some red on the tires as well, before adding a couple matching spots against the wall nearby. Finally, I put down the blue bit on the sidewalk right below the exit door, painting that whole square. It was a toss-up whether they’d even notice in what would probably be a rush to get out, but at that point it wouldn’t really matter. 

“If you had to,” I whispered, “could you pick up that car?” 

“Not with it occupied,” she whispered right back. “It’s something I’ve tried. But when it comes to something alive, my gift just does not thrive.” 

“Right, can’t use your power on the car when they’re inside it, but if they get out, you could take it away from them.” Keeping that in mind, I gave the area one more quick once-over before looking to her. “I think we’re ready.” When she gave me a thumbs up, I focused on the bird statue I could see staring down at us, raising both arms in the touch-down sign. After a moment of that, the bird turned its head to focus on the car. Which I supposed meant he’d seen me. 

Sure enough, within a few seconds, we started hearing sounds from within the bank. It started with a surprised shouted curse, then a single gunshot. As soon as I heard it, my heart jumped into my throat. But I trusted Lucent to know what he was doing, particularly in a situation like this. After all, he’d been doing the whole Star-Touched thing a lot longer than me. And longer than Carousel, come to think of it. Still, the two of us exchanged glances, and while I couldn’t see the other girl’s face through that jaunty, garishly painted jester’s mask, I had the feeling that she was worried too. But we stayed put, just as planned. 

Meanwhile, the guys in the car were cursing as well. I heard one of them ask what ‘those dumbasses’ were doing, and that they weren’t supposed to use the guns. That prompted a brief argument about whether one of them should go inside to check, but neither wanted to be the one to get out of the car, just in case the other took off without them. From that brief exchange, I had the feeling these guys neither knew nor trusted each other very much. Which begged the question of why they were robbing a bank together, unless they were hired by a third party?  There wasn’t time to think much about that. Nor was there time for the guys in the car to stop arguing, before the door directly below Carousel and me burst open, and three guys came running out. The one in the lead was shouting something about ‘that fucking bird’ in between screaming for the driver to get them out of there. Meanwhile, the two behind were pivoting to shoot back into the bank with their own guns. All three carried large black garbage sacks that had been stuffed full with what seemed to be cash. 

Immediately, Carousel and I went to work. I activated the blue paint, launching the three men into the air with a collection of screams. On their way up, the girl beside me used her own power, yanking the bags of money and guns out of their hands before bringing them, miniaturized, into her orbit alongside the bench, chair, and trash can. The air around her was getting a bit crowded. 

Just as I had that thought, it became slightly less crowded as she sent the trash can flying into one of the men in midair, nailing him while he was falling. He landed on the ground with a groan, lying under the can before shoving it off. 

Meanwhile, the other two had sprawled out on the ground. Both scrambled up to run for the car, but it was already starting to take off. With a squeal of tires, the driver started to peel out. Which, of course, was when I activated several spots of the yellow paint, slowing the thing down. The timing worked out just right so that the guys outside, scrambling in a rush to jump at the car, ended up bouncing right off it as its speed abruptly and unexpectedly halved. They both collided with the trunk and rolled off it to either side with a pair of curse-yelps. 

Taking a quick step forward, I launched myself with a bit of blue on my shoes. Flipping over in the air, I landed in front of the car and waved before scolding, “Now did you walk out of there without even listening to the spiel about special interest rates for one of their credit cards? You know how hard they work on those things.” 

The driver and his companion looked at each other, then floored the gas once more. Which might’ve been bad, considering even slowed by half, being hit by a car would’ve hurt. But at that exact same instant, I activated the red paint I’d put on the front left and rear left wheels, sending the whole vehicle sliding sideways to slam against the wall of the bank. 

By that point, the three guys on the ground had picked themselves up. But one of them immediately went down again as a concussive energy blast from one of the bird statue’s eyes slammed into him from way up on the other roof. The other two whirled toward me while yanking what looked like knives (really?) from their belts, only to be hit from the side by a full-sized park bench shot at them by Carousel. They all went down hard, groaning in pain as the bench tumbled away to land on its side. At the same time, the knives they had pulled were yanked away, shrinking to join the spinning objects surrounding the girl as she advanced toward them. 

Meanwhile, I caught a glimpse of the guy in the passenger side of the wrecked car shoving his way out with his own gun raised. Instantly, I activated blue paint I had reapplied to my shoes and sent myself up and backwards, flipping over in the air before landing on the roof of the vehicle. “Hey!” I blurted, falling onto my side and lashing out with one foot while activating an intricately detailed purple fist across my left shoulder. “This is a no-items brawl!” The kick collided with the gun, knocking it out of the man’s hand and sending it flying away. “Tournament rules! Three stock, no items, stage hazards and smash meter off!” 

The man shouted an emphatic curse that also included the words ‘shoot him’, so I flipped up and over once more, landing in front of him in time to see the other guy (in the driver’s seat) pointing his gun upward where I had just been. “Okay,” I acquiesced, “maybe one Smash.” With that, still empowered by the purple paint for another second or two, I slammed both palms into the passenger’s chest to knock him back into the car and against the other guy. As he rocked forward once more, I reared back and kicked the door to slam it shut on him. “Or two!” 

Then I dropped and rolled under the car, as both men bellowed in rage before shoving the door open once more and throwing themselves out after me, very intent on making me pay. They turned and looked down to see my head sticking out from under the car, staring up at them. I painted a broad smiling face on my helmet. “That thing I said about no stage hazards? I might’ve lied about that too.” The smiley face turned into a red arrow, pointing behind them. They reflexively turned their heads to look, just before Carousel’s trash can slammed into them, knocking both men forward against the car with a pair of screamed curses. Potty mouths, honestly.  

By then, I had pushed myself out from under the car, pivoting on one foot to shoot a bit of pink paint against the side of the vehicle from either hand before the two men could push themselves away from it. Then I reached out, shoved both hands into the pink paint, and used that to tear the metal outward, bending it over from both sides to wrap around the men. By the time they started to push away from the car, the men were thoroughly trapped, with half the passenger side of the car wrapped around them. 

With that done, I spun back toward the rest of the scene. But it was already over. Carousel had finished up with cuffing the last of those guys, with a little help from the Lucent statue to keep them from fighting back too much. She straightened up from them and brushed her glove hands off before looking toward me. “The foes are detained, their bounty regained.” As she said that last part, the girl indicated the trash bags sitting nearby, full of cash. “But where is our mentor? Still through that door.” Her gaze was clearly on the rear entrance of the bank. 

“Hey, that’s right, he never came out.” Frowning, I looked briefly toward the bird statue in the distance. I really had my doubts that he would have simply left us to wrap things up here with only a little help from that thing if he’d had any choice. And the fact that he had only meant one thing. 

“There’s something going on inside,” I blurted, before abruptly rushing that way. The guys out here could wait. The two at the car were securely trapped against it by the metal of the vehicle itself, and the rest of them were held by those stay-down cuffs. They weren’t going anywhere. 

Carousel was right behind me after giving her own brief look around, as though to assure herself the bad guys were contained. The two of us paused right at the open exit door rather than barging straight in. I was really tempted to keep rushing through, but that would have been stupid. Worried as I was about Lucent at that moment, getting ourselves in trouble by bursting into a potentially bad situation wasn’t going to help anything. 

So, we stopped on either side of the doorway, peering in. There was a short, very utilitarian-looking hallway beyond. This obviously wasn’t in the customer area of the bank. The floor was simple linoleum that had been very thoroughly scrubbed with lemon-scented cleaner, with wooden doors along the right side of the corridor with names and positions stenciled onto black bars across the middle, interrupted by two doors labeled for male and female restrooms. Straight ahead at the end of the hall was another door that had ‘Customer Zone – Remember Our P’s And Q’s – Polite, Personable, Quiet, Qourteous’ written on a sign. Which was–wow. 

Shaking off my reaction to that, I gave the other girl a thumbs up before heading in. The two of us moved quickly, but quietly.  Whatever had stopped Lucent from joining us, we didn’t want it to know we were coming. 

In the end, however, all our precautions turned out to be pointless. We peeked through with the door there to find Lucent simply perched on top of a desk in the middle of the main lobby, staring at something. His head turned as we stepped in, and he called out, “Ah, there you are. Apologies, there were a few more in the lobby here that had to be dealt with, and by then you were finished with those who fled. My kingdom for duplicates that could actually move closer to you. Alas, tis not to be.” He heaved a sigh before turning back to stare at something behind the desk. “Come, look here.” 

Carousel and I exchanged brief, silent looks before heading that way. We walked around the big desk to see what he was looking at. On the way, I noticed a couple more unconscious figures with the same ski masks, still lying where Lucent had obviously hit them. 

“It’s a hole,” Carousel announced once we saw what was behind the desk, “but the men took a stroll.”  

Sure enough, there was a wide hole right there in the middle of the tile floor. It cut straight down into what turned out to be a vault room in the basement (including going through the thick walls surrounding that), then even further through the floor in that

“Indeed,” Lucent confirmed. “Though what the men you captured took seems to be a paltry sum compared to what was contained within that vault. I believe what we are witnessing is two robberies in one. The first, those men, were a distraction, allowing our tunnelers time to bore straight through, take what they wanted and escape.” 

“Do you think they’ve already gotten away?” I asked. 

“Only one way to find out,” he informed me, head cocking to the side briefly before turning back to focus on the hole. “Their hostages are in the conference room down that hall. With the authorities on their way, they should be safe. 

“Which leaves us to pursue our quarry,” Carousel noted, “and discover the truth of this story.”   

“Well what are we waiting for?” I quickly put in. 

“Last one in the hole’s a rotten egg.” 

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Winging It 19-03 (Summus Proelium)

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A/N – Apologies for the mix-up and technically doubling up on chapters here. I did post a commissioned interlude over the weekend for Heretical Edge (which can be found right here), and in doing so managed to confuse myself about which story needed the regular update, so this chapter was sent to early patrons yesterday. To make up for that and ensure everything stays fair and even, this chapter will be out today, and then there will be a Heretical Edge chapter on Wednesday and Friday. I do hope you all enjoy this regardless.

So, I left Lion with Wren and the others so the Tech-Touched could compare notes, or whatever they were going to do. Part of me wished that I could stay there and hear all the things they were going to talk about, but I was sure most of it, if not all, would fly right over my head. Touched-Tech was fun, but man was it complicated. I had no idea how Wren kept herself focused long enough to do that stuff. Better if I sated my curiosity by asking for a summary later.

Besides, it wasn’t as though I was going to be bored. I had my own incredibly cool thing to do today. Namely, spend more time with Lucent. Which, jokes about my parentage aside, I really did think he was awesome. Seriously, the guy was a talking raven superhero. Silversmith might’ve been my favorite Star-Touched before I knew the truth about my dad, but Lucent had always been pretty high up on the list as well. He was just really cool, and offering to give me pointers and just generally being willing to spend time with me was… yeah, it meant a lot. Enough that I kept ignoring the repeated insistent whispering warnings in the back of my head about how wary I should be and that I should stay away from people like that. Yes, it was very unlikely that he was secretly linked to my parents, but still. It wasn’t impossible, and they could be using him to poke at ‘Paintball’ and get information. I had to be very careful about all this. 

All of that was fresh in my mind, having a duel with the part of me that just thought this whole thing was awesome, as I landed lightly on the roof of the grocery store where we had arranged to meet. Looking around, I didn’t see him, but figured he would be around shortly since I had already sent a text message that I was on my way. Being a bird, of course, he couldn’t carry a phone around with him. But I had been assured that any messages sent to that number would be relayed to him, and messages sent back were at the very least dictated by him. 

Sitting with my back to the nearby air conditioning unit, I took out my phone to see a few messages. The first was from Lucent himself, letting me know that he would be there soon. Meanwhile, the other two were from Peyton and Amber. First, my new partner said she had to help her mother with some stuff at the store and other errands before heading over to Wren’s. And also that if I let Lion leave before she could meet her, she would punch me very hard. 

The message from Amber (well technically from That-A-Way since she sent it from her Touched phone to mine), on the other hand, was all about how she had something she wanted to talk to me about. Apparently that wasn’t an emergency or anything, but she thought it was important to share whenever I had a chance. With an added bit about how she was supposed to go on patrol with Syndicate this evening, and she’d let me know how that went. I had the sneakiest suspicion that it was really hard for her to hold in talking about all the stuff that had been dumped on her. She needed someone to talk to about it, someone to unload on. 

“Jae! Jae, come on!”  

Speaking of people that Amber should have been able to talk to, the voice calling from below snapped me out of my drifting thoughts by calling that name. Carefully, I slid over and peeked down below. A woman was standing in front of the store entrance, looking back impatiently into the shop. “We don’t have all day for this, not if we want to welcome your father back properly.” 

It had to be a different Jae, right? That wasn’t–but no, even as I had that thought, the girl in question emerged into view. It was her. She was wearing a light raincoat with the hood up, and what I was pretty sure were sunglasses from the very slight bit I managed to see. All to protect herself from the bright, glaring rays of the warm sun. Oh, and she was carrying several heavy grocery bags full of what sort of looked like party supplies and treats. 

It was hard to hear her response from here, given how quietly the other girl spoke. But it must have been an apology, because the woman beside her (a very artificially bleached-blonde woman with what seemed like more plastic surgeries than sense) smiled and squeezed her shoulder (her own arms, I noticed, were almost empty aside from a couple bags in her other hand). “I know, I know, I’m sorry. I’m just overly-excited about your father coming home. We have to make it special for him, you know? He goes to so many exotic places, we have to make him enjoy being home too. You don’t want him to find more excuses to stay away, do you?”

I had always known that Jae was adopted. Her and all her siblings had been taken in from different families and situations, by a semi-famous television actress and a successful director-producer. But eventually, the woman who had actually taken Jae and the others in had passed away, and their father had remarried. To this lady, apparently. Plus, I was pretty sure her adopted siblings had all moved out by now. Did that mean that Jae spent most of her time living alone in that house with only this woman? Eesh, no wonder she spent time with Amber. 

Speaking of which, too bad the person Amber talked to about all her feelings couldn’t be Jae. They seemed like pretty good friends when we were at school. Then again, I knew a fair bit about having school friends without letting them actually get close to me. Hell, I wasn’t even sure the other girl actually knew about Amber being Touched in the first place, let alone all this extra stuff. That was one of those personal questions I didn’t feel comfortable asking about. No matter how curious I was, it just wasn’t fair to put Amber in that position.

In any case, Jae’s stepmother (adopted stepmother?) didn’t seem like the best person to spend time with. Especially considering she seemed to be treating the girl more like a pack mule than a daughter. She was barely carrying any bags, while Jae was loaded down with them. And she wondered why the other girl was moving slower. It wasn’t actually wicked stepmother vibes, but more like… thoughtless. That was the impression I got while watching the two interact below me. She wasn’t actively, intentionally bad. She was just… she wasn’t a mother, that was for sure. As I watched the two head out toward a car, it felt more like the woman saw Jae and herself as peers, as if they were both students and she was the rich, popular girl who could get the unpopular, smart girl Jae to do her work for her by being ‘nice.’ I wasn’t sure why that was the analogy that jumped into my head, but once I had the thought, it solidified pretty quickly. 

I was about to turn back to watch for Lucent, when something at the corner of my eye caught my attention. A car was coming around the corner of the parking lot aisle close to where Jae and her stepmother were walking, turning in their direction. The driver and passenger were turned around in their seats, focusing on something in the back of the car while coming smoothly around the corner without even looking. The car wasn’t exactly speeding, but it was still going too fast for the two down there to get out of the way in time. In a second, they would both be hit by it. Unless…

Activating two purple stars that I had already put on my ankles, I launched myself outward, twisting in the air while pointing down to shoot yellow paint at the car from one hand and red paint at Jae and her stepmother with the other. The yellow paint I activated immediately, slowing it down. The two women were just reacting to being hit by the red paint, as I twisted slightly more in mid-leap, sending another shot of red to hit a parked car nearby. Instantly, I activated both red bits, yanking the two of them off their feet and sending them flying over several yards before they hit the parked car, stumbling against it just as the yellow-slowed vehicle went through the spot where they had just been walking. The car slowed (this time naturally rather than from paint), the driver seeming to realize belatedly what had almost happened, then suddenly accelerated as he panicked and took off. 

Landing on the top of a nearby light pole by that point, I stared after the car briefly before focusing on the people below me as I called down, “Boy, Sunday drivers, huh? You guys okay?” 

“Oh my God, oh my God.” The woman was patting herself down, looking at Jae. “Are you okay? Did it hit you, are you–” She was still checking herself over with one hand while reaching out to pat the other girl down as well. Which, for all I could say about her not treating Jae like a daughter, at least she expressed concern for her after something like that.

Jae had been staring at me, but shook it off and quietly informed the woman that she was fine. Then she turned to look at the pavement behind them, where their bags of groceries had been dropped, scattered, and run over. 

Seeing that, I grimaced and hopped down, landing smoothly nearby. “Sorry about that, I couldn’t really figure out how to get you and the bags out of the way easily.” 

“Sorry?” the woman shook her head. “Don’t you apologize young man. You saved our lives!” Her voice squeaked a bit, the shock still clearly high in her system. “That–that–if you hadn’t–thank you. We can buy more stuff, we can buy more of it. But you–if you weren’t here… may I hug you?” She was trembling a little. 

“Uhh…” That was as much as I managed to get out before she did just that, embracing me tightly while repeatedly stammering her gratitude. Behind her, Jae stood awkwardly, shifting from foot to foot while giving me a hesitant nod. 

“Oh! Oh, how stupid of me.” Quickly releasing me from the embrace, the woman stepped back. “Ahem, I’m Kella Song. Yes, that Kella Song, from Seven’s Company. I can sign anything you like. And this is Jae Baek, my ahhh… stepdaughter.” Clearly, the word daughter had stuck in her throat. She could barely get it out, sounding like she was saying a dirty word. Not because she had anything against the girl herself, I realized. But because she was still clinging to the one bit of success she’d had in her career while acting. Yeah, I remembered Seven’s Company. Not that I’d seen more than a couple episodes, but I did know enough to realize the woman in front of me had been in her mid-teens at the time, and had barely been out of high school when it went off the air. That was her big claim to success, a show that had been done with for what had to be fifteen or sixteen years by now. She desperately wanted to hold on to what she had been back then, and acknowledging the fact that she was taking care of a daughter, even a stepdaughter, who was the same age she had been back when her career had seemed ready to skyrocket… yeah, that had to be hard, especially for someone like her.  

All those realizations had flashed through my mind while Jae awkwardly thanked me for being there. My mouth opened to tell both of them that it was no big deal, when we were interrupted by the sound of a voice calling out from the doorway. “My God, are you alright?!”

It was the manager of the store. He came rushing out, apologizing repeatedly for what had happened in his parking lot despite the fact that it definitely wasn’t his fault. The man was tall and stocky, with salt and pepper hair and a ruddy complexion. He introduced himself as Carl, thanking me over and over for being there, and offering to call the cops for Jae and Kella. 

Maybe it was bad, but I sort of expected Jae’s stepmother to lambaste the man or try to take advantage of the situation in some way. Instead, she told him they were fine and that he shouldn’t worry about it. Still, the man insisted on replacing the groceries that had been broken and scattered when the bags fell everywhere. He and Kella started inside to deal with that, apparently having forgotten that Jae was still standing there amidst the mess. 

“Uh, here, I’ll help you pick those up,” I announced, starting to collect the stuff out of the street. A few of the things had already been completely smashed from cars pulling through, though most of the vehicles pulled around. 

“Oh, you… don’t have to…” Trailing off, Jae hesitated before stooping to pick the stuff up too. One of the cart collector employees jogged over, and soon we’d picked up everything that had fallen. Most of it went in a nearby trash can, while a few things were able to be taken back inside. As the guy thanked us for the help and headed in with that, I looked to the girl beside me. Belatedly, I had to remind myself that I wasn’t supposed to know her, and cleared my throat. “Ahh, you okay then… Miss?” 

Her head bobbed quickly, voice soft. “Thank you.” Visibly hesitating, she finally added, even more quietly, “What were you doing here? Is… there a bad guy around?”

“Huh? Oh, no.” I shook my head while wondering yet again how much she knew about Amber. If she knew that her friend was That-A-Way, did she think that the other girl might be around here somewhere? “I was just, uh, you know, hanging out. You uhh…” I hesitated, stuck on thinking about what she might know already. 

“It’s okay,” she interrupted my musing to gently inform me, “you can ask.” 

Wait, what? Did she know what I was thinking somehow? Could she–how did… “Ask?” I blankly echoed, just to have actually said something while she was staring at me. 

“I’m albino,” came the response as she gestured to her own pale complexion and very light hair. “Albino Asian. I know it’s weird.” Her voice was a flat mutter, making it clear that she was just repeating what she heard all the time. I knew she heard it all the time, because I had been there many of those times. 

Oh. Oh crap, while I was trying to decide if she knew about Amber, she thought I was staring at her because of the–oh. Damn it. Quickly, I shook my head. “No, no, I mean, that’s not what I was–I mean I wasn’t–that’s not–it’s not weird. It’s different. It’s not–it’s no big deal.” Great, Cassidy, fantastic. Totally and completely smooth. You’re not biffing this interaction at all. 

The other girl raised an eyebrow, her dubious expression clear, though she seemed grateful that I wasn’t being completely hostile. Probably just figured I was more accidentally rude rather than outright antagonistic. 

Before either of us could say anything else, however, a crowd of people started to approach. They had been gradually gathering by the doors of the store, apparently trying to figure out if I was the real thing or just some normal person cosplaying. Which, for the record, was an option that still blew my mind. There were much better people than me to dress up as. 

Either way, they approached and started to ask for autographs, when a dark shadow flew down out of the sky and landed on the nearby metal bar along the side of the shopping cart corral. It was Lucent, and his presence only made people gather around us faster. They might have thought I was cool, but he was on a completely different level. Which was fair, considering he was a talking raven with superpowers. I couldn’t really compete with that. 

Unfortunately, he wasn’t there for a social call. Or even just to see what I was doing rather than waiting for him on the roof. Instead, the bird looked straight to me. “Pardon the interruption, fine people! Paintball, might I request your assistance? The car that narrowly avoided such a terrible calamity moments ago appears to be part of a… situation down the street.” 

“A situ–yeah. Sorry, guys, we’ll see you another time!” Waving to the crowd before looking at Jae, I added, “I’m glad you’re okay. And hey, good luck at your dad’s welcome home party.” With that, I used blue paint to launch myself upward, Lucent flying after me. The crowd called out an assortment of things, holding up their phones to take pictures and video. But I was mostly focused on my new companion. “What’s going on?” I managed while landing on the roof of the store with my wheels out to glide along it, not wanting to give up any momentum. 

“There is a bank at the end of the street,” Lucent informed me while gliding just overhead. “I had intended to give the driver of that vehicle a good scolding. But it appears they are waiting in the back for companions within who are engaged in, shall we say, an illicit withdrawal. Others have been alerted, yet are too far away or occupied with other situations. Tis not exactly the training I had intended for today, yet if you are amenable to a… I believe the correct term is ‘team-up?’” 

Well, that was a surprise. The car that had almost run over Jae and Kella was involved in a bank robbery? No wonder the driver was distracted and didn’t bother to stop. Though actually, come to think of it, shouldn’t that make them drive a lot more carefully so they wouldn’t attract attention? Maybe this was a bad getaway driver. 

Either way, we reached the end of the building and I used red paint on the one next door to yank myself that way. I could see the bank in question on the corner while flying through the air. There didn’t seem to be anything hinky going on from the outside. Not yet, anyway. But I trusted Lucent to know what he was talking about. He could probably see through the windows better than I could. The building itself was a three-story red brick thing, with a narrow one lane drive-through connected to the alley, and a small parking lot that wrapped around the opposite side and into the back. And sure enough, as I launched myself through the air to land on the roof of the building directly next to the bank, I could see the car from before idling right by the marked employee exit, pointed toward the next street over. They were clearly ready to bolt out of there. 

Crouching down on the edge of the roof and peering that way, I hesitated before asking, “Okay, so how do you want to play this?” Lucent had a lot more experience and seniority in the whole Star-Touched situation. I was going to follow his lead. Especially when it came to something like an actual ongoing bank robbery. 

He, in turn, landed next to me and cocked his head a bit, looking between the car and the bank. “‘Twould be best to have some measure of what is happening inside before leaping to actions that may endanger civilians. Perhaps–ah, assistance.” 

He was looking back the way we had come, and I turned to see a familiar figure. Carousel, from the Minority. She wore the same full gold, silver, and purple robe and hood, with a matching jester’s mask. Oh, and she was crossing the street in the air from the other roof, like I had. But rather than having paint pull her, she was using her own power. In this case, she had what appeared to be a park bench, a chair, and a garbage can. They were pulled in by her power, miniaturized to spin around her in orbit. She would jump, make one of the objects resume its normal size just long enough to land on it, jump off it while shrinking it back down and making the thing spin around her again, return the next object to its normal size, land on that before jumping off it, and repeat. She did that all the way through the air from the other roof to this one, crossing high above the street before landing smoothly. 

“Dude,” I managed, “you would be amazing at playing the floor is lava.” 

“I heard you were stopping a robbery,” she replied, “Not one to engage in snobbery, I thought an alliance was due. To turn a pair into few.” 

“Excellent,” Lucent agreed. “I had thought it would be only the two of us. Yes, we would quite welcome your assistance, Carousel. Your aid is as welcome as your delightful balladry. Now come…

“Let us discuss how to safely detain these scoundrels.” 

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Winging It 19-02 (Summus Proelium)

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As I had told Izzy, I wasn’t planning on going over to Wren’s place until after my whole thing with Lucent. But how could I possibly say no to Lion’s request to meet the girl? Well, okay, maybe Wren wouldn’t want to, and then I would say no. But something told me she wouldn’t.

Indeed, as I used my phone to call the girl in question and raised the subject, her answering squeal of joy made me flinch and wish that I could pull the Bluetooth thing away from my ear. It ahh, went on for a few seconds. Somewhere in the background, I heard the others quickly and repeatedly asking what was wrong. Oh, and they were also pleading with her to come down, so I could only imagine she had used her wing pack thing to fly up by the ceiling in her excitement.

“Trevithick!” I managed to cut in, glancing toward Lucent and Lion. From the way they both had their heads cocked as they looked toward me, I had the feeling they could hear at least part of that squeal and were amused. “Hey, if you really don’t want to meet her–” I started to tease. 

“No, no, no!” the kid immediately blurted. “I do! Yes, please! Bring her over! It’ll be great, it’ll be fun, are you serious? Is she really coming? It’s really the real Lion and she’ll come over?” 

Before I could respond to that, I heard a rather panicked Fred demand to know where Paintball had gotten a lion and why the hell I thought bringing it over there was a good idea. And that no, very firm no, absolutely no, she could not keep the lion. Also, was I/Paintball ‘completely nuts?’

Leaving Wren to explain the situation to her uncle for a moment, I looked at the two TONIs and cleared my throat before giving them a thumbs up. “I uh, think it’ll be okay. She’s really excited to meet you.” 

“And I to meet her,” Lion quickly assured me, tiny head bobbing up and down before jerking a bit to the side to watch as a car drove past in the distance. She turned just as sharply to look upward, and I glanced that way to see a bird flying past. The moment it had moved on and was no longer an immediate danger, her nose twitched and she snapped her head yet again, looking toward the gate nearby as a man walked out, heading down the sidewalk. 

Watching all that drove home just how vulnerable she must feel. She was even more intelligent than most humans, yet Lion was trapped in a body small and vulnerable enough that, without the armor she wore and her inventions for protection, a small human child could have killed her with a single kick. No wonder she was so nervous. And that didn’t even count all the actual predators out there who would have eaten her in an instant, without any regard for the things she could design and build. She had a mouse’s fearful instinct combined with a very intelligent understanding of just how vulnerable she could be. That must have been utterly terrifying. 

By that point, Wren had returned to the phone, her voice high with excitement as she urgently insisted that everything was fine and we should bring Lion over right now because she had so many things she wanted to ask about, and show her, and and and it went on. Yeah, she was basically losing her mind like a total fangirl at the very concept of meeting the mouse TONI. 

“Okay, okay,” I managed once I could get a word in edgewise. “But Trevithick, this is important. Do you want me to bring her to your shop directly, or do you want to meet her somewhere private?” I didn’t say it out loud, but I knew both she and the two in front of me would know what I was really asking. Which was, did she want Lion (and possibly Lucent) to know where her shop was and who she was, or did she want to keep her identity and place completely secret from them.  

In response, there was a pause. It told me that the kid was actually taking the question seriously, despite her excitement. I could picture her standing there, thoughtfully chewing her lip as she weighed the options back and forth a bit. “Hang on,” she finally replied. Then I heard her start a murmured conversation some distance away from the phone, talking to her uncle about it. And possibly to the others as well. Honestly, I was just glad she hadn’t dismissed the potential concern out of hand. Especially considering I still wasn’t completely positive that we could absolutely trust Lucent without question. Oh, I was pretty sure he was safe and all, but I wasn’t going to translate pretty sure into total certainty. Not when it came to something like my parents. 

Finally, the younger girl’s voice came back. “I want to ask her for ideas about protecting this place, so she should probably know where it is.” Unlike moments earlier, she was speaking calmly and rationally. It was clear she had put real thought into the answer. “It’ll be okay. ButI’mtotallywearingarealcostume!” The last bit came flooding out in a rush of words, followed by a lamenting squeal about how she had to find something good. 

Hoping that she was right about this being okay, I promised to be there soon, then disconnected and looked to the others “Well, guess it’s fine. You get to meet my friend, Trevithick. But umm, keep everything you find out to yourselves, please?” I wasn’t sure how to ask Lucent not to go as well. Despite the voice whispering in the back of my head that I can’t be certain he wasn’t compromised by the Ministry, I just couldn’t find the right words without being completely suspicious and rude. 

Fortunately, it turned out I didn’t have to find any words. Lucent himself gave what was the best bird-approximation of a bow. “I believe the invitation was for Lady Lion herself. Far be it from me to overstep. Perhaps you should take our exceptional friend here to meet this Trevithick, then meet me in some neutral location for our own training session while they converse?”

A swell of relief ran through me while I gave a quick nod. “Oh, sure. Yeah, I can do that.” Of course, then the relief turned into uncertainty as I looked down at Lion. “Um, do you mind if I carry you, or… umm…” Yeah, given how justifiably nervous she was, this was pretty awkward.  

Lion, for her part, turned a bit. “Jared, could you come out here, please?” 

Jared? Blinking uncertainly, I turned. Lion must have been speaking through a communicator or something, because it took a minute before the gate opened and a man emerged. Not that I would have noticed him if he hadn’t been the only person coming into view. In a crowd, he would have basically vanished completely. He looked completely ordinary and average in every conceivable way. He wasn’t short, and he wasn’t tall. He had dark hair with an unremarkable cut, his clothes were clean and might as well have been made by a company named Boring. He wore glasses, but they were so mundane that you would be forgiven for forgetting he had them at all five minutes after he walked away. The man seemed genetically predisposed to fade into the background of any situation, and everything he wore completely facilitated that. If I had seen this man in a crowd of people, I would have completely forgotten his existence a moment after they passed. Which, I was absolutely certain, was the intention. 

Stopping in front of us, the man offered a faint, polite smile. “Good morning,” he greeted me. 

“O-oh, umm, Paintball, this is ahh, my friend Jared,” Lion introduced us, raising one paw to gesture back and forth. “Jared, this ahh, this is Paintball. You uh, remember from the videos.”  

Videos? Oh God. As a pink flush of embarrassment crossed my hidden face, Jared gave a short nod and smiled at me. “You gave that demon guy a pretty good run across the city. Gave Lion and me a laugh, let me tell you.” 

Still blushing, I managed a casual shrug. “Yeah, well, I sorta had to run away, considering I wasn’t really in the mood to let him dribble me off the ground and toss me in a dumpster. My name is Paintball, not basketball.” 

“He could do it too,” Jared agreed with a grimace. “Glad you got away. And made him look like a fool in the process. But I hope you’re being careful.” 

My head bobbed. “Believe me, I have a lot to be careful about, it’s not just him.” 

“Indeed,” Lucent put in, “You have proven yourself quite adept at a great many things. But perhaps none as much as your proclivity for making enemies very quickly. The Scions and their admirers will not simply go quietly into the night. You must remain vigilant, and aware of your surroundings. I–” He paused before shaking his little bird head. “I will not attempt to insist that you join a larger group, particularly not now that you have gone so far as to attract others to your side and given yourselves a name. But please, be as careful as possible. And do not hesitate to ask others for help should you need it. I, for one, will always stand ready to swoop in and lend a wing, so to speak.” His dark eyes seemed to stare straight through my visor. “All parental jokes aside, I will be there the moment you request it. You have more than earned that aid. Please, you are enough of a hero as it is. Should the need arise, ask for help.” 

Feeling embarrassed and uncertain under the intense scrutiny, I squirmed a bit on my feet before mumbling an agreement. Then I turned back to Lion, as the little mouse carefully asked Jared to take off the backpack he was wearing. As a testament to how utterly mundane the man and his clothing were, I hadn’t even noticed he had one. But there it was. He carefully took the thing off. It was very simple-looking, a brown and white bag with what looked like a cheap padlock and several zippers across it. At a glance, the bag didn’t look any different than what you’d see on any of a thousand different backs walking through an average high school. But something told me it was much more unique than that.  

Sure enough, Lion explained that the bag was a home away from home. It held screens and microphones she could watch and communicate through, and was shielded in general against damage. Plus, there was a mouse-sized holdout bunker in the bottom that was capable of standing up against an incredible amount of damage if things got really bad. 

“Oh, you want me to wear that while we go visit Trevithick?” I realized. 

Her little mouse head bobbed quickly, voice emerging from the speakers built into her armor. “If you wouldn’t mind? I don’t umm, ahhh, think it would be very comfortable in your pocket.” 

Jared spoke up then. “You’ll have to wear this too.” He extended a hand, showing me a small pin. It looked just like a little silver eagle or hawk, with black beads for eyes. Except they weren’t beads. They were the lens for a camera. Jared explained that if I clipped it to the front of my costume, Lion would be able to see what I could. She could also see behind me through cameras in the bag, but this was her way of keeping an eye on what was going on in front of us. 

So, I carefully put the pin on, and Jared helped the mouse into the bag. We made sure it was all working and she could see and communicate with me properly before Lucent promised to talk to Lion later, and reiterated that he would see me somewhere else after I dropped off Lion. We settled on the roof of a grocery store we both knew about, and my bird-dad went flying off. 

Feeling a hand on my shoulder, I turned it to find Jared looking at me intently. “You be careful with her,” he warned. “The bag’s protected, but don’t go chasing problems while she’s there.”  

Before I could respond, the mouse’s projected voice came through speakers in the bag. “It’s ahh, okay, Jared. I’m sure um, Paintball will be ahh very cautious about running after trouble. Um, right?” Her voice took on a slight note of worry, probably considering my reputation in that moment.

Coughing under Jared’s intense stare, I weakly protested, “Oh, come on, I’m sure I can go five minutes without chasing after horrible bad guys or tripping over a bunch of crazy violence.” 

“Um, if it’s only five minutes,” Lion’s voice piped up once more, “maybe we should, ahh, hurry?” 

Jared warned me again not to go crazy, and I gave him a thumbs up before carefully adjusting the bag on my back. Cinching it tight, I spoke up. “Let me know if I need to slow down or anything. And uhh, I’ll avoid doing any flips.” With that, I raised a hand to shoot a blob of red paint toward the corner of nearby street light, and launched myself upward through a mix of that and blue paint under my feet, releasing the red on my way up so that I shot past it and used another red shot on the roof of a building across the street. Then we were flying that way. 

Landing on the roof in a jog, I asked, “How’re you doing in there? Everything okay? I can slow down if you want, or just take it easy on the jolts.” We were approaching the edge of the roof, but I slowed down to give her time to respond before the next jump. 

To my relief, she immediately chirped, “It’s quite alright, Mr. Paintball. The ahh bunker bag was built to dampen inertia and umm, compensate for sudden motion. You would have to move much faster than that to have any sort of problem. But umm, just in case, this–” There was a loud ringing sound, like an old telephone.  “–means please stop, there’s a problem.” 

Holding my hand in front of the pin-camera, I gave her a thumbs up. “That’ll definitely get my attention. Right, in that case, hold on. Or, you know, brace yourself.” 

With that, I pushed off from where I had stopped a few feet from the edge of the roof. Painting my legs green, I use the burst of speed to get there in an instant before activating purple circles on my arms. Using the boosted strength, I launched myself out into open air, windmilling a bit  before sending another shot of red at the side of the next building. I let it pull me that way, twisting a bit so that I landed feet-first against the wall, the gravity boots keeping me in place. Then I ran along that wall a few steps before using the voice code to make the wheels of my skates pop out. As we rolled toward the edge of the building, completely sideways, I called back, “Hope you’re ready back there, Miss Lion. 

“Cuz we’re about to have some fun.” 

*******

I didn’t go too nuts, of course. I kept my promise to avoid flips, for one thing. There might have been inertial dampeners in the bag, but I wasn’t sure how well they would stand up to going completely upside down. And I definitely didn’t want to test it with Lion in there. That felt like a really bad idea. Or at least a good way of ending up with an incredibly dizzy mouse. 

But I did make some long jumps and showed off a little, making sure Lion was okay after each one. She seemed to be enjoying herself, so I played it up a little more as we got closer to Wren’s place. Something told me she probably didn’t get out like this that often, so I wanted to make the whole thing memorable for her. Preferably without making her sick. 

Taking a moment at the end to make sure no one was close, I made my way through the alley leading up to the back of the shop while telling Lion that we were almost there. “Before you meet Trevithick,” I started, “there’s something about her that I should probably tell you ab–” 

“Paintball!” The back door of the shop was already open as we approached, and Wren came flying out. Literally flying, with her wing pack. As promised, she was wearing a costume… of sorts. It consisted of a sleek black bodysuit with bright pink armored panels along her arms, legs, and chest, and matching black helmet, covering her entire head and face. A pink-tinted visor ran across her eyes. 

She flew right up in the air at eye-level, and grabbed my shoulders, staring at me through that pink visor. “Didja bring her, is she here? You weren’t fibbing, were you? She’s really coming?” Her gaze was darting around excitedly, like a kid anticipating Santa’s arrival. Which, for a Tech-Touched like Wren, being able to talk to someone like Lion probably was a lot like Santa. I had a feeling there weren’t too many people the kid could talk shop with. 

Laughing a little despite myself, I nodded. “First of all, you really threw that together in ten minutes? And it’s okay, she’s here. Lion, this is Trevithick.” 

There was a very brief pause before Lion’s voice emerged, “It is ahh, a pleasure to meet you. Quite a pleasure. May umm, may we go inside so that it can be face to face?” 

Realizing she was in the bag, Wren gave a delighted squeal. She spun three-hundred-and-sixty degrees, all the way around in the air. Then she did it again, only that time it was a full forward vertical flip rather than a simple sideways spin. “Come on, come on!” Inverting in midair, she flew right back through the open doorway while calling back for us to follow her. 

Clearing my throat, I managed, “Like I was gonna say, she’s young. But really effective.” 

“I-umm, I believe you,” came the response. “From everything I’ve ahh, heard, her age is no detriment to her skill. She is the uhh, one who built the forced movement suit?” 

Right, of course she would know about that. Lion probably had contacts within all the Star-Touched groups to have learned about what we did with Ashton. Plus, she was clearly friendly with Lucent from the Seraphs, and they knew plenty because I’d ‘borrowed’ a piece of their technology for the suit. 

So, I nodded while heading to the door, not wanting to make Wren wait so long that she spontaneously combusted or something. Only belatedly did I realize that nodding was dumb, because Lion couldn’t see my head movements. Flushing a little inwardly while silently thanking the fact that no one had seen that, I spoke up. “Yeah, that’s her. She’s umm, she’s done a lot.” 

For a brief moment, I actually considered asking for her advice about Paige. But I wasn’t sure that was a good idea. Not that she wasn’t trustworthy, probably. But it really wasn’t my place to go exposing Paige like that to someone she didn’t even know. After all, with my secrets, how would I feel if one of the others took it upon themselves to tell someone else about them? Even if they thought the person could help, I’d still feel pretty shitty about it. 

So no, unless Paige said it was okay, I wasn’t going to get into all that with her. It wasn’t my place to make that sort of decision. Besides, I still needed to ask her what the deal with her older sister was. 

By the time I shook that thought off, we’d entered through the back door. Immediately, I saw Wren hovering over by one of the tables full of junk, clutching the side of it with both hands while literally vibrating in midair. She was hovering there, staring without moving any closer. Because, I realized, she was literally holding onto the table to stop herself from lunging my way and demanding once more to meet Lion. 

Oh yeah, and the others were there too. Fred stood in the background, watching with a wary, uncertain expression. He wore no costume at all, of course. Meanwhile, Murphy and Roald stood on either side of him. In their case, my two…. helpers wore their ski masks. Apparently they weren’t on board with exposing their identities to Lion. Which was fair. Not that it would be impossible for the little mouse to figure out if she actually investigated Wren’s shop at all, but still. 

Apparently Peyton wasn’t here yet. If she was smart (smarter than me, at least) she’d be using this chance to sleep in and relax.

Rather than torture Wren any further, I stepped over to the nearest table and slipped the backpack off. As I put the thing down, a little slot in the front opened and the guest of honor hesitantly poked her nose out. She snipped cautiously once, twice, then stepped into view. Her small head was darting around rapidly, looking almost panicked as she took everything in. By contrast with her rapid motions, her voice was actually fairly calm (at least as calm as she seemed to ever sound). “Ah, hello. It is uhh, my pleasure to meet another… ahhh… Tech-Touched such as you, Miss.” 

A rush of fear ran through me that Wren was going to squeal or scream and lunge that way, terrifying the poor mouse. But she actually seemed to understand what a bad idea that was. I saw her physically take a breath, then lower herself back to the ground before taking a few careful steps closer. “H-hi, Miss Lion.” Oh, and she sounded nervous, rubbing the back of her new helmet and squirming. “I’m… umm, I’m Wren. It’s really nice to meet you. Oh, that’s Uncle Fred.” She gestured that way. “And those are… uhhh…” She trailed off, as both she and I realized we weren’t sure what to call the other two if we weren’t giving away their names. 

Murphy, however, was on top of it. She gestured to her friend. “That’s Calvin. I’m Hobbes. Don’t mind us, we just clean up around here. Umm, Miss Talking Brilliant Mouse Lady.” Much as she was still trying to keep her cool and sound disinterested, I could tell it was all Murphy (or Hobbes) could do not to have a little squealing fit of her own. 

While Lion politely thanked everyone for greeting her, I heard Roald quietly hiss, “Calvin and Hobbes?” to Murphy. 

“Look,” she hissed right back, “that was what jumped into my head. It was that or Yogi and Boo Boo. And guess who would’ve been Boo Boo.” 

Smirking a little despite myself, I turned my attention back to Lion and Wren. “So, you guys cool to talk some shop here while I run around for awhile?” 

“Oh, oh yes.” Lion assured me. “I ahh, I believe we will be quite fine in your absence. 

“There is quite a lot I would like to speak with Miss Wren about.” 

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Winging It 19-01 (Summus Proelium)

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“Do you think Peyton’s okay?” Izzy asked the next morning while the two of us were sitting up on the roof overlooking the grounds. We both had our knees drawn to our chests while we ate a couple bowls of cereal and enjoyed the fact that we weren’t in immediate life-threatening danger. And, even though it had been most of a day since all that happened, I enjoyed the whole actually being able to move thing. Yeah, being paralyzed really wasn’t fun. 

After letting Flea know about everything yesterday (or at least as much as we could say), we had contacted Caishen too so she knew what was going on and what we had found out. Then the rest of us simply let the adult teams do their thing. We’d done quite enough by that point. And quite frankly, we all needed a break. That-A-Way and Raindrop had to go back to the Minority base to give a full, official report. And Peyton had definitely wanted to go home, shower, and recover from all that. I took a run with her across the city first, both of us stretching our legs and just making sure we could move properly, before I let her head home. Then I did the same thing, which had led to like an hour-long hot bath that I had fallen asleep in, followed by an actual nap in my bed. Then dinner, a rush of getting weekend homework done, some goofing off with Izzy once she showed up, and more sleeping. Yeah, I was exhausted, right down to my bones. 

Now I’d slept enough. God, I’d needed that though. More than I’d even known. 

It was Sunday, so most of the first staff had the day off. There were still a few weekend workers around, including one of Claudio’s peers, since he and his two assistants (Ethan and Christiana) would be gone all day. And honestly, it had practically been a fight between my parents and Claudio to get the chef to let someone else work the kitchen so he could have the day off. He had a thing against people, as he put it, bumbling around his space, fondling his instruments (that’s what he called it), and making a mess. If he’d had his way, he would’ve worked every single day. But Mom and Dad insisted he have a day off. Granted, that day off changed frequently, but he was keeping to the letter of the rule if he took one day off per week.  

In the end, he’d only even agreed to that much when they allowed him to choose his substitute. Which had amounted to going around every five-star restaurant within the entire state and making them audition for him until he found someone he was satisfied could handle coming in one day per week to work the kitchen without totally destroying it. And yes, he still wasn’t all that happy about the idea. He cursed and made threats every time someone brought up the idea of his taking two days off. Cooking was Claudio’s life. It was what made him happy. For him, it wasn’t a job, it was what he loved. 

Chewing and swallowing the cereal in my mouth, I offered a shrug. “Peyton? Yeah, I think she’s okay. I hope so. I just… I wish we could have eased her into things a little better instead of making her deal with… all that.” A grimace found its way to my face. Yeah, that definitely hadn’t been easy. But we got out of it. “We would’ve been in a lot more trouble without her.” 

“She knows that, right?” Izzy shifted a bit to look at me. “I mean, she should already, but you told her how helpful she was? You know, so she doesn’t umm, start thinking she didn’t help.” 

My head nodded vigorously. “Oh, believe me, I spent like the entire run across the city after we left you guys making sure she knew just how grateful I was that she came with us. Seriously. I think I embarrassed her a little bit.” A snort of amusement escaped me at the memory of Peyton stammering that it was no big deal, before it turned into a lump in my throat. “Still, I wish she didn’t have to be involved in all that. She’s been doing this like, what, a week and she’s already been involved with going into Paige’s brain to deal with that, plus now she’s made personal enemies out of Cup and Pencil? She’s not even getting the chance to build up at all. We just sort of picked her up and threw her in the deep end.” 

Izzy shook her head, taking another bite of cereal and swallowing before she spoke. “You didn’t throw her into anything. You didn’t throw me into anything either. Or Way, or… or Pack. We make our own decisions, and we decided to help. It’s not your responsibility to keep everyone out of danger, Cassie.” After a brief moment, she added, “Besides, it’s not like you had the chance to wade around the shallow end for a long time either. Like, your very first thing with any of this was finding out… you know.” She gestured around us. “Where all this comes from.” 

The reminder made me blanch, swallowing hard before giving a very short nod. “Right, well I don’t have to like it happening to other people too. But yeah, I umm, I think she’ll be okay. I told her to take a couple days off and recover before we do anything else stressful.” 

“You think she will?” Izzy asked, sounding curious as she tapped her spoon thoughtfully against the side of her bowl before taking another bite.   

I shrugged. “I mean, she said something about going to Wren’s to help Murphy and Roald clean up. It’s not a total ‘day off’, but at least it’s not something horribly dangerous. I guess maybe I’ll go over there a bit later too, just to check on Paige and all that. Heh, maybe she’d like to hear about what sort of things I can get up to while she’s not around.” 

“You just want to tell her what you did while she’s still paralyzed and can’t choke you,” Izzy retorted while giving me a pointed look.

Flushing a little, I admitted, “That might be part of it.” A frown found its way to my face then. “God, it’s weird to talk about Paige at all without like… thinking about needing holy water and maybe a priest to make her stay away from me.” It really did do weird things to my stomach. There was so much history there between us. Hell, no wonder her being so… so awful to me for so long had actually affected me as much as it had. If I subconsciously somehow still remembered the fact that we were supposed to be friends, it would have hurt so much more than coming from a stranger. 

Seeming to know exactly where my mind had gone, Izzy reached out to squeeze my arm. “She couldn’t control it,” the girl reminded me. “She didn’t have a choice about any of it.”  

With a sigh, I started to say that I knew she was right, but my Touched-stuff phone buzzed first. Holding the bowl in one hand, I tugged out the phone to look at it. It was not, as I had immediately feared, a message about something terrible happening. Instead, the message was a news alert about Cup and Pencil. I had set this phone to monitor that sort of thing instead of my normal one, just to keep everything in my life as separate as possible. And just in case, I really didn’t want to explain to my parents why I’d set up a news alert for Scion-related stuff. Not that I really expected them to look, nor was it really impossible for me to explain wanting to know what those psychopaths were up to after the whole attack at the hotel and hospital. But still, just… best to keep all that separate so my parents had absolutely no reason to look at me at all. 

“What is it?” Izzy asked, shifting around a bit to be closer. “Is something wrong? Did–” 

“It’s a story about Cup and Pencil,” I replied, turning the phone a bit so she could see the headline while summarizing for her. “They did it. The authorities, I mean. They put out the whole story about who they are. Their real names, their pictures, their backstory and how they faked that whole thing with their murdered parents and the ‘original Pencil.’ All of it. It’s all here. Everything we told the adults. They really put all of it out there.” 

“Oh wow.” Izzy rocked backward a bit, swallowing. “I mean, I know we expected them to, but… but still.” She hesitated before looking at me seriously. “Those guys are gonna be so pissed off.” 

My head bobbed quickly. “They sure are. But at least now they can’t operate as easily as they did before, you know? They’ll have eyes on them everywhere they go under their normal faces. They can’t… can’t… wait…” I had scrolled down by that point, my thumb moving along the screen to find the image of Pencil and Cup’s real faces. Someone had put up an image of the two of them at a school function. I knew Amanda, of course. But this was my first time seeing Nick himself. 

Except it wasn’t my first time seeing him. 

“Cass?” Izzy stared at me, clearly seeing the look on my face. “What’s wrong? Are you okay?” 

With a shaking finger, I pointed at the image on the screen. “I know him. I’ve seen him. I mean obviously I know Pencil. But him. He was… he was…” A shudder ran through me. “Back when I was looking for the vials for Ashton, I umm… I went out one night and saw the umm… the aftermath of one of the Scions’ sick little games at this gas station. A bunch of people died in there, thanks to… thanks to Pencil. I was standing there, and this guy came up in a jogging suit and demanded to know why no one ever stopped Pencil. He was… he was angry because we weren’t doing enough to save people.” 

Izzy’s gaze moved from my own eyes down to the image on the screen, then back again. “Him? It… it was him?” 

My head gave a quick, jerky nod. “Definitely. It was him. He was fucking with us. He was right there, demanding to know why no one ever caught Pencil, and it was him the whole time. It was him and–and we didn’t even–I didn’t even.” My eyes squeezed shut as I resisted the urge to hurl the phone as far away as I could. He had been right there talking to me. How did I just let him walk away after all that? How could I completely fail to see anything wrong with him? He walked right up to me, right up and just started talking. Was I stupid and clueless? I should have noticed that something was wrong. I should have paid more attention to him. There had to have been some sort of giveaway. If I’d just looked at him straight on, thought more about it, done–

“Cassie,” Izzy quietly insisted while setting her bowl down so she could lean over and put her arms around me. “It’s not your fault. Nobody recognized him. How could you? People don’t recognize you in your costume and all that either. That’s like… the point of a costume, you know? It’s the whole point of wearing a disguise. You had no reason to suspect that guy. Come on, you can’t blame yourself for that too.” 

“I know,” I admitted, still shuddering. “But I just–if I had–if we had. I can’t…” Exhaling long and low, I nodded. “I get it. Believe me. I just–he was right there. He was talking to me. It makes my skin crawl.” Belatedly, I added, “My dad was right there too, as Silversmith, I mean. He was there and talked to him too.” How was he feeling right now? Did he even remember that guy showing up and talking to us, or had it just faded into the background for him? How much did he even care about that? 

Okay, that really wasn’t fair. I knew he hated the Scions, especially after what they did at the hospital. Pencil and his gang weren’t under any sort of Ministry control, so he and Mom obviously wanted them taken out as much as anyone else did. I just couldn’t help those instinctive feelings. 

“If he knew, he would have stopped the guy too.” Izzy’s voice was firm. “Your dad might be… umm, not good. But he would have stopped that.” 

With a sigh, I nodded. “You’re right. I know. I know you’re right. Dad’s a lot of things, but he’s not… he’s not like that. They have rules and stuff, we already know that much. I just…” Taking in a long, deep breath before slowly letting it out, I murmured, “I really hope someone stops them now. I don’t care who it is, which side of the law they’re on. I don’t care about any of that as long as they stop those psychopaths.” 

The other girl nodded firmly, and the two of us sat in silence for a few seconds. Then, clearly distracting me from obsessing over that, Izzy asked, “You’ve got that other thing today too, right? Before you can help at Wren’s place.” 

The reminder made me smile just a bit despite myself. “Right, yeah. The other thing. 

“I get to go hang out with Bird-Dad.” 

*******

After leaving the house and making damn sure I was nowhere near it, I made the call to the Seraph’s headquarters and had them transfer me to Lucent so we could set up the exact time to meet. Apparently he wasn’t too busy, because he said he could meet within the hour, and asked if I was still okay with him bringing his friend. I said that was fine (I was curious about who this ‘friend’ of his was and why he thought we should meet), and arranged to be at the front gates as soon as possible.  

Heading over there, I kept my eyes open just in case. I wasn’t really expecting a huge problem, considering how many people had their eyes open for Pencil and Cup. They were probably pretty busy dealing with the fallout from that, but better safe than sorry. We were going to have to be careful, because as soon as those fucks decided to turn from survival and escape to revenge, all of us were going to be right at the top of their list. Which was just peachy. 

Eventually, I made it up there and landed in front of the gate. Matthew Orens was there, and I started to ask if he had the cover for the book, but the man interrupted. “Never mind that right now. You okay, kid? I ahhh, well, everybody heard about what happened. At least, what’s semi-public. And I’ve been around long enough to know that ain’t the whole story. You got those assholes’ real identities, and that can’t have been easy.” 

Blinking a couple times, I replied, “Uh, me being involved wasn’t in the official story.” That was intentional, we didn’t want quite that much attention. The Scions were going to be pissed off enough at us without throwing more fuel on the fire. As far as the regular media was concerned, their real identities had been discovered through the work of police and the Conservators. 

Orens gave me an easy nod. “Yeah, that’s why I said semi-official. Believe me, when you work around this many Touched, things have a way of getting around.” His voice softened a bit as he added, “But seriously, that had to be pretty rough. Glad you got out of it. Everyone okay?”  

“Yeah, we’re okay,” I confirmed, painting a smiley face on the front of my helmet. “I’m just glad they’ve got those guys on the run now. It won’t be as easy for them to walk around on the street. I mean, it won’t solve every problem. And things will probably get worse before they get better. And–damn it, this was supposed to be a positive thing. I should really stop talking.”

With a very light, almost humorless chuckle, the man assured me. “It’s definitely positive, that’s for sure. Still, you be careful out there. Not just for the Scions themselves. They’ve also got fans and wannabes. If they figure out what your involvement was, they’ll try to make a name for themselves by coming after you. You know, impress their heroes to get a spot on the team.” 

Blanching at the thought that there were people who actually wanted to impress those psychopaths, I gave a short nod. “Thanks, we’ll keep our eyes open. But hey, let’s get that book done. You said Josh’s birthday was Wednesday, right? We better finish that up.” 

He already had the pages I’d given him bound properly into a cover, and I took the time to make a cool picture on the front. Then I put a brief description on the back and added the finishing touch to the inside cover, a bit that read, ‘For Josh, from Dad, Paintball, and the rest of Avant-Guard. Happy birthday.’

Reading that bit, Orens raised an eyebrow. “Avant-Guard? You know it’s spelled–”

“Yup,” I quickly assured him. “We ahhh, we’re testing out a new name. What do you think?”

Reading it over again, the man considered. “Oh, it’s definitely unique. Shouldn’t have to worry about it being taken. You know how to sign up to register your team name and membership so the authorities know who they’re dealing with?” 

I didn’t, of course, and the man gave me the name of a website to go to that would walk me through it. Of course, it wouldn’t give any real authority or anything. Nothing more than what being accepted as a Star-Touched already gave. But it was a way of giving the authorities an easy way to check team membership and know who they were working with. 

After I thanked him, the man shook his head and smiled broadly while waving the book. “No, thank you, kid. This is perfect. It’s gonna be great, he’ll love it. And I meant what I said before. You really should look into taking some extra grammar and writing classes so you can do this sort of thing for an extra living. Pretty sure it’d give you all the free time you need so you can set your own hours. Give it a thought, you’ve got a few years.” 

As my face flushed a little bit under the helmet, I thanked him profusely and promised to check in later to see how his son ended up liking his gift. With that, I turned to the gate just in time to hear a voice pipe up from just above me. 

“Sir Orens is correct, my boy. You should be thinking of the future. One never truly understands just how fast time moves until far too much of it has already passed us by.”

Blinking up that way, I brought the big smiley face back and waved. “Hey, Papa! Fancy meeting you here.” 

Hopping down from the fence to land on top of a nearby trash can, Lucent gave me what I swore was a proud bird look. “I’ve heard all about how busy you’ve been, lad. I hope you take Sir Orens’ advice. Not merely his words about planning for the future, but about being careful as well. He is very correct. The fiends will see you and yours as fine targets now. And did I hear you and your allies have settled upon a group identity?” 

So, I told him about the whole Avant-Guard thing. He thought it was amazing, and said so. He even gave some ideas for logos and such, and we spent about five minutes or so just going back and forth on those thoughts before a voice spoke up from near the ground. “Excuse me?” 

Blinking that way, I found myself looking at a familiar, very tiny figure perched there on the ground. My eyes widened a bit and I immediately blurted, “Lion!” Yeah, it was the mouse TONI (TOuched Nonhuman Individual). Pretty hard to mistake a talking mouse in golden armor for anyone else. “Hey, how’re you doing? I didn’t know you were still in town. You–” Blinking from her over to Lucent, I managed, “This is your friend?” 

“That’s right.” Lucent flew down to land next to her. “She wanted to talk to you again. Or rather, she wanted to talk to your friend.” 

“My friend?” I echoed. 

Lion hesitantly took over. “The umm, the person who has been supplying you. We… umm… we think you have a Tech-Touched helping and ahhh, umm, if it isn’t too much of an imposition, I would like to umm… talk to… them? While you and ahh, Lucent here are busy.” 

For a second, I let the thought of that work its way through my brain. Lion and Wren having a conversation, those two collaborating and… and…

A smile found its way to my face, as I translated it into an even broader one painted across my helmet. “You know what? Yeah. 

“I think that sounds like a great idea.”  

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Hostile Witness 18-10 (Summus Proelium)

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Well, so much for being free and clear. Just when I’d actually dared to think that we had gotten away from that whole… situation with the Scions, everything immediately blew up again. We were being chased in the van and shot at. Cup was there, along with who knew how many others. Way was stuck driving, not daring to slow down at all, and Raindrop kept peeking out the back window, calling out warnings whenever it looked like they were about to fire. Her warnings made Way spin the wheel one way or the other, sending the van skidding across the road. 

Sometimes, she couldn’t avoid the shots. Either there wasn’t room or time. But that was where Alloy came in. She had her marbles flying along behind the van, alternately transforming into various walls or shields to block the hits that Way couldn’t evade. Alloy couldn’t see enough to direct them for that, of course. But they were doing a pretty good job on their own just from the instructions to ‘protect the van.’ Which raised even more questions about how independent they were, not that I was going to get into that right now.

Either way, between Raindrop calling out when to evade, and Alloy’s marbles shielding the shots that she couldn’t get away from, we were avoiding the worst of what the Scions were throwing at us. But I had no idea how long that could continue. If we didn’t do something else fast, something was going to get through. Worse, if Way lost control of the van and we had to face the Scions in a straight fight…  yeah, I didn’t see that ending well. Especially considering the fact that three of us were still mostly paralyzed.  

Speaking of which, we were desperately trying to speed along our recovery so we could actually help. We could fairly regularly move our fingers, hands, and toes, but it was still not enough. Well, not unless the Scions wanted to settle this whole thing with a good old-fashioned thumb wrestling match. I was pretty sure I could win one of those. But then again, something told me Cup would find a way to cheat even at that, and I’d end up without a thumb at all. 

Oh, and we couldn’t call for help either. Yeah, we’d tried that, and the calls weren’t going through anymore. Not since I’d hung up with Deicide. Clearly, Cup was using something to block it. Probably her own invention, since she was apparently a fucking Tech-touched! 

“Hold on!” Way called back once more, just before the van jolted violently. It felt like we were running over the pockmarked dirt along the side of the road itself. The whole vehicle threatened to spin out of control, but she managed to keep it going mostly straight, cursing out loud. “Fucking– Box is back there, he keeps making rock walls appear in front of us!” 

Box, right. He was the guy who made those glowing orbs and could throw them before they turned into variously shaped and sized portions of fire, wind, water, or, in this case, earth. So at least two of the Fell-Touched for the Scions were back in that car chasing us. And I didn’t think we were lucky enough for them to be the only ones. Especially not today. Nothing was lucky about today. Well, unless we actually managed to get out of here with that information about Cup and Pencil’s true identities, and her real power. That would be pretty lucky.

Even as I had that thought, my arm rose. Slowly and a bit jerkily, but it rose right up in front of my face. Move. I could move even more than before. The paralyzation was wearing off faster. “Come on, come on,” I murmured to myself, bending and unbending the arm. It felt like an extreme version of having a limb ‘fall asleep.’ The numbness was incredibly weird. 

Come to think of it, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t completely helpless here, numbness be damned. Pushing my hand against the floor beneath me, I focused on spreading green paint through the vehicle. I couldn’t paint the whole thing, of course. I didn’t have enough paint or the right position. But I could help a bit. I could contribute, damn it. 

“Tell me when you need a green speed boost!” I shouted toward the front while slowly shaking out my other arm. From this position, I couldn’t see where we were on the road, what was ahead of us, or anything else. I was going to have to rely on Way for all that. 

Thankfully, she realized what I was talking about immediately. “Not yet!” the girl called. “Wait… wait…” She spun the wheel once more, the metal and wheels both squealing in protest. “Now!” 

So, I triggered the boost right then. Immediately, the van lurched to about twice its usual speed. I could hear the squealing of the tires as we shot forward, pulling a decent bit ahead of the car behind us. It gave our group a little bit of very desperately needed breathing room. 

Unfortunately, it was still just a van, and the Scion car was faster. Whether that was simply a normal fact, or one helped by Cup tinkering with their car, I had no idea. Either way, they were still hot on our heels. I boosted the van now and then, but there was only so much I could do. There was only so much any of us could do. We were still a long distance from the rest of the city and from any help. Unless Deicide happened to pass us on her way to the petting zoo, and again, we weren’t that lucky. No, we were on our own here. We just… had to survive. 

“Way!” Raindrop called. “Go straight for three seconds when I say!” She was peering out the small window, one hand on the handle. After a moment, she called, “Left!” Way spun the wheel that direction, and I caught the barest glimpse of a glowing energy beam shoot past the window on the right side as Cup took another shot. It was so close, the van shook from whatever kinetic force the beam was carrying with it. Which was fucking weird to begin with. 

The instant the shot went past, Raindrop shouted, “Hold steady!” She glared out that back window, focusing while pointing with her free hand. I heard the rush of water go flying that way, before the girl cursed. Which was still strange to hear coming from her. She quickly jerked back while blurting, “Right!” Which sent the van sliding across the road that direction just in time to miss another shot. 

“Shield,” Raindrop informed us while still clutching the side of the van to keep herself upright. “They’ve got some kind of forcefield around the car, I can’t… I can’t get it wet! I can’t move it, I can’t do anything!” Her voice was frantic, clearly freaking out a bit. Not that I could blame her. We were all freaking out. There had to be a way out of here, had to be a way to escape from those psycho fucks. God damn it, why wouldn’t my arms move properly so I could do something?! Straining as hard as I could, I managed to make them bend a little faster. The paralyzation was wearing off, but not nearly quickly enough. The most I could do was keep randomly speeding the van up, which helped a bit, but wasn’t enough to keep us away from those assholes for long. It didn’t even help us pull far enough away to make a phone call, damn it! 

With that rush of anger, I suddenly realized that I was sitting up. Alloy and Pack both managed to turn their heads my way, but I was the one in a seated position. Clearly Cup had overestimated how long her paralyzing ray would work. “I can move,” I murmured, before my eyes widened. “I can move.” Everything was still numb, of course. but I was mobile. Definitely not in the right shape to start a fight with the guys chasing us, and yet the thrill of adrenaline from realizing I could move had brought something else to mind. I knew where we were. I knew where we were. And that meant–

Twisting over onto my hands and knees, I crawled to the back, next to Raindrop. There, I crouched by the door and braced myself. “Way!” I called up, “get ready to shift to the passenger side!” 

“What?!” she shouted back at me. “Why the hell would I–” 

But I was already moving. Shoving the back door open, I saw the car racing up from behind us. Sure enough, Cup and Box were there, along with a handful of other Scion lackeys. My hand extended, shooting a burst of yellow paint at the road just as we passed, before activating it. The Scion car abruptly slowed to half its normal speed, and I immediately swung myself out, using red paint to yank myself up against the side of the van while calling for Raindrop to shut the door. 

There I was, crouched sideways against the van, as we raced at like seventy miles an hour along the road. Another quick shot of red yanked me to the front, and I opened the driver’s side door while blurting, “Over, over!” 

To her credit, That-A-Way did exactly that, throwing herself into the passenger seat while I landed where she had been, my foot finding its way to the accelerator before we slowed much. “What’re you doing?!” the other girl shouted while quickly belting herself in.

“Tell me the thirteen-year-old isn’t driving,” Pack snapped from the back. “I said, tell me the thirteen-year-old isn’t driving!” 

“Okay,” I replied, glancing at the screen on the dash that showed a view behind us through a camera on the bumper, “the thirteen-year-old isn’t driving. 

“He’s flying.” 

With that, I abruptly spun the wheel hard to the right with one hand while touching the edge of the dash with my other. An orange arrow appeared there, extending out over the hood. I activated it just as the van hit a small incline on the side of the road and, with the engine roaring, went airborne a good six or seven feet, slamming into and through a tree that was in its way. Behind me and beside me, I could hear the others screaming. 

The van was now running perpendicular to the street, racing across the wilderness. Scattered trees surrounded us, and I twisted the wheel sharply once to avoid a big one. It came close enough that the branches scraped loudly along the passenger side. Behind us, I could see the Scion car coming right back into view. 

“Paintball, get back on the road!” Way shouted. “Get back on the road, get back on the road!” 

“Road?” I quoted, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.” 

“We need roads!” That was Alloy, her voice a frantic scream. “We definitely need roads!” 

But I wasn’t listening. Instead, I reached up, clipping the seatbelt into place. The van was cruising along the weed-filled ground, bouncing violently from each slight dip and bump. In the rear camera, the Scions were coming up fast. Once in awhile, they fired off a shot that was intercepted by one of the marbles keeping pace with us. 

“Paintball,” Way managed with a tight, worried voice, “I don’t know where you think you’re goaaaaaaahhhhh!” The scream was because we had just hit a bush, passing straight through it before the van dropped like… three feet to crash hard on a dirt path that had been packed hard by thousands of tires running over it. 

“Hah!” I crowed, twisting the wheel sharply to the left to send the van twisting ninety-degrees that way, narrowly avoiding a heavy boulder that had been directly ahead of us. “I knew this was the right area!” 

Suddenly, the van was driving along a narrow ‘road’ (such as it was), with thick trees and rocks lining both sides. It was barely wide enough for the van, and full of dips and hills. We were on a dirt bike track that ran through the forest out here. I’d gone riding a bunch of times. Even broke my arm once. 

Hopefully this time went better. 

Of course, this wasn’t an ordinary, circular track. The whole thing ran for miles and miles throughout the wilderness, with multiple ways to go, several figure eights, intersections where you had to choose which direction to take, even a couple parts where the track was raised into a bridge that ran over one of the lower parts. It was basically the best dirt bike track in the entire state

On the other hand, it was built for dirt bikes, not for a van (or the car following us). The poor vehicle was taking a definite pounding as I floored the gas and sent the van flying along the track, gaining air repeatedly with each hill I launched it over, before coming down hard and violently shaking everyone around. The only reason it stayed together as much as it did was the orange marks I kept repeatedly painting along it whenever possible. 

Way was saying something, the others were shouting from the back, and I ignored all of it. My focus was on pushing the van as hard and as fast as it would go. We were flying along the track, straight toward a T-intersection. Ahead, past the edge of that intersection, was an enormous tree that would have turned the van into a pile of scrap parts if we hit it. At the last second, with Way screaming in my ear, I snapped the wheel to the left while activating just a bit of yellow paint that I had sent through the vehicle. It slowed us enough to make that turn, skidding to the left. Instantly, I threw the wheel to the right, sending the van sliding along the sudden opposite turn that came within a few dozen feet of the intersection. 

Behind us, the Scion car had to skid to a complete stop, backing up and then turning to get back on track. It was clearly faster and more maneuverable than we were. So, if we were going to lose them, I was just going to have to get creative. 

Getting creative, in this case, meant flooring the accelerator and trusting the mix of my memory, reflexes, and that weird, unexplained extra sense I had to get us through the track without completely destroying the van and killing all of us in the process. 

So, that’s what I did. I let myself go and just… trusted. The van’s engine screamed as I sent the vehicle rocketing down the track. There was a curve to the left coming up. I knew it. I couldn’t see it, but I knew it. At the exact right moment, I twisted the wheel. Left–now right, sharp right. Straight for four seconds, jerk the wheel right to avoid the deep pothole in the dirt, clip the trees there, it’s alright they don’t have any big branches. Left or straight here, but go straight because the left went to a dead end. Tree on the ground, veer left and boost to hit that little dirt ramp enough to clear it. Not fast enough. Green paint, boost now! Ignore the screams as the van went airborne. Orange paint for protection, then a hard right once the van hit the ground–no, count to two first, then turn. Slam! One… two–turn! Count to four then shift to the left enough to avoid the sharp boulder sticking out of the nearby overhang. Can’t turn sooner or you’ll hit the deep ditch on that side. One, two, three, four–twist left! 

Drive straight three seconds, turn left again. Four more seconds, twist right. Accelerate as hard as possible and use the green boost for a dirt ramp up ahead, then twist left. Right, right, straight, left, straight, right, straight, left, straightrightrightstraightleftstraightrightstraight!

Though all that, the Scion car kept falling further and further behind. I was pretty sure I could hear Cup screaming in rage, as she fired off a few useless shots that came nowhere near us, but did manage to knock down some trees. We were pulling ahead. But that wouldn’t last. As soon as we were back in open ground, they would catch up. Their car was more sustainably faster. I could boost for short periods, but they had the speed to catch us. We couldn’t just drive in circles along this track forever. We had to do something else. 

Luckily, I had a plan for that. 

“Alloy!” I called toward the back even as I followed my power’s direction and snapped the wheel to the right to send the van in a long skid, applying the brakes at the exact right moment. “Can you combine your marbles into one big shield against the back of the van to take a handful of shots so we can go straight for a bit?!” 

There was a brief pause before the other girl replied in a tight voice, “Yeah, but I don’t know how long they’ll last that way! Whatever she’s shooting at us, it’s got a lot of freaking power!” 

“Doesn’t have to be long,” I insisted. “Just do it when I tell you. Rain, when she does that, soak our car.” 

“Our car?” Raindrop echoed, clearly confused about what I was planning. Thankfully, she trusted me, belatedly calling out an agreement.   

Hands gripping the wheel tightly, I focused on taking us through three more sharp, sudden turns. “Soak the whole van, all of it. And when I tell you… make us float for as long as you can. Just keep us from falling, okay? Keep the van in the air.” Even while saying that, I kept one hand on the dashboard and focused on spreading as much green paint as I could, mixed with just enough orange to hopefully hold the thing together when it had to. I was really draining the bottom of the barrel with this one. I was pretty sure I’d be tapped out after this. At least for a minute or two. And that was basically an eternity in a situation like this. But that was okay. We were going to need the speed, and it was now or never. 

“Alloy, be ready to shield. Raindrop, soak and float on my mark!”  

Then, with a sharp right turn, we hit the straightaway. “Shield, Alloy! Full shield!” I shouted as we bounced along. “Just hold them off for a few seconds! Raindrop, soak it, soak the whole thing and be ready!” 

The other two followed my instructions. Summoned water soaked the whole vehicle thoroughly, like driving through a monsoon.  Behind us, I could hear the shots from our insistent friends rebounding off the marble shields as they immediately took advantage of the straight line of sight they finally had. 

“Can’t take very much more of that shit!” Alloy shouted a bit tensely after five or six of the blasts had struck her shield. “Whatever that bitch is shooting at us, it’s really fucking strong!”

“Just a little further!” I insisted, flooring the pedal as hard as I could. Still, I didn’t activate the green paint. Not yet. Even without the boost, we were careening down that incredibly narrow dirt track. Branches from trees on either side were scraping along the edge of the van, and smacking the windows as we shot down the path. Behind us, the Scions were clearly keeping pace, given the sound of gunfire and the repeated bangs from their car bouncing through the holes. At least they were having just as rough of a ride as we were. Not that that was too much of a consolation, given the whole situation, but still. 

Just when I thought I might have underestimated how far we needed to go, I saw the target up ahead. In that instant, I triggered all the green paint I’d managed to put over the van, and we rocketed forward. The ride, of course, got even bumpier. We had been going a good sixty miles an hour down that track. Now we were going over a hundred. The van’s body, shocks, every part of it screamed in protest. I was pretty sure the rest of us were screaming too. The others and me. I gripped the wheel so tight I felt like it was going to snap off in my hands. Still, I kept it steady, fighting the van’s attempts to jerk from one side to the other. With shots from the Scions still rebounding off the shields or flying off to either side, we were fucking flying down that path. Metaphorically, of course. 

And then it suddenly wasn’t as metaphorical. With one last scream toward the others to hang on, I sent the van right through the spot I had been pointing us toward. We hit a bit of dirt at the end there, and suddenly we were airborne. Like before with the ramps, but this was no ramp. No, I had just launched the van off the edge of a fucking cliff. The ground was a good hundred feet or so below us.  

“Rain, float, float, keep us up!” I screamed as soon as we hit the apex of the jump. 

I could hear the grunt of effort from the younger girl as she did just that, focusing on keeping the van in the air with the gravity part of her power while we continued to shoot forward. Glancing through the nearby window, I saw a ravine far, far below us with barely a trickle of water running through it. Beside me, Way made a weak little whimpering sound as she looked out her own side. 

It only lasted for five or six seconds, but those felt like an eternity. Then I called back, “Lower us down, down!” At the same time, I activated the orange paint to keep the whole van from falling apart around us on impact.

The van dropped a bit, gradually of course. A moment later, there was a violent jolt as we hit the ground once more. Or rather, as we hit the road once more. An actual road, with pavement and everything. Yeah, almost directly opposite that corner of the dirt track, there was the highway we had been driving on before. It curved around a hill at this point, with that sharp dropoff to one side that was blocked by a heavy metal guard rail. Some sort-of friends and I used to bike up to that little spot and sit there watching cars around that slow curve. A couple guys had made morbid comments about what it would be like if a car missed that turn, slammed through the guard rail, and went off into the ravine below. Which was why it had stuck in my head. 

As soon as the van hit the road, I twisted the wheel and pumped the brakes, making the tires squeal horribly as we left a bunch of rubber across the road. The vehicle spun out of control, going around once, twice, then a third time before finally skidding to a halt. 

A few brief seconds of silence followed while all of us went through a mental checklist to make sure we were in one piece before Pack found her voice. “What… the fuck… was that?” 

“That,” I informed them while using a violently shaking hand to shift the van back into drive and pull away once more, “was us getting the hell away from those guys. It’s like a fifteen minute drive the old fashioned way, just to get from the overlook to where we are now.” 

While the others coped with that, I picked up speed. The van was shuddering a bit, clearly not in the best of shape. But it kept going. 

“So, uhh, what do you guys say we wait til the coast is clear, then go back and do it again?” I offered, half-jokingly. Okay, maybe a quarter-jokingly. “You know, when we can enjoy it.” 

A slight pain filled my shoulder as Way punched me there. 

“Ow,” I muttered, “you could’ve just said no thanks, you know.” With that, I exhaled long and low. “Is everyone okay? We all in one piece?” 

Over the next couple of minutes, everyone agreed that they were okay and were starting to be able to move. I held the steering wheel tight and let out another shaky breath. “Okay, okay. We’re okay.” Saying it out loud helped me convince myself that it was true. After the terror of the past few minutes, which itself had been preceded by a few minutes of calm that had followed another long stretch of terror when we had found out the truth about Amanda, part of me was expecting another rush of adrenaline-filled panic any moment now. What was next, Cup and her people showing up in a fucking homemade helicopter? Hell, it didn’t even have to be homemade. For all we knew, they could steal one. 

But no, things stayed quiet. And within another couple minutes, we had driven far enough to see busier traffic on the freeway just ahead. The on-ramp was just waiting for us. 

“Paintball,” Way spoke up from the passenger side, her eyes on me. “Can you use any more paint? We need a disguise, just in case.” 

It took me a few seconds, but I managed to pull the van off to the side and stopped for a minute. Way hopped out and came around to the driver’s side to help me down on shaky, uncertain feet, and I got my first good look at the exterior of the van. It was pretty trashed. There were dents and scrapes in it from the rocks and trees, the paint job was basically destroyed, the wheels weren’t going to last much longer, it was… yeah. 

Still, I managed to paint the whole thing red, sort of covering up the damage of it and making it a different color just in case Cup or any of the other Scions had sent word ahead to watch for us. It wasn’t much, but it would maybe help a little. 

“Are we good?” That was Alloy, the girl standing behind us, hand pressed against the side of the van. “Please tell me we’re good. I don’t think I can… umm, I don’t want to do any of that again anytime soon.” She was trying to play it off lightly, but I could hear the trepidation in her voice. She was scared, obviously. And who could blame her?

“We’re good,” Way confirmed. “Come on, let’s get back on the freeway. I’ll call Flea and we can tell her what happened. Or, you know, our version of it. Oh, and I’ll drive this time.” 

“Go for it,” I replied, my voice cracking just a little as I made my way toward the back once more. “I think I… I need to lay down for a minute.”  

She moved back to the front to drive, even as Pack shakily stepped down and started up to the passenger seat. Meanwhile, I looked to Alloy, swallowing hard. There was a lot I wanted to say to her, a lot I just… didn’t know how to say or if I even should. In the end, all I managed was a somewhat weak, “Thanks for being here. You–if it wasn’t for your help, we… umm…” 

Shaking her head before putting out a hand to grab my shoulder so I would stop talking, Alloy interrupted, “That was pretty fucking scary, Paintball. It wasn’t just me. It was–none of us would’ve made it without the others. If That-A-Way wasn’t there, or Pack, or Raindrop, any of them, if any of us weren’t there, the others wouldn’t’ve made it. We’d be… they’d be…” She swallowed hard, clearly thinking about being back with Cup, given the woman’s reputation. 

Yeah, it was probably a bad idea to dwell on those thoughts. Quickly, I gave her a little push toward the back door of the van. “Come on, let’s get out of here and back to civilization.” 

“Yeah!” shouted Pack from the front, “let’s go before we have to have another chase scene! Everyone knows having two of those right next to each other is super-redundant and boring.” 

“Well,” I managed to retort in a flat voice, “the last thing we want to do is be boring. Heaven forbid. Guess we better get going.” 

So, the two of us climbed up into the back once more to join the thoroughly exhausted Raindrop. We shut the door, and Way began to drive again. In a moment, we were in the midst of freeway traffic, while she made the call to Flea and, in as few words as possible, told her a bit of what was going on and that we needed to meet her along the way. Needless to say, she had a lot of questions. But she agreed to talk about it in person, which… yeah, that was gonna be fun. 

Once we arranged a place to meet (at a nearby old motel along the freeway that was undergoing renovations), Way disconnected the call, before pulling off at the next exit. We weren’t quite to the motel itself yet, but close enough. She parked behind a fast food joint, near a large drainage ditch. There, the rest of us hopped out, leaving Pack in the van with her lizards. 

“Right, wish I could say it’s been fun,” the girl informed us after shifting over into the driver’s seat, “but, you know.” She coughed pointedly. “I’m gonna tell Blackjack what happened. And the truth about those fucks.” 

“Good,” I informed her, still a bit wobbly on my legs. But hey, at least I could actually (mostly) stand. “The more people who know, the better. Hunt those evil fucks down.” 

She gave me a thumbs up, shuddered a little, then began to drive away. From the way the van was protesting, I was pretty sure it wouldn’t get much further. Hopefully at least enough to get the other girl somewhere safe. 

Which left me standing in the parking lot with That-A-Way, Raindrop, and Alloy. “Right,” I announced, clapping my hands together once before nearly falling over. “Let’s go meet Flea then. 

“I can’t wait to explain this whole thing.” 

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Hostile Witness 18-09 And Patreon Snippets 21 (Summus Proelium)

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“Wh-what happened?!” Alloy was blurting, clearly in the midst of some level of panic attack. Completely understandable, given the situation she woke up in. “Who–where did–why can’t I–” 

I was on my back still, but now I was staring up at trees, and felt a few rocks poking into my back as I lay in the dirt somewhere outside of the petting zoo. Out. Out. We were out. We were safe and fine. Okay, well, not exactly fine just yet, considering I still couldn’t move. And from the sound of Alloy grunting and Pack cursing, neither could they. Which wasn’t surprising, considering it hadn’t been anywhere near the hour that Cup had said it would take for the effects of the ray to wear off. Assuming she had even been telling the truth. 

“Alloy, it’s okay!” I called over to her. “We’re out, we’re… safeish. Amanda was Cup–is Cup. But we’re out now. All three of us are paralyzed, but she said it would wear off in like an hour.” 

“An hour?!” Somehow, Alloy wasn’t too reassured. “Wait…” Abruptly, I saw her rise to a standing position. But it wasn’t like she stood up, it was more like she floated upward and set herself on her feet. And then abruptly fell down again with a yelp. “Damn it! I’m all… woozy. I think it’s making my marbles woozy too. Can’t focus on staying upright. It’s all dizzy and weird. Like trying to play a video game that keeps inverting the controls.” 

Oh yeah, her armor was made out of her marbles, and they could move. But apparently she was still affected enough that it wasn’t working very well. Which… was that what Cup had been referring to when she said that Alloy being knocked out made sense? 

“It’ll be okay,” I tried to promise. “It’ll wear off.”  

“Right, cuz the psycho supervillain said so,” she retorted, “and why are we taking her word for it?” 

“We don’t have a choice right now.” That was Way, her voice tight. “We still need to get out of here before that bitch calls in reinforcements.” Kneeling between us, she looked over to Raindrop. “Stay here with them. Keep an eye out for anyone, I’m gonna go grab the van.” 

“Hold on!” Pack blurted. “You can’t go back around there by yourself! What the hell do you–” 

“Pack, stop.” Way’s voice was firm. “We don’t have a lot of options right now. This should be far enough away that she can’t find you. But I have to get the van before they do. I’ll be right back.” 

I didn’t like that. I really didn’t like it at all. But it was like she said, we didn’t have much choice. Pack, however, apparently had other ideas. “Get my backpack off and put my hand in it.” 

That-A-Way only hesitated slightly before following her instructions. Lifting Pack up carefully to get the ‘empty’ pack off her, she unzipped it and placed the other girl’s hand inside. “Okay?”

“Twinkletoes, here boy!” Pack called, waiting until she apparently felt the little chameleon against her paralyzed hand. “Okay, boy. You know what to do. You remember, we practiced this. You can do it. Just like back in the parking lot. Okay… now go, get out of the cage!” 

“Uh.” Raindrop started to speak up before hesitating. “Are you doing what I think you’re doing?” 

“He’s transformed,” Pack replied. “And… just get us to the road. He’ll drive the van down it. At least I think he will. We practiced it for awhile just in case of an emergency. He should be able to follow the road, but I’m not exactly sure how good he is at getting out of the way of other drivers, and I know he doesn’t understand road signs or… yeah, we should get back to the road and keep an eye out. This could get a little messy. Or a lot messy.” 

I had seen a lot of weird things since becoming a Touched, but the idea that there was about to be a lizard-gorilla hybrid creature driving a van down the road kind of… reached its way up into the top ten. But again, we didn’t have a lot of options. Pack was clearly desperate to make sure Way didn’t have to go near the petting zoo by herself, and that idea didn’t appeal to me either. 

Now all we had to do was get to the road. Which actually ended up being fairly easy, since Alloy transformed her floating marbles into a couple fancy stretchers for Pack and me. Then she simply used those plus her own armor to make our group float that way. Raindrop and That-A-Way played escorts, keeping their eyes out for any Scion activity, just in case. We had no idea how long it would take Cup to call in reinforcements and whether they’d even go out into the surrounding area searching for us. But it felt better to be safe rather than sorry. We had to get out of there. 

Thankfully, it wasn’t that far to the road. Way could’ve teleported us, but we would’ve been much further north in the process. This was fine. Or at least, I kept telling myself it was. Really, my mind was still spinning wildly from everything we had just found out. Cup. Amanda was Cup. Which meant her brother Nick was Pencil. And something told me he wasn’t actually in Alaska. 

“You know he’s going to be even more pissed at all of us now.” Way practically read my mind while we were moving toward the road. “We know too much about him, and the rest of their group. And we hit his sister again. They’re gonna be targeting us any chance they get.” 

“They’ll move her first,” I pointed out. “They don’t know how long it’ll take us to get reinforcements, so they’ll focus on getting her and all her stuff out of there.” 

“Speaking of which, shouldn’t we be calling in those reinforcements right about now?” Alloy put in. “And who are we calling anyway, the… uhh, ones who call themselves actual heroes or the woman we were supposed to be doing this whole thing for in the first place?” 

It really was a good question. We were supposed to let Deicide know what was going on so she could go after Pencil. And I was damn sure she’d want to know about this. But on the other hand, it was also the biggest lead that anyone in the Star-Touched society could possibly have. We had uncovered the identity of Pencil and Cup. That was huge. The authorities could probably do a lot to try to track those two down from knowing who they really were, though I was sure they both knew how to disappear. It was something, a way of potentially stopping them from killing more people, if they were too busy keeping away from the authorities. 

“Both,” I abruptly answered. “We’ll let Deicide know what we found out, but we’ll contact the Conservators too. Flea. We’ll contact Flea. And Caishen. We’ll let them both know, let them come check this place out with the cavalry. The more people who know the truth about Pencil and Cup, the better chance of someone tracking them down. Maybe they’ll go on the run.” 

If she could have moved, I was sure that Pack would have turned to stare at me with an incredibly dubious look. “You don’t really believe that shit, do you? Seriously, come on.” 

I sighed heavily. “I don’t know. But every little bit helps. Like I said, the more people we have going after them, the better off everyone’s going to be. Someone might get lucky. And yes, I know it’s unlikely. But even the slightest chance that someone could maybe stop them is better than nothing. Plus, if they’re busy staying out of reach from the big guns, that’s less time they have to put into making innocent people suffer. It’s not much, but it’s all we’ve got right now.” 

By that point, our strange little convoy of stretchers and floating armor had reached the road. We stayed low, just on the edge of the treeline in case one of the Scions happened along. Then we waited. 

It wasn’t long before we heard a horn blaring, coming from up the road. Raindrop and Way looked at each other, then leaned out of the trees to stare that way. For about the eighty-seven thousandth time, I wished I could move to see for myself. The sound of the blaring horn got louder, joined by another, then a third. A car that was driving past in the opposite direction joined the chorus a moment later, and I saw it swerve off to the other side of the road. 

“Alloy?” I put in over the sound of the horns. “Could you–” 

She immediately lifted the stretchers and turned them to face the road so we could see. And what a sight it was. The van was heading toward us, swerving in and out of both sides of the street like some sort of incredibly drunk fat man. It wasn’t moving all that fast for a vehicle, barely reaching fifteen miles an hour. But the way it was swerving back and forth, every vehicle from every direction had to get out of the way. Not that there were that many, but still. The few who were there pulled off the road and honked, or just shouted out their windows. 

Raindrop quietly spoke up while she and Way both looked pointedly toward Pack. “I don’t think Twinkletoes should try to get his driver’s license anytime soon.”  

“You kidding?” the La Casa girl shot right back, “He’s doing better than a lot of the useless pieces of shit I’ve seen on the road back in the city. Look, he’s even signaling. Uh, sort of.” 

She was right, particularly about the sort of part. Somehow, Twinkletoes kept flipping the turn signals on and off randomly. It had no connection with which way the car was going, but still. He also kept turning the windshield wipers on and off. I had the feeling he was just randomly hitting things in there. Honestly, we were lucky he had his foot on the pedal and was keeping the van on the road, even if it was taking up the entire road in the process. He was a lizard in a partial gorilla body, so I was going to give the extent of his driving skills a break based on the fact that they existed at all. I had really had no idea that Pack could possibly make her lizards do something like this. It raised even more questions about how smart they were, or how well they could be trained. Questions that were obviously going to have to wait until later. After all, we had slightly more pressing things to deal with right now. 

Pack had Alloy lift her stretcher out into view so the incoming Twinkletoes could see her. He immediately stopped and managed to get his driver’s side door open. Not that we saw much. He was invisible, after all. Yeah, that was another thing throughout all of this. The van had been driving wildly down the road while apparently having no driver. We just saw the door pop open once the van was near enough, and a moment later the gorilla-lizard revealed himself by popping up right in front of Pack while making worried grunting sounds that were kind of adorable and endearing. He kept gesturing to her, then to the van while making those anxious gorilla noises. I honestly wasn’t sure if he was more terrified about what he had just done, or about what was wrong with his owner. Probably some mixture of both, really. 

Oh yeah, and meanwhile, the van was still moving. Yep, the lizard hadn’t actually stopped it at all, let alone put the thing in park. He just opened the door and hopped out. The thing was still heading down the road, already past us and continuing on, coasting entirely off momentum. 

“I’m on it!” Way blurted, her figure turning into a blur as she raced out of my sight. I heard the van door close a second later, and then the thing started backing up toward us once more. She parked it right nearby, then hopped out. She and Raindrop opened the backdoors, letting Alloy guide herself and the stretchers into the rear compartment. As soon as we (including Twinkletoes) were in, Way shut the door, hopped in the front, and started to drive off. No way were we going to sit around here talking about things. We need to get somewhere safe. 

Raindrop, meanwhile, stayed in the back with us. As Way was driving, I asked the younger girl to get my phone out of my pocket and use the number for Deicide that I had recorded in it. The phone was still connected through my Bluetooth, so I heard it ring in my ear a few times before the woman’s voice answered. Rather, that same booming feminine voice that was clearly being projected from the books she had nearby. Yeah, she still wasn’t talking in her own voice, even on the phone. So she was doing this whole thing on speaker? I still wasn’t sure why she talked like that. Was she incapable of speaking the normal way? Like, was she mute or something? 

Either way, the voice came through my earbud. “Do you have something for me, Paintball?” 

“Oh boy, do I ever,” I managed as my eyes reflexively rolled. “First of all, your intelligence is the fucking worst, lady. Also, the fucking best. Both, at the same time. I’m not sure how you pulled that off, but seriously.” Yes, I knew it wasn’t her fault, at all. But I had to say something.  

There was a brief pause at my words before her projected voice replied, “Pardon me?” 

So, I explained the situation. Very succinctly, I told her about Amanda’s real identity, what had almost happened, and what Amanda’s real power was. Yeah, that last one felt like something that some people might’ve kept a secret or only told the authorities. But fuck it. It was just like I had said, the more people who knew the truth, the more chance there was of actually stopping these guys. It was obvious that one of the biggest reasons Cup and Pencil had managed to stay off the trail of the authorities for so long was because they had no idea that Cup herself was the one building a lot of their Touched-Tech toys. Hell, knowing about that, maybe we could actually convince Braintrust to go after her for not doing her part to contribute to them the way they insisted all Tech-Touched do. Or even convince Sherwood to target them in retaliation for Cup building the devices in the first place, since they hated technology so much.  

Yeah, getting Sherwood and Braintrust to actually work together against the same target. Boy, wouldn’t that be pretty wild. But if any people could inspire such incredibly different enemies to be on the same side, it was definitely Pencil and Cup. Those two never played by any rules. Even the Ministry would obviously be fine with shutting them down. I had no doubt that my parents wanted the entire Scions organization taken out. 

By the time I finished explaining what had happened, my fingers were starting to twitch just a little. It wasn’t much, but I could feel them respond ever so slightly to my desperate orders for them to move. The paralyzation was gradually starting to wear off, though I was pretty sure it would still take awhile for me to be able to do more than make the ends of my fingers bend. 

Deicide was quiet for a moment after I finished. Finally, her voice returned. “That is surprising.”

Right, so apparently another of her superpowers was incredible understatements. “Yeah, tell me about it. You asked us to find this Amanda chick and tell you what she knows. We found her and… well, I think you can safely say we told you what she knows. Deal’s done, we’re even.” 

“Yes,” came the response immediately. “Your favor is repaid in full. You have done more than I could have expected.” There was a brief pause before she added, “I am… very sorry for sending you into that danger, Paintball. It was never my intention. If I had had the slightest inkling that you would have run into that sort of trouble, I never would have made that the favor.”  

She obviously didn’t have to apologize. But I appreciated it anyway. Taking a breath while coaxing my fingers to wiggle a little more, I replied, “Thanks. We’re safe enough now, anyway. And umm, and we’re calling the authorities too. They need to know the truth about those two.”

Part of me expected the woman to argue against that. Instead, she replied, “Give me the address. I can be there before the authorities. I’ll do my own examination and leave before they get there. I can…” She hesitated. “I can find out everything I need without moving anything.”   

Part of me felt slightly uncomfortable about that, but on the other hand, it wasn’t like I could object to sending a bad guy there, considering I was going to be doing the same thing when we contacted the Conservators. Okay, okay, I didn’t actually know that any of them beyond my own dad were actually bad. But still, the whole situation was incredibly gray. I might as well let Deicide do her own investigation on top of the one the authorities would do. 

With that in mind, I gave her the exact address about where she could find the petting zoo with Amanda’s apartment. That earned me a look from Raindrop, but she remained silent. 

“Got it,” Deicide replied. “I will be there shortly. You may feel free to contact the authorities. And Paintball… thank you.” 

If I could have shrugged, I would have. “Yeah, well, we might be really different people, but I think we can all agree, ‘fuck those two and their little gang in particular.’”

“Indeed,” she confirmed before adding, “though someday you may find that we are not quite as different as you believe.” There was something important behind those words, but I couldn’t read enough into what it was before she simply finished with, “I will see you another time, Paintball. With any luck, it will not be on the battlefield. I would hate to be faced with you.” 

Well, that was a little surprising. I expected her to say something like she would be sad to have to kill me. Before I could respond to her actual words, she disconnected the call. I was officially done with my favor to Deicide. 

Even better than that, when I finished telling the others that it was done, I was able to close my hand into a fist and then open it again. I could also make my toes twitch. The paralyzation was definitely wearing off. Which, thank God Cup had actually been telling the truth about that. There’d been a small nightmare working in the back of my head about it being either permanent, or needing some kind of exterior cure to turn it off. But, thankfully, it really was temporary. 

“So what now?” Alloy put in. I could barely see enough of her hand from this position to tell that she was doing the same thing as me, closing and opening a fist. “We call in the authorities and tell them where to descend to rain righteous legal hell on that place and look for clues?” 

“How do we explain what we were doing there?” Way put in carefully.  

I had been thinking about that this whole time, and finally exhaled heavily. “I think the best thing we can do is just say that Alloy and me were investigating something independently, and we called you for help, Way. You were out with Raindrop, so you guys came to see what was going on.” 

“Without calling anyone else?” Raindrop put in. “If we were going anywhere near the Scions–” 

“We didn’t know it was actually the Scions,” Alloy pointed out. “None of us did.” 

I agreed quickly. “That’s a good point. It’s the truth. We really didn’t know they were going to be there, only that it was a lead that might not pan out at all. We just tell the truth, as far as that goes. We looked into it and called you guys for help talking to who we thought was just a normal witness just in case she might respond better to someone from the official hero teams.”

Way hesitated slightly before shifting around in the front seat to look back at us through the window while still driving. “Yeah, I think we can deal with that. How’re you guys doing with that whole moving thing?” 

In answer, I slowly moved my head from the left, then to the right. It was almost painfully stiff, but I managed it. “Getting there. Call Flea and get the Conservators there. I’ll get hold of Ten Towers as soon as I can move my hand a little more.” 

“Yeah, I’ll–” Way started, just before the van abruptly jerked violently, almost skidding sideways off the road. All of us in the back were thrown to the floor. 

“Dude, what the hell?!” Pack blurted. 

Way was looking at the side mirror, her voice tight. “Hang on, guys. That was some sort of–” She suddenly spun the wheel, sending the van to the left just as a high pitched whine of something shooting past us on the right filled the air. “It’s Cup! And some others. They’re in a car and–” She spun the wheel back the opposite way to avoid another shot. 

Right, apparently we weren’t quite done with that whole escaping from the Scions thing. But hey, maybe if I was lucky, I’d manage to get myself fully unparalyzed before they killed all of us. 

Patreon Snippets 21

Arleigh

January 16th, two months before the start of the story. 

“Hey!” Arleigh Fosters pushed her way through a crowd that had gathered around the bottom of the long cement staircase in the outside courtyard of Cadillac Preparatory School. “Move, damn it.” There were too many people in the way, making the tall blonde growl under her breath in frustration. She grabbed the nearest guy by the elbow, making him turn to her. “What the hell is going on? Someone said Cassidy Evans was out here.” And god, she better be. If Arleigh had to go back home yet again and tell her dad she hadn’t had any luck getting close to the Evans kid…

The guy shrugged and nodded. “Sure, she’s right over there.” He stepped aside a bit, raising a hand to point over at the top of the long set of cement steps. 

The sound of wheels clacking rapidly across the cracks between concrete squares grew louder, as Arleigh looked that way just in time to see the girl in question. Cassidy Evans, daughter of the richest and most powerful (in more than one way) people in Michigan, reached the top of the stairs on her skateboard before grunting as she jumped the board up and turned so that it landed sideways on the metal railing running down the middle of the steps. With that, arms held high above her head, she rode the board all the way down to the bottom, jumped it before the very end, flipped the board over three hundred and sixty degrees in the air, then landed smoothly on the wheels before rolling to a stop. As the assembled students who had been watching cheered, she stepped off the board and popped it up into her hand before grinning as she took a bow. 

“Thank you, thank you,” the obscenely wealthy girl called out before focusing on one guy in particular, a senior who had been watching with folded arms. She held a hand out. “From the entrance all the way down the walk and off the railing. Isn’t that what you said would prove I wasn’t a poser? Now uhh, I think we bet something, didn’t we? Right, right, for me, it was a hundred bucks. For you, it was… what was it again?”  

“You know what, Evans?” The guy was practically baring his teeth as he snarled, “You’re just lucky you–” 

Taking that as her cue, Arleigh immediately stepped that way, putting one arm around the other girl as if they were BFFs. “Hey now, if you made a bet, you better honor it,” she informed the boy while wagging a finger at him. “You wouldn’t wanna be known as a welcher, would you?” 

The boy looked as though he wanted to argue, but finally just sighed and reached into his pocket before pulling out a pair of tickets, thrusting them out. “Fucking take ’em, whatever.” 

As he stalked off and the crowd started to disperse, Arleigh saw that the tickets Cassidy had taken hold of were for a concert the next night. Pretty good seats too. Perfect. This was perfect. If she went to a concert with the Evans girl, her dad would stop being such an asshole about making friends with her. 

“Oh hey, if you’re going to that concert, I could–” 

Cassidy, however, was already slipping out from under the arm that Arleigh had slung over her shoulders. “Nah,” she dismissively replied, holding the tickets out to some other girl, a sophomore. “Val’s the one who won them, Greg just convinced her he’d date her if she went to the concert with him.” 

The girl in question gave a relieved nod as she clutched the tickets to her chest. “But as soon as I let him hold them ‘for safe keeping’, he broke up with me and pretended he didn’t know anything about it. When I pushed it, he said they were payment for… looking at my ugly face.” She cringed. “I couldn’t tell my dad, he’d think I was just so stupid.” 

Arleigh’s mouth opened to tell the girl she was stupid for falling for something like that. But Val spoke again, addressing Cassidy. “Hey, maybe we could go together, since I don’t have anyone else to use this ticket for?” 

Stupid or not, the girl had just given her the opening she needed, and Arleigh immediately took it. “Yeah, I can get a ticket too and we could all go together. I could drive, so you don’t have to arrange anything. We could even go to dinner first.” Perfect, this whole thing was pe–

“No thanks,” Cassidy infuriatingly replied with a shrug. “Hey, you two should go together. Have fun.” She turned without another word, heading off with the skateboard tucked under one arm. 

God damn it! Arleigh fumed, watching the girl leave. Beside her, Val started to say something about arranging a place to meet tomorrow, but the older girl simply turned to stalk away without another word. Then she pivoted back, grabbed one of the tickets, and replied, “Five o’clock, front of the school right over there. Don’t be late.” 

Then she stalked off, ticket in hand. What the fuck was wrong with Evans? She was friendly enough, she stuck up for people she could have been much more popular than she was, even before you counted the whole rich thing. And she was… popular enough as far as school went. Some people liked her, some didn’t. She just… she had school ‘friends.’ As far as Arleigh had been able to figure out in the past several months since her father had started on this whole ‘make friends with the Evans girl’ kick, Cassidy didn’t have anyone from school who was actually close to her. She hung out in groups, she went to games and movies and stuff with other people, but there was no one she actually confided in or spent time with alone. 

“What the fuck is her problem?” Arleigh muttered to herself while mentally rehearsing what she was going to say to her father. 

Needless to say… she was going to be glad to get out of the house tomorrow night. 

*********

Plan Z

Jania Estrada, the sixty-six-year-old Panamanian woman who had worked as a maid in the Evans household for eighteen years, was humming to herself while running the vacuum back and forth across the carpet in one of the dens downstairs. More accurately, she was humming along with music playing through a single earbud. The music, humming, and vacuuming all stopped when a single buzz from the phone in her pocket informed the woman that she had a message. She turned off the vacuum and checked what had been sent to her, reading the message twice before leaving the vacuum where it was, pivoting to walk out of the room. Exchanging greetings with a couple other staff members, she made her way to the kitchen, where Chef Claudio and his two assistants were preparing lunch for the employees.

The moment she stepped into the room, the three of them looked up. Claudio started to say something about when their food would be ready, but Jania pointed to one of his assistants. “Christiana,” she announced while holding up her phone. “Mrs. Evans would like to have a few things picked up from the grocery store.” 

Christiana Diaz, a quite thin, young Latina woman with dark hair that was cut very short on the sides with a mop of curls on top, set down the knife she had been chopping with and politely excused herself before heading to the door. The two of them stepped away together, leaving the sounds of Claudio and Ethan picking up the pace in chopping vegetables. 

“Aunt Jania,” Christiana started once they were alone in the corridor. “What is it?” 

Seeing the two walk side-by-side, it was easy to notice the family resemblance in their faces, specifically their eyes and around their always-smiling mouths. Christiana was smaller than her aunt, standing only an inch over five feet. That, combined with her general youthful looks and hairstyle, made her appear to be closer to the end of her teens, rather than the twenty-seven she actually was. Or the twenty-two the rest of the household believed her to be, in her job as Claudio’s assistant.  

Not that that was her only job within the Evans household. 

In response to the question, Jania held up the phone for her to see. Indeed, it was a message from Elena Evans, asking her to send Christiana to the store to pick up a list of items. Anyone who glanced at the message would see nothing untoward about it. Certainly, they wouldn’t see the code buried in the list. Christiana, however, read the code as well as she read plain English. Or Spanish, for that matter. Her finger traced over a few key points, making certain she had translated it correctly. Then she took her aunt’s phone and sent back an answering response. To an outside observer, it would appear to be simply querying what prices were acceptable and if specific substitutes were okay, just in case. In actuality, the response included a separate code, which essentially repeated the gist of the assignment so that Elena could inform her if she had translated incorrectly or misunderstood anything. 

But no, as usual, she was spot on. The confirmation came back a moment later, and Christiana nodded to her aunt, passing the phone back to her. “Tell Claudio I’ll be back as soon as I run the errand,” she remarked, before turning on her heel, heading for the side door that led to the small employee parking lot, hidden out of sight from the front of the house for aesthetics.

Fifteen minutes later, Christiana parked a car in the underground lot of an office building. It wasn’t her car, but rather one she had borrowed from a grocery store several blocks away. No one would see her own car anywhere near this building. Rather than step out immediately, she took out her own phone, texting a totally different number from the one that Elena had used to contact Aunt Jania. Mrs. Evans’ rules. They divided these instructions and responses between multiple phones to make it even harder for anything to be traced back or decoded. The message she sent simply read, ‘You awake?’ After a few seconds, Elena sent back an emoji of a man in a business suit. Which was the last confirmation. Unless Elena sent a message to stop her, it was time to go. 

Tucking the phone away, Christiana focused for a moment. Her body shifted, transforming into a dark, mist-like shadow. Looking straight at her in this form, people would see only a pitch-black humanoid shape with a simplified face that would be impossible to recognize as anyone specific. She was clearly female, yet that was the only specific feature that could be determined. 

Stepping out of the car without opening the door, simply passing through the solid material, Christiana looked up while focusing once more. Her humanoid form shifted slightly, becoming even more of a shadow than a person, a human-sized bit of darkness. A moment later her shadow-form flew through the ceiling and into the building proper. She was in a corner of the main lobby, yet no one noticed. Anyone who looked that way would only see a notably darker section of the room, as if something nearby was casting a dark shadow there. And these people were too busy rushing back and forth to the elevators or the street to notice something like that. 

After making certain she hadn’t been noticed, Christiana moved even closer to the far corner of the lobby and continued her way upward. Floating higher, she passed through the ceiling and into what turned out to be a restroom on the second floor. Yet she didn’t stop there. One by one, she passed floor after floor, counting them to herself as she went. Finally, on the eleventh floor, she stopped. This too was a restroom, and she made her way forward through it, a barely visible shadow fog heading for the door. It opened just as she reached it, her dark figure hidden behind the door itself as a man walked right past on his way to the urinal. 

Christiana walked through the door as it closed, looking both ways in the corridor. People rushed every which way, calling out requests or questions from their cubicles while phones rang and managers worked to keep it all organized. They paid no attention to the dark shadow moving through the room. She was intangible, practically invisible, and they were distracted. 

On her way, however, she heard one man in particular snarling some very untoward things toward his clearly junior, female employee. The poor girl sat huddled in her seat, drawn in on herself while the man hissed hateful things about how terrible she was at her job as well as how useless she was in plenty of other aspects of life. He also made sure to mention at least three times that he was about to have a very important meeting with a couple of the vice presidents and if this girl knew what was good for her, she’d get him those files right now. Listening to him for only a few seconds, Christiana could tell exactly what he was. She knew his type far too well. Lording his power and authority over others, he knew the girl he was attacking here had self-confidence issues and reveled in his ability to make her miserable. 

Her job could wait for a moment. Turning to face the man, a simple shadow against the wall of the cubicle, she reared back before giving him a hard shove as hard as she could. 

He gave no reaction, of course, as her intangible hands passed through him. That was, he gave no reaction yet. Turning, Christiana stepped out of direct sight, waiting for the man to lead her back to his own small office along one side of the room. While he stopped in the doorway to say something to another middle manager, Christiana found the mug of coffee on his desk and gave it a simple push with one finger near the top. Again, there was no physical response, as her finger simply passed through. Then she swept her arm across the desk, through all the little knick knacks, before shoving both hands into the computer monitor. Finally, she turned and kicked the trash can next to the desk as hard as she could, aiming for the doorway. As always, none of these actions had any effect.  

By that point, the man had moved into the office and took a seat at his desk, clearly antsy as he waited for that important meeting. He kept glancing up at the doorway, leg bouncing anxiously. 

Standing in the corner of the room where her shadow shape would be all-but entirely invisible, Christiana watched as well. She saw the way the man’s eyes lit up when two older guys in much nicer suits began to approach. This was it, his meeting. He reached down, taking up his mug for one last sip. 

And that was when Christiana set to work. Focusing on the mug, she triggered the action she had used on it. When she had shoved her finger against the brim, nothing had happened. Now the mug reacted to that previous action, tipping over while he was sipping in order to spill all across the front of his shirt. 

While the man yelped and cursed at that, she triggered the response to her arm sweeping across the desk. All those little bits and pieces, the mug of pens, the stapler, the pristine and polished nameplate, everything went flying off to the side. A second later, she triggered the action on the computer monitor, sending that off to slam into the wall with a crash. 

By that point, the man had bolted upright, his eyes wide. “What the fuck?!” He shouted those words just as the two higher-ups came into the doorway. And in that moment, Christiana triggered both the shove into the man’s back and the kick against the trash can. Simultaneously, the man staggered forward while the can itself was sent flying over, literally smacking into one of their heads. 

And then it was done. The man was left standing there beside his desk where he had stumbled, monitor broken against the nearby wall, random junk from his desk scattered across the floor, while his trash can had just hit one of his bosses in the face. From the fresh stain on his shirt, it would appear to those men as though he had spilled his own coffee and violently overreacted. Even the stumble forward from being pushed combined with the flying trash can looked like he had lunged that way to kick it.

With a small smirk, Christiana stepped backward through the wall into another office, leaving the man to explain that whole situation while the yelling started. 

Satisfied with her own moment of justice, she moved through several more offices, finding the one she was looking for. A heavyset, very tall man sat at the desk there, reading through a few files. Christiana took the time to ensure that this was the right man, before holding one hand out as she stood behind him. A thought made a knife appear, while she solidified herself into a more humanoid form. Then she gave a low whistle. 

The man jolted, turning to face her. As soon as he did, Christiana stabbed the knife into his throat. He yelped, jerking backward before falling to the floor. But, of course, the knife had done nothing. Not yet, anyway. 

“Do you know who I am?” she asked, standing there over the suddenly terrified man while he clutched his perfectly-fine throat. 

“Y-you… you work for them. Z. They call you Z,” he stammered. 

“Plan Z, to be completely accurate,” she informed him. “Then you know how this works. They’ve asked you for the files twice. This is the third time. The last time. You have one hour. Deliver the files, then they will call me and tell me to call it off. If I don’t get that call by that point, I will trigger the effect. Your throat will be slit. If you go to the cops, I will trigger the effect. If you tell anyone, I will trigger the effect. No one else can save you, no one else can stop it. Nobody. If I trigger that knife I just put in your throat, you will die. Deliver the files and you’ll be fine. You have fifty-eight minutes now. Do you understand?” 

He tried to plead with her, and she simply repeated, “Do you understand? Fifty-seven minutes and forty seconds. If I was you, I would hurry.” 

That was all it took. The man lunged to his feet, blubbering a bit as he bolted for the door while saying something about getting the files out of storage. Christiana watched him go, then simply turned and stepped through the nearby wall, floating down along the outside of the building before reaching the street. There, she made her way back to her own car where it was parked several blocks away, resumed her normal form, and took out a different phone out of the glove box to text to yet a third phone number, ‘Got the tickets, you still wanna go to the game?’ 

‘Let me check with the old lady’ came the response. 

And there it was. Christiana only had to wait now. If the response came back affirmative, that the supposed person at the other end of the line was allowed to go to the game, it meant their target had delivered the files as instructed and she could cancel the knife attack. But if it came back negative, that the ‘old lady’ had denied them, it meant he had not followed instructions. In which case… he wouldn’t be making any other decisions again. 

Reaching out, Christiana turned on the car to listen to music. 

And then she waited. 

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