Cinnamon

Building Connections 16-04 And Patreon Snippets 19B (Summus Proelium)

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So, after a very quick detour to grab the girl’s phone from where she had apparently dropped it, I helped her get away from that scene. She was freaking out about needing to go home before her mother found out what she was involved in, but waited at least long enough for me to give her my number to stay in contact. There was a moment after that where it looked like she was going to say something important. She looked at me and I saw uncertainty in her eyes, visible through the helmet. But in the end, she just shook her head and promised to text eventually. 

Then, with the sound of sirens still filling the air as more Emergency Services arrived, she took off running out of the alley we were in. For a moment, I stood there and watched her leave before shaking my head. What was I going to do when she did call? Should I point her toward the Minority?  What if she asked what I thought of them? What was I supposed to say to that? I didn’t even know this girl at all. I couldn’t just start telling her about the Ministry and all that shit. Even if she was a good person, which I didn’t really know at all (though risking her life to help those hostages was a really good indicator, to be fair), I still didn’t know how she might react to the actual truth. I had no idea how good she was at keeping a secret, especially not one that huge. Or if she would even want to. For all I knew, she would see the Ministry as a great thing and immediately side with them. I really had no idea what would happen if I told her the truth. 

Right, sigh. So, at the moment I had absolutely no idea what to do about the girl. Which was an ongoing theme. Hopefully, I would think of something useful and stop being so indecisive before she called. But for now, I needed to put it aside and focus on other things. Important things, like-

“So, who’s the chick with the sweet armor?” 

Taken completely by surprise when the voice behind me suddenly spoke up, I spun that way to see a different armored figure standing over by the nearby dumpster. Of course, I immediately recognized her. “Broadway?” I found myself blurting the La Casa Touched’s name. Suddenly, I couldn’t decide if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I wasn’t exactly as close with her as I was with Pack, and the lizard-controlling girl didn’t seem to be anywhere nearby. I didn’t know Broadway at all, though the fact that she had helped save me from Pencil was about a million points in her favor. So I wasn’t exactly on my guard. But I wasn’t relaxed either. 

She, in turn, actually giggled at my reaction, taking a moment before speaking again. A moment which gave me time to take her in a bit more fully. As always, Broadway wore dark-purple armor with white speaker system vents all over it. Her helmet was the same color purple, with three vertical speaker vents where the girl’s ears would be, angled forward. There was a wide V-shaped visor over the face part of the helmet, where a series of bright, multi-colored lines bounced back and forth in rhythm with the words whenever she actually spoke. 

“You know her name?” the girl asked, making those lines dance with her words. “Tell me she’s got a name–wait, no, if she doesn’t it’ll be cool to come up with a good La Casa name for her.” 

Squinting at her, I shook my head. “She’s not joining La Casa, or any other gang. She just helped stop your allies from holding hostages over there, you know.” I gestured back toward the shopping center with those words. “And hey, speaking of which, since I was just fighting them, shouldn’t you be like… swearing vengeance or starting some kind of brawl or whatever?” 

“Meh,” she replied with a dismissive wave of her hand, sounding fairly bored. “Whatever. I mean, Easy Eights and us, we’re basically allies in the sense that… Churchill and Stalin were allies? The slightly lesser asshole of the bigger asshole is my asshole. Or something like that.” 

“You know, Stalin killed an awful lot of people before he was done,” I pointed out flatly. 

“True,” the girl agreed, head tilting just a little as she looked at me. “The point is, I wouldn’t say we’re exactly friends. And personally, I definitely don’t care what you did to stop them from whatever the hell that was. I’m more in this whole thing for the fun, the rush, you know? Not taking hostages and hurting people.” 

For a moment, I just stared at her. “You really think your boss doesn’t hurt people just like these guys were? Cuz I’ve got news for you, he definitely takes hostages too. He steals from innocent people, and innocent people get hurt because of things he does. Just because he’s more–I dunno, classy and cool about it doesn’t make him some upstanding figure or anything.”  

“Yeah, that’s fair,” the girl easily agreed. “Never said we were great people or anything. But there’s like… levels of that shit. The people I work with try to avoid putting civilians in unnecessary danger, though scaring them’s a bit fun. We don’t go out of our way to kill and torture anybody, and most of the shit we take is insured stuff from businesses anyway. You don’t see me mugging old ladies on the street, do you? Hell no. You can call it petty justification or whatever, but the way I see it, capitalism is a fucking failure that just makes the rich get richer and stomps on the poor. Anything I can do to fuck with that system and have a little fun while I’m at it is fine with me.” She pointed to her own armored chest then. “I’m not a hero, never claimed to be anything of the sort. But I’ve got my own standards, and I stick with them. Blackjack, he’s got standards too. He keeps his word, he lets us refuse jobs that make us uncomfortable, he doesn’t intentionally go after innocent civilians or target people like that. And right now, he’s fighting a war to deal with people who tried to let his kid die. Gotta say, I’m totally onboard with that. You would be too, if you ever met the kid.”

“Of course I want the people who almost got Blackjack’s daughter killed to be brought to justice,” I pointed out. “Not just for that, but for everything else they’ve done too. But if your boss really wants them to pay, he could just work with…” Then I trailed off. He could work with who? The authorities? I knew the truth. The Ministry would only allow Oscuro and the Ninety-Niners to be brought to justice if it worked for their bottom line. They were allowing this war to happen, probably because doing so would keep Blackjack on their side. But that didn’t mean they’d just let the cops actually put them all away. I had a feeling that whatever came out of this war, my parents and their business would somehow end up in an even better position than before. 

Broadway, arms folded across her chest, had clearly noticed the way I trailed off. But she didn’t actually address it. Instead, the girl offered me a simple shrug. “It’s complicated. I chose my side and I stick with it. You, on the other hand, seem really confused about where you want to be. You won’t join the Minority or any of the other heroes, and you helped my boss get those vials. You’re even like… sort of friends with good ol’ Pack. But you won’t join us either. You’re right in the middle of this whole thing, you know? Whose side are you really on?” 

For a moment, I was silent. Then I let out a breath and looked back to her to reply firmly, “I’m on whatever side protects innocent people at the time. The rest of this, I don’t–I don’t know. Sometimes the Star-Touched are right, sometimes the Fell-Touched are. It’d help if–” Again, I stopped myself. Fuck. I couldn’t say ‘if the Ministry wasn’t a thing.’ Instead, I ended that with, “It’d help if it was actually simple. But it’s not.” 

Broadway pointed at me. “Hey, I’m pretty sure that’s the smartest thing I’ve heard you say. You’re right, it’s complicated. But just to be clear, I’m still a bad guy most of the time. And I’m okay with that. I steal some things, break other things, piss people off, and you know what? I have one hell of a fun time doing it. I think you could have a lot of fun too if you just let go a bit.” 

My eyes, hidden behind the helmet, narrowed. “Were you here trying to recruit me, or that new girl?” 

I could hear the grin in her voice. “Hey, whatever works. I wouldn’t mind getting a two-for-one deal.” She paused then, watching me for a moment before adding, “Does this mean you’re not giving me her number or name?” 

“I don’t have either,” I retorted honestly. “She’s brand–never mind. You know, we’re probably supposed to be fighting right now or something.” 

“You saying you wanna wrestle?” came her response with obvious amusement. “Sorry, buddy, I think I’m a little too old for you.” With that, she held out both hands to either side. “Actually, to be honest, I mostly came over to make sure you were okay. For Pack’s sake. She likes you. But not like that, don’t get any ideas. She’s more into That-A-Way, if you get my drift. Though that was less drifting and more plowing straight through the wall.” 

That-A-Way and Pack. They were–oh right. Blinking at that, I started to say something before catching myself. There was no reaction I could have that wouldn’t either just amuse her or give the girl way too much information. Instead, I just managed a slightly weak, “I’ll uhh, keep that in mind, thanks, I guess. But you’re still not gonna recruit that girl.” 

That earned me a thumbs up. “We’ll see, PB. It’ll be fun to find out where she ends up. And hey, glad to see those guys didn’t rough you up too bad. I’ll let Pack know you’re cool.” 

With that, she gave me a salute, then pointed up and over my head to the roof of the nearby building. The sound of a dog barking came from her armored gauntlet, as the girl vanished, teleporting along the soundwaves. 

Which left me standing there, belatedly realizing that one of the phones in my pocket had gone off a couple times already. Quickly, I took it out to check. It was the Touched phone, with messages from Wren wanting to know if everything was okay now since she’d been watching reports online about what was going on. There was an adorably rambling bit about how she didn’t want to send any message while I was busy fighting bad guys but now the news said the fight was over but wasn’t saying anything about me so was I really okay and what happened, etc. It was a pretty long run-on sentence which ended with, ‘PLZ CALL PLZ’ and then a series of hugging bear emojis. So yeah, pretty freaking adorable. 

Of course, how could I make her keep worrying? I had to let her and the others know I was okay. But first, I used red paint to pull myself up to the roof of another building (different from the one Broadway had used), looking around to make sure I was alone. Only once I was satisfied did I hit the button on the phone to connect with Wren’s, using the bluetooth in my ear rather than the actual phone itself for the conversation. 

“Paintball?!” came the blurted word after the phone had gone for like… half a ring. 

“Hey, kid,” I quickly confirmed. “Everything’s fine. I’m on my way. How’re my new friends doing?” 

There was a very brief pause at that before the girl’s voice returned, sounding just a little scolding. “They were really surprised when we met them.” 

Snorting despite myself at the thought of those two finding out just who their boss was, I admitted, “Yeah, I’m sorry I missed it. Anyway, things are good here. I’ll be at the store in just a few minutes. Everything okay besides that little surprise?” 

She confirmed that things were chill there, and I disconnected before heading off. Time to pick up the pace a bit. I still had about an hour before I needed to head home for family dinner, but still, I definitely wanted to at least say more than two words to the people who were supposed to be helping Wren. Especially now that they knew just who they were going to be working for. 

Again, I was really sad that I’d missed that reaction. 

In any case, I managed to make it back to Wren’s shop in record time, even with taking a short loop to make sure no one was following me. Then I moved to the back door and hit the buzzer to be let in. The moment I did, Wren was right there, wanting to know everything that had happened. Behind her, I saw Murphy and Roald watching the whole thing from next to one of the shelves full of random junk in the middle of the main pawnshop floor. It looked like they had already been set to work organizing things. Which was almost unfair, given how chaotic the whole shop was. It was definitely a job that would take awhile. 

So, for all three of their benefits (as well as Fred’s, as the man came downstairs just after the start), I explained everything that had happened, including meeting the new girl. It was during that part that Murphy finally piped up. “So that girl just got her powers because those fucks attacked the place she was shopping at?” 

Pausing, I shrugged. “That’s what it seems like, yeah. She definitely wasn’t used to them, that’s for sure. She didn’t have a name or anything. But she’s got my number, so hopefully she’ll call back.” 

“You gonna tell her to go to the Minority?” That was Roald, his voice sounding curious. Belatedly, I realized he was also curious about why I myself hadn’t gone there. Apparently everybody wanted to know that these days. Either way, it was a fairly clever way of getting around outright asking the obvious question, and I gave the boy a brief, appraising look. 

Before I could respond, however, Wren piped up. “You should tell her to join our team! We don’t need no Minority! She can be with us.” Giving me a dual thumbs-up, the girl added, “Besides, you said she was afraid of her mom finding out about it, right? If she goes to the Minority, they have to tell her parents. If she comes here, we don’t. Plus, we get another person on our team. See? Perfect plan.” 

“We have a team now?” I asked, watching the girl. 

“Well, it’s either a team or a gang,” Wren pointed out. “Team sounds better. I mean, you already have minions!” She flailed both hands randomly back toward the other two. 

“Oh my God, they’re not minions!” I insisted with a groan. 

Wren, of course, chose that moment to pivot back that way and demanded, “Guys, what are you?” 

That, of course, made Murphy and Roald look at each other. There was a moment of mostly-silent conversation with a few muttered words before both turned back and nodded, the girl speaking. “Yeah, we’re minions.” 

“Cool with that,” Roald confirmed. “Long as you don’t make us wear blue overalls and speak gibberish.” 

“And become weirdly associated with incredibly stupid antivax mothers on the internet,” Murphy added. 

“I’ll uhh, do my best not to let that happen,” I managed with a soft cough, shaking my head. “But seriously, you guys are just–I mean… I’m not gonna–look, you’re here to help and I appreciate that. Seriously. You’ll get paid just to work here in the store, not to go out and get in trouble.” 

“Whatever,” Murphy replied. “You want help, we can help. Better than stealing shit and going hungry. Or ending up in jail. Or dead.” 

“She means there’s a lot worse options than playing minio–assistants to a superhero,” Roald added. “We get paid here, we get to work without involving drugs or hurting people, it’s…” He paused, seeming to search for the right words before settling on, “It’s cool.” 

“Really cool,” Murphy put in. “If you need more than just some clean-up and shelf stocking, you let us know. Seriously, we don’t have like–you know, powers or anything, but we can do other things. Whatever you need. We–uhh…” She kicked the floor, suddenly looking self-conscious. “We wanna help.” 

“Okay, but… I’m still not gonna put you guys in any more danger than I have to,” I insisted. “I’m glad you’re here and willing to do stuff, but just… just focus on helping Wren.” 

We talked a little more, I promised to let them know if I needed more help and about what happened with the newly-Touched girl. Then it was about time to head home for dinner. But first, I went upstairs to see the still comatose Paige. 

Standing by the motionless figure, I hesitated, putting my hand in hers and squeezing it. “Sorry this is taking so long,” I murmured, unsure if she had any idea I was even there, let alone speaking. “But I swear, we’ll find the right person. I’ll find whatever we need to fix you and wake you up. Just hold on a bit longer, okay?” Then I snorted. “What do I mean, hold on? You’re just taking a little nap, right? You probably won’t even know any time has passed by the time we turn yo–by the time we wake you up.” 

Still, standing there, staring at the girl, I couldn’t help but feel like I was failing. She was counting on me and I was failing. It felt like there was a time limit, like… like there was some bomb counting down and if it hit zero, everything would… what, explode? 

I didn’t know. But one thing was for certain. We needed to help Paige and wake her up as soon as possible. Maybe then the awful feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach whenever I looked at her lying unconscious like that would go away. At the very least, it would be nice to scratch one damn thing off my to-do list. 

And hey, at least my whole encounter with the new girl and that conversation with Broadway were two more examples of how I was gradually building connections in this city. 

Wait a second.

Hold up. 

I was building connections… I had built more connections… made… connections.

That was it. I had an idea. 

I knew how we were going to break into that base under the mall.

Patreon Snippets 19B – Lightning Bug

“C’mon, c’mon guys, we gotta go to bed in a hour! That’s like–that’s a, that’s less than a movie. That’s like half a Frozen. They didna even make it to the ice castle in half a Frozen!”

The blurted, rushed words in the doorway of the brightly lit room heralded the arrival of what was quite possibly one of the strangest-looking Conga lines in anyone’s memory. At the head, and the one speaking, was the small, red-skinned five-year-old girl with long white hair, too-large compound blue eyes, and insect-like wings. Her arms were outstretched to hold onto a truly massive (relative to her size) bowl full of popcorn. The bowl was decorated with images of fairies flying through some trees, surrounded by various insects. It was known as the Bug Bowl, the closest thing they had to something that showed the girl and her friends, with the fairies standing in as images of Lightning Bug herself. Despite its size, the girl ate all of her snacks and treats out of it, along with some of her meals, even when they only filled a very small portion of the actual bowl. While her arms were full of the bowl, in one hand she also carried her ‘Bug Cup’, a bright blue sippy cup with a lid shaped like a ladybug. 

Behind the bowl and cup-bearing girl came the rest of their strange Conga line in the form of the five-and-a-half foot tall praying mantis named Simminin (Or Cinnamon), the three-foot-tall emerald-green beetle named Snugglebug, and then much smaller (but still relatively enormous) cat-sized and metallic purple-colored Orchid bee named Kenobee bringing up the rear.

The room they entered together was the entertainment room of the penthouse apartment where Bug and her mommy lived with Aunt Hana. The room had a massive flatscreen television that was hung up in the middle of the wall, surrounded by a big couch and several chairs. There were even several video game systems set up on the nearby shelf. But Bug and her companions ignored all of that, instead moving to the other corner of the room, where several fluffy cushions and a couple beanbag chairs lay haphazardly around a second television that was set close to the floor. A plastic table nearby held various half-finished crayon drawings, a few toys, and a computer pad covered by a shock-proof plastic shield with large, colorful designs. 

Plopping herself down on one of the bean bags while her trio of insect friends spread out to perch themselves around her on various cushions, Lightning Bug carefully settled the bowl in her lap and put the cup on the nearby table. Then she picked up the computer pad and tapped it a few times. As she did so, the screen of the nearby television popped on to display the YouTube homepage. From there, Bug typed in her search request very carefully, tongue poking out the side of her mouth as she painstakingly typed the right letters while sounding them out. Partway through, she turned a bit in her seat and called loudly toward the doorway. “Mommy, what’s the letter for T?! Tuh Tee Tuh Tee.” She giggled then, happily repeating the sounds to herself to the point that she nearly forgot what it was she was actually asking. 

A moment later, her mother appeared in the doorway. Out of her public-people costume, Bug’s mother was an Asian-American woman of mixed descent, with short, close-cropped black hair and a faint, barely visible scar across one side of her face, from her cheek, over her right eye, and up to her forehead. She held her phone in one hand, telling whoever was on the other end to hold a moment. “T, Buggy? Hold up the pointing finger.” As her daughter did so, holding up an index finger, she added, “Now put the other pointing finger on top.” A fond chuckle escaped the woman as the young girl put the tip of her other finger against the tip of the first, so they were pointing to each other. “Good try, other way, see? Sideways. There you go!” She smiled when the girl got it right. “Like that. You see it? The T looks like–yup, good job!” 

While her mother went back to the call, Bug finished typing in her search request, then scrolled her finger along the screen of the pad while watching the television until she found the video she wanted. It took a couple tries, but eventually she got it. “Oh, oh, this is a good one! It’s really funny.” With that promise to her trio of insect friends (all of whom were watching the screen with far more understanding and intelligence than should have been possible), she started to hit play, only to be stopped as Simminin bumped one claw gently against her arm, somehow managing to look beseechingly at her.

“Oh! Sorry, guys.” Quickly, the young girl reached into the big bowl in her lap. She began producing several smaller bowls that had been stacked up inside it. The first, which she set it down in front of Simminin herself, was full of small dead crickets. The second, placed in front of the cushion where Snugglebug had draped himself, had seeds, bits of leaves, pieces of dry fruit, and some honey mixed in. Finally, the bowl she put in front of Kenobee’s perched form held a sugar-nectar mix, which the bee immediately stuck his face up against to start slurping from. 

Now all her friends had their respective treats, Bug took a handful of popcorn out of the bowl for herself, then hit play on the computer pad while shoveling the snack into her own mouth. 

Immediately, a video about Paintball started up. She’d seen it before, of course, but this one was one of her absolute favorites. It was a combination of scenes from people’s phones and the news all about Mr. Ball jumping and flying through the air, and making bad guys look dumb. The music in the video came from one of the Super Mario Brothers games, and whoever made it put in the Mario jumping sound effect whenever Paintball bounced around, along with various ‘jump on an enemy’ sounds when bad guys were hit. It was funny every time, and Bug was quickly doubled over in the seat, laughing so much her mother poked her head in once or twice to make sure she was okay. 

For most of the hour she had before her bedtime, Lightning Bug watched more videos, alternately bouncing in her beanbag chair and hovering above it with her rapidly beating wings. The videos weren’t all about Paintball. Some of them were about Aunt Hana or Mommy. Or other people. But the Paintball ones were her favorites. There was just something about the colorful, bouncy Star-Touched that made for fun videos. Some of the videos were mean, like with the dumb guys who said Paintball should stop being selfish and join a team. She turned those ones off really quick. 

In the midst of watching another of the fun ones, Bug pointed. “Look!” she blurted, as though her insect trio’s eyes weren’t already firmly fixated on the screen, “it’s Mr. Lucent!” 

Sure enough, on that particular video, someone had captured the image of  Lucent the Touched-Raven perched on a lamppost as he watched Paintball jumping through the air in the distance. The video, taken from the high-up balcony of a hotel room, went on to show Lucent follow Paintball for a short distance, before diving away into an alley. From there, the video switched to showing various scenes of Paintball and Lucent each fighting criminals at different times (none of them together, but the video made it look like they were), while a song about fathers and sons played. 

Eventually, Bug’s time with the videos ended as her mother called that it was time for her bath. Finishing the last of the juice from her cup, the girl hit the button on the pad to turn off the TV before pushing herself up. “C’mon, you can help Mommy!” she announced while starting to leave. 

It was fun watching videos about Paintball. Bug really hoped she would visit again soon and make more pretty designs for her friends. 

He. She hoped he would visit again soon, Lightning Bug told herself sternly. He, he, he. She had to make herself think of Paintball as a he. 

After all, she wasn’t supposed to give away people’s secrets.

A/N: Do YOU have an idea of what Peyton’s Touched name should be? Just like when Cassidy got her name, I’m leaving it up to you guys to decide what it should be. Submit your suggestions either in the comments of this chapter OR via e-mail to ceruleanscrawling(at)gmail.com and a future chapter will list as many possibilities as I can out of what is given. After that chapter, I’ll list the possibilities again and everyone will be allowed to vote on them.

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Friends and Enemies 8-03 (Summus Proelium)

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Almost the same moment that I set foot on the Ten Towers property, the sound of approaching footsteps drew my attention ahead and to the right. A man was approaching me with a purposeful, though not intimidating, stride. He looked like someone threw the idea of casual and formal-wear into the blender and put on what came out. Basically, that amounted to wearing white suit pants and a matching open suit jacket over a Hawaiian shirt (black with red and pink flowers), with comfortable tennis shoes and a pair of Aviator sunglasses tinted dark pink. 

Stopping as he approached, I looked from the man’s loud shirt up to his matching shaded sunglasses, cocking my head a bit. “So you would be the official team fashion consultant then?” 

He laughed, extending a hand. “Sadly, our organization doesn’t seem to share my taste. More’s the pity.” As I accepted his hand, he shook it while adding, “Richard Mornes. As I understand, you call yourself Paintball, yes?” He released my hand after a moment. “Here for the papers.” 

I nodded quickly. “Uh, yeah, Caishen said I could get some of those detention application things and maybe some advice about how to fill them out properly? I’m, um, still really new to all this.” 

With an easy smile, Richard turned to gesture back the way he’d come. “Of course. She’s asked me to give you all the help you need. I’m also supposed to tell you that we’re all more glad than we can say that the Blackjack situation has been resolved relatively peacefully without undue damage to property or person. Which is corporate-speak for ‘thanks for saving the day before our profits were heavily affected.’ We probably should’ve gotten you a cake or something.” 

Shrugging, I headed the way he had indicated, toward the eastern tower. “I definitely would’ve eaten cake. But I think I can live without, as long as this whole Ashton thing doesn’t blow up.” 

Walking alongside me, the man shook his head. “Shouldn’t be a problem. We know how this whole thing works, and the judges in this city are usually fairly lenient on the whole ‘locking up bad guys before they can do more bad things’ situation. In your case, keeping that guy off the streets did a hell of a lot more good than harm, given how many Fell-Gangs were looking for him. Long as you didn’t rough him up too bad or starve him or anything, I don’t see a problem.”

“That’s what Caishen said,” I murmured. By that point, we were passing the small open-air market area. They were selling tee-shirts, hats, and other Ten Towers-branded merchandise, and I saw a few probable tourists look up as we approached. Before I could say anything, a couple of them ran right over in a rush, asking to take pictures and whether I was about to sign up with the team. Taken aback, all I could do for that moment was stand and gape while dozens of questions were hurled rapidfire at me, along with a few shirts that were thrust up with requests for autographs. Autographs? For what? I hadn’t even been doing this whole Star-Touched thing for an entire month yet, so how did these people even know about me?  

“Uhhh…” Taken aback as I was, it took me a second to collect myself. Finally, just as Richard looked like he was going to say something on my behalf, I managed to blurt, “Whoa, hey, sorry. There you guys are. Guess I just went blind for a second cuz of my friend’s shirt over there.” With a thumb, I gestured toward Richard and his loud apparel, who playfully scoffed at that while the group (several more had approached to join the first few in that time) snickered.  

“Anyway,” I went on before my brain could finish telling me how nervous I was supposed to be, “sorry to disappoint, but Ten Towers has definitely not lowered their incredible standards enough for me to weasel my way in. Not yet, anyway. But maybe while I’m here, I can pick up some juicy secrets so they’ll make an exception and let me pal around with them at some point.” 

Hoping that was diplomatic enough and didn’t make it look like I was dissing the team by not joining up with them, I added, “But hey, you guys still want autographs from Independent Kid?” As one person nodded and started to eagerly extend up a shirt with a pen, I waved it off. “Nah dude, let’s see just the shirt.” He shrugged, keeping the pen as I took the shirt. 

Avoiding the Ten Towers logo (a ten-pointed star with the city skyline inside), I found an empty part of the shirt and pressed my hand against it. All it took was a moment of focus. Then I held the thing up for him. I’d put a black oval over a blank part of the shirt, written ‘Paintball’ in white cursive letters like a signature, then added spots of every other color (orange, blue, green, purple, yellow, and pink) in a rainbow-like spray from one side to the other. 

Seeing what I’d done, the man suddenly grinned, holding the shirt up for everyone to see. Which just made them start thrusting out more things for me to ‘sign’. I took everything they handed over, adding that little logo wherever I could fit it while the crowd just seemed to grow. It took about ten minutes of just standing there talking to people and adding my little Paintball image thing to whatever they wanted (taking occasional breaks to just chat to avoid running out of paint). I tried to answer as many questions as I could without sounding totally dismissive but also without giving away secrets (several people flat out asked how old I was or even what my real name was, which seemed weird, but I was pretty sure they weren’t actually serious). 

Finally, Richard stepped in and let them know that we had an important meeting soon and that he didn’t want to keep me for any longer than they had to. I ‘signed’ the last few things that people were holding out, then followed the man while giving one last wave to the group. 

While walking away with my escort toward the building once more, I quietly remarked under my breath, “Boy, am I gonna feel pretty stupid if that paint does eventually disappear after all.” 

Richard turned my way, raising an eyebrow. “You don’t actually know if it fades on its own?” 

“It disappears once I activate it,” I replied thoughtfully. “But I’ve never seen it disappear otherwise. I mean, I painted my costume all white to have a base to work from and that didn’t really disappear. But maybe if it’s far enough away from me for too long? Or… I dunno. Guess we’ll find out if a bunch of people start complaining about disappearing autographs, huh?” 

“Well, yes, I guess we will,” he agreed, casting a thoughtful glance back that way. 

“So, just out of curiosity,” I put in casually while he was still looking that way, “was that whole thing back there staged to make me feel good? You know, a way to boost me up while I’m here.” 

He laughed lightly, head shaking. “Not a bad idea if we wanted to recruit someone, I’ve gotta admit. But no, hand to the heavens, that wasn’t a set-up or anything. Guess there’s some videos floating around out there from last night of you and Cuélebre. Couple people edited in footage of your first run through the city with him awhile back, threw in music, and they went viral. You should check it out next chance you get, there’s one that’s pretty damn funny with Yakety Sax. Totally worth it, especially when you literally yoink that thing out of his hand.”

“Videos of–” Cutting myself off, I swallowed. “Oh. I um, he’s not gonna be happy about that.” 

“Hey, you caught onto that pretty quick,” Richard congratulated me with a nod. “Yeah, well, I was gonna tell you to be careful out there if you didn’t get that already. But seriously, you know that whack-a-mole game? Right now, you are the biggest mole sticking your head out and Cuélebre has the hammer. Just watch it, okay? If he wants to make his name back, he’ll come after you.” 

“Thanks for the advice,” I murmured, trying not to think about having to deal with a pissed off Cuélebre hunting me down. As if I didn’t already have enough problems with my family thing. 

We made it into the office building, and Richard led me straight past the receptionist/security desk, through the metal detectors (they went off when we went through, but he just waved off the guard there), and to one of the elevators. There, we rode all the way up to the third floor from the top. Apparently the second-from-the-top floor of each building was reserved for Touched team member stuff, and the top floor was where the CEO’s and such stayed and worked when they were around. 

Leading me through a quiet, well-decorated hallway while greeting a few people, my escort eventually stopped in front of a door that read ‘Richard Mornes, Vice President – Outreach.’ Beneath that was the Ten Towers logo with the ten-pointed star surrounding the Detroit skyline. From what I knew, Ten Towers chapters in other places used the skyline of that particular city in their logo. 

“Outreach?” I asked while squinting at the name on the door, a bit curious about that title. 

“Yup,” he confirmed. “It means that some of my jobs are to coordinate things like our work with local law enforcement, sending Touched to schools to give talks, looking into the Minority program to see who we might want to recruit, keeping the team popular, that kind of thing.” 

“And to help a local doofus Touched write up a report to a judge about why she shouldn’t–” Shit, I said she. Abort ‘she shouldn’t be arrested’, change it, change it! The judge can be a she! “–have him arrested?” The correction came so quickly that I didn’t even have to cough to cover it. 

“Pretty much.” With that, Richard opened the door, gesturing for me to go on in. It actually led to his secretary’s office, with his actual office beyond that. There was no one at the outer desk, and as we passed it, he informed me that she was on vacation. 

In any case, we went into his (quite large) office, and the man picked up a stack of papers. “Alright, let’s go over this. But first, I’ve really gotta ask… were you serious out there when you said your paint lasts forever as long as you don’t… whatever, trigger the powers on it?” 

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Nodding easily, I replied, “Actually, I’ve experimented and it can be scrubbed off with paint remover and that sort of thing. Or soap, water, and a lot of elbow grease, really.”

“So it’s basically instant paint that could disappear instantly if you wanted it to, or be scrubbed off and removed without you?” Richard asked. When I nodded, he looked at the stack of papers in his hand, muttering, “Excuse me for this.” Then he used the papers to swat my helmet.  

“Ow,” I blurted reflexively. “I mean, not really ow, because those are just paper and this is a pretty good helmet right here. But still, it’s the thought that counts. What was that for?” 

“What the hell are you doing the superhero thing for, man?” Richard demanded, though it was clear from his tone that he was only being half-serious. “Do you have any idea what people would pay you to put up billboards for them? Or just to paint houses. You could start an entire paint empire. Do you know what it costs to paint a house? The cost of painting the outside of the average two-story house is seven to eight thousand dollars. About three to four thousand for a one-story house. Now work in the fact that you don’t have to pay employees or buy actual paint, let alone equipment. Factor in how many houses you could paint in a day like that and you could be a millionaire before you’re eighteen. Why in the world are you slumming it as a superhero?” 

Blinking a couple times at that, I offered him a shrug and a probably lame, “I… have my reasons. But thanks, I’ll keep the paint thing in mind if I need a summer job or something.” 

With that, he sat me down at his desk and talked me through filling out the forms. He let me know which boxes to check, how to phrase things, what sort of words I shouldn’t use, and more. It was incredibly helpful, and I thanked him several times throughout. As we were leaving his office about twenty minutes later (I had the filled-out form as well as a stack of extras for later under my arm), I made sure to thank him again. “Seriously, I know you guys are doing this because of the whole ‘maybe recruit him later if we decide we want to’ thing, but thanks.” 

I was pretty sure Richard said something else to that as I opened the outer office door, but I was too distracted by the little kid riding the giant bug past the doorway. Yeah, seriously. 

It wasn’t just any little kid, of course. I knew that instantly. The girl looked like she was about four or five years old, and she was one of the obvious Touched, with dark red skin, white hair, and insect-like wings. Her eyes were bright blue and compound, like a fly. They were also about twice as large as regular eyes, taking up more of her face.

Meanwhile, the bug she was riding on was some kind of bright, almost neon green hardshell beetle. Except I didn’t know about many beetles that were the size of a small pony. Yeah, the hallway was big enough to drive a small car through, but the giant beetle was still pretty noticeable. The sight of them stopped me in my tracks. 

I’d seen the girl in the news, of course. They called her Lightning Bug. Caishen was her mother, and she did her best to keep her daughter from being a spectacle, but the fact that a little girl had become Touched (and a very obvious Touched at that) at such a young age, made that pretty hard. I wasn’t sure how long she’d been Touched, but it was over a year ago that she’d been in the news. So… really young. From what parts of the interview with her mother that I remembered, Lightning Bug (I couldn’t remember her real name, if they’d even given one) basically shot electricity from her fingers that healed people she liked, hurt people she didn’t like, and made bugs grow into giant size forms like the one she was now riding.  

As soon as she saw me, the girl made a cute, panicked little squeaking sound, falling sideways off the bug before hiding behind it. She peeked a bit, just the tips of her large compound eyes appearing over the bug’s shell.

“Oh, hey there, LB,” Richard casually remarked while standing just behind me. “It’s okay, this is Paintball.” 

A tiny, nervous voice hesitantly spoke from behind the safety of the beetle. “Hi, Miss Ball. Are… you helping Uncle Rick?” 

With a chuckle, Richard shook his head. “Actually, he’s here to get some help with his own situation. But hopefully he’ll be willing to help us later, right?” 

I nodded, watching the kid’s eyes take me in. “Sure, I don’t see why not.” I did see several conflicts of interest that might pop up, but I was hardly going to get into it right then. I’d take it as it came. 

“Sorry, Mr. Ball,” the tiny voice came again. There was a pause before she slowly stood up and moved out from behind the beetle. She shifted from foot to foot, looking uncomfortable, as if she was afraid I was going to tease her for looking the way she did. 

Instead, I looked over to the beetle. “That’s a really pretty bug. I like the green. What’s his name?” 

The answer came hesitantly. “Snugglebug.” 

“Well, hey there, Snugglebug.” Smiling, though it wouldn’t show behind the mask and helmet, I asked, “Do you mind if I give him a little color?” Again, there was a little pause before she nodded with obvious hesitation and nervousness, moving to put both hands on the beetle protectively. 

With exaggerated care and gentleness, I put my hand on the bug, moving it around a bit to leave several purple, orange, and white stars around the sides of the shell. Then I made a large yellow crescent moon before using my red, blue, white, and black paint to make a pretty good depiction of Lightning Bug herself perched on the moon, fishing out in the stars. 

Seeing it, the girl’s eyes lit up, and she blurted, “Snuggle, you’re pretty!” Looking over to me, she solemnly added, “Thank you, Mr. Ball. Can Simminin be pretty too?” 

“Oh, sure,” I agreed. “But who–” While speaking, I turned a little, only to come face-to-face with another giant bug that made me yelp and almost fall over. 

It was a praying mantis that was even bigger than Snugglebug. Seriously, this thing was freaking gigantic. It was even taller than I was, standing there with its enormous bladed arms held up defensively in front of itself. 

“Her name’s supposed to be Cinnamon,” Richard explained. “As in Cinnamon Toast Crunch. That’s her full name. Pretty sure the kid was hungry when she named her.” 

“That’s her name,” Lightning Bug herself insisted. “Simminin. And… and…” She could barely make herself look at me, half-hiding behind both her beetle and one of the outstretched claws of the praying mantis. “And she wants tah be pretty.” 

Forcing back my own nervousness, I looked up at the gigantic insect. “Well then, Miss Simminin, let’s see what we can do about making you the prettiest mantis in the world.” 

******

Eventually, it was time to head home. I’d made the bugs pretty enough for the kid, making it clear that the images would wash off but promising that I’d make more another time. 

Now, it was getting fairly close to time for dinner, and I definitely couldn’t miss that. Not if I wanted to live.

So, I took another trip around the city to stretch my legs before changing clothes and summoning another Uber to take me home. By the time I got there, I had just enough time to take a nice long shower and clean up a bit before changing into clean clothes. When I got out, still brushing out the long side of my hair, Izzy was waiting in the hall. She looked uncertain. “What’s… um… one of your… um, maids said something about dinner being late or something?”

I nodded. “Yeah, my dad had some kind of long meeting, so we’re having family dinner late. Right about now, actually.”

“Oh, sorry.” She started to step back. “I’ll stay out of the way.”

“You better not,” I retorted. “Mom gets a bit tyrannical about family dinner. If she thinks you’re not there, she might go on the warpath.” I was kidding. Mostly. Sort of. 

Izzy’s head shook. “But you said it’s a family dinner.”

“Yup,” I confirmed. “Family and guests. And right now, you’re living two doors down from me. That kind of makes you closer than my own brother. So you get to come.”

Before she could object, I started to take her hand. Just as I touched her, however, she jerked the hand back with a gasp. Seriously, it was like I’d burned her. Blushing deeply as she realized what she had done, the girl hung her head a bit before nodding. “Sorry, I… yeah, I’ll come.” She said it quietly, not looking at me as she started down the hall. My eyes followed her and I frowned a little to myself. Finding out what my family did to this girl and her family was suddenly a really big priority. Even if I was terrified of what the answer might end up being. For the moment, however, I followed after her. Time for another family dinner.

But hey, at least this time I knew there were two people at the table who weren’t evil. 

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